Monday, December 16, 2013

MMGM: A trip to Wales

Entering read-a-thons is probably not a good idea for me. It's not like I need any more encouragement to spend all my waking hours with my nose in a book!

I've now finished the five books of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence (for the umpteenth time, I might add), and I can confidently recommend them to anyone with an interest in High Magic and the ancient battle between Light and Dark. If you like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Philip Pullman, Madeleine L'Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin--Susan Cooper stands right up there with them, weaving bits of Welsh and Arthurian myth with her own version of the eternal struggle, all planted firmly in real landscapes of the British Isles. (My last post has more descriptions of the five books of the series.)

I had the additional fun on this read-through of using Google Earth to trace the protagonists' journeys through Wales. Search for Aberdovey, Wales, when you're reading Silver on the Tree, for example, and you can find the Bearded Lake on the hillside above it (follow Panorama Walk). You can even use Streetview to see the view of Happy Valley that Jane, Simon and Barnaby saw, and get some images of the estuary at the mouth of the river, where Will and Bran come back from the Lost Land.

I also have some pictures from my own trip to Wales several years ago (which unfortunately wasn't long enough for me to visit all the places Cooper mentions). There are three pics in my previous post, and here are two more. This is Llyn Mwyngil, the 'pleasant lake' where the Sleepers lie in The Grey King. The first picture is looking across the lake at the slopes of Cader Idris; Will Stanton stood somewhere up there to play the harp that woke the Sleepers. The second picture is looking down the lake toward Tal-y-Lyn pass (green slopes of Cader Idris on the left)(and I'm sure that's one of the Light's swans):

If you're enamoured of all things Welsh, you can round out your reading experience with another classic kids' fantasy series: Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Based on the tales of the Mabinogion, the five short novels tell the story of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and his motley group of friends who must fight against Arawn, Lord of Death. I adored these books when I was a kid. Taran is one of the most accessible epic heroes: he tries so hard and falls flat on his face so often! (I think I found him a true kindred spirit.) I haven't reread these in a while; think they might be my next readathon.

If the Hobbit movie has got you in an epic fantasy mood, Cooper and Alexander are some of the originals of the genre. (I find it funny that people say Alexander was ripping off Tolkien: truth is they were both ripping off mythology!)

For more great Middle-grade picks, check out Shannon Messenger's slate of marvelous bloggers.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Dark Is Rising 40th Anniversary Readathon

Well, this one is a no-brainer for me! Thanks to Kristen over at We Be Reading for pointing me toward Danny Whittaker's Readathon. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence is an old favourite. I've reread it multiple times, but it's been a few years. (40th anniversary, huh? I'm not going to say that I'm starting to feel old, but . . .)

I'm a few days late for the start, but I'm sure I can catch up! If any of you have missed out on this seminal fantasy series, now's a great time to amend that distressing gap in your reading history. (There are a number of different editions, and I can't say I love any of the covers, but I have a particular fondness for the Penguin Over Sea, Under Stone and the Collier Greenwich, illustrated below. I think they captured Merriman and the Greenwitch particularly well.)

First, you'll meet Simon, Jane, and Barnaby Drew, children on vacation in a Cornwall village with their Great Uncle Merriman Lyon. They discover an old map in the attic, and it soon becomes apparent that this map leads to something of great importance, if they can only decipher it . . . That's Over Sea, Under Stone.

Then in The Dark is Rising you'll meet Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son. And you'll find out who Merriman Lyon really is.

Don't worry, the Drew children come back in the third book, Greenwitch, and show up for the climax of the battle between Light and Dark in Silver on the Tree, along with the mysterious boy Bran, whom Will meets in The Grey King. There may or may not be references to King Arthur, here and there about the series, and lots of real places in Britain and Wales with real historical or mythical associations.

Here, for example, is Cader Idris, home of the Grey King:

And nestled at its feet (you can sort of see the lake in the picture above, if you look closely) is Llyn Cau:

And this is the breath of the Grey King: a sudden fog rushing up the mountainside. She did not make this up:

When I found out these were real places, I rearranged my trip to Wales so that I could hike up and take these photos. Just for you!

Now you have to go read the books!

(Okay, I hadn't actually started blogging when I went to Wales. So maybe I didn't take the pictures just for you. But now you have them! So you still have to read the books.)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Northward to the Moon, by Polly Horvath

I've been a Polly Horvath fan since I picked up Everything on a Waffle purely for its title and fell in love with her quirky characters, deadpan humour and off-the-wall philosophy. Northward to the Moon is a sequel to My One Hundred Adventures (my review here).  Adventures is a complete story unto itself, but now we get to find out what happened next to Jane and her unusual family.

Jane's dreamy poet of a mother has never identified the fathers of her four children; she may not even know who they are; but Ned is a definite possibility for at least one of them, and at the end of My One Hundred Adventures he has decided to take responsibility for the family. They move to Saskatchewan where Ned takes up a position teaching French. At the beginning of Northward to the Moon we learn:
Our family lasted almost one year in Saskatchewan. It took the town that long to figure out that Ned didn't speak any French.
Jane is thrilled to be on the road again seeking adventures. Ned takes her and her mother and siblings along a trail of clues from Ned's past to northern BC, Las Vegas and a horse ranch in Nevada.
It occurs to me how Ned and I wanted to be outlaws and here we are, in the American West, in the high desert. We are escaping who knows what with a bunch of money from who knows where. Do things happen because you want them to? Can you create your life and adventures by imagining them?
Ned ends up with a bag of possibly ill-gotten cash from his brother that he doesn't know what to do with. He is reunited with his mother and sisters and gets stuck caring for his mother when she gets injured. Jane is tangled up in these adult affairs and yet powerless to affect them. She gets a crush on a ranch hand and tries to figure out why her sister is so depressed. She thinks adventure and excitement are everything she wants from life, but maybe it would be nice just to go home.

Jane as the innocent narrator has a hilariously accurate perception of the adults around her. I found myself laughing with Jane at the same time as I felt horrified by how irresponsible everyone was. Northward to the Moon is more bittersweet than One Hundred Adventures: it's an elegy about families and how they fail. It's also about how they succeed despite all the ways they fail. Jane has a resilient spirit, and people do come through for each other. I found this book less funny and more troubling than the first one, but I never wanted to put it down. And I really, really hope there is a sequel.

For fans of Sharon Creech, Katherine Paterson and Kit Pearson. Cornbread with maple syrup. Or with baked beans. Or both.

For more Middle-Grade reads, check out Shannon Messenger's great weekly meme, Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. And for more Canadian books, head over to John Mutford's blog.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Night of Cake and Puppets, by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor wrote a novella called Night of Cake and Puppets. Best. Title. Ever. I am so stoked!

It's about Zuzana and Mik. I'm jumping up and down squealing. (For those of you not already Laini Taylor fans (and why aren't you? huh? really?), these are characters from her Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. This novella takes place in the middle of the first book.)

I can download it right now. I love the internet. I'll be back.

"I am a rabid fairy. I am a carnivorous plant. I am Zuzana."

"I eat vengeance with a spoon like it's honey."

"Life doesn't need magic to be magical."

I can't quote anymore because I just want to quote the whole thing and that would be spoilery.

Aieeeeeeee! Okay. All love stories ever written are now lame and boring and passionless as blanc mange. No romance will ever, ever, ever measure up to Night of Cake and Puppets. And wow, does this woman know how to ki . . . nope, spoilers!

I think the long short story/short novella is Laini Taylor's best medium. Don't get me wrong: her novels are great. But there's all that plot and stuff to distract you from her sentences, and her sentences are exquisite. And epic action and adventure are fine, but what she's best at is moments. Pure, magical, intense, perfect moments of discovery, encounter, twist of heart. She distills the revelations we all long for into poetry of scene and dialog that leave you breathless with anticipation and delight. You didn't know the world could be like that but she creates it for you before your eyes.

I want to go to Prague, right now.

I'm going to reread the story.

"A small, whole Sacher torte, its chocolate so dark it looks black."


Friday, November 22, 2013

Shadows, by Robin McKinley

A new Robin McKinley! Break out the chocolate and get comfy!

If you're familiar with Robin McKinley from her earlier books, like Beauty, or The Blue Sword, and think of her as the queen of YA fairy-tale/high fantasy, you may not know what to make of her more recent work. There's Sunshine: awesomely scary vampires and an unusually talented coffeehouse baker (gives Death by Chocolate a whole other meaning), in a world that's sort of like ours but not. So, kind of urban fantasy/paranormal, but not really. Then there's Dragonhaven, with dragons, but real ones, in a reserve, where park rangers collect dragon poop and orphaned baby dragons are a bit of a problem to care for. So, not your typical dragon story at all. Pegasus is closer to vintage McKinley, with a princess and a flying horse and a world reminiscent of Damar. (Still waiting eagerly for Pegasus II, which is coming.)

The only thing you can definitively say about McKinley is that she's incredibly imaginative and original, and whatever world she creates she drags you into it and makes you never want to leave.

Which brings us to Shadows. I'm not sure this is a world I'd like to visit, because it's pretty scary. It's most similar to Sunshine (Sunshine's world is scary too: it's the coffeehouse I wish were real): it looks a lot like our modern world, but with weird stuff. Like cohesion breaks: rips in reality that pop up occasionally and if you get too close you disappear forever. But it's okay, the army has cobey units with all sorts of scientific devices to deal with them. Move along now, folks, nothing to see here. In Newworld science can deal with everything; it's not like Oldworld with all those suspicious, creepy magic-users; there's gene-splicing to make sure no one in Newworld has magic anymore.  And if anyone wants to immigrate, they'd better have left their magic behind. There are monitoring devices at the border to make sure.

So when Maggie's mom remarries a guy with an Oldworld accent, and there's something weird about Val (and it's not just his fashion sense), Maggie is seriously freaked out. Val's shadow has too many legs. In fact, he has too many shadows. With legs. Or possibly tentacles. "Have you ever thought about the darkness between a row of books and the top of the shelf? Of course not. You don't, until it goes all loopy, and little things like legs or tails or tongues hang down over the spines."

Shadows is the spookiest book McKinley has written, and she's just as good at creating spooky as she is at heroic and magical. The version of magic in Shadows is completely different from any other kind of magic I've ever read about--it's so interesting. I love that origami is magic. And algebra (or, at least, algebra books). And animals: more than anything else I think Shadows is a paeon of praise for dogs and other loyal animals who take care of their humans no matter the cost to themselves. The gruuaa are wonderful. (Not going to tell you what they are!)

There are also a couple of seriously hot guys and a great best friend with a Mammothmobile (the better to fit all the dogs). Quite a bit of humour, a lot of it dog-related (which you'll be familiar with if you read McKinley's blog). And a lot of possibilities for sequels, not that it will do any good to hint about it. (McKinley's quite insistent she can't write the stories she wants to write, only the ones she's given. And she hasn't yet been given any Damar sequels, despite all of our begging.)

If your reality could use a little warping, I highly recommend the particular warped version of it in Shadows.

This one has to be caterpillar rolls from your favourite sushi place (it's okay if you don't like raw fish: caterpillar rolls have cooked crabmeat. And avocado. But if you really don't like sushi, then you can have the beef teriyaki. So long as it's really good, and comes on one of those sizzling hot cast iron trays.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Wells Bequest, by Polly Shulman

I read Polly Shulman's The Grimm Legacy a while back and intended to blog about it but never got around to it. Shame on me. When I found out about The Wells Bequest, I got really excited: another chance to visit the New York Circulating Material Repository!

This is one of those fantasy locations, like Hogswarts, Narnia, and the Night Circus, that I wish with every fibre of my being were real. What is the New York Circulating Material Repository? Shulman starts with New York--inherently cool. Adds a library--also inherently cool, and multiplied by the New York factor already gives me shivers. Then Shulman makes it a place where you don't borrow books, you borrow objects: like a niddy noddy, or a snarling iron, or a krummhorn. Would you not already give up all your desserts for a year just to go to New York and see this place? But in Shulman's library you can also borrow more unrealistic things: a Mars rover, for example, or an automaton built by Leonardo daVinci. And Shulman makes everything exquisitely tactile and sensual--smells, textures, sounds--so you believe everything is absolutely real.

Then there's the Grimm Legacy. Items collected by the library that are right out of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Seven league boots. Magic mirrors. Flying carpets. Are you ready to give up your firstborn child yet? (You probably won't have to--they're more likely to take your sense of humour or your patience as collateral.)

Three guesses what's included in the Wells Bequest (and the first two don't count). (That's Wells as in H.G. Wells, in case you were wondering.) Yes, there's a time machine; yes it works; yes, the characters get to use it. And they visit New York in the past and meet Tesla and Mark Twain and prevent someone from getting their hands on a . . . (Leo just put his hand on my mouth to stop me from giving too much away.)

The setting for me is so compelling I almost don't need a plot, but Shulman has a great one anyway, fast -paced and exciting with lots of humour and a bit of romance. And I love the characters. Leo is super smart but not nearly as smart as the rest of his family. Jaya is entitled, irrepressible and impulsive and welcomes Leo into her magical world. It's not a character-driven novel by any means, but I enjoyed spending time with them. What's really refreshing is the way Shulman's characters reflect the actual ethnic make-up of New York (you don't notice how relentlessly white most YA characters are until you read a book where they aren't).

The Wells Legacy is great fun for anyone, but particularly for anyone who loves New York and loves classic science fiction and would give anything to visit a place where everything from all the old stories actually exists.

Warm pretzels from a street-side vendor in New York, with mustard.

For more Marvelous Middle-Grade reads, check out the lovely Shannon Messenger's blog every Monday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Maggie Stiefvater, Maureen Johnson, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, oh my!

I have to squee a little about yesterday's Vancouver Writers Festival events.

In the morning I got to see Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Raven Boys and Dream Thieves and Scorpio Races, all of which are brilliant and I love them.

And Maggie was funny and smart and down-to-earth and incredibly likeable. And she owns miniature silky fainting goats. (I thought maybe she was making them up, but when I got home I googled them. And apparently they exist!)

Maggie Stiefvater graffiti-ed my books!

Then in the afternoon I went to see Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a local author and a friend of mine, who has an anthology of magic-realism/fantasy/weird short stories set in Mexico, very intriguing and cool. And she was paired with Maureen Johnson, whose name didn't ring a bell, but turns out I had read her book 13 Little Blue Envelopes, and I remember it grabbed me with its characters and its quirky plot. She just released the second book of a series about ghost-hunting police in London, so she and Silvia were there to talk about spooky stuff.

I've already read the first book and it's great!

Silvia had all kinds of interesting things to say about zombies and vampires (vampires as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease--why has no one else thought of that?!) and crazy stuff that goes on in Mexico. And Maureen told us she decided to write about ghosts because she really hates ghost tours and ghost-hunter tv shows, so of course writing a ghost book was the logical response. And they were both entertaining and intelligent and it was a great discussion.

So when I heard that Maggie and Maureen were together in an event in the evening, and there were still tickets left, I abandoned my family and went back to Granville Island, where I got to hear the most random, quirky, funny, completely unscripted panel discussion ever. (Shannon Ozirny, the moderator, literally threw away her script.)

Maureen talked about adopting a puppy from the rescue society--and we all learned that you don't mess with Maureen. She will find you. Maggie talked about racing cars (which she does)(race cars, I mean) and doing her best to get pulled over at the border (and succeeding). Maggie, by the way, owns a Mitsubishi Razer--you'll know why that's cool when you've read The Dream Thieves--and she painted a knife on the side of it! (Also from Dream Thieves, and way, way cool!) Maureen started a brilliant internet phenomenon called Coverflip (see the photos at the end of the Huffington Post article) that highlights how differently male and female authors are treated (and if you look at the covers for Name of the Star, you can totally see what she's getting at). Maggie told hilarious stories about her fainting goats. (One audience question was, "do you ever run out of ideas?" and I thought: how can she run out of ideas? she has fainting goats!)(Her answer was no, except once when she was writing a short story every month for a blog.)

Did I mention that she painted this herself?
And then, she let her fans graffiti all over it!

If you thought these were all different books by different authors, which one would you think was by a guy?

The panel wrapped up with this amazing interaction (I may not have gotten it exactly right, but this is the general gist of it):

Audience question: what do you do if you've written a first draft and when you read it it seems really cheesy?

Maggie: I think what you're really asking about is self-doubt, and how do you deal with it. Turns to Maureen. Do you ever feel self-doubt?

Maureen: Yes.

Maggie: Tilts head at Maureen, waits for more. 

Maureen: Looks innocent.

Maggie: Keeps waiting.

Maureen: What? You asked a question. I answered.

Maggie: Keeps looking at Maureen.

Maureen: Gives in. All writers feel like they are terrible. And also that they are very bad. And their work is a war crime. It causes cancer. Goes on a bit in this vein.

Maggie: Interrupts her. And they're not always wrong.

Maureen: Glares in astonishment at Maggie.

Maggie: We all write crappy stuff. I guarantee, Maureen and I have written thousands of terrible words. The thing is, you take this war crime, and you say, "I can work with this. I can make it better."

Maureen: In a throaty, gangster voice.  I'm gonna spin this shit into gold.

Brilliant words from two brilliant writers. And I was there.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More Than This, by Patrick Ness

Mostly, I love the way all my books (too many, not enough) bring me peace just by standing at attention along my bookshelves.

That's a quotation from Patrick Ness, taken from an article he wrote in The Guardian decrying terrible book covers. Which I thought was particularly apropriate, since I bought the hardcover version of More Than This precisely because the cover was so arresting. (The doorway is a hole in the cover. Very cool effect.) I thought I would like to have this book standing at attention on my shelves.

And I wanted to read it. Ness is an intense writer (you can tell by my incoherent reviews of his Chaos Walking trilogy). He's also thoughtful and intelligent. I knew this book wouldn't be boring; I knew it would leave me reeling a bit at the end; I knew it would make me think. I wasn't wrong.

Here's my review from Goodreads:

I'm torn between wanting to strangle Patrick Ness and doing the Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" thing. If you're a budding writer and you want to understand the concept of pacing, read any of Patrick Ness's books. The guy knows how to string you along with just enough ridiculous mystery and tension until you're almost ready to throw the book across the room but you have to turn the page first to see what happens next.

More Than This is sort of half-way between Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls (my review here): more philosophical than the first, more action than the second. Some people are going to hate it for not matching their expectations. Don't have any expectations when you go into this. That's one of the points of the whole thing. It's a meta reading experience: the experience you have as the reader is an essential part of the novel itself. (That tension and frustration and wanting to strangle Ness? Definitely an intentional part of the experience.)(Connie Willis is another author who does the same thing.) So don't spoil yourself by reading spoilery reviews. You want to have no idea what's going on; you want to discover it along with Seth. Every time you think you've figured it out, you'll find it's more than you thought it was.

More Than This is a taco salad: is it a salad? Is it a taco? Is it some strange third thing with everything good about both that's somehow more than the sum of its parts? At some point you have to give up and just enjoy its crunchy goodness.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Steifvater

So, it turns out the Maggie Steifvater event is next week. Still excitedly anticipating hearing her speak! In the meantime, I can review The Dream Thieves, which I bought in hardcover along with The Raven Boys, because they're quite beautiful.

I re-read The Raven Boys before starting Dream Thieves, and let me tell you, it's an entirely different book when you read it knowing what happens at the end! Wonderful, getting all the things you missed the first time around (wondering how on earth you missed them when it's so blatantly obvious what's going on!) (My Goodreads review of it is here. It definitely gets 5 stars on the reread.)

Man, I love Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, Noah. The most interesting characters are always the wounded ones, the scarred ones, the ones with baggage. Does Steifvater ever know how to give her characters pain!

Dream Thieves is about Ronan. (Yay!) We learn more about his past, his fraught relationship with his brother, his inheritance from his father. His magical power is pretty cool and scary. The relationships amongst the friends get more complicated. The plot thickens in all dimensions. And there are two new totally awesome antagonists (I tried to think of a more intellectual way to say 'totally awesome' but really I just want to squee about them.) I love the Gray Man! (You know, in the way you love terrible bad guys because they're so good at being terrible.)

The Raven Cycle so far is tense and juicy and full of conflict, and have I mentioned the character development? The Dream Thieves is a great second book: it has its own plot arc, so it doesn't just feel like "and the characters kept doing stuff until the third book happened"; but it still tantalizes you with developments that you need to know more about. I anxiously await the third book in the cycle (wonder if that word means it's more than a trilogy?).

Slow-cooked beef and mushroom stew with red wine and caramelized onions: rich and savoury with layers of all the flavours, sweet, tangy, salty, bitter, umami. Something you can really get your teeth into.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sequels I'm Excited About

While we all wait for Sherlock Season 3 and the new Doctor Who, it's time for fall book releases, so there are lots of things to get excited about. Even more exciting are the sequels I didn't notice have already been released, so I don't even have to wait!

And, even more exciting, I'm going to see Maggie Steifvater tomorrow at the Vancouver Writer's Fest!

Maggie Steifvater: The Dream Thieves, sequel to The Raven Boys (review here)
Sarah Rees Brennan: Untold, sequel to Unspoken
Rae Carson: The Bitter Kingdom, Girl of Fire and Thorns Book 3 (quick review here) She's got some stories and a novella to round out the series as well.
Elizabeth Wein: Rose Under Fire, companion novel to Code Name Verity (review here)

And these aren't sequels, but are new books by authors I love, so pretty exciting too:

Holly Black: Doll Bones
Anne Ursu: The Real Boy
Robin McKinley: Shadows
Patrick Ness: More Than This

Monday, October 7, 2013

Wild Things, by Clay Carmichael

From my Goodreads review: I'm a sucker for stories about orphans who go live with an eccentric and/or curmudgeonly distant relation/foster parent and both parties soften their hearts and learn to trust each other. Anne of Green Gables was possibly the first (though I think Dickens probably invented the genre), and The Great Gilly Hopkins is another classic.

Wild Things is a particularly good rendition of exactly that plot line: when Zoe's mentally unstable mother commits suicide, she is sent to live with her paternal uncle Henry, a cardiologist-turned-sculptor who withdrew from the world when his wife died. There's a cat who Zoe slowly tames, a wild boy who lives in the forest with an albino deer, and various small-town characters, both nice and not-so-nice, to add interesting plot complications. But the essential story of Zoe and Henry learning to open their scarred hearts to one another is colorful and touching and beautifully written.

The cat is a particularly appealing character who gets to narrate little snippets between the chapters. I also loved the setting, which is lovingly and vividly rendered.

Wild Things is like homemade apple pie with a sort-of messy-looking crust that's the flakiest you've ever tasted.

For more great middle-grade reads, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George

I'm always up for another fairy tale retelling, and the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been one of my favourites. Maybe it's the little details, like the worn out slippers, or the snap of a branch that almost gives away the invisible soldier. Maybe it's the old soldier himself, such a departure from typical fairy-tale heroes, and the youngest princess who is perceptive enough to recognize his value.

In Princess of the Midnight Ball, Jessica Day George takes everything I like about this fairy tale and makes it better! Galen, the soldier, is completely swoon-worthy. He's not so old, but he started young so he has lots of soldierly experience and the world-weariness that comes of it. He's capable, but humble, but stands up for himself. He's funny. And he knits! (George points out in an afterword that knitting used to be an exclusively male activity: who knew?!)

The princesses in this version of the story have a realistic age range from seventeen to seven years old, so we get some nice family dynamics, and it's Rose, the oldest, who has the burden of dealing with all her sisters and the curse they are under. So it's Rose that Galen feels impelled to cheer up, and it's Rose he's willing to risk his life for to solve the mystery that's tearing the kingdom apart.

Great characters, intriguing explanation for the dancing, some nice plot twists thrown in to up the stakes--a thoroughly satisfying read. I'm going to look for the next two Princess books from George.

Like chewy homemade condensed-milk caramels: sweet but with substance.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf, by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

I'm going to count this book as middle-grade, because it's not really for younger readers. Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf is halfway between a picture book and a graphic novel. You could read it to a child (not a very young one: there's a pretty scary bit); you could also study it in a literature class. It's part parable, part satire, part folk tale, and it's quite beautiful. Dave McKean's illustrations are perfect. I got it from the library, but I want to own it. Isn't it a gorgeous cover?

What if the world wasn't quite finished? What if three kids notice that some things seem to be missing: what would they decide to create? 

David Almond is an interesting and disquieting children's author. I don't always like his books; I'm not sure I like to see the side of human nature he sees. But this book veers more toward the sweet of bittersweet:  still edgy but maybe a bit more hopeful. (Or maybe that's just me.) 

I have no idea how to sum it up: a funny cautionary tale about the power of creation; a sweet meditation on the importance of imagination; a scary adventure into the psyche of children. If you liked Gaiman/McKean's The Wolves in the Walls, if you like Shaun Tan, you will very much enjoy this. And middle-grade readers I think will simply enjoy the story of three kids and what they create and what happens next.

This is just like the Honey Ginger Plum scones I just invented: familiar, yet original, sweet, but with a bite.

For this week's round up of great Middle-Grade reads, go no further than Shannon Messenger's excellent blog.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I do occasionally read non-fiction. I picked up this book on a random library browse (it was on the librarians' recommendation shelf), started reading it that afternoon, and immediately wanted to write down all the wonderful quotations I wanted to remember. I could use random scraps of paper that I would later lose, or a word doc that would get forgotten in my Documents folder, or I could put them all in a blog post that would be easy to find, and also make it easy to share.

So I'll break with my blog mandate (I can do that; it's my blog!) and use this post to share direct quotations from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It's a really long post; if you're interested enough to get to the end you will have made it through the entire book with me! From now on all words are Rabbi Sacks'; bold is my highlighting.

Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as subjects. Science practises detachment. Religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. (p. 6)

Love, trust, family, community, giving as integral to living, study as a scared task, argument as a sacred duty, forgiveness, atonement, gratitude, prayer: these things work whether you believe in them or not. (p. 15)

I never understood why it should be considered more courageous to despair than to hope. Freud said that religious faith was the comforting illusion that there is a father figure. A religious believer might say that atheism is the comforting illusion that there is no father figure. ... Why should one be considered escapist and not the other? Why should God's call to responsibility be considered an easy option? (p. 17)

[For "wisdom" read "science" and for "Torah" read "religion"]: Wisdom tells us how the world is. Torah tells us how the world ought to be. Wisdom is about nature. Torah is about will. It is about human freedom and choice and the way we are called on to behave. Wisdom is about the world God makes. Torah is about the world God calls on us to make, honouring others as bearers of God's image, exercising our freedom in such a way as not to rob others of theirs. (p. 70-71)

Religious knowledge as understood by the Hebrew bible is not to be construed on the model of philosophy and science, both left-brain activities. God is to be found in relationship, and in the meanings we construct when, out of our experience of the presence of God in our lives, we create bonds of loyalty and mutual responsibility known as covenants. People have sought in the religious life the kind of certainty that belongs to philosophy and science. But it is not to be found. Between God and man there is moral loyalty, not scientific certainty. (p. 73)

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They speak different languages and use different powers of the brain. ... Once we recognize their difference we can move on, no longer thinking of science and religion as friends who became enemies, but as our unique, bicameral, twin perspective on the difference between things and people, objects and subjects, enabling us to create within a world of blind forces a home for a humanity that is neither blind nor deaf to the beauty of the other as the living trace of the living God. (p. 77)

Faith is about seeing the miraculous in the everyday, not about waiting every day for the miraculous. (p. 81)

Politicians value us for how we vote, economists for how we earn, advertisers for how we buy, people in the arts and entertainment for how we spend our leisure. Outside religion there is no secure alternative base for the unconditional source of worth that [comes] from the idea that we are each in God's image. (p. 102)

Human goodness is widely distributed, and I have no respect for religious people who cannot see this. (p. 104)

Science cannot, in and of itself, give an account of human dignity, because dignity is based on human freedom. ... Freedom is a concept that lies outside the scope of science. Science cannot locate freedom, because its world is one of causal relationships. A stone is not free to fall or not to fall. ... A scientific law is one that links one physical phenomenon to another without the intervention of will and choice. To the extent that there is a science of human behaviour, to that extent there is an implicit denial of the freedom of human behaviour. ... But if freedom is an illusion, then so is the human dignity based on that freedom. (p. 124)

The supreme irony of contemporary secular ethics is that humans are treated as possessors of rights because they have autonomy, the ability to choose, while at the same time evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are undermining the very idea that we freely choose anything at all. The contradiction at the heart of this secularised view of humanity cannot be sustained for ever. (p.126)

If we lose freedom in theory, eventually we will lose it in practice, as happened in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. (p. 127)

There are three ways of getting individuals to act in a way that is beneficial to the group. One is power: we force them to. The second is wealth: we pay them to. The disadvantage of both is that they leave selfishness untouched. They use external incentives. ... The third alternative is to educate them to see that the welfare of others matters as much as their own. No system has done this more effectively than religion, for an obvious reason. Religion teaches us that we are part of the whole, a thread in the fabric of God's creation, a note in the symphony of life. Faith is the ability to see ourselves as joined to others by God's love.
     Not only does it teach us this, through story and ritual, celebration and prayer, it weaves it into our personalities, affecting all parts of the almost infinitely complex labyrinth of the human brain. No wonder then that religion has survived, and that we need it if we are to survive. (p.156)

Social cohesion is precisely what religion sustains and much else undermines. When societies grow affluent, when the burden of law-abidingness falls on the state and its institutions, when people define right and wrong in terms of externalities--punishments and rewards--and in terms of what other people do and are seen to get away with, when people focus, as they naturally do, on immediate benefits not long-term sustainability, then society begins to erode from within and there is little anyone can do to halt it. (p. 161)

The faith of Abraham makes two monumental claims: first, that the relationship between God and humanity is a matter of love, not power: second, that you can build a society on the basis of love, love of neighbour and stranger, that leads us to care for their welfare as if it were our own. These remain, even now, astonishing ideas, and one would say that they were wildly utopian were it not for the fact that the faith of Abraham has lasted longer than any other known civilization. (p.164)

What made marriage unique was the way it brought together in a single institution a whole series of essential human activities: sex, reproduction, companionship, love, responsibility for the welfare and nurture of those we have brought into being, and responsibility for their education. ... When marriage breaks down, ... human bonds splinter and fragment into a myriad component parts, so that we can have sex without reproduction and reproduction without sex. We can have both without love, love without companionship, and children without responsibility for their nurture. (p. 167)

What are in danger of being lost are the linked qualities of loyalty, fidelity, duty, trust and the sharing of a pledge by which both partners promised not to walk away, the very things that make love a glimpse of eternity in the midst of time, and parenthood the closest any of us can come to God: love bringing new life into the world. What is lost when faith is lost is marriage as the supreme moral commitment that lifts humanity from biology to poetry. (p. 168)

Faith is about relationship sustained without the use of power. If any relationship, whether between husband and wife, parent and child, siblings, neighbours, strangers and friends, is dependent on power, faith has broken down. God does not live in such relationships. (p. 169)

Emunah, the biblical word for faith, really means 'covenant loyalty.' It means being true to the bond you have made with another, honouring your word and trusting them to honour theirs. God makes promises to us. We make promises to God. At the deepest level of metaphor and meaning, faith is a marriage, a bond entered into in love and honoured in life.
     Faith lives, breathes and has its being in the world of relationships, in the respect we pay our marriage partner, the steadfastness with which we bring up our children, and the way we extend the feeling of family to embrace neighbours and strangers in acts of hospitality and kindness. (p.172)

The meaning of life is the realisation that you are held in the arms of a vast presence; that you are not abandoned; that you are here because you were meant to be. It is the sense that life is something you have been given, so that you live with a feeling of gratitude and you seek to give back, to 'pay it forward,' to be a blessing to others. This presence in which you live knows you better than you know yourself, so it is no use pretending to be what you are not, or denying your shortcomings, or justifying your mistakes, or engaging in self-pity, or blaming others. It is a loving, forgiving but challenging presence, demanding much but never more than you can do. It asks you to give your best, not for the sake of reward, but because that is what you are here on Earth to do.
     This is not a testable proposition. There is no scientific experiment that would establish it to be true or false. (p 188)

Religion is a sustained process of using the deep power of joy to see into the life of things. (p. 199)

Simchah is something we cannot experience alone. Simchah is joy shared. (p. 204)

Science is not religion; religion is not science. Each has its own logic, its own way of asking questions and searching for the answers. The way of testing a scientific hypothesis is to do science, not read Scripture. The way of testing religion is to do religion. (p. 214)

Belief in God is an assertion of human dignity in the face of humiliation, and of hope in the midst of the dark night of despair. It is a refusal to accept evil as inevitable, but at the same time an acknowledgement that we cannot leave redemption entirely to God. ... God is not the solution of a contradiction, but a call to become his partners in the work of redemption. (p. 247)

The most significant determinants of happiness are strong and rewarding personal relationships, a sense of belonging to a community, being valued by others and living a meaningful life. These are precisely the things in which religion specializes. (p. 280)

At their best, science and religion are both instances of the human passion to decode mysteries, constantly travelling in search of a destination that continues to elude us, that is always over the furthermost horizon. It is that willingness to search, ask, question, that makes us what we are. ... When all the scientific explanations are in, the great questions still remain. (p. 285)

Monotheism expects great things from us, and by doing so makes us great. It calls us the image of God, the children of God, God's covenantal partners. It challenges us to become co-builders with God of a gracious society and a more just world. It tells us that each of us is unique, irreplaceable, precious in God's sight. (p. 287)

In an age of fear, moderation is hard to find and harder to sustain. Who wants to listen to a nuanced argument, when what we want is someone to relieve us from the burden of thought and convince us that we were right all along? So people mock. They blame they caricature. They demonise. In an age of anxiety, few can hear the still small voice that the Bible tells us is the voice of God. (p. 295)

Monday, August 26, 2013

MMGM: Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale

Hey! I'm back with a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday selection. This was on the New shelf at the library, and I'm like, "Oh, right: Princess Academy has a sequel. I've been meaning to read that!"

Palace of Stone is the sequel to Princess Academy, which I read quite a while ago and really enjoyed, like I enjoy all Shannon Hale books. My memory of Princess Academy is a little vague, so I can say that Palace of Stone works as a stand-alone, though I think you'd want to read the first one just to get to know the characters, because they're all so great.

Shannon Hale is excellent at her genre: I'll call it upper-middle-grade. She writes stories that could be sweeping and epic and take 600 pages if she were an adult fantasy writer, and she condenses them down into perfectly plotted, simple-seeming character studies that still have all the epic themes and ideas, just in a neat little pre-teen-appropriate package.

Palace of Stone has a kingdom on the brink of revolution, a love triangle, betrayal, impossible choices, magic--I honestly don't know how she fits it all in! If I had one complaint it would be that there's so much more development she could have done--in fact, she could have written an adult fantasy. But Palace of Stone has exactly what it needs and not a word extra, and somehow she uses story to convey the most complex of ideas (it's really a story about politics and ethics) in a form a twelve-year-old can easily grasp.

The other characteristic of a Shannon Hale book is that she genuinely believes in the potential for good in everyone. If you want dark, edgy and violent, this is not the author for you. But if you want all your characters to have believable motivations, including the villains, if you like heart-wrenching dilemmas that don't have easy, good-vs-evil answers, and if you like stories in which people can redeem themselves even after screwing up, then you'll like Hale.

I really liked Miri, and I really felt her struggle to reconcile who she thought she was with who she might become. I also thought the romance was just right: realistic and sweet (and age-appropriate!).

Palace of Stone is a fresh, crisp, in-season apple (right now we have Sunrise apples, the first of the season: a bit tangy, very juicy and fragrant) cut up on a plate with some nice mild cheese like Red Leicester or Jarlsburg and thick slices of a really hearty bread.

I also highly recommend Hale's Books of Bayern series, and definitely check out her graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

For other wonderful Middle-grade choices, head to Shannon Messenger's blog, where she collects all the MMGM-ers every Monday.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Restoring Harmony, by Joelle Anthony

A friend of mine on the Sunshine Coast lent me this book by a local BC author. She thought I would enjoy Restoring Harmony because I'm also writing a post-apocalyptic novel set in the Pacific Northwest. If by "enjoy" she meant "be freakishly envious because Joelle Anthony did such a good job I may as well just quit now," then she was right! Here's what I said on Goodreads:

Not your typical dystopian YA: this one is actually plausible. Set in the near future in the Pacific Northwest, it isn't an epic save-the-world story; it's about characters trying to live their lives while the society we know slowly crumbles around them. What makes it a four-star book is that I cared about the characters. All of them. They had believable motivations and did the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons, like real people. The plot hangs together well, too: starts out simple but builds on realistic complexities to an exciting finish.

The premise seems quiet enough: Molly goes to Oregon to bring her grandfather back to her home on a Gulf Island, but she runs out of money so once she gets there she can't get home. And her grandfather isn't very happy to see her. The interest of the book is in the character development. Molly is an engaging narrator, practical and competent, but way out of her sphere of experience. The world beyond her pastoral island isn't a particularly nice place, and she trusts people she shouldn't trust. Her grandparents are running out of food, and their neighbour is in deep with organized crime. There's a good-looking guy who wants to help but he won't even tell her his name.

I loved the music in the book (Molly brings her violin with her); I liked the tentative, problematic romance; I liked the way the collapsing society brings out the best and worst in everyone. I also loved the humour. The final escape-to-the-border scene is quite delicious.

This is a post-apocalyptic story for those who like Anne of Green Gables and family drama and heroines who don't have to kick anyone's butts in order to be kick-butt.

A fresh blueberry tart with a dollop of whipped cream.

Also, my first Canadian book in this year's Canadian Book Challenge. (I'm going to do much better this year . . . I'm off to such a great start . . .) Check out John Mutford's blog for tons of Canadian book recommendations.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

I usually try to review less well-known books, but if I don't occasionally get fan-girly about my favourite authors, you'll never know who my favourite authors are, right? So here's a little bit about Neil Gaiman's latest, though nothing I say will do it justice. (It's actually kind of hilarious to read the Goodread reviews of this book, because everyone tries to wax lyrical just to convey how much the book meant to them. Some of the reviews are works of literature themselves!)

If I had to sum it up for you quickly, I'd say The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Coraline for grown-ups. (Of course, "there aren't any grown ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.")(Ocean is an eminently quotable book, you'll find.) Coraline is one of the most perfect, beautiful, scary books I've ever read. Gaiman knows exactly what children are afraid of and why. Ocean is narrated by an adult remembering an event from his childhood, so Gaiman can play with childhood fears that are also adult fears, for slightly different reasons. It's so interesting watching him dissect human psychology using only story to do it, because that's what story is for, and no one writing today understands story better than Gaiman. The book has layers like the ocean has salt.

I'm starting to blather. It's impossible not to. Never mind. Just read the darn book. It will get its little hook in your heart and you'll be blathering with the rest of us.

One thing I noticed about the reviews is that people who didn't like the book were disappointed that it wasn't something else. You can't come to a Gaiman book expecting anything, or assuming it's like anything else. He doesn't do categories. Ocean is a story, that's all. It's lovely and prickly and heartstopping and

I'm blathering again. Sorry.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the salad my daughter made the other night: fresh greens, peaches, strawberries, avocados and grilled bison, with a blackberry vinaigrette I could eat with a spoon it was so good. Complex, with flavours and textures that interact and enhance each other with their contrasts of

Sorry. I'll stop now.