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.