Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Awesome by Eva Darrows

Sometimes you get lucky.

You get to read something special before anyone else, and The Awesome by Eva Darrows is indeed special. I first read it—in a single sitting—years ago, when it was affectionately referred to as a critique partner's "dick joke book."

On the surface, The Awesome is a sassy, crude, hilarious paranormal tale. Maggie Cunningham wants to be a monster hunter, but vampires go bat-shit insane when they smell virgin's blood. So in order to get her license, she has to pop her cherry. Maggie sets out to do so, hijinks ensue and shit happens, romance blossoms, and everyone grows as a character by the end.

But what remains with me long after The Awesome ended is how feminist it is. Oh, it's the perfect book for fans of Supernatural. But it has a thing to say and it says it in a way that would make Janice—Maggie's mom—proud.

Maggie is comfortable in her skin; she's the embodiment of Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass. It is refreshing to read a YA heroine who is. Not to say Maggie never doubts or stumbles, but overall she's confident and she knows what she wants. When you add in her friends Julie and Lauren, you get a look at female friendship and the different ways people can be strong. Not to mention Ian, who is this wonderful and compassionate guy, reinforcing what it looks like to be respectful and caring. (Instead of what Nice Guys think it looks like.)

Stories about young men on quests to lose their V-cards dominant our popular culture. The same can't be said for stories about young women that frankly discuss sex. What I love about The Awesome is how it de-mystifies sex from the female perspective. Losing her virginity is a practical matter impeding Maggie's life; she can't proceed with the career she wants. So she sets out to resolve this in an equally practical way.

To have a heroine who has such power over her body and her choices, and a narrative that supports this agency and choice, is a neon green and pink punk revolution. We need more characters like Maggie Cunningham, and we need more books like The Awesome because of the conversations they begin.

While this won't be for everyone, it's going to knock the socks off readers who have been looking for a story like it. Give it a try. Couldn't you use a little more awesome in your life?

The Awesome is available as an eBook, and a paperback version will be available later this month.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories from The Merry Sisters of Fate

I'm not exactly sure how I missed the Merry Sisters of Fate when it was running; I feel like I saw mention of it, and possibly read a story or two, but missed out on what many other readers experienced. (I think I had a critique partner who followed the group on livejournal.)

Reading The Curiosities, which collects some of the stories, is both a treat for readers and writers. In addition to the fantastic and diverse stories featured the reader also sees notes from the author and her critique partners. If you learn by studying the work of others, as I do, reading this collection is a course in how to write short fiction. The notes about the things the authors enjoy/struggle with in their own writing and what they admire about the work their critique partners do is a fabulous insight into their process (and a reminder of the value of having the right-for-you critique group.)

The stories vary in length, and because they come from a larger body of work some are technically stronger than others. They each do a thing well, but the gems of the anthology do multiple things well.

Included are stories written from the same prompt (King Arthur), showing that three writers will always write three different stories, and a discussion of how the individual authors treat writing prompts. Each story is enjoyable for different reasons and reading them together—as they are presented in the collection—shows how they divert as well as how they echo.

It's also intriguing to see the seeds of novels-since-released planted in the stories and the bones supporting the individual author's body of work in the tropes that appear again and again.

A favourite story from each of the authors:

"Puddles" by Tessa Gratton: A beautifully sinister story where the magic concept is elegantly delivered, and the reveal changes everything without the story exploding into something different. It's our world but if you peel it back it's so very strange underneath. By pivoting it turns what looked abrasive into an act of caring. (But I would read an entire novel of "Thomas All.")

"Rain Maker" by Maggie Stiefvater: Genius behaving badly. Ok, no. It's also how quickly and concisely Stiefvater characterizes everyone in this so that you get sense of who they are even if they never say a word. But mostly, it's the utterly perfect last line. (A single line that shows instead of tells the growth of that character.)

"The Madness of Lancelot" by Brenna Yovanoff: A tightly-structured story that uses a repeating hook to create the cadence of an old ballad. It's emotionally frank, but somehow surreal. (Yovanoff's stories juxtapose beauty in ugly worlds. They are often violent, but I never find them off-putting.)

Friday, April 03, 2015

Tessa Gratton's The Apple Throne

Tessa Gratton's The Apple Throne is an excellent example of how to end a trilogy. Throughout The United States of Asgard novels and novellas, the narrative view point pivots so we see characters from inside and out; we get angles off the side and around the back. As Gratton ties the final knot of the story that began with The Lost Sun, she reveals the whole of the world. All of these threads of fate we've been following become a web.

Soren Bearstar, everyone's favourite berserker and best friend, is the central thread connecting the first two novels and novellas, but in The Apple Throne we learn it's Astrid who holds the world together.

This novel explores power, strength, and the different forms they take. It is about how people who believe different things can live together without compromising their individual needs. It's a book about choice. Consent.

Astrid, who took up the role as Idris, Lady of the Apples, is a mortal goddess who offers the apples of immortality to the Asgardian pantheon. These apples must be "freely given," and therein lies the truth of The Apple Throne. Each time Astrid makes a choice, the text respects it. Reinforces that her choices drive the narrative.

Astrid is kind, but she is not weak, because this is a book that understands the strength of kindness. It contrasts it against the strength of power in Signy and the strength of determination in Eirfinna. By representing the different ways we can be strong, The Apple Throne reinforces that we can choose our strength and our way of doing battle. It does not say one is better than the other, so much as remind us that they are all options.

Varied representation is something that The United States of Asgard has always done well. Both visible and invisible minorities exist in Gratton's series—in a natural way that is about whom the character is or will become through their arc. These are people, not checkboxes. Their moralities are varied, as are their relationships. I appreciate stories about these complexities; it's easy to be friends with someone whom you agree with all the time, but it's often more rewarding to be friends with someone you don't.

One of the things I love about Amon is he is selfish and kind of an asshole, but that doesn't automatically make him a villain. He's Amon. He just is. (I also love Sune Rask, and I've cast Chris Evans as him in my head.) This ability to be more by choosing to be yourself echoes all through Gratton's series, from Soren choosing to be the Sun's Berserker to well, spoilers. Incredibly satisfying spoilers.

We are a world of headlines and clickbait, so it's important we have stories that fight against over-simplifying political and personal conflicts. Stories that say something, succinctly and on the page, without it feeling like a command. The Apple Throne gives us a view of a world conflicted as our own, but says we can find our way through it. If we don't like the paths being offered, we can forge better ones.

Much like The Goblin Emperor and The Just City or The Raven Cycle, Gratton's The United States of Asgard books put kindness back into the world. I cannot recommend them enough, and now you can read them all.


Thank you to the author for providing a copy of The Apple Throne for review.

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.