Wednesday 26 December 2012

The Scholar of Moab by Stephen Peck

Young Hyrum Thayne, an unrefined geological surveyor, steals a massive dictionary out of the Grand County library in a midnight raid, startling the good people of Moab into believing a nefarious band of Book of Mormon thugs, the Gadianton Robbers, has arisen again. To make matters worse, Hyrum’s illicit affair with Dora Tanner, a local poet thought to be mad, results in the delivery of a bouncing baby boy who vanishes the night of his birth. Righteous Moabites accuse Dora of the murder, but who really killed their child? Did a coyote dingo the baby? Was it an alien abduction as Dora claims? Was it Hyrum? Or could it have been the only witness to the crime, one of a pair of Oxford-educated conjoined twins who cowboy in the La Sals on sabbatical?

Take a blazing ride with Hyrum LeRoy Thayne, the Lord’s Chosen Servant and Defender of Moab. His short rich life spans the borderlands of magical realism where geology, ecology philosophy, and consciousness collide, in Steven L. Peck’s rip-snorting tale The Scholar of Moab.

From Amazon Description.

This book is unlike any of the other books I have read on this magic realism challenge. It is tremendous fun to read and definitely on the weird end of the magic realism spectrum. There are few books which have had me laughing out loud, but the Scholar's experiment - in which he measures the faith of bumblebees - had me guffawing.  

The story is told through a series of documents drawn together by the anonymous Redactor. This allows the author the opportunity to write in a wide range of voices, from the uneducated Hyrum, to the highly educated William (one of the conjoined twins) via the poetic and alternative Dora. It also allows us to see the story of the missing child and Hyrum's rise to status of Scholar and Moabite hero through conflicting eyes, even Hyrum's account is not all it seems. Peck gives a virtuoso performance in writing in these different voices. I got the distinct impression that he was  enjoying himself writing as much as I did reading. 

The characters are slowly revealed through the course of the book. Dora at first appears to be a crazy poet, but by the end of the book we see her as probably the most trustworthy of all the characters. Peck's book is an object lesson in the use of dramatic irony.

The book's surrealism and multi-voice format allow the exploration of a host of themes, such as the nature of consciousness (a specialism of the conjoined cowboy scholars), religious and scientific belief, and the relationship between religion and science. The book is grounded in Mormonism. The book is set in the small-town mormonism and gently satirizes the faith and attitudes of that community. As a Brit, alas,  I am sure many allusions escaped me. But it was clear that this is a world in which people can believe in alien abductions,communist conspiracies and all sorts of hokum. A world ideally suited to the magic realist treatment. 

It is a tribute to the author's skill that despite the fact that the book is written in a range of voices and styles, I still got a strong impression of the landscape in which the book is set.  The Hyrum works for a geological survey team and Dora is inspired by the area. 

My only qualm about the book was the ending, which I find somewhat unsatisfying. I have been trying to work out why, but so far have failed to do so. 

I was given this book by the author in return for an h0nest review. 

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Wednesday 19 December 2012

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock - especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial.
Goodreads Description

This book is popular magic realism for women. Its popularity is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it was converted in to a popular film with heartthrob Johnny Depp as love interest. But the film softened the book's story, the antagonist is the mayor and not Father Reynaud, and the ending ties up the romance nicely. 

I very much enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the sensuous (and sensual) delights of chocolate. Although this hedonism is set against the austerity of Father Reynaud's world view, it is wrong to simply see this as a paganism versus church story. It is equally a story of the arrival of outsiders in a small community.  In a small community the arrival of one individual can shift the power dynamics of the village. 

The book is about rebirth and resurrection. The action takes place during Lent and culminates with the Easter feast. Some critics have attacked it for being anti-church. But it seems to me that love and forgiveness are shown as the redeeming values in this book. 

Reynaud believes Vianne to be a witch, but her magic is not one of spells. She is superstitious, but so is Reynaud. Vianne's magic is in her cooking, her free spirit, her love and acceptance of others. The only clear example of magic is when Vianne and Armande are able to see Pantoufle, the imaginary kangeroo pet of Vianne's daughter. One aspect of the book that helps make it magic realism is the way Harris deliberately does not set the novel in a specific place or time. This helps give the book a fairytale quality as well as universality.

I have two criticisms of the book. Firstly the chapters in the books written from Reynaud's point of view felt repetitive. I understand why that was, but nevertheless... Secondly I found the ending rushed. Otherwise the book was a lovely, if easy, read.

Thursday 13 December 2012

The Alchemist -

Paulo Coelho enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom points Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transformation power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.
Goodreads description

Normally you get testimonies on back covers from other authors or press reviews, this is the first one I've come across with a quote by Madonna! This book is very different to the other books I have read on this magic realism challenge. It is a fable, a folktale and a fairytale. It is therefore quite a simple book, with strong messages - follow your destiny, worrying about what might happen stops you from acting and you will often find what you seek in your roots. All of which is good advice and clearly the book has had a profound impact on a lot of people (including Madonna).  And I respect that. 

But the book left me underwhelmed, even though I am a lover of fairytales and folktales. I could have done without the messages being so stressed e.g. Wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure. And I wasn't even sure I agreed with all of the messages. Like fairytales there is not much in the way of character development. Yes Santiago finds his treasure and is learning throughout the story, but there is little in the way of conflict in this book. As a woman I'm not sure I agree with the message re women waiting patiently for their men, who are off pursuing their dreams.

That said I am going to give this book to a young relative of mine, because I think it will appeal to her. Some of my problems with the book are I think because I am of an age when I have already done my own thinking about the issues it raises. 

Friday 7 December 2012

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A masterful mix of horror and absurdity which tells the story of travelling salesman Samsa who wakes up one day to find out he has turned into a giant insect. This change in circumstances makes his previous way of life impossible and causes his family to turn on him. "Metamorphosis" is one of the most remarkable stories ever written. Kafka's surrealistic approach shocks us into a new appreciation of a basic truth: when we have outlived our usefulness there are no longer any certainties. But there are many different levels on which to understand events. 
Amazon description

We writers are told to start our books with a killer opening paragraph which will hook the reader. There are few books whose opening sentences are as good as this one. In my translation (by Karen Reppin) it reads When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. In that one sentence we capture the surreal situation that triggers the story.

I read this book while in my Czech house and I was surprised by how Czech it is. Much is made of the fact that Kafka was a German-speaking/writing Jew living in Prague, but I was struck by a dark surreal humour that pervades the story, which seems very Czech to me. Kafka isn't usually associated with humour but it definitely is there in this book - for example Gregor's reaction to his metamorphosis is not "Oh my god I've been turned in to a monster bug," but "I'm going to be late for work." I could see that scene (in fact the whole story) being performed by Monty Python.

The story is nevertheless a sad one, as we know the best humour also has that edge of tragedy. Gregor has been used as a meal ticket by his family, but once the transformation takes place he is ignored and despised. Arguably Gregor's social and emotional metamorphosis started when he had to give up his dreams and identity to serve his family. Only his sister continues to show some affection, but by the time the story finishes she too has undergone a transformation and not for the better. Gregor's continued concern for his family despite his affliction counterpoints what the reader sees to be the reality. The story could be seen as an allegory for how people who are suddenly unable to work, whether through accident, illness or misfortune, are treated by our society. An allegory painfully relevant in these times of cutbacks to welfare and healthcare.

But the allegory can be taken to mean many things. The exact translation of the opening sentence refers not to an insect but "einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer" which literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice". Only later does the cleaning lady refer to Gregor as a dung beetle. What the German word Ungeziefer sums up is Gregor's own alienation and possibly Kafka's own. Ungeziefer was a term used by the Nazis of Jews, and  the novella was published in 1915 when anti-semitism was already rife in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which Czechoslovakia was part. Towards the end of the novella his sister argues that the family must get rid of it (Gregor) "If it were Gregor, he would have realized long since that it isn't possible for human beings to live together with such a creature". The permutations on interpretation for this books are endless. That is what makes this such a great novel.

And is the book magic realism? Yes most definitely - Gregor's metamorphosis is not explained or seen as remarkable, it just is. Is it influential - you bet - it not only influenced the magic realist writers that followed him, but all those movies such as The Fly in which man is transformed into another creature.

See also my post on Kafka's Prague

Thursday 29 November 2012

Updated Reading List

Here is the list of magic realism books I will read and review on this blog over the next year. The intention is to read one book a week, with  two weeks off for holidays. The sharp-eyed among you will realise that there are more than 50 books on the list, this is because I intend saving some of the longer books for after the challenge and giving them the time they are due.

You will note too that there is only one book per author listed, which means I am missing out some major works by leading writers of magic realism. This is because of the nature of the challenge and I intend, having completed it, to read works by writers I have been impressed by. It is also my intention to keep adding reviews to the blog after the challenge is completed.
  • The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser
  • The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
  • The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman
  • Winter’s Tale by Mark Halpern
  • The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
  • Just Relations by Rodney Hall
  • Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • Love In The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda
  • Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  • Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
  • Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
  • Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Fludd - Hilary Mantel
  • Book Thief - Markus Zusak
  • Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
  • Nights At the Circus by Angela Carter
  • The Cure For Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
  • The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago
  • Ruby Holler by Sharron Creech
  • House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
  • Famished Road by Ben Okri
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  • Metamorphasis by Franz Kafka
  • Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  • Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
  • Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
  • Garden Spells by Sarak Addison Allen
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Magician and Other Stories by Murilo Rubiao
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
  • The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredi Vea
  • The Scholar of Moab by Steven L Peck
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
  • The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  • Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Holes by Louis Sacher
  • Cloud Street by Tim Winton
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
  • Skellig by David Almond
  • The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
  • The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredi Vea
  • The Scholar of Moab by Steven L Peck
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
  • The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  • Holes by Louis Sacher
  • Cloud Street by Tim Winton
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
  • Skellig by David Almond
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 
  •  Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
  • Coyote Cowgirl by Kim Antieau
  • I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven
  • Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
  • Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman
  • The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich
  • The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono
  • White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
  • The End of my Tether by Neil Astley
  • Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
  • Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
  • The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg
  • Mysteries by Knut Hamsun
  • Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfi Anayo
  • Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
  • Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • Jitterbug Perfume by Tim Robbins
  • Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker
  • How to Travel Terra Incognita by Dean Francis Alfar
  • The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu
  • The Story Trap by Masha du Toit

Wednesday 28 November 2012

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Five thousand years on - and the Minotaur, or M as he is known to his colleagues, is working as a line chef at Grub's Rib in Carolina, keeping to himself, keeping his horns down, trying in vain to put his past behind him. He leads an ordered lifestyle in a shabby trailer park where he tinkers with cars, writes and re-writes to-do lists and observes the haphazard goings on around him. Outwardly controlled, M tries to hide his emotional turmoil as he is transported deeper into the human world of deceit, confusion and need.
Amazon Description

This book is totally unlike any of the other magic realism books I have read on this challenge so far. It is incredibly realistic in its approach to the tale of a few weeks in the immortal life of the M. The book follows M's sad and mundane life. The point of view (POV) is entirely M's and as is appropriate to a creature that is half human and half bovine this tends to make the pace slow as M tries to understand the world of humans. Sherrill shows in great detail the practicalities of life for someone whose upper torso and head are human - the problems of speech when one has a bull's tongue and lips, the sore area where human skin meets hide, the grooming requirements when one has horns. 

I found this book hard to read at times, not only because of the pacing but also and more importantly because I cringed for M. He is almost paralysed with his incomprehension, embarassment and expectation of rejection, yet hoping for some sign of affection. 
The architecture of the Minotaur's heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps - the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his lif - is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster's veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love.
Gone are the days when he was feared, now he's trailer trash on the margins of the world. This is not one of Neil Gaiman's American gods, still playing with human lives, but a sad creature burdened with immortality and tormented by humans who once he would have torn limb from limb. He is not alone: we catch glimpses of other immortals trapped in modern America - a satyr in a scrapyard, a dryad in a gas station - all demoted to the edges of society. 

The book is extremely well-written with M's world expertly captured. But, and this is a big but, Sherrill has written himself into a corner by the limitations of his protagonist's POV. He sees people's reactions but doesn't understand and empathise with them, and so nor do we. In particular I wanted to know more about the girl M falls for and why she responds to him. Is it because her epilepsy makes her feel she is also an outsider?

For the same reason the book is very slow and reading a number of readers' reviews I see that some people did not finish the book for that reason. When the pace quickens it comes in a rush at the last tenth of the book, which felt unsatisfying. I wanted more. 

Nevertheless this book is worth reading.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

From the double Man Booker prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, this is a dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors.

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?
Amazon Description

Okay so this was a bit of a cheat. I read this book several years ago, but at that time I was unfamiliar with the concept of magic realism so I wanted to read it again.

This book was published in 1989 long before Mantel became a household name (in households that pay attention to the winners of the Booker Prize), indeed when I first read it she was relatively unknown. It was the second book of hers that I read, the first being Beyond Black another magic realism novel. And as a result of reading both I went on to buy every book of hers I could find.

There have been a flurry of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon recently by people who have read Wolf Hall and want to read more. Some were disappointed. This book is an altogether different beast to her prize-winning tomes - short (less than 200 pages), set in the 1950s and of course magic realism. I loved it the first time, but found so much more to enjoy on second reading. I was perhaps more attuned to the way the magic in the book builds, knowing more now about the lost art of alchemy that underpins this book.  As the opening note explains the real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.  The book may appear lightweight (literally and in terms of content), but that is deceiving. Look closer and reflect (as you are reading and afterwards), there is more here than meets the eye. The book (like some other magic realism novels) has been compared to a fairytale, which can be considered both a criticism or praise depending on your point of view. For me fairytales are about eternal patterns and truths. The theme of transformation is central to them, as it is in this book. Fludd transforms and redeems the people he comes in contact with.

The 1950's village setting is bleak, but Mantel brings a humour to the book, which is both wicked and humane.  Open the book at nearly any page and you will find a gem of description:
The women liked to stand on their doorsteps. This standing was what they did. Recreational pursuits were for men : football, billiards, keeping hens. Treats were doled out to men, as a reward for good behaviour: cigarettes, beer at the Arundel Arms. Religion and the public library, were for children. Women only talked.
She is laughing, but she is not laughing at her characters. This is a book about happy endings.

As I have observed in reviews of magic realism books (and indeed of my own) some readers are frustrated by the lack of clear answers. Who or what is Fludd? Mantel plays with us - hinting that he might be the devil: He as a handy type with tongs, Father Angwin could tell or maybe the local tobacconist is as Father Angwin believes. What exactly did happen to Sister Perpetua as she pursued the fleeing nun? Maybe these readers should heed to the message of this book - there is more than one way of looking at the world.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredo Vea

The Silver Cloud Cafe is a novel that goes beyond and beneath. Beyond and beneath the glossy surface of San Francisco. Beyond and beneath the clean-scrubbed image of American life. It goes to the Mission District, where two neon angels stand watch over the ramshackle cantina known as Raphael's Silver Cloud Cafe and where the lost and lonely, desperate and dispossessed, come for a meager portion of solace and salvation in the form of companionship, drink, and sex. It goes to the dark waters under the Fourth Street Bridge, where the corpse of a failed priest surfaces, and to the jailhouse, where a nattily dressed midget takes credit and demands punishment for the crime. This amazing novel is at once a gripping murder mystery that probes two macabre killings forty years apart and a panoramic meditation on the magical, mystical mix of race and culture in America. Its spellbinding story of intertwining guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, ranges over the century, from the bloody Christero Wars of the Mexican Revolution to the stifling rigidities of class and caste in the Philippines to the bitter harvests of migrants in the California farmlands to the feeding frenzy and human downsizing of the 1990s. Its characters include a Chicano lawyer and a Jewish investigator who have seen too much and believe too little; a Mexican priest torn by twin lusts for sex and vengeance; a black ex-boxer who is down but not out; a bar owner with a sense of divine mission; and a host of other unforgettable men and women who join in a superbly orchestrated symphony of voices and visions.
Goodreads Description

The Irish comedian Dave Alan told a joke about a priest telling a girl that in order to be married in white the bride needed to be a virgin. The girl replied that her wedding dress would be white, but with wee spots of blue.  I feel very much the same about this novel. Quite simply it is a masterpiece which will stay with me forever, but it is a flawed masterpiece, but not so much as to mar the book for me.  

It is perhaps easiest to start with the flaws, as, I'm afraid, does  the book. The opening chapter focuses on the detective inspecting the body of a murder victim and undertaking an unsatisfactory interrogation of a witness to the killing. I enjoy American crime fiction and like its sparseness and wit. But then I was then hit in the second chapter by a very different style. Vea seemed to be setting another scene - a picture of San Francisco taking from street level, reminding me at times of Helprin's Winter's Tale and as in that novel I found the style too rich for my liking - too many adjectives, too much political soapboxing,  the way some of the speech of the characters disappears into philosophical mumbo jumbo (personally I prefer my magic realism in actions rather than speech) and too many lists (you see what I did then, clever eh!) .  

But then the real story kicks in - that of the young boy who would grow up to become the lawyer and the itinerant Mexican and Filipino farm workers who were his stand-in family. As the Goodreads description makes clear the cast is a wonderful one, very believable and at the same time somehow magical. At times with these larger-than-life characters I found myself thinking of Carter's Nights at the Circus. The story is a dark one in some ways, these are men overworked, despised, victims of violence without a chance of justice, with no future and yet there is a camaraderie and gentle love between them that is quite wonderful - such as the scene where all the men take a day off to go to the boy's school to be fathers to him. 

The magic realism flows naturally in this tale. These people live in an alien world to ours and in which magic is real. It is a world that the lawyer has forgotten, and with it the terrible event of 1959 which sets his friends fleeing across America. But that terrible deed is the reason behind the strange murder of the priest and the lawyer must remember his past and in so doing remember too why he became a defence lawyer in the first place. The magic and the diverse crowd of dispossessed come together in the Silver Cloud Cafe in 1993,  a place guarded by two neon angels. The scene is set for a marriage and two deaths.

I loved this book, despite its faults. I loved its characters, the way the narrative (once it got going) built across time, the poetry, and its humanity. And I loved the way the way the author wasn't afraid of dealing with love and faith.  Maybe a book can't be this wonderful without flaws.

Friday 9 November 2012

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.

A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.
Goodreads  Description

This is full blown Latin American magic realism. A world in which the tears of the cook send the wedding guests eating her food in to grief and a woman so aflame with passion she sets fire to the shower. Food is at the heart of the book, not only does each chapter includes a recipe, but the preparation of food and its consumption is magically linked to the heroine's sensuality. Even the imagery is food-based: Tita was literally 'like water for chocolate' she was on the verge of boiling over.  I found the structural use of food and recipes in this way innovative and effective.

The story of suppressed love in a household ruled by an oppressive mother is highly suited to the genre. It is some ways a classic fairytale - Cinderella in fact. The magic allows for the expression of what is suppressed and yet the recipes also give a realistic grounding. In addition the book shows different cultures abutting each other - the earth-based magic of women like Tita in a more realistic world. Not only is Tita an inheritor of culinary magic and at the end a transmitter of it to future generations, but also provides traditional healing.  

Okay so far, so good. Now for my misgivings: I had a problem with the love story. Tita falls for Pedro at first sight and that passion lasts through the book. But Pedro is a selfish ass much of the time, who doesn't seem to care how much he is hurting Tita or indeed the sister he marries in order to be near Tita. The argument seems to be that the physical attraction between  Pedro and Tita is enough to sustain their love over the years. There is an alternative for Tita's affections - a gringo doctor - who is a lovely considerate man. Maybe this is just too much of fairytale for me: much as I love fairytales they aren't known for their emotional complexities and I do like emotional depth in a book.

I'm sure that this book will appeal more to women than men and to cooks and foodies in particular. The book is relatively short, only 222 pages in my edition, and so is a good introduction for someone who wishes to dip their toes into magic realism. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

'Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs...' A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic - Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather's death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for 'the deathless man', a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger's wife.
Amazon Description

This book comes with lots of plaudits from the critics and the Orange prize no less.  But it seems to divide the readers' reviews on Amazon, some loved it, some hated it and some who hated it blamed this on it being magic realism. Where do I sit? Somewhere in the middle. I was frustrated by the book, which could have been great but somehow left me wanting.

The book explores big themes through the personal. Set in the Balkan wars it is a study of how people deal with death - Natalia's response to her grandfather's death, the family searching for a body in the vineyard and her grandfather's attitude to the death as expressed through his tales of the deathless man, the tiger's wife and the striking account of the hotel meal in a town about to overrun by the Serbian militia. I am sure there were all sorts of references and symbolism that someone from the Balkans would have recognized and which alas passed me by, which was frustrating, if inevitable. 

It is also a tale about the meeting of superstitions and science and perhaps the death of the former. This is embodied in Natalia's grandfather, a man of science and yet a teller of tales. So this was a perfect book for the magic realism treatment.  So why did I not love it?

The answer is that somehow I did not engage in the book. Despite the fact that nearly every character seemed to have several paragraphs of backstory I remained detached. I know there is a school of thought that writers should draw even minor characters fully, but it is not one I subscribe to, especially if excess of backstory has the effect of breaking up the flow of the story. Ironically I did want more about the character of Natalia. She has just lost her grandfather, but we don't feel her grief nor her fears about lying to her grandmother about it. We didn't really get a feel for her relationship with her friend.  But I did understand the relationship between the tiger and his wife, which perhaps says something about the author's interests.

Friday 26 October 2012

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison..

Goodreads Description

It is impossible to do justice to a novel as complex and wonderful as this in one blog post, especially as I don't want to spoil the story for you. This quite rightly is considered a "Great American novel" and I can only touch on the impact it had on me. Beloved is not an easy read, partly because it deals unflinchingly with slavery and partly because of its structure which moves backwards and forwards in time and between characters, but it is absolutely worth the effort. I am lucky that I can read relatively quickly, which meant I was able to keep the story threads in my head and so did not have too much problem following the story. It seemed to me that this was a book that could not work with a linear story structure. By layering the revelation of the circumstances of the baby's death, we get differing viewpoints until we focus in on Sethe's experience and the shock does not overwhelm us, and we can begin to grasp how a mother might do the unthinkable. 

How can we understand a woman "losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit out like a fishbone", whose value is seen in terms of being a broodmare, for whom love of children, men or anything is dangerous because they can be snatched away or killed at any time? How can we understand this - and yet Toni Morrison helps us to begin to understand. As in the description above the book is often described as a story about slavery and yet it is more than that: it is unflinching about what slavery does to all involved, but it is also about women and women's love.  

The book is also a brilliant ghost story. If ever there was a child who has a right to be a poltergeist then the anonymous baby is that child. Just when everything seems to be beginning to come good for Sethe, a young woman arrives who gives her name as Beloved, which is also the description on the gravestone. Is she the baby come back to life as the adult she would have been had she lived?  

In lesser hands this book could have been full of anger about the abomination of slavery, it could have been simplistic in its portrayal, but it isn't: it is humane and complex. All the main characters in the book are beautifully drawn. Morrison doesn't portray the black people in the book as "good guys" but as human beings -flawed and damaged. As for the whites in the book she does show their appalling cruelty,  but she also shows white people who helped the escapees. Again these people are complex, they too have flaws - a paternalistic attitude. The exception to this is the poor white girl, who despite talking in the language of racism (which of course is all she knows) responds to Sethe as a woman, saving Sethe's life and delivering Sethe's baby. 

I cannot review this book without talking about the writing styles in the book. I have seen some readers' reviews which criticize Morrison's use of different voices, this they felt made the book difficult to read. I didn't find that to be the case, even though I am a British white middle-class female and so would be expected to have difficulties with prose written in the voice of an uneducated Southern black slave. It took a bit of getting used to, but I found it relatively easy. The only bit that caused me to falter was the semi-poetry used by Beloved to talk about her past (in the land of the dead? on a slave ship? confined to a house?) but that has to be unclear and impressionistic. 

Another criticism leveled at the book is that the characters are not sympathetic, that the reviewer did not identify or like them. This seems to be a very narrow view of what is required in a book. Why should you like the main character? Why should you entirely empathize with them? 

And so finally I come to my usual question about is this magic realism and if so what can we learn from it. The answer is yes, it is. The ghost element in the book is never resolved. You are given a rational alternative to Beloved's identity, but you are never told if it is true. In fact the book seems to suggest that the ghost explanation is the right one, something that Toni Morrison supports in the BBC interview (see link below).  It is often said of magic realism that it is a literary form which gives expression to the story of the oppressed - never is the more the case than in Beloved.

BBC World Book Club - Toni Morrison - download radio programme here

Friday 19 October 2012

My New Book

I should have been publishing my review of Beloved by Toni Morrison this week. Should have, but I'm not. You will have to wait until next week for the review. The reason is I have been focusing on the release of the second book in my trilogy The Healer's Shadow. The trilogy is magic realism, but the new book Love of Shadows has virtually no magic in it.

When I published the first book in the trilogy Girl in the Glass I was told by several people that I was writing magic realism. As a result I started researching magic realism and so ended up starting my magic realism challenge and this blog.


Love of Shadows

"I had always felt most alive, when I was healing. Without healing I was a tin top spinning out of kilter soon to catch the ground. It took all my energy to hold myself from skidding into chaos."

But in the city of Pharsis traditional women healers are banned from practising and the penalty for breaking the law is death by hanging. After being arrested and interrogated twice Judith is careful to avoid suspicion, but then scarlet fever breaks over the city like a poisonous wave, leaving in its wake the small corpses of children. What will the young healer do?

Buying Links

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Susanna Clarke

Faerie is never as far away as you think. Sometimes you find you have crossed an invisible line and must cope, as best you can, with petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time embroidering terrible fates or with endless paths in deep, dark woods and houses that never appear the same way twice. The heroines and heroes bedevilled by such problems in these fairy tales include a conceited Regency clergyman, an eighteenth-century Jewish doctor and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as two characters from "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Strange himself and the Raven King".
Amazon description

Over on my author's blog I have just written a post about the impact of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen had on me in my youth. Garner used the folktales of the British Isles as a source material for his novels. In addition to Garner I was addicted to reading the folk and fairytales from Britain themselves, so I came to Susanna Clarke's collection of short stories with a knowledge of their background. It meant that I enjoyed the tales in the book, but it also meant that I did not find the stories as original as perhaps other readers would and was able to see their endings where others might not. What is original is the way Clarke presents this world where the faerie lives alongside a realistic England in the early nineteenth century. The only other writer I can think of who has achieved something similar is Neil Gaiman in his story Stardust (which is referenced in Clarke's story "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Clarke's writing voice is Austenesque (whilst not feeling over-forced) which adds to that impact of her magic realism. 

One of the elements in the book that appealed to me was the role of women as magic makers and the sustainers of the old magical traditions, such as the ladies in the book's title who are defending the old magic in the face of male prejudice. But the stories aren't heavy-handed about it. It does seem to me that Clarke gets the blend of comical and sinister just right.

Inevitably there are some stories which I preferred to others in the book: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower and Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby. But my choice reflects my bias and I have read other reviews which have different favourites. I would recommend taking breaks between stories to savouring them, as I found they rewarded reflection.

I have not yet read Clarke's long (1000+ paged) novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which is set in the same world, and I confess with my Magic Realism challenge requiring me to read and review on book a week I am not going to do so this year. But on the basis of these stories I intend to some day soon. 

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land. Magical winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts who has only visited the islands once before. Yet during that one fateful visit the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure.
 Goodreads Description

Given the novel title and book description I don't think I have to issue a spoiler warning, when I say the story is about a girl Ida who has a condition in which her flesh turns to glass. Ida returns to the bleak winter landscape of St Hauda's Land - with its foul-smelling bogs and haggard woodland. She hopes to meet a man she met before, who told her about bodies of glass in the bog water. Instead she meets the young photographer Midas who is pursuing the perfect light conditions for a photograph.

Midas is emotionally damaged by his severe father, who unbeknownst to Midas had a heart of glass. For the young man the camera has become a means of looking at the world, whilst being removed from it. St Hauda's is a monochrome world - snow, gray clouds and mist. There is even an animal whose gaze turns everything white. Midas' world is likewise monochrome, until he meets Ida. The story at first seems to be a quest for a cure for Ida's condition, but is instead about Midas' transformation through the power of love back in to flesh and blood. I found myself engaged in the young couple's story, even if I wanted to shake Midas at times. Ida's resilience in the face of what is happening to her was moving - I cried at the end.

But I didn't engage with the story as much as I would have expected. The book is clearly magic realism. St Hauda is very like a group of Scottish islands, but its fauna are alien - tiny cattle with wings, jellyfish that emit a strange light as they die, the basilisk deer animal - and of course there are the glass bodies in the bogs. Strangely I felt that there was perhaps too much of the weird. We are introduced the cattle insects early on, I found them hard to believe and a bit twee nor am I sure that they were necessary. I also felt that there was not much there in terms of story and that the plotline kept being broken.  Ali Shaw's descriptions are full of beautiful similes, but I felt these sometimes got in the way - less is more. Shaw extends the story by flashbacks into Midas' childhood and the lives of his parents and that of Ida's mother's former admirer. All very good, but I don't feel that these helped the story move along and at the end I felt too much was unresolved; not that I expect magic realism novels to explain the magic.

That being said this is a book that I found myself thinking about after I had finished it and some of it is quite beautiful and indeed magical.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

It's 1899 and all of Europe is agape at the arrival of the new century. The world crackles with possibilities and people dance to the irresistible rhythms of money, sex, love and freedom. Swinging above them all is a showbiz sensation: a fierce, vulgar, pant-droppingly sexy trapeze artist called Fevvers.
Goodreads description

Wow! This book doesn't so much begin as launches - "Lor' love you, sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. What follows is a rollicking good read, full of invention, humour, earthiness and magic realism. This is a circus world in which chimps take over the management of their act, tigers waltz, a pig acts as management consultant to the circus owner spelling out advice in alphabet cards, clocks repeatedly strike midnight and of course a buxom Cockney aerialist hatched from an egg and now flies on dyed purple wings. Or do they? As Fevvers wonders at one point  Am I fact or am I fiction?

The book opens in a theatre dressing room strewn with underwear, discarded costumes and empty bottles where Fevvers assisted by Lizzie, her assistant and adoptive mother, tells a cynical reporter by the name of Walser the story of her youth and life to that point. Throughout the interview Fevvers constantly uses slight of hand and word to bemuse the young reporter, combining her physical presence and some apparently verifiable references to put him off the scent. We, the readers, watch as the game is played out and Walser is reeled in. This section sets up the rest of the book. Like a magician's dupe Walser is encouraged to focus on the wrong things, like the clock constantly striking twelve, while not focusing on the major (whether Fevvers really has wings). The clock episode is mirrored later in the book in which time passes at different speeds for the two protagonists. Indeed we readers sometimes feel like Walser in the dressing room and we certainly do at the end.

So is the magic just artifice - as in Life of Pi? No, this is more than a story told to befuddle. Everything is larger than life, in Fevvers' case quite literally. As I indicated above there are plenty of magic realism elements in the story, which we accept without question, perhaps because we are watching to see if Fevvers can really fly. The questions we are left with rather than diminishing our capacity to imagine increase it. The picture Angela Carter is painting is bigger than the canvas and we are left to think outside the frame. 

An important element in this book is its feminism. In addition to the wonderful Fevvers, an earthy goddess albeit one who flies, there is the ex-whore Lizzie who is politically active and scathing about men and authority and too can perform magic: For the things my foster mother can pull off when she sets her mind to it, you'd not believe! Shrinkings and swellings and clocks running ahead or behind you like frisky dogs. Then there are a series of women in Fevvers' life who have been the sexual and abused objects of mens cruelty and who find strength and love in other women. Men have always seen woman's body as at once real and magical. Fevver's body is a larger than life example of that, but it is one which Fevvers denies the men who crave to control and own it. For women Fevvers' wings are an assertion of a woman's right to soar. My body was the abode of countless freedom. It is often said of magic realism that it is a means of the oppressed to express themselves. If women's experience of reality is a denial of access to power then it becomes necessary to create an alternative reality. It is therefore appropriate if magic realism is used to explore the magical strength of women. This is something that interests me as a writer. I too have chosen to use magic realism to explore the potential of women in my trilogy about the healer Judith. 

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, The Snow Child was a bestseller on hardback publication, and went on to establish itself as one of the key literary debuts of 2012.

Alaska, the 1920s.  Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before.  When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration,
The Snow Child is an instant classic.
Amazon description

This book seems to be everywhere – the publisher certainly has been pushing it. I bought my hardback copy at a price of a bargain paperback. At the time I was not considering my magic realism challenge, so for a while it sat in my to-read book pile waiting for an appropriate time. That time came with the challenge. So is the book worth the publisher’s efforts? In one word – yes. This is my sort of book – undoubtedly magic realism, beautifully written with well-drawn characters.

In plotting terms the book is not overly complex, it can’t be being so closely based on the fairytale. Fairytales are a wonderful source of ideas for books, but by definition they tend to be short and stripped down. The fairytale is referred to throughout the book including the various endings of the different versions, this sets up part of the plot driver of the book – which ending will the writer opt for or none. Will, as in the Life of Pi, we be told at the end that there is a rationale reason for the magic? Some of the characters, including at times Jack, try to explain away the unearthly nature of Faina. There are times in the book where the story appears to be going in that direction. I will not spoil the ending for you by revealing which the path the books takes in the end. Another plot driver is the nature of Faina – is she a real human child, is she created by the couple from the snow or is she both?

As I seem to be saying a lot in my reviews on this blog, the setting of the book – the Alaskan wilderness – is almost as much a character as the humans who inhabit it. Eowyn Ivey lives in Alaska and describes it superbly – its beauty, richness and starkness. It is a landscape of contrasts. The seasons are extreme, with the winter dark and deep with snow, the summer with endless sun "the colors were too sharp full of yellow sun and blue sky" the spring "a damp, moldy dreariness, something like loneliness." The landscape and its weather impacts on the feelings of the characters. Faina of course is of the snow, which fills the books pages in drifts, she has the delicacy of a snowflake and the toughness of a cranberry bush in winter. The Alaskan wildlife features prominently in the book, Faina has a fox companion and both she and the other characters are very capable of hunting, killing and gutting animals for food, something described in some detail.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Jack and Mabel. This delighted me, it rang so true. As a 50-something woman I was pleased to see that the writer showed the love between the two, whilst at the same time exploring how when we love someone so dearly we are sometimes afraid to express our feelings. The two still have moments of high spirits and it is in one of those that they create the snow child in the yard. I read on Goodreads a reviewer saying that the couple’s grief at the loss of a baby annoyed her because it suggested that people (women) were not fulfilled without children. I had no such problem - for some people the loss or absence of children can be a constant pain and such people are driven to do desperate things. Perhaps it is Mabel’s longing that it is the magic that initiates the snow girl. Mabel is not a weak little female, as the book progresses and as Jack is forced by circumstance to accept, she becomes an active participant in taming the land. 

Did the ending work for me? I’m not sure. It is one of those endings that niggles, I keep going over it, playing with it and seeing different angles. As Mabel’s sister writes to her: "We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow."

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi - a 16-year-old Indian boy. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction of recent years. Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" is a transformative novel, a dazzling work of imagination that will delight and astound readers in equal measure. It is a triumph of storytelling and a tale that will, as one character puts it, make you believe in God.
Amazon description

This review is going to be impossible to write without it containing spoilers, so you are warned.

"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or without the animals?"

That question is what the book is about. It is a story about how we tell stories about our lives giving them order and meaning and the greatest story, Yann Martel maintains, is that of religion: “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material -- any greater pattern of meaning.” 

The book begins with the boy Pi lapping up the stories of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism and adopting all three religions much to the shock of his religious teachers when they meet together with him. It then moves to the tale of Pi's survival on the lifeboat with a tiger and other animals for company. This story although maybe somewhat far-fetched is nevertheless logical, until Pi arrives on an island, where things just get weird.  

In the last tenth of the book, Pi tells a different story, the alternative story without animals and more horrific, and asks his listeners, two Japanese accident investigators, the question above. They, like most readers I suspect, prefer the story with animals. 

Ok, so what did I make of this book that everyone seems to claim to be magic realism?  Well if I use the definition giving to the right of this post, I don't think it is magic realism. It is about storytelling and therefore not about magic in a realistic setting. It is almost the opposite of magic realism, in that it questions magic, faith or what you will. For that reason I found the ending unsatisfactory. I know many others have loved it, enjoying how in the last thirty pages everything that has gone before is thrown into doubt, leaving you to question your own assumptions and your need for a good story. But I am sufficiently old-fashioned to have an affection for good stories and I felt cheated - as if the book was a bravura display by a conjurer and not a real magician. Maybe if Yann Martell had invested the same effort into the alternative story, not writing in the wonderful prose of the first half but in some other perhaps more factual style, I would have been happier, but he doesn't. The prose at the end just seems very clumsy, I assume Martell's many fans will say that it is how it is meant to be. 

As I feel my way towards a deeper understanding, I am acutely aware that many others have disagreed with me and claimed the book to be a fine example of the genre. Please feel free to explain your position in the comments below.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life-- and death.

Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home-- especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert's special power.

As she reads Cooper's letters and learns the secrets of his life, Maggie comes face-to-face withe the wild, ancient spirits of the desert-- and discovers the hidden power at its heart, a power that will take her on a journey like no other.

Goodreads Book Description

I always have a bit of a problem with books about writers or artists and this book has both. My creative English teacher, who first recognised my skill as a writer and poet, taught me to avoid writing about writers, regarding it as self-indulgent. Unfortunately there are a lot of books and art that are self-referential nowadays, indeed it seems to be highly popular with the people who give awards and other accolades. On the face of it I should have had a problem with this book, but I didn't. 

Why didn't I? Well, despite being on the face of it about art, it is actually about magic as reality. The poet Davis Cooper and his wife Anna are dead by the time the story begins and yet they are major characters in the book. Cooper's poems and letters punctuate a tale seen primarily from Maggie's point of view, Anna's mystical pictures are a dark presence in the book. The poems and art portray creatures which at first we might believe to be fantastic and archetypal, but during the course of the book are revealed to be real. These creatures are clearly drawn from the Native American myths, but as a Brit I was interested to see that they bore similarities to British mythic figures - such as the horned man and the wild hunt. I was reminded of the work of the British writer Alan Garner, who portrays a modern world in which the old gods are just below the service.  

The characters are part of the landscape: 
Windmage/Owl Boy: Sky
Rootmage/Root Mother: Earth
Floodmage/Drowned Girl: South etc.

The landscape, the flora and fauna that live within it, are beautifully portrayed in the book. I do not know the desert of the South West, but I felt I was walking through it. The other characters are also well drawn with complex personalities, which at times merge with the mythic. The only fault I would find in the characterisation is that Maggie and all the others accept the reality of the mythic creatures without any resistance. I would have thought that at least one of them might have struggled with the idea and thus given us a bit more conflict. But then I suppose I can't have it both ways!