Wednesday 26 February 2014

Burning Angel by James Lee Burke

Sonny Boy Marsallas, a New Orleans street hustler, entrusts Detective Dave Robicheaux with a mysterious notebook, kicking off a series of violent incidents and raising questions that need answers, and fast... What did Sonny's girlfriend know that got her murdered? Why is Sonny known as Red Angel by Central American guerrillas? And what do the Mafia want with a desolate stretch of New Iberia? This time Sonny Boy may have pushed his luck with the Giacano family one deal too far. A rich, sardonic and terrifying portrayal of contemporary America with a setting which is as charged as an electric storm.

Goodreads description

As I have said before, magic realism is more of a literary approach than a genre and as such you will find it used in all sorts of genres. In this case the genre is mainstream American detective fiction. I've always had a liking for detective fiction and so the idea of a book using magic realism in a detective novel really appealed. I'm not sure what was expecting but it was nothing as good as this. The magic realism fits easily into the genre, it feels entirely natural in the book and fulfills an important role. But I am running ahead of myself. 

The characterization is superb. The book's central figure, Dave Robicheaux, is a complex character. He is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, having frequent nightmares which merge into the present and future. Several of the other characters are likewise scarred or distorted by wartime experiences. 

The moral ambiguity of war runs through the book. Sonny was involved in Reagan's dirty wars in South America, as was the shadowy organization that is threatening Sonny and possibly Dave himself. Moral ambiguity suffuses the book. Morality is shown to be relative: Dave may not be perfect but there are others who are worse, such as Helen, his police colleague who beats up suspects, or Dave's former colleague, Clete, now private eye, who assists rapists and plants evidence.  Even Clete and Helen are seen to be generally on the right side, compared to the mobsters who tear an innocent woman apart to get information or flay their opponents alive. In such a world even a hustler like Sonny can be seen as a hero, and we understand why Dave will not betray his trust. 

Sonny's hero status is enforced by the magic realism. He has the reputation for being immortal, having survived an attack in South America which killed everyone around him. His pursuers finally catch up with him and he disappears under the waves, bleeding from several bullet wounds, but is he really dead?

Lee Burke's writing style can be lyrical and philosophical as well as gritty, using all three aspects move the story forward: The moon was down, and in the darkness the waving cane looked like a sea of grass on the ocean's floor. In my mind's eye I saw the stubble burning in the late fall, the smoke roiling out of the fire in sulphurous yellow plumes, and I wanted to believe that all those nameless people who may have lain buried in the field - African and West Indian slaves, convicts leased from the penitentiary, Negro laborers whose lives were used up for someone else's profit - would rise with the smoke and force us to acknowledge their humanity.

As can be seen from the above extract, the book puts the action in a wider political and historical context. Set in Louisiana, the bones of slaves and dead native Americans lie beneath the surface, both literally and symbolically, and the consequences of the past play in the present: I've often subscribed to the notion that perhaps history is not sequential; that all people, for all of history, live out their lives simultaneously, in different dimensions perhaps, occupying the same pieces of geography, unseen by one another, as if we were all part of one spiritual conception.  It is a view of history that fits neatly with magic realism and one I identify with. 

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. Thank goodness Lee Burke is such a prolific writer. I will be back for more.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

"The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville." Thus begins Rose Goode's story of her growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson on New Year's Eve, 1896, of New Hope Academy for Girls. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She is blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways. Soon after the fire, the white sheriff beats Amafo in front of the town's people, humiliating him. Instead of asking the Choctaw community to avenge the beating, her grandfather decides to follow the path of forgiveness. And so unwinds this tale of mystery, Indian-style magical realism, and deep wisdom. It's a world where backwoods spiritualism and Bible-thumping Christianity mix with bad guys; a one-legged woman shop-keeper, her oaf of a husband, herbal potions, and shape-shifting panthers rendering justice. 
Goodreads description

One of the joys of this blog has been my discovery of novels by writers of native American heritage, such as Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Alfredo Vea and Rudolfo Anaya. Now to that list I can add Tim Tingle. Tingle is perhaps better known for his children's books: Crossing Bok Chitto won the American Indian Youth Literature Award in 2008. This book however is for the adult market, although it would also be suitable to older children.

Maybe because of the author's background in writing children's literature the book has a gentleness and morality which was appealing. These didn't prevent the author from tackling hard subjects - the book opens with the murderous arson attack on a Choctaw school by white racists and two women in the story are victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless these are countered by both Amafo's choice of forgiveness rather than violent response and an attempt to understand the motivation of even the most vicious of men. A part of me (maybe the adult part) kept thinking that life isn't/wasn't like this, but then another part wanted the moral resolution that the book offers.

Justice prevails in this book. Amafo is able to find allies within the white community, such as the wonderful one-legged Maggie Johnston. Most importantly for the purpose of this blog the Choctaw central characters find allies in the natural world and the spirits of their family. This is where the magic realism appears, especially in the form of a panther, that may or may not be Rose's dead grandmother. As is so often the case in magic realist books, there is an ambiguity about what is happening at this crucial point in the story. But earlier we see the spirits of the dead through the eyes of the young narrator Rose, who has inherited her grandfather's sight: Rose, if you are real quiet and learn to see people, you can know the ones weighed down by death. Find out what makes them happy, what they like to do or talk about. Making Walking People laugh is a very good thing to do too, sweetheart. When the spirits laugh, everybody is happy.

Tim Tingle is an experienced oral storyteller and this shows in the book. House of Purple Cedar's central plot may be the serious matter of the persecution of Amafo and his family by the hateful marshal, but the book is leavened by the tale of how Maggie Johnston saves her future husband, Terrance, from the gallows. This tale of the most incompetent bank robber you can imagine reads like a comic fable. It had me giggling when Terrance is threatening to cut a hostage's throat with a butter knife to the bemusement of onlookers. But then there is something fable-like about the whole book. The story is partly told by an elderly Rose and it feels like something told by the fireside. Indeed, as I discovered in the book's acknowledgement section, the tale of the panther/protector had been inspired by just such an account by a real woman remembering her childhood. All of which reminds me of what Marquez once said: the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. 

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

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Culloo by Murielle Cyr

Tala can't wait to be thirteen; then no one better tell her what to do. The Welfare Officer is knocking on her door again and her father isn't home to answer. Tala only has a few hours to find her missing father before she and her brother, Dason, get placed in a foster home.

Her quest brings her to secluded woods where she discovers that a group of bear poachers are responsible for her father's disappearance. Her adventures bring her in contact with the legendary woodland characters: the pipe-smoking frog-like people and the giant ferocious black bird. Can she survive the night alone in woods alive with hungry bears and angry hunters? Will she be able to find her father before the hunters do?

Goodreads description

This short novel for young adults is a lovely read. I read the book in one sitting. Very rapidly your sympathies with the spirited young heroine are established. Tala's reasons for following her father into the woods with her little brother are made clear, as is the justification for hiding from the family's nosey neighbour. But I also like how towards the end of the novel we are made to revisit one of Tala's decisions. I  have a problem with novels for youngsters that portray children taking huge risks without questioning and thus making the reader think twice about copying the heroine.

I enjoyed the way the book wove Native American myth and legendary creatures into the story without going over the top into fantasy. We do not see the mythical giant bird, the culloo, nor do we see the little frog-like stone people, but we see a large feather, smell the pipe smoke. Tala prays to the spirits: Great Spirit of the Air, Great Spirit of Water, of Earth and of Sky, Please protect my father from any harm.  But at the end of the day Tala and Dason must rely on their wits and understanding of the forest to save their father, not on magic. 

The book is well plotted and paced, keeping the reader's interest to the end. Generally this is an excellent book and one I would have greatly enjoyed when I was a youngster. My one criticism is of the cover, which looks amateurish and doesn't communicate the lovely story inside.  

Wednesday 5 February 2014

The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena

When Iris unexpectedly inherits her grandmother's house in the country, she also inherits the painful memories that live there.

Iris gives herself a one-week stay at the old house, after which she'll make a decision: keep it, or sell it. The choice is not so simple, though, for her grandmother's cottage is an enchanting place where currant jam tastes of tears, sparks fly from fingertips, love's embrace makes apple trees blossom, and the darkest family secrets never stay buried.

As Iris moves in and out of the flicker between remembrance and forgetting, she chances upon a forgotten childhood friend who could become more.

The Taste of Apple Seeds is a bittersweet story of heartbreak and hope passed down through the generations.

Goodreads Description.

This is not the literary book that the description promises and one might have expected from the writer's biography as an academic who has written a book on Joyce's Ulysses. But if you lower your expectations The Taste of Apple Seeds has much to offer. It is a pleasant, gentle read, with some lovely poetic descriptions. 

I particularly liked the descriptions of Bertha, Iris's grandmother and her decline into senility: Her brain silted up like a riverbed. Then the riverbank began to crumble, until large chunks fell crashing into the water. The river lost its form and current, its natural character. In the end it didn't flow anymore but just sloshed in all directions.  The portrayal of Bertha and her family's reactions to her and her illness were painfully close to home for me. Of course this picks up the theme of remembrance and forgetting that runs through the book. 

The book is strong on the sensory nature of memory - the smell, taste and texture of apples, the sensation of old clothes on the skin and nose. But I felt that it turned away from confronting awkward memories. The memories climax with Iris recalling the (accidental?) death of Iris' cousin Rosemarie. But the climax was something of a disappointment. Likewise there is no great tension coming from the revelation that Iris' grandfather had been a Nazi. He had been sent to a denazification camp, where the inmates had been made to recall and confront the awful deeds of the Nazis, their own and those of others.  There are all sorts of interesting things going on here: about Germany's history, but also about this man who chose to remember the places of his childhood, a childhood that he had hated, in poetry. I wanted to know more. But it is left at that.

Instead the book often focuses on the routine of Iris' stay - what she is buying in the shop, what she is wearing and the possible love interest with a childhood friend. At times it verges on Chick Lit. It also verges on magic realism, but so mildly that I am not sure why. Iris' beautiful aunt born as lightening struck the house gives electric shocks to people she touches. Is that why Rosemarie has her accident? Apples fruit overnight as two lovers make love. Blackcurrants turn white with shock. I know that magic in magic realism doesn't need a reason, but I just wish Katherina Hagena had gone for it: gone for the magic realism and a deeper exploration of memory and motivation. She clearly is a very talented writer, I just wanted more.

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