Retro Fiction Review Series: “Queen City Jazz” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Retro Fiction Review Series

 

“Queen City Jazz” (1998) by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Published by Voyager, London.

‘Queen City Jazz’ is an interesting book, it has a great premise with exploring a distopian future using a melding of giant bees and hive like ‘alive’ city networks and the post effects of a ‘nano war’ on the people surrounding and within one of those cities, ‘Cincinnati’ known as the ‘Queen City’. 

The protagonist Verity is the reason I read it all the way through. As a character, being young and quite ignorant of her history and with selective teaching of her history around her she has startling indpendence and the ability to act autonomously. Her choices are her own all the way through and she is clear about her reasoning for things throughout her journey. It is delightfully refreshing (still) to read a believable female character as the protagonist in a novel where it’s not playing too much up to tired tropes for female characters. 

For example, playing into the trope, Verity is ‘chosen’ for a particular destiny, but the way in which the author uses that trope interestingly and allows Verity to interpret for herself what being ‘chosen’ means. While there were romantic threads in the book it wasn’t a strong theme and the story was stronger for it.

On the less positive side of things, I didn’t really enjoy the ‘god/prophet’ thread. This thread involved the story of a middle aged male character who was responsible for early programming of the cities, him and his issues leaked through a little bit to strongly and made my teeth hurt a little. 

Overall I liked it and am glad I read it, but it was a bit of a slog to get through and I was committed to finishing it rather than really wanting to read it all the way through. My reasons for doing so, such as the interesting premise, the female protagonist and her story remaining central, her independence, resilience and autonomy reinforced the entire way through made it worthwhile. 

I’m really glad the book exists and that I read it. It is a solid science fiction novel and it pressed a lot of my reading desirability buttons gently, but without ever really hooking me. Still, that’s my experience of reading and your mileage may vary. 

 

Retro Fiction Review Series: “Cat Fantastic” eds. Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg

Retro Fiction Review Series

“Cat Fantastic” (1989) edited by Andre Norton & Martin H. Greenberg.

Published by Daw Books Inc, New York.

Cat Fantastic - coverFirst Impressions: 

This anthology is beautifully put together as a hardcover with thick paper and it’s one of those books you enjoy the physical feeling of reading. The book boasts 15 stories with an interesting table of contents. The anthology features predominantly female author names, with three or four gender ambiguous names as well. There are a variety of protagonists, some human, some cat, some male, some female – a nice balance that reads well.

In her introduction, Andre Norton discusses the “weighty subject of cats” (vii) and what she suggests is an affinity between them and writers. She points out that it is because the cat is known to be mysterious, at times imperious and well known to live by their own (non-human) standards that makes cats such a fascinating subject for story telling. Certainly if this anthology is anything to go by, I find myself agreeing with Ms. Norton. She summaries the book as “fifteen histories [that] deal not only with spells but also with diplomatic relations on other planets, with forbidden research, engineering on a grand scale and with guardians who know their duty and expertly do it” (viii).

I’m not usually one for short story anthologies, although every so often I come across an anthology sufficiently seductive enough that I cannot resist. Perhaps it is that I am cultivating entirely positive experiences with short fiction so as to get past my general unenjoyment of it in the past. In any case, a book entirely composed of books about cats is an easy sell for me, I couldn’t resist if I tried. This anthology has an overall quality that left me very satisfied and when I realised that there were four more anthologies by the same editors about cats, I ordered them immediately.

I would unquestionably recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys stories about cats particularly those stories with a speculative fiction basis, anyone who enjoys stories that feature strong and interesting female characters written by a variety of (now) well known female authors.

Note: This is a long review, even though I’m only discussing the stories that I particularly liked or particularly noted.

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The Stories: 

“The Gate of the Kittens” by Wilanne Schneider Belden

This is a story of Feathers the pregnant cat, dark magic, time crossings, a brave and compassionate librarian Judith Justin who can drive a Bookmobile confidently through a raging storm. This is a quirky kind of story, the kind about saving the world where no one else really knows that’s what’s happened.

I love the friendship and the general acceptance of things out of the ordinary that Judith exhibits. I love that the’s an ordinary and solitary woman travelling through mountains with a Bookmobile, self sufficient and all around competent. Judith is a very likeable person and the story is believable in part because her own reasoning and intuition is emphasised.

I enjoyed the story, it was sweet and satisfying – though I also wouldn’t have objected to a novel length stand-alone story with this premise. This story was an inviting beginning to the anthology, I definitely wanted to read more.

 

“The Damcat” by Clare Bell

The Black Canyon dam project is the setting for this story told by Dale Curtis, an engineer, who meets Mike, a Native American Indian man from the Hopi tribe and his bob-cat partner Tonochpa. The friendship formed between Mike and Dale is interesting, they come from vastly different backgrounds and belief systems. Yet, they form a trust and respect for one another such that a critical issue with the dam is able to be fixed when all three of them bobcat included work together to solve the problem.

This is a story involving a non-white character who commands respect, rather than the white protagonist saving the day it is instead thanks to the actions of Mike and his partner Tonochpa that make the vital difference with the support of Dale. That their actions saved the lives of many and ensured the strength and structural integrity of the dam remains a quiet achievement between them. I find myself liking these quiet stories of heroism where it is enough that those involved know what happened rathe than seeking public acclaim.

This story read a little clunky in places, and as a white person I am unsure how well the story of a non-white person was handled but my impression of it was positive, if anyone else has thoughts on the story on this particular aspect I’m interested to hear them. This wasn’t a favourite story, but it was quite different to the other stories in the anthology and I wanted to talk about it.

 

“Borrowing Trouble” by Elizabeth H. Boyer

This story is very much the kind of story that makes me want a series of books set in this world with these characters. The story was one of my favourites and it in some ways reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s characters and her worldbuilding. I also have a fondness for boy protagonists who are a little bit arrogant and full of themselves, and learn to be a little bit less so in the process of growing up, retaining the snarky charm. Agnarr is such a character, obviously the bane of the Meistari’s life and yet a great hopeful as a wizard student with lots of talent (but very little patience).

Agnarr befriends Skuggi, a cat travelling with another wizard who tells him the battle-scarred cat is too much for him to handle, but the cat is determined and so it goes that Skuggi joins company with Agnarr. The key to having a familiar is to discover their true name, a feat that Agnarr stumbles on but proves to be his saving grace when a vendetta against the Meistari is uncovered. The story is well written, easy to read and really endeared me to it.

 

“Day of Discovery” by Blake Cahoon

Another favourite, this story is about Lyssa a scientist completing her thesis. It is a science adventure and romance, involving a Guardian cat named Einstein. Her recently deceased professor and ex-lover has stolen credit for her research work on other dimensions and molecular transference and Lyssa is fighting with her friend David’s help to be able to complete it. This is a simple story but it’s effective and enjoyable – there’s not much else to say without spoiling it. This is another story that made me want more of a novel, again not in a bad way.

 

“Yellow Eyes” by Marylois Dunn

Another epic-fantasy style setting, this story was also up there with my favourites told from the point of view of Yellow Eyes the cat. Yellow Eyes leads an ordinary sort of life for a cat in a castle, things get a little bit different for him when he unexpectedly befriends a new and foreign dog who has joined the castle hunting pack. There is a mysterious jewel and the sage advice from the White Cat who is the companion of a spell weaver. Together the animals manage to save the castle, it’s a journey well worth reading. This was a beautiful story, perfectly rounded out into an ending that has the rare compliment of making me feel satisfied with exactly how the story was told and ended.

 

“It Must Be Some Place” by Donna Farley

This particular story was near the top of the list of my favourites from this anthology. It’s a story that reminds me a little of Pratchett books, and I would *love* to see this as a full length novel or a series of them – there’s plenty of material to play with. The story itself I could easily see as a novel (and one I’d lovingly reread at that). This is the story of Jack, a lost sock and Butterfly the tortiseshell tom who knows his magic and helps Jack to recover the lost sock. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I loved the band of characters as they come together. I also really enjoyed both Jack and Butterfly as protagonists. Definitely one of the top stories for this anthology in my opinion.

 

“Trouble” by P. M. Griffin

A story like this is remarkable in the subject it undertakes and the way it handles that subject. Dory is a child from an unhappy home and it falls to her cat companion Trouble to help her. The story is a small one, but it is deft and has a sweetness to it that I enjoyed. Trouble’s decisiveness and imperious way of helping Dory and looking after her is endearing, Dory herself is an interesting character though we only begin to get to know her. This is another story which would have been well served as a novel exploring the bigger story that’s been hinted at. That said, the small story was still satisfying in it’s way.

 

“Skitty” by Mercedes Lackey

This story was also delightful, I loved the simplicity of the tale and how delightfula pair Dick and Skitty are. I loved this reworking of the cats hunting pests story – I’ve read it in a couple of children’s fairytales and I liked this version just as much. This was perfectly contained within a short story, it was just a pleasure start to finish.

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I should mention that the other stories were a pleasure as well, most of them were very solid and only one or two left me with very little to say or recommend about them. Likely as not, that’s personal taste talking. I’ve stuck to the stories I liked best or noted most for another reason for this review, as being a collection of stories it’s a long review. This was the simplest way to contain it. I hope that you’ll take a look at the collection if you can get your hands on it, the editors have done themselves proud and the contributing authors as well. I say this as someone who doesn’t generallly enjoy short stories, specifically that this collection was well worth my time and effort.

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. Or, if you find it and read it, let me know.

New project! The Retro Fiction Review Series!

Let me tell you a little bit about this new project I’m taking on! I’m very excited 🙂

I have inherited a large number of rather interesting and awesome books from a dear friend of mine who is going ‘all ebooks all the way baby’ and as a result, I have benefited greatly. Many of these books are ones that I probably would have been delighted to be recommended from when I was a teen or in my early twenties, however, that didn’t happen and I’m hoping to go back and fill in a number of what I see are large gaps in my reading history. There are lots of female authors and stories of women and feminism and of cultural futures that I’m very interested to explore.

My project occurs out of my desire to record what I’m reading and what I enjoy about it. I’ve never really done this before and I think that if I can develop the skill my following uni and postgrad years will be eleventy-million times easier. 

Also, I suspect there’s plenty of people out there who are also interested in recommendations for books that are not brand new and just released, but part of the background of the immense number of books in genres like science fiction and fantasy (assume when I use this term that I mean the entire generous umbrella for books of this nature). There are *so many* book in fact, that someone talking about what they liked about it or didn’t like about it might just be useful. 

I’ll be talking about these books in terms of my first impressions and general overview discussing any relevant demographics – as in how  many authors in anthologies are non-white people or women, if there are any queer stories, stories of people with disabilities and so on. I’ll discuss the story and the characters, the world building and my personal experience of the book (or individual stories if it’s an anthology). It is also fairly likely that I’ll make some sort of critical commentary from my perspective as a (fledgeling) cultural analyst. 

So here we are, with the Retro Fiction Review Series, I’ll be your host Ju. Coming up next, a rather long review of the 1989 anthology “Cat Fantastic” edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg. Then, a review of the 1994 “Queen City Jazz” by Kathleen Ann Goonan. 

Review: Tangled

I watched ‘Tangled’ for the second time this morning and it was just as good to watch the second time around as the first. It’s a movie that has been constructed in such a way as to not present as either a ‘girl’s’ movie or a ‘boy’s’ movie, the balance is pretty solid story and character wise in that sense. Looking at it with a feminist and cultural analysis lens, it comes out pretty damned favourably. I will admit that I was surprised how well it does.

Tangled poster

Overall it was a very well balanced movie, well written, good action sequences and pacing with character and plot development sequences. It was a movie where there was a likeable central female protagonist who was handy with a frypan (as a weapon) and surprisingly self-sufficient having been raised in a tower away from the world for eighteen years. The interpretation of the story by Disney was simple and effective hitting all the high notes of the traditional fairytale.

From a non-tokenism point of view, it passes the Bechdel test very early on with exchanges between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Both the character of Rapunzel and Mother Gothel are believable. Focusing on the latter for a moment, her villainous motives are clear and believable, her character remains consistent to these motivations throughout the entire film. Mother Gothel is set on staying young for ever and protecting the magic that keeps her that way. She’s emotionally outright manipulative toward Rapunzel which reinforces Rapunzel’s dependency on her and her naivety. Rapunzel’s naivety is believable, though it is clear that she is self sufficient, intelligent and imaginative. Thus when she leaves the tower, the way she learns and acclimatises to the outside world is also believable.

This is a classic fairytale story, complete with rescuing. Less ‘traditional’ is the way in which Rapunzel does an awful lot of rescuing of her guide Flynn. Flynn is goofy but likeable and not quite prepared to meet someone like Rapunzel who is intriguing and trigger happy with the fry pan. Flynn has princely good looks, a manner that suggests a certain confidence with charming women, and I have to say that one of my favourite lines in the movie is “You broke my smoulder!”. As Flynn and Rapunzel make their way to the city in order that she might see the floating lanterns, it is clear that Flynn learns as much from Rapunzel as she does from him.  I also appreciated the band of unlikely friends they met along the way (although in this aspect it was masculine character heavy).

As far as supporting characters go, hands down the non verbal characters have it – there were three. It was at every point very clear what their intended communication was and they were likeable and very different in both personality and motivation. Maxiumus the noble steed was a delight to watch at every point, I couldn’t love the character more if I tried. His dedication to apprehending Flynn for the theft of the crown is admirable, and the array of less than horse-like behaviours in pursuit of this goal are endearing, as is the truce like relationship that eventually occurs between Maximus and Flynn. Similarly Pascal the chameleon is a delightful best friend character for Rapunzel, giving her a playmate and confidant, someone to encourage her and occasionally mock her, a constant companion who supports the story and never short circuits it. The third non-verbal character is actually one of the ruffians they meet whose secret dream is to be a mime. The mime is a minor but articulate character, which for a non verbal character says a lot.

The band of thugs and ruffians the pair first meet at the ‘Snuggly Duckling’ (seriously what a cool name for a thug and ruffian pub!) are every bit as intimidating as you’d expect in the first few minutes, but Rapunzel’s determination to see the lanterns wins them over when she explains why she needs Flynn (who is apparently on everyone else’s black list) as her guide. Singing, dancing and absurdity ensue with each of the ruffians exclaiming their secret hidden dream.

Of particular note about this sequence is that although all of the characters were male, they all had dreams that fell into the realm that I’d loosely title ‘non traditionally male interests’. This was especially cool as a dichotomy playing off the fact that they were engaged in what were clearly defined stereotypical male occupational roles for a fairytale kingdom.

Other more minor aspects that I appreciated about the movie included the overall darker tone of the movie. It was a little bit more sinister than I’ve seen of Disney in recent years, a little less sanitised and it is something that I think really supports the film’s success. I enjoyed that although there was magic glowing hair as one of the keystones of the story, that the story was less about the hair/magic and more about Rapunzel herself. Even the romantic storyline played second fiddle to her overall desire to fulfill her dream to see the lanterns in person (aka: metaphor for self actualisation). I also have to comment on how much I enjoyed the lowly frying pan wielded as a formidable weapon throughout the film. This may seem like a minor point to appreciate, however, the fact that it is an ordinary implement found to hand says different things about violence and self protection as oppose to purposeful weapons for offensive violence.

I find very little that I could nitpick about this movie and I choose not to do so as it would feel petty given that I’d be searching as opposed to reviewing honestly. This film was very entertaining from an adult point of view, and having seen it today in the company of a three and five year old, entertaining and sustaining for them as well.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film and would recommend it without reservation.