Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Spark, by Sarah Beth Durst

What if something that was making your life wonderful was also making someone else's life miserable? If you found out about it, what would you do?

This seems to me one of the central moral questions of our time, and Spark is a lovely, gentle but remorseless engagement with it. This is such an important book; all adults should be required to read it!

It's also a sweet, fun story about following your heart and finding your voice and figuring out where you belong. And it has dragons! (Well, storm beasts. But close enough as makes no mind!)

Durst says she got the idea for this book from the first line: Mina was quiet. "But I didn't want it to be the story of a quiet girl who learns how to be loud. I wanted it to be the story of a quiet girl who discovers she's strong, exactly as she is." I love that.

I loved Mina, I loved her passion, her intelligence, her patience and her frustration. I appreciated the depictions of her boisterous family and the way she loves them and belongs without being like them.

I adored her storm beast Pixit and their relationship, they way they remind each other of their strengths and bring out the best in each other.

I was so happy with the school scenes—Mina is unlike all the other students, but she finds friends and figures out her talents and discovers that she belongs. It's an outcast story without any bullying, and isn't that a good thing to have examples of?

The world of Alorria was fascinating and colourful; simplistic in the way middle-grade fantasies often are, but with enough complexity to be believable and to generate an interesting plot. The concept of storm beasts and the use of them to control weather was a lot of fun. The prime minister is a great character. I thought Mina's solution to her dilemna was brilliant and quite relevant to our own world.

I've consistently been impressed with Sarah Beth Durst's work. She is incredibly imaginative, thoughtful and has a deep understanding of psychology. My copy of Spark had a sample chapter from The Stone Girl's Story,  and I'm now anxious to get my hands on that one!

Since we just celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving, I'll compare Spark to the tasty and very different stuffing my son made for his turkey: it had walnuts and apples and pomegranate seeds, so it was colourful and crunchy and had all the sweet, sour, savoury and salty flavours. (His gravy was great too: had notes of lemon and fennel and white wine.) I love that my kids are all better cooks than I am!

Note that today is your last day to nominate books for the Cybils award. Spark has been nominated in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category, along with a lot of other great books. If there's one you know of that's missing, hurry and nominate it!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Cybils Nominations Open!

It's October 1, and that means it's time to nominate your favourite books of the last 12 months for the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards!

Anyone can nominate: did you read a children's or YA book last year? Did you like it? Nominate it!

We can't pick the best of the best unless all the best books are nominated, so we need you. You have 15 days!

Here are the categories you can nominate in (you can nominate one in each category).

Here is all the info you need and a link to the nomination form.

Tell us what you loved this year: we want to know!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Everything Beautiful is not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Picked up Everything Beautiful is not Ruined because of the title: love the title! And the book lives up to it.

It's a contemporary story about a girl on a wilderness therapy trip. The blurb says Wild meets The Breakfast Club, and that pretty much nails it: group of teens with various issues have to survive a hiking trip with some manufactured challenges that make them bond and open up to each other. As someone who backpacks regularly, I thought the wilderness challenge was the weakest part of the book—I got very angry at the some of the things the leaders did ... but I will not rant about that here! (I do agree that nature and wilderness experiences are healing, and I did like the description.) In any case, that was just the setting for the personal journey.

I loved the book because of Ingrid—her voice, and her fascinating past history, and the genuine journey she makes to reconcile with it. She narrates, and I found her snarky sense of humour with barely veiled hurt underneath utterly compelling. I felt so much for her! (And was very angry on her behalf with the irresponsible adults who ... not going to rant. Right.)

The narration is in two parts: letters to her mother describing the wilderness trip, full of sarcasm and anger and "why did you send me here?", and descriptions of her unusual childhood. Ingrid's mother was a famous opera singer, so Ingrid spend her early years traipsing around Europe, surrounded by music. It was an idyllic period in her memory, and then it suddenly ended when her mother lost her voice. Young Ingrid has to grow up quickly to deal with her mother's spiral into depression.

Younge-Ullman makes great use of her structure to create tension. It's obvious that something terrible happened to result in Ingrid's mother sending her on this camp, something Ingrid refuses to talk about even when all her co-campers are revealing their problems. As the stories of her childhood unfold we get closer and closer to understanding what might have happened; meanwhile Ingrid's letters to her mother are resolutely not saying anything even as she's being pushed to a breaking point by the physical and mental challenges of the camp.

I was blown away by the ending, when past and present come together and we find out how hurt Ingrid really is, just as she discovers her own strength and the support around her that she needs. There are some hard things, but the title is true: everything beautiful is not ruined.

I loved the use of music and the exploration of the life of a musician. I loved all the characters, (even the ones I was very angry at!). (And there was one character I loved beyond all measure, but I won't spoil who it is: you'll know who it is when you read it.) I appreciated the nuanced, realistic but hopeful approach to mental illness. This therapy trip doesn't magically fix everything for Ingrid, but the better place she gets to makes sense. There are bits to cry over, but lots of laugh-out-loud humour.

Since I'm still not quite ready to relinquish summer, I'll compare this book to an unusual gelato flavour: blueberry basil, maybe, or lemon lavender. Every bite has different layers of flavour and keeps surprising you with that unexpected hint of herb, which adds the right note of bitterness or spice to counteract the sweetness of the fruit. (Just made my own raspberry-mint sherbet with the last of the garden's raspberries: delicious!)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Novellas get me out of my reading funk! Also dragons.

It helps that the novellas were written by Lois McMaster Bujold, Becky Chambers, and T. Kingfisher.  And the dragons are from Marie Brennan's series that I finally got around to starting, and why did I wait so long (though it's nice that all the books (I think?) are written now) because she is an amazing writer!

There is nothing like putting yourself in a capable writer's hands. Suddenly, the world seems like a more hopeful place.

Becky Chambers is infinitely imaginative and also owns a deep well of hope. I haven't reviewed her Wayfarers series, I guess because it's adult and I'm mostly a YA/Kidslit blog, but I adored it. So, so interesting—her world, her characters, her narrative style. How does she manage to be both thought-provoking and feel-good? When I saw a novella with yet another amazing title (she is hands-down the best title-er out there, just saying), I bought it right away. To Be Taught, if Fortunate is another fascinating exploration of humanity's possible future, while also being a deep character study of science—yes, of scientists, but also of science itself: what it values, what it's good at, why it's a hallmark of our species and the ultimate reason to have hope for where we're headed. By the end of the novella I cared as much about the future of science as I did about the characters—who were all lovely and interesting and maybe they got along a little too well to be believable, but isn't it sometimes nice to read a book where the conflict isn't about people being mean to each other? Just saying.

I have written quite a bit about Lois McMaster Bujold, despite her never writing anything remotely YA—I just love her so much I can't help myself. She's been dropping novellas about Penric and his resident chaos demon, Desdemona, like little surprise fruits for the past several years, and I'm always thrilled to get another one. Penric is getting pretty powerful these days, as he and Desdemona figure out how to work together, and in Orphans of Raspay he gets very pissed off. You shouldn't piss off someone harbouring a chaos demon. Just saying. What I love about this series (and the World of the Five Gods series, same world, same religion) is the way she explores how gods could work in the world without infringing on human agency. I also love the humour. And Penric. I just love Penric. He has to be one of the best depictions of an ethical character—his conflicts are all about how to be ethical when you have the power to do whatever the hell you want, and there's room for a lot of humour there.

Speaking of humour, I can always rely on T. Kingfisher. She understands that all plots are jokes (you have to set up your punchline), and her comedic timing is impeccable. Also she has a deep well of absurdity. Don't be misled by the young protagonist and his armadillo familiar: this is not a children's book. When Ursula Vernon is being T. Kingfisher, she can do pretty horrific violence and some genuinely scary bits. (Some reviewers have pointed out that kids do read scary and violent things. I would recommend reading it yourself before giving it to anyone under 13.) Minor Mage has everything I like about Vernon/Kingfisher: unflinching understanding of the worst of humanity combined with loving depictions of its best; not-particularly-special protagonists who muddle their way into heroism; folktale elements teased apart and turned into very weird, very brilliant world-building. And laugh-out-loud funny scenes juxtaposed with insight and wisdom, in the best Terry Pratchett style.

Speaking of science (we were a few paragraphs ago!), A Natural History of Dragons is another delightful exploration of the scientific method and the characters of people who are obsessed with Finding Things Out. (And if you think "delightful exploration of the scientific method" is an oxymoron, this might not be the book for you.) I loved Isabella, and I loved the narrative style, which pretends to be all distant and objective but actually reveals how deeply Isabella feels. (And is also quite slyly funny a lot of the time.) This first book of The Memoirs of Lady Trent describes a young Isabella desperate to study dragons but destined to lead the restricted life of a Victorian lady. The narrator is older, wildly successful dragonologist Isabella, so we know she succeeds, but the gap between where she begins and where she apparently ends up is a fascinating one to see slowly filled in. These books are gorgeous, with lovely illustrations, and I now have a terrible dilemma: do I buy the discounted e-book collection that has all five books, or do I fork out for the paper editions?

I'm feeling my way back into reading and writing, and authors who know what they're doing and who believe the world, and people, are full of potential and are worth saving are a lifeline to me. Have you read anything lately that has given you hope and confidence? Or just made you laugh?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I don't blog much in the summer anyway, but this year I've been in quite the reading funk and haven't had anything to say about books for a while. It happens, I guess. Sometimes life gets in the way of reading.

But when my friend's book came out I had to read it, of course. And if you need a book to get you out of a slump, have I got a book for you!

Gods of Jade and ShadowGods of Jade and Shadow has to be the sweetest dark fantasy about homicidal death gods ever written! If Jazz Age meets Mayan death god sounds intriguing, I can promise you won't be disappointed: you get Mayan mythology and 1920's Mexico in equally vivid realism. The intersection of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, with a Mexico on the verge of change is convincing, terrifying, and so much fun. Witches and demons lurk in strange mansions and the streets of Carnival; fancy new hotels can be portals to hell.

The protagonist leading you through both worlds is a clear-headed, no-nonsense dreamer with a temper that gets her in trouble and a dry, self-depreciating wit that gets her through it. Casiopea is named after a Greek myth and knows her stories, and when she accidentally resurrects a death god she takes it all in stride—after all, he's going to get her out of her grandfather's house and the drab town that "scorch[es] out dreams." And maybe, if she survives the vengeful spirits and the Black Roads of Xibalba and her ever-awful cousin Martín, she might get a chance to realize one or two of her own carefully hoarded dreams.

Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, is an equally delightful travel companion. Arrogant and careless as any god when we first meet him, he becomes more and more human as he journeys with Casiopea (due to a particularly well-done mythical plot twist). Casiopea's relationship with Hun-Kamé is the fascinating, piquant heart of the story: she fears him, stands up to him anyway, serves him, refuses to put up with his crap, chooses to stick with him, and comes to have compassion for him. The impossible romance that blooms ever-so-tentatively between them is entirely believable and beautifully bittersweet.

The writing is lovely and often quite funny. Hun-Kamé is prone to grave utterances that the other characters refuse to take seriously.
"Death enters all dwellings."
"Death has no manners."
But then sometimes he ends up being quite profound.
"Death speaks all languages."
"But I am not death."
"You wear me like a jewel upon your finger, Casiopea."
The plot has the pleasing inevitability of a folktale but the satisfaction of watching characters with agency change their world. "'Very well,'" says Casiopea at the beginning, "and with these two words she accepted her fate, horrid or wonderful as it might be." By the end of her Odyssey, she is defying gods and monsters (and the ever-awful Martín)(but even he gets some compassion, because Casiopea is just that awesome) and it turns out the fate of the world is in her hands. "'I wish you were a coward instead of a hero,'" says Hun-Kamé. But we've known from the start that Casiopea is no coward. Her triumph at the end is earned and fitting. I particularly enjoyed the form her happily-ever-after took!

If you're bored with endlessly replicated fantasy settings, annoyed with heroines whose one characteristic is spunky or kick-ass, have had it up to here with insta-love and angst—this is the book to cleanse your palate and renew your faith in speculative fiction.

Home-made corn tortillas with carnitas, queso fresco and a really spicy pico de gallo. Also a salsa made from blackened habaneros that will scorch your tongue off.

And here's some of what I've been doing instead of reading this summer:

Cross-posted on Goodreads (without the hiking photos!).

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Top Ten books to take travelling right now

Whooosh! That's the sound of May rushing past before I had time to blink. My reading in May was almost exclusively comfort rereading. Things are going on IRL—some good, some not-so-good—and sometimes you just need to fill your head with beloved characters and a plot you know by heart.

Now it's almost June, and I'm leaving on a jet plane next week, which brings me to my annual (or so it seems to be becoming) What Books Am I Going to Put on My Phone For the Trip post. I'm perusing all your blogs for ideas and would love to get more suggestions in the comments.

Travel reading needs to be easy and light; after a few hours on a plane your brain turns to mush, so complex plots and dense prose just aren't going to go down. (Rereading is actually perfect for flights, but I've done enough of that.) You also need to bring a lot of different options, because sometimes travel brain wants one kind of thing and sometimes it just doesn't.

I usually try to find books set in the places I'm going, just to get me all inspired. This time it's Italy—Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice—so maybe I should revisit Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series. Any other suggestions?

What I've got so far:

From the library:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford: been on my TBR forever!

The Mortal Word, by Genevieve Cogman: newest Invisible Library book—so excited! Absolutely perfect airplane reading: fast-paced and funny.

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan: my engineering student son just learned how to make sourdough, so how can I not read a novel about a programmer taking care of a neighbour's sourdough mother. (Also you must listen to the funny Stuart McLean story about taking care of a neighbour's sourdough mother. (story starts at 19:20))

The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu: I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this one.

The Chocolate Kiss, by Laura Florand: Paris, not Italy, but chocolate. Loved the first one.

Nights of the Round Table, by Tanya Huff: funny short stories are ideal plane fare.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho, audiobook: the new one is out, so I should reread this one, and all the better if I can do it with my eyes closed!

Decided to buy:

Toad Words and Other Stories, by T. Kingfisher: more short stories and I love every word this woman writes, so this was a no-brainer

The Starfighter Invitation, by Andrea K. Host. Always willing to try new Andrea Host.

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis. Because I haven't actually read this series yet, and why haven't I?

A Sword Named Truth, by Sherwood Smith (preordered; it comes out on June 11): extremely excited about this one. If you've read Crown Duel and A Stranger to Command, you're probably excited, too.

Lent, by Jo Walton: I love her writing, and this is fantasy about Savonarola, a key figure in Florence history. How fortuitous!

By now you can tell there's nothing Top Ten about this list—clearly I can't count, and this is a pretty random collection based on what was available at the library, what I've read about on blogs recently, and fave authors I decided to look up on Amazon. But it would make a great Top Ten list idea, wouldn't it?? What would go on your list?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

How by all the trees of the forest are you supposed to review this book? The experience of reading it is the most fun, fascinating, mind-warping ride through time, space and existentialism I've had since ... well, since reading Ancillary Justice. But I can't tell you a thing about it because that would ruin your ride.

I went to Goodreads to see how other people manage it—it turns out most people just spoil everything, so proceed with caution*—and someone's review said ... oh, mmblefarg, I can't even tell you that without spoiling a lot of things! Here, I'll make it small and yellow so you can't see it unless you highlight it: it's inspired by Hamlet. My brain just exploded. It's frigging Hamlet, people. As in, mad Ophelia, Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Horatio ... it's a Shakespeare retelling and I didn't even notice.

Suffice it to say it's one more layer of utter brilliance that retroactively doubled my enjoyment of the whole book!

What can I say to make you want to read it? People have warned that it starts slowly, and it does. You think it's about an heir returning from the war front to discover his uncle has usurped his place. If you then expect lots of politicking and/or fighting for him to regain his throne, you will be disappointed. The plot is both smaller and much, much larger than that. I think I can safely tell you gods are involved. (I was thinking Greek tragedy as I was reading. Turns out I wasn't far off.)

People have talked about the narrative voice: it starts out in second person, which is clever and technically challenging and could be really annoying after a while, except that you figure out fairly quickly who "you" is, so then you start wondering to yourself who might be talking. That takes a fun while to figure out, and once you piece that together, you wonder why the speaker is addressing the you, and you slowly work that out over the course of the novel (as does 'you').

The whole novel is a mystery, and it's a mystery you the reader are figuring out with a slightly different set of clues from you the character. Leckie does the same thing she did so brilliantly in Ancillary Justice: weaving a past and a present timeline together so that the things you learn in each timeline explain just enough of the other timeline to raise the stakes and make you care more. And keep you guessing!

But I hate books that deliberately withhold information so you can be surprised at the twist ending. Leckie doesn't do that. She gives you enough information to be pretty sure you know what's going to happen, but to be intensely curious how it's going to play out, and then you get the next bit of information and realize, oh, ho, now I see what's going to happen! And now I'm even more curious! And then the ending happens, and you're like, "Woah, didn't see that coming! But she was telling me all along that that's what was going to happen!"

I spent a lot of time while reading this with a big grin on my face, and I wasn't even sure what I was grinning at. I just love the way Leckie plays with my brain, I guess. And her characters. We are told nothing about them; we only know what they say and do, and what they speculate about each other, so it is difficult at first to connect with them, to know who to root for. But words and actions and speculation are what create character, and by the end I just loved the two people whose names I can't tell you because that would be spoilery! Fist-punching yes-shouting love.

There is so much going on in this novel. Leckie dissects human society and power and loyalty and faith and all those things you can play with when you've got kingdoms and gods and war and usurpation. But she's also playing with stories and the power of words and the power of who gets to tell the story. And the fundamental premise at the heart of all stories about magic: be careful how you say what you wish for.

Note that she has been developing this world of gods making deals with humans for many years; there are a lot of short stories available online that will give you a flavour. Try The Nalendar, for example.

At a restaurant recently I had a dish called Roasted Cauliflower in Romesco Sauce that was so delicious I had to try it at home: I roasted tomato quarters and red pepper chunks and onion wedges with the cauliflower florets, olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika for a good hour and a half, until all the flavours were intense and rich. Added a splash of apple cider vinegar and some smoked paprika. (The restaurant version had toasted almonds and crispy capers, and I'm sure there was garlic but I didn't have any on hand.) Lots of complex flavour layers and the surprise of cauliflower tasting that good (really it's just a mild vehicle for the sauce). I was as happy eating it as I was reading this book!

*I have not given you a link to the Goodreads page for this book, because I really, really don't want you to get inadvertently spoiled. This review from By Singing Light is excellent and entirely non-spoilery. Ditto everything she said!