Books: ‘The Mermaid’s Sister’ by Carrie Anne Noble

What a delightful story to re-read on a cold, windy day. I mentioned it here before in a post about magical realism books on Amazon. Published in 2015, this was Carrie Anne Noble’s debut young adult novel and it’s done well. (It has won several awards, has 3,394 ratings on Amazon and is a bestseller in the folklore category.)

Publisher’s Description

There is no cure for being who you really are…

In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions; by night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphaned infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.

One day, Clara discovers iridescent scales just beneath her sister’s skin: Maren is becoming a mermaid and must be taken to the sea or she will die. So Clara, O’Neill, and the mermaid-girl set out for the shore. But the trio encounters trouble around every bend. Ensnared by an evil troupe of traveling performers, Clara and O’Neill must find a way to save themselves and the ever-weakening Maren.

And always in the back of her mind, Clara wonders, if my sister is a mermaid, then what am I?

Noble says on her website that her favorite authors are Mervyn Peake, Neil Gaiman, Maggie Stiefvater, Ardyth Kennelly, Catherine Cookson, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you like any or all of them, you’ll probably enjoy The Mermaid’s Sister as well. Noble published The Gold-Son in 2017.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” by Alix E. Harrow

On July 26, 2018, Alix E. Harrow–an award-winning author of short fiction, posted a blog entry called “Holy Cats, I sold my book” in which she called the pending publication: “Big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking news.”

Her reaction also describes the book, a mix of magical realism and fantasy, with a delightful plot that bends time and space in upon themselves as–quite possibly–an illustration of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics. Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about quantum theory to follow the story.

What you do need is a wide-open, non-judgemental imagination because this story is quite a unique trip. No doubt, Harrow used that kind of imagination to write the book, to follow the world-leaping exploits of her main character January Scaller who learns–while looking for her parents and running from the bad guys–how to travel between worlds as easily as walking from here to there and (with luck) back again.

Her plotting, language, and tone are among the best I’ve seen through ten thousand hours of reading every book I could get my hands on. Each of those books was a door into a new world, a fact you’ll believe more firmly than ever by the time you finish “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.” In fact, you’re more likely than ever to discover new worlds after reading this beautiful (and beautifully written) debut novel.

It’s a big, life-altering, universe-skewing, time-space-continuum-wrecking novel.

–Malcolm

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

Review: ‘The Lake of Learning’ by Rose and Berry

The Lake of Learning (Cassiopeia Vitt Adventure, #3)The Lake of Learning by Steve Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella, and “The Museum of Mysteries,” represent everything a good novella should provide for readers: strong characters, mysterious stories based on heavily researched history, conflicts that are not easy to resolve, and a compelling storyline that leaves the reader wishing the book went another 500 pages farther than it did.

This story focusses on the Cathar religion, a system of beliefs that the Catholic church considered heretical and then killed the adherents in a crusade launched in 1209 and later during the inquisition. However, Cathars still exist today, and it’s about them–and the discovery of an old Cathar book of hours–that’s the focus of this story.

An old book is found on a construction site, and suddenly opposing Papist and Cathar individuals insert themselves into the story, creating a dangerous game for the protagonist Cassiopeia Vitt. Old conflicts die hard, it seems, as those who believe and those who don’t believe put Vitt’s life, wealth, and company in danger.

Books like this not only have compelling stories but teach readers a lot about the subject matter. In this case, the authors’ note at the end of the book what separates fact from fiction so that readers can see what’s true, what’s imaginary (but possible), and where to follow the historical record for themselves.

The characters in this novel (both the ones you like the and the ones you don’t like) not only have great depth to them, but they’re experts in their fields and savvy about everything that surrounds their areas of interest. If you have an interest in the Cathars, you will enjoy this novella. But even if you don’t, the fascination of a well-told tale will keep you reading.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

The 2019 National Book Awards Longlist: Fiction 

This week, The New Yorker is announcing the longlists for the 2019 National Book Awards. This morning, we present the ten contenders in the category of Fiction. Earlier this week, we published longlists for Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature.

Source: The 2019 National Book Awards Longlist: Fiction | The New Yorker

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, here’s the long list for the fiction category the National Book Awards.

One criticism, I often hear for these awards and the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction is that most people have either never heard of, much less read, many of the winners.

That makes me wonder whether the fiction awards really focus on work that is viable, important, and in tune with the times or if they focus on material which is so far off the beaten track that they are actually oblivious to the times.

What do you think?

Here’s the list from New Yorker Magazine:

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “Fleishman Is in Trouble
Random House / Penguin Random House

Susan Choi, “Trust Exercise
Henry Holt & Company / Macmillan Publishers

Kali Fajardo-Anstine, “Sabrina & Corina: Stories
One World / Penguin Random House

Marlon James, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House

Laila Lalami, “The Other Americans
Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House

Kimberly King Parsons, “Black Light: Stories
Vintage / Penguin Random House

Helen Phillips, “The Need
Simon & Schuster

Julia Phillips, “Disappearing Earth
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

Ocean Vuong, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Penguin Press / Penguin Random House

Colson Whitehead, “The Nickel Boys
Doubleday / Penguin Random House

I’ve read The Nickel Boys and, while it was powerful, I thought it had an author’s trickery in it that kept it from working for me.

–Malcolm

 

 

Excerpt from ‘At Sea’

If you were around during the Vietnam War, you’ll probably remember that much of the news coverage dealt with body counts, to show the progress the U.S. was making in ridding the country of the Viet Cong. In my novel At Sea, the protagonist’s grandfather (“Jayee”) keeps his own listing of those from Montana who were killed in the war.

Jayee’s Lists

 

Jayee’s Lists (The Poor Sons of Bitches who Died) lay faded in a low kitchen drawer beneath batteries, broken pencils, expired dog food coupons, forgotten pink birthday candles, gum erasers, and other unsorted miscellany.

Superimposed over the small battlefield of the ranch, where lambs and eagles met largely unrecorded deaths on a rangeland framed by fences, box elders, cottonwoods, and a narrow creek carrying water off the backbone of the earth in years of drought and years of flood, the old man recorded soldiers’ names and souls.

He read the news from Vietnam with morning coffee and evening spirits, and with a fine surveyor’s hand, he tallied the bare bones of body counts between narrowed-ruled lines in lightweight Bluehorse notebooks intended for the wisdom of school.

After dinner, he walked out through the bluebunch wheatgrass and settling sheep to his ancient Studebaker pickup truck. He carried a sharp yellow pencil and a pack of Chesterfields, tools for doing his sums, “calculating Montana” in a cloud of cigarette smoke from “vintage tobaccos grown mild, aged mild, blended mild.”

On the first page of the first book he wrote, Here are the poor sons of bitches who died. On the last page of the last book, he wrote, The dead, dying, and wounded came home frayed, faded, scuffed, stained, or broken.

On the pages in between, he wrote the name of each Montana soldier who was killed or missing in recorded battles far away. Sipping bourbon, smoking like a lotus in a sea of fire, he ordered, numbered, and divided the names by service branch, by casualty year, by meaningful cross-references, by statistically significant tables, by the moon’s phases and the sun’s seasons, and by the cycles of sheep.

Jayee remarked from year to year that the notebooks grew no heavier with use. He saw fit to include the names of the towns where the dead once lived, fathered children, and bought cigarettes. These names he learnt were also lighter than the smoke.

The current of his words between the pale blue lines of each thin page arose in fat, upper case letters that scraped the edges of their narrow channels. They began as a mere trickle from 1961 to 1964 that grew in volume in 1965 before the first spring thaw, to become a cold deluge that crested in 1968, wreaking havoc across the frail floodplain of pastures and pages, carrying the dark, angry names scrawled with blunting pencil, and broken letters, through irregular gray smudges, over erasures that undercut the page deep enough and wide enough to rip away the heart from multiple entries. There was little respite in 1969. After that, the deaths receded and most of the physical blood dried up by 1973.

The pages were dog eared, marked with paperclips already turning to rust, and fading to pale dust behind the list of towns: RICHEY, WHITEFISH, HELENA, CHOTEAU, BOZEMAN, BUTTE, KALISPELL, THOMPSON FALLS, THREE FORKS, STEVENSVILLE, TROUT CREEK, BILLINGS, CHOTEAU HINSDALE, GREAT FALLS, HARDIN, SACO, SIDNEY, HAVRE, HELENA, GREAT FALLS, HELENA, BOZEMAN, BUTTE, DODSON, ARLEE, REEDPOINT, HAVRE, BIG  SANDY  MISSOULA, BILLINGS, WHITLASH, ROUNDUP…

Jayee’s tallies added up like this: USA—169 USAF—16 USMC—59 USN—23 TOT—267

The old man made 267 trips around Montana between 1961 and 1972 that no surveying jobs could account for. He said little to the family about it and they didn’t often ask.

During Jayee’s second trip to Havre in 1966, Mavis, a waitress at the Beanery, noticed a stack of 44-inch white crosses sticking out from beneath a tarp in his truck. On each cross, there was a name. When she suggested that Jayee was stealing them from roadside accident scenes, he said he made them per spec to repay old debts.

Mavis asked Katoya if Jayee was all right and Katoya said: “right enough.” He returned to the restaurant multiple times to prove he was right enough and was sitting there on August 31, 1967, when the 77-year-old Great Northern restaurant served its last bowl of Irish stew and closed its doors for good. When the building was torn down the following February, he pounded “an extra cross” into the rubble where the counter once stood and said it was the best he could do.

Months passed and additional stories surfaced about an old man crisscrossing the state searching for the families of the fallen, and of warm conversations lasting long into the dark hours. Jayee remained solitary and taciturn in the face of public or private praise or blame and traveled from town to town methodically, as though he was marking chaining stations along an endless open traverse.

After each individual’s name, he wrote XD (cross delivered), XR (cross refused), or CNF (could not find).

On October 18, 1974, Jayee died (surrounded by old relatives and the close perfume of vintage tobacco) with a freshly sharpened yellow pencil, with a half-smoked pack of Chesterfields, with lists and spirits close at hand, waiting for closure, he always told those who asked about them.

Reverend Jones stood before the mourners in the small church and read the names of those who wished to remember and to be remembered, and one upon one, they created a great hymn that rose up over the banks of their consciousness and flowed down the rivers of their perception in a crowned deluge.

Copyright © 2010, 2016 by Malcolm R. Campbell

 

 

Review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.

Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.

Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.

Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.

The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.

The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.

Time for a book sale

 

Okay, so I was lazy and didn’t create an updated version of this graphic that says the sale is live now.

Description:

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.

Warning: Today’s My Birthday

Yes, I’m a Leo and darned proud of it.

–Malcolm