Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Bloom, by Kenneth Oppel

Kenneth Oppel has done it again. He has to be one of the most versatile writers out there: every book he writes is different from the last, and they are all solidly good to fantastic. Bloom is on the fantastic side of the scale. It's the most entertaining plant-based apocalypse since Little Shop of Horrors.

There has needed to be a book about invasive aliens ever since the gardening world decided that's what they should call introduced plant species that run rampant over native species and become impossible to eradicate. Oppel has obviously had to deal with invasive aliens, because he understands how terrifyingly inimical to human life they can be. I know from personal experience that Himalayan blackberries have an intelligent malice and are actively hostile; so is Scottish broom. In Eastern North America I think it's kudzu. Alien plant species taking over the planet is an entirely plausible scenario! 

I love that Oppel sets Bloom on Salt Spring Island, iconic home to the most down-to-earth, organic, genuine, eccentric collection of farmers and artists in Canada. It just makes the wrongness of the black spiky grass that appears everywhere overnight that much more offensive. (Side note: I read a review that thought the community's swift and organized response to the crisis was unrealistic, but it didn't read that way to me at all. That's kind of how we do things here.)(*Waves Canadian flag a little bit.*)

I liked the variation on the Special Chosen One that Oppel sets up for his three young protagonists, and their different reactions to it, and the reluctant friendship that develops among them because of it.

I love the way he uses allergies: I don't want to say anything spoilery, but I think he also has personal experience of how disabling they can be!

Kudos for all the present, supportive and intelligent parent figures—they're actually involved in solving the problem but there's a plausible reason why the three teen protagonists have a key role.

Bloom is not as creepy as Nest, which was quiet, slow-burn, seriously-mess-up-your-head horror. Bloom is fast and loud and full of peril that can be attacked with chainsaws. (I love that everyone on Salt Spring Island knows how to use a chainsaw!)

Great fun! Hmm. Need a fun vegetarian meal for my food analogy—is that a contradiction in terms?! Maybe veggie pizza! Yes, with those banana peppers to give it some spice. And now I'm going to listen to the Arrogant Worms Vegetable song.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Quick! There's still time to nominate for the Cybils! Also I read Return of the Thief and I am still babbling incoherently.

October arrived without me noticing, and I suddenly realized that Cybil's season has arrived! The Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards want you to nominate your favourite books from 2020. Anyone can nominate! You have until Oct 15, so don't procrastinate! (I'm mostly talking to myself here.)

Don't know which book to nominate? Charlotte's Library has a helpful list of un-nominated (at the time) Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction, and alibrarymama has more.

I ... gosh, I've hardly read any of this year's YA and Middle Grade. It's just been—well, it's been 2020. I will be looking forward to the lists of nominees to get my reading recommendations for the next little while. Let's see: Deeplight has been nominated already; so has Call Down the Hawk; so has Return of the Thief.

Return of the Thief! The long, long, long-awaited final book of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series. I managed to make it last two whole days, but I had to finish it last night. It was so, so, so, so good. That's all I've got for you right now: I don't even know where to begin to talk about it. There are elephants. They are awesome. 

I think I need to read all six books in order now and see the whole grand scope of the story play out and notice all the little details that she weaves together with such deft trickery (she's been keeping track of all this for more than 20 years, people!) and take the time to savour these characters. I love these characters so much. I'm so sad this is the last book, but so happy they are all infinitely re-readable.

I'm not sure I'll actually be able to write a review of Return of the Thief. A master's thesis, maybe.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, everyone! I am thankful for authors like Megan Whalen Turner and books like Return of the Thief and characters like Eugenides and Attolia and Eddis and Pheris and fellow bloggers who I can squee with about how awesome authors and books are. And organizations like the Cybils that keep the conversation going and support new and diverse authors so that we and our kids can keep having wonderful reading experiences!

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Kingdom of Back, by Marie Lu


I am so happy this book exists, because it needed to, and then Marie Lu wrote it, so all is good with the universe.

Why did it need to exist?

  1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an older sister, nicknamed Nannerl, who was also a child prodigy; in fact, he was inspired to begin learning music by watching his father teach her.
  2. Nannerl apparently composed music as well, but she wasn't supposed to, because she was a girl. None of her compositions survive, and we only know about them because Wolfgang refers to them in his letters to her.
  3. As children, Nannerl and Wolfgang invented a fantasy world called the Kingdom of Back and told each other stories about it.
If that isn't the making of a fantasy novel, I don't know what is! And Lu's execution nails it.

Lu is obviously a musician herself, because she writes about music beautifully, from the inside—she knows how it feels to practise, to master, to inhabit music, to be inhabited by it. She knows the connection between music and imagination, and she uses it so well to weave the fantasy into the real.

Nannerl is a complex, fascinating character, and Lu hits all the right notes (sorry, couldn't help it!) in creating her fraught relationship with her more famous brother. She loves him, she cares about him, worries about his ill health, loves to see him succeed, and is hopelessly, furiously envious of his success and the life he will be allowed to live that she is denied. She also simply loves music—loves hearing it, loves playing it, has an instinct for it, is a perfectionist about it—and so to be denied it because she is a woman is heartbreaking. Also stupid and unfair and just arrrggghhhh!

So, what if there were a fantasy bargain Nannerl could make that would allow her to create music and, more than that, be recognized for her talent and her creations? (There is historical speculation that some of Wolfgang's works might have actually been written by Nannerl, and Lu makes clever use of that in her plot.) Nannerl wants to be remembered, and a mysterious, attractive boy in a strange, beautiful forest full of haunting music says he can help her if she will help him reclaim his throne.

The fantasy kingdom Lu creates is gorgeous, evocative, imaginative, and just creepy enough. I don't know how much source material she had to work with (apparently there is a map of the kingdom the Mozart's manservant drew at the children's request, but I don't know what else there is), so I don't know how much was Mozarts and how much was Lu, but she comes up with a coherent, believable and compelling world. I love the way it melds with the real world: at one point a real flower grows out of Nannerl's music notebook. I also love the ambiguity: is it real or is it just a dream? Are they both just imagining it because of their stories? Are the stories they tell influencing the reality of the forest world? Are their actions in the forest actually influencing real-world events, or is that just coincidence? Lu plays with imagination and creation and choice and truth in interestingly layered ways.

Nannerl's conflict is so real, so frustrating, and the stakes are so high—at one point I stopped reading because I thought she was going to make a certain choice, and I both wanted her to make it and didn't want her to make it. I thought I knew what she was going to do, because history, but the story really wasn't predictable so I knew it could go either way. Lu doesn't take the easy route and doesn't make the obvious choices, and I loved the resolution she came up with. 

I now want to find out more about Nannerl, and I've started learning some Mozart Variations! Apparently there is a movie called Mozart's Sister that I now need to find.

(PS: the new Blogger is worse in every possible way: how could they have made it so much more clumsy and awkward??)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Studio Ghibli on Netflix

Just in time to make your pandemic a little cheerier, Canadian Netflix gets the rights to Studio Ghibli's animated movies (I can only assume US Netflix has them too). I had only seen a few of these and wanted to see more, so I'm making my way through them. So far I can say they're more diverse in subject and tone than I was expecting, but they are all beautiful and thoughtful with deft storytelling.

Howl's Moving Castle: You don't have to read the book first (though I think you should!). This one is colourful and fun, takes far too many liberties with the plot but still manages to convey much of the same magic and spirit as the original, with its own worthy twist. The castle is a triumph of animation.

Spirited Away: Weird, in the sense of uncanny, not-of-this-plane-of-existence. European imps and goblins have nothing on Japanese yokai, I'm just saying! There are a few scenes that might be scary or grotesque for younger kids, but this is a warm, thoughtful story of friendship and courage, with gorgeous imagery.

Princess Mononoke: The darkest one I've seen so far, with quite a bit of violence; definitely not for younger kids. Really interesting plot, strong environmental and anti-war message. I've noticed with all the Studio Ghibli movies I'e seen that they don't follow the black and white good-guy/bad-guy paradigm of storytelling: there are antagonists, but they tend to get transformed, or at least understood, rather than defeated. (I know there's a name for this narrative paradigm, but I can't remember it.) Except for the military: they're always definitively bad.

Castle in the Sky: So much fun: rollicking adventure, beautiful animated scenery, crazy-imaginative settings and vehicles and devices. And that island in the sky is just—there are no words—gorgeous, fascinating, melancholy, heartwarming, magical. There's some fighting and peril that might be too scary for younger kids, but nothing worse than a typical Disney movie.

Kiki's Delivery Service: Cute and sweet with great characters and stunning scenery (very European: almost a love-letter to Europe). Kiki is a delight, as is her talking cat. Lots of humour and a great coming-of-age theme that connects art with magic.

My humble opinion so far: Hayao Miyazaki deserves his reputation as a brilliant artist and director; the world needs more of this art and these kinds of stories. I'm going to watch all the rest and will report back!

Monday, June 29, 2020

What I've been reading in between picking strawberries and raspberries

 I've read some good stuff lately, but none of it has inspired me to write a blog post, for various reasons. I can still recommend the books, though, so a round-up post seems the way to go.

Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge, is a Frances Hardinge book, so it's gorgeously written and crazy imaginative and full of deep understanding of the human psyche. It was a difficult book for me to read for two reasons: it verges a little too close to horror, with some really weird, grotesque, possibly Lovecraft-inspired but really even weirder monsters. I like it when fantasy is delightful, and these guys were not. At all. But if you're into creepy and twisted and intriguing, you'll probably find them a lot of fun. (Hardinge and Ursula Vernon (when she's T. Kingfisher) should design a steampunk-horror theme-park. I wouldn't go, but it would be awesomely cool!) The other reason I found this an uncomfortable read is there's a very well-depicted emotionally abusive relationship. I will say that the resolution of it is both realistic and satisfying (see "deep understanding of the human psyche"), but there were bits at the beginning I really didn't enjoy. A very good book that I appreciated but that I likely won't read again, unlike most of Hardinge's books, which I loved and—actually, now that I think of it, I don't think I've re-read any of her books. Possibly because they are all very dense, and I usually choose to reread light and easy reads. Anyway, you should read Brandy's review of Deeplight, because she does a great job of explaining what's so wonderful about it!

Call Down the Hawk, by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the first of her trilogy about the Lynch brothers, and if you've read and enjoyed her Raven Cycle, then you have to read this book and you will love it, because Ronan. Also Declan, who I didn't love before but now I do. And Matthew, who, ah, my heart! If you haven't read the Raven Cycle, you should just go do that, and then you will want to read this, so I don't have to tell you anything, really. I was not as enthused about the bad guy characters as I was about the Grey Man in Dream Thieves, and I felt ... ambivalent about Jordan Hennessy. But yeah, it was awesome, and I need the next book now.

The Physicians of Vilnoc, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, and it is predictably good, though not my favourite. I felt pretty much the same way as Rachel Neumeier about it. But it's always a treat to get another episode of our favourite sorcerer and his chaos demon.

Three fun romances: Well Met, by Jen DeLuca, cute, cozy hate-to-love story set in a small town with a Renaissance Faire; The Bromance Book Club, which delivers on its hilarious premise (bunch of guys reading romance novels to learn how to rescue their relationships); and Bringing Down the Duke, about sparks flying between a suffragette and, well, a duke. Looking forward to the sequels of all of them.

And here are some of my berries!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Tuyo, by Rachel Neumeier

You may have noticed that I'm a big Rachel Neumeier fan, so when I heard about Tuyo I was more than moderately excited. New story in an entirely new world! And she's so good at making worlds!

I did not anticipate how intensely I would adore this book. Ryo captured my heart from the moment we meet him kneeling in the snow tied to a stake, and I was unable to put the book down after that. I think it might be safe to say this is now my favourite Neumeier novel. It turns out I have some buttons, and Tuyo pushes all of them. In no particular order, things I loved about this book:

Intriguing world-building. Neumeier always creates fascinating fantasy landscapes and, even more important, believable societies to inhabit them: given the constraints of this landscape and these laws of physics/magic, what society would work to deal with them? Tuyo is set in a world divided by climate: the vast, snow-bound, moon-ruled winter lands and the gentle, fertile, sun-ruled summer lands. And I believed entirely in the Ugaro of the winter country and the Lau of the summer country—and in the reasons for their conflict.

Learning about a culture through fish-out-of-water characters. The two main characters are both competent and respected in their own country and confused and inept in the other, and this makes for a humorous and organic way to explore the world.

Military stories. I do not know why I enjoy these: I who have never held a weapon, never taken a martial arts class, believe strongly in peace and diplomacy and think war is a dumb way to solve problems. But it makes for great plots! I loved the two military societies: the tribal Ugaro with their harsh but fair laws governing conflict; the Roman-esque Lau with their orderly hierarchy and comradely soldier culture. I particularly loved watching characters from each society come to appreciate and value those from the other. And I was glad the fighting was not the main focus of the plot, even though there were some great action scenes. I love it when a conversation is more intense than a swordfight.

Heroes with integrity. I love plots that explore what honour is and the conflict of characters determined to do the right thing but not sure what that is. Ryo and Aras are on opposite sides of a war; they are loyal to different countries and believe in different goals; but they are both honourable men who keep their word. I loved watching Ryo negotiate between his duty, his loyalty and his word. I loved how oaths are used in Tuyo: so powerful.

Loyalty and trust. These are themes that stir me deeply, and Neumeier deals with them especially well. One of the main reasons I love the Black Dog books so much is the relationship between Ezekiel and Grayson Lanning—so many punch-in-the-guts moments between them—and the main relationship in this book is possibly even better.

Bromance. See above, re: loyalty and trust. All the feels here. I will not spoil who the bromance is between, but it's the best.

Interesting explorations of women in society. Love it when fantasies try out different ways of imagining women's roles, because, hey, it's fantasy—why wouldn't you?! I enjoyed what Neumeier did with women in the Ugaro society, and the contrast with the Lau and how the characters dealt with it. Female characters didn't play a huge role in this novel, but they were awesome!

Loved the world, loved the characters, am happy to know she intends to write more about them!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Murderbot!!!! And my birthday present finally arrived! A good week!

Martha Wells' Murderbot novel, Network Effect, came out on Tuesday, and yay for the pandemic because I hardly had anything I needed to drop so I I could spend all day reading it! Also a good thing I was all by myself, because I was laughing out loud and crying (sometimes with laughter, sometimes not) and yelling at the characters, and having the most fun I've had all pandemic.

I may have mentioned one or two times how much I love Murderbot. The novel is everything I wanted it to be and more. We get Dr. Mensah's brother-in-law, who doesn't trust Murderbot and definitely doesn't like it, and Dr. Mensah's teen-aged daughter, who is miffed at Murderbot but also trusts it implicitly,  and ART, who—gah—can't say anything about ART! And new scary villains and weird scenarios that only Martha Wells could think up that require Murderbot to care about things. A lot. Also, some of the really terrible bad things that have happened to Murderbot may have caused some lingering trauma that might possibly be affecting its performance reliability.

I liked this quotation and Rachel Neumeier's comments about it: kind of sums it up, really! But amidst all the violence and mayhem there are the awesome character moments that punch you in the gut, and always Murderbot's sarcastic, defensive, sulky, exasperated, painfully human, wise voice.
You know that thing humans do where they think they're being completely logical and they absolutely are not being logical at all, and on some level they know that, but can't stop? Apparently it can happen to SecUnits, too.
I've told you this before: go read the Murderbot Diaries. Start with the novellas so that you'll be able to fully appreciate the novel. Trust me, you need this in your life right now!

(According to Goodreads there is a short story told from Dr. Mensah's point of view, but I can't find it anywhere! Anyone know where I can get my hands on it??)

Then on Friday, the book I had ordered for my birthday back in March finally arrived. It's the new Folio Society illustrated Howl's Moving Castle. Look how beautiful it is!