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Review: “The Midnight Dance” by Nikki Katz

Phew.  Ok, that was a tough read, and boy am I glad it’s over!  I really can’t think of many more ways that The Midnight Dance could have let me down.

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It’s only 320 pages long and took me a month to read, and I’ve got to admit, from the 40% mark I was skimming it.  The lingering question I was left with was ultimately, why?  I don’t understand why anything in this book happened?  And I must warn you, that if you proceed to read from here there will be spoilers.

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Ok, let us proceed.

 

The setting of Nikki Katz’s The Midnight Dance is a manor house where a whole lot of girls live and learn ballet.  This brings us to our first why.

Why Ballet?  Ballet is totally pointless to the narrative.  The girls could have been in a regular boarding school, a work house, a brothel, the International Space Station; the narrative would have been exactly the same.  I got the feeling that Katz just liked the idea (and has probably seen Coppélia a few times) and thought it would be a cool plot device.  But it ultimately serves no purpose.

Why is the Master trying to control people’s minds?  No seriously, I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because I skim read it, but I really am not sure what the villain’s motivations were other than Penny was a special snowflake and he was totally in love, (which again, why?).  There was an intro about a boy with a missing leg who grows up to be the master but because he was teased by his sister, he wants revenge, gets a robotic prosthetic, and experiments with mind control on a whole bunch of young girls who are ballet students.  Confused?  Yeah, me too. But seriously, why?

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Penny (our protagonist) has a grandfather, who’s not her grandfather, who wants to help her (but not the other girls, because they are obviously not as special as special, special Penny), but is also the medical mastermind behind all these experiments in the first place.  But why?  For the love of God and all that is holy, why, why, WHY??  There is no plausible reason given for his agreement to carry out the experiments to begin with.  He can apparently create artificial limbs and perform medical miracles unknown at the time, but instead of doing something useful he lives in a cottage by a manor house for ballerinas catering to the whim of a madman who has no good reason to want to control the minds of all these girls in the first place.

The Midnight Dance by Nikki Katz

God, this plot was just such a hot mess of different ideas that just went y nowhere.  The narrative was batshit crazy from the start, so there were no surprises anywhere along the way.  Nothing that happened was shocking.  There was a bit of a romance that was just ‘meh’, an attempt at a love triangle that was just a bit gross and creepy, a lot of other characters who I forgot almost as soon as they graced the page or who appeared for the first time a few minutes before they were conveniently needed, and loads of Italicised Italian thrown in just to prove that the book was, in fact, set in Italy.  If there hadn’t been a date at the beginning of each chapter to tell me when it was set I wouldn’t have had any idea.  The way the characters spoke wasn’t believable, the setting didn’t give a sense of time, or place, and where the plot device was discussed it was, in fact, historically wrong.  (Ballet dancers used to be stocky and muscular, and pointe shoes at the time that this was set were not used for long periods as they were nothing more than regular satin shoes with some extra darning reinforcement at the toe and sides for the sake of occasional balances rather than prolonged dancing).

 

The Midnight Dance was just a really mediocre read with a less than mediocre story.  The plot was nonsensical and the characters forgettable.  Do yourself a favour.  Read something else.  But hey, at least the cover is great.

 

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Animal Rescue and Failed Adoptions

Working in animal rescue is rewarding.  Seeing dogs that have been abandoned, abused and neglected grow and flourish into happy, healthy little personalities is such a joy. But, it’s hard work.  Owen and I work exclusively with Bull breeds, and they’re strong, single-minded creatures, and we’ve fallen in love with every single one that we’ve fostered.  We did our best to make sure that they were looked after and prepared to go to their forever homes the best dogs that they could be.

We found out today that our most recent foster dog, Clay, has ended up in a pound, abandoned by yet another owner.  As heartbreaking as that is, it gives us a perfect opportunity to talk about how we can stop things like this happening in future, and the shared responsibilities of owners and rescuers alike.

 

I Blame Wizards - Clay, through PRC Animal Rescue

 

We had Clay as a foster dog for a couple of months.  He had some training issues, sure, and suffered severe separation anxiety which made him destructive if left alone, but it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t handle, and certainly nothing that a good, stable home wouldn’t fix.  He got along perfectly with our two dogs, Tonks and Molly, and we knew he’d make a perfect pet if given a chance.

Stephanie, the force behind Pit Bull Rescue Cyprus (PRC), worked hard trying to find Clay his perfect forever home, when a man named Markos, and his business partner Costas, who own and run an EU funded farm in Limassol came forward.  They came to Steph with plans to extend their farm, talking about taking on rescue animals, becoming a kind of sanctuary where school kids could visit, play with the animals and have day camps etc.  They even said there were plans to develop a dog hotel, so visitors to Cyprus could come and visit with their animals, with swimming pools for dogs and people to keep them cool in the scorching summer heat.  It sounded like the dream home for any dog.

Steph was diligent in screening his potential new owners.  She is often wary of homing to businesses as it is difficult to prove ownership, but any fears on that front were quickly allayed.  He would be co-owned by the two men, and would be looked after during the day by both of them.  When they weren’t on the property there was a couple who lived on site who would look after the animals in their absence.

With everything in order, we said goodbye to Clay, and with happy tears sent him to his new home.

If anyone has adopted an animal from a shelter or worked in rescue, you’ll know that adoption packages are part and parcel of owning an animal.  They don’t generate profit, all they do is help the rescue recoup some of the many costs that go into rescuing animals.  The price of an adoption fee is usually the amount that would cover neutering a dog, and that’s what the money usually goes toward.  Clay was still to be neutered, so an appointment was made and the adoption package left with the vet.

With much prodding from Steph, and a missed appointment, Clay was finally brought in to be neutered.  He was brought in by employees of the farm rather than the owners themselves, and they’d also sent the dog that they already owned to have the operation as well.

After the operation, the two men claimed that Stephanie had offered that the charity would pay for it.  Not only had Clay been neutered that day, but so had their other dog, which had no connection to the charity at all. Steph was expected to pay for it out of pocket.  After days of arguing back and forth, the bill was settled it in part.  As far as I know, the rest of the amount is still outstanding, leaving the charity once again racking up a vet bill.

A few days ago, she was tagged in a post by a friend who keeps an eye out for Pit Bulls in local pounds, to see if the charity can take on the case.  Imagine her surprise when the dog in the tagged post turned out to be Clay!  She recognised him straight away, and thus began the saga of trying to find out how our perfectly happy Clay had ended up in a cage, awaiting death alongside the other dogs who are the fallout of irresponsible pet ownership.

I’ll save you all the ‘he said, she said.’  Long story short, it seems that the couple who were caretakers at the farm left, taking Clay with them and dumping him at the pound.  Both men now refuse to accept ownership, and any further attempts at correspondence have been ignored while Clay is still sitting in a kill shelter in Limassol.

PRC has a network of volunteers supporting them.  We all have day jobs, and the number of people it takes to rehome a dog is astounding.  In Clay’s situation, he was rescued from his previous owner who was going to sell him on a Facebook group known for being a source for bait dogs.  There was a small army of volunteers involved in home checks, collections, lifts from one end of Cyprus to the other, dog minders for when life meant we couldn’t be home with the dogs all day, vets who gave their time, and even volunteers who monitored messages and made phone calls to try and make sure he went to the best home possible.  It’s hard work, and mostly thankless.  But we do it because we love the dogs, and they deserve a chance at life.

 

I Blame Wizards - Clay and Molly, through PRC Animal Rescue

 

Screening potential owners is difficult.  There is always some element of trust involved, and it’s difficult when we feel that trust is violated.  We feel we’ve failed the dogs by putting them into situations that they have no control over, but ultimately, there is nothing to be gained from playing the blame game.

Responsible dog ownership has to be learned, and Clay’s situation is a perfect illustration of that.  He’s been in two homes now who have let him down.  There is no point in publicly crucifying the people who adopted him.  Their actions speak to ignorance, rather than any intended cruelty.  But this ignorance is the exact reason why we need to highlight situations like this, and hopefully, make sure it never happens again.  Clay is a good dog who deserves better.  A dog is for life.  Give them love, and they’ll love you back unconditionally.

Let’s take this opportunity to have a serious and frank discussion about rescue and adoption.  It’s easy to jump to naming and shaming, but ultimately that does more harm than good.  A public outing won’t make someone change their ways but offering support and a willingness to get to the heart of why people act the way they do just might.

When you rescue a dog, you have a support network of like-minded individuals who have the dog’s best interest at heart. Any of us can be contacted for help or advice if the dog gets too much or you find yourself unable to cope alone.  Help is available before abandoning a dog; you only need to ask.

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Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s Ready Player One is a tough book to rate.  Its characters are two-dimensional and generally either unlikeable or forgettable, the antagonists are like cartoonish caricatures of an evil corporation, everything that helps resolve the plot is just a little too convenient.  There are also some pretty glaring logical inconsistencies that had me shaking my head at times thinking, seriously?  But did any of that matter in the end?  Not even a bit, because this book is just so. Much. Damn. FUN!

Cline knows his audience well. The narrative of Ready Player One is so chock full of pop culture references that I’m surprised he managed to fit a plot in there at all.  From old arcade games, through to John Hughes films and more prog music references than you can poke a stick at (I’m looking at you, Rush!), there’s something in here for everyone who grew up or was born in the 80’s.  He manages to create a palpable sense of nostalgia which drives the plot forward and had me giggling with joy whenever he mentioned something that I was particularly fond of.  And there we have the appeal of this book.  The age of the Geek is now, but so many of us grew up at a time when being a gamer, reading science-fiction and fantasy and listening to prog rock until the early hours of the morning made us anything but cool.  A book like Ready Player One brings those things into the now and lets us enjoy them alongside a youth who don’t suffer the same stigma associated with those interests.

Ready Player One’s pacing is perfect.  It starts off with just the right amount of exposition, gets us interested in the world that Cline is building and then sets off running.  The search for the keys is exciting, and I found myself trying to solve the clues along with Wade to see how good my own 80’s pop-culture memory was.  The clues are cryptic enough to not be solved quickly, but make sense when they’re resolved without feeling forced.  There are moments of tension and intrigue, and the way the final battle was written was so well rendered that I could almost see it right in front of me.  With that said, however, there are lots of moments when things are a little too convenient.  Wade just happens to be good at everything the plot needs him to be good at, and characters just happen to find the right objects immediately before needing them.  But these conveniences did move the plot a long pretty quickly and only slightly detracted from the tension, and because I was enjoying the experience so much I was willing to forgive this much more readily than if the same had happened in any other book.

The biggest issue with Ready Player One is the characterisation.  As exciting as the narrative is, it’s carried along by the reader’s interest in the culture and the concept, and certainly not by the strength of its characters.  Wade is unlikeable, with the emotional range of a wet rag, Art3mis was pretty much the generic manic pixie dream girl, Aech was ‘token’ to say the least, and Daito and Shoto were nothing more than a stereotype of how the western media has portrayed all Asian gamers since there were Asian gamers.  There is a romance between Wade and Art3mis which was incredibly unromantic and completely unbelievable, so it’s a shame that the book ended with it as it was the weakest part of the narrative.  It made me feel a little disappointed at the end after having so thoroughly enjoyed myself for the rest of it.  The main antagonist, Sorrento, head of operations at IOI, the evil corporation who serve as the big bad of the narrative, is even worse.  He was like Dr Evil or Monty Burns, and it was hard to take his over-the-top threats seriously, especially since Wade seemed so completely unfazed by them!  Because Ready Player One was so full of action, I feel it would have been served by a more subtle antagonist who was undermining, rather than overbearing.

Ready Player One is far from a perfect book.  It has flaws, lots of them, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.  If the point of reading is to have fun, then Ernest Cline has achieved that.  This is the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.

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Review: ‘Experimental Film’ by Gemma Files

Experimental Film by Gemma FilesExperimental Film shows first-hand how a first-class concept isn’t enough to carry a novel.  Gemma Files is incredibly knowledgeable about film, and it certainly shows.  I was not at all surprised to find out she was a film critic and screen-writer in Canada.  But it does mean that she falls into the trap of writers with specialisations like this; going into far too much unnecessary, incidental and boring detail about the way the industry works, that they lose sight of the plot, or what makes a story engaging.

The story follows protagonist Lois Cairns as she tries to uncover the mystery behind a woman who may have been Canada’s first female filmmaker.  Lois is an out of work film critic, ex-teacher, and mother to an autistic son.  While reviewing freelance in Toronto’s underground film scene she embarks on a journey that takes her to derelict mansions, will make her delve deep into Eastern European folklore and come face to face with her own inner demons, as well as outside forces.

The concept for Experimental Film is a strong one.  The medium of film has so much potential to create a stirring atmosphere.  Film can convey so much within a very short space of time, and if a picture can paint 1000 words, a moving picture can do even more.  The disappointment is that the supernatural elements of the novel simply don’t really seem to hold any relevance to the art of film making, other than it being a convenient plot device that the author just happens to know something about.  The antagonist as well seems incredibly out of place.  Essentially, we have a sun worshiping demi-god who for some reason chooses to manifest in Toronto, a city that never seems to rise about 24 – 27 degrees Celsius, even in the height of summer.  The setting, the premise, the antagonist; everything had potential, but the narrative simply didn’t make use of any of them.  Files seemed to stick with familiar, rather than appropriate.

Lois Cairns herself was a well-developed character. She was interesting, flawed, relatable with the kinds of insecurities that we can all relate to. Unfortunately, most of her development happened within the first quarter of the novel, meaning that the plot didn’t really get going until half way through the book.  Lois’ insecurities, while interesting, weren’t enough to carry the novel’s interest for so long.   For a character with clear and obvious mental health issues (dealt in a way that should have been refreshing) who was clearly on the verge of a breakdown when the book started, the characters that surrounded her really seemed to just blindly accept her supernatural experiences.  No one seemed to question her in any real depth, which really stopped my suspension of disbelief as there was never any compelling evidence that anything supernatural was occurring, rather than Lois just having a breakdown.

The side characters of Experimental Film fared much worse in their development.  Lois’ husband Simon existed to be the perfect supportive partner, her research assistant Safie was just a glorified sounding board, her son Clark (Lois and Clark…believe me, I groaned inwardly at that one) was autistic, which of course was used to create creepy-kid-communing-with-the-supernatural syndrome, which I found equal parts offensive and overdone within the genre, and the minor antagonist Wrob Barney was such an over-the-top caricature of narcissistic unprofessionalism that I simply couldn’t take him seriously.  The minor characters were at best, archetypes, at worst, caricatures.  They really took away from everything I feel Experimental Film was trying to be.

With poor pacing, far too much unnecessary exposition, a premise that didn’t deliver and a narrative that failed to scare, I must say that Experimental Film was a bit of a disappointment.  All the parts were there, but nothing was followed through in a way that could satisfy.  Bits and pieces read like poor imitations of other works, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods mixed with Night Film by Marisha Pessl (another book about film that failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion).  If you’d like to know a lot about the Canadian underground film scene, old film stock, and how to get a Canadian Arts grant, then this is for you.  Otherwise, there are more satisfying horror novels out there.

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Review: ‘The Outcasts of Time’ by Ian Mortimer

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerOn the surface, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time has everything an historical novel should have.  It was full of sumptuous description, historical accuracy, and a well-developed protagonist used to illustrate his own zeitgeist.  It is a shame then that no strength of writing could make up for the one thing that The Outcasts of Time was really lacking.  A plot.

Within the first few pages, I was already worried that Ian Mortimer would go the way of so many historians turned novelists, and my worries were ultimately well deserved.  The Outcasts of Time gets so caught up in its own historicity that it forgets what it’s actually written for.  To tell a story.  Instead of a flowing narrative that goes somewhere and means something, instead, we are treated to a set of historical vignettes that read like a morality play for the importance of the study of history.  I’m a professional historian, so I’m all for that, but the setup was just so contrived that I caught myself physically rolling my eyes at moments.

I find it difficult to write too much more about the novel because nothing happened.  What makes this book great is the way that Mortimer brings the historical periods to life (with the exception of John of Wrayment’s foray into the 19th Century, which was just full of exposition rather than any real sense of time or place), but just giving me a good sense of history isn’t enough.  The protagonists skip from day to day, century to century, never really getting to know anyone, or really do anything except give us a snapshot of life in their times.  But if I wanted that, I would have read one of Mortimer’s exceptional non-fiction books. His Time Travellers Guide series is excellent! But a novel is more than just beautiful prose.

Ian Mortimer’s ultimate aim in writing The Outcasts of Time is summed up by one quote, that is often repeated at the end of the novel:

The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.

It’s a bit on the nose, but that’s the ultimate point.  History is important, and we are all the sum of what came before.  It’s an admirable thought, but it doesn’t make for gripping fiction without a strong narrative to lead us there.

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