2016 in Fiction

BooksReading is my happy place.  In past years I haven’t really taken stock of my reading or reflected on how I felt about what I read.  Inspired by  Allana Mayer’s post, “My year in fiction” I’ve deiced to take a look back at some of what I’ve read in 2016.  According to my Goodreads account, which I try to keep updated with all of the books I read, I tackled 101 books in 2016.  That seems like a huge number – but some of that was non-fiction I read as professional development and that number also includes a handful of audio books.

Part way through 2016 I took a fairly serious look at my reading habits and tried to shift them a bit.  I love fantasy books but I realized I had fallen into a bit of a rut and many of the books I was reading were written by white males and contained very little character diversity.  As a result I decided to actively seek out queer lit and books written by women.  I was somewhat successful in that endeavor but it’s something I want to continue with in 2017.  I would also like to continue to read more books written by Indigenous folks and POC.

The Brandon Sanderson Obsession

Prior to making a decision to read more widely I began 2016 by rereading some of favourite fantasy books – namely the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson.  This is hands down one of my favourite fantasy series and contains some of the best female fantasy main characters I’ve read.  In 2016 I also read Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, a fun young adult romp that features librarians trying to take over the world.  I also read Sanderson’s Way of Kings and Words of Radiance which are part of The Stormlight Archive series.  These books are more traditional epic fantasy, but I love their magic systems – use of archives and the mixture of political and personal that permeates these books.  I also ventured into Sanderson’s Reckoner’s series by reading Steelheart, Mitosis, and Firefight.  This series is superhero fiction based around the idea of what if there were a bunch of people with super powers who were essentially evil and it was up to regular folks to fight back.  These were really quick reads for me – and fairly light, albeit with a fair bit of violence and action.  I concluded by 2016 Sanderson kick by reading The Alloy of Law which is the fourth book in the Mistborn world – though it’s set many years later and with a different cast of characters it was still pretty great. Much more of a steampunk Western feel than the other books.   Basically I’m still working my way through the immense amount of writing by Sanderson and still loving most of it.

Charlotte E. English and Kristine Kathryn Rusch

These two great female authors were hold overs from much of what I read in 2015.  Both English and Rusch write SFF and their work has been frequently featured in bundles on Storybundle.  In January I read Miss Landon & Aubranel by English which was a historical fiction with a bit of fantasy in the mix and felt a bit like Jane Eyre in it’s writing style.   I also read Traitors by Rusch which unlike most of the other books by Rusch that I’ve picked up this one was more fantasy than Sci-fi weighted.  I loved the world building in this one however I still think I prefer some of Rusch’s more traditional SF fare.

All the Torchwood

Torchwood novels, BBC audios, Big Finish audios – you name it and I’ve probably sampled it this year.  I went on a bit of a binge on this front that fell outside the idea of diverse reading.  I blame the fact that Doctor Who wasn’t on air this year and I was going through a bit of a withdrawal.   I also read John Barrowman’s two autobiographical style books and the Hallow Earth trilogy Barrow man wrote with Carole E. Barrowman.  I still have a few of the Big Finish Tochwood audios to finish but I’m saving them for the long drive to Southern Ontario at the end of this week.

Doctor Who Reading

Similar to my Torchwood binge I discovered the world of Doctor Who novels and audios.  There are substantially more of these than there are of the Torchwood variety so I’ve really only scratched the surface on this front so far.  I listened to Dark  Horizons a eleventh doctor novel by Jenny Colgan (yay female writer!) that is a delightful romp with Matt Smith’s Doctor involving Vikings and aliens. I also read The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter, The Stone Rose by Jacqueline Rayner (yay another female writer!), Touched by An Angel by Jonathan Morris, Human Nature by Paul Cornell, and Shada by Gareth Roberts, based on the screenplays by Douglas Adams. Of that batch I particularly enjoyed the revamp of Adams’ original screenplays and Rayner’s eleventh Doctor story.

I also listened to a few Big Finish Doctor Who audios this year.  Namely, the Eleventh Doctor and Donna audios which I would highly recommend.  Catherine Tate and David Tennant do a wonderful job making these stories come alive. I also listened to the Destiny of the Doctor audio series which was also good.

Elizabeth Bear

So much love for her writing.  Strong female characters, subverted gender norms, queer relationships, and wonderful SFF storytelling.  I loved her book Karen Memory which has a steampunk feel to it and her Jacob’s Ladder series and the Jenny Casey series.  The Jenny Casey series in particular has a raw, gritty feel that I loved.  And one of the main characters is a Francophone Canadian which is downright rare in SFF.  I highly recommend any of Bear’s writing if you’re interested in reading challenging and diverse SFF.

Uncanny Magazine

I have so much love for this publication.  Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas this magazine brings together diverse voices, moving stories, and just plain good quality fiction and prose.  Each issue contains challenging writing, inspiring fiction, and thoughtful essays. I’ve religiously downloaded each new issue in 2016 and devoured them with delight.  I also really enjoy the Uncanny Magazine podcast which includes creator interviews and fiction being read aloud.

Queer Voices

I’ve been actively trying to read books that are by queer and marginalized voices or contain well written queer characters.  I’ve also been struggling to find books that represent queer characters as part of a larger story, beyond just a coming out work.  That’s one of the reasons why I love so much of the writing done by Elizabeth Bear and so many of the stories in Uncanny Magazine.  In both cases queer characters are often written as matter of the fact, as part of life, and part of the fabric of the world.  That representation is so important to me and is something I’ve struggled to find.  This year I read Funny Boy by Shyam Selvaduri, Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, In One Person by John Irving, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, City of Night by John Rechy, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, and The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham.  I probably enjoyed Middlesex and City of Night the best.  But I’ve also been really wanting to read a book with a strong bisxual, pansexual, 2spirit, asexual, or non-binary character.  And I have yet to come across a book that fits that bill.  The nearest I’ve come yet is Elizabeth Bear’s writing which subverts gender and relationship norms in a SFF setting.  If anyone has any recommendations in this category feel free to share.

Basically I read a lot and I’m really trying to change my reading habits to discover new authors and new ways of thinking.  There are bunch of other odds and ends I read in 2016 but didn’t cover in this post.  I also didn’t talk about any of the non-fiction I read this year as I hope to write a separate post covering that topic.  What’s on your fiction reading list for 2017?

Watching: Torchwood, Cyberwoman

So episode three in Torchwood had me extremely excited about the possibilities of the series and the potential depth of future episodes.  Episode four, “Cyberwomen”, kind of threw all of that under the bus.   The basic premise of the episode is the Ianto Jones is keeping his girlfriend, a half-converted Cyberman in the basement of the Hub.  Enter poor costuming choices and a bit of cheese and you get a cringe worthy episode.

I like idea of integrating bits of well known Doctor Who references into Torchwood and using the same villains/aliens is an easy way to do that.  This episode has many nods to Doctor Who and the broader SF/F genre.  These nods are ultimately taken too far and fall a bit flat.

I did like the emotional challenge Ianto is faced with – loving the person inside the Cyberman and realizing that the person he loves has become a mass murdering machine.  He seems to genuinely love Lisa and doesn’t want to believe she is gone, despite what Jack and the others tell him.  Four episodes into the series and this is our first real glimpse at Ianto below the surface.  And what we see isn’t that inspiring – he’s reckless, lying, and can’t make the hard decision he needs to. Jack gives a whole lot of tough love to Ianto this episode and we see Jack in the hardass leadership role that rears its head occasionally.  His line “If she’s alive, you execute her.  You execute her or I’ll execute you both!” sums up his position on the whole situation.

I didn’t hate this episode but it definitely wasn’t what I would call good.  It had  a bad tv movie feel to it and there were a lot of poor choices in terms of pacing and presentation of the ‘cyberwoman’.  I think different costuming choices and a less sexualized outfit would have gone a long way in making this far more watchable.  This is the only time Torchwood used an established monster from the Doctor Who universe.  It seems like they realized it didn’t work.  Torchwood is something different and it works best when it treats itself that way – one off references to the Doctor and bit of tech from the Doctor Who universe work but attempting to reinvent classics is hard and perhaps best left alone.

Watching: Torchwood, Ghost Machine

It’s a Torchwood episode! And it’s written by a woman! “Ghost Machine” written by Helen Raynor feels more like what I anticipated from Torchwood.  The first episode was all setup and the second sex-monster based story seemed very much like it was trying to prove how adult the show was.  “Ghost Machine” is a spooky, nuanced story filled with little gems.

The premise of the story is a machine that converts the energy and electrical signals into visuals.  Essentially the machine opens windows to the past in areas that are fraught with human emotion.  I love how this very simple device is used to show the power of the past, the fragility of human life, and how even the experienced Torchwood team can’t avoid being pulled into human tragedy.  Owen is deeply disturbed by what he sees in the past and drawn into a tragedy from years ago — this episode did a lot in terms of pulling on Owen’s human side and does a tremendous amount to recover Owen’s character from the poor decision in the first episode to show him using an alien artifact to seduce people.

Part way through the episode the team discover that they initially only found half of the alien object.  The other half allows the holder to see into the future.  Gwen has a vision and works desperately hard to stop it from coming true.  She changes the future but the result is still the same.  It’s heartbreaking and the narrative is incredibility well written.

GhostMachineOne of my favourite parts of this episode is a part that isn’t directly tied to the plot – I loved the part where Jack takes the time to show Gwen how to shoot a gun.  The segment is a bit over the top but it establishes Gwen as a quick learner and an essential member of the team.

It also highlights the fundamental differences between policing in North American and Britain.  There is no way a North American police officer wouldn’t know how to use a gun, but that’s the norm in Britain.  I love that they stayed true to this reality in Torchwood.  This scene also plays with the idea of Jack and Gwen as a pairing – it never develops past the flirtation stage but you can feel the tension between the two characters in these early episodes.

This is a great ghost story with layers of revenge and moral challenges on top.  It’s well written and an excellent example of blending bit of SF/F with other genres.  The tiny piece of alien tech is just a stepping stone for a much larger more human story told in this episode.

Watching: Torchwood, Day One

“Day One” the second episode of Torchwood picks up right where the pilot left off – Gwen Cooper has joined the Torchwood team and this episode revolves around her first day.  Of particular interest to current Doctor Who fans this episode was written by future show-runner Chris Chibnall.

To be frank this isn’t the best introduction to Chibnall’s work.  The entire episodes revolves around a gas based sex monster, which given that context the episode can only be expected to do so much.  At times the episode really felt like it was trying to prove how ‘adult’ Torchwood was in comparison to Doctor Who and what better way to do that then focus an entire episode around sex.

Though I do love some of the very sex positive lines given to Captain Jack in this episode.  His line “you people and your quaint little categories” is by far one of my favoruite of the entire Torchwood series.  This is one of the many examples of Jack’s refusal to conform to  (gender or sexuality based binaries.

The episode also positions Gwen as having an amazing snog with the female character possessed by the sex monster – drawing attention to the existence of bisexual people and the range of sexual orientations beyond straight and gay. Plus Gwen actually uses the word snog to describe her actions — which is adorably British and I had a minor squee moment when she talked about it.  The Verity! Podcast episode looking at this episode does a good job of diving into some of the specifics around this and find hints of redemption in the sex monster story.

On a whole I think watching Chibnall’s contributions to Doctor Who proper are a bit more inspiring than this in terms of faith in a showrunner. It’s a sex monster story.  “Day One” is not a bad story – but it is what is.  The Radio Free Skaro Miniscope on Chibnall’s Doctor Who contributions does a great job of looking critically at Chibnall’s contributions but the general assessment of his DW work is positive and highlight the huge range of genres, themes, and ideas Chibnall is capable of carrying. And I think watching Broadchurch is probably a better example of the possibilities of what can happen under Chibnall than this slightly over the top sex monster  and I absolutely loved Broadchurch.

Watching: Torchwood, Everything Changes

The past few weeks I have been working my way through Torchwood.  Given my love of Doctor Who and Captain Jack Harkness as  a character this is probably not surprising.  Despite this love and the fact that Torchwood originally aired starting in 2006 what is probably most surprising is that this is the first time I’ve watched the spin-off.  I saw some of the Torchwood: Miracle Day series when it aired originally and I’ve listened to a number of the Torchwood audiobooks but somehow missed watching the series proper.

Everything Changes” is the first episode of the Torchwood series.  It serves the standard pilot role of introducing all of the main characters, the general premise and setting up the show itself.  The episode is setup from the perspective of Gwen Cooper (played by Eve Myles) who is a police officer who stumbles upon a Torchwood investigation, finds herself embroiled in the mystery of the alien filled world that is Torchwood, with the episode ultimately ending with Gwen joining the Torchwood team.

The placement of Gwen as an outsider in this episode works well.  It provides an identification character for the audience and allows for the introduction of Torchwood to be done in a logical and easy to comprehend way.  Plus you get to see Gwen’s police work and snooping skills in action.  She is immediately established as someone who cares, who is inquisitive, and as someone who doesn’t take no for an answer.  Gwen is presented as strong female character in this episode and that’s something that carries on throughout the series.

The tone of Torchwood was also beginning to be established in this episode – it’s witty, dark, and is being established as firmly ‘adult’ television – a marked step away from the family oriented Doctor Who.

One of the things I’ve grown to love about Torchwood as I’ve made my way through the series is the open challenging of sexual boundaries and identities.  That being said, this opening episode had an uncomfortable segment in which Owen uses an alien perfume/glamour to make himself irresistible to the nearest person — removing free will and decision making powers of the impacted person.  Some have likened this instance to date rape and heavily criticized the interaction. It made me uncomfortable. But it also did an excellent job of setting Owen up as a character with a huge range of sexual relationship related challenges and as someone who is that stereotypical ‘player’ archetype. It served it’s purpose but perhaps could have been frame with more sensitivity.

A solid introduction to the series. With more goodness to come.

Radio Dramas: Torchwood

Lost_SoulsAs I mentioned a few posts ago, my love for Doctor Who is relatively new and up until now it has primarily been restricted to religiously watching the television series and occasionally diving into some of the classic episodes.  However recently at work I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts talking about Doctor Who and I’ve started exploring fan created literature around the show.  Fandom sequels might be appropriate here.

I spend a lot of time in my car – at minimum ten hours a week.  Given this abundance of time trapped in a steel people carrier rambling down hwy 17 I often listen to CBC and satellite radio.  But I recently discovered that via Overdrive (the Ontario library ebook and audio book provider) that I can download Doctor Who and Torchwood content to listen to. There’s not a complete run of the content but there’s enough to keep me busy for awhile.

I just finished listening to the Torchwood BBC Radio Dramas.  These short one hour dramas are set between series two and three of Torchwood and feature the voices of the actors associated with the Torchwood series, namely John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper, and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones. The short nature of the episodes means that they are fairly fast paced and it’s been a long time since I’ve listening to any drama that was designed exclusively for radio.

It is definitely different than something written for print then read aloud.  I really enjoyed this set of dramas.  It made me think about classic radio before the invention of TV and the prevalence of high quality radio dramas in days gone by.  It also reminded me how much I love Captain Jack as a character and what a great job John Barrowman does in that role.