Category Archives: books

Book #6 for 2021: The Beguiling

I treated myself to a couple of books for my birthday back in January, and The Beguiling, by Zsuzsi Gartner was one of them.

As is typical for me, I can’t remember where I read/heard about the book (I really should come up with a system, like a note in my phone or something equally as simple) but it obviously intrigued me enough to grab it off the shelf at Epic Books on Locke St. And can we talk about that cover?!

In The Beguiling, Lucy is grieving the loss of her much-adored cousin Zoltan who was attacked at a bizarre warehouse party (ceremony?) and succumbs to infection of the wounds inflicted on him there.

Shortly after Zoltan dies, strangers begin to seek her out as their confessor, a role which she accepts and later grows to need in order to keep going.

Back then, just two years after Zoltan’s death I fed on the confessions much like a vampire bat feeds on sleeping cattle. What was this endless hunger I was feeding? My ego or a sense of spiritual entitlement? Lucy of East Vancouver, patron saint of bottom-feeders.

As we read the stories of Lucy’s confessors – and the majority of them are grim, horrifying confessions – more is revealed about Lucy’s own character and history and throughout the novel, she becomes less and less reliable as she becomes more and more distant from family, and, it might be said, from reality.

This is a extremely dark, occasionally shocking novel that requires a great deal of concentration – or at least it did for me – to comprehend the twists, the topsy-turvy kind of narrative. There is, as I mentioned on Instagram when I first started reading it, a LOT going on, but it is so, so worth it.

And lest the idea of it being extremely dark prevents you from picking it up, please know that there are parts that are also desperately funny, and writing that is intensely, gloriously human.

It is also the kind of novel you will likely want to go back to immediately after finishing it. Gartner plays so heavily with style, with narrative, and with timeline, that it’s a bit like being underwater and not knowing which way is up until eventually you burst to the surface and everything makes sense again. That is, until you take another plunge with eyes closed back into the unknown.

This book is exceptional and is one I’m very glad I own so I can go back and reread the highlighted (with post-it note tags only, of course) sections and flip between confessions to determine links and relations, and to bask in Gartner’s intensely tight, evocative, mind-bending prose.

A Week for Cold Earth: Book #4 of 2021

I finished Cold Earth at lunchtime yesterday, a day where the sun was shining through my living room windows, warming my hair, and causing me to shed my ever-present (since the pandemic started, really) hoodie. And yet, I shivered as I read the final pages. It’s just that sort of book, and really the best sort of book to read when it’s not yet spring but no longer quite winter; that limbo season we are known for in this part of the province, this part of the country.

It’s a book that is about 10 years old, but it’s been on my to-read list since I recently saw it on this Book Riot list, 10 Books That Take Place in a Desolate Landscape because if that just isn’t my jam, I don’t know what is! And yes it’s a book about a pandemic (I’m back on that bullshit, because of course I am) but in all fairness in Cold Earth the virus is much more peripheral than in books like Station Eleven or Severance, both of which I highly recommend if you are, like me, fascinated by plague fiction. And desolate landscapes.

Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of a team of six archaeologists on a dig in western Greenland, there for a few weeks in summer to excavate a medieval Norse settlement. The story evolves through journal entries and letters home, and we hear from each character in turn, beginning with Nina. Nina is a somewhat reluctant participant in the project, the only non-archaeologist, and shortly after arrival she begins having dreams. Dreams that are filled with violence and destruction, dreams that stay with her in the morning light. She begins to hear footsteps and voices, someone or several someones moving about in the night, taking her boots, messing with their dig site, and she becomes more and more convinced – and terrified – that something is present there. The others, with a job to do, are somewhat sympathetic at first, but mostly not interested in her ramblings, and see her as a threat to the project.

In the backs of all their minds as they work are thoughts of the virus that is moving through the rest of the world. Not, as of yet, rapidly enough to shut down travel (obviously, they made it to Greenland) but it’s enough of a worry for most of the team to want to check in regularly with family and friends via email. Eventually the websites stop responding and the team begins to wonder if they’ve lost contact not due to an equipment or internet problem, but what could ultimately be an end of civilization as they know it problem, and of course, what does that mean for the plane that is to bring them home again?

Part ghost story, part love letter to a world and worlds past, this is the kind of book that gets deep into your bones. Unintended archaeological puns aside, it’s the kind of book where you too can experience the weather, the freezing cold, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you are confronted with the utter darkness of a Greenland night, exposed tents with only the rocks and the water, a few sheep, and the subject of Nina’s horrifying dreams. Moss does an incredible job of conjuring ghosts – real or imagined – with an urgency that transports you. Stylistically, too, the book feels urgent. Each section is told from one of team member’s point of view, and while we hear first from Nina, then Ruth, then Jim, by the time we are hearing from Ben, Catriona, and Yianni, their sections are short, tense, and filled with the imagery and language of survival.

I loved this book. I loved its themes of love and loss, unspoken grief and unresolved pain. And I loved its look at worlds that can change seemingly in an instant, juxtaposed with what remains in the earth forever. Forever, or at least until scientists dig it out and remove it for further study. Human lives have always been fleeting yet they leave indelible marks on those who are left, and I adore how Sarah Moss teases out those paradoxes throughout the book.

If you’re curious about Cold Earth – and I hope you are now! – I also read Ghost Wall by the same author which is also brilliant and evocative and creepy and perfect. And highly recommended.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

This is, in case you aren’t sure, the title of a book I recently read. It is not a command or anything like that. Just to be clear. 2020 is a wild ride and I suppose anything is possible so disclaimers such as these are…necessary, perhaps.

I started this book months ago – possibly pre-pandemic, if there ever was a pre-pandemic time, although I’m not convinced anymore. I do remember I had a physical copy of the book, from the library, and it wasn’t one of the five or six books that kept me company in the early days of lockdown, the books the HPL so graciously allowed us to hold onto until they were able to reopen, so it must have been before March that I had it from the library. 

(You know, it’s paragraphs like these that remind me that I am inching ever closer to fully turning into my mother…holy hell.)


I started reading it way back then, but it just wasn’t the right time. You might recall that I recently wrote about the books that find you at the absolute right time, even when you’re not sure that particular book is what you actually wanted, because you thought you wanted to read something else entirely. But what about those books that you eagerly anticipate? When you wait patiently for them to appear as “ready for pickup” in your library holds, and you hurry home with them and then you are not nearly as enthralled with them as you’d thought you’d be? There has to be a German word for that kind of let down. 

The good news is that when this happens, you can always tell the book, “It’s not you, it’s me” and that will almost always be the case. Because I recently downloaded the ebook version of this same book and I loved it. So there you go.

This book by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, starts off as…well, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, it seems almost like a kind of pseudo-fairy tale (to my mind, anyway) and then morphs quickly into a sort of murder mystery/thriller (several dead bodies show up throughout the novel) with elements of screwball modern-Eastern Bloc comedy (complete with incompetent government officials and eccentric villagers.) But, there is also a healthy dose of environmentalism, of feminism and animal and elder rights within the novel, too. Oh, and there is also a great deal of astrology (astrology- and horoscope-loving friends, you will appreciate this) and lots of William Blake. Kind of the most perfect combination of everything, in my opinion.

It is also an extremely funny novel, and once again, it is the translator – that absolute GIFT of a human being – that allows us (me) who can read in only one and a half languages (like a lot of Ontario public school educated people my spoken French is awful, but I can kind of sort of read it?) to be able to fully embrace a novel originally written in Polish, right down to the sarcasm and the sadness and the humour. I remain constantly in awe of the art of translation and in this novel especially because I found this review in The Guardian from a couple of years ago and, well, this paragraph made my head swim:

“In Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, the prose is by turns witty and melancholy, and never slips out of that distinctive narrative voice. It also contains perhaps the most bravura translation performance I have ever seen, when Janina and her companion repeatedly attempt to translate a passage of Blake: several versions of a particular verse are rendered in English, which has been translated from the Polish, which in turn has been translated from English. It is difficult to imagine a more tricky task for a translator, or one undertaken with more skill.”


The translator is a magical unicorn wizard of words, you guys. Just mad, mad respect.

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko – please don’t call her Janina – is truly a force, and I loved the way bits of who she is – who she was – are revealed a little at a time with always surprising results. Surprising to the other characters and also, somewhat shamefully, to the reader. This shock and surprise is exactly what happens to older people and how they are treated by society, a society that takes them only at face value, as if they’ve always been old and hard of hearing, frail and possibly forgetful. As if they couldn’t possibly have had extraordinary or even interesting lives. As if they barely even exist anymore. It’s a hard look at a society unable or unwilling to reckon with aging and the aging process, something I imagine a lot of us also stubbornly refuse to face. In this book, though, Olga Tokarczuk has given us Duszejko, an old woman who is still learning and knows what’s going on. An old woman who has things to say, who refuses to be silenced and from whom we cannot look away. 

And thank goodness. More of this, please.


Letting the Books Decide

On Monday I was looking for a book to read, and rather than glance at the stack of books beside me in the living room, or at the stack of books in my bedroom, I decided to wander to yet another room and peruse my to-read bookcase (yes, I have an entire bookcase dedicated to books I need to read, this is what happens when your tbr piles become treacherously tall) and the cover of one caught my eye. You might remember that I do, in fact, judge books by their covers, and this one just seemed so perfect for what I needed this week.

It turned out to be anything but, which is not a fault of this dazzling book, it is clearly a me problem, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The wind-down of summer always puts me in a nostalgic mood, remembering the excitement of gearing up for school when I was a student, and the excitement of gearing the boys up for school when they were students. Please note this was always my excitement, not theirs. How I managed to birth two humans that have zero interest in school supplies and new shoes I will never understand. But now? Now I don’t have either of those scenarios and I really miss them.

There is always a little bit of apprehension for the “new year” and all the promise that September holds. I still hold the Tuesday after Labour Day as the true start of the new year and I probably always will. Don’t, as they say, at me.

That apprehension is heightened this year, of course, due to the pandemic and the mishandling by the provincial government of schools reopening and pretty much everything else, and even though I am not having to make the same tough decisions other parents are, I do feel that collective anxiety, all those “what ifs” hanging in the air.

The summer days slide by sluggishly, the heat makes everything slow right down, routine is for the most part a distant memory. Corners are cut, plans are put off until it’s cooler (valid) or darker (also valid). Who wants to be productive in August, anyway? But come September, oh it’s on. So there is pressure, after all. Self-imposed pressure, of course, but isn’t that the most intense kind?

So when I browsed for a book to read, I was looking for something that would reflect that summertime slowness, a story that would reveal itself little by little, a story I could take my time with, relax with, perhaps mitigate some of that apprehension that looms as summer comes to a close.

Instead, Blue Field by Elise Levine caught me up and sliced me through with its stunning look at grief and anger, pain and loss. All while spinning me in every direction with prose sometimes stark and fractured and mean, and other times so perfectly and beautifully lyrical, making me lose all sense of balance and which way is up. And I am not even talking about the descriptions of the underwater cave and shipwreck diving.

I truly have no business reading books about diving, especially about dive adventures that might possibly go awry.

I don’t know that I am entirely claustrophobic, confined spaces do give me trouble, but it’s not all confined spaces. Elevators, for example, don’t bother me. I don’t love crowds, but I think that’s more of a getting old kind of thing – even pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic, I believe we will all be terrified of crowds.

But watching The Great Escape? The whole movie is about prisoners digging a tunnel and they spend time in the tunnel, because they are digging the tunnel. That stressed me out badly. Same with that episode of CSI where Nick gets buried alive. I watched it from the kitchen, peeking in only when John told me the scene had changed. Even descriptions of trenches in books about the First World War challenge me, so maybe it’s claustrophobia or maybe it’s just tight spaces where people don’t have control over their situation, where they are in danger or there is potential for disaster? Either way, cave diving and diving into and exploring ships hits all those stress buttons for me too.

I found myself holding my breath, skimming over these intense passages only to go back and read them again because they were so very good and necessary, but wow, so many parts were really difficult to get through. There were some sweaty palms, friends.

It’s funny how a book reveals itself to you when you least expect it, when you’re searching for a particular kind of read and something else, something nearly the exact opposite of what you think you want ends up being perfect.

Blue Field wasn’t the book I thought I needed to read in these last days of August, but it was the book I actually did need to read.

I have owned this book for four years and I know I have looked at it more than once before, picked it up, ran my hand along the cover, read the blurb on the back, and returned it to the shelf. “Hmmm, not now,” I would think.  So why now now? Why, when I was looking for something different something – and let’s be honesty here – easier, why did I decide on Blue Field. Well, why not, the reading goddesses might answer. Do the books know us better than we know ourselves? Not to get weirdly philosophical or supernatural or anything, but sometimes it seems they do.

And so? I read it. I devoured it in about a day and a half; the story, the writing, it’s all staying with me and I have returned to sections again and again just to feel the intensity of the language, the story. This was what I needed to pull me out of the writing/blogging drought I’d been floundering in. I needed that heightened sense of awareness as I read, I needed the adrenaline rush. Blue Field did that for me and then some.

Has a book ever thrust itself upon you like this? Did you accept your fate willingly? If so, I would love to hear about your experience!




A Review: Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout

It is not at all unusual for me to cry while reading a book. Or any time, really. It’s kind of who I am, a real crier. And when I am extremely invested in characters and the situations they find themselves in, becoming emotional (aka a hot mess) is not much of a stretch for me. What really does it though is when I think I have my act together and that I will be totally prepared for whatever outcomes the author has planned in kind of a cocky “I’ve got this, I see where this is going” kind of way, but then what happens is that I actually don’t know and I am completely surprised by a turn of events that is so sudden and so extreme and that’s where the big, big feelings come in. Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout was exactly this kind of book.

Dawn Woodward is a soprano, on voice rest after a sort of crash and burn performance in Tosca that made its way – because this is the 21st century after all – to YouTube and other social media platforms, and the worry is that it might have been a career-ending move. She spends her days reliving and rewatching what could potentially be her final performance, rarely leaving the house, sinking ever lower with each rewatch. The stress of this adds additional strain on her marriage, a strain further enhanced by the arrival of her husband Ashraf’s somewhat estranged brother Tariq, recently separated from his wife and beginning treatment for cancer. Ash has asked them – Tariq and his African grey parrot, Tulip – to move into their house while Tariq undergoes treatment.

As part of her contract, while she isn’t singing, Dawn is required to teach at a local community college. The course she has been given, much to her anger and frustration, is a course on whistling. Her students, are a hodgepodge of whistlers known as The Warblers, a group they tell her proudly, that has been in existence for decades prior to Dawn’s arrival, and she learns they are preparing for their Biennial, an every-other-year whistling competition. Their plan is to whistle operatic arias which will give them an edge over their competition. This is, of course, where Dawn comes in.

In true diva form, Dawn resents the appointment, feeling it beneath her, but when Tariq and Tulip join the class, both Tariq’s easygoing, friendly demeanour and the antics of his quirky bird quickly make an impression on The Warblers and as Dawn begins to warm to them, she also hesitantly begins to develop a deep and meaningful friendship with Tariq.

I really loved this book for its quiet grace, subtle humour and its quirky cast of characters who appear to be so very different on the surface, but who have more in common than they really would like to believe or admit. I also loved Dawn’s growth throughout, her aching for something that seems just out of reach, something that she can’t quite yet name, and I loved that a merry band of whistlers helps her determine what she needs and how to find the strength required to attain it. This really is the perfect touch.

There is so much to love about this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special mention to Tulip the parrot, a diva in her own right. It can be challenging to include animal characters in novels without resorting to tropes or cliches, but Berkhout has made Tulip, Tariq’s companion and sort of protector, an extremely important part of the story and a true delight.

Why Birds Sing is just so lovely. Nina Berkhout has written a gorgeous, multi-layered novel that illustrates the beauty that can be revealed when the collapsing of one life leads to the building of another. Especially once you understand what exactly it is that you’re living for.

My thanks to ECW Press for the ARC and for the opportunity to review this wonderful novel.






Sick Day(s) Reading

My cold started on Friday afternoon with a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose. By Saturday it was worse, but I mostly ignored it because I had, like most people on the weekends, SHIT TO DO. On Sunday I was practically bedridden, and honestly, I probably deserved that.

I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday, and while I spent a lot of that time napping, feeling sorry for myself, and staring into the middle distance, I did manage to read three books.

Regular days never seem to have enough hours in them, but sick days draaaaaag, so I was happy to be able to do something with my time. When you’re not exactly sick enough for bed but also not well enough to go to work, well that’s the perfect storm for sick day Netflix bingewatching (I did a little bit of that too, thank you Derry Girls, season two) and sick day reading. And fortunately for me, Hamilton Public Library had come through with a bunch of my holds last week, so I was set.

I’d been waiting to read Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things for months, and I was so happy to finally have it in my to-read pile. It’s as good as advertised: funny and dark and strange and occasionally kind of gross – taxidermy is at the heart of the novel with lots of graphic descriptions of animal gutting, roadkill scraping, and more – but there is also the story of a family grieving for loves lost and trying to come together to thrive and survive in spite of the forces against them, and the ones truly of their own making. I loved the Mortons and their drama and their messy, messy lives, and the book was a dream to read.

I also read Supper Club by Lara Williams. A few weeks ago while waiting for my son who was attending a comedy show in Toronto, I spent some time wandering in Book City. Supper Club was a book I picked up initially for the cover (it’s lovely) and then for the front flap description because it sounded intriguing. And while I didn’t purchase it that evening, I was intrigued enough to add it to my library holds and I’m very glad I did.

Supper Club is the brainchild of two young women in London who dream of and then create a secret club, a place where women can be themselves, can take up space, can reclaim and sate their appetites for food, drink, and life. Their lives outside of Supper Club are messy and their relationships challenging. As the book progresses, we slowly learn more and more about the book’s narrator, Roberta, the trauma she experienced that ultimately leads to the demons that drive her and to the choices she makes.

Like Mostly Dead Things, Supper Club is graphic in its descriptions, but instead of taxidermy, here it’s food and drink. Food is ever-present, the backdrop, the all-encompassing ingredient that motivates and drives and it is, frankly, glorious. (And now I know how to create a sourdough starter, should I ever want to.)

And finally, to round out my sick day reading list, I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and I can’t remember for the life of me where I heard about that book or why I put it on my holds list, but I’m not even going to talk about it here except to say that I didn’t like it. I found it reductive and predictable and while some of the language was lovely it was overall a quick, relatively unsatisfying read.

So there, Reese Witherspoon.

And, now that I am healthy-ish and back to work, my book consumption will return to its regular pace, alas. Still, it was kind of luxurious to spend three days just reading. I’d like to do it again soon…this time without the fever and sinus headache, please.








Come and cry with me as I gush about Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea!

It’s not difficult to become completely taken by The Luminous Sea based on the cover alone, which of course they tell you not to judge books by, but here is a secret for you: I do in fact judge books by their covers. Well, maybe not judge exactly. But I am definitely a sucker for a well-designed and beautiful book cover and this one might be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The premise of this novel is a relatively simple one, yet we quickly find out that simplicity is deceiving. Vivienne is a young summer student hired to study the potential reasons for the glow-in-the-dark waters in a fictional bay and area of Newfoundland. One evening while out on the water taking samples she catches a creature unlike anything ever seen before, brings it to the lab where she works, only to have her discovery taken over by other researchers whose motives may not be as pure as they should be.

I would like you all to know that from the moment the fish creature landed in Vivienne’s boat, I had made up my mind that I would die for her. The fish creature. Well, for both of them, really. And the entire book had me holding my breath, waiting to see if I needed to jump in, somehow, and rescue them.

The Luminous Sea is a short-ish novel, under 250 pages. By all rights I should have been able to finish it in a day or two. Between commuting. lunch hour reading, and after work reading, I usually consume a lot of pages in a few days. But this book. This book I had to take in small doses, doling it out to myself as a reward for completing a task. It was something to be savoured in the early evening sitting on the deck after dinner with a glass of wine. A chapter or two at a time, no more. This story demanded to be drawn out, to let the words – the beautiful, evocative words – settle in my head and my heart. I needed time to process each magical phrase, to allow the imagery to wash over me.

I realize I am being dramatic, but there is not a lot I can do about that, I’m sorry. Read this and you’ll understand:

“The evening is calm, the ocean uneventful. The copper sea unspectacular in its beauty. Sun pennies dapple the water and Vivienne feels as if she is sitting in a bowl of shining coins worth so little they have been taken out of circulation. She eases the boat around the point and heads towards the stacks of the sunken ship, just past the lighthouse. As the sun sinks in the sky, the pennies disappear and the water regains its mundane jewel colours — emerald, sapphire, lapis, turquoise, tourmaline. The ocean extends for endless, monotonous, beautiful miles.”

Every line is like this, every line is beautiful.

Fog is exhaled onto the landscape by the fog dragon that lives over the far hill.

The night is described as ‘glassy’.

The sea throbs; the fish creature curls like a galaxy.

It is all too glorious.

The novel is fast-paced as well, and that is one of the reasons I slowed it down as I read it. It is so easy to read quickly because the story itself is gripping, but doing so would be like taking a train trip with only the destination in mind, being in an incredible hurry to get there, with no attention paid to the breathtaking scenery en route. And that would be a shame.

The Luminous Sea did, in fact, leave me breathless many times as I read it. The final section unravels at breakneck speed, and the ending is perfectly poignantly, perfect.

Wade into it, friends. It’s a stunning, wonderful read. And promise to let me know how much you loved it. And how much you cried.










Family (and other) Dramas R Us

I don’t usually think about the ways in which the novels I read might be linked. Occasionally something occurs to me midway through a book and I remember another book, recently read, with similar themes, perhaps even similar situations, or similar locales. I read a lot of Canadian authors, so that kind of checks out, location-wise, at least. It’s a big place, Canada, but when you read enough, you’re bound to read more than one novel set in St. John’s or Winnipeg or Cape Breton.

I read three novels in relatively quick succession recently, set in those exact locations, and in that exact order, but I didn’t realize until I wanted to write this post that all three were first novels for each of the authors, which is kind of a coincidence. And I do love a good coincidence.

It’s interesting how books in my life line up to be read. Sometimes it’s library holds coming in fast and furious and in order to make sure the books are returned on their due dates, they need to be read in a particular order. With or without renewal options. Sometimes books just jump out at me from a list on a blog or in the books section of a newspaper or maybe someone whose book suggestions I respect has tweeted something about a particular book and bam, that one gets added to my list as well. I typically have a to-be-read stack like most people, but that stack might sit neglected for weeks or even months when holds arrive and other books are thrust toward me. And that’s ok, they’ll be there for me, they’re not going anywhere.

The books I am talking about here are ones that came, seemingly, out of nowhere. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles was a book that sounded intriguing to me, so I added it to my holds list a very long time ago. And it arrived, suddenly, like all holds do, and so I read it, and to be honest, it took me a few tries to get into it. Once I found I was able to sync up to its groove, though, I tore through it in less than a week. It’s not an easy read, parts are harsh and cruel and I occasionally had to walk away from it. I wondered at one point if my initial hesitation had to do with what was coming. Can you be “book psychic” I wondered. Or does the author just do a really great job of setting everything up for us? Is it foreshadowing at its absolute best? Probably, yes. Definitely, actually.

Next, I read Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead because of a tweet from someone (I no longer remember who) who had read it and loved it, and it was available at my library so I grabbed at it too. I loved the characters in this book so much and the story was so beautifully told with love and pain and longing, and it was hard not to get dragged in deep to its world of equal parts love and pain.

Finally, I read Crow by Amy Spurway because I read a review of it and it too was shockingly available at the library. Crow is a tragic, hilarious, and at times overwhelming family and community saga with a whole lot of wild twists and turns and some of the most unforgettable characters ever.

And so while I didn’t start out planning to read a theme, I somehow did read a theme. Another coincidence, and a happy one at that.

In all three novels, family is at the heart of the story, and not just the family you’re born to, but the family you choose, the relationships you foster and the ones you run from. The ones who drive you around the twist and the ones who keep you sane. The ones who hurt you because of the love they have for you, and the ones who just, well, hurt you. And sometimes they are all one and the same, sometimes even wrapped up within the same person. The characters in these novels are wonderful: complex and perfectly imperfect, fighting for their lives, their loves, and their places in the world, much like we all are.

Relatable? Completely. And very, very highly recommended.




Lit in the City

This year I was once again thrilled to be a part of Hamilton’s very own gritLIT Literary Festival.

In the past, I have been on the organizing committee as a volunteer, as part of the marketing team, and most recently as the writing contest manager. Yes, gritLIT does have a writing contest, and you should probably enter. Next year, of course.

For a festival that happens in April, it’s not unusual that a lot of the heavy lifting and organizing and planning goes on late in the previous year. And late this past year I was extremely preoccupied while my son was in hospital, then with his subsequent recovery, and sadly my gritLIT responsibilities fell away. And Jen, our artistic director was amazing about it, of course, and of course the contest happened and then the festival happened and oh was it a good one, friends. For gritLIT’s 15th anniversary, stops were pulled out, let me tell you. I do wish I had been able to be more involved this year, but there is, of course, always next year to amp up my involvement. And now, let me tell you what I did get to do.

I hosted two workshops over the course of the weekend. The first was world building with Thea Lim, author of An Ocean of Minutes, the book that made me want to start a book club JUST SO I COULD TALK ABOUT IT WITH SOMEONE. And Thea is delightful and so, so knowledgeable and funny, and honestly, her book is as wonderful as she is, and everyone should read it. And then talk to me about it. Please. I’m begging you.

I also hosted and participated in K.D. Miller’s workshop which was all about connecting art and stories and was about as perfect a workshop as I have ever attended. Her most recent collection of short stories is inspired by the works of Alex Colville, and she brought small recreations of Colville paintings as prompts and inspiration. If you don’t know Colville, please be aware that there is a LOT going on in his paintings and they make for excellent – if potentially dark – writing prompts.

I then attended a fascinating panel with Tamara Faith Berger, John Miller and Claudia Dey (who has impeccable style, FYI) which was all about writing sex in literature, and later that evening I went to another panel called Confronting the Apocalypse featuring Thea Lim, Waubgeshig Rice, and Larissa Lai. And finally on Saturday a discussion about love, loss, and betrayal with Claudia Dey and Antanas Sileika and moderated by Ann Y.K. Choi who remains one of the loveliest people on earth.

I also got to drink wine with Gary Barwin and gush to Thea Lim not only about how much I loved her book but also how much I loved the Largehearted Boy playlist she created for it, because I am a sucker for those book playlists, honestly. And hers is a really good one.

If it seems as though I am namedropping, I totally am, and I’m not done. On Sunday, I watched Liz Harmer and Scott Thornley as they talked Re-imagining Hamilton with Mark Osbaldeston, and then I had to go home and, you know, spend some time with my family.

So basically what I’m saying is that when you attend and/or volunteer at a literary festival, you get to meet a lot of amazing, amazing authors. They will blow your mind in their workshops and on panels and in interviews, and then they will graciously sign your books and you might even get a chance to drink wine and talk random shit with them. Authors, they’re just like us!

There was so much more I wanted to see and participate in and next year, when I am a full-fledged volunteer again, and I don’t have to spend twelve hours a day in a hospital for five solid weeks during the most formative time of the festival, I will do it all.

Thanks for being amazing, gritLIT. Can’t wait until 2020.

Emily Starr 4ever

I am rereading Emily of New Moon because of Russian Doll.

If you’ve watched or are watching Russian Doll on Netflix you will probably understand the reference. If you’re not, well first off you SHOULD because it’s amazing, and next off, well… I don’t want to spoil it at all in case you watch it (which you should) but the main character makes reference to the book a few times over the course of the first season. And while Nadia, the main character,  is not the most optimal person to aspire to be, as soon as she mentioned Emily of New Moon, I definitely wanted to be her friend. (Ok fine, I loved her and all her flaws anyway, but the Emily reference put it way over the edge.)

There have been so many instances in pop culture, movies, TV where characters claim to love or hate books and those choices have resonated with me but this is the first time I’ve felt it viscerally. For real.

I spent a lot of time during my childhood and youth in the Barton branch of the Hamilton Public Library. I absolutely loved it there. My mum took my brother and me pretty regularly and then of course when I was old enough to go by myself, I went every opportunity I could, starting when I was around 8 years old or so because it was 1975 and obviously if you could walk, you could get yourself to wherever you needed to be, without parental supervision. (One day I will write a post about taking my younger brother and some of the other neighbourhood urchins to see the movie The Hindenburg because that was totally age-appropriate.) But back to the library. I would sometimes go with friends, but I mostly went on my own and I would stay as long as I possibly could.

In typical 1970s childhood fashion, I was required to be home when the streetlights came on. Once after browsing in the children’s section, I had signed out a few books and then another one – a teen book, in the teen section, scandalous! – caught my eye so I started reading it and before I knew it it was dark, the streetlights had been on for a while and I had to bike home alone, completely freaked out. 42 years later and I still remember that the book that had me captivated/terrified was Are You in the House Alone? and I was convinced that the killer was after me as I biked as fast as I could along Barton Street to home. Honestly, every book for young adults in the 1970s was either terrifying or about sex. Which to be fair was also terrifying at the time.

But I didn’t find Emily at the branch, I found her at the main library downtown. If you know Hamilton you know that the Central Library is a massively modern (well modern in 1980) structure with a lot of glass and concrete. It’s a fantastic building and I love it so much. But, if you are of a certain age, you will also know that the earlier Central branch was at Main St. and MacNab St. (it’s now a courthouse) beside what used to be the Canadian Football Hall of Fame – and that is where I found Emily.

On a rainy early summer evening, possibly the same summer as the Are You in the House Alone? experience, I went downtown with some older kids from our street. We had taken the bus downtown specifically to go to this library, I remember that because I guess we were that cool. And I also remember wondering if kids were even allowed in this formidable place. I was definitely nervous; the building was big and dark and very, very different from the bright, windowed, one level branch library I loved so dearly. But walking in was a revelation. It was much brighter than I had expected, the facade had always seemed gloomy – masterful but gloomy all the same. The main floor was massive – the building itself is quite large, although when I pass it, as I do daily now, on my way home from work, it seems a little less gigantic than it did when I was 11. The floors were cool marble, and there were two wide marble staircases that dazzled. And there was, in fact, a children’s area. The paperback racks spun quietly and as I browsed, a thick book caught my eye. I recognized the author, but the cover seemed more modern than something written by L.M. Montgomery should have been which didn’t make a lot of sense but then it was the 70s amirite? So I found a place to sit while my friends wandered around and I started reading and it was SAD, friends. Like really sad. Before we even left the library to head home I was completely hooked and immediately transported to Emily’s lonely world, so I signed it out. Nervously because I wasn’t sure my library card would even work at this big, impressive library. But it did, and I took Emily home.

This cover! I mean, how could I have left it there?

I loved her right from the start. I loved her relationship with her father and her relationship with nature. I loved the fact that she composed descriptions and elaborate events in her head – most of which involved her dying pitifully and tragically and everyone in her life being super sorry that they were mean to her now that she’s dead, which is a thing that I also did when I was 12 (it is probably a thing  a lot of 12-year old highly dramatic kids do to be fair) and then when she had some actual paper she wrote these scenarios down (which is also a thing I did.) I especially loved the letters she wrote to her dead father which act as a kind of diary for her, and in which she pours out her heart dramatically about her experiences living at New Moon with her aunts and cousin. Emily is so fucking emo, you guys, it’s amazing.

In Russian Doll, Nadia searches for her own copy of Emily of New Moon for reasons (again, which I won’t spoil) and when a friend tells her did you know it’s the same author as Anne of Green Gables, Nadia says, “Everyone loves Anne but I like Emily. She’s dark.” And Emily is dark – so dark – and a little bit extra. She has a sort of intuition, a second sight kind of thing that includes visits from The Flash (not that one) and a kind of spooky understanding of people, which is and has always been my total jam. And Emily feels things deeply – so very deeply – but she can also make adults a little afraid of her, and who doesn’t want that power as an overly dramatic preteen? In short, Emily was and continues to be everything to me.

So I’m glad Russian Doll reminded me how much I loved the Emily books, and how much I love them still. I’m not sure I’ll go on to reread the others in the Emily series, but New Moon will always be a favourite and it, like the library where I found Emily and the night I found Emily, will always be a treasured memory. It was more than 40 years ago but sometimes it feels like it was just last summer. I have a lot of amazing childhood memories and I will always be so grateful that so many of them revolve around books and libraries.