Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

Stardate: sometime several hundred years in the future. Earth. (I think this is how that kind of thing went? I’m not really sure; I’ve always been on the other side of the Star Trek/Star Wars debate) John Perry is celebrating his 75th birthday by joining the army. Well, technically it’s the Colonial Defense Forces, but still.

Perry, along with many others when they turn 75, signs up because of the “gene therapies” the enlistment contract says they’ll undergo. After all, aging’s no fun; the rumor is that the CDF can make people young again. Why else would they enlist the elderly? So he signs away his life on Earth, and heads off into space, never to return (Oh, yeah. That whole signing-his-life-away bit? It’s literal. 72 hours after signing, the volunteer is declared legally dead. All benefits stop, their estate is disbursed. They’re no longer citizens of whatever country they were from; they’re not even citizens of earth anymore: they belong 100% to the Colonial Union.).

Signing up with the CDF means one thing. One, a person is in the infantry for two years. After that, if you’re still alive, the next eight are spent in more specialized fields. No matter what status a person held on earth, they still serve as footsoldiers for the CDF in a massive, galactic war against truly alien (ha! Alien! Get it?) (Sorry) foes. Two, CDF turns recruits green.

As Perry trains, fights, and watches his friends die around him, he starts to question if it’s at all worth it–the violence, the killing, the bloodshed. But then he catches a glimpse of someone oddly familiar, and he wonders if the life he left behind is truly gone forever…

Full disclosure here: apart from the previously mentioned Star Wars (original trilogy only), I’m not really into hard sci-fi. The starships, the interstellar travel, the alien planets, none of it ever really grabbed my attention. Until I was told to read Old Man’s War. Holy crap it’s a good book. Perry is an incredibly relatable narrator, and seeing the universe through his eyes is like seeing it through your own. Scalzi builds alien worlds filled with even more alien beings, and does it beautifully. If you like war stories, sci-fi stories (or if you don’t like sci-fi stories), stories of the unfamiliar, stories about friendship, stories about life and death and love and loss, or if you’re just looking for a way to pass the time, give Old Man’s War a read. You won’t regret it.

Favorite Line:

She was my friend. Briefly, she was my lover. She was braver than I ever would have been in the moment of death. And I bet she was a hell of a shooting star.

Don’t read if: you’re appalled at green people, tiny people, old people, dead people, or people who should be dead but aren’t

 

 

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

Three young teenagers sent to spend the night in an extremely haunted house that no one’s survived, a house with a room that bleeds and a screaming (obviously) staircase. What could possibly go wrong?

Fifty years ago, ghosts came back. Well, they’d always been around, sort of, but now they’re back in massive numbers, and they’re dangerous–they kill people. No one’s sure why they’re back, but exorcism is big business–so big, in fact, that there are agencies specially set up specifically to deal with The Problem. Oh, but there’s one slight catch: only kids can see ghosts. Once they age out, they’re useless, so they start training young.

Enter Lockwood & Co., London’s smallest ghost investigation agency. It’s made up of Anthony Lockwood, the leader; George Cubbins, the obnoxious, slappable know-it-all; and Lucy Carlyle, the newest recruit. Lockwood and Lucy are investigating an ordinary (or is it?) house haunting when things to terribly wrong. The house burns down, Lockwood gets taken off in an ambulance, and the homeowners are demanding reparations: £60,000 in four weeks, or their agency is getting shut down. They don’t have that kind of money; and to make things worse, after the whole fire debacle no one’s hiring them.

Then fortune smiles upon them: an extremely wealthy man asks them to investigate his manor, Combe Carey Hall. It’s the most haunted house in Britain, and no one’s survived the night in the west wing of the house. One of the rooms bleeds, there’s a staircase that screams, it’s dangerous and mysterious and just what they need–Fairfax is willing to pay them enough to save the agency.  They’re desperate for the money, but can they survive the night in a house that wants them dead?

I don’t know about you, but I love children in peril stories, and this book is so much fun. It’s a supernatural thriller with a good story, better characters, and a great mythology. Over a dozen types of ghosts populate the pages, all of them familiar but with a new, more sinister edge. Oh, and just a FYI: it’s classified as a kids book, but don’t let that throw you off. Johnny TremainThe Wizard of Oz, and Treasure Island are all technically kid’s books as well. It’s well-written and engaging, and if you’re looking for a ghost story, a thrill, or just something highly entertaining, give The Screaming Staircase a try.

Favorite Line:

“Oh, he’d sue us, all right,” Lockwood agreed. “But who cares?”

Don’t read if: you can’t stand rapiers, salt bombs, skulls in jars, lockets, or that one guy who always eats all the donuts.

 

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

Sunshine’s in trouble. Big trouble. I mean, she’s chained to a wall in an abandoned house, food for the vampire in the room. Except, wait. He’s chained to the wall, too…

Years back, the Voodoo Wars happened: The Others (vampires, Weres, etc) rose up against the humans. Humanity won, mostly, and now there’s an uneasy peace, but there’s always a fear that the violence might start up again.

Rae Seddon (Sunshine to her friends) is a coffeehouse baker, and she likes her life. She likes her friends, her apartment, her job, her family (well, mostly); but one night she just wants some peace. So she heads out to the old cabin her grandmother owned, out at the lake. It wasn’t as dumb an idea as it sounds: after all, she’d gone there a lot as a kid, and since the Wars things had been pretty quiet there. But something went horribly wrong, and now she’s wearing a ridiculous dress and chained to a wall, waiting to become the vampire’s next meal.

Except he has no interest in food. He’s a prisoner, too, and refuses to give their captors the satisfaction, and he and Sunshine manage to escape. In daylight.

A vampire. In daylight. And it’s all Sunshine’s doing…

Anyway, after they get back to civilization, they part ways and never expect to see each other again. All she wants is to go back to her old life and pretend the whole chained-to-a-wall thing was just a bad dream. But their captors know something happened, something beyond a simple escape, and they want to know precisely what they missed. And now Sunshine’s a target, and it’s going to take everything she has to get out of this alive.

I love this book. It’s kinda dark and moody and the world is fascinating. Sunshine is a great heroine–reluctant but determined. It’s a vampire book without really being about the vampires. It’s the story of a young woman who gets stuck in a terrible situation, doing her best to get out of it, who just wants life to go back to normal. Be warned, though: it’s not a YA and in a few places it’s darker than most other vampire books out there.

McKinley’s long been a favorite author of mine, for her ordinary heroes who don’t really want to be heroes, but do it anyway because someone has to; for her female protagonists who are resilient and capable and have agency; for the atmosphere and history and realism of the world-building. Her ability to write books where you know the world existed before the story began, and will continue after the story ends, is absolutely incredible. I really hope you give this book, and all the rest of her work, a try.

Favorite Line:

I wondered what you’d have on the side with a plate of Deep Fried Anxiety. Pickles? Coleslaw? Potato-strychnine mash?

Don’t read if: you dislike baked goods, table knives, ugly vampires, mysterious landladies, or wounds that won’t stop bleeding.

Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti has a bit of a problem: she’s just killed a vampire. And that, gentle reader, just isn’t proper.

In alternate-reality Victorian Britain, vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are all part of life: socially accepted and included. Alexia, not so much. Despite her best efforts, society is not as welcoming of her as one would wish; her father, after all, was Italian. She’s also soulless, but that’s an entirely different thing.

Ah, yes. Soulless. Her lack of a soul means (among other things) that not only is she impervious to other supernaturals, but her touch renders them mortal for the full duration of the contact. Most of the supernatural community is aware of her and her abilities, so they usually give her a wide berth.

Which is why she’s so shocked that a vampire would attack her at a private ball. All vampires are born (so to speak) into hives where they are educated on the proper behavior befitting their station. Yet this one clearly had no idea about manners or deportment. And he’s not the only problem: other equally ill-mannered vampires are appearing all over London, while other, more prominent ones are disappearing. And Alexia is looking more and more like the most likely suspect. Enter Lord Conall Maccon, trained investigator and alpha of the most powerful werewolf pack in Britain.

As Alexia clashes with the Queen’s investigator, sinister figures close in. Can she and her unlikely ally restore proper order before it’s too late?

This book is a steampunk novel, but not of the usual type: despite the existence of mechanized transport, airships, and the like, it’s also very light and fluffy. It’s not dark or gritty, but rather almost a comedy of manners wrapped up in an alt-universe mystery story. It’s breezy and fun, and Alexia is formidable, bound by strict propriety and possessed of a formidable will. If you’re looking for something lighthearted and engaging and maybe even just a little silly, give Soulless a try.

Favorite Line:

No one ever explained about the octopuses.

Don’t read if: you disdain treacle tart, parasols, good manners, foppish vampires, or absurd hats.

In Memoriam

1948-2015
Sir Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

Sir Terry Pratchett died Thursday. He had Alzheimer’s. Rather than post a review today, I thought I’d do a bit of a roundup of some of his work, as a kind of tribute to a brilliant author who was also, by all accounts, a wonderful man.

He wrote over seventy books, books of all different kinds: novel-type books, a book of nonfiction essays, a picture book for small children, various YA, even a travel guide to that most famous of fictional cities, Ankh-Morpork. His prolificacy was astounding–at his peak, he averaged just over two books a year, and never faltered in his genius. One of his books, a non-Discworld novel written with Neil Gaiman called Good Omens, is even regarded as a cult classic (for good reason). Another of his books, Night Watch, is the only book I’ve ever read that is guaranteed to make me cry.

No topic is off-limits in Discworld: religion, terrorism, war; they’re all addressed. So are fairy tales, rock music, and trains. Pratchett looked at our world and somehow managed to pin down the human condition through satire and fantasy. I never come away from a Discworld book without a having a better understanding of what it really means to be human.

His books were never considered literature, or profound works of art. But Pratchett wrote books that move, books that teach, books that entertain and bring laughter and smiles and tears.

Isn’t that what good books, and great writers, should accomplish?

I certainly think so. And by that measure, the world has lost one of the most brilliant writers it has ever seen.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

No good deed goes unpunished, as poor Richard is about to find out…

Richard Mayhew is just a guy–a normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy with really nothing very special about him. Nothing, that is, except one thing: he helps a girl he spots broken and bleeding on the street. But he doesn’t really think anything of it; why would he? He just did what any decent, ordinary person would do. Right? Right?

Yeah, no. The next day his whole world falls apart. The house agents are showing his apartment to prospective tenants, his fiance can barely remember him, his coworkers have no idea who he is. Bewildered and upset, he tracks back to the last person he knows for sure saw him: the injured girl, named Door. As it turns out, his invisibility’s a side effect of sorts, one he picked up by helping her in the first place: she comes from London Below, the other London, the one that fell through the cracks, that people forgot about. And by helping one of its denizens, he’s become all but invisible, too.

Door tells him that he can be returned to London Above, but first she’s got more pressing problems: someone’s after her, and whoever they are, they’re dangerous. They’ve already taken out her family; she’s the only one left. She’s heading out with a couple of allies to find an angel, the Angel; since the Angel is the guardian of all of London Below, if anyone would have some insight as to who would want her dead (and why), it’s him. Richard, still a bit befuddled and a lot upset over his whole situation, tags along, seeing as how he literally has nothing to go back to.

I know I say this all the time, but I really do love this book. The contrast between a completely ordinary schmo like Richard and the bizarre, funhouse-mirror world of London below is wonderful and eerie in equal measure. It’s clever and brilliant and very, very different from anything you may have read before.

Will Door find out who killed her family? Can Richard get his old life back? Just how scary is Knightsbridge, anyway? Pick up a copy of Neverwhere, and join them as they journey through a London made not of concrete or steel, but rather of darkness and dreams.

Favorite Line:

Mind the Gap.

Don’t read if: you don’t like anthropomorphic personification, being underground, riding the Underground, or London in general.