Book Event: Back to (Writing) School with Author Ian Williams

Last night at the Barley Mill Pub in Eau Claire, I had the pleasure of attending another successful and educational Writers Guild of Alberta event. Recently named University of Calgary writer-in-residence Ian Williams gave a thought-provoking yet still entertaining presentation on writing. Although I don’t consider myself a formal writer,  he still gave me some useful tips, and I’ve decided to start calling myself a ‘creative non-fiction’ writer rather than a blogger, as this sounds much fancier.

Ian Williams, speaking to a rapt crowd at the Barley Mill last night

Ian Williams, speaking to a rapt crowd at the Barley Mill last night

When the event began, Williams announced that his talk would be focused more on us, the audience, rather than himself. He wanted us to leave the event learning a bit more about our own writing styles, which in all my years of attending literary events, came across as a rather creative approach. Understandably, we were all a bit hesitant when he said this, as most writers don’t like the limelight, and horrific images of people standing up and discussing their books-in-progress danced through my head. However, quite the opposite happened, and I believe the objective of the evening was reached. What revelations did I have?  I realized that I don’t take my writing as seriously as any poet, and my particular ‘style’ of writing includes getting a bunch of crap down on the page, and editing it all afterwards. So, very useful soul-searching was done on my part.

Williams also encouraged us to challenge ourselves: if you’re the type of person who does all their writing in the morning, try writing at night! If you’re the kind of person who only writes fiction, try writing non-fiction and see where that gets you. I’m about to embark on an online writing course, so I hope to take advantage of this advice and try out my very rusty fiction-writing skills to see if this improves overall communications. Williams also emphasized the fact that writing a bunch of stuff that never sees the light of day is a good exercise, which is a difficult pill to swallow for multi-taskers like myself (“what a waste of time” I thought in my head) but I do see his point.

Who says writing workshops have to include the same, old boring advice? And isn’t it better to take in these words of wisdom while in a pub, sipping a glass of beer and munching on some yam fries? I thought so too, so stay tuned for the next WGA event, you won’t want to miss it.

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My Favourite Kids Books

My Dad is coming to visit me here in a few weeks, which always makes me a bit nostalgic for my childhood. Living far apart from my family is hard, so when I have people come to visit, it inevitably brings back memories that I’d forgotten since I moved away from home. Other than relying on family taking pity on me and flying out here to visit, I can also use my childhood books as a way to connect with my past. When you become an avid reader like myself, there’s a good chance that you devoured a ton of books when you were a kid, and I’m no different. Below are a few of my favourite kids books.

The Balloon Tree by Phoebe Gilman is a beautiful book. It’s got a nice (short) story and the pictures are stunning. You may also remember the “Jillian Jiggs” books that featured cute little pigs-this is the same author. And get this: Gilman was not only the author, but the illustrator as well. This author is what people in the publishing industry call a GOLDMINE.I suspect one of the main reasons I liked this book so much as a kid was because it featured a balloon tree that was rainbow, and I had a particularly love of rainbows from the age of 5-13, as I’m sure many young girls did. My friends can attest to this.

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Another favourite book of mine was The Jolly Postman series, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. There were three books in this series, and they were amazing because each page was its own little envelope that held a letter or small package that the postman was delivering. The Jolly Christmas Postman was great because some of the envelopes contained little puzzles or games that you could play with. Never underestimate the power of an interactive book, it clearly did wonders for my childhood imagination, and is the main reason I’ve saved this book for 25 (plus) years.m is for moose

The last children’s book I wanted to highlight was a very important book to my adulthood-or should I say, the beginnings of it. M is for Moose by Charles Pachter was the first book I worked on as a book publicist. Because it was wildly successful, I was thrown into a world I knew nothing about, but immediately loved. A world of television shoots, radio shows, cold-calling producers and pitching to crotchety book reviewers was something I will never forget, and I have Cormorant Books to thank for this trial by fire introduction into the Canadian book publishing industry. Pachter was also a lovely author to work with, and I’ll never forget his generosity and humor. So in closing-the point of this post? Turns out kids books aren’t just for kids!

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Book Review: California by Edan Lepucki

Smokey is checking out California in hardcover

Smokey is checking out California in hardcover

Does anyone else have a sneaking suspicion that the world’s population is headed straight for a major disaster, and every day we get closer to the eventual annihilation of our species? No, I don’t really believe that either, but a lot of people do (a lot of them are living in Montana and having bunkers built on their property, according to my inside sources) so dystopian novels such as California have a ready-made audience just itching to get their hands on another person’s theory of how it’s all going to end.

Edan Lepucki doesn’t get too specific. We know that a lot of people have died, but not everyone, and the standard of living declined slowly, rather than in a great ball of hellfire, sweep of a major storm, etc. She alludes to global warming quite often, which creates insane weather patterns that slowly kill people (starting to sound a bit familiar?) and she also alludes to the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor, which can do just as much damage in first world society.

So, the book focuses on a young couple, Cal and Frieda, who venture off into the woods of California to start a new life on their own, living off the land. The fact that there is so much forest left, and big enough that they go months without seeing other people, leads the reader to assume that large amounts of people have died, or are simply too afraid to leave the cities, which sound quite terrible and dangerous the way they are described.

Anyway, while living their (somewhat crappy) life off the gird, they come across a community of people who have rules about accepting new people into their space, and their inclusion into the village is put to a vote. However, Frieda has just discovered she is pregnant, and with any children being conspicuously absent from this community, Cal and Frieda are too scared to tell the other villagers their secret, so the suspension builds, etc. The community they’ve stumbled upon is no Eden itself, but it’s significantly better than the life they were leaving on their own, and they both crave some company.

The majority of the story takes place in this new community, leading up to this dilemma of the vote, and whether or not to tell people about the pregnancy. My favourite parts of the storyline were the descriptions of their daily life, and how they got along each day on such limited resources. I couldn’t help but imagine what the poor saps in Canada were struggling with-the communities down in California had fairly mild temperatures to deal with, so I assumed that those in Calgary had died off long ago, or migrated south permanently.g133252315370634087

There are a few specific things I like about dystopian novels. The first is learning the reasons of the world’s demise, this is always interesting, and you learn quite a bit about the author’s political leanings just though this one point. But even better than that are the inevitable questions and feelings that these plots raise in the reader. It really makes you imagine your life in a completely different way, and forces you to look at yourself honestly. Would I be strong enough to go on in this new world, or would I have given up once things got hard? Big questions right? I tend to look at these books as a negative fantasy, but when I finish reading one, I usually gain a better appreciation for the life I currently live, and the world I’m lucky enough to be a part of. So, in that sense it is a positive exercise to read a book like California, because you’ll be glad it’s fiction when you put it down.

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CBC Books’ Writers to Watch: the 2014 Edition

I have some observations on the most recent “Writers to Watch” list from CBC Books:

  • Not surprisingly, it is a diverse list in both authors and their publishers. I would expect nothing less from the CBC.
  • I have heard of none of these writers. A few years ago, when I worked in publishing, I’m sure I would have recognized the majority of these names (at the very least, the new face of fiction from Random House) but alas, I glean all my book information from blogs such as these, just like everyone else now so I’m sufficiently out of the loop.
  • None of these books looked particularly interesting to me, but they are all very typically “Canadian”, which the CBC seems hell-bent on reminding us of, every chance they get.
  • I can guarantee you that all of these authors are struggling to make a living from their writing, and will continue to do so, well after their books are released and highly lauded by critics, which most will inevitably be.
  • At least one of these authors will probably find themselves on the Giller longlist this year, but I can guarantee they won’t win it. Yes, I know that without reading any of the books themselves, or even thoroughly reading the blurbs that were included in the article.
  • The book I want to read the most is New Tab by Guillaume Morissette because his headshot includes a picture of him holding a beautiful cat.

    Obviously, this is the best author on the list

    Obviously, this is the best author on the list

To some, my list above may seem like I’ve given up on Canadian book lists, or the CBC. I’ve done neither, I assure you. I listen to the CBC all the time, even when I’m sick of how Canadian it sounds, and I still eagerly click on these book ranking lists, if only to see what I do and do not recognize. I am however slightly jaded when it comes to identifying these ‘hot new writers’. Why are these books supposed to be interesting to us, other than the fact that they’re new, and the CBC says they’re good? I suppose that’s what us book bloggers are for, an unbiased opinion to let book enthusiasts know what’s worthwhile, and what isn’t.

I’d also like to point out that in the comments section of the site, the visible diversity of the authors was also noticed by a fellow reader, so obviously I’m not the only one who is aware of the CBC’s attempt to include as many skin colors as possible on this list. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, in fact they probably have a mandate to do this, it’s just so …Canadian!

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Book Review: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Find me one person that doesn’t like Richard Wagamese’s books. Seriously, that person doesn’t exist. In the can-lit book circles, talking badly about Wagamese’s writing would be sacrilegious. And really, just plain stupid, because he is amazing at what he does. If I was an aspiring writer wanting to read a book that universally praised, I would pick up a book that Wagamese has written, because it is one of those prime examples of a well-written story. And it’s not one of those books that everyone says is great, and then you pick it up and don’t like it, but are too embarrassed to tell others that you don’t like it because you’re worried you just didn’t understand it. You will understand his books, and you will read a particular sentence that is so powerful that it will force you to look up from the page and stare at the wall for a few moments because it was so affecting. Richard-Wagamese

I had the pleasure of meeting Wagamese a few years ago when his last book came out: Indian Horse. He read a portion of his book for a Freedom to Read Week event, and for the few people in the room that didn’t have tears running down their cheeks, the remainder sat awestruck in their seats, too stunned to look at anything in particular. It was one of those moments that I felt lucky to have experienced, and after suffering through many terrible readings in my life, this one confirmed for me why I bothered even attending them anymore; because every once in awhile, you’ll come across a gem like this, which makes it all worthwhile. This is why the arts are so important to people, why the telling of stories is so important to every culture-because it brings us together, even when we least expect it.

Medicine Walk is a focus on stories as well. It’s about a 16 year old boy, forced into manhood early as he was raised in a foster home, on a farm. His biological father Eldon contacts him throughout his childhood, however the few times they do see each other typically end in disaster because Eldon is an alcoholic, and cannot keep his promises to his son Franklin. When Eldon summons his son to him for the last time, it is a request to take him deep into the bush, and bury him like a warrior (sitting up) as his death draws near from liver failure. As they travel through the wilderness together, Eldon tells Franklin the story of his own life, and eventually the story of Franklin’s mother. index

So, not exactly a light read. Wagamese’s books are always pretty heavy, but based on his childhood experiences (getting taken away by Children’s Aid and moving through foster homes), it’s not surprising that serious topics are something he prefers to write about. However, the healing balm of nature is also a common theme in a lot of his work, and like many of us, he turns to the outdoors for solace and comfort. That’s another wonderful aspect to this book-the beautiful descriptions of the mountainside the two characters travel.

Writing that will move you, descriptions that will paint a vivid picture, and character descriptions that will leave you haunted and wanting more-those are just a few  reasons to pick up this book, but don’t take my word for it-buy it and find out for yourself.

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Book Review: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun

Books, cats and murder mysteries: three things that I love, all wrapped up into one. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun was practically written for me! Other than the fact that it was written back in 1966 of course, a bit before my time. I had never heard of this particular series before (probably because of its age), but when I picked up the book at the Calgary Reads book sale, I realized that this bestselling series was meant for me.

This is a Smokey and Pearl approved book

This is a Smokey and Pearl approved book

This series is from a favourite genre of mine, called ‘the cozy mystery’. Nothing is too gruesome in this story, and an intelligent Siamese cat named ‘Koko” is helping a journalist solve the mystery, so there’s a sense of lightness that is woven throughout.

Something that I found funny, that certainly wasn’t meant to be at the time of the book’s release 50 odd years ago, are all the aspects of the 60s that we no longer think of, or take for granted in 2014. For instance, when the protagonist Qwuilleran is interviewing a welder in her studio she brushes off a pile of asbestos on a bench so they can sit down together. Asbestos????? Yikes.

Or the time when a group of men are eating at a restaurant and one of them makes sure to compliment the waitress on the narrowness of her waist, as if he is being a gentleman by mentioning this to her, and it would be rude not to. My favourite was probably the time when one man borrowed another man’s plane ticket to hop on the flight-didn’t matter that he had a different name and bore no resemblance to the person whose name was on the ticket! Could you imagine? These things made me laugh out loud, similar to the way Mad Men makes a point of showing the ridiculousness of things in the 50s compared to today. The clip below is a perfect example of this.

It’s a short book, and when I picked it up, it was obvious that it was a well-loved paperback, the pages yellowed and curled at the edges. In fact, this book is one I’m considering keeping for my collection, simply because I fancy the idea of acquiring each book in the series. I can already tell I’ll like them all, and like my delight at discovering a new television series on Netflix, I’m already itching to read the next one.

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Book Review: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor

Barbara J. Taylor has done an extremely good job with this book. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was a dark, but enjoyable book to read, and I will be shocked if she isn’t nominated for some kind of award for her efforts.

Although I can’t speak for the American book scene, I know Canadian book critics and prize judges would go crazy over this.  The story contains all the necessary themes that any award-winning Canadian book should contain, including famous historical moments, family tragedy, folklore, and of course a snowstorm. In fact, I’m curious whether Taylor has been reading a lot of Canadian historical fiction lately, because quite honestly this book has Canadian prizewinner written all over it.

Anyway, I digress. At the heart of the book is a family tragedy of two young daughters, one who dies in a terrible accident involving fireworks, with the other, younger daughter being blamed for it. Although people don’t come out and say it to the little girl (Violet), people suspect she was jealous of her older sister Daisy and threw the sparkler at her, which caused severe burns and her eventual death three days later.

Some of you may recognize the town of Scranton, as it is also the famous setting for the television show The Office

Some of you may recognize the town of Scranton, as it is also the famous setting for the television show The Office

The very thorough and helpful press kit that came with the book informed me that this fictional story was based on the real life occurrence of this firework accident, which happened to a family member of the author a few generations ago. I’m not sure why, but this makes the book more interesting to me to know this. Additionally, the climax of the book takes place when a famous baseball player turned Evangelist Billy Sunday comes to town on the night of a huge snowstorm, which also happened in real life. These two situations act as anchors for the plot line of the story, which helped give the narrative a nice shape, so as you continued reading the excitement was still building. Too many times, authors make the mistake of including the big  tragedy at the beginning of the book, and then spend the rest of their story describing the fallout. Every once in awhile this works, although it takes a skilled writer to pull this off. Taylor doesn’t put herself in that difficult position because she includes enough plot twists and conflicts along the way to keep the pages turning.

Another tool that Taylor uses to deepen the plot are the intermittent chapters told from the church ladies’ perspectives. You never know who is actually speaking, but you get the sense that these very short interludes are written on behalf of all the gossipy, church-going women of the town, who count a few particularly difficult women as their leaders. So, although this particular group’s opinions are biased and snippy, these chapters help to paint the overall setting for the reader, and makes the small town of Scranton, Pennsylvania really come alive for the duration of the novel. Prize-winner or not, this book is worth the read!

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Book Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I seem to be on a roll these days with novels focusing on depressed siblings. Although that may seem like a bad thing to some people, I’ve been really happy with my book choices lately. Yes, this isn’t the most conducive kind of story to summertime funtime reading (these books are the antithesis to beach reads), but I’ve been quite impressed with my most recent picks. I’ve continued this winning streak with All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

As I mentioned above, it has a sad premise-two sisters who are extremely close: Yoli, a mother of two children with two different men and a struggling career, and Elf, a famous pianist with a doctor husband and lots of money. No, that’s not the sad part-Elf is clinically depressed, and has made multiple, unsuccessful suicide attempts, and basically just wants to die in peace (that’s the sad part). Coming from a Mennonite family that has suicide in its immediate history,  Elf’s depression is not surprising to anyone else in the family, but is of course, just as devastating.

I picked a photo of Toews where she looks 'extra' Canadian

I picked a photo of Toews where she looks ‘extra’ Canadian

So why did I like this book so much? Toews (pronounced ‘Tayves’) is such a good writer, she could be describing the most boring thing on earth and I would still love to read it. She has a way of spinning humor into the darkest moments of her books, but not in a disingenuous way, it always seems fitting for the situation. She’s also a can-lit star, winning numerous awards, and always at the top of reader’s choice lists, so it’s not just me that feels this way. index

Her characters are another thing that I loved about this book-more specifically, the mother of the clan, named “Lottie”. She was by far the most interesting and multi-dimensional person that appears in this plot. And for 3/4 of the book, she plays a supporting role, not appearing much unless it was one of Yoli’s flashbacks to childhood. However in a unique turn, she becomes almost a central character towards the last few chapters of the story, breathing new life into her family, but more importantly, the story.

I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll stop there in my gushing, but for those of you who want to get to know Canadian literature a bit better (and it doesn’t have to painful!), please pick up a copy of this book so you get to experience some of the best our country has to offer.

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Book Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Are you an empathetic person? I like to think I am, but I know that when it comes to particular situations or people, I’m ashamed to say I pick and choose who I feel sorry for. For example, what do you think to yourself when you’re stuck beside an obese person on a flight? Do you resent having to sit next to them, and do you believe that he or she should have been forced to purchase two seats instead of one? It’s hard to admit these things to myself (let alone confess to them on my blog) but I’d challenge others to claim they haven’t done or thought similar things when they see someone who is hundreds of pounds overweight about to climb into the airline seat next to them.index1

‘Where is this bare-all confessional going?’ you’re probably thinking to yourself. Well, now that I’ve read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, I’ve realized that her book has made me a more sympathetic human being. Yes, not only was this book an interesting and enlightening read, I truly believe it made me a better person. So, obviously the $30 I spent on this hardcover was totally worth it.

The plot centers around a middle-aged woman named Pandora who has stumbled into creating her own successful business without really intending to, forever embarrassed by the modest wealth it has amassed her over the past few years. Her washed-up TV star of a father has given her an intense need to demonstrate her humility as he never had, and her older brother Edison has fallen upon some hard times so he comes to stay with Pandora’s family for a few months in Iowa to get back on his feet. However, when Pandora picks Edison up from the airport, he is 300 pounds larger than when she last saw him. Once she realizes that he has nothing to return to (job, home, friends), she decides to set him up in an apartment two blocks from her family’s home, and supply him with a diet and rules in order to help him lose the weight. Most importantly, she moves out of her family’s home and into this apartment with her brother (much to the disappointment and anger of her husband), because she believes this is the only way he will actually stick to the plan and diet. She too wants to lose 20 or 30 pounds, so she begins dieting with him.

I know that the plot summary above sounds like it could come from a Terry Fallis novel- a humorous kind of narrative could easily come about from something like this. And really, much of this book is funny, especially when the family dialogue comes out, which always make for a good laugh, in and outside the pages of a book. However, Shriver deftly throws in a heart-wrenching twist towards the end of the book that literally puts everything into perspective for you the reader, but for the narrator as well. While you come to your own realizations as you turn the pages, it seems as though the author is right along side you, which is what makes this book so brilliant.

The amazing Lionel Shriver! And yes, she's a woman.

The amazing Lionel Shriver! And yes, she’s a woman.

I won’t go into detail about how exactly this book has changed my perspective on people who struggle with weight issues, but it has taught me to look deeper than people’s appearances to really identify and acknowledge that they are in fact struggling.  I don’t want to be the kind of person that ranks people’s struggles on a scale-a struggle is a struggle, and reading Big Brother made this crystal clear to me.

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Book Review: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Have you seen the movie Shutter Island starring Leonardo DiCaprio? If you haven’t yet, read the Shutter Island book first. It was originally published in 2003 by Dennis Lehane, and made into a movie not long ago, 2010 actually. I personally haven’t seen the movie either, but after reading the book I’ve decided I HAVE to see the movie adaptation.index

Why was the book so good? Many people will already be familiar with Lehane’s work, he’s a famous thriller/crime novelist, so to start off the book is really well written. Not only that, but the plot is fantastic, with lots of twists that you never see coming, which always makes great for a screenplay as well. The copy of the book that I read was a lent to me by a colleague of mine, so it was an older, well-loved paperback from a while back; a nice change from the brand new books I typically get! Anyway, as mass market paperbacks typically do, it had quotes and blurbs from press reviews all over the cover, and a few of them described the book as ‘cinematic’, meaning the descriptions of the scenery and characters are so vivid that readers can easily imagine these scenes in their mind. Of course these were just predictions at the time, but the book was good enough for Martin Scorsese to take notice, as he was the eventual director of the film.

For those of you who like ‘spooky’ summer time reads, this book is definitely for you, so make some time for some ‘oldies but goodies’ on your shelf, and then clear away an afternoon to watch the movie when you’re done the book.

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