Monday, March 2, 2015

MMGM: Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, and Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

In which I confirm that Kate Milford is an author I love, and I discover a new author to devour with eagerness.

I'll be brief about Greenglass House, because several MMGMers have already reviewed it, and it's getting well-deserved attention. I'll just say books like this are why I read middle-grade fiction. Tightly-crafted story with characters as fun and eccentric as real people are, a setting full of the magic of loved objects and spaces, a protagonist who breaks your heart. Just look at that cover! Gorgeous art that perfectly captures the feeling of the book: the wintery atmosphere, the rambling old house with its mysterious nooks and crannies and storied windows—if you look at that house and wish you could visit it, then this is the book for you. It's a smuggler's inn! It's a house with history that fills up with all kinds of crazy guests with histories, and Milo our hero gets to explore the house and investigate the guests and discover the truth at the heart of all the stories.  Hot chocolate and shortbread by the fire with big fluffy snowflakes falling outside; I think I'll re-read Greenglass House every year at Christmas!

I picked up Jinx at my library because a few bloggers I trust were raving about it (Rachel Neumeier even compared it to Diana Wynne Jones, so that caught my eye!) I was not disappointed; this is a book worth raving about. And I'll even grant the DWJ comparison. Blackwood throws fairy tales and myths and superstitions in a jar and shakes them really hard so they get all broken up and mixed together, and then she sprinkles the jar over a big, sentient forest, and hovers over it to find out what happens. A boy named Jinx gets rescued from a stepfather and a few trolls by a wizard who says he doesn't want to eat him, so Jinx goes to live in his stone castle-house full of cats and locked doors. I loved Jinx right from the start: he's no fool, he knows the world is dangerous, he knows how to keep his head down and avoid attracting unwanted attention, but he's no coward. He's determined to get through the locked doors and learn enough magic so he can safely step off the Path. I was completely sold on the story when Sophia showed up (no spoilers as to who she is, but I love her interactions with Simon). There's a lot of humour, both Jinx's dry wit as he deals with a truly inhospitable world, and Blackwood's playfulness with tropes and expectations. It's also a story with heart about an orphan lost in the woods who learns to make his own path; Blackwood takes that age-old story and makes it entirely fresh and surprising. (Warning: this isn't a stand-alone. I'm heading to the library asap to get the sequel!) Something with blackberries in it: tart and sweet and worth all the thorns, just like the Urwald. Blackberry cobbler, I think.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is the brilliant idea of Shannon Messenger, who hosts collections of middle-grade reviews on her blog every Monday. (Except this Monday, because she's sick. Get well soon, Shannon!)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Um, I actually haven't read very much this month

Blogging has taken a back seat to writing this month, which for me is good. (What's not so good: it's taken me all month to write one scene. It's an important scene, but wow, I'm slow.)

I went to New York last week and as always I brought a bunch of new things I wanted to read on my iPod. But sometimes the discomfort of airports and flying and strange hotel rooms makes me turn to comfort books, and I ended up almost completely rereading Sherwood Smith's Inda series. Not in order. I kept searching for favourite scenes, and reading them, and then reading forward, and then deciding I wanted to compare a scene with an earlier scene, so reading the earlier scene, and then going forward from there. It was an odd way to read a book, but it made me appreciate even more her skill at weaving complicated plots with only the most necessary, dramatic scenes; at describing battles and sailing and ship battles so well it feels like you're there; at developing vivid, realistic, wonderful characters. I love Inda passionately (imagine him and Miles Vorkosigan together at a dinner party!); I love all of them: Tau, Jeje, Evred, Fox (she has a supernatural knack for names). I would recognize any of them if they came around a corner. The series is brilliant.

A couple of books on the iPod I did get around to reading this month, as I work my way through my new favourite authors:

Rachel Neumeier's Black Dog: three orphaned teens from Mexico flee to Vermont seeking the help of the formidable Dimilioc clan of werewolves, knowing the Dimiliocs will want Natividad for her Pure magic, but not sure they'll let her brothers live. Loved the characters, loved the scenario, loved the family interactions, the pack interactions, loved the winter setting. Thoroughly enjoyable. Had a satisfying conclusion but I'm looking forward to the next one (I think it's supposed to be coming out soon?)

Andrea K. Host's Champion of the Rose: Soren is chosen, quite against her will, to be the King's Champion. But there hasn't been a king in two hundred years. Then a legitimate heir to the throne shows up, but he really, really doesn't like Soren. Court politics, complicated international relations when the neighbouring country is Fae, interesting explorations of free will, duty, loyalty. I thought there were some wonderful conflicts that were resolved a little too easily, but Soren is a great character and I quite enjoyed this very unique take on the rightful heir storyline.

Also read Kate Milford's Greenglass House, which I really liked. I'll review it on Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman

Where on earth did January go??

Back at the beginning of Jan I mentioned that I had my very own ARC of Shadow Scale. Well, I read it. And I've been trying to figure out how to review it ever since.

First off, this is a sequel, so go read Seraphina first. I promise, you'll love it: dragons, Renaissance-like court, music, assassination plots, did I mention the dragons (really awesome dragons: think Spock with wings). It's close enough to Shadow Scale's publication date that you won't be incredibly frustrated when you finish! (Lot's of amusing GIFs on the Shadow Scale Goodreads page from people who've been waiting for, well, years.)

If you loved Seraphina for the rich world-building and fascinating characters, then prepare to be overwhelmed by Shadow Scale. Seraphina leaves Goredd and travels through not one or two but four different countries, all with different cultures and values and attitudes toward dragons (and half-dragons). (Lots of opportunity to explore prejudice from a bunch of different angles.)

We meet a whole new cast of variously complicated and tortured characters, each of whom could have an entire novel to themselves. Nedouard, the doctor who hides his deformity behind a plague mask; Blanche, living half-wild in the woods protecting herself with magical traps. Jannoula, imprisoned, tortured, and now in a position to get revenge on all those who wronged her.

Hartman plays with the intersection of character and society: what makes us who we are? Given different circumstances, how might we have turned out? Then there's the politics, history and religion of five nations and three races, all of which Hartman develops in overlapping interactions with character. Shadow Scale could easily have been two books long—and maybe should have been. I wonder if all the fan whining about how long the sequel was taking didn't influence Hartman to squish everything into one book. I would willingly have waited another five years for a third book if it would have allowed for more development of, well, all the really cool stuff in this book!

Seraphina is actually the least interesting character in the book, much as I love her, and therein lies my one problem with Shadow Scale: I think Seraphina is the wrong narrator. She has an important role to play, and certainly has her own character arc, but a lot of the action and conflict happens to other characters, so we end up hearing about events that I wish we could have experienced first hand. I would love to have read some parts of the book from Abdo's point of view, and from Eskar's. Jannoula would have been a fascinating narrator. Glisselda and Prince Lucien don't have a huge role in this book, but events at the end would have been interesting from their perspective. I don't often find myself arguing for multiple points of view, but I think Shadow Scale is an example of where it would have really worked.

What will you love about Shadow Scale? All the half-dragons and their stories. Jannoula: not knowing what to make of her. The country of Porphyry. Surprising reveals about, um, stuff that I don't want to be spoilery about! The way everything comes together at the end.

What might disappoint you? Orma is off-stage for almost the entire book. And Kiggs isn't around as much as you (and Seraphina!) might like him to be. It also starts out rather slowly, with a lot of explanation, though you'll find the explain-y bits helpful if it's been a while since you read Seraphina.

My final feelings about the book? Shadow Scale is a satisfying conclusion to Seraphina with a suitably epic scope. I just think there was potential for it to be so much more. There's a rumour she'll be writing more books in this world; I look forward to them with great anticipation!

There's a pastry I can't remember the name of that my husband once brought me home from France: it was like a cinnamon roll, but flaky and buttery like a croissant, except crispy—well, it's not like anything you can get anywhere in North America. Divinely delicious and distinctly French. Shadow Scale is like my husband only bringing one of these home for me.

I almost forgot: Rachel Hartman lives in Vancouver! So this counts as a Canadian read for me (I'm sadly behind in my goal). I love the image John Mutford chose for his February Roundup of Canadian book reviews. Visit his blog to find out about Canadian books of all genres

Friday, January 9, 2015

Libraries are awesome!

Have I mentioned how much I love libraries? They're free for everyone to go in, and they're just full of books! And you can take out as many books as you like, for free! And if you don't finish reading all of them when they're due back, you can renew them. Or if you started one and didn't like it, you can just take it back, and it's okay, because it was free!

Sort of stating the obvious here. And preaching to the converted, I'm sure. But every once in a while someone needs to cheer for libraries; they're one of the good things in the world. I love the feeling I get, walking out of a library, arms piled high with potential: "a sweet humming anticipation against my ribs." (That's from The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters, an example of his most excellent writing.)

This is what's got me humming with anticipation on this trip to the library:

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Actually got this one a few days ago and I'm finished already. Loved it! So cool, so interesting. Breq, the single surviving remnant of the spaceship Justice of Toren, is such an amazing character. My review on Goodreads here.

Just started The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters, and I love the main character already. The world is ending in 6 months, but eager young Detective Hank Palace still thinks solving murders matters.

Heard a lot of buzz about Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Should I go from pre-apocalyptic to post-apocalyptic and read this one next?

Or should I cleanse my palate with something a little more lighthearted, like The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, by M. T. Anderson. How can you resist a title like that? Second book in the series that began with Whales on Stilts. This author has quite the sense of humour!

But I also have Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, one of my fave new-to-me authors of 2014, and the cover looks awesome, and the first few pages are intriguing, so I might have to dive right into this one.

And from my trip upstairs to the teen section, Avalon, by Mindee Arnett, which I'm pretty sure is on my TBR, and how could it not be: teenage mercenaries in a spaceship!

Also When We Wake, by Karen Healey, which I've never heard of, but has a great cover and a cool premise: girl wakes up unexpectedly a hundred years in the future, part of a government experiment in cryogenics. Plus, set in Australia, and I don't think I've ever disliked a book by an Australian author. (Oh, wait, Healey's from New Zealand. I bet I like New Zealand authors, too!)

Lastly, picked up because of its catchy pink cover and fun title, How To Say Goodbye in Robot, by Natalie Standiford. Friendship between two oddballs: I always love stories like that.

So I have quite enough to be going on with for the next little while. But oh, oh oh! Guess what else I got my hot little hands on:

Yes, I have an ARC of the sequel to Seraphina! Very excited about this one. Will be reviewing it soon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

My annual trip to our local KidsBooks to treat myself. I went looking for Diana Wynne Jones' last book (finished by her sister, Ursula), and for The Princess in Black, The Most Magnificent Thing and Kandinsky's Noisy Paint Box. I was happily surprised by a sequel to the beautiful wordless picturebook, Journey, and a prequel Garth Nix wrote to his brilliant Old Kingdom series (I didn't have any idea he was writing more in that world. So excited!) My Christmas picture book (I try to buy a new one every year) is a Carl book—wonderful wordless picture books starring a very intelligent dog. And I also pick up a few graphic novels every year; decided to go for the space theme this time. Links to Goodreads, and a few comments on the ones I've read, below.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday with your favourite people and favourite traditions, and hope you all have a good book to curl up with with a mug of hot chocolate!

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne and Ursula Jones
Clariel, by Garth Nix
Quest — I loved Journey, and Quest is just as gorgeous. It's Harold and the Purple Crayon with the background filled in (which, I agree, kind of defeats the whole point, but it's so pretty!)
The Most Magnificent Thing — Everyone who has ever tried to create anything needs to read this! So true, so inspiring.
The Princess in Black — I'm going to give this to my two nieces, because every little girl who loves princesses needs to know about the Princess in Black. And it's an early reader, and the oldest niece is just at the right age to read it for herself. Aren't I the best aunt?
Kandinsky's Noisy Paint Box — because I love Kandinsky's art
Carl's Christmas —I have lots of Carl books, because they're so adorable and funny and subversive
Earthling! — I decided to buy this graphic novel after flipping through it and noticing the rather sly humour. The story is fun and the art work is great. 
Zita the Space Girl – loved this one. Think I'll give it to my nieces in a few years (when they're finally out of their princess phase!). The characters are all so wonderful, and the art is quite beautiful. Reminds me of the Amulet series, but for younger readers. There are a couple of Zita sequels out now, and I want them.

And as a little Christmas gift, some music from my tradition:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#AMonthofFaves: Fave new-to-me authors I discovered in 2014

Kirsten at We Be Reading has been following this meme hosted by Estella's Revenge all month, with daily prompts to make various lists of favourite books from the past year. It's generated some awesome lists on people's blogs, so it's worth checking out (if you want to add a ton of things to your TBR!)

I'm not nearly organized enough to a) do that much blogging and b) look back and analyze my reading all year. (People count the books they read? In categories?? People have reading goals and measure their progress toward them???? My reading does NOT work like that!)

But this prompt (from Dec 9, so I'm only 10 days late) really works for me because it's been a great year for finding new authors. And it doubles as a chance to quickly review a lot of my travel reading.

I'll even divide it into categories for you:

YA Fantasy:

Rachel Neumeier  —  After really enjoying The Floating Islands and The City in the Lake (the only two books available at my library), I decided to buy The Griffin Mage trilogy to read on the plane. Was not disappointed. Yet another original magic system; awesome griffins; heart-breakingly complex characters whose stories interweave with each other over the trilogy; beautiful descriptions; Neumeier's trademark ability to create intense conflict without anyone being an actual villain, because everyone has such good reasons for what they're doing (even if they're griffins who want to wipe out all the humans). Excited to read her more recent stuff: no more waiting for the library to get them, Neumeier is now on my "I fork out hard-earned cash for anything she writes" list.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel  —  So far I've read the first two of her Night Calls series—spooky witch stories set in an alternate frontier America—and I love the characters and the setting. Kindred Rites has seriously scary evil sorcerers that Allie gets kidnapped by and runs away from, with some nice realistic surviving-in-the-winter scenes. As with Night Calls, the details of every day life are immersively vivid, and the magic just seems like one more realistic detail. I've got the third book to read yet, and I also picked up the first book of an interesting-looking sci-fi series, Fires of Nuala.

YA Sci-Fi:

Andrea K. Höst  —  The Touchstone Trilogy was so much fun. And All the Stars is just as much fun: it's a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers /Host/ Animorphs story (did you ever read the Animorphs? I thought they were awesome!). An implausible premise but she makes it feel so real. I doubt a huge spire is going to appear in every large city in the world, dispersing dust that kills lots of people but (slight spoiler if you want to be surprised by what happens) gives some people superpowers and then allows unbodied aliens to take them over and use them in dominance challenges—but if that ever did happen, we would all react exactly the way Höst describes it. Great use of the Sydney, Australia setting, great cast of diverse characters. So far I've liked Höst's sci-fi better than the one fantasy I tried—Medair had an intriguing premise and was compelling enough to draw me along, but I felt as though the most interesting things were happening in the flashbacks, and I really wished she had told the story in the order it happened; I'd be more invested in it that way. So I haven't read the sequel yet (also because the blurb makes it sound like it's going to be sad, and I don't want a sad ending! So maybe I'm more invested than I'm willing to admit!). But she's such a good writer that I'm willing to try another of her fantasies, especially since her books are on sale on Kindle for .99 right now! (Quick, go snap up the Touchstone Trilogy!)

Fantasy: (I was going to say Adult Fantasy, but that would give entirely the wrong impression!)

Patrick Rothfuss  —  Finally decided to see what all the buzz was about, and I'm with the majority on this one: he's an amazing writer and I wish he'd hurry up and finish the third Kingkiller book! (But I'm willing to wait if it means it's going to be as good as the other ones.) Traditional magic kingdom fantasy with a great protagonist and just really good writing. Here are links to my Goodreads reviews of The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things (which would be on a Top Ten Books that Blew My Mind list (the Dec 16 prompt), were I to make one).

Jo Walton  — I first encountered her name in a review for her non-fiction work, What Makes This Book So Great, a collection of her Tor reviews of science fiction (which I still haven't laid my hands on). I went over to to see what sort of things she was writing, and have been following her ever since. She's incredibly widely read, and smart, and snarky in a compassionate way, and she just has this angle of view on things. So when I saw that she had recently come out with a novel (Among Others), I figured I'd like it. I did (link to my review). Then I tried her alternate history Small Change trilogy, and was wildly impressed. I've got Tooth and Claw on my iPod now (Victorian novel plot and setting, but with dragons. What's not to like?!), and I'm waiting until I have the time to devote to it to get My Real Children, which sounds amazing. If you want a quick taste, she has a number of short stories online in various places, including a couple of Christmas ones on her blog.

Uncatagorizable in a sort of steampunky way (but for sure not steampunk):

Max Gladstone  —  Maybe it's too soon to put him on a favourites list, since I've only read one book, but Three Parts Dead would also go on that hypothetical Books that Blew My Mind list, so I'm fairly confident that I'm going to keep liking the Craft Sequence books. Also, look at those covers. So gorgeous; so colorful, and by that I mean notice the different colors of people on them. It's like he's writing books about humans or something. Quite radical. And I love the titles even more after reading this post explaining his chronology. (Also I'm liking Max Gladstone more after reading it. Smart, funny guy.) (Of course, now I can't decide which book to read next, since apparently it doesn't matter.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

MMGM: Whales on Stilts! by M. T. Anderson

I've seen this book several times at the library and almost taken it out, but then put it back because I thought it might be dumb. Then I noticed that one of its sequels was a Kirkus pick for 2014, and I thought maybe I should give the series a try. Well, Whales on Stilts is definitely as silly as it sounds, but it's also smart and funny and, in the end, quite heartfelt.

Anderson obviously has a lot of affection for the type of dime-store serial adventure story he spoofs in M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales. Absurdly ridiculous plots, unbelievably competent heroes/heroines, bombastic villains with their evil lairs and plans for taking over the world. (Sounds a lot like James Bond, actually!) Anderson stretches all the incredulity way past its breaking point (I mean, whales on stilts?) and plays it all with a perfectly straight face.

Contender for best opening line ever (and then the second line just tops it off):

On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation. 
Up until then life hadn't been very interesting for Lily.
Lily makes this book for me. "Most people didn't know that Lily herself was interesting." She has two very interesting friends, Katie Mulligan, real-life star of the Horror Hollow books, and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, but it's Lily who's the heroine of this tale. Quiet, observant Lily is the one who notices there's something fishy about her dad's boss, with his blue, rubbery hands and the bag over his head. And after all of Jasper's inventions and Katie's helpful ideas, it's Lily who figures out how to stop his evil plan for world domination.

I love the completely oblivious adults. There's some satire of corporate culture with Lily's dad and his co-worker Ray, so caught up in minutiae that they miss the blatantly obvious:
"We're a little bit behind schedule. But you know, sometimes it almost makes me curious—why all of the giant, destructive lasers? And why all of the maps of North America?"
"Yeah. Sure. I guess. Oh, Ray, have you seen the memo about the meeting with Paul?"
(Reminds me of the sitcom Better off Ted. Used to be on Netflix. Really weird humour, very pointed satire.)

I was impressed at Anderson's deft handling of tone. Yes, a lot of the humour is over-the-top, but there are subtler layers, and when it comes to Lily's character the writing can be downright lyrical. And don't skip the footnotes or the "Guide to Reading and Thinking" at the end; they're delightful.

I'll be returning to the library to pick up The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, book 2 in the series that will become Pals in Peril!

Salty, buttery popcorn, you can never get enough of it.

It's been a while since I've contributed to Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, but every Monday there are always a gang of folks with great recommendations on Shannon Messenger's blog.