2014 Christmas card

And here’s what Colour by Design did with my artwork, transforming it into an actual Christmas card. They’re pretty wonderful: I dropped off the artwork yesterday for scanning and will have the cards and envelopes today. Nice!

fox christmas card 2014


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This Year’s Christmas Card

I always do my own Christmas cards and I’ve been hankering to do a fox for a while now. Acrylic on board, 8″ x 10.”


Fox Christmas card

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The First Pass

The first pass doesn’t refer to being hit on, or what you might find if you’re travelling through a canyon. It’s the name publishers give to a manuscript that’s been line- edited, copy-edited, and formatted to look like the pages of the book it  soon will become.

It’s called “the first pass” because it’s sent to the author to review for any changes or corrections.

At the first pass stage, despite all those edits, we often find errors: that’s the point. Even after extensive reading and re-reading, there are always a few typos, plot holes, repetitions and other things we missed in the first round. I know there will be one thing to change for sure: I have a character in an important chapter taking to his feet on one page and then slumping in his chair in the next. I didn’t catch it when we were doing edits; I was flipping through the manuscript later and realized I’d missed it.

The first pass is where I can fix that kind of thing: it’s not too late.

Often there will be formatting errors in the first pass because it’s been formatted into chapters. Sometimes there are paragraphs that aren’t indented or line breaks in the wrong place. At this stage, it’s relatively easy to make changes. I simply mark up my copy and send it back to the publisher who takes care of it. Once we get to the next stage, the galleys, those kinds of changes get  harder to make.

The first pass for Hungry Ghosts should be here sometime on Monday for my review and input. This part is always exciting: to see the book actually taking shape!

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Duck decoys and my other art

I had a reader contact me on this blog this week and say she had run across a  duck decoy with my name on it and wondered if I’d made it. She writes: “Has your creative side extended to artwork? I recently came across a beautiful carved teal duck decoy dated 1991 and signed Peggy J. Blair and wondering if it is your work. If so, anything you could share about this aspect of your talent would be appreciated!”

I don’t remember which decoy that might have been (I made about 30 and gave them all away) but yes, that’s one of mine. I started carving in 1990 when I was unemployed: I’d arrived in Ontario in 1990 as a young lawyer from Alberta and had to wait a year to get my call to the Ontario Bar, so I had lots of time with nothing to do.  (I wrote The Beggar’s Opera when I was between jobs too — I guess being bored and unemployed tends to kickstart my creativity!)

Here are two of the carvings I kept:

duck decoy 2
duck decoy 1

I gave up carving after a year or two as  I found the sawdust really bothered my allergies . Once I stopped carving, I didn’t do anything remotely artistic until I took an evening art class at Algonquin College a few years ago and discovered I liked to paint.

This is a recent painting I did of Scout (completed just last week) on canvas.  It’s actually got a lot of lilac tones in it that don’t show up in these photographs and the paint is layered on pretty thick. It’s about 3′ x 4′ and took about ten hours to finish (each decoy was a full week, so I like the speed of painting more than carving as well).  It will migrate to the cottage next spring.

scout painting 1 scout painting 2

I also do the artwork for note cards that I send to clients. (These were both quick sketches of Phoebe; done with a fine tip felt pen and then washed with water so the ink runs.)

card 1 cat sleeping card 2 cat sitting

And I also do my own Christmas cards every year.

christmas card 2011Here’s a couple of examples. The painting of the winter hare, below left, was also auctioned at the office to raise funds for my book launch last year.  It’s  acrylic on board,  8″ x 10.” I had originally painted it with very thick layers of paint, but it just wasn’t working. When I went to rinse the paint off — magic! It ended up having a very ethereal quality and sold for around $350.

Christmas rabbitI usually do landscapes rather than animals as I do most of my painting when I’m at the lake (that’s also where I do most of my writing).

Anyway, Kate, thanks for asking! (If you want to see some of my other work, check out this link from my archives.)

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Hungry Ghosts – available for pre-order!

The third Inspector Ramirez book (and in my opinion, the best of the three: my editor says it’s much “richer” ) is being published by Simon and Schuster Canada on June 2, 2015 and I’m delighted to say it’s available for pre-orders on Kindle!


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Terrorist or mentally ill? Does it matter?

Ottawa, my home town, was traumatized this week when a shooter cold-bloodedly murdered an unarmed sentry at the War Memorial in our downtown core. With all due respect to British comic, Russell Brand, who immediately began parsing words like “terror” and “cold-blooded,”  a shooter who creeps up on a man and shoots in him in the back is a cold-blooded killer. I don’t think that can be, or should be, the subject of debate.

What can be discussed, debated and parsed, however, is whether the shooter, Michael Zahef-Bibeau,  was  mentally ill or an “ISIS-inspired terrorist,” as the police, government and media have reported, or both, and whether it makes a difference.

The RCMP at first told us that Bibeau’s mother said he planned to go to Syria. They inferred from that that he planned to  join ISIS. She denied that report, and says it was Saudi Arabia, where he wanted to study Islam and the Koran. RCMP has now acknowledged they made a mistake when listening to her interview tape.

The mother thinks her son  was mentally ill, and that he was frustrated after being denied a passport to go to Libya, although he was a dual citizen. Those who knew him say his behavior was bizarre; he was difficult to be around; he was argumentative and didn’t fit in. He once asked to be jailed so he could get over his crack addiction and when the police refused, he robbed a fast food outlet with a pointed stick and then waited for the police to come and get him.

People with mental illness can be violent, and when they are, there’s no doubt it’s  terrifying. A man hears demons urging him to kill someone and beheads his fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus.  Another young man with a troubled history dismembers his former lover and mails his body parts to the Prime Ministers Office and the Liberal Party of Canada. A young man dressed in camouflage hunts down and kills three Mounties in Moncton. In each case, the public was frightened and traumatized, but we understood these were crimes, not terrorist acts.

The Bibeau shooting is not so clear. It came two days after another murder: two soldiers were run over, one killed, by another Islamic convert who seems to have been equally disturbed. That too has been described as ISIS-inspired.

That said,  there is a big difference between travelling to Syria to fight with ISIS and going to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran. If the only link between Bibeau and ISIS left that we know of is an email address found on a hard drive of an ISIS terrorist, even RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledges that’s a pretty weak connection.  (We have been provided almost no information about its contents. Was it an email address only or was there an email? If the latter, what did it say? Who emailed who? Who’s the  terrorist?)

Bibeau was found fit to stand trial in Vancouver a few years ago; some people will look to that and say that means he wasn’t crazy. But that’s of little help. So long as someone is capable of instructing counsel, we say they’re fit for trial.

And as for insanity, the test is only this: do they know right from wrong? If so,  they’re not legally insane. And so in one of the early cases I studied as a  law student, a man who believed God had told him to kill his neighbor — who in fact argued with God that doing so would be morally wrong — finally killed his neighbor after God impressed upon him that God’s will should prevail. Charged with murder, he was found fit to stand trial and he was convicted. He wasn’t legally  insane, because he could appreciate the difference between right and wrong

The more I hear about Bibeau, the more I think he was unhinged. He acted alone; that much  seems certain.  Converting to Islam is not a crime. While the police claim he was “self-radicalized,” I’m not convinced that the evidence so far can take us that far. An attack on Parliament and the War Memorial may appear to establish radical intent, but we have to remember, crazy people often go after public symbols.

John Hinckley, Jr. shot the President of the United States because he wanted to get Jodi Foster’s attention. The fact that he went after the man who symbolized US power didn’t make it a terrorist act. And that’s what makes this so difficult and why we need to be measured in our responses.

Does it matter whether Bibeau was mentally ill or whether it was a terrorist act? Of course it does, because the government has to decide how to prevent a similar occurrence. Beefing up security on the Hill makes sense and is long overdue. But another response at the moment is to talk about new laws that will allow people who condone ISIS to be charged.

I’m not sure that’s the solution or even how it could stand up constitutionally, given the right to freedom of expression. Quite apart from that, it seems to me that the soldiers memorialized at the Cenotaph fought and died for rights like that one: it’s what we mean by a free and democratic society. W-5 aired a show  last night that gave some context to ISIS, including an interview with a CSIS operative who spoke compellingly and sympathetically of how young Islamic men can be radicalized, and how they see ISIS as providing their lives a greater purpose. Would new laws mean that shows like that would be considered “condoning” ISIS and lead to charges?

Here’s what troubles me about these two incidents: that the two men engaged in them were both denied passports. Mentally ill or not, it seems to me that if we think someone is too dangerous to travel to another country for any reason,  then they might just be too dangerous to let them roam freely around Canada either.

“We don’t want to export terrorists to other countries where they might carry out terrorist acts,” was Commissioner Paulson’s explanation. I agree with his rationale, but I think we’re entitled to the same protection.



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Writing by committee …

The problem with using external readers is that they often provide conflicting advice. I’ve sent my historical fiction manuscript (ms), Famine Bay, to several. Some liked the plot device; others didn’t. One suggested I rewrite the entire manuscript to change the point of view; that ain’t going to happen.  I had readers who suggested I put in more backstory about the main characters, and after I did, other readers who suggested I take it out.

That’s when the process gets frustrating.

I remember doing that to The Beggar’s Opera — revising it to meet the whim of every agent who gave me feedback, only to have them all pass on the book anyway. Seventy revisions later, when I did get an agent, he suggested undoing some of the things I’d done at the suggestion of other agents.

So …. rather than try to sort this out on my own, I’ve passed the ms along to Alexander Schultz, a freelance editor, for feedback. Alex has worked on three of my books for Penguin Canada and Simon and Schuster Canada. He knows where and when to push me and also knows that I prefer to be told how to “improve” something that isn’t working rather than “remove” it. I think he’ll be worth every penny


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A Literary Analysis of The Beggar’s Opera …

A Belgian graduate student, Alexandra Sanchez, wrote a very interesting article recently in which she  compared the world view expressed in The Beggar’s Opera  to that of Leon Padura in his mystery novel Pasado Perfecto.

It’s a very compelling analysis. Distilled to its essence, she concludes that my perceptions of Cuba (its poverty, and communism) as an outsider reflect an inherent Western supremacy and  that Paduro, a native Cuban, doesn’t really mention these things: they’re a given. Overall, she finds his work more sympathetic to Castro and communism.

I think an outsider writing about another culture will flag things that strike them as inconsistent with their own world view and therefore of interest. So I agree with her: I mention all kinds of things, including the history of the island, that Paduro doesn’t.

But if you read the second book in the series, The Poisoned Pawn, I’m pretty critical of western institutions too (this is a theme that gets further developed in Hungry Ghosts and Umbrella Man, yet to be published). I think that’s a result of my human rights background, which may in itself make the reviewer’s point.

Anyway, here’s a link to the Google translation of the article, Poetics and Politics and the so-called Ethnic Detective.  (I wish I read Dutch, but one of my readers, who is Dutch, says it’s impeccably written). If you do read Dutch, you’ll likely find the original article of interest: here’s the link.

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