Review: A Criminal Magic

a criminal magicDetails: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press

Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy


I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.

The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.

Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.

I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.

Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.

So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.

But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.

Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Kill My Mother

Details: Feiffer, J. (2014). Kill My Mother. New York, NY: Liveright.

Keywords: 1920s, graphic novel, noir

Review: I had prepared myself to love this graphic novel. I have a longstanding love affair with both mysteries and the noir genre. I took a noir literature course in college and fell in love with Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. Since then, I love a story with good patter, dark deeds, and a protagonist rife with existential angst and who teems with suppressed emotion, seeking purpose in this seemingly empty life….

Anyways, back to this graphic novel: Kill My Mother has an edgy title and a pale blue-gray-white-black color palette — all of which promise noir glory. The premise features primarily a group of women: a widow who lost her cop husband to an unsolved homicide; a daughter who hates her widowed mother; a strange, tall and blonde woman in the alley; and a host of supporting male characters (including the [necessary] verbally abusive, drunk detective). The art is unique and very apropos: The squiggly linework that depicts both character and scene creates a surreal atmosphere that lends itself to a story that features abuse, severe mental health issues, and murder.

But overall? The art, the color choices, and the story just didn’t grab me. If any character stirred me, it was the daughter — a loathesome character with an irrational hatred to her mother that was then too easily resolved at the end. Underwhelmed, I finished the graphic novel with a sense of ‘Meh.’ Jules Feiffer, the artist-author, is an award winner several times over for his work in comics, particularly political cartoons. With such a robust body of work, perhaps in the future I’ll find something else of his that I’ll enjoy. However, Kill My Mother was not my cup of tea.

Excitement Level: Meh.