Monday, September 28, 2015

MMGM: Skullduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

For the longest time I kept seeing the Skullduggery Pleasant sequels on my library shelves and thinking, "those sound interesting; if I ever see the first book I might check it out." But the first book was never there. Finally one day I was browsing in the Teen section, and there it was: Skullduggery Pleasant. So I picked it up and did my usual book-handling-to-get-a-sense-of-whether-I-might-like-it.*

Great cover with a great tag line:

Intriguing blurb. "The end of the world? Over his dead body."

My favourite tone is tongue-in-cheek, so the first paragraph was promising:
Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone - not least himself. One moment he was in his study, seven words into the twenty-fifth sentence of the final chapter of his new book, And the Darkness Rained upon Them, and the next he was dead. A tragic loss, his mind echoed numbly as he slipped away.
I kept reading. (I'm sitting on the floor in the library aisle at this point.) Main character Stephanie Edgley came on stage with an interesting way of looking at the world that right away made me want to stick with her. A few pages in came the paragraph that clinched it for me:
“Do you know anything about engines?” Stephanie asked.
“That’s why I have a husband, so I don’t have to. Engines and shelves, that’s why men were invented."
Stephanie made a mental note to learn about engines before she turned eighteen. She wasn’t too fussed about the shelves.
At that point I took the book home and devoured it.

Walking, talking skeleton detective and defender-of-the-good Skullduggery Pleasant is a fantastic, hilarious character with attitude and banter to spare. Think Harry Dresden if Tim Burton wrote the screenplay. Stephanie keeps right up with him in the attitude and banter departments, and can out-logic and out-stubborn him the way only a 12-year-old can. Their partnership, and friendship, is a joy to watch unfold.

The world is populated with ridiculous monsters that turn out to be quite frightening, an evil guy trying to take over the world (of course), and lots of characters with ambiguous motivations and awesome names like Ghastly Bespoke. (If you don't think Skullduggery Pleasant and Ghastly Bespoke are awesome names, then this book might not be for you.)

The story ended satisfactorily, but there are eight more books in the series (plus a couple of short-story collections), so lots more potential adventures for the saving-the-world-while-insulting-each-other duo. I found Book 1 thoroughly entertaining, and with enough depth of character that I've already got Book 2 out (from the Children's section of the library this time). So, which section does the series belong in? I would say older middle-grade, because there are some violent and scary bits**, and because the humour will appeal to a slightly more sophisticated reader. (Ahem. You know, like me. 'Cause I'm sophisticated.)

My sister made this chocolate caramel peanut butter pie thing that is to die for, and I think it's a good match for this book: dark and chewy and not good for you at all!

For more Marvelous Middle-grade recommendations, run don't walk over to Shannon Messenger's blog every Monday.

* You can't do this with e-books. I find that problematic.
** As violent and scary as the latter Harry Potter books. Nothing approaching Hunger Games. And nothing remotely romantic.

Friday, September 25, 2015

I'm a Cybils Judge!

It is with much excitement (and no little trepidation) that I announce my selection as a Round 2 Judge in the Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Cybil Awards.

If you don't know what the Cybils are, go here to find out about the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards that have been going on for 10 years now. Following the Cybils is a great way to find out about the best new books out there in all categories of books for young people.

Nominations for books to be considered for awards are open Oct 1-15, and you can nominate! I'll link you to the information about how to submit a book next week.

Get involved in the conversation! It benefits everyone when more people are talking about kid's books, and I'm so excited to be part of the team that will be debating the best Middle-Grade Spec Fic released last year. Check out the blogs of my fellow judges in this category:

Round 1
Melissa Fox
Book Nut
Annamaria Anderson
Books Together
Round 2
Kim Aippersbach
Dead Houseplants
Hayley Beale

Monday, September 21, 2015

MMGM: The Ashtown Burials, by N. D. Wilson

Nooooo! It's not a trilogy. You can't leave me hanging like that!

I picked up The Dragon's Tooth at my library after loving Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy.  I devoured Dragon's Tooth and couldn't wait until the library opened again to get The Drowned Vault and Empire of Bones, so I bought them on Kindle. Then I got to the end of Empire of Bones and . . . the story's not over, and the next book isn't out yet! *Insert appropriate devastated GIF*

The Ashtown Burials series is what you'd get if H.G. Wells, Mary Shelly, and Jules Verne traveled forward in time (because they could do that) and collaborated on writing a cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. With consulting help from Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix. Have we invented a genre name yet for steampunk based on 1920s technology and aesthetics? That's what this is. Percy Jackson meets Indiana Jones is a pretty good tagline. (Also some homage to Robert Louis Stevenson.)

Are you intrigued yet?

Wilson is awesome at creating detailed, grounded real-world settings and then springboarding out of them into vast imaginative landscapes. The Dragon's Tooth starts in a dingy motel in the middle of nowhere, MidWest USA. We meet Cyrus, Antigone and Daniel Smith, siblings trying to hold it together after the death of their father while their mother is in a coma. We spend just enough time to start really caring about these people when Boom! (literally) we're off on a mad chase to get to the Ashtown Estate, where Cyrus and Antigone have to join an ancient order of explorers who are their only hope of saving Daniel, who was kidnapped by some seriously strange henchmen (they have gills). And it just gets crazier from there.

There's so much to say about these books I don't even know where to start. They are stuffed full of action, danger, cool settings, weird magical powers, ancient monsters, secret inheritances, creepy villains, colorful characters of all sorts, even mythological ones (he uses a lot of Jewish mythology, which is fun and different).  Each book is a roller-coaster ride (sometimes literally) of fast-paced adventure, but there is depth to the characters, an underlying theme or moral centre grounding all the excitement.

I cared deeply about Cyrus and his family. I loved the relationship between Cyrus and Antigone, and the loyal band of friends that joins them. Cyrus has a pretty serious hero's journey to go through; there are times when I didn't quite believe in the sheer intensity of what he has to face. But his companions are always there to make a wisecrack and pick up the pieces, bringing it back to the real. Lots of sometimes painful explorations of trust and loyalty, and in the end love is the only reason that makes sense, the reason Cyrus gets through.

Not unscathed, however. These are quite dark, fairly violent books. People die, sometimes in quite horrible ways. I would still call it middle-grade, but definitely the upper range. The villain of the third book is horrible in a particularly grotesque way. Wilson keeps upping the stakes, and I have no idea what he's going to do to top that nastiness!

I can't find any information on when the next book will be out. There will be a next book, won't there? Because these three were published 2011, 2012, 2013, and then in 2014 he put out Boys of Blur, which is not related. He can't possibly think it's okay to leave Cyrus and his friends where they were at the end of Empire of Bones!!

Ahem. I'm fine. But seriously . . .

These books are a smorgasbord, a cornucopia, a feast of all the things you can think of, like the buffet at Club Med!

For more marvelous middle-grade suggestions, visit Shannon Messenger's blog every Monday.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Every Breath and Every Word, by Ellie Marney

The titles are rather generic, but Every Breath and Every Word are really good. I mean Really. Really. Good. As in, I closed the cover of the first one (a library copy) and immediately went to my Kindle to download the second because there was no way I was waiting until my library got it. Ellie Marney is a fantastic writer. (What is it with those Australians: something in the soil there grows fabulously talented people!)

I'm sorry, Benedict*, but Mycroft has just supplanted you as my favourite Sherlock Holmes interpretation. James Mycroft and Rachel Watts: two teenagers in Melbourne, Australia, neighbours, friends; both smart, observant, good at deductive reasoning. Mycroft is intense, brilliant, damaged, audacious, troubled, but kind. And seriously hot. I mean, wowza. He's got a traumatic past and a broken present and he acts out unpredictably; he leaps off the page like a train wreck.

Rachel Watts is more grounded but she's got her own issues. She's strong—physically and mentally—, stubborn, brave and practical, with the hands-on knowledge and experience of a sheep farmer. I loved all the specific details of life on the farm that she remembers with grief because her family had to leave and come to the city. She feels so out of place in the city; she and Mycroft are two misfits drawn together by their intelligence and by their compassionate observation of the world around them.

Awesome characters! So real, so deep, so rounded; definitely teens, definitely Australian—and at the same time both such great versions of Holmes and Watson. **Very slight spoiler alert, highlight to read: And the chemistry between them? I thought the pages were going to catch fire! 

(Not that romance is the main focus of these books; the best thing about them is the true friendship—and partnership—between Mycroft and Watts. But there's this simmering sexual tension going through the whole thing, and, gotta say, some of the best kissing scenes I've ever read.)

The writing is superb. Vivid, in-your-face, muscular prose. Visceral. I felt as though I were inhabiting Rachel's skin. Her emotions, her reactions all felt completely authentic and dragged me along with her through the story. There is violence and death—it is a murder mystery, after all—and Marney doesn't pull her punches in describing it. But nothing gratuitous or glorified; rather, the investigation of death is a celebration of our fragile humanity. Life matters.

I loved the unapologetic Aussie-ness of the setting and the language. There were words and phrases I had no idea what they meant but it didn't matter; they just added so much color.

There were the odd moments when my suspension of disbelief stuttered—Mycroft and Watts get themselves into some situations that aren't entirely plausible, particularly for teens—but it was always so exciting that I didn't care, and their reactions to said situations were completely believable. The second book is tighter than the first book; I feel as though Marney is just hitting her stride as a writer and I can't wait for the next installment!

I think I have to go with BBQ for my food analogy here (pretty sure that's an Australian thing): meaty, tender, falling-off-the bone ribs with a smoky-sweet-spicy sauce. Lick your fingers and you still want more.

* Cumberbatch. Of the BBC series Sherlock. Which if you haven't seen stop reading this blog and go to Netflix now!

Friday, September 11, 2015

A rant about MacGuffins with a challenge at the end (and a prize)

I interrupt this calm and intellectual book review blog to bring you a rant about a particular kind of plot that is repeated over and over again in adventure novels and is starting to drive me crazy. (I won't tell you what book I'm reading right now, because I'm actually quite enjoying it, and I'll probably give it a great review. But.)

If there is an Object of Power, and if the Big Bad Evil Guy needs this Object of Power in order to unleash his horrific devastation on the inhabitants of the earth, and if said Object of Power is hidden, where the Big Bad Guy can't find it . . . then the one thing you should never, ever do is go find the Object of Power! It's hidden! The Bad Guy doesn't have it! That's an excellent status quo; why would you want to change it?

The reason the characters use is always "we have to find the Object before the Bad Guy finds it." Why?! Why do you have to find it? You know he's just going to wait until you've done all the hard work of solving the complex mystery that only you can solve, and then he's going to walk up and take it from you, just like in the opening scene of Indiana Jones.

The unspoken assumption behind that reasoning is that "we will be able to keep the Object away from the Bad Guy." But you can't! You know you can't! And you've forgotten the key fact about the status quo: when the object is hidden, the Bad Guy doesn't have it! He can only get his nasty little hands on it if you find it. So don't go find it!

It is frozen within an iceberg in the Lake of Green Death,
and only once a century does the rainbow appear to open the pathway to access it,
and even then you can only find it if you washed your knees with lavender soap that morning
Of course the real reason the characters go find the Object is that there would be no plot if they didn't. The Object of Power is the MacGuffin that gets everyone traipsing about through the landscape, solving puzzles and fighting henchmen and bonding with sidekicks.

So I've got a writing prompt for you*: start with a hidden Object of Power situation and come up with something else for the characters to do besides go find it. (Bonus points for really funny Objects of Power.)

Aaaannnnnnd I'll even give a prize to the best idea, as judged by me and my writing group. An e-gift certificate to the Amazon in your country.

You have until Sept 30. Go find me a MacGuffin! I mean don't! Don't find me a MacGuffin!

*Assuming you've managed to extricate yourself from TVTropes, if you followed my MacGuffin link.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen, and The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby

Apparently there's a secret society of Canadians named Susan/Susin who write quirky, funny, moving, painfully accurate stories about teens trying to survive adolescence.

I've raved before about Susan Juby, whose Alice books are a treat and whose Woefield Poultry Collective had me in stitches the whole way through, so I was looking forward to The Truth Commission.

It's not quite as side-splitting as her earlier books, but it's a fun read with a terrifically engaging narrator. Norm (short for Normandy) is writing a narrative non-fiction project for one of her classes at a fine-arts high-school. It's sort of a diary on steroids, because she includes lots of footnotes and meta-textual observations addressed to her English teacher. Also illustrations. All very entertaining.

The story Norm tells is about her and her friends' attempts to find out the truth about various people at school (hence "the Truth Commission"), but the real story is Norm finding out the truth about her sister. She ruined Norm's and her parents' lives by turning them into the subjects of her famous graphic novels, and is now being even more nastily manipulative and exploitative. I was a little disappointed in the Truth Commission concept, because it didn't seem to go anywhere (so much potential for social blunders that wasn't realized), but once the plot about the sister got into gear: woah! Lots of themes about what is art and what is truth and who gets to tell it.

What I loved most about the book was Norm and her two friends, Neil and Dawn. They were hilariously quirky and their friendship was a delight. And I loved Norm's voice, and all the thematic threads arising from Norm telling her story, allowing her long-silenced voice to be heard. Lots of layers of plot, structure, theme, character development come together very satisfactorily.

Fish tacos. I don't know why; maybe because fish tacos are kind of quirky, in a delicious way.

Susin Nielsen apparently went to the same class on voice as Susan Juby. The two narrators of we are all made of molecules are brilliant characters with equally hilarious voices. Stewart and Ashley are from opposite ends of the high school social spectrum, and being thrown together in a step family causes predictable conflict. The plot isn't particularly unique, but the voices kept me riveted to the page.

I kept thinking that they were both a little caricatured—awkward smart kid and clueless mean girl—but people really are that weird, and that hateful, and that oblivious, and that selfish. Giving us the two perspectives in first person narration means that we both laugh at and sympathize with both characters, even though Stewart is immediately loveable and Ashley is mostly hateable, until she finally gets her comeuppance and actually gains a little insight.

There are serious issues dealt with, from bullying to homophobia to date rape, but I'd still say it's middle-grade appropriate (nothing bad actually happens; it just might have). The ending is perhaps a bit too rosy, but it's a light-hearted book, for all it can sometimes hit you in the solar plexus. I definitely had tears in my eyes at some points, and was laughing out loud at others.

Other things I liked about it: the parents are all real, realistic, present characters, not perfect but doing their best to be parents. I really liked both kids' relationships with their parents and stepparents (and I think that's what got me over how really horrible Ashley was: the fact that she had a mom and dad who loved her and were trying hard to be patient with her).

I loved the cover and the title, too; they definitely got me to pick up the book, when just reading the blurb I probably wouldn't have. Maybe I should read more contemporary realistic fiction! (But only if the author's name is Susa/in!)

Lasagne. All the ingredients are familiar, but when it's well-done, it transcends comfort food (while still being ultimately comforting).

For more great Canadian reads, head over to John Mutford's blog. These two books make 4/13 for my  Canadian Book Challenge. I'm on track so far!