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.