Monthly Archives: June 2016

“I’m not like THAT”: Thoughts on the “Drive-By Gay Phenomenon”

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We interrupt the book reviews to bring you some personal opinions and food for thought.

No matter the medium, it seems like entertainment is playing a key role in society’s acceptance of LGBT+ people. It still has a long way to go, like the rest of the world, but one can’t deny that queer characters are showing up more frequently on our screens and in our books. From Cam and Mitch on Modern Family, to Cosima and Delphine on Orphan Black, to Alec and Magnus in The Mortal Instruments book series, and Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, it looks like many writers are starting to realize that it’s possible to write gay and trans characters well and that audiences want to watch and read their stories. However, there’s also a good amount of writers, including authors, that seem to think that simply mentioning gay and trans identities is enough to count as representation or make good comic relief.

“You met someone? She’s actually a woman, right?”

“I’m not, you know, like that. I’m into women.”

“Do you think Stacy and Marcy are, you know, a thing?”

I call this the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon: suspicion is raised about a character’s sexuality or gender, but the character turns out to be straight and cis-gendered*, so the topic never comes up again.

On the one hand, I think I see what these writers are trying to do. Like everyone else, they’re becoming increasingly aware of the possibility that someone they meet, or a character they write, could be queer.  They’re trying to be sensitive to that possibility.

On the other hand, since so often these characters turn out to be exactly what we expect, straight and cis-gendered, presenting the possibility of a queer identity just ends up filling up a few lines on a page and amounting to nothing. The accusations don’t further the story or develop the characters. To me, these moments feel like the author is trying to appear open-minded without putting in the effort to actually include queer characters in their stories.

I’m not saying such questions aren’t believable. I’ve been part of plenty of hushed conversations where my friends and I wonder if someone we know is gay, but the difference is that there are times when our suspicions are confirmed. With the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon, odds are the reader already knows that the character in question is straight or they have assumed so because, let’s face it, 99% of the characters we see are straight. Other characters might be just discovering this, but it’s not a revelation that alters the story at all or develops the characters.

So why do we do this? Is it just to be amusing? To put our characters in an awkward situation for the sake of a laugh? Or is it, as I hypothesized before, so we can look more open-minded and accepting in front of our readers? Our straight readers, I mean, because most queer readers who actually want to see queer characters are not impressed by the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon.

I’m not here to tell anyone what stories to tell or what kind of characters to include. And before anyone flips out in the comments, I’m not saying to flood your stories with queer characters. Most writers are straight and most readers are straight. I get that. However, it would just be nice to have the “Is so-and-so gay?” question come up and the answer be “yes” every once in a while, if, for nothing else, the sake of variety. After all, having a character actually be gay or trans makes your writing look a lot more progressive than a bait-and-switch or a punchline.

What do you think about the “Drive-By Gay” phenomenon? Do you think writer do it just to be funny, or are they trying to look progressive? Does it actually work? Do you notice that the phenomenon shows up in certain genres than others, or have you never noticed it before? Leave a polite comment below and tell me what you think.

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This Crazy Infection-Kaylim

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Plot: 4/5       Characters: 5/5       Writing: 4/5        Entertainment:5/5        World Building:5/5   

            Despite its short length, “This Crazy Infection” is a clever, light-hearted and downright funny adventure through alien jungles, passed radioactive zombies, and into the crazy, messy and bizarre realm that is the human heart.

            When interstellar playgirl Myrha wins a poetry contest, she blasts off to the planet Lieval in search of her prize: beaches, babes and barbecue. Instead, she finds an uninhibited jungle island, reclusive guests, and an annoying hermit for a host. Alongside Lynne, a sexy android stewardess, Myrha tries to make the most of her time stuck on the planet. It works for a few days, until guests start disappearing.

            This novella had me laughing so much that I’ve gone back to reread it several times since I downloaded it. Kaylim knows full well how ridiculous the idea “zombies in space” can be and she takes full advantage of it. At the same time she knows how to make the main characters multi-facetted and interesting. Myrha seems pretty easy to read at first, but there’s actually quite a bit going on behind her cynical bad girl attitude. The same can be said for Lynne, the android stewardess. Even though she’s an artificial human, she’s a surprisingly deep thinker beyond what one would consider necessary to simply serve humans.

            The universe Kaylim has developed is also surprisingly well developed for such a short work. Not only are the main characters well rounded, Kaylim managed to created three poets, all with their own distinct histories and writing styles, and several original planets, each with their own complicated relationships to Earth. She managed to cram all of this into an e-Book that only took an hour to read, which I think is pretty impressive.

            As if all that good stuff isn’t enough, she writes the romance between Myrha and Lynne exceedingly well, even with Lynne being an android. I never thought I’d be routing for an android-human couple, but reading these two play off each other’s personalities was so enjoyable that I couldn’t help but want them to be together. They just complement each other so well and are so funny together. Romance-centered works tends to have me groaning and rolling my eyes by the third page, straight and gay romances alike, but I have to admit that Myrha and Lynne are actually pretty adorable together.

            So, if you’ve got an hour to kill, enjoy goofy sci-fi, zombies, rom-coms, or all three, head over to Amazon and give “This Crazy Infection” a try. Odds are you won’t be disappointed.  

Transfixion– J. Giambrone

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Plot: 3/5     Characters: 2/5     Writing: 2/5     Entertainment: 3/5      World Building: 4/5

“Transfixion” is a relatively easy YA science-fiction read with an interesting premise and some decent action, but a lack-luster protagonist and unexceptional writing stop it from being incredible.

Kaylee’s life is thrown into chaos when an unknown force takes control of her city’s TV broadcast system and turns its citizens into hypnotized soldiers. Alone and suddenly unable to speak, Kaylee must figure out how to survive in this new world, find her father, and help bring peace back to the world.

One thing I love about YA sci-fi is how imaginative it can be and “Transfixion” is no exception. Since binge-watching Netflix has become a national past time, the “take-over-the-air-waves” scenario is the perfect balance of far-fetched and believable to suck readers in. It definitely sucked me in. I wanted to know how the characters were going to stop a force that they can’t really touch or pin down and the curiosity held me until the end of the book.

Unfortunately, Kaylee was my guide on the journey. I don’t think she’s a bad character per say, she’s just not interesting enough to be the protagonist. For the first half of the book she has the strangest set of priorities I’ve ever seen in a post-apocalypse book, which was off putting. Not only that, but she’s incredibly disengaged with the world around her. By the time she comes around, there’s not enough book left to make her anything more than a Katniss Everdeen-Tris Prior wannabe. If a key component of a story is going to be survival, the protagonist needs to be interested in surviving most, if not the entire course of the book, not just the second half. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the focus should have been on one of the boys, either Lucas or Dustin. Some of her issues, however, might have been due to the writing.

Usually, I give writers a lot of slack when it comes to mechanics. If the story and characters are strong I let the actual writing slide, but the characters were so weak and the narration so sloppy that I was constantly being distracted. I was constantly being told what was going on rather than being shown. Humans rely on a lot of avenues to communicate what they’re thinking and feeling and there are a plethora of ways to describe settings and action, but I don’t think Giambrone really took full advantage of that. Telling us everything was just easier. In the end, that really hurt what could have been a phenomenal book.

All and all, I think “Transfixion” could have been great if Giambrone had a beta-reader or two look at it. Maybe then Kaylee and the writing would have been stronger. The premise really lends itself to the genre and I’m quite disappointed it didn’t live up to its potential. However, I’m still glad I gave it a try, so if you like to focus on ideas rather than characters and you don’t pay much attention to writing, “Transfixion” just might be your next YA sci-fi fix.

Rarity from the Hollow- Robert Eggleton (Revised)

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Plot: 4/5      Characters:  4/5      Writing: 5/5      Entertainment: 5/5      World Building: 5/5

Rarity

“Rarity from the Hollow” is a daring, unique, and fascinating read that attempts to focus on serious real-world issues through a zany sci-fi adventure. It’s written well enough to be called literary fiction and creative enough to grab the intention of seasoned and new speculative fiction fans alike.

Lacy Dawn lives in a small town called The Hollow in West Virginia where life is bleak. Abused at home and alone after her best friend is killed by her father, Lacy Dawn’s one comfort comes from Dotcom, an ancient android sent to earth thousands of years ago. With Dotcom’s help, Lacy Dawn forms a plan to heal her family and give them a brighter future. In exchange, Dotcom wants her to save the world.   

I can’t praise Robert Eggleton enough. I read an earlier edition of “Rarity” about a year ago. While it had it’s problems, I thought it was still great. Eggleton took all that great stuff, added some more, tweaked the weak areas, and created something truly fantastic.   

The writing is still brilliant. It feels timeless, classic and mature in a way that would ensure its longevity if more people knew about it. I would even say it could be read in a college setting both for the craft itself and its unique brand of storytelling. The premise is brilliant and brought a distinctive approach to the adult-fairytale/modern-retelling sub-genre, and the story balances.

“Rarity” reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” mixed with Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and Eggleton has convinced me that such radically different story-telling styles can not only co-exist in a single book, but can actually play off each other brilliantly if balanced correctly. The believable struggle and darkness of the Hollow breaks your heart while the outlandish solutions to Lacy Dawn’s problems feel not only believable (by some stroke of genius on Eggleton’s part), but deserved and bright. In addition to being an expertly crafted story, “Rarity” did something that most pop fiction doesn’t usually do:

It made me ask questions, both as a a writer and a reader.

I’ve never forgotten the questions I pondered when first reading “Rarity” and I greatly appreciated seeing them still present in this updated version. If anything, the updates made me explore the questions more. What literary and plot elements work when discussing difficult topics in science-fiction? What elements don’t? Why is that? What do we expect from protagonists in bad situations, especially children? Are those expectations fair? Are there limits on who gets redemption arcs? What does that mean for how we view unkind, even abusive, people in real life? What really makes a fairy tale “adult?” Is it merely facing darker, grittier events, or is it the themes behind them? The fact that I was constantly questioning myself as both a consumer and producer of fiction as I read is what really makes me want to suggest this book.

If you like challenging books, questions, and a lot of zaniness, “Rarity from the Hollow” is definitely worth a read. Also, the author dedicates his proceeds to the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, so even you end up not liking the book itself, it would still be a worthwhile purchase.

TRIGGER WARNING: As much as I encourage others to read this book, the depictions of spousal and child abuse could potentially bring up potentially harmful memories and feelings for some people. Reader’s discretion is advised.

 

 

Heart of Earth—Mark Laporta

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Plot:4/5     Characters: 5/5     Writing: 5/5     Entertainment: 5/5     World Building: 4/5

“Heart of Earth” is a funny, charming, and down-right dorky tale that blends sci-fi and YA together seamlessly. It’s the kind of book I ate up like candy through middle and high school, before the days of brooding paranormal romances, and it reminded me how much fun YA could be.

Seventeen-year-old Ixdahan Daherek is exiled for selling top-secret information back on his Homeworld, because what’s worse punishment than going through high school on Earth? As if walking on two feet and understand human teenagers isn’t hard enough, Daherek becomes Earth’s first line of defense when the information he sold threatens the planet he now inhibits. Can Daherek adapt to Earth in time to save it with the help of his human friends, or will his crime destroy everything he’s beginning to care about? Since the characters are charming and the writing is exquisite, I highly recommend you read and find out.

Deherek is brilliantly written. He’s bizarre enough to be a convincing extra-terrestrial, but his struggle to become human makes him likeable. He starts out as an octopus-like creature whose culture and technology is millions of years more advanced than ours, so his struggle to adapt to Earth is genuine and provides great character development since he has to humble himself immensely. It’s also hilarious to watch this once proud, hyper-intelligent being trip over himself as he learns how to do everything from walk, to understand colloquialisms, to ask his friends over for lunch.

His human friend, Lena, is also a joy to read. In a world of cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic heroines and girls that “aren’t like other girls” it was nice to encounter a teenaged girl that was just a teenaged girl. On top of the craziness that Deherek brings into her life, she deals with the grief of losing her mother, her dad remarrying, figuring out where to go to college, and her growing crush on Deherek along-side her less-than-stellar self-esteem. Lena deals with her every-day problems with a very realistic sense of frustration as well as admirable strength and courage. Very often it feels like female sci-fi characters are written either as trope-inspired props or static butt-kicking machines trying to prove how “strong” they are, so Lena’s believability and genuine nature was refreshing.

I have to comment on the chemistry between these two, because it’s something so small, but makes a huge impact on the book for the better. The focus of their relationship is friendship rather than romance, which is really refreshing for a YA novel. Their bond develops at a natural pace and what little romance does develops is downplayed for the more important plot points, like saving the world for example. All of it is done in some of the best third person narration I’ve seen in quite some time.

All you writers out there, indie or not, please, please, PLEASE, take a look at this book. Even if you don’t like YA or sci-fi, the use of third-person narration in this book makes it worth it. Laporta knows exactly when to allow the narration to go cold (back up and simply tell the story) and when to make it scalding hot (get into the characters head and explore their thoughts and feelings). Not only that, but the hot narration changes depending on the character. It’s easy to tell Deherek’s thoughts apart from Lena’s and other characters. That’s something I don’t see often, but I wish I did. It was really refreshing to get into multiple character’s heads while still pivoting to different settings depending on what I, as the reader, needed to know. We need more storytellers like Laporta out there, even if his resolutions are a little too goofy.

While I love this book’s light-hearted nature and humor, I felt like those two things were too strong in the book’s resolution. The way the conflict resolved felt like it was written for an audience younger than YA. It reminded me more of “Goosbumps” or a Disney Channel Original Movie rather than something written for teenagers. It didn’t necessarily have to be gritty or dark, but it would have been nice to see something as big as saving the Earth handled with a bit more maturity.

However, given that the resolution is only one part in otherwise expertly written novel with great characters, I would still say that “The Heart of Earth” is worth a read and a few laughs.