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

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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.”

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

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

Take our characters into your hearts, minds, souls and worst nightmares

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“Publishing is hard. No doubt about it. But sometimes authors get so caught up in the publishing aspect of the profession that we forget the reader doesn’t give a darn how the book was made, researched, written, published, or promoted.” – Hope Clark

 We really don’t want to tell you all that because why would you want to know that any more than you want the details about how your prospective new lawnmower was made? Instead, we much prefer you knowing that we hope you’ll enjoy a good story and then take our characters into your hearts, minds, souls and worst nightmares.

Hope Clark wants to be persuaded a book has a story that will probably interest her more than that it’s cheap or free or the author’s hard-fought debut novel. I feel the same way.

On the other hand, unless a writer is well known and can fill his or her blog with news about upcoming book signings, conventions and other appearances, or–perhaps–the progress of a feature fill that’s being made from one of his/her books, the rest of us don’t have bookish information to provide in a weekly blog.

So, we talk about the subject matter in our books hoping, for example, that people who love mountain climbing will read a post about it and then see that the author has written a novel with a mountain climbing theme with a plot sounds interesting and a story fits within one of the genres the individual likes. The gurus say that if an author writes weekly posts–or even tweets–that say nothing but “buy my book” s/he is spamming his/her own readers. I agree.

That leaves us with talking about the subjects and genres we love and hoping that our posts attract the kinds of discerning readers who are will see possibilities in our books. However, I’ve learned a few cautionary things about this idea:

Caution

  • Murderers don’t read mystery thrillers about murder and mayhem unless the novelist includes how-to-do-it tips.
  • Using a lawnmower in your story line doesn’t attract people who mow yards or sell lawnmowers.
  • If you whine to prospective readers that writing your latest novel made you insane, they will be too superstitious to buy it.
  • Footnotes attached to everything in the novel you researched (cited with sources) or experienced (cited with names of witnesses) do not “ramp up” your story’s appeal. (I know, Lincoln in the Bardo breaks this rule.)
  • Forget about the idea of committing a sensational crime and then writing a based-on-a-true story novel about it. Most jurisdictions have laws that won’t let you profit from the bad that you do unless you only imagined it.)
  • If you put spells or subliminal messages in your books that force your readers to buy more of your books, it’s probably best not to mention it.
  • Saying your novel is just like the novel of a famous writer will cause (a) more people to read the famous person’s novel,  and (b) people to ask why your novel isn’t also on the bestseller list and the well-known review sites.

When it comes down to it, I don’t even know why I read what I read, much less how to write something that somebody else will read. My reading habits are all over the map, so how anyone would include me in their target audience is beyond me. Most advertising/promotion software has probably figured out by now that the words “free” and “cheap” really turn me off. I suppose it’s possible that the NSA/CIA/FBI track the books I read and sell that information to publishers. If so, thanks for spying because I keep coincidentally finding plenty of wonderful stuff to read.

As for my own writing, I write about what interests me and hope that I’m not the only person on the planet who finds such stories fascinating.

Malcolm

Since so many people love fast food, I based my latest e-book short story, “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” on fast food. So far, McDonalds hasn’t agreed to included a copy with each Happy Meal.

 

 

Searching for fresh new clichés

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Searching for fresh clichés to use in political commentary and social media is a full time job. Here are a few that might wet your whistle or knock the balls off a brass monkey:

  • Going with your gut is evidence of diarrhea.
  • What doesn’t kill you probably is covered by the new health insurance bill.
  • A rose by any other name may not be a red.
  • Democrats are looking for a witch behind every Russian.
  • Good crack is always illegal while a good crack often goes viral.
  • Skydiving is good to the last drop.
  • Absence makes the heart look yonder.
  • All’s well when the last lawyer is finally paid.
  • An idle mind is a Congressman’s playground.
  • An ounce of prevention is worth a thousand bucks on the street.
  • A bad seed probably comes from a GMO lab.
  • CNN beats facts into ashes if not asses.
  • Too many reporters are calling a spade a shovel.
  • You can’t judge a crook by his cover story.
  • Today’s political commentary is usually crock and bullshit story.
  • Obstructionists are a few bricks shy of a stone wall.
  • A sleeping Senator beats a Kangaroo loose in the paddock.
  • Today’s Kodak moments have probably been PhotoShopped.
  • We’re waiting for freshman Congressmen to wake up and smell the bait.
  • Caught like a dear who woke up on the wrong side of somebody else’s bed.

You probably didn’t hear it here first.

–Malcolm

 

 

Summer listening for cheap hotels with bad TV service

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In this word from your sponsor (me), I thought I’d mention–just after getting back from a one-week vacation–that when you collapse into your hotel room after a day of sightseeing, you need entertainment. But, sometimes there just isn’t anything to watch on TV except the Weather Channel.

The answer: audiobooks. Here are some for your list:

Editorial Review: 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. Dixon’s Lena is fully believable when she spies around town and reports to Eulalie that rednecks have raped and murdered a young women. They almost escape until Eulalie persuades a witness to come forward. Listeners will marvel at the magical realism in this story and benefit from the helpful glossary of the charming local dialect. S.G.B. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile

 

Editorial Review (Excerpt): “Kelley Hazen performs the narration in a solid voice that is exhilaratingly fresh and young and old sounding as appropriate. Her accent is accurate and captures the essence of each character perfectly. I found her voice mesmerizing and comforting at the same time.” – Audio Book Reviewer

Reader Review: I like it when kids are smarter than adults in stories like this. It gives me hope. The author ‘s writing had a ‘Peter Pan’ feel to it – not that it reads like ‘Peter Pan’ but it’s a kid being powerful and doing something positive. And there is also a magical ‘The Secret Garden’ kind of feel in here.The kid is powerful because she can see & hear the beauty and the magic in Nature. This audiobook has the coldest, scariest ghost voice in the world and also the wonderful open, free and uninhibited voice of ‘Emily’. AND the voices of birds and much more. The widest range of voices I’ve heard from a narrator. And all seemed real, not forced. I believed it – I believed this could happen.

 

Editorial Reviews:

Told through the narrative voice of Lena, Eulalie’s shamanistic cat, the fast-paced story comes alive. The approach is fresh and clever; Malcolm R. Campbell manages Lena’s viewpoint seamlessly, adding interest and a unique perspective. Beyond the obvious abilities of this author to weave an enjoyable and engaging tale, I found the book rich with descriptive elements. So many passages caused me to pause and savor. ‘The air…heavy with wood smoke, turpentine, and melancholy.’ ‘ …the Apalachicola National Forest, world of wiregrass and pine, wildflower prairies, and savannahs of grass and small ponds… a maze of unpaved roads, flowing water drawing thirsty men…’ ‘…of the prayers of silk grass and blazing star and butterfly pea, of a brightly colored bottle tree trapping spirits searching for Washerwoman…of the holy woman who opened up the books of Moses and brought down pillars of fire and cloud so that those who were lost could find their way.'” – Rhett DeVane, Tallahassee Democrat

“A simply riveting read from beginning to end, ‘Eulalie and Washerwoman’ is very highly recommended for both personal reading lists and community library General Fiction collections. – Julie Summers, Midwest Book Review

“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. S.G.B. © AudioFile 2017

 

Editorial Review: Narrator R. Scott Adams’s rapid-fire delivery mirrors the speech of fast-talking old-style newshound Jock Stewart. Listeners need all their skills of concentration, or they’ll miss the story’s wit and even the occasional clue. Sea of Fire is a missing racehorse, but the mystery of his whereabouts sometimes seems merely incidental. The story is high on humor but light on plot–a vehicle for sex, cigarettes, steak, and zinfandel. Stewart, a print journalist, is a likable dinosaur in a changing world. Adams’s timing is perfect, but a second listen is recommended to catch what is missed first time around. C.A.T. © AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine [Published: APRIL 2015]

Happy listening,

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Mayonnaise Users Are At Fault

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Today’s politics is a highly polarized mess. People on both sides of the political aisle have been asking how this happened, why there’s not more love in the world, and why people would rather spout weird beliefs rather than seek compromise.

The short answer is: mayo, which, as you can see (unless you’re a user) is a four-letter word.

The United States is composed of several kinds of people:

  • Good people: We use mustard and possibly ketchup (but not catsup) on our hamburgers.
  • People on the wrong side of the tracks: They use mayo on their burgers and probably break into grocery stores in the middle of night when they run out of it.
  • Special Sauce Scum: They use thousand island dressing mixed with God knows what else on their burgers.

True Americans know what belongs on a hamburger. Americans who are supporting the wrong political candidates and putting the country in peril are people from the Mayo and Special Sauce camps.

Some of us add stuff to our burgers, but we don’t force our beliefs on others. I like bleu cheese (the scum spell that as “blue cheese”) and a dab or horseradish on my burgers. Some years ago, I accidentally got addicted to guacamole sauce  on burgers, but I have been clean for over twenty years.

I never force my habits on others, much less go to Congress or the Supreme Court to get my likes and dislikes codified one way or another into the national psyche. But I draw the line a mayonnaise.  Why the hell (pardon my French) would anyone want to spoil an all-American hamburger with (as Wikipedia defines it) “a stable emulsion of oil, egg yolk, and either vinegar or lemon juice”?

As a survivor of the cold war, my first thought is “Commies.” But the conspiracy is wider than that. Have you noticed? A lot of so-called “regular people” are slathering mayo on their burgers–and just about everything else. Yes, it works in chicken salad and tuna salad, but that’s about it.

If you’re a mayo user–or even a thousand island dressing user–please stop for the good of the country.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom,” a new e-book short story available on Kindle, iTunes, Kobo and Nook.

 

 

A Frank Conversation With Mother Nature About the Rain

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Me: Baby Cakes, I want to talk about the rain. There’s been so much of it.

Mother Nature: Frank, what the hell are you saying? Malcolm is the only man on the planet allowed to call me “Baby Cakes.”

Me: My name isn’t “Frank.” I’m speaking frankly.

MN: I thought only Frank could speak frankly just as I’m the only one who can speak mother naturedly.

Me: English is a strange language.

More rain today

MN: Look, Toots–I hope it’s okay to call you “Toots” for old time’s sake–global warming is tangling up the planet’s cycles of heat and cold, rain and sun, and Coke vs. Pepsi.

Me: The rain, though, is keeping me from mowing the yard. Soon, the grass will be so high I’ll tear up the mower trying to cut it.

MN: Your writer friend Smoky wants you to get sheep to handle the grass cutting duties.

Me: Sheep, quite frankly, are just too sheepish.

MN: That sounds like something a guy named Frank would say.

Me: The thing is, sheep are more expensive than a lawn mower.

MN: That’s probably true. Nonetheless, I’m working hard to get the planet under control, and that’s not easy to do when–too put it frankly–so many people don’t mind p_ssing in their own pools and s_itting where they eat.

Me: Well said, Baby Cakes.

MN: What time do you get off work?

Me: I’m married. We can no longer meet behind the barn like we did when I was in college.

MN: Barns have changed since then, what with the hay being made a mess with pesticides and GMO tinkering. Maybe you can do something about that. Next time you update your blog, say something about the clowns who think climate change doesn’t exist, that fast food is really food, and that mayo should be slathered all over a hamburger.

Me: If I say something about climate change, will you give me a sunny afternoon and evening so I can mow the yard?

MN: Toots, I’m working on it. If only you weren’t married: we could make beautiful weather together.

Me: Aw, shucks, Baby Cakes, you’re making me cry.

MN: Me, too, and my tears are what you call rain.

Me: Oops.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s new short story is now live in Kindle, Kobo and iTunes.

 

Keeping up with Florida’s trees

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

If you live in Florida, you probably already know that–other than Hawai’i–the state has more species of native trees than any other. My easy-to-use tree guide was published in 1956, so I can only consider it as a starting point since some of the nomenclature has changed since then.

Chinkapin Oak – Wikipedia photo

For example, the Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) used to be mixed up with the Pin Oak and the Chestnut Oak. Confusing matters more is the fact that one of the popular names for a Chinkapin still is “Chestnut Oak” even though the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) is another species. Both are in the white oak group. There are so many popular names for Florida’s trees, shrubs and flowers that it’s often difficult to be sure what another author is talking about, especially when names change from region to region. Many of those names figure into the state’s old stories.

I refer to trees a lot in my novels, so I’m constantly reading about them, looking them up, verifying habitats, and enjoying myths and legends about them. Florida has a lot of species because of its diverse habitats. That’s a lot to keep up with. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites available on line. When I first started writing, one had to call or send a letter to get the kind of information that can not be found with a few good Google search words.

There are 50 species of oak in the eastern U.S. and that means you’ll find a lot of them in Florida in addition to Tupelo, Cypress, Slash Pines, Longleaf Pines, and Palm trees if you know where to look. Longleaf pines are a sad story because the original forests covered so much of the southeastern U.S. (a 140,000-mile swath through nine states). Naturally, most were logged off and the land was converted to other uses or replanted with the faster-growing Slash Pines. Not the forest service and others are trying to re-educate landowners about the value of Longleaf Pines, especially their important wiregrass habitats that are sustained by fires that clear the unwanted and choking invasive shrubs and trees out of the forests. See the Longleaf Alliance’s page.

Florida Yew – Floridata Plant Encyclopedia photo

The Torreya (also called Gopher Wood) and the Florida Yew are endangered and may well disappear except in managed arboretums. That’s sad to see. Look for those still around on the Garden of Eden trail near Bristol in the Florida Panhandle.

According to exploresouthernhistory.com, Because the Torreya is one of America’s most endangered trees, a major effort is underway to save it. The Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a commendable effort to grow new Torreya trees. Using seed obtained from living trees, the agencies are growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park. Perhaps over time, the Torreya will once again thrive along the Apalachicola.”

Always nice to see people using native trees in their yards rather than stuff that really doesn’t belong there. (If you’re not sure and there’s no native nursery when you live, check this link and this link for names and pictures.)

In case you were going to ask: no, I don’t hug trees. Yet, I agree with Hermann Hesse, who wrote: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

–Malcolm

My upcoming e-book short story “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” obviously focuses on the dogwood (Cornus florida), not to be confused with the imported Jamaica Dogwood that’s often called the Florida Fishfiddletree or Florida Fishpoison Tree.