Orphans and Orange onscreen: Stories about women are the new black

I don’t usually watch a lot of TV, I prefer to read (as earlier posts will indicate) but last weekend I watched about nine hours of TV – to the point that I got a headache and realized I hadn’t been outside the apartment all day. What had me so engaged? Like half the rest of the world, it was season two of Orange is the New Black (Team Sophia!). I paused it only to watch the latest episode of Orphan Black (Team Cosima!).

It was watching one after the other that made me realize the similarities between the two shows. No, there are no clones in OITNB, and the felons in Orphan Black aren’t locked up, but the parallels of the shows are there.

All about the women
The most obvious similarity is that both centre on women. Complicated, engaging, infuriating women who make terrible decisions, enormous sacrifices and amazing connections to their audience. There are so many female characters that simply fit an old trope or stereotype – the nagging wife, the desperate singleton, the catty best friend. It is frustrating to never see yourself represented on screen in any complexity so the fact that the women in these shows are anything but simple is so rewarding to watch.

Some of the characters in both these shows make the dumbest decisions. Seriously. So. Dumb. But I always understand WHY they’re making that decision. There are no “villains” in the shows because we understand their motivation. We can hate a character one week, and the next week the writers will throw us head first down the rabbit hole of their backstory and suddenly we commiserate and sympathize with someone who seemed heartless. I’m still waiting for that to happen with Vee on OITNB. Oh she makes me so mad…

Both shows have impressive diversity represented on screen, especially considering Orphan Black essentially has the least diverse cast ever. Orphan Black’s ethnic diversity could certainly be better, but its representation of LGBT characters is fantastic to see. I love the inclusion of Tony, the transgender clone that threw Felix for a loop last episode and I hope we see a lot more of him in the future! OITNB is even more impressive. Its ensemble cast includes a range of ages, races, ethnicities and classes that is rarely represented on screen and it doesn’t shy away from telling complicated and challenging stories.

Science, politics, sociology and psychology – these shows delve into some of the biggest issues of our time and do it so flawlessly that you don’t even realize you’re learning. Debate around women owning their own bodies; the realities of the prison system; gender, sex and sexuality, there are few topics these shows won’t tackle. Considering how white bread and non-threatening most TV shows are it is refreshing to see complicated ideas explored through character experiences.

Moral of the story: If you’re not watching both these shows you are missing out! 



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What should have happened in Doctor Sleep

Note: Here there be spoilers for Stephen King’s latest novel, Doctor Sleep.

Disclaimer: I did actually enjoy this book quite a lot, despite all indications here to the contrary.

Doctor Sleep continues the story of Danny Torrance, the child from The Shining, as he fights his literal and figurative demons (ghosts and alcholism) and ends up plotting to bring down a centuries-old group of psychic “vampires” that eat the souls of people with psychic power. He teams up with 13-year-old super duper powerful Abra, as well as way too many boring men (Billy, Casey, John?, Abra’s Dad?) to defeat “The woman in the hat” – Rose – who leads the bad guys, called The True Knot.

Caitlin’s Alternate Ending:

The main issues I had with the book almost all revolve around Abra. a) She’s incredibly underdeveloped for someone who’s meant to be a main character and b) right from the start she’s stronger than Rose so there’s very little suspense in whether she’ll win. The book gets a little boring once Abra becomes a major part, so my suggestion would be to make her less substantial.

Instead of culminating when she’s 13, the main showdown should happen when Abra is six or seven – old enough to communicate and have some agency, but not old enough to actively problem solve. Then the main plot and character arc is Danny becoming a true good guy, a hero.

Abra’s a lighthouse of psychic power so of course the True Knot sense her when she’s still quite young and set out to find her. She feels the threat coming, and calls on Dan to help her (she’s already communicated with him a number of times by that age anyway). Dan, with just Billy’s help, goes in search of her and tries to figure out what he can about the True Knot. The climax of the book is Abra being found and kidnapped by the True Knot and a showdown between Dan and Rose, who seem much more evenly matched. Dan sacrifices himself for Abra, who goes home safely to her family but who will never forget. It’s nice because it reflects The Shining, with Dan in Dick Halloran’s place and it’s a less complex but more complete story.

King has always killed characters and it’s telling that no one important dies in Doctor Sleep. Is the King of Horror going soft on us?

As I said, I did enjoy Doctor Sleep but felt it should have been 100 pages shorter, and a bit faster paced. Now I have to figure out what other books I want to re-write the ending to.


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Diversity beyond the prize lists

As I posted a few months back, I’m trying to improve author diversity in my reading lists. I’ve done pretty well as far as “worthy” books – the ones people review in prestigious publications or recommend to their book clubs – but one thing holding me back is in what I call my “in between” books.

Between all the great, worthy, moving, incredible reads, I like to read something lighter and fluffier. For example, last year before I read 14 Jim Butcher novels. Early this year I read 12 Suzanne Brockmann thriller/romance novels (which I would recommend if you like that kind of book – she’s very good). Nora Roberts, Linda Jackson, Karen Robard, Lee Childs – they’re fun, let me switch off for a bit and just enjoy a crazy adventure. But all those authors are white American. It’s been pretty easy to find amazing books by authors from all over the world and all walks of life, but if I really want to improve my overall diversity, I need to find equivalents for the books I read in two hours then hunt desperately at the library for the sequels.

Enter Beverly Jenkins. I just finished Edge of Dawn, about a woman whose father has been killed in a house fire. On her way home from burying him, she gets drawn into a terrifying international plot surrounding a diamond entrusted to her father before she was even born. Can she outwit, outlast and outplay the bad guys, while still finding time to fall in love, make witty quips, fire a rocket launcher from a car and meet long lost relatives who shoot first and ask questions later? Of course she can – that’s what kind of book this is 🙂

I’ll definitely pick up more by Jenkins – and check out some of the other recommendations I found under “If you like Barbara Jenkins you’ll love…” lists. Her characters are really fun, with the kind of details and personality tics that draw me to Nora Roberts, and at 350 pages it’s the perfect length for a palate cleanser between Worthy Books.

If anyone has other recommendations in this vein let me know in the comments. I’ve found lots of lists out of the US of things like “African American Romance Writers” or “Asian American Mystery Writers” but haven’t had as much luck finding things from outside the US. That might be because of how the market works, but I’d be interested in hearing recommendations from Canada, the UK etc. Or, if they’re available in translation, anywhere in the world. Next week I’m going to start hunting for the home-grown mystery novels being written in Nigeria and Japan and India (etc.).

Year to date:
Read 48 books
32 by women (66%)
12 by people of colour (25%)

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Moving beyond dead white men

This week Toronto councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggested Union Station should be renamed John A. Macdonald Station after Canada’s first prime minister. There has been some moderate debate around the proposal, but no real controversy because it’s basically the most boring suggestion ever. If you were going to ask a Canadian to name a national historic figure John A. Macdonald would definitely be one of the top five answers.

Macdonald has an airport, a bridge, a couple buildings and quite a few schools named after him already, not to mention probably dozens of statues scattered across the country. Oh, and he’s on the ten dollar bill. As far as honouring the first prime minister, I think we’re set. In fact, the only woman on any Canadian money is the Queen of England – all the rest are dead white men.

It stands out to me especially coming from New Zealand, where the people on our notes include Edmund Hillary (first to climb Mt Everest), Apirana Ngata (one of the first Maori politicians), Kate Sheppard (lead the suffragette movement) and Ernest Rutherford (split the atom) – representing a range of different groups and movements. It seems really strange to me that the people Canada thinks are most important in its history are those that represent the establishment, not those that inspired change or lead movements.

So, here is my suggestion: let’s rename Union Station as Mary Ann Shadd Station (or Shadd-Cary Station maybe). Mary Ann Shadd was a black Canadian-American journalist, activist and lawyer. She ran a newspaper, helped escaped slaves find jobs and homes, and was also later a suffragette. She represents Toronto’s diverse history of welcoming people from anywhere and everywhere, and I can’t think of a better name to put on one of the country’s main transportation hubs.

I’m not an expert. Maybe Shadd isn’t suitable for two dozen reasons. But let’s have that conversation. Who would you name Union Station after? Which Canadians deserve more attention? Do we really think Dead White Men alone made this country what it is? Because that’s the only conclusion I can draw looking around at the names we put on buildings.

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On improving diversity in what I read

For the last two years I’ve been recording every book I read, mostly just for interest sake. However, this afternoon I realised that I had a lot of data at my fingertips about my reading habits, specifically gender and ethnic diversity.

In 2013 I read 171 books. When I marked each entry that was by a woman it totalled 85. Now, this is rough because sometimes if I read four books in a series I write “Protector of the Small x4” so that’s four books by one female author, but other times I have a number of different books by the same author spread out throughout. However, I think it’s safe to say that about half the books I read were by female authors. Yay me! High fives all around! Oh wait… that’s just the good news…

The bad news is that when I tracked authors of colour it’s abysmal. Seriously. Emabrrassingly. Abysmal. The total at the end of my list was 14 – less than 10%. Yikes. What’s more, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and N.K. Jemisin both feature twice, so that’s only 12 authors overall. Interesting: of the 14 books I read, half were non-fiction, a much higher proportion than overall.

The good news is that 2014 is already on a better track. I’ve read 12 books so far – four by non-white authors. So, slightly late 2014 resolution: 20% of the books I read this year will be by people of colour.

I’m really excited about this because it means being more aware of what I’m picking up and what I’m consuming. In some ways it doesn’t matter if I get to 19% or 21%, it’s about paying attention and seeking out great books rather than just accepting the ones that cross my path.

I’ve taken a pretty good first step in signing up to the Kinna Reads Africa Reading Challenge and I’ve already read Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, which was amazing. I’m also going to follow what other people post and aim to read more than just the five of the challenge.

On that note, I would love any suggestions people have for me to add to my list. I’m going through Tumblr rec lists (there are a lot!) but would definitely take some input from anyone with favourites.

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“Don’t you get confused?”

I read a lot, and usually have multiple books on the go at a time, and invariably get asked “Doesn’t that get confusing?” People think I’ll get plots and characters mixed up – which can happen on occasion if books are too similar – but usually the different books vary enough I can easily separate them. For example, at the moment I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; Open City by Teju Cole; and Canadian History for Dummies, by Will Ferguson. Not easy to mix up plot points.

However the answer to “Don’t you get confused?” is actually “Yes, often, in beautiful ways.” In the past few days I read Rob Delaney’s memoir, and Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. So when I put down Open City to get in the shower this morning I had a strange moment of not knowing where or who I was. I’m not a Nigerian-American doctor exploring New York City. I’m not a recovering-alcoholic comedian. I’m not a highly educated Sudanese bureaucrat trying to unravel the story of a man’s life. Yet at different points this week I have been all these things.

George R. R. Martin wrote (through one of his characters) that “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” and I have certainly lived pieces of more than a thousand. Some I remember more clearly than many of my own memories, others faded like past lives that surface only occasionally. They have all informed how I live and experience the world. They have given me a richer internal life, and a breadth of experience that could not possibly be managed in one lifetime.

In a glorious talk defending libraries from the ever-enclosing budget cut, Neil Gaiman said fiction builds empathy. This is also why it’s vital to read as wide a variety of books as possible. Books about people who are as different from us as imaginable. Fantasy worlds that teach us about our own lives, science fiction that informs us about humanity, speculative fiction that pushes current trends to their most extreme conclusions.

We only get one life to live but luckily we have hundreds of thousands of lives to experience thanks to people who share their lives, experiences, imagination and ideas.

On rare occasion someone tells me they’d rather go out and experience life for themselves than read a book. I’m all for “real life” experiences, I wouldn’t trade my travels and life and friendships for more books (well… it might depend on the book and the friend) but it’s not an “either/or” to me.

I have travelled alone through Tanzania, but it is Tayeb Salih (among others) who informed me about what it is to live through and after colonization. I held a Neanderthal stone axe in my hands, but Jean Auel who made me think about what it could have been like to be on evolution’s losing team.

I read because one life isn’t enough and because I want to experience as much as possible. So if you interrupt me reading and I look confused, just give me a minute to figure out where and who I am.

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Another win for the ever-hilarious patriarchy

So apparently Brookfield thinks that we’re all men who like sports and have annoying girlfriends. High five, bro!


I walk past this every single day and it’s unlikely to make me into a raving fan of the company, which has already annoyed me by making me unnecessarily cross the road on my way to work every day for almost a year. It’s indicative of the fact that there is zero respect for pedestrians in this city (a topic for a different post) and now this shows the company has no respect for, well, anyone. All women are harpies who ruin sport-watching experiences, all men are “bros” who just want to watch a game instead of listening to their girlfriends. I’m sure someone somewhere will say this was just an attempt to be funny, but it’s such an overdone trope that it’s not funny. It wasn’t funny when the first male stand-up comic did this in the 1960s. It wasn’t funny when one Roman guy said to his neighbour how he’d love to go to the Colloseum and watch some Christian vs lion action but his wife always ruins it by nattering on about how she really needed a new stola for Claudia’s next dinner party.

Is their entire team made up of 50+ year old straight men? Whoever came up with this for Brookfield needs a kick in the pants.

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January 10, 2014 · 10:31 pm