Review by Celina Cuadro, www.bookideas.com
I was quite impressed by Laura Hart's debut novel "The Toy Sorcerer" - I fell in love with the first characters
introduced to me, and became even more committed to them the further I read. Ms. Hart tugged at my heartstrings by
helping me connect with her characters on a very intimate level, that of tragedy and pain. This could be the first
time I've ever been enchanted by characters rendered more lovable by the painful and bittersweet trials they
Alice Towers and her father are struggling to pick up the pieces of their life after the tragic death of her
mother and her brother Tommy. Leaving the only home Alice knew in order to get away from their memories, the
Towers move from London to the North Devon countryside where they hoped to begin anew. There they meet Leona
Heggarty, known by the townsfolk as the local midwife, but also a witch from the Coven of Immortal Souls, who asks
Alice's help in rescuing her apprentice Magog from a dimension known as the Dream Realms. Something goes quite
wrong with Leona's plans and instead of helping Magog get out of the Dream Realms, Alice gets imprisoned like him.
Initially unaware of her dire straits she travels the land looking for Magog - but an even greater war is brewing
with Alice as the linchpin and the continuation of the human race at stake. To free herself and Magog from the
Dream Realms, Alice faces greater trials and difficult truths of self-discovery that will take its toll on her
already broken heart.
Let me state from the beginning that I will be repeating myself when it comes to the words, 'enchanting,'
'charming,' and 'endearing' when I speak of this tale. What is quite refreshing was that Laura Hart's rendering of
her character's tragedies gave me a feeling of intimate familiarity that made them more believable. For example,
the sadness and despair Alice felt may be a mirror to the author's own loss, or it may just be that Ms. Hart's
experience in the performing arts gave her great skill in making readers empathize with the character's woes.
Either way, I resonated with the authenticity of the pain, making the young protagonist Alice more real and
endearing. This is not in any way a depressing story - there are quests and dangers and battles to face, and a
message of respect for one's fellow creatures - but because the author does not shield the readers from the losses
and tragedies, one doesn't get an antiseptic Disney adventure, but a story with characters readers can root for.
The little bits of sorrow in each of Ms. Hart's characters made me commit more to them, made the tale sweeter, and
left me eagerly awaiting the next volume in the series, "The Final Prophecy".
A large contributor to the charm of the tale was the language. The author has achieved an ambiance of 'coziness'
in her character's conversations and in her treatment of crucial points - other than being in the genre of
contemporary fantasy, the tale feels like a story your aunt is telling about the family two blocks down the road.
It takes skill to make demons, gryphons, and dragons cozy and familiar, yet Ms. Hart made it very easy for me. The
conversations don't feel stilted, and the voyage of self-discovery undergone by Alice and Magog was gut-wrenching because I could easily see myself or a dear friend discovering similar things not easily faced.
Let me repeat myself a final time: this is a charming tale for readers of all ages, even if it is initially for
the young adult demographic. A very impressive debut for Laura Hart, and I encourage everyone to pick up "The Toy
Sorcerer" - may it captivate you and leave you anticipating the next in the series as it did for me.
on July 30, 2012
James Carter pays tribute to Alexander Pope in Scandalous, an updated take on the poet's "Rape of the Lock". Fantabulously ravishing English beauty Belinda prepared to attend a tea party at Hampton's Court. She expected to look perfect, break hearts, and yet find the perfect match of gentleman and money who would sweep her away in supposed love and an even better quality life than she already enjoyed. The army of sylphs who love and guard her beauty and honor worked hard to achieve the first of those expectations, but their leader Ariel warned the belle in a prophetic dream of the dangers to her honor as she engaged her many male admirers. The beauty should have heeded these vague warnings more, for in the party a lecherous baron named Charles emerged as her nemesis, and performed upon her an act that led to her fall from grace. Of the other guests in the party who were treated to the intrigue these events had spawned, three conspired to contact a 'poet of flowery word' named Pope (!) and commission a piece that immortalized the scandal to print.
A happy accident of inadvertently not knowing what I was reading for the first few pages of Scandalous pointed out the author's well-crafted humor early on. When I opened my ebook copy, I was taken straight to Chapter One without seeing title or description. I started reading, and got as far as Belinda getting dressed for the party before the feeling of hearing a long-winded joke with the punch line so close yet just out of reach made me exclaim, "what the @#$&* is this?!?" at which point I back-tracked through the emails and first pages to see what it was I had gotten myself into. Don't get me wrong - even in my befuddled state, what I had read so far was hilarious! After my quick scan of the title and the email giving an overview of the book, I went back to what I had read so far, and it got even funnier at the second pass - James Carter was spinning a yarn witty enough that my bumbling around did not detract from the humor of the piece.
Keeping the language more modern than what existed during Alexander Pope's time even made the satire more tongue-in-cheek, and slathered on some sarcasm to boot. References to Belinda as 'England's Rose' or 'the Chiswick Damsel' was consistent enough if a little plainer that what Pope had spun for her to affect epic poem proportions, but the more modern reference 'blond angel' gained humor simply by attaching it to the uptight English society of the period. By the time the author regularly whipped out honorifics like 'creme brulee', 'pink meringue', 'powder puff', and 'blond crumpet', I had a giggle and guffaw handy for every new title conceived.
What added to the entertainment however was the addition of new characters in the tableau. While staying consistent with the damsel, the villain, the sylphs and gnomes that Pope utilized to mimic epic poetry, James Carter added the wonderful trio of Cuthbert "Bertie" Sommers, Elizabeth "Betty" Winstone, and the Lady Victoria "Vicky" Cheltham to act like a hybrid of the witches in Macbeth and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream - they were witnesses to the event who functioned as a bridge to the audience of readers when they set the scandal to print. The character of Lucy Willows was also a modern twist, because the original epic poetry satire would not have a cynic who called out the bald-faced truths with a jaded eye, while her grandmother Sylvia Willows served like a 'wise king' to Lucy's 'wiser fool': Sylvia tells the reader (and Lucy) that such was the society of the day, and to survive it and succeed, one must know it for what it is. All these characters do deviate from the original satire, but for my modern sensibilities I enjoyed James Carter's counterpoint to Alexander Pope's original point. They helped the author's updated piece stay as irreverent yet a little raunchier, which certainly made it an entertaining read. I very much enjoyed Mr. Carter's foray into classic satire, and highly recommend it even to readers who are not familiar with Alexander Pope's original work. As my first haphazard read showed, Scandalous was funny and enjoyable even before I knew what I was reading!
Ghosts in Vietnam
on July 30, 2012
James Carter shows his versatility with Ghosts in Vietnam. This thought-provoking tale focused on the stream-of-consciousness personal hell that people caught in wartime conditions endure. Add to this the merciless verdure and humidity of the Vietnamese climate, and the darker shades of human nature are packaged in a brief encounter between a group of VietCong 'fighters' and the rag-tag group of American soldiers.
A squad of nine American soldiers from Sierra Company were assigned to a mission somewhere in Vietnam, and no one knew what the mission was except their lieutenant Paul Sitrick, whose own ethical baggage made this dubious mission even harder for him to accomplish. The men don't know each other well and trust each other even less. Lieutenant Sitrick was seconded by Sergeant Tom McCain, a grizzled veteran of several missions who had seen it all and did not like what he saw. Distrustful of his superior officers and jaded, he grasped quickly that their mission was utterly pointless, and hated the Ivy League-, fashion model-looking lieutenant he had to back up. Add Wilbur Gosset, a black man who was skilled enough to attain the position of Corporal and endured all the prejudice such an accomplishment elicited, and the six men already deemed losers by Sierra Company who were already in over their heads had nothing but a shaky command team to lead them. Meanwhile, somewhere deep in the squad's drop site, an isolated group of VietCong were trying to survive the punishing conditions of living underground as well as dodging the wrath of their cruel commander Quan. The Amercans' mission was supposed to be only two days long, and the encounter between the groups were messy and short - no man in either faction would ever be the same, and most wouldn't even be alive by the time the chopper came back for the squad's extraction.
Reading Ghosts in Vietnam was like having a prolonged spell of vertigo for me. I had just recently read a satire by James Carter which I thoroughly enjoyed, and walking into this tale was like entering a pitch-black cave compared to the laughter and light of the previous story. Carter also elected to jump the reader from person to person, examining each character's stream of consciousness at each jump. While all the characters had a running theme of hatred, panic, and determination to survive, each man felt each emotion in differing intensities, and each emotion's ascendance changed from character to character. As such, jumping from one man's consciousness to the next felt like a roller coaster of dormant to intense hate, and mild to sheer panic - and the only character I found great solace in was the lowest grunt in VietCong hierarchy, Minh. Minh was a peaceful Buddhist who lived in a constant state of fear and an intense need to run away - the world was dying day by day, the fighting and death was all karma, and he was to accept suffering through it all in the hopes of rising to a higher level. Minh was the only character whose stream of consciousness stemmed from constant fear and the desire to be elsewhere, and was a form of stability for a reader like me who was now punch-drunk from the roiling minds of the American soldiers. The author's descriptions of a lush and unforgiving Vietnamese landscape - intermittent tropical storms, intense humidity, and a chaotic miasma of decay and death - contributed to the dizzying tapestry that left me short of breath and my stomach queasy. Despite the discomfort Carter crafted for me, it compelled me to see the tale through till I knew what became of every man in the sharply violent but pointless encounter.
After finishing Ghosts in Vietnam, I discovered James Carter to be a brave writer who practiced versatility with so varied a range of writing styles. I encourage readers to take a peek at humanity's ugly underbelly - and I hope readers find themselves pensive and a little humbled after the experience like I was. Recommended.
The Silver Flame
on July 30, 2012
"Those who live by the sword, die by the sword" - James Carter expands this old adage to a full-blown story in his novel The Silver Flame. This action-packed tale is filled with captivating images and intriguing characters. Set in the waning years of the Japanese samurai, stark beauty is paired with violence, and freedom comes at a very high price.
It is 1871, Japan is in its Meiji Era, and American Malachi Cole is honing his fighting skills under the tutelage of his teacher Isamu at the House of the Burning Blades. Meanwhile, in the city's pleasure district called the Floating World, the geisha known far and wide as Scarlet Orchid was making elaborate preparations for her solo performance at the River Festival. Both have masked their deepest secrets by aspiring for perfection: Malachi Cole runs from his memories of the American Civil War by devoutly learning the way of the warrior, while the beautiful Scarlet Orchid draws her phenomenal dancing skills from a secret training regimen more dangerous than her dance instructor's classes. Warrior and geisha would never have met were it not for the greedy machinations of an unseen hand that desired Isamu's sword, The Silver Flame. Once the sword was spirited away, these two lives, along with quite a few others, would go through a violent upheaval that forever changed the seemingly perfect facade of their lives.
I found it interesting that James Carter made this story a study in contrasts using concepts that didn't normally contrast with each other. For example, Beauty or Perfection is not an opposing concept to Violence or Rage. And yet Beauty/Perfection was designated as 'yin', paired with Violence as its 'yang' - Malachi tried to escape the war of his own country by pursuing the martial beauty of another country's warrior lifestyle. Scarlet Orchid (known to those "who were plain and ordinary" as Mai) was perfection when she danced, and yet she resorted to violence to sharpen her skills and fuel her rage and ambitions. Even the artist Yoshiro Aso, a purveyor and creator of beautiful things, resorted to underhanded yet violent means to ferret away what he considered a thing of beauty, The Silver Flame. Carter managed to make this artificial contrast work for readers like me by linking Beauty/Perfection to a feeling of imprisonment. Mai was a prisoner of her beauty - as a renown geisha of the pleasure district, she was bound to the lifestyle by her patrons, and to the mistress who bought her as a child. Malachi's apprentice, Katsu, so desired the 'beautiful life' of a samurai, but he was barred from it because of his station in life, being only a gardener's son. Even the venerable Isamu, Malachi's teacher, and Isamu's fellow samurai and friend Master Katashi, who have attained 'perfection' as samurai, were trapped in their aging bodies - bodies that could no longer keep up with their knowledge and skill. Carter dispensed with too much exposition about the origins of these characters, but instead established that they were trapped - by beauty/perfection or from attaining it - and my attention as a reader was held until such time as an event of violent force came along to shatter that imprisonment.
The Silver Flame has enough action, stark beauty, and intriguing characters to captivate many readers. For those like me however who also happened to follow James Carter's writing career, there was the added gift of being witness to a rather enjoyable thought experiment, not unlike watching an painter drawing a series of study sketches in preparation for an upcoming masterpiece. A very interesting read.