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.