Monthly Archives: April 2020

Understanding the Human Condition One Piece of Flora at a Time | Review of “The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart” by Holly Ringland (2018) House of Anansi Press

Image linked from the Publisher’s website

There is a special bond between flowers and our emotions. We use them to bring cheer and we quietly turn to the beauty when we need to cry. They are an emotional bond for our psyches when we need them. And that is the brilliant bond that Holly Ringland brings to her book The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.

Page 15

The ritual was to walk to the sea and lie on the sand staring up at the sky. With her mother’s gentle voice telling the way, they took winter train trips across Europe, through landscapes with mountains so tall you couldn’t see their tops, and ridges so smothered in snow you couldn’t see the line separating the white sky from white earth. They wore velvet coasts in the cobblestoned city of a tattooed kin, where the harbour buildings were as colourful as a box of paints, and a mermaid sat, cast in bronze, forever awaiting love. Alice often closed her eyes, imagining that every thread in her mother’s stories might spin them into the centre of a chrysalis, from which they could emerge and fly away.

When Alice was six years old, her mother tucked her into her bed one evening, leant forward and whispered in her ear. You’re old enough now to help me in my garden. Alice squirmed with excitement; her mother usually left her with a book while she gardened alone. We’ll start tomorrow, Agnes said before she turned out the light. Repeatedly through the night, Alice woke to peer through the dark windows. At last she saw the first thread of light in the sky and threw her sheets back.

Ringland has written a well-thought out and detailed story here. Readers witness the life of the protagonist Alice through several different stages in her life. In the midst of Alice’s brutal and hurtful existence at times, there exists the wonder of flora and thrill of nature that provides not only comfort but a means of escape for her. Ringland’s masterful prose and simplistic style makes this book a pleasure to slide into to read.

Page 112

She glanced towards the gum tree, thinking about the names carved into its trunk. The river is another story altogether, June had said when they’d been in the flower field together. It’s belonged to my family for generations. Out family. Alice looked down through the water, at her feet on the sandy bottom. Was a river a thing that could ever be owned? Wouldn’t that be like someone trying to say they owned the sea? Alice knew that when you were init, the sea owned you. Still, the thought that she was somehow a part of this place filled a small space inside her with warmth. Overhead a kookaburra burbled. Alice nodded. Enough thinking. She took a step forward and sank into the swirling green water, leaving all her unasked questions on the surface.

The sweet and absolute absence of salt shocked her. Her eyes didn’t sting. She exhaled bubbles and watched them rise and pop. The heart of the river beat in Alice’s ears. Her father told her once that ll water eventually ran to the same source. A new question bloomed: could she swim down river, through time all the way home?

Ringland has documented strong elements of the human condition here that readers crave to understand about themselves and their lives. This isn’t a book that should be rushed through. It is detailed and well-written and needs to be carefully reflected on. There are elements that she touches on that occur to not only ourselves but to our friends and family members. There are hard truths and mistakes that are part of the protagonist’s story that enable those of us who want understand the world better need to learn about.

Page 265

Alice was grateful for the low light, hoping it hid her face. Lulu dipped her sponge in the suds bucket and began scrubbing the windscreen.

‘You’ve slept with him, haven’t you?’ Alice asked quietly.

Lulu glanced at her. Cast her eyes away. ‘I just don’t want you to get hurt.’

Alice’s head was spinning. She couldn’t bear the thought of them together, of him being with anyone but her.

Lulu wiped the windscreen down and dunked the sponge back in the bucket, sighing. ‘I don’t know what you’ve left behind but I know you’ve come here to put yourself back together,’ she said. ‘So do it, chica. You keep banging on about how much you love my place and would love yours to be like it, but you keep living like you’re a nun. Decorate. Embellish. Use you weekends for adventures, go exploring. There’s so much more around her than just the crater, like there’s a gorge not far from her that you have to see at sunset to believe. So, grow. Please. Grow your life here.’ Lulu pointed to her heart. ‘Don’t give everything you’ve got to someone who isn’t worth it.’

There is detailed growth and wisdom in the book The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland. It’s descriptions are vivid and – if read in a calm manner – depicts elements of the human condition that need to be consider. In short, a brilliant read.

Link to House of Anansi Press’ website for The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

Link to Holly Ringland’s website

“I also wanted to create a kind of tribute to people, like Trudy and Claire in the book, who attract and accept responsibility at a young age. I have always been deeply impressed by that.” | Q&A with author Missy Marston on her novel “Bad Ideas”

  • Missy Marston novel “Bad Ideas” has been a topic of conversation in many literary circles since it’s release last year. Most of the conversations have been how relatable how certain scenes and situations are to readers. So Marston has not only worked out a great read but created a piece of art that reflects life for so many people. So it was a thrill for me to have her answer a few questions for my blog

*****

  • 1) It has been a year since “Bad Ideas” has come out. How have you found the response to the novel been so far? Are there any memorable reactions to the book you care to share?
  • I have been thrilled with the response. People have been very kind. It has been especially heartening to hear from people who grew up, as I did, in the Seaway valley. Writing about where you come from can be intimidating and it was a great relief to hear from people who thought I got it right. One person sent me a photo of the book at the original Ken Carter super jump site, which was pretty cool.
  • 2) Was there any particular motivation for you to write the book? I know the character of Jules was loosely based on Daredevil Ken ‘the Crazy Canuck’ Carter and his attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River in the 1970s, but did any of the other characters have any real-life inspiration for you?
  • I grew up in one of the small Ontario towns that was flooded when the Seaway was widened in the 1950s. Remnants of the flooded town were everywhere: sidewalks that led under the water, old stone foundations broken up along the shoreline. My childhood home was right on the banks of the St. Lawrence and from our yard you could see a hump of the old highway breaking the surface of the water, forming a kind of island. That shows up in the book. My house was also just down the street from the ramp that Ken Carter built to jump the river, when I was about eight years old. These things made a big impression on me, obviously.I was motivated to write about these two very disruptive events from a personal perspective, the perspective of a single family of girls and women. I also wanted to create a kind of tribute to people, like Trudy and Claire in the book, who attract and accept responsibility at a young age. I have always been deeply impressed by that.
  • 3) How long did it take you to write “Bad Ideas?” Was it an easy book to write?
  • I wrote Bad Ideas on Sundays – I work full time – over a period of about six years. Some things about the book were easy and some things were very hard. The characters came easily, especially Jules and Mercy, and the basic plot was clear in my mind from the beginning. But it was a challenging book from a structural point of view. I wanted to tell the story from multiple points of view and I also wanted the book to have a lot of forward, plot-driven momentum. These two things can work against each other.
  • 4) You seem to have an active social-media presence. How do you using those platforms to connect with your fans and other writers?
  • I didn’t really have a social media presence until I published my first novel in 2012 and my publicist at the time encouraged me to create a twitter account. A few months later I posted a link to an article I had written about Margaret Atwood and her impact on me and my writing (the main character in my first book is named Margaret Atwood). Not much later – I think within the day – I received an alert that she had retweeted my article. I had to sit down. But that is the wonder and terror of social media. It feels like it erases distance. You meet people once and then you can stay in touch with them forever. You form these connections. People finish reading your book and reach out to you the same day to tell you what they thought. For me, it has been magic.
  • 5) Online listings have two novels accredited to you: “The Love Monster” (2012) and “Bad Ideas” (2019). Has your writing change much since you started? If yes, how so?
  • Writing a novel taught me something about writing novels, if you know what I mean. I think I will always struggle – it is not easy to write a book – but I struggled much less with the second book than I did with the first one. I gave up on the first one many, many times. I lost faith in the story and in my ability to finish the damn thing. When I started writing Bad Ideas I knew I could write a novel because I had done it before. So that’s one difference.In terms of changes to the writing itself, I would say that Bad Ideas is a more direct and focused book. They have a lot in common, though. If you’ve read one, you will recognize the voice in the other. You can tell it’s me.
  • 6) Your biographies have you listed as living in Ottawa. How do you like living there? Are there any benefits to living there that you as a writer enjoy?
  • One of the best things about living in Ottawa as a writer is the Manx Pub on Elgin Street. The great Canadian poet, David O’Meara, works there and organizes regular readings and spotlights. The crowd is always warm, the food and company, great. I was lucky to have the launch for Bad Ideas there. I love Ottawa. I have brilliant friends here, including a small writing group. I met the love of my life here, raised my children here. It is a beautiful place.
  • 7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
  • Yes! I have sixty solid pages of a new novel written. What can I tell you about it? There is an athlete and an explorer, a villain, and a mythical beast. As with everything I write, there is a love story. I feel like it is going to take forever but I just keep pushing it forward. One day it will be a book.
  • *****
  • Link to ECW Press’ website for “Bad Ideas”

Link to my review for “Bad Ideas”

” I think novelists get a bit squirrelly when reality starts to become stranger than fiction” | Q&A with Writer Mark Sampson on his Novel “All The Animals on Earth”

We are no doubt being cursed by living in interesting times. Many of us readers are looking for something “interesting” to read and pass the time with. And some of us are picking up old projects to bring interesting things to the world. Mark Sampson has been a favourite writer in my library for a while. I was thrilled when I found he has a new novel coming out and he was willing to answer a few questions for me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an overview of All The Animals on Earth?


I describe the story as a parody of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian novel. Whereas most of these tales start out with a fully populated world that sees its numbers wiped out by a plague or war or some kind of bureaucratic mismanagement, mine is the opposite. It starts out with a depopulated world, because in this reality most people just don’t feel like having kids anymore. The cratering birth rates cause all manner of social and economic calamity, and so scientists and the government come up with a process, called “pullulation,” that allows them to transform certain species of birds and mammals into humanoid form. But there is, naturally, a terrible accident that causes pullulation to spread across the globe and basically quadrupling our population overnight.  Suddenly there are too many people on Earth, not too few. 
These new humanoids, nicknamed “blomers,” start taking over, bringing with them very strange and unsettling rituals. These include a rather liberal approach to public sex, and a violence against a particular subset of their own kind. Through it all, my button-down protagonist, an HR manager for a mid-size insurance company named Hector Thompson, grapples with the massive change that the blomers’ existence brings to his job, marriage, friendships and the rest. 


2) Was there something specific in reality that made you want to write this book? And is there a real-life inspiration for your protagonist Hector Thompson?

I got the idea for the story on my wedding day, actually. My wife (novelist and short story writer Rebecca Rosenblum) and I married at a relatively late age – I was 37; she was 34 – and I remember coming to a stark realization that day: everyone in our wedding party, bridesmaids and groomsmen – were all in their 30s and nobody (as yet) had any children. Either they had chosen to have no kids at all, or they were putting off procreating for as long as they could. This struck me as a particular trend of our generation, and so different from what came before, at least in my family. (My paternal grandmother, for example, had five kids by the time she was 27. My own mom had me at 25).  And so I began to imagine what would happen if this trend just got more and more extreme as the generations went on, and the dire consequences it might bring, and how the world might try to solve those problems – and then the whole absurdist narrative began to unfold from there.


As for Hector, no, there is no real-life inspiration for him. But when I was working as a journalist in Australia 15 years ago, I did have, as my “beat,”  the topic of human resources, industrial relations, and occupational health and safety. So I spent a lot of time interviewing HR managers back then, talking to them about hiring, firing, talent retention, benefits and compensation, plus awkward conversations they often need to have with staff about wardrobe choices and personal hygiene, etc. And so a lot of those conversations ended up helping to shape both Hector’s professional life and his personality.  


3) Considering the current situation of the health of humanity, how do you feel about this book?


It’s weird. These are strange times, and it’s stranger still to be releasing a post-apocalyptic book during a global pandemic. A lot of people, especially here in the so-called “West,” are dealing with things they’ve never had to deal with before – not being able to go wherever they want, facing empty supermarket shelves, living with fear for their safety on a daily basis. (Others, obviously, have experienced these things every moment of their lives.) So maybe my weird little book about a rapidly transformed world will resonate on that level.  Having said that, I think novelists get a bit squirrelly when reality starts to become stranger than fiction. I know I felt that way on 9/11 and when Donald Trump got elected US president, and again now, during COVID-19. Writers like Stephen King and Don DeLillo are probably thinking, “Buzz off reality. Stop stealing my moves!”  


4) Normally I would be asking about a book tour at this point, but I am assuming that anything like that is on hold right now. Are you planning to increase your presence on your social media platforms now to interact with fans? If no, why not?

Yeah, no, I have nothing booked as of yet for this novel. No readings, no appearances, no events. I may try to do something online in the interim, but I’m taking a wait and see approach for now. The priority is to stay safe and do what health officials are recommending.


5) We have talked about how your writing has evolved over time. Do you sense any differences with this book compared to your previous works? Do you have any regrets or disappointments  with your earlier works that you notice now?


All the Animals on Earth is much different territory for me. It’s certainly the weirdest thing I’ve ever written, and it really took me out of my comfort zone creativelye. But it’s odd how there are also some alignments with the themes in my other works. I’m very obsessed with people’s working lives. I’m very interested in how people’s inner views of themselves don’t align with how they’re perceived by others, and these themes continue to crop up even in this strange, off-kilter work. I don’t have any regrets per se about previous books, but plenty of disappointments. Like a lot of writers, I’m sad my backlist hasn’t done better, hasn’t sold more or won awards or attracted more attention. But whatever. I just keep on keeping on, trying to build a body of work I can be proud of. Mine is a small but generous readership, and I’m grateful for what I have. 


6) You mentioned in a previous Q&A that you exchange thoughts and ideas with your wife, the writer Rebecca Rosenblum. Did she play a part in the creation of this book? 


Yes, Rebecca read an early draft and, as usual, provided lots of wise and wonderful feedback on the manuscript. Letting her see work once I’ve gotten it to a certain point has become just another part of my process. I do pretty much the same for her, too.


7) No doubt you are working on your next work. Are there details you care to tell your fans about this next work?


After finishing a working draft of All the Animals on Earth, I switched gears and spent about 16 months working on a collection of interconnected short stories that sort of went bust. I got about five or six pieces in and realized they were all structure and no story, nothing there to hold them together, and so last fall I made the difficult decision to set the project aside. Then, almost immediately, I began work on another novel, and I’ve been having a blast with it ever since, working on it like a madman. I’m closing in on finishing a rough first draft, despite having only started it back in October. I can’t say much about it, other than it’s a horror novel set on my native Prince Edward Island. 

*****

Link to Wolsak & Wynn website for “All the Animals on Earth.”

Link to Mark Sampson’s blog “Free Range Reading”

When Our Perceptions Are Forced To Change – Repeatedly | Review of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue (2019) HarperCollins Publishers

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We are all creatures of habit. Our thoughts and beliefs force us into realms of convenience that make us believe our lives are perfect for us. Yet we find ourselves being thrust into situations that force us to change not only our lifestyles but our personal beliefs and understandings. Emma Donoghue has given us a touching example of this example in her touching novel Akin.

Page 4

Was that five pairs of socks or six? He counted them again.

For the past nine years, on his own, Noah had kept himself too busy for vacations. There’d been hints that he should retire, of course; barbed remarks from colleagues, cost-cutting ones from the dean, benevolent ones from women friends, to the effect that Noah should learn to kick back, live a little, join a choir or take up tai chi in Central Park. His little sister, Fernande, was the only one who’d never suggested it, even though she’d retired from her receptionist job with relief at sixty-five. She must have guessed that her widowed brother needed to stay tethered to the surface of the earth. Having classes to teach – the hard slog of preparation and performance and marking – had reassured him of that much.

Donaghue gives us Noah as a protagonist. We meet this ‘still seventy-nine’ as he is packing his bags for a long-overdue vacation to his child hometown of Nice, France. In that opening we engage his thoughts learning that he had a long career in scientific research and academia He is recently widowed yet still has conversations with his wife in his head. His life was settled and contemplative when all of the sudden the phone rings and a social worker begs him to take care of an eleven-year-old great nephew in desperate need of care.

Pages 12-13

“Sorry not to be of more use, Ms. Figueroa” -no trouble remembering the name the crook had given, now, if he took a split second to get the vowels in the correct sequence – “but I’ve got to go now.”

“Please.”

It wasn’t the word but Rosa Figueroa’s tone that made Noah pause, receiver halfway to the cradle. She did should like a real person, and so weary. “It’s just that I don’t see how I can be of any practical help,” he told her. Certainly not in the immediate . . . I’m off to France next week, as it happens. Maybe after I get back we could speak again.”

“This can’t wait. I met Michael for the first time myself this morning. There’s nobody at all to look after him.”

It wasn’t subtle, how she was playing on Noah’s sympathies. He wanted a cigarette.

“Could you come and meet his mother with me, tomorrow morning?”

“But – “

“Let’s all just sit down and put our heads together, all right to see what can be done for this child?”

Noah sighed.

While this an adorable and humorous story, Donoghue has documented truths about the human condition. Not only do readers witness clashes between young and old but we see contrasts between; European and American values, crashes of the actions of the past looked through the lens of modern history, and even gender politics come into play here. This is a book that is enjoyable to read but, if mindfully done, can be an enlightening read as well.

Page 130

“You were asleep forever,” Michael complained.

“It was only a nap. How did you pass the time?”

The boy held up his phone. “Thirty-one kills.”

“Lovely.”

Noah’s generation had gotten more fresh air, he decided, but also probably more fractures, playing such perennial favorites as Johnny-on-the-Pony (in which one team leaped on the backs of the other until the whole human pile crashed to the ground). He wondered now how a gamer like Michael had broken his collarbone.

Emma Donoghue has given readers not only a touching novel with Akin but one that is quietly enlightening about the human condition as well. In short, a good read but one that is thought-provoking if it is carefully done.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Akin

Link to Emma Donoghue’s website