books | reviews

REVIEW: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

October 24, 2017

Dear Caraval Master Legend,

I’m sorry I got your name wrong in those other letters. I hope that’s not why you haven’t come to Trisda. My little sister’s birthday wasn’t the only reason I’ve wanted you to bring your amazing Caraval players here, I’d love to see them too.

Most Hopefully, Scarlett, from the Conquered Isle of Trisda

Caraval is the story of two sisters, lost in the mysterious world of Caraval, a once-in-a-lifetime magical event where one lucky participant will walk away with a precious Wish. Scarlett, the elder sister, has been writing to the Caraval players for seven years, and only receives an invitation after she writes that she is getting married, and therefore cannot go. Her sister, Donatella (or Tella, for short) is a rebel, who will stop at nothing to escape the little island where the sisters live and their abusive father, who is the governor.

But when the pair arrive at Caraval, they soon find themselves separated, and what seemed like the experience of a lifetime soon begins to feel like a twisted game of life and death.

 

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video games

5 Upcoming Games that are SUPER HYPE

August 7, 2017

So far, 2017 has been a pretty good year in gaming. Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, the Path of Exile update, and Yooka Laylee – I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to great games. But what’s next on my gaming agenda? Here are 5 upcoming games that I’m especially excited about.

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books | reviews

Dark Cities: How NOT to arrange an anthology

August 6, 2017

(Full disclosure: I received this book for free.)

(Also, content warning.)

You know when you pick something up, read a couple of pages and just think ‘yikes’? Well, that’s what happened when I picked up Dark Cities.

Don’t get me wrong – Dark Cities is on the whole a really good collection of stories. Tananarive Due’s ‘Field Trip’ was the highlight for me. ‘Field Trip’, in my mind, was exactly what the anthology was about – the horror, both supernatural and mundane, that lurks beneath the comforting hum of the cities we live in.

Before I talk about my other favourites, though, I’ve got to ask one big question.

What were they thinking when they made Scott Smith’s ‘The Dogs’ the first story?

‘The Dogs’ is a 44 page story about a promiscuous young woman who becomes embroiled in a supernatural tale of murder, dark magic, and bestiality. Yep. You read that right.

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writing | writing tips

Writing Blind Characters: What You Need to Know

July 7, 2017

So, you’ve decided to write a blind character. Good for you! The world is always in need of more characters with disabilities, especially when those disabilities are represented correctly.

Want to make sure you’re ticking all the good representation boxes? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m a partially sighted person, and I’m here with this handy guide to help you write blind characters that work.

1: How ‘blind’ is ‘blind’?

What? That’s obvious. All blind people are totally incapable of seeing, right? Right? Wrong.

According to WHO, an estimated 285 Million people in the world have a visual impairment. Of that number, only 39 Million are  considered blind – that is, completely unable to see. The rest are considered ‘sight impaired’, which just means they can’t see as well as the average person. They might have a moderate visual impairment which only affects their life a little bit – or they might have a severe visual impairment which makes life a lot more difficult. That impairment might be in their central vision, or in their periphery, or they might have blind spots. They might not even be ‘missing’ vision at all, but still be unable to see fine detail even with corrective lenses.

For example – I have reduced peripheral vision. I’m still partially sighted, but (lucky me!) I can still see a great deal. I have no problems reading or writing or recognising faces. But crossing roads and navigating crowds is pretty difficult!

When you’re writing a blind character, think about what kind of visual impairment they have. It’s easy to throw down the blanket statement ‘they’re blind, they can’t see’, but that’s not representative of most sight impaired people’s experiences. Plus, making a character totally blind can lead you down that slippery slope of making your disabled character entirely helpless – or worse, finding some excuse to negate their disability completely.

2: Blind People aren’t Magic

Think of the blind characters you know. Toph Beifong. Terezi Pyrope. Daredevil. The OA. What do they all have in common?

Yup. They all have special powers that just happen to cancel out their visual impairment.

In case it wasn’t clear, that’s not how disability works in real life. If you really want to go the route of having a character be blind without actually having to figure out how they’re going to navigate the ins and outs of your plot, why not give them one of the many conditions that are easily cured or prevented – or better yet, just write a sighted character from the start. At least that way you won’t be pulling a bait-and-switch on all the readers who just one time wanted to see a character sharing their struggles, instead of handily negating them.

Here’s a thought: if your characters have magic powers and disabilities, why not give them powers that have nothing to do with that disability? Let’s have wheelchair users that shoot fire from their eyes and partially sighted people that fly. Isn’t that much more interesting than never having a character be disabled in name only?

Oh, and in case it isn’t clear: there’s only one man in the world who can echolocate, and it took him years of practice. As cool as it sounds, you don’t gain super hearing to compensate for your visual impairment.

3. Canes and Braille

There are a number of tools that partially sighted and blind people can use to make their lives easier. I’m going to look at a few of them here.

First of all, not all blind people read braille. In fact, only 1 in 5 blind schoolchildren use braille to work. Have you ever tried reading braille? It’s crazy hard!

Well, I’m being a bit facetious there. The truth is, braille is an old technology. Nowadays we have plenty of gadgets that can read for us – from the tried and true audiobook to the high-tech scanner. You can read about some of the tools available to help blind people read and write here.

For some characters though, braille (or your fantasy universe equivalent) is going to be their only option. The best way for you to find out what reading braille is like is to try it yourself! Plenty of household items have instructions in braille – medicine definitely does. Learn what it is you’re supposed to be reading, and see how easy it is to pick up.

As for canes, there are two types: Symbol Canes, and Mobility Canes.

Symbol canes are for people with moderate visual impairments. It’s mainly for the benefit of sighted people who might not realise that the person has a disability. I have one of these. They’re about 3 feet long, they fold up for easy transportation, and yes, they do that awesome daredevil thing when you unfold them again. The key thing to remember is that these canes never touch the ground – they’re supposed to be held across the body, so that sighted people spot them and go ‘Oh, a partially sighted person. Better be careful not to run them over/walk into them/tell them to watch where they’re going.’

Mobility canes are the kind of cane most people picture a blind person using. They’re adjusted to the height of the user, and they have a little rollerball on the end that is moved across the ground to detect bumps in the road or the edges of pavements. In the U.K. we have bumps before every crossing to indicate that this is a safe place to cross the road.

Now, obviously canes are not intended for use as weapons. But I’ll tell you what – when I’m out walking late at night and I hear a stranger’s footfall a little way behind me, I feel a lot better knowing that what I’m holding in my hand isn’t an indicator that I’ll be an easy target – it’s a three foot long stick made of carbon fiber and metal, and getting whacked with it will hurt. Now that’s something to bear in mind for your action sequences.

4. Blind people aren’t helpless

In case it wasn’t obvious from the rest of this post, blind people are not helpless. Let’s hear that one more time: blind people are not helpless. I’m being particularly stubborn about this because it’s a trope people love to abuse: ‘aah, my glasses! I can’t see without my glasses!’, etc.

Close your eyes right now. Aah! You can’t see! But you can hear. You can touch and even smell. Sure, none of those things are good enough to replace your sight, but you’ll find (especially if you’re in a familiar environment) that you’re able to move around fairly well. Go on, try walking to the next room and back with your eyes closed. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t so hard, right?

Now remember that that’s a worst case scenario. Most blind people can use scanning techniques to anticipate obstacles out of their immediate vision. Even totally blind people can get around unfamiliar places with a lot of planning and an auditory GPS system… or a guide dog. And everyone can get around their home environment as long as there are no pesky tripping hazards in the way.

Tl;dr? Blind people aren’t helpless. That’s all you need to remember. We’re as resourceful as any other human being.

5. Blind people aren’t Amish

What I mean by this is that blind people can totally use the internet. Screen readers are the usual method of doing this, but remember that partially sighted people with central vision exist, too. The OA actually showcases this quite well – Prairie has a (really outdated) PC with screenreader software that, well… reads the screen.

Most smartphones also have this capability, and you can buy special covers for smartphones without buttons that make them easier for blind people to use.

I’m going to hop onto my soapbox for a second. There’s a catch to this whole blind-people-on-the-net thing, and it’s that most webpages are not even remotely optimised for screenreaders. To interpret images, this technology relies upon accurate alt-text descriptions (you know, those things that make XKCD comics extra funny). Lots of screenreaders are also a bit unreliable, prone to trying to read HTML tags and being totally unable to pronounce punctuation. So that’s something your character could struggle with – apart from that though, they’re likely to be as technologically adept as anyone else. Unless they’re also like, really old.

(Psst. There’s free accessibility software available that will help you get an idea of what this kind of stuff does.)

6. ‘Watch your language!’ ‘…’ ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry!’

The above is an exchange which literally never happens. Blind people speak the same language that everyone does. They’re just as likely to let slip a ‘see you later!’ as you are, and it’s really not a huge deal. We don’t suddenly become incredibly precious about the words we use when we lose our sight.

So unless your character has a good reason to be oversensitive, ‘sighted’ phrases aren’t something they’ll object to. Now, we’re all prone to giving our friends a good ribbing now and then. Whenever somebody describes something as being ‘in the corner of their eye’ I feel compelled to go ‘Oh that must be nice!’ and pout in what I really hope is a comical manner.

Equally, blind characters are likely to make snarky comments about people making light of their disability, or forgetting about it entirely. There’s that great moment in Avatar: The Last Airbender when Toph gets handed a piece of paper and is asked ‘what’s this?’

'Well it sounds like a sheet of paper, but I guess you are referring to what's on the sheet of paper.'

 

Now, I have one last point to make:

7. Blind people can, and do, blink.

I kid you not, this is something I have had to explain before. No further questions, please.

 

 

 

 

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politics

My Last Ditch Attempt to Stop You Voting Tory

June 7, 2017

This is my last-ditch attempt to stop you from voting Tory. If you still want to, that’s fine, but I just want to make sure that you’re not voting against your own interests and the interests of the people you love.

If you know somebody who is mentally ill (and since you’re on my facebook feed, you know at least one), please understand that although the tory manifesto promises parity between mental and physical health care, their statements and actions while they have been in power tell a different story. One tory MP has been quoted saying that benefits should go to ‘really disabled people’ not ‘people who are sat at home taking pills, who suffer from anxiety.’ Understand that under a Tory government the NHS has been cut to the point where there is just no room for mental health provision, and if the tories remain in power, it will only be cut further. Know also that ‘mental health’ doesn’t just mean depression or anxiety (although both of those are awful) it means the PTSD suffered by soldiers returning from war, and the Dementia suffered by the elderly.

Speaking of the NHS – the Tories openly plan to privatise large swathes of it in the next few years. In the past, privatisation has lead to those huge scandals where thousands of patient records (including mine, actually) were lost, delaying treatment on everything from potential severe sight loss to terminal illnesses. Basically, the contracted companies don’t care about your wellbeing – they care about making a profit. You know how rail travel has become extortionate? Well, imagine that, but with the medication you or your loved one needs to live.

If you know somebody who is disabled and in receipt of benefits, know that in the few years that they have been in power that the Tories have made changes to the benefit system that means thousands of severely disabled people have been declared ‘fit for work’ and cut off from the benefits they need to survive. Some of them die. Others just live in indignity. The Tory manifesto states that they plan to have ‘1 Million more disabled people in employment in the next ten years’. In practice, this means that 1 million disabled people will have to undergo embarrassing, intrusive means testing to determine whether they are disabled enough not to work. By the way, the criteria for being ‘disabled enough’ includes not being able to wash your own face or brush your own teeth. Apparently if you can do that, you can do anything.

Do you have children? Know that Tory cuts to education services mean that when they attend school they will do so in a class of up to 59 other children, overseen by a teacher who is underpaid and overworked. Since the Tories plan on introducing more Free Schools, which do not require their teachers to be qualified… well, that overworked and underpaid teacher is probably not qualified to teach your child, either.

If your child chooses to go to university, they’ll be paying £9000 a year in tuition fees, and the Tory government has no plans to abolish that. They will have no access to the maintenance grants that allow most university students from lower-income families to survive. If you’re not willing to pay their way through university (including the cost of renting a house, the cost of utilities, the cost of unregulated rental agency fees) they might have to work a zero hour contract, where they might not even make enough money to live – because the Tory government has no plans to regulate the businesses that exploit them.

Maybe you don’t want to vote Labour because you’ve heard that Corbyn ‘supports terror’ (by being arrested for anti-apartheid campaigning in his 20’s). Maybe you’ve heard about the attacks in Manchester in London and have realised that this country needs to be ‘strong and stable’. Well, under Theresa May, it won’t be. As Home Secretary, and now as Prime Minister, her cuts to police and security forces made the gaps in the shield that allowed those attacks to happen. Police funding is so ridiculously low that the Met have been forced to take on detective constables at entry level, without the years of training they usually undertake.

Maybe you don’t want to support labour because, after all, they are the party responsible for the Iraq war and all that came after it. I can’t defend that policy – all I can tell you is that today, Tony Blair is telling people to vote Tory. (source)

Also, if you hated what happened in Iraq, why are you supporting a party that is doing even worse things in Syria? The Tories plan on putting the £178 million they’re not spending on the NHS, education, or welfare for British People on bombing hospitals and cultivating our ‘special relationship’ with the US. Just like Blair did.

If you still want to vote Tory, I’m sure you have your reasons for doing so. But to be frank, if you are disabled, aging, working-class, seeking work, a pacifist, or concerned by terrorism, you are giving yourself a bad deal.

You don’t have to vote for Labour – literally every other party (except for UKIP, but… well…) opposes the harmful policies the Tories espouse.

Before you vote tomorrow, inform yourself of what you’re really voting for. If you’re really stuck, try this handy tool:

https://voteforpolicies.org.uk/survey/1/select-issues

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politics

We can smile in the face of extremism, and we are so lucky to be able to do so.

May 29, 2017

I attended a protest today against the LGBT concentration camps that have been established in Chechnya. I stood with students, politicians, and my fellow LGBTs as we decried the actions of the Chechen government and petitioned our leaders to act.

I went to another protest in February, against Theresa May’s tacit support of Donald Trump and his anti-woman, anti-muslim policies. I went to a protest and I held up a sign that compared Trump and May to Hitler and Chamberlain. (The other side read: ‘Veto the Cheeto’ in my very best handwriting.)

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At that protest, we were confronted by members of an ‘alt-right’ (fascist) group. They yelled at us, called us names, and threatened violence. We laughed them off and towards the end of the protest we noticed that their jeering was becoming less and less motivated. The entire time we were protected by a ring of policemen, in case things became more agitated.

Last week, we saw accidental activist Saffiyah Khan celebrated for her cheeky smile in response to an angry EDL member. “All I saw was an angry man having a bit of a rant.” She said later. The EDL faction later said ‘[Khan is] lucky she got [sic] any teeth left’. Twitter found it hilarious.

edl.jpg

In Britain, extremists like the EDL and other fascist groups talk a big game, but they are powerless. My good friend Rob was ‘threatened’ (if you can call this pissantry that) in the comment section of his article by a man going by the name ‘Pareto’: ‘Your life is about to change in ways you cannot possibly imagine… now you’re being investigated by some nasty people. Hope it was worth it.’ ‘Pareto’ turned out to be a white trash trailer dweller from the states. Rob feels very threatened. Not.

We’re very lucky in that respect – that when facing threats of violence to ourselves and our property, we’re able to go ‘yeah right mate’ and laugh it off. We feel protected – by the state, by our friends and family, and by the sheer force of our opinions. We have the backing of millions, and we call upon that feeling in every political social media post and every ‘punch a nazi’ badge.

We’re very lucky to have that privilege. The vast majority of us have never been truly threatened by extremism. We worry about walking in the bad part of town, we worry about the angry drunks on the way back from the club, but we very rarely worry about voicing our opinions. Why should we? We’ve never been made to feel afraid of doing so.

There are no protests in Chechnya. For the Chechen people, protest is not a right, but a risk. The president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is a dictator who routinely has the militia kidnap, torture, and murder his opponents for slights as simple as criticising him on Youtube. It is a mirror world, where fascists enjoy the same confidence in their opinions that we have in ours.

Places like that exist all over the world, and we must never forget that there are people in this country right now who would like a place like that to exist here. I saw a man on twitter today compare the horror of concentration camps to people telling him his fascist views were not welcome. I am so thankful that he was able to do so, because it served as a reminder that – luckily – even men like that never have to fear to voice their horrible opinions. And, luckily, there is nothing to stop me from telling him how awful and ignorant those opinions are.

We can smile in the face of extremism in every form – we can push it down and ridicule it and tell it to bog off, and we absolutely must continue to do so. We must continue to protest. We must continue to resist. And we must do so because even in this day and age, a great number of people cannot.

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