Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Omnitopia Dawn, by Diane Duane

I really must stop reading the first books of series when the second books aren't out yet! But this one's safe: no cliffhanger ending.

Omnitopia Dawn is the first book in a series of unspecified length about the creator of a massively multiplayer online game and his fight to save his creation from evil hackers and underhanded corporate competition. Have I lost you yet? It's an adult book, and I was worried when a lot of scenes were set in boardrooms and offices and characters were Chief Financial Officers and suchlike. But not to fear: the true setting is Omnitopia itself, every gamer's perfect fantasy, every fantasy-reader's dream made real. Dev Logan's genius is that he's created a game platform that can be anything, any world you can imagine populated with any characters you can think up. And with his new RealFeel game controller, you can enter the world and feel as though you are there, complete with smelly griffin poop to step in.

It's not an original idea--how can it be, when it's what every video game aspires to--but Duane makes it convincing and oh-so-appealing. So when we find out about the former-friend-turned-corporate-rival who has hired some criminal hackers to bring down Logan's system right when he's rolling out a new expansion, we're invested, we care, we start cheering for the CFO and the programmers and various other employees who rally to face down the threat. And the battle is conducted within Omnitopia, so Dev gets to wield a convincing Sword of Truth, and shutting down attackers' IPOs is rendered as bashing them with clubs etc. (There is definitely some hero/king imagery going on that translates back into the real world in interesting ways. Dev Logan is perhaps a bit too Good to be entirely convincing, but in the end you swallow it because you really want to.)

I'm no computer geek, but Diane Duane seems to know what she's talking about when it comes to the science behind Omnitopia (apparently she once developed a game for Electronic Arts, so she does know whereof she speaks). At any rate, all the programming-speak was realistic enough to fool me. I suspect that if you really enjoy stories about corporate espionage and financial finagling then you'll find this one a little thin, because Omnitopia is all about the magic. Thank goodness!

The story ends satisfactorily (no cliffhangers=much happiness!), but there are intriguing sequel possibilities. In the meantime, if someone would actually develop something like Omnitopia, I would definitely want to play! Guess I'll just have to keep reading fantasy.

Omnitopia Dawn is like chocolate ice cream: fun and satisfying and sweet and you'll definitely want more.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I wasn't kidding about the wall sconces

So what do you think about this one (by Oggetti Luce), in the same room as that Flor carpet I showed you a few posts ago. Too much with the blue and green squares, or a perfect match?

Then there's this for a reading lamp (by George Kovacs):

Pretty sleek, huh?

I tell you, there are quadrillions of lights out there, and so many of them are phenomenally ugly. But there are enough really cool ones that it's very hard to decide. I am totally thrilled with my dining room fixture, though:

They're handmade right here in Vancouver by Bocci. I'm going to have 3 blue ones and 2 clear ones randomly arranged in an oval. Yes, they're expensive, but that's okay, we won't be buying furniture for a while! (When you all come over we can sit on the floor under the wonderful light fixture. :))

I seem to be going with a blue and green theme . . . hope my modernist architects (my sister and brother-in-law)(S2 Studio, if you're looking for an architect) don't mind!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Life Interferes With Blog. But I read Pegasus! And Blackout and All Clear

One really must be disciplined with this blogging thing. I have problems with discipline. My title makes it sound like I've been doing interesting things that haven't allowed me time to write blog entries, but I don't imagine anyone will find choosing kitchen sinks and wall sconces and shopping for bras with my daughter very interesting. (The bras were for me, as part of my daughter's on-going attempts to make me fashionable: apparently fashion these days requires Extreme Push-up and Beyond Cleavage bras.)(Is this too much info for a blog?) I've also been planning our Christmas trip to New York: the internet is wonderful for trip planning, but you have to wonder when it takes longer to plan the trip than the trip itself will last!

The upshot of all this non-interesting stuff is that I haven't read nearly so much lately. But there are still a few things I can talk about:

Pegasus, by Robin McKinley. I've been looking forward to this one for a while, and I celebrated its release with a Pegasus Release Celebration, and finally I got around to reading it. And it was as lovely as promised: princess and pegasi; what more do you need to know? But I find I can't say very much about it, because the story's not done. This is Volume 1 of a promised two volumes, and it ends right when things start getting interesting. What we get in Pegasus is a lot of world-building. It's a beautiful world (just look at the cover of the book), and I was happy to spend time in it. But nothing bad actually happens until the very last scene, so I feel as though I've read a very long prologue, and the book ends after chapter one. There are a lot of interesting ideas and relationships developed, and I can't wait to see what McKinley does with them. I'm just going to have to be patient, since Pegasus II isn't due until 2012. Stay tuned! (I'm going to call Pegasus creme brulee--sweet and simple with the complex underlayers of vanilla bean; and I'm anticipating that Vol 2 will be somewhat more chocolatey.)

Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis. Willis does the same thing McKinley does with this latest duo--cutting the story in half and publishing it as two books, but I was more patient and didn't read Blackout when it came out last year. Thank goodness. I don't think I would have bothered re-reading it this year in order to get up to speed before the sequel, and I would have missed out. Much like Willis' earlier novel Passage, Blackout spends most of its time following characters back and forth in futile quests to do apparently irrelevant things. It's deliberately confusing about who, where, and when, and reading it on my iPod meant it was harder to flip back and forth trying to figure out what I should have remembered from previous chapters. It's a time travel novel, set in the same world as Doomesday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, so Mr. Dunworthy is back, and so's Colin, (and so is St. Paul's cathedral) and we get three new characters going back to different points in WWII. Because I had read these other books, and Passage, I decided to stick with the confusion and frustration and keep reading, because when Willis finally gets to her pay-off it's usually worth it (and all the confusion and frustration are actually necessary in order to appreciate the pay-off). I have to say that All Clear's payoff wasn't as heart-stoppingly wonderful as Passage, but I still liked it. And I have a whole new appreciation for what England went through during WWII. That's really what this duo is: a paeon of praise to British courage and resiliance, and it's worth reading just for that. I wish we had seen more of Colin than we do--in fact, I wish Blackout had been shorter and All Clear longer--but I would still classify this as a must-read for Willis fans. (If you haven't read Connie Willis yet, don't start with these. Try Doomesday Book if you want something serious, and To Say Nothing of the Dog if you want really funny.) I can't make a food analogy for Blackout and All Clear, because they were set during rationing, so I'd have to use something nasty with cabbage! Rather, I'll compare it to those really good war movies that make you cheer for ordinary people doing heroic things. And now I want to go watch the movie Enigma.

I picked up the new Diane Duane book last week, and I just discovered Kirkus's Best Books for Teens 2010, so there's a lot of reading I want to do, but I'm working on an editing project and I'm trying to be good and do my own writing, so I may not have another review for a while. Maybe I'll do a post about wall sconces!

(I'm not so good with the putting photos in the blog; sorry for the weird formatting.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Internet + Books = Community

or: The Pegasus Release Celebration was a rousing success!

People worry about the potential of the internet to isolate and socially stunt us, but here's proof that it also brings us together and creates friendships.

I posted my PRC announcement on Robin McKinley's blog and also invited people I know in Vancouver who like YA fantasy, and we ended up with seven people crowded around a table at Aphrodite's Pie Company. (Three had never read McKinley, so I count them as new converts!) We had writers, editors, a musician, a web designer, a doll maker, and someone who makes kids book apps for iPhones. Half the table got into a rousing conversation about favourite tenors, we all recommended books to each other, and we had a great discussion about the creative process and how it differs from music to writing. Oh, and we ate pie!

Then someone mentioned a place called Cocoa Nymph that was just a few blocks away, and everyone felt we needed to make a pilgrimage.

You can see why.

It's even a real piano!
Here we got to know each other a little better and discovered some interesting synergies. Some of us may end up working with each other on different collaborative projects. You never know what might happen when you show up for something like this!

The end of the afternoon was entirely predictable, since White Dwarf Books (all sci fi/fantasy) was a few doors down from Cocoa Nymph. We all felt good about supporting local independent bookstores, chocolate shops and pie places, and we parted with a firm commitment to meet again soon!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This is why I haven't read anything today

And what is it, you might ask? It's a carpet. It's the new carpet for our media room. I just designed it on the Interface FLOR website.

Or it might be our new carpet. There are an infinite number of other possible combinations. The night is young! (Okay, it's 1am. I will go to bed, I promise.)

Tomorrow I have to buy youngest son a Scout uniform, because he's now 11, so he doesn't want to wear his Cub uniform to the Remembrance Day parade. And I have to buy shoes for daughter who is going to Semi-Formal tomorrow night (we never had "Semi-Formal" when I was in high school--I think it's a conspiracy of dress and shoe stores), and now needs flats because her boyfriend is shorter than her.

None of these things are remotely connected, but it's 1am and everything feels imbued with extra significance. I think what it means is that my kids still need me but they won't for much longer. (Not sure how the carpet fits into that, but it can be symbolic. Of something. Infinite possibilities, maybe. And how I can try to design my children's possibilities for them, but they'll take the carpet tiles I give them and turn them into something I never would have imagined.)

(Don't you love how your mind can always find connections between things, no matter how random. It's what our brains were designed to do.)

Okay. I really will go to bed now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pegasus celebration update

Time has now been changed to 3pm, still on Saturday, Nov. 13.

Location is now confirmed: Aphrodite's Pie Company, Vancouver, 4th and Dunbar.

Date and time are Sat, Nov 13, 1:00pm. I'll let you know when we decide on a coffee shop. (I was going to try for a bookstore to host, but Kidsbooks is too busy in November (have you seen their lineup of visiting authors? Wow.), and I wasn't ambitious enough to go downtown to Chapters.) I suppose I could go to the Park Royal Chapters, but that would be less central. Besides, there's something cosier about a coffee shop.

The more the merrier, though, so even if you're not a Robin McKinley fan, come anyway! (It's okay, we'll try to convert you.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pegasus is coming! Let's celebrate!

I thought it would take forever, but it's almost November, and Robin McKinley's latest is almost out. Here are three sample chapters. (Isn't the cover gorgeous?) I am very excited, but I'm hesitating just a bit on this one, because Robin has warned us about the horrible cliffhanger ending. It's not going to be one of those this-battle's-over-but-the-war-continues cliffhangers: it's a stop-in-the-middle-of-the-story cliffhanger. And she's not finished writing the second book (she promises there will be only two books), so it could be years before it comes out! What to do . . . what to do . . .

Aw, heck, I know I'm going to read Pegasus right away, there's no way I have the discipline to wait! I'll just have to suffer along with everyone else.

In celebration of Pegasus's release date (Nov 2), I'd love to get together with anyone in the Lower Mainland (Vancouver, BC) and eat baking and talk about Robin McKinley (if you've read Sunshine you'll know why the baking is necessary). (Not that baking wouldn't always be necessary!). Since Tuesday might be a difficult day to get together, I propose Saturday, Nov 6. Is there anyone else out there in Vancouver who's a big Robin McKinley fan? Let me know and we'll have a party!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Darkness in Children's Literature: How Much is Too Much?

I just read a great post by Book Aunt that tracks the increasing numbers of dark, scary, creepy, or violent books written for children and young adults. Coincidentally, I was at the Surrey International Writer's Conference this weekend, and a panel on children's books spent a fair bit of time discussing this trend. Book Aunt raised a couple of questions that were also asked of the panel: does one have to write dark stuff now in order to get published? And, is it the kid readers who are driving this trend, or is it adult writers/publishers/readers/reviewers? Underlying all the discussions, I think, is the question of whether this is a worrying trend or not.

Now, as a reader, I have no problems with creepy. I don't do horror (a la Stephen King or Silence of the Lambs), but I loved Gaimon's The Graveyard Book and Coraline. The book I'm reading right now (The Hunchback Assignments) opens with the line, "Six hunting hounds had perished in previous experiments," and the first chapter is titled, "Abomination," and I went, "oooooh, goody!"

I do not think children should only be given nice, sweet books that are good for them. I think that childhood is a scary place and the world is a scary place, and I believe that stories about monsters are important ways for children to deal with real fears (was it Bruno Bettleheim or C. S. Lewis who said that?). And besides, books aren't very much fun if they don't have nasty villains.

However. I'm sure we all agree that a line should be drawn between what's appropriately scary or violent and what's too scary for children of a certain age. No one would think a ten-year-old should watch Pulp Fiction, nor do I think anyone would give The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to a 14-year-old. But beyond the really extreme cases, it becomes more difficult. My grade four teacher thought the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie was innocuous enough to show our class for Halloween. I had nightmares for weeks after. My 10-year-old son finds the Daleks on Doctor Who terrifying. ("Come on," I say, "its weapons are a toilet plunger and an egg beater!" But they strike a chord of fear with him.) And yet he saw Lord of the Rings when he was 8, and it didn't bother him. If I found Mockingjay too violent for my 40-something self, does that mean it shouldn't have been published as YA? (I'm trying to find the blog that had a whole discussion about this a month or so ago, but I can't remember where it was!)

There isn't really any way to say, We shouldn't let kids read This, because how can we define This (and who are We, anyway?). But if We are publishers, booksellers, librarians, I'm thinking it's pretty important to package and categorize books in a way that lets the reader know what they're in for. (If people hadn't warned me about how violent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, I wouldn't have known to skip the rape scene, and there would be images in my head I really wouldn't want.) (And I'm starting to think we need a new category--Older YA or something--to cover teen books that have more sex and violence than some teens might want to read.)

And if We are writers and editors, we come up against the question of how to create scary nasty villains and situations without making them too scary for our audience. The discussion at the Writer's Conference ended with the thought that, whatever the level of violence or fear, children's (and even YA) books should always have some element of hope. My son deals with Dalek nightmares by pretending he has a magic wand that sends them back to outer space. The most horrible of evils can be defeated. Faith, friendship, determination and courage are always stronger than corruption and tyranny. Could this be why I read children's books?

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

I know I said I was going to focus on less-well-known authors, but this is one of those cases where I have to squee a bit about someone who is rightfully famous. And perhaps Terry Pratchett's YA books are less well-known than his adult ones, so maybe this counts.

In any case, GO READ THE WEE FREE MEN. And then come back and we can talk.

So. Now that you've read the first Tiffany Aching book, you'll want to go on to A Hat Full of Sky and then Wintersmith. Now. Do you see what I mean?

I love Tiffany Aching. From our first introduction to her, where she sees a monster in the creek so she goes and gets a frying pan, sets her younger brother out as bait, and whacks the monster on the head with a clang ("It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnngggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done"), you know this is a character whose head you want to be in. She's eleven years old, and she decides she wants to be a witch when she finds out about an old woman who was turned out of her house and died in the snow because people suspected her of being a witch.

"Tell me why you still want to be a witch, bearing in mind what happened to Mrs Snapperly?"
"So that sort of thing doesn't happen again."
She even buried the old witch's cat, thought Miss Tick. What kind of child is this?
Tiffany thinks, and she cares, and she pays attention to detail. She loves words like susurrus. And now that I'm in chapter one looking for more quotations, I think I'll just reread the whole book . . .

I love Pratchett's concept of witchcraft: the way Tiffany learns to use her First Thoughts and Second Thoughts and Third Thoughts, and "open your eyes, then open your eyes again." I love the memory of Granny Aching, who wasn't exactly a witch, but was there, and did what had to be done, and never lost a lamb. "Witches deal with things."

Then if all that wasn't enough, we get the Nac Mac Feegle. Just say that out loud. You have to read a book that has Nac Mac Feegle in them. Nothing I say about them will do them justice--but that's okay, you've already read The Wee Free Men, so you know what I mean.

And all this was supposed to be a review of I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth Tiffany Aching book. So if I'm preaching to the converted, and you just want to know if the latest book lives up to our expectations for Tiffany: it does. Tiffany is now sixteen and living back with her family as the witch of the Chalk. There is realistic character development as she tries to fit herself into her new responsibility, and we're cheering for her. The ante is upped yet again, with an even more frightening villain: this book is the darkest of the four, because what Tiffany faces isn't just supernatural; it's the evil in men's hearts. But I was still laughing out loud on almost every page, unless I was crying. Sometimes both at once. There's a scene near the end that perfectly illustrates what I mean (it doesn't give any plot away):

There was a general murmuring from the other Feegles, on the broad theme of slaughter for whoever laid a hand on a Feegle mound, and how personally each and every one of them would regret what he would have to do.
"It's yon troosers" said Slightly-Thinner -Than-Fat-Jock-Jock. "Once a man gets a Feegle up his troosers, his time of trial and tribulation is only just beginning." . . .
Later in the conversation:
There was a glint in Wee Mad Arthur's eye that prompted Tiffany to ask, "How exactly did they commit suicide?"
The policeman Feegle shrugged his small broad shoulders. "They took a shovel to a Feegle mound, miss. I am a man who knows the law, miss. I never saw a mound until I met these fine gentlemen, but even so my blood boils, miss, it boils, so it does. My heart it does thump, my pulse it does race, and my gorge it arises like the breath of some dragon at the very thought of a bright steel shovel slicing though the clay of a Feegle mound, cutting and crushing. I would kill the man that does this, miss. I would kill him dead, and chase him through the next life to kill him another time, and I would do it again and again, because it would be the sin o' sins, to kill an entire people, and one death wouldnae be enough for recompense. However, as I am an aforesaid man of the law, I very much hope that the current misunderstanding can be resolved withoot the need for wholesale carnage and bloodletting and screaming and wailing and weeping and people having bits of themselves nailed to trees, such as has never been seen before, ye ken?"
Pratchett has such complete command of tone that it's possible to have tears of laughter streaming down your face while at the same time catching your breath with sympathetic horror, and in fact the horror is more real because the laughter has engaged your sympathy. Have I mentioned that I love the Nac Mac Feegles?

I Shall Wear Midnight is a very satisfying conclusion to the Tiffany Aching books, and now I think I'll reread all four of them, with a pen and paper to write down all the great little lines that I think I'll remember and then don't.

This series is like a really good breakfast buffet, with fresh pancakes and waffles and bacon and sausages and porridge made with cream and fruit and everything. And cheese, can't forget the cheese.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two days until Cryoburn!

Bonus post! Look what I just found: Chapters has an "interview" between Lois McMaster Bujold and her famous character Miles Vorkosigan to promote Cryoburn, the latest book in the Vorkosigan Saga. (Click on Read More in the From the Author section.) If you haven't discovered Miles yet, I highly recommend starting with Warrior's Apprentice, or if you don't want to go that far back, Komarr isn't a bad place to meet him. Let's just say that if the YA Fantasy Showdown had included Adult Sci Fi, Miles would have held his own against both Eugenides and Howl, and I love those characters, so that's saying a lot. (Hmmm. I wonder what Miles vs Ender would be like . . .)

Books are My Drug of Choice, Part 2: Getting High

The ability to escape reality through books is reason enough for them to be addictive. But books are also like heroin: they don't just offer oblivion; they produce a high. And it's the high that I keep coming back for.

Exciting, page-turning adventures have an obvious high: the suspense of watching good guys escape bad guys, solve mysteries and battle monsters (or unpleasant people) sends real adrenaline through my veins. And, generally speaking, the good guys win, which creates a rush of euphoria.

But even quieter books without monsters or battles gave their own types of high. For one thing, reading allows me to identify completely with a character--not only do I experience that character's emotions, but I also take on character traits that I might not always exemplify in real life. I get to feel courageous, or honorable, or compassionate, or clever. Characters have flaws, of course, but ultimately even the tragic heroes have at least one redeeming quality that it feels good to identify with. It feels good to stand up for what's right, to defend the underdog, to discover the truth, to not give in. When Jane Eyre determines to leave Mr. Rochester--"Still indomitable was the reply--'I care for myself.'" When Molly Weasly cries, "NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU B*TCH!" (Best use of a swear word in fiction, ever!) I get to feel moral strength, or righteous anger, and that is a high.

The second type of high that all works of fiction produce, regardless of genre or style or plot, just by virtue of being a story, is a sense of significance. Ordinary life doesn't always feel imbued with purpose or meaning. The truly worthwhile goals (raising decent children, developing one's character) are pretty long-term, and it can be hard to see the point of most day-to-day minutiae (and a lot of it is simply pointless). A story has a point. It has meaning; that's what makes it a story. The events come together in a climax, the characters progress to an epiphany, everything that happens is meant to happen. Whatever moral centre the book rests on, it has a moral centre. There are protagonists and antagonists. Fantasy is particularly good at drawing clear lines between good and evil--how many times have I looked up from a book and wished there were some orcs to fight or a sword to go find--then I'd know exactly what I was supposed to do! But even in realistic stories without obvious good guys and bad guys, there is a conflict to be won, and the protagonist wins it--or loses it but finally understands. Meaning is wrested from the chaos of events.

Our brains are wired to need significance, and stories fill that need. I for one, need rather frequent doses of this particular prescription.

Recent books that have given meaning to my life:

Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson: A very unique and exotic retelling of the fairy tale.
Soulless, by Gail Carriger: You wouldn't think it from the title, but this one's hilarious. And a romance.
Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters: I have discovered Miss Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and crime solver.
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers: I have also discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, sort of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, what?
A Matter of Magic, by Patricia C. Wrede: Contains Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, The Magician's Ward, which is just as much fun.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood

I picked this book up for the title: I love intriguing titles. Then I met Miss Penelope Lumley, and I was hooked.

A cross between Mary Poppins and Jane Eyre with a dash of Edgar Allen Poe, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling is funny, surprising, and mysterious. We begin with Miss Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, taking a train ride to her first job interview. She worries that the train may be attacked by bandits, that she might forget the capitals of European countries, or that she might "end up with marmalade all over the front of her dress and run from the room weeping," but it soon becomes apparent that Miss Lumley is "much, much more than her current circumstances would indicate." Upon meeting the children under her care and discovering that they have been raised by wolves, she is "not in the least bit alarmed." After all, she has "spent many a useful hour assisting Dr. Westminster," the Swanburne veterinarian. She is appalled that the children are being kept in the barn: "they had plenty of hay and the saddle blankets for warmth--but no watercolor paints? No decks of cards? Not a single book to pass the time? . . .To Penelope's way of thinking, it approached the barbaric."

I fell in love with Penelope's original thinking and strength of character, and I loved watching her gentleness tame the three children (they are soon reading poetry and learning Latin, of course). But all is not well at Ashton Place, for there is a mystery concerning the unpleasant Lord Fredrick, and he appears to have evil intentions regarding the children, which Penelope must try to thwart. There is a gloriously comical and suspenseful Christmas ball: poetry is recited to much chaos, gentlemen go hunting, something is almost discovered in the attic, and a squirrel is adopted. We are left, however, with a number of compelling questions: Where did the children come from? Where did Penelope come from? What or who is hiding in the attic? Why does Lord Frederick keep consulting the almanack, and where was he during the Christmas party? Alas, we must wait for a sequel! Luckily, Maryrose Wood appears to be a fast writer, and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery, is coming out in Feb 2011. In the meantime, I'm going to check out her teen novels.

Oh, I forgot to make a food metaphor! TICAP:TMH (I really didn't want to write the whole thing out again!) is like sticky toffee pudding: sweet and delicious with hidden chewy depths, and oh, so very British. (And did I mention it's hilarious?)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Books are My Drug of Choice, Part 1: Escapism

Perhaps I ought to amend my goal to blogging once a week. Eh, heh.

I recently reported on a book binge, which I said I was coming off of. Not entirely accurate. In the spirit of confession (not that I'm repenting!), a brief case history of my particular disease:

 When I've had a bad day, or a bad week, when I'm feeling particularly down on myself, when I have something unpleasant to do that I just can't bring myself to deal with, when other people might head to the bar to get some temporary forgetfulness, I go to the library.

I don't drink, so I can't authoritatively compare the oblivion of a book to that of the bottle, but I submit that there are similarities. (I even get book hangovers from staying up far too late reading!) I am able to submerse myself so effectively in the alternate reality of a novel that if I am interrupted (and you have to be loud and insistent if you want to get my attention) it takes me a few seconds to remember where and who I am. I substitute the emotions of the characters for my own emotions, take on their problems instead of my own problems, and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when they succeed. (Do you get that feeling from alcohol?)

Unfortunately, I read very quickly, so the story ends and I've only escaped my own misery for a few hours. And after the satisfying conclusion to the fictional characters' adversity, my unsolved problems seem even more onerous and unsolvable. So I pick up another book. Not to read it, of course, since I've already wasted more time than I should. I just want to look at the cover and feel the heft of the pages. I might read the front flap, just to get an idea of what it might be about. And maybe the first page, to see if the writing is any good. Two hours later, I emerge blinking dazedly from another universe to find that my problems are two hours further from being solved, and now it's dinnertime and there's no food in the house, and I haven't even showered yet today, and the kids are late for music lessons. The kids (and the husband) are also miffed at having been completely ignored for hours on end. (I was once reading a book while my two-year-old played with blocks, and he got so frustrated with my inattention that he dumped the entire container of blocks over my head.) But I don't really want to deal with their unhappiness, so I reach for another book . . .

Books may be safer than alcohol as a means of escape, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that books are addictive and a book addiction leads to damaged relationships and destructive behaviour!

Sigh. Here are some books I've used lately to avoid talking to my family (yes, I've read all these since the last long list of books, and no, this isn't all I've read, it's just the ones I'd recommend):

Dealing With Dragons and Searching for Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede: first two books of the Enchanted Forest series, lighthearted plays on fairy-tale conventions. Good fun. Also her Mairelon the Magician, a magical Victorian comedy of errors.
Wake and Fade, Lisa McMann: I need to get the third book; these are page-turners with supernatural crime solving and romance.
Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta: dark, epic fantasy about refugees from a cursed kingdom. Should have been a trilogy but she packs it all into one book. Original story, great world-building, intense characters.
Tomorrow, When the War Began, John Marsden: post-apocolyptic adventure set in Australia, first of a series. Exciting, realistic adventure.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Maryrose Wood: this one's worth a blog post.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor

Fairies of Dreamdark, Blackbringer finally arrived at my local bookstore, and I gobbled it down. I wouldn't have picked this book up had it not been recommended by someone: I don't normally find fairies appealing. But these are not normal fairies! Okay, they're small and have wings, but Magpie is a seriously kick-butt heroine! She hunts devils for fun. Yes, there are devils in this story, and Djinn, and glyphs and thespian crows and magic knitting needles. Taylor is brilliant at taking elements from all sorts of folk-tales and mythology and weaving them into an entirely original world.

The Djinn created the world and filled it with animals and birds and fairies and imps and elementals. Some nasty devils got made, too, but fairy champions caught them all and imprisoned them in bottles. Then the Djinn went to sleep. Thousands of years later, humans started opening the bottles and letting the devils out. (I love how this is an amalgamation of Pandora and Aladdin.)

Magpie is the granddaughter of the West Wind, and so she has more skills and magic than the average fairy. She takes it upon herself to recapture the released devils, with the help of a troop of crows (they also perform plays, but Magpie has serious stagefright). She's caught twenty-three devils so far, but the latest one is different. It might be more than she can handle. So she returns the fairy homeland, the forest of Dreamdark, to look for the Djinn King, Magruwen. Maybe she can wake him up and get him to help.

I love Magpie's language: she's a Scottish/Shakespearean fairy with street-cred. I love that Magpie's parents are fairy archaeologists/ethnologists, travelling the world to find and record fairy magic before it is lost forever. I love Magpie's encounters with the Magruwen, a frighteningly powerful being who is confounded by her stubbornness and goodness. I love the scavenger imp Batch Hangnail, who can't be called a traitor because he has no loyalty to anyone but himself.

If I have a complaint about this book, it's that it isn't long enough! I would love to see more of the warrior prince Talon and how he learns to fly. There's a fascinating subplot about a usurper of the fairy throne that could have its own book devoted to it. Then there's Bellatrix, the fairy champion, and her tragic love story. And dragons: there are dragons!

This book is like lamb tagine (or, if you don't like lamb and don't know what a tagine is, how about chicken mole)(and if you don't know what chicken mole is, go find a good Mexican restaurant and find out!): it's layered with multiple, complex flavours, it's meaty and spicy, it's wholly unexpected the first time you try it, but then it becomes must-have comfort food.

I've ordered the next book, Silksinger, and I can't wait to delve more deeply into this fascinating world. It looks like there will be a new set of characters, but we'll still get to see what Magpie and Talon are up to. *Rubs hands together gleefully.* Go read this book!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Anne Ursu, The Shadow Thieves and The Siren Song

These are the first two books in a new trilogy that I hadn't heard of: I came across The Shadow Thieves while browsing my local library. The cover isn't very appealing, but the title was intriguing, and as soon as I read the first page I knew I'd like this author. She's funny, snarky, and her characters are very real. Here's a sample:

So, sometimes really bad things happen and, for reasons that are rather complicated, you're the only one who can stop them. And sometimes, in order to do so, you have to sneak out of the house late at night to get to the Underworld. And on those occasions, you, because you are a conscientious person, leave your parents a note explaining that you know what's making everyone sick and you have to go save the world. Helpfully, you also tell them you love them and not to worry.
The problem is, your parents don't really listen to this last part, and when you finally get back the next morning . . . after Philonecron tried to throw you in the Styx, a few monsters tried to eat you, you met up with the Lord of the Underworld, and a whole shadow army tried to bring his palace down on your head--well, you find out that they have, in fact, worried. A lot.

That's from the second book, The Siren Song, when we discover that after Charlotte and her cousin Zee successfully save the world from the evil Philonecron (who is stealing children's shadows to create an army to defeat Hades), her parents ground her forever.

Yes, this is another book using Greek mythology in a modern setting. The difference between The Chronus Chronicles and the Percy Jackson series is that Charlotte and Zee are not demigods. They don't suddenly develop magical powers, and when they get thrown into the world of myth they have to defeat the bad guys with courage, luck, and stubbornness. And their parents don't understand. The plots are fairly original, the mythological people are fun (Poseidon sails around the Mediterranean on a very tacky luxury yacht), and there's enough action and adventure to keep the pages turning, but what I loved about these books was how convincing the main characters were. Plus the voice: loved the voice. (But then I'm a sucker for snarky humour.)

These books are like chocolate- and peanut butter- covered pretzels: sweet and salty and addictive. Worth being better known. Now I have to convince my library to get the third book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Binge

Oops! My goal was to blog twice a week, and already it's been 8 days since my last blog. This whole regular, disciplined thing is obviously going to be a challenge!

I'm just coming off a book binge that's lasted more than a month. (Summer is over, and I actually have to get up in the morning and drive the kids to school. Sleep deprived is not a good look for me.) I think I might do a whole blog post on books=alchohol, or even books=heroin, but I suspect that for a lot of people in this corner of the blogosphere you already know exactly what I'm talking about!

Here's a by no means complete list of the better stuff I've read lately (you know it's been a bad binge when you can't even remember what you read last week!)

Mockingbird, Suzanne Collins.       Really good, but oh. Wow.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson.         Wasn't going to read this, but my husband liked it so much I started it and got hooked. (I could see the rape scene coming and just skipped over it.)
Clockwork Angel.     New one by Cassandra Clare. Similar plot and characters to the Mortal Instruments, but I still enjoyed it and it wasn't too predictable.
The Shadow Thieves, Anne Ursu.     Think I'm going to do a blog post on this one.
Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel.  Intriguing idea.
I Am Number Four, Pittacus Lore.    Started reading it in a bookstore and had to buy it to find out what happens next. Not jumping up and down good, but fun.
Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett.    A reread. I can always reread Pratchett. Love the Nac Mac Feegles. And Horace the Cheese. Where does he come up with this stuff?
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future, Dav Pilkey (I mean, George and Harold).    Not as brain-explodingly funny as The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, but still, deserves its place on the shelf.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.    Read this one for book club, and wouldn't have finished it otherwise, because the style was driving me crazy. But I'm glad I did, because it's a beautiful story. Best last line ever.
Passage, Connie Willis.     A reread, but it's been so long it was like the first time. Loved it. Can't think of a superlative to do it justice.
Thirteenth Child, Patricia C. Wrede.  Great fun, great world.

I know there's more, but I'm blanking out. Oh, well, this gives you enough to go on, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Reviews?

I've been discovering the YA blogosphere lately. (Did you catch the YA Fantasy Showdown? Is that not the most brilliant idea ever? I stayed up until 3 in the morning reading all the battle scenes, and it made my life that the final showdown was between Eugenides and Howl--the website authors' imagining of that battle was hilarious!) Okay, so I'm a little late to the scene, but it's not for lack of interest!

I've thought about joining the ranks of YA book reviewers. But the trouble with reviewing books is that sometimes you have to read and review books you don't like. I review kids' lit for a Canadian online journal, because I think it's important to contribute to the conversation about YA lit, (especially in Canada, where the community is small and we can use all the voices we can get). But it is hard to come up with fair, yet honest appraisals of books that just aren't very good.  And, call me lazy, call me a hedonist, but I don't want to spend my blogging time doing hard, unpleasant things!

So I'm not going to be a Book Reviewer. I'm just going to tell you about the books I love! Maybe you can call me a Book Recommender. I'm the one who overhears conversations in bookstores and has to jump in: "Oh, that's a great one, and have you read this other one by the same author?" (Maybe I should have been a librarian.) I'm going to make a point of recommending books that you might not have heard of (though I may occasionally have to say "Read Megan Whalen Turner," because I won't be able to help myself). I'll consider it my duty to bring unsung brilliance to everyone's notice.

I've already added too many books to my TBR pile because of other bloggers; now it's time to return the favour!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Laini Taylor, my new favourite author

It's only fitting that my first blog entry should be about Laini Taylor, because her website is what inspired me to create this blog in the first place.  I discovered Laini Taylor via Robin McKinley's blog (she's also a favourite author), because someone on her forum recommended the book Blackbringer. My library didn't have it, but they did have Lips Touch Three Times, and this book hooked me from the first taste.

It's a beautiful book: the cover is evocative and striking, everything about the design is enticing, but then you turn past the title page and you get a gorgeous illustration by Jim Di Bartolo (Ms. Taylor's husband). He reminds me of Trina Schart Hyman. And then you turn the page and there's another one. In fact, a whole little story told only in pictures. Then Taylor's story begins, and it's juicy and spicy and surprising and delicious. It's like eating a summer-ripe peach, one that's so exquisitely flavoured it gives you shivers.

And that's just the first story. Lips Touch Three Times is a collection of three novellas, each entirely different, each set in a differently-flavoured fantasy world, all centering around a kiss. What a brilliant concept! And these worlds: Taylor borrows from Slavic and Hindu and Roma and I don't know what other mythologies to create her very own fully-realized universes. Which Di Bartolo illustrates perfectly with his introductory graphic stories. You could set ten-volume fantasy epics in each world. Yet this sense of depth, of excess, of reality makes each story completely satisfying. You don't need more: each story is exactly the story that needed to be told.

My favourite of the three stories is "Spicy Little Curses Such as These." It has the best title, ever, don't you think? The first chapter is called "The Demon and the Old Bitch," and it just gets better from there.

I'm not going to say more because my words aren't doing Taylor justice. I've ordered Blackbringer from my local bookstore, and I can't wait until it comes in. Taylor joins the list of writers I'll buy instantly, no questions asked.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I've started a blog!

(The world pauses momentarily to acknowledge the momentousness of the occasion.)

It's called Dead Houseplants, not because wasting my time on the internet results in neglecting the daily tasks that keep my plants (and me) alive--though this is true. (Those who know me will find the title obvious in the extreme.)

The Dead Houseplants I mean are the ones in my brain: those aspects of my personality that have been quietly shrivelling away because I'm too lazy to pay attention to them. I want to use the discipline imposed on me by the blog format to drip-irrigate myself.

I've been inspired by other blogs with wonderful titles like Creating Wings, about people reinventing themselves, finding their inner goddesses, all that good stuff. Perhaps my title doesn't indicate quite enough faith in the process, but it's where I'm at. I generally have to sneak up on myself when I'm trying self-improvement; if I think too hard about it I'll talk myself out of it. I haven't given this blog much thought at all.

My goal is to blog twice a week. (Really? I just made that up now. Is that realistic? We shall see.) I expect to talk a lot about books, but I might throw in stuff about gardening or dancing tango or green architecture or music. Maybe a bit of religion or philosophy, if I'm feeling particularly profound. Mostly what I hope to do is find and share cool, inspiring things, thus reminding myself that the world is full of cool, inspiring things, and that I might be one of them.