Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (CBR13 #52 – Cannonball!)

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Books have answers, and that is one of the reasons I love them. The past few years I’ve spent some time digging into me, and how I work, and how much of what I have presented to the outside world was authentic, and how much was what I had been expected to do.

I had some knowledge of aces and asexuality before reading this particularly as one of my friends is ace and has been out for at least the decade I’ve known her, probably longer. But while I had functioning experience with at least part of the ace spectrum I had on some of the blinders lots of people have about it, since my friend is on the sex aversed end of the spectrum. My brain simply hadn’t made room for there being more to the spectrum, and so much more nuance to the whole thing.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading Queer: A Graphic History earlier this year is how much of how we all behave in society is based in compulsive sexuality, specifically compulsive heterosexuality. Chen digs into this concept in a big way in Ace. Chen, as Barker did, lays things out it in a way where it becomes apparent how foundational the assumption that there is a baseline desire for sex that is the same for everyone.  Further, how ubiquitous the idea that if you don’t share the same levels of desire either you haven’t found the “right’ scenario or are repressed (and what a death nell to self-value that term can be). The result is that if one doesn’t have the same drive for sex, there must be something wrong or defective with the person. This thinking is incredibly harmful on so many levels, and at least for me has led to letting others assume that my desires and needs are what they expect, and not necessarily what they are, let other aspects of my personality do the speaking. 

Do I have fewer questions now than I did before? I’m not sure, but I have new ones, different things I need to ponder, more time to spend deciding which descriptors fit me best – a path I’ve already been on the past few years. The more I learn about myself and the human experience the more I learn that it is not, really, as universal as we were led to believe, not even close. Everyone, literally everyone, experiences it differently. And that’s a good thing.

When I was prepping to write this review, I went back to the reviews its already gotten at Cannonball, certain that I had commented on at least one of them: I had not. I think that probably speaks to how many questions I had even though so much of what I was reading in others’ reviews and experiences was ringing true. Do I think you need to be wondering about your own identity to find value in this one? Nope. I agree with Chen that by acknowledging asexuality and striving to understand it further, we will de facto have a better and more complete understanding of the spectrum of sexual identity and desire – and that’s just good for everyone.

All the Devils Are Here (CBR13 #51)

All the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #16)

Through the first fifteen books in the Inspector Gamache series there is only one book I’ve rated five stars, A Trick of the Light. It’s a doozy of a book, and it dug deep into how characters cope with trauma, addiction, and stress, and any number of other forces that would separate us from our best selves. When I finished All the Devils Are Here, the 16th book in the series, I had my first impulse to rate one of these five stars since the seventh. I’m not sure I can articulate why, but I read this not slight book over the course of three evenings, eschewing all other entertainments (and people) for it. Which while I’m a bookish introvert, is still a lot.

This is a 4.5 rounded up situation. There is a little too much neatness in the denouement of the mystery – which Penny does go back and make more complicated in her final chapter, putting additional information in the reader’s hand about what her lead character did or did not know when choosing his actions. But for each of the nearly 440 pages I was interested to see what was next, what new information lay ahead, what I would learn about characters I’ve come to hold very dear.

And that, probably, is why I loved this reading experience as much as I did. I have been deeply invested in the relationship Armand Gamache has with his family (biological and otherwise) since we were introduced to each character and their relationship dynamic with Gamache. I am particularly emotionally attached and invested in Jean Guy Beauvoir and this story, while not centering him, does meditate on where his relationship with his father-in-law is, what he has developed in his own nuclear family with Annie, and how that all impact’s Daniel Gamache’s relationship with his father and Beauvoir, and how Beauvoir has grown in the time we’ve known him.

This is a Louise Penny book, the writing is going to be very good. There’s the usual delectable food descriptions (and this book being set 99% in Paris ups the food game) but there is also great and exquisite details of Paris woven in. In the Author’s Note Penny discusses returning to Paris for research and taking the time to discover the Paris that she remembered, but also the Paris that the Gamaches would frequent, would know, and that level of commitment to finding the “right” part of Paris to portray shows through. Similarly Gamache’s godfather Stephen features prominently in this story, so too does his fortune and art collection, and all of those details are also paid the attention they are due, and that a Penny reader would expect.

As usual, I’m not really telling you very much about this book in the review. Partly because I don’t want to give away any of the ways in which Penny plots the book, but also because I’m left more with a feeling, a pleasant warmth, than I am with a particular attachment to the machinations of the plot (although the return to Three Pines at the end opens up great possibilities moving forward). If you are less interested in the Gamache family than the residents of Three Pines this one may not be for you in the same way it was for me, but I was ready this go around to have a break from Three Pines and this hit the spot, perfectly.

Vampires Never Get Old (CBR13 #50)

My Halloween read this year is this collection of new vampire tales edited by the team of Zoraida Cordova and Natalie Parker. I enjoy vampire stores because they offer so many different views onto the human condition, if you go looking for them. In Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite Cordova and Parker, along with the assembled authors, take the time to dig in and explore these angles – with postscripts by Cordova and Parker after each story.

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite

Let’s handle individual stories in groups, first up: the very good (4 stars).

Seven Night for Dying by Tessa Gratton is a great opener, exploring the choice to become the vampire and exploring a world where you need to drink a vampire’s blood for seven consecutive nights in order to turn, and what that time will afford to ponder as they contemplate eternal life. The Boys from Blood River by Rebecca Roanhorse pulled at my heartstrings, its lead character is an outcast, and following the death of his mother alone in the world. His heart cries out to not be alone, but at what cost, and with what creatures? The Boy and the Bell by Heidi Heilig is the one I wish was a longer work. Heilig is poking at so much in this 13-page story, gender identity, class warfare, power dynamics, resurrectionists, the panic surrounding being buried alive in the middle of the 19th century… I want very much to spend more time with Will and find out what his life will be. In Kind by Kayla Whaley is a deliciously dark story of revenge that has important things to say about personhood and disability rights.

The quite good (3 stars):

A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire by Samira Ahmed is the funniest of the group, taking a unique angle into a vampire introduction plan. Eat the colonizers is perhaps the best plan when it comes for finding a food source. Bestiary by Laura Ruby had great atmosphere, Ruby easily plants the reader into a perhaps not to distant future where we’ve truly broken the planet, and the mega rich are the only ones living well. We are with Jude as she navigates her new world, and we are introduced to a unique version of being turned, and what gifts and curses come with it. The House of the Black Sapphires by Dhonielle Clayton is my second Clayton short story in two books. This one focuses on a family of Eternals, descendants of enslaved Africans who were turned by white vampires and then sent firebirds by their ancestors to give them their own path. Bea has lived her immortal life tied intrinsically to her family, but must decide if independence, and the possibility of love with the Eternals sworn enemies, is worth the risk.

The they’re good but could be better for me group (2 stars):

Senior Year Sucks by Julie Murphy is a light, but pointed, take on the teenage female slayer motif and while I found it a bit thin in development, I was very glad to see the kind of lead Murphy is known to write be the focus of a family of slayers defending a town from a reform home for vampires. First Kill by Victoria Schwab explores the romantic implications of the mismatched pairing of a slayer and a vampire, but works to make the power dynamic equal. Mirrors, Windows, & Selfies by Mark Oshiro was one that I wasn’t sure I liked until I was well into it, and even then, I think I’ve landed more on appreciating it. Oshiro uses blog posts to tell the story of a child of vampires who has lived is life isolated from the world, so isolated in fact that he has never seen his own image – told that he will die if he does. But his cries out into the internet void find the right audience and the calvary comes, but can he trust it? Vampires Never Say Die by Zoraida Cordova & Natalie Parker explores a queen vampire type who befriends a human on social media, and how it all goes wrong (or right?) when that human tries to throw her friend a birthday party without realizing that she’s managed to invite an entire New York coven and politics are not civil.

Blackout (CBR13 #49)

Blackout is a novel comprised of several short stories covering five hours in the course of one night in New York as it experiences a blackout. Tiffany D. Jackson writes The Long Walk which is broken up into five acts, Nic Stone contributes Mask Off (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), Ashley Woodfolk’s Made to Fit, Dhonielle Clayton provides All the Great Love Stories… and Dust, as well as being the person who sparked the project into existence, Angie Thomas’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and the Nicola Yoon penned Seymour and Grace. (It should be noted that Nicola Yoon just made headlines this past week as part of the YA Authors NFT cluster.)

Of these authors, I’ve only personally read The Hate U Give by Thomas. While I found that work very, very good, there isn’t much in this collection that ranks at that level – but it is still definitely worth your time. I love the premise of Blackout, following six pairs as they experience the big, dramatic love stories that we don’t often get to see Black teens have in our pop culture. We get a full swath – first meetings, friends of longstanding who might be more, bitter exes forced to spend time together, and unexpected opportunities. There’s also a wide variety of identities present, we’re treated to m/m pairing as well as f/f, non-binary persons, immigrant families, single parent households, and on and on.

The book has been optioned by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company to turn it into a six part anthology and I’m quite excited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix because the entire time I was reading I was seeing it as a movie, bouncing from one interconnected group to another as they each make their way to converge at the block party.

Read Women 16: Read a Queer Love Story

Read Harder 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

Network Effect (CBR13 #48)

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5)

It has been almost three years since I last ventured into the land of Murderbot (January 2019) and while I had to wait like everyone else for Network Effect to publish, I also put it off a little while, over a year in fact. I blame Pandemic brain. Because the minute I picked this one up, I was back with Murderbot and it felt like almost no time at all since I last visited this part of fictional space. Wells has an incredibly strong authorial voice, which becomes even more evident late in the book. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing, and continues to hate humans looking at it and seeing the details of its personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit but it is getting better (more comfortable? More accepting?) at figuring out how to communicate with its humans for the best result for everyone. Usually. Although it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious just as easily as it did back in book one, All Systems Red.

This story continues Wells’ unpacking the nature of relationships and our humanity. Murderbot is actively telling us the story and since Murderbot is self-referential and sarcastic it keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace. We meet ART again (I still love it very much) and Dr. Mensah, her family, and her team are also here. Dr. Mensah continues to bring out the person in Murderbot in a way no other character does, with the exception possibly of her daughter Amena, as the story progresses. In broadest strokes the plot of this one is that Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, let’s not be crazy here. Well except maybe Ratthi.) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action. So drastic action it is, then.

Murderbot still has to act within a system that would dismantle it, if its autonomy were known. That trapped feeling of the mix of trauma, depression, and anxiety all at odds with a desire for understanding and true independence makes Murderbot an incredibly compelling character, and that’s before we get into the never-ending job of keeping its humans alive. My only real complaint is that it felt like this book took a long time to get really going. The first hundred pages (of 350) are really setting up the story, and include some flashforwards (flashbacks? The HelpMe.file excerpts are hard to describe) that are not explained until much later.  But even through that there is a lot of action happening (and a lot of emotions) (Even Murderbot will agree to that). Because – and if I had read narfna’s review earlier I would have known this going in – Network Effect is also a romance. ART and Murderbot’s relationship goes through so many of the major plot points of romance, and I say this knowing full well that we’re talking about an asexual android and bodiless A.I. It’s a beautiful arc and the main reason I’m including this book in my Read Women Task 16: a book featuring a queer love story (and there’s a lot of other queer relationships running around in this book as well).

This story shows a lot of growth, both for Murderbot and those around it. I wondered about the title of the book when I got done, thinking I knew what it was after, and a quick search told me I was correct since the titular Network Effect is a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it. Sounds about right to me.

40-Love (CBR13 #47)

40-Love (There's Something About Marysburg, #2)

I think I laugh the most whenever I read an Olivia Dade romance, her humor hits all the right notes for me. Even when I’m not expecting a laugh, Dade delivers them through her characters who are achingly self-aware, or sometimes not.

Following a meet-cute involving a runaway bikini top and the need to keep from flashing nearby children, we get the story of Tess and Lucas. Lucas, 26, a former top-level tennis pro now giving lessons at a Florida resort, fled there after the abrupt, painful end to his injury-plagued career. He’s met his match (pun very much intended) in Tess, an assistant principal in Virginia in town to celebrate her 40th birthday with her best friend on a well-earned two-week vacation while simultaneously plotting to get the principal job coming open at her school. They only have these two weeks together to figure out if this chemistry between them can survive both their age gap and outside the bubble created by their time together at the resort.

What I learned about myself during this one is that I’m not a huge fan of May-December romances, I don’t think. Or, rather, I completely identified with Tess and her reluctance to take a 26-year-old man seriously from the vantage point of someone in their late 30s (Tess turns 40 early in the book, I turn 39 in a few months). In fact, there was a ton of things I identified with in this book – early injuries ending a pursuit before its time, continual pain from injuries and the acceptance that some things are just going to have a physical cost involved, the never-ending tedium of the physical therapy cycle, growing up quick, just knowing – immediately – that someone might be your person and not wanting to deal with that, letting fear make decisions… its all there hiding just below the surface of this seemingly light vacation romance.

But this is Olivia Dade, you are going to have large feelings, laugh a lot, and enjoy pop culture references as they go by and get absolutely puled in to romance that deals with its characters emotions while simultaneously giving you a bit of escapist fun. This wasn’t the book I had initially intended to read for the Sportsball square. I don’t know why, it’s been on my to read list since last year. When I took the other book out from the library and immediately couldn’t find my footing with its tone and authorial voice, I returned it and went back through my list to see what else I had on deck, and I could have smacked myself for how obviously this one was just waiting for me, perfect and ready to go.

A Room with a View (CBR13 #46)

A Room with a View

When thinking about my White Whale pick for Bingo this year I was coming up short. Then the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads voted to read A Room with a View for October and I found my whale. Many classics are heavy reads, but I found A Room with a View to be refreshingly light on the whole with some lively characters. It’s an accessible story, funny, biting, poignant, wistful, romantic. It’s a study of (mostly) good people, who love one another as best they can, who save one another from muddles.

The plot, from Goodreads is as follows: Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiancé Cecil. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?

I love the word muddle, and it shows up throughout the novel. Mr. Emerson tells Lucy she has gotten herself into a muddle.  And it was, indeed, a muddle with all the lying she was doing near the end of the novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The conflict of the book is between open kindness and honesty, and strict adherence to manners.  But the heart of this book is the romance. George and Lucy barely know each other and are young but do grow up over the course of the book. The romance between Lucy and George is like one of the songs Lucy plays and in leaving the conventional, boring Cecil, who is upset when Lucy plays music too passionately, or any other way displays true personality, Lucy is choosing to live as she plays. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting was the observations about societal norms, especially George’s speech where he declares that while he and Cecil share some of the same flaws that he loves Lucy better, in a real way, because he wants her to have her own thoughts. A good book and a whale I’m glad to have finally taken on.

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (CBR13 #45)

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky

I picked up Thylias Moss’s Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky through a variety of reading challenge tasks (Read Harder’s read a book of nature poems, Read Women’s tasks about a book about the natural world, a collection of poetry by a black woman), book club squares (Going with The Wilds), and some internet sleuthing. While I find it difficult to review poetry, I can tell you that I agree with the book’s blurb, it is a powerful book with poems that present the black American experience with a heightened intensity. The language both brings the reader incredibly close, but also can fling you to the stratosphere, viewing from far above. There is an immediacy in the language that Moss uses that kept me engaged from poem to poem – something I struggle with as a reader. The poems themselves have conflicting elements that come together to reflect the truth Moss is interested in pursuing: that we exist within chaos. While not all poems in this collection are specifically about nature, you can see Moss illustrating the differences in experience between white Americans and black Americans, specifically what nature means to women descended from slaves versus those descended from slave owners.

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky is celebrating its 30th birthday this year as a 1991 National Poetry Series selection. The National Poetry Series is a literary awards program that sponsors the publication of five books of poetry each year, since the late 1970s. The goals of the program are to meaningfully add to the number of poetry books published each year, making possible books which might not otherwise be published. Heightening poetry’s visibility among readers, and giving American poets, of all ethnic and racial groups, gender, religion, and poetic style, access to publishing outlets not ordinarily available to them.