Thursday, January 6, 2022

2021 Cybils Finalists and Ones That Got Away

Alibrarymama did a great post on the Middle-Grade Spec Fic Cybils winners, so I'm going to shamelessly copy her and share the results of the YA Spec Fic panel's deliberations:

We had such a great list of nominees to read, but these are the ones we all agreed rose to the top of the list. See our blurbs for them here. Wonderful diversity in authors and content, and just excellent, excellent writing. Honestly, I don't know how the Second Round Judges are going to be able to decide among them! Links to my reviews, (except for Vespertine and The City Beautiful, which I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet!)

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna
The Mirror Season, by Anna Marie McLemore
Vespertine, by Margaret Rogerson
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao
The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros
Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

There are so many other worthwhile books that we read, and it's worth mentioning some of my favourites (you can see most of these by just looking at my reviews from the past few months, but I'll put them in a list for you):

Aetherbound, by E.K. Johnston: possibly my favourite of hers yet, and that's saying a lot.
Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora: intimate, sweet dystopia
Mister Impossible, by Maggie Stiefvater: sequel to Call Down the Hawk, and it's so good!
We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley: girl power and ghosts.
The Darkness Outside Us, by Eliot Schrefer: super twisty sci fi!
Defy the Night, by Brigid Kemmerer: princes and outlaws and a thoughtful plot.
The Theft of Sunlight, by Intisar Khanani: sequel to Thorn, which I loved. 
These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong: Romeo and Juliet like you've never seen them!
The Wild Ones, by Nafiza Azad: so, so original! Luscious.
Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer: sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and just as fun and dark.

You're welcome for all these new additions to your TBR!

Monday, January 3, 2022

Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora

Oh, my heart! Oh this book! Fragile Remedy is set in a relentlessly gritty, claustrophobically hopeless world (that bears a frightening resemblance to our own world), and yet it is one of the gentlest, tenderest stories I've ever read. It's about how to stay a decent human being when you have to make terrible choices just to survive. It depicts what love looks like to characters who don't know what it is because they've never been afforded it. And yet they still care for and protect and sacrifice for each other, and the worse the circumstances around them, the stronger grow their bonds of love and trust. This is what family is.

The world-building is intense and immersive. It took me a few chapters to decide I might like this book, because the slum neighborhood of the Withers is grim and disgusting. They eat seagulls and sludge rats. What a brilliant detail! And of course drug addiction and gang violence are constant threats.

Nate is a particularly vulnerable member of this outcast society, because he has been genetically engineered to have healing blood. He escaped being exploited by the elite in Gathos City, and now he has to keep his identity as a GEM secret from everyone else who might try to capitalize on his value to escape their desperate poverty. I loved this extreme metaphor for the exploitation that threatens the vulnerable in any society.

Fragile Remedy has some pretty searing social commentary, but the plot and the heart of the book focuses on Nate's relationship with two other young men: drug dealer Alden, and Reed, the leader of a found family of scavengers. Both Alden and Reed are protecting Nate in their own way, and the complexity of trust and loyalty among the three is exquisitely rendered. The problem of Nate's tenuous existence is developed in some really interesting ways, and all the characters were nuanced and thoughtfully developed, including the antagonists.

This book wouldn't let me go, and I'm still thinking about Nate and hoping he's going to be okay!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley

Trigger warnings: school shootings, domestic violence

(Note: if you are a member of the NRA, you won't like this book)

We Can Be Heroes is a ghost story about anger, art and activism. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I loved the friendship between the three girls. Beck and Vivian jumped off the page and Cassie slowly gained substance (you'll get what I did there when you read it!), and the dynamic, sometimes fraught bonds among them were lovely to watch. Also girls standing up for girls never gets old. Just saying.

[I can't help but notice a common thread of anger in a lot of this year's YA. It's an appalling truth that in 2021 there are still so many things to be angry about, and I can only applaud the authors giving us angry characters breaking rules to make things change.] [For more anger, art and activism, look for a One Billion Rising event in your area. Or start one.][We now return you to your regularly scheduled review.]

I loved Beck's use of women from Greek myths in her murals, reclaiming their stories to make sure Cassie's story gets told. Don't you love this great, incisive line: "If the hero dies, they call it a Greek tragedy, but when the heroine dies, it's a romance." Isn't that just the problem with western literature in a nutshell! (It's ever so slightly possible that I enjoyed this novel so much because I agreed so much with its very obvious message. Ahem.)

Okay, I know why this book struck such a chord with me: its theme that the story we tell ourselves—the stories we tell each other—about who we are, about what matters and who matters and how things ought to be—these stories change everything. And we each need the space, the permission, the power,  to tell our own stories. That's a message every girl should hear.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Darkness Outside Us, by Eliot Schrefer

So, this is one of those I-can't-tell-you-anything-about-the-plot-so-how-am-I-supposed-to-review-this-book books. There's so much I want to tell you about that I can't! I finished this book last week and I'm still thinking about it, going over all the ramifications of what happened in the story and the choices the characters made, and the choices the author made about how to tell the story. It's just so interesting and provocative!

Okay, here: have you ever heard of the philosophy book Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter? Mind blowing stuff about consciousness and computers and stuff that I understood about 1/18th of, maybe, but it was a lot of fun (and made me feel smart every time I understood a sentence!). Reading The Darkness Outside Us makes me want to go back and read that book.

That is not going to convince you to read this novel. Try again.

Trapped in a spaceship with an enemy and an AI that sounds like your mother: how long would it take you to go insane? This book plays with some familiar sci-fi tropes, layers in a life-or-death mystery, adds a sweet, weird love story (can't tell you why it's weird: too spoilery), and sends you on a mind trip of epic twistiness. It's fun, it has feels, it punches you in the gut, it makes you say, "But, wait ... no, hang on a minute: what??!" not just once but probably four or five times, and then it makes you go, "Huh. That's ... huh. There's a metaphor in here; let me think about this for a while."

And so here I am, a week later, still thinking about it and trying to get you to read the book so we can think about it together!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

I was excited about this book, and worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It's gotten a lot of hype, and controversy, neither of which I particularly care about, but the premise of a Chinese-history-inspired sci-fi with giant fighting robots just sounded too fun!

Well, Iron Widow is a wild ride of a book, every bit as intense and entertaining as promised. (Note that if you think giant fighting robots are dumb, you may not enjoy it as much as I did!)(I mean, giant fighting robots are dumb, I am objectively aware of that. I have no idea why I think they are cool, but all the coolness is well and truly explored in this book!)(Also, familiarity with and appreciation of various anime tropes make it more likely that you'll enjoy Iron Widow.)

Xiran Jay Zhao has a clear and emphatic Message being conveyed through all the fun mayhem, but I never felt like I was being hit over the head with it—probably because I was too busy cheering Zetian while she hits lots of obnoxious things over the head, metaphorically and literally.

Zetian is about as bad-ass as they come. She's loosely based on the only female emperor of China, whose ascension to (and retention of) power is pretty mind-blowing when you consider the society she lived in. Xiran Jay Zhao recreates that society for us, exploring all its systemic misogyny through Zetian's visceral daily experience of it. Zetian's anger is the moral compass she uses to navigate this world so impossibly stacked against her, and it's so refreshing! (I'm not a violent person, I promise! I was actually a little worried that this book would be too dark and edgy—and yeah, it goes darker places than I was hoping, but, well, history.)

Too bad. I am exactly the kind of ice-blooded, rotten-hearted girl he fears I am. And I am fine with that.

May he stay unsettled.

 I'm all for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in the real world, but the real world also has some pretty horrific things in it and we should be angry about them. This book is that anger. 

With giant fighting robots. 


Monday, November 15, 2021

Aetherbound, by E. K. Johnston

No E. K. Johnston book is like any other book in existence, including any other E. K. Johnston book. She has very specific stories to tell, and each book is told in the just right way for that story, which probably won't conform with any standard structures or tropes you're familiar with. So you have to come to each new book with an open mind and trust that Johnston is going to give you the story you need that you didn't even know you needed.

All that is preamble to say I didn't know I needed a retelling of the Fisher King myth, set in space with magic, but now my heart is wrung and my mind is slightly blown and I'm not sure how to review it. (Full disclosure: I have only the vaguest understanding of the Fisher King myth, and a quick google search is not helping me understand it any better; I didn't recognize this as a retelling until a reviewer mentioned it, even though Johnston specifically tells the Fisher King story in the middle of the book!) (To achieve healing you have to ask the right question—that's as far as my understanding goes.)

Right. The review. There's some harsh stuff in this book, no doubt about it, and it's very spoilery to tell you what it all is, but if you're concerned my Goodreads review has the spoilers. The reason you don't want to be spoiled is that we start with Pendt as a five-year old to whom all this is normal, and we only gradually discover, along with her, that it's unbearable. This is a book about autonomy, freedom, choice, and I think it's important to be in Pendt's head as she grows into a person who can make choices, who sees her opportunity and escapes, and sees her next opportunity and grabs it. I think the first section of the book is brilliant in the way Johnston controls POV so that we are a little appalled, then more appalled, then fiercely excited and terrified when Pendt escapes. (That's not a spoiler: it's on the book jacket!)

Then we get part 2, and another set of characters who are imprisoned in an entirely different way. The way Pendt's need to escape leads to a unique solution to all of their dilemmas is weird and strangely affirming. And all that is told as more of a background to the developing friendship among three young people who are essentially good and kind and trying to do the right thing in a very twisted universe.

One of the things I love about E. K. Johnston is her ability to portray goodness and kindness. In the end, I think that's what all her books are about, and the plots are just vehicles, scenarios in which goodness and kindness can play out. All the more highlighted when the universe is so completely the opposite of good and kind. I can't tell you how much I love Pendt and Ned and Fisher! (And there had better be a sequel, because that Stavenger Empire needs to be taken down!)(She hints at a sequel at the end, so here's hoping!)

Johnston's pacing is always odd, because she tells you what you need to know when you need to know it, and only shows you the things she thinks are important. Things can seem rushed and abrupt because she trusts her readers to keep up. She's doing it all very deliberately, so pay attention to where she spends her narrative time. (She definitely doesn't tell the story that most authors would tell and most readers would expect.) I need to reread and pay more attention myself to see all I missed the first time around.

Oh, and don't ask what the LGBTQ+ rep is, because you don't want to be spoiled! I thought the way she dealt with this particular character was quite brilliant and fun, and also very pointed. (It's never explicitly stated, because it shouldn't have to be.)

This isn't a book for everyone: the reviews will tell you that! But if you've liked more than one of Johnston's books (or if you like Patrick Ness—he's maybe the only comparable author out there*), and you're willing to go along for a very interesting ride, I can highly recommend this. (I think it's my second favourite of her books, after Exit, Pursued by a Bear.)

*If Johnston and Ness ever collaborated on a project, I'm pretty sure the universe would collapse into a singularity from so much originality and depth.

Cross-posted on Goodreads, and I should really post my other E. K. Johnston reviews there too.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

This is a debut novel?? Unbelievably tight, emotion-packed writing, gripping plot, compelling characters. Just, wow.

There are some books where characters do stupid things and you roll your eyes and throw the book across the room. Then there are books like Bad Witch Burning, where you spend the whole time saying, "Noooo! Don't do it, Katrell, you know this won't end well!" but you completely understand why she's making these really bad choices and you think you might even make the same choices in her shoes.

Lewis depicts with searing, heart-wrenching intensity the physical, mental and emotional toll of poverty. When Katrell finds out she can raise the dead, and people will pay her for it, we feel her utter conviction that There Is No Way Out for her and of course she has to keep performing necromancy despite the terrible consequences. And what interesting consequences: the story is slow-burn creepy and it will surprise you. The pacing of the reveals is particularly well-done.

This is a paranormal book but it isn't about the magic: we don't find out why Katrell has this power, there aren't other witches around, there isn't a magic system. It's a very focused story that uses the horror of the paranormal as a brilliant metaphor for the very real horrors of Katrell's life and the impossible choices she has to make. Lest I scare you off, thinking it's a dismal, depressing read, there are some wonderful characters who are There for Katrell, and Katrell herself is an engaging narrator with attitude to spare. It's a hard book to read, but I couldn't put it down. I loved Katrell to pieces and her journey was fascinating.

Trigger warnings for physical and emotional abuse and violence against a dog.