Monday, April 23, 2018

Review: Land Mammals and Sea Creatures by Jen Neale

I really, really wanted to like this book. The opening scene of the whale beaching hooked me immediately. The description of it was gorgeous and spine-tingling.

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures is set in a small town on an island on the west coast of Canada. It follows Julie, who has just returned to town to take care of her mentally ill father, a veteran who suffers from PTSD. Things really start getting strange, though, when a whale ends up on the shore, a stranger comes to town, and animals start dying everywhere.

The description of animal life coming and going is by far the strength of this book. The uncanny deaths of various animals occur throughout, and the way that Neale is able to portray these gruesome scenes in vivid detail is amazing.

However, I just wasn’t in the right head space for the kind of message this book was trying to get across – it was just too sad and frankly, disgusting, for me to really enjoy. I realize that is the point and if you aren’t quite as sensitive a reader as me you might be awed by how Neale writes a perfect picture of a decaying town infested with the smell of whale rot, and then uses these natural pictures to attempt to say something about grief. For me, at the time I read it, it was just too much about death without really going anywhere beyond that, and I just want more hope in my books at the moment. However, perhaps for someone who needs to come to terms with letting go as Julie and her father do, it would be the book for them. 

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures comes out May 2018 from ECW Press. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Even More Embarrassing Childhood Writing

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and often authors try to emulate their favourite authors in their own work. I am no different; since I was a wee little writer I have attempted to write like my favourite authors, both intentionally and completely obliviously. Here are some things I wrote, inspired by authors I've loved. Whether my writing is a fitting tribute to the authors I've admired is up to you to decide.

2008, age 12

All I remember about The Gravesavers by Sheree Fitch is that it was sad and tragic, set on the east coast, and the main character was named after a spice. I thought this was the pinnacle of good writing, so I decided to try my hand at writing a tragic story also with characters named after spices. It was about two sisters named Pepper and Cinnamon whose parents both died, and I called it Allspice. I set it on the coast (that I had never been to), and Cinnamon's nickname was exactly the same as the main character of The Gravesavers. (All the other members of their family were also named after spices.) An excerpt of the first draft of Allspice:

I laughed to myself. I could certainly ace this home economics quiz! It was all about spices. I read the next question.

5. List 5 Spices.

Easy, I thought. I ran through the list of my family member's names.

What would you rather read? An epic about spices-disguised-as-people that I wrote when I was 12, or a lovely story by one of the best Canadian children's authors?

2009, age 14

One of the series that I grew up reading was the inspirational Christian Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn. I still have every single book in the series on my bookshelf, I am not ashamed to say. Those books comforted me like no other books could, so naturally I had to write a series about the adventures of a cute college friend group just like Christy's. The main character's name was Sadie. TOTALLY DIFFERENT. An excerpt: 

19-year-old Sadie Cummings laughed to herself. She couldn't believe after all these years, she still got lost in her daydreams. It was one thing when she was twelve, walking home from school, but now? When she was finished school, and walking to her part-time job in between classes at the University and in between all that going home to feed her cute black kitten, Da Capo? She laughed to herself again, as she was walking up the sidewalk to the bookstore where she worked called Marigold's. After second thought, yes, she could believe she still conjured up daydreams in her waking moments as if she was twelve. After all, she was a writer and she needed all the imagination she could get.

This isn't bad, but the actual beginning was an entire two paragraphs describing how cold Sadie's legs were. E.g., Her legs felt like ice. No, they were beyond feeling like ice- they were ice. She could imagine them- a clear, cool, smooth blue that would shatter and crack into pieces painfully if she fell.  And it doesn't stop there.

2009, age 14

Of Two Minds by Perry Nodelman and Carol Matas was one of my favourite fantasy books as a young teen (and honestly, it stands the test of time, still amazing). It featured a funny, flawed, kick-ass female princess character that could create real things from her imagination, and a wimpy, scared boy that could read minds. The two characters hated each other and then fell in love. I LOVED it, so I took the character types, their relationship, and the fantasy setting, and wrote a trilogy. An excerpt:

"Gwen!" Tamlin called, jogging clumsily to catch up, "Gwen! Where are you going?"

"Why should it be any of your business?" Gwen responded harshly, not even turning her head to give so much as a glance in Tamlin's direction. Gwen reached to her long black mane and tied it in a hasty braid. 

"Well, I got the necklace for you, and... I left home and-" Tamlin continued, stumbling on each reason he gave.

Gwen sighed, and finished off her braid, "Why do you want to come with me anyway? It's dangerous, life-threatening, anything and everything. Nothing a farm boy would expect."

"I'm not a farm boy!" Tamlin argued, "and I want to come with you... truthfully I have nothing better to do and I have no idea what I'm doing all on my own and frankly" -Tamlin gasped for air- "You seem like you have an idea."

"I have no intention of babysitting for some wandering, childish towns-folk," Gwen stated flatly.

"I'm eighteen," Tamlin hissed through clenched teeth, "and besides, I can survive just fine on my own." 

Why yes, they do get married in the second book. 

2017, age 23

Despite how short I've fallen when trying to write books that come even close to being as brilliant as the ones written by my favourite authors, I continue to try to do it. Melina Marchetta is one of my favourite authors, largely because of the focus in her books on characters, and the intense friendship and family dynamics between them. In the past couple of years I've attempted to write some contemporary stories inspired by her themes and my own life experience, about friends, family and the regular struggles of everyday life. An excerpt:

           “Grandma, isn’t this just supposed to be a barbecue?”

            Grandma has an entire, whole turkey in her oven. She’s also making roast vegetables, and she’s got the ingredients set out neatly on her counter for a pineapple upside down cake.

            “All you really need are a few bags of chips for a barbecue,” I mumble.

            “Violet!” Grandma exclaims, slapping her hand on the counter and making me jump. “This isn’t just a barbecue, it is the event of the year, and I am in charge! I will settle for nothing less than flawless.”

            I roll my eyes. “Yeah, but a whole turkey? You really think people will go for turkey at a church picnic? You could have made, like, your potato salad or something. People would have liked that.”

            “Potato salad is for peasants!” Grandma says, waving an oven mitt at me in dismissal. I go back to shaving carrots for her vegetable dish. There’s really no arguing with Grandma, and especially not about the proper way to throw parties. I have to admit that my grandmother’s cooking is amazing, and the parties and dinners she puts on are always elegant and tasteful. I guess I’m just lazy, and I think the church people would enjoy the picnic regardless of fancy desserts.

            I wish Callan was here so we could laugh together at how seriously Grandma takes this, like we often do, but he’s off doing something with Miles, probably trying to catch Pok√©mon. Once they were talking about it in front of Grandma and she asked, “So who is this Mr. Pokey-man and where is he?”

            “Violet, are you just about done with those carrots? You’re shaving so much there’ll be nothing left of them soon.”

            I sigh. “Yes, I’m done.” I hand her the cutting board of peeled carrots and she drops them into her bowl.

            “And you did agree to be a server at the picnic tomorrow, correct?” Grandma says.

            “What? You have servers at a barbecue? What kind of event is this?” I have gotten roped into too many things lately. That is the problem with never having anything to do, except work. I could lie and say I have a shift, but this town is so dang small Grandma would ask around and then somehow I would end up actually having a shift tomorrow. I’d rather serve watered down punch to old ladies than work a day I don’t have to at the Coop, although really it’s just picking between the lesser of two evils since I’ll probably get asked stupid questions either way. For a second I think about the possibility of skipping town and escaping all of this, which makes me think of the letter I threw out the other day, which makes my stomach seize in panic. I try to bury all thoughts of it.

            “Stop being such a snob, Violet,” Grandma says. “Please be here at ten o’clock sharp, in black slacks and a white blouse.”

            “Please tell me you’ll at least pay me,” I say, half joking.

            Grandma gives me a withering look that makes me fear for my life, so I shut up. 

I have no idea why, but "Potato salad is for peasants" is my favourite line I have ever written. 

Which authors have inspired your writing? What are some embarrassing things you wrote as a kid? 

More embarrassing writing: Early Works Blogfest: My Awesome Childhood Writing // More of My Embarrassing Childhood Writing

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Local Book Nook #3: British Columbia, Canada

I am very excited to have the first Local Book Nook installment of 2018! Local Book Nook is a blog series I started last year, where I feature readers from all over the world talking about their favourite local books and authors.  If you want to read previous posts or learn how to participate, click here

Today on the blog to share her favourite local books is Shvaugn of The Borrowed Bookshelf. Shvaugn's blog has quickly risen from the ranks as one of my favourite blogs, as she consistently features lesser known books and great, diverse CanLit. One of my favourite posts is her Women in Translation Month Bingo, but really, all of them are great so go check out her blog when you're done here.

Where are you from?

Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta

My name is Shvaugn and I'm from a bunch of places. I grew up in various places along the BC coast and a small city on unceded Secwepemc territory in BC. I went to college in Kelowna on unceded Syilx/Okanagan territory, and university in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory. Now I live in a small rural town in southern Alberta, which is Treaty 7 territory, traditional land of the Blood Tribe, Piikani Nation, Siksika Nation, Stoney Tribe and Tsuu T'ina Nation.

Because I've moved a lot, it's hard to identify as being solely from one place. I largely identify as British Columbian, specifically from the Shuswap region.

Lilooet, BC

Growing up in the Shuswap, there's a strong literary scene. Word on the Lake is the local writer's festival in Salmon Arm and has been going strong for over a decade. Bookingham Palace is the local bookstore, and there are also two used book stores, Hidden Gems and Book Nook. The library branch is also pretty kickass. 

Ottawa, ON

Living in Ottawa, there's a number of adorable second hand book stores, a strong (and slightly pretentious in my opinion) literary scene in both French and English. The Ottawa library is also fantastic with great branches and programs, and strives to serve areas without a branch by bookmobile.

The town I'm living in now doesn't have a bookstore at all. The only places to buy books are the thrift stores, Walmart and the grocery store. Thank goodness for the library. Alberta has a number of fantastic library systems and if you can't find the book you're looking for in your local system, you can order it online through interlibrary loan through the Alberta Library which covers the whole province.

Salmon Arm, BC

What are some of your favourite local books or authors?

Whenever I feel homesick for BC, I turn to one of these books or authors. 

Skin Like Mine by Gary Gottfriedson is a fantastic collection of poetry. Gottfriedson is a member of the Secwepemc First Nation and a lot of his poetry is set in the area surrounding Kamloops. 

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. Coyote is one of my favourite storytellers and has an amazing ability to craft stories that are beautifully centred on people. They're also an oral storyteller so I recommend checking out the audiobook which Coyote narrates themself.

Salt Spring Island, BC

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson is a beautiful, heartbreaking, moving coming of age novel that blends history, mythology and family. I lived in a different area of the BC coast, but Robinson's description of the Pacific and the coastline really connected with me when I was missing BC.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a recent favourite of mine. It's a really interesting and compelling read about time, quantum physics, island living, zen buddhism, depression and writing. 

Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life by Brian Brett. This book is part memoir, part history of Salt Spring Island, part poetry collection. Which doesn't sound like a fantastic sell but it's such a beautiful book. I lived on Salt Spring Island for a couple of years as a kid and still long for the arbutus trees and the beaches.

Shvaugn is a book lover who reads a lot, drinks too much tea, and owns a cat who only half loves her. She currently lives in rural Alberta in a small town without a bookstore. Her main reading interests include CanLit, fantasy, sci-fi, and queer books, but she'll read just about anything. Except westerns, she's never really liked westerns unless they're contemporary romance. A long-time supporter and lover of libraries, the majority of the books she reads and reviews are library books. You can find her reviewing books at the borrowed bookshelf.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Rose and Poe by Jack Todd

Rose and Poe is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, from the point of view of Caliban and his mother.

Before I begin this review, I just want to say that I have never read the Tempest, or at least if I have I don’t remember reading it, so I can’t compare the adaptation or anything. For that, you’ll have to read it yourself (and The Tempest, I guess, if you aren't familiar with it). What I can do is tell you if it’s an enjoyable read, which it is.

The plot is fairly straightforward, about a sexual assault trial and trying to catch the actual perpetrator. It’s not a complex mystery case or anything like that, as the plot is mostly a backdrop for the characters and the setting, which are Todd’s strengths in this book. Rose and Poe are based on Caliban and his mother from The Tempest, and my guess is they are background characters in that play. Todd does an excellent job of bringing them to the forefront, developing their characters and making the reader empathize with them. I think Rose’s love and protection for her son are what make it easy to side with her and Poe. The alternating perspectives also provide a more rounded picture of the characters and the events that take place.

Todd's other strength is his setting; he has a way of perfectly describing the scene, which also has the effect of setting the tone for various events. His descriptions of the storm that takes place in the middle of the book are spine-chilling.

One of my favourite things about Rose and Poe, however, is the slight sprinkle of magic that Todd writes in the book, from a speedy delivery “sprite” called Airmail, to Poe’s giant qualities, to a walking staff that seems to hold more power than an ordinary staff should. The magic seems both everyday and slightly out of place to the characters in this book, which makes the setting all the more intriguing. All in all it was just a fun, suspenseful read and I encourage you to pick it up.

Rose and Poe on ECW Press
Rose and Poe on
Rose and Poe on

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Interview With After The Fall Author KATE HART! + Giveaway

Kate Hart has been one of my favourite people on the Internet since before I discovered YA Highway, so I was very excited to finally read her book After the Fall, which came out last year. I was even more excited when I read it and discovered what an incredible book it was. Kate Hart writes complex teen dynamics so well and with such intelligence. After the Fall deals with two characters messing up, forgiveness, the blurry lines of friendship, and learning about consent and privilege. I am also a sucker for friendship and double POV books, so I definitely loved it.

I am very excited to have Kate on the blog today to answer some questions about her excellent debut! Kate has also offered to giveaway a signed copy of the paperback which comes out TODAY with the beautiful cover shown below, so fill out the form at the end of this post by the end of January 27 to enter! (US/Canada only.)

Here's the synopsis:

Seventeen-year-old Raychel is sleeping with two boys: her overachieving best friend Matt…and his slacker brother, Andrew. Raychel sneaks into Matt’s bed after nightmares, but nothing ever happens. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s a girl, except when he decides she needs rescuing. But Raychel doesn't want to be his girl anyway. She just needs his support as she deals with the classmate who assaulted her, the constant threat of her family’s eviction, and the dream of college slipping quickly out of reach. Matt tries to help, but he doesn’t really get it… and he’d never understand why she’s fallen into a secret relationship with his brother. The friendships are a precarious balance, and when tragedy strikes, everything falls apart. Raychel has to decide which pieces she can pick up – and which ones are worth putting back together.

One of the things that make or break a book for me are the characters, and I was really impressed with your incredibly complex and dynamic characters. Even the parents were interesting and present in the story, which I find is rare in YA. How did the dynamic between Matt and Raychel and their parents develop as you were writing?

Thank you for the compliment! Several things influenced that depiction. One, while I understand that it's easier to give YA characters agency if you get the parents out of the picture, it's just not a realistic depiction of most teens' lives, and it didn't make sense for this story. Two, as a mom myself, I'm hyper aware that parents are not stock cutouts. Realizing that your folks are individual people with their own pasts and preferences and flaws is a huge part of growing up, even well into one's adulthood, and for girls struggling to find their place in the world and within feminism, that ever-changing dynamic with one's mom or mother figure is an important part of growing up. Three, my own parents were present in my life, but beyond that, my friends' and boyfriends' parents played a big role in my teen years. Some were supportive and almost like friends themselves; some were judgmental and indifferent or even mean to me while they tried to steer their own kids' choices, and some were just straight up awful parents. 

So in early drafts, the dynamic was a little more "good mom vs bad mom," but as the story deepened, I realized it was important to portray Raychel's changing perception of the two moms, in order to support the overall "feminism is complicated" theme in the book. Both moms are doing their best, but both moms screw up, and ultimately, both moms reach the limits of what they can do for Raychel. She can't begin to steer her own life until she reaches that realization.

One of my favourite things are friendship stories, and After the Fall has a lot of interesting friendship dynamics in it, between Matt, Raychel, and their other friends. Was it important to you to focus on the friendships of these characters, and why?

In high school, I was very much that girl who considered herself "not like other girls." Most of my friends were boys, and I invested a lot of energy in trying to prove myself worth of their attention. It wasn't until adulthood that I accrued a solid group of awesome lady friends -- and once that happened, I realized I'd always had lots of girlfriends, but I'd put our relationships on a second tier. So while none of the characters in After the Fall are based on my high school crew, it was interesting for me to explore that particular dynamic and lead Raychel and Matt through the realization that many high school friendships are based more on circumstance than real relationships (but that some can turn out to be the real deal, too). 

After the Fall alternates perspectives between Matt and Raychel. Were there any challenges writing these two different perspectives?

For some reason, all of my projects come to me in multiple POVs. I think it's a side effect of studying history and realizing that there is no true objective perspective: every story has a million sides, and all of them can be correct in some way. Executing the different voices is challenging for me, though. I winged it for awhile on this book, but before I got into serious revisions, I made a list of vocal tics, favorite phrases, and that sort of thing for each character (for example, Matt's narration never uses dashes; Raychel says "y'all" while Matt looks down on southern accents).

Among many things, After the Fall deals with characters struggling with the issue of privilege. How did your own experiences with privilege influence your writing?

This is always a tough question, because while I technically grew up poor, I also rarely wanted for things. My family was upwardly mobile, and my dad's parents were financially secure enough to help us when necessary, so I hesitate to depict myself as someone who grew up in poverty. However, the truth is that it took us a long time to reach lower middle class, and money is an issue I've always worried about. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to college, but I was also very conscious of being the scholarship kid who had to actually study and work to stay there. As an adult, I own a small business, but we've scraped by to make it feasible. Meanwhile, economic and social status can play a huge role in assault -- not just in who's victimized, but in who can expect justice, much less afford it. I couldn't ignore that in the dynamics of my hometown, so there was no way I could ignore it in this story.

You’ve talked about your experience getting rejected by publishers, and feedback you received about how your protagonist was unrealistic, even though Raychel’s experiences were largely informed by your own experience with sexual assault. How do you hope your book has an impact on the YA or publishing community?

To be honest, I don't have any illusions about it making any grand changes to the overall narrative. But my hope is that the book will reach some readers who haven't seen themselves on the page -- that they will feel heard, and go forward feeling more confident that their stories matter, or at least knowing how to better support friends who've been victims.

Thanks Kate! After the Fall is a really incredible story, and I would like to think books like this will make an impact, whether that be on an individual scale or encouraging someone else to tell their story.  

One of the many cool items in Kate's Etsy shop!
As well as being an author, Kate also has a really cool Etsy store, The Badasserie, which is fiber arts and woodworking made with lumber reclaimed from projects by Kate's family business, Natural State Treehouses. The stuff she has there is really cool, so go check it out! 

And don't forget to enter below to win a signed copy of After the Fall, by commenting on or sharing this post! US/Canada only, closes midnight January 27, 2018, winner will be contacted through email.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


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