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.

 

Review: ‘Long Man’ by Amy Greene

from Literary Aficionado

longmanAmy Greene (“Bloodroot”) lives in the foothills of eastern Tennessee where she was born and raised and, as the lyrical prose in Long Man testifies, fell in love with the land and the blue-collar Appalachian people who cling to their world through floods and droughts with great determination.

Annie Clyde Dodson is one of the valley’s last holdouts against eviction as the TVA completes a dam that will soon contain the waters of the river her Cherokee ancestors named Long Man. The river is rising and the TVA is dispersing Yuneetah’s residents before the lake claims their land forever. While Annie’s husband is ready to move on, Annie is too much a part of the valley to leave without a fight. Keeping the farm whole and safe for her three-year-old daughter Grace is more important than electricity.

The roads connecting Yuneetah to the world will be under water shortly after the moving-out deadline imposed by the TVA. Amos, a drifter who was born in the valley, comes back for one last look and his own hidden motives. Grace goes missing on a day Annie saw Amos in her cornfield. A desperate search begins. Some think Amos took her. Others think she ran off and drowned in the lake. The TVA refuses to draw down the water to give the searchers more time.

Long Man is at once a well-plotted, deliberately paced adventure and a dark love song to the mountain people who–like the Cherokee before them–are being displaced in the name of “progress.” The story is told from multiple points of view including Annie, her husband James, the bootlegger Silver who watches the world from her mountaintop, the sheriff who must do his duty, and Amos who moves through the woods and fields like a phantom. Each person has a story to tell as the drama unfolds and Long Man begins to take away the town.

bloodrootWhile the pacing of this highly descriptive and atmospheric narrative may frustrate readers who seldom read literary fiction, Greene’s novel is nonetheless an impeccable portrait of a doomed town and a resolute people. Annie, Silver and Amos are characters not easily forgotten–nor should they be.

Note: when I posted this review on March 13 on Literary Aficionado, I hadn’t read Greene’s earlier novel Bloodroot. How I missed it when it first came out in 2011, I don’t know. Long Man is the kind of novel that leaves me wanting more words by the author. I’m reading and enjoying Bloodroot now and feel rather sad that when I’m done, I may have to wait for a couple years before seeing another Amy Greene book.

Update: The Washington Post included Long Man in its list of the top fiction books of 2014. (November 20, 2014)

–Review by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of Emily’s Stories.

Book Review: ‘A Certain Kind of Freedom,’ edited by Beryl Belsky

A Certain Kind of Freedom: Stories and Poems from the Writer's DrawerA Certain Kind of Freedom: Stories and Poems from the Writer’s Drawer by Beryl Belsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My objective when choosing the pieces for the anthology was to ensure that they reflected not only literary merit but also the multicultural nature of the website [Writer’s Drawer], as well as universal themes with which we can all identify.” – Beryl Belsky, from the Preface

A Certain Kind of Freedom presents ten stories in Short Fiction, ten first-person essays in Stories from Life, eleven poems in Poetry, and three poems in East Asian Style Poetry. While the short stories comprise the most dynamic section of the book, the anthology as a whole successfully fulfills Belsky’s objectives in the preface.

The title story about two young people who go kayaking in a cove that may or may not be dangerous or cursed, superbly introduces feelings of dread and a finely wrought narrative tension that characterizes most of the stories in Short Fiction. Susan Rogers’ “A Certain Kind of Freedom” employs a technique favored by director Alfred Hitchcock: placing everyday people into an unusual and chilling situation.

Kate and Ryan, who are visiting the Mediterranean coast, are experienced kayakers. The day is beautiful and the seas are calm. Yet Kate is preoccupied with “pink sky in the morning, sailor’s forewarning,” World War II dogfights that occurred in the area, and the unknowns of deep water once they paddle outside the sheltering cove. Rogers builds the tension well, foreshadowing a harrowing conclusion that, while not unexpected, is both surprising and sad.

In “Abigail,” Elizabeth L. Abrey also places an everyday person in an usual situation. While exploring her new house, Ruby Jordan gets locked in the basement. Once she extricates herself, everything seems fine. But then it isn’t–just possibly, getting locked in the basement wasn’t an accident.

Especially poignant is Leandré Grobler’s “Cry of the Fish Eagle”about an elderly aboriginal couple living in a secluded valley far from civilization who discover they are being watched by outsiders whom they do not understand. The watchers are well-intended researchers. As the tension builds, the reader can only wait helplessly for the inevitable clash of cultures that will destroy everyone.

Fans of Beethoven will love Tyger Schonholzer’s “Immortal Beloved,” an exquisite fantasy that re-imagines the circumstances behind the master’s famous “Immortal Beloved” letter to an unknown woman. The letter was never mailed. The intended recipient was never identified by historians. Could Schonholzer’s version be true? The romantic amongst us will want to think so.

All of the stories succeed, though some better than others, because they are tightly written and build toward well-plotted and appropriately foreshadowed conclusions. The essays in Stories From Life are generally informal and, while they introduce interesting characters, themes and settings, have a slice of life quality about them that often lacks unity and direction.

Bryan Clark’s “The Smoke Bird,” about an aboriginal mystic, Carrie King’s “The Ticket,” about an expectant mother barred from boarding a ship, and D. K. Srivastava’s “The Decision That Changed Her Life” about a Hindu bride waiting for her arranged marriage to begin are standouts in this section.

The offerings in Poetry are generally free verse with several of the poems falling into the prose-formatted-into-broken lines category. However, the poets’ passions shine through in such words as these in Syed Asad Ali’s “I Have Been in Love Twice”: …with you and with the idea of you; and maybe the reality of love lingers in between both of these.

Paige Lederman’s, memorable poem called “Fear” shows how a ten year old felt when hurricane Sandy hit New York’s Rockaway Beach in 2012, Dev Pillai’s tautly written “Paradox” looks at a moment in the past that was “incomplete yet content,” and Jane Tarlo’s bittersweet “It” bring strength to this section.

The three poems by Leon Zeldis, Jane Tarlo and Yael Shalev in East Asian Style Poetry comprise the strong final section of A Certain Kind of Freedom. These works clearly demonstrate the style and tone expected in the form, perhaps most effectively in Zeldis’ “Seven Chinese Poems” that begin:

Then,
Before the leaves went wild wind lofted,
The sky darkened
And I sat down crying.

Belsky concludes the book’s preface with the hope that A Certain Kind of Freedom will become the first of a Writer’s Drawer Book Series. Belsky and her contributors have made a strong start with this collection. For authors of future books in the series, this volume sets the bar high; for readers, it offers enjoyable prose and poetry that deserve multiple readings to fully explore.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the contemporary fantasy “The Seeker,” a story about a mountain vision quest, a flood, a girl, a swamp, and a summer romance on the rocks.

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