Saturday, July 11, 2020

Studio Ghibli on Netflix

Just in time to make your pandemic a little cheerier, Canadian Netflix gets the rights to Studio Ghibli's animated movies (I can only assume US Netflix has them too). I had only seen a few of these and wanted to see more, so I'm making my way through them. So far I can say they're more diverse in subject and tone than I was expecting, but they are all beautiful and thoughtful with deft storytelling.

Howl's Moving Castle: You don't have to read the book first (though I think you should!). This one is colourful and fun, takes far too many liberties with the plot but still manages to convey much of the same magic and spirit as the original, with its own worthy twist. The castle is a triumph of animation.

Spirited Away: Weird, in the sense of uncanny, not-of-this-plane-of-existence. European imps and goblins have nothing on Japanese yokai, I'm just saying! There are a few scenes that might be scary or grotesque for younger kids, but this is a warm, thoughtful story of friendship and courage, with gorgeous imagery.

Princess Mononoke: The darkest one I've seen so far, with quite a bit of violence; definitely not for younger kids. Really interesting plot, strong environmental and anti-war message. I've noticed with all the Studio Ghibli movies I'e seen that they don't follow the black and white good-guy/bad-guy paradigm of storytelling: there are antagonists, but they tend to get transformed, or at least understood, rather than defeated. (I know there's a name for this narrative paradigm, but I can't remember it.) Except for the military: they're always definitively bad.

Castle in the Sky: So much fun: rollicking adventure, beautiful animated scenery, crazy-imaginative settings and vehicles and devices. And that island in the sky is just—there are no words—gorgeous, fascinating, melancholy, heartwarming, magical. There's some fighting and peril that might be too scary for younger kids, but nothing worse than a typical Disney movie.

Kiki's Delivery Service: Cute and sweet with great characters and stunning scenery (very European: almost a love-letter to Europe). Kiki is a delight, as is her talking cat. Lots of humour and a great coming-of-age theme that connects art with magic.

My humble opinion so far: Hayao Miyazaki deserves his reputation as a brilliant artist and director; the world needs more of this art and these kinds of stories. I'm going to watch all the rest and will report back!

Monday, June 29, 2020

What I've been reading in between picking strawberries and raspberries

 I've read some good stuff lately, but none of it has inspired me to write a blog post, for various reasons. I can still recommend the books, though, so a round-up post seems the way to go.

Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge, is a Frances Hardinge book, so it's gorgeously written and crazy imaginative and full of deep understanding of the human psyche. It was a difficult book for me to read for two reasons: it verges a little too close to horror, with some really weird, grotesque, possibly Lovecraft-inspired but really even weirder monsters. I like it when fantasy is delightful, and these guys were not. At all. But if you're into creepy and twisted and intriguing, you'll probably find them a lot of fun. (Hardinge and Ursula Vernon (when she's T. Kingfisher) should design a steampunk-horror theme-park. I wouldn't go, but it would be awesomely cool!) The other reason I found this an uncomfortable read is there's a very well-depicted emotionally abusive relationship. I will say that the resolution of it is both realistic and satisfying (see "deep understanding of the human psyche"), but there were bits at the beginning I really didn't enjoy. A very good book that I appreciated but that I likely won't read again, unlike most of Hardinge's books, which I loved and—actually, now that I think of it, I don't think I've re-read any of her books. Possibly because they are all very dense, and I usually choose to reread light and easy reads. Anyway, you should read Brandy's review of Deeplight, because she does a great job of explaining what's so wonderful about it!

Call Down the Hawk, by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the first of her trilogy about the Lynch brothers, and if you've read and enjoyed her Raven Cycle, then you have to read this book and you will love it, because Ronan. Also Declan, who I didn't love before but now I do. And Matthew, who, ah, my heart! If you haven't read the Raven Cycle, you should just go do that, and then you will want to read this, so I don't have to tell you anything, really. I was not as enthused about the bad guy characters as I was about the Grey Man in Dream Thieves, and I felt ... ambivalent about Jordan Hennessy. But yeah, it was awesome, and I need the next book now.

The Physicians of Vilnoc, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest Penric and Desdemona novella, and it is predictably good, though not my favourite. I felt pretty much the same way as Rachel Neumeier about it. But it's always a treat to get another episode of our favourite sorcerer and his chaos demon.

Three fun romances: Well Met, by Jen DeLuca, cute, cozy hate-to-love story set in a small town with a Renaissance Faire; The Bromance Book Club, which delivers on its hilarious premise (bunch of guys reading romance novels to learn how to rescue their relationships); and Bringing Down the Duke, about sparks flying between a suffragette and, well, a duke. Looking forward to the sequels of all of them.

And here are some of my berries!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Tuyo, by Rachel Neumeier

You may have noticed that I'm a big Rachel Neumeier fan, so when I heard about Tuyo I was more than moderately excited. New story in an entirely new world! And she's so good at making worlds!

I did not anticipate how intensely I would adore this book. Ryo captured my heart from the moment we meet him kneeling in the snow tied to a stake, and I was unable to put the book down after that. I think it might be safe to say this is now my favourite Neumeier novel. It turns out I have some buttons, and Tuyo pushes all of them. In no particular order, things I loved about this book:

Intriguing world-building. Neumeier always creates fascinating fantasy landscapes and, even more important, believable societies to inhabit them: given the constraints of this landscape and these laws of physics/magic, what society would work to deal with them? Tuyo is set in a world divided by climate: the vast, snow-bound, moon-ruled winter lands and the gentle, fertile, sun-ruled summer lands. And I believed entirely in the Ugaro of the winter country and the Lau of the summer country—and in the reasons for their conflict.

Learning about a culture through fish-out-of-water characters. The two main characters are both competent and respected in their own country and confused and inept in the other, and this makes for a humorous and organic way to explore the world.

Military stories. I do not know why I enjoy these: I who have never held a weapon, never taken a martial arts class, believe strongly in peace and diplomacy and think war is a dumb way to solve problems. But it makes for great plots! I loved the two military societies: the tribal Ugaro with their harsh but fair laws governing conflict; the Roman-esque Lau with their orderly hierarchy and comradely soldier culture. I particularly loved watching characters from each society come to appreciate and value those from the other. And I was glad the fighting was not the main focus of the plot, even though there were some great action scenes. I love it when a conversation is more intense than a swordfight.

Heroes with integrity. I love plots that explore what honour is and the conflict of characters determined to do the right thing but not sure what that is. Ryo and Aras are on opposite sides of a war; they are loyal to different countries and believe in different goals; but they are both honourable men who keep their word. I loved watching Ryo negotiate between his duty, his loyalty and his word. I loved how oaths are used in Tuyo: so powerful.

Loyalty and trust. These are themes that stir me deeply, and Neumeier deals with them especially well. One of the main reasons I love the Black Dog books so much is the relationship between Ezekiel and Grayson Lanning—so many punch-in-the-guts moments between them—and the main relationship in this book is possibly even better.

Bromance. See above, re: loyalty and trust. All the feels here. I will not spoil who the bromance is between, but it's the best.

Interesting explorations of women in society. Love it when fantasies try out different ways of imagining women's roles, because, hey, it's fantasy—why wouldn't you?! I enjoyed what Neumeier did with women in the Ugaro society, and the contrast with the Lau and how the characters dealt with it. Female characters didn't play a huge role in this novel, but they were awesome!

Loved the world, loved the characters, am happy to know she intends to write more about them!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Murderbot!!!! And my birthday present finally arrived! A good week!

Martha Wells' Murderbot novel, Network Effect, came out on Tuesday, and yay for the pandemic because I hardly had anything I needed to drop so I I could spend all day reading it! Also a good thing I was all by myself, because I was laughing out loud and crying (sometimes with laughter, sometimes not) and yelling at the characters, and having the most fun I've had all pandemic.

I may have mentioned one or two times how much I love Murderbot. The novel is everything I wanted it to be and more. We get Dr. Mensah's brother-in-law, who doesn't trust Murderbot and definitely doesn't like it, and Dr. Mensah's teen-aged daughter, who is miffed at Murderbot but also trusts it implicitly,  and ART, who—gah—can't say anything about ART! And new scary villains and weird scenarios that only Martha Wells could think up that require Murderbot to care about things. A lot. Also, some of the really terrible bad things that have happened to Murderbot may have caused some lingering trauma that might possibly be affecting its performance reliability.

I liked this quotation and Rachel Neumeier's comments about it: kind of sums it up, really! But amidst all the violence and mayhem there are the awesome character moments that punch you in the gut, and always Murderbot's sarcastic, defensive, sulky, exasperated, painfully human, wise voice.
You know that thing humans do where they think they're being completely logical and they absolutely are not being logical at all, and on some level they know that, but can't stop? Apparently it can happen to SecUnits, too.
I've told you this before: go read the Murderbot Diaries. Start with the novellas so that you'll be able to fully appreciate the novel. Trust me, you need this in your life right now!

(According to Goodreads there is a short story told from Dr. Mensah's point of view, but I can't find it anywhere! Anyone know where I can get my hands on it??)

Then on Friday, the book I had ordered for my birthday back in March finally arrived. It's the new Folio Society illustrated Howl's Moving Castle. Look how beautiful it is!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Based on the cover and title, I came into Sal and Gabi Break the Universe expecting a fun middle-grade romp with a science-fictiony feel. What I got exceeded my expectations by quantum orders of magnitude. (Actually, I don't know enough about the definition of quantum to know if it's actually expressing my meaning in that sentence, but it sounds good, doesn't it?)

There isn't any way to describe the book without spoiling a lot of the fun surprises, but I'll try to tell you what I loved while still being mysterious.

I loved Sal. I loved his voice, his self-depreciating wit (that's the best kind, in my opinion), his bold approach to life and problem-solving, his hilarious sense of humour. I loved that he's a magician (the sleight-of-hand kind). I loved that his dad is a calamity physicist. (A quick google search indicates that there's actually no such thing as calamity physics (google would know about it if there were, right??), but it's such a cool idea: it ought to exist!)

I loved Gabi even more, if that's possible. She's a force of nature, a warrior, the leader everyone didn't know they needed. I loved her quick, incisive mind,  her witty come-backs, her insistence on respect. She and Sal make a brilliant, hugely entertaining pair and I wish they had been my best friends in middle-school. (But I would never have dared!)

I loved their school! I know there are arts-focused schools out there that are probably pretty amazing, but wow, what a wondrously ideal education to imagine! I loved all the teachers and the principal, loved the projects we found out about, loved detention!

I loved, loved, loved Sal and Gabi's families. I cannot say enough about how this book models diverse, loving family relationships—what it looks like when families are there to support one another—gah, I just, I have no words. Brandy pointed out in her review how refreshing it is to have a middle-grade book with present, functioning, loving parents, and I agree. Loved that.

Loved the Cuban food, the language, the culture that came through so strongly. This is a deep, rich book and the specifics of Sal and Gabi's Cuban community were a big part of the depth and texture.

I loved the writing. I had a little scrap of paper with quotations written on it, but I can't find it, alas. You'll just have to read it yourself, I guess! Assured, solid, textured, hilarious.

The themes! I don't even know where to begin. Family, friendship, grief, identity, self-esteem, how to be a decent human being. Dense and meaty stuff, all woven through with humour and insight. Hernandez reminds me very much of William Alexander, another favourite middle-grade writer who doesn't underestimate his audience's capacity for wisdom.

I laughed, I cried, I bought the sequel! I don't know what else to tell you: just read this book!

The book describes a Cuban roast pork dish (the name of which I wrote on that scrap of paper I can't find) that seems like the perfect analogy: flavourful, savoury, hearty, spicy.

And because you are an audience that might appreciate my accomplishment, here are a couple of solitaire Bananagrams I'm particularly proud of! (I find this a soothing, meditative kind of thing to do.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Korean Dramas to watch on Netflix. You're Welcome.

We interrupt this book blog to bring you some Korean drama recommendations in your time of need. If you've run out of things to watch on Netflix, and if you've been curious about the phenomenon known as K-drama but haven't known where to start, here are some suggestions.

Crash Landing On You: come for the cute, sweet and hilarious; stay for the swoon. I guarantee you will fall in love with actor Hyun Bin, but you will also love every other character: they are all adorable ducklings. This is as feel good as it gets.

Because This Is My first Life: superb acting and writing in this funny, insightful look at modern relationships. Has one of the top 10 K-drama kisses. (You will notice that kisses are few and far between in K drama and you learn to appreciate the ones you get.)

Stranger: (Also known as Forest of Secrets.) Fantastic acting and writing. This is a suspenseful character-based drama about a prosecutor and a cop investigating corruption. Love the relationship between the leads.

Signal: if murder mystery/police procedural with a dash of fantasy is your cup of tea this is a must-see. (Actually, it’s a must-see no matter what your favourite tea is.) Interesting twisty premise and lots of suspense. Tunnel and Voice are also supposed to be very good in this genre, but I haven't seen them.

Inheritors: (Also known as Heirs.) This is a high school Cinderella drama with all the tropes. Saved from utter cheesiness by decent acting and writing, plus actor Lee Min Ho is worth the price of admission.

That should keep you going for a while! There's more, so if the self-isolation continues I'll do a follow-up post. Doing what I can to keep us all sane!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The stories we tell ourselves matter: Internment, by Samira Ahmed

I've been meaning to review Internment for a while, as it was a favourite of the Cybils Spec Fic shortlist. But when Covid-19 started changing the world, I wondered if this was the right book to recommend now. In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, do we want to be reading a frighteningly plausible story of Muslim Americans being interned the way Japanese Americans were during WWII?

But then I thought, maybe this is exactly the book we need to be reading right now. Because it's about people standing up and speaking out and banding together to find hope when things seem hopeless, and most particularly it's about how to change the story people are telling about a situation, how to change us vs them into us.

Internment is tense and gripping, doesn't pull its punches (literally—trigger warning for violence), but is also full of hope and really positive messages about friendship, family, agency, girl power, the power of democracy. Rich, fully-developed, engaging characters, a great narrative voice with some fun snark and sass but also quite lyrical. I couldn't put it down.

It begins quite bleakly, with Muslims being rounded up and bussed to barbed-wire-surrounded camps. But Layla's voice pulls us into the exciting middle, when she assembles her allies and begins to fight back in creative, believable ways.

Ahmed can occasionally be heavy-handed in her message, but her real moral is delivered by Layla and her friends being clever, courageous and compassionate, and in the community they build, uniting people inside and out by telling their story.

I just read a fascinating article on Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of stories written in 1353, during the Black Plague. In Italy. Eerily relevant. The article posits the importance of storytelling as "a means of community building," "intentionally creating and cementing social bonds," and gives examples of the stories we are telling ourselves now:
our pets as our new coworkers; jokes about how introverts have prepared for this day; pacts not to DM your exes in the loneliness of quarantine; ... the total absence of toilet paper from grocery store shelves.
I love the author's conclusion:
Let us gather round the bonfires of social media and share stories. The ones that help us to understand, or to escape, or to take some comfort in the continuing anxiety and ambiguity of modern existence. It has been, and always will be, the way our species survives.
Thinking about that, and about Internment, and about the stories happening in my community and being told among my friends and family, it seems to me we have a choice: are we telling ourselves that "we're all in this together," or that "it's every man for himself"? Because whichever of those stories we tell will become the truth.

I take much comfort from the resoundingly positive voices and actions happening all over the world. We are going to have stronger social bonds, more flexible infrastructure, a better safety net, more cohesive communities: I see all these stories being told and I believe that telling them is how we make them true.