Favourite Reads of 2012 (Part One)

Sunday, 30 December 2012
This post is the first of three, each reviewing, in order, the best three books I read in 2012 (though none were released this year). My third favourite read of 2012 was Before I Die by Jenny Downham.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is one of those books that has been on my radar for years, popping up on "must-read" lists from time to time. It's also one of those books that I've always quickly dismissed. Girl has leukemia. Girl writes list of things she wants to do before she dies of leukemia. Girl's list includes things like sex and drugs and falling in love. I felt like Before I Die was one of those stories I had read a million times before.

However, earlier this year, a collection of the Best 100 Closing Lines from Books made the rounds on twitter and other social media, Before I Die making the list: "Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. Moments. All gathering towards this one." There was a lightness and airiness to this line that made me think maybe the book wasn't as earnest and predictable as I thought it might be, so I gave it a try.

“There's a terrible stillness. I notice a small tear in the wallpaper above her shoulder. I notice finger marks grimed on the light switch. Somewhere down in the house, a door opens and shuts. As Zoey turns to face me, I realize that life is made up of a series of moments, each one a journey to the end.” 

Sixteen year old Tessa's "journey to the end" is shorter than most. She has cancer, and she knows she's going to die. She is confused, moody, spontaneous, and at times hysterical, but this isn't entirely because of her terminal diagnosis, but also because she is a teenager, grappling with love, and sex, and drugs, and friendships, and her fragmented family like so many other teens. Unlike in other books where the protagonist battles a terminal illness, Tessa doesn't appear to be remarkably brave, rather she's outraged, selfish, and at times incredibly unlikeable, as I'm sure most of us would be if we were seventeen and staring death smack in the eyes.

My favourite young adult novels are those that remind me what it was like to be sixteen and to feel everything so deeply, even those things that didn't need to be felt deeply at all. Before I Die reminds readers of a time when a few unkind words from a best friend can seem like the greatest betrayal, and a look from someone you want to look your way seems to mean the world. The more I read of Before I Die, the more I felt it was less a book about a girl with cancer, and more a book about Tessa's hunger to love and be loved and to feel life deeply, pressured by the impending time limit caused by her looming death.

Capturing the voice of a teenager, especially one weighted by the issues Tessa faces, is no easy task, but Jenny Downham does it perfectly, creating a character that is so flawed and so difficult, that ultimately, she seems wonderfully human and impossible not to mourn.

My Holiday Haul

Friday, 28 December 2012

I'm one of those people who are painfully easy to buy for. Any good book and I'm a happy girl! I was incredibly spoiled this year, and I'm so excited to start at the top of this stack and work my way down.

Happy Holidays!

Gifting Local

Friday, 21 December 2012
A Hamilton Christmas (1967): Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives

The book nerd in me loves giving books almost as much as I love receiving them. They’re relatively inexpensive, they lack the awkward corners that make some gifts impossible to wrap, and choosing the perfect book gives a gift a personalized touch.

If you’re anything like me, you still have a few names to cross off your holiday shopping list, so here’s a list of local reads to make your last-minute shopping a little bit easier.

For the Crime Lover on Your List …
Beach Strip by John Lawrence Reynolds
(Read an excerpt here)

For the Poetry Lover on Your List …
Naked Trees by John Terpstra
(See review here)

For the Graphic Novel Lover on Your List …
Hamilton Illustrated by David Collier
(More information here)

For the History Lover on Your List …
The Good Doctor by Vince Agro

For the Little One on Your List …
Giraffe and Bird by Rebecca Bender
(See Rebecca reading from her book here)

For the Child-At-Heart on Your List …
A Child’s Christmas in Hamilton by Ryan Moran
(More information here)

For the Young Adult on Your List …
Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy

For the Non-Fiction Lover on Your List …
Empty Cradle by Diana Walsh

For the Short Story Lover on Your List …
Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill

For the Fright Lover on Your List …
Haunted Hamilton by Mark Leslie
(See photos from the Hamilton launch here)

7 Gifts for Hamilton Book Lovers

Friday, 14 December 2012

Erin at the Dear Edna Blog was kind enough to let me write this guest post for her blog (which in my opinion, is one of the best in the city!) Check out the complete post here. You can grab at least a few of these items at tonight's art crawl.

A place belongs forever ...

Thursday, 6 December 2012
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” 
— Joan Didion

Holiday Wishlist 2012

Monday, 3 December 2012
Chances are if you read, or have stumbled upon this blog, you have a reader, a writer, or an editor on your holiday list this year. Truth is, finding the perfect gift for a reader, writer, or editor really isn't that difficult. We tend to love the simple things in life: a good book, good food, and probably good wine. But just in case you're still searching for the perfect gift, here are a few ideas to get you started.

The Perfect Notebook
Every writer needs a notebook tucked away in his or her pocket or bag, or at the ready on a nightstand for those moments when the laptop seems too far away. Any CanLit lover would appreciate Sparrow Nest Script’s notebook featuring Margaret Atwood’s wise words, or any of the others Moleskine notebooks in her shop.

A Bookish Tee
I’ve been coveting Out of Print Clothing's t-shirts since I saw them on display at The Strand in New York City earlier this year (Cough! Cough! to anyone who has me on their “Nice” list!).

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” There are a lot of quotations by Anais Nin that make me sigh, and this one is near the top of the list, which is why I love this aluminum bracelet from Fireweed Impressions of Kelowna, B.C.

Another favourite Canadian jewellery shop is Gwen Delicious, also from British Columbia.

A Book Stamp
Unless you’re very organized, and I am not, it’s difficult to remember who you’ve leant your favourite books to. So why not give your friends a subtle (yet slightly passive aggressive) reminder that a book is on loan by stamping it with a customized book stamp? This one is a perfect stocking stuffer.

Wall Prints
Hemingway wasn’t the only writer who indulged in wine while writing, but I know (from experience!) that editing while a little tipsy isn’t the easiest task. That’s why I love this original hand-carved block print by Poetic Madness.

I hate to out myself here, but editors can be nerdy folk. And I mean really nerdy. We like plays on words and we really, really like punctuation marks. Many of us may even have a favourite punctuation mark. If the editor on your list loves the ampersand, you can't get more unique than the Lampersand!

Read and Buy Local
This one may seem obvious, but supporting your local CanLit community this time of year is crucial.  And don't just head to the bestseller's shelf to find the perfect book. Quill and Quire's list of 47 holiday gift ideas is the best I've seen so far this year. The list is full of unique, often underrated and overlooked, books.

Happy Holidays!

Quotable: The Voyage Out

Friday, 30 November 2012
“They would talk of such questions among books, or out in the sun, or sitting in the shade of a tree undisturbed. They were no longer embarrassed, or half-choked with meaning which could not express itself; they were not afraid of each other, or, like travellers down a twisting river, dazzled with sudden beauties when the corner is turned; the unexpected happened, but even the ordinary was lovable, and in many ways preferable to the ecstatic and mysterious, for it was refreshingly solid, and called out effort, and effort under such circumstances was not effort, but delight.” 
–Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out

High Five Toy Drive

Thursday, 29 November 2012

There’s a big chance you already know Steve Gillon. He’s kind of a local celebrity as of late, appearing in Hamilton Magazine and on INDI 101.5. He’s also a personal friend (Oh, the dance parties we have had!). Steve is one of those guys who doesn’t just donate to charity when the holidays roll around, but he’s busy all year, organizing events and making the city an even better place to live. Most recently, Steve has launched the High Five Toy Drive for McMaster Children’s Hospital.

So many of us in this city have been affected by McMaster Children’s Hospital and the amazing work it does. If you’re lucky enough to have never had to visit a pediatric cancer ward, I’ll loan you my story to encourage you to donate to the High Five Toy Drive. My favourite little buddy, Evan, was only a toddler when he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and he spent more than two years in and out of McMaster Children’s Hospital, including his fourth birthday in ICU when he was given only a 50 per cent chance of survival. He wouldn’t be here today without such a fantastic facility in our city.

Drop off a packaged toy to any one of the High Five Toy Drive’s five drop-off locations this holiday season. You can also make a monetary donation at Dr. Disc or Strut Salon, both in downtown Hamilton.

Keep watching High Fives 2 Help Lives for more about Steve and all the amazing things he’s doing.

My best buddy

Steeltown Speakeasy

Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Our monthly Lit Lunches have been growing, with new writers, editors, and bloggers joining us every month to eat good food, talk about books and writing, and connect with one another.

In between guzzling wine and snacking on finger foods, we’ve tried to come up with ideas to keep Hamilton’s literary community growing, and one idea was a monthly reading series. We’re happy to announce that the inaugural Steeltown Speakeasy will be happening tomorrow night at 8:00 at the Baltimore House. So far, three brave local writers will be taking to the stage to share their work.

For more information, or just to say hello, follow the Steelcity Speakeasy on Twitter at @SpeakeasyHamOnt. And please join us tomorrow night! Expect photos and a website soon.

Quotable: Beach Strip

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

"My father said that when he was a boy in the 1950s, excursion boats steamed across the bay from the city during the summer, carrying people to the beach strip amusement park, where picnic tables were set among trees near the shore and kids played on a safe, sandy beach. No one we knew went to Florida in the winter or to the northern lakes int he summer. No one we knew could afford it. Everything they needed for fun was on the beach strip. I suspect many of the old people who live on the strip today were once kids who rode the excursion boats to the amusement park back then, giddy with anticipation for rides on the merry-go-round, the ponies, the Octopus, and the Ferris wheel. The rides are gone, but the people remain, maybe because their goal as children was to always be near those long-gone amusements on the strip, and living here in rented rooms and peeling-paint cottages is the only ambition they truly achieved in their lives.
— John Lawrence Reynolds, Beach Strip

Photos courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives

Dear Teen Me

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

My own personal “Dear Teen Me” letter is part of the Dear Teen Me Blog Tour.

Dear Teen Me,

You’re sixteen and it’s a Saturday night. Tonight, all of your friends are out with their boyfriends, and you’re feeling sorry for yourself. You’re probably drinking a raspberry tea with three sugars and watching the first season of Dawson’s Creek. You won’t believe me now, but, ultimately, Joey chooses Pacey.

Life is good for you right now, even if you’re too angsty and mopey to admit it. I know you think you’re doused in boy repellent, but you’re not. In your twenties, you’ll run into some of the guys you know now and they’ll tell you that you terrified them with that serious look on your face and confident strut.

So, smile. But keep that confident strut!

You'll be surprised to hear it, Teen Me, but you actually have a lot figured out. I know you’re sleeping through first-period math almost every morning, and I’m here to tell you to keep doing it. You’re going to fail that class, and you know what? It’s not going to matter. Relax now because the next ten years are going to be crazy.

Right now you think you're headed to the university you have you heart set on, but you don’t really want to go there. You think you want to go there because the building on the front of the brochure kind of looks likes a medieval castle and because a guy who once loaned you a pen is going there, but you’ll snap out of this Felicity moment soon.

Instead, you'll move to Ottawa. It won’t feel brave at the time. It just sort of happens. But it is brave, and it’s the best decision you’ll make in the next ten years. Here you’ll take five or six classes a semester, work nearly full time, but still manage to have a lot of fun. And I mean a lot of fun. You’ll find your footing there. I won't spoil the fun for you by giving away all the details. You'll get to experience them all on your own.

But I’m skipping ahead of myself here. You’re still sixteen. And you still have two more years of high school to get through. You’re actually going to have a lot of fun, but there will be bad times, too. Next year, a car is going to wrap itself around a tree, and you’re going to feel really fucked up for a while, but that’s OK. You’ll listen to a lot of angry music, and you’ll make it through.

You’ll be happy to hear that the boy repellent is going to wear off before you graduate from high school, and you’re going to get to fall in love. And I mean the real kind of sappy, disgusting movie type love you’re probably scoffing at right now. He’s going to be a musician. And a chef. And he’s going to spoil the hell out of you. People are going to tell you that long-distance relationships don’t work. Just wait. You’re going to prove a lot of people wrong.

So, stop worrying so much, Teen Me, because things turn out just fine. Enjoy your quiet Saturday night by curling up with a good book, because soon these nights are going to be rare.

You at almost thirty.

P.S. Do me a favour and read Catcher in the Rye while you're still young enough to empathize with Holden Caulfield. You'll pick it up a half dozen times in your twenties, only to abandon it.
Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Margaret Atwood retweeted me, and I almost spit out my morning coffee.

Giller Light 2012

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A kilted Will Ferguson, author of 419, took home the $50,000 Giller Prize last night, but not before unleashing his flask and toasting the written word. For the second year in a row, I watched the award be handed out, this time by Jian Ghomeshi, at Toronto's Giller Light bash at the Burroughs in Toronto, an event which supports Frontier College.

Giller Light was a great night of amazing prizes (though I left empty-handed again), a live band, a signature martini, a sexy cowboy, and most importantly, the chance to connect with a lot of book bloggers and publishers. There are few things better than cramming a few hundred book lovers in a room buzzing with wine and bookish conversation.

Night of the Living Dead

Sunday, 28 October 2012
Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
As a book blogger, my comfort zone is a fairly cozy place. It's mostly author readings at art galleries and coffee shops, with familiar friends and good books. That's why when I got an email inviting me to Screemers Hamilton, with the option of dressing up and lurking inside a haunted house, I was a little indecisive. But you can't spend your entire life living inside your comfort zone, so last Saturday night I was one of two bloggers lucky enough to experience what it's like to be undead.
Equipped with a gallon of make-up, a frizzy yellow wig, a few beers (that I had to drink out of a straw so I didn't smear my make-up), and very little training, I was transformed into a demented clown who lived among hanging clown corpses inside Screemer's Terror in 3D attraction. "You take this one," was my only instruction from a fellow clown, and suddenly it was up to me to jump out of the shadows, stomping my feet and screaming. To my surprise, I actually scared people. And I mean really scared people! It definitely wasn't my typical Saturday night.
During the night, I was also able to enjoy Screemers myself, riding the tilt-a-whirl in full clown garb, and experiencing the other haunted houses and maze. There are still a few days left to visit Screemers, and I'd definitely recommend it. I don't scare easily, but there's something about being chased through a maze by a man wielding a chainsaw that can scare even the bravest sceptic.


Jian Ghomeshi in Hamilton

On the day that Lincoln Alexander died, the handsome and charming Jian Ghomeshi read from his debut book, 1982, at the Lincoln Alexander Centre in Hamilton. I tried my best not to fangirl (yes, I just used fangirl as a verb), when I got the chance to meet Jian after the reading. You'll all be happy to read that he's such an upstanding citizen that he wouldn't deface public property by signing my library copy* of 1982.

*That makes me sound incredibly cheap, asking an author to sign a library copy. Don't worry. I bought a copy of his book, too.

Reading Local: Naked Trees by John Terpstra

Friday, 19 October 2012

When I was young, maybe under ten, I appreciated trees far more than I do today.

In youth, trees fuel imagination. Branches cast eerie shadows on walls and drum against windowpanes. For my sister and I, branches were pillars, holding up mismatched sheets, when we built forts. We climbed trees, knocking crab apples to the ground, careful not to land on them when we descended.

I still remember the smell of walnuts on my hands after collecting buckets of them, my grandfather following behind us on his tractor, so they wouldn’t get stuck in the blades. The same grandpa gathered abandoned nests, still clinging to trees, for us to wow our peers with at school. The three of us would go on hikes, finding shelter on the soft and needly ground beneath pine trees.

Each fall, when the leaves exploded into colours like they are right now, in classrooms and at home, we’d press leaves between sheets of wax paper, the residue clinging to our hands. We’d paint autumn trees, dipping our brushes into red, orange, yellow, brown, and gold paint.

Today, three medium-sized trees jut from the lawn of my apartment building, but I could hardly describe them. Despite the unique characteristics of each type of tree, I couldn’t tell an ash from a chestnut, or a maple from an elm.

Hamilton isn’t a city one would quickly associate with trees, but local, award-winning writer John Terpstra, himself a woodworker, does. In 1990, he wrote Naked Trees, a collection of prose and poetry that has recently been rereleased by Hamilton publisher Wolsak and Wynn. Terpstra’s words are accompanied by, fittingly, woodcuttings by Ontario visual artist Wesley Bates.

Inspired by what is missing from Native Trees of Canada by R.C. Hosie, a volume that gives the names and identifying features (shape, leaves, bark, habitat) of trees, Terpstra’s goal is to write about the experience of trees, which he does with great passion.

Many of the trees, all deciduous, in Terpstra’s collection predate the buildings that line our city streets, yet they are in constant conflict with urbanity. Terpstra writes with affection about urban trees that are pruned to accommodate overhead wires and the limbs of trees that are “neatly sliced” by chainsaws. In the continuous battle between nature and urbanity, there is no clear winner. In one piece, a branch cuts through power lines after being sliced from a tree trunk, cutting electricity on its way down.

“The silver maple stood between the house and the street, overhanging both. But it made a tactical error this past winter when it dropped one of its branches during the storm,” writes Terpstra. “The branch cut through the power line on its way down, so we lost the electricity for a few hours, and landed on the street, completely blocking traffic.”

Naked Trees subtly urges readers to pay more attention to the maples, walnuts, and other trees that punctuate Hamilton's urban landscape, not simply walking by them, but pausing to enjoy them for both their strength and fragility.

Sometimes a certain book is perfect for a certain time of year. There are books I reread every Christmas, and some that are best read on a beach in the summer. Autumn, and the "liberation of leaves," are important themes in the second half of Naked Trees, making it the perfect read for these shorter, cooler days, accompanied with some apple cider and maybe a pumpkin loaf.

Feeling Fall-ish

Tuesday, 16 October 2012
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I'm a summer girl. I'm happiest when the temperature climbs above thirty degrees and I'm sitting on a patio with a Caesar in hand or lounging near a lake reading a great book. It's been six years since the fall meant a return to school, but there's still a feeling of finality when the days begin to get shorter and the temperature dips closer to zero. But despite these feelings of gloom, I am still a huge fan of fall. It’s the perfect time to grab an apple cider (or peach cider, which I didn’t know existed until this past weekend), and stroll through farmer’s markets and used bookstores. Hamilton is the perfect place to live this time of year, with so many small towns, farms, and green space so close by. In the last few weekends alone I’ve managed to make trips to Lindley’s Farm and Market, Carluke Orchards, and to St. Jacob’s farmer’s market and antique market. 

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