"There Are Monsters in the Sea"
Eliza and her Monsters Reviewed.

Eliza_Monters CVR .jpgYou would think that Eliza Mirk would realize that she has won the lottery. This 18-year-old high school senior has a close-knit and loving family of happily-married parents and two younger brothers. She goes to a decent school in small town Indiana. She is smart and a talented artist looking ahead to college. And she has also penned a runaway success on the Internet: a YA fantasy webcomic called The Monstrous Sea that has won millions of readers, a dedicated worldwide fan base, including fan artists and fan-fiction writers, and has made Eliza, frankly, rich. She can pay her way through college without scholarships or even parental help.

But that's the problem. Because Eliza Mirk is also extremely introverted, clinically anxious, socially awkward, and completely unprepared for the prospect of having ardent fans of her work. Her success has been entirely unexpected and unplanned. Although she knows the value of a good fan base, all she really wanted was to dedicate herself to her art and her story and to have the whole world leave her alone.

So, for the past few years while her webcomic has been getting more and more successful, Eliza Mirk has remained anonymous, relying on her pseudonym "LadyConstellation", rebuffing inquiries from the media and publishing companies. Her schoolmates think of her only as the weird girl to talks to no one. Her parents don't even know how successful she has been with her "hobby". And that's the way she wants it: keep her head down until she graduates, then off to the promised land of college, and more anonymity.

Until, that is, a young man named Wallace enters her life as the new kid at school. And he has problems. A personal tragedy has left him with selective mutism. Though built like a football player, his tendency to curl up into himself leaves him as a target of ridicule and bullying. But he has one outlet open to him: he can write. And when Eliza surprises herself by standing up to two kids taunting Wallace, she and Wallace form a relationship that initially revolves around them writing and handing notes to each other (something that Eliza likens to physical text messaging). Eliza's okay with this initial contact, and it leads to deeper things. As Wallace starts to come out of his shell and actually speak to her, she discovers that he's a fan of Monstrous Sea, and not just any fan, either, but one of its most popular fan-fiction writers.

Does Eliza dare open up that part of herself to Wallace and let him know that she is, in fact, LadyConstellation? Or does she instead try to keep her two identities separate, since what she and Wallace are building is something he is sharing with Eliza Mirk alone. Of course, being human, she picks the unwisest but quite understandable path. And, of course, wacky hijinks ensue.

That's the set-up for Francesca Zappia's funny and heartfelt Eliza and her Monsters which, to my mind, is the best book I've read in the past two years. Zappia is an adept writer, building up not only Eliza's world, but the fictional world that Eliza writes for. Most of the story is told in the first person from Eliza's point of view, but also dips into private message transcripts, and small selections of a transcript being written of the Monstrous Sea web comic (as well as art from said comic). Such changes of style can be annoying, but Zappia makes them work -- largely, I think, because she's adept at conveying characterization and voice both from Eliza and the people that Eliza chats to online.

And it's the characterizations that really sell this book to me. Eliza's standoffishness could have alienated readers, but Zappia manages to make her lead character real and compelling. You really root for her to come out of her shell, and delight as she takes the first stumbling steps towards loving Wallace, even as you know that she's setting herself up to have it all crash down on her head. Her problems with her parents are done in such a way that show her parents to be loving and dedicated (if somewhat oblivious) people. While Eliza shows herself to be unreasonable on occasion, she never becomes unlikeable, and that's quite an accomplishment considering how fraught relationships between teens and parents can become, especially in fiction.

Some readers suggest that the book takes a while to get started, but I had no trouble here. Zappia builds up Eliza's world and lays things down carefully so that no reaction reads false. In many ways, my only disappointment with this book is that it ends, but it has to, and Zappia has picked the right moment to tie up the story and shove the characters on to adulthood. Eliza and her Monsters is a truly moving portrait of young, introverted, artistically-inclined people growing up, and if you love sweet, funny romance that isn't afraid to dive deep, I highly recommend you read it.

Ups and Downs

Writing comes with its ups and downs.

I have been very blessed to have been able to earn enough of an income off of my writing to help support my familiy and keep a roof over our heads. And for the most part, this is a job that I enjoy. But sometimes it can be a little hard to get started at the beginning of the day, and so this blog is now providing a useful service for me to flex my fingers and get something on the page.

The Sun Runners went very well during my Circle Tour last week. I added close to 5,000 words to the manuscript, and I reaffirmed to myself that the outline that I have for the finish works, by and large. I also gained some ideas for improvements in the subsequent drafts. My earlier desire to have put "The End" on the thing during that week may have been, shall we say, optimistic. I also learned that I have quite a ways to go before the finish, and a number of complicated scenes to work out.

My non-fiction work is also going well. I have a project whose manuscript is due on Tuesday. I should be working on it now, in fact, but I am well along in it, and should have it dusted off by the weekend. Then, happily, two more non-fiction commissions are on my desk, with outlines due by the middle of June, and manuscripts due by mid-to-late July. All told, I think I now have 70 books with my name on them either published or to be published.

But there are still days where it's hard to get started, and where Facebook calls me too much to be healthy. There's stress as the household chores demand attention, and you juggle finances, and try to chase down late invoices. The slog goes on, and it wears one down after a while. Allergies aren't helping, but at least the days are beautiful.

So anyway, it's another mixed day, with good accomplishments to look back on and good things to look forward to, and stresses going and ongoing, that never seem to end. It's life, basically. Just another normal day.

Farewell, Mr. Seiling

Here's a recent column from the Kitchener Post:

It's hard to imagine regional government without Ken Seiling

Waterloo regional chair leaves a lasting legacy says James Bow

OPINION - May 14, 2018 - by James Bow

It's hard to imagine Waterloo Region without its regional chair of 33 years, Ken Seiling.

The province of Ontario created Waterloo Region out of Waterloo County and the cities within its borders back in 1973, so there have been regional chairs before Mr. Seiling. He took his position in 1985.

But by being essentially the region's mayor for 33 years, he's not only one of the longest serving municipal politicians in Canada, but one who has shaped this region into what it is today. His legacy will last for decades.

His style, however, sets him apart from other long-standing mayors. Mel Lastman was the face of North York from 1973 to 1997 before becoming a two-term mayor of Toronto. Hazel McCallion was such a force and a feature that it is still odd to think of Mississauga without her at the helm.

And yet, Ken Seiling does not have their profile. Nor, do I think he wants it. And that's the secret of his success.

As I've said before in other columns, one of the things that makes Kitchener stand out is that our leaders choose not to. We elect quietly competent mayors and councillors who get the job done, and Ken Seiling was of that mould.

And that's important, because our two-tier system of government requires the various parties to work together. We need to understand that Cambridge benefits if Kitchener succeeds, and vice versa, but no one municipality should try to dominate.

This is why I opposed motions to merge the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo. Such a move would unbalance the region and make one of the voices way too loud.

It's also why I think it's unwise that regional councillors don't sit and vote on the local councils. The region exists so that the various municipalities within it can meet and discuss issues that are common to them.

To have a single city in the region is unfair to residents of Elmira who have to sit through a long meeting with agenda items discussing changes to the sidewalks of Ayr, but Ayr and Elmira residents deserve a say when it comes to managing regional matters like urban sprawl and water use.

The regional level of government is a boxing ring where the various municipalities within can duke it out. The regional chair is the referee. He or she should not be a fellow boxer.

Ken Seiling understood that and maintained good relations with the mayors of the townships and cities, even if debates were sometimes loud.

He also shepherded initiatives that changed and helped the region as a whole. As he retires, the ION LRT will cap his legacy.

Waterloo Region is more connected and less dependent on the automobile. Its city cores are vibrant. We are a force to be reckoned with in education and in high tech. We've stayed out of the shadow of the Greater Toronto Area.

It's hard to conceive of anybody topping such a legacy, although Mr. Seiling knows the recipe.

You don't have to be flashy to be a good mayor. Though you are a leader, you don't have to dominate. You have dozens of partners who also have a right to be there, and you ignore them at your peril. You have to be patient and kind, as well as diligent and determined. Do this, and together you get to lead the way to a future your children will thank you for.

Thank you, Mr. Seiling, for everything you've done.


Border Crossing and Home


…Is this the “Maritime Sailors Cathedral” mentioned in Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, I wonder?

Anyway, until 2004, it was pretty easy to start out on a train trip from Kitchener, go some distance, and return from the other direction, all by rail. A journey where you don’t double back feels lime more of a perfect journey, in some ways. You see something new throughout the entire length of your trip.

From Kitchener, you could go to Toronto. From Toronto, you could go to Montreal. From Montreal, you could go to New York. And from New York, you had multiple ways to head to Chicago.

The missing link, of course, is Amtrak’s International, the Chicago-Toronto train that disappeared due to dwindling ridership, a frustrating border crossing (which no doubt contributed to the dwindling ridership) and a Michigan State government that wanted to pay Amtrak decent money to let their passengers go to Chicago and arrive at a decent hour in the morning. And, fair’s fair: if they’re ponying up the funds, who is Amtrak to say ‘no’?

So, sadly, without the Chicago to Toronto train, getting back across the border into Canada can be difficult, but there is a way that you can try. Amtrak has since upgraded its Chicago-to-Detroit trains, speeding up travel speeds to over 100 miles per hour. You arrive in Detroit with (hopefully) four hours to get across the border to VIA’s Windsor station, where a VIA Train can take you the rest of the way. In between is the newly opened Detroit Streetcar, and Windsor Transit’s Tunnel Bus — a municipal transit operation that recalls long-forgotten cross-border operations that used to run between Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York, or the El Paso PCC streetcars that crossed the Rio Grande to Juarez, New Mexico.

It was a bit of a risk, however. Amtrak’s Wolverine is scheduled to arrive in Detroit at 1:40 p.m. VIA Rail’s train from Windsor to Kitchener (via a connection in London) is scheduled to depart its station at 5:45 p.m. That gave me exactly four hours and five minutes to get across Detroit, get through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, clear Canadian Customs and get across Windsor to the VIA station in order to board my train.

You would think that four hours and five minutes is plenty of time, but then we encountered problems that delayed the Wolverine’s arrival in Detroit by an hour. Then I got out of the station to see a Detroit streetcar passing by and, even though service operates at every ten minutes, I still had to wait thirty minutes to get aboard the next streetcar. Finally, the Tunnel Bus was half an hour late.

Fortunately, there was no serious line-up of cars in the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. And Canadian Customs took the passengers on board the Tunnel Bus and whipped us quickly through security. And Windsor Transit’s one route between the border and the VIA station operated at ten minute intervals and was a straight line. I ended up arriving at the station with 30 minutes to spare. Not a problem, but a lot closer than I would have liked it.

Still, I did get to ride the Detroit Streetcar and the city’s People Mover (the original Scarborough RT cars are still functioning quite well, there), and the Tunnel Bus was interesting. And now I’m on the final leg home.

The last big train trip had many great memories for me, but was pushing it for being too long at 11 days. Six days of travel seems like enough for me. I’ve had good memories, and good pictures. And nearly 5000 words added to The Sun Runners.

Pictures of my last day’s journey can be found here.


Kenosha Scrubbed, So LaGrange, Instead


Erin is convinced that Kenosha exists in a Brigadoon state, and each time I come close to visiting it, something happens to make it disappear. Numerous times I’ve expressed an interest in going to visit the reconditioned Toronto streetcars there, but we end up diverting on the i-94, or we end up in Chicago too late for me to take the only Metra train going there and back. Or something.

Today, I woke up in my seat in Indianapolis at 6 p.m., which is exactly where Amtrak’s Cardinal should be. But we aren’t moving. Turns out that a private railcar that the train was pulling at the rear popped over the rail as the train entered Indianapolis Union Station. This damaged the coupler to the point where the crew couldn’t disengage it from the rest of the train. We were looking at staying in Indianapolis for hours until possibly buses would come, but instead the crew decided to take the luggage out of the baggage car (which was between the private car and the rest of the train) place them wherever space was available on the train, and abandon the baggage car in Indianapolis. Doing this allowed us to leave Indianapolis Union Station two hours late, at 8 a.m.

This was better than bussing it, but the damage had been done. Now that we’d been thrown off our window, we now had to compete with every freight railroad for space between Indianapolis and Chicago. We moved slowly, and we stopped frequently, and we finally pulled into Chicago Union Station at 2:15 p.m., 4.5 hours late, and nearly 2 hours too late to head to Kenosha.

Oh, well. But it was late enough that I could check into my hotel room for the evening and drop off my suitcase there. Then, after a brief rest, I decided to have some fun in Chicago itself.

At Erin’s suggestion, I visited Anderson’s Books in LaGrange, Illinois. This interesting commuter suburb is well built up around the Metra commuter rail station that’s just 30 minutes away from Chicago Union Station. The trains are frequent and roll most hours of the day and night. There’s good density here, and a vibrant feel that is homely. It’s quiet, and only a half-hour away from the hurly-burly of the big city.

Anderson Bookstore was a nice place to visit, and I talked up Erin’s books (they had stocked Plain Kate previously), and then I spent a little time at a pizzeria for some excellent Chicago Deep Dish.

One benefit of being trapped on a train for 4.5 hours longer than expected, you do get some writing done. I finished a column for the Kitchener Post and over 900 words on The Sun Runners. I hope to push that over a thousand later this evening. So far on this tour, I’ve written nearly 4,000 words, and have pulled the story over 80,000 in total. I am finding that it is more complicated than I’d expected and it may pass 100,000 before some serious revision can be done.

Tomorrow, I board Amtrak’s Wolverine for Detroit, and then VIA Rail to take me from Windsor to Kitchener, and some interesting things to bridge the gap. See you at home!

Pictures of my two days can be found here.

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