Wednesday 24 June 2015

The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior by Stephanie Hammer

Just down the road from John Crowley’s characters is the town of Narrow Interior, the setting for Stephanie Hammer’s fable-ous first novel of secrets and heritage. Henry, the youngest son of a hotel magnate, is sent to calm the inhabitants as the hoteliers set about to despoil this odd byway. Instead, aided by his black sheep cousin and a cast of quirky characters, including Quirk, Henry sets out to discover the town secrets. The more he learns, the darker his mission appears, until Henry must choose if he is willing to risk all.
Goodreads description

The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior has much in common with Magic America (see my last review). It starts with magic realism as the world seen through the eyes of a child; it features a fight against American big business whose plans are endangering a community; it even has a magic realist tattoo! But in many ways it is very different. In contrast to Magic America the frequency of magic increases through the course of the book, so much so that the book moves away from magic realism towards fantasy à la Neil Gaiman. 

The book can be categorized in many ways - there is a strong streak of humour and satire here, which had me chuckling at times; there are a lot of references to classic philosophers and writers (including Schiller and Goethe as talking condiment pots), legends (Parsifal and the Fisher King anyone?) and then there's surrealism (I was reminded of Leonora Carrington's writing at times). In fact there is so much going on and Stephanie Hammer is having so much fun in writing the story that sometimes I felt the book failed to deliver completely on its promise(s). But then how could it?

I personally was interested in the puppets strand, which disappointed as did the religious backstory to the community of Narrow Interior.  The two elements are related and so much more could have been done with them. Puppet theatre has always had a relationship with religion and not just in Japan: marionette means little Maria and the shadow puppets of South Asian portray tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I worked for several years as the manager of the Puppet Centre of Great Britain and in that capacity saw the power and magic of puppets, nowhere more evident than in the ancient Japanese art of Bunraku, which the novel draws from, but doesn't explore.

The book could have been simply a book of ideas, but the characterization is strong and amusing. We engage with Henry from the get-go and even as he decides to hide his character (So, I become secret. I study unspecialness and silence. While most people in American work to develop ersatz talents, individualistic quirks, and even the occasional eccentricity, I let mediocrity shine like a beacon of nothingness. A black hole of personality.) we empathize and yearn for the real Henry to reappear.  But again I felt that the author engaged our interests in certain characters (most notably Quirk and the old man Olsen) only to let them drop. 

So, in conclusion, what did I make of this book? I enjoyed it, it is a fun and interesting read, but I don't think it is magic realism.

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

Friday 19 June 2015

Magic America by C E Medford

Hope lives in an alternative Trenton, New Jersey of the 1980s where radioactive cats, congenital tattoos, biker angels, cocky fairy godmothers and the determination to survive another day are all that stand between her family and the creeping chemical forces of LoboChem, a manufacturer willing to destroy all that is beautiful for the sake of a profit.

Magic America is a story about coming of age in fluorescent, urbo-suburban, magic-realism America. Dust off your Wigwams and your high-tops, your banana clips and Aquanet, for a trip through the streets and skies of a Garden State where love triumphs over fear, faith is what you die with and family is who you ride with.

Goodreads description

Magic America is a fascinating take on magic realism. Set in urban blue-collar America, it reminded me of the magic realism of Paul Magrs, which is set in a similar setting in an northern British city. The two writers show that magic realism can work in the portrayal of the white working class. The magic in the book comes without comment - that's just the way it is in magic America. There's a baby who inherits congenital tattoos from his biker father, and a fairy godmother with attitude appears when Hope needs her and sometimes when she doesn't want her to.

Central to the book is the issue of abuse of the environment by LoboChem, which is poisoning Hope's world and community. As I have observed elsewhere in this blog an environmental theme often features in modern magic realism. C.E. Medford's approach is a interesting one. The reader is not always clear whether something strange is magic realism or whether it is the product of the poisoning of the environment or genetic alteration. This ambiguity is enhanced by the use of first-person narration. Hope is still young when the book opens and we see the world through her eyes. A child's eyes see magic in the world and young Hope is no different. As Hope matures through the book, some things are given realistic explanations and some remain magic.

The author's style of writing is likewise a mixture of realism (sometimes gritty) and poetic prose and it works really well. If I were to criticize, I found the transitions between the different periods in Hope's life jolted and these narrative stutters did not stop me enjoying the book. Chronological transitions can be a problem with coming-of-age stories, one which I am familiar with as an author. Nevertheless I identified with Hope and her extended family of oddballs and was on their side in their battle against evil big business which has stitched up local politics and economics. This is as much magic realism of the oppressed as any novel set in South America.

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

Thursday 18 June 2015

Interview with Lily Iona MacKenzie

1. Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?

I’m attracted to a wide range of magical realist styles, from Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, to Mikhail Bulgakov. But the Latin American authors first attracted me to this genre, and they’re the ones I frequently return to. I’ve read all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ work. So, too, with Chilean writer Roberto Bolano. Jorge Luis Borges is always a challenge. I’ve just discovered another Chilean writer, Alejando Zambra, who flirts with this style.  Carlos Fuentes. Mario Vargas Llosa.  Julio Cortázar How to stop! These writers aren’t afraid to wallow in unreality or to speculate on where the lines between realism and unrealism are drawn. If there is such a line, it’s constantly shifting, just as reality can’t be pinned down. Was that an ice cream cone I saw woman eating in a newspaper photo, or did it only have the appearance of a cone. Was it actually corn on the cob? It’s often difficult to pin down the difference between appearances and reality, which is why so many writers have focused on this theme whether they fit into the magical or realist vein.

2. What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?

Again, it’s difficult to pick just one favorite magical realist book because I’ve liked so many. One Hundred Years of Solitude still mesmerizes me. In that novel, Marquez not only portrays an important era in Colombia’s history, but he also creates a family that has mythic roots, and I think that’s one of the most successful aspects of this genre: while the quotidian is important, it doesn’t rule. There’s always a whiff of another layer to life. This happens in my currently favorite magical realist book, Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century. Where are we in Neuman’s world? We’re told it’s sometime in the 19th Century, somewhere between Saxony and Prussia, but in many respects the action could also could be happening today. It’s a philosophically and emotionally rich narrative that explores multiple layers of experience. 

3. Why do you write magic realism?

The shape shifting that often happens in such novels seems psychologically true to me. For example, in my soon-to-be published novel Fling!, when my grandmother’s ashes resurrect and she appears after being dead for 70 years, it couldn’t be true literally. Though most Christians would disagree, and perhaps those who believe in reincarnation, the dead don’t come back to life. However, the dead are constantly appearing in our dreams, in our thoughts, in our inherited behavior. So while the thing being described may not exist in our physical sense of reality, it does when it’s viewed as a metaphor. It’s as if people can return from the dead. I also like to write magical realism because it allows my imagination to explore images and ideas that aren’t confined to everyday life. While I love most everything about our commonplace world, I also have a strong sense that other realities exist simultaneously. This genre helps me to investigate that possibility.

4. Can you give us your definition of magic realism? 

I’ve probably already partially covered my definition in my previous responses, but I’ll try to embellish. My view of the world is pantheistic. Everything seems alive with what some people might call the divine, though I find that term too limiting. I think magic actually comes closer to what I mean in the sense that as children, we view the world as an enchanted place. In most developed countries, especially, we are taught to dismiss such beliefs and become more realistic as adults. I’ll give a personal example. I grew up in Calgary where the winters were very cold. One of the beauties of that weather, though, was that Jack Frost visited and left amazing designs on the windows. But when I was five, my Scottish schoolmaster grandpa told me there was no such thing as Jack Frost (or Santa Claus). Of course, I didn’t believe him. I still don’t! But I think magical realism retains elements of this enchantment with our world and those who write it are trying to recapture for their readers that dimension. It’s a way of viewing life through a different lens than what realism offers. Different rules exist, allowing the writer to break out of realism’s limitations.  

5. Tell us about your latest magic realist book?

With my Scottish background on my mother’s side, I grew up hearing her talk about the Scots having a sixth sense and was accustomed to the idea that surreal things can happen. She came out of a Celtic tradition where people believe there are certain times of year when the strict boundaries between the living and dead become less firm. The Celtic New Year, November 1, is one of those periods and is also known as All Soul’s Day, our American version being Halloween. I mention this because in my novel Fling!, to be published in July, 90 year-old Bubbles and her daughter Feather’s long-dead ancestors appear. Alternating narratives weave together Bubbles and Feather’s odyssey with their colorful ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics. In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Thank you, Lily, for a fascinating interview. 

You can find Lily's blog here:

Thursday 11 June 2015

The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas

It is the summer of 1936, the early months of the agonising civil war that engulfs Spain and shakes the rest of the world. In a prison in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela, an artist sketches the famous porch of the cathedral, the Portico da Gloria. He uses a carpenter's pencil. But instead of reproducing the sculptured faces of the prophets and elders, he draws the faces of his fellow Republican prisoners.

Many years later in post-Franco Spain, a survivor of that period, Doctor Daniel da Barca, returns from exile to his native Galicia, and the threads of past memories begin to be woven together. This poetic and moving novel conveys the horror and savagery of the tragedy that divided Spain, and the experiences of the men and women who lived through it. Yet in the process, it also relates one of the most beautiful love stories imaginable.

Goodreads description

I have a fellow member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook group to thank for introducing me to Manuel Rivas and this book in particular. So thank you, Ekaterina Volkova, you have introduced me to a writer whose work I will now search out. On the basis of this book alone Manuel Rivas has become one of my favourite authors. As I read The Carpenter's Pencil I was reminded of Andrei Makine, whose work , although not magic realism, has the same poetry and humanity.

This is a sublimely beautiful book about a very ugly period in European history. In the hands of a lesser writer that might have meant that the brutal ugliness of the Spanish Civil War and Franco's suppression of the left-wing opposition would have been veneered over, but on the contrary the beauty and poetry acts as a ray of light illuminating the dark corners.

Nor is the book simplistic in its portrayal of those involved on both sides of the conflict. There are two main characters - Doctor Daniel da Barca and the prison guard, Herbal, through whose eyes we mostly see the doctor. Herbal is shown as a complex and conflicted character, at once fascinated by the doctor and at the same time hating him, at times his persecutor and betrayer and at others his protector. The use of Herbal as the main means for transmitting da Barca's story at once distances and mythologizes it. The doctor is portrayed almost as a religious prophet with divine protection like the biblical character he is named after. Da Barca's comments to his fellow prisoners on illness and life, which Herbal reports to his superiors as indications of the threat the doctor offers, can be read as more simply an educated man's thoughts being misinterpreted by an uneducated one. Or are they?

The narrative structure, especially at the beginning, moves backwards and forwards through time and from one viewpoint to another. This further disorientates the reader. In addition the magic comes not from da Barca's activities but from Herbal. Early in the book in a short and shocking chapter Herbal blows the top off the head of an artist. The pencil in the title is one used by the artist to draw a church porch in which the heads of the prophets are replaced by the heads of his fellow political prisoners (another biblical reference). Herbal takes the pencil as a keepsake, but finds when he puts it behind his ear that the artist has conversations with him about art and Da Barca.

Even when Herbal is recounting the doctor's story directly to a young prostitute in a brothel his words are full of poetry - not overblown poetry but simple and powerful poetical phrases that evoke atmosphere and emotions perfectly:

Pepe Sanchez was shot one rainy dawn in the autumn of '38. The day before, all the words disappeared from the prison. Nothing was left of them but scraps in the seagulls' scream. The lament of a bolt being drawn. The gasps of the drains. And then Pepe burst into song.

The poetry is also reflected in the way certain images and phrases are woven through the story, evolving and taking on meaning as they go. At the end of the book I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start again.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Imaginary Things by Andrea Lochen

Watching children play and invent whimsical games of fantasy is one of life's great joys. But what if you could actually see your child's imagination as it unfolded? And what would you do if your child's imagination suddenly became dark and threatening?

Burned-out and broke, twenty-two-year-old single mother Anna Jennings moves to her grandparents' rural home for the summer with her four-year-old son, David. The sudden appearance of shadowy dinosaurs forces Anna to admit that either she's lost her mind or she can actually see her son's active imagination. Frightened for David's safety, Anna struggles to learn the rules of this bizarre phenomenon and how best to protect him. But what she uncovers along the way is completely unexpected: revelations about what her son's imaginary friends truly represent and dark secrets about her own childhood imaginary friend.

Living next door is Jamie Presswood, Anna's childhood friend who's grown much more handsome and hardened than the boy she once knew. But past regrets and their messy lives are making the rekindling of their complex friendship prove easier said than done. Between imaginary creatures stalking her son and a tumultuous relationship with David's biological father, Anna may find it impossible to have room in her life or her heart for another man. But as David's visions become more threatening, Anna must learn to differentiate between which dangers are real and which are imagined, and whom she can truly trust.

Goodreads description

As you know I always put either the Goodreads or Amazon description at the beginning of my reviews. This is partly because I don't want my reviews to spend too much time recounting the story, but sometimes, as is the case here, I find myself at a loss as to what to write because the description has given so much away, too much in my opinion.

As you can tell from the description this is an example of psychological magic realism, by which I mean a story in which magic realism is used to make manifest the psychology of key characters. The best example of this that I have reviewed was The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce, in which an adolescent boy's burgeoning feelings are expressed via the tooth fairy. Here we have young David's need for prtotection expressed in two imaginary dinosaur friends. The magic realism comes because his mother, Anna, can also see them and the large black cat that symbolizes what David fears.

For me the book works best on this psychological level. Indeed the book is a psychological mystery: what is it that David fears and what is it that Anna is hiding from herself - she too had an important imaginary friend in her childhood whom she has chosen to forget about. I like psychological mysteries like this and as a mother I absolutely understood Anna's fears about how to respond to what was happening to her son literally before her eyes. In fact, although the book may seem to be about David's fears, it is equally if not more so about Anna's psychological journey.

Personally I could have done with less of the will-they, won't-they love story. But romance helps sell books. I also was able to foresee what danger the black cat symbolized, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment.

All in all this is an enjoyable book with an interesting central concept. I hope many women will read it for the romance and come away with more.

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