Monday 27 June 2016

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov

Stork Mountain tells the story of a young Bulgarian immigrant who, in an attempt to escape his mediocre life in America, returns to the country of his birth. Retracing the steps of his estranged grandfather, a man who suddenly and inexplicably cut all contact with the family three years prior, the boy finds himself on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey, a stone's throw away from Greece, high up in the Strandja Mountains. It is a place of pagan mysteries and black storks nesting in giant oaks; a place where every spring, possessed by Christian saints, men and women dance barefoot across live coals in search of rebirth. Here in the mountains, the boy reunites with his grandfather. Here in the mountain, he falls in love with an unobtainable Muslim girl. Old ghosts come back to life and forgotten conflicts, in the name of faith and doctrine, blaze anew.
Goodreads description

There is something about borderlands that are particularly conducive to magic realism. In a way they are a physical geographical manifestation of a key element of magic realism: the meeting of cultures and worlds. I was reminded as I read Stork Mountain of another magic realist book I read and reviewed recently Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan. Both are books about borderlands, both feature an aimless young man returning to a family homeland in search of a family member. Of the two books, although I enjoyed Voroshilovgrad, I prefered Stork Mountain. 

Stork Mountain is Zhadan's first novel; his collection of short stories East of West was and still is on my magic realism to-read list. It may be a first novel, but the story is expertly put together. Nothing and no one is quite what they seem. The denouement at the end took me completely by surprise and I am usually good at spotting such things. Like many a good magic-realism novel the past and the present, the myth and the here-and-now are woven together, and family history repeats itself or at the very least has echoes (sometimes misleading ones). Similarly the magic element is so woven into the story that at times the reader is not aware of it. 

At its heart this is a story about relationships, in particular about the central character and his grandfather. There is a wonderful humanity about this book. All the characters are flawed, and when they respond to each other they do so in interestingly flawed ways, because they do not understand one another In addition to the protagonist's relationship with his grandfather, there is his longing for Elif, a girl so damaged by the relationship with her father that any hope of a relationship seems doomed. 

I recommend this book to you and wait for Miroslav Penkov's next novel with great interest

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

Sunday 12 June 2016

Perfect Family by H Lovelyn Bettison

Sadie always wanted the perfect family: a husband, a son, a dog, a house in the suburbs. For a little while she had it all. Then after an accident one afternoon, her son starts acting oddly and displaying strange new abilities. His new behavior threatens to bring to light a secret that she's been keeping for years. Will she be able to hold her family together or will the truth tear them apart?
Goodreads description 

I enjoyed this novella by a fellow member of the Magic Realism Facebook Group. In another writer's hands the plot could so easily have become somewhat hackneyed horror or sci-fi but Bettison chose to take the lighter, more nuanced magic realism route, which of course I prefered.

It is difficult to write about the story without giving away the plot twists that the author has expertly woven into the novella. The story is in someways a variation on the changeling child archetype, which has appeared in folk and fairy tales since time immemorial.

As this is a novella, inevitably the characterization is not as developed as it would be in a full-length novel. I would have liked to have known more of the central character's backstory. Why makes Sadie so desperately need to be a mother? Why does she find it impossible to talk to her husband about her secret? Although in the resolution Sadie is said to have resolved this, without the backstory it is hard to understand why.

Although the final scene was pure magic realism, I did not see it coming and found it moving and enchanting. A lovely little book.

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

Thursday 9 June 2016

1001: The Qaraq by Stephen Weinstock

Sahara Fleming experiences disturbing visions. One is a lifetime as a Red Isle goddess harboring a deadly grudge. Another gives her an uncomfortably intimate view of a fourth century Persian orgy. Sahara suspects these images are more than vivid hallucinations, but she dismisses them as stress. She's four months pregnant and married to Amar, an emotionally aggressive stockbroker unwilling to be a father.

When a mysterious circle of neighbors plants clues about her visions, Sahara realizes their true meaning. Sahara and her neighbors are a qaraq, a group of intertwined souls who come together lifetime after lifetime. Invited to the group's secretive meetings, Sahara hears their stories and learns her stormy marriage goes back centuries.

Like a modern day Scheherazade attempting to save her marriage, Sahara shares the past life stories with Amar. But as her karmic knowledge grows, so does Amar's jealousy. She must abandon the qaraq or risk losing her family.

Goodreads description

This novel is a puzzle. I don't mean it is difficult to understand, but rather that in reading the book you find yourself joining Sahara and her qaraq friends in trying to puzzle out what the visions mean and how they connect. You might like to make notes, as there are lots of visions spread over many centuries and indeed millenia. It is not always clear who is who, as some names change, nor is it always clear whose visions are being related, but that is part of the puzzle. And moreover as Sahara and the Qaraq are also solving the puzzle you do not get lost (unless the author wants you to). 

Stephen Weinstock acknowledges his debt to the Arabian Nights, which influences both some of the stories and the structure. The first story directly references Scheherezade (with Sahara as Scherezade). There are seventy-seven stories in total, so this is a long book and the first in a series of eleven, with a total of 1001 chapters. Stephen Weinstock has set himself a serious task, especially as the stories have different narrative voices and styles according to the person recalling and recounting them. I will be interested to see if he manages to sustain it over eleven books. 

Then there is the story of Sahara and the other members of the qaraq. For me the book is more satisfying as a series of stories, than as a story about a woman in a stormy marriage.

If you are interested in story telling, puzzles, reincarnation, and kharma, this is a book for you.

I received this book free from the author (he is a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group) in return for a fair review.