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Pickle Me This

August 7, 2018

Sodom Road Exit, by Amber Dawn

I’ve had Amber Dawn’s Sodom Road Exit waiting for me since the beginning of May, when I bought it right after seeing her speak on a panel on genre at the Festival of Literary Diversity. She was fantastic on the panel (along with Cherie Dimaline, David A. Robertson, and Michelle Wan), explaining that Sodom Road is an actual road with an exit off the QEW to get to her hometown of Crystal Beach, on Lake Erie, which was once a thriving resort town with an amusement park famous for its terrifying roller coaster. Her novel is set during the summer of 1990, a year after the amusement park closed and things are officially in decline. Which is when Starla Mia Martin returns to town, driven by debt and desperation to move back in with her mother, and then inadvertently begins to channel a ghost who is powered by relics from the old amusement park, the spirit of a woman who’d been killed in an accident on the roller coaster decades before. But is this a benevolent spirt? Is she helping Starla get back on her feet, or is she only making it worse—and for a good portion of the book, it’s hard to tell. Starla gets a job working at a campground on the graveyard shift, which doesn’t help calm her mind at all, or reduce her propensity for being haunted. And as her connection to the spirit intensifies, Starla’s situation is complicated by the relationships she’s developing in Crystal Beach, in spite of herself—with her boss at the campground, an Indigenous woman who lives there and is struggling to maintain custody of her son, with the former high school classmate who dances at the local bar and with whom Starla might possibly think about entering into a relationship…were she the type of person who did such a thing as have loving relationships, and also if she wasn’t already cavorting with a woman who’s been dead for fifty years.

Things get complicated Or even more complicated? Starla, following the instructions of the spirit, has a memorial gazebo erected out of materials from the amusement park, and people begin to travel from miles around to witness her communing with the dead and perhaps channelling their own lost loved ones. But the toll of these experiences and the burden of Starla’s connection to the spirit become too much for her to carry and her mental and physical health begin to suffer, so much so that soon the people who love her are frightened for her life.

I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the setting, and also so fascinated by Dawn’s remarks on genre and the idea of the novel as a container for a ghost story. And I was a little bit intimidated to finally start reading it because a) it had the word “sodom” in the title, b) it was a solid brick of a book and was I ready to commit to that many pages, and c) in order for the premise to work, it would have to be a really, really exceptional novel. Which, it turns out, it is. I loved this novel. We were camping the weekend before last, which isn’t always the best place to be reading, because there are bugs, and chores, and children setting themselves on fire, but all these things took a back seat as I read 300 pages of this book in two days, and came home and read the rest once the laundry was done, because it really was that compelling, so masterfully crafted. It’s a perfect gripping amazing summer read, but it’s also underlined with substance—the stakes are real here. I absolutely loved it.

August 3, 2018

Five Stars

I finished reading a novel last night, and thought what a wonderful thing it was to have no need at all to consider out of five how many stars this book deserved. What a relief it was just to read, and not to rate, or even go online at all (and it is certainly also a bonus also not to stumble across reviews of my own book that begin with, “Wow, this was a painful read. How boring was this, am I right?” (Not that I’ve ever sought out Goodreads reviews of my book. I am far too cool and assured for that, as you no doubt realize.) Instead, I just open up my Book of Books which lives on my bedside, inspired by Vicki Ziegler and Pamela Paul. And another book is entered, with whatever writing device I happen to have on hand. (I really need to go shopping for pens.) Last month, I read twenty books, which I think might be an all-time record for me. It’s been a glorious summer for reading so far, and there is still so much of August left, and I’ve been able to even reread, and make a little dint in the pile of books on the stairs, though you might not know that to see it. You see my Book of Books though, and you’ll realize I’ve been going places, bookwise. Halfway through the first year tracking books with this method, I just want to check in and say it’s wonderful, analogue, good for the soul. Five stars all the way.

August 1, 2018

Summer Books on the Radio

I was on CBC Ontario Morning today talking about amazing summer books—including two I’d already mentioned, but I hadn’t talked about them then, and I absolutely had to come back and enthuse because they’ve been highlights of my summer, along with all the rest. You can listen again to my picks on the podcast: I come in at 30.00. 

July 31, 2018

The Journey to the Journey Prize

I’m so pleased to share the news that I’m a juror for the The Journey Prize this year, along with Sharon Bala and Zoey Leigh Peterson. And I’m pleased not just because it’s such an honour to be part of this project, a prize that has played a part in the careers of so many superstar Canadian writers. A prize that I always had secret dreams of being a finalist for—the closest I ever came was having a story of mine nominated way back when, and even that was something I was a little bit proud of. I’ve written before about how exciting it was to buy a copy of the anthology in 2008 when my friend Rebecca Rosenblum was a finalist—my friend was in an actual book! And so to be a juror—what a huge and incredible thing. But the honour is just the beginning—I want also write about how it’s been an absolute delight and that I’ve learned so much from the experience as a reader. It’s been so interesting.

This opportunity arrived in my inbox early this year, and I did not hesitate to say yes, because if there is any evidence that I’ve succeeded in making a name for myself as a reader, this would be it. It felt great to be in the esteemed company of Sharon and Zoey as well—I’d just read Sharon’s novel, The Boat People, and loved it, and I’d been hearing people raving about Zoey’s Next Year, For Sure since it was published. And then it would not be long before a giant envelope was delivered to my house, and I began the process of reading 100 short stories that had been published in journals and magazines across the country, which meant there was so much goodness, and it would be my job to help figure out the best of the best. I began a big knitting project as I started reading the stack, and I knit as I began reading, and also lugged the stack of stories over to the pool and read it on the bleachers while my children did their swimming lessons. When I think of that stack of stories, I think of sunny Sundays with pages spread out on  my bed and also chlorine.

And then I sent in my shortlist of 15 or so stories, and I thought that it was pretty cut and dried. Several stories it seemed obvious to me were excellent, and others were pretty easy to reject, because some things are simple, right? And then I received our collective longlist, which was 30-some stories, and some of the picks were baffling—really? Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought…but I started reading again, and something amazing happened. Reading these stories in a new context was so illuminating, and understanding that my colleagues supported some of these stories made me read them differently. I also reread some of my own favourites, and wondered if my enthusiasms had perhaps been ill-placed. A few stories continued to stick out as extraordinary, and the rest of them were the same stories they’d always been, but my mind had changed. What a thing! To adjust and correct as a reader, to learn from my colleagues, to benefit from their broadening of my perspective.

And this only kept happening as we got to know each other through conference calls, as we debated and enthused, asked questions and posed answers. There was such generosity in the spirit of the work we were doing, a willingness to listen to each other and learn. I’d previously had an experience on a jury with someone who simply dug in his heels and refused to listen to anyone, and he’d ruined the entire experience for me—and I’m still so angry that we let him get his way, but in the end I just wanted to get home for lunch. With Zoey and Sharon though, every bit of our conversation was about listening and building, and at those moments when one of us dug in our heels, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

The list we settled on could not have been more perfect, and all of us were so satisfied with it, and excited as we took on the task of arranging story order and writing our introduction. That giant stack of stories had been whittled down to something that was an actual book, rich with cohesion and connections, both obvious ones and others that were surprising. And I’m so excited now, for the shortlist to be revealed on August 7, for the book to find its way into readers’ hands, for these stories to be read—I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so personally connected to a book I didn’t write. But I can tell you with assuredness that it’s such a good book, and I’m excited for the next stage of its journey into the world.

Update: In all my rhapsodizing for my co-jurors, I forgot to give credit to McClelland & Stewart and the incredible Anita Chong, who is the whole reason this experience has been such a pleasure. Anita is so incredibly good at what she does, and I’ve been so grateful to get to know her and work with her on this book.

July 25, 2018

New Summer Reads

I feel selfish keeping my vacation reads to myself, not sharing them properly in reviews (even if those reviews are kind of mini). These books are great, and I want to tell you so properly…

A Tiding of Magpies, by Steve Burrows

The fifth instalment in the Birder Murder Detective Series, which I’ve been a fan of since 2014, I really loved this one. It’s a decidedly post-Brexit novel in which non-domestic birds are causing havoc on the landscape and response is mirroring the xenophobic human population. Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune is in an interesting place here as an immigrant from Canada, and an expert bird-watcher no less, and when a body turns up (of course) he finds himself distracted by an inquiry regarding his most famous case, and all the while he suspects his girlfriend is in serious danger. As we’ve come to expect from the series, this novel is smart and thoughtful, and rich with suspense.


Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

Last year Lippman’s Wilde Lake was a summer reading highlight for Stuart and I both, so we did not hesitate to pick up her latest, which was enthralling and full of twists and so excellent. Laura Lippman is a masterful crafter of both plots and sentences, and this story is truly original and so steeped in atmosphere. Read this to find how how Sunburn is a subversion of the “dead girl” trope.


How To Be Famous, by Caitlin Moran

And finally, I am such a Caitlin Moran completist that I even own The Chronicles of Narmo, which she published at age 16. This one is her “second” novel (or third, counting Narmo, which I don’t think she does), a follow-up to How to Build a Girl, and it’s a love letter to Brit-pop and the 1990s, and also a fantasy novel in which teenage girls are loved, valued, and confident in everything they deserve. A self-fulfilling prophecy, I hope? I’l definitely be passing it onto my daughters when it’s time.

July 23, 2018

My favourite thing about living in a city

My favourite thing about living in a city is being able to disabuse myself of the notion that the place where I live is not a place where “something like this can happen.” To live in a city is to live in a  place where anything can happen, which is actually the case with living anywhere, but in a city we know it by heart. It’s why I live in a city all all, and quite on purpose, because I want to live with my eyes wide open to the world and all its possibilities, even the terrible ones, because just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. And because I want to live in a place where I could never be fooled into thinking there’s just one narrative, that there are no contractions, that there are simple solutions. The world is tangled, and dirty, and gorgeous, and awful, and miraculous, and I take comfort in the ragged edges. In the darkest moments, I take comfort that the terrible stories will never be the whole story, that there will always be other stories. A city, like everything, can hold more than one reality. In fact, this is precisely what a city is for.

July 19, 2018

Mitzi Bytes: Big In Muskoka

Though not for lack of trying, I have never encountered anyone reading my novel on the beach, but I came very close last week when a copy was spotted in the library at the cottages we were staying at. My friend saw it first, but only mentioned it offhandedly because she’d assumed I’d put it there. But I hadn’t—at least I didn’t think I had. And the other families we were vacationing with, both of whom had stayed at the same place last summer, promised that they hadn’t left the book either. I didn’t really believe any of us—was it possible that my book had been purchased by a person I don’t know (or who is not, a least, a friend of my mother’s)? But it had a sticker from Chapters Indigo, so it was certainly not a copy I’d dropped off and then completely forgotten about (distinctly possible…) My friends hadn’t bought their copies at Indigo either, and the spine was even cracked. And while I could have decided to respond to this situation by being despondent that a reader had left my book behind and not committed it to their personal library for all of eternity because it was the most affecting and incredible novel they’d ever encountered in a lifetime… instead I was just pretty thrilled because the cottage library was in alphabetical order even, featured some pretty excellent titles, and each one was stamped with the cottage library stamp, which seemed very official. This cottage library was legit.

And presumably, someone had been reading my novel on the beach…even if I wasn’t there to see it.

So that was pretty cool, and then my sense of being Extraordinarily Popular in Muskoka was only compounded when we went into town for the day and my face was on the Huntsville Public Library’s Books and Brunch poster, plastered all over town. And on the library display screens displayed prominently over the checkout desk—my children were very excited!! To be famous in a library is no small thing, although nobody recognized me—when my author photo was taken I was wearing make-up, had washed my hair recently and wasn’t covered in bug bites. But still, they knew it was me. It was all very exciting. (The Huntsville Books and Brunch Event is at Hidden Valley Resort on September 23 with superstars K.A. Tucker and Hannah Mary McKinnon [whose The Neighbours I read before I went on holiday, and liked so much…] You can buy tickets through the library.)

One other exciting thing is that Karen Green at Bookclubbish included Mitzi Bytes on a list of books by Canadian authors to read for Canada Day—alongside writers including Karma Brown, and Sharon Bala. If you missed it, fear not! You can also read Mitzi Bytes for the August Civic Holiday Weekend…

And in case you were curious about what Mitzi Bytes and I are up to this fall, I’m pleased to be taking part in some fantastic events across the province—The Dunedin Literary Festival, Huntsville Public Library Books and Brunch, Stratford Writers Festival, and Wordstock Sudbury. If any of these these happen to be in your neck of the woods, I’d love to see you there.

July 18, 2018

Astral Weeks

We were away last week and we brought our portable stereo and listened to the same CDs over and over, which are the same CDs we always listen to when we’re at a cottage—Bon Iver and Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur, and the Beach Boys, and I bought Joni Mitchell Blue. And also Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which I would listen to when I was in the cottage alone in the morning when I was drinking my tea and not ready to get dressed yet and my family was already down by the water.

And those mornings listening to Astral Weeks when I was all alone were like a time machine, taking me back to 2004, when I bought the CD. My friend Kate had mentioned it in an email, I think, and I looked for it at Tower Records the next time we were in Osaka. We were living in Japan at the time, which is why my copy of Astral Weeks comes with Japanese liner notes and lettering on the CD case. I bought the CD, and immediately fell in love with it, and “Sweet Thing” has been my favourite song ever since. That lyric, which I really understood having not long before undergone a season of tumult: “And I will never grow so old again.” (I also liked that the “garden all misty wet with rain” from “Sweet Thing” is referenced in Caitlin Moran’s new novel, How to Be Famous, which I read last week in less than a day…)

In 2004, Stuart and I lived in a tiny apartment and slept on a tiny platform below the ceiling that we had to climb a ladder to reach. We were both working as English instructors and had the same work schedule, except for Tuesday mornings when he worked in the morning and my shift was in the afternoon. So on Tuesday mornings I was by myself, and I’d put on Astral Weeks, music that I am quite sure was not long after encoded into my DNA. It’s partly the flute, something about the flute. I don’t know that I know another pop song with a flute in it, or at least that I’ve noticed, but the flute on “Astral Weeks,” the opening track, is one of my favourite sounds. And that lyric, “To be born again. To be born again.” I could relate after getting my life back on track, and beginning to move forward. That momentum—it was exhilarating. And the memory of all that possibility is what overwhelms me when I listen again to Astral Weeks.

The album is the soundtrack to all my memories from 2004 (except the ones where I’m singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” at karaoke), though I’m not sure this was really the case. It could have been though, because I had a mini-disk player and later and iPod shuffle, and I’d possibly downloaded “Astral Weeks” onto both these devices, and perhaps it was Astral Weeks that was playing the very first time I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, on a trolley ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima. It might as well have been, the two are so connected in my mind—they actually came out in the same year. I feel like Joan Didion would have known something about being caught one more time, if not up on Cyprus Avenue: “And I’m conquered in a car seat. Nothing that I do.” (She probably had a migraine from the Santa Ana.) Madame George also seems like a character from one of her essays—one of the ones where the centre does not hold.

I was also discovering Margaret Drabble for the first time in that period, so her books are connected to Astral Weeks as well for me. The first novel I read was The Radiant Way, whose Esther Breuer lives at “the wrong end of Ladbroke Grove,” which is where Van Morrison saw the subject of “Slim Slow Slider” walking, and maybe he even saw Esther too. And falling in love with Margaret Drabble (and Joan Didion) was such a big deal for me as began to discover who I was as a reader and writer. It was a period in which I developed a habit that I’ve never been able to get back again—underlining words I didn’t know in books and looking them up in the dictionary. I kept a list, and one of them was “avarice,” and I’m not sure whether I encountered that one in a book too, or else it was just the line from “Astral Weeks.”

I was keeping the list because I had been accepted to graduate school for the following September, and I was hoping to improve myself enough in order to be smart enough to warrant being there. (It didn’t really work. Do you know what it is to arrive at graduate school with absolutely no knowledge of critical theory? It is NOT FUN.) I was looking forward to moving back to Canada, and I was also planning my wedding (to someone who never mentioned driving his chariots down my streets of crime, but I know he would do it if I asked him), and really, we were on the verge of everything. I knew it, so it was overwhelming to be there in 2004, the sun shining through our window and rendering everything golden, and outside a pachinko parlour on the horizon. Not long ago, I found our old apartment on Google Maps, and the parking lot next door had sprouted a building, so the sun doesn’t shine through that window anymore, but I’m so glad I was there when it did, listening to Astral Weeks.

“And I will raise my hand up into the night time sky, attract the star that’s shining in your eye, ah just to dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just right. And I’ll be satisfied not to read in between the lines.”

July 16, 2018

Summer Reading

When we arrived at our rental cottage up north last Saturday, I was surprised to feel troubled, because here we were in the most idyllic place imaginable on a glorious summer day, the beginning of a splendid week. But it was unease that I encountered—so slight but visceral—as I climbed the hill, took in the vista, and walked the paths I last walked almost a year ago. A few moments before it all clicked: it had been the books, of course. And also the weather—last summer the sky was always dark and brooding and there were storms every day. It was such an uneasy summer, climate-wise, and the books I’d brought along with me only complemented the atmosphere. It is possible that anyone would feel disturbed upon returning to the place where they’d read Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, I mean, or experienced the intensity of Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty. Wilde Lake too, which was a modern take on To Kill a Mockingbird, but with more sinister undertones. Our last night there I started reading a Louise Penny novel and the weather in the opening chapter was identical to the thunder storm crashing outside our cabin window, and I began to wonder if the line between fiction and reality had become blurred. It really was intense, all of it, nine books in a week the definition of intensity anyway. So that when I arrived back there, it all came back, those incredible books I’d been so wrapped up in.

Last year’s summer reads.

It’s funny how books stay with you, and not always in the ways you’d expect. I really enjoyed Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water last year at the cottage, but it wasn’t a book I expected to return to. I gave that book away in the spring, but when I jumped into the lake last week (over and over again) I realized what a mistake I’d made, that here was a book that had changed my life. I’ve been jumping into lakes and pools ever since I read it instead of easing my way in gently (and sloooowly) as in previous summers, thinking, “If Jessica J. Lee can use a hammer to crack the ice and jump in a lake in December, I’m certainly capable of a cannonball in July.” Back in the lake beside which I first read it, I realized how much this memoir needs a space in my book collection. How much all those books I read last summer had gotten under my skin.

I wasn’t sure how the reading was going to pan out this year—we were going on vacation with three other families, and while this was a very good plan, I was concerned that being surrounded on all sides by people I like might get in the way of my reading prowess. But it turned out not to be the case because, a) it turned out no one was interested in surrounding me on all sides 24 hours a day b) everyone else was reading too and c) our friends had brought their children, who whisked mine away for so much freedom, fun and adventure that I scarcely saw them all week long and therefore got to read so much that I almost go bored of reading. (Almost. I did, however, get bored of potato chips, shockingly, but that was only very temporary and things are back to normal.)

Anyway, it turns out that I read nine books again, and it was exhilarating and amazing. Liane Moriarty again, who does not get nearly enough credit for being a literary genius—the nuance and craft in her work is astounding. More Laura Lippman too, because she is just such an astounding novelist. The latest Birder Murder Mystery, A Tiding of Magpies, which was the first anti-Brexit novel I’ve read since Ali Smith’s Autumn (and it made me thinking about whether a good pro-Brexit novel was a literary impossibility). I really liked it, and also Death in a Darkening Mist, by Iona Wishaw, the third book I’ve read in the Lane Winslow mystery series which has really been a highlight of my summer. The new Caitlin Moran, which was so terrific, laugh-out-loud funny, powerful and profound. So glad to read Celeste Ng’s first novel after loving her latest a few months back. I was happy standing in line at Webers, because I had Tish Cohen’s Little Green in my bag, which was a certainly a novel that had me in its thrall. And Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother still has me thinking about all the spaces in between its story and I think I’m haunted by the ending—such a subtly provocative book.

I wonder which of these will still be haunting me a year from now?

July 5, 2018

Writing With Children

So it seems that I am writing a novel this summer, and we’ve been here before. I wrote my first draft of Mitzi Bytes during the summer of 2014, when Iris was one and Harriet was five and would sit beside me on the couch watching Annie while her sister napped. Two years later I wrote Asking for a Friend in the same way, except that no one napped anymore, but what I did do was close the baby gate on our door and sit out on the porch with my laptop while the children were barricaded indoors with a bin full of snacks. They were allowed to watch movies, but only after they’d earned it with an hour of imaginative play—and then in the afternoon we’d head out into the world and do something fun or interesting.

I don’t know what it is about summer—when I have limited childcare and the world is calling with its sunshine—that imbues me with inspiration. It’s really quite impractical and inconvenient to decide to spend a summer writing a book, but it’s also exhilarating. For me, summer is about stretching anyway, about pushing limits. How far can we go, is a thing I wonder in summer, as the days go long and the children get filthy, and there’s sand in everything, and we’re so tired, but we keep going, because summer only lasts so long, and a terrible thing would be to give up before it did (and it always does eventually…).

So what follows is a list of what works for me with writing and being home with my children. And naturally, I recognize that I am privileged that I get to be home with my children in the summer, but before you assume it’s all too cozy, remember that I make my living from work that I must fit in around fiction writing and my children (and dentist appointments, and laundry, and shaking sand out of things) in the summer, and it’s all very busy and a juggle, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

  1. Write first. In the summer I have to work in the evenings after my children are in bed to make it all happen—but I never ever save my writing for that time. Because the writing is the work I’m accountable to no one else for but myself, and it would be so easy to just decide to wait until tomorrow. So I make it my first priority.
  2. Set a word count. This is why I like first drafts, because it’s quantifiable and finite. 1000 words a day works for me, and I’m experienced enough by now to know that those words don’t even have to be good—that’s what subsequent drafts are for. But this one is just to show me where there the story is going.
  3. Make my children part of the process. I make my writing a family affair, and my children know that by giving me the time and space to get my 1000 words done, they’re helping to make my story happen. When Mitzi Bytes came out, it was a big deal for both of them, because they knew they’d played a part in the book’s creation.
  4. Don’t talk about it until it’s done: I love Instagram, and take my #todaysteacup photo every day—see photo above. But I don’t post the photo until my writing session is finished—it’s a reward to myself. Don’t be #AmWriting unless you’ve written.
  5. Keep going: I’ve talked before about how I took up jogging the same summer I wrote Mitzi Bytes, but that I quit jogging because I hated it, right after I burst into tears in Queen’s Park because I hated it so much. Except for the hating part, for me jogging and writing a novel are pretty much the same. JUST KEEP GOING. One foot/one word in front of the other—it’s as simple as that. It’s such a little, manageable thing when you break it down like that. Don’t stop. You can do one more word, and then another and then another. (Although if you find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of a sentence because you hate it so much, remember that you’re also allowed to quit. To do otherwise would be stupid.)
  6. Read: I had nostalgia last weekend because I remember reading Emma Strab’s The Vacationers on the July long weekend just as I’d started writing Mitzi Bytes—I loved that book, and it inspired me. And then I went back to my blog to see what were the books I’d read just before it, and they were Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti, and Mating For Life, by Marissa Stapley, neither of whom were my friends at the time, although now they are, which isn’t the point, but instead that I wrote a better book because I was inspired by books that were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do.
  7. Shut the door. As I’ve written before, I don’t actually have a door, but there is a metaphoric one that my children have learned to observe and respect. I also continue to make sure the snack bin is full so that their needs are taken care of. But in the meantime, I’m busy, and they know that, and they’re cool with that…
  8. …Because they’re really happy watching Teen Titans Go on Netflix!
  9. Day camp! They’re doing a week of full-day camp and two weeks of half-day camp this summer, and I’ll be motivated to use that time like nobody’s business.
  10. Keep it low key. We do fun and local (and often free!) free things in the afternoons once I’ve met my word count. Truth be told, we are a bit boring, but summer is about boring, in addition to Netflix, and as long as the freezer is stocked with popsicles, nobody seems to mind.
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