Saturday, January 03, 2015

Favourite Albums of 2014

2014 was a year of many things, but one of them was a return to actively listening to and engaging with music. Music was an easier way to get input when I had less time to read. Here are my ten favourite audio stories of 2014.

1. HAERTS – Haerts

Haerts is almost everything I love about Bastille: Enormous sounds and complex arrangements, soaring vocals with choral harmonies. But Haerts' self-titled debut is slightly more top-level accessible; it flows one song into another from the first listen. It's constructed to be a repeat listen without sounding repetitive.

They sound a bit like Stevie Nicks, which gives the songs this timeless feeling without taking away from them being part of contemporary sound happening in indiepop. I hope they go big in 2015.



2. Wolf Gang – Alveron

Wolf Gang's Alveron has one of the strongest album narrative arcs I heard in 2014. It's an emotional journey to listen to this album, as it tells a story of what it's like to lose someone and process that grief and go back out into the world. A few tracks appeared on the Black River EP earlier (including Last Bayou, one of my favourite songs of the year,) but it was merely a taste of what was to come. From Now I Can Feel It to the title track, Alveron doesn't just shimmer—it glows.




3. Bastille’s VS (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III)

Technically it's an EP. The theme of this newest Bastille mixtape is VS. Each of the songs is about conflict. But they're also collaborations, which harkens to the rap and hip-hop cultural aspects of artists challenging each other to be better, and thus making the music as a whole better through these conflicts.

I've heard that people didn't like VS because they didn't think it sounded like Bastille, which I find confusing. It's a similar structure to the push-pull of the Bad Blood album—it's more evident with VS, as the EP brings the subtext comments up to the text level of the lyrics.

How do I know that I'm not projecting construction when there isn't any? The Driver. I have never heard anyone articulate the subtext of the film Drive better than this song does.



4. Little Daylight – Hello Memory

Little Daylight's debut was one of my most anticipated albums of 2014, as Tunnel Vision was about as perfect as an EP gets. Hello Memory doesn't disappoint—it shimmers and brims with youthful energy and joy. Aggressive synths, serious bass, and balanced lyrics; this is pop at its best.



5. Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift is the only country artist that I've followed with any kind of consistency in the past few years. (I'm dearly fond of her. She's a marketing genius.) 1989 has great arrangements and is constructed to be infectious. The stories are more mainstream pop, but there's a subtext to 1989 that goes full text in Shake It Off and I Know Places. But it was Blank Space that made me fall in love with the album. The only song I'm not super-keen on is Clean. It's a well-constructed song; it's just the weakest one on the album.



6. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow

MØ is moody Danish murder pop: A bit of synth and a bit of hiphop. All of the tracks are great and the album has a solid tonal consistency. It's dark. Noir. I love the night versions on the deluxe album that are stripped down acoustics. Don't Wanna Dance is probably my favourite track.


7. Noosa — Wonderland LP

Again, not a full album but nine great songs. Noosa has a haunting voice and a great vocal range. Her songs have that same fairy tale element of Hearts and Little Daylight. I kind of love Wildfire and Clocktower. She has that whimsy of Lenka, but is more electronic-sounding.


8. Lights – Little Machines

Lights creates ethereal pop and Little Machines is full of loopable tracks but Up We Go, Meteorites, and How We Do It will get you going. I'm not in love with the opening track—it goes on a little bit longer than I feel like it needs to—but Portal acts like a prologue to the rest of the album. From Running With The Boys onward, Little Machines is cohesive and addictive with the majority of the songs being joyful and optimistic.



10. Foxes – Glorious

Foxes is like the arrangements of Haerts crossed with Noosa. The songs are big and atmospheric with electronic leanings, but the vocals are more soulful melancholy (with an occasional twange.) The album is less even than Hearts, as there are tracks on Glorious that I don't care for but I'd argue the hits outweigh the misses. (I'm a tad miffed Warrior and Youth weren't included on the album, as they're stronger than a few of the songs that were.)



10. Robots Don’t Sleep – Mirror

What I enjoy the most about Robots Don't Sleep is that it's a layered sound with a wide-appeal. This is one of the few albums that I've played as a whole to friends. The clappy, loopable Trouble introduces the well-constructed album. (You might recognize the second track, Don't Wake Me, from season three of Teen Wolf.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tessa Gratton's The Weight of Stars

The United States of Asgard is one of the most under-read series in YA Fiction. If you enjoy Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle and Sarah Rees Brennan's Unspoken or anything by Courtney Summers then you should be reading Tessa Gratton.

Novellas can be a difficult format, but in Gratton's hands they become compact examples of what I love about her series. All three novellas collected in The Weight of Stars are well-paced stories that offer full characterization and a satisfying plot without sacrificing thematic elements. These are quietly intelligent, direct in their purpose, and make the original Norse mythology as accessible and fun as Rick Riordan made Greek and Roman lore.

Gold Runner
 is brash, bold, and in your face—perfectly matched to the voice of Amon, a son of Thor. An action-packed start to the collection, Gold Runner features mystery and romance that plays out within a relatively short amount of words without feeling rushed. Running through this is a commentary on race relations that displays both the ease and importance of diverse protagonists. Amon's desire to keep things about himself tight to his chest is echoed in his willful refusal to see things as they are in his relationships, and as a result Gold Runner has what one might call the least "happy" of endings. It is, however, a satisfying ending that thematically suits his story.

Lady Beserk is narrated by Vider, a secondary character from The Lost Sun (the first novel of the United States of Asgard) and fan favourite. As the first female berserker in centuries, Vider is a girl with a dragon in her heart. This is also a story for all the Loki fans, as the Trickster finally makes an appearance. All of this is woven into the first dragon hunt in American history being filmed for reality television, which creates an explosion story of love and learning to live with your inner beasts. Much like The Strange Maid (the second novel of the United States of Asgard), Lady Beserk also discusses leaving a place that you thought you'd be happy to find the place where you will be. Vider and Signy would likely be great friends.

Glory's Teeth, my favourite of the collection, is about Glory AKA The Fenris Wolf. Glory is the fiercest and most dangerous girl in the United States of Asgard, as she is the one who will cause the end of the world by eating the sun. She knows it. She owns it. And she hungers for it. This is the story of her hunger and her ongoing relationship with Tyr, the god of justice. Glory is reoccurring character in the United States of Asgard world, and this is the first time we see the despair behind the teeth. Glory's Teeth is about having that endless hunger, that empty ache, and as a result it's also a story about kindness.

While the novellas can be read in any order, reading them in order they appear in The Weight of Stars hints at the progression of a relationship that begins in Gold Runner along the edges of Lady Beserk and Glory's Teeth. Wandering and weaving through all three is Soren Bearstar, reoccurring hero and everyone's friend one of the threads who knots the stories of the world of The United States of Asgard together. (Soren is kind and kind of the best.)

All three novellas deal with learning to live within one's own skin, to know one's heart, and to be fiercely proud of who one is despite the pressures to confirm to societal expectations. These are stories vital to the reading community—full of hope and offering a diverse range of representation to readers. Stories with both visible and invisible minorities written with lush, evocative prose in a richly re-imagined world of Norse mythology. The collection also showcases Gratton's talent with narrative voice, as each reads as a distinct character while fitting within the world.

The Weight of Stars can be read out of the context of The United States of Asgard novels, so if you're looking for a sample then consider trying the novella that sounds most appealing as all three are available for the Kindle and via the Kindle app as separate eBooks. If you're already a reader of novels, you won't be disappointed as The Weight of Stars is like getting three extra books.

Highly recommended for fans of Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, Courtney Summers, Neil Gaiman, and Holly Black, The Weight of Stars is now available from Amazon and on the Kindle.

Thank you to the author for providing a copy for review.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So I hear you like Taylor Swift's 1989

I preface this with full disclosure that I have a significant fondness for Taylor Swift albums from Speak Now onwards. Her trajectory into pop music is a welcome change, because it's musical growth—even it looks lateral.

The thing to understand about country music, as a narrative genre, is that it's one inch deep at best. Also, it's tropes have become hyper-defensive of being ignorant. (I grew up listening to a lot of country music. It used to be more about narrative and less about Shut Up, Ladies, And Get Me A Beer.)

The best country music has got at troupe push-back is Girl In A Country Song. But that's about as far as the conversation has gotten.


This is context, so we understand where Taylor Swift is coming from. It's not a complex story-place. But what you can hear in Taylor Swift songs is her musical arrangements over the years have become increasingly varied. Why would she stay in a genre that isn't interested in trying new things?

She's trying things. She's growing. And her listeners are growing with her. Also, I dare you to watch the video for Blank Space and claim Taylor Swift isn't self-aware. Not only self-aware but speaking back to what is being said about her. (I love Blank Space because it can be a song about something being exactly what it is and not asking it to be something else.)



When I heard Shake It Off, her first single from 1989, my heart did a little leap in my chest. Taylor Swift was going to do synthpop. Taylor Swift was going to introduce 5000000000000 people to the glories of synthpop. Also, I proceeded to listen to Shake It Off 80 billion times because of that bass saxophone that's dancing along in the background of the song.


1989 is a gateway drug an accessible introduction to what I call synthpop and other people probably call something else. This is a blog post about whom to listen to next after your friends stage an intervention because you are tweeting about going through withdrawals if you don't listen to 1989 each day.

If you can't explain why you love 1989 other than it put joy in your heart. There's just something about it. You want something similar, something that will also feel familiar quickly and make you want to dance and sing along.

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Little Daylight. BEHOLD.



Little Daylight are from Brooklyn, and they draw their narrative influences from fairy tales which gives their album a great balance of sweet, synth and bass goodness with some darkness lurking beneath the surface. I've loved them since I saw them open for Bastille last year at the Phoenix. Any band that can get a Toronto crowd moving is working magic.

Their EP Tunnel Vision was about as perfect a thing for you as could exist until earlier this year when they put out their album. Go get Hello Memory. You can thank me later.


You have Bastille's Bad Blood, right? SO DO I. WE SHOULD BE FRIENDS. (ahem) Bad Blood is harder to love than 1989 on first listen because Bad Blood is an album that wants you to listen more than once and think about it and have conversations with it. For example, the first time I heard Things We Lost In the Fire, I didn't love it. And now I do. Because it's GREAT.




I already have Bad Blood. I MEAN WHO DOESN'T? So congratulations for being a person who has an ability to like lots of things, and please allow me to introduce you to Haerts. The album I waited a year for and love from first to last song no skips all good. It shimmers, it soars, and it does that thing where it gets better the more you listen to it. On a loop. For always.




1989 has a narrative structure. Yes, and it's the same as the one for RED. That's probably why we all like it so much. It's familiar; it just sounds different. This is great. It's comforting. But maybe you'd like the 201 course offering instead of the 101?

This is Wolf Gang. They have an album called Alveron, and I can map its character arc. Get me a pen. I'll do it. Also, listen to this song.


Is there sadness left in you? No. There isn't. And you haven't heard Black River, Last Bayou or Alveron yet. Your life is about to get so very, very good.


Wait is this secretly a Top Albums of the Year Post that you snuck Bastille back into?

Shh. Listen to this Lights song from her album Little Machines.



That Bastille album is the one you chose last year.

Have you heard Noosa? I love Noosa's Wonderland EP, too. (She cries glitter in this video.)



No, seriously, this was meant to be about Taylor Swift and and somehow become about your top albums this year.

Huh. Yeah it did. In that case, you should also get the Zella Day EP.




And if it really was a best of the year, then I'd be remiss not to mention this Bastille song.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Context

So here we are; the first week of the rest of my life passed into twilight. I imagine it's going to stop feeling weird soon. It may hit that this isn't a vacation, and I'm not going back to work next Monday. Because that hasn't hit, not yet, not really.

I've spent a week opening and closing a blank screen to post about leaving my job. I did quit. I wasn't let go or asked to step down; I wasn't fired. It's unfortunate to feel it necessary to clarify that, but Canadian Publishing is in an unfortunate state of letting a lot of people go.

I understand I held a position of enviable privilege. Or at least some perceived privilege. And I'm not going to say that wasn't an enviable thing. So why did I leave? Because I've been living in crisis-mode for the past sixteen months.

Here's the thing about crisis-mode. When you are in it, you are hyper-focused and hyper-aware. It's an adernaline-flooded state of Getting Shit Done. But when that's allowed to normalize, you cease being aware and become always under-fire. Everything is a threat. Everyone wants to fight. You are angry all the goddamn time. It makes one sharp-edged and brittle and toothy.

I've been baring my teeth at people a lot this year. A lot more than I ever wanted.

A couple months ago, I realized that I was still operating in crisis-mode a year after the supposed inciting crisis had passed. I had been so focused on keeping my feet one in front of the other that I'd neglected to look up and notice the path didn't lead to anywhere I wanted to be.

So I tried the easy way, and I applied to other jobs. I even got an interview at a place that I'd always wanted to work, but when I got there... I found out they didn't intend to hire me for that position. During our conversation it came up that they didn't understand why I'd leave Indigo Teen, and I couldn't understand why anyone would think I'd want to keep doing it forever. It'd be like expecting an author to write a series that never ended.

I realized sometime around then that I couldn't depend on another job to provide me with an exit strategy. I was going to have to do it the hard way—the way other people hadn't—and just leave. Fortunately, I had moved in with three other people and had the emotional support at home to do what needed doing. I'd spent a year tucking away money to be able to get by for a few months between jobs if it was necessary. And it became absolutely necessary.

Not sure what this looked like from the outside, but it wasn't impulsive. It had been coming for a long time. And yet... and yet, after leaving I'm still a head full of publishing knowledge and not quite sure where that takes me next.

I didn't quit to write full-time, because I've already learned that lesson. I quit so that I had time to write again and enough of a brain again to reorient myself on the path. But that's thing about endings and beginning; it depends on how you tilt your head as to which one they look like.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Cycle is composed of novels that each transform the ones that came before; they illuminate corners of the world we hadn’t fully seen, and unlock bits of the map we have been waiting to explore. 

Maggie Stiefvater has called Blue Lily, Lily Bluethe third installment of The Raven Cycle, a book about mirrors and the story is full of them. Previous books have used parallels and foils, but this one repeating use of characters acting as reflections/distortions for each other. For example Aglionby student Henry Cho, who in a specific scene illuminates how far Gansey has outwardly come from the President Cellphone character Blue first met in The Raven Boys. Reading Lily Blue, Blue Lily is playing a game of spot the difference without having to worry that the book is going to lose itself in trying to be "clever."

Stiefvater is a smart writer. Her series rewards close readers and welcomes revisitation. What other books might treat as revelations, these books treat as confidences; it is as if we have become good enough friends with the characters that they feel comfortable sharing what we only saw in glimpses when they thought we weren’t looking. These are real, imperfect people.

Adam Parrish and I do not always get along; I always understand his character's motivations but I don't always agree with the actions that result from them. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the novel where I feel like Adam gets his shit together. There's been an arc trajectory happening since his decision in The Raven Boys, and it felt like this book was natural conclusion to where that was headed. I can feel proud of him for stepping up in the way I could feel proud of Ronan at the end of The Dream Thieves.

No relationship in this series is simplistic; it's one of the many things that makes these books so captivating. As the characters grow, their dynamics also evolve and change. That should be a given for any series, but there's a natural progression to the pacing of Stiefvater's writing that is refreshing. These shifts in character and growth happening subtly, layer upon layer, until they form the shape of individual growing up. They become someone they were always going to be. (There’s a scene involving Blue and Ronan where after reading it, I stopped and thought that couldn’t have happened two books ago. I highly recommend rereading The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves before reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue.)

Another of her feats of wonder is how Stiefvater continues to juggle all of the subtly moving parts while adding new characters. Some of them are names or shadows that have been skirting the edges of things in the previous events, which results in no one in this book reading like they shouldn’t be there.

I have to call out the delightfully antagonistic Colin and Piper Greenwood. They present a darker mirror of Dean Allen and Maura Sargent, and perhaps that is why I found Colin and Piper much easier to like than Kavinsky (who was Ronan’s mirror in The Dream Thieves.) 

I loved every chapter the Greenwoods were in, despite the fact that I’m convinced they don’t even like each other that much. I'll take interesting and well-developed characters over “likeable” ones every time. While I feel that I know certain characters better than others by the end of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, there is not a character in this series that I don’t find interesting.

Reading The Raven Cycle is the delight and frustration and excitement and anguish of searching for something as grand as a Dead Welsh King. When something is that big, you may not find it. You may not get the answer you wanted. But in the looking, you might an answer that you needed. That is part of what keeps the series buoyant even when it often features weighty issues like anxiety, abuse, and betrayal. The story balances itself, again and again, going as down into the darkness as it needs to then climbing upwards again to daylight. (Structurally speaking, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is both the tightest and the most ambitious of the books so far.)

Perhaps I should not feel as hopeful at the end as I did, but hope is what makes Blue Lily, Lily Blue belong to Blue Sargent. She’s one of the few characters who consistently has her head on right; she is the one actively seeking to be optimistic without being unrealistic. I enjoyed learning why, and what drives her. Blue at her best isn't just a Page of Cups; she’s an entire ocean of hope. This book brims with it—which is not to say that it's lacking terrible things or all hell isn’t going to break loose in the next book. But we can be like Blue and actively choose to believe the future is going to be better.

Whatever waits in that final book, I will love it. Even when these books don’t do what I expect—and that’s that often, actually—they always give me what I need. I love them very much, and I can't wait to talk about this new one with you.


Thank you to Scholastic Canada, who allowed me to read Blue Lily, Lily Blue early. It should be available in stores by November 1st.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mapping routes to legitimacy

Earlier this week an author announced her first book publication anniversary, and I realized I've been involved in the YA blogging community in some capacity or another for at least seven years. In blogger time I am old as the sun. I have seen stars be born and die.

We had the argument about YA versus Adult Literary Fiction seven years ago. (And every year since.) Writing an impassioned defence of YA is a rite of passage. Congratulations, a whole new class of you are now graduates.

This is not a defence of YA, if you were wondering. This is a commencement address from an alumni.

I often get asked how I got my job in the way that authors get asked how they got published—it's a request for a map to the treasure chest, a walkthrough to completing the game of legitimacy.

Everyone asks the question hoping for a how-to answer. I can't give you one. The inspiring response as to why is because there is only the map you are creating. The more honest response is when you're standing in the centre, it's hard to remember how far out that treeline was.

But I can tell you what years and years in the publicity forest of YA has helped me understand.

The purpose of enjoying something is not to try to convince people who don't enjoy it that they're wrong. Enjoy the thing you enjoy—unless it is serial murder or cannibalism or oppression or violating boundaries or other illegal acts—and understand the value you ascribe to something is not diminished or threatened by what people who aren't you think.

Value—the kind we give to favourite stories and our interests—is a subjective thing. It's fire within us. White-hot in a place between our ribs. And if it dims, flickers, because someone else doesn't feel it... that is a fault within our ability to tend the flame.

When you understand that—when someone puts it in words that penetrate your skull and defeat your ego, then it's an easy logic leap to understand bookselling isn't about you. It's about the reader to whom you are selling. Empathy is the greatest superpower a bookseller can have, and you get more of it from consuming more stories about people who aren't you.

This is the secret to surviving as a bookseller and blogger and person who engages in the business of publishing: There's a a book for every reader, and there's a reader for every book.

Your favourite book is a story someone else didn't enjoy. And that doesn't matter, and it shouldn't affect your ability to get what you need from stories in whatever medium you choose to get them.

Stories are stories are stories. You are the one who gives them value and meaning and names them important to you. When you can grasp this concept—hold it securely in your mind—your hands are free for more important battles.

My battle is against the misconception that there are stories whose audience is everyone and stories whose audience is no one. I fight by helping people find the stories they want. That's the guiding star I use. That's the map I've been making. You're welcome to it. Or you're welcome to make your own.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

It's easiest to describe Maggie Stiefvater's SINNER as a story about sharp-edged love. A story about the wolves who live in our heads and hearts let loose in the fantasy that is Los Angeles. It’s a song of summer and being in love and running from the fall; it sounds like Overdose by LittleDaylight, Prime by Allie X, and Pompeii by Bastille.

Well, actually, it sounds most like this.


I fell in love with SINNER when I read its opening line of “I am a werewolf in L.A.” Ok, that’s not entirely true. I have loved SINNER through the playlist that is its pulse from before I even knew what this book was.

Now that I’m finished reading and can talk about it? SINNER is everything I wanted. It is funny, and smart, and sexy, and in places devastatingly honest. It knows how to put on a show, and it doesn’t feel it has to play nice with your expectations. It has music and cars and kissing and LA sunsets.

Maybe you know Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpeper from Stiefvater’s previous trilogy of Shiver, Linger, and Forever. Cole and Isabel are two complicated people with an equally complicated relationship. But you don't need to know them to read SINNER. You'll meet them again, and watch their struggle to maintain that relationship when neither of them believe themselves easy people to love.

But SINNER is more than just the love story of Cole and Isabel. It's about the love the people in their lives have for them, whether they see/understand/appreciate it or not. It is the ever-present devotion of Sofia to Isabel. The steady quiet Leon offers to Cole. The way Jeremy knows when to make peace and when to stand aside. How the connections people make result in them being better than they would've been alone.

It's also about loving a place even if it's not always easy to live there. SINNER captured Los Angeles—not only in tactile details—it has the intangible sense of being these people in that city. The hopeful and the hopeless; all their maniac highs and their desperate lows.

At the frantic, racing heart of this magnificent book is a story about addiction to people and places and things. Walking that razor edge between love and obsession. But it is also a story about being more than just the wanting. And I adored every page of it, even the ones that cut as I held them.

I wish I could’ve given this book to a younger me, oscillating between anger and joy and sadness and hope in that city of sinners while most of the people she knew were building their lives somewhere else. I wish she could've read what Isabel says about making connections in LA and felt understood. Maybe she would've made more of an effort to make connections sooner. Maybe.

I know you will not read the same book I read when you read SINNER, because you are not me. But if you are also someone who needs this book, I hope it finds you. I hope it helps you feel understood, too.

While I do not want to spoil anything for you, SINNER is one of the few books that is honest about how the biggest epiphanies we have are often over simple things. Those realizations irrevocably change us, but they don't radically alter the world around us.

There are so many in SINNER. I want to mention this one: We are not always who we think we are; we are not who everyone else thinks we are, and we are not only that constantly shifting space between the two where we keep the parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge or are afraid to share.

Knowing this doesn't stop love from being difficult for some of us—but it makes it so you understand the struggle is worth it. Even sharp-edged things have a way to hold them; you just have to want to learn how.