the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘magical realism

much thanks to Erewhon Books for providing an ARC!



The opening pages of On Fragile Waves includes a short visual poem.  


At first, I was worried, was the whole book going to be poetry of this style? Because while I respect poetry, I’m not so good at “getting it”.


Ah, but this particular visual poem!  As it tap-danced across the page, I “got it”! And in a way, I hoped the entire book would be like this.  


The entire book is, and isn’t, like those opening pages.   That opening poem gives sound and texture and context to a small family,  two parents who first have a daughter, and then a son, and then the relief that the war is finally over.  


The rest of the book is them realizing they were wrong, and that the only way to escape war is to escape Afghanistan.


You know how poetry can by design feel a bit detached, in a good way?  Because words or meter or space is in someway constrained, the poet only puts in what is most important.  Emotion gets put in over exposition, experience gets put in over worldbuilding. Gut punches get put in over grammar.  On Fragile Waves isn’t weighed down by the ornaments of expected story telling grammar, the open and close-quotes around dialog, the verbs that give rise to how the person spoke those words. Yes, they are ornaments that are designed to, among other things, add characterization and impact to dialog, and yes, without them the dialog can float like dreamy clouds.   The only punctuation in On Fragile Waves is the bare minimum necessary to get the story across.  


When I’ve come across stories with the bare minimum of punctuation, the bare minimum of worldbuilding, first of all I tend to really like it, and second I tend to wonder what were these characters going through that all they had was the bare minimum? Were they exhausted? Hungry? Terrified of being noticed?   Obviously, writing prose in this manner is nothing more than a deliberate choice the author makes, knowing they’ll just need to do other things to make sure it’s clear who is speaking, and to help the reader get to know the characters better. In a way, writing like this is like writing a huge prose poem – because of preset constraints, you have to remove things that aren’t necessary. 


I think readers will either love Yu’s style, or be very turned off by it. 


I loved it on the first page, and I was weeping by the end. I found Yu’s writing style, and the story that she told to be very, very effective.   There’s hardly any worldbuilding or visual descriptions in this book, yet I could see everything, I could hear the storms, I could see the fear on people’s faces.  There’s hardly any overt characterization, yet I knew Nour’s yearning to play with other kids, I heard everything their father wasn’t saying.  

On Fragile Waves is a masterwork of negative space,  of using only a few words to communicate everything.  When I find myself unable to express my feelings, I tend to complain that English is worthless, because words aren’t the language that works for what I want to communicate. I have so much in me, and using English means I have to crush all those things into boxy words that don’t mean what I’m trying to say, and so often, in the end, I end up saying nothing, and having people describe me as “quiet”.  In On Fragile Waves,  Yu showed me there is a way to say what I’m feeling, it is possible!  Huh.  sounds like I need to find all the authors that write with minimum punctuation, and read them. Looks like this writing style really, really speaks to me!


Most of the story is told by Firuzeh, who I think is around 8 years old at the beginning of the story, and maybe around 10 or 11 by the end. And what’s fascinating about telling most of the chapters from her point of view is that all the adults know what’s going on, and some of them speak quite plainly. And she has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Her younger brother, Nour understands even less.  Her lack of understanding is partly that her parents are trying to shield their children from the horrors of war, and partly because she’s only nine years old!

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Hey, so my WordPress Editor just an hour ago spontaniously switched to the Block Editor. which means I have NO IDEA how this post is going to turn out, because everything is super weird.

I met John on Twitter a while back, and we’ve chatted back and forth a few times. He’s a fellow science fiction and fantasy fan, a writer who loves mythology, a writer who seeks out wonder.

What started off as a project between friends, for their family, has turned into something much, much more. Several years ago, John and his wife Carol started a tradition of creating a Christmas book for their friends and family, with John writing the prose, and Carol doing the illustrations. These stories are now ready to shared with everyone, and every year, starting in 2020, Story Plant will publish one of John and Carol’s books. The first one, Raven Wakes the World, hits bookstore shelves next week. (Indiebound ordering link)

A tale of an artist rediscovering her own strength, Raven Wakes the World is a magical realism with a touch of romance, and the unforgiving environs of Alaska. If you are looking for a unique holiday gift for someone who loves modern mythology, this could be it! Click here to read a free preview.

You can learn more about John and his work at his website,, and by following him on twitter, where he is @JohnAdcox.

ok, so funny story – when I emailed John these questions, I knew the illustrator’s name was Carol, I didn’t know that was THE Carol, John’s wife! That’s what I get for not doing my research, that’s for sure!

Little Red Reviewer: Congrats on your new novella, Raven Wakes the World! What inspired you to write this book?

John Adcox: That’s hard to answer. I’ve always had a fascination with mythology, and I love stories where myth bleeds out to enchant and maybe even heal our own more mundane world. I truly do believe that stories have the power to change and heal us. Sometimes, story might be the only thing that does. Not too long ago, I heard a pastor friend define religion as communal response to a story. Why not? After all, the language of God is parable and story. I think other people’s stories might have a power to reach us in a way that our own, more familiar ones can’t. And it’s telling, I think, that so many of our most sacred stories have echoes in cultures all around the world. The inspiration, I think, was to look at Christmas, and healing or rebirth, through a different cultural lens.

LRR: Tell about this story – what’s the elevator pitch?

JA: Katie Mason is an artist wounded in the soul after the end of a broken relationship. She’s fled all the way to Alaska to heal and to make art, but she hasn’t been able to do either. She’s cocooned herself, like the world in winter. But in the town of Aurora, Alaska, she meets a mysterious stranger who wakes her passions, and who has secrets. Soon she finds herself caught in an Inuit myth made real, and in a world where winter seems to last forever. If you’d like to know more, the opening chapters are online at


What was your favorite scene to write in Raven Wakes the World? Where there any scenes that were unexpectedly difficult to write?

J.A.:Wow, that’s also really hard to answer! I think my favorite scene is the one where Katie first hears the story about how Raven stole the sun, the moon, and the stars and brought light to the dark world. It’s also the scene that inspired my favorite of the illustrations. The hardest to write, I think, was the end, when Katie faces her pain and starts to make hard choices. It’s always hard to write about pain and heartbreak. Sacrifice isn’t especially easy either, especially when it is for love.

LRR: I read on your blog that you and your wife have a family tradition of creating original Christmas stories. How did the tradition get started? Has it changed over the years? What are the elements that all Christmas stories must have, to be a good holiday story?

J.A.:My friend Carol Bales — she wasn’t my beloved wife yet; we weren’t even dating back then — and I had the idea to collaborate on a book to give our friends as a Christmas gift. I’d write a story and she’d draw the illustrations. We bound those first books by hand. People seemed to really like them. Raven Wakes the World was the first of them … although this version is extensively revised and expanded. Over the following years, we tried a number of different genres, including drama, an urban legend/ghost story, action/adventure, and even screwball romantic comedy. If there’s a connection between these books (aside from the fact that they take place in winter, which is absolutely my favorite season to write) it’s has to do with people who are somehow isolated and hurting, and who find their way back to home, family, community, and joy. Christmas is about birth and rebirth, and homecoming, and that seems almost universal in so many cultures. I think all of these stories have to do with people who are broken finding a way to be less broken, sometimes through a miracle. I’m not sure that’s true of all Christmas or holiday tales, but it’s certainly true of a lot of them, from A Christmas Carol to Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

John and Carol

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The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff

available June 2019

where I got it: Received advanced review copy (Thanks!)








I’m gonna give you the bookends first, and then sorta kinda fill in the middle, ok?


My first thought about this book was “what’s up with that title? It makes no sense!”


My last thought when I was finishing the book was “oh, now I get it! The title makes sense now!”, and then a few pages later “oh. Now I really get it. Oh my.”  An unplanned coincidence that I read that last story on the day before Passover.


Ok, now for all the tasty middle bits:


The History of Soul 2065 is a mosaic novel.  What’s a mosaic novel you ask? Mosaic novels are strange and wonderful volumes that  usually involve interconnected short stories or vignettes, they can have location and time-jumps, a character who is a child in one story may be a grandparent in another, someone who seems so important in one story may never show up again. Like most mosaic novels, many of the stores in The History of Soul 2065 appeared previously in other magazines and anthologies (such as Mythic Delirium magazine, Clockwork Phoenix, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Weird Tales, and Apex Magazine, among others), with a handful that were original to this novel. Some older stories have been slightly reworked to better fit into the chronology.


Reading The History of Soul 2065 is like looking through a photo album – and when you touch someone’s photo, you get pulled into what they were going through at the moment the photo was taken.  Maybe when that photo was taken they were happy, maybe they were sad, maybe they were missing someone, maybe they had just helped someone. Krasnoff gilds the stories with magical realism, superstitions, and a few things you’ve just got to take on faith, and while she presents the family’s story in sort of chronological order in a healthy mix of longer stories and flash fiction length pieces,  what she’s actually doing is telling a far more important story, and magically telling it backwards.


And yes, if you didn’t pick up in from the cover art, this is a very Jewish book. The two families involved in the stories are Jewish, there are constant cultural and religious references, historical references, faded numbers on arms. There are references to specific Jewish prayers, and these things are not explained in the text.  As a Jew, I knew what they meant, non-Jews may not get the references (and that’s OK! That’s what Google is for).  If you’ve never met someone who is Jewish, I can’t think of a better introduction to the Jewish culture than this book.


Many of my favorite stories were the ones that made my cry.  Is that weird? Here are a few of my favorites, only some of which made me cry:


I came across “Sabbath Wine” in a Clockwork Phoenix anthology, are stories this beautiful supposed to make you cry so much? I was overjoyed to see that story as one of the openers in this novel, that I read it, cried a ton, and then I was trying to explain the plot of the story to my husband and was just a cry-y, snotty mess.  It’s a story of two kids who become unlikely friends, and the friendship that their fathers forge. It’s a harsh reminder of how fractured Jewish communities can become, how cruel we can be to each other, and the unexpected oddness of finding you have something in common with a stranger.


“Hearts and Minds” didn’t make me cry, but it could have.  And we get introduced to Ben! I have such a soft spot for him, but what is he doing in this story, playing cards with all these old people? If you ever want to know what my favorite kind of story telling twist is, it’s the one at the end of this story.

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Wisp of a Thing – a Tufa Novel, by Alex Bledsoe

published in 2013

where I got it: gift from a friend








If you enjoyed Alex Bledsoe’s first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver you’ll be happy to hear that, Wisp of a Thing is more of that. Not more of the same (not by a long shot), but more magical realism, more mists in the mountains hiding secrets that aren’t there for you to find – secrets that will reveal themselves in their own sweet time and in turns tease you, ignore you, or use you, along the way. The Tufa know what and who they are, and they know who us mortals are. Masters of staying hidden, the Tufa people usually have no interest in letting strangers in on their secrets.

Rob Quillen is learning about hiding. A finalist on a televised talent show, his girlfriend was killed in a plane crash on her way to see him compete in the finals. Drowning in grief, Rob just wants to hide from the world for a while. And where else to hide than the Great Smoky Mountains? Rob has the Tufa look about him, which may be why another singer told him of the Tufa music of Cloud County, Tennessee, and that if Rob found the right Tufa song, his broken heart would mend. Did this other singer think Rob a lost Tufa?

Upon arriving in the rustic village of Needsville, Rob discovers the most amazing music he’s ever heard. He hears it and enjoys it, but he sure doesn’t understand what’s just below the music, or what just the right circumstances allow him to see. It’s funny, because Rob thinks the universe revolves around him. It’s kinda cute and endearing how he thinks all this is about him. Rob is about to have the most surprising week of his life.

You know how the right piece of music can pull you right in? Maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe you’re restless and distracted, and then you listen to the soaring brassy themes of some John Williams music or the railroad track rumble and sizzle of distorted guitar in a rock song, or whatever kind of music floats your boat, and suddenly you feel centered and grounded? Alex Bledsoe’s writing is a bit like that too. His prose pulls you right in, pulls you right into a forgotten mountain town, pulls you right into secret histories, family feuds, and the forests and mists that hide it all.

Then it makes sense there would be music in this book, right? Oh yes, there is music! Wisp of a Thing is full of songs and verses, and these are words that have power. And people who have power tend to like to keep it, which means words have been hidden and buried. And the best person to find something that’s been buried is someone who is nearly a ghost herself.

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Spells-of-Blood-and-KinSpells of Blood and Kin, by Claire Humphrey

published June 2016

where I got it: received review copy





Spells of Blood and Kin was mentioned in my recent 5 Books, 50 pages blog post.  Of the books mentioned in that post, this was the only book that I had a tough time stopping reading at exactly 50 pages.   In fact,  by the time that blog post published, I was halfway through Spells of Blood and Kin,  and finished it 48 hours after picking it up.  I couldn’t put this book down, I didn’t want to put this book down,  I was late to work because all I wanted to do for 2 days was read this book.  If you’re a fan of dark fantasy, of stories that have weight and depth and sensuality and secrets and consequences, this is a book for you.


We all know those fantasy authors who write in a fashion to make their novels longer, because an epic story should have an epic number of pages, or something. Short story authors do the opposite – often self-editing their work towards making their prose more effective in fewer words. Claire Humphrey is a well published short story author, and you can see her short story composition skills on display in Spells of Blood and Kin.  What I mean by that is there is not a single unnecessary word or scene in this book.  Every scene, every conversation, and every paragraph is honed down to a sharp reflective edge, increasing the effect of the words, pushing the reader to engage with the story in a more intimate and imaginative fashion.  That was a lot of fancy talk to say Humphrey is a damn good writer. Spells of Blood and Kin opens with a surprising and unnerving sentence, dives right into the compelling intricacies of the plot, and runs from there. Like with most books, everyone is going to have a different reaction to this book, and much of my personal interaction with this book happened between the lines, in what Humphrey left unsaid.


So, what’s this story about?   Lissa’s grandmother Iadviga has just passed away.  In a stunned state of grief,  the funeral is planned, the church ladies bring piles of food to the house, and Lissa starts going through her grandmother’s things. Not only is Lissa inheriting the house and the debt, she is also inheriting her Baba’s responsibilities among the traditional Russian families in a community surrounded by the cosmopolitan  bustle of Toronto.  On the night of Iadviga’s death, the spell she had been weaving and reweaving for over 30 years collapsed.


For her Baba’s funeral, Lissa was allowed to enter the church building, but not allowed to be in the sanctuary. Because while the church will tolerate the community’s need for witchy women,  magic practitioners are not allowed on consecrated ground.  With one hand the community shuns Lissa and her family, while placing orders for magic eggs with the other hand.

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I’m posting my thoughts on the Hugo nominated short stories all week.  You can read Sofia Samatar’s nominated short story “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” over at Strange Horizons.  Click here to see how far I’ve gotten in my Hugo reading.

here’s what I thought:

She knows all the stories, the one where he hides her skin in a locked trunk, the one where it’s hidden in the attic, the one where it’s in his knapsack. And always in the end, the Selkie finds her skin and returns to the sea. Our narrator knows these stories like the back of her hand, yet she adamantly refuses to share them with her closest friend Mona. And since her Mom left, she could really use a friend who isn’t interested in Selkie stories.
There was that magical moment when I realized exactly what the title was referring to. In Selkie stories, the reader is always meant to feel sorry for the Selkie who is trapped on land, and such stories reach their end when the Selkie finds their skin and returns to their underwater family. We’re rarely shown the other side of the equation.  It’s not “loser” as in “shape of an L on her forehead”, it’s “loser” as in the one who lost something, the one who found themselves on the losing side of a conflict, of history, of the law, of magic.
She’s a little jealous of the Selkies in the stories, I think. That they inevitably return to their families like nothing ever happened, and that their families want them back. Everyone in “Selkie Stories are for Losers” seems to have something they are trying to return to, and failing. Here on land, we don’t have a choice – life marches on, leaving us behind.
I loved the unpretentious, fearless, nothing-to-prove writing style. Like the best magical realism, this could be the narrator’s exact experience, or it could be a coping mechanism for what’s happened in her life. Sometimes when reading magical realism, I really do think about the possibility that an unreliable narrator has come up with a coping mechanism. That’s not meant as an insult to the character or the story or the author, it’s just an added dimension for me when reading magical realism. It’s fun for me to think about what’s really happening in the context of the story, and what the narrator is just making up.
I read the story a few times, and never did learn the name of the narrator.  On the one hand, unnamed narrators are a pet peeve of mine, but on the other hand it means she could be anyone – my neighbor, the waitress at that little diner, the girl giggling with her friend at the corner store.

Neil Gaiman, how do I love thee? let me count the ways.

My not nerdy friends have heard of you, so we can easily discuss your books without them thinking I’m too weird.

You allowed yourself to be Simpsonized!

You wrote one of my most favorite novels, American Gods. Also, I loved Coraline, Stardust and The Graveyard Book.

you refuse to be shoe horned into any specific genre. You write what you want, when you want it, and I can’t wait to read it.

you’re friends with Tori Amos and Terry Pratchett.

And my adoration for you started with a little book called Neverwhere. One of your earlier works, and certainly not your best, it was within it’s pages that I became first hooked on other worlds, on magical realism and urban fantasy, on the worlds that existed beyond the door, on a modern and more scary version of Narnia.   Poor Richard Mayhew, he never knew what hit him. She was young and in trouble, so he decided to help a young woman named Door.  What was Door running from, and how can bumbling Richard possibly help her? Her world is London Below, and his is the real world. Or is it? More exists in London than Richard could possibly imagine, and he’s about to meet it head on.

If you’ve read Neverwhere, you know of the magic that lives in these pages.

And if you haven’t?  get thee to a bookstore!  and then head over to Stainless Steel Droppings, where a read along of Neverwhere will be starting in a few weeks.

Are you ready for a spring of magical realism, urban fantasy, and London Below?

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

published in Sept 2011

where I got it: purchased new








I knew it was going to be a busy couple days, so I planned to take at least 4 days to read this book. I started it on a cloudy Saturday evening, and finished it the following Monday. I hate sounding cliche, but I simply couldn’t put it down. I admit that from the blurb on the back I was expecting something run of the mill – Wounded war hero Bronwyn Hyatt returns home to recuperate, giving her hometown it’s fifteen minutes of fame.  And that’s where the “run of the mill” ended. Bronwyn’s parents seem oddly disappointed in her, in a way that’s got nothing to do with her military record. Her ex-boyfriend can’t wait to get back into her life, a ghost is hanging out in her backyard, a confuddled preacher is wandering around town, and worst of all, she can’t remember how to play her mandolin.

Bronwyn, her family, and her entire hometown are Tufa. Not white, not black, not Hispanic or Native American, not anything, the Tufa clans have been living in the Tennessee mountains since before the white man came.  They keep to themselves and do their own thing, and they don’t like strangers. The last thing they need is every local news station in the midwest descending on them to interview a war hero with a busted up leg.

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The Folded World by Catherynne Valente (Book two of A Dirge for Prester John)

Published by Night Shade Books, Nov 1, 2011

Where I got it: purchased new

Why I read it:  I loved the first book, The Habitation of the Blessed








The truth has teeth and claws that bite and tear. We turn the truth into stories to hide the scars and soften the blows, and help us forget where the bodies are buried.

Except when the story is true.  Those are the ones that bleed the longest.

How is it that a retelling of an obscure myth can carry so much truth as to be unbearable? How is it that I can look to nearly any passage in The Folded World and say “ah yes, that’s exactly how the world really is”?

Picking up immediately where The Habitation of Blessed left off, at the beginning of The Folded World Brother Alaric is given the opportunity to pluck more books off the tree.  He randomly chooses three books, and he and the other monks begin copying; trying not to pay attention to what they are reading, endeavoring not to succumb to the power of memory, as Brother Hiob did.  They have to copy fast, these books are living things and have already begun to rot.

Put together in a similar style as Habitation of the Blessed (and you really must read these novels in order), we learn the stories in each of the three books as Alaric is copying them, but unlike Alaric, we are free to be seduced by them.  The three narratives twist and tumble around one another, leaving hints here and there of things that happened, or perhaps things that are to come. Valente’s prose is as always, so beautiful you want to cry, filled with metaphors that at first blush seem like they shouldn’t work, but with laughter on the lips you find they work perfectly.  I need to open the monster Thesaurus I just bought, so I can find the word that means “more incredible that I could have ever thought possible”, and use it to describe The Folded World. I wanted to read this entire book out loud, just to see if the words sounded as beautiful as they looked (for the record, even though I only read portions out loud, they did).

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.