Friday 30 January 2015

The Salt Roads by Nano Hopkinson

Hopkinson’s time-traveling, genre-spanning novel weaves a common thread of spiritualism and hope through three intertwined stories of women possessed by Ezili, the goddess of love, as she inspires, inhabits, and guides them through trying personal and historical moments. Jeanne Duval is a talented entertainer suffering from the ravages of a sexually transmitted disease; Mer is a slave and talented doctor who bears witness as Saint Domingue throws off the yoke of colonial rule in the early nineteenth century; and Meritet is a woman of the night who finds religion her own way. Though the three are separated by many miles and centuries, a powerful bond draws them together.
Epic, wrenching, and passionate, The Salt Roads is laced with graceful, lyrical prose. Hopkinson has crafted a one-of-a-kind novel that spans hundreds of years and multiple countries to tell a mystical, heartrending story of self-worth, respect, and salvation.

Goodreads description

When I decided to apply for a review copy of The Salt Roads I was a bit worried that it would not be magic realism. Nalo Hopkinson is usually listed as a writer of speculative fiction, but she also appears in the online lists of magic-realist writers. Having read this novel I can say that those lists are right. I found the book easy and most enjoyable to read.

This is an ambitious book, weaving together three distinct stories set at different historical times and continents. At the centre of each story is a strong female protagonist - Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne Duval in 19th century Paris and Meritet in 4th century Egypt. Of these Jeanne Duval was a real historical personality - the mistress and muse of the poet Baudelaire. Mer's story features Makandal, the leader of a slave rebellion in Haiti. Meritet is humourously portrayed by Hopkinson as the historical source of the hagiography of St Mary of Egypt. The three stories are bound together by the Ginen goddess Lasiren or Ezili, whose first-person voice appears in short poetic chapters between the stories and who moves between the world of the spirits and the historical worlds of the three women. 

Edouard Manet 014
Edouard Manet, portrait of Jeanne Duval (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As is often the case when the are three stories in one book, I found myself having difficulties as the novel shifted from one story to another and from one protagonist to another. This was not helped by the fact that the stories are not distributed evenly throughout the book. We start with Mer, whose story was the one I was most taken with. Meritet does not appear until much later in the book. In fact all three characters could have merited a book to themselves. 

There are several themes in the book - the most obvious being the black experience throughout history and the racism those of African heritage experienced and continue to experience. Slavery and its horrors feature in the story of Mer and to a lesser extent in that of Meritet. This brings obvious comparisons with Beloved by Toni Morrison and inevitably The Salt Roads suffers in comparison. In addition the novel also invites comparisons with Alejo Carpentier's early magic-realist novel  The Kingdom of This World which also features the Haitian slave rebellion. 

In fact all the way through this book I kept being reminded of other novels. The idea of the old gods of Africa coming with the slaves to the new world is used by Neil Gaiman in American Gods and Anansi Boys. Hopkinson's book does not explore the concept as deeply as Gaiman's, because she is also exploring other themes.
A major theme in the novel is the feminist one. Women are defined by their sexual use by men, especially white men. On the Haiti slave plantations we see the female slaves' only chance of advancement and the possible survival of their children is to provide sexual services to a white man, even a poor one. Likewise Jeanne Duval's survival is in the pleasuring of Charles Baudelaire. Meritet was sold by her parents to a brothelkeeper. When Lasiren takes over the mind of the slave plantation owner's white fiancee, we see that she too is bound by the same imperative - she is marrying him for financial security rather than affection. Only Mer's power is not based in the provision of sexual services, but as that very female archetype of wisewoman. But then she is also considered old. 
If you don't like explicit sexual scenes, don't read this book, as they feature from the very start. Both Jeanne and Mer find sexual pleasure in lesbian relationships, and their lesbian experience is contrasted with the lack of pleasure given by men. Female sexuality can be liberating.  Lasiren is a goddess of fertility and female sexuality, so that when she takes over Jeanne's dance it becomes strongly sexual and powerful

There is so much to write about in this book. I am sure that it is the subject of many an academic essay and I cannot cover it all.  I don't think Salt Roads delivers fully on all it aspires to do, but it is still a remarkable achievement. As my granny used to say "It is better to aim at the stars and hit the moon, than not to aim at all."

I received this book free from the publishers via Netgalley in return for a fair review

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the short story. Italo Calvino once said about her, “I don’t know another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.” Thus Were Their Faces collects a wide range of Ocampo’s best short fiction and novella-length stories from her whole writing life. Stories about creepy doubles, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks to a girl, a house of sugar that is the site of an eerie possession, children who lock their perverse mothers in a room and burn it, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the cruelty of Ocampo’s stories was the result of her nobility of soul, a judgment as paradoxical as much of her own writing. For her whole life Ocampo avoided the public eye, though since her death in 1993 her reputation has only continued to grow, like a magical forest. Dark, gothic, fantastic, and grotesque, these haunting stories are among the world’s finest.
Goodreads description.

With a description like that you can see why I asked Silvina Ocampo's publisher, New York Review of Books, for a review copy. And I can tell you the book lived up to the description.

Ocampo's style is sometimes demanding on the reader and I found myself putting down the book between stories to muse over what I had just read.  But the book is all the better for that.

Even though I read the stories several days ago, they have stayed with me like a dark shadow somewhere on the periphery of my vision.  The word "dark" is rightly used of Ocampo's stories. At times they reminded me of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl in the way they would jolt me with a sudden dark turn. But then Ocampo also  shows that the dark is only seen in the context of light. As she writes in the preface, Writing is having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die. 

English: Photo taken by Bioy Casares in Posada...
English: Photo taken by Bioy Casares in Posadas, published at the magazine Pajaro de fuego (Bird of fire) EspaƱol: Foto sacada por Bioy Casares en Posadas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ocampo is probably better known as a poet  and it shows in her prose, which is at times sublime.  I could fill this review with quotations. But let us just take this one, which ends  probably my favourite story in the collection: Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it. But where is my bed, where can I wait in comfort? I'm not lying down: I'm unable to lie down. A bed is not always a bed. There is the birthing bed, the bed of love, the deathbed, the riverbed. But not a real bed... How perfect is that! The short sentences, the repetition, the symbolism, all could be translated into poetry, all you have to do is add line-breaks. And the poetical form is also appropriate for the story and the voice of the narrator - a woman, who with these words is slipping into death.

Ocampo is masterly in her use of narrative voices. As well as the dying, she is capable of speaking as a child. Sometimes the innocence of the child's voice contrasts with the story the child is unwittingly telling. Sometimes the child narrator is far from innocent. Nor is Ocampo's skill in the use of voices restricted to children. In The Prayer the female narrator is unable to confront the horror of what might/will happen as a result of her action and so the horror is left unstated and yet can clearly be read between the lines, leaving us with a sense of impending doom.

Magic realism appears in many of the stories, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.  In one story a gardener's hand digs into the earth only to take root there. In the short story which lends its title to the collection a group of deaf children dream the same dreams, make the same mistakes in their notebooks and when asked to draw all draw pictures of wings. The story culminates with children jumping from a plane. When interviewed, their teacher asserts that when the children threw themselves into the void they had wings.  

I commend this magical, dark and wonderful book and its remarkable author to you.

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

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Senya Malina Tells It Like It Was by Stepan Pisakhov

Baron Munchausen... Paul Bunyan... SENYA MALINA!

An impish Russian peasant spins tale after tale tall about himself and the remote northern world that he calls home. Brimming with humour (much of it satirical), outrageous plots, vibrant language and clever allusion, and accompanied by masterful illustrations, this finely crafted creative translation of Pisakhov’s classic stories is for children and adults alike to cherish.

Goodreads description

I have an image in my head of a small boy lying in his bed chuckling as his father reads one of Senya Malina's tall tales. His father is laughing too, but not necessarily at the same things. After the boy has gone to sleep, his father goes downstairs and continues reading. 

This book of short stories/tall tales is an absolute delight. I am a sucker for folktales and this book falls within a tradition of tall-story folktales that you will find the world over. In the English-speaking world, especially in the UK and US, folktales are seen as suited only for children, but that is not the case elsewhere. I am writing this in the Czech Republic, where Czech adults still enjoy fairytales; their Slav cousins the Russians share this view. Stepan Pisakhov came from a family with a tradition of professional storytelling in the North of  Russia and wordplay and oral tales were part of his childhood. Born in 1879, Pisakhov grew up in Tsarist Russia, but he lived until 1960. Nevertheless the subject matter of his tales remains the lives of peasants who live close to the earth, struggling against the bureaucrats of both Tsar and the Communist party. Many of Malina's tales (Malina means raspberry) show the clever peasant putting one over on figures of authority. The divide between the rural and urban population is very obvious.  And as I read Blackwell Boyce's brilliant translation I could hear the dry rural humour and was reminded of listening to my farmworker uncle spinning his tales with a straight face and a twinkle in the eye.

There are three targets for Malina's tricks - the bureaucrats:
Bureaucrats as a species have such weak spines they need their uniforms to prop them up. It’s always puzzled me where they found the strength to laugh at us peasants and common folk,
the merchants from the town and the main representative of authority in the village - the local priest.

In the tale about the Russian/Japanese War (1904-1905) Pisakhov satirizes the way the Russion government, in order to gain support for an imperialist venture, claimed it was a religious war. The women of the village fool the army into taking felt versions of their menfolk instead, but Malina's wife is bad with the needle and he gets conscripted. The war is fought with religious symbols - crosses and incense bombs on the Russian side - and Malina narrowly escapes death when a large Buddha scores a direct hit on a warehouse he is guarding. Of course this story highlights what we have seen elsewhere in this blog, that magic realism is the literary device of the underdog, allowing in this case the Russian peasant to fight back. The truth of the campaign was that 40,000 to 70,000 Russian soldiers died in a war that was presaged the warfare of 1914-1918.

The magic realism in the tales works in several ways. In some tales Malina has extra skills - like the ability to skip on water or stretch his legs so far to block the merchants' way. In others it is whimsical such as the lovely tale of how Malina, unable to find somewhere to sleep, lies down on the seashore and draws the sea over him as blanket. In others it is beautifully poetic such as in the story Frozen Songs, in which the cold winters of the Russian north turn words into ice, so that words aren't heard but seen. Young women weave together frozen songs into lace sheets and mothers create gentle ice-words for their young children to play with. Of course when the merchants and the kings try to take advantage of these treasures, the people of the area have the last laugh. In many tales the story starts with a logic and then takes it in a surreal direction - such as the woman whose voice is so piercing that it can literally cut.

The people's closeness to nature runs through the stories and it results in some lovely pieces of magic realist humour: a bear is recruited to frighten off priests who are picking all the wildberries, specially trained polar bears sell milk and a brown bear tries to muscle in on the act by rolling himself in flour, fish catch themselves, gut themselves, salt themselves and leap all by themselves into barrels, Malina lassoes a flock of ducks and uses them as an umbrella.  

There is nothing I would fault in this book. The translation is, according to the translator, very much a liberal, creative one, but I get the impression that it is still true to the spirit of the original work. The illustrations by Dmitry Trubin (see cover above) are great fun and likewise in the spirit of the book. 

My one qualm with this book is its marketing and branding. The illustrations make it look like a children's book to my Western eyes and yet I note that Senya Malina Tells It Like It Was is not listed as in the children's category on Amazon. The pricing of the ebook however at $12 (£7) is high for a children's title and even in the current climate for an adult ebook. It is also a big book for children with a lot of stories. The publisher could have divided it into three parts and sold them at $2.99 each and I suspect got a lot more readers and made more money. It's a shame because this book deserves to be read widely.

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

Wednesday 14 January 2015

The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband's murder --and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.

The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.

But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

Goodreads description

A central theme of this book is magic.  No surprise there, given the subject matter. But magic realism? The reality of stage magic is shown in great detail. Greer Macallister takes us behind the illusion, behind the smoke and mirrors, and shows us the reality of the mechanics of the tricks - the false bottoms, the hidden ironwork, the sleight of hand and misdirection. And absolutely fascinating it is too. The story is located in real history  - Arden's mentor in magic is the real historical figure Adelaide Herrmann  "Queen of Magic" as Hermann's autobiography proudly announced. 

Hermann is a wonderful character and the book really takes off  when she arrives in Arden's life. Another highpoint in the book is a real historic event - The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 in which over six hundred people lost their lives. 

The author uses the magician's stock-in-trade - misdirection. Throughout the book the reader is not sure whether Arden's story is true or not. We, like Virgil Holt, swing between believing and not believing her. After all the novel is called The Magician's Lie and in the first chapter Arden states that Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time.
Tonight, I will kill him.   
Misdirection takes all sorts of forms throughout the book and it is impossible to speak about them here without ruining the suspense for you. 

The magic realist element in the book - Arden's ability to speed her body's healing - could also be a form of misdirection, but there seems to be some evidence from what Virgil sees that it is real. 

Perhaps Arden's greatest ability is that of healing herself mentally. That is not to say the damage inflicted on her by her sadistic cousin, by the betrayal of the man she loves and by her mother's failure to stand up for her, do not scar her in some way, but this is one tough little lady. She is the type of strong, if flawed, female protagonist that I enjoy reading (and writing) about. In Arden and in Adelaide we have two women who forge a successful career at a time when this was an impossible dream for most women. 

This should have been the ideal book for me in, as historical fiction and mysteries are favourite genres of mine and the novel has a strong female protagonist and yet I found it hard to get into and it wasn't until 40% of the way in (when Arden meets Adelaide) that I really engaged with the story. Perhaps, dare I say it, there was just so much misdirection that I couldn't engage with Arden's story until that point. My other misgiving is that after all that build-up the ending didn't really live up to my expectations. Nevertheless the book has a lot to offer the reader and is an exciting debut from a clearly talented writer.

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

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Mikawadizi Storms by Dennis Vickers

Freelance journalist Evie Arnold agrees to cover the emerging conflict between mining magnate Clive Gready, who plans to dig an open-pit mine in the Mikawadizi hills, and La Roche Verte Indian Nation, who intend to stop him. As she watches and records, the conflict spirals from serious to severe to ominous. and finally explodes into an epic battle between good and evil. 

Mikawadizi Storms casts bold characters into conflicts bristling with magic and smoldering with contradictory world views. 

Goodreads description

Every month I review an independently published book by a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group. Indie books get a lot of stick  about quality, but in my experience indie magic realist books are often very good indeed. Maybe that is partly because the people on the Facebook Group are genuinely interested in magic realism and want to know more and maybe it is because the nature of magic realism attracts a certain type of writer - one that thinks about his/her work and more generally about the nature of reality. Dennis Vickers falls into both categories. 
This book falls into two types of magic realism - Indigenous American and environmental magic realism. Vickers teaches creative writing at the College of Menominee Nation, a tribal college located in north-central Wisconsin and, whilst he's not a member of an Indian Nation, this has clearly influenced the content of his book. The book contrasts the two world views of the Indian community and the white community to the land and nature. This split is literally depicted in the characters Ed and Ward Cormmercant. Edward Commercant is of mixed French/Indian descent and as a result of the conflict between his two backgrounds splits into Ed and Ward - an interesting magic realist concept. 

The abuse of the environment by the white mining consortium and its defence by the La Roche Verte Indian Nation and supporters is at the heart of the novel.  Early on a contrast is made between the white approach to the land of ripping it open and tearing out the treasures they seek and the Roche Verte who harvested only the silver that fell from the walls of a secret cave. The danger of digging too deep is made clear towards the end of the story when nature takes her revenge, but I will not spoil the ending for you by explaining more.

The central character in the book is the reporter Evie Arnold. Thus we get to hear and see both sides of the story, although Evie shares the writer's bias in favour of the Roche Verte. Evie too is conflicted - in her case in her attitude to her sexuality and having children. This brings her to the magical  house of Lotta Moore, where another, this time European,  shamanism is active.

On his Goodreads author's page Dennis writes: I write stories to explore concepts. The more fundamental the concepts the better. The more interesting the concepts the better. But, it still has to be a good story. What I find interesting about people are their stories, the stories they tell and the stories they live. In the end there isn't much difference.
Vickers uses that approach in structuring the book. Each chapter of the book starts with a  drawing of a different character and some of their words. The chapter then has that character at its heart. There are forty four chapters in the book. That is a lot of characters to introduce and for the reader to retain in their heads. Does the device work? Up to a point. The drawings certainly helped my memory, but at times I felt that the need to introduce a new character dictated the story rather than the other way. 

I enjoyed reading this book. There is a lot to think about within its pages (possibly a bit too much for some readers) and I always like that.

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