Thursday 29 August 2013

Rising Up by Evie Woolmore

Tom Macindeor is an itinerant English teacher, spending the summer in Warsaw in the hope of finding out the truth about his grandfather, a Polish resistance fighter. But when he hears the voice of Ela, a young woman trapped in the Jewish Ghetto of 1942, a window opens not just on his past but the future of the ghetto and all those who live in it. Should he share what he knows of their fate, or will Ela's search for the truth about her own family doom them both?
Goodreads Description

I admire Evie Woolmore's courage in tackling a story set in the Warsaw Ghetto. I doubt I could ever do the same. The subject of the holocaust is one which is extremely sensitive and I suspect I could never be confident that my historical research was sufficient to tackle this darkest of periods in human history. 

Evie Woolmore's language and writing style are excellent. As the description above shows, there are two story lines in this book - Tom's story set in the present day and Ela's in 1942 -but the two are linked as the two central characters discover they can talk to each other. As someone who spends a lot of time in the Czech Republic, I was struck by how accurately Evie Woolmore portrays life in Warsaw. There was much here that struck a chord, for example the brightly coloured dyed hair of one of the Polish characters. 

Ela's story opens strongly with the description of her job working for the Germans, which consisted of disposing of the dead, looting their bodies and homes of any valuables. This shows some of the horror of the ghetto. However as the book went on there were times when I found the portrayal of Ela's life less believable, for example I had a problem with the ease with which Ela talks to her sister about a contact with a resistance member.  Ela's family are actually very well-off in terms of most of the  families around them. They are not living six to a room, which was the norm in the ghetto, and they even occasionally eat meat, when thousands of people were dying each month, most of hunger. I would have liked Ela to feel survivor's guilt, perhaps to do something about helping others.  

Both stories are written in the present tense and in the third person. This is essential to the story as at its heart is the fact that Tom and we know the awful truth of what will happen to the inhabitants of the ghetto and Ela's story, but Ela of course does not.  Tom is faced with the dilemma of whether to warn Ela, when she probably can do nothing about her fate. I was reminded of the work of Kate Atkinson, where the magic realism in the book poses philosophical questions and is at the heart of the dramatic tension. But is it right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic? Would I have liked the book more if it had simply been Ela's story, perhaps with Tom discovering it? Probably. But I certainly did get drawn in to Ela's story and wanted to see if she survived. 

I was given this book by the author in return for an honest review.
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Monday 26 August 2013

Stonefly by Scott J Holliday

Jacob Duke has come back to Braketon­—a sleepy, backwoods town bordering Dover, the mental institution where he spent his formative years. Jacob's intention is to enjoy Braketon's woods and water for the first time as a free man, but he soon discovers that Dover isn't through with him yet. Driven by a curse that compels him to grant any wish he hears, Jacob is drawn back into his disturbing former life by a young boy's desire to see his own father dead.

Complicating things are Lori Nelson, Jacob's friend-with-benefits who continues to put new boyfriends in his path, and Motown, Jacob's friend from his years at Dover, who carries a secret that rocks Jacob's foundation and makes him question his own morality.

This is a lovely short novel. Written in the first person, it gives the central character a strong individual voice. The reader gets inside his head from the outset: "Hey there," I said, pantomining a wave. Idiot. Why not how howdy partner while we're at it."  

Jacob speaks of his "curse" with a matter-of-factness that means that we don't question it. At first. But Jacob has a history, which comes out during the course of the book. Not only is there the period of the mental institution, but also the action that put him there. This unfolding of Jacob's past helps make this more than a simple modern fantasy story. 

His mother told him that she believed his father was a genie or djinn and Jacob believes that he has inherited the djinn's curse of being obliged to grant wishes, but without a genie's magic to fulfill the wish. Hence when the boy wishes his own father dead, Jacob is faced with a dilemma, for as he explains: Make a wish of a djinn and he's bound to grant it. If he cannot grant it - or if he chooses not to grant it - within six days, you will die.

Jacob discovers that the boy's father is abusive towards his son and wife, the local bully, in fact: This guy was comic-book evil. But Jacob cannot risk his newly gained  freedom by killing the man. But he must succeed or the boy will drop dead. That moral dilemma is the major plot driver for me. Without spoiling the book for you, let us just say that the plot twists nicely towards the end. 

Towards the end of the book I started to debate whether the magic was real or not. It is accepted by the main character, as well as by his mother, Lori and Motown. But it could just be coincidence or something to do with Jacob's mental condition. It doesn't matter. The ambiguity of magic realism is what appeals to me. It's up to you to decide. 

The book was given to me by the book's publicist in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia

Amidst disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, mothers burnt by glowing halos, and a Baby Nostradamus who sees only blackness, a gang of flower pickers heads off to war, led by a lonely man who cannot help but wet his bed in sadness. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.
Amazon description

In my recent post on what is magic realism, I talked about three strands of magic realism. The first of these is what I called "South American magic realism", as exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with its merging of two cultures (a magic indigenous culture and the colonial western one). The second is what I called "European magic realism", with its roots in surrealism and its emphasis on metafiction and experimentation with form. As is always the way when you try to categorize books along comes a novel that fits in both categories. The People of Paper is just such a book

The fantastical in the book was extremely imaginative and striking: the woman created not from the rib of a man but from paper scraps, whose lovers bear the telltale scars of paper cuts as if members of a secret society; the metal turtles; the woman who is addicted to bee stings; the saint/mexican wrestler who dies in the ring, and so on. This has to be one of the most creative pieces of magic realism I've read. 

This creativity extends to the way the story is presented on the page: Baby Nostradamus is presented by black rectangles, the mechanical tortoise by binary code, as Little Merced learns to hide her thoughts sections are blacked out. This book has multiple viewpoint narration with most pages divided into columns, each taking a different viewpoint. At first I was impressed by this approach, but after a while found it tiring, physically and intellectually. In my edition, in order to ensure the columns did not continue over the page, the text size was so small that it occasionally caused me problems. Another more serious consequence of this structural device was that it could be confusing (I counted 24 different points of view in the first half of the book) and it was difficult to engage with the characters. The author's creativity, which I so delighted in, was getting in the way of my enjoyment.

There are two main stories in the book, that of the flower pickers against the omniscient planet, Saturn, and the writer's love life and the writing of the book. Both stories are about loss of lovers. When one character steps out of the flower picker narrative to observe "Saturn", we discover that Saturn is the author. Suddenly the book takes on a whole new aspect. It is also about how the writer's loss has impacted on the themes of the book. But, despite and also maybe because of this, I didn't find myself engaged with the emotions of the book. There didn't seem to be much emotional progression, which for me is an  important part of a good story. 

So do I recommend this book? Yes, you should read it if you are interested in magic realism. Some people will love it. Some, like me, will have their reservations. 

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Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis

A gripping and lyrical story—at once expansive and lush with detail—this debut novel is a deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity, power and redemption, in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of a small, tenacious nation, Uruguay, shaken in the gales of the twentieth century.

On the first day of the millennium, a small town gathers to witness a miracle and unravel its portents for the century: the mysterious reappearance of a lost infant, Pajarita. Later, as a young woman in the capital city—Montevideo, brimming with growth and promise—Pajarita begins a lineage of fiercely independent women. Her daughter, Eva, survives a brutal childhood to pursue her dreams as a rebellious poet and along the hazardous precipices of erotic love. Eva’s daughter, Salomé, driven by an unrelenting idealism, commits clandestine acts that will end in tragedy as unrest sweeps Uruguay. But what saves them all is the fierce fortifying connection between mother and daughter that will bring them together to face the future.

From Perón’s glittering Buenos Aires to the rustic hills of Rio de Janeiro, from the haven of a corner butchershop in Montevideo to U.S. embassy halls, the Firielli family traverses a changing South America and the uncharted terrain of their relationships with one another.

Goodreads Description

I was expecting to be disappointed by this book. With its similarities to Allende's House of Spirits (three generations of women living through times of oppression), I thought it would suffer in comparison, that it might be light South American magic realism. I was pleasantly surprised. I really enjoyed the book and found that it stood on its own as a piece of literature.

The magic realism in the book is more obvious at the beginning of the book with the miracle of Pajarita's survival and fades as we move further into the rationalist twentieth century and away from the rural setting to the urban. However, there was throughout the book a sense of returning imagery, of poetry and words, that is magic realist:  her pen moved and moved without her hand seeming to push it, forming the spines and spikes and loops of cursive words, sharp t’s and j’s, y’s and g’s with knots at their base as though to tie themselves together, tie women back together, and as she wrote the loops grew large, as if more rope were needed to bind what had blown apart inside her.

One of the book's strengths is the author's portrayal of the psychology of the main characters. They are not perfect, they are at times unattractive, but we are shown how their faults are the product of their experiences and sometimes genes. The best example of this is Eva's story.  Having suffered sexual abuse at the hand of her employer and family friend, she finds it hard to trust and relate to men. She manipulates her husband, a good man, into marrying her and giving her the economic security she craves, but that is not enough. She is oppressed by the upper bourgeois life she must lead as his wife, she is living a lie. It cannot last. This reader's sympathies was with both of them.

If I were to criticize this book, I would point out the way in which Pararita and then Eva fade into the background as the focus shifts on to the story of the next generation. I was loathe to lose them and their point of view. Nevertheless the author does a good job of weaving recurring imagery and themes through the generations to give a continuity.  The major theme of the book is of course motherhood and specifically mothers and their daughters. There is a wonderful description of Eva with her children: Eva could walk down the street- one child's hand in each of hers - and be struck by a fierce and sudden gale of happiness. It made her want to skip and run and kick up puddle water and pursue the sensuous crunch of brown leaves beneath her boot. So much opulent sensation on one sidewalk. 'Salomé, you get that one!' Small galoshes crushed a leaf, another, and two giggles (a three-year-old's, her mother's) mixed with the crackling sound.  Any mother will know that sensation of sudden maternal joy. 

With Salomé's story the politics of Uruguay come to the fore. Again Salomé's motivations for her actions are well-drawn. Although she actively chooses to get involved in revolutionary politics, she also slides into it, influenced as much by friendship as by youthful zeal. But the theme of motherhood is still there in Salomé's story and the book ends as it begins with Salomé writing to the daughter who does not know her story. 
I recommend this book to you. 

Saturday 10 August 2013

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

Neil Gaiman meets Tarantino in this madcap, wildly entertaining journey into Cape Town's supernatural underworld.


Baxter Zevcenko’s life is pretty sweet. As the 16-year-old kingpin of the Spider, his smut-peddling schoolyard syndicate, he’s making a name for himself as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. Profits are on the rise, the other gangs are staying out of his business, and he’s going out with Esme, the girl of his dreams.

But when Esme gets kidnapped, and all the clues point towards strange forces at work, things start to get seriously weird. The only man drunk enough to help is a bearded, booze-soaked, supernatural bounty hunter that goes by the name of Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin.

Plunged into the increasingly bizarre landscape of Cape Town’s supernatural underworld, Baxter and Ronin team up to save Esme. On a journey that takes them through the realms of impossibility, they must face every conceivable nightmare to get her back, including the odd brush with the Apocalypse.
 Publisher's description
Okay, let's get something out of the way. This book is not magic realism, but hey it's great fun. The book starts very realistically, but once it enters the alternative world it stays there. I can see why the comparison has been made between the author and Neil Gaiman. Gaiman's books are at the far edge of magic realism, where magic realism and fantasy overlap. Both authors have a strain of humour which runs through their books. Charlie Human has some wonderful one-liners: Magic is S&M without a safe-word  and  His face has the texture of an old loofah.  Like Gaiman and Tarantino, Charlie Human plays with different genres and their cliches: you will find zombies, South African mythic creatures, kung-fu dwarfs, hard-bitten detectives, and giant mechanical beasts in this novel.

This book will appeal to teenage boys who don't read books and adults who do. It is fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny and the hero and narrator is himself a teenage schoolboy, one who runs a school gang which operates a porn business. He sees himself as a logical, clinical, businessman... that creates plans, devises schemes and shifts pawns around like Kasparov. This me would drink neat vodka while stealing candy from babies and life savings from old people.  But during the course of the book he discovers that he has feelings: This is a me that feels. Gross, I know. This dual nature is explained later in the book.

Baxter's voice is brilliant. It rings true as that of a very bright teenage boy, whilst at the same time referencing literary influences. Baxter's commentary, with its irony and awareness, also helps keep the book from being overwhelmed by weirdness.

I gather that Charlie Human is one of a new generation of speculative fiction writers coming out of South Africa. This is his debut novel and a very impressive one at that.

This book was given to me by the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review. 

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago

In an unnamed country on the first day of the new year, people stop dying. Amid the general public, there is great celebration: flags are hung out on balconies and people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity - eternal life. Death is on strike. Soon, though, the residents begin to suffer. For several months undertakers face bankruptcy, the church is forced to reinvent its doctrine, and local 'maphia' smuggle those on the brink of death over the border where they can expire naturally.

Death does return eventually, but with a new, courteous approach - delivering violet warning letters to her victims. But what can death do when a letter is unexpectedly returned?
Amazon description

Let us start with Saramago's style of writing. This at once caused me problems and delighted me. Visually the book is hard to read, with long paragraphs, narrow margins and no indication of speech (no quotation marks, no line breaks and seldom "he said").  I found myself breaking away from the story to decipher who was speaking, which is something I dislike. Although the prose could at times be said to be rambling, I loved it. It was like having Saramago in the room talking to me. There is something deferential about this style, but at the same time Saramago is a master storyteller and the prose weaves back to the story without fail. Another feature is the gentle humour the author displays: Death did indeed work her fingers to the bone, because, of course, she is all bone.

The book is split into two uneven parts. The first part, which takes up nearly two thirds of the book, focuses on the impact of first death going on strike and second the arrival of the violet letters. Mostly Saramago talks about the general impact on the country and its people (as outlined in the Amazon description).  In one exception we see the impact on one family who have two members who cannot die. Saramago suggests this exception was a mistake, the result of an overhasty judgement, on the part of the narrator. It is of course no such thing, but a necessary personalizing of the story, a focusing in on the human consequences of what has happened, which contrasts with the cynical realpolitik of the government. There is a degree of satire in this section, as the economic, religious and political leaders react to the absence of death. 

Ironically, having put his tongue out at the establishment, Saramago then says: it's high time we stuck our tongues out at her [death]. For in the second part the focus shifts on to death and the man, whose violet letters keep coming back. Far from sticking his tongue out, the author is full of compassion: Due to some strange optical phenomenon, real or virtual, death seems much smaller now, as if her bones had shrunk, or perhaps she was always like that, and it's our eyes, wide with fear, that make her look like a giant. Poor death. It makes us feel like going over and putting a hand on her hard shoulder and whispering a few words of sympathy in her ear, or, rather, in the place where her ear once was, underneath the parietal.

Death, having dealt impersonally with millions of people's deaths which appeared on the filing cards in her subterranean room, decides that she must observe the man in order to work out why the letters are coming back. She even decides to take on the appearance of a young woman. These changes have a great impact on her: For the first time in her life, death knew what it felt like to have a dog on her lap. And with that the book becomes a love story.

I loved much of this book. However I did find myself losing interest in the first part, not helped by the stylistic problems I described at the beginning of the book. But once death arrived as a real character everything changed for me.

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