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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Review: ‘ The Lost Girls of Paris’ by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of ParisThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jenoff has written a compelling novel about female British agents serving in occupied France during World War II. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking novel since we learn early on that the odds are against many of the agents lasting long in the field before they’re captured and executed.

The novel is easy to follow since it focuses three characters, albeit with a good supporting cast: Eleanor, who works for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and champions and then trains and manages female agents in the field; Marie, whom Eleanor recruits due her flawless French; and Grace, who finds an abandoned suitcase in a New York train station after the war and becomes interested in a packet of the agents’ pictures.

The novel moves well, giving readers a sense of what it might have been like for these women to suddenly leave the country without telling anyone where they were going and, after arduous training, finding themselves in harm’s way. Fans of black ops novels might wish that more of the novel concentrated on the field work itself rather than the worries and intrigues at SOE headquarters. However, the girls’ work in the field is well researched and authentic.

The problematic character in the novel is Grace. After stumbling upon the pictures, she feels compelled to learn more about the SOE, Eleanor, and the girls in the packet of photographs. While Grace is a realistic character, inserting her life and her problems into this story takes away from the primary focus of the novel. She is more or less a device the author has used to help convey the story to the readers. While Grace “works” as a character, the novel might well have been stronger if she hadn’t been included.

Taking the story as it is with Grace in the mix, the material is well presented and interesting. Goodness knows the story in “real life” could have happened this way with an unconnected person stumbling upon it and trying to learn more. That said, the novel is well worth the reader’s time.

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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.

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Malcolm

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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