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Category Archive for 'Imagined Time'

In the alternative universe of Christine Coulson’s collection of stories from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, inanimate paintings and sculptures can think, feel, and speak. These “speakers,” their conflicts, and their points of view vary widely – and surprisingly – from a robust man who speaks as the invisible charcoal underdrawing on a 1545 canvas by Venetian painter Tintoretto, to an insightful chair which describes its memories of a sobbing of little eight-year-old in the Ducal Palace of Parma in 1749. Paintings and sculptures from all time periods reveal their own thoughts as they vie to be chosen the Perfect Muse, the lucky winner of which will accompany Michel Larousse, the Director of the Museum, to an important meeting. A variety of human characters reveal their jobs and their special commitments to the Met and their favorite artworks. The scale and scope are limited only by the museum’s artwork itself, and its settings include all the galleries, many of which are created to resemble the original settings of the work displayed in them.

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Those who love fantasy, dystopian fiction, sci-fi, and mythical characters will find much to love in this novel, which maintains its own otherworldly style as the novel progresses. The “rules” of fiction and its long history of development are challenged here, as author Max Porter tries his hand at bending, breaking, and ignoring many old traditions regarding the author and his relationship with his readers. Lanny’s story is neither quiet nor reflective. Instead, it explodes with coarse energy, opening with the lead description of Dead Papa Toothwort, an unusual earth spirit who has been hiding below ground for an unknown number of years, waiting for the best moment to reappear on earth. When Toothwort hears the voice of Lanny, a young child, he becomes fascinated with his life, and begins to take some actions, and when Lanny eventually disappears, the community is frantic to find him. The involvement of Toothwort is a question, as the community begins to fall apart analyzing what is happening.

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In what is the most excitingly creative and unusual group of ten stories I have read in many years, Bosnian author Asja Bakic captured my attention totally, and kept it through several readings. In Bakić’s first story, “Day Trip to Durmitor,” for example, a young woman is surprised, after her own death, to discover that the afterlife is completely different from what she expected. When she wants to know where God is, she is rebuked, told that she “can’t champion atheism and then play cards with the Lord when you die.” In other words, “God slipped in the tub.” In another story, the speaker is magically sucked out of the celestial place where she has been writing, lands on earth, and sees her own reflection – as a non-human. Hidden treasure, a grandfather’s collection of pornography, a well-digger who is a forest monster, a robot who comes to life, a character with the same name as the author, who has been cloned four times, and people who live with a green spirit add further interest. Literary references add depth and interest.

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Wildly imaginative and filled with scenes so vivid that the reader cannot help but participate in the story as it unwinds, Life After Life engages the reader from the outset with the novel’s ironic and seemingly contradictory premises: first, that everything here is real and nothing is real; and second, that everything changes and nothing changes. As the book’s title confirms, this is a novel in which there is a life after life – a life in which a character’s fate as described in the novel in one place is revisited and rewritten in new scenes in other places, creating a new fate or fates. The characters change as they move forward obliquely, learning from each set of new, changed circumstances as reality merges with fantasy to create a new reality in a new dimension. Despite all the structural and thematic cleverness (and even game-playing), the novel is neither weird nor esoteric. Instead, it is loads of fun, a book that speeds along on the strength of the author’s deft handling of details and her creation of lively characters who interest us as their circumstances change – moving us, sometimes, from grief to happiness or from delight to puzzlement.

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In this alternative history set in 1952, debut author Guy Saville assumes that the negotiations of Lord Halifax, a British advocate of appeasement throughout the war, has led ultimately to détente between Great Britain and Germany. In 1943, the two countries, wanting to avoid war, had met at the Casablanca Conference and agreed to divide the African continent into two spheres of influence. The divisions would be primarily along the historical colonial lines: West Africa would remain largely under German rule, while much of East Africa would remain British. In a dramatic opening scene, a British assassin arrives in Kongo disguised as an SS surveyor, hoping to kill Walter Hochberg, the Governor General of Kongo. Cole stabs him to death, then escapes with some of his co-conspirators, only to discover later that Hochberg is somehow alive. Reading this novel is like reading a movie. The action is so graphic and so cinematic, that it is easy to imagine a hardcore action thriller, peopled with characters as impervious to pain as Superman. By the halfway point, Burton Cole and Patrick Whaler have been beaten, stabbed, slashed, smashed, and tortured to what would be the breaking point if these bigger-than-life men could be broken, but the chases and escapes continue. The characters on both sides are stereotypical, but Saville is an exciting new author with a suspenseful, dramatic style, but I’ll be hoping for more depth of character and more fully developed motivation to bring his future novels to life.

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