Book Bag: ‘Spirits Abroad’ by Zen Cho; ‘Good Will & Ice Cream’ by Richie Davis

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2021 3:54:01 PM

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho;

Small Beer Publishing

Malaysian-born fantasy writer Zen Cho, who nows lives in Great Britain, covers a lot of ground in her fiction — from an alternative England of the early 1800s in which sorcerers and witches abound, to present-day Malaysia, to an Earth over 1,000 years in the future.

As Cho notes on her website, “I write books about Regency magicians, wuxia bandits and bossy supernatural Asian aunties!”

Small Beer Publishing of Easthampton has now released an expanded version of Cho’s short fiction debut, “Spirits Abroad,” that adds nine new stories, including “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” which won a Hugo Award in 2019.

“Spirits Abroad,” which has 19 stories, is divided into three sections — Here, There and Elsewhere — which range from contemporary Malaysia to a boarding school in England, to an Earth far in the future. In all these tales, the author brings a sense of humor and wonder to the work; as one critic writes, Cho is “a wildly inventive storyteller.”

As one example, there’s “The Guest,” a tale about a young Malaysian woman, Yiling, who finds a scruffy stray cat one night and takes it home with her. “Home” for Yiling is actually just a single room she rents in an apartment; it’s a lonely place with a fluorescent lamp that emits pallid light as “unsteady as a drunken man,” giving “everything a grayish, dirty look.”

The cat seems skittish at first but eventually warms to Yiling, giving her a better mindset to do the kind of work she specializes in: using magic and a special sense of smell to do “wonderful things.” One client is a young woman who gives Yiling the football jersey of a man she’s trying to woo; she hopes Yiling can put a spell on the garment that will convince the man to leave his current girlfriend.

Seem strange? Just wait till the cat starts speaking to Yiling.

In “One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland,” Malaysian high school students arrive at a British boarding school — “a seventeenth-century manor house [that] rose out of the green fields and gray sky like a tomb” — to find themselves under attack from fairies. In “The Fish Bowl,” a schoolgirl allows an enchanted Koi fish to brutalize her in exchange for good grades.

Cho weaves Malaysian folklore into stories that also examine modern lives and pressures and the complexities of relationships that can be intergenerational, cross-cultural, or something else, as in “The House of Aunts,” in which a young vampire falls in love with a Muslim boy at school.

Publisher’s Weekly writes of the collection, “Powerful but subtle magic woven into the fabric of intricate worlds make Cho a sure favorite for readers of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado.”

Good Will & Ice Cream: More True Tales from Extraordinary Lives by Richie Davis

Last year, former Greenfield Recorder reporter and editor Richie Davis, who spent over four decades with the newspaper before retiring a few years back, compiled some of his favorite articles in a book called “Inner Landscapes: True Tales from Extraordinary Lives.”

At the time, Davis said he wasn’t sure if he’d put out another book, though he’d certainly written enough stories for one. “This book was my legacy project,” he told the Gazette in an interview. “I don’t know if I’ll do another one.”

But in “Good Will & Ice Cream,” Davis, who lives in Montague, has indeed gone back to his archives and collected 23 stories, primarily feature pieces, that shine a light on the life and people of Franklin and Hampshire counties, or those who have a connection here.

The articles range from the mid-1970s, when Davis first began working at the Recorder, to about 2018, and in some cases they’ve been edited to reflect the times when he interviewed someone a number of times over the years, such as peace activist Paula Green of Leverett.

In an introduction, Davis writes that presenting these stories again provides a reminder of the way they “connect us as human beings. Beyond the passions that each person in the collection reveals, each of their stories exemplifies for me dozens in which I’ve tried to convey, beyond words, the meaning imbued by their lives.”

As Davis said in an interview in August with the Recorder, “I just didn’t want [the stories] sitting around in a vault somewhere, forgotten. The stories to me aren’t stories, they’re people. They’re their experiences and they’re compelling pieces of what makes this area special to me.”

“Good Will & Ice Cream” offers portraits of farmers such as Tom Clark and his son Ben of Clarkdale Fruit Farms of Deerfield; documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the Hampshire College graduate; peace activists from the region who traveled to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland, as part of an interfaith pilgrimage in 2010; and Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc, who run an organic farm in Orange and teach others how to grow produce.

Perhaps most moving is a piece about the late Montague fiddler and community music leader David Kaynor, who died in early June after a long battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Davis, who had known Kaynor for years, says his piece about the musician for his new book was based on two interviews, by the last of which Kaynor could only type his responses to questions.

The piece reflects on how Kaynor for years connected musicians, Contra dancers, and others “through tunes he’d composed, played, and taught,” binding people who may leave the area but still bring emotional connections with them — and who sometimes come back to the Valley to reconnect physically as well.

“It’s sort of like the community’s ... a river delta where there are all these different branches of the flow,” says Kaynor. “Dance is one of those branches. And one of the nice things is that people can make side trips out of it for however so long — a month, a year, a decade — and then they can flow back in.”

More information about “Good Will & Ice Cream” can be found at

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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