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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Beacons I See--The Paranormal Gift of An Autistic Protagonist

Autistic protagonists have become more common lately.  I have read a number of such books, and have been pleased with the authenticity of the authors’ portrayals of individuals on the autistic spectrum.   I need to point out that these autistic protagonists were children or teens.  The Beacons I See by Ty Unglebower is the first novel that I’ve encountered that is written from the perspective of an autistic adult.  This is why I decided to purchase it from Amazon and review it for Bookplex.

 I did recently read a book in which an autistic child was paranormally gifted like Vanessa Martine in The Beacons I See.   It’s called The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin by Stephanie Knipper which I won through a Goodreads giveaway.  I believe that the similarity in the surnames of the central characters is coincidental.  These two books are very dissimilar in perspective and tone.  They also diverge due to the differing paranormal gifts depicted in each novel.


The cover displays the puzzling bright purple beacon that Vanessa saw hovering over a forest in all its glory.   This book deals with how that purple beacon brings Vanessa to a greater understanding of her paranormal gift.   Vanessa is very introspective.  Her thought processes are unusual, but they help her to function in the neurotypical world.  Unglebower’s portrayal of Vanessa is the greatest strength of The Beacons I See.   Since the author is autistic, readers may wonder how much of his own personality was distilled into his creation.  For the purpose of this review, I think it’s sufficient to say that Vanessa seemed very real to me.    She reminded me very much of other functioning autistic adults that I know. 

 Since I really love books dealing with art and artists, I was very interested in Vanessa's sketching activities, her artistic process and how her choice of subjects assisted her psychologically.  She drew spiritual figures from several different religious traditions employing insights from her studies of these religions.   Since I consider myself a student of all forms of spirituality, this aspect of Vanessa caused me to identify with her.

From a plot perspective, this novel may seem slow paced to readers who expect to see a great deal happening in the novels they read.   This is definitely not a thriller.   There is eventually a highly dramatic incident that brings about a resolution, but Unglebower is in no hurry to get us there.  Vanessa is on a journey and she stops to reflect on every step she takes along her path.  If you have no patience for such a novel of character, then this is not the book for you.

The editing wasn’t flawless.   I found nine copyediting issues which included missing words, incorrect words and a duplication of words in one particular case.   This wasn’t beyond tolerance, but the editing could have been better.  

I would like to close with a note about genre.   Some might want to categorize this book as contemporary fiction with a magical realist aspect.   I feel that the development of the context for Vanessa’s paranormal heritage was significant enough that I am comfortable calling The Beacons I See a rather special fantasy novel that allows us to perceive a unique viewpoint.   


Monday, July 17, 2017

Brave New Girls #2-- A YA Science Fiction Anthology Featuring Ingenious Girls

When I reviewed the science fiction/mystery crossover anthology, Love, Murder 
and Mayhem on this blog here, I particularly mentioned author Mary Fan's AI Sherlock story and the Brave New Girls anthologies which she co-edits with author Paige Daniels.  Mary Fan noticed my review and sent me an ARC of Brave New Girls # 2 in return for this honest review.

Let me say that I was impressed by the series concept which is to encourage girls to study the sciences and enter scientific professions.  The proceeds from this anthology go to the scholarship fund of the Society of Women Engineers.  Although I am not myself a scientist, I would like to see a world where more girls consider these fields.  I would also like to see an end to discrimination against woman scientists.   See my review of The Other Einstein here for my remarks about discrimination against women in the professions.  This anthology is probably aimed at girls. Yet it seems to me that unless boys also read anthologies like this one, the situation is unlikely to change.


My normal disclaimer when I review anthologies is that I usually only like a few stories.   That disclaimer does apply here, but what is unusual is that I absolutely loved two of these stories.  So I'll devote a paragraph to each.

My favorite was "Circus in the Sky" by Lisa Toohey.  It combines two subjects  which are perennial themes in my reading--circuses and animal welfare.   Let me be clear that I don't enjoy circuses that imprison animals in order to entertain humans.  The circus acts that attract my admiration exhibit human grace, skill and power. It's trapeze artists and acrobats that thrill me.  Like Kaleigh, the protagonist of "Circus in the Sky", I believe animals belong in their natural habitats.    This story is different from many others in this anthology.  Kaleigh isn't an inventor or a tinkerer, but she does have scientific ambitions.  Her scientific progenitor is a heroine of mine, Jane Goodall.   Kaleigh is also very courageous.  She stands up for an animal who has no other advocate within the circus that employs her.   I was delighted to meet someone like her within the pages of a book.  A novel dealing with Kaleigh's adventures in her future career could be amazing.

Another story that really wowed me was "Hack" by Evangeline Jennings.  This story centers on the strong bond between two female protagonists in a desperate situation aboard a space ship where essential ship functions are failing.   It's emotionally intense and very suspenseful.   I appreciated the fact that the most knowledgeable of the pair of protagonists is disabled.   There is a political substrate that readers may find topical.   Jennings is much more explicit about her politics in her biographical note.

There were other stories that stood out. The dystopian "Our Very Respected and Always Benevolent Leader" was memorable because the non-deaf central characters communicated by hand signing.  I was also struck by the ideology behind their communication choice. "In A Whole New Light" was a contemporary tale that dealt with bullying.  That description sounds pedestrian, but it raised an ethical question for me.   When I did research in my graduate program, I had to obtain consent from all participants.   Is it ethical to experiment on someone without his knowledge if the result achieves a worthwhile goal?  I thought this was a thought provoking issue. Finally,  "Let Androids Eat Cake" got my attention by being the first steampunk story I'd read that took place during the French Revolution.

There were a few stories that I considered flawed.  A story with a great deal of potential required more research in an area where I am no expert, but knew enough to spot inaccurate terminology.  The same story also made a highly misleading statement about a legal issue.  I spotted that because I had taken a course dealing with international law. Another story disappointed me because there appeared to have been no attempt at diplomacy in a conflict between two cities.   Then there was a story that ended with an AI making what seemed to be a rather stupid decision that didn't take into consideration the likely motivations of the villains.  Worse yet, the protagonist didn't question the AI's advice.   It seemed to me that the author might have lost track of the narrative in that particular case.

Despite the stories to which I referred in the paragraph above, I thought there was enough worthwhile content in Brave New Girls #2 to recommend it to teens in search of science fiction adventure starring girls using science to achieve their goals.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Stargazer's Embassy

One of my Goodreads friends was reading a science fiction novel called The Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman.   I read the description and thought it had potential.  So I requested it on Net Galley and received a digital review copy for free via the publisher.  I soon had a request to review it from a publicist who gave me a deadline when I agreed.   That's why this Net Galley is getting such a quick turnaround.


I want to make it clear that the focus of this novel, alien abductions, is normally a theme that doesn't interest me.   I don't believe they happen in the real world and I wouldn't have thought that alien abductions could make a good basis for a science fiction novel.  It's a big universe out there.  It's hard for me to imagine why spacefaring aliens would be interested in us.  The answers that the literature on alien abduction provide seem very unpersuasive and confirm for me that people who claim to be abductees must be very desperate for attention. Yet I wondered if Campbell Award winner Eleanor Lerman had done some fresh thinking on this topic.

Most science fiction writers start by developing their concept.   Lerman starts by developing her characters.   I have to admit that I initially found  protagonist Julia Glazer tiresome and unengaging.    I might well have abandoned  the book fairly early if I hadn't agreed to review it.  Yet over the course of the narrative Julia became more interesting and the decision she made at the end of the book was totally unexpected.

There were also some wonderful characters who we get to meet along the way.  There's a compassionate psychiatrist who is studying those who claim to be abductees even though he's been professionally ostracized for trying to help them.  There's the tatoo artist who has nothing but scorn for the aliens' tattoos.  Then there's also a paranormal photographer who produces images from people's minds.  It seemed to me that Julia grew as a character as a result of her relationships with these people.

I read a review of this book on Goodreads that complained about the originality of the aliens.   While it's true that there have been aliens who have wanted the same as these aliens, I believe that the nature of this book's aliens is original.  Toward the end of this book, I considered Lerman's concept flawed.  Yet it eventually occurred to me that she was portraying the aliens as being mistaken.   Readers who research the star pattern that they were using to guide them will realize why they weren't finding what they wanted.   A species can be very advanced and still be in error about how to attain their goals.

 These aliens thought of humans as not having enough common ground with them, but there was a commonality of aspiration.   The aliens were looking for something that many human religions are based on.  I think it was that shared hunger  that caused Julia to make her impulsive decision at the end of this novel.

I confess that I thought Julia was as mistaken as the aliens had been. My reaction when I finished the book was a sarcastic "Good luck with that." Other readers may feel more connected to Julia than I did, and have a totally different perception of this book.





The Fearless Benjamin Lay: "Let Your Lives Speak"

To honor July 4th I am reviewing a biography of a true American original whose life expands our knowledge of the history of American abolitionism, Quakerism and alternative lifestyles.  Benjamin Lay was a very independent man who should be celebrated while we celebrate American independence. "Let your lives speak" is an old Quaker motto.  Lay certainly did that with his own life.  I received an ARC of The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for this review.


I became interested in Quakers and abolitionism after reading Tracy Chevalier's novel The Last Runaway which I reviewed here.  The protagonist is a 19th century English Quaker who learned that American Quakers were reluctant to be public about their support of abolitionism or lend clandestine support to the Underground Railroad which was difficult and very risky.  I went on to read a historical study that was an important source for Chevalier called  Slavery and the Meetinghouse by Ryan P. Jordan dealing extensively with the challenges of abolitionism for 19th century Quakers.  I reviewed Jordan's book on this blog here .

 From Jordan I learned that there were two types of abolitionists.  There were gradualists who were fearful of the consequences of the abolition of slavery and wanted it to be abolished gradually.  Then there were the immediatists who we would consider the real abolitionists.  They thought that the evils of slavery had existed long enough and that it should be abolished immediately.   Jordan states that the first Quaker to propose the immediate abolition of slavery was an English Quaker named  Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824.  Jordan was wrong about that. I've only recently discovered the truth from reading the book that is the subject of this review.   The first Quaker to propose immediate abolition of slavery was  Benjamin Lay, and he made this radical proposal in colonial Pennsylvania in 1738.

Benjamin Lay's 1738 anti-slavery book, All Slavekeepers Who Keep The Innocent in Bondage, Apostates was printed by Benjamin Franklin.   His first biographer, Benjamin Rush, was another Pennsylvania Founding Father and a prominent physician.   So Lay wasn't exactly obscure in his day.   Why is he forgotten now?  Marcus Rediker gives several reasons.   First, he used tactics intended to shock.  Rediker calls this sort of thing "guerilla theater", but it didn't make Lay popular among the Quaker leadership.   They also looked down on him because of his small stature, his working class background and his lack of formal education.   He didn't have the moderation and respectability of later Quaker abolitionists who were considered more acceptable.

Lay was also a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate.  He pioneered the boycott strategy by boycotting all products produced by slaves.  He not only grew his own food, but made his own clothing woven from plant products and walked everywhere because he was opposed to the exploitation of horses. He treated his wife, Sarah, as an equal.  So he had a very modern sensibility, and could be considered very much ahead of his time.   

Rediker discusses the roots of Lay's ideas in the English radicals of the 17th century and the ancient Greek philosophers such as Diogenes and Pythagoras. Rediker credits Lay with being responsible for Quaker Meetings condemning the slave trade (though not yet slave ownership) within his lifetime.   He also distributed his anti-slavery tract widely among younger Quakers which can be presumed to have had influence on them.   An engraving of a portrait of Benjamin Lay, which was reproduced in Benjamin Rush's Lay biography, was hanging in the homes of many early 19th century abolitionists.   So he definitely had an impact.

I feel that I owe a debt to Rediker for introducing me to Benjamin Lay whose radicalism and lifestyle can be appreciated by 21st century progressives.




Saturday, July 1, 2017

American Street: A Haitian Immigrant in Detroit

 I finished reading the YA first novel,  American Street by Ibi Zoboi on June 27th and was feeling very tired after work.  I was thinking about reviewing the book, but considered that the time it would take to review it was prohibitive.  It would mean that the non-fiction that I started reading after American Street couldn't possibly be finished by the end of June.  I didn't want the non-fiction book to step on a July deadline that I have for a science fiction review.   I slept on the decision and realized that it wasn't an either/or issue.  I obtained American Street from the library.  I have no deadline for reviewing it. I  could write and post this review more gradually and still get that last book of June read.  


In my last review, I mentioned Detroit as a city to which  I have no personal connection.  This is still true, but one of the reasons why I like to read about places I've never been is that it gives me a glimpse into the lives of the people who live there and increases my understanding of the world.  Are the lives of African Americans in Detroit so different from those of African Americans in  Oakland, a city where I have lived in an African American neighborhood?     There are numerous concerns that the two communities share in common.  I recognized shared assumptions which are based in similarities of experience.

The priorities of Fabiola Toussaint, the Haitian raised teen protagonist of American Street, are radically different from those of her American raised cousins.   I appreciated the values of the eldest cousin, Chantal, who was focused on her studies, but all the cousins were getting pulled into the violent criminal world that dominated their school and neighborhood.  Fabiola's first priority was on freeing her mother from detention by immigration authorities.  Fabiola hadn't been detained because she was born in the United States even though her Haitian mother had taken her back to Haiti.   Now Fabiola and her mother had come back to America , but her mother was imprisoned by ICE for having overstayed her visa when she gave birth to Fabiola.  I sympathized with Fabiola's situation, but I was sure that there was tragedy in her future.  It turned out that I wasn't wrong, but it wasn't the sort of tragedy that I expected.

Fabiola's mother had been a Mambo in Haiti.  A Mambo is a Voodoo priestess.   Fabiola had learned a great deal about the Loa, who are the spirits of Voodoo.   This is an aspect of American Street that interested me very much.   From my own limited study of Voodoo, I learned that there are Rada spirits who deal with healing and compassion.  There are also Petro  spirits who deal with fiery emotions.  Since fire is difficult to control, the Petro spirits are often considered evil.  Inaccurate portrayals of Petro spirits dominate the more sensational books about Voodoo.  In Haitian Creole, which is Fabiola's first language, Petro is Petwo. Petwo is the name Fabiola uses for the spirits in her life.   It disappointed me that there was no mention of Rada in American Street.   The characters in this novel could definitely have benefited from the Rada side of Voodoo.  Yet I loved the Voodoo content.   Fabiola's visions and encounters with Loa were inspirational.

The immigration issue and the troubled relationship with the police in an African American community makes American Street a very topical novel while the Voodoo lends it spirituality.   I found this book an intense reading experience that I recommend.