Thursday, August 27, 2015

N. D. Wilson, Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King

Wow. The story just gets better and better. These are the sequels (and the conclusion to the trilogy) of 100 Cupboards, and they get richer and deeper and more complicated, and all the intriguing ideas in the first book blossom into fully developed worlds and plots and characters. (And don't you just love the covers? Absolutely perfect.)

100 Cupboards takes place in Kansas, and hints at other places that can be reached through the magical cupboards in Henry's bedroom wall. Dandelion Fire awakens our hero's magical potential and sends him through the cupboards on a quest to find his family and foil a wizard.

I loved the magic; loved how it was brought to life, loved the dangers and limitations of it, loved how Henry had to figure it out as he went along. Absolutely loved how dandelions worked as metaphors for Henry's particular strengths.

Younger cousin Henrietta gets more of a starring role, and I love Henrietta, with all her annoying, bossy, bull-headed bravado. The story gets more epic because Henry and Henrietta each have their own quests, as does uncle Frank (yay Frank!). Henry's friend Zeke is back, too. The narration follows everyone in turn as they lose each other and wander around several new fantasy landscapes (not 100, though!) meeting a whole cast of new characters. I loved the faeren; very funny.

I wasn't particularly enthralled by the villain of Dandelion Fire, but I can't tell you why without giving things away. And . . . nope, can't actually say anything more about him. But nonetheless there's lots of tension and the stakes get very high. It's a darker, more mature book than 100 Cupboards; HP and the Half-Blood Prince compared to Prisoner of Azkaban. Great climactic fight scene; everyone gets their hero moment.

The Chestnut King is an intense, page-turning conclusion, even darker and scarier. Henry now knows who he is and has so much more to lose. I loved the family dynamics and Henry's developing relationships with the new characters introduced in Dandelion. There's more magic—I loved the ingenious things Henry figures out how to do with it. More dandelions. Frank Fat-Fairy is a great character with his own little arc (yay Frank!*); I also liked the Chestnut King: he's an interesting new twist to the story, but grounded in old myths so it doesn't feel like he came out of nowhere. The villain is suitably creepy and nasty (and weird). (The scar on Henry's chin is one of the most disturbing things I've ever read about. And those minions: eeww!)

When fantasies get as epic as this**, with so many characters and plot threads, they often get a little bit out of hand, and I will say the ending felt a little tangled—almost anticlimactic. But that's just a pacing quibble, and character-wise, theme-wise, plot-wise the big battle was intense and satisfying. I loved the denouement and epilogue; very fitting. (Since I'm quibbling, I will say that there were a few minor unresolved matters that bugged me a bit.***)

Wilson can write. His sentences are lovely; his characters are complex, messy individuals who grab you and make you love them; his fantasy world is magical and worth returning to. When I saw the first book of his Ashtown Burials series at my library I snapped it up. I think he may become an auto-buy author.

I wouldn't necessarily say that books 2 and 3 are middle-grade; I noticed a lot of reviews saying they were confusing and hard to follow (I didn't think so at all, but I'm not ten), and there were some pretty scary bits, so I suppose it depends on the reader.

I'm trying to think of a food equivalent to the brilliant dandelion magic that infuses these two books (and no, dandelion salad is not the answer!). Something simple, common, but completely transcendent. Sun-warmed, perfectly ripe berries (whatever's in season: there are a few late strawberries in my garden right now), picked and eaten one at a time to savour that burst of sour-edged sweetness on the tongue.

* Um, so I'm sure Wilson is doing something symbolic with all these repeated names; maybe I'll figure it out next time I read it! (Also, some reviewers mentioned overt Christian symbolism, which I have to admit went right over my head (and I'm a Christian!).)

** Okay, we're not talking Wheel of Time or anything, but for a supposed middle-grade fantasy things are pretty polyphonic.

*** Spoiler alert:

Monday, August 24, 2015

MMGM: The Dragonfly Pool, by Eva Ibbotson


I've tried to deny it: I claim I'm as modern and ironic as the best of you. But the truth is I'm a Romantic. Not walking in the rain romantic, but Wordsworth, Beethoven, Rousseau, capital R Romantic. Nature as the greatest good (that would be Nature, not nature). Children as innocents who will naturally be kind and generous and noble, if they're only freed from the constraints of a rigid and corrupt society and given the right sort of education. Nobility, not of class but of soul, as something we can all achieve if we follow our heart and are free to express our true inner selves.

Now, I've encountered nature, and I've met the odd child (may have raised a few myself), and I know that this is purest fantasy. But oh, what a wonderful fantasy it is!

Eva Ibbotson does Romantic like nobody's business.

I loved The Dragonfly Pool. There may be readers out there who will be impatient with the unabashedly Romantic storyline. This is not a dark, gritty or realistic book in any way. There's a school where the children are free to do what they like and therefore have all kinds of meaningful, creative learning experiences and all treat each other with respect (apparently this was based on the school Ibbotson attended, so it's not as fantastical as it sounds). There is a small, happy central European country with a benevolent monarch (where does this fantasy come from?? I mean, has anyone ever been to central Europe?? or read history?) under threat from a repressive conquering neighbour (okay, there's historical precedent there)(the Nazis in this case) and treachery within. (No, it's not called Ruritania, but close.) There's a prince who needs rescuing from nasty Gestapo agents who are fairly easily foiled by a group of children, (and who then needs rescuing from his even nastier snobbish British relatives, because true evil is the shallowhearted selfishness of those who only care about their position in society).

I love this stuff. Eat it up with a spoon. Prisoner of Zenda, The Lost Prince (a lesser known book by Frances Hodgson Burnett). Diana Wynne Jones is more subtle about it, but she plays with these tropes too.

Above all else, I love Ibbotson because she makes you care about her characters. Tally, who is fiercely determined to solve other people's problems. Kit, who just wants to play cricket at a normal school. Karil, who desperately wants to trust in friendship but can't. She grounds her characters and action in specific, resonant details that completely pull you in and make you root for the marvellously satisfying conclusion.

The Dragonfly Pool isn't my favourite Ibbotson; it's no Journey to the River Sea. But if you like her writing style, if you want an adventure story about friendship triumphing against all odds, (and if you secretly yearn with all your heart for Truth, Beauty and other capitalized virtues, even if you could never admit it online), then you'll enjoy this one as much as I did.

Chocolate Banana-bread Bread Pudding. Make a loaf of chocolate-chip banana bread. (Actually, make two.) With the stale leftovers (because you made two loaves), make bread pudding. Throw in a few extra chunks of dark chocolate for good measure. Decadent, creamy, comforting, sweet.

More Marvelous Middle-Grade books can be found every Monday on Shannon Messenger's marvelous blog.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I kept my expectations low when starting this one, because so many people were raving about it and I didn't want to be disappointed. No danger of that: Uprooted deserves every bit of praise and more. It takes all the best elements of your favourite fairy tales and fantasy and weaves them into an original, deeply layered, coming-into-one's-magic-and-saving-the-world story.

It's a story that feels familiar and comforting; you've read it before; you think you know where it's going. Then it makes a left turn into yet another story that you're sure you recognize from somewhere. Every time you think you've gotten your bearings, off it goes in a new direction. It's Howl's Moving Castle. No, it's Crown Duel. No, it's The Blue Sword. No, it's The Riddlemaster of Hed.

And isn't that exactly what we all want from a story? That it's the same as all the ones we loved, but still completely new and surprising? I can confidently say that if you like Diana Wynne Jones, Sherwood Smith, Robyn McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Ursula Le Guin, Juliet Marillier . . . you will like Uprooted.

Things I loved: 

The magic. At first I was disappointed, because other people had commented on how wonderful the magic was, and it isn't, at first. But that's all part of the plan, and you have no idea what I mean because I refuse to be the least bit spoilery. Just, be patient for a few chapters, that's all.

The Polish influences: names, landscapes, food and fairy tale references were a fresh twist on the Medieval European fantasy landscape. Familiar, but not.

The characters: all of them. All complex and understandable, people you recognize ("the people that you meet when you're walking down your street"), people you can care about. Even the villains. Even the really, really evil villains.

The romance. See above, re: characters. It was a real, believable relationship; it didn't dominate the book but it spiced it up; there were some really great scenes. And if you're like me, and the slightly spoilery things people were saying about this being a Beauty and the Beast story make you worry about whether it's a healthy romance, it's okay: Nieshka totally owns it.

Nieshka: because she's thrown out of her element so many times, and she's terrified, and she has no idea how she's going to cope, but then she womans up and does what she knows she has to do. Her character growth is painful and frustrating, and she rocks it. Lots of "you go girl" moments.

The Wood: seriously creepy and evil. Wow. *Shudder*

The writing: I had to take my copy back to the library so I can't quote for you, but the language is beautiful, worth savoring. Plus, lots of humour. Great dialog.

I'm probably the last person on the block who hadn't read this, but if you happen to have not read it yet, you're in for a treat!

I'm not very familiar with Polish food, so I'm going to go with goulash: spicy, rich, meaty, with big doughy dumplings. 


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mini reviews: Wexler, Leckie, Walton, Black, Neumeier, Bujold

I'm so behind on my reviewing! I blame summer and my ridiculous tomato plants. I'm going to do a few quickies, mostly of adult stuff I've read this summer, and then list the Middle Grade/YA books that I intend to review very soon.

Django Wexler: The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, The Price of Valor. The first three of what looks like five books in The Shadow Campaigns series, these are a lot of fun. The first one is very military—lots of details of battles and strategy—with some interesting fantasy elements mostly at the end. The second one is political manoeuvring and spying, and the third is basically the French Revolution, with demons.

I'm in it for the characters: Winter is my favourite, the girl disguised as a boy who joined the army and proved to have a pretty good knack for soldiering. Raesinia, the princess fomenting revolution, didn't grab me as much at first, but I liked her plot line, I really liked her faithful maid/spy/bodyguard, Sothe, and Raesinia grew on me as she grew as a character. I loved the new person introduced into Winter's life in book 2, and the way that plot plays out. And, of course, how can one not love Marcus; he's just such a nice, competent guy continually being thrown into the deep end and figuring out how not to drown.

So far the books have been good at having their own internal plot arcs, so each book feels finished even though the overall story isn't done. I don't think it's too spoilery to say that by the end of book 3 we still have no idea what Janus is up to!

No content I wouldn't let my 13-yr-old read. I recommended the series to my nephews who have just finished Wheel of Time.

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. Such a great concept, such a wonderful character. I reviewed Justice on Goodreads here. Sword was simpler in structure and didn't have the big emotional reveal of Justice, so wasn't quite as mindblowing, but I was still compelled by Breq's story, I loved the writing, and I am anxiously awaiting Ancillary Mercy.

I think content is okay for teens, but it would take an experienced reader to get through Justice.

Jo Walton: Tooth and Claw. Because, Victorian novel-of-manners starring dragons. How could you not want to read it? The high-society family drama is compelling enough I would have enjoyed it even if they weren't all dragons, but Walton does such a good job of cross-breeding dragon biology, psychology and mythology with British class structure, she simultanously makes you believe completely in the dragons and brilliantly satirizes the British. I was gasping in admiration the whole time I read it. What an accomplished writer. Oh! And she's Canadian! (This makes #2 of 13 Canadian books this year.)

Holly Black: The Darkest Part of the Forest. I read this and enjoyed it, and then two months later when I noticed it on my TBR list, I had completely forgotten reading it. Not sure what that says. Once I jogged my memory I remembered liking the modern setting and the way the Forest and the fey world is integrated into it. I loved the character of Jack, the changeling, and I liked that the prince character's development wasn't predictable. I guess the verdict here is a good read but not as memorable as other Black stories (Coldest Girl in Coldtown still makes me shiver a bit when I think of it.)

Kind of sounds like it might be Middle-Grade, but it's definitely YA.

Rachel Neumeier: Pure Magic. Second book in her Black Dog series, which happily she has decided to continue publishing on her own even though the publisher of the first book went defunct. (I just hope she keeps her promise even though she has like five other books she's working on at the moment: this woman is seriously prolific! Not that I'm complaining; I'll read anything she writes. I just want to maintain a certain level of fan pressure so she knows we want book three of this series. Soon. Please?) Pure Magic is a thoroughly satisfying sequel. More of Natividad, Miguel and Alejandro, more Ezekial and Keziah, more threats to the Dimiloc black dogs, trying to maintain civility and order despite being seriously outnumbered. A great new character: Justin, who is completely new to all this magic and shapeshifting and isn't sure he wants anything to do with it. Everything I loved about Black Dog, lots of action, more character development, and plenty of scope for more story in this world. (Book three? Soon? Pretty please?) I will say I thought Black Dog was tighter; there were times in Pure when I rolled my eyes a bit and thought "we get it already, just get on with it." But I still loved it.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Penric's Demon. A novella that felt like a very long short story, set in the same world as Curse of Chalion, but different country and time period. Great character study. I enjoyed being back in the world, and I loved Penric. I thought the pacing was a bit odd: slow development and then rushed climax. When I got to the end I thought, "Oh, it's the end already?" One reader said he thought it felt like the first third of a novel, and I agree that it does feel like the setup part of her novels. But it's also a complete little arc unto itself, so if she never continues Penric's story, I won't feel cheated. It's like a little unexpected treat.

Coming soon: complete reviews of more books that I really loved:

Naomi Novik: Uprooted

N. K. Wilson: Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King

Susan Juby: The Truth Comission

Eva Ibbotsen: The Dragonfly Pool



Monday, August 3, 2015

MMGM: 100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson

Marvellous, fantastical, quirky, moving, funny. 100 Cupboards is another book to clutch to my chest and think, This is why I read.

N. D. Wilson is a magical writer; he uses words like a wizard himself, so when he describes wizardry it sounds eminently believable. And what wizardry! A wall in the attic full of cupboards that all lead to different places, not all of which are in our world. However, they're too small to get through, unless you're a cat, or a letter. Then there's the door to Grandfather's room, that's been locked ever since he died two years ago, and will not open to anything. And there's a cupboard that has a key in it.

Exciting premise, right? Echoes of Narnia, Oz, Wonderland. I love me a good gateway to another world story. But I love that 100 Cupboards is really a book about Henry, a boy who has never done anything dangerous, who ends up in Henry, Kansas, a place for lost things, a place that doesn't flinch. It's also about Henry's cousin Henrietta, who will not ever do what she's told, and his uncle Frank, who seems thin, but isn't, if you know how to look. I loved all of the characters, but I particularly loved Frank. And Henrietta and her sisters are so authentically squabbly and bratty, they were brilliant.

The fantasy elements are developed slowly, with excellent mystery and suspense. Henry stumbles into courage reluctantly, hopefully, sometimes resentfully when Henrietta drags him into it. All along he has his own self-depreciating way of looking at things that's endearing and funny.

I wouldn't call 100 Cupboards a humorous book—it can be quite dark and occasionally scary—but I was smiling a lot while I read it. Wilson made me laugh out loud sometimes just because of how aptly he describes things. And Frank: everything Frank says or does is completely hilarious, because it's so unexpected.

100 Cupboards has been out for a while, thank goodness. It ends with a lot of unanswered and very intriguing questions, and I'm am delighted to know that the two sequels are written, printed and on my library shelves. I will be fetching them forthwith.

Apple blackberry pie.

Shannon Messenger collects Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday posts on her blog every week; be sure to check out everyone else's recommendations.

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.