Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Best Boy Ever Made by Rachel Eliason

Title: The Best Boy Ever Made
Author: Rachel Eliason
Publisher: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform
Rating: WORTHY!

71% in "Sam meets every single criteria..." should be "Sam meets every single criterion..." to be technically correct. Of course, a social worker might not know that.
"Who'd of thought" in Brittney's speech should be "Who'd have thought?" (sorry, I didn't note the position in the book)
85% "...using there proximity..." should be "...using their proximity..."
"...down right..." should be "...downright ..." (sorry, I didn't note the position)
"...everyday..." should be "...every day..." (sorry, I didn't note the position)
92% "...catching site..." should be "...catching sight..." (it's rendered correctly further along on that same line).

This is a novel about a trans-gender person, Sam, who was born technically a girl, but who is actually a boy for all practical purposes. Rachel Eliason is herself trans-gendered (mtf), so she knows what she's writing about. The novel is told in first person by Sam's best friend Alecia.

I don't normally do book covers because my blog is all about writing, not selling, and unless they self publish, the writer really has no choice in their cover: they get whatever cover Big Publishing™ deems fit - which is all-too-often an ill-fit at best. In this case (which isn't Big Publishing™), I have to raise an issue that involves some fence-sitting, and it ain't comfortable, let me tell you, but it is country! Maybe this discomfort is appropriate, too, because for far too many people transgendering is an uncomfortable issue, so perhaps the cover artist is smarter than your typical cover designer?

Here's the rub: the arm on the left looks very masculine, yet we know that it's supposed to represent a transgender male. It's not that trans (ftm) males can't look masculine for goodness sakes, that's what they are, after all, but the question I have is more subtle than that: is this the best cover design? Do we want to use an actual male, which really betrays the story, because the subject of the story isn't a biological male, but an XX who identifies as a male. Do we want to use a female so the arm looks feminine - which to me betrays the story even more than using a male arm, because the trans character isn't feminine except in a birth sense? Do we try to find a real ftm transgender person to pose?

To me, that would have been ideal, and perhaps that was what was actually done here - I don't know - but this cover made me ask questions, so maybe it's not a bad thing the way it is. Maybe the masculine arm is a statement, and not simply eye candy. I do think it's worth some serious thought though, especially in a novel dealing with a topic as important and as misunderstood as this one is.

The story takes place in Iowa, where I've actually lived and have never ever felt the need to go back there again! Iowa winters will do that to a person. Here's a song which I dedicated to Iowa, sung to the tune of Do They Know It's Christmas?:

It's winter time, and there's some need to be afraid.
In Iowa, where ice storms break and blizzards rage,
And in this cold and darkness, you can warm a heart with joy:
As the topside freezes-up this winter time!

But say a prayer: pray for the Iowans
At winter time, it's hard, but when you're having sun
There's a world outside your window and it's a world of frozen feet
Where the heat bills reach a total that's impossible to meet
And the only bells that ring there are the icicles of doom
Well tonight thank god it's us instead of you!

Oh there won't be cold in Africa this winter time
That's the greatest gift they'll get: to stay so warm
oh-oh where nothing ever snows
No blizzards, no ice floes
Do they know what it's like to freeze your butt?

Here's to you staying warm in Africa
Fresh from those freezing tail in Iowa
Do you know what it's like to freeze your butt?

Heat the world!
Heat the world!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
Heat the world! Let them know it's cold up here!
(Original music and words to Do They Know It's Christmas? by Bob Geldof & Midge Ure, released on Phonogram and Columbia. New words by Ian Wood)

If you liked this parody, please consider a donation to OR OR to whichever charity you think can do most good, including your local food bank. There are hungry children everywhere.

But I digress! The novel is narrated by Alecia, a very sheltered young woman of seventeen, who often comes off as younger than she really is. You can blame this on her life under the iron-yoke of her Catholic parents. They're a pair of the most blinkered people imaginable, but organized religion often does that. By its very nature religion is divisive and intolerant, bifurcating populations into us (the saved, good, people), and them (the sinners who will go to hell). Bring it on, I say. I'd rather be in hell than spend eternity with bigots and pompous holier-than-thou blow-hards, quite frankly. Can you imagine spending eternity with those guys?!

Alecia's best friend since forever is Samantha, who insists on "Sam" and no substitutes, and who is a tomboy - pretty much since Alecia has known her. Alecia 'gets' Sam, but she cannot understand what it is which has made Sam so distant over the last few months, until Sam finally comes clean with her and tells Alecia that she's not truly a female. She's a male who happens to have been born, unfortunately, in a female body - and she wants to correct that post-haste. This feeling isn't a rarity in nature as Joan Roughgarden reveals in her book Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, which I highly recommend.

Sheltered as she is, Alecia struggles with all of this because she doesn't quite get that there's a big difference between a tomboy, a lesbian, and an XX female who feels in her every cell and neuron that she's an XY boy, has done so for years, and now wants the world to accept it the same way she has done. Alecia is a trooper though, and never once does she lose sight of the importance of friendship and loyalty, a commitment which means supporting her friend in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, as long as they both shall live.

Together, they embark upon this journey, and damn the warped parents. Actually damn Alecia's parents, who are completely negative about Sam - quite the opposite of Sam's own parents. In this spirit (the only spirit which matters), Alecia accompanies Sam to a gay bar on teen night. Sam has to go there to satisfy her social worker that she's not merely a confused lesbian - that she really doesn't want to be a girl who loves girls, but a male who loves females. Alecia goes along with her and finds herself - what is that feeling? Jealous? - of the attention Sam gets from out lesbian Emma, who is very much a girl.

Alecia has a father and a brother, but these males figure very little into the story. More involved is her mom, and younger sister Brittney, who isn't quite the good Catholic girl that Alecia is. I have to ask, since this family is so Catholic, how come the girls ended-up with names like Alecia and Brittney rather than, say, Esther and Ruth or something Biblical like that. Obviously not all such parents go that route, but it seemed to me that if Mom & dad were so rigid and devout they would be far more likely to chose Biblical names for their children than to choose the ones we get. Maybe that's just me.

One thing which seemed weird in this novel, to me, was the use of "I am". Despite employing all kinds of other contractions, such as "I'd", and "we've", there was never an "I'm" that I noticed. It struck me as odd, and it made for rather stilted conversation. Other than that, I enjoyed the way this was written. It was perhaps a bit simplistic in places, with very little descriptive prose, but for me it was an easy, comfortable, and compelling read. Once I began, I did not want to put it down, and I want to read more by this writer - perhaps even more about these two characters if a good sequel suggests itself.

I normally detest first person PoV novels, but this one seemed perfectly fine. Some writers, a few, a happy few, a band of brothers and sisters, can carry it off, and Rachel Eliason is quite obviously one of these. I think it helped that she had Alecia come right out and embrace this format from the off, introducing herself like we'd just met and she was about to answer some questions for me to clear up some lack of understanding I had! That approach worked for me, and from that point on it seemed normal and ordinary, rather than artifice, so kudos and gratitude for that!

I'm not sure that Sam's social worker was entirely appropriate in answering Alecia's questions to the extent that she did, but this was a minor issue. A bigger issue was whether or not Sam would be seeing a social worker or seeing some kind of psychologist or psychiatrist. I don't know, I've never been there, but it seems to me that she would need someone with a bit more academic and medical muscle behind them if she were going to start gender reassignment as a minor. OTOH, as I mentioned, the author is transgendered herself, so I bow to her greater expertise on this topic. Sam had evidently talked a lot about Alecia, and the social worker wasn't exactly blabbing all her secrets. Plus Alecia's motives were pure - she wanted to put herself in the best possible position to support Sam - and perhaps get some reassurance herself.

If I had a complaint or two, what would they be? I guess the first would be that while the novel talks a heck of a lot about the significant difference between a lesbian and a transgendered female to male, it never really went into what those differences were. I think it would have benefited from including that as a discussion between Sam and Alecia. And no, that doesn't mean one of them yelling "Penis!" and running!

I actually worked in the burn center in a hospital where female to male transgendering was performed. It was done in the burn center because they were the experts on cosmetic surgery (in a medical, rather than a purely cosmetic) sense and they had some very skilled doctors and nurses working there, and yes, a penis is an option.

Another complaint would be about raising the issue of prejudice against gays and transgendered people while rather hypocritically exhibiting prejudice in other areas! Alecia frequently chanted a refrain championing "country folk" over "city slickers" - like country was somehow more wholesome and smarter than city folks, who were somehow backward for never having seen a tree or touched a goat. This merely made Alecia seem backward, shallow, bigoted and hypocritical to me.

Besides, it isn't the black and white issue Alecia blindly pretends it is. Not everyone lives either deep in the city or way out in the back of beyond. There are very many people (I am one) who live on the fringe between the two. Besides, who would pay the farm subsidies if it were not for the urban taxpayers? Alecia's attitude and her strident spouting of this supposed dichotomy was annoying and uncalled for, and was the most obnoxious thing about her for me.

About 42% in, Alecia makes what could be taken as a derogatory comment about vegetarians, too. This was in context of her being country and therefore loving nature and animals - yet she has no problem slaughtering them and eating them wholesale. She doesn't seem to grasp that it consumes massive quantities of grain to feed cattle so people can, in turn, eat the meat. She doesn't know that if meat eaters of the western 'civilized' world gave up maybe a twentieth of their meat consumption it would release enough grain to feed the world's starving populations. To me this made Alecia seem ignorant instead of wise about the world. It made her provincial and way younger than her seventeen years.

There were some technical issues with the novel, too, that some serious editing would have cured. One thing which really jumps out is the scarcity of chaptering. Text runs on from one unrelated event to another with little more than a sharp sign (#) to indicate a break, and sometimes not even that. This makes for crude interruptions in reading while the reader tries to figure out if they turned more than one page/swiped more than one screen. A few more chapter breaks to divide-up the narrative would have improved reading flow for me.

Having said all of that, this novel was definitely worth reading. Aside from the issues I've raised, it was well-written in a very engaging style, it fearlessly broached sensitive and important topics, and I was one hundred percent on-board with it.

If Rachel Eliason is looking for beta readers for future projects, I volunteer right now!

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