Review: ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke

PiranesiPiranesi by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine this: You live in a huge, seemingly infinite house filled with statuary and ocean tides; you have never been outside the house because the house is all you know and all you can know; your life’s mission, as you see it, is exploring this house to length and breadth of possibility and, as you walk and climb and stay away from the highest of those tides, you catalogue everything you see in a series of journals that may potentially become infinite in number and detail.

The protagonist is called Piranesi–perhaps in deference to the great printmaker of the 1700s, though Piranesi doesn’t know this–by the other living human being in the house. Piranesi doesn’t believe “Piranesi” is his real name, nor does he know the real name of the other man in the house, so he calls him “The Other.” Their researches into the ways and means of the house are, at first, beneficial. However, their co-operation begins to wear thing when Piranesi discovers that The Other is seeking advanced and secret knowledge he believes to be hidden inside the house. Piranesi thinks nothing can be more important that the beauties and scope of the house itself.

There are some dead in the house, not many, and where and when they died is unclear. Piranesi has taken care to arrange them in an orderly fashion and to keep them out of reach of the tides. The Other says there’s somebody else in the house, a person who hides, perhaps, in unknown rooms, and he suggests that that person wishes to harm Piranesi. They refer to him or her as “16,” since–when you include the dead–that’s the number of people in the house.

There’s deep and quiet magic in this masterpiece, and it becomes more evident as Clarke’s novel unfolds. There are hints that there may be a past Piranesi has forgotten or misconstrued. He becomes unsure of some of the entries in meticulously kept journals. There’s a growing worry about The Other’s truthfulness in some manners. Is anything what it seems? Piranesi can only wonder and proceed from room to room and tide to tide with due care.

For those who don’t require fire-breathing dragons or the snap of lethal energies flung from the hands of protagonists and antagonists in epic battles, this book is a treasure to be savoured like fine wine.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, including the novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Lena,” and (NEW) “Fate’s Arrows.”

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Review: ‘Good Girls Lie’ by J. T. Ellison

Good Girls LieGood Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good Girls Lie is deftly written with a plot to die for: yes, there are a few casualties. And, there’s more lying than the prestigious Goode Boarding School’s honor code allows. The dean’s mother, who previously ran the family-owned school in Virginia was fired when a student died on her watch. Now her daughter Ford Westhaven is in charge and the intrigues are spinning out of control, almost enough to damage the prep school’s reputation, heaven forbid.

This school is for the daughters of the rich and famous. Most of them do well and are subsequently accepted into the best universities. The protagonist, Ash Carlisle expects to follow the same route into the world of the elite after escaping an abusive father in the U. K. A stipulation in his will (yes, he and his wife seem to have died recently in a murder/suicide incident) says that Ash will inherit the money when she’s 25 if she has a college degree by then.

The author, who attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College knows how boarding schools for women work; she uses her first-hand experience to bring reality into the sheltered world of the Goode School–how the students interact, the secret societies, the honor code, and daily life on the campus. She points out, however, that Goode is pure fiction and that the novel is not a dissertation about Randolph-Macon.

The plot is a delightful tangle of lies, strange relationships, bullying and hazing, student-teacher interaction, and everything else that makes a fantastic thriller and–for the characters–a rather dangerous education. By the end of the novel, readers might wonder if they can trust anybody; and they have cause worry. After all, things at Goode School can’t be all that good when the story begins with a dead girl hanging from the front gate.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released mystery, “Fate’s Arrows.”

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New Anthology Of Native Nations Poetry

“There are many of us and we’re not just poets. We’re teachers. We’re dancers. Essentially, we’re human beings. And you would think that at this time we would not have to say that. But we still are in the position, strangely enough, that we still have to remind people and the public that: We’re still here, we’re still active. We have active, living cultures and we are human beings and we write poetry.”

Joy Harjo, NPR Interview

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry is a remarkable book because of the power of its words, because of its scope (160 poets from 100 indigenous nations), and because it exists at all.

Publisher’s Description

“This landmark anthology celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America, the first poets of this country, whose literary traditions stretch back centuries. Opening with a blessing from Pulitzer Prize–winner N. Scott Momaday, the book contains powerful introductions from contributing editors who represent the five geographically organized sections. Each section begins with a poem from traditional oral literatures and closes with emerging poets, ranging from Eleazar, a seventeenth-century Native student at Harvard, to Jake Skeets, a young Diné poet born in 1991, and including renowned writers such as Luci Tapahanso, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, and Ray Young Bear. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through offers the extraordinary sweep of Native literature, without which no study of American poetry is complete.”

Anthology’s Introduction

Executive editor Joy Harjo’s (Mvskoke/Creek) introduction grounds us and prepares us for the great circle of words of power we will take through the book’s five sections: Northwest and Midwest; Plains and Mountains; Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands; Southwest and West; and Southeast. Each of these regions begins with a descriptive preface, and the work of each poet includes a mini-biography.

The focus, intent, and power of this work are aptly summarized by Harjo’s opening lines: “We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land. We cannot own it, no matter any proclamation by paper state. We are literally the land, a planet. Our spirits inhabit this place. We are not the only ones. We are creatures of this place with each other. It is poetry that holds the songs of becoming, of change, of dreaming, and it is poetry we turn to when we travel those places of transformation, like birth, coming of age, marriage, accomplishments, and death. We sing our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren: our human experience in time, into and through existence.”

Harjo notes that while the United States has been here only a few hundred years, “Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands upon thousands of years and we are still here.” Yet unknown to most people, an afterthought to others, and long presumed to be illiterate by most; there never was a level playing field once the outsiders arrived, and so because of all of this, it’s remarkable that this anthology has been lovingly compiled out of the subdued light into our national consciousness. Let’s hope the powerful work it represents remains there.

The Poems

The wonders of four centuries of poetry cannot be adequately summarized or displayed here, much less explicated. So here are a few brief excerpts that caught my attention:

From the Northeast and Midwest

  • EMILY PAULINE JOHNSON (TEKAHIONWAKE) (1861–1913), Mohawk, “Marshlands”

Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.

  • OLIVIA WARD BUSH-BANKS (1869–1944), Montaukett, “On the Long Island Indian

But there came a paler nation
Noted for their skill and might,
They aroused the Red Man’s hatred,
Robbed him of his native right.

Now remains a scattered remnant
On these shores they find no home,
Here and there in weary exile,
They are forced through their life to roam.

From the Plains and Mountains

  • ZITKÁLA-ŠÁ (GERTRUDE SIMMONS BONNIN) (1876–1938), Dakota, “The Red Man’s America”

My country! ’tis to thee,
Sweet land of Liberty,
My pleas I bring.
Land where OUR fathers died,
Whose offspring are denied
The Franchise given wide,
Hark, while I sing.

  • N. SCOTT MOMADAY (1934–), Kiowa, “The Gourd Dancer”

A vagrant heat hangs on the dark river,
And shadows turn like smoke. An owl ascends
Among the branches, clattering, remote
Within its motion, intricate with age.

From the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands

  • MARY TALLMOUNTAIN (1918–1994), Koyukon, “There Is No Word For Goodbye”

Sokoya, I said, looking through
the net of wrinkles into
wise black pools
of her eyes.

What do you say in Athabascan
when you leave each other?
What is the word
for goodbye?

A shade of feeling rippled
the wind-tanned skin.
Ah, nothing, she said,
watching the river flash.

She looked at me close.
We just say, Tłaa. That means,
See you.
We never leave each other.
When does your mouth
say goodbye to your heart?

She touched me light
as a bluebell.
You forget when you leave us;
you’re so small then.
We don’t use that word.

We always think you’re coming back,
but if you don’t,
we’ll see you some place else.
You understand.
There is no word for goodbye.

  • FRED BIGJIM (1941–), Iñupiaq, “Spirit Moves”

Sometimes I feel you around me,
Primal creeping, misty stillness.
Watching, waiting, dancing.
You scare me.

From the Southwest and West

  • PAULA GUNN ALLEN (1939–2008), Laguna, “Laguna Ladies Luncheon”

     on my fortieth birthday
Gramma says it’s so depressing—
all those Indian women,
their children never to be born
and they didn’t know they’d been sterilized.
See, the docs didn’t want them
bothered, them being so poor and all,
at least that’s what is said.
Sorrow fills the curve of our breasts,
the hollows behind the bone.

  • EMERSON BLACKHORSE MITCHELL (1945–), Diné, “Miracle Hill”

I stand upon my miracle hill,
Wondering of the yonder distance,
Thinking, When will I reach there?

I stand upon my miracle hill.
The wind whispers in my ear.
I hear the songs of old ones.

From the Southeast

  • JOHN GUNTER LIPE (1844–1862), Cherokee, “To Miss Vic”

My spirit is lonely and weary,
I long for the beautiful streets.
The world is so chilly and dreary,
And bleeding and torn are my feet.

  • RUTH MARGARET MUSKRAT BRONSON (1897–1982), Cherokee, “Sentenced”

They have come, they have come,
Out of the unknown they have come;
Out of the great sea they have come;
Dazzling and conquering the white man has come
To make this land his home.

We must die, we must die,
The white man has sentenced we must die,
Without great forests we must die,
Broken and conquered the red man must die,
He cannot claim his own.

The editors of this anthology read each poem aloud, better to understand, hear them, savor them, and drink them into themselves like a rare elixir. Should time permit–and why would it not?–you will do the same.

Malcolm

Briefly Noted: ‘The Outsider’ by Stephen King

Like his Mr. Mercedes trilogy, King’s The Outsider begins as a thriller/police procedural, then falls down the rabbit hole of the supernatural. I wasn’t happy with this in Mr. Mercedes, because after two books of standard police work, I thought changing the genre into a supernatural solution in book three was a mistake. However, in this standalone book, it works.

From the Publisher

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is discovered in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens—Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon have DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying details begin to emerge, King’s story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

The police seem to have Maitland dead to rights, But then more and more lapses in the investigation begin to occur. Mainly, how could Maitland be in two places at the same time? The star of the show is a private detective who specializes in skip tracer, lost dog, and missing persons work at a small agency called Finders Keepers named Holly Gibney. (She appeared in earlier King novels.)

She has seen doppelgänger cases before and is open to multiple solutions that don’t fit the standard police approach. King does a good job of building tension, showing the frustration of the police investigators, and allowing Gibney to slowly orient the investigation toward a supernatural solution.

I enjoyed the book.

–Malcolm

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

 

‘Tom Clancy Enemy Contact’ by Mike Maden

I read the Tom Clancy franchise books to escape whatever I need to escape. Now it’s probably the pandemic and everything related to it.

Enemy Contact is another instalment in the series featuring Jack Ryan, Jr. and the “Campus” organization. The Campus handles black ops interventions that the government can’t or won’t handle. The stories are action-oriented and involve a cast of operatives that has evolved throughout the series.

This book is missing about everything that has made the series worth reading, though the stories have become less interesting after Mark Greaney’s True Faith and Allegiance came out in 2016.

What is this book is missing:

  • Most of the primary Campus characters from the best of the previous books.
  • The black-ops action which has been the series’ true focus. Jack Ryan, Jr.’s cover story with the organization is that he’s a financial analyst, though those duties don’t usually play heavily into the plots. In this story, he spends most of the novel traveling in Poland looking for potential financial irregularities and/or treasonous associations in the investments of a U.S. Senator who ticked on the President of the U.S. President (Ryan’s dad).
  • Ryan travels from one contact/company to another with Lilianna, a Polish agent who serves as a chauffeur/driver. He’s attracted to her but keeps the relationship professional. Since he’s working/posing only as a financial analyst, she has no idea he has black-ops skills. The meetings are rather routine, so the agent’s police skills are wasted, and we end up with more pages of Polish history and food information than anything else. Meanwhile, a more pressing IT security mess is developing that could impact U. S. security agencies, but we only hear snippets about it–and Ryan isn’t focused on that.
  • With about ten percent of the book left, we finally get some black-ops action. Ryan is blind sided by it probably because he has been rather cavalier about the potential dangers of going around asking questions of bad people. He escapes one another group of bad guys only to get pulled into another group of bad guys while he’s off work. The action here is handled well.
  • Then, suddenly all the other minor plot lines get resolved, most in a long epilogue, and the book ends. Formally, there is closure (though minimal) for the national security issues, but none for Ryan’s personal losses.

What a mess.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s short story collection Widely Scattered Ghosts is currently free on Smashwords. (epub or mobi format).

The Jane Hawk novels by Dean Koontz

Koontz is a careful and literate writer who knows how to create complex plots, maintain suspense, and decorate his scenes with weather and landscape imagery that synchronizes with the moods and plights of his characters.

The five-book series about a rogue FBI agent concluded with The Night Window, a book I’ve been looking forward to while patiently waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Hawk, who left the FBI after her husband’s death was ruled a suicide that she believed was murder, began a long trek to clear his name. Law enforcement is after her because they believe she’s operating off a “frontier justice model” and the people who killed her husband–a huge and secret group that’s slowly taking over the country–are after her. Everyone who’s after her is also after her child whom she has to keep hiding. By the time one gets to The Forbidden Door, it’s apparent that Hawk has nine lives and/or the skills of James Bond.

According to the Booklist starred review, “The spectacular finale to Jane’s story…will hit series fans with all the impact of a carefully calibrated hammer blow.”

Yes and no.

Had there not been so many co-opted law enforcement agencies, leaving nobody trustworthy to whom Hawk could turn over her evidence of the conspiracy, the book might have ended with a satisfying black-ops style gun battle after which the authorities take over and put the conspirators in jail. Hawk would then be interviewed on The View and other programs.

However, lacking that, the book–which still includes the nastiness of the bad guys in a tangled plot which look like lose-lose for Hawk–seems less explosive and interesting than the earlier books because there are few (if any) bad guy/Hawk confrontations. Hawk’s time is spent trying to ferret out who the conspirators are and how to expose them in a believable way.

The ending works because the how to tell the world about the conspiracy problem is aptly solved. Nonetheless, I felt a little let down because the focus became more about hacking into databases and less about kicking the shit out of the bad guys. And then, too, I kind of like Hawk and now she’s ridden off into the sunset forever.

Malcolm

Review: ‘Iron House’ by John Hart

Iron HouseIron House by John Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Hart’s books are among the darkest I’ve read, and “Iron House” is no exception. The story begins with an orphanage where the amenities are few, care and supervision is lapse, and groups of bullies rule the corridors and terrorize the weaker children. The darkness doesn’t begin or end here. The story features an assortment of characters nobody will like, the cruel upbringings where they were reared, and the violent lives many of them wore like armor in order to survive.

Michael has lived on the streets of New York as part of an organized crime organization that is feared above all others. When he falls in love with Elena, he wants a fresh start. However, his “colleagues” don’t want him to have any rest other than a grave. Michael is efficient, practical, and savvy, but as the plot turns in on itself with dark secrets falling like dominoes, he may not be strong enough to solve the mysteries that stand between him and saving those he loves–including Elena.

I’ve given the book four stars because I think some of the descriptions of violence and torture are excessive. However, those scenes do show the total inhumanity and animal nature of the bad guys, so they’re not totally out of place in the novel. The novel has two strong points in addition to the strong characters. First, it keeps the reader guessing because the mysteries and secrets get deeper and darker as the complex plot unfolds; second, the main characters, Michael, Elena, and Michael’s long-lost brother Julien are always at risk–and with each breath of air, the risk becomes greater as the story proceeds.

The novel shows the worst of human nature on many fronts–and perhaps the often misguided best.

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Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Lena,” “Special Investigative Reporter,” and “Sarabande,” all of which you can find on Bookshop.org.

Thinking about Steve Berry’s ‘The Malta Exchange’

Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci Code (2003) comes to mind when we discuss mystery/thrillers that simultaneously explore old secrets with the overlay of a present-day fight between good guys and bad guys.

This approach is often said to have originated with Katherine Neville’s The Eight (1988) which was influenced by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980). The feature films Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and National Treasure (2004) and the Raymond Khoury novel The Last Templar (2005) are part of the same heady mix of present and past intrigues blended together in fiction.

Dan Brown probably trumped everyone else because his subject matter–the possibility of Christ’s marriage and subsequent birth line–mattered a great deal to Catholic and Protestant members of the Christian faith.

So now we come to The Malta Exchange, the 14th instalment of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone novels that began with The Bishop’s Pawn. The novel focuses on the Catholic Knights Hospitaller, their influence in Malta, their overthrow by Napoleon, and the location of ancient documents that might influence the selection of a new Pope. I’ve found the Cotton Malone novels to be well written and absorbing thrillers.

I had more trouble with The Malta Exchange simply because Malta and the Knights Hospitaller are not (for me) as exciting as other historical intrigues in which the novels of this genre are based. It also seemed to be that Cotton, along with U.S. agent Luke, were not in control of their investigation. They were like corks being tossed around on an angry sea, discovering new information mostly when others deigned to tell them rather than from their own investigative skills.

Fortunately, the author’s note at the end of the book helps sort out the truth from the fiction.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s latest novel is the satire Special Investigative Reporter

 

 

Review: ‘The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl’ by Theodora Goss

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first whisperings of the three novels in “The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club” series can be found in Theodora Goss’ doctoral dissertation “The monster in the mirror: late Victorian Gothic and anthropology.” In fact, the members of the club–Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, Lucinda Van Helsing, and Lydia Raymond–often call themselves monsters because they were created by amoral mad scientists.

Athena club members and other primary characters in the series are drawn from (or inspired by) the works of H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Arthur Machen, and Oscar Wilde. The genius behind these multi-layered novels comes not only from their accuracy of the Victorian era and its literature but from the fact that Goss has taken characters from multiple books and fit them hand-in-glove into a delightfully inventive and readable series.

Several years ago, Goss told an interviewer, “What really inspired me was reading the original texts for my Ph.D. in English literature. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on late-19th-century gothic fiction and started noticing that there were a lot of mad scientists running around in the 19th century — and that a lot of those mad scientists either thought of creating or actually created female monsters.”

The monsters of the Athena Club–who often quibble with each other in specially formatted bits of conversation–about the progress of “The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl” solve mysteries using (somewhat) the approach of Mary Jekyll’s friend and mentor Sherlock Holmes. While their powers of deduction aren’t as pure as Holmes’, their special powers provide them with talents Holmes doesn’t have. (Inspector Lestrade doesn’t like them and they don’t like him.)

They react to bad things that happen; this time it’s the simultaneous disappearance of their household maid Alice, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and, as it turns out, a threat against the British empire. Near the end of the book, when the women in the club are admonished to stay out of of mischief, Mary Jekyll says, “We don’t get into mischief. It sort of happens to us, or around us, or in our general vicinity.”

Most readers will see that comment as an understatement and as part of the charm of the books. The Athena Club is not a covert black ops group but a family of good monsters who often finds itself trying to thwart the plans of evil monsters. In this series, the women prevail as those who are setting things to rights. On the way to saving the day, the Athena Club’s debates tend to keep everyone grounded, such as when Catherine Moreau, who’s ostensibly recording the group’s adventures, says, “You realize that to a puma, you’re all just meat?”

Sure, they can all kill each other, but going after the bad guys is more fulfilling.

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‘The Founding Fortunes: How The Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution’

In times of war, the rich usually do get richer and the poor are still poor, yet free. Somewhat.  This well-researched telling of the well known and not so well known who put their money into biting the very hand that was feeding them. In order to have control over what they grew and who they sold to this young country and its leaders were far from perfect and often put their own interests above the country.

Source: THE FOUNDING FORTUNES: How The Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution by Tom Shachtman ‹ Pirate Patty Reviews ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

I love reading history, especially carefully written books that are intended for a general audience and don’t sound like PhD dissertations. So, I’m pleased to find one of my favorite book bloggers writing about a history book–and tempting me to take a look at it.

While this blogger’s reviews are usually short and sweet (or, as needed, caustic) I wish this review had had a little more depth, possibly showing a list of chapter titles and/or an example a founding father or two who got rich.

We can often give readers an idea of a novel with a review that sounds like a positive or negative elevator pitch. But I think nonfiction requires a bit more, in part because if your blog isn’t dedicated to history, most readers won’t be familiar with the authors and may need a little more pizazz to grok both the review and the book under consideration.

Malcolm