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.

A Thrilling Ride with Sudha Ramnath

When people board an aircraft, mundane day-to-day affairs occupy their minds. But when their flight gets hijacked and subsequently crash lands in an isolated place, they have to call to the forefront all their survival skills, to trek in a hostile terrain, with dwindling supplies of food, physical and mental strength. Adding to their problems is the presence of a terrorist travelling incognito among the passengers. Will they ever find a way home?

After having read the latest thriller from Sudha Ramnath, Flight or Fright (A review of the book can be found here), and being privileged to virtually meet, host, and interact with her on the Author Talk series of Did You Read Today, it was a delight to feature her in this interview by Tomes and Tales.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

From being part of a women’s drama troupe specializing in male roles, to writing plays, from living on a remote island near Madagascar to skydiving from 18,000 feet, Sudha Ramnath has quite the penchant for crafting experiences. She has written, directed and staged four English language plays in Tanzania and Kenya, along with other Indian expats. She has worked in a bank, married a man whom she calls the ‘sane’ part of her life, taught math and physics, and is a mad but loving mom to her two children. While others like her drew up grocery lists and laundry schedules, Sudha made plans to live the moments and stick by them. She made the pilgrimage to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, danced like there was no tomorrow at a flash mob in San Francisco, and stood on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and watched the million dollar sunset. She spent a month in the Himalayas, where she met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When he heard that a few chapters of her latest novel dealt with Tibetan issues, he went against protocol and signed the book for her.

An interview with Sudha Ramnath about “Flight or Fright”

1) You debuted on the literary scene with “Susp’Ended”, a short story collection. How did the transition to a novel come about?

I wanted to write a full-length novel for my first publication. However, just as I began writing, my husband got a job in Kenya and we decided to move. Right around the same time, my daughter got married. So life suddenly got very hectic. I had the choice of using some short stories I had written earlier (but not published), or postpone the idea of publishing. I was so bitten by the publishing bug that I chose the first option. That’s how Susp’ended became my first book as a debut writer.

2) “Flight or Fright” is a hijack story at its core, but multilayered in its themes and narrative. How did the story come to you? 

I have traveled a lot in life. During flights, I have always been fascinated by the other passengers. I would wonder if the lady sitting next to me was a quiet homemaker or a business executive? The young man opposite – why was he so upset? The nervous-looking gentleman in the front seat – was he going for an interview? The young girl with all those newly married trappings – was she going back home to meet her parents or was she flying to be with her new husband? I guess when I got a chance to speak about my thoughts, I brought them all into the book.

3) How much of what happens in the novel is based on true events and research versus imagination and creativity? How do you strike a balance as a writer?

Most of the characters are based on people I have observed, but not their stories. For example, the nervous gentleman whom I had once seen on a flight became Mukesh Narula, the jittery entrepreneur going to meet a prospective investor. A sweet-looking lady who kept fussing to her husband about her plants and was worried if the maid would forget to water them became Gowramma, a young mom fond of plants. There must have been plenty of other passengers on other innumerable flights. But some I remember for the stories I wove around them. They became characters. 

4) The novel does not have a protagonist. Your character development is so strong that each one of them is an instrumental part of the story. Was this a conscious decision?

When the story involves a plane full of people and what happens to them, it cannot be about one or two protagonists. I am basically a storyteller. I let the story guide me. A long time ago I had understood something about myself, that I am an average person – whatever strikes me as funny, most others find funny, too; what I think is interesting, others find interesting, too. So I went for whatever interested me. 

5) You are famed for your crime stories and mysteries. Could you tell us about your writing process in creating them? How do you plot situations, keep track of minuscule details, reveal clues for the reader, and introduce twists throughout the story?

I have been a fan of thrillers right from when I was a kid. Initially, I only enjoyed the thrill they provided. But after reading for a long time I began noticing how the famous writers did it – how they laid a trail of deception for the readers to fall for, how they built the suspense, how they revealed the end, what kind of stories needed a reveal only on the last page, and how some writers kept the readers interested by weaving in small bites of suspense that got revealed in the next chapters. I have learned from great masters like Agatha Christe, Jeffrey Archer, and Jeffrey Deaver.

6) Dividing the book into two sections was a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The first half as chapter numbers, and the second as numbers of days, interspersed with conversations as transcripts. How did that come about? 

After the passengers were stranded I felt it made more sense to count the story by the number of days than as chapters. I agonized with them, I suffered with them, I enjoyed their escapades, I marveled at their adventures. So, the days mattered to me more than the chapters. 

7) The character of the school principal is seen to be observant and curious, a reader of her co-passengers’ personalities. It reminded me of you. As a writer, how much of your characterization is based on people you know or observe? 

Oh, Looks like you caught me! But her character is something I aspire to. Her acumen, her perspicacity, her maturity; it’s someone I want to be more than I am. But thanks a lot, because I take it as a compliment. Mostly, my characters are based on people I observe rather than people I know.

8) While your thrillers and mysteries are in a league of their own, your humorous travelogues and anecdotes bring much reading delight as well.  Any thoughts about writing books in humor and other genres?

I would love to write humor and also romance. But I am sure the romance I write will also have a twist at the end. 

9) You have written screenplays and directed and acted in theatre. Have you considered publishing them in book format for readers to gain access?

It is interesting to write screenplays. One has to bring about the story only through dialogues and action sequences. But I found it challenging and fun. My first play ‘The Dream’ was adapted from a short story of mine published in a magazine called ‘New Woman’, almost twenty years ago. I had to introduce a few new characters into the play to bring the story out coherently. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have never thought of publishing them. Now that you have asked me about it, maybe I will think about it seriously. 

10) Who are your literary influences? Any books or authors you would recommend reading?

I guess we all imbibe unconsciously from whatever we read. Strangely, I realized something only recently. There is this Facebook writers group called ‘Did You Write Today’ to which I belong. Every Friday a word is given and we write something for the prompts. Most of what I have been writing is somehow or the other influenced by what I was reading when I wrote them. I would love to write humor like PG Wodehouse, murder mysteries like Agatha Christe, courthouse dramas like Perry Mason, and thrillers like James Hadley Chase. I found this author called Ken Follet whose books are a class apart. His storytelling capabilities are amazing. I feel he has never got the popularity he deserves. I would recommend his books,  ‘The Key to Rebecca’, an edge-of-the-seat spy story, and ‘The Man from St. Petersburg’, a political thriller.

11) You’re a natural storyteller, in both speaking and writing. Tell us about any upcoming books or projects to look forward to.

I am almost finishing a novel that I am enjoying writing. Most of the days I am Yagnika, the protagonist of the story. I think like her, react like her, and feel like her. Jokes apart, it’s a story about four friends who are exceptionally intelligent. One of them is suddenly murdered, another one has to run away with a mysterious red packet, the third is chasing her, and the fourth one is absconding. I am using a different technique of alternating the present and past as chapters to make the story interesting. Suddenly I have thought of an epilogue for the story that actually ties very well with something most people can relate to. I can’t say more about it without revealing too much, so please wait and read it for a stunning twist at the end. Also, this DYWT group I spoke about earlier? I have been writing very short stories with a twist for the weekly prompts. I just realized that I have more than sixty of them, and so plan to publish them as a book. These two are what keep me busy these days. 

Flight or Fright – A Book Review

Title – Flight or Fright

Author – Sudha Ramnath

Genre – Thriller

Close on the heels of finishing a Shirley Jackson book as part of a reading project, I wondered what to pick next. Any book would pale in comparison, so I was left deciding for a few days until I heard about a virtual author meet. Eager to interact with Sudha Ramnath – who is famed for her thrillers, mysteries and crime stories – I immediately plunged into Flight or Fright to prepare for the event, and it didn’t disappoint.

The synopsis is fairly simple – a flight bound from Mumbai to Delhi is hijacked, and the reader is taken along with the passengers to extricate themselves from the situation. But Flight or Fright is more than a hijack story. Written in a multilayered format, the first half of the book devotes a chapter to each character (and there are a great many of them). Sudha’s forte lies in the little details, so we aren’t just told about a photographer, a sports coach, corporate employees, foreign tourists, and a host of other people, but there’s a background story for every single one of them, with information that’s just enough to carry the story forward – why they do what they do, who they are and how their individual personalities work through the situation. The characterization is written so well, one doesn’t even need to keep flipping to the character list to identify each one – you know exactly whom you’re reading about and how they are connected to another character. The second half of the book doesn’t have chapter numbers but numbers of days, as the plane crash lands and the stranded survivors try to find a way to reach civilization. In between, we see correspondence exchanged among the terrorists in the form of transcripts. The narrative constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat, as you wonder what happens next and navigate through conversations, hidden and overt.

Flight or Fright is action-packed, but also has a very humane side in its presentation, as the myriad characters deal with hostile terrain, internal group dynamics, dwindling resources of food, physical and mental strength, terrorists incognito among the passengers, the quest to be found accompanied by the anxiety of being found by the wrong people – the flight crash lands outside borders and they don’t even know which country they’re in; equal chances of being welcomed by a hospitable village or thrown into a military prison. Every sentence, every word finds its place in the story, and not a single one is wasted. Sudha knows exactly what she wants to tell you, revealing enough for the reader to put the pieces together and solve the jigsaw, but holding back enough to challenge you every step of the way.

Through the crux of surviving or succumbing in a hijack, we also get side stories – each small one contributing to the larger canvas. A school principal removed through unfair means finds renewed purpose in banding people together, a housewife with a penchant for gardening enjoying the lush floral landscape, a photographer clicking memories, a politician trying to bribe his way out, people who want to play the hero and those who want to do nothing and expect others to do everything for them – the beauty of the writing is that the novel has no protagonist. Sudha gives equal strength to every character – they can either contribute to getting out unscathed, or bring harm to the whole group; a wait-and-watch rendering where everyone is a suspect.

While I have read Sudha’s short stories and screenplays, this was the first novel from the author, and she proves how wonderful a storyteller she is irrespective of story length or format. And it was a marvellous opportunity to hear her story of creating stories. Not a book to be missed!

My rating: 5/5

Grotesque: Monster Stories by Lee Murray

“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.

The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories, and a fabulous one to start the collection as it sets the pace for what lies ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.

The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.

Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters, with many more still to be met.

In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears. ~Lee Murray

This book will delight horror fans, and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.

My rating of the book: 5/5

This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.

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.

Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down – An Autobiography of Ida Keeling

Book title – Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down

Authors – Ida Keeling and Anita Diggs

Genre – Non-fiction, autobiography

“When I ran my first race I was 67 years old. I didn’t care whether I won or not. I didn’t care whether I survived or not. The only reason I was in it was to satisfy my daughter.”

When Ida Keeling’s daughter Cheryl asked her to accompany her for a run, she immediately thought her daughter was being stalked and decided to keep her safe on the road. Having found both her sons murdered, she “couldn’t afford to lose any more children” and promptly went ahead, with maternal instincts taking over any race preparation. She won a podium in the 5K in her age category.

‘Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down’ is the story of this formidable woman who is presently 105 years old – the track and field athlete Ida Keeling, a Masters record holder. The American of Caribbean descent walks us down memory lane of having been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the American Civil War, from hearing Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ standing in front of him, to wondering if she would ever get to see a black man in the White House, battling homelessness and joblessness, being a single mother to four children, tackling racism and sexism across two centuries, addressing the African diaspora from Jamaican to Haitian history, completing college in her forties, running in her sixties, competing internationally in her eighties, here is a woman who has literally seen, heard, and done it all.

When it comes to memoirs, there is often a tendency of writers trying too hard to come across as inspirational, by listing problems which only showcase their privileges instead. Ida offers a fresh take with her matter-of-fact narrative, dismissing her hardships as “people have been worse off”. The conversational tone feels like talking to a wise old grandmother, proffering life lessons and advice on the way without praising herself. Encouraging women to have professional careers rather than being dependent on a spouse, highlighting the importance of education, the pride in supporting her niece to become an armed forces officer, the loss of two children who were found murdered with both cases never solved because no witnesses wanted to get involved with the law, the importance of reading, the uselessness of regrets, the ease with which black people get blamed and white people go free, breaking shackles of mental slavery, training for races under the guidance of her daughter, taking care of family, aiming for the sky, writing poetry, going to the gym, the fear of being trampled in her first race, the serenity that accompanies running, the elation of having another day to do what you want to do. Over a hundred years can never be compressed into a book, and a review does even lesser justice of a life story that covers everything and still leaves you wanting more.

“The gun sounded, and I was off, putting to shame younger couch potatoes, excuse givers, or plain old slackers. I surged forward in my yellow shoes, salmon-colored shirt, and matching earrings.”

Surge forward, like Ida does! And when a 100 plus woman trained by her 60 plus daughter speaks, you listen to her wisdom. Read this wonderful book to learn about this amazing personality.

My rating – 5/5

Ida and Cheryl Keeling

The Hellbound Heart – Revisiting Some Old Horror

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”

This classic line from Clive Barker’s masterpiece, that also made it to the movie, sums up the horror ride being embarked upon. Frank Cotton is in search of Lemarchand’s Configuration – a cube that promises infinite joy by theologians of the Order of the Gash once the puzzle is solved. A pleasure dome where those who have exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy, created by the craftsman Lemarchand in the form of a musical box that can be toyed with for a lifetime and never let you in. Stories, fantasies, legends – the puzzle has an aura of mystery. Lemarchand’s device comes with pragmatic and metaphysical rules to break the seal – To solve the puzzle is to travel. The box is not just the map of the road, but the road itself. Setting the right configuration summons beings that provide a surplus of the good things in life. Only, everyone’s definition of happiness is different. Frank takes up the challenge and successfully solves the puzzle and the Cenobites deliver, but not what he expected.

Rory Cotton moves into his old family home with his wife Julia. His estranged brother, Frank, has been missing for over a year, and with no one to lay claim to the family property, they decide to settle in. Rory sustains an injury while shifting boxes, and the blood from the wound brings the house alive. Frank Cotton – or whatever is left of him – has been in the house all along, trapped in his world and tortured in the dimensions of the box. He wanted to call the Cenobites here, they took him to their realm instead. The simplicity and complexity of Lemarchand’s Configuration unleashed at once – two parties meeting, which place is the right one? Who decides right and wrong? And as Julia helps him cross over into the land of the living, the reader is taken on a journey of the cube and the echo it symbolizes, as Frank navigates his duality in the lands of the living and the dead. You can’t dream agonies away. They have to be endured.

While the Hellraiser movie, and its string of sequels (nine of them!), were a gore fest of the eighties like no other (the screenplay having been written by Clive Barker himself in his vision for the big screen, his directorial debut aimed at primarily American audiences though the book is classic British horror), the book dives deeper into the origins and workings of the box, each of the Cenobites, and what exactly happens to Frank Cotton before, during, and after solving the cube. A crossword maybe, whose solution would lift the latch of the paradise garden, or a jigsaw in the completion of which lay access to Wonderland. Those who enjoy solving jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and Rubik cubes will marvel at Barker’s twisted take on schadenfreude through a simple musical box. The Hellbound Heart is a wonderful metaphor through horror, the Cenobites symbolic of people who find joy in other’s misfortunes, lift themselves up by bringing others down, and base their happiness on the unhappiness of others. Everyone’s definition of happiness is different, and the same situation can be interpreted in markedly different ways by two people. Someone’s hell is another person’s heaven. The mending of broken hearts is a puzzle neither wit nor time has the skill to solve.

The Hellbound Heart is a beautifully written book with amazing quotes. Those who have watched the movies and could not stomach the gore can give this one a go if you enjoy good literature. Just like Stephen King, however visually overwhelming the movies might be, the writing from a master storyteller is not to be missed. The Cenobites are neither named in the original story nor movie, but Barker’s descriptions are so vivid that Pinhead, Chatterer, and Butterball have achieved distinct horror icon status through the years. The imagery and storytelling is so good! An absolute horror classic whose movie adaptation lived up to the book, even though Barker changed the narratives.

The Shadow Runner – Book Review

Title – The Shadow Runner

Author – Vishal Bahukhandi

Genre – Frame Fiction (story within a story)

Theme – Armed forces

I came across this book while looking up a book gift for a friend, and was so piqued by the title and synopsis that I bought a copy for myself, too. Written by an ex-Army officer, The Shadow Runner offers a unique reading experience – a novel set around life in the academy which turns cadets into officers.

While the tagline itself reveals a story about two boys, the book opens in the thick of battle at Kashmir where a special forces officer remembers his “brother”, immediately heightening the reader’s curiosity about why the story begins with just one of them and what could have happened to the other. The crux of the novel surrounds two boys – Virender and Govind – complete opposites of each other, with their own reasons for wanting to don the maroon beret. We are gradually led into the Indian Military Academy (IMA), with its myriad tales of military life, training, anecdotes, friends and enemies made, banter and shared experiences, camaraderie – everything young cadets go through to complete their training and earn their status as commissioned officers of the Indian Army.

Through his own experiences serving in the army in areas of high insurgent activity like Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, the author enlightens us about the preparations our officers go through in order to keep our borders safe. The academy sees all kinds of candidates – those who want to serve the country, those who have been sent there by parents who themselves didn’t get the chance to serve the country, those whose parents served and were sent to the academy by default of being army kids, those who want to start a new life, get over relationships and break ups, leave their old life behind, those discouraged by family and friends over taking up “risky” jobs, those who work hard but fail to get through, those who don’t put in the effort but happen to clear the tests – a plethora of personalities who enter the academy for various reasons, but are ultimately transformed into people who would do anything for their country.

So, each of the characters have their own back story into why they are where they are. And the past leads us to another past, culminating into the reasons for the book’s present. A story within a story within a story, such that the conclusion draws you back to the beginning. I love embedded narratives as a genre, and Major Vishal has done a splendid job with this nested story. Of particular interest as a reader, is where the title fits into the storyline, and the revelation of The Shadow Runner is truly magnificent in its tribute to the men in uniform.

A book about friendship, love, sacrifice, discipline, brotherhood, heartbreak, The Shadow Runner is definitely a book for armed force aspirants, but can be enjoyed by every kind of reader. Besides memoirs and non-fiction books about historical events featuring the armed forces, fiction books authored by officers themselves are rare. It’s so beautifully written by a debut writer, I’m glad my year began with some wonderful books and I hope to see more of Major Vishal’s literary prowess. Highly recommended for its storyline, characters, niche genre, theme, and overall writing.

My rating – 5/5

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/