Thursday, December 9, 2021

We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley

Trigger warnings: school shootings, domestic violence

(Note: if you are a member of the NRA, you won't like this book)

We Can Be Heroes is a ghost story about anger, art and activism. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I loved the friendship between the three girls. Beck and Vivian jumped off the page and Cassie slowly gained substance (you'll get what I did there when you read it!), and the dynamic, sometimes fraught bonds among them were lovely to watch. Also girls standing up for girls never gets old. Just saying.

[I can't help but notice a common thread of anger in a lot of this year's YA. It's an appalling truth that in 2021 there are still so many things to be angry about, and I can only applaud the authors giving us angry characters breaking rules to make things change.] [For more anger, art and activism, look for a One Billion Rising event in your area. Or start one.][We now return you to your regularly scheduled review.]

I loved Beck's use of women from Greek myths in her murals, reclaiming their stories to make sure Cassie's story gets told. Don't you love this great, incisive line: "If the hero dies, they call it a Greek tragedy, but when the heroine dies, it's a romance." Isn't that just the problem with western literature in a nutshell! (It's ever so slightly possible that I enjoyed this novel so much because I agreed so much with its very obvious message. Ahem.)

Okay, I know why this book struck such a chord with me: its theme that the story we tell ourselves—the stories we tell each other—about who we are, about what matters and who matters and how things ought to be—these stories change everything. And we each need the space, the permission, the power,  to tell our own stories. That's a message every girl should hear.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Darkness Outside Us, by Eliot Schrefer

So, this is one of those I-can't-tell-you-anything-about-the-plot-so-how-am-I-supposed-to-review-this-book books. There's so much I want to tell you about that I can't! I finished this book last week and I'm still thinking about it, going over all the ramifications of what happened in the story and the choices the characters made, and the choices the author made about how to tell the story. It's just so interesting and provocative!

Okay, here: have you ever heard of the philosophy book Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter? Mind blowing stuff about consciousness and computers and stuff that I understood about 1/18th of, maybe, but it was a lot of fun (and made me feel smart every time I understood a sentence!). Reading The Darkness Outside Us makes me want to go back and read that book.

That is not going to convince you to read this novel. Try again.

Trapped in a spaceship with an enemy and an AI that sounds like your mother: how long would it take you to go insane? This book plays with some familiar sci-fi tropes, layers in a life-or-death mystery, adds a sweet, weird love story (can't tell you why it's weird: too spoilery), and sends you on a mind trip of epic twistiness. It's fun, it has feels, it punches you in the gut, it makes you say, "But, wait ... no, hang on a minute: what??!" not just once but probably four or five times, and then it makes you go, "Huh. That's ... huh. There's a metaphor in here; let me think about this for a while."

And so here I am, a week later, still thinking about it and trying to get you to read the book so we can think about it together!


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

I was excited about this book, and worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It's gotten a lot of hype, and controversy, neither of which I particularly care about, but the premise of a Chinese-history-inspired sci-fi with giant fighting robots just sounded too fun!

Well, Iron Widow is a wild ride of a book, every bit as intense and entertaining as promised. (Note that if you think giant fighting robots are dumb, you may not enjoy it as much as I did!)(I mean, giant fighting robots are dumb, I am objectively aware of that. I have no idea why I think they are cool, but all the coolness is well and truly explored in this book!)(Also, familiarity with and appreciation of various anime tropes make it more likely that you'll enjoy Iron Widow.)

Xiran Jay Zhao has a clear and emphatic Message being conveyed through all the fun mayhem, but I never felt like I was being hit over the head with it—probably because I was too busy cheering Zetian while she hits lots of obnoxious things over the head, metaphorically and literally.

Zetian is about as bad-ass as they come. She's loosely based on the only female emperor of China, whose ascension to (and retention of) power is pretty mind-blowing when you consider the society she lived in. Xiran Jay Zhao recreates that society for us, exploring all its systemic misogyny through Zetian's visceral daily experience of it. Zetian's anger is the moral compass she uses to navigate this world so impossibly stacked against her, and it's so refreshing! (I'm not a violent person, I promise! I was actually a little worried that this book would be too dark and edgy—and yeah, it goes darker places than I was hoping, but, well, history.)

Too bad. I am exactly the kind of ice-blooded, rotten-hearted girl he fears I am. And I am fine with that.

May he stay unsettled.

 I'm all for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in the real world, but the real world also has some pretty horrific things in it and we should be angry about them. This book is that anger. 

With giant fighting robots. 

 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Aetherbound, by E. K. Johnston

No E. K. Johnston book is like any other book in existence, including any other E. K. Johnston book. She has very specific stories to tell, and each book is told in the just right way for that story, which probably won't conform with any standard structures or tropes you're familiar with. So you have to come to each new book with an open mind and trust that Johnston is going to give you the story you need that you didn't even know you needed.

All that is preamble to say I didn't know I needed a retelling of the Fisher King myth, set in space with magic, but now my heart is wrung and my mind is slightly blown and I'm not sure how to review it. (Full disclosure: I have only the vaguest understanding of the Fisher King myth, and a quick google search is not helping me understand it any better; I didn't recognize this as a retelling until a reviewer mentioned it, even though Johnston specifically tells the Fisher King story in the middle of the book!) (To achieve healing you have to ask the right question—that's as far as my understanding goes.)

Right. The review. There's some harsh stuff in this book, no doubt about it, and it's very spoilery to tell you what it all is, but if you're concerned my Goodreads review has the spoilers. The reason you don't want to be spoiled is that we start with Pendt as a five-year old to whom all this is normal, and we only gradually discover, along with her, that it's unbearable. This is a book about autonomy, freedom, choice, and I think it's important to be in Pendt's head as she grows into a person who can make choices, who sees her opportunity and escapes, and sees her next opportunity and grabs it. I think the first section of the book is brilliant in the way Johnston controls POV so that we are a little appalled, then more appalled, then fiercely excited and terrified when Pendt escapes. (That's not a spoiler: it's on the book jacket!)

Then we get part 2, and another set of characters who are imprisoned in an entirely different way. The way Pendt's need to escape leads to a unique solution to all of their dilemmas is weird and strangely affirming. And all that is told as more of a background to the developing friendship among three young people who are essentially good and kind and trying to do the right thing in a very twisted universe.

One of the things I love about E. K. Johnston is her ability to portray goodness and kindness. In the end, I think that's what all her books are about, and the plots are just vehicles, scenarios in which goodness and kindness can play out. All the more highlighted when the universe is so completely the opposite of good and kind. I can't tell you how much I love Pendt and Ned and Fisher! (And there had better be a sequel, because that Stavenger Empire needs to be taken down!)(She hints at a sequel at the end, so here's hoping!)

Johnston's pacing is always odd, because she tells you what you need to know when you need to know it, and only shows you the things she thinks are important. Things can seem rushed and abrupt because she trusts her readers to keep up. She's doing it all very deliberately, so pay attention to where she spends her narrative time. (She definitely doesn't tell the story that most authors would tell and most readers would expect.) I need to reread and pay more attention myself to see all I missed the first time around.

Oh, and don't ask what the LGBTQ+ rep is, because you don't want to be spoiled! I thought the way she dealt with this particular character was quite brilliant and fun, and also very pointed. (It's never explicitly stated, because it shouldn't have to be.)

This isn't a book for everyone: the reviews will tell you that! But if you've liked more than one of Johnston's books (or if you like Patrick Ness—he's maybe the only comparable author out there*), and you're willing to go along for a very interesting ride, I can highly recommend this. (I think it's my second favourite of her books, after Exit, Pursued by a Bear.)

*If Johnston and Ness ever collaborated on a project, I'm pretty sure the universe would collapse into a singularity from so much originality and depth.

Cross-posted on Goodreads, and I should really post my other E. K. Johnston reviews there too.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

This is a debut novel?? Unbelievably tight, emotion-packed writing, gripping plot, compelling characters. Just, wow.

There are some books where characters do stupid things and you roll your eyes and throw the book across the room. Then there are books like Bad Witch Burning, where you spend the whole time saying, "Noooo! Don't do it, Katrell, you know this won't end well!" but you completely understand why she's making these really bad choices and you think you might even make the same choices in her shoes.

Lewis depicts with searing, heart-wrenching intensity the physical, mental and emotional toll of poverty. When Katrell finds out she can raise the dead, and people will pay her for it, we feel her utter conviction that There Is No Way Out for her and of course she has to keep performing necromancy despite the terrible consequences. And what interesting consequences: the story is slow-burn creepy and it will surprise you. The pacing of the reveals is particularly well-done.

This is a paranormal book but it isn't about the magic: we don't find out why Katrell has this power, there aren't other witches around, there isn't a magic system. It's a very focused story that uses the horror of the paranormal as a brilliant metaphor for the very real horrors of Katrell's life and the impossible choices she has to make. Lest I scare you off, thinking it's a dismal, depressing read, there are some wonderful characters who are There for Katrell, and Katrell herself is an engaging narrator with attitude to spare. It's a hard book to read, but I couldn't put it down. I loved Katrell to pieces and her journey was fascinating.

Trigger warnings for physical and emotional abuse and violence against a dog. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna

 

The Gilded Ones is a fierce tale of friendship and loyalty in a strikingly original world. In Otera, "impure" girls bleed gold, proving their demonic nature, and yet no girl knows if she is impure until the Rite of Purification, when, if she does turn out to be impure, she is summarily given the Death Mandate. What a powerful metaphor for the impossible double standard used to repress and control women in so many cultures!

When Deka finds out that she is impure, she is given the opportunity to escape a truly horrific fate, only to face a possibly even more horrific life training to defend the empire against monsters. There is a lot of quite brutal violence and abuse in this book, so much so that I became desensitized to it, which I don't think was Forna's intention. (Apparently she based a lot of the book on her childhood experiences in Sierra Leone during a civil war. Considering the reality of what women do face every day in many parts of the world makes this book extremely difficult to read.) 

The nature of these gold-blooded girls, or alaki, is very strange, and I wasn't sure I was convinced at first, but Forna develops her mythology solidly and keeps us invested in the characters. The training school scenes focus on the developing friendships between Deka and the other alaki trainees, and I loved these interactions and relationships. There are some great magical beasts, too. There are perhaps a few too many really significant revelations in the last part of the book—things are suddenly moving very fast and everything gets turned upside-down pretty quickly—but it all mostly ties together, and there are some great fist-pumping moments for all the characters we care about.

Great themes of what makes someone monstrous, and wonderful, empowering female friendships.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Mr. Impossible, by Maggie Stiefvater

It took me a while to get to this sequel to Call Down the Hawk, because I didn't love Hawk as much as I wanted to, and I didn't want to keep not loving the story about Ronan. Because, Ronan! And Matthew and Declan! I guess there was just too much plot in the first book, maybe? Lots of really weird stuff happening and I wasn't wrapping my head around it.

Mister Impossible sorts out all that plot and makes me care immensely about it. And I guess we needed Hawk to set everything up so that all this amazing character growth could happen in Mister Impossible. Character arcs like you wouldn't believe, people!

Brief backtrack to set context: Ronan Lynch (and his brothers Declan and Matthew) are beloved characters from Stiefvater's Raven Boys series, which I highly recommend, and which you don't exactly have to read before you read this series, but I think you'll care a lot more if you do. 

Mister Impossible is the second book in the Dreamers series, which focuses on Ronan's ability to bring real things out of his dreams—and the consequences of that ability, for both Ronan and his family and for the world. The magic of it is really cool, and I love that Stiefvater makes the consequences so real and Ronan's dilemmas so impossible. Lots of great discussions of identity and personhood and what is reality, anyway? Jordan and Hennessy weren't my favourite new characters in Hawk, but now I love them both intensely.

Excellent twist at the end, I must say! We need a happy ending for all of these characters, dear Maggie: please give us a happy ending for all these deeply flawed, hurt, desperate characters who are so busy blowing themselves up that they can't see how loved they are. Now I have to wait for the third book, arrgh!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Defy the Night, by Brigid Kemmerer

Defy the Night is a fun, fast-paced fantasy that adds a bit of nuance to the tropes of good-hearted outlaws and cruel-by-necessity monarchs. The plot device of an illness that only a rare ingredient can cure is perhaps more topical than you might want to read about, but it did make the book resonate a little more than it might have otherwise. 

The strength of the book is in the character relationships, and Tessa, Wes, King Harristan and Prince Corrick are all compelling characters with believable, complex tensions between them. I wanted them all just to trust each other and be able to work together, and there are so many reasons why they can't.

The world-building is fairly scant, just a background for the plot to happen in, and the politics were pretty simplified, but really, it was all just an excuse for Tessa and Corrick to face off against each other in various settings, and I was all there for that! I did appreciate that the ending looked for different solutions than the all-or-nothing battles typical of fantasy.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Mirror Season, by Anna-Marie McLemore


The Mirror Season is a stunning, devastating book. Big huge trigger warning for graphic sexual assault. But it's such an incredibly healing, affirming, cathartic, book.  I can't possibly recommend or not recommend it to anyone, since I don't have that trauma in my life to deal with. But I can say that she deals with it gently and ruthlessly, like a nurse picking broken glass out of a wound.

The writing is gorgeous. If you've read McLemore before you know her prose is vibrant and lyrical. In this book I think she is a little more spare, more precise. Every word exactly the right one in the right place. In her previous books I've enjoyed the colour and depth magic realism brings to her stories, but the connections, the metaphors didn't always land for me. In this one, metaphor and magic realism and allusions to The Snow Queen interweave so brilliantly to illuminate her themes and characters that when I wasn't sobbing about what was happening on the page I was crying with how beautifully it was all coming together. 

Probably the best book I've read all year. I love Ciela and Lock with all the pieces of my broken heart.

Also, I need to find a pastelería so I can try pan dulce in all its delicious-sounding variations! And I looked up a recipe for cazuela, and that's what we're having for dinner tonight (except I don't have any of the right spices or chilies, so it will be a pale imitation).

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong

What an ambitious book! Let's retell Romeo and Juliet, set in 1920s Shanghai, during the rise of the Communist Party. Let's make Juliette the heir to the Cai criminal empire, and Roma the Montagov heir, representing Chinese and Russian gangs fighting for control of the city. Add in the European political and mercantile factions, choosing sides, and the Communist Party threatening all power structures, local or foreign, legitimate or gang. Oh, and let's also add in a disgusting monster spreading a terrible madness everywhere it goes. 

The setting of These Violent Delights is awesome, and the way Gong works it into her plot is brilliant. Some of the Romeo and Juliet work-ins felt contrived to me, but she does cool things with the story, twisting it in interesting ways. Roma and Juliette are compelling characters—not immediately likeable. Juliette is a hard, violent person, and Gong doesn't glorify the violence. I appreciated that even when she's being particularly kick-ass against people whose asses definitely need kicking, we don't avoid the uncomfortable questions about Juliette's methods. There are some great side characters that kept me invested even when I wasn't so sure about our mains!

The monster is creepy, gory and terrifying, and makes a great metaphor for the forces tearing Shanghai apart. The mystery of where it comes from and how to stop it drives most of the plot, which I thought wandered somewhat in the middle. I didn't think it needed to be quite that convoluted. But the character relationships kept me reading, and the climax is tense and satisfying. 

There will be a sequel, which I'm not sure I'll read, because that monster is haunting my nightmares!

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Ones We're Meant to Find, by Joan He

It's your last day to nominate books for the Cybils

I'm going to try doing mini-reviews for the next little while, as I have a lot of books to read and won't possibly be able to keep up with reviewing them all, but I want to get down my feelings before I forget them.

The Ones We're Meant to Find is an impossible book to review, actually. It has so many mind-blowing plot twists that I can't tell you anything about what happens. It had me scratching my head and rereading passages and flipping back to check previous chapters several times to figure out what was going on, because you make certain assumptions and then it turns out they're all completely wrong. Except maybe the most important ones. 

It's also hard to review because I'm still not sure how I feel about it. It's compelling and frustrating in almost equal doses (but more compelling!). It's dense, as in, it packs a ton of world- and character- and plot-building into not very much space, so it feels fast-paced even though it doles out its mysteries agonizingly slowly! I loved the characters—they were brilliantly done and I cared desperately for all of them. The writing was beautiful. The world was fascinating and a very pointed critique of our own—but there were some elements that were hand-waved a bit too unbelievably for me. The plot was crazy clever and intriguing, but by the end I felt a little manipulated. Too much whiplash, too much milking the surprise reveals without giving time to digest the really interesting philosophy being explored. But on the other hand, manipulation is one of the themes, so having that experience as a reader is actually a plus for the book!

Do I recommend it? Highly! I really want everyone to read it so we can all have long interesting discussions about all He's really cool ideas! Do I love it? Almost! I think for me the twistiness of the plot ended up distancing me from the characters, so that the final dilemmas felt more mechanical than heart-wrenching to me. But I admire the book so much for how it weaves the personal and the political and forces the reader to ask really hard questions about our own humanity. Definitely worth reading.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Cybils nominations are open!


It's that time of year again! The Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards are looking for your favourite books to be nominated. Anyone can nominate! Make sure all the books you love are included in the judging. There are a bunch of different categories, and you can nominate one book per category. New this year, you can also recommend books for someone else to nominate.

You have until October 15 to make your choices.

And then check the nominations pages to find way too many books to add to your TBR!

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Thorn, by Intisar Khanani

What a remarkable book! I'm sitting here a little stunned, feeling as though I've been punched with a velvet-gloved fist. There is so much in this book and it's handled so well!

Thorn is a retelling of the Goose Girl fairy tale, in which a princess is forced to switch places with her maid while journeying to wed a neighbouring prince. There's a greedy goose boy, a talking horse and a clever king, just like in the original. But what Khanani does with this story blew me away.

Princess Alyrra, or Thorn, as she becomes, is kind and courageous like a typical fairy tale heroine, but so, so much more. I love that for Alyrra, the spell switching her with her lady-in-waiting is an almost welcome way out from a future she didn't choose and greatly fears. She would actually be happy staying a goose girl, except that there are dangers and injustices and people she comes to care about, and she can't just stay silent and let everyone get hurt.

Oooh, silence, and words, and the power therein! There's a spell preventing her from revealing what happened to her, and I love the marvelous conversations in which Thorn decides what truths she can tell—given the constraints of the spell, yes, but also how much she trusts her questioner. And we learn so much about the other characters by how much they figure out from what she says! So interesting and clever!

But it goes deeper: silence is one thing Alyrra has mastered, because she is a victim of both neglect and abuse. The spell becomes a metaphor for the power of telling someone the truth about what happened—and then the narrative turns it around again, and Thorn's choice to tell someone about an abuser—and the strength and support she gets from that choice—makes her realize she needs to reveal the truth about the spell. (I hope this is confusing enough that it isn't too spoilery!) I'm just in awe of how Khanani weaves her material back and forth in such a compelling way. (Don't worry, there are lots of cool things I'm not spoiling!)

This is a story of someone put in a position of powerlessness who realizes that she still has choices. It's a story of finding allies and of being an ally. It's a story of justice and vengeance and the difference between them. It's a story of hurt and forgiveness and trust. It's got one of the most original and astonishing heroine vs evil villain climaxes I've ever read.

The writing is beautiful, lyrical but precise. (I'm reminded of "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"). This is how and why you use first-person present tense: we are in Thorn's head, in the moment with her, trapped and frustrated by her circumstances, shaking with her fear. Khanani is very careful about how she describes violence and abuse—never graphic or shocking—but she writes with power. So, yeah, trigger warnings. This book reminded me of Robin McKinley's Deerskin, which is one I return to surprisingly often (there are just certain sections I don't reread)(Thorn is not remotely as graphic as Deerskin nor does it dwell in the same way on the aftermath of the abuse.) What I love about both of these novels is the strength, resilience and love that transform the character's pain into something victorious. I had tears in my eyes several times, but they were tears of amazement at characters' courage and kindness and wisdom.  Thorn also reminds me of Spinning Silver; I was blown away by that one, too.

I want to spend more time in the world and in the hands of this writer, so I'm picking up the companion novel The Theft of Sunlight (first of a companion duology, apparently, and with a notorious cliffhanger, so I may not start reading it yet!)

Lemon ginger cardamom cheesecake. Subtle, complex, eye-rollingly delicious. My daughter and I sort of made this up when I was visiting her and I'm trying to recreate it tonight. (We really should have written down the amounts of things, but we didn't really measure them at the time ...)

Monday, August 30, 2021

MMGM: The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta

The Serpent's Secret is a fun, colorful middle-grade fantasy similar to the Rick Riordon Presents series, with fascinating mythology, a grumpy heroine and rather a lot of demon snot! 

I've really appreciated the growing number of #OwnVoices fantasies based on non-European folktales, mythologies and histories. It's great that publishers have finally woken up to the fact that kids need to see themselves and their cultures represented in the books they read. It's good for all of our brains to be exposed to different cultures and new ideas. And as a purely selfish reader, it means there are that many more interesting stories I have access to!

DasGupta has a great afterword in which she explains the various sources of her material: everything from Bengali folk tales to a beloved poet to the works of Einstein. The world she creates out of all this is fascinating: an interdimensional fun house of different lands populated by princes and monsters and stars (not to mention annoying talking birds). 

Our heroine, however, is from New Jersey. Kiran doesn't believe in any of the stories her parents tell her, and she definitely doesn't believe that she's a princess. I thought her reaction to a slavering rakkhosh destroying her home and two princes on winged horses showing up to rescue her was realistic and age-appropriate: she's seriously pissed off! Sarcastic and uncommunicative prince Neel doesn't help matters, and the two bicker their way through the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers trying to save Kiran's parents from a black hole and Neel's brother from a Demon Queen's curse.

I liked that there wasn't a single Big Bad to defeat: there are puzzles and riddles and monsters to battle, but the monsters had their own reasons for existing, and both Kiran and Neel have to face monstrous sides of their own natures. Blending mythology with astrophysics was ambitious and a little mind-bending—I didn't think it always worked, but I liked the dimension it added to the story (get it: dimension?).

I often get tired of the gross monsters that appeal to middle-grade readers, but this story had enough going on to keep my interest, and the rakkhosh were actually pretty funny. I cared about the characters and I believed in the awkward friendship between Kiran and Neel. There are two more books in the series, and I'm interested enough in the unique cosmology DasGupta has created and curious enough about what Kiran's going to do next that I will seek them out.

I'd really like to try Bengali food. I think this story resembles a typical Bengali meal, which (according to a quick google search) looks like it's presented very similarly to food I had in Nepal: different curried and fried vegetables and fish with a few chutneys and sauces arranged around plain rice. Many different flavours to cover the whole palate. (I really want to go back to India and eat!)


By Sarmistha Bera - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40900761

For more great middle-gread reads, every Monday visit Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday.

Monday, August 23, 2021

The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee

I was really excited about The Iron Will of Genie Lo, and I wasn't disappointed. It's every bit as good as The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, and my one disappointment is that it appears to conclude the series—I would have read a lot more adventures of Genie and Quentin! (Though Yee might have decided there was no way he could top the stakes of this one, and I respect walking away from the mike drop!)

The Monkey King is a great trickster character from Chinese mythology, and Yee has so much fun with him and his partner in mayhem, over-achieving California high-school student Genie Lo. I loved Genie's character: she's flawed, she recognizes her flaws, she's trying to do the right thing, and she gets so relateably exasperated with herself, and with everyone else who makes it so hard to figure out what the right thing is. There's enough character development that I would read a book just about Genie trying to figure out college choices and her relationship with her parents and how to communicate with her boyfriend. Throw in demons and a bunch of Chinese gods being petty and manipulative, and Genie doing her best to fulfil a divine mandate while still getting good grades and protecting her best friend Yunie from all the supernatural stuff going down—so much fun! And I cared so much about all of them.

Everyone from the Goddess of Mercy to the ant leader of the demon horde to Yunie's hilariously true-to-life cousin at college was an interesting character that I wanted to know more about. Yee has a way of summing up people and situations in unexpected but perfect metaphors:

How was I supposed to keep my life options open if I didn’t at least double major? The concept was rationally appealing but still unpalatable, like cilantro.

... a wizened, disproportionately deep voice. He could have narrated a nature documentary about himself.

The writing is just really, really funny—sometimes quite sly, always very perceptive. 

it looked like we were having a funny, lighthearted conversation, like women in stock photos. All we needed were some salads.

There are a lot of similarities between this book and Victories Greater Than Death, which I ended up getting bored with and not finishing: colorful, larger-than-life characters, lots of crazy action in imaginative settings, juxtaposition of normal teen-age angst with save-the-universe stakes. So why did Iron Will work for me where Victories fell flat? I think it's in how much Yee respects both his material and his audience. I didn't get the sense that Anders believed in her aliens; they felt more like props to make the story more exciting, and the story was there so that her teen characters could Learn Something. Yee's gods and monsters were every bit as over-the-top weird, but they felt real to me. And Genie wasn't there to learn a lesson: she was there to kick butt and yell at people to stop being stupid. That she figures out how to be true to herself and still live up to everyone's expectations (including her own) is an inevitable result of her character intersecting the story.

The ending felt a bit rushed to me: this could totally have been a trilogy, and I have to respect that Yee didn't drag the story out on purpose to make it three books, but I would have happily read a third one! (Have I hinted strongly enough that I want another book? What about a novella? I'd be happy with a short story: pretty please with a cherry on top?)

Steamed BBQ pork buns, the kind you get at dim sum. Actually, this book is dim sum: so many different delicious things coming around on carts! You might not recognize many of them if this isn't your cultural background, but you'll want to try them all. And it's really sad that there's no way you have room to eat one of everything!

Monday, August 16, 2021

What I actually read when I was travelling

Quick update now that I'm back from my trip. [See previous post for all the books (including authors and goodread links) I brought with me when I went to Ottawa (travel! how exciting to do it again! seeing my children made me so happy!)]

So what engaged me enough that I actually read it?

Stargazy Pie: chaotic but in the funnest possible way. Here's my short review on goodreads.

Zero Sum Game: exactly what I wanted it to be, fast and exciting (super violent, crossed my line a few times), with great characters I was really engaged with. Will read the sequel next time I need an adrenaline kick.

City of Brass: great world, great characters, intriguing plot. Loved the details of the world-building, loved the magic and mythology. Great writing. Got a little dark: I'm not a fan of the impossible choices and inevitable betrayal that are staples of so much YA fantasy, but she sold it well and I care enough about the characters that I'll keep going in the trilogy.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: I read a couple of stories—well-written and weird, they were more melancholy than funny, so I wasn't inspired to read any more. Would probably pick up the book again if I was more in the mood for it.

Victories Greater than Death: got partway through and lost interest. It's an odd combination of goofy and earnest that didn't work for me. 

The Serpent's Secret: got far enough along and liked it well enough that I decided to renew the library loan.

Becoming: Michelle Obama is a great writer and an excellent narrator. Didn't get far in the audiobook but really enjoyed it.



And a book I saw at the airport bookstore and then discovered my library had an ebook copy: Successful Aging: a Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of our Lives, by Daniel Leviton. Engaging writing and really interesting (and relevant to my life!) ideas. Helpful personality traits to work on (to stay vibrant and functional into old age); the science of brain plasticity that means it's possible to change our personality; cool discussions about how memory works, what intelligence is ... that's as far as I've gotten so far. Going to buy a copy for myself and one for my parents!

Here are some really intriguing titles I noted at an independent bookstore in Ottawa, one novel about Johannes Kepler's mother and three non-fiction books (I want to read more non-fiction: it's good for my brain!):



Do you have any non-fiction titles you can recommend?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

What I'm taking on the plane when I go to Ottawa to visit my kids!!!

 How long has it been since I did a "What I'm taking on the plane" post? I am so, so excited! (Not to be going on a plane, because that always sucks, no matter how many good books you have.) I haven't seen my two youngest kids since January 2020! I am vibrating with impatience and anticipation! (I have a potential son-in-law I haven't met in person yet!)

But the important thing, of course, is what I'm going to read while I'm sitting in the airport and on the plane, wearing my mask (I assume we'll all still be masked. I'm double-vaxxed, but still ...)

As usual, I go to my ridiculous Goodreads TBR. (It's 17 pages long. I have nothing to say about that.) I open a random one of those 17 and then go to my library app and start searching. Here's what I got this time:


Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. Looks quirky, and short stories are a good bet on a plane.

Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh. This is not supposed to be a good place to start reading Cherryh, (I've already read a few of hers, so it's not my very first taste) so I doubt it will be a good mindless plane read! But it's the only one of hers my library had, so why not?

Zero Sum Game, by S. L. Huang. Fast paced action and math! Sounds like a perfect plane read.


The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta. Fun-looking middle-grade adventure with Indian-inspired setting.

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty. I think there are Djinn in this one and the cover is pretty!

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. An audiobook to help me fall asleep (no disrespect to Michelle Obama intended! I'm sure it's a very interesting book.)

There are always a few things I think are worth purchasing as e-books, particularly if the price is right.

Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders. Got this one for free from Tor's book club! Teen chosen one space adventure. Looks light and fun!

The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee. Sequel to the very awesome Epic Crush of Genie Lo, so presumably there will be more punching of demons in ice cream shops and other Monkey King shenanigans. 

The Pride of Chanur, by C. J. Cherryh, because this one is supposed to be a good place to start with Cherryh, and I'm pretty sure I'll like it. Feline-looking aliens and a hapless human.


One Night in Boukos by A. J. Demas, otherwise known as Alice Degan, whose From All False Doctrine I really enjoyed. This one is m/m romance in an intriguing-sounding alternate world.

Stargazy Pie, by Victoria Goddard. I've been slowly reading her other work after loving The Hands of the Emperor. Most have been shorter and lighter but still very enjoyable. This one is set in the same world but with entirely different characters and possibly a different time period.

And I have to have a few real books, just in case! These are from a random browse of the library (don't tell anyone I'm taking them to Ottawa!), except for Now I Sit Me Down, which is a natural history of the chair, and is the reason I was in the library. The other two were chosen because they looked interesting and were small and light!


And a paperback that's been sitting on my night-side table for a few years because I'm convinced it's the next thing I will read! Julie Czerneda is a Canadian spec fic writer I really like, so it's about time I finally get around to what is apparently her first novel.

I will try to let you know how all of these books turned out for me, if I even get to most of them!


Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Legendary Inge, by Kate Stradling


This book was an unexpected gem! I bought the e-book because a gender-reversed, reluctant Beowulf is a premise good enough for 5 of my hard-earned dollars. I would have been happy if The Legendary Inge had followed through in any way on that premise, but what I got was so much more.

Inge herself is a delight. Dragged to the palace as a hero after sort of accidentally killing a terrible monster, she can't believe it when the king mistakes her for a boy and adopts her as his son. "Just roll with it," says her guard, "you can't go against the king, I'm sure everything will be resolved soon." Inge is a practical, common-sense peasant and her horrified bemusement is pretty enjoyable. Then she decides she'd better start asserting herself and we find out there's more to her than everyone thought.

Her guard, Raske, the Demon Scourge of the army, is also a delight. He's unflappable and smart and carries a sword named Mercy (which he is not embarrassed about, thank you very much). We get the measure of his character when he is sent to make sure Inge's younger siblings are going to be okay without her, and I won't spoil the scene that ensues. His reaction to all the siblings is priceless, and I was on Team Raske from that point on. 

Inge's six siblings are my favourite part of the book: each is an individual with a fully-developed personality, and I loved their interactions as a family.

I don't think there is a single character in the novel who is what he or she appears to be at first, and watching people reveal hidden depths is always satisfying. The plot is also surprisingly twisty (I could see most of the twists coming, but they were still fun). It was a fast, enjoyable read—reminded me a bit of T. Kingfisher's A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. (Less finesse in the way everything came together, and Kingfisher is better with magic and overall weirdness (nothing can top sentient sourdough starter), but similar themes of ordinary people stepping up and turning out to be not-so-ordinary.)

A must read if you've ever read Beowulf* and want to poke a little fun at its heroic tropes. Or if you like heroines who care about who is going to keep the children clothed and fed (and stop the twins from pushing over the outhouse again). 

Warm biscuits with butter and honey. And maybe raspberries, because my garden is overflowing with them. Oh, heck, make it a berry shortcake (and now I want to make biscuits to go with my strawberries and raspberries, but I already bought strawberry and ginger yogurt gelato. The biscuits can be for breakfast!)



*I've actually read it in the original Old English, but that was more years ago than I care to reveal, and I don't remember a word of it. Except the opening: "Hwaet!" (And then, I think, "We in yeardagum," but that's as far as I go.)

Monday, June 14, 2021

MMGM: The Monster Who Wasn't, by T. C. Shelley


What an odd, sweet, surprisingly deep story! I picked up The Monster Who Wasn't on a random library browse, because that's a great title, with an appealing cover. The cover is not only a lovely piece of art, but it really captures the feel of the book: the boy-shaped imp with his gargoyle friends, perched on a church spire gazing down at the human world he wishes he could belong to. Wistful, whimsical and weird.

Shelley populates her world with a kaleidoscope of monsters and fairies (and an angel): everything in Irish mythology, plus some extra ogres and trolls, plus a few, like the gargoyles, she just made up. Her description of the monsters' underground world is vivid and disgusting: the monsters are definitely the bad guys in this one! The gargoyles rescue the unnamed imp who doesn't look like any other type of monster—because they feel sorry for him, and because his human shape means he can steal chocolate for them! 

The imp—who eventually gets named Sam, so I'll call him that—is delightful as he gains vocabulary and learns about the world. Then his questions start to get more existential: why do I exist? what am I supposed to be? where do I belong? The answers to those questions turn out to be complicated. Shelley has taken elements of the changeling story but given them her own unique spin, and Sam's encounter with the human family who were partially responsible for his creation (this isn't a spoiler: we know that at the beginning) gives the plot some intriguing and poignant twists.

I mentioned that the monsters are the bad guys, and there is some real peril with quite scary creatures. Sam's courage and loyalty are tested, and I was on the edge of my seat rooting for him all the way!

I loved the gargoyles, I loved the Kavanagh family; there's a lot of really great humour to balance out the scary bits. This book warmed the cockles of my heart! (I think that's an Irish saying, isn't it?)

Once again I'm joining the group at Always in the Middle to highlight Marvelous Middle-Grade books on Monday. Lots more great recommendations at Greg's blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer

I don't have to write a review to get you to read this; you just have to go read the short story that it's based on, "Cat Pictures Please," which is delightful, and if you like that you'll want to read the novel.  

It's a little bit Murderbot Lite. (I might have a thing for benevolent AIs!) CheshireCat doesn't have a robot body with weapons in its arms, but it can hack dangerous things so it could still murder people if it wanted to. But, like Murderbot, it would really rather just be entertained (by cat pictures, in this case), and it would also really like it if humans would stop inflicting harm on themselves and others.

I probably shouldn't compare it to Murderbot, though, because Catfishing on CatNet is a lot lighter. It's very YA—which is perfect, because CheshireCat is trying to negotiate its personhood and its relationship with the world in the same way that teens are, so its interactions with Steph and the other members of the CatNet chat group feel very real. The sentient AI trope is fun to play with because of all the opportunity to comment on what makes someone a person, what constrains our actions, where does our sense of morality, responsibility, goodness come from, and Kritzer does this really well for an audience which is also exploring these choices for the first time.

I loved Steph: her resigned adaptability to her difficult circumstances hurt my heart, so I was primed to root for her. I loved the "clowder," her chat group on CatNet: it's a found family that gets awesome opportunities to step up and be there for Steph and CheshireCat. And Steph's hesitantly developed relationship with Rachel was lovely and felt entirely real.

Steph and her mother are on the run from an abusive father, so there's a lot of nerve-wracking suspense to keep the pages turning. The story doesn't shy away from the darkness, but it focuses on friends helping each other out, and it helps that Steph has a benevolent AI on her side! There's also a lot of humour, so it's a fast, fun, upbeat read. It concludes satisfactorily, but there's a sequel which I'll be reading soon.

I haven't been doing food analogies lately, but this one is spicy hot chicken wings. You'll devour it and lick your fingers after!

Monday, May 24, 2021

Favourite heroines

Well, this list keeps getting longer, so I think I'd better just post it! I've added a quote for each from one of my reviews, if I had one, or sometimes a quote from a book. Listed in the order I thought of them, whatever that tells you!

Who would you add?


Sophie Hatter, from Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle: One of my all-time-favourite characters, literary girl-crushes, people-whose-head-I-want-to-spend-time-in. I related (and still do relate) so much to her: I'm an oldest child; nothing exciting was ever going to happen to me; I was the responsible one who wanted her sisters to go out and find their dreams. But when Sophie starts talking to hats you can see DWJ's brilliance at creating characters: maybe she's quiet and responsible, but Sophie is also observant and imaginative and funny, and she has power she knows nothing about.

Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett's series: she sees a monster in the creek so she goes and gets a frying pan, sets her younger brother out as bait, and whacks the monster on the head with a clang. Tiffany thinks, and she cares, and she pays attention to detail. She loves words like susurrus.

Cordelia, from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series: the most morally centered, compassionate, fierce, suffers-no-fools, brilliant and courageous mother in all of fiction, I think. The scene with the shopping bag in Barrayar is one of the best scenes ever written.

Cassandra, from Andrea Höst's Touchstone series: Normal, practical, stoic but not immune to panic and despair, with a great self-deprecating sense of humour—it's the way she deals with everything the plot and setting throws at her that riveted me to the page.

Irene, from Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library series: She's competent, firm, thinks on her feet, rises to the occasion, but she's also still a junior Librarian who doesn't have all the information or experience she needs. She has moments of panic, doubt and sheer frustration and it's lovely to watch her deal with them.

Rowan, The Steerswoman, from the series by Rosemary Kirstein: I love the way Rowan thinks, and I love watching her figure things out! 

Jane Eyre: These words resonated in my 13-year-old brain and still do.

Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?"

Still indomitable was the reply — "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.

 Elisabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice, because, of course.

The Grand Sophy: Irrepressible, bubbling with mirth, rescuer of dogs and ducklings and people in unsuitable matches. Almost all of Georgette Heyer's heroines are delightful, but she's probably my favourite.

Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road: Stubborn, angry, alcoholic, she's in so much pain and she is trying. so. hard. Tess is a mess but she's a compelling, hilarious narrator. Your heart breaks for her, but she could care less what you think! 

Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr, from Tanya Huff's Confederation and Peacekeeper series: she is everything I am not: decisive, courageous, strong-willed, really good at getting people to do what she wants them to do. She Gets her People Out Alive.

Yael from Ryan Graudin's Wolf By Wolf: Fierce, broken, bitter, hopeful, with a will of iron and nerves of steel.

Neverfell from Francis Hardinge's A Face Like Glass: She has such a good heart, and she lives in a terribly dangerous world, and it's heartbreaking and thrilling to watch the world be transformed by her naive, stubborn goodness. Also Triss from Cuckoo Song.

Going back a bit:

Alanna, by Tamora Pierce

Harry from Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword; Sunshine from Sunshine

Both Susan and Titty from Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons series: Susan because she was the oldest, like me, and had to be responsible; Titty because I thought I was more adventurous like her.

Oh, one more:

Lucy from Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls: observant, clever, and knows she's right even when no one believes her. From possibly the best plotted book ever written (it's a picture book).

And how could I have forgotten The Paper Bag Princess!

Things I like in my heroines: stubborn strength, compassion, knowing themselves and what they want, thoughtfulness, competence, humour.

Who have I missed whose books I must immediately read?


Monday, May 17, 2021

MMGM: A Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat

From the moment we meet Pong patiently waiting, listening, for the moment a ripe mango drops from a tree, A Wish in the Dark invites us deep into a rich, believable fantasy world with a truly engaging hero as our guide. Pong is quiet and observant with fierce loyalty to his friend and a strong sense of justice that keeps getting him into trouble. When he escapes the prison where he was born, we find out he is quick-thinking, ingenious and scrappy. He is a delight to travel with as he tries on his own to find freedom from an unfair society. Then he encounters Father Cham, a Buddhist monk, and, oh, my heart!

This is a story inspired by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and it is so brilliant (yes, this is a pun) in the way it plays with Hugo's characters and themes, translating them into a middle-grade plot about children who start off believing what society has labeled them. Both protagonists learn not only that they can choose to define themselves, but that they can choose to help each other, and that a lot of people all choosing to stand together can change society. All in a gorgeous Thai-inspired world with magic that cleverly illuminates (can't help myself) the social commentary: the brightest lights are reserved for the rich, and Soontornvat does so much with that simple metaphor.

Nok is harder to like, at first, and I didn't want the narration to keep switching into her point of view. But her rigid self-righteousness is a product of her upbringing, and she is trapped every bit as much as Pong by the lies the Governor tells. The Governor is a well-done villain, scary and believable in his reasonableness.

There are some great friendship and found-family moments, gentle and heartfelt wisdom, and a stirring Les Mis-worthy conclusion. This one was shortlisted for the 2020 Cybils, and deserves all the attention it's getting. (Soontornvat won a Cybil for her non-fiction book about the Thai cave rescue, which I really want to read!)

As sweet and juicy as a perfectly ripe mango! For more delicious middle-grade reads, see what everybody is reviewing at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.



Saturday, May 1, 2021

Dogman, Murderbot and other things that made me happy this week


New Murderbot novella!!!! Fugitive Telemetry came out on Tuesday, and I couldn't quite drop everything to read it right away, but finished it yesterday. A little murder mystery set on Preservation Station, before the start of Network Effect. Our favourite sarcastic SecUnit has a dead human and some new annoying live humans to deal with, and it is as funny and heartrending as ever. "Fortunately, I had a lot of experience being screamed at and stared at by terrified humans." 

A Goodreads reviewer mentioned Murderbot's deep integrity, and now I want to reread the novella with that in mind, because I think it's a theme Martha Wells rather brilliantly weaves through it. Along with the usual friendship, selfhood, decency, and other things a rogue killing machine has to figure out for itself while trying to avoid more humans getting dead. Also my favourite cover of all of them so far.

And then I went to my local bookstore to pick up 13 Ways to Eat a Fly, a cleverly grotesque counting book by Sue Heavenrich (often seen on Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday). I now know far more than I ever wanted to about the disgusting eating habits of insectivores! I think this will be hugely popular among my nephews (and at least one of my nieces). Kudos to Sue and her illustrator David Clark for presenting so much detailed science in such an engaging way. 

While at the bookstore I noticed the two latest Dav Pilkey graphic novels: Dogman: Grime and Punishment and Dogman: Mothering Heights. I happen to think Dav Pilkey is one of the best comic writers out there, and The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby is a masterpiece of literature, but I have not been keeping up with his Dog Man series. The idea of Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment given the Dav Pilkey treatment* was too good to pass up, so I had to bring them home.

So I had another afternoon of laughing out loud, pounding the couch cushions, tears running down my face. And then Pilkey sucker-punched me with the sweet, wise denoument of this story arc about the redemptive power of love.

Trigger warning: Many people seem to object to the diarrhea-themed song parodies in Dog Man, so if that's an issue for you, you've been warned! I found them hilarious, but I have a particularly nuanced sense of humour.





The last thing that made me happy this week was the discovery that Becky Chambers has another book out in her Wayfarer's series: The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Will be reading that one soon. And if that weren't wonderful enough, she's starting a new series called Monk and Robot, the first novella of which, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is coming out in July. The premise sounds amazing (and reminds me a little of the wonderful middle-grade novel The Wild Robot, also the Ghibli film Castle in the Sky) and I am so there for a robot who abandoned human civilization having conversations with a non-binary monk!


*For fans of Brontë and Dostoevsky: it's not a particularly close retelling of the classic novels. In case you were wondering! But Mothering Heights does contain "The Most Romantic Chapter Ever Written," complete with Romantic Advisory: Mushy Content, and Smooch-o-Rama, The World's Most Amorous Animation Technology. And there are various crimes and various punishments (and people getting dirty) in Grime and Punishment, though a grand total of zero dead humans.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Digger, by Ursula Vernon


I just finished making my way through all twelve volumes of Ursula Vernon's webcomic Digger, and what a glorious, mind-bending, hilarious ride that was! It's all available now for free online, so you can go become obsessed too!

You know already I'm a rabid Ursula Vernon/T.Kingfisher fan. Well, now I'm rabider. (The vampire squashes may have had something to do with it: you have to keep your eye on those.) I also have an addition to my list of favourite heroines*: she's a practical-as-nails engineer who doesn't truck with magic or gods or prophecies, she's a mean hand with a pickaxe, and she's a wombat.

Yup. A wombat. Do you even know what a wombat is? I had to look them up. They're adorable. Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels, however, would give you a Look if you called her adorable. (And possibly favour you with a pithy wombat curse: her curses are the best!)

The thing about this comic is that it apparently started on a whim, and Ursula thought it would last for a few panels and be done. She threw together a bunch of random stuff like wombats, the elephant-god Ganesh (or a statue of him, anyway), an exiled hyena, a baby shadow-thing that doesn't know what it is, other awesome creatures I don't want to spoil for you—and if it were only the random juxtaposition of weird things with clever dialog and delightful art, it would be wonderful. But she kept going, and somehow she gathered up all her threads of weird randomness and wove them into a narrative of heartbreaking, breathtaking wisdom about how to be a decent, compassionate being in a world that doesn't make sense.

And because it's Ursula Vernon, the humour is laugh out loud, snort your tea all over the screen funny, and the philosophy can sometimes explode your brain.

Also, this web-archive includes comments from fans that greatly enhance the reading experience, as they reference everything from Star Trek to Terry Pratchett to Lord of the Rings, and debate archeology and geology and mythology and everything else.

Definitely worth a week or two of your life (there are around 800 pages!). It won a Hugo, after all.

Ursula Vernon writes for children, but I would say Digger is more appropriate for her T. Kingfisher readers (that's her pseudonym when she writes for adults). Not because of anything particularly graphic**, but, well, here are a few pages and you can judge for yourself:



And if those few pages don't make you want to read Digger immediately, then it probably isn't for you, and I despair of you, my child, I really do!


*which is going to get a blog post, really, I promise!

** I mean, other than the fact that it's a graphic novel. Get it? Graphic ... never mind.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

#MarchMagics: The Shepherd's Crown, by Terry Pratchett

Every March, Kristen at We Be Reading hosts a celebration of the works of beloved fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

I didn't have a particular plan for what to read or re-read this month, but when I went to my library I saw The Shepherd's Crown, and discovered that it is both a fifth and final Tiffany Aching book, and Terry Pratchett's last novel. So it was with both delight and sadness that I began to read it, and both delight and sadness that I finished it.

I adore Tiffany Aching. She's one of my all-time favourite heroines, up there with Sophie Hatter, Jane Eyre, Elisabeth Bennett, Irene from the Invisible Library, Cassandra from Stray, Tess (of the Road), Slate from Clockwork Boys ...* The Shepherd's Crown stays true to her stubborn strength and exasperated compassion. She gets some career advancement, as it were, —which, for a witch, just means more things that have to be done—and rises to the challenge with typical blunt style. "I want to do it my way. Not how the other witches think it should be done." She finds help in surprising places, and there are always the Nac Mac Feegle ready to take on all comers.

The afterword explains that "The Shepherd's Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died. If Terry had lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book." I read this first, and so was prepared to be disappointed in the book. But it turns out that a not-quite-finished Terry Pratchett book is still far better than the best of most other authors. It's true that this novel felt a little thin, compared to his other books. Less layered. But it is a complete and satisfying story, and it has all of Pratchett's wit and wisdom and gentle understanding of human foibles.

It also has a number of cameos from many of the Discworld novels. I haven't read all of them, so I didn't recognize them all, but it was lovely to see familiar characters show up. It felt very much as though Pratchett was saying goodbye to Discworld. There were some scenes that brought me to tears, because they were well-written and touching but also because I could hear the farewell in them. 

I can confidently recommend this book to anyone who loves Pratchett, but you were going to read it anyway, weren't you?! It's also an excellent conclusion to the Tiffany Aching series, and just another excellent book about human nature and goodness and the true source of magic. I am happy to think of the conversations Pratchett and Death are having now, over a game of chess, perhaps, and a glass of something mellow. May we all be able to say, as I'm sure Death said to Terry Pratchett: "YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT."

*This is turning into an interesting list, possibly worth writing a post about!

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Two Graphic Novels: New Kid and Banned Book Club

These are two very different graphic novels: a middle-grade story about a Black kid trying to fit in at a new, mostly white, school, and a memoir about a Korean university student joining protests against a repressive government. But they both deliver a similar hopeful message about friends standing together standing up for something.

New Kid, by Jerry Craft, is funny and charming and affirming—and ever-so-gently and incisively excoriates the ignorance and bias of the white-privileged world that Jordan has to adapt himself to. When his well-meaning parents (and I love Jordan's parents!) send him to a posh private school, Jordan has to leave behind his neighbourhood where everyone looks sort of like him, talks like him, dresses like him, has around the same amount of money as his family; and figure out how to navigate a society of very wealthy, very white kids (and teachers). He doesn't encounter violent, ugly racism and bullying; rather, this book illustratively defines "microagression" (without ever using the term): the thousand tiny cuts every day that tell him he is different in a bad way. Less. Abnormal. And it's up to Jordan to adapt himself to fit in. Because that's what it means to be brown in North America.

I loved that every character was well-rounded and had real personality—there are no cardboard cut-out bad guys. There are no "bad guys": even the teacher who cannot get the names of her black students right for the whole year isn't malicious, just blindly, stupidly negligent, so wrapped up in her own version of reality that she can't recognize what she's doing. And that's what this book is all about: recognition.

As an inhabitant myself of a white bubble of privilege, I loved how this book slid the knife in so painlessly: do you see yourself there? Is that a bias you didn't know you had? Is that a phrase/action/attitude you've indulged in? 

But of course, the more important recognition is every kid who has ever had Jordan's experience seeing themselves represented. Jordan's journey is so real, his frustrations so palpable, his little successes so convincing—and the story is full of optimism and empowerment. Most people have good will. Making overtures of friendship mostly results in friends. It's possible to bridge gaps of understanding with a bit of patience and humour. 

New Kid was a delight to read; the art was appealing (I can't really speak to the art, but I liked it!); the characters linger in my mind. There is a sequel, Class Act, that I will get my hands on ASAP, because I really care about Jordan and his friends (and I want to find out if he eventually makes it to art school!). And I just now found out that New Kid won the Newberry last year! Guess that's why I'd heard of it!

I wasn't planning on spending so much time on New Kid, but I still want to talk about Banned Book Club, by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju and Ryan Estrada. Different as it is, it's also an important book that opened my eyes and should be read by everyone. It's definitely an adult book, or older YA: quite a bit of violence, including torture.

I had no idea that as recently as the 1980's South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship (shows how lacking my "world history" study is!). Banned Book Club is set in 1983, and chronicles the author's first year at university, when she is awakened to the true nature of her government and gets pulled into student protests. As a naive, relatively sheltered young woman, Hyun Sook makes the ideal protagonist to bring the reader with her as she discovers what the students are doing and what happens to them when they get caught. The cute guy who invites her to "book club," an opportunity to talk about banned books and the political ideas they represent, is regularly arrested and tortured—and he takes it all in stride with a sort of "taking one for the team" attitude. The "cocktails" the girls are asked to prepare for an event turn out to be Molotov cocktails. Hyun Sook is appalled at first, and afraid, and then she gets angry. She participates in the protests for the cute guy's sake at first, but then because she agrees they need to protest. There's a quite frightening government agent that she eventually stands up to, in a believable and funny-while-also-scary way.

It's a very readable story with a lot of humour to offset the terrible things happening. And it highlights the fact that these are ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives: they aren't "radicals" obsessed with a political agenda; they just want a few basic freedoms and human rights, and sometimes you need to fight for that. There is a happy ending of sorts: the epilogue shows all the characters thirty-three years later, after a democratically elected government has been in power for a while. But the fight continues, because freedom isn't something anyone, or any country can take for granted. (Interesting that in 2017 South Korea's president was impeached for corruption—and she was the daughter of the first military dictator.)(This book sent me on a bit of a history research tour, and what I learned illuminated many things that had puzzled me in Korean dramas! But that's a whole nother post!)

These books remind me why I like graphic novels so much. I think I will make a point of reading more of them this year.