Friday, January 6, 2017

Happy New Year! Mountain of Kept Memory, by Rachel Neumeier

Happy 2017 to all of you!

One of the exciting things that happens on Jan 1 is the announcement of the Cybils Award shortlists. If you're looking for good childrens/YA books to read, these lists are a great place to start. This year I'm judging the YA Speculative Fiction category, so I get to read all seven of these books and discuss them intensely over the next few weeks with my fellow judges. (If anyone has any tips on how to get a bunch of images to line up neatly in Blogger, I would welcome the advice!)

Thanks to the Round 1 judges for an appealing and very diverse list to judge amongst! I can't say anything more about them until we make our decision and announce a winner.

So, in the meantime, I'll review another new Rachel Neuemier novel that came out this year.

The Mountain of Kept Memory is "technically" an adult book (Neumeier's words), I suppose because the characters are older than typical YA protagonists, but I think it totally works as YA. That gorgeous cover is just perfect for it: conveys the really beautiful world-building—kingdom in peril, prince and princess trying to save it—but with a hint that this isn't your typical magic kingdom fantasy, because it isn't.

Oressa is one of my favourite princess characters yet. In the opening scene she is crouched uncomfortably in a hiding place so she can overhear the King and his counsellors decide that the best way to placate an invading prince is to marry her off to him. I love that she is clever and subtle, afraid to be noticed, but defiant enough that she will have none of this. She and her brother come up with their own plan, which might count as treason depending on how you define treason ...

I love the relationship between Oressa and her brother Gulien. I love the way royal family dynamics are so true to families everywhere but with nation-changing implications. One of the things Neumeier is very good at is having multiple characters with conflicting agendas, all of which you can empathize with and get invested in. Even the really bad guys—they have plans that make perfect sense given their understanding of the way the world works. And the interplay between everyone's different understandable motivations makes for an interestingly twisty plot. It can't be possible that everyone you've come to care about actually gets what they want in the end!

Another thing Neumeier does well is invent original magic systems that are cool and interesting and make complete sense. I particularly enjoyed the is-it-magic-or-is-it-technology fantasy elements in this one. The Keiba and her mountain were very cool, and the kephalos is an awesome character. (I can't tell you anything about the kephalos without spoilers, sorry!)

There's a little bit of highly satisfying romance, but mostly this is a coming-of-age story (two, actually): a prince and princess each discover the role they were meant to play, and then choose to make the sacrifices necessary to accept that role. (I think my favourite kind of plot involves characters making hard choices that allow them to become who they really are.) It's a standalone (another mark in its favour), but I would grab a sequel if she decided to write one.

White chocolate gingerbread blondies: a really delicious square that I tried to make for Christmas this year and utterly failed (sometimes it doesn't matter what size the pan is, and sometimes it really, really does). Have to try again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A few Christmassy Things

I don't seem to have had time to read very much this month. In fact, I have no idea where December went. It isn't already the 20th, it can't be! (I'm not one of those people who start getting ready for Christmas in July. I haven't even put up my Christmas tree yet!)

I have been doing pretty well with the #LIGHTtheWORLD challenge I decided to take on: do an act of service every day in December leading up to Christmas day. I've babysat people's kids, driven a friend to the hospital, driven a friend's cat to the vet, made soup for my son and his girlfriend when they had the flu, organized meals for a friend with a new baby, helped prepare and put on a church Christmas party, fed my friend's cat (yes, the same one) . . .  I'm not exactly following the "25 ways over 25 days," but that's just a guideline, really. (I can never say that line without hearing it in Geoffrey Rush's voice.) It's surprising how easy it is to find ways to help people, once you're specifically looking for them. (And there are lots of interesting ideas on the website—the theme is how to be like Jesus, but the ideas for service are non-denominational.)

I did finally bring my Christmas decorations out of storage and start putting some up, and one of my key decorating objects are the Christmas picture books I've been collecting. Here are a just a few:

This year in my annual visit to Kidsbooks (ostensibly to get gifts for nieces/nephews, but I always come away with a few presents to myself)("Would you like these wrapped?" the cashier asks. "Oh, no, that's fine. These are for me."), I didn't add to my Christmas book collection, but I got a couple of lovely picture books (in case you can't see it, the light blue one is Teacup, by Rebecca Young with stunning illustrations by Matt Ottley), and I splurged on the illustrated Harry Potter.

Here's hoping that you get the books you want most, and that the books you give will be truly appreciated! You've all been a light to me this year; thank you for sharing your love of books and your care for the world. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah—oh, it's the Winter Solstice today, isn't it! Blessed Winter Solstice! The light now begins to return! 

And have a Happy, Happy New Year!

Monday, November 28, 2016

MMGM: What I'm getting my nieces for Christmas

I'm late for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, and I don't have a whole review for you, but I thought I could share what I'm getting my two bright, spunky nieces (ages 7 and 5) for Christmas, in case you have a bright, spunky girl on your list and she doesn't already own these must-have books.

I haven't even read the sequels to Harriet the Invincible, Hamster Princess, (I've got Of Mice and Magic on hold at the library), but I know they're going to be awesome, so I'm getting all three currently published volumes for the girls. The first one turns Sleeping Beauty on its head (my review is here (along with some other books that would also make great gifts)), the second one updates the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the third is clearly a redo of Rapunzle (can't wait to see what she does with it!).

I got the girls the first Princess in Black book last Christmas, and it was a big hit, so I have to catch them up on that series. They've already got books 2 and 3, so I'll just get them The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation. Haven't read it yet, but, again, I have every confidence that Shannon Hale will give us another really fun story about the princess with a secret identity.

I finally got around to reading the first of the Hilda graphic novels, by Luke Pearson, and the entire series immediately made it onto my must-buy-for-the-nieces-plus-another-copy-of-the-whole-set-for me list. I didn't think anyone could outdo Harriet in the smart, spunky adventuress department, but quiet, idiosyncratic Hilda is now my favourite character ever. And the sly, clever humour of the story is my favourite kind of humour. (It also helps that it reminds me ever so slightly of the Moominland books, which I love. Something about the cozy but also existential whimsy of it, and the art style.)

Here's my niece; you can see why she needs books about brave adventuring girls!

Monday, November 21, 2016

MMGM: The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst

There is so much to say about this book, I don't even know where to start. The sheer amount of imagination packed into it . . .

What if dreamcatchers could store the dreams they caught, and what if a dream distiller could extract the dreams and funnel them into bottles? Would you want to buy one? If you were a little girl living above the shop that sold bottled dreams, would you sneak downstairs and drink an unlabeled dream, just to see what it was like?

And if there was a monster in this dream, would you introduce yourself to it and tell it how nice its tentacles were?

That's our main character, Sophie, so you know right off the bat that she's all kinds of awesomeness. In a marvellous twist on "it followed me home can I keep it," Sophie discovers she can bring a monster out of a dream. "He's really very sweet. Can I keep him? Please?"

Monster is possibly the very best talking creature ever to appear in a book, and you have to read this book just to meet him. He is utterly hilarious. (Sometimes he does Sophie's homework: "Last time you wrote every letter upside down. I had to claim it was an artistic experiment.") He's also smart and fierce and loyal and loves cupcakes.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a sweet, cute, funny book about some very scary things. The smooth-talking kidnapper Mr. Nightmare, with his perfectly normal suburban house, frightened adult me. But Sophie is stalwart, kind and straightforward, and she thinks outside the box. With Monster by her side (and, yes, the odd pink ninja bunny) she is prepared to rescue her friends and parents from someone with a very twisted idea of what dreams are for.

The writing is vivid, tangible, tasty—I loved the descriptions of the dream shop and the dream-distilling process—it would totally work that way! All the characters are people you could meet (while you're walking down your street)—I was particularly impressed with Sophie's loving, protective parents, who would do anything to keep their daughter safe and happy—they just ended up being afraid of the wrong thing.

This is a book about families and friendship, about secrets and truth, about trusting the right people and being afraid of the right things. (Yes, sometimes you should be afraid of pink bunnies. Depending on who you are.) It was delightful, exciting and substantial; I would happily return to this world and spend time with these people again. And maybe drink a dream while I was there.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a sticky, flakey pastry and a mug of dark hot chocolate you bought in the bookstore/cafe a kindly older couple recently opened in a renovated old house in your neighbourhood.

It's been a while since I've had a middle-grade book to review, but I've been getting lots of great suggestions from Shannon Messenger's weekly blog round-up. Thanks for connecting us together, Shannon, and best of luck with your most recent book launch!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A bunch of stuff I've been reading/watching

A lot's been going on in the past month, and I just haven't had the energy to do any blogging. Yes, there was that interesting political event south of the border, that we're all still trying to wrap our brains around. In my personal life I had my parents' surprise 50th Anniversary party to plan and pull off (with tons of help from my siblings)(it went so well!). I've been doing a major editing pass on my novel for NaNoEditMo (did I make that up or have other people already made it a thing?). And I got a nasty virus that laid me low for more than a week.

But being sick allowed me to binge-watch all 54 episodes of Nirvana in Fire, the most wonderful Chinese historical drama you've never heard of that everyone has to watch, it's that good. Gorgeous production values (the costumes. oh, the costumes!), fantastic acting, wonderful characters and a brilliant plot. Think Game of Thrones without the sex and gratituous violence; House of Cards but with characters you care about and can actually root for; Lord of the Rings without the orcs and elves. I suggest reading Sherwood Smith's excellent introduction to it before diving into the first episode, and keeping the Wikipedia character page open (though careful of spoilers) until you figure out who everyone is. Trust me, it just gets better and better; the final episodes are intense.

Since we all need to be making a lot more noise about diverse writers, characters, stories, I should mention a couple of books I picked off my library's Teen DiverseBooks shelf:

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor. I could simplify this by saying it's Harry Potter set in Nigeria starring a girl, but that wouldn't adequately convey the vividly imagined, complex, scary and fun world Okorafor creates. Sunny is trying to fit in after having moved to Nigeria from America; it doesn't help that she's albino. But she discovers that her differences are much deeper than that: she is one of the Leopard people, with magical abilities she must learn to master while keeping them a secret from the non-magical Lamb people. She has friends and mentors to help her through some dangerous trials, and the sometimes useful, sometimes patronizing commentary in Fast Facts for Free Agents, a guidebook that we get amusing snippets from throughout. I loved the magic, so different from the Eurocentric magic I grew up with. Leopard people get paid (in chittim that fall from the sky) every time they learn something new—there's a cool concept! Magical power manifests itself in a sort of mask which is your inner identity coming out—and your magical ability is connected to whatever makes you unique, even if others see it as a flaw or something to make fun of. Just so many interesting ideas to go along with all the colourful visuals. Lovely cover, too.

Prophecy, by Ellen Oh, is a light, easy read with a gorgeous ancient Korean setting. It's a fairly predictable quest fantasy with a warrior girl sworn to protect a young prince, and danger to the kingdom that can only be averted if certain magical objects are found. But it's lifted from run-of-the-mill by the vivid mythology and lovely period details. It's a world I really enjoyed exploring. I also liked Kira, liked her relationship with the (rather bratty) prince, liked the potential romance that is just hinted at (this is the first book of a trilogy). Not earth-shattering, but it's a worthy debut novel and I'm interested enough to read the rest of the trilogy and see where she takes the story.

A few other random things I've enjoyed recently . . .

Black Dog Short Stories II, by Rachel Neumeier. I love her writing and I love this series. These are more vignettes about the characters (such good characters! they all keep developing in such awesome ways!) with some tantalizing hints about the big bad for the next novel.

Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst. This is an author who is starting to get the notice she deserves for her widely varied body of work. I was really impressed by her creepy, paranormal thriller Conjured, and by her epic desert/gods fantasy Vessel. I'll be reviewing her fun, colourful middle-grade book The Girl Who Could Not Dream on Monday. Queen of Blood is another entirely new type of fantasy in a fantastically original new world. (It's marketed as adult, I guess because the characters are young adults and there's some (not at all explicit) sex, but it works well as YA.) Aratay is a forest kingdom populated by nature spirits who are only prevented from killing all humans by the power of the Queen, who channels their instincts into serving humans instead. Any girl with the ability to control spirits is trained to become a potential heir. It's a coming-of-age and developing-powers story in a fascinating, beautiful and dangerous setting. Durst is a masterful writer and it was an entirely enjoyable novel with great relationships, lots of intrigue and suspense and a fair bit of humour.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In which I discover manga

Back in April I posted a list of anime series that introduced an entirely new art form to me—anime is not the same as North American animation; there's a different art aesthetic, different storytelling paradigms, and a different understanding of the audience: it seems everyone in Japan watches anime, since there are titles appealing to all ages and interests. (I can update that list for you with a number of new series I've since watched and enjoyed.)

Well, it turns out I had barely crossed the lip of the rabbit hole. Anime is mostly based on manga, the Japanese version of comic books or graphic novels, and manga is an entire universe unto itself. I am now falling infinitely into more and more addictive imaginary worlds. I blame Nafiza, from Book Wars, who started it all with this post about Skip Beat.

Skip Beat (the title tells you nothing, don't even worry about it, just read Nafiza's description) does have an anime adaptation, which I obsessively watched all 25 episodes of on Crunchyroll, only to discover that the story has barely started (this is a common thing, where popular mangas get turned into animes, but only the first few volumes get animated, I guess because it's expensive and time-consuming). But lucky me, my library has all 37 extant volumes of the manga. Yes. 37. And it's not over yet! She's still putting out a new chapter every month (there are about 5 chapters per volume. it's not like 37 novels or anything. but still).

So since I'm all caught up with Kyoko's evolution as an actress and her excruciatingly slow romance, I had to find other mangas to fill my new need for cool combinations of story and art and heaping doses of Japanese culture. Here are some series I can highly recommend:

Akatsuki no Yona, or Yona of the Dawn: historical fantasy about a sheltered princess who escapes with her loyal bodyguard after her father the king is murdered, and then wanders the kingdom looking for the dragon warriors that are supposed to show up when the kingdom is in trouble. Gorgeous, gorgeous art, and wonderful characters. I love Yona's journey into strength; I love her bodyguard Hak's devotion; I love Soo-Won (I can't say anything about him because spoilers. but his hair. is. so. beautiful.) And the dragon warriors are all utterly delightful. I'm buying this one as it comes out in English (only 2 volumes are available so far) but reading the unofficial fan translations*, which are up to chapter 130 now.

Chihayafuru: contemporary realistic story about a girl whose friendship with two boys develops along with her passion for a competitive card came called karuta. This one has a lovely anime adaptation, that, again, only goes so far. The manga is up to 173 chapters now, and it looks like the story will follow all the characters into university at this rate! Another very slow romance, but mostly it's about developing strength, friendship, leadership, teamwork. I keep almost getting bored with all the detail about a card game I'll never play, but I care so much about the characters I eagerly await the next chapter. Great art. Taichi has the most beautiful eyes of any manga guy.

Ore Monogatari!!! or My Love Story!! (exclamation points are required): adorable and trope-subverting romance between a big ugly guy who is the sweetest softie at heart and the girl who recognizes how great he is. Other awesome characters include the good-looking best friend who should get all the girls but hasn't fallen in love with anyone yet, and everyone's parents, who actually play roles in the story (great meeting-the-parents scenes, for example). Realistically awkward high-school romance (takes them weeks to work up the courage to hold hands!) So cute and funny!

Well, there's more, but I'm not sure I want to admit how much I've read in the last few months! For lots more recommendations of both manga and North American graphic novels, Nicola Mansfield has a great blog.

And if you really want to know what other anime I've enjoyed . . .

Bleach (again with the not helpful titles; it probably makes more sense in Japanese)—soul reapers dispatch evil lost souls with really cool sentient swords, and occasionally attend their high school classes. After 100 episodes it started to feel repetitious, so I haven't finished all 15 seasons, but there's a reason this one is one of the most popular animes. (His name is Ichigo.)

Blue Exorcist—Rin is the son of Satan but he was raised by a priest and he wants to become an exorcist; if only he could stop bursting into blue flames whenever he gets upset. Lots of intriguing characters (the head of the exorcist school is Mephisto Pheles; might he possibly have a hidden agenda?) and complex relationships (like that between Rin and his twin brother who didn't inherit any demonic powers), great art, lots of humour, and a plot that develops nicely and comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of 25 episodes.

The Irregular at Magic High School—cool future in which magic is developed like technology and is used in warfare (of course); a brother and sister navigate a high school divided into higher- and lesser-skilled magic-users, but the brother has more talent than meets the eye.

Those three are on Netflix, in case you wanted to just take a look (Crunchyroll has some series you can watch for free but some stuff you have to have an account to watch.)

And I think I'll leave it at that for now! I welcome recommendations: have you watched or read anything you've loved?

*It's considered semi-acceptable to read these "scanlations" on a site like Batoto that doesn't use advertising (thus making money off the efforts of the original author and the volunteer translators), as long as you buy the official versions whenever you can. Since not all mangas are ever published in English, sometimes it's the only way to read them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was so excited to get this one in my mailbox. I loved The Scorpion Rules, and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel I had to edit all the exclamation points out of my enthusiastic reply. Erin Bow is simply an astonishing author; and this book is possibly even better than the first one (except that's actually impossible—when I reviewed The Scorpion Rules I said I wasn't sure I would reread it because of how intense it is, but I reread it before reading The Swan Riders, and loved it all to pieces even more).

Note that I will do my bestest not to spoil Swan Riders at all in this review (you really don't want it to be spoiled, trust me!), but it's impossible to talk about it without spoiling Scorpion Rules, so if you haven't read the first book, go read it now before you even look at the blurb for Swan Riders!

And if you've read Scorpion, then all you really need is this pretend blurb from E.K. Johnston:
"All the emotional punches of THE SCORPION RULES, but with horses instead of goats."
Very true. But, okay, I'll rave a bit more about it. LAST CHANCE NOT TO BE SPOILED FOR THE FIRST BOOK. Ahem. The Swan Riders starts right after the end of Scorpion.

Awesome first line:
So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse. 
Greta is riding across the Saskatchewan prairie with Talis (in Rachel's body) and two Swan Rider escorts, Francis Xavier and Sri. New characters that you will come to love with as much intensity as you loved Xia, Thandi, the Abbot, etc.  (Just so you don't get disappointed: Xia doesn't get any screen time in this book, though she's still an important emotional presence. But Elián does. Oh, Elián!)

We find out about Swan Riders—how and why they were created, their powers and limitations, why they choose to become Swan Riders, their relationship with Talis and the other AIs—and Bow has lots of room here for her trademark heartwrenching moral and existential dilemmas. Oh, Francis Xavier!

We find out more about Talis—oh, Talis! Some of the best scenes in the book are interludes from his point of view, memories that pack in a lot of world-building and explanation while being equal parts funny, creepy and heartbreaking. We meet a few more AIs, and learn more about why they are going insane (and why Greta might, if she can't get a grip on herself).

And, of course, because this is what the best science fiction does, Bow uses the idea of artificial intelligence, and Greta, who is turning into one, to explore what it means to be human. "The who of me. The why of me." What love means. Why it matters.

I said this in my CM Magazine review (I try to sound dispassionate and scholarly in these reviews, but sometimes my raving voice leaks through): Bow’s writing is elegant and exact: she illuminates rather than explains the technological and metaphysical complexities that underpin the novel, always bringing every idea back to the impact it has on an individual.
He'd seen it over and over: how a single memory rose from the organic mind, and then from the datastore, and then (reinforced, and stronger) from the organics, and then (reinforced, and stronger) . . . it was two mirrors reflecting each other. It was feedback squealing through a microphone. A single moment building to an intensity beyond what any psyche could endure.
 How could there be no circuit breaker? How could there be no grace? 
Those sentences that punch you in the gut. Lots of them in this book. (Talis learned how to "make it personal" from Erin Bow, just saying.) Lots of tense, visceral moments; lots of rock-you-back-on-your-feet plot twists. And humour, still so much humour. Talis being snarky, Elián being Elián, horses (with names like NORAD and Gordon Lightfoot) being horses.

I keep trying to write sentences that explain how wonderful Bow is at exploring really cool philosophical ideas with gripping drama, and my sentences keep getting tied up in themselves (like this one). Bow is just a master of metaphor and symbol and character and pacing, and everything, really.

The short version? If you loved Scorpion, you won't be disappointed in Swan, so just go read it already!

I've got the smell of roasting ham wafting through my house, and it's actually a good food metaphor for Swan Riders: salty, savoury, a bit smoky, meaty, all kinds of complex goodness.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, by the way! I'm thankful that we have awesome writers like Erin Bow in our beautiful country!