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.