Candy Capers by Raven & Drake

A charity anthology in aid of The Brain Tumour Charity

It’s Pub Day!

Candy Capers officially releases today. A charity anthology by Raven & Drake, UK, the initiative was conceived by the publisher whose 27-year old cousin has been diagnosed with grade IV brain cancer (Glioblastomas).

In an endearing foreword by Natalie Paul herself, the food science graduate tells us about her passion for baking and cakes, and the irony of having to steer clear of sugar in her current condition. Determined to not be beaten, she sought to develop sugar-free alternatives to explore the sweetness in life. As a sweet treat offering, writers, poets and illustrators from around the world come together to support people battling life-threatening conditions in a COVID world. In a 450-page tome, contributors take readers on sweet-filled journeys, all in aid of The Brain Tumour Charity.

“Who can take a sunrise,

Sprinkle it with dew,

Cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two?”

– Sammy Davis Jr.​​

Get ready to delve into candy-filled worlds full of lollipop trees and chocolate rivers. Marshmallow marshlands and jellybean paved roads. Bubblegum trees and gingerbread houses. Prepare to battle peppermint witches, cotton candy monsters, and sugar-fuelled squirrels.​ A collection of enticing titles, stories, poems and illustrations.

These sugary sweet candy adventures feature my poetry and artwork. It has been an honor to have my work selected for this cause, along with some wonderful artists and authors. The stories are family friendly and can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Candy Capers is available as paperback and e-book, and can be ordered on Amazon from anywhere in the world. All proceeds of book sales will be directed to the Brain Tumor Charity.

http://mybook.to/CandyCapers

The Ocean In My Eyes

A journey towards mindfulness

Title – The Ocean In My Eyes

Author – Marcey Heschel

Illustrator – Pei Jen

Genre – Children’s literature, fiction, poetry

A charming tale for little minds, which fills readers with delight on every single page – including its dedication to bubble makers, and a copyright infringement resulting in Nimbus clouds storming your seas. The story begins with a child who lives by the sea, and finds solace in the magical tides whenever she’s stressed. She finds a pair of magic flippers, which she believes a mermaid left specially for her, since they share the color of her eyes and the sea. When she falls off to sleep she awakens underwater, encountering coral reefs and sea anemones, turtles, crabs, octopi, and a host of sea creatures.

The child suffers from anxiety, and where people and human crowds make her nervous, the marine world keeps her calm and centered. Mindfulness helps her dive into the reefs, and turn her worries into bubbles that float to the surface and disappear. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch – she is more aware of the things around her, acknowledging every sense and making peace with her emotions.

Written by Marcey Heschel in the form of poetry and accompanied with beautiful illustrations by Pei Jen, the story is recommended for the age group of 6-13 years, but has a lot to teach readers of all ages. Mindfulness is a concept that can be practiced by all, especially in the pandemic era with stresses running amok. The Ocean In My Eyes could not be a more timely book – with lockdowns and quarantine and social distancing, our senses have been challenged in the past year. The COVID virus itself causes a loss of taste and smell, our sights and sounds are strained with an overload of screen time videos and calls, contacts are limited to family members and the virtual world. Children are particularly affected with a lack of social interaction through home schooling and online lessons, cooped up either by being quarantined themselves or dealing with parents testing positive, vaccination quandaries for younger age groups.

The Ocean In My Eyes arrives like a breath of fresh air in these trying times to help children address anxiety, and also help them recognize anxiety in friends so they can reach out and be supportive. Psychotherapist Marcey Heschel has brilliantly blended her professional experience, life with her own children, and hobby of scuba diving to create a wonderful literary treasure of empathy. Let this magical story help you dive deep to find your hidden treasures, and be mindful of the world within and with out.

Stitched Lips – An Anthology of Silenced Voices

Title – Stitched Lips

Editor – Ken MacGregor

Authors – Multiple

Genre – Horror

The book caught my attention with its catchy cover – a simple design that reveals a lot. I also liked how each of the contributing writers is mentioned on the front cover, unlike most anthologies that only feature the editor’s name. I hadn’t heard of any of these writers, except for Lee Murray whose works I’ve read and loved, and was looking forward to reading the book just for Lee.

Stitched Lips turned out to be a pleasant surprise; a phenomenal compilation in every way. As the tagline states, each of the stories are set around the theme of ‘silenced voices’, and I loved how every single writer interpreted the concept and integrated it with their stories.

The anthology starts with Wordeaters, R.L. Meza’s horrifying introductory piece about monsters who devour words. You’re safe as long as you’re silent; speak one word and meet a dreadful end. We then move on to Chorus of Whispers, a haunting tale by Sarah Hans (and one of my personal favorites from the collection), about female babies made to undergo procedures that remove their vocal chords. A band of women rebel by murdering men to “steal their voices”. Linda Nagle’s way with words is to be marvelled at, as she chooses a novel setting for Jack, inside the mind of a brain-dead patient, as past and present, reality and dreamland interweave. Avocation touches social and political issues through insurance corporations denying customers medical claims, as Lucy A. Snyder delves into the intricacies and sensitivities of employees seeking promotions and fat pay checks at the cost of patients dying due to a lack of means to fund treatment. Lee Murray addresses the immigrant diaspora in Nil By Mouth, as an elderly lady seeking help for her ailing granddaughter, meets with an accident herself and is unable to communicate in the language of her host country.

The Toll takes us into the animal kingdom, through ZZ Claybourne’s tale of a female animal threatened by a male hunter. Joanna Koch navigates child abuse and pedophilia through Aristotle’s Lantern, as a movie runs for the reader through the eyes of a victim. Green of Bad Visions was another one of my favorites, as Gabino Iglesias combines immigration and botany in a thrilling tale of a scientist’s discovery being hushed up. Hailey Piper takes us to college with Why We Keep Exploding, to a land where girls explode if they speak. Artown Correctional Center is a stellar journey through Patty Templeton’s imagination of a monster that consumes inmates at a facility. Tableau Vivant ends the collection by traipsing into the world of art with Michael Paul Gonzalez, as a sidelined artist goes on a murderous spree of all the people who wronged him.

Stitched Lips is a powerful ode to voices that go unheard and people who remain unseen. Each of the stories has a strong metaphorical angle delicately balanced with pure horror and gore. When you read between the lines, the topics covered here are not uncommon. How often has someone been shushed while speaking, told to be grateful about having a job and stay silent to retain it, ordered to follow the hierarchy without asking questions, had credit stolen for work done, threatened to be extradited or fired for standing up and speaking out, the helplessness of not knowing the language of the people around you, speaking but not being heard, heard but not understood, being stalked or harassed, facing casual racism and sexism dismissed as a joke, considered irrelevant, suggestions and ideas discarded, treated like a living statue? Whether an actress abused by male co-stars, or a comatose man desperate for attention, an immigrant unable to ask for help, to a student whose research professors claim as their own, voices are silenced and people can be dismissed in myriad ways. Stitched Lips offers an ear to all those marginalized voices.

The stories were peppered with beautiful lines:

~If she didn’t move. If she didn’t speak. If she could make it look like she wasn’t breathing. This might just save her life.

~Being in a dark hole was better than being in the wide open with a monster.

~He liked making lists. He liked checking lists. He liked to think he created good by recording goods.

~It was much better to feed the Thing than be fed to it.

~Asking questions cost time and never paid extra.

~Someone always noticed, but if people thought you don’t matter, what you notice didn’t matter either.

~An echo is better than silence.

~The prison librarian was busier than deathbed regret.

~Whispers aren’t enough. Something inside me wants to roar.

~Unspoken words can’t escape. I watch her swallow them, and they stew in her guts like trapped gas in a mine.

~She clutches her gut, as if the unspoken words now burn her belly.

~Rumors in the hall were so bad they couldn’t be entirely made up unless whoever started them had a Stephen King-level imagination.

~Journeying inward, where feeling is the opposite of being.

~A thing made to be left alone, a thing to be watched only in silence.

~You want to see me prick myself on the needle of my moral compass. See what colors I bleed.

~There’s no hope, says the team. There’s every hope, says the mother.

~Hurrying nowhere gradually, their take their time in a rush, making small-talk to help pass the sixty-second, hundred-mile trip.

~The reading had stopped. The books had stopped. No words, no voices, no existence.

~He reminds himself to remember that it doesn’t matter if he forgets.

~We recommend you cease and desist robbing women of their voices, or we will take yours.

A dark collection that sheds light on important issues, Stitched Lips is not to be missed. When it comes to anthologies, it can be an arduous task to source writers of equal credibility, so that each story stands out and carries the volume to new heights. I would recommend this book not just for reading but also for great writing. There’s brilliance in every single one of the stories, when you consider how diverse they are while still adhering to a theme. Kudos to the editor Ken MacGregor for this wonderful initiative. Definitely a must-read for horror fans, Stitched Lips deserves to be read by all readers for the topics it addresses and the stand it takes for the oppressed, powerless and disenfranchised.

Some artwork I created based on the book.

Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins – A Literary Legacy

When Australian writer Aiki Flinthart was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wanted to work on a final book as a literary legacy. Her shout out to writers who were willing to participate in a project was answered from around the globe. So, we have Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Lee Murray, Ken Liu, Ian Irvine, and several other authors from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and speculative fiction coming together to support a fellow writer. And what a stunning display of literature has been brought forth for the reader!

Aiki’s theme was relics, wrecks, and ruins – very narrow in itself, heightening the reader’s curiosity into what the contributors could possibly have come up with. And they surprise you with one story after another! A magical carpet woven with stories that come alive, an underwater village of corpses, a submarine under attack by the real world and saved by a mythical one, a life composed of 16-minute loops, a dog stealing enchanted artifacts, musicians conducting exorcisms through rock music. A world of witches and fairies, alien interactions and underwater adventures, past and future, the highest points in space and the depths of the oceans – Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins lives up to its task of creating a legacy.

Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this month. Her final creation is an astonishing work of art, considering the extraordinary circumstances of how it came into being. A must-read for all readers, irrespective of the genres mentioned above. It’s just so well written! When it comes to anthologies, sourcing multiple writers with equal credibility is a task in itself. Add to that their numerous genres, the narrow scope of the theme, and the fact that they’re scattered around the world and still working as a team. Flinthart could not have been prouder of the legacy she left behind.

Women Writing Horror

Horror is my favorite genre in fiction and I read across all of its sub-genres including true crime, psychological horror, comedy horror, from novels to short story collections, dark poetry and anthologies. A random search for horror books throws up the usual fare from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Josh Malerman, Kealan Patrick Burke. While I have loved books by all these writers, women authors in the genre don’t show up as easily, with the exception of Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley for their classic works. I thought back to all the books I’ve read and the ones in my to-read list and came up with this listicle of horror stories from women writers. These include translated books as well as original language ones, novellas, novels, collections, prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction by writers, translators, editors, and publishers who create terror through words. From historical fiction, science fiction, young adult, satire, to mythology, folklore, speculative fiction, re-telling of true events, and dark verses – take your pick. Since February is coming up, I compiled a list of twenty-eight women in horror – one book recommendation for each day of the month.

1) Agustina Maria Bazterrica – Tender is the Flesh

A virus has eradicated animals, and humanity turns to cannibalism for its source of meat as humans are domesticated, mass produced, and slaughtered. Translated from the Spanish, a nauseating and provocative satire that blends science fiction with horror.

2) Ally Blue – Down

An underwater, paranormal suspense fest surrounding the discovery of a rock-like sphere that causes humans to mutate and turn into horror versions of themselves.

3) Alma Katsu – The Deep

Historical fiction horror set around the events of the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic. The maritime disaster and World War I are caught in sinister happenings in this supernatural thriller.

4) Cassandra Khaw – Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef

A novella about the dual life of a sorcerer and soldier, combining horror and comedy with Malaysian and Chinese mythology.

5) Christina Henry – The Ghost Tree

YA horror about missing people and terrifying visions of monsters dragging remains. Ghostly trees, creepy children, witches, and curses – almost like watching a horror movie.

6) Christina Sng – Dreamscapes

Horror, fantasy, and science fiction come together in this poetry collection that addresses the darkness within. Verses that serve to unsettle and terrify, proving how poetry can be more impactful than prose.

7) Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian

A historical fiction Dracula story moving across time and place with shifting narrator perspectives. A debut vampire novel that interweaves history with folklore and makes for a riveting read.

8) Fernanda Melchor – Hurricane Season

Mythology and terror from Spanish literature, with the English translation maintaining the grim, intense and graphic prose of its original source in this portrait of a Mexican village and its witch.

9) Francine Toon – Pine

A haunting tale in the Scottish highlands, filled with intrigue and eeriness, alternating between terrifying and heart wrenching, spooky and suspenseful in equal measures.

10) Gemma Amor – Dear Laura

A novella of lifelong obsession, this dark, twisted tale about penpals stands out for its brilliantly atmospheric writing.

11) Jennifer Hillier – Wonderland

Psychological thriller, amusement park, serial killer – gruesome and wicked as you set out to solve crimes.

12) Jennifer McMahon – Winter People

Historical fiction meets fantasy in this chilling story of missing people and secrets galore.

13) Joyce Carol Oates – The Doll Master

A collection of short stories that borrows its title from an obsession over dolls, and leads into an unsettling world of abominations and mystery.

14) Kaaron Warren – Into Bones Like Oil

A haunted house novella with an unconventional narrative and storyline, and an interesting take on the ghost story.

15) Kathe Koja – The Cipher

Winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best Debut Novel, the Funhole does not live up to its name. A black hole that calls out and launches a journey of obsession, darkness, and blinding terror of classic horror in spectacular prose.

16) Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions

There’s nothing like historical fiction for a dose of gothic horror. An asylum, a haunted mansion, intriguing journals, hidden secrets – a creepy ghost story that grabs the attention from beginning to end.

17) Laurel Hightower – Crossroads

An exceptional novella dealing with the horrors of heartbreak and grief, and things coming back from the dead. An emotional and devastating read that shows you just how diverse the horror genre can be.

18) Lee Murray – Grotesque

A collection of monster stories that range from mythology to legend and science fiction, offering a dip into Maori folklore and French history, zombie attacks and adventures. Packed with action and gore, the stories are a delight for monster fans.

19) Lisa Kröger – Monster, She Wrote

Why read one horror story when you can read about them all? A non-fiction horror book about women who pioneered the genres of horror and speculative fiction; writers who defied convention and crafted some stellar spooky tales. From ghost stories to psychological horror, intriguing trivia and reading recommendations, a book about books not to be missed.

20) Lucy A. Snyder – Sparks and Shadows

A dark fantasy collection of short stories, poems, and essays. Twisted tales in myriad settings, witty and diverse, horrifying, amusing and thought provoking.

21) Mariana Enriquez – Things We Lost in the Fire

A short story collection of the macabre, mixing magical realism with gothic fiction in this astonishing treat from Spanish literature, brought to us in English by translator Megan McDowell.

22) Mariko Koike – The Graveyard Apartment

Detective fiction and horror writing come together in this translation from Japanese literature of psychological horror set around a graveyard. Deborah Boehm brings this to us in English.

23) Michelle Paver – Thin Air

A historical fiction ghost story set in the Himalayas. Nature can be brutal enough, but what if it isn’t the only thing you’re battling? Subtle supernatural elements, more psychological rather than physical, can be more horrific at times.

24) Nalo Hopkinson – Skin Folk

A short story collection of magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction interweaved with horror. Storytelling at its best.

25) Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

Some more magical realism from Spanish literature in this surreal nightmare of an otherworldly story. Menacing, unsettling, and thoroughly absorbing in its usage of horror to explore current world issues.

26) Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting

An exceptional collection of Japanese short stories that explore the dark side of human nature and antisocial behavior. Lucy North translates to English to bring us a startling and disquieting world.

27) Yoko Ogawa – Revenge

Another dark treat from Japanese literature in an experimental format of seemingly unrelated short stories coming together to form a larger novel. Bland settings and ordinary people up the ante of terrors lurking in everyday life.

28) Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – I Remember You

Scandinavian Nordic noir of isolation and remoteness; horror based on true events. Translated from the Icelandic, a ghost story that proffers the chills.

Three bonus books for the women who lead the way as editors and publishers:

29) Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn – Black Cranes

A collection of short stories by Asian writers, highlighting the dual themes of women in horror and Asian women writers. A smorgasbord of mythology, legend, folklore, science fiction, comedy horror, satire, dark fantasy.

30) Aiki Flinthart – Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins

A collection of science fiction and fantasy with horror to showcase the remnants of humanity and celebrate a legacy.

31) Tricia Reeks – Meerkat Press

The publishing house comes out with some very different but very good books, in equal parts weird, unique, and dark.

PS: This article also features in Horror Addicts – a publication devoted to the horror genre in all its forms, including literature and cinema. “Women Writing Horror” was published in keeping with their February theme of Women in Horror Month.

Speculate – An Interview with Dominique Hecq

From what began as a dialog between two adventurous writers curious about the shape-shifter called a prose poem comes a stunning collection that is a disruption of language—a provocation. Speculate is a hybrid of speculative poetry and flash fiction, thrumming in a pulse of jouissance and intensity that chases the impossible.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of two writers on its worldwide blog tour. My review of the book can be found here.

EXCERPTS:

1) Evridiki

Friends are not important—like plagues, they come and go, even blood is not thicker. But fate is another matter. Some fool in autumn had a drink in the dark, sought a taste of heaven in a street named Bagh Nakh. Found it in the hands of a runaway who raised a hand and plunged a dagger that clung to the idiot’s heart.

***

You were born in autumn and so, naturally, hate spring. The scent of blackwood showering pollen. The air licked with gold where the buzzing of the bees deepens. The sudden opacity of it all. You run. Run away. Away from the visible and from the invisible. With the pollen clinging to your skin, the sun striking and the darkness beneath your feet settling, you are a living phobia. A fear of no consequence. Yet as eons pass in one beat of the heart, you hear the rustle under the trees. Taste the bite of death.

2) Neither a kitchen nor a sky

Her heart is a room full of photographs and pillows wafting around rehearsing melancholy and reinstating torment. But there is still no word, just somber silence in the floating photographs and neglected pillows cartwheeling like burnt toast past the IKEA blender and microwave in a fairy tale of space that does not involve breathing.

***

His heart smells of burnt toast. If you look closely, you will see a paisley design—the sort found as all-over design for an IKEA bedspread. The main motif and the background of ferns are done with pure (that is unmixed) colors: just red (turkey) and black (jet) to conjure up the marriage of blood and vegemite, the staples of his diet, as well as his sign in the Chinese horoscope. Yes: he is a tiger. Enter the chambers of his heart at your peril. Don’t say you were not warned. He grinds his teeth.

INTERVIEW WITH DOMINIQUE HECQ

I interviewed author Dominique Hecq as part of the release and promotional tour of her latest book, co-authored with Eugen Bacon. Here’s a peek into our conversation:

1) While co-authored books are not uncommon, how did the idea for a conversational narrative come about?

Eugen and I are part of a prose poetry group and at one point we noticed that we were constantly responding to each other’s posts through fiction and feedback. So, it seemed natural to pursue the conversation outside that forum.

Eugen has also co-authored short fiction with other writers, recently with Andrew Hook (slipstream fiction) and Seb Doubinsky (an afro-francophone collaboration), which may be testament to her ability to work with others, and understand synergy.  

On the other hand, I have collaborated with performers, sound-artists, musicians and dancers. I’ve also written a bilingual work with Chantal Danjou, a French novelist, and worked closely with authors whose work I’ve translated (most recently Claudia La Rocca, from San Francisco).

2) Dominique, you and Eugen are so similar, in the sense of being completely different in your respective writing styles. What goes into selecting a co-writer? How did you get together for this project?

It started in master/apprentice relationship—I supervised Eugen’s PhD in creative writing. I was working as an associate professor at the time. The relation evolved to one of mutual respect. We’ve known each other for over ten years and have learned from each other’s stylistic differences. You could say it is precisely these differences that cement our relationship. It also energises our writing. In this project, we bounce off each other’s words and take the narratives to extremes.

3) Speculate is presented as a dialogue through essays. How did the two of you decide on your parts? Did a verbal conversation flow into writing, or as writers did you read each other and then take the conversation ahead?

The latter: As writers we read each other and took the conversation ahead. This is why Speculate has two parts—one in which I respond to triggers in Eugen’s text, and one in which Eugen reacts to mine.

4) Prose poetry as a genre has a very specific following from readers who enjoy both forms. Any literary influences, books or writers you would recommend for further reading?

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: from Baudelaire to Anne Carson (2018), edited by Jeremy Noel Tod, is a good place to start as it looks at the form’s rich heritage in the literary mainstream. Without wanting to be parochial, I would also recommend The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (2020), edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington. More focused towards critical commentary are Jane Monson’s British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines and Peter Johnson’s A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry (2019).

I couldn’t close this question without mentioning Russell Edson, the “grandfather of the American prose poem,” who has published thirteen collections of prose poems, and Mexican writer Gaspar Orozco’s whose book-length prose poem Book of the Peony (2017) is just stunning in Mark Weiss’s translation.

As for the question of influence, it’s hard to tell, but I’m likely to have absorbed the lessons of Charles Baudelaire during my youth and, later, those of Anne Carson. Truth be told, both Eugen and I greatly admire Margaret Atwood’s work and Oz Hardwick’s skills at defamiliarizing the reader—his prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet(2020) certainly deserves a look. And I know Eugen is madly in love with Toni Morrison, celebrated for her beauty in language in personal text that shouts its meaning.

5) Speculative fiction, flash fiction, essays, stories – Was the hybrid genre a conscious decision, or did you follow the conversation to wherever the writing took you?

That was a conscious decision. Currently short forms are flourishing and, perhaps as a consequence, the boundaries of the prose poem are increasingly porous.And yet, a century and a half after the publication of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, the question remains: What is a prose poem?

While many different kinds of prose poems have been identified over recent decades, a range of innovations and hybridisations challenge and subvert the boundaries of the prose poem form. In fact, what excites us about prose poetry is that it uses poetic techniques to set up and subvert readers’ expectations. And since we delight in crossing boundaries, it’s a perfect form.

6) Dividing the book into two sections was again a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The idea of one leading and the other following. How did that come about?

Apart from our concern to be fair to each other, we wanted to give the book a kind of speculative mirror image in terms of style of writing. It was also a natural evolution of our responding to each other’s lead.

7) Did you expect differences in interpretation of the book, considering two writers with a strong hold on readers with their respective styles?

Yes, and it will be interesting to see how reviewers address this conundrum. Literary theorist Gérard Genette in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) explores the liminal devices and conventions, within and without a book, that form part of the complex mediation between the book, its author, its publisher and reader. Eugen and I were pleasantly astonished by our publisher’s reception of Speculate. Let’s see what readers think.

8) What’s the story behind that gorgeous cover?

The cover is the genius of our publisher Tricia Reek of Meerkat Press. It’s her creative response to the work (paratext of interpretation?). I think sheperceived the nexus between the speculative and lyrical modes of the manuscript and worked with that. She then presented us with stunning variants of her design, and we chose the one that appealed most to us. We love the vibrant colours and blurring of tangoing shadows.

SPECULATE: A COLLECTION OF MICROLIT

by Eugen Bacon & Dominique Hecq

RELEASE DATE: JAN 19, 2021

GENRE: Collection / Prose-Poetry / Speculative Fiction

BOOK PAGE:  https://meerkatpress.com/books/speculate/

BUY LINKS: Amazon Book Depository | Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd825/

Christmas Reading – The Night Before Christmas

Title – The Night Before Christmas

Author – Nikolai Gogol

Original language – Russian

English translation – Anna Summers

It is the night before Christmas. A witch blots out the stars from the sky. The Devil flies up to the moon, grabs it like a hot pancake, and stuffs it into his pocket. The world is plunged in darkness. Carolers, revelers, family and friends – people cannot see where they are going, who they’re bumping into, all houses look the same, the road cannot be seen at all. A series of misadventures and misfortunes plague a quaint little Ukrainian village on Christmas Eve.

Written in 1831 by one of the juggernauts of literature, often referred to as the Father of Russian literature, Gogol’s dark take on the night before Christmas is based on Ukrainian folklore, and his story is still read to Russian and Ukrainian children on Christmas Eve. A night of adventure with a moon stealer and his hidden agenda against a local blacksmith, who is trying to win the love of the village beauty, whose father is besotted by a witch, who doesn’t get along with her son, who is trying to outwit the Devil…throw in a tsarina and a deacon, and on and on we go in the dark, snowy night.

Accompanied by some marvellous illustrations that fill you with laughter and admiration at the same time. And the beautiful prose! Makes you marvel at the ingenuity of the translator who faced a commendable task, considering a lot of Gogol’s writing involves a witty concoction of wordplay and idioms of the local dialect.

~If a man carries the devil on his shoulders, he doesn’t have far to go.

~He stared at him with his mouth open, as though ready to swallow the very first word of explanation like a noodle.

~She cares for me as little as for a rusted horseshoe.

~A moonlit night, brighter than daylight.

~What devil has done this to the moon, I want to know?

~The witch collected a sleeve full of stars.

~The day of Christmas Eve ended, and the night began.

~The district scribe crawled out of the tavern and saw the moon dancing in the sky, but who would believe him?

A peculiar Christmas story that combines tradition with fantasy and legend, with classic tropes of good versus evil in a rollicking ride of hilarity. There’s a reason why classics stand the test of time, and why Russian literature is replete with such masterpieces – you can never be disappointed, whatever you pick up. A wonderful read to learn about world cultures, and different traditions surrounding the same occasion. Or read this just for Gogol.

Black Cranes: A Review in Verse

A few months ago I had read and loved an anthology titled, ‘Black Cranes‘. Spearheaded by New Zealand author Lee Murray and Australian editor Geneve Flynn, the project brought together women writers from Southeast Asian backgrounds, to highlight the meaning of being ‘woman’ and being ‘Asian’, and the concept of women writing horror. The collection ranges from science fiction to mythology, folklore, legends, comedic horror, post-apocalyptic tales and historical battles. I had reviewed the book here, and was also fortunate to meet the editor duo at my book club’s discussion of their book – summarized here – and the rest of the writers at a Skeleton Hour event with the team. Black Cranes is such a wonderful and powerful read I have been recommending to all, that I decided to review it again as a poem.

Tales of Unquiet Women

From voices no longer silent

In this anthology of Asian narratives

Ranging from hilarious, to haunting and violent

A frisson towards an immersive journey

Headlined by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Not merely stories, but an assemblage of shared experiences

And teamwork presented by Omnium Gatherum

Alma Katsu leads the proceedings

Of what follows and what to expect

Asian, women, and horror

Tales of identity, expectation and neglect;

Obligations, traditions, duties and more

Scientists, warriors, princesses, spirits

We can be many things

But we cannot be defeated

A haunting foreword sets the tone

For Elaine Cuyegkeng to kick off with a bang

Pandora’s box of gene editing

Or more attuned to a boomerang;

Snipping out traits and replacing preferential ones

Rarefied offspring too good to be true?

There’s always a price to pay

Specimens or daughters? Are we a ‘what’ or ‘who’?

Nadia Bulkin marshals an uprising

With Indonesian history and folklore

A princess’s people retrieving her throne

A fight and reclamation at its core;

Who is monster and who is human?

Questions Kapre in his chronicle

Rin Chupeco’s unique love story

Depicts a tale heartwarming and ironical

Beauty, cosmetics, enhancements galore

Two tales from Angela Yuriko Smith

How far would you go to be yourself no more?

Sci-fi abounds; this isn’t myth

White on the outside, yellow within

Patchwork eyes and warring factions all over

Whom do we belong to if we don’t belong at all?

Gift recipient or pushover?

Grace Chan makes a two-fold mark

With hunger and fury, suspicion and doubt

Gabriella Lee’s rites of passage

Aspects of womanhood poured out;

The legend of the nine-tailed fox

Of trickster entities and lotus feet

Rena Mason presents womanhood again

As past, present and future accrete

Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

In their dual roles of editor and writer

Lend duality with contrasting themes

From heartbreak, to horror, and lighter;

Caring for an ailing parent,

A mind-blowing take on pets,

A litmus test of acceptance,

Words – their shining assets

Set the clock ahead with Christina Sng

As we time travel to a zombie apocalypse

An ode to women in the military

Fury is not one to be eclipsed;

The fury of sacrifices to accommodate

Meeting the expectations of others

Hollowed versions of ourselves

Emptied out; unconsidered druthers

With stories of folklore and legend

From the common to the esoteric

Across geography and culture

From charming to barbaric;

Returning to ones roots

Or imagining a far-fetched world

From the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore

China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand;

Asian women from wherever they might be

Scattered across place and time

Breaking notions and stereotypes

That living is not a crime;

There’s no single type of woman

No all-encompassing concept of Asian

The multifaceted identities of horror

And the stories of women who experience their own versions.

Literary High Tea

The much-awaited Literary High Tea finally arrived! An initiative of Harper Collins Canada, the idea was to sip tea and munch snacks, while engaged in meaningful discussions and conversations over books. A stellar line up of authors including Cathy Marie Buchanan, Joanna Goodman, Cecilia Ekbäck and Alka Joshi, discussing their respective books – Daughter of Black Lake, The Forgotten Daughter, The Historians, and The Henna Artist – as well as each other’s books, and the genre of historical fiction in general. Wonderfully moderated by Alka herself, who steered the discussion through several themes, topics, timelines, introducing each book individually with questions for its writer, along with stringing the different books with familiar threads and finding commonality in their writing, interacting with the attendees and coordinating our questions with the guest writers.

The invite from Harper Collins Canada

Canadian novelist Cathy Marie Buchanan holds a BSc in Biochemistry, an MBA, and is a certified Yoga instructor. Known for her bestseller ‘The Painted Dolls’, her latest work is set in a world of Pagan traditions, bringing life to an ancient world from a time long forgotten. Canadian-British writer Joanna Goodman has authored numerous books, including the bestseller ‘The Home For Unwanted Girls’. Her new release spans multiple timelines, set around French-Canadian history, the Duplessis orphans, and the fight for Quebec’s independence. Cecilia Ekbäck is originally from Sweden, now resides in Canada, and has a Masters in Creative Writing. Her latest book is a conspiracy thriller set in Sweden during WWII. American writer of Indian origin, Alka Joshi has won her way into readers’ hearts through her debut novel that has been making waves around the world, having been translated into multiple languages following its release earlier this year. Curated as a High Tea event by Harper Collins, participants were advised to prep with tea and nibbles as we partook of this warm literary exchange from our little corners of the world. We were even sent a home guide on how to prepare for the session, wonderfully hosted by the Harper Collins Canada team as part of their Harper Presents initiative of discussing books and spending time with authors from the comfort of home.

The stellar line-up of authors who made this a memorable session.

Encouraged by the efforts of the hosts, and keen to make the most of this preponderance of writers and books, I planned for a formal high tea set up, replete with tea and cake. The beverage ultimately chosen for the occasion was a tea-tisane blend of white tea, celosia and lavender. I also made a Flan de Leche, courtesy a recipe from Cuban-American writer Laura Taylor Namey which she shared in keeping with her newest book, ‘The Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow’. It was truly a literary bonanza all around.

Flan de Leche with tea

Food inspired by books

A Single Thread – Of Stories and More

Title – A Single Thread

Author – Tracy Chevalier

Genre – Historical fiction

Theme – WWI

A gorgeous cover that appeals with its simplicity and thematic representation.

Set in the aftermath of the first World War, the story surrounds a group of broiderers – those who stitch cushions, kneelers, carpets and alm bags for cathedrals – and how they band together post the War, taking little steps to spread beauty and warmth in their own way by keeping church-goers comfortable. Tales of embroidery, bell ringing, local food, history of world textiles, all seamlessly woven into a sombre narrative of a war gone by and the world reeling towards another one, in Tracy’s inimitable style of meticulous research and splendid storytelling.

Thanks to Harper Collins, I had the chance of attending a session with the author and her literary agent Jonny Geller, to discuss both ‘A Single Thread‘ and Tracy’s earlier book ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘. Behind the scenes conversations are often insightful, to hear what it took to bring a much loved book in front of you. While ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘ was a speculative biographical novel on the life of Johannes Vermeer, its protagonist was the titular character and not the painter himself. Similarly, ‘A Single Thread‘ takes us into the world of Louisa Pesel, first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild, an embroiderer and textile collector who was instrumental in gathering people after the war and directing them towards comfort in fabric, needles, threads, colors, patters and stitches, narrated through the lens of a fictional protagonist.

The author and her literary agent in a virtual book discussion organized by the publishing house.

A personal joy in reading is finding out where the title of a book fits into its narrative, and the revelation of A Single Thread is so powerful it makes you marvel at Chevalier’s writing – making the primary subject a secondary character, and still telling us what we need to know, in her subtly shattering way. Books on WWI are particularly heart wrenching because after all that happened, it happened again. And when we read of the characters’ turmoil and reluctant recovery even two decades after the War, history lends its own haunting narrative to the one in front of us.

Tracy’s personally embroidered needle and spectacle cases were so inspiring at the talk, I decided to take my reading experiences a step further by trying out the Lemon Drizzle Cake made by Dorothy for Violet’s birthday, and loved its sweetness and tartness just like the story’s protagonist. A wonderful read from one of my go-to writers for historical fiction. Read this not just for Tracy’s brilliance in presenting novels, but to learn about lesser known people from history who had huge impacts in their own little ways. In a world recovering from War and a political climate predicting another one, one woman decided to do something, with a needle and thread. And made a difference.

My rating – 4.5/5

Lemon Drizzle Cake I baked, inspired by the book.