Reading through Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2014

When Kirkus put out its annual list of the best kids books of 2014, I immediately went to my local library’s site. I live in a very rural area of Nova Scotia, but the library system had 9 of the 10 I requested on their shelves! Their book buyer must be making good choices. I’ve been reading through the books, and a couple have stayed in my mind.

Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin. Rain ReignThis is the story of ten-year-old Rose who describes herself as having “high-functioning autism.” She’s obsessed with homonyms and Rain, a stray dog her father found wandering in a rainstorm. The story is told by Rose, and the author does a super job of telling the story exactly from Rose’s point of view. There were a couple of things that bothered me a bit: a) each time Rose writes a word that is a homonym, she lists the others in brackets – ex. Rose (rows) – this device wore on me after a while; b) because Rose is on the autism spectrum, she tells her story very honestly and simply, and this led to a little less emotional oomph in certain sections than there might have been. There are undercurrents of potential abuse which are handled very deftly. Overall, I was totally invested in Rose’s very believable story.

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos (a Kirkus Finalist).Joey I’ve read other middle grade novels by Jack Gantos, and apparently this book is the fifth and final book in a series about Joey Pigza who lives with ADHD, poverty and neglectful parents. Gantos captures Joey’s voice so well that I really wondered if he has ADHD himself or if he lives with a young person who does. Parts of the story are a little over the top in terms of wondering – could that really happen? But it’s funny, poignant and a little exhausting as the reader lives inside Joey’s “wired” mind, experiencing first-hand his sometimes sad and scary, but always exciting, world.

I have to put in a plug for a book that really made me giggle recently – Chip Wants a Dog, by William Wegman.chip In this photographic picture book, Chip, a well-dressed Weimaraner, wants a dog, not realizing he actually is a dog (probably because he dresses like a human). I’ve always loved Wegman’s books, and the expressive Weimaraners look so funny living like humans.

I hope your holidays will be filled with lots of time to curl up with a great book (or ten)! And I wish you peace, good health and joy in 2015!

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Bye-Bye, Breath Grabber!

Jenn, the ten-year-old protagonist in my novel, THE POWER OF HARMONY, is terrified of water, not-so-affectionately known as “The Breath Grabber.” That was me for my entire life. (Note I said “was,” as in past-tense)

While I was in Lunenburg this fall, I finally overcame my lifelong fear of water, with the help of an 85-year-old Wise Wonder Woman named Jean and dozens of YouTube videos. When I took swimming lessons as a seven-year-old (see pic), we were told to jump in the 12-foot end the very first day, an obviously misguided approach to teaching kids to swim. When I finally fought my way back to the surface, it was game over for me and water for the next 47+ years.img003

This fall, I spent many, many hours in the warm salt-water Lunenburg pool, gradually learning to trust in my ability to float and convincing myself I wouldn’t inhale water so long as I kept my mouth closed and didn’t try to breathe underwater. I had to talk myself out of panicking over and over again.

But I did it!

And now I can comfortably swim the breast stroke, frog kick and all, keeping my head above water for the most part. I haven’t ventured into the deep end yet, but I will someday. And I want to take some lessons to learn a speedier stroke, like the front crawl.

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Okay, I don’t look quite like the woman in this picture, but I’m so proud of my brave self. Overcoming my fear of water was something I never thought I’d become strong enough to do.  How about you? Any lifelong fears you’ve conquered?

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LESSONS LEARNED FROM MY HERMITAGE

I learned a few things while living and working alone in Lunenburg, NS these past five weeks:

1. Five t-shirts, three sweaters, a raincoat, and three pairs of pants is all the clothing you need for five writing weeks. And hand-washing underwear/socks is pretty easy.

2. Quiet (inner and outer) is conducive and necessary to productive writing time (I suppose I already knew this).

Sigh ...

Sigh …

3. Laundromats are interesting places but it’s easier to do your laundry at home.

4. About-to-expire spinach, a can of chicken noodle soup, an onion and some curry powder = a delicious supper. And Chapman’s fudge sticks ($6 for a box of 18) provide excellent incentive to keep writing.

5. Strangers are more likely to talk to you when you’re alone, and even invite you to go for coffee.

6. The camaraderie among badminton players is the same at every club.

7. There is no better way to “find” your characters than walking the paths they may have walked 250 years ago.

8. It is possible, and hugely satisfying, to write 1,000+ words daily (not including the rewritten/deleted words) for 33 consecutive days.

9. Enjoying your own company is a necessary life skill (although writers are really never alone, thanks to the characters living in our brains and hearts).

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THANK YOU ARTS NOVA SCOTIA for the grant

and the opportunity to completely immerse myself in my characters’ world.

Have you ever had a chance to retreat from the world?

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WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

If you had a do-over, I mean; a chance to go back to the beginning of your working life. This thought popped into my mind today as I drove past a car accident that had just happened. It appeared both drivers were out of their cars safely, but there was significant damage and other people (who looked very capable) had stopped to offer assistance, and a woman on her front lawn was already on the phone. The young male driver looked incredibly distraught; he was wringing his hands, in fact. Maybe he had just gotten his license. Maybe it was his parents’ car and he feared they’d be less than understanding. Anyway, my instinct was to stop and offer to help. Help do what? Give him a hug? If only I had some medical background, or counselling skills, I could have offered to help. But I knew I’d be useless.

I’ve always envied people with those skills, people who remain calm, cool and collected in a crisis, people who don’t get queasy around injury and illness. Life savers. I’m the kind of person who almost faints when she goes to pick up her husband from wisdom teeth surgery because there’s a trickle of blood on his chin. Uh-huh.

So, since I could never have become a medical person (due to queasiness and almost failing high school chemistry) or a counsellor, I might have liked to be an artist, except for the fact my talent stalled in about grade 4 and never restarted. But when I see inspirational scenes like this, in Lunenburg Harbour (especially when I’m writing a novel set in 1753 Lunenburg):

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I really understand what motivates people to try to capture such elegance in art. But I’ll leave that to them and stick with words.  If you click the picture, it looks more impressive when it’s larger. (the tall ship, BTW, is the Peacemaker, a barquentine owned by The Twelve Tribes, a religious group (?) with 50 communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia)

At this stage of life, I realize there are some things certain people just aren’t cut out to do – for a multitude of reasons. But if you had a do-over, if you were 16 again and thinking about a career, what would you be?

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One Person’s Opinion

If you’re like me, your writer’s ego is slightly delicate (like one of these Ukrainian eggs).eggs

 

I try to feel hopeful when I find a new review of my work online, but cautiously hopeful. It is only one person’s opinion, right? I read books every week that I don’t absolutely love. School Library Journal (SLJ) is a big US review agency, so having a book reviewed in SLJ is good publicity. So, when I found a SLJ review of Rocket Man, I read it slowly. But what’s this? Bob O’Neill? My protagonist is Bob Prescott. Maybe the reviewer, from Fairfax Virginia, was writing to a deadline. She felt the basketball and net on the cover was misleading as the book isn’t really about basketball – I beg to differ, although the book is, of course, about more than the sport of basketball. And I still haven’t figured out this bit:

The book’s brevity (of) pages may appeal to reluctant readers,although the dialogue has a distinct after-school special feel.

 Overall, the reviewer did a fine job of summarizing the book, and it’s an okay review.

But then, on Google Books, I came upon this review, for The Power of Harmony:

i love this book! although at times its sad its always got me on the edge of my seat making me want to finish the book in one sitting. The power of harmony makes you smile tear up and want to go find the people in the book in real life and either hug them beat the up or help them. this booked is filled with emotions as sadness but at the same time happiness. I wasn’t sure that Jan Coates would be a good author but after reading this book i Know for a fact she is.  XOXO  providence 

So whoever you are, providence – this grateful writer thanks you for the hugs and kisses, for taking the time to review my book, and reminding me why it is I write.

What do you think – reviews, the good, bad and ugly? Helpful, hurtful? All of the above?

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“I Am” (Tom Shadyac); Solitude and Creativity

I have to say that I love Netflix – for $8 a month, I get unlimited access to more films than I could watch in a lifetime, and the inventory is constantly changing. Last night, I watched I Am, (http://www.iamthedoc.com/toms-profile/ )a documentary by film maker Tom Shadyac (of Ace Ventura fame). He made I Am after a long recovery from a concussion he suffered, during which time he spent a lot of time thinking about his role in the world.

The title comes from a letter prolific author G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to a query from The Times: “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s one-word reply was apparently, “I am.” Shadyac traveled the world speaking to leaders such as David Suzuki and Desmond Tutu, as well as various scientists. The resulting documentary is compelling as he explores the connections between science and spirituality. One fascinating scene shows a scientist placing two electrodes (hooked to some sort of meter) into a dish of yogourt. Each time Shadyac has a negative/stressful thought, the needle on the meter moves dramatically, even though Shadyac isn’t connected to the electrodes or the meter! We all give off energy all the time, both negative and positive.

Shadyac’s conclusion is that everyone and everything across the centuries is intimately interconnected, even physically thanks to the inert gas, Argon, part of every breath we take.

Astronomer Harlow Shapley calculates that the Argon you exhale will have spread across the country within a week, and within one year the same Argon atoms you exhale will have travelled around the entire earth, some of them making their way back to you (maybe as few as 15) to be breathed again. Shapley says that your next breath will contain 400,000 argon atoms that Ghandi breathed during his long life, argon atoms from conversations at the Last Supper, and from recitations by classical poets like Shakespeare.

http://healingmankind.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/breathing-gandhi-eternally-connected-to-others/

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Kind of boggles the mind to think that we’re breathing in molecules shared by Beethoven, Gandhi, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, and everybody else who ever existed, isn’t it?shakespeare

The problems in our world began when people stopped working collaboratively and cooperatively, as animal species do, in favour of competing – basically trying to accumulate the most stuff in our pursuit of “happiness.” In nature, the film points out, everything, every creature, takes only what it needs to survive; there is no accumulating of stuff. In the end, Shadyac reveals that he has given up his own lavish Hollywood lifestyle and moved to a small, simple house, in hopes of pursuing a more meaningful, mindful life, in spite of his wealth.  His hope is that his response to a letter asking, “What’s right with the world?” may eventually become, “I am.”

Something else I’ve been thinking about this week after reading a blog post somewhere, is the idea of solitude as being necessary to creativity, as eloquently expressed here by Albert Einstein:

On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.download (1)

Maybe that’s why my creativity seems to peak when I’m near water… So much to think about… Guess it’s time to sit down, seek some solitude and write! What do you think?

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Put your hand up if you’re nos(e)y …

When I do school visits, I always ask that question since being nosy is a prerequisite for being a writer. It’s interesting that younger kids will all put up their hands; grades 4 and up not so much. It’s pretty much impossible for me to go anywhere without doing A LOT of speculating; I had lots to think about when I encountered this on my morning walk. And, yes – I did check to make sure there wasn’t someone in the brook just beyond the chair.

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I’ve always been sort of obsessed with old houses, especially the ones on the brink of collapse, like this one on the road to our cottage in rural Lunenburg County. In the 1970s, my dad salvaged a house that was built in the 1860s, and we spent summers there for several years while he worked away on it. Sadly, it was recently torn down, the gravel beneath it is apparently more valuable than the house:(  I still hope I’ll get to rescue an old house myself, one of these days …

2014-06-17 10.33.292014-06-17 10.01.45And finally, this horse, who lives in somebody’s yard; we’ve named him Mr. Nielsen which I always thought was the name of Pippi’s horse – in fact, that was her monkey’s name. Her horse was named “Horse,” which somehow doesn’t seem right. So, anybody else admit to being nosy? Pretty sure it’s a given for writers, but there sure are a lot of things to wonder about in the world.

 

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