Sunday, December 27, 2015

Obligatory post about The Force Awakens

I saw The Force Awakens. I was rather excited by it when I left the theatre, mostly because it had what the original trilogy lacked: A woman with a lightsaber. All I care about are lightsabers and tiny robots. Other things may have happened in Star Wars, but seriously, lightsabers. Tiny robots. What more do you need? (NOTHING.)

Now it's a few days later, and I don't really remember what happened in the movie. This is a problem I find with much of the films J.J. Abrams makes: They're so crammed full of stuff that the plot becomes incomprehensible. It's much harder to view them critically, because you have to dig through the layer of "and then they did this and then they did that and then and then and then" to find where the narrative structure got buried.

Most of what I can remember is: Rey lightsabered the shit out of stuff, there was a really cool temple, Poe didn't die, and I found Finn interesting.

Poe arrived prepackaged as a badass. He told us repeatedly he was badass. Showed up at the end to be a badass. Which makes sense because we see him the least. He's got no time for character development. (I thought so much emphasis had been placed on him being great because he was gonna die soon so they gave him an abbreviated character arc.)

Finn came coded as antagonist who will become a protagonist, because we see him as a stormtrooper for the opening of the movie. When he takes off his helmet and we see him as a person, that's very effective. That's the signal of what his arc will be. Again, it happens very early in the movie because he isn't the main protagonist. (He's the secondary protagonist.) We need to see him leave the Starkiller, because his leaving is the source of his enthusiasm. So much is new to Finn and he's secretly worried he'll be rejected because he used to be an antagonist. 

When Rey arrives on the scene, she's obviously our main protagonist. We spend some time with her scavenging. The movie establishes that she can defend herself (this will be important later), she's adaptable and works hard, and she has made herself a life. She has plans. BB8 goes out and finds her with the plot, but there is no doubt she is the hero. She's going to be a Jedi by the end of things.

The problem with J.J. Abrams is he loves the source material a little too much—he's not going to take any risk that's too big, because he always focuses on elbowing the audience and going DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? JUST LIKE IN [MOVIE]. YEAH. (I'm a little weary of it, because it's the same thing Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat do. I'd like to see more stories where the writers worked a little harder to hide where they filed off the serial numbers.)

So. Yeah. The Force Awakens. It's about as good as A New Hope. With some updates, because it's 2015.

About halfway through TFA, I found myself thinking "this is so EASY. Look at how Rey gets to be the protagonist and have the hero quest. We can all do this. Look at how easy it is." Why aren't there more movies like this, I wondered. Why do we keep getting told the hero has to be the guy? Because it's not like it took a lot of narrative effort to make it Rey instead of Poe or Finn. (Make your arguments about the back end production if you want, but it's possible. We keep seeing it's possible.)

I don't believe that the gender of the main character is what determines if a work is feminist or not, because that leads to the work getting a pass even if it's shit with consent or full of internalized misogyny. But I do believe that we need stories with women in the spotlight. All kinds of women.

I would've preferred to have seen more emphasis put on the relationship between Rey and Leia. Rey had women in the film who showed up to support her, but she was still really on her own with some dudes. When Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up, I felt like the movie forgot who the protagonist was. The Force Awakens is a little too in love with Han Solo.

I enjoyed Finn. I felt that turning away from the stormtrooper conditioning to pursue his own morals was equally interesting to Rey leaving her loner life to join up with the resistance. I also enjoyed how she was established as more competent and capable than Finn. So I can see the structural argument to take Rey aside for a moment and let Finn lead the mission to the Starkiller. She was busy searching within and rescuing herself.

Could've done without the nonconsensual Force mind-reading stuff, but it's always been a problem in Star Wars. The Force Awakens wasn't going to ditch that for the same reason it didn't ditch showing us C3PO and R2D2.

Also, I was relieved Poe didn't die because what a waste of character set up, and Finn needs a friend—in addition to Rey—to talk to about... I don't know jackets or something. Honestly, it was just a relief to see media where characters aren't adversarial for the sake of plot. That Poe was like sure, why not showed the Resistance as being accepting. It juxtaposed well against the rigidity of the First Order.

I think the movie was good about not working too hard to make Finn and Rey more than friends. It felt like watching a movie made to be enjoyed by my inner seven year old. It was pleasant and imperfect, but it tried to be better than what had come before it.

However, if someone had come to me with that script and said "What do we have to do to make this even better?" here is the treatment I would've given them:

Rey, our BAMF scavenger, and her tiny robot friend BB8 find the Falcon in the ruins. She tries fixing it up, holding back on the best parts and making due with lower rations (which she’s getting because misogyny) to do so. She is about halfway through when another scavenger named... uh... Laputa happens upon her camp. They decide to work together and pool their rations. Also Rey needs a co-pilot.

They get the Falcon operational and take off into the stars. Rey admits she is looking for her parents. Her friends are more than happy to help her find them. Along the way, they recruit a hotshot pilot who isn’t a dick and a former stormtrooper who questioned the morality of the society he'd been raised in. Everyone is friends and they all have adventures. No one kisses anyone, because who's got time for that when you're having so many adventures. (Save that kissing for the second movie!)
Then they land on a planet and go to this cool temple bar thing. Rey goes downstairs and fights a bunch of ghosts or something in the dungeon and finds the lightsaber and goes THIS IS GREAT. Because lightsabers are great. Period.
No one is surprised Rey can lightsaber the heck out of stuff because she has already been shown as more than capable of defending herself, and why would her friends doubt her abilities? She’s badass. A badass with a lightsaber.
The First Order wants the map. They try to capture Rey, but they only get Poe because he's too cocky. (His arc is learning not to be so cocky.) It’s fine because Rey and Laputa are completely capable of rescuing him, and Finn knows the schematics of the Starkiller. Laputa gets to fly an X-Wing and blast up shit. Rey lightsabers every creeper who gets in her way and learns the Force as she goes. Finn gets to face down his former commander with his new friends at his side.
After they save Poe, they follow the map to the Resistance. General Leia is like hey, I'm a general BAMF. Nice work on that Starkiller. She gives them the rest of the map. Rey is like cool, do you know who this lightsaber belongs to? I found it in a temple dungeon because that's how quests work. Leia is like I think it's my brother's. He went off to deal with his massive PTSD. Let's send him a message and see if he would like visitors and not stalk him across the universe and just show up.
Anyway so they call up Luke and he's like "well, ok, I guess you can come visit but now J.J. Abrams has to pay me more because I spoke onscreen." And they're like cool and they set off to visit him.

You see how easy this is? It took me fifteen minutes tops. Your move, Hollywood.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: Winter Solstice

Here we are on the shortest day of the year, rain falling as it often does for the Solstice in Toronto, and what's trending on Twitter is a hashtag about the people who made 2015 great.

I've had a year-long conversation around the word kindness—giving it and receiving it, realizing that it does cost me something, and understanding that no one is entitled to it. In learning about agency over decisions and care, I've learned a lot about self-care and boundaries. Establishing them, defending them, respecting the ones others establish so they don't have to defend them against me.

I watched other people have this conversation—former colleagues and current friends—and it grew, it expanded into a cultural discussion of how kindness tangles up in privilege. In consent and agency. A lot of us spent this year recalculating the amount of damns we have to allot, and how we conserve them for when we need them most.

The best advice I got remains when someone told me in a job interview that first you take care of yourself, then your loved ones, and your job—whether it's marketing or non-profit or social media or publishing—comes last. Because you can't do it well if you aren't taking care of yourself.

I learned that lesson the hard way, and it meant I have firm boundaries regarding what I won't put up with—and that very little to do with whether or not I can endure it. It has to do with defending the choice not to have to endure it. Because each time one of us chooses, it makes room for the next person. I also learned when and what and whom I make exceptions for.

Life is full of well-meaning bullets and assholes who don't know—or just don't care—they're assholes. But the world is also full of brilliant, caring people—and self-aware assholes—who want to be and do better. What a bunch of hustlers we are; over-extended in our own ways, and all fighting our own battles.

Those are the people who made this year great. The warmest of wishes to those of you who showed up with a smile or a song or a joke, who lent an ear or a hand. To the ones made of swords and fire, and the ones made of feathers and light.

May you have things that fill you up, people who love you, and a safe place to rest when you are weary. It's been a long year, and it's going to a long night. Stay warm; remain bright.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Best Albums of 2015

Given what I was listening for this year, as it was a year heavily-focused on music for projects, I've likely missed some great albums. But here are the ones that I've been enjoying. (If you're wondering why Adele's 25 or the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording aren't on here—well, you should've been able to find those on your own given the sheer amount of attention they're receiving.)

Of Monsters and Men's Beneath The Skin
I have a long-established love for OMAM's My Head is an Animal. And Beneath the Skin is better. The album is tighter with its lyrics, and more adventurous with its sound. There's a better balance to their sophomore effort, and more songs that share vocals. Also, all the little references within the lyrics create a unity to the album; it's like reading a well-edited anthology. (There's a sense of structural thought that didn't feel as well-developed on their first album.)
This is the album I've listened to the most this year. The one that I am always pleased to hear. The one that I never skip a track because they're all so great.
Recommended tracks: (All of them) Crystals, Hunger, Empire, I Of The Storm, We Sink.



Zella Day's Kicker
Her album opens with a murder ballad, contains a love song to a Clint Eastwood movie, and ends with a ballad that will steal the breath from your lungs to return it to them. You probably know Mustang Kids (Featuring Baby E) from it being featured prominently in a campaign for MTV's Teen Wolf.
But the truth of what makes Zella Day great, aside from her impressive talent, is that she composes story-songs and tries on different genres. (She has the most of the quintessential Bastille-ness of Bastille that I've found in another artist.) Zella Day is everything. And she's amazing live.
Recommended Tracks: (All of them) Jerome, High, East of Eden, Hypnotic, Compass.



CHVRCHES's Every Eye Open
With the first CHVRCHES album, I had about three favourite tracks that I could listen to forever... but I never felt compelled to listen to the album as a whole. It worked as one, but it wasn't an album for me at the time. When I got Every Eye Open, I was delighted by how it shimmers and glows. It may have been the right album, right time. However, it's one of those albums meant to be listened to in its entirety.
If OMAM's Beneath the Skin is an anthology, CHVRCHES's Every Eye Open is a novel. It's constructed and deliberate, and it will leave you feeling immensely satisfied. And it'll do all this without ever including a guitar solo.
Recommended tracks: (All of them) Leave a Trace, Make Them Gold, Empty Threat, Bury It, Get Away.



Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
In the latest—and aptly titled album—Florence Welch and crew have created a soaring, big sound that reverberates with varied emotions. There's an expansive quality to the album, maybe best exemplified in the title track or Various Storms & Saints. It sounds distinctly like Florence + The Machine without sounding exactly like Ceremonials.
Recommended Tracks (all of them): Ship to Wreck, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Queen of Peace, Various Storms & Saints, St. Jude, Third Eye.



Carly Rae Jepsen's E*MO*TION
This album gets this year's Fine, Twitter, You Were Right About Taylor Swift's 1989 mention. As well-engineered 80's inspired synthpop, Jepsen's album is designed to listen to again and again—while walking, grocery shopping, driving, or whatever. It's not as structurally rewarding as CHVRCHES, but E*MO*TION knows what it is, and it does it well.
Recommended Tracks: Run Away With Me, E*mo*tion, Boy Problems, LA Hallucinations.



Metric's Pagans in Vegas
For this album, Metric does Metric songs but with a more techno sound. New sound, similar stories. While I'm not sold on the final two tracks (The Face Pt I and The Face Pt II), the rest of the album works well enough to make up for it.
Recommended tracks: Lie, Lie, Lie, Fortunes, The Shade, Too Bad So Sad, The Governess.



Oh Wonder (Self-Titled)
Driven by piano and vocals, Oh Wonder gained attention by releasing a song a month on soundcloud. It worked. There was no wondering if you'd enjoy their album, because you heard all of it. By the time it released, you were already a fan of this UK duo and their soulful sound.
Recommended Tracks: Livewire, Lose It, Landslide, Without You, Midnight Moon.




Indiepop EP bonus streaming round:

ASTR's Homecoming
Soundcloud.
Recommended Tracks: Bleeding Love, Part of Me.

Ji Nilsson's Blue is the Saddest Colour
Soundcloud.
Recommended Tracks: Nothing, Heartbreak Free, Belong To.

Rationale's Fuel to the Fire
Soundcloud.
Recommended Tracks: Fast Lane, Fuel to the Fire.

SLEEPLUST (Self-Titled)
Soundcloud.
Recommended Tracks: Deep Nights, Over It Now, Lone Black.

Micky Blue's Wild Things
Soundcloud.
Recommended: The Good The Bad The Ugly, Champagne Reign.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I finished my draft last night.

I finished my draft last night.

It used to be that when I reached the last 15,000 to 10,000 words of a draft it became a race downhill to catch the words as they overflowed their banks. The whole draft spilled and I scrambled to be fast enough to get it on the page.

But that didn't happen with the end of this draft. It didn't happen at any point; anything that came fast needed to be rewritten or edited the next day. Everything was slow and deliberate and even then it was often still wrong. I'd love to say that the matter of this was overthinking things, but I genuinely believe it was because I used to under-think the things I had previously written. They needed so many drafts, because the structural issues or bigger problems were things I tried to smooth over later instead of replacing as they happened.

I still need to do a continuity check and polish before I can let anyone else read this, but I hope I'm at least catching most of the issues. That was the craft goal with this story—to be aware of subtext and control it in a way that I couldn't before.

As you get further along in writing, as it's not the first book or even the fourth, you're always aware that end of draft means the beginning of the work. But for now, it's an accomplishment. It's something to grow.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Slow life writing

This is around the time of year when we all start with our NaNoWriMo posts. This is also the first year that I didn't even consider doing NaNoWriMo. I usually at least have a fleeting moment of maybe I should—nahhhhhh. The glib reason is that I've already drafted 50,000 fast, wrong words and then decided to throw them out this year.

Seriously, though, it has taken me a few years to come to understand I don't write well when I aim to write fast. I do believe that NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity to build the habit and create the discipline of writing every day. Word goals, specifically a consistent word goal, is how I keep the momentum going. It's less about the word count than it is the reminder to be writing, to be pushing the story forward. (This does not, at any point, become a post about how I changed my mind and will be doing NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don't do NaNoWriMo for other reasons, including that I find 50,000 words to be an awkward length. (That's a little over half a story worth of words.) There may be a year that I choose to participate just for the challenge of writing something that is that length. But it won't be 2015.

I've been working on something this year, that I tweet about occasionally and I talk about to people, but I've not really blogged it. Possibly because I've been busy putting words into it instead of writing words about it. Also, it's a bit difficult to refer to as it needs a new title, because the current one is connected to when I planned to do something overly complicated with the structure that I'm not doing anymore. (Past Me got too much sleep in late 2014 and then had this great idea about trying to write a David Mitchell book. No. We're not doing that.)

Usually I refer to it as the damn magpie book. It's new but not, as I completed a rough draft in January of 2014. But I had left it to gather dust for most of last year, because I'd spent far too much time with it. To be honest, I was certain I hated it. We have a long history of fighting each other to get the job done.

Earlier this year, I had the great idea to draft something new and come back to revising. So I stuffed the magpie draft in a folder on my harddrive, and I (gleefully) moved on. I wrote more than 50,000 words of something else. Something fun. But I stalled out. Because I was writing fast and thin and I could see the story going to pieces. I had these characters and this vague plot and a reaction to a few things, but I didn't have what made the story mine. Why was I writing it?

I don't think that stories should only be about our viewpoints and our experience, but I do think there needs to be something that connects the writer and the story. Because the writer is the first reader. Before feedback and revisions and everything else, you've got to be invested enough to finish that first draft. And I suffered through years of falling out of love with an idea but sticking to it so I could get something finished. I wasn't about to do it again.

When I decided to have a go at applying for writing grants in June, I pulled the magpie thing out and started working on making it suck less readable. (The grant I applied for is specifically targeted at works in progress and offers funding to complete them.) I cringed my way through it. It wasn't a bad story; it just wasn't the story I wanted to tell. It had been written too slow—too much time between its starts and stops—so that it was equally thin as something written too fast.

I tried revising, got 30,000 or 40,000 words in—it had topped out around 90,000—and realized revising wasn't going to do it. I had to rewrite it into something I could love enough to do what it takes to make stories good.

My new challenge was could I make the western—such an American genre—into something Canadian, but more importantly... could I make it feminist? It was a bargain story, but could I make it about the danger of transactional relationships in a way that wasn't heavy-handed? Could I write a revenge tale that was kind? And most importantly, how could I make it so magic spilled out the sides of it even if doing magic wasn't the focus of the story?

I stopped when I was doing job interviews or reading and reviewing... but I kept at writing it. I pulled the story apart, examined it with the same critical gaze I use for other people's stories, and put it back together better. I listened when people spoke of representation and the problems with historical assumptions and felt grateful I was at a stage where I could easily make those changes. I fed it songs. So many songs. (Seriously, there is a place reserved in the acknowledgements for the person who unintentionally half-built this story's playlist.)

And the story's getting there. It is well on its way to being something. I've got work left to do, but I know I'll have it finished and readable before the end of the year. That's really all I wanted.

But if you are deciding whether or not to do NaNoWriMo, I would tell you that producing an arbitrary amount of words by a certain date won't make you a better writer. It may make you a faster writer. Few of us are fortunate enough to improve by accident rather than intent.

But if you want to do NaNoWriMo to put yourself in a position to have to make writing decisions faster and have the support of a community of people who are sharing that experience, then it's a good place and probably something you'll enjoy. Like everything, you get out of it what you put in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: October

It is a strange thing, job-hunting. Because you have to let yourself believe during the hiring process that this could be your job. You have to let that possibility in and grow it with each successful step forward. And each time it doesn't happen, each time reality diverges and this timeline we live in isn't the one where you get that job, you have to mourn the loss of the possibility.

That is not always an easy thing to do. But it is a thing I have to keep doing, even if it doesn't get easier. Because the goal is to get a new job, and not getting one isn't an alternative. It helps to know other people in this position; we're all doing our best to find something stable. When we discuss this, everyone agrees that the only thing to do is to keep going. Disappointment hurts, and when things are difficult it hurts more. But it still doesn't hurt like it did a year ago.

I had a job lined up earlier this month. Well, I was dead certain that I did. I cleared reference checks. I was the best candidate they had interviewed (they told me so.) And I wanted the job. It was the kind of challenge that channelled traits I have in healthy ways so I could thrive. Three weeks after the reference checks I was still waiting to hear next steps, so I called the company to get an update... and found out they couldn't hire me. They couldn't hire for the position until the end of their fiscal year—which is the end of March.

That possibility of not having to worry about income and paying rent and being on a salary when the end of my current lease comes up mid next year vanished. The little knot of dread in my stomach returned, tied up in the possibility that I might be in over my head. Then people showed up. They said I'm sorry. They said that sucks. They asked what do you need? And I remembered I have a small army, and the reason I stopped thinking about leaving this city is because I spent this year growing my in-person support network instead.

See, the company told me you didn't do anything wrong. I thought of course, I didn't. And it's difficult to know that—to know this is just something that happened that wasn't in my favour. Because things happen. It doesn't make it easier to accept. It doesn't make the disappointment hurt less. But things happen. So I let it hurt for a day or two, and then I got back to work looking and applying for jobs. Because I need full-time work.

I didn't get the literary grants that I applied for in June, either. Last year—or even six months ago—that would have been devastating. Now it was a moment of disappointment followed by another afternoon of putting words on the page. Continuing to do the thing I was doing anyway and would keep doing anyway. It would have be amazing if someone had paid me to do it, but that no wasn't going to be the thing to stop me. (I am old enough, and have been at this long enough, to recognize the only things that ever stop me from writing are me and exhaustion.)

When my family had a farm, I remember growing up with an understanding of how much of its success was beyond anyone's control. Wet summers. Early frosts. Fields flooded out, or the snow came too soon, and people lost entire crops. The precariousness of grain farming is part of why my family stopped doing it. But I learned that when it was nothing you had done or could have prevented, you did what you needed to prepare the ground for the winter. You looked at your options. Then in the spring, you went out and you planted more seeds. And you grew those possibilities all over again.

This might be why I've always been super goal-orientated. I was raised to set a goal and work towards accomplishing it. Then set another one and work towards that. To go out into the world looking for what I expect to find. And I realize this is a privilege in its own right, because not everyone has that support to fall back on. Occasionally, I do battle with the thought that accepting help is too easy. I could always be doing more, you see. I could always be trying harder.

That's why I applied for the writing grants, even though I had already decided what I wanted was full-time work. Because it was an option, and how much I needed it didn't affect my chances of getting it. The only thing I could ever guarantee would be to never get one because I didn't try.

190 people applied for the June Works In Progress grant, and 20 people got one. They're not stupendous odds, but they're not impossible ones, either. I've beat out more candidates than that for job interviews these past few months. Also, all of this job hunting has taught me that I have options. More options than I ever had when I restricted the paying work I wanted to do to a job in publishing or writing fiction.

I have a certain amount of privilege that allows me more choices about how I'm going to get to where I want to be. But I still have to get there. As does everyone else. We don't all necessarily want to travel the same route. Living life is a lot like writing in that everyone has a process and it's individualized. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else, and may not even be what they want to work.

This is not revolutionary news. It's not an epiphany. It's mostly a peptalk for me, a reminder that I may need again later, that getting up and putting one foot in front of the other is still only way to get anywhere. Because somedays that feels harder than others, and somedays I still need to hear it.

If this happens to be a day that you also need to hear it, there's a shorthand among some friends of mine for this: Do the work. Prep the fields. Plant the possibilities. Let them grow.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My complicated relationship with The Flash

I have a complicated relationship with CW's The Flash. You see, I watched most of its first season with dedication because it appeared to be doing something interesting. Ha, surprise, turns out it wasn't doing that thing—it was doing something far less interesting. It left me wondering why I felt the way I did in that previous post but stopped feeling that way when the show went in a different direction. I'm good at recognizing when someone is telling a story that's not the one I would and respecting the story they want to tell.

But The Flash didn't go in a different direction so much as it fell apart after I stopped trying to fill in its gaps. Thus what our complicated relationship really is: I try to make The Flash make sense and it can't decide if it wants to make sense. That would be a great deal easier to accept and move on if it would commit to being nonsensical. Instead it lurches and stumbles, because all its gears are mismatched, but it thinks it's not broken.

I don't know why I'm writing another blog post about a broken show. Maybe it's the curse of recognizing something's potential and wondering why it stubbornly refuses to use it. Yes, it's probably that.

To be fair, the writers were surprised by the show's success and were caught unprepared. (From the articles/interviews I've read, there was a solid plot for about thirteen episodes and then they had to scramble when the full season was greenlit.) This is not to suggest that you can't pants your way through a narrative, but you have to set aside more time to revise and tidy up something when you don't know what you're going to do next. You end up with pacing issues and inconsistencies—and television is a lot less forgiving because when you get to the season finale, you can't go back and fix things. The other episodes have already aired.

Some characters, like Eddie, benefitted from the extra opportunity to shine. Others, like Joe, seemed to spin themselves in circles. (Seriously, Joe becomes worse at due process and respecting other people's agency.) There were moments when the show did things that were interesting or responsive—but they always came across as tagged on. It viewed like a rush job—like the cameras needed to roll—instead of a season that served a greater story arc.

Up to the reveal of Harrison Wells as Eobard Thawne, alternate fan theories about his identity scanned. They better explained visual consistencies happening on the show. (The fan theories were also more interesting.) After the reveal, the plot got sloppy—fast. The question of why does he look like Harrison Wells was answered with technology that appeared on Fringe. Then the writers wrote themselves into a corner with a paradox by erasing a character from existence who was the driving force of the backstory plot. But then... he's not gone because Cavanagh is a series regular for season two?

It's time travel! Parallel Worlds! Alternate Timelines! And none of those easy answers address how someone can be erased from existence without having any impact on the world/plot/characters. It's not a matter of do the producers have an answer—it's never been that, because they've always come up with one—it's a matter of their answers continually don't make sense when I think about them. In our social media dominated world of TV viewing, where the shows are discussed at length between episodes, asking the viewer to Not Think About It isn't a sustainable approach.

The Flash could really benefit from doing the deep-think about where it's going more than a season at a time, and the problematic underpinnings of its narrative. The show is bad with how it writes anyone who isn't a hetro-male. (It's not great with class or race or gender.) It's bad with respecting the agency of anyone who isn't the protagonist. (Its attempt in the season two premiere to give Iris more agency negated Barry's agency.) It's bad with understanding how consequences work. (You can't erase someone out of existence and have them still exist.) It's super bad at understanding why these problems persist.

They persist because season one of The Flash tells the viewers things to appease their concerns then fails to follow through with real change. Example? When the show told us Iris was upset about being lied to so it could tick that box and go back to everything being all right between her and the rest of Team Flash by the end of the episode. Could this patchjob approach to character development get addressed and resolved in season two? Sure, but it means spending season two fixing season one, instead of the forward motion that the show wants to pursue. (There was a speech with a toast and Team Flash made a pact. It was that kind of sweetly optomistic The Flash gets when it really hits its stride.)

So why did I keep watching? Because Tom Cavanagh played two different characters (three if you want to count the brief feature of actual Harrison Wells in one episode) with more apparent ease than most of the CW can play one. (The exception being Rose McIver on iZombie, who is amazing.) Harrison Wells was consistently the best part of The Flash, because he was the only character with any semblance of depth. Watching Cavanagh, you could believe Wells had an internal life; he was off doing things—probably crimes—when he wasn't on screen.

Here was the genesis of that comic book relationship of the archnemesis, the antagonist who respects the protagonist (even admires him a little) and pushes him to grow and become better. An antagonist who has a different approach and perspective, but the viewer can recognize legitimate motivations to all of the character's actions. That was neat. It was a thing worth tuning in for. It was a welcome alternative to watching a show where moral complexity means you like to eat people as part of your grimdark aesthetic. (I do not demonize Hannibal. That show stared into the abyss long enough to demonize itself.)

The problem was The Flash couldn't decide if Wells/Thawne was an exercise in empathy—someone with a character arc—or just a Bad Guy tricking the Good Guy. One episode would get the complex morality right—like when we saw Wells somehow complete the process that made Barry become the Flash—and then the next episode would undo it. The season finale undid it within the same episode.

Why would Wells/Thawne want Barry dead after telling us repeatedly that Wells/Thawne's goal was to get home? Why go out of his way to kill someone he no longer hated and felt a sense of paternal pride for? I know the easy answer is because Wells/Thawne only views the world through the lens of whether or not others and their actions benefit him. So he says whatever he needs to because he's soooooo evil. But that's not internally consistent behaviour with the character arc the show kept trying to insist he had.

Then we get season two's premiere. A video message from Wells delivers a confession to the murder of Barry's mother. It's the most emotionally impactful minute of the episode. (Maybe just for me.) I'd love to interpret this as some gift of kindness—the swell of sentimental music implies the show knows Barry's third dad loves him best. (Victor Garber is more like Barry's benevolent science uncle.) This won't make you happy, Wells says, but I'm going to give you what you want.

I don't even know what to do with that, because it's the same problem as the season finale. It's easier to torment Barry by not giving him what he wants, by forever keeping that out of his reach. It requires no effort from Wells to do so. It would be the crueler thing to do. But Wells makes the makes the effort. He even warns Barry it won't help in the long run. "I'm not the thing you hate," Wells says. "We were never enemies."

How even—but no, there was textual—WHUT. Ok. Ok. There's a video message from someone who was erased from existence? Was he taken from another timeline and we'll find out there were two of him lurking around the corners of season one—one smirking Bad Wells/Thawne and one helpful Good Wells/Thawne? Are we, the viewer, experiencing a shift to a new timeline that Barry fell into post-Singularity that is identical except for Wells/Thawne not being erased from existence? Are these character inconsistencies deliberate to indicate a bigger plot— oh, for fuck's sake this is beyond ridiculous.

Do you see? Because The Flash season one is the TV equivalent of publishing a messy first draft, it creates an additional frustration of never knowing which of its internal inconstancies it will decide were intentional. Manifesting something in season two that fixes season one is still bad writing. It's still a lack of consequences. If nothing sticks, nothing happens. It can always un-happen should it turn out to be an unpopular decision.

This is why I feel like I have to tap out of watching The Flash. It's not that it turned out to be a bad show—it might've always been one—but that I'm not a viewer who can just Not Think About It. I do think about it—and trying to make sense of it eats up time. It's an exercise in futility. I could be putting that thought into something that is going to give back.

So here's what we're going to, The Flash. I'm going to give you two more episodes to make a decision about what you're doing and commit to doing it. If this isn't back on track—and not just showing the potential that it might one day find its way—by episode three of season two, you go on that list with Doctor Who and Arrow of things I had to stop watching because I grew out of them.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

In A Thousand Nights, E.K. Johnston builds a historical desert kingdom of sand and magic as she reimagines the framework for the A Thousand And One Nights folktale collection. Readers may be familiar with Scheherazade and how she outsmarted the tyrannical Shahryar by telling him stories; she left each story unfinished so that he would have to allow her to live to the next night so he could hear its ending. In many adaptations of A Thousand And One Nights Scheherazade's tales are often what get the glory. In A Thousand Nights, we know from the opening line that this is a story well-aware of the danger of being a woman under a blood-thirsty king's rule.

Like Shahryar, Lo-Melkhiin has had many wives. When he uses one up, he kills her and takes another. Some women last a night. Some a week. No one makes it more than a month. When A Thousand Nights opens, he's already killed three hundred women.

Against this backdrop, Johnston tells the tale of a young spinner—of thread and stories—who loves her sister enough to take her place as Lo-Melkhiin's bride. From the impactful opening line to the last page, this unnamed narrator's lyrical voice weaves a spell over the reader. By carefully selecting the right details and words, Johnston enables us to feel the danger/wonder of this kingdom—be it during a flash flood or a dictator's rooftop star-viewing party. The desert is a dangerous place, her narrator tells us, but there is also much life to be found there.

That perspective is the key to A Thousand Nights. This is less the story of how a brave young queen wins over a tyrannical king than the story of how women come together and draw on each other's strength. Ladies have each other's backs in this book, and it changes their world. There is a love story in A Thousand Nights; there is also a story about how much the sisters love each other, and a healthy, functional poly family. There is no shortage of love, but I wouldn't call this a romance.

We hear from various sources within the story that Lo-Melkhiin was once a good, kind prince. This changes when a supernatural force hungry for magic and power possesses him. Potentially this could create a reading that goes oh, his mental illness is to blame. However, it's less about mental illness and more about a toxic belief that people are disposable. What I appreciate is how A Thousand Nights holds him accountable—it addresses how he became complacent in these acts. His complacency motivated the demon within him to keep escalating things, to keep trying to get a reaction.

Complacency—from people, from the world—in violence against women is what allows the arrangement to be put in place that sacrifices daughters and sisters to keep the kingdom safe. Lo-Melkhiin does all these things and the men of his kingdom don't ask him to stop killing. They ask that the victims be evenly distributed among the camps. Even if reading the possession as mental illness, the book doesn't use it as an excuse. It's something that the kingdom is refusing to address, half out of fear and half out of how it doesn't directly affect them.

The catalyst for change in A Thousand Nights is its narrator and her perspective. She asks for what she needs, she listens to what other people need, and she respects their agency. The book consistently presents that being kind is an active choice; one that courageous people want to make. It suggests attitudes can be changed without resorting to violent measures or domination.

To help reinforce this, Johnston adds the concept of the small-god—a form of ancestor-worship practiced by the characters. It allows the book to explore the power of support, and the responsibility that comes with having power given to one. While Johnston explored this theme to some degree earlier this year in Prairie FireA Thousand Nights takes the use of world as metaphor a step further. She is obviously an author growing her craft, which promises more great stories to come.

This story, A Thousand Nights, is about the power of consent—and about how not respecting it is what makes people into monsters. It is full of superb world-building, women looking out for each other, and the occasional wisdom learned from goats. If any of those things sound interesting, then this tale is one you'll want to hear.

A Thousand Nights is available from Disney-Hyperion at your local bookstore, Indigo.caAmazon.ca, and Kobo. Thanks to HGB Canada and Ardo Omar for the opportunity to read this as ARC.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Anatomy of Curiosity

Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff are three accomplished authors and critique partners who form the Merry Sisters of Fate. For four years, they alternated posting a short story each week online. Many of these are collected in The Curiosities, which doubles as an anthology and a look at the critique process that went into those stories. (Notes from the author as well as her critique partners introduce each story and are sprinkled through the text as footnotes.) In recent months selected stories have been shared on Tumblr, as part of the lead up to the release of The Anatomy of Curiosity.

Much like their first collection, this one can be read as a trio of novellas and as a trio of approaches to the writing process. Stiefvater focuses on characters, Gratton focuses on world, and Yovanoff focuses on the idea. The collection begins with an introduction of intent from the authors and their thoughts on the three elements. Additional material—notes on revisions, facing doubt, and the concept of "write what you know"— is also included.

Stiefvater's Ladylike is an elegant and dark tale of an unusual friendship between a shy young woman and a composed older woman. In addition to its intriguing and compelling characters, Ladylike also explores the idea of being—surprise—a lady. Who defines what beauty and refinement mean? Is the traditional notion of "dignified" behaviour a trap or a means to hide what we don't want others to see? Can it also be a way to reveal our best features? Ladylike is not so much a story of how one affects class, as it is a story of how one grows confidence. (There is a reading about who benefits from ideas of what is proper behaviour, but the author notes focus on the intent of overcoming shyness.)

Stiefvater is, frankly, a master of writing characters who are both awful and admirable—often at the same time. Her stories are frequent practitioners of complex morality; people who make bad decisions for good reasons—do the wrong thing with the right intent. However, they also possess a unifying undercurrent of people coming together, finding the good in each other, and growing positively through the support and strength their friendships provide. Ladylike expertly displays this kind of character growth while staggering its arcs to have the most impact through the narrative. I don't know that I would say Ladylike is a happy story, but it's an optimistic one about the valour of kindness.

Gratton's Desert Canticle is a richly imagined and well-crafted love story across cultures set in a desert landscape that is both dangerous and gorgeous. Gratton notes the story was inspired by IEDs (improvised explosive devices,) and the idea of magic bombs led to creating a world in which they would exist. A world where the desert hums with power and explosions are shaped like flowers. A world with its own food, beliefs, and linguistic tics. Gratton's strength is in how she doesn't settle for free-floating concepts of cultures; she sinks her worlds all the way down.

There's also Gratton's economy of prose in building her worlds. After finishing Desert Canticle, I felt like I had read an entire novel. Her process notes cover everything from creating tension to layering meaning to using the world details as reinforcement for the theme. She's so good at storycraft and presenting how it's done in a way that is easy to follow. This peek into how she writes these stories that make a reader feel good about the world—without ever sacrificing consequence—is invaluable.

Yovanoff takes a slightly different approach in Drowning Variations; she creates a fictional version of herself to tell the story of trying to write the same story over a number of years and through various iterations. The story she's using appeared in the first Merry Fates collection, but this retelling effectively shows her writing process. When considered as "look what you can do with structure to tell a story better," it's the strongest example in the collection.

The idea of the story that we are always telling, the one that grows with us—changes as we do—is something I find fascinating. Yovanoff manages to deconstruct what writing the story only you can means, as well as illustrating how revision is key to refining an idea. This fictionalized memoir through revision is a great example of how her work is often more than one genre knitted together in a way that makes it look deceptively easy to do. All authors take narrative risks, but Yovanoff takes them in an unconventional way.

I love the characters and the worlds and the ideas in all three stories; seeing the different approaches allows for a much greater appreciation of not only what Stiefvater, Gratton, and Yovanoff each do—but what they are learning to do from each other.

The other thing that unites these novellas is the ease with which all three authors convey a sense of wonder, of horror, of the world being awesome. While their stories tackle real issues in metaphorical ways, they never lose sight of how magic can be found in people and places and ideas. In the act of being curious enough to look for it.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is available from Carolrhoda LAB at your local bookstore, Indigo.ca, Amazon.ca, and Kobo. An ARC was obtained from the publisher at BEA thanks to Read and Riot and Lost In A Great Book.

Monday, September 21, 2015

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet's second novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, is a multitude of stories woven into one. It is a tale of two sisters struggling to keep the family farm. It's an exploration of how to build a courtship to be what it needs to be instead of what is expected. It's an epic fantasy novel that never leaves home. It's a discussion of war, its costs, and its aftermath. It's a blueprint for healing.

Hallie Hoffman, 16, is the younger of the Hoffman sisters. She and Marthe have been managing Roadstead Farm on their own since their father died. Historically speaking the farm has always gone to the older sibling, and Hallie lives with the memory of the night her father drove her uncle off. She fears if she isn't perfect, if she doesn't hold up her end, the farm will not only fail—she will be cast out by Marthe.

After Marthe married Thom, he and Hallie managed to work the fields and tend the goats together. But Thom was taken south to fight in the war against the Wicked God months ago. A war that ended victorious, but the men who fought it are haunted and broken. Tyler Blakely returned with a twisted leg and his eyes blasted from having looked upon the Wicked God. Thom has not yet returned. Marthe is pregnant with his unborn child, and the farm is failing. So Hallie hires on a veteran named Huron for the winter. Huron is quiet, starved for any kindness, and harbouring secrets and secret wounds of his own.

Then the spider-bird—one of the Twisted Things—appears on Hallie's windowsill one morning, and she knows the war with the Wicked God may have been won... but it's not over.

I can't be impartial about this novel, because I've read three times in various stages and it reduced me to tears each time. Because the characters in it are trying so hard to be better. To learn how to shoulder and share enormous responsibilities. To heal from wounds that go heart-deep.

An Inheritance of Ashes is one of those quiet books that tell vast stories, full of both farm chores and strange monsters. It's weird, wonderful, complex. I'd recommend it to readers of David Eddings or The Lord of The Rings, as they'll recognize the trope set that Bobet is pushing against. Instead of a young farm boy heading off to win the great war against the evil god/lord/demon, here is a young farmgirl who just wants to save her home.

If you're unfamiliar with epic fantasy, and more familiar with YA then I'd say An Inheritance of Ashes is for readers of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. While An Inheritance of Ashes has no horses, they are both novels tightly contained, intimate yet overflowing with emotion. Struggling with rural life and complicated family situations. Understanding that something like getting from one November to the next is no more simple than getting the crops in and the barely malted.

Much like The Scorpio Races, you can read An Inheritance of Ashes along the top two layers and be satisfied with it, but you can also read three, four, five layers down and be amazed. This and Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules are two of the most accomplished books I've read this year, and if you love one of them then you'll also love the other. An Inheritance of Ashes defies genres with the same fierce spirit its narrator uses to defy defeat.

It's also a very empathetic story. It manages to be distinctly the voice and viewpoint of this particular young woman, while allowing a reader to parse how none of the characters are strictly good or bad. It's a complicated, messy morality—just like our world. Hallie and Marthe grew up hard, and much of the story is about Hallie learning how to apply her hardness in ways that are forward-moving. How to see the world the way people who aren't her do, and learn that she and her sister don't have to be be their uncle and father. It's an empowering theme for readers who need it to hear that doing the hard emotional work will be worth it.

The book extrapolates a future version of our world, set after a never-defined catastrophe has rendered recognizable technology useless. People farm and barter and live in smaller-sized communities, because that's what sustainable life now looks like. (While a state is never explicitly named, the ruins of nearby Windstown are meant to be the former city of Detroit, Michigan.) As a result the world of An Inheritance of Ashes is populated by all of the races and religions and cultures that exist in our own. It's a book where a stable, loving marriage exists between two men. Where the Huang butchers come to help with the goats in the fall. Where a group of tinkers and scientists forms their own found-family/compound on the edges of town.

It's also a world haunted by spider-birds and fox-lizards, where a Wicked God made of sand and despair and burning wind might swallow a town whole. Where an wayward army searches for their missing hero, who slew that Wicked God. It's a little bit about the stories we tell ourselves to get through the night. It's more about the magic that ordinary people can do when they come together, when they choose to try. It's a very kind book, and a very brave book—and it does it all without ever having to leave the Shire.

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet is available from Scholastic Canada at your local bookstore, Indigo.ca and Kobo. (You can also get it on Amazon.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: The last of 33

This is the last night of being 33; it passes quietly, after having finished running errands, getting supplies, and preparing to host some friends tomorrow.

Oh, 33. They do not lie when they tell you it's a year of trials. It's a year that demands you be brave and you grow. I got to it first, but I wasn't alone. Everyone I know who turned 33 this past year is being tested and having to stretch in different—and often very personal—ways.

For me, I had to learn how to be a person and how to live with other people. It was the first time in a long while that I had the space and emotional capacity to figure out what I wanted instead of relentlessly moving towards what it felt like everyone else wanted for me.

It was a year of learning that I could leave things. Stop doing them. Let them be someone else's responsibility. (I spent my time being 32 as not a lot more than the work I got paid to do.) After six years of customer service, of being the one who solved everyone else's problems, that kind of freedom can be bewildering.

It starts to feel counterintuitive to hold back and trust people will come to you if they need something. To remember it's no longer your job to be proactive for everyone else. It wasn't about learning how not to give a damn entirely, but how to conserve my damns—because they're a finite resource—and apply them in the best way for me and my needs. (It had been a long time since I got to use that power to do the things everyone else thought impossible for myself.)

I wanted to write, and I did. I wrote over 100,000 words spread between two projects. Some of those words are great; some of them aren't. What matters is I wrote them. I wanted to apply for literary grants, and I did. Not on the timeline I expected, but on the one that was best. I made an effort to blog more, and to not care whether anyone read it or not.

I went to two great concerts. I found new bands and read great books. I signed my best friend's marriage license. Showed up to help my other best friend with her newborn. Did my own taxes. And I got by—by wit, by sheer determination—without a fulltime job while I mastered learning how to look for and apply for new ones.

I spent a lot of this year telling people no, and I learned that it didn't end the world. I quit a terrible job three days in. I withdrew applications for others, because they weren't right for me. I unfollowed people I didn't want to see. I blocked others whom I didn't want to share my life or my content with.

I stopped being nice, because I stopped having to be angry all the time. I didn't have to rely on the bright, cheery niceness to keep my sword in my sheath. Instead, I got to be kind and to have full agency over who received that kindness. Which is not to say that I didn't get angry or that this year was without crisis or hardship. It was a struggle, but I made it through.

This past week has been its own challenge, because there are things I wanted to have accomplished by now and this isn't necessarily what I thought my life would look like on the eve of 34. Honestly, there was a large part of this year that was hijacked by someone else's crisis. Someone else's refusal to be brave and grow.

But it wasn't mine. This is the first birthday in two or three years that I feel like celebrating—and that I have time to celebrate. I feel like I'm gaining a year instead of losing the previous one.

And I already know what I want to do with it. I'm going to get a new job. I'm going to finish a writing project. I'm going to travel outside of the country before my passport needs renewing. I'm going to learn how to make tortillas and be unstoppable.

I'm going to be brave. And I'm going to grow. And I'm going to keep conserving my damns for myself and the people who deserve them.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Erin Bow books are novel-length poems—intricately crafted, gorgeously written, and always willing to give more to the close reader. The Scorpion Rules, her first foray into science fiction, is her best one yet. Think one part prairie dustbowl story, one part political thriller, and one part post-singularity nightmare with a dash of romance, complex characters, and a herd of goats; The Scorpion Rules lives on a shelf between classic dystopians like The Chrysalids and contemporary ones like The Hunger Games.

In Bow's third novel, she transports us four hundred years in the future to a compound—precepture four—in what used to be Saskatchewan and is now part of the Pan Polar Confederacy. Thoughtful extrapolation of current political tensions, resource scarcity, and technology creates an immediately believable world. Our narrator is her majesty Greta Gustafson Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. How did she come to be a resident of a prison camp in the middle of nowhere?

Well. Let's rewind, oh, four centuries. Because the question that begins The Scorpion Rules is what if the United Nations tried to implement an impartial third-party whose main goal was peace and it resulted in an AI dictator with control over all the weapons of mass destruction and no hesitation to use them to make a point? Well, if written by Erin Bow you get a story about when bad systems are the best anyone knows and how we might carve out some good to make things better. Why we should bother to try.

Borrowing a historical concept, Bow crafts a future where ruling families must send a child to act as a political hostage to the Greater Intelligence of the UN, Talis. When two countries go to war, their hostage children die. The thusly named Children of Peace are a metaphor for the cost of war paid by future generations made literal. A way to make the lives thrown away for power and resources immediate to readers—to challenge how society dismissively justifies these deaths as necessary for the greater good.

What is necessary for the greater good is but one of several themes Bow explores. Well-paced with balanced humour and horror, The Scorpion Rules is an intersectional story of morality, the complexities of relationships fostered during trauma, the value and valour of kindness, and the power of personal agency. It is an emotionally mature novel, as full of dignity as its stalwart narrator.

The Scorpion Rules asks these philosophical questions with a refreshing practicality that marks it as distinctly Canadian literature. It contrasts Canadian ethics with American ones to explore the difference and overlap between them. Are we peacekeepers or warriors, and when do we need to be either? More importantly, this is one of the first contemporary YA novels I've read that asks what happens after the uprising.

It's a welcome reply to years of rebellion tales with no sense of the aftermath, no attempt to tackle the complexities of restructuring society. The messiness of The Scorpion Rules is the efficiency of the uprising and the clean logic of the hostage system—and that it hasn't stopped nations going to war. What Talis has implemented doesn't work; he simply replaced one flawed system of power with another. A reader can conclude that peace is difficult and it's probably not going to be successful if created by force.

Populated by a cast of hostages from across global regions, Bow shows us a world as diverse as our own. There are so many characters to love. Greta, our narrator, who is the leader of their precepture despite never wanting the role. Xie, who is a living goddess to her people and her friends. Elian, whose violent arrival sparks a rebellion among the Children of Peace. Even the antagonists—most of whom are AIs—are depicted as messy, heartbreakingly human individuals.

It's also a book of minding goats, tending pumpkin patches, and how one would live day to day under these dire circumstances. There is an abundance of hope and love in The Scorpion Rules. It's also full of simmering anger—of deepest frustration that is only safe to be expressed in the sharp-tongued humour of Talis. You can hear the oh come on that undertones his dialogue; a mix of constant outrage and bitter disappointment. He has such a lovehate for humanity.

That's why I love Talis: He can safely say things we don't always want to admit we've thought. I love Elian, because he does what we all hope we'd be brave enough to do. I love Xie because she has the wisdom we need to guide us. And I love Greta because she's the strength we all long to have.

I've not been this pleased with the first story in a world since Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules is a gamechanger in the dystopian genre, and the best book I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough.

My thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada, who sent an ARC for me to read early. The Scorpion Rules is available at your local bookstore, Indigo.ca, Amazon.ca, and Kobo.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

There's this thing Diana Wynne Jones books often do: Magic in the everyday. Determined characters who remain optimistic despite the odds against them or the darkness lurking in the corners of their world. Characters like Eric Chant of Charmed Life or Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

R.J. Anderson's A Pocket Full of Murder is also one of those books. Steeped in magic in the everyday and featuring protagonists who have adventures and fun even though the stakes are high and their lives are far from perfect. In the city of Tarreton spells power the lamps and the economy, while talkie-plays air on the crystal sets and nobles ride about in carriages. It's a deftly-crafted world (based on Toronto) that allows for explorations into class and racial tensions around a well-constructed mystery plot with two loveable detectives.

Also characteristic of this style of fantasy, A Pocket Full Of Murder takes a few chapters to build the world and introduce Isaveth. Her small business of spell-baking (SPELL-BAKING!) provides a grounding counterbalance to the murder mystery plot while guiding the reader through this new world. Alternating between the adventure and her responsibilities helps pace the story and endear the reader to the other members of Isaveth's family. By the end of the novel, you'll feel less like you've read about someone and more like you've made a new friend.

As for the mystery: Isaveth's papa has been accused of murdering a prominent member of Tarreton's academia. The evidence is an old argument between the two and the use of Common Magic. She's certain her father can't be responsible, and she teams up with an eye-patch wearing streetboy named Quiz to solve the crime and bring the real culprit to justice.

I appreciated how Isaveth is a capable character with a keen determination to do her best, but she also faces self-doubt. She's more than a kid detective trope; she's a real person. She cares for her family, explores her faith, and hopes one day to be a famous author.

Quiz is... well, he's ridiculous. He's also my favourite, because I love a trickster character. Anderson has managed to write one that balances being mildly suspicious without ever being cruel, and that adds to the kindness and hope that underwrites the story. The way that he and Isaveth interact and the growth of their friendship is one of my favourite aspects.

Another is the Lady Auradia talkie-play that runs as a side-plot through the book—what serves as part of the initial bonding for Isaveth and Quiz—and acts as a quiet commentary on how characters (historical, fictional, fictionalized, or otherwise) inspire us. Anderson has sprinkled samples of the story Isaveth is writing about Lady Auradia  throughout A Pocket Full of Murder, and when things get tough Isaveth wonders what Lady Auradia would do. It's a great extra layer that adds to the story without detracting from the mystery plot.

A Pocket Full of Murder is perfect for young or young-at-heart readers who are looking for some magic to go along with their sleuthing. Find it at your local indie bookstore, Indigo.caAmazon.ca, and Kobo.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Lair of Dreams (Diviners 2) by Libba Bray

I loved Libba Bray's The Diviners, so I was thrilled when HBG Canada offered a chance to read Lair of Dreams early. If you're a fellow Diviners fan who's been eager for the follow up to Bray's historical fantasy of 1920's paranormal shenanigans you'll agree that Lair Of Dreams is the berries.

Part of what I admire about Bray's historical fiction is how she takes what is occasionally a cumbersome, dry genre and uses the right details to evoke the setting without the reader getting lost. In her capable hands, early 20th century New York glitters with rhinestones, reeks of speakeasy gin, and crawls with hungry ghosts. Like all great fantasy, these books are more than just vacations to the past. Lair of Dreams may be set in the roaring twenties, but it's very much about the America of now.

Keeping the story relatable and relevant to today's readers, NYC is revisited—and a little creepy crawly reinvented—to discuss issues of race and class disparity that still exist within the country today. It's disheartening to read about the popular eugenics movement and the growth of the KKK months after Bree Nelson climbed a flag pole, but this is why we need the reminders. To remember this isn't ancient history; it all happened in the past 100 years. And it's not over.

The core story of Lair of Dreams focuses on Ling Chan, Henry DuBois, and Sam Lloyd with frequent check-ins by the rest of the ensemble cast. Ling and Henry are both dreamwalkers—Diviners with the power of lucid dreaming and limited abilities to affect dreams. Handy that, given how a sleeping sickness is plaguing the city. The Diviners had a genuinely disturbing antagonist; Lair of Dreams has its share of horror scenes, but the book is far more psychological.

While we follow Evie through her radio razzle-dazzle and all night parties, the dark creeps up from subway tunnels. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the sleeping sickness, evangelicals gain strength. Shadowy government oversight lurks the streets. Project Buffalo grows ever closer to Team Diviners, while Sam tries to uncover the connection between this wartime secret and our protagonists. Weaving through it all: The dead, and the dangerous King of Crows.

Lair of Dreams, much like The Diviners, is ambitious and epic. For the majority of it, Bray's deft hand keeps a tight rein on all of the plot threads. While it does take about half the book before the concurrent subplots pull together and run in the same direction, I believe it only felt like it was a lot of pages because I've become more accustomed to shorter novels. If you also sometimes feel daunted by higher page counts, don't let that discourage you. Lair of Dreams is worth it.

Within it there is a serious, true discussion about the notion of the American Dream living alongside the disillusionment of the Lost Generation. In Lair of Dreams, you can see our well-known boom of internet stardom recast as the rise of radio stars. And fame costs something. All of the artists in this book are struggling: Memphis runs numbers for Uncle Charlie while composing poems; Theta reinvents herself to gather attention for a Folles show; Evie clings to radio success despite the physical pain it causes her to read objects.

Henry DuBois is the main throughline of this theme. His struggle to get his songs published, including his constant comparison to more popular artists who he perceives to be less talented, is recognizable to many of us. Lair of Dreams asks how does he continue his songcraft amid pressures to commericalize? Should he compromise his artistic integrity to fit the popular trends? What kind of life can he have with the art he wants to make?

While Lair of Dreams doesn't tidily answer those questions, it reminds us that we aren't the only ones asking them. This is a book about doing the hard work and seeing reality for what it is when it's much easier to get lost in dreams. Is there a reading here of this being about depression? Abso-lute-ly. But let's dig a little deeper.

One of the first sleeping sickness victims known-to-the-protagonists is courted into a vision of wealth and acceptance, lured by the promise of the American Dream. We can extrapolate how the plague is the danger of a nation dreaming away about being rich and famous rather than facing the reality of racial inequality and class disparity. Some of the smoothest, most resonate writing in the ARC is when the omnipotent viewpoint discusses America as a whole. Is America itself a hungry ghost or just a nation built on them? The American Dream has been a key underlying theme to The Diviners series.

Lair of Dreams is an emotional gutpunch. It's a book about dreams, and what they cost, and the harm that's done when the Shadow-side of things is ignored for too long. It is not by accident that Bray features a sit down with Jung himself. Everything about this book is crafted. The key to unlocking the mystery of the paranormal plaguing the city is also the key to unlocking what the characters are plagued by: An inability to feel they can be fully themselves.

Everyone in this book is repressing/hiding something or depending on something to cope with the reality of their lives. But the characters with solid arcs—Ling, Henry, and Sam—each reveal themselves and confront their shadows. The other characters? Well, we have a sense that reckoning is on its way. (THE KING OF CROWS IS COMING, Y'ALL.)

I also adored Ling and her viewpoint into the aggressions against the Chinese community. How she struggles to make her Diviner power live in the same space as her love of science and rational thought. The way she so perfectly compliments Henry, and the growth of their friendship.

There are romances between Sam and Evie, Theta and Memphis, Jericho and Mabel. Jokes. Spooky monsters. Optimism versus nihilism as an approach to dealing with life. The more I think about Lair of Dreams, the more I find that's brilliant.

Go shine a light on those dark corners. Take a vacation to the roaring twenties with Lair of Dreams. Diviners assemble!



Thank you to HBG Canada for providing the eARC. Libba Bray's Lair of Dreams is available at your local indie bookstore, Indigo.ca, Amazon.ca, and Kobo.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: August 8

This week marked my fourth year anniversary of coming to Toronto. I spent three and a half years of my mid-twenties living in Los Angeles, and then a little over three back in my hometown in British Columbia, so this is now the longest I've lived in the same city as an adult.

Earlier this year, a couple friends moved away; one was heading back to BC after 10 years in the Big Smoke. So I was thinking about leaving. I had another year on my lease, but maybe it would be time to try living in Vancouver after that. It was closer to my family, and I'd made a valiant effort to do what I came to Toronto for. Arguably, the thing that had brought me here had run its course. (The entire time I worked for Indigo, I was always thinking about leaving. Mostly because I confused what living in Toronto meant with what working for Indigo meant. They weren't yet separate states in my head.)

Four years ago today I was jet-lagged and starting my first day of work as someone with social media officially in her job title. I had this plan to stay there for a year and learn everything I could then I'd get a job with a Canadian publisher. (Which was ambitious, because the job contact I had at the time was only for six months.) I had no idea how anyone got a job working for a publisher, but I knew I needed to be in Toronto to do it.

Then life went the way it went. Earlier this year, I realized that I didn't want to work in publishing anymore. (I want to publish eventually—when the writing is ready and I find the right agent and editor.) Publishing wasn't going to give me what I wanted. More importantly, it wasn't going to give me what I needed. The work I would end up doing for a publisher if I was hired in marketing, I'd already done via my last job.

I left that job to move forward with my life—ok, I left so I could have a life. But when I went to apply for jobs, I was still looking at ones I wanted four years ago. I'm more than qualified now to work in any publisher's marketing department, and they'd be lucky to have me. I could do those jobs easily. Eyes closed. Half asleep. But there's no future in living like that. That's not forward.

A year ago I was really struggling with this. With what you do when you don't want something anymore but it feels like everyone keeps telling you to feel grateful for having it. I guess it's like any other time someone tells you that you have to care about something just because they do. It's not actually how it works, but that's harder to see when you're standing in the middle of it.

This year, I struggled with where walking away left me. It's more difficult to be around some people, because there are certain kinds of conversations that it's not yet healthy for me to be a part of. Which makes it harder to find things to talk about with those people, because the old standbys don't work anymore. And I'm not always able to make the effort to find something new to discuss. (I'm hopeful that there will be a time when talking about Whatever Publishing Did This Week won't wind me up. It's aggravation I don't want to carry anymore.)

It's a challenge to answer "what next?" when you left behind the dream job. I've never been part of a community as an amateur and then gone pro and then stopped being pro and had to decide what kind of interaction I wanted to continue to have with that community. It's not a story that we tell very often, and that lack has influenced all the fiction I've written this year. It feels like I spent a lot of time drawing maps other people shouldn't follow.

But what I finally fully realized is that it's a hell of an endeavour to uproot your adult life and regrow a support network in a new city. It's more work than I have left in me to keep doing every three to four years. And I like Toronto. I enjoy living here.

So forward. Forward looks like I stopped applying for publishing jobs and started applying for social media roles outside of that industry instead. Because I'm not who I was four years. I like myself better, and I want more from life.

Not being who I was four years ago was why I didn't stay at a job I accepted back in late April. It would have been much easier if I had, because it was income. It was a short-term contract, so I could've toughed it out... but I spent a year toughing out a job I didn't want to do anymore because it was income. What I learned from doing that is it's never a good idea to weather a shitstorm of someone else's making if you don't have to.

So I've been second round searching for about three months now. I'm selective about what I apply for, and my application to interview ratio is high enough that I know my resume is impressive. I write cover letters that sell me to prospective employers. It's going to be a matter of finding the right place, but for the first time in over a year I feel like I will.

Also, I applied to the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council for literary grants in June, which is something that I've been talking about doing since last fall. They're not options I can depend on at this point—I need a full time job—but they are a significant step forward with professional writing for me to take.

And I suppose that's the way we make those maps. Day by week by year. Forward. Whether anyone else should want to follow or not.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Top Five of 2015 (So Far)

Half the summer might be gone, but there's still time for beach/cottage/weekend reading. Here are five of the books published this year (so far) that I've enjoyed the most.

1. The Just City by Jo Walton (Thessaly #1.)
What is presented as a grand experiment involving the goddess Athene to recreate the Just City as described by Plato's Republic, is also a well-constructed narrative about consent as more than how it relates to sex. Walton's passion for the discussion and cast of interesting, relatable characters from throughout history—including Sokrates—make it a satisfying read. While the story does takes a few chapters of alternating viewpoints before it finds its feet, The Just City remains one of the best books I've read this year. ( Indigo.ca | Kobo )

2. The Apple Throne by Tessa Gratton (United States of Asgard #3.)
I still feel this is one of the best ends to a YA trilogy that I've read; I'll miss this world Gratton constructed. In The Apple Throne, she weaves together threads from the previous two novels and the three novellas to give us the fate of Soren Bearstar (everyone's BFF) and Astrid Glyn (the Lady of the Apples.) In addition to the conclusion of that love story, and updates on characters we've previously met, there's a new tale about the various kinds of strength young women have. The narrative reinforces Astrid's agency and its importance while valourizing kindness. (Amazon.ca | Kobo)

3. The Awesome by Eva Darrows.
A feminist take on Supernatural, this paranormal focuses on a Mother-Daughter team of monster hunters and celebrates being comfortable in one's own skin. Maggie Cunningham is loud, crude, and kind of a jerk—but she's got a good heart. This is also one of the few YA's that has a young women unapologetically owning her sexuality. There are so many books about boys on quests to lose their virginities, and it was long past time we got one that features a girl doing the same thing. (Amazon.ca | Indigo.ca | Kobo)

4. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge.
Hodge's second book finds its inspiration in a mix of Little Red Riding Hood and The Handless Maiden set in an alternative history France (or a second world largely inspired by historic France.) Only Little Red is a member of the king's guards who hunt the wolves while bidding the time before they succumb to being them, and the Handless Maiden is a prince. Both seek to stop a magic dark forest the wolves serve from invading the kingdom. Hodge is one of the best at crafting intricate puzzlebox books; while the structure of this one isn't quite as tight as Cruel Beauty, Crimson Bound's mystery and reveal are expertly executed. (Amazon.ca | Indigo.ca | Kobo)

5. The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.
From Harry Potter references to royal residence facts, The Royal We is a love letter to the way we all get swept up sometimes in the doings of Will and Kate. This romance novel tackles and realistically portrays what it would be like to become a princess—the good and the bad of it. With complex characters you'll care deeply about and the Fuggirls's signature celebrity-culture commentary, it's a perfect weekend/cottage/beach read. (Amazon.ca | Indigo.ca | Kobo)

This upcoming fall is full of superb YA titles, many of which feature goats, so look for full reviews of what I've been reading early to come soon.

My unpopular opinion about free content.

Earlier this month, I happened to tweet that I had read and enjoyed Patrick Ness's THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE. Mostly this was to get the recommendation out quickly, so that I could take my time to do a more expansive review in the future.

Part of why I enjoy the book is that it discusses not needing to be The Chosen One. It refreshingly features a story about living a good life outside of the spotlight, which resonates a great deal with choices that I've made over the past year.

The tweet started I had a quick exchange with a former colleague who plans to talk up the book at every opportunity, and soon after the author favourited it, because I had tagged his account and he happened to see it.

Then someone I didn't know favourited the tweet. As I tend to do when random strangers come favourite things and it's not immediately clear why they're doing it, I clicked on the username. Found out it was a verified account and thought "a BuzzFeedUK staff writer who does book stuff favourited my tweet about a book." Then I thought how that would probably thrill someone who wasn't me. I mostly found it suspicious.

I find BuzzFeed mostly suspicious in general. I know that's a state of doublethink because it's not like I've never read or shared any of their stories. But when I read them, especially the complied/crowdsourced list ones, I always feel a bit...concerned about how they repurpose posts from other sites. It nudges awake that same instinctive response I have to raise my eyebrows whenever someone says "social media is public domain!"

Yes, what you say on social media is in public view. But too often when people are declaring things public domain, they're actually saying "But why can't I casually exploit people for free content? They put it on the internet!" This is not a new problem, either. Being old as the sun, I remember the early art theft days of DeviantART. It's one thing to share content; it's another to profit off it.

The only way BuzzFeed could thrill me is if they added "get permission and then notify people of use" to their company policy. (And replaced staff writers who wouldn't adhere to it.) That's unlikely, because it means changing a model that their business is built on. A company that made $100 million last year isn't going to fix what it doesn't believe to be broken.

Earlier this week, a follower messages me about being on a list. I click the link thinking she's written something and is letting me know she used my tweet. Nope. It's a BuzzFeedUK article about 35 Brilliant Books to Read This Fall written by the staff writer who had previously favourited my tweet. I'm not the only one; as I scan the the article looking for which of my tweets was used, I see at least ten other users have had their tweets included.

For thirty seconds I blame the writer for the death of ethical journalism before I take a deep breath and remind myself it's not entirely his fault. I think it's unethical to use other people's content without their consent to write your stories, but it happens way more than any of us probably realize. Who knows how many BuzzFeed lists I've had tweets in? It's not like they notified me, and I wouldn't have known about this one had someone else not pointed it out.

Given that Twitter doesn't have the technical capabilities (yet) to allow me to disable external sites from embedding my tweets without my permission, it falls to the writers of these crowdsourced pieces to ensure they have received permission to use the tweets and/or—if they don't believe permission needs to be granted—notified the users their tweet has been featured.

Favouriting my tweet does not grant permission to profit from the use of it on an external site. And he did profit, because he's a paid employee of BuzzFeed whose job is to produce these articles. Not notifying me that my tweet had been featured is additionally frustrating, because the follower who told me then also provides BuzzFeed free labour.

The question I had to ask myself was if telling this writer that I thought he had been a bag of dicks unethical would accomplish anything other than hand-delivering him hate. Given the current state of the internet, I decided if it garnered any response someone else would escalate it into an argument that diluted the actual issue. Yes, I could've emailed him. But he's not the issue; he's an example of the issue.

With respect to the fact he did as much as he felt ethically required to do when he favourited the tweet, I've left his name out of this post. Do me courtesy of not sending this to him or contacting him on my behalf in some mistaken attempt to "help" or because you need your daily hit of conflict.

Anyway. I did what I felt was the kinder thing for both of us, and I deliberately did not take a fight to his door. Instead I quoted the tweet that notified me so I could clarify that it had been done without my consent and I'd recommend reading a different book than the ones on the list.

I don't subtweet people. If I didn't bring someone the fight, it's because we aren't having one. (Also, I know people are just as likely to go look at the list anyway.) I trust you'll make your own decisions about what you read, because you're an autonomous human being. Maybe I make you a recommendation, but you're going to be the one who makes the final decision.

Not everyone is aware of the process involved when a site like BuzzFeed uses your content. My follower was surprised that I hadn't been asked. Also confused as to why I didn't think the writer using my tweet was a bad thing.

I invested several hours in reading the Patrick Ness book. I considered carefully how to phrase the tweet, because I included the author in it and I knew at least one member of the publisher's marketing department would see it. When I write about books, I've got my marketing hat on. I'm bookselling.

Writers—all creative professionals, really—get told that our passion ought to be compensation enough. That we should feel grateful if someone "showcases" what we've done. Some writers are happy to be showcased. Some writers review books with no intention of being showcased.

When I do a review, yes, part of it involves a love of that book. But I also get to practice my critical analysis skills. If it's an early review, I probably received an ARC from the publisher or author. Getting to read the book early is the compensation for helping to market the title. I'm digitally hand-selling it each time I message someone to recommend the book. I'm doing work.

I know how much authors appreciate what I do. I know how much publishers also appreciate it. I used to get paid to do this. Now I do it as a side-project. I'm grateful we all continue to work together. I'm also well-aware of how much work I'm willing to do without financial compensation.

This isn't about how BuzzFeed wanted to market a Patrick Ness book. It's about how I didn't agree to go without compensation for the part I played in it. Between me and the staff writer, only one of us got paid for that story—and it wasn't the person who invested the time into reading the book and then tweeting about it.

When I tweet a review to an author or a publisher, I've given implied consent for it to be used. I didn't tweet to this BuzzFeed staff writer. I wasn't answering his ask for crowdsourced opinions. I didn't use a hashtag he created to collect book reviews.

I don't subscribe to the notion that just because I put content on the internet means you are allowed to profit financially from the use of it without even notifying me you've done so. But there are people who do. There also people who haven't thought about or questioned it, so they don't understand why anyone would have a problem with it.

I guess the TL;DR is if being showcased by BuzzFeed is on your bucket list, good luck and godspeed. However, being exploited by them was never on mine.