Wednesday 26 March 2014

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

When Alba Ashby, the youngest Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, suffers the Worst Event of Her Life, she finds herself at the door of 11 Hope Street. There, a beautiful older woman named Peggy invites Alba to stay on the house’s unusual conditions: she’ll have ninety-nine nights, and no more, to turn her life around. Once inside, Alba discovers that 11 Hope Street is no ordinary house. Past residents include Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie, who all stayed there at hopeless times in their lives and who still hang around—quite literally—in talking portraits on the walls. With their help Alba begins to piece her life back together and embarks on a journey that may save her life.

Filled with a colorful, unforgettable cast of literary figures, The House at the End of Hope Street is a wholly imaginative novel of feminine wisdom and second chances, with just the right dash of magic.

Goodreads description

I found this book to be an easy read - I read it in one evening. It has a feel-good story about a magical house and its residents and is almost fairytale-like. Indeed in the first paragraph the house is described thus: the house appears to be enchanted. As if Rapunzel lives in the tower and a hundred Sleeping Beauties lie in the beds. And throughout the first chapter there are references to many more fairytales, with Peggy, the house's octogenarian owner, a benevolent witch complete with ghost cat, Oscar.

I know that a lot of readers like to read this sort of book. The house was enchanting and enchanted. No surprise then that when Alba walks through the door away from the real world and its problems, suddenly she is surrounded by magic (at which she hardly bats an eye). Pictures on the wall talk to her, books rearrange themselves on shelves, notes of advice appear out of air. It is a veritable Hogwarts.  Outside the house, the world is an altogether colder, less charitable sort of place. One might say that it is the realism to the house's magic. But does it make this book magic realism? Or should the magic be within the real? 

Whatever the answer to that question, I did get into the story and yes I did care what happened to young Alba Ashley, Peggy, Greer and Carmen. I, like Alba, still love a fairytale. But (you could tell there was a but coming) it was like reading literary candy-floss. After I put the book down, I felt unsatisfied.

The author's plotting at times was predicable and at others managed to surprise me.  But when you read in the first chapter, This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that's ever happened? When you leave, you'll realize it was the very best thing of all, you sort of know what the ending will look like. Was it necessary to foreshadow it like that? But maybe that doesn't matter, many readers want and expect a happy ending.

So what are my conclusions: this is a great book if you want something undemanding, if you want a modern fairytale, if you want something to curl up with. I enjoyed it at that level. I just wanted more. I suppose I like my fairytales with the darkness left in. There are some sad elements in The House at the End of Hope Street. Abuse, physical and mental cruelty, loss of a child, all feature in the residents' pasts and I suppose I wanted those brought out more. Just as I wanted more made of the famous women whose portraits line the walls and advise the current residents. So much could have been done to bring out the "feminine wisdom" of the blurb.

I received this book from the publishers via Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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Monday 24 March 2014

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Charles Johnson

Interweaving the real and the surreal, Charles Johnson spins eight fantastic tales of transformations and metamorphoses. An Illinois farmer teaches a young slave everything he knows—yielding fatal consequences. A young boy growing to manhood as a country sorcerer’s apprentice learns the difference between power and strength. These stories capture human experiences in a new and startling light.
Goodreads Description

As readers of this blog will know I have a liking for short stories, indeed some of my favourite magic realist books are short story collections. The Sorcerer's Apprentice did not live up to my high expectations. For starters there is less magic realism in this collection than the blurb suggests, although there is sufficient to merit inclusion in this blog and my list of magic realist books.

To go through the stories in order:
The Education of Mingo
A disturbing Frankestein story about how a lonely elderly white farmer buys a young African slave and tries to educate him.

Exchange Value
A tale about the love of possessions. Two young thieves steal the belongings of a dead old hoarder and then something strange happens.

Menagerie, a Child's Fable 
An Animal Farm story about what happens in a pet shop when the owner disappears.

A middle-aged man's discovery of martial arts threatens his marriage.  An allegory about relationships and the self.

An aging black professor is threatened by an attractive female student and by the questions she raises about his life choices.

Moving Pictures
The weakest story in the book - a writer opts for lucrative script-writing over his art. 

Popper's Disease
A sci-fi philosophical piece - a middle-aged black doctor is asked to heal an alien. 

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
There was a time, long ago, when many sorcerers lived in South Carolina, men not long from slavery who remembered the white magic of the Ekpe Cults and Cameroons...
This is a story of an apprentice sorcerer who tries too hard against the advice of his mentor.

There are some obvious themes here: mid-life crisis and race, both of which I am interested in. But the stories did not engage me. This was partly due to the author's tendency towards philosophizing; and there was also something about the author's language that jarred. But these are personal bugbears and other people will not share them. 

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

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto

Coming back from the dead, the narrator turns into a night spirit and inhabits the head of a Mozambican police inspector who is investigating a surreal murder. But could the true victim be traditional African beliefs and a way of life ravaged first by Portuguese colonialism, then by civil war, and finally by Western materialism? Using both fable and allegory, Mia Couto creates a mysterious and surreal epic that brilliantly captures the spirit of post-independence Africa.

Why is it that you go for ages without a magic realist detective story and then two come along within a month? But Under the Frangipani is very different from Burning Angel. Couto plays with the detective story genre in this book, stretching it and distorting it. For starters the inspector has people queuing up to admit to murdering the oppressive Excellency Vatsome, but then many of the confessions include magic - such as a woman who turns to water at night and a man who will die if he cries - so can they be believed?

Then there is who or what is murdered? As one of the elderly suspects says, the crime that's been committed here isn't the one you're trying to solve.

There is Vatsome's death of course. But there is also the death of the Ermelindo Mucanga, the dead narrator who takes up residence in a corner of the inspector's mind. As the detective uncovers something of the truth about Vatsome's murder, so Mucanga begins to remember how he too was murdered. And lastly there is the detective's death. We know that he is due to be murdered at the end of the book and so we are looking for the future murderer.

But as the nurse Marta points out what is being murdered is the old Mozambique, the Mozambique of magic, family and humanity. For this book is also an examination of the corruption of individuals, such as Vatsome, and of black society following the revolution. Vatsome fought against the white Portuguese colonists, but he is corrupted by the war. Again Marta puts her finger on the truth when she says: The culprit you seek, my dear Izidine, isn’t a person. It’s war. The war’s to blame for everything. The war killed Vatsome… War creates another cycle of time. Our lives are no longer measured by years or seasons. Or by harvests, famine or floods. War establishes the cycle of flood… War swallows up the dead and devours its survivors. 

Although he is black the young detective is a city dweller and European trained. He is naive in this world, where traditional beliefs mix with the old people's mockery of him. He is naive too about what is to become of him - not analyzing the motives of his superiors in sending him there. 

As has been noted so many times on this blog, magic realism often comes from two cultures rubbing up against each other. In a recent review in the Paris Review the author says: For an African writer it would be very difficult to think of realism and magic as two pillars of the same concept, because the way we feel and think results from the permanent crossing of those frontiers. This very African magic realist novel reminds me most of Pedro Paramo. Both are short, both have a dream-like and poetic quality. I am not sure that it works as well as Pedro Paramo, because I wanted more substance in the plotting and because Pedro Paramo has to be one of the most impressive books I have ever read. Nevertheless Under the Frangipani is impressive.
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Thursday 13 March 2014

Finding Magic Realist Books

I am sometimes asked how I discover so many magic realist books. Magic realism is not a category in Amazon's listings and if you search for it you will get a load of children's fairy books and very few books that would qualify as magic realism. If you look up books that you know to be magic realism you will find them listed under a range of categories.

Obviously one way for you to find magic realist books is to follow this blog (see right). You can also look at the list of 195 books I have in my collection. I have a confession to make: that list is badly out of date as my collection has grown to about 300 now, but I haven't had the time to update the list on this blog.

There are other lists out there, the most obvious being the ones on Goodreads. In Goodreads you get lists of magic realist books which have been voted on by Goodreads members: there are two main lists. Favourite Magical Realist Novels has 654 books on it: As the books are ranked according to votes cast, the best place to start is therefore at the top of the list where the books have a lot of votes. Magical Realism has a more manageable 92: Of course these lists do rely on the members understanding what “magic realism” is, and when you look at them you will soon see that not everyone does!

Of course once you start buying magic realist books on Amazon, the Amazon recommendation system kicks in – “people who bought this also bought...” which can be a good way of finding similar books. It can also produce totally irrelevant results, so do check the description and use the look inside feature.

Both Goodreads and Shelfari have groups of magic realism fans, however they don't seem to be very active. I recommend joining the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group and not just because I am the administrator. There are lots of discussions on there with readers and writers of magic realism taking part. Some of the writers offer review copies to group members.

Browsing for magic realist books is hard in physical bookshops for the same reason. They can be shelved all over the place. I have created a list on my computer of “magic realism books I do not have”, which I have printed out and carry around with me just in case. But I've also got quite good at recognizing a magic realist book by its cover. I can't say exactly what distinguishes them, sometimes the title, sometimes the design. I have a pinterest page featuring the covers of the books I have reviewed, do have a look and maybe you can see what I am talking about.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Red Now and Laters by Marcus J Guillory

Meet Ti John, a young boy growing up in Houston in the 1980s, the decade of Reaganomics, disco music, and the candy of choice - red Now and Laters. Raised in a Black Creole family by a voodoo-practicing father and strict Catholic mother, he is blessed with a special gift: spiritual healing. On a regular basis, a deceased ancestor visits Ti John, announcing himself with the smell of smoke and serving as a spiritual guide.

But the community Ti John belongs to isn't easy. It turned from white and middle class to black and poor after the oil bubble burst in the 1960s, and the flood of 1977 sealed its current fate as a ghetto. Ti John struggles to remain an ordinary kid, but even with a rodeo-star father he idolizes, an overprotective mother who forbids him to play with the neighborhood "hoodlums," and the help of supernatural guides, nothing can shield Ti John from the rough side of inner-city life. He witnesses violence and death, gets his heart broken by girls, feels the anger of his own embittered father, struggles to live up to his mother's middle-class aspirations - all while trying to become the man he's expected to be. Will Ti John fall prey to the bad side of life - or will he recognize and hold on to the good?

Goodreads description 

My travels through magic realism have taken me to many parts of the world and to cultures and beliefs alien to my own. In the case of Red Now and Laters I have been introduced to the world of Creole culture, to voodoo traiteurs (traditional healers) and to the black rodeo circuit stars. The book moves in time from the post Civil War Louisina of the 1870s via the 1940s to the ghettos of 1980's Houston. Although the book centres on young Ti John and his need to balance the contrary demands of his parents and find his own path to adulthood, it also presents the stories of John Frenchy, Ti John's father, and of their ancestor the Burning Wood Man, Nonc Sonnier. This gives the book huge depth and it is in the tradition of a number of magic realist books that follow several generations of a family and show the practice of magic being handed down. I, who knew nothing of Louisiana Creole history, found this aspect of the book fascinating.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have interest in traditional healing and that I have reviewed several books that are about the subject, such as Bless Me Ultima and The Hummingbird's Daughter. Ti John has inherited his father's and his ancestor's gift for healing and must reconcile that with his Catholic education and the streetwise lives of his friends. In fact, as is so often the way with magic realism, the story is very much about reconciling different, apparently clashing, cultures. Such a clash can be destructive and Ti John comes close to throwing away his chances, just as his father has done before him.  Or it can be for the good. Will Ti John win through?
I enjoyed this book, even though at times I needed an interpreter - luckily some of the creole phrases are translated as footnotes, but other elements, such as some of the ghetto slang, also needed explaining. For my non-American readers "Now and Laters" are a type of sweet, and function as a way of buying favours in Ti John's life. But don't let the language put you off.  It's worth it.

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

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Wednesday 5 March 2014

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

He could outrun anybody, and he never missed a day of school. He saved lives, tamed giants. Animals loved him. People loved him. Women loved him (and he loved them back). And he knew more jokes than any man alive.

Now, as he lies dying, Edward Bloom can't seem to stop telling jokes -or the tall tales that have made him, in his son's eyes, an extraordinary man. Big Fish is the story of this man's life, told as a series of legends and myths inspired by the few facts his son, William, knows. Through these tales -hilarious and wrenching, tender and outrageous- William begins to understand his elusive father's great feats, and his great failings.

Goodreads description

What a fascinating book! I found myself thinking about it for days after I had finished reading it and have delayed writing this review as a result. Big Fish works on all sorts of levels. It is deceptively simple: the story of a young man facing his father's impending death and realizing that he does not really know him from the personal mythology that his father has woven about himself. The book regularly references classical myths: for example Hercules' labours and Ovid's fish metamorphosis . Edward is in some ways trying to make himself larger than life, even immortal with his tales.

William wants to understand whether his father believes in heaven and immortality.  When he asks, Edward replies with a joke in which Jesus meets an old carpenter at the Pearly Gates, who tells him that the only remarkable thing about him is his son: "He went through a most unusual birth and later a great transformation. He also became quite well known throughout the world and is still loved by many today."  Jesus hugs the man saying "Father, Father!" to which the old man replies "Pinocchio?" This joke is a wonderful example of Wallace's layering of images and symbolsThere is clearly a parallel drawn between the three father/son relationships and the son mistaking the father. But it is also a double sleight of hand:  the joke is Edward's way of hiding from his son, but it also reveals how he does it - by distracting the hearer from the truth: the old man is not god, just as Edward is not.  

It is these layers that mean that this is not some sort of Walter Mitty or Baron Munchhausen story. The book is about reality and a terrible reality at that. It is about what makes a man and what makes him great. Throughout his life Edward is trying to be a "big fish", a great man. To do that he leaves behind his home and his family and roams the world, seeking acclaim and fortune, the American Dream. As he is dying he dreams that his garden fills with people who admire him, trampling on the flowers and overwhelming his wife and son. But at the end he needs his son to affirm his greatness. William's response is that a great man is one loved by his son.

I could spend hours discussing the many images and stories in this novel and still not do them justice. I was reading on a forum discussion recently that "magic realism is like living in a poem" and this book certainly falls within that definition and just as poetry has perhaps a more profound reality than many a piece of realistic fiction, so the same is true of Big Fish. The book ends with a final flourish of magic realism, which is unexpected. But then earlier William had said that the ending is always a surprise.  I should have known to expect the unexpected.