A Smart Accessory to Murder

Alexa, wake me up at 7am.

Alexa, turn off bedroom lights.

Alexa, turn on bedroom lights.

Alexa, what time is it?

Alexa, call Downstairs Neighbour.

Alexa, find me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on Amazon.

Alexa, snooze.

Alexa, snooze.


Alexa, turn on bedroom lights.

Alexa, what time is it?

Alexa, track my package.

Alexa, Google: How to get someone evicted.

Alexa, shut up.


Alexa, turn on bedroom lights.

Alexa, play polka music at full volume.

Alexa, turn up the volume.

Alexa, set the bass to maximum.

Alexa, louder.

Alexa, decline call.


Alexa, play messages.

Alexa, delete messages.

Alexa, Wikipedia: Warfarin.

Alexa, tell me more.

Alexa, how many ounces are in a pound?

Alexa, how many pounds are in a kilo?

Alexa, show me a slow-cooker recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon.

Alexa, add red wine, rat bait, hefty garbage bags, and pearl onions to my shopping list.

Alexa, play that song that goes, “those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me, Earl.”

Alexa, add Dinner with Downstairs Neighbour to my calendar for Thursday at 6pm.


Alexa, show me the front door camera.

Alexa, play Relaxing Dinner Music playlist, volume 2.

Alexa, call 911. Oh dear. Oh no. Oh what a mess. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. Oh crap.

Alexa, stop. Alexa, hang up!

Alexa, Google: how to get body fluids out of carpet.

Alexa, it’s no good, just shut up.

Alexa, what countries do not have extradition treaties with Canada?

Alexa, what’s the weather like in Vanuatu?

Alexa, what’s the weather like in Maldives?

Alexa, flip a coin.

Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride to the airport.

Alexa, clear search history.

New Beginnings

I like a long spring, he said, with green shoots poking promises through the leftover snow and early robins shivering on barren trees.

I like it to be over, she said.

I like sensing hidden growth, he said, almost ready to emerge and yet, for now, nothing but a feeling.

I like to see it with my own eyes, she said.

I like to savour the unfurling leaves, he said, and take long walks along the swollen river watching the current carry away winter’s last shards.

I like it when it’s already gone, she said.

I like the slow build-up of warmth, he said, the creeping anticipation of the lengthening days and strengthening sun and—

I like it when it’s here, she said.

I like to linger in the moment, he said.

I don’t like to wait, she said.

10 Tips for Surviving NaNoWriMo

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have a second draft of a first novel that I’m supposed to be revising. I have the first draft of a second novel that is so far on the back burner that it’s going to be like reading someone else’s writing by the time I revisit it. I’m still doggedly pursuing my goal of submitting my flash fiction to a different literary publication every month this year. I’ve entered my work in three different competitions in the past six weeks, which involves hours of polishing.  And on top of all that, I maintain this blog with once-weekly posts because, doggone it, if no one else is going to publish my work, I’ll do it myself thank you very much!

And yet . . .

Yesterday I reached 24,303 words on a brand-spanking new project. It’s book three, or a hot mess of spewed verbiage that will eventually become book three if I ever stop chasing after new ideas. Yes, my cake-baking, procrastinating, cardigan-wearing millennial who can’t understand the pressure to have a side hustle when she doesn’t even want to have a main hustle is back at her reluctant amateur sleuthing. Book three will be full of family drama, dark secrets, deathbed confessions, and bitter estrangement. I’m not going to lie—it has been a lot of fun to write so far.

This is my third NaNoWriMo. I’ve been hooked since my first, in 2020. I love the pressure, the deadline, the edge of competing against myself, the hype and the sense of community on the discord servers I frequent. I love word sprints and random prompts and letting my fingers take over when my mind doesn’t quite know where the story should go. Even so, around this time of the month, things can become a bit of a slog. Some of the initial enthusiasm is dying down. People are getting tired. I’m getting tired. Life takes a wrong turn and starts getting in the way. The laundry pile gets too big.

How can you get over the hump, out of the blahs, and onwards toward the finish line? Here are 10 tips to help you survive NaNoWriMo:

1) Reward yourself.

Gold stars for every milestone! Bribery works, people. When I reach 30,000 words, I’m having an at-home spa night. Rejuvenating face mask, bubble bath, eucalyptus in the diffuser, twinkly lights and candles, a glass of prosecco, fluffy robe—it’s happening! 20,000 was an early pyjama evening with a book from my TBR. Little treats work too. I wrote today even though I was tired? Cappucino for me! I hit my word target for the day? Let’s scroll TikTok for half an hour. You get the idea.

2) Step away.

Sometimes your brain says enough is enough. Listen to it. Go outside for a walk, switch on a comfort show on Netflix, tackle the laundry—whatever it is, do something that will let your brain recharge.

3) Let it suck.

You’re not writing the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. You’re spewing the raw elements of a story onto the page. Let it be bad. You can edit bad; you can’t edit a blank page. Just get the words flowing and enjoy the journey. See where the momentum takes you. Ignore the backspace button!

4) Don’t compare.

Some of the writers I sprint with can rack up the most intimidating word counts. If I allowed myself to be discouraged by how my words stack up beside theirs, I’d probably give up. Don’t compare yourself to other writers; just be encouraged by running this crazy marathon alongside them.

5) Take care of your body.

Eat good food. Move your body. Get some sleep. Drink more water. And repeat.

6) Check in with others.

Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Connect with your region through the NaNo website. Get on a discord server where you can run some sprints with people. Find a local in-person write-in. Even going to a café to write can feel a little less alone.

7) Schedule your time.

Time is a wily thing. It slips away so quickly, and it can be hard to guard what precious little writing time you may have. Block out times on your schedule that you will dedicate to writing. Set your phone to remind you and turn off any digital distractions that might eat away at that time slot.

8) Track your progress.

Have a visual depiction of your progress. It is so satisfying to colour in bubbles or squares on a progress chart and see them gradually getting closer and closer to the goal.

9) Put a pin in it.

You’ll come across roadblocks in your story. Have a notebook handy to scribble them down and come back to later. You can decide on names, hair colour, and a lot of the minutia later. Big plot hole? Put it in your notes. Decision you’re waffling on? Put it in your notes. Scene you’re totally stuck on? Put it in your notes, or [USE A PLACEHOLDER] and move on for now.

10) Enjoy the process.

It’s just for fun, after all. If you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point? Find joy in the act of creating stories.

Should You Talk About Your Writing?

Is it valuable to get over your nerves and talk to others about your writing?

Some authors are thrilled to talk about their writing. I’ve heard of writers whose friends and family wish they would stop endlessly oversharing about their work. I envy those people who feel so free and open with their writing.

I am generally very closed off about what I write. The number of people in my daily life who know that I am a writer can be counted on one hand. Be it imposter syndrome, fear of being judged or laughed at, or just a desire to keep some things private, I don’t know. My writing feels very personal, and while it doesn’t bother me to have hundreds of strangers read my words, the thought of letting people I see face-to-face every day into that world terrifies me just a little.

“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who wanna tell you a story but don’t wanna make eye contact while telling it.”

John Green

I think it’s partially rooted in a feeling of not being good enough, but equally a vulnerability in the knowledge that allowing those around me to read my work opens up a window into deeper parts of me that I don’t share freely. There’s that ever-present fear that they just won’t understand. Do I want my coworkers to read a poem I wrote about feeling folded into duties and responsibilities until I crumple under the weight? Will my mother understand that my protagonist’s cold, distant, impossible-to-please mother is absolutely 100% no reflection of my own relationship with her? Is my work even good enough? Would people ask me awkward questions, treat me differently, or scoff at my art as silly?



It took me a long time before I felt comfortable discussing my novel’s plot with anyone. I soon realized that having a sounding board when I’m trying to work out a sticky plot point is invaluable. Sometimes just the act of saying it out loud can help ideas to congeal into something tangible. Having someone ask questions about my work has also proved infinitely helpful. Questions asked by others reveal parts that need to be fleshed out. Sometimes the question that needs to be asked is just out of my reach, but opening up my work to discussion with someone else can reveal the issue.



I stopped by The Coop by Chicken House Press the other day to chat with editor and publisher Alanna Rusnak. Her insight into some of my doubts was so helpful. She made several suggestions that, once said, seemed so magically clear and straightforward that I wondered why I hadn’t vocalized these questions before. She also suggested setting myself a deadline and committing to it by having beta readers on standby for a specific date—a simple suggestion, but one that had never occurred to me. I work best toward a deadline, and since I’ve been struggling so much with procrastination on my novel, having the accountability of getting someone else involved is going to be critical.

“Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things—thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

Paolo Coelho

The moral of the story is: Talk about your writing. Writing can be such a solitary activity, but it simply cannot be done in isolation. Feedback, meaningful discussion, collaboration—it’s crucial. Next time you’re knocking your head against your desk, why not reach out? Whether it’s a fellow author you’ve connected with on social media, a friend or family member, or your Uber driver, talk it out. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

I Am the Deafening Silence

I am the abstract carpet with head-spinning lines off the elevator on the eighth floor. I am door after door that look the same, the first attempts replying to my key card with an obstinate red blink until one of them lets us in. I am the smell that wafts when the door opens. It’s not clean. It’s not dirty. It’s somewhere in between and it is me and it isn’t and it’s all the ones who came before me.

I am the clinking when the mini-fridge opens to the bottles and bottles that help to numb the—it used to be heartache, but it’s been numb so long that I’ve forgotten. I am the flimsy plastic cups that crush if you squeeze too tight and the liquor sloshing out to mingle with other substance stains on a sofa that exists but not for comfort.

I am the bed a thousand strangers have lain on that somehow feels less foreign than his fumbling drunken hands. I am the creaking of the headboard and the knocking on the wall and the involuntary neighbour who didn’t ask for this. I am the picture on the wall that looks like something and like nothing while it waits and I wait for him to finish.

I am the metallic click of the door snapping shut with a finality and a futility and the sound of heavy footsteps receding in the hall. I am the shards of ice clattering from a machine that can only make cold. I am the mouthful of cotton duvet that stifles my sobs as I choke on my shame.

I am the slow spurt of water, reluctant, always too hot and always too cold. I am three hairs stuck to the shower wall in different coloured shapes and lengths that are so far from home they’ll never be un-lost. I am the soap that doesn’t lather and the towel that doesn’t dry and all the other things that fail their purpose with an air of indifference.

I am heavy ugly curtains with a pull-chain that catches and snags, always partly open, or always not-quite-closed. I am the too-bright shaft of sunlight breaking through the gap, the head-throbbing of a morning full of regret. I am the deafening silence of an empty rented room with too many hours until checkout and still not enough hours and still too many.


This flash fiction was first published by Reckon Review in December, 2021.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

Marie-Laure, blind since age six, lives in Paris with her father, the master of the locks at the Museum of Natural History. When the Germans occupy Paris in June 1940, the two flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure’s eccentric great uncle, Etienne.

“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Worlds apart, in Germany, orphaned Werner uses his talent at building and fixing radios to escape a hopeless future in the mines. His path through an elite and brutal military academy to the Hitler Youth and beyond leads him finally to Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure’s.

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

“Doerr’s gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of multiple characters, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.”

AnthonyDoerr.com

All the Light We Cannot See is full of both heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. Doerr’s crisscrossing storylines gradually unfold through stunningly beautiful prose that marches relentlessly toward what can only be a tragic end. The narration makes frequent jumps both in point of view and in time, creating a gradual build-up whereby the reader knows where we will end up long before we understand how we got there. I simply had to keep reading, always wanting to know what would happen next.

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

Some reviewers have decried the novel’s flowery language and length, the copious description and how slowly everything happens. Personally, I think the slow unfolding of the plot is part of what makes this story so compelling. You can feel the inexorable march toward something terrible, the inevitability of time moving forward and being swept along with it, the dread increasing with every turn.

“War is a bazaar where lives are traded like any other commodity: chocolate or bullets or parachute silk.”

I enjoy rich prose that is full of imagery, and Anthony Doerr’s masterful use of language did not disappoint. His words are poetic without being cumbersome. His descriptions pull the reader into the scene until you’re right there, feeling the salty air of Saint-Malo on your face, or holding your breath in terror in the attic with Marie-Laure, or shivering in the night with Werner, from cold or terror or both as he faces a battle between the pressure to conform and his own sense of right and wrong.

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

The imagery of light is threaded throughout this tale of two young characters caught up on different sides of the war, just trying to stay alive. It’s a perspective that has been used countless times before, revealing the terrors of war through the eyes of children robbed of their childhood. But there’s something utterly unique about Marie-Laure’s viewpoint and the sense of wonder the world holds for her. Both main characters are sympathetic and likeable, and the characters surrounding them are endearing and add much to the story.

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Particularly wrenching are the chapters on Werner’s schooling. The language in these is sparser, with reason, touching on questions surrounding how ordinary people can become collaborators in such cruelty. Werner’s almost-friendship with Frederick gives disturbing insight into how easily the heart can be corrupted and become complicit in evil by simply not lifting a finger.

“Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.”

“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?”

All the Light We Cannot See is meticulously researched and imaginatively written, a novel that is both thought-provoking and profound. Anthony Doerr manages to address the horrors of war while choosing to highlight the inherent goodness of his main characters. It’s well worth a read.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”

Folded Paper Must Begin to Fray

Disillusioned, dull and dreary— 
I’m afraid I’ve lost my shine.
Something in me’s crumpled on the floor.
It’s all-consuming, virulent, rife with
Lethargy
Lurching stomach, hollow motions
Unending parade of trite responsibilities.
Screams that never pass my throat
Insistent duties queueing up
Origami folds that crease me into shapes I
Never
Meant to be.
Even if I could unfold myself,
No amount of pressing could erase
These lines.

How to Respectfully Write a Critical Book Review

The first thing you might be thinking is: why write a negative book review at all? Why not just put the book down and let it go?

But wait. Do you read reviews before you buy a product? I am a massive fan of the review section. Does that travel mug leak like a sieve? Thanks for helping me save my money and my car’s upholstery. Is this Airbnb next to a train that runs on the hour all night, shaking the walls and everything inside them? My beauty sleep thanks you for the warning. Was that author’s latest book a slow-moving, description-heavy, plotless trudge with too many characters and a painfully obvious twist? I might read something else instead, or I might read it and form my own opinion, but I certainly appreciate the heads-up.

You may have noticed (if you’re one of my regular readers) that I only review books here at AlyWrites that I have loved. The book review section of my site is named Books I’ve Loved for a reason. I view these reviews as recommendations to my valued readers. I’m sharing something with you that I have enjoyed. This blog is not a forum for negative reviews. However, I do feel that it can be valuable to leave an honest review of a disappointing book—only if it is done respectfully.

What if you belong to a book club, and expressing your opinion, whether negative or positive, is what it’s all about? Or maybe you are an ARC reader and, as such, feel obligated to leave a review. That can be a challenging situation. You’ve been given a free advance copy of the book in exchange for your honest opinion. Of course, they’re never hoping that your opinion will be negative—that’s not going to help sell books. Or perhaps you want to explain what was disappointing in order to help other potential readers make an informed decision. Maybe you’re thinking of the author themselves and how some polite, constructive criticism might help them improve their craft. It could be that you’ve had a book recommended to you and then been asked what you thought of it.

I found myself agonizing over this subject recently, and I gave a lot of thought to how to leave a review that was both respectful and honest. What follows are some helpful suggestions if you find yourself in the same boat.

  1. Don’t attack the author. This shouldn’t have to be said, but you’re reviewing a piece of writing, not the human who poured their heart and soul into it. Focus on your experience, make your review fair and honest, but never make it personal or nasty.
  2. Be specific about what disappointed you. Explain what you expected and what let you down. Use concrete examples, rather than just flat-out saying things like: “The plot was no good.” or “The characters weren’t interesting.”
  3. Keep your review as free from spoilers as you can. Regardless of your opinion, others will still want to read the book. Let them enjoy it. That leads nicely to the next point.
  4. Remember that your opinion of the book is subjective. Just because you didn’t enjoy the book doesn’t mean other people won’t. Consider what readers might enjoy it.
  5. Mention the good things. There is always something positive to say. Keep your review balanced instead of going on a rant—if you can’t find anything positive to say, maybe don’t leave a review.
  6. Present your review as constructive criticism about what didn’t work for you as a reader. What could have made the reading experience better? Exploring the answer to that question adds value to your feedback.
  7. Be sure to explain the basis for your review. Don’t just leave a poor rating with no explanation why. Be specific about what made you give it a low rating.
  8. In writing your review, especially if you are a fellow author, remember that someday you will write and publish something, and someone will dislike it.

As a side issue, for writers, feedback is so important. It’s unhealthy to surround ourselves with nothing but fans and yes-men. We need honest people who will gently help us see the flaws in our work. False praise from friends and family who are too kind to give us the truth will never help us improve, keep developing, or get our work up to the standard we hope for. Do yourself a favour and find a couple of brutally honest beta readers you can trust. Take the criticism they hand you with a grain of salt, but do take it.

Now that might be a whole other post of its own.

Tell me: Do you leave a critical review when you’re disappointed by a book?

The Earth is Flat and Other Lies I Tell Myself

I’ll only have one, I tell myself, as I settle in the easy chair on a Friday night with a pack of Oreos and the TV flickering sitcoms. The laundry beckons and my notebook gathers dust instead of stories. I’ll do it tomorrow. It’s not that pressing. I’ll just watch one more episode.

Tomorrow never comes, as the saying goes.

The weekend drains away like lukewarm bath water into Monday. I’ll get up early and work out every day, I plan, as I pointedly place my shoes beside my bed.

Morning comes the way it always does, harsh and sudden and unwelcome. I’ll just hit snooze one more time. I won’t be late again.

The early bird gets the worm or something like that.

Accolades and manly shoulder slaps are passed around the old boys’ club, but I won’t let it get to me. I wasn’t passed over for promotion because I’m a woman. It’s not a dead-end job; I’ll break through that glass ceiling someday. I’ve got no other choice—I’ve been here so long it would be a shame to have to start from the ground up somewhere else.

Better the devil you know, after all.

I can afford takeout tonight. Just as a treat. I don’t do it that often. It’ll save me time so I can write.  

It’s not that bad of a neighbourhood, as I juggle keys and Styrofoam and ignore the angry shouting three doors down. Everyone’s got an extra deadbolt on their doors these days. You can’t be too careful. Besides, I’ll find somewhere more permanent, more settled soon. I can totally sleep through the sirens anyway.

Bloom where you’re planted, and all that.

Reflex makes my thumb swipe no when my mother’s face lights up my phone. I’ll call her back tomorrow. I’m too busy. I’m too tired. She’ll understand.

I’m not lonely. I enjoy my solitude. All I need is the company of a good book. Or a stack of good books. Or books I’m sure are going to be good. I’m going to make time to read them all.

I’m happy. I am happy.

I have everything I need. Besides, everyone goes through phases of feeling unfulfilled. It doesn’t mean anything. The grass always looks greener on the other side.

But there is no other side. The earth is flat, after all.

Apple Fritter Muffins

It’s sweater weather. Pumpkin spice season. Leaves are turning glorious shades of red and gold, and it’s time to pick apples, add warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to everything in sight, and wear nothing but the softest and coziest clothing. Many turn straight to the pumpkin for baking inspiration at this time of year. For me, it’s all about the apples.

There is nothing quite like biting into an apple that you just picked off the tree. Just the feeling of wandering up and down rows of apple-laden trees in the crisp fall air is, for me, the very definition of autumn. This time of year I like to bake apples into everything, but there is one apple treat that rises above them all.

Oh, the apple fritter. It’s a quintessential Canadian treat. Those pillowy hunks of fried dough, spiced with cinnamon and dotted with soft bites of apple, dipped in a honey glaze that crackles into flakes of sugar that melt instantly on the tongue. What a treat!

In Canadian culture, a coffee and donut from Tim’s is a perfectly acceptable breakfast. Well-balanced? I’ll leave that up to you. The caffeine/sugar combo will give you a little pep in your step on those too-early, still-dark mornings. That’s the idea behind these muffins. I’ve blended a cakey vanilla muffin batter that is just the right level of crumbly with swirls of brown sugar and cinnamon-laced apple pieces and packed it into something that might just be your new favourite fall treat. While delightful as a portable snack, this recipe will also make a fantastic coffee cake—just bake in a Bundt pan or cake pan instead.


Apple Fritter Muffins

Ingredients:

  • Batter:
    • 113 g softened butter (1/2 cup)
    •  113 g granulated sugar (1/2 cup)
    • 2 eggs
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • 226 g flour (1 1/2 cups)
    • 2 tsp baking powder
    • Pinch of salt
    •  118 mL milk (1/2 cup)
  • Apple Mixture:
    •  56 g brown sugar (1/4 cup)
    • 3 apples, peeled and chopped
    • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Honey Glaze:
    •  113 g powdered sugar (1/2 cup)
    • 1 tbsp honey
    • 1-2 tbsp milk

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.
  2. Line muffin tin with paper liners.
  3. Cream together butter and white sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add vanilla.
  4. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to wet mixture alternately with milk, folding until just combined.
  5. In a separate bowl, toss the chopped apples with brown sugar and cinnamon. Fold gently through the batter. Don’t mix this in thoroughly—you want to have delicious swirls of brown sugar and apple.
  6. Use an ice cream scoop to portion evenly into 12 muffin papers.
  7. Bake at 180°C/350°F for 20-25 minutes until a knife or toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Whisk together powdered sugar, honey, and 1 tablespoon of milk. Add more milk as needed to create a thick, smooth glaze. Spoon the glaze over the muffins while they are still hot.

Makes 12 muffins. Honey glaze is optional, but it does add to the apple fritter experience. And hey, let’s be real, these muffins are a treat, not a healthy snack.