Gnu Books was undoubtedly the favourite book store of my teen years. I used to browse here all the time with my siblings, back when my sister and I collected X-Men comics, and my brothers a whole list of titles that included Alpha Flight and the Fantastic Four. My sister and I used to drive all around the greater Toronto area -- well, truthfully, she did the driving, and I did the scouting in those pre-Internet, pre-smart phone days -- in search of used bookstores where we could snatch up our favourite Harlequin authors, and where I also assembled an impressive collection of truly beat up Martha Grimes' paperbacks. The covers didn't matter, all that mattered was that I read and re-read those mysteries as desperately needing to know the identity of the murderer in question as the previous readers must have done. I'd also find Doctor Who novels, Star Trek novels, and a wide spectrum of fantasy on these quests. We'd check out old stores in Cobourg, Port Hope, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Pickering, Scarborough (which had a treasure trove of used books), and less frequently the west end. Whenever we took a trip anywhere, the first thing we'd do is check the phone book for a used bookstore. Those outings were filled with episodes of the two of us getting lost, shouting directions at each other, taking buses to places we'd never been, sharing our money at Dairy Queens across the GTA, but always keeping the lion's share reserved for the books we wanted to buy. One of the nicest things about books for me is how closely I associate them with the best times I've ever had with my siblings. We traded books, talked books, copied books, learned to write our home-theatre plays and adventures from reading them--engaged, had we but known it, in some early iterations of fan fiction. When we moved into our our own homes down the years, we traded our X-Men and Star Trek novel collections back and forth, although somehow my sister has ended up with both, which reminds me that negotiations need to be re-opened again. Even after we all moved away, if we ever ended up in Ajax, we'd drop in on Gnu Books for old times' sake, and to snag another paperback we never knew we wanted. It's possible we spent more time at that 190 Harwood South location than we did anywhere else except school. Didn't hurt that the local arcade was in the same plaza. Kid brothers could be offloaded there without protest and met up with again in time to go home. Now the Ajax location has closed, but I'm glad to see Gnu Books is still thriving in Oshawa, where my Dad practiced medicine for thirty years. I hope that somewhere in their hearts they know how many hours of endless reading pleasure they gave to kids like us. And I'd be more thrilled than I can express if any of my books turn up on their shelves one day. Here's to you, Gnu Books.
I'm a week away from third anniversary of my debut novel's publication. By now, it's started to feel very real--as if Esa and Rachel are old and dear companions, along with the crew of friends and strangers who are drawn to them individually, as well as to the partnership they've formed. It's nice to know I can settle back into their lives, as if no time has been lost between meetings. But it's also nice to know that there are still storytelling possibilities that take me in new and unexpected directions. Working on the fifth book in the series, I'm thinking constantly of the first--which is not The Unquiet Dead, but a simpler story I told of the murder investigation where Esa and Rachel first work to solve a case together. Well, simpler in some ways but not in others. I've begun to think of that first book--Summer's Lease--and this fifth one as a pair of companion novels. Everything about them feels similar...the season, the atmosphere, the idea that something small and dark can lurk within our hearts unknown to us, until the darkness takes the shape of action and regret. I've been trying to name the themes of this fifth book to myself, and I think this might be it: how we make peace with the choices that we've made.
Speaking of nostalgia, I've been trying hard to remember concrete events in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Gateway to the North, and one of the places I grew up. I lived there somewhere between three and four years, and while there, changed houses three times. Before that I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Two things I remember vividly about that prairie life: we did our trick-or-treating in highly unmanageable but entirely necessary snow pants. And a lot of birthday parties were organized around a roller skating rink that I thought was called Good Times. I used to love roller skating, nearly as much as ice skating, though I'm only passably talented at either. Now in my memory, those family days and birthday parties often took place at Good Times. But searching PA archives, I can only come up with a place called Wheel-A-While, which strikes absolutely no chords of memory whatsoever. But there was a picture in one news article that looks so familiar that I think it is the place. The mystery persists. Does Good Times exist only in my memory or is it real?
Recently, I've been having a longing for books I read in early to late childhood and have experienced both the desire to reclaim them again, and the fear that they won't be the same as they are in my memory. One of the earliest stories that hooked me on mysteries was Peggy Parish's Key to the Treasure, but now of course, I'll read it with an eye to how it interprets and represents native American culture and history. I once read an extremely creepy story called The Tibetan Box, but I can't recall the author's name--I only remember the nightmares, and the desire to be scared like that again. Why? What was in the box? I can't remember! And then there was a story about a dollhouse that came to life and the characters who lived inside it. I could never get the story quite right in my memory, but after a gap of decades (!) I remembered the author was Andre Norton and the story (book?) was called The Octagon House. Wrong. It was actually Octagon Magic. I've tracked several of my old favourites down through Abe Books, and I'm about to find out whether childhood is better left alone. Wish me luck!
I spent a cold couple of weeks in Toronto, hearing news about how cold it was in other parts of the country and around the world. The famous frozen bubble experiment was conducted in the prairie province I grew up in - Saskatchewan. I was once accustomed to bracing prairie winters, but the mildness of the Colorado winter has eroded my ability to face those once-familiar temperatures without complaint. I swallow my complaints as I think about winter coming to the refugee camps I wrote about in A Dangerous Crossing: Souda, Moria, Kara Tepe. The UNHCR stretched to the limit as it attempts to winterize tents and inadequate shelters, tents catching fire from camp stoves used for heat. And families waiting in the cold for a future that promises only uncertainty and greater suffering. And as Esa and Rachel discover on the Greek islands, the welcome that waits for refugees around the world is as cold and brutal as the winter. That's the story I tell in A Dangerous Crossing.
Image is of Petra camp at the foot of Mt. Olympus, taken by Paul Carr in 2016.
UNHCR efforts in Greece
I was a teenage fan of the band U2, and this was the first U2 song I fell in love with, but certainly not the last. I remember the New Year's Day video, the cold, blunt, wintry landscape, and I lived in the Ravenscroft house where the nearby park suggested something similar. I had teenage angst to spare and even then was more likely to look back than forward. I think this comes of having moved so much. You're always looking back at the place you left, as a means of settling into the place you've now arrived at. I lived in the Ravenscroft house longer than I've ever lived anywhere and many of my happiest memories are memories of growing up in that house with my three siblings. A tv show called The New Music had just launched and U2 was all the rage, and New Year's Day had that wonderful solidly pinging piano that felt like it was knocking against your head and your heart at the same time. Without having the slightest idea what that song was about, it became about my own life. I associate it even now with a time and a set of circumstances I can never get back. Instead of resolutions and vaulting ambitions for myself, New Year's Day -- the song and the time -- always makes me think of the Ravenscroft house. And the view from my sister's window looking out at the snow all the way down to the neighbourhood creek. It's something that Esa might have felt in the silent snowbound vastness of Algonquin Park in The Language of Secrets. I try to make myself -- and Esa -- turn the page, move on, accept the forward motion of life. But I love the intangible, bittersweet happiness that New Year's Day recalls. And sometimes, there's a quiet grace in looking back.