Saturday, August 1, 2015

Laini Taylor's epic storytelling and glorious writing

At 613 pages Dreams of Gods & Monsters could easily have been divided into two books, but I’m not complaining because this final book in Laini Taylor’s trilogy is epic and touched me deeply.

Epic as in heroic, majestic, and legendary—masterful world-building and character arcs. And on top of that it retains the joy, whimsy, and gorgeous lyricism of so much of Laini’s writing, including the playfulness of the relationship between teen friends Karou and Zuzana that began the trilogy.

 The moments when characters say or think funny asides breaks the darkness and feels authentic despite the otherworldliness of portals in the sky, warring angels, and killed chimaera brought back to life with stolen teeth and bone and the personal pain of the resurrectionist, who is Karou. In another life, she had saved the angel Akiva on a battlefield and fell in love with the enemy, starting a shift in the world.

The story tackles the impossibly huge concepts of good and evil, of bigotry and learned hatreds, of the steely strength of love (of all kinds) in the face of pain and horror. We’re talking torture, rape, genocide.

 And all the while, despite treachery, betrayal, and gut-wrenching loss, the characters dig inside themselves and keep moving forward, sometimes utterly alone and sometimes with the help of others.

A great way to get the scope of this journey is from the simple (and simply devastating) lines that open each book in the trilogy:
 Book 1: Daughter of Smoke & Bone: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”
 Book 2: Days of Blood & Starlight: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them. And its snap split the world in two.”
 Book 3: Dreams of Gods & Monsters: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse.”

Upon the structure of those lines are built intricate societies and worlds beyond imagining (well, not beyond Laini’s imagining). And love that is truly epic.

I don’t want to give away the story, but I recommend the series to any reader who loves fantasy with deep layers and gorgeous writing.

 (My Goodreads timeline says I started this book a year ago, and although I bought the glorious hardback then I didn’t read it until now. Life was beyond busy, and I didn’t want to start such a long book until I had time to read it through. I’m glad I waited because I was able to lose myself in it.)

 Here’s a sample of Laini’s lyrical and unsettling writing: ‘In the Far Isles it was night, and the new bruise that blossomed in the sky would not be visible until dawn. It wasn’t like the others. Indeed it soon engulfed the others—all of them lost in its dark sprawl. From horizon to horizon it spread, deeper than indigo, nearly as black as the night sky itself. It was more than color, this bruise. It was warp, it was suction. It was concavity and distortion. Eidolon of the dancing eyes had said the sky was tired, and ached. She had downplayed the matter.’

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Secrets of Selkie Bay, middle grade built of love

I wish I could be about 10-years-old again so I could discover Secrets of Selkie Bay as a kid, curled up with the book, lost in the magic on the pages. I did that anyway even though I’m long past childhood (on the outside only). This latest middle-grade novel by Shelley Moore Thomas stole my heart.

On the first page Cordie Sullivan’s hollow pain is clear as she says her mother is gone and her father can’t or won’t say where she is because “there just aren’t that many words left anymore.”

Cordie, 11, is left to watch over her two younger sisters, one still a baby, while her father tries to find enough work to keep food on the table. She takes on responsibility beyond her years: “Someone had to pick up, since Da left his things everywhere—socks that were on the floor and never found the hamper, and waterfalls of blankets that trailed down the side of his unmade bed.”

After a couple of months, Cordie finds a letter addressed to her from her mother tucked in an old copy of A Child’s Book of Selkies, a collection of folklore about seals that sometimes become human. The letter says Mum doesn’t want to go but must. And here the magic weaves into the story. Are selkies real? Is their mother a selkie gone home to the sea? Is that why she had to leave?

The fishing village where the Sullivans live cashes in on selkie lore during tourist season, but Cordie is skeptical. Her sister Ione believes fervently that their mother has gone to the secret island she once tried to show them. Aside from the mystery, the story delivers realistic sibling relationships, parents with flaws but lots of love, and a nudge toward respecting nature.

 I love so much of the writing—crisp, moving: “Facing west toward the waves, we stood and did the only thing we could think to do . . . Just us, the three Sullivan girls, crying our seven silver tears into the sea and letting them float atop the foam, hoping they would bring our mum back to us.”

 There is a surprise at the end. I could easily have read more, but I’m pleased that the magical elements remain elusive, leaving the reader to wonder and question. There is no question at all about the power of love, which is the heart of the story and shines on long after the final page is read.

Highly recommend for middle-grade readers. Disclosure: Shelley is a friend I met through blogging, Twitter, and face to face at SCBWI.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Crooked River, great title, satisfying read

Crooked River is such a great, evocative title for the debut YA novel by Valerie Geary. The setting of this story is a strong character in its own right taking the reader to a secluded meadow along a river in Oregon where two suddenly motherless girls live with their eccentric father in a teepee.

 The story is deep and crooked and wild like the river, opening with the girls finding a dead woman floating near the “best swimming hole this side of anywhere.”

Beautifully written, it’s told in alternating chapters from 15-year-old Sam’s perspective and 10-year-old Ollie’s. The girls have been traumatized by their mother’s recent death and seem detached at first. Sam finally decides they should do something about the woman. Ollie says nothing at all.

When Sam tries to pull the woman from the water she loses her grip and the body is sucked away. “I splashed in after her but stopped when the water reached my knees. Heavy spring rains and melting snowpack had turned Crooked River into a thundering flood. Boulders protected our swimming hole from the violent current, but past that, where I stood now, the river gathered itself up again...”

 After the woman disappears, Sam thinks maybe she hadn’t been real. “But my heart was thumping so fast it hurt and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I could still feel her cold flesh under my fingers, still see her face, her hollow eyes staring up at me. She was as real as real gets, and we had lost her.”

 Loss is a recurring theme in the story. The girls’ father disappeared from their lives for years without explanation. Their mother died without warning. They are confronted with violent death, as well as a real threat of losing their father again as a murder investigation focuses on him. Sam is torn between her love for him and a distrust born of past experience. Ollie is battered by something no one else knows is happening—she sees the ghosts of the dead, following, clinging, whispering.

 I was captivated by this atmospheric story start to finish. There are moral dilemmas, secrets, lies, heartbreak, and trauma. Sam trying to protect her father by withholding evidence makes the case against him stronger. The girls sometimes are crazy reckless trying to prove their father’s innocence, but I understand the desperation and that kids learn as they go, making costly mistakes, as we all have done.

The ending doesn’t tell the reader what happens to all the players, but it doesn’t need to. What it does is deeply satisfying, bringing us back to family, love, and a special place where nature continues its cycle of renewal, as do the humans who dwell there.

 I can’t complete this little review without mentioning the bees. Sam helps her father care for his beloved hives and sell the golden honey, which sent me to my honey jar with a spoon more than once. (The Secret Life of Bees had the same effect on me.) All that talk of honey. “…warm and fresh from the hive when it tasted like all the best parts of summer melting sweet on your tongue.”

This story is going to stick with me. I highly recommend Crooked River for teens and adults. (Disclosure: I’ve never met Valerie in person, but I know her through blogging and Twitter)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When flying is fun, a little floatplane love

Yesterday was a slice right out of heaven. Sat on a dock in early morning sunshine waiting for a plane from Kenmore Air (north Seattle) to Victoria, Canada. Aren't they cheery, these yellow-and-white birds floating at the dock?

 No long security line. No TSA groping. Just swiped my passport and boarded with two other passengers.

 The de Havilland Beaver floatplane is cozy. From my back row seat I could see the pilot and a bit of the instrument panel.

 We kicked up a little rooster tail of water as we glided over the water and then lifted off Lake Washington. (They hand out earplugs to mute the roar of the engine.) Kenmore Air has been flying since 1946. About 125,000 people board their planes annually to destinations in western Washington and Canada. The company is known for maintenance of floatplanes like the Beaver and de Havilland Otter built in the 1950s and 1960s. The planes, which have both air and water rudders, are favored for rugged design and ability to take off and land in short spaces.

 The views were gorgeous as we flew over Puget Sound.

 Landed smoothly in Victoria and watched other floatplanes and boats as we cruised into the harbor to dock.

Victoria’s water taxis have to win a cuteness award. Right? Like they belong in Roger Rabbit.

 My daughter and I had tea at the Empress.

 And we wandered Chinatown, where we saw a working phone booth (!!!) and a not-so-functional phone booth in an artsy coffee house. Fabulous coffee, too.

 Return flight was aboard the larger Otter. Again gorgeous views and smooth flight. Next shot is over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Olympic mountains beyond.

 A nice view of Mt. Rainer and the city of Seattle greeted us on return.

 A final note on how this is so, so different than commercial airline flight. There is a safety speech when you board, short and to the point—the placement and workings of the exit doors and handles, the life vests…and the location of the survival kit. These are bush planes, after all. Exciting, right?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Deception Pass will get you

Wobbly knees, anyone?
Surprised myself when my knees got a bit wobbly and I clutched my phone/camera in a vise grip sure I'd drop it 200 feet to the swirling water below. This is Deception Pass Bridge connecting Whidbey and Fidalgo islands in Washington. The two-lane motor bridge is more than a quarter mile in length with a three-foot pedestrian walkway. We walked over and back, having already hiked trails along the forested cliffs.

At one spectacular moment, two bald eagles soared right over our heads mid-way across the bridge. What a thrill! The nearby Upper Skagit River Valley has one of the largest populations of wintering bald eagles in the continental U.S.

Look closely and see the steel arch of the bridge through the trees. The trails, some quite narrow and rocky, are breathtakingly close to sheer drop-offs but the jade color of the water is equally breathtaking. The area was carved by glaciers and is a deep channel connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the Saratoga Passage.

Before the bridge was built in 1934 by Civilian Conservation Corps and local farmers, travelers would hit a metal saw with a mallet to call a ferry operated by the first woman ferry captain in Washington, Bertie Olson.

Travel+Leisure lists the Deception Pass bridge as one of the scariest in the world.
It is certainly also one of the most beautiful.

Deception Pass State Park has 35 miles of trails with almost 15 miles of saltwater shoreline.

It was a most excellent day, which I recommend to anyone visiting Washington.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Walking into the sky

For some reason when I saw this blue opening in the sky I thought it looked like a path, like I might step into the sky, wander into the Other.

It felt more magical than a tiny fairy door because the potential was enormous, as big as the universe.

Or maybe my subconscious was remembering how I felt long time back reading the final lines of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass: "So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky."

I've always thought that is one of the most brilliant ends to a novel ever.

Different day. Different sky. No openings except those one makes.

steady lap of waves,
mountains serene--sudden
cacophony of crows

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The things I see

Surprise, surprise. While hiking in a wooded park by Puget Sound, we came across a happy face drawn on this mossy tree stump. The beautiful scenery and fresh air already had me smiling, but this made me smile even wider.

Despite all the bad news in the world, life on this incredible planet can be mighty fine.

Another day, walking along a huge lake I wrote a haiku (the birds were too speedy for a photograph)

warm March on the lake,
'whoosh' of coots make a rooster
tail of white water