Figuring Stuff Out

We writers want to figure things out and say them. Whether we explore our ideas/opinions on the ways of the world in novel or in essay form, it is what we do. We try to figure stuff out. It’s as simple as that. At least it is for me.

But, oddly, I often don’t know what I want to say until I’ve said it. Or my characters have said or done it.

It is in the writing process, in listening to the voices and demands of the characters in our heads, that the figuring out happens, that the story emerges.

New Year’s resolution and The Swallow by Charis Cotter

My resolution this year in regard to my website was in two parts. The first was to do something on it at least every Friday. So far so good.

The second part was to blog about process as opposed to product. So far not so good. Since being nudged to do that by a friend, I read the YA book The Swallow.

It is a delightful, well written and conceived book about two lonely girls, very much opposite in character. Polly is part of a large noisy family, Rose an only child with absent parents. They live side by side overlooking a cemetery. Polly wants to see ghosts; Rose sees too many. They meet and together unravel a mystery that takes a quirky twist at the end.

So nothing about my process and yet another short review of a YA book. But that book is well worth it.

Happy New Year.

On Re-reading

Each time you read a book, you read it differently. At least I do. With the Poisonwood Bible, I read the first time for the story, the second for the luscious writing.

Recently I happened upon Emily’s Quest, the third in the Emily series by L.M. Montgomery. I remembered from my teens Emily’s great friendship with Teddy and  her various other attractions. This time, guess what? This reading was totally different. I had no recollection of her angst about her writing. And how I related.

–her three o’clocks “that found her wide eyed and anguished.” (37)

–her daylights “that found things less tragic and more endurable” (38)

–her “dream-world into which she could escape” (40)

–the elation of finishing a manuscript: “Finished–Complete! There it lay….her first book. Not a great book–oh no, but hers–her very own.”

–rejections: “their readers had found some merit in the story but not enough to warrant an acceptance.” And the doubt that follows. (55)

–times and agony of no writing, of feeling she can’t write (8, 65, 115)

–the joy that she knew she could write (116)

–her “mania for scribbling” (3)

It goes on and on and  I enjoyed every bit. I felt I was hearing Montgomery’s experience and somehow it was comforting. Who knew?

Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat

As you can tell I am not sleeping.

Last night I read Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat (Razorbill 2014). This is a very good YA novel, the best I have read in quite some time.

Ellen has a secret history, Jim too. They meet in 1915 as stewardess and fire stoker on the Empress of Ireland. This is their love story.

Ellen survives the sinking of The Empress—Canada’s worst naval disaster—only to be harassed by a journalist from The New York Times. She is desperate to discover Jim’s fate. But when the journalist admits to having Jim’s journal she reluctantly reveals her secrets in return for being able to read it herself .

The book is well written and researched, with many layers and much emotional complexity. The structure involves chapters going back and forth in time and initially I had to keep checking the day or the month. But it was worth it and definitely  a sleepless night well spent.

Five stars.

The New Normal by Ashley Little

I only review books I like.

Over the last few months, as usual, I have read a lot—adult and YA and middle grade. They stack up beside my bed and I read them every night, especially when I am sleepless. But as you can tell not many made the to-be-reviewed grade. The latest, The New Normal by Ashley Little (Orca 2013), has.

It’s a story of loss.

Tamar Robinson’s twin sisters have died in a car crash and her whole family are reacting to their deaths, each in their own way, for good or not so good. Tamar is determined to get on with life but her body doesn’t cooperate: she loses all the hair on her body. Embarrassment. Rage. Regret. It all figures in.

This is a poignant, even sometimes humorous, study of dealing with life’s incredible difficulties and, with tenacity, finding a new normal.

Uncertain Soldier by Karen Bass

Uncertain soldier by Karen Bass is a YA novel set in Alberta (mostly close to Spirit River in the Peace region) during WWII. It is a study of power, who has it, who uses it, who abuses it and of the response to lack of power. It explores questions around why people hurt each other, on purpose, in the open or behind backs —at the level of nations (war), at the level of community (anti anyone who is German, Aboriginal), at the level of the individual (bullying in school, parents beating children).

Set at first in a POW camp, but mostly in a logging camp using POWs as labour, the story surrounds Erich a 17-year old German boy captured at sea when his vessel burned and sank and 12-year old Max, Canadian son of German immigrants and a target in school. Somehow Bass weaves a story around finding the cause of the “accidents” happening at the camp. There is a complex caste of characters and she does an admirable job at creating complicated motives for their actions.

As with her other books (Run like Jager, Drummer Girl, Summer of Fire and the Hill are the ones I have read), I recommend this highly. I especially suggest this would be great read in a classroom setting—discussing similar situations in today’s context and exploring the ethical issues they present.

Camp Outlook by Brenda Baker

Another middle grade book that is very worth looking at. Shannon and her family have been doing everything, and I mean everything, so that her mother will have a sibling for Shannon, another child for the family. Because of the hopes rising and frequently dashed life is pretty difficult at home. Finally Shannon’s mother holds the pregnancy and all seems great.

Shannon is the marvellous protagonist and narrator of this book as she is forced to go to a church camp when she doesn’t believe in God and to find some understanding about what her family is going through. It is delightfully unexpected.

My sister had a similarly handicapped son. I thought I understood what she went through. Maybe I did, a bit, maybe alot. But I never thought about the older siblings.

Well done Brenda Baker.

Another YA book: Drummer Girl by Karen Bass

Yes, of course as a writer I read YA and middle grade books. Some are decent, some are good. In my opinion Drummer Girl is well written and covers the complex issues around peer pressure and high school bullying/abuse/assault. (Yes, whether we like it or not, there is complexity and even perhaps nuance.)

Sid is a girl drummer who wants to get into the coolest school band. Does she have to change who she is to be one of the in-group? More deeply, do girls have to play into the sexualized expectations of boys?

A good read. Well done Karen Bass.


Summer reads and re-reads

Life has interfered this summer with my writing but, happily, not with my reading.

I have had fun with Vick Delany’s Constable Molly Smith series set in a fictitious town in the Kootenays. They’re light, reasonably written and, the more I read, the more I like the characters. As with most series they stand alone, but reading in order would be preferred. My only negative comment is the annoying number of typos which the editors have not caught.

I have read a number of YA and MG fiction. The one that stood out for me was Gail Gallant’s Apparition. Well written, well crafted, it kept me reading well into the wee small hours. I look forward to the follow-up.

My favourite was a re-read. I read the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver years ago and loved it. But even at the time I realized I was reading for the story. I have read most of Kingsolver’s other books and also enjoyed them, but still always preferring Prodigal Summer because of the lusciousness of the text. Second time around with the Poisonwood Bible, however, I have returned to it as my favourite. This read I reacquainted myself with the story line  but mostly examined and savoured her writing. And it is worth savouring. And it also speaks to a world that has not changed, unfortunately.

Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence

A gentle read, if you can call a war story gentle, of a Canadian Prairie girl’s experience of and in World War II as an aerial photographic interpreter. This adult (but a YA could read it) novel gives a deeper understanding of every day life for the average Britisher and a real sense of one woman’s war.

Pleasantly surprised at how the story captured me, I read late into the night to find out what happened to Rose.