Monday, July 9, 2018

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

I was going to do another middle-grade book, but that post got hijacked by this one. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe happened to be available on my library's e-book platform yesterday when I was waiting for a bus and had finished the book I had previously borrowed (and the bus still wasn't coming). I remembered hearing good things about it somewhere, so I clicked Borrow, and it instantly appeared on my phone! (I still haven't gotten over the instant appearance of books on my phone. Other crazy useful and amazing features I take for granted now, but Want Book. Click Button. Wait 5 Seconds. Have Book. will never get old!)(And thank goodness for library e-books, or Deplete Bank Account Without Noticing would soon be a thing!)

It only took two bus rides and a 40 minute ferry to finish the novella (I'm really liking the novella as a medium), and I just have to rave about it before I do anything else.

I loved this novella. I will happily read anything if I like being in the head of the main character, and I loved being in Vellitt Boe's head. Competent, intelligent, mature, responsible. Sensible. Willing to leave everything safe and comfortable to travel through an unpredictable and horrifically dangerous landscape so she can save what she values. (It helps that what she wants to save is education for women.)(Later the stakes get higher, but at the beginning she's willing to risk her life so that the Women's College doesn't close. I love this woman!) And she looks forward to the journey, she enjoys it, because that's the kind of person she is. A far-traveller.

Reminded me a lot of Rowan, Steerswoman. If you liked those books you'll like this one.

Part-way through there was something bothering me about the world-building, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The world is crazy-imaginative, gorgeously-weird, evocative, lush—but it's missing something, some dimensionalilty I couldn't define. It stood out because the characterization was so complete that it seemed odd the world wouldn't be equally filled-in.

I went to see what other people were saying about the story, and that's when I discovered that this is an homage to an H. P. Lovecraft story called "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Suddenly everything made sense.

I've never been tempted to read Lovecraft, but I've encountered his mythos and heard both the positive and negative things said about his writing. Wonderful, brilliant, and deeply flawed appears to be the consensus.

Johnson immerses us into the wonderful and brilliant, clearly highlights the flaws, and transforms the world through the eyes of Vellitt Boe so that the flaws become irrelevant. Lovecraft's apparently long-winded purple prose is evoked in Johnson's poetic (but much sparer) language. His self-absorbed, sexist characters are ever-so-lovingly, ruthlessly skewered by Vellitt's clear-sighted observation. His racism is just gone, because Vellitt treats every sentient being (and there are monsters: this is Lovecraft after all) as an individual judged on its own behaviour. (I loved the character of the gug.)

The conclusion of Vellitt's quest is epically satisfying on so many levels. I appreciated the novella for its clever reworking of the source material (still not tempted to read the source material!) but I also loved its character arc and plot resolution in and of themselves.

(In case I haven't convinced you to read this yet, how about positive, supportive female friendships? Yes? You don't realize how much you want to read them until you do and you're like, why is this so amazing? They're small but essential parts of the narrative.)

Immediately went looking for what else Kij Johnson has written, and—more instant reading material!—there's a short story on her website called "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss" (which you have to read just for its title, right?). I LOVED THIS STORY! Gahh. No words. Just ... it's perfect. Going off to read more of her short stories now.

Kij Johnson is a lot like T. Kingfisher, as a matter of fact. So, so bloody refreshing! Icy cold glacier water rushing over rocks on its way down the mountain you just climbed.

Monday, June 25, 2018

MMGM: Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

I have been somewhat lacking in middle-grade reviews this year. As in, it's actually been more than a year since I reviewed a middle-grade book! (This is what you get from a blogger with no plan, no mandate, no way of organizing her reading except purest serendipity.) But I went to the children's section of my library yesterday, just to see what caught my eye, and I came home with a large stack of middle-grade reads, so maybe I can start rectifying that imbalance!

I opened Hello, Universe first, and it pulled me in right away. I loved Virgil, who thinks he's not just a failure but a Grand Failure, and I loved his relationship with his grandmother. Then I loved Valencia as soon as I met her, with her prayers to Saint Rene and her determination that she doesn't need friends. And Kaori the psychic and her little sister Gen were hilarious!

I've been hearing lots of good things about Erin Entrada Kelly for a while now, but her books are realistic fiction and I always think I don't enjoy realism as much, which is ridiculous, because there are books like this out there! The voices of the four characters (the fourth one isn't Gen, actually, but more on that in a minute) are spot on: each insecure in their own way, each with their own stories they tell themselves to explain the world and justify their own actions. Each lovable for the way they are trying to be their best selves, given what they've been taught that should look like.

There's so much going on in this book! Stories within stories: folk-tales Virgil's grandmother tells him, facts Valencia reads about the natural world, tidbits of spiritualism Kaori has gathered from various sources. It's delightful to see how each of them weaves a belief system out of the stories and knowledge they gather plus the values they absorb from their family plus their own interests and weaknesses, and how this belief system both helps and hinders them. All kinds of interesting psychology here!

The fourth POV character is perhaps the most interesting in terms of psychology: Chet is a bully, and his narrative explores some of the reasons why he treats others the way he does, a lot of which come from his father's attitudes and opinions. (In case you were worried, his father isn't abusive.) These chapters will be harder to read, particularly for kids who are bullied, because Chet belittles others in his mind before belittling them with his words. I didn't love Chet, but I came to understand him better: he, too, has stories he believes and insecurities he is trying to get around.

What's wonderful about this book is the way all four narratives interweave with each other, both physically, as the characters cross paths or interact or just miss each other, and thematically, as stories or facts from one narrative become relevant to another narrative. One of the pleasures of reading is making connections, and Kelly does a great job of laying out pieces and letting us put them together. I loved the theme that there are no coincidences: believing something is intended or fated gave these characters the courage to grab the moment, reach out and connect with each other.

I also loved the multiple, realistic diversities—ethnicity, culture, religion, physical ability—and the matter-of-fact way differences are introduced. And diverse parent-child relationships: sometimes loving parents aren't actually supportive, and each character here has a different sort of complicated relationship with their parent figures.

Turns out I really do like realistic books! I will be looking for Kelly's two other books that I've also heard good things about,  Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls.

Hello, Universe is raspberry rhubarb pie: sweet and tangy and complex, and very summery.

Greg Pattridge is now hosting Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday on his blog, Always In The Middle. Head over there every Monday to get loads of middle-grade recommendations.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

In which I decide Martha Wells is a favourite author

How is it June already? I guess my excuse is that I was in Spain and Portugal for half of May. (I'll put a few pics at the bottom of this post, if you want to see any.)

And what did I spend all my travel time reading? Turns out that Martha Wells was my go-to read, out of all the options I loaded onto my phone. And after finishing all 5 novels and two short-story collections in the Raksura series, and the two published Murderbot novellas, I can confidently say that I really, really like Martha Wells!

The Raksura series has a lot of awesome stuff going for it. Flying people, for starters. Better yet: shapeshifting flying people who can pass as normal groundlings (no humans in this world, just lots of varieties of bipedal human-shaped people)—but when they shift they get wings and tails and claws and crests. Yes, kind of like dragons, but also totally original and just really cool.

Raksuras also have a fascinatingly unique social structure (with some clever gender-reversal going on, just for fun), and they live in these completely awesome magically hollowed-out tree colonies—Wells' settings are endlessly inventive and interesting; a great world to get immersed in.

Moon is an entirely empathetic character in whose perspective to enter this world. He starts out not even knowing what species he is, just knowing that he has to hide his shapeshifting ability from the groundlings he lives with. His journey from exile to hero is the compelling thread that ties all the books together, but there are also lots of cool bad guys to fight, interspecies diplomacy to manoeuvre, ancient ruins to discover, and romantic entanglements to, uh, untangle.

Written for adults, but I think it would go over very well with a YA audience. Lots of fun and incredibly imaginative. (If you liked Avatar I bet you'll enjoy these books.)

It looks like The Murderbot Diaries will end up with at least four novellas, and one can only hope there will be more. I can't tell you how much I love the character of Murderbot. I was hooked from the first line, and it only got better from there:
"I COULD HAVE BECOME a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but Murderbot the character is hilariously sarcastic, self-depreciating and incisively observant. The corporate-run future world is a brilliant commentary on our current corporate-run world, and Murderbot's journey to figure out its identity ("If people won't be shooting at me, what will I be doing?") is surprisingly touching.

Very different from Ancillary Justice, but Murderbot and Breq are kindred spirits, I think.

Also appropriate for YA audiences.

So now that I know how much I like Martha Wells, I think I'd better try her Ile-Rien books. Will let you know how that goes!

Here are a few photos from the area around Ronda, in southern Spain. Pretty spectacular scenery!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

What's on my Kindle for this round of flights, layovers, train rides, etc.

Hi all, and welcome to another edition of Whats On My Kindle! In this episode, your faithless blogger is on her way to Spain and Portugal for a two-week bike trip, and, as usual, she is a little panicked about the idea of having to spend any down time without a book on hand. So, this is what she has downloaded into her phone:

Martha Wells Raksura series:

I've read the first three books, but it's been a while, so I've got them available to re-read, and I have the two short-story collections and books 4 and 5, The Edge of Worlds, and The Harbors of the Sun.

I've also pre-ordered the next Murderbot novella, Artificial Condition, which will arrive next week, I think. Very excited!

Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure, by Elizabeth Bear, should be fun. Also, I have to say I like the new trend for novellas. Particularly for travel reading!

Another intriguing-sounding novella: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson. I also picked up The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette De Bodard, but I finished it already, so I can't count it. (It was interesting, but didn't make me run out and buy more stories in the same universe. Might later.)

Not a novella: The Guns of Empire, by Django Wexler. I'll probably need to reread the other three books in this series, and I have them as well, so that should keep me going for a while. I should probably get the last one, too, huh?

And on my library e-book app:

The Forbidden Rose, by Joanna Bourne. It's the third of her Spymaster series, and I think I've read the first two, but I can't quite remember. Library didn't have them, but this is apparently first chronology-wise, so it should be okay to read it on its own.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky, because Jenny at Reading the End recommended it, and sometimes you just feel like something non-fictiony.

Of course, just in case the brain is too fogged with Gravol (Dramamine) to focus on words, I took great advantage of the Netflix download feature and the ridiculous memory on my phone to get all kinds of random stuff, including a couple of series in Spanish (so I can learn the language by osmosis on my way over): Morocco, Love in Times of War, and El Ministerio del Tiempo. Because, Morocco, and time travel. I've also got some anime, some Star Trek: TNG, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Monty Python, a Korean drama ... you get the picture!

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).