Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

If you've read my blog you know that Frances Hardinge is one of my auto-buy, drop-everything-and-read-now authors. So I can't believe that I didn't know she'd come out with a new book in October. I love the feeling of suddenly having a new favourite author's book to read! It's like finding a 100$ bill in the pocket of your coat!

I dropped everything as soon as I found out about A Skinful of Shadows and read it in two days. It was everything I've come to expect from Frances Hardinge: rich, layered setting, fierce, lovable characters, and beautiful, poetic-without-being-flowery writing.

If you've read Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric novellas, then you'll be familiar with the central premise of Hardinge's novel: Makepeace has the ability to house other souls inside her (in this case ghosts rather than demons, but it amounts to the same thing). It's a scenario that is usually confrontational, as the ghosts try to take over from their host, but Makepeace, like Penric, discovers there's another way to go about it.

Hardinge loves to play with names, and our heroine Makepeace has more than her share of them. We never find out the name she was born with, just as Makepeace doesn't know who she truly is or what she's capable of. She's labelled with a Puritan name so she can fit in with her Puritan aunt and uncle, but she never quite fits in, and her defiance and temper seem to belie her name. She's given a noble name by Royalists who want to use her, and she chooses yet another when she escapes them, deliberately naming herself after Judith who cut off her enemy's head. But in the end, Make Peace is what she proves most able to do. And she defines herself, thank you very much.
"I am not changed," she said. "You never knew me. None of you ever knew me."
Classic Hardinge character!

The setting was one of the more unique aspects of the book: I'm pretty sure I've never read a fantasy set during the English Civil War. (Pretty sure I've never read anything set during the English Civil War.) It's a period of history I know almost nothing about, but with her deft descriptions and deep understanding of context, Hardinge plunged me right into the middle of the Catholic/Protestant, Royalist/Parliament conflict. The political happenings are tied in quite brilliantly with the plot, as Makepeace is thrust from one side of the conflict to the other, and each side tries to use her in pursuit of their own agenda.

The huge old manor house of Grizehayes is a character in its own right: spooky, looming, a prison for Makepeace but also a home, with nooks and crannies only she knows about. Makepeace's inhabitation of Grizehayes, the way she turns its oppressiveness inside out and makes it serve her instead of containing her, is a sort of inverted metaphor for what she does with the ghosts who inhabit her. By knowing them, she stops fearing them; by allowing them to know her, she turns them into allies.

Okay, as I write this I'm getting more and more impressed with this book. Layers of theme interwoven with plot and character and setting—man, she's a good writer! I have to stop this post from becoming a dissertation!

Just go read it. You'll love Makepeace, her courage, her compassion, her desperate attempts to be herself. You'll love Bear—I don't want to spoil anything, but the scene where they meet is just—wow. The villains are super creepy, there are spies and disguises and plots and counterplots, and you never know who you can trust. Suspenseful, exciting and supremely satisfying.

Seafood chowder, because it's something Makepeace might have made in the kitchen of Grizehayes, and because it's rich and flavourful with multiple textures so that every bite is a little different but it all works together as a harmonious whole. Also I made some last night and there are leftovers for lunch today, so yay!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Happy (Gregorian Calendar) New Year everyone! (Am I right? Is it the Gregorian calendar? Sounds vaguely familiar, anyway!)

I stayed up until 4am last night re-reading Andrea Höst's Touchstone Trilogy for the umpteenth time while I waited for my son to get home from his party, and in between favourite bits from the books I checked out everyone's Best Of 2017 lists: some great books were read this year! Thanks for sharing (and for adding a ton to my TBR!)

My Year in Review is random, off-the-top-of-my-head, and of necessity includes some Korean drama, because I watched a lot of that instead of reading this year!

Most Anticipated and Didn't Disappoint:
Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. We've been waiting for years, and we were rewarded with a fascinating new character and an awesome bromance, plus a couple of new gods.

Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor. This. Woman's. Brain. Shimmery, deep, delicious, wrenching, utterly original fantasy with the most rootable-for character ever. Serious Cliffhanger Warning.

Fave New-to-me Author:
Katherine Arden. The Bear and the Nightingale was wonderful, and then The Girl in the Tower surpassed it in every way. Loved the wintry world, the Russian-inspired mythology, the stubbornly independent characters (including the magic horse) and a firebird! Review of Girl coming soon.

Fave re-read:
Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. Oh, Maia, I love you so much!

Fave random discovery at the library:
Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate

Authors that keep doing things I love:
E. K. Johnston: She keeps doing different things and they all keep being wonderful. Spindle was another thought-provoking fairy-tale retelling, and That Inevitable Victorian Thing was thought-provoking alternate history social sci-fi (one has to invent new genres for Johnston all the time!).

T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon when she's writing for adults. Summer in Orcus was a lovely folk-tale inspired portal fantasy, and Clockwork Boys was fantastic motley-crew-on-a-quest steampunk, first in a series and I can't wait for the sequel! Review coming soon.

Books that made me grin from ear to ear:
The Invisible Library and its sequels, by Genevieve Cogman
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon

Books that walloped me over the head (in a good way):
Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Sequels even better than the first book:
Traitor to the Throne, by Alwyn Hamilton
The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden
Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Fave characters:
Vasya from The Girl in the Tower
Irene from The Invisible Library
Murderbot from All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. "As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure." A novella introducing a new series: so excited about it!
(I also really love Lazlo from Strange the Dreamer, Rishi from When Dimple met him. Kamut, of course. All the characters, really, since I don't love a book if I don't love the characters!)

A few of my favourite K-Dramas, for the sake of being completist (also my ulterior motive is to addict you all):

Suspicious Partner/Love in Trouble: romantic comedy/murder mystery/courtroom drama with Ji Chang Wook being vulnerable and funny, Nam Ji Hyun playing another relatably-striving-against-all-odds heroine, and a great supporting cast of goofy-yet-heartwarming friends. (Nam Ji Hyun was also wonderful in the cute-as-a-puppy Shopping King Louis, with an utterly adorable Seo In Guk.)

Because This Is My First Life: romantic comedy/slice-of-life with fantastic writing and acting that had me gasping with laughter and wiping tears in every episode. Best kiss ever.

Strong Woman Do Bong Soon: fantasy/romantic comedy with easy-on-the-eyes Park Hyung Sik appreciating Park Bo Young's super strength as she beats up gangsters while trying to be a normal girl. (On Netflix as Strong Girl Bong Soon.) I also really enjoyed Park Bo Young's acting in Oh My Ghostess (on Netflix as Oh My Ghost), as she plays both a painfully shy girl who sees ghosts and the bold, brash ghost who possesses her.

1% of Something: romantic comedy (yes, I like these) with a really great dynamic between the couple. It's a let's-pretend-we're-dating-to-get-our-parents-off-our-backs type plot, which Marriage Not Dating does even goofier.

Queen In-Hyun's Man: time-travel historical fantasy/romance. I enjoyed Yoo In Na in Goblin and she's lovely in this one as well, and Ji Hyun Woo is a treat to watch as the Joseon scholar who has to adapt to the 21st century.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Graphic novels I didn't know I needed in my life, and the picture books I got myself for Christmas

My annual visit to Kidsbooks to buy presents for *ahem* other people: I spent way more than I was planning, but that's because I didn't realize the third illustrated Harry Potter was out, nor was I anticipating how pricey Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls would be (but it's worth every penny!) (Really well done: the writing, the art, the covers. I was seriously impressed. Got the box set for my daughter, who told me about them.)

I added Toys Meet Snow to my Christmas picture book collection, because it is sweet and lovely. And I picked up the very funny Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, the brilliant Here We Are (I pretty much have to own everything Oliver Jeffers does), and the gorgeous Book of Mistakes.

 Just look at that art!

Then my quest for presents for nieces and nephews brought me past the graphic novel section, and I saw that Ben Hatke (of Zita the Spacegirl) has a new series. And I started reading Mighty Jack, and decided I needed to own both of them. The characters are all poignantly wonderful, the story is brilliantly imaginative, and the art is stunning. Just go read this. Best Jack and the Beanstalk retelling ever. (Also, there's a strangely familiar character that will delight Zita fans.)

I'd read some good reviews of The Nameless City, and I've liked everything else I've read by Faith Erin Hicks, and she's a local! So I kind of had to pick up these two, and I'll be getting the third whenever it comes out. Great story of colonization, prejudice and the possibility of peace, centred on a believable friendship, with lovely, intricate art. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M. T. Anderson

If I tell you Landscape with Invisible Hand is about the transformative power of art, will you roll your eyes and move on to the next book? Because you should really stop and read this one before you go. It won't take you long.

This was an artfully crafted little book full of sadness and hope. I thought it was going to be satirical, but really it's just straight up angry. The vuvv have come with advanced technology to solve all the world's problems, but it turns out they only solve them for the rich, and the poor are stuck with unemployment and a ravaged environment. Sound familiar?

By raging against aliens shaped like coffee tables, rather than real-world perpetrators of real-world injustices, Anderson can get away with a lot of serious social commentary without coming across heavy-handed. It's a bleak book with a lot of really, really funny stuff in it. I kept thinking I'd put it down because Adam's life was just getting too depressing, but then a scene would happen that made me go ???!!! I have to see where this is going! (Like the chainsaw artist.) Also Adam's voice is hilarious and I loved being inside his head.

I love that each chapter is a vignette explaining a work of Adam's art. There's layers of—I want to say self-reference, but I'm not sure that's quite what's going on—prose describing art and also describing the artist creating the art and the reactions of people seeing his art, which we can't see but can only imagine. It's interesting and immersive. The art brings Adam's poignant frustrations closer but at the same time sets them in a context that allows perspective. (I guess that's kind of what art does, isn't it!)

I loved the ending; it was funny and hopeful and believable. Remarkably uplifting for such a scathing book.

Miso soup. Just when you think it's too salty, you realize that it's perfectly salty enough.

A Cybil's nominee for YA Speculative Fiction.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

That Inevitable Victorian Thing, by E. K. Johnston

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is such a quintessentially Canadian book! From the landscape, to the quiet politeness of the narrative, to the unquestioning acceptance of a monarchy we know is ridiculous but we like anyway. Most Canadian of all is the simple, puzzled plea of a theme: why can't we all just get along?

I want to meet E.K. Johnston: she is so fiercely optimistic! I imagine her musing on racism and bigotry of all kinds and thinking, "this is a problem we should be able to solve; I mean, come on, people!" And then thinking, "well, maybe if we altered history just a bit ..."

I won't go into the details of the world-building, because you can get that from the book blurb, but what she's attempted is to draw a picture of a world that isn't racist. Did she do a perfect job? No, of course not, that would be impossible. But it's so, so important to try! We have to be able to visualize what it might look like to have everyone treat each other equally with absolutely no regard for their genetic makeup. Does it seem a little contrived? Well,  it would be hard not to. But she's created a quirky, fun sandbox to play in.*

(Can I just say that I am all for imagined futures or alternate presents that are better than the current reality? Enough despair and dystopia! Yes, we need social criticism, but we also need vision! We need our Star Treks!)(End of mini-rant.)

A princess in disguise, a reluctant socialite and a young lumber baron walk into a ball. Our three protagonists are very, very Canadian, both in their identities and their characters. (It's not that all Canadians are nice, but I think we might be unique in the high social value we place on niceness.) Margaret, Helena and August are all genuine, kind and reasonable people. The plot in the first half of the book, in fact, suffers a little from everyone being too nice to each other: there's not a whole lot of conflict, just secrets that everyone is keeping from each other.

I almost quit reading halfway through, because I thought I could see where it was going. I particularly dislike plots that involve people lying and then things getting messed up and everyone getting hurt because of all the deceit going around. But of course Johnston did entirely different things than I expected. I loved the way all the secrets were revealed, and the consequences that fell out from them.

I laughed out loud at the solution our characters came up with to get out of the tangle they fell into. I had predicted it, but I still laughed when it happened, because of the way it came about. It's an eminently reasonable, practical, Canadian happy-ever-after. (It would never actually work, in the real world, but this is a fairy tale (she tells us so!). Or possibly a Shakespeare play—I'm not well-versed enough to recognize which one it might be, but it has that sort of feeling to it—the comedic inevitability of how everything turns out.)

The whole narrative is suffused with a quiet enjoyment of the absurdity and tenderness of human relations. There's a gentle, self-depreciating humour that sometimes breaks out into hilarity. And sometimes there's just the loveliness of simple pleasures: dressing up for a ball; jumping into a cold lake; baking butter tarts; fishing. Summer in a cottage by a lake. (I was a little disappointed that no one got kidnapped by pirates, but this isn't that kind of a book.)

This isn't a book for everyone. Even if you've liked Johnston's previous work, this one might be a little too slow, the humour too quiet, the plot too quirky. But if you can find your inner Canadian, it will bring a smile to your face and a lingering pleasant aftertaste.

Sparkling raspberry lemonade. (This book would probably be best enjoyed at the height of summer. In a cottage. By a lake. Sipping lemonade.)

*I get far too much glee out of the fact that the pirates on the Great Lakes are Americans. (Sorry!)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Cybils Nominees that caught my eye: YA Spec Fic

I'm a Second Round Judge for the YA Spec Fic category again this year—really looking forward to it!—but I've been a bit preoccupied with Nepal and NaNoWriMo, and I haven't been paying attention to the nominees. Turns out there are a number of awesome books (of course), some of which I've already read, and some of which I happened (completely coincidentally)(except that there's probably a reason the librarians put them out on the New and Notable shelf)(gotta love librarians) to pick up at the library recently.

In this post I'll just quickly let you know which nominees I've read and which books sitting on my shelf are nominees this year. In my next post I'll highlight books I'm excited about for various reasons (mostly because fellow bloggers have raved about them).

Of the books I mentioned in my last post, Maggie Stiefvater's All the Crooked Saints, E.K. Johnston's That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and M.T. Anderson's Landscape with Invisible Hand are all nominees. I (and my librarians) clearly have excellent taste in books. I also was back at the library a few days ago and was thrilled to see a new Kristin Cashore book, Jane Unlimited. So that's now on my shelf, too, and it's a nominee.

Nominees I've read (with links to my reviews):

Spindle, by E. K. Johnston
Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor
The White Road of the Moon, by Rachel Neumeier. (Afraid I never got around to reviewing this one.)
Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner

And here are a few more Nepal pics. Last time I gave you pretty pics. Here are some more urban scenes:

Colorfully decorated buses

Crazy vehicles in Bhaktapur

Note the sign for the Cyber Cafe in ancient Bhaktapur

Cows really do just wander around everywhere

I found myself using the word "juxtaposition" a lot in Nepal

Colourfully decorated trucks, and the terrifying road we took to get to our trek in Langtang Valley.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Library books I don't have time to read right now!

I went to the library to get a copy of The Goblin Emperor, so I could reread it and get ideas for twisty court politics (for the novel I'm currently writing)(29287 words so far; I'm falling behind target, but there's still a chance I can make 50,000 by the end of the month!). Also I just love The Goblin Emperor so much.

But look what else I found!

Maggie Stiefvater's latest, All the Crooked Saints: it looks like magic realism and I'm really curious about the miracles. People say it's very different from her other books, but I'm willing to go there with her.

Another new one from E.K. Johnston! I didn't even know this one was coming! Everything about That Inevitable Victorian Thing is exciting to me, from the title and cover to the premise: in a near-future Victorian Empire with genetically arranged matchmaking, a princess, a shipping magnate and a scientist spend a summer together of "high-society debutante balls, politically-charged tea parties, and raucous country dances." What is not to like about that plot?!

M. T. Anderson has a really intriguing-looking short book called Landscape With Invisible Hand, about invading aliens who have a thing for "classic" Earth culture. Sounds like lots of potential for satire. The name of the aliens (the vuvv) totally reminds me of The True Meaning of Smekday, one of the funniest books of all time, so I am predisposed to like this one.

Spare and Found Parts, a debut novel by Sarah Maria Griffin about a girl with a mechanical heart who decides to build the boy of her dreams. Sounds cool!

I haven't had time to read any of these, yet, but I'll let you know when I do!

In the meantime, a few pics from Nepal:

Okay, not technically in Nepal. But we stopped to see the Taj Mahal on the way! (Along with 20,000 other people, of course.)

Typical scenery: rice paddies, hills, and four-story buildings.

The ancient royal city of Bakhtapur

One of my favourite pics.