Monthly Archives: June 2009

Adult books: one yummy, one lovely


It’s been months since I’ve picked up an adult book, and I decided to ease my way back into a little “grown up reading” with two titles that have been on my list for ages, both of them pitched just right for early summer reading. (I don’t see either of these titles as having real crossover potential, but I’m still allowed to review them because I make the rules!)

Julie and Julia is a fun, “imagine yourself in this situation,” true story about Julie Powell’s crazy year spent making every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking from yummy desserts to stomach-churning dishes like poached eggs in aspic. Stuck in her life, and terribly disappointed in herself for feeling that she hadn’t achieved much of note in her thirty years, Powell decided to start this project to inject purpose into her days. What began on a whim ended up taking over Powell’s life and changing it for the better (the life changing happened after making it through the aspic chapter in MtAoFC). I picked this book in part because I’m into food writing, and also because of the upcoming film starring the adorable Amy Adams as Powell and the perfectly-cast Meryl Streep as Child. Take a look at the trailer:

If you are even a little bit obsessive in nature (ahem), and if you fancy yourself a foodie, you will probably find yourself envying Powell’s inspired/deranged idea. You will certainly find some laughs in her book, and she writes with a feisty honesty that appealed to me. Just a note – it seems that some people really hated Powell’s book, calling it boring / poorly written / self-absorbed and I can’t say that I agree. I’m thinking that said people were just jealous of the all of the attention Powell won through blogging about the project. Julie and Julia was entertaining and it made me want to spend more time cooking this summer. It made me think about why some people cook, and how the type of foods we cook define us.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is every bit as lovely as everyone is telling you. It follows the experiences of a writer, Juliet Ashton, who by chance, comes to know a group of Guernsey inhabitants who share with her their stories of the years of German occupation. She travels to the island to research her next book, and when she gets there, she finds much more than she expected. I’ll just chime into the chorus of praise. Here are all of the things I love about it:

1) It’s an epistolary novel (love them love them love them!). Do I need to explain this? Consider a few other epistolary novels worth cheering about: Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn), Feeling Sorry for Celia (Jaclyn Moriarty), A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (Valerie Zenatti), 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff).

2) The tone is warm and quite often humorous, and you’ll put it down with a sigh of contentment, but the authors (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) reveal the horror of the war in numerous short scenes and tales throughout the novel, so that I’d say the overall effect is more poignant than heartwarming.

3) It’s a book about books – why they matter, our relationships to and with them, how they can bring people together.

I enjoyed every page. Read it if you haven’t already. I’m guessing it will find a place on your shelf of favourites.


Summer begins

I’m going away for a tiny holiday. I am packing this pile of books:


To be read while dangling toes into the lake and drinking lemonade.

Back with reviews in a few days!

Author Interview: Grace Lin

mountainIt is a thrill to host the amazing Grace Lin for an author interview today. Her beautiful new novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (to be released July 1st), is part fairy tale, part epic journey and is in my view, absolutely perfect. It’s the story of Minli, a young girl who leaves her family to travel to find the Old Man of the Moon, hoping he holds the secret to changing their fortune. Why don’t we start off with the book trailer:

Grace’s book is full of fables, adventure and magical creatures, not to mention stunning full-colour illustrations. Take a look at a few of them:



Hard to believe that the book is filled with illustrations as gorgeous as this. So let’s get to the interview! Welcome Grace!

One of the themes in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the idea that while stories cost nothing, they have infinite value. Could you comment on this theme, and how it plays a role in your story?

In “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” the Old Man of the Moon talks about how everyone who meets are connected by a red thread. To me, those red threads, those connections are the stories we share. Stories as fascinating as a harrowing rescue or as inane as trying to find a parking spot—they are how we share our lives.

A while ago, when one of my friend’s grandfather passed away I remember him saying one of his biggest regrets was not asking more about his grandfather’s experiences. “Now, those stories are gone,” he said. And the poignancy of this statement, the realization that we encapsulate our life, share our memories and connect with stories is what makes them invaluable.

And this is, of course, one of the themes in the book. Ma (the mother) first disdains the stories that Ba (the father) tells, but as the story progresses it is the sharing of stories that help bring them together and makes her slowly reevaluate what she thought was valuable.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon shows readers that reaching a destination is not only about having an objective, it’s also about having faith along the way. How has the journey of writing your novel led you in unexpected directions? What surprising things happened to you along the way?

Well, writing “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” was particularly emotional to me. I wrote about half of the book before my late husband, who had been ill with cancer for many years, passed. I felt a deep regret that I was unable to finish it before he died and was unsure if I would continue. But my good friend, Janet Wong said to me, “No, it is better this way. If you had finished it before, you would’ve felt like everything had to stay exactly the same. Now, you can feel like you have the ability to change.” Which was completely true and a revelation to me, not only for my book, but for my life.

If you were given the chance to choose a creature to keep you company every day and convey wisdom, would you choose: a) a dragon, b) a goldfish, or c) a faithful water buffalo?

I think I would choose the goldfish– it is the most peaceful, and there is something rather poetic about a goldfish in a bowl. I always feel inspired by brilliant colored fish. The dragon is tempting, but I think would cause too much attention from the neighbors and feeding a water buffalo would be a headache in the city. Ha ha.

Continue reading

The Uninvited

timSpooky and summer go so well together, don’t you think? If you’re in the mood for a thriller to sink into while lounging on the dock, I can’t think of a better recommendation than Tim Wynne Jones’ latest, The Uninvited. Sure to spook your socks off, the story captivates in true Tim Wynne Jones style.

Mimi is desperate to get away, somewhere quiet and remote, somewhere far away from her mildly-stalkerish NYU professor/boyfriend. So she drives north, to her father’s cottage in Canada. It’s been years since he’s used the place, and when Mimi shows up she is shocked to discover there’s someone already living there. That person is Jay, a young musician who is using the rundown cottage as a space for writing his latest composition. When Jay first sees Mimi, he thinks she is the weirdo who is responsible for leaving strange and freaky things around the place – a dead bird and a snakeskin and other odd tokens. It doesn’t take long for the pair to realize that someone else is watching them both, someone who seems to want to frighten them, or worse.

I’ll read anything Tim Wynne Jones writes. His stuff is literary but never self-consciously so, and he creates characters that I always wish I could keep company with just a little bit longer. This is exactly the case in The Uninvited. Jay and Mimi and Cramer, the third main character, are so well drawn that I believed in them completely. Their motivations are complex and their histories messy. Tim Wynne Jones should know a thing or two about writing suspense. His first book, Odd’s End, was a prize-winning thriller, and he’s done a bunch of much-praised suspenseful novels for young people since then. Everything in this latest book is woven together in ways you don’t see at first, and then slowly, you begin to put the pieces into place.

The Uninvited is more than just a straightforward page-turner. It’s about creativity, family, lies and isolation. Oh, and the setting just rises right out of the pages till you can see the sun dappling the river and hear the wind through the trees. Perfect cottage book – just make sure you’ve got company.

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne Jones is published by Candlewick, 2009.

When the Whistle Blows

whistleFran Cannon Slayton’s debut, When the Whistle Blows, has garnered a lot of critical attention, earning praise all over the book world including starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. It’s one of those books that you read and can’t quite believe is the author’s first novel. It’s a beauty. You need to read it not just because everyone else loves it. Read it because this is a story that will sneak up on you and leave you with the feeling that you’ve just read something that has all the makings of a classic.

When the Whistle Blows is the story of Jimmy Cannon, who lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. It’s the 1940s and the railroad is the lifeblood of the town, and it is also Jimmy’s passion. He is crazy about steam trains, and he dreams of working on the railroad just like his dad, who is the Baltimore and Ohio foreman. Jimmy’s dad doesn’t want his son to choose this life, because he predicts that the new diesel technology will cut railroad jobs dramatically. Yet Jimmy doesn’t want to walk away from the future he has always imagined.  The railroad is a part of his family and his identity. Each chapter in the novel is set on All Hallows’ Eve (Jimmy’s father’s birthday), between the years 1943-1949, so we watch Jimmy grow up from age 12 to 18. We follow Jimmy as he orchestrates pranks with his buddies, when he sneaks a look inside his father’s secret society, on the day of his high school football Championship game, and one night when he has a close encounter with a train.

This novel is a marvelous snapshot of small town boyhood in the 1940s. Fran Cannon Slayton really makes you understand the railroad and its huge significance to the people of Rowlesburg. Even though this novel is set long ago, it has real resonance in the current economic climate as lots of people struggle with letting go of livelihoods that they’ve known for decades. Really, just as much as this is a tremendously believable and rich coming of age story, it’s about change in a larger sense too. The change of a community and an entire society. Jimmy’s dad tells him, “Change comes Jimmy. It’ll thunder down the tracks towards you like an engine with the brakes gone out. And sometimes, there ain’t a dagburn thing you can do to stop it.” Jimmy learns what it means to face change and to make choices about whether to stand up against it, or to adapt and keep moving.

Woven into all of this is Jimmy’s complex relationship his father. Jimmy desperately wants to figure his dad out, but it takes him a long time to even begin to get to the bottom of his father’s mysterious past. I enjoyed the structure of Slayton’s book a great deal. Each chapter felt a bit like a self-contained short story, but they built upon each other and the overall effect was a richer appreciation of the characters and the family relationships. You really do get to watch Jimmy grow up, from an adventurous prankster / dreamer, into a young man who confronts loss and uncertainty for the first time. There’s romance, but it’s not of the lovey-dovey variety. It’s the romance of the railroad. You’ll feel it.

In When the Whistle Blows, there’s rule-breaking and humor, loss and family secrets, all explored and mingled together with such deftness and clean writing that readers will certainly recognize Fran Cannon Slayton as a new writer to watch.

When the Whistle Blows is published by Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

Emiko Superstar

emikoEmiko Superstar is a great read. It features a teen girl who finds her way to superstardom when she steps up to the mike at a local underground performing arts show called the Factory. Emi is looking to discover herself one summer, when all she’s got is a boring babysitting job in suburbia. This graphic novel traces her transformation, from geek supreme to spoken word queen.It’s the right book for all those who have ever felt on the outside and wished they could find their tribe.

I don’t feel super eloquent these days (end-of-school-year syndrome). So it’ll just have to be enough for me to say that the book is really well done. The illustrations manage to be clean and simple in style, while still incorporating details that enrich the story and characters. Just take a look at Emi’s facial expressions and you’ll be amazed at the range of feeling that the artist communicates. The family dynamic in Emi’s house feels completely believable too – the mom who is a bit overbearing/overprotective and the dad who is sweet and tries hard and actually gets stuff more than you might think. But it’s Emi that really seals the deal. She’s right there on the edge of discovering her inner coolness, her talent and her community. She’s the kid you might not have noticed in high school who was actually destined to be this amazing artist. You’ll recognize her.

There’s a quote on the back that feels pretty important to the overall aim of the book, “Not often, but every once in a while – amazing stuff happens to former geeks.” I must say, that I have to disagree on that. I think almost always, amazing stuff happens to former geeks. Emiko Superstar celebrates geek power, with style and subtlety. Guess that’s why it won this year’s Cybils Award in the YA Graphic Novel category. Read it. Write some poetry. Find your own underground arts scene and take to the stage.

Suite Scarlett Giveaway

scarlett*The giveaway has ended. Thanks for all of your great best/worst hotel stories. If you were one of the winners, you will receive an email to let you know!*

Very very happy to be launching a great giveaway today, for one of my favourite books of the past year, Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett. If you haven’t read it yet, you are SO lucky. It’s completely wonderful fun. If you have read it, you can still enter the giveaway, which is presented in celebration of the book’s paperback release. Here’s a little synopsis:

When Scarlett Martin turns fifteen she is put in charge of the Empire Suite, one of the rooms in her family’s hotel. Enter Mrs. Amberson, an aging C-list starlet who decides to employ Scarlett. Soon, she is taking dictation, running around New York City , and getting caught up in Mrs. Amberson’s crazy adventures. In the midst of it all, Scarlett falls in love–or so she thinks–and it takes Mrs. Amberson to help her see the light.

Let’s put it this way… I couldn’t trust a person who wasn’t crazy about this book. You will love it. Here’s a little video of Maureen Johnson, answering some questions about her book:

The giveaway is offered thanks to:



One Grand Prize winner will receive:

* $50 Gift Card to PBteen®
* a Suite Scarlett paperback book

Four First Prize winners will receive:

* a Suite Scarlett paperback book

All you need to do is drop off a comment, sharing your best or worst hotel story ever. Winners will be announced sometime during the first week of July. Visit for more on the book.

Confetti Girl

confettiApolonia “Lina” Flores is crazy about socks and science and sports. She’s got a great best friend, and a cute almost-first-boyfriend. Those are the good things. Mixed right up with the good are the things that make her life hard. Her mom died suddenly a year ago, and her English teacher dad is spending all of his time reading books, rather than being there the way Lina wants him to be. Confetti Girl, by Diana López, follows Lina as she navigates all of these challenges to discover how to adapt to change, and how to celebrate life no matter how messy it might sometimes be.

Lopez has created a sympathetic and realistic character in Lina. Her interests and her focus on friendship and her first crush make her come through as an ordinary and very believable kid. While the death of her mother is a significant background element to the story, it does not make the book heavy. Confetti Girl is not simply a book about a girl coping with the death of a parent. This is one strong element of the story, but there is a lot of humor here too, in the relationship between Lina and her best friend Vanessa, and especially in the scenes involving Vanessa’s mother, Ms Cantu, who is obsessed with making cascarones as a way of handling her recent divorce. (Cascarones are hollow chicken eggs, filled with confetti, decorated in festive colours, meant to be broken over people’s heads during parties and holidays). In fact, this book feels like a glimpse inside the house of a family that might live just down the street from you. You see everything – the good stuff and the damaged parts, the love and the frustration. It’s full of warmth and heart. The metaphor of the confetti, and the cascarones, fits the exuberance and confusion of Lina’s life, suggesting that to celebrate life means accepting that sometimes we can’t control everything, that everything is fragile, and from time to time things will get messy but sometimes that’s what makes the journey richer.

Confetti Girl by Diana López is published by Little Brown.

Poetry Friday: Daddy Longlegs

We have quite a lot of spiders in our house, not Daddy Longlegs, but a bunch of large-ish spiders who live way up in the corners of our high-ceilings. I’m not a stickler about sweeping their webs down. I don’t mind sharing our space with them, and after reading Ted Kooser’s poem, I mind even less.

Daddy Longlegs – by Ted Kooser

Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,
a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill
that skims along over the basement floor
wrapped up in a simple obsession.
Eight legs reach out like the master ribs
of a web in which some thought is caught
dead center in its own small world,
a thought so far from the touch of things
that we can only guess at it. If mine,
it would be the secret dream
of walking alone across the floor of my life
with an easy grace, and with love enough
to live on at the center of myself.

(from The Poetry Foundation)

Class of 2k9 Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton


I’m happy to introduce Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows, and Class of 2k9 member. Her novel tells the story of Jimmy Cannon, a teenage boy growing up in Rowelsburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. His whole town depends on the railroad, and his dad is the foreman. Jimmy dreams of a life working on the railroad too, but times are changing, and things don’t turn out as he expects. Fran’s book has been getting lots of attention, and she’s here for an interview today. Read on to learn lots more about her wonderful book, what she finds inspiring, and some excellent writing advice too. Welcome Fran! Happy launch day!

Tell us more about how you blended fact, hints of family history and fiction in this book. What was this process like?

My father’s stories had been cooking inside me for a very long time – since my childhood. They were true stories, but because I had not been there – because I had not participated in them – I had to imagine them. The moment you begin imagining, fact starts merging with fiction and wonderful things can happen! Moreover, I had first hand knowledge of the town because of my many, many trips there over the course of my lifetime – so my imagining of the facts was relatively easy to ground in a concrete reality that I had actually experienced.

Many of the individual chapters are based on nuggets of actual fact – things that my dad had either experienced or had heard about when he was growing up. My job was not only to convey those stories in an engaging way, but also to create an overarching story that tied them all together. It was this overarching story that really gave me the opportunity to interweave things that hadn’t actually been a part of the real stories – things like The Society.


I think there’s a real romance about trains, and Jimmy obviously feels this too when he’s growing up. What do you think? What fascinates you about trains?

There is definitely a romance about trains! I trained up and back to BEA this year and felt it again. There is something about seeing the countryside or cityscape move by while dining on a real tablecloth with real cloth napkins that is a throwback to another era – when plastic and cell phones didn’t exist, when people took their time getting from one place to another.

I recently had the wonderful experience of getting to ride in the cab of a real working steam engine. Truly, the entire cab was a work of art. Wood ceilings; deep green and black paint; sturdy iron fixtures; a massive, glowing firebox. It was crafted – not assembled. And the fireman, brakeman and engineer were engaged in work that was as much art as it was knowledge and brawn. There were no computers to rely on to tell you what to do – you had to know. Your life depended on it.

Fran on steam train 765

Your novel really tempts the reader to imagine Jimmy in the future. Where did you see him going next?

If I ever meet you in person I’ll tell you my dad’s chosen path after the diesels came. But I’d like to leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what the fictional Jimmy decides to do.

What appealed to you about structuring the book the way you did, with every chapter taking place on All Hallows’ Eve over a period of 6 years?

As a child, my father told me many stories about his boyhood growing up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940s. After I wrote the first chapter of When the Whistle Blows I happened to pick up Rita Dove’s Pulitzer Prize winning Thomas and Beulah, which is a group of poems loosely based on the lives of her grandparents. The poems each reflect individual stories, but the grouping of the poems together also create an overarching story that is greater than the sum of its parts.

After reading just a portion of Dove’s book something clicked inside me. I knew I wanted to do something similar using short stories instead of poems.

While my editor and I talked about the possibility of structuring When the Whistle Blows in a more “regular” format, with days following each other consecutively, I never felt that form was right for this story. Separating the stories by a year allowed me to show more convincingly events that take a long period of time to happen – time for a son to grow in understanding, for a father’s health to decline, for a town to die. Continue reading