Monday, December 30, 2019

Getting through some TBRs for the holidays

I'm eagerly awaiting the announcement of the Cybils shortlists, which should be coming out any day now. The YA Spec Fic shortlist will determine my reading for January. The list of nominees has a ton of books that look fantastic, so I'm excited to see what the Round 1 judges choose for us.

But on my last trip to the library, instead of coming back with a bunch of YA choices, I ran into a bunch of (mostly middle-grade) books I've been meaning to read for a long time. So this is what I've been reading over the holidays (in between re-watching my favourite Korean dramas with my daughter so I can get her hooked on them!):

Snow & Rose, by Emily Winfield Martin. Lovely illustrations in this retelling of a fairy tale about two sisters in a forest
The Girl with the Dragon Heart, by Stephanie Burgis. Chocolate and dragons meet fairies! Such good characters in this series.
Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan. Eerie story of witches from over the border who steal Mup's dad, so she goes to get him back.
Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle George. Can't resist a Shakespeare retelling, especially if it's Much Ado About Nothing set in New York during Prohibition.
Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince, by John Claude Bemis. Pinocchio retold by an author I really like.
The Broken Lands, by Kate Milford. I've wanted to read this ever since I read The Boneshaker: crossroads and card sharps and shady characters and a fireworks maker and evil walking the land.
This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura (wasn't on my TBR but I liked the cover and the premise so I picked it up)

And yes, that is a Harry Potter advent calendar in the background. I couldn't resist.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

This book! This book is everything you wanted it to be when you read the synopsis and thought, "Could this possibly be the one? Could this book get it right? Will this be the book that takes me through those doors, that makes me believe in them again?"

Yes. This is that book.

There are portal fantasies—the Narnias, the Walk Out of the the Worlds, the Strays—and then there are the fantasies about portals. Some books are about the world through the door—adventure! talking animals! the chance to be a hero!—and some are about the doors themselves—the possibility of them, how they work, what they mean. And there are some authors who understand portals so well you know they must have experienced them; it's too real for them to have made it up. Diana Wynne Jones was one. Alix E. Harrow is another.

Harrow's writing is so vivid, so gorgeous, so powerful. She opens those doors for us and drags us into January's world, and then we glimpse the next one, and then ... oh, the structure of this novel! So brilliant! Stories within stories, doors beyond doors.

January is awesome. We first see her as a bright, imaginative, willful child, and as she grows up and has to choose if she will be the kind of person who can open doors, her journey is wrenching, nail-biting, infuriating. Oooh, the evil people in this book!

Jane is amazing. Don't want to spoil Jane for you; you'll just have to meet her yourself. Samuel—oh, I love Samuel! Then there are Julian and Adelaide: they squeeze my heart. The fierce women in this story! The character arcs from hesitation and denial to strength and courage. The evil, evil villains!

So, yeah, Harrow can do characters. Also there's a dog named Bad. He is pretty much the best thing in the story. Other than the Doors. And Jane. And Samuel. The book is really just a bunch of best things.

I'm torn between wanting to tell you all of them and not wanting to spoil anything. I'll just say the worlds are fantastic, the magic makes sense, the mystery is spooled out at just the right pace and the revelations are all totally satisfying. Oh, it sounds so bland when I sum it up like that! Somehow I want to convey that I had such high, high expectations of this book, and it didn't disappoint me once. It just kept making me happier!

I know: I can give you quotations.
The Door seemed to be murmuring in a soft, clattering language made of wood rot and peeling paint.
It's an odd feeling, having one's wildest suspicions proved true. It's satisfying to find you aren't insane, of course, but somewhat disheartening to realize you are indeed being hunted by a shadowy organization of apparently infinite reach. 
It was the kind of stillness that makes the hairs on your arms stand up, and makes you think of wolves and snakes waiting in the high grass. 
It felt like donning a suit of armour or sprouting wings, extending past the boundaries of myself; it felt an awful lot like love. 
 There's a really great quotation about destiny that I can't find (one of the limitations of a paper book, I suppose!). You'll just have to read it and let me know when you get to it!

I know I'm supposed to be getting a head start on YA Spec Fic Cybils nominees, and I swear that was my intention when I went to the library, but I can't be sad that this book landed in my hands. (It would make a great YA read, actually, even though it's marketed as adult.) I can't wait to see what magic Alix E. Harrow will unleash on us next! (Apparently it's something to do with suffragettes and witches, so more awesomeness!)(She has a great interview here.)

Also, you must, must read her Hugo-winning short story, A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies. (This story slays me every time I read it.)(Here's a teaser quotation, and this tells you everything you need to know about Alix E. Harrow:
It’s official library policy to report truants to the high school, because the school board felt we were becoming “a haven for unsupervised and illicit teenage activity.” I happen to think that’s exactly what libraries should aspire to be, and suggested we get it engraved on a plaque for the front door.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

We Rule The Night, by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Decided I needed to start looking at the Cybils nominees for YA Spec Fic. Found this one at my library. Premise sounded interesting: Revna, a"factory worker manufacturing magical war machines," is "caught using illegal magic"; Linné is caught disguising herself as a boy so she can join the army. I could get invested in characters like that. They're sent to a "special women's military flight unit." Now I was definitely intrigued.

I took We Rule the Night home and devoured it. It lived up to its potential and then some. This is a gripping adventure with WWII-Soviet-inspired atmosphere, fascinating magic, two brilliantly flawed protagonists and a tortuously problematic friendship. Don't let the fairly generic YA cover fool you: this is different than anything else you've read.

Bartlett based her story on the little-known history of the Night Witches, an all-women unit of Soviet pilots who flew night bombing raids on German lines. They sound awesome enough to spawn a ton of novels, and I hope we get more. (Elizabeth Wein has written a non-fiction book about them which I want to read immediately: A Thousand Sisters.)

Bartlett decided to add magic into the mix, and I love the believable world she created: a totalitarian state that rejects religion and certain kinds of magic; secret police who use telepathy and can shape shift; steampunkish technology based on magic rather than electricity. Her Soviet analogue, The Union of the North, is gritty and oppressive, painted in shades of smoke and khaki. The magic-powered vehicles with their legs and carapaces, made out of living metal that absorbs and emits emotions, are fascinating and slightly creepy. It's an immersive environment with tension to spare.

Our two main characters have plenty of things to be afraid of, yet each rebels in her own way against her circumstances, and each chooses loyalty over fear—once they figure out where their loyalty lies. Revna is more immediately engaging, with her kindness and her desire to protect her family, while Linné is a prickly, arrogant stick-in-the-mud who is angry at everything and desperate to make her father notice her. Revna tries her hardest to be a Good Union Girl because she knows her very existence is treasonous; Linné is a patriot who wants to die for her country but her country won't let her. Wonderfully complex motivations; entirely convincing reasons for them to hate each other; and of course they are paired together to fly.

The flying was fun, and the magic/technology hybrid was cool, but it was the conflict between the patronizing, skeptical military men and the women doing everything in their power to prove themselves that kept me riveted to the page. I burned with anger for the way the women were treated, for the powerlessness that comes from being underestimated and ignored. I cheered the way the girls supported each other, their dogged persistence, the fist-pumping moments when they blew everyone away with their skills. Getting to the end and finding out that this was all based on real women who really did face up to that kind of persecution and kept flying anyway—that was a huge bonus!

I'm pretty sure there's going to be a sequel—not exactly a cliffhanger ending or anything, but I really hope there's going to be a sequel, because I really want to know what happens next to these girls!

The description for this book compares it to Code Name Verity—which is a stunning, brilliant and incomparable book—and We Rule the Night did remind me of it. It also has a similar feel to Wolf by Wolf. (Maybe not quite the same emotional punch as those two books, but you don't always want to be punched in the gut by a book, so that's okay!)

Definitely an excellent contender for a Cybil! Feels like some sort of hearty soup you would eat on a cold winter's night—oh, of course: borscht!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Spark, by Sarah Beth Durst

What if something that was making your life wonderful was also making someone else's life miserable? If you found out about it, what would you do?

This seems to me one of the central moral questions of our time, and Spark is a lovely, gentle but remorseless engagement with it. This is such an important book; all adults should be required to read it!

It's also a sweet, fun story about following your heart and finding your voice and figuring out where you belong. And it has dragons! (Well, storm beasts. But close enough as makes no mind!)

Durst says she got the idea for this book from the first line: Mina was quiet. "But I didn't want it to be the story of a quiet girl who learns how to be loud. I wanted it to be the story of a quiet girl who discovers she's strong, exactly as she is." I love that.

I loved Mina, I loved her passion, her intelligence, her patience and her frustration. I appreciated the depictions of her boisterous family and the way she loves them and belongs without being like them.

I adored her storm beast Pixit and their relationship, they way they remind each other of their strengths and bring out the best in each other.

I was so happy with the school scenes—Mina is unlike all the other students, but she finds friends and figures out her talents and discovers that she belongs. It's an outcast story without any bullying, and isn't that a good thing to have examples of?

The world of Alorria was fascinating and colourful; simplistic in the way middle-grade fantasies often are, but with enough complexity to be believable and to generate an interesting plot. The concept of storm beasts and the use of them to control weather was a lot of fun. The prime minister is a great character. I thought Mina's solution to her dilemna was brilliant and quite relevant to our own world.

I've consistently been impressed with Sarah Beth Durst's work. She is incredibly imaginative, thoughtful and has a deep understanding of psychology. My copy of Spark had a sample chapter from The Stone Girl's Story,  and I'm now anxious to get my hands on that one!

Since we just celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving, I'll compare Spark to the tasty and very different stuffing my son made for his turkey: it had walnuts and apples and pomegranate seeds, so it was colourful and crunchy and had all the sweet, sour, savoury and salty flavours. (His gravy was great too: had notes of lemon and fennel and white wine.) I love that my kids are all better cooks than I am!

Note that today is your last day to nominate books for the Cybils award. Spark has been nominated in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category, along with a lot of other great books. If there's one you know of that's missing, hurry and nominate it!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Cybils Nominations Open!

It's October 1, and that means it's time to nominate your favourite books of the last 12 months for the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards!

Anyone can nominate: did you read a children's or YA book last year? Did you like it? Nominate it!

We can't pick the best of the best unless all the best books are nominated, so we need you. You have 15 days!

Here are the categories you can nominate in (you can nominate one in each category).

Here is all the info you need and a link to the nomination form.

Tell us what you loved this year: we want to know!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Everything Beautiful is not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Picked up Everything Beautiful is not Ruined because of the title: love the title! And the book lives up to it.

It's a contemporary story about a girl on a wilderness therapy trip. The blurb says Wild meets The Breakfast Club, and that pretty much nails it: group of teens with various issues have to survive a hiking trip with some manufactured challenges that make them bond and open up to each other. As someone who backpacks regularly, I thought the wilderness challenge was the weakest part of the book—I got very angry at the some of the things the leaders did ... but I will not rant about that here! (I do agree that nature and wilderness experiences are healing, and I did like the description.) In any case, that was just the setting for the personal journey.

I loved the book because of Ingrid—her voice, and her fascinating past history, and the genuine journey she makes to reconcile with it. She narrates, and I found her snarky sense of humour with barely veiled hurt underneath utterly compelling. I felt so much for her! (And was very angry on her behalf with the irresponsible adults who ... not going to rant. Right.)

The narration is in two parts: letters to her mother describing the wilderness trip, full of sarcasm and anger and "why did you send me here?", and descriptions of her unusual childhood. Ingrid's mother was a famous opera singer, so Ingrid spend her early years traipsing around Europe, surrounded by music. It was an idyllic period in her memory, and then it suddenly ended when her mother lost her voice. Young Ingrid has to grow up quickly to deal with her mother's spiral into depression.

Younge-Ullman makes great use of her structure to create tension. It's obvious that something terrible happened to result in Ingrid's mother sending her on this camp, something Ingrid refuses to talk about even when all her co-campers are revealing their problems. As the stories of her childhood unfold we get closer and closer to understanding what might have happened; meanwhile Ingrid's letters to her mother are resolutely not saying anything even as she's being pushed to a breaking point by the physical and mental challenges of the camp.

I was blown away by the ending, when past and present come together and we find out how hurt Ingrid really is, just as she discovers her own strength and the support around her that she needs. There are some hard things, but the title is true: everything beautiful is not ruined.

I loved the use of music and the exploration of the life of a musician. I loved all the characters, (even the ones I was very angry at!). (And there was one character I loved beyond all measure, but I won't spoil who it is: you'll know who it is when you read it.) I appreciated the nuanced, realistic but hopeful approach to mental illness. This therapy trip doesn't magically fix everything for Ingrid, but the better place she gets to makes sense. There are bits to cry over, but lots of laugh-out-loud humour.

Since I'm still not quite ready to relinquish summer, I'll compare this book to an unusual gelato flavour: blueberry basil, maybe, or lemon lavender. Every bite has different layers of flavour and keeps surprising you with that unexpected hint of herb, which adds the right note of bitterness or spice to counteract the sweetness of the fruit. (Just made my own raspberry-mint sherbet with the last of the garden's raspberries: delicious!)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Novellas get me out of my reading funk! Also dragons.

It helps that the novellas were written by Lois McMaster Bujold, Becky Chambers, and T. Kingfisher.  And the dragons are from Marie Brennan's series that I finally got around to starting, and why did I wait so long (though it's nice that all the books (I think?) are written now) because she is an amazing writer!

There is nothing like putting yourself in a capable writer's hands. Suddenly, the world seems like a more hopeful place.

Becky Chambers is infinitely imaginative and also owns a deep well of hope. I haven't reviewed her Wayfarers series, I guess because it's adult and I'm mostly a YA/Kidslit blog, but I adored it. So, so interesting—her world, her characters, her narrative style. How does she manage to be both thought-provoking and feel-good? When I saw a novella with yet another amazing title (she is hands-down the best title-er out there, just saying), I bought it right away. To Be Taught, if Fortunate is another fascinating exploration of humanity's possible future, while also being a deep character study of science—yes, of scientists, but also of science itself: what it values, what it's good at, why it's a hallmark of our species and the ultimate reason to have hope for where we're headed. By the end of the novella I cared as much about the future of science as I did about the characters—who were all lovely and interesting and maybe they got along a little too well to be believable, but isn't it sometimes nice to read a book where the conflict isn't about people being mean to each other? Just saying.

I have written quite a bit about Lois McMaster Bujold, despite her never writing anything remotely YA—I just love her so much I can't help myself. She's been dropping novellas about Penric and his resident chaos demon, Desdemona, like little surprise fruits for the past several years, and I'm always thrilled to get another one. Penric is getting pretty powerful these days, as he and Desdemona figure out how to work together, and in Orphans of Raspay he gets very pissed off. You shouldn't piss off someone harbouring a chaos demon. Just saying. What I love about this series (and the World of the Five Gods series, same world, same religion) is the way she explores how gods could work in the world without infringing on human agency. I also love the humour. And Penric. I just love Penric. He has to be one of the best depictions of an ethical character—his conflicts are all about how to be ethical when you have the power to do whatever the hell you want, and there's room for a lot of humour there.

Speaking of humour, I can always rely on T. Kingfisher. She understands that all plots are jokes (you have to set up your punchline), and her comedic timing is impeccable. Also she has a deep well of absurdity. Don't be misled by the young protagonist and his armadillo familiar: this is not a children's book. When Ursula Vernon is being T. Kingfisher, she can do pretty horrific violence and some genuinely scary bits. (Some reviewers have pointed out that kids do read scary and violent things. I would recommend reading it yourself before giving it to anyone under 13.) Minor Mage has everything I like about Vernon/Kingfisher: unflinching understanding of the worst of humanity combined with loving depictions of its best; not-particularly-special protagonists who muddle their way into heroism; folktale elements teased apart and turned into very weird, very brilliant world-building. And laugh-out-loud funny scenes juxtaposed with insight and wisdom, in the best Terry Pratchett style.

Speaking of science (we were a few paragraphs ago!), A Natural History of Dragons is another delightful exploration of the scientific method and the characters of people who are obsessed with Finding Things Out. (And if you think "delightful exploration of the scientific method" is an oxymoron, this might not be the book for you.) I loved Isabella, and I loved the narrative style, which pretends to be all distant and objective but actually reveals how deeply Isabella feels. (And is also quite slyly funny a lot of the time.) This first book of The Memoirs of Lady Trent describes a young Isabella desperate to study dragons but destined to lead the restricted life of a Victorian lady. The narrator is older, wildly successful dragonologist Isabella, so we know she succeeds, but the gap between where she begins and where she apparently ends up is a fascinating one to see slowly filled in. These books are gorgeous, with lovely illustrations, and I now have a terrible dilemma: do I buy the discounted e-book collection that has all five books, or do I fork out for the paper editions?

I'm feeling my way back into reading and writing, and authors who know what they're doing and who believe the world, and people, are full of potential and are worth saving are a lifeline to me. Have you read anything lately that has given you hope and confidence? Or just made you laugh?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I don't blog much in the summer anyway, but this year I've been in quite the reading funk and haven't had anything to say about books for a while. It happens, I guess. Sometimes life gets in the way of reading.

But when my friend's book came out I had to read it, of course. And if you need a book to get you out of a slump, have I got a book for you!

Gods of Jade and ShadowGods of Jade and Shadow has to be the sweetest dark fantasy about homicidal death gods ever written! If Jazz Age meets Mayan death god sounds intriguing, I can promise you won't be disappointed: you get Mayan mythology and 1920's Mexico in equally vivid realism. The intersection of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, with a Mexico on the verge of change is convincing, terrifying, and so much fun. Witches and demons lurk in strange mansions and the streets of Carnival; fancy new hotels can be portals to hell.

The protagonist leading you through both worlds is a clear-headed, no-nonsense dreamer with a temper that gets her in trouble and a dry, self-depreciating wit that gets her through it. Casiopea is named after a Greek myth and knows her stories, and when she accidentally resurrects a death god she takes it all in stride—after all, he's going to get her out of her grandfather's house and the drab town that "scorch[es] out dreams." And maybe, if she survives the vengeful spirits and the Black Roads of Xibalba and her ever-awful cousin Martín, she might get a chance to realize one or two of her own carefully hoarded dreams.

Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba, is an equally delightful travel companion. Arrogant and careless as any god when we first meet him, he becomes more and more human as he journeys with Casiopea (due to a particularly well-done mythical plot twist). Casiopea's relationship with Hun-Kamé is the fascinating, piquant heart of the story: she fears him, stands up to him anyway, serves him, refuses to put up with his crap, chooses to stick with him, and comes to have compassion for him. The impossible romance that blooms ever-so-tentatively between them is entirely believable and beautifully bittersweet.

The writing is lovely and often quite funny. Hun-Kamé is prone to grave utterances that the other characters refuse to take seriously.
"Death enters all dwellings."
"Death has no manners."
But then sometimes he ends up being quite profound.
"Death speaks all languages."
"But I am not death."
"You wear me like a jewel upon your finger, Casiopea."
The plot has the pleasing inevitability of a folktale but the satisfaction of watching characters with agency change their world. "'Very well,'" says Casiopea at the beginning, "and with these two words she accepted her fate, horrid or wonderful as it might be." By the end of her Odyssey, she is defying gods and monsters (and the ever-awful Martín)(but even he gets some compassion, because Casiopea is just that awesome) and it turns out the fate of the world is in her hands. "'I wish you were a coward instead of a hero,'" says Hun-Kamé. But we've known from the start that Casiopea is no coward. Her triumph at the end is earned and fitting. I particularly enjoyed the form her happily-ever-after took!

If you're bored with endlessly replicated fantasy settings, annoyed with heroines whose one characteristic is spunky or kick-ass, have had it up to here with insta-love and angst—this is the book to cleanse your palate and renew your faith in speculative fiction.

Home-made corn tortillas with carnitas, queso fresco and a really spicy pico de gallo. Also a salsa made from blackened habaneros that will scorch your tongue off.

And here's some of what I've been doing instead of reading this summer:

Cross-posted on Goodreads (without the hiking photos!).

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Top Ten books to take travelling right now

Whooosh! That's the sound of May rushing past before I had time to blink. My reading in May was almost exclusively comfort rereading. Things are going on IRL—some good, some not-so-good—and sometimes you just need to fill your head with beloved characters and a plot you know by heart.

Now it's almost June, and I'm leaving on a jet plane next week, which brings me to my annual (or so it seems to be becoming) What Books Am I Going to Put on My Phone For the Trip post. I'm perusing all your blogs for ideas and would love to get more suggestions in the comments.

Travel reading needs to be easy and light; after a few hours on a plane your brain turns to mush, so complex plots and dense prose just aren't going to go down. (Rereading is actually perfect for flights, but I've done enough of that.) You also need to bring a lot of different options, because sometimes travel brain wants one kind of thing and sometimes it just doesn't.

I usually try to find books set in the places I'm going, just to get me all inspired. This time it's Italy—Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice—so maybe I should revisit Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series. Any other suggestions?

What I've got so far:

From the library:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford: been on my TBR forever!

The Mortal Word, by Genevieve Cogman: newest Invisible Library book—so excited! Absolutely perfect airplane reading: fast-paced and funny.

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan: my engineering student son just learned how to make sourdough, so how can I not read a novel about a programmer taking care of a neighbour's sourdough mother. (Also you must listen to the funny Stuart McLean story about taking care of a neighbour's sourdough mother. (story starts at 19:20))

The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu: I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this one.

The Chocolate Kiss, by Laura Florand: Paris, not Italy, but chocolate. Loved the first one.

Nights of the Round Table, by Tanya Huff: funny short stories are ideal plane fare.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho, audiobook: the new one is out, so I should reread this one, and all the better if I can do it with my eyes closed!

Decided to buy:

Toad Words and Other Stories, by T. Kingfisher: more short stories and I love every word this woman writes, so this was a no-brainer

The Starfighter Invitation, by Andrea K. Host. Always willing to try new Andrea Host.

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis. Because I haven't actually read this series yet, and why haven't I?

A Sword Named Truth, by Sherwood Smith (preordered; it comes out on June 11): extremely excited about this one. If you've read Crown Duel and A Stranger to Command, you're probably excited, too.

Lent, by Jo Walton: I love her writing, and this is fantasy about Savonarola, a key figure in Florence history. How fortuitous!

By now you can tell there's nothing Top Ten about this list—clearly I can't count, and this is a pretty random collection based on what was available at the library, what I've read about on blogs recently, and fave authors I decided to look up on Amazon. But it would make a great Top Ten list idea, wouldn't it?? What would go on your list?