Sunday 10 December 2017

Kneehigh Production of The Tin Drum

One of my first jobs was as the manager at the Puppet Centre Trust, an organization dedicated to promoting the art of puppetry in the UK. Some of the most impactful theatre shows I have seen utilized puppets. I love the way puppets can introduce magic into the real.

Kneehigh is a theatre company which has taken puppetry to the heart of its work and delivers magic realism in the theatre. As their website says they "love to create magic with partners, collaborators, co-producers and audiences across the world." Having last year mounted a production of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Kneehigh have now turned their attention to Gunter Grass' magic-realist masterpiece The Tin Drum. As with A Very Old Man Kneehigh have joined forces with British puppetry royalty the Wright family and the Little Angel Marionette Theatre.

The show has been touring Britain and has received rave reviews in regional and national media. I saw the show at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. The show is a rumbustious, loud, funny/dark, affair full of music and song, knockabout and great puppetry.

Inevitably translating a long complex book into a theatre show means that some things are lost. Choices have to be made. The main choice was to make the play musical/operatic. The second choice was to replace the second world war setting with a more ambiguous one - the play starts with the statement Once upon a war, which war doesn't really matter. The second choice is particularly relevant given recent events and makes one ponder how easily very ordinary men, like Oskar's father, can become drawn into supporting fascism. 

The puppet Oskar is just wonderful. Beautifully designed, his body is finely balanced making his movement natural. His slightly alien face can be read in many ways - childish, naive and yet judging the adult world that he chooses not to join. He has a solemn air and brings the necessary serious counterbalance to the slapstick fun generated by the actors. I wanted more of him. When Oskar is centre stage, as when his drum undermines the beat of a fascist rally, he takes the drama to another level. But he isn't at the centre nearly enough. In the novel he is the narrator; the book's point of view is his point of view, although we cannot be certain of the veracity of his account, which starts with the words Granted I am the inmate of a mental institution... The contrast in the choice of opening lines in the play and the book is a revealing one. At the end of the play the boy/puppet Oskar is replaced by the man/actor Oskar without explanation. And when the performers assembled to take a bow the puppet was absent. To my mind he really should have been there.

Monday 13 November 2017

The Shaman's Game by James D. Doss

For the Ute of Southern Colorado, the annual Sun Dance is among the most solemn and sacred of rituals. But too often recently Death has been an uninvited guest at the hallowed ceremony. None of the deceased has sustained visible, life-ending injuries, so Charlie Moon is reluctant to call it murder. Yet he knows there was nothing "natural" about the unexplained deaths of young and strong dancers, like the blue-armed Shoshone, Joseph Sparrow.
Daisy Perika is also aware of the events unfolding around her, but unlike her skeptical policeman nephew, she trusts the rumors of sorcery that travel like smoke on the wind. For there is much the eyes cannot see and the hands cannot touch; and the spirits have sent her words and signs warning there is great evil in her midst...and that there are many more corpses to follow.
The return of a childhood friend -- a beautiful Ute woman back from college to write a newspaper story revealing who, or what, is stealing men's lives -- has raised the stakes in Charlie Moon's investigation. With those he cares for deeply suddenly in harm's way, perhaps he should heed his friend Parris's suggestion that he look beyond the rational for answers. But Charlie has seen all too often the lethal results of hatred, bitterness and delusion. And it's these very real human failings he is determined to explore in order to catch a killer before Death darkens the Sun Dance once again.
Goodreads description
As regular readers of this blog will know I like mystery stories, whether magic realist ones or not. In the case of magic realist mysteries (such as The Shaman's Game) the magic brings another layer to the mystery - it introduces alternative motivations, different belief structures, additional mystery, and on occasion a different answer to the mystery. I will not tell you whether the latter applies to this book for obvious reasons.
I really enjoyed The Shaman's Game. James D.Doss is not a writer with whom I was familiar and had to go to a specialist crime bookshop to find his book (and then only one), which suggests that he may not be published in the UK. He was worth the effort. 
The Shaman's Game is the fourth book in the Charlie Moon series. Interestingly my copy says it is the fourth in the Shaman series. As Daisy Perika, detective Charlie Moon's aunt, is the shaman in the title this suggests there may have been a shift in the emphasis in the series. The balance between the two main characters in this book is pretty equal. This is in some ways indicative of the balance one finds in the genre between magic and realism. Charlie approaches the deaths of the sun dancers as a rational detective, looking for evidence and believing in rational answers. Daisy thinks he is ignoring the spirit world. There is a loving, if not always respectful, rivalry between the two. 
But the characters are more complex than that. Daisy may be the shaman, but she will back up her magic with practical plans to ensure the result she wants. When Daisy visits the pitukupf, the Ute leprechaun, she brings gifts for the little spirit, sets them down by the entrance to his lair and settles down to dream. When she leaves, she does not look back and verify that the gifts had been removed by the pitukupf. We read the debate in her head on the subject - to look back would be to show disrespect for the spirit, there was no need as she had seen the gifts in his hands in her dream. At the end of the book Charlie makes a similar decision, when he is confronted with the fact that his Ute belief systems may have been suppressed but are still there. 
It would be wrong to finish a review of Doss's work without mentioning the richness of his writing. His descriptions of the land and nature in which the story takes place are lovely and you feel how their homeland impacts on the beliefs of the characters. I can just see Daisy's lonely caravan with its creaky porch watched by three peaks, believed to have once been three sisters. Nor should I fail to mention that the book is strewn with wry humour, including some clever use of characters' thoughts contradicting their words. 
I recommend this book.

Thursday 28 September 2017

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

One night, George Duncan - decent man, a good man - is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.

Goodreads Description

Patrick Ness is better known for his books for young people, especially A Monster Calls and 
the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Now he has turned his hand to adult fiction and more particularly to magic realism. 

The Crane Wife is a modern take on a Japanese fairytale. In the original story a poor sailmaker helps an injured crane by pulling an arrow from her wing. The next day a beautiful woman arrives at his home, and soon becomes his wife.  Ness's tale is set in Britain with the central character, George, an owner of a printing company. In the original the sailmaker's marriage is destroyed by his financial greed, in Ness's it is his desire to know everything about his Japanese wife that is destructive. George is a nice but rather ineffective man who has a habit of losing women. It is his insecurity that undermines the relationship.  Also appearing in the book is George's daughter, Amanda, who in many ways has inherited George's insecurity but expresses it in aggression. 

George and his crane wife together make beautiful pictures combining George's cut paper designs and her feather art. These become highly collectible and suddenly George has an unexpected fame. The pictures form a Japanese story, which in turn is told as intermissions throughout the book. 

The Crane Wife is about many things. And one of them is of course storytelling.  

"No!" she said, suddenly sharp. "Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. The story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel."

The idea of other parallel versions is brought out in Ness' treatment of the fire at the climax of the book. Five times Ness writes - the fire began like this, each time giving a different version. We are left to make up our own minds. The book, like much magic realism, is full of ambiguity. We cannot be sure there is magic involved. There are alternative explanations. 

What did I make of this novel? Much as I wanted to love the story, and there were times when it was lovely, beautifully written, and thought provoking, I found it somehow lacking. Partly it is the problem of having the central character who is good and rather boring, partly it was a problem with the pacing, which was not helped by the crane wife intermissions. The ending really picked up the pace, but until that point the story driver didn't do it for me.  

Sunday 6 August 2017

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

This review first appeared on my Adventures in the Czech Republic blog, but in case you missed it, here it is:

In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible, "other Prague," overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads. Heir to the tradition and obsessions of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the long and  distinguished line of Czech  fantasists, Ajvaz's Other City—his first novel to be translated into English—is the emblem of all the worlds we are blind to, being caught in our own ways of seeing.
Goodreads description

It is one of several books I have read which portray an alternative Prague existing alongside the "real" Prague. I have reviewed some of them on my Magic Realism Books blog: including A Kingdom of Souls  by Daniela Hodrova,  Keeping Bedlam at Bay in The Prague Cafe by M Henderson Ellis, Gustav Meyrink's works including of course The Golem and of course Kafka's The Metamorphosis And there are more such books on my to-be-read list.

I am not surprised that Prague has almost spawned a sub-genre of place-based magic realism. During my first visit to the city, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, I was acutely aware of the magical or spiritual energy that seemed to flow out of Prague's ancient stones, rippling across the Vltava and climbing the steps to the castle and Emperor Rudolf's alchemical workshops. That magical echo is less audible now beneath the footsteps of eager tourists and the kerching of cash registers, but it is still there.

The Other City is set in a Czech winter, a time of year when I have always felt the Prague magic most acutely. Maybe it is because of the way the snow deadens sound and redraws the familiar outlines of buildings, smudging the boundaries between water, land and sky.  Ajvaz's Other City also emerges at night, something that is hard to imagine in the real city busy 24/7.

The alternative Prague that Ajvaz creates is too fantastical for my liking, closer to surrealism than magic realism. The author obviously had great fun inventing an amazing alternative world and mixing it in with the real Prague - "Customers at Cafe Slavia are seldom assaulted by sharks". I particularly loved the idea of the bases of the statues on Charles Bridge being used as stalls for tiny elks, but at times the weirdness just went on too long. I am perhaps too Anglo Saxon to appreciate this very Czech absurdism. By the way there are some great jokes about the Czech language in the book; "Case endings were originally invocations of demons." For this failed student of Czech, they still are!

It is hard at times, as the novel's central character pursues the Other City and is at times pursued by it's inhabitants, to see where the novel is going. But there is a resolution - a philosophical one, which comes to the central character in the last chapter.  Ajvaz is a researcher at the Prague Centre for Theoretical Studies and has published not only a book on Borges but also one called Jungle of Light: Meditations on Seeing and in many ways this book is also a meditation on seeing. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Thursday 3 August 2017


Having had to take a break from reviewing due to my heart attack and a family death, I am now back. I aim to be reviewing a book a week, as I did before, as soon as possible.

Again, my apologies to anyone waiting for a review, as I clear the backlog. Feel free to drop me an email to remind me that you are waiting. I won't mind.

Thursday 27 July 2017

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. 

Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.

Goodreads description

The Invention of Morel is one of those books which exist on the boundary of genres - magic realism, science fiction, philosophical fiction. But that does not matter, so often the best books are the most uncategorisable.  This is an amazing book:  only 100 pages long and yet so full of ideas, published in 1940 and yet so modern, indeed it is prescient in some of the ideas and themes, and as for the plot, well all I can say is Borges was right, this is a masterpiece. 

The book is written as a journal by a fugitive from the law, who in order to escape his punishment comes to an island that has the reputation of being a place of death, where everything, including anyone who visits, is dying. What crime the fugitive has committed (if any) is not made clear. Bioy Casares' approach is a class example of "less is more" in writing. A lesser writer might have been tempted to create a backstory, but by not doing so Bioy Casares not only keeps the story lean and to the point, but also introduces doubt and allows us to project our ideas on to the story. 

One day the fugitive sees a group of people in the villa, known as the museum, on the hill that overlooks the island. Among these newcomers is a beautiful woman, Faustine, with whom the fugitive falls in love from a distance. As detailed in the Goodreads description, Faustine was inspired by the author's obsession with the silent movie star Louise Brooks. 

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares—to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).
The fugitive's account has a nightmare quality. He is both terrified that he will be discovered -  indeed that the whole thing is a cruel trick on him by his pursuers - and unable to interact with Faustine and the others. He watches them from behind curtains, inside giant urns and as he realises that they cannot or will not see him. Then there are strange occurences - people appear and disappear, scenes are re-enacted, there are two suns in the sky, objects reappear in exactly the same place as a week earlier. And then there is the constant sense of death and decay - dead fish in the swimming pool, flowers wilting, etc.  We and the fugitive begin to wonder what is real. Bioy Casares introduces some footnotes by a fictional editor  just to add another level of uncertainty.

The most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

There is a reason for these strange occurences and that is the invention of Morel (Morel organised the group's island trip). More than that I cannot tell you without spoiling the book, although knowing will not prevent me from reading the book again. However I will read it with a different eye, seeing, I am sure, the brilliantly plotted clues that I missed or misread the first time, and enjoying the development  of philosophical themes. 

I commend this book to you. 

PS If this reminds you of the TV series Lost, it probably should do. The series seems to have been influenced by the novella, and if you look closely that influence is acknowledged on the screen when Sawyer is shown reading the book. But then as the Goodreads description says this is a hugely influential novel. 

Friday 21 July 2017

Welcome to the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2017

This is the first post in the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2017. This year 19 blogs are taking part. All are posting about magic realism. Below is a list of links to their posts to allow you to visit them. Each blog will have the same list at the bottom of their page, so you are able to hop from one post to another and in so doing discover new blogs and bloggers and read a wide range of posts about magic realism. 

What is Magic Realism?

Magical Realism incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction, film or art. You might find this post from a previous bloghop of interest: What is Magic Realism

The history of the Blog Hop
This is the fifth magic realism bloghop. I organised the first in July 2013 on the first anniversary of this blog. 

Some useful posts I wrote for previous blog hops
Magic realism resources 
Free magic realism
Magic Realist Writers from Around the World

Have fun, 

Regards Zoe Brooks

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Magic Realism Bookclub to read 100 Years Of Solitude.

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook group I am launching a monthly bookclub. Discussion starts May 1st.

The first book we will be reading is the book that in many ways started magic realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It also happens to be the first book of magic realism I ever read.

The book is available in kindle format in the UK for £4.99 (£3.99 for the audio download) and is often picked up for less in second-hand shops.

The Facebook Group's address is

Monday 20 March 2017

The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey

May 1959. From one side of St. Brigid’s Island, the mountains of Connemara can be glimpsed on the distant mainland; from the other, the Atlantic stretches as far as the eye can see. This remote settlement, without electricity or even a harbor, has scarcely altered since its namesake saint set up a convent of stone huts centuries ago. Those who live there, including sisters Rose and Emer, are hardy and resourceful, dependent on the sea and each other for survival. Despite the island’s natural beauty, it is a place that people move away from, not to—until an outspoken American, also named Brigid, arrives to claim her late uncle’s cottage.

Brigid has come for more than an inheritance. She’s seeking a secret holy well that’s rumored to grant miracles. Emer, as scarred and wary as Rose is friendly and beautiful, has good reason to believe in inexplicable powers. Despite her own strange abilities—or perhaps because of them—Emer fears that she won’t be able to save her young son, Niall, from a growing threat. Yet Brigid has a gift too, even more remarkable than Emer’s. As months pass and Brigid carves out a place on the island and in the sisters’ lives, a complicated web of betrayal, fear, and desire culminates in one shocking night that will change the island, and its inhabitants, forever.

The Stolen Child is a powerful example of how magic realism can give pyschological depth to a work. The small island, cut off for weeks from the mainland by the sea, is a world in itself. Or should I say two worlds because the two central characters, Emer and Brigid, are in different ways touched by that other world of Irish myth - the world of the fairy, the "Good People" as they are called. But the Good People are far from good, they are a sinister presence feared by the Islanders and in particular by Emer who is terrified by the belief that the fairies will steal her son when he gets to the age of seven.  Brigid on the other hand is looking for the healing waters of St Brigid's well, which will grant her the child that fate has denied her. St Brigid of course was/is herself an ambiguous figure, a pagan goddess before she was made a saint, so the modern Brigid is in some ways seeking a blessing from the fairies. The well she is seeking is as much an entrance into the underworld as was the beehive that turned on Emer, filling her with poison.

There are many themes in this book, too many perhaps, but for me the overriding one was that of motherhood. The island has lost many of its men to the mainland or foreign shores and on occasion to the cruel sea. St Brigid's Island is an island of women without a future and so the bearing of children is particularly symbolic. In the two sisters we see very different mothers. Rose is easy-going in her fecundity, bearing her handsome husband a succession of twins. Emer has the one son, Niall, whom she watches over obsessively. Then there is Brigid, who has had a succession of pregnancies all of which have resulted in the loss of the baby. Brigid's desperation for a child drives her to the island from which her mother had been driven, to seduce the emotionally wounded Emer and then cruelly push her away, thus lighting a touchpaper for the explosive final chapters.

Lisa Carey has said that she was inspired in part by a documentary Inishark: Death of an Island (Inis Airc: Bas Oileain), which you can view on Youtube. Here is the trailer on IMDb.

Carey does a wonderful job of evoking the bleak beauty of the island, the loneliness and closeness of its community. Her writing about the place is quite intoxicating and haunting and I was not surprised that she has found herself visiting and revisiting Inisboffin, just over the channel from Inishark. I was less taken by the sections in the book where we learn Brigid's backstory in America, just as I was less taken with her as character. I was fascinated by Emer, who is a wonderful character. She should be unappealing, given the way she can suck joy out of everyone she touches (everyone except for Brigid and Rose). But her love for her son and her desperate desire to protect him ring so true to this mother of a boy.

A powerful piece of magic realism, not suited to those who like their books to shy away from dark subjects.

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

Thursday 2 March 2017

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter

Photo; Alice Hendy

Last weekend I visited the Strange Worlds exhibition at RWA in Bristol, England. Angela Carter lived in Bristol from 1960 for nearly a decade and studied English at Bristol University. She authored the Bristol Trilogy (1966-1971) - three novels set in the city, in which, according to her friend and editor Lorna Sage, “art and life mingle so that life itself is often a form of art”.

I loved the exhibition and plan to write about it and some of the themes it inspired in more detail. But as the exhibition ends on the 19th March, here is a general post about the exhibition to encourage you to visit if you can.

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter is a dialogue between art, literature and the imagination by exploring the artists who influenced Carter and those who were inspired by her. Delving into the latent meanings of childhood fairytales and the twisted imagery of gothic mysticism, this exhibition pays homage to the dark and compelling drama of Carter’s visual imagination – brutal, surrealist and savage.

Photo; Alice Hendy

This unique exhibition, which reveals the profound impact of Angela Carter’s work on 21st century culture, includes painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, printmaking and film from the nineteenth century to the present day. Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Dame Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.

The exhibition also features works by major contemporary artists who were either directly influenced by Carter, or who explore themes found throughout her work. These include Ana Maria Pacheco - who will present her macabre and unsettling installation, The Banquet - Alice Maher, Eileen Cooper RA, Tessa Farmer, Nicola Bealing RWA, Marcelle Hanselaar and Lisa Wright RWA.

These works are shown alongside illustrations from Carter's books, manuscripts, photographs and personal artefacts that give a fascinating and intimate insight into her life and work.

The RWA is to be found at Queens Road, Bristol, BS8 1PX.


If you can't make it to the exhibition there is a fully illustrated catalogue, which includes reminiscences of those who knew and worked with Carter including close friends Christopher Frayling, Marina Warner, Christine Molan and her publisher, Carmen Callil - the founder of Virago Press. Other contributors include Jack Zipes, Victor Sage, David Punter and Kim Evans, director of the BAFTA award winning BBC documentary, Angela Carter’s Curious Room, filmed shortly before her untimely death.

The catalogue is available on Amazon:

Sunday 26 February 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

'Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.'

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods...

Goodreads description

I read Katherine Arden's novel in my Czech house, while outside some ice crystals like diamonds glistened on the deep pristine snow and others lined the boughs like white daggers. This is a country in which the Slavic spirits of the lakes, trees, thresholds and household stoves, still feature in popular culture. At the mill a few miles from my home they will burn an effegy of the Winter Goddess, Morana, to chase away winter. 

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in medieval Russia when the old Slavic gods and spirits were still very much part of everyday life and beliefs and the Orthodox church struggled to wean its followers off their pagan beliefs. This battle is at the heart of the book. When the priest attempts to turn the people from honouring the spirits who protect them, he brings disaster on their houses. The heroine, Vasya, who not only honours the old ways but actually sees the spirits around her, must seek the help of the Winter King. This sort of cultural clash is the stuff of magic realism, but I am not sure I would describe this book as magic realist.

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group we were recently having one of our regular discussions about definitions and genre and this book is a good example of how difficult it is to pigeonhole a book. This is in a way a novel in three parts and genres. The first part is straight historical fiction, the second magic realism and the third - fantasy. It is perhaps best defined as fairytale.

Vasya's problems take a turn for the worse when her father remarries and introduces a stepmother, who like Vasya can see the household spirits but unlike Vasya believes them to be devils. The stepmother character, although a fairytale archetype, is treated with understanding and indeed sympathy, and shown to be a victim of a society in which women are treated as no more than brood mares by their relatives, to be traded and married off without any say in the matter. Vasya is potentially also a victim of the same prejudice, but she is the wild girl of the description, both more modern and more pagan.

One of the strengths of the novel is Arden's writing, which is powerful and poetic. The story builds slowly, but that is no bad thing, although it did make the climax feel rather rushed. It is good therefore that this is the first book in a trilogy, as I am sure many readers will be left wanting more of the feisty Vasya.

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

Monday 20 February 2017

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

Here is the dreamy and bittersweet story of a family divided by politics and geography by the Cuban revolution. It is the family story of Celia del Pino, and her husband, daughters and grandchildren, from the mid-1930s to 1980. Celia's story mirrors the magical realism of Cuba itself, a country of beauty and poverty, idealism and corruption. 
Goodreads description

This is the story of a three generations of Cuban women set before, during and after the revolution. Yes, it is about the women's very different political attitudes and the tension it causes, but for me it is more about family relationships. It is about how past actions can sour and spoil the present, how secrets left unspoken are dangerous, and about the need to rebel against your parents and vice versa. Indeed in many ways the political differences are a way of expressing these other more personal feelings, something that I suspect is often too. As a friend once told me – the real reason you go into exile is to get away from your mother.

In Cuba, Celia, the grandmother of the family, is an active Castro supporter who we first meet scanning the sea for signs of a potential American invasion. Also in Cuba is Felicia, a mentally unstable mother of three, who is drawn into an Afro-Cuban santeria cult. Meanwhile in America there are Celia's oldest daughter Lourdes, who is fiercely anti-Castro and pro the American dream, and her rebellious daughter, Pinar, who is a punk artist and feels a telepathic affinity with her grandmother. The divide between the women is greater than the sea that divides Cuba and America and which plays such a symbolic part in the life of Celia, the grandmother of the family.

The narrative moves from character to character and backwards and forwards between the two countries; at times the narrative is humourous and at others sad. As it does so, we learn what really drives the characters apart. Tragically the reason for the tensions between the women is often the actions of men. One yearns for a resolution to the family conflict, but I will not spoil the ending for you.

The writing is beautiful, magical, and, as one might expect, sensual. The characterization works very well, although I would have appreciated just one well-adjusted family member. Sometimes I thought the writing a little too literary. The narrative strand of Celia's unsent letters to her lover seemed too obvious a device to be credible. But these faults did not inhibit my enjoyment of the novel.

Monday 6 February 2017

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Azaro is a spirit child, an abiku, existing, according to the African tradition, between life and death. Born into the human world, he must experience its joys and tragedies. His spirit companions come to him often, hounding him to leave his mortal world and join them in their idyllic one. Azaro foresees a trying life ahead, but he is born smiling. This is his story.
 Goodreads description

This is a novel that has been on my reading list from this blog's earliest days. It is generally regarded as a classic of modern magic realism. So when Open Road Media offered The Famished Road on Netgalley I jumped at the opportunity to read and review Okri's Booker Prize-winning work. Open Road Media is dedicated to releasing paper-based books as ebooks and I have been lucky enough to review several in the past.

Is The Famished Road magic realism? Many, including the author, have said no. And I don't blame them - it is hard book to categorize.

Okri comes from two traditions - that of the classical English-language fiction writers (he studied English literature in England) and the oral African tradition. Although Okri writes in English, his sensibility is very much an African one. For Azaro, his parents and indeed the other characters in the book, magic or the spirit world is part of their world view. Azaro , as a spirit child, is constantly moving between the two worlds. He sees the beckoning and sometimes threatening presence of spirits everywhere, especially during his forays into the forest, but also in the bars and of course on the road. In an interview he said:

I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death. You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality... Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language... We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life. I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.

If I am honest, there was rather too much spirit world in the book for me. Azaro is regularly kidnapped by spirits, and then runs away from them. He doesn't learn to stop wandering off in the forest, where many of these abductions take place. But then maybe my frustration stems from my need for a conventional (European?) story arc. The book took off for me when the reality of African politics starts to intrude into Azaro's life and his father finds a calling as a boxer. The magic is still there - for example his father's boxing bout with a man who is already dead - but it seems to have more of a purpose and the reality it operates in is more pointed. 

The characterisation throughout the book is firmly grounded in reality. The relationship of Azaro's parents is drawn with all its faults and all its love and you understand why this spirit child might choose to stay in the flawed world of humanity. The other character who stands out in the book is the bar and brothel owner Madame Koto. She is a complex, ambiguous and multilayered woman. At times kind, and others cruel, she dominates every scene she appears in. 
There is so much to write about this book and this brief review can only touch on a few issues. I can only say that this is an important book in the canon of magic realism and that Open Road Media are to be thanked for bringing it out as an ebook. I suggest if you interested in finding out more that you listen to the BBC interview with the author here: 

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

Sunday 29 January 2017

At Twilight They Return by Zyranna Zateli

Zyranna Zateli’s ambitious, multigenerational saga is the story of Christoforos, who first weds Petroula, and then Evtha, followed, after her death, by Persa; of his sexually promiscuous son Hesychios and the many bastard children left on the doorstep following the untimely demise of so many would-be daughters-in-law; and of the sisters, brothers, children, and grandchildren who inhabit a household and a history expanding to near-bursting. 
 Goodreads description

This is a complex family story in which personal tales are imbued with magic, classical legend, Greek folklore and wider history. The comparison with One Hundred Years of Solitude is obvious and deserved. 

Narratively it is more demanding than Marquez's masterpiece, being told through ten tales, which move backwards and forwards chronologically and which focus on different characters in the story. The tales are interrelated, although it is not always clear how at first.  Moreover, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a long book - it took me two weeks to read. 

The style is fascinating. The narrator's voice is sometimes brought to the fore, addressing us, the readers, directly and with familiarity. It is as if these tales are being told by elderly family members years after the event to Christoforos' descendents, which would justify how the non-sequitur nature of the ten tales. Sometimes I was reminded of the function of the classical Greek chorus, commenting on the central characters' actions directly to the audience. 

This novel is set at an interesting time in the history of Greece, when the centuries-old culture is beginning to be overtaken by a more modern world. That old culture was supported by an oral tradition, which in turn is reflected by the book's narration.

I was often reminded of vernacular folktales with their roots in classical Greek legends. For example: there is the story of Hesychios, a man so handsome that young women are bewitched by him and, having conceived his child, all die in childbirth. And yet his and the other tales are very much based in reality. Indeed the magic is barely visible. It is less overt that Marquez's. It is as if it is somewhere off to the side of your vision and when you try to look for it, you are not sure it was ever there. There is a psychological robustness about the actions and thoughts of the characters that is very modern. 

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book and found it a fascinating read. Just as not of all of you are enamoured with Marquez's seminal work, not of all of you will like this book. But there will be many that do. 

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

Thursday 19 January 2017

The Tremble of Love by Ani Tuzman

A novel inspired by the legendary spiritual master, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezar, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Good Master of the Name, who beckoned forth love from the hearts of rag pickers, ruby merchants, midwives, and murderers.

Poor orphan. Simpleton. Harder to tame than the wind.

He hears what they call him.

But he listens to the presence his father promised would never leave him.

Yisroel finds his way to those who nurture his healing gifts and rare compassion—until he embraces a destiny he cannot yet fathom nor deny any longer.

Honoring women, children, and the poor as his teachers. Celebrating life’s simplest deeds as worship. Praying with joyous abandon. Loving without condition. Yisroel’s “irreverent” practices threaten the established authorities—among them an embittered rabbinic leader with a mission of his own: to destroy the irrepressible master known as the Baal Shem Tov and his growing community of followers.

Goodreads description 

I find myself at a disadvantage in reviewing this novel. The subject matter of the novel is the life of great Jewish religious thinker and founder of the Hasidic Judaism. I am not Jewish, nor do I have much knowledge of Jewish thought. The Tremble of Love A Novel of the Baal Shem Tov is a long book (over 500 pages on my kindle) and one that should be read slowly, allowing for meditation. In some ways it is itself a mystical experience. Unfortunately reviewing one book a week is not conducive to such an approach. I therefore am sure I missed much and this review is not as complete as it could be. That said I still got a great deal out of novel, as Ani Tuzman's fictional account of the great man's life is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction.

One of the issues facing the author must have been the absence of historical data about the rabbi's life. Some of the evidence is closer to legend than historical fact. But we do have the legacy of his teaching and that combined with folk memories allows this book's account to feel authentic to his spirit. In any case this is a novel not a historical biography and this liberates the author to develop certain themes that may or may not be substantiated historically. The most obvious of these is the active role of women in the rabbi's life and teaching. The central character is often seen through the eyes of women, who find liberation in the rabbi's teachings and attitudes. Important in contributing to the book's authenticity is the portrayal of the society, buildings and everyday life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1700s. There are lots of small details which all come together to give the reader a sense of being there.

One of the highlights of last year's reading for me was the book Laurus. This was another long fictional historical biography of a holy man. It is perhaps unfair of me to compare the two books, but it is instructional. In Laurus we see inside the central character's head, understanding so far as it is possible the emotional turmoil and trauma that lead his pursuit of God. We do not get the same insight in this book, instead we see the central character from the viewpoint of others, and we see the transformative impact he has on them. Of the two approaches I preferred the former as I think it allowed for more drama, but then the character in Laurus is entirely fictional and perhaps Ani Tuzman did not feel she could take such a liberty with a real holy man. In other ways the two books have much in common – the theme of course, but also the sense of time and place.

Having read this novel, I want to find out more about the historical Yisroel ben Eliezar and his teachings.

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

Monday 16 January 2017

Froelich's Ladder by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

Uncle Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his perch atop a giant ladder. When he’s discovered missing, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked trek across a nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs. 
 Goodreads description

This is a tall tale, literally in the case of the fourth highest ladder the world has ever seen. And it is in the tradition of American tall tales - Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, etc - a story form suited to the bravura of the frontier world in which Froelich's Ladder is placed.

After his brother takes the girl he fancies, Froelich climbs up the ladder in a huff and stays there, growing food between the rungs and communicating with his brother and then his two nephews by a sort of morse code. Then one day the knocking from on high stops: Froelich is missing and one of his nephews sets out to find him while the other props up the ladder.

The hunt for Froelich takes the central character and the reader into a wild west where the fanciful and the real exist alongside each other. Parents be warned: the story turns from picaresque folklore to the threat of sexual and/or physical violence at times.

One of the best things about this book is that it features two strong-willed independent female characters more than succeeding in a man's world. Something I always like to see. 

Whilst the final resolution(s) seemed a bit rushed to me, this is an entertaining undemanding read.

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