Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conjured, by Sarah Beth Durst

I guess it must be the season subconsciously influencing me to pick spooky books. Or maybe there's a dark magic spell influencing all the authors I like to write spooky books. The last Sarah Beth Durst book I read was Vessel, which was a great desert adventure fantasy. Conjured is something entirely different, and I couldn't put it down.

First line: "Your name is Eve. Remember that."

Main characters who have forgotten everything about their past are always fun. The mystery of identity has to be the central mystery of everyone's life. So a character trying to piece herself together from a very few clues and dreams is always compelling and sympathetic. Said character instantly becomes more interesting when she can do odd magical things without knowing why. Suspense is added when she doesn't know who is telling the truth or who she can trust, and when everyone around her seems pretty terrified of something awful happening to her.

Conjured has all these excellent building blocks and out of them Durst creates a fascinating, terrifying, heartwrenching, living, breathing tale of love and freedom and what it means to be a person. Eve doesn't know how to undo a seatbelt, can't remember that she licked jelly donut off her fingers last week, doesn't know why the agent she's supposed to call Malcolm makes her feel safe and the one called Aunt Nicki doesn't like her. But out of all her emptiness her personality shines. She is creating herself before our eyes with every choice she makes. She chooses to cooperate, to pretend to be normal, but as "Malcolm" and "Aunt Nicki" introduce her into the world, her choices broaden. Particularly when she meets Zach at the library. (I really liked Zach.)

The visions that may or may not be pieces of her past are excellent creepy carnival scenes, textured with colour and scent and emotion. At first they're so cryptic they make no sense, but as the images build they start to hint at their own story. Like Eve, we're given all the puzzle pieces but it's hard to put them together without knowing what they're supposed to look like.

I just went to Goodreads to get the link for this book, and I was surprised by some of the negative reviews, but I can understand them. You have to be patient with this kind of narration: it's frustrating to spend half the book not knowing what's going on—but that's the frustration Eve is living through, so for me it created empathy and suspense.

The writing is beautiful. Durst uses all her senses in her descriptions, and she has surprising and apt metaphors. I love how her magic is wondrous and beautiful even when it's underlain with horror.

Another excellent Halloween read, and I guess that's why pumpkins seem appropriate. Maple pumpkin pie, I think, another invention of my daughter's that I didn't get to try because I'm a five-hour flight away.

Monday, October 13, 2014

MMGM: The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford

Have you heard the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia?" If not, go listen to it here.

Have you read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes? If not, October is the perfect month to rectify that grave omission! It's such a wonderful October book.

Now imagine a cross between that song and that novel.

And then throw out whatever you imagined because Kate Milford did it even better.

The Boneshaker is delicious on so many levels. The ghost town at the crossroads. The dusty little community with secrets. The creaky old carnival rolling into town. Such an evocative setting, and evoked with such loving detail!

Then there are the characters: Old Tom Guyot, who can play his guitar like nothing and nobody and who has a story about that crossroads. Inexplicable Simon Coffrett living alone in his mansion on the hill. Grandiose Dr. Limberleg with his wild red hair and his suspicious glares and his increasing desperation.

And Natalie herself, the odd, determined heroine who senses something not right about Dr. Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show. She pokes her nose in where it isn't wanted until she finds out far more than is safe about what's really going on.

So much to love about this book! Natalie's beautiful bright red Chesterlane Eidolon, fastest bicycle in the world, built just for her by her father, that to her endless shame she hasn't figured out how to ride. The stories Natalie's mother spins for her, the magic of stories that Natalie begins to figure out for herself. Natalie's prickly relationship with her friend Miranda. Terrible moral dilemmas. The hints of a more complex mythology, only just touched upon in this book. (Now I want to read The Broken Lands and the two Arcana books, all set in the same world.)

Oh, and great illustrations.

My daughter just told me she's making a masala-spiced turkey with rice stuffing and butter chicken gravy (butter chicken gravy???). I wish I could go to Ottawa and try some! I imagine that meal would make a good metaphor for The Boneshaker: complex flavours redolent of tradition but with a spicy twist.

I first heard of The Boneshaker from the Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday crew over at Shannon Messenger's blog. You can be sure to find more wonderful recommendations there every Monday.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Night Calls, by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel

Sherwood Smith is responsible for a lot of my reading pleasure, not just because of the books she writes, but because she lists the books she's reading on her blog, and it turns out that she has great taste in books! I've taken to buying the books she recommends if they're not in the library because I'm so sure I'll like them. I haven't been disappointed yet.


The latest I've read is a marvelous coming-into-one's-magic story set in a spooky alternative version of early 1800s Michigan. In Night Calls, Alfreda learns she has the Gift when she can hear the werewolves calling. (Just to be clear, these are scary, dangerous werewolves, not hot sexy ones.) Her large extended family takes her in hand and devises an educational plan for her, because an untrained Gift is a danger to herself and to others. Alfreda may not like the idea at first, but her magic is a responsibility that she learns to accept. Pretty standard plot, really, but it felt entirely fresh and new.

 I like frontier America as a fantasy setting: there are so many possibilities to explore. I really enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child series: it's big and adventurous with grand, sparkling magic and fantastic dangerous beasts. Night Callsis the Jane Austen version: it's cozy and quiet with creepy dark demons (okay, pretty sure there were no demons in Jane Austen; ditto werewolves, vampires and witches. But I stand by the comparison.) Kimbriel is all about the characters—great, vivid characters!—and their relationships, about towns and how they function, about families. One of the early dramatic moments is Alfreda's confrontation with the minister about having a service for dead werewolves. It's a credit to Kimbriel's writing that this scene is just as gripping (if a tad less scary) than a later confrontation with a vampire.

Kimbriel gives her world so much texture and depth I was completely immersed in it. She must have done a ton of historical research; there is a Little House on the Prairie feel to the book just because of all the authentic details of frontier life. But the magic feels just as meticulously researched (and I'm pretty sure she made that up!)(Although she does incorporate many different folk traditions, so that's probably why it seems so authentic.) I loved all the various magical objects.

The cover says it's a tale of dark magic, and this is Halloween-worthy stuff. Not horror, quite (I don't read horror!), but there are pretty nasty creatures out there, and Kimbriel does a great job of setting up suspense and tension. Again, it's all in the details: the letter covered in a miasma of evil just because it came through the haunted town; the odd behavior of the townspeople; the grim look on the practitioner's face.

This book is definitely something with pumpkin in it. A hearty pumpkin apple soup maybe, something made with stores from the root cellar that could simmer on a hook over the fire and warm the belly on a cold, dark winter night.

This cover plays up the fear factor maybe a little too much!
I like this one, but maybe it's not scary enough? Covers are difficult!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

I'm on a roll: this is another beautifully written book by a writer who really knows what she's doing. Also, more high fantasy, since I seem to be on a bit of a kingdoms-and-magic kick. If you like Robin McKinley, Sharon Shinn, Juliet Marrillier, Patricia A. McKillip, you will like Rachel Neumeier.

The City in the Lake is magical and evocative, full of the sort of imagery that resonates with unstated meaning. But it's also grounded by real, practical characters, who have grown up with this magic and understand (to greater and lesser extents) how it works. This book spills over with enchantment but it isn't about the magic. Yes, Timou learns how to be a mage, but it's not really a coming-into-one's-magic story, since she masters it fairly early on. It's a quest of sorts, to find a missing prince, but the finding of the prince happens fairly easily, too. It's more of a finding-out-who-you-are-when-it-comes-down-to-the-wire story. It's about the choices the characters make, and how they face the consequences of those choices. I think those are my favourite kind of stories.

My favourite character is actually the Bastard. He's complex and ambiguous and has the most difficult choices to make, and I think he's as much a main character as Timou. My second favourite character is Jonas. He doesn't get as much POV time as the other two, but he's so patient and unassuming and I think he makes the biggest sacrifice. Timou is dogged and smart and doesn't let crushing grief or disappointment get in the way of saving the kingdom. Perhaps I connected the least with her because of her ability to shut away her emotions, which was essential to letting her use her powers against the sorceress. I did like the way her magic worked.

The romance is understated but very sweet. Relationships of all kinds are explored: siblings, parent-child, friendship. Trust, loyalty. The stuff that really matters.

Not everything is explained. We learn enough about how the kingdom works to understand the peril it's in, but I could have spent a lot more time reading about the City, and the forest, and mirrors, and the tigers on the bridge, and the difference between magery and sorcery, and . . . . I remember this being a complaint of mine about The Floating Islands. But actually it's a strength, that her books are only as long as they need to be, and they leave you feeling as though you've only brushed the surface of the world and there's so much more to be discovered.

Blueberry cupcakes with lemon cream cheese icing.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge

Holy sainted cows out standing in their field—this woman can write! She can write like a house on fire, like your brain is the house and she sets it on fire.

I didn't know she had a new book out—why am I not following her ravenously like a puppy??—and when I saw this book mentioned on a blog I forgave Amazon for all their faults and bought it on Kindle right away. Then I pretty much put my life on hold for a day and finished it in as close to one sitting as I could manage without my children starving and my house burning down around my ears.

Take a deep breath. Okay. Here's my rational, coherent review of Cuckoo Song

Go read this book!! No one can prepare you for it; it isn't like anything else you've ever read, except maybe another Frances Hardinge book, and it isn't like any of them either. It's a little like Neil Gaiman, maybe. Yes, she's up there with him. 

Cuckoo Song starts out a little ordinary, and for a while you think it's just a very well-written, slightly creepy story about an ordinary, completely dysfunctional family. And then it goes sideways, and you think, okay, it's about some really weird magic stuff happening to this extraordinarily dysfunctional but otherwise ordinary family. And then it goes even sidewaysier and you realize that you have no idea what ordinary even means anymore.

I love Triss, love her with heart-gasping terror like she is my first born child. All the characters, they're all so real and deeply complex and full of needs and hopes, how can you not love them. Pen is so perfectly a nine-year-old girl and her relationship with Triss was absolutely real. And marvelous.

I love the setting. The city is fantastic, with its hills and bridges and zig-zag streets. It takes place in the 1920s, and everything about the time is subtly and inextricably woven in with the plot and the themes: jazz; independent women; cars; belief in progress; the lingering impact of the First World War.

I love the Besiders. I don't want to say anything about them, except that Hardinge draws from familiar superstition and myth but her creation far surpasses the source material. Very cool, and completely believable.

Scary villains, but, as with all Hardinge books, there aren't good guys and bad guys. Even the scariest have reasons for what they do; even the kindest do things they shouldn't. It's wonderful to be rooting for different people with entirely conflicting desires and wonder how on earth Hardinge is going to solve it so that everyone gets what they need.

Gorgeous language, as always. (I'd quote, endlessly, but Kindle books are annoying to flip through looking for quotations.)

Cuckoo Song will probably be shelved in the middle-grade section of a library or bookstore, but I wouldn't call it middle-grade at all. Not that a precocious young reader couldn't enjoy it (it's creepily scary like Coraline, but has nothing in it a nine-year-old couldn't handle), but it has so much more going on in it. No adult should pass this by thinking it will be simplistic or insubstantial. Hardinge doesn't do insubstantial!

I'm currently harvesting endless tomatoes from my garden and they are mind-bogglingly delicious. You don't know what tomatoes taste like until you grow some yourself; when you first try a real tomato it's like discovering an entirely new color you have never seen before, and going back to the store-bought ones is like willingly blinding yourself. Cuckoo Song is a bowl full of red, gold, orange, yellow tomatoes of all different sizes, that you can eat with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil, or quickly saute with some garlic and basil and serve over fresh pasta, or simmer until they reduce down into the most intensely flavoured tomato soup you've ever had, or . . . (if you have more suggestions, I'm open to them. I have a lot of fresh tomatoes to eat!)

Monday, September 8, 2014

MMGM: Scare Scape, by Sam Fisher

I picked this one up on a library browse because it had the maple leaf sticker indicating it was Canadian. The cover was appealing—assuming you find scary, slimy monsters appealing! (Which I don't, usually, but I figured I could probably handle middle-grade horror.) The premise has been done before—scary comic book turns out to be real—but I was willing to give this one a try, and I'm glad I did. Scare Scape is an excellent, well-written adventure story with wide appeal.

Strong characters, great family interactions, genuinely spooky but funny too—it reminded me a little of Diana Wynne Jones' The Ogre Downstairs. It has a similar wishes-gone-wrong plot, but Ogre (despite it's title) is straight-up fantasy, while Scare Scape is definitely horror. Creepy old Victorian house, a gargoyle that grants wishes, monsters that come alive, a blind comic book writer who may or may not have died in the well in the back yard—Fisher uses old tropes in fun ways and comes up with a few new ones of his own. I loved Melissa's endless closet and what she does with it.

I liked Morton and his strange obsession with a scary comic—a flaw that ends up being a strength (no one else knows each monster's weakness!) The story is fast-paced with a few interesting plot twists; there are themes of trust and loyalty; the final showdown requires courage and cleverness and all the kids working together. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I'm betting this one will fly off the library shelves.

Nutty and sweet like the trail mix I have perfected over years of backpacking: peanuts, cashews, tamari roasted almonds and craisins, liberally mixed with chocolate-covered peanuts, gummy bears, jelly bellies (only my favourite flavours) and swedish red berries. Every bite has something I like!


Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is hosted by Shannon Messenger on her fun blog, and has a great line-up of contributors every week.

This is book 7 of my Canadian Book Challenge (five of them are adult books I reviewed on Goodreads). I think I might make it to 13 this year! For more Canadian recommendations, head to John Mutford's blog and see what the other challengers are reading.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A bit of high fantasy: Patricia McKillip and Victoria Hanley

As I was browsing in the library I came across a sequel to a book I reviewed a while ago. I didn't even know there was going to be a sequel: it was like finding money in my jacket pocket! The original book is The Seer and the Sword, which I reviewed here. The Healer's Keep is a "companion" book rather than a true sequel, meaning you can read the two in any order, since the plots don't depend on each other. I found this one to be completely different from the first in setting, characters, magic—everything, really—but I enjoyed it all the same and enjoyed the connection to the first once I figured out what it was.

The Healer's Keep has four main characters (one of whom is the daughter of Torina from The Seer and the Sword).  Two of the characters are on a completely different continent, with its own complicated social structure and belief system. Hanley has expanded her world and her magic considerably, and I found all of the new settings fascinating and well-developed. Maeve is a slave who must flee before being sold to a truly evil man. Lord Morlen is genuinely frightening; an excellent evil wizard type. Maeve encounters Jasper, who helps her against his better judgement. I particularly liked Jasper, who pretends to be stupid in order to avoid notice, but is really clever and brave and kind-hearted. Maeve discovers that she is a Dreamwen, with the power to walk in others' dreams, and it is this power that the evil Lord Morlen wants to claim.

Across the ocean, Sara and Dorjan arrive at the Healer's Keep to begin their magical training. Dorjan is already adept at using his Dreamwen powers, but Sara has no idea how much magic she has, so she is vulnerable to those who secretly plan to bring down the Healer's Keep.

Normally I would be annoyed at constantly switching back and forth between points of view (we also get some of the bad guy POVs), but I liked (or hated (if they were evil)) all the characters and was always interested in what was going on in each setting. It was obvious that there was going to be a connection between the two groups, so I was willing to wait and see how they finally joined up.

The magic is original and convincing; there's a bit of romance but not too much; there are individual coming-into-one's-magic character arcs and also the whole world that needs saving—The Healer's Keep has everything you want from a traditional fantasy, and nothing that you've gotten tired of.

Real Mexican tacos: little, freshly made corn tortillas with a spoonful of spicy meat or veggies and a sprinkle of white cheese.

After I finished Victoria Hanley's book, I happened to notice The Riddle-Master trilogy on my bookshelf, and I was in just the right mood to reread this classic from Patricia McKillip. It's a lyrical, Tolkien-esque tale about running away from destiny. No elves or dwarves, but kings, ghosts, wizards and harpists, and the one riddle Morgan of Hed can't answer: why are there three stars on his forehead? It's one story divided into three (don't dare start reading it if you don't have the second book to hand: the cliffhanger at the end is as bad—maybe worse—as the end of The Two Towers), and the titles still evoke in me a sense of the numinous: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, Harpist in the Wind.

It's about riddles and deception and true names, and when I was young I found it infuriatingly cryptic, but hauntingly beautiful. Reading it now I love to watch the unfolding of the plot, and I love the characters: Morgan, who just wants to take care of his simple island kingdom but can't seem to leave riddles alone; Raederle, the second most beautiful woman in the Three Portions of An, promised to Morgan as reward for winning a riddle-game, but with the mystery of her own powerful heritage to untangle; Deth, the High One's harpist, whom no one knows anything about.

An essential part of anyone's magical education. Salted-caramel chocolate chip cookies (I have to get the recipe from my sister-in-law).