Monday, July 6, 2015

Summer Illness, Reading Joy

My summer began in a rather inauspicious manner with a round of bronchitis that lasted the better part of 3 weeks. Long story, the highlights of which are a history of previous episodes, the discovery that I am highly allergic to marijuana smoke, which lead to an asthma attack, which promptly turned into bronchitis, and Deborah in her inimitable fashion had not one but two relapses. Only one of which was my fault for doing too much too soon. (I am now the proud possessor of the relevant inhalers.)

Enough whinging (British friends: is that the right word?) One of the very, very few upsides of this illness was that I had to stay in bed. A lot. After the initial phase of sleeping all day, I started reaching for my pile of To Be Read books. Ah, books! How would we get through bed rest without them? Here is a sampling of the stories that helped me through the tedium:

Judith Tarr: Kingdom of the Grail. I’d picked this up at Powell’s Books, that amazing bookstore in Portland OR (see below), and then got distracted by other things. It’s historical fantasy, with the emphasis on a wonderful blending of fantastical elements. We all know the story of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, right? Tarr sets her story not in King Arthur’s time but that of Charlemagne, with one of the King’s Companions, Roland, as the hero. Add much Grail-centered magical subterfuge, an ancient evil bent on acquiring the Grail, and a sorceress who transcends time and culture. Oh, and a love story. Of course. Oh, and some very nifty horses.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The Shadow of the Wind. This gem was on my husband’s TBR shelf, and I almost didn’t pick it up because of the mainstream-looking cover. Imagine my delight when the story opens with a visit to “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” where you get to choose one book, just one book from the thousands of musty volumes, that you promise to keep alive, to make sure it never disappears. For the narrator, that book is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax, and from the very first paragraph, his life is never the same. Especially when a mysterious figure appears, bent on destroying every copy of every book Carax wrote, all of which were dismal publishing failures so they’re rare collector’s prizes anyway, not to mention addictive. After a while, the story devolves into part mystery, part suspense thriller, but that opening, which spoke so eloquently about the magical power of books, had me hooked. It’s not exactly fantasy/science fiction, but it’s definitely one for us book-loving fanatics.

Jo Walton: My Real Children. An elderly woman who lives in a nursing home suffers from
confusion. Does she have four children…or two plus a beloved stepchild? Is the door to the right or the left? Is this dementia…or something else? Once her life was one stream of events, until a single decision changed everything. This sounds like your usual parallel-universe story, but the focus is on the intimate, everyday lives and relationships of the women she becomes, executed with such nuanced sensitivity that when you’re inside the story, it feels like it’s real history. For all its domesticity, the book moves right along. I loved every page of it.

Ben Macallan (Chaz Brenchley): Pandaemonium. I find Brenchley’s prose dense and chewy, to be savored like fine chocolate, so this sequel to Desdaemona sat on my shelf for an unconscionable length of time. Desi hits the ground running, with little thought to us mere mortals who may not have kept track of all her boyfriends, not to mention their families who are, of course, out for her blood. This is Desi, so if you haven’t read the first book, run out and get it. Sexy, uncompromising urban fantasy, complete with the Platonic ideal of a horse, who lifts itself from the English countryside to give our heroine a lift. She says, “I guess you do know when you’re being tailed by one of the monuments of prehistoric England. Sight unseen, you still know it. Presence isn’t only about interrupted light and atmospheric pressure-waves. Horse can eclipse the world and hush the stars in their courses.” Horses again. Deborah likes horses, she does.

M. J. Locke: Up Against It. I think this book came to me from a freebie bag at the Nebula Award
Weekend, and I haven’t been in the mood for much space-type science fiction. I also had no idea that M. J. Locke was the amazing and wonderful Laura J. Mixon-Gould. The more fool me for not having jumped on it. Suspense/thriller, mystery, neato cultural stuff, a gang of buddies who are astonishingly capable for teenagers, interplanetary gangsters making a serious power grab, not to mention some way kickass women characters and a few men who aren’t that bad, either, all on an asteroid mining colony. I love it when science fiction is chock full of nifty ideas but has strong characters and an even stronger moral compass. This one fits the bill.

Phyllis Ames: Frozen in Amber. This doesn’t quite qualify as (a) I was almost well; (b) I read it in ARC (Advance Reading Copy) so as I write this, it hasn’t been released yet. But I loved it and here’s why. Werecritters, specifically: cougars, wolves and, oh gosh, eagles, in one of the best worked out werecritter world-building I’ve read, complete with secret liaisons with intelligence agencies, born versus bitten differences, family versus pack loyalties, and more than an occasional touch of romance in between the action. It takes place in Portland, one of my favorite cities (see above). And our WerCougar heroine is a high-powered attorney, which in itself is neither here nor there, could be just interesting background although in this case it’s vital to the plot, but she is terrifyingly competent -- smart and self-confident, not to mention sexy and a bit angsty, yet not at all about to take second fiddle to anyone who violates her territory. The best paranormal urban fantasy I’ve read in a long time. Look for it!

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