REVIEW: “The Widow” by Emma Torzs

Review of Emma Torzs, “The Widow”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 305 (June 4, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This story of transformation, revenge, and double-crosses takes the form of a confession dictated to a man “in the final hour of his life” by narrator Perrine Mauroy “in the first hour of her own.” As the story opens, Perrine is a battered wife seeking freedom from an abusive husband, but she also yearns for the chance to live a stranger, though—from her point of view—better life. When the blood of a living calf is transfused into her husband, somehow rendering him peaceful, Perrine takes hope, only to have that hope dashed when the transformation wears off. What happens next involves an unusual combination of science, magic, and double-dealing, and ends with an odd, but oddly satisfying, metamorphosis.  

REVIEW: “The Story of Ah-Ming” by Wang Zhanhei

Review of Wang Zhanhei, Christopher MacDonald (trans.), “The Story of Ah-Ming”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 79-94 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Ah-Ming is an unlikely character for a story to center around — “the old lady who lived in a lock-up garage at the end of the estate” (p. 81) who trawls through the trash collecting bottles and cans to trade for money and any other bit of rubbish that one day might be useful. Everyone in the neighborhood had witnessed her slow decline over recent years; but no one expected her to one day be discovered in the trash bins.

The discovery of Ah-Ming in the bin both opens and closes this strange story. I found it a strange juxtaposition of very deftly put together and almost entirely lacking in sympathy, whether on the part of the characters, the reader, or, dare I say it, the author. Strange indeed.

(Originally published in One, 2016).

REVIEW: “The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng

Review of Shen Dacheng, Jack Hargreaves (trans.), “The Novelist in the Attic”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 61-77 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story was the one that intrigued me the most when I read a one-sentence blurb of it on the back. I thought we’d find out, at the start, how the novelist gets into the attic, but the story actually opens on him when he’s already been up there for years.

Part of the premise of the story is extremely attractive to any writer — a quiet space where one can write uninterrupted, without any cares of housekeeping. But the flip side of it — a writer effectively squatting in his publisher’s attic, toiling away without ever producing his third book — is kind of chilling. For awhile, the reader seems to suffocate along with the writer, until one day the publishing house’s previous director retires and a new, reforming, one takes over. The abrupt change shocks the entire system, including the author, and the story takes a sudden, dramatic twist.

The one thing that struck me about this story is how indistinct it was, in the sense that it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. Only the references to the wutong trees outside the building locate the story in any particular place.

(First published in The Ones in Remembrance, 2017).

REVIEW: “Woman Dancing Under Stars” by Teng Xiaolan

Review of Teng Xiaolan, Yu Yan Chen (trans.), “Woman Dancing Under Stars”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 39-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A chance encounter between the narrator and Zhuge Wei leads to an unlikely friendship between the young newlywed and the old widow.

The story both reinforces and questions stereotypes of women, but the ways in which the women cannot escape their gender roles makes the entire story sad, rather than free, in the end.

But it came with four informative footnotes, two of which taught me vocabulary and one of which taught me some important cultural info (the fourth was about tea), always appreciated!

(First published in Zhong Shan, 2010).

REVIEW: “Bengal Tiger” by Xia Shang

Review of Xia Shang, Lee Anderson (trans.), “Snow”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 23-38 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The families of Chang Jing and Li Dabing have been feuding for years now. When their feud gets passed onto their sons, Rocky and Chao, both families need to face up to the claim at the root of it all: That the Chang family owes the Li family a life. Whose life, and why?

The story jumps back and forth between Jing and his son, between the present and the past, as it attempts to unweave the mystery. But at the very end, I came with feeling that I should have figured out who it was that had died, and how, but I didn’t. This might be a story that improves upon rereading; but it might also be one where something crucial has been lost in translation.

But kudos to the informative footnotes, which Comma Press’s books often have, and which I love!

(First published in People’s Literature, 2001.)

REVIEW: “Snow” by Chen Danyan

Review of Chen Danyan, Paul Harris (trans.), “Snow”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 9-22 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Another story that is not particularly speculative/SFF in nature, Danyan’s tale follows Zheng Ling one New Year’s morning as she navigates not only a trepidatious visit to her mother, but also a growing realisation that she is inhabiting the type of life that she pities in others.

It’s a quiet, not especially happy story, with a weight that makes everything feel like it’s blanketed in the titular snow. Little scenes are sketched here and there with great clarity, and while it may not be the sort of story that I ordinarily enjoy, I definitely enjoyed the writing (so kudos to the translator, whom I can only assume did an excellent job.)

(Originally published in Shanghai Literature, 2010).

REVIEW: “Calm Face of the Storm” by Ramona Louise Wheeler

Review of Ramona Louise Wheeler, “Calm Face of the Storm”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 119–131 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a planet orbiting twin suns, Bret is a flying man that has strayed away from his home while chasing a strange looking lizard. On the way, a violent storm almost kills him, knocking him unconscious. Bret wakes up in one of the lighthouses that populate the edge of his people’s territory. There he finds out that the lighthouses are maintained by a set of “transparent” flying people, not as technologically advanced as his own culture, living a more natural way of life. Bret falls in love with Mornell, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, and with her help, adopts their way of life. However, he soon realizes that he can’t stay with them forever and must return home.

I always try to not be a stickler about “genre purity,” but I was nevertheless surprised this story was included in Analog. While it has some elements of science fiction (twin suns, spaceports, possibly aliens, etc.) it reads a lot more like a fantasy story — or at the very least, a convoluted hybrid of the two (I could not stop thinking of Avatar). It doesn’t matter so much, since most of the story takes place inside the main character’s head, but it is nevertheless something that stood out to me.

Genre nitpicking aside, I was rather disappointed with the story. The world that the author creates, while rich in detail, is nothing new or original, drawing on many preexisting tropes. At times I was impressed with the author’s prose, but much of it felt padded with one unnecessary description after another, making the story rather painful to read. Similarly, the plot offers little more than a standard coming of age story with the addition of some serious holes in its logic. For example, Bret comes from a somewhat technologically advanced society, yet nobody knows what lies just a few miles outside their city. This sounds highly implausible to say the least.

Overall, I found very little to enjoy in “Calm Face of the Storm.”

REVIEW: “The Honey of the World and the Queen of Crows” by Dimitra Nikolaidou

Review of Dimitra Nikolaidou, “The Honey of the World and the Queen of Crows”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 304 (May 21, 2020): listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Ever hear the one about the nun and the soldier who enter a bar and can’t see their reflection, or that of the bartender, in the mirror on the opposite wall? Neither had I until I read this wonderful story. Magdalene is the nun and Leandros the soldier. He and a fellow soldier he loves (Yiorgos) have just suffered mortal wounds in battle and now Leandros finds himself on what Magdalene describes as “the border.” While they sit there, drinking honeyed raqi (him) and whiskey (her), Magdalene offers him a chance to live again and escape the war with Yiorgos. Leandros can’t help thinking of the offer as a bargain with the Devil. To convince him otherwise, the nun magically stops time and tells him the very unnunlike story of her life and death and the price she paid for the opportunity to tell it to him. It’s a remarkable story, told in a compelling narrative voice, marred only slightly by the somewhat jarring, though ultimately satisfying, point-of-view shift toward the end.  

REVIEW: “Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories” by R. K. Duncan

Review of R.K. Duncan, “Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 304 (May 21, 2020): read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This enjoyable adventure in the land of the fairies is well worth reading, even though the ending is a bit predictable. It primarily centers around the close relationship between two childhood friends. Rowland, the son of Lord Robert, is the stronger of the two, while Jack, the son of Lord Robert’s cook, is smarter and wiser than his friend. Class differences should force the two to part company, but in spite of the difficulties, their companionship continues into their fourteenth year. That’s when a magic spell transports Rowland to Fairyland against his will. Jack is determined to rescue him and—with the help of an old witch, some gifts from his mother, and his own quick wits—he does so, gaining more than he bargained for by story’s end. 

REVIEW: “Fox Red, Life Red, Teeth Like Snow” By Devin Miller

Review of Devin Miller, “Fox Red, Life Red, Teeth Like Snow”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 303, May 7, 2020: listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

In this brief but interesting story, a changetroll named Hryggda is returning home to her wives shortly before dawn with a human baby she secretly “traded” a changeling-babe for. Along the way she meets a wolf hungry for more than animal prey. Somehow, “wolves have been hunting the sun since her autumn waning, but she has escaped, hidden herself in a den to sleep until spring like a bear. And now, it seems, the forest’s hunters aim to eat the moon.” Hryggda is determined to protect the moon, much as the moon protects her during her late night excursions. She is, however, hampered by her even greater need to protect the newborn she carries. 

I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that the story ends too quickly and too conveniently for my taste. It would have benefited from a deeper examination of the lives of the changetrolls and the world they inhabit.