Great Reads

Harkness, Deborah. A Discovery of Witches

Diana Bishop is the last in a long line of witches who can trace their ancestry back to the Salem Witch Trials and beyond. She has rejected her magical heritage, however, in the wake of her parents’ terrible deaths when she was a child. A historian, she is studying her chosen subject—the history of alchemy—in Oxford when she discovers a strange manuscript that has been bewitched and lost for centuries. Suddenly, she finds herself the focus of the interest and hostility of every witch, vampire, and daemon in England.  Only her new-found relationship with Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist, may save her. But that relationship might be the downfall of both, as well, as such cross-species are strictly forbidden—and the penalty is death.

“A Discovery of Witches” is just the first in a series about Diana and Matthew, and the ending is left very open, with nothing resolved. Despite some slightly uneven pacing, readers are sure to be hooked by both the centuries-old mystery of the lost manuscript and the forbidden love affair between the protagonists.

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Valente, Catherynne. Deathless

Young Marya Morevna has watched her sisters married off, each to a man from a different strata of Russian life.  Awaiting her own husband, she is surprised when Koschei the Deathless, the mythical Tsar of Life, shows up at her door to take her away to his lands as his bride, asserting his power over her at every step.  At first repelled by the land of Koschei, in which everything is alive and fountains spout blood rather than water, she soon finds herself at home as its mistress.  But in her need to prove herself to Koschei’s frightening sister, Baba Yaga, Marya inadvertantly overturns the balance between Koschei and his brother the Tsar of Death and must spend many years leading Koschei’s troops in the never-ending war between the two.  When, finally sick of spirit, she allows herself to be seduced away from Koschei by a seemingly uncomplicated human man, Ivan, and returns to the human world, her problems are far from over. For she has returned to the city of her birth, now renamed Leningrad, in the midst of the worst of the famine and horror of Siege of Leningrad. She must struggle for her own life, the life of Ivan, and the lives of her friends. And when Koschei comes for her once more, the power balance between the two shifts alarmingly as Marya asserts her own control over her immortal lover and husband.

Author Valente seamlessly and fascinatingly blends 20th century Russian history with Russian folklore in her most recent novel.  The details of the Siege of Leningrad are painstakingly researched and painfully depicted, as is the history of political turmoil which turned St. Petersburg into Stalingrad into Leningrad, dragging its citizens unwillingly along. Those unfamiliar with the rich tradition of Russian folklore will find much of interest here as well.

Buckley, Christopher. Boomsday

 After her father stakes (and loses) her tuition money on a dotcom startup, our heroine sheds her family name and takes to the blogosphere as Cassandra Devine. An aggressive, uber-caffeinated voice in the night, she unwittingly mobilizes her brethren into a battle with the “Ungreatest Generation” – their parents. The baby boomers are retiring en masse, buckling the social security system as they reach for their nine irons. Cassandra Devine is not prepared to foot the bill.

 Her big idea to right the ship – offer huge tax breaks to seniors who agree to kill themselves by age 65. She enlists Senator Randolph Jepperson to get the “voluntary transitioning” bill on the floor. He wants a shot at the presidency. She wants a serious national discussion about social security reform. They both may be in over their heads as the issue goes viral.

 Christopher Buckley brings his trademark wit to this irreverent comedy. The characters are eerily recognizable and the dialog lights up the pages. The author of “Thank You For Smoking” hits another national nerve. Debt and social security issues have only become more ominous since this book’s publication, making it funnier still. Or does that make it less funny?

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Lindholm, Megan and Robin Hobb. The Inheritance and Other Stories

Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors, and though I knew she also wrote under the name Megan Lindholm, I had never read Lindholm previously. This anthology is a wonderful introduction to both of the author's signature styles. Standouts in the Lindholm section include the delightfully odd tale of “The Fifth Squashed Cat,” and the first story, "A Touch of Lavender."   The real standout in the Hobb section was, again, the first story, “Homecoming.” Sure to appeal to any fans of Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, “Homecoming” provides a fascinating glimpse at the early years of Rain Wilds settlements.

Over all, this is a most satisfying collection. Whether you're a Lindholm fan, a Hobb fan, or a fan of both, you will find much to enjoy here!

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Bear, Elizabeth. The White City

In a loose sequel to Bear’s alternate history-cum-mystery “New Amsterdam,” we are taken from the New World into the depths of the old. Immortal vampire detective Don Sebastien de Ulloa seeks rest and healing, both for himself and for the human members of his court, the inimitable forensic sorceress Lady Abigail Irene and the lady author, Phoebe Smith.  The trio travel to the depths of Russia, to the White City of Moscow…a place Don Sebastien has not visited in many years.  While he seeks respite, what he finds is only more death. Visiting an old friend, he finds instead a cooling corpse and no trace of the lady he seeks. A mystery he thought was done and gone has re-emerged from hiding, embroiling Don Sebastien and his court in the dangerous jealousies and ancient rivalries of Moscow’s vampire community.

The mystery here is hardly the point. While the motivations are realistic and the crimes dramatic, what readers will find most fascinating are Bear’s characters: the ascerbic Abigail Irene, the unprepossessing Phoebe Smith hiding unexpected depths behind her smile, and, most of all, the ancient, conflicted, and decidedly post-human Don Sebastien. Bear’s vampires definitely do not sparkle, but they captivate nonetheless.

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