Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A few Christmassy Things

I don't seem to have had time to read very much this month. In fact, I have no idea where December went. It isn't already the 20th, it can't be! (I'm not one of those people who start getting ready for Christmas in July. I haven't even put up my Christmas tree yet!)

I have been doing pretty well with the #LIGHTtheWORLD challenge I decided to take on: do an act of service every day in December leading up to Christmas day. I've babysat people's kids, driven a friend to the hospital, driven a friend's cat to the vet, made soup for my son and his girlfriend when they had the flu, organized meals for a friend with a new baby, helped prepare and put on a church Christmas party, fed my friend's cat (yes, the same one) . . .  I'm not exactly following the "25 ways over 25 days," but that's just a guideline, really. (I can never say that line without hearing it in Geoffrey Rush's voice.) It's surprising how easy it is to find ways to help people, once you're specifically looking for them. (And there are lots of interesting ideas on the website—the theme is how to be like Jesus, but the ideas for service are non-denominational.)

I did finally bring my Christmas decorations out of storage and start putting some up, and one of my key decorating objects are the Christmas picture books I've been collecting. Here are a just a few:

This year in my annual visit to Kidsbooks (ostensibly to get gifts for nieces/nephews, but I always come away with a few presents to myself)("Would you like these wrapped?" the cashier asks. "Oh, no, that's fine. These are for me."), I didn't add to my Christmas book collection, but I got a couple of lovely picture books (in case you can't see it, the light blue one is Teacup, by Rebecca Young with stunning illustrations by Matt Ottley), and I splurged on the illustrated Harry Potter.

Here's hoping that you get the books you want most, and that the books you give will be truly appreciated! You've all been a light to me this year; thank you for sharing your love of books and your care for the world. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah—oh, it's the Winter Solstice today, isn't it! Blessed Winter Solstice! The light now begins to return! 

And have a Happy, Happy New Year!

Monday, November 28, 2016

MMGM: What I'm getting my nieces for Christmas

I'm late for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, and I don't have a whole review for you, but I thought I could share what I'm getting my two bright, spunky nieces (ages 7 and 5) for Christmas, in case you have a bright, spunky girl on your list and she doesn't already own these must-have books.

I haven't even read the sequels to Harriet the Invincible, Hamster Princess, (I've got Of Mice and Magic on hold at the library), but I know they're going to be awesome, so I'm getting all three currently published volumes for the girls. The first one turns Sleeping Beauty on its head (my review is here (along with some other books that would also make great gifts)), the second one updates the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the third is clearly a redo of Rapunzle (can't wait to see what she does with it!).

I got the girls the first Princess in Black book last Christmas, and it was a big hit, so I have to catch them up on that series. They've already got books 2 and 3, so I'll just get them The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation. Haven't read it yet, but, again, I have every confidence that Shannon Hale will give us another really fun story about the princess with a secret identity.

I finally got around to reading the first of the Hilda graphic novels, by Luke Pearson, and the entire series immediately made it onto my must-buy-for-the-nieces-plus-another-copy-of-the-whole-set-for me list. I didn't think anyone could outdo Harriet in the smart, spunky adventuress department, but quiet, idiosyncratic Hilda is now my favourite character ever. And the sly, clever humour of the story is my favourite kind of humour. (It also helps that it reminds me ever so slightly of the Moominland books, which I love. Something about the cozy but also existential whimsy of it, and the art style.)

Here's my niece; you can see why she needs books about brave adventuring girls!

Monday, November 21, 2016

MMGM: The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst

There is so much to say about this book, I don't even know where to start. The sheer amount of imagination packed into it . . .

What if dreamcatchers could store the dreams they caught, and what if a dream distiller could extract the dreams and funnel them into bottles? Would you want to buy one? If you were a little girl living above the shop that sold bottled dreams, would you sneak downstairs and drink an unlabeled dream, just to see what it was like?

And if there was a monster in this dream, would you introduce yourself to it and tell it how nice its tentacles were?

That's our main character, Sophie, so you know right off the bat that she's all kinds of awesomeness. In a marvellous twist on "it followed me home can I keep it," Sophie discovers she can bring a monster out of a dream. "He's really very sweet. Can I keep him? Please?"

Monster is possibly the very best talking creature ever to appear in a book, and you have to read this book just to meet him. He is utterly hilarious. (Sometimes he does Sophie's homework: "Last time you wrote every letter upside down. I had to claim it was an artistic experiment.") He's also smart and fierce and loyal and loves cupcakes.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a sweet, cute, funny book about some very scary things. The smooth-talking kidnapper Mr. Nightmare, with his perfectly normal suburban house, frightened adult me. But Sophie is stalwart, kind and straightforward, and she thinks outside the box. With Monster by her side (and, yes, the odd pink ninja bunny) she is prepared to rescue her friends and parents from someone with a very twisted idea of what dreams are for.

The writing is vivid, tangible, tasty—I loved the descriptions of the dream shop and the dream-distilling process—it would totally work that way! All the characters are people you could meet (while you're walking down your street)—I was particularly impressed with Sophie's loving, protective parents, who would do anything to keep their daughter safe and happy—they just ended up being afraid of the wrong thing.

This is a book about families and friendship, about secrets and truth, about trusting the right people and being afraid of the right things. (Yes, sometimes you should be afraid of pink bunnies. Depending on who you are.) It was delightful, exciting and substantial; I would happily return to this world and spend time with these people again. And maybe drink a dream while I was there.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a sticky, flakey pastry and a mug of dark hot chocolate you bought in the bookstore/cafe a kindly older couple recently opened in a renovated old house in your neighbourhood.

It's been a while since I've had a middle-grade book to review, but I've been getting lots of great suggestions from Shannon Messenger's weekly blog round-up. Thanks for connecting us together, Shannon, and best of luck with your most recent book launch!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A bunch of stuff I've been reading/watching

A lot's been going on in the past month, and I just haven't had the energy to do any blogging. Yes, there was that interesting political event south of the border, that we're all still trying to wrap our brains around. In my personal life I had my parents' surprise 50th Anniversary party to plan and pull off (with tons of help from my siblings)(it went so well!). I've been doing a major editing pass on my novel for NaNoEditMo (did I make that up or have other people already made it a thing?). And I got a nasty virus that laid me low for more than a week.

But being sick allowed me to binge-watch all 54 episodes of Nirvana in Fire, the most wonderful Chinese historical drama you've never heard of that everyone has to watch, it's that good. Gorgeous production values (the costumes. oh, the costumes!), fantastic acting, wonderful characters and a brilliant plot. Think Game of Thrones without the sex and gratituous violence; House of Cards but with characters you care about and can actually root for; Lord of the Rings without the orcs and elves. I suggest reading Sherwood Smith's excellent introduction to it before diving into the first episode, and keeping the Wikipedia character page open (though careful of spoilers) until you figure out who everyone is. Trust me, it just gets better and better; the final episodes are intense.

Since we all need to be making a lot more noise about diverse writers, characters, stories, I should mention a couple of books I picked off my library's Teen DiverseBooks shelf:

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor. I could simplify this by saying it's Harry Potter set in Nigeria starring a girl, but that wouldn't adequately convey the vividly imagined, complex, scary and fun world Okorafor creates. Sunny is trying to fit in after having moved to Nigeria from America; it doesn't help that she's albino. But she discovers that her differences are much deeper than that: she is one of the Leopard people, with magical abilities she must learn to master while keeping them a secret from the non-magical Lamb people. She has friends and mentors to help her through some dangerous trials, and the sometimes useful, sometimes patronizing commentary in Fast Facts for Free Agents, a guidebook that we get amusing snippets from throughout. I loved the magic, so different from the Eurocentric magic I grew up with. Leopard people get paid (in chittim that fall from the sky) every time they learn something new—there's a cool concept! Magical power manifests itself in a sort of mask which is your inner identity coming out—and your magical ability is connected to whatever makes you unique, even if others see it as a flaw or something to make fun of. Just so many interesting ideas to go along with all the colourful visuals. Lovely cover, too.

Prophecy, by Ellen Oh, is a light, easy read with a gorgeous ancient Korean setting. It's a fairly predictable quest fantasy with a warrior girl sworn to protect a young prince, and danger to the kingdom that can only be averted if certain magical objects are found. But it's lifted from run-of-the-mill by the vivid mythology and lovely period details. It's a world I really enjoyed exploring. I also liked Kira, liked her relationship with the (rather bratty) prince, liked the potential romance that is just hinted at (this is the first book of a trilogy). Not earth-shattering, but it's a worthy debut novel and I'm interested enough to read the rest of the trilogy and see where she takes the story.

A few other random things I've enjoyed recently . . .

Black Dog Short Stories II, by Rachel Neumeier. I love her writing and I love this series. These are more vignettes about the characters (such good characters! they all keep developing in such awesome ways!) with some tantalizing hints about the big bad for the next novel.

Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst. This is an author who is starting to get the notice she deserves for her widely varied body of work. I was really impressed by her creepy, paranormal thriller Conjured, and by her epic desert/gods fantasy Vessel. I'll be reviewing her fun, colourful middle-grade book The Girl Who Could Not Dream on Monday. Queen of Blood is another entirely new type of fantasy in a fantastically original new world. (It's marketed as adult, I guess because the characters are young adults and there's some (not at all explicit) sex, but it works well as YA.) Aratay is a forest kingdom populated by nature spirits who are only prevented from killing all humans by the power of the Queen, who channels their instincts into serving humans instead. Any girl with the ability to control spirits is trained to become a potential heir. It's a coming-of-age and developing-powers story in a fascinating, beautiful and dangerous setting. Durst is a masterful writer and it was an entirely enjoyable novel with great relationships, lots of intrigue and suspense and a fair bit of humour.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In which I discover manga

Back in April I posted a list of anime series that introduced an entirely new art form to me—anime is not the same as North American animation; there's a different art aesthetic, different storytelling paradigms, and a different understanding of the audience: it seems everyone in Japan watches anime, since there are titles appealing to all ages and interests. (I can update that list for you with a number of new series I've since watched and enjoyed.)

Well, it turns out I had barely crossed the lip of the rabbit hole. Anime is mostly based on manga, the Japanese version of comic books or graphic novels, and manga is an entire universe unto itself. I am now falling infinitely into more and more addictive imaginary worlds. I blame Nafiza, from Book Wars, who started it all with this post about Skip Beat.

Skip Beat (the title tells you nothing, don't even worry about it, just read Nafiza's description) does have an anime adaptation, which I obsessively watched all 25 episodes of on Crunchyroll, only to discover that the story has barely started (this is a common thing, where popular mangas get turned into animes, but only the first few volumes get animated, I guess because it's expensive and time-consuming). But lucky me, my library has all 37 extant volumes of the manga. Yes. 37. And it's not over yet! She's still putting out a new chapter every month (there are about 5 chapters per volume. it's not like 37 novels or anything. but still).

So since I'm all caught up with Kyoko's evolution as an actress and her excruciatingly slow romance, I had to find other mangas to fill my new need for cool combinations of story and art and heaping doses of Japanese culture. Here are some series I can highly recommend:

Akatsuki no Yona, or Yona of the Dawn: historical fantasy about a sheltered princess who escapes with her loyal bodyguard after her father the king is murdered, and then wanders the kingdom looking for the dragon warriors that are supposed to show up when the kingdom is in trouble. Gorgeous, gorgeous art, and wonderful characters. I love Yona's journey into strength; I love her bodyguard Hak's devotion; I love Soo-Won (I can't say anything about him because spoilers. but his hair. is. so. beautiful.) And the dragon warriors are all utterly delightful. I'm buying this one as it comes out in English (only 2 volumes are available so far) but reading the unofficial fan translations*, which are up to chapter 130 now.

Chihayafuru: contemporary realistic story about a girl whose friendship with two boys develops along with her passion for a competitive card came called karuta. This one has a lovely anime adaptation, that, again, only goes so far. The manga is up to 173 chapters now, and it looks like the story will follow all the characters into university at this rate! Another very slow romance, but mostly it's about developing strength, friendship, leadership, teamwork. I keep almost getting bored with all the detail about a card game I'll never play, but I care so much about the characters I eagerly await the next chapter. Great art. Taichi has the most beautiful eyes of any manga guy.

Ore Monogatari!!! or My Love Story!! (exclamation points are required): adorable and trope-subverting romance between a big ugly guy who is the sweetest softie at heart and the girl who recognizes how great he is. Other awesome characters include the good-looking best friend who should get all the girls but hasn't fallen in love with anyone yet, and everyone's parents, who actually play roles in the story (great meeting-the-parents scenes, for example). Realistically awkward high-school romance (takes them weeks to work up the courage to hold hands!) So cute and funny!

Well, there's more, but I'm not sure I want to admit how much I've read in the last few months! For lots more recommendations of both manga and North American graphic novels, Nicola Mansfield has a great blog.

And if you really want to know what other anime I've enjoyed . . .

Bleach (again with the not helpful titles; it probably makes more sense in Japanese)—soul reapers dispatch evil lost souls with really cool sentient swords, and occasionally attend their high school classes. After 100 episodes it started to feel repetitious, so I haven't finished all 15 seasons, but there's a reason this one is one of the most popular animes. (His name is Ichigo.)

Blue Exorcist—Rin is the son of Satan but he was raised by a priest and he wants to become an exorcist; if only he could stop bursting into blue flames whenever he gets upset. Lots of intriguing characters (the head of the exorcist school is Mephisto Pheles; might he possibly have a hidden agenda?) and complex relationships (like that between Rin and his twin brother who didn't inherit any demonic powers), great art, lots of humour, and a plot that develops nicely and comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of 25 episodes.

The Irregular at Magic High School—cool future in which magic is developed like technology and is used in warfare (of course); a brother and sister navigate a high school divided into higher- and lesser-skilled magic-users, but the brother has more talent than meets the eye.

Those three are on Netflix, in case you wanted to just take a look (Crunchyroll has some series you can watch for free but some stuff you have to have an account to watch.)

And I think I'll leave it at that for now! I welcome recommendations: have you watched or read anything you've loved?

*It's considered semi-acceptable to read these "scanlations" on a site like Batoto that doesn't use advertising (thus making money off the efforts of the original author and the volunteer translators), as long as you buy the official versions whenever you can. Since not all mangas are ever published in English, sometimes it's the only way to read them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was so excited to get this one in my mailbox. I loved The Scorpion Rules, and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel I had to edit all the exclamation points out of my enthusiastic reply. Erin Bow is simply an astonishing author; and this book is possibly even better than the first one (except that's actually impossible—when I reviewed The Scorpion Rules I said I wasn't sure I would reread it because of how intense it is, but I reread it before reading The Swan Riders, and loved it all to pieces even more).

Note that I will do my bestest not to spoil Swan Riders at all in this review (you really don't want it to be spoiled, trust me!), but it's impossible to talk about it without spoiling Scorpion Rules, so if you haven't read the first book, go read it now before you even look at the blurb for Swan Riders!

And if you've read Scorpion, then all you really need is this pretend blurb from E.K. Johnston:
"All the emotional punches of THE SCORPION RULES, but with horses instead of goats."
Very true. But, okay, I'll rave a bit more about it. LAST CHANCE NOT TO BE SPOILED FOR THE FIRST BOOK. Ahem. The Swan Riders starts right after the end of Scorpion.

Awesome first line:
So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse. 
Greta is riding across the Saskatchewan prairie with Talis (in Rachel's body) and two Swan Rider escorts, Francis Xavier and Sri. New characters that you will come to love with as much intensity as you loved Xia, Thandi, the Abbot, etc.  (Just so you don't get disappointed: Xia doesn't get any screen time in this book, though she's still an important emotional presence. But Elián does. Oh, Elián!)

We find out about Swan Riders—how and why they were created, their powers and limitations, why they choose to become Swan Riders, their relationship with Talis and the other AIs—and Bow has lots of room here for her trademark heartwrenching moral and existential dilemmas. Oh, Francis Xavier!

We find out more about Talis—oh, Talis! Some of the best scenes in the book are interludes from his point of view, memories that pack in a lot of world-building and explanation while being equal parts funny, creepy and heartbreaking. We meet a few more AIs, and learn more about why they are going insane (and why Greta might, if she can't get a grip on herself).

And, of course, because this is what the best science fiction does, Bow uses the idea of artificial intelligence, and Greta, who is turning into one, to explore what it means to be human. "The who of me. The why of me." What love means. Why it matters.

I said this in my CM Magazine review (I try to sound dispassionate and scholarly in these reviews, but sometimes my raving voice leaks through): Bow’s writing is elegant and exact: she illuminates rather than explains the technological and metaphysical complexities that underpin the novel, always bringing every idea back to the impact it has on an individual.
He'd seen it over and over: how a single memory rose from the organic mind, and then from the datastore, and then (reinforced, and stronger) from the organics, and then (reinforced, and stronger) . . . it was two mirrors reflecting each other. It was feedback squealing through a microphone. A single moment building to an intensity beyond what any psyche could endure.
 How could there be no circuit breaker? How could there be no grace? 
Those sentences that punch you in the gut. Lots of them in this book. (Talis learned how to "make it personal" from Erin Bow, just saying.) Lots of tense, visceral moments; lots of rock-you-back-on-your-feet plot twists. And humour, still so much humour. Talis being snarky, Elián being Elián, horses (with names like NORAD and Gordon Lightfoot) being horses.

I keep trying to write sentences that explain how wonderful Bow is at exploring really cool philosophical ideas with gripping drama, and my sentences keep getting tied up in themselves (like this one). Bow is just a master of metaphor and symbol and character and pacing, and everything, really.

The short version? If you loved Scorpion, you won't be disappointed in Swan, so just go read it already!

I've got the smell of roasting ham wafting through my house, and it's actually a good food metaphor for Swan Riders: salty, savoury, a bit smoky, meaty, all kinds of complex goodness.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, by the way! I'm thankful that we have awesome writers like Erin Bow in our beautiful country!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Queen's Thief 5 Announced!

Insert appropriate jumping up and down screaming gif (I have no idea how). May 2017 is the expected publication date. Not even a year away!

Much to my surprise, it's not about Eddis. Remember Kamut, the Mede slave? From Goodreads:
Kamet, a secretary and slave to his Mede master, has the ambition and the means to become one of the most powerful people in the Empire. But with a whispered warning the future he envisioned is wrenched away, and he is forced onto a very different path.
I'm wondering if we go to the Mede Empire with Kamut, or if his different path starts on the boat (see: burning boat on cover image). I'm really hoping we see more of Eddis and Sounis (and Gen and Attolia, of course)(and Costis, and the Magus), but I'll be happy no matter what the book's about!

Plus, it has maps!

This links to a brief interview with Megan Whalen Turner. Can I just say that we are all so lucky she has editors and a publisher who give her the time she needs to write her books so well?

It turns out I haven't reviewed any of MWT's Queen's Thief series on my blog, though I've mentioned her the odd time. That's only because I had read them all before I started the blog, and also because I figured everyone would already be familiar with her. Suffice it to say she is required reading for anyone who remotely likes YA fantasy. If you haven't met Eugenides yet, now's the perfect time to be introduced to one of the greatest characters ever created (I'm not exaggerating)!

This calls for some celebratory chocolate!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

12 Noblebright novels for 99 cents if you preorder

Thought I'd share a limited-time offer on Amazon that Sherwood Smith is involved in. Because it's a bit of a no-brainer. Even if I don't end up liking any of the novels I won't feel gypped! Since I haven't heard of any of the authors except for Sherwood Smith, I assume this is a way to get publicity for relatively new writers. Seems like a great idea—if I like any of them I'll happily review them on Goodreads.

The Sherwood Smith novel included is Lhind the Thief, one I already have, alas. I'm still hoping for more books set in Sartorias-Delas—she's given tantalizing hints that there are more to come, but she seems to be working on different things these days. (Darn those authors who don't cater to my every whim.)(Her historical books are great, too, though.)

I can't say I'm a fan of the descriptor "noblebright," but the sub-genre it describes is probably my favourite type of book. Rachel Neumeier has a recent post talking about it, and here's Sherwood Smith quoting C.J. Brightley (who chose the 12 novels in the bundle):

Noblebright fantasy has at least one important character with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of principle. The character is flawed, but his or her actions are generally defined by honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love, and kindness. The story upholds the goodness of the character; the character’s good qualities are not held up as naiveté, cluelessness, or stupidity, but rather shown to be worthwhile. Good characters can make a difference. Noblebright characters can learn and grow. They can deliberately choose to be kind when tempted to be unkind, they can choose generosity when it hurts, and they can influence their world and other characters for the better. In a noblebright story, even villains are not without hope; their stories may have a redemptive ending, or they may have some kind of conversion experience (religious or not). It’s not guaranteed, of course, but in a noblebright story, it’s a possibility.

Noblebright fantasy is not utopian fiction. The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.

What do you think of the term? And what have you read that you would call [word that's better than noblebright]?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Cybils Nominations are Open!

Sorry I'm a couple of days late with the announcement, but y'all prob'ly knew about it anyway. Make sure your favourite books of 2016 are nominated! Anyone can nominate: you don't have to be a blogger. You only have until October 15, so don't procrastinate. I can't wait to find out what everyone loved this year!

Here's the link with everything you need to know.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer

When I saw this title I knew I had to read this book, because Italy. I've never actually been to Milan, but here's a couple of shots from Florence:

So gorgeous. I pretty much love everything about Italy, so I was favourably disposed to like this book no matter what it was about. But demon catchers sounded fun! And I loved the juxtaposition of demons with the city of fashion, style, and all things modern and too cool for words.

The Demon Catchers of Milan satisfied in every respect. It's about Mia, an American girl who discovers the Italian side of her family when she gets possessed by a demon and her cousins show up to exorcise it. They inform her she's the latest in a long line of exorcists and she'd really better come to Italy to learn how to do it, or that demon is going to get her. So it's a story of cultural transplantation, as Mia gets plunked down into all things Italian and has to learn a new language, new food, new customs, new assumptions. Beyer obviously loves Italy, too, because her novel is a love story to the city of Milan and Italian culture in general. Her writing is beautiful, so you can taste the food and hear the bells and feel the cobblestones underfoot.

Oh, and Mia does also have to learn about demon catching, which actually took a back seat for me in terms of what I was interested in (I was too busy salivating over the descriptions of pasta). But I liked the way Beyer takes the traditional Catholic version of demons and puts her own spin on it. There are intriguing ideas hinted at that I hope are explored more in a sequel (there is a sequel, which I've just requested from InterLibraryLoan); since Mia is just learning we don't get the whole story about what demons are, but there seem to be different types, not all of which are totally evil.  I liked the way Italian history was brought into the story as an explanation for some of the hauntings.

This isn't a kick-some-demon-ass-with-magical-swords kind of story; it turns out that meditation is the big thing Mia has to train in. I liked that Beyer wasn't afraid to make her demon battles spiritual rather than physical, and I liked that Mia makes some significant mistakes because she's young and insecure and susceptible to temptation. She was a realistically flawed character that I could root for as I winced. I also loved the extended family and neighborhood with all the little squabbles and difficult personalities who nevertheless all came together when it mattered.

The Demon Catchers of Milan isn't a typical YA paranormal, and I liked its differences. I'm looking forward to finding out more about the world and spending more time with all those gorgeous Italians! And I really want to go back to Italy again!

Difficult to choose an Italian food for a metaphor. I think I'll go with panzanella, because you might not have heard of it: Tuscan bread salad. Sounds weird, maybe, but it's really tasty, the way the bread cubes soak up the olive oil and tomato juices and everything is fresh and savory and mmmmmm. Here's a beautiful picture of it and a recipe if you want to try it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Cybils Season Again! (And I'm a judge again, yay!)

I am excited to announce that I'm a Round 2 judge for the YA Speculative Fiction category, along with . . .


Hayley Beale


Aneeqah Naeem
My Not So Real Life 

Hi Hayley! (We judged together in MG Spec Fic last year.) Nice to meet you Pam, Samantha and Anneqah! I'm really looking forward to seeing the shortlists we get in January.

Good luck to all the Round 1 judges who have to choose their favourites from among all the YA speculative fiction published in North America between Oct 2015 and Oct 2016.

Nominations for Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS) in all categories open on October 1, so all of you out there in the blogosphere, start thinking of the books you loved this year and be sure to send in your nominations.

Monday, September 19, 2016

MMGM: The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout

This is an awesome middle-grade survival story with a snarky robot, a baby mammoth and the last boy on earth. It's imaginative, action-packed, thoughtful, and has a seriously creepy antagonist. There's just so much to love about this book.

The Boy at the End of the World uses a lot of post-apocalyptic tropes: we've totally screwed up the planet; the solutions we attempted to fix our screw ups just made things worse; we tried to at least preserve some of humanity by sealing them away underground; the legacy of genetic manipulation is seriously freaky and generally wants to kill you. Also, creating robots to protect humanity is never a good idea. (Have we not learned this lesson yet?)

The ideas are familiar, but Eekhout makes them fresh and fun with a likeable protagonist named Fisher (because that's the skill-set he got downloaded into him when he was awakened from cryogenic sleep)(possibly not the most useful skill-set he could have gotten) and the mostly clueless robot Click, who is his only help and companion. The plot is actually pretty dark and intense, since Fisher might be the only human left alive, and earth is now full of things that want to kill him, but the bantering and ultimately affectionate relationship between Fisher and Click, and Fisher's unflinching and sarcastic determination to survive, damn it! (I refuse to be killed by a parrot!) make it quite a warm, funny story. Also there's a baby mammoth, who poops a lot. (And becomes a dear character in his own right.)

It's a story with as many Awww moments as Yikes! moments, interspersed with lots of humour. It reminded me a lot of The Prince Who Fell From the Sky. Yes, there are some very obvious environmental messages, (plus the thing about the dangers of robots taking over the world, which, you know, bears repeating) but the true message is that what makes us human are the connections we make with others, and survival alone isn't survival at all.

Medium-rare steak lightly seasoned with garlic and pepper.

You'll find lots more middle-grade suggestions on Shannon Messenger's awesome blog, which hosts Marvellous Middle-Grade Monday every week!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Not if I See You First, by Eric Lindstrom

Last hike of the season:

September has arrived, and I have a ton of reviews to catch up on, since I was so lazy all summer. I'm always most excited about the book I just finished, so I shall begin with the book that kept me up past midnight last night. Not If I See You First is another contemporary realistic novel, which I've said in the past is not my favourite genre, but if people keep writing them like this I shall have to eat my words!

Parker is a high school student who has been blind since the accident that took her mother's life, and her father recently passed away, possibly to suicide. It sounds terribly depressing, but it's not. Parker is coping! She is coping with a vengeance, and woe to anyone who gets in her way. She has her friends, and her Rules, and the field she runs in early in the morning when no one can see a blind girl running. She is a fascinating, strong, flawed, funny character with a great voice. I loved her. I also loved every other character in the novel.

Although Not If I See You First is quite different in plot and theme from Exit, Pursued by a Bear , it squeezed my heart in just the same way. Mostly because it's got similar fiercely awesome friendships. Sarah and Molly and Faith were all amazing in different ways, and it was wonderful to see Parker trusting them and them not taking crap from Parker. The guys were also great, and Parker's interactions with them were so true to life in all the messy ways kids interact with each other that I wanted to cheer. (I'm not going to reveal the one guy's name, but kyun! (that's the Japanese sound effect for "momentary tightening of the chest due to powerful feelings")(useful word!)) Ahem.

It's hard to believe this is a debut novel, because the more I think of it the more impressed I am by how well-crafted it is: the way the character and plot arcs come together, the brilliant dramatic moments, the perfect balance between humour and tear-fest (mostly happy tear-fest, just so you know)(I mean, sad, but happy, 'cause that's what life is like, right?) Wonderful opening and closing scenes—it should be taught in a class about how to structure a novel.

It's a novel about being blind—about the ways in which we are all blind because we just can't see what's right in front of us. Parker is so very, very wrong about some significant things, and her learning process is painful and brilliantly satisfying.

I'm thinking something vinegar-y would work as a food metaphor—sharp and sour and refreshing. The sunomono salad my favourite sushi restaurant makes: thin cold rice noodles in a lemony rice vinegar broth/dressing (hard to describe, but it's really delicious); with shrimp.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friday, July 15, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E. K. Johnston

This Canadian YA author keeps astonishing me with every new book she writes. Her books are so completely original in setting, premise, plot, writing, that there's no way to compare them to anything else, except to other E.K. Johnston books. And this new one is completely different from anything else she's written. For one thing, it's contemporary realism. For another, it's a retelling (sort of) of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's lesser-performed works, probably because the plot is kind of weird and disjointed. Johnston takes the essence of it—a queen falsely accused of infidelity, the king who refuses to believe her, and her loyal friends who stand up for her in a number of different ways—and transforms it into a YA novel about a cheerleading team captain and the friends and family who stand by her when she goes through a traumatic event. (The book blurb tells you what the event is, but I refuse to be spoilery, because knowing ahead of time what happened affected the way I read the first part of the novel, and I would spare you that if it were only up to me.)

If I were an expert on The Winter's Tale, I would probably be even more amazed at the clever things Johnston does with Shakespeare's plot, but even if you've never heard of Shakespeare, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a brilliant, compelling story that everyone should read. It made me cry—but I was crying with happiness. The strength and fierceness of Hermione and her best friend Polly were overwhelmingly beautiful. Not to mention every other character who was there for Hermione in whatever way they were able to be, from her teammates to her devastated parents to the police officer to her therapist.

And you might say, well, it's not very realistic then, is it, because most people who go through something like this face a lot of rejection and feeling alone. And that's true. But Johnston chooses to show us what it would look like if someone did get support, and I think that's incredibly important. Hermione's healing process is slow and difficult, there's a lot of grieving that has to happen, and there are certainly people who make it worse (including the character named after the king, for obvious reasons), but this is a powerful parable that healing can happen, that an event like this does not have to define a person for the rest of their life.

I fear I am utterly failing to convey what a good book this is. (I was reading it in the bath, and I was reading for so long the bathwater got icy cold and I didn't even notice.) Hermione's voice is spot on; her friends are all real, interesting, varied people; her relationships with everyone are the messy, complicated relationships people have. I cared about every single character in the book. But, oh, Polly. Polly I loved. You have to meet her. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a Polly in their lives. Have I mentioned fierce?

It's a stunningly positive book. I want to emphasize this, because you might not want to pick it up if you hear about the trauma, the grief, etc. I know I probably wouldn't have read this if I didn't already love E.K. Johnston's work, and I would have missed out on so much.

Read it if you love good writing. Read it if you love strong female friendships. Ditto kick-ass heroines. Read it if you've ever known someone who went through something difficult and you didn't know how to help them. Give it to your best friend. Make your daughters read it. And your sons.

I will read anything this woman writes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fave Books so far in 2016

June was a reading slump for me: lots of DNFs, or finished but wasn't raving excitedly so what's the point of a blog post (FBWRESWTPOABP)(another acronym that's sure to catch on!). So maybe listing the books that stood out for me in the first half of this year will remind me of why I started blogging in the first place. (I just noticed that this is the third year in a row I haven't posted anything in June. Hmm. Must break this curse somehow!)

Unlike you more organized folks, I don't have a convenient list of the books I've read, but I can cobble something together from my library's Borrowing History (great idea, btw, if your library's website doesn't already do it),  Goodreads and my kindle.

And now that I've done that, I am greatly encouraged. Look at all these awesome books! In no particular order:

The Raven King, by Maggie Stiefvater. Loved this series; loved that I got to reread the first three before reading this one; loved this conclusion. I will write a full review of this, I promise!

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon. I rave about Castle Hangnail and her short adult fiction here; I've since read Bryony and Roses which is a wonderful Beauty and the Beast adaptation (my favourite one yet, I think, though I haven't reread MacKinley's Beauty in a while), and The Seventh Bride, which is a creepy sort of Bluebeard story.

The Future Falls, by Tanya Huff. Third book of an adult urban fantasy trilogy—funny, weird, crazy magic, really enjoyable. Yes, there are dragons. And pie.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein. This deserves an MMGM post. Fun adventure in a library we all wish were real, in the spirit of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho. Lots of you have raved about this one and I agree—Regency romance with magic. What's not to love? Although I almost put it down after the first couple of chapters; then Prunella showed up and I had no chance after that!

Kat Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis. Like a middle-grade version of Sorcerer to the Crown, actually. Great fun; definitely try it if you like Patricia C. Wrede's work.

Ambassador and Nomad, by William Alexander. My review here. Great middle-grade sci-fi duology.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks. Very funny comic strip collected into a book.

An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet. My review here. Stunning, original aftermath fantasy.

Mars Evacuees, by Sophie McDougall. Another Cybils nominee and I promised I would review it and I will, because it's great middle-grade sci-fi and we need more girls on Mars. There's a sequel coming out that I have to get my hands on: Space Hostages. (But Mars Evacuees can stand on its own; no cliffhanger ending.)

A Thousand Nights, by E. K. Johnston. My review here. Sheherezade retelling but far, far more. And now there's a companion novel coming out in Dec! Called Spindle—I'm guessing it's Sleeping Beauty? Very excited! (Love the covers on these.)

Karen Memery, by Elizabeth Bear. My review here. Steampunk western set in a Seattle brothel. Great fun all the way through.

Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton. My review here. Promising start to a western/middle-eastern epic fantasy.

The Steerswoman series, by Rosmary Kirstein.  My review here. I gobbled up these genre-bending fantasies with awesome characters in a fascinating world.

Oh, and I have to mention a fantastic non-fiction book I just finished. (I need to read more non-fiction, and I certainly would if they were all as good as this one!) It has the best title ever: The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu. You know you have to read it now, don't you!