Friday, November 7, 2014

More books on my iPod

I'm leaving, on a jet plane. Again.  This time for much longer, so I need significantly more books on my little old device. This is what I've got queued up for the 9 hour flight to London followed by 3 hours to Marrakech. (I do hope I sleep on the way to London!):

A few Andrea K. Host, since I enjoyed the Touchstone trilogy so much. The Medair duology (two books for the price of one!), and And All the Stars (best tag line ever)

Some Rachel Neumeier I haven't read yet: the Griffin Mage trilogy (three books for the price of one!)

A Sharon Shinn sequel I somehow missed when it came out: Royal Airs (sequel to Troubled Waters).

And the hotly anticipated next book in Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle: Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Aren't they all gorgeous?! (Too bad my copies are all virtual . . .)(But I couldn't take them all on the plane with me if they weren't.) I may or may not take a couple of paperbacks with me, just in case. (My husband looked at everything I was stuffing into my carry-on and said, "Are you really going to lug these books around Europe with you?" The expression on my face must have answered him, because he said, "I guess having books for you is kind of like having oxygen." Very true.) The horror of international travel without a book to read . . . I can't begin to contemplate it! As it is, I'm excited to get to the airport so I can start reading! (But which book do I start with????)

I will be sans computer for two and a half weeks, so no blog entries (I was going to be all organized and write some reviews ahead of time and schedule them for while I'm gone, but, yeah, didn't happen. Sorry.) But I should have a ton of great reviews when I get back!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Höst

Did you know it's Science Fiction Month? At least, it is according to the bookish folk over at Oh, The Books and Rinn Reads. They're hosting a month full of blogs and events that sounds like a sci-fastic idea, and I would definitely sign myself up to participate if I wasn't going to Morocco for three weeks.

But in the spirit of celebrating Science Fiction in all its mutations, I offer you this awesome alternate world science fantasy trilogy which you should definitely read this month, if not sooner.

Stray, Lab Rat One, and Caszandra are the diary of Cassandra Devlin, Australian girl who accidentally ends up on another planet and has to deal with what she finds there. There's lots of cool plot and setting details, but the strength of these novels is Cassandra's voice and character. Normal, practical, stoic but not immune to panic and despair, with a great self-deprecating sense of humour—it's the way she deals with everything the plot and setting throws at her that riveted me to the page.

I debated whether to say anything about the plot in this review. I read it without really knowing what I was in store for, so I got the fun of discovering all the surprising things that happen right along with Cassandra, and I really enjoyed that experience. So if you don't want any spoilers at all, then stop reading this blog, take my word for it that you'll like these books (and if you don't believe me, believe Sherwood Smith and Rachel Neumeier), and go start reading Stray.

Okay, you still need a little more convincing?

Stray begins with Cassandra walking home from school in Australia and accidentally walking out of the world.* I think we all (all of us who read Narnia, anyway) secretly wish that would happen to us, but  Höst takes that trope and gives it the realistic treatment it deserves: how would an average Australian girl figure out how not to die on a strange, unpopulated planet with only the supplies in her school knapsack? I was completely sucked into the story and probably would have kept reading even if the whole story was just Cassandra alone vs planet.

(If it's sounding good to you then stop reading now!)

But then she gets picked up by some patrollers and taken to the safe planet where people actually live, and injected with a nanotech interface in her brain so she can learn the language and figure out how to live in this completely alien (but human) society. And that was pretty cool, and I would have kept reading even if it was all just adapt-to-new-technology-and-social-norms-and-make-friends-and-come-to-terms-with-never-going-home-again.

(Last chance. Don't make me tell you what happens next. Just go get the book now!)

But it turns out that a lot of people here have various crazy psychic powers, and Cassandra discovers that she enhances people's powers when they touch her. So off she gets whisked to the psychic ninja warrior training facility, because this planet is constantly fighting off monsters from non-real planes of existence, and someone who enhances psychic powers would come in really handy.

That is definitely all I'm going to tell you. No mention of really hot warrior guys in way cool form-fitting nanotech suits will cross my lips.

These books were a lot of fun, and they made more than five hours of travel time fly by. They also had so much substance, all kinds of interesting ideas, such fascinating world-building—that I know I'll be rereading them.

Something chocolate and chewy . . . oh! the dessert we shared when I took my daughter out for dinner in Ottawa: chocolate brownie tart with peanut butter mousse. Mmmmm. Yes.

*That sentence suddenly reminded me of a book I remember loving when I was young: A Walk Out of the World by Ruth Nichols. I don't remember anything about the plot, but just seeing the cover again when I googled it brought back intense happy feelings. This book obviously impacted me greatly; I should try to get my hands on a copy and reread it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What's on my iPod?

Quick update to let you know what I've got on my e-reader for my flight to Ottawa tomorrow. (I'm going to visit my daughter; maybe I can convince her to make me those Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls she was boasting about!)

I've already read Stray and loved it, so I'm excited to continue the series. Parallel world sci fi with psychic ninja warriors and nanotech. Will definitely blog about these ones when I'm done.

This is book 2 of the series I just started (reviewed the first book here): magic coming of age in alternate frontier America. Can't wait to see what Allie gets up to next.

New one from Sherwood Smith, straight-up historical romance I think, which is a departure for her. I briefly started it and I'm already immersed in the world.

Five hours there and then five hours back again; these should keep me going! Oh, and I'm also bringing along the library book I'm half through:

It'll be next week's MMGM if I keep liking it this much.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conjured, by Sarah Beth Durst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

MMGM: The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford

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

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

Now imagine a cross between that song and that novel.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and great illustrations.

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Night Calls, by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

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

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

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

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

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

Blueberry cupcakes with lemon cream cheese icing.