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.

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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.

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.

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall–and it’s Detective Inspector Jack Spratt’s job to find out what happened.

DI Spratt runs the Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Central Police.  He and his small (yet plucky!) band of misfits solve the unconventional crimes that crop up in Berkshire–illegal straw-into-gold dens, serial killings by some guy with a brightly colored beard, anything involving talking animals. But it’s not all happy ever after for Spratt and his crew; their latest investigation resulted in an acquittal and the Chief Constable is threatening to shut them down.

Then a local, D-list celebrity named Humpty Dumpty is found dead. At first it looks like suicide, but then others start to die, too–the next-door neighbor, the ex-wife–and the clues keep pointing to murder by person or persons unknown. But who? And why?

If that wasn’t enough, Spratt is hoping to gain entry to the Guild of Detectives and join the ranks of famous detectives like Miss Maple, Lord Peter Flimsey, and Reading’s very own DCI Friedland Chymes. Membership means a following, legitimacy, and the chance to have one’s cases not only published in Amazing Crime Stories magazine, but adapted for prime-time television as well. It’s major, and Jack wants the credibility membership would give to him and, by extension, the entire Nursery Crime Division.

I’ve got to be honest–this one is a bit out there (but in a good way, I promise!). It’s very much a standard mystery that pokes fun at the conventions so prevalent in the genre, and does it very, very well. The nursery rhyme characters fit in seamlessly, and add a little zest that most other mysteries lack. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet presents a puzzling and compelling mystery (Bonus points if you can spot all the puns and references!).

Can Spratt, his DS Mary Mary, and the rest of the team solve the murder before the case is taken away from them? Will Spratt get accepted into the Guild of Detectives? And what on earth is the huge green thing growing in his mother’s front garden? Check out The Big Over Easy, and find out.

Favorite Line:

The lights were off, the interior dingy, and someone, somewhere, was playing the violin.

Don’t read if: you object to eggs, faded movie stars, verrucas, immortal Titans, or accidental giant killing.

Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest

Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden is a woman trying to do her best, but it’s not easy. Her older sister, Emma, is slowly dying of consumption (best known nowadays as tuberculosis). Her parents are dead from a brutal murder. The other residents of Fall River shun the Borden sisters, believing that Lizzie, though acquitted in a court of law, killed her parents in cold blood.

Which she did, in fact, do. But in her defense, they had become a bit…weird. After the trial, Lizzie and her sister moved across town to a large, semi-secluded house known as Maplecroft. It has plenty of space for Emma’s scientific research (though she has to publish under a male pseudonym, because it’s 1893 and society still believed women had no business getting involved in all that book-learnin’. So not too different from now, come to think of it. Anyway.) There’s even room for a giant tank of boiling lye under the cellar floor so Lizzie can easily dispose of the bodies of the things that keep showing up outside Maplecroft at night. Things; creatures; disgusting slimy blind wet things with glassy, needle-sharp teeth. Things like what the senior Bordens had become before Lizzie handled them. But the things keep showing up, and keep showing up, and it’s getting harder for Lizzie to keep up. And the other townspeople are starting to go strange, too…

Imagine if your loved ones were slowly changing into the revoltingly batrachian Deep Ones before your very eyes. Imagine if you knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they’d come for you next. And imagine if, with a few quick blows of an axe, you could save yourself and what’s left of your family. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve been viewing Lizzie Borden all wrong. Give her a chance to tell her side of the story–read Maplecroft and see if Lizzie Borden is still a villain, or instead is just a maligned, reluctant hero desperate to save herself, her sister, and her home.

This is a brilliant book, a horror novel in the best traditions of HP Lovecraft.

Favorite Line:

If I had any sense, I’d relocate to the desert or the mountains, and be done with this whole business once and for all.

Don’t read if: you have a problem with doctors, axes, mysterious people working for shadowy government organizations, or Massachusetts.