The Raven Cycle (Books 1-3)

I honestly wasn't even sure what Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle was about, but after multiple people recommended it to me, I finally picked up The Raven Boys in January. And now this series is CONSUMING ME FROM THE INSIDE (in the best way). 

I'm terrible at describing what this book is about because there are so many details and side plots and characters, and I want to give them all (well, most of them) attention, but I can't. So let's talk instead about the things I REALLY love. 

The Characters

The "raven boys" are a group of boys who attend Aglionby Academy, in Henrietta, Virginia. They each have distinct personalities and multilayered story lines. While some of the books focus on one character more than the others, each one is given a chance to develop. The magical thing about Maggie Stiefvater's characters is that they jump off the page. 

Ronan has the biggest personality. He is often angry and can be (borderline) cruel, but he's more complicated than an average thug. My friend Emillie compared him to Jess Mariano, and I think that's perfect: he comes across as badass, but if you're lucky enough for him to like you, he'll do anything for you. Ronan is the main focus in The Dream Thieves, and his story is fascinating. 

I am being perfectly fucking civil.
— Ronan Lynch, The Dream Thieves

You could say that Adam is my least favourite, but that doesn't mean I don't like him. Unlike his friends, Adam doesn't come from money; he has to work three jobs to pay for his schooling, and, while it doesn't bother them, he feels like he's a step away from them. This feeling intensifies after the first book, but I can't really get into why without spoiling so many things.  

My favourite raven boy is Gansey. He's from old money, and can be pretentious (though more often than not, one of the others will call him out for it), but he's the unofficial leader of the gang. He's the most invested when it comes to their quest to find the grave of the mythical Welsh king Glendower (it's not as ridiculous as I'm making it sound), something he's been looking for his entire life. He's also the one whose death Blue had a vision of at the beginning of the first book. 

Blue was perfectly aware that it was possible to have a friendship that wasn’t all-encompassing, that wasn’t blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening. It was just that now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.
— Blue Lily, Lily Blue

And then there's Blue (well, also Noah, but I REALLY can't talk about Noah without spoiling things). Of all the characters, Blue is the hardest to get a read on. She's an amplifier in a family of psychics, always dreaming of "something more". She's known for years that her true love will die if she kisses him - something she was never really worried about until she meets her raven boys. 

The Ships

Halfway through The Raven Boys, I realized I was shipping everyone with everyone else. Eventually, I narrowed it down to Gansey with everyone. And then midway through The Dream Thieves, I was so on board the Gansey/Blue train, I wanted to cry. They're the best type of YA couple: adorable with a heavy dose of tragedy. 

In that moment, Blue was a little in love with all of them.
Their magic. Their quest. Their awfulness and strangeness.
Her raven boys.
— The Dream Thieves

AND THEN, Ronan/[spoiler] became a ship I didn't know I wanted until Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Again, can't really go into major details without spoiling the whole experience for you, but MY HEART CAN BARELY HANDLE THESE RELATIONSHIPS. I don't know what's going to happen in The Raven King, but I might end up crying every tear imaginable. 

The Writing

I understand that not everyone will like her writing style, but right now, I'm in awe of Maggie Stiefvater. Her prose is lovely and effortless, her dialogue is witty, and her metaphors are outstanding. And all I've done for the past week is stand at work thinking "HOW ARE THEY GOING TO GET THEMSELVES OUT OF THIS PICKLE?" because her plotting is A+. 

My words are unerring tools of destruction, and I’ve come unequipped with the ability to disarm them.
— Gansey, The Raven Boys

Long story short: I 100% recommend The Raven Cycle. As long as you're okay with suffering from a book hangover once you're done. 

#selfcare Books

To finish off the week of #selfcare, it's all about the books that make you feel good. I've been reading some less than happy literature lately (Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and Han Kang's The Vegetarian to name a couple) and I've found that I am in need of a little levity. 

Here are some books that will put a smile on my face. 

This is an obvious given. It's my favourite book and I'm pretty much always in the mood for it.

I read an article about Anthony Bourdain in the New Yorker and decided I needed to ingest as much of his content as possible, as quickly as possible. Kitchen Confidential, the book that made Bourdain famous, is raw, crude and full of insight.

Yes, yes, okay, Hello From the Magic Tavern is not technically a book, but it is a story and I think that counts. I took a break from the show for awhile and have been blasting through episodes and it's making me extremely happy?

What are your #selfcare books?

Sam's Picture Book Club: House Held Up By Trees

As I was sitting around thinking “I hope someone buys me Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy for my birthday” (hint hint), I remembered that I actually own a book illustrated by Jon Klassen. 

Written by Ted Kooser, House Held Up By Trees tells the story of an abandoned house, that is, well, eventually overrun with trees. 

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At first, the house is inhabited by a father and his two children. The father takes care of the lawn, and the children play in the nearby forest. Eventually, the children grow up and move away, and the father, no longer able to care for his garden, gives up the house and moves away. Because there is no longer anyone there to mow down the sprouts that tried to take root, the trees are able to grow freely, cracking the foundation of the house. 

Ted Kooser’s words are closer to a poem than prose, and there’s a certain emotion to it. You almost feel sad for the house, now abandoned, and the father who may not see his children as often as he’d like (there’s an unwritten sadness in the fact that the children live with their father and there’s no mention of their mother). But there’s also hope in the end, as the trees grow around the house, holding it up so it’s no longer alone. 

...a house held together by the strength of trees, and the wind blowing, perfumed by little green flowers.

Klassen’s illustrations have a subtle palette – greens and browns and reds – but they suit the lyrical words. His people are vague – we never see their faces – but the trees growing near the house exude strength with their solid trunks and distinctive leaves. 

Although there are a lot of words on each page, it’s not a long story. It’s wistful and sweet, and any book that manages to get me to empathize with an inanimate object (like a house) should be considered a success.

Not far from here, I have seen a house held up by the hands of trees. This is its story.

A Study in Charlotte

Despite a deep love for BBC’s Sherlock and Ellie Marney’s astonishingly good Every series, I can’t pretend that I’m a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes. I’ve only read “A Scandal in Bohemia” and that was several years ago, so I’ve just barely dipped my toes in the pool when it comes to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Nevertheless, I was excited to try Brittany Cavallaro’s Sherlock-flavoured YA novel, A Study in Charlotte

Rather than a straightforward retelling, the story revolves around descendants of the original Holmes and Watson: Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson. According to multiple sources, their personalities are quite similar to their illustrious ancestors: Charlotte is often cold, full of clever deductions and a general disdain for people who aren’t as bright as her; Jamie is warmer, but has a red-hot temper that can get him in trouble. They meet at a boarding school (Sherringford!), and within the first twenty pages, they’re being framed for the murder of a fellow student. 

It’s a mostly enjoyable mystery: the plot is good, the clues are laid out nicely, and there’s a ton of references to Conan Doyle’s series (those are actually part of the murder investigation). It made me want to read the original stories so that I could appreciate the allusions more, but they were all explained enough that I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. 

Truth be told, I liked that blurriness. That line where reality and fiction jutted up against each other.

I did, however, feel like I was missing something when it came the characters. When they first meet, Charlotte seems reluctant to be the Holmes to Jamie’s Watson. But as soon as someone is murdered, they’re best friends, and it felt too abrupt – there was no visible (to me, at least) shift in their relationship, no gradual development, nor a scene that explained why Charlotte was suddenly so content to have a new “sidekick”. Jamie had a bit of an obsession with Charlotte before they even met, so of course he starts to fall for her (not quite insta-love, but since I seem to have missed the part where they became BFFs, it felt quick), and it will be interesting to see where their relationship goes since Charlotte has several trust issues. 

I was also unsure about Charlotte’s drug habit. While it was true to the original Sherlock’s character, it’s a bit perplexing to have a heroine with an oxycodone addiction and to NOT have any of the other characters try to talk her out of it. I’m not naive enough to think that no teenagers have drug problems, but you’d think Jamie would try to wean her off of it (there’s a note in the last chapter where she claims to be clean, but by that point, she’s already been abusing drugs for at least five years because no one did anything about it). 

We weren’t Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. I was ok with that, I thought. We had things they didn’t, too. Like electricity, and refrigerators. And Mario Kart.

The sequel, The Last of August, comes out this year (though since I bought the first one in paperback, I’ll have to wait another year at least for my set to match), and I know that the Moriarty family plays a bigger role, so she’s got my curiosity piqued. I’m just not sure if I ship Holmes/Watson yet (probably because I’m still not over Mycroft/Watts in Every Breath. You want chemistry in a Sherlock-inspired book, go read those and thank me later).

Focusing on the Story in Video Games

I've gotten into a bad habit of listening to podcasts while I play video games. I'll sometimes even mute the video game and vaguely read the subtitles to sort of keep apprised of the story, but I really end up more focused on the podcast. I liked this arrangement, despite getting far less of an emotional impact out of these games I was spending 100s of hours with. I would hear my friends telling me they started weeping during certain sections of a certain game and I would realize I could barely even remember what that section was, never mind cried at it.

When starting the latest Tomb Raider game, The Rise of the Tomb Raider, I decided that I would take a zen approach to it. No distractions, just game. And... I'm finding it hard. I find it difficult to only focus on the one game without having some other part of my brain engaged with something else. However, most of my life is spent engaged with something else. I rarely, other than exercise, just focus on one thing, which I've written a lot about. I consider this a vice but it's become so ingrained into my system and daily routine, that I find it difficult to let go of. 

However, I'm determined to stick it out for this game. The story is truly excellent and I don't want to rob myself out of experiencing all of it. Lara Croft is a figure that has been in my life for over 15 years, a beautiful, competent, adventurous, brilliant lady hero that I have definitely cosplayed as. I owe it to her, and to myself, to dedicate my hours playing only on the experience of playing. The podcasts and my distraction can wait. 

Sam's Picture Book Club: The Fox and The Star

The first book I read in 2017 happened to be a picture book, so here I am, telling you all about how gorgeous Coralie Bickford-Smith's The Fox and The Star is.

You might not recognize her name, but you've definitely seen Bickford-Smith's work: she designed a whole line of gorgeous Penguin books that I'd buy if I had the money (and, to be honest, the book shelves). 

In her first picture book, CBS explores the relationship between, well, a fox and his star. Fox is used to looking up at the night sky and seeing his friend Star floating around, so when, one day, Star is not there, Fox feels lost and ventures out into the dark on his own.

Look up beyond your ears.

It's a simple story, and doesn't end on the same high that it starts on - in fact, the ending feels a little abrupt - , but spend some time with this book for the design alone. It's cloth-bound, with heavy stock paper and illustrations that burst out of their boundaries. So while Fox's story isn't complicated, it's a lovely thing to pour over - either as an adult or as a child.

I only wish there had been a stronger ending - Fox's journey through the forest is fun to follow as he meets other small creatures (rabbits and beetles), before stumbling upon a whole sky full of Stars to befriend, but there's no emotional punch. I'm looking forward to Coralie Bickford-Smith's next foray into picture books, though, because I'm sure they'll be just as stunning. 

The Underground Railroad

One of my resolutions this year is to read more about people not like me i.e. whiny white girls. The options are endless and I'm ashamed that my Goodreads list has never been very representative of different perspectives and race. The first book on my reading expansion journey was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Underground Railroad takes place during pre-abolitionist America and follows Cora, a slave on a plantation who escapes to a literal underground railroad, a system of tracks and trails throughout the country that help slaves escape their lives of servitude. We, and Cora, never learn who built those tracks and dug those tunnels, some large, some small, some with giant locomotives, some with only a handcar. 

I don't want to get too much into the plot for fear of ruining the story, which is upsetting and uplifting and full of hope and despair. Suffice it to say that the book is beautifully written, evocative and at times evoked visceral reactions of disgust, horror and unbelievable anger and sadness. When we step away from Cora's story and look into other characters' lives, like slave catcher Ridgeway, Cora's partner in crime Caesar, and a reluctant safe house owner Ethel, we are given a full, unbiased picture. Each character believes they're in the right and it's often easy to believe them all, thanks to Whitehead's descriptions and the ability to dive into each character's fully formed head.

We make our slow way into 2017, hoping to have left the horrors of 2016 behind, but knowing that that's easier said than done. Reading a book set during slavery and seeing so many aspects still represented in 21st-century life is upsetting and unconscionable, to say the least. This is required reading.

Sam's Picture Book Club: The Liszts

I like making lists. To Do lists, mostly. And To Read lists, which tend to get out of hand. Before I put my blog on indefinite hiatus, I enjoyed participating in The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesdays. My first contribution to idobi was as part of a Top Ten list, I love making playlists, and, when I draw a blank on a good topic for a post, I default to making a list of some of my favourite things. So you could say that I relate to the family in Kyo Maclear's The Liszts (illustrated by the amazingly talented Julia Sarda). 

Rather than a traditional review, I figured what better way to talk about this book than by, well, making a list. As an homage to my favourite Liszt, Winifred, the oldest, I'm giving you ten reasons why you should read The Liszts

(It should be noted here that Tundra, always one step ahead, actually made a list of reasons on the jacket cover, which is worth a read). 

1) Kyo Maclear is a kid lit genius (and a complete sweetheart in real life) who can really pull at your heartstrings. 

2) Her stories are deceptively simple; you think they're about one thing, and then BAM, there's a sentence or a phrase that makes you realize just how multi-layered the whole thing is. 

3) Her picture books appeal to everyone, regardless of gender or age (seriously, have you read Julia, Child??). A child will read The Liszts and laugh at how younger son Frederick likes making lists of "fun things to do" which includes drawing the four horsemen of the apocalypse and buying black Lego, while middle child Edward's list of questions made me wonder if, indeed, anyone owns the moon or the sky. 

Edward, the middle child, made lists that went on for 31 pages. Lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind.

4) Her wordplay is A+ but it's not so convoluted that a child couldn't understand it. 

5) For a picture book, her characters are remarkably developed. Despite only having a sentence or two dedicated to them, I felt like I could understand them as more than just 2D images. 

6) And they're gorgeously illustrated by Julia Sarda. 

7) Her style is so unique - not quite art deco, but similar. There are so many little details in each image and you really get a feel for each character. 

8) Her colour palette in this book is striking - not the pastels you might expect from a picture book, but rich, vibrant hues. 

9) I'm no art critic, but if someone handed me a framed Julia Sarda print, it would go up on my wall in a place of honour, because, seriously, the pictures I took on my phone do not do justice to how beautiful these images are. I know at least five other people who now want Julia Sarda to re-decorate their houses based on these pictures. 

10) And the tenth reason why you should read The Liszts: because Kyo Maclear was kind enough to answer some of my questions and it would just be rude not to pick up a copy after she went through so much effort.

Tell us a little bit about The Liszts. Where did the idea of this family of list-makers come from? What message do you hope people will get out of your story?

I always loved making lists as a child. It was a way of expressing appreciation for the things I loved. It was also a way of creating some order within (what often felt like) a messy and unpredictable universe. At some point a few years ago, I thought it would be fun to give this list-making tendency to an entire family, the question being, I suppose, what wondrously odd things get included on our lists and what wondrously odd things get left out?

What else inspires you?

I am a magpie. EVERYTHING inspires me. A sentence I read in a book. A dirty park. A proud cat in the garden. I am always carrying a notebook around so I can take notes. But often things influence me wordlessly and indirectly—eg. a song that creates a particular tone or feeling that I then try to emulate (usually fruitlessly) through words.

Since you write both kids’ books and adult books, how does the creative process differ? Is it easier to write one compared to the other?

My kids books are fairly social--collaborations with an illustrator, editor and art director. My adult writing tends to be more solitary. I like moving between these two modes.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give someone who wanted to start writing kids’ books?

I like Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers, which can basically be summed up by the exhortation: “do not ramble, though.” I think concision and “having the guts to cut” are good skills for any aspiring writer to develop.

What are some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on (as a writer, contributor, or editor)? What are some that you’re looking forward to?

Honestly, I can’t choose. I’ve been so fortunate with each project to have new experiences and challenges. Each one has felt singular in an apples and oranges sort of way. As for soon-to-be launched projects, I am excited about a book I wrote for adults called Birds Art Life. It comes out in January 2017. It has been a while since I did something for grown-ups. I’m hoping it will appeal to some of the families who have supported my kids’ writing. Fingers crossed.

What were some of your favourite picture books as a child? Now?

I adore Frog and Toad, Tomi Ungerer, Richard Scarry…the list is long. I still love all those books/people but I am also inspired by the incredible community of bookmakers I know. I love the work of Julie Morstad, Isabelle Arsenault, Katty Maurey, Kenard Pak, Matt Forsythe, Jillian Tamaki, Esmé Shapiro, the Fan Brothers among many wonderful others.

And, of course I have to ask: what kind of lists do you like making?

Right now I’m busy making a “spring trip to Japan” list, mostly featuring places I want to visit.

Mara Wilson is All Grown Up, So Don't Call Her Matilda

As a child, the thing I wanted most in the world was to have magical powers. I knew, deep down, that I was destined to develop them. I would be Toronto’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, getting into mischief and mayhem, and solving problems with a swish of my fingers. Having the movie Matilda come into my life at age six, only made this desire stronger. Matilda quickly became my favourite movie, I quoted it constantly, and desperately wanted telekinetic powers. I also knew that Mara Wilson was the coolest person ever, because she got to play Matilda. How lucky to have portrayed such a fun and interesting character.

Years later, Mara Wilson has released a memoir, Where Am I Now?, about growing up as a child star and what happens when you don’t end up as cute as Hollywood thought you would be. The book is a series of essays that span Wilson’s life, from precocious child actress, to angsty teen, to fully-formed adult. There is some fun inside-baseball stuff, where Wilson recounts losing out roles to up and coming stars like Kristen Stewart, and wanting to befriend Scarlett Johansson, before she was Scarlett Johansson.

Wilson is unafraid to detail her anxiety, especially when it comes to sex and death. She also explains her discovery of her obsessive-compulsive disorder with clarity and depth. She speaks openly about how the death of her mother affected her at age 8, when it happened, and how it continues to affect her to this day. She talks about mean girls, and kissing boys, and fitting in, and being known as “that girl who was in Matilda.” It’s a quick but satisfying read, just full enough with anecdotes, but not overly heavy-handed with life philosophies. Wilson’s life has had an interesting trajectory for her first 29 years, and it will be interesting to see where it takes her in the next 29.

Nicola Yoon's Books are Everything (Everything) I Want

Last month, I caught up on some reading I've been meaning to get to - mostly, I read both of Nicola Yoon’s YA novels within a week of each other and loved them.

Yoon’s debut, Everything, Everything has been on my To Read list since it came out last year. From the pretty cover to the intriguing synopsis and all the hype surrounding it, it screamed for my attention. And it was worth it. The plot was somewhat far-fetched but Maddy was charming and easy to “listen” to. Yes, sometimes she was selfish and the insta-love was very intense, but it showed that she had flaws and maybe everyone is a cynic and doesn't believe in love at first sight even if it's possible (I think she had a good reason for falling so hard for Olly - he was the first guy her own age she'd ever seen!). 

Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backward until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.

I have to admit that I'm a fan of unhappy endings; I don't mind things don't work out for the characters. But I also have to admit that I'm a closet romantic and just want my ships to sail on smooth waters. Yoon manages to satisfy both of these halves of me in The Sun is Also a Star. I don't want to spoil it for you, but I went from happily disappointed to hopeful in the span of five pages. I've talked to a couple of people and they all agree that while Everything, Everything was good, The Sun is Also a Star is much more polished and has an extra something that takes it into the realm of greatness. I loved the mini chapters on random characters and both Natasha and Daniel, like Maddy, were easy narrators to get into. 

It’s not up to you to help other people fit you into a box.

Reading Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen came into my life, literally and fully-formed, on Sept. 10, 2003, when my father took me to the Skydome to see Bruce and the E Street Band live on their 'Rising' tour. It was two years post 9/11, and Springsteen was heading to New York the next day for the anniversary. We were catching him shortly after Warren Zevon's death, who he paid tribute to in some song that was not 'Werewolves of London.' I smelled pot for the very first time, wondering why the air around me suddenly seemed heady and filled with the scent of burned rope. I learned that fans don't boooooo, they Bruuuce. It was my first rock show and I couldn't have asked for a better performance.

In the following years, I became more of a fan, listening to old tracks and new, living for Clarence's sax solo in 'Jungleland' and reveling in Bruce's rasp. I'm by no means a super fan, I know the hits more than anything, but Springsteen's music has remained a constant in my life for almost 14 years.

I was wary of going into Springsteen's biography, knowing that he had written the whole thing himself with no ghost writer. I think Springsteen is a beautiful lyricist but that didn't mean that he could write a book. Turns out... he can.

I haven't finished the memoir yet, Springteen is only on the cusp of becoming the artist that we all know and love today, but the book is truly beautifully written. Springsteen is a wordsmith and it shows in the book. He paints an incredibly detailed picture of his life and you can really see the evolution from tiny tot Bruce, spoiled rotten by his grandmother, to rock God Springsteen.

Born to Run

In my family, we worship Bruce Springsteen. From my childhood, growing up to select tracks from Born in the USA, to roadtrips soundtracked by Devils & Dust, to the first (and so far only time) half of us (my sister, our dad, and I) saw Bruce live on the Wrecking Ball tour, to our two-year long obsession with his B-side album, The Promise (we listen to it at least once every Sunday when we’re all puttering around the house), we’ve always been fans. So it’s been pretty cool to read about his story in his recent autobiography, Born to Run

Entirely written by Bruce himself over the course of seven years, Born to Run explains how the Boss became...well, the Boss. His humble beginnings in an Irish/Italian household in New Jersey; his first attempts at putting a band together (over and over again); mastering the art of making music and not just making noise; the birth of the E Street Band and the hit records that came out of that union; and his relationship with his backup singer (and now wife) Patti Scialfa...all that and more, told in his own lyrical words.

People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one plus one equals three.

For one thing, the man’s memory is remarkable. I can barely remember what I did last week, but he retells anecdotes from the past fifty-ish years with an immediacy that makes you feel like it’s a recent occurrence. It’s also amazing to see just how much he accomplished: he wrote the song “Born to Run” (which is what really launched his career) when he was twenty-five – younger than I am now! And he doesn’t shy away from honesty – he gives you the good, the bad, and the ugly of his life so far, whether it was signing unfair contracts without reading them, or cheating on a girlfriend, or battling with depression and anxiety. It’s all out there for you to read and interpret however you want, giving you the privilege of being inside his head for a few hundred pages before he goes back to being the untouchable, inimitable Boss.

I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could...This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, it spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strenghten and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.

While the whole thing is interesting, some of the cooler elements are when he explains what a particular song or album means – both to him and what he intended for the audience. A lot of his songs are connected, based around a fictional couple, while other tunes are inspired by people he knows in real life (including “The River”, written for his sister). It’s also fascinating to see who his inspirations were: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Bob Dylan...all bands that I would have lumped into the same category as Springsteen himself because they’re all names from my (and my siblings’) childhoods, and I never stopped to think just when Bruce first made his appearance.

It’s a long road, but it’s worth the read if you’ve ever been a Springsteen fan in your life. At the very least, you’ll come to appreciate just how hard he had to work to get to where he is right now – a lesson in determination, if you will. (And as a bonus, you get photos of young Bruce Springsteen who was quite the looker!).  

Trying to Spark Joy is Harder Than It Looks

Ever since I was a kid, I was never able to keep my room clean. It was never a holy disaster (partly because my mother would never let it get that way), but clothing, papers (and now dishes and laundry, now that I'm out on my own) piled up until I would snap and freak out and whirl around the room like the Tasmanian Devil until everything was (sort of) back where it came from. However, no matter my good intentions and my mother's genetics, I'm never able to keep a truly tidy and clean home. I've been living alone for almost two years and I'm going to snap for the final time. This year is when I "spark joy" in my home.

Marie Kondo has become an international tidying guru through her multiple tidying books. I am currently working through Spark Joy, an illustrated guide to help me learn how to spark joy through all piles of clothing, paper, dishes and laundry (plus literally everything else that has somehow crawled into my place). She makes the process sound difficult but doable, through various case studies of real life clients she has helped throughout her many years as a tidying master. 

However, I know a tidying master. My mom. She's a tidying and cleaning queen and I feel embarrassed anytime she comes to my place and it looks like a complete disaster. She has reorganized, and reorganized and helped me clean too many times to count, and everytime we're done, I get so excited because that's how I always envisioned my living space to be. I keep it clean for a couple of days but then one thing leads to another, one piece of paper becomes five, an errant piece of clothing calls other errant pieces of clothing to hang out and soon they've become and insurmountable pile and the place is a mess once more.

I have read through the basic rules and the clothing chapter in Spark Joy (according to Marie Kondo, tidying must be done in five steps: clothing, books, papers, komono (or miscellaneous items), and sentimental items), and the prospect of going through my whole apartment and figuring out what gives me joy and what needs to take a long walk off a short pier seems incredibly daunting. I've made it as far as putting all my clothing in one place: my bed. I have yet to go through a single item and have pulled out the pull-out bed in my couch as I know I will not be sleeping on my bed anytime soon. Like everything, my biggest struggle is just starting. 

I mean... at least it all fit on the bed. 

I mean... at least it all fit on the bed. 

Marie Kondo acknowledges that bringing joy into your life can be a struggle and can seem totally intimidating. However, she also says that everyone owns a finite amount of items. It took me a minute to fully grasp that concept, but it's true. Yes. I own a shit-ton of stuff. But it's not infinite. At some point, I will have gone through everything I own. It may take a while, but an end is there. It won't last forever. And it starts by tackling that pile. Soon, that pile will become smaller and then I'll fold things into tiny rectangles, as per the KonMari method, and I'll be able to sleep on my bed again and then I'll turn my attention to books, then paper, then komono and then finally sentimental items and I will have hopefully brought in the joy that I have been so desperately seeking. 

Fangirl

I'm 2094357 years late to the Rainbow Rowell appreciation party, but I finally read Fangirl and - spoiler alert - loved it.

Fangirl tells the story of Cath, a college freshman with a Simon Snow obsession. Simon Snow is basically a Harry Potter-esque series (that I would 100% read if it was real) and Cath is a major fangirl - from the custom posters adorning her walls, to the collective busts of main characters Simon and Baz, to her magnum opus: her fanfiction story, Carry On, Simon

To really be a nerd, she’d decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to the real one.

Cath writes stories about the love between Simon and Baz (who, canonically, are actually enemies) and her fanfiction earns her a huge online following. Unfortunately, the real world (i.e. her fiction writing professor) frequently discourages her from living in her fantasy world, constantly pointing out that "fanfiction isn't real writing" and that she's "too old" to be obsessing over a book series like Simon Snow. As a hardcore Potterhead, I relate to Cath's inability to let Simon go; when she finally gets her hands on the last book in the series and sheds a tear, I'm reminded of my sister handing me Deathly Hallows for the first time and the way I completely lost my head (in the middle of a Parisian train station no less). And even though I've never been as big on fanfiction as other people (I read fanfiction up until Deathly Hallows came out because I need my HP fix), I can understand her desire to spend as much time as possible with these characters who feel more like friends. 

More than that, I can relate to her need to write: to put words on a (digital) page and let her thoughts go free. I don't spend as much time as I'd like writing "for fun" or working on one of my 2398695 barely-started manuscripts, but, like Cath, I know the feeling of hitting that certain point where the words build up inside of you so much you have no choice but to let them out. That's a feeling Rainbow Rowell captures perfectly and is probably one of the reasons why this book resonates so much with fangirl-y writers like me: she just gets us.

Sometimes writing is running downhill, your fingers jerking behind you on the keyboard the way your legs do when they can’t quite keep up with gravity.

Of course, the big difference between my nerdy life and Cath's is that she has a boy. Levi, her roommate's ex-boyfriend, is adorable and sweet and, even if he's "not much of a reader", he understands that books - more importantly, Simon Snow books - are a huge part of Cath's life, something he can never take away from her. I like that he's so accepting of her quirks and never once tries to tell her to "grow up", choosing instead to indulge her. And their relationship is adorable, but I won't spoil it for you - just go read it already!

Also, props to Rainbow Rowell for getting me hooked on the Carry On snippets such that I now want to read the actual book

Exploring Manga for the First Time with "Sailor Moon"

Coming to Japan, I knew that there was going to be a part of the culture I just wasn't going to connect to. I had never read manga nor watched any anime (apart from the most famous shows that permeated North American culture), and I feared I just didn't get the appeal. However, after walking through numerous bookstores (BookOff for the win) and going to the Otaku section of Tokyo, I started to understand the phenomenon a little bit more. I decided I needed to give manga a try while I was still in Japan and I picked up the first Sailor Moon manga... in Japanese. Yes, I already know the story, having been an obsessive Sailor Moon fan as a child, but the language barrier was going to be a problem. So I... acquired the book in English and read the first volume.

It's a writing style and animation style that I will have to get used to, and the books are meant for people far younger than I, but I'm getting a complete thrill out of revisiting some of my favourite characters in their element. Yes, I'm filling in some blanks, like how the characters speak and look (manga is all in black and white and sometimes, it's a little difficult to tell who's who), but I'm excited to finally understand why these books are so popular. They're fun. They're exciting. They're totally ridiculous. And there's 87 billion stories waiting to be uncovered. This is my first, but it won't be my last.

Sam's Picture Book Club: Barefoot Critters

This month, I thought I'd highlight two autumnal picture books from Teagan White!

With two books (so far) in her Barefoot Critters series, Teagan White is quickly becoming a go-to in the children's book industry with her vintage-y illustrations, and audacity to include a dinosaur in the same group as a cute woodland creatures (I gotta be honest, the triceratops is my favourite character). Her style is intricate and often heavily features natural elements, from plants and flowers to the aforementioned dinosaurs and cuddly critters.

With her picture books, Teagan shows a gentle approach to introducing letters and numbers to the 4-8 year old crowd. The first installment, Adventures with Barefoot Critters, manages to teach both letters and the months of the year in charming two page spreads; October, for example, encompasses the letters "S" and "T":

On cool days we set ships to sail in the stream / And in October, trick-or-treating's a scream!

The muted colour palette and minimal background imagery lets her watercolour characters take center stage and you (or a child) will have fun combing the illustrations for all the little details: the amount of fur on the fox's face or the patterns on the critters' clothes. 

Thanks to my pal Sylvia at Tundra for the review copy! 

The second book, Counting with Barefoot Critters, reads more like a traditional narrative, explaining what happens when one critter decides to go exploring, collecting eleven friends along the way over the course of one fun-filled day. Their adventure include making pancakes and playing pirates, and each time a new friend joins their games, they're welcome with open arms. I especially like the message on the last page which may or may not have made me tear up a little (and, in my opinion, some of the best picture books are the ones that hit you in the feels). 

With other minds to inspire you and make your days fun / You’ll always feel loved, even when you’re just one.

Like the first one, it's written in rhymes which are sweet and easy, and the overall message of the book - that you can have fun both by yourself and with others - is exactly what children need to hear. The critters are a delight to follow and I'm hoping to follow them on more adventures (colours, perhaps? I imagine it would be gorgeous!). 

This is Criminal

Yes, I know, another Fiction Friday where I'm talking about a podcast instead of an actual book. But hear me out! I finish far more podcasts than books lately, and quite a few of them are story based. Yes, they might be non-fiction, but they're stories nonetheless. Right now, I'm obsessed with "Criminal." "'Criminal' is a podcast about crime. Stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle."

Hosted by Phoebe Judge, every episode of "Criminal" dives deep into the world of crime, however it's not as dark as you would imagine. Yes, every episode does involve crime, but this is not your every day murder podcast. It's about every kind of crime, from the mundane (tree poisoning), to the absurd (could an owl have killed a woman?), to the morbid (a "jolly" nurse liked to "experiment" on her patients). Each episode is well researched and examined by Phoebe along with her production team. They get wonderful people to come in and speak about the crime du jour, often getting first-hand interviews with the "criminals" themselves. It's storytelling at its finest.

A particularly incredible episode is Episode 32: It Looked Like Fire. It's about an iconic image that was taken at a Ferguson protest and how the lives of the protester and the photographer started to interweave. Have a listen: 

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

I don't usually read chick lit, but when I do, it's about a book nerd. 

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend has been all over my twitter timeline for about a year, and I've had the book for months, but just managed to read it a couple of weeks ago. It’s really interesting to note that the version I read is a translation – the original was written in Swedish – but whoever translated it did a fantastic job. It flows so smoothly, I can’t imagine it veers far from the original text, and the prose is just lovely. 

People were strange like that. They could be completely uninterested in you, but the moment you picked up a book, you were the one being rude.

As far as plot goes, it’s fairly predictable: girl moves to small town, meets a man, somehow gets her life together in a matter of months (and wins the guy over, of course), but the bookish background was enough to keep me entertained. I loved all the allusions to Sara’s favourite books/genres, and, even though some reviews complained about the spoilers, I can’t say I noticed any truly dramatic revelations (to be honest, I can barely remember which books she talked about in detail, so I don’t think her spoilers left that much of an impression on me). 

In books, people were charming and friendly, and life followed certain set patterns. If a person dreamed of doing something, then you could be almost certain that, by the end of the book, they would almost certainly be doing that very thing. And they would find someone to do it with. In the real world, you could be almost certain that person would end up doing absolutely anything other than what they had dreamed of.

In short, it was charming – there were some funny moments, a lot of truths about being a reader, and a couple of touching scenes. If you’re a book nerd like me and you just need some light-hearted fluff, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend will be enough to briefly satisfy you. 

You Want a Story? You Gotta Run For It

I have tried to be a runner for at least 10 years now. On and off I will get a burst of mania and decide that now is the time I'm actually going to be a runner, and every time I go for maybe two or three runs and then I remember that running is super hard and it requires diligence and practice, two things that I'm unwilling to provide. I'm in one of those bursts now and one reason that I want to stick with it is the app "Zombies Run."

"Zombies Run" is a story-based fitness app. You play Runner 5, a silent survivor of a plane crash, who suddenly must run for their life from the "zoms" that have taken over a place called Abel Township. You soon meet other characters, get a headset so you can talk (or really just listen) to the Township, and get various objectives. It doesn't matter how fast you run or which direction you're running in, just as long as you keep going. You pick up materials as you run and every few minutes, the story will break in and give you and update on your surroundings. 

The story is exciting and mysterious. You don't know who to trust, nor do you know anything about yourself. The only way to find out more is to keep going out for runs, which is brilliant marketing and hell on my calves. I'm determined to finish the first season, which is 25 runs, before it gets too hideous outside to do so. If the story remains as interesting, I'm going to be lacing up my running shoes a whole lot more.

Sam's Picture Book Club: Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess

I don't know if I've mentioned it here, but I'm a huge children's lit nerd. Obviously I'm all about Harry Potter and YA/middle grade novels, but I also adore picture books. So every so often, I'll offer you a review of a picture book that tickles my fancy, starting with Janet Hill's gorgeous Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess.

Thanks to my pal Sylvia at Tundra for the review copy!

First and foremost, Miss Moon is a beautiful book. From the lush, elegant paintings to the cameo image on the hardback, it has clearly been put together with love and the utmost attention to detail. 

Apart from the first page, which tells the story of how Miss Moon came about being a governess to sixty-seven canine charges, the rest of the story is less a narrative and more a guide on how to be a good dog...or a good human. Lessons like "Be true to your adventurous spirit" (lesson two) and "With a splash of imagination, anything can be fun" (lesson thirteen) are relevant for all living creatures and you can just imagine a firm but kindly governess explaining to them to you. 

My basic picture-taking skills don't do justice to how lovely these images are. They have a vintage feel that transports you to a gentler time, and Miss Moon is all poise and grace, despite being used a vehicle to share lessons. In fact, it's more than just a picture book: it's a work of art. Not just because the illustrations are so elegant, but because the simple story is enough to get you thinking about the important things in life and what you can do to be a happy, healthy, well-mannered person (or dog). 

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Janet Hill was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process behind the book, so read on!

How would you describe your art style? Who are some of your influences?

My style is nostalgic and whimsical with a little bit of magical realism tossed in. I’ve always appreciated Ludwig Bemelmans work as well as Raoul Dufy. 

What else inspires you?

I’m often inspired by old movies and television shows.  I could watch Bewitched all day.  I’m also drawn to anything old fashioned and slightly eccentric looking like vintage circus pictures and showgirl costumes.

This is your first picture book. What was the process like? What was the most challenging part of the publishing process? The most fun part?

Miss Moon actually didn’t start out to be a picture book. It was a series of paintings about a dog governess imparting various quirky lessons on her canine charges. I was contacted by a French Canadian publisher (Marchand de feuilles) who saw the potential for a French language picture book. Tundra Books actually contacted me separately and they ended up publishing the English version. They tweaked the lessons so that they were a little more relevant for children. I think the most challenging part of publishing is the waiting process. I have so many ideas in my head which makes it difficult to be patient!  The fun part for me is the creative part— painting and writing.

Do you have any plans for more picture books? Or would you consider writing a novel?

I have another picture book in the works for cat lovers and I’ve been working on an illustrated novel called ‘Lucy Crisp and the Vanishing House’ about a young woman who buys a house that disappears.

How long, typically, does it take for you to complete a piece of art?

I work in oils, so I tend to work on several paintings at once. Typically, it takes about 3-10 days for me to complete a painting depending on size.

What are some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on? What are some that you’re looking forward to?

My illustrated novel ‘Lucy Crisp and the Vanishing House’ has been a labour of love. I’ve been working on it for about three years and I have another year to go on it. Seeing it published will be very exciting.

What’s the creative process like? Do you start with sketches or freehand? What materials do you prefer using?

I don’t sketch (I have no drawing abilities) so I just dive right in and start painting. I love the immediacy of being a painter.  I work in oils because I like the slow drying time and the richness of the paint.

The impossible can become possible with a little creativity.
— Lesson Nine