What I've Been Reading Lately
(okay, so it’s not “lately” anymore. Good books don’t go out of style and
I’m determined to add some stuff here
Jump to the non-fiction recommendations?
The Fiction Pile
- Finity's End by CJ Cherryh
Warner 1997 ISBN 0-446-57072-1
- Cherryh's latest book (it will be published in August) fills in a few of the blanks in the overall history of her Union - Alliance - Merchanter world. Specifically she's telling the story of Finity's End, the first and foremost of the the Merchanter family ships and the efforts of its senior crew to forge a workable after a long war that reshaped human-dominated space. Rather than focus on political negotiations and economic realities, Cherryh choses to focus on Fletcher Neihart, who should have spent the first twelve subjective years growing up under the rules of war in the nursery on-board Finity's End. Should have, but instead he spent seventeen years growing up on Pell Station, an orphan and a hostage to fortune. He thought he'd finally found a place for himself on the alien world below Pell Station, but fate and Finity's End take him into space instead.
Cherryh -- often at her best when describing aliens -- brings that gift to bear on the time-dialated decks of a space ship where everyone's older than they look, especially the kids. A story of loss and rediscovery, FINITY'S END is as moving as it is exciting.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsby Maya Angelou
Bantam 1993 ISBN 0-553-27937-8
- Maya Angelou was the featured speaker at the Celebration of Books in Tulsa on March 22, 1997. Whether reciting her poetry, someone else's poetry, singing or just talking, she was an inspiration. I went out and bought the first volume of her autobiography, which, over and above its wonderful language, provided a glimpse into a world I can scarcely imagine. There is no created world in all of Science Fiction or Fantasy half so alien as growing up Black in the segregated South.
- Strands of Starlight by Gael Baudino
Roc 1989 ISBN 0-451-45316-6
- Strands of Starlight combines the best of both worlds for me: lots of believable magic and lots of credible history. The time and place are 14th century Europe -- maybe 90% 14th century Europe, complete with the Inquisition and economic rivalries between the traditional feudal nobility and the burghers of the Free Towns. But there are elves in the forests... not very many since they don't get along with the Church. And then there's a girl, Miriam, a healer who is compelled to heal the sick and injured, regardless of any risk to herself. All too often in modern fantasy, characters reflect the readers' hopes and prejudices rather than the consequences of their experiences but Miriam is believably scarred and embittered by her encounters with the Inquisition. Strands of Starlight isn't a fairytale about escaping to a better life; it's a beaufifully written, ``sadder. but wiser'' novel about difficult choices and painful compromises.
(And there's at least one more book about Miriam Maze of Moonlight, which I'll read as soon as I find it!)
- Fortress in the Eye of Time by CJ Cherryh
Harper Collins 1995 ISBN: 0-06-109295-9
- In my heart, I'm a reader who writes. Every so often I read a book that I wish had my name on the cover. Fortress is one of those books, and another book I had the opportunity to read several times before it was published. I'd kill to add Tristen, Cefwyn, Idrys, and Nineverise to my little rep company of characters-- but I didn't and the book came out with CJ's name on the cover. It's not like anything else she's written. The story is timeless and language cries out for a bard.
- The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit by Storm Constantine
Tor Books 1990 ISBN: 0-812-50554-9
- Imagine a future of anarchy and decadence, where ordinary men and women cling to the worn-out ways of the past. Imagine a future where some men have transformed themselves into hermaphrodites and trying to build a new way of life on the ruins of the old. Throw in a mix of exotic and attractive characters and you've got the first of Constantine's Wraeththu Trilogy. Neither SF nor Fantasy, but like the Wraeththu themselves, a thorough blend of both.
- Shadow Games by Glen Cook
Tor 1989 ISBN 0- 812-53382-8
- Well, Bleak Seasons the long-awaited 1997 Black Company book is on the stands now, which meant it was time for me to make space on the to-be- read pile by reading Cook's 1989 novel Shadow Games. I don't read contemporary mercenaries-at-large fiction, but I treasure each of the Black Company books and Shadow Games is no exception, though it doesn't replace The White Rose as my favorite.
For me the challenge in writing ``action'' fantasy has always been to capture realism without sacrificing magic to portray everyday characters coping with fireballs and monsters, late wages and moldy socks. No one does this better than Glen Cook. Croaker's first-person narrative is bemused rather than epic as he leads the sparse remnant of the Company back to a homebase no- one now living has ever seen.
It wouldn't hurt a reader new to the Black Company to start with Shadow Games; you'd never be more uncertain of the Company's past and future than Croaker is himself but it's richer to start at the beginning, with the the Black Company which is still in print.
- Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett
Alfred A Knopf 1986 ISBN: 0-394-53107-8
- When people ask me who's my favorite author, nine times out of ten I'll say Dorothy Dunnett. This is the first of what I've been told will be an eight volume story; volume six came out this year (1996). At the heart of the House of Niccolo (the name of the series) is mystery that won't be revealed until the last page of the last book. I hate suspense; I'm going to wait until they're all available before I read the rest of them (I think... but I may succumb to temptation.)
- The Exile Kiss by George Alec Effinger
Bantam 1991 ISBN 0-553-29664-7
- Marid Audran is back for his third novel (When Gravity Fails and A Fire in the Sun were Effinger's first two Marid novels). No one can combine the disparate elements of cyberpunk, Casablanca, and an Islamic future better than Effinger. The first person narrative is consistently wry and literate, yet a believable voice for the always-scrambling Marid. The Exile Kiss, however, takes place outside Marid's grungy North African home-turf , mostly in the Arabian desert. The locale gives Effinger ample opportunity to take Marid places he never intended to visit and tell an entertaining tale to the reader, but I missed the day by day absurdities of life in the Budayeen. Still, any Effinger is better than no Effinger.
- Ring of Lightning by Jane S Fancher
DAW Books 1995 ISBN 0-88677-653-8
- A rousing big book about three brothers-- heirs of the thoroughly dysfunctional Rhomandi family and the maybe-magical state of Rhomatum. I read it in manuscript, `cause Jane lives next door and it was the neighborly thing to do. I read it again when it was published, `cause it's a good read. .
- Good Omens -- The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Workman 1990 ISBN 0-89480-853-2
- It's been a long time since I laughed out loud while reading a book, but GOOD OMENS left me laughing. Underneath-- way the humor, it's a well considered treatment of the roles of good and evil in contemporary society. Not only is contemporary society post-industrial and post-modern, it's post good and evil, too -- if I understood Gaiman and Pratchett correctly. But perhaps I missed something while I was laughing. The ineffable Plan, however, will never seem the same again.
- Illusion by Paula Volsky
Bantam 1992 ISBN 0-553-35134-5
- My favorite novels take me someplace I can never visit and make me believe that I've lived there all my life. It's a rare fantasy novel that can create so much depth and detail without losing the story in the background. Illusion was that rare. It's closely modeled on 18th century France-- that's how Volsky gets her depth-- but the Bourbons have become Bonbons, the guillotine is a magic-powered box and part played by Robespierre has gone to a disenchanted wizard. I'd've been impressed by the world-building alone, but the main characters and their story are completely original and completely compelling.
- The Wolf of Winter by Paula Volsky
- I wind up approaching books by my favorite authors with high expectations and considerable trepidation: It's so easy to be disappointed. Illusionwas a skillful reworking of history I knew well; that gave it an advantage over The Wolf of Winter which is, as far as I can tell, a wholly created milieu (though it seems to owe much to the Russia of Peter the Great). It's a good story, told in the detached, ironic style I enjoy so much, but I found myself levelling a criticism which has been directed at my own novels: Volsky tells the story she finds interesting, which is not necessarily the one I most wanted to read. She gets the job done, and I care about her characters, but there are at least two main story threads and about a hundred scenes I wish she'd written in addition to the what she gave me.
The Nonfiction Pile
- The Nature of Horses by Stephen Budiansky
l Free Press 1997 ISBN: 0-684-82768-9
- As horse-people go, I'm not. Oh, I've cleaned a few stalls and hooves, but when it comes to the horses that appear in my books, I'm doing it on research, not experience -- which is why I'm so grateful for Budiansky's book which is the first I've encountered that doesn't focus on riding or training either the horse or the rider, but on what horses do and why they do it -- how they move and why they have the gaits they do. What their eyes can see and what their brains do with the information they get. Fascinating -- even if you're not trying to create believable four-footed characters.
- Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Norton 1994 ISBN: 0-393-03506-9
- Barber starts from the common sense assumption that for most of human history biology was destiny and women's work had to be work that was interruptible and not dangerous to their never-far-away children. Few things fit those requirements better than the fiber crafts of spinning and weaving. But that's only where Barber starts. The book is a companion piece to a more scholarly work and documents seventeen years of one woman's curiosity and discovery.
- Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber
Yale University Press 1988 ISBN 0-300-04859-9
- Finally, an answer to the question: What, exactly, is it that corpses do after they're buried that has convinced otherwise sensible people that vampires exist? Drawing on an awesome knowledge of what bodies do once they're no longer alive, Barber compares vampire fact and fiction with what can only be described as bone-dry humor. His descriptions of flooded cemeteries in suburban California had me laughing out loud.
- Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman F Cantor
Morrow 1991 ISBN 0-688-09406-6
- I knew the fantasy novels that I write were different than the fantasies that had been written twenty or forty years earlier, but until I read this book I'd never quite understood how the history profs I took classes from in the Sixties shaped the books I'm writing today. Cantor's chapter on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien should be a must-read for any serious fantasy reader in the Nineties.
- The Three Orders -- Feudal Society Imagined by Georges Duby
University of Chicago Press 1982 ISBN 0-226-16772-0
- In a sense, another exploration of the apparently obvious. From our late 20th century perspective, knowing, as we think do, that the Catholic Church dominated medieval European society, the notion that medieval society was divided into three orders: warriors, clergy, and laborers seems obvious. Christianity is a trinitarian religion; its philosophies permeated every aspect of medieval life, of course, we think, they divided their society into three parts-- they divided everything into three parts. But through a close reading of contemporary texts, Duby demonstrates that the medieval perspective was more complex, more dynamic and more sophisticated than we imagine it to have been.
In addition, this is a translation of academic French and the translator had to strip-mine the fringes of English grammar and punctuation to come up with equivalent language. If you want to read the antithesis of colloquial English, this is the place to find it.
- The City Shaped -- Urban Patterns and Meaning Through History by Spiro Kostof
Thames and Hudson 1991 ISBN 0-8212-1867-0
- It's so obvious in a way: New York City doesn't look like Los Angeles, neither of them look like London, and although New Delhi looks a little like London, none of them look like Isfahan or Jaipur. But why? THE CITY SHAPED showed me the patterns. Kostof studied cities all his life, the way a biolgist studies animals or plants, and this book was culmination of his life's work. In the future, my fictional cities will be more sophisticated and better metaphors for the stories I set in them.