Archive for September 2015

Introducing . . . Fan Feature!


I'm excited to announce a new monthly feature here at A Book A Week. One of the great joys of blogging has been connecting with indie authors. Through this blog and its various social media accounts, I've been exposed to many authors who write unique books and are extremely friendly. These connections have inspired me to start a new feature called FAN FEATURE!

With FAN FEATURE, I intend to help independent authors who are followers and fans of this blog, by featuring them and their works.  My goal is to give a voice to those authors who do not have the support of large publishing houses and promoters. Once the winner is selected, I will coordinate with them to feature their works in a way they deem appropriate. Further, a link to every participant's website will be provided to readers of this blog in a separate post.

To enter, simply follow me on Twitter and tweet about FAN FEATURE by using the Rafflecopter below. The winner will be announced and contacted on October 23 and featured in the last week of October.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek


"What they're doing down there is mourning. As millions of people across the infinitude of the grid shall always be mourning, coping with every imaginable variation of loss. Every loss deserves a telling."

8-11 was the day that changed everything. Twenty-year-old Skylar was watching from her apartment window when she noticed the object falling from the sky. Before she could reach the young boy she was babysitting, the night's sky was illuminated by the brilliant flash of the mass impacting the earth. The Golden Gate Bridge was reduced to rubble, and a haze of ash and debris enveloped the city. As soon as she ascended to the chaos on the streets, Skylar's fate was sealed. The toxic air polluted her lungs and she, like so many others that day, fell victim to the catastrophic tragedy.

Several years later the world is still coping with the effects of that incident. Authorities were never able to determine what exactly caused the disaster and have no idea who, if anyone, was responsible for the attack. Some claim that the object was a missal or a bomb. Others swear it was an object from outer space. In the end, whatever the object was doesn't really matter. The events of that day have caused an immense shift in the daily lives of everyday people. They now, "live, day to day, with the chance of something violent, something tragic happening at any moment."Motivated by this constant fear, post-incident America has responded in a historically misguided way. Much like Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Muslim Americans have been corralled into camps. As Americans search for any scapegoat to place their anger and grief upon, Muslims become the victims of hate and distrust.

Skylar's family has found her death to be unbearable. So much so that her parents, Mitch and Kathryn, have erased any trace of their deceased daughter.  Whether they have done this consciously or not is unclear, but they constantly tell their youngest son, Dorian, that he does not and has never had a sister. Dorian was a toddler on 8-11, so he has no recollection of Skylar. But the young man is beginning to suspect that his parents are hiding something from him. He has vivid dreams of a young woman watching a blinding flash from an apartment window in the city. His parents refuse to acknowledge any questions about the girl, but Dorian persists that evidence of a sister must exist somewhere.

Dorian's life becomes even further conflicted when his elderly neighbor introduces a young boy, Karim, who he has adopted from one of the Muslim camps. Dorian is instantly filled with hate for the boy. "Hating . . . not him exactly, but the idea of him, or the idea of people like him -- and though he has been taught to not believe in the sameness of all such persons, a logic as inborn as the structure of his DNA connect each and every one of them. . ."

Karim is equally troubled with his new life. In the camps, he was indoctrinated with the teachings of self-sacrifice to reach eternal paradise. The Sheik had Karim memorize a number that he was to use to contact the camp after he settled into his new home. Once contact was established, Karim would begin the process of planning for a suicide bombing mission. But as he assimilates to his current situation, Karim begins to realize that he may have more similarities than differences with the people he has been taught to hate.

In Not on Fire, but Burning, author Greg Hrbek explores the ways in which people deal with the grief and fear that comes from loss. He changes between first and third person point of view as each of the characters are explored. At first, this can be a bit disconcerting, but the changing perspectives soon fall into a steady rhythm that allows for a breezy pace. By shifting to the different characters, Hrbek provides intimate insight into each of their situations. While they are all connected as participants in the main narrative, the characters are further united by the same internal conflict. Each character is trying to reconcile societal decorum with their own conscience. This makes for a layered drama that delves beyond the main story. Through this extensive character study and an almost poetic prose, Hrbek crafts an exquisite novel that works as a metaphor to America's reaction to the events of 9/11 and a stunning exploration of the human reaction to tragedy.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 29)

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee


Harper Lee's acclaimed novel, To Kill A Mockingbird has long been considered one of the top books in American literature. I still remember reading the novel during my freshmen year of high school. While some of the themes may have gone over my head, I was immediately attracted to the style of Lee's writing and have always held the book in high regard. The famously reclusive author was recently thrust back into the spotlight when it was announced that her long lost manuscript, Go Set A Watchman, would be published. There continues to be quite a bit of confusion and controversy surrounding the discovery and release of this fifty-year-old story, but I knew that I would be reading it. With this new work, I decided to revisit To Kill A Mockingbird as well.

Immediately, Lee's prose transports readers to a simpler time. Through her juvenile protagonist, Scout, Lee documents a coming of age story that dares to tackle racism, ignorance, and justice. Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a picturesque little town, during the 1930's. Scout spends her summer days playing with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill. The trio has a particular interest in their mysteriously reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. Maycomb lore tells cautionary tales against disturbing Boo, but Scout and her gang are determined to sneak up to his house and catch a glimpse of him.

Amongst the vignettes of Scout's childhood games and experiences emerges a larger narrative thread that involves her father Atticus. Atticus Finch stands as a shining literary example of what a father is and should aspire to be. His wife died during childbirth, so he has taken to raising his children on his own. As a father and the local town lawyer, Atticus becomes the moral compass for his family and the local justice system. When Tom Robinson, an African-American man, is accused of raping a local woman, Atticus volunteers to defend him. A riveting trial ensues, and Scout begins to witness the ways in which her family and town react to the racially charged proceedings.

It is almost impossible to write an objective review of this classic. Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird were placed upon a literary pedestal long before I cracked the spine of this novel. But there is something to be said for the profound effect that this story has on those who read it. Through a lyrically southern voice that instantly captivates your imagination, Lee provides an idyllic tale of innocence that is both nostalgic and equally timely. She writes of the values and integrity and we all aspire to achieve. Justice, understanding, acceptance, faith, perseverance, all are explored through the plainspoken words of a child. Whatever your opinion of the recently released manuscript, the simplicity and beauty of this original novel makes for a deeply moving experience and a quintessential work of American literature.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 28)

Messages From Henry by Rebecca Scarberry

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It's no secret that the ways in which readers consume books has changed drastically in the last few years. The introduction of e-readers has allowed people to purchase, store, and read books in new and exciting ways. This technology has also changed the way in which authors publish and connect with their readers. More specifically e-books allow independent authors, those who are not affiliated with one of the main publishing houses, to produce and share stories that might otherwise never have been available. Rebecca Scarberry is one such author. She has published several works in varying genres and has helped to promote other indie authors through her large following on social networks. When she reached out to me about reading and reviewing one of her works, I was happy to oblige.

Tammy and Evelyn are widows whose life-long friendship has blossomed even more in the years following their husbands' deaths. Evelyn and her husband made a comfortable living raising homing pigeons. The birds are trained to return to their home after they are released. Tammy has helped her friend to care for the animals and has grown fond of them in the process. Although Evelyn cares deeply for each of her creatures, she has a unique connection to one of the birds named Henry. All of the pigeons are confined to their hutch, but Henry is allowed to roam freely as he keeps his human companion company.

One day, as she walks onto her front porch, Tammy finds Henry perched on her banister. Tied to the foot of the bird is a note with the startling message, "Help, kidnapper is going to kill me, Evelyn." After an unanswered phone call to Evelyn's house, Tammy dials the number of Sheriff Warren Kincaid and relays the troubling news. An investigation of Evelyn's home confirms Tammy's worst fears. Someone has kidnapped her best friend and Henry, the loyal homing pigeon, may be their only hope to find her.

The idea of having a pigeon be the only tangible contact between victim and investigators is a highly original take on this genre. As investigators continue to receive correspondence from Evelyn, a rapid chase of cat and mouse ensues. The novella focusses on Tammy and her commitment to locating her friend. Scarberry avoids the common pitfalls of indie works by presenting a well edited and easy to read story.

In this case, the narrative does not truly live up to the promise of its unique concept. Messages From Henry is advertised as a novella for young adults, but it struggles to own this identity. With main characters who are elderly women and with content that explores more adult ideas, younger readers may find it difficult to connect with the story. The action soon stalls in a tedious repetition of Tammy receiving messages from Evelyn, relaying them to the authorities, and waiting to hear about their investigation. Because Tammy is merely an observer of the case, readers remain on the sideline for the majority of the action. By solely focussing on Tammy's perspective, the book lacks the depth it could have achieved with accounts of Evelyn's captivity. Messages From Henry is a very short work that would benefit greatly from being fleshed out into a larger story. Rebecca Scarberry demonstrates a natural ability for placing characters into original situations that will only continue to flourish as her writing progresses.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 27)

Friday Flicks: Rosewater


Since Jon Stewart vacated his post as longtime host of The Daily Show earlier this year, the internet has been rampant with articles speculating the famed comedian's next career move. Regardless of your political affiliations, it is safe to say that Stewart's presence is missed amongst the varying voices in the American political discourse. While only Stewart knows for sure what his next move will be, his directorial and screenwriting debut Rosewater may offer one plausible explanation.

The film chronicles the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari as he is imprisoned in Iran for his coverage of the country's presidential election. The 2009 election resulted in outrage as reigning president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory over his independent reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Domestic protests soon erupted as many citizens felt that the election results were fraudulent. The government swiftly went into action, banning any media, public demonstrations, or other forms of resistance from being proclaimed.

Maziar Bahari was covering these protests when he witnessed government violence against the peaceful demonstrators. Despite being warned by local contacts against filming any government reactions, Bahari's journalistic instincts moved him to capture the outrageous event. As it did with so many other reporters, the Iranian government soon intervened and imprisoned Bahari. For 115 days, the journalist endured merciless interrogations for simply reporting on the truth.

Jon Stewart trades in his comedic sensibilities for this bare-knuckle look at journalistic injustice. Based upon Bahari's own book about his experiences during his incarceration, Rosewater paints a bleak picture of Iran's treatment of visiting journalists and its corrupt political system. Bahari's story shows the lengths that the country was willing to go to in order to maintain the propaganda of a compassionate and beloved leader. From a political standpoint, Stewart does an excellent job in creating outrage at Bahari's unjustified treatment. Unfortunately, brief glimpses at Bahari's pregnant wife who is waiting desperately for her husband to return to their London home, do little to humanize the situation. This denies the film of ever truly connecting on an emotional level. It ends up coming off as a well-informed but slightly cold news feature. Still, Stewart's penchant for revealing political commentary is well served in this medium and makes Rosewater an important achievement in what hopefully becomes a fruitful filmmaking career.

Giveaway - The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan


Author Stephen P. Kiernan writes about life, death, and love in his remarkable new novel The Hummingbird. I'm pleased to have two copies of the novel to giveaway!

From the publisher William Morrow:

From the author of the acclaimed The Curiosity comes a compelling and moving story of redemption.

Deborah Birch is a seasoned hospice nurse whose daily work requires courage and compassion. but her skills and experience are tested in new and dramatic ways when her formerly easygoing husband, Michael, returns from his third deployment to Iraq haunted by nightmares, anxiety, and rage. Deborah is determined to help him heal and to restore the tender, loving marriage they once had.

At the same time, her primary patient is Barclay Reed, a retired history professor and expert on the Pacific Theater of World War II whose career ended in academic scandal. Alone in the world, the embittered professor is now dying. AS Barclay begrudgingly comes to trust Deborah, he tells her stories from that long-ago war, which guide her to find a way to help her husband battle his demons.

Told with piercing empathy and heartbreaking realism, The Hummingbird is a masterful story of loving commitment, service to country, and absolution through wisdom and forgiveness.

Read my review of The Hummingbird here!

Stephen P. Kiernan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. During his twenty years plus as a journalist, he has won numerous awards including the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award, the Edward Willis Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, and the George Polk Award. Kiernan is the author of The Curiosity, his first novel. He lives in Vermont with his two sons.

If The Hummingbird sounds like a book you would enjoy, enter using the Rafflecopter form below. Open to US residents, no PO boxes please. Ends September 22, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan


A couple of years ago, author and journalist Stephen P. Kiernan made his fiction debut with his novel The Curiosity. That book, about a man reanimated from death, showcased Kiernan's aptitude for a creative character driven story that defied the confines of traditional genres and left an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of readers. In his sophomore novel, The Hummingbird, Kiernan trades in the high concept premise of his debut for a more intimate narrative that is remarkably understated, but equally affecting.

Deborah Birch is no stranger to death. As a hospice nurse, she helps people and their families to pass over with dignity, compassion, and peace. Shepherding her patients to the other side brings Deborah slices of insight about life, family, and love, all of which she relates to her own life and to those of future clients. But all of her past experiences have done little to prepare her for the challenges that she currently faces. Deborah's husband, Michael, is a war veteran who is struggling to acclimate to his life outside of the military. Three tours as a sniper in the Middle East have left him a shell of his former self and caused a rift between him and his wife. Anger issues caused from PTSD only magnify the fear and uncertainty in the couple's rocky relationship. Try as she might, Deborah can't seem to break through to the man she loves so deeply.

The challenges are only intensified when Deborah enters the home of her latest patient Barclay Reed. The former history professor is facing an incurable illness that will soon end his life. He spends his days alone in his sizable estate on the Pacific Coast, thinking back on his academic career and the disgrace that led to its demise. Ridiculous demands and an abrasive temper have made it impossible for Reed to keep a hospice nurse for more than one day at a time. As the fourth nurse from her company to attend to Reed's needs and with no surviving family to intervene, Deborah is his last hope.

Slowly, a mutual trust and understanding begins to form. Reed is a bitter and jaded old man, but underneath that hardened exterior lies a fiercely intelligent man full of knowledge and wisdom about history and life. As Deborah and Reed grow closer, they begin to share about their lives. Deborah tells him of the problems with her husband, and Reed tells her of the last book he was working on. This book, about a Japanese pilot bomber in WWII, was deemed as fabricated plagiarism by Reed's colleagues and became a scandalous end to his distinguished career. As Reed approaches his final days, he has Deborah read from this book and wills her to come to her own opinion about its validity.

Kiernan's quietly nuanced writing paints a breathtaking portrait of life, death, and human interaction. The novel alternates between the present day story of Deborah and Reed with the story of the Japanese WWII pilot seeking redemption from his actions in the war. This alternating narrative device seems to be quite popular in literary fiction these days, but can sometimes make a novel disjointed and difficult to follow. Fortunately, the two stories of this book weave effortlessly with each other as the story of the past becomes a kind of metaphor for the one that is presently unfolding. Kiernan takes what could easily have been a sappy, sentimental tale and elevates it to a deeply moving experience that will stay with you long after the final page. With this poignant novel, Kiernan eclipses the success of his previous effort and reaches a maturity that cements his place as one of the top authors writing today.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 26)

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is not an easy book to begin. From the start, readers are treated to the horrifying description of Susie Salmon's death. The year is 1973, and fourteen-year-old Susie is walking home from school. As she crosses the corn field that separates the school from her suburban neighborhood, she is stopped by her neighbor, Mr. Harvey. He tells her of a small fort that he has dug into the ground of the field. Something about the situation doesn't feel right to Susie, but her curiosity gets the better of her. As she enters the ramshackle lair, Mr. Harvey reveals his true intentions.

Amidst calls from Susie's mother to come to dinner, Harvey gags the girl, rapes her, murders her, and mutilates her body. As her family begins to worry about her whereabouts, Mr. Harvey is collapsing the subterranean hideaway, placing her dismembered body into an old safe, and tossing it into the local sinkhole. The graphic brutality of the opening of this novel is not easy to stomach. There is no sugarcoating the violence that Susie endures. As she narrates every detail of the ordeal, readers suffer through the agonizing torture as if it were their own.

Thankfully, this gruesome prologue gives way to an enthralling story that explores the despair, regret, and imbalance of emotions that comes with death. Susie narrates the entire novel from heaven. We learn that each person has their own unique version of heaven, one that contains the places and things that they love and desire. Residents of this afterlife can overlap into other peoples' heavens, depending on their version. Susie soon meets other young girls and even has a run in with her deceased Grandfather. But there are limitations to this hereafter as well. Despite her deepest wishes, Susie will never age. She will never grow into the young woman that she could have been. Frozen in time at the exact age that she was at the time of her death, Susie begins to observe the people that she left behind.

From her perch in the great beyond, Susie sees her parents, struggling to cope with the death of their eldest daughter while maintaining their relationship for the sake of their younger two children. She watches her father shatter an office full of bottled ships that the two built together. Her mother slowly retreats from her position as the family matriarch, and her eccentric grandmother moves into the house to take the reigns.  Her sister feels the burden of loss as the teachers and children at school all look to her with pity and remorse. And her youngest brother, too young to even comprehend the gravity of the situation, begins to speak to his missing sister.

She looks in on her classmates as well. The only boy she ever kissed, the quiet girl who sensed Susie's presence as she transitioned from one world to the next, both kids are haunted by the loss of their friend. Susie begins the "what if" questions, wondering where her relationship with the boy could have gone, how her friendship with the girl could have grown. The descriptions of these students show the ways in which Susie's death rocked not only her family, but the entire community.

Finally, she observes her killer. Mr. Harvey tries to move on with his life. As she witnesses her father confront the man about his strange behavior, Susie, comes to a stunning realization. She was not his first victim! She sees into his past and discovers the origins of the monster he became. While part of her wants revenge against the man, the purity of her soul overcomes these willful intentions. Mostly, she wants to see justice for herself and the other victims. As her father and sister begin to grow more suspicious of Harvey, Susie wills them to discover the obscure clues that he left behind.

Sebold writes a remarkable tale of love, loss, and legacy. As Susie watches her family grieve, love, and ultimately move on, the reader feels the emotion of each character through the girl's plain spoken, yet mature observations. The end brings an unnecessary subplot of spiritual possession that nearly reaches the over sentimentality of a bad romantic story. Even this minor bump in the narrative does not deter from the brilliant authenticity of the rest of the novel. This story of transition and acceptance, both by the deceased narrator and the people she left behind, is the kind of tale that will keep readers up late in the night. First to finish the book and then to reflect upon the rich, haunting, and hopeful experience that it provides.

For more information, visit the authors website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 25)

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