Never Pick Up Hitchhikers

On his way to the British town of New Braybourne, where he is supposed to be studying art, twenty-year-old William (Willie) Banks hitchhikes to save money, instead of taking the train. (This story is set in the 1970s, when hitchhiking was still common, although already in decline.) Willie’s journey with Alf, the driver who picks him up, seems pleasant enough, but when they arrive in New Braybourne, it’s late. Too late to expect that Willie’s new landlady, only spoken to over the phone, would still be up and willing to let him in. Alf makes an offer: if Willie will save Alf some time by delivering a package to Alf’s sister’s flat, a few blocks from the middle of town, Willie can spend the night there. Alf’s sister and brother-in-law are away; all Willie has to do is lock up in the morning and drop the spare key in the letter box. Willie agrees. Alf drops him off in the middle of town with his suitcase and the package, and hurries on his way home.

Willie looks for the flat but misses a landmark, and asks the first pedestrian he sees—Calli, a young woman on her way home from a dance club—for directions. Interest sparks between the two. He tells her what he’s doing, and she smells something fishy—who trusts a total stranger enough to let them spend the night alone in their, or their sister’s, flat? She convinces him it’s not a good idea to spend the night there, although she’s not certain why. Together, they deliver the package and continue on to her flat, where he spends the night on her sofa. (Who trusts a total stranger…? Hmm. Anyway, the romance in this story is squeaky clean.)

In the morning, the news reports a fire in the flat they delivered the package to, and that a body, charred beyond recognition, was found after the fire was extinguished. The police think that the dead man is Alf’s brother-in-law, Stan Bastable. Stan was a fugitive, wanted for his part in a successful bank burglary a few years earlier. The money was never recovered, and with rumours flying in the criminal underworld that Stan was back in town, the other men involved in the theft and several members of a London-based organised-crime family have converged on New Braybourne. They, plus his abandoned wife, all want a share in the stolen fortune.

Willie and Callie, of course, go to the police, after realising that the package they delivered was probably the incendiary device. The fire was carefully planned to make the police think that Stan was dead, and Willie was supposed to have been the dead body. But then, who really was the victim of the fire? And is Willie in danger, if Alf discovers that he is still alive?

Ellis Peters is better known for her series of Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries, but Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers is a standalone novel in a more modern setting, contemporary with the 1970s, when it was published. The story is nicely plotted, but once the question of the identity of the dead body is answered, it isn’t much of a mystery. We’re shown who commits murder, and why, as the story progresses. The unanswered questions become: Where is the stolen money hidden? Who will find it first, Stan or Willie? And if Willie finds it before the thieves do, will he survive?

Despite gunshots and stabbings (thankfully not gory), this isn’t much of a thriller, either. In fact, it feels more like a farce, with swapped handbags, mistaken identities, a confused landlady, and our two innocents, Willie and Calli, stumbling onto important clues. There is a nighttime procession of criminals and police through the town’s streets and back alleys, and a wonderfully comic encounter in a restaurant between most of the players, not all of them aware of who the others are.

It is, in short, a quick, easy, lightweight story, though somewhat old-fashioned, with several memorable characters and a sweet romance. What more can one ask for in entertainment?

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Quiet in Her Bones

 Ten years ago, Nina Parvati Rai vanished without a trace, taking with her a quarter of a million dollars in cash. Her disappearance was assumed to be an act of defiance: a bored socialite’s revenge on her wealthy, controlling husband. The furious husband, industrialist Ishaan Rai, initiates divorce proceedings, and remarries shortly afterwards.

But now, Nina’s Jaguar, with her remains in the passenger’s seat, has been discovered not far from home, where it had lain hidden in the New Zealand bush for the past ten years. The police begin a murder investigation, but her son doesn’t trust them to find the right answers, and begins his own investigation.

This is the start of Quiet in Her Bones by New Zealand author Nalini Singh, one of the most enjoyable mysteries/psychological dramas I have had the pleasure of reading in some time. There’s a lot I like here, from the plot that was satisfyingly complex without being impossible to follow, to the atmospheric evocation of  the dense New Zealand bush and the multi-ethnic flavour with a Hindu family at the story’s centre. 

The Rais are residents of a gated community known only as the Cul-de-Sac (as if it’s the only one, or the exemplar) nestled against the New Zealand bush in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, forty minutes from downtown Auckland. Everyone in the Cul-de-Sac is wealthy. Nearly all have festering secrets—adultery, gambling debts, toxic relationships of all kinds—hidden under a well-maintained facade.

Aarav Rai, Nina and Ishaan’s 26-year-old son, is only recently out of the hospital after a car crash left him with a pulverised foot and a piece of metal embedded in his brain. His intelligence and identity don’t seem to be affected by the brain damage, but his memories clearly are. All he can remember of that violent night so long ago is a scream, the front door slamming twice, and watching the taillights of his mother’s car receding into the rain. He has no idea why his father blames him for the disappearance of the expensive rug that used to lie in front of the fireplace, or why he has nightmares of a motorcycle skidding out of control.

He loved his mother. He would never have done anything to hurt her. Would he?

Aarav is the story’s unreliable narrator. He knows he is unreliable, and we feel his alarm as the evidence of his unreliability mounts. (View spoiler.) If he is to find out who killed his mother, he has to do it soon, before his abused brain and leg give out. Before the police arrest him for the murder. Before the real killer—if someone other than Aarav himself—decides he’s too much of a threat.

Aarav is an interesting character, a mama’s boy with an adversarial relationship to his father. He calls himself a sociopath wearing masks to hide his true self, and while some of his actions would justify calling him an arrogant, privileged asshole, he does other things that earn him our (or at least, my) sympathy. His relationships with his stepmother, Shanti, and his sister, Pari, in particular, involve a good deal more kindness than would be expected from someone out just to butter a person up before taking advantage of them.

For an intelligent character, though, he does do a few stupid things, which is usually a red flag for me. (Can’t the author find a better way out of the plot hole they dug?) I was willing to overlook that here, given the already established fact that he’s not fully in control of own actions. It is his search for answers, and his struggles with his own limitations, that make the book interesting.

The story wasn’t flawless. The ending left a few questions unanswered. (View spoiler.) And for a book advertised as a thriller, it got off to a quite leisurely start. The pace picked up eventually, but never quite reached thriller territory. If that’s what you’re expecting, you might be a bit disappointed. And finally, there’s the shear number of characters. I counted forty-two named characters, plus three dogs, and I’m not sure I didn’t miss a few (people, not dogs). By a quarter of the way in, I simply couldn’t remember who was who in the Cul-de-Sac, and whether or not they were a suspect, so I went back to the beginning and started making notes. Here’s the cast of characters for the benefit of anyone else in danger of getting lost in the details:

Inhabitants of the Cul-de-Sac:

  • The Rais: Nina (mother, murder victim), Ishaan (father), Aarav (son, narrator), Shanti (Ishaan’s second wife), and 7-year-old Pari (Shanti’s daughter, Aarav’s half-sister).
  • The Lius: Calvin (father, surgeon), Diana (mother, Nina’s best friend), Mia and Beau (teenage children), and Charlie (elderly bulldog).
  • The Henares: Hemi (father, school principle), Tia (mother, with inherited wealth), Ariki (son in the army), Mihirangi (daughter, lawyer), and Rima (daughter in med school).
  • The Dixons: Paul (retired rock musician) and Margaret (financial whiz).
  • The Fitzpatricks: Brett and Veda, the neighbours who annoy everyone else, plus their German Shepherd.
  • The Savea-Duncans: Cora (aeronautical computer specialist), Alice (nurse), Elei (Alice’s Samoan mother), Manaia (Alice’s 13-year-old daughter), and Princess (poodle).
  • The Brennans: Isaac (owns an ad agency), Mellie (Isaac’s 4th wife), and Phil (Isaac’s elderly father).
  • Leonid and Anastasia (newcomers, Russian Mafia?), with twin toddlers.

Other characters:

  • Police: Detective Senior Sergeant Oliver Regan and Constable Sefina Neri.
  • Aarav’s doctors: Binchy (neurosurgeon), Tawera (surgeon), Varma (neurologist), and Jitrnicka (psychiatrist).
  • Lily: The Rai’s former maid, who now owns the cafe just outside the Cul-de-Sac gates.
  • Trixi and Lexi: mother/daughter gossips, met at Lily’s cafe.
  • Adrian: Gym owner and personal trainer to several of the Cul-de-Sac residents.
  • Daisy Pearse: Woman who saved Aarav’s life after his car crash.
  • Kahu: Aarav’s writer friend.
  • Mary and Lovey: Domestic help.
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2023 Preview

I love mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction, so what could be better than a good murder mystery in a fantasy or science fiction setting? There are a number of those in my TBR pile, so it’s not surprising they figure heavily in this selection of recent speculative fiction books I’m looking forward to reading in 2023:

  • The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: A human scholar and a transport spaceship avatar join forces to solve a murder in a Vietnamese-flavoured interstellar society.
  • A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys: Aliens arrive to save humanity—whether we want to be saved or not.
  • The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd: A contemporary fantasy thriller about the power of maps.
  • The Peacekeeper by B. L. Blanchard: A murder mystery with a Native American detective in an alternate history timeline where North America was never colonised.
  • The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield: Imagine Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and her sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, casting spells, and attempting to deal with the unintended consequences.
  • The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal: The Thin Man in space, by the author of the Lady Astronaut series.
  • Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. This is not the start of a joke. It is the start of an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. By the same author as The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.
  • The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter by Amberley Martin: A fairy-tale mashup of Macbeth with Beauty and the Beast, and the sequel to The Rogue and the Peasant.
Posted in A Writer's Life, Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

2022 Recap

I started off this year with a post about the half-dozen books on the top of my TBR pile, and was only happy with one of them (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain). What about the others? I loved some early parts of The Hands of the Emperor, but ended more disgusted than pleased. The House by the Cerulean Sea was too twee for me; The Three-Body Problem too grim. Project Hail Mary was entertaining—if you can tolerate buddy movies in space interspersed with info dumps—but far-fetched and a bit juvenile. Insta-love and the abusive sister put me off Witchmark.

Sigh.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find lots of good books this year. In no particular order, here’s the top ten of the ones I did enjoy:

  • Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara: Time travel, a missing father, an intricate plot, and an appealing tattoo artist for a protagonist are only part of what make this novel a standout.
  • The King of Faerie by A. J. Lancaster: The fourth in the series that started with The Lord of Stariel takes us deeper into the fae lands. Hetta Valstar and her sexy fae fiancé Wyn Tempestren try to find the elusive king of Faerie before their snowballing problems (including Wyn’s murderous sister) catch up with them.
  • Sanctuary by And C. Buchanan: In this ghost story, the ghosts are the ones in danger, and it’s up to the members of a neurologically diverse, gender queer, found family to protect them.
  • Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell: An enjoyable read, whether you’re more interested in nicely-plotted mystery with a side of romance or a slow-burn heart-warming romance with a side of space opera and mystery.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: This story starts off slowly in an artificial, nearly uninhabited world, like some sort of allegory or dream, but gradually shifts into something captivating, urgent, and strongly connected to our own reality.
  • When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo: This fantasy novella uses shape-shifting tigers and a tiger/human courtship to explore culture clashes and the variability of perceptions of the same events. Domesticated mammoths are icing on the cake.
  • The Rogue and the Peasant by Amberley Martin: A delightfully original fairy tale mashup laden with surprises.
  • Flashback by Nevada Barr: The only book on this list with no connection to speculative fiction, this thriller, with its exploding boats and other bloody mayhem, takes place in the Dry Tortugas National Park, at the end of the Florida Keys.
  • Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand: An anthology of stories, around 10,000 words each, by New Zealand writers. Longer than a typical short story but shorter than a novella, these have enough meat on their bones to be satisfying without requiring a significant time commitment.
  • Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson by Jack Remiel Cottrell: At the other end of the scale is this collection of flash or micro fiction that packs a punch in a small space. Perfect for dipping into while on hold, or while waiting for the bus.
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The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is destined to be a queen. At least, that’s what her mother has always said, and Esme doesn’t doubt her, despite living like a peasant in a small village all her life, where she plays—and fights—with the miller’s children, the baker’s daughter, and the butcher’s son. She has, however, had tutors to instruct her in the subjects a queen needs to know, from the arts and sciences to deportment and diplomacy. So when she returns home one day from the village to discover a coach waiting to take her to Finishing School, Esme fights down her dismay over the abrupt departure, packs her small bag, and climbs into the coach with her head held high.

Finishing School may not be what you expect, her mother warns her while saying goodbye. Disquieting advice, as she has few preconceived notions of what Finishing School is. But whatever it should be, she is quite sure it does not involve being kidnapped on the way by a charming rogue.

To Rory, the rogue, waylaying Esme’s coach is just one more task the godmother has assigned to him. He has the script down pat: carry the purported victim off to the godmother’s tower, chivvying them along while they make a good show of righteous indignation and resistance, and keep them fed and healthy until their promised prince with a hero complex arrives to rescue them (or princess, or whatever they wished for—this world isn’t heteronormative or bound by strict gender roles). Rory has done this before, and never had any trouble, so he is caught by surprise when Esme puts up a real fight. The solid kick she lands in the middle of his chest hurts. She’s not following the script. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know there is one. She’s not responding as expected to his charm, either.

Sounds like the beginning of a generic fairy-tale romance novel, doesn’t it? It’s not.

If Esme doesn’t follow the script, neither does the book she’s in: The Rogue and the Peasant, by New Zealand author Amberley Martin. It is not a romance, although it does have things to say about friendship and families. What it is, is a fairy tale—a very modern one, with women who can take care of themselves. Martin borrows elements from lots of stories—imagine a mashup of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Labyrinth (the movie with David Bowie), and Hamlet. She tosses them together with a Dead Prince, a sword-wielding homicidal princess, giants, trolls, an extremely intelligent horse, a dragon, and more, and comes up with something deliciously original. The action is stage-managed by a vicious godmother who seems closer kin to The Godfather than to Cinderella’s saccharin fairy. The mix keeps throwing up surprises, making for a lighthearted and entertaining read.

The Rogue and the Peasant has a (mostly) happy ending, even if not a guaranteed happily-ever-after, and both Esme and Rory are appealing characters. The book is the first in a new series, The Fairy Godmother Tales. The second book, The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter, is high on my TBR list for 2023.

Posted in Fairy Tales, Kiwi author | 1 Comment

Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand

Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand is a recent anthology of stories around 10,000 words each, shorter than a novella but longer than the typical short story. For me, these long stories (novelettes?) were a nice change of pace, with enough meat on their bones to be satisfying, while not requiring the time commitment of a longer novel or novella. Published by Victoria University Press, the book contains fourteen new stories by New Zealand writers, covering a range of styles and genres. Most, but not all, are set in New Zealand, with a very Kiwi flavour. Ordinary family problems are a recurring theme, but some stories delve into other-world fantasy and horror. There’s something here for everyone. The stories are:

Scales, Tails, and Hagfish by Octavia Cade: A pre-teen girl with scaly eczema claims to be a mermaid. Her continued insistence antagonises people and gets her into trouble as she engages in increasingly bizarre activities to prove her point—activities that eventually land her in hospital after an encounter with an angry seal—but her mermaid dreams may not be entirely delusional.

School Spirit by Joy Holley: A ghost story, with several graduates returning to their old school after dark.

The Promotion by Maria Samuela: Twenty years apart, a father and his abandoned son come to Wellington from the Cook Islands looking for work, and experience similar cases of culture shock.

Basil and the Wild by Rem Wigmore: A fairy tale of sorts, and I love fairy tales. Two outsiders—a slow-witted shepherd and a forest giant—become friends, but the frightened villagers are unable to see past the giant’s threatening bulk, or understand the shepherd’s attempts to protect his peaceful friend.

Getaway by Nicole Phillipson: Unlike the previous story, this is grounded in current reality, showing us a dysfunctional family whose members are unable to communicate with each other or see past their own noses.

Backwaters by Emma Sidnam: A tale of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand in the 1870s. It starts out appearing to be a pleasant historical love story, but gradually morphs into something rather more unsettling.

The Dead City by Jack Barrow: This story is the most clearly fantasy, with nomadic tribespeople pursued by ghosts in a lush, jungly world. It includes evocative descriptions of an abandoned, haunted city, but I was not sure quite what was going on, and unfortunately I lost interest in trying to find out.

Ko tēnei, ko tēnā by Vincent O’Sullivan: A 19th-century bored, wealthy gentleman has tangled relationships with his sister-in-law and half-sister. He leaves England and travels to New Zealand, where he buys a tattooed head as a macabre souvenir. On his return to England, he gets drunk and shows the head to the two women. It isn’t clear where the story is going, or how the two women feel about him, until the very end, where they deal out what is a clear instance of poetic justice.

Ringawera by J. Wiremu Kane: Culture clashes again, along with a bit of a mystery involving several people attending a Māori funeral. One woman is intent on giving her deceased aunt the proper ceremonial farewell she wasn’t allowed to give her late Pākehā wife. Two others—both young gay men, one a cop—struggle to fit in with the other Māori. For me, this was the outstanding story in this collection, with universal emotional arcs around otherness and acceptance.

Around the Fire by Anthony Lapwood: A father of  three, struggling to keep his family together after his wife leaves, reflects on an incident in his own childhood: his father, divorced from his mother, took him and brother on an unauthorised, two-week long, incommunicado “camping trip”.

Afterimages by Sam Keenan: Set in the World War II era, a woman draws on theories about recently-discovered dark matter to escape painful reality by disappearing—literally, as in becoming invisible.

Like and Pray by Samantha Lane Murphy: A young couple’s daughter dies suddenly. The father, confronting reality, wants to grieve silently, but the mother, a member of some charismatic evangelical cult, is sucked into an ecstatic worship service attempting to call the girl back to life.

Sea Legend by Kathryn van Beek: This is a different sort of mermaid story. A fishing trawler pulls a mermaid up in its net, forcing the newest member of the crew into a crisis of conscience.

The Black Betty Tapes by David Geary: This is speculative fiction and the most adventurous story, told in a fast-paced—and rather baffling—series of transcripts of interviews with people involved in the future Queen Elizabeth III’s ascension.

As with any anthology, the stories are not equally successful. Besides Ringawera, the ones that left the biggest impression on me, either because I enjoyed them or they stuck in my head afterwards, were Backwaters, Ko tēnei, ko tēnā, Basil and the Wild, and Scales, Tails, and Hagfish. There’s a lot to like here; other readers may have different favourites.

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Aftermath

Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is a collection of about two dozen stories, poems, and images, set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand. The disasters represented range from the quite possible (catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, earthquakes, pandemics, …) to the highly unlikely (zombies, aliens, etc.), and in at least one case, it isn’t clear what exactly did happen. That’s fine; the focus here is on the recovery, not the disaster itself. In most cases, the disaster, whatever it is, is already over, sometimes decades ago. These are stories of hope, fortitude, and resilience. Of people finding new communities, coping, and rebuilding.

As is the case with most anthologies, the stores aren’t all equally successful. These are the ones I liked best. YMMV.

Lizards and Villains and Wars (Oh, My!) by Scott Fack: Friends and co-workers offer a PTSD sufferer a helping hand in an alternate Christchurch, where the destruction was caused by rampaging robotic lizards rather than an earthquake.

Thirty-Four Days by C D Jacobs: Earthquakes again, with a woman looking after a boy she finds trapped in a pharmacy.

Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade: A blind teenager, learning to fend for herself after most of the rest of the world dies of plague, refutes would-be rescuers’ pity.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Erica Challis: Plastic-eating bacteria let loose in the wild has a profound impact on human society.

Bounded by Rivers by Jacqui Greaves: Survivors in an isolated valley set up a breeding program to ensure the best genetic health of future generations. Towards the end of her life, the designer of the program plans to go out in style.

Boy-Boy by Barbara Uini: Two kids hide in the bush after an alien invasion. The older girl makes trips into town, telling the boy she’s foraging for supplies. He has to find out for himself that the humans won the war; she’s been afraid to tell him because he’s all the family she has left.

Flipsides by Miriam Hurst: What seems like a disaster doesn’t always turn out to be one.

Best Mates by Gary M Nelson: This one is my favourite of the lot, with a friendship that survives even death.

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Sanctuary

The refuge in Sanctuary, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan, is a many-roomed house dating from the 17th century. Once a mansion, it is now in a state of disrepair, tended to by residents with inadequate funds for its proper upkeep. The refugees it shelters come in two sorts: (A) neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, …) and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals escaping abusive backgrounds or just looking for a non-judgemental environment where they don’t stand out, and (B) ghosts.

Yes, Sanctuary is a ghost story, but an unusual one. The resident ghosts are not responsible for the horrors inflicted. In fact, it is the ghosts who are most at risk in the early parts of this story. The motley collection of eight living residents treat the ghosts with respect, and try to protect their privacy from the prying eyes of sensation-seeking ghost hunters. As the story develops, a more serious threat appears, attacking first the dead and then the living, until both sets of residents are fighting for… well, let’s not say their lives, but their continued existence is as stake.

The events leading up to that start when an elderly man arrives with a collection of old bottles. He is downsizing on his way to a retirement home, and wants to find a good home for the ghosts in the bottles. The residents, horrified at the thought of being trapped in a bottle for eons, begin freeing the captives, but in doing so, also free something unexpected and evil: a ghost eater.

The narrator is an autistic trans woman named Morgan. (I’m not sure which pronouns Morgan prefers; I’m going with they/them/their as potentially least offensive.) Morgan gives their partner Araminta a gift without realising the gift comes with strings attached. When the gift brings Araminta under the ghost eater’s power, Morgan is forced far out of their comfort zone, to do whatever is necessary to bring back the woman they love.

Sanctuary is a lovely story of a found family, a collection of damaged misfits who discovered a place where they belong. The residents have different strengths and weaknesses, and conflict does happen, but they all work to accomodate each other, although some of the ways they work together might be a bit baffling to more neurotypical people. I particularly enjoyed one scene where they are gathered in one room but to all appearances isolated in individual bubbles, as each one is focused on their own electronic device. Morgan, however, is experiencing a strong sense of family togetherness and support as they all participate in a group chat, because all of them are less stressed by text than by speech.

Sanctuary is also an introspective and character-driven story, with the first half mainly introducing the residents, both living and dead, and immersing us in an autistic person’s psyche. The plot, such as it is—thin and without surprises—doesn’t really get moving until the second half. This isn’t necessarily a problem, if you understand going into it that the author’s focus is on the people involved and their relationships, not action.

There are a few problems: It should have had another proofreading pass before publication. (I’m usually tolerant of a few typos—I have to be; I make enough myself—but there was one glaring continuity error that made me wince.) A lot of character names are introduced, and it takes a while to get them all sorted out. (Wait, which one is Joseph again? Is he alive or dead? A score card or cast of characters would have been helpful.) And parts of the climactic action sequence were quite vague. (I have no idea how long that confrontation with the ghost eater went on. Minutes? Hours? Days? Probably not days… My confusion wasn’t helped by Morgan’s narration going off on tangents in the middle of it, although I suppose that’s part of the point: their strategies for coping with stressful situations are not typical.)

Problems aside, I loved the story, both for its insights into Morgan’s heart and mind and for its depiction of a cohesive, supportive family bound not by blood ties but by shared needs and the values of kindness and empathy.

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Beyond Magenta

I read Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin, for this year’s Banned Books Week, since it has popped up in the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Books list several times since it was published in 2014.

The book is fairly short, only 182 pages in hardcover. Six teens talk about their gender identities and journeys towards transitioning. Two of them (Jessy and Luke) transition from male to female, two from female to male (Christina and Mariah), and two (Cameron and Nat) are non-binary, using they/them pronouns and not identifying as either male or female. Of those two, Cameron—the teen pictured on the cover—presents as more feminine or more masculine depending on their mood, while Nat is intersex and apparently asexual, preferring to present as neutral/ambiguous.

The reasons given for the book being challenged include its LGBTQIA+ content and because it is considered to be sexually explicit. There are some passages that mention sex and anatomy, but that’s hardly surprising, given the subject matter, and they don’t seem unreasonable given the context. Besides, the odds are good that any teen with access to the internet or who has ever been in a high school gym locker room has been exposed to a lot worse. The adults who worry that books like this will “give kids ideas” really need to get a grip. It seems unlikely to me that most teens would be interested in reading this book unless they were already experiencing gender dysphoria, and if they are, withholding information about similar people’s experiences—including the impacts on their physical bodies—is simply cruel.

That said, this didn’t strike me as a particularly good book. For one thing, it isn’t really clear who the expected audience is; it feels as if it is targeted more towards cisgender adults trying to understand transgender teens rather than the teens themselves. For another, the organisation is less than ideal; the most interesting chapters (at least, to me) are all in the second half of the book, and some readers will bail before they get that far.

And then there are the narratives: they are in the teens’ own words, but are drawn from interviews by the cisgender author, so there was non-trivial editing involved on her part. Since she doesn’t give us the questions she asked, it’s hard to tell how much she drove the direction the interview took, or where the subject was more or less forthcoming. In addition, in the first chapter, Jessy and his girlfriend talk about their relationship. He claims he’s happy, but his girlfriend refuses to refer to him by his chosen pronouns (he/him). That makes me wonder if his claims that his family and friends are supportive are overstated in an attempt to convince the author—or perhaps even himself—and left me with persistent doubts about the emotional honesty throughout the book.

There were also some really unfortunate gender stereotypes expressed. I suppose it isn’t fair to expect a high degree of self knowledge and articulation from a group of otherwise rather ordinary teens who are still struggling to come to terms with their own identities, but I have little patience for the idea that loving to shop for pretty clothes equates with being a girl. (I never have enjoyed shopping for clothes. I hardly ever wear a dress. I despise pantyhose and heels. I’m not trans.)

Before reading this book, I had hoped it would illuminate a gender dysphoria strong enough to drive someone to transition. Unfortunately, it didn’t give me any new insights into what makes someone do something so life-altering.

But just because this book doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful to someone else.


A few notes on the chapters I found most interesting:

  • They include the ones about the non-binary teens, Cameron and Nat, possibly because they were less invested than the others in gender stereotypes.
  • Nat’s story was the one that resonated the most with me, although as much for their efforts to be taken seriously as a musician as for their story about gender identity.
  • Similarly, Luke’s involvement in theatre gave an extra dimension to his story.
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Banned Book Week 2022

It is, once again, Banned Book Week: the American Library Association’s yearly campaign to draw attention to efforts to remove certain books from classrooms and libraries. Their current list of the most frequently challenged books is here.

As far as I can tell, the books most at risk fall into two categories:

  • Any that challenge gender essentialism (the idea that male and female roles are fixed and innate) or a hierarchical view of society and families with men at the top, and women and children subservient. That would include medically factual information that would empower teens by helping them understand their own bodies.
  • Any that make the United States look bad, by, say, covering the real history of slavery, race relations, police brutality, depopulation of indigenous peoples, etc.

As I have commented on in earlier posts, in the United States “challenged” has been a more appropriate term than “banned.” Unfortunately, that may soon no longer be true. Radical right-wing extremists are in full roar, and with the courts stacked in their favour, they may succeed in implementing governmental bans in some states. They’re certainly trying hard in Florida, Texas, and Virginia. In the Virginia case, Republicans attempted to use an old law, unused in decades but still on the books, to have a pair of books declared obscene and illegal to sell or lend in the state. That law would have allowed a challenge in one district to ban the book in the entire state. A Virginia judge ruled against them, but similar laws in other states may find more receptive judges.

Censorship was a hot topic at the recent Chicon8, the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention. As a virtual attendee, I listened to a session that included Ada Palmer, a historian at the University of Chicago, who is an expert on the history of censorship. She made an interesting observation (I’m summarising/paraphrasing here, so if I mis-represent her, it’s my fault, not hers):

For hundreds of years, attempts at censorship have come in waves every 25 to 30 years, and historically they have always censored the wrong things, because the cat is out of the bag. The censors don’t perceive the next threat coming down the line, which would have been easier to deal with if they could have nipped it in the bud. Censorship is a panic reaction to a perceived threat, but the things we’re afraid of now aren’t necessarily the ideas that are powerful in retrospect from a hundred years later.

What I took from this is that the current furore over books by or about non-gender-conforming people or people of colour will eventually die down, because they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The information in the books they want to suppress is already out there, on the internet, in Little Free Libraries, in donations from Friends of the Library groups, etc. Ideas are notoriously hard to kill. And the fact that there are so many more challenges in recent years of children’s books with LGBTQIA+ characters underscores the fact that there are so many more of those books being published; you can’t challenge something that doesn’t exist.

(Of course, Dr Palmer’s observation also implies that the fight against censorship will just move on to something else not even on the conservative radar yet. Legal rights for non-humans, perhaps? But that’s a worry for another day. She also said that the panics come from the grassroots, but then are harnessed from above to advance elite and governmental interests, which squares with Republicans pushing for book bans.)

But even if the would-be censors lose in the long run, that doesn’t mean they won’t make life miserable for lots of people before the current conflagration is extinguished. They can. They will. But there are ways to fight back:

  • Campaign for non-extremists (or run yourself) in your local school board elections.
  • Get to know your local school board members and let them know what’s important to you.
  • Stock a Little Free Library with challenged books.
  • Join your local Friend of the Library group.
  • Spread the word about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, which includes giving teens anywhere in the United States access to their full eBook collection and learning databases.
  • And most important: VOTE! Lots of people don’t pay attention to local elections, but sometimes they matter even more than national elections, because the margins can be very slim. If you don’t know who is up for election, here are good places to start: for the US, ballotpedia , and for New Zealand, policy.nz.
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