Sunday 27 March 2016

Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea

As I am unable to read books at the moment I am very grateful to Malcolm R Campbell, author of the excellent Conjure Woman's Cat, for allowing me to republish his review of Queen of America. This is the sequel to probably my favourite magic-realist novel The Hummingbird's Daughter, which I reviewed here.

“Although Urrea has stitched a seamless end to the saga initiated in The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Queen of America lacks the clarity of vision of its prequel. Having left behind Mexico’s rich landscape and languages, the Urreas — Tomás and Teresita, and the author as well — grasp for inspiration.” – New York Times 2011 review by Mythili G. Rao

If Urrea’s powers as an author of magical realism and his great-aunt Teresa’s powers as an inspiring healer reach their apex in The Hummingbird’s Daughter, they become a lingering, bittersweet denouement in Queen of America. Urrea writes in the novel’s notes and acknowledgements that “The story is not the history.” Writing a novel rather than a non-fiction account of his family’s history led Urrea on a twenty-year journey to pull together myths and stories and facts into a cohesive whole that is whole as an impression of what happened rather than–as he says–a textbook.

After she flees Mexico at the end of The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Teresa is carried by multiple tides more powerful than even her imagination can grasp. Initially, she settles with her father in a variety of locations in the Southwest. It’s closer to what they know, but it’s also dangerous inasmuch as the Mexican government still considers her an enemy of the state and persists in sending assassins to put an end to it. Until her father manages to land on his feet and start a profitable life in the States, finances are in short supply.

After suffering through an assault, Teresa leaves her family behind and looks for a way to continue her healing work elsewhere. Unfortunately, her upkeep and life are taken over by a consortium that primarily seeks profit out of her fame. Her life becomes, in today’s terms, a lengthy tour where she is at once visiting royalty and a caricature of her former self.

She experiences many wonders on this journey, including a prospective chance for love, companionship and normality. And she experiences many heartbreaks. In these highs and lows, readers will find her to be wonderfully human. Urrea knows his character and brings out her soul in this sequel.

By the time she frees herself from the sweep of events controlled by others, she has spent her capital. In many ways, it’s a well-deserved rest, one that she’s ultimately at peace with.
Urrea has handled her story with humor, more of his rich language, and a deep look into the psyches of the major characters. The story is told well and Teresa emerges as a complete person. While Urrea did not write a textbook and was free to interpret events (perhaps more truthfully as fiction than as facts) he is nonetheless constrained by the realities of Teresa’s life. No doubt, he would disagree. Suffice it to say, the historical Teresa did not lead a revolt against the Mexican government or become a catalyst for Indian rights and freedom while on tour, nor go on to accomplish great and mythic deeds in the U. S. If she had, Queen of America might have reached the stunning heights of its predecessor.

Teresa bloomed in The Hummingbird’s Daughter and faded as all flowers must in Queen of America. It is still a must-read for everyone who began the journey in The Hummingbird’s Daughter–for closure.

This review first appeared on Malcom's blog:

Saturday 26 March 2016


I am afraid I am unable to post at the moment. I have been suffering labyrinthitis for the last two weeks and it doesn't appear to be clearing anytime soon. The main symptom is vertigo when I look down or up and so reading is almost impossible.

Sunday 13 March 2016

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

The naked body of a teenage girl is found on the banks of the River Baztán. Less than 24 hours after this discovery, a link is made to the murder of another girl the month before. Is this the work of a ritualistic killer or of the Invisible Guardian, the Basajaun, a creature of Basque mythology?

30-year-old Inspector Amaia Salazar heads an investigation which will take her back to Elizondo, the village in the heart of Basque country where she was born, and to which she had hoped never to return. A place of mists, rain and forests. A place of unresolved conflicts, of a dark secret that scarred her childhood and which will come back to torment her.

Torn between the rational, procedural part of her job and local myths and superstitions, Amaia Salazar has to fight off the demons of her past in order to confront the reality of a serial killer at loose in a region steeped in the history of the Spanish Inquisition.

Amazon description

As I am sure I have said elsewhere on this blog, I have always had a liking for crime fiction. Within crime fiction there seems to be a growing sub-genre of magic-realist crime fiction. Eka Kurniawan's Man Tiger, which I reviewed here is longlisted for this year's International Man Booker Prize.  Then there are the works of Mia Couto, James Doss, James Lee Burke, Colin Cotterill, and others. Now we can add Dolores Redondo to the list.

The Invisible Guardian has already seen great commercial success in Europe, as well as being shortlisted for The International Dagger Award (a prize for best crime novels translated into English). So I came to this book with high expectations. If you are someone who reads crime fiction mainly to find out who did it, you are likely to be disappointed, as I worked out who the serial murderer was quite easily. But there is far more to this book than that.

In fact if I were to criticize anything in the book it would be that there is almost too much going on. The novel has so many themes, every character is provided with a substantial backstory, and the descriptions of the forest and countryside extend over many pages.

The story's setting in the Basque country in a town set in deep forested valleys is beautifully invoked by the author. It is an area steeped in pre-Christian traditions and beliefs, including in the Basajaun, a sort of Basque Bigfoot. It is these traditions that provide the magic realism in the story and which Amaia Salazar, of course, at first rejects.

Much of the tension in the book comes from the central character's struggles with the traumas of her childhood. These resurface in her consciousness as a result of both returning home and because of the nature of the murders that she is investigating. She is also struggling with a recalcitrant fellow male officer who resents her leading the investigation (something of a trope in detective stories) and her vicious older sister Flora. It was these psychological struggles that engaged me and kept me wanting to know more.

This is the first in a series of crime novels by the author and it will be interesting to see where Redondo is able to take Amaia, having revealed so much of her backstory in the first book. It will be interesting too to see if the magic realism makes it into book two.

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

Sunday 6 March 2016

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

Coyote Springs is the only all-Indian rock band in Washington State—and the entire rest of the world. Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes vocals and bass guitar, Victor Joseph hits lead guitar, and Junior Polatkin rounds off the sound on drums. Backup vocals come from sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water. The band sings its own brand of the blues, full of poverty, pain, and loss—but also joy and laughter.

It all started one day when legendary bluesman Robert Johnson showed up on the Spokane Indian Reservation with a magical guitar, leaving it on the floor of Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s van after setting off to climb Wellpinit Mountain in search of Big Mom.

In Reservation Blues, National Book Award winner Alexie vaults with ease from comedy to tragedy and back in a tour-de-force outing powered by a collision of cultures: Delta blues and Indian rock.

From the Amazon description 

Having read a lot of new magic realism books lately I decided that this week I would read and review a magic-realist classic. I hadn't read this novel before this week and boy was it a joy. Sherman Alexie's work is an example of what is great about magic realism. 

It shows without sentimentality the harsh reality of life on the reservation - the alcoholism, the poverty, the violence and, something I have seen myself in working with disadvantaged people, the dislike of those of their own who might be about to do something with their lives. There are good reasons why Coyote Springs sing the blues, apart from Robert Johnson's devilish guitar. But Alexie manages to portray all this in a novel which is at times funny, surreal, beautiful and, yes, magical. 

On the face of it a straightforward story well told, there are layers of meaning and imagery in Reservation Blues that give it depth and width. An example of this is the band's treatment at the hands of the Cavalry Records. Not only does this show the cynical exploitation of the Indian image and culture (the company prefers to dress up two white women as Indians than deal with the real thing), but also the record executives are called Armstrong, Wright and Sheridan. All three are the names of US cavalry commanders who led the genocide of the Indian Wars.

Dreams feature prominently in the book, adding both historical perspectives and insights into the past lives of the members of the band.The use of dreams is sometimes derided by critics as a cop-out, a shorthand, but Alexie sets up his use of dreams by explaining their role in native American culture and in the lives of the individual members of the band: Junior based all of his decisions on his dreams and visions, which created a lot of problems.

Over the course of the novel the characters and the backstories of the band members are revealed and the reader comes to understand and even like them - even Victor and Junior who start the book as bullies and drunks. Indeed the conclusion of Junior's story is haunting.

Magic pervades the book - the traditional magic of Big Mom, the burning strings of Robert Johnson's guitar and Thomas' storytelling magic, which climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched.  Victor fights against the magic and old beliefs, refusing to believe, but nevertheless the magic is there, like the ghostly horses screaming in the night. This book is the same, a magical book that stays with you.