Rhythm and celebration

December 2nd, 2015

My lovelies, it’s been this kind of week:


Miranda Zero and her baby brother, Charlie, basking by the wood stove. Set-up and photo by the 4yo; composition probably an accident.

Everyone’s wiped, but there are still 3 weeks of school left before the winter holidays. 19 days until we pick up our dog, Mac. The four-year-old is sick and I’ve been at home with her, cuddling and reading and taking 2 hours to measure and mix a simple cake.

And in this season of countdowns, we’ve just set up an advent calendar that has, most unexpectedly, helped change the way I think about December. Behold!


(I hasten to point out that I didn’t make it. I bought it from a local artisan, Sienna of Knits’n’Veggies, who also makes amazing play food, including sushi. And while I’m on the subject, I didn’t make the quilt, either. It’s a beloved gift from Chasing Lightning Bugs. And the photograph is by our dear friend Tom Pietrasik.)

But Nick and I get to fill the advent calendar, and we’ve had so much fun planning what to include. Some chocolate, of course. Ice skating. Really corny jokes. Tree-trimming. A few art supplies. And some charitable projects, to try to balance the seasonal momentum to git-git-git (à la Lucy from Peanuts).


Most surprisingly – though maybe I shouldn’t find it so surprising – the act of thinking carefully about each day, and what it might hold, is bringing me into the moment. December is so often a roller-coaster of parties and activities and late nights and germs and early mornings that feel like punishments. But so far (I know it’s early!), the advent calendar has me considering balance, rhythm, and how we want to weight our holiday season. I didn’t realize it when I bought that string of mittens, but it’s a gift to me, too.

How’s your December starting out, friends? And how do you maintain balance through the season?

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About a dog

November 25th, 2015

This past weekend, Nick and the children and I drove 260 km to meet a dog.

This dog, to be specific.


And, having met him and lost our hearts (and probably our minds), we drove 260 km home again, phoned his owner, and asked to buy him.

He’s a 3.5-year-old smooth collie named Mac. He’s smart and serene and sweet-tempered. Every day since then, my 7yo has said, “I love Mac! I love him already, with all my heart!” My son is already planning dog parties (with all the other calm, friendly dogs in the neighbourhood) and wondering what Mac would like best for Christmas. Me, however?

I’m nervous because I know very little about dogs.

I’m not enthusiastic about doing more housework and picking up poo.

And I’m imagining what it’ll be like to welcome another personality into our family. What parts of his temperament remain undiscovered? How will we bond with him, and he with us? How will he deal with the 7yo, who already loves him with unconditional devotion, and the 4yo, who is so eager to boss him around?

It’s not all anxious foreboding, of course. I’m looking forward to getting to know this dog. I’m really curious about what I’ll learn. I know this pet will expand my understanding of the world, and my heart, too. And I am ready for that.

But I’m still nervous.

(That said, isn’t he handsome? As my friend Sarah said, he looks like a cross between a deer and a lion.)

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Literary-historical dogs I have known

November 18th, 2015

Hello, my lovelies. Today’s main blog post is up at the History Girls!

Before you head over there, I’d like to mention a fundraiser that’s taking place to help Syrian refugee families. A fabulous group of Kingston, Ontario volunteers have, so far, raised enough money to sponsor THREE! families as immigrants to Canada. (Two families have already arrived in Kingston; the third is en route.) The group is now fundraising for a fourth family and among their endeavours is a silent auction. There are many amazing prizes, including photography workshops, organic gardening consultations, presents for babies and children, gift certificates and date-night packages. For my part, I’ve offered to name a character in my next novel after the winning bidder. If this tickles your fancy, please head over to the bidding page – and check out the other delightful (but mostly local) offerings! The auction closes on November 21.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post. In it, I talk about the ill-fated puppies in Wuthering Heights, the “full-on olfactory assault” of “The Rape of the Lock”, and Byron’s preference for Newfoundland dogs over the “vain insect” that is man.


Byron, of course, might have been the vainest insect of all. Hope you enjoy the post!


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Reading ahead, reading abroad

November 11th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.41.42 PMHello, friends. I had SUCH a lovely batch of unexpected mail this week! First came Candlewick Press’s spring/summer 2015 catalogue. Its cover (right) is based on the cover of the new Kate DiCamillo novel, Raymie Nightingale, which will be published in April. Hurray!

IMG_20151110_142228210I had more personal reasons for reading the catalogue, too. It feels like the March publication of Jessica Spotswood’s A Tyranny of Petticoats is one step closer because it appears in these pages. I’m lucky enough to have an ARC and while I haven’t yet read all the short stories (I’m trying to eke them out), some of my favourites so far are the ones by J. Anderson Coats, Elizabeth Wein, and Saundra Mitchell. They’re so great, you guys. SO GREAT! It’s extra-exciting because while my Code Name: Verity obsession is quite well documented, I’d never read anything by either Coats or Mitchell. Now, I’m off to devour their back catalogues.

And then I flipped over a few more pages and had the oddest feeling. You see, the Agency novels will also be re-released this spring. But… I’d forgotten. I really had. So when I turned over to this page, I actually dribbled coffee down my shirt.


So… it’s true. Candlewick will be re-releasing all four books in the quartet with the gorgeous covers first used in the UK and Australia. This is going to sound absurd and implausible and disingenuous, but I also didn’t know that The Traitor in the Tunnel was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. It’s possible that I’ve taken my decision not to obsess about sales/awards/stats too seriously. Or maybe not. After all, it was the best kind of surprise to read about it in the catalogue.

But my week of postal delights was not yet finished! A smallish, heavy box from Korea also arrived, and I wondered why my Korean publisher was sending more copies of their edition of A Spy in the House. But I was wrong.

The Body at the Tower, Korean edition

You guys, you guys, you guys! Mary Quinn is cross-dressed! She’s holding a model of the clock tower with a little man dangling perilously from it! It’s the Korean edition of The Body at the Tower, and it’s so much more beautiful in the hand than on the screen!

I am not ready to pretend to be calm and dignified. Here are a few more shots.


The spines and the embossed abstract-mechanical motifs on the cover!


The inside cover. The little image of the hat she’s wearing also appears throughout the book, to mark scene changes.


And ohhhhh, those endpapers. I would like to cover the world (or at least everything in my study) with that brick-printed paper.

The rest of the mail this week was the usual mess of bills and dental appointment reminders and subscription offers for magazines we’ll never miss. Pah. If you need me, I’ll be sitting in my study, drinking tea and petting my stack of books and catalogues.

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A modest proposal

November 4th, 2015

Last week on Twitter, I was doing my usual thing: enthusing about books, retweeting sharp observations and glorious absurdities, and trying (unsuccessfully) to dodge the ads. Then this tweet from Lindy West popped into my timeline:

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And I did remember. I remembered this article of hers from the Guardian, in which West confronted her cruellest troll – the one who originally impersonated her dead father. As with so many things I read on the internet, I was infuriated and incredulous. I felt grateful for her courage and her convictions. And I was heartened by West’s conclusion:

This story isn’t prescriptive. It doesn’t mean that anyone is obliged to forgive people who abuse them, or even that I plan on being cordial and compassionate to every teenage boy who tells me I’m too fat to get raped (sorry in advance, boys: I still bite). But, for me, it’s changed the timbre of my online interactions – with, for instance, the guy who responded to my radio story by calling my dad a “faggot”. It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. And that, in turn, has made it easier for me to keep talking in the face of a mob roaring for my silence. Keep screaming, trolls. I see you.

And then, as with so many things I read on the internet (again), I turned my attention elsewhere. This was in February 2015.

Yes, I understood that feminist writers, in particular, receive a disproportionate amount of hate mail, rape threats and death threats. I knew that Anita Sarkeesian, who writes and presents a webseries about pop culture from a feminist perspective, was forced last year to cancel a public lecture at Utah State University because of the credible threat of a mass shooting in a venue where audience members would be permitted to carry concealed weapons. And while I remained grateful to hardy, brave, outspoken women who continued to critique pop culture in the face of such ugliness, I knew myself to be a very different kind of feminist. Quiet. Introverted. Conflict-averse, except when I knew the people at stake and had some sense of what motivated them.

Then, last week, Lindy West reminded me that while her original cruellest troll had apologized, more had rushed to fill his place. And she explained further:

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I was astonished all over again, and I began to feel a very personal debt to writers like West. They say what I consider to be interesting and provocative and valuable things. As a consequence, their reputations, families, personal lives and mental health are attacked by (usually anonymous) misogynists. I owe these thinkers because they absorb so much strife and rage on my behalf.

I tried to express some of that:

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And it was a start. I felt like less of a bystander, the kid who carefully looks elsewhere while a bunch of bullies pick on the girl who disagrees with them.

What tipped me over the edge, however, was a different tweet. This one was from Amanda Nelson, who edits BookRiot. She tweets about BOOKS and EQUALITY, for god’s sake. And still, she was able to say in a matter-of-fact way:

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And suddenly, that was it for me. I realized I wasn’t contributing enough to the conversation. Part of this was garden-variety shyness: I used to assume that bold, confident feminists were busy, world-bestriding creatures – far too busy fomenting revolution to read positive comments or need polite feedback.

But no more! As a thin-skinned introvert, here is my new resolution: I’m going to start tweeting/commenting/emailing positive things to feminists I read and follow. If I disagree with them, I’ll say so respectfully. If I agree with them, I make sure they know it’s not just the trolls who care about their work.

What difference will it make? Maybe none. Or maybe some. But at least I’ll no longer be that kid studiously examining a mark on the wall while a free-for-all happens right beside her.

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Past lives

October 28th, 2015

A few days ago, I opened a box and one of my past lives fell out. Specifically, I found the papers related to my comprehensive exams, way back in the second year of my Ph.D. Without question, the seven months I spent studying for the comps was the most stressful period of my life. And long after it was over, some of those papers held an eerie, residual power over me. They were like voodoo dolls of a former self.

Weird, super-nerdy voodoo dolls, I freely admit. In the year 2000, if my apartment had suddenly gone up in flames, THIS is what I would have risked everything to save. Check it out:

Handwritten notes on every poem/novel/essay on my reading list…

comps notes

And more…


(These go on for hundreds of pages. I’ll spare you the rest.)

I even saved basic administrative memos as though they were essential legal documents.

comps instructions

And in a sense, they were. For seven precarious months at the start of my academic career, they represented everything that was official and certain. Certainties are a rare luxury in the humanities and I felt deeply superstitious about throwing these out.

As for the comps, I’ve never worked so hard or so long at something for which there was no feedback, no further steps, no discussion. After I got my exam results, that was… it. End of story. Yet the trauma around the comps haunted me for years. I even blogged about it a few years ago, and the horror was fresh and vivid at the time.

When the comps jack-in-the-boxed out at me this week, however, I felt… mildly amused.

I sifted the papers. I flicked through my painstaking notes. (I disagreed with my assessments, at some points. At others, I found my past self quite insightful.) And here’s the best part: I recycled all the administrative stuff, the stern injunctions to self (Check dates v. v. carefully! ESP. CENTURY!), the practice exams, the elaborate table I made that cross-referenced critical themes in canonical works. All that stuff? Gone.

For some reason, the comps wound has finally healed. I’m keeping my handwritten notes because they tickle me, and because I feel a distinct nostalgia for the hundreds of hours of work they represent. But they’re no longer a sinister talisman to ward off failure and ignominy and an uncertain future. And maybe that’s the point.

Fifteen years on, I’m an entirely different person. I’m happily, confidently working outside academia. I know who I am, and I like who I am.

That other, anxious, frantic Ying? I’ll keep her notes because I like her company. But I don’t need her baggage.

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3 Things I Learned from Peter Hessler

October 21st, 2015

Friends! I have caught the dreaded 5-week cough that’s going around, and am trying to short-circuit it by lying low for a few days and reading as much as possible. The reading is going smashingly because I have just recently discovered the work of Peter Hessler. Normally, most of the writers I fall for are elderly British women (Jane Gardam, Claire Tomalin, Hilary Mantel), so I’m especially pleased that Hessler is… not that.

I first noticed his byline in an article about Chinese lingerie dealers in Egypt. The subject itself was astonishing enough, but I really loved Hessler’s journalistic voice. It was both respectful to its subjects yet alive to the many absurdities of the situation. And I was struck by the depth of knowledge he brought: Hessler is fluent in both Mandarin and Arabic, and seems delicately attuned to both cultures. Nick then bought me a copy of Strange Stones, a collection of essays from Hessler’s last decade of reporting from China and elsewhere.

Peter Hessler, Strange Stones

So, this week, I’m going to leave you with 3 things I’ve learned from Peter Hessler’s journalism:

1. Arabic is inflected for gender. Yes: there is “women’s Arabic” and “men’s Arabic”, and they sound different.

2. The Great Wall of China was not a single project. Different sections were built at different times for different reasons. (Also, you cannot see it from the moon. That’s a myth.)

3. The Japanese yakuza (mafia) includes a lot of Korean-Japanese and other ethnicities traditionally scorned in Japan. The yakuza began as a culture of outsiders and underdogs who took advantage of the economic and political chaos that followed the Second World War.

Crazy and tantalizing, right? I’m going to keep reading.

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Protecting our creative time

October 14th, 2015

Hello, friends, and happy belated Canadian Thanksgiving! We had a splendid long weekend with just the right proportions of feasting, sunshine, leisure and work. In fact, I am eating leftovers as I type this. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my blogging about writing habits and practices: I often talk about mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned, slowly, to work more efficiently. In the past year or so, I’ve talked about writing incentives, feeling stuck, staying focused on work, and being my own good boss. But one thing that I’ve done for years, and never really noticed, is be highly protective of my creative time.

My fiction-writing time is very clearly delineated. It starts when I drop off my daughter at kindergarten and ends when it’s time to pick her up. This year, that’s four 3.25-hour sessions a week, and that slot includes commuting time. Recently, before school, I fell into conversation with two other parents. It was a really great discussion: friendly, constructive, thoughtful problem-solving for the greater good. But when it was time for me to go, I said so without guilt: “Time to go to work.” I declined an invitation to sit on a committee: “Sorry, I’ll be working.” I said I couldn’t attend even a single committee meeting (that occurs during writing time): “Sorry, I’ll be at work.” I did this all cheerfully and without internal debate, despite being a dutiful person who was raised to please the entire world.

As I was walking out, one of the parents said, “When you say you’re working, are you talking about writing?” I felt my defense reflexes kick in. After all, there are so many people who think that writing isn’t work; that somehow it just happens effortlessly in the twenty minutes of free time between nightly chores and falling asleep.

I prepared myself to explain that writing, like all work, requires time to perform and replied, a little warily, “Yes.”

She sighed with relief and said, “That’s great. It’s really good to hear you being firm about needing creative time.”

As it turns out, this parent is an artist who also wants to make more time for her work! She was frustrated because her work time was being nibbled away by a high volume of things that were, taken individually, only small time commitments. So as we walked swiftly from the building, I laid out the realization I had a few years ago:

If I don’t respect my creative time, nobody else will, either.

Once you’ve decided to protect your creative time, it’s so easy to do. It doesn’t require a single concerted effort that will overturn your life. Rather, it requires very modest daily vigilance, sentence by sentence:

“I can’t make that appointment; how about [a suitable time]?”

“I can’t meet for coffee then, but I’m around at [a suitable time], or maybe we could [alternative plan].”

“I’m going to work now.”

And, for friends/family who interrupt you while you’re working: “Nice to see you! I can chat for five minutes [look at watch] and then I’m going to have to kick you out, because I’m working.” And then after five minutes – you’re watching the time, right? – bounce them.

Boom. Just like that, everyone else* respects your creative time, because you showed them how.

*Almost everyone else. There seems to be a special dispensation for mothers, when you’re trying to work at their house. If I find the solution, I will definitely update!

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Memoir vs. Fiction

October 7th, 2015

Hello, friends! Inspired by some of the recent memoirs – and one novel – I’ve been reading, this week I’m talking about the hazy line between memoir and fiction. Specifically, I’m thinking again about Freddy Spencer Chapman, Nona Baker, and my newest fascination, the Chinese-Belgian novelist (and physician) Han Suyin.

Han Suyin (Elisabeth Comber)

My post is up now at The History Girls.

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YA Scavenger Hunt

October 1st, 2015

Hello, my lovelies, and welcome to the Fall 2015 YA Scavenger Hunt!

This event is the brainchild of author Colleen Houck, your chance to access exclusive bonus material from your favorite authors, AND an opportunity to win some huge book prizes! At each stop on the hunt, you not only get access to exclusive content from a different author, you also get a clue for the hunt. Add up the clues and enter for our prize–one lucky winner will receive one book from each author on the hunt in my team! But play fast: this contest (and all the exclusive bonus material) will only be online for 72 hours.

YA Scavenger Hunt Team Gold

There are EIGHT contests going on simultaneously, and you can enter one or all. I am a part of the GOLD TEAM, but there are also Teams Red, Blue, Green, Orange, Teal, Purple and Pink. At 20 authors per team, that’s 160 books we’re giving away!

For official rules, links to all the authors participating, and the full list of prizes, go to the YA Scavenger Hunt page.


Directions: Below, you’ll notice that I’ve listed my favourite number. Collect the favourite numbers of all the authors on the gold team, and then add them up.

Entry Form: Once you’ve totalled the numbers, fill out this form to qualify for the grand prize. Only entries that have the correct number will qualify.

Rules: Open internationally. Anyone below the age of 18 should have a parent or guardian’s permission to enter. To be eligible for the grand prize, you must submit the completed entry form by October 4, 2015, at noon PST. Entries sent without the correct number or without contact information will not be considered. Winners will be announced on October 9, 2015.


Rachel HarrisWith all that administrivia concluded, I am so pleased today to host New York Times bestselling author Rachel Harris! Rachel is a Diet Mountain Dew addict and homeschooling mom who gets through each day by laughing at herself, hugging her kids, and watching way too much Food Network with her husband. She writes young adult, new adult, and adult romances, and LOVES talking with readers!

Here’s the scoop on her YA novel, The Fine Art of Pretending.

The Fine Art of Pretending

With 57 days until the dance, Aly launches Operation Sex Appeal and sheds her tomboy image. The only thing left is for Justin actually to notice her. Enter best friend Brandon Taylor, the school’s second biggest hottie, and now Aly’s pretend boyfriend. With his help, elevating from “funny friend” to “tempting vixen” is only a matter of time.

But when everything goes according to plan, the inevitable “break up” leaves their friendship in shambles, and Aly and Brandon with feelings they can’t explain. And the fake couple discovers pretending can sometimes cost you the one thing you never expected to want.

You can learn more about Rachel and The Fine Art of Pretending here, at her website.


To go with The Fine Art of Pretending, Rachel wrote a companion adult romance novel, The Natural History of Us (coming April 2016). Today, she’s sharing a sneak preview from that story!

“What do you think are the components of a satisfying, successful marriage?” I ask instead, setting the paper down so he won’t see how badly my hands are shaking.

I avoided the blatantly obvious question, but this one is every bit as pointless. Based on our prior history, it’s almost a given he’ll say there’s no such thing as a successful marriage. Which makes it surprising when he replies:

“Honesty. Commit—”

“Really?” I interrupt with a laugh. “You’re gonna start with honesty? You?”

Justin leans forward, the paper tablecloth crinkling as he rests his elbows on the surface. With the way he stares into my eyes, it’s like he can see straight through to my soul. Maybe Gabi had the right idea hiding behind the menu.

“Yeah,” he answers. “I am. Look, Peyton, I know you don’t believe it, but people change a lot in three years. I’m not the complete asshole you think I am.” I scoff under my breath, and he holds my gaze for another long moment before the thick knot in his throat bobs and he glances away. “At least not anymore.”

A twinge of guilt hits my stomach. Which, when you think about it, is so stupid. He cheated on me! But, luckily, before I can do something even more foolish, like apologize for my well-founded doubts, he turns back and continues.

“Honesty,” he says it again, this time emphasizing the word. He holds up a hand and starts listing components on his long fingers. “Commitment. Telling your wife she’s the most beautiful girl in the room.” He pauses there, three fingers extended, and my hand clenches beneath the table. With a grin, he adds, “Remembering what a lucky bastard you are that she ever chose you in the first place.”

That’s four, according to the tally, and my pulse picks up speed with each uptick.

“Never going to sleep angry.” Five. “Getting all your shit out there before it can build.” Six. “And kissing her every damn chance you get.” Seven.

He leans back, leaving his hands extended in the air, and I just keep staring at his fingers. I chastise myself—stupid heart, he’s not saying these things about YOU!—but the longer the fingers remain up, the longer the moment stretches, the more the air around us shifts. The cool tickle of awareness races up my spine, and as I shiver, chill bumps prick my skin.

Justin’s eyes dip to my arms. The corner of his mouth twitches and as he curls his hands closed, he shrugs. “That’s my opinion, anyway. What about you?”

My opinion? I’m discombobulated.

Before dinner = fully combobulated.

Now = completely and totally without combobs.

“Uh.” My head is void of all thought but I clear my throat, grasping to pull something out of the air. Another trait to list or quality to check that he didn’t already cover.

Since when did the player of Fairfield Academy become a frigging marriage expert?

“Those are good,” I say, stalling as I think about my parents who have, hands down, the most incredible marriage ever. They support each other, they listen, and they make room for daily bouts of silliness. Remembering a few of their more gooberific moments I add, “Laughter.” Justin looks at me. “I think it’s important to laugh with the person you’re in love with.”

He nods as a small smile plays on his lips. “I like that one. You should write it down.”

Oh, right.

We’re not just sitting here, dredging up our pain-filled past for kicks. We’re actually supposed to turn these answers in and use them to begin our joint paper. Grateful for the excuse to break eye contact, I grab my oversized purse and dig for something to write on other than the tiny margin of the question sheet or the butcher-paper tablecloth. Usually I’m much more prepared.

And much more combobulated.

I really like the word “discombobulated”. And I love the idea of walking around counting my combobs!

Before you start to count yours, dear reader, you might want to enter the contest for a chance to win a ton of signed books by me, Rachel Harris, and more! To enter, you need to know that my favourite number is 12. Add up all the favourite numbers of the authors on the gold team and you’ll have the secret code to enter for the grand prize!


To continue your quest for the prize, you need to check out the next author, Shannon Grogan. Go go go, and luck be with you!

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