The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Fiction We Loved as Adults

I thought it would be nice to share books we loved after leaving high school, or thereabouts. As with the previous post on childhood books, all off-topic comments will be deleted.

As before, I make no claim any of these books are “good,” only that I loved them.

The Spenser Novels, Robert Parker

Ostensibly first person “tough guy” detective novels, these are really extended meditations on the good life: what sort of person one should be, how one should act, what’s worth doing and not doing. Spenser has created the person he wants to be, and it’s a person that comes with high costs.

The dialogue is good, the plots are sometimes good, the characters become old friends and cliches over the length of the series. All the books are not as good as each other. Still, they were comfort food bestsellers for years.

The Burke Novels, Andrew Vachss

Also first person tough guy detective novels, but very different from the Spenser novels, except for the characters pushing hard into power-fantasy territory. Burke’s down and out, his obsession is catching pedophiles, and his world is nasty. I found these depressing when I read them in my early 20s, and I stopped reading them after the fifth, as my mood no longer went with them.

But they’re good. And the shit world they depict is one too many people live in. Start at the beginning, with Flood.

The SPQR Novels, John Maddox Roberts

I wrote a long review of just these novels. They’re fun detective stories set in the late Roman Republic. Carried a couple with me whenever I traveled for years. Highly recommended.

A Tapestry of Magics, Brian Daley

There is a place, which attracts pieces of other realities, ruled by an immortal king (who is almost certainly Conan), where much that is lost, be it armies, lovers, or vampires often wind up.

It is the story of Crassmor Tarrant, the ne’er do well son of a powerful family, and features three linked novellas about his life, showing his fall from his father’s grace and his heroics as a nearly outcast knight errant who wants nothing to do with heroics, but only to return home safely to the woman he loves.

Crassmor is delightful: He’s clever, cynical on the surface, and somewhat tired. Unlike a lot of protagonists he’s not stupid about, say, the opposite sex or how the world works: He’s a carouser and womanizer and gambler.

This book is a love letter–to Robin Hood, Conan, courtly knight stories, and far more besides. The author loves his world and his characters and it shines through. And it’s fun.

The Wizard War Series, by Andrew Offut and Richard Lyon

Offut’s one of those authors who wrote a lot, and none of it worked for me, except this one series with Lyon.  The protagonist is the pirate Tiana Highrider. She’s ridiculously overconfident, believes she never feels fear (but often does), very clever, and quite funny. In the first book, she and her foster father go on separate quests to find the pieces of the body of a deceased wizard so they can bring him fully back to life, at which point he will consume their souls and ignite a wizard war.

Her father, a black ex-cannibal, writes his part as letters to his daughter, and they are hilariously on point: Caranga may have adopted Tiana, but his character flaws are hers; she’s his daughter.

The first book sets in motion a war between the two greatest wizards in the world: Prye and Ekron, placing Tiana naturally at the center. (There’s an actual, plot-driven reason.) The second two novels aren’t quite as fun, but they’re still a gas. The world building is excellent, and the secondary characters exhibit the same sense of fun.

Sword and sandal in its feel, with Conan style magic (it’s always bad), I’ve read this series over and over and loved it every time.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold has written a LOT of novels, they’ve almost all been bestsellers, and her longest running series is the Vorkosigan series.

I don’t think Bujold has ever written a bad story, though some are definitely weaker than others (those books primarily intended as romances tend to fall flat to me, and I don’t dislike romances).

But of all her books, and I love many, I love the Curse of Chalion the most.  The protagonist is a man broken by war and slavery. Once a noble commander, when we meet him he is poverty ridden, ill, and hoping only for a servant’s job in the castle of an old master he once loved.

That doesn’t turn out to be the case, of course. He wants only peace, but driven by love, he winds up in service to a princess at the heart of a massive power struggle in a corrupt court, whose weak king has given his power to an ambitious and ruthless man; because the family is under a great curse.

In terms of plot, this book is about the resolution of the power struggle and that curse, but what it’s really about is faith and divinity and what the Gods can and can’t do. Even though it’s a universe where the Gods definitely exist, their powers in the world are sharply limited: They can do little to nothing without the aid of mortals, who have free will, and can shut them out.

And the curse can only be lifted by the Gods, who need the aid of a mortal.

But the price of faith is high, and the Gods, even though good, do not act as mortals would have them do. Faith requires, well, faith, as it does in our world, and this book turns out to be probably the best meditation on faith I’ve read, despite its fantasy setting.

Time of the Dark Trilogy, by Barbara Hambly

Hambly’s another author I’ve loved for a long time. She’s got her obsessions, like most, and her characters tend to fall into definite types. In addition to this series, The Ladies of Mandyrign is probably her best.

This series starts off as many fantasy novels once did by taking the protagonists from our world (late 1970s California) into the fantasy world, where there is a rising threat of squamous shapeshifting horrors which float on the wind and consume mind and soul of their victims.

Civilization is shattered, the protagonists cannot be sent back and they flee towards safety. One becomes a wizard, the other a warrior, both try to survive and hope to find a way to defeat the Dark, delving into the history of their previous defeat, using the skills of the female protagonist, a doctoral student in history.

This is a bunch of things: there’s a couple love stories, both good; there’s a meditation on what it means to be a Wizard–“you must love things for themselves before they will give themselves to  you”; there’s a long story of church/state infighting and intrigue; There’s a world with politics and empires and kingdoms that make sense; there’s an investigation of what makes a good warrior and what makes someone willing and able to kill as a calling; there’s love and hate and lust for power and curiousity and magic, and; all the good stuff.

It starts a bit rough, being Hambly’s first, but roars on.

I can’t recommend everything Hambly’s written, not even every book set in this world, but the first three, the trilogy, are part of that set of books I’ve read and re-read, and carried with me on innumerable flights.

And Hambly’s interesting. Her world view is interesting. If it gets a bit tiresome by book ten, well, it’s one worth knowing.

Mairelon the Magician, by Patricia Wrede

Regency England street urchin and thief Kim is hired to find out if a traveling magician has a silver bowl. The magician catches her, and offers to take her on as his apprentice.

The catch, he’s a real mage, not just a stage magician.

This lovely book is escapade after escapade, bordering on farce. Both Mairelon and Kim are delightful, scrappy and lack much in the way of a sense of self-preservation, leading to endless scrapes.

The book ranges from the back streets of London to high society; a druid lodge, a Bow Street Runner and a country estate, with the protagonists plowing gleefully on.

It’s also charming and touching; Mairelon is a good guy, and Kim’s tough and clever. Light as angel cake, but twice as fun.

Concluding Remarks

Fiction can be about ourselves, but I enjoy it most when it’s about someone who is not much like me. I’ve been me all my life, fiction lets me see the world as someone else, and it often lets me see world’s I’ve never seen, whether they’re fantasy worlds, science fiction worlds, historical worlds, or just parts of my world that Ian will never see.

Tell us about fiction you loved as an adult in the comments.

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  1. Herman

    “First Blood” by David Morrell is a good book. It is much more nuanced and interesting than the movie. I remember reading that Sylvester Stallone demanded that the script be changed to make the Rambo character more sympathetic which was probably a good idea when it came to marketing the movie to mass audiences but much of what made the novel fascinating was lost along the way.

  2. nihil obstet

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I got into them because they’ve got something laugh out loud funny every three or four pages, but then I realized how much I was learning from them. They’re so compassionate that I was startled to read Neil Gaimon saying that Pratchett was driven by anger.

    I haven’t read any of Barbara Hambly’s sci-fi, but I’ve read most of her Benjamin January mystery series. January is a free black living in New Orleans in the 1830s. Each novel describes some facet of New Orleans society/culture. They get formulaic pretty fast, but they’re a fun read.

    I’ve read all of Connie Willis’s novels, with a special fondness for the Doomsday Book. They’re have the overriding theme that despite technology, people of today and people of the past don’t differ very much. The long novels that follow the Doomsday Book are not as interesting.

    I like the John Rebus detective novels of Ian Rankin. Rebus is an Edinburgh police detective. The series has many of the detective novel cliches, but does as well as any series I can think of to use the crime novel structure to look at psychological issues, historical problems, politics, ethics — in effect, a character who doesn’t have to be defined from scratch in each novel who has the job that takes him into all parts of the society.

    I can go on forever with detective series, so I’ll just mention one more — C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer in Tudor London, who worked for Thomas Cromwell in Dissolution, the first novel, and has therefore come to the attention of important people. The description of the society is very good.

  3. Nathan

    I just finished The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and I was surprised how much it affected me emotionally. It’s been called Harry Potter for adults, but it owes a lot more to a rather clever reinterpretation of CS Lewis.

  4. Dean Flemming

    As an adult I mostly prefer to read actual history, but I did love “Gormenghast” by Mervyn Peake. The finest and strangest and most atmospheric gothic fantasy.

    I was also very impressed by some of the Doctor Who novels from the Wilderness Years of the 1990s: Lawrence Miles, Kate Orman, Paul Cornell, Paul Leonard and Lloyd Rose among others used a silly pulp concept to build daring science fiction novels full of realistic personalities, outrageous imagination and complex ideas.

  5. Again, where to begin? For one thing, I’m very with you on the Bujold stuff. Most of the rest of my tastes are in science fiction, occasionally fantasy.

    C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series — this one is very important to me, and it’s been running for more than two decades. The basic premise is that a human colony space vessel gets lost in hyperspace, unable to determine whether it’s even in the same universe anymore, and chances upon a planet that is inhabited by the humanoid atevi, who are at this point at a steam-age level of technology. Some of the colonists go down to the planet after rebelling against the ship authorities, who leave in a huff. After a short war that nearly exterminates the human population, the humans are ceded an island by the emerging centralized atevi leadership, in exchange for “rent” paid in technology that keeps that atevi leaders in power, transferred by a single human delegated to live among the atevi governing class.

    Fast-forward 200 years.

    Bren Cameron is the new paidhi, the designated human, at time when atevi have nearly reached technological parity with humans, but the planned, mutually-agreed transfer has left atevi with a cleaner environment and better-preserved traditional culture. As such, the paidhi is now a nearly unimportant figure, an alien curiosity in atevi governing circles. Then an unauthorized attempt on his life (assassinations can be authorized in atevi society) reveals a very unanticipated crisis that kicks off the transition of the atevi to a spacefaring society, and forces a realignment of the relationship with the much expanded, but still relatively small human population. A transition still in progress, after nearly 20 years of writing,

    Linguistics features prominently in this work, as well as psychology and anthropology — the atevi are behaviourally similar to humans, except not. Atevi don’t feel love, they feel man’chi, which is deceptively like love, but not, dangerously not. And atevi can be fooled into thinking that humans feel man’chi

    Julian May’s Galactic Milieu universe — this is three series of a total of eight books: “The Saga of Pliocene Exile”, “Intervention”, and “The Galactic Milieu Trilogy”. They’re a brilliantly-written time-paradox story, also written over a long period of time, with a great deal of planning, since the ending of the last book (written in the 90s) is the premise of the first book, written in the 70s. The story tells of the adoption of the human race into a galactic civilization called the Milieu, which intervenes in a near-nuclear annihilation after a group of “metapsychics” makes a desperate telepathic call to the universe for help. It turns out that there is a price to be paid, and the humans who don’t want to pay it end up losing, and killing four billion sentient beings in the process, and then being driven into Earth’s far, far past, where they encounter something they didn’t expect, and that is the opening premise of the series.

    I come back to this regularly, and I utterly loathe the philosophy revealed, seemingly unironically, in the novels. It’s subtly but obviously fascist, corporatist, eugenicist, you name it, with an immortal and implacable galactic government running on a philosophy very similar to a subtly subverted form of Catholic mysticism, which humans are supposed to have accidentally stumbled on on their own.

    But the things I disagree about it, and the skill with which it was written, drive me back again and again to read this series, especially the last books. Crucifixion is a central theme in this series, with many types of crucifixions appearing throughout the series — noble ones, subverted ones, demonic ones, etc. Because a central way of revealing “metapsychic” powers is through agony, and the universal appearance of “metapsychic” powers is so important to the Galactic Milieu, the infliction of pain is one of the banal medical therapies inflicted on “normals” on the brink of transition to “operancy” — without any critical comment whatsoever.

    The series also contains some of the best depictions of psychological-political machinations in SF ever written.

    Terry Pratchett — Enough said, right? However, I also appreciated his less widely-read works, like the non-Discworld Bromeliad trilogy, where a tribe of gnomes must find a way to leave the world and their gods, which happen to be a department store on the brink of closing down. “Everything must go!” Holy Albert Bros. commands it! Touching and compassionate, when the gnomes figure out who they really are, and who the giants are who seem to run their world.

    Charles Stross — I’ve become a big fan of his Lovecraftian-horror IT-support nerd-joke spy novels, The Laundry Files. The Laundry is a code name for a secret British spy organization, so secret that not even the elected government knows about it. And it is charged with defending the realm against the horrifying threats that lurk beyond the space-time continuum and are attracted to our universe by…excessive computation. And to stamp out deliberate uses of this dangerous magic outside its own aegis…by absorbing potential perpetrators into its ranks! The main character, Bob Howard, is at the beginning an IT support desk worker, whose particular skills are needed on certain field missions involving breaking into Unix computers in corporate labs whose scientists have figured out too much, etc.

    The series is at its eighth novel and counting, and the problem with an unaccountable secret government agency with magic powers is not lost on the author, trust me.

    David Brin — Brin in some ways embodies a lot of what people around here think is long with technocratic centrists (you can find his blog where he writes about how to solve the world’s problems by the application of Reason ™). But he is nevertheless an excellent and imaginative science fiction writer. His most famous work is the Uplift series — humanity emerges into a very densely populated universe, in which pretty much all alien races have been “uplifted”, genetically modified into sentience, by some other race, creating hierarchies of species “family tree” alliances. And humans emerge with no patronage…but having previously uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, without realizing how they were presumptuously imitating their betters!

    The arrival of humans creates an epic-scale political crisis across the Five Galaxies, in part to do with the origin story of the whole galactic system (who did the first uplift?) and in part to do with the ancient governing structure for interplanetary migration and environmental protection. This is also space opera SF that does not assume that any of the alien races are meaningfully similar to humans in physical terms. Humanity’s closest allies are “slow” shapeshifters that make themselves look roughly human, and then in part because they find human shapes fashionable…

    Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy — starting with “Range of Ghosts”, Bear paints a fantasy world that is very similar in cultural structure to our world and focuses on a Mongolian-equivalent steppe people, who are threatened by invasion and displacement by wielders of an ancient magic. A central and very interesting conceit here is that the gods of each people manifest themselves in the colour and contents of the sky, and whoever is dominant in a land has a sky that suits their cosmology. Meaning, the next morning after a conquest, a very different sun may rise, including the sun of the gods of a dead alien race, which is deadly to all biological life. Themes of sacrifice and responsibility are explored in great detail here.

    Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country — Tepper passed away recently (like Pratchett), she’s considered a writer of near-classic feminist SF. The Gate to Women’s Country is, I think, considered her magnum opus. It is set in a postapocalyptic future in the the vicinity of Oregon (I think — the USA no longer exists in the story). A small number of cities scrape by, run by women. Outside the cities, men live in garrisons as warriors for a corresponding city, except those men who (voluntary) pass through the ritual Gate to Women’s Country, and become effectively public servant city administrators, considered a very dishonorable fate by the men.

    But nothing is really as it seems, and the protagonist, a young woman from the ruling female class, experiences both what is wrong with her society — and why her elders deemed it necessary to do what they have done and deceive the world.

    It contains some of the tropes in a very raw form that some people dislike about 70s radical feminism. Tepper went on to write a lot of “revenge of Mother Nature and, yes, Mother Nature is a woman with a cruel sense of humor” fantasy and SF of varying quality.

    Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age; or, a young lady’s illustrated primer” — the gold standard in futuristic dystopia-cyberpunk, in my opinion. Humanity is divided into decentralized nation-corporations, except for the teeming masses, who are trapped in a kind of luxurious techno-poverty outside of a corporate umbrella. A corporate leader constructs a self-modifying, self-referential educational program to teach his daughter the virtues required for her to grow up a member of the ruling class of her corporate clan. It falls into other girls’ hands…and its self-modifying nature creates a very complex political crises involving a dispute over the right way to use nanotechnology. I appreciated this standalone book partly because it makes a strong case for the relative nature of poverty and wealth.

    There’s so much more and I can’t believe how long this ended up being, but here was a sample of what I would like to recommend…

  6. I second the Spenser novels. They’re quite good.

    And David Morrell is also well worth reading. I would recommend any book of his, but “Extreme Measures” might especially appeal to Ian’s readers because it’s a mystery that trashes the 1%.

  7. dimmsdale

    Ian, I wish you and your readers the same thrill of discovery I felt reading the very first Spenser novel, ” The Godwulf Manuscript,” when it came out in the mid 1970s. Parker’s construct of Spenser seemed (at the time) like a surprisingly original, ground-breaking and genre-busting updating of the hardboiled detective Hammett and Spillane wrote about. But instead of wearing a rumpled fedora, a trench coat and nicotine stains on the fingers, Spenser knew a thing or two about English tweeds, fine wine, Romantic poets, and academia—yet could bench 250lbs all day long and hold his own in a boxing ring. I’m not sure if that kind of character seems either too improbable to be true, or too old-hat nowadays; but again, I wish everyone that sort of thrill of discovery.

    I’ll also mention Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night,” ostensibly a crime novel but one with a lot to say about the lives and experiences of high-functioning women academics in the 1930s –something of a departure from Sayers’ long train of Peter Wimsey mysteries in that it features Harriet Vane and a collection of well-drawn female characters at a women’s college much like Sayers’ own alma mater, Shrewsbury College. It was for me an immersion into a rarefied and fascinating world, so much so that the ‘crime’ aspects seemed almost incidental to the larger picture.

  8. Yes, the Spenser For Hire series was and is a thoroughly enjoyable read. In the same vein the early Pendergast novels are well worth the reread.

    The late Tony Hillerman wrote a bunch of detective novels on and around The Big Rez of the four corners area that rate my favorite of fiction I’ve read in since the typewriter days. Mercedes Lackey, though better know for scifi also wrote some detective novels I thoroughly enjoyed. Allen Steele wrote a trilogy (several actually, but) in the near earth near future (like right now) that have called back a time or two. Not a fan of Brin, indeed the 3Bs and the whole arrogant holier than thou libertarian thing. Do not like the contributions to the Foundation series.

    For the past ten years my recreational reading has been geology texts.

  9. Donald

    What geology texts? I’m serious. I loved my college textbook and liked some of McPhee’s stuff. I have a coffee table geology book from the 60’s called Geology Illustrated, full of absolutely gorgeous black and white photos of landscapes that illustrate various concepts. Not a geologist, but I could imagine being one if I relived my life.

    I tried reading The Magicians, but about halfway through volume 2 realized I didn’t like it at all and didn’t care what happened to anyone.

    I loved Tolkien and Lewis’s fantasies ( including the little known Till we have Faces) and in large part because I like the good vs evil aspect. I don’t need my fantasies to be gritty, though I did like George Martin until the fourth and fifth volume.

    The Spenser novels are great, though repetitious. The character of Hawk doesn’t really make much sense. He is apparently a scary hit man, but we never see the ugly side– we only see him helping Spenser be the good guy.

  10. Donald

    I don’t mean to start an argument about the Magicians, btw. I probably should have left that comment out. I am looking for some fantasy epic I would actually like at least half as much as LOTR, but haven’t succeeded.

  11. V. Arnold

    Hyperion series by Dan Simmons
    Dune by Frank Herbert

    The Dancing Wu Li Masters

    I’m now and for the last few years consumed by history;

    David Graeber’s; Debt; the First 5,000 Years; Best history of money I’ve ever read.
    John Taylor Gatto’s; The Underground History of American Education; must read history of education and the origin of the educational system in the U.S. and why it’s so fucked up.

    Tony Hillerman were page turners, read them all.

  12. V. Arnold

    Oops; Gary Zukav; The Dancing Wu Li Masters
    Dan Simmons’ last book of the Hyperion Series was just awful; I was a bit taken aback by the really sorry quality writing.

  13. Steeleweed

    Read voraciously from about 4-5 through high school, including a lot of SciFI: Asimov, Van Vogt, Heinlein, Alan Dean Foster & M.A.Foster. As a teen, very into the Beats, particularly poets and playwrights. After USAF & college came the ’60s with their own genres. In more ‘traditional’ mode, I am quite fond of John Masters (in fact, I’m currently re-reading his Loss of Eden trilogy), Conrad Richter, Willa Cather, Maurice Walsh. More recent stuff like Down By The River, The Son, Goodby to a River, The Art of Racing in the Rain. Usually have two books in-progress at a time; one fiction, the other non-fiction. And poetry. Always poetry.

  14. Hugh

    Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Beautifully written novels of Alexandria and its mix of English, French, Arab, and Mediterranean culture in the late 40s. Colonialism, nationalism, the same story, but each novel with its focus on a different main character changes that story and adds layers to it.

    In either Spanish or English, Gabriel García Márquez: A Hundred Years of Solitude; and Love in the Time of Cholera. Arturo Perez-Reverte: El capitán Alatriste novels in Spanish: Siglo de Oro Spain, a man with a rigid code of honor and a meaner sword serves masters who deserve neither, all while acting as mentor and kind of father to a boy and then young man. I also like his Club Dumas and Flanders Panel. Carlos Ruiz Zafón: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind), Barcelona under Franco.

    I like and am frustrated by the novels of Umberto Eco. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end to be emotionally satisfying. With Eco, you get a beginning, a great middle, and then it just drifts off, in Isola del Giorno Prima (The Island of the Day Before) quite literally. Even so, his Il Nome della Rosa, Il Pendolo di Foucault, and Baudolino are all fun reads up to when they drift off, burn up, and/or drive off. Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced shasha) wrote these great and fairly bleak stories about the mafia in Italy where the good guys don’t win and the corruption keeps rolling along. I can’t remember any of his short stories, but I remember loving Alberto Moravia. And Calvino’s Il barone rampante about a guy who climbs up into a tree and never comes down is kind of wonderful.

    In French style counts for a lot. I like Verne and Dumas, but nobody would ever accuse either, and especially Dumas, of having style in their writing. On the other hand, Victor Hugo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau both had beautiful writing styles, and I find both nearly unreadable. Someone who got it just right was Claude Simon in his Route des Flandres. It also has these seamless yet disconcerting shifts between past and present. Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) and L’Etranger (The Stranger) are both perfect in their different ways, which is interesting because there is always a carefully observed distance between the author and reader in so much else of what Camus writes.

  15. bob mcmanus

    Good Grief, I can’t do this memory is gone, trying to remember my favorites. Reading is breathing.

    In the 1970s I devoured High-Lit: Joyce, Mann (Buddenbrooks and Doktor Faustus more than MM, though I read these all multiple times. Read Proust, but not a favorite. Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat. John Fowles Daniel Martin liked better than French Lieutenant. Gide Counterfeiters. Cheever short stories. Pynchon up to the 80s. Rilke. Wallace Stevens. Nietszche, Wittgenstein, Kierkeggaard.

    In the 80s I got a list of Hugo and Nebula nominees and read them all, and everything by the authors, visiting the used book stores to get the out of prints: Lafferty, Cherryh, Doris Pischeria, Early and middle Silverberg, Leiber, Disch, Compton, Bester, Tanith Lee

    Switched to horror: King, Robert McCammon (They Thirst is terrific fun), Dan Simmons, Graham Masterson,oh oh Thomas Tessier is special more more

    Around 1990 I moved to mysteries, mostly hardboiled: Sorry, didn’t like Parker at all, read all the Vachss but didn’t care much. Sorry I am looking at the shelves and the paperbacks are behind the DVD’s but there are hundreds to thousands. Pronzini. Loren Estleman. Le Carre. Westlake. Chandler was in the 70s. Stout as a kid. All McBain. Nah it’s unfair maybe tomorrow.

    Gave up on fiction with the millenium and maybe read 2-3 this century.

  16. bob mcmanus

    Have I read everything? Am I impressed with myself? I have read nothing in Hugh’s post and I know they are great books. I have spent a lifetime reading as if my life depended on it and know I have read very little at all, and none of it well.

  17. gnokgnoh

    I love these posts. I love reading about what other people read and am amazed at how much sci fi and fantasy is beloved by Ian and his readers.

    Reading Roth’s, I Married a Communist, right now. Everything by Roth, Chabon, Updike, Atwood, McCarthy, some Pynchon, Amis, Beckett plays. Also loved a whole bunch of Southern writers, Kennedy, Donald Harrington, Faulkner, Porter, Warren. Where Ian reads series about the same characters, Roth and Updike write novels where the same, or similar, characters appear in multiple novels. Roth = Nathan Zuckerman = Roth. I go on kicks where I read the same two or three authors for a few years. I turn down the corners of pages with particularly good writing that sticks in my craw. Stories about New Jersey, New England, the early factories, strikes, race riots, unions, appear in these authors’ books, and speak to our history and who we were and have become.

    English. McEwan, LeCarre, PD James. French (French Lit major), everything by Gide, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Rousseau, Voltaire, Dumas, Saint-Exupery, Baudelaire (les fleurs du mal), Racine, Balzac, Maupassant. My wife gave my collection of French authors away to our local used bookstore, because I had not read one in many years.

    I come from a planning background, so have read a lot of Rybczynski, Kunstler, Davis. It’s why I particularly like Ian’s posts on cities and planning.

  18. Doug Colwell

    Sic-fi: Iain Banks Culture series.
    Philip Kerr starting with “March Violets”. Detective fiction set in 1930’s Berlin.
    Older Alan Furst. Especially “Night Soldiers”. Spanish Civil war espionage.

  19. mago

    Dune? Hillerman? All of that and more…wandered into the wrong comment section.

  20. David

    Yes, The Laundry file novels of Charles Stross are great fun. I also
    liked his “Merchant Princes” series which also has some interesting things
    to say on developmental economics. My favorite though is the short novel
    “Missile Gap” where it is a very different 1976 from ours because fourteen years earlier, when the Cuban missile crisis was about to turn hot, everyone and everything find themselves instantly on a vast disk and Yuri Gagarin is given the task to boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before.

    Two novels I really liked were both by Michael Moorcock, “Mother London” and
    “The Brothel on Rosenstrasse”. “Mother London” is the history of London from about 1940 to the 1980’s as experienced by three people who meet each week in an out patient psychiatric ward. The other is about an imaginary Central European city circa 1900 and under siege during a civil war. The wealthy find that a brothel is the safest place to escape the shelling.

    For autobiography, I liked “A Fortunate Life” by Albert Facey. Facey had what we would consider today a horrendous childhood, was badly injured during the first world
    war, suffered during the depression, but looking back, he said that he had a fortunate life.

    I first read R. Delterfield’s “To Serve Them All My Days” when I was about twenty
    and over the decades, I have read it three times more times. A story about a British school master between the two world wars for whom teaching was his life.

  21. bob mcmanus

    Incidentally, if there are kids around cause it may not work for olders, I kinda recommend my program above which may have similarities to academic training or 2nd language immersion learning. Very opposed to Tyler Cohen’s or speedreading, you don’t look for the core idea in a paragraph or page of Jane Austen.

    In your twenties read the toughest stuff you can find, way above your level. Read every word without worrying much about comprehension. The idea is to get into the flow and author’s voice and accumulating context. Learn how to not let the mind wander, focus on concentration without comprehension. Stop thinking while reading, they are two unrelated practices. Intuition and holographic memory will supply meaning. Reread for meaning and critical reading if desired.

    After you are able to read a Nabokov novel in an evening after work then you will able to read 2-3 Dicks in the same amount of time.

    Academics read too purposely, seeking the nuggets that they can use in their work and missing the whole. I can’t tell you how many critical works on Joyce I felt missed the point and feelings in Ulysses.

    Or I could be full of shit.

  22. bob mcmanus

    Cause, ya know, every decent writer is creating her own language. Immerse.

  23. CJ Egelhoff

    Historical fiction:

    Dorothy Dunnett, “The Lymond Chronicles” Renaissance politics, Scotland to Russia
    Thomas Flanagan, Irish history, ”The Year of the French” and two more
    Paul Scott, “Raj Quartet” India colonialism in detail

  24. Claire

    Chronicles in Amber

  25. Peter

    Most anything by Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley and the unedited original manuscripts of Zane Grey. Last of the Duanes is a good example.

  26. Evelyn Wood, bob, has been both blessing and curse.

  27. Kris

    All of the Farseer books by Robin Hobb
    I started with Fool’s Errand, finished that trilogy, then went back to read the Assassin trilogy then finally the Fool & the Fitz trilogy. Her writing is superb, the sympathetic hero is an assassin, and I will never forget her characters, who are as real as anyone in real life.

    Araminta Station, Jack Vance
    No one can create an entire complex culture through words the way Vance can. Elegant, cryptic, precise, with great command of style. I re-read this series just to savor his language and characters.

    Wave without a Shore, C.J. Cherryh
    Our hubris puts humans at the center of the universe, in this book to the extent that the native people of the planet cannot be “seen”. The central character, Herrin, excels in this hubristic and competitive society, until the day he sees the others, and himself becomes unseen.

    Villette, Charlotte Bronte
    The spiritual pain and isolation due to brutal barriers to self-actualization imposed by society (in this case 19thC Europe) – usually hidden in the works of Jane Austen – are revealed here in the central character who defies those limits by insisting on being allowed to be fully human.

    Songmaster, Orson Scott Card
    Card’s recurrent themes of achieving inborn potential through both inner control of childhood pain or abuse and outward surrender to one’s duty are evident here, but it is the magic of Song and its beauty and mutilating terror when wielded by a Songmaster that shines in this book.

    The City & The City, China Mieville
    A new and original voice in scifi; the novel is reminiscent of a European cold war detective thriller set in a city riven by two universes whose characters both profit from the tacit agreement to ignore the other reality and who develop illicit partnerships across it.

    Sabriel (Abhorsen trilogy), Garth Nix
    To me, Sabriel is even braver than Harry Potter, navigating the nine levels of the icy river of Death with her set of bells, from tiny Ranna to Saraneth, strapped in a bandolier across her chest. Mysterious and engrossing.

    The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Michael Steinberg
    It is not surprising that our self-contained, individualistic, dichotomous view – of thought, of ourselves and the world – led to our current cultural/socio-economic system. But thought is an iterative, social process, and other ways of being are possible.

    Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, Alan Watts
    Or almost anything by Watts. More concise than Tolle yet equally consciousness-shifting.

    Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon
    The”Nature” on which our U.S. civilization (so to speak) is built is itself a second layer imposed on the underlying nature through both physical and economic processes. However, see below.

    1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles Mann
    The vast American wilderness described by European colonists was no such thing, but instead a landscape with a long history of both efficient and poor, but in all cases extensive, management by those who lived here in the centuries prior. These advanced civilizations existed across thousands of years and both the North and South American continents.

  28. nihil obstet

    I can get interested in a topic, usually a historical period or even event, and start bingeing on relevant books. I’ve done that with World War I and the period after it and before WWII. I’ve read everything Erich Maria Remarque wrote. I loved Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy. I tend to go cold on Hemingway, and found Edith Wharton’s conversion out of neutrality in A Son at the Front wrong-headed. I like all of Pat Barker, but especially the Regeneration trilogy. I know this thread should be about fiction, but Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars is a fabulous piece of historical writing. And as always, there’s the crime novel stuff, favorites being Rennie Airth, Charles Todd (both the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series), Robert Goddard’s James Maxted series (which has the advantage of including intrigue beyond Europe). . . .

  29. Geology and by extension plate techtonics, vulcanology and planetary science – all disciplines pretty much as young as I – have been my hobby since I witnessed St Helens erupt, not too long after witnessing a total eclipse, a hobby I can now retired happily delve jealously into. Not to mention you need to know more than just a little about geology to understand what’s happening in our deteriorating atmosphere.

    My focus is of course Cascadia, and I would recommend The Restless Northwest, A Geological Story as a primer. In storyform it tells the ninety million year process by which Cascadia came to be. I call it young because I’ve a 1955 college text – Cascadia – that makes no mention of plate techtonics (didn’t know about them), continental subductions, or an interconnected Ring of Fire. I often troll trolls with I’ve oceanfront property for sale, cheap, cash only. In Idaho. It’s only a couple of tens of millions of years away from the truth.

    If I were to name the one work of fiction that had the greatest influence, that happily time and again reread, it would be Sometimes a Great Notion.

  30. Socal Rhino

    Gene Wolfe – Shadow of the Torturor, Claw of the Conciliator, etc. Nine Princes of Amber and Lord of Light by Zelazny.

  31. DMC

    Boy, where to start? I second all the recs for PKD, Ursula LeGuin called him “our Borges”. Some popular fiction it seems this readership would like is Harry Turtledove, who specializes in the alternate history genre(though he’s written some straight fantasy). He’s got a whole series set in “not the Byzantine Empire” and another of “WWII but with magic and Dragons instead of technology”. His novel, “The Guns of the South”, in which time traveling white supremacists give General Lee 100,000 Ak-47’s has been called by serious scholars “the most important book on the Civil war in the last 50 years.” He has another series in which a race of space-faring reptiles invade in the midst of WWII. He’s a professor of Byzantine history, in his mundane life, so the details of his various periods always have the sparkle of veracity.
    James Ellroy: “The Black Dahlia” and everything after that. Ellroy went from being a perfectly adequate genre writer to being in the company of Raymond Chandler and maybe Dostoevsky in terms of his examination of the very depths of humanity and the sheer excellence of his prose. His characters are variously corrupt and venal, tormented by the past and possessed of the wisdom that comes with the long experience of Evil.
    Its hard to put a label on the kind of fiction Tim Powers does. Fantasy is probably the best catch all term, though he’s done some more-or-less SF as well. A good, stand-alone, introduction might be “Declare!”, a novel of British intelligence during and after WWII, the Kim Philby spy ring, and the “djinn” of “1001 Nights” fame. He’s done Historical, in “The Stress of Her Regard” about Byron and Shelly and Co. and their unexpected relationship with an ancient Greek spirit. He’s done Contemporary in “the Fault-line Series” that starts with “Last Call”, in which mysterious forces contend for the crown of “The King in the West”, once held by Bugsy Siegel.
    William Vollmann: Everything. His series, “Seven Dreams” are series of novels that explore the coming of the white man to the New World, starting with the Norse in “The Ice Shirt”, continuing with John Smith and Pocahontas in “Argall”, the French Jesuits in “Father’s and Crows”, the Franklin expedition in “The Rifles”. And he puts a world of meticulous detail into these novels, so much so that the chapters have end notes where he cites sources. Vollmann is a writer of great compassion and there is a certain wistful sadness that pervades his historical works as the inevitable doom and degradation of the characters unfolds. His contemporary novel, “The Royal Family” is a sprawling saga of magical realism(ala’ Marquez) and a cast of outsiders: prostitutes, hobos and a pedophile and its absolutely riveting, despite being 800+ pages long.
    Joyce, Celine(you think Terry Pratchett is funny? Celine is FUNNY!), WS Burroughs, Faulkner, Bukowski, William Gaddis! There’s somebody who needs his horn blown. He has to have the most original voice in American literature in the last 50 years. He only wrote 4 novels but established a whole new format to tell them with. They are almost entirely composed of what the characters say, sometimes dialogue, sometimes monologue, with barely any connective narration and you can only tell who is speaking by HOW they speak. He’s also an absolutely wicked satirist. His 2nd novel, “J.R.” tells the tale of a struggling young composer and his some time student, the 11 year old title character, who become enmeshed in the workings of Wall Street, due to said 11 year old’s spectacularly successful investments in “penny-stocks”.

  32. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, I think I’ll do more of these posts. Unlike most posts, love reading the comments (and I had to pick and choose loves viciously to get down to these lists, so I still have plenty to go.)

  33. Richard McGee

    Lot of good picks in these comments! I’d like to add Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. Talk about old friends. O’Brian’s characters inhabit their early 19th century milieu with ease, and the minutiae of sailing is lots of fun. Best to read them in order, to get the full arc of the main characters.

    Since a lot of SF has been mentioned, Id like to throw in two nearly forgotten short story specialists: Cordwainer Smith and R. A. Lafferty. Smith’s stories occasionally pop up in used book stores and on amazon. R. A. Lafferty’s stories are hard to find but worthwhile.

  34. Some Guy

    “I have spent a lifetime reading as if my life depended on it and know I have read very little at all, and none of it well.”

    Beautifully said, and so true.

    Since I haven’t seen it mentioned so far, I do recommend that people give Richard Russo a try. Most of his novels were written years or decades ago, but give you a better insight into, ‘Trump is going to win this election based on racking up votes in the rust belt’ than any essay from a pundit or a political scientist ever would.

  35. Peter VE

    I second the Philip Kerr series starting with March Violets, and Alan Furst’s stories set around the second World War. I’ve reread Chandler more times than I can remember, and never tire of him. I liked Spenser, but was really put off by Parker’s completion of the Poodle Springs Story (unfinished by Chandler).
    One rule I’ve learned the hard way: anything raved about on public radio is likely to be a major disappointment. About 10 years ago, “On Chesil Beach” was all the rage, and I read it from a library copy. It made no impression. About a year later, I got a copy with a box of other books, and I reread it. On rereading it, i was really annoyed that I had wasted several hours twice in my life on this twaddle.
    I’ve been reading a good bit of John Michael Greer recently (formerly blogging at The Archdruid Report; now at His latest (The Weird of Hali:) is a series taken from the view of H.P Lovecraft’s weird elders, and I’m loving them. That may have to do with my living right behind the home of Charles Dexter Ward…..
    Any other book listed here which I’ve read I can also recommend, so I suspect you can’t go wrong anywhere on these lists.

  36. Nathan

    @Donald, no worries about not liking The Magicians, honestly, I found all of the characters, and the main character in particular, unlikable if not downright revolting, which is why I was so surprised to find tears in my eyes during the climactic scene.
    If anyone is a “hard” science fiction fan, Revelation Space blew my mind. To the point I’ve read everything else by Alastair Reynolds since, and have been disappointed every single time. Maybe he just had that one in him.
    For fantasy, I see someone mentioned Meiville upthread. He claims he leaves his leftwing politics out of his novels, but there’s always a class struggle element to his societies that really does it for me. Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, in particular, but Kraken is great, too.
    For just fun, trope trashing fantasy, I got a huge kick out of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.
    Anyway, thank you Ian and commentators for all of the great suggestions. Should keep me busy for a couple of years, at least.

  37. robotpliers

    Don’t have much time at the moment, so please accept a mostly bare list:

    1) The Revelation Space trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Other good books by him include the Poseidon’s Children Trilogy (book 2 drags, but 3 ends *very* well), Terminal World, and Pushing Ice.
    2) Wool, Third Shift, and Dust by Hugh Howey. Excellent world-building, including a decent amount of thought as to the psychology of said world.
    3) Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Also, Embassytown.
    4) Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross.
    5) Sister Alice by Robert Reed.
    6) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books are quick, fun reads.
    7) Neal Asher’s writing is clunky at best, but two of his books, conceptually, stand out for me: (a) The Skinner and (b) Hilldiggers.

    I really need to start reading fiction outside the “scifi” label…

  38. geoff

    It seems I’m late to the party, but thanks Ian and all– cool to see what other people like.

    Strong seconds to the Ian Rankin Rebus books, James Ellroy (his American Tabloid trilogy is stunning), and of course Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels set in postwar LA up to the late ’60s. (Mosley has also written quite a bit of sf, which I’ve yet to read.)

    Someone mentioned Ed McBain, whom I really need to read (so embarrassed!), but no one’s mentioned Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. They can be uneven, but when he’s on (which is usually), those books really suck you in. Robert Crais. His LA Requiem might be my favorite LA crime novel. (“I’ma let you finish James Ellroy…”) Ace Atkins, who’s writing the new Spencer novels since Parker’s death is a very good crime/ mystery novelist in his own right. His Quinn Colson books set in NW Mississippi are terrific.

    Charles Stross, YES. I love the Laundry series, and his standalones are excellent as well. Have not gotten to his Merchant Princes books yet, but my parents tell me they’re excellent. Surprised no one’s mentioned William Gibson yet. Neuromancer was amazing in its time, and I think he’s proven himself to more than just a cyberpunk in the many years since.

    Oh yeah, Don Winslow! I may like his more lighthearted (relatively speaking) and lyrically written stuff (like say Frankie’s Machine and The Dawn Patrol and Savages) to his big “important drug war books” like The Cartel and The Force, but if you like crime novels, you can’t go wrong with Winslow.

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