Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Shadow Twin, by Rachel Neumeier

I'm astonished to see that I've gone a whole month without a blog post. (You, I'm sure are less astonished, given my complete inability to conform to any blog posting schedule.) Partly it's because my writing time and energy has been going into my WIP, so that's good, but partly it's because I haven't read much I feel like reviewing (I haven't read much, period, and a lot of it has been rereads.)

I'm going to be lazy and cross-post my Goodreads review of the latest Black Dog book, because it should be on my blog, too.

A bit of an intro: the Black Dog series is a modern paranormal about werewolves, with an interesting take on them: being a Black Dog isn't infectious, it's genetic, and into some Black Dog families are born the Pure, who have magic that can help black dogs control their demon halves. Without the Pure, black dogs are savage hunters who kill without thought. With Pure magic, they can live peaceably with each other and with humans. Dimilioc is a civilized Black Dog house constantly at war with stray black dogs and vampires. Three siblings—Pure Natividad, human Miguel and black dog Alejandro—come seek refuge with Dimilioc when their parents are killed by a particularly nasty black dog pack. Interesting relationship and power dynamics ensue, intercut with exciting magical battles. There's romance, but family is what these books are all about.

There are now three novels and two short-story collections, and the story isn't finished yet (yay!); another short-story collection is coming next. Start at the beginning, and don't neglect the stories, as they contain key plot and character development. (I actually think I like the short stories best, because they're so focussed on characters; the novels are from Natividad, Miguel and Alejandro's POVs, and the short stories allow us into the other characters' heads, so we can fall in love with them, too.)

Here's what I posted on Goodreads about Shadow Twin (no spoilers, but it's a review for those who've read the other books, since you won't want to start with this one):

A great birthday present! [I celebrated by dropping everything and spending my entire day reading this!] Everything you want from a Black Dog book, with a focus on Miguel and Alejandro coming into their own. Some great scenes where Miguel is right about everything, and some great scenes where he isn't! Alejandro develops his relationship with Grayson and establishes more clearly his position in Dimilioc. There are new characters, with all the interesting power dynamics that entails. Colonel Herrod gets a major role. (Justin and Keziah are off-screen for this adventure, sadly.)

The plot of the Black Dog books is always the same—nasty, evil demonic threat appears, black dogs fight back, get almost defeated, and then Natividad comes up with some innovative form of magic to save the day. The magic is always interesting, and follows enough rules so that it isn't just *handwave magical solution*, and Natividad is always fun to watch as she blunders by instinct and ridiculous fearlessness into her latest invention.

But the reason I keep rereading these books is the characters and their interactions. Neumeier does such a good job of exploring power, authority, loyalty, trust, and she makes you care about all the characters so much—the scenes between Ezekiel and Grayson kill me every time, and there's a great one in this book. Also family: it's great to see Natividad and her brothers' unbreakable bond continue, and also for them to begin to feel that Dimilioc is their family now. Yeah, there's the odd throat that gets ripped out or head that gets thrown across a room (that one really deserved it, trust me!), but really this is a book about relationships, and about what it means to be civilized, and to be a family.

Favourite quotation:

Miguel added, "God, I need a bath. And a big cup of coffee." Alejandro frowned at him. "You need twelve hours' sleep and the hearts of your enemies on a plate."

Have you tried the Brookside dark chocolate candies with acai or pomegranate or whatever centres (because that makes them totally nutritious, right??). I cannot stop eating them, just like I cannot stop reading these books. More sophisticated than your typical candy, and with, you know, anti-oxidants and, uh, stuff.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Clocktaur Wars, by T. Kingfisher

You'll have to excuse me while I fan-girl some more about T. Kingfisher. She just presses all the right buttons for me.

A few facts you need to know about her:

1. She goes by Ursula K. Vernon when she writes graphic novels and kids' books, and they're all fantastic and quite well-known (see: Harriet the Hamster Princess). Anything written as T. Kingfisher is probably not appropriate for readers younger than, say, 13-ish? It's not just that there might be sex, and possibly more daggers through eyes than you might want a younger reader experiencing, but her themes are deeper, her focus is more ... philosophical, for want of a better word. The world is a more complex place, both grimmer and more humane.

2.  She really gets fairy tales. As in, she has obviously imbibed so many, from so many different traditions, that folk-tales run through her veins, but also she has a genuinely weird imagination that works easily with fairy tale logic. The things she comes up with!

3. She is hilariously funny.

Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine—really just one novel broken into two—are a bit different than the others of hers that I've read. Not so much fairy/folk-tale inspired, but more of a re-imagining of the fantasy quest, with a healthy serving of vaguely steampunky Lovecraftian horror thrown in (and if you think that sounds weird, you're right!)

I was sucked in from the first scene, in which a forger fetches a murderer from a dungeon to go on a suicide mission. Oooh, dark, grim, edgy, you're thinking, and yes, it is, but the forger has a mysterious sixth sense that manifests as an allergic reaction, so she's sneezing to death the whole time. Plus her interactions with both the prison warden and the murderer (who is actually a paladin knight who got possessed by a demon, so that's a little complicated) are off-beat and unexpected (by both warden, paladin, and reader), so the whole scene is mind-bogglingly, hilariously interesting.

Then they go off to get the horrifically inventive safety measure that ensures they have to complete the mission (don't want to spoil it for you, but if they don't die trying they will just die painfully), and they meet their team-mate the assassin ("I don't like people unless I'm stabbing them."). Then they meet the 19-year-old self-righteous scholar who's never been outside his monastery and thinks women will turn his bowels to water. Who is also coming on the mission.

So it's the most extreme version of incompatible quest-mates I've ever encountered: the banter and drama is endlessly amusing. (As in, every second sentence made me smile, and every second page I was laughing out loud. Then came the scene with the horses, and I was gasping and wiping tears from my eyes the whole chapter.) Kingfisher knows how to structure a running joke, and that's basically what the whole first book is. (Something along the lines of "I wonder if we're going to kill each other before we even get to the place where we're likely all going to die.")

But, by the end of Clockwork Boys, the trust the four of them have built in each other is as moving as their differences were funny, and I genuinely cared about each one of them and about the fate of the team. Slate, Caliban, Brenner and Learned Edmund kill me in all the best ways, whether they're trying to kill each other or not.

The Wonder Engine is still funny, but it's also an intriguing mystery, a realistic adult romance, and a brilliantly explicated treatise on prejudice and marginalized people. When I wasn't laughing my jaw was dropping. Or I was just straight-up crying, because now these people I care so much about are having serious character development in some seriously tense situations.

Also, most hilarious torture scene ever written.

I think if you like Terry Pratchett you'll probably like T. Kingfisher. She's an auto-buy author for me now; I have yet to be disappointed in anything she's written.

The Clocktaur Wars is a balsamic/maple braised pot roast with red peppers and sweet potatoes (and I threw some kale in because you can hide kale in a sauce this rich and flavourful). Sweet, tangy, not exactly your normal pot roast, but still hits the pot-roast receptor in your brain most satisfyingly.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Song of the Current, by Sarah Tolcser

February was flu month. 'Nuff said.

In consequence, I completely missed blogging about the Cybils Awards, which is a shame, because they were fun, but hey—books keep existing (it's one of the great things about them), so I can still talk about the winners and finalists and ones I loved even if I'm a bit late.

Song of the Current was my favourite of the YA Spec Fic nominees that I read (though I was quite happy that we all agreed on Scythe as the winner, because it was also great).

I may have liked Song best because the setting on a river boat in the fens reminded me of Swallows and Amazons, one of my favourite childhood book series. (And I love books about boats that let me pretend I'm an expert sailor myself!) Or maybe I loved it because one of the main plot elements (which I almost spoiled for you because it's pretty easy to see coming, but I'll be quiet about it!) is a trope I particularly enjoy.

But I think mostly I loved it because of Caro: daughter of a wherry-boat captain, raised on a boat, still waiting to hear the river god's voice so she can be a captain herself, but when needs must she ups and does what has to be done, whether she feels qualified for it or not. I love practical, competent heroines; I love watching them be skilled and confident and then stretch themselves by using those skills in new, scary situations, like piracy.

I also get a kick out of the exasperated banter you get when two people with very different competencies underestimate each other, and there's lots of that! And I'm a fan of romance that starts with exasperated banter and ends up with characters learning to respect and trust each other.

The plot had just enough politics and intrigue to be interesting without getting confusing. Plus pirates, so, yay! (I mean, hurrah!) There was a great cast of characters, including Caro's two very different parents who have their own goals and priorities but are still supportive and loving (here's to more supportive, loving parents in kidslit!). Also cousins and sisters and various other family relationships that I'm a fan of.

The worldbuilding was immersive and gorgeous—I've mentioned the boats once or twice, I think! I was quite happy when the ending seemed to indicate a sequel would be forthcoming (not a cliffhanger, but we definitely want to know what happens next), because I want to spend a lot more time in this world with these characters.

Seafood chowder, home made with potatoes and cream and big chunks of salmon and cod and scallops (and mussels if you like them, but you'll have to eat mine for me).

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, by F. C. Lee

Coincidentally, I recently started watching a Korean drama and then picked up a library book that both involve a version of the Chinese mythical character the Monkey King. Turns out he is an awesomely fun character to play with, and both the drama (which is halfway through its airing) and the book are hugely entertaining.

I had vaguely heard of the Monkey King before this, but I boned up a little on my Chinese literary history and learned about the 16th C novel, Journey to the West, in which a monk goes on a quest to find sacred manuscripts with the help of three supernatural protectors. The Monkey King is a trickster god; he made a ruckus in heaven and was buried under a mountain for 500 years in punishment, and now he is tasked to help the monk on his journey by protecting him from various monsters and demons. He's ridiculously powerful and not at all trustworthy!

In The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, ohhhhhhh, I want to tell you how The Monkey King shows up in a boring California suburb, but I can't possibly spoil that scene for you, so mmmmblfarg. Aaaannnnnnyway, although he's an important character, the story is really about Genie, and she is a supremely awesome heroine. Demons start showing up all over (in the frozen yogurt place: I mean, come on, that's not fair!) and she has to decide whether to unlock the ancient powers she apparently possesses and save the world. Or, you know, stay normal and get into an Ivy League college. Or try to do both and fit in a little romance on the side. Yes, there are nods to Buffy; there's also a fair bit of spoofing a lot of YA tropes (the gorgeous new transfer student who appears irresistibly attracted to the heroine for no good reason, for example). (I loved the way Genie reacted to him!)

This book is really, really funny. Genie punches lots of demons and has awkward conversations with her mother and gets terribly annoyed at the Monkey King character, and it's pretty much a hoot from start to finish. But it's also got great themes about being true to yourself and discovering your inner strength (because of course those are the themes when a girl discovers she's the reincarnation of mmmblfarg not going to tell you because it's a pretty awesome reveal, even if you're not familiar with the legend).

Remember Pop Rocks (is that what they were called?), those ridiculous candies that popped on your tongue (rather painfully, if I recall). This book reminded me of those: sweet and hilarious and unexpected. With lots of punching.

The Korean drama, if you're interested, is called Hwayugi, and is also very funny, with a romance that I didn't think was going to work at all but is managing to capture me. I'm loving all the plot twists that are possible when you have a bunch of genuinely amoral supernatural characters. (No one can trust anyone!) (But then they start caring about each other, and you're like "awwww, that's so sweet. He'll probably stab you in the back later, but awww!") The best character of all is the zombie girl—serious props to the actress for being utterly convincing. It's not done yet, but I think I'll end up highly recommending this one.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved every minute of it!

I really liked the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale. I loved Vasya, the girl who sees spirits and can't be tamed to fit the role expected of her; I loved the evocative, wintry, oppressive, vast Russian setting, and the way the folklore is entirely integrated and believable. Of course there is a frost demon! How could there not be? I loved the family dynamics: complex, deep, hurtful, healing, strong, strong bonds. I hated/loved the twisted priest and the way his view of the world influences everyone in ways Vasya simply can't fight, and the way she chooses to fight anyway.

In The Girl in the Tower, Arden gives us all those things but more! and better! Vasya chooses to risk freezing to death in the Russian taiga rather than submit herself to being shut away in a house or convent, and oh! how cold it is! Wear a blanket and slippers while reading this and have a stew cooking in the oven because you'll need it. Vasya is clever and stubborn and knows how to interact with the spirits that inhabit the landscape, but she wouldn't survive if Morozko the frost demon hadn't given her a magic horse—Solovey is so awesome! Best character in the novel!

The relationship between Morozko and Vasya is brilliantly suspenseful, and the development of his character is one of the highlights of the novel. I'm not going to say any more, but there are some lovely bits.

So, we've got Wo/Man vs Nature and Man vs Himself and Woman vs Expectations, and then Vasya encounters some burned villages and decides she has to do something about the whole Man vs Man thing that's going on with those darned Tartars. And she's disguised as a boy, so there's lots of Lies vs Truth vs Being Found Out (I know that wasn't one of the standard high school Conflicts, but it's one anyway), and she ends up going to Moscow and getting pulled in all sorts of directions. (Wo/Man vs Society). Then a bad guy worse than the priest shows up, so there's seriously Wo/Man vs Evil.

All the conflict and tension you could possibly pack into a novel, continually ratcheting up in a lovely slow build, layer upon layer, and all the way through you are feeling the bite of the frost, hearing the crunch of the snow, smelling the smoke from the fires. Inhabiting Vasya and her world. There were times I had to put the book down because it was getting too intense. At one point I shouted out loud.

And I haven't even mentioned Vasya's family, who are wonderful, and who love her, and who are several of the directions she gets pulled in. And by the time the Firebird showed up my brain melted down and my heart exploded.

So, yeah. I think you should read this one. Cannot wait for the third book!

Osso Bucco (I know it's not Russian: you can substitute your favourite Russian stew if you want): meat falling-apart tender and satisfyingly chewy, sauce savoury/tangy with a hint of sweetness, every bite making your eyes roll back in your head a little because it's so perfectly, completely delicious.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

If you've read my blog you know that Frances Hardinge is one of my auto-buy, drop-everything-and-read-now authors. So I can't believe that I didn't know she'd come out with a new book in October. I love the feeling of suddenly having a new favourite author's book to read! It's like finding a 100$ bill in the pocket of your coat!

I dropped everything as soon as I found out about A Skinful of Shadows and read it in two days. It was everything I've come to expect from Frances Hardinge: rich, layered setting, fierce, lovable characters, and beautiful, poetic-without-being-flowery writing.

If you've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric novellas, then you'll be familiar with the central premise of Hardinge's novel: Makepeace has the ability to house other souls inside her (in this case ghosts rather than demons, but it amounts to the same thing). It's a scenario that is usually confrontational, as the ghosts try to take over from their host, but Makepeace, like Penric, discovers there's another way to go about it.

Hardinge loves to play with names, and our heroine Makepeace has more than her share of them. We never find out the name she was born with, just as Makepeace doesn't know who she truly is or what she's capable of. She's labelled with a Puritan name so she can fit in with her Puritan aunt and uncle, but she never quite fits in, and her defiance and temper seem to belie her name. She's given a noble name by Royalists who want to use her, and she chooses yet another when she escapes them, deliberately naming herself after Judith who cut off her enemy's head. But in the end, Make Peace is what she proves most able to do. And she defines herself, thank you very much.
"I am not changed," she said. "You never knew me. None of you ever knew me."
Classic Hardinge character!

The setting was one of the more unique aspects of the book: I'm pretty sure I've never read a fantasy set during the English Civil War. (Pretty sure I've never read anything set during the English Civil War.) It's a period of history I know almost nothing about, but with her deft descriptions and deep understanding of context, Hardinge plunged me right into the middle of the Catholic/Protestant, Royalist/Parliament conflict. The political happenings are tied in quite brilliantly with the plot, as Makepeace is thrust from one side of the conflict to the other, and each side tries to use her in pursuit of their own agenda.

The huge old manor house of Grizehayes is a character in its own right: spooky, looming, a prison for Makepeace but also a home, with nooks and crannies only she knows about. Makepeace's inhabitation of Grizehayes, the way she turns its oppressiveness inside out and makes it serve her instead of containing her, is a sort of inverted metaphor for what she does with the ghosts who inhabit her. By knowing them, she stops fearing them; by allowing them to know her, she turns them into allies.

Okay, as I write this I'm getting more and more impressed with this book. Layers of theme interwoven with plot and character and setting—man, she's a good writer! I have to stop this post from becoming a dissertation!

Just go read it. You'll love Makepeace, her courage, her compassion, her desperate attempts to be herself. You'll love Bear—I don't want to spoil anything, but the scene where they meet is just—wow. The villains are super creepy, there are spies and disguises and plots and counterplots, and you never know who you can trust. Suspenseful, exciting and supremely satisfying.

Seafood chowder, because it's something Makepeace might have made in the kitchen of Grizehayes, and because it's rich and flavourful with multiple textures so that every bite is a little different but it all works together as a harmonious whole. Also I made some last night and there are leftovers for lunch today, so yay!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Happy (Gregorian Calendar) New Year everyone! (Am I right? Is it the Gregorian calendar? Sounds vaguely familiar, anyway!)

I stayed up until 4am last night re-reading Andrea Höst's Touchstone Trilogy for the umpteenth time while I waited for my son to get home from his party, and in between favourite bits from the books I checked out everyone's Best Of 2017 lists: some great books were read this year! Thanks for sharing (and for adding a ton to my TBR!)

My Year in Review is random, off-the-top-of-my-head, and of necessity includes some Korean drama, because I watched a lot of that instead of reading this year!

Most Anticipated and Didn't Disappoint:
Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. We've been waiting for years, and we were rewarded with a fascinating new character and an awesome bromance, plus a couple of new gods.

Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor. This. Woman's. Brain. Shimmery, deep, delicious, wrenching, utterly original fantasy with the most rootable-for character ever. Serious Cliffhanger Warning.

Fave New-to-me Author:
Katherine Arden. The Bear and the Nightingale was wonderful, and then The Girl in the Tower surpassed it in every way. Loved the wintry world, the Russian-inspired mythology, the stubbornly independent characters (including the magic horse) and a firebird! Review of Girl coming soon.

Fave re-read:
Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. Oh, Maia, I love you so much!

Fave random discovery at the library:
Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate

Authors that keep doing things I love:
E. K. Johnston: She keeps doing different things and they all keep being wonderful. Spindle was another thought-provoking fairy-tale retelling, and That Inevitable Victorian Thing was thought-provoking alternate history social sci-fi (one has to invent new genres for Johnston all the time!).

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon when she's writing for adults. Summer in Orcus was a lovely folk-tale inspired portal fantasy, and Clockwork Boys was fantastic motley-crew-on-a-quest steampunk, first in a series and I can't wait for the sequel! Review coming soon.

Books that made me grin from ear to ear:
The Invisible Library and its sequels, by Genevieve Cogman
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon

Books that walloped me over the head (in a good way):
Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Sequels even better than the first book:
Traitor to the Throne, by Alwyn Hamilton
The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden
Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Fave characters:
Vasya from The Girl in the Tower
Irene from The Invisible Library
Murderbot from All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. "As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure." A novella introducing a new series: so excited about it!
(I also really love Lazlo from Strange the Dreamer, Rishi from When Dimple met him. Kamut, of course. All the characters, really, since I don't love a book if I don't love the characters!)

A few of my favourite K-Dramas, for the sake of being completist (also my ulterior motive is to addict you all):

Suspicious Partner/Love in Trouble: romantic comedy/murder mystery/courtroom drama with Ji Chang Wook being vulnerable and funny, Nam Ji Hyun playing another relatably-striving-against-all-odds heroine, and a great supporting cast of goofy-yet-heartwarming friends. (Nam Ji Hyun was also wonderful in the cute-as-a-puppy Shopping King Louis, with an utterly adorable Seo In Guk.)

Because This Is My First Life: romantic comedy/slice-of-life with fantastic writing and acting that had me gasping with laughter and wiping tears in every episode. Best kiss ever.

Strong Woman Do Bong Soon: fantasy/romantic comedy with easy-on-the-eyes Park Hyung Sik appreciating Park Bo Young's super strength as she beats up gangsters while trying to be a normal girl. (On Netflix as Strong Girl Bong Soon.) I also really enjoyed Park Bo Young's acting in Oh My Ghostess (on Netflix as Oh My Ghost), as she plays both a painfully shy girl who sees ghosts and the bold, brash ghost who possesses her.

1% of Something: romantic comedy (yes, I like these) with a really great dynamic between the couple. It's a let's-pretend-we're-dating-to-get-our-parents-off-our-backs type plot, which Marriage Not Dating does even goofier.

Queen In-Hyun's Man: time-travel historical fantasy/romance. I enjoyed Yoo In Na in Goblin and she's lovely in this one as well, and Ji Hyun Woo is a treat to watch as the Joseon scholar who has to adapt to the 21st century.