Monday, April 20, 2015

MMGM: Almost Super, by Marion Jensen

Me and superheroes. Don't know what it is: the whole idea is kind of stupid, if you think about it, so why do I find it so compelling? So many superhero movies are disappointing (I tried the new Netflix series Daredevil, and I like the concept, but it's very violent. I like the Flash better.) I think maybe it's because movies try to make superheroes believable and they're just not, so they end up looking silly instead of cool. (The Avengers gets around the problem by acknowledging the sillyness and moving on. "Yup, this is ridiculous. You got a problem with that? No? Good. Let me go pick up my magic hammer again.")

Maybe what I like about superheroes goes back to my Horatio Hornblower obsession: I can't resist someone who nobly puts themselves in harm's way to do the right thing. It's not the superpower itself; it's the hero's self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal.

All that philosophizing is my lead-in to a light-hearted, entertaining middle-grade book about superheroes that gets them right.

Almost Super has a great deal of silliness. It laughs at all the clichés, it's over-the-top with all its details. (I loved the spittoons everywhere in the super headquarters, because they're all required to spit whenever they mention their enemies.) Rafter and Benny Bailey get really ridiculous and utterly useless powers when they come of age in their superhero family. There's a nefarious plot behind it, of course, but are the super-villainous Johnsons behind it, or are the Bailey's long-fought enemies perhaps not so evil after all? What if it were possible for Baileys and Johnsons to cooperate with each other? It's entirely predictable but it's a fun ride, and, while the adults are all hilarious caricatures, the kids are sensitively portrayed and believable. The moral, that you don't need a superpower to be a hero, feels genuine when Rafter figures it out for himself.

This one had me laughing out loud at times and smiling at the clever absurdities. It's up there with Captain Underpants, and from me that's high comedic praise!

Chewy flavoured caramels.

This Marvelous Middle-Grade book is only one of many you can read about at Shannon Messenger's blog every Monday.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Why have I never discovered this book before now?? This book is so up my alley it comes out in my bedroom closet. I would have devoured this book as a teenager; would have re-read it to tatters like my Robin McKinley and my Narnia.

All I can say is thank goodness for bloggers. I heard the book mentioned often enough by people  I trust that I finally decided to track it down.

And thank goodness for interlibrary loans! (Have you discovered this miracle? I hope you have it in your community. I can get a book from anywhere in BC sent to my local library, all done online with a few clicks. Amazing!) (There's a copy of The Perilous Gard in Sechelt. Would you like to request it? Why, yes I would, thank you. Click. You will be notified when your book is available for pick up. So easy!)

Right. The book.

The quick way to summarize The Perilous Gard is to say it's a version of Tam Lin, set at the time of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, in a marvellous castle on a hill with a well in a cave.  But that doesn't begin to convey how perfect this book is.

I love Kate Sutton so much. What a heroine! Smart and stubborn and brave. Not just smart: rational. She asks the right questions; she sees things as they are. Her practicality can't be beaten out of her by the spookiest forces of evil. She is now my number one candidate for who to bring along in case self-serving cold-hearted manipulative scary folk need talking back to. (And she's not snarky about it, either. Just clever and, and irrepressible. No, that makes her sound bouncy. She's not bouncy, she's a rock. Indefatigable. Unbowed.) She and Jane Eyre would be bosom buddies.

I loved Christopher, his anguish, his bravery. Loved how it's so obvious he **slight spoiler, highlight to read** is falling in love with Kate—and for all the right reasons—and she has no idea. Loved their conversations. Loved all the conversations, actually. Great dialog.

I love the take on fairies. Pope uses all the traditional lore, but does something quite different with it, and they were very real and quite horrifying. What the Lady does at the end . . . oh, my.

Loved the setting. So specifically described I wonder if there is a real castle she was using as a template. She describes things so well—the writing is spare and poetical; she always has just the right metaphor to convey exactly what a person or place or feeling is.

The plot is perfect. Guess I can't say anything about it without spoilers, but it unfolded at exactly the right pace in an entirely satisfactory way. I really like this version of the Tam Lin story—I would call it a feminist retelling; what do you think? Wonderful ending.

**This paragraph is a bit spoilery, so highlight it if you want to read it.** I also love the fact that Christianity is actually the force for good for once. (Not in an in-your-face way—it's very subtle.) I don't mind the whole druids-are-the-keepers-of-the-land and ignorant-Christians-come-trample-and-destroy-what-they-don't-understand take on things; there's enough history to justify that angle and it makes for great fantasy. But here we have a story where "taking care of the land" requires human sacrifice (Elizabeth Pope was an English professor; pretty sure she studied The Golden Bough), and maybe that's not something that should be celebrated and preserved. Maybe some things need to be defeated and some holy places ought to be pulled down. I thought Pope's slight use of Christian theology as Kate tries to counter the Lady's reasoning was brilliantly done.

This book should be much better known than it is. I'm desolated that Pope only wrote two novels, but I'm greatly hoping interlibrary loan will come through for me with the second of her books, The Sherwood Ring.

Delicious and satisfying as raspberry rhubarb pie.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Black Dog short stories, by Rachel Neumeier

It's been a dry month for blogging. I've started a number of books that I didn't finish, and finished a number of books that I thought were okay but not amazing enough to blog about. But I recently downloaded something onto my ereader that I can enthusiastically recommend:

Short stories set in the world of Black Dog, Rachel Neumeier's very fun take on werewolves (sort of) and witches (sort of). You can go here for Neumeier's explanation of the stories. There are four stories, plus a sneak peek at Pure Magic, (second book in the Black Dog series), which I haven't read because I don't want to tease myself too far in advance of the book coming out. (I think it's coming out next month, though, yay!) Plus a detailed explanation of the genetics of black dogs and Pure women! (In case you were wondering how one family could have a black dog boy, a human boy and a Pure girl. It's all quite scientific.)

Each story is a little vignette that develops a few characters and lets you know a bit of what's been going on since the end of Black Dog. Natividad and Miguel adjust a little more to life with the Dimilioc black dogs. Thaddeus gets more of a measure of the Dimilioc Master, Grayson.

I particularly liked the prequel story about Ezekiel. Great insight into his character. I'm quite excited to see how his storyline develops in Pure Magic.

If you haven't read Black Dog, I would say the first two stories might not mean much to you, but the second two would be a good introduction to the world. If the word 'werewolf' puts you off, I should emphasize that black dogs are not werewolves, and this is not a ParaNormal Romance. I'd call it more alternate-world fantasy—like Robin McKinley's Sunshine, which you can't describe by saying it's about vampires—it's in this world, modern day, but there just happens to be a genetic mutation that causes some people to turn into a huge wolf when they get mad, and gives a few people the power to calm the wolf.

What Black Dog and its stories are really about is family—great sibling dynamics—and about power, trust, loyalty. There are violent action scenes, but it's the relationships that are at the heart of both the novel and the short stories. The world-building is excellent, the setting is gorgeously rendered, and there's lots of humour.

Chocolate pecan tart.

Friday, March 20, 2015

New Lois McMaster Bujold book! (Coming 2016)

And it's about Cordelia! Squeee!

This is what I get for not opening Goodreads every day: I miss important announcements like this!

She doesn't say much, does she? Let the speculation begin! I, for one will be delighted to get back inside Cordelia's headspace, particularly if the book is set after Cryoburn. But, really, at any point in the timeline.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go read Cordelia's Honor (which is the two novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar published together.) And never mind the blurb on Goodreads, it tells you nothing useful about the plot (to be fair, it's a difficult plot to summarize succinctly!). (I wrote a Very Long Post about Lois McMaster Bujold if you want more convincing to try her books.) Cordelia is just one of the best female protagonists I've ever read, and you deserve to get to know her.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A few Spring Break reads

Had some plane time and some beach time last week, so I got a lot of reading done. Here are some quickie reviews (since I'll never get around to doing long ones!)

Once a Princess and Twice a Prince, by Sherwood Smith. If you've read Crown Duel and Stranger to Command and all four Inda books, and are looking for more, these are a light-hearted romp in the same world, similar time-period to Crown Duel, but in a different country. Pirates, disguises, nasty war leaders, a Merindar king (not sure how he's related to those other Merindars, but you know you can't trust him!), kidnappings and sword fights. If you've read other Sherwood Smith books, the characters and plot will feel very familiar, only less developed. Smith said she deliberately chose not to go darker and just to have fun with these books. I enjoyed them but wished she had gone further.

Stained Glass Monsters, by Andrea K. Höst. It has its flaws, but Höst's writing is always engaging and her worlds always fascinating. I liked both the POV characters: the orphan with magical potential thrown into events beyond her ken, and the accomplished mage with single-minded devotion to saving the kingdom, who takes the orphan under her wing against her better judgement.  Loved the idea of the Kellian—half human, half . . . demon? ish? utterly effective soldiers. The Eferum is a different take on a magical alternate world—spirit world? hell?

Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer. Great fun. Has all the elements that make Heyer's Regency Romances so delightful: arrogant nobleman, feisty underappreciated heroine, cheerful friend, oppressive family, intolerable bore, running away from home, accidental kidnapping—and instead of her frequent humourous animals there is a really cute toddler (actually, there's a dog, too!). There's more and harsher bickering between the main characters, which makes some people like this one less, and maybe Phoebe gets a little more humiliated than she deserves, but as always the psychology of all the characters rings true.

Jinx's Magic, by Sage Blackwood. Thank goodness the third book is coming out in less than a week! This is the second book of Blackwood's dryly funny Jinx trilogy, and it sends Jinx out on his own to learn more magic and figure out how to save the Urwald from the Terror(s). People need rescuing, the Bonemaster is back; there are new friends who may or may not be trustworthy. And whose side is Elfwyn on, anyway? I love that Jinx can be cranky and jealous and ignorant, but he keeps trying to do right by his friends and the Urwald.

Countdown City, by Ben Winters. Second book in The Last Policeman trilogy. Pre-apocalyptic mystery novel: what would you do if the human race had only six months to live? Would you still try to solve crime? I liked this book almost as much as I liked the first one. I still loved Hank—he developed a bit more as a character, his stoic-ness was shaken considerably as society continues to collapse. I liked the further glimpses of the falling-apart world; the utopian state set up on a university campus was particularly diverting. I'm now quite curious as to what the author is going to do in the third book.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. I adored this book. Court intrigue and coming-of-age in a very original, slightly steampunky fantasy world. Maia is an incredible character; he brought me to tears sometimes with his compassion and fortitude. He faces worse antipathy than Eugenides in The King of Attolia, and stands up to it with equal courage and more maturity. I think this one is marketed as adult; there's no reason YA or younger couldn't read it, but the lack of exciting sword fights, the details of politics and governance, the complicated names and relationships, might make it harder for younger readers to navigate.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, by E. K. Johnston

The cover and the blurb of The Story of Owen were enough to make me pick it off the New shelf at the library. And lo and behold it's by a Canadian author, so double excitement!

I love the premise: imagine a world exactly the same as our world in every respect, except that it's infested with dragons. Not your wise, telepathic dragons, either; these are just pests, mindless, destructive, fire-breathing beasts, particularly dangerous to modern humanity because they are attracted to carbon emissions.

This book was funny with the kind of sly, satirical poking at society I really enjoy. Of course there are dragon slayers in this world (and there's a perfectly valid explanation for why dragons have to be killed single-handedly, with swords), and of course dragon slayers are required by international law to spend a certain amount of time defending oil fields, and when their Oil Watch tour of duty is over most of them are hired by big corporations or governments to defend big population centres. Leaving little towns like Trondheim, Ontario in the lurch:
When a dragon attacked you had to petition town hall (assuming it wasn't on fire), and they would send to Toronto (assuming the phone lines weren't on fire), and Queen's Park would send out one of the government dragon slayers (assuming nothing in Toronto was on fire). By the time the dragon slayer arrived, anything not already lit on fire in the original attack would be, and whether the dragon was eventually slayed or not, we'd be stuck with reconstruction. Again.
The juxtaposition of glorious dragon slaying with petty politics and bureaucracy hits my funny bone at just the right place. So does the incongruity of skinny adolescent Owen, who is failing algebra, as the latest in a long line of famous dragon slayers.

The story is narrated by Siobahn, a music student who is good enough at algebra to tutor Owen. His family asks Siobahn if she will be Owen's bard—a noble, traditional role that's been on the decline ever since the Beatles started singing songs that weren't about slaying dragons. Turns out the bardic job really means being a PR manager, because of course dragon slayers are celebrities and they want to be able to spin their publicity the right way. More juxtaposition of epic myth with modern reality. Johnston really gets our society, right in the solar plexus!

But you can't help rooting for Owen and his family, because they're just trying to do their job and do right by their town. Owen is courageous and competent and despite all evidence to the contrary he has faith in what he's doing, in the people he's protecting, and in Siobahn, who has her own courage and selflessness when it counts. We may have written off Michigan, but darn it we're not letting the dragons get southern Ontario!

I think some of the politics of dragon slaying might go over the head of younger readers, but there is plenty of sword-swinging action, and the developing friendship between Owen and Siobahn is a treat. (Very slight spoiler: they don't fall in love! How novel!) There are great, believable family dynamics, too.

The Story of Owen was loads of fun, intriguingly original, and very Canadian. The sequel just came out, and I think I'm going to buy it rather than waiting for the library to get it. It's worth owning.

It's like one of those fusion dishes that are so popular in restaurants now, where they take a traditional dish from one country and prepare it with ingredients or spices from a different tradition, and it ends up being really good in a surprising way and makes you look at both food traditions differently. Like butter chicken poutine. (Because, poutine. And butter chicken. And if you've never tried either, you should come to Canada and try them! Separately and together.)

This review counts as book 9 toward this year's Canadian Book Challenge. For more wonderful Canadian books, don't forget to visit John Mutford's blog, and check out all the reviewers who read way more than the minimum 13 Canadian books a year!

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!)