Thursday, October 6, 2016

Review of Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt

For my latest book review, I'm proud to present Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt.  Once again, I'm thrilled to be a part of the Virtual Author Book Tour.  Written in the Ashes is a historical fiction novel that provides such intensive historical detail that it is simply amazing.

The story is set in ancient Egypt during the period of time when Christianity was gaining a foothold in the empire and the struggle between the new religion and the traditional pagan beliefs was quickly erupting into violence and bloodshed.  At the center of the story is 20 year old Hannah, a beautiful shepherdess with the voice of an angel.  She is brutally kidnapped from her home in Sinai, where she lived with father, and brought to Alexandria, where half-dead, she is bought by Tarek.  Tarek brings her back to his father's house, the alchemist Alizar.  He treats her kindly and eventually allows her to study under the famed female philospher Hypatia at the Great Library.  This puts Hannah on a life-altering course and squarely in the middle of the conflict between Bishop Cyril and Hypatia.  Cyril wants to convert he populace to Christianity and resorts to ever worsening tactics in order to achieve his goal.

For this review, I'm switching things up a little.  Click below to watch a video interview of the author and check the Author Interviews page of this blog for an exclusive excerpt from the novel.

Written in the Ashes is so unique because it chooses to follow the story of a woman in a world and culture that was entirely male dominated.  The novel is so vividly detailed that readers are nearly transported to the world of ancient Egypt .  Even though the story is set centuries in the past, Hannah and Hypatia's struggle to carve a niche for themselves in a male dominated world will resonate with modern women readers.  There is a beautiful balance between action and romance, leaving something for readers of all genders and preferences.  I found myself reading late into the night on several occasions.  I could really see with my  mind's eye, the buildings, architecture, food, clothing, and people of ancient Egypt . When the novel finally concluded, I was pleased with the ending, but I find myself wanting a sequel!!!  As always, there are no plot spoilers on my blog, I can only tell you to buy this book and read it!  You won't be disappointed.                                                                              

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Acclaimed Author Gloria Naylor Passes Away at 66

2016 has dealt us all some tough losses, and the literary world has not been immune to this.  Gloria Naylor, most famous for her critically acclaimed novel The Women of Brewster Place, passed away at the age of 66 near her home in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S.V.I.  According to her niece, the cause of death was heart failure.

Her 1983 novel, The Women of Brewster Place, went on to win a National Book Award and became a widely hailed tv miniseries starring Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield.  Subsequent novels including Linden Hills, Bailey's Cafe, and The Men of Brewster Place, which examined the lives of the men in the original novel, earned her a firm place as a leading African American author.

Naylor earned a B.A. in English from Brooklyn College and a master's degree from Yale.  She taught at several prestigious institutions, including The University of Pennsylvania and New York University.  Her other awards included the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship.  She leaves behind a sister, Bernice Harrison, a niece, and a nephew.

Hats off to another literary giant who has passed on.  Ms. Naylor may have left the physical world, but she lives on through her writing.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of Tears of Abraham by Sean T. Smith

America is torn apart by civil war.  The United States are anything but as countryman fights countryman.  At the center of it all is a battle hardened soldier who is fighting to save his marriage and fighting to save his country......Lincoln must be the president right?  This must be set in 1861, right?

Wrong.  Northeast Florida writer Sean T. Smith's latest novel, Tears of Abraham, explores America in the not to distant future as it is torn apart by a second Civil War.  At the center of the story is Henry Wilkins, a soldier in an elite, highly classified counter-terror unit.  PTSD, frequent absences, and the secretive nature of his job have all taken a toll on his marriage to Suzanne, who has drawn up divorce papers.  The government is dissolving as quickly as their marriage.  The President declares martial law, states begin the move towards secession, and bombs destroy Washington D.C. and San Francisco.  Henry's unit is ambushed and mostly wiped out.  He and another survivor begin the treacherous journey from Canada, where their commander had taken them in an ill-fated attempt to hide, back to their respective homes.  For Henry, home is the Florida Keys, where he can only hope that Suzanne and their daughter Taylor are safe  and still waiting for him.  Along the way, the novel explores the lives and fates of several minor characters who are nevertheless well developed and starkly realistic.

Originally from Ontario, Canada, Sean T. Smith moved to Miami, Florida and attended the University of Florida in Gainesville.  After pursuing a music career in Nashville, he moved back to Florida, where he raises his family and writes.  He is currently working on his fifth novel.  To learn more about him, visit his personal blog and make sure to check out his Q &A on the  Author Interview page of this blog, one of the most interesting ones I've ever done.

Apocalyptic fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres, and the fact that reviewing Tears of Abraham allows me the chance to feature a local author, is an added bonus.  The novel deals with political issues without being heavy handed or biased and the characters in the novel are well-rounded, from a delusional redneck to a struggling black man, to the main characters themselves.  One of my favorite chapters is entitled "Semper Fi", which opens with Henry's internal struggle at being caught up in a civil war which pits him against an enemy that he normally would have been fighting with, not against.  "Henry Wilkins was willing to give his life for his country, but at the moment, his country seemed intent on killing him.  This did not sit well in the jagged corners of his soul, humping through the Canadian Rockies with drones hunting him." The narrative then expounds into a poignant memory of Henry and his father.  What was sobering for me as I read these lines, is the fact that although a work of fiction, the political chaos that leads up to this is disturbingly close to the climate in our country today.  Science fiction and apocalyptic fiction writers are often uncomfortable prophets of the future, quietly warning readers of our possible fate while there is still time to change paths.  As readers, our job is to heed the warnings and not merely dismiss them as existing only between the pages of a book or in the minds of the authors.  Tears of Abraham reminds us that we are stronger together than apart and that in the current climate of political divisiveness, our focus on foreign terrorism may blind us to the fact that the worst enemy may lie within.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review of The Blackbirds by Eric Jerome Dickey

The Blackbirds is the latest novel by the prolific author Eric Jerome Dickey.  I read this book as part of an online book club that I've recently joined, and though I must confess that I voted for a different book for the group's selection, I am so glad to have read the novel. (Shoutout to the members of R.E.A.D.!!!)

The plot traces the lives of four best friends who live in the same apartment building.  Indigo, the owner of the apartment building, is the child of a wealthy Nigerian family and the on-again, off-again girlfriend to a superstar NFL player.  As he cheats on her and stalls on putting a ring on her finger, she wavers between him and her ex-boyfriend, an equally famous NBA player. Kwanzaa is a Starbucks barista and college student, trying unsuccessfully to get over her broken engagement and cheating fiance.  A chance encounter with a handsome, mysterious customer leads to a wild fling with details that outdo even some of the author's most sensual works!  Destiny is the infamous title character from a previous EJD work, Chasing Destiny.  She is all grown up but still fighting the demons of her tragic past.  Ericka is a divorced teacher, left by her pastor husband while fighting cancer.  She is also fighting a strong, hidden crush on Destiny's father.  The novel is divided into sections based on each character's  birthday, and there is enough drama, romance, and fast-paced dialogue to keep readers turning pages well into the wee hours of the morning.

Eric Jerome Dickey is the author of over twenty novels, including the Gideon series, one of my personal favorites.  He also penned a series of graphic novels featuring the Black Panther and Storm, the African weather witch of X-men fame.  He hails from Memphis, but now makes his home as a nomad, traveling from place to place.  Learn more about him and his works at his website.

This novel takes readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions.   I laughed out loud literally at the antics of the women and their sharp wit and brutal humor.  I cried with them as they faced heartbreak and disappointment.  I raged against men who broke their hearts, and in Ericka's case-a bitter mother who was much better at dishing out bitterness and animosity than love.  On the other hand, I marveled at the strength of the relationship between Indigo and her mother.  As they discussed relationships, her mother told her, "you are better than me, Indigo.  You are better than me in every way.  You are the woman I admire and adore.  Don't let a man kiss you and turn a princess into a frog."  I cheered for Destiny as she fought to reclaim her life and stop living in the shadows.  I nearly stood up and shouted "Amen" when she told a man from her past, "I am a black woman, overworked, stressed, abused, and I have demons.  Oppression, fear, being marginalized creates demons.  Every black person in America should have demons, or they are spiritually dead.  You'd have to be crazy to not have a breakdown."  The novel is not all serious conversation, however.  Those EJD fans who turn to his books for the spine-tingling, graphic sex scenes will not be disappointed.  There is truly something for everyone in this novel.  This is a true gem from a beloved author.  EJD certainly rose to the occasion with this work.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review of The Inquisitor's Niece by Erika Rummel

The Inquisitor's Niece by Erika Rummel is featured on this blog as part of a Virtual Authors Book Tour blog tour.  The novel is a historical fiction piece full of carefully researched details that brings the setting of Spain during the Inquisition to life as the backdrop to a touching love story.

The novel follows the story of Luisa and Alonso, two seemingly star-crossed lovers who overcome life-threatening odds to be together.  Luisa originally has dreams of becoming a nun, however her ambitious father has dreams of marrying her off to a prominent man. Being a woman in the 16th century means that she has little to no say in her future, so marriage it is.  On the advice of the Cardinal, her father arranges a marriage to Deodatus, a prominent scholar and poet who is wealthy and famous.  However, Deodatus is attracted to men only, and Luisa finds herself trapped into a loveless, sometimes abusive relationship.  Alonso is a Jew who was forced into conversion by the Inquisition, but even this wasn't enough to save his father, who is eventually killed, leaving his family in shame and penniless.  Alonso barely escapes losing his livelihood as a doctor by receiving a pardon from the Cardinal upon recommendation of Natale, a sneaky spy of the Inquisition.  Natale's scheming, back-stabbing tendencies play an integral part of the story and nearly bring about the demise of Alonso.  As I'm not a fan of spoilers, I will leave details about how Alonso and Luisa meet, how her marriage to Deodatus ends, and what happens at the end, for readers to discover on their own!  And, as part of the blog tour, here is your chance to win a copy of the novel:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Erika Rummel is a scholar, author and historian from Vienna, Austria.  She earned her PHd from the University of Toronto and went on to teach Renaissance history there, as well as at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo.  To learn more about her, check out the BTWA interview with her on this blog's Author Interviews page.

The Inquisitor's Niece embodies what I love the most about reading historical fiction:  the ability to learn about a time period in history while being entertained with a delightful plot.  Rummel's background as a history scholar is evident in the amount of painstaking research that obviously went into recreating the life of Christians and Jews during the Inquisition in Europe.  Luisa and Alonso are endearing characters who are vividly brought to life and their quest to be together will win readers' hearts.  I look forward to reading forthcoming works from Erika Rummel and am excited to once again participate in a Virtual Authors  Book tour.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review of Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

In her debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, Tiphanie Yanique weaves Caribbean historical fact and fiction into a compelling story of love, heartbreak, and loss that gracefully blurs the lines between contemporary fiction and fantasy.

Click the link to hear me read an excerpt from the novel, in character as Annette:

The story begins with sea captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw, his wife Antionette, and his mistress, Rebekah. Rebekah is known as an obeah woman (obeah is a Caribbean term dealing with the practice of witchcraft or magic) and it is widely believed throughout St. Thomas that she used her powers to drive her Navy husband away, and to lure and keep Captain Bradshaw.  He fathers two children with his wife, Eeona and Annette, and an illegitimate son with Rebekah named Jacob.  The lives of these three children will become intertwined in ways that send shock waves through the next generation.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and currently lives in New Rochelle, NY with her husband-the photographer Moses Djeli, and their two children.  Land of Love and Drowning is her first novel and it has received several awards, including the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction.  She is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled How to Escape from a Leper Colony, and is a professor at the New School in the MFA program.

Land of Love and Drowning is part love story, part fable, and part history lesson.  While Ms. Yanique writes of the magic spun by Rebekah, Eeona, and Annette, she creates her own magic with an elegant lyricism and poetical style that draws readers in and leaves them captured under the spell of the Bradshaw women and the mystical beauty and power of the Caribbean.  As a huge fan and supporter of Caribbean arts and literature, I am thrilled to have discovered a new talent in Ms. Yanique and will be eagerly awaiting her forthcoming works.  Fans of Colin Channer, Paule Marshall, Elizabeth Nunez, and Edwidge Danticat-there is a new Caribbean writer in our midst who is poised to take her place as a torchbearer of the authentic island narrative and culture.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

Let me start by saying that there are no spoiler alerts in this blog (I hate spoilers!!!) but I will issue a strong warning:  Reading this novel may require a strong dose of caffeine to function the next day because you will really be tempted to stay up late into the night to finish!  I turned the last page at 12:48 am and it was well worth it!

Rachel Jenner is still reeling from her divorce from her successful pediatric surgeon husband, John, who left the day after Christmas for a younger co-worker.  Nearly a year later, she is still struggling in her role as a single mother when a routine walk through the woods with their son Ben turns into every parents' worst nightmare.  She allows him to run ahead to the swing and when she arrives, he is gone.  His dog, Skittle, later reappears with a broken leg and the massive police search that ensues soon finds the clothes that Ben was wearing stuffed into a bag.  As the hours turn into days, Rachel and John are driven to the edge of insanity as they fear the worst.  The media frenzy, driven by social media, quickly turns on Rachel and casts blame and suspicion on her, heaping on to the guilt that she feels for allowing Ben to run ahead.  She is castigated online, journalists camp out in front of her home, and the public judgment escalates into vandalism and violence.   Making matters even worse, as the list of credible suspects emerges, Rachel realizes that even those closest to her are not who they seem and the number of people that she can trust shrinks daily.  Rachel's narration of the unraveling of her life is juxtaposed with the story of Jim Clemo, the lead investigator on the team searching for Ben.   His own secrets, as well as the personal relationship that he has with one of the female officers on the case, turn out to play a pivotal role in the search.

Gilly Macmillan is a wife, mother, photographer, and lecturer of photography.  She grew up in the United Kingdom and as a teen, moved with her family to Northern California.  She returned to the UK for college, earning degrees in Art and Art History from Bristol University and Courtald Institute of Art in London.  She lives in Bristol with her family.  What She Knew is her first novel.

What She Knew is a thrilling debut novel filled with plot twists, long-buried secrets, and thoughtful insight into what happens when unexpected tragedy upends the lives of a family, and how that tragedy reveals how little we often really know about those closest to us.  The opening line of the novel drives this point home, "in the eyes of others, we're often not who we imagine ourselves to be". Macmillan creates a realistic, introspective protagonist in Rachel, one whom readers can sympathize with despite her admitted shortcomings.  Even with Rachel's first-person disclosure however, there are still things about herself that she  doesn't realize and that are slowly revealed as the search for Ben continues.  The novel is also a quiet commentary on modern day social media and how it is used to allow people to anonymously pass judgment and make statements that they most likely wouldn't say face-to-face.  The Internet allows us to indulge our rubbernecking tendencies-that nearly universal human trait of being horrified yet secretly entertained by the tragedies of others.  As Rachel puts it, "we all love to be thrilled by the vicarious experience of other people's ghastly lives after all".   What She Knew is a tightly written, well-paced thriller that represents a more than worthy first effort from Macmillan.  Readers should look forward to more work from this new author.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres of books because if done correctly, an author can bring a historical character to life and sweep readers away into a different time period, introducing vivid details about life in the past.  Most historical fiction writers take some liberties with names, dates, and events, but tend to stick closely to the most relevant information about the period of time that their story takes place in.  The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is no exception, and presents a heartbreaking, lyrical narrative that addresses one of the greatest stains of  human history-the Transatlantic slave trade.

Aminata Diallo is the first person narrator and it is her story that readers follow throughout the book.  As the novel opens, she is an old woman living in London, being cared for by abolitionists who want her to tell her to appear before Parliament as part of their appeal to lawmakers to abolish the practice of transporting Africans across the Atlantic, a move that they hope will eventually lead to the complete end of slavery.  With stunning prose and moving imagery, Aminata takes readers back in time to her childhood in her village of Bayo, where she is the daughter of a jewelry maker who goes against tradition by teaching her how to read and write passages from the Qu'ran, and a midwife who teaches her the art of "catching babies".  When she and her parents are captured and their village raided and set on fire, Aminata is eleven years old and watches both her mother and father be killed as they fight their captors. With only a few familiar faces from her village and the friendship of a young man Chekura, Aminata endures such unspeakable horrors on the slave ship that as an old woman, she admonishes readers "if you.....have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary.  And cultivate distrust of the colour pink.....what benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?" Aminata's story takes her from the indigo plantations of South Carolina as a slave to Canada as a free woman after she is granted freedom for serving the British during the Revolutionary War.  Along the way, she endured nearly every cruelty associated with slavery, including rape and the separation of her husband and children.

Lawrence Hill lives in Burlington, Ontario with his wife and children.  He began his writing career as a journalist and is the author of two other novels as well as several works of non-fiction.  The son of a sociologist and a civil rights activist, Hill grew up immersed in his parents' human rights work as well as research about the history of black people in Canada.  The Book of Negroes takes its title from a real historical document bearing the same name, which documented blacks who worked for the British during the Revolutionary War in exchange for freedom.  The work was originally published under the title of Someone Knows My Name and in 2015, was adapted into a miniseries airing on BET. For more information about the author, visit his official website.

This novel is not for the faint of heart.  Hill's meticulous research is evident in horrific, spellbinding details that offers readers no escape from the brutally graphic treatment that many slaves endured.  This, coupled with Aminata's brave, unflinching voice and piercing observations of the world around her, makes this a story that readers won't soon forget.  The narrative is so believable that one could easily find themselves looking up the actual Book of Negroes and searching for Aminata's name as one of its entries.  Hers is no rose-colored story of happy slaves living in Tara.  While Hill adds dimension and a range of emotions to all of his characters, slaves and slave owners alike, through Aminata's words we are provided with a psychological damnation of the institution with no room for justification or whitewashing.  As she thinks back about her march to the coast where she and the other captured Africans will board the slave ship, she makes a blunt analysis about the eyes of the slave catchers.  "Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully.  To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity, and to assert your own".  I highly recommend The Book of Negroes as a beautifully handled work of fiction that handles an all-too real subject with candor and dignity.  Aminata's story will travel with you long after you have turned the last page.