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.


Review: ‘Suffering Succotash: The Comic Life of Molly Maise,’ by Lula Mae Barnes

Satire from the archives

Suffering Succotash: The Comic Life of Molly Maise,” by Lula Mae Barnes (Corn Fritter Press, September 2012), 4,837pp with illustrations, index, maps, and bibliography.

SufferingSuccotashAs time goes by, fewer and fewer people remain on this Earth who suffered through depression-era and Thanksgiving meals constructed substantially of succotash.

“As far back as the Revolutionary War,” writes Lula Mae Barnes in her new and overly definitive biography of the 1770s Rhode Island innkeeper, dancer and lady of the evening Molly Maise, “people were thankful to live off succotash when times were hard and just as thankful to get rid of the vile mixture when good fortune smiled upon them again.”

Barnes, who spent the last fifty years uncovering the obscure details of the inventor of succotash, claims that the mixture of corn, various forms of beans and minced oaths is far too improbable a concoction to have occurred by accident.

Young Molly Maise, an innkeeper on Aquidneck Island who supported the “divine cause of everything that wasn’t British,” devised succotash as a “devious treat” for British sailors enjoying her favors in the days leading up to the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island. Ever after, she claimed her succotash made the sailors so ill, they scuttled their own fleet to kill the pain. While historians agree that the fleet was scuttled, they do not cite succotash as a cause.

According to Barnes, Maise spent a lifetime giving humorous talks, some bawdy, about the ills of succotash and the role it had in the war. While her speeches and dance routines, including “The Succotash Rag” (which pre-dated the American Ragtime boom by one hundred years) were well attended, she failed to gain the validation as a soldier and inventor she was seeking.

In fact, the biography’s references clearly indict most, if not all, of the United States’ founding fathers, soldiers, newspapermen and historians of a “treasonous level of guilt” for their roles in covering up the role of Molly Maise and succotash in “the cause of freedom.”

Barnes’ epic work clearly shows that every human’s recipe for defeat is based on the foods they eat, how they mix them together, and what they name the resulting entree. Had Maise called her corn and beans a Corn & Bean Medley, history might have duly honored her for the suffering her invention caused herself and all the generations that followed.

The epitaph on Maise’s tombstone reads: “Loose corn and beans sink ships faster than loose lips.”

Jock Stewart


Thank you for the 14,000 views in 2012

WordPress claims—and I believe them—that Malcolm’s Round Table had 14,000 views of its 115 new posts this past year. Thanks for visiting.

whitehousebook1A fair number of you were reading my post about an organization called “The White House Boys”, an ongoing story about alleged abuses at the now-closed Marianna, Florida  Arthur G Dozier School for Boys. I grew up 90 miles away from that school in Tallahassee.

Obviously, I was aware of the school. I drove past it multiple times. Classmates at my high school always speculated about the people who ended up there. But abuses, that was all new to me until this year. I mentioned this school indirectly in “Cora’s Crossing,” my Kindle short story about the nearby (and purportedly haunted) Bellamy Bridge.

goatsongA lot of you have stopped by to read the book reviews both here and on Literary Aficionado. I saw in GalleyCat this morning that GoodReads users published 20,000,000 reviews on that site this past year. I can’t compete with that even though some of those reviews are mine! In 2012, I liked The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin, Goatsong by Patricia Damery and The Storyteller’s Bracelet by Smoky Zeidel.

Many of you stopped by while searching for information about the hero’s journey. Since my reading and writing have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I write about the steps on the heropath frequently.

Coming in 2013

Kindle Edition
Kindle Edition

You’ll see more about the hero’s journey on this blog in 2013 as my publisher releases my series of novels called The Garden of Heaven Trilogy. Two of my 2012 short stories (“Moonlight and Ghosts” and “Cora’s Crossing”) are now available on Kindle, but there are more on the way. That means, you’ll also be seeing more posts about ghosts, swampy Florida settings, and stuff that happens on dark and stormy nights.

There will be more reviews, too, beginning in January with Paul Blaney’s Handover which is set in Hong Kong during the country’s transfer of power from British to Chinese rule. I had a chance to visit Hong Kong in the 1960s, so I was interested in the author’s perspective of the city as it was in 1997.

I’m waiting for the second installment in Maggie Stiefvater’s four-book series The Raven Boys and Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (coming in the fall of 2013). Yes, we’ve had to wait a while for the eighth book in her Outlander series.

As a writer, I don’t like being rushed. As a reader, I’m always in a hurry for the next best thing. With a bit of luck, 2013 will be another great year for both reading and writing, and for sharing thoughts about our favorite books with each other.



Rowling’s Amazon Experience

As the week winds down, and I sit here with a glass of dark red wine contemplating J. K. Rowling’s negative reviews on Amazon, I have come to the conclusion that the wrong people bought  The Casual Vacancy and then got mad about it. By the “wrong people,” I mean people who are reading literary fiction who normally stick to commercial fiction and people reading about troubled everyday characters who normally read fast-paced, high-energy page-turners.

As of this moment, The Casual Vacancy has 193 one-star reviews and 125 five star reviews. Who would have thought during the heady days of Harry Potter and midnight book sale parties that a Rowling book would fair so badly in the public eye?

Those who don’t like the book claim it’s dull, that nothing happens, that the people are gloomy low life trash, that they weren’t entertained because there wasn’t any humor in it, that the author’s normal charm was missing, that the characters were petty and had disgusting behavior, and that the story was filled with general dullness and lackluster material.

I don’t agree. Since I’m only 250 pages into the 500-page novel, I can’t write a review yet. So far, the book is a gem that I think may well be viewed as an important novel about small-town life in England long after the Harry Potter series has faded from the public consciousness. I say this even though, as a writer of contemporary fantasy, I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series.

I don’t want to spend the time doing this, but I suspect that some of the reviewers who claimed that the characters in The Casual Vacancy were trashy and disgusting, probably gave five stars to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose characters were far more violent and disgusting. Why? Most of those reading Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy want a rush of crime, sex and fast-turning pages rather than a book filled with characters who are rather like the Harry Potter’s Dursley family on a very bad day.

If somebody forced me to read the genres and styles I usually avoid, quite possibly I would want revenge. If I had just smoked or drank the wrong stuff, I might take out my frustrations on the authors of some very fine books that just don’t happen to be my cup of tea. But that would be unfair, rather like criticizing a sushi chef for preparing a meal for a person who hates fish.

The book reviewing world feels out of sync to me when people proudly claim they “reviewed” The Casual Vacancy based on the synopsis alone or trashed it in public after reading only a hundred pages then believe what they left on Amazon is a review. No, it was a non-review. Perhaps the wine has loosened my tongue, but I really want to tell such people to shut the hell up.

I’m enjoying the book. It has its own magic and its own truth.


Briefly Noted: ‘Voices of the Elders’ by Shelly Bryant

Shelly Bryant (Cyborg Chimera, Under the Ash) is a prolific poet whose work never fails to inspire readers with pointed and poignant images that rise from the earth on the wings of spare words. Her new collection Voices of the Elders from Sam’s Dot Publishing is startling in the risks taken, the variety of its forms and references and the scope of its vision.

The fifty-five poems in this 59-page volume, many of which have appeared in “Aoife’s Kiss,” “Scifaikuest,” “Sloth Jockey” and other publications, are grouped into four sections—seduction, obstruction, destruction and abduction.

Jason Gantenberg aptly describes Bryant’s scope in these groupings in the book’s introduction: “What I’ve always loved about Shelly’s writing is the breadth of genres and periods in which she embeds her thoughts. There are few writers who will quite so fearlessly juxtapose classical Anglo-Saxon fantasies about fairies and dragons with ruminations on supernovae, historical fiction with futurism, cynical politics with whimsy.”

In “Oort” Bryant writes of “a failed planet” that’s “denuded of destiny,” followed by “Styx” an “eternal river” with an “ever-changing flow,” followed by “Bargain Hunter” about a young man in a store who makes a five-dollar purchase out of books for “aficionados with loads of cash.” The poem ends with these lines:

producing pleasure
properly pirated porn
just like the real thing

“Keep it in the Family,” begins:

and its child
creep into familiar lines

And “Voice of the Elder” ends:

the elder dryad
to the swirling storm
raises his dying howl

I will return to “Memories Shared, Standing on Your Balcony,” the writer’s block in “Project,” “Men of Renown” with their Achilles heels and the other fresh-faced words in Voices of the Elders many times, for while they speak to me of today’s world in today’s language, they are, I think, penned by an old and very wise soul.


If you ask me what I’m reading, you’re on your own recognizance

A writer friend of mine once told me she looks at my book reviews here as prospective To Be Read books for her Kindle. “You have never steered me wrong, Malcolm,” she said. Perhaps he fingers were crossed behind her back.

Take a look at my current reading shelf. It should be a warning. I say that because I am probably the only person in the known universe who has these three books on his shelf at one time. Or at any time. My reading tastes are both wide-ranging and eccentric. (Not always because, hey, I can enjoy a good Nora Roberts or John Grisham novel like anyone else.)

People sometimes note that most of my reviews on GoodReads and Amazon end up with four or five stars and suggest that I’m just trying to be nice. No, I’m doing that because I usually only review books I like a lot—well, unless I read something that really ticks me off.

However, five stars from me doesn’t mean the book will get give stars from you.This was proven conclusively several years ago when I gave  Dow Mossman’s novel The Stones of Summer a glowing review. People told me I was crazy. Possibly so even though I was one of 30 people who felt that way.

Consider the Source

So, when I tell you what I’m reading, you need to consider the source (me) and remember that even though I often read mainstream bestsellers, I probably read them for the wrong reasons. The other books on my shelf are going to have a very strong flavor of magical realism, speculative fiction, fantasy, folktales, literary fiction, and stuff that—for the want of a better words—is just plain weird.

Now, my writer friend hasn’t told me directly that I inadvertently steered her wrong on a book last year, that one being The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht,  but I noticed she gave it three stars on GoodReads. Sigh. After The Night Circus, that was my favorite novel of the year. I think both of these novels are Pulitzer Prize level novels, though I doubt either one was nominated (or seriously considered) since the rules say the novels must be truly American stories and neither of these books were.

Your Own Recognizance

As it turns out, this post is a disclaimer, meaning that I am often drawn to stories that mesh one way or another into my sense of wonder and my world view of real life and fiction. Before spending your money on anything on my To Be Read shelf, you better get a second opinion.

What’s on your shelf these days?