Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: You Against Me

Jenny Downham’s latest book, You Against Me, was released just last week from Doubleday Canada. It’s brilliant.

Doubleday sent me a few books to review, and since this one had the earliest release date, it was at the top of the list. But once I cracked the spine that wouldn’t have mattered.

The narrators’ voices and the situation grabbed me from the beginning. I’m a sucker for a good voice. The only reason I didn’t devour the book in a day is that it wasn’t an option this week.

Also, I had to wrestle it back from my friend who picked it up on the weekend and started reading it. She made me promise that she gets it next.

Nothing about this book is easy. Mikey’s sister Karyn claims a boy assaulted her. She is depressed and afraid to leave the house. He struggles to look after their younger sister and alcoholic mother and keep things together, hiding the truth about their situation from social services, while keeping up his job at a local bar. He doesn’t know what the answer is, he just wants to fix things.

Ellie worships her older brother, Tom, so of course when he’s accused of sexual assault she supports him. Karyn was at a party and drank too much; she made a decision and then changed her mind. She has no right to ruin Tom’s life. But as Ellie comes to know and care for Mikey, she struggles with decisions that will shape the future of her family.

Everything about this book is beautifully handled. The voices are real and the language is breathtaking at times. Downham does credit to the long, often painful processes involved in any legal inquiry or battle. Both characters grow up throughout the course of the novel, and the ending does credit to the characters’ journey without attempting to wrap anything up in an easy package.

If I have one quibble (and it’s a small one), it’s that I wasn’t sure of Mikey’s age, or even age range, for the first chapter or so. I was consciously trying to figure out whether he was older or younger than Karyn, whether he was 12 or 16 or 20. It became clear soon enough, though, and from that point on it was smooth sailing. There is also a bit of awkwardness later in the book, where Downham needs weeks to pass (e.g. between hearing and trial), and uses brief, unrelated scenes to mark the passage of time. It’s over with quickly, and completely forgivable.

You Against Me is an insightful, compelling  novel for older teens. It deals with difficult situations and shows that both sides of any given story have their own truths. I haven’t read Downham’s Before I Die, but after this, I intend do. I suspect she’ll be taking her place on my favourite authors list.

Book Review: Matched

This is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own. The girl-in-a-bubble cover is pretty, but didn’t grab me. Not sure why; it’s a great cover. It just didn’t look like my kind of book. But a few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet some book bloggers as part of a focus group at Penguin Canada. Almost without exception, they recommended this book. Now I know why.

Matched tells the story of a girl living in a society where officials decide everything from what you wear and eat to what jobs you’re most suited for and who you’ll marry. People are offered just enough choice (which colour dress would you like?) to keep them happy. To keep them complacent.

Cassia has always accepted the way things are. She has a moment of doubt when there seems to have been a mistake made over her perfect “match,” the man she’ll marry. She’s matched to two people, her best friend Xander, and Ky, whom she knows less well. The Officials assure her that Ky’s inclusion in the Matching Pool was a mistake. Because of his family history and social status, he’s not eligible to marry anyone.

Another thread of doubt comes from Cassia’s grandfather, who dies as society dictates, on his 80th birthday, but leaves Cassia something secret. Two poems. They’re not among the 100 poems that Society decided were allowed. These poems (Do Not Go Gentle by Dylan Thomas and Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar) are different. They stir something inside Cassia.

She comes to know Ky and what she learns of his history causes her to question everything.

I love Cassia’s growth as a character. I like the hints that we see of something under the surface that is not quite right. There’s no giant moment of revelation right away, just hints and small choices that built and build. The characters are well developed and the risks they take believable and frightening.

Ally Condie’s writing is clear and straightforward. The voice and observations she gives to Cassia ring true. My journey through the book was a little bit like Cassia’s journey — slow at first, and then faster and faster as the pieces started falling into place.

I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

Scribbling Women: Interview with Marthe Jocelyn

Today’s blog post is officially part of Marthe Jocelyn’s Scribbling Women book tour. That means that anyone who comments on it gets entered into a draw by Tundra Books to win a complete set of Marthe’s books! You can find more information, and a list of the other participating blogs, here.

The first time I heard Marthe speak was last November, when she was the keynote speaker for CANSCAIP’s Packing Your Imagination conference. I wrote a little bit about it here. My favourite line, still, was when she said that for a writer, lies are as important a tool as an eraser.

That’s a strange introduction to an interview, isn’t it? But I’m pretty sure Marthe was telling the truth here. You can decide for yourself. Read on for what she has to say about letter writing and online platforms and growing up around the stage.

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ET: I remember from your PYI talk that you grew up around the Stratford Festival — did the stories there influence you in wanting to write?

MJ: I wanted to be an actress when I was very young, possibly because the writer was not as visible a part of what I watched and loved on stage. After a brief effort, I gave up the idea of acting, due to serious shyness. Possibly that is when I started to pay attention to the other ways I might participate in theatre. I have written two plays — one for child actors and one for a child audience — but the main trickle-down learning from the stage to my novels is probably the realization that dialogue is far different from conversation. It should be moving the plot or enhancing the characters.

ET: Were there some actors (especially women, since we’re talking about “Scribbling Women”) who showed you how characters could come to life?

MJ: I was a big fan of Martha Henry, initially because of her name and later because she was a great stage actress. I used to wait for her outside the (Stratford Festival) stage door, even if I hadn’t been to see the play. I still have numerous programs with her autograph.

ET: In your foreword to Scribbling Women, you mention coming across the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and that her letters inspired you to look for other women who wrote. You also make the point that the physical act of writing intrigued you — when did these women find the time to put their words to paper, given all the other things that they had to do? Do you think that, in writing, they (or we) are hoping to leave something behind to connect with future generations?

MJ: Of the eleven scribblers in my book, four were consciously attempting to connect with and pass along to future readers; Harriet Jacobs was a runaway slave who wrote a memoir for the purpose of revealing the trials and abuses suffered by the community of slaves that she’d grown up amongst. Isabella Beeton and Mary Kingsley each wrote books about her own particular passion — homemaking for Mrs. Beeton, and West Africa for Mary. Doris Pilkington-Garimara wrote memoirs about her mother’s and her own life as members of Australia’s Stolen Generations.

Nellie Bly was a journalist, concerned with the immediate, and all the others wrote private documents that they would be astounded to know are being read by the general public today.

As for “us”? Anyone who publishes a book is hoping that it will possibly be read beyond our lifetime. That is not, however, the driving motive behind my daily task of writing a few hundred words…

Which leads neatly into your next question…

ET: As a writer, how do you structure your time around writing? Do you ever think about why you do it?

MJ: I don’t really think about why I do it except that it’s one of the few things I know how to do AND like doing, in exchange for money. Structuring time is one of the big challenges. I make a to-do list every morning. I put a time beside each item. I get about halfway through the day on schedule and then I make excuses and change my mind and do an errand or read for awhile… and then I try to write some more.

ET: Some of these women were writing letters, wanting to share their stories with their friends and family. That was a practical thing, of course — back then, there was no other way to communicate with those who were far away. Still, there’s something interesting in that urge to share narrative in the form of long letters. Nowadays we don’t tend to do that. We share little blips at a time — email, tweets — and because the liens of communication are always “on,” there’s less of an impulse to step back and think about what the story of the past week/month/year has been.

MJ: True

ET: Are you a letter writer?

MJ: I used to write letters, before email, and I still manage the odd thank you note or condolence letter. But what is sad for the archives (fewer letters for historians) certainly makes for a livelier, if more vacuous, social life, with daily communication instead of monthly or even yearly with some distant friends.

ET: As a writer, do you put a lot of time into building your “online platform” (blogging, tweeting, etc.)?

MJ: No, not much. I’m learning, but it’s a bit too time consuming to make the commitment to using the “online platform” to its full extent.

ET: I liked the point that you made in your book about email not leaving behind any artifacts, like a scrap of cloth or a lock of hair. There’s the loss of handwriting, too. Seeing the shape of someone’s letters on paper can help us form an impression of them. When we type, all our letters look the same. Did writing this book change the way that you feel about writing and communication?

MJ: I was already a believe in writing, so I can’t say that has changed, but possibly my definition of “writing” has expanded. Even the women who were nearly illiterate and certainly not literary managed to tell profound stories and to reveal their spirit. And I found it intriguing that even women who were nearly illiterate chose, perhaps urgently needed to express themselves using words.

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I should explain that by “interview,” I mean that I sent Marthe a rambling email filled with questions and observations, and she somehow managed to make sense of it all. Thank you, Marthe!

Please don’t forget to comment, so that you can be entered for your chance to win a set of Marthe’s books! I’d love to hear about the Scribbling Women who inspired you to write, or about your views on letter writing versus email. Or how you approach writing in your own life. And when you do have the chance to read Scribbling Women, please share your thoughts! I look forward to hearing them.

Scribbling Women Update and Website 2.0!

Scribbling Women Book Tour

Coming this week: Marthe Jocelyne’s “Scribbling Women” book tour has officially started. If you comment on any post that’s part of the book tour, you are entered into a draw with Tundra Books to win a complete set of Marthe Jocelyne’s books. That’s a lot of reading!

My contribution: later today and Tuesday, I’ll be sharing with you the stories of some Scribbling Women I know and the women who inspired them to write. Wednesday, for my official blog tour post, I’ll be sharing an interview with Marthe Jocelyn. She’s an amazing woman. You don’t want to miss it. Or your chance to win the eight zillion books she’s written!

Website 2.0

Things look a bit different here this morning. My husband was up late last night, wrestling with WordPress to give this website a bit of polish. I love it!

What I want to point out: over on the right, you’ll see two widgets. One is linked to Goodreads and shows the book that I’m reading at the moment. I’m always happy to talk books, so please feel free to get in touch if you’ve read it or if you’re thinking about it!

The other, the one I’m most proud of, is “Whitby Chronicle.” I’ve been researching Whitby in the 1880s for a current project. That means lots of time in the Whitby Archives with incredible local historian Brian Winter, and it also means quality hours with the microfiche readers at Whitby Library. As I go cross-eyed, I thought I’d share some tidbits from the Whitby Chronicle, the local newspaper at that time. Enjoy! It’s set to random, and I’ll be adding as I go, so you never know what will pop up.

Book Review: Scribbling Women

Okay, so as previously mentioned, I’m part of Marthe Jocelyne’s blog tour for her new book, Scribbling Women.

I received my copy of the book in the mail a while ago. My first Advance Copy! Well, of a book that’s not mine, anyhow. (The book is due for release March 22, I believe.)

Being part of the blog tour means that I get to post a review of the book before the book is even out. Yay!!! It also means that on Wednesday, March 30, I’ll be posting… well, something. That’s my blog tour date. It’s a surprise, largely because I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to post on that day.

But it’ll be cool.

And even if it isn’t, you want to be here and to comment, because Tundra Books is hosting a huge book giveaway. One complete set of books by Marthe Jocelyne–that’s 28 books, ranging in age from toddler books to YA novels. Take a look!

You can, in fact, leave a comment on each of the 30 participating blogs for 30 chances to win. And as soon as I can figure out how to upload a PDF to this website, I’ll have the list of participating blogs here for you.

In the meantime: my book review.

Scribbling Women is a collection of stories. Stories of women who left behind their words. Their diaries, their letters, sometimes their fiction. These women give us glimpses into their worlds — worlds that are fascinating, and for the most part, worlds I knew nothing about.

In her foreword, Marthe tells us that when she was researching for this book, she found information on thousands of women who left their words behind. Thousands. This book tells the stories of eleven. So how did she choose? She narrowed her list to “those whose stories made me catch my breath.”

We start with Sei Shonagon. Her real name is unknown; Sei would have been her family name, Marthe tells us, while “shonagon” meant “junior counsellor.” That was probably the job of one of her male relatives. So her name has been lost, but her words have not. She left behind a collection of snippets written while she was at court. Thoughts. Poems. Observations. She was born more than one thousand years ago, but many of her “lists” (like poems in themselves) still ring true.

Things that Pass by Rapidly
A boat with its sail up.
People’s age.
Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.

From Sei, we move to Margaret Catchpole, who was sent to prison for stealing a horse. And from there, she was sent to Australia: Transported for Life. She left in 1801. Her letters give us a glimpse into a world that’s as far removed in time as it is in distance.

The next entry, Mary Hayden Russel, seems confident and sure of herself, despite travelling on a whaling ship in a time when women on board a ship were generally considered bad luck. And the next story, Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story, is perhaps the most horrifying. She spent years living in a tiny, cramped space as a runaway slave, watching the world through a peephole.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was one of my favourites. She’s a Victorian lady with the mind and heart of a scientist. Her writing is deliciously descriptive. “The first day in the forest we came across a snake — a beauty with a new red-brown and yellow-patterned velvety skin, about three feet six inches long and as thick as a man’s thigh….We had the snake for supper, that is to say the Fan and I; the others would not touch it, although a good snake, properly cooked, is one of the beat meats one gets out here, far and away better than the African fowl.”

Nellie Bly amazed me, too, with the things that she endured for the sake of investigative journalism. She wanted to tell the stories that mattered, from the point of view of those who were living them. She was driven to share the truth.

The same could be said of each of these women, each in her own way. Ada Blackjack wrote from an island north of Siberia. She wrote her story by hand in halting English, only using the typewriter left behind by one of her party to report the death of the man who had been her last companion.

Dang Thuy Tram was a doctor in North Vietnam. Her diary, when found by a Vietnamese Sergeant, prompted him to tell his American friend not to burn it: “There is fire in it already.”

And Doris Pilkington’s account of her mother’s escape from a government-run Native Settlement and back to her family is heartrending.

Marthe does a wonderful job of using her own words, with selections from the women’s writing, to tell their stories. Her writing is transparent. Through it, we get to see what she saw, in reading the original sources.

If there’s a weak spot in the book, it’s the short linking paragraphs used to connect the women’s stories together. The transitions and connections often feel forced. She compares how long two women waited for replies, for example. And yet, I would not like to see the book without them. These connections, as forced as they might seem at times, help create a thread between the stories. They drive home the point that these women all had something in common.

At whatever time, for whatever reason, each picked up a pen to express herself. Each left behind something of her own remarkable story.  And each, in her own way, knew the value of words.

Marthe’s Jocelyn’s book, Scribbling Women, will take you on a journey through a range of places and times. I’ve heard it said that the drive to write is the drive to make worlds come alive. If that’s the case, Marthe Jocelyne, along with each of the women she writes about, feels that drive.

Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

I haven’t posted many book reviews here, but I just finished a good book, so I want to share.

Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution is a YA that clocks in at a hefty 123,000 words. I devoured it in a few days.

I’m a sucker for a great voice, and Jennifer Donnelly has it. Her main character, Andi, is gutsy and outspoken and intelligent and hurting. It made for some compelling reading. The character in the French revolution-era diary grabbed me equally as much, and I love seeing Andi’s growing fascination with her. Add some fascinating insight into the evolution of music and a look at the city of Paris, both in the 18th century and in modern times, and I was hooked.

The only place that this novel sagged a little, for me, was when (spoiler alert) Andi goes back in time to live the life of the girl in the diary and meets her musical idol. The idea of her sharing her iPod with him was cute, but overall, the scenes with him in them just didn’t live up to the promise of the rest of the novel. However, we’re soon pulled back into the story again, for a satisfying ending.

A great book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a friend. I know I’ll read it again.

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Stay tuned for my review of Marthe Jocelyln’s new book, Scribbling Women. I’ll be part of her upcoming blog tour, which means several cool things including a giant book giveaway. But that’s another post.