The Little Black Fish – Bizhan Khodabandeh (illustrator)

Little Black Fish CoverFirst Published: 15th March, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Rosarium

The little black fish is tired of swimming in circles all day, so she decides to leave and find out where the stream ends.

This comic is an adaptation of the children’s book “The Little Black Fish” by Samad Behrangi. There’s a note at the end discussing some of the changes from the original material, though none of them are that major. The main flow of the story is the same as the original text.

I loved the art style in this. It’s very colourful with a lot of detailed patterns. The panel layouts are varied, which helps provide visual interest. The balance of text to art worked to make it clear what was going on.

As to the story itself, its strengths and weaknesses are down to the source material. On the plus side, it’s a tale of how one person’s achievements can inspired others. The frame story is a fish telling her children and grandchildren (I liked the nod to biological accuracy, as there’s a huge number of them) about the black fish’s adventures. It’s a story about striving to achieve your dreams and ask questions, even if others are sure you’re wrong.

It’s also interesting in a political context, as it touches on issues like people being shunned or killed to maintain the status quo, and attempts to suppress knowledge. As someone born to a working class family, feeling like life is swimming in pointless circles, and wanting to escape that, is something I can relate to.

There are aspects I did not like as much, and would make me hesitant to read this to a younger child. Crying is treated harshly. To cry makes you a cry-baby and a disgrace. The old are criticised for whining about things. The black fish is called crazy, and calls others ignorant in response. Though being called crazy is portrayed as a bad thing, it is the black fish who is saying others must not complain about things and are ignorant for not agreeing with her. Those are all things people throw at others to shut them up (stop whining, stop crying, you’re just stupid), which rather goes against the central theme of the black fish wanting the freedom to speak her mind and achieve her dreams. It’s a selective freedom for her, and people who think like her.

It’s also a rather simplified metaphor when it comes to the poor. A lot of people aren’t caught swimming in circles because they don’t believe there’s anything else, but because they can’t escape their circumstances. There isn’t an opening in the stream for them to swim down. Or if there is one, they’re not able to fit through it. This is implied with the lizard, as he offers support for the fish without going himself, but it’s not directly stated.

For an older child or adult, the story can be considered in the context of when and where the original was written. For a younger child, that’s going to be a bit over their heads.

I think this would be a great book for any fans of the original, as well as people new to the story. The comic adaptation does add something extra. But it is very much a story where knowing the context is important, as some of the morals of the tale are a little uncomfortable in a modern context. I’m all for telling people to strive for their dreams and to be inspired by others, but not so much that it’s bad to complain or cry when something’s hurting you.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens – Joanne Merriam (editor)

oplanets2First Published: 16th February, 2015
Genre: Science Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Dean Francis Alfar; Celia Lisset Alvarez; RJ Astruc; Lisa Bao; Pinckney Benedict; Lisa Bolekaja; Mary Buchinger; Zen Cho; Tina Connolly; Indrapramit Das; Tom Doyle; Peg Duthie; Tom Greene; Benjamin S. Grossberg; Minal Hajratwala; Julie Bloss Kelsey; Rose Lemberg; Ken Liu; Alex Dally MacFarlane; Anil Menon; Joanne Merriam; Mary Anne Mohanraj; Daniel José Older; Abbey Mei Otis; Sarah Pinsker; Elyss G. Punsalan; Benjamin Rosenbaum; Erica L. Satifka; Nisi Shawl; Lewis Shiner; Marge Simon; Sonya Taaffe; Bogi Takács; Bryan Thao Worra; Deborah Walker; Nick Wood
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

I have mixed feelings about the anthology, which aren’t anything to do with the individual stories and poems. It’s about the stated theme and how that theme is described. It starts with the preface of the anthology. I’m not a huge fan of describing invasion as immigration. It’s true it’s a form of migration, but that term is used to soften or dismiss what went down. When people say Europeans migrated to the Americas, it’s often a way to avoid addressing it as an invasion or having to talk about genocide. There’s also the underlying implication of all migrants being equal, from the invader who lives with the advantages that brings, to the refugee who is struggling to survive.

So the preface rubbed me the wrong way right from the start, and the question at the end didn’t seem to flow from the rest. When I think of migration, I don’t think: “Who do we become when we live with the unfamiliar?”

When I think about migration, my big questions are: “What leads people to migrate? What are the obstacles they face?” For me, colonialism, assimilation pressures, and politics are core issues of the theme. Questioning if things are a bit weird compared to home, and how you might change to deal with that, is another softening of the theme. The suggestion is immigration is mostly about dealing with small details like food being different or your accent seeming strange to locals.

Moving on to the stories, some stood out more than others, for better or worse. A favourite was “Zero Bar” (Tom Greene). It’s about someone who had her gene expression altered before birth, so that she looks whiter than the rest of her family. Though I live in a different place, and I’m at the other end of the scale (the darker one in a lighter family), some of the experiences resonated with mine. Like not knowing how to fill out diversity forms and other people always being sure they’re the expert in how a mixed race person should identify.

“Sea Changes” (Erica L. Satifka) deals with someone born in an undersea dome adjusting after being “rescued” and bought back to a surface city. It’s a short piece with a great atmosphere, that touches on the harm the system can do when it thinks it knows best.

There are a lot of other strong works in the mix. “muo-ka’s Child” (Indrapramit Das) explores how humans could have unintended ecological impacts on planets just by arriving. “The Four Generations of Chang E” (Zen Cho) is a story with moon rabbits and changing attitudes across generations. “The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook For Visiting Extraterrestrials” (Bogi Takács) is a bit of humour.

Though there were many stories I liked, there was some I didn’t. “In Colors Everywhere” (Nisi Shawl) is one I really didn’t enjoy at all. It’s set on a penal colony planet, from the perspective of someone who has grown up on the planet. I would have avoided reading this one if I’d realised the crime most of the original residents committed was being trans, and that it was a story of how people in the colony will be raped and exploited, with no way to escape. I’ve liked other stories by this author, but this one was very much not my cup of tea.

There’s a difficulty here about whether I judge the anthology by what the title implies it’s about or by the stated intention in the preface. Neither one entirely works. Some of the stories are not about someone living with the unfamiliar, as people are living right where they were born, and sometimes where their parents have lived for generations. But some of the stories aren’t really science fiction immigration either. A tourist isn’t an immigrant even with the most open of definitions.

I’d say it’s a good anthology in terms of the quality of stories included. Many of the authors have experience of immigration, which shows in the handling of the theme. But I’m not so convinced the curation of the anthology was built on an understanding of the theme. More on hoping the authors would understand and it would fall into place. The declaration that it doesn’t contain polemics, and is instead meant to entertain, adds to my feeling on this. A lot of marginalised authors have faced having their work dismissed as being a polemic or message fiction, and that no one could possibly enjoy their work. Stating strongly that their work isn’t comes across as, “I know work by authors like this is usually dull message fiction, but these stories are different.” Which is rather a backhanded compliment.

That said, it will appeal to people who like to see a diversity in protagonists, and some of the themes surrounding immigration and colonialism explored. Many of the authors are not new to me, but are frequently underpromoted. This is a good place to see their work collected together.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

This Strange Way of Dying – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Collection CoverFirst Published: 1st September, 2013
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s collection has stories mostly set in Mexico, with speculative and folkloric themes. My favourite was “Maquech”, about selling live beetle jewellery. The beetle is the last one decorated by a particular crafter, and brings with it dreams of the jungle. Yet it has to be sold to cover basic living costs, to a rich person who only wants it as this season’s shiny thing.

It’s a strong collection, with a range of themes and approaches. Recommended for those who like stories of the quietly strange.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.