Sunday, January 08, 2017

Best Books of 2016

I read 48 books in 2016—many were great, a number of them were magnificent, and there are a few that months later, I don't remember at all. So let's stick to the ones that left a lasting impression.

If you only have time for a Top 5:

1. This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab (Monsters of Verity 1) 
This is perhaps my favourite book of 2016. It's both a re-interpretation of the Romeo and Juliet trope, as well as a powerful look at what makes someone human/what makes someone a monster. I love the characters; I love the world. It's a triumphant return to YA for Schwab.

2. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
One of the best books I read this year, Yoon has written an intricate story of two people and their lives and love and how it echoes out into everyone they meet and encounter. It's got an incredible voice for each of its narrators, and

3. Crooked Kingdoms by Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows 2)
I love the characters in Bardugo's Kettledam books, and given that this was a duology means tightly executed arcs. They're heist books with complicated and diverse casts, and the world is built with an ease that belies how vast and complex it is.

4. Spindle by E.K. Johnston (A Thousand Nights 2)
Thoughts about it here

5. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle Finale)
Thoughts on it here

If you've got time, here are some other great ones I read in 2016:

Behold the Bones by Natalie C Parker (Beware the Wild companion)
Thoughts on it here.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic 2)
AGoS was more than a middle book in a trilogy—it's better and more engaging than ADSoM, but it also perfectly sets up the finale. (A CONJURING OF LIGHT is out in February.)

Exit Pursued By A Bear by E.K. Johnston
I read it n 2015, but it came out this year. Johnston's first contemporary title is a powerful reimagining of A Winter's Tale. It features what I very much love about her work: People taking care of each other and small towns/rural settings being treated as important and vibrant as cities. It's a book about how important it is to write the world the way it should and can be.

Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff
I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this book as much as I did had I read it at any other time, but Yovanoff's lyrical prose is at its best and the magical/unusual element is so subtle that this might as well be contemporary.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab (2013)
A look at heroes and villains, this dark novel really gets superheroes.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
This fun book about superheroes manages to also say important things about friendships. Led by a diverse cast, it's a romance with a little bit more to it.

Necessity by Jo Walton (Thessaly 3)
Walton's finale to her Thessaly trilogy makes up for the somewhat meandering second book, and brings everything together in a meaningful way.

A Little Taste of Poison by R.J. Anderson (Uncommon Magic 2)
Anderson has written two stupendous magical mystery books with delightful characters in an early 20th Century setting. They are all the best bits of Dianna Wynne Jones.

Swan Riders by Erin Bow (Prisoners of Peace 2)
Bow has written an incredible companion to The Scorpion Rules that explores identity and humanity.

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Lyrical with influences from Indian and Greek lore, this lush fantasy story spends time building its world and intrigue.

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
A colourful adventure through a magical land of Mafi's own creation, Furthermore is in turns delightful and terrifying. A magical middle grade.

The Dream Quest of Vilette Boe by Kij Johnson ( novella)
A reimagining/sequel of The Dream Quest of the Unknown Kadat, Johnson provides a feminist view of Lovecraft.

The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
A feminist Dexter, McGinnis writes a great friendship between a set of characters. Again a smalltown setting. (I'm sure Netflix will make an adaptation of it soon enough.)

Every Heart a Doorway by Sean McGuire (Wayward Children 1)
Interesting characters, excellent concept. It's a little thinly written, but if it is going to be an ongoing series then perhaps the author will flesh things out in multiple shorter volumes instead of a single story.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker
This was not what I was expecting at all, despite being warned by several people that it wasn't going to be what I was expecting. What could be an animal in the wild adventure becomes a contemplation of human nature, world, and love.

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston
This is the first Star Wars tie-in I've ever read, and I had no familiarity with The Clone Wars beyond a brief introduction from friends. As a result, there are things that I understood would've meant more to another reader. But there is enough introduction that a new reader will feel intrigued and want to learn more. Also, Ahsoka Tano is the best Jedi ever.

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith
This book conveys the experience of being a Japanese American in Japan (please note it's not an ownvoices title.) It's seeped with the sense of being in Japan, but it's dark and angry in a way that Western stories about Japan don't tend to be.

Fate of Flames (Effigies 1) by Sarah Raughley
This book is heavily influenced by Avatar the Last Airbender, Pacific Rim, and Sailormoon. It's great to read a diverse cast in a book that commits to being over the top. It's very well-paced and the fight scenes are intensely visual.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but Diamond has an interesting tale of how Hughes movies and their settings in and around where he grew up influenced his life. Like many of Hughes movies it's a tale of what someone went through and had to overcome, and how they ended up all right.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Notes from a Year Named Thrive: Epilogue

Thrive was a word picked in a dark, cold time—something to give me the strength to keep pushing forward. To throw myself, perhaps defiantly, into the future. At the end of 2015, I was scared and exhausted and I didn't know what came next. The year had not been easy and while it was full of growth and learning, it had also not gone the way I expected.

I can't stay where I am, I thought on Dec 31. It's not good for me. And thrive was not just surviving, it was doing well even when surrounded by harsh conditions. It was doing what I had to do to do well. 

None of us have the delusion that 2016 was a year without hardship, but here are some of the things I accomplished:

1. I finished a draft, and RJ Anderson provided great feedback that I implemented to revise the draft. This is the closest I've been in years to being genuinely ready to return to publishing. While that's an ongoing thing I have to decide how I feel about, it's good to have the option again. Kate and others offered support and encouragement—I couldn't make attending a workshop or a retreat work, but they let me know the options existed.

2. I spent more time with my friends. Michele and I went to the Symphony twice. Bianca and Jason joyfully spoiled me forever with an introduction to the Cineplex VIP Theatres. Jenn was always ready to offer a place for the weekend or stop by for crepes. I still got to see Nat, Trev, Kate, Tina, and Carol. Angel and Ardo invited me to the Read Harder Book Club they host for Book Riot, which helped me reconnect with the book blogger community in new ways.

3. I got to see really great things happen for people I know—marriage, New York Times Bestseller lists, Hamilton, return to school, new jobs and ventures. Friends pushed forward right alongside me as our lives took us all in different directions.

4. I got a job. It took me to Florida for the first time ever, and reminded me of how much I miss palm trees. It took me to Vancouver for the first time in years, and I finally got to spend an afternoon in Stanley Park.

5. To thrive you have to have a good foundation of support, because someone or something had to teach you to believe you can keep going, be ok, and do better. This is the year I really came to appreciate the love and faith that my family has always provided me (even when imperfect) as I witnessed the lasting damage growing up without it can do.

6. I started the year with an Oh Wonder concert, added in BLAJK & Banners!, and saw Bastille play their second album all the way through live in October.

7. I moved to The Junction—with a lot of help from Trev. Getting to stay in the nighbourhood kept me close to friends and the part of Toronto that I love. Living on my own isn't always easy, but it has been the right thing for me at this time. Being able to make my own choices and feel agency again also significantly contributed to me doing better this year.

8. Getting to embrace loving pop culture again. Whether it was livetweeting the Robbie Amell, Jason Isaacs, Hayley Atwell, and FXV Flash panels or high-fiving a pikachu in Vancouver. I was in the photo pit for the FantasticBeastsTO event, and got to confirm that Eddie Redmayne's face is that fancy IRL. These are not things I would have expected to be part of my life, and it's really mattered to be around people with enthusiasm.

9. I started writing something new. I fought it for most of the year, but I found where it begins and I trust I will follow it through to its end.

10. Started thinking about what comes next. Thinking about the future and having things to look forward to, goals and rewards, is so vital. My world was shook to its foundations earlier this year, and many of the plans I had made ceased to be viable. I didn't want to stop, but I realized I was going and going and going... without really understanding where that would put me. I had let someone else have too much control over my life and my decisions—because it felt safest for us all to let that person have control.

I suppose what I learned from a year named Thrive is the importance of self-determination. We have to understand that we're all making choices, good and bad, and try to do the best we can. We have to want to keep making choices, keep finding solutions, and keep accomplishing goals.

When something breaks or leaves or ends, we have to find things and ways to keep us going. Hold them close. Let them illuminate the path, step by step, towards where we go next. All the while hoping for bigger and better.

I used to know someone who thought it was beneficial to ask what was the worst that could happen. It was meant to help get over the free of doing things, and while it does work to some extent, it's never motivated me to focus on the worst. It motivates me to strive for the best.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Notes from a year named Thrive: Holidays

We did our last show of the year yesterday, a one-day holiday event focused on exhibitors and shopping. It was the one that the team felt was the least amount of work, and the one that I felt most comfortable doing.

There's an ebb and flow, a rhythm, to social media for most businesses that isn't the same as the rhythm of this job. It's objectively neither good nor bad—it's just different. Holiday being the busy go-go-go time is something that still feels most natural to me.

I love the holidays. I love peppermint mochas, and Christmas trees lit with lights visible in windows, and the wonder that's imbued when it snows lightly in December. I love the quest for finding a friend's gift within the challenges of a small budget and where I happen to be shopping. I love that many people feel buoyant and prone to being a little bit gentler to strangers.

People both suck the most and the least during December. It's an annual paradox, and I find it as traditionally comforting as carols piped in to most public spaces. It's not everyone's experience of December, but it's mine—and having had to go without it, I know how important it is to my well-being.

I decorate for the holidays every year. Something simple and contained, because until now I lived in shared spaces and not everyone I shared those spaces with had a positive feeling about the holidays. This year I had planned to buy a tree—a small tree. When December arrived and I still hadn't bought the tree, I started having concerns about it for the two weeks that I'm not here. So earlier this week I bought a wreath of fir boughs, after having to walk four blocks to find a cash machine, and then walked home for twenty-five minutes carrying it. (So it's a good thing I didn't get a tree.)

My year first in Toronto, I went to Crate & Barrel (yes, I'm aware of my middle class aspirations) and I bought a not-obviously-Christmas garland. I've hung it various places: across a railing, over a bookshelf, and over the same bookshelf in a different apartment. This year I wrapped it around the wreath, stepped back, and thought oh, that's where that was meant to go.

It felt amazing to, for the first time in years, use something the way it was intended to be used because I have the financial ability and personal agency over my living space. Just a moment, a pause, in the riot and political turmoil of this year to feel accomplished. To feel like I was in the right place and again capable of continuing to find that right space.

When I name a year, I learn something about the word. Last year I learned that kindness is something no one is entitled to—it's a choice that I make. No one can demand it from me, and I can't expect it to be automatically given by others. This year, I am learning that to thrive is to carve out a good space in a bad environment. To find the moments of calm that create stability when the world feels relentlessly chaotic. Success at either of those things varies, but they are good things to learn.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Spindle by E.K. Johnston

It's December; the nights are a little longer and a little colder, and if you're feeling a little weary of 2016 then E.K. Johnston's Spindle will be a literary balm for your soul. It's written in a lush style that evokes its fantastical world without getting in the way of its story. It's tight and well-paced—you could read it in a day if you choose.

The simplest summary of Spindle, a companion novel to last year's A Thousand Nights, is that it's a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. But most of us western readers have a notion of what a retelling of Sleeping Beauty would be like, and Spindle is so much more than that. This is a tale containing a princess who steals herself, a hunt for magical creatures, and a roadtrip done completely by walking.

Because, in truth, Spindle is a book about consequences that fearlessly valourizes kindness. It has more in common with Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor and Tessa Gratton's The Apple Throne than Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

You don't have to have read A Thousand Nights—what you need to know is sprinkled through Spindle to make it completely accessible to new readers. You could even read Spindle first and then read A Thousand Nights after. They're both contained stories on their own, but Spindle is the consequences of A Thousand Nights.

In A Thousand Nights we met creatures incapable of creating, who fed on those who could. Craft—the act of creating—has power in these books. Spindle does explore the power of craft being turned against creators, but adds in another layer of looking at the danger of not creating when you have the power to. Spindle believes the consequences of craft—regardless of what they might be—are worth it. Because Spindle believes when we are creating—actively telling our own story—we are most alive.

Imagine, for a moment, that any act of creation primed you to become the ideal vessel for a malevolent creature. Be it cooking a meal or braiding your hair or sewing a stitch. Any making would eventually unmake you.

Imagine being so capable, your capacity to learn so expansive, that you could master skills immediately. A superpower of sorts, but one that existed to speed up the transition of you losing yourself.

Imagine being cursed with the knowledge that your entire life was intended to prepare you to be a tool for someone else.

What that sounds like is the bleakest book you will read this year—and in Johnston's hands it becomes a story of four people who love each other so much. Who support each other and hope and try. Who bravely live in the shadow of consequences.

It's wonderful to have a story with an asexual narrator, and it's wonderful to see a brave, intelligent, powerful young woman of colour taking control of her own narrative. But in this garbagefire of year, a book that tells you it's worth it to try and hope and fight and do what little things you can to hold out against the bleakness is more than wonderful—it's vital.

Like any fairytale, no one in this book who is kind goes unrewarded for it; no one who is unnecessarily cruel goes unpunished. Maybe that errs on the side of hopeful, but it's the season of hope. Pick Spindle up, settled down, and give yourself a little vacation from the world. You'll come back better from it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I have a theory about J.K. Rowling's stories: They have a very low opinion of adulthood. This theory is based on reading almost everything she's written (I couldn't get through The Casual Vacancy) and what interests the texts—the struggle of good people, or people who would like to be good, against a bleak world or prophesied doom—is not necessarily what interests me. I find the constant reminder of what an awful place the world is and how it's full of assholes is just not why I spend the money it costs to see a movie. I got Twitter for that.

However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them appeared to be the opportunity for Rowling to return to a balance of the wonder of her worlds with these darker themes she likes to dive into in her adult fiction. Also it's the first movie, so I thought she'd have to build to the really awful stuff and it probably wouldn't get appalling until the second movie.

I did get part of what I wanted from this film. Newt Scamander is one of the kindest male protagonists in a fantasy movie this year. Newt—arguably on the spectrum—relates much easier to the magical creatures of the world than the magical people. Which I can't really blame him for, because the Wizarding world seems to be full of assholes. (Except for maybe three people and one of them is Newt.)

He is not your typical famous wizard hero character. He is smart, compassionate, and introverted. Traits that are usually associated with Rowling's female characters. He doesn't fit the mould, and as a result is treated like an outcast or a failure. At one point there's an excitement to see him until everyone realizes he's the OTHER Scamander—the famous war hero's little brother. That probably explains why Newt, who is incredibly accomplished, isn't constantly saying how great he is.

That was refreshing. Tina, the main female protagonist, is the auror, the one with overt career-minded ambition, and the one who is socially adept. The one who aims high, and keeps loudly pushing to achieve more.

So there is some awareness, at the script level of some gender things and a little play with the conventional idea of who is a heroic figure. That's successful.

Honestly, everything Newt-and-his-magical-creatures-centric about this film works. From his nervously going through customs to haphazardly chasing escaped creatures through NYC landmarks. Right to the climatic part of the film and how he handles the big danger. The way Jacob is drawn into the wizard world, how the group expands to include Tina and her sister Queenie, and what those characters accomplish together is delightful.

Jacob is a great viewpoint character, who rolls with the discovery of the wizarding world in the best way—both the horror and the wonder of it all—like a good companion would. The benefit of not making the main hero also the New To The World character is that Fantastic Beasts has an expert who is not one through extraordinarily circumstances. That Newt achieved his Magizoology knowledge through hard work is believable. Instead of a Chosen One, he is a Competent One.

While Newt has a disinterest in the human world around him, it's not because of arrogance. He just doesn't like people. (And again—Hogwarts is full of assholes, so who can blame him.) This also, by the end of the film, resolves itself and he begins taking an interest in the world of people. Which is a lovely character arc to give someone. Usually this falls down due to the character who is learning to take an interest in the people around them being so unlikeable. Newt manages to be self-absorbed without it being off-putting, and the great lengths the movie goes to show the way he cares for magical creatures and their world is what saves it from being another case of but why would anyone want to hang out with this guy?

Well that's great, the casting is jarring in its lack of realistic diversity—this may not be the whitest movie this year but it's definitely up there—but it's made worse by band-aid attempts to crowbar in visible minorities. The roles that were left to fill are minor/extra characters who oppose or act in antagonistic ways to Newt. So most of the wizards we're meant to see as wrong—or eventually ok people because they realize that they were wrong about Newt—are marginalized people.

Also the only canonically gay character who appears on screen? Is a dark wizard. So non-hetro people are evil manipulators, and all visible minorities are bad people or can only be good people if they acknowledge Newt—who's compassionate, but still the whitest guy—knows best. It's a giant problem. (Arguably there's a reading of Newt being asexual, but I can't find any official confirmation of that or of him being intended to code as autistic.)

Aside from the diversity issues, the actual structure and plotting of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a mess. There is an unsuccessful attempt to manage two story lines—one a wondrous adventure tale of an awkward wizard and his beloved magical Pokemon as he learns to make people-friends, too, and the other a horror movie starring Ezra Miller about what happens when religious cults abuse closeted wizards. Could these have interwoven and balanced each other out? Sure—but they don't.

The story is also hindered by the inclusion of an extraneous newspaper baron, his senator son, and his other son who's supposed to be important for some reason because there's way too much screen-attention given to him. Maybe he's going to become a reoccurring character? I don't know, and I really don't care. It took away from Ezra Miller, who's more talented than all three of those other actors combined.

Basically: When everyone is a main character, movie, no one is the main character. You needed to choose whose story you were telling, because you've got way too much going on.

There were aspects of this movie—the costuming, the creature design—that were so fantastic. There was incredible potential for a good movie. But it gets lost in no one being willing to make the movie tell one cohesive story. I'm not honestly sure if that's a failure of the script or a failure of the director or a failure of not having anyone outside of the usually Harry Potter crew step in to create something that doesn't require additional reading of backstories on Pottermore to decipher what happened.

Would I watch the sequel? No. Major changes in the approach to casting and a tremendous refocusing of the story would have to happen before I'd even consider it. I love magic, and I think Eddie Redmayne is remarkably talented and perfect as Newt, but I don't love his fancy face and magic enough to watch four more disappointing movies.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Notes from a year named Thrive: October

It's the first cold evening of autumn. Two neighbouring houses received their firewood drop offs this morning—that's a thing that still happens in the city. I came home to the smell of woodsmoke lingering and the promise of November on the wind, and it was fall, fall, fall.

Bloggers from Ottawa were up this weekend, so after Read Harder we all went out for a late lunch/early dinner. It's good to see people, who even though they're struggling or they went through difficult times, are climbing up and moving forward and taking care of themselves. In that all sports people think their team is the best, I have an incredible basis for book fandom/readers—it's where I come from and it's always been good to me. But Toronto—and Ottawa as well—has made such an effort to create an in person community around reading and thinking and talking about we read. Every time I go back to it, I am always so grateful it exists.

It's been a lot of people already this weekend, as last night my workplace said goodbye to my manager as she moves on to her next job. It's really amazing opportunity for her, and I'm very happy for her. The next few month are probably going to be challenging, but we're down to the last three shows of the ten we're running this year so there's light at the end of tunnel in the form of a holiday break on its way.

This was also the first Thanksgiving since the year I moved to Toronto that I didn't go to Alberta to visit family. I thought that was going to be much harder than it was—I ended up with friends for dinner on both Sunday and Monday. I didn't have jetlag from travelling, and I was surrounded by people who cared and it was minimal stress—which is what I needed since we're doing two shows this month.

Before Thanksgiving me and a friend went to the Bastille concert at the Danforth Music Hall. It was their only Canadian show on this little tour in smaller venues they're doing, and possibly the first time they played their Wild World album all the way through in front of a live crowd. I've come to love the all ages shows at the Danforth since it switched management, because the younger fans go right down in the front and they sing along with every song and they cheer like it's their absolute favourite as soon as they recognize that first chord. (They recognize the first chord of every song.)

And it's an odd experience to be a crowd trying to determine if we should sway along to the prison ballad about capital punishment, but we sure do love joining in on the chorus.

It's an amazing album live. All the intensity and the underlining anxiety disperses among a crowd who want to sing and move. That's the wizardry of Bastille—their songs are not happy, but they are sincere and when they perform in Toronto it always feels like a celebration. Here's a band so thrilled people showed up and a crowd so thrilled the band is there.

I'm going again in March with another friend to see the stadium tour stop at the ACC, because I came home from the Danforth glowing and so delighted to be alive.

At the beginning of the month, I was with a friend when she quite unexpectedly learned her father had passed away. Not sure that's a thing most of us are ever ready for, regardless of the relationship we have with our parents. It was a difficult thing, but I'm glad I could be there for her.

It's been quite the month, and it's not quite over yet. But it's been quite the year.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Notes from a year named Thrive: September II

I took my first vacation this year to return to BC for the week of my birthday.

I spent the last of 34 walking along a beach that is often underwater, my toes in sandbar pools and the edge of the river, with my family's dog chasing sticks and a ball. It was perfectly quiet aside from us, except for a raven croaking as we climbed the banks to return to the car. A throaty, consistent sound that might have meant home, home; a moment held when I wondered why I had moved away and then passed when I remembered it was because there aren't jobs in my field here.

The family came over to my parents' house for cake, and I went to sleep feeling if not accomplished then at least at peace. Renewed and restored in a way that only time among mountains, and trees, and so much sky manages. (It was good to stay in western Toronto; it was smart to find somewhere more residential with old trees and quiet streets.)

My actual birthday was spent in the car with my mom, heading out of town to go shopping. Shopping I could do in Toronto, but the point was the time with my mom in the car. Mountains and trees passing outside the window as we talked about everything and nothing. We ended up way past where we needed to be, but found a Mink Chocolates and had one of the best mochas ever. Eventually we got back to High Street, which is the closest Sephora and H&M.

The day was also sprinkled with greetings and well-wishes from friends coming via text and social media; it was a good day. A reminder of all the people waiting to celebrate some more when I returned.

I was worried that I hadn't accomplished what I set out to do last year, so I went back and read the post I'd written last year to see what goals I'd set.

"I'm going to get a new job." And I did—it's not the job I thought I'd get, and I'm not sure it's the job that I'll have this time next year, but I got it.

"I'm going to finish a writing project." I didn't—the one I applied for grants for, and completed it even without receiving them. Last week I got feedback from a reader, which validated that there's work to be done but it wasn't a waste of my life to stubbornly keep at the draft.

"I'm going to travel outside of the country before my passport needs renewing." This ended up being to Florida—a state I'd never been to—for work instead of to Tennesee for a writer's retreat, but it happened.

"I'm going to learn to make tortillas and be unstoppable." Making tortillas is actually the only goal I didn't accomplish, but there's nothing stopping me from learning to make them this year.

"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." Well, the people who deserve them didn't turn out to be who I thought they would be and being brave and growing meant having to leave things behind.

Despite the challenges and things not being set up to be easy, I have done well. I have grown. I live in my own place now, on my own, and that is something I'm looking forward to getting the hang of. Most of the time I really enjoy it.

I asked about my birthday, and the Tarot cards gave me the Two of Wands—a card of setting goals. That is traditionally what I do, so here we go. Before I turn 36, I will return to Los Angeles—whether it's for YALLwest or not—and travel to Iceland. I am going to get this manuscript ready for querying and successfully get an agent. I'll finish drafting another writing project.

I'm going to get to know the other people who live in the house that I do. I'm going to spend more time with my friends. I'm going to attend more book clubs and book events. I'm going to live my life and do things despite that I sometimes work long hours and have the weirdest job ever. I'm going to thrive and do magic and make the impossible happen—because it's what I've always done. There's no point stopping now.