Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

From Goodreads Description

I reviewed Menna Van Praag's  The House at the End of Hope Street in March 2014 and found it enjoyable women's magic realism in the tradition of Sarah Addison Allen. The Dress Shop of Dreams is in many ways similar to the author's first work: set in the English university-town of Cambridge, a story of a young woman finding herself, a magic-wielding older woman who helps her, a magical place, and the predictability that this sort of romantic book always has. And yet I found this book much more enjoyable. Menna Van Praag is getting better at her art. 

The book weaves together several feel-good romantic tales: of the emotionally stunted and orphaned Cora, the widow Millie longing for love, Etta's long heartbreak, and the detective's broken marriage. Van Praag manages to weave them together into a whole very successfully. The point of view shifts between the various romances unusually occur several times in a chapter and this may upset some readers, but they were clearly done and effective in producing dramatic tension and counterpoint. 

The magic in this book is lightly done - Etta simply sews a small star into the target's dress to cast her spell. And it raises the question of how much of the transformation is down to the star or to the character seeing themselves differently. Most of us will know that what we are wearing can have a profound influence on how we feel about ourselves. And then there is the wisdom of Etta's words or the seeds they sow (sew?) in the other characters' minds. 

One of the reasons this book held my attention was the inclusion in it of a mystery. Before Cora is able to experience love she must first find out whether her parents' deaths in a fire were the result of an accident or murder. I enjoyed this element of the book and whilst it could only be a part of the whole it gave the book more substance. Readers of this blog will know I like a bit of grit in my magic realism. Obviously the grit content of The Dress Shop of Dreams is limited, but Menna Van Praag has written a good book of its type and will add more fans as a result. 

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Larque On The Wing by Nancy Springer

A middle-aged housewife whose rebellious inner child runs away with her talent transforms herself into a fearless young gay man in this winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award

Larque Harootunian is having a midlife crisis like no other—but then again, there is much about the frumpy, middle-aged housewife and mother that could never be considered ordinary. Larque’s lifelong ability to generate “dopplegangers,” for example—physical manifestations of her thoughts and emotions—has been a constant source of stress. And now she is being tormented by Skylark, a re-creation of her younger self, an angry inner child who is tormenting Larque about abandoning her youthful ambitions while running away with her artistic abilities, thereby depriving the older Larque of a livelihood as a painter of kitsch.

But perhaps this is Larque’s opportunity to explore her options. Acquiescing to Sky’s demands that she change herself, Larque tries on a series of different personas—to the consternation of her mother, husband, and teenage sons—and finds her way to Popular Street. There, among the devil-may-care misfits, Larque can be Lark, a handsome young gay man, and quite possibly discover what her life is really about.

Amazon description

Yet again the clever folks at Open Road Media have taken a fascinating out-of-print magic realism book and given it in ebook format to a new audience. I really enjoyed this book.

For starters even now you don't get to read many books with spunky middle-aged women as their central character. We middle-aged women seem to disappear from fiction as we sometimes feel we do in real life, the latter being something Larque bemoans. This book is an exploration of how we deny what we are. Springer uses the magic realist device of the doppelgangers as a way of manifesting the aspects of Larque's personality.

As the enigmatic Shadow says: People, most people, are like flowers with three parts, three petals that overlap. One part is the child. Whatever you were as a child, everything you feared, everything you wanted or dreamed, it all stays with you. One part is the parent. Whatever your mother or father or teachers told you or wanted you to be, that is part of you too. And the rest of you is self, your unique mind and will. One part in three. Very Jungian (after all, the person saying this called Shadow for goodness sake) only it is Jungian with jokes. Lots of jokes.

If you think dealing with teenage children is bad, just imagine what it is like dealing with your young self who feels unloved and rejected. Larque initially really dislikes her childhood self, particularly when Sky puts her foot through Larque's canvases covered with kitsch but lucrative images of twee rural scenes. Until Sky arrives whenever Larque felt the urge to produce something creative, she lay down until the spasm passed. Brain farts did not sell. Real people did not want originality; they just wanted something that matched the living room drapes.  Sky's actions makes Larque rethink what she wants from her art.

Larque is forced to confront the fact that she doesn't like herself as she is and so, urged on by Sky, she allows Shadow to transform her into the character she dreamed of being. This, it turns out, is a young cowboy. Larque as a child had identified with male cowboy heroes in film or on the television  rather than any female role models. But despite her physical transformation Larque retains her soul and her woman's heart and so remains sexually attracted to men. This opens a whole can of worms about gender and sexuality, which the book deals with with the same wry lightness of touch. The homosexuality of three of the main characters in the book is handled sensitively and with understanding. It is worth remembering that this book was first published in 1994 when AIDS was a death sentence and homophobic attitudes were more mainstream. But for me the key thing that stands out is that even the adult Larque cannot see her middle-aged female self as being bold enough to pursue her dreams.

The third element in Larque's character is her mother's creation: The Virtuous Woman. Larque's mother like her daughter has a magic ability to transform people, but in contrast to Larque she does so in a way that denies what they truly are, instead getting rid of what she doesn't like and replacing it with what she does. Thus tomboy Sky is transformed into a prissy little girl. Larque calls this behaviour of her mother's "blinking". It is such a wonderful image of what most of us will have experienced - a parent who sees us as something other than we are and as a consequence we find ourselves falling into that role.

I realize on looking at what I have written so far, that one might feel that this book is feminist magic realism and indeed it does have some similarities to Virginia Woolf's Orlando, but it is actually about a midlife crisis that men and women experience, so I have no qualms about recommending it to all my readers.

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Music of Sacred Lakes by Laura Cowan

Peter Sanskevicz doesn’t belong anywhere. He doesn’t want the sixth-generation family farm his great great-grandfather unwittingly stole from its Odawa owners, and can’t continue his jobs serving “fudgies,” tourists in Northern Michigan who seem more at home than he is. He can’t seem to take charge of things or do anything but make a mess. Then, Peter accidentally kills a girl.

Seeing his life is at risk, his friend takes him to his uncle, a pipe carrier of the Odawa tribe, who tells him he must live by the shores of Lake Michigan until the lake speaks to him. Peter lives and loves and rages by the shores of the great lake, haunted by its rich beauty, by strange images and sounds that begin to pursue him through his waking and sleeping hours, and by the spirit of the dead girl, who seems to be trying to help him. One day, he finally finds an inner silence. And then, he hears what the lake has to say to him. A story about reconnecting with the source of your life and your joy, Music of Sacred Lakes gives voice to the spirit of the land and lakes that gave birth to us all.

Part of the Goodreads Description 

This is the latest in my series of reviews of books by members of the Magic Realism Facebook Group and it shows what an interesting bunch we are. 

The Goodreads description goes on to describe Laura as an American Fabulist and a writer of spiritually-oriented magical realism, literary fantasy, and visionary fiction.  I confess I am not much up on these sub-genres and American fabulism was new to me. Now despite a bit of online searching I am not much wiser, indeed the definitions of fabulism I found suggested that it was just another word for magic realism. Ah well, let's leave that there. I am sure someone out there would like to put me right.

The spiritual element in the book is well to the fore. The young man at the centre of the novel is lost spiritually and his journey of spiritual discovery is the subject of the story. There is a lot of frustrated anger on his part, as he hits out literally and verbally. He finds himself through listening to the lake, as the old pipe carrier instructed him. The other instructor in Peter's transformation is the dead girl who comes to him in dreams and tells hims that It's okay.... It's all lake. As if to emphasize this the girl's name is Marissa (meaning: of the sea). 

At about the same time as I was reading this book I was also reading Living With A Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich. In the latter book the author recounts her experience of the wild god  - the Other - manifesting itself through nature. Ehrenreich is an atheist but a mystical one. The Christian mysticism which Laura Cowan describes in this book is very similar. It requires a sublimation of the self in the whole, symbolized by the lake but actually meaning all of nature - it's all lake. It is interesting that Cowan feels it necessary to use the native American intermediary and his traditional beliefs to help Peter discover or rediscover the wild god. 

I was having an interesting conversation with a fellow writer the other day over a coffee. She said that she had seen a rise in the number of young authors writing magic realism. We agreed that one for reason for this is that in this agnostic, even atheist, world many people are looking for magic, for something unexplained and unpredictable. I argued that for many people the "realist" approach is two-dimensional and excludes some of the most important experiences in people's lives. Some theists would argue that magic realism is an inappropriate description for books featuring Christian or other religious beliefs, but I have no problem with it and I think Music of Sacred Lakes is a good example of why magic realism and Christian mysticism sit well together. 

In a way not much actually happens in the novel - the turmoil is almost entirely internal. There is the presence of two very different young women who in different ways are attracted to Peter and are attractive to him. However the writer does not make too much of this area of potential tension. Personally I would have liked to have seen more made of the relationships, if only in the way the two girls impact on Peter's awakening.

The writing is positively poetic at times, but also tends to be a bit repetitive. This is a book which you should allow to wash over you - rather like Peter's lake in fact - and you may well find yourself pondering the profound.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

When Amos Tutuola's first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, appeared in 1952, it aroused exceptional worldwide interest. Drawing on the West African Yoruba oral folktale tradition, Tutuola described the odyssey of a devoted palm-wine drinker through a nightmare of fantastic adventure. Since then, The Palm-Wine Drinkard has been translated into more than 15 languages and has come to be regarded as a masterwork of one of Africa's most influential writers.
Goodreads description

This is a fascinating book, in many ways unlike anything I have ever read and yet also very familiar. The book is narrated by the Drinkard. The first thing that strikes you (within the opening sentences) is that this is a non-judgemental world. The Drinkard describes himself as professional drinker of the alcoholic palm-wine. This behaviour is not punished, instead  his father hires a tapster to tap the 200 kegs of wine a day that the Drinkard consumes. When the tapster falls to his death from a palm tree, the Drinkard goes in search his servant. The rest of the novel follows the Drinkard's travels and his adventures. 

Tutuola said that he wrote to tell of my ancestors and how they lived in their days. They lived with immortal creatures of the forest. But now the forest are gone. I believe the immortal creatures must have moved away.

The novel is packed with amazing immortal creatures - bush spirits and strange people, some living and some dead. The Drinkard encounters a different creature every few pages. Occasionally there is a reference to modern life - eg a tree taking something like photos or a reference to a bomb - but most of the time we are firmly in the land of Tutuola's ancestors. There is not the duality between a dominant European culture and an indigenous one that one expects from magic realism. The indigenous culture is dominant. Despite Tutuola's education at an Anglican school, this is a world in which the Christian God has barely a foothold, a brutal world in which the bush spirits tend to be malicious and even dead babies drive you from the road. The narrator does occasionally talk of God, but then refers to himself as the Father of the gods who could do anything in this world. The Drinkard has juju (magical power) which allows him to shapeshift  to escape or outwit his foes. I was reminded as I read this of the ancient British ballad The Two Magicians, variations of which you find all over Europe.

The writing style is extraordinary. Tutuola was forced to give up his education, despite being a good student. He therefore writes in English but it reads as though he thinks in Yoruba. Nor has the story form been westernized. There is no normal story arc. Over on the Magic Realism Facebook Group we had a discussion about the standardized story structure (three parts etc) and how the "rules" that some people swear by aren't rules at all. Such people would dismiss this book as episodic. They would point out that there is no character development. But this is a story form that is as old as storytelling. A man goes on a journey and meets and defeats various supernatural creatures. Many old legends are just that and so are many early novels. Tutuola's novel is close to the oral tradition that first gave voice to those legends. Tutuola died in 1997 and he wrote this book in 1953. I doubt whether this novel could be written now in quite the same way. 

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

This could be a book about cheap cheese and bean burritos, slinkster dogs, lanky lizards and rubber chickens ... Or strawberry sundaes with marshmallow toppings, surfing, stage-diving and sleeping on the beach ... It could even be a book about magic. But what it's definitely about is Weetzie Bat, her best friend Dirk and their search across L.A. for the most dangerous angel of all ... true love.
Amazon description

A number of people had recommended this book to me, so I thought I really ought to read and review it. Francesca Lia Block, it seems, has many fans. But this 56-year old British woman hadn't heard of her or of her character Weetzie Bat. I think the clue to my ignorance is to be found in the words "56-year" and "British". This American young adult novel was published in 1989.  The book hasn't really taken off in the UK as it has in the States - 12 reviews on Amazon UK compared to 139 on Looking at those reviews it is obvious that Weetzie Bat divides readers into lovers or haters.  I found myself not falling into either camp.

The book's central character, a hip LA girl (of undefined age), bunks off school with the coolest guy around Dirk.  When Dirk's grandmother Fifi leaves Weetzie Bat a golden thing, Weetzie rubs it and the magic begins:

Weetzie could see him--it was a man, a little man in a turban, with a jewel in his nose, harem pants, and curly-toed slippers.
"Lanky Lizards!" Weetzie exclaimed.
"Greetings," said the man in an odd voice, a rich, dark purr.
"Oh, shit!" Weetzie said.
"I beg your pardon? Is that your wish?” 

Yes, it's a genie. And he grants her three wishes mostly

There is a lot of the fairytale about the book. Thanks to the genie, Weetzie Bat and her unconventional family of Dirk, Dirk's boyfriend Duck, My Secret Lover Man Weetzie's boyfriend, her pet Slinkster Dog and his girlfriend Go-Go Girl, all live in a house they were left by Fifi happily ever after. 

But the second half of the story questions what "happily ever after" actually means. Into Weetzie's pink, hippy, glittery world comes death and the threat of it. The death is that of Weetzie's father and the threat is in the form of AIDs.  I applaud the author's decision to include such issues in a YA book. They aren't confronted in a way that shocks. Nor is there a link made between irresponsible sexual behaviour and its consequences. When My Secret Lover Man says he doesn't want a baby, Weetzie decides to have a child with Duck and Dirk. She gets away with it and the baby joins the extended family. I don't know what to make of this. I suppose it's fairytale meeting reality. Isn't that a definition of magic realism? What is happily ever after in magic realism?

Maybe I am just too old. Maybe I am applying adult expectations to a YA book.  I am sure there are many girls who identify with the kooky Weetzie. I never was that girl. I was too bookish. My Britishness probably puts up a load of barriers too - a lot of the references and even words pass me by. And yet the imagery is at times wonderfully poetic. Take this about Charlie's death:
Charlie was dreaming of a giant poppy like a bed. He had taken some pills and this time he did not wake up from his dream.

I am sure (indeed I know from the reviews) that this book has had a huge impact on some of its young readers.  In the end I guess I am the wrong person to review it. 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld

When they open the door for their wayward daughter, Rosa's parents are not prepared for who else turns up at the Ambrosio family vineyard.

....the spirit of a poet, nurses who crochet magical rugs, a beautiful bearded lady, elephants from the dreamscape, a médecin sans medicine and his dancing python, a jealous stable-hand, acrobatic pirates of the dark web, a sleeping beauty with a secret or two, and a young girl who longs for a new sister....

Angelita Ambrosio narrates the stories of her secret sister’s time on the road, and yearns for adventures of her own. Amid precious tales, graciously shared by Rosa's eclectic friends, a fractured family is reunited.

Not everyone is pleased to see Rosa return - peril lurks in dark places. Fear not: with a sprinkling of cosmic dust, a cloud of sawdust and a touch of magic, a new dawn will bloom - now that Rosa has come home.

Goodreads description

Karen Wyld is a fellow writer on the Magic Realist Books Facebook Group and I was keen to read her new book, having seen her contributions to the group and the Magic Realism Blog Hop. I was not disappointed - the book is delightful. 

The narrator is Angelita, a bright child who used to sing like an angel but who has become mute. The choice of this narrator provides both opportunities and challenges for the author (and therefore the reader). Angelita's muteness makes her the perfect listener, making her at times invisible to the adults around her and also meaning that they confide in her. As a succession of visitors to the sleeping Rosa reveal aspects of her life, the child listens and tries to piece together what happened to make Rosa leave and what she did afterwards. In this Angelita acts for the reader, but Angelita is a child so she is limited as an intermediary. 

Angelita's childish innocence means that she doesn't always understand the significance of what she is hearing. Angelita believes that everything will turn out for the best, that Rosa will wake up, that the book's one antagonist will not hurt her. There is the opportunity here for the writer to use more dramatic irony to increase tension with the adult reader seeing potential danger, however the author seems to back away from doing so. 

Over on my writer's blog, prompted by reading this book, I talk about some of the issues around using first-person narration. A lot happens off-screen in this novel. Most of the time that is part of the book's charm, but it felt unsatisfactory towards the end. I wanted to know more. It does seem to me that Karen painted herself into a bit of a corner by her choice of first-person narration.

The book has many strengths. There are some beautiful descriptions of a child's world in which magic really does exist and of the fascinating and fantastical beings that enter it. I particularly enjoyed the way that all Angelita's senses feature in those descriptions. The author draws on many traditions - myths, fairytales and of course magic realism. The realism lies in the family and sexual relationships that are revealed through the course of the book. Despite this realism there is a charming gentleness about When Rosa Came Home, a gentleness that stems from its exceptionally well-drawn narrator.

This is a lovely debut from a highly talented writer. I look forward to reading her next book.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Berta La Larga by Cuca Canals

Berta, born under a rainbow, has special gifts. And she is very, very tall. Depressed by her height, she has grown into a quiet, introverted girl. However, at 16 she falls in love with a very tall postman and finds that her moods have an amazing effect on the weather and just about everything else.
Goodreads description

My regular readers may have noticed I missed a review last week. You may also have noticed that I am now reviewing a book that was not scheduled until December. The reason for both is that my mother-in-law died a few weeks ago and my plans have had to change. As a result I am not in the Czech Republic where the books for November are sitting on a bookshelf awaiting my arrival (now scheduled for January).  In addition I don't feel I can give last week's planned book Of Bees and Mist a fair review, as the antagonist in that book is a totally evil mother-in-law.  I think I would have found this a problem had I not been mourning the death of a lovely lady, but as I was the problem was insurmountable. 

So I have been reading Berta La Larga instead. The comparison with Of Bees and Mist couldn't be greater. Human beings are shown lovingly with their aspirations, their faults and their strengths. The book focuses on the life of a small village in the middle of nowhere and its people's rivalry with the inhabitants of a neighbouring village. Berta falls in love with Jonas, the postman from that other village, and so the scene for a Romeo and Juliet story is set.  But this is no tragedy. The story, even though some of the main characters die during the course of the war between the two villages, is often humorous.

Canals draws a picture of a very real village in which magical things happen, but people don't always realize - contrary to the Goodreads description no one links the weather to Berta's moods, not even Berta herself.  The portraits of the various village characters and their petty squabbles - from the old woman who keeps everyone awake with her singing, the mayor's wife who never stops talking, the priest with very attractive legs and even the donkey - will all be familiar to anyone living in a small community. I was reminded of Clochemerle. Canals' style is witty and light of touch. The narrative is interspersed with comical illustrations, such as a picture of Berta's body with pointing hands indicating which parts which Jonas is allowed to touch and which not, and ends with a series of amusing appendices, which had me giggling.  

This is a delightful book, clever in its simplicity.  

Wednesday 5 November 2014

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Growing up in Edwardian south London, Alice Rowlands longs for romance and excitement, for a release from a life that is dreary, restrictive and lonely. Her father, a vet, is harsh and domineering; his new girlfriend brash and lascivious. Alice seeks refuge in memories and fantasies, in her rapturous longing for Nicholas, a handsome young sailor, and in the blossoming of what she perceives as her occult powers. A series of strange events unfolds that leads her, dressed in bridal white, to a scene of ecstatic triumph and disaster among the crowds on Clapham Common. The Vet's Daughter is a uniquely vivid, witty and touching story of love and mystery.

Goodreads description

I hadn't planned to read (and review) The Vet's Daughter this week, but I found it in a bookshop and started reading it in the cafe. I was so impressed by this book and the author's ability that I had to continue reading to the end. 

The first thing that impressed me was the faultless use of first-person narrative in the book. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do at the best of times, but to do this when the narrator is a naive young woman is extremely hard, and yet Comyns never allows Alice to know more or have more spirit than is appropriate. We readers glimpse what lies beneath and watch with horror as we see, as Alice can not, what certain developments might signify.  Not everything is explained, but that is because not everything is shown to Alice. 

The book was published in the Virago Modern Classics series and is a devastating study of the appalling and powerless position of women in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly it could be the tale of many women in many parts of the world now. Both Alice and her mother are trapped in their dreary home with Alice's tyrannical father. Alice's description of her mother early in the book is haunting:  
Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.  

This fascinating book was first published in 1959 (before the arrival of magic realism in  British mainstream fiction). We are now used to the likes of Alice Hoffman using magic realism in modern contexts, but that was not the case then. The book was therefore ahead of its time. At the same time it looks back at the golden age of English 19th century literature. There is something Gothic about the book and the portrayal of the monstrous father. Many of the other characters verge on the grotesque in a way that reminded me of those of Dickens. 

One would like Alice to escape and gain happiness. And for a time the levitational powers that are the magic realist element in the book do give Alice an opportunity to control something in her life. But in the end they become a tool for her father to gain money. This may be a modern fairytale, but it doesn't come with a happy ending. If you want to identify with the central character you will have problems. This is feminist magic realism, but the magic does not empower and the realism accurately portrays Alice as a young woman of her time.  

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman

Nora Silk doesn’t really fit in on Hemlock Street, where every house looks the same. She's divorced. She wears a charm bracelet and high heels and red toreador pants. And the way she raises her kids is a scandal. But as time passes, the neighbors start having second thoughts about Nora. The women’s apprehension evolves into admiration. The men’s lust evolves into awe. The children are drawn to her in ways they can't explain. And everyone on this little street in 1959 Long Island seems to sense the possibilities and perils of a different kind of future when they look at Nora Silk...This extraordinary novel by the author of The River King and Local Girls takes us back to a time when the exotic both terrified and intrigued us, and despite our most desperate attempts, our passions and secrets remained as stubbornly alive as the weeds in our well-trimmed lawns.
Goodreads description 

A major event in the magic realism fans' calendar is when another book by Alice Hoffman, the queen of contemporary American magic realism, goes on sale. In September there was an enormous event - Hoffman's first eight books were published by Open Road Media as ebooks. As well as this book (Seventh Heaven) the following are now available for download: At Risk, Property Of, Fortune's Daughter, Illumination Night, The Drowning Season, White Horses, and Angel Landing

I have previously reviewed two of Hoffman's novels here: The Story Sisters and her most recent the acclaimed The Museum of Extraordinary Things. It was fascinating to go back to her early work. Seventh Heaven was first published in 1990 but it shows all the signs of what we have come to expect from a Hoffman novel: complex characters, especially well-drawn young women, and  magic slipped into the ordinary world. 

Hoffman's story is set in 1959 American suburbia, on the type of estate described by Pete Seeger in his song Little Boxes -

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same. 

This is an America where conformity is everything and into it comes a young divorcee, her mind-reading son and small baby. Nora's being divorced is in itself a challenge to the myth of happy ever-after that underpins the lives of the inhabitants of the estate. Through the course of the book Hoffman peels the mask off the families to reveal the truth beneath as they are forced to face the reality of their lives and aspirations. 

There are some writers (including some I have recently reviewed) whose magic realism is also happy-ever-after, avoiding the uglier sides of life and using magic as a sweetener. Hoffman is not one of those. She tackles difficult subjects. As is the case in her other books the issue of the treatment of women is at the heart of the novel. But she does this with a lightness of touch, a sense of humour and subtle magic that illuminates the world. 

I recommend this book.

Open Road Media have created an exclusive interview with Alice Hoffman, which reveals her thinking about writing, symbolism and fairytales, here:

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Winner of the National Book Award: In the shadow of the Holocaust, a young girl discovers the power of magic.

In the schoolroom of a simple European village, Kicsi spends her days dreaming of the lands beyond the mountains: Paris and New York, Arabia and Shanghai. When the local rabbi curses Kicsi’s school for teaching lessons in Hebrew, the holy tongue, the possibility of adventure seems further away than ever. But when a mysterious stranger appears telling stories of far-off lands, Kicsi feels the world within her grasp.

His name is Vörös, and he is a magician’s assistant who seems to have powers all his own. There is darkness growing at the edge of the village—a darkness far blacker than any rabbi’s curse. Vörös warns of the Nazi threat, but only Kicsi hears what he says. As evil consumes a continent, Vörös will teach Kicsi that sometimes the magician’s greatest trick is survival.

Publisher's description

I had seen this title on lists of magic realist books and so had added it to the list of books which I carry with me whenever I visit second-hand bookshops. However when I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye the cover put me off, making me think that whoever had listed it had made a mistake and that this book was too fantastical to be magic realism. Here is that cover

Then a few weeks ago I saw the book featured on Netgalley. It has been republished as an ebook by the excellent Open Road Media. My interest was piqued by the description and I requested a review copy. I am glad I did. 

For those of you who are interested in the debate about where fantasy begins and magic realism ends this is definitely a book to ponder. Yes, there are straight fantasy scenes showing the magician's duels with the rabbi which could be in a Peter Jackson movie, but there is also a historical reality about the book, a reality which was more horrendous than anything that can be dreamed up by any horror writer. The chapters depicting Kicsi's experience in the death camps are powerfully accurate. Lisa Goldstein, a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, asks some awkward questions about the role of magic in modern Europe.

The key thing to note is that the magic fails. The magician can foresee the impending holocaust but can do nothing about it. He fails to persuade the Jewish residents to flee.  The magician fails to create a golem to protect the little town where Kicsi lives. Although he is prevented from doing so by the Rabbi, there is an underlying question - could the magician ever have succeeded, was the old magic powerless in the face of the very real terror of the Nazi machine?

The Prague Golem legend has always struck me as tragic. The Golem was created to protect the Jewish community and was/is meant to be sleeping in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue waiting, like Arthur and his knights, the call to rise up at times of the greatest danger. But when that danger came, the giant in the attic did not stir.

The magic in magic realism is often that of the underclass, the oppressed, the disenfranchised. It gives power to the powerless. For that reason there is an important strand of magic realism, which draws on the ancient beliefs of the Jewish people. In the camp there are tales among the detainees of a red-haired man and people disappearing from the camp. Goldstein does not make clear if this is wishful thinking and the "escapees" have actually been killed. After the war Kicsi is found by the magician among the dying and physically recovers. But her spirit does not revive and she suffers from survivors' guilt. She accompanies the magician on a journey back to her home town and another duel between the two men. That process brings her back to life. 

As a book for teenagers I think The Red Magician would work particularly well, although it is suitable for adults too. The book is an excellent short read and I thank Open Road Media for making it available.

I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

On The Golden Porch & Other Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

Thirteen stories by the first woman in years to rank among Russia's most important writers celebrate courage and the will to endure among the people who live on the periphery of society but who dream with a redeeming passion.
Goodreads description 

I have a particular liking for Slavic literature. In a previous review I raved about the short stories of Ekaterina Sedia and one of my favourite authors is the French Russian writer Andre Makine.  To that list of excellent Russian writers I can now add Tatyana Tolstaya. They all share a way of portraying and seeing the world as hauntingly beautiful filled with people whose lives are doomed to disillusionment.

The writer Tolstaya most reminds me of is not her famous grandfather but Chekhov. There is an ironic humour about her writing and yet she does not laugh at her subject, nearly all of whom are struggling with the loss of their dreams and aspirations.  Some are trapped by their relationships, some by hopeless unspoken love, and some by an absence of identity. They could easily be Chekhovian characters. Tolstaya draws each with loving and detailed care.

I was particularly impressed by Tolstaya's very individual writing style, with descriptions that are capable of being poetic and humourous at the same time. Take this one of the lobby of a women's hair salon as an example: stiff green sabres grew hilt-down out of large pots, and photographs of bizarre creatures with unpleasant glints in their eyes stared from the walls under incredible hair - towers, icing, rams' horns; or ripples like mashed potatoes in fancy restaurants. At other times the style is conversational, with short verbless sentences: More tea? Apple trees in bloom. Dandelions. Lilacs. Oof, it's hot. Leave Moscow - to the seaside. Although poetic the prose is economical. The writer's touch is light, allowing impressions to build in the reader's mind. 

Tolstaya's use of magic is equally light and impressionistic. She does not feel the need to highlight it, because it is a magic which runs deep in the Slavic soul and tradition. In the first story in the collection for example a five-year old girl is talking about her governess Maryvanna, whom she dislikes. She ends the story with the lines: Farewell Maryvanna. We're ready for summer. What does she mean by that? It helps to know that the spirit of winter is called Morana in Russian and in a ceremony to welcome spring an effergy is often burnt and then thrown in a river. In another example of Tolstaya's light touch with magic,  Rendezvous with a Bird features a boy's grandfather who is waiting for death, which comes in the form of a bird. The dark garden rose and fell like the ocean. The wind chased the Sirin bird from the branches: flapping its mildewed wings, it flew to the house and sniffed around, moving its triangular face with shut eyes: is there a crack?

I could write an essay about the themes I found in Tolstaya's stories: of the importance of the passage of time, of memory, and dreams and self-delusion. But the format of a blog post does not afford the space to do so. Instead I simply urge you to find  this book and read the stories for yourself. 

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen

Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.

Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in. As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?

From Goodreads description

There was something very familiar about this story. It is close to fairytales - a beautiful young woman is cursed by a magical gift that prevents her from accepting the man she loves. There is even a bit of Sleeping Beauty at the end. And like the modern fairytales (a la Disney rather than Grimm) you know even as you start to read that there will be a happy ending. 

The book falls into a type that I have come across before on this blog. There were obvious but not surprising similarities with the other book by Lisa van Allen that I have reviewed here (The Wishing Thread) and also with The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag. In the publisher's promotional material it is suggested that the book will appeal to readers of those by Sarah Addison Allen, Aimee Bender, and Alice Hoffman. I don't know about Addison Allen, but the worlds of Bender and Hoffman are harsher than Van Allen's. As I have said before I like my magic realism with an edge, but Van Allen is clearly writing for an audience that does not share my preferences. 

Those readers who like chick-lit magic realism will find much to enjoy here. The descriptions are lush (if with too many adjectives for my liking) and reflect the rich growth of the Pennywort magical garden in a world of drought-induced barrenness. This is in contrast with Olivia's life, which is spartan emotionally and restricted geographically. In fact all the main characters are in some way afflicted by an inability to feel and/or hold. Olivia's father has separated himself from the world by living as a hermit in a ravine, Sam literally cannot feel anything, having lost all sensation from his skin following an accident, and Olivia cannot touch those she loves without hurting them. 

Olivia's curse creates some interesting challenges for the writer. How do you write a love scene when there can be no physical embrace? If you are Lisa Van Allen, the answer is very successfully: the scene is surprisingly sexy. And how do you bring about a resolution to the story? I gather from fellow Goodreads reviewers that not everyone was satisfied by the somewhat ambiguous answer to the latter question, but it didn't bother me. Indeed, despite my comments about its familiarity at the beginning of this review, the plot is not without a few twists and unexpected revelations, which are definite plus points as far as this reviewer is concerned. 

If you want a book to curl up in front of the fire with, this might be the book for you.

I received this book free from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina B. Nahai

From Tehran to Los Angeles, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a sweeping saga that tells the story of the Soleymans, an Iranian Jewish family tormented for decades by Raphael's Son, a crafty and unscrupulous financier who has futilely claimed to be an heir to the family's fortune. Forty years later in contemporary Los Angeles, Raphael's Son has nearly achieved his goal--until he suddenly disappears, presumed by many to have been murdered. The possible suspects are legion: his long-suffering wife; numerous members of the Soleyman clan exacting revenge; the scores of investors he bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme; or perhaps even his disgruntled bookkeeper and longtime confidant.

Award-winning novelist Gina B. Nahai pulls back the curtain on a close-knit community that survived centuries of persecution in Iran before settling and thriving in the United States, but now finds itself divided to the core by one of its own members. By turns hilarious and affecting, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. examines the eternal bonds of family and community, and the lasting scars of exile.

Goodreads description 

Sometimes when I write reviews on this blog I have to make a case for or against the book in question being magic realism. This is not the case here. This is magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. I was reminded of Isabel Allende's House of Spirits, with an upper-class woman persecuted by a man whose mind is twisted by hatred of the family that rejected his claims. The magic is however more obvious than Allende's: every decade or so, a child - ususally a boy in the family - was born with a glowing heart.  Nahai's description of Raphael sleepwalking through the streets - the light from his heart attracting every moth and firefly and nocturnal bird in the city, plus an entire horde of restless insomniac ghosts - seems closer to the magic of Marquez' Macondo. Gina B. Nahai has however a strong and individual style of her own. 

For starters there is the use of the murder mystery genre as a frame for the family saga. This works really well, providing an external observer in the form of the police detective (also an Iranian Jew) and using this most American of genres to contrast with the more magical and mythical world of pre-revolutionary Iran. Nahai is excellent at portraying both of these very different worlds. She does not romanticize the world of the last Shah. She shows how unjust it was and how corrupt. Raphael's Son's abuse of others and corruption is learned during a childhood full of impotent anger. Both in Iran and in America there is money to be made at the expense of people who naively believe that justice will prevail above the interests of those with power and money. This is a lesson Raphael's Son learns from the lips of the head of the Soleyman family: No matter what you may want or how badly - you must understand that in this country, at this time, you and your kind don't hold a prayer against the likes of me. 

The other strong character in the book is Elizabeth Soleyman, who is innocent of any wrong done by the Soleymans to Raphael's Son and his mother, but who becomes the focus of Raphael's Son's campaign of hatred. Her experiences include the loss of all but one of her family, ruination and exile, and yet she survives. But rather than just show this as a simple triumph, Nahai shows that what doesn't kill you will nevertheless leave its mark... Elizabeth learns to suppress her pain and longings, but in doing so seems cold to her daughter.

This book is not just a mystery story nor a family chronicle, but also a book about alienation. The Soleymans may be well-to-do when the story starts but they are Jews in the Shah's Iran. When they move to the US they are both Jews and Iranian. Nahai paints a moving picture of what it is to be forced into exile. She explains how the Iranian exiles (like others the world over) soon learn that the hardest part of being an exile is the vanishing - not of the self but of its likeness in the eyes of others. But for Elizabeth and her daughter the exile is doubly hard: they have to abandon the graves of the ones they lost... The dead and missing cannot cross borders; their exile is our forgetting. 
Alienation is a recurrent theme in magic realism, closely linked to the other theme of dual cultures/worlds. This book could very easily have presented the worlds geographically. But Nahai is an altogether too subtle writer for that. There is harsh reality in Iran and there is magic (at the end of the book) in the US. She is quite simply a wonderful magic realism writer and worthy of the comparisons made at the beginning of this review.

I received this book free from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

The definitive edition of Calvino’s cosmicomics, bringing together all of these enchanting stories—including some never before translated—in one volume for the first time

In Italo Calvino’s cosmicomics, primordial beings cavort on the nearby surface of the moon, play marbles with atoms, and bear ecstatic witness to Earth’s first dawn. Exploring natural phenomena and the origins of the universe, these beloved tales relate complex scientific concepts to our common sensory, emotional, human world.

Now, The Complete Cosmicomics brings together all of the cosmicomic stories for the first time. Containing works previously published in Cosmicomics, t zero, and Numbers in the Dark, this single volume also includes seven previously uncollected stories, four of which have never been published in translation in the United States. This “complete and definitive collection” (Evening Standard) reconfirms the cosmicomics as a crowning literary achievement and makes them available to new generations of readers.

 Goodreads Description

The Complete Cosmicomics was published in the UK in 2009, and  now American readers can enjoy the complete set of Cosmicomic short stories gathered in one volume. I say short stories, but that seems an inadequate description of the pieces to be found in this book.  Each piece starts with a scientific fact about the universe and then Calvino develops an imaginative story around that fact, usually narrated by a character called Qfwfq, who was witness to the great bang and everything that has happened subsequently . In some cases there is a clear narrative, in others the pieces are more theoretical and discursive. All the Cosmicomic stories are playful and in yet in their way logical conceits on ideas. 

Inevitably the theories Calvino chooses are immense. Calvino's stories ride these theories like Qfwfq's family dispersed to all corners of space by the Big Bang. They can be a fun ride, especially when Calvino humanizes or anthropomorphizes the stories, such as the game of marbles conducted with atoms. They can be witty in the way they highlight the impossibility
of illustrating something that we can barely conceive: We were all there... where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time packed in there like sardines.

But for this non-scientist the more theoretical Cosmicomics seemed dry and hard to relate to and I found myself skipping to the next stories. This collection offers a sizable number from which to choose, so I soon found something I wanted to read.  

The initial collection of Cosmicomics was first published in 1965. One of the things that strikes me is how some of the "facts" he quotes are now regarded as false, indeed as feats of the imagination no less unreal than Calvino's stories. Science's narrative moves on - theories are proved or disproved, survive or are replaced by others. Is science a fiction?

The reason why Calvino called these stories Cosmicomics is explained in The Origin of Birds where Qfwfq says:  Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other. But of course this too is playing with the reader. The Cosmicomics are constructed from sentences. Instead we are asked to imagine the series of cartoons with all the little figures of the characters in their places, against an effectively outlined background, but you must try at the same time not to imagine the figures, or the background either.
The above sentence is just typical of Calvino, playful, logical but at the same time upending logic. The writer I was most reminded of when reading this book was a mathematician - Lewis Carroll.

Cosmicomics regularly appears on lists of greatest magic realist books and I can see why. On the other hand it does seem to me that in these stories Calvino invented a genre all of his own.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

A heartbroken American writer starts a story about an ice-cold sombrero that falls inexplicably from the sky and lands in the centre of a small Southwest town. Devastated by the departure of his gorgeous Japanese girlfriend, he cannot concentrate on his writing and in frustration he throws away his beginning.

But as the man searches through his apartment for strands of his lost love's hair, the discarded story in the wastepaper basket - through some kind of elaborate origami - carries on without him. Arguments over the sombrero begin, one thing leads to another and before long all hell breaks loose in the normally sleep town.

Brautigan's fertile imagination twists and pulls at the ensuing chaos to come up with a tender, moving, surreal and incredibly funny tale that is told by a writer at the very peak of his creative powers.

Goodreads description

MEANWHILE BACK IN the waste-paper basket -- what a way to start a chapter! And what is happening in the paper basket? The story discarded by the central character has decided it will continue without him. This is a magic realist story on both levels. It is metafiction and it contains a magical sombrero. What more could you want from a magic realist book? 

I had been meaning to read some Brautigan as part of my magic realism challenge and then the opportunity to review this new edition by Canongate (with introduction by Jarvis Cocker, which you can read if you follow the link below) came up and I jumped at it.  I am delighted I did - I love this book. It is a joy from start to finish. 

I am not sure what I was expecting. I rather had Brautigan down as some hippy author and suspected that his magic realism would be whimsical. Indeed I have seen it described as such, but it isn't, not by my definition anyway. This book is funny, but it is also sad. The central character, a humourous fiction author with no sense of humour, is devastated by the loss of his Japanese lover. The poor woman has finally fled this relationship with a man who is so complex that he ties himself into knots over whether to eat a tuna sandwich (even though he has no tuna). She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren't worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it.
She wanted her next lover to be a broom.

Whilst her former lover obsesses about whether to ring her, imagining what she would say and that she is in the arms of another man, she is asleep and dreaming. The book shifts from the author to the woman and then into the story developing in the waste-paper basket. Nothing much happens in the "real life" stories: the writer is paralyzed by his revolving thoughts, the woman is simply sleeping, but Brautigan draws a brilliant picture of a relationship that is going nowhere. 

Brautigan's writing style is so economical and yet so beautiful that it reminds me of Japanese haiku:

Yukiko rolled over.
That plain, that simple.
Her body was small in its moving.
And her hair followed, dreaming her as she moved.
A cat, her cat, in bed with her was awakened by her moving, and watched her turn slowly over in bed. When she stopped moving, the cat went back to sleep.
It was a black cat and could have been a suburb of her hair.

That piece is one chapter in the book. Yes, a chapter. But what more is there to say?

Meanwhile back in the waste-paper basket the story is moving forward. The arrival of the frozen sombrero out of a blue sky starts a train of dramatic events: The crowd was becoming larger and more active... They were proceeding on schedule step by step down the path that would end with them battling Federal troops and cause their small town to be plunged into world focus. It wouldn't be long now. The comparison between the dynamic arc of the story, with its series of causes and effects, and the stasis in the life of the humourist is marked. Is this the difference between fiction and reality? But then the story of the humourist is also fictional.

But what about the sombrero? It's still there, lying in the street... How can you miss a very cold white sombrero lying in the Main Street of a town? 
In other words: There is more to life than meets the eye.

Indeed there is. Wonderful!

I am very grateful to the publisher, Canongate, for allowing me to read this book in return for a fair review. It has been one of the highlights in my career as a reviewer. 

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