Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I finished reading this book a week ago and I am STILL suffering from a book hangover. Nothing will ever be as magical and wonderful as this world and these characters, I'm sure of it... every other book and potential book has a grimy sheen. Life will never be the same.

The title of this book is basically what the book is about: it's a fantastic sci-fi romp about a multi-species crew on a ship on a long journey to a small, angry planet. And it was SO GOOD. Hands down the best book I've read in 2018 so far.

The Long Way isn't really an action-packed adventure until closer to the end, but the rest of it is filled with everything I could have ever wanted. Packed with excellent characterization and character development, intense and mind-blowing world-building, and, one of the most important aspects of science fiction, a sly commentary on our world as we know it. A lot of the book's theme focused on cross-cultural (or cross-species) interactions and how we learn from other cultures, and as a Cultural Studies major I was LOVING IT.

The characters though were definitely the best part and I wished I could spend all my time with them. They were so interesting and didn't play to type which was awesome. There’s the soft-hearted and pacifist space captain Ashby (I love the idea of a pacifist captain rather than the typical hard-hearted egotistical-but-loveable loose cannon), the nervous newbie but ultimately super strong and confident clerk Rosemary, the friendship between two techs Kizzy and Jenks that is so intense but never romantic (there's a scene at the end between them that was the cause of crying), a cool lizard pilot, a Navigator that thinks on a different plane, and a cook-slash-doctor who is one of the last of his kind. And they all obviously love and support each other so much. The whole book is pretty much about this misfit found family, and I am so here for it. 

The best books make you laugh out loud, cry, AND question the universe, and The Long Way managed to expertly accomplish all three.  Go read it right now. I promise you won't regret it.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Scared of Being Afraid

It was 2010. I sat beside my parents in a room in the library downtown. The room had black walls and a black carpet, and was filled with black chairs that held a handful of people. The room was dark, but it felt official. There was a podium in front of four or five rows of chairs. A woman got up and stood behind the podium, and began to announce the awards for the short fiction and poetry contest. I was there because I had won third place in the young writer's short fiction contest. Each winner had been asked if they wanted to read their piece aloud. I had said no, although I had a folded up copy of my story in my jacket pocket, just in case.

As the evening wore on, I listened enraptured as all these writers, young and old, shared their work and a let a little piece of themselves out into the world. They invited us, the audience, into their perspective with their words. When it was my turn to receive my award, I took the envelope handed to me and left the podium as quickly as I could. It ended up that I was one of the only two winners that didn't read my piece aloud. Later, when I emptied the folded and crumpled story from my pocket, I imagined how I would have read my piece, how I might have invited people into my world. Next time, I promised myself. Next time I would do it.


Next time turned out to be two years ago. I had submitted a poem to my university's small, under the radar literary journal, and they were launching that year's issue with a reading. All contributors were invited to read their work. Trying to ignore the intense self-doubt and anxiety, I said I would share. 

The literary journal's launch was small and intimate, perfect for a timid writer and first time reader. It was held in an older wing of the school that was filled with couches, cushy armchairs, and a volunteer-run cafe that often lost customers to the newer, shinier cafe in the new library, but thrived through the love and commitment of die-hard hipsters with a love of independent business and school spirit. In the evening for the launch, the hall was filled only with writers and readers and those who loved those writers and readers, maybe fifteen people total. I sat with a couple of friends on a couch and listened. It was mesmerizing to hear each person's unique stories, filled with their own incredibly distinct voices. All kinds of pieces were accepted for publication in the literary journal, and it was delightful to experience all of them, to see how these people were in the midst of developing their expression, just like me. 

Then it was my turn. Trying to keep my voice steady, I read my poem. That moment was nothing special; it was the moment after that mattered. The moment when the readings ended, the snacks were brought out, and people began to talk to each other. Each person's writing had initiated a conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised that my poem was also a part of it. Writing is so often such a solitary activity, I had forgotten that it could communicate so much to others in ways that normal conversation often can't. The launch ended, everyone dispersing, analysis and praise turning back to less soulful conversations. And all I could think was that I needed to do this again. 

I am not very good at sharing my writing. I like to hoard it, because in my hands it is safe. I don't understand how people constantly share their work on social media, put up summaries of their works in progress on their blog, or post their work on various websites or forums. For a long time, I have been too afraid of being criticized, or not expressing myself in the way that I want. I make excuses. It's not ready yet. It's too personal. And then I put it off and put it off and it becomes a larger and larger wall that's harder to get over. But then I miss out on the experiences on the other side of that wall - the connections, the deeper communication, the opening up of conversations that I would never have otherwise, and other things I haven't had the chance to experience yet.

I recently read YouTuber and singer/songwriter dodie's book of personal essays, Secrets for the Mad. One of my favourite chapters is actually the chapter that she didn't write, where she has one of her old friends from high school write a chapter from his perspective about her concert. It turns into a reflection on how dodie has made a successful career for herself. He talks about how a lot of her life and career is about being vulnerable and sharing very personal aspects of her life, whether that be through her songs or her YouTube channel. He says that "Dodie succeeds in creating beautiful songs because she isn't scared of being afraid. The difference between a song that speaks to you and a song that you cringe at is that the success expresses vulnerability without fear" (135). 

Sharing, being vulnerable, putting yourself out there doesn't mean fear goes away, but it does mean you aren't scared of being afraid - of being vulnerable, opening yourself up to critique but also to so much more. 

One of my goals this year is to share more of my own writing. I've been starting slowly, but you can check out some if it here, or on Twitter where I have been trying to participate weekly in #1linewed. And, speaking of sharing writing, I am on the hunt for a few more critique partners and/or beta readers! If you're interested in reading my work or swapping work, comment below with your email or email me at asherlockwrites(at)gmail(dot)com and we'll see if we're compatible. 

Further reading about my writing struggles: Book Blogging, Sharing Writing, and Other Scary Things // The Future // Begin Again

Monday, May 7, 2018

Review: What to Do When I'm Gone by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman

What to Do When I'm Gone is a mixture of memoir, providing comfort to those who have recently lost loved ones, and humourous anecdotes and advice just for growing up and life in general. It is (kind of) a graphic novel that includes numbered instructions, written to a daughter by her mother, for what to do after her mother dies. 

What to Do When I'm Gone manages to strike a perfect balance between all aspects, managing to be both touching and funny. When I was reading this book, my grandfather had passed away not that long ago and I was about to graduate, and it somehow was able to address both feelings of loss and anxiety about the future. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, but I closed the book feeling calm and at peace, as if I was hugged by my mom. It was such a comforting and enjoyable book to read.

It's a quick read, definitely more of a coffee table or gift book than anything. I would recommend this book as a gift to a loved one, someone who has just suffered a loss, your mother, or just someone who needs some guidance in their life. I think I’m going to keep it on my shelf to reread every now and again.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Review: Land Mammals and Sea Creatures by Jen Neale

I really, really wanted to like this book. The opening scene of the whale beaching hooked me immediately. The description of it was gorgeous and spine-tingling.

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures is set in a small town on an island on the west coast of Canada. It follows Julie, who has just returned to town to take care of her mentally ill father, a veteran who suffers from PTSD. Things really start getting strange, though, when a whale ends up on the shore, a stranger comes to town, and animals start dying everywhere.

The description of animal life coming and going is by far the strength of this book. The uncanny deaths of various animals occur throughout, and the way that Neale is able to portray these gruesome scenes in vivid detail is amazing.

However, I just wasn’t in the right head space for the kind of message this book was trying to get across – it was just too sad and frankly, disgusting, for me to really enjoy. I realize that is the point and if you aren’t quite as sensitive a reader as me you might be awed by how Neale writes a perfect picture of a decaying town infested with the smell of whale rot, and then uses these natural pictures to attempt to say something about grief. For me, at the time I read it, it was just too much about death without really going anywhere beyond that, and I just want more hope in my books at the moment. However, perhaps for someone who needs to come to terms with letting go as Julie and her father do, it would be the book for them. 

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures comes out May 2018 from ECW Press. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Even More Embarrassing Childhood Writing

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and often authors try to emulate their favourite authors in their own work. I am no different; since I was a wee little writer I have attempted to write like my favourite authors, both intentionally and completely obliviously. Here are some things I wrote, inspired by authors I've loved. Whether my writing is a fitting tribute to the authors I've admired is up to you to decide.

2008, age 12

All I remember about The Gravesavers by Sheree Fitch is that it was sad and tragic, set on the east coast, and the main character was named after a spice. I thought this was the pinnacle of good writing, so I decided to try my hand at writing a tragic story also with characters named after spices. It was about two sisters named Pepper and Cinnamon whose parents both died, and I called it Allspice. I set it on the coast (that I had never been to), and Cinnamon's nickname was exactly the same as the main character of The Gravesavers. (All the other members of their family were also named after spices.) An excerpt of the first draft of Allspice:

I laughed to myself. I could certainly ace this home economics quiz! It was all about spices. I read the next question.

5. List 5 Spices.

Easy, I thought. I ran through the list of my family member's names.

What would you rather read? An epic about spices-disguised-as-people that I wrote when I was 12, or a lovely story by one of the best Canadian children's authors?

2009, age 14

One of the series that I grew up reading was the inspirational Christian Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn. I still have every single book in the series on my bookshelf, I am not ashamed to say. Those books comforted me like no other books could, so naturally I had to write a series about the adventures of a cute college friend group just like Christy's. The main character's name was Sadie. TOTALLY DIFFERENT. An excerpt: 

19-year-old Sadie Cummings laughed to herself. She couldn't believe after all these years, she still got lost in her daydreams. It was one thing when she was twelve, walking home from school, but now? When she was finished school, and walking to her part-time job in between classes at the University and in between all that going home to feed her cute black kitten, Da Capo? She laughed to herself again, as she was walking up the sidewalk to the bookstore where she worked called Marigold's. After second thought, yes, she could believe she still conjured up daydreams in her waking moments as if she was twelve. After all, she was a writer and she needed all the imagination she could get.

This isn't bad, but the actual beginning was an entire two paragraphs describing how cold Sadie's legs were. E.g., Her legs felt like ice. No, they were beyond feeling like ice- they were ice. She could imagine them- a clear, cool, smooth blue that would shatter and crack into pieces painfully if she fell.  And it doesn't stop there.

2009, age 14

Of Two Minds by Perry Nodelman and Carol Matas was one of my favourite fantasy books as a young teen (and honestly, it stands the test of time, still amazing). It featured a funny, flawed, kick-ass female princess character that could create real things from her imagination, and a wimpy, scared boy that could read minds. The two characters hated each other and then fell in love. I LOVED it, so I took the character types, their relationship, and the fantasy setting, and wrote a trilogy. An excerpt:

"Gwen!" Tamlin called, jogging clumsily to catch up, "Gwen! Where are you going?"

"Why should it be any of your business?" Gwen responded harshly, not even turning her head to give so much as a glance in Tamlin's direction. Gwen reached to her long black mane and tied it in a hasty braid. 

"Well, I got the necklace for you, and... I left home and-" Tamlin continued, stumbling on each reason he gave.

Gwen sighed, and finished off her braid, "Why do you want to come with me anyway? It's dangerous, life-threatening, anything and everything. Nothing a farm boy would expect."

"I'm not a farm boy!" Tamlin argued, "and I want to come with you... truthfully I have nothing better to do and I have no idea what I'm doing all on my own and frankly" -Tamlin gasped for air- "You seem like you have an idea."

"I have no intention of babysitting for some wandering, childish towns-folk," Gwen stated flatly.

"I'm eighteen," Tamlin hissed through clenched teeth, "and besides, I can survive just fine on my own." 

Why yes, they do get married in the second book. 

2017, age 23

Despite how short I've fallen when trying to write books that come even close to being as brilliant as the ones written by my favourite authors, I continue to try to do it. Melina Marchetta is one of my favourite authors, largely because of the focus in her books on characters, and the intense friendship and family dynamics between them. In the past couple of years I've attempted to write some contemporary stories inspired by her themes and my own life experience, about friends, family and the regular struggles of everyday life. An excerpt:

           “Grandma, isn’t this just supposed to be a barbecue?”

            Grandma has an entire, whole turkey in her oven. She’s also making roast vegetables, and she’s got the ingredients set out neatly on her counter for a pineapple upside down cake.

            “All you really need are a few bags of chips for a barbecue,” I mumble.

            “Violet!” Grandma exclaims, slapping her hand on the counter and making me jump. “This isn’t just a barbecue, it is the event of the year, and I am in charge! I will settle for nothing less than flawless.”

            I roll my eyes. “Yeah, but a whole turkey? You really think people will go for turkey at a church picnic? You could have made, like, your potato salad or something. People would have liked that.”

            “Potato salad is for peasants!” Grandma says, waving an oven mitt at me in dismissal. I go back to shaving carrots for her vegetable dish. There’s really no arguing with Grandma, and especially not about the proper way to throw parties. I have to admit that my grandmother’s cooking is amazing, and the parties and dinners she puts on are always elegant and tasteful. I guess I’m just lazy, and I think the church people would enjoy the picnic regardless of fancy desserts.

            I wish Callan was here so we could laugh together at how seriously Grandma takes this, like we often do, but he’s off doing something with Miles, probably trying to catch Pok√©mon. Once they were talking about it in front of Grandma and she asked, “So who is this Mr. Pokey-man and where is he?”

            “Violet, are you just about done with those carrots? You’re shaving so much there’ll be nothing left of them soon.”

            I sigh. “Yes, I’m done.” I hand her the cutting board of peeled carrots and she drops them into her bowl.

            “And you did agree to be a server at the picnic tomorrow, correct?” Grandma says.

            “What? You have servers at a barbecue? What kind of event is this?” I have gotten roped into too many things lately. That is the problem with never having anything to do, except work. I could lie and say I have a shift, but this town is so dang small Grandma would ask around and then somehow I would end up actually having a shift tomorrow. I’d rather serve watered down punch to old ladies than work a day I don’t have to at the Coop, although really it’s just picking between the lesser of two evils since I’ll probably get asked stupid questions either way. For a second I think about the possibility of skipping town and escaping all of this, which makes me think of the letter I threw out the other day, which makes my stomach seize in panic. I try to bury all thoughts of it.

            “Stop being such a snob, Violet,” Grandma says. “Please be here at ten o’clock sharp, in black slacks and a white blouse.”

            “Please tell me you’ll at least pay me,” I say, half joking.

            Grandma gives me a withering look that makes me fear for my life, so I shut up. 

I have no idea why, but "Potato salad is for peasants" is my favourite line I have ever written. 

Which authors have inspired your writing? What are some embarrassing things you wrote as a kid? 

More embarrassing writing: Early Works Blogfest: My Awesome Childhood Writing // More of My Embarrassing Childhood Writing


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