Saturday 26 December 2015

UnCommon Bodies by various

Step right up to the modern freakshow — We have mermaids, monsters, and more. You won't be disappointed, but you may not get out alive.

UnCommon Bodies presents a collection of 20 beautifully irreverent stories which blend the surreal and the mundane. Together, the authors explore the lives of the odd, the unbelievable, and the impossible. Imagine a world where magic exists, where the physical form has the power to heal or repulse, where a deal with the devil means losing so much more than your soul.

Goodreads Description 

One of publishing's necessary evils is the requirement to allot categories to books. Categories are necessary to help buyers find your book, but create a nightmare for authors and publishers of books which aren't obviously in a single genre. This issue is something magic-realist writers complain about constantly. And when it comes to short story collections the problem is well nigh impossible to solve. This is very much the case with UnCommon Bodies. Although the collection has been riding high in Amazon's magic-realism category, many of the stories are not magic realism to my thinking. I suppose if pressed I might describe the collection as slipstream, but then would immediately add provisos. What the stories have in common is that their subjects have something unusual about their bodies - sometimes natural (scars, Siamese twins), sometimes magical, fantastical or scientifically modified.

You get a lot in this collection - not only 20 stories but sci-fi, LGBT, erotica, horror, poetry, psychological fiction and yes magic realism. Some stories of course belong to several genres at once. 

With so many stories to choose from I will focus on my favourites. 

In Her Image by Vasil Tuchkov. 
Mythic fiction/magic realism. An English PhD student researching an elusive mythical woman meets with a crippled Italian painter who claims to have caught the likeness of the woman at great cost. An eerie tale.
UnTamed by Laxmi Hariharan.
An Indian take on the werewolf story, complete with mythic and spiritual references.
From the Inside by Daniel Arthur Smith.
Set in my beloved Central Europe (indeed in my local town of Cesky Krumlov) this is another tale of a search for an artist - this time a Hungarian tattooist with a secret.
Daedalus' Daughter by P.K. Tyler.
A daughter mourning the loss of her family begins to sprout feathers. She returns to the lakeside family cabin where her brother was killed and the transformation continues.
Scars: First Session by Jordanne Fuller
Not magic realism or indeed speculative fiction. Instead it is a moving account of how a young woman confronts the abuse that covered her body with scars as a tattooist transforms each scar into something beautiful.  
But your favourites will probably be different from mine. All the stories are good, although some are a bit too in-your-face for me.
I received this book from one of the authors in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni

The moufflon, a wild sheep prized for its meat, continues to survive in the remote mountain desert of southern Libya. Only Asouf, a lone bedouin who cherishes the desert and identifies with its creatures, knows exactly where it is to be found. Now he and the moufflon together come under threat from hunters who have already slaughtered the once numerous desert gazelles. The novel combines pertinent ecological issues with a moving portrayal of traditional desert life and of the power of the human spirit to resist.
Goodreads Description

I try to bring you as varied a selection of great magic-realist novels as possible. This is no exception: a magic realist novel from "Libya's leading novelist."

Reading this novel, as the news is full of the expansion of the brutal intolerance of Daesh into Syria and Libya, I was struck by how abhorrent this book would be to them. The Sufi mysticism that inspires The Bleeding of the Stone, the fusion of Islam with pre-Islamic beliefs, the animalist magic of the moufflon (wadden in Arabic) and gazelles, all would be unacceptable, indeed heretical. Undoubtedly the gentle pacificism of the central character the old goatherd Asouf would be unacceptable. There is even a clear reference to the death of Christ in the final scene - the bleeding of the stone. And I wonder whether the world and beliefs described by al-Koni have survived. 

The novel gives you an insight into the harsh desert life of the Bedouin - the brutal beauty of the land in which they live and the constant proximity of death. Be warned there are some gruesome scenes in this book - especially the accounts of the deaths of Asouf's parents. The desert is a world of balance in which the Bedouin play their part. Into this world come three men - the two Arab hunters that Asouf meets and a white colonel who commissions them to hunt for him. The colonel supplies the hunters with the means (guns, helicopters, vehicles) to slaughter all the desert gazelles and then requires them to move on to the sacred moufflon. Nature's balance is broken and a sacrifice is called for: redemption will be at hand when the sacred wadden bleeds and blood issues from the stone.

Although a slim book (only 135 pages) The Bleeding of the Stone gives the reader much to think about and enjoy.


Sunday 13 December 2015

Video on Magic Realism in the Art of Frida Kahlo


The term magic realism first appears in the writings of art critic Franz Roh. There is a natural movement between magic realist literature and magic realist art - see my review of Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet. Carrington was both an artist and a writer. So when I came across this video on magic realism in the self portraits of Frida Kahlo I just had to share it with you. 

The video is from the University of San Francisco's Academy of Art.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

The Storyteller's Bracelet by Smoky Zeidel

It is the late 1800s, and the U.S. Government has mandated native tribes send their youth to Indian schools where they are stripped of their native heritage by the people they think of as The Others.
Otter and Sun Song are deeply in love, but when they are sent East to school, Otter, renamed Gideon, tries to adapt, where Sun Song does not, enduring brutal attacks from the school headmaster because of her refusal to so much as speak.

Gideon, thinking Sun Song has spurned him, turns for comfort to Wendy Thatcher, the daughter of a wealthy school patron, beginning a forbidden affair of the heart. But the Spirits have different plans for Gideon and Sun Song. They speak to Gideon through his magical storyteller's bracelet, showing him both his past and his future. You are both child and mother of The Original People, Sun Song is told. When it is right, you will be safe once more.

Will Gideon become Otter once again and return to Sun Song and his tribal roots, or attempt to remain with Wendy, with whom he can have no future?

Goodreads description

This is a story which takes a terrible and hidden part of American history - the enforced schooling of Native American children in the ways of the white man. There is an excellent Wikipedia article on the subject here: which reveals that the events depicted in The Storyteller's Bracelet - such as the abuse of Sun Song by the evil headmaster - are very much based on what really happened. Hats off to Smoky Zeidel for writing about the subject and doing so in a way that gives us an excellent story whilst not shirking from the darkness of the subject. Sadly the removal of indigenous children from their homes to often brutal boarding schools with the aim of taking away their culture and identity was not confined to North America.

The novel is not simply an account of Otter and Sun Song's experience in the school. It is also a spiritual and mythical journey, which evolves into a creation story. The fact that magic realism is so often focused on a clash between a dominant white European culture and an indigenous one is a problem for those of us white European authors who want to explore the subject. How does one approach it without appropriating the indigenous culture one is writing about? Smoky Zeidel is very clear that she is not Native American and so rather than take one first nation's experience and legends as her focus, she has drawn on different First Nations' beliefs and culture to create a creation story of her own. She does so with huge respect, admiration and love for the beliefs in question. That is one approach. Another, and one I followed, is to create a realistic fantasy world. Some people may understandably argue that no appropriation is acceptable. But where does that leave the freedom of the artist and the imagination? Comments/thoughts welcome.

Smoky Zeidel is an excellent storyteller herself. The central characters are well drawn - sympathetic while not being perfect. The pacing of the story was compelling. Recommended.

I received this book from the author in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

It is the late fifteenth century and a village healer in Russia called Laurus is powerless to help his beloved as she dies in childbirth, unwed and without having received communion. Devastated and desperate, he sets out on a journey in search of redemption. But this is no ordinary journey: it is one that spans ages and countries, and which brings him face-to-face with a host of unforgettable, eccentric characters and legendary creatures from the strangest medieval bestiaries.

Laurus’s travels take him from the Middle Ages to the Plague of 1771, where as a holy fool he displays miraculous healing powers, to the political upheavals of the late-twentieth century. At each transformative stage of his journey he becomes more revered by the church and the people, until he decides, one day, to return to his home village to lead the life of a monastic hermit – not realizing that it is here that he will face his most difficult trial yet.

Goodreads description 

About a week ago I was listening to an interview with the author on BBC Radio and I immediately made a note to read it, so I was delighted to be granted a review copy of this novel from the publisher a few days later. 

You can download a podcast of the BBC programme in which it featured here:  The interview starts 10 minutes into the programme. I am not sure how long the BBC will offer this podcast, probably for a month. 
I love this novel - it is already high on my list of favourite magic realist books. I have said in previous reviews how much I like Russian or Slavic magic realism. For me it actually has more appeal than, dare I say it, the Latin American version. I think this is because of the role magic realism plays in Russian novels - it is a way of expressing the alternative to the rational. This is particularly the case because it is a response to a world view (Communism and post-communism) that utterly denies the spiritual alternative. It is also deeply rooted in the pagan and Christian orthodox church beliefs of the country. You could say that there is nothing magical in this book - not the holy fools walking on water nor monks levitating nor Laurus' ability to heal by the laying on of his hands - it is merely the Russian orthodox view of the world.

Laurus has an added appeal for me - it is a historical novel. I am a historian by training and am often disappointed by the failure of writers of historical fiction to present the world through the eyes of their characters. Too often characters have an all-too-modern scepticism about magic, when in fact they would have believed in it without batting an eyelid. Vodolazkin shows how historical fiction should be done and as a result the reader is utterly immersed in the world of late medieval Russia. 

I had no problem with the author's fascinating use of language in the book, which at times becomes the language of the time and at others involves slang. Occasionally too the tenses change from the past to the present. Were this a self-published novel the author would be accused of not having used an editor, but this book has been superbly edited and translated. The shifts in tenses are appropriate to one of the major themes in the book - that there is no such thing as fixed linear time. Time is shown to be flexible and one's life through it is not just cyclical but spiralling. Several of the characters are able to foresee events and one in particular, Laurus's Italian companion on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, does so constantly, allowing the book to travel to the twentieth century at one point. It is as if the different centuries are concurrent. 

To balance this temporal fluidity the central storyline is in many ways quite simple. It is the story of Laurus' life from young boy learning herb craft from his grandfather to ancient hermit in a cave. In this simplicity it mirrors the accounts of the lives of holy men of the time. And yet Laurus' character is so well-drawn, without pandering to modern sensibilities, that the book is a compelling read.    

 As you can see I am hugely excited by this novel. It seems to me that it takes magic realism into new territory and so I recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in the genre.

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

Sunday 29 November 2015

Video post - In Search of Haruki Murakami

I am sure you will all find this 50-minute documentary about Haruki Murakami as fascinating as I did when I first saw it on the BBC. It is suitably impressionistic, as Alan Yentob explores Japan in search of the roots of and inspiration for the great Japanese magic realist with the help of a talking cat.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Conjure Woman's Cat

Lena, a shamanistic cat, and her conjure woman Eulalie live in a small town near the Apalachicola River in Florida’s lightly populated Liberty County, where longleaf pines own the world. In Eulalie’s time, women of color look after white children in the homes of white families and are respected, even loved, but distrusted and kept separated as a group. A palpable gloss, sweeter than the state’s prized tupelo honey, holds their worlds firmly apart. When that gloss fails, the Klan restores its own brand of order.

When some white boys rape and murder a black girl named Mattie near the sawmill, the police have no suspects and don’t intend to find any. Eulalie, who sees conjure as a way of helping the good Lord work His will, intends to set things right by “laying tricks.”
Goodreads description

I very much enjoyed this novella/ short novel by a fellow member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group, a tale narrated by the shamanistic cat herself. 

The story is set in the Florida panhandle in the 1950's in a society dominated by racism, and tackles the serious issues of white violence, rape, day-to-day prejudice and mother/daughter relationships. This is a book that packs a lot into its 166 pages. Despite this bleak subject matter the book is beautifully written, allowing this Brit a vision of a place which the author knows well and clearly loves. The contrast of the natural beauty highlights the ugliness of human behaviour.

The central human character Eulalie is extremely well-drawn. The old woman is a "conjure woman" - a traditional healer, a practiser of hoodoo, and a former jazz/blues singer. She is proudly independent, powerful in many ways, and wily, and bears the scars of a hard and unfair life. If anything, she and her magic (tricks) are too consistently strong, so that I did not doubt that she would succeed in gaining justice for Mattie, which reduced the tension in the story for me. 

I really enjoyed the insight I gained into the traditional medicine of the area. The book comes with an excellent glossary at the end. There were many herbs that I recognised from my research for my own books, but there were others that I did not. Some of the beliefs came from Africa and others from the Native American traditions. I was struck by the way Eulalie combined a deep Christian faith and knowledge of the Bible with what might be seen by some as pagan traditions. The Archangel Michael even puts in an appearance, alongside another by the Black Rider. 

A really lovely book and a pleasure to read.

NB The book uses language which, whilst appropriate to the context, may offend some people, but I believe is necessary to the book.

I received this book free from the author in return for a fair review.

Monday 16 November 2015

Fling by Lily Iona MacKenzie

When ninety-year-old Bubbles receives a letter from Mexico City asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, lost there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing, she hatches a plan. A woman with a mission, Bubbles convinces her hippie daughter Feather to accompany her on the quest. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey. The two women travel south from Canada to Mexico where Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their hilarious antics.

From the Goodreads description

This fun read is by fellow member of the Magic Realism Facebook group, Lily Iona MacKenzie. The book is a road journey featuring one old woman and her hippy daughter. The dynamic of their relationship is at the heart of the book. The ninety-year old Bubbles is in many ways a child herself and Feather acts as her mother.
As the chapters flick backwards and forwards in time following Bubbles back to her childhood in Skye and Feather to her adolescence, we come to see the roots not only of the two women's behaviour but also that in some ways the women are not so dissimilar and are following a family pattern. When in the latter part of the novel Bubbles's mother and grandmother turn up, this family dynamic is expanded and further explored. 
Many readers will identify with Feather's feelings of frustration, resentment and love towards her mother. And many will enjoy the comedy and zaniness of Bubbles and her adventures. There are times when the reader might feel that she too has been smoking some of Feather's weed. But the novel is more than just a light-hearted read. Of course there is the daughter/mother relationship to consider. But it is also interesting to note the parallels drawn between the Gaelic beliefs of the family's Scottish roots and those they encounter in Mexico. And what is more there are some delightful references to the magic realist tradition for those if us who care about such things. 

One quibble I have with the book is that at times I found the constant moving between the characters and in time, including point of view within scenes, meant that I lost focus. In a way this disorientation reflects the hallucinatory nature of the story, but it did intrude somewhat into my enjoyment. 

I received this book free from the author in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, in the vein of Nicole Krauss’s bestselling The History of Love, is an imaginative story that delves into the heart of Jewish mysticism, faith, and family.

“This is not an ordinary tree I am making.

“This,” he said, “this is the Tree of Knowledge.”

In the half-Hasidic, half-hipster Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, eleven-year-old Lev Meyer is discovering that there may be a place for Judaism in his life. As he learns about science in his day school, Lev begins his own extracurricular study of the Bible’s Tree of Knowledge with neighbor Mr. Katz, who is building his own Tree out of trash. Meanwhile his sister Samara is secretly studying for her Bat Mitzvah with next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Mr. Glassman. All the while his father, David, a professor of Jewish mysticism, is a non-believer.

When, years later, David has a heart attack, he begins to believe God is speaking to him. While having an affair with one of his students, he delves into the complexities of Kabbalah. Months later Samara, too, grows obsessed with the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—hiding her interest from those who love her most–and is overcome with reaching the Tree’s highest heights. The neighbors of Mile End have been there all along, but only one of them can catch her when she falls.

Goodreads description 

I am unfamiliar with the Jewish mysticism that is at the heart of this book. This didn't stop me enjoying the story and indeed the author helped me understand enough to allow my enjoyment, but I do wonder if I missed out. Note to self: do some background research. 

At the heart of the story is the concept of the tree of life or tree of knowledge ( and the way the desire to climb the tree takes over the lives and minds of several key characters. Mr Katz's eccentric behaviour causes local amusement and frustration, but is shown to be a consequence of his obsession with climbing the tree and should have been a warning to others. Of course it is a warning that goes unheeded and two key characters also lose touch with reality. Early in the book one of the characters says: 

What is the moral of this story?
Don't see signs in everything. It makes it impossible to live.

He is quite right.  But we cannot ignore signs altogether, they are how human beings communicate.

The book's subject matter is more than just mysticism and esoteric Jewishness. It is also about two children who have lost their mother and have a father who does not communicate well with them. Indeed communication or its absence is equally important as a theme. Even non-communication can be a sign - as is the case of a phone ringing but no one speaking when it is answered. Samara literally puts up a sign in her window, which simply says "Please call" and which their non-Jewish neighbour, Alex, responds to. Alex in turn is obsessed with getting a message from space, and with coding and decoding messages. Alex may be a scientist by inclination, but isn't he also trying to find meaning and order in the universe in much the same way the kabbalists are? 

The structure of the book with four parts, each narrated from the point of view of a different character (Lev, David, Samara and Alex), allows us to see just how often they misinterpret each other. Lev misreads his father. Alex misreads Samara. But in the end the book makes the case for communication, no matter how faulty. You cannot climb the tree of life on your own. 

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

Wednesday 21 October 2015

This Strange Way of Dying by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Spanning a variety of genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror—and time periods, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's exceptional debut collection features short stories infused with Mexican folklore yet firmly rooted in a reality that transforms as the fantastic erodes the rational. This speculative fiction compilation, lyrical and tender, quirky and cutting, weaves the fantastic and the horrific alongside the touchingly human. Perplexing and absorbing, the stories lift the veil of reality to expose the realms of what lies beyond with creatures that shed their skin and roam the night, vampires in Mexico City that struggle with disenchantment, an apocalypse with giant penguins, legends of magic scorpions, and tales of a ceiba tree surrounded by human skulls. 
Goodreads description

The author of This Strange Way of Dying approached me for a review ages ago and I am embarrassed to say I forgot about it. I therefore apologize to Ms Moreno-Garcia and to you my readers as this is a short story collection I can recommend.  Not all the stories are magic realism, as the description above states, but several are, and I enjoyed the examples of other genres as well. But then many of the stories actually span genres and move between them. 

She takes what might be conventional genre characters - aliens (Driving with Aliens in Tijuana), historical zombies (Cemetery Man), vampires (Stories with Happy Endings),  witches (Bloodlines) and shapeshifters (Nahuales) - and gives them a new spin and a depthMost of the stories feature complex female protagonists, not necessarily the "strong heroine" stereotype, but ones that are dealing with difficult and real issues. Her central characters are often outsiders in some way, alienated from the world they find themselves in. I loved Dopplegangers,  a tale in which a daughter wishes away her embarrassing non-comformist parents and chooses their dopplegangers.  Name me a teenager that hasn't felt that desire at some time or other.

The author's website describes Moreno-Garcia as "Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination". This dual identity can be detected in the stories. Although all but one of the stories are set in Mexico and use Mexican folklore and history, the collection was published in Canada for a Canadian market by Exile Editions. As we have noted elsewhere on this blog duality is at the heart of magic realism. 

My favourite stories in the collection were This Strange Way of Dying (a love story with Death as one of the lovers), Bed of Scorpions (in which a female con-woman has a choice) and Jaguar Woman ( a story about colonialism, and the woman as the conquered wild spirit of the indigenous people). But yours are likely to be different as there are fifteen to choose from and all offer something different to the reader. 

I received this book free from the author in return for a fair review.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

Bruno Schulz has foreseen catastrophe and is almost paralysed by fear. His last chance of survival is to leave the home town to which, despite being in his late forties, he clings as if to a comforting blanket. So he retreats into his cellar (and sometimes hides under his desk) to write a letter to Thomas Mann: appealing to the literary giant to help him find a foreign publisher, in order that the reasons to leave Drohobych will finally outweigh the reasons to stay. 

Evoking Bulgakov and Singer, Biller takes us on an astounding, burlesque journey into Schulz's world, which vacillates between shining dreams and unbearable nightmares - a world which, like Schulz's own stories, prophesies the apocalyptic events to come.

Goodreads description

This is a novella about a Polish author who was hugely influential on magic realism and writers of magic realism, despite Schulz' small body of  work - The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Magic realist authors Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman, Nicole Krauss, and Milan Kundera have all acknowledged his influence and some (Ozick and Grossman) have even referenced Schulz in their writing. Now German writer Maxim Biller can be added to that list. 

In Biller's short novella Schulz is writing to Thomas Mann about a man who is pretending to be Mann. It is unclear to me whether the impostor is real or a figment of Schulz's fevered imagination. The novella is perhaps more surreal than magic realist with a nightmarish and scabrous quality. The sofa Schulz sits on walks out of a room when he pats it. Schulz's students (he was an art teacher in reality and in this novella) appear as talking birds. 

Biller mixes fact and fiction in this insight into the writer's mind. The novella is set in 1938 in the small Polish town of Drohobych. He gives the Jewish Schulz a prescient fear of the holocaust to come. The false Thomas Mann holds court to members of the Jewish community in a bathroom the size of a large school hall. The room has no fixtures, just showers. Everyone is naked and smoke pours out of the shower heads. The imposter is seen giving a German dressed in a black leather coat a list  of Jewish names. "Dr Franck and I... are in no doubt, Dr Mann, of what is going on here: we are being spied on."  Schulz was to die, shot casually by a Gestapo officer, as he walked home to the ghetto with a loaf of bread. 

The novella comes with two of Schulz's own short stories: Birds and Cinnamon Shops. And it is possible to see from these how Biller has incorporated themes in Schulz's works into Inside the Head. It is also possible to see that skilful though Biller is, he is not as gifted as his novella's subject. 

I have to confess that I have yet to read Schulz's other works, although they have been on my to-read list for many years. In fact I first came across Schulz's work in the Quay Brothers' animated interpretation of The Street of Crocodiles in 1986, which I share with you below. Like Biller's novella it is a work of dark surrealism. 

I received this novel free from the publisher, the excellent Pushkin Press, in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

The Fairy Wren by Ashley Capes

The Fairy Wren is a contemporary fantasy set in Australia, where Paul, a bookseller, struggles to juggle attention from a strange bird, a shady best friend, an Italian runaway and a missing ex-wife, all the while struggling to cling to a long-buried dream.

From the moment a fairy wren drops his lost wedding ring at his feet, Paul realises there's more magic to the world than he thought...

When Paul Fischer receives a strange phone call asking for help, from a woman who might be his estranged wife Rachel, he’s drawn into a mysterious search that threatens not only his struggling bookstore, but long-buried dreams too...

Unfortunately, the only help comes from a shady best friend, an Italian runaway and a strange blue fairy wren that seems to be trying to tell him something – yet the further he follows the clues it leaves the less sense the very world seems to make. Is he on the verge of a magical, beautiful discovery or at the point of total disaster?

Goodreads description

The Goodreads description doesn't do Ashley Capes or his novel justice when it places the book in the fantasy genre: this is very definitely magic realism. Nor is it the sort of cosy magic realism I first took it to be. The novel (especially the second half) has a darkness about it which means that the ending is not pat or completely feelgood. 

The magic comes mainly from the fairy wren, which lives up to its name. As a Brit I did not realize until I googled it that the fairy wren is a real bird species in Australia. The book is set in the realistic setting of small-town Australia with all the local politics and personality clashes of small towns anywhere.

The central character Paul isn't perfect. In fact he is the sort of person you like whilst being frustrated with. Self-pitying and at time irresponsible, he makes some morally dubious decisions, especially when helping out his shady best friend. This adds to the uncertainty and suspense of the novel. I kept thinking - he's not going to get away with this. Whether he does or not, I will not divulge here. You will just have to read the book.  

One bugbear of mine (which I know isn't universally shared) is that Paul is a bookshop owner and a struggling one as well. I understand why authors have a tendency to write about bookshops and their owners, but please isn't there some other profession that central characters can have? 

The Fairy Wren is an enjoyable read, which keeps you guessing until the end.

I received this book from the author in return for a fair review.

Monday 12 October 2015

A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová

Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Daniela Hodrová shares her unique perception of Prague. A Kingdom of Souls is the first volume of this author’s literary journey — an unusual quest for self, for one’s place in life and in the world, a world that for Hodrová is embodied in Prague.
Goodreads description

I actually approached the publisher for a review copy of this novel. This is unusual as I normally receive my review copies via Netgalley or Edelweiss, but this is a book about Prague and I am a Czechophile. Prague of course was influential on magic realism, given the importance of Kafka. Indeed this is the fourth magic-realist book I have reviewed on this site that features that great city. As in many of Meyrink's writings the central character of this book is Prague and in particular a small area of Prague focused on an apartment block overlooking the Olsany cemetery. 

I am writing this review in my Czech house in South Bohemia. In the shops and supermarkets at this time of year the shelves are packed with candles and candle containers. Along the journey home last night I noticed candles burning at roadside shrines to the dead. We are drawing near to All Souls Night and the Czechs are getting ready to remember their ancestors. The souls in the title are of both the dead and the living. The two "live" alongside each other in the house and in the pantry and as most of the action takes place between the time of the Nazi occupation and the Velvet Revolution some characters move from the living to the dead in the novel. This is not however a ghost story but merely a presentation of a world in which the dead exist alongside the living. That this world should be in Prague is not a surprise to me. I too have felt the presence of history there and the presence of those who have walked the streets before me. Hodrová's portrayal of this other city is realistic to my mind.

This is an extraordinary book - erudite, moving and poetical. At times a non-Czech reader, even this one who is relatively familiar with the city, its history and culture, will have difficulties picking up all the references. It helps to read the Introduction, which explains some of them, but I would suggest that footnotes might have been useful. But even without catching all the references it is possible to enjoy this book. The Introduction tells us that Hodrová is interested in Jungian concepts. This is apparent throughout the book and her use of archetypal symbolism allows us to respond to themes, even if we do not consciously know the specific references. 

As the Goodreads description states, this is the first volume in a series by this author all focusing on Prague. The publisher very kindly gave me copies of the two books published so far (Prague, I See A City being the other). I look forward to reading more.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.
Goodreads description

Most stories about murder focus on the question who did it. This short novel (192 pages) has a different approach. We are told who did it in the opening sentence: On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kayai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond;  the question the book answers (in its last sentence) is why. Set in Indonesia, the book is filled with the beliefs of the country's rural communities and as a result everyone seems to accept Margio's explanation that the white tigress inside him (inherited from his grandfather) caused him to tear at the throat of the father of his girlfriend. So the question evolves further to why did the tigress explode in violence. 

The violence of the murder - the young man literally nearly bites the older man's head off - is decribed graphically and may not be to every reader's taste. But this is contrasted to the ordinariness of Margio, who is not naturally a violent man, and helps the reader share the locals' acceptance that something supernatural took over Margio and made him behave in such an extraordinary way. 

But the book is not without psychological motivation. With different chapters telling and retelling incidents in Margio's life and those of his family from the perspective of different characters, we come to understand the boiling anger that the young man identifies as the tigress. 

This style of writing might seem at times repetitious and tangential, but it reminds me of the oral storytelling tradition and I am sure that Kurniawan is drawing from the Indonesian tradition in this and in so doing is creating something new and surprising. This is the first Indonesian magic realism that I have read and it would appear that this is a region (and an author) worth watching. 

I received a free copy from the publisher in return for a fair review

Wednesday 16 September 2015


As a result of the overzealous pruning of garden ivy I have developed RSI in my right hand and arm. The doctor has told me to rest them, which means for a few weeks I will not be posting. However I am reading and there will be a flurry of reviews as soon as I recover.

My apologies.

Friday 11 September 2015

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest

Filled with a rich cast of unforgettable characters, a powerful magical realist novel of an ordinary outback town made extraordinary.
"When Macha Connor came home from the war she walked into town as naked as the day she was born, except for well-worn and shining boots, a dusty slouch hat, and the .303 rifle she held across her waist."

 Macha patrols Siddon Rock by night, watching over the town's inhabitants: Brigid, Granna, and the melancholic men of the Aberline clan; the tailor Alistair Meakins, with his elegant fantasies; Sybil Barber, scrubbing away at the bloodstains in her father's butcher shop; Reverend Siggy, afraid of the outback landscape and the district's magical saltpans; silent Nell with her wild dogs; publican Marg, always accompanied by a cloud of blue; and the inscrutable new barman, Kelpie Crush. It is only when refugee Catalin Morningstar and her young son Josis arrive and stir up the town that Macha realizes there is nothing she can do to keep the townspeople safe.
Goodreads description

This is a novel by an author who clearly both understands and loves magic realism. You can see the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in this portrayal of a small town in the Australian outback. We are given the almost mythic birth of the town - I say almost mythic because of course this is magic realism and the magic mixes with the realism easily and without comment. Aborginal dream stories collide with Celtic legend, history becomes myth, perhaps through repeated telling, perhaps not:
stories are like people; they change shape as they get older.  Some get thinner with less detail, others pad out like the most comfortable grandmother.

And the magic continues into the time and setting of the main story of the two women, Catalin and Macha, who carry terrible memories of World War Two, and who discover that the horror that men are capable of can wait in the middle of the Australian bush. The landscape surrounding Siddon Rock with its stark beauty and brutal nature is in many ways a character in the book. Guest shows a small community that is almost trapped by it. Huge machines fail to work and rust like the hulking skeletons of dead dinosaurs in the salt-riddled land. Dust storms arrive and swallow the town. Dust is a theme in the book and there is a strong scene in which the Reverend Siggy bewilders his flock with a sermon about the dust. 

In this world it seems that woman are the stronger and more interesting characters - not just Macha and Catalin, but also Granna, the mysterious carer of the Abeline family, and Nell, the aboriginal woman who grows in stature at night. The men are less well drawn or are perhaps simply less strong. Siddon Rock comes with a large cast of characters and we move from one to the other, so it is perhaps not surprising if not all of them appealed to me equally. 

Structurally the novel is interesting. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Marquez's book, it does not follow the traditional three-part structure. Instead a canvas revealing the life of Siddon Rock is painted with the narrational climax coming late and without a conventional resolution, a climax which is foreshadowed throughout the book. 

I recommend this book to you.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Another Day by David Levithan

Every day is the same for Rhiannon. She has accepted her life, convinced herself that she deserves her distant, temperamental boyfriend, Justin, even established guidelines by which to live: Don’t be too needy. Avoid upsetting him. Never get your hopes up.

Until the morning everything changes. Justin seems to see her, to want to be with her for the first time, and they share a perfect day—a perfect day Justin doesn’t remember the next morning. Confused, depressed, and desperate for another day as great as that one, Rhiannon starts questioning everything. Then, one day, a stranger tells her that the Justin she spent that day with, the one who made her feel like a real person…wasn’t Justin at all.

In this enthralling companion to his New York Times bestseller Every Day, David Levithan tells Rhiannon’s side of the story as she seeks to discover the truth about love and how it can change you.

Goodreads description

I suspect that many authors, in addition to developing their stories from the point of the view of the protagonist, also explore their stories from the point of other major characters. I know I do. This allows the author to give psychological depth to all the main characters. What they don't do is write a companion novel telling the story from the other person's point of view. Unless you happen to be David Levithan. Is this self indulgent on the part of the author? Does it add enough to the reader's experience? The jury's out on that one, if you look at the reviews on Goodreads. I can't comment as I have not read Every Day - although it is on my Kindle. I am not sure I will read it now, which is not David Levithan's intention I am sure. 

The concept behind both books is that the character A is a being who inhabits the body of a different person a day. In Every Day the story is told from A's point of view, in Another Day from Rhiannon's. On the day A meets Rhiannon he is in the body of Justin and he falls for her. I say "he" but A can inhabit the bodies of girls as well, and indeed of transgender people. This creates a strong driver of the story, but it also raises issues about sexuality and identity, and love as opposed to physical attraction. There is also the philosophical question about how much A's day in a person's body/life should impact on that person's wider life. Fascinating stuff, and this is a novel that leaves you pondering bigger questions. As this is a book for the YA market (although this 50+ reader didn't feel that this inhibited her enjoyment) that is something to be particularly welcomed. 

The central character of Rhiannon is very well drawn. Her self esteem is not high and her relationship with the selfish and damaged Justin is lowering it. Encountering A in his various forms and falling for "him" allows Rhiannon to question her unhappy liaison's impact on her life. The philosophical questions in the book are therefore integral to the storyline.

Another Day is an interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable book and I am grateful to the publishers for granting me a free review copy in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Interview with Stephen Weinstock

I was due to review Stephen Weinstock's novel this week. However due to ill health I have had put that review off until later this year, so in the meantime I invited Stephen to be interviewed instead.

Welcome Stephen to the Magic Realism blog

Thank you, Zoe. I’m so pleased to be invited to be interviewed for the Magic Realism blog.  It’s a wonderful site; I loved participating in the bloghop this summer, and have enjoyed reading articles for a couple years.  I’m happy to help expand the interview section and hope other like-minded Magic Realism authors will step up and discuss their work.

Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?

I would break this down into a few categories.  There were early influences of mine, before I even knew there was Magic Realism.  John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, a plain university coming-of-age novel where the main character is half-boy, half-goat, no questions asked, was a delight to read in college.  Discovering that someone like Borges could make fiction out of the wildest of ideas was a liberation.  And Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which I might call surrealism before MR, has a quality that transcends it all: it’s the only work of fiction I have ever read that had me painfully, speechlessly, and ecstatically unable to continue reading because I was laughing so hard.

Another genre I love is the newly minted Visionary Fiction, and I feel there is a Venn diagram connection between many works in the two genres.  Castaneda’s work is a great example, and he started me off understanding the possibility of melding storytelling and higher, esoteric truths.

Finally, there is a set of favorites that represent the Magic Realism most akin to my series, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles.  In the series, a qaraq, a group of linked souls who have lived through 1001 lifetimes, meet up in the present and recall their past life stories, a la Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights.  Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, with its magical premise and subsequent non-linear narrative in time, was a great inspiration to my laying out a karmic history spanning universes in a complex, non-linear fashion.  Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children affirmed a modern use of The Thousand and One Nights as fodder for contemporary magic.  And Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, sits on the nightstand, knowing it will fit in with where my brain is at.

What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?

But my greatest influence is Italo Calvino, and my absolute favorite book is his Cosmicomics, which follows the main character Qfwfq through his incarnations in the universe.  Each story is based on a scientific premise, the ‘realism,’ and is anthropomorphized, its ‘magic.’  So we learn what the universe was like when everything was at a single point, before the Big Bang, and no one could keep a secret.  Or follow the last dinosaur in a time when everyone has forgotten who they were.  It’s really all magical, because the science is so wondrous.  Also, technically speaking, Calvino is part of the French Oulipo school, all about mathematical games, hidden constraints, and word puzzles, but Calvino feels more Magic Realism to me.  Since every chapter of my book has someone recall a past life, they are often about inanimate objects or concepts, so I constantly pirate Calvino’s anthropomorphic literary technique.

Can you give us your definition of magic realism? 

MR is an oxymoron, and its oxymoronic quality is its simplest pleasure and defining quality.  When Marquez started things out with that image of the father unable to recall the names of things, and so every object in the house had a label, he opened up this clash of bizarre and ordinary.  What I love about the clash is that it makes you doubt what’s real and what’s magical.  Is the father’s condition a true psychological state worthy of Oliver Sacks, and so the whole world is realistic?  Or are those banal little signs on furniture and knickknacks enough to decorate a magical location? 

I also love how a basic unrealistic premise, like Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach, is all you need.  The author just accepts it as a given (as will the reader), and then the rest is the realistic consequences of that magical premise.  In my series, I assume the soul is immortal and that we live incarnation after incarnation.  If a group of people were aware in one lifetime of all their interconnected lifetimes, what would that do to them?  How would they assemble their history?  How would it change them in their present day ‘realistic’ world?  If you and I discovered we fought incessantly as atomic particles in the young, expanding universe, what would happen to our relationship as a therapist and patient in this life?

Tell us about your latest magic realist book?

The first book in my 1001 series is The Qaraq, the term for the group of linked souls who have shared lifetime after lifetime, and find themselves in suburban New Jersey, with an uncanny memory of their history together.  The suburban setting is the realistic backdrop humorously rubbing up against the magical premise of their immortality.  They wander into trance state recalling a past life story at children’s birthday parties, shopping at the mall, or in the supermarket freezer section (remembering an Ice Age narrative about a strangler ficus).

In the second book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, due out soon, the group loses their ability to recall the past life tales.  This crisis leads them through a series of revelations about how everyday illusion, the Hindu concept of Maya, blocks their extraordinary visions of higher truth.  They literally grapple with Realism in order to get the Magic back.  The consequences of this struggle are rifts and jealousies and conspiracies within the qaraq.  Given its theme of endangered consciousness, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor is an example of the crossover between Magic Realism and Visionary Fiction.

Why do you write magic realism?

In many fantasy and sci-fi books, the key to the immortality of the soul is often revealed dramatically at the climax of the narrative.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone builds up the mystery forever, which is why we love it, and then reveals the higher truth in the final pages.  I like the oxymoronic quality of Magic Realism, the casual assumption from Page One that Gregor is a roach, for it enabled me to accept reincarnation and immortality without any fuss (well, a little in Part One of The Qaraq), and then carry on into all the myriad psychological and structural consequences of the assumption.  What if you knew you were immortal, but still had to get the kids to school?  What if you remembered you and your friends’ past lives, even if it meant realizing you had been the sibling of the person you were hitting on at the pub?  Would you go mad?

I am also a structure junkie, my main motivation for creating the 1001 series, and this obsession gets back to Magic Realism ultimately.  Going back to Calvino and the Oulipo, I love the idea that there are hidden structures or constraints that I have to incorporate in each chapter.  There will be 1001 chapters in the series, each with a past life story someone recalls.  Within each of these tales, there is a reference to one of the 1001 Nights from that epic.  This gets complicated once you understand the history and structure and complexity of The Thousand and One Nights, but suffice it to say that I have to slip in a magic carpet or a dreaded serpent and make it work organically within the narrative. 

There are eleven of these hidden structures woven into the books.  Before you call my neighborhood mental health clinic, know that I actually start each chapter by considering these constraints, and they actually help me chart out and provide material for the chapter.  But I’ve always loved arcane, puzzle-like forms buried within books, music, or architecture, and I believe this is part of what makes the 1001 series Magic Realism.  That blurring of lines between the unreal and the real in this genre corresponds to the blurring of lines between what lies on the surface of the text and what lies beneath.  In The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, it’s about how everyday reality blurs the hidden ways of the world, but also how those hidden truths serve our everyday lives.  That’s the fun and the truth of Magic Realism to me.


In his past life before writing 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham).  He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, NYU, and the ‘Fame’ school. For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields.  By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy.

See more of Stephen’s work, and the 1001 series, on his website.

Join the free email service 1001/Qaraqbooks News, and find out when The Qaraq and the Maya Factor comes out, including a free giveaway:

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

"Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you."

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…
Goodreads description

I often discuss why a novel I am reviewing is or is not magic realism, but in this case I will not do so. The reason for this is to avoid spoiling the plot for you. 

At the centre of the novel is the question: who or what is the writer of the letters that Driver Wang receives - letters that claim to come from the reincarnation of the character that Wang encountered in his several lives. This mystery drives the narrative on and has us, the readers, and Wang himself looking around for an explanation. The answer may or may not be magic realist. It is not a spoiler to say that the book is shot through with ambiguity - Wang had endured a spell in a mental hospital as a child, so could the arrival of the Watcher be part of a delusion?

The Watcher narrates Wang's previous incarnations and the interaction between the Watcher and Wang. Although the incarnations happened at different times in Chinese history and the incarnations are very different (Wang is a woman in one) there are some common themes to these accounts. The two characters are attracted to each other (they are often homosexual lovers) and yet one will always end up betraying and hurting the other.  The Watcher claims that the letters are an attempt to bring a halt to this. As a writing device this means that Barker's novel is able to span the long and brutal history of China while keeping focused on one person. The letters are in effect a series of related short stories. 

The letters are interspersed into the account of Wang's life in contemporary China and his unsatisfactory home and work life. Wang's childhood and youth are recounted in a series of flashbacks that help explain why this potential high flyer drives taxis for a living and why he had a breakdown. Wang is struggling to cope with his current life: it is asking a lot for him to take on his other lives. The book is a study in how to draw a psychological profile of a character, as understanding Wang becomes possibly as important to the reader as the identity of the Watcher. 

Susan Barker's book is a stunning piece of writing, weaving the various threads in a way that enhances rather than hinders the plot and pace. The historical elements are beautifully if horrifyingly well-drawn. 

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