Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In which I discover anime

I didn't know very much about anime (still don't!): I'd seen My Friend Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle, and I'd heard of Sailor Moon (I'm revealing my age here, I know!). People whose taste in books I like often refer to Avatar: The Last Airbender in glowing terms, but the one time I tried watching it I was put off by the stylized way emotions were depicted and didn't get past the first episode.

But I kept seeing intriguing looking titles on Netflix, and I thought (as one does, with Netflix): what the heck, why not try something. So I did, and now I'm hooked. I'm running out of anime on (Canadian) Netflix I want to watch, so I need recommendations of where to go next.

Here's what I've liked so far:

Sword Art Online: I'm a sucker for dark-eyed loners with kind hearts and superior swordsmanship, so online game hero Kirito was the perfect gateway drug for me. I loved the art in this one: the stunning, imaginative online world, and the way the real world was subtly different, depicted in small details (like water dripping from a faucet). The character development kept me interested in the story, in particular the strong female characters. Just don't watch the second plot arc of the first season (starting in episode 16). It's awful. But Sword Art Online II redeemed itself.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit: a beautiful tale about a prince who hosts a water demon and the female bodyguard who swears to protect him until the demon can be born. Everything about this one is lovely: the art, the landscapes and period details, the characters, the gentle humour. Very sweet.

Ruroni Kenshin: a wandering swordsman protects the innocent with his reverse-blade sword, as atonement for the many people he killed during the Meiji Revolution as Battosai the Manslayer. Sounds serious, and there are some nice serious bits to it—mostly centered around Kenshin's struggle not to return to his former violent self—, but this one is mostly light and fun. It has a more "cartoony" art style with the exaggerated facial expressions I originally found annoying (eyes and mouth turn into geometric shapes to show various extreme emotions) but I'm getting used to now. The first season assembles a "team" that gets into various kinds of trouble against all sorts of bad guys. You can't take the plot too seriously, but I love all the character arcs. I also love all the historical references to the Meiji era. Plus, I might even love Kenshin more than I love Kirito ...

Your Lie in April: contemporary, realistic story about a pianist prodigy who stops playing when his mother dies, and the free-spirited violinist who rekindles his love of music. Gorgeous, gorgeous art, and a spectacular soundtrack. Depicts with grim accuracy the stress of competitions for young musicians, but also beautifully conveys the power of music to heal and transform. Quite impressive.

I also tried a couple of "mech-anime" titles, with giant fighting robots (because, giant fighting robots, of course!). I particularly enjoyed the world-building and plot arc of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, about a soldier from space who lands on a water-covered Earth and discovers there is more to life than fighting (Don't worry, there's still plenty of fighting. With giant fighting robots, of course. I loved the robot's personality!)

And I really liked the characters in Aldnoah.Zero, though the story of the Martian empire attacking earth was a little far-fetched.

Have you seen any anime shows you've particularly enjoyed? And where else can I go once I've exhausted Netflix's limited offerings?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Quick Guide to Some of My Favourite Books

My daughter just got on a plane for a five week trip to South America (am I worried? nah, of course not! what could possibly go wrong!), and so I lent her my Kindle for the ridiculously long plane ride (and all the bus rides etc.). To help her decide what to read, here are quick descriptions of the books on my Kindle I think she might like (in no particular order):

Touchstone series, by Andrea K. Höst
Girl accidentally walks through a portal to another planet. Wilderness survival story until the patrollers from an advanced society rescue her and she discovers—oh, but I don't want to spoil it! Very fun adventure with a bit of intense romance. (I will say nothing about the hot psychic ninja warriors in form-fitting nanotech suits. Ahem.) Easy reading YA.
Queen's Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner
Eugenides is a thief and a trickster, and if you think you know what he's up to, you're most certainly wrong. The first book is fairly simple (except that you don't even know you don't know what Eugenides is up to), written for a younger audience; then the next books get much more intense and complicated with plots and schemes and politics and the odd intervention of the gods. Vaguely ancient Greece-type setting. Eugenides is one of the best characters ever written. YA-adult.

A Matter of Magic, by Patricia Wrede
She tries to steal from a magician: not a good idea. But he thinks she should become his apprentice. Light-hearted magical adventure in an 18thC England setting: drawing rooms and highwaymen and whatnot. Cute and fun, young YA.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
A weary soldier returns to the estate he grew up on, hoping to find a place as a servant. Instead he gets involved in royal plots and has to lift the curse on the royal family before the kingdom is ruined. Very well-written, wonderful characters. Gets fairly intense. Adult fantasy.

The Curse Workers series, by Holly Black

What if magic ran in the Mafia family? Twisty plot about a family of con artists, each with different ways of magically affecting people, like persuasion or memory alteration. Cassel's talent is death. His sarcastic narration lightens this dark YA story of manipulation and deceit.

Black Dog series, by Rachel Neumeier
Werewolves, but not like any werewolves you've seen before. Natividad and her two brothers flee to Vermont seeking the help of the formidable Dimilioc clan, knowing they will want Natividad for her Pure magic, but not sure they'll let her brothers live. Great family interactions, interesting pack dynamics: there's lots of fighting and stuff but it's really all about the relationships. Great writing and lots of humour to offset the throats getting ripped out. YA.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Did you know it was Poem In Your Pocket Day?

If you have a poem in your pocket today, you can share it with someone who might need a poem. (And we all need a poem every now and again.)

Here's mine:

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

(Some moments when I have rested in the grace of the world and felt free.)

Monday, April 11, 2016

MMGM: Castle Hangnail, and other awesome stuff by Ursula Vernon (who is also T. Kingfisher)

I said I would review the rest of the Cybil's Middle-Grade Spec Fic shortlist, and then I got distracted by other books (there are always other books, aren't there!). But I just read a novella by T. Kingfisher, who, it turns out, is actually Ursula Vernon, when she's writing for adults. Which I didn't know she did. Which is very exciting, because she's an awesome writer! So I decided I needed to do a fangirly squee post about Ursula Vernon. Which will include a review of Castle Hangnail!

Ursula Vernon has definitely inherited the mantle of Eva Ibbotson. Castle Hangnail will thrill anyone who loved Which Witch: it's pretty much a remake of that story (in fact, there are several elements of homage, if you're looking for them, including the bat in Molly's hair): there's a gloomy castle full of quirky minions in need of a wicked master, and a young witch who has the right boots but might not otherwise be as qualified for the position as she claims. I think Ibbotson would be pleased at the way Molly sabotages the evil developer (just the sort of small-minded antagonist Ibbotson loved to defeat) and would cheer the way she gets the bullying sorceress Eudaimonia to defeat herself.

I think Vernon's heroine is a little more complicated and interesting than Ibbotson's straightforward good guys, and her secondary characters are marvelously well-rounded, each with their own little character arc. There's also a significantly darker streak to the magic and the plot—dare I say there's some Diana Wynne Jones going on here, too?

The humour is lovely and multi-layered, as you would expect from the author of Harriet the Invincible (and I've got to read the Dragonbreath books: they look equally brilliant). I'm at the point where I'll buy anything Ursula Vernon publishes: she can draw, she can write wonderful middle-grade novels, she can write humour …

And she does brilliant adult fairy-tale reworkings! Under the name T. Kingfisher (a name she calls "vaguely absurd"!), she has published a number of short stories and several novels. I highly recommend the short stories, which you can find here. Some of them are quite disturbing, some of them are just lovely, and all of them are fascinating and thoughtful, and will change the way you read everything else. ("Elegant and Fine" is the story of Susan from the Narnia chronicles, and it's . . . eye-opening. I liked it a lot.) I particularly loved "The Tomato Thief" (and "Jackalope Wives," which you have to read first).

The novella that I read is Nine Goblins. It started out very fun and spoofy, and then turned into something quite deep. Reviewers have compared it to Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories, and they're not wrong. (Gosh, how many amazing authors can we compare Vernon to?!) I am looking forward to getting my hands on Bryony and Roses—her Beauty and the Beast retelling—, and The Raven and the Reindeer, which is The Snow Queen.

Every Monday you can find more Middle-grade recommendations on Shannon Messenger's blog; there's always something new to discover!