‘The Oceans and the Stars,’ by Mark Helprin

The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story, by Mark Helprin, The Overlook Press (October 3, 2023), Kindle and Hardcover available for pre-order.

All of Mark Helprin’s novels are on my shelf. It’s an understatement to say that, as a former Navy man and fan of his work, I’m very much looking forward to this book–and inspired by a 75-year-old author who is still at work.

From the Publisher

“Mark Helprin, the #1 New York Times, best-selling author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, returns with a fast-paced, beautifully written novel about the majesty of the sea; a life dedicated to duty, honor, and country; and the gift of falling in love.
“A Navy captain near the end of a decorated career, Stephen Rensselaer is disciplined, intelligent, and determined always to do what’s right. In defending the development of a new variant of naval ship, he makes an enemy of the President of the United States, who assigns him to command the doomed line’s only prototype­––Athena, Patrol Coastal 15­­––with the intent to humiliate a man who should have been an admiral.
“Rather than resign, Rensselaer takes the new assignment in stride, and while supervising Athena’s fitting out in New Orleans, encounters a brilliant lawyer, Katy Farrar, with whom he falls in last-chance love. After failed marriages for both, this is a completely unexpected and exhilarating last chance. Soon thereafter, he is deployed on a mission that subjects his integrity, morality, and skill to the ultimate test, and ensures that Athena will live forever in the annals of the Navy.
“As in the Odyssey, Katy is the force that keeps him alive and the beacon that lights the way home through seven battles, mutiny, and court martial. In classic literary form, an enthralling new novel that extolls the virtues of living by the laws of conscience, decency, and sacrifice, The Oceans and the Stars is nothing short of a masterpiece.”

From the Author’s Website

Helprin in the Italian Alps

“Mark Helprin belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend. As many have observed, and as Time Magazine has phrased it, “He lights his own way.” His three collections of short stories (A Dove of the East and Other Stories, Ellis Island and Other Stories, and The Pacific and Other Stories), seven novels (Refiner’s Fire, Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir From Antproof Case, Freddy and Fredericka, In Sunlight and in Shadow, and Paris in the Present Tense), and three children’s books (Swan Lake, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows, all illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg), speak eloquently.”

Helprin’s plots are solid and his writing is among the most beautiful on the planet. Once the book is released, I’ll try to add an editorial review.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Vietnam War novel “At Sea.” The author’s cover photo is of the USS Ranger (CVA-61).


Mama Don’t Allow No Writin’ Prompts ‘Round Here

Trouble is, websites, magazines, and other purported supporters of writers in training keep saying,  “Well, we don’t care what Mama don’t allow, Gonna create those prompts anyhow.”

Lord preserve us from such people and the greatest time wasters they foist upon us rather than providing articles that actually help.

In fact, a poke in the ass with a #4 pencil would be more useful.

If an aspiring writer needs a prompt before s/he can write something, perhaps s/he should consider another line of work, like crime or politics.

Writing prompts appear for one reason only: they are easier for a website or magazine editor to create than an article.  All you gotta say is something like, “Five people walk into a restaurant and order burgers and then get into an argument about the condiments that need to go on them (the burgers). All hell breaks out. Marriages fail. Ultimately the cops are called and interview the five people while eating the burgers.”

Sure, you can write a short story or a novella or possibly a novelette from this prompt, but why waste your time even if the website (like one place I know) wants you to submit your work so others can vote on the best story. Let’s say you win. So what? You don’t get a check or even any resume material.

Waste of time. Should have listened to Mama or watched Yam Yam win Survivor 44.

Might as well have spent the time watching the grass grow because, while doing that, you might have come up with your own story idea maybe for practice, maybe for submission to a little magazine, or maybe to develop into a novel with or without NaNoWriMo.

Good work arises out of our own passions and interests and experiences. It’s that simple.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Florida Folk Magic Series, four books about conjure and the Klan in the Florida of the 1950s.

What writers don’t say

Look for what writers don’t say and you’ll find their greatest truths or, if not that, important clues to what the story is about, indications that beyond the shallow waters of the obvious, there’s depth and knowledge for readers to discover, and a prickly feeling on the back of your neck that your subconscious mind is being visited by things half-remembered that when found shine a steady light on what the writer didn’t spell out.

Those reading my short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” in the short story collection Widely Scattered Ghosts know that the main character takes a dim view of the state of our mental health system, in part the fact that the centers using the group home approach (that was working) gave way to the cheaper “let’s turn the mentally ill out into the community where, in reality, few people will help them.”

My view, as I wrote the story, was that those released from group homes were basically left for dead. I assert this in the story’s opening lines (copyright (c) 2018 by Malcolm R. Campbell):

“THE LIGHT OF the harvest moon was brilliant all over the Florida Panhandle. It released the shadows from Tallahassee’s hills, found the sandy roads and sawtooth palmetto sheltering blackwater rivers flowing through pine forests and swamps toward the gulf, and, farther westward along the barrier islands, that far-reaching light favored the foam on the waves following the incoming tide. Neither lack of diligence nor resolve caused that September 1985 moon to remain blind to the grounds of the old hospital between the rust-stained walls and the barbed wire fence, for the trash trees and wild azalea were unrestrained, swings and slides stood dour and suffocated in the thicket-choked playground, humus and the detritus of long-neglect filled the cracked therapy wading pool, and fallen gutters, and shingles and broken window panes covered the deeply buried dead that had been left behind.”

One thing I didn’t say in the story was that the hospital was real, one I’d visited in one of its earlier incarnations when it was brightly lit and clean and well staffed but then, as funding cuts showed our true feelings about the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, the care and facilities ran into a downward spiral until the facility was eventually abandoned. Later it would be razed and the property turned into a neighborhood of upscale homes where it’s my profound hope that the residents hear ghosts on quiet nights.

To reinforce the focus of the story, the opening lines quoted here are a close paraphrase of the style of the opening lines of  “The Dead,” a 1914 short story by James Joyce, a favorite writer of mine. My intent was not to gain notoriety by paralleling a famous writer’s work but to drop a subliminal guidepost into my story.  Goodness knows, folks like T. S. Eliot said “The Dead” was one of the greatest short stories ever written. It would be vain of me to compete with that, but more likely that a few people who read my story might have read “The Dead” and would see that my intent was to reinforce my main character’s belief–and my own as well.

Such clues are left for readers to find. Those who “get it,” “get it.” Those who don’t find the clue don’t lose anything as they read other than a clue they won’t miss. Writers do this a lot and then English teachers (unfortunately) tell students what they did not see. So it goes.

Nonetheless, I think I’ve mentioned here before that writers often conceal the most important parts of their work.


Interview with You Know Who

Today’s guest is, at best, infamous.

Reporter: Just who the hell do you think you are?


Me: The Shadow.

Reporter: So you’re the guy who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Me: Right.

Reporter: Now that we’ve established your creds, let’s get down to what my readers want to know. When did you first decide o be a writer?

Me. God, that is so lame.

Reporter: Sorry, I’m not God, but I pretend to be when writing hardboiled, ass-kicking copy for the local mullet wrapper.  According to my notes, my readers want to know if you are a plotter or a pantser.

Me: I put my trousers on two legs at a time.

Reporter: How do you do that?

Me: I jump off the bed.

Reporter: That’s better than telling me I’d asked another lame question.

Me: It was lame, but I think you knew that already. Look, nobody reads interviews like this unless the subject is Tina Turner (may she rest in peace) or maybe John Grisham.  Then, the research staff comes up with better questions.

Reporter:  So, where do you get your ideas?

Me: When I’m rolling on the river.

Reporter: I’ve never heard that phrase before.

Me: You were born yesterday.

Reporter: At high noon.

Me: Figures.

Reporter: Look, I have a deadline coming up and that bastard editor of mine is going to want a scoop, maybe two scoops if you like raisin bran.

Me: Plastics.

Reporter: I’ve never heard that before.

Me: Good, then you’ll get an above-the-fold headline with this story. And seriously, if you need the true facts for your story, I knew I was going to be a writer in a past life and I never plot anything I write unless it’s a lie.

Reporter: Off the record, is there any evil in my heart?

Me: The weed of crime bears bitter fruit!


Looking back to decisions not made and roads not taken

When I was younger and reading about the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, and Arthur, I tried to figure out how Merlin lived his life backward. Was he born at 100 years of age and then each year became a year younger? Possibly, though when interacting with Arthur, Merlin knew the past, a time he couldn’t have experienced yet. I finally let the matter sit on a dusty shelf and enjoyed the stories without worrying about Merlin’s claim except to believe him when he spoke to Arthur about the future.

When people get older that dirt–I don’t think I’m there yet–they’re often asked if they could go back in time and change one mistake, would they do it. I suppose the question is easier to answer if somebody committed a crime and is now serving a life sentence.  Undo the crime and you’re no longer doing the time. That sounds like a no-brainer.

But what about the rest of us? Sometimes I feel sad about doing ABC instead of XYZ. But then I think about how different my life would have been if I’d made the opposite decision. I get tangled up in the complexity of it all because changing one decision would ripple throughout my life and a thousand things I’m happy about would probably be wiped out of existence. I wouldn’t have “been there” for those things to happen. I wouldn’t be married to my soul mate or had a great daughter and granddaughters.

What might have been always feels bittersweet when considered in a vacuum. But when the totality of a lifetime–without Merlin’s knowledge of the purported future–is considered, the consequences of changing even the smallest thing loom very large. So when people ask me that question, my answer is always that I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t dare.

Inasmuch as I created the life I have lived, I think it’s best to keep living it because in spite of the things I could have done, where I have ended up is just what the “doctor” ordered.

The cat in my Florida Folk Magic series says past, present, and future happen simultaneously. Who am I to disagree?


Book three of the Florida Folk Magic Series.

When Police Chief Alton Gravely and Officer Carothers escalate the feud between “Torreya’s finest” and conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins by running her off the road into a north Florida swamp, the borrowed pickup truck is salvaged but Eulalie is missing and presumed dead. Her cat Lena survives. Lena could provide an accurate account of the crime, but the county sheriff is unlikely to interview a pet.

Lena doesn’t think Eulalie is dead, but the conjure woman’s family and friends don’t believe her. Eulalie’s daughter Adelaide wants to stir things up, and the church deacon wants everyone to stay out of sight. There’s talk of an eyewitness, but either Adelaide made that up to worry the police, or the witness is too scared to come forward.

When the feared Black Robes of the Klan attack the first responder who believes the wreck might have been staged, Lena is the only one who can help him try to fight them off. After that, all hope seems lost, because if Eulalie is alive and finds her way back to Torreya, there are plenty of people waiting to kill her and make sure she stays dead.

Interview with special investigative reporter, Jock Stewart

Round Table: You’re known as a special investigative reporter. What are your areas of expertise?

Stewart: Politicians and hookers.

Round Table: Interesting combination.

Stewart: Most people can’t tell them apart. If you study history–and I doubt you do–you’ll find that government is indistinguishable from a whore house. Of course, CNN and FOX don’t see it that way.

Round Table:  How so?


Stewart: CNN thinks Republicans are evil and FOX thinks Democrats are evil.

Round Table: I see.

Stewart: Only on a clear day. Otherwise, most folks are too preoccupied with their online image to look into the promises being made on both sides of the aisle.

Round Table: You’ve been around long enough to know better.

Stewart: You got that right. Basically, my premise when I start working on a news story is, “Don’t trust anybody.” That was especially true during the Nixon administration. The thing is, people think that when Nixon quit, everything was pure as the driven snow. So, they’ve gotten lazy and listen to or watch only one news source and think they’re all-knowing when they’re dumb as a post.

Round Table: Those people are easily led.

Stewart: That’s right as rain. Of course, they don’t know they’re being led. The irony is, they think people like them are the leaders when, in fact, they’re the lemmings at the front of the stampede to the cliff.

Round Table: So how do you get to the truth?

Stewart: I find it best to get in bed with the worst people on the planet–figuratively speaking. Once you’re in bed with them, they tell you everything.  That’s how an investigative reporter works. It’s not much different than the CIA’s approach to the truth and who’s telling it.

Round Table: I don’t trust the CIA.

Stewart: You’re not supposed to. If we thought they were choir boys, they couldn’t do what they do.

Round Table:  Do you alienate people on purpose?

Stewart: I try to.  When people are angry, they say things they wouldn’t normally say. Nothing beats an angry news source for providing true facts.

Round Table: I’ve found that drunks are the same.

Stewart: They are, but buying them drinks costs a lot more than pissing them off.

Round Table: Thanks for stopping by for this interview,

Stewart: Yeah, right.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the satirical novel Special Investigative Reporter.

Sunday’s mixed bag for May 21

  • Sunday’s headline about the ongoing Alberta forest fires: Rainy forecast offers hope to subdue Alberta wildfires. I hope the rain helps firefighters get on top of one dangerous mess. I’ve visited Alberta many times, usually flying in and out of Calgary, and hate to see this kind of destruction. According to the story, “thick wildfire smoke has settled over much of Alberta, prompting a special air quality statement across most of the province that advises people to avoid being outside due to the health risks of the smoke. On Saturday afternoon, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) listed Edmonton’s air quality at a 10+, or very high risk.”
  • While I like the premise–the impact of the observer on reality–I’m disappointed in the pace of the Robert Lanza and Nancy Kress novel The Observer. It starts off at a notoriously slow pace with the main character basically trying to decide whether she wants to be the main character. I’ll probably see it through to the end, but at this point, I cannot recommend the novel at all. I think I would have been happier reading Lanza’s nonfiction than this thin approximation of a novel.
  • Ah, a sunny day for once. Maybe I’ll be able to cut the grass that will soon be high enough to tower above the riding mower. The rain has alternated with brief periods of sunshine, ensuring that the grass is always wet and/or getting wetter.
  • If you’re a writer and not already a regular who surfs the Poets and Writers website, you may be interested in the organization’s series of helpful PDFs ($4.95 each) about the publishing process. These definitely have a mainstream focus, i.e., large publishers, agents, and MFA programs. However, even if you are self-publishing or focussing on small, traditional publishers, you may find one or more of these guides to be helpful. I used to be a member of Poets and Writers and, among other things, enjoyed their slick magazine. However, the membership was one of the things that fell by the wayside as part of my cost-cutting plan.
  • After re-reading one of James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, which I like, I cheated on my cost-cutting plan to continue my journey through the well-written Kathy Reichs’ series of Temperance Brennan novels. I was a fan of the TV series “Bones,” based on her books and the author’s scientific expertise, I’m finding the books very compelling though–like the TV show–not for the squeamish. Actually, the show was a lot more gory than the books, delighting in the worst possible ways to find dead bodies. I like the fact that the science used in this book is real inasmuch as the author is a forensic anthropologist. There are currently 21 novels in the series.
  • Political note: I grew up in Florida but am thankful I got out before Ron DeSantis was elected governor and started fighting “the mouse that roared.”


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy and magical realism novels and short stories. This is a contemporary fantasy set in Glacier National Park.

‘Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean,’ by Christina Gerhardt

I cannot help but think of the title of Rachel Carson’s 1951 masterpiece The Sea Around Us as I write here about Christina Gerhardt’s University of California Press book that will be released May 23. If you live on an island, the sea has always been around you, but with climate change, the sea may soon be above you. The book, which New Scientist calls One of the Best Science Books of 2023, is available for pre-0rder on Amazon and elsewhere.

From the Publisher

“This immersive portal to islands around the world highlights the impacts of sea level rise and shimmers with hopeful solutions to combat it.

“Atlases are being redrawn as islands are disappearing. What does an island see when the sea rises? “Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean” weaves together essays, maps, art, and poetry to show us—and make us see—island nations in a warming world.

“Low-lying islands are least responsible for global warming, but they are suffering the brunt of it. This transportive atlas reorients our vantage point to place islands at the center of the story, highlighting Indigenous and Black voices and the work of communities taking action for local and global climate justice. At once serious and playful, well-researched and lavishly designed, Sea Change is a stunning exploration of the climate and our world’s coastlines. Full of immersive storytelling, scientific expertise, and rallying cries from island populations that shout with hope—’We are not drowning! We are fighting!’—this atlas will galvanize readers in the fight against climate change and the choices we all face.”

From the Booklist Review

“How often does an atlas command immediate attention, warranting a page-by-page perusal? This offering from Gerhardt and mapmaker Molly Roy is much more than a geological survey of the many islands around the world being affected by rising sea levels caused by climate change. There are compelling maps that indicate current coastlines and what the coastlines consist of (volcanic rock, ice shelves, mangrove forests) and project what coastlines will look like in 2050 and 2100. Lengthy essays introduce the inhabitants of these often-remote places, detailing their unique languages, histories, and ways of life.” See the full review here. 

Christina Gerhardt is Associate Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Senior Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and former Barron Professor of Environment and the Humanities at Princeton University. Her environmental journalism has been published by Grist.orgThe NationThe Progressive, and the Washington Monthly.

As a university press book, Sea Change is priced slightly higher than a similar large traditional publisher’s price. However, it’s well worth it even for people who live in Kansas and think they’re immune to sea changes.


Destined to get in trouble when religion comes up

In “real life,” I seldom talk about religion because I learned early on at the church where I grew up, that asking questions got me into trouble–usually with Sunday school teachers who ratted me out to my parents.

I did not agree with the concept of missionaries because I saw the approach as arrogant, especially when the missionaries’ targets were marginalized people including Indigenous Americans where the Christian religion was one of the methods used to “civilize” the tribes. “Civilizing” the “native people” has often been a strong component of the ruling classes’ approach that includes teaching the Gospel. The rationale: “We want them to be more like us.”

I think Indigenous peoples are fine the way they are, though I do support helping them improve health conditions, education levels, &c. Our Protestant church supported missionaries who came to visit from time to time and talked about their work. Their dedication could not be questioned. When asked if the Sunday school class had questions, I asked what was wrong with the religion the indigenous people already had. The answers were about what you might expect, the gist of which “those people” were worshipping fake gods.

So, we think our god is better, I said. Well, obviously, otherwise we wouldn’t believe what we believe. I maintained that what one believes is a personal thing and that it shouldn’t be the role of organized churches in concert with the government to “force” people to accept our beliefs and/or to feel discounted for the gods and rituals that have been important to them.

I got into similar arguments about the slander and repression of witches and others following a natural way because it was the church’s invention that they were worshipping Satan (a Christian concept and not a part of witchcraft).

So there it is: getting into trouble not about the focus of the faith but the rules about the faith that were codified by the hierarchy of the church whether Catholic or Protestant.

I have never subscribed to the idea that believers need pastors, priests, bishops, and others standing between them and their God. All those people impose rules and regulations which come from them and not from the unknowable creator we worship.

But questioning such things in a southern town in the 1950s was considered, I guess, the work of the so-called devil. So, I learned to keep quiet. Keeping quiet was safer, less of a hassle, and a way to keep from being an outcast. Now, the only thing I’ll speak out about is those who try to codify their beliefs into law. I have no tolerance for them and wonder what it is in their belief systems that makes them want to force their ideas on others.

I prefer to leave people alone and let them believe as they wish without the censure of government or the organized churches.


CPJ calls on NYPD to drop any charges against photojournalist Stephanie Keith

Washington, D.C., May 9, 2023—In response to news reports that freelance photojournalist Stephanie Keith was arrested while covering a protest in New York City on the evening of Monday, May 8, and authorities accused her of interfering with arrests, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued the following statement:  “We strongly condemn the arrest of freelance photojournalist Stephanie Keith, who was doing her job and trying to document matters of public importance,” said Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator. “New York authorities should drop any charges against Keith relating to yesterday’s arrest and show restraint in their crowd control tactics. Arresting reporters is a crude form of censorship and limits the public’s ability to access information about current events.”

Source: CPJ calls on NYPD to drop any charges against photojournalist Stephanie Keith – Committee to Protect Journalists

This action represents an abuse of press freedoms by law enforcement. Reporters should not have to put themselves in harm’s way from their own government to bring us the news. Keith’s arrest is the kind of thing I expect from Russia, China, and dictatorships like North Korea. I don’t expect it in the U.S.

One wonders where the police are getting their candidates for the police academy. I’m guessing it’s one drug cartel or another.