Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

My annual trip to our local KidsBooks to treat myself. I went looking for Diana Wynne Jones' last book (finished by her sister, Ursula), and for The Princess in Black, The Most Magnificent Thing and Kandinsky's Noisy Paint Box. I was happily surprised by a sequel to the beautiful wordless picturebook, Journey, and a prequel Garth Nix wrote to his brilliant Old Kingdom series (I didn't have any idea he was writing more in that world. So excited!) My Christmas picture book (I try to buy a new one every year) is a Carl book—wonderful wordless picture books starring a very intelligent dog. And I also pick up a few graphic novels every year; decided to go for the space theme this time. Links to Goodreads, and a few comments on the ones I've read, below.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday with your favourite people and favourite traditions, and hope you all have a good book to curl up with with a mug of hot chocolate!

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne and Ursula Jones
Clariel, by Garth Nix
Quest — I loved Journey, and Quest is just as gorgeous. It's Harold and the Purple Crayon with the background filled in (which, I agree, kind of defeats the whole point, but it's so pretty!)
The Most Magnificent Thing — Everyone who has ever tried to create anything needs to read this! So true, so inspiring.
The Princess in Black — I'm going to give this to my two nieces, because every little girl who loves princesses needs to know about the Princess in Black. And it's an early reader, and the oldest niece is just at the right age to read it for herself. Aren't I the best aunt?
Kandinsky's Noisy Paint Box — because I love Kandinsky's art
Carl's Christmas —I have lots of Carl books, because they're so adorable and funny and subversive
Earthling! — I decided to buy this graphic novel after flipping through it and noticing the rather sly humour. The story is fun and the art work is great. 
Zita the Space Girl – loved this one. Think I'll give it to my nieces in a few years (when they're finally out of their princess phase!). The characters are all so wonderful, and the art is quite beautiful. Reminds me of the Amulet series, but for younger readers. There are a couple of Zita sequels out now, and I want them.

And as a little Christmas gift, some music from my tradition:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#AMonthofFaves: Fave new-to-me authors I discovered in 2014

Kirsten at We Be Reading has been following this meme hosted by Estella's Revenge all month, with daily prompts to make various lists of favourite books from the past year. It's generated some awesome lists on people's blogs, so it's worth checking out (if you want to add a ton of things to your TBR!)

I'm not nearly organized enough to a) do that much blogging and b) look back and analyze my reading all year. (People count the books they read? In categories?? People have reading goals and measure their progress toward them???? My reading does NOT work like that!)

But this prompt (from Dec 9, so I'm only 10 days late) really works for me because it's been a great year for finding new authors. And it doubles as a chance to quickly review a lot of my travel reading.

I'll even divide it into categories for you:

YA Fantasy:

Rachel Neumeier  —  After really enjoying The Floating Islands and The City in the Lake (the only two books available at my library), I decided to buy The Griffin Mage trilogy to read on the plane. Was not disappointed. Yet another original magic system; awesome griffins; heart-breakingly complex characters whose stories interweave with each other over the trilogy; beautiful descriptions; Neumeier's trademark ability to create intense conflict without anyone being an actual villain, because everyone has such good reasons for what they're doing (even if they're griffins who want to wipe out all the humans). Excited to read her more recent stuff: no more waiting for the library to get them, Neumeier is now on my "I fork out hard-earned cash for anything she writes" list.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel  —  So far I've read the first two of her Night Calls series—spooky witch stories set in an alternate frontier America—and I love the characters and the setting. Kindred Rites has seriously scary evil sorcerers that Allie gets kidnapped by and runs away from, with some nice realistic surviving-in-the-winter scenes. As with Night Calls, the details of every day life are immersively vivid, and the magic just seems like one more realistic detail. I've got the third book to read yet, and I also picked up the first book of an interesting-looking sci-fi series, Fires of Nuala.

YA Sci-Fi:

Andrea K. Höst  —  The Touchstone Trilogy was so much fun. And All the Stars is just as much fun: it's a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers /Host/ Animorphs story (did you ever read the Animorphs? I thought they were awesome!). An implausible premise but she makes it feel so real. I doubt a huge spire is going to appear in every large city in the world, dispersing dust that kills lots of people but (slight spoiler if you want to be surprised by what happens) gives some people superpowers and then allows unbodied aliens to take them over and use them in dominance challenges—but if that ever did happen, we would all react exactly the way Höst describes it. Great use of the Sydney, Australia setting, great cast of diverse characters. So far I've liked Höst's sci-fi better than the one fantasy I tried—Medair had an intriguing premise and was compelling enough to draw me along, but I felt as though the most interesting things were happening in the flashbacks, and I really wished she had told the story in the order it happened; I'd be more invested in it that way. So I haven't read the sequel yet (also because the blurb makes it sound like it's going to be sad, and I don't want a sad ending! So maybe I'm more invested than I'm willing to admit!). But she's such a good writer that I'm willing to try another of her fantasies, especially since her books are on sale on Kindle for .99 right now! (Quick, go snap up the Touchstone Trilogy!)

Fantasy: (I was going to say Adult Fantasy, but that would give entirely the wrong impression!)

Patrick Rothfuss  —  Finally decided to see what all the buzz was about, and I'm with the majority on this one: he's an amazing writer and I wish he'd hurry up and finish the third Kingkiller book! (But I'm willing to wait if it means it's going to be as good as the other ones.) Traditional magic kingdom fantasy with a great protagonist and just really good writing. Here are links to my Goodreads reviews of The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things (which would be on a Top Ten Books that Blew My Mind list (the Dec 16 prompt), were I to make one).

Jo Walton  — I first encountered her name in a review for her non-fiction work, What Makes This Book So Great, a collection of her Tor reviews of science fiction (which I still haven't laid my hands on). I went over to to see what sort of things she was writing, and have been following her ever since. She's incredibly widely read, and smart, and snarky in a compassionate way, and she just has this angle of view on things. So when I saw that she had recently come out with a novel (Among Others), I figured I'd like it. I did (link to my review). Then I tried her alternate history Small Change trilogy, and was wildly impressed. I've got Tooth and Claw on my iPod now (Victorian novel plot and setting, but with dragons. What's not to like?!), and I'm waiting until I have the time to devote to it to get My Real Children, which sounds amazing. If you want a quick taste, she has a number of short stories online in various places, including a couple of Christmas ones on her blog.

Uncatagorizable in a sort of steampunky way (but for sure not steampunk):

Max Gladstone  —  Maybe it's too soon to put him on a favourites list, since I've only read one book, but Three Parts Dead would also go on that hypothetical Books that Blew My Mind list, so I'm fairly confident that I'm going to keep liking the Craft Sequence books. Also, look at those covers. So gorgeous; so colorful, and by that I mean notice the different colors of people on them. It's like he's writing books about humans or something. Quite radical. And I love the titles even more after reading this post explaining his chronology. (Also I'm liking Max Gladstone more after reading it. Smart, funny guy.) (Of course, now I can't decide which book to read next, since apparently it doesn't matter.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

MMGM: Whales on Stilts! by M. T. Anderson

I've seen this book several times at the library and almost taken it out, but then put it back because I thought it might be dumb. Then I noticed that one of its sequels was a Kirkus pick for 2014, and I thought maybe I should give the series a try. Well, Whales on Stilts is definitely as silly as it sounds, but it's also smart and funny and, in the end, quite heartfelt.

Anderson obviously has a lot of affection for the type of dime-store serial adventure story he spoofs in M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales. Absurdly ridiculous plots, unbelievably competent heroes/heroines, bombastic villains with their evil lairs and plans for taking over the world. (Sounds a lot like James Bond, actually!) Anderson stretches all the incredulity way past its breaking point (I mean, whales on stilts?) and plays it all with a perfectly straight face.

Contender for best opening line ever (and then the second line just tops it off):

On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation. 
Up until then life hadn't been very interesting for Lily.
Lily makes this book for me. "Most people didn't know that Lily herself was interesting." She has two very interesting friends, Katie Mulligan, real-life star of the Horror Hollow books, and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, but it's Lily who's the heroine of this tale. Quiet, observant Lily is the one who notices there's something fishy about her dad's boss, with his blue, rubbery hands and the bag over his head. And after all of Jasper's inventions and Katie's helpful ideas, it's Lily who figures out how to stop his evil plan for world domination.

I love the completely oblivious adults. There's some satire of corporate culture with Lily's dad and his co-worker Ray, so caught up in minutiae that they miss the blatantly obvious:
"We're a little bit behind schedule. But you know, sometimes it almost makes me curious—why all of the giant, destructive lasers? And why all of the maps of North America?"
"Yeah. Sure. I guess. Oh, Ray, have you seen the memo about the meeting with Paul?"
(Reminds me of the sitcom Better off Ted. Used to be on Netflix. Really weird humour, very pointed satire.)

I was impressed at Anderson's deft handling of tone. Yes, a lot of the humour is over-the-top, but there are subtler layers, and when it comes to Lily's character the writing can be downright lyrical. And don't skip the footnotes or the "Guide to Reading and Thinking" at the end; they're delightful.

I'll be returning to the library to pick up The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, book 2 in the series that will become Pals in Peril!

Salty, buttery popcorn, you can never get enough of it.

It's been a while since I've contributed to Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, but every Monday there are always a gang of folks with great recommendations on Shannon Messenger's blog.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue, by Maggie Stiefvater

Well, she did it again.

Have you ever used a juicer? You throw whole fruits and vegetables in at the top and out the bottom comes all the flavour and nutrients and juicy goodness extracted into a cup of pure concentrated apple essence. Or carrot. Or whatever.

The point is, Maggie Stiefvater is a juicer. When she writes, she extracts all the emotion and drama and knucklebiting tension and aweful magic out of her ideas and delivers them to us in juicy, concentrated scenes of pure oomph. Every scene. Like a fist to the gut.

If you've been enjoying the Raven Cycle, you know you have to read Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and I can assure you you won't be disappointed in any way. More magic. Greater understanding of Glendower and what he might be doing in West Virginia and why these particular characters are the ones who might be able to find him. More in-depth character and relationship development. You didn't think they could be developed any deeper? Oh! Adam and Ronan and Gansey and Blue. Noah, too. And the Grey Man. (I love the Grey Man.) Just, oh, my heart!

If you haven't yet started the Raven Cycle, you can't start here. (I mean, you could, because she gives enough little hints about what happened before that you probably wouldn't be too confused. But why would you?) Go get The Raven Boys—I'm sure your library has a copy—and get to know the boys as Blue does. I promise you'll get completely sucked into this story of sentient forests and dreams and psychics and ghosts and friendship and sleeping kings. And other sleepers who must definitely not be wakened.

In case you didn't realize, the Raven Cycle is more than three books long. This one ain't the end! Stiefvater is excellent at completing a satisfying story arc while leaving significant questions unanswered so you are heavily invested in reading the next book. Which we now have to wait for. (It's not a cliffhanger, though. Unless you read the epilogue. Then, yeah, not so much hanging off a cliff as stepping off it and wondering when you're going to start falling.)

Sticking with the juice metaphor, I'll say Blue Lily is the freshly squeezed orange juice I had every morning for breakfast in Morocco. (The oranges in Morocco taste so much better than any other orange you have ever had anywhere else. Seriously. You must go to Morocco just to taste the oranges there.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

More books on my iPod

I'm leaving, on a jet plane. Again.  This time for much longer, so I need significantly more books on my little old device. This is what I've got queued up for the 9 hour flight to London followed by 3 hours to Marrakech. (I do hope I sleep on the way to London!):

A few Andrea K. Host, since I enjoyed the Touchstone trilogy so much. The Medair duology (two books for the price of one!), and And All the Stars (best tag line ever)

Some Rachel Neumeier I haven't read yet: the Griffin Mage trilogy (three books for the price of one!)

A Sharon Shinn sequel I somehow missed when it came out: Royal Airs (sequel to Troubled Waters).

And the hotly anticipated next book in Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle: Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Aren't they all gorgeous?! (Too bad my copies are all virtual . . .)(But I couldn't take them all on the plane with me if they weren't.) I may or may not take a couple of paperbacks with me, just in case. (My husband looked at everything I was stuffing into my carry-on and said, "Are you really going to lug these books around Europe with you?" The expression on my face must have answered him, because he said, "I guess having books for you is kind of like having oxygen." Very true.) The horror of international travel without a book to read . . . I can't begin to contemplate it! As it is, I'm excited to get to the airport so I can start reading! (But which book do I start with????)

I will be sans computer for two and a half weeks, so no blog entries (I was going to be all organized and write some reviews ahead of time and schedule them for while I'm gone, but, yeah, didn't happen. Sorry.) But I should have a ton of great reviews when I get back!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Höst

Did you know it's Science Fiction Month? At least, it is according to the bookish folk over at Oh, The Books and Rinn Reads. They're hosting a month full of blogs and events that sounds like a sci-fastic idea, and I would definitely sign myself up to participate if I wasn't going to Morocco for three weeks.

But in the spirit of celebrating Science Fiction in all its mutations, I offer you this awesome alternate world science fantasy trilogy which you should definitely read this month, if not sooner.

Stray, Lab Rat One, and Caszandra are the diary of Cassandra Devlin, Australian girl who accidentally ends up on another planet and has to deal with what she finds there. There's lots of cool plot and setting details, but the strength of these novels is Cassandra's voice and character. Normal, practical, stoic but not immune to panic and despair, with a great self-deprecating sense of humour—it's the way she deals with everything the plot and setting throws at her that riveted me to the page.

I debated whether to say anything about the plot in this review. I read it without really knowing what I was in store for, so I got the fun of discovering all the surprising things that happen right along with Cassandra, and I really enjoyed that experience. So if you don't want any spoilers at all, then stop reading this blog, take my word for it that you'll like these books (and if you don't believe me, believe Sherwood Smith and Rachel Neumeier), and go start reading Stray.

Okay, you still need a little more convincing?

Stray begins with Cassandra walking home from school in Australia and accidentally walking out of the world.* I think we all (all of us who read Narnia, anyway) secretly wish that would happen to us, but  Höst takes that trope and gives it the realistic treatment it deserves: how would an average Australian girl figure out how not to die on a strange, unpopulated planet with only the supplies in her school knapsack? I was completely sucked into the story and probably would have kept reading even if the whole story was just Cassandra alone vs planet.

(If it's sounding good to you then stop reading now!)

But then she gets picked up by some patrollers and taken to the safe planet where people actually live, and injected with a nanotech interface in her brain so she can learn the language and figure out how to live in this completely alien (but human) society. And that was pretty cool, and I would have kept reading even if it was all just adapt-to-new-technology-and-social-norms-and-make-friends-and-come-to-terms-with-never-going-home-again.

(Last chance. Don't make me tell you what happens next. Just go get the book now!)

But it turns out that a lot of people here have various crazy psychic powers, and Cassandra discovers that she enhances people's powers when they touch her. So off she gets whisked to the psychic ninja warrior training facility, because this planet is constantly fighting off monsters from non-real planes of existence, and someone who enhances psychic powers would come in really handy.

That is definitely all I'm going to tell you. No mention of really hot warrior guys in way cool form-fitting nanotech suits will cross my lips.

These books were a lot of fun, and they made more than five hours of travel time fly by. They also had so much substance, all kinds of interesting ideas, such fascinating world-building—that I know I'll be rereading them.

Something chocolate and chewy . . . oh! the dessert we shared when I took my daughter out for dinner in Ottawa: chocolate brownie tart with peanut butter mousse. Mmmmm. Yes.

*That sentence suddenly reminded me of a book I remember loving when I was young: A Walk Out of the World by Ruth Nichols. I don't remember anything about the plot, but just seeing the cover again when I googled it brought back intense happy feelings. This book obviously impacted me greatly; I should try to get my hands on a copy and reread it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What's on my iPod?

Quick update to let you know what I've got on my e-reader for my flight to Ottawa tomorrow. (I'm going to visit my daughter; maybe I can convince her to make me those Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls she was boasting about!)

I've already read Stray and loved it, so I'm excited to continue the series. Parallel world sci fi with psychic ninja warriors and nanotech. Will definitely blog about these ones when I'm done.

This is book 2 of the series I just started (reviewed the first book here): magic coming of age in alternate frontier America. Can't wait to see what Allie gets up to next.

New one from Sherwood Smith, straight-up historical romance I think, which is a departure for her. I briefly started it and I'm already immersed in the world.

Five hours there and then five hours back again; these should keep me going! Oh, and I'm also bringing along the library book I'm half through:

It'll be next week's MMGM if I keep liking it this much.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conjured, by Sarah Beth Durst

I guess it must be the season subconsciously influencing me to pick spooky books. Or maybe there's a dark magic spell influencing all the authors I like to write spooky books. The last Sarah Beth Durst book I read was Vessel, which was a great desert adventure fantasy. Conjured is something entirely different, and I couldn't put it down.

First line: "Your name is Eve. Remember that."

Main characters who have forgotten everything about their past are always fun. The mystery of identity has to be the central mystery of everyone's life. So a character trying to piece herself together from a very few clues and dreams is always compelling and sympathetic. Said character instantly becomes more interesting when she can do odd magical things without knowing why. Suspense is added when she doesn't know who is telling the truth or who she can trust, and when everyone around her seems pretty terrified of something awful happening to her.

Conjured has all these excellent building blocks and out of them Durst creates a fascinating, terrifying, heartwrenching, living, breathing tale of love and freedom and what it means to be a person. Eve doesn't know how to undo a seatbelt, can't remember that she licked jelly donut off her fingers last week, doesn't know why the agent she's supposed to call Malcolm makes her feel safe and the one called Aunt Nicki doesn't like her. But out of all her emptiness her personality shines. She is creating herself before our eyes with every choice she makes. She chooses to cooperate, to pretend to be normal, but as "Malcolm" and "Aunt Nicki" introduce her into the world, her choices broaden. Particularly when she meets Zach at the library. (I really liked Zach.)

The visions that may or may not be pieces of her past are excellent creepy carnival scenes, textured with colour and scent and emotion. At first they're so cryptic they make no sense, but as the images build they start to hint at their own story. Like Eve, we're given all the puzzle pieces but it's hard to put them together without knowing what they're supposed to look like.

I just went to Goodreads to get the link for this book, and I was surprised by some of the negative reviews, but I can understand them. You have to be patient with this kind of narration: it's frustrating to spend half the book not knowing what's going on—but that's the frustration Eve is living through, so for me it created empathy and suspense.

The writing is beautiful. Durst uses all her senses in her descriptions, and she has surprising and apt metaphors. I love how her magic is wondrous and beautiful even when it's underlain with horror.

Another excellent Halloween read, and I guess that's why pumpkins seem appropriate. Maple pumpkin pie, I think, another invention of my daughter's that I didn't get to try because I'm a five-hour flight away.

Monday, October 13, 2014

MMGM: The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford

Have you heard the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia?" If not, go listen to it here.

Have you read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes? If not, October is the perfect month to rectify that grave omission! It's such a wonderful October book.

Now imagine a cross between that song and that novel.

And then throw out whatever you imagined because Kate Milford did it even better.

The Boneshaker is delicious on so many levels. The ghost town at the crossroads. The dusty little community with secrets. The creaky old carnival rolling into town. Such an evocative setting, and evoked with such loving detail!

Then there are the characters: Old Tom Guyot, who can play his guitar like nothing and nobody and who has a story about that crossroads. Inexplicable Simon Coffrett living alone in his mansion on the hill. Grandiose Dr. Limberleg with his wild red hair and his suspicious glares and his increasing desperation.

And Natalie herself, the odd, determined heroine who senses something not right about Dr. Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show. She pokes her nose in where it isn't wanted until she finds out far more than is safe about what's really going on.

So much to love about this book! Natalie's beautiful bright red Chesterlane Eidolon, fastest bicycle in the world, built just for her by her father, that to her endless shame she hasn't figured out how to ride. The stories Natalie's mother spins for her, the magic of stories that Natalie begins to figure out for herself. Natalie's prickly relationship with her friend Miranda. Terrible moral dilemmas. The hints of a more complex mythology, only just touched upon in this book. (Now I want to read The Broken Lands and the two Arcana books, all set in the same world.)

Oh, and great illustrations.

My daughter just told me she's making a masala-spiced turkey with rice stuffing and butter chicken gravy (butter chicken gravy???). I wish I could go to Ottawa and try some! I imagine that meal would make a good metaphor for The Boneshaker: complex flavours redolent of tradition but with a spicy twist.

I first heard of The Boneshaker from the Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday crew over at Shannon Messenger's blog. You can be sure to find more wonderful recommendations there every Monday.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Night Calls, by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel

Sherwood Smith is responsible for a lot of my reading pleasure, not just because of the books she writes, but because she lists the books she's reading on her blog, and it turns out that she has great taste in books! I've taken to buying the books she recommends if they're not in the library because I'm so sure I'll like them. I haven't been disappointed yet.

The latest I've read is a marvelous coming-into-one's-magic story set in a spooky alternative version of early 1800s Michigan. In Night Calls, Alfreda learns she has the Gift when she can hear the werewolves calling. (Just to be clear, these are scary, dangerous werewolves, not hot sexy ones.) Her large extended family takes her in hand and devises an educational plan for her, because an untrained Gift is a danger to herself and to others. Alfreda may not like the idea at first, but her magic is a responsibility that she learns to accept. Pretty standard plot, really, but it felt entirely fresh and new.

 I like frontier America as a fantasy setting: there are so many possibilities to explore. I really enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child series: it's big and adventurous with grand, sparkling magic and fantastic dangerous beasts. Night Callsis the Jane Austen version: it's cozy and quiet with creepy dark demons (okay, pretty sure there were no demons in Jane Austen; ditto werewolves, vampires and witches. But I stand by the comparison.) Kimbriel is all about the characters—great, vivid characters!—and their relationships, about towns and how they function, about families. One of the early dramatic moments is Alfreda's confrontation with the minister about having a service for dead werewolves. It's a credit to Kimbriel's writing that this scene is just as gripping (if a tad less scary) than a later confrontation with a vampire.

Kimbriel gives her world so much texture and depth I was completely immersed in it. She must have done a ton of historical research; there is a Little House on the Prairie feel to the book just because of all the authentic details of frontier life. But the magic feels just as meticulously researched (and I'm pretty sure she made that up!)(Although she does incorporate many different folk traditions, so that's probably why it seems so authentic.) I loved all the various magical objects.

The cover says it's a tale of dark magic, and this is Halloween-worthy stuff. Not horror, quite (I don't read horror!), but there are pretty nasty creatures out there, and Kimbriel does a great job of setting up suspense and tension. Again, it's all in the details: the letter covered in a miasma of evil just because it came through the haunted town; the odd behavior of the townspeople; the grim look on the practitioner's face.

This book is definitely something with pumpkin in it. A hearty pumpkin apple soup maybe, something made with stores from the root cellar that could simmer on a hook over the fire and warm the belly on a cold, dark winter night.

This cover plays up the fear factor maybe a little too much!
I like this one, but maybe it's not scary enough? Covers are difficult!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

I'm on a roll: this is another beautifully written book by a writer who really knows what she's doing. Also, more high fantasy, since I seem to be on a bit of a kingdoms-and-magic kick. If you like Robin McKinley, Sharon Shinn, Juliet Marrillier, Patricia A. McKillip, you will like Rachel Neumeier.

The City in the Lake is magical and evocative, full of the sort of imagery that resonates with unstated meaning. But it's also grounded by real, practical characters, who have grown up with this magic and understand (to greater and lesser extents) how it works. This book spills over with enchantment but it isn't about the magic. Yes, Timou learns how to be a mage, but it's not really a coming-into-one's-magic story, since she masters it fairly early on. It's a quest of sorts, to find a missing prince, but the finding of the prince happens fairly easily, too. It's more of a finding-out-who-you-are-when-it-comes-down-to-the-wire story. It's about the choices the characters make, and how they face the consequences of those choices. I think those are my favourite kind of stories.

My favourite character is actually the Bastard. He's complex and ambiguous and has the most difficult choices to make, and I think he's as much a main character as Timou. My second favourite character is Jonas. He doesn't get as much POV time as the other two, but he's so patient and unassuming and I think he makes the biggest sacrifice. Timou is dogged and smart and doesn't let crushing grief or disappointment get in the way of saving the kingdom. Perhaps I connected the least with her because of her ability to shut away her emotions, which was essential to letting her use her powers against the sorceress. I did like the way her magic worked.

The romance is understated but very sweet. Relationships of all kinds are explored: siblings, parent-child, friendship. Trust, loyalty. The stuff that really matters.

Not everything is explained. We learn enough about how the kingdom works to understand the peril it's in, but I could have spent a lot more time reading about the City, and the forest, and mirrors, and the tigers on the bridge, and the difference between magery and sorcery, and . . . . I remember this being a complaint of mine about The Floating Islands. But actually it's a strength, that her books are only as long as they need to be, and they leave you feeling as though you've only brushed the surface of the world and there's so much more to be discovered.

Blueberry cupcakes with lemon cream cheese icing.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge

Holy sainted cows out standing in their field—this woman can write! She can write like a house on fire, like your brain is the house and she sets it on fire.

I didn't know she had a new book out—why am I not following her ravenously like a puppy??—and when I saw this book mentioned on a blog I forgave Amazon for all their faults and bought it on Kindle right away. Then I pretty much put my life on hold for a day and finished it in as close to one sitting as I could manage without my children starving and my house burning down around my ears.

Take a deep breath. Okay. Here's my rational, coherent review of Cuckoo Song

Go read this book!! No one can prepare you for it; it isn't like anything else you've ever read, except maybe another Frances Hardinge book, and it isn't like any of them either. It's a little like Neil Gaiman, maybe. Yes, she's up there with him. 

Cuckoo Song starts out a little ordinary, and for a while you think it's just a very well-written, slightly creepy story about an ordinary, completely dysfunctional family. And then it goes sideways, and you think, okay, it's about some really weird magic stuff happening to this extraordinarily dysfunctional but otherwise ordinary family. And then it goes even sidewaysier and you realize that you have no idea what ordinary even means anymore.

I love Triss, love her with heart-gasping terror like she is my first born child. All the characters, they're all so real and deeply complex and full of needs and hopes, how can you not love them. Pen is so perfectly a nine-year-old girl and her relationship with Triss was absolutely real. And marvelous.

I love the setting. The city is fantastic, with its hills and bridges and zig-zag streets. It takes place in the 1920s, and everything about the time is subtly and inextricably woven in with the plot and the themes: jazz; independent women; cars; belief in progress; the lingering impact of the First World War.

I love the Besiders. I don't want to say anything about them, except that Hardinge draws from familiar superstition and myth but her creation far surpasses the source material. Very cool, and completely believable.

Scary villains, but, as with all Hardinge books, there aren't good guys and bad guys. Even the scariest have reasons for what they do; even the kindest do things they shouldn't. It's wonderful to be rooting for different people with entirely conflicting desires and wonder how on earth Hardinge is going to solve it so that everyone gets what they need.

Gorgeous language, as always. (I'd quote, endlessly, but Kindle books are annoying to flip through looking for quotations.)

Cuckoo Song will probably be shelved in the middle-grade section of a library or bookstore, but I wouldn't call it middle-grade at all. Not that a precocious young reader couldn't enjoy it (it's creepily scary like Coraline, but has nothing in it a nine-year-old couldn't handle), but it has so much more going on in it. No adult should pass this by thinking it will be simplistic or insubstantial. Hardinge doesn't do insubstantial!

I'm currently harvesting endless tomatoes from my garden and they are mind-bogglingly delicious. You don't know what tomatoes taste like until you grow some yourself; when you first try a real tomato it's like discovering an entirely new color you have never seen before, and going back to the store-bought ones is like willingly blinding yourself. Cuckoo Song is a bowl full of red, gold, orange, yellow tomatoes of all different sizes, that you can eat with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil, or quickly saute with some garlic and basil and serve over fresh pasta, or simmer until they reduce down into the most intensely flavoured tomato soup you've ever had, or . . . (if you have more suggestions, I'm open to them. I have a lot of fresh tomatoes to eat!)

Monday, September 8, 2014

MMGM: Scare Scape, by Sam Fisher

I picked this one up on a library browse because it had the maple leaf sticker indicating it was Canadian. The cover was appealing—assuming you find scary, slimy monsters appealing! (Which I don't, usually, but I figured I could probably handle middle-grade horror.) The premise has been done before—scary comic book turns out to be real—but I was willing to give this one a try, and I'm glad I did. Scare Scape is an excellent, well-written adventure story with wide appeal.

Strong characters, great family interactions, genuinely spooky but funny too—it reminded me a little of Diana Wynne Jones' The Ogre Downstairs. It has a similar wishes-gone-wrong plot, but Ogre (despite it's title) is straight-up fantasy, while Scare Scape is definitely horror. Creepy old Victorian house, a gargoyle that grants wishes, monsters that come alive, a blind comic book writer who may or may not have died in the well in the back yard—Fisher uses old tropes in fun ways and comes up with a few new ones of his own. I loved Melissa's endless closet and what she does with it.

I liked Morton and his strange obsession with a scary comic—a flaw that ends up being a strength (no one else knows each monster's weakness!) The story is fast-paced with a few interesting plot twists; there are themes of trust and loyalty; the final showdown requires courage and cleverness and all the kids working together. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I'm betting this one will fly off the library shelves.

Nutty and sweet like the trail mix I have perfected over years of backpacking: peanuts, cashews, tamari roasted almonds and craisins, liberally mixed with chocolate-covered peanuts, gummy bears, jelly bellies (only my favourite flavours) and swedish red berries. Every bite has something I like!

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is hosted by Shannon Messenger on her fun blog, and has a great line-up of contributors every week.

This is book 7 of my Canadian Book Challenge (five of them are adult books I reviewed on Goodreads). I think I might make it to 13 this year! For more Canadian recommendations, head to John Mutford's blog and see what the other challengers are reading.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A bit of high fantasy: Patricia McKillip and Victoria Hanley

As I was browsing in the library I came across a sequel to a book I reviewed a while ago. I didn't even know there was going to be a sequel: it was like finding money in my jacket pocket! The original book is The Seer and the Sword, which I reviewed here. The Healer's Keep is a "companion" book rather than a true sequel, meaning you can read the two in any order, since the plots don't depend on each other. I found this one to be completely different from the first in setting, characters, magic—everything, really—but I enjoyed it all the same and enjoyed the connection to the first once I figured out what it was.

The Healer's Keep has four main characters (one of whom is the daughter of Torina from The Seer and the Sword).  Two of the characters are on a completely different continent, with its own complicated social structure and belief system. Hanley has expanded her world and her magic considerably, and I found all of the new settings fascinating and well-developed. Maeve is a slave who must flee before being sold to a truly evil man. Lord Morlen is genuinely frightening; an excellent evil wizard type. Maeve encounters Jasper, who helps her against his better judgement. I particularly liked Jasper, who pretends to be stupid in order to avoid notice, but is really clever and brave and kind-hearted. Maeve discovers that she is a Dreamwen, with the power to walk in others' dreams, and it is this power that the evil Lord Morlen wants to claim.

Across the ocean, Sara and Dorjan arrive at the Healer's Keep to begin their magical training. Dorjan is already adept at using his Dreamwen powers, but Sara has no idea how much magic she has, so she is vulnerable to those who secretly plan to bring down the Healer's Keep.

Normally I would be annoyed at constantly switching back and forth between points of view (we also get some of the bad guy POVs), but I liked (or hated (if they were evil)) all the characters and was always interested in what was going on in each setting. It was obvious that there was going to be a connection between the two groups, so I was willing to wait and see how they finally joined up.

The magic is original and convincing; there's a bit of romance but not too much; there are individual coming-into-one's-magic character arcs and also the whole world that needs saving—The Healer's Keep has everything you want from a traditional fantasy, and nothing that you've gotten tired of.

Real Mexican tacos: little, freshly made corn tortillas with a spoonful of spicy meat or veggies and a sprinkle of white cheese.

After I finished Victoria Hanley's book, I happened to notice The Riddle-Master trilogy on my bookshelf, and I was in just the right mood to reread this classic from Patricia McKillip. It's a lyrical, Tolkien-esque tale about running away from destiny. No elves or dwarves, but kings, ghosts, wizards and harpists, and the one riddle Morgan of Hed can't answer: why are there three stars on his forehead? It's one story divided into three (don't dare start reading it if you don't have the second book to hand: the cliffhanger at the end is as bad—maybe worse—as the end of The Two Towers), and the titles still evoke in me a sense of the numinous: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, Harpist in the Wind.

It's about riddles and deception and true names, and when I was young I found it infuriatingly cryptic, but hauntingly beautiful. Reading it now I love to watch the unfolding of the plot, and I love the characters: Morgan, who just wants to take care of his simple island kingdom but can't seem to leave riddles alone; Raederle, the second most beautiful woman in the Three Portions of An, promised to Morgan as reward for winning a riddle-game, but with the mystery of her own powerful heritage to untangle; Deth, the High One's harpist, whom no one knows anything about.

An essential part of anyone's magical education. Salted-caramel chocolate chip cookies (I have to get the recipe from my sister-in-law).

Monday, August 25, 2014

MMGM: Invitation to The Game, by Monica Hughes

It's past time for me to get back to reviewing children's/YA books! And I've got to get started on my Canadian books for the year, already almost two months into the Canadian Book Challenge. So here's a two-for-one: a Canadian Middle-Grade novel. (I'm calling it middle-grade because that's where I found it in the library, but I would say it's for the upper of that age-range, and older readers will also appreciate it.)

If you think dystopian YA is a new trend that started with The Hunger Games, you're missing out on a whole generation of great children's science fiction. And perhaps the queen of the era from 1970-1990 was the Canadian writer Monica Hughes.

She is probably most famous for The Keeper of the Isis Light and its two sequels, The Guardian of Isis and The Isis Pedlar. I read them when I was young and they have haunted me ever since. It might be time for me to reread them and do a complete review, but I remember them as bittersweet stories of young people trying to fit in and find a place they belong, but also fascinating, complex psychological studies of humans colonizing an alien planet. And true and depressing commentary on the human tendency to distrust the Other. Legitimate classics.

Hughes was prolific, and I've only read a handful of her works, so maybe I should also try to catch up on the books I haven't read—make this the Year of Monica Hughes. It's worth introducing a new generation to her thoughtful, playful stories that explore what it means to be human just like the best of adult sci fi.

Invitation to The Game starts with a vaguely Hunger Games-like premise: underprivileged youth in an economically distressed society are manipulated into playing a "Game." The game in this case requires teamwork and problem-solving skills in a survival setting, rather than deadly competition. The final outcome is an interesting twist. New readers might find it amusing that the problem of this dystopia is robots taking all the jobs away from people—not something remotely worrisome now, but I remember when I was growing up that it was a seriously-discussed concern!

Invitation is quietly suspenseful and intriguing with a carefully thought-out world (some aspects are a little unrealistic, but it's a lot more believable than most of the dystopians out there now!). It's a fast read, written back when there wasn't such a thing as YA and kids' books generally came in at 200 pages or less (and really, do you need more than 200 pages to tell a good story? Monica Hughes didn't.)

A book to recommend to readers of The Giver. And if you like this one, Hughes has a lot more for you! You just might have to ask your library to search for them.

Grilled cheese sandwich, the way your mom used to make it.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a meme hosted by Shannon Messenger, and it's a great place to find new kids books for your TBR list.

The Canadian Book Challenge is in it's 8th year over at John Mutford's blog, and there you'll find a diverse bunch of books by Canadian authors.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Maggie Stiefvater says more profound things

This isn't really a blog post, it's more of a tweet. You should go read this post from Maggie Stiefvater's blog. It explains why her books are so good. (Hint: she doesn't just make stuff up. She gets stuff.)

I've been reading a fair bit of adult spec fic this summer, which is (one reason) why my reviews here are a little sparse. If you're interested to know what I thought of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, here are links to my Goodreads reviews (hint: I liked them a lot!):

The Name of the Wind

The Wise Man's Fear

And because it looks bad to have such a short post, here's a photo my brother took that I want to write a story about one day:

He claims it's the Columbia River Gorge, somewhere east of Portland. I think it's a completely different world with the remnants of an ancient civilization (you have to sort of ignore the white picket fence).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Two more by Sherwood Smith

I adored Crown Duel and the Inda books, so I was eager to read more Sherwood Smith. These two are YA reads that deliver trademark Sherwood Smith royal fantasy. Delicious stuff, and great summer reads.

A Posse of Princesses is as light-hearted and fun as the title implies. It's a great fairy-tale/princess/adventure story that plays with fairy tale and princess stereotypes and gives us not one but several different kinds of strong female characters (some of them can handle a sword, but that's not the only way to be a heroine, is it?). Princess Rhis finally gets to leave her boring mountain kingdom because a neighbouring prince is having a big party to pick his future bride. Great excuse for lots of high-school-style drama (except with gowns and servants and castle stuff, so, you know, way better!) and political intrigue, and no one does this better than Smith. Then there's a kidnapping, so, adventure. But really it's all about Rhis discovering friendship, confidence, love (as opposed to infatuation), and maturity. Enjoyably fluffy but with Smith's trademark well-developed characters and moral centre so it feels more substantial.

Blackberry-peach cobbler (freshly-picked blackberries—you should still have the scratches on your arms—and peaches from a fruit stand, as local as possible, the tiniest bit of sugar, dash of vanilla, and simple biscuit topping. Eaten warm with blackcurrant cream gelato (because I had some in the freezer).

Lhind the Thief is a little more serious: lots of fast-paced adventure, and still a YA sensibility, but Lhind is a deeper, more mysterious character. She doesn't know who she is, she only knows she can't trust anyone, must hide her differences or risk imprisonment or death. When she does get captured she has to learn to work with people who may actually be worthy of trust, but who have their own agenda. There's a Norsunder-level bad guy* (these books aren't set in Sartorias-Delas like Crown Duel and Inda, but they might as well have been; the world feels very similar**) and some realistic character development as Lhind tries to figure out who the good guys are and whether she's one of them. The cover for this one seems to be copying Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series, but this book ranks up there with Turner's books, so I have no problem with the homage!

Cardamom-spiced apple hand pies. I just made that up, because it seems like something Lhind might have nicked from a market stand, but it sounds really good, so I think maybe I'll try making some! (And there's even a recipe out there already.)

I think it's hard to find paper copies of most of Sherwood Smith's books, but you can get the ebooks on Book View Cafe.

* ie: super powerful creepy wizard-type
** I was quite sure one of the characters in Posse was Marloven.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

I haven't been inspired to blog much lately: a lot of books I've started but not finished, or finished but not been very excited about, and when the weather is lovely and the garden needs constant attention, a book has to be pretty exciting to drag me into the basement to write about it.

But I forgot I hadn't written about this series, which I finished last month. (And it's so hot outside that the basement is a cool, pleasant place to be right now!)

I tend to avoid adult fantasy because it's all the same—please, no, not another inn! YA has been a refuge and a nurse log for original thinkers because it's creating itself as a genre and doesn't have all the weight of Tolkien (May He Live Forever) resting on it. When I discover a truly original adult fantasy I have to jump up and down and shout about it.

Range of GhostsShattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky  are truly original, epic, adult fantasy. (And this trilogy would be fine for YA audiences, as well*.)

The setting is fantastic, in all the meanings of that word. It's based on Asia: not just part of Asia, but the whole thing: deserts, steppes, mountains, jungles and fabulous, colorful empires that sound a little like Mongol, Persian, Chinese, Russian and lots of other cultures I don't even know about, but with new and fascinating magic and gods. So intriguing and interesting and well-developed! Here's Elizabeth Bear talking about how she deliberately set out to write something not Euro-centric:

I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

As a Euro-descended Westerner raised on Celtic and German fairy tales, I found it delightfully refreshing to read a novel that is completely different. And so imaginative! Not just one original magic system, but a different one for every country, with rituals and language and trappings that might be inspired by Buddhist or Hindu or Islamic imagery but are entirely new. World-building rests in the details, and the world of Eternal Sky is full of evocative objects with symbolic potential. Here is Bear talking about all the different kinds of books in her world, including books that blind those who read them. (No spoilers, but oh, that concept creates a plot thread that will wring your emotions and hang them out to dry!)

Rich and varied characters inhabit this wondrous world, and we get to meet them and learn each of their histories and secrets.  Temur, heir to the Padaparashna Seat, who stumbles off a battlefield with a remarkable horse, and then has to figure out what he's going to do about having survived.  Once-princess Samarkar, the wizard who gave up her fertility to find her magic, and then finds love. Edene, the steppe warrior-girl who starts off needing rescuing and ends up . . . well, I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say, but it's not where you expect her to end up! By the end, I think Smarkar and Edene have taken over as main characters from Temur, and I love their character arcs.

I love all the strong women: Hrahima the warrior tiger-woman who refuses to believe in her god; Yangchen, ambitious second wife of an emperor. Tsering-la, wizard without magic. Bear is obviously trying to upend gender stereotypes, and she does it gloriously. Take note, authors: we want more characters like these ones! (Kudos to Bear for showing nursing mothers going about their business as if having a baby was no hindrance—but I had to laugh at the idea of strapping a baby on your back and riding into battle. Babies would somewhat hinder that business.)

The love stories are brilliant: flawed, confused people cleaving together with the best of intentions and behaving maturely about it even when it gets complicated. Love that focuses more on tenderness than passion--oh, how refreshing!

There are all kinds of subplots that could have been novels in their own right—I did sometimes forget who people were, and I thought some of the subplots were tied up a bit too quickly or not really tied up at all, but it all added to the richness of the world.

Bear's writing is gorgeous, every sentence a pleasure to read, every description vivid and sensual.
This—this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
I can't forget to mention the animals, both real and fantastic: wonderfully depicted. Great dragons.

I will be searching out Bear's other writing (I have read the first book of her Jacob's Ladder trilogy, which was brilliant and fascinating and original and I didn't understand it at all. Maybe I should try again . . .) There are two novellas set in The Eternal Sky's world, so going to look for those now. (And apparently there will be more novels—not sequels, but same world.)

The Eternal Sky trilogy is a really good Thai curry: maybe a yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. Sweet with coconut milk, spicy, satisfying, and redolent with cilantro and lemon grass.

*The characters are adults and deal with issues such as childbirth and politics, which YA tends to leave alone, but the sex is off-stage, and the violence is realistic (there's a war going on) but not gory or gratuitous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day!!

Actually this is in Kananaskis Provincial Park,
but it's right next door to Banff
Yay Canada! Yay picnics in the park and bands playing music by the beach and people wearing red and white, and knowing that there are parades and fireworks going on (even though we don't really enjoy parades or fireworks so we don't go).

Some things I love about Canada:

Anne of Green Gables
Banff National Park
The Group of 7

I know, I know, those are all pretty typical. But they're still great, and I can say I grew up with them; they shaped who I am.

St John's, Newfoundland
The Arrogant Worms
The Trans Canada Highway (which I've driven in its entirety. Twice.)
Newfoundland (where I lived for a wonderful year)
Douglas Coupland
Terry Fox, and the fact that he is pretty much our biggest hero (every elementary kid knows who he is).
We love laughing at ourselves
Our political discourse is boring. Boring is good in politics!
We have really good Thai food (that's what we had tonight). And Italian food and Vietnamese food and Indian food and Russian food and Ethiopian food and  . . .  Let's hear it for multiculturalism!

Anyone else have things they love about Canada to share?

So June passed me by completely (I was in the garden picking strawberries all month)(I swear, it's true! I suffered from "eyes bigger than my stomach" syndrome when I planted two huge beds of strawberries, and I ended up with way more strawberries than I knew what to do with!). But in failing to blog in June I managed to miss the deadline for the Canadian Book Challenge this year, and I was only one book short! The worst thing is that I had actually read the thirteenth book, but was too deep in strawberries to get around to reviewing it. So, one day late, here's my final Canadian book of the year:

Half a Crown, by Jo Walton, is the conclusion to her Small Change trilogy. Set in an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and is sliding slowly but surely into fascism, the three books are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Inspector Carmichael is the hero (anti-hero?) again, and again he shares the narration with a naive girl who at first accepts what's going on because everyone else does, but then gradually realizes how wrong it is. The tension created by the alternating narratives is again brilliant. I hesitated to read this trilogy, because the premise sounded really depressing, but Walton is a compelling writer, and she does a wonderful job of drawing you into the world through the characters, and showing how individual moral choices are affected by and affect the moral choices of a society. Really worth reading. The dense, chewy texture of a real Montreal bagel with a complementary sharp/creamy shmear of Winnipeg cream cheese. (More things I love about Canada!)

John Mutford has way more great Canadian reads on his blog, The Book Mine Set, where he hosts the Canadian Book Challenge every year. I will do better next year, I promise!