Monday, July 13, 2015

MMGM: The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

There are a lot of things Frances Hardinge does well (pretty much everything, as far as I'm concerned), but setting/world-building has to be one of her top talents. Every book she's written, she's come up with a completely different world and she's filled it in with all the layers and detail and fascinating life that the real world has, only better, because it's bursting with all the cool stuff only Hardinge's imagination can come up with.

Her earlier books were set in completely imaginary worlds, but her latest two have taken times and places from real history and magically transformed them. I loved what Cuckoo Song did with the 1920's.

The Lie Tree starts with England in the Nineteenth Century: Age of Scientific Discovery, when Geology and Darwin upended everything man believed about the world, when anyone could be an amateur botanist or paleontologist, when finding a new species of flower could make someone famous. A time when anything was possible, and everyone wanted to be the one to find it out.

(That spirit of discovery and possibility is a large part of why I think Steampunk is so popular; there was a naivety and excitement that somehow isn't possible in the cyber age, that we wish we could reclaim.)

Drop into this exciting atmosphere a family running away from scandal and ruin, with a daughter who would give anything to join her father in his scientific endeavours, to have her intelligence and curiosity valued. But she is a girl, so no one will take her seriously, most particularly not her father. Faith is Calpurnia Tate without an encouraging grandfather, and it's torture to watch her be rebuffed and belittled. She cannot blossom, but she still must grow, as a plant contorts itself to grow to the light.

Hardinge's female protagonists are another one of her amazing strengths. Faith (brilliant name, given all the themes of the book) is remarkable because she says and thinks and does some truly awful things that in any other character would make her thoroughly unlikeable—but she is so entirely justified that I ended up rooting for her all the way. Her anger, her hatred, her need for vengeance are all heart-breakingly understandable (as is her loyalty to someone who does not deserve it). She's smart and curious and analytical and rational and WHY CAN'T ANYONE VALUE THAT INSTEAD OF TELLING HER TO BE QUIET AND DEMURE???

So, major theme about gender equality, clearly (the nineteenth century is a great venue for that discussion). But it's all woven in with themes about everyone having depths: there isn't a single character who is what they appear to be. And almost everyone is deliberately pretending to be someone else in order to get what they want out of other people (not a scenario limited to the nineteenth century!). Lies, manipulation, betrayal, judgement: Faith is trying to figure out what is true and right but she's not getting much help from any of the adults around! It's deeply satisfying to watch her renegotiate all her relationships—with mother, father, brother, that annoying boy who keeps turning up—as she learns more truths about herself and everyone else.

The only fantastical element in this story is the Lie Tree itself, and I loved how it was presented as a scientific curiosity: discovered by an exploring botanist in a far-off land, with unique properties that need to be studied through experimentation. (Because, why not a plant that lives on lies? Giant flying lizards are real!) The Lie Tree is marvelously creepy—almost sentient, certainly evil—though it only has the evil people bring to it. And the evil people will do to try to get their hands on it.

Reading the synopsis, I wasn't sure this was a book I would like (I hate themes of social ostracism, and lying as a plot element generally makes me squidgy). But Hardinge made me like it. I loved her flawed, striving characters; I was absorbed in the time and place and atmosphere; the multi-layered plot more than fulfilled all its promises. Whenever I finish a Hardinge novel I always clutch it to my chest and say, "Yes!" I had to look up "satisfied" in the thesaurus, because it doesn't seem a strong enough word for how The Lie Tree made me feel. "Requited." That works. I loved this book and it loved me back.

Layered, meaty, satisfying, great British feel: I think Shepherd's Pie is the food metaphor of choice for this one.

I tried to finish this post in time for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, since I haven't had an MMGM for a while. I didn't make it in time to get on Shannon Messenger's list, but you should go see what everyone else reviewed this week. I've discovered a number of favourite books there!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Huh. I kind of fell off the blogging horse and it trotted away without me for a while there. I'm mostly mad at myself that I didn't make my Canadian Book Challenge for last year: I only read 10 out of the required 13 Canadian books before July 1 (Canada Day). Never daunted by failure, however, I nobly join the Challenge yet again! For my first book, I've got a really different debut novel by Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Mareno-Garcia.

Signal to Noise is the novel you're looking for if you're getting tired of same-old YA fantasy, if witches make you yawn, if spunky, wise-beyond-their-years adolescent protagonists are driving you crazy, if you'd just like to see a little reality in characters' interactions. And if you'd love, for once, if something was set somewhere other than England or North America, please, pretty please with a cherry on top. (It also helps if you secretly think the 80's were kind of cool, and if you're a bit of a music nerd.)

How about Mexico City for a setting? And magic that uses David Bowie* songs. And a character who embodies all the confusion, the mistakes, the self-centeredness, the pettiness, the loneliness and longing of adolescence. Meche grabbed me from the start, sitting in an airplane, returning against her will to the city of her childhood. Something bad happened back then, we don't know what; we only know she successfully escaped and has avoided dealing with any of it for twenty years. Now she's back in Mexico City for her father's funeral, and as she re-encounters the family and friends she left behind, we relive with her in flashback the series of magical discoveries and mistakes that sent her running away.

The dual time-frame narration works particularly well for this story. Meche in the present has no magic, so when Meche in the past discovers how to cast spells by playing the right record with the right intention, there is an immediate tension built up: why did she lose or give up her power? We meet her friends in the past, and then we meet them in the present, and we wonder how they became so estranged. We're compelled through the unfolding of the stories, past and present, by the burning question: what went wrong?

Meche's magical development is much more realistic than in most YA fantasies. Meche and her friends don't use their magic to save the world; not even to save themselves—because, really, what adolescent would even know how to do that? They do exactly the things that—let's be honest here—your teenage self would do if you could cast spells. You would want to be better-looking, more fashionable, more popular. And the spells work about as well as you'd expect them to.

This is not the novel for you if you want detailed explanations of magical workings; it's not really about the magic. It's about the relationships, and it is beautifully, agonizingly detailed about the communications and miscommunications, the emotions expressed and repressed, the needs met and denied, that form the intricate, ever-changing web of human interactions. We love and hate a person equally, sometimes at the same time. We never say what we mean but we desperately want to be understood. The magic is really a metaphor for the power we have over the people in our lives, power we use without knowing, or without knowing the consequences. We watch Meche stumble toward her doom, wincing at every choice she makes while understanding exactly why she makes it. She is one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever felt such great affection for.

I love all the characters, but I particularly love Sebastian, his awkwardness, his honesty, his little kindnesses. His relationship with Meche is so perfectly drawn; they make you cry, they make you want to shake them. I also really liked Meche's grandmother and her role in the story.

This is a novel that keeps you thinking, that makes you want to go back into it and reread scenes, knowing what you find out later. It also makes you listen to a lot of music you might never otherwise encounter! And lest my review makes it sound overly depressing and tragic, without spoilers all I can say is, it's not. It's not too late for Meche to fix the mistakes of her past, and it's extremely satisfying when she finally clues into how she can do that.

The Book Smugglers did a great review of Signal to Noise on Kirkus, and Ana points out the same difficulty I'm having: how to categorize this book. The plot revolves** around three teenage friends learning how to do magic by playing records, but it feels more like a realistic novel than a fantasy. It might not count as YA because Meche is in her mid-thirties when she arrives in Mexico City, although, because she hasn't been back since she was a teenager, she is immediately thrown back into the relationships and attitudes of her adolescence so she doesn't seem like a 30-year-old. But on the other (other?) hand, teenagers may not enjoy reading such a realistic portrayal of their flaws!

Let's call it insightful YA literary fantasy. And that's a category I'd happily read more of.

Full disclosure: I know Silvia. But I bought the book with my own money, and I never promised I'd review it: if I hadn't liked it, I would never have mentioned it again. (And she would never ask me about it, because that would be just awkward, right?) Good thing I liked it!

For more Canadian books of every category, visit John Mutford's blog and see what the other Canadian Challenge participants have been reading.

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

*Not to mention a bunch of other artists I'd never heard of but when I YouTubed them I recognized their songs. Prokol Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale," for example (it was in the movie Oblivion, too!):

And there's a playlist of all the songs mentioned! Handy to have while you're reading.

**No pun intended.