Review: Everyone Knows your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Katharina is an illiterate widow, known by her neighbours for her herbal remedies and the success of her children, including her eldest, Johannes, who is the Imperial Mathematician and renowned author of the laws of planetary motion. It’s enough to make anyone jealous, and Katharina has done herself no favours by being out and about and in everyone’s business.”

– HarperCollins.ca

It’s difficult to guess the genre of Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch based on its premise. The first few pages aren’t written with the aim of clarifying this, and I read the opening scenes with a feeling of uncertainty, half worried and half amused. When a widow named Katharina Kepler is first accused of witchcraft, she doesn’t seem sure of how to react to the news either. Despite her family’s alarm, she seems inclined at first to laugh it off.

So you wonder: Will this be a courtroom drama? Social commentary? Comedy or tragedy?

I had no idea what to expect, and that was fine with me. The unconventional approach to describing the legal battle, the juxtaposition of satirical characters against the cutting realism of the setting – marvellous. I think I would have enjoyed it no matter how it ended. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch will definitely be a favourite book of 2021.

A glance at the GoodReads reviews shows that a few people were let down by what they felt was a discrepancy between the premise and the actual plot, but I think Galchen’s varying of narrators and pace works brilliantly .

With a dexterity that reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Galchen incorporates the 17th century’s new vogue for silver forks and the heartbreak of its high child mortality rate into a crisply modern narrative about jealousy and suspicion. Nothing feels anachronistic – and yet nothing feels alien either.

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I’m Published!

A few months ago, I had an idea for an article. I’d noticed that neurodivergent representation in fantasy fiction was all over the map – unrealistic, plot devices, insulting portrayals or not portrayed at all. I thought, “well, I’ve been reading fantasy since someone first put a chapter book in my hands (about twenty years ago), and I write and read about being neurodivergent, and I am neurodivergent. I could write something about the kind of research and planning that’s needed for good neurodivergent characters.”

So I wrote an article and pitched it to Mythic Scribes, a site which specialises in fantasy for fantasy writers, and they accepted it.

HUGE thanks are therefore due to Mythic Scribes for publishing my work: Writing Neurodivergent Characters in Fantasy.

Enjoy!

In other news, I’m planning to add some more in-depth analyses of neurodivergent characters in speculative fiction (sci fi, fantasy, dystopian etc.). Among the books I’m considering are The Parable of the Sower, The Lightning Thief, and On the Edge of Gone. Are there any other titles/characters you’d like to see in the discussion?

If you’re interested in learning more about writing neurodivergent characters or real-life neurodivergent folks, check out these resources:

Links & Pursuits September 2021

Autumn is nearly here! After another summer without air conditioning this can only be good news in my house. I’m thinking of having a kind of mini harvest festival to celebrate the turn of the season – something involving apples and a bonfire.

Recently I found…
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Progress Report: Summer 2021

Anyone who’s read my blog posts chronologically will notice a lapse. This is because I’ve been working lots and typing little. However, the summer scurrying has eased and I was able to grab a day to throw this together.

Consider it a journal entry for the first six months of 2021.

The Novel-in-Progress

Chapter twelve was finished in mid-July, marking the approximate completion of one third of the NIP. One third of draft three finished! There were cookies to celebrate (alas, they were devoured before I could arrange them for a photograph). Overall the first months of 2021 have been quite productive, by my standards, with nine chapters written and lots of research done.

Current focus has turned away from the NIP for now, as you’ll read below. I’m not sure when I’ll return to it: hours at my job always increase in the fall (good news for my bank account), and if I start classes in September that’ll use up all of my computer spoons.

Oh well. Winter is a better time for storytelling anyway…

The Life

…has been lifey (yes, I know ‘lifey’ isn’t a word, but it’s quicker to write than ‘full of contradictions and inspiration and improvements and pain episodes and my cousin’s wedding (congrats M!) which was wonderful and also reminded me of my romantically hopeless situation’).

Healthwise, my posture and muscle tone have improved greatly under the guidance of my physiotherapist, but no long-term remedies for my misaligned bits have been proposed. I’m on a waiting list for a surgeon in Toronto, and if I’m lucky I’ll see them before the end of the year.

I’ve read a lot of books and articles, especially on disability and justice and writing.

I started a painting of a scissor-tailed flycatcher which hasn’t been touched since February (when your dexterity is limited, hobbies fall to the bottom of the priority list), but I still intend to finish it.

Yes, another one…

Sock toys were no longer a thing until suddenly, last week, I finished a donkey that had been waiting around in a basket. My bag full of sock toys is overflowing. Should I try selling them, or just give them away to people with grandkids?

The Future

Uncertain. Potential for more schooling as an English language teacher or digital marketing specialist. Many more questions need to be asked, though, regarding job opportunities and the nature of the work, so I may not be able to start any classes until January. If that’s the case, I’ll be able to work on the NIP and this blog after all.

I might be getting published. A query I sent recently was well received, and if the article I wrote gets similar approval…stay tuned!

As always, more writing to follow.

Review of Refuse: CanLit in Ruins

Refuse: CanLit in Ruins is edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, and features writing by Joshua Whitehead, Alicia Elliott, Kai Cheng Thom, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, and many more.

I’m not sure how it happened, but at a young age I internalised the belief that Canadian culture needed particular support in order to hold its own on the international stage. Canadian music, sport, film, and technology were all to be loudly praised, lest Canadian kids think that we never contributed anything to world – or worse, that Canadian culture doesn’t exist. As a literature and creative writing student I made a point of taking classes which examined Canadian novels, poems, and drama for evidence that CanLit is indeed alive. Fortunately, this evidence exists in abundance: every generation since at least the early nineteenth century has written material to support the existence of a national identity.

And this brings me to another internalised belief: that value is measured by what you can produce for posterity. At present I consider myself a very low-value writer. Yes, I have a novel nearing completion and yes, university helped improve my skills and portfolio, but the career I dreamed of has yet to begin. This website is the sum of my published work so far.

So far, I remind myself.

Last year I picked up a book called Refuse: CanLit in Ruins and discovered that my tangling together of value, production, identity, and respect paralleled a similar phenomenon in Canadian literature as a whole. In retrospect, I’ve been circling this problem for years on both a personal and professional level, but Refuse has shown me what lurks behind the façade of my dream job.

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Books for Canada: Truth, Solidarity, Hope

June was a month full of reminders.

On June 1st, my colleagues at work raised the Pride Flag, then lowered it to commemorate the lives of the 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former residential school near Kamloops, BC.

Days later, researching autistic creators online, I discovered a vibrant community I didn’t know I had, including Canadians Paige Layle and Sarah Kurchak. This joy was tempered by the discovery that much of their work seeks to debunk myths and stereotypes that still persist decades after science and our experiences proved them wrong.

Week by week, reports of other Indigenous people buried in unmarked graves near former residential schools accumulated. As of June 24, the number of bodies found stands at around 1000.

In the June 28  issue of Globe and Mail, I read of Puja Bagri’s shock at being the target of racist harassment in a grocery store. “Not a single person,” she writes, “spoke up in our defence.”

Reminders, in the lead-up to Canada Day, of choices Canadians made and continue to make.

Continue reading “Books for Canada: Truth, Solidarity, Hope”

All Writers Need Ergonomics

If there’s a writing rule that you should never break, this is the one.

You might have come across the concept of ergonomics before, in relation to workplace safety, repetitive strain injuries, or posture. It’s vital to everybody regardless of their job, but right now I want to focus on why it’s especially important for writers to learn about.

How can ergonomics help writers?

An ergonomic work station is kind to the body that does the writing. Most of us scribblers work at desks or tables, so in order to produce the most writing with the least amount of pain we need to adapt the “standard” design of things to make them more body-friendly. Productive Writers has a great diagram of how this should look and recommendations for where everything should be positioned.

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Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 2 out of 5.

To be clear: I did not give Gideon the Ninth two stars because I thought it was awful from beginning to end. I actually thought it had a lot of potential, and my rating reflects my disappointment in how that potential was handled. This is a judgement of Tamsyn Muir’s style, not of her worth as a writer.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way (and hopefully prevented reactionary comments), let’s proceed to the book: lots of skeletons, some interplanetary travel, several sarcastic necromancers, and a bit of martial arts. The first book in the Locked Tomb Trilogy, Gideon the Ninth mixes genres with glee. Its title character, a teenage girl trapped in indentured servitude on a dreary planet called the Ninth, is desperate to join the army (here called the “Cohort”). Harrow, her employer and the de facto ruler of the Ninth, is desperate to keep Gideon at her side, apparently out of sheer vindictiveness. Their early confrontations display Harrow’s skill as a necromancer (specialising in magical bone constructs – creepy but cool) and Gideon’s endless sarcasm.

Note: major spoilers below.

The sarcasm was the first tripping point for me, cluttering Gideon’s dialogue and the narration and distracting from details of world and character that become important later on.  Luckily Gideon proves to be more than a self-centred snark machine, defending and caring for a variety of other characters more deserving than Harrow, but that poses a second problem: how does Gideon, neglected and abused since infancy, have such a pure heart? While reading the book I shrugged and continued to suspend my disbelief. Now that I’m finished, I see that Gideon’s character arc is one of the pieces that didn’t quite fit. Harrow, whose childhood was also traumatic, is more believable, styling herself as the villain to deal with her anger and guilt.

But the story progresses swiftly, bringing Gideon and Harrow to planet First along with the heirs of other planets’ governments (all necromancers) and their cavaliers (essentially bodyguards). Gideon has been promised freedom if she acts as Harrow’s cavalier while Harrow and the other necromancers chip away at a riddle which holds the clue to becoming a Lyctor (a powerful, immortal servant to the God-King).

Though Muir describes and paces it well, the set-up reminded me a bit too much of The Hunger Games, especially as the bodies pile up and everyone starts picking allies. The secondary characters in Gideon the Ninth are better drawn, however, and its magic/science blend of necromancy kept me interested until the end. I thought the middle section of the book was the most enjoyable.

Alas, I did not enjoy the end. As mentioned earlier, Gideon’s character arc doesn’t feel plausible to me. Her budding friendship/romance with Harrow around three quarters into the story is believable, but her proclamation of loyalty as she jumps to her death is not. Yes, she saves everyone by her sacrifice and yes, she may just be saying that devotion to Harrow and the Ninth is better than submitting to their enemy. Or maybe her last living words are as sarcastic as her first. Either way, the classism of the servant’s sacrifice for her Lady irritated me.

End of spoilers.

Gideon the Ninth ends with many subplots unsolved, leaving some intrigue for the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, but I’m not sure I’ll read it. If you’ve read any of the Locked Tomb Trilogy, let me know what you thought of it in the comments.

Beyond Awareness

Sometimes – inspired by my library’s “Read Woke” list, or by the time of year – I make an effort to learn about experiences and identities different from my own. I believe ignorance is the root of several evils, so I try to educate myself, usually with books.

Last month was Autism Awareness month, but that didn’t change my reading habits. I’ve been reading books about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for over ten years. Recently I decided that books were no longer enough for me, that I needed to engage with the discussion and push “autism awareness” out of the bounds of April.

So here we go.

Early last month I heard a sportscaster mention the fact that it was the time of year to be aware of autism. “Such an important issue,” he said. His colleague agreed, and they went back to calling the game.

Now, I don’t resent either of these guys for making such a brief statement on the subject. The average sportscaster (heck, the average person) can’t be expected to shoehorn some autism trivia into a conversation about basketball. Possibly they weren’t comfortable discussing a subject they felt they didn’t understand. That’s fair.

I, however, am working on ways to shoehorn autism into my daily life. I have both a professional and a personal interest in ASD. One of the main characters in my NIP is on the spectrum, and so am I. I won’t get into my own story here – I plan to write a few essays instead and submit them for publication, where they’ll have a wider audience and I will (hopefully) receive compensation for dissecting my heart on the page – but I am looking forward to sharing the hows and whys of my neurodivergent characters.

In the meantime I’m asking my non-autistic readers to tackle their own ignorance about autistic people. Seek the stories we write, the films and podcasts and art we make. Here are a few examples:

There is a great desire in the autistic community for the focus to change from awareness to acceptance. April is over, but we don’t pack away our stimming, communication differences, or sensory differences like holiday decorations, and nor should we have to.

It may look strange, but there is a path there. I promise.

Expect more blogging about autistic authors and their #ownvoices books, and about writing autistic characters, in the near future.

My Novel in Progress: A History (Part 2)

A follow-up to My Novel in Progress: A History (Part 1).

The Author Abroad

2016: In September I begin a year of studying abroad in Norwich, England. Within a few weeks of arrival I’ve found my favourite grocery stall at the market, toured most of the major sites, and signed up for a library card. I might not do much writing this year, but the culture and history of the city gives me a lot to research.

I take a class in poetry writing and churn out pages of villanelles, free verse, sonnets and sestinas. Apparently my brain really needed a break from all that prose. In my spare time, I forage through the library for books on early modern history.

The poetic passages in the NIP feel more and more contrived, so I change them to regular prose. Without the line breaks they still have a strong rhythm, and a consistent style – my style? – begins to emerge.

2017: On holiday in January. The amount of medieval architecture still present in France and Holland astounds me. In Germany there really is a type of doughnut called ein Berliner, and there is snow. I missed snow in Norwich.

Back at University, my most challenging class is feminist literature. We discuss historical context, rhetoric, intersectionality. It occurs to me that no matter what the author’s intent may have been, readers will always scour a text for its meaning. I’d rather be deliberate than accidental about message and metaphor, so I work specific themes and events into my writing.

Continue reading “My Novel in Progress: A History (Part 2)”