Review: ‘Paris in the Present Tense’ by Mark Helprin

Paris in the Present TenseParis in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With great love, there is often great loss. Musician, composer and teacher Jules Lacour has, at age seventy-four, experienced both and will continue to do so as long as he can draw breath and hear music. As Helprin’s “In Sunlight and in Shadow” is a love song to New York City,” “Paris in the Present Tense” is a love song to the City of Lights (la Ville Lumière).

Like “In Sunlight and in Shadow,” this novel is non-linear, atmospheric, and a sprawling immersion into the location as viewed by the protagonist, in this case, a man who not only hears music in everyday sights and sounds, but who believes the listener is experiencing the Divine:

“The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles – its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.”

Physically fit from daily runs and swims that give him more stamina and a more athletic physique than men half his age, Lacour is pragmatic about health and has a laser-focus on the need to raise money to save his terminally ill grandson. Yet he has a complex past that haunts him to great distraction, an unusual and somewhat chaotic approach to his music students, and the romantic’s ability to fall deeply in love with a woman at a moment’s notice. He owes allegiance to his past and to the here and now and must learn how to juggle memories and defining moments.

This complex character provides more focus and a tighter plot to this novel than what we saw in “In Sunlight and in Shadow” as well as a more satisfying conclusion. The story is beautifully told with shimmering prose that is almost music.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Advertisements

Review: ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’ by Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary CircumstanceBeasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first sentence of the publisher’s description sounds like a writing prompt: “Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people.” Going back to the Romulus and Remus myth and wolves appearances in fairy tales, the notion about a young boy growing up amongst wolves is old and filled with so much symbolism that it’s almost archetypal.

As a writer, I like playing “what if?” So, it would be interesting to hear that Lang stumbled across such a writing prompt and wondered what would happen if she made a serious attempt to create an engaging story out of it. “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” is definitely engaging. It’s also beautifully written. However, in a recent interview with “Library Journal,” Lang said the story arose out of an idea about an adept beekeeper, and I don’t see it as a spoiler to say that Weylyn knows a lot about bees.

This is a nearly wonderful debut novel. It’s been praised in reader and editorial reviews that are well deserved. Lang has great promise as a successful author, but I hope that in subsequent novels, she develops a stronger focus. The story is told through multiple points of view, some more relevant than others. While this approach serves to make Weylyn more mysterious, it also introduces us to some characters that don’t have recurring or important roles to play. This dilutes the book’s focus because, in spite of the truths the weaker of these characters have to offer, we have no reason to care about these people or to appreciate their intrusion into the story.

The book is billed as magical realism. That’s probably the “proper” genre for it. However, the book is more of a mythic story or fairy tale because the its realism is weak–and it shouldn’t be. While Lang’s wont for Weylyn to drift in and out of other people’s lives is realistic and well handled, the wolves–and to some extent, the bees and other critters–are unrealistic. Weylyn knows what he knows about wolves and bees from his own unique talents and experiences. Yet, the wolves and bees are present in the story when Weylyn isn’t involved and their actions need a stronger basis in fact-based truths about how they would interact “in real life” with people who aren’t magical.

The lack of realism reduces the impact of the novel’s magic. The extraneous characters muddy the novel’s focus and keep readers forever at an arm’s length from Weylyn. I liked reading “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” but was distracted by the missing components that could have made it a much stronger story.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism novels and short stories. His most recent magical realism novels are “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Review: Jane Harper’s ‘Force of Nature’

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk, #2)Force of Nature by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the Bailey Tennants accounting firm takes two employee groups into a rugged Australian mountain forest for an annual weekend of “team building,” the men’s group returns ahead of schedule and the women’s group straggles back to civilization late, injured, scared, and in a fighting mood, indicating that its working together skills need more attention. The group is also missing the bossy, opinionated Alice who apparently wandered off and got lost; statements from Lauren, Beth, Bree and Jill about just how that happened are vague and contradictory.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk (who first appeared in Harper’s “The Dry” in 2017) and his partner Carmen are pulled into the investigation because Alice has been providing them with evidence of the company’s illegal activities. Aaron and Carmen can’t help but wonder who, if anyone, discovered there was a whistle blower in their midst. And then, too, a serial killer used to call those mountains home.

Harper deftly handles the storyline by alternating her chapters between the present day investigation and the prior day-to-day troubles of the women’s group on the trail. In the here-and-now-investigation chapters, Falk, the local police, and the rangers find a tangled web of possibilities about what might of happened to Alice. Is she still alive?

In the up-close-and-personal chapters showing a women’s group starting a normal hike into the wilderness and then trying to find its way out alive, readers see that tensions, tempers, and mistakes are worse than police suspect.

Everyone, including Falk, has a past that complicates their reactions to the majestic wilderness. Falk carries memories of his father’s lonely hikes in those isolated mountains and wishes the family’s past had played out differently. Each of the women not only has personal and professional issues with the others in the group, but is distracted by unsettling family problems that keep pulling their focus away from making sensible decisions in a setting where terrain and weather always have the upper hand. So much for creating a cohesive team.

Harper clearly knows how to tell an exciting story and keep her readers guessing about what really happened until the final pages of the aptly titled “Force of Nature.”

Malcolm

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

View all my reviews

Review: ‘Curva Peligrosa’ by Lily Iona MacKenzie

Curva PeligrosaCurva Peligrosa by Lily Iona MacKenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mexican Curva Peligrosa follows America’s first “superhighway,” the Old North Trail that has seen many hooves, bare feet and moccasins traveling between Southern Mexico and Canada over the past 12,500 years, and after 20 years of dreams and exuberant experiences, she settles in the small town of Weed, Alberta.

Magic follows her, to hovers around her and her mysterious green house, her herbal cures, her skills as a midwife, her sharpshooting, her otherworldly dandelion wine, her lusty appreciation of sex, and her larger-than-life approach to living that astounds and intrigues the residents of her adopted town. They are scared of her but can’t stay away.

Time and reality blur in this well-written and carefully researched novel, in part because the chapters are–in a sense–a series of slices life and mini-stories that are not exactly presented in chronological order. Along the trail, Curva writes letters to her dead brother Xavier who will become a frequent visitor to her spread near Weed. The prostitute and fortune teller Suelita and Billie, the Blackfoot chief from the nearby reservation, are also frequent visitors. Everyone drinks the wine. Lots of it.

And then there’s the man named Shirley from Sweet Grass, Montana who wants to drill for oil throughout the region. Shirley thinks he can tame Curva’s strange ideas, alluring body, and potentially oil-rich land.

Kadeem, the leader of a traveling troupe of acrobats and other performers tells Curva, “Nothing is what it seems. Carpets fly. Plants give birth to animals. Characters escape from novels. All this is normal.” Such things occur as regularly as the rising and setting of the sun and moon throughout the inventive magical realism, addictive plot, and exotic character development of Lily Iona MacKenzie’s “Curva Peligrosa.”

Chances are good that Curva, Sabina (her daughter of unclear origins), Xavier (who dislikes being called dead, much less a corpse), Billie (who talks to old bones), Suelita (who longs for wings), and even Shirley (who thinks material riches are everything) will ultimately escape from from this novel. If so, they will visit you during storms, fog, and dreams. This is normal.

View all my reviews

Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

View all my reviews

Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll hear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

halfformedRiverrun of words, past church and family and worse, from swerve of hope to bend of knee, you might think you’re reading “Finnegan” again as you start Eimear McBride’s streamOFconsciousness novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. James Joyce leaves early on, though when you reach the novel’s final words, you might agree this story is a wake.

It’s also a mental letter of sorts, an interior monologue, from a rebellious sister to a brother with a brain tumor, within.the.tight.confines of a dysfunctional household, abuse and other perversions, rape and WorseThanRape, and the protagonist’s desperately destructive behavior. We are INside her head. Too much for simple syntax there, though sin is a constant theme, and prayers, too, so when James Joyce leaves the book by the back door, Virginia Woolf arrives at the front door. Figuratively speaking. You should be afraid, for this book will wreck you as though you yourself are violating the protagonist page by heartbreaking page, you bastard.

It’s also a raw poem, laced with the worst muck of life, the flotsam any free-flowing river carries along with sunlit ripples of lyr(within lyrics)ics more beautiful than anyone other than the doomed brother deserves to hear. The flow of words, blood, semen, vomit and other prayers are dAZZling to experience. The book’s un-named characters lead sad lives that would be sad if McBride had told the story through a conventional approach. Yet the fractured prose fits all that’s broken in the story and the poetry of the riverrun of words accentuates every vile UNformed and 1/2Formed thing.

Mammy is a single parent who is randomly holy.past.all.understanding, loving, vicious, and blind to everything but her son in her unkempt house in this small Irish town. Daddy is absent, resting in hell or elsewhere. Uncle is perverted. Schoolkids are cruel. Men have one thing on their minds. Brother is slow. Sister is wantonly searching for herself. And fate is relentless. Life inside this story, and inside the protagonist’s head, is difficult, difficult to read in half-formed thoughts, and impossible to set aside.

You won’t forget this story even though you will try.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Brief Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This mystery, narrated by three London-area women, is tightly written with multiple who-dunnit style twists and turns. Rachael takes the train into London every day and has gotten into the habit of fantasizing about the lives of two people she’s never met in a house near the tracks several doors down from the house where she used to live. She builds a perfect life for the unknown couple in the house and almost comes to believe she knows them–until the woman who lives there ends up missing.

The interesting plot is dulled to some extent due to the fact that Rachael, Anna and Megan seem some hopelessly inept in maintaining any order and purpose in their lives other than, perhaps, a focus on their relationships with men.

The author brings a nice touch to Rachael’s chapters because her excessive drinking makes her an unreliable narrator. The police–and the readers, as well–won’t be sure until near the end of the book what she saw and what she did during a black-period on the night “it happened.”

The train imagery is pitch perfect and the ending is satisfying.

View all my reviews

 

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, (Philomel Books: February 2016), 400pp, young adult

Between January and May, 1945, Germany evacuated two million people from the advancing Soviet army in the Polish and East Prussian corridors via Operation Hannibal, the largest sea evacuation in modern history. Over 25,000 of them died in the Baltic Sea when 158 of the estimated one thousand merchant vessels were lost, many to enemy fire.

Among the lost were 9,400 of the German, East Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish refugees on board the Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk at 9:15 p.m. January 30th by three torpedoes from Soviet Submarine S-13 at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, nineteen miles off the Polish shore.

salttoseaRuta Sepetys’ superb young adult novel traces the flight of Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (Prussian), Emilia (Polish) and Alfred (German) from the advancing Soviet army. Alfred is a sailor sent to the port of Gotenhafen for duty on board the Wilhelm Gustloff to help evacuate those escaping from the Soviet advance. Joana, Florian, and Emilia have a more difficult trek to Gotenhafen because they are also running from the German army.

The story is told in one-to-three-page chapters from the viewpoints of the four major characters. By the end of the novel, readers know each of these characters like family for they will have heard an unforgettable story of brutality, death, guilt, fate, shame and fear from every angle that matters.

Joana is a compassionate nurse, Emilia is a pregnant teenager, Florian is a young man with secrets, and Alfred wants to receive a medal for small, self-important deeds. And then there are Eva, who is tall and gruff; Heinz, a cobbler who knows people by their shoes; Ingrid, a blind girl who sees better than many, and the other seemingly doomed but hopeful souls along the way.

As they walk through the snow, Joana thinks: We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered, and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things the rest of us couldn’t.

Sepetys’ great success with this novel comes from many factors over and above her research. The story, including the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told in pointed, straightforward, often graphic language with well-chosen details and no authorial editorializing or sentimentality. If the refugees reach the ships in Gotenhafen, they may not be given a boarding pass: the Germans can easily find reasons for and against each of the characters. And, the subplot of secrets ultimately linking Joana, Florian and Alfred adds tension.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect story about the tragedy of civilians in wartime or a better historical introduction to the plight of the Lithuanian, Prussian, Polish and German refugees caught between the opposing, but equally brutal World War II regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Salt to the Sea is the novel no reader will forget.

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ by Harper Lee

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.” ― Robertson Davies

The mockingbird dies again in Go Set a Watchman.

watchmanIn To Kill a Mocking Bird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch and Charles Baker “Dill” Harris are among the innocent mockingbirds who suffer when the cruel realities of life intrude into their childhoods after Atticus is appointed by the court to defend a Black man accused of raping a white woman.

The trial and its aftermath represent a defining moment for the fictional Maycomb, Alabama; establish Atticus as the watchman who sees the truth and crusades for justice; and solidifies for young Scout, her faith in a wise and loving father who can do no wrong.

In Go Set a Watchman, the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise who lives and works New York returns to Maycomb to visit her ailing father at a time when there are increasing tensions in the South after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Lee paints a clear picture of the concerns many small town residents had about the ramifications of desegregation. Some reviewers have skewed the point of the book by looking at these not-unusual 1950s beliefs through a 2015 microscope.

While this makes for sensationalistic headlines, it inaccurately clouds the realities of the time period for prospective readers.

Scout, who is basically color blind, believes what she grew up thinking Atticus believed: “Equal Rights for all, special privileges for none.” When it comes to matters of law, he has not wavered. Daily life, though, isn’t the law to his way of thinking. When Scout discovers Atticus thinks Blacks are not yet ready for the full rights of a desegregated society, her world is shattered. The man who wants to marry her has similar views and, along with her father, is attending political meetings aimed at finding ways to fight the Supreme Court’s ruling, The mysterious wonders of her childhood under the patient guidance of her father are suddenly at risk as everything she thought was true is potentially false.

Lost innocence and fallen gods are central themes in this book.

Like many debut novels, Go Set a Watchman contains a fair amount of back-story of “remember-when” discussions and reminiscences. While these passages inform the reader about what was, they also slow the pace of a novel. However, readers of To Kill a Mockingbird will probably also find these passages nostalgic as they shed more light on Mockingbird’s beloved cast.

After Scout learns what she learns about her father and his colleagues, she has a decision to make. She can run back to New York filled with hatred for the family and friends who have destroyed the remains of her innocence and her childhood memories with views she abhors. Or, she can stay in Maycomb, fight for what she believes, and as a watchman tell others the truths she sees among them.

Harper Lee deftly handles Scout’s dilemma in a wonderful novel that will, I hope, survive the perils of the misguided critics who have been shouting that the sky is falling.

–Malcolm KIndle cover 200x300(1)

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a novella set in the Jim Crow 1950s of the Florida Panhandle in which granny and her cat fight racial injustice with folk magic.

Review: ‘Speaking in Forked Tongues’ by Brad Gallaway

Speaking in Forked Tongues, by Brad Gallaway, Signal 8 Press (April 22, 2014), 306 pages

Forked TonguesBrad Gallaway’s dark fantasy/horror novel Speaking in Forked Tongues is inventive, delightfully written tale about a young man who calls demons for a living. When folks can’t solve their earthly problems, they contact Helping Hands agency who sends out a caller with an underworld solution. Callers who have been to hell and back multiple times are the best in the business.

While the publisher’s description claims that protagonist “Bren Barran is a normal guy in most ways,” one might ask whether a young man who was adopted by demons, who grew up in hell, and who brings clients and demons together to fix what nobody else can fix can possibly be normal in most ways. Yet, Gallaway makes Barran seem normal, in spite of a predilection for dark, self-deprecating humor.

Unlike poor Faust who sold all of his soul for help from hell, Barran’s clients usually part with a mere sliver, insuring that the demon on call gets what he wants, Barran’s boss Nareth gets what she wants (a cut of the action), the callers get paid and that the happy clients have enough soul left to bring in repeat business.

What could possibly go wrong?

Even though hell is a well-run, ably governed and a relatively safe place quite unlike what we’ve all heard, there’s room there for jealousy and discord. Truth be told, Barran doesn’t think demonkind is any worse than humankind when it comes to bad traits except for the fact demons are physically larger, have claws, and know dangerous (and harmful) spells. So, when Helping Hand’s callers start disappearing and when Barran starts getting attacked on the street, it isn’t long before (seemingly) all hell breaks lose.

There’s a bit of expected gore in this book and a wonderfully tangled plot for Barran to navigate as he tries to solve his agency’s demon problem while staying alive. Naturally, Mom and Dad want to help, but according to the rules, they also have to be paid.  The bad guys in this story are really bad and Gallaway makes them seem uncomfortably plausible while leading readers to an ending they won’t see coming.

On a minor note, a warning to parents: The novel’s listing on Amazon claiming that the book is suitable for ages 1 to 17 is either an error or a devilish promotional trick. Teens and adults of all ages can probably stand the heat, while enjoying the trip.

Malcolm

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