What is magical realism?

Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite genres: magical realism. A few years ago, I read my first Haruki Murakami novel–and although I loved it, I had no idea how to classify it, or find more books like it. After a bit of research, I learned more about the term “magical realism”. I’m sharing a bit about it here in hopes that it will pique someone’s interest and allow them to discover a new niche.

What is magical realism?

Magical realism is a genre in which fantastical events take place in the modern world. Extraordinary or hard-to-believe phenomena live alongside realistic depictions of daily life. This may sound similar to a lot of fantasy out there, but there are a few distinctions that separate it from urban fantasies like Harry Potter (I am going to use this example throughout to show why it is not magical realism).

What makes magical realism unique?

  1. There isn’t a new magical world to discover.

In magical realism, the magic resides in our world, blending seamlessly with reality. Although the character may not realize that it exists, the author reveals it over the course of the story. This qualification already rules out a sizable chunk of urban fantasy. The wizarding world of Harry Potter, for example, is exactly that: a wizarding world. There is a division that essentially separates the muggle reality from any magic that may exist.

2. Maintenance of logical order by the narrator and characters.

Magical realism treats any fantastical events like they are perfectly normal. The description of these events feels completely natural, so a scene about traversing a dreamscape wouldn’t be any different than a scene describing a walk to the park. This is true about character reaction as well: there isn’t any more an extraordinary response to a fantastical event than there would be to its more mundane counterpart. Harry’s extreme surprise to learning about his heritage (I’m a WOT) does not follow this convention of logical precision.

What are some magical realism tropes?

3. Mysteriousness.

Magical realism tends to have a layer of fog that permeates the plot. Readers will often walk away from a scene thinking “What just happened?”. Most likely, there will never be an explanation for how certain fantastical events came to happen. Unlike fantasy, there is no magic system to uncover. Readers must excpect the strange happenings, and act as a bridge between reality and fantasy to make their own interpretations. Trying to find out how something happens is often a lot less important than discovering why.

4. Overlapping planes.

Although #1 did say that the fantastical lives alongside reality in magical realism, often there is a contrast between planes of reality. Murakami utilizes this quite a bit in his novels, contrasting life in rural Japan and the chaos of inner Tokyo. There are jolts as a character travels between nature and urban landscapes, which helps to set the scene for the strange events that take place.

5. Less of a conventional plot.

Readers who like a well-defined arc will probably be put off by the lack of such plot in magical realism. Of course, there are a series of events set up in a plot-like structure, but often the storyline can become muddled and dreamlike. Since there is an overlap between reality and fantasy, the focus tends to be exploring those relationships rather than having a concrete exposition, rising action, etc.

6. Criticism

Authors use magical realism as a way of juxtaposing what is and what could have been, or highlighting the strange disparities of reality. Political and historical critique are interwoven throughout many stories of magical realism. Other topics include gender roles or other societal norms.

What are examples of magical realism?

Famous (and widely agreed upon) examples of magical realism include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Haruki Murakami’s novels, such as 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore are other examples. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Neil Gaiman novels incorporate themes of magical realism. Some recent examples you might have heard of include Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.

Of course, there are many different opinions about what qualifies as magical realism, and how it distinguishes itself from other forms of fantasy. Some will argue that any fantasy is magical realism. There are those who will fight to place Harry Potter under that umbrella. To me, there is certain tone that comes with magical realism that you can’t find in urban or epic fantasy. It is dreamlike and almost nostalgic, it’s those subtle moods you feel but don’t know how to describe. It invokes a sense of de ja vu for places you haven’t been and times you haven’t experienced. I encourage you to read books like the ones listed above and see what you think.

Happy reading,

Discussion: Do authors owe books to their readers?

Discussion: Do authors owe books to their readers?

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the disappointment of reading an excellent book only to find that its sequel won’t be released until a later month in a distant year. Sometimes, there is a complete lack of information about a follow-up, leaving readers feeling hopeless about ever diving back into their favorite worlds. As years pass, that feeling can morph into resentment and even outrage that an author has failed to provide a satisfactory conclusion to to a story. GRRM, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch are common subjects (victims?) of these complaints, which have turned to bitter proclamations that a reader will refuse to buy their future works, or pirate them so that the author won’t get their money. On the other end of the scale, readers like D.R. Baker, author of the article Authors Don’t Owe You Books on Book Riot, implore that readers remember that these authors are human too—and they don’t owe you books. Thus, the topic of this discussion.

So which one is it? Are authors obligated to finish everything they put out into the world, or are we graced by anything they are able to produce?

One thing we must consider is that authors are people making a living creating art. It is a singular niche in our capitalist society because it is an art form with a fairly dependable market but its content is highly dependent on an individual. It is more widely available than fine art, but also not corporation-produced like movies and TV shows. And, unlike other forms of writing like journalism or nonfiction, this phenomenon is occurring for writing that is purely for entertainment purposes (don’t get me wrong, I know these stories hold a deeper place in many readers’ hearts, but that is a side effect rather than the goal). When was the last time someone raged online because there was no second edition of their favorite academic paper? What is it about these fictional stories, this one little category of consumerism, that produces such reactions?

I guess a first step in reaching some sort of conclusion is determining what causes people to lash out, unprovoked, with such vitriol. I’ve seen claims that readers are an author’s base of success—they are their income, their support. That author would be nothing without them. And that’s true. But, as consumers, this is true of everything we buy. Hungry customers allow restaurants to succeed. The desire for beauty drives patronage at hair and nail salons. And, while these services differ in that they fulfill recurring needs, they work in the same way books do: you get what you pay for. So yes, you (probably) paid for those excellent books that authors put out. But… did you pay in advance for anything else? Did you invest to ensure future content?

That’s a rhetorical question. No, you didn’t, because that’s not how this works. You paid for something that an author poured their heart and soul into, that they spent years crafting so that it could be presentable to the world. If anything, shouldn’t we be grateful that something with such a low price (probably never more than $30) touched us so deeply that we feel the need for more? Any time we put in to books is our choice. Any emotions they make us feel can only serve to make us more empathetic human beings. Does an incomplete story render that time and emotion useless, a waste of energy? I guess I’m getting a bit off-topic, and while typing this I’ve definitely solidified my opinion.

Another common stance on this is that authors don’t owe us books, but they owe us updates. Letting readers know that there is a completed first draft or that editing has commenced can reassure them that there is hope. Some claim that any sort of silence on the subject is selfish and indicates a lack of gratitude or respect for a fan base. But what if the author didn’t write that book for you? Does releasing that book to the public erase the personal ownership the author has over the story? Does it now belong to the reader or the writer?

I understand the frustration that people feel when they can’t have more of something they love. It is that love in the first place that leads to such passionate desire for more. That love is why we read. But ownership of a physical book is different from ownership over an author’s career. Especially when that career is an art form that is highly intertwined with the emotions and health of its creator. This point, however, brings up a counter argument : reading is an act of vulnerability for every party involved. Perhaps that is why some feel the need to turn their backs on authors when they feel their vulnerability has been exploited.

I really would love to hear your opinions about this, even if (nay, especially if) they are contrary to mine.

Happy reading (but don’t send death threats to authors from whom you are waiting for a sequel)!

Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge

Hey there!

So recently I’ve only been writing reviews, but I want to get back into more expansive content to keep it interesting. I’ve decided that the first order of business is to find a new reading challenge for 2020. I fully intend on completing a simple “read this many books” challenge on Goodreads, but a friend recently mentioned that the quality of books is just as important, if not more, than the quantity.

After some digging, I discovered Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge. Book Riot has been hosting the challenge for a number of years now, and although I am late to the party I am glad that I found it. I love that the challenge includes reading books to promote awareness of social issues and support minority communities. I think it is important to increase my awareness and open-mindedness as a reader and as a person; reading books that I would not pick up otherwise is a great way to diversify my world view and gain perspective.

“We encourage you to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try. But this isn’t a test. No one is keeping score and there are no points to post. We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help to even know which perspectives to try out. That’s what this is—a perspective shift—but one for which you’ll only be accountable to yourself.”

Continue reading “Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge”

Giveaway: Down in the Belly of the Whale

Hello everyone! Today I’m going to be discussing Down in the Belly of the Whale by Kelley Kay Bowles, who writes cozy mystery, young adult, and nonfiction.

This book is a YA contemporary that follows the perspective of Harper, a teenager facing the ubiquitous feeling of not fitting in. She has an inexplicable sense for other people’s ailments, but without any way to decipher her intuitions, there isn’t much she can do with it. Her feelings of helplessness are amplified when her best friend starts acting strange and her mom becomes increasingly worried about her health. Harper must learn how she fits into her own life and what her role is in terms of her family and friends. Keep reading for my review, an interview with Kelley Kay Bowles, and the giveaway itself!

Find it on Goodreads and Amazon.

Synopsis

Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this cute, high-spirited teen in her astonishing journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.

Review

I would classify the writing style of this novel as middle-grade, but the content itself was quite mature. This caused a bit of dissonance for me because Harper is somewhat of a naive narrator, and she has some interactions with serious issues including child molestation/rape, chronic illness, homophobia, depression, and suicide. I’m still on the fence about having such a young character facing these sort of topics, especially because Harper seems to know very little about any of them, and she somehow maintains a semblance of innocence throughout it all. I realize that this is a good way to inform a younger audience about issues that they may face in their youth, and I applaud Bowles on her approach to writing about such topics. It was a good story to introduce these kinds of themes while still resolving with something of a “happy” ending, and it definitely presented the possibility of hope and joy even through some really tough situations. I think Harper, despite her simplistic viewpoint, is a wonderful role model for young adults who are just learning about some of the horrible things the world has to offer–through it all, she persists in making her own way when others can’t. She is an incredibly kind and giving soul, and it’s really inspiring to know that people like her are out there, ready to help her family and friends. I think that this may open the eyes of readers who have been afraid or unsure to reach out for help.

Also! This book had a hint of the supernatural (?) when it came to Harper’s “powers”. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I’m excited to see Bowles expand on this type of genre in the future!

Interview

1. You seem to have written yourself into the book in the form of Isabelle. Were there other aspects of the novel that mirrored your own life and experiences?

Haha do you think that was too much of a Mary Sue? Isabelle was so much fun to write because she was diagnosed with MS—like me—and she writes murder mysteries—like me, but she’s EVER So much cooler than I am. That’s the nice thig abut fiction, picking and choosing from ‘non-fictional’ elements and then manipulating them however I want. Most all my characters have elements of me in then somewhere—even the evil ones. And characteristics of everyone I know and see show up in my characters (uh-oh, Lauren—better watch out! 😉)—I just pick little idiosyncracies here and there and use them to flesh out the characters.

2. Are there any books in particular that helped to guide/inspire the direction of Down in the Belly of the Whale?

Ugh. I don’t even know where to begin in answering this question. I read books all the time, am obsessed with books, and because I taught English for 20 years, and because my father owned a bookstore and I’m in a book club, this means I read and have read in many genres and eras too. It all inspires me! But it also means each book I write could take cues from . . . who knows? My favorite YA authors are Lois Duncan, C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, and they are all heavy on characterization, so I think I take cues from that and am always trying to concentrate on character. As far as the direction the story went . . . nope. Nothing specific, any story or life event or song or movie or myth can interest me and inspire me!

3. What audience is the novel targeted towards? Was there a particular group in your mind while writing it?

I think TO THIS DAY the target audience has been my publisher’s biggest annoyance. Is this a paranormal? Social issues? Suspense? Family? Is it even a YA or should it be more parents reading it to talk to their kids about it? Then I think about all the YA I still read, and I’m almost 50! And not just because I’m a YA writer or high school teacher—I have a gazillion friends who read all the Twilight and Harry Potter and Hunger Games, plus anything by John Green, and they aren’t either of those occupations! So, no. I write stories that I’d like to read, and I hope some other people would enjoy them too. That’s as far as I can go (again, to the chagrin of BOTH of my publishers, because they’d like me to just focus on one genre. Can’t. 😊 )

4. What was your thought process when approaching difficult and serious topics in the novel?

Hm. I guess I just tried to be real with the characters’ reactions to the events they were living or trying to understand how others were living. I researched the topics (I’m living one of them, but…) by talking to people who had actually experienced them, and then using that for characterization. One challenge I felt early on with this book was a review from a reader who had been a ‘cutter’ or maybe was still a cutter, I don’t know. Anyway, this reviewer thought I totally got it wrong, like, ‘I’m a cutter and that’s not how cutters feel.’ And I was angry for a minute, because Cora’s explanation of why she cuts is verbatim from a person I know who used to cut. Word for word. And then I felt sad for the reviewer, because I thought it must be very lonely to feel so isolated in your own problems, you don’t realize that lots of other people have the same problem, they just experience them in a different way. I do hope parents would talk to their kids about the issues raised in this book—my 13 year old is reading it right now, and we had a whole conversation about cutting, and when he’s finished we’ll talk about any questions or reactions he might have..

5. Harper’s best friend Cora must face some incredibly scarring trauma. What made you decide to write the novel from Harper’s perspective rather than Cora’s?

Jeez, Lauren! You do ask the hard-hitting questions,,, 😊 I’ve actually heard this as a negative from a few reviewers as well. They think it should be from Cora’s POV. But I guess I did it from Harper’s for a few reasons, one of which probably comes from my own life experience. Other than the MS diagnosis, I’ve lived this incredibly lucky life, and I’ve always been surrounded by people who love me and tell me they love me, on the reg. But I lost three friends to suicide when I was in the 7th grade, and then I’ve been in an occupation (teaching) or lifestyle (volunteering—4 years at a domestic/sexual abuse hotline, and on an MS Friends hotline since 2012) where my role is to be the helper, not the one suffering the trauma. I guess that bled over to this story. I want the focus to be the way people can get help or be helped or GIVE help, rather than the focus on the traumatic situation. I get that some readers may feel like they can relate to the situation better if their main character is the one experiencing it. But that’s not how I wanted to tell it.

6. Do you have any intention of turning this book into a series?

Nope, this is a standalone for sure. BUT… Pinewood and Pinewood High School is the setting for a trilogy I just started—way more paranormal hijinks are set for this trilogy (like…is Belly really even paranormal? Maybe she’s just an empath, and is THAT even paranormal or just really, really sensitive? That’s up to the reader.) But for this new trilogy, there is no question about the paranormal elements.

7. Do you have any summer reading recommendations?

I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and that was really good. Also Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and anything by Lee Child, Harlan Coben or Stephen King. Any time, any day! As far as YA I’ve read recently, I loved Heartless by Marissa Meyer and Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I also just uploaded Turtles All the Way Down by Jon Green—I’ll let you know!

Giveaway!

There will be three total winners–two people will win e-book copies, and one person will win an audiobook copy!

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