What I'm Reading, Queer SF Anthologies Edition

“Room 506,” he said, as he stood up.  “And if you’re not there by nine, we’re starting without you.”

Given that I’m interested in representations of bisexuality in literature, especially SF literature, I was interested in  Scheherazade’s Facade, edited by Michael M. Jones, a collection of “stories of those willing to blur or transcend the traditional gender roles.”

Although publisher Circlet Press is most well-known for their SF and fantasy erotica, this is their first release on their new Gressive Press imprint, which “publishes sex-positive science fiction/fantasy outside the binary, which celebrates genderqueer, genderbent, transgender, polygender, bisexual, bigendered, and other identities outside the boxes set by mainstream understandings of gender and sexuality.”  Which is to say that, while these are often very sexy stories, they’re not erotic stories per se.

It’s a really refreshing anthology for me.  I didn’t like everything in it, and nothing blew me away, but nothing bored me either, and that’s really saying something.  A few of the stories, bless their hearts, bothered me but provocatively, and I’d much rather something fail provocatively than mundanely.

Stories I found of special mention: “The Daemons of Tairdean Town”, by C.S. MacCath, which has both the most sympathetic portrayal of genuinely religious people I’ve ever seen in SF and the most telling subversion of religion.  “Kambal Kulam”, by Paolo Chikiamco, for being pure crack-fic.  “Keeping the World on Course”, by Tanith Lee, for the symmetry of it.  “Going Dark”, by Lyn C.A. Gardner, for being genuinely all of cool, sympathetic, and creepy.  “The Cloak of Isis”, by Sunny Moraine, for the sheer beauty of its writing.  “How to Dance While Drowning”, by Shanna Germaine, for creepiness.  “Treasure and Maidens”, by Sarah Rees Brennan, for identification right up until the last page or two.  And “Lady Marmalade’s Special Place in Hell”, by David Sklar, for sheer exuberance.

A lot of these stories are still working out the usual narratives of queer stories — the closet, coming out, transitioning, social opprobrium, unsupportive parents, and at least one AIDS story.  While a lot of us are still wrestling with those things, I want to see stories too which take queer relationships as fact and try to figure out what’s beyond the usual narratives, because that is, for the lucky among us, increasingly part of our reality as well.  (Queer people who are watching their culture fragment as it gains mainstream acceptance can commiserate with SF fans who are watching their culture fragment as it gains mainstream acceptance, and vice versa.)

Even if it doesn’t go as far as I would like, it’s an excellent and provocative anthology.  Highly worthwhile.

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.

(Amazon)

What I'm Reading, In My Place? Edition

This story, “Lost Boy” by Cory Saul, sort of captures how I’m feeling right now:

In the San Diego harbor I met a Found Girl, not much older than me, who lived on a shoal of abandoned boats with her two children. Theirs was a twenty-three foot schooner infested with termites and black mice that nibbled at the discarded wings of the family’s seagull dinners.

In the afternoons we would sit together on top of the tilted hull, the plagued mast pointing toward Tijuana, while her fatherless babies slept under eaten cloth below. She’d pull back the rubber of a wrist rocket she once bought off a white boy, and sling a piece of splintering fiberglass at a gull. A dead aim every time. When a few were down, she’d have me wade over the shoal, up to my waist in harbor brine, to grab the limp carcasses from the water. “Cuidado. Las rayas,” she’d warn me from the boat.

I said nothing about how sad it was that her Place (of all places) was that rotten spot in the middle of the water. But it didn’t seem to faze her.

There’s also an amusing story in the same issue, “Horn” by Sarah Goslee, about a woman who works for the Department of Supernatural Resources.

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]

What I'm Watching, Queering Shakespeare Edition

I was down and in need of catharsis, so I picked  up Private Romeo on Hal Duncan’s recommendation, and it was exactly right.  (And the ending is not quite what you’re used to.)  This is everything Shakespeare should be, naturalistic and raw, forcing you to listen to the meaning as much as to the words.  Seriously, go read what Mr. Duncan has to say, then watch this.

I really want to show it to my boyfriend once he gets back from his family vacation.

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.

What I'm Reading, Webcomic Edition

Following a tip from io9, I’ve just caught up with Jamie the Trickster, a webcomic about a person with a very interesting path in life.  As io9 tells it:

There are plenty of folks who don’t fall into clear categories of “male” and “female,” but the protagonist of Chloë Dalquist’s Jamie the Trickster falls on both ends of the spectrum. Able to shift from apparently male to apparently female at will, Jamie is on a mission to change the world, but needs to find the man and woman destined to help that change along.

So far I’m most enjoying the bit in the middle which introduces Manny, who may be the man Jamie is looking for; Vincent, his fourteen-year-old son; and Tye, the flamboyantly-dressed but painfully-shy hitchhiker they picked up, all of whom seem to be on a collision course with Jamie.

The art is good overall — if characters are occasionally notably off-model from panel to panel, it’s made up for by the strong lines and good use of color.  Like many webcomic artists, Chloë appears to be learning as she goes, and the art gets stronger and more confident as the comic progresses.  (This is something I’ve always liked about the webcomic medium.  I admire their artists’ commitment to growing and learning in public — there’s no net to fall back on and no way to unpublish once the comic is up on the web, and the lower barrier to entry means that things go up much rawer than they do in commercial comics.)

The writing is also good.  The dialogue doesn’t always flow quite as well as I’d like it to, but the characters have strong individual voices, and I’m curious to learn more about them and what they’re up to.  And they have interesting problems — Manny is a single father, and he’s just committed to driving his niece across state lines so she can get an abortion — without those problems being either trivialized or magnified to the point of taking over the comic.  It’s overall a lighthearted comic about reasonable people living normal lives in the middle of a somewhat absurd situation.

So I like the characters, I want to get to know them better, and I want to find out where the story goes.  If, like Todd, I’m sometimes not quite sure what I’ve signed up for, I’m willing to keep following it.  It’s an enjoyable ride along the way.

 

What I'm Reading, 5 AM Edition

Around 3 AM, I ran across a friend’s link to “We Were Emergencies”, by gyzym, a fanficcer of some note.  (Short form: post-The Avengers, Hawkeye and Black Widow work through their PTSD; NC-17, trigger warnings, you know the drill.)  (Insert obligatory “I don’t usually read fanfic, but when I do” here.)

My short review: not really knowing these characters from anything but the movie, which I’ve seen exactly once, Natasha seems spot-on and Hawkeye talks too much.  In some of the sex scenes, way too much.  It could do with less sex, honestly, though I recognize its purpose, but anyway, y’know, fanfic, right?  I feel like the plot should feel overdone but it still works, the author sells it well, and, well, the trust issues… I can relate to.  I found it worth reading.  And you don’t usually see most characters from most superhero movies turning up in fic as subby men or genuinely dominant women and legitimately believe it’s in-character for their canon character, it’s a nice change.

In the chaos, in the wreck they’ve both been stumbling through, he’d almost forgotten this–her psychotic competitive streak and how unabashed she is about it, the way she’s just a few shades too harsh to be beautiful when she’s really at home. Natasha is a dozen people at any given moment, but underneath all that, she’s this, a little arrogant and a lot condescending, trusting not enough and far too much by turns, shining so bright that she’s blinding and scalding at once.

Around 4 AM I finished it and found, doing up some dishes, that I was basically writing something someone had mentioned to me earlier in the day.  Maybe it will show up here at some point.

Around 5 AM I finished that and sent it off and what do you know the next thing on my friends list was “Loathly” and goddamned if it wasn’t about the same damn thing we’d all been writing about.

I cannot tell you if it’s good, because it may not be. It was painful to write, and I can’t say I enjoyed doing so, and I didn’t feel like I fit back into my skin quite right afterwards.

 

[…]

Still, I think I feel on some level that if I throw it at the blog, I can be done with it, and rather like having your ears finally pop after a plane flight, I will fit between my skull bones properly again, and need not worry about it anymore.

 

If you are fond of trigger warnings, take a handful from the bowl.

 

There I am, staring at the water.

And now here I am, telling you all about this.

I’m tempted to keep going, find myself a cup of instant coffee made drinkable with too much sugar and push on, keep riding that line of exhaustion until I finish that story or fall over, whichever comes first.  Or it’ll catch me before I can even get up to get the coffee.  We’ll see.