Bronwyn Averett, from the US-based book website Book Riot, recently compiled a list of novels chronicling the Canadian war experience in honour of Remembrance Day. A Beckoning War was included in it. The list is well-worth checking out–her comments on each book are apt–and I am pleased that in her eyes, A Beckoning War succeeds in doing what it tries to do. Enjoy.
Allow me to take the time today to tell you about some books I have read in recent months by fellow authors in Montreal. What I have to say about each will be in the form of a response crossed with a critique. I have liked all these books, mind you, so no one is getting e-viscerated in this blog post. Without further adieu, here goes:
Serafim and Claire, by Mark Lavorato
This book is by Montreal-based author Mark Lavorato, and it is excellent. It is the story of a Portuguese photographer, Serafim, and a Montreal born-and-raised burlesque dancer, Claire, who meet meet in 1920s Montreal. Serafim leaves Portugal for Montreal and meets Claire, and the two end up sharing some wild misadventures given their mutual propensity for bad luck and poor decision-making. The story is told by way of chapters from each perspective, starting with hers, then cutting to his, and back and forth, all through the book. Preceding each chapter is a description of one of Seraphim’s photographs as if it were professionally curated, or of a letter to Claire from a family member, or some kind of applicable detail such as a shopping list, depending on which protagonist the following chapter concerns, and what happens in the chapter. This is an interesting and effective structure, and provides a rhythm for the book that urges the story along naturally along with the writing itself, which is also strong and full of memorable turns of phrase. One thing that I like about the book is that both characters are very engaging, yet neither is particularly likeable. When they get themselves into serious trouble late in the book, this quality has the curious effect of producing suspense tinged with schadenfreude. Sort of like watching someone in a horror movie open the creaking door to the basement and step down into the darkness….waiting to see, with a not entirely concealed hint of delight, what awful end it is they are about to meet. I like this mixed effect.
Overall, the book paints an evocative picture of Montreal in the 1920s, concerns two interesting and convincing characters, and tells an interesting story that takes unexpected turns. Well worth reading, and makes me want to read Lavorato’s other books.
The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster
This is a unique book. Think magic realism, Newfie-style. In it, Sam, a geologist from Laborador, undergoes a sexual reawakening while at a conference in Switzerland. He discovers that he prefers men, and that he can also eat and metabolize rocks as he grows into his new confidence (this works symbolically, trust me.) Meanwhile, his sister Sue, a high school student back home in Labrador, begins mysteriously leaking honey from her pores as she too undergoes the sorts of changes and awakenings that adolescence brings, and attracts a large cloud of bees to the town, which causes various complications. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother, an angry holy roller who refuses to understand the trials and tribulations of her children, is determined to put an end to this madness. Various adventures in the novel include an escape from a mental hospital, a character being tormented by eyes in the sky that follow him wherever he goes, and a bizarre extended set-piece on an ocean liner involving (possibly) sanctified urine.
Webster is a very gifted writer, who writes (in this novel, anyway) in a baroque, lavish and poetic style using all sorts of wild and often metaphors appropriate to the story. The story itself is insightful, empathetic to (most of) its characters, and often hilarious in a madcap way. Highly recommended.
Blind Spot, by Laurence Miall
This novel involves Luke, a failed actor and sociopathic asshole, who learns near the beginning of the story that his parents have been killed in a car crash. Returning home to Edmonton from Vancouver, and using this as an excuse to leave his girlfriend, Luke proceeds to move into the old family home in order to refurbish it for the purpose of selling it, while alienating everyone he knows and meets throughout the book through various deceits undertaken for various self-involved and often short-sighted reasons. The present story is laced with lengthy flashbacks which illustrate that, in fact, he has always been an asshole (eg. helping a friend to rob his own family’s home while he was a teenager, and getting into unnecessary trouble on a family trip to Montreal.) While back in Edmonton, he uncovers the possibility that his parents’s death was perhaps not quite an accident.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. The story is well paced and structured, and the author writes in a clean, perceptive and detached style laced with insight into human behaviour and motivations. While Luke reveals himself to be a detached and unlikable person unable to form or sustain meaningful relationships, the author and narrator show the other characters’ faults as well. As well, the book is really funny in a dark sort of way, and it builds inexorably to a culmination of social disasters that are predictable, but only predictable according to the reader’s growing understanding of the likeably unlikeable protagonist. I say “likeably unlikeable,” because his unlikeability allows him to do things most people would never do, and this is always interesting (for me, anyway) in books and movies. If you like to hate the hero, this might be the book for you. My only complaint? It’s over before you know it–given the book’s fast moving, page-turning quality, I was left wanting more. Just one more betrayal, letdown, comeuppance or lie….
It has been a long time since I posted. It has been about a week and a half since my novel, A Beckoning War, has been published and has gone on sale. In about three weeks, I will receive a review from Kirkus Indie Reviews, which may or may not be favourable. I am confident that it will be. If it is a good review, I will put an excerpt in or on the book. If it is unfavourable, um, who said anything about a Kirkus Indie review anyway?
On the whole, I am very, very happy that the book is done. It takes A HELL OF A LOT OF WORK to ready a manuscript for publication. I would love for one day to be allied with a publishing house, to share the labours with others, and I hope that this self-published book will end up in the right hands to make that an eventuality. But whatever the case, it’s out of my system and foisted upon the world at large. I am currently re-editing a novella I wrote a few years back to enter it into a contest. It is refreshing to be able to return to writing other things now that this project is done with. I I leave you with my radio interview with CBC Sudbury from last Friday, January 24th, with Markus Schwabe, in which I discuss the inspirations and writing of the book, which along with a Sudbury Star profile in December, is my first traditional media exposure.
I bid thee adieu for now, and urge you to read some good books.
Greetings to all,
It’s been an awfully long while since I’ve posted on this website. I have not yet established any consistent focus or rhythm regarding content, but we’ll see what the future brings in that regard. In the last number of months I have been busy editing and re-editing A Beckoning War, my long overdue (and truth be told, long-finished at least in terms of raw writing) novel, in addition to working, studying French and living life in my new home of Montreal.
Rest assured, the novel will be released…..but I am sacrificing expediency in the name of quality. There has been lots of cutting lately–my lovely editor Lia is quite unsentimental when it comes to superfluousness, and I am quite unsparing when it comes to providing it. I have become more dispassionate lately as well. Why, just today I slashed about two pages out of a single chapter.
Overall, I think the flow and pacing of the novel has improved greatly in this recent spate of cutting and narrative reorganization–speaking of narrative reorganization, I learned a new trick. Writers, take note. When dealing with continuity and organization issues, I tend to just go backwards and forwards in the story making adjustments, relying mostly on memory and ad hoc jotted notes, often on discarded work papers, receipts, eviction notices, university degrees, jury summons and the like. That’s right, my system is memory, which is no system at all. Just ask anyone who has ever seen my work area.
So, in order to help me find a way through the manuscript quickly, Lia suggested for me to very briefly summarize each chapter into a grid and cut the squares out. I could then move them around at will if chapters needed to moved, or see which ones could be combined, and the effect that would have, and so on….The result has been brilliant. I’ve been able to make changes quickly and efficiently lately (what a string of adverbs.)
I have included a link here on the story sharing site Wattpad to a chapter that I have cut from the story outright. In this scene, Jim, the main character, is musing on his decision to join the army and go to war and compares himself to his younger brother Mark who has already run off and joined the air force. This triggers a flashback of he and Mark as young boys with BB guns. I am including it here because I think there may be the seeds of a short story based on the sequence of the two boys in the forest. What do you think?
As some of you who read this blog may know, with the possible exception of the myriad spammers who plague my site (though who likely keep my stats up—good work, guys!…?) I am self-publishing my first novel, a war novel, an excerpt of which is available on this site under the heading War Novel (Just look up…)
But, a question begs to be asked. War is not the most pleasant of subjects, as oft I’ve been told. So…..
Why a war novel? This is a good question. Another question that begs to be asked: Why a novel about the Second World War? Isn’t this war in its grainy black and white “These Are Our Boys!” newsreels trumpeting from auld long ago (66—72 years ago, to be precise) terribly out of fashion, you ask? Wasn’t the last great revival of World War Two: Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You back in the late Nineties, with the release of movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, riding, or perhaps triggering, a wave of praise of The Greatest Generation? (Another question: Were members of that generation always old? I sometimes picture a bunch of bentbacked grandfathers piloting tanks and bombers and leaping out landing craft into the fray, canes clenched firmly in hand. Maybe that’s just me.)
The answer is, unfortunately, yes. I guess I missed the landing craft on that craze, too young and immature was I to complete a war novel in time to cash in on Normandy Nostalgia. Though, admittedly, I had coincidentally started an early draft then.
Well, the answer is that I wrote this novel because I felt I had to. Something about that time and place seemed compelling as the setting for a story. It seemed like some sort of weird calling, like an Enigma-coded call to literary arms. Okay, that’s stretching it, and the Enigma reference makes me sound like I was working for the Nazis. I may have been, nominally, but only to betray them to the Allies. Honest. (This would never have spared me from the noose at Nuremberg….I digress.)
I think historical fiction is a good medium through which to explore the past. That, and suffering and misery (once removed) make for great subjects in art and entertainment.
To write this novel, I used what knowledge I had already absorbed from a childhood of reading Time Life war books, atlases, history textbooks and coffee table books about the Second World War. I added a dollop of heavy research at the National Library and Archives of Canada during a stint of Dickensian penury in Ottawa about 7 years ago, and read through hundreds of wartime letters, leafed through personal scrapbooks donated by veterans and their families. I was so broke I actually transcribed letters by hand and drew things like decals and insignia and the like as a means of recording them.
A couple years later, in financially kinder times, I actually went to Italy and walked through the streets of San Giovanni, Besanigo and Coriano, where much of the action takes place (and where there is a large cemetery of Commonwealth war dead.) After seeing this place, it was smooth sailing. I was able to finish writing the novel in mere months instead of chipping and chiselling away at it with uncertainty for years (though I am proud to say I had mostly gotten it right. However, seeing the place allowed me to just charge ahead and not worry.)
If you made it to the end of this blog post, feel free to check out the link for my campaign to build support for the publication of said novel, here on the Indiegogo crowdsourcing site. Thank you very much to those who have contributed, and feel free to pass it on. Cheers!
Once, I was on trial for aiding and abetting fugitives, a charge which I incurred when I took it upon myself to protect two fugitives who were chained together and on the run in the 1930s by hiding them in a haystack behind my barn on my dustbowl farm like in that Coen Brothers movie that made bluegrass mountain music famous. I lied with a poker face to the angry constables who caught me red-handed as I was giving the escapees food and ammunition that I had anything to do with the fugitives known to be in the area … and while I had been about to send them on their way, instead, now, I was cuffed and beaten and dragged to the precinct and fingerprinted and jailed and arraigned and incarcerated for my pretrial period, unable to muster enough bail due to my failed crops, and I found myself rotting in prison for a measly seventy years, the record of my case being lost due to an idiotic clerical error and then found later, much, much later—
Once, I was on trial for aiding and abetting fugitives, both of whose names and faces now elude me after these long decades of scratching years into the concrete walls of my cell like footprints across the sands of time; scratch scratch went the sharpening edges of my shank into the concrete; and now, no matter how hard I try not to do so, whenever I try to remember the incident that got me into such trouble I picture the two fugitives like cartoon characters of the period, specifically Donald Duck and Porky Pig, and they in scratchy black and white while the rest of the memory framing them is in Technicolour, the arresting police officers taking on the forms and mannerisms of the monkey minions from The Wizard of Oz, and heralded by their ominous marching music from the movie’s score, Ho-Hee-Hoeing their way into my barn, and answering to a Wicked Witch of the West for a chief—
Once I was on trial for this crime and I found myself cross examined. The Crown Attorney, X_________, was, it was well-known, a secret imbiber of printers’ ink, and the founder of Printers’ Ink Inc., a front for his addiction wherein he printed pamphlets advocating fruitarian dieting and New Age religious books with copious quantities of the dark-stained urine consequent of his habit, who would often speak with his lips stretched over his teeth like a parody of a toothless old man in an effort to hide his blackly stained teeth from public view, and whose ink-soaked brain led him to fits of madness in court such as breaking into frenetic impersonations of barnyard and forest animals in the midst of cross-examinations, which happened right there in the courtroom as he circled the box in which I sat in full view of all assembled, and he suddenly made rabbit ears above his head with his fingers and made comical buck teeth by way of an exaggerated overbite, and he squatted down and began hopping, and, after a moment of bafflement and consternation by the assembly, he broke into a bloodcurdling, piercing scream, a mortal rabbit’s scream, a noise such as a rabbit would make as it were pounced on by a hungry fox. His scream was interrupted by the judge, who shouted angrily, “Order in the court! Order in the Court!” and who punctuated his stentorian bellow with the crack of his gavel from way up high on his desk that loomed above all who were gathered. Being, in fact, a munchkin (at least as I remember him), the judge loomed behind his desk from atop a stack of legal books and photo albums filled with erotic turn of the century French postcards and boxes full of money and heirlooms and jewellery taken as bribes from would-be imprisoned and condemned folks who had such means at their disposal, all of this piled on his stool to increase his diminutive height—
“Order in the Court!” His shouts were met with silence, and the Crown Attorney regained his composure.
“I am sorry, your Honour,” said the Crown Attorney, and he looked up at the judge, whose livid face was softening back to a porcine pink as he calmed down after his angry yelling, and who was now readjusting his wig as though it were a curtain blown by the wind.
“One more outburst like that and I will have you charged with contempt of court,” the judge asserted. The Crown Attorney resumed his cross-examination: “What motivated you to harbour the two criminals Porky Pig and Donald Duck, who had escaped from Alcatraz*, and who had caused such mayhem on their furlough as to more than equal the deeds that sent them to prison in the first place?”
I had no answer. From the left, across the court room, I heard a sneeze. I looked in the this direction, the direction of the jury, the source of the sneeze that punctuated the silence of my non-answer.
Let it be known: I feared the jury. I forget their faces now, and though I’ve tried, I can picture only the Seven Dwarfs from Disney’s Snow White, hand-painted and pastel-coloured and animated in their seats; all seven dwarfs, with Sneezy sextupled in my mind so as to make a full (and noisy) twelve; and across the years, as I tell this tale, I am distracted by the chorus of wheezing and sneezing and grumping and grouching and laughing and snoring emanating from the jury box—
My inability to answer the Crown Attorney’s question brought out a great horror in me. I started to tremble.
My own attorney, a Queens’ Counsel by the name of Z_______, and who was known, from time to time, to go into paroxysms wherein he thought he was spontaneously combusting, and who would roll around and shriek to this intensely imagined effect, stood up and asked the judge, “Your Honour, is it not possible for the court to rest? Can you not see that my client is ill-fit to be standing trial at this very instant? As ill-fit as the Crown Attorney is to prosecute given his recent outburst?” At which point his eyes bugged out, and he clutched his arms as he was consumed in the imaginary inferno of his own body, and he began rolling around and shrieking, much as I have just described.
“Order! Order in the court!” shouted the judge. He tapped the gavel repeatedly on his desk as my lawyer writhed around on the floor as if possessed by demons. “I call a recess!” At this he brought down his gavel with such force that the whole illusion was shattered, the very scene in front of my eyes smashing with crystalline clarity into shards and splinters, and I found myself in reality, or whatever stood for it at this level of consciousness, standing in my neighbour’s flower garden, missing my pants and urinating on a rose. Again.
From a nearby window, someone giggled.
* I recognize that Alcatraz is a defunct American prison, and that this is Canada, but I forget where the two fugitives escaped from and I feel that Alcatraz is commonly known enough to readers to serve as an appropriate stand-in.
So, as an avid runner, I would suggest altering your route on occasion—it keeps things interesting.
A Walk in the Woods
Footfall by footfall, the crunch of fallen twigs underfoot. Unnumbered shades of green, a deliciously deciduous verdance of leaves, vines and mosses adumbrated through the mist onto the canvas of your eyes. Rain-sodden leaves droop from the silhouetted columns of great trees, ferns fan upward from the forest floor, rich carpets of moss cling to trunk and rock, deep green grass sponges underfoot and squeaks against your shoes as you pass through this ancient grove….
Through the mist you part with your steps you see this shaded scene clearer; in the foreground drips water from the ferns; great and ancient oaks gnarl upward, cloaked in their full heads of summer leaves, reliving their yearly gift of youth before they grow in fall and winter old, each year a lifetime; from one oak you catch a flitter in the corner of your gaze and see a squirrel scurry out from a knothole and up into the leafy branches.
On the air you smell the rich green wetness of vegetation; as you step by an oak tree you see emerging from the crags of bark near the tangle of roots boring downward into the wet soil wild mushrooms clinging for life in the dark shadows and corners of the forest floor—you break one with your hand and the edge of the soffit, dry and wrinkly, crumbles away revealing the white wet ripeness of its pith—and you wonder what mystic secrets to which it might be key, what fevers it contains, what flavourings, mushrooms the great mysteries of the forest growing in dankness and in darkness, storing in their caps and stems it seems the mystic subconscious of the forest’s very thoughts—and you continue walking though the grass as the mist rises as the sun burns away the clouds above, recalling what it can of the rain, what the forest cannot absorb into its cells in time, and the mist is recalled in curtains of rising vapour wavering upward, aquarelling the forest with the its invisible brushstrokes in the appealing and suggestive haze of an Impressionist painting. As the sun’s rays wink through the tangled wickerwork of canopy above, so below forms in response a shadow forest of trunks and penumbral branches and leaves, throwing twisted and tangled bars of shade over fern and blade and fur of moss.
You stop, pause and breathe.
As you make your way through the forest the trees thin out until you make it to a lightly wooded glade, with taller grass and lies waving in the soft breeze now kicking up, centred by an ancient weeping willow whose vines sway gently in the breeze as though it were fanning itself. The clouds have broken up and the sun pours golden upon you.
Love is in the air.
You can smell its fragrance in floral pheromones, hear its strains in birdsong, see its colours in the scarlet plumage of a cardinal showing off its proud bearing, its feathered endowments, from atop a bentbacked poplar in the glade, seeking to woo a mate.
The breeze blows the leaves and as they crinkle you are sprinkled in rainwater shaken off the trees at the edge of the glade just behind you.
And you watch while the bees make love to the lilies, bending the stems under their light and shifting weight as they land on petal and stamen and adjust their footing as they, their antennae caressing as they spread pollen stuck on the hairs of their legs, spread the sperm of flowers while performing floralingus, lapping up nectar to be consummated into honey.
You feel a great peace as this scene colours your eyes like the staining of glass on arched windows, as it imprints itself on your mind. Satisfied and at peace, you make your way home.