Sunday, February 27, 2022

Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero

Aileen Orr
Completed 2/26/2022, Reviewed 2/27/2022
4 stars

My first non-fiction in a long while.  This is the true story of a bear who became a mascot for the Polish Army in Iran during World War II, carried ammunition while fighting in Italy, and became a symbol of freedom for the Polish servicemen transported to Scotland.  It’s a heartwarming book about a ray of hope during brutal times.  It’s written by a woman who actually saw Wojtek when he was in the Edinburgh Zoo.  She was the granddaughter of a Scot who regularly visited Wojtek when he was still living with the Polish Army that was relocated to Scotland.  It’s a terrific book, full of true anecdotes and perhaps some myth that grew up around Wojtek.  I really enjoyed it.  It was a nice break from all the fantasy I’ve been reading these past several months. 

The tale begins with a part of the Polish Army that escaped to Iran.  An Iranian boy was carrying a big sack.  Using hand gestures, the soldiers asked what was in the sack.  The boy put it down and out popped a bear cub’s nose.  The soldiers bought it off the boy and raised it as their mascot.  As often happens with animals raised from infancy around humans, it began to think it was human.  Unlike most bears in captivity, it almost never became aggressive.  They named it Wojtek (pronounced Voytek), short for Wojciech (pronounced Voychek with an aspirated k).  Raised among the Poles, it came to recognize and love the Polish language.  When the Army was eventually sent to Italy to fight, Wojtek came along.  The story goes that one day, the soldiers were carrying ammunition.  It was arduous work.  Wojtek watched the men do it.  Always wanting to be part of the men’s activities, it taught itself to carry ammunition as well.  This is depicted in the original cover of the book.

After the campaign in Italy and at the end of the war, the soldiers were sent to Scotland.  They could not go back to Poland lest they be considered spies against the new Bolshevik regime and executed or sent to a labor camp in Siberia.  Wojtek came with them.  They spent a few years there, but soon something had to be done with all the displaced Poles, as well as with Wojtek.  The Edinburgh Zoo offered to take him.  The rest of the book covers Aileen’s efforts built a memorial statue to Wojtek and the Polish soldiers who raised him, primarily as a symbol of the Scottish-Polish relationship.  

The book is wonderful, full of little stories about the bear and the men who were responsible for him.  Unfortunately, there is an epilogue that seemed completely unnecessary.  It was written by someone else who felt that the book needed context with the Second World War.  It recounts in about fifty pages, the circumstances of Poland leading up to WWII, during the war, and the betrayal by the Allies at the end, leaving it for Soviet fodder.  It explains in detail how this part of the Polish Army got into Iran, fought in Italy, and ended up in Scotland.  It’s very informative, and yes, it sets the background for Orr’s story, but it’s written as a hard, quick history.  It’s very depressing, as one would expect, and shares none of the inspiration and hope that’s the point of the book about Wojtek.  

I give this book four stars out of five despite the epilogue.  It is a great tale that has only become known outside of the UK with the publication of the book and Orr’s efforts to have a statue made.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and almost got a little teary eyed myself towards the end.  The prose is really good, very readable.  I got this and a t-shirt of the original book cover design for Christmas this year.  Now when I wear the t-shirt, I can give a better explanation of the bear that inspired an army and the people with whom they would eventually settle.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Subcutanean 36619

Aaron a Reed
Completed 2/24/2022, Reviewed 2/24/2022
3 stars

This is a weird horror novel, but more interestingly, it’s a permutation novel.  Every copy is different, with different words, sentences, even whole scenes.  So this review is for copy 36619.  The basic premise is pretty inventive.  The basement of a house is a coming together of parallel universes and two college students try to traverse it.  The prose is good and the characterization is really good.  The main character is gay and trying really hard not to be in love with his best friend.  It covers a lot of issues as he reflects on his past, but never detracts from the plot.  This self-published book was nominated for a 2021 Lambda Literary Award.

Orion, aka Ry or Ryan, and his best friend Niko have recently moved into a big house their senior year of college along with quite a few other students.  Ry finds a passageway to a basement through his bedroom floor.  He and Niko explore it a bit, finding it appears to be much larger than the house, with long halls, empty rooms, and lit sconces.  Their curiosity grows and they return to the basement over and over, going farther and farther in.  One day, they find a kitchen deep in the basement with a locked fridge.  But when they come out the other side of it, they seem to be back in the kitchen.  Soon they realize that they’ve entered another universe with little details that are different.  Quickly they start to get headaches and realize they must soon find their way back to their own world.  But that turns out to be a little more difficult than they expected.

Not a traditional horror novel, it’s sort of a cross between a haunted house and a science fiction-y parallel universe.  The horror comes from the guys not being able to find their way back, as well as running into their doppelgangers from the other universes.  Not all are as sweet and average as they are.  Some are zombie like, walking around rather aimlessly.  Others are more coherent, just mirror images of themselves.  And then there are the violent ones, the doppelgangers who have gone crazy from being trapped in the basement and not finding their way back to their own worlds.  The real horror lies in the possibility of never finding the correct universe they need to be in and being lost forever.

I liked both Orion and Niko.  Orion is completely uncomfortable with himself: with his appearance, emotions, his sexuality, and his feelings toward Niko.  He tries to bury everything deep inside himself so he doesn’t have to deal with anything.  The book does take place a few decades ago, in a little more realistically difficult time to be gay.  Niko is a lot more self-assured, though he’s more aimless in life.  He changes his major every quarter, has a tenuous relationship with his traditionally Greek family, and is basically a rather typical young straight college guy.  Still the two fit each other like hands in gloves.  

I really liked the book for the most part.  The introduction to the basement was creepy at first, then was a little boring for a while.  It felt like the author couldn’t keep the level of tension up through the exploration of different hallways and doors.  But then when they get trapped in the alternate universe, it really takes off.  Shortly after that, the doppelgangers appear to them consciously and it gets very creepy again.  I give the book three stars out of five.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Silence of the Wilting Skin

TLotlo Tsamaase
Completed 2/21/2022, Reviewed 2/22/2022
3 stars

This was a surreal novella about colonization, segregation, and loss of culture.  It had beautiful language but often it got in the way of understanding what was going on.  I understood the beginning pretty well, but then it went some really strange places.  It also prevented me from really identifying with the main character, who was also the narrator.  Still, I could feel the gravity of the plot and understood the terror and despair of characters.  This book was nominated for a 2021 Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror.

The unnamed main character lives in a city that is divided by a railroad line.  One side has black residents, the other white.  The railroad is spectral, that is, it comes through once a month carrying the dead and stops to pick up the newly dead.  The white side cannot see the train.  For the black side, it is part of their cultural ritual of death and dying.  One night, her grandmother’s dreamskin come to her instead of to her dying grandmother, warning her of her future.  After her grandmother dies and is sent off onto the train, her skin begins to peel off.  Then we find out that the white side is coming in and “revitalizing” the wards of the black side with new tall buildings.  Soon everything changes, even her relationship with her girlfriend, as people become translucent.

There’s a ton of surreal imagery in this book.  The train, the peeling skin, the translucence, all of it is strange and intense.  The lesbian content is also notable for the reactions to it.  In the main character’s culture, it is seen as something western, but the society on the other side of the tracks sees it as not being heteronormative.  The invasion of their culture even affects the language of their relationship.  The girlfriend says I love you in their language, but the main character can only say it in the white people’s language.  

I give this short novella three stars out of five.  I liked the power of it and the prose.  However, the narrative was just too complex for me.  There were times I really loved it and times I was simply lost.  But when I did get it, it was pretty powerful.  This book is not an easy read, but it is quick at about seventy-five pages.  I recommend it if you are into surrealist speculative fiction with an Afro-futurist bent.  

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Zen Cho
Completed 2/21/2022, Reviewed 2/21/2022
3 stars

This is a wuxia novella, that is, it features superhuman martial arts, that takes place in a mythic Asian country and features characters on the margins of society.  But it is a light story with bandits playfully bickering over what to do with a young nun of the titular Order and a trove of sacred artifacts.  Unfortunately, I found the lightness of the story powerless to draw me into it, and the bickering just felt annoying rather than comical.  Still, the prose is nice and the worldbuilding is decent.  It was nominated for a 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror as well as Locus and British Fantasy Awards for Best Novella.

The story begins in a coffeehouse where a customer accuses the waitress of casting a spell on him.  As soon as it becomes violent, a stranger, Tet Sang, steps in and saves the day.  The waitress, Guet Imm, turns out to be a young nun from the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water and from a temple that has been attacked and burned to the ground.  Feeling she owes a debt to the man that saved her, she finds Tet Sang living among a group of bandits and convinces them to keep her on.  While with them, she realizes they are trying to sell stolen sacred artifacts from her order.  But there’s something else.  Tet Sang has a few secrets of his own.

I hard a really hard time getting into this novel.  The opening sequence is intense, but then almost everything after that seemed rather dull.  There was the constant bickering over whether Guet Imm was bringing good or bad luck to the group of bandits.  I’m pretty sure it was meant to be somewhat comical, but I didn’t get the comedy part.  It just got on my nerves.  Every time something happened to the group, the bickering erupted.  I found myself losing focus in these parts, waiting for the plot to move along, or for scenes between Tet Sang and Guet Imm.

The scenes between the two main characters were probably the best part of the book.  Theirs is a strange relationship that doesn’t quite gel until secrets are discovered and revealed.  That play between the two helped develop those characters and their burgeoning love for each other.

I give this book three stars out of five.  For a book nominated for several awards, I found it weak and ultimately unsatisfying.  Despite being novella length, I found myself avoiding reading it, or putting it down every ten pages or so because it just didn’t grab me.  I give it three stars instead of two because the prose is decent, as is the world building.  And I did get into the banter between Tet Sang and Guet Imm.  I just wished there was more substance to the rest of the story.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Riot Baby

Tochi Onyebuchi
Completed 2/18/2022, Reviewed 2/18/2022
4 stars

This novella took me several days to finish.  It was a little difficult to follow.  Sometimes it felt stream of consciousness.  Sometimes it jumped timelines.  But almost all the time, the language used was powerful and provocative, just not cohesive.  It’s about a baby born on the day of the L.A. riots over the Rodney King beating and the problems growing up black in America.  It has a fantasy twist, though, which made it that much more intense.  It’s about being angry and having hope.  This book was nominated for a slew of awards, wining the 2021 World Fantasy Award for Novella.

The book begins with Ella, a black child of a single pregnant mother.  She has a gift of seeing the future of the people around her.  As she grows, her gift expands, including teleportation, psychokinetics, and getting into people’s minds making them see things.  Her mother bears a son, Kevin, or Kev.  She makes him help her keep Ella’s use of her powers under control.  But then Ella’s anger toward her mother grows and she eventually leaves home.  Soon after, Kev goes to jail where he gets beaten and becomes violent himself.  During his incarceration and after he has visits with Ella, both physical and through her mind, who tries to show him where he came from and where there might be hope.

Onyebuchi says in his acknowledgements that this book began as a “swirl of disembodied phrases and feelings and half-characters”.  Reading it still felt that way at times, particularly the ending.  I became disoriented in the last few pages, and when the book ended, I felt like I was left in a daze, rather than at a conclusion.  I think it had to do with Ella’s powers.  When she starts to make Kev see things, it becomes difficult to follow.  They jump back and forth in time and place.  Kev doesn’t always know what he’s seeing, and he’s the narrator of most of the book.  

However, reading the book was quite an experience.  It is full of anger and frustration at growing up black in America.  As a reader, you really feel those emotions.  The time in prison is particularly difficult reading, realizing Kev has gone from being college-bound to a violent, hardened person.  There’s a great short quote by an older, formerly incarcerated man named Calvin.  He tells Kev, “Hurt people hurt people”.  Simple but powerful.  

The character of Kev is fleshed-out pretty well.  Ella’s not so much.  We have regular interactions with her, but it seems it’s more to describe her powers and have her engage them with Kev.  I felt like I didn’t really know Ella.  She was more of a process or function rather than a person.  This was unfortunate because Kev was so rich.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  Despite its flaws, it is intense.  It forces you to look at what it is like to grow up black in America.  You can’t help getting angry as the characters do.  But there is hope for freedom from all the crap.  This book is not easy to read, because of form and content.  It challenges the reader to pay attention and make decisions.  And although I got lost in the form at the end, I didn’t miss the power of the message.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The House in the Cerulean Sea

T. J. Klune
Completed 2/14/2022, Reviewed 2/15/2022
5 stars

This book was beautiful.  It’s not necessarily a YA novel, but it involves children and the tone is very gentle.  It’s about magical children being stripped from their families or taken from the streets and put in schools to assimilate them with the rest of society.  If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was inspired by the similarly horrific tragedy of the indigenous children of Canada.  The book has been criticized by some as cultural appropriation for the setup.  But in and of itself, the book is beautifully written with heartwarming and -wrenching events and includes hope for a better future and a wonderfully gentle gay romantic subplot.  It made me leak tears.  This book won the 2021 Mythopoeic Award last year.

The story begins with Linus, an overworked, fastidious, single-minded social worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY).  He goes to the “schools” where the magical children are forced to go and make sure everything is in order.  If not, he closes them down.  Because of his objectivity and detail, he is assigned to a special school out on an island off the coast to determine if it should be closed.  The children are extreme cases and the headmaster has a non-traditional approach.  Linus goes for a month and meets the six children, a bearded gnome girl, a wood sprite, a wyvern, a shapeshifter, a blob with tentacles and eye-stalks, and the antichrist.  There is also an island sprite who helps the headmaster, Arthur.  Of course, over the stay, Linus softens, not only caring for the children and appreciating Arthur’s handling, but also realizing the evil that DICOMY perpetuates.  

The story is told from Linus’ point of view.  It starts in the stark, grey, rainy world of the city and he’s investigating a disturbance by a child in one of the schools.  That is his world:  dull, matter of fact, orderly, and severe.  He’s lived this way for 17 years, never taking a vacation, and almost never getting any demerits.  But then he transforms when he gets to the island.  The great thing about it is that it is slow and realistic.  He doesn’t just one day change.  He goes back and forth trying to live by the rules and regulations of DICOMY and trying to be a human being.  The other characters who work at DICOMY are just as severe.  His boss, more so.  They are caricatures of everything that’s wrong with government agencies chained to rules and regulations.

On the other hand, Arthur and the magical children are more human than the “normal” humans.  Though the children are tough to get to know because of the trauma and the abuse they’ve been through, they are just children, with all the chaos that comes with being a child.  Linus unwittingly comes to crack through their rough exteriors, possibly losing his “objectivity”, but making him slightly more human.  

Unlike many of the Mythopoeic Award winners, this book is less prosy and more on convincing dialogue.  The world building comes through in the conversations as well as the slow internal paradigm shift Linus experiences.  Still, reading it was a pleasure, full of great word choices and sentences without being flowery or pretentious.  

I give this book five stars out of five because the end made my gut wrench and then my eyes water.  It’s very sweet without being saccharine.  Even the romance between Arthur and Linus is tender and gentle, though awkward through most of it.  Klune writes positive queer characters and relationships, something he believes is important to do, now more than ever.  I can’t wait to read his new book, which was a deal of the day, and go back over his early works as well.  He’s an author I’m definitely going to try read more of.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Snow White Learns Witchcraft

Theodora Goss
Completed 2/11/2022, Reviewed 2/11/2022
4 stars

This is a beautiful collection of poems and stories deconstructing familiar fairy tales and reweaving them into mostly modern stories.  At first I was a little put off by the poetry, but I got over that as I realized what the author was doing.  I was never a real appreciator of poetry except in the classroom where we analyzed them.  These poems however are almost like flash fiction.  They are very easy to get into, with vivid language and often a wry sense of humor.  The stories are longer and much the same, though some are not necessarily happy endings.  This book won the 2020 Mythopoeic Award, having some very tough competition from Jo Walton and Alix E. Harrow.  

Here are a few examples of the poems.  The title poem is about Snow White growing old. “The Ogress Queen” is a fun and disturbing poem about a Queen who wants to eat her children.  “Girl, Wolf, Woods” is a brief deconstruction of Red Riding Hood.  “Rumpelstiltskin” is told from his point of view after he splits himself in anger over being fooled, finding a real way of getting rich rather than enslaving a girl.  There are quite a few poems deconstructing Goldilocks, several involve a girl marrying a bear.  “How to Make it Snow” is about a girl who tends to nature and finds herself taking over as the new witch who makes it snow.  “Diamonds and Toads” retells the fairy tale about a girl who spews diamonds and one who spew toads, but rather than a terrible story, finds good in the toads keeping the garden pest-free and the diamonds letting a girl be a librarian.  These are just a few of the (23, I think) poems that play freely with fairy tells.  There were only a few I didn’t get.

The stories are much more complex.  “Blanchefleur” is the name of a white cat who is the faerie cousin of Ivan the idiot.  His faerie aunt comes for him to apprentice him in three different areas, knowledge, child care, and war.  Then he is asked to slay a dragon.  I loved this story.  Ivan is not an idiot but reclusive since his mother died when he was young.  He gets to prove himself in the world of faerie.

“Red as Blood and White as Bone” is about a servant girl who finds a woman in the kitchen one day.  She believes the woman is a princess.  She turns out to be an enchanted wolf seeking revenge on the killer of her mate.  This is a very complex tale of fantasy versus reality.  The girl then grows to try to keep fairy tales alive.

I really loved “A Country Called Winter”.  It’s a deconstruction of the Snow Queen.  Vera was born in a country with an unpronounceable name, only known as Winter.  She’s an American citizen now, along with her mother.  She’s working for a grad degree when she meets the beautiful Kay.  He’s an undergrad from Denmark.  The two date for a while but Kay is stolen by Gerda, another grad student.  Then Vera finds out about her own true background and must return to Winter.  It’s a wonderful modern day fairy tale with a happy ending.

“Conversations with the Sea Witch” deconstructs The Little Mermaid.  Now the Dowager Queen and in a wheelchair because her legs never worked, she meets daily with the Sea Witch and they talk about the past and the present, loves and regrets.  This was perhaps the best of the stories.  Where Goss took this story really surprised me.

I give this book four stars out of five, falling short of a five only because there were a few poems and a story I either didn’t get or felt didn’t live up to the brilliance of the rest.  Goss has a few novels under belt and I’d like to read one of them sometime.  Her word choices are beautiful and her imagination is surprising.  I’d be willing to bet her novels are pretty good.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

A Woman of the Iron People

Eleanor Arnason
Completed 2/7/2022, Reviewed 2/8/2022
4 stars

This book is another interesting take on first contact by Arnason.  It’s sort of similar to her Ring of Swords in that you get the perspective of the aliens trying to determine if the humans are people.  It also shares the theme of separation of the sexes due to the aggression of the males.  In this book, there are two narrators, Nia of the alien, or more appropriately, the native people, and Lixia of the humans from Earth.  Nia’s narration opens and closes the book while Lixia’s is everything in between.  It really brings in both sides of the issue of recognizing the Other as equal and important as themselves.  This book won the 1992 Mythopoeic Award and the 1991 Otherwise Award.  

Nia is one of the furred natives of a planet over 18 light-years away.  She is of the Iron People, but she has been exiled for loving a male.  Males are kept on the outskirts of villages, tending herds of domesticated animals and only coming into contact with women when the women are in heat.  Women do everything else.  Nia, for example is a smith.  Lixia is one of the first explorers from Earth on the planet.  She encounters the village Nia lives and works in.  The furred women are shocked at the difference of Lixia and wonder if she is a demon or a spirit.  The village women pawn her off on Nia, who kind of resents it at first.  But eventually they travel together to go back to the Iron People and become friends.  Lixia has a gift for languages and picks up their language quickly.  Back on the spaceship, the people from Earth are fighting over whether contact interferes with the natural development of the native population.  All the while, Lixia tries to learn all she can from Nia and the others they encounter.

Lixia and Nia are really great characters.  Nia is introverted and stoic.  She takes everything as it comes, as she did her exile.  She’s a little like a man, not really liking being around people, which is why she doesn’t want to play tour guide for Lixia.  Soon, however, she comes to really care for Lixia and takes seriously the conflict of the crew aboard the spaceship.  Lixia is a bit on the perfect side, the ultimate anthropologist.  She does everything she can to limit her explanation of human technology to this pre-technological society.  At the same time, she finds a way to learn so much about the Indigenous population.  Along the way, they acquire a male on their journey who happens to be holy and crazy.  The spirits of the waterfall talk to him and they tell him he must follow Lixia.  Rounding out this group is Derek, another anthropologist who is a bit full of himself, but not too obnoxious.  I like him as well, after a while.  

The world building is terrific.  Arnason does an amazing job with this society and planet.  Her prose is terrific as well.  It is descriptive without being overbearing.  There were only a few times when I thought that she went on about insignificant details.  Altogether it makes for a quick, easy read.  There’s a glossary for pronunciation that I wish I had found earlier.  When I got to the end and found the glossary, I was kind of bummed that I had been pronouncing things wrong in my head.  

Through most of my reading, I wondered why this science fiction book would win a Mythopoeic Award.  It eventually dawned on me that it’s because Arnason creates a robust culture complete with stories of their mythology.  I enjoyed the little group’s forays into the different villages and how the women reacted to their presence.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a terrific first contact story with the prime directive trope (from Star Trek) and a fascinating take on the sexes.  I don’t think this is an easy book to find, but it is available electronically.  My library had the e-book. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Cartherynne Valente
Completed 2/4/2022, Reviewed 2/4/2022
4 stars

I missed something with this book.  It’s a continuation of In the Night Garden.  It has the same wild form and the same amazing tales grounded in mythology and fairy tales.  But I had a hard time remembering the characters from the stories as they progressed.  If I read a lot in one night, I could get into it.  But the next night, I forgot enough details that I was lost for a while.  This didn’t happen in Night Garden.  I think this book was just too much of a good thing.  Together the two volumes are well over 900 pages.  That’s a lot of interwoven storytelling.  It’s done masterfully, though, which is why this two-volume set really deserved its 2008 Mythopoeic Award. 

The book continues the story of the strange, shunned girl living in the gardens of the Sultan.  She is met regularly by his son to hear the stories that are printed around her eyes.  This time, there’s the addition of one of the Sultan’s daughters who is about to be married off and is terrified of it.  She has overheard the storytelling and is as enrapt as her little brother.  There are two major stories within which other tales are interwoven.  The first is about a boy and a girl who are taken by strange creatures and forced to work in a coin minting factory.  When they escape, they meet a man and his manticore wife who tells them all sorts of stories.  The second involves a mute woman and her faithful leopard who meet an imprisoned Djinn.  The stories within stories include bird women who communicate by writing with their feet in elaborate dances, a spider who wants to be a weaver, a woman with violin bows for fingers, and djinn who wants to save a dying town from an invasion.

I can’t say enough about the prose.  It’s amazing.  The characterization is tremendous.  And the imagination that went into this world building is simply phenomenal.  Perhaps it was the complexity of the world that made it difficult for me to follow the stories.  Once again, the form is stories within stories, written in a recursive way.  So to follow all the plots in this complicated world full of strange and magical beings takes a lot of effort.  And my heart was just not into it.

Going into the book anymore would just be a repeat of Night Garden, so I won’t keep heaping the same superlatives.  But I give this book only four stars out of five.  That might be an injustice because maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for the book.  I’ll let it stand though.  Sometimes you get a book that just thoroughly amazes you.  When you get to the sequel, though, some of that may wear off.  It did for me.  I’m still giving it a high rating though because Valente is truly an amazing writer to be able to keep this up for nearly a thousand pages.  I definitely recommend the pair, referred to as “The Orphan’s Tales”.  And unlike other multi-volume sets, I recommend reading them together to keep the momentum going.