The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

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

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn – Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn CoverAlternate Titles: Brightwood
First Published: 10th March, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Daisy has never left her home in Brightwood Hall. She lives a comfortable life with her mother, surrounded by the history of her family. Until her mother disappears, and a man appears at the house.

The fact that Daisy has never left Brightwood Hall already hints that something odd is going on. That something is her mother experiencing a trauma as a child. She hoards supplies and other items, to the point of filling up the rooms in the manor house with storage shelves. She only leaves to get supplies, and doesn’t want Daisy going out at all. That fear of losing things has been enabled by the family’s wealth. She’s never really had to face her trauma, because it’s very easy to shut the world out living in a manor house. It’s easy to hoard when you have so much space.

I liked that the story did address these things. Daisy comes to realise how much her mum’s life has been influenced by those past events. And how this has trickled down to Daisy’s life.

Daisy is a fun protagonist. She holds conversations with the animals and artwork. This includes statues, topiary bushes and portraits of her ancestors. Whether this is entirely imaginary is up for debate. They certainly help her come to a decision about what to do when the man arrives.

I enjoyed the writing style and pacing of the book. There are elements of mystery, about who the man is and why he’s there. There’s some action, as Daisy acts out her plans. I wish I could end the review there, because there are a lot of things about the book I really like. I was promised an adventure set in a manor house, and it delivered on that.

The problem was The Crazy. Daisy has been told that The Crazy runs in the family. It means a person is vile and has most likely murdered people. This made me wince the first time it was introduced, but I gave some benefit of the doubt that it would be addressed later. It wasn’t. The best Daisy gets to is maybe people would call her mum crazy, but she’s not properly crazy as she’s not violent. Daisy doesn’t realise, at any level, that The Crazy is upper class entitlement, rather than a health condition. If you feel you’re better than anyone else and entitled to things, you’re not going to care who you hurt to get it… those other people aren’t really people, after all. This is an entirely sane, if unpleasant, response to privilege. What really struck me is it was a small part of the story, which could have been changed in ten minutes of editing. A few reworded sentences and a new name for The Crazy would have made all the difference. All it would have taken was considering how it might impact a non-neurotypical reader.

The result was though I generally enjoyed the book, I was cringing at those moments when The Crazy came up. They pulled me out of the story. Crazy often looks more like Daisy’s mum. Crazy often looks more like me. It doesn’t make someone a murderer.

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

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.