Category Archives: reviews

Review: ‘The Invisible Library’

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The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very clever fantasy involving a protagonist who works for a library that exists between worlds. Her mission, which is rather like a James Bond in search of books, is to find and obtain meaningful texts in alternate worlds and bring them back to headquarters.

In some ways, the book is mix of fantasy, faerie and steampunk because the alternate realities have their own systems and amount of magic, including fae, werewolfs, and dragons. The main character, Irene, is a junior level librarian with a fair amount of experience. On the current mission, she’s assigned to take a long a student for whom she will be a mentor. This makes her job more difficult while making the plot more interesting.

As it turns out, there are many factions in the “London” to which she is sent, all of whom seem to know about the rare book. She has to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted.

The book has a lot of talk in it, and by that I meant Irene and her student have to talk a lot, but are also thrust into situations where they–and potential allies and villains alike–are constantly having to explain things to each other. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Bond films wherein when the bad guy gets the upper hand, he always has an egotistical need to explain the wonders of his technology and his plans–giving Bond a chance to get the drop of him and win the day.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of intrigue here along with some action scenes that will knock your sox off. The book kept my interest enough to tempt me into placing the next book “The Masked City,” on my reading list.

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Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

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Review: ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto’

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The Magic Strings of Frankie PrestoThe Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mitch Albom’s words and the songs they play in “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” comprise a “Pure Perfect Fifth,” a term related to an ancient system of musical tuning that has been linked to alchemy and the transformation of souls. Narrated by Music himself, this tale about an orphan from Villareal, Spain who becomes the best guitar player in existence is the quintessence of a well-told tale accompanied by the music of the spheres and the wisdom of many players.

Frankie’s mentor, known as El Maestro, reveres composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega, teaches the classics, demands constant practice, and tells his young student to respect his left hand by keeping the nails trimmed so that the sensitive fingertips feel the pain of every note. They begin with Tárrega’s “Lágrima” (teardrop), and that song becomes a fitting leitmotiv throughout the novel.

Frankie can play it all, from the free strokes and rest strokes of Spanish guitar, to every standard rock and roll chord progression, to the worried notes of the twelve-bar blues. Though Frankie Presto plays a guitar with magic strings, his life is almost pure blues, pure “Lágrima.”

He is forever haunted by the violent unknowns of his childhood, people who suddenly go missing, the comings and goings of fame and not fame, his lover Aurora’s long absences, injuries and penances, and the on-going conflict between a beautiful voice that makes him rich and a guitar technique that nourishes his soul. Once, when he told El Maestro he wanted to be perfect as both a singer and a guitar player, Le Maestro said that both was the same as neither.

Frankie is forever running and forever searching. Through it all, his music leads him while he feels the pain of every note. Near the beginning of Albom’s novel, we learn that Frankie is dead, that we are standing around before the funeral talking with Music about Frankie’s life through a Chroma-filled remembrance that includes all his sharps and flats and rests. His story is filled with mystery, too, the unexpected riffs that come out of nowhere like the here-and-gone notes of a jam session, moments that fall together that had seemed separate, and a hidden continuity Frankie doesn’t know about until late in life. The unexpected arises again and again in different keys from the walking base line that drives the story measure by exceptional measure. And he wonders, is this gig destined synchronicity or perfectly orchestrated manipulation. He will have to decide that before the plays his last song.

By the end of the novel, with the help of an all-wise narrator and the testimonies of those who knew him in ages past, Frankie knows everything about himself and his magic strings, why things happened as they did, and the blessings of music as his song resolves into a coda of joy with a lasting counterpoint of “Lágrima.”

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

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The Little Paris BookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sensual book, filled with logic-numbing regrets, dreams, desires, wines, culinary extravagances, books that heal broken hearts and knit together shattered souls, and dreams larger than the imaginations of people who keep life in check or feel safer walling up their most excessive hopes.

Some say the book is pure sugar. Those who say that have never truly danced the tango as Paris bookseller Jean Perdu was taught to dance the dance by his long-lost lover Manon whom he has mourned for twenty years. (She simply left him one day without a word.) Now he sits on his “Literary Apothecary” barge–long tied up tight against a Paris pier rather than moving like a dancer on the river as boats are intended to move–and almost psychically “reads” the hidden away words of his customers’ stories so accurately that he can recommend the books they need to heal and, perhaps, to dance unfettered.

Unfortunately, he cannot prescribe for himself. Yes, he has danced the tango and set aside thinking for pure feeling and unchained inhibitions. So why has he chained his boat and his total self to a Paris pier when he knows what life can be if he let go of everything but the yearnings of “right now”? The answer is not mine to give you.

I can say that Jean Perdu finally unties his boat and motors down river to find out why he’s been held fast by memories. He meets other people who need but who don’t quite know what they need. Borrowing Hemingway’s words, the journey becomes a “movable feast” and the plot turns upon the question of whether or not Monsieur Perdu will prescribe for himself the charity and clarity he needs to enjoy it.

Like a rare evening meal when the best red wine, the best lamb cutlets with garlic flan, and the best conversation with people who know low to listen with their eyes conjure an experience that memory will often doubt could have been real, “The Little Paris Bookshop” takes its characters–and its readers–into the heart of bliss that will ever seem too unlikely to be possible.

The best way to dance the dance while reading this exuberant novel is to unchain yourself from whatever logical rules and proprieties bind you. Doing that is the book’s prescription.

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Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

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“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll hear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.”

halfformedRiverrun of words, past church and family and worse, from swerve of hope to bend of knee, you might think you’re reading “Finnegan” again as you start Eimear McBride’s streamOFconsciousness novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. James Joyce leaves early on, though when you reach the novel’s final words, you might agree this story is a wake.

It’s also a mental letter of sorts, an interior monologue, from a rebellious sister to a brother with a brain tumor, within.the.tight.confines of a dysfunctional household, abuse and other perversions, rape and WorseThanRape, and the protagonist’s desperately destructive behavior. We are INside her head. Too much for simple syntax there, though sin is a constant theme, and prayers, too, so when James Joyce leaves the book by the back door, Virginia Woolf arrives at the front door. Figuratively speaking. You should be afraid, for this book will wreck you as though you yourself are violating the protagonist page by heartbreaking page, you bastard.

It’s also a raw poem, laced with the worst muck of life, the flotsam any free-flowing river carries along with sunlit ripples of lyr(within lyrics)ics more beautiful than anyone other than the doomed brother deserves to hear. The flow of words, blood, semen, vomit and other prayers are dAZZling to experience. The book’s un-named characters lead sad lives that would be sad if McBride had told the story through a conventional approach. Yet the fractured prose fits all that’s broken in the story and the poetry of the riverrun of words accentuates every vile UNformed and 1/2Formed thing.

Mammy is a single parent who is randomly holy.past.all.understanding, loving, vicious, and blind to everything but her son in her unkempt house in this small Irish town. Daddy is absent, resting in hell or elsewhere. Uncle is perverted. Schoolkids are cruel. Men have one thing on their minds. Brother is slow. Sister is wantonly searching for herself. And fate is relentless. Life inside this story, and inside the protagonist’s head, is difficult, difficult to read in half-formed thoughts, and impossible to set aside.

You won’t forget this story even though you will try.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

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

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“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

Brief Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’

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The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This mystery, narrated by three London-area women, is tightly written with multiple who-dunnit style twists and turns. Rachael takes the train into London every day and has gotten into the habit of fantasizing about the lives of two people she’s never met in a house near the tracks several doors down from the house where she used to live. She builds a perfect life for the unknown couple in the house and almost comes to believe she knows them–until the woman who lives there ends up missing.

The interesting plot is dulled to some extent due to the fact that Rachael, Anna and Megan seem some hopelessly inept in maintaining any order and purpose in their lives other than, perhaps, a focus on their relationships with men.

The author brings a nice touch to Rachael’s chapters because her excessive drinking makes her an unreliable narrator. The police–and the readers, as well–won’t be sure until near the end of the book what she saw and what she did during a black-period on the night “it happened.”

The train imagery is pitch perfect and the ending is satisfying.

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–Malcolm