Readings: Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

I started my vacation with a glass of wine, some Beatles’ songs (a break from Hamilton on never-ending loop), and a reread of Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. I was working on the book floor for two days before Christmas, and in that time, I sold this book to two people, one friend and one customer. If I could sell it to everyone who came in through the door, I would.

When I was just coming out, my friend told me to read McBee’s column in the Rumpus called ‘Self-Made Man’. McBee writes a lot about masculinity and what it means to be a man, something that has always been my interest in and out of the context of trans experience. I pay a lot of attention to how men behave and think and how they are made to behave and think.

DEUG7991Thoughts on masculinity aside, McBee is a powerful writer. His sentences are so vivid, it’s like he is writing directly on your eyeballs, or perhaps directly on your brain. I read Man Alive in one sitting, unable to move, unable to leave the couch. I am glad it’s fairly short, because my bladder would not have been able to last for more than 170 pages.

At the time (I read Man Alive early in 2014, before its publication), I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I was not yet on T, and while I wanted to be on T, I also didn’t know if I would like the change. It wasn’t the idea of sticking myself with needles, or being on hormones for the rest of my life. I was just always a fan of status quo and did not like to change anything, even if said change was going to save my life.

I found the same kind of uncertainty in the pages of McBee’s book, and I found answers. There were trans memoirs that helped me realize I was trans. There were trans memoirs that helped me come out. And then there was Man Alive, which described precisely how I felt and finally placed me where I wanted to be in the space-time continuum that my clusterfuck of life had become at that point. McBee and I came from different backgrounds and had different families, and our reasons for postponing our transitions were different, but there was a similarity of thought and feeling somewhere in both our cores.

…and I knew there wouldn’t be a divine intervention, no right time, no sign that testosterone would make me a good man, no test to confirm that I would be happier, or more whole.

After I came out to my closest friends, I remember crying a few times when my heart was full of both pain and hope: the time when I saw myself in a mirror wearing a binder, and it looked so right; the time when I realized I had to leave my family and live as someone I had always been on the inside; and the time when I read Man Alive and knew I had made the right choice, even if it took me more than thirty years.

In the meantime, the twin man in the mirror was growing more solid while my current, softer face became more and more transparent. I knew which body was a ghost.

Readings: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I bet a lot of reviews of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On start with ‘I don’t really read fan fiction’. Well, neither do I, though not because I think it’s rubbish. Once upon a time I read fan fic, but I am no longer so deep into my fandoms that I seek extra stuff related to them. It’s also a time and reading online issue. I tend to forget about the fact that one can read things electronically. And so fan fiction needs to materialize as a real book for me to pick it up. Enter Rainbow Rowell with Carry On.

KRJF7220Carry On is a fascinating book because it’s sort of a self-aware, meta fan fiction. If you have read Fangirl, you will recognize the name Simon Snow, as he is the character in protagonist Cait’s fan fiction. Carry On does not hide the fact that it is fan fiction and in fact offers some interesting insights into its source (Harry Potter), as well as into main themes of said source (being the chosen one, prophecies, having a Scooby gang (sorry, mixing fandoms here) to help you save the world from evil dark things, and so on). Fan fiction gets all kinds of disdain from people who think it’s a low and silly form of literature, but let me be clear, Carry On is a good book regardless of its provenance. If I never read Harry Potter, I still would have loved Carry On. There are familiar Potterverse elements in it, but there are also differences and extras that give the book its own character (which is really what good fan fic and good books are all about).

Most of the reviews I’ve read stress this particular fact to convince the unbelievers – look, fan fic can be good! It can be published as a ‘real’ book! But there is a much more important side to Carry On. It fills the uncomfortable and very noticeable blank space that Harry Potter books have when it comes to queer characters. Sure, Dumbledore might be gay, but he was openly ‘outed’ after the fact, so to speak, and the only relationship of his mentioned in the books does not take place in front of our eyes. There are really no LGBTQ kids in the books (at least none I can think of), either out or rumored to be queer. I love Harry Potter, but LGBTQ characters is one of the few things so visibly missing from that universe. And so thank magic for Carry On, where queerness is very much there, in all its beauty and sweetness.

On the horrors of old age: My Real Children by Jo Walton

A few days ago I tweeted this: ‘I’m on page 156 of this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about it’. The book in question was My Real Children by Jo Walton.

myrealchidlrenTruth is, I finished it, and I still don’t know how I feel. It is by Jo Walton, so I liked it (because I like her writing style), and yet I didn’t. My Real Children is the most political book by Walton I’ve read. It is true that all novels are political, but I feel that in My Real Children this combination is heavily skewed to the political rather than the novel side. There is a way to skillfully work politics into fiction (and Walton has done it before), but, unfortunately, in My Real Children, the message took over the medium. I agree with its message, and yet I did not like the way in which the message was presented. It did not read like a novel.

It is by no means a terrible book. The characters are very well-done. Walton is a skilled writer and hooks you with the first few pages, so you want to sit down and find out what happens next. The first chapter lured me in because it seemed to ask: ‘what is it like to age and lose your memory? is it like living in different realities?’

Patricia Cowan is very old and confused. She remembers living two separate lives, with two separate families and children. Pat seems like an ultimate unreliable narrator: ‘her brain could not be trusted’. We get both her biographies in full, and herein lies the problem. There is no unreliable narrator. Patricia’s lives are reported as if on a biography channel or in a history book. The stories go on in a rather dull and linear manner that seem at best plain and at worst too predictable. Her lives are also where the book’s political messages lie. My Real Children is feminist/LGBT/human rights sci-fi at its most outraged. One Pat lives married to Mark, ‘this terrible smug man’, who demands she bears children even as it endangers her life. Another Pat struggles for acceptance of her relationship with a woman: ‘I hate it when people won’t acknowledge my family as real’. There is also alternate history, with things happening in slightly different way than in our world. But whereas Walton was brilliant at alternate history in Small Change books (Farthing and its two sequels), here her lists of events seem tiresome and therefore not as memorable or important.

But the main theme in My Real Children is aging, and how terrifying it is to lose your ability to care for yourself, to lose your memory and your connection to other people. Both Pats are scared of losing their mental faculties and becoming entirely dependent on families, and they fight old age and dementia the best they can (as opposed to becoming ‘resigned to being old and sort of mummifying in it’). As I get older, I find that I am drawn to the exploration of aging in fiction and older characters. It made me a little sad that I did not enjoy this book as much as I had wanted to.

My Real Children is a sad book by itself, and its sadness is amplified by the book’s end being simultaneously its beginning. Pat is old and confused when we first meet her. The rest is history. Or rather, histories.

One Upon a Time VIII: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

Steel RemainsSometimes I have to overcome my bookseller’s instinct to sell you ALL THE BOOKS. Because let’s be honest, you don’t actually want all the books. You want a select set of books that were written just for you. You know, the ones where authors looked inside your brain and wrote down exactly what they saw.

So let me just say that if you can’t tolerate swearing, gruesome things, violence, or graphic sex scenes (though rather well-written, in this case) you probably won’t like The Steel Remains, the first book in Richard K. Morgan’s The Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s rated R all the way. I’m not going to say ‘if you like’ such things, because honestly I don’t really ‘like’ gruesome stuff, but I can take quite a bit of it in my fiction. I do enjoy swearing if it’s done well (I’m Russian, I believe there is such a thing as the art of swearing).

Ringil is probably one of the best characters I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in fantasy literature. He is irreverent, cynical, and misanthropic. He is also queer. Not only is he queer (and fairly openly), he is queer in the world that does not tolerate that kind of, hrm, lifestyle choice. He is protected from some more drastic punishments by being a member of a noble rich family, but he is not protected (well, as much as a guy with a giant sharp sword is not protected) from insinuations and name-calling.

9780345493064The Steel Remains is a rather slow-moving volume. It’s also one big setup for more things to come. The dust jacket blurb leads you to believe the book is about some dark lord rising. In fact, we don’t get into even a mention of said dark lord until well into the book. Ringil is asked by his mother to assist in finding a family member sold into slavery. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that selling into slavery and prostitution is now legal, and Ringil can’t just go about bashing heads in to save his cousin (that doesn’t stop him, by the way). There are also mysterious attacks, some shadowy otherworldly forces, and a vanished race, all the good sword-and-sorcery (sworcery?) stuff. In fact, I quite enjoyed the world, and the book definitely satisfied my need to read about people poking each other with sharp implements.

The trilogy continues with The Cold Commands and concludes with The Dark Defiles, out in October. I am a big fan of authors finishing their series, so continuing to follow Ringil now seems even more attractive.

A couple of days ago, NPR had a post on what other fantasy works would make a great ‘Next Game of Thrones’ series. One of my bookgroup members pointed out that if HBO picked up The Land Fit For Heroes books, they wouldn’t have had to put in all the gratuitous sex scenes.

And thus I complete the first of five books I set out to read for Once Upon a Time VIII. Head over to Stainless Steel Droppings to discover Once Upon a Time participating blogs, or sign up yourself (it’s not too late).



Blurbs, the gritty edition! I consume Abercrombie, Sternbergh, and Hurley

half-a-kingJoe Abercrombie’s new book is marketed as YA, I hear. In Abercrombie’s world, it seems the only difference is that there isn’t as much swearing. The first 30 pages seemed ordinary enough that I was starting to worry a bit, but no, Abercrombie did not disappoint in the matter of plot twists and well, plotting. Half a King could be the perfect gateway drug to fantasy for some unsuspecting teenager. It reminded me of my first foray into fantasy with Tad Williams’s Dragonbone Chair (I’m not counting Tolkien, oddly enough, as I got into him much later), though it is definitely grittier. You will have to wait a few months for this one, as it is not out till July.

shovelreadyShovel Ready wins the award for the Largest Number of One-Word Sentences in a Novel. It might also be the only book written about a garbageman, albeit a former one. Great narrator, fun read, but I can’t say it really stayed with me. I think it’s really my current overload with dystopian settings, though I did enjoy snappy narration (and I am normally not a fan of one-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs) and noirish elements. It would probably be quite excellent as an audio book.

I came home one night after an absolutely exhausting work week. I got some bourbon (Bulleit, if you are wondering), and looked through my books. I picked up a couple of books: one turned out to be too depressing, another one turned out to be a lackluster version of something I had read years ago. Then I realized I’ve had God’s War sitting on my shelf ever since it came out, and I never got around to reading it.

godswarIn short: guys, it is not perfect, but it is complex and smart. It has kick-ass women. Oh, and everything runs on bugs. This includes all tech. Which makes certain kind of sense: there are a lot of insects, why not use them to produce fuel, or to heal (we are starting a bit smaller, see here about bacteria that can repair its own radiation damage). The book is also an interesting mix of both sci-fi (tech) and fantasy (people who have affinity for manipulating bugs are called magicians). Besides the world-building, what makes God’s War an example of great speculative fiction is its hard look at gender, religion, and the necessity (or lack thereof) of war.

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.


Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.


I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’


Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:


Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.

Vintage Sci-fi Month: A Different Light by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Vintage Sci-fi Month is almost over, and I thought I’d make the concluding post about a book that I have not seen widely reviewed: A Different Light by Elizabeth Lynn. We are right on the cusp here, as it was published first in 1978 (the arbitrary cut-off for the Vintage Sci-fi month was set at 1979). There are some mild spoilers ahead.

890337A Different Light is a short book, but it’s not a quick one. The plot is not its strongest point (which is why I think I can’t really spoil it for you). Where it really shines is in the way it talks about human emotions, dying, and loss.

The main character is Jimson Alleca, the only person on New Terrain who has cancer. Everyone else gets their predisposition to it detected and corrected at birth. Jim has his managed with drugs, but he will never live as long as other people, and he cannot leave the planet because it would kill him.

Jim is disillusioned and tired. He is an artist, but he is tired of his own art and doesn’t feel he can create anything new. He wants to go off-world, to see ‘a different light’. Yes, he knows it would mean cutting his lifetime even shorter than it is, but at this point, he does not particularly care. He is suffocating where he is.

Jim gets his chance when his ex-lover Russell reappears after 14 years of being away. Russell is a daring star captain, and he is the source of both space and emotional adventures in this book. He is on a mission to steal something very valuable from a different planet for a client. He is also very much the object of Jim’s love, hurt, and anger.

One thing that is almost always mentioned with regards to this book is that it gets major LGBT props: Jim is bi, but this is never stated openly. There just doesn’t seem to be one ‘more accepted’ sexual orientation in Lynn’s universe. He dates Keiko, who is a female pilot, but he is also obviously in love with Russell. Gender is not important.

A Different Light is ultimately a book about loss. From page one you realize that this book is written as a a snapshot of ephemeral human life. It shows you that nothing lasts, and that’s why reading it feels like a bittersweet ache.

If nothing mentioned above makes you want to read it, pick it up because it has some beautiful writing. I leave you with this sentence:

She leaned over the observation railing, watching the space where the ship had been, head on one side, as if she were listening to the wind rushing in to fill the space.

I doubt I’ll have time to read and write about something else for the Vintage Sci-fi Month before it’s over, but as always, if you need more vintage goodness, head to Little Red Reviewer’s blog. Big thanks to Little Red for hosting this vintage sci-fi experience and for letting me read some stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up!