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!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Recommendations for my 12-year-old nephew, Part 1.5, a few more classics

Sorry, Stacey, I meant to get this post up last week, but I have a good excuse: I've been volunteering at the Red Cross call centre helping evacuees from the Fort McMurray fire. It's the biggest (and most logistically challenging) Red Cross relief effort in Canadian history. They've been out of their homes for a month now; here's hoping everyone can go home soon.

Here's my first post with some of my favourite classic books I thought a 12-year-old boy might like. Now here are a few more ideas from the comments that I really should have thought of myself:

The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper: more well-loved British fantasy, with an Arthurian flavour.

The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley: magic and swords and horses; what more do you want? One of my favourite books of all time. For a slightly older reader, I would say, but not because of anything inappropriate.

The Lemony Snickett books, for a slightly younger reader. I haven't actually read these, believe it or not, but I hear they're pretty funny, if you like your humour black.

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver: Stone Age setting and bonding with a baby wolf. Great story.

So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane.* There are nine books so far in this series about two ordinary teens who stumble across wizardry and choose to take the Wizard's Oath to fight against the Lone Power. It's fantasy with a science-fictiony feel, because they get to go to other planets and meet aliens, and wizardry has lots of technical aspects (like temporal-spatial claudications). Great details like the spell to make your fridge door open into your friend's much better-stocked fridge. Plus cool philosophizing and amusing family members. I love these books.

This was going to be the beginning of Part 2: more recent books, but it's getting late and this is already pretty long! Part 2 will be coming soon, I promise!

*I was intending to include this series in my post of contemporary choices, but indeed the books have been out for longer than my nephew has been alive, so they probably count as classics! They've just been released in new editions (as e-books, at any rate) that have been updated so the technology doesn't seem dated. (Am I feeling old right now? Heavens, no!)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Recommendations for my 12-year old nephew, Part 1

Just got a text from my sister-in-law with a fairly common question: her son has finished Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson—what can he read next?

Well, lots of people have created their own lists, but maybe it's time I made my own. Based on my bookshelf, my own memories of reading, and my sons' reading, I'm going to do a couple of posts with a few suggestions, sort of divided into categories.

Classics Everyone Should Read (IMHO)

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. What is it about the idea of little people that's so fascinating?  What makes this story great, other than descriptions of how a family lives under the floorboards of a human house, "borrowing" what they need from the humans, is the cautious friendship between the borrower daughter and a human boy. Just delightful. And if you like books about small people, you should also try The Cricket in Times Square and Stuart Little.

Five Children and It, and everything else by E. Nesbit. Wonderful adventures set in early 20thC England, in which kids get to run around without adult supervision and find wish-granting creatures and get into hilarious magical trouble. And if you like the British period setting, you should also try Edgar Eager's books, which are very similar.

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Five-book epic fantasy about an assistant pig-keeper, a wizard, a hero, and a princess, fighting the powers of darkness in a mythical version of Wales. You could say it's The Lord of the Rings for the younger set. Or you could just enjoy Taran's adventures as he stumbles his way into heroism. (Princess Eilonwy is the original kick-ass heroine, btw.) And if this stimulates your love for all things wizardly and epic, you might be ready for A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Leguin (for a slightly older audience).

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Is it fantasy? Is it sci-fi? Is it an amazing book that everyone should read? Yes and yes. A tesseract is a wrinkle in time, and it allows Meg and her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace to travel across the galaxy to rescue their father from IT. Mind-blowing and so convincing to my young self that I half-seriously asked my high school biology teacher if there was such a thing as farandolae (that's actually from the second book of the trilogy, but anyway)(OK, it's a quintet, but the first three books are the best)(IMHO).

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. Now we're really getting into classics! I adored this book as a child, read it a million times I swear. It has some pretty sad bits: it's an entirely realistic life story of a horse in Victorian England. But utterly compelling!

The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley. Yes, I went through a horse phase when I was a preteen. There are, maybe 25 books in the Black Stallion series, and I read them all, multiple times. They do get a bit formulaic after a while, but the first book is a truly great read, and if you can't get enough of horses, it's wonderful to have 24 more books ahead of you!

The Chrestomanci books, by Diana Wynne Jones. And then read everything else she wrote! DWJ, as we bloggers affectionately call her, requires several posts of her own to do her justice (if you click on her name in the labels section below, you'll get all the posts I've done about her so far). She is the Grand Lady of British Fantasy—imaginative, deep, compelling, and almost always very, very funny. The Chrestomanci books are about a nine-lived enchanter who has to sort out magical problems in various parallel universes connected to our own. You can start with any of them, but here is a suggested reading order from DWJ's website.

This post is getting so long I decided to deal with more contemporary picks in an entirely separate post. What classics from your childhood should I have added to my list for my 12-year-old nephew?

My sister-in-law and anyone else looking for great reads for kids (or themselves!) should definitely check out Shannon Messenger's awesome blog, for more Middle-Grade recommendations every Monday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In which I discover anime

I didn't know very much about anime (still don't!): I'd seen My Friend Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle, and I'd heard of Sailor Moon (I'm revealing my age here, I know!). People whose taste in books I like often refer to Avatar: The Last Airbender in glowing terms, but the one time I tried watching it I was put off by the stylized way emotions were depicted and didn't get past the first episode.

But I kept seeing intriguing looking titles on Netflix, and I thought (as one does, with Netflix): what the heck, why not try something. So I did, and now I'm hooked. I'm running out of anime on (Canadian) Netflix I want to watch, so I need recommendations of where to go next.

Here's what I've liked so far:

Sword Art Online: I'm a sucker for dark-eyed loners with kind hearts and superior swordsmanship, so online game hero Kirito was the perfect gateway drug for me. I loved the art in this one: the stunning, imaginative online world, and the way the real world was subtly different, depicted in small details (like water dripping from a faucet). The character development kept me interested in the story, in particular the strong female characters. Just don't watch the second plot arc of the first season (starting in episode 16). It's awful. But Sword Art Online II redeemed itself.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit: a beautiful tale about a prince who hosts a water demon and the female bodyguard who swears to protect him until the demon can be born. Everything about this one is lovely: the art, the landscapes and period details, the characters, the gentle humour. Very sweet.

Ruroni Kenshin: a wandering swordsman protects the innocent with his reverse-blade sword, as atonement for the many people he killed during the Meiji Revolution as Battosai the Manslayer. Sounds serious, and there are some nice serious bits to it—mostly centered around Kenshin's struggle not to return to his former violent self—, but this one is mostly light and fun. It has a more "cartoony" art style with the exaggerated facial expressions I originally found annoying (eyes and mouth turn into geometric shapes to show various extreme emotions) but I'm getting used to now. The first season assembles a "team" that gets into various kinds of trouble against all sorts of bad guys. You can't take the plot too seriously, but I love all the character arcs. I also love all the historical references to the Meiji era. Plus, I might even love Kenshin more than I love Kirito ...

Your Lie in April: contemporary, realistic story about a pianist prodigy who stops playing when his mother dies, and the free-spirited violinist who rekindles his love of music. Gorgeous, gorgeous art, and a spectacular soundtrack. Depicts with grim accuracy the stress of competitions for young musicians, but also beautifully conveys the power of music to heal and transform. Quite impressive.

I also tried a couple of "mech-anime" titles, with giant fighting robots (because, giant fighting robots, of course!). I particularly enjoyed the world-building and plot arc of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, about a soldier from space who lands on a water-covered Earth and discovers there is more to life than fighting (Don't worry, there's still plenty of fighting. With giant fighting robots, of course. I loved the robot's personality!)

And I really liked the characters in Aldnoah.Zero, though the story of the Martian empire attacking earth was a little far-fetched.

Have you seen any anime shows you've particularly enjoyed? And where else can I go once I've exhausted Netflix's limited offerings?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Quick Guide to Some of My Favourite Books

My daughter just got on a plane for a five week trip to South America (am I worried? nah, of course not! what could possibly go wrong!), and so I lent her my Kindle for the ridiculously long plane ride (and all the bus rides etc.). To help her decide what to read, here are quick descriptions of the books on my Kindle I think she might like (in no particular order):

Touchstone series, by Andrea K. Höst
Girl accidentally walks through a portal to another planet. Wilderness survival story until the patrollers from an advanced society rescue her and she discovers—oh, but I don't want to spoil it! Very fun adventure with a bit of intense romance. (I will say nothing about the hot psychic ninja warriors in form-fitting nanotech suits. Ahem.) Easy reading YA.
Queen's Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner
Eugenides is a thief and a trickster, and if you think you know what he's up to, you're most certainly wrong. The first book is fairly simple (except that you don't even know you don't know what Eugenides is up to), written for a younger audience; then the next books get much more intense and complicated with plots and schemes and politics and the odd intervention of the gods. Vaguely ancient Greece-type setting. Eugenides is one of the best characters ever written. YA-adult.

A Matter of Magic, by Patricia Wrede
She tries to steal from a magician: not a good idea. But he thinks she should become his apprentice. Light-hearted magical adventure in an 18thC England setting: drawing rooms and highwaymen and whatnot. Cute and fun, young YA.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
A weary soldier returns to the estate he grew up on, hoping to find a place as a servant. Instead he gets involved in royal plots and has to lift the curse on the royal family before the kingdom is ruined. Very well-written, wonderful characters. Gets fairly intense. Adult fantasy.

The Curse Workers series, by Holly Black

What if magic ran in the Mafia family? Twisty plot about a family of con artists, each with different ways of magically affecting people, like persuasion or memory alteration. Cassel's talent is death. His sarcastic narration lightens this dark YA story of manipulation and deceit.

Black Dog series, by Rachel Neumeier
Werewolves, but not like any werewolves you've seen before. Natividad and her two brothers flee to Vermont seeking the help of the formidable Dimilioc clan, knowing they will want Natividad for her Pure magic, but not sure they'll let her brothers live. Great family interactions, interesting pack dynamics: there's lots of fighting and stuff but it's really all about the relationships. Great writing and lots of humour to offset the throats getting ripped out. YA.