Review: ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morganstern

This novel is a breathtaking display of exuberant lyrical prose, wondrously detailed imagery, and elaborate plotting. Interlocking tales and snippets of tales comprise this brilliant celebration of storytellers and how the times and places and characters of their art become woven, often covertly, into readers’ lives.

The purported protagonist, Vermont college student Zachary Ezra Rawlins, checks out a book called Sweet Sorrows from the library and finds within it a story from his childhood. At first, he can’t believe it, but then as he tries to find out where the book originated and how it was catalogued by the library, he discovers over time that he can’t truly believe anything.

Rawlins initially discovers that simply having the book has placed his life in danger. He’s not sure why. In fact, he may never be sure. As it turns out, there are doors everywhere that lead to an immense and seemingly infinite realm of books stored in ever-shifting below-ground castles and caverns.

One is reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tale about a hidden-away realm beneath the streets of London where the culture is quite different from everything at street level. In Morganstern’s unique world, which comes with its own mythologies and origin stories, the culture is not only different from the “real life” we know, but changes constantly like the play of moonlight on the surface of the sea.

Stories are not content to confine themselves to their original plots. Instead, they update and morph themselves not only into other stories but into the reality of the inhabitants and structures of the underground world itself. In one respect it’s chaos, but everything is tied together as though the stories themselves got together and made sure their changes meshed perfectly with the changes in other stories like the gears in a perfectly designed machine.

The stories, in fact, are all there is. They are not only the motive power and intelligence behind the underground library on the shore of the Starless Sea but impact the direction of the science and technology world that innocently exists outside the doors leading into the depths.

In defense of readers who enjoyed The Night Circus and were disappointed with The Starless Sea, Morgenstern’s new novel strays dangerously close to being a work of experimental fiction rather than a true fantasy. The plot isn’t linear and may not even exist cohesively from one chapter to the next. The ending–which works perfectly within the confines of the novel–will anger those who read through some 500 pages hoping for a resolution.

I’m content simply to experience the world Morgenstern has created in The Starless Sea and the immeasurable beauty of her storytelling. Fantasy or experimental–either way, it’s a gem.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

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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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