Review: ‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” by Alix E. Harrow

On July 26, 2018, Alix E. Harrow–an award-winning author of short fiction, posted a blog entry called “Holy Cats, I sold my book” in which she called the pending publication: “Big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking news.”

Her reaction also describes the book, a mix of magical realism and fantasy, with a delightful plot that bends time and space in upon themselves as–quite possibly–an illustration of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics. Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about quantum theory to follow the story.

What you do need is a wide-open, non-judgemental imagination because this story is quite a unique trip. No doubt, Harrow used that kind of imagination to write the book, to follow the world-leaping exploits of her main character January Scaller who learns–while looking for her parents and running from the bad guys–how to travel between worlds as easily as walking from here to there and (with luck) back again.

Her plotting, language, and tone are among the best I’ve seen through ten thousand hours of reading every book I could get my hands on. Each of those books was a door into a new world, a fact you’ll believe more firmly than ever by the time you finish “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.” In fact, you’re more likely than ever to discover new worlds after reading this beautiful (and beautifully written) debut novel.

It’s a big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking novel.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels and stories.

Review: ‘ Very Cold For May’ by William P. McGivern

Very Cold for MayVery Cold for May by William P. McGivern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1950 police procedural is told in a very straight-forward manner like books that ended up in noir movies. The protagonist is former newspaper reporter Jake Harrison who works for a PR firm that’s representing a man currently being investigated by the government. Add to this, the fact that former WWII-era socialite May Laval is planning to write a tell-all memoir that might include the details of her potentially sordid relationship with the man Jake represents. In fact, it might contain details about a lot of past relationships. She kept everything about her day-to-day intrigues in a diary.

Nobody can, including Jake, can talk her out of writing the memoir, much less divulging who (if anyone) might suffer the slings and arrows of earlier escapades.

When she is murdered, there are plenty of suspects. The diary seems to be missing from the bedroom murder scene. Who has it? Everyone wants it and everyone seems to have an alibi.

This slim volume is well-done until we get to the ending. The ending might have worked in 1950, but most readers have–by now–seen movies or read detective stories where all the suspects are called together in a room while the main character tells them what happened to May, what happened to the diary, and why people did what they did.

On the plus side, who killed who is a surprise. On the minus side, the ending–by 2019 standards–is a bit hackneyed. Detective story aficionados may nonetheless enjoy this old novel.

I found this old novel on my bookshelf last week and have no idea where it came from. My wife has no recollection of it either. One of us must have been assigned to read it in a college course and–assuming we did read it–forgot all about it.

Malcolm

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Where have all the reviewers gone?

Small press and self-published authors have noticed over the past year or so that their books are getting fewer and fewer reader reviews on Amazon and B&N. Meanwhile, the big books that don’t need any reader reviews to survive, often have a thousand or so people saying they loved the book. Here is my response:

Meh, too much trouble.

Where have all the reviewers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the reviewers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the reviewers gone?
Big books have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the big books gone, long time passing?
Where have all the big books gone, long time ago?
Where have all the big books gone?
Gone for big publishers everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the big publishers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the big publishers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the big publishers gone?
Gone for conglomerates everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the conglomerates gone, long time passing?
Where have all the conglomerates gone, long time ago?
Where have all the conglomerates gone?
Gone for Amazon everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where has Amazon gone, long time passing?
Where has Amazon gone, long time ago?
Where has Amazon gone?
Gone for a billion other products everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have the billion products gone, long time passing?
When have the billion products gone, long time ago?
Where have the billion products gone?
Gone for a monopoly everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where, then, have the small presses gone, long time passing?
Where have the small presses gone, long time ago?
Where have the small presses gone?
Gone to graveyards, nearly everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to amnesia everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the reviewers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the reviewers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the reviewers gone?
The void has picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Copyright © 2019 by Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/satire Special Investigative Reporter.

Review: ‘The Lake of Learning’ by Rose and Berry

The Lake of Learning (Cassiopeia Vitt Adventure, #3)The Lake of Learning by Steve Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella, and “The Museum of Mysteries,” represent everything a good novella should provide for readers: strong characters, mysterious stories based on heavily researched history, conflicts that are not easy to resolve, and a compelling storyline that leaves the reader wishing the book went another 500 pages farther than it did.

This story focusses on the Cathar religion, a system of beliefs that the Catholic church considered heretical and then killed the adherents in a crusade launched in 1209 and later during the inquisition. However, Cathars still exist today, and it’s about them–and the discovery of an old Cathar book of hours–that’s the focus of this story.

An old book is found on a construction site, and suddenly opposing Papist and Cathar individuals insert themselves into the story, creating a dangerous game for the protagonist Cassiopeia Vitt. Old conflicts die hard, it seems, as those who believe and those who don’t believe put Vitt’s life, wealth, and company in danger.

Books like this not only have compelling stories but teach readers a lot about the subject matter. In this case, the authors’ note at the end of the book what separates fact from fiction so that readers can see what’s true, what’s imaginary (but possible), and where to follow the historical record for themselves.

The characters in this novel (both the ones you like the and the ones you don’t like) not only have great depth to them, but they’re experts in their fields and savvy about everything that surrounds their areas of interest. If you have an interest in the Cathars, you will enjoy this novella. But even if you don’t, the fascination of a well-told tale will keep you reading.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.

Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.

Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.

Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.

The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.

The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.

Review: ‘Only Charlotte’ by Rosemary Poole-Carter

Only CharlotteOnly Charlotte by Rosemary Poole-Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rosemary-Poole-Carter, an adept within the Southern Gothic genre, brings us a deliciously tangled post Civil War novel in Only Charlotte in which three intertwined lives–Leonore James, her brother Dr. Gilbert Crew, and Charlotte Eden–rise and fall like storm-tossed lily pads in the brackish waters of the swampy morals of New Orleans.

Thrice-married Lenore (who is now alone again) opens up her house to her younger brother who uses it as a base for establishing a medical practice. In sections narrated by both Lenore and Gilbert, we see that the young doctor has become infatuated with Charlotte while treating her children. At the outset, Lenore sees nothing less than catastrophe coming out of this while Gilbert sees a young wife whose troubles go deeper than is generally known.

Lenore and Gilbert grow in sense and sensibility throughout this novel. Lenore, who sees herself somewhat in the role of Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is especially cautious about the problems Charlotte may or may not face because she is older than her volatile brother and well-schooled in the society’s rules and traditions. In a sense, Gilbert has a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach that might be based on his obvious love for Charlotte more than on the actual dangers she faces.

The novel is perfectly paced in a manner befitting a southern gothic novel, brings us multi-dimensional characters who have the capacity for change in an era in which “stagnant” and “corrupt” are watchwords, and a twisted mystery that is like a spiderweb in the dark. The prose is lyrical and exceptional and historically well-grounded in this highly recommended novel.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Lie to Me’ by J. T. Ellison

Lie to MeLie to Me by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suffice it to say, Sutton and Ethan aren’t enjoying a marriage made in Heaven. We learn as we read that they were not 100% truthful with each other wherever they said their vows and that, as time went by, the truth of the matter (any matter) became more blurred and got no better when Sutton disappeared and people started wondering if Ethan killed her. Or worse.

Some authors build tension by using an unreliable narrator. So, we can stipulate that both Ethan and Sutton are unreliable in multiple ways and that Sutton’s friends can, quite possibly, be trusted as far as one can throw them. Ethan learns this in spades: rather than receiving the support he presumes is due a husband whose wife has disappeared, he faces hostility.

In “Lie to Me,” J. T. Ellison has–to use an old fashioned phrase–created a dandy thriller that keeps readers chasing leads along with the police. Since the first part of the novel is told from Ethan’s point of view, we know he didn’t kill her. At least, we think we know that. Everyone is a suspect, it seems, and that’s what makes this–as lame as it is to say it–a page-turner.

The gossip about what might have happened to poor Sutton gets thick and vicious, and quite probably some of those gossiping have an agenda or an axe to grind. The reader doesn’t quite know. The beauty of Ellison’s plot–and our building knowledge about Sutton and Ethan–is that everything is in limbo and, perhaps, always has been.

Then, of course, we have to consider their dead child. Sutton never really wanted a child. So, did it really die of SIDS or was it something else? Both husband and wife are grieving the child’s death, so one must consider that they simply needed time away from each other. Whatever happened, Ethan is the one in the hot seat and Ellison’s great success over time has brought her all the tools she needs to keep her readers guessing and her characters squirming.

This is a very satisfying mystery from a master of the genre.

Malcolm

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