Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner

So ... what did everyone think??!!

I was not going to drop everything and read this in one sitting, I really wasn't. But we've been waiting for so long; it was too tempting! I had to at least look at the first page, to see where the story starts. And once I started, it's not like I could stop.

It was worth the wait. I was not disappointed.

I don't really want to do a non-spoilery review: if you've read the other books, you're going to read this one no matter what I say, and if you haven't, (why haven't you? I'm sure I've told you several times that you absolutely must read these books!), then you need to start with The Thief, not this book. (I mean, you could certainly start with this book; it doesn't require knowledge of the other books. But it's significantly enhanced by knowledge of the other books, and, like each book in the series, it rather spoils the surprises in the previous ones. So don't start with this book.)

I do want to have spoilery discussions with people once you read it, so I'm going to put a big photo in the middle of this post and then say spoilery things after, and we'll call the comments on this post a WARNING SPOILERS zone.

Okay, here are just a few non-spoilery things I can say:

It felt short to me—hard to tell because I got it on Kindle, but I'm sure it wasn't as long as the last two. It didn't need to be longer—it told exactly the story it needed to tell—but I would have loved if it were! It has a relatively simple plot (don't worry, there are twists!); I would say it's more character-driven. Which, since I loved both the characters, was awesome.

I loved the relationship—let's just go ahead and call it a bromance—between the main characters. I loved the way mythology was woven through the story. I loved the encounters with Eugenides.

Aaaaannd I think that's all I'm going to say. Just go read it, and then join me after the photos to squee about our favourite moments.

A scene they might have seen along their travels, maybe?



Perhaps they went to a theatre like this one:




HERE ON IN THERE BE SPOILERS!


So, Kamut. (This isn't exactly spoilery, since the description says he's the MC.) I didn't think I was going to love him as much as I did. He was pretty obnoxious in Queen, so I was prepared for more obsequious arrogance‚ and I got it, but, hey, after that opening scene how could you not sympathize with the guy? I thought MWT did an awesome job of making it totally believable that he would be complicit in his own slavery and actually have a hard time even wanting to be free. I loved his journey to believing in himself and his parallel journey toward trusting others. (Hilarious that the person he ends up having to trust is Eugenides, but I guess that's the central irony of the whole series, isn't it?)

This is more spoilery, though I was certainly hoping we'd see him again: yay Costis! I knew it was him almost right away (I mean, when we first met him I was hopeful, then I was pretty sure, and by the time they were on the boat I was positive.) I loved seeing him from an external pov, as the competent, resourceful soldier we know he is. I loved that he's clever but still guileless, and he genuinely wants to help Kamut. He knows stealing him is a political move, but he really believes Kamut will be better off in Attolia. But that's just because he knows Eugenides. I love his attempts to explain his king to Kamut—when Kamut finally meets Attolis, he thinks Costis was being deliberately misleading by making his king out to be a fool, but I don't think he was. It's just really hard to explain Gen to anyone, especially to someone naturally suspicious. Central irony again: in order to truly know Gen's motivations, you have to be honest and trusting.

I enjoyed the stories of Immakuk and Ennikar (very much based on Gilgamesh and Enkidu). At first I was worried about the poetry slowing the story down, but I quite liked the rhythm of it. And I loved the way the characters were both real, showing up in the story at key moments, and a great metaphor for Kamut/Costis.

I confess I did not see the big twist coming, though it's classic Eugenides. And I would love to have a short story about the discovery of the Mede fleet! 

(Should I have known who Ansel is? I would love to see the scene where Eugenides convinces him to steal the statue!) Oh, and the young Erondites—not a brother, surely? A cousin?

Now I have to reread Queen and pay more attention to Kamut (I don't think there are any hints in there of Gen as the sandal polisher?? It would be pretty forsightful of MWT if there are!)

Thoughts? Reactions?? Now we have another how many years to wait again!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Awesome bookstore!

I had to share some photos of the largest outdoor bookstore in the world(?) (or maybe North America?) anyway, its in Ojai, California, and it's the most amazing bookstore I've ever been in.

Bart's Books is a used bookstore with a fantastic collection. The SFF section was particularly impressive. (In case you were wondering, I came away with  Mendoza in Hollywood, by Kage Baker (if anyone has read this series, do you think it's okay for me to start with book 3? They didn't have Garden of Iden), Cuckoo's Egg, by C.J. Cherryh (also book 3 of a series, as it turns out), and A Thousand Words for Stranger, by Julie Czerneda. I didn't have time to get past the C's! (Nor would I have had space in my luggage.))










Saturday, April 29, 2017

Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

Aiiiiieeeeeeee! How can you do this to me Laini Taylor!

Why didn't I notice that this isn't a standalone? At least then I could have been the teensiest bit prepared. I mean, I've read all her other works. I know the cruelty of her cliffhangers.

Allow me to go tremble a while in silence before I continue with my review.

Ahem.

This woman's brain. Laini Taylor's, I mean. She's written yet another beautiful, terrible, ecstatically wrenching book, and I've figured out how she does it: she's a monster herself. And I mean that in the nicest possible way! (Sort of like the monsters in Kristin Cashore's Fire: beautiful but deadly.)

Only Laini Taylor could come up with the rapturous, lovely ideas in Strange the Dreamer, and yet somehow understand malice and hatred to such a depth. Oh, the goodness and evil in men's hearts, laid so bare!

I'm not being very coherent, am I? It's one of those books.
Lazlo's mind was afire with marvel, the lit match touching off fuse after fuse.
I don't want to tell you anything about the plot. You really want to discover the mysteries of the Unseen City as Lazlo Strange discovers them: slowly, painstakingly, piecing together the forgotten language from old trade documents and explorers' diaries (it's okay, you don't actually have to do this), with passion and faith in the stories no one else believes, so that each big reveal lands in your open mind like a gift, a dream come true.

(You may notice that reviewers of Laini Taylor books have a tendency to wax eloquent. Or, at least to try. It's our feeble attempts to do justice to her writing.)

If you've read her other books, you'll find familiar motifs and themes in this one—wings, for example, and monsters, and questions like, how do you overcome inherited hatred? what happens when you love your enemy?—but in an entirely different setting and a really, really unique plot. I mean, how does she come up with this stuff? Blows my mind.
. . . their edges fading like the evanescent white bird, Wraith, as it phased through the skin of the sky.
If you love her previous work, you won't be disappointed. If you're already a fan, that's all you need me to tell you.

If you liked the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, but weren't a huge fan of the, admittedly, very insta-love . . . weeeelllllll . . .  Okay, there's a pretty impetuous love (not quite instant), but I have to say I thought it was handled better. Given these characters and the circumstances in which they meet, yeah, I'll buy that they fell in love pretty quickly. And, wow, what a unique love story!

If you haven't tried the intoxicating fantastical brew that is a Laini Taylor story, I promise you that you will fall in love with her characters even as you are mesmerized by her imaginary world. Lazlo Strange, orphan, librarian, dreamer—humble, passionate, kind, persistent—I dare you not to love him. He's just the nicest guy! "A dreamer in whose mind the best version of the world grew like seed stock. If only it could be transplanted into reality." And to watch his rare, gradual triumphs was a genuine delight.
It wasn't just metals and magnets anymore, but ghosts and gods and magic and vengeance, and while he wouldn't call himself an expert in any of those things, he had more to recommend him than the others did, starting with an open mind.

You've been warned about the cliffhanger.

I will also say, Laini Taylor's husband is one lucky guy. Or maybe it's Laini who's the lucky one. From what I can gather (after reading this novel), *ahem* she really, really knows how to kiss.

Thomas Haas bittersweet chocolate filled with passionfruit ganache. (Sorry, has to be Thomas Haas, and I don't know if they sell online but if they do and you like chocolate you owe it to yourself to order some. Or come to Vancouver, because you can't really order hot chocolate online.)

Monday, April 24, 2017

MMGM: This list should keep my 13-year-old nephew busy all summer!

This started in response to my sister-in-law's request for book recommendations for her 12-year-old son last year, and I've been very (very) slowly fulfilling it, one post at a time. Sorry, Stacey, it's taken me so long to compile this, and this is by no means a complete list, but I think it's long enough now! Be sure to visit my previous posts, here, here and here, and check the comments for more recommendations.

Science Fiction

The Fog Diver, by Joel Ross. Earth is covered in a dangerous nanite fog, so people have to sail around in airships. There are pirates.
Mars Evacuees, by Sophia McDougall. Dangerous adventures on Mars with a hilariously useless robot companion.
Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Classic military academy adventure.
Nomad and Ambassador, by William Alexander. Kid chosen to be ambassador to aliens (because adults just aren't open-minded enough.)

Adventure in non-modern (usually fantasy) settings

Airborn trilogy, by Kenneth Oppel. Straight up adventure with airships. Great series.
Leviathan trilogy, by Scott Westerfield. More adventure on airships, but these ones are whales. No, really, it's awesome.
Sabriel series, by Garth Nix. Really cool magic and necromancy. The Old Kingdom is one of the best created worlds out there.
Graceling trilogy, by Kristen Cashore. Kick-ass heroine who's even better at using her brain.
A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith. Might be hard to find, but if you liked Ender's Game, this is similar (just not in space).
The Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner. If you like tricky, unpredictable main characters, he's the best. (I don't know what happened to my copy of The Thief, but you can see sequels The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia in the photo.)
Jinx trilogy, by Sage Blackwood. Reluctant hero has to save enchanted forest; he's quite grumpy about it. Very fun.
The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier. Flying people, what more do I need to say?

Dragons

Wings of Fire series, by Tui T. Sutherland. Magic, friendship, adventure, finding out what you're good at: Harry Potter except everyone's a dragon.
Dragonhaven, by Robin McKinley. Boy grows up in a natural reserve for dragons, rescues a baby dragon. Turns out dragons are very hard to raise.


Adventure (possibly fantastical) in modern settings

Submarine Outlaw series, by Phillip Roy. Canadian libraries might have this one. Kid builds his own submarine and sails around the world having adventures.
Heir series, by Cinda Williams Chima. For everyone who knows they're really a warrior/wizard/dragon/sorcerer at heart.
Inkheart trilogy, by Cornelia Funke. A classic for a reason: books come to life. Because they do.
100 Cupboards trilogy, by N. D Wilson.  Not just one door to another world, but 100.
The Grimm Legacy trilogy, by Polly Shulman. What if you could borrow fairy tale objects from a library?
The Chronus Chronicles, by Anne Ursu. Looking for more Greek mythology after Riordan? These are really well done, and funny, to boot.

Humour

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex. Aliens invade and it's really, really funny.
Terry Pratchett. If you like witches, try the Wee Free Men series. If you loved The Borrowers, try the Bromeliad trilogy.
Skullduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy. A wisecracking skeleton solves mysteries with a snarky 12-year old.

Intriguing mysteries (fantastical or not)

The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy, by Trenton Lee Stewart. For geniuses only. (The Society, not the books.)
Any and all of Frances Hardinge's books. They're fantasy, but I'm putting them under mysteries because they all have a certain creepy mysteriousness about them.
Greenglass House, by Kate Milford. A bunch of strangers trapped by a blizzard in an old house with a history of smuggling.

Phew! Isn't it wonderful how many wonderful books there are? Please add more to my list in your comments!

For ongoing recommendations, every Monday you can go to Shannon Messenger's blog for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. Also Boys Rule Boys Read! is a great blog aimed at boys: always new books to find there.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

This book is simply wonderful.  You know you've found a special book when the way a plot comes together makes you cry, it's just so perfect. And you were already crying because of the character development (because you care so much about her and look what she's finding out about herself), and what's actually happening in the plot is making you cry (not necessarily because it's sad, but because it's so beautiful), and you end up in a blubbering mess even though it's a perfectly respectable happy ending. (Not that I'm saying this one is; wouldn't want to spoil it for you!)

There aren't many books like that, and Ursula Vernon (who is T. Kingfisher when she's writing less easily categorizable books) has written quite a few of them now. The T. Kingfisher stories are often fairy tale retellings, or stories that sound like they could be folk tales. Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy, but it starts out with Baba Yaga's hut appearing in Summer's back alleyway, so the folk-tale roots are deep and resonant. (And, much like Every Heart a Doorway, but in a different way, Vernon is re-writing the paradigm of the portal fantasy.)

Summer in Orcus might start out seeming like a middle-grade book, but it gets darker and deeper as it goes on, and it's just not quite written like a middle-grade book. (Vernon explains why in her very interesting afterword. She was going for a more realistic depiction of what would happen if a 12-year-old was sent into a fantasy world on a quest.) A very sophisticated younger reader could handle it. A reader who understands who Baba Yaga is, and why Summer should be quite afraid of her but can probably trust her. At least, in certain particular instances. (Antelope women, however, are not to be trusted.)

So original, so vividly imagined. I don't want to spoil any of the surprises; some of her ideas made me laugh out loud, they were so weird and funny and yet, perfect. I keep wanting to use that word, because even though this story seems a hodge-podge of crazy fantasy ideas, everything works together into a cohesive, perfect whole. It reminds me of A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge, which is also full of crazy imaginative ideas, but none of them are throwaway; they all end up being important, somehow. Writers who have that kind of vision are really impressive. Also, writers with the knack for humour as truth-telling are infinitely rare and valuable. (She's up there with Terry Pratchett.)

And Summer is a wonderful heroine; incredibly realistic and sympathetic. She's not a hero, but she chooses her path and keeps going even when she really, really wants to go home. She has the weaknesses and strengths of a 12-year-old who might be a little wiser than her years, but doesn't quite know it yet. “It would be a good day for the world if I could not find a child who knew terrible adult things. But I will be a great deal older before that day comes, I think.”

I stayed up late to finish this, and then couldn't sleep, it moved me so strongly. Ursula Vernon is a well-known and acclaimed author, but more people need to discover what she's doing when she's T. Kingfisher.

Creamy chorizo pasta (saute onions and peppers and sliced cured chorizo, add spinach or kale, chopped tomatoes or a bit of tomato paste, pour in cream, serve over a substantial pasta shape like rotini). Delicious comfort food with bite.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

More books for my now 13-year-old nephew

It's been nearly a year since I wrote a couple of blog posts (here and here) in response to my sister-in-law's request for books to give her 12-year-old after he finished Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, so maybe it's about time I wrote the promised follow-up post on more recently-published books he might like.

For starters, I'm going to send you to 50 Best Books for 11-and 12-year-olds, an excellently useful list by Brightly. I have not read the majority of the books in this list, so I've got some catching up to do! Here are a few quick highlights of the books on this list that I have read (all of which I can heartily recommend.) (Some of which count as classics, but, hey, you can never have enough classics.)

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede. Cute, funny fairy-tale-type story about an enchanted forest and a girl who, yes, has to deal with a dragon. (There's more in the series, too.)

Eragon, by Christopher Paolini. Brutal honesty here: I thought the first book was great, the second was okay, and the third was unreadable. But if you like dragons, this one's a good pick.

Doll Bones, by Holly Black. She's a great writer with intriguing fantasies that are creepy but not too creepy.

His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Not sure I'd recommend this fantasy trilogy to 11-year-olds, but sophisticated 13-year-olds will love it. It's pretty mind-blowing.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. A classic, often imitated, never equalled. Still funny

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein. This one's pretty recent! Contemporary puzzle-solving mystery. A library-lover's fantasy.

Hoot, by Carl Hiassen. Contemporary story about saving owls that's really, really funny.

Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale. Okay, probably not something a tween boy would pick up, but honestly, it's got a great story. Anything by Hale is worth reading, but a 13-year-old boy might want to start with the graphic novel Calamity Jack, or the superhero story Dangerous.

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. This is the classic that other puzzle-solving mysteries try to live up to.

When You Reach Me and Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead. Slightly mind-bending, very honest books about friendship and other stuff tweens worry about. She's an amazing writer. Liar & Spy is also just as good.

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. He writes great contemporary stories about fitting in and standing out. If you liked Wonder, you should try this one.

Okay! I'm going to have to split this one into two posts as well. Do you have any recommendations I should add to my next post on great books for 12-13-year-old boys?






Monday, April 3, 2017

MMGM: Villain Keeper, by Laurie McKay

Villain Keeper is the first book of The Last Dragon Charmer, a middle-grade series that would have fallen right under my radar if Charlotte and Ms. Yingling hadn't reviewed it and its sequels. It doesn't have a particularly  eye -catching cover, and the title doesn't really stand out, but it's got a great premise that isn't used nearly often enough, if you ask me: someone falls through a portal into another world, but the world they land in is ours, and the one they come from is the fantasy world with kings and magic and dragons.

So what would happen if a twelve-year-old prince on a quest to kill a dragon landed in Asheville, North Carolina? He (and the annoying sorceress acquaintance who got sucked through the portal with him) would get picked up by the police eventually. The police would confiscate the prince's sword and take his proud Galvanian snow stallion to a boarding stable, and the prince and the sorceress would end up in foster care and have to go to school.

Of course, the school is more nefarious than it first appears. There's a suspiciously nasty math teacher and a frighteningly mysterious vice-principal, not to mention the lunch-workers (aren't they always evil?). But of course the police aren't going to believe Caden when he warns them. They already want to give him a psych evaluation because he keeps insisting he's a prince and he's perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much.

I loved the tension between Caden and Brynne's beliefs about their capabilities and the well-meaning adults' desire to care for them and keep them safe. (I suspect this will resonate particularly with middle-grade readers.) I love that the villains at the school are the only ones who take Caden seriously.

I love that Caden is really annoying because he was brought up as a prince, and gracious and commanding behaviour doesn't go over well at a public school. I love the developing relationships between him and his foster brother Tito, who tries to teach him to fit in while gradually coming to believe his story, and Brynne, who seems annoyingly adept at coping with this strange world.

I really loved all the characters, including the adults. There's a nice underlayer of poignancy to Caden's adventures, because what Rosa and Officer Jenkins believe about him is actually true: despite his skills, training and magical gift, he is a lost child who needs someone to take care of him. (This probably resonated more with me, the adult reader.)

Villain Keeper ends with one plot thread neatly tied up, but a lot of questions still unanswered, and I look forward to the next book.

Belgian double-cooked fries: super crispy on the outside and super soft inside, with garlic aioli and chipotle mayo to dip in.