Interview with Zoe Brooks, magic realist writer and reviewer

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore interviews author Zoe Brooks about their mutual interest in magic realism and Zoe’s project to read widely in the genre.
Evie Woolmore: Zoe, you explain on your blog that you started reviewing magic realist books because people told you that’s what you wrote. What qualities were you attributing to your own fiction when you started writing that you now identify as being magic realist?
Zoe Brooks: The Healer’s Shadow trilogy books and Mother of Wolves are all set in a non-specific world, which could be our world but isn’t. The world is very realistic – influenced by my study of history and my travels – and so it is unlike the incredible fantasy worlds of most fantasy books. Looking back I realize I was influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which Marquez creates the town of Macado, in an unspecified country which could be somewhere in South America but isn’t.  The world of my books isn’t full of spells or magic, but there are Shadows.  The heroine of the trilogy, Judith, is born with a Shadow. Shadows appear to be human but aren’t in some ways. Through the course of the trilogy, Judith and the reader understand more and more about what Shadows are. 
Most magic realism is about two cultures meeting – often a western realist culture and an indigenous culture which believes in magic. The trilogy is partly about the clash between the new university-based medical doctors and traditional healers, such as Judith. In The Company of Shadows, the final book in the trilogy, Judith completes her training as a healer. As a result what might be called “magic” appears, but then it depends how you look at it. I think this ambiguity is a common feature of magic realism. 
EW: Yes, I agree that ambiguity and a clash of cultures are something I would certainly identify as being magic realist. How useful do you think ambiguity is as a creative tool for a writer?
ZB: It’s a very useful tool. It is also true to life – life is ambiguous. If you are using a first-person narrator I would say ambiguity is a necessity, as your central character can’t be certain of everything.
Ambiguity can be used to keep the reader turning the pages: what’s going on here? But whether you can still have ambiguity at the end of the book is another matter.  Some people want everything wound up and explained at the end. In magic realism that doesn’t always happen – sometimes the magic is just part of the world and isn’t explained, other times the reader cannot be clear if the magic was actually in the head of one of the characters. Personally I am quite okay about that when I read a book that ends in this way, but other people aren’t. In the case of The Healer’s Shadow trilogy, the last book answers a lot of people’s questions.
EW: What unexpected surprises did you discover among the books you read and reviewed, in terms of new authors, books you weren’t expecting to enjoy, or clever uses of magic realism?
ZB: What a question! I’ve read over ninety books for the magic realism blog, so where do I start? Of the classic magic realist books the one that blew me away was Pedro Paramo. It’s poetic, experimental and just wonderful. Previously I had read very few short story collections, but magic realism works well in short stories. Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia has to be one of my favourite books so far and Diving Belles by Lucy Wood is a lovely evocation of the magic of Cornwall. In terms of clever uses of magic realism I suppose the use of magic realism in Graham Joyce’s psychological suspense novel The Tooth Fairy was an eye opener for me as a writer and has influenced the book I am currently working on. I had not experienced Chicano literature before and I loved the historical biography The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Hardly a surprise as it’s about a traditional woman healer, which is also the focus of my Shadows trilogy.

EW: I too very much enjoyed Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles, and it reminded me of how different the narrative drive is in short stories. You mentioned the influence of The Tooth Fairy, so I’m curious what else you have learned about your own writing of magic realism from reading so widely in the genre?

ZB: I don’t subscribe to a view that magic realism is a form of escapism. I have just finished Burning Angel by James Lee Burke, which is a gritty detective story with an element of magic realism. Your book can be very real and also magical. The more I read the more I see magic realism as a way of exploring reality in its totality. I’ve always tackled hard issues in my books – The Healer’s Shadow trilogy is about overcoming prejudice and persecution. I believe magic realism can allow you do this in a deeper way.

EW: So, can you share with us what you are writing at the moment?

ZB: My current work in progress is set in modern Prague. It’s a place I know very well, as I spend half my time in the Czech Republic. Prague may be a bustling modern city, but it is also one where almost uniquely you are aware of a magic reality alongside the normal world. I am always surprised how many Czechs believe in angels, devils and nature spirits. The novel is a psychological suspense. A young British woman has gone missing. As we meet people who knew her and read her letters and journal, we find ourselves in a shifting world of reality. In a fortnight I will be flying off to the Czech Republic again, where I will be finishing off the first draft of the book. 

Zoe, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you about magic realism. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

You can find out more about Zoe, her novels and her magic realism blog at her website. You can find out more about Evie Woolmore’s magic realism novels here at allonymbooks, and read Evie’s review of Zoe’s first Healer’s Shadow novel here.


Indie Book Reviews (12): British Indie Authors (3)

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews Alan Williams’ novel The Blackheath Seance Parlour (available from Amazon)

My own interest as a writer in the spiritualist world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras drew me to this novel, but if you are looking for a good historical novel with plenty of authentic detail then there is much to appeal here. Middle-aged sisters Judy and Maggie Cloak have inherited a shop in the windswept, weather-beaten village of Blackheath on the outskirts of east London, but it is doing badly in its current incarnation as a sweetshop and the Cloak sisters are getting desperate. Judy has ambitions to escape both literally and metaphorically through a gothic novel she is writing, while Maggie seeks solace in drink from her sense of abandonment as a daughter and a prospective wife. Their lives change with the arrival of the rather mysterious Mrs Walters, a woman of some spiritual ability, who soon helps the sisters transform the shop into a focal point for many contrasting things: gossip, hope, faith, belief, mystery, and all the trappings of the occult. But the initial success of tea leaf reading is not enough for Maggie, Judy or Mrs Walters, and the story explores how the paths of each woman diverge as they seek their own resolutions with the past and the future. The novel is also intercut with long extracts from Judy’s novel, through which she explores certain aspects of her own reality and the society to which she imagines belonging.

The other main character in this book is the village of Blackheath, and Williams notes at the end of the book that he wanted to do justice to the community and its history as part of his aim in writing the novel. He captures very effectively the bleakness of the heath as it must have been in the Victorian era, and with a subplot around the murder of two girls, he infuses a certain chill in the already atmospheric spiritualist action. He has also done great justice to what must have been substantial research of spiritualism in the Victorian era. In the scenes where the sisters and Mrs Walters are reading tea leaves and the glass ball, and later the seances themselves, he has drawn very authentically on reports of the time, both of the fake and the genuine, and that level of accuracy will please readers of historical fiction and those interested in spiritualism.

It’s interesting too that he has essentially focussed on three middle-aged women, and he explores the social confinement these women must have felt in being unmarried while also seeking to be independent. Each woman is seeking something different as a consequence, and while their stories are interesting I wasn’t always as convinced by the historical authenticity of their actions and particularly some of their dialogue. Without giving too much away about how the story develops, some more spiritually-inclined readers might think it a shame that the most talented character spiritually was also the least attractive personality. It also might be seen by some readers as not doing much for a feminist agenda: the social emancipation and independence each of these women is seeking is in a way undermined by the lengths they go to to achieve what they want, and in some ways none of the women comes out of it very well. I was also a bit disappointed by the way Mrs Walters’ storyline resolved itself and not entirely satisfied with what happens to Maggie. But to discuss that at any length would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book.

As in my own spiritualist novels (search for Evie Woolmore), there is some discussion about the science vs religious faith vs spirituality conundrum, and this appears in the last part of the book only. It would have been interesting to do more with this much earlier in Maggie’s arguments with Father Legge, although it makes a very fitting climax dramatically in other respects. The book – though quite long – is generally well-paced, although I personally didn’t engage as much with the extracts of Judy’s novel. I think there could have been fewer of them and shorter ones too, without detracting from the part they played in reflecting some of the real-life action and the issues that arise for Judy as a consequence of writing the book.

This is a historically detailed novel, which I’m sure residents and those familiar with Blackheath will much enjoy for its local portrait, and which will provide a good escape on a wintry evening or two.


Evie Woolmore is the author of historical novels with a spiritual twist. If you enjoyed The Blackheath Seance Parlour, you will probably enjoy her novel Equilibrium too, available at Amazon.

In admiration of…. Rex Stout

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, American writer Rex Stout.

Rex Stout is a name which many readers may be unfamiliar with, indeed amid the wash of gritty Nordic and British crime, there might seem to be little to recommend a writer whose novels are at first glance so mild-mannered and dated to the time of their writing. Indeed, much of the action takes place in the brownstone home of a man who weighs “one sixth of a ton”, rather than on the mean streets of pre- and post-WWII New York. Yet the thirty or so novels Stout wrote featuring the intellectual giant Nero Wolfe, and his legman – the witty ladies’ man Archie Goodwin – are not only clever puzzles but also a fine portrait of a city and a country going through periods of enormous social change. The plots range widely from corporate and industrial intrigue, families in crisis, diplomacy, politics and the criminal underworld, to the recurrent impact of the war both collectively and individually. Wealth is perhaps more prominent than poverty, as both Wolfe and his clients live comfortably and Archie Goodwin’s taste in ladies generally runs to the more refined, such as socialite heiress Lily Rowan. But the darker, dirtier face of the city is glimpsed often enough in the diners and dark alleys observed by Wolfe’s secondary team of private detectives such as Saul Panzer.

Wolfe and Goodwin are in a marriage of unequals yet they complement each other most brilliantly. Wolfe is huge, temperamental, obsessive about his food, devoted to his orchids, a man of such utter ritual that he will not be disturbed for any crisis, even by his closest associates – Archie Goodwin and Fritz (the chef and majordomo). He refuses to leave the brownstone for anyone – client or cop – and could be seen as the extreme of the eccentric, individualistic private detective. Crimes are puzzles, criminals are like museum exhibits, to be studied and observed from many angles while Wolfe barely moves from his office chair. By contrast, Goodwin is the everyman: a connoisseur of women and violence, he is Wolfe’s eyes and ears out in the world, gliding easily between the criminal classes and the monied aristocracy, driving all over the city and the state, and it is he who tells the stories of the cases that Wolfe is asked to solve, and who paints the portraits of those entangled in the crimes.

The dialogue and first person narration in these books is what drives them both in story and quality. This quote from The Silent Speaker (1946) is typical of the way Stout captures the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin:

“Nonsense.” Wolfe was peevish. “With an ordinary person that might be necessary, but Mr. Goodwin is trained, competent, reliable, and moderately intelligent.”

We aren’t told what Archie thinks of being described by his employer as “moderately intelligent” and it doesn’t matter, for Archie reports things exactly as they are, which is part of what makes him such a good detective. Hence his use of the word “peevish” – perhaps a less fashionable descriptor now yet for Goodwin it pins his employer’s mood precisely to the map, and for Stout it avoids slowing the rapid fire pacing of the dialogue with overly heavy description. But hence also the precision with which, in the same novel, Stout has Archie report the death of a beautiful woman outside the brownstone and chart the effect of her loss on him:

I do not ordinarily hunt for a cave in the middle of the biggest excitement and the most intense action but this seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside of me needed a little arranging.

And at the end of the same short chapter:

I had been sitting in my room twenty minutes when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.

There is little angst in these books, no great emotional swings and roundabouts as experienced by some of the other great detectives who get so personally involved. Nero Wolfe solves crimes for money, he is perhaps an intellectual mercenary for he forms no attachments to the victims. His endless battle with Inspector Cramer of the police is one for control of the facts and of his privacy – perhaps in equal measure – and the police are  as necessary an evil in tidying up and enacting the solutions Wolfe reaches, as the crimes are for Wolfe to fund his peculiar lifestyle.

So why would you read these books? They are historically dated, favour dialogue over action and the questing of motive over the complexity of plot. Stories are sometimes convoluted, there are often innumerable characters (all beautifully named) and Wolfe is at times so metronomically confined by his own routines as to be close to a parody of himself. But that is to oversimplify the charm of the books – any fan of Christie or Allingham or Sayers would find these just as compelling – and to belittle their lessons for us as writers. For they are a masterclass in how to use words very exactly, how to create a world without being too lavish in description, how to home in on what we really need to say about our characters. Not a word is wasted. The books rush past as easily as a fat airport paperback, but they do so without gloss or embellishment. Every sentence counts, every single observation Archie makes tells us what we need to know, and I for one could listen to him reading the telephone book.


EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

Many of the Nero Wolfe books are still in print and several have now been issued for Kindle. If you haven’t encountered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin before, A&E made a series of films for television based on a number of the stories. Starring Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, they are good adaptations of the novels and also fun to watch.

Indie Book Review (11)

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews The Written by Ben Galley, founder of Libiro.

I’ll say up front that I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I loved the idea of what is written being such an important part of this story, and that was what attracted me to it – that, and the stunning cover design. So I’m delighted to say that this is a well-crafted, imaginatively constructed story that is very readable, regardless of whether you read a lot of fantasy or this is your first foray into the genre. It’s also the first in a series, which seems almost essential when writing fantasy, but will also please readers who have been quickly swept off their feet by this story.

A valuable item has been stolen, and its theft has brought a realm to the brink of war. Old enmities are being revived, and trust must be rebuilt between enemies if a far greater threat is to be overcome. But will time run out, and will the power of our hero be enough? This might seem like the plot to many a fantasy novel at the most general level, but Ben Galley has done a nice job of finessing the story with some lovely, well-imagined details. Farden, our hero (though not an enormously likeable one, perhaps) is a complicated fellow, driven yet a little lost, isolated and feared, yet inspiring fondness in his closest confidantes and strangers alike. He is also torn on the inside by a weakness that could literally render him powerless. His well-drawn vampyre adviser Durnus is very strongly characterised, as are the wonderful dragons Farden meets with their Siren riders, who are also beautifully described. I have the faint sense that Galley likes some of his characters more than others – I was less convinced by the drawing of a couple of them who I won’t name because I don’t want to hint at a spoiler – but the world of Emaneska, the towns, the huge buildings in which the most important action happens are all inspiringly drawn and will not disappoint any reader.

There’s a lot of action in this book – the fighting at which Farden is so proficient, and the use of magick (though less than I was expecting actually) – and also a lot of politics too, for this is at some levels a very political novel. It is about allegiances and loyalty, corruption and manipulation, weakness and strength. The first key revelation about two thirds of the way through was perhaps not as surprising as it could have been though, and I felt for a moment as if I was watching an episode of a US crime drama, because I was running out of possible candidates for the villain. However, this is a series, not an episode, and it is always a challenge to keep the momentum going well enough not only through this book but through those that follow. I agree with other reviewers who have pointed out Galley’s potential as a novelist, and what I think is admirable (perhaps because I don’t read a lot of fantasy) is that he has not created an over-complicated world, littered by its own creative profusion. There are not so many characters, races, languages, mythologies and so on that one cannot keep them all to mind if you put the book down for a day or two, and I don’t intend it as a weakness when I say that at its heart this is quite a straightforward tale.

If I have one particular criticism it is that the narrative writing can be very dense at times. Having a solitary hero, and seeing so much of the world through his eyes, means that narrative writing outweighs the quantity of dialogue by quite a bit and it can make the novel feel rather one-paced in places. To some extent this is a feature of the genre, but for this reader, a bit more variety of pacing and more dialogue in general would have elevated this novel beyond being what is already a very good book.