Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sharon Shinn, The Safe-Keeper's Secret

I picked this book up in a random library browse. Sharon Shinn's name rang a bell with me, but at the time I couldn't place why. The cover wasn't striking, but the concept seemed interesting, so I took the book home. (Have I mentioned that I love libraries?)

It turns out that I've read some of Sharon Shinn's adult books and really enjoyed them. Her Samaria novels read like fantasy but have a sci fi explanation in the end (which I won't give away): it's a non-technological society with angels to rule over and protect them. In Archangel, Rachel is chosen to be the bride of Gabriel the archangel, but she's not happy about it. There's reluctant romance, dangerous politics, Old-Testament-like mythology (in case the names didn't give it away), singing, and magic that's really science but everyone's forgotten. A good read, and now I want to go back and read the Samaria novels I missed.

The Safe-Keeper's Secret isn't anything like the Samaria books. Set in a small English-like village in some non-modern time period, it's a quiet story about people with the gifts of keeping secrets, telling the truth, and granting dreams. I love that secret-keeping and truth-telling are magical powers. The story opens with a child being delivered to the village Safe-keeper, the woman who will keep whatever secret she is told, and the child's identity is a secret she keeps for most of the novel. She raises the child with her own as if they were siblings. The story follows Fiona and Reed's coming of age and discovery of who they really are.

I loved this book, and I'm still not sure exactly why. It's not exciting, there's no great peril, no important quest, not a lot of action of any kind, really. For a while I couldn't figure out who the antagonist was. Almost every character is caring and nice, and just about everyone loves Reed and Fiona. I think I liked the book so much because I cared so much about the characters. They were all individuals with their own sorrows and dreams, however small, and I wanted them all to find their place in the world and I cheered when they did. I think, in the end, the antagonist is the secret: the truth about who Fiona and Reed really are that changes everything when it's revealed. But the story is subtle--there isn't burning suspense all the way through. Fiona and Reed don't particularly care that they don't know who their parents are. Except that they do, of course, and that niggling question really does propel the plot as they each struggle to fit where they think they belong.

I feel like I'm not selling this book as strongly as I want to. It's deftly written and a pleasure to read and it deals with all the important parts of life: who we love and what we want to be and telling the truth when the right time comes. There are lovely bits of symbolism woven all through, and it just, well, it just made me happy. It's a little jewel, well worth an afternoon of your time.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Octavia Butler and Daughter of Smoke and Bone

It occurred to me that I might blog more often if I didn't spend three hours writing a blog entry. That last one could have been three posts, couldn't it?  Hmm. In the meantime, the writing is still happening, slowly. It feels rather like getting ketchup out of the bottle. I'm hoping for the sudden blurp when way too much ketchup ends up on your hamburger, but I'm still waiting. Like in the Heinz commercials. (It doesn't help that I checked on my geography today and discovered that a key plot point is impossible. (And this is geography I'm intimately familiar with, so I don't know why I came up with that plot idea in the first place.) The story is set in the future, though, so maybe I'm going to have to give Vancouver that earthquake that we're all waiting for and alter the geography so my plot still works. I love fiction.)

I know I mentioned Laini Taylor's newest a few weeks ago, and I've been meaning to blog about it, but I want to do it justice and I haven't felt like I could devote the time required. Which is stupid, because it means I'm not blogging about it at all.

But first I have to mention an adult science fiction writer I just discovered: Octavia Butler. I borrowed her novel Fledgling from a friend of mine. What a great title. (And I love the cover.) What an interesting, interesting book. This is a novel about vampires that you should not read if you generally like vampire novels. Intellectual is not quite the right word, but it's close. What if vampires didn't kill people; what if they entered into symbiotic relationships with them, relationships of love and trust in which the humans get whatever they want, but the vampires have all the control. Would that be okay? I found it fascinating how Butler kept my sympathy with the narrator: the young vampire does things that would be reprehensible if a human were to do them, but she does them within her own moral and ethical code, so they feel right. And the fact that they feel right feels seriously creepy. Fledgling has a plot with its own suspense, but to me the page-turning aspect wasn't what was going to happen next, it was what will I agree with next. Deliciously interesting. Like sushi.

Okay, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. It hardly needs my endorsement, since it's made all kinds of Best Books lists and everyone is raving about it, but I'll continue my Laini Taylor fandom and say you have to go read this book. It has everything I like about Taylor's writing:  lush prose, dense with colorful detail, incredibly imaginative world-building, traditional mythologies mined for their deepest gems and then turned into something entirely new (angels and devils, yes, but these are not the angels and devils anyone else is writing about). My favorite thing about this novel? It's set in Prague, the most beautiful, evocative, artistic city I've ever visited. I also loved Karou's best friend the puppeteer. And the shop with doors that open in places around the world. Best use of teeth in a fantasy. I could go on, but I don't need to. I was thinking I'd compare it to a Czech dish, something desserty you'd eat with coffee in the afternoon: maybe apple strudel or blueberry dumplings. I only hope that the success of this series (yeah, cliffhanger ending: there'd better be another book coming!) allows her to get back to the Dreamdark books.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Books I'm Grateful for

I just finished Beth Revis' book Across the Universe, and as I usually do when I finish a good book and don't want to let go, I went to her website. Good news: the next book is coming out in January! Also good news: Beth Revis has a terrific blog. She has a contest going that I thought was a great idea (even though the Canadian Thanksgiving is over!): Give Thanks for Good Books.

What books should I give thanks for? Beth already used Narnia, so ditto. I have to mention everything by Madeleine L'Engle, particularly A Ring of Endless Light, for getting me through an awkward adolescence. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, of course.  Oh, I can't leave out M.M. Kaye's Far Pavilions (I reread it a few years ago, and I have to admit I liked the Far Pavilions in my head better: it was still epic and sweeping and tragic and romantic and exotic, just not quite as much as I remembered it. But I was fourteen when I read it, so that explains a lot.)

But before I go on and on nostalgically, I think I'd like this post to be about books being written now. I'm grateful that people are writing books that are unique, quirky, crazy weird, or just thoughtful. Books that take you out of your head and then put you back in at a slightly different angle. Here are a few I've read recently:

There is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff. This is an author who definitely does her own thing; I dare anyone to try to categorize her books. They're not even like each other, except insofar as they are all brilliantly written and make you laugh and cry and go "huh." (Her titles are all great, too.) This one starts with the intriguing (and potentially blasphemous) premise that God is really a sex-crazed teenaged boy named Bob. If it was only about Bob and his attempts to make it with Lucy, the latest human he's fallen in love with, it might have become tiresome. But it's also about Lucy, the assistant zookeeper who loses a capybara, and about Lucy's mother, and Lucy's mother's priest, and it's about Mr. B, Bob's longsuffering assistant, who tries to keep up with all the prayers and mitigate Bob's various disasters, and Bob's floozy of a mother, who won Earth for him in a poker game, and the last Eck, Bob's pet, who is in danger of getting eaten and is rather sad about it. Normally I don't like novels that jump around between every character's point of view, but I liked all of these characters, with their flaws and needs and worries. I liked the way everything fell apart only to come together in unexpected ways. I loved the whales. (Fairly certain they're a nod to Douglas Adams, whose worthy successor Meg Rosoff could be (except not quite, because she isn't like him either).)This is not a blasphemous book: it's a funny, honest, touching and surreal exploration of what a God might be, and how one might still have faith despite how messed up everything is. This book was dense and sweet and full of flavours both familiar and unusual, rather like the sweet potato cake I made last week.

Vampire High, by Douglas Rees. I picked this book up from the librarian's Recommended shelf and loved the cover art. I assumed it would be a humorous take on the teen vampire thing (just making the protagonist a human guy already turns the stereotypes upside-down). It is, but it is so much more. I would almost go so far as to say it's a fable about outsiders and belonging, but then you might think it's preachy, which it isn't. It could just be a funny story about a kid who really doesn't fit in: Cody doesn't realize at first that almost everyone at his new school is a vampire. These aren't scary vampires, though (well, maybe some of them are, a little); they're just trying to fit into society--and here's where the book becomes brilliant. I loved that the vampires call themselves jenti and non-vampires gadje; I loved the sly pokes at bureaucracy everywhere; I loved Cody's dogged bravery; I loved the ridiculous assignments the teachers give the jenti that they don't expect the gadje to do, and I loved Cody's attempts to complete them; I loved that the divide between jenti and gadje is everyone's and no one's fault and that Cody unintentionally upsets the status quo by doing the right thing. This book is crunchy and salty and fun, like peanut butter and jelly on toast.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, inspired by Siobhan Dowd. You remember Patrick Ness, from Chaos Walking? I don't really need to say anything more, (and this blog post is getting too long, and I couldn't possibly do it justice anyway). Just go find this book. The illustrations are stunning, the story is strange, funny, powerful, and beautiful. You will cry. It will be cathartic. The concept is unique and yet feels inevitable, like a folk tale. The monster that shows up outside Conor's window is terrifying, but Conor isn't afraid of it because the monster from his nightmares is far more frightening. This is a fantasy book that's so realistic it tears your heart out. I'm going to compare this to the yak steak I had at a fancy restaurant once: beefy and tender with a sauce that hits all the ancient receptors in the brain.

Guess I should give a writing update: day 10, and I've written 9 1/2 pages. Not a whole lot, but I've done a bit every day, so I'm meeting my goal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Canadian Book Week: Kenneth Oppel

It's day three of Novel Writing Month, and so far so good: I have written something every day. Not much (I'm at about 4 pages longhand), but I'm getting to know my characters and setting and getting closer to figuring out my plot. (I think.)

This blog post has been sitting half-finished for weeks, now, so I figured I could procrastinate today's writing and finish it.

I have not forgotten my promise to focus on a Canadian author once a month, and this month it just has to be Kenneth Oppel, because his latest book has just come out, and it's awesome!

 That is an amazing cover, is it not? It gives you setting, mood, character; it reaches out and sucks you in; it promises you will be transported into the world beyond the keyhole. But really, all you have to read is the subtitle and you know you have to read this book. I mean, "The Apprentiship of Victor Frankenstein": how audacious is that?

But if anyone can tell a convincing story about fiction's most famous monster-maker, it's Kenneth Oppel. He's a versatile writer with a sure sense of story. He's written picture books, early readers, middle-grade and YA novels, all with strong characters and lots of action but also thematic depth and real emotion.

Does This Dark Endeavor live up to its cover? Yes. I had my reservations, because I wasn't sure I would like the character of Victor, but by the end of the novel I was convinced. If you have any interest in the Frankenstein story, if you love secret libraries and alchemy and finding impossible ingredients for the elixir of life, (and who doesn't?) then you have to read this book.

The Silverwing trilogy could be thought of as a middle-grade Watership Down, starring bats. It has animals that behave like animals, a mythology that makes sense and resonates with the story (Camazotz, the vampire bat-god, and an underworld, and possible apocalypse), and a very cool bat super-power that allows Shade to save the day more than once.  I'm making it sound more like fantasy than it is: most of the adventures are real-world/real-bat encounters with owls and humans and big nasty bats and suchlike. But the fantasy elements add that extra zing. I haven't read them in a while,  but these are books I reread happily because there's so much to them. A good choice for boy readers. I haven't read Guardians of Ga'hoole, but I'm betting if you liked those books you'll like these.

The Airborn series is for slightly older readers, and the airships and goggles on the covers do not lie: this is classic steampunk: an alternative history in which zepplins become the transportation of choice. (To be perfectly correct, I'm not sure it is steampunk, because I think the airships are powered with combustion engines, but I don't really care.) This is great fun: adventure, romance, pirates, young man proving himself, hitherto undiscovered flying creatures, ghost ships, a ladder into space. All that good stuff. Fast-paced and imaginative with characters you really care about. Highly recommended.

I also have to mention Oppel's two picture books about Peg. Peg and the Whale and Peg and the Yeti are so cute and upbeat and Peg is such an awesome heroine. Every young girl should have these books on her shelf. (And note the illustrations for Peg and the Yeti: Barbara Reid is so cool!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

SIWC and The Kneebone Boy

I spent a great weekend at the Surrey International Writers' Conference. Susan Juby was there, and she's just as personable in person as her writing would lead you to believe. Ivan Coyote gave a brilliant workshop called Bootcamp for Procrastinators, which was exactly what I needed to hear. Mary Robinette Kowal gave an inspiring keynote speech and a terribly useful workshop on what puppeteering taught her about writing. (I bought her book just so I could get her to sign it, and it was great: Jane Austen plus magic.) And I got my "This Day We Write!" t-shirt to remind me of Robert Dugoni's brilliant Lord of the Rings-inspired rallying cry. I highly recommend all of these authors, and if you are a writer I strongly recommend attending the SIWC next year. It's all kinds of inspiring, and fun, too.

I was almost convinced that I should sign up for National Novel Writing Month, in which one commits to writing 50 000 words in 30 days (seriously!), but having checked it out, I think it might be more distracting than inspiring. (And, let's face it, there's no way I could do it. I can't even write a blog twice a month!) So instead I am going to commit, here, in this most public and non-retractable way, to writing some words in my new novel every day in November. Even ten words counts. And I commit to recording here in the blog the number of words I write.

So I'd better get caught up on all the books I've been meaning to recommend, since I may not have any time left for blogging in November.

A long time ago I mentioned that The Kneebone Boy, by Ellen Potter, was a great book. I still think so, but I'm going to cheat a little and direct you to Book Aunt's review, because she did such a good job! I second everything she says about the quirky characters, the atmosphere, the surrealism that feels like magic even though technically it isn't, and the very funny writing. I diverge from her opinion only at the end: I thought the ending of The Kneebone Boy was brilliant. Yes, it totally turns all your expectations on their heads, but that just gives the emotional punch more weight. And it makes you rethink everything that went before, in a resonant, many-layers-of-theme kind of way. It's like when you order chocolate mousse for dessert, and it seems all light and sweet and yummy, and then there's a raspberry truffle in the middle.

I just got completely distracted from this blog entry when I went looking for The Kneebone Boy's cover and I found Ellen Potter's blog. She has a great blog, you have to go read it! Particularly this entry: Blame it on Mary. I have a new motto now (to go along with This Day We Write!)(I need another t-shirt): I am the carpetbag. I Am the Carpetbag. If that isn't inspiring, I don't know what is. (Just go read her blog entry; I can't possibly do it justice.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Three completely different books

I haven't made it through the entire stack of library books. (I never do: it's one of the great things about libraries, being able to take books out and then not read them. I can always take them out again later. All that choice and no pressure, like the buffet dinners at all-inclusive resorts!) (And this time I was distracted by the arrival of both This Dark Endeavour and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I had to read immediately, of course.) But I made some good picks that I ought to share, especially since I think none of them are very well-known.

Wrapped, by Jennifer Bradbury, is a light-hearted historical adventure/romance with Egyptian mummies and spies. It opens with the main character, Agnes, getting fitted for her coming-out dress while reading the latest Jane Austen novel:

"Put the book down, darling," my mother said from her chair beside the mirror.
"The chapter's end is only a short way off," I replied, reaching out with my other hand to flip the page. Despite the ache in my shoulder from holding the book at arm's length so the dressmakers could work on my gown, I didn't want to give it up.
I loved Agnes at once. She longs for adventure at the same time as she is not sure she's ready to come out. She is thoughtless and impulsive but genuinely tries to be good. And she doesn't quite know what to do when the very eligible Lord Showalter begins to court her. But the fun of this book is the amulet she finds at a mummy unwrapping, and the secret message attached to it, and sneaking around--with the entirely unsuitable but good-looking museum assistant--trying to solve the puzzle before the unknown bad guys do. The plot is contrived--it's rather silly the various reasons why she never tells her father about the amulet--but it's all good fun, the conclusion is everything you could have hoped for, and the stage is set for further Agnes adventures. If you liked Sorcery and Cecelia, or if you're a Jane Austen fan, then check this out. I have no idea what syllabub tastes like, but I imagine it's the perfect analogy to this book (they're always having it for dessert in Jane Austen!)

 The Seer and the Sword, by Victoria Hanley, made me wonder why I've never heard of this author before, and made me want to find more of her books. It's traditional fantasy, as the title would suggest, but other than the crystal ball that gives Torina visions, there is little magical that happens. Rather, it is the story of a kingdom and the characters whose choices determine its fate. Torina's father comes home from a war of conquest with the son of the defeated king as a slave for his daughter. Torina immediately frees the boy, and they grow up together, and apart, as plots threaten the stability of the throne and enemies gather from across the sea. It reminded me of Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, or Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books: it has the sweep of politics and history, but its heart is the coming-of-age of two people who find out what they're made of when everything is taken from them. I cared very much about Torina and Landon and I liked what became of them. Good old-fashioned roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Questors, by Joan Lennon, looked original, and it was. I can't think of anything to compare it to exept perhaps some of Diana Wynne Jones' work. I'm going to claim Joan Lennon as Canadian, since she was born here, and say this is a Canadian author to watch out for. Three worlds exist in a complex balance, maintained by a mysterious Council in The London House, one of those great places where hallways and doors lead to different realities and Mrs. Macmahonney in the basement kitchen is the one person who knows all its secrets. Three children, one from each world, are brought to The London House and told that the balance is crumbling and they have been designed from birth to be the heroes who will put everything to rights. Except that things are worse than anticipated, and they have to complete their quest ten years before they were supposed to. So they're hardly the heroes they were meant to be. Maddy, Bryn, and Cam each have an ordeal in their own world, in which their choice of which Object to bring back will either save or doom all reality. The characters are convincing in their strengths and vulnerabilities, and in their difficulties getting along with each other. The worlds are imaginative, the ordeals interesting, the mythology mysterious and never completely explained, but not frustratingly confusing. I was intrigued by the concept and carried along by the plot. Fun and different, like chewy ginger cookies.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

We moved, and now I can walk to the library!

Has it really been more than a month since my last blog entry? Yikes. And right after I made my highly realistic two-blogs-a-month goal. (I should never set goals; it never turns out well for me.) In my defence, moving makes you put your entire life on hold. I haven't even been reading anything (other than all fourteen Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, but that was weeks ago.) We're still not unpacked and organized, because we're getting the place painted, so everything is a complete mess.

But it's a five minute walk to the local public library. Yesterday I escaped the chaos and went to get myself a new library card. I love libraries. Here are the first books I brought home with me:


Questors, by Joan Lennon, caught me with "three perfect heroes" who aren't quite perfect; it looks like an original concept

Epic, by Conor Kostick, looks like a cross between The Hunger Games and Omnitopia Dawn

The Minister's Daughter, by Julie Hearn, looks like a retelling of The Crucible

Wrapped, by Jennifer Bradbury, is Egyptology and Regency England; I picked it up because Book Aunt recommended it.

The Seer and the Sword, by Victoria Hanley, I picked up because of the cover by Trina Schart Hyman; love that artist.

City of Ships, by Mary Hoffman, is the latest in her Stravaganza series, which I've been enjoying.

Miles From Ordinary, by Carol Lynch Williams: this one actually didn't make it home from the library. I started reading the first few pages and I had to sit down and finish the whole thing right there. It's a deceptively simple story--it all takes place on one day, and not very much actually happens--but the emotional tension is ratcheted up tight all the way through. Brilliant writing, a brilliant voice. You are right inside this girl's head, and what a terrifying, heartbreaking place it is to be. Very impressive book.

Hex Hall and Demon Glass, by Rachel Hawkins. I needed something light and mindless after Miles From Ordinary, and this series fits the bill. Very typical plot: Sophie has never fit in because she is a . . . (which strange paranormal creature will it be this time?) a witch. She screws up and gets sent to a reform school for witches, vampires, werewolves etc., where she meets a guy who is wrong for her in every possible way, where the popular witches try to get her to join their dark magic coven, where people start getting attacked and the wrong people are accused of it . . . you get the picture. Not much original, but it's well-written, I like the characters, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. No brooding, lots of snarky comments. In the same vein as Paranormalcy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Juan de Fuca Trail, and what I'm reading now

I've been out of internet range briefly (not for the whole blogless period, but I'm going to use it as my excuse anyway!). I hiked part of the Juan de Fuca Trail with my siblings, my son, and my father. It was quite the adventure. This is not a trail for the faint-of-heart, but it's gorgeous. My brother takes awesome photos, so I'm going to steal a few to show you what it was like:

Beautiful beaches? Check.

Incredible ocean views? Check.

Rugged cliffs? Check.

Hidden waterfalls? Check.

Serene vistas? Check.

But to access all this beauty, you have to follow a trail that follows every contour of the water-carved coast, and that means going up every ridge and down every gully. Straight up, and then straight down. Over and over again. Thirteen times in twelve km on one day (someone going the other way told us that, and so I counted. He was right.) No sissy switchbacks, either. These pictures give some idea of the steepness:

No, the trail doesn't go over that log my crazy sister is standing on, but there were some sections that were nearly as perilous. We were planning to hike the whole 47 km trail, but on Day 2 my dad took a head-over-heels tumble down about 8 feet of nearly vertical trail and injured his rib. We managed to get him to camp (my 11-year-old son carried his grandpa's backpack for 3 km while my brother carried his own plus my son's. Lots of heroism that day!) but we decided we'd better leave the trail the next day. In the end it was just as well, because the people coming the other direction warned us about knee-deep mud in the next section! (And we were already pretty tired of dodging mud while clambering down ridiculous slopes.) So another year we'll have to come back (later in the season, maybe) and finish the trail. In the meantime, my knees are still recovering!

What did I have on my iPod to read while I was hiking? Fly By Night and its just-released sequel, Twilight Robbery, by Frances Hardinge. (Okay, I'm on a bit of a Hardinge kick. But she's worth it!)

I've also just tried out Jim Butcher, and found Storm Front, the first Harry Dresden novel, to be quite entertaining (not particularly appropriate for younger audiences however: no graphic sex, but adult situations and a fair amount of scary (and gross) violence). 

The Grimm Legacy  by Polly Shulman is worth a post of its own, so I'll just say I recommend it and add it to the list of posts-to-come. I should be able to start making a dent in that list, since I'm spending a couple of days at our new house on the Sunshine Coast, and there's not that much to do here. So stay tuned!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I could have been there . . . and more Frances Hardinge

Last weekend our tango teacher hosted a tango festival that we bought tickets for, but when Saturday night came around and it was time to go to the Gala (which starts at 10pm--past our bedtime), my husband and I looked across the couch at each other and decided we were too tired to go. This is what we missed:

For those of you who are serious tango fans, (and in case my video embedding didn't work) you'll want to see the rest of the videos from the evening: here they are. I am still kicking myself for not managing to drag my sorry behind out of the house!

And in other news, I just finished my third Frances Hardinge book, and I went to her website to confirm that I have now read all of her books, and it turns out she's just published a new one! Much excitement! It's a sequel to Fly By Night, which I shall now reread to get up to speed.

The one I just finished is Verdigris Deep (also titled Well Wished, which is more literal but way boringer). I won't do a whole review, but I highly recommend it. Very different from The Lost Conspiracy but equally well-plotted, well-charactered, well-written. This one's British urban fantasy, the kind where unwitting kids unleash ancient magic on their everyday town. Here's a great scene: "A shrill, laughing conversation upstairs, a television-crowd roar in the living room, and nobody with enough attention spare to notice as two children scrambled past, struggling to prevent a god escaping from a bucket." (They flush it down the toilet.) And did you know shopping carts were so creepy?

You know who would make the most excellent panel at a writers' festival? Frances Hardinge, Laini Taylor, and Neil Gaiman! (Round it out with Frannie Billingsley.) Oh, oh, and Neil Gaiman could collaborate on a novel with Frances Hardinge. You'd have to leave the lights on all night after reading it!

I have to leave you with another quotation from Verdigris Deep. She is just so amazing, the way she uses words to come up with concepts you hadn't ever thought of that way but know immediately are true:
People's personalities took up space, he sometimes thought. When they were trapped in a house or a job or a school together they rubbed up against each other, squeaked like balloons and made sparks. Ryan's parents both had large, gleaming, hot-air-balloon personalities. Sometimes it was hard to fit them into the same house, and Ryan had learned the art of suddenly making himself take up less space, demand less, so that his parents were not chafing against each other as much.
And here's a psyche-shaking one from the end of the book (no spoiler 'cause it won't make any sense until you read the whole thing):
The image that would not leave Ryan's imagination was of Josh walking with a mask-like countenance towards the woman who had tried to kill him, and giving her the child he could not be. 
As Kiersten White said in her blog post about author crushes (and she was referring to Laini Taylor!): "Oh my gosh. I want that brain. I will keep it for my own and love it and take care of it and decorate it for all major holidays."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White

I've revised my blogging goal: now I aim to blog twice a month. Clearly this is a more realistic goal that I might be able to achieve! I know it will disappoint all of you who hang on my every word, but you'll just have to appreciate me in fewer doses. And if I manage to write more than two blogs a month, it will be a happy surprise for all of us!

I have a number of books in my to-be-recommended queue. I'll start with Paranormalcy because it's a particularly fun one.

I've already sent you to Kiersten White's blog, so you know she's an extremely funny writer with a great imagination, and her debut novel doesn't disappoint. I think the best way to sum up Paranormalcy is to say it's Artemis Fowl for teenage girls. (Maybe a bit of X-Men thrown in for good measure.) It has the same humorous juxtaposition of the paranormal (in this case everything from fairies to vampires and werewolves)(mermaids, too) with an Organization.  So there are rules, procedures, protocols; yes there are monsters, but they're safely regulated. It's humorous because the otherworldly aren't supposed to follow rules (hence, "para-normal"). The opening scene, where Evie encounters a vampire being all menacing and she tasers him, slaps a cuff on him and reads him his rights, introduces the slightly flippant tone of the book. "I sighed. I hate the vamp jobs. They think they're so suave."

I interrupt this book recommendation to squee excitedly (as opposed to laconic squeeing, which rather defeats the point) about something I just found out while catching up on Kiersten White's blog: Laini Taylor has a new book coming out!!!!! It's not a Fairies of Dreamdark book; it's called Daughter of Smoke and Bone (awesome title) and you have to read the description in Amazon, because I'm pretty sure Laini Taylor wrote it herself. No one else says things like "Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky." Aieeeee! And I don't know when it's coming out so I don't know how long I have to wait! If you don't believe my posts about Laini Taylor, believe Kiersten White: this is an author you simply must read. 

Okay, back to the review of Paranormalcy (sorry about that!):

Main character Evie has grown up in the International Paranormal Containment Agency: she was an orphan with the previously unheard-of ability to see past glamours, and the IPCA took her in because this invaluable skill allows Evie to "bag and tag" paranormals who are a threat to humans. (To give them credit, the IPCA also offers refuge to paranormals who are threatened by humans). Evie wishes she could live a normal life, like the kids she sees on TV, but she doesn't question her place as the IPCA's most valuable operative.

Then things begin to go south, because the otherworldly don't actually follow the rules, and the International Paranormal Containment Agency is not as in control as it thinks it is. A shapeshifter arrives at the IPCA at the same time as someone starts killing paranormals in places they were supposed to be safe. While all this is going on, Evie learns she isn't quite who she thought she was. Whose side is she supposed to be on?

You will hate this book or love it depending on how you feel about Evie: I loved her, with her sparkly pink taser and her high heels and her addiction to teen soaps and her complete confidence in her own abilities. I loved that she is believably naive but able to think for herself; I loved her attitude and her vulnerability. I also really appreciated the romance element: not the typical tortured love triangle, and definitely not the I'm-unaccountably-attracted-to-this-mysterious-and-possibly-dangerous-stranger that's par for the course these days.

This is excellent summer reading: light, funny, and fast-paced. Fresh local raspberries brought home and washed and eaten at the kitchen sink right out of the container.

And book 2, Supernaturally, is coming out at the end of July. Just in time for peach season!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

I bought Chime on the strength of Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper, and it didn't disappoint. Chime is gorgeous, lush, creepy, luminous, romantic, terrifying and heartbreaking. Briony, Rose, and Eldric: how could you not want to read their story? (Assuming it's not all fairyland and elves, which it isn't. At all.) Here's the first two lines:
       I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
       Now, if you please.

I don't need to say anything else: you must want to read it now. Especially with that cover. And the amazing font in the chapter titles.

Okay, I'll tell you a little more about it. Take equal parts Brothers Grimm (NOT the expurgated versions) and Bronte sisters (mostly Jane Eyre). Throw in a healthy dollop of campfire horror tales. Then wrap in silk and ribbons and take it "into the wild, into the real, into the ooze and muck and the clean, muddy smell of life." Past the Flats, through the Quicks, across the snickleways of the Slough. Hide it in "a tangle of mist and midst" in the middle of the swamp, and then come back and ask, "A person must always keep a secret, mustn't she?"

Oh, and it's a love story.

Briony narrates, Briony who hates herself. Briony who says she deserves to be hanged. Briony who takes care of her twin sister Rose, because Rose can never be left alone, and now that Stepmother is dead there is only Briony, because Father is never home.
Father's silence is not merely the absence of sound. It's a creature with a life of its own. It chokes you. It pinches you small as a grain of rice. it twists in your gut like a worm.
Silence clawed at my throat. It left a taste of burnt matches.
No, our family doesn't talk much. 
The narration is oblique and halting, because Briony's understanding of herself is oblique and halting. Her memories of what happened to Stepmother and to Rose don't match up, but she is certain the terrible things are all her fault, because Briony is a witch. Her anger and jealousy are dangerous because she can call up the Old Ones from the swamp, even if she doesn't intend to. At all costs she must prevent herself from hurting anyone else, particularly Eldric, with his "golden lion's eyes and a great mane of tawny hair," who stirs up more jealousy than ever. And isn't that odd, because Briony is too wicked to be able to love, isn't she?

The swamp is both setting and character, and Billingsley's poetic prose turns delicious every time Briony enters it:
My moonbeam skirts were pale moths, fluttering past the skulls of giant mushrooms. I sank into peat moss and autumn leaves, into the musk-stink of dying cabbage and the splosh of decay.
Voices laughed and ran past me in the shadows. I ran through a tangle of moonlight; I ran into a copper sea. If a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye.
I was wild, I was wolfgirl. I was light as a moonbeam, my bones were filled with lace. I ran past chiming voices. "Pretty girl love pretty boy."
Chime is a puzzle. You will likely put the pieces together before Briony does, but will you figure it out before Eldric? Rose already knows.

This is a tasty novel, deep and layered, full of secrets: gingerbread with pears poached in red wine topped with cinnamon creme.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Canadian Book Week: Susan Juby

Alas, I am a fickle blogger! I'm not quite sure what has happened to the last three weeks. Perhaps I got caught in a time vortex because the Tardis was in the neighborhood. (Have you been watching the latest Doctor Who season? Crazy weird plot-lines! I loved the Neil Gaiman episode. But I digress.)(I actually know where the last week went, because since I began this review we decided to sell our house and buy a townhouse, and for some reason we decided to do everything this week, just because we weren't busy enough already. Sneaking the time to write this review was a bit therapeutic.)

I promised to do a Canadian book every month, and I'm a little late for May's, but we can pretend it's still May, can't we? Because I really must blog about Susan Juby. I just finished her latest, The Woefield Poultry Collective, and I was laughing so hard I was crying--which made the people in the park look rather strangely at me!

I think humour might be the hardest thing to write well, and Susan Juby is brilliant at it. She began with a young adult trilogy: Alice, I Think; Miss Smithers; and Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last

Alice is a teenager in the very small (and quite real) town of Smithers, BC, homeschooled by her vegetarian, pacificist, feminist mother ever since "a series of unfortunate social failures in first grade, connected to my mistaken belief that I was a hobbit." In Alice, I Think, she tries out high school, with mixed results, and "personal expression via fashion experimentation," with even more mixed results. In Miss Smithers, she becomes the Rod and Gun Club representative in the Miss Smithers Pageant, much to her mother's dismay:
My mother has been attempting maternal guidance. Her unsuccessful efforts have revealed the fascist tendencies just below the surface of most New Age practitioners and cemented my commitment to civic participation. If I wasn't already entered in the Miss Smithers contest for personal growth and financial gain, I'd now be in it for spite.
In Alice MacLeod, Realist At Last, her mother goes to jail after an environmental protest, her boyfriend leaves for Scotland after an awkward goodbye ("Our last chance to consummate our love. Ruined by a moose"), and Alice writes a screenplay. "I've channeled some of my anxiety into my art, but I still have quite a bit left over." Exotic fish, leather pants, and knitting play key roles in Alice's adventures, and she's helped through her self-actualization by a therapist nicknamed Death Lord Bob, a best friend ("More accurately, she is my only friend") who "looks sort of like how I used to before I started making an effort," and a younger brother who is "the only genuinely together person in our family. . . We all try to take our cues for how to behave from him." As the highly suspect narrator of her own embarrassing mishaps, Alice forges through all the issues of adolescence with a gawky sense of elan. If you have ever felt like you don't quite fit in, you will love Alice.

The Woefield Poultry Collective is Juby's latest, and her first for an adult audience. Doesn't it have an awesome title? (Be sure you get the Canadian edition: they named it Home to Woefield in the States, which is the lamest alternate title I've ever seen. Is "poultry" too difficult a word for Americans? Or is it "collective" that's the problem, with its scary socialist implications? What were the publishers thinking?)

Woefield has four hilariously unreliable narrators: Prudence, a city girl from New York who inherits her uncle's farm on Vancouver Island and decides to become an organic farmer; Earl, the old farm hand who doesn't know much about farming but plays a mean banjo; Seth, a twenty-something alcoholic recluse who shows up on Prudence's doorstep after his mother kicks him out; and Sara, a twelve-year old girl who raises competition chickens while her family falls apart. As if they didn't have enough problems between them, Juby throws in Bertie the depressed sheep, Eustace the very good-looking vet who disagrees with all of Prudence's environmental beliefs, and a bluegrass festival. Absurd situations abound (there's nothing like sheep for a little absurdity), and the characters' disparate reactions to each new crisis add layers to the humour.

You will find it particularly funny if you, like me, are a city girl with pretensions to sustainability: if you've tried vermiposting, if you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma and think small scale wholistic organic farming sounds wonderful, if you feel guilty every time you grocery shop because everything you buy harms something in some way. I was hooked from the moment Prudence described the death of her worms from being overwatered during a heat wave: "The poor things drowned and cooked, leaving a sort of warmed-over red wriggler soup."

Warning: there is strong language. Normally I would object, but I have to say that this book wouldn't be the same without Earl's colorful voice (several swear words in the following quotation):
I was trying to stay the hell out of the way, but when I saw the first shithouse fall off the truck, I thought, goddamn it, I'm going to have to get involved. No way around it.
That right there sums up the theme of The Woefield Poultry Collective: you deal with sh*t by getting involved.

Juby doesn't shy away from issues (even in her YA writing): alchoholism, divorce, sex, bullying are all treated realistically and with compassion. No easy answers, but perspective. Her humour is never cynical nor mocking (at least, not the bad kind of mocking, only the good kind): we are laughing with her characters, not at them.

If you need a good belly-laugh; if you need to feel that in the chaos of the universe events still might turn out for the best, I recommend Susan Juby. Like popsicles on a hot day, she's just the thing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kiersten White is very funny

She has a great blog*, and this post was brilliantly hilarious. I think she totally pulls off the second person future narration!

(If you want to see second person narration done brilliantly, read Italo Calvino's amazing book, If on a winter's night a traveller. Go to the link and click on the Look Inside; it has most of the first chapter so you can get a feel for it. Calvino alternates between chapters in second person, in which you, the Reader, are the protagonist, and chapters which are the book you are trying to read. Except that there's a problem with the book, and you end up reading the first chapter of a number of different books, each with its own style. And as you try to solve the mystery of the defective book and get a story that you can actually finish, you meet the Other Reader, who joins you on your quest. It's a lot of fun, and it's an homage to books and the reading experience, so if you consider yourself a Reader, you should read it.)

(As a writing exercise I tried my hand at Calvino's technique and wrote a sci-fi novella that alternates between second and third person and parodies a number of different sci-fi/fantasy tropes. It's really bad but I had a lot of fun doing it!)

(I think I could do an entire novel in parentheses: I bet that hasn't been done before!)

*This is the first time I've thought of a use for twitter: obviously sending you to read someone else's blog isn't a blog entry, but I felt like telling people about Kiersten White's post, so I guess I could have tweeted it. If I had a twitter account.(Actually I think I do have a twitter account, but I only ever used it once to enter a contest to win a Robin McKinley book. (I didn't win.) I'm not sure I even know how to get to it, or what user name or password I might use to access it.)(I feel about Twitter the way I feel about the butterfly stroke in swimming: I'm quite happy not knowing how to do it.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Folk Keeper, by Franny Billingsley

Oh, how frustrating! I had a whole review of this book almost complete, and blogger lost it. It was a good review, too. I compared The Folk Keeper to Wolves of Willoughby Chase: old stone house in lonely setting, supernatural menace, original use of traditional folklore elements. The difference is the narrator: Corin/Corinna is fierce and single-minded and not very nice, and yet our sympathies are entirely with her. She disguises herself as a boy so that she can have the post of Folk Keeper at the orphanage: her job is to draw off the malice of the invisible Folk who live under the house. It says much about her character that she lies and schemes to get this dangerous yet important position. She thinks this is everything she wants in life, but then she is brought to Marblehaugh Park (the old stone house in the lonely setting), and she learns things about herself that she had never imagined. I have to quote from the review at because she says it so well: a proud, ferociously self-reliant girl who breaks out of her dark, cold, narrow world into one of joy, understanding, and even . . . But that's more of a spoiler than I'm prepared to give. (Don't cheat and go read the Amazon review!) 

I said lots of other clever things that I can't remember now, but here's my conclusion:

The plot is original but has the inevitable feeling of a folktale: the orphan finds a home; the child discoveres her true identity. Corinna's journey into herself is surprising, convincing and satisfying. I found The Folk Keeper atmospheric and suspenseful, and quite, quite unique. (I think I may not wait for our library to get Chime; I don't usually buy books before I read them, but I feel pretty confident about Franny Billingsley as an author.)

The Folk Keeper is a salad of wild greens and bitter herbs with a few curls of Grana Padano cheese and a very light, lemony dressing, served with artisan bread and fresh butter.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness

I'm finally done: I had three hours of watching my son at circus practice, and I brought along writing to do but I brought Monsters of Men as well, thinking maybe I'd just read for an hour and then I'd put it down. Yeah, right. I wasn't quite done when circus was over, and I was just about prepared to let son and carpooler sit there and wait while I read the last few chapters. (I didn't, though. I mustered self-control and waited until I got home.) Then I had to wait for a few days before I had anything to say about it besides "Woah. Oh my. Holy crap. Wow. Mmmglfarb blither blither."

Monsters of Men lived up to the other two. It was intense, there were hard choices made and people didn't usually make the right ones, there were significant surprises and devastating moments. The end was unexpected and gut-wrenching and satisfying. (More satisfying than Mockingjay, just for the record.) I'm not going to say anything more about the plot, because this is a series you do not want spoilers for.

Patrick Ness can write. These are amazing books. Should you read them? Yes, if you like dystopias and post-apocalyptic men-reduced-to-the-best-and-worst-they-can-be types of stories. (It's not post-apocalyptic, it's actually settlers-on-a-new-planet, but you get the same sense.) Yes, if you like page-turning, nail-biting suspense and can handle present-tense semi-stream-of-consciousness narration (which is one of the things that bothered a lot of reviewers, but I thought it worked. Made everything visceral.) Yes if you can take a fair bit of violence. Yes if you don't mind science-fictiony concepts that aren't really well-explained—Ness requires you to suspend disbelief and just accept the concept of Noise with only a minimal framework to understand it in. (I think the series is less science fiction and more parable: let's put humans in this scenario and see what happens to them. The scenario happens to be new planet, aliens, strange form of telepathy, but we're not that interested in the details; we just want to see what the people do. It's kind of Shakespearean that way.)

I think these are the kind of books that you either love or hate. I loved them. I'm curious to know what you think.

(And those covers: are they not the best covers ever? Awesome titles, too. Just overall general awesomeness all around.)

I don't have a food analogy because reading these wasn't like eating. It was more like injecting a drug (not that I would know what that's like!)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Letters from Rapunzel, by Sara Lewis Holmes

I love libraries. You can go and browse and find all kinds of interesting-looking books and you can take them all home with you. And then if you don't get around to reading them, or you start reading them but they aren't as interesting as they looked, you just take them back, and it doesn't cost anything! (Unless you take them back late, but I always consider library fines to be my contribution to a worthy cause.)

I especially like it when I've been browsing blogs and I come up with lists of interesting-looking books, and then I go to my library and they have them! That happened the other day with Letters From Rapunzel. I was miserably sick, and I was browsing blogs because it was all I had the energy to do, and I came across Sara Lewis Holmes' blog (which had two great poems for Poetry Friday). Then I got sick of being stuck inside on a beautiful day so I went to the library (at least I was outside between my house and the library) and they had a whole bunch of the books I had found on the blogs, including Letters From Rapunzel. Score! It's like winning the jackpot. Then I came home and flopped on the couch feeling miserable and read Letters From Rapunzel, which is a quick read and a great story and made me feel much better.

"Rapunzel" is stuck in after school Homework Club because her father is in the hospital with a serious bout of depression and her mother works. Signing her name as Rapunzel because she feels as though she is locked in a tower, she begins writing letters to someone she thinks is a friend of her father's, asking for help saving her father from the Evil Spell he's under. The entire story is told in letter form; even when she doesn't get a response she continues writing as she tries to make sense of her father's illness and her own problems fitting in and meeting everyone's expectations.

Funny, imaginative, and perceptive, Rapunzel is a wonderful narrator. She can't ever do a homework project the way her teachers want, and her letters often include her wacky assignments. She weaves fairy tales and poetry into her letters, which become a diary of self-discovery. (We know she is getting somewhere when she finally signs her real name: Cadence.) Giving up on getting rescued by her unknown correspondent, Cadence takes matters into her own hands, with funny and poignant results. The Happily Ever After she comes up with is not the one she wanted, but it's one she creates for herself.

You'll like this book if you like first-person quirky narrators and if you like playing with fairy tale conventions and if you believe in poetry. I found it sweet and light with a serious heart; I truly cared about Cadence and her family, and her story's resolution was realistic and satisfying. A perfect afternoon-stuck-on-the-couch book.

Letters from Rapunzel is a homemade doughnut (the yeast kind, not the cake kind) with apple jelly filling and powdered sugar on top.

(And yes, I'm reading the last Chaos Walking book, but it's really intense: lots more bad things are happening to the characters and I don't want more bad things to happen to them! So I'm interspersing it with rereading the Mortal Instruments series before starting The City of Fallen Angels (fourth book of a trilogy, wouldn't you know.)