Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

In The Fault in Our Stars, the protagonist describes falling in love as “the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”. That’s how I fell in love with this book.

In some ways, I was looking forward to Sorrow’s Knot for the pure magic of Erin Bow’s prose. She has an eerie ability to paint such vivid, startling pictures with just a certain choice of words that I sometimes wonder if she isn’t a wizard. Like it's forerunner, Plain Kate, this book cast a spell over me. Sorrow's Knot is a stunning yet harrowing story about a girl named Otter, a binder of knots that keep back the dead. Her world is a rare one and Erin Bow weaves it well. With rangers and binders and storytellers, with names like Willow and Mad Spider, Otter’s world of the pinch evokes images of an indigenous community untouched by colonialism and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in YA. The friendship between Otter (the protagonist) and Kestrel and Cricket is refreshingly real and all three are so very brave in very different ways. I adored Kestrel’s quietness. My heart thrilled with Cricket’s storytelling. And I ached at Otter’s struggle to find her place in the world.

The most compelling thing about this book, though, is the role of binding and unbinding. In Otter’s community the dead are banished by knots and strings and the binders of these knots are magical, powerful people. But, as Otter's mother tells her, "something is wrong with the knots." And thus, in a story that is largely about loss, the theme of binding things too tightly and the problems that arise with not letting things go becomes its beating heart.

Sorrow’s Knot is a book that looks darkness straight in the face with depth and courage and grace. It sits in the hard, sad places as much as it sits in the light, and that is my favourite kind of story.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Interview with Heather Smith, author of BAYGIRL

We're pretty excited to have a guest with us today: Heather Smith, the author of Baygirl, which hit shelves this month. And we're doubly excited to be hosting her launch at the store this saturday.

Hi Heather! I’m so happy to get a chance to chat with you (and to be a part of your launch!!). First off, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in Newfoundland but now live in Waterloo with my husband and three children. I enjoy running and drinking green tea (not at the same time, that would be dangerous). I’m a terrible multi-tasker and am easily distracted. I actually don’t know how I managed to write a book, but I did, and I hope to do so again, many times over (I’d write different ones of course, writing Baygirl again would be silly).

You are delightful. Okay, in one or two sentences, tell us about Baygirl. Why did you write this book in particular?

Baygirl is the story of a sixteen year old girl whose typical teenage struggles (fitting in, falling in love, finding oneself) are further complicated by the unpredictable behaviour of her alcoholic father.

Although I cannot relate to Kit’s predicament firsthand, as a teenager I had a couple of close friends whose fathers were alcoholics and, as a result, have seen and heard things that stick with me to this day. I’ve witnessed major blow-outs (like the ones Kit and her father regularly have in the book), as well as other, more subtle interactions that can be equally damaging – snide remarks, accusing looks, cold shoulders. I always wondered - how does one forgive the person who has caused them to live their life walking on eggshells?  This is the question I wanted to explore when writing Baygirl. This is why forgiveness is Kit’s biggest dilemma.

Alcoholism touches the lives of many people, both directly and indirectly. That is why Kit’s story was an important one to tell. I hope that anyone, teen or adult, who has spent their life walking on eggshells, can find some comfort in Baygirl.  

Addiction can have such a devastating effect on a person’s life, along with the lives of those they love, and it’s a very difficult thing to escape if one manages to escape it. But it's a real thing that happens to families, and in light of that, I think you portray Kit’s father in a way that’s really fair.

Because we’ve chatted before, I know that you’re originally from St. John’s. Why did you choose to split the book between the city of St. John’s and the town of Parsons Bay?

Yes, St. John’s is my birthplace … which makes me a townie! When writing Baygirl, I thought it would be fun to give my main character a different perspective from my own, so Kit became a “baygirl”.  Splitting the book between the “town” and the “bay” really drove home the differences between the two places and, ultimately, the people who live there. Highlighting the prejudices and preconceived notions that townies have of people from the bay (and vice versa) added to the drama of Kit’s move to the city … as if she didn’t have enough problems!

I really loved your contrast of the town versus the bay. As someone who grew up on a farm but now lives in the city, I could definitely relate to Kit and the uncertainty she feels about where she belongs.

I have to say that my favourite character overall was definitely Kit’s new neighbour, Mr. Adams. He was so endearing, he made me laugh out loud, and his dialect was delightful. You captured him so perfectly. Who was your favourite character to write? Who gave you the most trouble?

My favourite character to write was Mr. Adams. I knew when writing Baygirl that Mr. Adams would be an Englishman and making him hail from Yorkshire was a no-brainer. You see, thanks to the delightful writings of James Herriot, I have a major obsession with the Yorkshire Dales.  In All Creatures Great and Small, Herriot paints a picture of the Dales that is so appealing it makes me want to trade in my life in Canada for a thatched cottage in a Yorkshire village full of quirky townsfolk. It makes me want to pull on a pair of wellie boots and a wax jacket and go frolicking through the dewy meadows. Given my fascination with James Herriot, I’d be gormless (I say, gormless!) not to make Mr. Adams from Yorkshire.

The character who gave me the most trouble was … Mr. Adams. Ee by gum, that dialect was tricky!

Wow, I would never have guessed that you had trouble with him. He really was perfect. And a thatched cottage in a Yorkshire village sounds so cozy and quaint!

Without giving too much away, writing (and writing poetry specifically) becomes a way for Kitty to work through the things that are happening in her life. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or did that happen naturally?

This was not a conscious decision at all. This book was written fairly chronologically, so when I got to the part where Kit was missing Parsons Bay having her write a letter to Anne-Marie came naturally. I wanted to illustrate how devastating moving away can be by showing, through Kit’s letter writing, how her and Anne-Marie were drifting apart. This naturally evolved into writing becoming an outlet for Kit and, from there, became more of a theme throughout the novel.

How long did it take you to write this book? What was the hardest part and what was the best part?

I started writing Baygirl many years ago when I was in a writing class led by Kathy Stinson. The book got off to a great start but, at the time, I had three young children and writing time was limited.  It eventually became a forgotten file, lost on my computer, until two years ago, when my youngest started school full-time. It was then that Baygirl was resurrected and I was able to give it the quality time it deserved.

Find Heather on her website and on twitter
The hardest part of writing Baygirl was the editing process, although I think a more fitting word would be challenging. I say this only because Baygirl is my first published novel and the whole process was new. I’d never worked with an editor before and the whole idea was initially daunting. As it turned out, however, the editing process was also thoroughly enjoyable. My editor, Sarah Harvey, was (is!) fantastic and working under deadlines made me push myself in ways that only a ticking clock can do. I loved the going back and forth, the tightening of text, the whittling down of words. The whole process truly made me a better writer.

The best part of writing Baygirl was when I’d be struck by moments of clarity - when the tangled knot of words I’d been staring at for hours would magically unravel to become what my mind’s eye had intended them to be. It really is the best feeling and is my favourite part of writing in general.

Are you like Kitty - do you use writing as a way to work through things or respond to the world around you? Or do you write for other reasons?

I absolutely write as a way to work through or respond to things. I don’t know how many times I have written full essays that never see the light of day. For me, the act of writing it down is a release. Once it’s on paper I can move on.

Mostly I write because I have no space in my head for the stories that live there, so I evict them and help them find their home on paper.

Do you have a special or favourite place to write?

At home, in my empty, quiet house.

Because writing and reading are so inter-related, I have to ask: what have you been reading lately that you want to shout about from the rooftops?

The last three books I have read have all been great and are all very different from each other.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.  Beautiful, haunting, one that stays with you long after you’ve snapped the book shut.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. This book reads like a Hollywood romantic comedy script, which isn’t always my thing. But the main character is so quirkily charming I was quickly whisked off my feet and didn’t touch solid ground again until I’d reached the last page.

Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden. Interesting look at World War I through the eyes of an aboriginal solider. I’m always amazed when horrible things are told in a beautiful way.

Ah, I’ve been wanting to read Annabel for a long time now. Maybe this will be my reason to finally pick it up.

Okay, last of all, what are you working on right now? Can you tell us a little bit about your next project or is it top secret?

My latest project is about a teenaged boy who, in a bid for attention, vandalizes a war memorial just days before Remembrance Day. After navigating the youth justice system alone, he is placed in a community service program in which he must regularly meet with a World War II veteran. The subject matter is pretty heavy at times but the stories that are told are ones that should never be forgotten.

Whoa. I am intrigued. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks so much for answering all my questions, Heather, and I look forward to your upcoming launch!

Words Worth Books will be hosting Heather's book launch this saturday, September 21, starting at 7pm. Come hear Heather read from the book, pick up your own signed copy, and enjoy some Newfoundland songs and snacks.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Jane, the fox & me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault: a review

Synopsis: Hélène is teased by kids at her school. They call her fat and smelly and write mean things about her on the walls in the washroom. Hélène finds solace in books, and her current favourite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. A compulsory school camping trip seems like it will be a locus for more heartache, but a visit from a lonely fox one night outside the tent signals the start of something new for Hélène.

My thoughts: I've always thought that the graphic novel is the perfect format for a coming-of-age story. When done right, the writing can be sparse and precise and the pictures can do some of the heavy lifting required to open the protagonist's soul to the reader. In Jane, the fox & me, Fanny Britt's sensitive story is paired exquisitely with illustrator Isabelle Arsenault's stunning colour pencil, gouache, ink and watercolour drawings. Arsenault perfectly captures both the beauty and torment of Hélène's world. When Hélène narrates the sadness of her school life the palette is soft, muted grays and black. When Hélène is reading Jane Eyre the canvas suddenly explodes into vivid, focused oranges, pinks and reds that fairly jump off the page.
Jane Eyre is the perfect story for someone like Hélène. Jane is an outcast, and so is Hélène. Jane is lonely, and so is Hélène. Each young woman desires companionship and acceptance. Ultimately, they both find what they desire: someone to talk to, someone who will bring out the best in them, and maybe even change the way they look at the world. Similarly, sometimes a story, when told right, can make you see the world in a different light too. For me, Jane, the fox & me was this type of story. I loved every panel of it.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser - a review

This beautiful, haunting story opens with an extremely weighty scene: Taylor witnessing her sister Tannis’s autopsy after Tannis is beaten to death by her partner (which Taylor also witnessed). This first scene is so stark and grim that I can still recall it entirely, days after reading it, with that same cold chill it first invoked in me. In fact, I spent most of this book with my fingers digging into the pages, plagued by a sense of dread at what was coming. Why? Because Lily and Taylor is a story about being powerless (or at least perceiving yourself as powerless) in the face of violence and abuse and trauma. But that's not all the book is; it's also a story about love and friendship and strength.

Both Lily and Taylor have suffered significant losses in their lives. Both of them have witnessed the women around them battered by the men who supposedly love them. And both girls have learned to cope with this reality differently. Lily has learned to minimize damage by reading people, analyzing a situation, and responding with lightheartedness or humour. Taylor has learned how to minimize damage by diminishing herself and absorbing abuse (in fact, she convinces herself that this is the only thing she’s good at).

Needless to say, the book is heavy. But it's that heaviness that allows for the beautiful, shining strength at its core, one that derives directly from the friendship that develops between the two girls – a rarity in YA, and a treasure. It’s their love for each other that enables them to get out of a very dangerous situation and, most particularly, it is Taylor’s admiration of Lily’s strength that allows her to discover her own.

In Lily and Taylor Elise Moser never shies away from portraying the real things that happen to real girls every single day. And that not only takes courage, but it gives courage too. (Much like Lily herself.)

Personally, I think this book is flawless.



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