Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Spindle, by E.K. Johnston

Hey, all. I've been taking a bit of a blog hiatus, but I had a good excuse: I was in Nepal for most of October. Very cool place. When I'm finished sorting through the 1700-odd photos I took, I might post a few of them!

I probably won't be posting much in November, either, since I've decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. It always seemed like a rather ridiculous thing to do (as in: there's no way I could ever do that!), but I'm at the stage in my WIP where a clearly defined writing goal will be a good thing. Right? This is going to work for me. I have confidence. Ahem.

I didn't get as much reading done in Nepal as I thought I would (and I was reading more non-fiction than fiction), but I did finish E.K. Johnston's companion novel to A Thousand Nights, and it was every bit as good. My only complaint was that it ended too soon!

Spindle is set generations after the events of A Thousand Nights, and you don't have to have read the first book before you read Spindle (Spindle does spoil A Thousand Nights, though). Spindle is another transformative reinterpretation of a fairy tale, this time (as you might guess) Sleeping Beauty.

I love me a good fairy-tale retelling.

Spindle's narrator and protagonist is Yashaa, the son of one of the spinners who are out of a job (and exiled from the kingdom) after a demon curses the Little Rose. I love, love, love, that Johnston explores the realistic, economic implications of ending an entire industry. "And then they burnt all the spindles in the land." That's going to have consequences, people!

The curse itself is fascinating and complex (and an important part of the plot, so I can't tell you about it without spoilers). Yashaa and his three friends (also impacted by the above economic consequences) go on a quest to end the curse which is destroying not just their lives but the entire kingdom. I love, love, love that this is a buddy story: Yashaa, Arwa, Tariq and Saoud are all flawed, lovable characters in their own right, and their bond of friendship and loyalty is a treat to watch. There's a sweet little romance, but it's not the focus.

The demon is also an interesting character; Johnston almost gets us to sympathize with her. She's got a long-term, carefully planned out scheme to regain the power stolen from her people, and she just has to be patient a little longer before it all pays off, if those stupid meddling kids don't mess everything up! I really enjoyed the scenes from her point of view.

The magic creatures are lovely and magical, and I wanted more of them. I also wanted more of the ending: Johnston could have written another hundred pages and I would have gladly read them. (A warning of sorts: Johnston's endings always take a left turn from where you think they're going. It's as though you think you're reading a certain kind of story that's going to have a certain kind of ending, but really she was writing a different story all along, and the ending you were expecting is more of an afterthought. Those of you who've read it, what did you think of the ending?)

Spindle was delicious and multi-layered and resonant with magic. Backlava, I think, oozing honey and crunchy nuttiness. I sure love E.K. Johnston's writing!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin

Isn't it wonderful when you love a book and then the second book surpasses it in every possible way?The first book of this duology, Wolf by Wolf, was breathtaking in an edge-of-your-seat, forget-to-breathe kind of way. This book left me wordless in a punch-to-the-gut, I-can't-believe-the-writer-just-did-that-kind-of-way.

Brilliant premise: Hitler won WWII and now the Third Reich covers most of the world. Death camps and terrible experiments keep going on, and one of the experiments results in people who can shift their appearance to mimic anyone. Our heroine, Yael, is one of these skinshifters. Wolf by Wolf was all about a plot to use Yael's ability to get close enough to Hitler to assassinate him. I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say Blood for Blood deals with the aftermath.

There's plenty of plot to go on with--nail-biting escapes, really evil villains, unexpected twists, desperate fights and terrifying sneaking into enemy territory--but these are books about character. Yael, Luka and Felix are figuring out who they are, how their history and their choices shape them. We get flashbacks to key moments in their pasts, and the narrative spends time in each of their heads, so we come to understand and care deeply about all three. The agonizing choices they each make are, well, agonizing. Each learns in their own way not to let other people define them, no matter what is done to them.

The book I thought of after finishing Blood for Blood was Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein. Yes, because the WWII setting is similar, but mostly because of the powerful theme of identity and personhood. And because of the feels. Ryan Graudin has prose that gets you right in the solar plexus.
His apology felt so small. A feathered hawk speck against a wide-world sky, suspended on wind currents.No rise, no fall, just flight without motion, hovering between them.
Nothing in Vlad's training had prepared her for this: returning to the edge of devouring, staring back at it, stepping in.
I will read anything this woman writes.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Some things I've loved this summer

I just can't spend time on the internet in summer, but I spend a lot of time reading, which means I have lots of books I should review but don't. So here's a quickie list to get me caught up, plus a few other things I've been enjoying.

When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon. This book was completely delightful in every possible way. Does looking at the cover make you happy? Reading the book will make you even happier. Fun, funny, cute, sweet, real: all the good things. (Yes, it's a romance.)

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. This book had so much in it and I wanted more of all of it: Russian history, Russian folklore, sibling relationships, strong, compassionate women, deep sense of place, a compelling heroine who insists on being herself. Veered a little more toward horror than the synopsis led me to expect, but I loved the way the horror of the monsters was the same as the horror of starvation. Wonderful characterization, wonderful, evocative writing. Ends satisfactorily, but when I heard there was a sequel I was greatly relieved!



The Naming, by Alison Croggon. I see why the people who share my taste in books love this series: it has everything we loved in Tolkien, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip. In some ways it felt derivative, but she takes all the tropes and makes them her own with vivid, complex characters and lovely, lovely writing.

Traitor to the Throne, by Alwyn Hamilton. Well. This series keeps blowing me away. Rebel of the Sands was a hoot, full of action with a great setting, hot romance and cool magic. Traitor to the Throne takes it to another level entirely. Hamilton avoids Meandering Second Book Syndrome by skipping ahead several months (past some fairly significant events: here's hoping she's planning to write a few short stories about them!); then she plops Amani down in the middle of the enemy, away from all her friends (and Jin! Jin doesn't get nearly enough page time in this book. But I'm whining.), in a situation that requires her to be patient and clever and strategic, none of which are Amani's strengths. There are great new characters, even cooler, steampunky additions to the magic, and lots of twists, surprises, betrayals. That ending. Aieee! Need third book now.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. A fascinating little novella/parable about interspecies communication. I loved how real Binti's culture feels, and the way Okorafor explores the experience of foreignness and the remarkable feeling of finally understanding someone who was completely opaque to you.

The Masked City and The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman. The next two Invisible Library books were just as much fun as the first, with more Fae and dragons and Irene being awesome. Loved  Vale and Kai and their three-way friendship. Loved alternate Venice and St. Petersburg. There's nothing not to love in these; I'll be grabbing book 4 asap.

Also, Ireland is every bit as green and gorgeous and full of old things as I had imagined it to be. And my life is now complete because I've been in the Trinity College Library in Dublin. (I seriously had a moment when I walked into that room. As in, tears in the eyes and everything!)





And we may not have had great views on our backpacking trip, because there are terrible wildfires all across BC and the smoke is blanketing a good chunk of the province, but the flowers were sure spectacular.



Friday, July 14, 2017

What I'm taking on the plane: Ireland edition

Aughh! I'm so behind on reviewing books I've read! Blame my garden. I'm leaving for Ireland in an hour, (mom, aunt, sister trip; going to be awesome; we've never been!) and I'm actually all packed and ready (I think: what have I forgotten??), so I can spare a quick post to tell you what I'm bringing to read.

After hearing about it from several bloggers I trust (we should make a new acronym: from here on you are BITs!), I finally ordered Alison Croggon's The Naming from Interlibrary Loan. It just arrived, so of course I'm taking it on the plane (I promise I won't lose it!).

Also from the library, in hardcover, and it's really thick, so not an ideal plane read, (The Naming is pretty thick too) but whatever! The second book in Alwyn Hamilton's Rebel of the Sands trilogy. I'm excited about Traitor to the Throne!

Ebooks from the library:

The next two Genevieve Cogman Invisible Library books, The Masked City and The Burning Page.

In keeping with the same theme I thought I'd try Djengo Wexler's YA book The Forbidden Library.

And there was a book I'd never heard of called Palace of Spies, by Sarah Zettel, that I thought I'd try because it looks fun.

Purchased for my Kindle:

Blood for Blood, the sequel to Ryan Graudin's Wolf by Wolf. (I know I said I was going to read the sequel right away, but I got distracted.)
A Peace Divided, the next in Tanya Huff's Peacekeeper series.
In the Garden of Iden, the first book in Kage Baker's Company series.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate

This is another random choice from the New shelves at my library. The tagline, "A cappella just got a makeover" drew my eye, and the premise hooked me (but you have to know that I've sung in choirs all my life and I love a cappella music, so I couldn't really help it): girl with a low voice pretends to be a guy so she can get into the exclusive all-guy a cappella group on campus.

Noteworthy could have been a cute cross-dressing caper and I would have liked it, but it turned out to be so, so much more.

For starters, the writing is fantastic. Redgate crafts her sentences with tight finesse (rather like a good choir arrangement). Here's a random example:

I snuck the word out into the air. "Yeah." It hung there for a moment, hesitant, before settling. Then smiles started creasing faces, heads started bobbing, and the inimitable relief of crossing some sort of finish line rushed into me, cold and overwhelming.
I may be using a lot of music analogies to describe this book, because Redgate is musician herself and it shows. She interweaves themes like she's writing a symphony. Friendship, identity, belonging, truth—plus some countermelodies about race, sexuality, privilege, status, family dynamics—if you look at all the things she manages to cover you might wonder if it's a mess, but everything ties together harmoniously.

Also, all the songs in the book are Redgate's songs. As in, she wrote them. And sings them. Can I just spend a moment here to be envious of the girl with all the gifts?

Our narrator, Jordan/Julian, is a wonderful head to be in: dryly self-depreciating, witty, brave, open and thoughtful.
Find a dog whistle and blow it, try to sing that note, and the resulting gurgling shriek will probably sound like my attempt to sing a high F-sharp.
I loved all the Sharpshooters, each with their own sense of humour, their own passions and hangups and fears. Redgate describes them all so well, physically and personality-wise, that I would instantly recognize them if I saw them in a cafe. It was a pleasure to spend time with them. The Crow's Nest is a vividly realized hang-out space that made me wish I'd gone to school at an uppity New England college that might have an old tower room like that. (And I've never, ever before wished I'd gone to an uppity New England college!)

The book Noteworthy most reminds me of, despite being not the least bit fantastical, is Stiefvater's Raven Boys. Redgate is just as good at characters, and at showing the bonds of a friendship so real it feels like another character. The members of the Sharpshooters coalesce into a family full of jokes and tension, secrets and loyalty. Jordan/Julian is lonely for various reasons—I love all the ways that she is an outsider, because every reader will find at least one to relate to—and she values her connection with them so much it's painful. She risks so much, because it's so worth it.

When I was looking through for quotations to use, I got sucked right back into the story and probably would have reread the whole thing if I'd had time. I love writing like that, so comfortable and assured that I can feel at home in it.

Must do a music analogy for this one, of course. It's not an a cappella choir, but Vienna Teng's "Level Up" is both upbeat and heartfelt enough to capture the feel of the novel. (I love the video: the dancing is beautiful.)



And if you want a choral version of it, I love this choir. The expressions on the kids' faces make me so happy.



I also adore this song, (also Vienna Teng), and hey, it's a cappella:



And now I'm going to drop everything else I was doing and watch all the rest of the videos from Indiek├Âr. This choir is awesome!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library was utterly delightful, with huge servings of awesome-sauce on the side. It gave me the happies on almost every page. I mean, there's a Library, so, yeah. And dragons. You'd think that would be enough (that would be enough for me). But, no, there's more! There's a super-smart detective who could convincingly be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. And airships. And remotely-controlled alligators, because, every plot can be improved by the addition of remote-control alligators.

(And Cogman gets the tone pitch perfect: just self-aware enough to take itself seriously without being ridiculous.)

Irene is a fabulous character, right up there with Prunella (from Sorcerer to the Crown. This book is right up there with Sorcerer to the Crown. Possibly even surpasses it. Wouldn't want my life to depend on picking one over the other.) She's competent, firm, thinks on her feet, rises to the occasion, but she's also still a junior Librarian who doesn't have all the information or experience she needs. She has moments of panic, doubt and sheer frustration and it's lovely to watch her deal with them—actually, it's lovely to listen to her narrate how she deals with them.

It gets better. There are, not one, but two really hot guys who spend the whole book being impressed by Irene, talking to her as equals and respecting her opinions and decisions. I could eat this stuff with a spoon; it's better than ice cream. There is a wonderfully complex rivalry between Irene and another woman Librarian. There's a fascinating alternate London, plausibly steampunk and infested with chaos (in the form of Fae, vampires and werewolves, among other things). And there's the Library, with its strange rules, twisted politics and mysterious purpose.

It's all fun as heck, and I can't wait to dive into the next book!

This might not technically be YA, since the characters are over twenty, but it would work just as well for YA or adult.

I'm feeling another music analogy this time: "Starlight" by Muse.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Iron Cast, by Destiny Soria

I picked Iron Cast up from the New shelf at the library, and it turned out to be a great debut from a novelist I will follow eagerly. The gorgeous cover drew me in, and the setting matches: 1919 Boston, the Cast Iron nightclub. It's right before Prohibition, but there's still something illegal going on at the Cast Iron: hemopaths are performing.

I love the 1920's—flappers, speak-easies, jazz, independent women, gangsters and shady backroom deals. Add magic and you've got a smoky, intoxicating backdrop for a tale of two girls from the opposite sides of town with a friendship strong enough to take on the world.

The magic was intriguing—hemopaths have an "affliction of the blood" that makes iron painful to them but gives them various magical talents, like manipulating emotions, creating illusions, changing their appearance. I loved how the magic was associated with an art: musicians use their music to make people feel emotions; wordsmiths use poetry to create illusions, actors can change their appearance.

The plot was twisty with betrayals and the looming menace of the Haversham Asylum (what exactly are they doing to hemopaths in the basement???). All sorts of divisions—class, money, race, background—are mined for all the tension and mistrust they create. But holding fast at the centre of it all is the friendship between Ava and Corinne. Rich, white, high society Corinne and poor, black, immigrant Ava have an unshakeable loyalty and trust between them that was a pleasure to watch. So many fist-pumping moments where one girl comes through for the other, who never doubted she would.

I also loved the two romantic relationships, which were realistic and respectful (I mean both the characters' treatment of each other and the author's treatment of the characters: they were all real people who weren't being crammed into a plot device), but I was very happy that the key relationships were the friendships. As this goodreads reviewer cleverly points out, Iron Cast is all about trust, and it was explored in so many different ways through all the different characters.

So many happy things about this book! I don't know much about '20s food, so I'll compare it to jazz—not the boring kind, but the swinging, be bop kind you can dance to. Sing Sing Sing (here it is with awesome dancing from that fantastic movie Swing Kids):