Winter Reading

I’m an unabashed fan of Katharine Kerr’s “Nola O’Grady” series. The third, Apocalypse To Go, lives up to its predecessors in inventiveness, drama, romance, and whimsy. In this urban fantasy, the heroine works for a supernatural Agency “so secret, the CIA doesn’t know it exists”. This takes place in an alternate San Francisco, one in which magic and the clandestine agencies necessary to regulate it are real. This world is not the only one; there are alternate, weirdly dystopic worlds (and a gateway in the attic of Nola’s aunt’s house). Not only do the Agency and its people hide in plain sight, Nola’s family, Irish illegal immigrants with past ties to the IRA, live with secrets, low on the radar. In this newest novel, we not only explore the radioactive San Francisco from previous episodes, but we encounter yet another world, one in which the dominant intelligent race is feline in origin, leopard to be precise. Apocalypse To Go definitely builds on the previous two books, but Kerr offers enough toe-holds so that it can serve as an entry point. Readers should be warned, however, that the series is addictive.

Winter brings storms, and storms mean power outages. Here in the mountains, these often go on for days. Most years, our generator kicks in and we continue on as before. This year, however, through a series of mechanical failures, we suffered through a period without electricity. Fortunately, there are many wonderful things to do that do not require it. Walking the dog, playing the piano, snuggling by candle light. Reading…as long as it’s daytime. All of which is a roundabout way of saying how glad I was that I’d loaded Pati Nagle’s Immortal on my (fully-charged) netbook computer. As the forest darkened, I pretended I was on vacation and curled up in my favorite chair.

On the surface, Immortal resembles other teen romances — girl meets unbelievably handsome and mysterious boy; throbbing hearts ensue. But Nagle’s heroine is no hapless Bella, she’s a college student with a job, a car, and a mind of her own. Nor is the gorgeous guy an angsty vampire, although he definitely is not one of your usual folk. The plot moves briskly from encounter to threat to road trip to battle, a fine way to spend a couple of winter nights. In the end, the story is as much about how relationships help us to determine the direction of our own lives as it is about hormones. That’s what sets this YA novel apart.

If you’re nauseated by sparkly, angst-ridden teenage vampires, and you like your dark suspense with wit and political savvy, check out Blood Maidens, the third in Barbara Hambly’s turn-of-the-century vampire novels. It’s as much mystery as it is adventure or spy novel or horror, both fast-paced and literate. It stands well on its own, although the previous two are highly recommended.

Hambly’s vampires are neither sparkly nor nice. They’re dark and dangerous, and on the eve of World War I, the Kaiser would very much like to enlist them as his agents. Not that this is any concern of the vampires themselves, existing as they do in their own separate, hidden world, one in which even the pleasures of the mind eventually wear away into apathy. (One of the most poignant images in the novel is a once-beloved harp, so long disused that its stings have turned to rust.) Enter James Asher, ex-British spy and former uneasy and unwilling ally of the Renaissance vampire, Don Simon Ysidro. Asher’s search for Ysidro’s missing friend takes him to St. Petersburg, from its daylight fads for the supernatural and spiritualism, fueled by Rasputin’s utterances, to its nightly contest between two claimants to the mastery of the vampire population, to a mysterious woman who by all reason must be a vampire…except she appears in public in daylight. Hambly neatly connects the belief in spontaneous human combustion to the fate of vampires exposed to sunlight. One set of questions gives rise to the next, with the threat of a German-vampire alliance overshadowing the landscape of Europe, all tempered by Hambly’s deft and humane touch.

I’ve been a fan of Louise Marley’s work for years now. By a wonderful coincidence, I had just begun learning the Brahms piano piece, Waltz in A Flat, when I read The Brahms Deception. For an adult beginner with small hands, playing Brahms amounts to an exercise that rivals the most complex yoga postures. The man apparently had immense hands and wrote music that he could play, refusing to compromise with anyone else’s limitations. Except, apparently, those of the brilliant concert pianist Clara Schumann. Brahms was hopelessly in love with Schumann, but biographers do not agree on whether the relationship ever went beyond the platonic. Here Marley’s imagination finds fertile ground as scholars use time travel for their researches, and an unstable, emotionally needy music historian enters into the world of Brahms and Schumann…at the country house where they have a secret tryst. When the historian does not return as scheduled, a second is sent in search of her. Marley combines drama, mystery, the perils of time travel and changing history, and delicious appreciation for the music, artistry and passion of two immensely gifted musicians. If you don’t read science fiction, read this anyway. If you do read science fiction but don’t know anything about classical music, read it anyway, too.

I would never have discovered Triptych, by J.M. Frey, had I not first met the editor, Gabrielle Harbowy. We were talking about stories that challenge conventional notions not only of sexuality but of family, and she mentioned this debut novel by Canadian J.M. Frey. The cover reveals nothing of the story within — part queer love story, part alien first encounter story, part time travel adventure, part mystery, part exploration of polyamory, all laced with skillfully woven dramatic tension and a sure understanding of the needs of the human heart.

When aliens come to Earth, they come not as ambassadors or conquerors but as refugees. They have lost their families and culture as well as their world. Their species evolved around families of threes — one to bear children, one to work, one to nurture and protect the others. When a pair of Earth scientists, also a romantic couple, begin working with one of the aliens, their own relationship changes. But Earth, for all its claims of tolerance, is not ready for a marriage that consists of a man, a woman, and an alien. Not by a long shot.


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