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 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 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.


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.


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

Briefly Noted: ‘The Ghost of Milagro Creek’ by Melanie Sumner

Some books immerse readers into other worlds. This is one of them. Welcome to a New Mexico barrio where love and murder, and ghosts and the living become tangled up in a conscious landscape.

milagroGeorgia author Melanie Sumner (“How to Write a Novel,” “The School of Beauty and Charm,” and “Polite Society”) found her inspiration for the novel while living in New Mexico. She researched serial killers for a model for the protagonist for The Ghost of Milagro Creek (Algonquin, 2010) and struck out. Remembering the advice of her creative writing instructor, she realized serial killers are heartless and her protagonist very much needed a heart.

Mister does have a heart and it will make you cry.

From the Publisher


“The story of Ignacia Vigil Romero, a full Jacarilla Apache, and the two boys, Mister and Tomás, she raised to adulthood unfolds in a barrio of Taos, New Mexico—a mixed community of Native Americans, Hispanics, and whites. Now deceased, Ignacia, a curandera—a medicine woman, though some say a witch—begins this tale of star-crossed lovers.

“Mister and Tomás, best friends until their late teens, both fall for Rocky, a gringa of some mystery, a girl Tomás takes for himself. But in a moment of despair, a pledge between the young men leads to murder. When Ignacia falls silent, police reports, witness statements, and caseworker interviews draw an electrifying portrait of a troubled community and of the vulnerable players in this mounting tragedy. Set in a terrain that becomes a character in its own right, The Ghost of Milagro Creek brilliantly illuminates this hidden corner of American society.”

Reviewer’s Comment: “[Ghost of Milagro Creek] is a little miracle for the way it bridges and leads and leaps, the way it frustrates and calms and punishes the reader who willingly goes willingly over these stepping stones…I found this novel worth my time, and so feel it will be worth yours, especially if you have an interest in New Mexico, in American Indian cosmology, in narrative structure and approaches, in good storytelling.” – The Rumpus

Beginning of Chapter One: “When I passed away, some people swore that Andre Pettit whould refused me a proper Christian burial. Only in Taos, Mexico, they said, would you hold a wake for a witch. In the barrio at the edge of town, my neighbors called ne Abuela, which means grandmother, but behind my back, their tongues snapped like flags in the wind.”

Bottom line: a wild pilgrimage through forbidden territory.


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


Reviews for ratings or to explore something new?

The reviews on this blog have been a mix of new or unknown authors and books by recognizable names. Since this blog isn’t Beatrice or Bookslut, I don’t kid myself into thinking that my opinions about authors and their books will have an earthshaking impact in the scheme of things.

Since I’m not Beatrice or Bookslut, much less The New York Times or the Washington Post, I worry less about the impact of ratings. If I work for a widely known media outlet, I’lll be handed most of the books I review and most of those will be books that are probably doing well enough not to need a review.

On the other side of the coin, new authors need the exposure that reviews give them whether they come from readers on Amazon or bloggers like myself. I know how authors feel when they ask me to review their books and the next thing they see here is a review of a bestselling author.

I know because I’ve been there. My books have also gone to review sites that chose instead to review, in some cases, books that were several years old and already famous and already reviewed by everyone and their brother. I know, I know, that famous book is better for ratings, especially if you have advertisers that watch our market influence like hawks.

I’m not oblivious to ratings here. I don’t suppose this is a secret, but I do hope some of those who stop by this blog will like what they see and buy one of my books.

The BIG BOOKS I review here are books I bought, read, likely and felt like talking about. The authors won’t know I reviewed their book 99% of the time. But, like others who enjoy talking with their friends about the latest books “everybody’s reading,” it’s fun to toss in my two cents about J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown from time to time.

But I feel guilty when I do it. I see a lot of visitors with those posts, but I wasn’t bringing them anything new–just more talk about a book or an author that’s been reviewed everywhere else. I feel better, I think, when I can tell you about a book you haven’t heard of, but might like. Those posts get fewer visits and that’s discouraging.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know that people tend to read books everyone else is reading rather than experimenting with books none of their online and off-line friends have heard of.

A new author is always a risk. But there could be gold there even though The New York Times and Book Page and Publishers Weekly will never give that author a chance. But what an adventure it is to read something wonderful from a debut author. That’s part of the fun of reviewing books and deciding to go with something nobody’s ever heard of instead of the BIG BOOK has already sold 100000000000 copies.

So, how experimental in your reading are you?

Do you wait to see which books grab the mainstream reviewers’ and public’s attention and create your reading list from that group? Or, do you read descriptions of self-published and small press books and give them a try from time to time?



Review: ‘The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon’

The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon, by Lowell H. Press, Parkers Mill Publishing (September 10, 2014), Ages 10 and up, 316 pages.

Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.
Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.

Lowell H. Press has written an inventive novel about a hierarchy of mice living in the gardens and secret interior spaces of a castle inspired by the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria.

The colony’s king cares little for his subjects and is mostly interested in taking the food they save throughout the year for his own use during the winter months.Two brothers, Sommer and Nesbit, discover that all is not what it seems, including the king’s purported fear of a pending invasion of the colony by a massive army of woodland mice.

Sommer, who is drafted by the king’s minions for a suicide mission on the colony’s behalf and Nesbit, who insults the king and flees into the dangerous forest, take different approaches to survival and justice. Sommer becomes a cadet commander, while Nesbit becomes known as either a worker of magic of an exceptionally lucky mouse.

Set in a 1700s world, The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon is a delightful story with well-drawn characters and an underlying culture and myth that will charm young readers while keeping their parents engaged whenever this derring-do yarn is shared around the dinner table or at at bedtime.

Press used his visit to the Schönbrunn Palace to great advantage in developing a setting for his story that is well suited to the mice colony’s culture and history as well as to the people and cats who appear throughout the tale for better or worse.

Sommer and Nesbit of the Long Meadow Colony are tiny, as mice go, but they make up for it in bravery and guile.


Review: ‘Suicide Supper Club’ by Rhett DeVane

suicidesupperclub“Life is crap and the weather is stupid-hot: reasons enough for four small-town Southern women to plan ‘the easy way out,’” the publisher’s description for Suicide Supper Club informs us. Rhett DeVane (“Cathead Crazy”) brings her trademark sparkling prose and deep insights into human nature to this story of the darkness and light in the lives of Abby, Loiscell, Sheila and “Choo-choo.”

Truth be told, the light is in short supply.

The lives of these kindred spirits play out in the Florida Panhandle between Chattahoochee, a small town with a main street dominated by a mental institution, and Tallahassee, the state capital, 44 miles away. Most of the festering family secrets, declining health, estrangement and physical abuse live and breathe in Chattahoochee for Abby, Loiscell, Sheila and Choo-choo. Tallahassee is for shopping, fine dining, cancer treatments and a prospective appointment with a hit man.

Suicide and humor are usually mutually exclusive worlds. But they seamlessly merge through DeVane’s inventive plot, fully realized characters, knowledge of Southern life and customs, and sense of place. Readers cannot help but feel the characters’ reactions to the darkness in their lives and, quite possibly, understand the rationale for a suicide supper club.

The light in Suicide Supper Club comes from the great love and esteem the four women have for each other and the ways they find for coping with the Florida heat and the crap. I grew up in the Florida panhandle, so it was easy for me to see near the beginning of this novel that when it comes to Chattahoochee and Tallahassee and the people who live there, Rhett DeVane gets it right.

You’ll see that, too, long before you reach the last page and learn whether or not Abby, Loiscell, Sheila and Choo-choo are still among the living.


Briefly Noted: ‘The Land Across,’ fantasy by Gene Wolfe

landacrossWith all the high-energy buzz surrounding books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, and John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, I have to look a little harder to find new fantasy fiction, especially contemporary fantasy.

So, I’m happy to see that Gene Wolfe’s (“The Book of the New Sun” tetralogy) new release from Tor Books will appear a few days before Thanksgiving filled with corruption, supernatural powers and a Kafkaesque flavor. The Land Across unfolds in an imaginary Balkan country that’s difficult to visit and more difficult to leave–in part because of the secret police and in part because of a cult called the Unholy Way.

Teaser Excerpt from the Novel

Like most countries it is accessible by road or railroad, air or sea. Even though all those are possible, they are all tough. Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads, roads with zits and potholes and lots of landslides. Most drivers who make it through (I talked about it with two of them in New York and another one in London) get turned back at the border. There is something wrong with their passports, or their cars, or their luggage. They have not got visas, which everybody told them they would not need. Some are arrested and their cars impounded. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out. Or anyhow, that is how it seems.



  • Kirkus Reviews says The Land Across “seamlessly blends mystery, travelogue, authoritarianism and the supernatural.”
  • Publishers Weekly says “Wolfe evokes Kafka, Bradbury, and The Twilight Zone in combining the implausible, creepy, and culturally alien to create a world where every action is motivated by its own internal logic, driving the story forward through the unexplored and incomprehensible.”
  • According to Library Journal’s starred review, “Wolfe, in masterful mood, builds his characters, explores the puzzles, links the elements together and contrives to render the backdrop both intriguingly attractive and creepily sinister. Sheer enjoyment.”
  • And Booklist writes, “Master fantasist Wolfe feeds into every tourist’s worst fears in this cleverly constructed travelogue though a country figuratively accessed through a looking glass. When an American travel writer, Grafton, sets out to document his experiences traversing a small, exceedingly obscure Eastern European country (the land across the mountains), he winds up in a nightmarish predicament from which there appears to be no escape.”

I like contemporary fantasy because, in blending magic into the real world, it brings us plots and characters that seem somewhat more plausible than swords and dragons on far-away planets. Almost everyone who has traveled has worried about being lost in an unfamiliar and unfriendly place. Wolfe’s protagonist is a travel writer who should know his way around the risks, but he’s nonetheless trapped in a place where mere unfriendliness would be a plus.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “The Seeker,” “The Sailor and “The Betrayed.” Released this month, “The Betrayed” features a young English teacher at a small campus where lies and deceits take precedence over literature, history and science.