Luis Scott-Vargas recently asked me for book recommendations, likely because he knows I am old and like to read a lot. I’ve had it in mind to create a moderately comprehensive list of stuff I really liked for some time, but obviously that is a mammoth amount of work. Instead I’ve decided to just add regular blog updates with this title, so that those of you looking for reading recommendations can keep track of them. I will note up front that I am not a qualified literary critic, so if you are looking for that, it’s best to find someone who cares to bother with it. I am also not an expert on any of the authors I will discuss, and though I will try not to say anything blatantly incorrect, I fear I will not always succeed.
I tend to read a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy, along with some sports books and quite a few mainstream economics books (like Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics and their brethren). I’ll sometimes read other topics that I come across that look interesting, but those are my usual areas of interest. I also read a number of comic books when I have time and extra cash to spend, so expect to see occasional recommendations in that department too. I’m not planning to do in-depth reviews here because many of these are books I haven’t read in over a decade, and many more I no longer have copies of as they were left behind during two different intercontinental moves. These are just ones I would wholeheartedly recommend reading to anyone who enjoys reading books.
Where to start?
My first thought was to hit all the fundamentals, but after you’ve been reading for enough years, you start to accumulate so many of these that they become unwieldy to recommend unless you want to write an entire book. This is a good thing, because it means there are a ton of great, enjoyable books to be found if you look hard enough. Today I’ll just recommend a few of my (many) favourite authors to get you started. (Typically, if you end up liking one or two of an author’s books, you will enjoy the whole lot, so keep that in mind.)
Guy Gavriel Kay http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Gavriel_Kay
The two things that typically make my knees weak for certain authors are witty, clever dialogue and deep, interesting characters that you form an emotional connection with. Kay is a master of the latter, which is one reason why he has so many devoted female fans. He also tends to use history as a source of inspiration (his work is sometimes categorized as ‘historical fantasy’), which make his books a little less might and magic-y and a little more mainstream. (Translation: these are good gateway drugs to give to fantasy skeptics.) The Lions of Al- Rassan, A Song for Arbonne , and Tigana (all of which are one-offs) are books that reach the very heights of what fantasy writing is about. The Fionavar Tapestry is also excellent, as is just about anything Kay has ever written.
(Note: I read Ysabel about two weeks ago and wasn’t overwhelmed by it. The book was fine, but he seems to have skewed more into young adult fantasy, an area where I am no longer the target audience.)
Robin Hobb ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_hobb )
Anyone who has ever read the Assassin series from Robin Hobb usually gets a twinkle in their eye when someone starts talking about it. It is about as brutal and brilliant, vibrant and painful a journey as you’ll find in the written word. The Fool series that followed it was also wonderful, and I also enjoyed her work with the Liveship Traders.
She also wrote as Megan Lindholm for about a decade, though at this time I am only familiar with her work as Hobb, every bit of which has been good to fantastic so far.
Patrick Rothfuss http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Rothfuss
I know everyone and their dog has probably recommended The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear to you already, but Rothfuss is a golden god of fantasy writing, and some of the most enjoyable writing (period) you will encounter these days. It is impossible for me to recommend this highly enough.
The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a three-volume work, but I have a very hard time believing he can (or should) pull this off. The first two books are so good, my hope is that he expands into five books of similar quality to tell the full tale. He’s also only 3 years older than I am, so there is slightly less worry about Rothfuss dying before he finishes than someone like George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan. (Oh, how we used to laugh back in 1994 about Jordan maybe dying before he finished. What a ridiculous idea ha ha *thud*)
Orson Scott Card http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Scott_Card
Card’s body of work is pretty inconsistent, but Ender’s Game is my favourite book, so Card gets a mention. Ender’s sequel, Speaker for the Dead, is a totally different book and is also in my personal Top 10, so while I am frustrated by the quality of some of his later work, Card’s best writing is as good as it gets. Regarding Ender’s Game, it’s hard to imagine a book that would form a deeper connection for smart, disaffected teenagers. I always purchase it when I see it at used book stores, and have given away double digit copies to friends and family over the years.
Aside from the first two books of the Ender series, I generally enjoyed the Bean side of the coin and remember finding the book Lovelock very interesting as well. Alvin Maker seems well-loved, but I have mixed feelings about that series for reasons that would take forever to explain here.
Lois McMaster Bujold http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lois_McMaster_Bujold
It’s strange to me how many people who actually like Sci Fi and Fantasy have never heard of Bujold. It’s not as if she’s a nobody – she’s won more Hugo awards than anyone else except Robert Heinlein (both have four) and has apparently sold enough Miles Vorkosigan books that she can make the entire saga free in electronic format (which you should absolutely, positively download and read).
Remember up above where I said clever dialogue gets me going? The Miles Vorkosigan series (Sci Fi) has plenty of that and also a host of strong stories and characters. Her Chalion work (set in a fantasy realm this time) is also amazing stuff, and hugely recommended (though these you will likely need to pay for). I actually started the entire Vorkosigan series again from the beginning when I got my Kindle because it had been about five years since I read any of it and it was that good.
Robert Heinlein http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Heinlein
Heinlein deserves a lot more attention than just a paragraph or two. Let’s just say you should definitely read his stuff because he is a) awesome and b) moderately crazy. Start with the book of Starship Troopers (not the abortion of a movie whose only saving grace was Dina Meyer’s tits) and Strange in a Strange Land. We’ll come back to Heinlein in the future.
Dan Ariely http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Ariely
I’ve linked to Ariely’s TED talks via my Twitter account a couple of times. They are basically excerpts from his first book about behavioural economics, Predictably Irrational, but even if you’ve already read Predictably Irrational, I recommend watching them because Ariely is really funny and engaging. He’s exactly the type of guy you would want as a college lecturer in Econ (though in truth he is a professor of Marketing – go figure), and he would definitely make you show up to class. I have just started his second book The Upside of Irrationality, and have found that both books are classics that will fundamentally change the way you look at the world. They also provide you with a few fun anecdotes to discuss with anyone who hasn’t already read them, which should prove useful at dinner parties or on blind dates.
That’s all I have time for today. If you hadn’t heard or read any of these authors, I likely just set you up with reading material for the next three months. If you had already read all of them, good for you. Most of you fall somewhere in between.
From here on out I will try to do this at least bi-weekly and add an extra layer of structure so that they don’t seem entirely ad hoc, but I make no promises.