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(M)y books often explore how writing and creativity give my characters tools to deal with the world | Q&A with author Alice Kuipers on her novel “Me (and) Me”

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Alice Kuipers is a very popular author of Young Adult fiction and one of good merit.  Her newest book  –  Me (and) Me –  is already garnishing praises on from all manners of readers and bringing new fans to her works. Kuipers was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and include me in her blog tour of her new book.

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1) First off, could you give an outline of the plot of Me (and) Me?

Hi there. Thanks for interviewing me! The description of Me (and) Me from my website is this: It’s Lark’s seventeenth birthday, and although she’s hated to be reminded of the day ever since her mom’s death three years ago, it’s off to a great start. Lark has written a killer song to perform with her band, the weather is stunning and she’s got a date with gorgeous Alec. The two take a canoe out on the lake, and everything is perfect—until Lark hears the screams. Annabelle, a little girl she used to babysit, is drowning in the nearby reeds while Annabelle’s mom tries desperately to reach her. Lark and Alec are closer, and they both dive in. But Alec hits his head on a rock in the water and begins to flail.

Alec and Annabelle are drowning. And Lark can save only one of them.

Lark chooses, and in that moment her world splits into two distinct lives. She must live with the consequences of both choices. As Lark finds herself going down more than one path, she has to decide: Which life is the right one?

That gives the opening. After that the book is structured around both of Lark’s lives as she tries to figure out how to put her life back together again. Each choice has good things and bad things about it—but Lark spends the book encountering glimpses of the life she isn’t leading and that sends her into a tailspin. I’m not sure how much to say without spoiling the story!

2) Was there anything that inspired to write this book? (If yes, what was it?) Is there anything you are hoping the book will accomplish?

I started writing this book when I was eighteen, but I had a whole different set of characters and ideas at the time. Suddenly, about three years ago, the character of Lark came to me and from there, the ideas from the unpublished book I wrote when I was eighteen realigned. As to what I hope the book will accomplish, well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t really think while I’m writing the book about anything other than the story. And then when a book goes into the world, I let it go. A book is a co-creation between the author and the reader, so, if anything, I hope that I’ve given the reader a lot of room in the story to bring their own ideas and imagination. I hope the story becomes the living, breathing thing it was for me when I wrote it.

3) Your website lists this book as your seventh published book. Has your writing change since you began writing? If yes, how so?

My writing has changed because when I first started writing I had no idea what I was doing. I had to spend a lot of time reading books on grammar and studying writing to be able to write the ideas in my head—that’s why the first time I tried to write this book, it didn’t ever get read by anyone else. I just didn’t even know how to punctuate speech correctly (to be fair, that is hard!) My first published book was at least my sixth attempt at writing a completed novel. And then during the editorial process for each of my published books I learnt so much about writing that I felt like a beginner all over again. As a writer now, I am more confident sentence by sentence, but I find it very hard to create a whole book—and that’s what stimulates me as a writer too—the challenge.

But thematically, my books often explore how writing and creativity give my characters tools to deal with the world. Lark is a singer-songwriter and she uses her songs to help her deal with her new, crazy life. That part was really fun to write.

4) Are you planning a book tour or any public readings of Me (and) Me? If yes, are there any particular events or dates you are looking forward to? Are public readings something you enjoy participating in?

This blog tour is a great way for me to share the book with readers, along with public events and readings. I have four small children so I try to do a lot of publicity from my couch—but I’m looking forward to the Literacy For Life Conference in Saskatoon (Link here) on May 1st and 2nd, when I’ll share the book with 2000 local students. The Festival of Words in Moose Jaw (Link here) is going to be great fun too—me, plus the children, plus my partner (Yann Martel) who is a writer too, plus the spa in Moose Jaw, plus a lot of eager readers and writers! I do enjoy doing events but they make me a little nervous. Speaking to a big group of people can be intimidating, until I remember that I am not talking about me but about my books. And hopefully I’m giving the people I’m speaking to some ideas about writing that are useful for them, too.

5) You seem to be active on numerous social-media sites. How do you like using those sites in relation to your writing? Is there one platform (like Facebook or Twitter) you enjoy hearing from fans of your work?

I love hearing from readers and I think as an author for teens it’s a good way for them to reach out to me. I enjoy being active on social media—it’s a fun way to procrastinate and connect with a bigger world. (Link to Alice Kuipers’ Twitter account) (Link to Alice Kuipers’ Facebook account) Writing involves me tuning out of the world—I am alone with my thoughts and my books. Social media opens the world up so that I can hear from readers and writers about the books and stories that spark their worlds. I like all of the platforms that I use, but my current favourite is Instagram where I regularly post writing prompts for people.

6) You have a program on the internet called Freeflow: A Writing Journey in which you have had budding writers learn skills on how to write? How has that been working out?

That course is free for anyone who signs up to my newsletter and it has a lot of people working through it online. I also have a course with Children’s Book Insider (Link Here) called Chapter Book Blueprint that has been a lot of fun too. I love working on online courses as, again, I’m reaching out from my sofa. It means I can share my ideas about writing with other writers, but then turn to my bouncy children (who are all under the age of eight) and spend a lot of time with them too. I can work around their schedules.

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Yes, I’m always working on something new. Right now, I’ve been working on a YA novel about a girl who claims to be from the future, and a YA memoir about travelling around the world with panic disorder when I was eighteen. I’ve also got a chapter book series upcoming with Chronicle Press, which is exciting. The first book comes out in 2018. It’s called Polly Diamond.

8) Your biography on your website lists you as living in Saskatoon. How do you like living there? Are there any cultural institutions or landmarks there that you enjoy that help you with your writing?

I’ve been living in Saskatoon for thirteen years now and we have a good life here. The children go to a great school, we have a close community of friends, and we enjoy everything the city has to offer. The winters are a bit long for me, but I’ve learned to cross-country ski, which helps. This year we did a lot of ice-skating too. Saskatoon influences my writing, absolutely. Walking by the river seems to come up for my characters in all of my books now, based on my walks along the Meewasin Valley Trails.  (Link here) I also enjoy Living Sky Café (Link here) in the old Mendel Art Gallery space, and The Children’s Discovery Museum (Link here) is a great place to hang out with the kids and get ideas for stories. I spend a lot of time at my children’s school at the moment—meeting with kids and talking about writing with them seems to help me with my own writing a lot too. And then I go to D’Lish regularly (Link here)—which is the name of the café in Me (and) Me.

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Link to Harper Collins Canada’s website for Me (And) Me

Link to Alice Kuipers’ website

 

 

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Engaging the Younger Audience on their own Terms | Review of “The Death of Us” by Alice Kuipers (2014) HarperTrophyCanada

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I am always asked to recommend books for young adults, usually by parents looking to recommend something for their kids to read. It is usually something I am somewhat nervous in doing. I am not sure that I understand the lives that most teenagers have these days. But there are books that are written for that age group that I enjoy. And The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is certainly one of those books.

Callie Page 5

I get it, I do. The have a baby now and they’ve done their part: what a successful, balanced teenager they’ve created.

I don’t take drugs. Check.

I don’t drink. Check.

I don go to wild parties. Check.

Okay I have a couple extra piercings in my right ear that Mom  hates. And I’ve dyed my hair black, which Dad moans about. And he definitely can’t understand why the dark-blue nail polish, with one green nail on the fourth finger of each hand. I’ve told him there’s nothing to understand.

Still, I keep my room tidy. Check.

I get my homework in on time. Check.

I’ll get into any university I want, probably. Check.

I’m perfectly bone-crushingly normal. Check. Check. Check.

If only I didn’t feel like I do right now around my parents, we could all just get along like we used to.

I originally picked up this book for research into another blog piece but I feel it deserves to be mentioned here. We have three protagonists in this story  who move the plot along by giving their points of view: Callie, Ivy and Kurt. Callie seems to be up for going through an average summer until her old friend Ivy shows up after a three-year unexplained absence. Although somewhat hesitant at first to renew the friendship, Callie is soon going to parties and trying new clothes and much more new activities with Ivy. However when a handsome boy appears on the scene, the friendship grows more than toxic.

Ivy Page 49-50

Kurt beeps the horn outside my house. Mom’s asleep on the couch. She’s gorgeous when she’s sleeping. I spot a text on her phone from Kevin. Dirty words. Gross. I tuck the phone next to her. She stirs, the sour stink of her rising like steam. Screw it, Mom, two days we’ve been back. Don’ you think Kevin’s gonna notice? I take the bottle.

The room is dark, curtains drawn. No one’s watching but I check around anyway. I put the bottle to my lips and hold it there. Then, slowly, I take the bottle away from my mouth. I won’t drink. I’m notlike her – see how easy it is, Mom not to drink? We’re the result of the choices we make every day and this is my choice. I pour the bottle out into the sink, wishing she didn’t always find a way to get more. But I’m not going to waste energy thinking like that. I count one, two, three, four, five.

I’m ready for the boat trip. Summery dress for a sunny, summery day. Kurt beeps the horn again. I’ve made him wait long enough, poor boy. Men are like dogs, they need training, and every dog needs a reward when he’s done good. Kurt has been very patient. I pop my gum in my mouth, step down the porch stairs and slide into the back because there’s another guy in the passenger seat – a thin guy with a beard and glasses, crouched over because he’s so tall . . .

Kuipers has written a narrative here that is honest and frank. The language hasn’t been filtered or corrected by any means, making it an honest read for any young mind to follow. The issues in the story are current for today’s audience. Kuipers drops hints during the story that something massive is going to happen to the trio in the end but does an excellent job in keeping readers in suspense, ensuring readers are enraptured to the end.

Kurt – Pages 119-120

I glance at the black coffee. I can’t drink it. Inertia. I don’t like it about myself, wish I could be more decisive, but when things get tough I blank out. Freeze.

It was the only way to protect myself when I was a little kid. When my mom tore up the world around me. There’s no way to explain to most people, people like Callie or Xander, that life can be so bad sometimes the only way to deal with with it is to pretend none of it’s happening. Or, the opposite. Life can be so good, the possibility of the future so awesome that the only way to protect yourself from ruining it is to sit back. Let the opportunity slide by.

The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is a unique and enlightening read for  a younger audience. It is a page-turner and a great exploration of thoughts and emotions. In short, a truly exceptional book.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for The Death of Us

Link to Alice Kuipers’ website

Not Only a Smooth and Lyrical Read but an Enlightening One as well | Review of “Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang (2017) HarperAvenue

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Many of us who read appreciate a story line that is smooth and lyrical. We enjoy slipping into a narrative that seems to float us away from our reality to another world. And it takes a certain type of writer who has that skill. Fans of Janie Chang realized she had that ability to do that with her first novel, and they eagerly awaited her second book. Now Dragon Springs Road has been released, and book readers have the ability to slide into another great story.

Chapter 1 – November 1908, Year of the Monkey – (Pages 1-2)

The morning my mother went away, she burned incense in front of the Fox altar.

The emperor Guangxu and the dowager empress had both died that week. My mother told me our new emperor was a little boy of almost three called Pui. A child less than half my age now ruled China and she was praying for him. And for us.

My mother knelt, eyes shut, rocking back and forth with clasped hands. I couldn’t hear the prayers she murmured and did my best to imitate her, but I couldn’t help lifting my eyes to steal glances at the picture pasted on the brick wall, a colorful print of a woman dressed in flowing silks, her face sweetly bland, one hand in blessing. A large red fox sat by her feet. A Fox spirit, pictured in her human and animal forms.

The altar was just a low table placed against the back wall of the kitchen. Its cracked wooden surface held an earthenware jar filled with sand. My mother had let me poke our last handful of incense sticks into the sand even let me strike a match ot light them. We had no food to offer that morning except a few withered plums.

The Fox gazed down at me with its painted smile.

After we prayed, my mother dressed me in my new winter tunic.

“Stay here, Jailing,” she said, pushing the last knot button through its loop. “Be quiet and don’t let anyone know you’re here. Stay inside the Western Residence until Mama comes back.”

But three days passed and she didn’t come back.

The story deals with Jialing – a seven years old girl whose her mother abandons her in a courtyard on Dragon Springs Road near Shanghai, China  in 1908. Jialing is a mixed race child – Eurasian – and faces contempt from both Chinese and Europeans alike. While she settles into a life of a bond servant to a family who cares for her in turn, she suffers extreme prejudices and hardships. She finds limited comfort with Anjuin – the eldest daughter of the family she serves – and Fox – an animal spirit who has lived for centuries.

Page 121-122

As the date of Anjuin’s wedding drew near, I worried about the promises we had made to each other. I knew I owed the Yangs much, but I longed to be free of my dependence on them. to be free of them all except Anjuin, even though the prospect of being a maid, even one in a house where Anjuin was mistress, didn’t comfort me the way it had when we were children. I didn’t know what a life outside Dragon Springs Road might be like, but between school and Fox, my horizons had stretched wider than I had ever imagined possible.

As for my childish hopes of finding my mother – how was I ever to accomplish that if my fate was tied to the Yangs? Now I understood it would take money because neither fate nor Fox were about to help me Fox had know me for years and had never mentioned my mother.

My grades were passable, my English scores very good. I wouldn’t be able to attend missionary college since I didn’t qualify for a scholarship. I needed a livelihood. At school, one of the teachers had passed around a newspaper article about the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. The bank’s new general manager was a woman.

“Perhaps I could find work there as a bank teller,” I whispered to Leah.

“I wouldn’t count on any job that put you in front of customers,” she replied in her blunt way. “They don’t want our kind waiting on them.”

Chang has crafted – note the word crafted –  a complex story here filled with facts, emotions and mysticism. A reader can easily get absorbed in the book and find oneself not only enlightened but educated about life in Shanghai, China in the early 1900s. In bringing the story of Jialing to life, Chang has given us thought about the plight of Eurasians in that time period.

Page 194-`195

In the weeks before graduation I spent my lunch hours in the library poring over newspapers for job listings. I wrote application letters in careful brushstrokes if in Chinese or took my turn on the old school typewriter if the job was advertised in one of Shanghai’s English-language papers.

Clerical or secretarial, tutorial or child care, I replied to them all. All this effort, even though I knew it was futile. There were just too many people in Shanghai, too many with more skills than I could offer. There were people willing to work for almost nothing. There were few enough ways a woman could earn a livelihood, and the decent work went first to young women whose family had guanxi, connections, women whose families could afford red envelopes of cash to ease an introduction. Families whose daughters weren’t tainted with foreign blood.

The Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank advertised for a filing clerk. A position suitable for the secondary school graduate. Must be tidy in dress and grooming, with clear handwriting. It was the first bank founded by women, a fine place to begin a career, place where I could use my English skills. I wanted this job very badly and was thrilled to receive a reply to my application.

“This is just a small bank, Miss Zhu,” the manager said. Her hair was pulled back in a large bun, the only ornament on her black tunic a small pearl brooch. “We prefer girls with family connections, girls who can bring us more clients. I didn’t notice you had graduated from a mission school. That was my mistake.”

Her words were pleasant enough, but disdain clung to the corners of her lips. It was another, typically brief interview, the sort that was over as soon as I entered the door. I had let my self hope, a mistake.

Janie Chang has created not only a lyrical novel with Dragon Springs Road but also one that enlightens as well. With a well-crafted plot and story, it is definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Janie Chang’s website

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s website for Dragon Springs Road

Link to my Q&A with Janie Chang “(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.”

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“(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.” Q&A with author Janie Chang on her new novel

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Janie Chang enthralled many readers with her first novel Three Souls. She had carefully crafted that work with a mixture of history, emotion, mysticism, and romance. Now Janie has come out with a second book called Dragon Springs Road and it promises to be just an equally endearing read. Chang recently answered a few questions for me.

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1)      First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Dragon Springs Road?

The novel is set during the early decades of 20th century China, and opens with a young girl named Jialing who’s been abandoned in the courtyard of an old estate outside Shanghai. She finds out very quickly that her life is going to be terrible, because she’s a girl, orphaned, and worst of all, Eurasian. Even though she’s taken in as a bondservant by the family that moves into the estate, Jialing’s life is always going to be difficult. The two main concerns in her life are: how can she survive once the family is done with her, and how can she find her mother? It’s a turbulent time in Chinese history – the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the birth of a new republic, the rise of warlords, and all sorts of social upheaval. There’s a murder, political intrigue, supernatural elements that include a Fox spirit, and themes of race and identity, acceptance and friendship.

2)      Your website states that you draw on family stories for your inspiration for your writing? What or who inspired your to write this book?

 My first novel, Three Souls, was inspired by my grandmother’s life, so the premise was taken from family history. Dragon Springs Road, on the other hand, started off as a detour while researching turn-of-the-century Shanghai when I came across references to the Eurasians who lived during pre-War China. Imagine pre-War Shanghai and its decadent reputation. There were thousands of children born to prostitutes and poor women. If they survived infanticide the girls were often put to work in brothels. They were unwanted and unacknowledged by Chinese and Westerners, an embarrassment to both sides. So I tried to imagine what life might’ve been like for such a child, to grow up in a society that valued males, family connections, and lineage. 

But there are many, many details that made their way from family history and into Dragon Springs Road – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.

3)  On your website, you have enclosed photos that provide readers some insight for the book. Did you do much outside research for the book? If yes, what exactly did you do?

Wow. I’m so glad you checked out the Gallery (Click for link). It’s meant to help readers visualize the world of the novel. As for research, you start with the least expensive – online research. And that includes looking for books that might be helpful. I bought a LOT of books, because while they might be available at a library, I like to have them right there on my shelf to flip through as needed. It feels as though I used only 10% of all the information I researched! If you love history, you have to be disciplined when doing research or else you end up down the rabbit hole.  Even though both Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road contain elements of fantasy, they are solidly researched. They are historical novels.

It was actually quite challenging because there were almost no contemporary accounts of the lives of Eurasian orphans and the poor; I found some academic books about Eurasians in China, but much of those accounts were of biracial Chinese from the upper and middle-classes, who were literate and whose lives were documented. There was almost nothing when it came to the far larger population of the poor and orphaned; back in those days, no one wanted to know. Then a friend suggested looking into the memoirs of women missionaries and that really helped because those women were the ones who ran schools and orphanages, who could remark on what happened to the children. 

4) Dragon Springs Road may have just come out but it looks like reaction to it has been very positive. Is that the case? Have there been any memorable comments to the book that you care to share?

 This is my second novel, so I think my publishers have more to work with in terms of readership and media attention – they’re no longer trying to promote a one-book author! Memorable comments? Well, I suffered from the Dreaded Sophomore Novel Syndrome while writing Dragon Springs Road and thought that it was going to be a terrible book! So when my editors came back after reading the manuscript and said it was an even better, more accomplished novel than the first, I was so relieved! So the email from my editor was definitely memorable.

5)      Are you planning on partaking on any public readings of Dragon Springs Road at all? If yes, are there any dates/events that you are looking forward to participating in?

I’ve had a couple of events locally (in the Vancouver area) including the Canadian launch; also the US book launch at Kepler’s Books (Click for link) (Menlo Park, CA) and Vroman’s Bookstore (Click for link) (Pasadena). I’m really looking forward to the first literary festival of the year, which is the Galiano Literary Festival (Click for linkheld on one of our beautiful Gulf Islands. Everything that’s been scheduled for sure so far is on my Events page (Click for link).

6) You seem to be active on both social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Are you hoping that readers connect with you through those means to comment on this book? How do you like using those means of communication in relation to your writing?

Social media is a requirement these days for authors unless you’re Elena Ferrante, who every author envies for having sidestepped the time drain that’s social media. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, probably more Facebook than Twitter. In general, social media makes me nervous. My background is in high tech and I am so aware of the privacy issues surrounding these free services, such as what corporations can do with data mining to cross-reference your personal information from different sources. And don’t even get me started on the decline of civil conversation in an age of tweets. 

On the other hand, I’ve become friends with readers and other authors through social media, from reaching out to them and vice versa, so I shouldn’t complain. I know that social media makes it easier for readers to ask questions. When I don’t have time to write a good blog, Facebook is a good place to post an article about something that I’m reading and thinking about.  There are friends I would lose touch with if not for social media.

7) Your website offers a special section for book clubs (and states that you will even participate in a book-clubs discussion groups via Skype). Have you participated in many book-club activities? Is that something you enjoy doing?

It’s good to get out of the writing den! Skype is not as nice as face-to-face, but it means you can meet with book clubs anywhere. Last year HarperCollins New Zealand organized one with a book club in Queenstown, on the South Island of (New Zealand) !

8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Absolutely. Novel #3 is all outlined. I’m really excited about the premise and can’t wait for the flurry of promotion for Dragon Springs Road to be finished so that I can really get down to writing. What I can say is that the third novel is inspired by family history. Again. And it mixes history with the supernatural. Again.

*****

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s webpage for Dragon Springs Road

Link to Janie Chang’s website

Illustrating Canada One Letter At A Time | Review of “Canada ABC” by Paul Covello (2016) HarperCollins Canada

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Scanned image of my copy of the cover of Paul Covello’s Canada ABC (2016)

Since I have been asked to give my opinion about childrens’ books, I have been impressed with the details, the planning and the design that goes into what appears at first a simple item. And that is what I found interesting about Paul Covello’s Canada ABC book too. But as I flipped through the book, I found myself thinking that there may be another use for his book as Canada prepares to celebrate it’s 150th year since Confederation in 2017.

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“H is for Hockey” Illustration by Paul Covello. Scanned image from my copy of Canada ABC by Paul Covello (2016)

Covello has a great book here. He documents every letter from A to ‘Zed’ with unique Canadian concepts and icons. The images at first appear to be simple. (For example – A setting with three or four animals). But then one looks at the pictures and realized there is a bit of hidden detail here. (A collection of leaves, a grove of trees which use geometric shapes, colours that compliment each other and so forth.) The joy of this book is not just looking at the definitions and the images that are here, but to look at the details and – if one is sharing with others – discuss the details of each of the images.

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“B is for Beaver.” Illustration by Paul Covello. Scanned image from my copy Canada ABC by Paul Covello (2016)

While this may be a book for little minds, I believe that I will be giving copies of this book out to visitors to Canada who come to see me during the celebrations of our country next year. The simple concept would help people whose English skills may be limited still understand the concepts of what makes up Canada today. And the brightly illustrated pages are more unique than any tacky souvenir that is available for purchase.

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“V is for Voyager” Illustration by Paul Covello. Scanned image from my copy of Canada ABC by Paul Covello (2016)

Paul Covello’s Canada ABC may appear to be a simple book, but it is a unique discussion piece when one gives a few careful moments to look it over. It is a perfect gift for so many people as Canada prepares to celebrate it’s 150 anniversary since Confederation.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s webpage for Canada ABC

Link to Paul Covello’s website

The Strife of Others and Our Own | Review of “I Carried You Home” by Alan Gibney (2016) Patrick Crean Editions

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We all have tried to deal with trauma and strife within our family units. Death, illness, loss of fortunes, etc. take their toll upon psyches and,  in turn,  manifest themselves in irrational behaviors. So how do we at least try to relate to odd manners when they occur? Literature gives us a starting point to talk about our problems. And one such point for readers to use for a discussion about family problems is Alan Gibney’s I Carried You Home.

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The police said Will landed on the hood of the car, but I imagined it differently at the time. I imagined him flying over the odd and hitting the ground and everything going quiet and still, and it staying like that for a long moment, the snow falling gently on the wreck, and then the wind starting up again and her waking with the noise and pulling herself free and shouting into the trees, searching until she found him in the snow. She didn’t think of dragging him to the car and leaving him on the seat and going for help. She wasn’t capable of leaving him. She carried him on her back through the blizzard, up and down the steep hills, over the ice and snow. She kept forgetting what had happened. Why was she there? Why did her face hurt? A ditch. A tree. Keep moving. She was bent over, balancing him on her back, his arms over her shoulders. She shuffled forward, holding his wrists, his face against her neck. Her hands burned in the wind. How far was it? She drove it very day. It was at least a mile. There long hills, a good mile. Will groaned and kicked his legs. Hold on, she shouted. He coughed against her neck. Something warm rolled down her back. We’re almost there. Her teeth hurt, her neck hurt. She pulled down on his wrists to stop him struggling. Hold on.

I was doing homework in the living room, watching the snow swirling around the garden lights. I saw someone coming up the driveway, an old woman bent over carrying a bundle on her back her long hair whipping in the wind. She looked up, and it was my mother, her face pale blue in the porch light. I ran outside in my T-shirt.

– What happened? What happened? I shouted over the wind.

 

This is a very intense book that deals with internal thoughts and emotions – things many of us rarely wish to talk about it. We are introduce to Ashe, an adolescent male who is trying to mature into a man. Yet his already awkward home life is shattered even more as his brother is killed and his mother shuts herself away from the world.

Page 10-11

After the prayer, Nell stood beside the grave as people filed by.

-We will see you at the reception, Mrs. Finder, the priest said to her.

She said nothing. He touched her shoulder but she didn’t look up. He walked down the hill with his head bowed. The people started drifting away. My girlfriend, Sheila, walked up the hill with a white rose in her hand. She was lame in one leg, which made it hard for her to climb up the slope. She went over to Nell and handed her the flower. Nell stared down at it, as if she couldn’t understand what it was for, the she crumpled it and dropped it on the ground. I took Sheila by the arm and led her down to her parents. I’m sorry, I said to them. They stared up at Nell for a time, then turned and left.

Nell just stayed in the same spot, her eyes shut, her jaw muscles working working like she was chewing something. I stood by a tree to get away from the wind. Karl stayed out in the open shivering, his hands clasped in front of him like an altar boy. The snow started up for a while and then stopped. Why hadn’t Aunt Susan come, I wondered. Wasn’t she told? How long did we have to stand by the damn hole? It was black from where I stood. I couldn’t look at it. I watched Nell rocking gently from side to side, the wind pulling at her dress and hair. Then her knees buckled and she fell face down on the snow with her arms out. Karl ran over and grabbed her under the arms and sat her up.

-Breathe, Nell. You’ve fainted. Breathe in.

-Don’t touch me, she said, pushing him away and trying to get up but sitting down again. She held her hand out to me. Please.

For the a book that deals with such deep emotions, the language in it is very simple. We can follow Ashe thoughts with ease and grasp his anger and frustrations. And sense his discomforts when situations arise that cause him trepidation. This is a great book for reader to come to grips with their own anguish no matter what their age may be.

Page 127

-Mom.

-All right? It’s a simple promise. If I’m alive, you won’t play with the gun. You won’t touch it. Just promise me that.

-Okay, I promise.

-The day I’m gone, you can do whatever you want.

-You’re such a bitch.

-I’m not a nice person, Ashe. It’s true. I know that. And I wish I cared about it, but I don’t seem to right now, I’m sorry. I don’t know how I’m meant to act these days. Susan told me she slept with Karl, and you found out about it. But the thing I couldn’t figure out was why she woke me up to tell me. Does she really think I care what she does with Karl? Because I don’t. I really don’t care what anyone does. It’s not a nice thing. I know that . . . Look, I’m going back upstairs now, but I expect you to keep your promise. I wouldn’t expect it from anyone else, but I do from you. I hold you to a higher standard Ashe.

– I’m not going to touch the gun, I said.

-Okay then.

She walked past me and paused at the door.

-You’re the only person I trust Ashe . . .You’re your own man, I know that . . . Everyone else is just wandering around, spinning in the wind, but not you . . . Don’t think I haven’t noticed.

She went upstairs. Suddenly I was dog-tired. I didn’t want to go outside and sleep in the cold. I went into the living room and lay down on the sofa.

I Carried You Home by Alan Gibney is a complex and interesting read that can help one come to grips with their own emotions. A unique piece of literature and an emotional one too.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for I Carried You Home

 

Drive and Desire| Review of “The Motorcyclist” by George Elliot Clarke (HarperCollins)

Motorcyclist

It is a universal feeling among humans to get away from it all and start fresh and new. To improve ourselves by going to a different place or being with a different person. But sometimes taking that first step is a hard one to do for so many reasons. Those are some of the thoughts and emotions George Elliot Clarke brilliantly explores in his novel The Motorcyclist.

Page 12

The ignition key is in the centre position and the neutral indicator shows a green-for-go glow. Exultant, Carl leaps up, thrusts down, kick-starts the engine that now roars and snorts, born again, bawling, and ready for brawling. He buckles on the helmet; the red, yellow, and white painted flames, licking back from the black face opening, look as proud and as incendiary as the flag of any new African state. Yep: here be liberated Ghana, a one-man motorcade.

Carlyle – a.k.a. Carl – Black whistles as he manoeuvers his machine over the gullies of this dirt driveway in which every rainstorm gouges new furrows. He nods at all who pass, all who eye him, handsome, with a lean, iron-dark frame, fierce eyes, and a steel-jaw look. His speech sounds suave; his wardrobe models dapper.

The man be Coloured, but not colonized, not totally. Unlike his buddies, he can escape, temporarily, the Drudgery that traps so many “Nofaskosha” Negroes: from the red-uniformed man with a flashlight, ushering kids into a cinema (the closest a dark dude can get to being a cop), to the shoeshine boy, or waitress, whose tips are the reward of a sultry smile, to the folks aching in Labour that shatters souls. In contrast, Carl can be a cavalier, a “cat’ privy to cathouses.

This is a unique novel for sure. Clarke has taken his father’s (William Lloyd Clarke) diary and used it to ‘inform’ this book. And it is the descriptions that builds the empathy with the readers. Set in 1959-60 Halifax, we get to understand what it was like for the senior Clarke to live in that time and era. We feel the racism he endures because of the colour of his skin. We feel the prejudices  he endures because of his parentage. And we feel the slights he endures because of his occupation. But most of all, we feel the enjoyment he gets when he straddles his beloved BMW motorcycle and drives out onto the open road.

Page 85-86

Astride the BMW, even when he’s bent over the fuel tank, trying to duck the tonguing wind that washes under, over around his helmet and his jacket, Carl feels erect, like a gunfighter in full gallop, stream-lining with his stallion, ready for the showdown, the high-noon or midnight fray. His legs are sturdy wishbones and his arms are Frankenstein-monster outstretched and steel-hard. His manhood too, even at rest, is cocked. Liz II, his “queen of queans,” transforms Carl into a black-leather Priapus, a dark roustabout darting cupidic. or so he doth believe.

Aboard that machine, he imagines that he’s Jesse Owens, streaking always to Victory, with style, with panache, with a kind word for all women and any every tipper. Liberation is going, floating, flying; i.e., feeling actually free.

The style in this book is lyrical and smooth. The reader seems to float from sentence to sentence or from scene to scene without a sense of interruption or break. Even the elements of the book that are meant to be dark or upsetting are written in such a manner that they seem slip into the reader’s mind with ease and are hard to forget.

Page 105

Mack was mishmash – like a black-ink typewriter page that explodes into red-ink handwriting because a ribbon has petered out. His face was porcelain grammar given a jagged, cursive erasure. Mack’s body implanted an honest nest on the roof of a minister’s car, the preacher’s spouse dead within. Mack’s poundage (e = mc2’d into tonnage) had smacked hard onto the roof, buckling it, so the underlying steel had hammered the Mrs. Minister’s skull, bashing her dead. Beside the torn horse, Mack’s bike looked like a tender mechanism, too easily mutilated.

Only an engineer could repair the grisly mix of glass, metal, horse, wood, rubber. The waste of animal and wreckage of human beings and the mutual destruction of Jet Age and Stone Age machinery. Only God could survey the scarlet-washed accident and identify the resurrection. Killud – the Estonian word for “collected fragments” – suited the jumble and carnage. Shards of glass, a motorcycle wheel protruding from the horse’s rump, so much furious bleeding, slipshod, the ache of smoke, tears throbbing amid car and motorcycle pieces, the chrome mixed in with the steed’s deep, black breast.

Then the Quebec car was stopping. The driver and lady could see terrible biffures all about. A man had buried himself in a car roof, and a woman below it would need burial herself. Everyone seemed to be in a deep morphine sleep. A farmer and un nègre (Carl) were both emitting electroshock hollers. Metal parts, raw junk, goggles of glass for horse eyes, shackles of chrome on the felled biker: only a balm of fog could pacify. Everywhere was detached pissing: tears, blood. The minister, garbed for church, was, instead attending suddenly his wife’s funeral. Oil and gas and horse urine seemed perfumes as heavy as lead. The air was strident with stink. Unnerving. The animal showed the convoluted guts of a snake.

Carl felt drastic numbness. He went to Mack. No breath in the bones, no fever in the flesh:just breaks in the bones and wounds on the flesh.

George Elliot Clarke has certain taken one man’s thoughts, fears, anguish, desires and dreams and made them vivid in his novel The Motorcyclist. It is a lyrical read well worth perusing.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for The Motorcyclist

Link to the site of Canada’s Poet Laureate which George Elliot Clarke currently holds this position

Christopher Kruse Saga Part Two | Review of “Son of France” by Todd Babiak (2016) HarperCollinsCollins

Paris is suppose to be the city of light and romance but it has become a mixture of bad memories and strange politics for Christopher Kruse. Hired as a security agent by the mayor, Kruse wallows in regret and sadness for the murder of his wife and young daughter. And the situation only worsens as a grenade attack in the Jewish quarter injuries the mayor and kills another politician. Yes, Todd Babiak has sent out Kruse in another myriad of thrilling adventures in Son of France.

Pages 1-2

Rue des Rosiers, Paris

The winter after his daughter died, Christopher Kruse  slept poorly. He would awaken out of a dream at four in the morning, forget all but its mood, and jog through the park thinking of her. At this time of day, only the most haunted were about the city. They walked slowly, smoking cigarettes while he ran, but none of them were going anywhere. He would do sit-ups and push-ups on the wet and cool grass and shadowbox by the light of an old lantern near a monument to the dead. No one watched him, or even noticed he was there. A mist would rise up off the Seine or fall from the sky, and the phantom legs of the tower would return him to the feeling of his forgotten dream. In the fog, anything was possible. He spoke to his dead daughter. he worried he was going crazy and then he stopped worrying.

There was enough time after his workout to shower and put on a suit, to be the first customer at the bakery. He grew up with the church and came to adore ritual if not faith. On his way from the apartment on Avenue Bosquet to the bakery, through the dark of January and the wind of February, the rains of March, through hot yeast and diesel exhaust, too much perfume, and the occasional flash of dog shit, he passed a travel agency. It was small and shabbily furnished. The woman at the desk in Voyages du Septième was  always alone at this hour. She wore a crashing wave of teased-up white-blonde hair and shoulder pads in her bright polyester dresses. In the absence of customers or even a book to read stared out the window, her chin in her hand. Over time the woman began to recognize him, to seek him. It would not be French for her to smile or to wave, but now that spring had begun and there was enough light in the mornings, she would hold eye contact and exhale, faintly nod. They were together the loneliest people in Paris. All he had to do was open the heavy blue door, enter the fluorescent room decorated with tropical posters. Just buy a ticket, pack a bag and go home you coward, where you belong. There was nothing to pack but an urn, filled with his daughter’s ashes, Lily’s ashes, and seven suits. What remained of Evelyn was already in Toronto, buried in the Park Lawn Cemetery. He could follow here tomorrow. Today. This afternoon. Who needs the suits? There were plenty in the closet of the house on Foxbar Road. It would be dusty and quiet in there, quieter than quiet: no daughter, no wife, the hum of the refrigerator when he plugged it in and maybe, just maybe, the smell of them in the walls, on the bed and in the linens, in the cushions of the chesterfield where he had rocked his baby to sleep.

Babiak has continued his great story line from Come Barbarians (Link to my review) His prose here (like all his novels) is expressive and  emotional. As we read along, we can clearly see every scar added to Kruse’s face along with every scar added to his soul when he is forced to take a life. It is a pleasure to read a thriller with more than just action to it.

Pages 74-75

Through the closet door he could hear the woman praying. He envied her. He could feel Tzvi watching him as he left the room. In the corridor he tested his trap again and crouched into position. He looked back toward the doorway at Tzvi, who winked and put his night goggles back on.

Kruse heard the clumsy, tentative footsteps on the stairs. His hands were cold, as always before a fight, and his face was hot. He willed his heart to slow. If he were to die, he was pleased he had visited Anouk one last time. He had held Annette’s hand for a moment, in her apartment. It was something.

The men were at the top of the stairwell now, quietly arguing with one another in the dark about who might go first, a communal beast of anxiety. Arabic was the fourth language Tzvi had forced him to learn, in his teens and early twenties, and it was by far the hardest to trick his mouth into speaking. But it was his favourite. One of the young men opened the door and squinted in the darkness, his chest heaving. He sprinted immediately down the hall, toward apartment 322 and Tzvi. There were  no window, so apart from some streetlight seeping under the doors it was altogether dark. The man didn’t make it. Blindly he ran straight into the taut metal cord Kruse had stretched across the hall, at neck height, and the back of his head hit the concrete floor with a hollow thock Kruse had heard too many times. The young man twitched one and lay still. Kruse gently moved him to one side of the hall.

The men whisper-shouted into each other’s faces, spun like little boys at the lake mustering the courage to jump into the cold water. They called out for him Ahmed! Ahmed! One punched another in the shoulder and ordered him to go. This one ran too, though he was still conscious when he hit the floor. He called out for help before Kruse could silence him. What Tzvi wanted him to do now was to finish each of them The idea was nauseating. More shouting and calling out from the end of the hall. Ahmed! Naseer?

It took two years, when he was a teenager, to teach calm to his body. Before a fight or during a a fight, when a larger man was mauling him, when every fibre in his brain was given to panic, he learned to breath himself into stillness. Somehow the process had a smell, of the bamboo mat in the entrance of the Krav Maga studio off St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. It was nearly always wet, from melting snow in the winter and rain in the other three seasons and fragrant. The third most courageous of the young men jogged into the rope and stumbled, hooted and swung at imaginary foes. Kruse took him down and covered him with a blood choke. The man hummed and squired and scratched at Kruse, tried to bite him until he went limp.

Babiak has well-researched the settings in this book. His descriptions of people and places are vivid. Every word feels like it burns into the mind’s eye to give a clear sense to the reader what is being felt, heard or seen.

Page 83-84

They drove back into Sigüenza and completed the plan of al-Faruqi’s compound. It was a sleepy day, warm and cloudy. They visited the cathedral and the castle, spoke in near whispers, outlined their strategy. The El Doncel restaurant was mostly deserted, as the tourist season had not yet begun and, as the hotel manager had confirmed with a hint of anguish in her voice, Sigüenza was a detour for the Don Quixote enthusiasts and few others. Baroque music played quietly. They sat by the window as the sun set over the tidy little city. Tzvi had grown tired of complaining and mocking the ham in every dish, and decided to order the house specialty no matter what was in it. Across the street, on the corner, black-haired lovers ducked into a doorway and kissed. In their walk through Sigüenza they had discovered that the calm and wise page of Queen Isabella, Martín Vázquez de Arce, had been killed in Grenada. With the rest of the Spanish army, he had been trying to wipe out the Moors. In the Gothic cathedral there was a statue of Vázquez de Arce, El Doncel, the Queen’s page, reading a book.

Son of France by Todd Babiak is a great continuation of the Christopher Kruse story. Babiak has kept the story going with vivid descriptions and a soul-searching protagonist. Another brilliant thriller.

****

Link to my Q&A with Todd Babiak on the release of Son of France

Link to Todd Babiak’s Blog

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s page for Son of France

‘The Elf of Invention’ of the Rockies and the Human Condition | Review of “The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel” by Katherine Govier (2016) HarperAvenue

The Canadian Rockies have always been this incredible draw for people but for varied reasons. But why? Is there some monumental truth to be found between those peaks? Is there some economic gain hidden there? Is it just a place where people live and etch out a living? In those questions, there lies an essence to the motivation of the human condition. And in her book The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel, Katherine Govier has carved out a brilliant saga in which readers can reflect on the human condition.

Heading Out (Pages 1-2)

Gateway, June 1911

Isabel stood on the platform. The caboose disappeared around the curve; the mountains closed in. The tallyho driver had loaded their trunks and sat, reins poised. Maxwell handed her father up into the seat. Doctor Professor Charles Hodgson would go directly to the Sanatorium. Tomorrow they would depart by pack train for the backcountry; tonight he would take the waters, in preparation.

“Come along, dear.”

“I won’t ride with thee, Father,” said Isabel. “I believe I’ll walk through town and over the bridge.”

He returned her gaze, pointedly. “You won’t take the baths?”

Doctor Professor Hodgson was keen to indulge, claiming benefits to health: you could take the hot sulphur waters Turkish, Russian or tub style. There were trained nurses. There was also an apothecary attached where a Quaker like him could purchase whisky. For medicinal purposes.

“I am not ill, thank thee.”

“It is your last chance for the whole summer. We won’t be back this way.” The professor turned to his man for support.

Maxwell stood blank-faced with his hands clasped behind his waist. Humphrey was halfway between his father and sister, indecisive.

“I want to stretch my legs, Father, Walk in the fresh air.” Isabel was delicate but could be wilful.

“Well then, Maxwell, you’d better go with her. There are me her who can manage the bags.”

Humphrey followed her lead, so it was brother and sister and Maxwell the butler who walked down Main Street from the station on a perfect blue-sky day in the Rocky Mountains. Their legs loosened. The hair blew in the wind. The sun spared like electricity. Before they had gone far they came to a strange-shaped building, log on the bottom and hip roof on the top, with a big veranda and a rail to which small, patient horses were hitched. The sign read THE THREE SISTERS HOTEL. They climbed the steps and went in.

Govier has been crafting (note the word ‘crafting’ is in italics) this story for years,  which her fans have been eagerly waiting. And it a saga that has been worth waiting for. The plot covers about 100 years around the region of a town called Gateway. We are introduced to Herbie Wishart, a colourful individual who has reinvented himself as a trail guide for the area. He is about to lead an American scientist and his family into the wilds of the backcountry. It is Herbie and the events around that exploration that will confound and influence characters in the book for decades long afterwards.

Page 130-131

The light began to go not long after dinner; summer was ended. Half-heartedly they tried to dispatch the child to bed, but excited by the thought of seeing her family, Gwen would not go. There was a card table the doctor looked at out of the corner of his eye; he normally played poker at this time of day. Then came a knock on the door, and a man was led into the parlour, his hat twitching in his hands. But this was not Wishart either.

“This is Mr. Erwin,” instructed the doctor. “He’s one of our best packers. Excuse me a minute.” He pulled Erwin aside. “Any sign of the them? What am I to tell her? Why have you left this to me? Where the hell is Wishart?”

“He’s searching. I don’t need to tell you, he’s taken it to heart, Doctor.”

“Come and meet Miss Gwen Hodgson,” said the doctor.

Francis Erwin bowed to Gwen grandly and took her hand to his hips. He answered the doctor’s question while still smiling at the girl: “Wishart will be along in just a day or two.”

“What is he doing?” said Gwen

“Searching,” Erwin told her, straight on. “I was too.”

“For what?”

“For your father’s party.”

“Why?”

“They left their camp but did not arrive at the meeting spot. We think they may be lost.”

Gwen pulled in her chin abruptly. She looked like her father then. “They can’t be lost,” said Gwen. “They’re likely just dilly-dallying.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Erwin. “you know all about dilly-dallying don’t you? Do you know how to ride?”

“A little.”

Govier has crafted (again, note that word is in italics) brilliant fiction here. A perfect mix of research, imagination and personal reflection are what make this book a great read. Her descriptions are vivid yet simple and her characters are endearing and believable. Govier has been referred often as being a brilliant storyteller and this book proves that fact.

The Elf of Invention Pages 272-273

On the Trail, August 3, 1928

Past Beguiling, over Bewitching Pass and onto a high meadow that unrolled toward farther peaks. It was strange to get up above one’s world and find another layer, another world laid out. There were hillocks and bubbles and the ground had a spongy texture. An eagle gliding over caught nothing because the ground squirrels were allied against it, sticking their heads out of their burrows and peeping to warn each other. Precarious on a bare rocky rise, a herd of mountain sheep paused to look back at them, and Herbie got out his gun. Gus scrambled after him, hiding behind boulders. The pack train stopped while Herbie and Gus got the kill. The artist took his time, arranging the ram’s head on his lap for a photograph first, and the taking out the folding easel. When the sketch was finished Herbie got his knife and eviscerated the creature. Snares took the carcass to pieces and boiled it.

“Now you’ll be able to say you’ve eaten goat soup,” said Long Lance.

“A day’s march and farther up another pass, through it, down again and beyond, toward the northwest. At night the packhorses were released from their loads and their halters. In the morning they came reluctantly to Herbie’s curses. One day when they were being roped into their load there was a loud cracking followed by rumbles: white thunder. An avalanche across the gap. The ponies bolted. One of them tried to leap over a clutch of stunted trees, caught his foot and fell; the pack loosened and the goods spilled. The pony cantered off, ropes trailing. Wishart unleashed a vocabulary that only began with Goddamned sons of bitches, get your sorry asses back here or I’ll have your testicles for a hat rack. Whore’s tits, hell’s bell’s Jesus wept, bollacks and balls.

The ponies recognized it was a crisis and trotted back for reloading.

The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel by Katherine Govier is one of my favourite reads of 2016. It is a well-crafted (again crafted is in italics for a reason.) that not just tells a story but reflects on the human condition. It sits proudly on my bookshelf. There will be copies given to friends far and wide. And I will be re-reading it again soon.

*****

Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s webpage for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

Link to Katherine Govier’s Q&A with me for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

“Son of France” is definitely a crime novel but there are moments of lightness in it | Q&A with author Todd Babiak

I always feel badly about writers that I admire that seem to fade from my memory until they pop up on my radar with a new book. Todd Babiak is such a writer. His works are brilliant looks at the human condition and his first “Christopher Kruse” book Come Barbarians was a dark yet wonderful thriller.(Link to my review) Babiak “gleed” many of my followers of my blog by doing one of the first Q&As for me.  (Link here) Yet he slipped into the background until I learned of the publication of Son of France last week. I did manage to get in touch with Babiak recently and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new work. Look out bookseller, Son of France is now on my shopping list.
1) So you have brought Agent Christopher Kruse back for your new book Son of France. Can you give a bit of an outline of the book?
A: At the end of Come Barbarians Kruse is living in Paris and watching over a woman and her daughter. Son of France, begins shortly thereafter, as he tries to decide whether to stay or go back home to Toronto. He is working for the Mayor of Paris, at an announcement in a Jewish restaurant, when a man throws grenades inside. Kruse and his partner and mentor Tzvi, from Toronto, then try to find out who threw the grenades and why.
2) You mentioned in a Q&A that the first Kruse novel  – Come Barbarians  – was a ‘darker style’ than you had previously written in. Is Son of France in that same style? Are you friends still worried about ‘your funny brain still being filled with darkness?’
A: My friends have probably stopped waiting for lollipops and unicorns to burst forth from my brain. Son of France is definitely a crime novel but there are moments of lightness in it. Tzvi can be a comical guy.
3) Did you do much research for “Son of France?” If yes, was there any travel involved?
A: I have travelled multiple times to France. And I had to do a lot of research on the birth of the European Union, the continent in the early 1990s when everyone was talking about “the end of history.”
4) Are you planning any public readings for Son of France? If yes, are there any places or dates you are excited to partake in?
A: I’m hoping to be a part of the literary festival circuit in the fall, but other than that I’m going wherever anyone invites me.
5) I’m not seeing any translations of  Come Barbarians or Son of France into French. Have there been any translations? Has there been any reaction from any French residents to Kruse’s view and interpretations to French society?
A: So far, just from French people who have read “Come Barbarians” in English. We’re working on having it in French-speaking markets.
6) Have you read anything interesting since the our last Q&A that has excited your imagination? Any new writers that you admire right now?
A: I’ve just started Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, who grew up in Sweden but now lives in Alberta. It’s terrific so far. And I’m excited to read Dan Vyleta’s new novel, Smoke.
7) Are you working on any new books right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
A: I’m ready to begin the third Christopher Kruse book but I’m taking a break to write a novel called The Empress of Idaho. It’s a saucy story that takes place in 1989 and I will never let my mother read it.
*****