Sunday, September 5, 2021

Thorn, by Intisar Khanani

What a remarkable book! I'm sitting here a little stunned, feeling as though I've been punched with a velvet-gloved fist. There is so much in this book and it's handled so well!

Thorn is a retelling of the Goose Girl fairy tale, in which a princess is forced to switch places with her maid while journeying to wed a neighbouring prince. There's a greedy goose boy, a talking horse and a clever king, just like in the original. But what Khanani does with this story blew me away.

Princess Alyrra, or Thorn, as she becomes, is kind and courageous like a typical fairy tale heroine, but so, so much more. I love that for Alyrra, the spell switching her with her lady-in-waiting is an almost welcome way out from a future she didn't choose and greatly fears. She would actually be happy staying a goose girl, except that there are dangers and injustices and people she comes to care about, and she can't just stay silent and let everyone get hurt.

Oooh, silence, and words, and the power therein! There's a spell preventing her from revealing what happened to her, and I love the marvelous conversations in which Thorn decides what truths she can tell—given the constraints of the spell, yes, but also how much she trusts her questioner. And we learn so much about the other characters by how much they figure out from what she says! So interesting and clever!

But it goes deeper: silence is one thing Alyrra has mastered, because she is a victim of both neglect and abuse. The spell becomes a metaphor for the power of telling someone the truth about what happened—and then the narrative turns it around again, and Thorn's choice to tell someone about an abuser—and the strength and support she gets from that choice—makes her realize she needs to reveal the truth about the spell. (I hope this is confusing enough that it isn't too spoilery!) I'm just in awe of how Khanani weaves her material back and forth in such a compelling way. (Don't worry, there are lots of cool things I'm not spoiling!)

This is a story of someone put in a position of powerlessness who realizes that she still has choices. It's a story of finding allies and of being an ally. It's a story of justice and vengeance and the difference between them. It's a story of hurt and forgiveness and trust. It's got one of the most original and astonishing heroine vs evil villain climaxes I've ever read.

The writing is beautiful, lyrical but precise. (I'm reminded of "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"). This is how and why you use first-person present tense: we are in Thorn's head, in the moment with her, trapped and frustrated by her circumstances, shaking with her fear. Khanani is very careful about how she describes violence and abuse—never graphic or shocking—but she writes with power. So, yeah, trigger warnings. This book reminded me of Robin McKinley's Deerskin, which is one I return to surprisingly often (there are just certain sections I don't reread)(Thorn is not remotely as graphic as Deerskin nor does it dwell in the same way on the aftermath of the abuse.) What I love about both of these novels is the strength, resilience and love that transform the character's pain into something victorious. I had tears in my eyes several times, but they were tears of amazement at characters' courage and kindness and wisdom.  Thorn also reminds me of Spinning Silver; I was blown away by that one, too.

I want to spend more time in the world and in the hands of this writer, so I'm picking up the companion novel The Theft of Sunlight (first of a companion duology, apparently, and with a notorious cliffhanger, so I may not start reading it yet!)

Lemon ginger cardamom cheesecake. Subtle, complex, eye-rollingly delicious. My daughter and I sort of made this up when I was visiting her and I'm trying to recreate it tonight. (We really should have written down the amounts of things, but we didn't really measure them at the time ...)

Monday, August 30, 2021

MMGM: The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta

The Serpent's Secret is a fun, colorful middle-grade fantasy similar to the Rick Riordon Presents series, with fascinating mythology, a grumpy heroine and rather a lot of demon snot! 

I've really appreciated the growing number of #OwnVoices fantasies based on non-European folktales, mythologies and histories. It's great that publishers have finally woken up to the fact that kids need to see themselves and their cultures represented in the books they read. It's good for all of our brains to be exposed to different cultures and new ideas. And as a purely selfish reader, it means there are that many more interesting stories I have access to!

DasGupta has a great afterword in which she explains the various sources of her material: everything from Bengali folk tales to a beloved poet to the works of Einstein. The world she creates out of all this is fascinating: an interdimensional fun house of different lands populated by princes and monsters and stars (not to mention annoying talking birds). 

Our heroine, however, is from New Jersey. Kiran doesn't believe in any of the stories her parents tell her, and she definitely doesn't believe that she's a princess. I thought her reaction to a slavering rakkhosh destroying her home and two princes on winged horses showing up to rescue her was realistic and age-appropriate: she's seriously pissed off! Sarcastic and uncommunicative prince Neel doesn't help matters, and the two bicker their way through the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers trying to save Kiran's parents from a black hole and Neel's brother from a Demon Queen's curse.

I liked that there wasn't a single Big Bad to defeat: there are puzzles and riddles and monsters to battle, but the monsters had their own reasons for existing, and both Kiran and Neel have to face monstrous sides of their own natures. Blending mythology with astrophysics was ambitious and a little mind-bending—I didn't think it always worked, but I liked the dimension it added to the story (get it: dimension?).

I often get tired of the gross monsters that appeal to middle-grade readers, but this story had enough going on to keep my interest, and the rakkhosh were actually pretty funny. I cared about the characters and I believed in the awkward friendship between Kiran and Neel. There are two more books in the series, and I'm interested enough in the unique cosmology DasGupta has created and curious enough about what Kiran's going to do next that I will seek them out.

I'd really like to try Bengali food. I think this story resembles a typical Bengali meal, which (according to a quick google search) looks like it's presented very similarly to food I had in Nepal: different curried and fried vegetables and fish with a few chutneys and sauces arranged around plain rice. Many different flavours to cover the whole palate. (I really want to go back to India and eat!)

By Sarmistha Bera - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

For more great middle-gread reads, every Monday visit Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday.

Monday, August 23, 2021

The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee

I was really excited about The Iron Will of Genie Lo, and I wasn't disappointed. It's every bit as good as The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, and my one disappointment is that it appears to conclude the series—I would have read a lot more adventures of Genie and Quentin! (Though Yee might have decided there was no way he could top the stakes of this one, and I respect walking away from the mike drop!)

The Monkey King is a great trickster character from Chinese mythology, and Yee has so much fun with him and his partner in mayhem, over-achieving California high-school student Genie Lo. I loved Genie's character: she's flawed, she recognizes her flaws, she's trying to do the right thing, and she gets so relateably exasperated with herself, and with everyone else who makes it so hard to figure out what the right thing is. There's enough character development that I would read a book just about Genie trying to figure out college choices and her relationship with her parents and how to communicate with her boyfriend. Throw in demons and a bunch of Chinese gods being petty and manipulative, and Genie doing her best to fulfil a divine mandate while still getting good grades and protecting her best friend Yunie from all the supernatural stuff going down—so much fun! And I cared so much about all of them.

Everyone from the Goddess of Mercy to the ant leader of the demon horde to Yunie's hilariously true-to-life cousin at college was an interesting character that I wanted to know more about. Yee has a way of summing up people and situations in unexpected but perfect metaphors:

How was I supposed to keep my life options open if I didn’t at least double major? The concept was rationally appealing but still unpalatable, like cilantro.

... a wizened, disproportionately deep voice. He could have narrated a nature documentary about himself.

The writing is just really, really funny—sometimes quite sly, always very perceptive. 

it looked like we were having a funny, lighthearted conversation, like women in stock photos. All we needed were some salads.

There are a lot of similarities between this book and Victories Greater Than Death, which I ended up getting bored with and not finishing: colorful, larger-than-life characters, lots of crazy action in imaginative settings, juxtaposition of normal teen-age angst with save-the-universe stakes. So why did Iron Will work for me where Victories fell flat? I think it's in how much Yee respects both his material and his audience. I didn't get the sense that Anders believed in her aliens; they felt more like props to make the story more exciting, and the story was there so that her teen characters could Learn Something. Yee's gods and monsters were every bit as over-the-top weird, but they felt real to me. And Genie wasn't there to learn a lesson: she was there to kick butt and yell at people to stop being stupid. That she figures out how to be true to herself and still live up to everyone's expectations (including her own) is an inevitable result of her character intersecting the story.

The ending felt a bit rushed to me: this could totally have been a trilogy, and I have to respect that Yee didn't drag the story out on purpose to make it three books, but I would have happily read a third one! (Have I hinted strongly enough that I want another book? What about a novella? I'd be happy with a short story: pretty please with a cherry on top?)

Steamed BBQ pork buns, the kind you get at dim sum. Actually, this book is dim sum: so many different delicious things coming around on carts! You might not recognize many of them if this isn't your cultural background, but you'll want to try them all. And it's really sad that there's no way you have room to eat one of everything!

Monday, August 16, 2021

What I actually read when I was travelling

Quick update now that I'm back from my trip. [See previous post for all the books (including authors and goodread links) I brought with me when I went to Ottawa (travel! how exciting to do it again! seeing my children made me so happy!)]

So what engaged me enough that I actually read it?

Stargazy Pie: chaotic but in the funnest possible way. Here's my short review on goodreads.

Zero Sum Game: exactly what I wanted it to be, fast and exciting (super violent, crossed my line a few times), with great characters I was really engaged with. Will read the sequel next time I need an adrenaline kick.

City of Brass: great world, great characters, intriguing plot. Loved the details of the world-building, loved the magic and mythology. Great writing. Got a little dark: I'm not a fan of the impossible choices and inevitable betrayal that are staples of so much YA fantasy, but she sold it well and I care enough about the characters that I'll keep going in the trilogy.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: I read a couple of stories—well-written and weird, they were more melancholy than funny, so I wasn't inspired to read any more. Would probably pick up the book again if I was more in the mood for it.

Victories Greater than Death: got partway through and lost interest. It's an odd combination of goofy and earnest that didn't work for me. 

The Serpent's Secret: got far enough along and liked it well enough that I decided to renew the library loan.

Becoming: Michelle Obama is a great writer and an excellent narrator. Didn't get far in the audiobook but really enjoyed it.

And a book I saw at the airport bookstore and then discovered my library had an ebook copy: Successful Aging: a Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of our Lives, by Daniel Leviton. Engaging writing and really interesting (and relevant to my life!) ideas. Helpful personality traits to work on (to stay vibrant and functional into old age); the science of brain plasticity that means it's possible to change our personality; cool discussions about how memory works, what intelligence is ... that's as far as I've gotten so far. Going to buy a copy for myself and one for my parents!

Here are some really intriguing titles I noted at an independent bookstore in Ottawa, one novel about Johannes Kepler's mother and three non-fiction books (I want to read more non-fiction: it's good for my brain!):

Do you have any non-fiction titles you can recommend?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

What I'm taking on the plane when I go to Ottawa to visit my kids!!!

 How long has it been since I did a "What I'm taking on the plane" post? I am so, so excited! (Not to be going on a plane, because that always sucks, no matter how many good books you have.) I haven't seen my two youngest kids since January 2020! I am vibrating with impatience and anticipation! (I have a potential son-in-law I haven't met in person yet!)

But the important thing, of course, is what I'm going to read while I'm sitting in the airport and on the plane, wearing my mask (I assume we'll all still be masked. I'm double-vaxxed, but still ...)

As usual, I go to my ridiculous Goodreads TBR. (It's 17 pages long. I have nothing to say about that.) I open a random one of those 17 and then go to my library app and start searching. Here's what I got this time:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. Looks quirky, and short stories are a good bet on a plane.

Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh. This is not supposed to be a good place to start reading Cherryh, (I've already read a few of hers, so it's not my very first taste) so I doubt it will be a good mindless plane read! But it's the only one of hers my library had, so why not?

Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang. Fast paced action and math! Sounds like a perfect plane read.

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta. Fun-looking middle-grade adventure with Indian-inspired setting.

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty. I think there are Djinn in this one and the cover is pretty!

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. An audiobook to help me fall asleep (no disrespect to Michelle Obama intended! I'm sure it's a very interesting book.)

There are always a few things I think are worth purchasing as e-books, particularly if the price is right.

Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders. Got this one for free from Tor's book club! Teen chosen one space adventure. Looks light and fun!

The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee. Sequel to the very awesome Epic Crush of Genie Lo, so presumably there will be more punching of demons in ice cream shops and other Monkey King shenanigans. 

The Pride of Chanur, by C. J. Cherryh, because this one is supposed to be a good place to start with Cherryh, and I'm pretty sure I'll like it. Feline-looking aliens and a hapless human.

One Night in Boukos by A. J. Demas, otherwise known as Alice Degan, whose From All False Doctrine I really enjoyed. This one is m/m romance in an intriguing-sounding alternate world.

Stargazy Pie, by Victoria Goddard. I've been slowly reading her other work after loving The Hands of the Emperor. Most have been shorter and lighter but still very enjoyable. This one is set in the same world but with entirely different characters and possibly a different time period.

And I have to have a few real books, just in case! These are from a random browse of the library (don't tell anyone I'm taking them to Ottawa!), except for Now I Sit Me Down, which is a natural history of the chair, and is the reason I was in the library. The other two were chosen because they looked interesting and were small and light!

And a paperback that's been sitting on my night-side table for a few years because I'm convinced it's the next thing I will read! Julie Czerneda is a Canadian spec fic writer I really like, so it's about time I finally get around to what is apparently her first novel.

I will try to let you know how all of these books turned out for me, if I even get to most of them!

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Legendary Inge, by Kate Stradling

This book was an unexpected gem! I bought the e-book because a gender-reversed, reluctant Beowulf is a premise good enough for 5 of my hard-earned dollars. I would have been happy if The Legendary Inge had followed through in any way on that premise, but what I got was so much more.

Inge herself is a delight. Dragged to the palace as a hero after sort of accidentally killing a terrible monster, she can't believe it when the king mistakes her for a boy and adopts her as his son. "Just roll with it," says her guard, "you can't go against the king, I'm sure everything will be resolved soon." Inge is a practical, common-sense peasant and her horrified bemusement is pretty enjoyable. Then she decides she'd better start asserting herself and we find out there's more to her than everyone thought.

Her guard, Raske, the Demon Scourge of the army, is also a delight. He's unflappable and smart and carries a sword named Mercy (which he is not embarrassed about, thank you very much). We get the measure of his character when he is sent to make sure Inge's younger siblings are going to be okay without her, and I won't spoil the scene that ensues. His reaction to all the siblings is priceless, and I was on Team Raske from that point on. 

Inge's six siblings are my favourite part of the book: each is an individual with a fully-developed personality, and I loved their interactions as a family.

I don't think there is a single character in the novel who is what he or she appears to be at first, and watching people reveal hidden depths is always satisfying. The plot is also surprisingly twisty (I could see most of the twists coming, but they were still fun). It was a fast, enjoyable read—reminded me a bit of T. Kingfisher's A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. (Less finesse in the way everything came together, and Kingfisher is better with magic and overall weirdness (nothing can top sentient sourdough starter), but similar themes of ordinary people stepping up and turning out to be not-so-ordinary.)

A must read if you've ever read Beowulf* and want to poke a little fun at its heroic tropes. Or if you like heroines who care about who is going to keep the children clothed and fed (and stop the twins from pushing over the outhouse again). 

Warm biscuits with butter and honey. And maybe raspberries, because my garden is overflowing with them. Oh, heck, make it a berry shortcake (and now I want to make biscuits to go with my strawberries and raspberries, but I already bought strawberry and ginger yogurt gelato. The biscuits can be for breakfast!)

*I've actually read it in the original Old English, but that was more years ago than I care to reveal, and I don't remember a word of it. Except the opening: "Hwaet!" (And then, I think, "We in yeardagum," but that's as far as I go.)

Monday, June 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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