Cool diverse books, August! Part 1

August was a weird month for book releases. I had a much shorter list even in July, but a lot of new titles really only got buzz and promotion during the first week of August. So this is a much longer list than what I posted on Patreon back in July, and I had to split it into two parts too. Enjoy the first part, and the second part is coming on Thursday!

Cooking Gene cover

Aug 01: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty [Nonfiction]

I seldom recommend anything food-related because I am not so knowledgeable about the topic, but Michael W. Twitty is basically 100% awesome and I have learned so much from following him on Twitter. He knows so much about food, life and history, and can write and talk really engagingly. Also he is Black, Jewish and gay, and I think in this book he also discusses the intersections too. This is one of my MOST awaited nonfiction releases of the entire year!

Yesterday cover

Aug 01: Yesterday by Felicia Yap [Adult] [SFF]

Fascinating high-concept SF murder mystery by a Malaysian woman author living in the UK. I have seen quite an amount of hype about this book in non-genre circles, and a publisher battle for the book, but absolutely no mentions in genre. Go look at it!

Miles Morales cover

Aug 01: Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds and Kadir Nelson [YA/MG] [SFF]

I have been so annoyed with Miles Morales being held up as an example of Marvel’s diversity when he is always written by white dudes. NOT THIS TIME. Jason Reynoooolds *gleeful dance* While Marvel totally faceplants about diversity in its main comics storylines, they have been commissioning all these YA novels from actual minority authors… Marvel is probably too big for its own good. But I’ll take what I can get!

Ms. Marvel volume 7 cover

Aug 01: Ms. Marvel vol. 7 by Wilson & Miyazawa [YA/MG] [SFF] [Comics]

Another example of “I really don’t feel good supporting Marvel, but I want to throw buckets of money at minority superhero writers” – in this case, G. Willow Wilson writing a Muslim girl superhero -, so I think I will do just that. This is one of my favorite ongoing comics series right now, it continues to be super relatable, and this new volume is coming out on my name day 😀 (oh wait, Americans don’t have name days?)

Little & Lion cover

Aug 08: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert [YA/MG] [Contemporary]

A contemporary YA novel that is both Black- and Jewish-themed, though the promotions I saw for it only emphasized the former aspect (unlike e.g., The Cooking Gene in adult nonfiction, where I did see both the Black and Jewish topics mentioned). Here I am to remedy that a bit. 🙂 So, you might have also missed that this book has a Black, Jewish and also queer protagonist and I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

 

June diverse book releases! Part 2

I am tidying up the posts that had kind of fallen by the wayside with our very rushed move. Apparently I posted the June releases Part 1 back in June, but not the Part 2! Sorry about that, here it is now. The August releases list is also coming, G-d willing on Tuesday. If you back me on Patreon at the $5+ level, you already got these, but I never posted them in public – oops!

Prey of Gods cover

Jun 13: The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden [Adult] [SFF]

I have an ARC of this! Review probably very soon, it came in 2nd on my Patreon vote for “what should I review next”. South African SFF story by African-American author (who lived also in SA as a student). Nicky Drayden has a very unique style in short fiction, so I am really happy to finally see a novel!

LoGH volume 4 cover

Jun 20: Legend of Galactic Heroes #4 by Yoshiki Tanaka [Adult] [SFF] [Translation]

I have been reading this space opera / mil-sf series, but I am actually behind so might need to hurry up. It makes some great points and shows some infrequently shown aspects of warfare. There is also an anime adaptation, and it is interesting to concurrently watch and read!

Samaris cover

Jun 20: Samaris (The Obscure Cities) by Schuiten & Peeters [Adult] [SFF] [Translation] [Comics]

When I lived in Vienna a long time ago, I read some of this alternate-history / SFF / WTF graphic novel series in German, some of it in French. I really loved it, but I never read the whole thing, and I missed this particular volume too. Wonderful worldbuilding, I especially loved their deconstruction of Brussels in Brüsel. Now the series is being released in English! Buy buy so they can keep going. 🙂

Amatka cover

Jun 27: Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, translated by the author [Adult] [SFF] [Translations]

I really enjoy her short stories and this is her first novel! I will probably repost my older short story reviews of her from my previous website in preparation for this book. She has a very unique voice and fascinating themes. Also this book has a queer couple, from a queer author 🙂

World of Wakanda cover

Jun 27: Black Panther: World of Wakanda by Gay, Coates, Martinez, Poggi [Adult] [SFF] [Comics]

I got the first issue as a birthday present from Nino Cipri and loved it, so I’m eagerly awaiting the trade paperback. I confess I’ve lost track of the giant mess Marvel is doing with the various Black Panther titles, which are miniseries, which have been cancelled, what’s going on in general?? I find their behavior absolutely baffling, especially in light of the upcoming Black Panther movie. …OK, I’ll save my Marvel rants for another time. But this started out great.

Back after hiatus + Things I like in fiction :)

I am back after a lengthy hiatus which involved the sudden appearance of a giant excavator and a 10-ft deep ditch, and a rental house being torn apart while we were still living in it. If you have been following me on Twitter, you’ve seen the grisly details. I will probably continue to have nightmares about our housing situation for a while (that is not an overstatement), but things are sorting themselves out now.

To celebrate us having a new place and getting our home internet back, I’m doing an Ask Me Anything on Twitter right now. This will be open for 24 hours. (Shabbat will fall into this, so I will probably answer the last few questions after Shabbat.)

There was a question by Victoria C which has a very lengthy answer that I used to have as a blog post on my old site, so I dug it up and I’m now reposting it.

“What are your favorite things to see in stories?”

This list was originally titled What Are Some Issues or Conflicts I’d Like to See Explored in Speculative Fiction? and I had originally posted it to ask for recommendations for my birthday.

* Queer and/or trans people in happy relationships solving difficult problems of any kind together

* Solid stories about trans people in general

* Characters collaborating on something hard, but not against other people – e.g., defense from a force of nature

* Issues of race and ethnicity in general

* Mixed-race and mixed-ethnicity characters with a thoughtful exploration of their backgrounds

* Oppressive regimes treated with more subtlety than the typical dystopian SF fare

* Environmentalism, also on other planets, related ethical issues

* Disabled characters, especially intersectional disabled characters

* Nonconventional forms of narrative (also includes nonlinear, poetic, etc.)

* Explorations of magical and/or spiritual themes grounded in real-life traditions done in a clueful way

* Power asymmetry in personal relationships of any kind. Especially teacher-student relationships and mentoring. Another thing I see infrequently even in Western-European-based fantasy is discussion/awareness of the feudal relationship

* Major social-political transitions (regime changes, joining a different political bloc, etc.)

* Issues of social class and characters from a wider variety of class backgrounds. Everypeople characters

* Resource scarcity, issues of resource allocation (often intertwined with class)

* Aspects of everyday life infrequently discussed at length in SF. For example fashion, street sports, popular or folk music…

And of course I usually want to read about cephalopods and psychic space marines, too 😀

Writers, you are very welcome to take these as story prompts. I am also always happy to receive recommendations along these lines.

 

July upcoming diverse books!

This month is rather low on releases I found interesting, probably because all the publishers tried to get their books out in time for summer break, in the second half of May. Whereas now, as they say in Hungarian, cucumber season is in full swing!

I still managed to find 7 books for you 🙂 But I’m worried August will be very sparse: so far I have only 3 books on my list and one of those is a kids’ book.

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness cover

July 01: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata [Comics] [Translation]

I’m honestly not sure about the release date on this book and Amazon seems to have it available already, but my library lists it as July 1, so that’s what I’ll go with. This is an autobiographic manga about… what it says in the title. There is a huge dearth of translated manga with queer themes that is #ownvoices and non-fetishizing, so I am very much looking forward to this – also to My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame, which came out in May but I missed it in the roundup!

When We Speak of Nothing cover

July 03: When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola [Adult]

A new release by Cassava Republic Press, which I’ve recently discovered. They have great-looking books by African (inc. diaspora!) authors, and they are also friendly on Instagram. This book is by a Nigerian-German author who lives in London. This line from the blurb basically sold me on it: “captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.” Yes please!

Solo cover

July 15: Solo by Kwame Alexander & Mary Rand Hess [YA/MG] [Poetry]

I cried on Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (in public! Eek) so I think everything is a must read from him. Solo is a YA novel in verse about music, with a young African-American protagonist who travels to Ghana in search of his roots. I’m very glad to see that there are more and more diasporan narratives (in general, not just about the African diaspora) which explicitly explore the diaspora experience.

Library of Fates cover

Jul 18: The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana [YA/MG] [SFF]

Probably one of the highest-profile diverse YA releases of the summer? At least I’ve seen a lot of promotion for it even in places which do not usually highlight diverse YA. It is Indian-inspired romantic high fantasy, and… um it literally has LIBRARY in the title, which all sounds great. The cover is eye-catching too!

An Egyptian Novel cover

Jul 21: An Egyptian Novel by Orly Castel-Bloom [Adult] [SFF?] [Translation]

This is a translated contemporary satirical Israeli novel or maybe novella? It’s only 141 pages. It’s about Egyptian Jews (#ownvoices!) and I heard that it has speculative elements, but to be honest I’m not 100% sure. I have had a few surprises along these lines lately – I just read Sofi Oksanen’s Norma, which is contemporary fantasy and no one told me! So I think I will definitely give this one a try. Israeli literary fiction can be very dudebro (Hungarian literary fiction too…), but Castel-Bloom is a woman author, so hopefully not this book!

Buried Heart cover

Jul 25: Buried Heart by Kate Elliott [YA/MG] [SFF]

The final book in the Circle of Fives trilogy! Sports! Politics! Conspiracies! Ancient-era secondary world fantasy! (Inspired by Earth, but you’ll see.) I still need to read the second book, which I misplaced in the moving chaos and just found again. But the first one was very cool. Also, Jewish author – mentioning because I have lately had a lot of readers ask me for SFF by Jewish authors. (The theme is not particularly Jewish, but I’m all for minority authors writing whatever they want.)

The Five Daughters of the Moon cover

Jul 25: The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo [YA/MG] [SFF]

Historical fantasy with a Russian-inspired setting, by Finnish author. There is an interesting dynamic in reading something Russian-inspired by a Finnish author, lots of complicated history there (and that is a marked understatement) so I am curious how this book will turn out! I have seen people praise the prose style, too. By the way – as far as I’m aware, this is not a translation? At first I thought it was, but I can find no evidence of it (I don’t have an ARC).

June diverse book releases! Part 1

Sorry for not posting these sooner… I was at a conference and our housing woes have also been very woelike. Things might be looking up now. I am catching up: if you are on Patreon and backing with $5 or more, you can already read the July list of book releases too.

June has so many fascinating books, I need to do this in two parts again. Get your diverse beach reads now! Links are Amazon affiliate links.

I do not actually have advance copies of any of these, but these are the books I am looking forward to. (I do have a book coming in Part 2.) I am planning on doing roundups revisiting my lists in a few months once I have read the books: which one worked for me, which one was a BLOB. 😀 I might make these backers only because some books I DNF rapidly and it will be just “DNF because of (1 sentence explanation)”.

Sacred Era cover

Jun 05: The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki [Adult] [SFF] [Translation]

This is a major Japanese SFF novel, examining topics of religion and spirituality. Finally available in English – might be easy to miss because it is published by a university press and marketed toward a literary crowd. My library just ordered it and I am very much looking forward to reading.

Dear Cyborgs cover

Jun 06: Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim [Adult] [SFF]

This looks nerrrdy and it features Asian-American boys in the MIDWEST. IN THE MIDWEST can you tell I also live in the Midwest?!? The only hype I saw for this book came from my library (IN THE MIDWEST) so, um, diversify your reading because some minority people live in No Coast USA too. 🙂

Art of Starving cover

Jun 11: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller [YA/MG]

Sam J. Miller is a highly lauded short story writer and this is his first novel – an #ownvoices contemporary YA book about a gay teen with an eating disorder. The cover looks absolutely awesome.

Raven Stratagem cover

Jun 13: Raven Stratagem (Machineries of Empire II.) by Yoon Ha Lee [Adult] [SFF]

I loved the first book of this series – go read my review, then preorder this one? Asian-American trans man author with awesome poetic space opera style.

Saints and Misfits cover

Jun 13: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali [YA/MG]

This is one of the new set of Muslim #ownvoices YA books I have been very much looking forward to reading! This one is contemporary, not SFF, but basically I want them all. This has been such a gap and I am so glad to see it filled – and not only that but also authors who had previous novels getting new contracts too (Randa Abdel-Fattah for example).

ME cover

Jun 13: ME by Tomoyuki Hoshino [Adult] [SFF] [Translation]

This is a good month for Japanese translations! I think this is near future SFF with crime elements, but some of the advance reviewers seem confused, so I’m not 100% sure. There will be another Japanese translation in Part 2 too. I am also very glad to see that other publishers besides Haikasoru and Kurodahan are also moving in this direction!

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[Comic reviews] Letting It Go, My Neighbor Seki, Cells at Work

For this Sunday afternoon, I have three comic books I got from the library. I am thinking of making Sunday the comics reviews day!

Letting It Go by Miriam Katin

Loved this graphic novel memoir about dealing with the aftereffects of the Holocaust, very Hungarian Jewish. It had a scene with Hungarian-Yiddish-English codeswitching (subtitled, but I could read the whole thing in its original shape), which was just the best. Also it was wonderful to see an older woman artist write and draw about her life with such straightforwardness and without sugarcoating. Really really relatable to me, I am so glad this book was published. I wonder if there is a Hungarian translation, because I’d love to buy it for my mom.

(I also got one of those newer-format reissued birth certificates for my marriage last year! And my passport looks like that! And! And!)

Now I feel a need to reread We Are on Our Own

Buy it:

My Neighbor Seki vol. 1 by Takuma Morishige

Short and immensely, impressively random. Has to be the most offbeat slice of life manga I’ve ever come across (and yes, that includes Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou). Seki is a schoolboy who makes weird creations in class when he should be studying, also distracting his neighbor Yokoi, the point of view character. That’s basically the plot. He builds incredibly weird things and never gets caught.

I found myself thinking “WTF am I reading” “why am I reading this” “should I pick up the NEXT volume??” I’m honestly not sure how long this can be sustained or what is even the point of reading it? It’s fun and sometimes even touching. Sometimes annoying too!

This is something that would work really well in, IDK, the Sunday newspaper? Or some subscription service? But when it is a bunch of chapters in one volume, I feel tempted to rush through the whole thing and I feel that’s a bit to its detriment.

The everyday sexism is a bit annoying and it appears in two different ways:
1. Seki never gets caught, but Yokoi (who’s a girl) often does
2. When Seki does something that is “girly,” Yokoi makes disparaging comments in her thoughts, like “You still call yourself a boy?”

I think the best parts are when the manga buckles its own self-imposed format: when they go outside for gym class and Seki plays with the line marker, when they have a fire drill in the school, and the bonus chapters – especially when Seki’s teachers discuss him in the teachers’ office. That’s really interesting and makes me have various thinky thoughts about composition as a writer.

Buy it:

Cells At Work vol. 1 by Akane Shimizu

If you are Hungarian and about my age, you have probably grown up watching the French cartoon Il était une fois… la vie, which teaches you about various health conditions by showing the adventures of anthropomorphized cells inside the body.

This is exactly like that, except gleefully throwing a bunch of manga tropes at the premise.

Now googling this, it turns out it was a French-Japanese-Swiss-Italian co-production, so maybe the author was familiar with it? In either case, this comic is significantly more violent and bloody. White blood cells are just brutal!

I was afraid the women characters would end up being oversexualized, but there were no panty shots and the like. People were busy fighting giant bloody battles. The characters were quite stereotyped, but I definitely got the impression this was done on purpose and with great abandon.

This volume was quite short (the book is a bit padded with advertisements with other series) but a fun ride regardless, I already reserved the next two volumes at the library.

Buy it:

 

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[Book review] A Gay Synagogue in New York by Moshe Shokeid

If I hear it once again that the American Jewish queer community was not hit heavily by the AIDS epidemic, I will consider whacking them with this book.

Of course I know where the bias comes from: most of American Jewish QUILTBAG writing is lesbian writing. (Gay men’s writing is second but the difference is still quite noticable IMO. There is much less trans writing, and any other letter in the acronym is barely there.)

But. In any case. You will want to know that this anthropological study introduces a gay & lesbian synagogue, how it is organized, how the members lead their religious and social lives, etc.

And then all the men start dying.

So. Just so you’re prepared for that.

In any case, it is a testimony to the earnest persistence of the synagogue members that the synagogue (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah) not only survived the AIDS crisis, but is now the largest LGBT synagogue in the world. (Though it spells its name slightly differently, but the book describes how much controversy was there around the name and how the synagogue basically ended up with it by fiat of a lawyer doing of a paperwork, so I am not surprised.)

The book has a strong descriptive style, it does not lean very heavily on theoretical analysis – so it can also be read as a history of the synagogue community up till the early 90s. I found myself wishing someone wrote up something similar for the synagogues I have been part of.

One big issue is right at the beginning, namely that at first the author didn’t disclose he was doing research, though it kind of reads like at first he wasn’t sure. But then he seemed to have made up his mind before telling most members. He did tell them eventually and some of them were angry. But then people (the majority of them at least?) ended up liking the project, voluntarily participated in detailed interviews, and some even demanded that they be named under their own names, not pseudonyms. I got the impression there was no one who was explicitly opposed to the book, in the end? I hope not. (I had a bad experience in a similar context, so I understand it’s really hard to know unless someone explicitly calls out the anthropologist, which is very rare.)

I honestly think this book is invaluable – there is very very little written about the lives of religious queer Jews in general, and especially in a synagogue setting, AND especially from a not so recent time period. It also documents the impact of AIDS.

(I read elsewhere that the synagogue chose a woman rabbi because all the men died and the women had more institutional power. But the book describes the process in detail, and in fact the rabbi was the choice of mostly the men, several of whom were terminally ill and knew it.)

It is hard for me to know about these things because I was born in the 1980s and in Eastern Europe, so I have no direct experience of the American AIDS crisis – and people don’t tend to talk about it. In the context of queer Jewish writing, the people who talk about it are often lesbian women who minimize it. I honestly thought that was true before I read this book – that Jews being somewhat insular, maybe they were relatively spared. No. It is heartbreaking how all these very determined and enthusiastic young men are introduced and then they all start becoming very sick and rapidly passing away.

But I don’t want to make it sound like the entire book is about AIDS. Most of it isn’t. There is a lot of everyday synagogue bickering (‘why are we named after a holiday, no synagogues are named after holidays’) and the typical hairsplitting discussions about nusach etc., who leads the prayers, who says the dvar Torah, who should preferably NOT be asked to say a dvar Torah. It is really heimish and nice. There’s also the typical tension of innovative groups about just how traditional they want to be in their religious services. They end up quite traditional, and even have a Talmud study group, though it is somewhat insular and set apart from the rest of the membership. (The author is a bit perplexed by this, but I personally would LOVE a queer Talmud study group locally, it would be exactly my thing.)

A note on minhag: CBST had the custom – I don’t know if they still have it – that the ‘big’ dvar Torah from the bimah on Friday night was said by a member of the community. I think that’s really cool, I’d love to do that. The book describes the related negotiations, the different kinds of divrei Torah and how they were received by various members of the community, etc. I found this really interesting.

Buy the book on Amazon:

Disclosure: My copy came from KU Watson Library. I don’t know the author and I’ve never been to this synagogue (though now I want to visit!)

 

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[Book review] So You Want to be a Robot – 21 Stories by A. Merc Rustad

Sorry there haven’t been many updates! Life has been tough :/

Today I have something really cool for you: the winner of my Patreon backer vote on which book I should review next. I already made a picture on Instagram:

This is A. Merc Rustad’s first short story collection, with mostly previously published work, and two original stories. It has several stories I previously recommended, so I will often be reiterating my various points.

Also: Today is the author’s birthday and they are currently running an emergency fundraiser for their sister. So if you are interested in supporting them, this is a good way and I’d recommend it, in addition to buying the book 🙂

As for the book…

To start with, I was missing a foreword! Or at least an afterword. I have read a lot of Merc’s stories previously, and I would have really liked to read their comments about their artistic vision, what they set forth to do with the anthology, how they organized it, and so on. To me those kinds of comments are some of the most appealing parts in a single-author collection. (If there are bonus story notes too, I am in short story heaven. Next time? 🙂 )

I felt that both the starting and the ending story were very well-picked and they rounded off the book. This is Not a Wardrobe Door, the first story, engages with portal fantasy tropes in a cheerful way that makes you want to dive into the collection. How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps (the quasi-title story) is probably the strongest piece in the book, an immensely powerful and personal take on robots, suicidal depression, queerness, asexuality.

There is a wide emotional range to these stories. There is cheerful and positive representation of many diverse groups, with surprising ensemble casts for such short pieces, but there is also gutwrenching grimdark and everything in between (often in combination).

There is a lot of really powerful work in this collection, and I am actually somewhat biased, which I did not know yet when I’d accepted a copy of the book. I will be reprinting a story that appears in it, in Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Fiction 2016. (You will have to guess which, because the table of contents is not public yet! Obviously it will be one of the 2016 publications.)

The stories range from fantasy with fae and evil forces to superheroes and supervillains to space opera. There is no emphasis on science even when the setting is science fictional, the focus is more on the storytelling itself, and the emotions it evokes both from the characters and the reader.

Some of my favorites were  – in addition to the above-mentioned ones – The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie, with robots and dinosaurs because dinosaurs; Finding Home, a family take on interdimensional travel; and When Monsters Dance. I also very much enjoyed reading Merc’s earlier stories I had somehow missed when they came out – especially Of Blessed Servitude and Thread. The former took the bits of Western I like without the bits I dislike, in an action-packed secondary world SF setting. The latter involved fighting alien oppressors who were – with an inversion of light/darkness tropes – a force of oppressive, overwhelming light. Solar and sunlight motifs appear throughout the collection and are fascinating to follow; especially the way how they are often related to an immensity of power.

I will say that not every story worked for me, though I did enjoy the vast majority of them and thought the collection was very strong. Yet I found it uncomfortable that when a kinky theme appeared (infrequently), it was generally in the context of nonconsent – slavery, nonconsensual objectification, violence (including, on occasion, sexual violence). The Gentleman of Chaos was probably one of the most salient examples. This kind of abuse was never presented as positive, but tying kinky themes to nonconsent was discomforting for me. (For a positive fantasy example, I really enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson’s Emily Breakfast.) Especially since the stories were often so unabashedly queer and trans otherwise.

Along the same lines, but not as markedly, I felt that Tomorrow When We See the Sun was possibly not the best pick for the second story. After the cheerful portal fantasy, I was surprised by the strong objectification themes in this novelette – which are addressed eventually, but it takes time to get there. On the other hand, I enjoyed that this story had a very sweeping backdrop, and a kind of Yoon Ha Lee-esque space opera grimdark approach, that could make for a solid novel. At novel length, the themes of oppression and dehumanization could also be explored in more detail.

Seeing Merc’s stories all together like this made the themes really stand out: not just the titular robots and alienation, but also a general approach of taking media tropes and… not quite dismantling them but rather approaching them with a kind of appreciative poking and prodding. These stories take genre elements and do not demolish or ridicule them, but rather present them with both an earnestness, thoughtfulness and an entirely fresh attitude. Portal fantasies. Western. Mermaids. Literally robots and dinosaurs. This makes the work eminently relatable even if you are not coming from a very detailed SFF background, because the stories refer to elements which are familiar to the general reader. It also gives the stories a cinematic quality, probably related to the author’s background in film, that works well with the dynamism of the storytelling and the strong emotional characterization.  (On occasion I did feel the stories slipped into melodrama; for instance in Once I, Rose. But there is a lot of individual variation in this and also I feel it is a possible downside of this kind of film vocabulary that otherwise has many advantages.)

Yet, even voracious SFF readers will find novelty here, because the attitudes toward these tropes are both unique and warmhearted. You get the familiarity and the new at the same time, and with a very diverse cast to boot. This is why I think the title works so well. So you want to be a robot? Have you ever wanted to be a robot? A little? Sometimes? If you ever wanted to be a robot, this is the book for you.

Buy it on Amazon:

Disclosure: I got the book from Lethe Press, but as a Patreon backer reward; so I paid for it, but not as much as I would have paid at the bookstore. I have also known the author for several years and we even met in person at the Nebulas last year.

 

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[Book review] Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is not a very recent review, but someone asked for it and I realized I hadn’t reposted it on my new site. So here goes…

Aristotle and Dante coverThis is a contemporary gay YA novel featuring Mexican-American teenage boys. It was a very fast read, with many many very short chapters – I have a weakness for short chapters, so I liked this a lot.

It had wonderful characterization, and angsty teens who came across as actual angsty teens and not some sort of novelistic cliché. I especially loved that (minor spoiler, decode with ROT13) bar bs gur punenpgref unq gb or pyhronggrq nobhg orvat tnl – I had that experience (with being trans) where other people knew before I did, and it is not something I see in fiction a lot. I also liked that the parents were well-rounded people and characters in their own right.

I also really liked the cover and the fact that 1. there was calligraphy on the cover 2. the calligrapher was credited (Sarah Jane Coleman).

But there was one part where I did feel that the book kicked me in the jaw, and not in a good sense. This is a major spoiler, and it is about anti-trans hate crimes (decode with ROT13): Gur pevzr gung gur cebgntbavfg’f byqre oebgure vf wnvyrq sbe vf erirnyrq gbjneq gur raq nf…. ur xvyyrq n genaf jbzna (“genafirfgvgr” – fvp) frk jbexre va jung frrzrq gb unir orra n “genaf cnavp” rcvfbqr. Abj. Vg vf znqr nzcyl pyrne guebhtubhg gur obbx gung gur oebgure pbzzvggrq n erny pevzr, fb V jnf tynq gung vg jnf erirnyrq gb or n erny pevzr naq ur jnfa’g vaabprag. OHG. Gur snpg gung n ybg bs gur cybg vaibyirf gur snzvyl pbzvat gb grezf jvgu uvf orvat va cevfba, NAQ gur snpg gung bhg bs NYY cbffvoyr pevzrf, gur nhgube unq gb pubbfr guvf bar, ernyyl znqr zr srry hapbzsbegnoyr. V jvyy nyfb cebonoyl abg cvpx hc gur hcpbzvat frdhry, orpnhfr V ernyyl qba’g jnag gb frr zber ‘pbzvat gb grezf jvgu’ jvgu gung.

This was just one paragraph in the book, but it really soured me on it. Without this paragraph, it would have been a clear recommendation… but this changed the interpretation of an entire plotline, and in a way that felt gratuitious to me, especially seeing as this was the only time trans people appeared in the novel.

My usual disclaimer about where I got this book: I bought this one with my own money.

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[Poetry collection] Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

“we’ve always come on boats. we’re going to keep coming.”
(from the worst thing in the world)

I find it easiest to review books which I liked but had some issues with, because then I can discuss those issues at length. Truly awful and genuinely wonderful books can sometimes take a backseat, which then results in me not posting about some of my favorite books.

Bodymap was wonderful.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled nonbinary femme of color poet who writes a lot about the personal experience of these intersections – vividly, with great feeling and meticulous attention to the rich detail of everyday life. It’s revealing, relatable, I had so many yes this! moments that I lost count. Here’s one:

“white bois with eager butts
and nonprofit jobs you wanted
are just like whole foods take out:
when you are too tired
to cook your own food
you can pay too much
for a tasteless version of your culture
that promises it won’t kill you.”
(from every time I see you I think what the hell was I thinking?)

The collection is sorted vaguely thematically, grouped into e.g., disability poems, family poems and so on. But one of the key points is that these categories are impossible and frankly pointless to disentangle. For example, queer people can be sick and disabled, and their (our) experiences will be distinct from those of queer non-disabled people or disabled non-queer people:

“that’s me sitting in a straight-backed chair in business casual
saying yes, I’m his sister     yes, I’ll stay in the room
during the procedure

( from love you like a 7 am healthy San Francisco free MRI)

There is a lot of sensuality and sexuality, and yes, queer disabled sex poetry. This is something I see incredibly infrequently. (Xan West does similar things in short fiction erotica as distinct from poetry.)

“Of moaning and cajoling and coercing, yes, there, fuck me, oh yes sudden breaking into oh fuck! my hip! no, no! Being absolutely normal. (from crip sex moments 1-10)

I think it is telling that I am on the asexual spectrum (not sex-repulsed though) but I still cannot stop quoting these erotic poems, they are so on point:

“Texts were our favourite slutty adaptive device.” (…) “Your house was so cripped out you had a couch in every room!”
(from crip sex moments)

And there is an incredible, lengthy poem examining the fact that many young, talented, artistic people become very sick and/or disabled, and the possible reasons why – she writes specifically about queer people of color, but I was trying to think about all the people I know and it feels to me that this is in general true of multiply marginalized people. I’ll just quote the beginning:

“There’s an underground river flowing through every queer-of-colour community I’ve ever been a part of and kissed.
The underground river of kids who went away.

The girls and boys who got sick and tired, spent hours curled up sleeping.
An underground river swelling its banks
filling the riverbed
carrying us away”
(from dirty river girl)

There are just so many feelings that I have had at some point that are expressed in this book. Especially related to disability, illness, activism while being disabled, being in love while disabled, belonging to multiple cultures and as Germans would say it, having a migration background. I constantly had the thoughts: “This is a thing?! I thought it was just me but it is totally a thing.” For example this sentence, the situation and emotions that it depicts is not exactly the same as access intimacy and there might not even be an expression for what it depicts, but i could instantly relate to it:

“when you rubbed my arms with arnica
and said oooh, baby, you’re about to get what I have
(from RSI)

This book provided me with an amazing journey of recognizing that I am both similar to and distinct from someone. For example I’m not femme (I’m not very butch/masc either) but a lot of the femme poems, specifically the hard femme poems, were just so incredibly clear, incisive and well put. I felt like I was coming to an understanding that I did not have before.

“we heal with salt packets and microwaved motel water
we heal with youtube mixes named too blessed
we heal bleeding and pissing in the dirt outside my house”
(from because every brown femme needs / where you find homegirl medicine)

Then we progress through the collection to ethnicity, belonging, assimilation and dissimilation. Have you had these conversations with your relatives?

“even though yr grandmas whisper       keep a white name / for the passport      keep as many passports as possible” (wrong is not yours)

And what do you do when:

“It’s enormous fights on the internet on every page that purports
to be about Sri Lanka from a multicultural perspective”
(from what it’s like to be sri lankan in 2012 / for those of you who aren’t)

Really, what do you do? One possible answer is “Read the poem.”

Then there is activism and teaching and basically my aspirational goals right there:

“because you teach with your tits and your tie. your gender is one of your best gifts to your students. you show them another way to be girl or boy that is hope lodged right by their gallbladder.”
(from maestra teacher: a rebel teacher manifesta song in many parts.)

One thing where my experience differs from the author is that I am parenting a 10-year-old (who is my stepchild). As I was reading, I kept on wondering if she would discuss parenting while queer, disabled, a femme of color etc. and in the last few sections she actually does write about it. In a really breathtaking, going-all-out way, with sparkling fighting spirit:

“you know I’m gonna raise her to know how to smile
and give good cut eye, rock the library
and then go explode the whole known world
which is like explore but with just one letter different
you know.
(from you know I’m gonna)

Then there is beauty:

“yashna said she was coming back from new delhi
driving all her shit to oakland from durham
I asked her where home was
she stopped perfect silent in the middle of writhing screaming queers
smiled
said home? home is right here
and touched her chest light”
(from sternum)

Reading this book felt like coming home. Go give it a try if you can.

Source of the book: Lawrence Public Library (Oh my G-d my library has books like this one!! What an immense privilege to have.)

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