Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Dork Review: The Dark Side Of The Glass

Have you ever had a book you just can't put down? Something that once you start it you have to read it all the way through to the end? The Dark Side Of The Glass was such a book for me.

It helps that it was short. This book is a novella rather than a novel, which works as it's just the right size for the story it tells. In fact, considering the subject matter, it's perfect since it feels about the same length as a television episode.

Hmm...better explain what I mean by that.

The Dark Side Of The Glass is about Mary, a lowly production assistant (PA) working on a cheesy vampire TV show shot in Toronto, similar to say, Forever Knight. Mary not only works on the show, she's its biggest fan, and therefore blind to how really terrible it is. We've all been there with something or another, haven't we? If you're into genre fiction at all, whether it be on-screen or on-page, we've all had those shows that we love even though a part of us knows they really are cheesy and over-wrought, otherwise how would such things survive?

A horrible truth sends Mary on a crash-course with destiny and a Craft Services truck. The resulting impact catapults her in the world of the show. All of this happens in the first few pages. (Hey, I said the story was short. J.M. Frey is great at pacing things.)

From there Mary ends up exploring and learning the reality of the world crafted for her favorite show and has her eyes opened in many ways while at the same time trying to change the world around her. I loved the ending and felt it was very satisfying.

What makes The Dark Side Of The Glass stand out from all the other catapulted into another world stories is how aware of itself it is. Mary is a fan-girl, trust me there is no doubt about it, and J.M. imbues her with fan-girlish glee without making her seem one-dimensional. In the short time we know her, Mary is a fully-realized character and not just a Mary Sue. Mary is aware she is in a fictional world, and there is this whole meta level of commentary throughout the story that is just hilarious. I think that even someone who isn't a lit-geek can enjoy the humor, which is vitally important as it shows J.M. is aware and actively trying to make her work as accessible as possible without dumbing it down.

So to sum up, The Dark Side Of The Glass is geeky, funny, meta, accessible, and a fun read. It has all the strengths I saw in Triptych with none of the elements I found frustrating. This book would be a nice light summer read. I recommend you go and pick it up.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Dork Review: Brave

Och, go an see this movie. It's bloody brilliant!

Okay, sorry for the lame attempt at a Scottish accent, but in all seriousness I do recommend you go out and see Brave. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. It has the feel of a classic Disney story, but has the feeling of being much more aware of gender roles and how they are portrayed.

2. Merida, the main character, never comes across as a boy in a girls body, but rather as a person who just doesn't quite fit the role her mother wants for her.

3. The voice cast is excellent and brings each role to life. I love that animated films are being taken seriously enough now that top-notch actors and actresses are willing to invest their talent in them.

4. Finally, the movie is bloody hilarious! The honest truth is there were more than a few times I ended up laughing out loud, and more than a few heartwarming moments as well.

If you have wee ones, this would be a good movie to take them to, or if you're just want to take your inner-child to a movie I'd recommend this as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

An Alternate Plan For The World's Biggest Bookstore

In case you hadn't already heard, it appears that the lease on the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto is up for renewal and the store may end up closing.

I'm not going to list the many ways this would suck. I love the WBB. Guaranteed anytime I go in there I walk out with at least two books, if not more. That place is dangerous for me to go into, and yet I want it to remain. I've already sent feedback to Chapters/Indigo stating this and I hope you'll do the same after reading this.

Now, that being said, I would like to offer up an idea for the space if Indigo and the landlords can't work out a deal. Turn it into the world's largest permanent book-fair/book flea market.

Don't worry, there's a method beyond my madness, or a madness in my method, or someone's messing with my method and it's making me mad, whatever. The point being, the main draw for the WBB was you could go in and find just about anything. What if, instead of one corporate entity controlling/using the space we had a plethora of publishers and booksellers in there?

I know the idea seems crazy but look at it this way. How many small publishers out there are renting storage space to hold copies of their books, copies that might end up sitting around because no one knows about them or can't find them because big chains such as Chapters/Indigo wont carry them? How about storing those books in the heart of downtown Toronto in a location that could sell them? According to the article linked above the WBB space is being rented for about $33.00 (I'm assuming this is monthly, not yearly) a square foot. Wouldn't it be worth it to have books setup and available in a secure location that could see a large amount of foot-traffic?

Add in the fact that, let's face it, Chapters/Indigo is really not doing their best to keep up the WBB, so a little bit of renovation and in addition to a wide variety of publishers you could have a nice coffee place and some chairs with which to sit and read said purchases while on a break. Better yet, make it a fair-trade independent coffee house to bring in the modern yuppie/hipster crowd, but serve coffee that normal people might like as well so you can cater to both crowds. (In other words, don't plop in another generic Timmies or Starbucks, but at the same time feel free to slap the hipsters upside the head of they get too pretentious.)

As much as I hate to say it, since I do love the WBB, I think my idea might be a better use for the space. It keeps it dedicated to literature but removes the overreaching corporate entity running it and gives smaller publishers and booksellers an ideal place. Don't get me wrong though, I have nothing against Chapters/Indigo and do purchase books for them, but I think ultimately the book ecosystem benefits but having multiple players rather than one monolith strangling the smaller sprouts.

Do I think my idea likely to ever happen. Sadly, no. I think it's more likely the space will get snapped up and either turned into more overpriced condos or portioned out into clothing stores. But I going to hold onto some hope that either what I propose happens or WBB manages to keep alive.

If you had control of the space, what would you do?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Since I Know You're All On The Edges Of Your Seats

Here's an update on my writing! :P

In all seriousness, I did start this blog as an outlet for my thoughts on writing and specifically my writing, so I'm going to assume this is a subject some of the people reading this might be interested in.

So for those just coming in, I'm currently working on a novel length work that I want to have working draft ready for the World Fantasy convention this year, which is in November and conveniently in Toronto this year. I'm going anyways and it would be really nice to have a novel I could pitch. Funny how having work to sell at a huge collection of editors and agents sounds like a good idea.

So how is the novel writing going you may ask? Really well actually. A couple months in I have over 40,000 words written, and I'm finding I'm averaging about 1000 words a day writing and managing to write about 5 days a week. What I'm saying is, I'm making steady progress and I've improved my writing speed to the point I'm averaging double the amount I was about a year ago. So, win for me.

This improvement became apparent the last few days when I sat down to write a short story. In three days, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I wrote a 4,000 word-plus short for a collection that has a submission due date of Aug 1. The only reason I took time away from my novel was because it's for an anthology due soon about an interesting subject. I'm not going to state which anthology it's for, at least not until and if my submission is accepted for publication.

A year ago a story of that size would have taken me at least a week to write, if not longer. Also, when I sat down to write the story I had a vague idea of what I wanted to write and in less than three days I was able to pounded out a workable draft.

Even better than this, pounding out said draft wasn't as torturous as it would have been in the past. Writing used to be a lot harder/a lot more work for me. Now, while it's still work, it's a lot more fun, and it was a nice break from the novel.

Now, none of this means my writing is any better than it was a year ago. I hope it is, but ultimately quality will be determined by editors who want to buy my writing and by the public that consumes it. Until that happens I'll just have to keep plugging away at it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

You Know You're In Demand When...

You're asked to do a guest post on another blog. Go check out Page Of Reviews and my guest post on Classic War Movies.

Not gonna lie, it feels weird to see my words somewhere other than my own blog. Weird, but good.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Dork Review: Prometheus

I'm struggling to properly express my feeling about this movie. On one hand, Prometheus has a lot going for it. None of the main cast of actors are weak, and Charlize Theron particularly is much better in this movie than in Snow White and The Huntsman. On the the other hand, there are a few nit-picking parts that could have been improved story-wise that would have made things flow better.

Alright, I'll try and express what I think is wrong without giving any spoilers. Or, at least any spoilers that aren't already included in the bloody trailer.

First off, this is a beautiful film. The special effects are used exactly the way they need to be; to enhance the film experience rather than being front and centre and blaring at the audience "look what we can do!" The makes the film a visual treat, and in fact I think it can be enjoyed on just that level if you get nothing else out of it.

My main problem is that some of the characters act so friggin stupid at times, and act outside of their already established character, that it compromises the story. Which is terrible because Prometheus has all the elements need to be a classic piece of sci-fi with a few horror tropes stuck onto it for flavour. There's the dream of finding life out there, of finding who created us and why, of finding God almost, that isn't present in a lot of sci-fi these days. The motivating characters in this movie are those dreamers on a quest to find the meaning of life, while at the same time an artificial being is struggling to understand who they are and how they fit into the universe.

I want more grand, epic science-fiction along these lines, especially now that computer generated effects make it so that we can give these movies the true size and scale they require. I have to give Ridley Scott credit in the attempt, and give him a round of applause for an ending that worked for me and kept the dreaming spirit alive while showing one of humanity's greatest strengths, our curiosity. I just wish some of the flaws in the middle could have been buffed out.

I'd still recommend seeing Prometheus. While it isn't perfect, and suffers compared to some of the other films I've seen this year, it's still worth seeing in theaters. Just be sure to manage expectations so that you aren't too disappointed at not being completely blown away.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On The Passing Of Ray Bradbury: A Response To Jonathan Kay

I'm trying to find adequate words to describe my feelings at the passing of one of science-fiction’s, no, of literature’s great voices. I never read a lot of Mr. Bradbury’s work, but it’s impossible to be interested in imaginative literature and not have at least an inkling of it and the ideas he expressed, as I’m sure more than a few authors have been influenced by what he wrote, even if only second-hand. Even I’ve been influenced by it, as I remember watching a version of The Veldt, I think for the Canadian-produced The Ray Bradbury Theater, in one of my English classes and enjoying it immensely. (And no, I don’t have any specific memories of wanting my parents dead, why do you ask?)

So, while Mr. Bradbury’s passing is not a personal tragedy, I would like to express my condolences to his family in this difficult time and say that he touched a lot of people’s lives, even if only remotely.

What I don’t want to do is defecate upon his memory as Mr. Jonathan Kay has.

In this article, Mr. Kay describes Bradbury as “science-fiction’s most depressing prophet” and then proceeds to say the author ruined science-fiction for him.

Wow. What an asshat.

First off, to blame anyone for ruining a whole genre of fiction for you is just pure and utter nonsense. To blame someone who just died and therefore cannot respond directly to your asshattery is at the very least cowardly.

This is especially true in Kay’s case, as in the article he even admits to reading writing similar to Bradbury’s later on in life, and never once states he was forced to read it. It’s really hard to feel sympathy for someone who admits to self-flagellation. If Kay hated “optimism-crippling” literature so much, why did he continue to read it? Why didn’t he look for something influenced by Star Trek, say something by Robert Sawyer?

More importantly, why did he let Ray Bradbury’s writing make him feel stupid for wanting optimistic science-fiction? This would indicate that Kay is either weak-minded or weak-willed. Maybe it’s a good thing that Fahrenheit 451 (please note Mr. Kay, this is the correct spelling) ruined TV for him, otherwise Mr. Kay might have to be weaned off late-night infomercials.

Okay, I’ve taken enough pot-shots are Mr. Kay, so now I propose we find a way to help him ease back into science-fiction. Since he seems to be hung up on the depressing side of things I recommend a rigorous course of Babylon Five. Sure, it’s dark and depressing, but in the end it has a core of hope that we can do better and grow. It might be just the cure Mr. Kay needs. (Unless pharmaceuticals and extensive therapy would work better, but I’d recommend those be saved for people with real issues that need to be addressed.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Dork Review: Ninjas Vs. Pirates Featuring Zombies

I think I best summed up NVPFZ in an earlier post when I described it as "a coke-snorting stripper who just dropped some acid". I should probably add that the stripper has a PhD in Philosophy from a pretentious university overflowing with ivory tower academics.

NVPFZ does its very best to look stupid when it's not. James Marshall, the author, has realized the surface level stupidity of the concept of Ninjas fighting Pirates, fodder for many an Internet debate, and run with that as a veneer over-top of a book about the place of the North American male in current culture.

That's the brilliant thing about this book. It reads at too levels. If you just want a silly adventure, albeit with some disturbingly graphic violence and puerile humor, then it's there. If you want a book that shows a young man questioning the media-induced, violent, and over-sexualized worldview placed upon him by the media and modern life, then you can have that as well.

This is the type of book I expect out of Chizine; dark, thoughtful, disturbing, and superbly executed. If you haven't bought or won a copy yet, do so now. (More so the buying than the winning).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Dork Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

I very much wanted this to be a good movie, and when you look at it on paper, it should have been. You have Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, both great actors who have proven themselves. You have a classic story that almost everyone is familiar with, and if you believe the trailers then Snow White and the Huntsman was going to be a good dark take on the basic Snow White theme. How could it have failed?

Fair warning, explaining this will involve spoilers, so even after I've said this is a piece of dreck you still want to see it, I'd recommend reading no further.

First point against the movie is that there's no continuity. Things just seem to happen. For example, early on Snow White escapes by slashing at the Queen's evil brother with an iron nail and then locking him in the cell she was held prisoner in for about a decade, then Snow proceeds to sneak away. Before she's out of the castle the evil brother has somehow escaped the cell. No explanation is given; we never see how he gets out. This may not seem like much, but it's the first example of things just happening for no apparent reason. Another good example is later on when Snow White is storming the castle. After she and her troops are in the defenders suddenly remember they have boiling pitch/oil to drop on the attackers. Yes, I know Snow needs to live so that the Queen can take her heart, however, the Queen isn't shown telling the troops this and has been keeping the fact she needs Snow White's heart a secret to everyone but her brother then entire movie!

Next point against the movie, the dwarves are in it far too little (and no that is not a pun). And it's not like they just went out and hired a bunch of random people to play the dwarves. No, they hired the likes of Bob Hoskins and some other really good character actors and then somehow digitally shrunk them to dwarf size. WHY? I would have much rather seen them hire and use unknowns for those roles who fit the physical stature required and had them around for a greater portion of the movie. As it is, when one of them died saving Snow White I didn't care as they'd been around for less than twenty minutes at that point. What's even worse is, the dwarves get one of the best scenes of the movie late in the film as part of storming the castle. Gah!

The third strike against the movie, and I actually feel a bit guilty about this one, is Kristen Stewart. Now, I went in wanting to give her a chance, really I did. I think the Twilight movies are terrible, but that could easily be because their source material is garbage. I wasn't going to hold acting in them against her, and in fact I don't think I've actually seen any movie she's been a major part of, so I could have been really surprised by her performance in Snow White and the Huntsman. Sadly, I was not.

Ms. Stewart does not currently have the acting chops to pull off the role they asked of her. Most of the movie she appears to be dazed and confused, and the one major scene that required her to deliver a moving and motivating speech flopped completely. Really, I was waiting for one of the troops around her to yell out "Why the hell are we following this dumbass?". Sigh. It might have been that Kristen Stewart just didn't have the voice to pull that moment off, or that eventually she might have the skill to do something like it in a later movie, but at this point I probably won't go and see any film she's a major part of. Oh, and in regards to the meme I've seen floating around about Charlize Theron being much "fairer" than Stewart, Kristen actually looks rather beautiful in this film and definitely fits the Snow White template, she just hasn't developed the acting skills to pull off what the part required.

The only person who pulls off a good performance in this movie is Chris Hemsworth. He plays the Huntsman as almost a Han Solo like rogue with a heart of gold. Hollywood seriously needs to find this guy a fantasy trilogy (something non-superhero) to star in as he could pull it off. His acting was of Shakespearean quality and depth. Charlize Theron on the other hand, well, she gives a great performance as I expected but the dialogue they provided her was terrible, and realizing this she went for the whole Jeremy Irons in the Dungeons and Dragons movie route and starting chewing up the scenery. I half expected a scene where she'd be gnawing on the magic mirror.

There are other problems with this movie. The ending was unsatisfying and the whole movie tried to find a balance between reality and fairy tale that just didn't work for me. If you still want to see it then good on you, but I don't hold out much hope you'll enjoy the experience.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Of Narrators Unreliable

I find it oddly amusing that the last two fiction books I've read or are currently reading have unreliable narrators. So much so that I decided to take a moment and comment on the whole idea of unreliable narration and what it means for literature in general and genre fiction specifically.

The two books that prompted this are Above by Leah Bobet, which I reviewed previously, and Ninjas Vs Pirates Featuring Zombies by James Marshall. So, if both books have unreliable narrators, does this mean they're essentially the same?

Hell, no!

The best way to describe Above would be lyrical and magical, like a hipster indie-band with a sarong wearing lead female singer who has this crunchy granola-girl attractiveness going for her. NVPFZ is more like a coke-snorting stripper who just dropped some acid. The only thing in common between the books is the unreliable narrator, but in both this is an essential element, and what pulls them out of what could have been cliche, almost pedantic, territory.

Okay, I should probably define what an unreliable narrator is for those who don't know or are curious to know what I think it is. An unreliable narrator is one tell the story from a certain viewpoint but with a bias that may lead them to, unknowingly or knowingly, distort facts to fit their view of the world, therefore anything they tell you about what happened in the book cannot be taken at face value. Seems simple enough, right?

It's actually not simple at all.

The first question that needs to be asked is, when do we know not to trust the narrator? This can be a hard thing to determine. While reading Above, it took me quite a few pages before I decided the narrator was unreliable. There were hints of it early on, but I was pretty deep into it before I was sure he couldn't be trusted and that everything related could just be the imaginings of a chemically imbalanced mind. It didn't detract or distract from my reading, and in fact I'm actually rather impressed that Scholastic published such a book targeted for the YA audience. Now, as for NVPFZ, right from the beginning it's obvious that the narrator is unreliable as the entire prologue is one giant run on sentence, and it's not that short of a prologue. So, in answer to this question, it varies from work to work and from reader to reader. Keep in mind though, always be a little bit suspicious of first-person narration.

The second question is, why? Why use an unreliable narrator at all? Shouldn't all stories be told as straightforward and simply as possible, and shouldn't genre fiction strive to be clear and fast-paced and so on?

No actually.

Genre fiction is as much literature as literary fiction. To say that it needs to be restrained to one set of tools is ludicrous. Don't get me wrong. I love clean and simple prose, such as what Asimov, Heinlein, and Scalzi have produced (yes, I put John Scalzi in the same grouping as the other two - say what you want about his writing but I enjoy it and find that his books have nice, clean prose that is easily read), but that doesn't mean genre fiction can't be complex, dense, intricate, and arcane. I mean, just look at Filaria. It's easily a university level read and qualifies as genre fiction in my books (and I don't think it's coincidental that both it and NVPFZ are published by Chizine - if ever there was a literary genre fiction house, it's them).

More importantly though, and as I've alluded to above, both NVPFZ and Above benefit from the use of unreliable narration. Above could easily have become a garden variety tale about freakish outsiders and how they need to be pitied and so on, a topic that's been covered in movies and books before (heck, the author even admits that the old TV show Beauty and the Beast was an inspiration, or at least her anger at the show was one). As for NVPFZ, let's be honest, the subject matter is so ludicrous the only way it could be anything other than a fanboy wank was to hide something deeper inside it and make the narrator unreliable enough that the reader goes hunting for that deeper meaning, and Marshall (from what I've read so for, as I haven't finished it) pulls it off.

The third and final question, at least for me, is it only "literary" genre fiction that uses unreliable narrators, and/or is it only first person narration readers should be cautious with. The answer to both is, of course, no. (I'm beginning to wonder if I'm a rather negative person - I keep saying no)

Truth is, all narrators could be considered unreliable because every narrator exists to tell a story from the point of view the author. Now, there will be varying degrees to this, and in a lot of cases it will be hard to pick up on, but go read, as an example, A Song Of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and tell me which characters are villains and which aren't. It gets harder the farther into the series you get, doesn't it? That's because even though the story is told in third person, it's third-person limited meaning the reader is as close to being inside the head of each character as they can be without the narration switching to first person. It's subtle, and probably most people won't pick up in it, but it proves to me that genre fiction, and genre fiction writers, can be both literary and tell a good story without one sacrificing the other.