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

Monday, 17 October 2016


I am suffering RSI in my hand at the moment and cannot type for more than a few minutes. When I have recovered, I will be posting my reviews. 

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

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Ugly by Alexander Boldizar

Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth is a 300-pound boulder-throwing mountain man from Siberia whose tribal homeland is stolen by an American lawyer out to build a butterfly conservatory for wealthy tourists. In order to restore his people’s land and honor, Muzhduk must travel to Harvard Law School to learn how to throw words instead of boulders. His anarchic adventures span continents, from Siberia to Cambridge to Africa, as he fights fellow students, Tuareg rebels, professors of law, dark magic, bureaucrats, heatstroke, postmodernists, and eventually time and space. A wild existential comedic romp, The Ugly tells the tale of a flawed and unlikely hero struggling against the machine that shapes the people who govern our world.
Goodreads description

When I read the blurb on Netgalley I wasn't sure whether this book fitted within the magic realism remit of this blog. I still don't know. It is hard to tell in this novel what is real, surreal, magic or indeed the consequence of the central character imbibing too much alcohol derived from the urine of fly-agaric eating reindeer.  

The book follows two alternating narratives - that of Muzhduk's journey to and time in Harvard and that of his later travels in Africa to save his girlfriend. This technique of interwoven narratives seems to be very popular at the moment if my reading is anything to go by. There is a inherent difficulty in this structure in that both narratives have to retain the reader's interest. I am not sure it entirely works in The Ugly. I was more interested in the African narrative than in the word-throwing world of Harvard.

This novel comes from a tradition of satire that goes back centuries. A larger than life (literally) central character travels from a "simple" homeland and encounters a "sophisticated" other world. By dint of native intelligence, strength and naivity, the hero is able to take on the strange world he finds himself in. This book doesn't stop at revealing the false nature of the rituals and sophist arguments that are held in high esteem at the university and wider society. No. Boldizar goes further and introduces the surreal into the equasion. Muzhduk has a fling with witch-like tutor Oedda, and encounters a blue bear (based on the Harvard tradition of the Pooh tree). The surreal and magical of course appear in the African narrative, as they should. But I wonder whether it was necessary to have them so intensively in both strands.

When I read the prologue to the book - that section set in the Slovakian enclave in Siberia (there is a brilliant explanation for this in the novel) - I thought "Wow, this is going to be great." But as Muzhduk moves to Harvard my enjoyment lessened. There was still some fun, but I found myself skipping chunks of the long legal dialogues. This is a first novel and it shows. Boldizar was the first post-independence Slovakian to go to Harvard, where, surprise surprise, he read law. He also spent time working in the Sahara. There is just too much going on in this book for my liking. Dare I say it - the author is having rather too much fun.

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

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Konundrum by Franz Kafka

In this new selection and translation, Peter Wortsman mines Franz Kafka's entire opus of short prose--including works published in the author's brief lifetime, posthumously published stories, journals, and letters--for narratives that sound the imaginative depths of the great German-Jewish scribe from Prague. It is the first volume in English to consider his deeply strange, resonantly humane letters and journal entries alongside his classic short fiction and lyrical vignettes  Composed of short, black comic parables, fables, fairy tales, and reflections, Konundrums also includes classic stories like "In the Penal Colony," Kafka's prescient foreshadowing of the nightmare of the Twentieth Century, refreshing the writer's mythic storytelling powers for a new generation of readers.
Goodreads description

This is a collection that every lover of magic realism should go out and buy. You will find here Kafka's greatest short prose works, including The Metamorphosis (here titled Transformed) the story that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to adopt magic realism in his work. But there is much more here. Many of the short stories were completely new to me and helped me put The Metamorphosis in the wider context of his writings and view of the world. I had previously wondered whether Kafka was more of a surrealist than a magic realist, but I found those thoughts vanishing as I read.

I was struck by the variety in the fiction in this collection and orginality of thought and treatment. Who would think to write a piece where a bridge is the central character and narratior? Or would portray Poseidon as an accountant? Or start a story with the lines:  
Honored gentlemen of the Academy!
You have accorded me the honor of inviting me to present a report on my past life as an ape.

Also included in the collection are non-fiction pieces. Some are only a few lines, some extended meditations, The subject matter includes the role and nature of parables, writer's block, office life (Kafka worked for an insurance company), childhood and more.

I have not and could not read these stories in their original German, but it does seem to me that the translator Peter Wortsman has been able to create a sense of Kafka's own voice in this book - a voice that is humane and at times humourous, that presents the surreal as if it was the normal. As Wortsmann says in an afterword, he gives us these precious nuggets of a gold miner in the caves of the unconscious. 

Kafka's works featured in this collection are:
Words are Miserable Miners of Meaning
Letter to Ernst Rowohlt
Concerning Parables
Children on the Country Road
The Spinning Top
The Street-Side Window
At Night
Clothes Make the Man
On the Inability to Write
From Somewhere in the Middle
I Can Also Laugh
The Need to Be Alone
So I Sat at My Stately Desk
A Writer's Quandary
Give it Up!
Eleven Sons
Paris Outing
The Bridge
The Trees
The Truth About Sancho Pansa
The Silence of the Sirens
The Municipal Coat of Arms
A Message from the Emperor
The Next Village Over
First Sorrow
The Hunger Artist
Josephine, Our Meistersinger, or the Music of Mice
Investigations of a Dog
A Report to an Academy
A Hybrid
In the Penal Colony
From The Burrow
Selected Aphorisms
Selected Last Conversation Shreds

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