Friday, January 22, 2016

Great Reads for a Rainy Winter Day

The redwoods have been getting their fair share of the rain, and I’ve been holed up with a pile of wonderful books. Some of these came from my gigantic “To Be Read” bookshelf and others fall under the category of newly-purchased series addiction indulgences.

A Plague of Angels by Sherri S. Tepper was a thrift store discovery.  Someone must have donated their collection of tattered, dog-eared 1990s science fiction to swell the fare that I’ve already picked through. For me, Tepper is a sure bet and I was pretty sure I didn’t have this one. That’s one of the problems of thrift store offerings, especially since my husband’s dowry included 70 cartons of books, much of it science fiction. Despite the cover images (couple on white horse, undoubtedly fleeing something; dragons in the sky and ruined castles on the hilltops), this is not fantasy. It begins like fantasy, with an Orphan growing up in an archetypal village where everyone has a designated role: Oracle, Thief, Hero, etc. Tepper’s world is much bigger than the village, and by the time our characters arrived at the Place of Power, I’d recognized genetic engineering, an analog of AIDS, the remnants of scientific institutions (the families Mitty and Berkli), ecologists on a multi-generational mission to restore habitats, and cyborgs gone seriously postal. Great stuff, wildly inventive.

Chapelwood by Cherie Priest continues (and supposedly concludes) the adventures of Lizzie Borden, she of the axe and the forty whacks that saved the world because Chthulu, and if you haven’t read Maplecroft, I won’t give away any more. As enchanted as I was by Lizzie, I found Chapelwood a bit of a letdown. Mind you, Maplecroft was a tough act to follow, with its exuberantly creepy mix of Lovecraft and American history. Still, despite the lesser originality of the concept, Priest’s deft storytelling kept me turning the pages. I definitely would not begin with this one, however. Start with Maplecroft and if you adore it, treat yourself to Round 2.

More of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse. Dead Reckoning, to be precise. That’s the one that begins with the firebombing on Merlotte’s. I think this is #11 of 13 and I’ll be sorry to see the end of Sookie’s world. I love how she cleans house when she needs to think. But once I have read them all, I will always have the option of binge-reading the whole shebang.

Likewise, two more “Laundry Files” novels by the inimitable Charles Stross. A delicious and often hilarious cross between James Bond, computer geeks, and the Chthulu mythos. It turns out that any sufficiently advanced mathematics is not only indistinguishable from magic, it is magic. And if you spent too much time contemplating certain theorems, things with glowing, writhing tentacles start inhabiting your brain. Like other series, these books are best not begun in the middle. However, I grabbed The Rhesus Chart (“everybody knows vampires aren’t real”) and The Fuller Memorandum (you really don’t want an Eater of Souls munching through the population of England) and read them in the wrong order, also skipping the one in between. Since I’d read the first ones, I wasn’t lost in terms of characters and world-building, just events. These two were vastly amusing nonetheless and someday I’ll pull a Sookie Stackhouse and read them all back to back and in the correct order. Who knows what otherdimensional horror that act of folly will unleash. Just kidding, really.

Last but by far not least – and I cringe to admit it – I finally sat down to read Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” books (the last one of which has yet to be released). Herein is a perfect example of bouncing off a book too far into a series. I attempted number 5 or 6, somewhere in there . I couldn’t figure out who the characters were, why I should care, and what was going on. Hoo, I thought, another Jane Austen – or in this case, C. S. Forester/Patrick O’Brien – mashup. But I dutifully opened the complimentary copy of the first volume, His Majesty’s Dragon, that came to me in a goodie bag at World Fantasy Con. I read at least the first pages of freebie books. Oh, all right, the first few words. Wow, I thought as the chapters sped by, this is corking good! And they are, really. I feel like a dolt for having taken so long and for having discounted all the praise as dragonmania. Novik has a light, sure touch with both characters and action. She never beats the reader over the head with the niftiness of her High Concept, and her handling of relationships is beautifully executed. As it turned out, my older daughter had just moved in with us, bringing her collection of Temeraire’s adventures. We passed them around, my husband and I reading them for the first time, Sarah for the 3rd, I think, and then we gave Sarah the last two volumes in print for a birthday present. The entire household awaits the final volume with bated breath. As for me, I have added Novik to the list of authors I will follow across genres. I look forward to the delights as she continues to mature as an author. Fame well earned!

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