Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Essential W. P. Kinsella by W.P. Kinsella

This career retrospective celebrates the 80th birthday of baseball’s greatest scribe, W. P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), as well as the 25th anniversary of Field of Dreams, the film that he inspired.

In addition to his classic baseball tales, W. P. Kinsella is also a critically-acclaimed short fiction writer. His satiric wit has been celebrated with numerous honors, including the Order of British Columbia.

Here are his notorious First Nation narratives of indigenous Canadians, and a literary homage to J. D. Salinger. Alongside the “real” story of the 1951 Giants and the afterlife of Roberto Clemente, are the legends of a pirated radio station and a hockey game rigged by tribal magic.

Eclectic, dark, and comedic by turns, The Essential W. P. Kinsella is a living tribute to an extraordinary raconteur.

Goodreads description 

Last January I reviewed W.P. Kinsella's last novel Butterfly Winter. Now Kinsella's publishers have produced this collection of his finest short stories. Kinsella will always be best known for his baseball magic-realist novel Shoeless Joe, which became the film Field of Dreams. But this collection shows that his work is more diverse than his famous opus would suggest. 

There are a number of magic-realist baseball stories including the story that started it all, Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa. Although I know nothing about baseball I really enjoyed Kinsella's stories, which are less about a sport than about questioning the human condition or exploring concepts. 

Searching for January takes the real disappearance of baseball star Roberto Clemente in an aircraft accident and explores concepts of time.  And the story The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record is actually about a man being offered the chance to save a great sportsman's life by sacrificing his own.  
"There is magic," Mr. Revere says. "It is close by. I can tell when someone feels it."
"It is the game," I say. "Not you."
"We all have to claim some game as magic," he says.

Alongside these clearly magic-realist baseball stories you will find a number of more realistic Canadian First Nation stories set on the Hobbema Indian Reservation. I had not come across these stories before, which poke fun at the Canadian authorities' and white population's attitude to the First Nations. I was firmly on the side of the narrator, the young Cree Silas Ermineskin, and his mates chuckling at their exploits and wry comments.
"Even crime wouldn't pay if the Government ran it," say our medicine lady, Mad Etta. The larger than life Mad Etta is a particularly wonderful creation. Despite the humour of these First Nation stories they also make the reader think about serious issues facing the inhabitants of the reservation. 

In addition to the baseball and Hobbema Indian stories, the collection includes a number of standalone stories. I particularly enjoyed two very different stories about mature men falling in love. Lieberman in Love is an unusual take on a man's relationship with a prostitute and The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society is a story about intercultural love in face of opposition from the woman's mother. The latter story is probably my favourite in the collection and has such an emotional honesty about it that I was not surprised to read the author's moving dedication to his deceased wife at its end. 

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a master of the short story form.

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

Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker

Growing up motherless in an isolated community, Malin Reed has always been made to feel different from everybody else. The fact that, according to Malin's father, the absent mother was actually a mermaid only makes matters worse. When Malin's father dies, leaving behind nothing but his stories, Malin's choice at last becomes clear: stay, and never feel at home, or leave and go in search of mermaids and the fantastical inheritance that, up to now, has always seemed completely out of reach. a picaresque journey that crosses oceans and continents - from the high seas to desert plains, from a time of slavery to life in a circus - until it finally leads to a discovery that is the very last thing Malin would ever have expected... Beautifully written and hauntingly strange, set in an unspecified historical past, The Mermaid's Child is a remarkable piece of storytelling, weaving together the fantastical and the inevitable through the power of the imagination.

Goodreads review

The content and tone of this book came as a surprise. The cover and description in no way prepared me for the level of realism, and the physical violence and casual sex in the book. I was expecting a rather fantastical story, which might or might not be magic realism, something suited to teenage female readers. I don't usually look at other reviews of books before I review them, but in this case I was fascinated to see if other readers shared my experience. And they did. Sadly this has resulted in quite a few negative or neutral reviews on Goodreads. 

Once I was over my surprise, as I was very quickly, I soon settled into enjoying Malin's story. This is a fascinating book. The description says the story is set in an unspecified historical past. To my mind it is set in a fantasy world that is very clearly based on historical realities of our own world. Baker has researched the appalling treatment of sailors on sailing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries and the even worse treatment of black slaves on slave ships. This is the brutal world in which Malin moves and Baker does not shrink from portraying it. I am, as some of you will know, a historian by training and I like this historical accuracy in fantasy. It is a form of magic realism I enjoy and indeed write.

In this pseudo-historical world Baker's use of magic or folkloric elements works well. Malin believes in mermaids. There is one in a circus that comes to Malin's village. We may suspect that this circus is a fraud, but Malin believes in it. Malin is an androgenous character. We are unclear as to Malin's gender until the very end of the book. Malin signs up as a sailor on a slaving ship, where s/he falls in love with another older sailor, a woman who has masqueraded as a man for years in pursuit of her career. This may appear to be unbelievable to a modern reader, but British folksongs are full of women dressing up as sailors and little drummer boys and indeed there are actual historical cases of women successfuly passing themselves off as men, the most famous being the military surgeon James Barry whose deception was not discovered until her death. Reality can be more fantastical than fiction.

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

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Two Dogs at the One Dog Inn by David John Griffin

Dogs are reported for their constant barking … and so begins one of the strangest stories you will ever read.

Audrey Ackerman, sent to visit the dogs at a 17th century coach house, is unsettled by paranormal sightings.

Stella Bridgeport – manager at The Animal Welfare Union – communicates with Audrey via emails. And those Stella receives are as startling as they are incredible: descriptions of extraordinary events concerning a science fiction writer’s journal; giant swans; bizarre android receptionist; a ghost dog.

Insanity or fantasy? Fact or fiction? The only given is, it all starts and ends with two dogs at The One Dog Inn.

David John Griffin

This is another book by one of the members of the Magic Realism Books Facebook group and it goes to show what a talented bunch we are. 

 Two Dogs at the One Dog Inn is a novella, but it packs a lot into its 87 pages. Something very strange has happened at the One Dog Inn, something that has sent an otherwise rational and competent Audrey to the edge of a breakdown. The two women exchange emails with Stella trying to come up with rational answers, and angering Audrey in the process: ear infections, hallucinatory chemicals, a film set, going insane, but nothing accounts for what Audrey encountered. The email exchange worked well, establishing both women as credible and sympathetic characters. 

Then Audrey sends Stella some other material - a long (too long in my opinion) extract of a history of the One Dog Inn and its hauntings and the files from a memory stick that one of the dogs digs up from the inn's courtyard. These files contain an account of a stay at the inn by a science fiction novelist, plus notes about the novel he is writing.  The novelist's account seems to support Audrey's experience, even if Stella stills sees it as fiction.

This is a very clever book. It plays with all sorts of familiar elements and gives them a twist - ghostly hounds, gothic inns, secret tunnels, automata. Do we get a final answer? What do you think?

One issue I had with the novel was the author's practice of replacing names of real-world items  with made-up ones - so an iPad is referred to as an iNote, the story is set in a fictitious English county called Kantem, presumably Kent. I am not sure why the author did this. The effect was to distract me from the story as I worked out what he was referring to. It seems to me that a major part of the success of magic realism is the establishment of the real in the story. So it would have been better to set the story in Kent referencing identifiable towns. Then the contrast with the strange happenings would have been more pronounced. 

A really enjoyable novella. I gather that David has another book out anytime now. I will look out for it.

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

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein

Investigating her family history, Molly slips into a world of magic

Backstage at a vaudeville in Oakland, California, a reporter sits down for an interview with Callan Allalie, patriarch of a family of traveling magicians. As the journalist asks his questions, Callan’s sisters dazzle him with tricks too delicate for the stage. The night quickly whirls out of control as all manner of untold magic warps the writer’s mind, and the next morning, he can’t be sure that he witnessed it at all.

Sixty years later, a private detective confronts Molly, the last descendent of the Allalie clan, to ask questions about one of Callan’s sisters, who seemed to vanish after the performance in Oakland. As Molly delves into the mysteries of the Allalies, she discovers a connection to a shadowy organization of nineteenth-century mystics—and a family secret that will change the way she looks at the world forever.

Goodreads description

I read Walking the Labyrinth in two sittings, which tells you that it is relatively short and easy to read. Lisa Goldstein has a writing style that is economical and deceptively simple. I say deceptively because there is actually quite a lot going on underneath the surface in terms of allegory. 

The concept of walking the labyrinth to find the answer to a  mystery seems to be as old as labyrinths themselves. One could argue that this is a mystery book - there is one murder and one disappearance, and a secret society. And there is the family and its "magical powers". There are of course red herrings (some big ones) too. But I can't say I was that surprised by the denouement. Nor was I surprised to see that at the end Molly realizes the labyrinth she has been walking is her own. Anyone who has read about mystic symbolism will know that. 

"What have you learned?"
"Oh God, you're going to ask me questions again. You're going to ask me what I've learned."
"Well, what have you?"
"I learned--I learned that illusion is a way to truth. That illusion can reveal truth, a deeper truth. That there are things beyond or beneath or on the other side of what most people...think of as reality,"

Magic as a way of illuminating truth is one reason why magic realism exists and works. Molly's metaphysical journey through the labyrinth reflects the reader's.

I would not claim that this book is particularly profound: it isn't. And that is partly because there are some flaws in the plot line. One is the ease with which Molly goes from distrusting the detective to flying off to England with him. Drifting from one temporary job to the next and obsessing over a relationship with the wrong guy (perhaps both are an indication for her need for a family), Molly is nevertheless a strong outspoken character and her change of mind is unexplained.
Despite this quibble, Walking the Labyrinth is an enjoyable read and I shall be recommending it to my niece, who likes this sort of book.

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