Autistic Book Party, Episode 67: The Book Eaters

Cover of "The Book Eaters" by Sunyi Dean. The cover includes a silhouette of a woman, child, and house, all made of paper with indistinct lines of writing.

Today’s Book: “The Book Eaters” by Sunyi Dean

The Plot: Devon Fairweather is a book eater – part of a secretive family of magical creatures who take their sustenance from books. After being forced into marriage twice, Devon goes on the run with her young son, Cai – who eats, not books, but human minds.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

“The Book Eaters” is a grim, suspenseful thriller. To be honest, I don’t think its early marketing is doing it any favors. The idea of a book eater at first appears nostalgic – (“You and I know the distinct joy of devouring an incredible read,” says the back cover copy on my ARC) – but the picture that Dean paints is anything but. Like some other familiar families of magical creatures from urban fantasy, the book eaters live separately from human society, on large estates controlled by patriarchs. There are few women, and the patriarchs are very concerned with how to continue their line without inbreeding. As a result, book eater women like Devon are kept under strict control: cosseted, fed a diet of fairy tales, and given no choice at all in their marriages, childbearing, or even their ability to stay with their children after birth.

Naturally, the plot revolves around Devon’s attempts to escape her family, but these attempts are complicated – especially by Cai, whose abilities are genuinely horrific. He can’t survive without either eating human minds – essentially destroying the humans in the process – or taking a drug called Redemption that only certain book eater families possess. Devon and Cai are in dire straits. Dean uses those straits to create a twisty thriller in which more layers of trickery are revealed at every step, as conflict erupts between the book eater families and Devon attempts to play every side to survive. Like many survivors, she is resourceful and ruthless – and devoted, on a level that surpasses rationality or morality, to her son.

There’s a point to why most of the book eaters are sustained by books, specifically. As Devon complains to another character at one point:

“We lack imagination,” Devon said, relentless. “Even if we used Dictaphones and scribes, we’d never be able to write books the way humans can. We struggle to innovate, are barely able to adapt, and end up stuck in our traditions. Just eating the same books generation after generation, thinking along the same rigid lines… Our childhood books always ended in marriage and children. Women are taught not to envision life beyond those bounds, and men are taught to enforce those bounds… I could not imagine a better or different future, Hes, and because I could not imagine it, I assumed it didn’t exist.”

This isn’t a book about the joy of reading. It’s a book about the way what we read can limit us, the potential that books possess both to expand the mind and to constrain it. It’s also a meditation on motherhood and monstrousness. If you want a sharply intelligent, unflinching, at times horrifying tale of what a mother will do for her survival and that of her dangerous child, this one’s for you.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

The House and the Body

I’ve been trying to talk more about the idea of a house being alive in its own right, but what I’ve actually been thinking about lately is a house as a metaphor for the body. This is something more than one person has mentioned to me when I talk about my feelings about the house. I get territorial about who goes in the house the way I get territorial about who gets close to my body. I feel ashamed of problems or messes in the house the way I feel ashamed if something in my body doesn’t match what I think it should be (and this is not to say that body shame is okay, just that I’m still at a stage of development where I feel it a lot).

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 66: Love/Hate

Today’s Book: “Love/Hate” by L.C. Mawson

The Plot: An autistic teenager is recruited to a superhero team where everyone’s powers are based on emotion. Her power is Love – but she has a serious crush on another superhero her age, whose power is Hate. Since they are opposites, if they get together, they risk cancelling each other’s powers out. Can they make it work? And can they defend their city from monsters?

Autistic Character(s): Claire, the main character; as well as several minor characters, and the author.

This is just an adorable book. Maybe that is a condescending adjective? But it is the most accurate one for my feelings about what I just read. It’s fluffy and frothy and sweet, in spite of the level of violence and danger that can be expected in a superhero story. Love and Hate are both adorable. Their teammates are adorable. I don’t know what to say.

In terms of autism representation, Claire is a well-drawn character; her autistic traits inform the story through many little details – from her stimming and sensory reactions, to her attitude to schoolwork that doesn’t tie in to her interests, to her small worries about how her words are being interpreted in a conversation, to the way she responds mentally and verbally when overwhelmed. These details are constantly present without ever overwhelming the narrative.

One of the most interesting character details in the story has to do with the relationship between a superhero’s personality and their powers. A hero has to actually feel the appropriate emotion in order for their powers to work, and for some of them, this proves a challenge. Claire is selected for the role of Love through a process that she doesn’t control, and she struggles to believe she is the right person for the job. This might become tiresome quickly if her reason for struggling was her autism, but Mawson takes a different tack. Claire is an orphan, with no memories of her family and no other particularly close relationships, and she doesn’t think of herself as being especially good at giving or receiving love. It takes time for her to get a sense of how suited she really is for the role.

Although Claire’s romantic tension with Hate is a big part of the book, her discovery of her powers doesn’t revolve only around the romance arc. Instead her moments of greatest power come when she is trying to protect people she cares about, including Hate but also many other friends and people on her team. Claire’s capacity for fierce protectiveness, and for empathy in unexpected directions – even towards some of the monsters she’s fighting! – really comes through on the page. It’s a lot of fun to watch an autistic character discover these capacities within herself, and it’s even more fun because autism isn’t explicitly presented as a major obstacle to this process. It’s simply another part of Claire, and another one of many reasons why her way of embracing Love’s role won’t necessarily look the way she expects it to.

Nor is Claire the only one whose way of fitting her role is unexpected. The previous Love on the team, who died shortly before Claire arrived, was an abuse survivor who took a long time to accept that there was anything good or loving about her. Serenity is still grieving the loss of the previous Love, and has to constantly fight to access the calm that usually powers her. Loneliness, most amusingly, is an incredibly hot girl, and Claire struggles to understand how she could ever feel lonely – until Loneliness explains that she is autistic, too.

Mawson also has a fun, breezy way of dealing with the people whose powers involve a more difficult emotion, without demonizing them for having it:

Hate let out a bark of laughter. “I swear, I don’t brood that much. Just enough to keep my power level up.”

“Your power level?”

“Yeah. I am the literal embodiment of Hate, so my power works better when I hate stuff.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “When I was younger, I used myself as a target a lot. Then Empathy practically pleaded with me to stop a couple of years ago. Now I just fixate on small annoyances. Currently, I hate the local burger place for not selling mozzarella sticks all of the time.”

Did I mention Hate is adorable? Hate is adorable. She is Korean and has ADHD and paints and wears a leather jacket. I would love to see more autistic-ADHD relationships in fiction and I really did root for her and Claire the whole way through.

Anyway, this book is very non-neurotypical and this book is really fun. If you want some cute, sweet, sapphic YA superheroes in your life, you should check it out.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 65 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

David Hartley, “The Guest Book” (The Drabble, September 2019)

[Autistic author] An ominous bit of microfiction about a host and their guests. The way that the host lures the guests in, through an elaborate charade, strikes me as something an autistic author with experience masking is particularly well-positioned to write about. [Recommended-2]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “I Will Teach You Magic” (Cossmass Infinities, Issue 4, January 2021)

[Autistic author] I love this piece, which is about magic as a metaphor for disability accommodations but also about imagining what would happen in a world where magic could be used that way. The sharp edges and humiliations of the systems that are meant to be helpful come across clearly – the need to prove the author is really disabled enough, the need to prove they’re only using the exact correct socially-approved magic for their condition, the way people look down on them thinking that using magic means they “have it easy.” But where the story really shines is in showing how both the narrator and the younger person they are addressing find their own ways of using the magic, their own joys and comforts, regardless of what the system says. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “All the Trees That Have Perished Alongside My Childhood” (The Deadlands, Issue 4, August 2021)

[Autistic author] An elegy for vanished trees and gardens which effortlessly shifts between the personal and the political. The narrator is someone who has fled Hungary because of its increasingly corrupt, oppressive government, and the poem examines the plant life that surrounded them once from multiple angles. The plants had personal, emotional importance for them, but the tragedy of their removal isn’t just about that – it’s one more sign of the government paving things over on every level, erasing certain things and people for its own convenience, including eventually the narrator’s ability to live there or to honor the missing trees as they feel they should. A sad, haunting read. [Recommended-2]

*

Ember Randall, “On the Tip of Her Tongue” (Cast of Wonders #486, October 2021)

A story about a non-speaking autistic girl named Aquila who uses magical AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) in her job taking care of sentient magical books, supervised by a caring bookwyrm and a very ableist, uncaring AI. When a power shortage knocks her preferred AAC device out of operation during an emergency, she has to scramble to cope. I have a few quibbles with this story (for instance, if the bookwyrm can talk but not pick books up, and Aquila can pick books up but can’t talk, why not have them work together more closely?) but in the main, it is a lovely story that shows tons of empathy for Aquila and her strengths, needs, and intelligence. I particularly like that it’s Aquila’s ability to care for the books and help them – even for harmful-seeming books that have been the cause of all the trouble – that resolves things in the end. [Recommended-1]

*

Rebecca Campbell, “The Language Birds Speak” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

I’m kind of flailing trying to figure out how to express what I feel about this story, which is probably appropriate given the subject matter. It’s a story about a mother named Gracie and her very young son Alex, both of whom have expressive language issues but also find themselves speaking small bits of a mysterious language, written as “[]”, which allows them to convey their sensory and emotional experience directly and even control the world around them. Naturally, a group of scientists become interested; naturally, the scientists are shady as fuck, and Gracie has to figure out how to deal with that.

The word “autism” never appears in this story, but it’s shown with so many details and talked around with such deliberate care, in a story which is overall meticulous about having done its psychological research and citing its sources, that I fully believe autism is in there on purpose. Gracie’s autistic traits manifest not only as an expressive language difficulty, which is written very believably and with great care, but as anxiety, sensory overwhelm, hyperempathy, and a full range of plausible autistic traits; what’s more, she works around and tries to live with those traits in ways that are very familiar to me, including masking, rehearsing conversations, and relying on a more expressive partner. The elision of autism, as a specific, nameable word, is made impossible to ignore with lines like these:

“I wasn’t ever diagnosed.” she began. “I’ve been through a bunch of. You know. Sensory stuff. Anxiety. No diagnosis. But I always wondered if.”

Normally I like autism stories to come out and say the word to avoid ambiguity, but in a story like this – where the main characters have something going on that presents as a form of autism, but is also mystical and fantastical in a whole other way; and where there’s such emphasis on the limits of normal, verbal language as opposed to direct transmission of experience – it feels like the negative space created by not naming it may have been exactly the right call.

Anyway. Everything in this story is really well drawn, from Gracie’s mix of neurodivergent kinship with and concern for her son, to the husband who’s supportive but doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, to the way sensory overload and overwhelmed reactions are handled, to the yearning for a way to fully express oneself, to the evil doctors themselves – who start out with an easy charm that makes Gracie feel at home with them, and who slowly, steadily reveal themselves to be worse and worse and worse. (As a cognitive scientist I really appreciated all the little references to real psychology, including horribly unethical parts of psychology’s history; despite its fanciful premise this really does feel like a work of hard science fiction, in which psychology is the science in question.) It gets scary in places, but it’s a beautiful story and well worth the ride. [Recommended-1]

*

Will McIntosh, “Mom Heart” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

A widower tries to console his grieving children, one of whom is autistic, by pretending that their mother’s soul inhabits a household robot. This is an interesting story that raises questions about appropriate responses to grief and the ethics of well-intentioned lies. The narrator in this story clearly cares about his autistic daughter, Karina, but he lacks the connection with her that her mother had, and many of his attempts at help early in the story – nagging her into hugs she doesn’t want, physically forcing her into eye contact – feel misguided at best.

It’s good that by the end of the story, the narrator realizes that he can connect to Karina through imagination and play – and that he actually had this ability all along. But, given the tendency of autistic people to be particularly intolerant of lies, I really wonder how Karina is going to feel about these events when she looks back on them later in life. That – along with the cluelessness about an autistic child’s specific needs, the portrayal of understandably concerned teachers as the enemy, and the general trope of a mediocre dad who is treated as the story’s hero for eventually getting some of his shit together – leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

*

Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Epicenter” (Hexagon, Issue 7 – Winter 2021)

[Autistic author] This is a fun, breezy story in which Val, a self-described “crypto-seismologist,” helps get to the bottom of a series of earthquakes which she believes might be caused by a Mongolian death worm. I talk sometimes about how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in media, rather than existing solely as a male fantasy, can be a portrait of a particular kind of non-neurotypical woman. Although Val’s neurotype isn’t mentioned at all, she’s a really fun example of that type – passionate about her unusual interests, unflaggingly enthusiastic, dressing and acting as she pleases even when others don’t know what to make of her. The story draws a good balance between showing the trouble Val’s traits can get her into, the humor that she unintentionally causes, and the doubts she has about herself, while also keeping her the hero of the story and allowing her unusual skills to prove genuinely useful for saving the day. [Recommended-1]

Firsts of the Year

I love calendars, and I love holidays. There’s something about breaking up time into repeating patterns that appeals to my sense of order. Back when I went to church I loved the liturgical calendar, with each season having a different spiritual focus. When I’ve gone through phases of being curious about paganism, the Wheel of the Year has been one of the ideas that appealed to me most, because it’s sort of the same. When time is separated into units like years or months or seasons then you can think of it differently; you can reflect about what happened in a unit, like it’s a chapter in a story, instead of just a conglomeration of days with different things happening in them.

(Read the full post on Substack)

My Favorite Stories and Poems of 2021

(Apologies for the slight delay in posting! I have been having a time.)

Happy Solstice! It’s that time of year when we’re all making wrap-up posts, and I would be remiss if I didn’t wrap up talking about my favorite things I read this year – books, short stories, and poetry.

(Read the full post on Substack)

2021 In Review and Award Eligibility

2021 was an incredibly transformative year for me. A lot of that transformation took place behind the scenes, in my personal life, rather than anything that would be immediately visible to readers. I bought a house and cleaned the fuck out of it! I ended one relationship and started a few more. I found a more solid community locally. I processed some trauma. I did all this under the auspices of Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw emotional and logistical monkey wrenches every which way and which doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon. Like, legitimately I was a badass.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Rebels Without a Cause

(TW: COVID-19, anti-vaxxers, fascism)

These past few months, in my hometown, students have returned to university in-person for the first time since the pandemic started. They’ve been partying in the usual ways that students party, including massive gatherings that break local social distancing laws, and they seem angry at the police and school officials who are trying to get them to cut it out. (Meanwhile, the rest of the city is angry back at them, which doesn’t actually help.)

It makes me think of other people I’ve known who were angry at the requirement to mask, distance, lock down or get vaccinated. People who told me, in so many words, that they’d rather let people die than be told what to do.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Fawning

Ever since I read this article about fawn responses and people-pleasing, I’ve been thinking about how these responses tie in to the toxicity we see on Book Twitter. If you are prone to fawning – habitually suppressing your own opinions, boundaries, and feelings in order to please other people – then Twitter can be a dangerous place.

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Posey’s Psychically Resonant Super-Plants

I like to say I’ve always been writing, and in a way that’s true, but in a way it’s not quite. There was a specific moment when I decided I was going to write for publication, and it was different from the writing that had come before.

(Read the full post on Substack)