When I packed to travel out of state to help care for my best friend and her family during her final weeks of life, I had no idea how long I would be away. The ereader my daughter had passed on to me provided the ideal solution of how to carry a variety of books with me. I read at night as part of my bedtime ritual and I couldn’t anticipate what I would need at the end of each day. Horror, which has never previously appealed to me, might resonate with the depth of the grief of this entire household as we let go of hope and say goodbye. Maybe not, but should I bring some just in case? What about my favorite and unabashedly unguilty pleasures – fantasy and science fiction? Something to challenge my mind and make me think? A genre I don’t usually read? Mystery? Nonfiction?
I loaded up my ereader with a stack of books from Book View Café, picking a few from authors I’ve loved and choosing others practically at random. Here’s what I’ve been reading and why.
I started with three pieces – two novellas and a novel — by Marie Brennan. I’d never read her work before she joined Book View Café, so when I found Midnight Never Come in a bookstore (and it looked interesting), I grabbed it. It’s the first of a series called “The Onyx Court,” set London during the reign of Elizabeth I. My husband and I had gone through a phase of watching every film biography of Elizabeth I that we could find, so that was an automatic plus. Brennan created a second, faerie court, hidden belowground but interacting in secret ways for England’s benefit. Fits right in with Sir Francis Walsingham and Dr. John Dee, and other historical characters. I enjoyed the book immensely, so the first thing I read was more Brennan, a novella set in the same world although slightly later in time. Deeds of Men is a murder mystery, with characteristic Brennan twists. I was glad I’d already read Midnight Never Come because I was already in love with the main character, but this would also make a good introduction to the series. I also picked the two “Welton” pieces, a prequel novella called Welcome To Welton and then the novel Lies and Prophecy. Both reminded me a little of Pamela Dean’s excellent Tam Lin, only set at Hogwarts if Hogwarts was a college and magic was public and widely spread. What kind of curriculum would a college offer? Dorms, room mates, cafeteria food, professors, meddling parents, the whole shebang. But Brennan doesn’t leave the story there; it turns out that the reason people have magical abilities is that they’re descended from fae who mingled with humans during a time when Faerie was closer to Earth. And now the two worlds are drawing closer again, and the Seelie and UnSeelie Courts are in deadly competition for who gets to rule, whether to enslave or ally with humans. And our college kids are caught up in it all. Brennan’s easy prose and likeable characters drew me into her world, a lovely escape at the end of each day. Her stories are full of hope, something I can always use more of.
Why, oh why, did I wait so long to read Chris Dolley’s What Ho, Automaton!? Obviously because I needed to have not only read P. G. Wodehouse, but have seen the hilarious Jeeves and Wooster with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Transport the impeccable “gentleman’s gentleman” into a “gentleman’s gentleautomaton” and give poor Bertie Wooster a few more brain cells – but not too many – and you have a delightful, pitch-perfect series of adventures. Steampunk with class and mannered style! It made me laugh out loud at the pure but elegant silliness, silliness that harms no one, and that reminded me how sustaining and healing humor is.
After that, I flipped to the beginning of the alphabet with Patricia Rice’s All A Woman Wants.There’s a certain delight in having no expectations of what I’m about to dive into. This is a Regency Romance, and while I have read Jane Austen’s novels about a gazillion times (not to mention another marathon of watching the movie versions), I’m not a Romance reader. The covers turn into pretty much impenetrable barriers. I decided to give this one a go. To my not-so-great surprise, I enjoyed both the setting and the dance of attraction and complication between the two main characters. There were times when I wanted to grab each of them by the lapels and scream, “Will you get off it and admit you’re in love with each other?” The question isn’t whether they will do that – we know they will at the end of the book, but how they get there. So we’ve got an American sea captain who’s just kidnapped his late sister’s two kids from their abusive but aristocratic dad, and a newly-orphaned spinster who’s trying to run a sizeable estate with no education or training but a good deal of determination and compassion. While waiting for his ship to be ready to hie him back to Virginia, he hides the kids from the aforementioned deadbeat drunkard-but-powerfully-connected dad at her estate in exchange for teaching her how to run the place herself. I loved her insistence on wanting to learn, to understand and be truly independent, and I often laughed aloud at how he could be so competent in one area and yet fall apart at the prospect of dealing with two utterly charming hellion kids, not to mention a woman who insists on “worrying her pretty head” about her responsibilities. At the end, I came to a new appreciation of how soothing it can be to immerse myself in a time and situation where love does prevail, but not at the cost of integrity for both parties. Some days, I just need a happy ending.
Also in the A’s I spied a couple of Judith Tarr novels and selected one at random, Arrows of the Sun. I was pleased to see it was Book I of something but not until I finished did I discover it was Book I of a second trilogy. This is important because I still had a wonderful, satisfying reading experience. So many long series assume you are going to start at the very beginning and not skip a volume. I know readers who won’t even start a new series until they have all the books in hand. I guess they’ve been burned by authors who, for one reason or another, fail to finish a series or fail to do so in a timely manner. This book, while undoubtedly related to the others I have yet to enjoy, stands beautifully on its own. It’s got so many of the elements I love in a fantasy: a strong woman character (more than one, each in her own way!), a conflicted, sensual, earnest male character, cool horse-like creatures (with horns!) and even cooler cat-like things, magic and mages and interdimentional Gates, oh my! And plot twists, lots of flavors of sexuality and love, jealousy and generosity, and characters that turn out to be not at all what I expected. I won’t offer any more specifics for fear of spoiling the show. The only thing left to decide is whether to go back to the first book of the first trilogy or to continue with this one. Either way, I know I’m in for a complex, luscious fantasy, a world with rules of its own where death has a different meaning but grief is the same as the grief I feel around me.
Next up was Vonda N. McIntyre’s delightful and essential Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of short and pithy essays from a master in the field. In fact, with a few variations, I’d feel safe in saying it should be required reading for all writers. Ah, such a pleasure to re-connect with the genres I love from a writer’s standpoint, a reminder that no matter how intense things are here, I have a life and work of my own, and nobody says it better.
For another leap into the unknown, I picked a new author and a book I knew nothing about: Girl’sGuide to Witchcraft by Mindy Klasky. Having worked in a college library and revamped one for a local elementary school, I’m a total sucker for librarians as hero/ines. Librarians are my heroes, any day of the week. A fun, breezy style, immediately likeable characters . . . I’m hooked. Hooray! There are more in the “Jane Madison” series! I’ve only just started this one, but I look forward to it every night, like a cup of midnight cocoa. I’m delighted to have found another “go-to-when-things-are-tough” author, although I wouldn’t restrict my indulgence to those times!
I hope you’ll check out some of these books and many more (and maybe some of my own, also at Book View Café). What books help you get through difficult times — or celebrate happy ones?