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.