Experimental Film by Gemma Files

Read: 26 September, 2016

I picked up A Book of Tongues on a whim a few years ago, but I had trouble with the writing style and never really got into it. At that point, I had largely written off Files until a friend gave Experimental Film a good review. Even better? He mentioned that she’s Canadian! Well, it seemed rather clear that I would have to give her another shot.

Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, a former film history teacher and current nothing. Out of work, and with her only experience in a field she isn’t qualified to work in, she finds herself stuck caring for her autistic son, and desperate to create an identity for herself.

The novel is a ghost story, but it’s also about the frustration of needing to mean something – particularly as a stay-at-home parent and the parent of a child who needs more than the average amount of attention.

It follows the standard psychological thriller of never being quite clear whether the supernatural enemy is really real, or whether the protagonist is simply losing her mind. I liked that, in this story, the protagonist is at the very centre of everything. There are characters who believe in the supernatural enemy and there are characters who don’t, but they all circle around the protagonist – they are all convinced, or not, by her (as opposed to the version of the story where the protagonist goes to the small town where everyone believes in the enemy but only she actually sees it, for example – such a town does exist in Experimental Film, but only historically).

Where Files adds to that standard horror trope is in having an enemy of a perfectly mundane sort – an obsessive and unpredictable stalker who is seemingly unstoppable. And while I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mrs Whitcomb/Lady Midday, Lois’s human enemy had my stomach in knots.

Which is as good a segue way as any to my thoughts on Lady Midday. In short, meh. There was some very creepy imagery, and I certainly felt primed to be scared several times throughout the novel, but there was never any “but whose hand was I holding?” moment. When I read The Woman In Black, I was forced to plough through a large portion of the book in a single sitting because I was too afraid to get out of bed, but Experimental Film never brought me anywhere close to that point. And at the end, when Lady Midday is finally confronted, she just didn’t live up to the hype. Files made the mistake of showing us the shark, and Lady Midday lost her creepiness.

I did really enjoy Experimental Film, even if it didn’t quite work for me as horror. The discussions of film were fantastic, and Lois’s descriptions of the Canadian film scene, in particular, were especially interesting. I have a friend who is a film-maker here, who participates in the festivals and such, and so I’ve gotten to see glimpses of that world through her. Getting to live it – albeit vicariously – here was a real treat.

I liked the writing style a lot better than A Book of Tongues. Lois is something of a meandering narrator, but it fit her character. In this case, the narrative style actually added something to the character development. It helped that her asides were often very interesting. This was one of those books that I fell into and read very quickly without needing to get myself another cuppa every few minutes.

The characterisations were, on the whole, excellently done. Most of the characters felt real – in that it was very easy to see myself in Lois (as a woman who was tricked into being a stay-at-home parent by economics and who is currently trying to re-enter the workforce and finding my self-confidence to be a little lacking), I’ve known Wrobs and Safies and Lees and Simons. They all felt like real people. Mostly. Doctors and cops felt a little removed, a little absurd. Dr. Harrison, in particular, didn’t act like any doctor I’ve ever met – he behaved so unprofessionally. But these are very minor characters that are only encountered briefly, and they are almost lost in the sea of excellent, rounded people.

The discussion of autism in the book was a little difficult for me. A large part of Lois’s character arc is in her coming to love (and be loved by) her autistic son, Clark. That acceptance of who he is is hard won, which means seeing a number of scenes in which she is demanding that he make eye contact, complaining about him, and even saying rather horrendous things about him while he’s right there on the assumption that he just won’t understand. This is an accurate representation of how many parents treat their autistic children, but it’s a painful one to watch. I can’t exactly fault a horror book for giving me the heebies, but this way of treating autistic children is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to tell if Files is refuting or simply parroting it. And, at some point, even unflattering portrayals are only adding to the noise. So even though Lois has her epiphany at the end, I still found the scenes discussing Clark to be very uncomfortable.

Experimental Film is a fun little horror, with an emphasis on the mystery rather than on the scares. It’s a psychological horror, too, with plenty to doubt about our narrator’s reliability. It’s a fast read, and it’s an interesting one. That it deals so authentically with Ontario and the Canadian film scene is an added bonus.

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Young, Sick, and Invisible by Ania Bula

Read: 15 August, 2016

Full disclosure, Ania is a close friend and I read an early draft of the book back in 2014 (I’m even named in the acknowledgements, albeit with a slight misspelling!), so this is my second read through.

In Young, Sick, and Invisible, Ania tells the story of her illness – from the first aches and pains, though the diagnosis, and on to coping. She talks about dealing with doctors (the good and the bad), navigating school and employment, relationships and sex, family, and even the occasional excursion into “alternative medicine.” She offers helpful tips for other sufferers of chronic illness, and tips for those of us who want to help but don’t quite know where to start.

The writing style sometimes lapses into a laundry list with too little narrative scaffolding. It would have been nice if the book could have focused more on Ania’s experience, rather than her experiences, because that’s where the book is at its most interesting.

Even so, Young, Sick, and Invisible is a good primer on disability issues (including accessibility, ways in which the Canadian medical system needs improving, and how Canada handles long term unemployment for medical reasons), all wrapped around an interesting personal account.

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The Fionavar Tapestry #3: The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 29 July, 2016

In the final book of the Fionavar Tapestry, the armies of the Light and Dark meet at last in Andarian.

In the final book, some of the problems have been corrected. The disjointed tone of the five modern Canadians in a high fantasy setting has been done away with – all five Canadians have thoroughly adopted the local way of speaking.

Of course, the high fantasy lingo is its own problem. Kay’s prose gets described as “poetic” and “lyrical,” which basically seems to mean that Kay uses a thesaurus when a perfectly common word would have sufficed, and he mangles sentence flow. See exhibit A: “For a long time Coll of Taerlindel at the helm of his ship had fought the wind” (p.126).

I’m not a fan of the high fantasy lingo, but I can deal with it as long as it isn’t too excessive. Kay teeters at the line.

My other big complaint about the book (and, really, the series in general) is that the stated scope of the story is so large – not only is the whole world at stake, but all other worlds as well! – and yet the geography is so small. Characters get from one end of a country to another in a day or two on horseback, and there are only a handful of countries to begin with (and only two that feel more substantial than a handful of hamlets, both with only one proper city each). Even so, Kay seems so disturbed by distance and travel time that he’s still given half the main characters the ability to teleport.

The scope problem extends even further. Despite Fionavar being the template upon which all other worlds are patterned, it is incredibly European. The Cathal have an orientalism to them, but most of the mythology Kay uses has a very western/northern European flavour to it.

The worst part about these issues is that they could have been so easily avoided. Doing away with the “through the wardrobe” trope would have solved a lot of the tone issues. Having the world of Fionavar, and its conflicts, matter for them own sakes rather than going on about the pattern on which all other worlds are based would have solved most of the scale issues. But that would require Kay to trust in his own narrative, and to trust that his Canadian readers could care about non-Canadian characters.

But all of my whining has to do with the series as a whole. On its own, The Darkest Road is actually pretty okay. I enjoyed seeing how all the various plot threads resolved themselves, and there were quite a few very satisfying payoffs. Had Kay dumped the “through the wardrobe” trope and condensed the narrative into a single book, I could have overlooked many of the story’s other issues.

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The Fionavar Tapestry #2: The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 2 July, 2016

The adventure continues for our little band of Canadians in Fionavar. When we last left our heroes, they had escaped from Fionavar in order to save Jennifer, then a captive of the generic Dark Lord. Now, they must find a way back in time to save the world where their lives have, finally, become interesting.

Every time I mention to a fantasy fan that I’m reading the Fionavar Tapestry, I get some variation of, “Isn’t Kay just wonderful?” And… I’m just not seeing it. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not great. There are a lot of ideas, but they don’t connect with each other well (the tapestry imagery, for example, is lovely, but it has little impact on the story).

The tone of the writing takes itself far too seriously. It’s going for Tolkienistic heroic myths, but it never comes down from there. Tolkien was able to make it work by more authentically following the mythic form (which includes down time and a bit of humour). The language is at least more consistent now (I had complained that the first book keeps bounding back and forth between modern speech and Ye Olde Heroic Speeche), but it’s done that by making it all bland Ye Olde Heroic Speeche.

There characters seem rather interchangeable. They each have a function, but that seems to be as deep as their individuality goes. Every single one of them is heroic, self-sacrificing, stoic, etc.

Which brings me to the problem with every character being self-sacrificing. They all stumble over each other in their rush to be the one to die for the cause, but Kay is clearly worrying about running out of characters. So as each takes their turn to die heroically, they are swiftly spared by some godly intervention or brand new rule that allows them to be resurrected. By the time we got to an actual death that appears to have stuck, I wasn’t able to care. As it was happening, I assumed that he’ll be resurrected anyway so why does it matter? When the book ends and the character remains dead, the moment has passed and it’s too late for me to feel the weight of the sacrifice.

Though it was established in The Summer Tree that all worlds connect and that Fionavar is an archetype, it didn’t really mean much. Here, Kay introduces King Arthur, who is resurrected in our world and brought to Fionavar where he is known by all. Finally, the idea that all the worlds are connected has some meaning!

Except that it lacked verisimilitude. Where does the history diverge between worlds? Why is Arthur’s true name Arthur, and known as such in Fionavar, when there’s no precedent for Germanic names there? It’s also clear that Jennifer is Guinevere reborn, which dooms here to repeat the Arthurian tragedy, but Arthur is his old self resurrected. The pattern is already broken, so there’s no reason to think that they would be compelled to repeat the pattern. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an Arthur reborn in Canada, who then conflicts with the Arthur resurrected? Kay has a lot of interesting proto-ideas that he throws into the series, but they rarely feel thought through.

My final complaint is rather unfair: Nearly everything I like in this series was later done a little better with Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, I’m noticing more and more similarities: The horn that wakes sleeping warriors? The mistrusted society of magic-using women (who are resentful of men in general, and particularly men who use magic)? The tapestry imagery? The people who are reborn versions of ancient people? The trapped Dark Lord who breaks free and wants to destroy all reality (not just this world, but all worlds)? But here, the ideas are hodge-podge. They don’t build on each other to form a cohesive reality. Instead, they all just… coexist. For all his flaws, Jordan did do a much better job in tying them together.

I have one book left, and I’ll read it because I’m a completionist. But I have to say that, so far, I am not impressed. For all the rave reviews this series has gotten (though I did get a few Kay fans to admit that Fionavar is “not his best work), I’m disappointed. There are a lot of interesting ideas, and I could see how they could spark the imagination for someone who hasn’t encountered them elsewhere already, but the series does not hold up.

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The Fionavar Tapestry #1: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 12 June, 2016

Back before I had to be careful to avoid horder status, I would peruse the book section of my local thrift stores and pick up anything with an interesting cover. That’s how I ended up with three copies of The Summer Tree.

Despite circling the book in this way for a few years, it kept getting deprioritized for reading because, as the back cover puts it, it’s “an epic adventure written in the rich tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” Has a less appealing sentence ever been written?

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy having read that sort of high fantasy. The problem is that I don’t often enjoy the actual reading of it, in the present tense. I love the ideas, I love learning the lore, but it takes itself too seriously. It’s too pretentious.

And The Summer Tree does fall into that trap, but at least it’s only for 323 pages. I can endure anything for 323 pages.

Despite the claim that the book is like Lord of the Rings, I found it reminded me much more of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Or, perhaps, it would be more proper to say that The Wheel of Time reminded me, retroactively, of The Summer Tree, now that I look up the publication dates. I wouldn’t call plagiarism, but some similarities are rather striking at times.

The tone is a bit of a weird mix. This is a portal fantasy, so you have the high fantasy thees and thous and highfalutin language, and then you get the informal modern speech of the protagonists. It might possibly be funny if the trope hadn’t already been done to death and the rest of the book didn’t take itself so seriously. But as it was, it just felt awkward and jarring. It’s hard to see what Kay might have done differently, though, once he’d locked himself into the portal plot. I think the lesson here is to just avoid the portal plot.

I did have a rough time getting into the book. Part of that might be that I was in a car (and therefore had to keep taking breaks to avoid tossing my cookies all about), part might be that I was just coming down off the very different writing of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Either way, the first fifty or so pages felt like real drudgery. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these take place in the “real world” (which, in this case, is Toronto). After that, however, I found that the characters grew on me. I was invested in them (well, some of them – enough of them).

It helped that the pacing is consistent, with the exposition mingled with action. Given just how much exposition had to be covered (and covered again, as the protagonists are rarely together and must learn the backstory separately), that’s pretty impressive.

My big complaint about the book is its treatment of women. Of the four named women who are dead before the start of the story, three died for men (one to stop her lover from doing more evil, one out of grief because her loved died, and the third out of grief/shame because her lover was exiled). The fourth’s only function in the story is to be dead so that a male character can have an angsty backstory.

Of the living women, we have a princess and future queen whose only role in the plot is to be tricked into sex in a scene played for comedy. We also have one of the five “real world” characters whose only role seems to be to get kidnapped and tortured by having her body (and, specifically, her nipples) pinched (SPOILERS: and then be raped).

There are a handful of other female characters, but their roles are nearly as passive. They do a few things, make a few decisions, but it is the men who go out and have adventures and fight the baddies and carouse. I lost track of all the women the main male characters have sex with, but the only female characters getting any action are coerced into it.

And it just seems so… unnecessary. What is the point of pushing women to the sidelines like this? Of denying them agency and personality? Of raping and killing them, over and over again, to serve the plot? Maybe these books are a product of their time, or maybe the fantasy genre’s conventions make these nasty attitudes difficult to see and avoid. I don’t know, but it’s frustrating and unappealing to see authors view people like me as not really human, and certainly not capable of being interesting. We are sprinkled in because even Tolkien couldn’t write a world that is completely free of women, but we are the mothers, the lovers, the unruly daughters – our pain matters only insofar as it causes men pain, our struggles matter only insofar as they further men’s interests, our agency matters only insofar as it threatens men. It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing.

I will read the second book in the trilogy, and I’ll give Kay a chance to fix his thoughtless parroting of tropes when it comes to his female characters. But every book I read like this makes me less inclined to bother with male fantasy authors in future. We can do better.

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Shaman’s Daughter by Nan Salerno & Rosamond Vanderburgh

Read: 10 September, 2012

I’ve always had a soft spot for stories about First Nations people, though there’s a very thin line between respect for the cultures and an idolization that sublimates the humanity of the cultures. Shaman’s Daughter, a collaboration between an anthropologist and a professor of literature, manages to present a suitably real picture of life at the turn of the last century.

The story follows Supaya (called Sophie by the whites) as she grows into adulthood, raises a family, and grows old. Through her life, we get to see the friction between the Church and the practitioners of the traditional faith and healing, the loss of identity of the residential schools and, later, the struggle to integrate and earn a living as an Indian, and the impact of World Wars 1&2 on the First Nations people.

The historical span is broad enough to show the changes as they were happening and, to some extent, their resolution.

The writing is also quite decent, and the book kept me engaged from start to finish.

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Fruits of the Earth by Frederick Philip Grove

Read: 2004

Fruits of the Earth is the chronicle of Abe Spalding, a farmer possessed by “land hunger.” He leaves his stony and untillable farm in Ontario to start a new farm in the prairies, leaving his wife behind until he has established himself in their new home. The story is as much of his land as it is of Abe, following the two through the years as they shape each other.

Grove masterfully captures his subject, even in his writing style. The novel is slow and plodding, as it watches the passage of years. If you need a faster pace and action, this is absolutely not the novel for you. Instead, Fruits of the Earth draws the reader in to the life of a Prairie farmer, with its struggles, tragedies, successes, and endless cycles. It’s a beautiful novel, and by the end I knew more about wheat growing than I ever thought I would.

It’s a Canadian classic that helps the reader experience – it only vicariously – a part of the country’s history. This isn’t the story of great wars or grand political gestures, but rather of the “little people” who shaped the country with their hands. As an immigrant to Canada, I feel that Fruits of the Earth helped me understand the country a little betters.

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Read: 2006

Kiss of the Fur Queen is the story of two Cree brothers who were taken from their families to be raised in one of Canada’s infamous residential schools. The story follows them as adults as they come to terms with what happened to them.

It’s a magical story that interweaves the compelling story of the brothers and the more mystical elements of Cree tradition. Highway’s style is lyrical, but with a gritty realism that prevents it from ever seeming too purple.

I read Kiss of the Fur Queen as part of my university course on First Nations literature (as the “modern fiction” entry) and it was by far my favourite book of the course, perhaps of the entire year; and the beauty of the novel has stayed with me over the years. I can’t recommend it enough!

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Bear by Marian Engel

Read: 2005

Lou is a recluse, working in a basement and rarely going out. After five years of living like a mole, she is given an assignment: to catalogue a 19th century library in northern Ontario. Soon after she arrives, she encounters the house’s only other inhabitant – a bear.

This is a rather shocking story about a woman exploring her sexuality with a bear. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, it’s graphic.

I read this book as an assignment for my Canadian Literature course in university – a course that prompted this émigré to define Canadian literature  as “roughing it in the bush with animals.”

Reading this book for a class was a great experience. We spent about two weeks on it, during which we had to discuss, as a class, sex with bears. By the end of the unit, our chairs were polished with the amount of uncomfortable shifting we were doing. The best part was that, at the beginning of the year, we all had to sign up to read a portion of a book (pages to be decided by the professor) in class. We got to pick the book, but of course no one had read Bear yet so no one knew to avoid it. I will always remember that poor girl who had to stand up before at least 50-60 people and read a scene in which a woman has sex with a bear. Her face would have blended in perfectly with a basket of tomatoes.

I initially enjoyed Bear because it was shocking. It was fun to tell my friends about what I was reading for class, and to watch their faces contort in wilful disbelief. But as time passed and I’ve had the chance to remove myself from the “omg, I’m going to be sick” factor, I’ve come to realize that Bear is actually a great work of fiction.

There’s an economy of elements to the book. No character is present who isn’t necessary to Lou’s psychological development. There are no filler scenes. I’ve also come to notice that much of the book is either symbolic or allegoric. Even the house Lou is living in, and her movements within that house throughout the story, can be reinterpreted in view of her transformation.

This is a really good book. It’s rather uncomfortable to read, but it’s short and you then get to say that you’ve read a book about a woman having sex with a bear.

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Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Read: 6 March, 2009

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert have decided, in their old age, to adopt a young orphan boy of about eleven years old to help take of the farm. When a miscommunication leaves them with little red-headed Anne Shirley, they must decide whether to keep this fiery-tempered and talkative girl, who is decidedly not what they had in mind.

POSITIVE: The writing style is superb and truly carried the narrative. Even when the plot dulled, the narrative voice kept me chained to my rocking chair, eagerly turning the page. The characters are often quite funny, especially Mrs. Lynde, and even Anne – who could get really annoying in her self-centredness – grew on me.

NEGATIVE: Some may feel that the plodding and episodic plot is a bit much, though I felt that this made for a very pleasant and unchallenging read. As I mentioned above, Anne could be infuriatingly self-absorbed, even near the end when she had supposedly outgrown her selfishness. This is a very minor point, though.

All in all, I found this to be a very relaxing and pleasant read. It is funny at times, sad at others, and always interesting. I would definitely be open to reading the next in the series.

Thank you, Pat, for this great gift. Does this mean I get to be a Canadian now?

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