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2020 in Review

There are 39 days left in the year, which means it’s time to begin the process of reflecting on all that has occurred. And for a year spent mostly at home, there is surprisingly a lot to review.

I started the year with health issues and big plans. My focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH) in my liver had begun to act up, so I was sent for an ultrasound and then an MRI. That MRI took place on February 26 and was one of the last in-person doctor visits I would have, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was expecting to see a hepatologist in mid-March, but that got scotched. Two guesses as to why, and the first doesn’t count.

On February 27, my husband and I drove down to Disneyland. Again, we didn’t know it then, but it would be the first and last trip of the year. I was supposed to go to Texas in August for a reunion and to Japan in September, but… I came home from Disneyland with a cough that steadily worsened. The doctors only spoke to me via video chat and told me it was simply asthma. To date, I am not sure whether I had COVID-19 or not. I’ve yet to be tested in any capacity. But it was the worst cough I’ve ever had—and that’s saying something, as I have a history of routinely getting pneumonia and bronchitis. It continues to come and go, and doctors continue to treat me via video visits. Asthma and/or a fermentable food sensitivity have thus far been labeled the culprit(s). I’ve been punted to a nutritionist, so we’ll see what transpires.

Meanwhile, we were also supposed to host Japanese students in mid-March, but that trip was cancelled as well. On March 13, my kids came home from school and would never go back—at least, not in person. On March 14, we celebrated both Pi Day and eight years in California by going to a Sherlock Holmes-themed escape room and then to In-N-Out Burger. It would be our last “normal” day out in the world.

While I battled my cough, we hunkered down at home and have more or less stayed hunkered ever since. We get our groceries delivered. My husband’s office has had everyone working from home since March 9 and currently don’t plan to have people back until maybe next April? The kids have been doing school online. And I’ve always worked from home, so now I just do it with everyone else home, too. It means fighting for bandwidth sometimes, but we’re safe and mostly healthy, so that’s good. Meanwhile, the boys are still able to do fencing lessons (outside at the park), my daughter still horseback rides, and she and her younger brother are continuing Taekwondo. Plus, we swam in the pool for as long as the weather allowed, and there have been many walks, plus the rowing machine and a new stationary bike.

I did manage to write a book this year (The Ghosts of Marshley Park), and I think it’s possibly my most commercial manuscript yet. I’ve just begun the querying process with it. I also re-released both The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller and The K-Pro this year. Peter sold more copies in paperback than it ever did as an e-book, which doesn’t surprise me in the least given its genre and the likely readership for that title.

Besides writing, I was tapped for several school duties that have kept me busy via Zoom meetings. I like being involved, and I like having something to do, so it’s fine by me. I’ve read 61 books this year, which is fewer than the 81 I read last year, but I also didn’t write anything last year (except “Origami of the Heart”), so I guess it evens out.

Despite not being able to go to the Shakespeare at Winedale reunion in August, we did manage to create a distance version of The Winter’s Tale. I had a very small part, but it was fun to do, even if it was tricky to film. I continue to be hopeful my best friend and I will be able to go to Japan next fall… This year, friendship has mostly taken place via phone calls, Zoom get togethers, and text messaging.

We did manage to take the kids to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom one day this summer and to the Oakland Zoo on another day. And we did another escape room (“magic school” themed) on Hallowe’en morning. It’s pretty sad when you can count on one hand the outings you’ve been on in 8+ months. But we’re grateful we have the ability to stay home when many people do not.

I’m not naive enough to think the change in a calendar year will magically reset things, but I do hope that we’re progressing in the right direction and that, maybe by spring or summer, we can start to venture out more regularly. And I have hope that an agent will see value in my latest work and take a chance on it (and me). There could be a lot of curve balls to come, and not every ball we hit will be a home run, but to hit anything these days feels like a minor miracle. Even if it flies foul, at least you stay in the game. So I’ll keep swinging.

Book Review Quickies

If you’d rather see/hear me talk about the books I’ve read lately, check my YouTube channel for all the videos. (Like, subscribe, click the bell, share, etc.) But if you’d rather read, here are the quick versions of my reviews.

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

This is the final tome in the three-part historical fiction series about the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII. I loved Wolf Hall and enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, but this book was a bit of a slog for me. There’s a long middle space, somewhere between about the 30% mark and the 80% mark, where not much happens. Though I read this in less than two months, it felt like I’d been reading it forever. It’s as well written as the others, of course, but the pacing just didn’t work for me.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This one was… interesting… I read an ARC on my e-reader, so the formatting was kind of weird, and I wasn’t sure if some of that was intentional because of the atmosphere of the story or??? The book is written in the form of journal entries, and at first it is very confusing; it takes time and patience to glom on to what is going on. Even then, though, I spent time wondering where the actual story was. The plot didn’t kick in until almost halfway through the book. There were times I thought I might not bother finishing it, but it’s also not a very long book, and I was just intrigued enough to keep going. The plot itself is not particularly deep or anything. I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to read, but I will say I liked the book much more by the end than when I started.

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1) by Nancy Springer

This book suffered the disadvantage of my having watched the Netflix film first. I was pretty charmed by the film version, which means the book disappointed me because it’s quite different. For one thing, in the books Enola is 14 rather than 16. And the marquess? He’s 12! There is no potential love story here, and the plot is actually rather facile by comparison to all that happens in the movie. It was still an okay book, and I can’t imagine what my thoughts might have been had I not seen the movie first. It’s important to keep in mind the books are written for middle-grade readers, though the fact they then do fly-bys of things like prostitution may be considered questionable.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (Enola Holmes #2) by Nancy Springer

Better than the first one? Enola hunts for a missing baronet’s daughter while also trying to evade detection by her determined brother. We meet Dr. Watson in this book, and we get more of Sherlock as well. The story is more interesting, too, even if I did have it solved very early on. (Again, these are middle-grade books, so… I can’t really gloat that I figured it out.) I have the other books in the series lined up to read at some point, but two back to back is my limit, it seems, so I’m searching for a palate cleanser in the meantime. A little Enola goes a long way.

Things in my TBR Stack:

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab – need to finally finish this series
Classroom of the Elite #6 by Syougo Kinugasa – but not feeling it right now
Enola Holmes 3-6 by Nancy Springer – as mentioned, need a break
False Value by Ben Aaronovitch
The Witch Elm by Tana French – started it but couldn’t get into it; don’t like the narrator

Thoughts? Suggestions? I think I need some nonfiction, actually, so I might go looking for something like that…

Television: The Movies

This is a 2019 documentary miniseries from CNN that my husband and I watched via streaming. Rather than watch them in the order that Wikipedia lists, the streaming service (I can’t remember which one it was on now) had them in chronological order by era/decade. So we started with the “Golden Age” and moved to the 2000s. I’m not sure if that affected my overall perception of the series, which in short is that it was well made but very biased.

I have a film degree. And I’ve worked on film sets. I’m not saying this to be superior, since I know there is still a lot about movies I don’t know and the industry is always changing. I just want to give context to my point of view. And that POV is: what a bunch of old, white men congratulating each other.

This is nothing new in any industry, really, but it felt so obvious in this context. Each episode of this series goes over the films that made a big impact in any given decade, and more often than not then discusses the directors and their grand visions and how they brought the films to life on the big screen. There is a reverence for, not just the films, but the men who made them. The token effort to talk about films that were made by POC or women only makes the elevation of these men (Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Cameron, Hughes, Tarantino, Ridley Scott, etc.) more conspicuous.

Maybe it’s a quantity issue. There are, after all, so many more old, white men making movies than there are women or POC. It would be impossible to talk about film history without talking a lot about these guys. But rather than choosing one film per auteur as representative of his work, The Movies presents a catalogue of films by these directors, hailing each of the titles as groundbreaking, and then tosses in a mention of Spike Lee or Jane Campion or Ryan Coogler or Kathryn Bigelow to call it even.

Look, I get it. It’s meant to be a celebration of film, not a deep dive into the inequities of the industry. The goal is to keep to tone light and happy and remind people of how great movies are. But as I watched the episode about the 70s, it was crystal clear that men were making movies for other men. That they were satisfying themselves rather than thinking about the wider world. So to celebrate that is to celebrate selfishness.

Then again, the industry has never minded selfishness so long as it makes a profit. Yes, yes, it’s a business. Its goal is to make money. But if you’re going to elevate it as art, you have to remember that a lot of great art never made any money. So when the focus is on dollars, you are already eliminating a large swath of people and points of view. You’re chasing either the lowest common denominator or the people with the most expendable income. You’re chasing popularity and then making a miniseries on how great popular films and directors are. If it were high school, it would be like making a documentary on how great the athletes are and ignoring what the art students or French club or whoever else is doing because “no one is interested.”

Sorry, that was probably a stretch as far as metaphors go. But I just really found this docuseries to be indicative of a wider problem, and it stirred up all my frustrations with the film industry.

It is possible, too, that much of what they chose to highlight in The Movies has to do with who they were able to interview. This is a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did they ask Spielberg and Scorsese for a chat before or after deciding to venerate them? They didn’t get Tarantino, but maybe enough other people wanted to talk about him that they couldn’t avoid making much of his work? Was it a question of: “Here are the sound bites, the things most interviewees mentioned, so let’s focus on these”?

The lack of love for screenwriters was also telling. Not that it’s anything new. But it was summed up in the 2000s episode: first there was the studio system, then the rise of directors, then megastars, and now we’re in the era of IP. Where are the writers in all this? Well, they’re around… A lot of directors also write their own movies, though nowadays there is a small pool that people dip into for things like Marvel movies or whatnot. I won’t bother to moan over the death of originality, since it’s all been said, but I do believe it’s harder than ever to break in as a writer unless you happen to create or have rights to an amazing IP—that is, you’ve written a book or comic book series that has already made you a name. Gone are the days of spec scripts or shopping anything completely new.*

*I know they’re not really, completely gone, but it feels like it sometimes. As ever, it’s who you know, etc.

tl;dr: This is a pretty predictable series that highlights exactly the movies and directors you would expect, which means they are playing into the same lowest-common-denominator fad as the films themselves. As a retrospective and celebration of film, it’s passing fair if unremarkable. More interesting would be a deep dive of indie and fringe film, movies made for and by POC, and women in film.

RIP Quibi

Okay, so I may be one of the only people in the world who actually enjoyed some of the content on this platform. Quibi drew me in with their all-star remake of The Princess Bride. I stayed for their reboot of The Fugitive (which, let’s be honest, was just 24 mini). I laughed at Mapleworth and was a bit confused by Murder House Flip. Like, I was absolutely convinced that was parody, but… apparently not.

Truthfully, I was impressed with some of the talent Quibi’s shows were able to tap. But I was also aware early on that the platform was not thriving. It had been designed for commuters and then launched at the very moment commuting came to a standstill.

Anyway, here I am to bid it farewell. We cancelled our subscription… much later than most people did. Quibi, we hardly knew ye.

Books: Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Like a lot of people from a certain Internet era, I used to read the Hyperbole and a Half site all the time. So I was primed to enjoy this book from the start.

Then again, I didn’t actually enjoy the Hyperbole and a Half book all that much, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one.

The short answer is: I did enjoy this book, much more than the first, and pretty much at the same level as I used to enjoy the site. In fact, I laughed so much I cried while reading some of this book, which is what I used to do when reading the site, so… Take from that what you will, but I count it as a sign of the book’s success.

It’s not all laughs and rainbows; Brosh does fly past a few serious topics, themes, and situations. She’s honest about some things that happened to her while still maintaining a certain amount of privacy, which she absolutely deserves. Kudos to her for walking that delicate line so well; it can’t have been easy.

I don’t know if you have to be of a certain age or temperament to “get” it. I’d guess it’s not an age thing since my kids also love her site, and I read most of this book aloud to them, and they loved it, too. Temperament, though… We are a family of weirdos, so maybe that helps in relating to Brosh’s content. Takes one to know one and all that kind of thing.

I definitely recommend this book. It’s a fast read (but remarkably heavy because of the weight of the paper—that’s all my old publishing knowledge squeaking out; I remember manufacturing specs). Easy to pick up and put down, read a little at a time or devour all at once. Like a box of candy, really. Definitely a little something to make 2020 slightly better and brighter. And good for not feeling too alone in the world, either.

Movies: Enola Holmes

This was cute.

That’s kind of the only word I can come up with to describe it. We watched it for family movie night, and everyone enjoyed it (my 12yo daughter most of all).

Based on the first in a series of novels by Nancy Springer, the film features Millie Bobby Brown as the titular Enola, younger sister to Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill). On her 16th birthday, Enola wakes to find her mother missing. When she doesn’t return, Mycroft arrives to take guardianship of Enola and Sherlock comes along to half-assedly determine whether… their mother needs to be looked for? It’s not entirely clear. He basically declares that their mother left on purpose without any intention of returning, so… case closed?

Faced with the prospect of being sent to finishing school, Enola runs away to London to look for their mother herself and along the way gets entangled with a young marquess (Louis Partridge) who is also running away from home in order to avoid being sent into the army. Except it turns out someone is trying to assassinate him. Enola’s brief brush with him makes her a target, too, &c.

On the whole, it’s all a bit rote but also charming. If I were my daughter’s age, I’d probably be in love with this film. Back in the day, it’s the kind of thing I’d have watched over and over again. (I did watch Young Sherlock Holmes repeatedly, after all.) Partridge is tween crush fodder, and my daughter was all the more elated when I told her he looks a lot like the main character of my current WIP, the draft of which she has been devouring.

I have some questions about the marquess’ titles and names, but it may simply be that I misunderstand the way these work. I assume he used the courtesy title of Viscount Tewkesbury prior to ascending to Marquess of Basilwether. But doesn’t “earl” come between the two? Can you be a viscount and a marquess without being an earl? Maybe earldoms are not used as courtesy titles, or this young man simply chose not to use it? I haven’t read the book, so maybe that explains it better? If anyone knows, please comment below.

N-E-ways (as we used to write when we passed notes in class)… Cute. Charming. Can easily see it becoming a series of some kind. A recommended watch if you want something not too taxing.

Disclaimer: My first self-published works were Sherlock Holmes stories, written in the style of Doyle’s originals. They’re still available on audio here.

My 9/11 Story

I’ve told this tale many a time, but now that I have a brand new site, I will post it once more. This is the story of a newlywed living on Beacon Hill in Boston. At the time, I worked for Houghton Mifflin (pre-Harcourt). I used to walk to and from work—across Boston Common and the Public Garden to the HM building on Boylston and Berkeley. FAO Schwartz was there, too.

On this particular morning, I woke from a bad dream. In the dream, I was a passenger in a white pickup truck. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but I remember the skin of his arm was deeply tanned. I did not want to be in this truck, but I had no choice. We were going down a highway with green hills on either side, and in the distance I could see the skyline of a city. The city had dark clouds over it. I looked up at once of those green highway signs and it read: Death and Destruction Ahead. I was desperate to get out of this truck, even thinking of jumping out despite being on a highway… And then I woke up.

The walk to work helped soothe my ruffled feathers. It was a beautiful day. But when I got to work, I could tell something was up. My cubicle was on the opposite side of a wall from the department admin, and I could hear that she had at least two other people in her cube with her. They were saying, “It won’t load.” I assumed they meant some kind of Web site.

I turned on my own computer and prepared to start my day, but then my phone rang. It was my husband, calling from his office in the Financial District. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he said.

“That’s stupid,” I replied. I was picturing some little Cessna, a really bad flying student or something.

My husband seemed to understand. “No, a plane.” Meaning a big one, a passenger jet, the kind you take on vacation.

And then he said, “Oh, God, another one.”

Working in finance, my husband’s office had televisions everywhere. In fact, he would have been at 7 World Trade Center for a meeting that morning if not for a change in schedule.

I tried to wrap my brain around what was happening. All our department managers were in a meeting, but people around me were clearly getting anxious. Rumors were flying: that the Sears Tower had been hit, the Space Needle, that the John Hancock Building a few doors down was a target.

Now, I was just a lowly little Production Supervisor. But with the managers unaware of what was going on, I made an executive decision. I told one of my work colleagues to call her boyfriend and have him come pick her up. I decided I, too, was going home. And told others to go if they wanted. Then I went to the corner conference room, opened the door without knocking, and said to the stunned table of managers: “I’m sending people home.”

They stared.

I said, “There’s been a terrorist attack or something.”

The managers got up and began alternately calming people and telling them to go.

My husband called again and told me they were evacuating his building, that they were having to walk down some 30+ flights of stairs because they didn’t want people in the elevators. He would be walking home. I told him I’d meet him there shortly.

I grabbed my things and walked my coworker downstairs. I waited with her for her boyfriend, even though I was itching to just be gone. Once he pulled up and I saw her off, I hurried back through the Public Garden and Common to get home. On the Common were dozens of college students, stretched out and reading, doing homework. Many had headphones on. They don’t know, I thought. It felt surreal that there might be people who didn’t know what was going on.

Before going up to our apartment, I stopped at the convenience store around the corner from our building and bought a few things. I had a feeling we might be holed up awhile.

I got home. My husband had the television on. We hugged, but we weren’t crying yet. We were too much in shock, too confused about what was going on.

A few minutes after I got home, the South Tower collapsed.

Somewhere in all this, I was thinking: I need to call Dad. It’s his birthday. What a crap birthday.

Funny what our brains do in a crisis. Unable to grasp something so huge, we focus on a small, easy thing.

Of course, it was nearly impossible to get through to my dad. My call didn’t make it through until mid-afternoon, and the conversation was short; words were failing us.

Words still fail for things like this. As a writer, that’s difficult to understand and acknowledge, but it’s true. Words are wonderful and powerful, but there are times when their magic is impotent. Still, like cavemen with rocks, words are also sometimes the only tool we have. We do our best, however clumsily.

Movies: Mulan (2020)

So this was… okay, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something epic. It wasn’t that. It was just kinda fine.

It starts well enough, with a young Mulan showing off her chi as she chases a chicken through her village. Here is a girl with the energy, power, and abilities that have been traditionally reserved for boys. For warriors. Her father indulges her in this until he finally is forced to explain that Mulan must hide her chi. Mulan’s duty, he tells her, is to marry well, and she can’t do that if she doesn’t become more girly.

In other words, “Into the closet with you.”

Maybe I’m just primed to read it that way, but the entire movie felt very obvious in its theme of queerness despite never actually touching on it directly. The closest it comes is when Mulan, at the time presenting as male, is invited by her general to meet with his daughter and a matchmaker after the war. The suggestion being that Mulan (again, being mistaken for a man) can marry the general’s daughter. Mulan has no real reaction to this, though, so it’s difficult to take it as a truly queer moment. Instead, from what I can tell, it’s mostly meant to be funny.

Meanwhile, the typical hetero love story is hinted at between Mulan and Honghui. At one point Honghui wonders whether a girl will ever like him, and Mulan whispers, “She will.” This is the one hint Mulan might be into Honghui, or guys in general.

The biggest problem I had with the film is that nothing feels well developed. We never really get to know any of the characters, so we can’t feel connected to them or really care that much about them. I feel like I could have liked Honghui, but I barely got to know the guy. And though there is, in broad strokes, the impression of Mulan having a character arc, she really doesn’t change in any dramatic way.

Gone, too, are the songs, the sidekicks, the humor. Now we are offered a “witch” character that is aiding the enemy army. Like Mulan, she seemingly had an excess of chi. But since she never hid it, this witch was exiled. She fell in with the baddies when they promised her she would never have to hide her true nature again.

Um, what? If the witch had stayed in the closet, she’d have been better off?

I guess, really, the idea is that people like the witch and Mulan need the support of those around them. Mulan’s fellow soldiers stand up for her. Her father accepts her. She is allowed to be her true self, and therefore she never turns evil.

There’s something very Star Wars about the whole thing, too. The way chi was explained and represented made me think of the Force. The witch, then, was someone who had embraced the Dark Side.

Also, there is a phoenix.

Bottom line: there are a lot of themes, and there is a lot of surface-level storytelling, but the whole of this version lacks depth and charm. Nor is it epic enough in scale to excuse that lack. The characters fail to be fully developed, the plot beats are fairly rote, and Jet Li didn’t even get to do very many cool stunts. Overall, this was meh for me. Magnificently shot with fabulous costumes and sets, but it’s like a beautifully decorated—but empty—box.

Books: My Favorite Series

Authors often get asked what some of their favorite series are. I guess maybe people think that, if they like the same books as a particular author, they might also like books by that author? I don’t really know. Maybe people think that authors must know which books are good because we know about books in general. The thing is, taste is truly subjective. I mean, there are objective qualities to “good” writing: proper punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure, for example. So maybe it’s more accurate to say good stories are subjective. What one person likes in a story (including what we call “voice”), another will not.

But that’s not the point of this post. I really just planned to list a few of my favorite book series so I would have something to point to when people ask. As they so often do.

Here goes. (In no particular order.)

The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French

I received a review copy of In the Woods during my time as a critic on Blogcritics. And I devoured this book. Later, I was also sent the second book in the series, The Likeness. But when I opened it up and discovered the main character was no longer Rob, I was so mad, I tossed it aside. It took me years to forgive that book and pick it up again, but I’m so glad I did. By then, there were several in the series, and I went through them like a box of bonbons. Each book focuses on a new main character, someone who was only a side character in a previous one. Once you are willing to accept that the characters you’ve fallen in love with (Rob!) have moved on, and open your heart and mind to whoever is next, you’re sure to enjoy this series. The prose is beautiful, and the plots and people who inhabit it are all somewhat dark and twisted—not in a bad way, but like gnarled old trees, fascinating and a little foreboding.

Rivers of London (Peter Grant) series by Ben Aaronovitch

Depending on where you live, the first book in this series is titled either Rivers of London or Midnight Riot. This one follows the progress of PC Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police as he is conscripted to track down and deal with cases of a supernatural nature. He’s also learning magic because, hey, how can he be expected to hold his own against practitioners if he isn’t one himself? Peter is a witty narrator, and a colorful cast of characters fills the roster here. Though the first few books were strong, there did seem to be a bit of a dip in later volumes as (a) it became increasingly difficult to keep track of all the characters, and (b) more focus on Peter’s romantic relationship caused me to lose some interest. Still, I continue to pick up the new ones and read them. (I’m actually behind, as I’ve not yet read False Value, but it’s on my Kindle, ready and waiting.)

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Loved these ones so much, I read all four books in the series inside of a week, then immediately re-read them. This is a YA (young adult) series about four boys at a private school who are working together to find the final resting place of an ancient Welsh king. Helping them is a girl named Blue, daughter of tarot readers and psychics, yet lacking any of those abilities herself. I fell in love with the characters, and the overarching plot is fantasy-meets-reality at its best.

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice

An oldie but goodie, as they say. I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a freshman in high school; I borrowed it from the school library so my parents wouldn’t know I was reading it. After buying The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and Tale of the Body Thief at used-book stores, I waited for and bought every new novel as it was published. Though I couldn’t finish the more recent Prince Lestat and didn’t even try to read the one about Atlantis, I can say that up through Blood Canticle, it’s a highly entertaining (if sometimes uneven) series. Some of the books I re-read semi-regularly; others I will probably never open again. But they all stay on my bookshelf, and the brightly drawn characters remain vivid in my mind’s eye. Rice is sometimes lambasted for her sentiment and flowery language, but—whether you consider it for good or ill—no one writes quite like she does. And no one else could have told these stories.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones

YA? Middle grade? I’m not sure how these are classified, but they are a lot of fun. And they each stand alone, so you can read any one of the four and not really miss much. But I recommend all of them. I read them years ago, and then read them aloud to my children. These are absolute gems.

I’m sure there are other series I love. Hercule Poirot mysteries, for example. The George Smiley books that influenced Peter Stoller. And certainly there are many manga series I adore, but I feel like that should be a separate list. For now, these will suffice. They are the books that immediately spring to mind when I’m asked about favorite series, so that must mean they’re my true favorites, right?

What about you? Favorite book series? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

My Complicated Feelings About Holly Gibney

My husband and I have been watching The Outsider. No, we haven’t finished it yet. No, I haven’t read the book. And no, I haven’t read any other books featuring the character of Holly Gibney. So I can only go on this sliver of information taken from watching six of the ten episodes.

There’s my first disclaimer. My second is that I do enjoy Stephen King and have since I was about 15 and began sneaking his books off my dad’s shelf. Uncle Stevie has a history of taking differently abled characters and making them “special” in other ways. (See also: Tom Cullen, Bill Denbrough, etc.) Holly Gibney seems to fit squarely in that field. She’s hyper-intelligent but comes across as distinctly on the spectrum—or at least the way media likes to portray people who are on the spectrum, which is where I start to feel uneasy.

But first let me point out that as a character—that is, as someone designed to intrigue and entertain me—Holly Gibney ticks all the boxes. I like her. If I didn’t, my internal conflict wouldn’t be a conflict. I’d be able to write her off and simply rant.

The thing is, as someone diagnosed somewhat later in life, I’ve become aware of an entertainment media inclination toward casting high-functioning [Asperger’s] types as quirky genius saviors. We have hangups that get played for tension or laughs. We do complicated puzzles in our heads, apparently. And we solve all the mysteries and problems. We range from socially awkward (funny) to stubborn/difficult (sometimes also funny, but also obnoxious). We speak very little and/or blurt things that are variously blunt, random, brilliant. We practically read minds but also struggle with emotions because we’re really just human computers. We observe, read, do some research, then chew up all that data and spit out the resolution.

Many of these characters are not explicitly stated to be on the spectrum, they are simply coded that way via the above characteristics. Whenever someone tells me they “never would have guessed” I’m on the spectrum, I have to wonder if that’s partially because I’m not “as seen on TV.”

Holly Gibney, at least as portrayed in The Outsider, is definitely coded this way. It’s explained that her parents were afraid… of her? for her? But doctors couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. So there seems to be an attempt to separate this character from a definite identification, but that just reads as “not like other Aspies,” which is lame. Or maybe, “Aspie Plus” or “Aspie but Better!” I don’t know. But this contributes to my discomfort because I recognize the shorthand symbols for someone on the spectrum: social awkwardness, high intelligence (with a touch of savant in some areas), a little bit of fixed mindset in the form of needing to sit in the same seat each time she visits certain restaurants or whatever. Holly cares about some things and is ignorant of anything outside her sphere of interest or ability. These traits, taken together, almost always dictate a character meant to be read as high-functioning autistic. I could dig up a dozen other, similar characters and portrayals, so it’s probably disingenuous to focus on Holly specifically, but… She’s the one that’s fresh in my mind, so here we are.

So what’s the problem? I should be glad for representation of any kind, right? Diversity and all that? (And Holly is also a black woman, so… hat trick?) Besides, people on the spectrum come in such a wide variety of traits that any one representation shouldn’t be an issue because they’re all valid? Or something?

I’m really asking. Because I can understand that way of thinking, and it’s not entirely wrong. But it still doesn’t sit well with me.

Portrayals of high-functioning ASD people tend to choose the most entertaining “quirks.” Because, you know, the point of entertainment media is to, er, entertain. So these characters are almost always written one of a few different ways: (1) funny/weird; (2) a little creepy but a necessary evil because his/her abilities are needed; (3) awkward, but eventually someone “gets through the armor” and the person is revealed to be sweet and shy; (4) insanely smart and therefore arrogant and obnoxious. Or some combination thereof. ALL of these usually have some kind of emotional stuntedness, typically shown via semi-robotic behavior in which the character doesn’t understand emotions, or doesn’t respond to emotions, or has no emotions him- or herself. But there might be one character that, over time, is able to break that shell, making the ASD character… less autistic? more “human”?

Sigh.

As someone on the spectrum, I can watch these characters and sometimes identify with them. In a few ways. I have hangups (mostly to do with noise, an issue I don’t see as often in media portrayals, and invasion of space/privacy, an issue I see portrayed pretty regularly). I’m smart, though I don’t solve nearly as many mysteries or save the world as often as other Aspies, if TV shows are to be believed. A lot of days it’s all I can do to remember to feed myself. I don’t like being touched, but I do have feelings and know how to love. I’m perceptive of others’ feelings, too; I just don’t always know what to do about them because the social aspects of dealing with emotions can be confusing. I’ve been known to be blunt and not understand when someone is joking. So, you know, all these various portrayals aren’t entirely wrong. And since everyone on the spectrum presents differently, what is true for me might not be at all true for the next ASD person you meet.

All of which is to say, it’s not strictly “wrong” to write these intelligent, quirky characters. But there seems to be a focus on one specific kind of intelligent, quirky character, probably because that’s the kind of character that contributes to the story: the one that can figure things out. But I do get irritated when some shows decide these characters need to be fixed, usually via a romantic interest, though sometimes a strong friendship does the job. Love is powerful, no doubt, but it isn’t a “cure” for autism. Loving someone on the spectrum means loving the things that make them different, not hoping that your love will magically change them.

So what would I like to see? Someone like me, maybe: a typical mother and wife whose autism is just kind of part of who she is rather than being the solution to some big mystery or problem. Someone who does a fair job of faking it through the world except when she just can’t. Someone who was classified as having a high IQ but chose a mundane life anyway. You can be high-functioning, brilliant and lazy, you know. “Gifted and talented” means very little in the long run; it’s all about what you do with what you have.

But maybe that makes for bad stories. Which is why we keep getting the same kind of ASD characters over and over. Often written by people who, as far as I can tell, are not on the spectrum themselves. They’ve just learned the shorthand and now this kind of individual has become a stock character.

As for Holly… I like her. And I want to like her. But there continues to be something about her that strikes me the wrong way. And maybe it’s because she sits atop this pile of tropes. I don’t know. She’s a black woman who has been coded as autistic (whether the writers admit it or not), so that’s… something.

I wanted to write this in the hopes that doing so might help me explore the root of the problem, whatever it is that makes me uneasy about this character. But I haven’t figured it out yet. Gonna have to do some more thinking/plumbing. In the meantime, if anyone else has thoughts about the topic, I’d love to hear them.