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!

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Two Graphic Novels: New Kid and Banned Book Club

These are two very different graphic novels: a middle-grade story about a Black kid trying to fit in at a new, mostly white, school, and a memoir about a Korean university student joining protests against a repressive government. But they both deliver a similar hopeful message about friends standing together standing up for something.

New Kid, by Jerry Craft, is funny and charming and affirming—and ever-so-gently and incisively excoriates the ignorance and bias of the white-privileged world that Jordan has to adapt himself to. When his well-meaning parents (and I love Jordan's parents!) send him to a posh private school, Jordan has to leave behind his neighbourhood where everyone looks sort of like him, talks like him, dresses like him, has around the same amount of money as his family; and figure out how to navigate a society of very wealthy, very white kids (and teachers). He doesn't encounter violent, ugly racism and bullying; rather, this book illustratively defines "microagression" (without ever using the term): the thousand tiny cuts every day that tell him he is different in a bad way. Less. Abnormal. And it's up to Jordan to adapt himself to fit in. Because that's what it means to be brown in North America.

I loved that every character was well-rounded and had real personality—there are no cardboard cut-out bad guys. There are no "bad guys": even the teacher who cannot get the names of her black students right for the whole year isn't malicious, just blindly, stupidly negligent, so wrapped up in her own version of reality that she can't recognize what she's doing. And that's what this book is all about: recognition.

As an inhabitant myself of a white bubble of privilege, I loved how this book slid the knife in so painlessly: do you see yourself there? Is that a bias you didn't know you had? Is that a phrase/action/attitude you've indulged in? 

But of course, the more important recognition is every kid who has ever had Jordan's experience seeing themselves represented. Jordan's journey is so real, his frustrations so palpable, his little successes so convincing—and the story is full of optimism and empowerment. Most people have good will. Making overtures of friendship mostly results in friends. It's possible to bridge gaps of understanding with a bit of patience and humour. 

New Kid was a delight to read; the art was appealing (I can't really speak to the art, but I liked it!); the characters linger in my mind. There is a sequel, Class Act, that I will get my hands on ASAP, because I really care about Jordan and his friends (and I want to find out if he eventually makes it to art school!). And I just now found out that New Kid won the Newberry last year! Guess that's why I'd heard of it!

I wasn't planning on spending so much time on New Kid, but I still want to talk about Banned Book Club, by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju and Ryan Estrada. Different as it is, it's also an important book that opened my eyes and should be read by everyone. It's definitely an adult book, or older YA: quite a bit of violence, including torture.

I had no idea that as recently as the 1980's South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship (shows how lacking my "world history" study is!). Banned Book Club is set in 1983, and chronicles the author's first year at university, when she is awakened to the true nature of her government and gets pulled into student protests. As a naive, relatively sheltered young woman, Hyun Sook makes the ideal protagonist to bring the reader with her as she discovers what the students are doing and what happens to them when they get caught. The cute guy who invites her to "book club," an opportunity to talk about banned books and the political ideas they represent, is regularly arrested and tortured—and he takes it all in stride with a sort of "taking one for the team" attitude. The "cocktails" the girls are asked to prepare for an event turn out to be Molotov cocktails. Hyun Sook is appalled at first, and afraid, and then she gets angry. She participates in the protests for the cute guy's sake at first, but then because she agrees they need to protest. There's a quite frightening government agent that she eventually stands up to, in a believable and funny-while-also-scary way.

It's a very readable story with a lot of humour to offset the terrible things happening. And it highlights the fact that these are ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives: they aren't "radicals" obsessed with a political agenda; they just want a few basic freedoms and human rights, and sometimes you need to fight for that. There is a happy ending of sorts: the epilogue shows all the characters thirty-three years later, after a democratically elected government has been in power for a while. But the fight continues, because freedom isn't something anyone, or any country can take for granted. (Interesting that in 2017 South Korea's president was impeached for corruption—and she was the daughter of the first military dictator.)(This book sent me on a bit of a history research tour, and what I learned illuminated many things that had puzzled me in Korean dramas! But that's a whole nother post!)

These books remind me why I like graphic novels so much. I think I will make a point of reading more of them this year.

Monday, February 8, 2021

MMGM: Jinxed, by Amy McCullough

 This middle-grade sci-fi adventure has it all:

  • cute talking animal side-kicks ...
  • that are also robots with internet access and hologram projectors and all the cool things your phone could do if it was actually a cute talking animal (don't we all wish our phones could be cute talking animal robots?) ...
  • and they have to fight in robot battles at the tech school where really smart kids learn how to make robot animals, but all that fun violent mayhem is okay because ...
  • the main character is really good at repairing them and making them even better than before ...
  • which is how she gets her mysteriously different robot cat, Jinx, who seems to be able to think for himself (and has the snarkiness to show it!)
The robot sidekicks are called bakus. The clever-with-technology protagonist is Lacey Chu (so you've got your girls in STEM and a pretty diverse cast, so check off some more boxes), and there's a mystery about her absent father, and some questions about the big tech company that makes the bakus and runs the school (all big tech companies have a nefarious plan to take over the world; that's a given!). Plus some exploration of class and elitism and what it feels like to be less rich, less connected, less privileged. And the whole artificial intelligence—free will problem that can't help but come up when dealing with self-aware robots. 

There's lots going on here, and it's fast-paced and exciting while taking time to develop characters and give justice to the themes. None of the elements are original, but Lacey and Jinx, and the team at school, and Lacey's best friend (who didn't get into the special school) make this a fresh, compelling romp through some of the more significant questions kids these days are facing.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and am about to dive into the sequel, Unleashed.

Oh, hey, this is a middle-grade book, so I can contribute to Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday! Haven't joined that group in a long while. Greg at Always in the Middle is still hosting this great weekly round-up of favourite middle-grade books—be sure to check it out.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Hands of the Emperor, by Victoria Goddard

I’ve just read another book that has me babbling incoherently. I have no idea how to organize my thoughts about this book so I think I will just blither at you. 

This book is the perfect, the ideal book to read in these troubling times. If you want to read a book in which nothing terribly bad happens, if you want to read a book about nice people being nice to each other, about good people doing good things, this is that book. This is also a book about the aftermath of a global catastrophe, and about the rebuilding required, and it is an infinitely hopeful book in that regard. (To the point of being hopelessly idealistic, perhaps, but the world could use more idealism at the moment!) Someone described this book as competence porn: if you love watching competent people do their jobs competently, this is the book for you.

I was drawn in by the blurb, which reveals the central twist at the heart of the book: which I can't seem to put into coherent words. Power, and relationships, and the difference between how people are seen and how they are. (Those words don't elucidate it at all, sorry!) But I can say that if that blurb intrigues you, you will not be disappointed.

This is not a plot-based book by any means. The entire first quarter consists of a group of nice people who like each other going on vacation in a beautiful, friendly place. I enjoyed it so much! It isn't remotely boring for a number of important reasons: complex power dynamics are being tested and redefined in simple actions such as deciding to go swimming; a fascinating, vibrant world is being gradually revealed; the tentative friendship developing between the Emperor and his secretary Cliopher is delightful to watch; and there is the piquancy of dramatic irony in almost every scene, because no one knows that this is the Emperor. (I've always been particularly tickled by the conceit that here's an important/significant/powerful person and everyone else bustles around officiously having no idea who they are. Like that scene in Sabriel when she first crosses the border.)

That conceit is actually the organizing conceit of the novel, because no one actually knows who Cliopher is, even though everyone thinks they do.

The Hands of the Emperor is a character study: a long, deep, complex, extended character study of a really interesting person. Cliopher is a bureaucrat—and if you think would never want to read the story of a bureaucrat, this book will change your mind. He loves his job; he is exceedingly good at his job; he is transforming the world through his job. He also has an amazing backstory, which gets gradually revealed, and the way his story is told—by whom, to whom, under what circumstances—is crucial to the plot, the character development—it's really interestingly done.

This book is a true successor to The Goblin Emperor. If you loved that book you will also love this one. Cliopher is heart kin to Maia. They would like one another, they would recognize in each other similar challenges, desires and goals. The way politics and world events are used as backdrops to define and highlight character is very similar in both books.

You know who else would like Cliopher: Miles Vorkosigan. He is almost as opposite a character as can be, and yet they share the same passion, incorruptibility, desire for justice, joy in service. (They need to meet later in Miles's career, though. Cliopher would probably have a hard time with younger Miles!)

Goddard's writing has the same combination of wisdom and humour that I enjoy in Lois McMaster Bujold's work. Her prose is delightful.

This is a book about friendship, about family, about how our identities are tied up with our families and our friends. It is also a treatise on culture: what culture means, why culture is essential and necessary and intrinsically woven with our identity. And it brilliantly, viscerally, gorgeously elucidates what it means to be from different cultures, what it takes to understand a different culture. (If you liked what Rachel Neumeier did in Tuyo, know that The Hands of the Emperor does that in spades. And bulldozers.)

The world building in this book, oh my! It reminds me most of Sherwood Smith and her novels set in Sartorias-Delas. So broad and deep and full of detail. Its a multi-world empire with strange magic and stranger history, and you won't understand all of it, but the parts you need to understand will end up written in your hearts.

I'm getting ridiculous so it's time to stop. I can't recommend this book highly enough to people who like the same kind of books I do. It hits all of my buttons. I immediately bought the sequel, which is shorter and in an entirely different style (and focuses on a different main character) but which I liked just as much (and she's promised a sequel with Cliopher, so yay!)

I will mention two caveats: The Hands of the Emperor is self-published, and there are rather more typos than I'm used to encountering. There is also a structural flaw (I think that's the best way to describe it) that would probably have been corrected by more editing. Rachel Neumeier explains it in her review (it's very slightly spoilery, so you can decide if you want to know). Like her, I was bothered by it, but it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book as a whole—I still say this is going to be one of my all-time favourite novels, one I will re-read over and over again. It's that good.

Monday, January 11, 2021

More K-Dramas on Netflix

My review of 2020 wouldn't be complete without some Korean dramas. Kudos to Netflix for getting so many of them. Of the ones I watched last year, I can definitely recommend these (also see this post for more):

It's Okay to Not Be Okay: Utterly gorgeous, with fantastic acting and a heart-wrenching (but in a good way) story of brothers and found family and what counts as normal and who gets to decide what you're going to be.

Mystic Pop-up Bar: light and mostly funny fantasy grounded with some great acting. A pop-up bar is a mini-restaurant in a tent (like a less-portable food truck, with a few tables); this one is a front for a woman doing hundreds of years of penance by saving lost souls.

Start-Up: a not-terribly realistic story of a tech start-up succeeding despite the odds. Fun because of the ensemble cast and the transforming relationships among them.

Strongest Deliveryman: funny, feel-good David vs Goliath story about a big corporation trying to take over mom & pop restaurants. The two second leads might grate on you for the first several episodes, but they have great character arcs so hang in there!

Hyena: two cut-throat lawyers being very clever about cutting each other's throats despite being irresistibly attracted to each other. They are so crazy unscrupulous that you can't help rooting for them!

Memories of the Alhambra: if you fell in love with Hyun Bin in Crash Landed on You (go watch that one first!), you will want to check out this interesting fantasy. He's not as swoony in this one (probably because I wasn't as invested in the romance), but it's a cool plot.

A Korean Odyssey: The ending of this one is terrible, but it's still worth watching for the wonderful characters of the Monkey King and his hilariously amoral immortal compatriots. Definitely watch it long enough to meet the zombie girl and follow her arc—she's fantastic—, and then stop around episode 13 or so when the writers apparently all got their brains eaten or something and decided to introduce a sorceress who has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot and derails it entirely.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung: if you're in a historical for the costumes and the palaces and could care less if it's remotely true to history. Pretty topical, actually: should a historian edit history because it's inconvenient for those in power? Cute romance is secondary to girl-coming-into-her-own story.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

2020 Reading Report

Like many of you, despite having more time alone at home this year because of the pandemic, I read far fewer books—at least, fewer new books. It was a year of rereading old comfort reads, rewatching favourite Korean dramas, and listening to a lot of comedians (generally the only way I could handle the news).

I do not keep the scrupulous records that many bloggers manage, so I can't tell you how many of what sort of book I read, but I can go through my kindle purchases and library borrows and get some idea of what the year's reading was like.

Most anticipated and didn't let me down:

Network Effect, the Murderbot novel! 

Return of the Thief, the final book of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series, and the long wait was so, so worth it! One of my first goals in 2021 is to reread the entire series.

New books from writers I like:

Call Down the Hawk, Maggie Stiefvater's spin-off from her Raven Boys series, which I liked a lot but didn't love as much as I'd thought I would.

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix Harrow. I loved The Ten Thousand Doors of January so much that I was nervous about this one, but it had three awesome characters and a great premise and was imaginative and gripping and now I know I like Alix Harrow!

Tuyo and Nikoles, by Rachel Neumeier. I cannot believe how prolific Neumeier is! Not one, but two new books in a completely new series, that I enjoyed so much I've already re-read them. And she also put out a new book in her Black Dog series, Copper Mountain! Have to say, the pandemic would have been much bleaker without Rachel Neumeier. (She also kept up her interesting blog, which I appreciated.)

Plus there were two new Penric novellas from Lois McMaster Bujold, two new novellas from T. Kingfisher, the latest Invisible Library novel from Genevieve Cogman—oh, look, there's an even newer one! Yay!—, a new short story in Andrea Höst's Touchstone world, a cool novella from Zen Cho ... you know, I did read some really enjoyable stuff this year!

New-to-me Authors:

M.C.A Hogarth: the Dreamhealers series was so utterly perfect for this year. Gentle, wise, fun but not taxing world-building. Much of the suspense was the fascination of exploring a new friendship between two very different species. Quite refreshing and delightful.

Margaret Rogerson: I don't know why I read very little YA and Middle-Grade this year. But Rogerson is a new author I will be looking out for. I read Sorcery of Thorns for the Cybils and then went looking for An Enchantment of Ravens, her earlier book. Both were good; Thorns was better, and I look forward to seeing what she does next. I'm also highly anticipating the sequel to the Cybils winner, Fireborne, by Rosaria Munda.

Nghi Vo: I was blown away by the novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Haven't picked up the second one yet, but I will definitely.

Books I tried to read but couldn't:

I was very excited about A Memory Called Empire, The Starless Sea, The Lovely War, and The Priory of the Orange Tree, but in the end I didn't finish any of them. Maybe the world-building required too much of my brain? Or I wasn't quite grabbed enough by the characters? They were all good and interesting and had lovely writing, but I put them down and never picked them up again.

But I'm glad I did this post: I feel better about last year's reading, and I'm quite excited to discover new books to love in 2021!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Cybil's Shortlists are out!

January 1st is when the Cybils Round One Judges announce the shortlists they pass on to the Second Round of judging, and these are always books well worth reading. I am hoping that 2021 will be a year with a lot more headspace for discovering new books, so I'm adding these to my TBR.

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Patrick Ness has a new book? You don't have to tell me anything more: I'm in. It has dragons? And is set in an alternate history Pacific Northwest during the Cold War? With dragons?? Pretty sure I'll be reading this one tomorrow!

The others sound good, too: I've heard a lot of good things about Cemetery Boys, and when Kiersten White's take on Guinevere came out I flagged it for myself. The others are new to me and I'm excited to check them out!

Young Adult Fiction

Not going to lie: a lot of these choices sound very heavy and depressing to me, and as important and relevant as they may be, they are not what I want to read right now. But there's one about fútbol that sounds like a lot of fun! Furia is set in Argentina, about a girl who plays football (or soccer as North Americans strangely call it!) in secret because of her family's rigid disapproval.

Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction

These ones all sound perfectly fantastic and right up my alley! A Thai, magic retelling of Les Miserables? Yes please! Some fun and original-sounding witches, a kid dealing with anxiety on Mars, and a great Halloween read about a town with a dark secret ... I will be checking all these out as soon as possible!

Middle-Grade Fiction

I love how many different realities are represented here. There's poverty, grief, injustice and abuse, but it looks like there's a lot of resilience and friendship. I had already added From the Desk of Zoe Washington to my TBR; now I have more!

And I'm already a little overwhelmed, but you can go on to check out the other lists, including graphic novels, picture books and non-fiction.