Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

My home landscape

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Hello, friends. We were recently in Tofino, B.C., and I took a walk along the beach at sunset. Here are some shots of the landscape I love best; the one I consider “home”.












Kingston is beautiful, too, but today I’m really missing the Pacific Northwest. See you next week, with a more substantial post!

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Cover story: Rivals in the City

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Hello, friends. Happy Canada Day, and Happy Fourth of July this weekend!

This week, I’m very excited to bring you some behind-the-scenes images from the cover photo shoot for Rivals in the City.

These pictures were taken in New York by Candlewick Press designer Heather McGee. As you can see, Candlewick used the same model, Amber Ahlquist, to represent Mary Quinn on every cover in the series. What might not be so obvious is that they’re also working with the same costume stylist, makeup artist, and photographer! I’m so grateful for Candlewick’s consistent attention to detail. It makes such a huge difference in the final product.

Here’s a shot of Crystal Thompson (stylist; behind model) and Souraya Hamdi (makeup artist) at work.

photo 1

Victorian dresses often came in two pieces: a shirtwaist (ie, a blouse) and a skirt. As you can see here, this one is a single garment. It fastens at the front because, as a woman without a ladies’ maid, Mary Quinn would have to dress herself. Dresses that buttoned down the back were a sign of social status: the lady who wore those would have a maid who helped her to dress and undress.

photo 2

Here’s photographer Scott Nobles checking light exposures. Models seem to spend a huge amount of time getting prepped and waiting around, and a relatively short time actually being photographed.

photo 3

A few minor costume adjustments, between shots.

photo 4

And makeup, too. Perfectly historically accurate Victorian makeup, of course.

photo 5

I love the juxtaposition of jeans and pocket-cameras with 1860s costume!

photo 6

And there we are. I know I’m biased, but I love seeing how much effort goes into the creation of a book cover. Thank you, Candlewick!

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Best-case scenario

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Hello, friends! Today, I’m visiting the Oshawa Public Library as part of its Suspects and Sleuths Mystery Festival. The other day I was thinking ahead, planning my presentation, wondering what the day would be like. That’s the lovely and exciting thing about public appearances: who will come? What will they ask? What bizarre and unpredictable events will pop up to enliven the day? It’s a cliché, but you never can tell.

That evening, I read Hilary Mantel’s short story, “How Shall I Know You?” The story was first published in 2000 but it’s reprinted in her new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

When I think of Mantel’s work, I think of it as cool, precise, ruthless, unnerving, and terrifyingly direct. I don’t often think of her as uproariously funny. But “How Shall I Know You?” is about author visits in all their surreal extremity, and I was shaking with laughter by the halfway mark. Then I hit this passage, about a good author experience:

“When I arrived at the library, an ambitious number of chairs – fifteen, at first count – were drawn up in a semi-circle. Most were filled: a quiet triumph, no? I did my act on auto-pilot, except that when it came to my influences I went a bit wild and invented a Portugese writer who I said knocked Pessoa into a cocked hat.”

And I laughed so hard I drooled on myself.

If you’re in Oshawa today, come see me! I’m presenting at 2 pm at 65 Bagot St., Oshawa, Ontario. I’ll try not to drool. EDITED: the location has changed! I’ll be presenting today at 2 pm (not 1 pm, as some schedules have it) at Village Union Public School, 240 Simcoe St South, Oshawa. I’ll still try not to drool.

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Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Hello, friends. It seems like every autumn, my family experiences a maelstrom of work- and school-related insanity. Things are INTENSE. This year, we made some strategic choices to minimize negative stress (for example, we didn’t sign up the children for any after-school activities. No team sports. No music lessons. No nature camp. What on earth do we do after school? We read books, draw pictures, garden, ride bikes and cook dinner. It’s really nice.) but even so, the Thanksgiving long weekend couldn’t come at a better time.

The garden haul, 2014. Clockwise from top right: oxheart carrots, butternut squash, bean seeds, late-ripening cherry tomatoes, leeks, chioggia beets

This past weekend, we had a breakfast toast marathon, drove out to a farm to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey, had friends over for the celebratory dinner, basked in the sunshine on our patio, rode our bikes along the waterfront path, and harvested the last root vegetables from our garden. (It’s weird, though: there are still half-ripe tomatoes clinging to their vines, so we may get a few more of those AFTER the beets and carrots have all come in.) We also did some cleaning and organizing around the house. Oh, and Nick and I each did about three hours’ work yesterday, to get a jump on the week. And here’s the magical part: the whole weekend felt pleasantly productive, not pressured and frantic. It was amazing. (It may never happen again, which is why I’m memorializing it here.)

And I had lots of time to step back and think, I am so outrageously privileged. Here is a very partial list of things for which I am thankful, this autumn of 2014:

– My spouse is my best friend and my ally in all things

– I feel lucky to be the mother of my children

– I have some genuinely exciting things happening with recent and new writing projects

– I feel strongly connected to my local community

– I feel strongly connected to my family, despite the geographical distance between us

– I have dear and brilliant and generous friends

– Every year, I care less about what other people think of me

– I have the time and good health to be thankful for my enormous good fortune

What about you, friends? How is your autumn going, and what are you thankful for?

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One Match

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Hello friends, and happy September! I hope it’s begun well for you.

I have two blog posts for you today. The first is my debut post with The History Girls. My essay, “Ahistorical Fiction”, is up on our group blog now. I hope you enjoy it! From now on, I’ll be blogging over at the History Girls on the 3rd of each month.

Over here, I’m stepping away from reading and writing and gardening to talk about stem cell donation. Until recently, I’d never given much thought to stem cells. But a couple of years ago our acquaintance, B, was diagnosed with cancer. He is doing fairly well, all things considered, and has recently been matched with an appropriate stem cell donor. This is critical to his treatment and potential cure.

Things I didn’t know about stem cells, but now do, thanks to the Canadian Blood Services website:

  • Stem cells are important because they are “blood-forming cells”. They can develop into any of the elements normally present in the bloodstream: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and other blood components.
  • You can donate stem cells either from bone marrow (which involves surgery under general anaesthetic) or from peripheral blood (like a basic blood donation).
  • You are more likely to find a stem cell match with someone from your own ethnic group.
  • Fewer than 30% of patients find stem cell matches within their own families. The rest rely on the generosity of strangers.

B’s family is now working with Queen’s University’s Engineering Society to recruit potential stem cell donors for other patients. They explain, “Only about 50% of people needing a donor find one in time. For a non-family donor, the best results for the patient post-transplant are from young donors (specifically males).” They’re looking for people between 17 and 35 years of age, and especially hoping to reach young men of all ethnicities.

Why ethnic diversity?

As mentioned above, you are more likely to find a stem cell match with someone who shares your ethnic background. In 2009, the Canadian Network was 83% Caucasian – not a great reflection of our national diversity. Canadians of colour, we are under-represented!

Why men, and why the age cap of 35?

Young donors are associated with better long-term survival rates for patients. As B’s family says, “Young males are chosen as donors 75% of the time, but represent only 15% of registered potential donors.”

I might be interested. What’s involved?

5 minutes of your time, and a cheek swab (“no pricks, needles, blood or money required”, in B’s family’s words.) Then your name goes onto a list of potential donors. Anything after that is at your discretion.

Okay, then. When and where?

Sunday, September 7, from 3-5 pm, at Grant Hall. As a (literal) sweetener, there will also be Baked Goods.

I’m nowhere near Kingston. What can I do?

So glad you asked. You can go to and request a kit. You’ll swab your cheek and mail the kit back to Canadian Blood Services.

If, like me, you are too old to be a donor, I hope you’ll help spread the word. And if you’re in the magical 17-35 age bracket, I hope you’ll seriously consider stepping up. Thanks for listening.


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West Coast Bounty

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Hello, friends. We’re in Vancouver! For me, being on the West Coast in August means a bounty of local fruit: blueberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and blackberries, in particular. My parents live near a stretch of the Fraser River and its banks are dense with wild blackberry bushes (also crabapples, snowberries, and apparently salmonberries, though I haven’t seen any of those). See what I mean?


Every time we go for a walk, we end up having a blackberry snack. If we ever manage to pick more than we eat on the spot, I’m planning to make a batch of blackberry freezer jelly.

The bounty isn’t limited to fruit, of course. I’ve long admired the community garden plots built along some 11 km of disused railway tracks on Vancouver’s west side. The gardens are charming, aesthetically diverse, and bursting with life. They’re an annual inspiration for our own gardens, and a lovely reminder of what we’ll return to. They’re also now now under an eviction notice: CP Rail is planning to raze them, as part of a dispute with the City of Vancouver.

The wrangling could go on for a long time yet. Before anything else happens, here are some shots of the Arbutus Community Garden plots along East Boulevard.


This is the most elaborate and established-looking of the plots. Its bulletin board advertises “the world in a garden”, offering garden shares to interested locals and organic gardening workshops for children. Their shed is a thing of beauty!


We’ve been talking about building a hoop house, like these gardeners are doing:


You cover it with sheets of polythene, like so:


And it becomes a miniature, morphable greenhouse. I’m ridiculously excited at the prospect of extending our growing season. We also saw growing frames made of old bicycle wheels:


While I love the way it looks, I’m not diligent enough to camouflage a water drum:


And sometimes, the temperate West Coast climate makes me sigh with envy. Look: grapes!


The lighting is terrible in this shot, but please believe me when I say that these gardeners are actually growing kiwi. Kiwi! They’ve trained the slender tree trunk to crawl horizontally atop their fence.


Finally, after an afternoon’s hard work, these gardeners can relax and admire their heap of freshly picked beets.


I’m only in the city for a week or two each year, but I would be so sorry to see these gardens go. Let’s hope CP Rail and the City of Vancouver sort themselves out and do what’s best for the community in general.


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Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Hello, friends. This past weekend, a Kingston-based group of children’s authors got together to sign books at our local Chapters. We were five: Leanne Lieberman, Jill Bryant, Mary Alice Downie, Ann-Maureen Owens, and me. Fellow author Christine Fader very generously took photos, rallied troops, handed out bookmarks, and was her ebullient self. Here’s one of Christine’s photos of us getting set up and waiting for our public. (I used that phrase entirely facetiously. If I ever refer to “my public” in earnest, please do something drastic to get my attention.) Isn’t the store lovely? It was a great antidote to a windy, rainy afternoon.

Here are Jill, Mary Alice, and Ann-Maureen with some of their books.

Leanne and I, with our YA novels. We had terrific support from store staff, who ordered books in advance, created signs, made announcements, and generally welcomed us with real warmth. Thank you!

This was the first time I’d done a signing without a reading, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I didn’t count on was a woman who approached us, looking both eager and hesitant. She paused, shyly, and I said hello. “Oh!” She rushed the table. “I’ve been looking for you. Are these the Chicken Soup books?”

I tried not to laugh. I helped her to find the Chicken Soup books. And I realized that I’ve finally had my classic author moment of being mistaken for somebody much, much, much more widely read. It was genuinely funny to me, and it felt like a rite of passage. I maintain, however, that I do not resemble Jack Canfield in the slightest.

It was a good afternoon, hanging out fellow writers. And I did, in fact, sign a book or two of my own.

I now have another appearance to announce: the Calgary Public Library has invited me to give a pair of readings on November 28, 2013.

Reading 1:
Crowfoot Library 

8665 Nose Hill Drive

11-12:30 p.m.
Reading 2:
Village Square Library

2623 56 St NE

2 – 3 p.m.

I’m so excited to go to Calgary for the very first time. I hope you’ll spread the word, and to see some of you there!

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 1

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Hello, friends. A few days ago I finally fulfilled, with thanks to my friend Michelle Gibson, a longstanding ambition to snoop around Kingston Penitentiary! (I requested a tour on my own, many years ago, but Corrections Canada is not interested in accommodating the curiosity of local residents – even if we are Professionally Nosy, aka writers.) But the Penitentiary was recently closed for good and the United Way of Kingston is cleverly fundraising by offering a limited number of tours. I turned up on a brilliant autumn day and met our volunteer tour guide, a retired guard named David Stewart.

The oldest parts of the Penitentiary were constructed in 1835 and walking through the front door is a deeply Victorian experience. It’s high and dark, and you are made to feel very small. You snake through a corridor and emerge in the Visitation and Correspondence (V&C) room. It’s a deeply dispiriting space: low-ceilinged, dingy and windowless, with glass-topped tables and fixed seats. The saddest part of the room is the children’s corner, which someone has attempted to make more cheerful with a little bright paint. It still contains a couple of strollers and a handful of toys, and there remains a poster on the wall reminding you that Loving Fathers Read to Their Children. I’ve seldom seen a space that so makes me despair of lost potential.

Our guide, Dave, mentioned that there were hidden microphones in each table, so that guards could monitor conversations between inmates and their visitors. KP was used as a maximum-security institution so there was also a visitation area where inmates were separated from their visitors by a glass partition and talked to them via telephone, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the movies.

We followed Dave outside, squinting in the sudden sunshine, and this was the first thing I saw.

More heartbreak. There are six of these “family units” for inmates who earned visitation privileges through good behaviour. For 72 hours at a time, their families could come to stay with them in one of these houses. There, they could cook their own food and generally try to fabricate a domestic life.

We walked past the family units and there was sudden murmur of admiration:

This is the North Gate, through which vehicles holding prisoners were originally admitted. The belltower at the top had an important function in the nineteenth century. According to Dave, all prison employees had to live within earshot of the bell. If there was an emergency, someone would ring the bell and everyone had to muster at the Pen to pitch in. Despite the context, isn’t that gate beautiful?

The barred windows below are on one arm of the Pen’s cross-shaped central building. They allow some light and ventilation into the ranges (rows of cells), and were cleaned by inmates. Inmates also cleared snow, gardened, cooked, did laundry, and many other tasks on the premises.

All that sounds quite orderly, if not downright cozy. Then you walk inside to view a typical range:

All the cells are singles, but the “typical” ones are arranged in rows of about ten. If you lived in one, you’d be able to hear and smell your neighbours – unless, of course, you were atypical. Inmates who couldn’t be in the company of others – especially the notorious – were held in isolation cells, which we didn’t view.

Inmates in insolation cells remained there for 23 hours a day. During the one hour they were permitted outside, they used one of a few small “yards”, where they were again alone. We didn’t view these yards but I grabbed a shot through a dirty window.

One of the doors to such a yard had a small trapdoor just below waist height. Dave explained that a particularly aggressive or dangerous inmate would be led outside in handcuffs. Once outside, the guard would close the door. The prisoner would offer his cuffed wrists through the slot and be released. Before returning, the prisoner would present his wrists for cuffing, and only then be allowed back into the building.

There was a third type of cell, called a “disassociation” cell. These were for inmates who behaved aggressively towards others. In the photo below, the concrete shelf you see is the bed. Dave said that when he began work at the Pen in the early 1970s, those in the “dis” cells got one meal a day, with bread and water at other times. Their mattresses were brought in at 10pm and removed at 7am. In more recent years, they received regular meals and kept their mattresses in the cells, and Dave suggested that the inmates fared better as a result.

The exterior of the “dis” cells.

One of the most surreal aspects of the tour was the contrast between the glorious weather and the very dim interior of the prison; the grim steel and concrete of the cells and the elegance of the limestone exteriors. This is the south face of the main building. Carved into the stone are the three main dates of construction and alteration: 1835, 1893, and 1992.

Beyond the main building, I saw a fenced-in area with a lot of clutter piled up.

It turned out to be the native grounds, where First Nations inmates could observe their faith. Here are the grounds from a distance:

Maybe what struck me most (after all the props and pieces that must have had their purpose) was the luxuriance of the grass – something we always take for granted, until entirely surrounded by concrete. I’m not sure what inmates of other religions did – there was mention of a chapel, but not of a mosque or anything else.

I think this might be a good place to pause. I was a bit stunned by the end of the tour, torn between lively historical curiosity and a genuine sense of mourning for all the known and unknown things that had happened – possibly in the precise spot where I stood.

I’ll return next week with more photos from the second half of the tour. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of the place? Have you ever toured an institution like this?



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