Wednesday 27 August 2014

Among Others by Jo Walton

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…

From Goodreads description

This book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (2012) and the Nebula Award for Best Novel (2011) and was shortlisted for several more. It isn't exactly surprising that the book was so popular with the speculative fiction fans, as it is in many ways a homage to science fiction and fantasy writing. The central character is a 15-year old girl with a precocious appetite for books in the genre. 

The story is told through entries in her journal, which together with recording incidents in her life also records her thoughts on books. To Mori books are more important than people: I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day. As a result Among Others does not have the strong plot line that you might expect from a fantasy novel. The description above is in many ways misleading. Much of the "action" in the novel is about life in a second-tier boarding school, Mori's interest in a young man at the library Sci-Fi book club, and Mori's relations with her extended family. 

Jo Walton does an excellent job of showing both Mori's intelligence and her inexperience. Mori is at times confident, especially when pronouncing on books, and at others insecure. This is a girl who bases a lot of her interactions with others on what she has read: there's no sex, hardly any love stuff at all, in Middle Earth, which always made me think, yes, the world would be better off without it. 

Without the fairies this would be a realist book. And maybe even with fairies it's realist. We are seeing the story through Mori's eyes and words. How reliable a narrator is she? Is there really magic? She says: You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. And she goes on to say of magic: That's because it doesn't happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That's what it is.  Rather than dismiss the magic, she dismisses the alternative answer. So when people are friendly towards her, she worries that that is because in her loneliness she asked the magic to find her like-minded people. 

The fairies that Mori sees are not like the ones of most stories - true, some are beautiful Tolkien elf-like creatures, but others are more organic, woven from trees and roots. They talk to Mori, but their talk needs Mori to interpret, which of course she does in faux Tolkien elvish. Their answers are usually cryptic and also require interpretation. They are creatures of wasteland, lost remnants of the ancient fae surviving (sometimes literally) between the cracks in pavements. 

Mori reveals very little of the "battle" with her mother that saw her twin killed and herself crippled. She regards her mother as a mad witch, who aspires to be the witch queen. But from what we see in Mori's journal (with the exception of the final section) her mother could just be mad. And is Mori mad also, a disturbed highly intelligent girl? 

In the end I came to the conclusion that Mori was not mad and the magic was real. In the last section of the book the world definitely tilts towards the magical. Mori takes another character to meet the fairies and he appears to do so. This is quickly followed by a confrontation between Mori and her mother. This section was closer to what one would expect from a fantasy novel. It is interesting to note that although Mori reads science fiction she experiences fantasy. 

I found the ending somewhat disappointing, but that is a relatively minor issue. This is a book about a girl with whom I could identify and many of you will too - the book-reading teenager who slowly finds her karass (a Vonnegut word meaning "a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident"). Superficially there are parallels with Harry Potter - she claims to have saved the world from her mother. But the ambiguity in the portrayal of magic and the predominantly realistic content make it more than that. Is it magic realism rather than fantasy? That depends on your definition. 

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie

Martha Baillie’s hypnotic novel follows Heinrich Schlögel from Germany to Canada, where he sets out on a two-week hike into the isolated interior of Baffin Island. His journey quickly becomes surreal; he experiences strange encounters and inexplicable visions as shards of Arctic history emerge from the shifting landscape. When he returns from his hike, he discovers that, though he has not aged, thirty years have passed. Narrated by an unnamed archivist who is attempting to piece together the truth of Heinrich’s life, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel dances between reality and dream, asking us to consider not only our role in imagining the future into existence but also the consequences of our past choices.
Amazon Description

I received this book as a e-book ARC (advance review copy) from the publisher in return for a fair revew. I now find myself in a difficult position. It is sometimes hard to review an e-book ARC, because the formatting makes the book hard to read. That is the case here. 

This is a piece of literary fiction in which the biography of the missing Heinrich Schlogel is told by an unnamed archivist  obsessed with her subject. The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Heinrich's journals, letters, natural history books, and skype conversations, as well as footnotes from the archivist about the above. I found myself struggling to work out what was happening and who was speaking. Was this due to a problem in the book, a problem with my capacity for attention or the problem with the ARC e-book formatting? 

My confusion stopped once Heinrich got to Baffin Island, my attention was gripped and I enjoyed the story. I loved the descriptions of the nature of that remote place and Heinrich's response to it. It reminded me of one of my favourite books, The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding, which is also about a man alone in the northern wilderness and his response to it. I loved the way reality gently and subtly shifted into a dream and back again, so that you soon did not know which was which. 

The theme of Europeans going into the wilderness and experiencing the mystical other is a not uncommon one in literature. But what is unusual is that when Heinrich returns he finds that thirty years have past in the two weeks he has been in the wilderness. Again the book operates on two levels. There is the "realistic" portrayal of the issues a modern Rip Van Winkle would face, for example out-of-date banknotes and a passport that is unusable. Then there is the "magic" which is flowing under Heinrich's new life, like the water of a glacier. 

Despite my problems with the medium with which I received this novel, I found Baillie's use of additional material interesting. Then I found her online version of the novel: The Schlogel Archive - a novel redistributed at The book has been divided into short sections and written on specially chosen postcards. Click on any postcard that appeals to you and you will also hear the section being narrated. When the text is read and/or heard like that the poetic nature of the book becomes apparent. Any suggestion of traditional story structure is abandoned and we are closer to the mystical world that Schlogel discovers. It is absolutely fascinating.

But I am here to review the novel that is being distributed by more conventional means and will mostly be read in a linear fashion.  I found the narrator at times somewhat annoying and distracting. I wanted either to know more about her and what makes her fixate on Schlogel or have fewer of her intrusions into the story. Ironically I also found the chronological account of Schlogel's life prior to his adventure to be a problem, in that the young Schlogel's personality is not a particularly interesting one. In order for this book to really work I think the reader must also want to search for Heinrich Schlogel. The narrator almost invites us to search: Were someone else to delve into my archive, they might tell Heinrich's story differently than I do, what they'd want from Heinrich would be different.
Maybe my problem was just that I wanted something different. I probably would have told it differently too. And I rather think that is exactly what the author wants.

The book will be published on 9th September 2014. I recommend getting the print edition of the book. 

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Luano's Luckiest Day by Chaunce Stanton

When two deadly spiders mysteriously appear in young Luano's room, the boy makes a dangerous decision to believe their promise - the promise of his mother's return. Luano's Luckiest Day is set in an isolated desert town, full of colorful characters. Luano lives with his uncle in their small grocery store. He is a normal nine-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to be reunited with the woman who abandoned him soon after he was born. The fulfillment of Luano's deepest wish takes him on a life-and-death journey that promises readers plenty of action and imagination, sadness and laughter. It is suitable for adults and middle-grade readers.
Goodreads Description

I first encountered this book through last year's Magic Realism Bloghop and it has been sitting on my to-read shelf ever since. So my apologies to Chaunce Stanton for taking so long to review his book.

The writer says that he got the idea for this book from a dream he had, in which he saw a boy searching for his mother on a white tiger. Luano's real world does not feature a white tiger, but the world of his imagination and of his dreams does.  When Luano is asked by his teacher to write about his luckiest day he wrote about how finding his mother would be his luckiest day, and how it would be better to wear a long cape and to ride a giant white tiger to look for her.  But Luano's luckiest day did not begin with white tigers but with spiders. 

Luano believes that the two spiders that arrive in his bedroom are portents of his mother's return and so allows and encourages them to stay. Soon they have festooned the bedroom with webs and are feeding off the boy as he sleeps. Clearly this is not a book for arachnophobes.  But the spiders are what tilt the book into magic realism. The poison in Luano's veins transforms his view of the world so that his dream world and his waking life merge. 

Whilst much of the book is seen from Luano's point of view, the writer at times presents the point of view of the key adults - mostly but not exclusively those of Luano's uncle, his mother and the new man in town, Conejo. At the beginning of the book we are very much with Luano as the writer draws a very clear picture of Luano's world. Luano is restricted physically to a small town in an unnamed desert, but he escapes using his imagination. So much did I enjoy being in Luano's head that the POV shifts away from Luano sometimes jarred as did some of the factual description which almost felt to be unnecessary telling rather than showing. But the story is built on the difference between adult reality and a child's dreams and hopes and therefore maybe the jarring was necessary. The ending (which I will not spoil) was also somewhat disquieting. How could it not be? This is a coming-of-age story and they don't end neatly.

Someone (I can't remember who) said that all children are magic realists in a world of adults. Chaunce Stanton shows that beautifully in this book.

Friday 8 August 2014

Labelling Magic Realism - The Discussion Continues

This discussion started with Leigh Podgorski's post and contribution to the bloghop and was followed up by a response from Cadell Blackstock.

Cadell picked up on the following comment in Leigh's post:
In today’s literary marketplace it seems at times that it is all about the label—though in truth, Magic Realism does not seem to entice anyone to pounce upon the BUY NOW button.”

This is something that, as a writer of magic realism and owner of a blog about it, I think about a lot. I think about as I read a book of magic realism each week. I have said before that I don't think magic realism is category or a genre or even a label. That is why we writers have so much trouble when we try to choose a category, subcategory or genre for our books in Amazon Store or wherever. I would argue that magic realism is an approach to the portrayal of a fictional world and even to looking at the real world. It is not a genre governed by rules.

Inspired by the two blogposts I decided I would examine whether Leigh is right in her assertion. To get a feel for how readers looked at magic realist books, I looked up the books I have reviewed over the last year on Goodreads and in particular looked at how people tagged the books.  

I looked at what tag got the most votes and where magic realism stood in the tags if at all. The reason for this is that 
a) Goodreads tags are chosen by the readers and are not restricted by arbitrary categories,
b)  the tags are how people shelve their books on Goodreads, which suggests that if they use the magic realism tag it probably means something to them,
c) now that Goodreads is owned by Amazon it is likely that it will start impacting on how books are found on Amazon.

I only feature here those books which had over a thousand star ratings, as this ensured that the number of tags were sufficient to get a meaningful result. I excluded a few books which I had reviewed but had doubts about whether they were magic realist. 

I intend, when I have time, to examine all the books on the blog that meet the criteria, which will give a more accurate picture. But here are the results with top tags in order of popularity for those I have examined so far:

The Master and Margarita - Classics (1581) Culture Russia (847) Fantasy (589) Literature Russian (423) Literature (342) Magic Realism (295)
Grass Dancer - Historical Fiction (15 ), Magic Realism (10) Fantasy (8) Literature (7) Literature American (4)
Magic for Beginners - Short Stories (358) Fantasy (347) Magic Realism (48) Urban Fantasy (26) Anthologies (23)
So Far From God - Magic Realism (23) Feminist (7) Contemporary (7) Literature (7) Novels (4)
St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves - Short Stories (537) Fantasy (114), Magic Realism (81) Book Club (32) Adult (22)
Skellig - Fantasy (325) Young Adult (324) Children's (102) Children's Middle Grade (47 Magic Realism (38)
Museum of Extraordinary Things - Historical Fiction (301) Book Club (73), Fantasy (62) Magic Realism (35) Adult (34)
The House at the End of Hope Street - Fantasy (40) Magic Realism (40) Book Club (11) Adult (11) Adult Fiction (11)
Big Fish - Fantasy (148) Magic Realism (46) Contemporary (29) Adult (22) Humour (21)
Burning Angel - Mystery (75) Mystery Crime (25), Thriller (14) Mystery Thriller (12) Suspense (4)
The Taste of Apple Seeds - Contempory (21 ) German Literature (20 ) Roman (5), Romance (5) Women's Fiction (4) 
The Kingdom of This World - Historical Fiction (33) Magic Realism (30) Spanish Literature (14) Literature (14) Latin American Literature (13)
I Heard an Owl Call My Name - Young Adult (35) Classics (31) Historic (25) Religion (13) Canada (12)
The Woman in the Dunes - Cultural Japan (185) Japanese Literature (149) Literature (60) Classic (57) Novel (38) Magic Realism (32)
The People of Paper - Magic Realism (26) Novel (19) Fantasy (16) Book Club (15) Contemporary (11)
Death at Intervals - Fantasy (80) Literature (55) Magic Realism (46) Novel (40) Cultural Portugal (36)

I was surprised by the results - magic realism features prominently as a tag. Some of the books had dozens of different tags and yet magic realism is often in the top 5 tags. The exceptions are three books where the magic realism is peripheral.

Now this result might be partly because I use the Goodreads Magic Realism lists to identify books, but the lists are generated by Goodreads members voting for their favourites, not by the tagging system. Nevertheless there are lots of Goodreads members with a magic realism bookshelf. I have not had time to look deeper into this or to consider the results fully, but it does appear that Leigh was perhaps too pessimistic about magic realism as a label.

Looking at the other tags most used for the 16 books on my list, 10 were also tagged fantasy, 7 were tagged literature, 4 historic fiction. 4 were tagged contemporary. Of the 13 books which were tagged magic realism, 10 were tagged fantasy, 6 literature, and 3 historic fiction.

So how does this information impact on how an author of magic realism might approach categorizing his/her work? I was surprised that the tag "literary fiction" didn't feature in the top tags even though it is relevant to many of the books listed and there are 184,515 books with that tag on Goodreads and only 2322 with "magic realism".  It would seem that the best choice of category for magic realism as fantasy, indeed even where the highest number of tags were for historical,  the readers were still tagging the books as fantasy.

But how should writers of magic realism use the labels?  Amazon and other online vendors don't offer magic realism as a category, so you must choose an appropriate Amazon category. On Amazon self-published authors can choose two categories for their kindle books. Even if your first choice is historic fiction or literary fiction, it would seem you should probably choose fantasy as your second. But it is probably worth using the label "magic realism" somewhere. You could the words "magic realism" or "magic realist" in your description, which a) means Amazon picks up that the book is magic realism and should list it when someone searches for the term and b) it explains your approach to fantasy or historic fiction etc thus ensuring that those readers who don't want magic realism don't buy the book.  


Thursday 7 August 2014

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov's devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin's regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts-one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow-the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks & a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate & Yeshua, & the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) & his retinue-including the vodka-drinking, black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; & a writer known only as The Master, & his passionate companion, Margarita, exist in a world that blends fantasy & chilling realism, an artful collage of grostesqueries, dark comedy & timeless ethical questions.
From Goodreads description

I have been looking forward to reviewing this book ever since I started this blog. It is quite simply my favourite book (magic realist or other) of all time. If One Hundred Years of Solitude opened my eyes to magic realism, then this book opened my heart and mind. 
And yet here I sit, with my hands paused above the keyboard, trying to find an approach to this review. It is simply impossible to do the book justice in a short blog post. There are so many aspects to it that merit discussion, preferably long discussions in front of an open fire with a glass in one's hand. I have read this book at least three times and each time I see and understand new things.  It is as if the book keeps changing, like the demonic characters in the book - Woland is described as having a limp in the right leg, the left leg, and no limp at all. He is short and then he is tall.  
Over the past two years I have often wondered how The Master and Margarita fits in with the various definitions of magic realism. At times I questioned whether it might better be described as surrealist satire, even fantasy - indeed it is sometimes described as such. If it is magic realism then why aren't some fantasies such as Neil Gaiman's American Gods?  Isn't there too much magic (including conventional fantasy characters, such as witches on broom sticks) and not enough realism? But as I have read Master and Margarita again, I have felt more at ease with its inclusion in the magic realist canon.

The context in which this book was written is crucial to understanding it. The book was so dangerous that (like the Master) Bulgakov burnt an early version of it. In Stalinist Russia it was necessary to write a book that was full of smoke and mirrors and yet it also needed to ring true.  In a totalitarian regime magic realism is a necessity.  

At the same time life in a totalitarian state can be surreal. If the great leader says something is black then it is black, even if it is white. Senior leaders disappear from state photographs and it is as if they didn't exist. History is rewritten. This is the world that Bulgakov is satirizing. It is a world that claims to be rational and realist and yet refuses to acknowledge what is happening in front of its eyes.  Only Margarita and the Master accept the fact that Woland is Satan and what is really happening and only they are unscathed by encountering black magic. All the other inhabitants of Moscow who appear in the novel are taught a lesson by Woland and his acolytes. 

The book opens with a quotation from Goethe's great drama Faust:

"Say at last - who art thou?"
"That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good." 

It seems to me that this quotation is crucial to the understanding of the book.  The question is Faust's and the answer that the demon Mephistopheles. Woland and his crew may be diabolical but in the grotesque carnivalesque world of this wonderful novel everything is turned on its head and black can truly be whiteSome Christians will find this book hard to stomach with its portrayal of the Devil as a necessary good/evil. But as Woland says: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. I have noted elsewhere in this blog that two features of magic realism are ambiguity and duality. Both are at the heart of this book. 

The world of Stalin's Moscow is set alongside that of Pilate's Jerusalem. In both there is authoritarian rule, secret police, people afraid of speaking the truth about power (with the exception of Yeshua/Jesus), and people betraying others for money. What binds these two strands together is the Master's novel about Pilate. The most famous line in The Master and Margarita is probably manuscripts do not burn.  And yet the Master burns his manuscript and Woland burns it again at the end of the novel. This is a book about a book and about writing. Clearly there is a reference here to Bulgakov's own manuscripts: the one he burnt and the final one that was published after his death. It is a statement of how the book continues to exist within the writer and his readers. And it is also a book within a book. The Master's novel is not complete and must be finished to provide the resolution of Bulgakov's book. I have always found the conclusion of The Master and Margarita to be particularly haunting and at the same time almost uniquely satisfying.  


Tuesday 5 August 2014

Free Magic Realism Short Stories and Books

It's that time of year again. Time for the second Magic Realism Bloghop and this blog's second birthday.  To start the bloghop here is my birthday present to you - a load of free magic realism.

Over the last year I have been gathering together links to places where you can read online or download magic realism. Most of the pieces are short stories, but there are a few full-length books in here. Some are samples from ebook collections of short stories, including four from the great Gabo himself (thank you Harper Collins).

Marcel Ayme - The Man Who Walked Through Walls - online and downloadable pdf
Aimee Bender - Hotel Rot - online
Aimee Bender - Bull - online
Aimee Bender - The Doctor and the Rabbi -online
Aimee Bender - The Rememberer - online
Kevin Brockmeier - Ceiling - online
Italo Calvino - The Distance of the Moon - pdf 
Italo Calvino - The Daughters of the Moon - online
Miguel de Cervantes - Don Quizote - full book download in various formats
Cory Doctorow - Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town full book download
Louise Erdrich - Four Short Stories (The Red Convertable, Scales, The World's Greatest Fisherman and Saint Marie) - online
Lousie Erdrich - The Shawl - online
Jeffrey Ford - Two Short Stories  (Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Down Atsion Road) - online 
Nikolai Gogol - The Nose -online
Franz Kafka - Metamorphosis - downloadable in various formats
Elizabeth Hand - Hungerford Bridge - online 
Kelly Link - Stranger Things Can Happen (complete short story collection) - pdf
Kelly Link - Some Zombie Contingency Plans - online
Kelly Link - The Faery Handbag - online
Kelly Link -  The Hortlak - online 
Kelly Link - Magic for Beginners - online
Charles de Lint - Make a Joyful Noise - online
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Four Short Stories (The Third Resignation, The Other Side of Death, Eva Is Inside Her Cat, Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers,) - view online
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - The Autumn of the Patriarch - online
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Death Constant Beyond Love  - pdf 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World - online
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings - online
Steven Millhauser - Cathay - online
Erin Morgenstern - Flax Golden Tales - online
Haruki Murakami - Samsa in Love - online
Nnedi Okorafor - Biafra - online 
Nnedi Okorafor - Asunder - online
Nnedi Okorafor - Hello Moto - online
Bruce Holland Rogers - Don Ysidro - online 
Benjamin Rosenbaum - The Ant King and Other Stories full book - pdf
Salman Rushdie - The Shelter of the World - online
Karen Russell - The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis - online
Jose Saramag0 - Things - online
Ekaterina Sedia - Herding Vegetable Sheep - online
Ekaterina Sedia - Zombie Lenin - online
Ekaterina Sedia - Manuel and the Magic Fox - online
Muriel Spark - The Seraph and the Zambesi - short story online
Katherine Vaz - Journey of the Eyeball - online
Oscar Wilde - Picture of Dorian Gray - full book - download
Virgina Woolf - Orlando - full book - download  (available in countries where the public domain point is 70+ years)

I think all these pieces are available legally.

If you know of any other free (legal) pieces of magic realism, please leave links to them in the comments and I will add them to the list.