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.