Rules by Cynthia Lord – a review

I had read a review of Rules that made me pretty hesitant to buy it, but since our school library has very few books featuring disabled or differently-abled characters when I saw it I decided to grab it, and read it myself before putting it into the collection. I asked my 12yr old to read it first, and warned her a review had said the treatment of the autistic child wasn’t good. (My youngest child is autistic, by the way, early verbal, with most of his speech scripted or echolalia).

My eldest really liked the book. She said she couldn’t see what the problem was, so I read it today while confined to bed. And I’m a little puzzled by the scathing review I read.

The argument is the main character’s brother is dehumanised. I don’t agree with this assessment at all. The book is squarely from the sister’s perspective, and as a 12yr old whose parents don’t really seem concerned about her needs because they’re overwhelmed by her brother’s needs, it’s clear she’s coping the best she can with a difficult situation, without really being adequate support by her parents. She confronts her dad toward the end over his priorities. Her “rules” seem to me to be an attempt to explain the unconscious rules of social behaviour that NT people seem to absorb, that are so difficult for autistic people to understand. Some of them are blatant rules, for sure, but the majority of them are designed to help David understand the ways other people behave, or as Catherine says, “…how the world works…” (p. 9).

The emphasis on the parents forbidding David’s scripting is overdone. Catherine mentions her parents don’t like David “borrowing” words but she happily goes along with it, and, without spoilers, she obviously understands it’s important to David and it’s important to her. There was one interaction between David and Catherine that made me a little teary, because I hope my daughters will have that kind of interaction with their brother when he’s older, if he continues with scripting (it was a GOOD interaction!). In one scene her mother says “He needs to speak his own words, and he won’t if you keep encouraging him to echo” (p. 111). Maybe it’s my own education and stubbornness that enables me to dismiss this kind of ignorance, but I don’t see this as a flaw in the book, I see it as a flaw in the parents and a flaw in the therapy approach. I know there are therapists who do discourage echolalia and scripting so I would imagine it could be upsetting thinking that this book also condones that kind of thinking. Ideas around speech therapy have changed though. It would be good to include a note at the end that it’s actually ok to use echolalia and scripting, and that attitudes have changed since 2006 (in fact I’m tempted to include such a note in this book when it’s ready for circulation).

Catherine is definitely guilty of micromanaging her brother and overreacting to little things. But I’ll admit sometimes I lose my filter too… I no longer have the capacity to filter out the things people won’t care about, and only focus on the things I really need to focus on. I fear that I end up being over-controlling of behaviour in strange places because I no longer know what’s appropriate behaviour for a 5yr old and I worry things might escalate. I think the story did a good job of illustrating that Catherine was overreacting, through the way other characters responded to her.

Probably the most upsetting thing Catherine thinks is that she wants to change her brother, so he is no longer autistic. She hides this as she knows she gets in trouble for saying that out loud. To be perfectly honest, I have no issue with this being explored in fiction. There would be NT siblings out there who are thinking and saying “I wish my brother/sister wasn’t autistic” and getting in trouble for it. I know how tiring it can be looking after an autistic child (and it’s not that anything he does is terrible), and I know how much my older kids are expected to just deal at times. It can be hard on siblings. And autism can be extra tricky to navigate as other people have unreasonable expectations because there is no visible marker of difference. I do wish Catherine had embraced David’s difference more by the end, but I do think the book ends on a hopeful note, that Catherine is beginning to learn to accept her brother and value what he brings to her life. I get that for people with a disability it would suck to have to read over and over again that people want to fix them, I really do get that. I have no perfect answer. I am a big believer in letting people have their feelings, especially when something does actually affect them, because learning to accept your crappy thoughts is the first step toward changing them. Denying thinking negative thoughts is counter-productive. However, as a counterbalance, we need more portrayals written by people with disabilities themselves.

I haven’t touched on the portrayal of Jason in this review as the criticisms I’ve read stem mostly from the portrayal of David. I totally agree that pushing people to communicate on our terms is disrespectful, and I thought the book itself criticised a particular kind of therapist in the speech therapist and Catherine and Jason’s assessment of her.

In short, people aren’t perfect, and non-autistic people are not perfect, either. I think Rules does a good job of showing how one NT sibling relates to her autistic brother in their family context. Yes, we definitely need more books written from the perspective of autistic people (preferably BY autistic people). I will be including Rules in the school collection and welcome suggestions of books (for primary school kids… 5-12yr olds) that feature autistic main characters too.

 

Reading challenge part 2 (6-10).

Monstress

Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

Category: A book with pictures

I wanted to read a graphic novel for this category, and Monstress has been on my radar for a while. I don’t tend to read graphic novels but I really enjoyed Saga so am keen to read more. I found Monstress hard to comprehend, as we’re thrown right in the deep end and the back story is parcelled out in jumps back in time. Some of the characters look very similar and are wearing similar clothes so it can be hard to tell them apart, leading to more confusion about what exactly is going on. That said, even though I found it difficult to read, I did enjoy it… it may be that my own inexperience with graphic novels worked against me. 3.5 stars.

Who’s Afraid?

Maria Lewis

Category: A book involving a mythical creature

Maria Lewis and I agree that there are not enough women’s stories through werewolfism. Since she wrote one, I resolved to read it! (Did I ever mention my defunct PhD where I had to watch a bunch of werewolf movies?) Anyway, Who’s Afraid? was a quick read, enjoyable enough although flawed. My biggest issue was that I wasn’t too keen on the portrayal of the Maori side of the main character’s (Tommi’s) family. 3 stars

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan

Category: A book by an author you admire

Shaun Tan is rather well known for his picture books with their dreamlike, “something’s weird about this” illustrations and narratives. Tales is a collection of short stories and vignettes that continue this tradition, except that doesn’t really explain how well the illustrations work with the text. One story is structured like a newspaper article, surrounded by other headlines such as “Truth over-rated, explains Minister” (timely!), another is an instruction manual for making your own pet, another is a homage to unread poems. I think “Alert but not Alarmed” was my favourite, speaking to the times we live in, but with I think a hopeful message. “Distant Rain” was also up there, but honestly each story or vignette is good and beautiful. I only wish there had been more! 5 stars.

Liar

Justine Larbalestier

Category: A book with an unreliable narrator

Yeah I loved this book. As I said on Goodreads, it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste. For a variety of reasons though, it really spoke to me. You need to go in with eyes wide open, knowing you’re going to get taken for a ride and at the end will not really know what happened to you. But that’s ok. The protagonist, Micah, has been described as unlikable, but I could relate to her, even though I’m a terrible liar. She’s weird and outsidery and she seems to have sensory issues. There were quite a few scenes in the book where I felt the old ache of being an oddball at school. Part Two made me love it even more. I find it fascinating how much some people hate on this book. It is what it is and don’t expect it to be a straightforward package with “here is the end and everything is tied neatly with a bow for you” because it’s not. 5 stars.

The Guest Cat

Takashi Hiraide

Category: A book with a cat on the cover

This is a strange little book. It’s definitely not the kind of thing I would normally read… it’s description-heavy and the narrative moves forward slowly. It’s meditative, I guess. It didn’t thrill me, but I liked it in a quiet way. 4 stars.

Reading challenge part 1 (1-5).

Short reviews of the first 5 books read for my 2017 reading challenge.

Vigil

Angela Slatter

Category: A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long

I kicked off the year with Vigil, as it’s been on my TBR pile since July last year (ok, I have books that have been on there longer but they’re mostly anthologies and collections and I wanted a novel). Disclaimer: I know Angela, and I love many of her stories, so I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer here. Vigil was a fun (it is dark though), quick read, with mythical creatures living alongside mundane humans in Brisbane (or Brisneyland). There were lots of little deft touches I appreciated. 4 stars

Ugly

Robert Hoge

Category: A book by or about a person with a disability

I read the younger readers edition of Ugly as it’s on my selection list for the school library this year. I wanted to be able to sell it to the kids (and the teachers). Another disclaimer: I also know Rob, and have been meaning to read this for a while. I think Ugly is a must-read, and am planning to read the adult’s version as well. 4.5 stars

Poison

Sarah Pinborough

Category: A book with a red spine

I picked up Poison because it has a red spine. The blurb promised a sexy retelling of Snow White. I read the first page and the writing seemed fine so I borrowed it. Read it in a couple of days. Poison isn’t amazing, it was an enjoyable read, though I had some issues with the storytelling. 3 stars.

Fingersmith

Sarah Waters

Category: A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read

I am so thankful for this reading challenge as I never would have read this book otherwise. I loved it, even though it was quite hefty I devoured it within several days (I even stayed up late to read it, which I rarely do now). It’s kind of a LGBT Dickensian con story, with love and intrigue. 5 stars

Everfair

Nisi Shawl

Category: A steampunk novel

I had some big issues with this novel, from a narrative perspective. It was structured like a bunch of short character vignettes to tell the story of the country Everfair (spanning 1889-1919), which meant that there wasn’t any real plot to follow. It took me over 100 pages to feel any kind of pull to continue reading, and I came very close to abandoning it purely because there were only a couple of characters I could really “see”, and I was having trouble keeping track of everyone else. I like character-driven stories; “idea” stories where the characters serve as chess pieces moving around the board don’t tend to drag me in so much, and I did think this book has too much of the chess board feel. Which was a pity, as I desperately wanted to love it (African steampunk!) and it’s a fabulous concept (I loved the prosthetic limbs). Lots of key action moments happened “off-screen”, POV characters died but were mentioned in passing as having died in a vignette set a couple of years later. There were quite a few “plot” devices that made no sense, and lots of character moments that made no sense. There are some very comprehensive Goodreads reviews that summarise my exact feelings about the novel. 2.5 stars

Popsugar Reading Challenge

So I signed up to participate in this reading challenge with a group of workmates (librarians!) I’ve let my reading slip since having children, and over the past few years have been mostly reading short stories because 1) I write short stories 2) they are quick to read 3) my attention span was pretty fragmented for a while there. I used to love reading big thick novels but these days my patience is gone for rambly, under-edited novels. And if the writing frustrates me or I’m bored I’ll happily give up on it. (That, by the way, is why my Goodreads ratings tend to be on the higher side, because I rarely rate books I don’t finish as I feel it’s unfair).

When I was invited to participate I saw this as a good way to read a bunch of novels this year, for once. You can see the categories here. I’m also setting myself an extra challenge to ensure I get a good mix of diversity in my authors and protagonists, and there’ll be some children’s books as well. At the end of the year I’ll do a break down to see how I go with that. I’ll do a post every 5 books to provide brief reviews. First one should be up soon.

2016… woah.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to complain about 2016 being an awful year. It’s been a… layered… year for me. There have been bad things, awful things, good things and great things to come out of the year.

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Ridiculous family portrait

Writing-wise, my accomplishments are as follows:

  • “Sea Borne” published in SQ Mag
  • “Searching for Cidalisa” published in Aurealis
  • “Women and Parkour” published at the Dangerous Women Project
  • “Heat, Flies and Cane Toads” reprinted by Poetry and Place 
  • “Three Trophies” mentioned on Ellen Datlow’s longlist and selected for reprinting elsewhere (not sure if the ToC has been released though)
  • “The Heart is an Echo Chamber”, a chapbook of vignettes (one by me) and the cover art by me, published.

So I did managed to meet my goal of selling two stories, phew. That list… well, could have been better, could have been worse. It was a pretty crazy year at uni though, so it is what it is.

At uni I managed to get all 7s (high distinctions) this year. I have 3 subjects left, so should be finished by the end of 2017, barring major catastrophes.

I am still working at my uni library. I’ve taken on more hours so it’s been fun trying to navigate work/study/family.

I wasn’t going to post about my kids, but I will post a little about each because they each inspire and challenge me.

Eldest graduated primary school. She’s going onto high school as part of a solid group of seniors, who will spend the holidays strengthening their bond. They are all so very different, and yet they do a good job of looking out for each other. She’s been accepted into her high school’s language immersion program, and ended the school year by tackling some academic demons. She started piano lessons this year and is picking it up very quickly. This year, Eldest showed me that her sense of herself is firm and she won’t be manipulated or coerced into being something she is not. And that, my friends, is astounding to me, and oh so beautiful (and let’s face it, a relief, given high school is right there staring at us).

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Eldest and I on the way to Woodford

Middle amazed me this year. She rocked out the end of year concert on drums, playing “Seven Nation Army” with her teacher on guitar. She goes from strength to strength–this year her emotional development has been phenomenal and her ability to advocate for her friends and herself is growing. Middle is endlessly curious and surprising. I think my favourite part of her growth this year was that she organised and led a protest at school about something she thought was unfair, and that protest led to change!

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Middle plays “Seven Nation Army” at EOY concert

Youngest… what a year. While his speech is still mostly single words or scripted speech, he is using it to communicate more and more. He showed us a phenomenal “splinter skill” (paed’s words, not mine) in his ability to make words out of letters, purely from memory. He’s still affectionate and funny, he has a reputation at daycare as a climber (takes after his mum!) and has been stealing food (at daycare) like a little magpie. Oops. There are still a lot of challenges to navigate but I do feel very grateful he makes it easy to love him.

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Loves selfies

Contact was a highlight of the start of the year. Things fell apart personally for a while after that, but I’ve achieved an equilibrium. In October/November a whole bunch of near-disastrous things (and some actual disastrous things) happened and I managed to deal with them all without falling apart so obviously I’m getting a bit more resilient.

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Gorgeous bar scenery

I haven’t managed to keep up my fitness as much as I would have liked. I did True Grit in August and Spartan in September, but I injured my wrist at True Grit and have had to rest it a lot since. That meant I haven’t gone to parkour much. Rockclimbing also fell by the wayside. But, it’s never the end and I’ll pick it back up again. I did a few hikes in the cooler months, and am looking forward to getting back onto the trails.

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After the Spartan Sprint

I went to Woodford for a day… it was my first time! Everyone is always shocked by that but if you know me well you’d understand that crowds+uncertain weather+long drive+the unknown=me finding any excuse to not do the thing. Anyway, it was fun but I think it would be better if I stayed a few days. My eldest is camping with friends so she’s enjoying the full Woodford experience.

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Giants at Woodford

Carrie Fisher’s death had a big impact on me. It might sound awful, but none of the celebrity deaths this year have really moved me beyond “that’s sad, X was too young” (or “that’s sad, but good innings eh?”). Until Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia was my first hero… I mean, I had a massive crush on Harrison Ford, but he wasn’t my hero. Leia was. Here was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, unfashionably pale, short woman standing unapologetically with fire and determination. I wanted to be her, and I wanted her to be real so badly. I struggled with the knowledge there was a real, flawed person behind the character I loved. I didn’t want to know that she was suffering as a result of something that had given me so much joy and inspiration. When I saw Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally I pretended she was a different person (honestly, she looked like my mum… and while I love my mum I was young enough to not want my hero and my mum to look like the same person–now I’m older I think it’s pretty funny!). As a consequence of my bizarre doublethink I didn’t read any of her books, or even try to find out more about the real Carrie Fisher. And then I saw her GMA interview when The Force Awakens happened and she was fucking hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing. I read an interview with her about her affair with Harrison Ford and felt so many emotions. I was starting to feel ready to accept and embrace the person behind Leia… and then she died.

You know, I know this all sounds weird. To be honest I don’t think I have any other childhood heroes because it was such an unsettling realisation, that the public persona (in my case, Leia, a fictional character, but let’s face it most celebrities have a semi-fictional public persona) had a “woman behind the curtains” that I shunned celebrity worship for the rest of my life. I was completely unprepared for how this would affect me. I watched a whole bunch of interviews of her on Craig Ferguson’s Late Show the other night… binge-watched. And I’ll be reading her books too, because why the fuck didn’t I do that earlier? (I know why, it’s a rhetorical question). The stupid thing is, Carrie Fisher was awesome. She was the kind of person I aspire to be. Carrie, that is, not Leia. I wish it hadn’t taken me until her death to really figure that out.

Hmmm, how do I finish from that? Look, I know there is a lot to be depressed and despairing about looking back on 2016, and glancing sideways into 2017, but that way madness lies. Maybe it’s a kind of mania that encourages us to grip tightly to hope in the face of certain doom, but that’s my kind of mania. And it’s served me well so far. And with that… photo of the year is me up a tree, because why not?

A photo of a woman sitting in a tree

Me up a tree.

“Searching for Cidalisa” published in Aurealis #96

Cover of Aurealis #96 features two faceless men

Cover art by Brenda Bailey

My short science fiction story is now available to read through Smashwords. It’s directly inspired by my Master of Information Science studies, featuring Google AI and rogue databases. I was thrilled to see the artwork by Andrew J McKiernan, he did a fabulous job of the Boolean too (you’ll have to buy the mag to see the artwork though, sorry)! It’s the first time I’ve had a story illustrated, and I absolutely love it. The issue will set you back a mere USD$2.99, so get onto it!

***

In my dreams, I searched the databases. Input search query, examine results, refine search query. Fields, proximity operators, even the antiquated Boolean queries—I tried every combination I could think of, all night, until I woke in the morning in a haze of exhaustion, eyes glued together, mind overloaded. I’d thumb my earLink on and mumble the names of the databases into my journal so I knew which ones I’d searched. It was habit born of delusion. Once I’d had my first coffee I deleted the cloud entries. Those databases didn’t exist anymore. My fevered dream searching was pointless. Unresolved issues are the root of repetitive dreams, I’d read.

What was I looking for? Information. Answers. And maybe, an end to the tension in my shoulders, the ache in my gut. Closure.

I was searching for Cidalisa.

From the blurb: “Aurealis #96 features Patrick Doerksen’s ‘Extracts from a Life of Science Fiction’, a poetic meditation on the nature of science fiction and humanity, S G Larner’s ‘Searching for Cidalisa’ which explores a near future society of implanted memories and rogue databases, and Annika Howells’ eerie and lyrical ‘Obsidian River’ that will live with you long after you’ve finished reading.”

“Sea Borne” published in SQ Mag #29

My dark fantasy story “Sea Borne” is now available to read online at SQ Mag #29. It’s free to read, and only a bit over 4000 words so you have no excuse.

Cover art for edition 29

Art by Kodi Murray

Here’s a teaser for the story…

The sea peeled back from the bay, sucked by a force stronger than tides. Laid bare beneath the sun, fish glittered and flopped, and deep furrows in the naked ocean floor traced the line of the currents. The horizon bulged. Ahli gaped, as cries went up around her.

“Myr wave!”

Her father, Yune, dropped the net they were piling into their little round bowl-boat. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed inland.

“Run.”

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