Great Reads

Marchetto, Marisa Acocella. Cancer Vixen: A True Story.

Cartoonist Marisa Acocella shares her personal battle with breast cancer in a way only a New Yorker can in this illustrated memoir. On the eve of her marriage to a handsome Italian restaurant owner, Marisa finds a lump in her breast and it feels like everything she loves is about to be sucked into a black hole. But with courage, her faithful fiance, slightly crazy Italian mother, brutally honest friends and a little dose of fashion, she manages her eleven month treatment with grace and more than a little humor.

If you never thought a memoir on Cancer could make you laugh-out-loud, think again. With bold, witty and emotionally powerful illustrations, Marisa takes us through one of the most chaotic times of her life. This graphic novel has continually been named one of the best in its genre.

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Coates, Deborah. Wide Open

Coates’ novel, likely the first in a new urban fantasy series, introduces Sgt. Hallie Michaels. Hallie has seen ghosts ever since she died for seven minutes following an insurgent attack in Afganistan.  Now she has returned home to South Dakota on a ten-day leave to attend the funeral of her younger sister Dell.  But Hallie quickly becomes convinced that Dell’s death, considered by many to be suicide, was actually murder. She finds an unlikely ally in local deputy Boyd Davies, whose life-long precognitive dreams predispose him to believing in Hallie’s ghosts. They quickly zero in on Dell’s former employer Uku-Weber, a weather research firm whose new technology seems to rely on forces more arcane than meteorological science. It becomes obvious that Dell knew more about the truth than was healthy and Hallie and Boyd must find a way to take down the dangerous, magic-using Martin Weber before his body count rises.

Hallie—a brash, profanity-prone, emotionally damaged, but appealing character—and Boyd, equally emotionally damaged in his own way but much more the Boy-Scout type—make an engaging pair.  Some slight awkwardness in writing style does not much detract from the characters, interesting plot, and well-drawn setting.

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Bear, Elizabeth. Range of Ghosts

The always-impressive Bear enchants with this new fantasy set in an Asian-inspired land.  Young Temur wakes up on the battlefield having been left for dead. He is the grandson of the Great Khagan and has been supporting his half-brother’s bid for rulership—but they were defeated in a series of terrible battles against the usurper Qori Buqa.  He joins a caravan of refugees fleeing toward the mountains known as the Range of Ghosts and finds himself adopted into another tribe and paired off with the lovely young woman Edene. But his enemies are still hunting him and when Edene is stolen by an army of undead ghosts sent against him, Temur must rescue her. Along the way, he crosses paths with Samarkar, a former princess of the Rasan people and now a newly-minted wizard; and Hrahima, a tiger-woman at odds with her god and her people. The three have similar goals—and similar enemies. Qori Buqa has joined forces with al-Sepehr, a necromantic sorcerer from the Uthman Caliphate seeking to restore his sect’s prominence—and al-Sepehr’s blood magic threatens to bring back the dark days of the Carrion King.

The vivid world-building and unusual, multi-cultural setting and sympathetic, realistic characters are a delight. The parallels to the real-world cultures of the Mongols, Tatars, Chinese, and others are obvious, but each imagined culture nevertheless has a richness that never feels derivative.  A great fantasy for those who may be tired of the same old Medieval Europe-inspired fantasies so prevalent on the shelves.

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Monette, Sarah. Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

Monette’s second short story collection (after The Bone Key,2007) is lyrical and evocative. Where the earlier collection was tightly focused around the experiences of one character (Kyle Murchison Booth, who also makes an appearance in one story here), Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is far-reaching and diverse. Monette’s protagonists face magic and despair, hope and everyday life with equally compelling results. Stand-outs in the collection include the title story, in which a selkie and a human woman both find themselves trapped on land; Katabasis: Seraphic Trains, in which a naïve young woman uses a magical gift to save a man who does not deserve her love; and Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland, about the perils of loving the fairy queen. Highly recommended.

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Harkaway, Nick. Angelmaker

All his life, Joe Spork has been caught between the legacy of his grandfather Daniel, a brilliant and honest clockmaker, and his father Mathew, a vivacious and larger-than-life criminal mastermind who ruled London's underground world. As a child, Joe ran wild in Mathew’s world as Crown Prince of Crime, learning the hidden ways of the gangster. But after his father’s death and his mother’s retreat into a convent, Joe took up Daniel’s legacy, becoming a clockmaker and running the store he inherited from his grandfather.  When an old friend of Joe’s brings him a client with a fabulous piece of antique clockwork needing repair, Joe’s quiet life is disrupted with explosive consequences. The clockwork device is no toy, it seems, but is actually part of a weapon of mass destruction developed by a French genius a generation before but never deployed—until Joe repaired it and turned it on unknowingly.  Now Joe is caught between shadowy governement agents, a strange group of cultists calling themselves the Ruskinites, an old enemy from Britain’s past, and a now-elderly former spy named Edie Banister, all of whom want control of the device—the Angelmaker. And Joe must embrace parts of himself he’d thought long in his past if he’s going to not only survive, but save the world in the bargain.

This impressive, intriguing, and complex novel is impossible to categorize. Part steampunk romp, part espionage thriller, part gangster adventure, with dollops of romance and philosophy dropped in for good measure, the only thing one can call this novel for sure is great fun. You might not know quite what you’re reading, but you’re going to love it all the same. Muscular prose, endless inventiveness, and truly engaging characters put the icing on this particular cake.

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