Wednesday 28 May 2014

Skellig by David Almond

When a move to a new house coincides with his baby sister's illness, Michael's world seems suddenly lonely and uncertain.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, he stumbles into the old, ramshackle garage of his new home, and finds something magical. A strange creature - part owl, part angel, a being who needs Michael's help if he is to survive. With his new friend Mina, Michael nourishes Skellig back to health, while his baby sister languishes in the hospital. 

But Skellig is far more than he at first appears, and as he helps Michael 
breathe life into his tiny sister, Michael's world changes for ever...
Amazon description

This book is generally seen as a children's or young adult's book, but it is a good example of the truth of Madeleine L'Engle's comment: If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.  

The central character, young Michael, is beautifully drawn. Sometimes child characters are either too mature for their age or too naive. In this book I really felt Michael's confusion and pain at his sister's illness and liked his childlike ability to accept Skellig. Michael's William Blake-quoting young friend, Mina, reminds me of the central character in L'Engle's wonderful Wrinkle in Time.

This is a wonderful book for adult and child alike. I loved it. There are elements in it that I am sure I would have missed as a child, but as an adult I appreciate. I loved the references to mythology - Daedalus and Persephone, and to Blake's visions of angels. The flight imagery extends to the birds which appear throughout the book - the blackbirds and tawny owls that Mina is studying. 

This book was published long before the current fashion for angels and is much more interesting. What is Skellig? Is he an angel? If he is, he is a very strange one - eating Chinese takeaways and dead bluebottles, suffering from arthritis and living in a shed. 

"What are you?" I whispered.
He shrugged again.
"Something," he said. "Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel." He laughed. "Something like that."

As we have observed elsewhere in this blog, a feature of magic realism is ambiguity and this book certainly has that. I am delighted to see this in a children's book. At the heart of the story is the question of who is helping who. What is the relationship between the baby's ill health and the apparently dying Skellig? Who is the angel? Skellig calls Mina and Michael his angels. 

David Almond's style is simple and poetic, which makes it at once easy to read and rich. It is a hard balance to achieve, but necessary given the age of the audience. If only more books had this discipline. I read the book in one sitting and I loved it. I regret that this book was not published when I was young. I would have loved thinking about Skellig and those questions. 
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard

Ben and Willie Harkissian are twin brothers (think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau) growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the eve of World War II. A baseball launched into the October sky sets in motion a series of events that transforms many lives. Ben leaves for the front and faces death—figuratively as well as literally. Left behind is Clare Bishop, who has been paralyzed from the waist down. But in exchange she receives some very special gifts. She can see the future, be at one with animals, and chat with Death. Willie Harkissian remains in Michigan as well, though his relationship with his brother will never be the same.

A love story interrupted by war, this is also a novel about discovering the ordinary in the extraordinary and finding the miraculous in everyday life.
Goodreads description

Sometimes when I receive a review copy from a publisher, I start reading with enthusiasm and after a while my heart sinks at the thought of writing a review..And sometimes the book is an absolute joy and makes reviewing those other books worthwhile. This is such a book and I will be recommending it to friends and family. 

This is magic realism at its best. A deceptively simple fable that works on all sorts of levels, it is a love story and a metaphysical novel. Nancy Willard is a wonderful craftswoman, weaving references into the story without allowing them to overwhelm the tale.

Willard is a poet and it shows.,She writes some beautiful prose, which is nevertheless simple and unflowery. Sometimes I think poets are particularly in tune with magic realism - understanding metaphor and the concept of "things invisible to see". The title is, by the way, a quote from John Donne's poem Go and Catch a Falling Star.

On one level you have the well-drawn world of a small American town in the late 1930s and the two families at the centre of the story and on another you have the universal. The book opens: In Paradise, on the banks of the River of Time, the Lord of the Universe is playing ball with His archangels. Then it moves to the smallest of human worlds: In the damp night of the womb, when millions of chromosomes are gearing up for the game of life, the soul of Willie says to the soul of Ben, 'Listen, you can be firstborn and get out of this cave first if you'll give me everything else. Brains, charm, and good looks.'  The story then moves into the material world of the boys' parents: Their mother worked at the front desk of Goldberg's Cleaners and Tailors.

Despite this movement between worlds, the story arc works so well that I found it impossible to put the book down, finishing it in the early hours of the morning. I was genuinely interested in the love story between Ben and Clare, whether Ben will survive the Second World War and whether Clare would overcome her paralysis. For this book is about life and death as a game, but a very serious one. It culminates in a scene in which elderly mothers are playing baseball for the lives of their sons against a team chosen by Death. The referee is a childhood friend of Ben's who has already died in the War. I will not tell you the game's outcome.  

One of the things I loved about this book was that Nancy Willard does not hold back in presenting the world as she sees it. There is no writer's irony to hide behind, no fancy tricks, and some people will not like the book as a result. I loved it.

I am very grateful for the publishers Open Road Media for giving me my copy in return for a fair review. 

Wednesday 14 May 2014

The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferre

Finalist for the National Book Award: A breathtaking saga from Puerto Rico’s greatest literary voice

This riveting, multigenerational epic tells the story of two families and the history of Puerto Rico through the eyes of Isabel Monfort and her husband, Quintín Mendizabal. Isabel attempts to immortalize their now-united families—and, by extension, their homeland—in a book. The tale that unfolds in her writing has layers upon layers, exploring the nature of love, marriage, family, and Puerto Rico itself.

Weaving the intimate with the expansive on a teeming stage, Ferré crafts a revealing self-portrait of a man and a woman, two fiercely independent people searching for meaning and identity. As Isabel declares: “Nothing is true, nothing is false, everything is the color of the glass you’re looking through.”

A book about freeing oneself from societal and cultural constraints, The House on the Lagoon also grapples with bigger issues of life, death, poverty, and racism. Mythological in its breadth and scope, this is a masterwork from an extraordinary storyteller. 

Publishers description

This book will remind magic realist fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits. Not because of the prevalence of magic realism, but because of the themes. As in
One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book starts with the creation of a place, in this case a house (The House on the Lagoon), and follows the story of that house through its three incarnations and several generations of inhabitants. As in The House of the Spirits we follow three generations of a Hispanic well-to-do family through periods of political upheaval, with the third generation taking a radical political stance against a conservative father. 

Despite these similarities The House on the Lagoon approaches the subject matter from a very different angle.  It is worth repeating what the narrator Isabel says to her husband Quintin: Nothing is true, nothing is false, everything is the color of the glass you’re looking through. That is the key to this book. The book is about a "novel", which Isabel is writing, which recounts the story of her marriage and the history of their two families. The House on the Lagoon is mainly made up of sections of that "novel" interspersed by short sections from Quintin's perspective. The sections by Isabel are written in the first person, Quintin's in the third, so the reader tends to have more sympathy with Isabel's account. Quintin claims to be a historian and is shocked and threatened as he reads more and more of Isabel's account, which he regards as full of falsehoods.  As a reader I didn't feel I ever really got to the "truth" of the story. But that surely is the point. 

And what about the magic realism? As you might expect given the ambiguity of the novel, one can't really be sure of the magic in the book. It is possible to read everything as realistic. Certainly the central characters don't do anything magical. But there is magic around the edges, just out of focus so to speak. It is the magic of the black servants and their beliefs. In particular it is in the character of the servant Petra, who controls the other servants (they are all related to her) and who Quintin regards as manipulating Isabel and other family members: Petra had entrenched herself in the cellar like a monstrous spider, and from there spun a web of malicious rumor which eventually enveloped the whole family. Petra uses traditional medicines and venerates the old gods and both Isabel and Quintin believe that she has some witch-like powers, but they are white outsiders and as we are seeing the story through their eyes we don't get close to Petra's magic. 

This book is skillfully written, winding the two strands of narration, and presenting not just a story of a family but also the story of Puerto Rico.  At times I found the style a bit dry, particularly at the beginning, as the writer tells rather than shows the historical setting. But as the book progressed, particularly as we moved away from the story of Quintin's and Isabel's parents to that of the couple themselves, I found myself more and more involved. 

I recommend this fascinating book, which leaves you thinking.

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

Wednesday 7 May 2014

The Unreal and the Real Vol 1 Where on Earth by Ursula le Guin

I probably should start this review by saying that Ursula le Guin is a hero of mine. I came to her writing embarrassingly late, having managed to miss Earthsea in my youth. I have to thank my son for introducing me to her work. He picked a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea that was lying unread on my bookshelf and, liking the 1970s style cover illustration, decided to read it to pass the time during his university vacation. When he reappeared from his room, he said, “Mum, you should read this. You will love it.” I did read it and I did love it.

What I love about Le Guin is that she doesn't shy away from serious issues in her work. There is a realism about politics and society in her most fantastical writings. The actions and decisions of her characters have consequences. Her writing cannot and should not be put into categories. To be sure she gets slotted into science fiction and fantasy more often than not, but she is above all a wonderful writer with huge literary merit. To my mind she is simply one of the best writers around and her books on writing are also some of the best you can buy.

This book is one of two collections of her short stories selected by the writer herself. It contains stories set on Earth or sort of set on Earth - the selection of Orsinian Tales that opens it are set in a fictional Eastern European country. The second volume explores other worlds.

I have been honoured that on a number of occasions reviewers have compared my work with that of Ursula Le Guin, especially to her Orsinian stories. I am immensely flattered by the comparison. It was on reading Le Guin that I realized that it was possible to create a “real” fantasy world. The collection opens with an introduction by the writer in which she describes Orsinia as the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction and the limitless realms of the imagination. In other words the way of magic realism. I identified with Orsinia immediately. The latest Orsinian tale is featured in this book. Written in 1990, it is about the point at which communism fell in Orsinia. Its title, “Unlocking the Air”, refers to protesters waving their keys in the air to indicate it is time for their oppressors to hand over the keys. As a part-time inhabitant of the Czech Republic, I know the power of that very real image.

The collection includes realist tales and magic realist ones (and some which might even lie in between). I could say that I particularly enjoyed Ether, Or a tale set in a town that keeps moving locations, the well-known Buffalo Girls, Unlocking the Air, The Diary of the Rose, Gwilan's Harp and May's Lion. But to say this is in a way to belittle this collection, which has been put together with great care and which is far more than the some of its parts.