Review: ‘Newberry Sin’ by C. Hope Clark

Newberry SinNewberry Sin by C. Hope Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Readers of C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade Mystery Series (“Low Country Bribe,” “Tidewater Murder,” and “Palmetto Poison”) didn’t see Ms. Slade for several years while the author was working on her Edisto Island Mysteries. It’s a pleasure meeting Slade again in “Newberry Sin.”

Newberry has a potential murder, a truckload of motives and prospective suspects, and, of course, enough sin to require the use of oven mitts while reading this mystery. Slade and her petty boss are in town for a radio show when a local man dies under suspicious circumstances. Even though USDA investigator Slade befriends a potential confidential informant, her boss–who has a grudge against her–assigns a less-experienced investigator to the case and orders Slade to stay away from Newberry.

Slade is a somewhat less self-assured investigator in this book than in earlier stories. She has good reason to be. Her boss assigns her nothing but administrative assistant duties, there are emotional issues at home and conflicts with her boyfriend, and the looming reality that she will probably be fired if she follows up on her informant’s constant pleas for help. This mix results in a somewhat muddled approach to the case at the outset, and she makes a few mistakes that don’t help.

However, readers of “Newberry Sin” will discover a deeper, more complex Slade in this novel as she wrestles with personal and chain-of-command issues while trying to sort out who might have killed whom and why. The book starts out at a high pitch and never slows down. Every page brings a new revelation or incident that clearly shows Newberry will get worse before it gets better.

Slade doesn’t want to become one of the casualties or let the bad guys get away with whatever they’re trying to do to a nice town (except for its contagious gossip).

I wanted to savor this novel for a week or so, but I couldn’t because the plot made me feel like I was riding a bat out of hell with no brakes. Slade seems to have a similar opinion.

I received a free ARC (advance readers copy) of “Newberry Sin” in exchange for an honest review.

My 2012 review of “Low Country Bribe” is here.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Review: ‘Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare’

If you’re taking a dance class and its members find out you’re a writer and ask you to write a murder mystery about the class, what will you do? I happen to know author Pat Bertram has been taking a dance class or two or three and that her friends thought such a novel would be a real hoot.

That said, I’m surprised that Pat’s publisher didn’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel that claimed “No dance class members were killed during the writing of this book.” But, Pat and her publisher Indigo Sea Press threw caution to the winds, so one wonders where the fiction begins and the truth ends–and vice versa.

The result is a very readable hoot.

When the students at a small town’s studio class find out that one of them is an author, they think it would be fun for her to write a novel about their classes in which one is killed and everybody else is a suspect. A superstitious person would know such games lead to real trouble; so would anyone who suspects the fates have a dark sense of humor. But they don’t stop to think about consequences. One of them even volunteers to be the victim. The rest of them talk about motives and murder methods.

But then somebody dies and the book thing is no longer a game. Suffice it to say, the cops are not amused by the book idea and think the writer is the killer. In this dandy mystery, everyone has a secret, a reason for covering it up, and a possible motive. The characters are well developed, the introspective protagonist wonders if she inadvertently set the stage for a murder by agreeing to write a murder mystery based on the dance class, and the cops tell her that in real life, most amateur sleuths and up dead or worse.

Readers who love mysteries will enjoy this book. Writers who write mysteries will consider being more careful when pretending to kill off their friends in a novel. And those who’ve been thinking of taking a dance class will see the story as a cautionary tale.

Pat (More Deaths Than One, Daughter I Am) has, with Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, written another compelling story.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine “monsters” from science fiction and horror classics written by H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Lewis Stevenson working together with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade to track down the killers in a string of gory London murders.

Odds are, the resulting story would be a chaotic, unbelievable mess. Or, if the muses were kind and the odds were defied, the resulting story would be a breathtaking and expertly plotted Victorian-era fantasy in which the plots, characters and themes of fictional legends fit together in a believable, wondrous harmony.

Theodora Goss’ muses were kind.

The protagonists of legend believed they could create evolved humans out of bits and pieces of the dead. They failed. The evil scientists in Goss’ story have similar ideas. “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” has been assembled from the remains of its legendary predecessors, yet unlike the “monsters” of yore, it is strikingly beautiful, functions elegantly with the well-focused skills of its creator, and contains a radiant soul.

Readers familiar with the original stories will enjoy references to even the smallest of details. For everyone else, no footnotes are required because the story stands on its own.

The plot is complicated and compelling and the pace is rapid and perfectly synchronized with a dash of humor. As a writer, I wonder how Goss created a novel that is better than the works from which it takes it themes. I suspect her precision as a poet and short story writer, her love of fairy tales and folklore, and her long-term research into the “monsters” of literature are factors. But those factors are only bits and pieces of the author’s craft, imagination and creative spirit.

Rather than analyse how Goss turned an accident waiting to happen into one of the best novels of the year, I’m willing to write it off and say: “It must be magic.”

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–Malcolm

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

Review: ‘The Man Without a Shadow’ by Joyce Carol Oates

The Man Without a ShadowThe Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a brief illness destroys Elihu Hoopes’ short-term memory, he becomes frozen in time. Long term, he thinks he’s still the age he was when he became ill. Short term, he lives in the now of 70-second bursts of knowledge about what he’s doing and who he’s with. What he’s doing is living with a relative and coming to the university for testing intended to advance scientific knowledge about memory loss. This knowledge will help everyone but Elihu because he will probably never get any better.

In many ways, this novel reads like nonfiction with short scenes depicting the psychological testing Hoopes undergoes almost daily. As the novel proceeds, we learn more about the brilliant young researcher Margot Sharpe who begins work at the lab while working on her degree. She stays on. She becomes three-dimensional to the reader, but–we might speculate–one-dimensional to herself. And that one dimension appears to be an obsession with her “patient.”

The novel’s short scenes, with Oates’ typical reliance on up-close detail, tend to mimic Hoopes’ periods of contiguous present-day memory. As a person with a continuing existence, other characters (and the reader) know more about his life than he does–except for the past which for him is always yesterday. He sees others aging but is not aware he is aging.

As one reads, one suspects Sharpe’s life is in danger of losing it’s wholeness. She’s becoming famous for her brilliance as a researcher while becoming more single minded in her devotion to Hoopes. She questions not only the ethics of the testing, but also her own ethics wherein her feelings for Hoopes begin to look like a one-sided fantasy which has a history for her but not for him. He seems to have some consciousness of her over time even though she has to introduce herself every time she sees him–even if she leaves the room for a minute.

The opening lines of the novel tell you where all this is going:

“Notes on Amnesia Project ‘E.H.’ (1965-1996).
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“At last, she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they’ve first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.”

It’s a bumpy ride. Some readers will get lost with the repetition of the testing scenes, while others might find their eyes glazing with the titles of the scholarly papers that arise out of what Sharpe and her colleagues learn. Others will enjoy the exploration of Hoopes’ and Sharpe’s loneliness and how their fragmented lives fit together, and then they don’t, and then fit together, and then they don’t, rather like a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm.

With diligence, and an ability to live only within the present moment while reading, readers will discover this book has something profound to offer them.

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy.

Quickly Noted: ‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien

“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.” – from “The Little Red Chairs”

What do the fairy tale setting in a remote Irish town and Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, have in common? In a sane world, nothing. In her alternate history, 85-year-old Edna O’Brien combines what begins as an apparent folktale with the chilling angst of an Irish woman, Fidelma, who stumbles beneath the butcher’s spell before she knows he’s the butcher. As a stranger in her small town, Vlad is an event, a hypnotizing holy man and trickster with wisdom and danger in his eyes, the kind of man every mother warns every daughter about.

littleredchairsAs the story begins with all the charm of “The Music Man,” it’s easy to fall beneath the steel wheels of O’Brien’s spell and hope against hope tht her words are leading toward something perhaps a bit scandalous, something that might leave the townspeople–and especially Fidelma–with a few bittersweet scars of the kind that aren’t really cut that deep. But O’Brien’s tale goes where it must, to graphic and unspeakable horror from which Fidelma cannot quite escape. None of those 11,541 chairs was for her, but–if she had lived and breathed outside of fiction–destiny owed her a chair and, perhaps, absolution.

The Butcher of Bosnia is, in some mysterious way, the air which this story needs in order to breathe, and yet in other ways who he is and what he did are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Fiedelma, her suffering, her acts which were a curse to her village, her misplaced innocence that brought her, as naivete often does, to a hell from which there was no escape.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her New York Times review, “O’Brien is not interested in sensationalizing her material, and ‘The Little Red Chairs’ is not a novel of suspense, still less a mystery or a thriller; it is something more challenging, a work of meditation and penance. How does one come to terms with one’s own complicity in evil, even if that complicity is ‘innocent’? Should we trust the stranger who arrives out of nowhere in our community? Should we mistrust the stranger? When is innocence self-destructive? Given the nature of the world, when is skepticism, even cynicism, justified? Much is made of innocence in fiction, as in life, but in O’Brien’s unsentimental imagination the innocent suffer greatly because they are not distrustful enough.”

When we consort with the devil, by whatever name he identifies himself, should we not expect betrayal? It’s not an easy question, spells being what they are and innocence being what it is. Is there a message in this book? Yes: trust ensures our doom.

Oates’ questions are ever on our minds these days when terrorism comes out of nowhere and visits pleasant communities and exuberant celebrations in large cities.  I wonder if we can afford to be innocent these days. If not, what a pity. Suffice it to say, Fidelma will find little pity because those who (we often say) should have known better are seldom afforded the compassion granted the skeptical or the ignorant.

Yes, this novel is a masterpiece. Yes, it is well told, dark and deep. But it should carry on its cover a warning: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” You cannot read this novel without being forever changed. I dealt with the book quickly here because I am too faint of hear to speak about it at length.

Malcolm

If you send a reviewer a screwy book, please call it back

If you’re like me, and for the sake of the world I hope you’re not, you occasionally accept a book to review and then before you’ve finished reading the first five hundred words, thoughts like these come to mind:

  1. bookreviewMy doctor won’t prescribe enough meds for me to finish this book.
  2. Burning toast would make a more compelling plot.
  3. If I shut my eyes, maybe the book will go away.
  4. Can a reviewer go into the witness protection program if s/he (a) stops reading the book and acts like it got lost in the mail, or, (b) gives it a negative review in hopes the truth will keep him/her safe and then discovers that it won’t?

Why can’t the authors who have books like this send me an honest e-mail in advance that warms me that the book has put a hex on every reviewer who tried to read it up to now?

Where was the author when the memo went around reminding people that Italics isn’t an easy type font to read, meaning don’t use it for 90% of the book. (Reminds me of some of my classmates who highlighted everything in every textbook which had the effect of highlighting nothing.)

Goodness knows, I don’t want to send you an e-mail that hurts your feelings–much less that makes you go buy a gun–that tells you this thing (or baby/pride and joy/life’s work/last thing between you and the poor house) isn’t cutting it.

If you were a real mensch, you would realize that I’m stuck: (a) ending up in an asylum after “doing the right thing” and reading your entire book and/or (b) lying about the book in a glowing review, and/or (c) going into the hiding in Two Egg, Florida until the whole thing blows up or blows over.

Frankly, I just want my life back and don’t think that’s too much to ask.

–Malcolm

SOF2014lowresMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/satire Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.

Review: ‘The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman’ by Robin Gregory

The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, by Robin Gregory ( Mad Mystical Journey Press, December 14, 2015), 294 pp.

Moojie has so many strikes against him that survival of any kind seems improbable. He’s born with physical disabilities; is slow to talk and when he finally does, he stutters; he loses his mother and his father won’t have him; almost everyone taunts him; and he’s sent to live with a cantankerous grandfather at a place called St. Isidore’s Fainting Goat Dairy. If being named “Moojie” was the first curse, being sent to the dairy was just about the last straw.

MoojieBut were more last straws to come.

His grandfather drinks, curses, works Moojie hard in spite of the young man’s weak legs and weak arms, constantly threatens to send him to an orphanage, and passionately has it out for the so-called “hostiles” who live in the surrounding forests.

While the hostiles first appear to have come from the land of faerie, Moojie discovers they’re a magical race tasked with demonstrating harmony in our world. He hopes their clan will accept him because, among other things, he has no true family to call his own. But will they trust him? He can scarcely trust himself. But he’s learning, and the realism of this process is well handled by the author.

Moojie, his grandfather, his meddlesome aunt, the clan members, and the townspeople are defined in spot-on detail. They have depth, though Moojie believes he’s shallow and inept at the beginning of this well-crafted and beautifully told tale. The book’s magical realism accentuates the abilities of the off-world clan family as well as the dormant gifts Moojie has been blessed (or possibly cursed) with.

Many will call this a coming-of-age novel. Yes it is. But that assessment is much too stale for such a fresh, rich story. The story is about making choices and the probable transformations that follow them. Other than a bit of sentimentality at the end, Robin Gregory’s novel is a wonder about wonders and highly recommended.

–Malcolm

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