Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

Moist von Lipwig is at the end of his rope–literally. He’s scheduled to be hanged for the crimes he committed under the name of Albert Spangler. A superb conman, his luck’s finally run out. Or not…

Lord Vetinari, being the brilliant political schemer that he is, has decided that while, yes, Albert Spangler has to die for what he’s done, Moist von Lipwig really ought to be spared and put to, shall we say, better use? Moist is presented with a choice: obey Vetinari, or walk out through a door leading to a very deep pit.

Moist makes the wiser choice, and is told that he must, no exceptions, restore the Ankh-Morpork Postal Service to its former glory. So off he goes, to the old Post Office where he encounters the two remaining employees, Postman Groat and Stanley Howler (he’s a little odd, but it’s only to be expected since he was raised by peas); literal tons of undelivered mail; and a very odd pigeon coop on the roof. Not to mention the unwelcome information that a number of previous Postmasters have died under mysterious circumstances shortly after being given the job, threats from the sinister head of the Grand Trunk clacks line (think a telegraph, but Pratchett-style), and a chain-smoking golem-rights advocate named Adora Belle Dearheart.

Failure is not an option; neither is mediocrity–Vetinari won’t allow it. Moist needs to use every one of his ill-gotten skills (and gains) to ensure the Post Office once again reigns supreme.

Going Postal is one of Pratchett’s best. The comedy is pitch-perfect; Moist is a brilliantly shady protagonist you can’t help but root for. The bizarre combination of hacking, government services, and equal rights shouldn’t work, but instead it elevates the book into something beyond mere words on a page. Read it for the fun, read it for the story, read it for the insights–it really doesn’t matter why you read it; only that you do.

Favorite Line:

What kind of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.

Don’t read if: you hate obsessive pin collectors, bizarre midnight rituals, golems covered in paint, or smoking gnus.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville

Mireille is a novice at Montglane Abbey in France. It’s 1790, and the French Revolution is well under way, so the Mother Superior is closing the abbey before the army arrives. But it’s more than just the nuns she is trying to save: the abbey has long been the hiding place of the Montglane Service, a chess set once belonging to Charlemagne himself. Massive, exquisitely wrought pieces encrusted with gems, the board a meter square and made entirely of silver and gold, the service inspired greed and rage in nearly all who saw it. So it was hidden away for a thousand years, safe from the evils of the world. But with the Revolution seizing the contents of all convents and monasteries, it’s only a matter of time before the Montglane Service comes to light again. Unless she can smuggle it out, piece by piece, dispersed with her nuns across the length and breadth of France. And Mireille is a perfect candidate to help protect the pieces…

It’s New Years Eve, 1972, and Catherine Velis is late for a party. When she finally arrives, a bizarre fortune-teller rambles something at her about her hand being foretold, not trusting anyone, and an endless battle of white. A bit confused, she shrugs it off. After all, she’s only got a few months left in New York before her company ships her off to Algeria, and she wants to enjoy it. But an acquaintance is pestering her about finding a rare, extremely valuable chess piece while she’s there, and there’s something…off…about his request. And the weirdness keeps mounting: the strange man on the bicycle, the shooting at a chess tournament, the body on a slab at the United Nations. And the job in Algeria doesn’t seem quite right, either.

As Mireille struggles to protect the pieces, as Catherine comes closer to uncovering the secret of the Service, can they succeed against rising odds and mounting violence?

The Eight is best described as a quest novel, told in two concurrent timelines (Don’t worry, eventually they meet up). It’s a riveting thriller taking readers from New York to Algiers, France to Russia. Mireille and Catherine are engaging heroines, bound by fate to protect the Montglane Service. If you’re looking for a thrill, some history, some chess, or just something a little different, I seriously suggest giving The Eight a try.

Favorite Line:

“How did you know which [car] was the secret police?”

“I didn’t.” Lily gave me a smug smile as she took off down the street. “So to be safe, I drilled them all.”

Don’t read if: you get uncomfortable about chess, Rolls-Royces, historical figures in fiction, or the French.

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.