Tag Archives: House of Anansi Press

Exploring the Mysteries of the Arctic | Review of “Minds of Winter” by Ed O’Loughlin (2017) House of Anansi

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There is a certain mystery to the human condition. Time and place draws upon our psyche making us act in strange ways. And asking ourselves why we do what we do and why has a certain introspective beauty to it as well. And that is certainly the simple truth that Ed O’Loughlin documents in his complex novel Minds of Winter.

Page 4 North West Territories

They were driving on the sea ice a mile from the shore when a little brown creature ran out in front of them. It was heading out to sea, but the headlights confused it and it dithered in their beam. Nelson stood on the brakes and the car lurched to a stop, throwing Fay against her seat belt.

‘What is it?’ she said. And Nelson, who found he wanted to impress her, got out of the car and stood over the little animal. I had tied to hide under a tongue of drift snow but they could both see it plainly, the size of a hamster, its fur turned grey by the veneer of snow.

Nelson put on his gloves and picked it up.

‘What is it?’ she said again, and he turned and held it up to her.

‘It’s a lemming. They live under the snow.’

She joined him in the funnel of the lights. I’m standing on the open sea, she thought. It’s the Arctic winter, a month of night, and I’m standing on a frozen ocean, and that man is holding a lemming.

The little rodent stopped struggling and sat quiet in Nelson’s palm, its nose twitching, staring at her with tiny black eyes. She reached out her hand then quickly withdrew it.

​’What`s it doing out here on the ice?’

‘I don’t know.’ He turned a full circle, studying the problem. A mile to the south the North American mainland came to its end, a low snow-covered hump on the snow-covered sea. A timber fishing cabin, shuttered for the winter, sat on its edge, the only visible detail. To the north the sea ice stretched off to infinity, its snow carved by wind into motionless ripples. But there was no wind today, just a tremendous cold, silent apart from their idling engine.

I keep forgetting my own rule that good books should be read in quiet, reflective moments and they should be pondered over. As award season came upon us readers, I rushed out to buy this book and began to read it. But as I rushed through the second chapter, I began to have my doubts that book was worth my time. I threw it in my back thinking I would try it later. My week became even more busy and this 474-page volume always was popping up in my way – in my book bag, on my desk, in my bed – and I finally decided to find a quiet few moments and read this book. I am glad that I finally took the time to properly read and admire it.

Pages 66-67 Lancaster Sound 1848

This private letter is intended only for you eyes, and for our friends in Room 38, so I shall not trouble here with any detailed account of the ruin of the North West Passage Expedition. You will find all you need on this point in the papers of Erebus and Terror, which I ordered Captain FitzJames to inter in the cairn at Point Victory after we gave up our ships. I also include with this letter some surplus instruments that I took from the ships and that I believe might be useful to Room 38. It is to be hoped that my whimsical cairn, built of food tins and gravel, will preserve them intact from the cold and the damp. I have little doubt, James, that you will be the first to come and search for us, and thus the first to open my cairn on Beechey Island. Perhaps you are already near, leading the search for your old friends and shipmates. I wish that I could wait for you, but an opportunity is afforded to me to make a great journey, and if I do not seize it now it will not come again.

To explain myself I must begin with a singular event that occurred in April of this year, but of which you will find no mention in the logs of either ship: I was careful to omit it from my own records, and by that time Captain FitzJames, having become as disordered as most of the men, had ceased keeping his own. We had just passed our second winter beset in the ice off King William Land, stores were running low, game could not be found for hunting, and the crews despaired of the ice ever breaking. The men were near mutiny, and disease and scurvy had reduced our numbers to only one hundred. Our ships no longer kept naval watch, except for a few good men who could still be trusted to stay on deck to keep a look-out. thus my boatswain was alone on deck on the evening of April 18th when I heard him hail me as I worked below on my magnetic records.

There are several different narratives that occur in this book but the beauty of the story is the draw of the Arctic to people. There is a lure of exploring the tundra in the cold winter darkness that is almost undefinable. Is there something in our nature that calls to us for the solitude and emptiness of the north? And is that draw fatalistic for us? O’Loughlin’s well-crafted words explore that mysterious concept in rapt detail in several of the stories.

Page 367 Fort McPherson, North West Territories, July 1931

His sisters had made him paddle to bring on his first long canoe trip. He dipped it in the water a few strokes at a time, aping the motions of his mother in the prow. The swarming black flies had driven them from the slack water under the bank and his mother strained against the strong current mid-stream. From time to time, switching sides with her paddle, she would glance back at her son, sat up on their bundle of furs. His efforts with the paddle threw off her rhythm, dripped water on their cargo, but she never complained. This was how he would learn.

It was just past noon and the day was hot. The canoe came around a wooded bend and there at last was Fort McPherson, a few tin and shingle roofs on a ridge above the Peel.  His mother, who had never been this far south before, rested her paddle, looking for a gap in the alders which grew on the riverbank under the ridge.

The sun smoked off the water, and as the canoe turned broadside to the current the child glimpsed a shape in the heat-haze. It might have been a waterbird holding its wings out to dry, or a sail boat with only its upper sails spread, but as his mother started paddling again the shape turned into a raft made of logs lashed with willows. On it stood a man with a long-handled paddle. He was a white man – his blond-brown hair showed this from tow hundred yards away – but he was travelling light; the boy could see a burlap sack tied to his back but there was no gear on the raft, ono pack or rifle, not even an axe.

Ed O`Loughlin has certainly crafted a great piece of literature with Minds of Winter. Readers should not race through this hefty book but appreciate the tones and the mysteries of the human condition that he documents in it. In short a worthy read done in a few reflective moments.

*****

Link to House of Anansi`s website for Minds of Winter

Link to Ed O’Loughlin’s website

Thrilling the Mind out of its Slumber | Review of “The Substitute” by Nicole Lundrigan (2017) House of Anansi

A big thank you to Anne Logan at “I’ve Read This.” for bringing this book to my attention.

I purchased this book at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. A great bookstore!

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There is something about an excellent psychological thriller in the way it awakens the mind out of a state of slumber. A reader is forced to consider plot twists of a story plus become enveloped in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Then the reader of the story seems to become obsessed with finishing the story at all costs. Nicole Lundrigan is an expert in writing great fiction, and her book The Substitute is a perfect example of how great she is in her craft.

Pages 1-2

Though I am not afflicted by it, I wonder about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our basement, building elaborate contraptions, and thinking, Which piece of this system is culpable? Sometimes a slender knife would fly forward and mar the wallpaper, or a needle would lift and destroy a balloon. Once I even built a system where the sharpened legs of a scissors closed on photographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I questioned what part of my machine was responsible for that destruction. The systems were nomore than a mess of inanimate objects: croquet balls, yardsticks, greasy springs, plastic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one followed the simple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bearing be accused if it never came in contact with the flying paint? Would the rubber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imagined the liability lay somewhere within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty potential of the machine. Never in the tip of my finger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.

I have adored Lundrigan previous writings (Link to my review of The Widow Tree) and this book is just as thought-provoking as her previous works. Here we are vaulted into the life of poor Warren Botts. He is in the process of attempting to teach middle-school science and having a rough time of it. In the thick of the his attempts is thirteen-year old Amanda – soft-spoken and introverted – who is in desperate search of acceptance and guidance. When Amanda is found dead, hanging in Botts’ backyard. Botts becomes somewhat confused and unglued and is unable to give the police proper explanations for what had happened. Suspicions mount from both the police and his neighbours and Botts becomes even more frayed. Meanwhile another voice appears in the story – unknown whom it is to us – giving us chilling details and showing strong emotional detachment to the events swirling around the story.

Page 23

My father looked peaceful in the casket at the funeral home. They had his hair combed straight down to disguise the wreck of his forehead. Thick beige makeup was substantial, and while there was too much pink in the cheek, my swollen mother had insisted on extra. “He doesn’t look well,” she tearfully told the director. “His colour is off.” No joke.

His hands were folded together across his chest. Nails trimmed, four fingers resting upon four fingers. When I stood near the box, I reached out, touched his cool skin. I could almost detect a hint of warmth still lingering there, and I entertained the thought he would wake up once weighted under the soil.

Glancing behind me, I noticed funeral-goers were granting me some time alone. A tender moment to say goodbye. I ran my hand over his, then gripped his middle finger, his “swearing finger,” as I had heard kids say at school, and I squeezed it. “Oh Dad,” I whispered, “Where are you now?” With another quick look over my shoulder, I cranked his finger backward, pressed down, felt dead ligaments tearing a distinct and pleasant pop.

When I stepped aside, his finger remained displaced. My mother waddled up for a subsequent pass, and noticed. Cheeks flushing the same natural colour as her husband’s, she tried to reposition it, tried to slip it underneath his index finger. Tried to bend it the other way. No luck. It rose up again. Telling the world what he thought of them. I noticed the other mourners smirking, nodding. I hope the bastard stayed like that forever.

There are some deep thoughts that run through this book. I found myself reading and rereading some of the passages over and over again just to simply regain some of the  emotions that Lundrigan has so brilliantly conceived with her wording. A carefully patient reader with this book can’t help but gain empathy for certain characters, even if their actions are questionable or even horrid.

Page 233

“Yes. Overwhelmed.” For a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined the cube-shaped room flipping outward, and instead of being on the inside of the die, he was standing on one of the faces. All he had to do was shuffle backward, and he would tip over an edge. Detective Reed would stay on the six, and he would slip ninety degrees onto the four. No longer facing each other, a right angle between them.

“Botts?” She continued to crunch, pulverizing the sugar in her mouth. “You got my attention.”

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan was certainly one of the boldest reads I came across in 2017 and will be, no doubt, one of my favourites of this year. It is a thriller that kept me thinking and reviewing. And certainly a great piece of literature.

******

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Substitute

Link to Nicole Lundrigan’s website

A Great Piece of Literature Showing the Importance of a Great Piece of Literature | Review of “Jane, the Fox and Me” by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (2013) Groundwood Books

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Fanny Britt will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

The beauty of getting involved with a piece of literature is the ability is has to sweep us away from our existence. We can forget the hardships of our world and absorb the reality of somebody else for a while. And perhaps in doing so, we can take the lessons of their reality and improve our own lives. It is that aspect of literature that is brilliantly documented in the graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

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Scanned image of page 18 from Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (2013 Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press)

There is something extremely heartbreaking about the life surrounding the life of protagonist Hélène – and something truly universal. She is being bullied at school to the point of having no friends. Her mother is overworked and exhausted for caring for her and her little brothers, that she has no time to help with Hélène’s emotional issues. And to top everything else off, Hélène – like a lot of other teenage girls her age – is totally convinced that she is overweight. But the one thing that seems to give Hélène a bit of colour in her life is her copy of Jane Eyre.

Page 28-29

Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, no one calls Jane Eyre a liar, a thief or and ugly duckling again. She tutors a young girl, Adèle, who loves her, even though all she has to her name are three plain dresses. Adèle thinks Jane Eyre’s smart and always tells her so.

Even Mr. Rochester agrees.

He’s the master of the house. slightly older and mysterious and with his feverish eyebrows. He’s always asking Jane to come and talk to him in the evenings, by the fire. Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, Jane Eyre isn’t even all that taken aback to find out she isn’t a monster after all.

There is a beauty in the way this graphic novel moves forward with the story of Hélène in both the images and the words. They are both frank and direct, yet the complexities of Hélène’s issues come through. This book is a pleasure to read and contemplate, no matter what the gender or the age of the reader is.

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Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault is certainly a unique graphic novel. The plot moves in a frank manner via both the words and the images. Definitely a great piece of literature showing the importance of a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to a Wikipedia page about Fanny Britt

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

Link to Groundwood Books website for Jane, the Fox and Me.

Link to the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street website

 

 

 

Learning from the Life Lessons of Uncle Holland | Review of “Uncle Holland” by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson (2017) Groundwood Books

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We have all made mistakes in our past, and we all have had to make difficult decisions because of those mistakes. But in many cases, those decisions can lead us to uplifting and interesting paths in our lives and define us in better ways. That is the story JonArno Lawson tells in his book Uncle Holland and with the illustrations by Natalie Nelson, the book is a delightful and unique exploration of an important aspect of the human condition.

Palmer and Ella had three sons – Holland, Jimmy and Ivan. Jimmy and Ivan were good boys, but Holland, who was the eldest, was always getting into trouble.

Holland sometimes stole things. He like stuff that was pretty, and sometimes he couldn’t help stuffing that pretty stuff into his pockets.

One day, when the police had caught Holland for the thirty-seventh time, they said, “Holland Lawson, either you go to jail or you join the army. It’s up to you.”

JonArno Lawson has a magical way of incorporating whimsy into his words. And this story is no different except that it includes a story moral lesson in it. JonArno has taken the story of his Uncle Holland and shared it with us readers, giving us  – no matter what age group we belong to – a unique lesson to learn.

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Natalie Nelson’s illustrations for this book are stark and bold. They truly not only visually tell the story of Uncle Holland but also help create empathy for Uncle Holland’s family members. Nelson use’s colours just at the right moment for emphasis, giving the story the ‘right punch’ when it was needed.

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Uncle Holland by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson is certainly a unique story filled with whimsy and an important life lesson. Stark illustrations that punctuate the story with perfect colours at the right moment add to the plot and make this book an enjoyable read.

*****

Link to House of Anansi/Groundwood Books webpage for Uncle Holland

Link to Natalie Nelson’s website

Link to my Q&A with JonArno Lawson about Uncle Holland –  “I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.”

 

 

“I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.” | Q&A with writer JonArno Lawson on his new book “Uncle Holland”

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Cover image linked from the publisher’s website
I don’t think there is a more versatile writer right now than JonArno Lawson. And certainly not one as dedicated to his craft. His new book children’s book  – Uncle Holland – is coming out April 1 from Groundwood Books. And he is probably one of the most productive writers I know of this year . His listing of new titles is impressive. Lawson took some time out from his writing and editing to answer a few questions for me.
*****

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Uncle Holland?

In Uncle Holland, a young man who’s constantly getting into trouble with the law – he steals things – is finally given a choice between jail and the army. He chooses the army, and finds an unlikely way to make something positive out of his new environment.
 

2) In reading the descriptions that Groundwood Books has for Uncle Holland, I gather that you have a personal connection with this story. Is that the case? What are you hoping – if anything – that Uncle Holland will accomplish?

 

Uncle Holland is based on my actual Uncle Holland, who died before I was born. In real life, he did get into a lot of trouble – and he really did start out in the army, but he became a jeweler afterwards. I was only guessing that he joined the army (in the 1930s) because of legal problems, but in the fall I asked his big sister, my Aunt Jean (who turns 100 this year!) why Holland joined up and she said “I don’t know – he was in some kind of trouble, but I can’t remember what”.  So it was a good guess!

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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 
I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances. The Army might represent any kind of problem – in a way, school is like the army for children – you’re forced to go and you have to struggle all the time with pressures to conform.
 

3) How long did it take to write Uncle Holland? Was it an easy or difficult book to write?

 
I wrote Uncle Holland almost ten years ago – I wrote and illustrated the first version in one morning, as a self-challenge, at my favourite coffee shop (which no longer exists – it was called ToGo, at Yonge Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto – I still miss it) . My daughter’s kindergarten teacher wanted every parent to come in and read a book to the class at some point during the year, so when it was my day I thought – I’m supposed to be a children’s book writer – why don’t I see if I can come up with a story and pictures all at once on the day I’m supposed to present?  So I did – it was very exciting – it created a lot of pressure. I used my Uncle Holland as the main character, and a few details of his life, to save myself the trouble of inventing everything on the spot.
 
The story went over well with my daughter’s class, but I never really thought about publishing it. For fun, I showed it to Sheila Barry, who was my editor at Kids Can Press in those days. I wasn’t submitting it, just showing it to her because I liked the way my parrots came out – and she thought it was funny, but again, we never talked about it as a book. Then a few years ago she said she was still thinking about the story and wanted to look at it again.  It needed a little editing, there were a few inconsistencies, and odd phrasings, but it pretty much stayed as it was. 
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Image linked from the publisher’s website

 

 

4) The illustrator Natalie Nelson has agreed to do a Q&A for me but I was curious to hear how you two connected?

 
Sheila was working with Natalie on a book to do with Flannery O’Connor by Acree Macam. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too – so that was immediately interesting to me. Sheila showed me Natalie’s pictures and said she thought she’d be perfect for Uncle Holland, and I agreed, completely!
 

4)   I know you are busy with other books right now but are you planning any discussions/signings/etc. in relation with Uncle Holland?

 
There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. I wish Natalie and I could meet up to do some kind of event together – she and Sheila and I had an interesting exchange about how to talk about army life (and the point of armies) in the classroom, because that question had already come up for Natalie in a presentation.
 
My father was in the army too, and so was one of my Aunts – a fair number of my cousins have been as well – so it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 

5)   Many of my followers use social media to track events that their favourite writers/illustrators may be involved with. You posted on your Facebook profile that you won’t be on FB for the “next long while.” Any idea how long that will be?

 
I’m not sure. . .I’m just checking in once a week or so now (that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks). Some people seem to be good at using social media in a thoughtful, responsible way, but I find I just keep getting sucked in, and not using it productively at all. So I had my daughter change my Facebook password (I don’t know what it is anymore), which means that now I can only go in by request. I’ve felt much, much happier since. Not only were the posts distracting and often upsetting to me, but the sense of badly used time made me feel doubly awful.  Spending five or ten minutes on it once a week seems the best solution for me.
 

6)   In your last Q&A with me, you listed a number of projects that you are working on for this year. What is the next item you will be releasing for publication?

 I regret everything came out two weeks ago with espresso books. (Link to their website) That was exciting for me – they did a lovely job with it. The next one to come out is a non-fiction book with Wolsak & Wynn publishers, about playing cross-culturally with children. The title (as of now) is But it’s so silly: a cross-cultural collage of nonsense, play, and poetry. That should be out in August. And after that is Leap!, in the fall, a picture book with a poem as its text, with Kids Can Press, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. So a busy year ahead. . .
  *****
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the new book, Steven! I appreciate it.

Thanks for answering these questions JonArno! I know my followers appreciate your time and your writing!

*****

Link to House of Anansi/Groundwood Books website for Uncle Holland

Exploring the Meditative Components of the Printed Page | Review of “The Joyful Living Colouring Book” by Teva Harrison (2016) House of Anansi

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It seems odd to use this space to proclaim the meditative capabilities of the printed page. Cyberspace is where many of us find ourselves this days. We need to be here for; our jobs, to communicate with family and friends, and even to inform and educate ourselves. But for those of us who still pull ourselves out from the collected ramblings and sighs found on electronic means to reflect on the human spirit via print, we know a certain quiet pleasure. Teva Harrison knows that pleasure well and she has created a colouring book that enables people to share that joy her illustrating on paper brings her. And The Joyful Living Colouring Book does in its own quiet way help in bring an ease to busy and noisy world.

Introduction – The Joyful Living Colouring Book by Teva Harrison

For me, drawing is magical. It’s cathartic and transformative. It lifts me up when I am low. It fills me up when I am empty. It calms my nerves when I have anxiety. And when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, drawing pulled me out of the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced.

Now I have to admit I am not the best colourer. (And the paint job I did on a garage wall last summer bears a collection of empty spaces and crooked lines in my attempt to be artistic.) But I know many people who do colour. They are well-grounded and professional adults who are dedicated not only in their careers but in their everyday actions. And one such person is Sara, who agreed to check out the book for me and let me know her thoughts about it

I’ve always loved to color, but I’ve become more fascinated by it in the last couple years. I think it’s great that you can go to Chapters, or even Wal-Mart, and find all of these great adult coloring books.

-Sara Owanis from a personal conversation with me via Facebook.

Sara is a regular fixture at her local library. Her smile brightens the place up for both staff and patrons as she works as a “page” sorting books and setting up rooms during her shift. But one has to wonder how a young person in their twenties can manage to be upbeat as she struggles with electrical cables, chairs, heavy volumes and even the remainders of moldy fruit stuck in sink drains. But she does it. And it is even more amazing to find out that she is eagerly working on a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing when not at the library.

Link an image Sara Owanis’ Instagram page

After I made arrangements to receive a copy of this book, I contacted Sara to ask her for her assistance in reviewing it. She eagerly agreed and we set a time to meet at the community centre at the university she attends. It was a deary Tuesday in November. The sky was about to rain, which is to cause everybody to become cold and wet on their way home. The room is filled with loud people and litter fills the few empty tables available. Sara meets me after writing an exam. Her usual smile is drained a touch after a long day. But when I pulled out the book,  she brightened immediately.

Thank you so much! I can’t wait to color!

-Sara Owanis from a personal conversation with me via Facebook.

There is something about the printed page that when we look at it, feels empowering and personal at the same time. The idea of meditation over something we create – no matter how small it is – uplifts the psyche. That is, no doubt, what happens to Sara when she colours. And in turn helps her in her busy and plentiful lifestyle.

I went to a wellness workshop once and I learned that the time spent coloring puts your mind in a similar state to meditating. That’s probably why it feels so peaceful

-Sara Owanis from a personal conversation with me via Facebook.

And this is exactly what Harrison wanted to do with creating this colouring book. As an illustrator, she was able to use her skills in uplifting her mood as she dealt with her cancer. Those drawings became her best-selling memoir In-Between Days (Link to my Q&A with Harrison) and now Harrison has created this colouring book in order to share with us the joy she has found in drawing. And it seems that,  according to Sara,  has worked.

Link to an image on Sara Owanis’ Instagram page

Introduction – The Joyful Living Colouring Book by Teva Harrison

Here is my challenge to you: Carve out some space in your day. Breathe into it and feel it expand. Open yourself up to the delight and the possibility of this moment. Keep breathing. Reach for a colour that makes you happy. Bring the light, the brightness, and the levity of the colour to the paper. Get lost in the act of colouring by focusing on this moment. That’s where you find the magic.

And while Sara may have been aware of the “magic” of colouring before she came across a copy of The Joyful Living Colouring Book by Teva Harrison, no doubt the few moments lost in colouring in this book will aid her in keeping those smiles up in her job at the public library this week and in a successful career in the health-care sector later on in her life. Kudos to Harrison for uplifting the human condition in her own way through this book.

*****

I will be adding photos from Sara’s colouring here as they come available. Teva Harrison will be speaking at Wordfest at Museum London (Ontario, Canada) on Sunday November 6. (Link)

Link to House of Anansi’s webpage for The Joyful Living Colouring Book

Link to Teva Harrison’s website

A Complex Look at a Personal Life | Review of “Carry Me” by Peter Behrens (2016) House of Anansi

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One of the greatest issues of the 20th century was that people had their identities thrust upon them by others due to some sort of arbitrary label. People were harshly judged by: their nationality, their  religion, their gender, their social standing and even their occupation. Prejudices were harsh, ignorant and pushed to the extreme, very painful to endure. Yet those persecuted persons always seemed to dream about some distant land where they could dissolve to and become something different, something new. Peter Behrens has documented that reality in his complex novel Carry Me, brilliantly showing a common struggle of the human condition.

…Our story would have been quite different if, instead of being born on a German Ship on the high seas, Buck had waited a few weeks to be born in a comfortable San Francisco hotel room.

Buck Lange an American citizen? How much simpler everything might have been.

But you can’t operate on history that way. An American Buck might have joined the American Expeditionary Force in 1917. I can see him answering the call to colors. He have been shipped to France and killed in one of the ugly, costly battles the AEF fought in 1918 –

I don’t want to lose you over tedious genealogy and history that must be very dim to you. This is a story of real people who lived and died, about their times and what went wrong. I shall try to be honest even when it’s apparent I am making things up, delivering scenes I couldn’t have witnessed.

I know the truth in my bones. And that’s what I shall give you.

I have been waiting for a long time for an epic like this. The story deals with Billy Lange. Born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight, Billy’s father (Buck) is the skipper of a racing yacht belonging to a wealthy German-Jewish baron. Life there seems somewhat idyllic enough until the clouds of war begin to rise and angry eyes turn towards the family.

Page 34-35

All accounts insist there was sunny weather all over England the day the war began. On fair days the English Channel was dark blue, and white manes of foam blew off the tips of the waves. Following my afternoon nap my mother instructed Hamilton to take me into the village and by ices at the shop. This was a rare treat.

Where was my father when Hamilton and I quit the house that afternoon? He might have been taking a nap himself or standing at the top of the cliff with his Leitz binoculars, looking out over the fair blue of the Channel. Cowes Week was on, but probably no so many yawls or racing schooners were out that afternoon, only battle-gray warships.

While Hamilton and I were enjoying our ice-cream treat at the village shop, a pair of policemen – one in uniform, one in plainclothes – arrived at Sanssouci, arrested Buck, and took him away.

I don’t remember if my mother tried to explain his absence or if I wept or sulked or how I otherwise behaved. And I have no memory at all of the hours and days that followed, when she went up to London trying to learn what had happened to him and was met by official blankness and scorn. In the aftermath of my father’s arrest as a German naval spy she must have been reeling, but I didn’t notice. Or don’t remember. It’s as though a light was switched off. leaving me in the dark, and nothing of those days left any impression that has lasted, not even the darkness.

The plot is at times disjointed. It jumps back and forth on the timeline and is not only told through a narrative by  Billy but also moves along by letters, journal entries, and other material that have been archived. This disjointedness is a brilliant tactic in the novel. It  gives the reader a feel of what Billy’s emotional life was at times like and a reader who ponders the story while reading it shares some of the uneasiness that was Billy’s life.

Page 248-249

It was warm and close in Heidelberg. I could smell the river as we hiked up to the ruined castle. We sat on wall overlooking the town and smoked cigarettes. I started telling Mick my idea of heading out across El Llano Estacado aboard the motorcycle I’d seen in the BMW showroom in Frankfurt.

“And once you get across, Billy, what then?”

“You sound like my father.”

Buck was worried because I hadn’t fixed on a profession. My mother said the problem of my future was keeping him awake at night. If the law wasn’t what I wanted, then we ought to ask the baron about finding me a place at IG Farben when I graduated. With headquarters in Frankfurt, IG Farbenindustire was the largest corporation in Europe, fourth largest in the world, and the baron had a seat on the board of supervising directors.

My father wanted iron security for me because his life had been improvised, scattered, even reckless. Born out of sight of land. A jockey at fifteen. A cavalryman. An ex-prisoner. A man whose two careers – racing yachts in the English Channel and raising thoroughbred horses for the highest levels of European competition – were all about risk, chance, beating the odds.

The west wall of my bedroom at Newport was covered with oil company road maps, courtesy of the U.S. consul at Köln. I’d pinned the states in sequence and traced a route in blue pencil from New York to California that dipped south to cross El Llano Estacado. That blue line floated over me as I slept and was the first thing my eyes fixed on when I awoke. Sometimes it seemed a skeleton, the bones of a dream. Sometimes a skeleton key, unlocking a life I couldn’t even imagine yet.

The afternoon was too hot and close to inspire us to take in the sights of Heidelberg. Neither of us had any interest in being tourists. I could feel a thunderstorm starting to build. The azure sky was foaming over with gray. The air was thick, with scarcely a breeze, even along the Neckar.

That was where we met the two girls, Lilly and Coco.

Carry Me by Peter Behrens is a complex novel. It closely reflects a section of the human condition of the 20th century that is personal yet was a common experience for many people. Not a light read but one that is worthy of one’s time.

*****

Link to Peter Behrens’ website

Link to House of Anansi’s webpage for Carry Me

The Strategy of a Privateer and a Pirate| Review of “The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan” by Robert Hough (2015) House of Anansi Press

Morgan

We were all raised on the classical stories of pirates. They were fantastic tales that kept us spellbound with concepts of adventures on the high seas brisk with sword fights to find buried treasure. But must the stories end because we have matured into adulthood and our heads are now filled with serious facts and reason. Robert Hough doesn’t think so and he has given us adults the book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan to rationally spellbind us.

Page 1-2

The judge was a drunk bastard, all right – swaying in his tall-backed chair, that gin-rosin smell wafting off him, his nose a mound of headcheese run through with purple thread. I wasn’t surprised. The world was filled with people who couldn’t bear to be in their own company, and it made no difference if you were rich or poor, loved or loathed. Sometimes, there was only one thing for it.

“I didn’t do it!” I pleaded. “It was an honest game, Your Honour, no foolery or nothing, just a friendly match between men! I’m an upstanding sort, see . . . ”

“I see nothing of the kind, Mr. Wand. As far as I can tell, you’re as slick as an oiled weasel. and you’ve a choice to make. A dozen years in Newgate or deportation to the Isle of Jamaica. The choice is yours. You’ve ten seconds before I decide for you.”

Ten seconds? I didn’t need three seconds. No one survived twelve years in Newgate, not unless you belonged to someone, and even that was no protection against typhoid or madness. On the other hand, Jamaica’s best-known town, a devil’s warren called Port Royal, had a reputation I’d heard about in seamy rat-run taverns, and from the sounds of it I’d fit right in. There was another sorry fact to consider: my pitted face was known by constabulary types all over England, which was making it harder and harder to ply my ignoble trade.

“Jamaica,” I said.

He slammed his gavel and was on to the next.

I was twenty years of age, and up for pretty much anything.

Hough has told the story of Henry Morgan through the eyes of Benny Wand. Wand is a thief and chess player whose actions in 1664 find him deported to Jamaica. There Wand joins up with the infamous Captain Henry Morgan to raid Spanish enclaves in the New World. Wand shows his ability in “hustling” chess games to earn a bit of extra coin. One day he is called upon to visit Morgan and they engage in a game.

Page 102-103

“Good game,” I said. “That was a brilliant gambit, like.”

Yet instead of turning all red and grinny, as if he’d just bedded an earl’s daughter. Morgan studied the board. His chin was in his slender hand, the muscles in his face gone tight as wire. Those grey eyes, knifing through space – he couldn’t take them off the board. He was calculating, thinking, drawing his conclusions. In fact, he looked just the way he had at Villahermosa, staring out over pink bubbling waters. Inside, I felt all wrong.

He looked up. “You ever throw a game with me again Mr. Wand, I’ll have you in the stocks for a fortnight. Do I make myself clear?”

I said nothing. Couldn’t believe it. I’d never met a posh bugger who liked the game more than the idea of winning. It’s the reason none of them are any good at it – it’s just the win they want, their self-regard stoked.

But not Morgan. Not him.

“This time I’m white,” he said as he reset the pieces. A moment later he moved a pawn to queen’s fourth, again warning I’d better give him my best game. We played three more times. Like I said, he was a good player – better than good, even – though no match for someone born with an understanding that on every board there lies a glorious truth and it’s your job to reveal it. Fact was, I heard music when I played chess. When I was getting at that truth, it was like birdsong. When I was crapping it, it was rusty pots clanging together. It was a hammer striking metal. It was a hippo blowing farts from a sackbut.

In two of the games, Morgan stayed with me, through the last was a rout. He lost each game by growing restless and launching attacks that would’ve worked with the burghers he was used to playing but not with me.

“So,” he said when we were done. “You’re a professional.”

There is the right mixture of research and imagination here to make this both an enlightening and entertaining read. We get an understanding of history, planning, politics and even human nature through the thoughts of Wand to appeal to our intellect but we also get the a sense of adventure and emotion too to thrill us. In short the plot has the right amount of strategy and swashbuckling.

Pages 214-215

We marched back through dense jungle and found the dried creek bed we’d left a day earlier. Here we turned right and marched to the edge of the jungle and waited for orders.

Morgan sent a few men into the trees. They came down with branch scrapes on their faces, though they all agreed Panama was a few miles off and beyond that a blue bank of ocean. We trudged through light woods dotted with streams. Around noon the trail opened at the top of a plateau. Down below was a green plain about a mile wide and a mile deep and beyond that was the city.

Course, they were waiting for us, fifteen hundred or more Spaniards on horseback, all in rows. Morgan took this in, jaws gnashing. Beyond the enemy was the city, which looked like Portobello though bigger: it had the same square with a church and lanes leading away, the only difference being there was a square beyond that and another square beyond that as well. My eyes roamed, looking for weakness, and I knew Morgan was doing the same.

“Wand,” he said while pointing. “Do you see it?”

“The hill? Yeah, I do.”

Though the Spaniards had covered the right and centre of the plain, off to one side was a large rise where their horsemen were fewer. Separating this hill from the rest of the plain was a dip in the land; if we stormed that hill via that dip we might draw the enemy to engage us there. And once they were there. And once they were there, it wasn’t hard to imagine all those Spanish horses gumming up and being more hindrance than help. On foot, we’d more easier than them, and if enough of our number weren’t felled, we might even take the hill. From there we could storm the city, flintlocks blazing, murder in our souls, the best part being our plan just might work.

Robert Hough has certainly matured tales of the high seas in his book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan. It is both enlightening and entertaining read and one worthwhile to enjoy.

*****

Link to Robert Hough’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan.

 

The Whispers of a Silent Artifact | Review of “The Place of Shining Light” (2015) by Nazneen Sheikh – House of Anansi

Light

The draw that certain artworks have on us is uncanny. It is like certain deep messages or feelings seem to ooze from those artifacts that enlighten our spirits in almost unspoken ways. And that feeling is a common one for the human condition. Battles over lost and found bits of art have always made for great themes in literature. Nazneen Sheikh has explored that theme in her novel The Place of Shining Light. And has enlightened readers by setting the scene in a troubled region of the world.

Page 3-4

Adeel crawled toward the statue, moved by the serenity that radiated from the stone. The lidless eyes, curving lips, and sculpted stone folds of the robe exuded a hypnotic power. Tears pricked his eyes, his chest constricted, and he wondered if he was having a heart attack. The two men crawling behind him almost collided with him when he stopped moving. Adeel brushed his eyes with on hand and with the other he withdrew a pencil-thin flashlight from his pocket. He clicked it on and aimed it at the head of the statue, moving it downward very slowly. The dust-laden forma appeared to be in perfect condition. He moved toward it, pulled off the black scarf wound around his neck, and rubbed it on the face of the sculpture. The sheen of pale and unspoiled marble resembled human skin; his hand moved of its own volition and fingers cradled the face, stroking it gently.

Outside, a full moon lit the gentle valley of Bamiyan, where two rivers irrigated the land. The destruction wrought six years earlier by Afghan zealots on two gigantic Buddhist sculptures embedded in a cliff wall was followed by excavations for a copper mine in the vicinity. But this historic site formed no part of Adeel’s world. Although he knew that there were museums in Pakistan that at least pretended reverence for historical monuments, an ideologically divisive Muslim diaspora meant that he was expected to pay greater homage to artifacts representing Islamic spirituality.

The story is centered around a 5,000-year-old Buddhist sculpture and obsession by three men who wish to own it. Khalid is a leading Pakistani antiquities dealer and has arranged for the illegal importation of the statue from Afghanistan. Ghalib is a wealthy art collector and has purchased the statue for his collection. And Adeel is hired to transport the statue. But something happens to Adeel when he sees the statue and decides to keep it for himself. The ensuing plot line explores in brilliant detail not just the thrilling story but explores the philosophical questions of ownership of an artifact each character seems to have.

Page 202-203

Khalid had a sudden urge to see an old photograph of his parents, who had died years ago. He found the framed picture in his office and looked at their familiar faces. His tall, lanky father wore a crumpled suit, locally made. He was standing next to Khalid’s mother, who was also simply dressed. Her hands, folded across her stomach, were broad, and the strands of hair escaping from her dupatta gave her a dishevelled appearance. The photograph had been taken outdoors in the little dirt yard of his childhood home. He mistook the uneasy expression of their faces a personal censure. Then he reminded himself that his gargantuan acquisitiveness had stemmed from his rejection of his parents’ willingness to live in relative poverty. He love his parents, but he had long ago decided to rise above their circumstances. While his timid father operated his business on a very modest scale, Khalid’s aspirations knew no limitations. He had travelled abroad and visited museums and galleries to learn how art was valued. The first two decades of his career were spent servicing clients outside his country. That had been the beginning, the root of what was now an immense fortune. Even so, Khalid had learned a few valuable lessons from his father. He kept his own collection to use as a bargaining chip, if the need arose. He hated financial losses, and always sought to balance his books as soon as he could in their aftermath.

Sheikh has a vivid and descriptive style. A reader can clearly envision a scene or sense an emotion from her words. And the story moves smoothly along with ease. There are deep introspective moments along with moments of drama and excitement.

Page 123

That evening, faded carpets were spread over the bricks in the front courtyard. The household domestics sat on the ground in front of the drummer, while an armchair was brought outside for Ghalib. Next to him on a table rested a bottle of inferior whisky, Pakistani vodka, and numerous cans of beer. Ghalib nodded to his valet, who dipped his hands into a large straw basket and drew out garlands of miniature roses threaded with jasmine. As he distributed them, the drummer held up his hands, wanting the garlands to be wrapped around his wrists. He began to play a familiar Sufi elegy, swaying from side to side with rhythm. Ghalib was hypnotized by the flowers that encircled the drummer’s wrist, and by the gentle voices of his staff, who had joined in by singing the words. Within fifteen minutes, they were on their feet, pulled by the drum’s steady beat. Ghalib’s staff circled, dancing around the drummer as he twirled.

Ghalib sipped his beer and watched the faces of the dancing servants. Each of them wore a smile, as the party was a release from their assigned chores. Two of the teenaged boys broke away and danced together. The drummer encouraged them by quickening the music’s pace. Mesmerized, Ghalib joined in, circling each boy’s head with a 100-rupee not before tucking it safely into a shirt pocket. A generous amount of whisky was mixed with cola in a glass and offered to to the drummer. He emptied the glass in one long swallow before flinging it away, not once breaking the frenzied rhythm. Ghalib sank back into his chair and enjoyed the concert for the next two hours.

The Place of Shining Light by Nazneen Sheikh is not only a thrilling read and not only an introspective read but an enlightening one as well. Sheikh has taken the theme of lost art and exposed readers to thoughts and scenes unfamiliar to many of them. A great read.

*****

Link to a biographical site about Nazneen Sheikh

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Place of Shining Light

“Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer.” | Q&A with writer Robert Hough

Morgandiego

The beauty of doing this blog is that it helps me keep track of writers I enjoy. And there are a lot of them whom I have enjoyed reading but whose recent works I haven’t been aware of. (And I will spare you all the lament of me being trapped in suburbia or news about books not being accessible as they once were. ) When I saw that Robert Hough was doing a series of discussion on his book, The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, I thought “Great, he has a new work out.” Hough promptly corrected my error and informed me about a few other developments in his life as you can read in the following Q&A.

*****

1) First off, can you give an outline of The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan?

 A two-bit, low-life, illiterate board game hustler forms an unlikely friendship with a marauding sea captain. Fireworks ensue.

2) Could you also give an outline of Diego’s Crossing? Was writing a novel for young adults different than novels for adults? What inspired your to write Diego’s Crossing?

A seventeen-year-old living in Northern Mexico is forced to smuggle drugs into the United States when his gangster brother is injured in an automobile crash. As for the inspiration, I was approached by a guy named Rick Wilks, who runs a YA press called Annick Press. He’d read my fourth novel, a Mexican tale called Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, and told me that he’d always wanted to do a YA novel that took place amongst the drug wars of Northern Mexico. Up for anything, I agreed, and found it pretty much like writing a novel for adults, albeit with less swearing. That being said, I was surprised what Annick let me get away with: Diego’s Crossing is scary as shit!

3) Your website states this is your fifth novel (including one novel for young adults) Has your writing changed much since you were first published? If yes, how so?

Actually, Henry Morgan is my fifth novel excluding my YA book. (Ie I’ve done six in total). I wouldn’t say my writing has changed that much. Right out of the gate, with The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, I started writing bawdy, picaresque, funny novels that are full of outlandish characters and absurd settings, but that slowly reveal a more sober reality as the novel progresses.  (My second novel, The Stowaway, and Diego’s Crossing have been exceptions to the rule.)  Which is not to say I found my voice right off the bat: the world doesn’t know about my fiction that was appropriately rejected before Random House took on Mabel Stark. Very few people get their first novels published, and I think it’s rarely helpful if they do.

4) Who are you favourites writers at the moment? What are you reading right now?

I’m often asked that, and usually I freeze up, so  I finally made a list of my five favourite novels. In no particular order, they are: The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, Memoir from Ant-Proof Case by Mark Helprin, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi. I just finished reading The Book of Dave by Will Self, which I loved. Recently, I discovered that Irvine Welsh had written a sequel to Trainspotting called Porno, which I’m now just getting into: I’ll read anything with the characters Rent, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie!

5) Do you have much of a book tour planned for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan? If yes, are there dates/events that you are excited to be partaking in? Are public readings something that you enjoy doing?

Henry Morgan actually came out a year ago, so a lot of the publicity was done then.  That being said, I have a gig in Ottawa on the 13th and one in Toronto on the 17th. (Link for the Toronto gig here)  I hardly ever, ever read from my work, as I find literary readings dull. Instead, I usually talk about something, which people seem to prefer. A lot of the event organizers have come to the same conclusion, by the way: these days you’re often told that you’re not allowed to read

Hough2
Flyer for Robert Hough’s discussion on his book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan occurring in Ottawa this Friday

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

 There are three questions that authors hate to answer: “Do you make a living?”, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Are you working on anything?” You see, when you write a novel, for 90 percent of the process it’s not working. It’s only at the very end, when you get a magical synthesis of plot, character, tone and theme that it begins to sound like a real novel. So when you ask a writer what he’s working on, he or she immediately translates the question into, “hey, let’s talk about that huge thing you’re failing at, okay?”

7) You seem to have a bit of presence on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those platforms? Does being on social-media sites like those help or hinder or writing at all?

 Ha! A ‘bit’ being the operative word!  I know of writers who spend all day on Facebook and Twitter; I’ve made, like, three tweets all year. I honestly don’t think social media helps that much. Yet I do think it’ll hurt you if you DON’T do it, if that makes any sense.

-7a) You have on your profile pictures what appears to be Igor from the television show
Hilarious House of Frankenstein. For many of us that was a iconic show from our childhoods. Was that for you too?

I always put up dummy avatars as well as phony information: for example, I didn’t attend the University of Ouagadougou, as my FB profile states. It’s my own little rebellion against the narcissism fostered by social media.

8) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto right now. How do you like living there? Does it’s cultural scene inspire you with your writing at all?

 I’m a life-long Torontonian, more or less (I spent some time in the suburbs when I was young). It’s not so much Toronto I like, but I do need a big city. Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer. I really don’t understand writers who need a quiet farmhouse or forest cabin to work in: I’d get so absorbed in my work it would drive me out of my mind.

*****

Link to Robert Hough’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s webpage for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan

Link to Annick Press’ website for Diego’s Crossing