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.