Story Update

I don’t have a big post for you today, but instead a story update.  In one of my recent goal update posts I mentioned that I wanted to get back to writing some more fiction.  I had the idea that I was going to share an original piece with you today, but due to time constraints that’s just not happening.

My thought process shifted to posting an older story, from one of my Google Drive folders.  I have a few sitting in there, but to my dismay – they’re not really ready.  There was one story in particular I was thinking about sharing, but when I opened it, I realized that I left it unfinished.  There are some comments on it that I got from a writing group but I never went back to it.

I’m going to update the story in the next few weeks, and create a cover art for it and release it as an eBook.  Actually, as I typed this I also found what looks like a pretty complete draft of another short story.  I’ll have to read it over but I think I’m going to give that one the same treatment.

I haven’t decided whether I should try to put them up for $1 on Amazon or something; or if I’d be better off just throwing them online in a pay-what-you-want format.  Either way I will make the stories available to readers of the blog in some form.

And so that I make sure the work gets done, I’m giving myself a deadline: Tuesday May 9th.  If you don’t see something from me by that date, yell at me!  I’m on Twitter at @stephen_g.

Web Comics Recommendations

Note: This is a re-post from my old blog, written back in December 2016.  I’m a bit busy this week but didn’t want to miss my schedule!  Hope you enjoy this post.

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The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn
The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn

I am by no means a comic aficionado; I leave that stuff up to people like Patrick & Dad.  However, I do enjoy comics, every now and then.  I’m not sure yet whether I prefer the physical article or reading on a tablet – more and more lately, tablet is becoming much friendlier – but I’ve always liked web comics, for sure.  I’ve gotten out of reading them lately, which is unfortunate.

Anyway, a few months back I asked the aforementioned Patrick for some free comic recommendations and he turned me onto City of Walls, available via LINE Webtoon.  In addition to CoW, I’ve found a few other gems hidden in the app.  I find that the “popular” and “featured” comics on Webtoon generally do not have me in their target audience, so I’ve had to do some digging.

Here are my recommendations from LINE Webtoon, in no particular order:

City of Walls – 3.5/5

I struggle with rating this one.  On the one hand, I really appreciate the art and level of detail; on the other, the writing leave me a little wanting.  Sometimes it’s got bad pacing…other times it seems just right.  I like the overall story though.  I don’t want to give away too much about it, so I’ll just say that the protagonists are kids in a fictional Asian city.  The world building is just great as well.

Zen Pencils – 4/5

Zen pencils is illustrated by Gavin Aung Than.  This is a series of stand-alone comics that are based on / inspired by actual quotes from real-life people.  Most of hte quotes seem to be about being creative or being true to yourself.  I do sometimes find it off-putting that lot of the advice about dropping everything and doing what you love doesn’t present a realistic sense of balance…


The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn – 3.5/5

Author/Illustrator: Tri Vuong (works out of the RAID studio in Toronto).  This one has gorgeous artwork.  The story is only okay – I like bits and pieces of it, but I mainly stick with it for the beautiful art.  The current story – “The Last Soldier of Somme” – is set in WWI and seems to be going somewhere, but pacing can make it hard to follow.  Vuong is admittedly new to writing so I’m willing to cut some slack.  Either way – the character design for Oscar Zahn is fantastic.  It looks like Vuong has had this idea floating in his head for a while now.

There are more, but I feel like I need to get caught up with reading some of them before I can properly recommend them.  Until then – enjoy those three!

April Podcast Update

Another month, another podcast update and updated OPML file for you: download it at http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml.

New Subscriptions

S-Town Podcast
S-Town Podcast

S-Town.  I’m pretty sure most people into podcasts are already aware of S-Town, but if you’re not I definitely recommend it.  I don’t want to give away any details, because I feel like it needs to unfold sequentially for you to get the full effect.  What I can say about it is that it plays out like a long-form article from a magazine.  Almost like someone took a written 7-part article series and recorded an audio version of it.

I don’t know that I would listen to a series like this all of the time.  I don’t mind that the shows I listen to aren’t really serialized, and are easy to digest.  I feel like that’s one of the more appealing aspects of podcasts.  However, once every now and then a series like this could stick on my radar.

I hope to read a lot more follow-up pieces on what kind of effect S-Town has on the podcasting community.  I hope that we don’t see too many “copycats” – but I am very interested in seeing what Serial and This American Life do next based on this show.

Tea & Jeopardy.  This was a recommendation in one of the Writing Excuses podcasts.  The short description: it’s basically an author interview podcast, but occasionally the host and guest encounter “perils” that they need to overcome.  It sounded like something I might like, but it’s not entirely up my alley.  Giving it another shot when a new episode comes out.

Dropped Subscriptions

None!  I don’t believe I actually dropped any podcast subscriptions this month.  Pretty solid month of listening!

2017 Goal Update

I’m not sure if this is a post people are looking forward to, but it’s something I need to do for myself.  This is a continuation of my first post back in January about my goals for 2017, which I followed up back in March for lack of better things to write about.  At this moment, I’m going to put my foot down and not come back to my goals until the end of the year.

Remain Organized

This feels like cheating to keep this on at this point, but I’m going to officially keep it on my list of goals for the year.  So far, so good.  I’m on page 43 of my Leuchtturm 1917 notebook and have over 200 to fill up.  I’m remembering to write things down as necessary.  Playing around with different ways of tracking things.  Things are going great!

Let me throw a wrinkle into this right now then.  I’m going to modify this goal to include details for this blog and my podcast hobby.  The blog is pretty well-organized, but the podcast is in shambles by comparison.

Be a positive Example

I’m doing well with this one.  I don’t think I’ve posted anything negative online anywhere, and if I have, it’s been constructive criticism.

Learn more about driving social media engagement

I’m learning, slowly.  One of the things I’m starting to get a hang of – finally – is the “Yoast SEO” plugin I use for this blog.  It helps me optimize my posts on the blog so that it can be found more easily by search engines.  I’m including that here in this category.

Write more

I give myself a passing grade on this, but just barely.  I’m writing consistently for the blog, I’ll grant that; but I don’t really feel like I’m doing anything…worthy.  That’s the best way I can think of to describe it.  In the back of my head, I keep thinking that I want to write some fiction but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Read more

This is the one place I’ve noticed a marked improvement.  I finally finished a book I was stuck on (The Mechcanical) and moved on to something else.  I’m making good progress with the book and hope to move on to a few other things.  If you include comic books/graphic novels, I’ve gotten through 7 this year.

Conclusion

To give myself a fair grade, I think C+ encompasses what I’ve done in the first 4 months of the year so far.  OK, let’s move on from self-reflection.

On Thursday: my monthly podcast update.  I’ve got a brief review of the latest hit show, S Town!

Gord Downie’s Secret Path

Secret Path Album Cover

Secret Path is an adult alternative album from Gord Downie (lead singer of The Tragically Hip), released in October 2016.  It was released with an accompanying graphic novel, as well as an animated made-for-TV film that aired on CBC in the same month.  You can read more about the production background of the album on Wikipedia.

Secret Path tells the story of an Anishnaabe boy named Chanie Wenjack, from Marten Falls First Nation, who died in 1966 while trying to return home.  He was escaping from an Indian Residential School.  All of the proceeds from this album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation project.

* – Note – the above paragraph was paraphrased slightly and partially copied verbatim from the Wikipedia article I linked to.

As a preface to this review, I want to say that I’m not a “strong” music reviewer.  When it comes to music, I don’t dive deep.  I know what sounds I like, and occasionally lyrics stand out to me.  Usually when I listen to an album, I don’t really look into the details about it beforehand.

However going into Secret Path, I was at least peripherally aware of the subject matter.  I knew that it dealt with an aboriginal boy who died in the 1960s, but didn’t really explore it much further than that.  It was always one of those “Oh I’d like to listen / read that, but maybe later” kind of things.

That really influenced my listening to this album.  I tried to focus on the lyrics when I listened to the album, but personally I have a hard time doing that.  For me, music is more about the overall sound and like I said, I don’t normally pinpoint on what’s being said (with a few exceptions here and there).

Knowing the subject matter, the album gave me a distinct atmospheric feeling.  Overall, the album gave me a feeling of being alone.  The first couple of tracks start out on a bit of a positive note – Chanie sets out to escape the residential school, and looking forward to going home.  But the rest of the album gradually descends into a gloomy tone, as Chanie faces increasing hardships.

Most of the instruments on the album are guitar and piano.  I think what really helps create this mental image is Downie’s voice, which is best described on this album as strained at times and haunting.  Everything fits together so well to tell this story.

In a way though, I think I should have listened to this album while reading the accompanying graphic novel.  I definitely will still pick it up and read it, but I think it would have helped me even more in understanding what was going on in the music.

Still, the album is technically very well done.  And I think that it does exactly what it sets out to do: tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and his ill-fated journey home.  You’re not going to hear these songs on the radio, and that’s OK.  That’s not what this is meant to be.  In one sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it might not get widespread mainstream attention (though I contend that since its release, it’s received a LOT of mainstream reviews, so it has received attention); but on the other hand, I appreciate that this project wasn’t undertaken with commercial success as the first thought.

I read a Pitchfork review of the album that Downie was approached by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew to record an album, and that Downie didn’t have any material – but he was writing about Chanie.  I don’t know why, but I get the idea of this tragedy nagging away at Gord Downie until he could get it out to the world.

I definitely recommend listening to the album, and I hope you follow my example by picking up the graphic novel and read that, too.

In Memory of a Great Dog

Hank resting in the tall grass
Hank resting in the tall grass

On Thursday April 6th, 2017 – I couldn’t tell you exactly what time – my wife and I had to make the difficult decision to put down our dog Hank.  He was suffering from blastomycosis, a terrible fungal infection that was making it hard for him to breathe in his last days.  We were sad to see him go, but in the last few days I’ve been looking at old photos and am happy to remember the good times we had with him.

In Memory of a Great Dog

We rescued Hank back in 2009, when he was about 4 or 5.  We didn’t get

In Memory of a Good Dog
In Memory of a Good Dog

complete records with him, and were originally told he was 4.  Turns out, he was a 2004 puppy.  No one was home when we went to pick him up – not a good sign.  His bark was loud when we knocked on the door, and sounded stressed.

We later learned that he had at least one other home before this one, and we think there was a strong possibility he was abused.  He was very uncomfortable with anything touching his back end, and was very afraid of brooms and vacuums.  I think it’s normal for dogs to be afraid of vacuums, because they make loud, scary noises.  But he would always look downright terrified when we were cleaning.

We worked with him a lot.  He was a good dog when we got him, but with time he learned better habits and warmed up to us.  He turned into a great dog, and we’re really happy we had the chance to have him in our lives for 8 years.

Bad Habits

Oh sure, he had some bad habits.  It’s hard to say what was worse: chewing underwear, or eating from the garbage can.  Considering one ends up being more expensive than the other, I think the scales tip more to the underwear chewing.  But he also loved to eat paper, and especially paper from the garbage.

Hank got himself into a spot of trouble one day - trapped in the garbage lid.
Hank got himself into a spot of trouble one day – trapped in the garbage lid.

We discovered this early on, and quickly bought a garbage can with a lid.  It was one of those lids that swings open, rather than closing tightly.  Naturally, we found him one day with his head sticking through the lid with the most innocent look on his face.  He was pretty pleased with what he did, if not a little bit confused at our reaction.

We definitely have gone through our fair share of toilet paper with Hank in our home.  Not because he learned to use the toilet or anything – but he seemed to love grabbing the toilet paper off the roll and eating it.  Not all of it – just some of it.  Often I would come home and find a trail of toilet paper – all still connected to the roll – going from the bathroom to the bed.  Again, he was always fairly pleased with himself.

Here’s an audio clip from a podcast I recorded with my friend Mike that describes one of these occasions:

Play Time

Hank loved to play, and his favourite toy by far was a ball.  Any ball.  If it was round and bounced, he wanted it.  He could even entertain himself with it, but

Hank's favourite toy - a ball.
Hank’s favourite toy – a ball.

he really loved chasing after it in the field and running.  The funny thing about when he played fetch was that he would take the same path running back to us each time.  He was terrible at tracking anything but a ball, but somehow, he knew which way he ran back each time.

Ropes and bottles were among his favourites too.  While really not great for his teeth, one of his favourite things to do with bottles was to chew them to bits.  The first step was always to pop the lid off, and then he would methodically chew at it until it was flat.  This was sometimes very helpful if we had a lot of recycling to go through.

He also really loved his walks.  He knew too, when I grabbed my headphones, it usually meant walk time.  This was a matter of disappointment for him whenever I was grabbing my headphones for a different reason.  Still, he would wag his tail at the sight of them, and go absolutely crazy at the sight of his leash.

Nap Time

I think one of the more comforting things about Hank was actually when he would settle down after a long day of play.  He had this way of curling up into a ball, or snuggling up next to you to make sure he was as comfortable as possible.  He was warm, he was soft, and he was safe.

He loved sitting on my lap, too.  If there’s one thing I’m sad that I missed out on in his last few days, it’s that he didn’t get to curl himself into my lap.  He was just too tired and physically unable to do it.  But I know that he would have felt a lot better if he could have.

In Memory of a Great Dog

To be totally honest, doing this post has probably been one of the more helpful things I’ve done since Thursday.  We still haven’t cleaned up the house – his hair is everywhere, and we are slowly moving his toys and things into one spot.

Hank's bed & make-shift sweater-blanket.
An empty bed – we used one of my sweaters as a blanket on his last night with us, and it was still in his shape.

But we can clearly see how much he ran this home, and how much of it was his.

Another thing that helped me out was an article a friend sent me yesterday from Psychology Today.  “Getting Over Rover: Why the Loss of a Dog Can Be Devastating” made a lot of sense to me, and meshed with pretty much all of the reasons why we had such a tough time dealing with it in the first few days (and we’re still dealing with it).

In Memory of a Great Dog
In Memory of a Great Dog: Hank could be photogenic – when he cooperated.

I still hear his bark when we walk in the door.  I can hear him grumble and sigh as he tries to get comfortable at bed time.  But more importantly I can see his big smile and wiggly tail.  We’ll get over his loss, and more than likely welcome a new dog into our house.  But for now, we have 8 years of memories of a great dog.

Other Space – A Review

Other Space is a 2015 sci-fi comedy show produced by Paul Feig, and is available online at http://www.shareotherspace.com.  I first heard about it from Engage, The Official Star Trek Podcast.  It was originally released on Yahoo! Screen, a service I’ve actually never heard of before until today.

Other Space stars Karan Soni, Bess Rous, Eugene Cordero, Milana Vayntrub, Neil Casey, Joel Hodgson, Conor Leslie, and Trace Beaulieu.  The show also features guest appearances from Dave Franco, Sarah Baker, and Bjorn Gustafsson.

Apparently, Other Space was conceived by Paul Feig in the early 2000’s but wasn’t picked up for development until he was working on The Heat.  The show is set in the year 2105, and has been described as “Red Dwarf, USA, take two” by Rob Bricken in an early review.

I watched the first four episodes in preparation for this review – so how does it hold up?

The Setting

The setting is fairly standard for most science fiction properties – a space ship.  In Other Space, the ship is the UMP Cruiser, which is sent on what boils down to a public relations mission to increase support for the UMP organization.  Not even minutes into the mission, the Cruiser is transported into another realm of space, known as “other space”.

Not much is really put into the background – what’s really important is the jokes between the characters and their setting.  I think I agree with Bricken’s “Red Dwarf” comparison, because that show was essentially the same concept.

The set itself looks great – Feig described it as a very low budget show, and you can sort of tell, but they did a good job of making it look good.  The Cruiser looks like a good parody of the rebooted Star Trek Enterprise sets.

The Characters

Karan Soni shines as the captain and is the best character by far.  He’s basically not at all qualified to be the captain of a ship, but he’s promoted because of his charisma (my interpretation).  His sister is made first officer, and is inherently more qualified, but lacks any people-skills of any kind.

The characters all have some sort of back story that gets fleshed out in the first few episodes, which is pretty cool for a 26-minute show.

Joel Hodgson is my next favourite, who portrays a spaced out engineer.  He’s kind of like Tony Shalhoub’s Fred in Galaxy Quest, but a lot more laid back.

The chemistry between the crew is really great, and the casting director did a great job pulling them together.

Bottom Line

I’ve only watched the first four episodes, but I really liked it.  Episode 3 wasn’t as good as the other 3, but was still mostly great.  I’m looking forward to the other 4 episodes (there are only 8 in total).

Other Space gets a 4/5 rating from me.  Check it out at www.shareotherspace.com!

The Mechanical – A Review

I recently (more like finally) finished The Mechanical, an alternate history novel written by Ian Tregillis.

The Mechanical Review
The Mechanical – cover from Goodreads

Setting

The Mechanical is the first of three books in a series known as The Alchemy Wars.  In this novel’s universe, the Dutch are the world’s super-power, having mastered alchemy and keeping order with various models of mechanical men, known as “clakkers”.  France is the only nation to really oppose the Dutch, and do so with chemicals.

Most of the story takes place in New Amsterdam (North America), with smaller parts taking place in Europe.

Characters

We are introduced early on to three characters: Jax, a clakker (mechanical servitor); Berenice, a French spymaster; and Visser, a Catholic priest working for Berenice undercover in Dutch territory.  As the book winds along, it’s clear that the main characters in the story are Berenice and Jax, with Visser serving a secondary yet important purpose.

As characters go, both Berenice and Jax have a well-defined character arc, each of them complete within the novel with a beginning, middle, and end.  Visser’s story doesn’t really reach a conclusion in this novel, which leads me to believe that he’ll have a more significant role in the next novel in the series (The Rising, also published in 2015).

I found that I didn’t really like Visser, though.  He was somewhat cowardly and really thought highly of himself and his role.  I imagine I felt about him the way I was supposed to – he was definitely very self-aggrandizing, to the point where he wasn’t very good at his job as a spy.

Beyond those three characters though, there wasn’t a lot of depth.   I give The Mechanical a grade of B- for characters.

Story & Writing

I mentioned at the top that I “finally” finished reading The Mechanical last week…this is because I started reading it over a year ago.  The story builds up very slowly at the beginning.  This is a 400+ page book, but I think it could benefit from some culling.

Part of the problem is that Tregillis has to do a lot of world building to start the novel, because you need to be able to see how everything works AND understand how the Dutch took and remain in power.  But the downside to this is that it progresses very slowly in the first half.

Once we get into the second half, and especially in the last third, the pace really picks up.  I think this part of the book is a better demonstration of Tregillis’ skill as a writer, because his pages aren’t being spent giving us long scenes of exposition.

Overall I like the aesthetics presented in the book.  It’s always neat to get a peak at alternative histories, and this one is very well thought out.  I do appreciate that things weren’t spelled out, but I could still understand the background.  The writing was a bit to “gratuitous” at times but generally, it’s good.  I give The Mechanical a B- for Story and Writing.

Wrap-Up 

While I really enjoyed the last third of the book, the first two thirds really didn’t do it for me.  Normally, a “long” book for me takes a few months to slog through.  This one took a year, and I stopped to read other things in between.  I can’t in good conscience give The Mechanical a strong rating.

On GoodReads, I gave it 3/5 stars.  Keeping with the letter grades I’ve been giving in this blog post, The Mechanical deserves a C+; a good read for parts of it, with strong main characters, but it really drags and feels like a chore to read in many other parts.

Coming up this week on the blog: a look at Paul Feig’s online TV show, Other Space.