Friday, 25 November 2016

Unfortunately I had a heart attack a week ago and, although I am now recovering, I am currently unable to post. I apologize to those writers and publishers who are waiting reviews. I will get to them when I am well.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin was a titan of modern German literature. This collection of stories--astonishingly, the first collection of his stories ever published in English--shows him to have been equally adept in shorter forms.

Included in its entirety is Döblin’s first book, The Murder of a Buttercup, a work of savage brilliance and a landmark of literary expressionism. Mortality roams the streets of nineteenth-century Manhattan, with a white borzoi and a quiet smile. A ballerina duels to the death with the stupid childish body she is bound to. We experience, in the celebrated title story, a dizzying descent into a shattered mind. The collection is then rounded off with two longer stories written when Döblin was in exile from Nazi Germany in Southern California, including the delightful “Materialism: A Fable,” in which news of humanity’s soulless doctrines spreads to the animals, elements, and molecules of nature.

Goodreads description

Alfred Doblin is not as well-known as he should be. It is a sign of how insular English-language publishing has been and how easily it is for magic realism lovers to get a distorted view of the history of the genre and its major writers. This collection of his short stories published in the NYRB Classics series and translated by Damion Searls starts to address this. The style of magic realism you get here is a sometimes dark fabulism shot through with humour. I do not know how much Doblin's work was influenced by Kafka's. Is it merely a coincidence that two of the stories, The Metamorphosis and The Little Fable, have the same titles as two Kafka stories?

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of twelve short stories written between 1904 and 1911. Part 2, Later Tales, were written between 1935 and 1945. I don't usually mention the dates of the works, but I think it is remarkable that Doblin was playing with forms, such as flash and micro fiction, which I tend to think of as modern. Not all the stories are short; indeed Traffic With The Beyond, about how a medium is persuaded to contact the spirit world in order to solve a murder, novella length.

The early works tend to be dark, often displaying Doblin's fascination and discomfort with women's bodies. In The Ballerina and the Body the central character learns to tame her body to her will: how to compel her elastic ligaments, her too-straight joints, but then her body is stricken with a terrible disease and she is unable to compel it to do anything. Of course this story is still relevant today. Young women are still compelling their bodies and becoming sick with eating disorders as a result.

Whilst you will find Doblin's humour in the early stories, it really shines in the second half of the collection. Sometimes the humour comments on politics and society as in The Little Fable (the people... to the south celebrated freedom so much that they kept it locked up in an undisclosed location in the ruler’s own castle and never let anyone get near it).

And sometimes the humour is basically absurd - as in the story Max, in which a mother adopts a hippopotamus as a brother to her daughter.

I am very grateful to NYRB classics for allowing me a copy in return for a fair review and I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in European magic realism.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Immortal Life of Piu Piu by Bianca Gubalke

Set in a land of shifting realities – the Western Cape coast of South Africa, between Nature’s paradise and a ruthless world – and based on the heartbreaking true story of a human-animal bond, this magical journey reveals how one powerful girl and the wild creatures who are her constant guides, join in the ultimate adventure: to unlock the mystery of life after death.
Goodreads description 

The Immortal Life of Piu Piu is listed as Metaphysical & Visionary on Amazon and that is very much what it is. The book aspires to make the reader discover "how your feelings and emotions reveal the secret of your own life. What you are not the vibration of remains invisible to you." to quote the Amazon description.  

The novel opens with the central character and her companions on a spiritual plane before she and they embark on another round of existence. As you will realize, the story is predicated on the concept of reincarnation. The narration then shifts to the story of Piu Piu - an Egyptian goose adopted as a chick by Pippa, a feisty and spiritual young girl. The story is populated with humans and talking animals, for this is a world in which there is communication between all living beings. 

It seems to me that the philosophy of the novel causes some problems with narrative tension in the book. I would have preferred it if the opening scene had been omitted, as it meant that I approached the story already knowing that the characters were and would be reborn. The concept could have been either slowly or at the dramatic ending.

The Western Cape setting of the novel is beautifully portrayed and it strikes me that perhaps in such an environment it is easier to feel a oneness with nature and the parallel nature of time (Pippa also feels the presence and communicates with her dead ancestor) than in more urban environments. It is a oneness that also accepts the presence of death and rebirth, which is symbolized by the terrible bushfire that occurred when Pippa's mother was heavily pregnant with her daughter.

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook group there have been several discussions about how magic-realism writers and readers often have a sense of mysticism, although not all writers are as transparent about it in their writings as Bianca Gubalke. The novel's mysticism (like magic realism as a genre) will not appeal to all readers, but those readers that are open to it can look forward to more books in Dance Between Worlds Series.

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

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

A chilling mystery - where superstition and myth bleed into real life with tragic consequences.
Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth - but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie's death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the 'Hidden People' supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away . . .

Goodreads description

In time for Halloween, I bring you a review of a psychological horror story set in Victorian Yorkshire. The novel opens in London when the protagonist has his only meeting with his pretty cousin and future murder victim. They are at the Great Exhibition, an event that celebrated the triumphs of science and engineering of Queen Victoria's Britain. When Albie arrives in Halfoak after Lizzie's death, the church clock shows two times - London time and local time. Such a clock was not uncommon in that period, the arrival of the railways had highlighted the irregularity of time-keeping across the country. And it is also a symbol of the world into which Albie is stepping. The metropolis may have celebrated modern science, but in the countryside ancient beliefs (dating to pre-Christian times) continued. 

Littlewood's prose is modeled on that of Victorian novels, partly because it is narrated by Albie. A Yorkshire resident born and bred, the author is also able to reproduce the dialect of the locals accurately. Inevitably this means that the reader is reminded of Wuthering Heights, a reference that helps increase the sense of unease in the reader. 

The story unfolds slowly, perhaps too slowly, as Albie is drawn into the superstitions of the village and begins to doubt what he believes to be real. Is he going mad? Is there a rational answer to what happened to Lizzie and is now happening to Albie? When Albie's young wife arrives and they move into Lizzie's cottage and the site of the murder, things take a turn for the worse. Albie's obsession with his dead cousin causes tension within the marriage (how long has that been going on, we wonder). As his wife exhibits strange behaviour, Albie begins to wonder if she too is a changeling. Is history going to repeat.

Is this a magic-realism book? Well, it depends on how you read it. Littlewood offers a shocking alternative answer to why Lizzie died, but the ambiguity that pervades the novel continues to the end.

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

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic, The Angel of History follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS. Hovered over by the presence of alluring, sassy Satan who taunts Jacob to remember his painful past and dour, frigid Death who urges him to forget and give up on life, Jacob is also attended to by 14 saints. Set in Cairo and Beirut; Sana'a, Stockholm, and San Francisco; Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives.
Goodreads description 

This is a powerful portrayal of an exile. Jacob is always the outsider, a man who has never been at home anywhere: a small boy in a brothel, a Muslim boy sent to a Catholic orphanage, an Arab in Sweden and the USA. He was always too small, too brown, too gay.  

Jacob mourns his American doctor lover and a circle of friends swept away by AIDS. Since their death Jacob has been in a form of denial. Now as the homelands of his childhood burn under the bombs and missiles of his adoptive country, Jacob experiences a psychological crisis which brings him to the waiting room of a clinic. From his memories, it is clear that not even his gay "family" had been entirely kind to Jacob. The nearest thing he has ever had to a family in some ways was in the brothel, where he was taken under the wing of the madam, but he lost that as his mother sent him to be with his father. Only his father didn't want to know his son and sent him to the orphanage, where he is converted to Christianity and where fourteen saints enter his life and act as guides to the young man.

You can read the saints as a sign of Jacob's mental state, or you can read them as real. Many are, like Jacob, rejected mongrels, rejected by the Catholic church as saints. More worrying for Jacob is the appearance of Satan, whose voice he hears and whom he sometimes sees. If that sounds stark and bleak, do not worry. Alameddine handles the story dextrously. The narrative is shot through with touches of humour, particularly in Satan's interviews with the saints, and beautiful prose. This is a book which merits thoughtful reading: there are also some erudite references here, including to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and structurally the narrative jumps between memories, plus Jacob isn't an entirely reliant narrator. But The Angel of History is worth the effort.

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

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

They were like family to me

Helen Maryles Shankman's excellent novel In the Land of Armadillos, which I reviewed on the 31st January, has been relaunched under a new title.

You will find the review here:

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Beautiful Ape Girl Baby by Heather Fowler

A rollicking ride of a magical realist, coming-of-age story that explores sex and gender in ways that will have you laughing out loud. Be prepared to travel light with a somewhat murderous female protagonist en route across the country - where it's so hard to be a strong, violent, little ape girl - looking in all the wrong places for forever kinds of love.
Goodreads description

It takes a lot of courage from a writer to start a novel with the protagonist brutally murdering another character and it takes great skill to then develop the protagonist so that the reader is soon rooting for her, but that is just what Heather Fowler does in Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. Beautiful (that's her name and certainly not an adjective) is a wonderful creation, who reminds me of Jeannette Winterson's Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry, another bawdy and unapologetic murderess with whom the reader empathizes. Like Dog Woman, Beautiful is a complex character with many redeeming qualities - generosity, compassion, loyalty to her friends.

Beautiful grows up isolated from the real world on her father's estate, where elaborate fantasies are created to make her believe she is both normal and beautiful. Statues of hirsute ape men and girls surround her pool. She is told the "friends" her father pays to keep her company are in awe of her beauty. But when Beautiful takes a road trip to a) find a lover and b) meet her idol, whose radio show - Strong as an Animal Woman - has inspired her, Beautiful finds that everything she believed and understood has been based on falsehoods. As readers we know that Beautiful's naivety places her in danger and the very things that at times protect her - her physical strength and the pile of cash she carries around - add to that danger. In addition to Beautiful there are some wonderful supporting characters. In particular the two men in Beautiful's road trip - her driver Thomas and the lover Fedora Man - are great creations.

This is a marvellous book. It is laugh-out-loud funny at times, with a number of targets for satire (such as self-help gurus and therapy generally) and traditional sexual/gender politics constantly being overturned. It also, as is the case with the best comedy, has an underlying sadness. As in Thelma and Louise we cheer Beautiful on, but she is heading for a cliff.

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