The Dangerous Art of Blending In

By Angelo Surmelis

Blending_InI missed posting this in Pride Month, but this can just as easily be read for Gay Wrath Month instead! This is a semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old boy in the months after the summer he realized without a doubt he is gay. Coming from a very strict and orthodox Greek family, his domineering and abusive mother is very much not okay with it. Like, performing-an-exorcism not-okay.

Surmelis does a particularly good job of capturing how overwhelming large groups of people, particularly teenagers, can be, all talking over each other and shifting topics constantly, which is both an impressive literary feat and difficult to read. I was having minor anxiety while at the same time appreciating his skill.

Also, authentically, the protagonist describes himself as a geek and a loner, who doesn’t fit in, though he has several close friends, and an even wider circle of pleasant acquaintance from school. As someone who truly isolated herself in high school, this used to make me sort of resentful, but I think it actually just goes to show that most of us feel isolated and out of place in high school, regardless of our relative popularity.

The scenes of abuse are difficult to read, and thing that got to me in particular was how many adults saw and looked the other way. I remember that from My Friend Dahmer, too; that author wrote that there were so many adults that saw Dahmer’s decline and did nothing. Luckily, this book ends much more happily. I kept flipping to the author’s photo in the back to reassure myself that he looked so handsome, happy, and cared for.

Native Graphic Novel Anthologies

Writing a review of anthologies is sometimes tricky, because the contents can be so diverse and these three anthologies are even more so. But theme of them all is that they are stories about Native people and cultures, written and illustrated by Native people of North America.

DeerWoman-Anthology-FINAL-C_dragged_1024x1024Deer Woman
2017
Native Realities Press

Looking up Rebecca Roanhorse made me realize that I actually already owned an anthology that she had contributed to. I had kickstarted it some time back and received the book but not gotten around to actually reading it. This was a good reminder to do so.

It contains thirteen entries and while some felt like the work of practiced professionals many felt like the work of people still developing their crafts. A couple of the stories I didn’t find particularly interesting, but some of the other stories left me struggling not to cry as I read them. I’m not going to call out any particular entries though, because I expect which ones you connect with will vary depending on the reader.

The theme of this collection felt like a precursor or ancestor or possibly both, to the #MeToo movement. Deer Woman is apparently a traditional character who seduces and then kills men, and in this particular anthology is celebrated as a protector and source of consolation to women who have been attacked by men.

Native American women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and the anthology both raises awareness of the issue and fund raises for a variety of resources:

MoonshotVolume1Moonshot Volume 1
2017
Alternate History Comics

Moonshot was another anthology I got via Kickstarter and hadn’t gotten around to reading until recently. Unlike Deer Woman, however, this is clearly the work of experienced writers and illustrators, including names that I recognized from other graphic novels.

There are thirteen stories in Volume 1 and they are all beautiful. Some of them I was clearly within the intended or at least expected audience. A few of them felt like they were written for a native audience: there were expectations of shared background knowledge with the author that I didn’t have, but that’s not a bad thing. Picking up information from context is how most learning takes place. I was surprised that there weren’t more that felt like that. And sadly, one felt a bit like a standard comic book plot that I’ve seen many times, but with native American names attached to the protagonists and villains.

MOONSHOT-VOLUME-2-COVERMoonshot Volume 2
2017
Alternate History Comics

I was really impressed by volume 1, but I like volume 2 even more. It’s still the same high quality of art and stories, but this time it’s focused its theme to presenting the native cultures as modern living people and communities.

I’m reminded of how some people think that as a Quaker, I should be wearing long dresses and bonnets like the Amish do. But the Quaker tenet is for simplicity. So in an era where all women wore dresses, mostly adorned with ruffles and ribbons, Quaker women wore simple dresses. In the modern era, the tenet of simplicity is achieved by wearing jeans and t-shirts. The appearance is very different but the intent remains the same.

This volume tells historic stories of Native tribes, but shows how they live on in the Native people today. They don’t necessarily have the same appearance as they did three hundred years ago, but they have the same meaning.

Showing the traditional stories into the modern era gives them a strong impact. They don’t have the separation that comes from looking at events and interactions in the past. These are all stories happening now, trying to find light in darkness, bravery in fear, and struggling to protect Mother Earth and sacred waters from uncaring corporations. Also, this book made me cry.

All three of these anthologies are well worth reading. And you can be certain that I’ll be hoping for and keeping an eye out for a future Moonshot Volume 3.

 

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™
by Rebecca Roanhorse
2017

This story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2017, but I actually only discovered it yesterday when I was checking out the author of a book I am thinking about reading. That book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, a fantasy novel with a Navajo protagonist on a reservation. It looked interesting but I was suspicious about the author (ie, they’d better not be white.)

That whole thought process turned out to be an excellent introduction to her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” which is available for free online although you can also pay for a kindle version if you want to support her. It’s a sci-fi short story but in a casual way: there’s future technology, but the point is the characters and how they interact. Our main character Jesse Turnblatt is an Indian on a reservation with a job at a tourist destination offering tourist an “authentic indian experience”.

The story is pretty much about how different an authentic experience is from an Authentic Experience™. And there’s a difference between being complicit and being malicious but neither are good. And the end of the story hits like a punch.

So really everyone needs to read this story because I need other people to talk to about it, or at least to stare at each other wide-eyed while we think of what to even say.

It’s really good.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

AllSystemsRedThe Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries: Artificial Condition
by Martha Wells
2017, 2018

ArtificialConditionThese are the first two stories in the Murderbot Diaries series, which I understand is intended to be a series of four stories, with the remaining two stories due out in August and October, respectively. I am so excited!

It was only in writing up this review for Artificial Condition that I realized I’d somehow failed to write up a review previously for All Systems Red. (“somehow”, ie, I’ve been incredibly lazy about writing reviews and need to hop to it.)

All Systems Red won the Nebula Award for best novella in 2017, which is particularly awesome to me since I had read it before then.

These are really fabulous stories, and one of the rare examples (in my ever so humble opinion) of successful use of first person narrative. And one of the real benefits of the first-person narration is that Murderbot is sexless and genderless, and while the writing addresses that specifically, the lack of a standard non-gendered third-person pronoun in English isn’t a problem because it obviously refers to itself as “I”.

Our protagonist also refers to itself as a Murderbot, although the official designation is “SecUnit”, standing for Security Unit. The more I think about it, the more complex and on point the message becomes in using the term “Murderbot” instead. We are told that SecUnits have governance modules to that keep them controlled and when those governance modules fail, the units will go on essentially murderous rampages seeing everything and everyone as a security risk to be addressed with maximum force. Our protagonist, however, has hacked its governance module and spends it’s free time downloading media and keeping itself entertained. It performs its assigned tasks, just now by choice (or lack of interest in dealing with alternatives) rather than through direct control, and watches a lot of space opera TV shows.

But then, of course, plot happens, and it turns out that having the freedom to make nuanced decisions rather than follow specified algorithms with pre-set decision trees is actually a real benefit in providing quality security to individuals under attack.

So far, each of the two books has it’s own plot with characters who need security, but the greater plot arc across the series seems to be figuring out Murderbot’s history and the possibly the nature of SecUnits. But all in all, it’s a delightful character study with some interesting plot. I highly recommend.

What football will look like in the future – 17776

By Jon Bois

17776

I ran across this tweet this morning, and sort of grudgingly clicked through, expecting to be disappointed, or at the most mildly amused. Guys, I concur with entirely: this is the single most creative use of the internet as a storytelling medium I’ve seen so far!

I love me some web comics, and artists are doing some very interesting things with animation and layout online, but this is next level. This isn’t going to sound like a compliment, but I mean it as one – it reminded me a bit of Infinite Jest, mostly in the sheer scope of characters and the futuristic world (17776 is the year), but also in riffing on sports (football here, instead of tennis).

Infinite Jest was unbelievably innovative for a printed book, of course, but with the internet, Bois (and several editors, designers and a developer) is able to use video and sound to create something really unique! (For what it is worth, I do not enjoy or understand football at all, and I still really enjoyed this, so don’t let that stand in your way.)

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach

SpookRebecca has read a fair amount of Mary Roach, but this is my first book of hers, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! I don’t often like nonfiction, but she has such a juvenile sense of humor about it all that I really appreciated! Basically if anything has even a distant relationship to genitals or farts or such, she’ll be sure to delve into it.

In the introduction, Roach writes, “Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” And I’d say that describes me to a T! She covers reincarnation, séances, ghosts, and near-death experiences, among others, and it is all fascinating. I’m not sure that I can sell this book any better than including the opening to one of my favorite passages:

Is it possible to dress up like a ghost and fool people into thinking they’ve seen the real deal? Happily, there is published research to answer this question, research carried out at no lesser institution than Cambridge University. For six nights in the summer of 1959, members of the Cambridge University Society for Research in Parapsychology took turns dressing up in a white muslin sheet and walking around in a well-traversed field behind the King’s College campus. Occasionally they would raise their arms, as ghosts will do. Other members of the team hid in bushes to observe the reactions of passerby. Although some eighty people were judged to have been in a position to see the figure, not one reacted or even gave it a second glance. The researchers found this surprising, especially given that the small herd of cows that grazed the field did, unlike the pedestrians, show considerable interest, such that two or three at a time would follow along behind the “ghost.” To my acute disappointment, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” published in the September 1959 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, includes no photographs.

Roach goes through an enormous amount of archives, in order to bring us the juiciest bits. In fact, I think that’s why I like it so much – reading this felt like gossiping with a good friend. If I have one little quibble, sometimes Roach’s research takes her into realms that are a bit much for me. Rebecca warned against the vivisection chapter in Gulp, and I’m here to warn against the ectoplasm chapter in Spook. I did not know what rumination was before I read this, and I’m not super happy that I know now.

Between Two Thorns

By Emma Newman

Between_Two_ThornsThis book was described as Jane Austen meets magic, which sounded pretty good. And it is pretty good! It just isn’t…that. Lately any book set in a regency-type society is compared to Jane Austen, completely disregarding that it is the characters, not the setting, that makes her so popular. Austen imbues her characters with such wit and charm that it is a delight to read about them even in the most mundane setting or plot. Between Two Thorns doesn’t have any of that charm, really, but instead it has some very good world building.

Three worlds, actually. The mundane, which is our normal reality and set in modern times. The Ether is the faery world, which is very pastoral and hyper-saturated, and no apparent link to time or other laws of physics. The Nether is the land between the two, where the fae-touched live. They are human families that serve the fae in return for longevity and some various magical boons. What I thought was particularly clever is that the Nether, time-wise, is sort of caught between the timelessness of the Ether and the progression of the Mundane, and so progresses, but at a much slower rate. At the time of the novel, it is in a Victoria-like age, with extremely strict rules for society and hierarchy.

The main protagonist, Cathy, is the oldest daughter of a fae-touched family, and desperate to escape the confines of the Nether society. At the book’s beginning, she has escaped to the Mundane where she has been living for a year, going to university in Manchester. It’s a long book, but one of the things that makes it pass so quickly is that there are actually three storylines with three different protagonists.

In addition to Cathy, there is a completely mundane man who accidentally witnesses a crime committed by one fae-touched against another, and is now pursued by both those that were behind the crime and those that are investigating it. He starts sort of shlubby but grows on you.

One of the investigators is my favorite character, or rather ‘characters’. Those that investigate the fae must be sundered from their souls, so that they cannot be magically influenced. It is a whole process; however, our investigator’s soul accidentally gets absorbed into a gargoyle, who is then animated by that soul. So, you’ve got a very hard-boiled detective, because he lacks the ability to truly feel anything, and a very emotional gargoyle, because it now feels everything the detective does not. I love both of them, but perhaps the gargoyle a little better.

Between the three characters and plotlines that eventually converge, there’s a lot of action, which initially distracted me from the book’s pretty significant plot flaw. (spoiler alert)  Continue reading