Monday, June 14, 2021

MMGM: The Monster Who Wasn't, by T. C. Shelley

What an odd, sweet, surprisingly deep story! I picked up The Monster Who Wasn't on a random library browse, because that's a great title, with an appealing cover. The cover is not only a lovely piece of art, but it really captures the feel of the book: the boy-shaped imp with his gargoyle friends, perched on a church spire gazing down at the human world he wishes he could belong to. Wistful, whimsical and weird.

Shelley populates her world with a kaleidoscope of monsters and fairies (and an angel): everything in Irish mythology, plus some extra ogres and trolls, plus a few, like the gargoyles, she just made up. Her description of the monsters' underground world is vivid and disgusting: the monsters are definitely the bad guys in this one! The gargoyles rescue the unnamed imp who doesn't look like any other type of monster—because they feel sorry for him, and because his human shape means he can steal chocolate for them! 

The imp—who eventually gets named Sam, so I'll call him that—is delightful as he gains vocabulary and learns about the world. Then his questions start to get more existential: why do I exist? what am I supposed to be? where do I belong? The answers to those questions turn out to be complicated. Shelley has taken elements of the changeling story but given them her own unique spin, and Sam's encounter with the human family who were partially responsible for his creation (this isn't a spoiler: we know that at the beginning) gives the plot some intriguing and poignant twists.

I mentioned that the monsters are the bad guys, and there is some real peril with quite scary creatures. Sam's courage and loyalty are tested, and I was on the edge of my seat rooting for him all the way!

I loved the gargoyles, I loved the Kavanagh family; there's a lot of really great humour to balance out the scary bits. This book warmed the cockles of my heart! (I think that's an Irish saying, isn't it?)

Once again I'm joining the group at Always in the Middle to highlight Marvelous Middle-Grade books on Monday. Lots more great recommendations at Greg's blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer

I don't have to write a review to get you to read this; you just have to go read the short story that it's based on, "Cat Pictures Please," which is delightful, and if you like that you'll want to read the novel.  

It's a little bit Murderbot Lite. (I might have a thing for benevolent AIs!) CheshireCat doesn't have a robot body with weapons in its arms, but it can hack dangerous things so it could still murder people if it wanted to. But, like Murderbot, it would really rather just be entertained (by cat pictures, in this case), and it would also really like it if humans would stop inflicting harm on themselves and others.

I probably shouldn't compare it to Murderbot, though, because Catfishing on CatNet is a lot lighter. It's very YA—which is perfect, because CheshireCat is trying to negotiate its personhood and its relationship with the world in the same way that teens are, so its interactions with Steph and the other members of the CatNet chat group feel very real. The sentient AI trope is fun to play with because of all the opportunity to comment on what makes someone a person, what constrains our actions, where does our sense of morality, responsibility, goodness come from, and Kritzer does this really well for an audience which is also exploring these choices for the first time.

I loved Steph: her resigned adaptability to her difficult circumstances hurt my heart, so I was primed to root for her. I loved the "clowder," her chat group on CatNet: it's a found family that gets awesome opportunities to step up and be there for Steph and CheshireCat. And Steph's hesitantly developed relationship with Rachel was lovely and felt entirely real.

Steph and her mother are on the run from an abusive father, so there's a lot of nerve-wracking suspense to keep the pages turning. The story doesn't shy away from the darkness, but it focuses on friends helping each other out, and it helps that Steph has a benevolent AI on her side! There's also a lot of humour, so it's a fast, fun, upbeat read. It concludes satisfactorily, but there's a sequel which I'll be reading soon.

I haven't been doing food analogies lately, but this one is spicy hot chicken wings. You'll devour it and lick your fingers after!

Monday, May 24, 2021

Favourite heroines

Well, this list keeps getting longer, so I think I'd better just post it! I've added a quote for each from one of my reviews, if I had one, or sometimes a quote from a book. Listed in the order I thought of them, whatever that tells you!

Who would you add?

Sophie Hatter, from Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle: One of my all-time-favourite characters, literary girl-crushes, people-whose-head-I-want-to-spend-time-in. I related (and still do relate) so much to her: I'm an oldest child; nothing exciting was ever going to happen to me; I was the responsible one who wanted her sisters to go out and find their dreams. But when Sophie starts talking to hats you can see DWJ's brilliance at creating characters: maybe she's quiet and responsible, but Sophie is also observant and imaginative and funny, and she has power she knows nothing about.

Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett's series: she sees a monster in the creek so she goes and gets a frying pan, sets her younger brother out as bait, and whacks the monster on the head with a clang. Tiffany thinks, and she cares, and she pays attention to detail. She loves words like susurrus.

Cordelia, from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series: the most morally centered, compassionate, fierce, suffers-no-fools, brilliant and courageous mother in all of fiction, I think. The scene with the shopping bag in Barrayar is one of the best scenes ever written.

Cassandra, from Andrea Höst's Touchstone series: Normal, practical, stoic but not immune to panic and despair, with a great self-deprecating sense of humour—it's the way she deals with everything the plot and setting throws at her that riveted me to the page.

Irene, from Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library series: She's competent, firm, thinks on her feet, rises to the occasion, but she's also still a junior Librarian who doesn't have all the information or experience she needs. She has moments of panic, doubt and sheer frustration and it's lovely to watch her deal with them.

Rowan, The Steerswoman, from the series by Rosemary Kirstein: I love the way Rowan thinks, and I love watching her figure things out! 

Jane Eyre: These words resonated in my 13-year-old brain and still do.

Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?"

Still indomitable was the reply — "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.

 Elisabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice, because, of course.

The Grand Sophy: Irrepressible, bubbling with mirth, rescuer of dogs and ducklings and people in unsuitable matches. Almost all of Georgette Heyer's heroines are delightful, but she's probably my favourite.

Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road: Stubborn, angry, alcoholic, she's in so much pain and she is trying. so. hard. Tess is a mess but she's a compelling, hilarious narrator. Your heart breaks for her, but she could care less what you think! 

Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr, from Tanya Huff's Confederation and Peacekeeper series: she is everything I am not: decisive, courageous, strong-willed, really good at getting people to do what she wants them to do. She Gets her People Out Alive.

Yael from Ryan Graudin's Wolf By Wolf: Fierce, broken, bitter, hopeful, with a will of iron and nerves of steel.

Neverfell from Francis Hardinge's A Face Like Glass: She has such a good heart, and she lives in a terribly dangerous world, and it's heartbreaking and thrilling to watch the world be transformed by her naive, stubborn goodness. Also Triss from Cuckoo Song.

Going back a bit:

Alanna, by Tamora Pierce

Harry from Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword; Sunshine from Sunshine

Both Susan and Titty from Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons series: Susan because she was the oldest, like me, and had to be responsible; Titty because I thought I was more adventurous like her.

Oh, one more:

Lucy from Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls: observant, clever, and knows she's right even when no one believes her. From possibly the best plotted book ever written (it's a picture book).

And how could I have forgotten The Paper Bag Princess!

Things I like in my heroines: stubborn strength, compassion, knowing themselves and what they want, thoughtfulness, competence, humour.

Who have I missed whose books I must immediately read?

Monday, May 17, 2021

MMGM: A Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat

From the moment we meet Pong patiently waiting, listening, for the moment a ripe mango drops from a tree, A Wish in the Dark invites us deep into a rich, believable fantasy world with a truly engaging hero as our guide. Pong is quiet and observant with fierce loyalty to his friend and a strong sense of justice that keeps getting him into trouble. When he escapes the prison where he was born, we find out he is quick-thinking, ingenious and scrappy. He is a delight to travel with as he tries on his own to find freedom from an unfair society. Then he encounters Father Cham, a Buddhist monk, and, oh, my heart!

This is a story inspired by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and it is so brilliant (yes, this is a pun) in the way it plays with Hugo's characters and themes, translating them into a middle-grade plot about children who start off believing what society has labeled them. Both protagonists learn not only that they can choose to define themselves, but that they can choose to help each other, and that a lot of people all choosing to stand together can change society. All in a gorgeous Thai-inspired world with magic that cleverly illuminates (can't help myself) the social commentary: the brightest lights are reserved for the rich, and Soontornvat does so much with that simple metaphor.

Nok is harder to like, at first, and I didn't want the narration to keep switching into her point of view. But her rigid self-righteousness is a product of her upbringing, and she is trapped every bit as much as Pong by the lies the Governor tells. The Governor is a well-done villain, scary and believable in his reasonableness.

There are some great friendship and found-family moments, gentle and heartfelt wisdom, and a stirring Les Mis-worthy conclusion. This one was shortlisted for the 2020 Cybils, and deserves all the attention it's getting. (Soontornvat won a Cybil for her non-fiction book about the Thai cave rescue, which I really want to read!)

As sweet and juicy as a perfectly ripe mango! For more delicious middle-grade reads, see what everybody is reviewing at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Dogman, Murderbot and other things that made me happy this week

New Murderbot novella!!!! Fugitive Telemetry came out on Tuesday, and I couldn't quite drop everything to read it right away, but finished it yesterday. A little murder mystery set on Preservation Station, before the start of Network Effect. Our favourite sarcastic SecUnit has a dead human and some new annoying live humans to deal with, and it is as funny and heartrending as ever. "Fortunately, I had a lot of experience being screamed at and stared at by terrified humans." 

A Goodreads reviewer mentioned Murderbot's deep integrity, and now I want to reread the novella with that in mind, because I think it's a theme Martha Wells rather brilliantly weaves through it. Along with the usual friendship, selfhood, decency, and other things a rogue killing machine has to figure out for itself while trying to avoid more humans getting dead. Also my favourite cover of all of them so far.

And then I went to my local bookstore to pick up 13 Ways to Eat a Fly, a cleverly grotesque counting book by Sue Heavenrich (often seen on Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday). I now know far more than I ever wanted to about the disgusting eating habits of insectivores! I think this will be hugely popular among my nephews (and at least one of my nieces). Kudos to Sue and her illustrator David Clark for presenting so much detailed science in such an engaging way. 

While at the bookstore I noticed the two latest Dav Pilkey graphic novels: Dogman: Grime and Punishment and Dogman: Mothering Heights. I happen to think Dav Pilkey is one of the best comic writers out there, and The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby is a masterpiece of literature, but I have not been keeping up with his Dog Man series. The idea of Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment given the Dav Pilkey treatment* was too good to pass up, so I had to bring them home.

So I had another afternoon of laughing out loud, pounding the couch cushions, tears running down my face. And then Pilkey sucker-punched me with the sweet, wise denoument of this story arc about the redemptive power of love.

Trigger warning: Many people seem to object to the diarrhea-themed song parodies in Dog Man, so if that's an issue for you, you've been warned! I found them hilarious, but I have a particularly nuanced sense of humour.

The last thing that made me happy this week was the discovery that Becky Chambers has another book out in her Wayfarer's series: The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Will be reading that one soon. And if that weren't wonderful enough, she's starting a new series called Monk and Robot, the first novella of which, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is coming out in July. The premise sounds amazing (and reminds me a little of the wonderful middle-grade novel The Wild Robot, also the Ghibli film Castle in the Sky) and I am so there for a robot who abandoned human civilization having conversations with a non-binary monk!

*For fans of Brontë and Dostoevsky: it's not a particularly close retelling of the classic novels. In case you were wondering! But Mothering Heights does contain "The Most Romantic Chapter Ever Written," complete with Romantic Advisory: Mushy Content, and Smooch-o-Rama, The World's Most Amorous Animation Technology. And there are various crimes and various punishments (and people getting dirty) in Grime and Punishment, though a grand total of zero dead humans.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Digger, by Ursula Vernon

I just finished making my way through all twelve volumes of Ursula Vernon's webcomic Digger, and what a glorious, mind-bending, hilarious ride that was! It's all available now for free online, so you can go become obsessed too!

You know already I'm a rabid Ursula Vernon/T.Kingfisher fan. Well, now I'm rabider. (The vampire squashes may have had something to do with it: you have to keep your eye on those.) I also have an addition to my list of favourite heroines*: she's a practical-as-nails engineer who doesn't truck with magic or gods or prophecies, she's a mean hand with a pickaxe, and she's a wombat.

Yup. A wombat. Do you even know what a wombat is? I had to look them up. They're adorable. Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels, however, would give you a Look if you called her adorable. (And possibly favour you with a pithy wombat curse: her curses are the best!)

The thing about this comic is that it apparently started on a whim, and Ursula thought it would last for a few panels and be done. She threw together a bunch of random stuff like wombats, the elephant-god Ganesh (or a statue of him, anyway), an exiled hyena, a baby shadow-thing that doesn't know what it is, other awesome creatures I don't want to spoil for you—and if it were only the random juxtaposition of weird things with clever dialog and delightful art, it would be wonderful. But she kept going, and somehow she gathered up all her threads of weird randomness and wove them into a narrative of heartbreaking, breathtaking wisdom about how to be a decent, compassionate being in a world that doesn't make sense.

And because it's Ursula Vernon, the humour is laugh out loud, snort your tea all over the screen funny, and the philosophy can sometimes explode your brain.

Also, this web-archive includes comments from fans that greatly enhance the reading experience, as they reference everything from Star Trek to Terry Pratchett to Lord of the Rings, and debate archeology and geology and mythology and everything else.

Definitely worth a week or two of your life (there are around 800 pages!). It won a Hugo, after all.

Ursula Vernon writes for children, but I would say Digger is more appropriate for her T. Kingfisher readers (that's her pseudonym when she writes for adults). Not because of anything particularly graphic**, but, well, here are a few pages and you can judge for yourself:

And if those few pages don't make you want to read Digger immediately, then it probably isn't for you, and I despair of you, my child, I really do!

*which is going to get a blog post, really, I promise!

** I mean, other than the fact that it's a graphic novel. Get it? Graphic ... never mind.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

#MarchMagics: The Shepherd's Crown, by Terry Pratchett

Every March, Kristen at We Be Reading hosts a celebration of the works of beloved fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

I didn't have a particular plan for what to read or re-read this month, but when I went to my library I saw The Shepherd's Crown, and discovered that it is both a fifth and final Tiffany Aching book, and Terry Pratchett's last novel. So it was with both delight and sadness that I began to read it, and both delight and sadness that I finished it.

I adore Tiffany Aching. She's one of my all-time favourite heroines, up there with Sophie Hatter, Jane Eyre, Elisabeth Bennett, Irene from the Invisible Library, Cassandra from Stray, Tess (of the Road), Slate from Clockwork Boys ...* The Shepherd's Crown stays true to her stubborn strength and exasperated compassion. She gets some career advancement, as it were, —which, for a witch, just means more things that have to be done—and rises to the challenge with typical blunt style. "I want to do it my way. Not how the other witches think it should be done." She finds help in surprising places, and there are always the Nac Mac Feegle ready to take on all comers.

The afterword explains that "The Shepherd's Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died. If Terry had lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book." I read this first, and so was prepared to be disappointed in the book. But it turns out that a not-quite-finished Terry Pratchett book is still far better than the best of most other authors. It's true that this novel felt a little thin, compared to his other books. Less layered. But it is a complete and satisfying story, and it has all of Pratchett's wit and wisdom and gentle understanding of human foibles.

It also has a number of cameos from many of the Discworld novels. I haven't read all of them, so I didn't recognize them all, but it was lovely to see familiar characters show up. It felt very much as though Pratchett was saying goodbye to Discworld. There were some scenes that brought me to tears, because they were well-written and touching but also because I could hear the farewell in them. 

I can confidently recommend this book to anyone who loves Pratchett, but you were going to read it anyway, weren't you?! It's also an excellent conclusion to the Tiffany Aching series, and just another excellent book about human nature and goodness and the true source of magic. I am happy to think of the conversations Pratchett and Death are having now, over a game of chess, perhaps, and a glass of something mellow. May we all be able to say, as I'm sure Death said to Terry Pratchett: "YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT."

*This is turning into an interesting list, possibly worth writing a post about!