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Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 1 comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Series, #2)

June 25, 2013 1 comment

Woman holding a knife with hair made out of birds.Summary:
Miriam hasn’t touched a person and seen a new death in months.  She’s settled down in Jersey with Louis, and part of the deal is no touching.  But her fingers are twitching for a vision, and quickly a regular afternoon turns into a horrifying one.  Still.  Louis suggests a way for her to use her gift for the good.  Prove to a hypochondria that she isn’t dying.  But this hypochondriac happens to work at a problem girls boarding school, and when Miriam touches one of the girls, all hell breaks loose.

Review:
I was so glad to jump back into Miriam’s gritty world that is so unique in urban fantasy, although at first I was surprised by how settled down she seemed to be.  Thankfully, that quickly changes, and a disturbing, rollicking plot comes into play.

What makes this series is the characterization of Miriam.  She is not a nice girl. And she’s not bad in some fake-ass way designed to appeal to a hormonal teenage boy.  She doesn’t run around in tight leather pants proclaiming her badness while batting her eyes and tossing her hair.  Miriam is dark and brutally honest.  She has a delightfully foul mouth.  She wears what she wants to wear whether or not people like it or it’s in fashion.  She doesn’t care if she’s attractive.  She can be bitingly mean.  But she still works as a heroine because she truly has a good heart and is willing to inconvenience her entire life to help other people.  Reading Miriam is deeply refreshing to me, as a woman reader.  She’s allowed to be precisely who she is without any restraints of gender norms by the author.  Here is just a sampling of Miriam’s voice in the book:

Home Again, Home Again, Fuckity-Fuck (location 259)

A tattoo is an expression of your inner self inked on your outer self. It’s some deeply spiritual shit. (location 2143)

The plot this time at first appears to be purely about who is killing young girls, but slowly it becomes apparent that we’re learning more about Fate or what I think of as the crazy birds that control Miriam’s life.  It appears that Fate is displeased that Miriam fucked with it by saving Louis, and now it’s out to get her.  Although this addresses some of the issues I had in the first book about how confusing Fate is and what exactly the rules for this universe are, I must admit, I still found a lot of the information revealed to be a bit fuzzy, albeit wonderfully creepy.  The fantasy information was better than in the first book, but it was still a bit too at arm’s length.  I don’t want to have to wait out the whole series to finally understand even one significant aspect of what is up with Miriam.

One plot issue to do with the murders bothered me.  Spoiler ahead!

*spoilers* I have a very hard time believing that after being fooled once by the killer who can imitate other people’s voices like a mockingbird that Miriam would fall for it a second time.  She’s smarter than that, and it felt like a very clunky plot device to me.  *end spoilers*

That said, the mystery was dark, gritty, and nail-biting.  A lot happened, and Miriam’s story definitely moved forward.  There is a self-contained mystery within this book, but the overarching plot got more traction as well.

The writing continues to be a mix of beautiful and grotesque that would keep me coming back even if the characterization of Miriam wasn’t so strong.  Wendig’s description powers are truly stellar.

Her mouth brimming with foulness the way a soup can bulges with botulism. (location 2460)

They invited her to move back home but she’s not going to do that, oh hell no, she’d much rather snap her tits in a bear-trap than go back to that hell. (location 1633)

She gets on her tippy-toes and kisses him. Long, slow, deep. The kind of kiss where you can feel little pieces of your soul trading places as mouths open and breath mingles. (location 3722)

How can you not read a book with writing like that?

Overall, fans of the first book in the Miriam Black series will not be disappointed by this entry.  Everything that made the first book unique in the urban fantasy genre has returned with strength, particularly the writing style and the characterization of Miriam.  The overarching plot moves forward at a pace fast enough to maintain interest, although not enough about the rules of the fantasy world is revealed.  The self-contained plot is gritty, dark, and sufficiently mysterious, although one moment detracts from it a bit.  Miriam and the writing more than make up for it, though.  Wendig fans will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Previous Books in Series:
Blackbirds, review

Book Review: The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Fred Berman)

June 8, 2013 1 comment

Silhouette of a woman running down a dark, misty, spooky road.Summary:
Lilly Caul’s father shoved her into a bus escaping town just as the doors were closing. They closed on him and zombies ate him while she watched.  Haunted by the feeling that everyone caring for her puts their own lives in danger, she’s struggling to survive among a rag-tag group of survivors, including her high school friend, Megan.  Slowly her small group of friendly survivors, headed by a big strong black man, Josh Lee, who has feelings for her, breaks off from the main group and find their way to Woodbury.  There, the sinister side of the town gradually reveals itself.

Review:
My understanding of this print companion series to the graphic novel one was that it was going to follow the life of the villain The Governor.  The first book told the backstory of The Governor and brought him to Woodbury, so I was expecting a book showing how he came to rule the town with an iron fist.  Instead this entry covers the backstory of Lilly Caul, and how she comes to Woodbury.  Although it’s always fun to visit this post-apocalyptic land that Kirman and Bonansinga have created, this entry just didn’t have the energy and appeal of the first book in the series.

I have to admit, although I recognized the name Lilly Caul, I couldn’t for the life of me remember who she was at first, so I spent quite a bit of time scratching my brain trying to figure out why we were following her around.  I finally remembered that she’s one of the gang of Woodbury folks who go head-to-head with Rick Grimes’s gang in the graphic novels.  A check of the wiki reminded me that she’s the one who shoots and kills Lori and Judith.  Eh, this explains why I have no strong feelings about her.  I hated Lori and felt nothing about Judith, so I certainly didn’t view her as a memorable villain.  I now get it that the series is trying to show how all of Woodbury happened, not just the tale of The Governor.  But the thing is that if you could tell the story of a compelling figure like The Governor why talk about the girl next door?  It made for a boring book.  There is nothing extraordinary about Lilly.  She’s just a cowardly girl trying to survive an apocalypse, and she does it by leeching on to people who care for her but she seems to be lacking the ability to truly care about anyone besides herself.  She also spends a lot of time slut shaming her “best friend” Megan, which pissed me off to no end.  So we have a woman playing with people’s hearts for protection but simultaneously judging Megan for sleeping with people for protection.  Yuck.  Given all of these aspects of her character, I also found it really unbelievable  that she would *spoiler warning* lead a rebellion against The Governor. *end spoilers*

When we finally do get to Woodbury, The Governor is already in charge, although he has yet to call himself The Governor.  We do get to see what led to the establishment of the gladiator-style arena with the zombies, and we also see more reasons as to why the town folk trust and respect him.  But we see all of this through Lilly, Megan, and Bob’s eyes.  I honestly wanted to know more of the inner workings of The Governor, so I found this third person perspective disappointing.

There’s nothing new or ground-breaking in the horror.  There is one massive swarm of zombies that is clearly supposed to be terrifying, but it did nothing for me.  Maybe I’m just getting acclimated to this world, but neither the characters nor the level of horror increased the intensity enough for me.

That said, even though I didn’t enjoy which characters were focused on or how the plot was constructed, we do learn more about the world of Woodbury, and the post-apocalyptic world in general.  We learn how and why the gladiator ring started, how The Governor won people over, and more about how the weather impacted the survivors on that particular winter.  Long-time fans will find value in reading this book, even though it is by no means a thrilling or thought-provoking entry in the series.  Skim it quickly to get the important bits and move on.  For that reason, I would recommend the print over the audio, in spite of Berman’s talent as a narrator.  He was better than the book he was given.

3 out of 5 stars

Source:  Audible

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Previous Books in Series
The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor, review

Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Deeper than the Dead by Tami Hoag (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Images of fall leaves with the title of the book written over them.Summary:
When four children stumble upon the displayed body of a dead woman, they and their teacher are pulled into the investigation.  But when this murder is connected to others, that makes it a potential serial killer, and that means the FBI wants to get involved. Quietly.  Of course, it’s only 1985, the edge of modern forensics, so they must pursue their murderer with a combination of science and old-fashioned detective work.

Review:
I wish I could remember how this thriller made it into my TBR Pile.  It’s a unique entry into the serial killer/forensics sector of the genre due to the time period Hoag chose to set it in.  She states in her author’s introduction that she wanted to set her thriller in the 80s due to a personal nostalgia for the time but only after starting her research did she realize what an important time period it was for forensics.  I think it’s yet another example of an author following her interests and getting a unique work out of it.

The plot alternates perspectives between the four children, their teacher, the older FBI agent on the case, and the killer (without revealing who the killer is), all in the third person.  The changing perspectives help keep the plot complex and moving, as well as give us multiple plausible theories on who the killer is.  That said.  I was still able to predict the killer, and I honestly felt the killer to be a bit stereotypical.

The serial killings themselves  are all of young women who either are currently at or have recently left the local halfway house.  The murder/torture methods are sufficiently grotesque without going over the top.  Fans of the genre will be satisfied.

The characters are a bit two-dimensional, particularly the older FBI agent, the young cop on the force, and all of the murder suspects.  I also, frankly, didn’t appreciate the fact that an expert in the field calls one of the mothers a crazy borderline.  She was presented as entirely the flat, evil representation of people with BPD that we problematically see in the media.  This is why writing two-dimensional characters can be problematic.  We only see the woman being overly dramatic and demanding.  We never see her softer or redeeming qualities.  I’d have less of a problem with this presentation of this woman with BPD in the book if it was a first person narration or a third person narration that maintained one perspective.  Then it could be argued that this is that one character’s perception of the woman.  But given that multiple perspectives are offered, presenting so many people in a two-dimensional way is rather inexcusable, and it’s irresponsible to write mental illness in this way.  I’m not saying every character with a mental illness needs to be written in a positive light, but they should be written as three-dimensional human beings, not monsters (with, perhaps, the exception of sociopathy).

This is a book, then, with an interesting idea and fairly good plot but shaky characterization.  Some people don’t mind that in their thrillers.  I admit I speed-read, eager to find out who the killer was.  But I also was bothered by the flatness of the characters.  If you think this won’t bother you, then you will probably enjoy this book.  Those with a mental illness should be warned that the representation of mental illness in the book could be upsetting or triggering.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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