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Posts from the ‘reviews’ Category

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

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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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Review: ‘Trust Me’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Trust MeTrust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Author Hank Ryan brings a resume of honors and awards for her work as a reporter and a novelist, and that alone promises that Trust Me will be a chilling mystery/thriller. And it is. The plot is complex, the characters are interesting (and occasionally flawed), and the story is compelling.

In a storyline reminiscent of the 2011 Casey Marie Anthony case in Florida and the 2017 Rachelle Bond case in Massachusetts, Ashlyn Bryant has been arrested for killing her young daughter, putting the body in a garbage bag, and dumping her in Boston Harbor. Journalist Mercer Hennessey, who is still grieving the recent deaths of her husband and daughter in a car accident, agrees with a colleague’s proposal to write a book about the trial partly as a way of getting herself on her feet again and partly because the public’s interest in the case might turn the book into a bestseller.

Like the majority of people following the case, Mercer believes Ashland is guilty but still thinks that through her research and her live TV feed from the courtroom, she can write an objective story. As she follows the story, Mercer is greatly conflicted about the death of her own daughter and any possibility Ashland could be found innocent.

The first major plot twist comes 180 pages into this 459-page novel when the verdict is announced, one that I won’t reveal here. Readers might wonder, what’s the author going to do with the rest of the book. The answer is somewhat malicious, in a well-written mystery/thriller kind of way. Through a rather unusual arrangement, Mercer is given access to Ashland so she can get more of the defendant’s personal story for the book.

Here is where the heavy psychological machinations begin. Mercer dispises Ashland and Ashland distrusts Mercer. Both have strong reasons for their feelings. By the time readers are nearing the end of the book, Mercer has grown to distrust everybody, including the colleague who got her the book contract, her late husband, another reporter on the case, and (of course) Ashland. She believes she’s being followed, that her life and Ashland’s lives are in danger, and that constructing a reasonable book is now the least of her problems. Trust Me is a very dark book, and the truth is flexible.

The second major plot twist occurs when Mercer decides the only way out of the deception and doubt is by turning the tables on one of those whom she thinks has been lying to her. Readers know she has something mind because she discusses the case with people she hasn’t talked with before and as that scene ends, she says “Here’s what I’m thinking.” But the reader isn’t a party to what that is. Two chapters later, the plot twist occurs. While it’s satisfactory, as is the novel’s conclusion, this plot twist involves an authorial trick.

We have been inside Mercer’s head for an entire book. We know what she worries about and that she plans to do next. Then, suddenly, a veil is thrown over her thoughts and in the pages leading up to the plot twist, she isn’t thinking about how to make it work, how to set it up, and how to keep it secret. In real life, Mercer would be fretting and pondering the details. As the book has been written up to this point, she would also be going over the details in her mind. But, we’re suddenly cut off from her thoughts in order for the surprise to be a surprise.

This is a point-of-view trick and it’s disappointing to see it used here when, quite likely, the plot twist would have been more harrowing if we’d known what it was and what Mercer was concerned about. While I knocked down the number of stars for this authorial trickery and for the repetitiveness of many of the conversations between Mercer and Ashland, I still see the book as an interesting read in spite of its flaws.

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Malcolm

‘The Shoe Mender’s Lament and other short stories’ by Peter Ruffell

Peter Ruffell’s short foreword tells the reader that these 17 little stories, and the poem which completes the book, started life during writing sessions at Off The Cuff, a writing workshop in Weymouth. The length of these stories reflects that: they’re a little longer (and, thus, meatier) than flash fiction, but short enough to read one while you’re enjoying (say) a mid-morning cup of tea.

Source: ‘The Shoe Mender’s Lament and other short stories’ by Peter Ruffell | Judi Moore

Here’s a brief review by Judi Moore of a book I haven’t read. It sounds tempting. I love misdirection and humor with a touch of absurdity.  Not enough to drink tea (gag) while reading, but enough to pour a dram of a single malt whisky and plunge right in.

Malcolm

Review: ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow ChildThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If my first novel had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, I might have been ruined as an author. Instead, Eowyn Ivey follows up on her extravagant novel The Snow Child (2012)with a new work called To the Bright Edge of the World that’s being well received.

What a stunning debut, a beautifully realized re-telling of an old Russian Fairytale updated to 1920 and re-set in Alaska. A young couple moves to this rugged and unforgiving land and has trouble making ends meet on a farming homestead. They see or think they see, a young woman on the edge of the forest. Nobody else in the area has seen such a child, so Mable and Jack are doubted, thought to be having troubles adapting and staying sane through the long lonely winters.

Ivey lives in Alaska and worked for many years as a newspaper reporter there; this gives her the observational skills and knowledge of the territory to give readers realism that works as a solid foundation for a story that just might sound like magical realism at times. Kudos to Ivey for doing more than simply re-telling an old story with new clothes. In spite of the influences, this is a wondrous original work with characters of great depth and a plot that delivers for both readers of realistic tales and magical works.

The ending–which I won’t give away here–works within the context of a fairy tale and a story realistic enough to have been a veteran reporter’s feature story about a couple from back east who probably never guessed that Alaska would demand everything they could give.

Highly recommended for individuals as well as book clubs.

Malcolm

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Dear readers, your reviews really do help

Reader reviews on Amazon not only help spread the word to prospective readers, but they attract those readers’ attention in the first place. These reviews also impact how Amazon displays a book in a reader’s search results. Needless to say, more people review the books of widely known writers than the books of so-called “midlist” and small-press authors. As many emerging writers have said, the authors who don’t need the reviews or the interviews are the ones who get them.

Some authors try to make placing a reader review sound easy, suggesting that all you have to say is “I liked it.” I don’t agree with that. “I liked it” isn’t a review. If a prospective reader reads such a review, they learn nothing about the book and might even think the reviewer knows the author and potentially didn’t even read the novel.

Suffice it to say, honest reviews with a few details explaining why a reader liked or didn’t like a book are better than reviews with nothing more than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” For readers who review multiple books, it’s disconcerting that they’ll take the time to review a well-known author’s book that has, say–3,000 reviews already–but don’t spend the time to review an emerging author’s books. I seldom review major books on Amazon because I don’t think there’s much I can possibly add to the conversation that already involves a thousand or more reviews. I’m more likely to review these books on my blog.

In social media, it’s quite common to hear that dozens of people liked an author’s latest book. These opinions are treasured and very nice to hear. A lot of those people wish the author well, and yet, most of them don’t go out to Amazon and leave a review. They probably have no idea how vital their reviews are to the book’s success. Amazon’s book-display algorithms count reviews; so do various blogs and newsletters where books can be advertised. (It’s hard to get your book into one of those book newsletters if it has few reviews.)

Basically, it comes down to this insofar as midlist and small-press authors are concerned: if readers don’t help support the book, it isn’t going to sell.  Yet, authors really can’t say this to readers on Facebook or Twitter because it’s unseemly and probably turns readers off who really don’t know anything about leaving an Amazon, Goodreads, or B&N review. Plus, it’s generally considered bad form to beg for reviews. Authors are rather stuck. When a reader tells them on Facebook that their latest novel was the best book they ever read, it’s a bit crass to say, “have you posted that viewpoint on Amazon yet?”

Readers certainly have no obligation to post reviews. Most readers don’t. They read a book and move on to the next book. So, I think it’s an imposition for an author to “lean on” readers in the social media by asking them directly for an online review even though many of the books will fail without those reviews. Authors often feel stuck. They need the reviews but it’s bad form to ask for them or to keep posting little generic notices on their Facebook authors’ pages to the effect that reviews help spread the word.

Frankly, I wish professional book reviewers, critics, and bloggers would do better keeping up with small-press books since those are the books that need the exposure. Nobody is really served well when a critic/reviewer posts review number 5,000 for a well-known author’s book. But, for an emerging or small-press author, even a three-star review helps bring a book some much-needed online attention.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,’ “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena,” all of which are available in e-book, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook editions.

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Redemption Road’ by John Hart

Redemption RoadRedemption Road by John Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s enough darkness in this book to cause an eclipse of the sun soon after you begin reading. Elizabeth, the protagonist is a good cop with a good heart that is filled with life-affirming love and infinite grit. Her past was cruel to her and it’s neither gone nor forgotten.

Her story in this thriller will carry you through the darkness stemming from multiple characters whose self-righteous evil is as unflinching as Elizabeth’s heart. Thirteen years prior to the beginning of the novel, a policeman was convicted of killing a young woman and leaving her body on the altar of the church where Elizabeth’s father preaches. Elizabeth, who was a rookie cop at the time thought he was wrongly convicted. As a cop, he has a hard time surviving prison. When he gets out, the killings start again with the same MO. This appears to prove that everyone else on the police force is right about him and that Elizabeth is naive.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is having her own troubles with the authorities over a case she’s involved in. The plot is complex and well constructed, the writing is superb, and the characters have more dimensions, secrets, and agonies than you can shake a stick at. At all times, the notion of a redemption road out of this chaos seems to many as an unlikely nirvana or simply a dead end.

The story is adeptly told and highly recommended.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Temptation Rag’ by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Temptation RagTemptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Temptation Rag immerses readers into a historical novel set during the heydey of ragtime (1895-1919) and vaudeville (1880 – 1920) with a cast of real and fictional characters grappling for love, freedom, and artistry in New York City. Ragtime gave way to jazz and vaudeville gave way to the cinema so, like almost every period in music and theater, the times were short, competitive, and bittersweet as talents and fortunes rose and fell depending on the inequalities imposed by the rich and famous, public taste, and racial/gender barriers.

Bernard’s story has a large cast of characters all of whom come across as multi-dimensional in her well-researched tableau. May Convery is a young woman from a rich family, who’s briefly smitten with vaudeville theater musical director Mike Gilbert at the beginning of his rise to fame as a ragtime composer and performer. Their lives criss-cross throughout the novel as they did in history in a soap opera basket of emotions that manages to haunt both of them forever.

As May finally comes into her own as an author and a volunteer in many causes, Mike’s life while seemingly larger and financially richer appears more brittle. Among all the vicissitudes of a musical career in the public eye, Mike is constantly compared with the popular performer Ben Harney who claims to have originated ragtime itself. Scott Joplin (“Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” both brought back to public attention in the 1973 movie “The Sting”) is in the stratosphere of rag, talked about in the novel but not a character.

May’s friendship with African-American singer Abbie Mitchell and African-American composer J. Rosamond Johnson gives strength to a primary theme of the novel: racial/gender inequalities. While the barriers were historically real and are well-shown in the novel, some of May’s feelings appear to have been slightly influenced by contemporary attitudes about race relations.

The characters are strong enough and complex enough to pull readers through this well-written story almost as though we’re watching their lives play out in modern times on the television news. When the novel’s last lines scroll past its readers’ eyes and Temptation Rag is stowed away on the bookshelf, May will remain in mind one way or another.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Line of Sight,’ a Jack Ryan Jr. Novel

Line of Sight (Jack Ryan Universe, #25)Line of Sight by Mike Maden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jack Ryan, now President of the United States, and his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., analyst and black ops specialist at “The Campus,” are enduring characters in the Tom Clancey series ever since “The Hunt for Red October” appeared in 1984. As fans know, the series has been written by other authors since Clancey’s death.

Mike Maden, the author of “Line of Sight,” has written a fair number of the books sharing the series with Mark Greaney and others in what has been an amazingly consistent run of political action thrillers that has maintained the Clancey Style, fast-paced plots, and love of military equipment. Fans of the series will appreciate the tangled plot in this yarn that focuses on Jack Ryan, Jr. as he goes to Bosnia look for a former patient of his mother (Cathy Ryan) who saved the girl’s sight and then lost track of her.

Other forces are, of course, at play, including terrorists who want to destabilize Bosnia’s fragile peace and an international crime organization that has placed “kill orders” on several people, including Jack. Unaware of either group, Jack focuses on tracking down Dr. Cathy Ryan’s former patient and friend Aida Curić. The disparate subplots of this story turn toward each other like an impending train wreck as other members of The Campus become involved in minor roles.

The weakness of the book comes from the fact that the subplots need time to develop and while they are brewing, the reader is treated to lengthy travelogue sections for entertaining Jack with others or alone. Every tourist destination but the kitchen sink in the surrounding area becomes a sightseeing stop, interspersed with a love interest that, while well handled, doesn’t reduce the author’s reliance on in-country experience and/or Internet research to pad out the story. Potentially, 25% of the text is the kind of travel and historical information we usually get in a Dan Brown novel.

The book reads well, especially if one skims the travel sections, and in spite of those sections, the conclusion doesn’t disappoint.

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Malcolm

Briefly Noted: ‘Le Mystère des Cathédrales’

With yesterday’s catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame of Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Victor Hugo’s comment in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) that “The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.”

Tourists, Catholics and other Christians, mystics of all faiths, architects, and especially the French nation have used many superlatives to describe the beauty and importance of this cathedral. And yet, the church is more than it seems. It is, as the pseudonymous author Fucanelli wrote in the original version of The Mystery of the Cathedrals, a veritable hermetic textbook in living stone to the alchemical process.

Most people probably view the hermetic symbols as the flourishes of Gothic architecture. However, for students of chemical or spiritual alchemy, the is much to learn from those symbols as well as from The Mystery of the Cathedrals (1926) and its sequel Dwellings of the Philosophers (1929). Modern-day students will find a great deal of help in the work of Carl Jung and others who view alchemy as more than trying to turn lead into gold but as a spiritual/psychological means of becoming wholly one’s divine self.

I have been studying this book since the 1971 English (U.K – Neville Spearman edition) came out and grasp only a fraction of it. As Wikipedia says of the two books, “The books are written in a cryptic and erudite manner, replete with Latin and Greek puns, alchemical symbolism, double entendres, and lectures on and in Argot and Cant, all of which serve to keep casual readers ignorant.”

From the Publisher (The cover shown here comes from a reprint edition.)

In 1926 the fabled alchemist Fulcanelli left his remarkable manuscript concerning the Hermetic Study of Gothic Cathedral Construction with a student. He then disappeared. The book decodes the symbology found upon and within the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe which have openly displayed the secrets of alchemy for 700 years.

From the Book

“The gothic cathedral, that sanctuary of Tradition, Science and Art, should not be regarded as a work dedicated solely to the glory of Christianity, but rather as a vast concretion of ideas, of tendencies, of popular beliefs; a perfect whole, to which we can refer without fear, whenever we would penetrate the religious, secular, philosophic or social thoughts of our ancestors.”

Amazon Reader Review

Wikipedia Photo of 2019 fire

Seminal work by the mysterious master French alchemist Fulcanelli. Companion to his other book “The Dwellings of the Philosophers.” The author explores in depth secrets contained within the Gothic cathedrals of France. He reveals a number of secrets, providing crucial clues into the occult work of the alchemists, contained in these massive repositories of knowledge preserved in stone. Warning: this is not a work for the uninitiated or those unfamiliar with alchemy. In order to understand this book, one must have at the very least knowledge of Gothic art and architecture as well as an understanding of the rudiments of alchemy. This is necessary in order for Fulcanelli’s work to make any sense to the reader. I would recommend Loius Charpentier’s “Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral” and Tobias Churton’s “The Golden Builders” to familiarize oneself with the subject matter before diving headlong into Fulcanelli’s masterpiece.

I agree with the reviewer’s suggestions about reading several other books first before attempting this one. Also, you’ll find an interesting commentary of Mysteries of the Cathedrals included in Jay Widner and Vincent Bridges book The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye” Alchemy and the End of Time.

In spite of the difficulties, Mysteries of the Cathedrals is time well spent.

Malcolm