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The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a rare indulgence in contemporary fiction. Offering a world that’s equally real and imagined, Heather O’Neill’s latest novel fashions a love story set in historical Montreal that spans the life of two unusual orphans.

As children raised in harsh conditions, Rose and Pierrot oppose the cruel reality of life by embracing a fantastical world of make-believe. They bloom into artists and performers—excelling in music, dancing, comedy and acting. The chemistry in their performance mirrors their connection in life, and it seems fated that Rose and Pierrot will spend their lives loving each another. But when they’re separated as teenagers during the Great Depression, they begin parallel paths deep into Montreal’s underworld. When they finally reunite, will the magic of the stage and the love they shared as children be enough to save them from themselves?

All at once, The Lonely Hearts Hotel is whimsical, melancholy, tragic and delightful—a wonderful feat that recreates the ambivalence of life. Throughout the novel, the bleakest of realities are colored by magic, and the most joyful moments are cloaked in subtle gloom. The novel’s many addictions—drugs, power, even love and music—are juxtaposed against the presence of invisible bears, sad clowns, clairvoyant occurrences and apples made of jewels. But the intricate details of The Lonely Hearts Hotel do much more than surprise and entertain; they share the lives of characters we can’t help but fascinatingly follow. The joy and adoration between Rose and Pierrot form the novel’s core, and the fact that their love story is shown through shades of mysticism, absurdity and hardship accentuates O’Neill’s ability to tell a story—and tell it distinctively.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Though it has similar themes and sensations as William Blake’s “The Tyger” and even Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge!, O’Neill’s particular mix of magical realism, comic tragedy and romance makes it a highly original work of fiction. Is this novel an idyllic fairy tale of stage magic and romance, or a surreal exploration of sadness, sensuality and addiction? For all you ambitious readers, I’m happy to report that The Lonely Hearts Hotel is both.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a rare indulgence in contemporary fiction. Offering a world that’s equally real and imagined, Heather O’Neill’s latest novel fashions a love story set in historical Montreal that spans the life of two unusual orphans.

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Just before teenage Samuel’s mother died, she told him to go to the Brazilian town of Candeia, to find his estranged family and light a candle at the feet of the statue of St. Anthony. When Samuel arrives in the dilapidated town, circumstances lead him to take up residence in the statue’s head, long separated from its body. Inside the head, Samuel hears voices of women praying to the saint for husbands . . . and a mysterious voice singing sad but lovely songs. Playing matchmaker helps Samuel revitalize the town (and earn a tidy profit), but as happy couples flock to the church, secrets from the past begin to weigh on the present. Why did Candeia become all but a ghost town? Why isn’t St. Anthony’s head attached to his body? Who is the mysterious singer, and why does she sing such sad songs? Like the advice Samuel gives out in the name of the saint, Samuel’s mother’s last requests have implications far beyond their surface meanings.

This slim YA novel exemplifies the best of magical realism—as it should. Brazilian author Socorro Acioli had the opportunity to workshop the manuscript that would become The Head of the Saint with renowned Latin American author Gabriel García Márquez. If you like Márquez's work—or more contemporary multigenerational tales with a touch of magic (like Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender)—you’ll also like The Head of the Saint.

 

Jill Ratzan matches readers with books in a small library in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Just before teenage Samuel’s mother died, she told him to go to the Brazilian town of Candeia, to find his estranged family and light a candle at the feet of the statue of St. Anthony. When Samuel arrives in the dilapidated town, circumstances lead him to take up residence in the statue’s head, long separated from its body. Inside the head, Samuel hears voices of women praying to the saint for husbands . . . and a mysterious voice singing sad but lovely songs.

Fans of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic are sure to enjoy The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag, a gentle story about a group of women with supernatural gifts and a bevy of romance problems.

This is an ensemble story that touches on the lives of five women, all witches: Amandine, Noa, Cosima, Kat and Helena. Amandine, a professor at Cambridge University, can feel other people’s emotions, as well as divine what artists felt while making a work of art. Amandine has always had a close and happy relationship with her husband, but she can sense that he has a secret, and it's threatening to drive them apart. Noa, a student at the University, can read people’s secrets. Unfortunately for her, she also feels compelled to blurt them out, a habit that plays havoc with her social life. Noa falls madly in love with a painter who offers to cure her of magic, but as their relationship progresses, she finds herself giving up her dreams to advance his own. Cosima, a baker, uses kitchen magic to bring people luck or love, and despite life-threatening health problems, she attempts to use magic to become pregnant against the advice of her sister, unlucky-in-love mathematics professor Kat. Amandine’s mother, Heloise, a recent widow, can see the future, but her magic has faded following the death of her husband. Her story begins as she emerges from crippling grief and depression, and she soon develops an interest in a fellow widower.

The characters tend to find that their magic is a liability rather than an asset when it comes to matters of the heart. Van Praag’s writing is lyrical and the story sweetly affirming. A running theme through this novel is the importance of honesty—Noa’s characteristic of candor that she so loathes is crucial to healing the various wounds of the women. Like one of Cosima’s confections, The Witches of Cambridge attempts to comfort rather than challenge the reader, and it has a lulling—but never boring—quality. 

Fans of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic are sure to enjoy The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag, a gentle story about a group of women with supernatural gifts and a bevy of romance problems.
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BookPage Teen Top Pick, October 2015

Every once in a while a book comes along that inspires readers to rethink everything they thought they knew about how fiction works. Given author A.S. King’s talent for writing boundary-pushing YA lit, it’s no surprise that her latest offering does exactly that.

Gustav is building a red helicopter that the biology-obsessed Stanzi—which isn’t her real name—can only see on Tuesdays. China, a poet, has turned herself inside out. Lansdale’s hair grows every time she tells a lie, which is often. All four teens, hiding their pain behind elaborate defense mechanisms, are desperate to escape a life in which parents tour the sites of school shootings, abusers walk free and daily bomb threats disrupt their classes . . . especially as the time for high-stakes testing looms. And all the while, a strange man who lurks in a bush sells letters (like A, B, C, not the kind with stamps) in return for kisses and other favors.

When Gustav’s helicopter is finished, he and Stanzi fly it to the haunting Place of Arrivals—where, in theory, there are no departures. But one resident has already departed, and another hopes to be next. 

References to cultural icons such as “M*A*S*H,” Amadeus and “Sesame Street” (at least in my interpretation of the letter-selling man) give characters a language to express the inexpressible. Surreal and unsettling but ultimately redemptive, this piece of magical realism—if that indeed is what it is—will speak to fans of Francesca Lia Block and anyone seeking a thoroughly postmodern read.

 

Jill Ratzan matches readers with books in a small library in southeastern Pennsylvania.

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Every once in a while a book comes along that inspires readers to rethink everything they thought they knew about how fiction works. Given author A.S. King’s talent for writing boundary-pushing YA lit, it’s no surprise that her latest offering does exactly that.
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“The sleep of reason produces monsters.” These words can be found in an etching by Francisco Goya of a young man asleep, slumped over a table as a horde of wide-eyed and shadowy creatures bear down upon him. This nightmarish image is reproduced at the beginning of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (or 1,001 nights, that magical number). But Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, his first for adults in seven years, is not so tidy as monster against human. This is a fairy tale for the modern era, A Thousand and One Nights for the age of reality TV, The Odyssey in the time of Disney World.

Rushdie’s jinn are mischievous, lascivious creatures, made of “smokeless fire” and generally disinterested in unfortunate human concerns about right and wrong. But the line between the human and jinn worlds is crossed when the jinnia princess Dunia presents herself at the door of the disgraced 12th-century philosopher Ibn Rushd. Dunia has fallen in love with his mind and so bears his many children, descendants now part human and part jinn, all with the distinguishable trait of lobeless ears.

Leaping centuries forward to the present day, a storm strikes New York City and leaves “strangenesses” in its wake: A gardener finds himself floating a few inches above the ground. An abandoned baby marks the corrupt with boils and rotting flesh. A wormhole opens in a failed graphic novelist’s bedroom. A war of the worlds has begun.

Rushdie spins this action-​packed, illusion-filled, madcap wonder of a tale with a wicked, wise fury. It’s a riot of pop culture and humor, with bursts of insight that stop readers dead, only to zip them up again like a jinn flying across the sky. To tell a story about the jinn is to tell a story about ourselves, and this is why we love myth: The contrast of the fantastical allows us to peer at ourselves from a safe distance.

In this boisterous doomsday legend, reality is no longer a given, and what remains is a brilliant, bawdy world where stories are both the knife and the wound.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In this boisterous doomsday legend, reality is no longer a given, and what remains is a brilliant, bawdy world where stories are both the knife and the wound.

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