Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Texas Gothic," by Rosemary Clement-Moore

I was a bit ashamed to pick this novel up from my shelf, only to realize it was an ARC dated back to 2011. Oops. I was busy, okay!

Amy Goodnight is the one non-witchy girl in a family full of witches and so she's made it her job to keep her kooky female relatives from letting their various magical cats out of their respective magical bags. Even though her own sister, Phin, could give two bagged-cat farts about the secrecy of her witchcraft-related experiments.

Anyhoo, Amy and Phin are spending the summer taking care of their Aunt Hyacinth's farm (she's a botanical soap witch, for reals), when Amy runs afoul of the Hot Cowboy Neighbour, Ben McCulloch. Rumours of a ghost on his property have been hurting his family business (especially after a few of his workers are mysteriously injured on the job) so of course he blames the witchy Goodnight family for spreading those rumours.

The only problem? Amy spots a real ghost, and when her paranormal encounter coincides with the discovery of human remains on the McCulloch land, she realizes all the weird accidents that have been happening to Ben's workers might not be so accidental. She just has to convince Ben the ghost is real, and enlist her witch sister's magical help, all the while trying to hide the fact that magic is real.

While this novel was charmingly written (Amy has a hilariously cynical narrative voice), it turned out to be lighter than expected. In several ways. First of all, the story is not as dark as the description led me to believe. It's very much in the Nancy Drew/Scooby Doo vein of Meddling Kids vs. Incompetent Adults. Secondly, for a novel whose protagonist is from a family of witches, there's not that much magic in it. There's a potion or two, one hilarious scene with a magical bottle of shampoo, and a ghost-detecting machine that Phin builds, but the fantasy in this story is strangely absent and doesn't really affect the plot. Most of the plot happens due to non-magical teenage detective work, which was a bit of a let down.

It's not terribly written, and the pacing is decent, but the back cover copy promises a story that the novel just doesn't deliver. It's light-hearted fluff, so if that's your thing, go ahead.

Do Not Read If: You expect an actually dark and gothic novel; you're looking for an explicitly magical plot involving spells; you hate Hot Teen Cowboys; you hate dogs; you hate ghosts; you hate goats; you hate storylines that hinge on someone hearing "goats" when the speaker meant "ghosts."


"Lair of Dreams," by Libba Bray

Lair of Dreams is the long-awaited sequel to Libba Bray's absolutely mah-velous 1920s-set fantasy, The Diviners. The characters are just as engrossing, the rat-a-tat screwball dialogue is as sharp and as nonstop as ever, and the gruesomely dark mystery at this novel's heart is as shiver-inducing - perhaps even more so - than the one in The Diviners.

So was Lair of Dreams better than The Diviners? Not quite.

The Diviners had a diverse and rambunctious cast, and while Lair of Dreams returns to most of them, their stories are unevenly organized and paced, and they're too scattered to really function as a team until the very end. The sad thing is, half the reason the mystery takes so long to solve is because many of the characters barely take the time to talk to each other because they're too engrossed in their own problems.

It's still a whip-smart and entertaining novel, but the all-too-frequent "whoops I didn't tell this character an important tidbit because I magically forgot about it when I picked up the phone" coincidences can become frustrating.

But let's get to the plot, shall we? Ever since Evie O'Neill went public about being a Diviner and using her powers to save the city from Naughty John in the previous novel, New York has been swept up with Diviner fever. People are hosting Diviner parties. Ziegfeld is choreographing a Diviner Dancers Revue. And Evie is now a bona fide celebrity with her own radio show, the Sweetheart Seer.

But beneath all the glitz and glamour, trouble is brewing. After a group of construction workers fall mysteriously ill after discovering a buried subway station in Chinatown, the ensuing Sleeping Sickness awakens a rising tide of bigotry and paranoia as more and more people fall asleep and never wake up. The frightened populace has to point a finger somewhere. Who to blame? The Chinese? The immigrants? Or those strange Diviners?

Through it all, Bray concocts a heady and addictive sense of setting and period, from the sparkling dustbowl dialogue, to the sumptuous descriptions of jiving dance halls and rebellious hotel room parties. Each of our major players has their own narrative arc that settles them squarely within their time period while also making them relatable, interesting, and a little bit magical. Along with that, Bray continues to tease us with increasing hints at a series-long arc involving "Project Buffalo," a secret government Diviner program. Whatever this book's faults, they are minimal compared to the successful narrative plate-spinning Bray achieves with her blending of glamorous time period, bloody horror, timeless teen drama, old-school humour, and social justice.

Lair of Dreams is a worthy successor to The Diviners. I can't wait to read what comes next.

Do Not Read If: You don't like ghosts; you absolutely cannot stand horror or the jeepers creepers in any way, shape, or form; if you dislike Pears Soap and all those who advocate for it; diversity makes you ill, you creepy bigot; you hate fun.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Movie Review: "Deadpool" (2016)

I used to think of Ryan Reynolds as the Sriracha of comedic actors.

A small amount of hot sauce can improve and even save a meal, but you wouldn't want to eat an entire bowl of Sriracha. To me, the distinctive rapid-fire silliness that made Reynolds so utterly delicious in supportive roles (Blade: Trinity, The Proposal, Adventureland), rendered him nigh-unbearable as a leading man (Green Lantern, Van Wilder, Just Friends).

Deadpool has proven me wrong. Instead of trying to cram Reynolds' sarcastically-edged peg into a hole rounded smooth by G-rated studio conventions and merchandising, the filmmakers carved out their own jagged, self-referential, unrepentantly crude film to fit Reynold's talent.

Reynolds was born to play Deadpool. His indefatigable energy, rat-a-tat delivery, and pure maniacal glee radiate from the screen. He's remarkably light-footed for a man carrying an entire movie on his shoulders. Don't get me wrong, the film rocks a solid supporting cast (except Ajax, a villain so cookie cutter I'm beginning to wonder if his blandness was intentional), but you would have no movie without Reynolds.

The plot is refreshingly simple compared to the superhero films that came before - there's no time travel, no alien invasions, no magical hot tubs of electrical prophesy. Just a merc with a mouth on a mission. Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, an impulsive, violent, vulgar soldier for hire who finds himself diagnosed with terminal cancer. A shady agency offers him a miraculous cure, but the process mutates him and messes up his face, so the impulsive, violent, vulgar supersoldier calls himself Deadpool and vows to track down the villains responsible.

The revenge-and-rescue plot is as old as time itself, but it's effective - instead of wearing itself out trying to convince a jaded audience that the entire universe is (once again) in danger, Deadpool relies on a relentless barrage of expertly-delivered and utterly inappropriate humour, interesting characters, and relatable stakes.

Even better - despite supporting appearances from a couple of third-string X-men characters, Deadpool works excellently as a stand alone film. I walked into this movie with little to no knowledge of the character and I understood the film perfectly. As much as I admire the work and planning that goes into the consistency of Disney's Marvel universe, the later films rely on so much pre-existing narrative that few of them are enjoyable on their own anymore.

Don't see Deadpool if: you can't stomach gratuitous violence, nudity and profanity; cannot tolerate humour based upon gratuitous violence, nudity and profanity; you're frightened of baby hands; the sound of Ryan Reynolds' voice induces seizures; you hate meta humour and fourth-wall breaking.

Otherwise, I cannot recommend Deadpool enough. It's a finely-balanced, perfectly paced, action-packed, relentlessly funny and respectfully-disrespectful movie.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Losing the Dream Job: Writing and Recovering

I've been a writer my entire life. It is a lifelong vocation. It comes easily to me, I like doing it, and I can do it just about anywhere. Part of the reason I've seen it as a vocation rather than a job is because I never expected to find a job writing. Sure, I dreamed of writing the Best-Selling Book that makes a million dollars - but that dream rested on the same shelf as winning the lottery (both dreams end with me typing away in a well-appointed English cottage with reliable Wi-Fi).

I suppose I could have gone into journalism or freelancing, but (perhaps immaturely) I always preferred living in fictional realms rather than the real one. I never wanted to chase down elusive leads, I was terrified at the idea of contacting strangers and asking about their stories, and even more terrified at the idea of living, financially, like a desperate trapeze artist swinging from opportunity to opportunity, always one leap away from tumbling down into Ruin. 

Perhaps I was spoiled. Perhaps I was a coward. But that's not really the point of my post.

Anyway, last November, I won the lottery. No, I didn't sell another novel. No, I didn't pick the winning numbers. Instead, I landed a writing job at BioWare. 

Lightning Strikes

Back in September, BioWare put out a posting for a contract Assistant Writer position for their new IP. They were willing to look at applicants with no game writing experience, provided their practical writing experience and writing sample demonstrated talent and a willingness to learn. I sent in my application, was called in for an interview a month later, got a job offer the next day, and officially started with them two weeks later.

It really was the perfect job. First of all - I adore BioWare games. Dragon Age: Origins got me back into gaming, and I've played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect trilogies multiple times. Sure, the gameplay was fun, but it was BioWare's storytelling that hooked me. I loved the characters, I loved the choice-based narratives, I loved the worldbuilding. Whatever I would be working on, it was bound to be amazing.

Secondly, their office was located in Edmonton, right where I live. I wouldn't have to move to another city and miss my friends and family. Thirdly, it was that rarest of rare ducks - a pure writing job that was nine to five with a salary (and a fairly good one!). 

So you can imagine my joy: I'd found a job writing what I loved for a company I loved that allowed me to stay in a city I loved that paid enough money to buy more things that I loved. I learned a lot (and fairly quickly), I was super excited about the IP and the creativity I could bring to it, and I got to share a writer's room and trade ideas with legendary BioWare talents. I bought an embarrassing amount of BioWare merchandise with my employee discount and had a blast at the insane BioWare Christmas party. 

I planned to dye my hair blue (since BioWare has no dress code). I planned to get a tattoo of the IP's name (once it was finalized). I daydreamed about the merchandise and the fan art people would make about the character I would write. 

And Then...

BioWare terminated my contract two months in. The project was going in a different direction, they had to make cuts, and as the newest writer with the least amount of experience, I was the obvious choice. I held it together during the exit interview and the taxi ride home, barely. 

You know that feeling when you miss a step on a staircase? That feeling of disorientation when your foot meets empty air when you expected solid ground? Imagine feeling that for a week. Just total, empty shock, with no idea where you're going to end up. I knew my position was a one-year contract. I knew there was a possibility they wouldn't renew. It had come up in my interview, actually, and the interviewer had said, "Even if we don't renew, you'll have a year with BioWare on top of a published novel under your belt. You can get a writing job anywhere with that."

But what can I do with two months at BioWare?

Losing my job at BioWare is probably the closest I've ever come to experiencing a breakup. I didn't go full Miss Havisham and turn all the clocks in the house to 11:00 am (the time of my final HR meeting, but who remembers such petty details?) while replaying the Suicide Mission from Mass Effect 2 over and over in my BioWare 20 T-shirt and Tali hoodie. But I came close. I placed an inordinate amount of significance on diary entries and receipts and even credit card charges that happened before January 19th, 2016 - I bought this before I knew what was going to happen. I went to this restaurant expecting to have a job this week. I had no idea what was in store for me when I made this appointment.

What Now?

And once you've found and lost your dream job, how the hell do you find another job? Game writing positions are dearer than pearls - finding a game writing job in Canada was lucky enough, never mind one in my own home town. And convincing an American video game company like Tell Tale Games or a British one like Failbetter Games to sponsor me for a working visa based on a novel and two month's game writing experience? What are the odds of that? 

And after having and losing an amazing writing job, is it worth trying again for another writing job? I didn't quit my administrator job of five years for BioWare - I'd already tendered my notice as I was planning on attending Vancouver Film School in January to study screenwriting. I withdrew from film school for BioWare, and the relief I felt that I wouldn't have to move away and I wouldn't have to empty out my savings convinced me I was making the right choice. Once I lost my job at BioWare, my desire to go to film school was similarly torpedoed. I'd opened the door to my fears of Leaving Home and Spending All My Money - and there they remain, ready and waiting for me whenever I try to revisit the idea of reapplying to VFS. 

Would you really want to leave all your family and friends and spend all the money you've saved over ten years to get into an industry that can kick you out after only two months?

So the remaining option is to go back to the way things were before - working in a stable, administrative field by day and writing by night. But once you've lost your dream job, how can you go back to looking for administrative jobs? You're supposed to apply for jobs you want, jobs that improve on the experience you have, jobs you envision being happy and fulfilled in. How do you apply for jobs knowing this will not and will never be the case? How do you keep from going crazy? 

Moving On

I'm still wrestling with what to do. I've applied to numerous jobs - mostly administrative, but I did take a shot on an Ubisoft scriptwriter position in Montreal. I haven't written off Vancouver Film School just yet. I suspect it's a choice millions of people (artists especially) have to worry over: ordinary stability or uncertain greatness? Do I go for a stable job and fight to keep up an artistically and socially impassioned home life? Or try for the fantastic artistic career and all the insecurity that comes with it? 

Out of all this, I remain certain about two things. The first is that I am not bitter towards BioWare. I realized it that first, awful afternoon when the taxi dropped me off and I collapsed onto my bed. The first thing I saw when I came up for air (and the first thing I see when I wake up every morning) is my Dragon Age Inquisition calendar pinned to my cork board. The second thing I see are my Tali and Garrus figurines on my windowsill. And the Tali hoodie on its hook on the back of my bedroom door. Dragon Age: Origins is my comfort game. The Trespasser soundtrack is my go-to secret to writing productivity. I still follow and converse with all of my BioWare writing friends on Twitter. 

The termination of my contract wasn't personal. It's a sadly frequent reality of the video game industry. BioWare has a lot of separate moving parts, and the parts I came into contact with during my employment with them treated me extraordinarily well. If I was sent back in time to choose between applying to BioWare knowing I'd only have two months, and never applying at all, I'd do it all over again without question. And if tomorrow, in a month, in a year, another Assistant Writer position becomes available, I will apply again. Without question.

The second thing I remain certain of is that I can still write, and that it will always make me happy whether or not I do it for money. Every day, after I spend the morning scrolling through job postings and sending out resumes, I open my latest journal or scribbler and the words continue to flow from my pen. Regardless of the panic I feel at being unemployed, the self-consciousness at having to define myself in every cover letter as an administrative assistant, the frustration and longing at discovering a game writing internship is only open to recent graduates who live in the United States, I can still come up with ideas that take me away from everything but my own mind. I'm still a writer. Hell, I'm a great writer, and I can always take pride in that.

I don't need to be paid to write.

But .... it would be nice.