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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Lost Code, by Kevin Emerson

A quickie review I did for Goodreads, of a book I read on vacation:

I picked up The Lost Code on a random library browse, because I was intrigued by "Atlanteans." I was immediately drawn in by the narrator, Owen, who is drowning when we first meet him. He's not snarky and self-confident, like so many of the heroes we love, but he's self-aware, and his awkwardness is so familiar to those of us who weren't snarky and self-confident when we were teenagers. He's not particularly heroic at the beginning, which makes his journey to heroism more believable, in my opinion.

This is a fun read in the Percy Jackson vein, a summer-camp-turns-sci-fi/magical adventure. I liked the slow build-up of things-are-not-what-they-seem, what's-really-going-on-here, isn't-that-super-nice-camp-director-kindof-creepy. I liked the swimming scenes. I liked the Atlantean technology and the futuristic dome technology. There were a few things I would like to have been more developed, and this isn't one of those jump-up-and-down amazing books I'll reread a dozen times, but it was page-turning and engaging and I'll look for the next one.