March 25th, 2017

Constant excitement

Oh boy. We had the launch party on Wednesday evening and despite me being pretty intense about the whole thing–I showed up over an hour early “just in case,” and then when everything appeared to be fine went out to dinner with friends but didn’t eat–it was really a lovely, loving evening. The M&S publicity staff did a great job setting up a party with wine and cheese and books and chairs for all who wanted them, and my brilliant editor Anita Chong made a lovely speech where she put the brilliance all on me (lies!) I was truly touched by how many friends, old and new, came out to wish the book well on its journey into the world. It was pretty great to have my family there, and as a special favour I had asked my in-laws to extend their vacation in Toronto half a week to be there too, and they did it, and even baked me a cake. And my brother- and sister-in-law even managed to get my niece there for part of the evening, no mean feat with a two year old. I laughed, I didn’t really cry too much, there was a lot of gorgeous cheese, and I received many hugs. It was intense, but great–and then some friends drove me off to finally get some food and I kind of slowly and gently collapsed. One cannot do too many evenings like that in a lifetime, but I’m glad this one happened happened.

Then I spent Thursday evening frantically working on the lecture I gave Friday at Laurentian University (Barrie campus) on the women in media/gender studies themes in my novel. They are most certainly there, but it is not necessarily a novelist’s role to pull them out or identify them, so it was a bit challenging to talk about my process with the book and stay in line with the the syllabus’s goals, but the class seemed to go well and I certainly enjoyed talking to the youth, so we’ll count it a win.

I’m taking this weekend off from book stuff, but on Tuesday I fly to Vancouver for more. Wednesday is a “media day,” in which I do interviews around Vancouver. Since those are local outlets, I don’t know that I’ll be able to share any of the results here, but if I can, you know I will. Then that evening I am very much looking forward to returning to the Incite reading series presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival and the Vancouver Public Library, where I’ll be reading with Janet McNulty and Lori McNulty. Hooray!

After spending Thursday frolicking in Vancouver (please don’t rain) I’ll be back in Toronto Friday morning to prepare for my Friday evening event at the Ontario Writers’ Conference Festival of Authors. That is in Pickering, suburban friends–please stop by if you are free. I have to admit that tickets–available on the site–are a bit pricy at $20, but I will try to make it worth your while. Also, I hear there are snacks.

After that, I plan to collapse or else start living in my car in order to defend it from being towed as my parking lot is being torn down and my poor car is homeless. This is really not your concern but is taking up a lot of space in my brain! ANYWAY, elsewhere on the internet there was a nice blog review of So Much Love posted today at Literary Hoarders and yesterday a lovely interview I did with Brad de Roo went up at Canadian Notes and Queries. That one was one of the most thoughtful and well-read interviews I’ve done in recent memory, and it was a real pleasure as a challenge to answer Brad’s questions–I hope you enjoy it.

Things promise to calm down soon–well, by the end of April anyway–and I will make an attempt to talk about something other than myself/my book in my next blog post but really, all this attention for SML is pretty thrilling and I am most certainly grateful for it.

March 14th, 2017

Launch day!

So Much Love is real and available for your reading pleasure in stores, online, and–I believe–in libraries today. You can get a hard copy or digital in myriad formats, and then you can read it and see what I’ve been working on all this time–and even tell me what you think? I fixed my contact page so I’m easy to write to!

This isn’t the celebration I was anticipating for this book–things are challenging for me right now and I haven’t been able to do the obvious thing, go to a bookstore and visit my book out in the world. There have been some reports that it is truly out there, though–even on tables, even actually purchased by actual humans! So I’m semi-satisfied with that, though hopefully I’ll get out there myself soon.

But lots of stuff is upcoming, book-wise–perhaps I will eventually have seen enough of my book, though right now that doesn’t seem possible. A few highlights:

March 22, Book launch in Toronto!! There’s a complete list of events in the right sidebar, so I’ll mainly refrain from mentioning events I’ve talked about previously, but this is the big one, and I’m very excited. If you’re in Toronto and enjoy books, snacks, short readings, and–possibly–me, please consider stopping by.

April 2, 11am, I’ll be on the radio on Out in the Open with Piya Chattopadhyay. This isn’t even book-related–it’s an episode about personal transformation–but I think being on the radio is amazing, so here we are. I hope you can listen!

April 4, Reading for the Toronto Review of Books with Jessica Westhead, Heather Birrell, Antanas Sileika, and the one and only Mark Sampson.

April 25, Books and Brunch with Different Drummer Books at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Aldershot, with Trevor Cole and Kyo Maclear.

Before all of that, though, I’m finally going to make it out to a bookstore to celebrate another book, Mitzi Bytes by my dear friend Kerry Clare. In addition to being a very talented writer, Kerry is also the best Enjoyer of Events I have ever encountered, and sharing a book birthday with her has really helped me engage with the spirit of the thing. I also read Mitzi in draft (as Kerry did for SML) and can vouch that it is funny, wise, and surprising–can’t wait to read it in its final form. I will be raising all the glasses on Thursday, and speeding through the book soon after. You should too!

March 30th, 2016

Pages Unbound, hanging with students, literal and figurative frosting

In the endless drudgery that is novel-completion, I am very fond of anything that is not novel-completion. Especially things that make me feel writerly without requiring me to, you know, actually write anything. That sort of thing is really the icing on the cake of this whole career choice I’m making…

So getting to talk with a classroom of college students last week about reading and writing (along with my husband Mark Sampson and the wonderful professor (and friend) Nathan Dueck was a joy and delight. So was tagging along with Mark to launch his new poetry book, Weathervane alongside Dorothy Moahoney at the fabled Biblioasis store (it’s a lovely as I’d hoped!)

And so is the prospect of getting to take part in “Burst: New Voices in Canadian Literature” on May 6 as part of the Pages Unbound festival. The wonderful and talented Suzanne Alyssa Andrew and I will be sharing the stage with a bunch of other emerging types, and I’m so excited to meet and hear them. And to read a little myself, too!

Sharing what one has written is the frosting of writing, of course–it has to be, for if you are counting on publishing and ensuring accolades to sustain you emotionally or (heaven help you) financially, you might well starve to death. Writing as well as I possibly can needs to be enough for me because it would be easier to do almost anything else and no one wants to listen to me complain about something I could easily elect not to do. But I like this line: “If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.” (it’s from this essay by Josh Olson–warnings: snark, swears)

So I write because I’m a writer and if it’s hard it’s my problem because I wanted to tell these stories. Them being written, and available for me to read myself is the sustenence here. But I do really enjoy the icing on the cake, giving the work to others and seeing what they think–so grateful the opportunities to do so that come my way.

Possibly, frosting is on my mind of late, because I was in the States last week (after Windsor it seemed natural to go on to Michigan and see some of the rockstars we know there) and a friend asked me to see if I could find any rainbow-chip frosting. Apparently it used to be available all over North American, then only in the States, and most recently no one could find it anywhere. I googled and found that the frosting had in fact been discontinued and is now coming back. I also found this insane video of a guy who who got 7000 people to sign a petition to bring back the frosting (!!!!) and then, when invited to a party celebrating his success, seemed absolutely terrified.

Anyway, I bought the frosting and my friend was delighted. I bought a tub for myself too and am really looking forward to trying it–can 7000 people be wrong? I can’t find a way to tie this back into the post or the central metaphor, but basically: you take your fun where you can get it.

February 27th, 2016

Treats for writers

There’s definitely people in the literary community who would crucify me for saying this, but I sometimes describe writing as a lucrative hobby rather than a job. I do this not because I think writers should not be paid for their work–I absolutely do–but just for personal morale purposes. If you line up writing income beside other jobs, like bank teller or physiotherapist, and compare incomes, you’re going to feel really really bad about writing. Whereas if you make the comparison instead to other hobbies, you feel like you’re coming out ahead. Knitters I know spend hundreds of dollars on wool, needles, and patterns and what do they end up with–some sweaters. Skiers are constantly buying clothes and equipment and paying for travel, and they don’t even get a product. Whereas all I need is the laptop I would own anyway, an internet connection, and a few pens–and I’m well on my way to writing the stories I love, and maybe, sometimes, as few bucks. It’s a cheering way of thinking about it–I assume the skiers, knitters, and I all have fun, but my fun is the cheapest, and the only one that’ll put the fun-haver occasionally in the black.

That said, there are a lot of products and services targeted at writers for a hefty cost. Many of these are fun, some of them are helpful, none–beyond a decent dictionary and the aforementioned computer–are really necessary. There’s always a way round, and I would encourage anyone who is worried not to feel pressured into paying money for something just to feel more “writerly.” If you want something because you think it would bring you joy or convenience or be helpful in your work and you can afford it, great–go for it–but assume that buying writer stuff is the same as any other capitalist transaction: once the money is spent, it’s gone. The worry I have is when folks tell me they’re going to spend x on a thing for writers that is guaranteed to pay for itself when they sell their movie option or whatever. Don’t do that–those things might not be scams, but there’s no such thing as a guaranteed return on investment in this crazy game called literature.

That said, I am finally finally nearly finished with my novel, and there are few things I’m going to buy my writer self as a reward. These things are fun for me and also, I hope, a bit helpful for the book–but if it turns out that they aren’t that helpful, ok, I’ll get some joy out of them and write off the money. I’ll put my hoped-for treats at the bottom of this list, after all the other ones I’m aware of.

Writing classes: So fun and valuable to me–I’ve taken half a dozen as an adult and learned a tonne. I’ve also met some wonderful other writers who are my workshop-friends now. I no longer take classes, but we still work together and offer each other feedback on our work, so what I got out of those initial, expensive classes was the ability to create free classes of my own. It was also a real blessing to just get out in the world with my stories and have people start to read them in a very supportive environment. While I no longer do these, writing classes were a really valuable first step when I needed them.

Books: This one is so obvious I almost didn’t put it on the list. Buy as many books as you can afford. When you run out of money, head for the library or borrow from a friend, but it’s really great to own the books you love best, so you can consult them or just reread for pleasure whenever you need a hit of high-quality literature. Buying books is also a good way to meet authors you admire, because everyone likes to be asked to sign their books (people who say they don’t are LYING).

Fancy notebooks and pens: I never buy these because I get them as gifts so often, but they are nice to have. I’m much less of a longhand writer than I once was, but I do like to have books to take notes in at meetings and workshops, and good fast-running pens. True confession: sometimes I use my nice stationary at my job instead, but it still makes me happy.

Manuscript evaluations and other editorial services: In general, I would recommend the first option on this list over this one–teach a man to fish and so forth. But some people learn better one-on-one, and some have issues with a particular manuscript rather than the craft of writing as a whole, and in those cases it does make sense to seek out a professional consultation and see if the editor can help you. My only advice would be to get a recommendation on this–there’s tonnes of people doing this kind of work in a variety of ways, so you want to find someone you can trust–and then consult on exactly what you need and can afford. Real, thoughtful substantive editing on a full manuscript is a huge job, something that often takes writers by surprise (though I don’t know why, considering how hard it is to write the damn thing in the first place) and can rightly be very expensive. A manuscript evaluation–an editor reads through your book and sends a few pages of notes on what’s working and what isn’t, but mainly leaves the how-to-fix up to you–can be a lot cheaper and still really insightful. If you want to go this route but are stumped at finding someone, hit me up–definitely don’t do this via google.

Writers’ retreats: Oh, my goodness, I want to do one of these. These are basically fun little summer camps for writers–you get food and a place to stay in (usually) a very pretty or interesting setting. There are other writers around to talk to in the evenings, and really nothing else to do but write during the day. How perfect does that sound? However, these are typically very expensive, and I don’t have a good justification for taking one. If I want to spend a week writing, I just take the week off from my job, sacrificing that income, and go write in my home office. To pay to write in a nicer place, while desirable, would be hard for me financially on top of the lost income from not being at work, and I really don’t have a hectic enough home life to justify it. BUT I WANT TO. If you do this, let me know how it goes–and send pictures! EDIT: Lovely Julia pointed out to me that there are fully funded residencies in the states, and even some that make up your income while you’re there. Obviously, I’m not too conversant in this stuff, but definitely I should be looking into it!)

Professional website design: I did this one–you’re looking at it! I love Rose-coloured and I spend a lot of time on it, so it sense for me to have a pretty, personal design that suits me and my work and accommodates the things I want to share in the ways I want to share them. I’ll go back to the designer (www.createmethis.com) for site refresh for the new book, and this is one of the aforementioned treats that I’m really looking forward to. It’ll be fun to have the site look different after half a dozen years of pink and the subway map. That said, I don’t think anyone needs to do this–you more or less do need a site of some kind, so that people can easily find you bio, events, and publications all in one spot, but you can totally do that with Blogspot or WordPress.com or any of the others free or cheap self-design sites. It can make you feel lovely and professional to have a lovely professional site, but it is totally a treat (can’t wait!)

Headshots: This is the other thing I’m going to do soonish in support of the new book/because I want to. I was pretty much told I had to get professional head shots for my first book, and though that turned out not to be true, I loved doing it. Professional photographers are so cool and interesting, and so different from writers, and it’s fun to spend a few hours trying to look like a real writer. Not to mention stage-managing the shoot so that the mood suits the book, maybe buying new clothes or whatever. Totally vanity, but if you’ve spent a few years in your sweatpants writing a goddamn novel, you are entitled to a little vanity. Or so I believe. Anyway, if you don’t want to go this route, it is fine, but you should still put a little thought into it. Basically, don’t take a cellphone selfie and call it a day. Try to find a friend who has a nice camera and takes photography at least a little seriously (easy way to tell: ask your publisher to send you the specs of what they need in a photo, then ask the friend if they understand those specs–if yes, they’ve got the gig) and ask them to take the pic in exchange for dinner or something like that. Spend some time thinking about how you want to look and where you want to be in the photo, and ask the friend to take a whole bunch of shots so you have options. Then go to a nice restaurant.

There are so many more treats you could buy your writing self: business cards, specialize software, fancy writing hat (ok, that last one is not a thing, I don’t think). There’s also stuff I know nothing about, like the services of a professional publicist to promote your book. Sounds legit to me, but I know no one who has done it, so I can’t offer any advice. And there’s probably lots more that I’m not even thinking of.

So basically, write your book, do your drudgery, put in the long exhausting hours, and then buy yourself a treat or two. You’ve earned it.

 

January 18th, 2016

Best Canadian Stories 15

Oberon Press sent me a couple copies of the lovely Best Canadian Stories 15, which includes, among other wonderful things, my story “Marriage.” Actually, Oberon sent it a couple weeks ago, but CanPar bafflingly just held on to it, never gave me any delivery notices, and eventually returned the package to whence it came. Grr, CanPar, but yay the kind folks (hi, Nick!) at Oberon who sent it out a second time.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, you totally should–there’s stories by Alice Petersen, Kathy Page, Adrian Kelly, Kevin Hardcastle and tonnes more awesome people that aren’t so web present. I can’t wait to read it all!!

To temp you, here is a photo of the book, being nuzzled by me for some reason (I took a few versions of this photo–this was the best one, sadly).

Hello, gorgeous!

Hello, gorgeous!

November 1st, 2015

The Gillers Are Coming!

It’s a controversial position, but I love the Gillers! The endless run-up with the long-list, the short-list, all the readings and finally, the night, the glam ball and the awkward awards show that I love and blog every year. I started watching/live-blogging in 2010 because Alexander’s Macleod’s Light Lifting was on the shortlist, and I couldn’t have loved that book more if Macleod had written it expressly for my tastes. And then Sarah Selecky’s collection This Cake Is for the Party was up too, and I like her and that book very much, and so I decided to watch. The broadcast was weird, Sarah and Alex didn’t get to talk much, and a different book won–but that author seemed nice too and I got so engrossed I decided I needed to keep doing it.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think Giller Prize designates the best book in Canada–just one that 3 (or 5) smart people happen to like very much. But there’s nothing wrong with finding out what that is! I don’t find myself very swayed by nomination lists or even the prizes themselves–it’s a rare book that I wasn’t intending to read until it got a prize nod, and then I read it.

Normally, what happens is that i will see the longest and note which books on there I was planning to read anyway, and then jump those up in the queue so that I have read them by the time the prize is announced. This didn’t work out last year owing to a slow library holds system, but in general there’s a couple books on my hot list that coincide with the Giller list, so I have someone to root for. It took until 2013 for a book I’d read–Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing to win, which was an excellent experience but really I love the show either way.

This year was especially rich–when the longest was announced, there were two books on it I had already read and two more I wanted to read. I figure the overlap might have something to do with Macleod, who is on this year’s jury–if he could write the exact book I wanted to read, perhaps he could also select a list of other books I also want to read.

Let’s be clear–no offence to the books that I won’t be reading. We all know I could quit my job and stop talking to humans right now, reading, eating and sleeping for the next 50 years, and never read close to all of even the best books in existence. It’s just not doable–so I try not to feel guilty about what I pick. Anyway, the books I had read were Russell Smith’s Confidence and Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die, both of which I really admire, so things were already going well. I quickly moved on to Anakana Schofield’s Martin John and it stopped me dead.

There is no other book like it–not that I’ve read. Even Malarky, Schofield’s very wonderful first novel, does not achieve the radical newness with language, the eviscerating emotional freefall, the sheer weirdness of Martin John. When Mark asked me about it, I said it was good and then ran out of things to say–it’s hard to encapsulate. But it’s going to win. I figured it would either get dropped off the short list–including in the longlist only as a token bit of experimentation–or it would win. Since MJ is on the shortlist, it’s going to win. I’m certain. How could it not?

That said, I haven’t read the full list. I went on and read Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill, which is certainly very good but I didn’t love it as much as her previous books. I’ll probably stop there because I’m working on a bookish essay and just have a bunch else I want to read but nevertheless I’m convinced that I’m going to get to hear Anakana’s speech up on that stage and it’s going to be amazing.

I was thrilled when Coady won and I really enjoyed and admired Hellgoing, but I wouldn’t have been upset or surprised if it hadn’t won. It was a good book in a field of good books. Martin John is something different, something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. I am SO excited to watch the Gillers, though I think I might be crushed if another of the very good books wins. It’s interesting to be this invested, when I haven’t been before. Skin in the game, I guess.

So stay tuned for the Gillers on November 9 and a very het up blog post from me….

September 29th, 2014

Mark Sampson’s Sad Peninsula

As you may know, I am married to the novelist (among other things) Mark Sampson. As you may also know, his second novel, Sad Peninsula, is out in the world and the official Toronto launch is tomorrow night. Here’s the official details:

What: Sad Peninsula Launch
When: 6-8pm, Tuesday September 30th
Where: Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street (just south of Queen on the west side of Bay)
Why: Because it’s a great book according to not only me but Quill and Quire and many people on Goodreads, plus other reviews I know exist but can’t seem to track down at the moment. Also, we bought a lot of snacks and wine and someone’s got to consume them.

If for some crazy reason you aren’t free tomorrow night or don’t actually live in or near Toronto, fear not–there will be other events. Mark has the full list of upcoming readings on his blog, with more being added as they get booked.

And if you’re not a readings kind of person or tragically the tour isn’t coming to your town, you could always just get the book from your local bookstore, library, or online.

So exciting!!!

September 22nd, 2014

How to support a book

I get this question a lot about my own work–how can we help, how can we support your work? It’s awkward, because there are definite things I’d love for people to do to help me out, but I don’t want to put pressure on anyone if those aren’t really what they wanted to do. And it’s pretty squicky to be giving instructions for how to make my own work more famous.

However, my husband’s brilliant novel Sad Peninsula is launching next week and the topic is on my mind, so I thought I’d share here, in a “if you wanted to know” sort of format. Keep in mind that this is all optional–just a list of suggestions on how you might like to help out. If nothing below is your jam, feel free to ignore the whole thing.

1. Come to readings and events. Even for a pro, it’s scary to step in front of live, potentially judgmental, potentially drunk humans and read aloud something that has lived only in your own brain for years. It is so so so encouraging to see a friendly face beaming up at you, you have no idea. And if you laugh audibly at the jokes, oh my god, I owe you forever.

Everyone knows that literary events can be awkward to attend–out-of-the-way locations, late start times, weeknights. Completely understandable if you can’t make it, but that’s what makes it so awesome if you do. Really, it does.

A word about Facebook invitations and eVites: Though we all receive these through personal accounts, please keep in mind that they are marketing tools of a sort, not personal communications. If you can’t make it and want to write something on the wall, keep it about the event–“Wishing you well, sure it’ll be amazing, sorry I can’t be there.” If you honestly feel the event organizer needs to know why you’re not coming, drop them a personal message and let them know. Why? Because it is so discouraging for a potential attendee to go to an event page to see if maybe she’d like to go, and see a wall full of what others prefer to do that night instead. Seriously, I’ve seen everything from “there’s no parking around there” to “I’m planning on procrastinating all my work until that evening.” It’s really alientating to those who were on the fence about attending. Please don’t do this.

2. Buy the book. Books are usually between $20 and $30, and no one would suggest purchasing is required. If you can swing it, though, know that it’s appreciated. Sales make a difference, especially in physical stores where there’s limited shelf space and books get returned awfully fast if they aren’t selling. Online purchases certainly count towards sales numbers, though, though, and so do ebooks. Please note that if you don’t wish to buy a book, the library is another good way to go–authors receive payments through the Public Lending Right and so we are certainly fans of the libraries.
If you can’t find the book, one way to go the extra mile is to ask your local bookstore or library to order it. They might do it simply because you asked, or they might note it and if they get a critical mass of other requests, then order it. Either way, it helps!

3. Read the book and talk about it with the author. This is completely separate from #2–many people who have proudly shown me their copies of my books on their shelves have never mentioned the contents. And many who couldn’t afford to buy it borrowed it from friends or the library and chatted about it with me enthusiastically. Both are fine ways to go about things, believe me. Authors really value when you bring up their work and have an opinion on it. Most of us would never bring it up ourselves (“What did you think of page 43?”) because it seems showboaty and also risks embarrassing us both if you hated it. If you did hate 100% of the book, feel free to never bring it up, but if you have one nice thing to say, or even a question, bring it. Reviews are getting scarcer and scarcer in this country, and authors really value feedback, a sign their work is getting through to someone, at least a little.
If you don’t want to read it, please don’t mention it. I swear, I’ll never ask–it’s no one’s job to read my books. It’s just that there are no reasons for not reading my book that will not make me sad. (“I hate fiction.” “I actually don’t read anything ever.” “I only like vampire books.”)  I completely respect your decision, it’s just an awkward conversation.

4. Recommend the book and talk about it with friends. The easiest way to do this is some online reviewing–on Goodreads, on the sites of online retailers, your blog. These are wonderful, Google-able ways of offering support and do a lot to improve search results and automated recommendations from online sales sites.  But social media shares, which go to everyone, aren’t as awesome as the personal recommendation. A lot of stuff that pops up on social media I miss or ignore or assume isn’t relevant to me, but if a friend grabs my arm and says, “I was reading this book I think you would love,” I usually listen.

That’s it–all I can think of, anyway. If you have more suggestions for how to support a book, please do share in the comments. And then go read a book you love!

August 24th, 2014

Rose-coloured reviews *The Fault in Our Stars*

I was originally just going to post a review of The Fault in Our Stars by acclaimed young-adult writer John Green on GoodReads, but then I read some of the other discussions on that page on that page and decided to put it here instead. I might still post to GoodReads if I’m feeling brave later, but those teens get, um, intense about this book. They HATE it or they LOVE it, and if they LOVE it then they HATE the other teens who don’t love it, to the point of flame wars and (apparently) death threats. I’m not sure I can wade into those waters.

Nevertheless, I get it–this is a book that inspires an intense reaction. Even in me, 20 years older than the protagonists and, in Green’s own words in the Q&A at the end, not an audience he cares much about. For the first two-thirds, I was genuinely astounded at how much the book was living up to the insane hype that surrounds it. Not flawless, but riveting, and not in a way that made me feel cheap when I looked up from the book. The last third got a little slow and predictable, rounding up with a frantic chase for a document that, once found, contained no new information (this is the part I thought the teens would attack me for).

But oh my goodness, how delightful is that first chunk. Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16 and has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She has been sick since she was thirteen, and probably always will be. Her cancer is terminal, but she is on a kind of miracle drug that is staving off the inevitable for…well, no one is sure how long. Hazel is on oxygen, has thought she was about to die more than once, and has never been to high-school. This gives Green license to do something he loves to do–create a teenage voice that doesn’t sound much like most teens. In his novels (those that I’ve read), he likes to take his protagonists out of normal life (child stardom, elite boarding school) in order to escape the constraints of voice and experience that would otherwise govern a teen character. I have seen a lot of not-hardly-realism in his other books, though I did find them charming, but Hazel Grace is his greatest success so far. She has that giant vocabulary that pretentious teens since time began have indulged in (including me), is an obsessive reader and an equally obsessive tv watcher, and has some additional quirks that I recognized from the home-schooled kids I used to know–an “everything is mine to question” confidence that is thrilling or tedious, depending on the listener (many of the GoodReads haters especially disliked such riffs, like why have hurdle races when one could run so much faster without them, and what qualities of scrambled eggs make then a breakfast food? I, for one, was pretty charmed.) And she has the black humour, patience, fortitude, misery, and fatalism of the dying.

Anyhoo…she goes to a cancer support group and she meets a guy who is recovering from a type of cancer that cost him half a leg. He is dreamy and funny and wry and kind–YOU KNOW, of course, because everyone has seen the movie based on this book or at least the coming attractions. A romance ensues, a lovely doomed romance (star-crossed), blah blah blah.

But it’s really good. I say that as someone who has read a bunch of YA novels in the past two years, and knows that YA books always feature instant connections, talks long into the night, etc.–things that are always mentioned, never enacted. These kids ACTUALLY talk about stuff–the dialogue is part of the book, not summarized as “an amazing conversation.” And every YA novelist knows that kids are always playing video games, reading books, watching tv, and looking at Facebook. And texting. But I have never seen these things actually realistically depicted–it’s always again, some bizarre summary that indicates very strongly that the author rounded up a bunch of kids and asked them what Facebook and Playstation are. Green has the first ever video-game scene that was both believable and fun to read–no small task. His characters make realistic use of Facebook and text when it is appropriate to do so–at other times, they call and email and even write letters. The shows they watch make sense for their age. In short, he gets the cultural context way right.

So the romance is believable because the conversations are believeable–they exchange favourite books and then talk about then, the boy invites the girl over to watch him play video games with his friend, they watch DVDs in his parents’ living room. Oh, and they comfort their friend whose cancer has made him blind. Just enough familiarity, just enough alien, to be compelling.

I don’t want to get into an analysis of the romance and subsequent sadness too much–you’ve heard it. Suffice to say, if you want to read a very sad love story about teenagers, this one is exceptionally well done. And if you don’t, well, I would understand. It’s the little things that got me–the above mentioned cultural stuff, and the fact that the mom is pretty much the most devastating character in the book. When Green mentioned, as quoted above, that I doesn’t really care about adults, I chuckled that that’s why he doesn’t bother to write them very well. But this mom–she doesn’t actually get a name, as I recall–has a rare emotional affect for an adult in a YA novel, a nuanced pain that read as real. For the first time I believed in adult Green had written. The dad, the boy’s parents, other adults they encounter along the way are so many stick figures, but Hazel’s mom made me cry. Really. And I’m not a crier at books, at all.

I’ve been trying to keep this short so I could have space to allude to the format–I got FiOR as an audiobook (this version) and it was brilliant. Probably the reason I was affected to the point of tears is Kate Rudd‘s pitch-perfect narration. Because it’s a first person narrative and Rudd sounds credibly like a teenage girl, the book comes across as an audio diary, which makes it all the more intimate and devastating. Rudd does teariness, out-of-breathness (Hazel spends the entire book on oxygen), and several accents perfectly. And the best parts of her performance is when she is being Hazel being her boyfriend, doing a teen-girl’s lower voice to imitate a boy. So funny and accurate!

Yes, the ending does get predictable, but even then there was a few surprises. There’s also a devastating scene involving Anne Frank (no, really) that is ruined at the last moment by a bit of over-the-top-ness, and assorted other little gaffs and foolishness. But overall this is an extremely strong novel, a 9/10 in its class–and to me there are no perfect books, so that’s really saying something. But I don’t know if the teens would believe me.

June 4th, 2014

I have figured out what’s wrong with *The Hunger Games*

During my period of reading tonnes of young-adult novels in case I wanted to write one (at press time: probably not), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was one of the few I read with pleasure for its own sake, rather than amusement/bafflement/anthropological fascination (the only one to really beat it out was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky, which just goes to show that sometimes what is popular is actually popular for a reason). I had put off reading HG for a long time, because I do not usually like sci-fi, or dystopian fiction, or post-apocolyptic fiction, or whatever category you want to put it in. More specifically: I do not like novels where starving children murder each other for basic survival.

I won’t outline the plot in more detail, since everyone in the universe has read it or seen the movie or sat next to someone who couldn’t shut up about it. These books are very VERY popular, and as I mention above, there’s good reason: Collins’s premise is incredibly inventive, which is not to say original–her clever mishmash of mythology and reality television is what makes her concept so stirring, and viscerally felt. Her plotting in the first novel is grimly tight–you can’t stop reading because there’s always something new to be worried about. And there’s nothing wrong with her prose, either–I could always picture every scene, characters and actions perfectly.

And while I applaud the achievement, I still felt pretty squicked by my enjoyment. I kept trying to argue with myself that the book makes clear that the Capitol rulers who pit these kids to the death are *evil* and it’s certainly not as if everything is peaches and cream in “real literature”–it’s not like things work out well for Anna Karenina, and Shakespeare is rife with despotic rulers, plus there’s tonnes of gore in Greek mythology.

That didn’t completely sit, but I let a year go by to forget the worst of my misgivings, and then I got the second of the HG novels, Catching Fire, out of the library. This one is not as good as the first–baggier, duller, too focussed on the silly love-triangle (I’m sorry, I know this pretty much rules me out of reading YA, but I cannot care all that much about whom a 16-year-old kisses or does not kiss) and bizarre things like what clothes people wear and identifying every single person who lives in the town. Seriously, there’s nearly 50 characters in this book, and I’m not sure why. We know them semi-well, get a bit of backstory, start to be interested, then they never come back. Very annoying, and constant.

Collins’s prose is as crystal-clear as ever, but the problem is there are much darker and more complex matters to illuminate. The evil President Snow is a dictator and an oppressor, starving the weaker districts to…exert control? This is where things started to fall apart for me. I tried SO hard to make HG a political parable–for apartheid? The Middle East? The most eerie resonances seemed to be Ukraine–Presidents Snow and Putin have some similarities–but the book was written before all that. And the truth is, the scenario with the Capitol and the Districts does not make a whole lot of sense. What do they get by all this violence other than a very expensive tv show? It’s really a child’s version of political oppression, with no real politics, just bad people and good people.

And that means I couldn’t sell the novels to myself as literature. That doesn’t mean I didn’t stay up late reading the end of Catching Fire (rushed ending and stupid cliffhanger, after 400 pages of babble about how the trees looked–not that I’m bitter). But the novel doesn’t really *do* anything–it doesn’t show us the complexity of political life, or political difference. It doesn’t examine how oppression serves the few, or how power corrupts. The first two HG novels really just comfortably underline what we already know: that good people are good and bad people are bad.

And if we’re not learning, growing, expanding our understanding of the world, then the books are just…entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, many of my favourite books are nothing but–but the Hunger Games books are about the murder of starving children.

And that’s when the hammer dropped.

The Hunger Games becomes itself. The readers become, like the awful citizens of the Capitol, voyeurs of the sadistic torture of tweens and teens (and in the second book, some adults too). Whether it’s The Hunger Games I’m reading, or the Hunger Games that I’m watching on TV, I become complicit by not walking away from the book/screen–by indulging in the prurience of being entertained by others’ suffering. Of course, I don’t *want* anyone to die, but since I know that they must die regardless of my will, why not just wish they would hurry up and get offed already, and hopefully in the most entertaining, not-too-nauseating way. Is that a Capitol-viewer’s thought, or is that my thought?

Now I’m really uncomfortable with myself. I’m also not sure if Collins is a genius artist-saboteur, who created a slew of stupid, shallow entertainment gobblers, and then made her readers become them. Or is it all something a bit more benign and less meta? I can’t figure it out.

I suspect that someone has worked this out more insightfully than I did, and I’d really like to read THAT blog post, but I didn’t know what to Google. Anyone know?

Also, if I believe the theory above, does that mean I can’t read the third and final book in the series? Probably, right? Damn.

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