Wednesday 25 February 2015

Nightbird by Alice Hoffmann

In her first novel for middle-grade readers , bestselling author Alice Hoffman tells a bewitching story of love and friendship that is truly magical.

Twig lives in Sidwell, where people whisper that fairy tales are real. After all, her town is rumored to hide a monster. And two hundred years ago, a witch placed a curse on Twig’s family that was meant to last forever. But this summer, everything will change when the red moon rises. It’s time to break the spell.

Goodreads description 

Alice Hoffman is a prolific writer. She writes not only excellent adult fiction, but also books for teenagers and now here is a book for middle-graders. Nightbird, like all of Hoffman's books that I have read (some of which I have reviewed here), is set in the real world with an important magical element - in other words it is magic realism. 

I don't usually review non-adult magic realism and when I do I am struck that the magic element does not seem so remarkable, because children accept magic in the world, that fairy tales are real (as the description says), and that is reflected in their books.  So many of the books I loved at this age were magic realist and I wonder whether they influenced my adult liking for the genre. One of my favourites, and one I have reviewed on this blog, is Skellig by David Almond, which shares certain magical elements with this book.

This is a lovely gentle book. The story is seen through the eyes of young Twig. It is a story of sibling loyalty, of friendship and the desire to be accepted. And then there is the magic, which is as ever beautifully handled. I can see a lot of girls curling up in bed enjoying this. I read it with pleasure, but I found something lacking.

I have commented in the past about Hoffman's ability to include hard reality in her books, but I don't find it here. Maybe Hoffman pulled back because of the age of the readership. There is a lack of an antagonist force in the storyline. To be sure there is a "monster", but all it is doing is stealing washing and fruit pies. There is the fear that townsfolk might turn vigilantes, but that isn't really built up. There is also an ecological threat to the woods, but not enough is made of this. But then not all young people want a book that scares or challenges them, I suppose.

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

P.S. You will see that I have displayed two different covers for the book. The one above is I think the one for the UK market, while the one below is for the US. What do you make of the differences and what it says of the two markets?

Wednesday 18 February 2015

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Funny, clever, surreal, and thought-provoking, this Kafka-esque masterpiece introduces the unforgettable Bjorn, an exceptionally meticulous office worker striving to live life on his own terms.

Bjorn is a compulsive, exacting bureaucrat who discovers a secret room at the government office where he works--a secret room that no one else in his office will acknowledge. When Bjorn is in his room, what his coworkers see is him standing by the wall and staring off into space looking dazed, relaxed, and decidedly creepy. Bjorn's bizarre behavior eventually leads his coworkers to try to have him fired, but Bjorn will turn the tables on them with help from his secret room. Author Jonas Karlsson doesn't leave a word out of place in this brilliant, bizarre, delightful take on how far we will go--in a world ruled by conformity--to live an individual and examined life.

Goodreads description

The Room made me uncomfortable. Not in a bad way, but because I found Bjorn's position unsettling. I have to confess that I don't find comedies like The Office funny, because I am too embarrassed for David Brent characters.

Bjorn is clearly on the autistic spectrum. The way he manages his time (55 minutes work and then 5 minutes break) is indicative enough, but more so because when the 55 minutes is broken into he regards it as ruined and decides to sit it out and start again with the next one. He totally misreads people and does not realize it. In this context his pronouncements on human behaviour would be funny if they weren't also sad: Stupid people don't always know that they're stupid. They might be aware that something was wrong, they might notice that things don't always turn out the way they imagined, but very few of them think it's because of them.

But he is also arrogant, a pedant and the kind of fellow worker who is going to get on everyone's nerves. We are not meant to like him, especially as he treats the helpful attempts of a fellow worker to show him the ropes with disdain. 
Bjorn and his fellow office workers are employed by an organization just called The Authority. The organizational culture is one of pressure and accompanying fear of loss of status and employment. As is so often the case in such circumstances, the rest of the workers express their fear in attacking a colleague - the weird Bjorn. They do not accept that Bjorn's room exists. In the meetings that the ineffectual manager organizes to resolve the matter, many are outspoken about Bjorn's mental state. Their behaviour is appalling and one's sympathy is back with Bjorn. He is still misinterpreting the situation and doing so in a way that is making things worse. 

There is a lot going on in this novel and we never know the truth about Bjorn's room. Is it a delusion? Is it magic? Is it a metaphor? The question is best left unanswered, because that way it forces the reader to question not only what happens in the book but their own behaviour in similar situations.

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


Sunday 15 February 2015

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

If Ryu Murakami had written War and Peace

As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story. 

Publisher's description

I am not sure what I expected when I opened this book. And as I read the first section I remained unsure. We are given the back-story, which was gently amusing. Gromov, a Soviet author of uninspiring books in which heroic workers overcome adversity, was so disregarded that few of his books remained, gathering dust. However a few people discovered that Gromov's books have a magical quality. If read in one sitting without missing a word, they can temporarily alter the mind of the reader. Different books have different effects - one gives the reader the power to influence others, one instills joy, another rage. These readers gather into gangs or "libraries" around the keeper or "librarian" of one or more book. In the way of all gangs, the libraries battle with each other for control of the books. 

The book really took off for me with the arrival of the narrator, Alexei Vyazintsev, in a small town to sell his late uncle's flat. What Alexei does not realize is that he has not only inherited a flat but a copy of a Gromov book and the post of its librarian.  He is rapidly plunged into the violent alternative world of the libraries. I was hooked and found it hard to put the book down. 

The Librarian works in so many ways. There is clearly an element of political and social comment here. There are obvious parallels with the wild west nature of post-Soviet Russia, with its criminal gangs and their wars. There is also a parody of the false mythology of the Soviet Union and even conventional western literature's use of archetypes: Alexei is a normal guy without friends who turns out to be the chosen one, and then Elizarov twists that archetype. But I am sure I missed a lot of references.

I was of course struck by the way the novel portrays the power of books and ideas to transform our view of the world and how The Librarian shows that human nature will turn something which is so redemptive into a stimulus for violence. The book is read before the battles to give heart to the combatants, it is carried into battle on a pole or on a chain around the librarian's neck. It reminded me of religious wars I had read about where the Bible or the Koran was/is treated in the same way and I was struck by how the most appalling wars have been stimulated by books.

And boy is this book violent at times! The battles between the libraries are portrayed in such graphic detail that it was like being inside a violent video game. The violence shocked me at first, but it didn't stop me reading and after a while I was so engaged in the battle for survival waged by Alexei's Library that I accepted the violence as a necessary part of Elizarov's narrative. 

There is an awful lot to think about in this book. I don't think the characterization was particularly strong, but in a way this book is not about individual psychology but that of the collective, on which it shines a piercing light. 

Yet again we have a fine example of Russian magic realism. Do I recommend reading it? Absolutely. 

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

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Get In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

One of today’s most celebrated short story writers, Kelly Link creates brilliantly detailed, layered fictional worlds pulsing with their own energy and life. The situations are at first glance fantastical, but the emotional insights are piercing and the characters vividly real. In “The Summer People,” a young girl in rural Florida serves as uneasy caretaker to the mysterious, never-quite-glimpsed visitors who inhabit the cottage behind her house. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a one-time teen idol movie vampire takes a disturbing trip to the set where his former on- and off-screen love interest is shooting a bizarre new reality show; in “The New Boyfriend,” a suburban slumber party takes an unusual turn when the spoiled birthday girl opens her big present, a new animated doll. Funny, uncanny, always deeply moving, these stories demonstrate a writer of wondrous gifts operating at the height of her powers.

Publisher's description

Kelly Link is a writer who has many celebrity fans - Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, Karen Russell, and Sarah Waters have all lined up to sing her praises. She also has many non-celebrity fans, who have been waiting ten years for this new collection. 

Her short stories are difficult to categorize - some in the collection are magic realism, some sci-fi, some dark fantasy - and their variety lies some of their appeal. When you open a Kelly Link book you don't know what to expect other than that the stories will surprise you, shock you and make you laugh. Of course that means that not all the stories will appeal equally to you. 

My personal favorites in this collection are:

The Summer People This story is about a girl looking after the house of The Summer People, some very unusual holidaymakers. There is strong fairytale elements here:
Be bold, but not too bold, lest that thy heart's blood run cold.

I Can See Right Through You. A ghost story about the relationship between two celebrities now past their prime.  

Light  Set in a sci-fi fantasy Florida, the story follows Lindsey, a hard-drinking woman with two shadows, as she deals with her job (managing a store full of comatose bodies) and the tricks of her errant twin. Link's world-building is excellent and Lindsey's responses are very human.

Secret Identity  A 15-year old goes to a New York hotel to meet a man she has met online. She finds herself surrounded by a bizarre mix of characters attending two conventions - one for dentists and one for superheroes. We never find out what convention her contact is attending, but that doesn't matter as this is really a story about identity.

I didn't get on well with The Valley of the Girls and The New Boyfriend. Both stories focus on the dynamics of a gang of girls, which was never a subject for which I had any affection or interest. Surprisingly there is a certain amount of repetition in the themes and subject matter in this collection. In addition to the focus on teenage girls (you might have thought that the now 45-year old Link would be writing more about older women), superheroes and ghosts appear in different stories. Nevertheless this is a fascinating collection and other readers with different preferences will not share my feelings and will love those stories that didn't work for me.

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

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Mrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight …

On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people all lose something dear to them, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.

Meanwhile, Jake, a young boy whose father brings him to London following his mother’s sudden death in an earthquake, finds himself strangely attracted to other people’s lost things. But little does he realise that his most valuable possession, his relationship with his dad, is slipping away from him.

Goodreads description

This delightful book has at its central premise a question: What would you do if you lost that which was most important to you?  Of Things Gone Astray takes the separate, but eventually interwoven, lives of six otherwise normal people and explores what happens as each experiences a loss.

Each loss is different, because each loss is also the loss of what helped define the character's relationship with the world and how they regarded themselves. Thus the loss of Mrs Featherby's front wall is also the loss of the wall she puts up to the rest of the world. Suddenly she is living behind a semi-opaque curtain of polythene and her neighbors, who previously had not interacted with her, start to do so.The pianist Marcus loses not only the piano keys, but with them his confidence, leaving him unable to make decisions. Robert's place of work (and therefore his job) disappears and although he disliked his work he is at a loss without the role his job had imposed on him. Jake and his father lose each other, not in a literal sense but in a magic-realist way - they stop being able to see each other. 

Of Things Gone Astray could have been one of those feel-good magic-realist novels that I have reviewed several times over the years I have been writing this blog, but it is not. To be sure, some of the storylines come out for the good and the individual gains new strength from their loss - as happens in the story of Delia, a young woman who loses her sense of direction - but that is not always the case. Another young woman waits in vain for her lover to arrive and cannot move from the arrivals lounge, because a) she cannot give up on the hope that her lover will come, and b) she is slowly turning into a tree. Some people can cope and others can't, the book says honestly.

This novel is a good example of how magic realism can be used to cast a light (albeit a sideways one) on the human condition. It is also a good read. Matthewson's touch is light and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Her narrative voice has a dry observational humor. For example the book opens with the lines: 
Mrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight.  
 They had been dreams of when she was younger and more energetic, dreams of a time when she had full use of her knees.

After I read that, I knew I was going to enjoy this book.  

This is Janina Matthewson's first published novel. I will look out for her second.

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