Who could ask for anything more?

“Critics are sentinels in the grand army of letters, stationed at the corners of newspapers and reviews, to challenge every new author.”                     -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Scourge of the Righteous Haddock is still sufficiently new that I’m completely charmed every time it receives a new review on Amazon or Goodreads. Thus far the majority of the reviews have been generous, if somewhat cautious on account of the fact that many of the reviewers know me and are, therefore, eager to avoid the appearance of giving me undue praise. (At least, this is what I imagine to be the case. They may have been heaping unearned praise on the book and I simply failed to realize it.)

Right now my ego as a writer is still somewhat bruised from the news that I failed to advance beyond the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, as well as my conflicted feelings about the first draft of my second novel, Vestal. In short, I kind of needed a win, some indication that something I had written appealed to someone, made them laugh or think deeply on some odd subject. Of course if I had gone searching for such validation I’d have failed to find it. But because I’ve been forging determinedly forward with Book Three and trying not to allow any failures related to Scourge of the Righteous Haddock or Vestal to flatten me out emotionally, validation came stumbling along in the form of a truly incredible review.

I’ll start by admitting that the review came from a friend and collaborator whose opinion I greatly respect: Mignon Khargie, who I got to know through working together on San Louie, and who has been an incredible source of support and camaraderie on this journey, particularly since she is also an author and facing many of the same obstacles.

I’ll continue by explaining why I love this review so very much: It’s not just an assessment of a book; it’s an assessment of a self-published book, complete with the pros and cons of reading a story produced with limited resources but unencumbered by any external pressure to modify my book in a way that would make it unrecognizable. This review acknowledges the book’s problems, assesses future potential, and does so in a way that indicates how deeply Mignon thought about the material as she read. I truly can’t ask for anything more than that, and I am wildly and deeply in love with every single thing she had to say, including the points of criticism.

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“Self-published books can have a certain raw charm and edginess to them. Frequently, there is no shepherding staff of an editor to whack at plot slip-ups and corral run-on sentences. Or, suggest ways out of the dead end into which you’ve just written yourself. It takes grit to publish them, and grit to read them. Some of us (cough) edit live, months after the book has been published, and breathe a secret word of thanks that only a handful of understanding friends have bought the book.

The braver of us send them out into the world and trumpet their arrival, because they’re convinced that somewhere out there are readers craving fresh ideas over echo.

Schwellenbach’s first book deserves attention from those readers.

It isn’t that Scourge hasn’t been edited (the author is after all editor of a weekly newspaper). It’s just that it’s impossible to miss how enamored Ashley Schwellenbach is of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters … writing. And making lists! My quibble with Scourge is that she sometimes surrenders storytelling to a rhapsody of detail and subplot. But it’s hard to become impatient since Schwellenbach must touch and sniff her words. Her love of what she’s doing (writing!) runs through every single page. Who can find fault with that?

Not me. I kept reading.

Right through Liam’s 816-word supply list (I counted them) at the end of which she deftly tucked a Hawaiian shirt between Dockers and Galoshes. To see if you were paying attention. She burnt a forest and delivered a eulogy to tree species I’d not heard of. She wrote a song. And played with the table of contents. There are times when even she gets a little fatigued (this is a hefty book) and a chapter ends while you’re still thinking about why it would do that right then.

At the heart of the book is a jealous making idea: orphaned girls who spend their days writing, and whatever issues from their pens actually comes to pass. Who are the orphans? Consider their names: Alice, and Ayn (“Her self-confidence was that of a much older woman, battle-tested, scarred, and proud, and the rabid zeal with which she defended her own highly inflammatory ideology would not mellow with age.”), and Beatrix, and Charlotte, and Chitra (who mixes her ink with exotic spices!), and Emily, and Eudora, and Isak, and Miles, and Sylvie. Of course that roll doesn’t end there.

Scourge of the Righteous Haddock is a celebration of that ineffable something which has this author now editing her second book: imagination. Clearly she has enough of it to give away since she’s also at work on a third book.

I read the first half of this book on a plane and kept dog-earing pages (sorry!). And I’ll close this review by sharing a few of the passages I marked. Enjoy:

“But Miles knew that words derive their power, not from being bound and contained, but by their release. There was no poetry without the wind and sky. And there would be no Trundlewood Academy without the tangled heap of fabric wrapped round and round the school, keeping the planets in their proper orbits, delivering screaming infants to eager parents, and collapsing the cakes of inattentive bakers.” (Page 71)

“All that obeisance must be rough on the trousers, particularly at the knee. And denial of the flesh seemed hard on the flesh.” Trousers! (Page 107)

“Love was very different from true love, and Emily believed the use of the word “true” actually diluted the word it was intended to modify. You shouldn’t need to modify love, Emily thought, or accessorize it with other happy sounding words. At a certain point you just had to let it be, either to stand the test of time or fade away or combust right in your face, depending on your preference.” (Page 237)

There’s a lot more to savor. All I can say is, if this is her first book I can’t wait for the second. Or the third.”

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