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Review: ‘Unfinished’ by Pat Bertram

Author Pat Bertram, who previously explored her own encounter with the loss of a loved one in Grief: The Great Yearning (2016), has brought her wisdom into the world of fiction in Unfinished (Stairway Press, June 27, 2017). The story will capture your heart and soul, while shining a spotlight on the fact that most people want those who grieve to get over it quickly because they make us uncomfortable.

Like many spouses, Amanda Ray defined herself as one half of a married team, leaving her without a sense of self when her husband David dies at 59 after a long illness. Her husband was a minister. Amanda’s role as the traditional minister’s wife  (hostess, assistant, secretary, and help meet) didn’t lend itself to separate goals or careers.  While she doesn’t know if she would cope with her loss differently if she’d had her own career to fall back on after her husband died, Amanda does know that the same friends whose visits grew more and more sparse during David’s illness have little or nothing comforting to say during or after the memorial service.

“I’m sorry for your loss” and “It’s time to get on with your life” are among the most popular sentiments. Yet, the grief is like a tide that’s always high and always coming in. Her daughter, already grown and on her own, exhibits an overt lack lack of empathy or sympathy when Amanda cries at everything, can’t sleep, can’t eat, and can hardly hope. Amanda looks for David, expects him to be in his study, wonders why he did this to her and why he was so distant once he learned that his illness was a terminal and painful cancer.

One small hope is a prospective relationship with a man she met at an online forum for cancer caregivers before David died. Sam’s wife also has cancer and isn’t expected to survive it. Amanda and Sam are drawn to each other in part because Sam doesn’t react to her tears and doubts with cliched platitudes. Some of their online chats become steamy. At times, she wonders whether he’s sincere or a predator because while he claims to love her–though they’ve never met in person–Amanda sees that he has less time for her than everyone else in his life. Is there a future here or not?

David, kept secrets from her. They are hidden in a computer file he didn’t want her to read until after he was gone. Now she can’t find the password. She did find the gun in the pocket of his robe and wonders if he bought it to end his life when the pain became more than he could bear. But then she discovers the gun has a longer history. At times, Amanda thinks she’s grieving for a man she didn’t wholly know, and that’s one of the things that makes her feel like everything is unfinished.

Bertram knows grief’s uneven terrain and has created a believable, three-dimensional protagonist who must not only deal with the uproar inside her head and body, but the secrets, the online comings and goings of Sam and the fact that she must face and box up all the mementos of her life with David and quickly move out of the church’s parsonage. Sam, while slightly less believable due to his gushing online endearments, plays a realistic role as a sounding board and–after most of the tears have fallen–a prospective future. The secrets unravel in a cruel progression that keep Amanda–as well as the book’s readers–off balance as though there’s continually another shoe waiting to drop.

Amanda’s story is a poignant story that delivers a heavy punch in a relatively short book. The lessons to be learned will last long after the last page has been turned.





Review: ‘The Mermaid’s Sister’ by Carrie Anne Noble

The Mermaid's SisterThe Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Anne Noble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a novel already has 2,842 reader reviews on Amazon, one has to ask whether adding his or her own two cents has any purpose. Nonetheless, here are several thoughts: This book is a gently told young adult fairy tale about a girl name Clara whose sister Maren is becoming a mermaid. The book’s compelling, if somewhat predictable adventure, is finding a way in a world of travel via horses and wagons of getting Maren to the sea before Maren dies outside of what is fast becoming her natural environment.

In this Amazon breakthrough Y/A novel of 2014 and Realm Award Winner for Best Speculative Fiction of the Year of 2016, “The Mermaid’s Sister” generally lives up to the promises such awards give to prospective readers. The novel’s inventive world is carefully and realistically built and presented in language that’s often quite charming and well focused.

If the book has a flaw, it is perhaps the need for a bit of streamlining during the opening chapters where some readers will see a little too much backstory about where the primary characters came from and what motivates them in the here and now. Even those stories are believable within the context and style of the novel; however, they delay the necessary rush to take Maren to the ocean. Readers who push through this somewhat of a slow start will be rewarded by adventures on the journey to the ocean and a satisfying conclusion .

As a debut novel, the book is well worth reading for its own sake and for the clues it provides for the novelist’s future stories.

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

Review: ‘Serafina and the Black Cloak’

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion; Reprint edition – June 14, 2016), 320 pages, Age Range: 9 – 12 years

Twelve-year-old Serafina lives secretly in her father’s basement workshop at Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate in 1899, taking care to stay hidden from the Vanderbilts, the guests, and the servants. While he is an employee tasked with keeping the electrical and mechanical systems working, nobody knows her father lives in his workshop, much less that he has a daughter who spends her nights catching rats in the dark hallways of the vast estate.

serafina“Pa” said her mother died in childbirth, but that doesn’t explain why Serafina must hide. For years, she’s believed her father was ashamed of her because she was born with four toes on each foot and a spinal abnormality that make her different from other children. While he’s content to allow her to wander the house at night, her father has told her many times to keep out of the dangerous forest.

One night, she sees a hooded man in a black cloak murder or kidnap a young girl in a dark hallway, but she has no way to prove it happened. Her father thinks she’s imagining things, and even if she comes out of hiding and talks to the Vanderbilts, she doubts they would believe a strange young girl’s story about a mysterious man she cannot identify. But then another child disappears the following night, and another on the night after that. The missing ones are the children of the Vanderbilts’ guests. Search parties are organized, but nothing is found.

This well-told tale centers around Serafina’s need to act, her fear that the man in the cloak may also be stalking her, to discover why she’s drawn to the dangerous forest, and her continuing need to learn why she is different and must hide in the basement. When she befriends young Braeden, a nephew of Biltmore’s owners after a chance meeting, she realizes the man in the cloak is also stalking him. Braeden keeps Serafina’s secrets, but is hesitant to believe her when she puzzles out the probable identity of the man in the black cloak.

Nonetheless, her determination to stop the man and how she goes about it, make this fantasy mystery a compelling story for young adult readers. The conclusion is stunning, and (for many readers) quite likely to be unexpected, yet the hints, clues and mysteries will fall perfectly into place.

The novel is the well-deserved recipient of the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize and other awards. Adults who have toured the Biltmore House and its beautiful grounds, might also find themselves lured into reading the book once their children finish Serafina and the Black Cloak because the story fits so well into the setting.


ewbookcoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical stories and novels.



Book blogs come and go while the blog directories don’t seem to notice

If you’re a reader, you might have a few book blogs to visit every week for comments about books you’re thinking about reading. If you’re a writer, you hope to find people who like reviewing the books in your genre who will consider your latest novel for review.

As I mentioned briefly under “Musings” on my other blog, I’m not going to submit any book I write to a blog with a goofy name that sounds like it’s written while somebody’s frying eggs or sitting on a riding mower. Yes, those blogs may have a fair number of followers, but a positive review from them can’t be quoted anywhere because goofy names don’t stack up well when the competition is quoting from magazines, newspapers and blogs with professional names.

blogclipartAll this comes to mind again because I’ve been looking for bloggers that might want to review my work. Unfortunately, some of my favorite blogs from a few years ago have closed down while others have made it harder for writers to get a foot in the door.

So, the next places I turn to are blogging directories, some are run by professional authors, editors and reviewers, and others run by people who read a lot and who kept a record of their links.

What surprises me is that a fair number of people with websites listing bloggers, don’t keep their directories current. Sure, since the directory is free and might have a hundred listings, it’s a lot of trouble without compensation to go out there every month and see if the links work. That’s too bad because bad links are not only a waste of time, but they show the kind of laziness on the directory owner’s part that suggests they’re not actively looking for new links either to keep the place up to date.

I wish I’d kept a record of the number of blog links that ended up on screens like this yesterday and today while I was making the rounds:

  • The blog’s last post was several years ago.
  • The blog is officially closed because the blogger got too busy but has been left online so people could get to the archives.
  • A 404 error message.
  • A message that says “this domain is for sale.”
  • A change in policy indicating that the blog now has nothing to do with the blurb in the directory that supposedly describes what it offers.
  • Porn and other clickbait junk.

Naturally, my saying all this isn’t going to fix anything. But if you’re a reader or a writer who’s looking for new blogs, I’m not going to say “I feel your pain” because why would I want to do that? But I do understand your discouragement when you spend several hours looking and are lucky to come up with only one or two possibilities.


Review: ‘The Rabbi, The Goddess, and Jung’

First published in Literary Aficionado

The Rabbi, The Goddess, and Jung: Getting the Word from Within

Review by Malcolm R. Campbell

In the introduction to this spiritual and psychological collection of essays, poet and Jungian analyst Naomi Ruth Lowinsky writes, “I didn’t have to account to God or my analyst for why I wasn’t Moses, or for that matter, Jung. I had to account for why I wasn’t Naomi.”

This visionary collection follows the transformations that molded Lowinsky from the prima materia of her young self in chaos and doubt into the Naomi that life and the gods were waiting for her to discover.

Readers of The Rabbi, the Goddess, and Jung witness outrageous fortune’s wont to injure seekers of the voice within with the arrows from its quiver of devils, demons, shadows, temptations and tricks. Ultimately, when the seeker hears and responds in harmony to that voice, s/he discovers the meaning of Joseph Campbell’s promise that “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are” and that the Tewa prayer’s answer from nature’s light in “Song of the Sky Loom” is a Garment of Brightness.

In “My Lady Tree,” Lowinsky writes that “Words bring the raw stuff of emotion and experience into a focused form that we can share; they bring the prima material of the unconscious into consciousness; they tell our stories.” Late in the book in “Grandmother Spider’s Song,”—in contemplating the state of the planet and humankind’s relationship to it—she tells one of her inner mentors that she doesn’t know what to do. The mentor responds, “You’re missing the obvious fact that’s right under your nose. Your tool is poetry. That’s what you do.”

Every section of this book is richly illustrated by Lowinsky’s poetry, her response to the sights, sounds and voices of her journey from a lady tree she drew as a child, to her experiences with a secular Jewish upbringing, analysis, India, Africa, the forgotten feminine, Jung, Faust, alchemy, Kabbalah, old gods, spirits and the living Earth.

From “Lady Tree”:
You have written the book
Of life Your roots know sky
Your branches know down
below ground water
You drink from my dreams

From “Your People are My People”:
Your people are the drum beat people the field holler
People the conjure people Blues people Jubilee people people who talk
Straight to God Your people are the Old Man River people
The Drinking Gourd people singing the Lord’s song
                                                                            in a strange land

From “Sisters of My Time”:
What became of our fierce flowering? Don’t you remember
how that Old Black Magic revealed Herself to us—gave us the fever
the crazy nerve to burn bras, leave husbands, grow animal hair?
We knew Her belly laugh, Her sacred dance
Her multiple orgasms—It was our period.

Lowinsky brings to her search for herself and to this book an exquisite facility with words, a Jungian’s knowledge of consciousness and symbols, the ability to synthesize the common threads of diverse peoples and cultures into a universal whole where opposites disappear, an adept approach to dreams and active imagination, a cast of wise inner mentors, and an abiding love of the creaturehood of the sacred Earth.

Her path is not a recipe for her readers’ paths because her readers have widely varied ancestors, upbringings, goals and skills. Instead, The Rabbi, the Goddess, and Jung is a wise and loving demonstration of a path, flaws and doubts included, that inspires rather than prescribes.

Lowinsky recalls walking a labyrinth and hearing Earth’s voice telling her that staying in balance is what it’s all about. She goes home and reads in a book in her library that the chaos of a labyrinth opens up the mind to new and transcendent dimensions. “The world,” she writes, “is still as big a mess as it was before I entered that labyrinth. But I feel more balanced, rewoven into earth and soul.”

Reading the spell cast by the words of the prose and poetry of The Rabbi, the Goddess, and Jung will disturb the minds of readers walking the labyrinths of their lives enough to help unlock the silent inner voice and the journey toward the privilege of a lifetime.

TITLE: The Rabbi, The Goddess, and Jung: Getting the Word from Within
AUTHOR: Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
PUBLISHER: Fisher King Press
ISBN: 9781771690362

If you’re an editor and say you’ll review a book, then review it

When I worked as a book reviewer for a regional print magazine, my editor had a hard and fast rule: when she promised an author we would review his or her book, we reviewed it. For the most part, I enjoyed writing the reviews even though this meant reading fiction and non-fiction outside my comfort zone.

My editor believed that a promise was a promise. She didn’t promise we would say the book was the best thing since fire or sliced bread, simply that we would give it a fair shot.

Unfortunately, the web has given rise to a lot of editors who say they will review books, but then don’t bother to do it. Of course, one is at their mercy and will only make things worse by sending them an e-mail asking why no review ever appeared, or if one mentions their publication and its unfulfilled promise on Facebook or Twitter.

This practice hurts authors because it leaves them with fewer editorial reviews to post on their books’ Amazon listings or on their websites. But I think it also hurts the publications because it calls their integrity into question. If you’re an editor and you make that promise, then I’m here to tell you that if you can’t find one of your paid or volunteer reviewers willing to review the book, you’re going to have to review it yourself.

Or, stop making empty promises.


Review: ‘Spider’s Lifeline’ by Lynne Cantwell

spidersSpider’s Lifeline is the third volume in the Pipe Woman’s Legacy series and begins several years after the ending of Firebird’s Snare. At first I was a little disappointed to learn that Webb was now thirty-five years old. I suppose I wanted to watch him grow up. This book, however, has moved beyond a coming of age tale, instead dealing mainly with Norse mythology, concerning Ragnarok “Fate of the Gods,” and Native American legends.”

Source: BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review: Spider’s Lifeline by @LynneCantwell

As a lover of fantasy, I enjoy passing along links to reviews of the kinds of books I like to read. Big Al’s is a wonderful site with a great staff of reviewers.


Briefly Noted: ‘Put It Down: Going From Bullied to Bold,’ by Maya Claridge

Put It Down: Going From Bullied to Bold, by Maya Claridge, Global Publishing Group LLC (March 13, 2016), 102pp

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

I was bullied in grade school because I was different. When my parents moved to Florida just before I began the first grade, I was the outsider who was born in California, who didn’t have a southern accent, and who didn’t know any of the customs, including the slang.

putitdownIf I’d had a time machine at my disposal and came to 2016 for a copy of Maya Claridge’s Put it Down: Going From Bullied to Bold and put her suggestions into practice, I would have been a much happier student.

The book details the bullying Maya suffered in school, how she felt about it and began to excuse it or blame herself (which is what a lot of targets of bullying do), how she finally solved the problem, and the lessons she learned that can help kids in secondary school deal with it effectively.

As she says, being bullied turns kids into lonely kids who believe they have nowhere to turn. Some of those kids’ “solutions” are destructive and make the bullying worse–or lead them to commit suicide. I know about this.

Who should read this book?

  • Secondary school students who are being bullied.
  • Students whose friends are being bullied.
  • K-12 teachers and administrators.
  • The parents of secondary school students.
  • Helping professions including psychologists, ministers, school counselors, youth group leaders who may be asked to help.

This is a brave book, I think, because the author has used self-disclosure to show one way the problem can get started. It’s also a must-read book for those who are suffering from bullying right now and want to know how to stop it.



Review of ‘The Hummingbird’s Daughter’

The Hummingbird's DaughterThe Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luis Alberto Urrea’s story about his great aunt, Mexican mystic Teresita Urrea (October 15, 1873 – January 11, 1906), is one of my top favorites of magical realism. It’s within the spirit of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and though it’s heresy to say it, might be better. The magic and language are gorgeous, overflowing, raw, earthy, occasionally violent and cannot help but cast a spell on every reader who enters their domain.

The novel’s cast of characters is large, but Urrea has fully developed all of the major players. The plot is epic, though the writing style makes it very human against the harsh backdrop of the desert, a world of cruel and lawless patriarchal men, and the trials of the Indians vs. a brutal Mexican government. The book is not only a great example of beautiful storytelling, but a glimpse into the history of a region which most people from the United States are unaware of.

While the story is told from the points of view of multiple characters, the passages from Teresita’s perspective are, perhaps, the most dear because they show how she developed from a marginal beginning into the revered “Saint of Cabora.” Her journey can easily be called a heroine’s journey because at every turn the odds of her survival, much less her success, are very much weighted against her. What an inspiration she was during her lifetime and now–110 years later–for readers of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.”

Teresita and the events, characters, and locations in this novel are all exceptionally multidimensional, providing readers with an experience that’s so rich, it’s a time-travel immersion into another time and place as well as into Teresita’s shoes.

Update: Review of the sequel “Queen of America.”


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era story about a conjure woman who fights the Klan in the Florida Panhandle.

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Brief Review: ‘China Dolls’ by Lisa See

China DollsChina Dolls by Lisa See
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“China Dolls” is another strong, meticulously researched book by Lisa See that brings to life another segment of Chinese culture in the U.S. that may have been unknown to those of us who weren’t old enough to know about the oriental nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown and those scattered across the U.S. on the “Chop Suey Circuit.”

The book features three strong characters, Grace, Helen and Ruby who meet each other while trying to make their way, first as pony girls (dancers in the line) and then as potential headliners at San Francisco’s Forbidden City. Each one has a past, secrets, and a wont to get ahead. Their friendship will be tested time and time again, especially during the World War II years.

Looking at the book’s acknowledgements, one can see the research See did and know why this book reads true and is a pleasure to read.


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