Archive for the ‘Magical realism’ Category

guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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ShadesMary Robinette Kowal’s debut fantasy novel paints an alternate setting à la Jane Austen’s Regency England (though this is definitely not a P & P spin-off), in which young accomplished ladies coming of age and out into society must not only develop skills with such things as music, proper deportment, and polite conversation. They also have access to the mystical ether with which they create glamour to enhance their domestic environment with scenic illusions. Young ladies learn how to design, form, and shape the ether’s strands into natural scenes such as a forest glen complete with a bubbling brook, fluttering birds with their songs, and scented flowers in bloom. Jane, the main character, happens to possess a rather advanced talent as a glamourist. Despite her plain-Jane looks, her intellect and skill with the ether as well as other visual arts attracts the attention of famed professional glamourist David Vincent, who is hired by Jane’s wealthy neighbor to create glamour as a means for impressing her prominent guests. Jane’s family is fortunate that she can use glamour to give their home a far better appearance than they could normally afford.

Adventure and intrigue enter the plots of Kowal’s fantasy series (yes, the first sequel, Glamour in Glass, is already in with two more titles coming in 2013-2014) when Vincent and Jane combine their talents, ordinarily reserved for domestic arts and the enhancement of one’s social status, to outwit criminals and defeat armed bandits. Romance is in the picture as well, but the relationship between Jane and Vincent builds gradually as their respect for each other is hard-earned; romance doesn’t dominate the story but infuses it with enough tenderness to appeal to romantic suspense fans.

Other than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I’ve not read very much fantasy fiction. This is the first series that has really captured my interest, and I’m quite taken with the characters, the adventure, and the fact that its setting and atmosphere are well-grounded in historical realism. Kowal causes the magic to seem a rather natural element of that time, changing very little else about the culture.

Even though Shades of Milk and Honey is her first novel, Mary Robinette Kowal is no beginning writer, having won the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2011 Hugo Award for her short story titled “For Want of a Nail.”  I think it’s neat that she also happens to be an accomplished professional puppeteer!

Look for Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass in the WRL catalog.

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Confession time?  I never read anything by Salman Rushdie until I picked up Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I found his essays on everything from “Being Photographed” to “Going to Electoral College” to be funny, pointed, and written in approachable, engaging language.  So what was holding me back?  Perhaps it was that intimidating glare, which makes him look as if you’re going to disappoint him no matter how hard you try.  (Of course, looking for the picture I was thinking of yielded only photos of a smiling, avuncular wiseman.  Strange.)

On a whim, I picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories and began reading it aloud to my wife.  It quickly became a standing date–9pm each night we’d sit down and I’d dive into The Sea.  Rushdie’s enchanting story drew us along right to the wonderfully satisfying end.  It practically defines what I love to see in totally escapist reading, but with a punch that few writers can pull off.

Haroun is the son of Rashid, a famous storyteller who lives in his own imagination and sometimes visits the “real” world to perform the pieces he finds in his fancy.  Haroun’s mother Soraya sometimes frets over money, but is largely happy until a nasty neighbor poisons her image of Rashid, and the two run off together.  Haroun rejects his father’s fantastic view of the world, and Rashid loses his storytelling facility.

Unfortunately, it’s election time in the country Alifbay, where Rashid has been hired to enchant voters so the politicians can tell equally large whoppers to earn votes.  Without his skill Rashid cannot perform, and only professional pride makes him go to his last gig in the isolated Valley of K to entertain provincial voters.  Haroun talks them onto a wild bus ride with a driver named Butt, who delivers them to their putative employer Snooty Buttoo and his fantastic houseboat.  But aboard the houseboat, Haroun finds himself flown away to an invisible moon that houses the Sea of Stories.  An immense ocean whose currents of standard storylines flow together to create new tales, the Sea is also being poisoned by “popular romances” which have turned into “long lists of shopping expeditions, and “talking helicopter anecdotes” that are spoiling the rich imaginative source that has nourished both tellers and listeners for all of human history.  The poison leads back to the enemy of storytelling, “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech” Khattam-Shud, whose name means “The End.”

With Haroun’s assistance, the good Guppees, the Plentimaw fish, and the people of P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated to Explain) defeat Khattam-Shud and his Chupwalas, and balance returns to the moon.  With the Sea of Stories saved, the world undergoes a transformation that ensures the defeat of the colorless and the victory of the whimsical.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is called a children’s story, but it would be an exceptional child (indeed an exceptional reader of any age) to catch all the puns, literary allusions, political caricature, and meaningful verbal tics Rushdie gives his magical characters.  Haroun is a marvelous stand-in for readers living in the dull world.  His sudden gift of a wildly psychedelic experience reminds of what we set aside as we “grow up.”  It must have been a Chupwala who decided it belonged outside the realm of those who need it most.

Check the WRL catalog for Haroun and the Sea of Stories


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David Almond’s first book for young people is Skellig, which was written in the late 1990s.  I missed this when it first came out, but recently picked it up.  It wasn’t “edge of your seat” thrilling, but instead sweet and magical. I kept turning pages to see what would happen next.

Michael has experienced a lot of stressful changes. His sister was born prematurely.  Although she was released from the hospital, she isn’t doing well at home.   Everyone is worried about her health, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for Michael.  Additionally the family has recently moved to a new house, which needs a lot of work. Once his dad gets a chance to get the rooms painted and the garden cleaned up, it should be great for their growing family.  But now… all Michael can think about is how far away he is from his friends.

One of the features of the property is a dilapidated garage that Michael is not supposed to go near for fear it will collapse—but of course, he does.  There he discovers a strange-looking old man hiding behind a tea chest in the corner.  Michael is scared, but instead of telling an adult about his discovery, he goes back a second time to get a better look.  Then a third time to bring the man food and aspirin.  At last he decides to confide in his neighbor, Mina, and brings her to meet Skellig.

As Michael’s sister returns to the hospital for another surgery, he and Mina move Skellig to a safer place.  They agree that he is an extraordinary being, but is he a man, angel, owl or ghost?  And is there any chance he can save Michael’s sister?

According to the reviews, this book is for children ages 8 and up, but I found it a great story about friendship for all ages.  Mina is wise beyond her years and the lessons in the book will stick with me for a long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Skellig

Almond has recently released Mina’s story in My Name is Mina.


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The squid’s been nicked, to begin with.

But curator Billy Harrow has more to worry about than the theft of a 28-foot Architeuthis from London’s Museum of Natural History. He’s being interrogated by members of the extremely unorthodox Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit. He’s being followed by squirrels. And then he’s recruited by an underground cult of Kraken worshipers who consider squids to be saints and Billy to be their… John the Baptist?

For Billy the unwilling prophet and Dane Parnell, a renegade Krakenist, there isn’t much time to figure out who’s got the squid. Welcome to the latter days: word on—and under—the streets of London is that the apocalypse is right around the corner. Possibly more than one.

It’s tough to summarize this book without its sounding like a terrible made-for-SyFy movie (“CEPHALOPOCALYPSE*: The Squid… Are… RISING”). Nonetheless, it’s the most fun I’ve had between book covers all year. Miéville has a great ear and enthusiasm for words; his prose is a dictionary set to music. The city of London becomes a character in itself, along with several creepy, memorable villains and one great cop (bad odds, those).

The story is fueled by pure, gleeful invention. Malevolent ink, homicidal origami, strikes in the afterlife, and iPod djinn—the sense of an author brainstorming overtakes the plot at some point, and we move from a fairly normal London, in which the weird is just breaching the surface of the mundane, to a city teeming with more seers, familiars, and dueling magical crime lords than could ever possibly be concealed from public view. But for prose like this, I was glad to go along for the ride—even when it was a ride in the back of a speeding lorry, with a bunch of entrail-reading Londonmancers and a preserved squid in a tank.


Check the WRL catalog for Kraken.


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MagiciansThe comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, but when Quentin Coldwater is recruited by Brakebills, a magical university hidden in upstate New York, he’s no wide-eyed eleven year old. Smart, anti-social, competitive, and melancholy, he’s designed his life to please Princeton’s admissions office. He took up performing magic tricks so that he could claim an extracurricular activity without actually having to interact with other people. Then he has one of those through-the-looking-glass, or rather, through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe moments, and finds himself on the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, taking an incomprehensibly weird entrance exam. When it turns out there’s real magical talent contributing to his sleight-of-hand, Quentin takes about two minutes to realign his career goals. Magicianship beats his depressing real life any day of the week.

Although I may after all prefer the antics of schoolchildren to those of moody college kids and postgrads—sex, drugs, and nihilism, man, St. Elmo’s Fire with sorcery—I enjoyed Grossman’s easy, clever prose and the details of his invented magic. I particularly loved passages describing the cataloging of Brakesbills’s books, which bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase “mobile library:”

“… in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches… enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors….The librarian had imagined he could summon a given book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number, but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory.”

Sometimes charming, sometimes quite dark, it isn’t always clear whether this is a love letter to children’s fantasy or its shocking exposé. From Quidditch to Ents, devoted fantasy readers will enjoy the allusions to the literature of their childhood, and in particular to Narnia (“Fillory” is its thinly-disguised counterpart in the novel), where life is somehow truer and more meaningful and schoolboys become kings. But Quentin’s attempts to find love and fathom meaning in his life just do not get any simpler from one magical world to the next. A fantasy novel about whether you should make fantasy worlds your refuge, it has more in common with Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” than with Hogwarts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magicians.

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Angels of Destruction On a very cold January night, in a small Pennsylvania town, a nine-year-old girl with glasses shows up on the doorstep of Margaret Quinn. Margaret is a lonely widow whose only daughter, Erica, ran away from home as a teenager ten years earlier in 1975 with her boyfriend Wiley and hasn’t been seen in town since. The bespectacled girl says she’s an orphan and has never known her parents. She was looking for a warm place, and saw Margaret’s light. She begins to write her name, NOR, and Margaret finishes it, calling the girl Norah.

Margaret decides to keep the girl and tells everyone that Norah is her granddaughter, Erica’s daughter. People in the neighborhood knew that Erica ran away, and they talk of some “trouble” Erica and Wiley were involved with on their trip out West. They are surprised to hear that Erica had a daughter and that she sent her to her mother’s without coming back herself, but they don’t question things too hard.

Norah is sent to the local elementary school and makes friends with a lonely neighbor boy named Sean Fallon. Sean’s father had left him and his mother just the year before and he is in need of a friend. Norah and Sean get along as any young friends do, sometimes with teasing and suspicion, mostly with love. As the months go by, Norah demonstrates strange powers which start to get her into trouble at school.

Who is this little girl, where did she come from, and why did she show up at Margaret’s door? There’s also a man in a brimmed hat, a stranger to the town, who hangs around in the cold and seems to have something to do with Norah. Perhaps, as he wrote once in the frost on a windshield, the girl’s name is really Noriel. Perhaps he knows where she comes from and what she really is.

The story of Norah and Margaret in 1985 is alternated with the story of Erica and Wiley in 1975, when Wiley’s radical political views prompted him to take Erica out to California to join the anarchistic group Angels of Destruction. The stories converge as the little girl demonstrates more of her strange powers and the people of the town clamor to get Norah to leave their children alone.

I loved Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, about a group of fairies who swap one of their own for a human child, a changeling. I was eager to read Donohue’s newest, Angels of Destruction, and was absolutely delighted to find it was just as good, if not better.

Check the WRL catalog for Angels of Destruction

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