Alison Pick: Grimsby Author Series

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 3.55.36 PM“Fiction is about empathy, about imagining ourselves in a different world”.

The November session of the Grimsby Author Series included novelist and poet, Alison Pick.  She joined to  speak about her latest book, Strangers with the Same Dream.  Described by the host, Ken,  as “a riveting and sensitive novel”, which is “part love story and party mystery”.  Set in 1921 Palestine, it tells the story of Jewish settlers, setting up a kibbutz, from 3 different points of view.

Pick’s own family had hidden their Jewish roots, escaping Auschwitz by converting to Christianity.  She had converted back to Judaism and travelled to Israel, visiting a kibbutz three times, feeling a sense of belonging which inspired this book.

“Fiction is about opening up questions, asking more questions”

Pick “loves everything about writing, except titles”.  She spent 3 years working on this novel, plotting it out on 3 sheets of bristol board.  She feels that she has a great responsibility to get the story correct so has taken her research and fact checking seriously.

Although I have not read any of her work, I am looking forward to reading my signed copy of her memoir, Between Gods.

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Roz Nay: Different Drummer Books

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 11.15.22 AMAs I catch up on author event posts from 2017, I can’t forget an eventing spent with Roz Nay and Robin Harding at the charming Different Drummer Books in Burlington.  The two West Coast authors complimented each other and the small crowd provided an intimate setting for questions and discussion.

Our Little Secret was Nay’s first book.  I love visualizing her writing at the kitchen table, in the midst of lego, glitter and craft supplies.  After moving to Canada, her husband signed her up for a writing course so that she could “do something just for you”.  The story began as a 1000 word writing assignment and the end result was Our Little Secret.

Working 4 days a week as a clerical assistant in child protection, she gets up at 0500 hours to write for two hours before getting into mom-mode and later heading to the office. She described herself as a bit of a “drifter” who had travelled and snowboarded in her younger days.  She had no clear direction but had a habit of writing things down in a journal which is now finding its way into her writing.

Our Little Secret is a psychological thriller told from a police interrogation room.  The unreliable main character takes you on a journey through a nostalgic, meandering story returning back to high school and university.

What is next?  Roz has just completed edits for a second thriller which will be published in the fall of 2018.  It features two sisters, bound by a tragic event, and deals with the question of how far they will go to protect each other.  Her professional experience in child protection influenced the storyline which includes a missing child.

Nay becomes totally engrossed in her writing and does not read for several months at a time.  I always love to know what authors are currently reading and she recommended:

I left the event with a signed copy and it was hard to put down Our Little Secret until the mystery was solved.  It was inspiring to think of Nay writing while busy raising her young family and I look forward to her second novel.

Thanks to Ian at Different Drummer Books who brings in interesting authors and hosts a number of author events in the Burlington area!

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A.J. Finn: Harper Collins Event

img_1227It was worth a mid-week trip to Toronto to meet A.J. Finn at the Harper Collins office (and special thanks to Sarah who drove since I could not manage public transit on crutches)!  The Woman in the Window hit the shelves on January 2nd and by the 21st had made the top spot on the New York Times list!  This is an amazing accomplishment by a first time author!  The novel is so popular that there are over 60 holds for this title at my local library!  Thanks to a donation by Harper Collins,  the lucky patrons of the Franklin Street Little Free Library, can borrow a copy!

Growing up reading Agatha Christie, Sherlock Homes and The Hardy Boys, Finn wrote his first novel in New York (despite its’ large population, he feels it is the loneliest city).  It is a psychologic suspense inspired by his love for old films and his experience spying on a neighbour after seeing a light on across the street.  This motivated him to write a 21st century take on the 1954 movie Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Finn wants readers to experience other lives by reading and his protagonist is a woman, with agoraphobia, who is housebound by trauma and self-medication.  He disclosed his own mental health challenges to the audience which was timely since January 31st had been Bell’s Let’s Talk day (a day to promote awareness of the importance to talk about mental health).  At the age of 21, Finn was diagnosed with severe clinical depression.  After 15 years of treatments, including ECT and ketamine, he met a new psychiatrist and was re-diagnosed with bipolar disease.  With the correct diagnosis, he felt well enough to start on this creative endeavour.

In a time when there are many books with “girl” in the title, he knew that he did not want to “infantilize” Anna.  She was a woman, living her own mess and he wanted her to be credible and well-rounded.  Anna was unable to leave her home, but she did study French, watch old movies and support other individuals with agoraphobia.  In writing from a female perspective, he asked both his sisters and his agents to review it for authenticity.

As Anna participates in chat rooms, she keeps tabs on her neighbours through her camera lens and via social media.  It is a voyeur that she witnesses an act of violence in a neighbouring home. This premise is intriguing and I am looking forward to reading this book and watching Rear Window.  The Woman in the Window will be our March book club pick as suggested by Robyn Harding (author of The Party).

Finn’s was employed, in publishing, as he wrote his first novel – he has since retired!  He would write in the evenings and on weekends, listening to electronica or pop (in another language so he would not get caught up with the words).  He noted his habit for “coke”, laughing and clarifying the “delicious poison” was a drink and that he had adapted to earl grey tea.

This extremely energetic author told the group that he had been heading out on vacation when he received a call from Fox with an “exploding offer“.  His book had not even been published and he had a one million dollar offer that he needed to accept or reject on the spot!

He signed books and chatted with readers after the discussion, sharing that he is working on his second novel.  It will be set in San Francisco and is in the “vein of Agatha Christie”.

I am always curious about what authors like to read and his favourite authors include:

  • Henry James
  • Sherlock Homes
  • Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl)
  • Donna French
  • Kate Atkinson
  • Charles Dickens
  • Graham Greene
  • Patricia Highsmith (who he loves as she convinces readers to “root for the bad guys”

It was a fantastic evening and worth the trip into Toronto.  Harper Collins hosts terrific events and I have been privileged to meet great authors like A.J. Finn, David Nicholls (Us) and Nadia Hashimi (When the Moon is Low, The Pearl that Broke its’ Shell).  I love that participants leave with a copy of the book and a Harper Collins mug.

Thank you Harper Collins for both the great evening and the extra copy of The Woman in the Window for the LFL!!

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Jennifer Robson: Bell City Author Series

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 11.00.56 PMIn January, the Brantford Public Library began the Bell City Author Series with a fabulous evening with Jennifer Robson.  After previously meeting her in Burlington (May 2017) and learning about Goodnight from London, I was thrilled that she spent most of her time speaking about her upcoming book, The Gown.

Jennifer is not only a historian but laughed that she has been known as “the most successful Canadian author your have never heard of”.  Here are a few fun facts from the evening:

  • A Morrison Sandwich is NOT bought from a delicatessen but is what happens when the walls of bomb shelters blow out, causing the roof to collapse and make the people the middle of the “sandwich”.
  • Anne Shirley is her favourite fictional character – she is one of mine too and if you have not completed the 8 books in the Anne of Green Gables series, it is time to revisit these Canadian classics!
  • Her first book was written on maternity leave, caring for a baby and toddler – many parents have trouble even taking a shower during these months yet Robson was able to write a novel!
  • She publishes a book every 12-18 months.
  • While she writes one book, she is edits another and speaks about a third.

Robson did highlight Goodnight from London and how remarkable her grandmother had been.  She was a journalist in the 1930s and 1940s working in a “man’s world” of bum pinching and sexual harassment.  When most of the newsroom was sent overseas, her grandmother got her chance to be a journalist.  She shared some vintage pictures of her grandmother stepping out in style back in the day.

She just finished writing The Gown which is the story of Queen Elizabeth’s, intricate bridal gown from the perspective of a seamstress.  Despite the poverty, the coal shortage and the rationing, England celebrated this wedding.  The ceremony may have been scaled back but not the gown!

Robson researched the gown, traveled to England and toured the studio where it was embroidered.  She met the remaining seamstress who worked on the gown, now 90 years old, who had sewn each button hole on the dress with painstaking precision.  The author learned how to embroider a flower and how amazing it was that the gown was completed in just 7 weeks time.  I look forward to this book  release and will add it to my collection which now includes:

The evening included a great discussion, Wayne Gretzky wine and a book signing.  Although I already have signed copies of all her novels, it was great to chat with Robson at the end of the evening.  It is terrific to have a local author series… although I will continue joining the Grimsby Author series too, especially since my book partner in crime’s birthday goal is to meet 50 authors this year!

Reading recommendation:  Jennifer suggests reading The Alice  Network although she cautioned the crowd NOT to begin it at 10pm as it is difficult to put down!

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Kristin Hannah

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 9.18.00 PMFreezing rain warnings, slush and even the wrong location did not stop Kim and I from meeting Kristin Hannah.  Despite the weather, the room was full of avid readers, keen to hear her speak about her newest novel, The Great Alone.

After reading The Nightingale, I was keen to learn more about The Great Alone.  She shared that being influenced by binge watching Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones she realized that “she could throw bad things at” her characters and “see how they survive” .  This has helped her grow as a writer and a woman and she has changed the focus of her last two novels to more serious topics.

The Great Alone has glimpses of Hannah’s childhood represented by the setting of Alaska.  When Ernt lost another job, the Albright family drove their Volkswagen bus North and attempted to escape the demons of Ernt’s PTSD.   His wife Cora and daughter Leni, travelled with him and hoped to leave their challenges behind.  They later realized how isolating an Alaskan winter, with 18 hours of darkness each day, could be.

“My family has had a long history in Alaska. My parents joined with a local Alaskan homesteading family to found the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge on the rugged banks of the Kenai River. Three generations of my family have worked there, and over the last twenty years I have spent a lot of time up there. Every time I land in that majestic, otherworldly landscape, I fall in love all over again” (https://kristinhannah.com/newsletter/january-2018/) .

The strength and resilience of the women of the North was a key theme.  Many women followed men to the North, only to remain when the men fled back South.  Hannah laughed that she had heard “it’s easy to find a man in Alaska, the odds are good but the goods are odd”!  She notes that writing is like therapy and that the character of Leni had some similarities to her life – not the domestic abuse but the moving around, changing schools and a lack of cool clothes.

“the way I got through that was books”

Hannah referred to herself as a “recovering lawyer”.  She was a 25 year old student, when her mother was dying of cancer.  As she grumbled about her corporate law class, her mom told her not to worry, she would be a writer anyways.  As she spent time with her mom, they worked on ideas for a book.  Years later while practicing law, Hannah went into labour at 14 weeks leaving her on bedrest for the remainder of her pregnancy.  Her husband pulled out the materials from the book she had attempted to write with her mom which inspired her to write.  Two years after her son was born, she published her first novel.

Having only read The Nightingale, I had not realized that her earlier books were historical romances.  The Nightingale was a fabulous historical fiction novel set in WWII France.  She shared how difficult it was to write a book worrying that would follow the success of The Nightingale.  She decided to write a book that could not be compared.  It was a domestic thriller, set in Alaska and needed to be thrown out.  All that she kept was the Alaskan setting and a few of the characters involved in a completely new plot to form The Great Alone.

Hannah described her writing as a collaborative process.  She writes, shares with her writing partner and trusted others to brainstorm and discuss.  She wants to learn the strengths and weaknesses and keeps starting over, rewriting and making changes.  At present, she admitted to being 25 pages into a novel that would be relating to the strength and durability of women with stories at risk of disappearing as the women die taking their memories with them.  She spoke of the importance of capturing these stories since so much of history is written from a male perspective.  The audience laughed when she said she wanted to “remind people how badass we are”!

It was amusing to learn that she writes long hand on yellow legal pads, writing chronologically.  She shared that it is “like watching a movie in my head and transcribing it”.  She does not worry if the writing is “good” but just gets her thoughts down as you “can always fix something that is written, I can’t fix something that isn’t there” – this is good advice which I need to consider when I start writing with perfectionist tendencies.

It is always great to learn what authors are reading.  The audience learned that Hannah is a “Stephen King Girl” and loves J.K. Rowling books.  The Shadow of the Wind and Gentleman in Moscow are her recent favourites.

Kristin Hannah was inspiring and I am looking forward to reading The Great Alone and her future books.  After an adventurous trip, the weather ended up being fine and we had a great literary afternoon!

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15. Granta Canada 141 (Autumn 2017)

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 9.40.27 AMWhat is Granta you might ask?  It is the “magazine of new writing”.  Their website describes that “each themed issue of Granta turns the attention of the world’s best writers on to one aspect of the way we live now”.  Founded in 1889 and named after a river flowing near the Cambridge University, it is a quarterly celebrated for its’ themed issues.  Although it is categorized as a magazine, it is a really more like a book, an anthology or a collection of stories.

Thank you to Louise for sending me this gift.  I have enjoyed the first issue with short stories, poems and photo essays by Canadian authors.  Edited by Madeleine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing) and Catherine Leroux (The Party Wall), I was moved by the first story, Mangilaluk’s Highway, describing the deadly trek of 3 boys escaping from residential school.  One boy survived yet has spent his life wondering why?

Lagamorph was a curious tale of a pet bunny submitted by Alexander MacLeod.  Parents can relate to the experience of a pet becoming their task and being much more work than initially anticipated.  The scene with the snake will be forever etched in my mind!

Margaret Atwood submitted The Martians Calm Canada which accompanied an original drawing by the author.  Her tale describes Martians accidentally arriving in Canada on their way to a musical in New York.  They encounter mushrooms who describe Canada to the extraterrestrials. In true Margaret Atwood style, she comments on the current events through her writing.

Granta is a magazine, an anthology really, that shares a unique mix of storytelling by Canadian artists.  A few of the entries were very creative head scratchers.  I am not sure what to make of them and was happy that they were short but these were mixed in with some great writing.

Overall, Granta was a collection of writing to read a little bit at a time, to slowly enjoy and to appreciate the creativity of Canadian writers.  I am looking forward to the next collection which is called Animalia.

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14. Precious Cargo (Craig Davidson)

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-10-47-47-amPrecious Cargo had been sitting on my shelf since I met Craig Davidson at the Grimsby Author Series in November 2016.  I picked it up again when I met Craig at the One Book One Brant Event in April 2017 which united the community to read his novel, Cataract City.  The third time, I was reminded to pick up Precious Cargo was when it was announced as part of the 2018 Canada Reads short-list.  It seemed appropriate that I had procrastinated reading this gem until it was chosen for Canada Reads, one of my favourite Canadian book events.

This book is heartwarming, it is sweet, it is reflective and, at times, it is funny.  It leads the reader to think about the challenges that everyone faces.  No one is immune to hardship, yet some challenges are more overtly seen by others.  Craig begins sharing that he was down on his luck.  He had quit a job at the library after a disagreement over watering a ficus plant.  He was not qualified to work as a worm harvester and was not the successful candidate for a lunch monitor position.  When he came across a flyer seeking school bus drivers, he embarked on a year of learning about himself, witnessing some shocking human nature and the understanding the challenges faced by his students (and their families).

Precious Cargo is open, honest and at times heartbreaking.  It is a book to open your eyes, to make readers think about their own reactions.  Do you avert your eyes from an individual with cerebral palsy?  Does your child invite their classmates with autism to the party?  Have you ever made comments about the short bus?  How do you react if your kids use the “r” word or slap their hand against their chest signifying the word?

This book is about acceptance – of the author himself as he struggled to make ends meet and the children who experienced day to day challenges at school and making their way in the world.  It is about caring, kindness, laughter.  It is about taking a chance, doing something new and being open to experience.

One constructive criticism was that I did not love the additions of his unpublished novel, The Seekers into the book.  These snippets were interspersed between the chapters and I am not sure that they added to the story.  Despite these sections, I truly believe that this is one book that Canada should read.

Precious Cargo is a book that young and old can learn from.  It is a book that causes reflection and will inspire kindness.  Perhaps we can all learn from Craig’s experience driving a bus and getting to know some remarkable children who taught Craig some lessons on the journey.

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13. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Margareta Magnusson)

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 11.04.51 AMThe Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family of a Lifetime of Clutter is a simple guide to cleaning house and ensuring your family does not inherit a house of clutter, junk and memories to sort through after death.  It is a simple, quick read with reminders and suggestions to tame the stuff of everyday lives.

Margareta Magnusson describes herself as being between eighty and one hundred years old.  I picture her as a spry octogenarian who has kept current with technology.  She described getting help to organize her computer and recommended organizing pictures on a USB key which might not be common for her age demographic.  She shares her experiences cleaning the homes of loved ones after they passed and her own experience downsizing her own things.

The ideas in her book are simple, de-cluttering, considering purchases and organizing.  It makes a reader consider the possessions that are important to us, those that we would want to give to others, those that might end up in the dump and those that might be embarrassing when found!  I joke with my kids that I don’t want to see my signed book collection ending up in a big garage sale!

This book reminds me of the monumental task that Plum Johnson had as she described her experience clearing her family home in They Left Us Everything.  It also makes me consider the story of Stone Diaries and how Daisy’s life in a long-term care home was reduced to a drawer with a few items once the family home is sold, the children have grown up and spouses are deceased.  The three books make one consider their possessions and focus on what is truly important.

This is a quick read and one that I would recommend borrowing from the library.  The ideas are simple and common sense so it is more of an inspiration to get more organized and get rid of clutter.

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12. Suzanne (Anais Barbeau-Lavalette)

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.55.42 PMSuzanne was a beautifully written, creative fictional story of the author’s maternal grandmother.  She researched, imagined and pieced together a life lost to her family.  She wrote the story trying to recreate her grandmother’s life after discovering a selection of pictures after her death in 2009.

This novel was written in French by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette and later translated into English by Rhonda Mullins.  I am happy that it was part of the Canada Reads 2018 long-list or I may have missed this rich narrative altogether.  I also loved how Coach House Books published Suzanne with thick, quality paper – the same paper used when they published Fifteen Dogs which was the 2017 Canada Reads winner.

After reading The Book of Eve, last week, the similarities were obvious.  Both tales are set in Montreal (or at least part of Suzanne) with a strong, female characters that struggled against the expectations of society.  While Eva ran away from her spouse after her son was grown, Suzanne escaped parenthood, marriage and her role as a daughter while seeking her freedom, creativity and independence.  Suzanne was an artist and had created both poetry and paintings.

The story is told by Suzanne’s grand-daughter.  It is written in short snippets of text, broken down into segments of time as the author recreates Suzanne’s independence during the Quebec revolution, women’s liberation and civil rights campaigns.  Three generations are forever impacted by her absence and her grand-daughter weaves a fascinating family history.

More details are available in an article, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s Book Suzanne explores the meaning -and cost- of freedom as published in the Montreal Gazette.

Both the novel and article leave the reader thinking about Suzanne.  I would definitely recommend taking some time to read this unique creative history of a an independent woman who gave up her family for her freedom.  although Suzanne was not part of the Canada Reads Short List, I do think that this is an “eye-opening” story which would be great to pick up… after you read the short list!

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11. The Wisdom of Sundays (Oprah Winfrey)

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.30.47 PMFiguring that I would gain some wisdom from the guests of Oprah’s Super Soul Sundays, I borrowed the compilation of highlights, The Wisdom of Sundays:  Life-Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations, from the library.  While I enjoyed the texture of the cover, the rich pictures and thick pages, I was disappointed to discover less a strong religions focus rather than a more generic spiritual focus.

Now sharing my opinion, I did find some words of wisdom including:

“Over time are negative about someone else, we are actually affecting ourselves.  and the other think that’s important is every time you judge someone else, it’s just a projection of our own self-judgement” (Jack Canfield).

In fairness, the book does have some helpful ideas from spiritual thought leaders (some that I recall after returning the book are Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Giller, Deepak Chopra and Shonda Rhymes).  I am sure that it has been a bestseller as the knowledge is pulled together from Oprah’s interviews.  Perhaps the podcasts are more helpful than the snippets in a book.

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