Monday, October 15, 2018

Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor has done it again. She has exploded my brain, and all the little brain bits turned into stars and flowers as they floated down around me. (That's the kind of thing Laini Taylor says all the time, but she says it more elegantly so it doesn't sound stupid!)

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion to Strange the Dreamer, and you cannot possibly read it if you haven't read Strange the Dreamer, so go read Strange the Dreamer now (I told you to a year ago, so if you didn't listen to me then you should rectify that lapse immediately.)

I'm not going to spoil either book in this review. If you've read the first book, you don't even have to read this: I'm sure you had Muse of Nighmares on preorder! (That cliffhanger! It's up there with LOTR and Riddlemaster of Hed, right?) All you need me to tell you is that it doesn't disappoint. It's tense, heart wrenching, shocking and entirely satisfying.

Strange the Dreamer introduces a crazily fascinating world with all of Laini Taylor's brilliantly imaginative touches: a city that no one can remember; a floating castle shaped like an angel; blue-skinned gods with terrible powers; a librarian no-one notices who has a knack for languages and who defines the world in kinder ways than anyone else.

Muse of Nightmares takes that world and expands it fractally, going forward and backward in time to explain and warp our understanding of everyone and everything

Strange the Dreamer gave us a cast of loveable, hateable, pitiable, admirable, terrifying and deeply understandable characters. (Most of them are all those things at one time or another, or all at once, like real people.) Laini Taylor must be a telepath, or a super-psychologist or something, because she is so good at understanding what goes on inside people's heads. I think Lois McMaster Bujold is the only other writer I know who is as good at forging character motivations out of their history. Everything each character does is completely inevitable based on who they are and what they've been through, even when they completely surprise you (as her characters often do).

Muse of Nightmares takes all those characters and gives them arcs you never would have dreamed of, mostly based on throwing them into even worse situations than you have imagined. And she adds a few more characters, because we need to understand how the gods got there and why they did what they did. Strange the Dreamer was about Lazlo and Sarai discovering themselves, and each other. Muse of Nightmares follows them but also dips into several other points of view as it answers why, and how, and WTF, and questions whether redemption is possible. When unthinkable things have been done to save people from even more unthinkable things, can there be forgiveness?

Minya is one of the best characters I've ever read. So broken. So strong. Can she be defeated? Can she be saved?

My other favourite character arc is Thyon Nero's. One of the many things Laini Taylor is great at is making all of her characters have agency, even the minor ones. She creates these ridiculously insoluble crises for her protagonists that you can't see how they can possibly get out of it, but you forgot about that other character who's been busy doing something you thought was irrelevant but turns out to be crucial and changes everything. Awesome plotting.

Since I can't say anything more specific about the plot, I'll just give you some favourite quotations:
... it spidered a crack through the atmosphere of threat.
... an affinity, a rush—like the turn of a page and a story beginning.
And when her hearts resumed beating, she imagined she could feel a spill of light into the veins that carried her spirit.
Lazlo's chances came without warning, and when they did, he didn't dither, and he didn't stop to pack.
[A character], earthbound, felt every choice he'd made, every action he'd taken, as a weight he carried with him. He wondered: Was it weight he could shed or throw off, or was it forever a part of him, as much as his bones and his hearts? 
Also, Laini Taylor is the absolute best chapter namer of anyone, ever:

  • From a Long Line of Indignant Nostrils
  • Like Eating Cake in Dreams
  • The Sea Stared Back
  • "Dead" Was the Wrong Answer
  • Like a Man Tearing Out His Own Beating Heart
  • Dread Was a Pale-Haired Goddess
  • Peace and Pastries
  • It Would Be Stranger If There Weren't Dragons 
And two quotations that probably define Laini Taylor best:
Even under dire circumstances, there is a unique pleasure in introducing the bizarre and inconceivable to others.
New dreams sprout up when old ones come true, like seedlings in a forest: a new generation of wishes.
Keep sprouting dreams for us, Laini. We need you in our brains!

Every once in a while I taste a cheese that makes my eyes roll back in my head it's so sharp but with so much depth and richness to the flavour; it does different things to every part of the tongue and keeps revealing new sensations as the after taste lingers. I tasted a cheese like that in Spain. Then they gave me a second piece with some quince jam spread on top, and my tongue and my brain exploded in much the same way as when I read this book. I just didn't know it was possible to taste/feel that much all at once. I'm still processing. (The book and the cheese!)

Monday, October 1, 2018

Cybils nominations are open!

It's official: the 2018 Cybils Awards have begun! You can now nominate your favourite kids/YA books of 2018. Yes, you, whoever you are! Here is the announcement page with all the categories you can nominate in. And here is the link to the nomination form.

Please nominate awesome books that deserve to get awards! And then go ahead and use the nominee lists to make your TBR pile even longer!

My job is to read as many of the YA Spec Fic nominees as I can and collaborate with my fellow Round 1 Judges to come up with a short list, from which the Round 2 judges will pick a winner next February. I will be posting quickie reviews of as many of the books I read as I can, so follow along, and feel free to weigh in on which books you loved. The more conversation that goes on, the better! That's what the awards are all about.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Dread Nation and Rebel Seoul: for all your action/adventure needs!

Cybils nominations are almost open! From Oct 1-15 you can nominate your favourite kid/YA books in a bunch of different categories. This year I'm a round 1 judge for YA Spec Fiction, so I'm trying to get a head start on reading the books I'm pretty sure will be nominated. And these two are definitely going to be nominated!

If you like adventure with a sci-fi flavour, set in a futuristic city with giant fighting robots, then have I got a book for you! Or if you prefer alternate-history fantasy with corsets and zombies, then I also have a book for you! (Not the same one. That would be, well, I guess that would be a time travel book, and I don't have one of those for you today!)

I've been looking forward to reading these two books for a while, because they have such awesome premises: Rebel Seoul, by Axie Oh, has a sort of 1984 dystopian vibe, with the world divided into constantly warring states, except it's more fun because GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS! Ahem. (I would like to state for the record that I find the concept of giant fighting robots entirely ridiculous.)(End of disclaimer.) Our main character Jaewon grew up in a gang in Old Seoul, but he can escape all that if he excels at the military academy, (which appears to consist mostly of playing video games, so, yeah!) He's got a complicated past that I would like to have seen more of (prequel maybe?? hint, hint) but basically he's driven to succeed and he's pinned all his hopes on becoming a Neo Seoul soldier. But guess what: all is not shiny and bright in Neo Seoul. There's some unethical stuff going on about supersoldiers (something always goes wrong with supersoldiers: will dystopian governments never figure that out?)(except for Captain America, apparently. that one was fine for some reason??) and Jaewon ultimately has to decide where his loyalty lies. This one definitely reminded me of Marie Lu's Legend series: if you liked that one you need to check Rebel Seoul out.

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland, hashes the American Civil War and slavery together with zombies and adds a cynical, short-tempered, zombie-slaying black narrator. There was no way this could not be good, and it was. As a young Negro in a post-slavery but terribly prejudiced zombie-overrun America, Jane is required to attend combat school and prepare to defend well-bred white ladies from the undead. Jane has opinions about this, but she is very good at her training. She's not very good at doing what she's told, however, and she gets sent to a scary utopian settlement (utopian for the white folks, that is) and meets even nastier people than the zombies. Many zombies are decapitated or otherwise killed in grisly ways; Jane kicks butt in zombie-slaying as well as in friend-rescuing and standing-up-for-justice; slavery and prejudice and institutionalized injustice are examined with the interesting perspective that zombies add. (For the record, zombies are an inherently ridiculous concept and I don't usually like the kinds of plots that they inevitably produce, but they do make great metaphors for whatever societal ills you happen to want to excoriate.) Jane is an entirely enjoyable narrator to ride along with: I particularly loved her letters home describing Miss Preston's School of Combat.

Both these books are wonderful at creating fascinating, unique, immersive settings. They also both have lots to say about economic and social disparities: the settings aren't just fun sandboxes to play in (though they are certainly that); they also point very pointed fingers at the inequities of our own world. In an entertaining, you-are-an-arrogant-bigot-so-I-will-blow-you-up kind of way.

Cliffhanger warning: not terrible cliffhangers, but these are both first books and the story continues! (Yay!)

Start thinking about the books you want to nominate: I can't wait to see what everyone thinks were the best books in 2018! (And being a round 1 judge means I have to read most of them, so that will be fun!)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

I finally got around to reading Tess of the Road, and I don't know what took me so long! As usual, all the Bloggers I Trust were absolutely right: this is a fantastic, moving, meaningful book.

It's also a very hard book to talk about. It's not what you expect: it doesn't fit into any categories. It's a quest fantasy, sort of, but Tess has no idea what she's questing for. It's a coming-of-age story, but before Tess can come of age she has to overcome her childhood, which is not usually what fantasy coming-of-age is about. There is magic, but it looks more like religion—and oh, interesting and thought-provoking take on religion in general, which almost never happens, especially in fantasy. There are dragons, sort of, but not in the same way as in Seraphina. The one on the cover is metaphorical. There are lots of metaphors.

Okay, let's start with Tess. I loved Tess. She is so. messed. up. I wish I still had my copy of the book so I could find the amazing quotation about how she wouldn't just cut off her nose to spite her face, she'd ... (someone help me out here, it was such a great line!). Stubborn, angry, alcoholic, she's in so much pain and she is trying. so. hard. It just isn't working. Tess has been taught to hate herself, and she's doing an excellent job. She's difficult to read about, at first, because she's so frustrating. (Then she punches someone who really deserves it, and you're like, "yesssss! but noooooo, you shouldn't have done that!"

Tess finally runs away from her (mostly) quite horrible family. She has no idea where she's going; she's seriously contemplating suicide, but she isn't quite committed enough; she wakes up every morning and decides to "walk on" for one more day. Then she runs into her childhood friend, a quigutl named Pathka, and woah, quigutls have some interesting customs! And Pathka has some past trauma ko has to get over as well. (Ko is the non-gendered pronoun quigutls use.)(They have a very cool language, too.)

The plot seems random: Tess and Pathka are going down the road and meeting random strangers and doing random things. At one point Tess joins a road-building crew. (Pretty sure that's never happened in a quest fantasy before!) Pathka is looking for a mythical giant serpent, and Tess is like, sure, why not? Let's go look for something that might not exist. But then things start to come together in very satisfying ways. Tess is trying to forget her past, but every encounter she has brings up some memory, and gives her a new way to process it. She doesn't realize that she's on a quest for healing, but that's what starts to happen. It isn't easy. It's incredibly painful, actually. But she finds wisdom and grace and acceptance and she begins to reclaim herself. The fist-pumping that happens in this story is nothing to do with action and defeating enemies and all about interior journeys and defeating inner demons.

Don't give up on this book if you hate the beginning, with Tess's self-defeating flailing and the horrible women-hating religion and her awful, awful mother. All of these things are dealt with in surprising, nuanced and powerful ways. Motherhood, sisterhood, family, love—it's all turned inside out and held up to the light, and Tess comes away with some truth she can stand on, a woman she can be. (Oh, yeah, and she's disguised as a boy most of the time. There's some serious identity stuff going on!)

The writing is beautiful. I would quote endlessly if I still had my copy (I got it out of the library, but I'm going to buy the real book for myself because I like it that much, and that cover!) E.K. Johnson says Hartman can "kill your heart with her grammar" (which, by the way, is something Johnson is really good at, too!) and that's a great way to put it. There are some lovely, lovely, bits: wise or heartbreaking or numinous or just really funny. (If you love E.K. Johnson, you'll love Tess of the Road.)

Don't read it if you want flying dragons and, I don't know, anything typical of fantasy in general. Don't expect it to be a sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale: it's an entirely different book (Seraphina does show up in it, and it's great to see her, but it's not her story at all)(I want to re-read Seraphina now to see what it says about Tess: I don't remember her from it). Do read it if you like your fantasy to deal with real stuff in thoughtful, realistic ways, if you like characters who learn and grow and figure themselves out, if you like interesting, original fantasy worlds. (The more I read, the more I appreciate books that are interesting!)

I feel like I'm not conveying how much I liked Tess. I loved how different it was from expectations. Nothing was predictable; everything was fresh and surprising and fun. I'm making it sound painful but it's actually very funny most of the time. Tess is a mess but she's a compelling, hilarious narrator. Your heart breaks for her, but she could care less what you think! She makes you root for her all the way, and I loved where she ended up.

This is apparently book 1, and I can see where the sequel will go, but this had a satisfying ending. I will be happy to read more of Tess's adventures though!

Really dark chocolate with a flavour you wouldn't think would work with chocolate but somehow does. Maybe ginger? Or something less immediately identifiable. Cardamom, maybe, or black pepper.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

I just don't blog in the summer, but Murderbot is still awwwwwesome!!!!

This is what I do instead of blogging in the summertime:

I also tend to reread instead of reading new books. But when the latest Murderbot came out (which happened to be in the middle of a hiking trip, but at the tops of the mountains we had pretty good reception, so I was still able to download it. Kind of love the whole ebook thing*) I used up all my phone battery reading it in my tent. Murderbot: Rogue Protocol is every bit as fun and deep and heart-wrenchingly funny as the last two. "I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can't just stop." And I just can't stop caring about Murderbot.

All Systems Red totally deserved its Hugo win. Lots of cool Hugo winners this year, actually. Lois McMaster Bujold got best series for World of the 5 Gods, much deserved. Did you see N.K. Jemisin's speech? Fantastic:

"I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the zeitgeist." Damn, this woman can write.

* There are millions of books floating around in the sky, people, and you can stand on top a mountain and grab exactly the one you want. Is that not the coolest thing ever?? Imagine what Chaucer would think.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

I was going to do another middle-grade book, but that post got hijacked by this one. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe happened to be available on my library's e-book platform yesterday when I was waiting for a bus and had finished the book I had previously borrowed (and the bus still wasn't coming). I remembered hearing good things about it somewhere, so I clicked Borrow, and it instantly appeared on my phone! (I still haven't gotten over the instant appearance of books on my phone. Other crazy useful and amazing features I take for granted now, but Want Book. Click Button. Wait 5 Seconds. Have Book. will never get old!)(And thank goodness for library e-books, or Deplete Bank Account Without Noticing would soon be a thing!)

It only took two bus rides and a 40 minute ferry to finish the novella (I'm really liking the novella as a medium), and I just have to rave about it before I do anything else.

I loved this novella. I will happily read anything if I like being in the head of the main character, and I loved being in Vellitt Boe's head. Competent, intelligent, mature, responsible. Sensible. Willing to leave everything safe and comfortable to travel through an unpredictable and horrifically dangerous landscape so she can save what she values. (It helps that what she wants to save is education for women.)(Later the stakes get higher, but at the beginning she's willing to risk her life so that the Women's College doesn't close. I love this woman!) And she looks forward to the journey, she enjoys it, because that's the kind of person she is. A far-traveller.

Reminded me a lot of Rowan, Steerswoman. If you liked those books you'll like this one.

Part-way through there was something bothering me about the world-building, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The world is crazy-imaginative, gorgeously-weird, evocative, lush—but it's missing something, some dimensionalilty I couldn't define. It stood out because the characterization was so complete that it seemed odd the world wouldn't be equally filled-in.

I went to see what other people were saying about the story, and that's when I discovered that this is an homage to an H. P. Lovecraft story called "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Suddenly everything made sense.

I've never been tempted to read Lovecraft, but I've encountered his mythos and heard both the positive and negative things said about his writing. Wonderful, brilliant, and deeply flawed appears to be the consensus.

Johnson immerses us into the wonderful and brilliant, clearly highlights the flaws, and transforms the world through the eyes of Vellitt Boe so that the flaws become irrelevant. Lovecraft's apparently long-winded purple prose is evoked in Johnson's poetic (but much sparer) language. His self-absorbed, sexist characters are ever-so-lovingly, ruthlessly skewered by Vellitt's clear-sighted observation. His racism is just gone, because Vellitt treats every sentient being (and there are monsters: this is Lovecraft after all) as an individual judged on its own behaviour. (I loved the character of the gug.)

The conclusion of Vellitt's quest is epically satisfying on so many levels. I appreciated the novella for its clever reworking of the source material (still not tempted to read the source material!) but I also loved its character arc and plot resolution in and of themselves.

(In case I haven't convinced you to read this yet, how about positive, supportive female friendships? Yes? You don't realize how much you want to read them until you do and you're like, why is this so amazing? They're small but essential parts of the narrative.)

Immediately went looking for what else Kij Johnson has written, and—more instant reading material!—there's a short story on her website called "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss" (which you have to read just for its title, right?). I LOVED THIS STORY! Gahh. No words. Just ... it's perfect. Going off to read more of her short stories now.

Kij Johnson is a lot like T. Kingfisher, as a matter of fact. So, so bloody refreshing! Icy cold glacier water rushing over rocks on its way down the mountain you just climbed.

Monday, June 25, 2018

MMGM: Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

I have been somewhat lacking in middle-grade reviews this year. As in, it's actually been more than a year since I reviewed a middle-grade book! (This is what you get from a blogger with no plan, no mandate, no way of organizing her reading except purest serendipity.) But I went to the children's section of my library yesterday, just to see what caught my eye, and I came home with a large stack of middle-grade reads, so maybe I can start rectifying that imbalance!

I opened Hello, Universe first, and it pulled me in right away. I loved Virgil, who thinks he's not just a failure but a Grand Failure, and I loved his relationship with his grandmother. Then I loved Valencia as soon as I met her, with her prayers to Saint Rene and her determination that she doesn't need friends. And Kaori the psychic and her little sister Gen were hilarious!

I've been hearing lots of good things about Erin Entrada Kelly for a while now, but her books are realistic fiction and I always think I don't enjoy realism as much, which is ridiculous, because there are books like this out there! The voices of the four characters (the fourth one isn't Gen, actually, but more on that in a minute) are spot on: each insecure in their own way, each with their own stories they tell themselves to explain the world and justify their own actions. Each lovable for the way they are trying to be their best selves, given what they've been taught that should look like.

There's so much going on in this book! Stories within stories: folk-tales Virgil's grandmother tells him, facts Valencia reads about the natural world, tidbits of spiritualism Kaori has gathered from various sources. It's delightful to see how each of them weaves a belief system out of the stories and knowledge they gather plus the values they absorb from their family plus their own interests and weaknesses, and how this belief system both helps and hinders them. All kinds of interesting psychology here!

The fourth POV character is perhaps the most interesting in terms of psychology: Chet is a bully, and his narrative explores some of the reasons why he treats others the way he does, a lot of which come from his father's attitudes and opinions. (In case you were worried, his father isn't abusive.) These chapters will be harder to read, particularly for kids who are bullied, because Chet belittles others in his mind before belittling them with his words. I didn't love Chet, but I came to understand him better: he, too, has stories he believes and insecurities he is trying to get around.

What's wonderful about this book is the way all four narratives interweave with each other, both physically, as the characters cross paths or interact or just miss each other, and thematically, as stories or facts from one narrative become relevant to another narrative. One of the pleasures of reading is making connections, and Kelly does a great job of laying out pieces and letting us put them together. I loved the theme that there are no coincidences: believing something is intended or fated gave these characters the courage to grab the moment, reach out and connect with each other.

I also loved the multiple, realistic diversities—ethnicity, culture, religion, physical ability—and the matter-of-fact way differences are introduced. And diverse parent-child relationships: sometimes loving parents aren't actually supportive, and each character here has a different sort of complicated relationship with their parent figures.

Turns out I really do like realistic books! I will be looking for Kelly's two other books that I've also heard good things about,  Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls.

Hello, Universe is raspberry rhubarb pie: sweet and tangy and complex, and very summery.

Greg Pattridge is now hosting Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday on his blog, Always In The Middle. Head over there every Monday to get loads of middle-grade recommendations.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

In which I decide Martha Wells is a favourite author

How is it June already? I guess my excuse is that I was in Spain and Portugal for half of May. (I'll put a few pics at the bottom of this post, if you want to see any.)

And what did I spend all my travel time reading? Turns out that Martha Wells was my go-to read, out of all the options I loaded onto my phone. And after finishing all 5 novels and two short-story collections in the Raksura series, and the two published Murderbot novellas, I can confidently say that I really, really like Martha Wells!

The Raksura series has a lot of awesome stuff going for it. Flying people, for starters. Better yet: shapeshifting flying people who can pass as normal groundlings (no humans in this world, just lots of varieties of bipedal human-shaped people)—but when they shift they get wings and tails and claws and crests. Yes, kind of like dragons, but also totally original and just really cool.

Raksuras also have a fascinatingly unique social structure (with some clever gender-reversal going on, just for fun), and they live in these completely awesome magically hollowed-out tree colonies—Wells' settings are endlessly inventive and interesting; a great world to get immersed in.

Moon is an entirely empathetic character in whose perspective to enter this world. He starts out not even knowing what species he is, just knowing that he has to hide his shapeshifting ability from the groundlings he lives with. His journey from exile to hero is the compelling thread that ties all the books together, but there are also lots of cool bad guys to fight, interspecies diplomacy to manoeuvre, ancient ruins to discover, and romantic entanglements to, uh, untangle.

Written for adults, but I think it would go over very well with a YA audience. Lots of fun and incredibly imaginative. (If you liked Avatar I bet you'll enjoy these books.)

It looks like The Murderbot Diaries will end up with at least four novellas, and one can only hope there will be more. I can't tell you how much I love the character of Murderbot. I was hooked from the first line, and it only got better from there:
"I COULD HAVE BECOME a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but Murderbot the character is hilariously sarcastic, self-depreciating and incisively observant. The corporate-run future world is a brilliant commentary on our current corporate-run world, and Murderbot's journey to figure out its identity ("If people won't be shooting at me, what will I be doing?") is surprisingly touching.

Very different from Ancillary Justice, but Murderbot and Breq are kindred spirits, I think.

Also appropriate for YA audiences.

So now that I know how much I like Martha Wells, I think I'd better try her Ile-Rien books. Will let you know how that goes!

Here are a few photos from the area around Ronda, in southern Spain. Pretty spectacular scenery!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

What's on my Kindle for this round of flights, layovers, train rides, etc.

Hi all, and welcome to another edition of Whats On My Kindle! In this episode, your faithless blogger is on her way to Spain and Portugal for a two-week bike trip, and, as usual, she is a little panicked about the idea of having to spend any down time without a book on hand. So, this is what she has downloaded into her phone:

Martha Wells Raksura series:

I've read the first three books, but it's been a while, so I've got them available to re-read, and I have the two short-story collections and books 4 and 5, The Edge of Worlds, and The Harbors of the Sun.

I've also pre-ordered the next Murderbot novella, Artificial Condition, which will arrive next week, I think. Very excited!

Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure, by Elizabeth Bear, should be fun. Also, I have to say I like the new trend for novellas. Particularly for travel reading!

Another intriguing-sounding novella: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson. I also picked up The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette De Bodard, but I finished it already, so I can't count it. (It was interesting, but didn't make me run out and buy more stories in the same universe. Might later.)

Not a novella: The Guns of Empire, by Django Wexler. I'll probably need to reread the other three books in this series, and I have them as well, so that should keep me going for a while. I should probably get the last one, too, huh?

And on my library e-book app:

The Forbidden Rose, by Joanna Bourne. It's the third of her Spymaster series, and I think I've read the first two, but I can't quite remember. Library didn't have them, but this is apparently first chronology-wise, so it should be okay to read it on its own.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky, because Jenny at Reading the End recommended it, and sometimes you just feel like something non-fictiony.

Of course, just in case the brain is too fogged with Gravol (Dramamine) to focus on words, I took great advantage of the Netflix download feature and the ridiculous memory on my phone to get all kinds of random stuff, including a couple of series in Spanish (so I can learn the language by osmosis on my way over): Morocco, Love in Times of War, and El Ministerio del Tiempo. Because, Morocco, and time travel. I've also got some anime, some Star Trek: TNG, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Monty Python, a Korean drama ... you get the picture!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Shadow Twin, by Rachel Neumeier

I'm astonished to see that I've gone a whole month without a blog post. (You, I'm sure are less astonished, given my complete inability to conform to any blog posting schedule.) Partly it's because my writing time and energy has been going into my WIP, so that's good, but partly it's because I haven't read much I feel like reviewing (I haven't read much, period, and a lot of it has been rereads.)

I'm going to be lazy and cross-post my Goodreads review of the latest Black Dog book, because it should be on my blog, too.

A bit of an intro: the Black Dog series is a modern paranormal about werewolves, with an interesting take on them: being a Black Dog isn't infectious, it's genetic, and into some Black Dog families are born the Pure, who have magic that can help black dogs control their demon halves. Without the Pure, black dogs are savage hunters who kill without thought. With Pure magic, they can live peaceably with each other and with humans. Dimilioc is a civilized Black Dog house constantly at war with stray black dogs and vampires. Three siblings—Pure Natividad, human Miguel and black dog Alejandro—come seek refuge with Dimilioc when their parents are killed by a particularly nasty black dog pack. Interesting relationship and power dynamics ensue, intercut with exciting magical battles. There's romance, but family is what these books are all about.

There are now three novels and two short-story collections, and the story isn't finished yet (yay!); another short-story collection is coming next. Start at the beginning, and don't neglect the stories, as they contain key plot and character development. (I actually think I like the short stories best, because they're so focussed on characters; the novels are from Natividad, Miguel and Alejandro's POVs, and the short stories allow us into the other characters' heads, so we can fall in love with them, too.)

Here's what I posted on Goodreads about Shadow Twin (no spoilers, but it's a review for those who've read the other books, since you won't want to start with this one):

A great birthday present! [I celebrated by dropping everything and spending my entire day reading this!] Everything you want from a Black Dog book, with a focus on Miguel and Alejandro coming into their own. Some great scenes where Miguel is right about everything, and some great scenes where he isn't! Alejandro develops his relationship with Grayson and establishes more clearly his position in Dimilioc. There are new characters, with all the interesting power dynamics that entails. Colonel Herrod gets a major role. (Justin and Keziah are off-screen for this adventure, sadly.)

The plot of the Black Dog books is always the same—nasty, evil demonic threat appears, black dogs fight back, get almost defeated, and then Natividad comes up with some innovative form of magic to save the day. The magic is always interesting, and follows enough rules so that it isn't just *handwave magical solution*, and Natividad is always fun to watch as she blunders by instinct and ridiculous fearlessness into her latest invention.

But the reason I keep rereading these books is the characters and their interactions. Neumeier does such a good job of exploring power, authority, loyalty, trust, and she makes you care about all the characters so much—the scenes between Ezekiel and Grayson kill me every time, and there's a great one in this book. Also family: it's great to see Natividad and her brothers' unbreakable bond continue, and also for them to begin to feel that Dimilioc is their family now. Yeah, there's the odd throat that gets ripped out or head that gets thrown across a room (that one really deserved it, trust me!), but really this is a book about relationships, and about what it means to be civilized, and to be a family.

Favourite quotation:

Miguel added, "God, I need a bath. And a big cup of coffee." Alejandro frowned at him. "You need twelve hours' sleep and the hearts of your enemies on a plate."

Have you tried the Brookside dark chocolate candies with acai or pomegranate or whatever centres (because that makes them totally nutritious, right??). I cannot stop eating them, just like I cannot stop reading these books. More sophisticated than your typical candy, and with, you know, anti-oxidants and, uh, stuff.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Clocktaur Wars, by T. Kingfisher

You'll have to excuse me while I fan-girl some more about T. Kingfisher. She just presses all the right buttons for me.

A few facts you need to know about her:

1. She goes by Ursula K. Vernon when she writes graphic novels and kids' books, and they're all fantastic and quite well-known (see: Harriet the Hamster Princess). Anything written as T. Kingfisher is probably not appropriate for readers younger than, say, 13-ish? It's not just that there might be sex, and possibly more daggers through eyes than you might want a younger reader experiencing, but her themes are deeper, her focus is more ... philosophical, for want of a better word. The world is a more complex place, both grimmer and more humane.

2.  She really gets fairy tales. As in, she has obviously imbibed so many, from so many different traditions, that folk-tales run through her veins, but also she has a genuinely weird imagination that works easily with fairy tale logic. The things she comes up with!

3. She is hilariously funny.

Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine—really just one novel broken into two—are a bit different than the others of hers that I've read. Not so much fairy/folk-tale inspired, but more of a re-imagining of the fantasy quest, with a healthy serving of vaguely steampunky Lovecraftian horror thrown in (and if you think that sounds weird, you're right!)

I was sucked in from the first scene, in which a forger fetches a murderer from a dungeon to go on a suicide mission. Oooh, dark, grim, edgy, you're thinking, and yes, it is, but the forger has a mysterious sixth sense that manifests as an allergic reaction, so she's sneezing to death the whole time. Plus her interactions with both the prison warden and the murderer (who is actually a paladin knight who got possessed by a demon, so that's a little complicated) are off-beat and unexpected (by both warden, paladin, and reader), so the whole scene is mind-bogglingly, hilariously interesting.

Then they go off to get the horrifically inventive safety measure that ensures they have to complete the mission (don't want to spoil it for you, but if they don't die trying they will just die painfully), and they meet their team-mate the assassin ("I don't like people unless I'm stabbing them."). Then they meet the 19-year-old self-righteous scholar who's never been outside his monastery and thinks women will turn his bowels to water. Who is also coming on the mission.

So it's the most extreme version of incompatible quest-mates I've ever encountered: the banter and drama is endlessly amusing. (As in, every second sentence made me smile, and every second page I was laughing out loud. Then came the scene with the horses, and I was gasping and wiping tears from my eyes the whole chapter.) Kingfisher knows how to structure a running joke, and that's basically what the whole first book is. (Something along the lines of "I wonder if we're going to kill each other before we even get to the place where we're likely all going to die.")

But, by the end of Clockwork Boys, the trust the four of them have built in each other is as moving as their differences were funny, and I genuinely cared about each one of them and about the fate of the team. Slate, Caliban, Brenner and Learned Edmund kill me in all the best ways, whether they're trying to kill each other or not.

The Wonder Engine is still funny, but it's also an intriguing mystery, a realistic adult romance, and a brilliantly explicated treatise on prejudice and marginalized people. When I wasn't laughing my jaw was dropping. Or I was just straight-up crying, because now these people I care so much about are having serious character development in some seriously tense situations.

Also, most hilarious torture scene ever written.

I think if you like Terry Pratchett you'll probably like T. Kingfisher. She's an auto-buy author for me now; I have yet to be disappointed in anything she's written.

The Clocktaur Wars is a balsamic/maple braised pot roast with red peppers and sweet potatoes (and I threw some kale in because you can hide kale in a sauce this rich and flavourful). Sweet, tangy, not exactly your normal pot roast, but still hits the pot-roast receptor in your brain most satisfyingly.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Song of the Current, by Sarah Tolcser

February was flu month. 'Nuff said.

In consequence, I completely missed blogging about the Cybils Awards, which is a shame, because they were fun, but hey—books keep existing (it's one of the great things about them), so I can still talk about the winners and finalists and ones I loved even if I'm a bit late.

Song of the Current was my favourite of the YA Spec Fic nominees that I read (though I was quite happy that we all agreed on Scythe as the winner, because it was also great).

I may have liked Song best because the setting on a river boat in the fens reminded me of Swallows and Amazons, one of my favourite childhood book series. (And I love books about boats that let me pretend I'm an expert sailor myself!) Or maybe I loved it because one of the main plot elements (which I almost spoiled for you because it's pretty easy to see coming, but I'll be quiet about it!) is a trope I particularly enjoy.

But I think mostly I loved it because of Caro: daughter of a wherry-boat captain, raised on a boat, still waiting to hear the river god's voice so she can be a captain herself, but when needs must she ups and does what has to be done, whether she feels qualified for it or not. I love practical, competent heroines; I love watching them be skilled and confident and then stretch themselves by using those skills in new, scary situations, like piracy.

I also get a kick out of the exasperated banter you get when two people with very different competencies underestimate each other, and there's lots of that! And I'm a fan of romance that starts with exasperated banter and ends up with characters learning to respect and trust each other.

The plot had just enough politics and intrigue to be interesting without getting confusing. Plus pirates, so, yay! (I mean, hurrah!) There was a great cast of characters, including Caro's two very different parents who have their own goals and priorities but are still supportive and loving (here's to more supportive, loving parents in kidslit!). Also cousins and sisters and various other family relationships that I'm a fan of.

The worldbuilding was immersive and gorgeous—I've mentioned the boats once or twice, I think! I was quite happy when the ending seemed to indicate a sequel would be forthcoming (not a cliffhanger, but we definitely want to know what happens next), because I want to spend a lot more time in this world with these characters.

Seafood chowder, home made with potatoes and cream and big chunks of salmon and cod and scallops (and mussels if you like them, but you'll have to eat mine for me).

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, by F. C. Lee

Coincidentally, I recently started watching a Korean drama and then picked up a library book that both involve a version of the Chinese mythical character the Monkey King. Turns out he is an awesomely fun character to play with, and both the drama (which is halfway through its airing) and the book are hugely entertaining.

I had vaguely heard of the Monkey King before this, but I boned up a little on my Chinese literary history and learned about the 16th C novel, Journey to the West, in which a monk goes on a quest to find sacred manuscripts with the help of three supernatural protectors. The Monkey King is a trickster god; he made a ruckus in heaven and was buried under a mountain for 500 years in punishment, and now he is tasked to help the monk on his journey by protecting him from various monsters and demons. He's ridiculously powerful and not at all trustworthy!

In The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, ohhhhhhh, I want to tell you how The Monkey King shows up in a boring California suburb, but I can't possibly spoil that scene for you, so mmmmblfarg. Aaaannnnnnyway, although he's an important character, the story is really about Genie, and she is a supremely awesome heroine. Demons start showing up all over (in the frozen yogurt place: I mean, come on, that's not fair!) and she has to decide whether to unlock the ancient powers she apparently possesses and save the world. Or, you know, stay normal and get into an Ivy League college. Or try to do both and fit in a little romance on the side. Yes, there are nods to Buffy; there's also a fair bit of spoofing a lot of YA tropes (the gorgeous new transfer student who appears irresistibly attracted to the heroine for no good reason, for example). (I loved the way Genie reacted to him!)

This book is really, really funny. Genie punches lots of demons and has awkward conversations with her mother and gets terribly annoyed at the Monkey King character, and it's pretty much a hoot from start to finish. But it's also got great themes about being true to yourself and discovering your inner strength (because of course those are the themes when a girl discovers she's the reincarnation of mmmblfarg not going to tell you because it's a pretty awesome reveal, even if you're not familiar with the legend).

Remember Pop Rocks (is that what they were called?), those ridiculous candies that popped on your tongue (rather painfully, if I recall). This book reminded me of those: sweet and hilarious and unexpected. With lots of punching.

The Korean drama, if you're interested, is called Hwayugi, and is also very funny, with a romance that I didn't think was going to work at all but is managing to capture me. I'm loving all the plot twists that are possible when you have a bunch of genuinely amoral supernatural characters. (No one can trust anyone!) (But then they start caring about each other, and you're like "awwww, that's so sweet. He'll probably stab you in the back later, but awww!") The best character of all is the zombie girl—serious props to the actress for being utterly convincing. It's not done yet, but I think I'll end up highly recommending this one.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved every minute of it!

I really liked the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale. I loved Vasya, the girl who sees spirits and can't be tamed to fit the role expected of her; I loved the evocative, wintry, oppressive, vast Russian setting, and the way the folklore is entirely integrated and believable. Of course there is a frost demon! How could there not be? I loved the family dynamics: complex, deep, hurtful, healing, strong, strong bonds. I hated/loved the twisted priest and the way his view of the world influences everyone in ways Vasya simply can't fight, and the way she chooses to fight anyway.

In The Girl in the Tower, Arden gives us all those things but more! and better! Vasya chooses to risk freezing to death in the Russian taiga rather than submit herself to being shut away in a house or convent, and oh! how cold it is! Wear a blanket and slippers while reading this and have a stew cooking in the oven because you'll need it. Vasya is clever and stubborn and knows how to interact with the spirits that inhabit the landscape, but she wouldn't survive if Morozko the frost demon hadn't given her a magic horse—Solovey is so awesome! Best character in the novel!

The relationship between Morozko and Vasya is brilliantly suspenseful, and the development of his character is one of the highlights of the novel. I'm not going to say any more, but there are some lovely bits.

So, we've got Wo/Man vs Nature and Man vs Himself and Woman vs Expectations, and then Vasya encounters some burned villages and decides she has to do something about the whole Man vs Man thing that's going on with those darned Tartars. And she's disguised as a boy, so there's lots of Lies vs Truth vs Being Found Out (I know that wasn't one of the standard high school Conflicts, but it's one anyway), and she ends up going to Moscow and getting pulled in all sorts of directions. (Wo/Man vs Society). Then a bad guy worse than the priest shows up, so there's seriously Wo/Man vs Evil.

All the conflict and tension you could possibly pack into a novel, continually ratcheting up in a lovely slow build, layer upon layer, and all the way through you are feeling the bite of the frost, hearing the crunch of the snow, smelling the smoke from the fires. Inhabiting Vasya and her world. There were times I had to put the book down because it was getting too intense. At one point I shouted out loud.

And I haven't even mentioned Vasya's family, who are wonderful, and who love her, and who are several of the directions she gets pulled in. And by the time the Firebird showed up my brain melted down and my heart exploded.

So, yeah. I think you should read this one. Cannot wait for the third book!

Osso Bucco (I know it's not Russian: you can substitute your favourite Russian stew if you want): meat falling-apart tender and satisfyingly chewy, sauce savoury/tangy with a hint of sweetness, every bite making your eyes roll back in your head a little because it's so perfectly, completely delicious.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

If you've read my blog you know that Frances Hardinge is one of my auto-buy, drop-everything-and-read-now authors. So I can't believe that I didn't know she'd come out with a new book in October. I love the feeling of suddenly having a new favourite author's book to read! It's like finding a 100$ bill in the pocket of your coat!

I dropped everything as soon as I found out about A Skinful of Shadows and read it in two days. It was everything I've come to expect from Frances Hardinge: rich, layered setting, fierce, lovable characters, and beautiful, poetic-without-being-flowery writing.

If you've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric novellas, then you'll be familiar with the central premise of Hardinge's novel: Makepeace has the ability to house other souls inside her (in this case ghosts rather than demons, but it amounts to the same thing). It's a scenario that is usually confrontational, as the ghosts try to take over from their host, but Makepeace, like Penric, discovers there's another way to go about it.

Hardinge loves to play with names, and our heroine Makepeace has more than her share of them. We never find out the name she was born with, just as Makepeace doesn't know who she truly is or what she's capable of. She's labelled with a Puritan name so she can fit in with her Puritan aunt and uncle, but she never quite fits in, and her defiance and temper seem to belie her name. She's given a noble name by Royalists who want to use her, and she chooses yet another when she escapes them, deliberately naming herself after Judith who cut off her enemy's head. But in the end, Make Peace is what she proves most able to do. And she defines herself, thank you very much.
"I am not changed," she said. "You never knew me. None of you ever knew me."
Classic Hardinge character!

The setting was one of the more unique aspects of the book: I'm pretty sure I've never read a fantasy set during the English Civil War. (Pretty sure I've never read anything set during the English Civil War.) It's a period of history I know almost nothing about, but with her deft descriptions and deep understanding of context, Hardinge plunged me right into the middle of the Catholic/Protestant, Royalist/Parliament conflict. The political happenings are tied in quite brilliantly with the plot, as Makepeace is thrust from one side of the conflict to the other, and each side tries to use her in pursuit of their own agenda.

The huge old manor house of Grizehayes is a character in its own right: spooky, looming, a prison for Makepeace but also a home, with nooks and crannies only she knows about. Makepeace's inhabitation of Grizehayes, the way she turns its oppressiveness inside out and makes it serve her instead of containing her, is a sort of inverted metaphor for what she does with the ghosts who inhabit her. By knowing them, she stops fearing them; by allowing them to know her, she turns them into allies.

Okay, as I write this I'm getting more and more impressed with this book. Layers of theme interwoven with plot and character and setting—man, she's a good writer! I have to stop this post from becoming a dissertation!

Just go read it. You'll love Makepeace, her courage, her compassion, her desperate attempts to be herself. You'll love Bear—I don't want to spoil anything, but the scene where they meet is just—wow. The villains are super creepy, there are spies and disguises and plots and counterplots, and you never know who you can trust. Suspenseful, exciting and supremely satisfying.

Seafood chowder, because it's something Makepeace might have made in the kitchen of Grizehayes, and because it's rich and flavourful with multiple textures so that every bite is a little different but it all works together as a harmonious whole. Also I made some last night and there are leftovers for lunch today, so yay!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Happy (Gregorian Calendar) New Year everyone! (Am I right? Is it the Gregorian calendar? Sounds vaguely familiar, anyway!)

I stayed up until 4am last night re-reading Andrea Höst's Touchstone Trilogy for the umpteenth time while I waited for my son to get home from his party, and in between favourite bits from the books I checked out everyone's Best Of 2017 lists: some great books were read this year! Thanks for sharing (and for adding a ton to my TBR!)

My Year in Review is random, off-the-top-of-my-head, and of necessity includes some Korean drama, because I watched a lot of that instead of reading this year!

Most Anticipated and Didn't Disappoint:
Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. We've been waiting for years, and we were rewarded with a fascinating new character and an awesome bromance, plus a couple of new gods.

Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor. This. Woman's. Brain. Shimmery, deep, delicious, wrenching, utterly original fantasy with the most rootable-for character ever. Serious Cliffhanger Warning.

Fave New-to-me Author:
Katherine Arden. The Bear and the Nightingale was wonderful, and then The Girl in the Tower surpassed it in every way. Loved the wintry world, the Russian-inspired mythology, the stubbornly independent characters (including the magic horse) and a firebird! Review of Girl coming soon.

Fave re-read:
Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. Oh, Maia, I love you so much!

Fave random discovery at the library:
Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate

Authors that keep doing things I love:
E. K. Johnston: She keeps doing different things and they all keep being wonderful. Spindle was another thought-provoking fairy-tale retelling, and That Inevitable Victorian Thing was thought-provoking alternate history social sci-fi (one has to invent new genres for Johnston all the time!).

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon when she's writing for adults. Summer in Orcus was a lovely folk-tale inspired portal fantasy, and Clockwork Boys was fantastic motley-crew-on-a-quest steampunk, first in a series and I can't wait for the sequel! Review coming soon.

Books that made me grin from ear to ear:
The Invisible Library and its sequels, by Genevieve Cogman
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon

Books that walloped me over the head (in a good way):
Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Sequels even better than the first book:
Traitor to the Throne, by Alwyn Hamilton
The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden
Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Fave characters:
Vasya from The Girl in the Tower
Irene from The Invisible Library
Murderbot from All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. "As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure." A novella introducing a new series: so excited about it!
(I also really love Lazlo from Strange the Dreamer, Rishi from When Dimple met him. Kamut, of course. All the characters, really, since I don't love a book if I don't love the characters!)

A few of my favourite K-Dramas, for the sake of being completist (also my ulterior motive is to addict you all):

Suspicious Partner/Love in Trouble: romantic comedy/murder mystery/courtroom drama with Ji Chang Wook being vulnerable and funny, Nam Ji Hyun playing another relatably-striving-against-all-odds heroine, and a great supporting cast of goofy-yet-heartwarming friends. (Nam Ji Hyun was also wonderful in the cute-as-a-puppy Shopping King Louis, with an utterly adorable Seo In Guk.)

Because This Is My First Life: romantic comedy/slice-of-life with fantastic writing and acting that had me gasping with laughter and wiping tears in every episode. Best kiss ever.

Strong Woman Do Bong Soon: fantasy/romantic comedy with easy-on-the-eyes Park Hyung Sik appreciating Park Bo Young's super strength as she beats up gangsters while trying to be a normal girl. (On Netflix as Strong Girl Bong Soon.) I also really enjoyed Park Bo Young's acting in Oh My Ghostess (on Netflix as Oh My Ghost), as she plays both a painfully shy girl who sees ghosts and the bold, brash ghost who possesses her.

1% of Something: romantic comedy (yes, I like these) with a really great dynamic between the couple. It's a let's-pretend-we're-dating-to-get-our-parents-off-our-backs type plot, which Marriage Not Dating does even goofier.

Queen In-Hyun's Man: time-travel historical fantasy/romance. I enjoyed Yoo In Na in Goblin and she's lovely in this one as well, and Ji Hyun Woo is a treat to watch as the Joseon scholar who has to adapt to the 21st century.