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The Yarf! reviews by Fred Patten

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   Welcome to the “Patten’s reviews” wing of the Anthro Library! Since this is a collection of columns from a dormant (if not dead) furzine called YARF!, a word of explanation might be helpful: In its day, YARF! (aka ‘The Journal of Applied Anthropomorphics’) was perhaps the best-known—and best in quality—of furry zines. Started in 1990 by Jeff Ferris, YARF!’s roster of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of furdom in the last decade of the 20th Century. In any issue, the zine’s readers could expect to enjoy work by the likes of Monika Livingstone, Watts Martin, Ken Pick, and Terrie Smith; furry comic strips such as Mark Stanley’s Freefall and Fred Patten’s reviews of furry books and comics.
   Unfortunately, YARF! has been thoroughly inactive since its 69th issue, which was released in September 2003. We can’t say whether YARF! will ever rise again… but at least we can prevent its reviews from falling into disremembered oblivion. And so, with the active cooperation of Mr. Patten, Anthro is proud to present Mr. Patten’s review columns—including the final one, which would have appeared in the never-printed YARF! #70.

Full disclosure: For each reviewed item, we’ve provided links you can use to check which of four different online booksellers—, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and Powell’s Bookstore—now has it in stock. Presuming the item in question is available, if you buy it Anthro gets a small percentage of the price.

by issue
by title

YARF! logo
#70 / —

2007 editor’s note: Mr. Patten wrote reviews for every issue of Yarf!—including #70, which was never published. The reviews which Mr. Patten wrote for that issue eventually appeared in Anthro; The Tale of the Swamp Rat and Lionboy in #2, and Waiting for Gertrude in #3.

Title: The Tale of the Swamp Rat
Author: Carter Crocker
Illustrator: The author
Publisher: Philomel Books/Penguin Young Readers Group (NYC), Sep 2003
ISBN: 0-399-23964-2
232 pages, $16.99
Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   Crocker’s writing is so beautiful that I am tempted to quote far more than is permissible in quotes for reviews. The setting and dialect are similar to Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but the characterizations and the word-portraits of this swamp-world are closer to Kenneth Grahame’s lyrical descriptions of the English river countryside in The Wind in the Willows.
   Ossie is a swamp rat, orphaned almost as soon as he is born when Mr. Took, a huge rattlesnake, smashes into their nest and eats his parents and siblings. Ossie escapes but he is left alone, wounded and traumatized:

   When he woke again, it was day and a log watched him from the water, through two dark eyes like logs don’t have. Quiet, still, unblinking eyes. Then there was a long flat snout and slowly the rest. It lifted from the swamp, more of it and still more. It was tremendous.
   Ossie had never seen Uncle Will, but it had to be him. This was a thing of legends. As the great alligator moved, the world paused and looked in awe. Insects stopped buzzing and watched. Birds held to their places in the sky and saw it happen. Even clouds did not move. Or that is how it seemed.
   The gator went to a spot not far from Ossie. Big as he was, and he was big as a fallen tree, he moved as simply as a lizard. He stopped now and settled to the ground, with a loud outrush of breath. Ossie felt the earth shake under him.
   The little rat knew that gators eat little rats, but he was too sick to do anything. He smiled. There wasn’t much from the gator, only a grunt, a grumble, and, “How you doin, boy?”
   Ossie looked at him and said nothing.
   “I’m not goin to eat you, if that’s the issue. I’ve had things stuck between my teeth, bigger than you.”
   The little swamp rat took a step back, scared, and the gator saw and he said, “Didn’t mean to spook you, boy.”
   Ossie said nothing.
   “Guess you’re not much for talkin.”
   Ossie looked.
   The gator said, “I got no problem with that.” Then he asked, “You can move, can’t you?”
   Once more, there was no reply.
   “Well, come on then. Follow me.”
   The gator started off down a path and Ossie did not follow. A little farther on, the gator stopped. He settled to the ground and said, “I’m in no hurry. I can wait, patient as a buzzard.” And he waited, patient as a buzzard.
(pgs. 27-28)

   ‘Patient as a buzzard’ is a good simile for the mood and pacing of The Tale of the Swamp Rat. It is not full of action. It is as quiet and leisurely as the current of the water flowing through the swamp:

   The cypress grew tall and thick here. Tangling vines hung everywhere, shining with yellow flowers. The ground was cool and mist flowers bloomed all around. Above, it closed in until the sun was blocked. Only small speckling light found its way to the swamp floor, a red-brown mulch of tree and plant pulp. After a while, they came to what seemed the center of it. Here the treetops held back. The sky was open and pure and the air was cool. A perfect round pond lay under the cypress. Its water was coppery and deep, not like the moody mud Ossie had known. (pgs. 28-29)

   Its drama is a slow drama. Ossie gradually comes out of his trauma and begins making friends with other young animals to whom Uncle Will the gator introduces him—Gib the owl, Clavis the possum, Philomena and Lodemia the quail sisters, a mouse-child known only as the mouse, and others including a girl-rat, Emma. But an orphaned youngster has a hard time of it. A drought develops, a bad one; the swamp drying up, soft mud becoming hard clay, edible plants turning to brittle stalks. Panic begins to form in the swamp community. Some animals including Uncle Will and the Preacher, a kindly old blue heron, try to keep everyone calm and reasonable. But an Ironhead Stork, the self-appointed Prophet Bubba, starts laying blame right and left:

   Bubba went on, “There’d be water ever’where weren’t it not for the gopher turtle!”
   He explained. “The gophers have dug too many burrows. The water is drainin into their holes. The whole blasted swamp is drainin into their holes! Y’all shoulda seen this by now! I oughtn’t to have to tell y’all this!” (pg. 103)

   Bubba persuades most of the animals that the way to refill the swamp is to kick all the gopher turtles out of their homes and fill them up. When that doesn’t work; well, the animals must of just overlooked some of the turtle holes. It’s not Bubba’s fault if the animals are too incompetent to find all the turtle holes! But one scapegoat isn’t enough, especially after all the turtles are driven out but the drought still keeps getting worse. And when Ossie begins proposing an alternate to Bubba’s wild orders, demonstrating that he is not caught up in Bubba’s self-important “LISTEN TO ME!” oratory, he promotes himself to the top of Bubba’s list for his next scapegoat…
   So there is a story, but it’s like the story is broken into chunks and dropped into the descriptions of the swamp. And the descriptions of the swamp are so spellcasting that you almost wish there wasn’t a story to interrupt them.

   Every sunset has its sound. Folk stop to watch sunsets, that’s true, but they almost never listen. And that’s too bad. In the swamp, a setting sun is a glorious noise.
   They’re different, each one. They begin as the sun sinks to deep orange, yellow, red. That’s when most of the big birds head for the roosts and there’s a sound worth hearing. The night-birds take their place and it’s a whole other sound.
   Then it’s First Dark, when the sun is gone and the moon is there, but it isn’t day and it isn’t night. Some of the bugs shut down, others get started. At True Dark, frogs begin their Evening Song.
   These are some things you’ll hear. If you listen hard, you’ll hear the water hurry faster in the cool dark. You might hear night orchids open. You might hear a lot of things. It’s like that, our sun, setting.
(pgs. 31-32)

   The Tale of the Swamp Rat is published as a Young Readers book. So is The Wind in the Willows for young readers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is too young for you. It is not too young for anybody.

Waiting for Gertrude: A Graveyard Gothic
Written by Bill Richardson, illustrated by Bill Pechet
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, BC), Oct 2001
ISBN: 1-55054-892-1
184 pages, C$19.95
Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press (NYC), Oct 2003
ISBN: 0-312-31868-5
184 pages, US$21.95
Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   If a list is ever compiled of The Ten Weirdest Furry Novels, Waiting for Gertrude is sure to place high on it: a literary erotic fantasy about the high-society social posturing among some of the last two centuries’ most famous writers, composers and actors, reincarnated as the lusty tomcats and queens who prowl through Paris’ tourist-attraction Père-Lachaise Cemetery.
   Père-Lachaise was created in 1804 at the start of the French Empire, reportedly because Napoleon wanted Paris to have a prestigious burial place comparable to London’s Westminster Abbey. It was inaugurated by the removal there of the remains of the poet La Fontaine and playwright Molière. Many of the celebrities of the past two centuries who have lived and died in Paris are interred there, including such composers as Chopin, Rossini, Bizet, Poulenc and Dukas; such writers as Balzac, Daudet, Proust and Oscar Wilde; such artists as Delacroix, Modigliani, Corot, Seurat and Daumier; and such performers as actress Sarah Bernhardt, dancer Isadora Duncan and singers Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. (There are also scientists, financiers, politicians, military heroes, and filmmakers among others, but they do not appear in this novel. Parisian tourist-information websites provide more complete information.) Like Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Memorial Park, it is a spacious cemetery where hundreds of tourists come daily to visit the final resting places of the famous, or more likely to gawk at the more imposing memorials that their families or admirers have placed there. Père-Lachaise has a particularly high concentration of 19th century marble cenotaphs and mini-mausoleums in exaggerated florid bad taste.
   In recent decades, Père-Lachaise has also become notoriously infested by feral cats, who have made themselves so much at home among the various tombs that they stare haughtily at the tourists as though they are intruders. The cemetery is closed to the public at night, but anyone standing outside after dark can tell by the caterwauling all night long that when the humans are away, the cats lead an active social life.
   Canadian popular author and radio host Bill Richardson’s postulate is that the cemetery’s cats are actually the reincarnations of the humans buried there. They have updated their talents to create a modern society that blends their human intellects with their new feline instincts. As the leaders of literature and art of their day, the most famous also strive to set the styles among the upper classes of the cats—in a very catty manner, of course. The singers put each other down in posturing to become the premier prima donna with feline vocal chords.

   Q: Madame Callas, what was your reaction when you discovered that you had been reborn as a cat?
   A: Initially, surprise, of course. […] However, astonishment soon gives way to willing acquiescence. And why would it not? If there’s one thing one learns from a life in the opera, it’s that destiny will not be denied. […] You merely accede to the fact that this life, like any other, is nothing more or less than a costume party: un ballo in maschera, as Verdi would have it. Did you ever see my Amalia, by the way? I can recommend my 1957 La Scala performance, Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting.” (pg. 59)

   Gioacchino Rossini continues to relax “in retirement” (while implying that he could out-compose anyone else if he felt like it), while others busily adapt their former works for cats. (Georges Bizet’s new version of his Toreadors’ chorus from Carmen:

   “Tom cats of Paris,
   “Strong and stiff and proud,
   “Out on the prowl,
   “Ready to howl;
   “We’re at your service ma’am we’ll waste no time,
   “All our cannons are primed.
   “We’re eager and we’re preened,
   “We’re fairly clean;
   “We’re here to serve our queen.
[etc.]” (pg. 63)

   La Fontaine adapts his rollicking 18th century versifying to 20th century travel guides for the feline tourists visiting the cemetery:

   “It always seems to happen, friends,
   “As past these tombs one slowly wends,
   “A certain
gravitas descends:
   “A mood of melancholy.
   “Inevitably, graveyards spawn
   “The fear that when we’re dead and gone
   “We’ll never see another dawn.
   “But that’s the food of folly,
   “Snack not thereon! Instead, be wise,
   “Just look around, believe your eyes.
   “The buried do not claim the prize
   “Of lulled, sepulchral boredom.
   “One lapses, then one goes to seed,
   “But soon one howls, and soon one breeds.
   “In other words, the life one leads
   “Is full, not dull, post mortem.
[etc.]” (pg. 48)

   Famous males court famous females (and notoriously homosexual Oscar Wilde chases after ‘Lizard King’ Jim Morrison) in the uninhibited manner of randy cats. But one of Père-Lachaise’s more famous foreign residents is conspicuously missing. Mid-20th century American writer/poet Gertrude Stein has not been reincarnated yet. And after a few decades of waiting impatiently, Stein’s inseparable companion Alice B. Toklas (the novel’s narrator) decides to take matters into her own paws. Toklas, who was usually the organizer/hostess of Stein’s literary salons, has become one of the cemetery’s leading caterers at their top social events. She plots to spike the refreshments at the Annual Renaissance Revue with an aphrodisiac that will put all the females instantly onto heat, and cause an orgy that will result in so many new kittens that Gertrude will surely be among them—won’t she? Unfortunately, Toklas does not take into account the mysterious cat-thief who has recently arisen among the felines, stealing such priceless objets d’art as Bernhardt’s wooden leg, Rossini’s glass eye, and the exaggerated genitalia from the nude marble statue of Wilde over his tomb. This thief has his (or her) own agenda, and the conflict between the two has a bizarre result.
   Richardson’s witty novel is by turns spritely, pretentious, and almost impenetrably esoteric as he mimics the writing styles and known personality styles of Parisian celebrity authors, entertainers, philosophers, and society leaders from 1806 to the present. Fortunately, he keeps the “quotations” from the notoriously boring celebrities to a minimum, and emphasizes the sophisticated but lively social infighting among the toms and queens which is the prominent background to Alice B. Toklas’ ongoing search (including resorting to black magic) for the super-aphrodisiac that she needs.

Cover of the UK edition
Title: Lionboy
Author: Zizou Corder, aka Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young

Publisher: Puffin Books (London), Oct 2003
Illustrator: Fred van Deelen (pictures and maps)
ISBN: 0-14-138024-1
[v] + 336 p., £12.99
Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

Publisher: Dial Books/Penguin Group (USA) Inc. (NYC), Jan 2004
Illustrator: ? (pictures and maps)
ISBN: 0-8037-2982-0
288 pages, $15.99
Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   Some novels excel at action and drama. Others are noted for outstanding characterization. To me, Lionboy (the first of three volumes) is most fascinating for its exotic setting and its writing style. The drama and characterization are certainly fine, but the world into which the reader is plunged is unique.
   At first it seems to be the present. Charlie Ashanti is the young son of a British mother and a Ghanian father, both scientists doing disease research at London University. Charlie watches The Simpsons on TV, plays football with the local kids—but oddities soon make it clear that it is some years in the future and there have been considerable changes, not all pleasant. The currency is dirhams, not pounds. Ever since the great asthma epidemic of fifteen years before, when so many children fell to wheezing and creaking and coughing all at once that the schools had to close, and the government finally realized it had to act about car pollution, cars had been banned from the housing areas. […] So now most people used electros—little scooters and vans that ran on the electricity from the sun or the windfarms. There was very little oil left (planes couldn’t fly at all, because there was no fuel for them) and very few people had cars with petrol engines. (British ed., pgs. 23-24) There is a clear distinction between the government and the Empire, not explained in this volume but the Empire does not seem to be today’s British Empire. Electric power is more efficient and everyone seems to have computers and cel phones; but resources are running out, sea levels are rising, and a general collapse of health (serious allergies and susceptibility to diseases) is reaching plague levels. There is much more, gradually revealed in little bits until a Europe emerges that is sometimes appalling, sometimes appealing; a mixture of futuristic and retro-rococo—but lively and always vibrantly described.
   For reasons difficult to summarize without revealing too much, Charlie’s parents have been kidnapped and are being taken across Europe to an unknown destination. The kidnappers are looking for Charlie to use as a hostage to force his parents to work for them. Charlie (whose age is not given but who seems to be between 9 and 12) is trying to follow the kidnappers and his parents across Europe, while simultaneously avoiding capture by either the criminals or by adults who are sure he is too young to be on his own. He is, but he has the advantage of a ‘secret power’: he can speak Cat—he can talk with felines of all species.
   (Ordinarily I am prejudiced against novels that mix science fiction and fantasy as though there is no distinction between them, but Lionboy is so well-written that I greatly enjoyed it despite this. The depiction of a futuristic Europe is plausible s-f. Charlie’s ability to ‘speak cat language’ as the result of genetic modification is fantasy since it requires cats to have a language to understand—and they do turn out to be as intelligent in their conversations as any humans.)
   The reader must also accept an extremely Convenient Coincidence. The kidnappers first take Charlie’s parents from London to Paris. Charlie, at a loss as to how to follow them, happens upon a spectacular showboat—Thibaudet’s Royal Floating Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy—on the Thames. For a start, she was huge: a great tall wide old-fashioned steamer. And not only was she huge, she was crimson. Not a soppy dolly pink, but red like the sun going down on a burning African night, like blood oranges and pomegranate seeds. Where she wasn’t crimson she was gold: the hair of her gorgeous carved figurehead, for example, with its green eyes and sidelong inviting smile, and the carved rims of her many portholes, and the curled leaves and vines carved all over her magnificent stern. She had three masts, a bowsprit, cannons and lifeboats along the decks, and two fine funnels amidships, from which sprang puffs of black exhaust. […] She was heading out to sea under power, catching the ebb tide, but her sails were not yet up. Charlie suddenly wanted, more than anything, to see this amazing craft under canvas, bowling along on the high seas. (pgs. 44-45) And the circus will be playing in Paris in a few weeks.
   Charlie hopes to persuade the circus’ lions to help him win a job as the lion trainer’s assistant, so he can join the circus as far as Paris. The lions will do so only if he promises to help them escape after they reach Paris. Charlie agrees, although he feels that he will be betraying them; there is a big difference between unlocking a lion cage, and the lions being able to get from Paris back to Africa on their own. But it turns out that the kidnappers have already left Paris travelling south, so Charlie’s journey must coincide with the lions’ at least for a while longer—although if it is hard for a lone boy to travel unnoticed through Europe, it is a hundred times worse with six lions accompanying him.
   A dust-jacket biography and photograph identifies ‘Zizou Corder’ as the pseudonym of Louisa Young (a mature White woman) and Isabel Adomakoh Young (a young Black schoolgirl). Charlie is described numerous times as racially mixed, the child of a loving White woman and a Black man. If the authors have an agenda, it is smoothly integrated into a rousing good story. Another sign of the authors’ storytelling skill is that they make Charlie’s adventure seem suspensefully difficult but plausibly not impossible. He is young and inexperienced, but intelligent and has been trained by his scientist parents to observe and think. [His mother] always said she couldn’t care less about being a good boy in the ‘doing what you’re told’ sense: she said people often told you to do daft or harmful things, so it was much better to get in the habit of working out for yourself what you should do. (pg. 18) So it feels believable that such a young boy can go as far as Charlie does by keeping a low profile and using his wits. Even better, the adult lions’ emotional maturity and survival instincts complement Charlie’s juvenile insecurity and naïveté, so each helps the other to succeed where either alone would fail. Lionboy is not a very anthropomorphic novel (humans are certainly the main characters), but the few talking cats and lions stand out as felines with intelligence, rather than acting like ‘humans with animal heads’. They are essential to the plot rather than being colorful but throwaway companions.
   The writing style is snappy and rollicking, such as this description of a minor villain: Skinny snivelly Sid stopped snickering to think. It was quite hard work for him, thinking. You could tell by the look on his face, as if he badly needed to go to the loo. (pg. 28) “Skinny snivelly Sid stopped snickering…”—such alliteration reads so naturally that it seems accidental, except that the book is full of such unassuming yet marvelous wordplay.
   There are numerous minor differences between the British and U.S. editions. The British uses “petrol” and “loo” while the U.S. uses “gasoline” and “bathroom”. In the description of the circus ship cited above, the U.S. edition begins “For a start, the ship was huge:…”; it refers to the porthole rims as “sculpted” rather than “carved”, and to “two fine smokestacks amidship” rather than “funnels amidships”. The changes are not great, but considering the number of American readers who have complained about the ‘Americanizing’ of the first couple of Harry Potter novels, those who care may wish to get the British edition of Lionboy.
   Also be warned that Lionboy ends on a cliffhanger. It is described as the first novel in a trilogy, but it is really a single novel in three volumes like The Lord of the Rings. I am eagerly awaiting the second part.

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