Book Buys for 2016


teamsheltieThe snow days have arrived. Team Sheltie is happy and I am too. I love a good snow day, especially when my holiday shopping is done and I can relax by the fire with a book. I’m giving books to friends and family this year and I have a few on my wish list too. I’m after Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

Since I again noted down what I read through 2016, I thought I’d share some titles to help you buy for the readers on your list.

For fiction lovers:

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Phillips is the undisputed Queen of character-driven romance and her latest novel doesn’t disappoint. Private Eye Piper Dove has been hired to trail former Chicago Stars quarterback Cooper Graham. It’s all spark and snap from the minute they meet. There’s a touch of mystery in this one too. Perfect for the romance reader on your list.

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan. Polly escapes to a seaside British town after a relationship ends. In an effort to forget things, she begins to bake bread . . . the locals hear about it . . . and so does a reticent local beekeeper. A cross between chick lit and women’s fiction with a dash of romance.

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin. This debut novel by Sharon Guskin centers on five-year-old Noah who has overpowering memories of a past life, a life that seems to have ended with many unanswered questions. Desperate, Noah’s mother turns to an aging psychologist who is near the end of his own life but is still willing to take on one last case. Captivating with a number of twists and turns I didn’t see coming.

Close to Home by Lisa Jackson. For the suspense lovers on your reading list. Vowing to make a fresh start, Sarah McAdams has come home to renovate the old Victorian mansion where she grew up, but there are some horrifying secrets buried within the house. If that’s not enough for you, teenage girls are going missing . . . and Sarah has two girls of her own.

With Malice by Eileen Cook. This YA thriller has the 18-year-old heroine in a hospital bed for a large part of the book and yet it still manages to hold your attention and draw you forward. Jill Charron wakes up in the hospital after a car accident she was involved in during a school trip to Italy left one person dead. Jill can’t remember what happened . . . she only knows she’s at the centre of a murder investigation.

For food lovers:

My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichel. I love Reichel’s writing and the only thing wrong with this book was that it had to end. The book chronicles the year after Gourmet Magazine unexpectedly closed its doors putting Reichel, editor-in-chief, out of work. Facing an uncertain future, Reichel turned to the one place that had always provided solace: her kitchen. The book follows the changing seasons and her struggle to adapt to a changed life; it also delivers some of Reichel’s favorite recipes.

Oh She Glows by Angela Liddon. We try to eat vegetarian once or twice a week but I’m not a vegan. This vegan cookbook, however, could turn me into one. The recipes are amazing. You feel healthy just reading them. If you’re gifting this book, buy an extra copy for yourself. And check out Liddon’s blog too.

For non-fiction lovers:

10% Happier by Dan Harris. Subtitled ‘How I Tamed the Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing my Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, Harris’s book is smart, brave and funny. Harris is an ABC news correspondent and after a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America he knew he had to make some changes. His search for a deeper understanding of what makes all of us tick and his ultimate solution to destressing led him to meditation – or as he puts it ‘sitting around and doing nothing.’ He went in a skeptic and came out a believer, and in the process he gained some helpful insights. Highly recommended.

Unearthed by Alexandra Risen. As Risen uncovers and revives a large, neglected garden in the centre of Toronto, she comes to understand, accept and make peace with her past. A deeply personal testament to the healing powers of nature.

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt. Told in an exchange of letters between mother and son, this book came about because of Cooper’s desire to get closer to his mother after she suffered a brief but serious illness at the age of 91. It’s an interesting glimpse into the private life of two public people, and Cooper’s journalistic take on things is quite a contrast to his mother’s sunny optimism.

And shameless self-promotion time: My Laura Tobias title Million Dollar Blues is now available in ebook format at your favorite ebook retailer.

Happy gift giving!

Gifts of a Writing Life

Gold-giftIt’s the season for giving and receiving so it’s probably no surprise that I’ve been pondering the topic in some depth over the last few weeks. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the gifts I’ve received from having a writing life.

There have been many. Everything from the mundane (a love of really good pens) to the profound (a lengthy and life-changing interview with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross years ago). But three gifts stand out above all others.

First, writing allowed me to work and stay home with my kids when they were young. It wasn’t always easy juggling deadlines and revisions and (occasionally) book tours, but, for the most part, I was there before and after school, I was at the end of the phone if there was an emergency, and with a little bit of juggling I was able to pick up the odd volunteer shift for pizza day or the school fair. Speaking of fair, it’s only fair to point out that I did it with considerable support from Mr. Petrol Head who was as close to a hands-on parent as one can be when working out of the house.

The second gift writing has brought into my life is the ability to understand the (sometimes poor) behavior of people. Admittedly, I have a natural tendency to analyze people and try to figure out where they’re coming from anyway, but writing helped me grasp on a far deeper level how character and motivation can sometimes lead to choices and actions that are, well, less than ideal. Life can be challenging. People don’t always behave heroically. An awareness of what makes people tick hasn’t always prevented me from being hurt but it has helped me make sense of things and gain perspective.

Finally, writing has brought me wealth. Not money or new cars or the ability to travel on a whim, but wealth in the form of an abundance of friends. I’m incredibly lucky to have a community of friends and colleagues who get this gig in way non-writers don’t. They’re willing to celebrate the successes and commiserate over the challenges. They understand that writing may look easy but it’s not. That the lifestyle may look glamorous and carefree but that, too, is false. They know that many people have stories to tell but not many people are willing to put in the time and dedication needed to tell them, and tell them well. My writing friends are on the path beside me. Their very presence is a gift. A gift that continues to give and give and give some more.

To them I say thank you. And Merry Christmas.

Book Buys for the Holidays

christmas-books-440x435At the request of my kids, I just handed off my Christmas wish list. The list gets smaller every year. That’s partly because I’m blessed with everything I could ever want (other than a spot on the NYT list and maybe a lottery win) and also because these last few years have taught me that the most important things in life truly are priceless: the loyalty of family & friends, good health, unconditional love.

That said, I was able to come up with a few suggestions for Teen Freud and Uptown Girl. Books were, to no one’s surprise, on the top of my list. I’m hoping to receive Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time and a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

Since I’ve tracked my reading again this year, I thought it might be helpful if I listed out a few of my favorite books to help you choose for the readers on your list.

For fiction lovers:

A Long Time Gone by Karen White.  A lyrical multi-generational novel set in the Mississippi Delta with themes of tradition, families, forgiveness and love. Multiple points of view from different time periods make this a contemporary as well as historical read.

In the Blood by Lisa Unger. For the suspense readers on your list. A twisted psychological thriller with secrets, lies and brisk plotting that will keep you reading late into the night.

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow. Molly is dead and watching from the hereafter as her loved ones try to discern if her death was murder, suicide or an accident. By turns hilarious and thought-provoking, this will appeal to anyone with an offbeat sense of humor and even a light interest in metaphysics.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Women’s fiction with a touch of mystery, beautifully drawn characters and some laugh-out-loud scenes. A brilliant relationship read. Moriarty is becoming an auto buy for me.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova. A literary read dealing with a serious theme and delivering an ultimately uplifting message. Badly injured in a car accident, self-proclaimed over-achiever Sarah Nickerson suffers a brain injury in which she’s completely incapable of processing anything on her left side. She can’t see, feel or recognize anything on that side of her body. Her left is neglected. A clever title and a clever read.

I was on a metaphysical YA kick this year and these two books stood out for me:

Guardian by Natasha Deen. Seventeen-year-old Maggie sees the dead and helps them go from bewilderment to the beyond. But one spirit will not leave until she figures out who killed him. And finding the answer might be the death of her. Great characterization, well-paced and lots of twists and turns.

Best Friends Through Eternity by Sylvia McNicoll. Fourteen-year-old Paige is killed at a railway crossing while taking a detour to avoid school bullies. She is quickly transported to a nether world where she sees Kim, a friend who died seven years earlier. Gifted with the opportunity to return to earth and relive her last days, Paige is determined to fix past mistakes and prevent her death. A beautiful story about friendship and choices, this book was hard to put down.

Shameless self-promotion time. My title The Art of Getting Stared At is now available in paper and makes a terrific stocking stuffer!

Finally, four suggestions for non-fiction lovers:

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott. A collection of essays on faith, family and community. Lamott writes with wit and wisdom, and while some of the passages touch on difficult subjects in every case Lamott leaves the reader feeling hopeful and uplifted. Highly recommended.

Seven Letters from Paris by Samantha Verant. For those who adore both a love story and the city of Paris. The log line for this book reads: twenty years, seven letters, and one long-lost love of a lifetime. Love letters and a happily ever after fairy tale. What could be better?

King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels.  An American secretary learns she’s been chosen to lead 7,000 subjects in a tiny fishing village on Ghana’s central coast. Returning to her ancestral home, she must blend her American sensibilities with the traditions of her native Ghana as she works to improve the lot of her countrymen. A fascinating glimpse into tribal customs and village life in Ghana.

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Anderson Brower. An intimate, behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House seen through the eyes of the staff who serve. Insightful anecdotes about presidential families from the Kennedys through to the Obamas are presented along with archival information. Well-written and entertaining, I was sorry when this book ended.

Giving Thanks

thankful 2 It’ll be Canadian Thanksgiving in a few days and my thoughts are turning, as they usually do in the fall, to the things I’m most thankful for. This time last year, I blogged about why I’m thankful to be a writer. And many of those same things (the joy of playing with words; the ability to ask endless questions; regular and mandatory reading; wearing yoga pants and slippers to work) still apply.

But I’m feeling more serious this year and it occurs to me that even though I work alone, I don’t work in a vacuum. In fact, I couldn’t do what I do without a pile of people in my corner. And for that, I’m profoundly, extremely grateful.

My long suffering partner, Mr. Petrol Head (possibly to be rechristened My Squirrel Slayer – watch for an upcoming blog) has had my back, along with the rest of me, since I started this gig way back when. Not once has he questioned my sanity, my ROI or my need to bounce endless (and I mean endless) questions off of him.  He cooks, he designs my business cards, he listens to me rant, and he laughs. I love him for all of it. Mostly I just love him.

My kids – Uptown Girl and Teen Freud (the latter needs a rename since he’s left teen hood behind forever; sob) – have made me the writer I am. They’ve helped me become more patient (they may not agree with that), more disciplined and more creative. They’re bright, funny and truly the best kids a mother could ask for. I love them more than life. Even if they weren’t mine, I’d want to spend time with them. Yes, they are that cool. Mr. Petrol Head pointed out the other day that my career has, to a large extent, followed the trajectory of their growing up years. When they were young, I started writing picture books. As they grew, I segued into middle grade fiction. And now I write for teens and adults.

My web guy keeps my site up to date. Thank you Miles Barr for achieving the seemingly unachievable . . .  for returning my panicked emails . . .  and for reassuring me that glitches can be fixed even when they seem unfixable.

My fellow authors who follow the publishing road.  No one else gets it the way you do. I’d be a whole lot crazier if I didn’t have friends like you with me on my path.

The editors I’ve been blessed to know. I’ve been hugely lucky in the editorial department over the years and it shows in all my books. You might want to thank those editors, too. Trust me.

My readers.  A reader was the impetus for this blog. Not a reader of my books, but a medical technician who reads science fiction and fantasy. I was in for a test recently and when he found out I was a writer, he spent about ten minutes talking books with me. Not in the ‘how do I get published? sense’ but the ‘have you read this author?’ and ‘what do you think of this author?’ sense.  His passion was a sharp reminder of why I do what I do and for whom I write (it was also a good distraction from the task at hand but that’s a whole other story).

And last but not least – Team Sheltie.  They sometimes drive me nuts with interruptions and they bark waaaaay too much, but they get me out of the house for several walks a day, they always make me smile and they’re my soft place to land when I walk away from the keyboard at the end of the day.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!     dogswindow.jgp

Walking My Way to ‘The End’

feet-on-treadmillI’ve wanted a treadmill desk for years. Writing books requires a lot of sitting, and though I go to the gym regularly, do yoga, and walk Team Sheltie daily, that sitting wasn’t doing me any good. I could feel it in stiff hips at the end of the day. I could see it as my pants got tight. With a family history of heart disease, obesity and diabetes (both my mother and my grandmother) getting off my butt was a priority.  Each passing birthday seemed to underscore my slowing metabolism and my need to increase my activity level. Yet I needed – wanted – to keep writing.

I tried standing up to work for a while. It was incredibly fatiguing and my low back didn’t like it. A treadmill desk seemed a wise solution. Since I read on both the elliptical and stationary bike at the gym, I didn’t think I’d have trouble adjusting to moving and typing.

I started looking at manufactured treadmill desks, but my budget was low and they were expensive so that option was out. Unfortunately the budget wasn’t the only thing that was low.  I also have a low ceiling.

My office is in the basement.  It’s a lovely L-shaped room with charming nooks, a little bay window with an upholstered window seat overlooking my herb garden. But it’s a small space with a ceiling clearance of about six feet.   Treadmills have a base anywhere from five to eight inches off the ground before you step onto the walking surface and I’m 5’4”.  That meant finding a low height treadmill with a reasonably compact set up.   I needed it to fit into my office in such a way that my existing desk remained. I wasn’t sure how I’d adapt and given that I work for about seven hours a day, I wanted the option of toggling back and forth between two work stations. That also meant two monitors, possibly two keyboards as well. As the potential costs and complications ratcheted up, my enthusiasm and determination plummeted.

Enter Mr. Petrol Head AKA The Man I Married who not only loves cars but also loves a challenge. And he yields a mean hammer. He built my window seat and he took it upon himself to figure out a way we could make a treadmill desk work.

He measured and mulled, finally concluding that we could squeak one in if I would move my existing sit-down desk closer to the window seat, if I was willing to buy a low height treadmill, and if I could find one with arms that were short, straight and wouldn’t get in the way of a keyboard (not as easy as you might think).

After a lot of on line research and in person looking at new and used models (and passing on several too-big Nordic Tracks which I seriously coveted), we decided on a mid-range Tempo model from Canadian Tire. The bottom-of-line line model seemed too flimsy and the high end version had bells and whistles I didn’t need. I began saving my pennies and went to work relocating my sit-down desk. At the same time, a good friend switched from a PC to a MAC and she sold me (for a ridiculously low price) her (nearly new) monitor, keyboard and mouse. Thank you, Lea Tassie.    My long-held dream was close.

imgtreadmilldeskstandaloneA few weeks before we were going to purchase the new treadmill, the same model showed up on Used Victoria. It was a year old and had been used maybe a dozen times (funny, that nearly new trend was rampant in virtually all the used treadmills we looked at). We hustled out to take a look.  It was just what I wanted. Same model and in beautiful shape.  I was ecstatic. “We’ll take it,” I told the seller though a niggle of doubt crept into my mind. It looked a LOT bigger by itself than it did in the store beside all the other behemoths.

“Get on,” the seller urged.

So I did. I stepped onto it, raised my arms like I was typing, and I stared straight ahead at a monitor position. They turned it on. And I almost fell off.    “Slow it down.” I grabbed the arms and steadied myself. “I need it on the lowest possible speed if I’m going to be able to work on this thing.”

The seller looked at Mr. Petrol Head. Mr. Petrol Head looked at me. “It’s on the lowest possible setting,” he said. “It doesn’t get any lower than this.”

I didn’t believe him. (Mr. Petrol Head lies). He wasn’t lying then.  It was on the lowest setting.  It was also destined to be ours.  We brought it home that afternoon.

Next week: how we set it up and how it’s working.


Gifts of the Season

158585589Winter solstice. Hanukkah. Christmas.   Winter’s celebratory season is here and for many that means gifts. Gifts given and gifts received. I’ve received many wonderful writing-related gifts through the years: beautiful pens, lovely calendars, a leather briefcase. One of my most memorable writing-related gifts was from my grandmother. Just before she died, she introduced me in a whisper to one of the hospice nurses as ‘my granddaughter who writes books.’   I hadn’t written my first book yet, though I wanted to.  Her unwavering belief that I could do it was a gift that carried me until I wrote and sold my first novel. Whether they’re intangible or lovely and practical, gifts specific to writers cover the gamut. Here a number of other writers share some of the special gifts they’ve received.

Karen Autio:  “At the 2002 BC Festival of the Arts I met fellow delegates from around BC–all children’s writers–and we formed an email group. Five of us continue to correspond regularly, critique each other’s work, and get together as often as we can. Having their support, insights, and encouragement is my best writing gift. Truly priceless.”     Karen Autio is the author of “Sabotage” (Sono Nis Press)

Irene Watts:  “A few years ago my granddaughter Rebecca gave me a journal, bound in real leather, with my name in gold letters inscribed on the cover. At the time I was going through a dry spell between books. Inside she had written, Happy Writing, and whether it was that or the feel and smell of the leather and the way the journal felt in my hands, but it became filled with ideas for a new book.”   Irene Watts is the author of Touched by Fire and the Omnibus, Escape From Berlin. (Tundra

Helen Mason:  “The best writing gift I ever received was a copy of The Reader’s Encyclopedia (New York: Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1955). The gift was from my Aunt Marg, who was a high school English teacher. This gift reinforced my interest in language and showed me that she thought I was interested in it. Before the Internet, it was also a useful reference that saved me hours of research. I still have it on my reference shelf, even though I haven’t used it in years. It’s a symbol of my aunt’s confidence in and love of me.”   Helen Mason is the author of Weird Nature and Agricultural Inventions: At the Top of the Field (Crabtree)

Caroline Woodward:  “I used to write unselfconsciously in high school, one draft wonders, really. I even wrote a weekly column for two years and did special “youth” assignments for the Alaska Highway News. Not bad work for 75 cents by the line inch in 1968–70. Then came university and struggling with Paradise Lost for three months in honours English. My writing style clumped, clotted and clanked, unsure of itself, let’s be honest, my writing was a turgid pudding, festooned with ibids and opcits, and I was a writer afraid of emitting an original thought unless some dead guy had okayed it first.

But I kept at it, reading voraciously and writing sporadically, because it was my only hope of synthesizing my own life experience, of living an examined life. I wrote in isolation, working as a caretaker and gardener and substitute teacher and other jobs which allowed me time to hole up somewhere and write. But I lacked real confidence and mentors and a savvy, supportive writing community. Finally, I attended one glorious year of writing school in Nelson, BC, where real writers taught us and where visiting writers dropped in to read to us and to give workshops in nearly all genres. I discovered contemporary Canadian magazines. I played with form, tinkering with my backlog of content, still feeling like a prissy Victorian governess was in control of my writing until one day Paulette Jiles, poet and friend circa 1985, said to me: “Why don’t you write like you talk?” It’s the best writing advice I’ve ever had. Whenever I battle my perfectionist self to a standstill, I haul it out and remind myself that I have a distinctive voice and many more stories to tell!”  Caroline Woodward is the author of“The Village of Many Hats(Oolichan Books: 2012)

Leigh Carter:  “The best writing gift I ever received was a blackboard, coloured and white chalk and an eraser so that I could ‘play’ school with my dolls. I was about 8, and it was what made me want to write, and to try to encourage others (my dolls) to feel the same as I did about words.”  Leigh Carter is a senior corporate communications manager and freelance editor/proof reader.

Fiona McQuarrie:  “The best writing gift I ever received was feedback from people who were honest enough to tell me when it could be better, and kind enough to show me how it could get there.” Fiona McQuarrie is the author of Industrial Relations in Canada (Wiley).

Lee Edward Fodi:  “I think one of the best writing gifts I ever received was a thesaurus for my eleventh birthday from my best friend. He knew at that time I wanted to be a writer, and so he gave me quite a serious gift (not what you would typically expect one eleven-year-old boy to give to another). And, of course, this was before the time of computers and electronic dictionaries. It was a gift I actually needed, as we didn’t have a thesaurus in our house. I still have the thesaurus.”  Lee Edward Fodi is the author of the Kendra Kandlestar series including Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers (Simply Read Books).

Gisela Sherman: “Many years ago when I was a teacher, and first dating my now husband, I found it hard to tell him my secret dream of becoming a writer. Would he think I was crazy? Would he like the stories I was writing out in longhand every chance I got?  A month later on my birthday, he showed me his support – my own electric typewriter, the latest technology at the time. As I happily typed out my stories and articles, I knew he was the man for me.”  Gisela Sherman is the author of Snake In My Toilet (HIP Books, April 2014) and a past president of CANSCAIP (The Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers).

Nikki Tate:   “Hands down, the best gift for me is some time to get away and focus on writing. Running a small, mixed farm, this is NOT an easy thing to accomplish. I am SO grateful to friends and family who have, over the years, stepped in to handle tasks ranging from goat milking to turkey wrangling to poop shovelling so I could slip away, hole up, and just write!” Nikki Tate is the author of Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World (Orca)

Sylvia McNicoll:  “The best writing present I ever received was probably in 1999 (exact date is fuzzy) when my husband took it upon himself to create a website for me. No one had one in those days.  As a computer programmer he didn’t know anything about design but he knew me and my books and proceeded on his own.  Even back then writers wanted to work on their books not on promotion so I really appreciated the fact he didn’t bother me about content. The finished product was beautiful and the Quill and Quire wrote an article talking about the three (I think) authors who had one, me being one.  Ironically the tool of promotion became an object which was promoted. Since then I’ve had several redesigns by visual artists but none with as much impact as that first.”  Sylvia McNicoll is the author of Dying to Go Viral (Fitzhenry)

Come back next week for more of our favorite writing-related gifts.