Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, by Ruth Emmie Lang (Review)


Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance
by Ruth Emmie Lang

Genre: Magical Realism

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: December 4, 2019

Synopsis: 

Through the story of Weylyn Grey, an orphaned boy who grew up with wolves, Lang weaves a mystical tale about life, love, and the ability each of us has to change our own story.

Finding magic in the ordinary…

The day that Weylyn is born is the largest snowstorm the South has ever seen. As he grows older, so does the legends of Weylyn Grey, his horned-pig Merlin and their magical abilities. But the true magic is in the way that he transforms the lives of those around him. As anyone who’s met Weylyn will tell you, once he wanders into your life, you’ll wish he’d never leave.

Told from the perspectives of the people who knew him, loved him, and even a few who thought he was just plain weird. Although he doesn’t stay in any of their lives for long, he leaves each of them with a story to tell. Stories about a boy who lives with wolves, great storms that evaporate into thin air, fireflies that make phosphorescent honey, and a house filled with spider webs and the strange man who inhabits it.

There is one story, however, that Weylyn wishes he could change: his own. But first he has to muster enough courage to knock on Mary’s front door.

Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance teaches us about adventure and love in a beautifully written story full of nature and wonder.

ratingfive

“Why do you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Take something beautiful and vandalize it with skepticism?”

I’ve been finding myself increasingly drawn towards stories with magical realism lately, and this book was such a welcome treat. I think Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance can best be described as a fairy tale for grown-ups, and every chapter is just so cozy and magical.

Weylyn Grey, despite being the main character, remains a bit of a mystery throughout the novel. We get only fleeting glimpses into his own point of view, and the majority of the story is told through the eyes of those who encounter Weylyn at different points in his life. His story begins (chronologically, at least) with a little girl who runs away from home to join a wolf pack with Weylyn. Weylyn has been living with the wolves since the sudden deaths of his parents threatened to put him into the foster care system.

Weylyn has magic powers which he can’t fully control and definitely doesn’t fully understand. The magic in this novel is relatively understated for most of the story, and the reader never really gets much in the way of an explanation. Weylyn has magic powers because magic exists in this world, and it’s simply expected that you can suspend your disbelief long enough to go on an adventure with Weylyn.

There is a bit of romance within the novel, but I don’t think I would characterize it as the major focus of the novel, despite its heavy involvement with the plot. Readers who aren’t fans of romance probably won’t find the plot line overbearing, and those who do enjoy it will find that the love story adds to the magic.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is Lang’s debut novel, and it’s such an incredibly strong start to what hopefully proves to be a long and successful writing career.  Judging by this Goodreads page, she has something else in the works already, but not much information is available yet. Regardless, I’ll be first in line to get a copy!

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Thank you for reading! What’s your favorite story that incorporates magical realism? Let me know in the comments!

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The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Review)


The Night Tiger
by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

A sweeping historical novel about a dancehall girl and an orphan boy whose fates entangle over an old Chinese superstition about men who turn into tigers.

When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.

Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.

As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

rating

four

My thanks to BookSparks for sending me a free copy of this book for my role as an official Winter Reading Challenge Ambassador. All opinions are my own. 

“We were a chocolate-box family, I thought. Brightly wrapped on the outside and oozing sticky darkness within.”

The Night Tiger is such a rich and magical story, full of bits of Chinese culture and thoroughly developed, interesting characters. The story alternates between 11-year-old houseboy Ren’s perspectives and that of a young woman named Ji Lin. Their stories are woven together, oddly enough, by the severed and preserved finger of Ren’s deceased master, which has inadvertently fallen into Ji Lin’s possession before Ren could reunite it with the rest of the body in its grave. Chinese folklore says that the body must be made whole in death or the departed cannot rest.

Ren’s story is dominated by a desperate need to locate the finger, while Ji Lin is enmeshed in a family drama propelled by a violent stepfather, a secretive mother, and a forbidden romance. (A side note and minor spoiler here: the romance aspect of this book was by far my least favorite; Ji Lin is in love with her step brother, and they’ve lived together since they were small children. No, they are not blood relatives, but they grew up together as family and I had trouble viewing them as anything other than siblings. End of spoilers.

The magical realism in the novel was really beautifully done, mainly woven into dreams, vague senses, and whispered-about folklore which may or may not be true. There are rumors of men who can turn into tigers, though we never see one, and a sense that those who have departed can still tip the scales in events of the living world in small ways. The end result is a magical, dreamy story that still feels anchored in the real world.

If I have any complaint about this book it’s that it did take me a while to become invested in the story and characters. The pacing early on feels a bit slow compared to the whirlwind of events at the end of the story. However, the overall story felt well worth the time investment by the end. The Night Tiger may be a great choice for fans of The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker, or The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

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ARC Review – The Dinner List, by Rebecca Serle

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The Dinner List
by Rebecca Serle

Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 288 Pages

Release date: September 11, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

“We’ve been waiting for an hour.” That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.”

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends with in her utterly captivating novel, THE DINNER LIST, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, THE DINNER LIST is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

ratingthree

The Dinner List was a quick read with an interesting premise. What began as a simple mental exercise with a college roommate (choose any five people, living or dead, to join you for one meal) suddenly becomes a reality on Sabrina’s 30th birthday. The result is an unexpected encounter with four people from Sabrina’s personal life… and Audrey Hepburn.

On its face, this seems like it would make for a light, fun read. Serle’s novel, however, drags her protagonist into a drawn-out exchange with people who represent a monumental amount of emotional baggage for her. Yes, even Audrey, in a way. While there are fun and light moments in the novel, it primarily feels like an analysis of where Sabrina’s life has gone wrong and if/how she can move on from those things.

While I enjoyed this novel overall, it felt like there was something lacking. I think part of the issue is that fundamental weirdness of Audrey Hepburn’s presence as the only person on the list Sabrina did not know personally. The presence of only one stranger, and such an iconic one at that, brought something of a lopsided impression to the plot that I don’t feel would have been there if there had been an additional stranger at the dinner. As it was, it felt a bit like a celebrity barging into an intimate family discussion.

The Dinner List has one bombshell of a plot twist (perhaps you’ll see it coming; I certainly didn’t) that changes the whole tone of the story when it hits. This book was an emotional roller coaster that ends with a glimmer of optimism and light at just the moment it began to feel too dark. Overall, a unique book that was worth the read.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 285

Release date: September 5, 2017

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

rating

four

This is an absolutely beautiful book. Ward’s lyrical prose, rich with metaphor and evocative imagery, meshes well with the magical realism woven into the story. Overall, this creates a dreamy atmosphere which provides a nice counter balance for the heavy, dark story lines; ghosts are full-fledged characters in this story, bringing along their baggage and trauma brought on by violent deaths.

If I have any criticism at all of this novel, it’s that Ward’s distinctive voice sometimes gets in the way of her characters. There is too much similarity in tone between different point of view characters, blending them together. The prose was so lovely that it’s hard to mind, but it does have the effect of distracting from the story at times. For example, Jojo is 13 years old, and sometimes seems to have a college-level vocabulary. The writing is stylistically lovely, but not always believable as Jojo’s internal monologue.

Leonie is a deeply flawed woman and unable to bond with her children. Kayla, the youngest child, looks to Jojo for a kind of surrogate parent, and she resents both of them for this evidence of her failure as a mother. I personally disliked Leonie deeply, but still found her point of view chapters endlessly engaging, a testament to Ward’s skill as a writer. If a book has me hanging on every word of a character that I can’t stand, that’s worth noting.

I feel the need to warn readers that this is an emotionally difficult book to read. Themes include, racial violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, and death. These themes are handled masterfully, however, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, is the kind of novel that lives in the reader’s soul for years to come.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” 

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Sing, Unburied, Sing or any of Jesmyn Ward’s other work? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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