Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Book Review: Crossings by Alex Landragin

Crossings is an unforgettable and explosive genre-bending debut--a novel in three parts, designed to be read in two different directions, spanning a hundred and fifty years and seven lifetimes.

On the brink of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a German-Jewish bookbinder stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings. It has three narratives, each as unlikely as the next. And the narratives can be read one of two ways: either straight through or according to an alternate chapter sequence. The first story in Crossings is a never-before-seen ghost story by the poet Charles Baudelaire, penned for an illiterate girl. Next is a noir romance about an exiled man, modeled on Walter Benjamin, whose recurring nightmares are cured when he falls in love with a storyteller who draws him into a dangerous intrigue of rare manuscripts, police corruption, and literary societies. Finally, there are the fantastical memoirs of a woman-turned-monarch whose singular life has spanned seven generations. With each new chapter, the stunning connections between these seemingly disparate people grow clearer and more extraordinary. Crossings is an unforgettable adventure full of love, longing and empathy.

Some stories almost warrant a complete blackout of information before experiencing them. I tend to employ this tactic when a new movie is being released by a filmmaker or actor whom I particularly enjoy, who are artists that I trust to bring quality performances with entertaining narratives. I eschew watching their movie trailers, or in the case of novels, I also avoid critical reviews before reading the books myself. Sometimes arriving to a story with a veritable mental blank slate can encourage an element of discovery or surprise as one watches (or reads) the tale unfolding before them. This is not to say that I am undiscerning in my choices, but there are some cases in which I am willing to go in a bit blind to what is ahead.

For the novel Crossings by Alex Landragin, the extent of my knowledge of his work was only the plot summary reprinted above. Crossings sounded almost like a time-travel story, and the multiple methods of reading the book sounded very intriguing. The publisher graciously granted me a digital advanced copy for review. As I began the first pages, a sense of speculation and expectation took root, and I suddenly began to wonder if this could possibly be the novel my mind had been looking forward to, possibly for decades. I have had a handful of experiences while reading novels that I would describe as like “going down the rabbit hole.” Seasoned readers know what this is—becoming completely engrossed in a story that comes alive in such a way that you feel as if you are living inside it. Could Crossings indeed be a book like that? My heart certainly hoped so.

I will now pause to give the reader a moment to choose whether they want to read the next section. If you would like to come to Crossings with a somewhat “blank slate” as I did, I would encourage you to jump down to the last passage of the review, below the starred line. This is not to say that my thoughts will be overloaded with spoilers, but the following content is certainly more than I had when I set out to read the book.

Crossings has two manners in which it can be read: the traditional way, from start to finish, and an alternate way, following references at the end of certain chapters, to not just turn the page, but actually jump to another section, possibly hundreds of pages away from your current position. This does not change the meaning of the story per se (a la the old Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child), but it certainly changes the perspective of the reader, and the knowledge that they carry with them from section to section. This alternative method is called the “Baroness Sequence”, for reasons that will be made clear when the story is read.

I estimate that I read about 50% of the novel before I came to what I believe was an error in my advanced digital copy, as one of the Baroness “jumps” that I made resulted in a location that did not make any sense. I am certain this will not be a problem with the printed edition, or the final e-book edition either. Advanced copies are unfinished works, prone to typographical errors and omissions. As I had no way of knowing where to go from the strange location in which I found myself, I decided to start the book from the beginning, reading from start to finish in the traditional way. As such, my impression of the book is a mixture of the Baroness perspective and the “normal” one. I will comment on this more later.

Crossings entertains the notion of the transmigration of the soul, as has also been seen in several movies over the years, wherein two living souls swap bodies. In Landragin’s novel, there are multiple types of transmigration or “crossings”. Some are done “blind” and are temporary, with one soul not completely remembering that they had briefly occupied the body of another. Others are done very intentionally and with a more permanent arrangement in mind, such as between a young person wishing to die, and an ailing elderly person wishing for a new young body.

A note for my conservative Christian readers: As a Christian, I of course do not believe in this type of phenomenon, any more than I believe in magical portals to Narnia or time travel via standing stones as found in Outlander. Still, I am able to enjoy these stories and appreciate them for what they are: fantasy. This type of pseudo-suspension of disbelief must be employed if the reader is to enjoy the story. Also, the Christian religion is not always looked favorably upon in the novel, as it is a historical (and current) fact that not all believers share the Gospel in culture-sensitive, non-political ways. There is also a bit of sexual content in the novel, but it is not pervasive. 

Back to the different reading methods: In some ways, the “Baroness Sequence” brought on a state of confusion for me, as the narrative tends to jump between large expanses of time, with different characters picking up the story and handing them off to others, in a way.  That said, the knowledge I gained from the various time periods actually was an aid to me when I began reading the book from start to finish. I think I would have been much more confused about the events that were transpiring, had I not spent a significant time in the “Baroness sequence”. If someone new to Crossings was to ask me which method I preferred, if I could only recommend one, I would advise to go with the Baroness. There is a certain amount of confusion in reading it that way, but if you can be persistent, I think that would be the best course of action. That said, for either reading method, I found it somewhat difficult to keep track in my mind which character was which. With the multiple cases of body-switching, there were many times when I wasn’t sure who was speaking. In hindsight, I probably should have committed a “map of souls” to paper. Perhaps that would have helped me in my disorientation. This was the element that kept Crossings from becoming the book I had hoped it would be. I did not go down the rabbit hole as much as I would have liked. 

*      *      *      *      *      *

In many ways I enjoyed Crossings very much. It might be the debut novel for author Alex Landragin, but his literary skill is superb. His knowledge of history, cultures and languages is most impressive. I’m unaware of any plans for a sequel to Crossings, but this certainly should not be Landragin’s last work of fiction. His talent is remarkable, and I am certain he would do well to bring another novel to his audience. While I cannot give Crossings an unrestrained, absolute recommendation, I found it to be quite a unique and notable title, one I will remember for some time to come.

About the Author

ALEX LANDRAGIN is a French-Armenian-Australian writer. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, he has also resided in Paris, Marseille, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Charlottesville. He has previously worked as a librarian, an indigenous community worker and an author of Lonely Planet travel guides in Australia, Europe and Africa. Alex holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and occasionally performs early jazz piano under the moniker Tenderloin Stomp. Crossings is his debut novel.

Connect with Alex

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Review: Murder at Northanger Abbey by Shannon Winslow

Newly married to her beloved Henry, Catherine’s eyes are now open to the grownup pleasures of wedded life. Yet she still hasn’t quite given up her girlhood fascination with all things Gothic. When she first visited Northanger Abbey, she only imagined dreadful events had occurred there. This time the horror is all too real. There’s been a murder, and Henry has fallen under suspicion. Catherine is determined to clear her husband’s name, but at the same time, she’s afraid for her own safety, since there’s a very good chance the real murderer is still in the house.

This delightful sequel reprises the mischievous spirit of Austen’s original spoof on the Gothic novel, while giving Catherine a genuine murder mystery to unravel.

At the conclusion of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the author brings herself somewhat into the story, using the first person and speculating upon the nature of General Tilney’s disapproval of Catherine Moreland and its effect upon her relationship with his son Henry. Did the General’s initial rejection of the lowly Miss Moreland stoke the fires of desire between the two sweethearts? Perhaps we will never know. This question does lead the reader to ponder the characters, and certainly leaves the story open to more episodes.

Shannon Winslow has done just that in her Austenesque novel, Murder at Northanger Abbey. Deftly embodying the voice of Jane Austen, although somewhat softened for modern readers, Winslow has written an entertaining mystery that is perfect reading for a rainy night at home. Although I offered a spotlight post last year for her Prayer & Praise devotional, this is the first fiction title of hers that I have read. I’m not often drawn to mysteries, but Murder at Northanger Abbey was well worth my time. Although I deduced the identity of the victim’s killer early on in the story, I wasn’t sure that my assessment was correct, and even if correct, I had no idea how the narrative would play out. I enjoyed collecting “clues” for my theory, and it wasn’t until the guilty party confessed that I knew for sure that I was on target.

Not only was the main point of conflict a source of amusement, but Winslow’s writing style was frequently an agent of mirth, sometimes directly addressing the audience as Miss Austen also did and successfully bringing a “playfully mischievous flavor” to the story. As a Christian I was also impressed at her ability to reference the intimacy between a husband and wife in a way that was agreeably suggestive, but without being neither gratuitous nor Puritanical. It made for several comedic scenes indeed. Winslow’s understanding of the nature of Catherine Moreland Tilney’s character also provided moments of amusement, as the young wife’s imagination often got the best of her, much as it did in the source material.

Some rare misgivings about the piece lie within a few moments in between significant plot developments. The narrative slows a bit as Catherine spends much (justifiable) time hand-wringing over the fate of her husband, who has become a suspect in the untimely death of another individual in the tale. Similarly, there is a courtroom scene that becomes somewhat laborious and lacks a particular payoff that I was looking forward to. That said, the details covered in the trial are essential to the facts of the case. Without them, the story would have felt diluted. As such, the biggest qualm would merely come from the absence of that specific payoff moment. I decline to offer further details, lest I divulge things and ruin the mystery!

Those minor critiques aside, I found Murder at Northanger Abbey to be a delightful read. It will amuse fans of Austen’s lesser-read Gothic spoof, as well as those who simply enjoy a good mystery tale. Conservative readers can rest assured that the content is not gory nor horrific, and it contains no colorful language. At the same time, Shannon Winslow’s writing is so strong, she did not require those elements to make her work appealing. She brings wit and intelligence, and delivers a wonderful continuation to a classic novel, beloved by many.

Postscript:  In a move I have never before seen done in a novel, Shannon Winslow offers an alternative ending to her story in a separate chapter, complete with a new perpetrator and a very different outcome. I found this addition to be unique and brave, and I commend Shannon for offering this to her audience.  Well done!

About the Author

Shannon Winslow claims she was minding her own business when an ordinary trip to Costco a dozen years ago changed her life. That was the day a copy of the ’95 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice fairly leapt off the shelf and into her oversized shopping cart. She has been hopelessly hooked on all things Jane Austen ever since, her obsession ultimately inspiring her to begin writing her own stories a la Austen.

Winslow's 2011 debut novel, The Darcys of Pemberley, quickly become a best seller, praised for its authentic Austen style and faithfulness to the original characters. Seven more novels and a Jane Austen Devotional have since followed, with no end to her creative output in sight!

Her two sons now grown, Shannon lives with her husband in the log home they built in the countryside south of Seattle, where she writes and paints in her studio facing Mr. Rainier. Visit Shannon at her website/blog:  Shannon Winslow’s “Jane Austen Says…” and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Review: Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis

The alternate history first contact adventure Axiom's End is an extraordinary debut from Hugo finalist and video essayist Lindsay Ellis.

Truth is a human right.

It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

With much of our society in upheaval these days, including fighting a difficult-to-eradicate source of death, social unrest and a government that is mistrusted by many, Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis touches on similar themes, albeit adorned in a science fiction mantle. Main protagonist Cora Sabino finds herself caught up in a heretofore unknown cover-up of an alien presence on our planet, one that involved her family and decades of governmental secrecy. Through a series of astonishing events, she finds herself in the position of being the English language interpreter for a somewhat newly-arrived alien.  Much of the earth is unknowingly facing an existential crisis, and she could be the one force in the universe that may prevent humanity’s total destruction.

Axiom’s End is an exciting thriller, not only providing a roller coaster ride of a plot, but also offering philosophical discussions about the nature of life, the importance of truth, and the power of compassion. Parallels could be drawn between the relationship of the characters in the recent Netflix reboot of Lost in Space and the characters in Axiom’s End, but the latter tale goes far deeper into the perspectives of both the alien and earthly individuals. The novel is far more mature in its examination of the interaction between the two entities.

Ellis’ writing is quite compelling, providing characters that are well-drawn and a narrative that could easily be transposed into a cinematic treatment. I pictured ChloĆ« Grace Moretz in Cora’s role, and Eric Winter (of the show The Rookie) as Special Agent Kaplan. Cora’s aunt Luciana was embodied by Holly Hunter in my mind, Dr. Sev by actor Ben Kingsley, and Agent Vincent Park by Shawn Ashmore (also from The Rookie). As Cora’s father is an internet whistle-blower living in exile out of the country, of course I had in mind Julian Assange for his part, although I believe the book character is an American with dark hair.

For my conservative readership, some of the language does get a bit colorful from time to time. The characters are thrust into multiple circumstances of an extreme and sometimes deadly variety, and their reactions reflect that. F-bombs are a fairly common occurrence, but given the nature of the situations, it didn’t feel overly excessive to me. That said, if Axiom’s End goes on to obtain a cinematic treatment, the language is going to have to be softened to achieve the more lucrative PG-13 rating.

An overwhelming majority of the titles that I read for review are novels set in 19th century England, so delving into a world of aliens and government cover-ups was quite a detour. My screen habits tend to have a higher percentage of science fiction, however. Our household greatly enjoys the worlds of Star Wars as well as Star Trek, and the aforementioned revamped Lost in Space. This novel fit into that sensibility quite easily. I enjoyed the exciting plot, the philosophical aspects that arose between Cora and the alien force, and the compelling perspective on human/alien language differences. If linguistics is of any interest to the reader, Axiom’s End has much to offer in that regard. From its opening sentences to final lines, Axiom’s End held my attention and provided a thrilling summer diversion for this reader.

Photo Credit: Sarah Winters
About the Author

LINDSAY ELLIS is an author, Hugo finalist and video essayist who creates online content about media, narrative, and film theory. After earning her bachelor's in Cinema Studies from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, she earned her MFA in Film and Television Production from USC's School of Cinematic Arts with a focus in documentary and screenwriting. She lives in Long Beach, California, and Axiom's End is her debut novel.

Connect with Lindsay Ellis

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Book Review: Persuaded to Sail by Jack Caldwell

The long-awaited sequel to Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion

After an eight-year separation and a tumultuous reunion, Anne Elliot marries the dashing Captain Frederick Wentworth. The pair looks forward to an uneventful honeymoon cruise aboard the HMS Laconia. But the bride and groom find the seas of matrimony rough. Napoleon has escaped from Elba, the country is at war with France again, and the Admiralty imposes on Wentworth a mysterious passenger on a dangerous secret mission. The good captain is caught between duty to his country and love for his wife. All eyes are trained for enemies without, but the greatest menace may already be on board…

Continuing his Jane Austen’s Fighting Men series, Jack Caldwell brings us Persuaded to Sail, a sequel to Miss Austen’s Persuasion. In preparation for this novel and the review, I re-watched the 1995 and 2007 cinematic productions of Persuasion and also read the last two chapters of the source material (which of course includes the epitome of love letters, from Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliot). I love these characters, and I also highly enjoy naval adventures. I have a healthy collection of novels by Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester and R.H. Dana, Jr. in my personal library. As many have speculated on the long-term fate of Anne Elliot Wentworth due to Austen’s interesting final sentence regarding her, all of these factors together added to my anticipation for Persuaded to Sail. Any number of interesting narratives could spring from Austen’s closing words: “She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.” 

In the Hartness Library: Naval Titles by O'Brian, Forester and Dana

In this imagining of the Wentworths’ first months together as newlyweds, it becomes abundantly clear that Caldwell has done his homework in regard to naval history and procedure. Not only is there a helpful glossary included with the book, but much time is spent within the narrative to thoroughly construct the maritime surroundings of Anne, Captain Wentworth and his sailors. Unfortunately, the chapters tend to get overwhelmed with the volume of detail, and the story becomes burdened with numerous passages of exposition, wherein Anne is learning her way around the Laconia and gaining information so that she could not only function as Wentworth’s wife, but almost as a member of the crew. I am sure this level of detail has been presented in the spirit of great naval authors such as O’Brian and Forester, but given the pattern that Caldwell set with his previous works in this series, it seems inconsistent with his style. I found myself waiting for the story to truly engage for a large portion of the novel.

That said, once the story truly began to progress, I did enjoy the narrative that was put forth for Anne and Frederick. Given their surroundings and the era in which they lived, I found it realistic and at times compelling. One particularly interesting episode involved an almost impossible leadership choice for the Captain. I also liked how Anne’s relationship with the men of the Laconia grew over time, as she became almost like a Queen Mother to them. There is also somewhat of a bookended story line regarding Margaret Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility that pops up near the beginning and conclusion of the story which I found amusing, but it almost seemed as if it was tacked on at a late date in the writing process.

I enjoyed The Three Colonels in 2012 and The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel in 2016, so I’m disappointed to report that this third volume in the series doesn’t quite live up to the same level of quality of those that came before it. The story was weighed down by more naval exposition than necessary for a substantial portion of the beginning of the novel, and the general flow of the writing was not as strong. I do applaud Mr. Caldwell’s scholarship in his knowledge of naval terms and traditions, but I wish more time had been spent in crafting the story itself. This sequel to Persuasion is a realistic portrait of what indeed may have transpired in the lives of the Wentworths, but the way in which it was offered could have been framed and presented in a more skillful manner. Jack Caldwell has been an enjoyable author for years, and I’m sure there will be more titles of his that I will read and enjoy. It just seems that in this case, Persuaded to Sail is not my favorite work of his.

About the Author

Jack Caldwell, born and raised in the Bayou County of Louisiana, is an author, amateur historian, professional economic developer, playwright, and like many Cajuns, a darn good cook.

His nickname -- The Cajun Cheesehead -- came from his devotion to his two favorite NFL teams: the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers. (Every now and then, Jack has to play the DVD again to make sure the Saints really won in 2010.)

Always a history buff, Jack found and fell in love with Jane Austen in his twenties, struck by her innate understanding of the human condition. Jack uses his work to share his knowledge of history. Through his characters, he hopes the reader gains a better understanding of what went on before, developing an appreciation for our ancestors' trials and tribulations.

When not writing or traveling with Barbara, Jack attempts to play golf. A devout convert to Roman Catholicism, Jack is married with three grown sons.

Jack's blog postings -- The Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles -- appear regularly at Austen Variations. Follow Jack on Facebook and on Twitter @JCaldwell25

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Book Review: The Peasant's Dream by Melanie Dickerson

In this reverse Cinderella story, a poor farmer’s son, who dreams of using his talent as a woodcarver to make a better life for himself, falls in love with a duke’s daughter and must fight for a chance to win her heart.

Adela is the youngest daughter of Duke Wilhelm of Hagenheim and is never allowed outside of the castle walls. She loves her family, but she sneaks away one day to the market in the town center. There she meets a handsome young man and wonders what it might be like to fall in love with a poor farmer with a kind heart instead of marrying the man her family is suggesting for her.

Frederick earns the income for his family and defends his mother from his father’s drunken rages. He also uses his talent and creativity to carve figures, animals, and scenes into wood, and he's asked to carve these scenes into cathedral doors when his talent is noticed. Frederick is inspired by the sweet and beautiful Adela, but he has no knowledge of her true identity. When he gets swept up into a plan to kidnap the duke’s daughter, both are shaken by what they learn about the other.

With the heartbroken Adela resigned to an arranged marriage with her noble suitor, Frederick must decide what he’s willing to risk for love.

Since childhood, my favorite fairy tale has been Cinderella. I’m drawn to adaptations of the story, so it was no surprise that The Peasant’s Dream by Melanie Dickerson would pique my interest. In this version, the narrative is somewhat reversed, in that the “Cinderella” is actually a poor farmer’s son who falls in love with a duke’s daughter. The male protagonist is Frederick, a wood carver who has in his life characters similar to an evil step-parent and two troublesome siblings. While there is no fairy godmother, no transforming pumpkins or glass shoes, this is still a delightful story and a fine addition to Dickerson’s Hagenheim series. The eleventh and final volume of this particular collection of fairytale adaptations, The Peasant’s Dream features the romance between Frederick and Adela, the duke’s daughter. Unlike the traditional story, this imagining features more action and internal thought, allowing for greater suspense building and a bit of character development. Incidents and individuals from other episodes in the Hagenheim series are mentioned, but knowledge of those other books is in no way required to enjoy this specific novel.

The book could be categorized as Christian YA fiction, so the content is very family friendly. The romantic content is fairly modest, the violence measured and without gory details. Dickerson’s style is not as complex as you would find in most adult titles, which makes it very accessible to younger readers and a quick page-turner for those of us in the ‘mature’ category. Topics regarding Christian faith do emerge from time to time, providing important lessons within the story. I appreciated the themes of redemption, forgiveness, and humanity’s ability to choose righteousness even when surrounded by evil. God is not seen as a “fairy Godfather in the sky” granting all our wishes, but Someone who will be with us through our trials, sometimes providing deliverance, and sometimes providing strength to endure hardship instead. That said, the spirituality of the story is not heavy-handed, and could easily be read by those from outside the faith. 

I reviewed Dickerson’s The Beautiful Pretender four years ago, and while I think I enjoyed that title a bit more, The Peasant’s Dream was still very entertaining. Not only did I enjoy the trajectory of the main characters' lives, but I appreciated the development of their family members and loved ones as well. There's even a romantic royal ball at the climax of the story! If you enjoy fairy tale adaptations or any of the other titles in the Hagenheim series, this one would make a pleasant addition to your “To Be Read” list.

About the Author

Melanie Dickerson is the New York Times bestselling author who combines her love for history, adventure, and romance. Her books have won a Christy Award, two Maggie Awards, The National Reader’s Choice Award, the Christian Retailing’s Best Award, the Book Buyer’s Best Award, the Golden Quill, and the Carol Award. She earned her bachelor’s degree in special education from The University of Alabama and has taught children and adults in the U.S., Germany, and Ukraine. Now she spends her time writing stories of love and adventure near Huntsville, Alabama.

Connect with Melanie Dickerson


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