Category Archives: Reviews

Limestone Genre Expo, Year 3

I spent a good part of this weekend at the Limestone Genre Expo, in Kingston, Ontario. This is the third year I’ve bought tickets, but only the first time I could pry my introverted butt out and down to the event. I was never entirely sure about what to expect.

As if I always know what to expect when I leave the house. It takes an iron will to break through and the Limestone Genre Expo was well worth the effort.

The Expo portion of the event includes booths from the various writers and publishers represented or attending. The Genre portion of the event is a series of panels and workshops on writing in various genres and cross-genre. The range of topics were wonderful, there was something for everyone, I thought. I thought that because I saw people heading into rooms where I was not going. I was never a lone audience member.

The Limestone part of the event is Kingston, the Limestone City. Limestone is everywhere in Kingston, buildings, outcroppings, carefully arranged gardens, and more.

I made it to a workshop and four panels. In general, the people at the event, both as presenters and attendees, were interested in discussions. There was a lot of laughter in the hallways. In some ways, it felt more like a party.

Flash Fiction Workshop

I arrived late and I didn’t arrive with work in hand. Sounds like my five years at Catholic school.

The workshop leader, Rob Brunet (http://www.robbrunet.com/), walked us through the elements of good flash fiction. It might be nice, for future, to bring one or more prompts in and have us all plow away at a piece. We could talk more about the process once we’ve challenged ourselves with what we’ve heard and read.

But then, as far as creativity goes these days, I always seem to need a prompt.

Rob’s piece was one he’d had published on a flash site that focuses on mysteries, murder mysteries (I assume). His piece about a possible crime, it’s never truly revealed, was gently amusing about a missing man’s whereabouts. Rob encourages flash fiction writers to be on the lookout for those prompts in your life that can lead you many other places.

Melissa Yi (http://melissayuaninnes.com/) came to the workshop and read “Because” a flash piece published in Fiction River Special Edition: Crime (http://www.wmgpublishinginc.com/project/crime/). That was a particularly disturbing piece.

I read “Come Along” which was accepted on http://fiftywordstories.com/.

Extraordinary Bodies Panel

In advance of commenting on the panel, I do want to say that as a person who became disabled as an adult, I admit to a prejudice about disabilities. I didn’t think I deserved this fate. It’s taken six long years of struggle for me to come to terms with my own disability. The second concern I had going in had to do with cultural appropriation.

The panel was Cait Gordon (https://caitgordon.com/), Pat Flewwelling, Laura Baumbach (http://www.laurabaumbach.com/), Dominic Bercier (http://www.mirrorcomics.com/), Jennifer Carole Lewis (http://pastthemirror.com/), and Rick Blechta (http://www.rickblechta.com/). The moderator was Curtis Brunet (from Cogeco Cable, a sponsor of the event and provider of interviews with and readings by the authors attending the event).

The panel began with the authors making a point they felt was important. Generally, it was agreed that the disability needs to be integral to the character but not, necessarily, the plot. Every author spoke of the need for research and reviews to ensure you are handling the subject matter correctly, sensitively, and not too gently. As Cait declared, “Don’t make us pathetic, let us have personality. And sex!”

There was a lively discussion as a number of audience members were people with mental and/or physical disabilities. It did seem, overall, that the panel was singing to the choir. Nonetheless, here are some pointers that came out of the session:

  • no miracle cures
  • no inspiration porn – using tropes to make the angels sing and everything hunky-dory
  • you may have to spoon-feed some readers, but keep the feeding within the storyline

And here are some suggested reading:

  • Borderline by Mishell Baker
  • Journey of a Thousand Steps by Madona Skaff-Koren
  • The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I know there’s more out there.

Poetry and Spoken Word Panel

I admit, during the discussion on poetry and the spoken word, I wrote a surreal poem. I was trying for surreal.

the black cat came in through the back door
a duck quacked sullenly in the dark
this was the end, by life takes a turn
suddenly, a small dog barks, raising cain
cain kills his brother, according to the stories
round the fire to keep the night at bay

It’s not great, but it occupied my mind while everyone settled in. Got me in the mood.

The panel was Alyssa Cooper (https://alyssa-cooper-author-publisher.myshopify.com/), Bob MacKenzie, Sandra Kasturi (http://www.sandrakasturi.com/), Anita Dolman (http://anitadolman.blogspot.ca/), and Janet Kellough (http://www.janetkellough.com/). The moderator was Kate Heartfelt.

This was an interesting panel if only because almost everything that Bob said, he seemed to preface with “I’m going to disagree with you on…” enter topic or point here. It began to sound more like a verbal tick than anything else.

There was a discussion of the difference between “page” poetry and “spoken” or “performance” poetry. In answer to a question from the audience, the authors debated the idea that writing for performance changes the shape of poetry as you write. Others felt that both forms were worked the same. The shape of poetry on the page communicates, or can communicate, just as pauses, body motion, and voice can enhance or emphasize the various elements of the poem. I’m just guessing here.

I’m delighted that poetry is blossoming under the care of an oral tradition. The Internet age allows us to share of oral traditions with a much larger audience.

Q&A with a Forensic Investigator Panel

I was thrilled to get in to listen to Jeff Smith, an investigator with the Kingston Police Force. Jeff is a soft-spoken man with a lot of experience to convey. There were eager, often repetitive, questions from across the audience. Much of which focused on the details of a murder investigation:

  • when were suspects questioned (as soon as possible, as often as useful)
  • what do the crime scene investigators do (collect data)
  • when are autopsies needed and who determines that (on-scene officers determine if it is a suspicious death, an autopsy the next day)
  • are people on bail forced to wear trackers (no, it’s very expensive to outfit an individual with an ankle monitor)
  • are shows like The First 48 realistic (no, not at all, although Jeff compared the time at the start of a murder investigation to an ice cream cone saying you want to get things done before the ice cream melts)

And so, I give you this:

My heart is scored with the sensation of birth
Striated from your barrel of rage, I am dumped, squalling
You spun me like a cartridge in my daddy’s old rifle

Deep in the shade of an old oak tree, I plan
Your demise I imagine, your painful death I replay
Tomorrow, I promise, I will wake up and start, be ready

Your fingerprints are found all over the scene
All the evidence I need to prove you did this
You may have misfired, this time; don’t worry, I won’t.

No hurry, this ice cream won’t melt

Computers, Teleporters, & Robots Panel

This was a fun panel and I’m glad I was able to fit it in, as I was tiring. The panelists were Matthew Bin (http://matthewbin.com/), Madonna Skaff-Koren (https://renaissancebookpress.com/2015/04/09/author-madona-skaff-koren/), Jack Briglio (https://jackbriglio.com/), Lisa Tooey, Katherine Prairie (http://katherineprairie.com/), and Melissa Yuan-Innes (Melissa Yi at http://melissayuaninnes.com/). The lively and balanced moderator was Kris Jacen.

We spent a bunch of time talking about Artificial Intelligence. I opened my mouth right away. I had been messing about with the idea of AI because I’d found a contrast between stories such as “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and the CBC’s story on AI which was mostly about how our current ability leaves most AI products biased. The news article was a bit on the “be frightened, there be boogie AIs in your future!”

We talked about the limits of science. We played about with teleportation as a device plot, mostly approved of when they break down or fail the characters in some way, creating tension.

The general agreement was that a working AI needs to be beyond, above, or without morals. I was uncomfortable with this so I looked into the idea of ethics and morals. You’d build an ethical AI because you’d program in rules, like Asimov’s 3 Laws:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws form the ethical backbone of your AI. Unlike morals, which are your interpretation of right and wrong, ethics are imposed or provided by an external entity.

Asimov’s 3 Laws, then, are the foundation of the ethical backbone of the AI. Any other constraints on its behaviour, assuming the 3 Laws are included in the programming, depending on the programmers of the black box, the processing, and the data fed into the AI system. AIs learn through data dumps, as much information as possible, and pattern searching. There’s a lot to play with there! It’s the age old question of nature and nurture, where does the being derive its core beliefs?

Practical Gourmet, Company’s Coming: Gluten-Free Baking, by Ted Wolff

Practical Gourmet, Company's Coming: Gluten-Free Baking
The book that has inspired me: Gluten-Free Baking

I love this book. I was directed to a restricted diet by my doctor. The saddest day was the day I surrendered bread to health. I missed baked goods and much of what I could find in terms of gluten-free treats was limited. I was perusing cookbooks, looking for a gift for someone else, when I stumbled upon the Practical Gourmet Company’s Coming Gluten-Free Baking cookbook by Ted Wolff.

From the first recipe to the last, Mr. Wolff presents a delightful array of treats and fundamentals (if you, like me, consider toast to be a part of the perfect breakfast). My favourite, so far, has to be the English Muffins. I have yet to get a perfect batch but even my flawed efforts have been more than edible, they’ve been delicious.

Going Gluten-Free

There is an ongoing discussion about the relative benefits of adopting a gluten-free diet, particularly if you do not have any medical need for doing so. I came to gluten-free on the advice of my doctor. Even then, I procrastinated, at least at first.

For me, gluten-free is part of the FODMAP diet. FODMAP organizes foods by how they affect IBS and other digestive diseases. My food became restricted just over a year ago.

Gluten-Free French loaves
two gluten-free bread loaves

We started with buying commercial gluten-free baked goods. We found the results spotty, at best; we also found that gluten-free didn’t always work out in terms of taste and texture. Things seemed bleak.

I came upon mixes for some gluten-free baked goods. Again the quality was erratic. We found a couple of good mixes and stuck with those. I felt restricted, but I felt more comfortable. The food I was eating was a better quality. My guts settled down. I stopped losing weight. I’ve actually put nearly 5 kilos back on.

When I found the cookbook, Gluten-Free Baking, at my local bookstore, I stood there for nearly half an hour and I read it, rapt. I haven’t done a lot of baking over my life and I enjoy baking. The recipes were slightly daunting as the ingredient lists seemed longer and more complex than anything I’d done to date. I bought the book and it’s been the best purchase I’ve made in a long while.

Array of new ingredients for gluten-free baking
Suddenly, my pantry is filled!

Gluten-Free Baking – the Cookbook

The Gluten-Free Baking cookbook is part of the Practical Gourmet’s Company’s Coming series. The book has also benefited from the Canada Book Fund provided by the Government of Canada. The author, Ted Wolff, is an award-winning entrepreneur who loves to take gluten-free products to the public. This man loves gluten-free and he’s made it possible for me to love gluten-free, as well.

The book not only contains excellent recipes but it presents them in a brilliant format. Each recipe occupies a two-page spread. The ingredients and starting instructions generally occupy a single page, but there are recipes that require the second page. There are notes and asides on some pages, providing hints that can be applied to almost any recipe.

wire-o binding

The covers are resilient and include a deep flap (on the front cover) and a narrower flap (on the back cover). These work well for marking pages in the cookbook, even when it is closed.

The wire-o binding allows the book to be opened as a two-page spread or folded open to present the single page you need.

The pages are clean and simple in presentation. The paper is perfect for the kitchen with enough coating to protect them from mess but not so glossy you can’t read.

The book is well organized. The front matter includes a discussion of some of the ingredients, particularly those that people may have trouble finding or other reasons for needing a substitution. The description includes substitutions and the changes needed to make the recipe work.

I found this section useful as it gave me a grocery list and allowed me to compare the ingredients to my FODMAP restrictions. Because peas and honey are not part of the core FODMAP diet, I decided to try the recipes without them. Substitutions are offered for the pea fibres, protein, and starch.

The book starts with three basic recipes for flour. Each recipe is divided into two sections. The first section describes the base flour and starch mixture proportions. Rather than dictating a quantity for the result, the recipes are written as parts or proportions.

You can leave the mixture as the core ingredients and tailor it at baking time or you can tailor the mixture and label it for use in recipes for Breads, Muffins, Cookies, or Cakes.

The tailoring ingredients are listed below the basic list of flours and starches. These ingredients will vary depending on the type of baking you’re planning. These ingredients include baking powder, baking soda, whey powder, and xanthan gum.

Basic White is a good, generic white flour that you’ll find used in many of the recipes. The second Basic Recipe is for a Self-rising White blend. This blend is excellent used in quick recipes. The third Basic Recipe is Basic Brown; this is a whole grain flour with a richer texture and flavour profile.

After this, the book moves into the recipes organized by sections. The sections are marked, on the physical book, with coloured tabs. This makes it easy to navigate.

The index is short but complete and easy to use. The table of contents is even briefer and the index is the better way to find a particular recipe.

The only thing missing is a conversion chart. If you are, for example, replacing Pea starch with Potato, Tapioca, and Corn starches, you need to divide the Pea starch amount by 3. I found a conversion chart and taped it to the inside of the front cover. It reminds me, quickly, that 1/4 cup of Pea starch is replaced by 4 teaspoons each of Potato, Tapioca, and Corn starches.

I’ve experimented with several sections of the cookbook. Here are some section-by-section highlights.

From the Breads and Buns Section: French Bread

French bread loaf
French bread loaf

The French bread recipe produces a loaf that is tasty both as bread and as toast. It lasts much longer as a source for toast; the texture changes as the loaf dries out.

This is the first recipe in which I used the Dough Enhancer that the cookbook includes in the introductory material. I’ve added honey, as well, to improve the lifespan of the texture.

The recipes are easy to follow. I had no trouble producing fluffy French loaves from the first batch.

From the Loaves and Muffins Section: Lemon Cranberry Loaf

This is a wonderful recipe and has given me several delightful loaves. I’ve converted this recipe into an Orange Cranberry loaf and then into an Orange Pomegranate loaf! This loaf is a mouth-friendly fruit loaf. The texture is chewy without being gooey. The flavour is bright, particularly the orange-pomegranate version.

This loaf is relatively easy to make, it doesn’t rise and, as such, requires no proofing. I suggest that you use the dough improver and some honey in this recipe. The dough improver enhances the flavour, popping it out that extra bit and the honey helps preserve the moisture in the loaf.

Sadly no loaf has lasted long enough to be photographed.

From the Cakes and Brownie Section: Lemon Cake

A Marvellous Marble Cake
A Marvellous Marble Cake

You’ll have to trust me that the brownie and lemon cake recipes are easy and fun, as well as delicious to eat and share. Even my non-GF friends enjoy these treats. I made the lemon cake mix and the brownie mixture, then I blended them, in the pans, to make a 2-layer marble cake. Delicious!

I had to adjust the baking time, as the two recipes used different baking temperatures. Also, I added toffee chips to the brownie mix which changed many things about the cake! The bottom layer, where I put the brownie on the bottom, was crunchy from the melting toffee bits.

The toffee bits also made the cake denser than what the regular recipe produces.

From the Brunch and Biscuits Section: English Muffins

We love English muffins! For my birthday, this year, we started the day with salmon Eggs Benedict built on the English muffins from this recipe. This recipe produces English muffins that are toothy and delicious. They crack open nicely when pierced around the edge with a fork.

I did have some problems getting this recipe right because my tray is a six-bun tray and the recipe is for ten muffins. In my second round, I tried splitting the dough into two bakes. This technique needs some refinement.

Ninefox Gambit in Review

Every once in a while, my wife will suggest I read something she’s just read because I will, just like her, love it. I resist these recommendations. Somehow it feels like a set-up for failure; I’ll fail to love the book, the author will fail to live up to the advertisement, my wife will fail in her recognition of my preferences. So much riding on such small acts.

I just finished reading Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. I think you should read it.

cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

As a writer, I resist the temptation to compare and contrast myself against authors. Any such comparison would be beyond odious. I have, mostly, shed this wretched habit. I wanted to practice this newfound appreciation of others. I do not need the proverbial bitters before this meal. I long to pull out a chair at Yoon Ha Lee’s table.

This is the type of story that has stepped light-years out along a continuum and brought back a story of the future.

The writing feels a bit dense in the beginning as you struggle to find a raft in the sea of new perspective Yoon Ha drops you into. From the very first, you’re deep in the universe of the story. This is a powerful opera in the making; rich worldbuilding saves you from drowning, only to push you back under, once or twice, and fabulous character development gives you bridges into worlds beyond your imagining. Or not. If you’ve lived this kind of madness, there are a thousand gurus seeking you.

The teacher in the novel is a dark presence. There are no light presences. This is a story of liferafts. The characters lurch from the debris of one disaster after another. If you read quickly, you’ll find yourself grabbing the edges, just as you grabbed the toboggan on those really ragged, long hills; speed and height leave you scrabbling for a handhold.

The pronouncements provided by Ninefox Gambit, written into this amazing adventure by Yoon Ha Lee, are cutting edge in a social dynamic that roiling with uncertainty and rip tides. Some might call it brave. I call it scalding. I think you have to be brave to really read it.

It helped to have read the Locus interview with the author.

The novel is an equation to be solved. Reflecting back on the story with that in mind, I find that each scene is both an equation and a result inserted into the larger equation. It’s a pragmatic view and one shared by few writers. The idea percolated and with a light switch from music to math, we find ourselves traveling an entirely new universe.

The plotline is tangled enough to satisfy the lustiest of plot lovers. There are scenes that may, momentarily, seem jarringly unrelated to the core story arc, but as you chew on the author’s vision, it becomes clear that the divisions of society both work and don’t work. A working version of the universe is in place, but, as always when the powers have everything settled to their satisfaction, a rebel is born. Some rebels must then be cultivated and set against that external rebel.

Rebellion is not a new idea in this universe. Meet the riskiest rebellion yet. Let’s increase the ante! Introduce two internal rebels and pray that they cancel each other out as internal rebels while applying a quantum leap of rebel logic to the problem, the immediate problem, the external problem. The solution of this larger problem, defeating the most dangerous heresy to date, occupies the space opera slot of this heavily driven plot. Breathless pacing.

The development of the central characters is rich and arrived at through the view of actions and motivations. Lee writes brilliantly. While pulling you down into a whirlpool, Yoon Ha shows you the character acting habitually and thinking beyond those habits. Wishing, as we all have at some point, that things could be different.

Character development appears effortless. Not long into the story, you begin to wonder who people are. Who they really are. The characters emerge, are revealed and transformed, as seen through their actions and their asides. Skillful writing! The protagonist, Cheris, is someone you want to connect with, someone you want to see Cheris win in this complex collapse of civilization. Or the collapse of a complex civilization.

Flashbacks are handled consciously. Come here. Look, a flashback. This character learns. You learn. Each flashback contributes to the development of the story, the universe, and the characters. There is a lot to know in this story. As complex as the mathematic basis may feel, at the beginning, you can understand it, with increasing confidence, as the story develops. There are ongoing expansions of the concepts. With exquisite writing, Yoon Ha brings us along the story arc, no matter how well we meet the mathematics.

Can one trust one’s own rebel? Can one trust?

My advice remains: read this book.