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.





Brief Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Piu Piu’

The Immortal Life of Piu PiuThe Immortal Life of Piu Piu by Bianca Gubalke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books come very close to being holy writ, sacred in their reach, profound in their wisdom, delightful in their humor, well-anchored in the world as we know it, fueled by the worlds we yearn for. This is such a book, with wonderful storytelling as well. You’ll meet Pippa, the girl who loves nature and thirsts for knowledge. You’ll meet Piu Piu, the who takes the plunge into a brief flirtation with our temporal life and thirsts for freedom. Look closely: behind the magic, you’ll probably meet yourself.

Well developed and memorable characters, an inventive story, and an immersion into the well-researched and well-described flora and fauna of the setting. Highly recommended and magical.

View all my reviews

Remembering a batch of authors

When we use traditional collective nouns for groups of animals, we speak of a congregation of alligators, a colony of ants, a swarm of bees, a herd of buffalo, a clutter of cats, a murder of crows, a pod of dolphins, a flock of geese, a charm of hummingbirds and a pandemonium of parrots.

batchHumorous collective nouns have been suggested for writers, including an absurdity of, an allegory of, a gallery of and scribble of. Some of the funnier suggestions are less than flattering. When I was interviewed for a regional magazine along with other authors from the county, the article was titled “A Truck Load of Authors.” We were all packed into a vintage pickup truck, a picture was taken, and the magazine had a great illustration.

Since I had no viable way of getting all the authors together who have appeared on this blog directly through guests posts and interviews or indirectly through reviews together and posing them on a raft, railcar or a team of wild horses, I’ve settled for the word “batch.”

The Batch at Malcolm’s Round Table

GoldfinchIf this blog has a niche–or a partial niche–it’s books and writers. Since I read a lot, the batch of writers here has included a lot of reviews. Some of those were BIG PUBLISHING BESTSELLERS but most were not.

So yes, I reviewed Dan Brown’s Inferno and talked about Donna Tarrt’s The Goldfinch. I liked The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife, and Long Man a lot and you probably heard about those more than once. Of course I talked about my own books but, well, that’s because I can’t help it and I try not to go on and on about them even though I might be going on and on anyway.

But, to move on. . .

However, it was much more fun talking (in reviews or notes) about books by some wonderful authors you weren’t hearing about everywhere else, L. S. Bassen, Seth Mullins and Smoky Zeidel (who has a new edition coming out soon).

Guest Posts and Interviews

Sara Ann grave in PA. Bob Salerni photo.
Sara Ann grave in PA. Bob Salerni photo.

When an author has delved deeply into a subject while researching a book, it’s fun to have them to stop by and do a guest post. The most unusual guest post was author Dianne K. Salerni’s (“We Hear the Dead,” “The Caged Graves”) Mortsafes: Protection FROM the Dead or FOR the Dead? Spooky stuff.

Interviews are something special because even though they are conducted via e-mail, my guests and I try to make they read very much like conversations.

Most recently, Marietta Rodgers stopped by to talk about her debut book The Bill. Laura Cowan has been here twice, most recently to talk about her magical Music of Sacred Lakes. Nora Caron, a Canadian author lured into Mexico and the American southwest has written a wonderful trilogy that includes New Dimensions of Being. Melinda Clayton, a psychologist who’s now focusing her observational skills on fictional characters spoke about her novel Blessed Are the Wholly Broken.  Two audio book narrators, R. Scott Adams and Kelley Hazen stopped by do tell me how they do what they do. Adams brought his talents as a dialects specialist to my novel Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. Hazen brought her experience as an actress to narrate my three-story set Emily’s Stories.

row1Diane Salerni’s research into Mortsafes made for a wonderful book in Caged Graves. Novelist Robert Hays used his background as a journalist and journalism educator to write the well-received nonfiction book Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. Laura Cowan (“The Little Seer”) contributed a close-to-my-heart guest post Speculative Supernatural Novels and the Growing Fantasy Genre. Novelist Pat Bertram (“Light Bringer,” “Daughter I Am”) also wrote the nonfiction Grief the Great Yearning which brings together her experiences with loss in an guest post called The Messy Spiral of Grief. Beth Sorensen (“Crush at Thomas Hall”) wrote a sparkling thriller/romance in her novel Divorcing a Dead Man.

row2Helen Osterman worked as a nurse for 45 years. During her training, her rotation she witnessed hydrotherapy, Insulin coma therapy and electroshock. Her background served her well when when she turned to fiction writing in  Notes in a Mirror. Vila SpiderHawk’s Forest Song novels are magical. She stopped by to talk about Finding Home. I thoroughly enjoyed Deborah J. Ledford’s Staccato, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Dance of the Banished and Rhett DeVane’s Suicide Supper Club.


Memory Lane

As you see, memory lane is a long street. It would be even longer if I kept better records, so I’m sure I didn’t find all of my interviews and guest posts. I’m planning to bring you some more new posts in the coming months. I hope you’ll stay tuned and, from time to time, sample the authors’ stories.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat”











Review: ‘What Casts a Shadow?’ by Seth Mullins

“Events are not things that happen to you. They are materialized experiences formed by you, according to your expectations and beliefs.” – Seth via Jane Roberts

whatcastsNOTE:  Over the years, Seth Mullins and I have discussed in various blogs and e-mails our affinity for the metaphysical information from the entity known as Seth who was channeled by Jane Roberts between 1963 and 1984 and subsequently chronicled in a series of books beginning with The Seth Material in 1970 (republished in 2011). Seth Mullins has previously explored spirituality, dreams and reality in Song of an Untamed Land and Song of the Twice Born while I have explored similar themes in my novels.

I hadn’t heard from him in some time when I received an e-mail asking my current address so he could send me a copy of his new novel What Casts a Shadow? (January, 2014).  He said that, among other things, the novel was an exploration of Seth’s view of reality in a contemporary story. Yes, there are multiple Seths here, but the one in Italics refers to the Seth as channeled by Jane Roberts and the Seth without the Italics refers to the author of this inventive novel.

What Casts a Shadow?

While the Seth material channeled by Jane Roberts was immensely popular during the 1970s and 1980s and continues to have a wide following today, my experience is that rather than feeling empowered by the phrase “you create your own reality,” a fair number of people fear and/or angrily reject the idea. For one thing, the idea doesn’t appear to make logical sense. Otherwise, people say either “if I create my own reality, why is my life filled with so many disappointments?” or “my thoughts must be totally screwed up to have created what I’m experiencing.” People had a similar reaction to ideas about “the law of attraction” as presented in The Secret and other books.

Seth Mullins’ protagonist Brandon Chane in What Casts a Shadow? has similar reactions when a psychologist suggests that the “world out there” isn’t out there. After Brandon’s mother died, he was stuck living with a drunken and abusive father who believes neither Brandon nor his new heavy metal rock band will ever amount to anything.

After his father lashes out at him prior to a performance, Brandon thinks: “My world is painted black; my entire inner landscape is barren. All the roads in my head lead to horrific ends. At the bleakest margins of this particular attack, I didn’t even care about the gig. I wanted nothing but oblivion.”

Mullins’ three-dimensional character is in many ways symbolic of creative people who want to express their unique visions of life through art, music, writing and other avenues but simultaneously believe that the world (or fate) is against them. Brandon and his best friend Tommy want to translate their feelings into their music; their music, they hope, will be their salvation.

Brandon reacts to the slings and arrows in his life with violence. Physical fights seem justified and bring release. Writing songs and performing them in front of an audience also bring release, but at the beginning of What Casts a Shadow? the songs aren’t as potent as knocking somebody down.

After a confrontation that involves the police and an interview with a consulting psychologist at the police station, Brandon ends up on Saul’s doorstep. Saul is a licensed therapist who believes individuals create their own reality.

Saul is a “new age” guru with a more or less conventional counseling approach. That is, he doesn’t sell guided-meditation CDs, lead drumming groups in the woods or ask his patients to recite affirmations. Instead, he asks Brandon to see his beliefs as beliefs rather than as facts and to compare his experiences with the states of mind leading up to them.

Mullins has created a protagonist that readers can easily identify with who has dreams that are running afoul of a seemingly apathetic world with bad people in it. Other than Saul’s active listening, Brandon will find clues that he might not be not doomed and worthless: Tommy understands him, his younger sister trusts him, the girl he meets doesn’t run away from him, and the music is evolving. Yet, his violence and anger feel so natural and justified!

Transformation and “success” in Brandon’s world will not come from a magic spell, a miracle drug or the intervention of a benevolent spirit guide. He will have to slog it out like we all do, day by day, doubt doubt, and reaction by reaction. What Casts a Shadow? will pull both open minded and skeptical readers into its story because that story mirrors so much of today’s world.


Upcoming Reviews: Williams, Babcock, Saxena, Slattery, Flieger and Nichols

I have a great list of books here on my desk to review, starting with The Divine Comics by Philip Lee Williams. Mr. Williams is somewhat responsible for the fact my reviews are running late, for his novel is a thousand pages long and, in spite of the fact it’s very readable, it’s taken me a while to finish. You’ll see a review of it next week after a break for a long holiday weekend.

JeffreyT. Babcock’s book based on the true story of a 1967 mountain climbing tragedy on Mt. McKinley will follow closely. I mentioned Should I Not Return in this morning’s post on Magic Moments, The Range of Light.

The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels by Vandana Saxena takes a look at teens, rebellion and the kinds of books that tend to support the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood as viewed through the lens of J. K. Rowling.

A fan of fantasy and folktales, I’m looking forward to reading Verlyn Flieger’s The Inn at Corbies’ Caww. A long-time Tolkien scholar, Flieger knows the territory and proves it with fine writing and a wonderful story. (I know this because I peeked into the book when it arrived.)

After mentioning Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story by Dennis Patrick Slattery here on this blog on May 22, I decided that there was much more to be said. So, you’ll be seeing a review in the near future.

River Dragon Sky, Justin Nichols’ novel about a Taoist “street seer” in China has a noir feeling about it along with a lot of secrets. Nichols is also the author of Ash Dogs.

You May Also LikeMain Street Stories, by Phyllis LaPlante, reviewed by Smoky Zeidel on Smoky Talks Books. The author of The Cabin and On the Choptank Shores, Zeidel’s new novel The Storyteller’s Bracelet is coming out in June.


Review: ‘The Uncertain Places’ by Lisa Goldstein

“A long time ago there lived a poor woodsman. One day he was walking in the forest when a man came out of the trees and hailed him. ‘Good day,’ the man said. ‘And how are you doing today?’

“‘Very poorly,’ the woodsman said. ‘My family and I have not eaten for three days, and if I do not find food for them soon I fear we will all die.’

“‘I can help you,’ the man said. ‘But you must promise to give me the first thing you see when you return home today.'”

All long-time readers of fairy tales are familiar with stories that begin like this, or similar to this, and they all involve people who are down on their luck who are mysteriously offered a great boon. The boon isn’t free because it involves a bargain that may change the lives of a family throughout time forever.

Just stories, of course, with morals in them about getting something for nothing, being too quick to give away something not clearly specified, and trusting anything that happens at crossroads, boundaries and other undertain places.

In Lisa Goldstein’s wonderful contemporary fantasy “The Uncertain Places,” protagonist Will Taylor looks back on the events that occurred after his college roommate Ben introduced him to Livvy Feierabend in 1971. Will is smitten with Livvy; Ben is smitten with Livvy’s sister Maddie. Livvy and Maddie live with their mother Sylvie and younger sister Rose in an odd and rambling house in the Napa Valley.

Will notices on his first trip to Napa that Sylvie is rather scattered. On subsequent visits, it becomes more and more obvious that the house and the family are, in ways that cannot be pinned down, also scattered as though they aren’t quite living in the here and now, or that if they are present in the here and now, that the line between the family’s house and vineyard on one hand and their secrets on the other hand is not altogether well defined.

Will and Ben slowly discover that stories they always believed were “just stories” might be more than that. How exactly did the Brothers Grimm come by old fairytales about woodsmen and witches in their famous books of “Children’s Tales” published in multiple editions beginning in 1812? Growing up, the Feierabend sisters were not allowed to read fairytales. How odd. But Will finds out why, and that “why” has to do with the kinds of fortune and fate that befall those who find themselves confronted by friendly helpers in the uncertain places.

The consequences of decisions made in such places are forever. There’s good fortune, to be sure. But it comes at a price, one that Will doesn’t want Livvy to pay. All of this happened in California during the rather abnormal times of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Will narrates the events that followed the weekend when he became smitten with Livvy Feierabend as though he’s telling a fairytale that contains fairy tales.

Will’s telling of the story is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, but also a lingering weakness. Looking back, as he is, Will places Ben, Livvy, Rose, Maddie and Sylvie into the world of “once upon a time,” and this adds to the ephemeral nature of “The Uncertain Places.” The Feierabend sisters’ world is vague in all the secret ways magic and boundary areas are vague, and that makes them all the more plausible and delightful.

The flasback structure of the novel also blurs the impact of the story because there periods of normal reality in between the odd events Will is telling us about. Readers who are more accustomed to constantly forward-moving plot might say, “get back to the story.” While these gaps filled with normacy are not large, they are somewhat distracting.

Nonetheless, the novel sparkles like stars and faerie lights in the woods and old secrets on the cusp of revelation, and is highly recommended for all lovers of fantasy whose ancestors didn’t make long-term bargains with those they met in uncertain places.

Update, August 2012: Novel wins 2012 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature

Malcolm R. Campbell, author of contemporary fantasies. including the “Sarabande”

a young woman’s harrowing story in multiple worlds