Some thoughts on reviewing books

The way I read has changed since I started writing. I notice the craft more, for better or worse. A well-foreshadowed turn, a deft descriptive example, or an artful bit of dialogue can delight me, as can a scene that neatly advances plot and illuminates the character. But I’m also quicker to spot a cliché. An editor once talked me out of, “she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding,” and now I see it everywhere.

I am not a patient reader. I used to give a book a hundred pages or so, and if I didn’t care about the characters by then, I’d reluctantly put it down. Now it’s more like forty pages, and it’s not only the characters. If I can get it down to ten pages, can I become an acquisition editor? Seriously, I’m starting to understand them. I have so many books I want to read, and only so much time. Purple Prose? Nope. Repetition? Nope. Info-dumps? Nope. The proportion of books I do not finish is getting dangerously close to half.

At Goodreads, a Did Not Finish is supposed to be grounds for a one-star rating. I did that once, with a sequel I felt had diverged badly from the opening book. I wasn’t interested in the romantic sub-plot and the save the world stuff wasn’t enough to keep me going. So I quit, and gave it a one-star review. I felt guilty about it though.

Recently, I got thinking. Should I be firing off one-star reviews for every book I don’t finish? My Goodreads page would look like a fireworks show that fizzled in the rain. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. I think when they said did not finish, they really meant could not finish. If I’d read that whole book, I’d have likely given it two or three stars. But I’m not gonna. So I withdrew that review.

From now on, all the books I set down will get the silent treatment. That’s going to bias my reviews towards books I enjoyed and therefore rated highly. I’m happy with that. I want my reviews to be a guide to fun reading, not a platform for me to be dismissive.

So here’s a partial list of things that discourage me from reading a book:  psychotic bad guys, graphic violence, graphic sex, heroes with limitless superpowers, macho men with guns. And, more regretfully, dense literary prose. You won’t find a lot of reviews by me of books with these features.

On the bright side, here’s a short list of things that make me want to read a book: complex characters, strong females, original world-building, underdogs with grit. I have a special fondness for alternative aviation. Check out my reviews if you share these tastes. Or maybe take a look at Avians.

 

Dinner Debriefing: Café Dario

I’m cheating a little in calling this a dinner debriefing, because we actually went for lunch at Café Dario in Winnipeg.

But I’m not cheating very much, because the lunch menu is built on the entrees from the dinner menu anyway. The main difference is that while dinner is a five-course meal, the lunch menu features an entrée plate accompanied by bread and soup. The menu changes fairly often, and reservations are required for dinner.

We heard about this restaurant from a friend of a friend, but it has received lots of good reviews, and has exceptionally good write-ups at Trip Advisor. The chef is from Colombia, so there are lots of interesting South American influences on the cuisine.

The day we were there, the soup was a butternut squash. It was very tasty, with a little spice, but I’m not sure quite what it was. Ancho chile? We saw lots of things we liked on the menu. Caroline chose the Chicken Breast stuffed with guava pulled pork, which came with a Romesco sauce. She had a glass of wine with it, but I cannot remember which one, and I don’t see the wine list on the website. I think it was a Malbec, because South America.

 

I was torn between the Beef tenderloin grilled and topped with Argentinean chimichurri sauce or the Pepper crusted rack of lamb with a red pepper mango puree. The server mentioned that the beef is one of their top sellers, so I ordered that, and a glass of Dos Equis Amber. I’m all about amber ales lately, especially now that the weather is turning cool. I love the toffee notes and the lack of hops.

 

I cut into my steak before taking this picture, and also moved a beet, which left a pink smear on the plate. In fairness to the kitchen’s beautiful presentation, I airbrushed the lower right corner of this photo to remove the stain.

The steak was wonderfully tender, and both of our dishes were delicious: zesty without being overtly spicy. As you might expect from a restaurant with Colombian roots, the coffee was exceptional.

The service was good, and the bill was remarkably modest. Café Dario is located at the corner of Erin and Wellington, which is not too far from many of the airport hotels. We’ll be back.

Prose & Cons: Can-Con 2017 Complete

Every time I go to a conference or convention, I get something different out of it. At first, I was desperate for writing advice, then I needed help with query letters, pitches and submissions. Later, I wanted to know about contracts and marketing. Can-Con has filled all those needs, and has grown with me. This year set an attendance record.

Can-Con 2017 was a low-pressure event for me, because my first novel is on sale and my second is unfinished. I had a light schedule, with one reading and one panel, so that gave me time to take a workshop on Friday afternoon. Nailing Your Beginning, with James Alan Gardner, was in the form of a critique group, with James speaking last. The other writers showcased some fascinating story openings, and I hope to see many of their novels come to fruition. My own effort was a proposed start to Bandits, the sequel to Avians. I got the same general feedback as my critique group in Winnipeg offered: the reader feels a bit lost. The story needs to start more clearly with setting and situation. I’ll have to invest in more description to make the action and the conflict comprehensible. This will be about my fifth version of the opening, but with the story laid out, I really want to work on the starting scenes before I go too far with revising the body of the story, because it’s important to have that connection between the beginning and the end.

The reading was fun. I shared a time-slot with Su Sokol, who turned out to be a fascinating writer: her Cycling to Asylum takes an uncomfortable look at the direction things are going in the United States and the need for Canada to follow a different path. She chose troubling, disturbing scenes to read for us, revealing a cruel and creepy America. I’m still thinking about them. My own reading focused on two scenes from Avians from Corby’s point of view. This made sense for the adult audience, and I guess I reached someone, because one person went straight to the dealer room and bought a copy.

My panel on Leveling Up Your Writing with Formal Courses went okay. The other authors were much more educated, and, I confess, much harder working. Still, I hope I was able to speak to the audience members who aren’t quite ready for a six week boot camp. Odyssey’s online courses are a great way to learn without throwing yourself in the deep end.

I mentioned earlier that my involvement with conventions has changed over the years. At first, I rarely went to readings. I needed factual information so much more than fun. This time around, I took in a lot more author readings, and I met a guy who goes almost exclusively to the reading sessions. He’s attends because he’s a reader, and he likes to see the authors give voice to their work. I think he’s on to something. I bought at least three books because I attended the Renaissance Press reading session: Eric Desmarais’s Parasomnia, John Haas’s The Reluctant Barbarian and Lust and Lemonade, by Jamieson Wolf.

I arrived late at the Bundoran Press party, so I missed the readings, but at their table in the dealer room, I bought Brent Nichol’s books because I had read the free Prix Aurora Awards voter’s version of Stars Like Cold Fire and felt the author earned my money. They had the sequel, Light of a Distant Sun, so I bought that too, and it’s next on my To Be Read list. Also, 49th Parallels, because I’ve found Bundoran anthologies to be a sure bet.

I enjoyed some of the other readings, too, but our suitcases were growing heavier book by book, so I steered away from thick volumes. I can always download the e-books later.

I had one unexpected source of fun. Diane Walton, the editor of On Spec magazine, was on the same plane as us from Winnipeg to Ottawa, so having met her, I stopped by the her table in the dealer room. She had dozens of back issues featuring stories by authors at this year’s Can-Con. It was an impressive list, but better still, she had a contest: if you took a sheet listing the stories and got signatures from the writers wearing an On Spec flag on their name tags, you could strive to win a handful of issues and a year’s subscription. I recognized quite a lot of the names, so I set off to track them down in the dealer room and the hallways. In the end, I encountered over half, and won the contest. I’m looking forward to reading issues old and new.

When I got home, I checked my spreadsheet, and as On Spec‘s submission window opens infrequently and not for very long, I have never actually sent a story to them. I should try harder. I’d be in good company.

Speaking of company, one thing about conventions has remained constant: I always meet fascinating people and make wonderful connections. This year I met authors, agents, editors and publishers. But best of all, I had great conversations.

 

Dinner Debriefing: Three dinners and a breakfast in Ottawa.

We flew to Ottawa for Can-Con, a convention about speculative fiction in Canada. That means we spent some time apart. Meals were the centerpiece of our time together.

Friday we returned to a place we knew we liked: Play Food and Wine. We made a reservation this time.

This is a small plate restaurant, much like a tapas bar. The food is superb, starting with the sourdough bread and butter. Although we ordered a variety of dishes, we chose a bottle of Pinot Noir because this wine can be very versatile. There was a fine selection of wines by the glass, if you prefer to match more thoughtfully. Here’s the menu we ordered from. We chose the salmon tartare, the gnocchi, the trout and the hangar steak. If we were disappointed by the gnocchi, it was only because there were so few compared to the accompanying vegetables. The other dishes, we would order again in a heartbeat. The tasty hangar steak is one of their top sellers, by the way. We finished with a selection of cheeses, choosing three of the harder ones. Service was excellent.

Saturday we started with breakfast at Wilf & Ada’s, another repeat visit from last year. We knew to arrive three minutes before they unlocked the door, as this small restaurant fills up minutes after they open. Caroline had the eggs in purgatory, a skillet of eggs poached in a hot sauce. I had the blackstone, a variation on eggs benny with locally sourced bacon and the addition of fresh ripe tomato slices. Food here is locally sourced and they cook nearly everything from scratch. You can tell.

Saturday evening we wanted to see how the renovations in the Novotel’s Albion Rooms turned out. Last year, this was a small alcove of butcher-block tables tucked away behind the lobby bar. The food was good, and they’ve expanded beautifully. As I write this, the website doesn’t yet show the larger, more gracious room. You’ll have to take my word for it that there are paneled walls, sconce lighted art and graceful clusters of curved banquettes as well as tables with chairs. This sample menu is close to the one we ordered from, but not identical. For instance, Caroline’s Mariposa Duck included both breast and confit. My main course was a Lamb Curry that came in a deep dish with sauce and lentils. Caroline’s starter was the Blueberry Lavender Gravlax from the Charcuterie section of the menu, while mine was a Trout Crudo that does not appear on the sample menu at all. It was crispy on the outside, delicate in the middle. Caroline rated her duck dish among the best she’s had. I liked my lamb curry well enough, but wouldn’t choose it again. We had the James Mitchell Cabernet from Lodi, California. No dessert as I wanted to get back to the conference.

Sunday we branched out and ate somewhere completely new to us: Sur Lie. With the conference over, we had plenty of time to linger over a dinner of modern French cuisine. There were a lot of interesting choices, and we peppered our server with questions. In keeping with my run on seafood starters, I ordered the salmon crudo, while Caroline went with the rabbit loin. We ended up half trading with each other. I found the salmon rather overpowered by the beet preparation. Caroline loves beets, and thought it was wonderful. We both thought the flaky little rabbit rounds were amazing. Caroline ordered the perfect halibut dish:20171015_175856

I tried it, and it tasted every  bit as good as it looks. I thought about having the scallops, but I wanted to do a wine flight that ended with a red, so I chose the beef tenderloin instead.20171015_175921

I wasn’t disappointed. The duck fat fingerling potatoes were lovely.

As to the wine, Caroline paired the Casa Dea wines from nearby Prince Edward County: Pinot Noir with the rabbit and Chardonnay with the halibut. She much preferred the red, which recently won an award. The Chardonnay was flinty, which I like, but she doesn’t. She was hoping for a bigger, leggier wine. I chose a flight of four 2oz. glasses. Sur Lie offers several different flights, and I went with the Big & Bold one because I liked the idea of starting with Gewurztraminer and finishing with Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, I got to try wines I would hesitate to buy a whole bottle of: a French Cabernet Franc, a Portuguese red blend, and a South African Cabernet Sauvignon. I enjoyed each of them, but I think the variety added to the fun. Our server was very knowledgeable.

We splurged on dessert, both ordering carrot cake even though there were some other tempting options. It’s a good thing we ordered two, there would have been a vicious fork-fight over one, because it was delightful.

Prose & Cons: Can-Con 2017

Less than a week to go before Can-Con. I think this is my fourth visit to Ottawa. I’m looking forward to morning walks along the canal, seeing my Ottawa friends, and perhaps some fall colours.

I have a light schedule at Can-Con this year: I’m taking a workshop on Friday, doing a reading on Saturday, and joining a panel on Sunday. (See the convention’s full program here.) That’ll leave time for meals! We know some nice restaurants, and we’ve made some reservations already.

Friday: We fly in late Friday morning, so I couldn’t make the noon workshops. The second batch are at 2:30, and that includes Nailing Your Beginning with James Alan Gardner, which I’ve signed up for. I need this; I suck at beginnings. I’ve been more or less stalled on my WIP’s opening for months. As it’s a sequel, I thought it would be easy, but I’m finding it hard because this time around, no-one will be explaining stuff to the main character, which may leave readers struggling or confused. Maybe I should have her explain things to someone else…

After that, registration, opening ceremonies, perhaps a panel, and then dinner out with Caroline.

Saturday: Lots of cool panels and readings to attend, and I’m scheduled to do my own reading from Avians at noon. Guess I better rummage around and select a scene or two. Su J. Sokol and Ryan McFadden are the other readers in the room for that hour, so that should be a fun session. I’m likely to be too busy for a proper lunch date, so I’ll probably just grab something in the lobby bar and get back to the con. I’ll sacrifice some of the early evening sessions to make time for a nice dinner, though, and then I want to be back for a later panel and the Bundoran Press party.

Sunday: we have breakfast plans, and I’ll have an easy morning sipping coffee at the con, then in the afternoon, I’m sitting on the Leveling Up Your Writing with Formal Courses panel with Curtis C. Chen, Suzanne Church, Leah MacLean-Evans,  and Kelly Robson (moderator). I think that means I’ll be representing the more affordable end of the education spectrum compared to full six week Odyssey or Clarion resident courses or a university Master of Fine Arts program. I took an Odyssey online course one winter, and got a lot out of it.

We don’t fly home until Monday, so we’ll have all Sunday evening for a leisurely supper.

Musings on Magical Girls

I’ll confess to being old enough that I didn’t grow up on Magical Girl anime. My first exposure to Japanese animation would have been Astro Boy, primordial source of robots with a heart of gold, mad scientists, and boots that deny ankles.

In the nineties, though, Sailor Moon came along. I enjoyed the focus on female characters and how they were empowered. I’m not talking about their ability to use magical attacks, I’m thinking of their ability to make decisions. Agency, in other words. Serena, the title character, is not brave. She has to drag herself into conflict, and she usually has to make the decision to go without much help. Serena isn’t strong, or fierce, or smart, or even hardworking. Yet she is the leader of the Sailor Scouts. Why? I wondered. Her willingness to suffer for what is right, and her compassion for others, are the qualities that make her outstanding. The moral, and I sense a Japanese mindset here, is that leadership should be based on character, not skill. I’m on board for that.

The series explores personal relationships and talks about the importance of things like friendship, honesty and loyalty. Middle grade stuff that imparts worthwhile values. So far, so good.

What gives me a lingering feeling of dismay, though, is the linking of female power to sexuality. When the girls transform, (by speaking the magic phrase, “Sailor Moon Make-Up,” no less), they acquire sparkly lipstick, their school uniform blouses tighten to body-shirts, and their hemlines rise drastically. While these abbreviated outfits are perhaps a little more suited to fighting, they are far from ideal. I would write it off as fan service if the series were being marketed to boys. When aimed at girls, though, the message seems to be that power comes with makeup and sexy outfits.

If this only happened in Sailor Moon, I’d shrug it off. However, it seems to be widespread. In Pretty Cure, the magical transformation also results in revealing costumes, to the point where some conservatives complained about Natalie’s bare midriff. In Mew Mew Power, all the girls get scanty outfits. In Digimon Frontier, Zoe, the token female, gets more than a costume makeover, her pre-adolescent body gets several years more mature so that she can fill out her bikini. (None of the boys show more skin; they get armor and stuff.) In Card Captor Sakura, the card-driven magic doesn’t endow Sakura with a change of clothes, but her sidekick is a costume designer who sews up a new outfit for every adventure. To be fair, not all the costumes she produces are revealing, but the message that clothing matters is there.

I like to joke that you can tell whether a cartoon is intended for boys or girls by the clothing. If everyone wears the same outfit week after week, it’s for boys. If there are constant wardrobe changes, it’s for girls. Okay, I’m not really joking. As a rule, it works quite well.

While we’re on the topic of sexuality, kudos to the makers of Sailor Moon for including a lesbian couple. Please note that if you only saw the American dub, you might be under the impression that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are close cousins who just happen to hold hands sometimes. In the subtitles for the original Japanese soundtrack the dialog is clearly romantic, and there’s no mention of them being related. Listening to the English soundtrack while watching the original subtitles is amusing, especially when an earnest line about spending the night together is replaced with inane chatter about eating treats. I give part points for making the outwardly feminine Neptune the one who takes charge of their relationship, rather than the androgynous Uranus. I’m prepared to believe that stems from a desire to break away from stereotypes and make them real and complex characters. I take points off for making the pair of them hostile outsiders to the rest of the scouts. The two of them are older than Sailor Moon and her friends, and they take a much harder line in their war on evil, being prepared to sacrifice innocents to achieve victory. So the lesbians are antithetical to the moral theme. Sigh.

Until recently, I thought I was alone in thinking about magical girls from a mature perspective. I was delighted to find out I was wrong. Thanks to a review by Derek Newman-Stille, I’ve become aware of Shattered Starlight, Nicole Chartrand’s webcomic about a magical girl who has grown up and tried to leave that life behind. It isn’t going well. She has adult issues and a lot of anger. Also, she’s a Montrealer, so her magical staff is a hockey stick. Check it out.

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