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 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.

 

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.

Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

It’s 1171, Cambridge, England. Children are disappearing, and the townsfolk blame the Jews. To prevent a wholesale slaughter, the sheriff has moved every Jew in the area to his castle for their protection. But the locals are angry, and it’s only a matter of time before they act. Meanwhile, the children are turning up–dead. Tempers flare, and the populace is howling for justice, retribution, blood.

Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Sent by the king of Sicily, she’s a Salerno-taught physician who specializes in postmortem studies–she’s a doctor to the dead. She, her companion Mansur, and the Sicilian king’s fixer Simon are tasked with solving the murders and restoring peace to the Cambridge fens.

But England is not Salerno–anti-Semitism runs rampant, doctors are mostly quack-medicine peddlers frowned upon by the all-powerful Church (suffering is sent from God, they reason, so only God can relieve it. Looking elsewhere for a cure suggests a lack of faith–or worse), and women doctors are even worse: at best ostracized, more likely to be branded witches and dealt with accordingly.

Adelia and her companions have to tread carefully–let no one know what she really is, or why they’re really there. But she finds a few unlikely allies along the way–and one incredibly likely suspect, a tax collector named Rowley Picot. As her suspicions mount and tensions rise, can she find the killer before they strike again, before the villagers storm the castle, before the Church brands her a witch and a heretic?

This book is wonderful; I love it. It’s a great mystery with an equally great protagonist, set in a much under-used era. This history is pretty accurate, which (for the most part) adds a wonderful aspect to the story. It’s accuracy, however, can make some parts uncomfortable, especially because at that time in history anti-Semitism was everywhere and it’s upsetting to read about how acceptable and prevalent it was, even in England where they weren’t actively persecuted.

But I do highly, highly encourage you to read this book: for the history, for the place, and to discover just why Adelia merits the title of Mistress of the Art of Death.

Favorite Line:

And however vile the creature it was laid for, a trap was always a trap.

Don’t read if:  you take issue with determined career women, 12th century England, Crusaders, relics, or incredibly smelly dogs.

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris–a Guest Post by CJ!

Quick note from Two: This is a guest review by our very own CJ, who can occasionally be found lurking in the comments. Everybody be nice, as it’s very nice for CJ to contribute.

There is none so cursed as those with stupid sisters.

Lynet’s sister Lyonesse is a doozy of a stupid sister. She is everything a lady should be. Beautiful if you go for doe-eyed, manipulative, and useless. Their castle is besieged by an amorous and amoral knight that thinks beheading all comers is the way to a lady’s heart. Of course with a lady like Lyonesse he is not far wrong.

Lynet on the other hand is smart and resourceful if a bit naïve. She sneaks from the castle and heads for Camelot. Armed only with the promise of her sister’s hand she seeks a knight of the round table to save her home. Along the way she meets and defeats a strange little dwarf named Roger. He helps her to Camelot. She was a bit lost if we are honest.

At Camelot she finds she is not the first to offer the hand of the fairest lady in the land. In fact, the knights suspect her sister is less lovely than claimed. To make matters worse she refuses to name her castle for fear Arthur will not aid a former enemy. All she manages to get for her trouble is a scruffy kitchen boy. She soon finds he is as dumb as he looks though not bad with a sword. She needs the help of the dwarf to counteract the idiocy.

This is the kind of story where nothing is what it seems. Morris takes the oldest of Arthurian lore and infuses it with wit and hilarity. He captures the beauty and peril of the fae world and makes it new. The damsels are savage and smart. Courtly love is seen for the farce it is and real love gets a chance.

Join the savage damsel, and the odd dwarf as they meet enchantresses, Sir Gawain, King Arthur, and more on the way to complete the quest.

Favorite Line:

‘A lady,’ he repeated. ‘I’ve just been disarmed and taken prisoner by a lady.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘I really am pathetic,’ he moaned.”

Don’t read if: you can’t stand witty banter, role reversals, enchantments, or dwarves who like farming.

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