Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: The Dhow House by Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil is one of those authors that can bring clarity to the human experience in a single, illuminating sentence.

She is also exceptionally good at place in her books, which I first experienced when I read Ice Diaries last year, about her experience in the Antarctic. It was a slower book to get through, but the writing was so elegant and her absolutely beautiful twists of phrase brought life into the setting. If you're going to send a writer to Antarctica, you definitely want to send one who is good at writing place, and Jean McNeil definitely is.

Because I enjoyed Ice Diaries, I looked forward to digging into her newest novel, The Dhow House (which I acquired through ECW Press's Shelf Monkey program), which as you can tell already from the title, also centres around a place.

If you like action-packed stories full of plot twists and turns, then this is definitely not the book for you. The plot is very straightforward, takes a long time to get to anywhere that interesting, and even when it does the conflict quickly dissipates and the plot slows once again.

However, the plot really isn't the point of this book. It's really the writing, the experience of the place, and the reflections of the characters in that place. Her writing creates a certain atmosphere, which I'm sure she does very intentionally. Throughout the first half of the book, through the slowness and the deep, rich description I felt wary and slightly creeped out, and couldn't really put my finger on how exactly she was creating this effect. There is definitely a lot more going on in this book than at the surface, and you really have to pay attention for those moments where she drops a particularly striking sentence that makes you stop and go, Whoa.

I have a deep appreciation for writers like Jean McNeil who so obviously love the work of stringing together words to evoke deep meanings, which not all writers have talent for. While the plot plodded along sleepily, the place and characters were very much alive.

The Dhow House comes out in Canada April 11. There is also a Goodreads giveaway that ends on March 31 if you'd like to enter to get an ARC!

Find it on:
ECW Press

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

7 Lies I Believed About Writing

There are a lot of misconceptions and myths that float around about writing, and as a result I wrongly believed a lot of things about writing when I was younger. I was one of those kids who was always writing things and showing off scraps of everything to all my family and friends. When I was a kid, writing was easy and everyone told me I was fantastic so it was easier to believe ALL THE LIES. I have since learned the truth.

me actually writing feat. cat

Lie #1: You only write if you're inspired

I'd never heard the term Muse when I was a kid (and once I did I didn't understand it), but I knew: the way writing works is you are INSPIRED by whatever, usually nature because that's artsy (rain if you want to be even more artsy) and then you would write based on that inspiration.

The Truth: If you wait for the passionate winds of inspiration to sweep you up, you will hardly ever write, and you'll constantly be wondering why Inspiration or the Muse or the Universe or whatever hates you so much.

Lie #2: Only write if you feel like it

When I was younger, I basically only wrote when I felt like it, which happened to be a lot since writing was a fun thing to do with no pressure and I didn't have anything better to do because I was a kid. Since I was able to feel like writing all the time, I thought that was how it worked - you wrote because you felt like it, and if you didn't feel like it that was a sign that you shouldn't write.

The Truth: When I got older and had things like school, work, and more school taking over my life, brain and energy, it turned out that I never felt like writing. As it turns out, you do have to write even when you don't feel like it, because that's the only way you'll get words on a page. (Shoot. I just realized I don't feel like writing right now. I should probably go do some writing...)

Lie #3: Writing is fun

When I was a kid, writing was basically always fun. Writing was a way to be silly, creative, and make use of all the weird things my imagination came up with.

The Truth: Writing is sometimes fun, but more often it's work. It takes sitting your butt in a chair, putting fingers to keyboard, and making some word vomit. And sometimes it's grueling and awful and it sucks, but then it's been an hour and you've got 500 words!

Lie #4: If writing feels like work, you need to stop

Related to believing that writing is always fun, I thought that if writing ever started to feel more like work and less like fun, then I shouldn't be doing it anymore. If I was planning to do this as a career, I needed to love it with an all consuming passion! And something feeling like work means I don't love it!

The Truth: Whether or not you plan to pursue writing as a career, you're never going to love writing all the time. Sometimes, writing is going to suck, and you're going to hate it, but that doesn't mean that you should never write again.

Lie #5: If you don't feel good about a draft, you should probably give up on it

Little Alyssa had no concept of rewrites or constructive criticism. I just write stuff, she thought, and then everyone lavishes praise on me! So it must be good! If I don't like something I wrote, I should just rip it up or hide it deep in a drawer where it can't embarrass me anymore.

The Truth: First drafts suck. That's what they are made for: to suck. But then you actually have something to work with, to shape into something that hopefully resembles whatever amazing piece of art you were imagining in your head, with help from some friends along the way.

Lie #6: You have to wait for inspiration to come to you

The main conflict of your story? How to get from point A to point B? Your characters' motivations for their actions? That will all magically just come to you via the winds of inspiration, because you are a magical writing goddess who summons ideas and solutions to writing problems wherever you go. You'll just be out on a walk, or driving your car, and then it will just hit you and everything will fall into place, like in an episode of Jane the Virgin.

The Truth: Inspiration will sometimes come to you, but more often, you've got to just sit your butt down, and think. Yeah, I know, you've actually got to work on thinking through character motivations, scene transitions, and all that stuff, by asking yourself a million questions and coming up with a whole bunch of bad ideas in between soliciting advice from Twitter followers before landing on a good idea.

Lie #7:  You don't need to write every day

I thought, until recently, that you write when inspiration strikes, or when you feel like it, or when you find yourself on a writers' retreat in the middle of nowhere with no interruptions. Besides, you're strong. You don't need a SCHEDULE to keep yourself in line, you're so much BETTER than that.

The Truth: AGHHH I am still trying to pound this lie out of my head. I have made excuses for way too long for not committing to a regular writing routine, and it's landed me in a lot of trouble (like being in a writing slump for, say, two years). A regular writing routine/schedule is GOOD and NECESSARY and helps you GET THINGS DONE. Also, writing every day (or even just TRYING to write every day) helps a lot with flow, because I don't have to struggle to remember what the heck I was thinking when I was writing a scene three months ago.

What misconceptions have you had about writing? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner and Authorial Intent

Recently, a very popular YA author wrote a lengthy post responding to some criticism that had come up regarding her most recent release. It's not the first time a YA author has defended their work, and it won't be the last, but it IRKS ME SO MUCH.

I understand the instinct to want to defend your work and your decisions, I really do. It's almost a basic human instinct to get defensive. But in my opinion, defending your choices against criticism doesn't make you look any better. When authors defend their work, as a reader that tells me that they don't really care about their readers  and what they think; all they care about is making sure that they cover their own behind.

It is the nature of publishing that once a book is out in the world, it isn't solely the author's anymore. Authors need to let go of their books, because by publishing their work they have already given it over to their readers. The author can't and shouldn't try to control response to it. By the time a book is out in the world, it doesn't matter what the author thinks or intended anymore. It matters what the readers think. To me, authors insisting on their interpretation as the only good and true interpretation demonstrates blatant disrespect for the readers, who are the reason they have a career in the first place.

It is amazing the difference in fan-author interaction and fan communities when the author doesn't insist on their own interpretation, either through defense of their choices or otherwise.

Hermione Granger by fridouw on DeviantArt
For example, J.K. Rowling has now become known for touting out very specific interpretations and facts about the extended universe of Harry Potter, often via Twitter. She maintains significant control over her work and the interpretation of it, often disregarding the explosion of fan interpretation through fanction, fanart, headcanons, and so on, that often reject or ignore her intention.

The feminist (Canadian!) Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please often discusses the tendency of J.K. Rowling to assert her control over the text, and comments on how her interpretations are often not even that great. In one episode, they commented that "when Rowling as a reader revisits her own texts and offers interpretations of them... she's a much shittier reader than many of her fans are." (Their discussion is around 1:19). The Witch, Please ladies then go on to say that fan interpretations of Harry Potter are often much more varied and diverse than JKR's, and often make room for difference and representation that are not present in that text.

I think that's a really cool thing about fan involvement and interaction with a text; fans can take a book that might have shoddy representation, make it theirs, and find that representation in the text through their own interpretation. It's super powerful. I think it's sad when authors like J.K. Rowling can't acknowledge that and can't let go of their own work and give it completely over to their readers.

I couldn't find the quote, but in the episode of Witch, Please that I listened to they made a comment on something J.K. Rowling had tweeted about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, something along lines of "fun fact: did you know that..." and then some behind-the-scenes "fact" about the world of Fantastic Beasts. The ladies on the podcast just cracked up, making fun of how it's not a fact, it's made up. Of course people didn't know it, because it's just inside J.K. Rowling's head. It just solidified for me how ridiculous it is for authors to insist on their own interpretation of their work. It's like the author sees herself as a queen, dictating the rules and order of her world to her lowly subjects. But that's just not how books work.

Queen's Thief art by artist
Now, in contrast with J.K. Rowling who jumps in all the time with random and often offensive tidbits is one of my favourite authors, Megan Whalen Turner, the author of the Queen's Thief series. Megan Whalen Turner is known among all Queen's Thief fans for her "not telling" policy; any time any fan asks her any question about her work or what she intended by something, all she says is "not telling". Yes, this often drives Queen's Thief fans crazy and sometimes they would give their right arm just to hear a snippet of what she might have been thinking when she wrote a certain scene. BUT I appreciate so much the different atmosphere it creates in the fan community.

It's the difference in how it makes me feel as a reader. J.K. Rowling's approach makes me feel that my own interpretation and identity is not worth anything to her, because she obviously feels that what she thinks is the most important. Megan Whalen Turner's approach makes me feel that my opinions on her work are valued and meaningful, which in turn makes me feel like she values me as a reader of her work.  In Megan Whalen Turner's "not telling" she is in essence saying that my interpretation as a reader is a lot more valuable than hers, which is actually pretty amazing when you think about it.

I don't know about you, but I much prefer when an author values me and my opinions as a reader, rather than telling me I'm wrong all the time.

Please comment with your thoughts! I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, so I'd love to get some discussion going in the comments or on my Twitter @asherlockwrites!

How do you feel about authorial intent? Do you care about what the author intended, or does it not matter? What is the effect of authors asserting control over their work? What do you think about authors defending themselves against critique? 

Oh and if it's your thing and you want to keep up with my weekly (!) posts (I'm admitting it out loud so now I am committed), you can now follow my blog on Bloglovin'!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is definitely one of those stories - it's a nonfiction work about Henrietta Lacks, who in the 1950s had cervical cancer and had some cells taken from her body (without her permission), which then turned into the immortal cell line called HeLa which has been use in a lot of medical research since. The story of the development of HeLa is interwoven with the story of Henrietta's family and how unjustly they were treated and affected by their mother's cells.

I read this book because it was one of the few books I had on my e-reader that I hadn't read when I was in Vancouver (I usually only use my e-reader while traveling or when reading Australian books I can't buy physical copies of here). Awhile ago my parents and my brother read it, I think as part of The Book Faeries rotation, and the comments they'd made on it intrigued me. Although I think the only comment my brother gave was, "Did you know they ship cells in the mail?"

I'm not a scientist at all, but the medical and science stuff that was in this book was easy to understand and absolutely fascinating. It was interesting how many questions the book brought up about ethics in medical research and what the author calls in the afterword the "tissue issue", as well as the commercialization of research and science. All of this stuff was new to me, and just made me realize how incredibly strange (and awful) the world is. One of my favourite things about reading nonfiction is how it blows my mind open and exposes me to new worlds, and this book definitely did that.

I have to say, though, the most compelling part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for me was the story of the Lacks family. Henrietta died not too long after her cells were taken from her, and her children didn't even find out their mother's cells had been taken until twenty years later. The book chronicles the story of Henrietta's childhood, her cancer diagnosis, her death, and the lives of her children and just how awfully they were treated and misled by all of these medical researchers who used and abused them. The book even included the journey of the author and the family (in particular Henrietta's daughter Deborah) discovering how Henrietta's cells were used in science, since even up to the point of the author's research the family still hadn't been told much. The inclusion of the story of the family is done incredibly thoughtfully and carefully, and makes Henrietta and her descendants the protagonists, not her cells, which I think is important.

One of the common themes of the book is how the children wanted Henrietta's contribution to science to be properly recognized, and while I'm sure this book has done a lot in that direction, I was surprised how many people hadn't heard of this story when I told them what I was reading. The book makes her sound so famous, I figured everyone had heard of Henrietta Lacks by now. Anyway, I would definitely encourage you to pick up this absolutely incredibly complex and fascinating story.

Check it out on:

Also fun fact: the book has been made into a made-for-TV movie on HBO which premieres on April 22.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

30 Travel Tips From My Trip to Vancouver!

Is this post just an excuse to brag about my trip to Vancouver and show you a whole bunch of snazzy pictures? Why yes, it is. Here are some things I learned on this fun trip, which hopefully you can apply to YOUR next fun trip so you don't make some of the same mistakes I did. And check out the previous travel post I did about why traveling is GREAT for introverts like me! Don't worry, I will be back to regular bookish programming next week.


1. Fill up your water bottle at the water fountain once you're past airport security - you brought an empty water bottle for a reason, you know.

2. Bring gum on the plane to chew when you're ascending and descending to help your ears pop (I have to credit my sister for this tip - it's her #1 travel tip for flying on a plane, which she has done once.  I know, I should've listened to her.)

3. If you're going to Vancouver in February, bring warm gloves/mitts.

4. Also bring warm socks, especially if your shoes are runners with a million holes in them (because they're mesh, and also old).

5. Also bring a scarf for the cooler days.

6. Also maybe a hat, or at least one of those headband things to cover your ears. (At least it is not windy in Vancouver, though.)

7. Whenever you travel (or even in your own city), make friends with people from all over the world so you can stay at their house when you visit their hometown.

8. Connect with locals because they know way more than you and can show you/direct you to cool stuff. Listen to their recommendations! Or write them down for next time.

9. If you can, host people yourself so they will be more willing to let you stay with them in the future to repay the favour.

10. Don't eat out for every meal if you're not used to it.

11. Don't drink tea right before you go to bed.

12. When you first arrive, it is never going to go like you expected, but don't worry, it'll get better.

13. Be flexible. (Very important!!)

14. Don't put pressure on yourself to have the most fun all the time; enjoy the highs AND lows. It's all a learning experience.

15. Get lost! (But be safe.)

16. Walk places, you see more and get to know places better.

17. Take transit. You see the city better, learn how to get around your own, and don't have to figure out parking.

18. Don't be too set on your plan. Actually, don't be set on plans at all because they WILL change.

19. Take lots of pictures.

20. Don't forget to take pictures of yourself, too, and the people you're with.

21. Google Maps is great for finding random attractions and restaurants.

22.  Get a good sleep over doing more things so you can actually enjoy and have energy for the things you do.

23. If it's cold outside and you have a couple of hours to kill and need somewhere quiet and free (with Wi-Fi) to hang out, find a local library.

24. Pack your backpack as light as possible, or get one of those backpacks with a chest strap so your shoulders aren't aching (as much) by the end of the day.

25. If you are deathly afraid of heights, don't walk over a giant bridge with sketchy side railings.

26. Rent bikes and bike around Stanley Park if you're in Vancouver! Yes Cycle has cheap rates, only $5/hour and they only charge you after you get back. This was probably my favourite thing that I did.

27. Instead of eating out all the time, buy some groceries and make your own meals. Cheaper and better for you! And then you can eat as soon as you're hungry instead of walking around trying to find somewhere when you're starving. (But also treat yourself and try local food, too.)

28. Take breaks. You don't have to be going all the time.

29. Bring thank you gifts for people who host you.

30. It's your vacation! Do what is most fun for you, which might be ziplining, or it might just be hiking through a magical forest.


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