Archive for October 2015

Slade House by David Mitchell


A few years ago, I succumbed to the pressure of numerous recommendations and read David Mitchell's acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas. While I appreciated the unique construction and technically inventive writing of that novel, I found myself slightly unsatisfied by the end of it. The changing perspectives of different characters at vastly different time periods made reading the story quite a chore. When I finally made it to the end, I didn't feel any significant payoff to my efforts. Despite all of that, I still found myself reflecting upon the book, closely watching Mitchell's career, and waiting for the chance to read more of his work.

His latest novel Slade House immediately caught my attention. The first chapter was initially published as a serialized set of tweets. Mitchell then went on to expand that short story by adding four more chapters to complete the novel. At a little over 200 pages, Slade House is a work that is a bit more digestible than some of his heavier tomes, but equally thoughtful and enchanting.

Slade House is a mysterious dwelling that plays host to 120-year-old twins, Jonah and Norah Grayer. It is one of those places that exists somewhere in the outer edges of our minds. A Narnia like "reality bubble" of the imagination that is visible only to the select few who possess the psychic abilities to engage with it. Every nine years, Slade House appears to those (fortunate?) souls, enticing them to enter into the grand estate. Logically speaking, the residence and expansive garden surrounding it should not be able to exist in the narrow alley between the neighboring two homes. Still, those who push on the small iron door in Slade Alley are granted access to the extraordinary lair that defies space and time.

Each of the five chapters follows an individual as they explore Slade House. Beginning in 1979 and reconvening every nine years to the present day, the mystifying Grayer twins greet their guests with a specially tailored performance in the "Theatre of the Mind". They take the form of different characters each time, affably luring their visitors deeper into their shadowy "lacuna". By the time the true intentions of the Grayer's are revealed, it is too late. The guests become victims to their nefarious hosts and ensure that the cyclic nightmare will continue.

In Slade House, David Mitchell produces an astonishing story that defies genre and engages the innermost recesses of our imagination. Each chapter adheres to a similar form as the characters methodically approach their doom. This simple formal device creates an ever-mounting dread as readers become attuned to the ominous inevitability of the characters' fate. In the hands of a less capable author, the explanation of the Grayer's back story and "operandi" could easily have become convoluted and difficult to comprehend. Fortunately, Mitchell's effortless linguistic manipulation conjures a coherent description of this intricate mythology. Slade House comfortably succeeds as an intelligent and terrifying page-turner that brilliantly showcases the proficiency of its visionary creator.

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

(2015, 32)

Friday Flicks: Jaws


Noted for being the first summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's 1975 adaptation of author Peter Benchley's Jaws was a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. A thriller that continues to terrify audiences to this day, Jaws combines a great story with interesting characters and a threatening monster to create an iconic and timeless movie.

The film takes place in the small New England tourist town of Amity Island. The town is shocked when the remains of a young woman who died of an apparent shark attack washed on shore. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is determined to protect beach-goers from any further attacks, even if that means closing the beaches. Amity's mayor is equally motivated to keep the beaches open, and enlists oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to examine the remains. But the mayor, sensing a publicity nightmare that would destroy the town's reputation and financial stability, refuses to search for a long term solution to the problem.

When Brody and Hooper discover the remains of another victim, this one with a great white tooth embedded in their boat, they decide to enlist the help of eccentric shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). The unlikely trio heads out to hunt the animal and restore peace to their small town. Along the way, they learn that they are not facing any ordinary animal. The shark that is preying on their town is a real monster with only one goal. . . killing any person who comes in contact with it.

Jaws is one of those rare horror films that scares not by shock but by imagination. In fact, many of the scenes that do not show Speilberg's monster are far more terrifying than when we actually get to see it. Composer John William's iconic score instantly creates an ever mounting tension that foreshadows the impending doom of the shark's next victim. Populated with unique characters who each receive a fair amount of development, Jaws becomes the standard for a blockbuster film that succeeds through emotional connections, not purely spectacle. The greatest achievement of this classic movie is the way in which Speilberg trusts his audience to imagine things far scarier than anything he could ever put on the screen. Ultimately, Jaws stands the test of time and remains a highlight of Speilberg's illustrious career.

Tiger Heart by Katrell Christe


Katrell Christie never expected to start a charitable non-profit organization in India. In fact, she never had any intentions to even visit the country. The Atlanta native was perfectly content overseeing her eclectic tea shop, Dr. Bombay. To be fair, she had never intended to run the shop either. Before she bought the establishment, Dr. Bombay was a local coffee store that Katrell frequented. When the owner mentioned that the shop would be sold, Katrell intervened. Before the fresh coat of paint was dry on the walls, Katrell began building lasting relationships with the customers of her newly established tea shop. It was one of these customers who convinced her to take a vacation to India. Little did she know that this trip would change her life.

Katrell did not immediately fall in love with India. In fact, she initially regretted her decision to spend her first vacation in six years in a poverty stricken, overpopulated country. She could have been on a beach sipping margaritas instead! But at the insistence of her good friend Cate, she agreed to volunteer by helping women in one of the local industries. As Katrell worked alongside women who meticulously labored for pennies a day, she began to fall in love with the people of India. Their kindness and generosity in spite of their poverty, deeply affected her. As she volunteered at an orphanage in Darjeeling, a tea producing area, Katrell began to recognize a real need.

In India, women are not granted the same rights as men. In fact, many families of the lowers castes will place their unwanted daughters into orphanage simply because of their gender. Girls can stay in the orphanage until they are seventeen. At that point they must either begin working in some menial job or be forced into an arranged marriage. While there is plenty of support for orphanages and higher education, there was a real gap between the two. Katrell befriended three older girls in the orphanage and vowed to return to find a way to help them bridge that gap.

Back in Atlanta, Katrell began to form the basis for her charity. Starting with those three girls from the orphanage, she would support them by giving them a place to live, food to eat, and any other support they would need to pursue a higher education. This would afford them the chance to rise above their poverty and work for a life that they could become self-sufficient from. Placing an old fish bowl on the counter of her shop, Katrell asked customers to donate the change from their drinks for this worthy cause. From these very humble beginnings, her organization Learning Tea was born.

In Tiger Heart, Katrell Christie chronicles the genesis of her charitable organization. Each chapter of the book provides short and insightful anecdotes about her background and experiences in India. Christie's dry wit rings through each page as she speaks of both her successes and failures. What she lacked in experience (and she certainly admits to all of her shortcomings), she made up for in good intention and sheer willpower. Ultimately, Tiger Heart is a funny and inspiring story of the way in which even the smallest of actions can make a huge impact on the lives of others.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads. Also, check out the full tour schedule for this book.

(2015, 31)

Author Q&A/Giveaway: Passenger from Greece by Norma Jennings


A Book A Week is pleased to welcome author Norma Jennings to the blog! This week I had the chance to chat with Norma about her latest novel Passenger from Greece. In addition to spending some time with us, Norma has graciously provided a couple copies of her novel to give away. If this story appeals to you, please use the widget at the end of this post to enter to win Passenger from Greece.

Can you tell us a little bit about the storyline for Passenger from Greece?

A classic tale of love, lust, and criminal behavior, Passenger from Greece tells the story of Olivia Reid, a feisty, resourceful international flight attendant who falls in love with a handsome Greek olive oil tycoon. Olivia gets caught up in a seductive affair that spans the Caribbean, New York City, Crete, and ocean voyages on a yacht called The Adonis.

That sounds like quite an adventure! The book opens with a movie-worthy crash. What was your inspiration for these cinematic opening scenes?

I was a flight attendant, and some of my dear colleagues were involved in a plane crash (a mere scheduling conflict kept me off that flight). I went back to them and asked them for descriptions of feelings, thoughts, and misery of crashing into a swamp, which really happened. They described the terror of first experience an aircraft crash, followed by the horror of being trapped in a swamp until rescue. So, when I set up a story about international romance and mystery, I thought what would be more captivating that to introduce the characters to each other in such an intense and terrifying situation.

International drug trafficking is central to the plot of this novel. What compelled you to delve into such a dark and real-world topic?

I had finished writing my first novel, Daughter of the Caribbean, and I was looking for another great story. I read about the Caribbean drug trafficking issues affecting my beloved Jamaica, where my family has an old sugarcane plantation called Twickenham. The headline-grabbing issues made me think about my next novel, which I wanted to be an international mystery. I also like to explore cultural issues and personal relationships about families and love, so I created a conflict that would impact two families in two different countries, each located in different parts of the world.

Speaking of families, the book addresses family relationships, infidelity, and mother/father influences. Why did you weave in these themes?

Motivations. I wanted to create flawed characters whose motives and desires were rooted in their familial relationships: a daughter's desire to please her mother, a son's desire to please his mother, and a grandmother betrayed by her spouse. I asked myself: What lessons could be learned? What understandings reached? How could I write relatable situations that would draw in readers? Based on the core foundation of any person's experience, one always comes back to his/her family beliefs, morals, and values.

You mentioned your family business in Jamaica inspiring your "headline-grabbing" story. Can you speak a bit more about how your personal experiences have shaped your writing?

The illicit drug trade is affecting my native homeland, Jamaica. I wanted to also dispel prejudice and ideas about Jamaicans and other Caribbean islanders. My books always deal with cultural differences through depictions of my own childhood experiences growing up at Twickenham with my grandmother, Sedith, who's featured in both of my books. She was our family's matriarch and had a tremendous influence on her children and grandchildren. I brought the stories she told me and the lessons I learned in my own life to the pages of Passenger from Greece.

With Passengers from Greece now published, what's next for you? Are you working on a new novel and, if so, what can you tell us about it?

I've made good progress on a third book, which is an action-packed historical fiction novel about the brutal colonization of Jamaica by the British, and the barbaric guerilla warfare staged by the Maroons (runaway slaves) against the planters. Raw sexual moments between planter and mulatto slave mistresses, and a sizzling romance between a rescued concubine and a young guerilla chief are weaved into the novel, as it chronicles how ferocious and unrelenting resistance by Maroon men and women led to the abolition of slavery on the island, and ultimately to the country's independence.

Our thanks to Norma Jennings for spending time with us. Passenger from Greece is available from Amazon and 3L Publishing

To enter for a chance to win either a physical or ebook copy of this novel, use the Rafflecopter form below. Open to US/Canadian residents, no PO boxes please. Ends October 29, 2015. Winners will have 48 hours to respond after being contacted.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

From Poetry to Music: A Process of Composition


In honor of today being National Poetry Day, I though I'd write a post about how poetry has influenced my own creativity. As you may or may not know, I am a freelance composer and have written music for various events and ensembles. I thought it would be fun to describe my process of setting poetry to music.

I've always been drawn to the poetry of ee cummings. Something about his writing speaks to me and conjures deep emotion and images within my soul. More importantly, when I read his works, I instantly begin to hear music and have ideas for how I would set the text. I'll admit, I certainly read some poetry and have absolutely no idea or desire to turn it into music. More so, it is nearly impossible to put into words exactly how I come to "hear" this music. As cliche as it may be to say this, sometimes inspiration does strike and I'm drawn to begin writing.

In this case, I was inspired by a much less poetic source. . . a deadline! As I was working on my masters degree at the University of Houston, my friend Patrick requested I compose a song cycle for him. For those of you unfamiliar with classical music, a song cycle is a set of three or more songs related by topic, musical material, or author  that are written for a solo voice and piano. With a looming recital date, I began the process of revisiting some of my favorite ee cummings poetry.

My initial notes on the text and musical sketches.
I was immediately drawn to his poem if there are any heavens my mother will. With imagery and a gut emotional reaction coming info focus, I printed off the text and began the process of setting it to music. You may find it hard to believe, but melodies and music did not automatically come pouring out of me. My initial approach to writing had very little to do with music itself. It is my belief that the text informs the music, so I always start there. Armed with only a pencil and a printout of the poem, I began my process by studying the words. More specifically, I read the poem aloud and marked the natural rhythm of the text. Of course, I do change rhythm of some words for purely musical reasons, but the majority of what I marked on that sheet remained in the final version of the song.

Only after spending several days with the words did I finally begin writing musical ideas. I decided that the song would begin with uncertainty as the text ponders heaven. Slowly, the singer gains confidence as he states what heaven will include. With a definitive contour in mind, I sketched the song until I had a version I was satisfied with. Again, I used the words to inform what I was doing musically. Each word has a natural cadence and pitch to it. Different parts of words are stressed and rise and fall when we say them. For example, the word "music" can be broken into two syllables "mu-sic" with a slight emphasis on the first one. I used these characteristics to define the melodies that I created.

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee as I input the music
into the computer!
You will notice in the picture above that all of my sketches were done with pencil and paper. I certainly have the capabilities to compose with my computer, but I have always preferred doing things "the old fashioned way". Anyway, after completing a rough sketch of the song, the real fun began. I met with Patrick to determine what worked and what could be improved upon. This collaboration ensured that the final song would be musically sufficient and feasibly prepared and performed by the musicians.

Finally, a month after beginning the process, I was ready to publish the song. This is my absolute least favorite part of composing! The process of transmitting every handwritten note from the page to the computer program is tedious and time consuming. Fueled by coffee and pure desperation, I spent many hours transferring the piece into my computer and formatting the pages. It is a dull but necessary endeavor. After all, I'd never want a singer to have to perform my music from my chicken scratch sketches!

Through the collaboration of talented musicians and by employing a process that utilizes the text to make musical decisions, I was able to compose a song setting that I believe is both musically satisfying and an appropriate portrayal of the words. Listen to the recording of the premiere of this work below and let me know what you think! Hopefully you enjoyed reading about the genesis of this song as much as I enjoyed composing it!

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter


"Why did it have to be her?"

Julia Carroll was a shining star. She was beautiful, intelligent, loving, the kind of person her peers aspired to be. One fateful evening in March of 1991 changed all of that. Julia was seen leaving a bar that night and was never heard from again. Just like that, the nineteen-year-old was gone, leaving behind an unfinished life, numerous questions, and a family that would be forever changed by her disappearance.

Her father Sam never gave up hope. The authorities believed that Julia left on her own accord. Sam new that his daughter would never do that. She loved her family too much to leave without notice. He was convinced that something more sinister occurred. Consumed by the need for answers, Sam continued to investigate any leads into his daughter's disappearance. As his marriage crumbled and his remaining two daughters took separate paths in their own lives, Sam never lost hope that he would be reunited with his eldest child.

Twenty years later, Lydia is barely making it through her daily life. After her sister vanished, Lydia fell into a world of addiction, criminal activity, and deceit that cost her any relationship with her family. She finally overcame these vices to ensure a positive life for her daughter Dee. With Dee attending a private high school and as a single mother, Lydia works hard to provide for her small family. The events of the past come back haunt her when she learns of the death of a man who played a huge part in her estrangement from her family.

Claire Scott, the youngest of the three Carroll daughters, is watching as her life unravels before her eyes. A casual stroll through an alley with her husband Paul ended with the two being mugged by a criminal and Paul being stabbed to death. Now Claire is struggling to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Paul was the financial provider, and he always saw that his wife was taken care of. When Paul's business partner requests computer files that Paul was working on at the time of his death, Claire is happy to oblige. But what she discovers on her husband's computer is shocking. Now Claire is forced to delve deeper into her husband's web of lies and uncover secrets that have massive ramifications. With these revelations, the entire Carroll family must reexamine the grim realities of Julia's disappearance.

Karin Slaughter is recognized for her fast paced and intelligent crime novels. With Pretty Girls, she intimately explores a family's grief while delivering an engaging and deeply disturbing mystery. Each of the main characters have dealt with the loss of Julia in their own ways, and Slaughter does a commendable job of showing the different ways that they process this reality. These character driven moments help the reader to create an emotional connection with the larger narrative.

All too often, missing persons cases go unnoticed. With 24 hour news cycles constantly focusing on the events that draw ratings, it is easy for these cases to fall out of focus. With so many occurring it is no wonder that the public has become desensitized to them. By describing the plight of one family, Slaughter highlights the range of emotions that families experience with each of the cases that happen. Without these strong displays of humanity, the graphic descriptions of sadistic rape and torture, similar to those in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, would be unbearable. Slaughter expertly maneuvers through this difficult story with a clear prose that makes for an easy read. There are plenty of twists and turns that will genuinely shock you, including a mid-novel revelation that sends that remainder of the story into high gear. Slaughter wrote a short prelude to this story that gave a bit of background into Julia's life, but I do not think it is imperative that you read it before this novel. Overall, Pretty Girls is a fantastic standalone thriller that excites through strong plot, emotion, and riveting suspense.

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

(2015, 30)

Friday Flicks: Psycho


Can you believe that it is already October?! This month marks the beginning of my favorite time of the year. The weather is cooler (I live in Texas, so anything less than 100 degrees is amazing), all of our food and drinks have pumpkin in it, and we are able to enjoy a little bit of down time before the hectic holiday season. With this new season, publishers and movie studios tend to trade their summer beach reads and big budget blockbusters for more prestigious fare. And of course, this month is capped off by one of my favorite holidays . . . Halloween! In honor of this holiday A Book A Week will feature weekly Friday Flicks that are adaptations of horror novels. Each week will feature a different film from a different decade. We will begin in the 60's and work our way up to the present day. Pour yourself a pumpkin spice latte, grab a blanket, and cozy up on your couch as we celebrate all things Horror!

There is perhaps no other horror movie as iconic as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The 1960 film is noted as being one of the famed director's crowning achievements, but the it's origin was anything but easy. Based upon the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Psycho was deemed too grotesque by Hitchcock's studio, Paramount, and they refused to fund its filming. Disappointed by his previous directorial effort and determined to revitalize his career, Hitchcock took a major salary cut and personally funded the production of the film. These budget cuts forced Hitchcock to shoot the movie in black and white and created a tight production schedule. While controversial for its "graphic" content, this film was a runaway commercial success. Even though critics were initially mixed in their reaction, Psycho's commercial appeal and audience appreciation has turned it into a beloved classic.

The story begins when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money from a client at the real estate office that she works at. Instead of taking the cash to deposit in the bank, she keeps it with her so that she can elope with her boyfriend Sam. She decides to run away with the money. As she leaves town, chance encounters with her boss and a state trooper add to her guilt and paranoia. This along with an unrelenting storm and a wrong turn leads her to the Bate's Motel.

The dilapidated establishment is run by Norman Bates, a soft-spoken man who invites Marion to a light dinner in his office. Surrounded by disconcerting stuffed animals, Norman tells her about is hobby of taxidermy and about his mentally ill mother who he cares for. Marion takes in this unusual character as she silently grapples with her crime. Overcome by guilt, she resolves to return the money when she leaves in the morning. But, as anyone who has watched the movie knows, that is not meant to be. As she takes a shower in her room, the silhouette of a woman can be seen behind the curtains. What ensues is one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.

 Beyond the famed shower scene, Psycho is a brilliant film that will keep you invested and shocked until the very end. Even if you have seen the movie before, the twist ending will leave you uncomfortable and disturbed. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates quietly unnerves with his subtle politeness and lanky stature. With composer Bernard Herrmann's haunting score as the soundtrack to this drama, Hitchcock masterfully leads his audience through a sinister tale of murder and conspiracy. While much of the content is tame compared to the gore in modern horror films, Psycho stands as the foundation of the slasher genre and as a prime example of a perfect horror adaptation.

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