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).