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.