Friday, December 18, 2015

Heroism beyond skin color - Steering to Freedom - a novel by Patrick Gabridge

Greetings, commies and social justice warriors!
Today's guest is a fellow Penmore Books author, Patrick Gabridge - a playwright and novelist. I have to admit, it took me a long time to muster the audacity to write this post. Every time I try to engage in a conversation about race, let's just say, they don't end well.  At any rate, this post is not about me. It's about my guest of honor, Mr. Gabridge, and his hero Robert Smalls, an African-American hero who crafts a daring plan to steal the steamship Planter and deliver it, along with crew and their families, to Union blockade.
My thoughts:
Patrick Gabridge's Steering to Freedom is an absolute must-read for all history majors focusing on American Civil War. This novel is an authentic account of one man's rise to heroism and assumption of a task that's nothing short of apostolic. It's also a must-read for anyone contemplating getting involved in social activism around the delicate and volatile issue of interracial relations. I find that many well-meaning individuals lack that background knowledge and have a rather cartoon-like two-dimensional understanding of history and the racial factor. The nature of the interracial conflict constantly changes. Racism is like cancer. You think you've got the right diagnosis, and you start a chemo protocol, and you think you're making progress towards victory, and then realize that the malignant cells have mutated and become resistant to the drug, and now you need to find a new protocol. The remedy that was relevant 50 years ago is not relevant today. You have to reevaluate the nature of the disease and come up with new treatment.

Incidentally, I know that the author has a deeply personal interest in African American heritage and advocacy for that particular group. Perhaps, I should warn my mixed audience that I'm coming from the "I'm color-blind" and "all lives matter" camp. (Yes, I know I'm taking risks of being crucified as a callous, ignorant, privileged republican middle-class white woman for saying that). Robert Smalls is not a "black hero". He's a hero, period. Who happens to be black. His wife Hannah, the mother of his children, whose love serves as a catalyst to Robert's daring actions, is not a "strong black woman", as some readers might be tempted to label her. She is just a woman, a mother, whose physical and emotional resilience are result of fight for survival. As I was reading Steering to Freedom, the color of Robert's skin was not constantly on my mind. I don't know if that was the intention of the author.

Gabridge's creative activities go beyond writing fiction. He is also a playwright, and his talent for dramatic dialogue is very apparent. I would love to see him adapt his own work to stage.  His protagonist is an icon of courage and self-sacrifice, and a role model for all men - regardless of the color of their skin.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A 20th century female Huck Finn - Orla's Canvas by Mary Sharnick

Hello, commies and lovers of great fiction!

Today I am pleased to share a review of a novel by a much esteemed fellow author Mary Donnarumma Sharnick. I have read her two previous novels set in the Venetian lagoon. This time around the author sets  her novel in "misspelled town" of St. Suplice, Louisiana. I admit that I do not read a lot of fiction set in the American South, but after reading Orla's Canvas I think I am going to explore that branch of literature further.  It's interesting that the author herself is not from the south. She's actually a native of Connecticut. The fact that she was able to recreate the authentic southern ambiance testifies to her talent.  

Imagine elements of Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor distilled and harmoniously concocted in a highly literary and authentic modern masterpiece. Orla's Canvas is a novel that looks like a painting and tastes like a Southern feast with Irish, French and African flavors mixing together. The protagonist Orla Gleason is a painstakingly observant yet refreshingly non-judgmental prepubescent Southern girl of Irish extraction who is trying to find her voice in the volatile political climate of 1960s. Nothing escapes her senses, no smell, sight or sound. She's almost a creature without skin, hyper in tune with the elements. Some people's nervous systems are wired like that. They pick up on subtlest of stimuli that go over most people's heads. Orla can tell you the flavor of every ice-cream cone she's had, the texture of the floorboards, the temperature of the water in the river on any given day. Paired with photographic memory, such intense sensitivity can lead to mental instability - unless the person is given an outlet for channeling those sensory impressions. For Orla Gleason it becomes art. I would not hesitate to call her a 20th century female Huck Finn.

Mary Sharnick does understand violence and brutality, and I applaud her skill for depicting them in a very raw, nonchalant manner without gratuitous editorial melodrama. I am familiar with the author's two previous novels set in Venice during the 17th and 15th centuries respectively. Orla's Canvas is very different from the point of view of setting and focus, but if you read Sharnick's previous novels, you will see how she continues to capitalize on her talent for depicting tragedy and the subsequent redemption using bold, precise strokes.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Cosmetic, synthetic, prosthetic - review of Beautiful Monsters by Cynthia Ogren

A few months ago I had the honor of interviewing Cynthia Ogren, the author of BeautifulMonsters. As a reviewer I am supposed to view the novel independently from the person who wrote it, but I always like to know where the author is coming from. Ogren's narrative is refreshingly raw and candid without being bitter or judgmental. As a former insider who has worked in the entertainment industry and survived, she does not have a vendeta against Hollywood as some authors would. I know that it can be very tempting to "expose" the underbelly of a very unforgiving industry that has scarred and discarded many. The underlying message is that some individuals want to be scarred, and they will continue sticking their fingers into proverbial outlets, because the side effect of pain is sick masochistic pleasure. Ogren's female protagonist Riley Rinaldi, an executive makeup artist who also flirts with acting and choreography, is one of such individuals, or rather she has convinced herself of that. With a long list of disasters on her romantic resume, she half-jokingly refers to herself as Bloody Mary of Romance. That statement becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy as she embarks on what she believes to be her last romantic journey with tormented egocentric heartthrob Keller Cross. Both bring an impressive vintage collection of inner demons, and when those demons engange in a dance ... buckle your seats!

Film is not just an escape for the moviegoers. It's an escape for those who are involved in the production process, from the executives dubbed as Suits to the actors and the crew. If you feel hostage to your past, to your secrets and misdeeds, to an uncomfortable relationship, playing a role can indeed be an escape. But there is another side to it - that quest for liberation can lead you into an even deeper, darker trap. If you work on a set for 20 hours, the line between reality and fantasy starts to blur. You can longer tell where the actor ends and the character begins. Makeup and prosthetics become a part of your body. You have to have a really resilient psyche to be able to maintain your sense of reality and your place in that reality. It's the price people pay for creating movies.

Ogren's Beautiful Monsters is a credible, psychologically authentic depiction of an entertainment microcosm.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

N.M. Catalano

Greetings, commies!

Today I am please to feature a splendidly naughty, intense, sincere and eloquent (did I mention bestselling?) erotica author Nadine Marie (N.M.) Catalano.

MJN: In your biographical blurb you mention that your life has been filled with intense emotional experiences. Do you feel it's important for an author to have a colorful emotional past to write convincing multi-dimensional characters? They say, write what you know? Or is it enough to have a vivid imagination?

NMC: In my opinion I feel that yes, it would be beneficial for one to write from intense emotional experiences but I think that might also make it one-sided. I think it is more important for one to feel deeply, which is what you have said being from a colorful emotional past. I'm sure it helps if one were to have intense emotional experience as well, of course. But to bring a reader in, make them feel it deep inside, the writer must feel what his characters are feeling, be able to live the experiences of what is happening in the story, each angle of it, even if only from a vivid imagination and a fictional standpoint. That is what makes writing exhausting and draining, make it seem as if we're opening a vein and pouring everything within onto the blank page. Without it, the story is flat and lifeless. When I was writing STRANGER, my first release, I was completely inside myself and living in those lines and words. So many readers have said it felt like what was happening in the story was happening to them, they were inside the story. That was the greatest compliment.

MJN: You mention that you are in love with all your characters. I imagine, many of them are based on real life individuals. As a writer, I know I am guilty of writing alternative endings in literature to relationships that did not pan out a certain way in real life. Have you ever had anyone from the real world approach you and say, "Hey, I recognize that plot twist!"

NMC: *smiling* Yes, many of the characters in my stories are based on real people. None have said they recognize the plot twist though. What they have said, or rather asked is for me to write their fictional happy ever after. Another thing they're taken with is seeing how they are perceived through someone else's eyes, their traits, mannerisms, what makes them special, their beauty from within, and without. They are amazed, their words being, "That's me? That's how I'm seen?" It's a beautiful and humbling experience and I feel so lucky to be able to give them that gift.

In my latest release, THE ROOSTER CLUB, THE BEST COCKS IN TOWN all of the men are based on a real group of men who actually did call themselves this. Most every single situation I've written actually happened, from the sex to the drug deals in some way or another. But a lot of us who grew up during this era lived amongst these scenarios, whether it was us, someone we knew, or someone they knew. This lifestyle was rampant, and still is in many ways. We've stopped calling the places discos, they're clubs now, there's still a drug of choice, and addiction has been expanded to include technological. All of the main players in the story are alive in some way, shape, or form now and we all know them.

MJN: I noticed that there is a slick, almost Spartan vibe to your covers. The titles are terse one-worders, and the color scheme is very minimal. Stranger. Kink. I do believe that sometimes less is more. An abstract cover can be more intriguing and suggestive than a close-up of a sixpack or a fake rack.

NMC: The vibe of the stories made me want to keep the covers crisp and minimalistic with that element of intrigue. I believe it's because the theme of the stories are all zeroed in on something, pin pointed to a specific concept that's masked in sensuality and mystery. Although my stories are romantic in feel, they are contemporary, and it's definitely more about the story rather than just the six pack on the cover. It's about feeling, pulling you in, getting you lost, it's about the mind, the heart, the body, and the soul. My last two books touched on very sensitive topics. KINK had cutting and rape. In THE ROOSTER CLUB, THE BEST COCKS IN TOWN the story was built around addiction. My upcoming release PERFECT is based also on addiction but a different kind.

MJN: You have two talented beautiful daughters. As a mom, do you ever cringe at the idea of your children having experiences like the ones you describe in your books?

NMC: Every. Single. Day. We live in a very beautiful but also a very dangerous world. It's hard to know who you can trust and who you can't. Society has made the unacceptable and forbidden now common place and acceptable. It's a daily battle I fight reminding them the difference of right and wrong, what's acceptable and what's unacceptable and trying to keep them from growing up too fast.

As far as them being women, it's a fine line I teeter on when trying to keep them loving themselves, (God knows the media throws enough at them for that). Because I write primarily erotica, I don't want to make their sexuality something taboo. Rather, it is something that should be embraced. The fight is making sure they know it should be with the special one. Promiscuity can be dangerous. With songs playing on the radio belting out lyrics saying, "I want you to eat my booty like groceries," wtf, come on!, I cringe. Yeah, please do, but love, respect, and appreciation should be first and foremost.

My primary objective is to teach my children about these things: love, honor, respect, and appreciation. First, to yourself, then to everyone and everything around you. If I can do that successfully, then I will have done my job as their parent.

MJN: Your other area of expertise is fashion design. How do the two passions complement each other? Do you believe that your fine motor skills enhance your prose, make it more ... tactile and appealing to the senses?

NMC: I have never thought about a relation between motor skills and writing. Obviously there is as one must have command of one's motor skills in order to do the act of writing. Where I do see, and feel, the relationship is the concept of creating. All art comes from the heart and soul. In my minds eye, when one creates I see it as a living being, it's own entity, being born from inside the individual. It's its own life force, we as writers and artists are only the catalyst by which it comes to life. And you hear so many writers say they have voices/their characters talking in their heads demanding to come out, insisting on being born.

When I finish a story, and to me it's never finished, I'm exhausted, my brain is fried but I feel exuberant.

Yes, I do love my all of my characters <3

Thank you again so much for chatting with me. Join me on Facebook and at my blog.

~ N.M. Catalano


Friday, December 4, 2015

ARC Chronicles - interview with Matthew Harrill

Salutations, commies!

I'm totally stoked to spotlight an award-winning horror and speculative fiction writer Matthew Harrill, author of a ARC Chronicles. The content is as fierce as the covers.

MJN: You cite H. P. Lovecraft as one of your inspirations, which is not surprising for a horror writer. Everyone borrows something different from Lovecraft, whether it be narrative style, point of view or the way he tackled certain archetypal fears. Which element of his craft did you incorporate into your own works?

MH: Initially the intention was to create a modern day homage to Lovecraft, a very modern gothic horror if you will. There is a feeling I get when reading Lovecraft. It is in a strange way very comforting as if intruding upon another’s dream. I think that is what I have drawn on most from HPL – allowing people to see the vision in my head, described as well as I can make it (though there is always room for improvement). Other than that feeling, while my intention was to be very specific with Lovecraft in mind, my story very quickly found a voice of its own and moved in a different direction.

MJN: The covers on your ARC chronicles are very vivid, stylized and uniform - gorgeous and professional. The color scheme is red, yellow and black. Those are pretty traditional colors one would associate with hell. Have you read any books on demonology?

MH: No books specifically. Yet there is a lot of information on the internet because nowadays, everybody has a voice and a website. I purposefully chose demon names to use that aren’t necessarily the most obvious. Everybody has their own take on Lucifer, or Satan, but not everybody has much of an idea about say Rosier, or Iuvart. Finding demonic names with lesser descriptions also allows me more creativity since they are less ingrained in to popular culture and I can therefore influence the perception.

MJN: In Hellbounce, the protagonist Dr. Eva Ross is a prison psychologist. In my experience, people don't become psychologists on a whim. There must be something in their past - or even past life, if you believe in such things - that seeks them to understand the human soul at a higher level. And yet, psychology is a very regulated and institutionalized field full of bureaucracy. Paperwork and protocol gets in the way of the exploration.

MH: True, but I have a degree in geology and I implement stock options and shareplans for multinational clients. Sometimes your life is planned out, it seems, and sometimes you just fall into a career. Eva could just as easily been a janitor in a prison hospital, but it doesn’t read as well in the blurb : )

MJN: Your ARC Chronicle is a trilogy. It's actually a challenge to write a trilogy and not make the second book come across as the proverbial "middle child". Sometimes, writing a sequel is more challenging than writing the first book in the series. Did you encounter any specific challenges while writing Hellborne?

MH: Initially Hellborne was just a vehicle to drive the plot to Hellbeast, the novel I really wanted to write. But being an uber-plotter, it didn’t take me long to work out a story of its own. I realised I couldn’t just trek my way around America, and since my characters ended the first book in a different country, I chose to take the story on from there. I find the research for books to be quite a revelation, pulling detail on the most amazing of places as I work on my notes. If anybody told me back in 2011 that within a year I would be researching an island in the Baltic that stands only feet above sea level and supports an active population, or that I would be researching ways to break and shut down the Large Hadron Collider (particle accelerator) at CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, I’d not have believed them for a second. Probably the biggest challenge was that as a new writer, the release for Hellborne was quite underwhelming. Courtesy of a chaotic publisher.

MJN: You are an Amazon bestselling author, so I congratulate you on your success. Do you believe that winning an award was instrumental to generating more sales, or would you say that both your popularity and your acclaim are direct result of the quality of your work?

MH: I think the work speaks for itself. I have never asked anybody to be any less than honest when reviewing my books, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. The awards were really a stake in the ground, something done by my mentor David Farland, to see where I was and if my work was comparable to that of my peers. I ranked well in every competition I entered. OK I didn’t win, but it’s encouraging to see your name up there. Most of my sales have come from interaction with people on social media. One day I would like to be able to say my reputation precedes me, but if I have to take on the literary world one reader at a time, then so be it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Elephants' Child - a novel by M.L. Eaton

Greetings, commies!
On occasion I get permission from my fellow bloggers to repost one of their reviews.  Today is one of those days. Say hello to M.L. Eaton, writer of mystery thrillers with a supernatural twist. Her novel The Elephants' Child was reviewed in Before the Second Sleep blog.

One of the first things I noticed about M.L. Eaton’s The Elephants’ Child when I initially received it, was its modest volume. This didn’t take away from what I expected it might be, but the contrast between its size and the story power packed inside becomes a delightful discovery.

Set in post-Partition India, The Elephants’ Child is mostly six-year-old Melanie’s story, though told in omniscient third person with brief forays into others’ perceptions. This works well because readers are able to get a grip on what is happening in the “adult world” while remaining anchored in Melanie’s. At times Eaton chooses to blend the two beautifully, capturing a resulting understanding of where the young girl acquires some of her own thought patterns, but with her own will intact.

“Now Lakshmi was there, insisting on holding her hands to make sure she was safe: which was mostly nice but often a bit of a nuisance because Melanie wanted to run and play hide and seek in the gardens and not walk properly like a little lady.”

Melanie and her family shift from Karachi to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) when her father assumes a new position in a civil engineering project. The little girl has had to say goodbye more times than she cares to remember, including initially from her native England, and has a difficult time adjusting. Moreover, she tries to reconcile grown-up behavior—“Adults were such peculiar things: they pretended nearly all the time”—with their words, an endeavor she finds utterly confounding. A poised and intelligent girl, however, she draws her own conclusions, including when to trust they were indeed telling the truth, evoking her very early childhood when her father introduced her to the peculiar elephants and promised they were real.

With a natural affinity for animals, Melanie develops particular fondness for the huge, grey creatures at the Hanging Gardens, where her new ayah takes her. Over some time her patience and the elephant mother’s trust develop and the bond between creatures and human solidifies. Melanie experiences an awakening, with an attending greater happiness, as well as a unity in spirit with the elephants.

This coincides with the illness and scheduled surgery of Elizabeth, Melanie’s mother, and the young girl’s fears for her mother play out in dreams of elephants and their deaths. She herself experiences a setback and her ayah, Lakshmi, immerses her more deeply into the culture by teaching her about the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, who removes obstacles, including those within. She instructs her in the mantra, Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha, an appeal to the god, though later worries what the memsahib will think of this.

Through the book Eaton weaves a theme of unity, her skill often apparent given the seeming opposites she is joining together: humans and animals, sadness and joy, a child in an adult world, the meeting of mono- and polytheistic cultures. It is even more telling of her talent that she accomplishes the feat without any person or creature having to compromise who they are.

Another technique that stands out to great effect is Eaton’s ability to utilize descriptive language in a way that awakens readers’ senses as she lays out any given scene. Perhaps the best example is one that introduces Melanie herself to her new home via the Gateway to India:

“Ahead of them stretched a magnificent panorama. The sapphire sea filled the wide deep bay of the natural harbour, framed by the lush green of the mountains on the mainland. The harbour itself was studded with islands, like precious stones of emerald and jasper in a sea of liquid lapis lazuli, a shimmering deep blue flecked with gold and dotted with white diamonds—the sails of innumerable small craft skipping across the sea’s sparkling surface.”

In just over 100 pages, Eaton composes a small treasure of words, woven into a portrait taking us back to a time when, indeed, all was not perfectly wed, but where the willing could find some unity in their surroundings and take with them remembered pieces of a land that, because it in part grew them, becomes part of their soul. This is the case for Melanie, despite her struggles as laid out so poignantly by the author.

It is also the sort of book that beckons for a re-read and, I suspect, will reveal an additional something every time. Each discovery of the memoir contained within will glisten in readers’ own memories as they reach for the stories, not unlike digging into Mary Poppins’s small but deeply-packed bag of rich treasures brought out to enchant and unify purpose, being and wonder. Presented with simplicity, but certainly not simple, no matter readers’ ages, genre preferences or unfamiliarity with the content, it is a precious and timeless keepsake for any bookshelf.