Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

I'm jumping up and down screaming "aaarrrggggh!" and tearing my hair and banging my head against the wall. Book 2 lives up to Book 1, with a vengeance. (The library has Book 3, but I have taxes I have to do!)

A warning: if you thought The Hunger Games was too violent and depressing, DO NOT read these books. If you only like books where the good guys win, do not even pick these ones up. (That's not a spoiler: in these books there are no good guys. They're so morally complex you want to tear your hair out. But there's definitely a worser guy, whoo, boy, does this series have a villain!)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

I just finished it. Wow. That's all I have to say right now. Wow.

And don't dare begin the first book if you don't have the second one in your possession! (The library's closed tomorrow, arrrgghh!)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Canadian Book Week: My One Hundred Adventures, by Polly Horvath

I am remiss. I have discovered an omission. (You would think that I could say, "I am remiss, I have discovered a remission," but that doesn't work, does it. I also tried "I have committed an omission," and that doesn't work either, although I could commit the sin of omission, and then beg for a remission of my sin. (I could do a whole blog on English derivatives of the Latin mittere, to send, to put, to let go. All having to do with opening the hand. Omit, to let go downwards or drop. Remit, to send back. Remiss, to let go again, or slacken, thus both remiss: lax in duty and remission: forgiveness. Commit, to send with, to put with. Fascinating. (But probably only to me.)))

My omission? I find I have not reviewed a single Canadian book since I began this blog. How could I be so remiss? I think I shall have to commit to instituting Canadian Book Week on my blog: the third week of every month I will make a point of talking about the Canadian YA/Children's book scene. And to inaugurate Canadian Book Week, I will review the book I just finished reading: My One Hundred Adventures.

Polly Horvath is the author of Everything On A Waffle, a book in my list of top ten best titles ever. (There's another good blog idea: best book titles. Start collecting your favourites and I'll blog about that soon.) Horvath is off-beat, off-the-wall, out-there. If you look up "quirky" in the dictionary, she'll be the definition. But she also has the melancholy soul of a poet. She writes very funny stories of children growing out of their childhood illusions and coming to understand that the world is a more difficult place than they might have thought.

My One Hundred Adventures might be her most poetic book yet.
It is the beginning of July and we have two months to live out the long, nurturing days, watching the geese and the saltwater swans and the tides as they are today, slipping out, out, out as the moon pulls the other three seasons far away wherever it takes things. . . . Out past my childhood, out past the ghosts, out past the breakwater of the stars.
Jane is the daughter of a poet and an unknown father. Secretly she believes "that I was conceived in the depths of a moonlit sea by tides and eddies and swirls of sea life and the longing of a poet to be a mother." This is one of the myths that gets turned on its head over the summer.

Jane begins the summer wanting adventures.
As if itchy and out-grown, my soul is twisting about my body, wanting something more to do this summer than the usual wading in the shallows and reading and building castles on the shore. I want something I know not what, which is what adventures are about.
And adventures she gets, although none of them are quite what she expected, from Mrs. Park's thrombosis to the sticky Gourd children to the psychic who may be a thief but may still have predicted truly. As the summer is measured out in ripening berries, Jane encounters the inexplicable behaviour of adults and the surprising consequences of trying to do right. She is let down and disillusioned, but the new world she discovers has its own wonders. Ultimately she learns that "all our lives are mundane but all our lives are also poetry."

If it were all lyrical prose and dawning self-awareness I'm not sure I would recommend the book, as beautiful as some of the passages are. But it's also really, really funny. Some of the wit is almost slapstick, and some of it is sly and dry, and some is just funny because it's so weird. Dropping Bibles out of balloons. Looking for poodle portals. Fruitless hats. It's a book to make you laugh and wince, often at the same time.

This is a great summer beach read--it will take you to a summer beach even if you're landlocked in Saskatchewan in December, it's so evocative. My One Hundred Adventures is definitely fresh buttermilk biscuits, hot from the oven, with homemade jam, eaten on the porch looking out at the sea.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A very long post about Lois McMaster Bujold

The short version: go read her books.

I spent a week skiing at Sun Peaks for Spring Break: a lot of enforced down-time, and I didn't bring enough books to read. (Oh, horror!) So I ended up rereading a lot of what was on my iPod. That includes the majority of the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I have to say, I love this woman! And I really love her character, Miles Vorkosigan. So, even though it's not YA*, I'm going to devote a post to convincing you to try some Bujold.

First off, you have to know the range of offerings in the Bujold canon. You could start with her most recent fantasy, a 4-book series set in an alternate world that feels American-frontier-ish: The Sharing Knife. It has unique bad guys, (malices that suck the life force from everything around them and gain power and intelligence depending on what life happens to be nearby), fascinating magic (malices can only be destroyed with knives made from the bones of Patrollers who willingly donate them), and a love story (a really good, realistic one).

Or, try her earlier fantasy--three independent books set in a land inspired by Spain in the 15th C. The Curse of Chalion is an amazing book; just reading the plot summary won't tell you nearly enough about it. The character of Cazaril is one of the most complex and most noble fictional people I've ever met. Then Paladin of Souls gives us another character who also seems nothing at first and then rises to unimaginable heights of love and self-sacrifice to save her world. (I think I'll reread those two next.)

The rest of her books are science fiction, perhaps best described as space opera. Character is where Bujold shines, and with Miles Vorkosigan, she has created a brilliantly unique character she can spin endless tales about, along with a wonderful universe in which he can get himself into all kinds of trouble. (The Bujold canon link lists all the Vorkosigan books in helpful chronological order.)

The first books in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar (sometimes published together as Cordelia's Honor), tell the story of Miles' parents--they meet as enemies in the middle of an interplanetary war. (I recommended the books to my father and he emailed me back later: "You never told me it was a love story!")(I don't think he read far enough to get to the scene with the head in a shopping bag--I think that might have redeemed it for him.)

Miles Vorkosigan suffers from the results of the civil war that is the plot of Barrayar: *** very minor spoiler to Barrayar in yellow here***Crippled because his mother was exposed to a toxin during pregnancy, ***okay you're safe now*** he has physical and psychological burdens that would crush anyone else. But Miles is a genius, and he's manic, and he is bound and determined to prove that he is more capable than anyone else (and to live up to his father's towering reputation). So he gets himself into ridiculous situations that only genius and manic determination can get him out of, and in the process he saves the planet, or the wormhole nexus, or the emperor, or his father's honour, or all of the above. He drags/manipulates/coerces/
shanghai's a whole cast of characters--each with their own motivations and burdens--along on his schemes, and one and all they are transformed by the Miles effect into better, greater versions of themselves.
Miles: I may be completely off-base and panicking prematurely.
Ivan: I don't think so. I think you're panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I've been panicking for days. 
Miles is staunchly loyal but has a problem with insubordination; overweeningly self-confident but convinced he will never live up to his grandfather's expectations; tactically ruthless but always painfully aware of the cost of his victories. Bujold apparently patterned the Vorkosigan series after C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series (is that why she gave him such a ridiculous last name?), and Miles "Admiral Naismith" Lord Vorkosigan is a worthy successor to Hornblower. (I highly recommend the Hornblower books, by the way.)(And the movies: Ioan Gruffudd being noble. Yum.)

Some of the Vorkosigan books are written as straight-up comedy (In A Civil Campaign, Regency romance meets the Three Stooges, with butter bugs); others are considerably more serious (Memory brought me to tears), but they all have moments of both great humour and dramatic depth. Bujold doesn't do throwaway characters or plot for the sake of plot, nor are her settings ever stock sci-fi backgrounds: her stories are always the intersections of well-rounded people with well-developed societies/circumstances.  Her universe is huge and varied, with all kinds of intriguing societal variations. I would not call her work hard-core sci-fi, because technology is not the main character, (her science may not be rigorous, but it is plausible: no faster-than-light travel or transporters); but she definitely explores the effects of technology on societies and individuals, and, in the best sci-fi tradition, her future empires are extrapolated commentary on our current world.

Okay, now I sound like I'm writing a thesis on Bujold. Just ignore my babblings and go see what your library has. You could start the Vorkosigan series at a few different places, depending on how important it is for you to read things in the order they happened. Each book has a self-contained plot, and she's very good at giving you whatever info you need to understand the current book. Starting with Shards of Honour gives you everything in order; starting with Warrior's Apprentice introduces you to Miles. Komarr is another place to jump into things, particularly if you like romance; it's told from a new character's point of view, so it works as an intro to Miles.** Note that her plots are all like a roller coaster ride: she starts slow, as she introduces the characters and situation, and then when everything gets set in motion you just have to hang on for the ride!

*As far as appropriateness for a YA audience goes, I don't have a problem recommending most of her books. There is a fair bit of violence and some sex, none of it graphic, though some of the sexual options she mentions might be a tad eye-opening for a younger audience (there are genetically engineered hermaphrodites in her future, for example). The books I would hesitate before recommending are Shards of Honour and Mirror Dance: both have disturbing scenes of sexual torture--again, not graphic, but just the idea of it is disturbing.

**Just to confuse you further, all the Miles books are also available in various novel collections (all with "Miles" in the title). If your library doesn't seem to have the book you're looking for, make sure to check these. When in doubt, refer to the Bujold canon link.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pathfinder and The Lost Gate, by Orson Scott Card

I'm still catching up on reviews of my Hawaii reading. (I started this review more than a month ago, but then I got distracted and then I sort of forgot about it.) Remember I said four of the books I read in Hawaii were the first books of series? Well two of them were from the same author; Orson Scott Card is so ridiculously prolific that he published two books last year, both of them first books in entirely different series. (If he can write two books a year, why can't they be books I and II of one series?)(And how on earth does he keep the plots all in his head??)

Orson Scott Card is pretty famous, so he doesn't fit the Dead Houseplants mandate, but I figured the YA fantasy audience may not be so familiar to him, since most of his work is adult sci-fi. He's an accomplished storyteller with an amazing imagination; I always feel in good hands when I begin one of his stories, and he's full of mind-bending concepts and plot-twists. If you haven't read Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, I highly recommend them.

Pathfinder starts out sounding like fantasy: Rigg has the unusual ability of seeing paths in the air where living things have passed. This makes him an excellent hunter, and trapping for furs in the wilderness is the life he's always known. Then a life-or-death situation makes him discover a new aspect to his ability and sends him on a journey.

But just when we're settling in for the classic fantasy journey of discovery, there's a chapter from the point of view of a character in a spaceship, about to make the first-ever jump into a fold in space-time. It's a strange juxtaposition, but it's fascinating to follow the two plot lines and slowly figure out how they're connected. Rigg travels from the edge to the centre of his civilization, getting involved in plots and politics and figuring out who he really is and what this ability of his can accomplish. The story in the spaceship has less action and takes up less time, but it's full of crazy ideas from physics that end up being essential to understanding Rigg and his world. The plot comes to a satisfying end but it's clear the story isn't over; I am very curious to find out what happens next.

The Lost Gate is definitely fantasy, except that the magical people (who were the gods in ancient mythology) "gated" to Earth from another planet, Westil. (So far it seems irrelevant that it's another planet rather than another "world," but you never know with Card.) The story is set in modern times, when the descendants of those first Westilians have lost most of their powers because the last gatemage closed the Great Gate between Earth and Westil.
The North family lived on a compound in a sheltered valley in western Virginia, and most of them never went to town, for it was a matter of some shame that gods should now be forced to buy supplies and sell crops just like common people.

Danny North is a typical fantasy hero: born into a family of mages but with no apparent power of his own. Of course, he ends up having the most feared and coveted power of them all (you can guess, but I'm not going to give it away), and he has to run away from his family to stop them from killing him or exploiting him. In the meantime, someone long asleep on Westil is awakened. Dah dah dah dom. Danny goes through a bit of an anti-hero journey as he tries to figure out how to use his power and stay alive, and the mysterious character of Wad gets caught up in royal politics on Westil.

Of the two books, I think I liked Pathfinder best, but that may be because I read it first. When I picked up The Lost Gate what I really wanted was more about Rigg and his planet instead of absorbing a whole nother cosmology. The planet of Westil is complex and interesting and I wasn't paying quite enough attention to it.  I have mixed feelings about Danny and Rigg as main characters: Rigg is a more appealing person, because of his confidence, whereas Danny seems almost whiney, but I think Danny has more long-term potential; it's amusing to watch Rigg learn to manipulate the people around him, but after a while his arrogant know-it-allness becomes annoying.

I still recommend both books: Pathfinder if you cross over easily between sci-fi and fantasy, and The Lost Gate if you want more magic. But you might want to wait and see which sequel is going to come out first before you decide!

(I'll have to wait until I reread them to make a food analogy; it's been too long and I've lost their flavour.)