Book Faeries

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Her name was Bethany.

I think we were destined to meet. After my mother died — I had been Connie’s caregiver for 13 years – we were living hand-to-mouth. I was debilitated by daily migraines, and largely unable to work, so we could not afford a city rent. We packed our bags for a small town, and found a spartan apartment in Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at $400 a month. It had no amenities, but a worthy view.

We made a home.

On our first few days in town, two notable things happened. Exhausted by the move, I left my wallet in the car, with my keys in the ignition, and the windows wide open. Yet all was as it should be in the morning.

And we had our first visitor.

Bethany was the little girl who lived upstairs. She was the very definition of a tomboy — all skinned knees and dirty hands, with salamanders always at the ready. But she was also a singularly beautiful child, with blond curls to her shoulders, and a bright, curious face.

I don’t know why, but she immediately took a liking to me, so I took her on a tour of our humble four rooms. When we reached our living room, her face went from sunshiny to sour in a heartbeat.

“Yuck!” she said. “You have so many books! Yuck. I hate them!”

I’m not a parent, but I felt like I was on one of those sitcoms that usually end with a teachable moment.

“Oh, I love books!” I exclaimed. “They are my best friends! They keep me company when I’m feeling lonely, they take me on adventures when I’m bored, they make me happy when life is making me sad.

“Books are the best things in the whole wide world.”

I could tell she wasn’t convinced as she mustered as much cynicism as any five-year-old could.

Nevertheless, during our first week in Lunenburg, we became Book Faeries.

Over the next few months leading to years, we scraped together as much change as we could to buy books for Bethany, which we left inside her door with a note from the Book Faerie. We were aided ably in our task by my sister Linda, a Halifax primary school teacher, who gave us her free credits at Scholastic.

It wasn’t always easy. We were on the fast track to bankruptcy, but we did as well by Bethany as we could. First with some lovely picture books. And then with more challenging fare, like Coraline.

We came to understand she needed these imaginary worlds.

The household was erratic. The father had trouble finding steady work, but his friends were steady, and always ready to party. The stoic mother worked herself to the bone, and would fly into periodic rages against the unfairness of this world. The high school daughter was bright, but rebellious.

After three years, we needed to return to the city, as job prospects in Lunenburg are slim to none. On one of our last days in town, Bethany came downstairs to read with me on our deck. It was a difficult chapter book for a kid yet to graduate from grade two.

I admit it. I had no faith in the Book Faerie. But she showed me, reading an entire chapter with nary a stumble. My heart swelled.

I think of Bethany often. I always wonder if we had given her a small chance to escape her grinding, difficult life.

I don’t remember if I cried when I heard her read that sunny May morning. But I know that I’m crying now.

Posted in Books, Life, Nova Scotia | 6 Comments

Six Months

Posted in Life | 2 Comments

Books Worth Buying in 2013

Ellen Oh

Two friends have novels that will hit bookstores in 2013, and I’m THAT excited!

Ellen Oh has been an online friend for years, and I’ve always been impressed with her kindness, thoughtfulness, patience, and intelligence. When she landed a three-book deal with HarperTeen to bring The Dragon King Chronicles to North Americans readers, I literally did a happy dance.

I’m not kidding. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more deserving writer. It lands on January 2.

Will Ellen’s first book — The Prophecy — be your cup of tea? I had a happy thought recently, that if had to endure another surgery in the New Year, then Ellen’s novel could be my hopsital book.

Now that is a silver lining.

So go, go now. Pre-order it on Amazon.

Prophecy

The greatest warrior in all of the Seven Kingdoms . . . is a girl with yellow eyes.

Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and she’s also the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope. . . .

Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King’s prophecy, but the legendary lost ruby treasure just might be the true key to victory. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, an evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king.

Intrigue and mystery, ancient lore and action-packed fantasy come together in this heart-stopping first book in a trilogy.

Jennifer Zobair

What can I say about Jennifer Zobair? She’s the perceptive, gracious, talented woman who asked hard questions of me last winter as I prepared to go under the knife, and then rallied friends to launch a online fundraiser that got us through a couple of brutal months.

I will never forget that act of kindness, nor the support of a community that pulled me from the mire, and sparked optimism that maybe it would all work out, in the end.

Amusingly, we met during an online writing contest where we both finished well back. Yet we were both so mpressed with each other’s entries that we voted for them. I’m pretty sure it’s the only vote I received.

How could we not become friends after that?

Jennifer is a wonderful writer, and I know — I just know — that this will be a fabulous book.

Painted Hands will hit bookstores on June 11, but I think you need to buy it now.

Painted hands

“A debut with an original and refreshing premise—Jennifer Zobair’s novel is about high-flying Bostonian women who struggle with their demanding careers, relationships, friendships and families, and who also happen to be Muslim. A positive portrait of modern Muslim women, prominent in their professions and at large within their communities, written with affection and detail.”—Roopa Farooki, Orange Prize finalist and author of The Flying Man.

“In Painted Hands, Jennifer Zobair lifts the veil on three American Muslim women, taking readers into a world that will challenge their assumptions. Her debut novel is an important addition to the canon of ethnic fiction, showcasing the difficulty of being both American and Muslim.”—Anne Cherian, author of The Invitation and A Good Indian Wife.

Posted in Author, Author, Books | 3 Comments

Author Melanie Hooyenga Answers 25 Questions

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As I grow older, I find myself seeking out kindness. That’s how I first met Melanie Hooyenga.

In the funny way that social media works, our paths had crossed for years, but we never really connected. It’s like we had been to a few parties at the houses of friends we had in common, but we’d never been introduced. If we passed each other in the street, we might nod and smile, maybe say hello, but I’m not sure we would have stopped to talk.

Yet I knew I wanted to talk to her.

On Erica Orloff’s blog, after we exchanged a few words, Melanie told me that she thought my idea for a YA novel was really intriguing, and she looked forward to reading it. Of course, I noticed. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next guy. But it wasn’t an isolated incident. Hoo was that way with everyone.

Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed that kindness is far from her only virtue. She is funny and supportive. And strong, resilient, and creative. And prone to injury. (Which I believe many of her online friends refer to as “pulling a Hooey.”)

And a killer designer of book covers.

I will be forever grateful for the effort she expended to help me through one of the most difficult nights of my life — that horrible day in May when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority parliament in Canada.

So please make Melanie feel welcome here on Telling Stories. And, for crying out loud, buy her book and tell your friends about it!

About Flicker

Biz is a perfectly normal teenager except for one minor detail: she uses sunlight to flicker back to yesterday. She takes advantage of flickering by retaking Trig tests, fixing fights with her boyfriend (or reliving the making up), and repeating pretty much anything that could be done better. Trouble is, flickering makes her head explode from the inside. Or feel like it anyway.

No one knows about her freakish ability and she’s content to keep it that way. Guys don’t stick around because she refuses to let them in, but all that changes when Cameron, her best friend, starts looking oh-so-yummy. Suddenly she’s noticing his biceps, his smile, and the cute way his eyes crinkle when he–gah! This is her friend!

But the butterflies come to a screeching halt when little girls start disappearing, then take a nosedive when the police link the kidnappings to Cameron’s sister, who vanished years earlier. As the police grasp for clues, Biz photographs a strange man lurking in the shadows and realizes that her flickering can help more than just herself.

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Melanie Hooyenga’s Bio

Melanie Hooyenga has lived in Washington DC, Chicago, and Mexico, but has finally settled down in her home state of Michigan with her soon-to-be husband Jeremy. When not at her day job as a graphic designer, you can find Melanie attempting to wrangle her Miniature Schnauzer Owen and kicking Jeremy’s butt at Kinect boxing.

25 Questions

1) What was your favorite book as a child? What is your favorite children’s book?

Can I name a series instead of one book? The Sweet Valley High books were my world when I was a kid. I read the entire series at least half a dozen times, much to my mother’s dismay. I don’t really have a favorite now.

2) What is your most marked characteristic? Does it help or hinder you?

I’m short. I get the impression that other people thinks it hinders me, but I see it as an advantage.

3) Which quality do you most like in a man?

Intelligence. So many other good qualities come with that one thing.

4) Which quality do you most like in a woman?

Being genuine. So often women are catty, especially with each other, but I have no time for that. For example, if I like what a woman is wearing, I always tell her, even if it’s a stranger on the street. It’s such a small gesture and it makes them happy.

5) What is your favorite memory?

He’s going to kill me for saying this, but my first date with my fiancé, hiking in the woods. I’m very clumsy and warned him not to be alarmed if I fell, but he ended up being the one to slide down a leaf-covered hill on his butt. Later he told me he was afraid I’d never go out with him again, but it made me like him more than I already did.

6) Describe the best meal you’ve ever had.

My fiancé and I have become quite the duo in the kitchen. I’m getting ready to make chicken piccata, which is currently my favorite meal. He also cooks a mean steak and I have perfected fish tacos and guacamole.

7) What’s the best book you’ve read in the last two years? The best movie you’ve seen?

Book: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. It is by far the best young adult novel I’ve ever read and made me want to crawl inside the book to experience it over and over again. Movie: Inception. It’s very rare for a movie to keep me on my toes, and I really had to pay attention to follow all the twists and turns. Plus Leo’s no slouch.

8) What characteristic about yourself would you most like to cha… ?

I interrupt others. I can’t help myself. To my credit, I’m very good at remembering what the other person was saying when I interrupted them, so I usually steer the conversation back to where we started.

9) What always make you happy?

My dog Owen.

10) What always angers you?

Racism, ignorance, and on a personal note, when people form an opinion of me that is untrue.

11) At this moment, where would you most like to be?

Four months from now, on my honeymoon.

12) Tell me about a boneheaded mistake you make in writing Flicker.

Mistake? Me? Nothing glaring stands out, but I mixed up quite a few things with the time travel in the first draft.

13) What has blogging brought to your life?

I’ve met some truly amazing people through blogging, and while I’m not as active with it as I used to be, I will always be grateful they are in my life.

14) Who is your favorite fictional heroine and why? And fictional hero?

Let’s skip this one. :) (Editor’s note: actually, we can’t. The correct answers are either Lord Aragorn or Jacob Jollimore, and Anne of Green Gables).

15) Who are your three favourite composers (or musicians)?

This one too.

16) Who is your favorite painter?

Monet or Toulouse-Lautrec, depending on my mood.

17) Which talent would you most like to have?

I MUST learn to dance tango. I’ve salsa danced (and merengue, bachata, cumbia, and cha cha) for over a decade but have never had the opportunity to learn tango.

18) How would you like to be remembered?

As the funny, charming, quick-witted writer who won Dancing with the Stars.

19) What has been the most exciting part of being published?

The look of astonishment on my non-writer friends’ faces when they realize I’ve written a book. I have so many writing friends that I forget what an accomplishment it is to write an entire novel, let alone more than one.

20) What is your greatest regret?

Not studying abroad in college.

21) Aside from your book, of what accomplishment are you most proud?

Buying my first home earlier this year. I did it completely on my own — something I never imagined doing — and I love it.

22) What is in heavy rotation on your iPod?

Um… I don’t own an iPod. I rely on my fiancé’s music, which has a lot of Mumford & Sons, Florence & the Machine, and Monsters & Men. Apparently I have an ampersand requirement with my music.

23) When was the last time you wept?

I honestly can’t remember, which is odd for me. Probably last January. Seriously, that may be the longest I’ve gone in my entire life.

24) What is your guilty pleasure?

Nutella, Olive Garden, and the Twilight movies.

25) In what way do you hope your life will change now?

The most obvious way is people I don’t know will read my book. I hope that writing always plays a large role in my life; getting the first published novel under my belt gives me the confidence to keep at it.

Melanie’s Author page on Facebook. • Follow Hoo on Twitter

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Buy Flicker at: Amazon • Kindle edition at amazon.ca • Kobo edition at Chapters.ca

Posted in 25 Questions, Author, Author, Books, Writing | 5 Comments

High Five, America

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Please don’t let us down.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Gratitude

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Independence is easy.

Anyone can walk through this world alone, without a care, unconcerned with the suffering of others, only looking out for number one. In a world where no one matters, it’s so easy to be selfish, so easy to be callous. So easy to ignore the obvious.

So easy to turn away from pain.

So many see independence as strength, but for me, it’s weakness.

No, it’s inter-dependence that’s hard. To acknowledge that we need others is at once terrifying and liberating.

If my 53 years have taught me anything, it’s that the strongest people in the world can be found among the kind, among those who put themselves on the line without asking questions, among those who hold friends steady when those friends can barely stand. They are men and women who hurt desperately, but still place their hearts in the way of pain yet again, even when the outcome is pre-ordained. They are gentle and lovely and mighty and brave. They are as constant as Orion, and shimmer above us as beautifully as the Milky Way on a cold winter’s night.

We need each other. We always have. We always will.

Seven months ago, I was holding my sister’s hand at a fundraiser in her honor, as family and friends raised money to pay for cutting-edge cancer treatments. She wore a hospital mask to prevent infection, red lips painted boldly against the stark white fabric.

Her eyes were wistful, so I didn’t need to see her awkward smile.

“Being the center of attention at a gathering like this isn’t exactly my cup of tea,” she said. “It’s just so hard.”

I wasn’t having any of it. “You’re in a room filled with people who love you so much, who want so much to help you, so I’m not feeling sorry for you tonight.

“Let them help, sweetie. It’s a small thing for each one of them, but it’s huge for you. So let them show you that you matter. Your family will pay it forward.”

The chastisement was given with kindness, so she smiled again, her eyes tearing. We cried a lot that night, and I thought she behaved with uncommon grace.

Six months later, I was hoisted on my own petard, for the fundraiser was for my benefit. For the second time this year, I might add. And I’m uncertain how to thank a legion of people because it feels so humbling, and so overwhelming.

I want to be a man who helps others, not the man a struggles so mightily. Every year, I expect to hit my stride, but I hobble to the finish line on December 31, notable only for surviving, and then just.

The seeds of this fundraiser began at another — at Marilou’s big party in February, just a few days after I almost bought the farm. Roxie O’Neil and Ross Cantwell bid in auction for a night’s entertainment with The Band Before Time, and they were thinking of me. With that in their back pocket, and a gleam in their eye, my sister’s dear friends enlisted my godson Anthony to the cause. He’s brilliant, energetic, and a bit of a wheeler-dealer, and he ran with their plan, and made it work famously. It was a wonderful group effort.

On September 28, friends and family joined me at the Argyle Grill & Bar to have a night on the town, hear a great live band and help me pay down a few bills, and put some money aside for my next surgery. Several members of my family worked hard to help bring it off, and a handful of colleagues from work and kind people I had only just met touched my little heart, and made an indelible impression.

I don’t know how to thank them. I really don’t. For the third time this year, a community has lifted me, and I’m grateful. I feel so fortunate.

Unlike my little sister, I don’t look sick, and this isn’t likely a matter of life or death. My brain tumor comes with a certain amount of danger, but I will survive. But this illness is grinding me down. Between testing, I have no proof of anything but what my body tells me, and I am certain that the tumor will be much larger in my next MRI. I can feel it pressing my sinuses again, The swelling in my joints and the aching in muscles prove to me that my hormones are in flux, and they’ve mastered me. As I was last winter, I am weary beyond belief.

So this is welcome respite, for I will not have to worry about paying January’s oil bill, or filling another prescription for Sativex if my pain level rises prodigiously in the next few months.

So thank you, thank you all. Anthony, Roxie, Ross, everyone. To my family, and Kristina’s. You remind me that grace is not just a prayer I should say when I take my meal.

Grace is a blessing I should utter as I begin each day anew.

Posted in Family, Life, Wall-E—The Neuroendocrine Tumor | Leave a comment

Ob La Di

Great pumpkin3

Gankaku

Posted in Life | 1 Comment

Bittersweet

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Circumstances being what they were, I didn’t see my baby sister in person until Canada Day. Almost seven months after we’d last held hands and cried together.

I knew immediately that her life was measured in weeks and days and hours and minutes. And I was pissed at the cancer clinic in Arizona that took her money, and gave all of us — Marilou excepted — an unwarranted sense of optimism.

I had always intended on letting her read Secrets of the Hotel Maisonneuve before anyone else in my family, a quiet gift that might light a few smiles along her arduous road. It would be an intimacy shared that might speak of deep and abiding bonds nurtured over the last half-century.

But I had left it too late. And I have to live with that.

The day after my sister left this world, the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia congratulated me on winning the 35th Annual Atlantic Writing Competition for unpublished manuscripts. The fist pump that followed seconds later felt so wrong, as did the happy hugs and handshakes at Marilou’s celebration, but I do know that my sister wanted the best for me.

I’ll be reading at the Word on the Street Festival in two weeks, not all together certain I should be there. A lightning strike of form-letter rejections from literary agents has caused a Crisis of Faith to well.

But I’m always thinking, always shuffling to find options when dealt a pair of deuces. So I’ll end with comments from one judge, in the hopes that his or her words will give me strength to send one more query. And then another one after that.

This work has quite a lot going right with it. A male leading role is always a selling point for publishers and I must confess a personal bias toward treasure hunt tales with codes and ciphers. In a classroom setting, they are excellent teaching tools.

As for the setting — who doesn’t love Montréal? The cultural sensitivity is a strong selling point as we have a Vitenamese lady, a pair of gay men, and lots of bilingual interchange.

The three plots of the elderly lady, the bully, and the hidden treasure dovetail very well…

This [novel]… kept me turning the pages long after I should have moved on! Well done!

Posted in Life, Writing | 3 Comments

Softness

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It ended peacefully, the room as soft as a eiderdown. My little sister, Marilou Levangie, left this world a week ago Monday, as the love of her life held her right hand, and her nearest sibling held her left, each telling her that it was okay to let go.

“Batman and Robin, together again,” Brian said, referring to our earliest days in elementary school when we imagined ourselves caped crusaders, with the pajamas to prove it. I almost wept then. He’s such a good man, and he doesn’t deserve this.

She quickly slipped from our grasp. Her decision made, she now seemed in a hurry where once she tarried.

How many ways can a heart break?

I learned yet a new way.

Last Thursday, we celebrated Marilou’s life with 450 close friends. It was the very first time in my experience that using the word funeral felt inapproriate. Though tears flowed as freely as a fine Chianti, they felt more like tears of blessedness and less like tears of sorrow. I felt at home in a community, and so grateful for love that inspired and lifted and healed me.

Last week, the world lost some of some of its funness and laughter. If I’m half the brother I think that I am, I’ll try to carry some of that weight.

But I think I’m going to need dance lessons.

Posted in Family, Life | 3 Comments

Grace

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I was with her this morning, holding her hand when she joined me, lucid for a few moments.

She started crying.

I have so much pain, she said.

I’ll call the nurse, and she’ll give you something to take the pain away.

I am so afraid, she said.

It’s okay, sweetheart. Give your fears to me. I’m happy to carry them for you.

I love everyone so much, she said.

And we all love you. You are blessed by having a wonderful family, and amazing friends. Everyone loves you so much. You are so lucky.

But I don’t have any faith, she said.

I don’t know, maybe you do. And the people who love you have more than enough faith. They’re happy to share.

So why don’t you come with me, sweetheart. Let’s go to a place that makes you happy.

I think you’re sitting on a beach with Brian, in Adirondack chairs. It’s the early evening, so the beach is deserted, and that beautiful golden light is shining. The waves rush, and crash on the shore. I think that you’re drinking a glass of red wine, and Brian has a beer. You’re holding hands. No need to talk. Zack might even be there, fetching a ball, or diving in the surf. Is that a place that would make you happy?

She didn’t answer, but rewarded me with a wisp of a smile, so gentle and sweet.

I kissed her forehead and left.

Outside the room, I wept, for my little sister will be taken from me soon. It is the greatest injustice I can imagine.

I have no words left. But I’m grateful for the grace that touched me when I needed it most.

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