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!