Sunday 28 February 2016

The Blue Line by Ingrid Betancourt

Buenos Aires, the 1970s. Julia inherits from her grandmother a gift, precious and burdensome. Sometimes visions appear before her eyes, mysterious and terrible apparitions from the future, seen from the perspective of others. From the age of five, Julia must intervene to prevent horrific events. In fact, as her grandmother tells her, it is her duty to do so—otherwise she will lose her gift.

At fifteen, Julia falls in love with Theo, a handsome revolutionary four years her senior. Their lives are turned upside down when Juan PerĂ³n, the former president and military dictator, returns to Argentina. Confronted by the realities of military dictatorship, Julia and Theo become Montoneros sympathizers. Julia and Theo are radical idealists, equally fascinated by Jesus Christ and Che Guevara. Captured by death squadrons, they somehow manage to escape. . .

From the Goodreads description

Ingrid Betancourt is the former French Columbian politician who was kidnapped by the FARC guerillas in 2002 and endured over six years in capitivity before she was released by the Columbian army. She has written about what and how she endured her captivity in the jungle in Even Silence Has an End. In this, her first novel, Betancourt revisits in fiction many of the themes in the earlier book. At the heart of the novel is a young woman's experiences at the hands of the Argentinian military junta's thugs and torturers. Like Unspeakable Things, the previous book reviewed on this site, The Blue Line is also about the survivors of oppression and the legacy of guilt and psychological damage that impacts on their personal relationships.

The obvious comparison for this book is with Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits. It focuses on a brave young woman drawn to helping the poor and thus into radical politics. A naive idealist in the face of the political betrayals and complexity of Argentinian politics, Julia is no different from most young activists the world over, but the consequences of her decision to engage are terrible. Her treatment in the notorious military interrogation centres, and the details of her and others' torture are not glossed over and may be shocking to some readers, but are absolutely based on facts.

Also at the heart of the book are Julia's two key relationships: with her grandmother, who helps her understand and use her gift of second sight and in whose footsteps she follows in more ways than one, and with Theo, her lover and husband. It is Julia's relationship with Theo that sits at the heart of the story and drives the narrative arc, even though for much of their lives they are apart. It is Theo who introduces Julia to radical politics.

Loyalty is a major theme in the book. Julia's loyalty to Theo and other women in the detention centre is a major motivator, which at times puts her life in danger. Theo's loyalty to his brother is likewise key. Of course the betrayal and manipulation of loyalty also features. As in Unspeakable Things the survivors have a loyalty that will not let go of the past and so blights the present. 

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, a structure that I seem to be seeing more and more in books. This can be frustrating at times and halfway through I was inclined to think that it was hindering rather than helping the story move forward. However on finishing the book I could see why this technique was used.

This is a fascinating book and, despite the graphic depictions of torture, one that demands to be read by anyone who wants to get a feel for the dilemmas facing good people living under tyranny.

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

Sunday 21 February 2016

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

A strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) “can do, will do” world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses. 

The setting: the early 1940s, New York—city of refuge, city of hope, with the specter of a red-hot Europe at war.

From the Goodreads description 

Unspeakable Things is a dark (very dark) and amazing book, both disturbing and beautiful. Although this is a book about the Holocaust and its consequences the unspeakable things in the title are for the most part sexual abuse rather than violent death. The phrase "Unspeakable Things" is first used in the book by the Russian countess Anna to describe what happens to her at the hands of Rasputin, who is called The Devil. Anna is a tiny woman with a  humpback and a long nose and whiskers growing out of a facial mole, which have earned her the nickname “the Rat.” But her "deformity" seems to attract the perverted attentions of not only the mad monk but also the German doctor Felix, a Nazi fetishist and asexual predator on the young children brought to him by their Jewish mothers. Note: if the subject of sexual perversion is difficult for you, do not read this book. 

But Anna is also genuinely loved by her cousin Herbert, the book's central character. Herbert is a fixer, who uses his connections and possibly magical powers, to bring fellow Jews out of Europe. He however cannot save everyone, in particular his youngest son Michael, and the gypsies of Europe. There is a cost for survival and the cost to Herbert is his son's loss and his wife's resulting madness. This is the central theme of the book - the cost and guilt of survival. It is in the context that the sexuality of the book should be seen. How do you deal with the unspeakable things that have happened to you and others, with the scars that are burned into your soul, and in Anna's case literally into your skin, by the devilish hands of others?
Hands play an important part in the story - Rasputin's devilish hand prints are burnt onto Anna's inner thighs, Herbert's wife is a pianist whose hands feverishly play on her bedsheet, and in a jar in Felix's fridge the severed little fingers of the Tolstoi Quartet tap out Schubert melodies. The jar of fingers are part of Felix's bizarre experiment in genetic engineering sponsored by the Fuhrer himself. Fed on a diet of good Teutonic foods (wurst etc), the fingers are being engineered to produce pure Germanic music. As you might be able to see from this, there are elements of satire and humour in this novel alongside the darkness I have written about above.

There are also passages of sublime beauty in the book. This is a writer who is also a poet and it shows. As in a poem it is important to understand that nearly everything is a metaphor and has more than one meaning. The severed fingers are metaphors for the exiles in New York, severed forcibly from their birthplace and confined in cramped single-room lodgings. Music pervades the book. Out on the streets of New York there are new "optimistic" rhythms and music, but the exiles are waltzing to the old tunes. The only way for the survivors to come to terms with their continued existence is to let go of the dead and for the dead to let go of them.  

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

Sunday 14 February 2016

Witchcraft Couture by Katarina West

Oscar Pellegrini is a talented fashion designer with a deadly enemy: his own critical mind. He destroys much of what he designs and has been drifting for years, gradually retreating from the fashion business he loves but holding on to his dreams of success.

A chance meeting with a former girlfriend triggers a creative crisis so deep that Oscar escapes to Russia, where he drinks and despairs like never before. Just when he thinks he has lost everything he discovers a magical machine that turns ordinary outfits into irresistible sartorial triumphs. Oscar takes the machine back to Italy – and before he knows it, he has become famous for his designs, and celebrities and socialites are fighting to be first to wear his gorgeous garments.

From the Goodreads description

I am not someone who is interested in fashion nor the industry that creates it and yet I found much to interest me in this novel. This is the story of a tortured genius, of the excruciating self doubt that cripples Oscar Pellegrini and what it takes to overcome it and at what price. That subject matter is true of any creative process and not just the fashion business, although arguably the fashion world is a particularly brutal one in which to be creative and so is an excellent choice for a novel.

I have often said in reviews that magic realism and ambiguity go hand in hand and they certainly do in this novel. With the exception of the last chapter, the novel is told in the first person by Oscar himself. This takes us into the tortured mind of a genius, who is far from a rational or reliable narrator. And whilst we at first sympathize with Oscar, it becomes very clear that he is not the sort of person you would want as a friend, son or employee. 

And what should we make of the Sampo, the magical machine that transforms his designs? In Finnish mythology the Sampo was a magical artifact that produces food/gold/good fortune for its possessor, (for more see Is his relationship with the machine a Faustian pact with the devil? Is the Sampo drawing its energy from Oscar's dying mother? Or is its magic simply due to Oscar believing in it and so gaining the confidence in his designs that he otherwise lacks? Or is it just a sign of its owner's insanity? You will be asking yourself these questions long after you read the final word.

Katerina West's writing is very descriptive: we see the world through the eyes of a man who finds inspiration in all sorts of places. Oscar's descriptions of colours are particularly impressive. But I found the pace dragging sometimes and I think Oscar's descriptions and vagaries may be the reason for this.
All in all,though, this is an interesting first book from a talented writer and of course if you are into fashion you will find an additional dimension to the book.

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

Sunday 7 February 2016

The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez

A quirky collection of short sci-fi stories for fans of Kij Johnson and Kelly Link
Assimilation is founded on surrender and being broken; this collection of short stories features people who have assimilated, but are actively trying to reclaim their lives. There is a concert pianist who defies death by uploading his soul into his piano. There is the person who draws his mother’s ghost out of the bullet hole in the wall near where she was executed. Another character has a horn growing out of the center of his forehead—punishment for an affair. But he is too weak to end it, too much in love to be moral. Another story recounts a panda breeder looking for tips. And then there’s a border patrol agent trying to figure out how to process undocumented visitors from another galaxy. Poignant by way of funny, and philosophical by way of grotesque, Hernandez’s stories are prayers for self-sovereignty.

Goodreads description

This short-story collection explores that border country between science fiction and magic realism in a way that reminded me of not only the stories of Kelly Link (as stated in the Goodreads description) but also of Elizabeth Hand and a number of other writers reviewed on this blog. As with those other writers' collections, only a few of the stories fall firmly within the realm of magic realism. My favourite stories (although not all are magic realism) were:

The Aphotic Ghost
A modern selkie story, which brings together marine biology, jellyfish, mountain climbing and a father's search for a missing son.

Los Simpaticos
A murder mystery with no speculative elements about the death of the star of a Spanish-language reality TV show. As he pretends to be a hitman to lure out potential hirers, there are no lack of suspects. 

More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give
This story is about a son trying to locate the site of his mother's murder at the hands of Che Guevara's death squads. When he gets the lead he seeks, he is offered the opportunity to communicate with the dead woman. This story starts very strongly, but I found myself questioning the ending. 

Bone of my Bone
A man, separated from his wife following his affair with another woman, starts to grow a horn in a strange reverse of the traditional portrayal of the cuckold's horns.

The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory
This is a story where sci-fi and magic realism definitely meet. As a result of scientists playing with quantum physics, unicorns from a parallel universe start appearing in the British countryside. Immediately they are the targets of ivory poachers who kidnap a young girl to attract the attentions of the shy beast.

The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria
My favourite story in the book is the last one. After the death of his mother, a young boy tries to get her back using santeria learned from a library book.  But of course magic is not that simple and the boy has to resort to santeria again. This story is more complex, developed and thought through than most of the others. 

This is an interesting collection and one which will appeal to fans of magic realism who also like science fiction.

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

Monday 1 February 2016

Interview with Smoky Zeidel

Having review Smoky's book The Storyteller's Bracelet a few weeks ago, I am delighted to welcome this talented writer to the blog to answer some questions.

Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?
I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, of course. Who doesn’t? In The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Clara’s psychic ability—her ability to talk to spirits, her gift for curses—are as natural for her as breathing. I think the fact so many magic realism authors are from Central and South America is because that sort of thing isn’t looked at as “crazy” in those cultures. They are considered gifts. 

Jose Saramago is another favorite. He’s from Portugal, and his Death With Interruptions is one of the finest (if toughest) books I’ve ever read. You actually fall in love with Death by the end of the book, but I don’t want to put any spoilers here, so I won’t say any more than that.

I hope Helene Wecker follows up The Golum and the Jinni with another magic realism book, because that—apparently her debut novel—was nothing short of brilliant. And I guess I should mention Haruki Murikami. I’m not as big of fan of his as some readers are, but I thought The Strange Library was one of the most fun books I read last year.

What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?
That’s a tough question. I have so many favorites, including those I mentioned already. But if I was stuck on a desert isle and could have only one magic realism book with me, it would be F.G. Hagenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo is my favorite artist, and I read everything I can get my hands on about her. This book absolutely blew me away. I was so enchanted with the ending, I had to go back and re-read it from the beginning so I could look for clues that lead to his ending.

Why do you write magic realism?
 I look at the world as a magical place. Perhaps it’s my more animistic way of looking at nature and life that is responsible, but I see magic everywhere I go. I talk to the trees, the rivers, the rocks, the desert, and they talk back. Oh, not in words, per se, but there is definitely a connection in my mind. My husband and I love to collect rocks, but I never take one without asking its permission. Sometimes, the rock is happy to be pocketed. Other times, I get the distinct impression I should leave it where it is, and I do. So, for me, it is natural to write magic realism, because, to me, magic realism is just what is.

Can you give us your definition of magic realism?  
I define magic realism as magic or supernatural occurrences happening in what otherwise is a “normal” setting and time. Books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are fantasy, because, for the most part, the story takes place in another world that does not exist. Same with the Harry Potter books. In both, part of the story is real: Dorothy’s life in Kansas, and Harry’s life with the Dursleys are normal settings with nothing supernatural about them, but most of those books take place in an alternate, very magical setting. But a book like House of the Spirits has Clara talking to spirits who come at her beck and call. While that has an element of fantasy to it, it’s magic realism, because not all the characters can do what she can do, yet those who know of her skills don’t question it at all. It’s part of their everyday existence.

Tell us about your latest magic realist book? 
My novel, The Cabin, was just released by Thomas-Jacob Publishing. In it, James-Cyrus Hoffmann has just inherited his grandfather’s farm, and with it a mysterious cabin deep in the woods on Hoffmann mountain, a cabin he has dreamed about since childhood. When James-Cyrus enters the cabin, he is vaulted back through time to the Civil War era, where he meets, Elizabeth, the brave young woman who lives there, and Malachi, a runaway slave. James-Cyrus’s neighbor, Cora, knows all too well the tragic history of the cabin. When James-Cyrus tells Cora about Elizabeth, Malachi, and his fantastic vault back through time, the two devise a plant to change the past and right a wrong that has haunted the Hoffmann family for generations.

While that might sound more fantasy than magic realism, it isn’t. While the magic in the book takes the characters by surprise at first, they don’t question it is happening, at least, not for long. The story is historically accurate as far as the setting and storyline about the Underground Railroad and the Civil War are concerned. The story itself was inspired by events that took place in my own family, events that were very much of this world.

The Cabin is available in print and in Kindle editions, as is my other magic realism novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet.