Monday, July 13, 2015

MMGM: The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

There are a lot of things Frances Hardinge does well (pretty much everything, as far as I'm concerned), but setting/world-building has to be one of her top talents. Every book she's written, she's come up with a completely different world and she's filled it in with all the layers and detail and fascinating life that the real world has, only better, because it's bursting with all the cool stuff only Hardinge's imagination can come up with.

Her earlier books were set in completely imaginary worlds, but her latest two have taken times and places from real history and magically transformed them. I loved what Cuckoo Song did with the 1920's.

The Lie Tree starts with England in the Nineteenth Century: Age of Scientific Discovery, when Geology and Darwin upended everything man believed about the world, when anyone could be an amateur botanist or paleontologist, when finding a new species of flower could make someone famous. A time when anything was possible, and everyone wanted to be the one to find it out.

(That spirit of discovery and possibility is a large part of why I think Steampunk is so popular; there was a naivety and excitement that somehow isn't possible in the cyber age, that we wish we could reclaim.)

Drop into this exciting atmosphere a family running away from scandal and ruin, with a daughter who would give anything to join her father in his scientific endeavours, to have her intelligence and curiosity valued. But she is a girl, so no one will take her seriously, most particularly not her father. Faith is Calpurnia Tate without an encouraging grandfather, and it's torture to watch her be rebuffed and belittled. She cannot blossom, but she still must grow, as a plant contorts itself to grow to the light.

Hardinge's female protagonists are another one of her amazing strengths. Faith (brilliant name, given all the themes of the book) is remarkable because she says and thinks and does some truly awful things that in any other character would make her thoroughly unlikeable—but she is so entirely justified that I ended up rooting for her all the way. Her anger, her hatred, her need for vengeance are all heart-breakingly understandable (as is her loyalty to someone who does not deserve it). She's smart and curious and analytical and rational and WHY CAN'T ANYONE VALUE THAT INSTEAD OF TELLING HER TO BE QUIET AND DEMURE???

So, major theme about gender equality, clearly (the nineteenth century is a great venue for that discussion). But it's all woven in with themes about everyone having depths: there isn't a single character who is what they appear to be. And almost everyone is deliberately pretending to be someone else in order to get what they want out of other people (not a scenario limited to the nineteenth century!). Lies, manipulation, betrayal, judgement: Faith is trying to figure out what is true and right but she's not getting much help from any of the adults around! It's deeply satisfying to watch her renegotiate all her relationships—with mother, father, brother, that annoying boy who keeps turning up—as she learns more truths about herself and everyone else.

The only fantastical element in this story is the Lie Tree itself, and I loved how it was presented as a scientific curiosity: discovered by an exploring botanist in a far-off land, with unique properties that need to be studied through experimentation. (Because, why not a plant that lives on lies? Giant flying lizards are real!) The Lie Tree is marvelously creepy—almost sentient, certainly evil—though it only has the evil people bring to it. And the evil people will do to try to get their hands on it.

Reading the synopsis, I wasn't sure this was a book I would like (I hate themes of social ostracism, and lying as a plot element generally makes me squidgy). But Hardinge made me like it. I loved her flawed, striving characters; I was absorbed in the time and place and atmosphere; the multi-layered plot more than fulfilled all its promises. Whenever I finish a Hardinge novel I always clutch it to my chest and say, "Yes!" I had to look up "satisfied" in the thesaurus, because it doesn't seem a strong enough word for how The Lie Tree made me feel. "Requited." That works. I loved this book and it loved me back.

Layered, meaty, satisfying, great British feel: I think Shepherd's Pie is the food metaphor of choice for this one.

I tried to finish this post in time for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday, since I haven't had an MMGM for a while. I didn't make it in time to get on Shannon Messenger's list, but you should go see what everyone else reviewed this week. I've discovered a number of favourite books there!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Huh. I kind of fell off the blogging horse and it trotted away without me for a while there. I'm mostly mad at myself that I didn't make my Canadian Book Challenge for last year: I only read 10 out of the required 13 Canadian books before July 1 (Canada Day). Never daunted by failure, however, I nobly join the Challenge yet again! For my first book, I've got a really different debut novel by Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Mareno-Garcia.

Signal to Noise is the novel you're looking for if you're getting tired of same-old YA fantasy, if witches make you yawn, if spunky, wise-beyond-their-years adolescent protagonists are driving you crazy, if you'd just like to see a little reality in characters' interactions. And if you'd love, for once, if something was set somewhere other than England or North America, please, pretty please with a cherry on top. (It also helps if you secretly think the 80's were kind of cool, and if you're a bit of a music nerd.)

How about Mexico City for a setting? And magic that uses David Bowie* songs. And a character who embodies all the confusion, the mistakes, the self-centeredness, the pettiness, the loneliness and longing of adolescence. Meche grabbed me from the start, sitting in an airplane, returning against her will to the city of her childhood. Something bad happened back then, we don't know what; we only know she successfully escaped and has avoided dealing with any of it for twenty years. Now she's back in Mexico City for her father's funeral, and as she re-encounters the family and friends she left behind, we relive with her in flashback the series of magical discoveries and mistakes that sent her running away.

The dual time-frame narration works particularly well for this story. Meche in the present has no magic, so when Meche in the past discovers how to cast spells by playing the right record with the right intention, there is an immediate tension built up: why did she lose or give up her power? We meet her friends in the past, and then we meet them in the present, and we wonder how they became so estranged. We're compelled through the unfolding of the stories, past and present, by the burning question: what went wrong?

Meche's magical development is much more realistic than in most YA fantasies. Meche and her friends don't use their magic to save the world; not even to save themselves—because, really, what adolescent would even know how to do that? They do exactly the things that—let's be honest here—your teenage self would do if you could cast spells. You would want to be better-looking, more fashionable, more popular. And the spells work about as well as you'd expect them to.

This is not the novel for you if you want detailed explanations of magical workings; it's not really about the magic. It's about the relationships, and it is beautifully, agonizingly detailed about the communications and miscommunications, the emotions expressed and repressed, the needs met and denied, that form the intricate, ever-changing web of human interactions. We love and hate a person equally, sometimes at the same time. We never say what we mean but we desperately want to be understood. The magic is really a metaphor for the power we have over the people in our lives, power we use without knowing, or without knowing the consequences. We watch Meche stumble toward her doom, wincing at every choice she makes while understanding exactly why she makes it. She is one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever felt such great affection for.

I love all the characters, but I particularly love Sebastian, his awkwardness, his honesty, his little kindnesses. His relationship with Meche is so perfectly drawn; they make you cry, they make you want to shake them. I also really liked Meche's grandmother and her role in the story.

This is a novel that keeps you thinking, that makes you want to go back into it and reread scenes, knowing what you find out later. It also makes you listen to a lot of music you might never otherwise encounter! And lest my review makes it sound overly depressing and tragic, without spoilers all I can say is, it's not. It's not too late for Meche to fix the mistakes of her past, and it's extremely satisfying when she finally clues into how she can do that.

The Book Smugglers did a great review of Signal to Noise on Kirkus, and Ana points out the same difficulty I'm having: how to categorize this book. The plot revolves** around three teenage friends learning how to do magic by playing records, but it feels more like a realistic novel than a fantasy. It might not count as YA because Meche is in her mid-thirties when she arrives in Mexico City, although, because she hasn't been back since she was a teenager, she is immediately thrown back into the relationships and attitudes of her adolescence so she doesn't seem like a 30-year-old. But on the other (other?) hand, teenagers may not enjoy reading such a realistic portrayal of their flaws!

Let's call it insightful YA literary fantasy. And that's a category I'd happily read more of.

Full disclosure: I know Silvia. But I bought the book with my own money, and I never promised I'd review it: if I hadn't liked it, I would never have mentioned it again. (And she would never ask me about it, because that would be just awkward, right?) Good thing I liked it!

For more Canadian books of every category, visit John Mutford's blog and see what the other Canadian Challenge participants have been reading.

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

*Not to mention a bunch of other artists I'd never heard of but when I YouTubed them I recognized their songs. Prokol Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale," for example (it was in the movie Oblivion, too!):

And there's a playlist of all the songs mentioned! Handy to have while you're reading.

**No pun intended.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What's on my Kindle and in my carry-on

I've got another bit of travelling to do (sister trip to Italy! Woot! *shhh! people might get jealous*), with all those long, miserable plane rides and boring layovers, so I'm loading up the e-reader with some things I've been looking forward to:

Ancillary Sword, sequel to Ancillary Justice, which was freaking amazing. Ann Leckie has such command of point of view and narrative structure. And a character I absolutely love. Worth all the hype it's been getting.

Two Serpents Rise. Max Gladstone knows how to title. And how to plot, and how to worldbuild. Three Parts Dead blew me away, so I'm excited to read another set in the same world.

The Lie Tree, newest book by Frances Hardinge. I have no idea what it's about, but it's by Frances Hardinge, and that's all you need to tell me.

Kinslayer and Endsinger, the rest of Jay Kristoff's Lotus War trilogy. Stormdancer was brilliantly original with great characters and a creepily believable, dark world (I kept thinking, no, this is too much, you can't expect us to believe that, and then I'd think: Industrial Revolution England was just like that. Except Kristoff's world has airships and griffins, so, way cooler.)

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The '80s, Mexico, music, magic. Silvia is a friend of mine, and lucky for me, because this book might not have come up on my radar otherwise, and it looks very cool.

The Heir Chronicles, 1-3: Warrior Heir, Wizard Heir, and Dragon Heir. Good, solid YA contemporary fantasy. I read these a while ago, and when I saw the fourth one, Enchanter Heir, at the library, I picked it up, but I had forgotten too much. So I'm rereading.

The Quiet Gentleman, because sometimes you just feel like some Georgette Heyer, and I keep finding ones I haven't read yet—yay!

And, because you can't always trust electronics, and I panic at the thought of being stuck with nothing to read, I stopped by the local bookstore and picked up a few paperbacks:

A Terry Pratchett I haven't read and should, because I like Granny Weatherwax.

The second of Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series: got the first from the library and liked it, so we'll try another.

The first of Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy series. Bloggers I trust have been talking this one up, so I thought, what the heck.

Think that'll be enough??

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Turn of Light and A Play of Shadow by Julie Czerneda

A Turn of Light is a hefty (but complete in one volume) fantasy tome from Canadian Sci Fi writer Julie Czerneda. It's thoroughly original, delightfully quirky and edgily sweet. And not just because of the magic carnivorous toads, though they are a significant part of the appeal!

The cover of A Turn of Light is very indicative of the content: pastoral, magical, a bit mysterious. I would call it a magic kingdom book, but, though there are kingdoms in this world, the whole novel takes place in one little village in an out-of-the way corner of the map. No grand quests or battles, no princes or wizards or grand high viziers. Just a small group of farmers who have been cast out of the rest of the world but have been accepted by Marrodell.

Marrodell is not an ordinary valley. There are the toads, for example. They lay eggs big enough for people to eat (there are no chickens in Marrodell). They're also great at keeping houses safe from dangerous mice. Then there's the self-harvesting grain (not dangerous at all as long as you don't go into the field until the harvest is done). And the path that goes up the mountain that no one ever takes (and no one knows why). And the terrible nightmares that drive everyone away if Marrodell doesn't think they belong.

I thought the world-building here was marvelous. All the little details build upon each other to make this small geographical setting fascinating enough to support an entire novel. The characters are lovingly drawn: Jenn Nalynn, the innocent who longs to see the world; Bannan, the weary soldier who wants to escape the world, and Wisp, the—let's just say he's not human—who doesn't belong in the world at all.

It's a slow-paced book, not a lot of action, lots of description. The tension is in the slowly unfolding mystery of Jenn's identity and the danger of Marrowdell's magic. There's a love triangle, of sorts, but not an angsty romantic one (mostly funny, actually). Lots of family, friendship, trust and loyalty. There's evil in the world, but there are also good-hearted people who care about each other.

A Turn of Light held my interest over 600 pages because the magic is fun and different, because I cared greatly about the characters, because I like stories about people making choices and facing the consequences. Also because it's quite funny a lot of the time. And because I believe the care of good-hearted people is strong enough to defeat any evil and that's what this book is about.

My mom's meringues: crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, so, so sweet.

And having told you that this is a stand-alone, I now have to admit that there is a sequel! I thought the story came to a satisfactory conclusion, but when I saw A Play of Shadow I bought it right away, eager to return to Marrowdell and find out what Jenn Nalynn is going to do with her newly discovered magic. Bannan, Wisp, and Scourge are back (and there's a toad with a starring role!), and we meet two new characters who I really love: Bannan's nephews. Very realistically drawn boys with their own troubles, and Bannan's difficulties parenting them are true to life and quite hilarious.

I will say I found A Play of Shadow to be slower and a little more frustrating than A Turn of Light. The plot doesn't really get going until the last third of the book; I thought too much time was spent learning all the doings of the villagers—and I wasn't interested enough in them to remember who was who, so I just skimmed a lot of those bits. Maybe it's because the mystery is gone that I wasn't as patient with Jenn slowly discovering her powers, and the romance felt somewhat repetitive: yes! they love each other! we get it! So I'm not as crazy about the second book, but I still loved the world, and the characters, and if she writes more about them I will happily read more.

Brownies with nuts in them (because I don't like nuts in brownies, but I'll eat brownies with nuts if they're the only brownies to be had).

These are books 9 and 10 toward my Canadian Book Challenge, a great idea hosted by John Mutford on his blog The Book Mine Set. Head over there to find lots of reviews of Canadian books of all genres. (All sorts of hidden treasures you'll never hear about otherwise!)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A few graphic novels

I was in the graphic novel section of my library—what an interesting place to be. Graphic novels come in so many different shapes and sizes and styles; they're beautiful objects in themselves. (I knew this already, so why don't I read more graphic novels? Must correct that.)

I went looking for Ms. Marvel, because there's been a lot of buzz about it (she's brown! and Muslim! and a superhero??? Superheroes don't all have to be white men???). After getting distracted by lots of colourful pretty things, I did come home with Ms. Marvel. Plus a treatise on the influence of Ayn Rand on the 2008 financial crisis. And a comic book about Star Trek TNG and Dr. Who, together. (I mean, how could I resist?!) I'm telling you, you've got to go check out those graphic novel shelves. It's crazy!

So, what would happen if the Borg met up with the Cybermen?

Why has no one thought of this before?! Assimilation2 (by multiple authors/illustrators) is a fun, wish-fulfillment adventure—because who hasn't imagined what Captain Picard and the Doctor would think of each other if they ever met? (To be honest, it had never crossed my mind, but as soon as I saw this cover it seemed the most obvious thing in the world.) This story has everything you love about both series and some fun surprises. The requisite asides from characters referencing events from TV episodes so you can feel in-the-know if you're a fan. It's a tad explain-y at times, but I loved the art, and just the whole concept, really. (Probably no point reading it if you aren't a fan of both series, though.)

Ms. Marvel is a great story (by G. Willow Wilson) with great art (by Adrian Alphona). Lots of reviewers have dealt with it in depth; I don't have much to add except that I liked it a lot. (And I'm not a Marvel fan, haven't read any other Marvel comics, and don't know anything about Captain Marvel (who doesn't show up in this book—in case you are a fan and were hoping to see her.)) I thought the family interactions felt very real, and Kamala's reaction to her new superpowers was entirely believable. I particularly loved Bruno. I'll be looking for the next episode (or, rather, next collection of episodes; I guess that's how these things work).

I was serious about the Ayn Rand thing. Darryl Cunningham's The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis has a rather frightening cartoon of the über-individualist writer on the front, so you can guess Cunningham isn't a fan. He collates the opinions of a lot of different writers on the causes of the sub-prime mortgage global financial meltdown, making particular note of the fact that Alan Greenspan is an Ayn Rand devotee, and tracing the anti-regulation policy trends of the 90's and 00's to Rand's promotion of selfishness as a virtue. If your eyes are glazing over at my summary, rest assured the cartoon format makes this a very readable, remarkably comprehensible explanation of a very complex topic. American conservatives won't be very happy with his depiction of their psychological underpinnings (based on the book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, by Chris Mooney, so you can see where that's going!). He makes a concerted effort to prove he's not anti-Republican, but I'm pretty sure Republicans will still be offended, and I think it's too bad, because his indictment of the greed and fraud that led to the crisis is a message everyone needs to hear. (Because the root causes have not been fixed, so . . . yikes.)

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.