Saturday, January 29, 2011

a review of The Angira Legacy and the Catalyst, a new book by Ottawa author Kevin Dooley


a review of Keven Dooley's novels, The Angira Legacy and the Catalyst.

by Ruth Latta

Too often, the public assumes that older writers cannot draw upon their imaginations, but can write memoirs only. That stereotype is dispelled by Ottawa author Kevin Dooley's latest work of fiction. The Irish-born author, formerly a machinist and marine engineer, has just published The Angira Legacy and The Catalyst (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, $22.95, ISBN 978-1-926596-80-8) These novellas, published in one book, are the last two parts of his Angira Trilogy. These are works of speculative fiction reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code in that they show international machinations affecting the lives of ordinary individuals.

Dooley's first work of fiction was By the Hob (2005). The Other Man (2007), the first book in the Angira Trilogy, centred on two main characters. Colm Dunne, a returned soldier in rehabilitation for a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, attends a military dinner and notices a picture on the wall of a man who looks like him. This man was Marteen Reade, an Irish-Canadian veteran of North American frontier wars, the Boer War, and the First World War. The manuscript Reade left behind recounted his experiences and his knowledge of the larger elements at the root of these wars.

Many of us watch the news and speculate as to which countries and economic systems will rise to world power. In The Angira Legacy, Dooley depicts a future world in which the United States of America has lost its supremacy. The ascendant power is the USE, the "United States of Europe", a political as well as economic union in which the former imperial power, "Britannia", plays a key role. "Kanata", a northern country in North America acts as go-between with regard to the USA and the USE. The USE needs a new safe banking haven and a secret military base/strategic centre.

As The Angira Legacy begins, a Montrealer, Patrick McKee, newly back from the Caribbean, inherits a legacy from his great grandmother on the completion of his Ph.D. in Psychology, specializing in post traumatic stress disorder. The late Rosaleen McKee, a business woman who came of age during the Great War, left a letter asking the descendant who fulfilled the terms of her will to erect a memorial to her and to Patrick and Marteen Reade on Angira, an island off the coast of "Hibernia."

Angira, rich in mineral resources, has underground tunnels. Most of its inhabitants adhere to a woman-centred secret earth religion. Its distinctive culture and gene pool have earned it the status of a world heritage site. In a novel full of troubled, driven, duplicitous characters, the people who are easiest to warm to are the inhabitants of Angira. But a fabulously wealthy man from "Britannia", who travels around in his own ship with secret rooms, is bent on getting Angira's heritage status removed and using the island for his own purposes.

Colm Dunne, drawn to "Hibernia" in the hope of reuniting with his wife and children, unites with Patrick McKee and others in the struggle to control Angira's future. In the process he learns the connection between Marteen Reade and himself. Early on, readers may think that McKee was in the Caribbean for a holiday, and that Reuben, whom he met there, is just a friend, but it is not that simple.

The Catalyst, the third part of this futuristic volume, is a first person narrative which flows well. A ship's purser working for a "Britannia" based shipping line takes us to South Africa during the apartheid era and eventually links with the Angira plot.

Kevin Dooley's biography should inspire budding writers of any age. His formal education ended at age 15. His career as a marine engineer, while it took him all over the world and provided him with a wealth of experience, was nevertheless technical in nature, quite different from the craft of writing. Dooley's personal story shows that extensive reading, a gift for language, and determination can produce a writer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ice Block - a poem

by Ruth Latta

This week's the coldest that we've had so far.
The chill seeps in past doors and windowsills
and knots my muscles, keeps us where we are,
curled up in heavy clothes against the chills.

The brilliant days turn sunset; then comes dark
and evening brings the question, "What got done?"
The basics, only. Each electric spark
was static, did not fuel creative fun.

A waste of life, these hibernation days!
Where are the calories to push my pen?
My mind's suspended, in exhaust-fume haze.
I ought to write, for, if not now, then when?

This creaking engine takes a while to warm,
but when it does, some crystal thoughts may form.

(c) Ruth Latta, January 2011

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Encouraging Feedback about Winter Moon

It's always a pleasant surprise to receive positive feedback about one's writing. Two people had encouraging things to say about Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, $18.95

A member of a round robin writers' group to which I belong wrote me the following email:
With all the preparations for Christmas I didn't have time to look at your book, but this week I finally was able to pick it up. I certainly did enjoy every story. You have such a good variety of story lines. They are down to earth but they make one think. I marvel at writers who come up with so many good story ideas."

And a cousin wrote: "I really liked "Snake in the House" (one of the stories in Winter Moon) I have been reading R [husband] stories at bedtime and have only about five stories left to read."

I also received some other good news. My short story, "Momma Tried" will appear in the January 19th issue of The Wrap, published by the Ottawa Citizen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit

During the holidays, Roger and I went to see the Coen brothers' version of True Grit, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Having read the novel (1968) by Charles Portis some years ago, I am reading it again.

We were glued to the screen throughout the entire movie.

I was impressed by Portis's evocation of a bygone time by means of language use, allusions and presentation of social customs. Like Portis, the Coen brothers are grittily realistic in showing a violent culture in which life is cheap. Presenting the story through fourteen year old Mattie Ross allows irony. Mattie takes for granted such facts of life as public hangings and dead bodies. At the same time, she is a typical fourteen year old, a mixture of childish notions (comparing the hunt for an outlaw to a raccoon hunt) and adult behaviour, as when she bargains with a horse trader.

Some reviewers, admiring this extraordinary character played to perfection by Hailee Steinfeld, have compared Mattie to that other famous child-protagonist in American fiction, Huck Finn. But Mattie is not a social rebel. She doesn't aspire to "light out for the territory" in search of freedom; instead, she wants someone to go with her there to pursue her father's murderer and bring him to justice. Mattie's ideal is a peaceful, orderly, well-governed society.

Watching the fourteen year old protagonist portrayed on the screen, I tried to remember myself at that age. I was as bossy and sharp-tongued as Mattie, but not as persistent. Also, I was timid, and a bundle of emotions. Mattie is very self-controlled. She sheds no tears on viewing her father's body; the only time she cries is when her horse, Little Blackie, has to be shot. Her lack of emotional display may be explained by her religion or the stoicism of the era (compared to ours).

Some commentators say that the character of Mattie is unrealistically drawn; that no young person could bargain so tenaciously, be so frugal and so determined to get value for money. One must put her behaviour in context. The novel is set during the administration of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, first elected in 1877, a period of rapid industrial expansion and a big gap between rich and poor. Mattie would have been born during the Civil War (1861-5) and would have grown up in the defeated South. Although her father owned a lot of acreage, his fortunes would have declined dramatically with the defeat of the Confederacy. This was a pre-"social-safety-net" society. Money was important.

Mattie's family configuration suggests reasons for her extraordinary toughness and high self-esteem. Her brother and sister are much younger than she is. In an era where women often had a new baby every eighteen months, a family of only three children, with wide age gaps, suggests ill-health, malnutrition and infant mortality. Mattie was probably the apple of her father's eye because for a while she would have been the only child. Her mother, Mattie says, could hardly spell "cat", and had no skill with figures, so it must have been her father who educated her and made her his "little book-keeper". Her resolve in pursuing justice on her father's behalf (or seeking revenge for his murder) must have come from having been treated with kindness and respect.

In this movie, Mattie is the character with true grit. The two principal male characters are eccentric and funny, but look like risky companions for her quest. Marshall Cogburn is out of shape and drinks. On the trail, he tells Mattie that he had a wife once but that she went back to her first husband, taking his boy with her. "He didn't like me anyhow," he says - and we realize he means his son! "I guess I did speak awful rough to him but I didn't mean anything by it." The Texas ranger, LaBoeuf, initially comes across as a dandy, a braggart and a bully. He has been on Chaney's trail to catch him for crimes in Texas, but has missed two opportunities to apprehend him.

We readers/viewers are familiar with the "hero's journey" plot in which the protagonists are changed for the better by the challenges they encounter on their quest. In this story, both men redeem themselves. At first there seems a big discepancy between LaBoeuf's claims and his actual achievements, but the Ranger subsequently proves himself in crises. Cogburn behaved heroically.

Usually in "hero's journey" scripts, the change is positive; the main characters blossom into their best selves. Accordingly, we readers/viewers find the change in Mattie a surprise, to say the least. Several commentators have criticized the Coens for giving the movie a "sad ending". In fact, the movie ends more or less the way the novel does. In gaining her objective, Mattie pays a serious price. When the older Mattie (the narrator of the novel) appears at the end of the film, she is not quite how we would have expected her to turn out.

To me, the ending is realistic and even positive. So as not to spoil the plot, I'll tell you what DOESN'T happen to Mattie.

1) She doesn't die in childbirth like so many women in the 19th century.
2) She doesn't live in poverty in her old age.
3) She doesn't end up dependent on one of the wild, self-destructive men in the film.
4) She doesn't forget those who helped her.

As the movie faded out and the credits came on, I was transfixed by the voice of country singer Iris Dement singing a hymn written in the 19th century: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." My mother used to sing it. Its lyrics are hopeful and confident.