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.

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.