Category Archives: reviews

Review: ‘The Last Days of Magic’

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Mark Tompkins’ The Last Days of Magic is a mixture of the historical record of the 1300s and an imagined prospective history based on legends. The history focuses on Richard II’s designs on Ireland and on the Catholic Church’s designs on unifying Christianity by driving out magic, pagans, and others who did not follow the dictates of Rome.

The book contains a wealth of history about the real power players of the era. It also contains a wealth of myth and legends about the opposing magical forces in Ireland. If you’re interested in the history of the times, this is not “alternative history” because–by the end of the novel–what happens is what history gave us. If you’re interested in the wealth of magical beings that opposed the English and the power of the Catholic church, the author has taken great pains to remain true to the stories about the Morrigna, Nephlim, Sidhe, witches and others who were presumed to be active in Ireland at the time.

Here’s the problem: The book is confined by history, so there is little suspense here because we know–or can Google–the historical outcome: Ireland is lost to Richard II. While it’s interesting to imagine what the Morrigna, Sidhe and others were doing to keep Ireland as it was, we know they will fail. This kills the suspense.

The book is not cohesive because there were so many players involved. This adds multiple characters and points of view. As Brown did in The Da Vinci Code, Tompkins has included a modern day prologue/epilogue that suggests that the magical bloodline continues into the modern era. While this is hopeful if you like magic more than the organized church, it lends nothing real to the story line. Interesting, yes, but otherwise it has little active association with the events of the 1300s.

The book is interesting for those of us who believe in magic. Otherwise, it’s standard history with a “what if” approach to what the opposition in Ireland might have been doing when the English and the Vatican invaded.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is he author of novels filled with magic including Sarabande, Conjure Woman’s Cat, and Eulalie and Washerwoman

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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.”

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–Malcolm

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

Review: ‘Murder on Edisto’ by C. Hope Clark

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Murder on Edisto (The Edisto Island Mysteries, #1)Murder on Edisto by C. Hope Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This well-written and highly readable mystery/thriller is marred only by the fact that it begins with a formulaic set-up for novels of its genre: A tough-as nails woman, who went north for her career, experiences a devastating personal loss, escapes from continued threats to herself and her son, and runs home to her parents low country town in South Carolina for recuperation and solace only to find herself caught in the middle of a crime spree.

No sooner has she moved in to her family’s long-time Edisto Island beach house, than her next door neighbor–and old friend from her childhood–is murdered and an odd series of break-ins begins in the tightly knit community. Clark does a good job building the suspense. Almost everyone in the community appears to be a suspect–including the police.

Callie Morgan’s experience as a Boston detective sergeant gives her plenty of reasons to wonder whether or not the local police department is capable of solving such crimes. While the police acknowledge that her experience as an ex-cop might provide them with valuable help, her continued nightmares and jittery nerves make them wonder if she is, as one man says, “damaged goods” and too flighty to be taken seriously. Even her teenage son wonders if her head is on straight. On top of that, some residents suspect her of the break-ins since they began on the day she moved into the beach house.

While there are strong men in the book, ramping up multiple possibilities for romance, suspicion, arguments about police procedures, and “being rescued,” the author allows Callie to slowly find herself. And that makes for a very satisfying conclusion.

Malcolm 
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Briefly Noted: ‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman

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Those of us who were taught Roman and Greek mythology in school with a smattering of myths from other cultures know the names of some of the Norse gods while remaining unclear about the big picture. In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman has gone back to original sources–primarily the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda–for his content so that he could re-tell the stories as folk tales without authorial embellishment in today’s language.

In a sense, he has done what Steinbeck did in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights as opposed to the novelization approaches of T. H. White in The Once and Future King or Mary Stewart in her Merlin books, or Marion Zimmer Bradley in her Avalon series. Those authors all wrote masterful and exciting books based on the Arthurian legends. However, each took “authors license,” including the thoughts and feelings of the characters, imagined descriptions of locales, and story lines that were not 100% in accord with the original texts. Some have criticized Gaiman for not writing about Odin, Thor, Loki and the other primary characters via the stunning saga style of epic fantasy.

Gaiman has done those of us who love mythology a great service by not extrapolating from his source material or otherwise using his own wide-in-scope imagination with a Game of Thrones approach. Like Steinbeck, he has told the stories in the simple language of the true folktale (with a liberal dash of wit), and from that, we come away with a new understanding of Asgard and its gods and goddesses.

From the Publisher’s Description

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki—son of a giant—blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman—difficult with his beard and huge appetite—to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir—the most sagacious of gods—is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

From The Guardian

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

I found the book to be a wonderfully entertaining adventure into a world I had previously seen in unfinished puzzles of torn bits and pieces.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of folk tales, paranormal, and magical realism stories and novels.

Review: ‘Parade of Horribles’ by Rhett DeVane

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The people in Rhett DeVane’s new novel Parade of Horribles are the kind of folks, foibles and all, that most of us wish we knew, wish we could call kin, and when danger and hatred intrude into our lives, wish we had looking out for us. Chattahoochee is a real town in the Florida Panhandle and, as the book’s back cover description tells us, it really does have a “state mental institution on the main drag.”

Do Elvina Houston, Hattie Lewis and Jake Witherspoon really live there? Probably not. But they are so real in Parade of Horribles that–in telling their story–DeVane has seemingly conjured them out of the cosmos and placed them there, 37 miles west of Tallahassee as the crow flies, alongside the Apalachicola River. A notable feature in the town, the river is a figurative and literal feature in DeVane’s well-told story. It’s both a haunting reminder of old wounds and a restful escape from the 24/7 preparations for the upcoming harvest festivals and a growing number of signs there may be a dangerous serpent in this Garden of Eden.

DeVane hints at the danger early on the way Hitchcock would show a trace of something wrong near the beginning of his feature films. But the townspeople’s attention and the reader’s attention are drawn to the mix of daily life and harvest festival duties. The horribles, as Jake thinks of them, steep like tea half forgotten on a back burner and, as the story moves toward its unexpected ending, grows all the stronger and more foul tasting for the wait.

Parade of Horribles is the seventh book in the “Hooch Series.” As we saw in earlier novels such as Cathead Crazy and Mama’s Comfort Food, this very Southern author deftly captures the way people in her panhandle world think, talk, work, support each other–and, yes–gossip about what’s in plain sight and what’s not yet apparent to everyone else. Residents of the Florida Panhandle know that in many ways it’s a country unto itself, not like south Georgia and even further and farther removed from the snowbirds and tourist destinations of the peninsula.

Reading DeVane’s Hooch Series is an immersion into this country; Parade of Horribles is wonderful mystery/thriller and a highly recommended addition to a body of work that makes “the other Florida” and “Florida’s forgotten coast” altogether real and impossible to forget.

Malcolm

 

 

Review: ‘White Tears’ by Hari Kunzru

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White Tears pays homage to the blues, the blues that grew out of pain and a mix of organic musical styles that was sung by down and out African American men and women in the 1800s and ultimately recorded by hundreds of performers on 78 records during the early 1900s–Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and others whose names are long lost to most current day audiences even though the influences of the blues run through the heart of American music itself. It has been said that Robert Johnson achieved success as a singer by following an old conjure procedure of selling his soul to a black rider at the crossroads. Whether you believe the legend or not, the music known as the blues carried the souls of its performers as they cried out the cruel injustices of their lives.

Hari Kunzru tells the story of two white students in their twenties who love the blues, though that love may be more of an affectation or an obsession than anything true. Carter is rich. Seth is poor. The music draws them together and they create a music studio dedicated to analog sound and music out of the past. Seth, who’s a bit of a geek without firm boundaries about who he really is, records sounds and music off the streets, and one day he captures the voice of a bluesman he never sees singing a song that will define the two young men’s lives. They run the words through their sophisticated equipment and end up with a recording that sounds like an old 78 record that might have been rescued or stolen from a southern barn or back porch. They put the recording on the Internet and announce that it’s real rather than mocked up. They name the singer Charlie Shaw.

The sound is a sensation.  But then they hear from collectors and other aficionados that Charlie Shaw was a real person who really did record a song that began with the words “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” A collector says he heard it years ago. Another collector turns heaven and earth to find the original, and maybe he does. The boys are spooked, to say the least: how can their faked record of a modern-day street singer suddenly be a real song by a person whose name they made up? If Charlie Shaw is real, Carter and Seth have stolen his soul.

At this point, readers will have been experiencing an immersion in the blues, well told through Hunzru’s deep understanding of the music and his very well crafted prose. While the novel remains compelling, it becomes somewhat fractured after Carter is–for unknown reasons–beaten senseless in “the wrong part of town,” and as he evolves into a hospitalized man in a vegetative state, his rich family decides that Seth was just a follower who lived off Carter’s money and really didn’t contribute anything to their business partnership. Denied access to Carter and the studio, Seth drifts, begins to think maybe the past or the blues or the real Charlie Shaw is after him. The novel fractures from the atmospheric realism that was following a plot into some lengthy slice-of-life sequences in which past, present, future–and bluesy reality–meander aimlessly rather than directly serving to storyline.

Yet, new incidents occur (mostly bad and/or unfair to Seth), magical realism or real depending on the moods of the moment and the novel shifts into a thriller chasing down a ghost story. The protagonist for three quarters of the novel is primarily Seth.  But Kunzru changes the point of view throughout the last several chapters in a chilling way. These chapters are powerfully written but, on balance, the strong ending of White Tears seems based more on shifting genres in mid stream and word-smithing trickery rather than the natural unfolding of a story. The message–white boys appropriating black music and making it their own–is a strong theme throughout the book. It’s not a bad theme. The story suffers, however, because of the author’s need to preach a cultural appropriation sermon rather than let his message speak for itself through the characters words and actions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to discount the power of the book, the author’s technical mastery of his language, or the journey through the blues. Yes, this book is the blues, and those who love the music will probably read the book from beginning to end, seeing its flaws as little more than the scratchy static on an old 78 record.

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Making Bombs for Hitler’ by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

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Making Bombs for HitlerMaking Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ukrainian Canadian author Marsha Skrypuch writes–as one interview said–“War Fiction: Writing the stories that haven’t been told.” She writes about genocide and displaced persons with an eye toward well-researched historical detail often given a personal touch through interviews with survivors who lived through the very stories her fiction brings to readers who often begin each book with little or no knowledge about the stories that have been covered up, overlooked, or allowed to fall through the cracks of our baseline knowledge about man’s inhumanity to man because fictional and historical accounts often focus on politics and battles rather than on those who suffered.

In “Making Bombs for Hitler,” Skrypuch–author of twenty books for young people–focuses on the Nazi practice of rounding up Polish, Ukrainian and other children and using them as slave labor in work camps on behalf of the Reich. Those who were too young or too infirm to be productive were eliminated. Some were drained of blood that was sent to the front for use by wounded German soldiers. Others, like the novel’s protagonist, Lida, were forced into camp jobs, rented out to local farmers and others, or pressed into factory work.

While Lida is a strong character, she is a child as are the others in her cold barracks room. So, young readers will be able to identify with her fears and concerns, including her worry about the fate of her younger sister who was taken somewhere else. Those sent to the bomb making factory are caught between their will to survive and the morality of making weapons for the Nazi war machine. It’s difficult to read this without wondering “As a twelve-year-old child, what would I do under similar circumstances?”

One strength of the book is the way in which Skrypuch portrays the bonding on the characters under deplorable conditions. They come together out of an inner strength much stronger than a simple will to survive, but out of a heartfelt and very human need to help each other. This is a heroic story that will stay with its readers long after the last page has been turned.

I have read most, if not all of Skrypuch’s novels because all of them are strong, well written and dear.

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