Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: March

There's a conversation happening among people I know regarding kindness, and I have things to say about kindness—but I don't want to hijack someone else's conversation to say them. This is more a cumulation of conversations that have been happening offline.

You see, I named this year Kindness. One of the things it has taught me so far is that I cannot get out my sword and fight in every battle. Because before I can support anyone else—before I can offer them kindness—I have to ensure that I have enough for myself.

Kindness isn't a right; it's a gift. We choose who we are kind to, and that's what makes kindness mean something. Because it's not the same as being civil or polite or compassionate. Kindness is not something that can be demanded of others.

There's a line in the prologue of Maggie Stiefvater's Blue Lily, Lily Blue that's rolled around my head for the past couple weeks: "Blue was kind but she was not nice."

Being kind is most certainly not the same as being nice. We're told a lot as women to be nice; we're told it's a high compliment to be considered nice. (Nice is furniture. Nice is forgettable. Nice is—as a friend pointed out—an empty space waiting for other people's opinions to fill it.)

Nice. Nice. Nice. Nice. Nice. Say any word enough times and it stops having any meaning. We ought to be careful about stripping the meaning away from a concept like kindness.

Kindness isn't nice. Kindness is fierce. Kindness is defiant, because the world would like us to believe it's easier to be nice. Being kind suggests the self-awareness of deciding when you will—when you are able to—give more to others. Kind is powerful. So when we demand kindness be a given, we are diminishing that power in others and removing their agency over it.

I am not advocating being cruel; I feel treating others like they are also human is a base-level human decency. You get that from the beginning from me. Kindness—in any way I would define it—is not the same thing.

Could the world use more kindness? Yes. But perhaps it could also use more compassion or respect or civility.

That's the problem of reducing things to a hashtag: It leaves out the context. Our challenge as users of social media, as those who have selected that medium for communication, is to imbue context when we have a limited capacity to do so. (This is the difference between someone who tweets and someone who is good at Twitter.) What do these concepts, these words, mean to each of us? How do we negotiate those meanings without a failure of empathy—without demanding the world be a more simple place than it is?

I don't know. I can't change other people and how they react to things any more than I can swing a sword—metaphorical or literal—at them to make them stop. I used to think I could—that if my argument was the most passionate or the most articulate, that it would somehow win. But when it's only about winning, I still lose. Yes, I can express why I feel a certain way, but the other person choses whether they agree with me or not.

What I'm also learning during this year named kindness is that my community is not the readership of a book I enjoyed or the viewership of a show I watch. It's not even those who work in the same industry I do.

My community are the individuals I have chosen to have a genuine interest in as people. Who have a genuine interest in me as a person. It's constantly evolving state—people can come and go as they want/need to. It's not defined by an interest or restricted to a location. And the people in it don't always have to agree with me.

They don't even have to be nice. I prefer if they weren't. But I hope they can be kind.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Love like breathing

It is glorious to have found the part of a draft when it feels easy because bits of it grow together—all those idea previously rooted reach for each other—and there's an ecosystem on the verge of being.

It's the moment before the middle, when it all goes a little wild and I have to fight it into shape for the end. A moment of flow. A perfect afternoon, all green and good, that smells like spring.

Because in these moments, there's nothing but love for a story. Love like breathing. It's so easy to do, so easy that I forget all the times it felt difficult. Forget why I put the story aside. Forget what ever made me think it wouldn't, one day, be finished.

And it doesn't matter if it's good, because it's fun and the making-it-better can happen when it's time for it to happen.

Story, you're so weird. Weird wrapped around truth and full of things I love. We're going to have a conversation, you and I. One I don't share with other people.

It's not about a fish, but its playlist is full of dangerous bass. And I am so fiercely protective of the way I love it like breathing.

I forgot writing could be like this; I know the feeling doesn't stay. Because craft takes effort and time and focus. It's not unconscious. The time will come when I'll have to apply that conscious force to take something-ok-with-moments-of-good to great and then better.

But this week, for now, it's all reaching shoots. Growing tall, fast, strong.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Why I love The Flash (And maybe you will too)

Imagine you took Spider-Man, moved him to a version of Vancouver where it's almost always sunny and instead of spider-powers... he could run really fast. (Like really, really fast.)

How would that still be Spider-Man? Keep the core narrative arc of becoming self-aware; the display of how "with great power, comes great responsibility." And that, my friends, is the primary reason why I like to refer to the CW's The Flash as "Vancouver Spider-Man." (Its older sibling, Arrow, will always be "Vancouver Batman" in my heart, even if I stopped watching it seasons ago.)

Basic premise: Barry Allen, "an ordinary forensic scientist", was chosen struck by lightning during an explosion of a particle accelerator and transformed into a speedster. Wait, let me translate if you've never seen the show: SCIENCE touched him and gave him speed powers.

It gave many people in Sunny Vancouver powers. The show calls them meta-humans. (In one episode a lady touched Barry and his Flash suit exploded. That's not something you expect to type when trying to keep the physical appearances of the cast out of your argument.) Oh, and not every antagonist has powers; a couple have fancy guns. But the guns were made by the same science-team who built the particle accelerator so it's kind of like having powers.

Most of Barry's friends and family know about his speed powers. These people are supportive of him and his desire to solve crimes by running really fast. They help when they can; they warn him when he's doing something dangerous. They selectively forget about due process. Without clear jurisdiction, because meta-humans don't publicly exist, maybe a vigilante member of the police force might technically be the right one for the case? (Just run with it. The show does.)

This reliance on teamwork is one of the key elements of The Flash that keeps me tuning in week after week.

Okay. No. That's a lie. I'm tuning in each week because nothing else on TV intentionally makes me laugh as hard as The Flash does. It's really about the jokes. (So many speed-related puns. So many.)

Ahem. Teamwork. Right. In all seriousness, the sheer amount of support that Barry receives—from the beginning of his endeavour into hero-ing—is astounding when you compare it to many superhero stories.

We are hitting media-saturation point for superhero stories. I know. I thought I was already there, but The Flash is actively working against much of what I don't enjoy in the recent trend of comic adaptations. Barry isn't a loner working in secret. The show's opinion on violence is that it's not to be glorified. A pessimistic attitude is not what creates the show's attempts at realism.

There is a joy to The Flash, an awareness that a show about a guy who can run super fast can only take itself so seriously. By which I mean that it only takes itself seriously when it needs to. A lot of the time it's silly and it knows it. There was a recent episode where a villain called Captain Cold spouted at least seven temperature-related puns while swaggering about the screen like MY LIFE IS SO GREAT.

Antagonists are something The Flash does remarkably well. The show currently executes the villain-in-our-midst trope in a way that I don't find off-putting. There isn't a "we are the same, so come do crime with me" thing happening here. There's possibly a "I want you to be your best self, nemesis, so I know I am the bestest when I beat you" thing happening. (I theorize it's a little more complicated than that, but let's stick to top level viewing for now.)

I wouldn't want to mislead you into believing it's a perfect show. It is by no means a perfect show; one could make a lot of arguments it's not even a great show. At the very least, The Flash has a serious issue of persistent misogyny. (Barry's primary motivation this season is to find out who murdered his mother.) The two main female characters, Iris and Caitlin, are damsel'ed almost every episode. Also, the pilot sets up a romance barrier of "this female character said no to dating, so her mind will be changed when she realizes the protagonist is special because he can run really fast."

However, The Flash also appears to be working against that trope. Iris is not currently dating Barry, and her No To Dating Barry held fast despite his confession of feelings. (One of the most pleasant surprises I've gotten from a CW show.) We'll have to see how long it lasts before her stable relationship with Eddie is destroyed or revealed to somehow be less ideal than a potential relationship with Barry. Wow, that was cynical. Prove my cynicism unfounded, show. Please. I would love to stop counting down until Eddie dies or becomes the Reverse Flash.

Ah, but Harrison Wells is the Reverse Flash. Right. Is he really? Let's hypothesize something, just for fun. What if Harrison Wells is Barry Allen from the future?

What if he got stuck in his past after failing to defeat the Reverse Flash and keep Nora Allen from getting killed, so Future!Barry adopted an identity (Harrison Wells) and went about ensuring Present!Barry became the Flash. Wells has an extensive knowledge of the speed power and what it can do. ("Maybe even cure paralysis." Ha ha, Wells, you're so funny.) Wells is focused on Barry mastering his powers and has gone to great lengths to ensure that happens.

Wells is also intensely concerned with Barry's well-being and safety. What if it's not because Wells is the Reverse Flash and he wants to beat the best version of Barry? There are little throwaway bits and scenes that take on a whole other meaning if Wells is helping Barry because Wells has come from a timeline or future where the Flash has already lost someone to the Reverse Flash.

But that isn't why I wrote this. There are so many other blogs tracking theories about the show, and the possibility of Wells being Future!Barry isn't why I watch The Flash. I watch it because my friends are watching it, too, and we are as a group discussing the thematics this possibility adds to the show.

Do you need to do that in order to also enjoy it? No. If you want to watch for no reason other than you'd like to know if Iris is ever going to date Barry, go ahead. Maybe you just want a laugh on Tuesday nights. The ability to engage with various audiences for various reasons is a sign of doing something right. And The Flash is showing each week how to do it well without having to be the most serious thing on TV.

Monday, January 26, 2015

That Inevitable Response to Watching Doctor Who

I watched the 2014 Doctor Who series, and I feel sorry for Peter Capaldi who appears to be getting typecast as an asshole in everything that the BBC produced in 2014. (He plays the same character type in Doctor Who as he does in The Muskateers.)

At best, the most recent Moffat season is a fedora wish-fulfillment story. At its worst, it's an abusive break-up and then wish-fulfillment reconciliation of a writer and his fandom. It begins with the writers yelling that we, the viewer, asked for this—and ends with them stating we're all lying to each other about how we've moved on and are doing fine, thanks.

But that's not why I don't like it. The utter hot mess of subtext from that series of Doctor Who is fascinating in a horrifying way. BUT I watched Doctor Who because of its joy; I was in it for the sense of wonder and kindness that it reminded us to seek out. I don't see that in Capaldi's Doctor. When he's acting joyful or kind, I don't believe he doesn't have an ulterior motive.

A character doesn't have to be nice; nice characters tend to be too busy being nice to be interesting. I will watch things if the characters are interesting, but I don't have a high tolerance for characters who are cruel. Doctor Who has become an increasingly cruel and manipulative show. Perhaps it was always like that and my critical viewing tools have become sharp enough to detect it sooner.

But this increasing delight in being mean to the viewer happened with Sherlock. It's been a common story denominator in both shows. Much like the way Sherlock treats John all through Sherlock Series 3, Capaldi's first series as the Doctor features a person who supposedly cares about someone lying about her or his motives—and not to "protect" the other person, but because s/he's only thinking about her or his feelings. It's textual. There's no attempt to hide it. 

Worse, Doctor Who tells us that it's not good but continues to do it anyway. When Clara gets called out for lying, Doctor Capaldi does this vomit-in-your-mouth speech about how he thinks too highly of her to let that break up their friendship... after he has gaslit her. The forgiveness despite the extremely questionable behaviour is the same thing we watched John do for Sherlock, and that's... not ideal. Friendships shouldn't cost things of those involved.

While they're not as graphically violent as Hannibal, Sherlock and Doctor Who suffer from the same problem: The wish-fulfillment of gradually convincing another person that they are exactly like you and therefore you "deserve" each other. (While the Doctor is not always actively trying to convince Clara of that, the subtextual similarities exist; it's the expectation that being the person who will be there no matter how terribly they're treated should be considered romantic or what makes someone good.)

This kind of story also leans heavily on the Dracula model of being seduced by what is not recognized as conventional or acceptable in society; the appeal of something that's been labelled "forbidden." It's the dark side of the superhero narrative that tells that we are special—exempt from consequences of conventional society. Hannibal is "cool" because he's too smart to get caught. Sherlock can be as mean as he likes, because he's the only one who can solve the crime. The Doctor defies labels of "good" and "bad," so he can adventure on without repercussions.

And if I believed Doctor Who—or Hannibal or Sherlock for that matter—was being written to have an interesting discussion of what happens when we refuse to engage as members of society then I'd watch more. But there are never new consequences to being the Doctor. They are always the same consequences, and he never learns from them. And the writing always forgives him for refusing to learn so long as he shows up and saves the Earth in the finale. 

Possibly worse, each of these shows are well-produced. They often feature stunning cinematography, great costuming and set design, and well-utilized musical scores. It's one thing to have a beautiful-for-the-sake-of-being-beautiful story; it's another to glamourize something that isn't healthy and shrug it off as being "entertaining" or "just for fun."

Indulging a character in a bad system or encouraging them to remain in it? I do not find these things fun or entertaining. These are the things that tend to make me bare my teeth and require a deep breath before I remind myself that you are welcome to like what you like but do not expect me to also enjoy it.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Favourite Albums of 2014

2014 was a year of many things, but one of them was a return to actively listening to and engaging with music. Music was an easier way to get input when I had less time to read. Here are my ten favourite audio stories of 2014.

1. HAERTS – Haerts

Haerts is almost everything I love about Bastille: Enormous sounds and complex arrangements, soaring vocals with choral harmonies. But Haerts' self-titled debut is slightly more top-level accessible; it flows one song into another from the first listen. It's constructed to be a repeat listen without sounding repetitive.

They sound a bit like Stevie Nicks, which gives the songs this timeless feeling without taking away from them being part of contemporary sound happening in indiepop. I hope they go big in 2015.

2. Wolf Gang – Alveron

Wolf Gang's Alveron has one of the strongest album narrative arcs I heard in 2014. It's an emotional journey to listen to this album, as it tells a story of what it's like to lose someone and process that grief and go back out into the world. A few tracks appeared on the Black River EP earlier (including Last Bayou, one of my favourite songs of the year,) but it was merely a taste of what was to come. From Now I Can Feel It to the title track, Alveron doesn't just shimmer—it glows.

3. Bastille’s VS (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III)

Technically it's an EP. The theme of this newest Bastille mixtape is VS. Each of the songs is about conflict. But they're also collaborations, which harkens to the rap and hip-hop cultural aspects of artists challenging each other to be better, and thus making the music as a whole better through these conflicts.

I've heard that people didn't like VS because they didn't think it sounded like Bastille, which I find confusing. It's a similar structure to the push-pull of the Bad Blood album—it's more evident with VS, as the EP brings the subtext comments up to the text level of the lyrics.

How do I know that I'm not projecting construction when there isn't any? The Driver. I have never heard anyone articulate the subtext of the film Drive better than this song does.

4. Little Daylight – Hello Memory

Little Daylight's debut was one of my most anticipated albums of 2014, as Tunnel Vision was about as perfect as an EP gets. Hello Memory doesn't disappoint—it shimmers and brims with youthful energy and joy. Aggressive synths, serious bass, and balanced lyrics; this is pop at its best.

5. Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift is the only country artist that I've followed with any kind of consistency in the past few years. (I'm dearly fond of her. She's a marketing genius.) 1989 has great arrangements and is constructed to be infectious. The stories are more mainstream pop, but there's a subtext to 1989 that goes full text in Shake It Off and I Know Places. But it was Blank Space that made me fall in love with the album. The only song I'm not super-keen on is Clean. It's a well-constructed song; it's just the weakest one on the album.

6. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow

MØ is moody Danish murder pop: A bit of synth and a bit of hiphop. All of the tracks are great and the album has a solid tonal consistency. It's dark. Noir. I love the night versions on the deluxe album that are stripped down acoustics. Don't Wanna Dance is probably my favourite track.

7. Noosa — Wonderland LP

Again, not a full album but nine great songs. Noosa has a haunting voice and a great vocal range. Her songs have that same fairy tale element of Hearts and Little Daylight. I kind of love Wildfire and Clocktower. She has that whimsy of Lenka, but is more electronic-sounding.

8. Lights – Little Machines

Lights creates ethereal pop and Little Machines is full of loopable tracks but Up We Go, Meteorites, and How We Do It will get you going. I'm not in love with the opening track—it goes on a little bit longer than I feel like it needs to—but Portal acts like a prologue to the rest of the album. From Running With The Boys onward, Little Machines is cohesive and addictive with the majority of the songs being joyful and optimistic.

10. Foxes – Glorious

Foxes is like the arrangements of Haerts crossed with Noosa. The songs are big and atmospheric with electronic leanings, but the vocals are more soulful melancholy (with an occasional twange.) The album is less even than Hearts, as there are tracks on Glorious that I don't care for but I'd argue the hits outweigh the misses. (I'm a tad miffed Warrior and Youth weren't included on the album, as they're stronger than a few of the songs that were.)

10. Robots Don’t Sleep – Mirror

What I enjoy the most about Robots Don't Sleep is that it's a layered sound with a wide-appeal. This is one of the few albums that I've played as a whole to friends. The clappy, loopable Trouble introduces the well-constructed album. (You might recognize the second track, Don't Wake Me, from season three of Teen Wolf.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tessa Gratton's The Weight of Stars

The United States of Asgard is one of the most under-read series in YA Fiction. If you enjoy Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle and Sarah Rees Brennan's Unspoken or anything by Courtney Summers then you should be reading Tessa Gratton.

Novellas can be a difficult format, but in Gratton's hands they become compact examples of what I love about her series. All three novellas collected in The Weight of Stars are well-paced stories that offer full characterization and a satisfying plot without sacrificing thematic elements. These are quietly intelligent, direct in their purpose, and make the original Norse mythology as accessible and fun as Rick Riordan made Greek and Roman lore.

Gold Runner
 is brash, bold, and in your face—perfectly matched to the voice of Amon, a son of Thor. An action-packed start to the collection, Gold Runner features mystery and romance that plays out within a relatively short amount of words without feeling rushed. Running through this is a commentary on race relations that displays both the ease and importance of diverse protagonists. Amon's desire to keep things about himself tight to his chest is echoed in his willful refusal to see things as they are in his relationships, and as a result Gold Runner has what one might call the least "happy" of endings. It is, however, a satisfying ending that thematically suits his story.

Lady Beserk is narrated by Vider, a secondary character from The Lost Sun (the first novel of the United States of Asgard) and fan favourite. As the first female berserker in centuries, Vider is a girl with a dragon in her heart. This is also a story for all the Loki fans, as the Trickster finally makes an appearance. All of this is woven into the first dragon hunt in American history being filmed for reality television, which creates an explosion story of love and learning to live with your inner beasts. Much like The Strange Maid (the second novel of the United States of Asgard), Lady Beserk also discusses leaving a place that you thought you'd be happy to find the place where you will be. Vider and Signy would likely be great friends.

Glory's Teeth, my favourite of the collection, is about Glory AKA The Fenris Wolf. Glory is the fiercest and most dangerous girl in the United States of Asgard, as she is the one who will cause the end of the world by eating the sun. She knows it. She owns it. And she hungers for it. This is the story of her hunger and her ongoing relationship with Tyr, the god of justice. Glory is reoccurring character in the United States of Asgard world, and this is the first time we see the despair behind the teeth. Glory's Teeth is about having that endless hunger, that empty ache, and as a result it's also a story about kindness.

While the novellas can be read in any order, reading them in order they appear in The Weight of Stars hints at the progression of a relationship that begins in Gold Runner along the edges of Lady Beserk and Glory's Teeth. Wandering and weaving through all three is Soren Bearstar, reoccurring hero and everyone's friend one of the threads who knots the stories of the world of The United States of Asgard together. (Soren is kind and kind of the best.)

All three novellas deal with learning to live within one's own skin, to know one's heart, and to be fiercely proud of who one is despite the pressures to confirm to societal expectations. These are stories vital to the reading community—full of hope and offering a diverse range of representation to readers. Stories with both visible and invisible minorities written with lush, evocative prose in a richly re-imagined world of Norse mythology. The collection also showcases Gratton's talent with narrative voice, as each reads as a distinct character while fitting within the world.

The Weight of Stars can be read out of the context of The United States of Asgard novels, so if you're looking for a sample then consider trying the novella that sounds most appealing as all three are available for the Kindle and via the Kindle app as separate eBooks. If you're already a reader of novels, you won't be disappointed as The Weight of Stars is like getting three extra books.

Highly recommended for fans of Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, Courtney Summers, Neil Gaiman, and Holly Black, The Weight of Stars is now available from Amazon and on the Kindle.

Thank you to the author for providing a copy for review.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So I hear you like Taylor Swift's 1989

I preface this with full disclosure that I have a significant fondness for Taylor Swift albums from Speak Now onwards. Her trajectory into pop music is a welcome change, because it's musical growth—even it looks lateral.

The thing to understand about country music, as a narrative genre, is that it's one inch deep at best. Also, it's tropes have become hyper-defensive of being ignorant. (I grew up listening to a lot of country music. It used to be more about narrative and less about Shut Up, Ladies, And Get Me A Beer.)

The best country music has got at troupe push-back is Girl In A Country Song. But that's about as far as the conversation has gotten.

This is context, so we understand where Taylor Swift is coming from. It's not a complex story-place. But what you can hear in Taylor Swift songs is her musical arrangements over the years have become increasingly varied. Why would she stay in a genre that isn't interested in trying new things?

She's trying things. She's growing. And her listeners are growing with her. Also, I dare you to watch the video for Blank Space and claim Taylor Swift isn't self-aware. Not only self-aware but speaking back to what is being said about her. (I love Blank Space because it can be a song about something being exactly what it is and not asking it to be something else.)

When I heard Shake It Off, her first single from 1989, my heart did a little leap in my chest. Taylor Swift was going to do synthpop. Taylor Swift was going to introduce 5000000000000 people to the glories of synthpop. Also, I proceeded to listen to Shake It Off 80 billion times because of that bass saxophone that's dancing along in the background of the song.

1989 is a gateway drug an accessible introduction to what I call synthpop and other people probably call something else. This is a blog post about whom to listen to next after your friends stage an intervention because you are tweeting about going through withdrawals if you don't listen to 1989 each day.

If you can't explain why you love 1989 other than it put joy in your heart. There's just something about it. You want something similar, something that will also feel familiar quickly and make you want to dance and sing along.

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Little Daylight. BEHOLD.

Little Daylight are from Brooklyn, and they draw their narrative influences from fairy tales which gives their album a great balance of sweet, synth and bass goodness with some darkness lurking beneath the surface. I've loved them since I saw them open for Bastille last year at the Phoenix. Any band that can get a Toronto crowd moving is working magic.

Their EP Tunnel Vision was about as perfect a thing for you as could exist until earlier this year when they put out their album. Go get Hello Memory. You can thank me later.

You have Bastille's Bad Blood, right? SO DO I. WE SHOULD BE FRIENDS. (ahem) Bad Blood is harder to love than 1989 on first listen because Bad Blood is an album that wants you to listen more than once and think about it and have conversations with it. For example, the first time I heard Things We Lost In the Fire, I didn't love it. And now I do. Because it's GREAT.

I already have Bad Blood. I MEAN WHO DOESN'T? So congratulations for being a person who has an ability to like lots of things, and please allow me to introduce you to Haerts. The album I waited a year for and love from first to last song no skips all good. It shimmers, it soars, and it does that thing where it gets better the more you listen to it. On a loop. For always.

1989 has a narrative structure. Yes, and it's the same as the one for RED. That's probably why we all like it so much. It's familiar; it just sounds different. This is great. It's comforting. But maybe you'd like the 201 course offering instead of the 101?

This is Wolf Gang. They have an album called Alveron, and I can map its character arc. Get me a pen. I'll do it. Also, listen to this song.

Is there sadness left in you? No. There isn't. And you haven't heard Black River, Last Bayou or Alveron yet. Your life is about to get so very, very good.

Wait is this secretly a Top Albums of the Year Post that you snuck Bastille back into?

Shh. Listen to this Lights song from her album Little Machines.

That Bastille album is the one you chose last year.

Have you heard Noosa? I love Noosa's Wonderland EP, too. (She cries glitter in this video.)

No, seriously, this was meant to be about Taylor Swift and and somehow become about your top albums this year.

Huh. Yeah it did. In that case, you should also get the Zella Day EP.

And if it really was a best of the year, then I'd be remiss not to mention this Bastille song.