Malcolm’s Audio Books

Our earliest memories of stories often come from the gentle voice of a parent or a grandparent reading to us just before we fell asleep.  If we’re lucky, we also heard them on rainy Sunday afternoons when the family was gathered with icy glasses of homemade lemonade on the porch in the summer or with cups of hot chocolate next to the living room fireplace in winter.

Even as adults, we love to relax and listen to a professional storyteller performing in a theater or a library, or on an audiobook on long car trips. Here are several ideas for the season’s hot chocolate days.

Conjure Woman’s Cat

Recipient of the prestigious Red Earphones Award from AudioFile Magazine: Wanda J. “Dixon’s warmth and gorgeous singing voice are superb in this story about Conjure Woman Eulalie, which is told through the voice of her cat and spirit companion, Lena. Dixon zestfully portrays Eulalie, who is “older than dirt” and is kept busy casting spells, mixing potions, and advising people–that is, when the ‘sleeping’ sign is removed from her door. Most distinctive is Eulalie’s recurring sigh, which conveys her frustration with Florida in the 1950s, when Jim Crow laws and ‘Colored Only’ signs were routine.”

Also available in paperback and e-book from Thomas-Jacob Publishing, this is the first story in the Florida Folk Magic Trilogy.

 

Eulalie and Washerwoman

From AudioFile Magazine: “Narrator Tracie Christian’s spirited style is ideal to portray the fantasy world of conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins and her shamanistic cat, Lena, who live in Florida in the 1950s. Christian captures Eulalie’s shock when she learns that Jewish merchant Lane Walker, who’s always traded fairly with the local African-Americans, is being forced to give up his store to the Liberty Improvement Club, which forbids serving blacks. Lively descriptions of Eulalie reading possum bones and casting spells; tender scenes with her old beau, Willie Tate; and feline Lena’s communication with Eulalie via secret thought speech add to the local atmosphere.”

Book two in the Florida Folk Magic Trilogy from Thomas-Jacob Publishing. Also available in e-book and paperback through online booksellers and bookstores.

 

Emily’s Stories

From AudioFile Magazine“Kelley Hazen’s spirited delivery enhances Campbell’s descriptive writing in these three stories about 14-year-old Emily Walters. ‘High Country Painter’ present a talkative Emily and a realistic-sounding bird that directs Emily to magically draw obstacles to divert a grizzly bear. In ‘Map Maker,’ Emily meets an eerie-sounding ghost who helps her save a sacred forest from developers. In ‘Sweetbay Magnolia,’ Hazen captures Grandma Walters’s elderly voice as well as her persistence and wit to perfection. Young listeners will enjoy hearing Emily explain about TMI–too much information. Hazen’s skill at creating believable bird and ghost voices adds to the listening pleasure.

This three-story collection was released by Vanilla Heart Publishing.

Listen and experience the wonderment of being a child again.

Malcolm

 

 

 

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Late August Book Promotions

Two books are free, one novel and one short story. Another novel is being featured in an Amazon giveway.

  • The Sun Singer, a novel, free 8/26 through 8/30. – Robert Adams is a normal teenager who raises tropical fish, makes money shoveling snow off his neighbors’ sidewalks, gets stuck washing the breakfast dishes, dreads trying to ask girls out on dates and enjoys listening to his grandfather’s tall tales about magic and the western mountains. Yet, Robert is cursed by a raw talent his parents refuse to talk to him about: his dreams show him what others cannot see. When the family plans a vacation to the Montana high country, Grandfather Elliott tells Robert there’s more to the trip than his parents’ suspect. The mountains hide a hidden world where people the ailing old man no longer remembers need help and dangerous tasks remain unfinished. Thinking that he and his grandfather will visit that world together, Robert promises to help. On the shore of a mountain lake, Robert steps alone through a doorway into a world at war where magic runs deeper than the glacier-fed rivers. Grandfather Elliott meant to return to this world before his health failed him and now Robert must resurrect a long-suppressed gift to fulfill his promises, uncover old secrets, undo the deeds of his grandfather’s foul betrayer, subdue brutal enemy soldiers in battle, and survive the trip home.
  • Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novel, enter the Amazon giveaway for a chance to win a free Kindle copy  – Lena, a shamanistic cat, and her conjure woman Eulalie live in a small town near the Apalachicola River in Florida’s lightly populated Liberty County, where longleaf pines own the world. In Eulalie’s time, women of color look after white children in the homes of white families and are respected, even loved, but distrusted and kept separated as a group. A palpable gloss, sweeter than the state’s prized tupelo honey, holds their worlds firmly apart. When that gloss fails, the Klan restores its own brand of order. When some white boys rape and murder a black girl named Mattie near the sawmill, the police have no suspects and don’t intend to find any. Eulalie, who sees conjure as a way of helping the good Lord work His will, intends to set things right by “laying tricks.” But Eulalie has secrets of her own, and it’s hard not to look back on her own life and ponder how the decisions she made while drinking and singing at the local juke were, perhaps, the beginning of Mattie’s ending.
  • The Lady of the Blue Hour, a short story, free 8/26 through 8/30 – When Kenneth arrives home from a high school band trip with exciting news, he finds the house empty. His parents appear to have gone to a hospital in a hurry. At twilight, a strange woman appears on the street, and she might be looking for him. No doubt, there’s magic afoot. As a member of my junior high school and high school bands, I rode on a band bus similar to the one in this magical realism story. And yes, the girl who sat next to me on the bus was the very one I had a crush on, thought I don’t think she knew.

Enjoy the stories!

–Malcolm

The Florida Folk Magic Trilogy

When Lena, the third book in my 1950s-era Florida Folk Magic trilogy was released several weeks ago by Thomas-Jacob Publishing, I said, “Okay guys, the series is a trilogy, so y’all quit pestering me about another book.”

The series addresses the racism of the Black/White culture in the Florida Panhandle at a time when the state had a lot more Klan activity, lynchings, and firebombings than most people outside the area knew about. Snowbirds came down from the northern states and eastern Canadian provinces in droves for the sunshine state’s beaches and other attractions in the peninsula. For the most part, they didn’t know that the peninsula had its nasty problems and so did the panhandle.

I grew up in this culture and was very much aware of the KKK because they visited my minister’s house, the houses of my friends, and put on rallies and parades. I had liberal parents and went to a relatively liberal church, the first white church in Tallahassee that invited African Americans to its worship services. In those days, whites poked fun at hoodoo–I guess they still do–but I had a good teacher named Flora who worked as a maid at a friend’s house around the corner. She introduced me to great food, the ways and means of the other side of our two cultures thrown together, and many truths.

The result is my trilogy of three novels. In Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie–who is modeled after Flora–seeks justice for an assaulted Black girl when the police take no action. In Eulalie and Washerwoman, Eulalie battles against an evil conjure man who’s in league with the police and the town’s movers and shakers. In Lena, Eulalie goes missing and is presumed dead, leaving her family and her cat Lena in a state of confusion as the KKK threatens the town.

Lena is available in paperback and e-book from multiple online sites.  Eulalie and Washerwoman and Conjure Woman’s Cat are also available as audiobooks via Audible and Amazon. All three books can be ordered by bookstores from their Ingram catalogs under traditional store purchasing options.

The audiobook edition of Conjure Woman’s Cat received the prestigious Red Earphones Award from AudioFile magazine. Click on the earphones graphic to see the review. Click here to see AudioFile’s review of Eulalie and Washerwoman.

I hope you enjoy the series!

Malcolm

Review: ‘Doña Barbara’ by Rómulo Gallegos

Doña BarbaraDoña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps the greatest testimony to Rómulo Gallegos is the very rich literary prize named after him in honor of his work and influence. The prize has been awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño and other masterful authors whose powerful books are said to be the cornerstones of magical realism and South American literature.

Sadly, we seldom hear Gallegos’ 1929 novel “Doña Barbara” mentioned in the same company as the well-known books that have received the Gallegos prize. In his forward to the 2012 edition, Larry McMurtry writes that the novel “is in its way a paean to the Venezuelan Llano” a vast grassy plain that, in the novel, “is steamy, tumescent, lust driven.”

In “Doña Barbara,” the characters often say that the land does not relent. In fact, its horrible and fated barbarism and its magical and conscious beauty are as intertwined as surely as the destinies of the powerful female rancher Doña Barbara and the college educated and idealistic protagonist Santos Luzardos. When Luzardos returns to the Llano ranch, Altamira, of his distant youth, he finds that it has been depleted and nearly forsaken by incompetent, greedy overseers who couldn’t resist their complicity in Doña’s schemes. Through magic, sex, paid-off judges, and raw power, she has enlarged–at her neighbors’ expense–her adjoining ranch El Miedo (fear) into a sprawling country unto itself that expands outward through manifest destiny.

Readers may well be reminded of Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” as they immerse their souls in “Doña Barbara,” because both novels view the land in epic proportions, beautifully described and inseparable from the lives of its people. The land is essentially the main character or, at the very least, an infinite circle of hell where the well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters are driven to kill or be killed as fate decrees.

Like two gladiators who have been chained together, Doña Barbara and Santos Luzardos cannot both survive in an enchanting, sadistic world where every action appears pre-ordained even when it isn’t. The novel ends the only way it can, but the story’s characters and readers won’t realize this until they reach the last chapter.

View all my reviews

Magical Realism – an example

Readers of my novels Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman know those stories are magical realism. This afternoon, I’ve been looking for examples of magical realism to post here to dispel the misguided notion that magical realism is a subset of fantasy (as Amazon, among others categorize it). I couldn’t find what I wanted, partly because showing you enough to illustrate my point here that the magic in magical realism is just as real as the realism, would have forced me to show you passages long enough to be considered copyright infringement.

So, even though I guess it’s shameless promotion, I’ll show you a passage from my Kindle novel Mountain Song. The passage first appeared in print in a complex novel called Garden of Heaven self-published in 2010. My previous publisher suggested I make it easier for readers to attempt by splitting it into three novels. I was never happy with the resulting books published in 2013.

The problem was basically that the publisher wanted me to edit and re-configure the books as fantasy. I said they weren’t fantasy, they were magical realism. The publisher’s response to that was dismissive, that I was full of myself and thought my work was good enough to be considered “literary fiction” because that’s what magic realism was: a fru-fru synonym for fantasy.  We had many heated arguments about this, all of which I lost since I was under contract. I had to complete the trilogy. When it didn’t sell, the publisher and I agreed to pull it from the market.

The following excerpt is part of the main character’s vision quest on a mountain at the edge of the plains. While he’s standing on the mountain top, an eagle (Píta) picks him up and throws him down onto the plains where a black horse (Sikimí) appears with ideas of his own.

Excerpt

Píta dropped him like a frail aspen leaf upon a flat rock in the center of the prairie. A shroud of rain obscured the mountains and moved east. He stood, confused, favoring his left foot. When he saw Eagle suspended midway between the unnatural yellow sky and the unnatural yellow earth, he heard a faint call, high-pitched and strung tight across the chasm between clouds and prairie, then suddenly brilliant, enveloping and histaminic. What he heard in this wide lonely place was the clear, unmistakable voice of his grandmother, raised to the heavens in laughter on that long-ago day when Jayee shouted “holy shit” at a cow in the road in the great mountain’s shadow.

If he could walk west, if he could walk west to the highway, following the laugh his grandmother laughed when the world intruded, (laughter is sanity’s last defense, she told him so often) the laugh he heard now like a true beacon due west and ten years back, the laugh for which she was rightfully proud, her great opus written for flute crying, coyote yapping, bulls rutting, if he could follow this laugh west, then to the highway, then south to the crossroads store and the phone on the far side of the storm, great cauldron of probabilities and worlds, then he would survive this, all of this, this, this. He took stock of himself and laughed. The burnished steel puddle at his feet flung back a tiny caricature of a man, half drawn, beneath the immenseness of all else. He was cold. He smelled bad, too, reminiscent of dog shit and goat piss. If this was shock, then he would make the most of it. In the stinging spray of the first rain drops, he leapt forward, laughing, onto his left foot, and it felt good, damn good.

With each step, he pulled strength out of the soil. He began to run, and in spite of his heavy climbing boots, he felt light and fine. This was effortless; he was in his prime. He danced around the edge of a dry gully; he was smiling and thinking he had it in him to run past the telephone at the crossroads store, past Babb and St. Mary, of course, that would be easy, and then over the continental divide at Marias Pass, after which it would be downhill all the way home to Alder Street and the buff-colored house with the white picket fence.

And then it was the horse.

Sikimí burst out of the rain. He was a terror, a daemon, that one, pulling storms. David’s strength rushed back into the stony earth like water from a flushed toilet. Those eyes—deep sweet rage—rose and fell, rose and fell, in ecstasy, in pain, synchronized with breath and muscled strides. There was no cover. He flung off his shirt, focused his tumbling thoughts with the pure tones of vowels, climbed naked bedrock between forks of a creek, felt a clean tension in his hands and forearms, felt Earth’s heat climb his legs, forced breath and a strident growl from his burning throat, and exploded into silver fire in the shape of a man.

The horse came on, without pause.

“Aiá, Kyáiopokà, Stookatsis.” Eagle streamed out of the pale overcast east of the rain and dropped the lariat vine into David’s waiting hands.

He made a large loop, wrapped the loose end around a knob of rock like a climber’s belay, and let gravity take his weight down into the pain of his left ankle. This was good. This was his new anchor. Sikimí was twenty yards away when the storm swept around from the north and swallowed the prairie whole. All sounds were rain, and grey.

Then, screams, hooves pawing scree, Sikimí’s head shooting up out of boiling shadows, striking into the pain of his broken ankle like a snake and sliding away into the depths, except for the eyes which hung for great moments like molten saucers of gold on a black table. David dropped to his knees, the vine in front of him puny and limp on the stone. Before he could think, or spit rain and curses, those eyes rose up like the birth of fire and Sikimí’s breath seared his face.

When all was lost, he jumped forward with the Stookatsis noose in his hands, fell into the center of an ocean of rain, and grabbed Sikimí’s neck. The mane blew into his mouth. He gagged on seaweed. Salt scraped his eyes blind. His hands pulled a raw cry from the horse’s throat. For just moments, the vine around the rock restrained the thrashing beast and David was able to swing up onto his back. Then hell hit with no mercy.

Sikimí spun, twisted, tore the air, shook the prairie with his rage, slid through rocks and mud into the creek, transforming the rising torrent into high foam. David coiled the flapping loose end of the vine around his right hand and arm and clawed the mane with his left. His thighs and calves ached against the horse’s flanks. In the rain and the dark, those eyes spawned lighting, followed by belched thunder across the rank grass. Those teeth were into his legs again and again, until he jammed his heavy climbing boots against the side of the horse’s head. He was breaking Sikimí’s jaw, shattering the huge mandible into elemental powder, screaming forbidden words with each kick, again and again, until he saw what he had done, and slumped down against the hot neck and whispered, “There boy, there boy, you goddamn son of a bitch.”

Thwarted, Sikimí ran. He ran and the rain cut into David’s face like old knives. He ran and the contour lines rose and fell in a grey blur beneath his feet. He ran and David felt an uncommon exhilaration. Irreverent of the land, he ran west into the deeper storm where rain and cloud coalesced into a palpable sea. The dulled colors of a spilt rainbow, elongated like taffy pulled to the breaking point, swirled past on a cold tide. Shimmering schools of light darted and feinted in great unisons between the shadows of hill and dale.

When Black Horse ran, he ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers. When Black Horse ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers, his movements created a dance choreographed to the music of drums deep in the earth. David heard the music between his legs as uncommon heat and released his grip on Sikimí’s neck. He heard shrill notes and dissonant chords burn upward along his spine like fire on a short fuse and he released the noose and saw it float away into the blue grass. Now then, he was pain personified. Now then, in the overwhelming face of it all, he, David Ward, was dancer and dance; now then, he was a woman straining in tears and blood to give birth, he was a dark haired child straining in sunshine to pull his playground swing above the tree tops; now then, he was a man in his prime breathing hard beneath weights; now then, he was Eagle traversing the hyacinthine blue where air and sight are pure; now then, he was Black Horse leaping the western horizon; now then, when he could see and he could feel, there appeared in his path dreams, first as curtains of light, then with depth and breadth and movement where Sikimí tore them apart in dance.

(Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell)

If this were fantasy, it wouldn’t be happening in the very real world of Montana. If this were figurative, I would say, “it was as if the eagle dropped him on the plains” and “it was as though the black horse leapt out of the rain.” I don’t say such things because the scene is just as real as the mountain trails I use in the novel.

Malcolm

My new magical realism novel, “Lena,” will be release August 1 by Thomas-Jacob Publishing, a company that knows the difference between fantasy and magical realism.

 

 

Writers on the lookout for local color

Authors like me who infuse local color–legends, myths, ghost stories, oral history–into their stories are always on the lookout for books and sites that lead them to more good stuff

Historian Dale Cox who lives in the Florida Panhandle has done more than his fair share of capturing local history and local color in books and websites. This book Two Egg, Florida: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts is a good example of the kind of resource I look for. 

I grew up near Two Egg, saw it numerous times, and knew about half the tales and facts in this book before I bought it. But Cox’s research helps nail everything down, providing new wrinkles I wasn’t aware of as well as tales I hadn’t heard.

Since I write magical realism, I see the location and its legends almost like one of the characters. Of course, my human characters treat the myths and legends as real because that’s how magical realism works.

They really believe Bellamy Bridge has a ghost, that there might be some truth in the notion that the bluffs along the Apalachicola north of Bristol might have been the Biblical Garden of Eden, and that Two-Toed Tom and the Swamp Booger are out there in the dark waiting for an ignorant person to stumble into their clutches.

My library includes many books like this one by Dale Cox, and for the realism side of my novels, books about north Florida’s flora and fauna and history. Sometimes the research is even more fun than the writing.

Malcolm

Soon, I’ll release a new novel (“Lena”) to go along with “Conjure Woman’s Cat’ and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Dear Flora

Watching down on creation from the great sanctified church in the sky, I’m sure you are spry enough again to sing and dance in a ring shout circle, and re-conjure your memories of a life well lived.

Partial view of the cover art work for “Lena.”

As you watch us muddle through our days, perhaps you notice this old writer whom you once knew as that white boy around the corner who stopped by daily to see his best friend in the house where you worked as a maid in Tallahassee. Because my friend’s parents were frequently absent due to work, volunteer, and church schedules, you were the stern ruler of that household from dawn to dark.

In those days, I saw you as the heart and soul of that home even though our flawed traditions wouldn’t allow you to walk in through the front door. I loved and respected (and sometimes) feared you then, but I was not allowed to tell you so. After my mother and my grandmother, you were the best cook on the planet, but Southern booking wasn’t the best of what I learned from you.

I learned about faith and forbearance and streetwise savviness in a dangerous world along with the value of humor and tall tales as antidotes to the slights and terrors of the day. In those days, perhaps you saw me as part of the fair number of kids who hung out around that house and the woods behind it and had no way of knowing whether I’d end up in reform school or the priesthood. Well, I guess you knew I wasn’t destined to become a priest!

Like the children who lived in that house, Flora, I went off to college and then into the Navy and then into a life a thousand miles away. I’m sorry I lost track of you then. I wish I had hugged you goodbye before I went off into the world.

Now, as Lena, the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series is nearing its release date, I want you to know that the book’s acknowledgements tell my readers you are my inspiration for Eulalie, the conjure woman who is the heart and soul of the series. Thank you for everything you taught me and my apologies for everything I have forgotten.

with love,

Malcolm

Coming this year: ‘Lena,’ the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic Series

We hear that books in series tend to sell better than standalone books. But, we also hear that if the first book in a series is well liked, the author might have trouble keeping readers’ interests in subsequent books.

Early reviewers who liked “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” said they though book two, “Eulalie and Washer Woman” was even better. The readers were happy and I was relieved that I hadn’t botched up the whole thing by writing a sequel.

The odd thing is, the sequel has sold fewer copies than the original and has a fraction of the reviews. Go figure.

So, I had mixed feelings writing a third book. On one hand, I thought that with the declining interest shown for book two, it was kind of silly to write book three. However, I had a few things left to say. Or, perhaps, the characters did. Book three was harder to write than the previous books. So, it took longer.

But finally, Lena is almost ready to send to my publisher. We’ve already been having conversations about the cover. As far as the cover goes, our artist for books one and two has moved onto other things. So, we’ll need somebody new.

What’s left to do? Well, this is the polishing the manuscript phase. That means going through the story page by page to get rid of any inconsistencies, typos, continuity problems, or stupid mistakes I can find before sending the DOC file to Thomas-Jacob Publishing. Fortunately, we have a great editor who will catch 99 and 44/100 percent of the mistakes I miss.

I have no idea how long it will take to get everything squared away. Several months, perhaps. Like most authors who get to know their characters throughout a series of books, I will miss these people. But, I suspect it’s time to move on to other themes and other stories. (I reserve the right to change my mind.)

For years, I wondered if I would ever find the characters and story lines to write about the racism in Florida during the years when I was growing up. For prospective readers, I hope I did.

Malcolm

Click on my name for my website.

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: ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman

The DovekeepersThe Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Masada The last bastion of the Jewish freedom fighters against the Roman army symbolizes the end of the Kingdom of Judah at the end of the Second Temple period and its violent destruction. On the mountaintop there are remains of magnificent palaces from the reign of King Herod and silent committees for the Roman siege and the bitter end. The mountain that became a symbol.” – Masada National Park Website

Our knowledge of the siege of Masada by the Roman legion comes to us primarily from the chronicle written by Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader who was captured by Rome in an earlier battle, became a Roman Citizen, and was commissioned to write about the Jewish-Roman war. Josephus’ account, which some consider problematic and likely to have a Roman bias, has been enhanced by conservation, restoration, geographical, and archaeological work that’s ongoing at the site in modern-day Israel.

Alice Hoffman’s imagined and heavily researched retelling of those final days at Masada through the eyes of four strong and complex women characters, Aziza, Yael, Revka, and Shirah, breathes new life into our understanding of what has been called the Giant Revolt as well as the freedom fighters’ culture, daily lives and spiritual beliefs. These four women are Masada’s dovekeepers, looking after massive dovecotes where the birds are fed and cared for, the eggs gathered for food, and the excrement taken to enrich the mountain’s gardens and fields.

The storyline follows these women–who to varying degrees follow the outlawed practices of witchcraft–as they travel to the mountain, become part of the daily life and commerce of the community there, and as the Roman Legion approaches and begins its siege, how they coped with the developing reality of a Roman victory.

These four women, as well as many other players in the story, are deeply developed by Hoffman to the extent that we know their inner-most thoughts and dreams and the secrets of their souls. Hoffman’s penchant for magic plays a strong role here. Since the outcome of the novel cannot go against history, the magic will not defeat the Romans. But it will play a role in the characters’ lives.

Magical realism ties the book together in many respects because magic cannot be separated from the four women’s view of the world or their daily practices. Also, like modern-day traditional witchcraft and conjure, magic cannot be easily separated from the place where it lives. The result for the reader is an immersion into Masada. What we know after reading the novel may not be wholly factual (thought Hoffman defers to Josephus’ account), but it is definitely true.

The truth of the matter is that we come away from this wondrous book, having read a compelling story and with a greater understanding of what it might have been like to be trapped within that mountain fortress nearly 2000 years ago. Some critics say The Dovekeepers is Hoffman’s masterpiece. That’s an understatement. You must read it when you’re ready to read it, for it’s not an easy story. It will probably change you. Some day–but not today–I will forgive Alice Hoffman for plunging me into the horrors and triumphs of that faraway world.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two Florida folk magic novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” Learn more on his website.

View all my reviews