Tuesday 24 May 2016

The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman by Robin Gregory

Moojie Littleman is not just another orphan with extraterrestrial friends, he is not just a kid who falls into a series of magical, mystical misadventures involving love and family and watermelons. He is, above all, the most unlikely and powerful hero ever known. 

Moral allegory, mysticism, and lyrical prose, THE IMPROBABLE WONDERS OF MOOJIE LITTLEMAN tells the story of a disabled boy who is sent to St. Isidore's Fainting Goat Dairy, where determination to “belong” fuels his self-discovery. A surprising destiny awaits him if he can survive one last terrifying trial.

Goodreads description

Robin Gregory is a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group I run and I always enjoy her contributions to discussions there, so I leaped at the chance to read and review her book. One of the issues we often discuss is where to place our books, this question is very relevant to The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman. It could be fantasy, science fiction or magic realism. It could be for adults or for young adults or middle-graders.  

The story's hero is a disabled boy who has some magical powers - the ability to heal being one and occasionally the power of levitation - but those wonders really don't help him much with his troubles. Having lost his parents twice (he is an orphan and then his adoptive mother dies and his father deserts him), Moojie is desperately in need of a family. He grows up with his gruff and unsympathetic grandfather, with whom he has a complex relationship. He also has an interfering aunt, who at first seems a caricature but who develops into someone as complex as his grandfather. 

When Moojie meets the lighteaters (or hostiles as his grandfather calls them), he decides he wants them to be his family instead. They are exotic, so philosophic they talk in riddles a lot of the time, and then there is a beautiful lighteater that the adolescent Moojie falls in love with. In the end when the lighteaters are about to leave, Moojie is forced to decide which "family" he wishes to be with. I was struck that Moojie's feeling are often shared by children, who wonder what it would be like to have another family than their own.

I very much liked the complex characterization of the key characters in the novel and the way the complexity is revealed as Moojie's own character grows. The lighteaters however are less developed, partly because of the riddles and partly because of their otherness. 

The book is full of philosophy and lessons - the role of forgiveness being the most prominent - and I can see why some people have compared it with Paul Coelho's work. This is done without being heavy-handed, something I found offputting in The Alchemist. I am sure a lot of parents will encourage their children to read this novel for that reason.

But were my son in middle grade I would not buy it for him. When he was twelve John was a picky reader and unless immediately taken by the story would abandon it. Most of the book's pacing is slow and although it really picks up at the end and gets exciting, my son would have given up by then. The other reason is the language. Gregory writes beautiful poetic prose, full of lovely descriptions. But there are a lot of words I did not know in the book and which I wasn't always able to work out from their context.  I assume these words are American dialect words and John and I are British. Maybe the publisher might like to consider a glossary or similar for the British market.  

Those quibbles aside there is much to love in this book, as shown by the list of awards it has received (current finalist Indiefab Best Books of the Year, Library Journal Indie California Book Collection 2016, Gelett Burgess Children's Book of the Year Award 2015, Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Books Dec/2015, The Wishing Shelf Adult Fiction Award 2015).

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

Sunday 15 May 2016

Albina and the Dog Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky

A darkly funny, surreal novel set in Chile and Peru, Albina and the Dog Men is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sprawling modern myth in which sexual desire appears as a dangerous and generative force that mutates and transforms, unraveling identities and rending the social and moral fabric of a small town... When two women, an amnesiac albino giantess and a woman called The Crab, arrive in this South American desert town, their otherworldly allure and unfettered sensuality and turns men into wild animals.

A modern-day Kafka story on hallucinogens, with strong doses of mysticism and horror, Albina and the Dog Men reads like an ancient folk tale whispered at night, fused with an urgent critique of contemporary society. Its essence is dark magical realism that throws into question the nature of what it is to be human.

Goodreads description 

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group a discussion has started about the role of surrealism in magic realism and whether the two are distinct. This book highlights that the boundaries between the two are blurred. 

Jodorowsky is best known for his work as a film director, but he is talented in many fields - Wikipedia  describes him as a film and theatre director, screenwriter, playwright, actor, author, poet, producer, composer, musician, comic book writer and spiritual guru. 
It is worth examining Alejandro Jodorowsky's magic-realist and surrealist heritage. Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 to Jewish Ukranian parents. As we have seen in other books reviewed on this blog, there are strong magic-realist South American, Jewish and Eastern European traditions and Jodorowsky was heir to all three. From 1950 he divided his time between France and Mexico. In Mexico he became friends with the British surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, whose book The Hearing Trumpet I reviewed in the early days of this blog. When I first read Albina and the Dog Men and before I researched the book's author, I was very much reminded of Carrington's work of magic realism. 

The other book I was reminded of was Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry, whose monstrous and remarkable central character not only is called the Dog Woman but has the same elemental strength as Jodorowsky's two central female characters. But while I consider both Carrington's and Winterson's novels to be magic realism, I do not find Albina and the Dog Men to be so. For me there is not enough realism in this book to be magic realism. No this sexy, raucous, mystical and amazing book is just too surreal.

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

Sunday 8 May 2016

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry

Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.

Goodreads description

This novel is another example of magic-realist mystery fiction. It is also a book for the young adult market, so let me start this review with a word of caution: I am not remotely a young adult. I am a middle-aged woman in her late fifties, so I am definitely not the book's primary market.

The mystery angle is that girls go missing on the island of Puerto Rico, only to wash up on the beach covered with sores. When the latest girl is the central character's new girlfriend, he finds himself drawn into a desire to find out what happened to her. Is someone killing these girls and if so, why? The magical-realist angle is present in two ways: firstly the cursed girl herself and secondly the other stories told by the señoras about the spirits of the island. 

The idea of a heroine who is poisonous and who needs to be surrounded by poisonous plants is not a new one - we encountered it a couple of years ago in Lisa van Allen's The Night Garden. It is handled well in this novel and fits with the lush vegetation of the Caribbean. The Puerto Rican traditional tales are less to the fore - there are hints in the novel about them but their contribution to the story is not fully developed. 

I found the mystery in the novel disappointing. There is no attempt to develop false leads. The murderer's identity was obvious early on, indeed was something of a cliche. The murderer's attempt to implicate the central character was also predictable. 

The central character, Lucas, is not particularly likeable.  He is an alien in the island and at the same time is alienated from his American family. He can see how much his father, and by default he, is disliked by the locals, but he still sometimes behaves as a typical rather selfish and spoiled Western teenager. Although he talks about his distress over his girlfriend's death, he doesn't really display much in the way of grief. However, faced with the disappearance of a little girl and the determination of Isabel, the cursed girl, Lucas steps up to the mark. 

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

Sunday 1 May 2016

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

A city-dwelling executive heads home to take over his brother's gas station after his mysterious disappearance, but all he finds at home are mysteries and ghosts. The bleak industrial landscape of now-war-torn eastern Ukraine sets the stage for Voroshilovgrad, the Soviet-era name of the Ukranian city of Luhansk, mixing magical realism and exhilarating road novel in poetic, powerful, and expressive prose.
Goodreads description

Wow, this is a difficult book to write about. Throughout the book I was reminded by Pedro Peramo by Juan Rulfo. The two novels focus on a man returning to a home town which is inhabited by ghosts. The similarity isn't simply a matter of sharing a central theme, but also in the way the writer disorientated me. The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Herman, who seems at times to be hallucinating or on drugs - or maybe he is just experiencing the surreal nature of life in his part of the world.
The novel is set in the lawless land of eastern Ukraine, where smugglers cross the Russian border with contraband electrical goods, guns, and petrol, and battle with farmers. It is a land where the gangsters are government officials, where refugees troop towards the freedom of Europe, and ghosts play football with the living. This world of black soil rich in crops, oil and the hidden relics of the German army's retreat from Stalin's forces is brilliantly evoked by the writer. The book veers from poetic lyricism to brutal realism. And sometimes we get both at the same time, a feat I would have thought impossible, but Zhadan pulls it off. The other element that might surprise you is the level of bizarre humour that runs through the book. There is an amazing gypsy funeral, even the hymn at which had me chuckling:
When the Lord takes you by the hand and leads you down the yellow brick road,
When you leave this strange country where the weather and utilities cause constant vexation,
When your young and handsome face yellows in photographs from your trip to Gurzof,
Our loving family, including all the sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, and more distant relations, will follow your lead.

The description refers to Voroshilovgrad as a road novel and the section at the back of the review copy I received referenced Easy Rider. The road in this novel is either full of potholes or made of  yellow bricks. The story doesn't just refer to The Wizard of Oz, but shares some of its themes - going on a journey and finding your home, and the importance of friendship. The novel's plot isn't the most conventional and the ending is not as conclusive as one might expect, but these things are to be expected in the context of Herman's uncertain world. 
I received a copy of this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review.