What I’m Reading: Kij Johnson

I don’t really know how to capture Kij Johnson’s short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees in words. Her writing here reminds me often of Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath, in its focus on ordinary people and everyday life in extraordinary circumstances.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is a hefty volume—I read the ebook edition, so I can’t measure its spine, but it spans nearly Kij’s entire career, from 1989 to today, and although it doesn’t do so comprehensively, there’s still a lot of material to present.  Moreover, the stories display an impressive degree of thematic unity without ever seeming repetitive.

I have been thinking that writing like this asks me as a reader to slow down and take it on its own terms.  Johnson’s prose isn’t lush like Catherynne Valente’s or finely-wrought and occasionally oblique like Elizabeth Bear’s—most of the stories are written in good, transparent plain style, and anyone who has tried it will tell you it’s not as easy as it looks.  And the stories never seemed to me to drag—they always had purpose and direction.  But they pay close attention to their subjects, and I found it very rewarding to experience the stories at the narrative’s own pace.

This is one for me to reread and study, I think.

What I’m Reading, Queer-Friendly Haunted House Fantasy YA Novella Edition

okatsu onsen anu

…or at least that was how Tam described Onsen.

I should back up. Tam is a friend and classmate from Viable Paradise, and maybe a few months ago she tweeted that she had a book out, which was Onsen, and which she described as “a queer-friendly haunted house fantasy YA novella.”  I was intrigued, and the cover was remarkably self-confident, so I picked it up, and enjoyed it.

Once I finished it, I discovered that it was part of a series, which made a couple of the things which had surprised me about it less surprising. I went back and picked up Okatsu, which filled in some gaps.  And I saw going over to grab cover images that Anu is now out (yay!), so that’s on its way to my Kindle.  I am not much one for series, so that alone should be read as high praise.

In terms of technical skill they’re quite well-done.  I can’t speak too much to the veracity of the setting or the characters in the context of historical Japan, but Tam writes both with compassion and a good eye for detail.

The books also fill a great need of mine for smart comfort fiction.  (In fact I read about half of Onsen in the ER waiting room at 4 AM—everyone is fine, but taking a friend to the ER is never any fun—and it was exactly what I wanted.)  I have serious trouble turning my brain off, and here I didn’t have to, but I was also able to relax enough to enjoy the books without needing to dissect them, and that’s a rare thing for me lately.  They are pleasant reading.

Tam does a good job with the central queer relationship.  I’ve been mulling a bit over why I relate to some depictions and not others, and I think part of it might be tied up in that lack of demonstrativeness I was mentioning.  Jao and Masahiro are conscious of how they are performing their relationship in a way that I recognize.

Also Tam is now serializing a novel in the same setting but with different characters (so far) over on her Tumblr. (Here is the first post.)

Very much recommended.

(And the cover design! So excellent! I want to hire her cover artist.)

Okatsu (ebook; paper; Amazon)
Onsen (ebook; paper; Amazon)
Anu (ebook; paper; Amazon)

What I’m Reading: Ploughshares, Fall 2013

I’ve started submitting to literary markets (he says, as though he is admitting some sort of secret, deeply-held). One story of mine in particular has consistently received the feedback that it’s not speculative, so off it goes to magazines whose names end in “Review” and who publish handsome paperback volumes on thick, buttery paper.

I’m submitting to paying markets only, of course, and the pro-paying markets first, which might be all the paying markets — I don’t have hard data, but anecdotally there seems to be a double-handful of markets which pay better than any SF market save maybe Tor.com, and a wide field of markets (including such notables as the Harvard freaking Review) which don’t pay anything at all.  It’s about the publication credits on your CV which will help you get a faculty job, I suppose. Assuming you want a faculty job.

Since I was submitting to these literary magazines, and I’m lucky enough to have a local bookstore which stocks a selection of them, I picked up the latest issue each from half-a-dozen of the magazines on offer and have been slowly reading through them.  Despite the field’s overall reputation for slow response times, my reading speed was outpaced in several cases by the speed with which their rejections returned to me, but I’m in this for the long game, and sometimes I find gems which more than validate the exercise even if not for the excuse of market research.

The Fall 2013 issue of Ploughshares, produced by Emerson College here in Boston, is one such example.  Really the one story in it, “K Becomes K,” by V.V. Ganeshananthan, about a young woman’s experience as part of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, is worth the price of admission all by itself, raw and powerful. Robert Anthony Siegel’s essay about Japanese writer Kawabata Yasunari is a nice finishing touch, and his discussion of the techniques Kawabata uses to depict his distant narrators has some relevance for my own writing.

Very much recommended.

(I’m pleased to discover that it’s on Kindle and Nook, in case you are not lucky enough to be a subscriber or to live near a bookstore which happens to stock it — which I would assume to be true of most of us, in 2013.)

What I’m Reading, Sleeplessness Edition

Been a while since I did one of these. I haven’t read much to write about here. (Did I write about Jagannath? I should write about Jagannath.)

I know Maya as someone who is on Codex, an online writing workshop I’m a member of, though I don’t know her well through that, so you should take my recommendation of this book with as much salt as you feel you need. Codex was how I found out about Creature of Dreams — she posted about it there — and the cover and (mostly) the blurb got me to buy it, and then, well, I finished it in two big gulps, two evenings running. (I say evenings. This is evening for me, right now, 4 AM. I said the blurb grabbed me, didn’t I?) That was all the writing.

I identified with the characters, and Durham felt well-realized. I felt like the details were all well-chosen. This is a tightly-constructed book. Several of the sex scenes are serious I’ll-be-in-my-bunk material (and several are serious nightmare fuel). The characters are all wrestling with their histories, and that’s deftly handled. Nothing is too easy, not all the loose ends are tied up, but at the same time there’s a real sense of growth that I found… heartening, for lack of a better word.

The book’s got a deep understanding of the characters — what and how people who have had those experiences think, what responses they have ingrained, how they defend themselves. We defend ourselves.

What I’m Reading, Big Gay Space Opera Edition

It’s been a while since I did one of these.  Truth be told I haven’t been reading much (long-form fiction) lately.  Grinding to finish a couple projects.  So it goes.

I was bemoaning in previous posts that I had trouble finding comfort reading, and in my current state of overwork anything I read needed to be a break from everything else, so, well, here is some comfort fiction that I enjoyed.

(Warning, spoilers.)

Sunny Moraine is an author whose short work I’ve previously enjoyed, so when I heard that she had a novel out, together with another writer, I was interested.  When she described it as a “Big Gay Space Opera” I had to buy it.  And Line and Orbit pretty much lives up to that description.

You know the story.  Genetically-engineered boy gets kicked out of genetically-engineered society, meets Nomadic Space Burner boy, they fight but secretly like each other, eventually they meet cute.  Genetically-engineered society comes after genetically-engineered boy, genetically-engineered boy stands with Nomadic Space Burners to fight them, hilarity (and bloodshed) ensues.  (Really mostly bloodshed.)  And (spoilers) stuff turns out all right enough in the end.

The plot structure wouldn’t have been out of place in a fantasy novel, and it felt a bit paint-by-numbers at times.  At the same time, I like the colors they chose, and, like all these things, there’s more going on under the surface than that analogy gives it credit for.  I had some issues with details — some computer security, military tactical, and gay sex things which just didn’t add up.  But the plot kicked along at a fair enough clip that I could move past the flaws.

The world felt somewhat like the EVE Online world, for which I have fondness — the book is really what I wanted the EVE novels to be.  Also the writing is technically quite well-done — facile but with depth, good plain style, and capable of beauty without becoming overblown.  And ultimately I quite liked the characters and their relationships — both the main characters, Lock and Adam, and the supporting cast as well.  (Also, positive portrayal of transpeople go!)

So, you know.  If you like the colors implied by “Big Gay Space Opera” too, check it out.


What I’m Reading, Canadian Graphic Novelists Edition

I can’t remember when I first encountered Marian Churchland‘s work — I think a friend maybe linked me to her posts about The Crossing, an unimplemented MMORPG idea she sketched out (quite literally) in a series of posts on her blog?  Her writing and drawing and sartorial sense appealed to me, so I started following her, and when I found out, months later, that she had written a graphic novel, I knew I wanted to read it.  (Artists, bad at self-promotion what?)

Beast is a retelling of the “Beauty and the Beast” story, of course, but our Beauty is a cranky down-on-her-luck sculptor and our Beast is an enigmatic centuries-old man who seems to be made out of swirling shadows.  It’s also about the relationship between artist and patron, artist and muse, and the question of what the artist will sacrifice for her art.

The story is gorgeously told — all fluid linework in her distinctive understated style, and the book uses the color of that linework to indicate time of day in a way that I found effective and subtle.  (If I ever finish…  but I get ahead of myself.)

I identified a lot with the main character’s habits, which the author depicts with loving (and I presume somewhat autobiographical) care — boiling water in a kettle on the stove, leaving cups of tea to cool in odd places and forgetting them, working mostly at night, making and needing few connections with other people.  An ascetic, obsessive lifestyle; one that I fall into sometimes when I don’t have other things to pull me out.  One that I miss, sometimes.

I loved how the story grounded its fantastic in the mundane, how it neither questioned the fantasy nor bothered to explain it.  It didn’t need to.  Each heightened the effect of the other.

It’s a book I want to come back to in a week, a month, a year, to see how it changes, the more I write.  To see if it grows on me.


What I’m Reading, Is It Fanfic? Edition

A friend insisted that I read this — “it’s about Gargamel from The Smurfs, about what happens after he catches all the Smurfs and turns them into gold, but she makes it… beautiful and terrible and true.”

“Buh wuh?” I said intelligently.

(I have heard of The Smurfs, but only just, and before this encounter, I could not have summoned up even enough knowledge to fake convincingly, as I can with a lot of other pop culture from before I went to college.)

“Just read it, it’s really good.”

So I read it, and it was really good.

The eigenvectors of the story remain, but no longer is it just a cartoon tale of a black-clad villain’s incessant but impossible quest to destroy the heroes. The book’s center is a magician, one Montechristien Groeneveldt, who as a younger man was once upon a time a hunter of the blue essentials, spirits of intention. Ultimately he captured them all and refined them into the alchemic gold, which has given him incredible power. Now he has seven children by his now-dead wife (who died giving birth to the last), and he is trying to raise them with some success, and ultimately bequeath to them his power. It’s a book about dysfunctional families, and the price of obsession, and the myths we make for ourselves, and a lot of other beautiful and terrible things. It takes the source material and first makes it mythic and then makes it personal — and doing either one is a rare feat, but doing both is damned near impossible.

One thing I especially admire of the book is the author’s deft hand with humor. She strikes a rare balance of approaching heavy topics lightly without making light of them, and even in the slapstick moments where it nods to its source material, I found those moments didn’t break the magic circle and throw me out of the story, but added to the gestalt the story was building, and drew me deeper in.

Highly recommended.

[An Unclean Legacy, by Jenna Katerin Moran, at Amazon]

The Queer SF Reading Project

I’m making my own list.

I got tired of seeing lists of SF books containing queer characters, created after various Internet kerfuffles, which didn’t differentiate between books with throwaway bisexual characters and books with bisexual protagonists.  I got tired of seeing lists in which characters were counted as bisexual for a throwaway mention of a one-night stand with a member of the same sex.  I got tired of seeing lists which lumped female bisexuality with male bisexuality.  I got tired of seeing lists which didn’t distinguish between positive and negative portrayals of bisexuality.  (The last time I counted, half of the men on Wikipedia’s List of bisexual characters in television were from Oz, an HBO prison drama. Yeah, no. Not helping. Fuck you.)

So I’ve been going through fiction looking for bisexual male protagonists, like you do, when you’re male and bisexual and still figuring out what that means.  And I mostly read SF, so I’ve mostly been looking for SF.

Or at least that was what I set out to do.  Turns out that there’s not a lot of SF with bisexual male protagonists.  Nor is there much SF with queer protagonists at all, though I’ve discovered several veins I’ve only begun to tap, and the landscape is changing even as I write, which is awesome.  (If you know of mainstream or literary fiction with bisexual male protagonists, I’d love to hear about it.  But consider the guidelines below.)

In the process of searching for SF with bisexual male protagonists, however, I’ve encountered a lot of SF with lesbian or gay protagonists, and some of that wound up on the list too, because something about it resonated with me.  I’ve also expanded out of SF, because there’s interesting stuff in other genres too.  What I’ve ended up with is something like a list of “good fiction with queer protagonists, mostly SF,” but that’s too long.  So The Queer SF Reading Project it is.

Some definitions and guidelines.

“Sympathetic” — I’m looking for stories I enjoy and characters I like enough to consider emulating.  I’m not a Depraved Bisexual, and I don’t want to be one.  And Bury Your Gays endings suck.

“Male” — Several of the fictions I list have sympathetic female protagonists, and I’ve found I enjoy those stories too, but I started out looking for sympathetic male protagonists because I’m male, and I find male bisexuals harder to find in fiction (and real life) than female bisexuals.

“Bisexual” — The character has an expressed interest in, or demonstrated history of, sleeping with or forming romantic attachments with both men and women, not necessarily simultaneously; or, the character identifies as such.  (I use binary gender here but some of these characters are more fluid; this is the minimum requirement, not the total requirement.  Extrapolate reasonably for definitions of “gay” and “lesbian”.)

“Major viewpoint character” (mostly meaning “protagonist”) is very important.  Queer spear-carriers don’t cut it.  The queer characters need to be the focus of the story for me to include them here.  Because queer people matter, and fuck you.  I’m not just the comic relief in everybody else’s story.

The interplay of sexuality and identity — It’s not necessarily important to me that the character’s sexuality be important to them as a person.  Richard St Vier in Swordspoint doesn’t seem to think too much on his sexuality, for example; on the other hand, Ringil Eskiath in The Steel Remains thinks about his sexuality a lot.  Either way, it needs to matter for them as a character; it needs to affect the story in some way.  And indeed Richard’s story would be very different if he didn’t love Alec, and Ringil’s story too would be very different if he hadn’t loved men.  Bi the Way is the opposite of useful here.

This is not an exhaustive list.  This is a list of fiction with queer protagonists I’ve found apposite, identified with, or otherwise cared about (and not even an exhaustive list of that).  I’ve finished everything I review here, with some caveats around serial fictions, where I am often not always entirely caught up.

I’m not going out of my way to spoil things, but I’m not being super-cautious either, and often it’s been too long for me to remember what’s a spoiler and what’s not.  So, you know, SPOILER WARNING and all that.

The list so far:

  1. Doctor Who/Torchwood — John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness is the first sympathetic male bisexual protagonist in media I ever saw.  I would like to say that, the first time I watched “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” (the two-part episode of Doctor Who where he’s introduced), everything exploded with awesomeness because I was finally seeing someone like myself reflected, but I don’t think I quite realized it at the time.  Torchwood never lived up to its promise, and Harkness as a character is a stereotype in some ways I’m still wrestling with.  Still, if I had to pick one of these characters to be when I grow up, it would have to be Captain Jack.
  2. New Amsterdam et seq., by Elizabeth Bear — If you told Don Sebastien de Ulloa, the vampire half of this series’ crime-fighting duo (she’s a forensic sorceress), that he was bisexual, he’d have to go back to the word’s roots to parse it, and his worldview is so alien that it’s hard to ascribe romantic feelings to him.  Given how blood-sucking stands in for sex so often, though, it’s undeniable, and his loves are played for touching if tragic effect.  This was only the second time I’d encountered a positive bisexual man in media, and it electrified me.
  3. Ink and Steel/Hell and Earth, by Elizabeth Bear — A duology whose protagonist is Christopher Marlowe (saved from his untimely fate by a Queen of Faerie), it’s really all about Kit’s loves, and he loves man and woman alike.  I occasionally describe it to friends as “Marlowe-Shakespeare slash,” and man, what slash.  At turns sweet and startling, these are definitely my favorite of Bear’s books (which is a tough competition to win).
  4. Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente — I hesitate to include this book a little, because while it’s all about sex and the characters all have encounters with people of both genders — and eventually end up in something we might call a stable quad — the men in particular seemed… foreign to their love, for lack of better words, and I wanted people more forthright in their skins.  It’s still a gorgeous, sexy, wondrous book, with prose as rich and thick as cream with honey.
  5. Black Blade Blues, by J.A. Pitts — This was where the “bisexuality” part of the project started to break down, but to good effect.  It’s urban fantasy, so we expect the main character to have bisexual attractions but to go through a series of men, but in fact the main character is a lesbian from a pretty rough background, and not nearly started working through her issues when she finds a magic sword and discovers a magical underground to Seattle she never knew existed.  I sympathized a lot with her background and her struggle, both for the acceptance of others and of herself.  Especially if you’re young, and you’re stuck figuring shit out without help from your family or community, and you want to read just one of these, read this one.
  6. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf — This book is a bit of an odd beast.  It concerns a man who inexplicably becomes a woman halfway through the book.  It’s an interesting book, and it made a list of slipstream fiction earlier this year, so someone besides me and my friend who recommended it to me thinks it’s SFnal.  The main character has exclusively heterosexual relationships despite their gender change, making its inclusion here somewhat dubious, and it’s much more literary than I expected.    It was an amusing read, and it gave me something to think about, and it was an interesting introduction to Woolf’s writing, so on no count a loss.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel — Graphic novels seem to be doing a lot of autobiography and memoir these days, which makes me wonder if there’s something unique about the form which makes that use so compelling.  Alison Bechdel here tells the intertwined and many-layered story of her own coming out as a lesbian around the same time as she discovered that her father was gay, followed shortly by his death (possibly a suicide).  Bechdel does a good job of presenting his faults without villainizing him, and I found that I identified with her growing up and her own coming-out.  A worthwhile portrayal and a worthwhile book, and one I mean to revisit.
  8. Rule 34, by Charlie Stross — A whole batch of unsympathetic queer characters, and, while I didn’t mind that so much in Fun Home I minded it more here.  It’s more gritty near-future SF from Stross, and while I think it’s a brave choice that all three viewpoint characters are some variety of sexually non-normative, the choices on offer (a divorced lesbian policewoman, a bisexual man who turns tricks behind his wife’s back, and a clinical sociopath) didn’t compel me.  It may be a case of bleed as much as anything — Stross is (presumptively) heterosexual, and I felt a little more objectified than identified.  (Then again, everyone is objectified in the book, which may be one of its points.)  It was a good book, and I enjoyed it well enough, but don’t come here looking for role models.
  9. The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan — Another (presumptively) straight guy writing a gay protagonist, one Ringil Eskiath, master swordsman.  And boy howdy, what a protagonist.  You know that gritty fantasy is a thing right now, right?  Morgan’s a big part of that — not exclusively because of this book, but it’s part of the trend.  I think the fact that his character is gay is part of that grittiness, and I’m not sure what I think of that, but on the other hand Morgan writes the best hate-mail responses due to that fact, so I’m hard-pressed to criticize too much.  I actually found the relentless homophobia of the setting a bit hard to take without any kind of “it gets better” message, and the gritty-grim-dark isn’t my thing, but if you want a hero who could stab homophobia in the gut, Gil’s your man.
  10. The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak — This book turned out to be unexpectedly formative for me.  I was considering accepting a job offer in Japan, and, searching for fiction about Japan to take with me while visiting my sister over Thanksgiving, remembered reading about it in a Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s  Whatever.

    It’s told as a bunch of interlocking stories about Japanese people and Americans in Japan, and it’s beautiful — all about love, and loss, and feeling alienated from your culture and the people around you.  It’s also about being queer.  Nothing about the blurb I read suggested to me that one of the characters was bisexual and another gay, but they were, and those stories were the ones that mattered most to me.  I got the sense that it was not necessarily a terribly happy thing, to be queer in modern Japan, even as a foreigner.

    I read the book bit by bit while I was away and then again, in one long jag on the red-eye back, underlining frantically.  And then I decided to stay home.  Which has been both an unhappy and a happy choice, and thereby hangs a tale this blog post’s not wide enough to tell and still unraveling, but that’s not the book’s fault.  I really, really like this book.

  11. don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, Love &al. — I’ve written about this visual novel before, in another context, but I thought it did a compelling job with the high school students’ interpersonal drama, and (depending on how you play) there are a couple queer love stories in it which are super-cute.  (There’s also some creepy student-teacher relationship stuff, so be forewarned.  You as the main character don’t have good boundaries.)  The art doesn’t always live up to the story, but it’s obviously trying hard, and the story is good enough to make up for it.
  12. Outland — This is an Australian TV sitcom show about a queer SF club.  I’ve got some social anxiety, and I usually find “comedies” painful because I spend the entire time embarrassed on behalf of the characters.  This had some of that going, but the creators are obviously fans, and the show tapped into a lot of what’s happening right now, so it felt very much “laughing with”.  (Also a couple episodes in I had a glass of wine and suddenly it was hilarious, so, you know, consider enjoying it in that context.)  It’s a little hard to find — I saw it showing at the local GLBT film festival — but totally worth seeking out.
  13. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner — This book took me a long time to read, I’m not entirely sure why — I tried to read it piecemeal, and it really wanted me to sit down and consume it in a couple large gulps.  Having done so, was totally worth it.  The story feels set during an analogue of the Regency, perhaps.  (My English history is shaky).  The main character is Richard St Vere, a swordsman, the best in the City, who is contracted to kill nobles (or their appointed swords) in quasi-legal duels, and the story greatly concerns his relationship with his lover Alec, and Alec’s past and future..  Richard I would call bisexual, he having been married to a woman.  I liked how Richard and Alec’s relationship was handled.  For all that the setting is a lower-class pseudo-Regency fantasy, there was no homophobia; the conflict came from elsewhere.  A super-sweet gay love story.
  14. Private Romeo

I’ll keep adding links here as I read and review more things.

Anti-recommended: Up in Honey’s Room, by Elmore Leonard (stereotypical, cross-dressing bisexual villain); Persona 4: The Animation (bad treatment of gay and trans characters)

Still to read:  Everything.

What have you read that fits?

What I’m Reading, Bedtime Reading Edition

It took me a good year (or so; I didn’t keep close track) of having this on my bed and reading a story before bed when I felt like it to finish Catherynne M. Valente’s first collection of her published short stories, Ventriloquism.  (I had the same issue — if one can call it that — with her Palimpsest, a book like a cassoulet — rich, decadent, filling prose, the kind you can’t eat too much of in one sitting.)

I found it slower going and less satisfying than her This Is My Letter To The World, the first collection of her Omikuji Project stories.  Those stories are more consistent in length, to fit the epistolary form factor; more often make use of the fairy-tale motifs Valente is well-known for; maybe a little more pat (or maybe not).  Many of the Ventriloquism stories I had already read, in their original publication.

It is a more literary, less emotional, collection than This Is My Letter…, I think, which works for me sometimes and not others.  If these stories are harder to read than the Omikuji stories, though, they are also maybe more likely to live jangling in the back of your head long after the book is closed.

Some standouts, for me: “Urchins, While Swimming” left me cold, meaning chilled; “Bones Like Black Sugar” and “A Delicate Architecture” make an interesting Handsel and Gretel diptych; “Mother is a Machine” for its texture and flow; “Days of Flaming Motorcycles” for a zombie post-apocalypse; “Palimpsest”, the story which inspired the novel, always one I come back to; “Secretario” for its essentialization of the noir detective genre.

The book contains every one of Valente’s published stories up to its publication date, without any exceptions that I’m aware of, and although some judicious editing might have produced a more coherent whole it’s very interesting to watch her explore and grow as a writer, interesting to watch themes and images and even individual words flow through her body of work.

Always Valente’s language is marvelous and lush.  Sometimes the words do feel chosen for their weight and meter more than their meaning, and I am finding, to my disappointment, that some of those repeated images lose their luster with overuse, and I begin to wonder how these insects can be inlaid with such precious materials, and what the economics of their production are, and who mines them.  Surely some of Valente’s writing comes from the same place; the curse, such as it is, of the science fiction writer.

Definitely recommended, and brilliant to come back to repeatedly for as long as it lasted me.