102. One Native Life (Richard Wagamese)

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-10-01-28-am“I have always wanted to write.  There isn’t a time I can recall when I didn’t carry the desire to frame things, order things upon a page, sort them out, make sense of them.  But learning to write was a challenge, an ordeal”.

As part of a Secret Santa book exchange, I was thrilled to receive a copy of One Native Life by Richard Wagamese.  It is a series of vignettes which form a memoir of his life, giving insight into his challenging childhood and life experiences which inspire such beautiful storytelling.  The Medicine Walk was my first introduction to Wagamese and is my absolute favourite book of 2016!  After finishing this book, I devoured Indian Horse and Ragged Company which also shared difficult stories that give readers a different perspective to consider.  All Canadians should read these books to consider the generational impacts of the dreadful residential schools.

One Native Life is a transparent account of Wagamese’s early life.  His birth family had been scarred by residential schools leading to alcoholism, abuse, abandonment and neglect (not to mention a badly shattered shoulder leaving his arm deformed prior to a surgical repair years later).  He was placed into foster care and then into an adopted family where he was also abused and left without a connection to his indigenous heritage.

Wagamese spoke of how eager he had been to learn yet he was held back, labelled as a “slow, difficult learner” without “much hope for the future”.   He was learning mostly by memorizing and it was not until Grade 3 when a caring teacher asked him to write on the board that it she realized that he was not a slow learner but vision problems and needed glasses.  That teacher helped him relearn his letters and he graduated with straight A’s that year!

Life at home and at school was not easy.  He sought refuge in the library, reading, listening to music, learning about art and discovering a new world.

“Libraries have always been my refuge.  As a kid I met Peter Pan there, Curious George, the Bobbsey twins and the great Red Rider.  It was stunning to discover that they’d let me take those characters home.  I loved the smell of libraries, too a combination of dust and leather and the dry rub of paper mixed with paint and wood and people.

The library showed me the mysteries of the world.  There was always something that I’d never heard of or imagined, and books and stories where I could learn about it.  I read wide-eyed, tracing the tricky words with a finger I could sound them out and discern a fragment of meaning.  The library was like an enchanted forest.  I explored every inch of the stacks, fascinated by the witches and goblins, fairies and trolls, great wars and inventions I encountered there.”

It was not only the library that sustained him but his writing:

“My life became the walk to school and back.  Then it was four hours in my room each night to study.  Except that I didn’t study.  I wrote.  I wrote stories and plays and poems. about the kind of life I imagined every other kid was having, a life that wasn’t restricted to the cloister of a small room.  My stories were filled with hopes, dreams, happy endings and skies.  And I never showed them to anybody”.

At the age of 15 years, Wagamese ran away.  He hitchhiked all the way to Florida before being returned home by police.  He ran away again, spent time living on the streets and even worked at a carnival (and yes, helping to put the Ferris Wheel together as described in Ragged Company).  These experiences are repeated in his books and I loved gaining insight into the stories he told including the time when he was given a traditional name:

“He called me Mushkotay Beezheekee Anakwat.  It means ‘Buffalo Cloud’.  It’s a storyteller’s name. he said and he told me that my role in this reality was to be just that:  a teller of stories, a communicator, a keeper of the great oral tradition of my people.”

Despite abuse, abandonment and a very difficult childhood devoid of his culture and heritage, his memoir describes his feelings of peace and being a part of the landscape where he lives as an Ojibwe man.  He appreciates the trees and the wildlife as he describes the mountain and lake view outside his window.  He has reconnected with his birth family,  learned his Ojibway language and appreciates the teachings and rituals like smudging.

I have learned from each book that I have read and look forward to reading more.  Richard Wagamaese has a way of quietly telling stories with lessons of understanding, acceptance and reconsidering judgment.  His books are amazing and his name should be synonymous with high school curriculums.  I am thankful for his writing, for his bravery and for sharing bits of his own story with readers.  I am not sure if he participates in author events but if he comes to Southern Ontario, I will strive to be first in line to meet him!

As I visit the library, I will think of the difference that words, stories and books made for this boy as he struggled at home and school.  As I search for books to restock my Little Free Library, I will be on the look out for more books by Richard Wagamese as I want all my friends, my neighbours, my community to learn through his stories.  I loved reading the memoir but if I can suggest one book to read this year, it will be The Medicine Walk!

“I learned how to live through adversity in the library.  I learned how words and music can empower you, show you the world in a sharper, clearer, more forgiving way.  I became a writer because of what I found in libraries and If oudh the song that still reverberates in my chest.  I’m a better man, a better human being and a better Indian because of the freedom in words and music.”

Posted in Canadian, Memoir | Tagged , | 2 Comments

101. Messenger (Lois Lowry)

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-7-37-37-amMessenger is the third novel in The Giver Quartet which I have been enjoying as I commute.  Lowry weaves stories that encourage readers to ponder society, leadership and relationships.  These novels are set in dystopic future time when life as we know it has gone.  Communities have been set up and all function very differently.  Messenger provides the links between The Giver and Gathering Blue and connects the characters from different communities.

This novel is set in Village and Matty is living with Kira’s father, The Seer.  The community is struggling.  They have always taken others in, healing and caring for them when they arrived from other communities often suffering from trauma or injury.  The villagers are getting frustrated with the influx of others and decide to build a wall (wait a minute, does that sound familiar??  Has the US president elect been getting his ideas from a YA novel)?  Knowing that Kira had always intended to join her father at some point, Matty sets off through Forest to aid Kira in her travels and they experience a difficult journey as Forest encroaches and becomes more dangerous.

Each of the main characters have special talents and receive some guidance from Leader (previously known as Jonas in The Giver).  He had famously arrived in Village on a sled and was struggling with the decision to close Village which had been decided through a democratic process.  Each character must use their special talents and work together to guide Matty and Kira through danger in their attempt to reach Village before the border is closed.

Published in 2004, well before the U.S. election, this novel has lessons and provides discussion points related to the politics of today.  Readers can ponder the how negativity can build against newcomers when self-interest and greed take over yet appreciate how the special talents, kindness, bravery and care for others prevail.  I have enjoyed listening to this series and have started listening to Son, the last book.  I would certainly recommend The Quartet and encourage others to read beyond the award winning story The Giver and see what happens next!

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An Evening with Margaret Atwood

img_1910“Storytelling is built in, something human beings do”.

Margaret Atwood filled the Milton Centre for the Arts with energy and enthusiasm for the One Book One Milton event.  She was described as “the force of Canadiana” and the audience shared a love of reading during an inspiring evening of laughter and learning.

Atwood began writing The Heart Goes Last as an online serial, writing in instalments that ended in cliffhangers in the style of Charles Dickens.  She told the audience that once her publisher noticed the serial, it was suggested that she adapt the content into a novel.  To do this, the “connective tissue” was excised, removing the repetitive parts that reminded readers where they had last left off.  Writing in a serial format was a unique experience, especially since she usually finishes a draft and then “messes around with it”.  She described the book  as a “kind of mangled version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream”.

The genesis of this story came from Atwood’s research into prisons while she was writing Alias Grace.  She had visited 19th century Australian prisons and participated in a protest to save the farm program at the Kingston Penitentiary.  She spoke of how prisons had changed over time, how hunter gatherer societies did not have prisons and found other solutions (like death) to deal with discipline needs.  As architecture was built, a need for prisons grew including a history of debtor’s prisons and ransom prisons.  Over time the prisons became more positive as they became penitentiaries and reformatories, teaching prisoners skills and how to read.  More recently there are prisons for profit which creates an incentive to criminalize people to keep them full.

“Anything can be like a prison if you don’t like where you are and can’t get out of it”.

Although the story was written before the American election, Atwood considered how a leader with flaws could appeal to a majority and how if conditions are bad enough, people will give up their freedom.  She shared that there is too much power at the top and not enough being redistributed and how the main characters in the book were desperate, living in their car, making barely enough for gas while they sought a 1950s idealistic experience (a time where there were high paying jobs for everyone, society was stable and everyone knew the rules of society).

The book features a couple, living in their car who see a new life opportunity.  They alternate with another couple spending one month living at home and the other living in a jail.  The couples are not supposed to know anything about their alternates but a note leads to fantasies.  I have not read the book yet and am adding my signed copy to my growing TBR pile.

The conversation was incredulous at times.  Atwood shared where she had gotten the idea of having sex with chickens… yes I did say sex with chickens!  She told the story of being a a literary festival where BC poet, Pat Lane tried to shock the English audience with his poetry. He had shared that a high percentage of American boys had their first sexual experience with a chicken proceeding to read a poem from the perspective of a chicken.

“People think I have a devious and twisted mind but really, I just read the newspaper, and poetry”.

A question was asked about managing the public who know so much, yet nothing about her and she relayed what she learned from older author mentors like Farley Mowat.  He had invented a public Farley Mowat along with the private Farley Mowat who was quiet and serious.  She described how he had been floating in the pool when he told her daughter about an interview where the announcer accidentally introduced him as Fartley Morfat which had the audience chuckling.

“There are always two – the one you see before you and the one who wrote the book… the one who has sublime thoughts and the one who walks the dog”.

When asked about her writing process she spoke of multi-tasking and adjusting her process to fit her life.  When she worked a day job, she wrote at night.  When she had a child, she wrote when her daughter was asleep.  When her daughter went to school, she wrote during the day.  She laughed that she throws things out “constantly” and that she had even written the first 100 pages of Alias Grace and started back to page 1.  She prefers to write with a pen and paper despite the fact she describes her handwriting as illegible.  She had never become a strong typist, choosing the home economics stream over the secretarial stream.

Atwood tends to write strong women characters and in many ways does this as it is easier than writing from the point of view of another gender.  She laughed that when she writes nice male characters that they are described as weak yet which she writes an obnoxious male character she gets asked why she hates men.  Sometimes, we just can’t win!!  When she wrote Oryx and Crake from the point of view of a man, she had a “young man with commitment problems” to give her pointers.

Atwood described writing as pushing a boulder up a hill.  Despite challenges, she keeps on writing and described her “excellent mother” who instilled the values of being a “roll up your sleeves kind of person” who just has to “get through it”.  She encouraged writers to take time to write every day, as “the more you do it, the better you get”.   She was also asked about the challenge of having a book banned and laughed that it “makes my day” as she knows that img_1916this will sell a lot of books!

It was a wonderful author event which ended with a book signing where Atwood graciously signed copies of her books.  I was a bit worried that the author might only sign the books that she was promoting but I left happy with all 5 of my books autographed.  She was also very open to conversation and chatted with me about having seen my blog on twitter.

I was very inspired by this strong author and hope that when  I reach her age (77) that I will have her spunk and energy!  It was an excellent evening spent with Margaret Atwood along with my friends Kim and Ashley.  It was well worth the drive to Milton on a rainy evening!

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Novel Questions: Gail Anderson-Dargatz



pic from gailanderson-dargatz.ca

I had the privilege of meeting Gail Anderson-Dargatz at the Grimsby Author Series in September.  Gail is an author, a supporter of literacy and also provides mentoring and support to other writers.  I have enjoyed the rich fiction of Turtle Valley, A Recipe for Bees and am looking forward to her latest novel The Spawning Grounds (which is on hold at the library) and The Cure for Death by Lightening (my signed copy is in my growing TBR pile).

As part of the Novel Questions series, I am thrilled to share Gail’s responses.  I would like to thank her for these detailed answers which will provide more insight for readers of her beautifully crafted novels.  I hope that everyone is enjoying this new blog feature and am happy to receive comments, suggestions of authors and questions for future Novel Questions.


What is your favourite childhood book?  Why?

The Velveteen Rabbit. My mother gave me a copy, which I still have. I experienced childhood illness and so the book really resonated for me. And, of course, we all had those childhood objects that became very real to us. The book still makes me weep. (I too love this book and treasure the copy that I read to my own children).

Did you always want to be a writer?

My big sister, who is 17 years older than me, tells me I told her I would be a writer when I was seven. She wrote, just as my mother did, and my father was a great reader. I grew up in a house where writing and reading were valued, so both were a natural pastime for me. We were a farm family, though, so I didn’t expect I would make a living doing what I love. That was a wonderful surprise.

Where is your favourite place to write and why?

I used to write in an office. Then I had kids and had no office (we needed the room for them). Even now that I have an office again, I roam around the house with my laptop, writing wherever it feels right. My favorite place to write, though, is at our summer home on Manitoulin Island. I take long walks on the boardwalk and its there that I do much of my “writing,” working out ideas as I stroll and take in the gorgeous dunes and shallow, light-filled bay. Manitoulin is a wonderful, magical writers’ retreat. That’s why we ended up running our Providence Bay Writers’ Camp there. I wanted to share that magical landscape with the writers I work with. (Gail this sounds amazing and I hope to join one of your writers’ camps one day).

What work are you most proud of and why?

I’m proud of my literary novels, and that they’ve done so well both nationally and internationally. But the work I’m most proud of are the literacy learner novels that I write for adults struggling to improve their literacy skills. In the past I wrote these books through ABC Life Literacy’s Good Reads program (Grassroots Press). Now I write them through Orca’s Rapid Reads program. Before these publishers began offering these books, adults who were working on literacy skills had to turn to children’s books. How disheartening! The Rapid Reads novels are “hi-lo” books (high interest, but at grade two to six reading level) written specifically for adults, covering issues of relevance to them, and not teens or middle school children. I’ve heard back from readers that my literacy learner novels were the first books they ever read, and that they fired their interest in reading, and that they have now become avid readers. There is no higher compliment to a writer than that.  (What a great literacy initiative!!!)

What is the last book that you read and why would you recommend it… or not? 

I recommend Ann Eriksson’s The Performance. Here’s why (from the blurb I wrote about Ann’s book):

Ann Eriksson is known for tackling difficult social issues within her writing. Her latest novel, The Performance, is no exception. Eriksson has chosen the privileged world of a concert pianist to illustrate the deep social and economic disparity between the wealthy and those forced through circumstance to live on the street. In The Performance, Eriksson makes us take a hard look at homelessness and forces us to ask uneasy questions of ourselves. Yet she does so within a compelling story and writes of both poverty and music — and the unexpected moments where they intersect — in confident, lyrical prose.

I admire writers who find innovative ways to challenge readers about social issues, but do so without preaching, and Ann manages to do just that with this novel. She’s a deeply compassionate writer.  (This sounds like another book to add to my TBR pile and the description makes me think of Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged People which provides gritty insight into the lives of homeless people and provides a different perspective on how individuals may end up living on the street).

Here is a link my reviews of the Grimsby Author Series event, my  book reviews and to Gail’s website which has a wealth of information.  Special thanks to Gail!!





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100. Gathering Blue (Lois Lowry)

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-9-52-05-pmGathering Blue is the second book in The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry.  Published 7 years after The Giver, it has been my commuting entertainment over the last week.  Initially, I had expected a sequel to The Giver but have been reassured that although not obvious, the 4 stories are linked.

This story was of Kira, a girl with special gifts with a needle and thread who had been born with a leg deformity.  Her mother had been widowed and fought to keep her daughter.  She was in the process of teaching her to sew and had planned to instil her knowledge of dyeing threads.  When her mother unexpectedly became ill and died, she left Kira with only a plot of land.  Due to her disability the other women attempted to run her off her land based on the fact that the community culture was to take those with disabilities to the fields to die.

Instead of being discarded to the fields, Kira is given an important job of repairing the robe of the singer.  This robe was worn yearly during the song of their history.   As she repairs the robe, she learns about the process of dyeing threads and discovers more information about her community and her own gifts.

This novel is thought provoking and makes the reader consider the possibility of life in a future time when civilization as we know it is gone.  It is easy to see why middle schools teach The Giver Quartet.  The narration was engaging and the storyline was easy to follow in the car.  I am looking forward to the next two books.

Posted in Audiobook, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Another Great Reason to Read

Thanks Louise for posting this great link with more excuses…. err… reasons to read!


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Novel Questions: Jodi Picoult



pic from jodipicoult.com

The more events that I attend, the more questions that I have about the authors that I meet and their experience with reading and writing.  Today, I am debuting a new feature on A Year of Books called Novel Questions.  These blog posts will ask 5 quick questions to some of our favourite authors so that we can learn more about them and reflect on these answers as we read their books.

I am very excited to start with Jodi Picoult.  I have had the privilege of meeting her twice in Toronto.  The first event was related to her wonderful novel, Leaving Time and recently related to small great things (look for a review soon).  Jodi is a wonderful presenter and her fiction enables readers to consider important issues through stories.  She has been very busy publishing 23 books so I appreciate her very quick response to my questions.


Q: What is your favourite childhood book? Why?

A:  Where the Wild Things Are.  It is poetry really. (I love this book and read it many times to my own children).

Q: Did you always want to be a writer?Screen Shot 2016-11-26 at 11.14.59 AM.png

A:  Yes

Q:  Where is your favourite place to write and why?

A:  My office because I have everything at my fingertips.

Q: What work are you most proud of and why?

A:  small great things.  Hardest book I’ve ever written and taught me so much about myself.  In today’s world I also feel like it is critical reading. (Jodi – we would welcome you with open arms in Canada!!!)

Q:  What is the last book that you read and why would you recommend it… or not?

A:  Brit Bennett’s The Mothers.  It’s an incredible debut novel.  I can’t wait to see what she does next. (Thanks Jodi – another book to add to my growing TBR pile)

For more information please read reviews of the events and book reviews for the books I have read in the last couple of years on my old site:



and more recently on this site:

Jodi Picoult Event: small great things

and Jodi’s great site:


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Christmas Reading Challenge

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-8-59-24-pmChristmas is coming whether we are ready or not.  During the hustle and bustle of getting ready for this holiday, why not get into the festive spirt by participating in a holiday reading challenge?  You can officially sign up in the Goodreads CanadianContent group or join a long and add your comments and book suggestions below.  Have fun and enjoy the challenge by revisiting old favourites (A Christmas Carol) or finding new books.  Read to yourself or enjoy reading traditional favourites to your family.  Here is the challenge:

1. Read a holiday book that you have never read before.
2. Read a classic favourite holiday story.
3. Read aloud a holiday story to others.
4. Read a story about a holiday that you may not celebrate yourself.
5. Read a holiday story from the library.
6. Listen to a holiday audiobook

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99. An Invisible Thread (Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski)

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-6-14-50-pmThanks to Shannon who recommended this memoir about connection, resilience and love in contrast to terrible life circumstances, poverty and despair.  It is the story of a young, female advertising executive who walks by a poor boy who is panhandling.   The decision she makes has lasting impact on them both.

Laura and Maurice were “destined to meet on the corner of 52nd and Broadway” in New York.  Instead of walking by or just giving him spare change, she took the boy to McDonald’s and fed him dinner and learned a little about him.  This began a pattern of Monday night meet ups and over time, they helped each other and they built a loving relationship.

Maurice had been living in a series of rooms with his drug addicted mother, grandmother, sisters and various uncles who were in trouble with drugs and the law.  Sometimes he did not have food.  He showed up to school late, in dirty clothes and was fighting with others.  He had no supervision and spent much of his time on the streets.

Laura had grown up in a large family.  Her father had abused her mother when he was under the influence of alcohol.  The family were afraid of him but they would just clean up the messes and move on with the next day.  From her difficult childhood she set a goal to get married and have a loving family of her own.  She struggled with relationships.   She ignored red flags and ended up two marriages that ended in divorce and never had biological children of her own.

Maurice and Laura became like family.  He thought of her as his mom after his own mother cleaned herself up only to die of a stroke.  She was a role model and taught him simple things like how to set a table, to do laundry, to work hard and to go to school without fighting.  Maurice became her family.  He spent holidays with her and later shared his own family with her making her proud of the man that he had become.

This was a book that I listened to in the car.  I was not a huge fan of the narration but the story was inspiring and makes one think about the small choices we make every day and the impact that those decisions can have on ourselves and others.

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98. The Witches of New York (Ami McKay)

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-9-04-30-pm“Let that be a lesson to you” her mother had said wagging her finger at her daughter.  “Those who use magic to find what they seek, may not always like what they find.”

After meeting Ami McKay at the Grimsby Author series, I was excited to finish reading her third novel, The Witches of New York.  Her enthusiasm and well-researched knowledge of the history of women’s rights and witches, combined with well-written fiction form an engaging novel that makes the reader consider how lucky we are to live in today’s day and age – and in Canada!

The novel intertwines the stories of 3 strong women:  Adelaide Thom (Moth from The Virgin Cure), Eleanor St. Clair and Beatrice Dunn.  Adelaide and Eleanor run the Tea and Sympathy shop where women visit to have a cup of tea, their palms read and discuss women’s issues at a time where women had little control over their own lives and reproductive health.  Responding to a help wanted advertisement, the young Beatrice arrives to apprentice with the two witches and discovers her own magical talents.

The novel takes place in 1880, at a time when New York was fascinated with the arrival of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian Obelisk.  Readers discover what has happened to Adelaide (Moth) following her departure from the sideshow including learning about a disfiguring attack.  They meet Eleanor and discover her family history of magic and they come to appreciate the young Beatrice who had grown up with her Aunt to be strong and independent.  The three women support each other as they run the tea shop under the watchful eye of a precocious crow named Perdu and spirits who protect and support them.

I love that this book connects with McKay’s family history and deals with women’s rights at a time where they are being challenged by politics south of the border.  Meeting the author added to my experience in reading this fantastic book!  Ami McKay grew up in Indiana but now lives in Nova Scotia where she likes to “keep bees, tend my garden, talk to ravens, and shake the branches of my family tree looking for stories to stare back at me from between its leaves.”  

Reading this book makes me want to reread both The Birth House and The Virgin Cure which I have previously enjoyed. As well, many of my readers know that I have a handful of authors on my “list” of people that I would love to have lunch with and I have added McKay to my growing list!

To learn more about the author event I attended click here.

Posted in Historical Fiction | Tagged , | 2 Comments