Magical realism is a genre of fiction that is inspired by the wonders of magic and the supernatural in every day settings.
Set in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944, Hoffman’s latest (after The Rules of Magic) is a bittersweet parable about the costs of survival and the behaviors that define humanity. The narrative follows several groups of characters: teenage Julien Lévi and his older brother, Victor, whose family is murdered by the Nazis; Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, who with Victor and Marianne, the Lévis’ former (Protestant) housekeeper, become members of the Resistance; and Lea Kohn, a schoolgirl fleeing Berlin with her “cousin” Ava. Unbeknownst to most of the characters, Ava is actually a golem–a soulless supernatural protector out of Jewish folklore–and her interactions with them and the ways in which she touches their lives serve as touchstones for Hoffman’s reflections on the power of love to redeem and the challenges of achieving humanity, or retaining it, under such challenging circumstances. Though coincidence governs much of the meeting and team-ups of her characters, Hoffman mitigates any implausibility through the fairy tale quality of Ava’s involvement and her supernatural powers of salvation. The attention to the harsh historical facts makes the reader care all the more strongly about the fates of all of the characters. Hoffman offers a sober appraisal of the Holocaust and the tragedies and triumphs of those who endured its atrocities.
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Japanese playwright Kawaguchi’s evocative English-language debut is set in a tiny Tokyo café where time travel is possible. In four connected tales, lovers and family members take turns sitting in the chair that allows a person to travel back in time for only as long as it takes a single cup of coffee to cool. In “Husband and Wife,” a nurse goes back in time to visit her husband before his Alzheimer’s erased her from his memory; in “The Sisters,” a woman visits her younger sister, who died in an accident while trying to visit her, to apologize for not seeing her. Kawaguchi’s characters embark on lo-fi, emotional journeys unburdened by the technicalities often found in time travel fiction–notably, they are unable to change the present. The characters learn, though, that even though people don’t return to a changed present, they return “with a changed heart.” Kawaguchi’s tender look at the beauty of passing things, adapted from one of his plays, makes for an affecting, deeply immersive journey into the desire to hold onto the past. This wondrous tale will move readers.
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Coates (We Were Eight Years in Power) makes his ambitious fiction debut with this wonderful novel that follows Hiram Walker, a boy with an extraordinary memory. Born on a Virginia plantation, he realizes at five that he has a photographic recall–except where it concerns his mother, Rose, who was sold and whom he can only reconstruct through what others tell him. Born to Rose and Howell Walker, master and owner of Lockless, the land Hiram works, Hiram is called up at age 12 to the house to serve Maynard, his half-brother. When the novel opens, Hiram is 19, and he and Maynard are on their way back to Lockless when the bridge they’re traveling over collapses. Deep in the river, Hiram is barraged with visions of his ancestors, and finally a woman water-dancing, whom he recognizes as his mother. After he wakes up, mysteriously saved even as Maynard dies, Hiram yearns for a life beyond “the unending night of slavery.” But when his plans to escape with Sophia, the woman he loves, are dashed by betrayal and violence, Hiram is inducted into the Underground, the secret network of agents working to liberate slaves. Valued for his literacy and for the magical skill the Underground believes he possesses, Hiram comes to learn that the fight for freedom comes with its own sacrifices and restrictions. In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.
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In the late eighteenth century, Nella owns an apothecary specializing in remedies for women, with a brisk side business in poisons. Her latest customer is Eliza, a servant girl charged with procuring poison for her mistress. Nella’s dreams of motherhood were destroyed by a callous young man, and Eliza is curious about the intricacies of Nella’s business. The two form a tenuous bond that quickly strengthens when Nella’s livelihood is threatened. In the present day, Caroline’s romantic anniversary trip to London becomes a solo sojourn because of her husband’s infidelity. Determined to make the best of the situation, Caroline joins a mudlarking expedition and finds a mysterious bottle in the river. Her investigation into the bottle’s provenance unravels the long-hidden mystery of Nella’s apothecary, while also reminding Caroline of her pre-marriage dreams. Penner finds clever parallels between Nella and Caroline, and avoids the pitfall of one storyline outshining the other–all three women have compelling tales, and while Nella’s business may not be on the up-and-up, her motives are understandable. Readers who enjoy Katherine Howe and Susanna Kearsley will be drawn to this promising, fast-paced debut.
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For Oona Lockhart, New Year’s Eve isn’t just an excuse to throw on a sparkly dress and pop a bottle of bubbly. It’s also the final day of understanding her place in the world, teetering on the precipice of what she calls time leaps. Oona’s memory issues are complicated, but she’s learned to expect that every January she wakes up in a different year. She lives her life non-chronologically, leaping from the Uber/iPhone peak of 2015 to the height of the club kid craze in 1991 to the questionable fashion choices of 1983. The time leaps are confusing, to say the least, but Oona has a bit of guidance in the form of a handwritten letter from her earlier self to explain the highs and lows of the upcoming year, and her mother, Madeleine, her bedrock. While many of us may feel that our internal age doesn’t match our external appearance, Montimore (Asleep from Day, 2018) takes that conceit to its witty, humorous, heartwarming extreme. Imbued with musical and cultural influences spanning decades and reminiscent of Lianne Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot (2011) and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (2013), Oona Out of Order is a delightfully freewheeling romp.
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Rachel, a childless Jamaican fisherman’s wife, discovers a baby in a basket, wrapped in swaddling clothes, whom she names Moshe. Milky white with African features, hair blonde and straight in front and black and kinky in back, Moshe eventually forms a mysterious bond with dark-skinned Arrienne Christie, the princess of a prominent family cursed with a fiery birthmark on their bottoms which become inflamed during the sugar cane harvest. The two grow up along with their country as Jamaica struggles toward independence in 1962. Forbes’ novel, rich in metaphors and biblical and fairy-tale allusions, explores the cyclical nature of birth and death, and the overwhelming and terrifying power of love. It is also a forceful critique of colonialism, peopled with white Britons lamenting the lost pearl of the Empire as Jamaicans are literally poisoned by cane sugar, its principal export. This, too, makes the point: as the fields are burned clear of underbrush, the black soot floats through windows and doorways, soiling chenille bedspreads and the pristine white of lace doilies artfully strewn on tables. Born to this complicated heritage, Moshe and Arrienne discover their voices in art and social protest as Jamaica grapples with independence and identity. A fascinating post-colonial blend of romance, social history, and myth.
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Moreno-Garcia has a talent for taking Mexican folklore, customs, and mythology, twisting them around, and turning out fascinating stories immersed in different genre tropes. She took on vampires with Certain Dark Things (2016), then romantic historical fantasy in The Beautiful Ones (2017) and now she has reimagined the Cinderella mythos using Mayan (and a little Greek) mythology. Ill-used and treated like a servant by her abusive grandfather and ever-demanding aunts and cousins, Casiopea Tun dreams of fast music, dancing, night swimming, and living in the city. Like Pandora, she accidentally opens a forbidden box and ends up going off into the world not in the way she had imagined, but nevertheless off to adventure. It soon turns out, though, that her life is on the line in a contest between two gods of the underworld: the Lord of Shadows, who she freed from imprisonment, and his treacherous, usurping brother, the Lord of Jade. Fans of lush, evocative language will be thoroughly delighted.
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Vo’s (The Empress of Salt and Fortune, 2020) first full-length novel retells The Great Gatsby from the point of view of Jordan Baker, the supposedly jaded and hollow tennis pro on the sidelines of Fitzgerald’s original novel. In Vo’s version of the story, not only is 1920s New York full of magicians, “demoniac” wine, and infernal crime bosses, but Baker is now a Vietnamese orphan adopted into the wealthy Baker family in Louisville who takes lovers of every gender as she drifts through the social scene. The novel follows all of the beats of the original, the major difference being refocusing the story around Jordan’s love of her relative freedom existing in the shadow worlds of the Jazz Age rather than Nick Carraway’s detached and vaguely disapproving Midwestern outsider perspective. Vo remains an excellent stylist and her magically infused alternate history and her version of Baker are both interesting enough that at times readers may wish the narrative wasn’t constrained by Fitzgerald’s original plotting and characters. Recommended for fans of Vo’s previous shorter work, or for readers of historical fantasy in general.
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When chef Natalie’s mother passes away, she hasn’t been back to San Francisco in years, but the responsibility for settling her mother’s affairs falls squarely on her shoulders. Natalie wants to thank the neighbors that checked in on her mother, who developed agoraphobia in her later years, and soon discovers that the neighborhood has changed since she’s been away. Swaths of Chinatown have fallen into disrepair without a steady stream of foodies and tourists to drive the economy. When Natalie falls into an opportunity to bring some life back to the neighborhood, it promises to be the hardest and most rewarding risk she’s ever taken. Infused with the flavors of Chinese cuisine and sprinkled with magic, Lim’s debut will be a treat for fans of Mary Simses, Ashton Lee, and Nina George. Her prose is infectious, with a cinematic flair. Readers will fall in love with Natalie, her multifaceted supporting cast, and the sights, sounds, and smells of San Francisco. This bighearted and deeply-felt story stirs together mourning, nostalgia, and the freedom of new possibilities.
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Restless during the seismic summer of 1969 on New York’s Lower East Side, the four Gold siblings, descendants of Jews who fled violent persecution overseas, sneak off to see a fortune-teller, who tells them each, separately, the date of his or her death. So begins Benjamin’s bewitching and provocative second novel (following The Anatomy of Dreams, 2014). Each character’s story is saturated with paradox in this delving family saga laced with history and science and a heart-pounding inquiry into self, inheritance, fate, and the mind-body connection. At 16, Simon runs away to San Francisco, comes out as gay, and discovers his gift for dance just as AIDS begins its shattering assault. Magician Klara calls herself the Immortalist. Daniel is a military doctor; scientist Varya is conducting a longevity study with rhesus monkeys. All are afflicted by the poison of prophecy. Aligned in her artistic command, imagination, and deep curiosity about the human condition with Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn, and Stacey D’Erasmo, Benjamin asks what we want out of life. Duration? Success? Meaning? Who do we live for? Do our genes determine our path? How does trauma alter us? Benjamin has created mesmerizing characters and richly suspenseful predicaments in this profound and glimmering novel of death’s ever-shocking inevitability and life’s wondrously persistent whirl of chance and destiny
Available formats: Book, Audiobook, eAudiobook (Overdrive), eBook (Overdrive)
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