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Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

Title: Spirits Abroad
Author: Zen Cho
Copyright: 2014
Publisher: Buku Fixi
Obtained: e-book from Amazon
Reason for reviewing: short story collection by a Malaysian woman living in London, set in both London and Malaysia
Author website: ZenCho.org

Spirits Abroad is readily available in ebook from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Google Play, and Smashwords and in print from Amazon and Fixi

Blurb: “If you live near the jungle, you will realise that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two.”

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, SPIRITS ABROAD collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian sensibility.

Spirits Abroad is one of those rare short story collections in which I don't actively dislike any of the stories. The hit rate for really liking the stories is also much better than usual (four or five rather than two), but I genuinely enjoyed the rest as well, although they currently blur into one another.

Each story is written with a light and deft hand. As would be expected from the book title, spirits are very much present, but they are presented as fact rather than fiction and something you just need to placate or manage as you would any other aspect of your life from work to family. I should probably note that the spirits mentioned (almost without exception) are not Western ghosts or dragons and that generally they are referred to by their Chinese or Malaysian name - I am not familiar enough with either language to know which is which.

The book is divided into locational sections: Here, There, Elsewhere and Going Back, but throughout these, there are two other main themes. The first is family: loved, liked, irritating, close or distant, pressuring but always important. I adored the first story ('The First Witch of Damansara'), in which the main character returns to Malaysia for her grandmother's funeral, and works out a way to collude with her younger sister to placate their Nai Nai's ghost. It is an excellent start. 'The House of Aunts' is all about family being somewhat interfering but ultimately wanting the best for the POV character. On a side note, I was amused by the author noting afterwards that while the aunts are made up of an amalgam of her aunts, they wouldn't be happy about this so please don't tell them!

The second theme is education and the importance thereof. Vivian, in 'The First Witch of Damansara' moved away for her education and to get a good office job and fiance (she did this in the right order); Ah Lee in 'The House of Aunts' is still at school and her Aunts are very keen that she get a university degree before marriage; in There, 'One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland' is set at a UK boarding school - actually all of the stories in There either revolve around school or university or the characters are at school or university. 'The Fish Bowl' is a somewhat worrying story about exams.

Other stand out stories for me were 'The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia', which anyone who has had to organise or moderate a round table discussion of experts should appreciation, 'Prudence and the Dragon' and its follow-on 'The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life' were both engaging and delightful. I enjoy both Prudence and Angela's different practical perspectives. 'The Mystery of the Suet Swain' was also excellent commentary on stalking and how it's not cool, but also how you can support your friends if someone is being that sort of douchebag. And for people like me, who don't pick up on this sort of thing very well, helps to identify when that sort of thing is happening.

The protagonists of these stories are almost all young Chinese Malaysian woman (as is the author) and thanks to the author's notes at the end on most of the stories, I know that the characters are strongly influenced by events in the author's life or people she knows. This means there is a certain similarity to most of the POV characters, but the situations are different and her hand is light enough that this isn't an issue in this collection. I will, however, be interested to see what she decides to write after she feels she has exhausted those ideas.

In short, therefore, this is an engaging collection which is well worth the read and one I would like in hard copy so I can loan it out to other people to read.

If you like Miyazaki films, anime about the family or home, books about being at school, or if you like your heroines to be practical and sensible (with the occasional touch of whimsy), then this is the collection for you.

Other books I have read this month that I could have revised instead: Invisible City by AC Buchanan, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho, Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, Dominica Malcolm editor and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard. All of these are also well worth reading.

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