Category Archives: Book Reviews

Favourite books of 2018

It was a good reading year. I read 37 books for personal pleasure, research, or for one of my 3 bookclubs. I ‘assessed’ (which mostly means ‘read’) another 137 books as a committee member for the Governor General Literary Award for Young People’s Literature.

There were a lot of excellent books, but, looking back, the most memorable books of the year for me are these seven books for young people and one novel for adults.

Young People:

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. This is a stand-out book for readers of all ages and the winner of this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People. Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster.  These two outcasts carve out a life together – saving one another in the process.  A multi-layered masterpiece.

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis. This story has huge heart, is funny and painful. Curtis is a master storyteller.

Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith. Told in free verse, this is a poignant story of healing for a troubled young boy and his eccentric Grandmother. Stunningly beautiful.

Dodger Boy by Sarah Ellis. This story of a Vancouver Quaker family in 1970 covers a vast number of themes from draft-dodging, coming of age, friendship and censorship. Ellis has a gentle hand and nothing comes across didactic or preachy. The conversations between the various characters are lovely and insightful. It’s a smart novel without being pretentious.

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen. This story also has huge heart. It explores homelessness in Vancouver. Mom and Felix live in a van. Things go from bad to worse because of Mom’s behaviour. The story is funny and poignant. The pacing and writing are excellent.

Louisianna’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo is truly a master of the genre. As with her other books, in this one she puts her young protagonist in a very difficult situation but the story is told sensitively with a light hand and humour.

Miles to Go by Beryl Young. This tender story is compulsively readable. Set in the ’40’s two prairie girls have very different lives but they cling to their friendship despite the obstacles. I was moved to tears by the loss one of the girls endured. Heartwarming.


This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. Witty and wise, this is a big-hearted novel about a family with a transgender child. Sensitively written and often funny.


Fan Mail

Sometimes a book comes along and you simply need to reach out to the author and tell them what their story meant to you. I did that today.Gracefully Grayson

I’ve been doing a lot of research on transgender issues for a writing project I’m working on. I’ve read dozens of books – memoirs, novels, picture books, non-fiction. All of them have helped me better understand the transgender experience.

And then I read a review of Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. I was surprised to find a novel for young people on this subject that I hadn’t yet stumbled across. It wasn’t in my library (they need to get a copy!) so I had to request an interlink loan. (The book was shipped to my library from another city.)

I gobbled up the story in one sitting. As I told the author in an email, the best word to describe this story is ‘tender’. And brave, just like the protagonist, who, baby step after baby step blossoms into the person she was meant to be.

In a way, this is the book I was hoping to write, but I couldn’t find my way, so I changed directions. I’m so glad Polonsky pulled it off, and so beautifully.

The book reviews that really matter

write-a-reviewWhen your hot-off-the-press book is released into the world there’s a trembly period of time when you obsess over how its audience is going to receive it. There’s a lot to be learned by reading the professional reviews but when someone from your targeted audience writes and tells you that your book touched them in some way… well, that’s all that really matters. After receiving the following review I knew that the time spent writing and editing this book was worth it. It was also a reminder to go back to my old practise of reviewing the books I love.

Oh Shelley Shelley Shelley!

I barely know what to say besides thank you for writing Dancing in the Rain. Wow.  I have JUST finished your book. I laughed, I shrieked, and I most definitely bawled my eyes out. You wrote such a beautiful, emotional, truthful, heart wrenchingly wonderful follow up (to Dancing Naked.) I could not have ask for anything more.
I will be honest, there were parts that were incredibly emotional for me to read. So much of my own life’s experiences could connect with this story. I found myself looking back over my own life and my adoption and how that got me to where I am. And who I am. So many of the questions Brenna had for Kia, I too once had about my own “other” life. I could honestly talk about this for hours. I am just so happy and thankful for this book. I think it has really hit a spot for me and I know I will hold it dear forever.

I just wanted to share my thoughts and feelings about your wonderful book with you. Thank you, Shelley.  (shared with permission)

And thank you, Christy Brain!

Thinking Like a Teenager

Gotcha! wpMy books are written for a teenage audience, so when teenagers review them I really pay attention to what they have to say. Did I get the ‘voice’ right? The following quote is from a recent teen review of my novel Gotcha! Phew! It seems I nailed it. I suspect that it was because I was living with three teens while I wrote the book that I was able to think like a teen, and not someone “decades older”, which, of course. I am. Now that my own teens are young adults, I may have to adopt a teen in order to stay current!

“I found the characters in the novel to be quite believable. In the past, I’ve read books aimed towards teenagers, where the characters personalities and actions were inconceivable. In those cases, it was obvious that the authors had not been teenagers for many, many decades. They are written such that it makes it seem as if the author is an outsider looking in. On the other hand, Shelley Hrdlitschka writes with such brilliant pose it’s as if she’s a teenager herself. She understands the highschool dynamic very well. She knows that friendships don’t last forever and that people whom you once had an alliance with, can turn their back on you in a heartbeat, both scenarios reflected in this novel.” Read the entire review here:!Gotcha-Thorough-Novel-Review/cmbz/556a56260cf298b2d3f31483

Weaving Fact With Fiction

Prodigal Summer I’m always inspired by the way Barbara Kingsolver weaves scientific facts into her novels without bogging down the story. A less skilled writer would risk sounding heavy-handed or preachy but she does it masterfully. When I finish reading one of her books I always feel I’ve learned something without having had to slog through a science journal. It probably helps that we share some of the same passions, but still…

The environment and all its creatures are featured in Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer which I’m currently reading. This conversation between a woman and a child explains, very simply, the devastation of clear-cutting a forest.

“You could cut down all these trees and make a pile of money.”
“I could,” Lusa said. “Then I’d have a pile of money and no trees.”
“So? Who needs trees?”
“About nineteen million bugs, for starters. They live in the leaves, under the bark, everywhere. Just close your eyes and point, and you’re pointing at a bug.”
“So? Who needs nineteen million bugs?”
“Nineteen thousand birds that eat them.”
“So? Who needs birds?”
“I do. You do…… not to mention, the rain would run straight down the mountain and take all the topsoil off my fields. The creek would be pure mud. This place would be a dead place.”
Crys shrugged. “Trees grow back.”
“That’s what you think. This forest took hundreds of years to get like this.”
“Like what?”
“Just how it is, a whole complicated thing with parts that all need each other, like a living body. It’s not just trees; it’s different kinds of trees, all different sizes, in the right proportions. Every animal needs its own special plant to live on. And certain plants will only grow next to certain other kinds, did you know that?” Continue reading

Thick Skin or Stronger Heart?

Following are two Goodreads reviews of my book, Sister Wife.

1. “This is not a young adult book. I was DISGUSTED when I read this. A thirteen year old girl DESIRED to have sex/do wifely things with an old guy with cracked lips and like no hair? If you are like me and imagine yourself as the characters, this is a terrible book to read. I hated reading about how the old guy had sex with Celeste.” (one star)

2. “Unable to put the book down, I read it in a single sitting. Written with superb clarity, Hrdlitschka really delved deeply into the obsessively passionate minds of young girls. After watching Big Love on HBO, I have been interested in intentional communities, plural wives, and what the minds of young women must be when set to marry men the same ages as their fathers. Sister Wife is a wonderfully honest and brave account of the diversity of American life. Overall, I wish that I could read it all over again.” (5 stars)

It’s hard to believe these two readers were reviewing the same book. Granted, these are not professional reviews, and the writers are likely very different ages, but still…

There was a time, early in my writing life, where I took reviews of my books way too seriously. A good review made me smile foolishly for days while a bad one would send me to my bed, my mood swinging wildly between despair at my hopeless writing skills (I’ll never write again!) and anger at the ‘stupid’ reviewer (what did he/she know anyway?)

The first review I saw of my book Dancing Naked was in a professional review journal and got a Not Recommended rating. I really did toy with giving up writing for good after seeing that. However that book went on to earn more honours and sell more copies than any of my other titles. As well, I have a binder bursting its seams with letters from readers who wrote to tell me how much the book meant to them, how life-changing it was. This is when I realized that there was a massive disconnect between what the reviewer said and what my intended audience thought.

There’s a crazy tendency by almost all authors (the ones I know, anyway) to remember – with painful clarity – the negative reviews, or even one negative critique in an otherwise good review. The glowing reviews are forgotten much more quickly in the same way we tend to hold onto personal criticisms longer than compliments.thick skin 3

My advice to new authors would be to read the reviews, decide which comments have merit and disregard the rest. After all, the next reviewer may love exactly what the last one hated.

As well I only review books that I’ve loved, with the idea of promoting books that I think are worthy of the time it takes to read them. As for the books I don’t like? I give them away and quickly forget about them.

The Elephant Whisperer

Elephant WhispererIf you’re as fascinated by elephants as I am, this book is a must read. In relating his experiences with a wild herd on his reserve in Zululand, Lawrence Anthony shows the remarkable and uncanny communication skills one human can develop when learning to connect with these magnificent creatures. Through his story we also get to witness the sophisticated social skills that elephants possess, and how deep their bonds are with each other. This book moved me deeply.