There are days when it’s hard to find the wonder in this life–even when we remember to try and look for it.
Stress is everywhere. From unrelenting internal battles to worries about work, family, COVID, wildfires, floods, the rising price of food, the economy, politics, the climate emergency, the horrors of war, the fear of nuclear disaster…
So we doom-scroll through our social media feeds, waiting for the next adrenaline-cranking alert in an endless series of impending apocalypses.
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’d like to introduce you to a small-but-mighty book that packs a great deal of wonder–and calm–between its covers. It is a balm for the frazzled soul, like dipping your feet in a quiet stream on a warm summer’s afternoon.
Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh is remarkable for its simplicity and its power. It has been described by the Dalai Lama as a book that can “…change individual lives and the life of our society.” That is not an understatement.
This collection of stories, thoughts, and meditations, each only about 1-2 pages in length, is set out in three sections. The first addresses issues of the self, the second looks at external challenges, and the third explores the impact that one person’s peace can have on the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born on October 11, 1926, in the ancient imperial capital of Huế in central Vietnam. From early childhood, he knew that he wanted to be a Zen Buddhist monk. When he was sixteen, he set off on this path in earnest. He would go on to become a monk, a poet, an artist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee (nominated by his friend Martin Luther King Jr., who called him “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence”), and a global spiritual leader.
From the first steps along his journey, Thich Nhat Hanh knew that he wanted to change Zen Buddhism–to pioneer a new, more mindful practice, rooted in the idea that we can practice mindfulness at any point in our everyday lives, even in the smallest, simple actions, like washing the dishes or observing a flower. He coined the term engaged Buddhism, to represent this more practical form of Buddhism. He would go on to become known as the Father of Mindfulness.
In the 1960s, as conflict rumbled through his homeland, he travelled to the US and Europe to call for an end to the hostilities in Vietnam. His actions resulted in both North and South Vietnam exiling from his home. He would go on to say that being unable to go home left him “like a bee without a beehive.”
He would remain in exile for 39 years.
Thich Nhat Hanh had created many monastic retreats in Vietnam. Shortly after his exile, he created the Plum Village spiritual centre in the south of France. Today, Plum Village is the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe and a place where people can go to learn to live in harmony with each other and with the earth.
Our own life has to be our message
Thich Nhat Hanh
For an enlightening peek into life at Plum Village, I highly recommend the 2017 documentary Walk with Me, written and directed by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh, and narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.
In 2005, the Vietnamese government invited Thich Nhat Hanh to return home, finally ending his decades-long exile.
Thich Nhat Hanh passed away in January 2022, at the age of 95. He died peacefully at his “root temple,” Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam, where he had been ordained as a young man.
“Stressed” image credit: mohamed_Hassan on Pixabay.
“I’m afraid I don’t have magic.” “You do, Mr. Baker. Arthur told me that there can be magic in the ordinary.”
TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea
Ordinary magic is everywhere.
And nowhere more so than in TJ Klune’s heart-squeezing novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea.
This book is about many things. It’s about the persecution of those who are deemed “different”; it’s about finding your line in the sand and having the courage to not cross it. It’s about righting wrongs, fighting for love, and choosing your family.
Most of all, it is about kindness.
But let’s back up for a second and get a few story details from the publisher’s blurb.
A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
Klune captures the indifferent horror of an Orwellian society with a weight that is as gloomy as the city’s perpetual rain–drops that you can almost feel, sliding down Linus’ collar. He shows us the grim impact of cruelty visited on children and families simply because they are different.
Remove the supernatural abilities and you have a world not that much different from our own, one where where families, societies, and entire cultures have been–and still are being–decimated by the fearful and ignorant.
But in The House in the Cerulean Sea, Klune also reminds us that there is a mighty hope in even the smallest acts of kindness–and that learning about each other and accepting each other for who we are is perhaps the greatest work we can do.
“We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.“*
Kindness. Hope. Love. These can free us all.
These are the gifts of The House in the Cerulean Sea.
Mystery novel writers have always struck me as being rather like sleight-of-hand magicians. They keep your attention, with atmospheric settings and not-what-they-seem characters in one hand, while pulling off the magic trick–a twist you never saw coming–with the other.
This is particularly true of Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, except–taking the analogy a little further–when this particular magician puts his top hat on the table, it’s not a rabbit that emerges, but a llama.
With a shout, a man finds himself standing in a forest, rain dripping down his face. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. In fact, the only thing he remembers is the name still on his lips: Anna.
But who is Anna? And more to the point, who is he?
So begins our protagonist’s odyssey through Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
It soon becomes clear that the man is one of several guests at a weekend gathering hosted by the Hardcastle family at their isolated, and somewhat faded, country estate.
That night, Miss Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered.
What feels like an Agatha Christie-esque locked-room whodunnit, soon reveals itself to be something far more elaborate as readers are treated to a magic show of a mystery.
You see, the man is not actually a guest. His name is Aiden Bishop, and he is trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque loop, each new dawn bringing him back to relive the same day–in a different guest’s body.
To escape, he must solve Evelyn’s murder.
But the more he uncovers about his fellow guests and the murder itself, the more questions Bishop has. Who is Anna? Who is the mysterious figure lurking around the edges of the story? And ultimately, who is Aiden Bishop?
Who is it for? Described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, this book and it’s brilliant twists and turns is for locked-room mystery lovers who enjoy genre-defying subplots.
As the reader becomes increasingly drawn into the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle, and why, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: what is our protagonist’s connection to the events unfolding at the manor?
Herein lies the magic of Turton’s storytelling. You’re so busy looking at the mystery itself, that you don’t give much thought to the question that’s been niggling at the back of your mind as you’ve watched the story unfold.
Then, you reach the end, and–with a final flourish–all is revealed. The magician pulls the llama from the hat and you’re left marvelling at the trick.
Atmospheric, original, and masterfully plotted with a brilliant twisty ending, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a magician’s slight-of-hand dream of a book.
It’s not often that a plotline surprises me as much as this one did. The story moves fast but the details never feel rushed. There are clever reveals scattered throughout the main story and a gloriously sinister subplot.
For even more magic, try the audiobook–read with just the perfect amount of gravitas–by James Cameron Stewart.
To learn more about the cover design, click here to read an interview with Bloomsbury Publishing Art Director, David Mann.
Featured image photo credit: Charl Durand from Pexels
This week on #TheBookshelf, I *had* planned to share my review of Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
This is not that review.
(Next week, I promise. In the meantime, maybe pick up a copy of the book–or the most excellent audiobook. They’re both awesome, you won’t regret it.)
Instead, I wanted to share something else with you.
It’s been a week, hasn’t it? [Said everyone, every week, since March, 2020–or possibly before.] There’s a lot of hardship out there in the world. From the climate emergency to social injustice to the struggle to make ends meet, it’s a lot.
A LOT lot.
And I’ve got to say, humans, I’ve seen some not-so-nice behaviour from some of you.
There is a quote, often attributed to Robin Williams, that goes something like this: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
And that includes being kinder to yourself, my friend.
Sometimes, when you’re struggling–with your job, your spouse, your kids, your dreams, your life…even your own reflection–the tiniest scrap of light can make a huge difference. Sometimes that beam of light turns out to be the lighthouse that keeps you off the rocks. And sometimes, it takes someone who can say “I’ve been there, I am there, I see you,” to be that light.
This week, I’ve got two books to share with you whose authors know what it’s like to be on those reefs, and in these two small-but-mighty-volumes they share their thoughts on hope, life, and holding on to grace, even when you don’t feel like you can.
First up is Matt Haig’s brand new release, The Comfort Book.
This book lives up to its name. It is written as a brilliant collection of thoughts, quotes, and lists. Rather like a scrapbook of hope.
Matt Haig is the author of numerous books for adults and children including his memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive; A Boy Called Christmas, which is about to be made into a movie; and his recent bestseller, The Midnight Library.
The Comfort Book is a bit different. It’s like a commonplace book–bursting with little bits of all sorts of marvelous things. You could read it from cover to cover or pick an entry at random and go from there.
No matter how you decide to go about reading this delightfully bright, tidy little book, the light pouring out of it is still just as brilliant. Basically, it’s a book full of hugs…book-shaped hugs!
Nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn’t give up.
Matt Haig, The Comfort Book.
The second of our two books this week, is Keep Moving, Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by the poet Maggie Smith.
What began on social media as a collection of daily affirmations, encouragements, and self-directives–each one ending with the two words Keep moving–became this powerful story of overcoming struggle. Combining those social media posts with short segments of memoir, Maggie Smith has created a book that feels a bit like sitting down with a friend who has seriously seen some s&*t and having them say to you, “Look, whatever you’re dealing with, you can get through it and I’m going to be there to help you get through it.” And then they put the kettle on.
(Because isn’t that what we Brits do when s&*t gets real.)
Keep Moving is structured into three sections: “Revision”, “Resilience,” and “Transformation” and while you could dive in anywhere, it is a journey and best read from beginning to end. And it is a journey well worth taking.
Thank you for joining me on #TheBookshelf this week. Until next time, when I promise we’ll explore the deliciously written, mind-bending mysteries of Stuart Turton, I wish you book-shaped hugs and light when you need it most. Be kind.
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’ve got some great reads for you by Indigenous poets and authors from all over Turtle Island.
There’s a lot I could say about the responsibilities of being part of a settler society, but if you’re here and reading this, then I’m guessing you already know much of what I might say, and you’ve already embarked on a learning journey of your own.
And if you haven’t, then maybe you can start your journey here.
We are never closer as people than when we walk a mile in another’s shoes. Reading fiction and non-fiction from cultures and experiences that are not our own allows us to do just that.
Stories have infinite power to connect us as human beings. Amplifying Indigenous voices–and promoting diversity in the arts as a whole–is important and necessary to us all.
Here are a few of the writers whose work–whose heart-breaking, heart-healing, exciting, hilarious, suspenseful poems and stories–I’ve either already read (and loved) or look forward to reading this summer!
Marilyn Dumont is an award winning poet and educator of Cree/Métis descent. One of my all-time favourite poems is her piece, “The Dimness of Mothers and Daughters” from her collection, Green Girl Dreams Mountains.
There is powerful magic in poetry and it always seems to find me just when I need it the most. I came across this piece shortly after my mother died, when her story–and mine–were all I could think about. These words wrote themselves into my bones. Here’s an excerpt of the poem, displayed at the revitalized Marina complex in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
You can read more about Ms. Dumont and her poetry collections here.
Joy Harjo is a poet of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the United States. She is currently serving her second term as the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate. I love her collection, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and in particular, her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” For me and my family, the kitchen table has always been the most important place in our home, the place where we gather together at least once a day to share meals, to tackle homework, work on craft projects, to talk and share, to learn and celebrate and grieve. This poem captures the essence of family and of life itself–all in a single piece of furniture. Here’s an excerpt:
"The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it. It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women." -Excerpt from "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo
Visit the Poetry Foundation here for the full poem.
David A. Robertson is a prolific writer of picture books, graphic novels, YA novels, memoir, and more. He is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg.
Strangers, released in 2017, and the first book in his Reckoners YA series, is near the top of my TBR list and based on the blurbs, is packed with intrigue, humour, and magic–I can’t wait to dive in!
His latest work (released in September 2020) is the graphic novel The Barren Grounds (The Misewa Saga, Book One) and has been called “Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations.”
Yes, that sound you hear is my TBR list growing again!
Learn more about Robertson, his writing and his other books in this excellent Quill & Quire interview–or at his website.
Drew Hayden Taylor, originally from Curve Lake First Nation, Ontario, is a jack-of-many creative trades–from playwright, to author of both fiction and non-fiction, to filmaker, and (not surprisingly) stand-up comedian. His book Motorcycles and Sweetgrass is one of my favourite reads, and is bursting with trickster magic, clever twists on Indigenous folklore, family drama, and loads of magic, charm, and love.
Come for the mystery, stay for the…raccoons. Yes, you heard me. As a Torontonian, I’ve long had my suspicions about those crafty critters…
Rebecca Roanhorse is a speculative fiction writer from the US, whose latest novel, Black Sun, has been nominated for the 2021 Hugo Award for best novel. (She has won the Hugo Award in the past, not to mention the Nebula, and the Locus, as well as the 2018 Astounding (Campbell) Award for Best New Writer.)
While Black Sun will be on my TBR list soon, it’s the author’s debut novel that I’m cueing up first.
Trail of Lightning came out in 2018. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
“While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters—and it is up to one young woman to unravel the mysteries of the past before they destroy the future.”
I mean, really. How have I not read this book already?! Oh, right. I’ve yet to find a job that pays me to read whatever I want all day. Ahhh…someday <cough> Tor.com <cough>. #dream #IDigress
Learn more about Ms. Roanhorse (she’s also written a middle grade novel for the Rick Riordan Presents series and a StarWars novel. I mean how freaking cool is that?!) at her website.
Last, but certainly not least, if you don’t live in Canada, you might not be aware of the national “Battle of the Books”–the literary Survivor–known as Canada Reads.
The 2021 Canada Reads winner was none other than Jonny Appleseed, a novel by the poet, Joshua Whitehead, a two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1).
Jonny Appleseed has been nominated for–or won–numerous awards and is described as “A tour-de-force debut novel about a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN glitter princess who must reckon with his past when he returns home to his reserve.”
Then I read the publisher’s blurb and was immediately hooked:
“You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine” is a mantra that Jonny Appleseed, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer, repeats to himself in this vivid and utterly compelling debut novel by poet Joshua Whitehead. Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. Self-ordained as an NDN glitter princess, Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez”–and his former life–to attend the funeral of his stepfather. The seven days that follow are like a fevered dream: stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s life is a series of breakages, appendages, and linkages–and as he goes through the motions of preparing to return home, he learns how to put together the pieces of his life.
Sounds amazing, right? Seriously, my TBR list rocks so hard.
Wait, what was that? You’re looking for more?
Awesomesauce! Check out this fantastic round-up from CBC Books: 35 books to read for National Indigenous History Month. Covering adult fiction, non-fiction, YA, graphic novels, and poetry, this article includes links to some great interviews and loads of resources for further reading.
(And if you lovely folks at Tor.com are looking for a nerdy reader/writer/editor/gamer/knitter/plant girl…well, you know where to find me.)
This week on #TheBookshelf we delve into the deliciously creepy Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
I loved everything about this book. From the exceptional cover design by Faceout Studio and Tim Green, to the wonderful sense of dread that grows with every moment spent within its pages.
Warning: this book is un-putdownable.
At first glance, you might mistake 22-year-old Noemí Taboada as nothing more than a party-going socialite. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to Noemí than meets the eye. Fiercely intelligent, she is determined find a way to further her education, despite her family’s reluctance.
Fate steps in when Noemí’s father, a wealthy industrialist, makes her an offer: he will allow her to attend the master’s program she has her sights set on, if she is willing to first travel to the remote mining town of El Triunfo and check on the well-being of her cousin, Catalina. It seems that Catalina, recently married to Virgil Doyle, in a match that doesn’t quite sit right with the family, has sent Noemí’s father a desperate and somewhat garbled letter that makes it pretty clear that all is not well with her. Out of concern, and (perhaps more so) in the hopes of avoiding any family scandal, Noemí’s father dispatches her to High Place, the ancestral home of the Doyle family.
The plot is insidiously clever, drawing you in even as a claustrophobic sense of dread blooms–only to then sink under your skin, spreading deeper and deeper until you grasp the true horror of High Place.
Noemí shines as a brilliant hero: smart, open-minded, brave, and with a big heart. Almost from the outset, you feel the impact of her victories and her setbacks as if they were your own.
As for the setting, it’s almost a character unto itself. High Place, damp and neglected, perched on its lonely mountain, is overflowing with horrors inside and out–from the devastating history of English mining operations in the area, to the deadly cliffs and deep crevasses hiding in the mist. As truly isolating as any desolate moor.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing is wonderful, putting you into each scene without getting in its own way. If you’re a fan of gothic horror and/or fiercely intelligent, beautifully human heroes, don’t miss this brilliant book!
Spoiler alert! (select the rest of this line to view): you will never look at mushrooms the same again.
When you’ve read the book, check out this great interview with the author.
On #TheBookshelf this week is the wonderfully weird and slyly compelling Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson.
Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian is stuck—and seems destined to stay that way. Resigned to her fate, she lacks the energy to fight her way out of the hand she’s been dealt, comprising two dead-end jobs and her sweltering attic room in the house she shares with her coldly indifferent mother. A letter from her high school best friend, containing a job offer and money for a bus ticket to Tennessee, might be just the jolt she needs to change her life. And for once, Lillian decides to jump.
The job? Governess to her friend Madison’s stepchildren. The catch? The ten-year-old twins spontaneously combust when they are agitated. Madison and her husband need to keep the kids out of the limelight, so their “condition” doesn’t disrupt the carefully crafted trajectory of his political career.
What follows is a laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming story about finding your weirdos and making them your family…about discovering what matters most and deciding to fight for it—glorious flaws and all.