Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer

When I saw this title I knew I had to read this book, because Italy. I've never actually been to Milan, but here's a couple of shots from Florence:

So gorgeous. I pretty much love everything about Italy, so I was favourably disposed to like this book no matter what it was about. But demon catchers sounded fun! And I loved the juxtaposition of demons with the city of fashion, style, and all things modern and too cool for words.

The Demon Catchers of Milan satisfied in every respect. It's about Mia, an American girl who discovers the Italian side of her family when she gets possessed by a demon and her cousins show up to exorcise it. They inform her she's the latest in a long line of exorcists and she'd really better come to Italy to learn how to do it, or that demon is going to get her. So it's a story of cultural transplantation, as Mia gets plunked down into all things Italian and has to learn a new language, new food, new customs, new assumptions. Beyer obviously loves Italy, too, because her novel is a love story to the city of Milan and Italian culture in general. Her writing is beautiful, so you can taste the food and hear the bells and feel the cobblestones underfoot.

Oh, and Mia does also have to learn about demon catching, which actually took a back seat for me in terms of what I was interested in (I was too busy salivating over the descriptions of pasta). But I liked the way Beyer takes the traditional Catholic version of demons and puts her own spin on it. There are intriguing ideas hinted at that I hope are explored more in a sequel (there is a sequel, which I've just requested from InterLibraryLoan); since Mia is just learning we don't get the whole story about what demons are, but there seem to be different types, not all of which are totally evil.  I liked the way Italian history was brought into the story as an explanation for some of the hauntings.

This isn't a kick-some-demon-ass-with-magical-swords kind of story; it turns out that meditation is the big thing Mia has to train in. I liked that Beyer wasn't afraid to make her demon battles spiritual rather than physical, and I liked that Mia makes some significant mistakes because she's young and insecure and susceptible to temptation. She was a realistically flawed character that I could root for as I winced. I also loved the extended family and neighborhood with all the little squabbles and difficult personalities who nevertheless all came together when it mattered.

The Demon Catchers of Milan isn't a typical YA paranormal, and I liked its differences. I'm looking forward to finding out more about the world and spending more time with all those gorgeous Italians! And I really want to go back to Italy again!

Difficult to choose an Italian food for a metaphor. I think I'll go with panzanella, because you might not have heard of it: Tuscan bread salad. Sounds weird, maybe, but it's really tasty, the way the bread cubes soak up the olive oil and tomato juices and everything is fresh and savory and mmmmmm. Here's a beautiful picture of it and a recipe if you want to try it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Cybils Season Again! (And I'm a judge again, yay!)

I am excited to announce that I'm a Round 2 judge for the YA Speculative Fiction category, along with . . .


Hayley Beale


Aneeqah Naeem
My Not So Real Life 

Hi Hayley! (We judged together in MG Spec Fic last year.) Nice to meet you Pam, Samantha and Anneqah! I'm really looking forward to seeing the shortlists we get in January.

Good luck to all the Round 1 judges who have to choose their favourites from among all the YA speculative fiction published in North America between Oct 2015 and Oct 2016.

Nominations for Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS) in all categories open on October 1, so all of you out there in the blogosphere, start thinking of the books you loved this year and be sure to send in your nominations.

Monday, September 19, 2016

MMGM: The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg Van Eekhout

This is an awesome middle-grade survival story with a snarky robot, a baby mammoth and the last boy on earth. It's imaginative, action-packed, thoughtful, and has a seriously creepy antagonist. There's just so much to love about this book.

The Boy at the End of the World uses a lot of post-apocalyptic tropes: we've totally screwed up the planet; the solutions we attempted to fix our screw ups just made things worse; we tried to at least preserve some of humanity by sealing them away underground; the legacy of genetic manipulation is seriously freaky and generally wants to kill you. Also, creating robots to protect humanity is never a good idea. (Have we not learned this lesson yet?)

The ideas are familiar, but Eekhout makes them fresh and fun with a likeable protagonist named Fisher (because that's the skill-set he got downloaded into him when he was awakened from cryogenic sleep)(possibly not the most useful skill-set he could have gotten) and the mostly clueless robot Click, who is his only help and companion. The plot is actually pretty dark and intense, since Fisher might be the only human left alive, and earth is now full of things that want to kill him, but the bantering and ultimately affectionate relationship between Fisher and Click, and Fisher's unflinching and sarcastic determination to survive, damn it! (I refuse to be killed by a parrot!) make it quite a warm, funny story. Also there's a baby mammoth, who poops a lot. (And becomes a dear character in his own right.)

It's a story with as many Awww moments as Yikes! moments, interspersed with lots of humour. It reminded me a lot of The Prince Who Fell From the Sky. Yes, there are some very obvious environmental messages, (plus the thing about the dangers of robots taking over the world, which, you know, bears repeating) but the true message is that what makes us human are the connections we make with others, and survival alone isn't survival at all.

Medium-rare steak lightly seasoned with garlic and pepper.

You'll find lots more middle-grade suggestions on Shannon Messenger's awesome blog, which hosts Marvellous Middle-Grade Monday every week!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Not if I See You First, by Eric Lindstrom

Last hike of the season:

September has arrived, and I have a ton of reviews to catch up on, since I was so lazy all summer. I'm always most excited about the book I just finished, so I shall begin with the book that kept me up past midnight last night. Not If I See You First is another contemporary realistic novel, which I've said in the past is not my favourite genre, but if people keep writing them like this I shall have to eat my words!

Parker is a high school student who has been blind since the accident that took her mother's life, and her father recently passed away, possibly to suicide. It sounds terribly depressing, but it's not. Parker is coping! She is coping with a vengeance, and woe to anyone who gets in her way. She has her friends, and her Rules, and the field she runs in early in the morning when no one can see a blind girl running. She is a fascinating, strong, flawed, funny character with a great voice. I loved her. I also loved every other character in the novel.

Although Not If I See You First is quite different in plot and theme from Exit, Pursued by a Bear , it squeezed my heart in just the same way. Mostly because it's got similar fiercely awesome friendships. Sarah and Molly and Faith were all amazing in different ways, and it was wonderful to see Parker trusting them and them not taking crap from Parker. The guys were also great, and Parker's interactions with them were so true to life in all the messy ways kids interact with each other that I wanted to cheer. (I'm not going to reveal the one guy's name, but kyun! (that's the Japanese sound effect for "momentary tightening of the chest due to powerful feelings")(useful word!)) Ahem.

It's hard to believe this is a debut novel, because the more I think of it the more impressed I am by how well-crafted it is: the way the character and plot arcs come together, the brilliant dramatic moments, the perfect balance between humour and tear-fest (mostly happy tear-fest, just so you know)(I mean, sad, but happy, 'cause that's what life is like, right?) Wonderful opening and closing scenes—it should be taught in a class about how to structure a novel.

It's a novel about being blind—about the ways in which we are all blind because we just can't see what's right in front of us. Parker is so very, very wrong about some significant things, and her learning process is painful and brilliantly satisfying.

I'm thinking something vinegar-y would work as a food metaphor—sharp and sour and refreshing. The sunomono salad my favourite sushi restaurant makes: thin cold rice noodles in a lemony rice vinegar broth/dressing (hard to describe, but it's really delicious); with shrimp.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friday, July 15, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E. K. Johnston

This Canadian YA author keeps astonishing me with every new book she writes. Her books are so completely original in setting, premise, plot, writing, that there's no way to compare them to anything else, except to other E.K. Johnston books. And this new one is completely different from anything else she's written. For one thing, it's contemporary realism. For another, it's a retelling (sort of) of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's lesser-performed works, probably because the plot is kind of weird and disjointed. Johnston takes the essence of it—a queen falsely accused of infidelity, the king who refuses to believe her, and her loyal friends who stand up for her in a number of different ways—and transforms it into a YA novel about a cheerleading team captain and the friends and family who stand by her when she goes through a traumatic event. (The book blurb tells you what the event is, but I refuse to be spoilery, because knowing ahead of time what happened affected the way I read the first part of the novel, and I would spare you that if it were only up to me.)

If I were an expert on The Winter's Tale, I would probably be even more amazed at the clever things Johnston does with Shakespeare's plot, but even if you've never heard of Shakespeare, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a brilliant, compelling story that everyone should read. It made me cry—but I was crying with happiness. The strength and fierceness of Hermione and her best friend Polly were overwhelmingly beautiful. Not to mention every other character who was there for Hermione in whatever way they were able to be, from her teammates to her devastated parents to the police officer to her therapist.

And you might say, well, it's not very realistic then, is it, because most people who go through something like this face a lot of rejection and feeling alone. And that's true. But Johnston chooses to show us what it would look like if someone did get support, and I think that's incredibly important. Hermione's healing process is slow and difficult, there's a lot of grieving that has to happen, and there are certainly people who make it worse (including the character named after the king, for obvious reasons), but this is a powerful parable that healing can happen, that an event like this does not have to define a person for the rest of their life.

I fear I am utterly failing to convey what a good book this is. (I was reading it in the bath, and I was reading for so long the bathwater got icy cold and I didn't even notice.) Hermione's voice is spot on; her friends are all real, interesting, varied people; her relationships with everyone are the messy, complicated relationships people have. I cared about every single character in the book. But, oh, Polly. Polly I loved. You have to meet her. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a Polly in their lives. Have I mentioned fierce?

It's a stunningly positive book. I want to emphasize this, because you might not want to pick it up if you hear about the trauma, the grief, etc. I know I probably wouldn't have read this if I didn't already love E.K. Johnston's work, and I would have missed out on so much.

Read it if you love good writing. Read it if you love strong female friendships. Ditto kick-ass heroines. Read it if you've ever known someone who went through something difficult and you didn't know how to help them. Give it to your best friend. Make your daughters read it. And your sons.

I will read anything this woman writes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fave Books so far in 2016

June was a reading slump for me: lots of DNFs, or finished but wasn't raving excitedly so what's the point of a blog post (FBWRESWTPOABP)(another acronym that's sure to catch on!). So maybe listing the books that stood out for me in the first half of this year will remind me of why I started blogging in the first place. (I just noticed that this is the third year in a row I haven't posted anything in June. Hmm. Must break this curse somehow!)

Unlike you more organized folks, I don't have a convenient list of the books I've read, but I can cobble something together from my library's Borrowing History (great idea, btw, if your library's website doesn't already do it),  Goodreads and my kindle.

And now that I've done that, I am greatly encouraged. Look at all these awesome books! In no particular order:

The Raven King, by Maggie Stiefvater. Loved this series; loved that I got to reread the first three before reading this one; loved this conclusion. I will write a full review of this, I promise!

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon. I rave about Castle Hangnail and her short adult fiction here; I've since read Bryony and Roses which is a wonderful Beauty and the Beast adaptation (my favourite one yet, I think, though I haven't reread MacKinley's Beauty in a while), and The Seventh Bride, which is a creepy sort of Bluebeard story.

The Future Falls, by Tanya Huff. Third book of an adult urban fantasy trilogy—funny, weird, crazy magic, really enjoyable. Yes, there are dragons. And pie.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein. This deserves an MMGM post. Fun adventure in a library we all wish were real, in the spirit of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho. Lots of you have raved about this one and I agree—Regency romance with magic. What's not to love? Although I almost put it down after the first couple of chapters; then Prunella showed up and I had no chance after that!

Kat Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis. Like a middle-grade version of Sorcerer to the Crown, actually. Great fun; definitely try it if you like Patricia C. Wrede's work.

Ambassador and Nomad, by William Alexander. My review here. Great middle-grade sci-fi duology.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks. Very funny comic strip collected into a book.

An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet. My review here. Stunning, original aftermath fantasy.

Mars Evacuees, by Sophie McDougall. Another Cybils nominee and I promised I would review it and I will, because it's great middle-grade sci-fi and we need more girls on Mars. There's a sequel coming out that I have to get my hands on: Space Hostages. (But Mars Evacuees can stand on its own; no cliffhanger ending.)

A Thousand Nights, by E. K. Johnston. My review here. Sheherezade retelling but far, far more. And now there's a companion novel coming out in Dec! Called Spindle—I'm guessing it's Sleeping Beauty? Very excited! (Love the covers on these.)

Karen Memery, by Elizabeth Bear. My review here. Steampunk western set in a Seattle brothel. Great fun all the way through.

Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton. My review here. Promising start to a western/middle-eastern epic fantasy.

The Steerswoman series, by Rosmary Kirstein.  My review here. I gobbled up these genre-bending fantasies with awesome characters in a fascinating world.

Oh, and I have to mention a fantastic non-fiction book I just finished. (I need to read more non-fiction, and I certainly would if they were all as good as this one!) It has the best title ever: The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu. You know you have to read it now, don't you!