Tag Archives: review

Review: ‘Border Pieces’ by Pam Robertson

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Border Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld NovellaBorder Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld Novella by Pam Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This exceptionally well-written book is several books in one. It’s a covert ops book and it’s a heroine’s journey book. Some readers will be disappointed when the covert ops plot and page-turning action in the first section of the book don’t continue into the next section. However, readers who appreciate characters with depth and multiple dimensions will keep reading even though (initially) the sudden change of pace is somewhat disconcerting.

I won’t include spoilers here. Suffice it to say, being a spy exposes one to injuries and other losses. Morgan and her partner Jake need time to heal and find themselves. Morgan learns that it’s one thing to heal from physical injuries and a very different matter to get her mind right and connect to skills she does not, as yet, understand or fully use in support of the missions. Understanding this is her journey, a journey made more difficult by the loss of a colleague during an otherwise successful mission.

Here readers will see a very talented, almost natural covert operative who lives and breathes the work she does, yet considers leaving the service because tragedies and other losses cannot be undone. It would be easy for her to retire and write a book about her exploits. Morgan’s grappling with her underdeveloped intuition and how to apply it in a business that’s more and more technology-based is an important part of the book’s theme. If she can figure all that out, she’ll probably become even more successful as a covert operative.

If I were an editor, I would ask for somewhat smoother transitions between the sections, especially one that shifts from an in-progress, real-time operation to a time many months later then we learn how that mission ended. I think it would have been stronger if it had been shown in real-time. However, that is my somewhat subjective feeling.

I liked the major focus of the plot on Morgan Windfeld’s personal and professional development, including her doubts and fears. This is a strong novel that appears to be the first in a series we can all look forward to following.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a shame that this book had to wait so many years to find a publisher. But we finally have Cudjo Lewis story. In her beautiful foreword, Alice Walker writes that “I’m not sure there was ever a harder story to read than this…” I agree. The story is unique in many ways: Cudjo, whose real name was Kossola, tells a story that includes his life in Africa and his life during the “Middle Passage” voyage to the United States after the slave trade was banned.  Most histories don’t include life in Africa or on the slave ship.

His story is dear because he wanted to tell it and because Hurston was a skilled anthropologist and knew how to collect stories. The story is dear because you can feel its truth in your bones; Hurston did not intrude herself or her perspectives into the narrative. And then, too, Curjo speaks in his own English dialect and that adds great depth and reality to the tale. We hear that Hurston couldn’t publish the book when she wrote it because the publishers wanted her to get rid of the dialect. I didn’t find it to be a problem even though a fair number of Amazon reader reviews say the dialect was hard to read. No, it wasn’t.

Cudjo has some traditional tales of his own to tell. These appear an appendix so that they won’t disrupt his story about being captured by blacks, placed in a barracoon (slave house), sold to whites, and then having to endure many days at sea before ending up at a plantation where he was expected to work. The experience seems incomprehensible to him. So, too, is the fact that once he’s set free, he has no money and no land, so where is he supposed to go?

Deborah G. Plant has done a fine job editing the material and writing an afterword and a glossary that place Cudjo’s story in perspective. Readers have a choice because the editor’s comments were placed in this separate section rather than being distributed throughout the narrative as lengthy and jarring footnotes. As such, you can read the story and then look at the added material–or simply read the story as a lover of Hurston’s works and/or oral history.

Cudjo’s story is filled with great loss, great wisdom, and–strange as it may seem–more humor than anger for a man torn away from the country of his birth and forced to live and work and endure a hard existence in a country where he was never whole again.

Malcolm

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‘American Trinity’ – Devastating perspectives about how the West was won

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American Trinity: Jefferson, Custer, and the Spirit of the West, by Larry Len Peterson, Sweetgrass Books (August 1, 2017), 728 pages.

How did we “win” the west?

Our legends, movies, and novels present derring-do accounts of triumphs over a wondrous, yet dangerous environment; perseverance against inhospitable weather; heroic families and individuals undergoing multiple hardships in a search for the promised land; and surviving battles with rustlers, gunslingers and Indians.

Our high school history books presented Manifest Destiny as the the holy grail of America’s consciousness facilitated by soldiers, missionaries, and heroes who–sanctioned by reason, wisdom, and the Almighty–kicked the snakes out of Eden and made it accessible to pioneers, family farms, and continental commerce.

The focus of this well-researched, scholarly and accessible book comes from Peterson’s statement in the preface: “I have been haunted by the question: who were we and who are we as Americans and a nation? I believe a nation is defined by the people who create its history, and they are remembered by the authors who write their biographies. Reflecting on that era and all its symbolic meaning, I’ve wrestled with explanations to make sense of why the Indian’s way of life was destroyed and what authority justified it.”

The short answers to “what authority justified it,” which are presented in his broad-in-scope book that carries readers deep into the past for information, are religion, disease, the principles of the Enlightenment, European colonization, Social Darwinism, and military force.

American Trinity was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2017 by True West magazine.

From the Publisher: “American Trinity is for everyone who loves the American West and wants to learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is a sprawling story with a scholarly approach in method but accessible in manner. In this innovative examination, Dr. Larry Len Peterson explores the origins, development, and consequences of hatred and racism from the time modern humans left Africa 100,000 years ago to the forced placement of Indian children on off-reservation schools far from home in the late 1800s. Along the way, dozens of notable individuals and cultures are profiled. Many historical events turned on the lives of legendary Americans like the “Father of the West” Thomas Jefferson, and the “Son of the West” George Armstrong Custer – two strange companions who shared an unshakable sense of their own skills – as their interpretation of truths motivated them in the winning of the West.”

From reviewer Stuart Rosebook, “Truewest Magazine”: “Readers will quickly discover that the strength of Peterson’s American Trinity’s is in the depth of his research and personal introspection throughout his 725-page book. As Peterson states in his Preface & Acknowledgments: “The American Trinity is older and bigger than the American West. It is the story of the grand sweep of human experiences and their eventual influence on white racist attitudes toward Native Americans. History is important. When there is no knowledge of the past, there cannot be a vision of the future.”

Peterson, in the words of his editor, writes Jim Cornelius in “Frontier Partisans,” set out to “challenge views without demanding that you change yours.” He is not grinding an ideological ax – but he is facing up to some difficult history. A man of deep faith, Peterson wrestles with the role religion played in justifying conquest and the stripping of culture away from native peoples. A doctor and a man of science, he grapples with the use of ‘scientific racism’ to rationalize oppression.”

We think we know the west from watching “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “How the West Was Won.” The reality of the west and why we were drawn there as a young nation is much deeper and wider than TV serials and movies suggest. That reality not only prompts us to ask our ancestors “what were you thinking?” but prompts us to reassess what we’re thinking now.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Invisible Library’

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The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very clever fantasy involving a protagonist who works for a library that exists between worlds. Her mission, which is rather like a James Bond in search of books, is to find and obtain meaningful texts in alternate worlds and bring them back to headquarters.

In some ways, the book is mix of fantasy, faerie and steampunk because the alternate realities have their own systems and amount of magic, including fae, werewolfs, and dragons. The main character, Irene, is a junior level librarian with a fair amount of experience. On the current mission, she’s assigned to take a long a student for whom she will be a mentor. This makes her job more difficult while making the plot more interesting.

As it turns out, there are many factions in the “London” to which she is sent, all of whom seem to know about the rare book. She has to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted.

The book has a lot of talk in it, and by that I meant Irene and her student have to talk a lot, but are also thrust into situations where they–and potential allies and villains alike–are constantly having to explain things to each other. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Bond films wherein when the bad guy gets the upper hand, he always has an egotistical need to explain the wonders of his technology and his plans–giving Bond a chance to get the drop of him and win the day.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of intrigue here along with some action scenes that will knock your sox off. The book kept my interest enough to tempt me into placing the next book “The Masked City,” on my reading list.

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Review: ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto’

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The Magic Strings of Frankie PrestoThe Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mitch Albom’s words and the songs they play in “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” comprise a “Pure Perfect Fifth,” a term related to an ancient system of musical tuning that has been linked to alchemy and the transformation of souls. Narrated by Music himself, this tale about an orphan from Villareal, Spain who becomes the best guitar player in existence is the quintessence of a well-told tale accompanied by the music of the spheres and the wisdom of many players.

Frankie’s mentor, known as El Maestro, reveres composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega, teaches the classics, demands constant practice, and tells his young student to respect his left hand by keeping the nails trimmed so that the sensitive fingertips feel the pain of every note. They begin with Tárrega’s “Lágrima” (teardrop), and that song becomes a fitting leitmotiv throughout the novel.

Frankie can play it all, from the free strokes and rest strokes of Spanish guitar, to every standard rock and roll chord progression, to the worried notes of the twelve-bar blues. Though Frankie Presto plays a guitar with magic strings, his life is almost pure blues, pure “Lágrima.”

He is forever haunted by the violent unknowns of his childhood, people who suddenly go missing, the comings and goings of fame and not fame, his lover Aurora’s long absences, injuries and penances, and the on-going conflict between a beautiful voice that makes him rich and a guitar technique that nourishes his soul. Once, when he told El Maestro he wanted to be perfect as both a singer and a guitar player, Le Maestro said that both was the same as neither.

Frankie is forever running and forever searching. Through it all, his music leads him while he feels the pain of every note. Near the beginning of Albom’s novel, we learn that Frankie is dead, that we are standing around before the funeral talking with Music about Frankie’s life through a Chroma-filled remembrance that includes all his sharps and flats and rests. His story is filled with mystery, too, the unexpected riffs that come out of nowhere like the here-and-gone notes of a jam session, moments that fall together that had seemed separate, and a hidden continuity Frankie doesn’t know about until late in life. The unexpected arises again and again in different keys from the walking base line that drives the story measure by exceptional measure. And he wonders, is this gig destined synchronicity or perfectly orchestrated manipulation. He will have to decide that before the plays his last song.

By the end of the novel, with the help of an all-wise narrator and the testimonies of those who knew him in ages past, Frankie knows everything about himself and his magic strings, why things happened as they did, and the blessings of music as his song resolves into a coda of joy with a lasting counterpoint of “Lágrima.”

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

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The Little Paris BookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sensual book, filled with logic-numbing regrets, dreams, desires, wines, culinary extravagances, books that heal broken hearts and knit together shattered souls, and dreams larger than the imaginations of people who keep life in check or feel safer walling up their most excessive hopes.

Some say the book is pure sugar. Those who say that have never truly danced the tango as Paris bookseller Jean Perdu was taught to dance the dance by his long-lost lover Manon whom he has mourned for twenty years. (She simply left him one day without a word.) Now he sits on his “Literary Apothecary” barge–long tied up tight against a Paris pier rather than moving like a dancer on the river as boats are intended to move–and almost psychically “reads” the hidden away words of his customers’ stories so accurately that he can recommend the books they need to heal and, perhaps, to dance unfettered.

Unfortunately, he cannot prescribe for himself. Yes, he has danced the tango and set aside thinking for pure feeling and unchained inhibitions. So why has he chained his boat and his total self to a Paris pier when he knows what life can be if he let go of everything but the yearnings of “right now”? The answer is not mine to give you.

I can say that Jean Perdu finally unties his boat and motors down river to find out why he’s been held fast by memories. He meets other people who need but who don’t quite know what they need. Borrowing Hemingway’s words, the journey becomes a “movable feast” and the plot turns upon the question of whether or not Monsieur Perdu will prescribe for himself the charity and clarity he needs to enjoy it.

Like a rare evening meal when the best red wine, the best lamb cutlets with garlic flan, and the best conversation with people who know low to listen with their eyes conjure an experience that memory will often doubt could have been real, “The Little Paris Bookshop” takes its characters–and its readers–into the heart of bliss that will ever seem too unlikely to be possible.

The best way to dance the dance while reading this exuberant novel is to unchain yourself from whatever logical rules and proprieties bind you. Doing that is the book’s prescription.

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Briefly noted: ‘Welcome to Night Vale’

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Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, (Harper Perennial, October 2015), 416pp.

Look at how this book begins:

Pawnshops in Night Vale work like this.

First you need an item to pawn.

To get this, you need a lot of time behind you, years spent living and existing, until you’ve reached a point where you believe that you exist, and that a physical item exists, and that the concept of ownership exists, and that, improbable as all those are, these absurd beliefs line up in a way that results in you owning an item.

Good job. Nicely done.

I’m hooked already because this is something different, a unique way of getting this humorous contemporary fantasy underway, and–one hopes–as s/he reads further that the authors will be able to maintain the style and tone of their opening. They do.

From the Publisher

nightvale“Located in a nameless desert somewhere in the great American Southwest, Night Vale is a small town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are all commonplace parts of everyday life. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge.

“Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked “KING CITY” by a mysterious man in a tan jacket holding a deer skin suitcase. Everything about him and his paper unsettles her, especially the fact that she can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and that no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City and the man in the tan jacket before she herself unravels.”

We’re a not visiting the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” aren’t we? There’s no handy expert standing by a few minutes away who can drop by to analyze the item. Fink and Cranor have a jump start with this book, drawing from the popular “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast that The Guardian says is like a local news Twin Peaks.

From the Reviewers

Welcome to Night Vale has an average Amazon reviewer rating of 4.6 with 75% or the reviewers awarding it 5 stars.

Kirkus Reviews starred review sums up, I believe, the general view of professional reviewers: “All hail the glow cloud as the weird and wonderful town of Night Vale brings itself to fine literature…A delightfully bonkers media crossover that will make an incredible audiobook.” I think of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series as somewhat bonkers and Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as totally bonkers. I don’t think it’s heresy to say Welcome to Night Vale will remind readers of the best of each–in addition to the “Twin Peaks” thing. Oh, and a dash of “Twilight Zone.”

We’re a long way from Harry Potter. In fact, I’m not quite sure where we are. Cory Doctorow seems to know: “They’ve done the unthinkable: merged the high weirdness and intense drama of Night Vale to the pages of a novel that is even weirder, even more intense than the podcast.”

For my money, both “Twin Peaks” and “Lost” ultimately fell apart because the writers added so much weirdness that they had no place left to go. Fink and Cranor don’t let things get that far out of hand, and that’s good, because it would have been a real shame to let the promise of the opening lines become lost in, say, a dark Marx brothers/Three Stooges comedy.

If you enjoy a drink, pour yourself several fingers of something good, for Welcome to Night Vale is a delightfully bumpy ride.

–Malcolm

TSSJourneysMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel “The Sun Singer” which is free on Kindle December 17-20, 2015.