Murmuration

Murmuration
TJ Klune
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“In the small mountain town of Amorea, it’s stretching toward autumn of 1954. The memories of a world at war are fading in the face of a prosperous future. Doors are left unlocked at night, and neighbors are always there to give each other a helping hand. The people here know certain things as fact: Amorea is the best little town there is. The only good Commie is a dead Commie. The Women’s Club of Amorea runs the town with an immaculately gloved fist. And bookstore owner Mike Frazier loves that boy down at the diner, Sean Mellgard. Why they haven’t gotten their acts together is anybody’s guess. It may be the world’s longest courtship, but no one can deny the way they look at each other. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. But something’s wrong with Mike. He hears voices in his house late at night. There are shadows crawling along the walls and great clouds of birds overhead that only he can see. Something’s happening in Amorea. And Mike will do whatever he can to keep the man he loves.”

Of the many many (many) books TJ Klune has written (that I’ve read), I think Murmuration might be his strongest. Oftentimes in his work the conventions of the romance genre impose themselves in unfortunate, highly visible ways onto his narrative. An otherwise original idea or plot suddenly veers back into frustratingly familiar territory in the form of a random relationship crisis or an obligatory ending sex scene. But in Murmuration, Klune successfully avoids these pitfalls, or rather, he finds a way to turn them to his advantage, allowing his characters and dialogue to thrive uninhibited. But the success of the plot hinges on a central mystery, so unfortunately I can’t say much more than I already have without potential spoilers.

So here are some things I can talk about. Murmuration isn’t one of Klune’s humorous books, but it’s not too grim either (in my opinion) and it doesn’t have the suffocating angst of Into This River I Drown. It just takes its subject matter very seriously, and the reason for this becomes very clear when reading. While he previously dabbled in post-apocalyptic fiction in Withered + Sere, Murmuration is Klune’s first foray into the harder side of science fiction. Traditionally, hard sci-fi deals mostly with technologies and societies, but rarely with individuals, and I used to steer away from it for that reason (though I read it plenty now). So it’s refreshing to see a take on it that foregrounds real people with real lives and real relationships. I’m deleting every sentence after I write it because I’m unsure what’s safe to talk about without giving anything away, so I’m just going to cut this entry short. I recommend giving Murmuration a shot and going in blind, or as blind as you can after having read this.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
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Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is writing about. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories, a side-effect of reading too much mid-century gay literature, so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why can’t I? Or anyone else for that matter. That’s probably a little melodramatic and self-indulgent, but fuck it, it feels good to be that way sometimes.

Magic’s Pawn

Magic’s Pawn
by Mercedes Lackey
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wasn’t no part in such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his, if left untrained, may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the fame Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil cannot master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril.”

I gave Magic’s Pawn a bit of short shrift in my write-up for Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, so I hope to do it a little more credit here. I initially implied that this book is a gay tragedy, but as I reflect on it, it seems very unjust to reduce it to that label. Just because a tragedy may be present doesn’t mean that a work needs to be defined by it (though plenty are). Lackey’s depiction of homosexuality is sophisticated and reveals a deeper understanding of real-world issues which she reflects onto the land of Valdemar. Modern fantasy novels with queer characters often present worlds in which gender and orientation are a non-issue, and while that’s nice to imagine, it’s too far removed from reality to carry much impact. Lackey’s more realistic approach grants the story a lot more weight, which is perhaps why it was so difficult for me to read when I was younger.

Vanyel’s journey to self-acceptance is a long one chock full of angst and melodrama, just like real ones often are. It’s probably most enjoyable (and useful) when the reader is at a similar stage of their personal development or if they’re in the mood to feel sorry for themselves (that’s not a dig, everyone needs a pity party sometimes!). Subject matter aside, it’s an excellent work of fantasy and easily stands alone on those merits. Mercedes Lackey is a household name in fantasy world after all, and she’s published a ridiculous amount of books, many in the same world of Valdemar. I’ve read several others by her and found them all of equally high quality, with Foundation being a favorite. I still think that Magic’s Pawn is too tragic for me, but I suppose the late ‘80s were a pretty tragic time and it’s only natural that the book would reflect that. And of course not everyone will feel that way about tragedy. I think my aversion to it comes from spending too much time immersed in classic gay literature, which is invariably depressing. Anyways, it’s worth a read so be sure to give it a shot.

Bloom

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Bloom
by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
Difficulty: Easy
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When I was younger I never had much to do with graphic novels, comics, or manga. They somehow managed to be the one ‘nerdy’ thing I never participated in. Looking back I think it was mostly an economical decision. A novel could provide many hours of reading whereas comics or graphic novels only gave me one or two, and I needed enough material to tide me over until the next time my parents could take me to the library. I remember checking a manga out at the library once, I think it was a chapter from Inuyasha, and finishing it before we even left, so they just weren’t a viable time sink for me then. Unrelatedly, I think that manga was the first place I ever saw a boob (just one). Needless to say it was an anti-climactic experience for me. Anyways, this is my really roundabout way of explaining that I don’t know squat about the graphic novel medium, so take my brief opinions on Bloom with a grain of salt.

Beautifully illustrated in monochromatic blue, Bloom tells the story of Ari during the summer after his last year of high school. He’s more than ready to move to the big city with his friends, but the family bakery is struggling and his parents don’t want him to go. But Ari is determined to escape  a lifetime of baking in a small town, and when he starts searching for a replacement he meets Hector, a culinary student on hiatus from school. Over the summer the two grow closer as they work together to keep the bakery in business, and as the months go on Ari finds that he has some important choices to make.

I’m a fan of monochromatic art styles so Bloom caught my eye pretty quickly after its release, but it wasn’t until I came across it in a bookstore months later that I actually bought it. Truth be told I’ve been feeling a little chagrined at my ignorance of visual mediums like comics, and this book seemed like a fine place to start exploring. And I had a lot of fun reading it! Panetta and Ganucheau do a good job showing instead of telling, and the baking scene spreads were beautiful and inspiring (or would be if I knew how to bake). From a narrative perspective I don’t really have a lot to say. It’s a pretty standard coming of age, small town meet cute affair, which there’s nothing wrong with, there’s just a lot of it. I will mention that the ending did feel rushed, but the slow-burn relationship leading up to it was still very satisfying (most romances seem to have the opposite problem). All in all it was definitely worth the purchase, and I feel inspired to continue exploring other graphic novels like this.

Waterways

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Waterways
by Kyell Gold
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Kory was having enough trouble in high school. His girlfriend just dumped him, his poetry made him a target for ridicule, and college applications were looming. The very last thing he needed was to fall in love with another boy.

Waterways is the complete novel from award-winning author Kyell Gold that includes his beloved story “Aquifers”. Join Kory as his feelings and faith collide, washing away the life he knew. His brother Nick, friends Samaki and Malaya, and Father Joe are there to help, but it’s Kory who has to navigate the thrills and perils of the new waterways that make up his life.

At stake? Nothing much — just a chance at true love and happiness. And he still has to graduate from high school…”

It’s unfortunate that the focus on anthropomorphic characters drives so many people away from this book. There are hundreds of gay coming of age novels out there and they’re all valuable for depicting unique experiences, but some are definitely better written than others. This is one of the better ones, and skipping it for fear of its “furry” content is ridiculous. I don’t remember having any qualms with anthropomorphic characters butchering each other in the Redwall series so I don’t see why that should suddenly change because this time they’ve got sexuality too. A good book is a good book and deserves to be read. Besides, the animal characteristics help make for a very interesting setting. Kory and his friends and family live in a contemporary society much like ours, but with numerous accommodations for the many different species which inhabit it. For example, since Kory’s family are otters, their house somewhat resembles a dam, where inhabitants swim from room to room instead of walk. Learning the species of each character can also tell a reader a lot about them before they ever open their mouth. A bull might have a more fiery temperament, or a cat might be less likely to get along with a mouse. I’d even say it makes for a more vibrant world, but at the very least it helps set Waterways apart from countless competitors.

In terms of actual narrative, Waterways is much more conventional. There’s a lot of angst and some mooshy high-school romance, along with a fairly standard spread of teenage problems involving school, family, work, and friends. Kory is likable and relatable, and I appreciated that his life was fairly stable besides his emerging sexuality since some coming of age stories have a tendency to pile a ton of extra problems on their protagonists and make them (and by extension, the reader) miserable. One aspect I particularly liked in this book was Kory’s struggle with his faith. Much of gay fiction won’t even touch that topic unless it is the explicit theme of the book. It seems that the popular view is that religion and homosexuality are incompatible, and I think that is a lamentable oversimplification of the problem, and not very helpful to those stuck in the middle of it, which means books like this one are more valuable for tackling it.

Tigers and Devils

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Tigers and Devils
by Sean Kennedy
Difficulty: Easy
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Description from the Tigers and Devils Amazon page:

“The most important things in Simon Murray’s life are football, friends, and film—in that order. His friends despair of him ever meeting someone, but despite his loneliness, Simon is cautious about looking for more. Then his best friends drag him to a party, where he barges into a football conversation and ends up defending the honour of star forward Declan Tyler—unaware that the athlete is present. In that first awkward meeting, neither man has any idea they will change each other’s lives forever.”

I have no idea how Australian football works. I even went and watched a match while I was reading this to try to figure out what was going on. Still no clue. I ended up thinking of it as something like rugby mixed with quidditch minus the brooms, which was good enough for my purpose. Tigers and Devils isn’t really about Australian football anyway, so don’t worry too much if you’re clueless like me. All that really matters is that one of the guys is a super famous athlete in a less than accepting society.

I was initially worried that too much of the book would be focused on the difficulties of being a gay athlete and “kill the mood”, so to speak, but Kennedy does a good job of balancing that particular dimension of the story with fun characters and a solid romance. And in my opinion that’s the way it should be. I feel a very strong bias towards happier stories, or at least stories which contain some happiness. Gone are the days when we had to kill our characters to get published, and I think we should be taking advantage of that. Tigers and Devils adheres to many “requirements” of the romance genre, so there’s some high points and low points. Some of the crises feel very forced and left me asking “why are they being so stupid?”, but that’s just what you get with a genre like this. Even with these blemishes, the book is still a solid choice and makes for a fun, light read.

The Velvet Rage

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The Velvet Rage
by Alan Downs
Difficulty: Easy
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Personally, I don’t read a lot of self-help books. I am never comfortable with their implicit claim that they know who I am and what my problems are and how I can solve them, because they so often don’t. The Velvet Rage was no exception for me, but I’d heard numerous testimonials from other gay men that the book changed their lives, so here we are. In my estimation, this book assumes the reader is a somewhat financially successful (presumably white) gay man living in a big city, but of course it can still be valuable to other demographics too. Even while shaking my head at some of the assumptions Downs makes (no, I didn’t have a neglectful father and an over-validating mother), some others definitely struck home.

Downs asks the question: why, when gay men have made such important progress toward social acceptance and equality, do so many us engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, sex addiction, and even suicide? He locates the problem as stemming from a deep, enduring, and often unacknowledged shame about being gay, and The Velvet Rage is an attempt to guide gay men through the process of recognizing and cutting it away so that we can live more authentic, fulfilling lives.

The goal of any self-help book should be to encourage self-reflection in its reader, so even if it doesn’t get everything right (love you Dad!), if it’s making you think then it’s succeeding on some level. I think Downs’ focus on shame is very valuable to think about. When I came out, I insisted to myself and to others that it wasn’t a big deal, that my sexuality, and the years I spent repressing it, were just a small part of me and didn’t control my life. But as the years have passed I’ve come to realize how incredibly untrue that is (for me). It seems to me that everything I’ve done in the years since I came out can easily be seen as attempts to compensate or even just comprehend the shame of my sexuality. My reading, my scholarship, even this blog, all of these are part of this personal journey. So even if the journey Downs prescribes isn’t for everyone, it’s still worth reading and thinking about.