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!)