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Seven Books I Love–Honorable Mentions

When I did my Seven Books I Love series, I talked about how hard it was to pick favorite books/series. So here are seven contenders that could have made the list depending on the day I made a decision. These are seven fast plugs

The Tortall books by Tamora Pierce were my entry point to fantasy with strong female protagonists. My fourth grade teacher had read The Hobbit to us, and I’d liked it, but had definitely noticed the lack of women. I might have moved onto The Lord of the Rings like some classmates who liked fantasy, but instead either I stumbled across The Lioness Quartet or, more likely, a teacher/librarian/bookstore employee introduced me to it. While these are YA books, I strongly encourage anyone who likes strong female representation in fantasy to read the series. Start with Alanna: The First Adventure, in which Alanna and her brother Thom switch places–he goes to the convent where as a boy he’ll learn magic and she pretends to be “Alan” and goes to court to learn to be a knight. There are roughly 15 books in the series, with more coming. As a side note, I read this with Athena (9) and she was able to get her copy signed when Tamora Pierce made an appearance at Borderlands Books (a great indie SF/F/Horror bookstore in San Francisco–they ship nationwide if you want to support them).

The Newsflesh series is set in the not too distant future of the US, where a cure for the common cold interacted with the cure for cancer, and while the upside is that no one gets colds or cancer anymore, the downside is that now we have zombies. Georgia (George) and her brother Shawn run a website of “Newsies” (those who report the news), “Irwins” (those who go out and get action videos of themselves fighting or taunting zombies), and “Fictionals” (people who write fiction, like epic love stories). At the start of Feed, the first book in the series, George and Shawn get the news that their website has been selected to cover the Republican nominee for President. Then, as the campaign progresses, it becomes clear that there are powerful people pulling the strings, and George is determined to get to the bottom of it. This is the first book in the original trilogy, which has spawned tons of novellas (The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell makes me full on sob), and a novel written from the pov of the team covering the Democrat in the race. Feed can also be ordered from Borderlands Books. Mira Grant is the YA pen name for Seanan McGuire, whose October Daye books made the Seven Books meme, and it was a toss up between Newsflesh and Toby, tbh.

The Hate U Give has been on the top of the Children’s/YA Bestseller’s list for a year and a half, and if you read it (and you should) you’ll understand why. Starr grapples with being torn between the world she lives in–a majority black urban neighborhood–and the world she goes to school in–a private, majority white school. When her childhood friend is shot by a police officer in front of her, she has to decide if she wants to be the anonymous witness, or to find her voice and tell the truth. The story is timely, grappling with systemic white privilege, and the strained/toxic relationship between the police and communities of color that spawned Black Lives Matter. I’m going to start reading it with Athena in anticipation of the movie this fall (see the excellent trailer here.) If you want to support an indie bookstore, I suggest Bookasaurus.

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I love Alisha Rai. Glutton for Pleasure is my favorite book by Alisha. Chef Devi Malik and not one, but two sexy twins in the hottest menage love story I’ve ever read. I’m shocked my kindle didn’t melt when I reached the sex scenes. The sex scenes are worth revisiting over and over. It’s not just sex, though–can Devi find more than just kinky sex with Jace and Marcus? (And what will her family think?) Even without the hot, kinky sex, the story has emotional pull, and kept my interest. You can buy it from The Ripped Bodice, the only all-romance bookstore.

The series that really turned me into a reader was The Baby-Sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin. I even went by Kristy (a reasonable nickname to my IRL name) for a good eight years in school. These books sucked me into their world and I loved them. I snark them on my book review blog, Be Quiet Mommy’s Reading, along with other 80’s books I read in my series called Snarking Nostalgic. Yes, they are flawed, but they are awesome. There is an attempt to bring them back in graphic novel form, which Athena reads and I think suck. The original series is out of print for the most part, but you can find them at used bookstores and indies like Powell’s Books.

This was so close to making my list. I am a hardcore Phantom of the Opera fan. I used to work for a Broadway ticket concierge service and every time they did a $25 matinee, I’d go see it. I’ve seen it easily twenty times, and that’s before we get into things like the 25th anniversary live concert shot at the Royal Albert Hall. Yes, I will even defend Love Never Dies. But the perfect accompaniment to the musical is Phantom by Susan Kay. It tells the story of Erik (the canonical name for the Phantom) from birth to death from various points of view. It shows how he learned all those skills he employs in the show, and his love for Christine. I used to use part of this book as my audition piece when I did theater. If you like Phantom the musical you will love Phantom, the book. If you want to support an indie, why not Powell’s?

I’ve blogged before about how Forbidden was the first book I ever read by Beverly Jenkins. Romance Twitter kept talking about a drop everything and read Beverly Jenkins day, so I had to go see what they were talking about. Rhine is a black man passing as white in the post-Civil War west, and Eddy is the black woman he falls for. He has to decide if he’d risk losing everything he’d gained for the woman he falls for. It’s such a good book–I was actively upset that I had to stop reading to go get my children at school, for one. I ran out to read everything else of hers that I could get my hands on–and I’m still working my way through her backlist book by book. If you want to shop indie, order it from The Ripped Bodice.

Seven Books I Love, part seven–Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book seven–Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

“‘You are sharing the Dark Lord’s thoughts and emotions. The Headmaster thinks it inadvisable for this to continue. He wishes me to teach you how to close your mind to the Dark Lord.'”

Dark times have come to Hogwarts. After the Dementors’ attack on his cousin Dudley, Harry Potter knows that Voldemort will stop at nothing to find him. There are many who deny the Dark Lord’s return, but Harry is not alone: a secret order gathers at Grimmauld Place to fight against the Dark forces. Harry must allow Professor Snape to teach him how to protect himself from Voldemort’s savage assaults on his mind. But they are growing stronger by the day and Harry is running out of time…

I know in general I’ve been doing the entire series (In Death, Jewels), with the exception of Magic’s Pawn. But besides the fact that I’m currently reading it with Athena, it has always been my favorite of the Harry Potter books. Big spoilers ahead, but it’s been long enough–the books have been out for over a decade and the movies have also been out for ages.

The reasons I love Order of the Phoenix include that it’s the point where the books really grow darker, we have our first truly traumatic death (I’d argue that Cedric Diggory wasn’t all that traumatic because we barely knew him), and that the big evil of this specific book is both political (the Ministry’s efforts to discredit Harry via the media of the state) and banal (Umbridge is both a political tool and that totally evil teacher we’ve all had who hates children).

This is where all of the world building and character driven plot really pays off with regards to the darkening tone. Many of the adults we’ve come to know and love turn out to be in the Order. The way that the children are cut out of the Order’s business both makes sense as a mom of almost 40, but is also an injustice given that we know exactly how capable these children are. I have to wonder how things would have been different had they just not have tried to keep Harry etc at arm’s length. This is especially a problem because of how it negatively impacts Harry and Dumbledore’s relationship. On the other hand, we see Sirius fighting to allow Harry a seat at the table.

Which leads me to Sirius’s death. We went from hating him to discovering he was Harry’s godfather and was set up–he didn’t betray the Potters. His and Harry’s relationship has deepened ever since. Sirius even wants Harry to stay with him rather than return to the Dursley’s. But then comes the scene in the Ministry vault–and Bellatrix kills Sirius. I sobbed, feeling Harry’s grief. This is also a scene where the movie did a good job showing the tragedy of Sirius’s death.

We see a Voldemort with real power. We see a corrupt Ministry that would rather pretend that Harry has cracked than the truth and one that is willing to discredit someone they see as a threat. The Ministry installs Umbridge as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to be their tool and to further divide the student body.

Umbridge is a great example of what an intentional tool of the state can do in terms of creating an authoritarian state. From the punishment of I must not tell lies to teaching DAtDA as a philosophical rather than practical class to her usurpation of Headmistress of Hogwarts and the dictates she passes as the leader of the school. At the same time she is banal evil–she’s that teacher who had it out for you. She’s that teacher who hates children and everyone knows it. She’s that teacher who looks harmless but is really sadistic. We’ve all had that teacher or that boss–we can all recognize the type of evil that she is. As a side note, while I don’t really approve of how the movies changed plot lines at times, when Umbridge begs Harry for mercy that she’s really a kind person or whatever, Harry responds with “Sorry, Professor, but I must not tell lies”? That’s fucking great and I loved that change.

Her totalitarian state creates the resistance in the form of Dumbledore’s Army. Even Hermione, the consummate rule follower knows that sometimes you have to break the rules. When a rule is unjust and evil is being perpetrated in your midst you fight back.

These two points seem especially relevant in Trump’s America. You have the state media of Fox News, and even supposedly liberal papers like the New York Times and Washington Post can’t seem to stop running articles about the poor white voters that have been left behind. Today WaPo ran an editorial that said even if you hate Trump you have to vote Republican to save our country. We also have a very active resistance led by women, particularly women of color. Women are running for office at a never before seen rate. There are constant protests and speaking truth to power. There is an active resistance. In some ways, it’s a good thing to be reading this with Athena at this moment in time because it’s giving me that language to talk about current events with her.

The prophecy is revealed and we learn that Neville could also have been the Chosen One, but that Harry really only is because Voldemort focused on him, which subverts the Chosen One trope. But Voldemort is also prevented from hearing the prophecy.

And of course, Order of the Phoenix introduces Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite characters and not just because I’m a Ravenclaw.

Order of the Phoenix is free on Kindle Unlimited, 8.99 to purchase, or one audible credit to listen to it in the car.

 

So that’s my seven…or seven of my favorites. I’ll be doing a post (or several) with some Honorable Mentions although we’ll never get to all of my favorite books because then we’d be here forever.

Seven Books I Love, part six–Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book six…Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff

A bitingly funny grand tour of our culture of excess from an award-winning humorist.

Whether David Rakoff is contrasting the elegance of one of the last flights of the supersonic Concorde with the good-times-and-chicken-wings populism of Hooters Air; working as a cabana boy at a South Beach hotel; or traveling to a private island off the coast of Belize to watch a soft-core video shoot—where he is provided with his very own personal manservant—rarely have greed, vanity, selfishness, and vapidity been so mercilessly skewered. Somewhere along the line, our healthy self-regard has exploded into obliterating narcissism; our manic getting and spending have now become celebrated as moral virtues. Simultaneously a Wildean satire and a plea for a little human decency, Don’t Get Too Comfortable shows that far from being bobos in paradise, we’re in a special circle of gilded-age hell.

My first acquaintance with David Rakoff wasn’t on paper, it was through the NPR show “This American Life,” to which he regularly contributed.  I loved the stories he told there so much, I went out and bought Fraud (and eventually his other books).  Rakoff is a masterful storyteller and his essays, whether on the page or the radio often made me think as well as laugh.  Listening to him tell his stories and reading his work has made me a better storyteller.

I almost picked Fraud instead of Don’t Get Too Comfortable. “I used to bank here, but that was long, long ago” is about Rakoff’s early battle with Hodgkin’s disease which, when it came back years later, killed him.  You can here him tell that story here, or read a transcript of that episode of TAL, including the essay here.  I strongly encourage you to listen to him tell it rather than just read it.

I actually have all of Rakoff’s work as audiobooks as well as ebooks because he narrates them, and the way he tells a story is just…priceless.

Rakoff is the kind of storyteller who makes you want to sit at their feet and beg for another story, and another, and another. I try to savor each story, but find myself instead bingeing because his prose is so gorgeous. He’s also unashamedly cynical, but not cruel. Bring your dictionary–Rakoff doesn’t scrimp on the big words.

In the end, I chose Don’t Get Too Comfortable because it opens with his essay about becoming an American citizen (Rakoff was originally Canadian), and has several other gems that just barely beat out Fraud. In Love It or Leave It, Rakoff explores his ambivalence about US citizenship and why the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 and the suspicions leveled at foreigners have led him to bite the bullet and apply for citizenship instead of contenting himself, as he had for a few decades, with his green card.

Question 87 of the citizenship test is “What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?’ The answer formulated by the government itself, is “the right to vote.” As we file out of the room, I ask someone who works there where the voter registration forms are. I am met with a shrug. “A church group used to hand them out but they ran out of money, I think.”

I don’t go to the post office to them have to buy my stamps from a bunch of Girl Scouts outside, and if the Girl Scouts are sick that day, then I’m shit out of luck. A church group? Why isn’t there a form clipped to my naturalization certificate? It is difficult not to see something insidious in this oversight while standing in this sea of humanity, the majority of whom are visible minorities.

I haven’t voted since I was eighteen, when I cast a ballot in Canada during my first summer back from college. It’s not that I take voting lightly. Quite the opposite. Living down in the United States where the coverage of Canadian politics is pretty well nonexistent, I have never felt well-enough informed to have an opinion. But even if I had made it my business to stay abreast of things–going to the library to read the foreign papers in those pre-Internet years–after a certain point, I no longer felt entitled to have a say in Canada’s affairs, having essentially abandoned the place. I suspect this is going to happen for the next little while every time I have to do something unmistakably American, like cast a ballot in a non-parliamentary election or go through customs on my U.S. passport, but standing here on line, I am stricken with such guilt and buyer’s remorse, overcome with a feeling of such nostalgia for where I came from, with its socialized medicine and gun control, that it is all I can do not to break ranks and start walking uptown and not stop until I reach the 49th parallel.

This feels appropriately prescient as we endure an immigration crackdown under another, worse, president.

There is also a story about the last flight of the Concorde versus Hooters Air, an essay that starts off by discussing Martha Stewart’s arrest that really explores Rakoff’s own love of DIY and his visit to Martha Stewart Living, and in Whatsizface Rakoff asks two plastic surgeons to tell him what is needed to fix his normal face. He is underwhelmed by an all night scavenger hunt. He is consistently dry and honest as he shares his stories.

I believe, but am not 100% sure that these essays all appeared in other media before being collected together. I certainly heard several on This American Life before I read them.

There are four Rakoff books, and Don’t Get Too Comfortable is my favorite, followed by Fraud. If you too have a sardonic, dry wit, I can’t recommend him enough. Worth noting that a curious thing keeps popping up in reviews–if you like David Sedaris, you may not like Rakoff, while I am the other way around where I find Sedaris occasionally witty but have a strong preference for Rakoff’s work.

One caveat–some of Rakoff’s offhand comments, particularly about women have not necessarily aged well in the intervening 15-18 years since their writing and are somewhat offensive in the era of #metoo

Don’t Get Too Comfortable is 11.99 on kindle, but I’d almost encourage you more to buy the audiobook if you’re only going to consume it using one form of media.

 

Seven Books I Love, part five–The Blessings Series by Beverly Jenkins

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book (series) five…The Blessings Series by Beverly Jenkins

On Bernadine Brown’s fifty-second birthday she received an unexpected gift—she caught her husband, Leo, cheating with his secretary. She was hurt—angry, too—but she didn’t cry woe is me. Nope, she hired herself a top-notch lawyer and ended up with a cool $275 million. Having been raised in the church, she knew that when much is given much is expected, so she asked God to send her a purpose.

The purpose turned out to be a town: Henry Adams, Kansas, one of the last surviving townships founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The failing town had put itself up for sale on the Internet, so Bernadine bought it.

Trent July is the mayor, and watching the town of his birth slide into debt and foreclosure is about the hardest thing he’s ever done. When the buyer comes to town, he’s impressed by her vision, strength, and the hope she wants to offer not only to the town and its few remaining residents, but to a handful of kids in desperate need of a second chance.

Not everyone in town wants to get on board though; they don’t want change. But Bernadine and Trent, along with his first love, Lily Fontaine, are determined to preserve the town’s legacy while ushering in a new era with ties to its unique past and its promising future.

summary of Bring on the Blessings, Blessings #1

Readers of Beverly Jenkins’ historical romances will perk up at the name “Henry Adams” because it’s the setting for a number of historical books. This is indeed the same town, which has become a run down dying town that put itself up for sale.

Bernadine is a no nonsense woman who takes her divorce settlement and buys Henry Adams. She wants to revitalize the town, and one of her projects is to create homes for foster kids who need a home and love because she’s a former social worker. The first few books deal with each of the families with a foster child, and then it begins to widen out. Family is always at the center of the books, though, and they qualify as sweet rather than steamy romance (read her historicals for steamy).

On paper this is not something I should love–sweet romance isn’t usually my style, nor do I read a lot of mainstream fiction. But Jenkins’ writing along with her as always well populated cast of characters draws you in. I bought the first book to read on vacation last December, and in two weeks I’d read all of the books and the novellas.

What I love best about the book are the characters. Each of the children has the sort of history that makes them suspicious but hopeful when it comes to their new parents. The different ages of the children also affects the way they interact with their new parents and the community. Their past also marks each child differently. The parents are also very different and each book addresses the relationship of the parents–one has a couple that is struggling with how to deal with the distance that has grown between them.

Bernadine is fabulously wealthy, so she has the magical deep pockets that allow her to buy a town, build a school, etc. But unlike your typical billionaire, she’s not white and she’s not a man. She also has a collection of equally fabulously wealthy female friends who have each other’s backs, share a private plane, and more. It’s a cool take on the billionaire trope.

These books are the kind of balm your soul might need in these trying times. A community that actually comes together and embraces these children feels alien at this point in time, and is the kind of place I aspire to live in.

The ninth books in the series–Second Time Sweeter comes out Aug 28th, so you have time to read them and catch up. Book one, Bring on the Blessings is 3.49 on Kindle.

Seven Books I Love, part four–The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book (series) four…The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

The world of Faerie never disappeared; it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born.

Outsiders from birth, these half-human, half-fae children spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her.

–summary of Rosemary and Rue, book 1 in the series

Rosemary and Rue is the first book in the October Daye series. It opens with October “Toby” Daye, a half human/half Fae knight, tracking the man who has kidnapped her liege lord’s wife and daughter…and she fails, horribly. So horribly that the kidnapper turns her into a koi. She spends fourteen years in the pond, only to change back by some unknown exercise of her powers. By this time her ex and her daughter have moved on, and want nothing to do with her. She, in turn, turns her back on Faerie.

I think starting a series with a failure is a brave move. Everything that happens, and is still happening in the upcoming book twelve of the series, comes back to this failure and how it changed Toby. That said, books one and two are a little slow–I think in part to doing the heavy lifting in world building and introducing characters–but good. Book three, though, was when the series took off for me.

McGuire’s Faerie world borrows heavily from Celtic tradition with a twist all her own, as the Faerie Hills open into our world. Most of the Toby books are urban fantasy, largely taking part in San Francisco and the Faerie Hills near it. Living near San Francisco, part of me is always a little delighted to come across a setting from one of the book and is half hoping to see a Fae creature because I’m a bit whimsical.

Toby becomes a private investigator in her “real” life as well as picking up her sword again (more or less). This means the books tend to fall into a procedural or an investigation theme. Each book expands the world as we know it, adding characters, and deepening relationships and motivations. Some of my favorite characters are Tybalt, the King of the Cats and the Ludaeig, the sea witch.

McGuire’s books always have snappy dialog and pop culture references. Toby’s books are a bit less so because she’s fourteen years out of date–her relationship with cell phones is entertaining for one, and there’s a teenage character who thinks her taste in music sucks. Toby’s universe is also peppered with incredibly snarky characters as well as incredibly earnest ones as well as the baddies. There’s a lot of nuanced characters–the Ludaeig always demands a price, but as the books unfold you understand why she is the way she is. The man who turned her into a fish–Simon Torquill–is also an unexpectedly gray character, as we find out in either the most recent book or the second to most recent book.

I loved McGuire’s work as YA author Mira Grant (Feed will show up in my honorable mentions), so I started reading her adult work. The Incryptid series could easily have taken this spot as well. I sat down to start reading the Toby books in February and with a short break to read the new Anne Bishop, I devoured them all in under a month.

Urban fantasy your thing? Read the October Daye series.

Buy Rosemary and Rue (book one in the series) for 1.99 on kindle.

Seven Books I Love, part three–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book three…Magic’s Pawn

(Much of this blog post comes from another piece I wrote about it)

Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior’s path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his if left untrained may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.

But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil can not master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin’a’in Adept, Vanyel’s wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone’s ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril…

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it–especially since she’s ignoring her own canon.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.

Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Mercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.

Short list of recommended Lackey books are–Black Gryphon (maaaaaaybe White Gryphon, definitely not Silver Gryphon), Vanyel’s trilogy, Vows and Honor duo, Arrow’s trilogy, By the Sword, Winds Trilogy, and the Mage Wars trilogy. The rest of the Valdemar books are questionable if not infuriating to me. Some of her work that has gone out of print that is excellent if you come across it used are the Serrated Edge books and the Diana Tregarde books. The Fire Rose is excellent. The rest of the elemental books are hit or miss. She’s great, but it’s too often a crapshoot for her to still be on my auto-buy list, although there was a time when she was.

You can buy Magic’s Pawn for 2.99 on kindle.

Seven Books I Love, part two–In Death series by JD Robb

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book (series) two… In Death by JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts)

 

Book 47–Leverage in Death, releasing Sept 4, 2018

For the airline executives finalizing a merger that would make news in the business world, the nine a.m. meeting would be a major milestone. But after marketing VP Paul Rogan walked into the plush conference room, strapped with explosives, the headlines told of death and destruction instead. The NYPSD’s Eve Dallas confirms that Rogan was cruelly coerced by two masked men holding his family hostage. His motive was saving his wife and daughter—but what was the motive of the masked men?

Despite the chaos and bad publicity, blowing up one meeting isn’t going to put the brakes on the merger. All it’s accomplished is shattering a lot of innocent lives. Now, with the help of her billionaire husband Roarke, Eve must untangle the reason for an inexplicable act of terror, look at suspects inside and outside both corporations, and determine whether the root of this crime lies in simple sabotage, or something far more complex and twisted.

This makes the list because after forty-six books and a ton of novellas, Robb (acclaimed romance author Nora Roberts) manages to keep the series from being stagnant or bloated. I started reading the series fairly early on (book one was published in 1995), and have been reading it since around 2000/2001. I like it so much that I was willing to buy each book in hardcover, rather than wait for a library copy or for it to come out in paperback. Once I started reading consistently on kindle, around when we moved to Singapore in 2010, I started buying the books on kindle. When a new book in the series appears on my kindle (two are released a year) I drop everything to read it.

One of the things Robb does well is to develop our main character Eve’s story while continuing to develop and introduce a huge cast of secondary characters. Eve is the Lieutenant in the Homicide Department of the New York Police and Safety Department in 2161 (as of the last book), and we know her husband, her partner, her best friend and her family, most of the cops in her division, the chief psychologist, and other characters.

The characters grow and evolve–Eve’s partner starts off as a beat cop who becomes Eve’s trainee and her eventual partner, as an example. Eve meets her husband in book one and their relationship has grown and evolved.

Eve’s husband is a billionaire, so it does play into that trope. He’s also a tech genius who owns half of Manhattan. Because of that, Eve has access to an incredible arsenal of toys, which if you’re not into the trope might annoy you.

Each book plays out with a serial killer, and several murders occur over the course of the book. Fans of murder mystery/police procedurals will find it satisfying on that count. Romance fans will respond to the sex scenes between Roarke and Eve.

There is a phase where Eve is invincible and just magically figures things out that is somewhat frustrating if you’re reading them all back to back (a project I did last year), but for the most part she is fallible and can end up going in the wrong direction.

As long as the series stays this fresh, I’ll keep reading them.

Start with Naked in Death (book 1) 7.99 on kindle. I’m sure you could also jump in wherever you wanted and it would be okay, but I think it’s best to start at the beginning.