Book Reaction: Wilde Stories 2016

31310785This is the kind of book that you read all at once and then keep close at hand to keep referring back to. 2016 was a great year for gay spec fic, with stories by veterans in the field such as Richard Bowes, and new-comers who are on their way to becoming the next big thing, like Sam J. Miller. The stories collected here are wonderfully diverse, from spaces of the imagination in the near future to the surreal.

These stories were largely published in major magazines originally, so I’d read a few of them before. But this collection is valuable in itself because it is a wealth of brilliant spec fic stories featuring gay characters. So often I feel strung along by bromantic novels that end happily ever with the main bro meeting a pretty girl in the final chapters. It’s a relief to suspend that hesitance I approach every story with, not wanting to be let down yet again.

And yet despite that hesitance, or because of it, I missed many brilliant stories throughout the year, such as “Imaginary Boys” by Paul Magrs, which instantly became a new favorite. This is a great resource to discover new writers (whether they’re new or you’re new to them) in the field of gay spec fic, and just an all-around essential book for anyone who needs more gay spec fic in their lives (and who doesn’t?)

Happy Pride!

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Winnipeg Legislative Building

I fee so lucky to live in a time and place where we can be proud to be ourselves. It’s not always easy, but it is possible. Pride is special to me for a couple reasons, besides the obvious ;)

1. For many years I considered myself an ally. I was on the fringes of acceptance, but scared to come out. Then I saw representation of gay people in books (largely through Lethe Press) and stories (coming out stories and also Netflix DVDs that were delivered in discrete envelopes) and I wanted to be brave like the strong characters in these stories. Stories made me realize for the first time that I could be proud of myself, to acknowledge that I was gay and that I could be strong and happy instead of ashamed.
2. My birthday is in June. That’s it. A little anticlimactic, I know, but it feels a little magical. Another magical thing was that I first came out on a groundhog’s day, which I find pretty funny.

So anyway, I want to return the love and support I got in those early days by sharing some reading recommendations of great gay books.

Boys Like Us

This is a collection of essays by gay writers, reflecting on a diverse array of coming out stories. Some tragic, others hilarious. I kept this book by my bed for months before and after I first came out, gaining strength and courage from the stories.

I’ll Give You The Sun

by Jandy Nelson

This is a beautifully written YA novel about art, love and everything in between. I know I already said it, but the writing is so beautiful, at once satisfying and startling. This book is made of the kind of sentences that get stuck in your head like songs.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Another YA novel, about love and longing, and another piece of brilliant writing. Seriously, that is enough. Go read it.

Vintage: A Ghost Story

by Steve Berman

A YA novel about a gay goth kid. Yet another beautifully written work. The haunting coming of age story is about a boy coming to terms with life, death, sexuality and the strange forces beyond us. Fast paced yet thoughtful, this novel follows some conventional ghost story/horror/suspense conventions in the best, creepiest ways while telling a refreshingly unique story.

Otherbound

by Corrinne Duyvis

Yet another YA novel. I didn’t plan this I swear, they’re just great books. This one is contemporary fantasy, sort of. A girl and a boy from different worlds share a special link and do not fall in love with each other!

Another Country

by James Baldwin

I first read this in a literature class in college. I’ve now read it about 5 times. This was the first work of “literature” that I read that featured gay characters, and it changed me and continues to change me to this day.

The Whole Story and Other Stories

by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a genius. And this is another book I read for a class but kept reading over and over. Her stories are insanely creative, mind-bending, and wonderfully crafted.

 

I could keep going on and on with great book recommendations, but celebrating diversity is about sharing and listening so everyone can be heard.

What are your favorites?

Book Reaction: Star Maker

I have to admit, it was hard to get into this book. I have tried to read it twice before and ended up skimming both times. Star Maker was written in the 1930s and the language is often dry and difficult, and there is very little plot. This is definitely a work of science fiction, but more than anything it is a travel log of a disembodied consciousness’s journey through the cosmos. A majority of the “story” consists of long-winded descriptions of planets and species. These planets are bizarre, yet well-thought out. And although I said there is little plot, there is definitely a progression to the book that lead me to a very rewarding experience I completely missed out on when skimming it before.StarMaker-Cover
Now what makes me give this book five stars? It is mind-blowingly brilliant. It continually made me feel like I was learning things I shouldn’t know, like I was being let in on secrets of the universe that are typically invisible. I haven’t read anything like this in a long, long time. Star Maker is not a perfect book, and it is very challenging, but it is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written, and it awoke a curiosity in me that I haven’t known since childhood, making me ask why, why, why?
If you want to enjoy this book, don’t come to it expecting a fast plot or an easy read. Come ready to challenge your perspective of the universe and ask questions you forgot you needed to answer.
5/5 stars

Book Review: Player Piano

cover_0I first picked this book up about three years ago, around the time I started my first full-time job. I’ve always been a dreamerand had a fear of selling my time and becoming a slave of the 9-5. Through this book I was seeking a way to make myself feel better about signing my soul over to the corporate world. I’d heard that this was a book that explored the idea of why work is important, why we need to keep busy and productive to be happy. But I was disappointed that Vonnegut’s conversational tone wasn’t present in his first novel, and found the story to be slow and boring. I read the first few chapters and put it down.

Fast forward three years into the future. To now. I absorbed the book in a couple days. I couldn’t put it down. What changed? Me. I’ve had my ups and downs in the corporate world since the first time I tried to read Player Piano. I now understand the cut-throat world of office politics, but also the fulfillment of a job well-done and the structure of a set schedule.

I’ve seen my job begin to be phased out by automation software, so the story of a working force displaced by machines really hits home. But what really kept me turning the pages was the career of the protagonist, Paul Proteus, one of the few people left with a stable job after machines replace humans in almost every part of society. What really drives the novel is Paul’s identity crises as he tries to decide if he wants to go for a promotion or give it all up to follow his ideals.

FIG16Despite the fact that it was written in 1952, and the technology sometimes feels dated (audio is always recorded on cassettes, and computers use physical cards to record data), Player Piano is a terrifyingly relevant story that brings to life a future that we have already stepped foot in.

Though Vonnegut hadn’t established his voice yet, Player Piano is a great work of literature reminiscent of other satirical dystopian masterpieces. Vonnegut acknowledged that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World,” and it’s easy to see the similarities, but his story is a fresh one, with a wealth of insight to offer us more than half a century later. This is now one of my favorite Vonnegut novels (And I’ve read most of them). It belongs on the shelf alongside Brave New World (We)Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.

The Burning Questions

I’ve had an interest in philosophy since my teen years, and I had my first panic attack about the impossibility of infinity before I was ten, so I’m no stranger to the burning desire for knowledge that has consumed so much of my life and so much of the world throughout history. I’ve often found myself asking what we can learn by studying the past, from science and religion, from the universe itself, and from looking toward a transhuman, post-singularity future.

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It wasn’t until I reached college that I first encountered a physical manifestation of what I call these burning questions. In an art history class at JMU, the professor showed us slides of a painting called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. In my search for meaning I’ve so often struggled just to find the questions, let alone the answers. But when I saw the painting, those three questions became the primary mantra in my search for meaning in my life and in the universe itself.

The search for knowledge is maddening. Why are the answers to the questions which seem so vital to our very existence so impossibly elusive? The closer we get to the truth, the blurrier it becomes. If only we had a massive pair of communal reading glasses.

In thinking about the past, the “Where Do We Come From?”, I wonder if we have Adam and Eve to blame for devouring any knowledge fit for humanity, digesting it, and turning it into excrement. If there was a tree of knowledge growing in my garden, I wouldn’t think twice about rebelling against the powers that be for a taste of what’s behind the veil. Rules are meant to be broken, right? Maybe I’d be struck by a divine bolt for my insubordination, but why go to the trouble of planting a knowledge tree if its fruits aren’t meant to do anything more than fall to the ground and rot?

I’ve always been an avid reader and looked to books for my primary source of answers. At the same time, I have an understanding that those answers aren’t in any book, because there most likely aren’t any answers. But recently the maddening thirst for knowledge has hit me with full force, regardless of how much or little I think I understand about the way the world turns. This summer I’ve been devouring books at an alarming rate, usually at least a couple a week, searching the pages for answers, and then, without pause, tearing into the next book, desperately hoping to get a little closer to some universal truth.

Obviously I haven’t come across the meaning of life. I promise I’d share it with you if I had. And if you have, please let me know so I can go back to reading at a leisurely pace. Just leave your insight in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to note your insight and shelve the books so I can go back (as if I was ever there) to sanity.

I’ve also been reading a lot about immortality and transhumanism, thinking about the Where are We Going? question. I haven’t really been seeking these books out, they’ve been finding me.

I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know the answer to any of the burning questions. But I still ask them. I still madly scour the pages of book after book, Untitledlooking, I guess, not for answers, but for reassurance that it is okay not to have the answers. That not knowing is fine. That it is good. That it is the way the universe is designed and maybe the meaning is wrapped up in that unknown, a wrapping paper tessellated with question marks. I mean, what’s the point of existing in the first place if everything’s already figured out? Why go through the motions?

But I digress. In all the reading I’ve been doing this summer, one passage in particular jumped out and smacked me across the face, leaving my ears ringing with the sound of one hand clapping. So while I may not have any answers, I’m stabilizing again as I’m reminded that the human concept of meaning might just be the greatest barrier between us and understanding our place in the universe.

Here’s the passage, which is from Another Roadside Attraction:

“But seriously, if life has no meaning—”

“To say it has no meaning is not to say it has no value.”

“But to say it’s all meaningless. Isn’t that a cop-out?”

“Maybe. But it seems to me that the real cop-out is to say that the universe has meaning but that we ‘mere mortals’ are incapable of ever knowing that meaning. Mystery is part of nature’s style, that’s all. It’s the Infinite Goof. It’s meaning that is of no meaning. That paradox is the key to the meaning of meaning. To look for meaning—or the lack of it—in things is a game played by beings of limited consciousness. Behind everything in life is a process that is beyond meaning. Not beyond understanding, mind you, but beyond meaning.” – Tom Robbins

 

 

 

Re-reading

I recently started re-reading my favourite book, as I do every few years. This is my fourth time, the first being when I bought my well-loved hardback copy of the original 1984 print at a used bookstore in Urbana-Champaign while visiting my sister in 2003.

A lot has happened since I last read this book and I was worried I’d changed so much I would no longer recognize what my past selves loved so much about it. This same fear read over my shoulder on my third read too, but it proved to be unfounded, both last time, and again now. I can confidently say that Jitterbug Perfume is still my favourite book.

Since the last time I read this book, I’ve moved to a different country and pushed myself through the square hole of an MFA program where I learned a lot about the craft of writing and how to be irrationally critical. As a result, I (surprise!) found myself being much more critical than I was on my first or even third reads, especially at the beginning of the book. But as I neared the end I continued to re-discover what I loved so much about this book, and also to find new things to love about it. More about that here.

Jitterbug_PerfumeSo why do I keep coming back to this book?

Is it the fantastical element of mortals becoming immortal, gods on the verge of death? Is it the humour, or the bizarre characters and plot? I love the bizarre, enlightening humour of all of Tom Robbins’ books, the way they invigorate me with a curiosity of the world around me and a passion for life, the way they open my mind while making me laugh, and venture into dark territory without ever dragging down that joie de vivre.

But here, in Jitterbug Perfume, all of these elements combine perfectly to create my favourite book four times over (and counting). As I look at the other books on my shelf (the ones that I’ve read and loved a couple times, the ones I’ve studied for class, and the ones I’ve read instead of the ones I was supposed to be reading for class), they all have wonderful elements and ideas that excite me, but none are as full-bodied and satisfying as Jitterbug Perfume, a book which both satiates my desire for fun, for knowledge, for imagination, and for magic, yet still leaves me hungry for more.

Writing Process Blog Hop

The wonderful and wonderfully talented Brenda Hasiuk invited me to join in this writing process blog hop. You can find out more about Brenda and her awesome new book Your Constant Star here. I also reviewed it here.

So here’s how this works. I will answer four questions about my writing process and then pass the virtual torch to three other writers who will do the same. Here it goes…

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

What am I working on?
After several years, I finally completed my first novel (woohoo!) and am now diving into a first draft of a new novel about identity, and the selves we create and become and leave behind. My first novel was somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, and this new project was supposed to be completely realistic. But then I added a ghost. Apparently I can’t do realism. This project is deeply personal and raw and I’m kind of terriffied to say anything more about it right now.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Well, I think I typically write literary fiction with a surreal, fantasy twist, or whatever you want to call it: Slipstream, Magical Realism, Upmarket. I’ve heard all of these terms thrown around and I’m not sure I or anyone else really knows what they mean. I love thinking about the intersection of realities, objective and subjective. The significance of myth and religion and our need for fantastic creatures and miracles. I like to imagine a world where everything exists at once, our observable reality, and another reality within it or behind it or parallel to it, one that is alive with stories and magic and things we’ll never understand. I guess that’s my real interest, the mysterious and unexplained, and how we deal with what we don’t understand.

Why do I write what I do?
I guess I like to think that, on one hand, I need to get these ideas out of my head. But I also write what I do because I want to engage other people in this wild spin that is reality, to hopefully show them another side of the world they know and allow them to see it in a slightly different way. Those are the books I love the most, the ones that make me look at the world differently.

How does my writing process work?
Wow, um…I guess it doesn’t always work. But I’ve discovered that outlining is incredibly helpful for both drafting and revising. I like to make detailed outlines and experiment with moving the pieces around before I dive in. I need to have a direction laid out and then set myself to writing toward that goal. Sometimes I reach it and sometimes it takes me somewhere else entirely. That’s for longer fiction. For shorter fiction I often sit down with a blank page and let a story come out of the moment because I find it has the most energy that way. And in my opinion that energy is what really drives shorter fiction.

I’ve invited the lovely writers listed below to join me in this blog hop. Follow their blogs to see their answers to the writing process questions in the coming weeks.

Brenna Layne

bWhen I was a little girl, I knew that when I grew up, I would be Princess Leia. When I discovered that the one opening had already been filled, I decided to become a jockey and win the Triple Crown. My dreams were crushed when one day, I realized I did not weigh between 0 and 110 pounds. After careful consideration of the Indiana Jones films, I determined that I’d be an Egyptologist instead. I mapped out my future: I would move from the rural South to a huge city, devote my life to running from boulders and discovering pharaohs’ tombs, turn thirty, marry a cute fellow archaeologist, and never have kids–in that order.

Then I went to college. I met a cute local boy who’d realized that the position of Han Solo had already been filled. I realized halfway through my senior year that I’d racked up enough credits for an English major, and listened to the people who tell you that what you do with an English major is teach other English majors. So I did the grad school thing. I quickly realized that if I became a medievalist, I could still wear one of those awesomely nerdy coats with the elbow patches that Harrison Ford wears at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I got into a PhD program, where I studied dead languages so that I could curse like a Viking when I got lost in the library stacks. I got married seven years ahead of schedule. I taught English, gave birth to an insomniac, moved into the rural Southern house I grew up in, and had another baby because at that point my husband and I were too sleep-deprived to make informed decisions and figured that maybe the second one would entertain the first one while we crashed on the living room floor.

At some point, I remembered that I’d started writing a novel in eighth grade. I kind of wanted to finish it. Somewhere in between changing diapers and teaching eighth graders about onomatopoeia, I did. And then, at the ripe old age of not-in-my-twenties-anymore, I realized that I still had not decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. But there were stories in my head–stories about other people who didn’t yet know where their lives were headed, but hadn’t yet forgotten how to dream insanely huge dreams. Young adults.

You’re supposed to write what you know. I write fantasy because I have fought dragons and meddled in the affairs of wizards. I don’t write for adults because I’m not sure how to be one yet. Learn more about Brenna and her writing on her website.

Kate Grisim

kKate Grisim is currently a second-year Masters student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba. Her fiction and poetry have appeared over the years in Juice, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing magazine, and she was recently a guest editor for an internationally published social justice magazine issue on disability and ableism. Kate was a mentee in Arts and Culture Industries’ mentorship program in 2011-12, and many of the ideas that appear in her blog mylittlecrippledheart started formulating in her mind during that time. She is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at the Manitoba Writers Guild called The Disability Project where she works with writers who might not share the majority of their experiences with those in mainstream culture.

Traci Cox

tTraci Cox recently earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from George Mason University, where she also taught Composition, Literature and Creative Writing courses. She received her BA in English and Anthropology from James Madison University in 2008. Shortly after graduating, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and American Literature to high school students in Žilina, Slovakia. Her essays have appeared in The Breeze, Fugue, e-Vision, Write On, Phoebe, Madison Magazine, and The Masters Review. You can follow Traci at marginalia.

 

 

 

Book Reaction: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 hr BookstoreI’ve started labeling these posts “Book Reactions” rather than “Book Reviews” because I don’t want to write up a full review on every book I read, but I want to share what excites me about them.

So, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Where to begin? I loved everything about this book.

I hadn’t heard of it until a friend recommended it, then it sat in my virtual reading list for months, until I finally picked it up last week. Maybe it was for the best that I didn’t read the book sooner, because I have since worked in marketing and now as a technical writer for a software development company, so I totally get where the main character Clay is coming from when he is let go from his marketing/programmer job and thrown into the world.

Clay is a really fun character to spend time with and he pulled me in right away. I really wanted to follow him through his world and see what he was up to, meet the interesting, brilliant artists and programmers and obsessive readers. The other thing that drew me in is the physical books vs. internet-culture debate that rages through the novel, and Clay’s thoughts on both sides. I love honest he is, how one minute he is fighting to create a marketing campaign for a failing bookstore, the next contemplating buying a book on Amazon because it’s cheaper.

As the novel progresses, an intriguing plot develops, and more fascinating characters and ideas about the future of humanity are presented. I devoured this book in a couple days because I had to know what happened, had to discover its secrets-and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with Clay and his friends.

As I was reading the copy I checked out from the library, I found myself wishing I was reading an ebook for the poetic experience it would provide. This was such a brilliant, beautiful reversal on the concept of a paper book being the sarcophagous of the literary form. This excitement for technology is alive in the pages of the novel whether you read the physical book or the ebook (though I can’t vouch for the audiobook if there is one, it may have some differences-you’ll get this if you read the book). As it was, I read a well-loved paper copy that was creased in just the right places, cover worn but not damaged, pages turned but not torn-and this was satisfying as well.

This physical book vs. ebook dilemma really sums up my experience with Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. It is a celebration of the written word and its power in all forms. It is a celebration of humanity, of life, and a love-letter to the potential greatness in us all.

To learn more about Robin Sloan and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, visit his website.

Book Reaction: Above by Isla Morley

I was planning to review this book, but I decided to only post a quick reaction instead because everything I want to say about it would give away one of the things I loved most about it. All I will say about that is: in a way, this book is a retelling of Plato’s Cave. It’s bizarre that I came across this book when I did because I was just trying to think of a way to write a novel based on the allegory of Plato’s Cave, but figured the idea was too vast. I couldn’t figure out how to contain all the implications in the lives of characters and in the pages of a book, but Morley nails it.

The reason I’m talking around this book rather than about it is because I felt like I was at first being carried along the currents of a predictable story about a girl named Blythe who is kidnapped and forced to live in an abandoned bunker. In her captivity her present is interwoven with memories of the real world she is cut off from.

Maybe I was oblivious, or maybe I was just too close to Blythe’s experience, feeling the lack of wind and the soil all around instead of below, but I was shocked and fascinated by what happened in the middle of the book. It swept me along and made me look at the world in a different way.

This book was an exciting and surprising experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget. It is crafted from madness and terror and all the ugliness of the world, but it is also a beautiful thing, held together by Morley’s poetic voice.

Isla Morley’s debut novel, COME SUNDAY, was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction in 2009, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize.  It has been translated into seven languages. She has lived in some of the most culturally diverse places of the world, including Johannesburg, London and Honolulu.  Now in the Los Angeles area, she shares a home with her husband, daughter, two cats, a dog and a tortoise.

 

 

 

The Future of Books is in Your Hands! (Hachette v. Amazon)

If you’re a book lover, or just interested in business, chances are you’ve heard about the recent Hachette v. Amazon “war“. If you haven’t, basically Amazon is upset with a major publishing company about a deal that didn’t go their way. So now they’re restricting sales of books from Hachette Book Group authors.

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We just want to read Harry Potter! 😥

There have been instances of Amazon not allowing preorders of books by Hachette authors, (Including lots, and I mean lots, of big name authors such as J. K. Rowling!),  ridiculously delayed shipping times for those books, and even raised prices and suggestions of (non-Hachette) books they might prefer to the one they specifically clicked on because they were interested in buying it.

Why is this a big deal? Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be. Companies have disagreements all the time and create alliances and enemies. What makes this case different is that Amazon pretty much has a monopoly on book sales these days, so their tactics have a great impact on Hachette, its authors, and potentially all writers and readers (as well as the publishing industry as a whole).

When I hear the term “monopoly” used to describe Amazon’s book sales, I immediately think of dystopian societies like in Farenheit 451 in which books are perhaps not yet banned, but are a regulated commodity. If Amazon does one day hold a monopoly on books, it will have a monopoly on what is published, and will be able to censor books to its liking or to act as advertising tools rather than function in the many ways we have come to know literature: as art, companionship, beauty, escapism, etc. This is the extreme, but it’s scary that it is a foreseeable future.

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Trinity Library, Trinity College, Dublin

So what can we do?

I feel like the eventual answer is for the publishing industry to gang up on Amazon and create a competing virtual book store, but right now all we can do is support our local book stores. Support libraries and attend readings. And if you want to buy books online, buy them from a book store or publisher website. We need to show Amazon that whatever disagreements they may have with publishers, we as consumers, as writers, as readers, — we have a voice — and books are written for us and by us. And they are purchased by us.

If Amazon wants a piece in that, fine, they can treat readers and writers and publishers with respect. And just maybe, one day we’ll learn to trust them again. But until then, read, write, and realize how precious and fragile this freedom is.

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