Monday, August 25, 2014

MMGM: Invitation to The Game, by Monica Hughes

It's past time for me to get back to reviewing children's/YA books! And I've got to get started on my Canadian books for the year, already almost two months into the Canadian Book Challenge. So here's a two-for-one: a Canadian Middle-Grade novel. (I'm calling it middle-grade because that's where I found it in the library, but I would say it's for the upper of that age-range, and older readers will also appreciate it.)

If you think dystopian YA is a new trend that started with The Hunger Games, you're missing out on a whole generation of great children's science fiction. And perhaps the queen of the era from 1970-1990 was the Canadian writer Monica Hughes.

She is probably most famous for The Keeper of the Isis Light and its two sequels, The Guardian of Isis and The Isis Pedlar. I read them when I was young and they have haunted me ever since. It might be time for me to reread them and do a complete review, but I remember them as bittersweet stories of young people trying to fit in and find a place they belong, but also fascinating, complex psychological studies of humans colonizing an alien planet. And true and depressing commentary on the human tendency to distrust the Other. Legitimate classics.

Hughes was prolific, and I've only read a handful of her works, so maybe I should also try to catch up on the books I haven't read—make this the Year of Monica Hughes. It's worth introducing a new generation to her thoughtful, playful stories that explore what it means to be human just like the best of adult sci fi.

Invitation to The Game starts with a vaguely Hunger Games-like premise: underprivileged youth in an economically distressed society are manipulated into playing a "Game." The game in this case requires teamwork and problem-solving skills in a survival setting, rather than deadly competition. The final outcome is an interesting twist. New readers might find it amusing that the problem of this dystopia is robots taking all the jobs away from people—not something remotely worrisome now, but I remember when I was growing up that it was a seriously-discussed concern!

Invitation is quietly suspenseful and intriguing with a carefully thought-out world (some aspects are a little unrealistic, but it's a lot more believable than most of the dystopians out there now!). It's a fast read, written back when there wasn't such a thing as YA and kids' books generally came in at 200 pages or less (and really, do you need more than 200 pages to tell a good story? Monica Hughes didn't.)

A book to recommend to readers of The Giver. And if you like this one, Hughes has a lot more for you! You just might have to ask your library to search for them.

Grilled cheese sandwich, the way your mom used to make it.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a meme hosted by Shannon Messenger, and it's a great place to find new kids books for your TBR list.

The Canadian Book Challenge is in it's 8th year over at John Mutford's blog, and there you'll find a diverse bunch of books by Canadian authors.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Maggie Stiefvater says more profound things

This isn't really a blog post, it's more of a tweet. You should go read this post from Maggie Stiefvater's blog. It explains why her books are so good. (Hint: she doesn't just make stuff up. She gets stuff.)

I've been reading a fair bit of adult spec fic this summer, which is (one reason) why my reviews here are a little sparse. If you're interested to know what I thought of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, here are links to my Goodreads reviews (hint: I liked them a lot!):

The Name of the Wind

The Wise Man's Fear

And because it looks bad to have such a short post, here's a photo my brother took that I want to write a story about one day:

He claims it's the Columbia River Gorge, somewhere east of Portland. I think it's a completely different world with the remnants of an ancient civilization (you have to sort of ignore the white picket fence).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Two more by Sherwood Smith

I adored Crown Duel and the Inda books, so I was eager to read more Sherwood Smith. These two are YA reads that deliver trademark Sherwood Smith royal fantasy. Delicious stuff, and great summer reads.

A Posse of Princesses is as light-hearted and fun as the title implies. It's a great fairy-tale/princess/adventure story that plays with fairy tale and princess stereotypes and gives us not one but several different kinds of strong female characters (some of them can handle a sword, but that's not the only way to be a heroine, is it?). Princess Rhis finally gets to leave her boring mountain kingdom because a neighbouring prince is having a big party to pick his future bride. Great excuse for lots of high-school-style drama (except with gowns and servants and castle stuff, so, you know, way better!) and political intrigue, and no one does this better than Smith. Then there's a kidnapping, so, adventure. But really it's all about Rhis discovering friendship, confidence, love (as opposed to infatuation), and maturity. Enjoyably fluffy but with Smith's trademark well-developed characters and moral centre so it feels more substantial.

Blackberry-peach cobbler (freshly-picked blackberries—you should still have the scratches on your arms—and peaches from a fruit stand, as local as possible, the tiniest bit of sugar, dash of vanilla, and simple biscuit topping. Eaten warm with blackcurrant cream gelato (because I had some in the freezer).

Lhind the Thief is a little more serious: lots of fast-paced adventure, and still a YA sensibility, but Lhind is a deeper, more mysterious character. She doesn't know who she is, she only knows she can't trust anyone, must hide her differences or risk imprisonment or death. When she does get captured she has to learn to work with people who may actually be worthy of trust, but who have their own agenda. There's a Norsunder-level bad guy* (these books aren't set in Sartorias-Delas like Crown Duel and Inda, but they might as well have been; the world feels very similar**) and some realistic character development as Lhind tries to figure out who the good guys are and whether she's one of them. The cover for this one seems to be copying Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series, but this book ranks up there with Turner's books, so I have no problem with the homage!

Cardamom-spiced apple hand pies. I just made that up, because it seems like something Lhind might have nicked from a market stand, but it sounds really good, so I think maybe I'll try making some! (And there's even a recipe out there already.)

I think it's hard to find paper copies of most of Sherwood Smith's books, but you can get the ebooks on Book View Cafe.

* ie: super powerful creepy wizard-type
** I was quite sure one of the characters in Posse was Marloven.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

I haven't been inspired to blog much lately: a lot of books I've started but not finished, or finished but not been very excited about, and when the weather is lovely and the garden needs constant attention, a book has to be pretty exciting to drag me into the basement to write about it.

But I forgot I hadn't written about this series, which I finished last month. (And it's so hot outside that the basement is a cool, pleasant place to be right now!)

I tend to avoid adult fantasy because it's all the same—please, no, not another inn! YA has been a refuge and a nurse log for original thinkers because it's creating itself as a genre and doesn't have all the weight of Tolkien (May He Live Forever) resting on it. When I discover a truly original adult fantasy I have to jump up and down and shout about it.

Range of GhostsShattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky  are truly original, epic, adult fantasy. (And this trilogy would be fine for YA audiences, as well*.)

The setting is fantastic, in all the meanings of that word. It's based on Asia: not just part of Asia, but the whole thing: deserts, steppes, mountains, jungles and fabulous, colorful empires that sound a little like Mongol, Persian, Chinese, Russian and lots of other cultures I don't even know about, but with new and fascinating magic and gods. So intriguing and interesting and well-developed! Here's Elizabeth Bear talking about how she deliberately set out to write something not Euro-centric:

I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

As a Euro-descended Westerner raised on Celtic and German fairy tales, I found it delightfully refreshing to read a novel that is completely different. And so imaginative! Not just one original magic system, but a different one for every country, with rituals and language and trappings that might be inspired by Buddhist or Hindu or Islamic imagery but are entirely new. World-building rests in the details, and the world of Eternal Sky is full of evocative objects with symbolic potential. Here is Bear talking about all the different kinds of books in her world, including books that blind those who read them. (No spoilers, but oh, that concept creates a plot thread that will wring your emotions and hang them out to dry!)

Rich and varied characters inhabit this wondrous world, and we get to meet them and learn each of their histories and secrets.  Temur, heir to the Padaparashna Seat, who stumbles off a battlefield with a remarkable horse, and then has to figure out what he's going to do about having survived.  Once-princess Samarkar, the wizard who gave up her fertility to find her magic, and then finds love. Edene, the steppe warrior-girl who starts off needing rescuing and ends up . . . well, I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say, but it's not where you expect her to end up! By the end, I think Smarkar and Edene have taken over as main characters from Temur, and I love their character arcs.

I love all the strong women: Hrahima the warrior tiger-woman who refuses to believe in her god; Yangchen, ambitious second wife of an emperor. Tsering-la, wizard without magic. Bear is obviously trying to upend gender stereotypes, and she does it gloriously. Take note, authors: we want more characters like these ones! (Kudos to Bear for showing nursing mothers going about their business as if having a baby was no hindrance—but I had to laugh at the idea of strapping a baby on your back and riding into battle. Babies would somewhat hinder that business.)

The love stories are brilliant: flawed, confused people cleaving together with the best of intentions and behaving maturely about it even when it gets complicated. Love that focuses more on tenderness than passion--oh, how refreshing!

There are all kinds of subplots that could have been novels in their own right—I did sometimes forget who people were, and I thought some of the subplots were tied up a bit too quickly or not really tied up at all, but it all added to the richness of the world.

Bear's writing is gorgeous, every sentence a pleasure to read, every description vivid and sensual.
This—this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
I can't forget to mention the animals, both real and fantastic: wonderfully depicted. Great dragons.

I will be searching out Bear's other writing (I have read the first book of her Jacob's Ladder trilogy, which was brilliant and fascinating and original and I didn't understand it at all. Maybe I should try again . . .) There are two novellas set in The Eternal Sky's world, so going to look for those now. (And apparently there will be more novels—not sequels, but same world.)

The Eternal Sky trilogy is a really good Thai curry: maybe a yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. Sweet with coconut milk, spicy, satisfying, and redolent with cilantro and lemon grass.

*The characters are adults and deal with issues such as childbirth and politics, which YA tends to leave alone, but the sex is off-stage, and the violence is realistic (there's a war going on) but not gory or gratuitous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day!!

Actually this is in Kananaskis Provincial Park,
but it's right next door to Banff
Yay Canada! Yay picnics in the park and bands playing music by the beach and people wearing red and white, and knowing that there are parades and fireworks going on (even though we don't really enjoy parades or fireworks so we don't go).

Some things I love about Canada:

Anne of Green Gables
Banff National Park
The Group of 7

I know, I know, those are all pretty typical. But they're still great, and I can say I grew up with them; they shaped who I am.

St John's, Newfoundland
The Arrogant Worms
The Trans Canada Highway (which I've driven in its entirety. Twice.)
Newfoundland (where I lived for a wonderful year)
Douglas Coupland
Terry Fox, and the fact that he is pretty much our biggest hero (every elementary kid knows who he is).
We love laughing at ourselves
Our political discourse is boring. Boring is good in politics!
We have really good Thai food (that's what we had tonight). And Italian food and Vietnamese food and Indian food and Russian food and Ethiopian food and  . . .  Let's hear it for multiculturalism!

Anyone else have things they love about Canada to share?

So June passed me by completely (I was in the garden picking strawberries all month)(I swear, it's true! I suffered from "eyes bigger than my stomach" syndrome when I planted two huge beds of strawberries, and I ended up with way more strawberries than I knew what to do with!). But in failing to blog in June I managed to miss the deadline for the Canadian Book Challenge this year, and I was only one book short! The worst thing is that I had actually read the thirteenth book, but was too deep in strawberries to get around to reviewing it. So, one day late, here's my final Canadian book of the year:

Half a Crown, by Jo Walton, is the conclusion to her Small Change trilogy. Set in an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and is sliding slowly but surely into fascism, the three books are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Inspector Carmichael is the hero (anti-hero?) again, and again he shares the narration with a naive girl who at first accepts what's going on because everyone else does, but then gradually realizes how wrong it is. The tension created by the alternating narratives is again brilliant. I hesitated to read this trilogy, because the premise sounded really depressing, but Walton is a compelling writer, and she does a wonderful job of drawing you into the world through the characters, and showing how individual moral choices are affected by and affect the moral choices of a society. Really worth reading. The dense, chewy texture of a real Montreal bagel with a complementary sharp/creamy shmear of Winnipeg cream cheese. (More things I love about Canada!)

John Mutford has way more great Canadian reads on his blog, The Book Mine Set, where he hosts the Canadian Book Challenge every year. I will do better next year, I promise!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor

This trilogy is up there with my favourite all-time fantasies. It's that good. Zuzanna and Mik—Best. Sidekicks. Ever. They made the trilogy for me.

I confess I was a little hesitant to reread Days of Blood and Starlight (it's been long enough that I knew I needed to reread before starting the third book). It was so bleak, so violent. But then I started it, and there was Zuzanna, fierce and funny and loyal, planning to drop a pee-balloon on Karou's ex-boyfriend, and I knew I was in good hands.

DBS is better on a reread: I've gotten over the shock of all those awful things that happen, and I can appreciate the writing and the characters and the humour and the words, all those gorgeous words. And then it was wonderful to be able to dive right into Dreams of Gods and Monsters.

It didn't disappoint. Look at some of the chapter titles (Taylor is awesome at chapter titles!):

Nightmare ice cream
Bruise the sky
Tilt to panic
Breeds of silence
Hope, dying unsurprised
A candle flame, extinguished by a scream
Cue apocalypse
Pie and dandelions

It's an epic story, and it gets more epic: new characters and settings are introduced, which could be disconcerting in the third book of a trilogy, but they tie in nicely to hints and threads that have been there all along. Characters develop in intense, suspenseful and satisfying ways. There are lots of fist-pumping "yes!" moments, and many great Zuzanna quotes. The ending is not at all what I was expecting (I might write a spoilery review on Goodreads just to get all my feelings out of my system), but it worked, it was awesome, we definitely get our payoff.

I'm kind of assuming that if you're reading this review, you've already read the first two and don't need any explanation of what the books are all about (or that you've given up on me and gone to Goodreads for a synopsis). Laini Taylor's fantasy doesn't fit easily into categories; it's unlike anything else I've ever read. Seraphim and chimaera in a parallel world called Eretz, locked into an endless war of genocide and vengeance, and the only one who can stop them is a blue-haired, human-looking girl whose name means hope. (And the smoking hot angel who loves her hopelessly. Yeah, there's more than a bit of unrequited passion that stokes the pages, but Taylor is really, really good at it, so, yeah, it's pretty good.) Original, fast-paced and intense, and beautifully written.

Having just returned from Provence, I can compare DGM with the strawberry tart that was the best thing I'd ever tasted in my life: I thought I knew what a strawberry tart would taste like, but these strawberries were fresh and sweet and bursting with complex strawberry flavours, and the pastry was so light, so buttery (how can something be light and buttery at the same time???) so perfectly contrasted to the juiciness of the berries, and the custard was silky and creamy, and the whole thing made my brain explode because it didn't have enough receptors to adequately handle the experience. Oh! I want to go back!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What I read on the plane

Safely back from the south of France; still getting over jet lag, and haven't downloaded pictures yet, but I'll share a few as soon as I do. There's a reason why everyone always says, "Ah, Provence!"

So, did I get through that whole list of books I brought with me? Well, not quite. And I read a few I hadn't planned on. Here's what got me through all that waiting in airports and riding on trains and planes:

The Lego Movie. Have you seen this? Okay, it's not a book, but I watched it on the plane and it's hilarious! If you have ever played with Lego, or had kids who played with Lego, you must watch this movie!

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Sometimes on a plane you don't have the mental energy to read something new. This one was on my iPod, and it happened to match the mood I was in, and Connie Willis is just brilliant. I had forgotten how funny this one is, even while it's also very sad. Time traveling historian gets stuck in the Middle Ages during the Black Plague; meanwhile a flu epidemic hits Oxford in the time she came from, so her colleagues can't retrieve her. Lovely parallelism, great building of suspense (you could teach a masterclass in pacing using this book), wonderful characters (including Dunworthy and Colin, whom you'll know if you've read her other time travel novels.) A classic. (If you've read it and want to share thoughts about it, I put a few ideas down in my Goodreads review.)

The Innocent Mage, by Karen Miller. This was a random pick from the library. (I have to bring a few paperbacks in case my iPod battery runs out!) It's a twist on the unknown-peasant-is-actually-the-prophesied-saviour-of-the-kindgom story, and you'll like it or not depending on how the main character rubs you. Asher is belligerent, uncouth, rude, obnoxious—and yet somehow he becomes best friends with the prince and is elevated to a high government position. I liked Asher, I believed in his friendship with Prince Gar, and I enjoyed his mostly unsuccessful struggle to fit in with the appalled courtiers. I still don't know how he's going to save the kingdom, because this book ends on a ridiculous cliffhanger, and I only brought the first book with me!

Ha'penny, by Jo Walton. One of the sequels I said I was going to read, and I did, and it's scary good. Also an excellent lesson in how to build suspense. Inspector Carmichael, who dealt with a murder in Farthing, is now investigating a bombing, which may or may not be part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler (this is an alternate-history in which Britain made peace with Hitler). Carmichael's point of view alternates with Viola Lark, who is playing Hamlet in a production that Hitler plans to visit. Each story has its own suspense, but the alternation between the two adds a whole different layer, as the reader watches their tragically ironic collision course play out in slow motion. It's terrifying how believable Walton makes Britain's slide into fascism.

These are all adult books that are perfectly appropriate for YA audiences (Doomsday Book has very realistic depictions of people dying of plague which might be disturbing, and in Ha'penny characters have sex behind closed doors.)

I'm saving the best for last: in fact, I'm going to save them for another post entirely! Yes, I read Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters, and yes, it was as wonderful as I was hoping, and I'll tell you all about it tomorrow!