Books You've Read and Loved?

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I am back at home, ill, but I managed to mooch a neighbor's uncharacteristically open wireless connection so I have been talking with one of my readers about one of our favorite topics: books. I love reading fiction when I am sick, and currently, I am trying to resist my urge to begin reading the entire Harry Potter series again (for the 14th or 15th time now. Reading HP is a 4-6 week investment that tends to keep me from doing what I should be doing: writing book reviews). During this conversation, I lamented the fact that I've not read many novels or works of fiction these past few years, (except for my vast collection of Potterania) because I've been reading and reviewing nonfiction works almost exclusively, and I want to remedy that situation. I am hoping to make a summer reading list of novels and other works of fiction that have been published recently, say, within the past ten years or less, than are must-reads. Can you recommend some titles to me that you especially loved, and tell me a little about why those particular books spoke to you? I plan to get these books for pleasure only (not from publishers, and not for review) from my many local library branches.

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"The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

It's a wonderfully textured, multi-layered novel that is a romance, a mystery, a coming of age story, character study and a description of Barcelona in the mid 20th century. It was written in Spanish, but even the translated copy I read has beautiful language. I just can't say enough good things about this novel.

By Canadian Curmudgeon (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Anything by Lois Mcmaster Bujold especislly her Miles Vorkosigan series. Her characters are always memorable with great plots and bits of humor to leaven it all. The first book/s "Shards of Honor" and "Barrayar" (available in a combined omnibus) actually deal with the meeting of Miles's parents and his birth and he matures throughout the series. These are the books I re-read constantly.

Here's some I read in the last few years:

  • Galveston and Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart. Two rather different but equally brilliant novels, the second set in contemporary Texas and the first in a vivid alternative Texas. What they have going for them, besides excellent writing (and, in the case of Galveston, some real strangeness), is their main characters, none of them particularly admirable people but you can emphasize with them and root for them anyway.
  • Fudoki by Kij Johnson. A thematically rich, thoughtful story set in old Japan, in which an elderly court lady (a really interesting character) alternately reminisces about her life and writes about a cat who became human; the two stories really enrich each other.
  • Being Dead by Jim Crace. The only realistic novel in this list. Again, excellent characters, whose lives are told wisely and well.
  • The Rabbiâs Cat by Joan Sfar. Sheer fun. These are more or less stories about the authorâs grandfatherâs life in Algeria, but told in a decidedly offbeat way.
  • Stories in Black Juice by Margo Lanagan. Iâd like to know how such stories as "Wooden Bride", "Earthly Uses", "Singing My Sister Down", or "Rite of Spring" could smack me right between the eyes. It must be Lanaganâs style, but when style is plain and unadorned it really makes it hard to figure out why it works brilliantly.

I loved "The River Midnight" by Lilian Nattel, who, it just so happens, frequents science blogs as I've seen her comment on some of them. I think it's under the 10 year line in age (just went and checked... it's just under 9.5 yrs since release date). I loved her books long before I ran into her here at Sb, though.

I prefer to read stuff by living authors (Hi Lilian, if you're reading this comment) since I can then pretend I'm a bit of a patron of the arts. Also, I figure I'm more likely to be aligned with the author's intended readership than if I read really old stuff. Although the advantage of reading old stuff is that nobody reprints the really crappy old stuff. (not totally true, I know... somebody keeps reprinting the bible, for example)

Forgot to tell you why I loved it...

I think it's the voice mostly... and I'm a sucker for a redemption tale... and I like a story set in a time and a place that I'm only vaguely aware of (in this case a turn of the last century polish jewish village). And it's a first novel.

I echo Shakatany. I particularly like "Paladin of Souls", one of her fantasy novels. There are actual novel ideas in there.

Another author I'd strongly recommend is Robin McKinley. My particular favourites are "Sunshine" and "Deerskin". Sunshine is a sort of near-future dystopian vampire tale. Nice ideas and just very well written. Deerskin is a sort of adult fairy tale - something McKinley's done several times. It's not really any one story - unlike say "Beauty", which is a fairly straight version of Beauty and the Beast - but it's got a number of easily recognisable fairy tale elements. It's decidedly adult: not with sex and violence but with disturbing and mature ideas. Once again, beautifully written.

"Old Man's War" by John Scalzi, and it's sequels, is very good. I think that the sequels actually get better. They're military SF, and gets compared with Heinlein but fortunately it's much better than that. Rather more like Haldeman (The Forever War) as it doesn't glorify the machinery of war.

"Hominids" by robert J Sawyer is another I've enjoyed recently. I think he did an excellent job of describing a similar but different species and its culture.

The Summer Book by Tove Janson (of Moomins fame) is really good, especially if you know the archipelago around the Finnish coast. It perfectly evokes the Finnish summer. In the evenings I was reading it with the swifts noisily racing around outside chasing insects flying off the trees.

Jim Crace is an author I should read more of - I read Quarantine (leant to me by one of the world's experts on the word the), and enjoyed it. Odd, though. I guess I'll have to read it again to remind myself of why I liked it.

I think Grrl will be filling up her Amazon wish list. Healthier than Baileys Irish Cream Filled Chocolates.

OMG, i had no idea that lilian nattel is a published author. now i feel both honored, because she comments here frequently, and stupid, because i should have known! and of course, I MUST HAVE HER BOOK!

bailey's irish cream filled chocolates? OMG, my favorite, now i am ready to die. but first, i must have them!

I liked Lilian's second book "The Singing Fire" almost as much, and some who I've shared them with have liked it better. Lilian also has quite a delightful web page, which she has a link to when she comments.

I also liked "The Hominids" trilogy by Sawyer, mentioned above(can you tell I read a fair bit of Canadian literature?)

Charles Stross' 'Merchant Princes' series. Economic science fiction with some excellent heroines.

By oscar zoalaster (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey- the writing is simply beautiful. It is historical fantasy, engrossing and really just a pleasure to read. It jumped to the top my favorites list a few years ago, and despite reading about 20 books month, it remains there. Pick it up!

RADIANCE by Carter Scholz. A novel of nuclear weapons scientists working on SDI projects in the early 90s. Technically and stylistically dense and complex, dark, bleak, with morally questionable characters--everything good fiction should be.

I'd certainly recommend "Escape from Hell" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. A great, modern reimagining of Dante's Inferno, and a sequel to the authors' first telling in "Inferno", the 70s version which I read not too long ago as well. It's a great read even if you don't buy into the background, and very easy to come away with a lot to think about. Lots of interesting characters and charicatures.

By ABradford (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

I highly recommend P.G. Wodehouse. Very funny in a cosy way. As an added bonus, his books are public domain: Also, if you're up for some total nonsense, try John Hodgman.

For some really immersive, imaginative fiction, I recommend Neil Gaiman.

By Ben Tobin (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

I have the good fortune to do book reviews on the side, and a few gems have dropped into my lap as a result.

For short fiction, I'd highly recommend Susan Palwick's The Fate of Mice, which manages to be alternately fresh, funny, heartbreaking, and utterly engrossing at every turn. "Going After Bobo" made me tear up in the Newark International Airport, which takes some doing.

For novels, I'd suggest The Man On The Ceiling, by Steve and Melanie Tem, which is a marvelous rumination on writing, family, where nightmares come from, and love. Also recommended are Lewis Shiner's Black and White and Christopher Golden's Strangewood, and on the lighter side, Liz Williams' Inspector Detective Chen series of supernatural detective novels.

Since you like Harry Potter, try Neil Stephenson's ANATHEM, which I am consuming at 150 pp per day. Or his CRYPTONOMICON for a wild ride through WWII: a masterpiece. Also sample Nick Hornby's A LONG WAY DOWN for as funny a group of British suicide contemplators as you are likely ever to encounter. The surly teenaged girl in the latter work is one of the funniest and best-realized characters I have encountered for awhile.

By biosparite (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I read this one right after HP7 and it was a very satisfying follow-up. A good way to transition back to "grown up" books.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. After this one I had to read everything Ishiguro has written. All fantastic.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. I think all of Chabon's books start slow and go on too long, but the middle of this book is the best book I've ever read.

Dune, by Frank Herbert (plus all of the follow ups) because it presents a strange lens to view people through.

Blindsight, by Peter Watts. I.. I can't even really describe the book really. Don't read anything by him if you need to be upbeat though.

Hope you feel better soon!

the best thing about asking all of you about books is that you all are such wonderful readers of books, of blogs, of everything written. how can i ever thank you for this delicious smorgasbord of literature? i was feeling frustrated and sad that i am still stuck at home alone, feeling bad (although grateful that i am no longer hanging off the side of my toilet all the time), when now i realize that the best things in life are my blog, my precious readers and booksbooksbooks. what more can any rational person want?

i've actually read several recommended books, such as jonathan strange & mr norell (excellent recommendation!), and that title in particular is one that i absolutely loved (and i especially loved clarke's wicked humor). it's sitting a few feet away from me (immediately next to my harry potter book collection, in three languages) as i write to you, calling to me ..

i did go through everyone's comments and add amazon links to all recommended titles so others who might be interested can purchase their own copies of these books (and i did add several recommended titles to my own amazon wishlist, since they sound like books i'll wish to own because i expect i'll reread them often)

If you have NetScape or similar, BBC did dramatizations of many of PG WodeHouse's short stories. Also they have the Jeeves series, wonderfully portrayed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (yes, 'House' was a comedian before he succumbed to the lure of Hollywood).

For books, I am nearing the end of the Void series by Peter F. Hamilton. Up there with Stross. If you like the Miles Vorkosigan series, you may also like the Worlds of Honor series by David Weber. If you like some erudition in the story-telling check out any of the many series by C. J. Cherryh.

But most of all, get well!

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

NetScape. Urgh! NetFlix. Sorry.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

"The End of Mr. Y" by Scarlett Thomas is a wonderful read, as it brings together maths, science and language as a coherent explanation for how reality is constructed. It's not science, but it's certainly fun, and quite mind-blowing in its way. Along with all the musing and philosophizing, there's also plenty of page-turning suspense, and it doesn't take itself too seriously, with talking mice lightening it up.


... sorry, got distracted into a mindwarp of contemplating the idea of a fictional book versus a fictive book. Something like Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller", perhaps? Lem's "Imaginary Magnitude" might fit the bill as well. And I seem to recall that in LeGuin's works there's something fitting, in her therolinguistic papers, I think.

I'm deeply in love with the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith, and have been for many years. The latest one (the tenth in the series, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built) is a little bit lighter than some, and not my favorite, but they're all wonderful, and some of them especially so.

I think my favorite was The Full Cupboard of Life (#5). But if you want to sample them, you should probably start at the beginning, with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
Sci-fi novel written by someone who (I think) is quite soornful of the genre. Very very well written as you might expect from her but also with some very interesting sci-fi elements. Set in a future that is reminiscent of something by Philip K Dick and following the fortunes of the human race as they attempt to change planets. Themes like the environment, genetics, sexuality are big.

I'm not sure it's going to change my life but it is a really enjoyable read and I don't say that often. Raises lots of questions about the future of humans.

Anything by Terry Pratchett. They're all good. I just love his sense of humour and slightly skewed worldview. "Nation" in particular was full of interesting ideas as well as a really good story. I have to admit lately (over the last 5 years or more) I've become addicted to fan fiction and have badly neglected printed fiction. There are many talented writers in the fan fiction world that are worth reading if you're interested.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

I want to second the votes for Anathem, Cryptonomicon and Kavalier & Clay, all fantastic books. I've been on a Scottish fiction binge recently cause I'm about to leave the country for a while so you should check out more or less anything by Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, Ken MacLeod and Christopher Brookmyre (Brookmyre in particular is one of the most enjoyable authors I've encountered for a while, wonderfully sarcastic and acidic while remaining exceptionally good fun - I recommend One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night if the idea of a darkly comical Scottish version of Die Hard on an oil rig/holiday resort appeals to you!)

I noticed some of my "good reads" already mentioned above and will add Sherman Alexie (read /Flight/ recently).

I loved Neil Gaiman's /The Graveyard Book/ and /Anansi Boys/ is one of my favorite books ever. (The first book in a long time that I read straight through again after finishing it one time.)

Guy Gavriel Kay: The Sarantine Mosaic series (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emporers). Achingly beautiful.

Charles De Lint is a favorite author (and, as a reviewer, most valuable).

I recommend the "Song of Ice and Fire" series by George RR Martin. The first four are already out, and they are all of them fantastic. More plots and characters than you can shake a stick at, excellent intrigue, and what kills me, that no one is good or bad, they just ARE. Extremely well done.

I've also been reading mostly nonfiction lately, but the last fiction work I read that I remember really liking was Sex Wars by Marge Piercy. I usually am not quite so into historical fiction, but I really enjoyed the way the text wove historical figures (including Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Anthony Comstock) into a compelling narrative that reflected the political and social views on sex in post-Civil War America.

My favorite summer read this year has been The Ruins, by Scott Smith. It's an excellent psychological/horror thriller about some tourists in Mexico who visit Mayan ruins far off the beaten track and get trapped there. Totally absorbing, despondent and delicious. I read that a couple of months ago and still can't stop thinking about it.

Been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, but apart from the latest installments of the 'Sharpe' series, as well as the the various other historical novel by Bernard Cornwell, and the final episodes of 'Flashman' by George MacDonald Fraser (RIP), I have quite enjoyed 'The Portable Door', 'In Your Dreams' and 'Earth, Air, Fire and Custard' by Tom Holt, as well as his historical novels. Also 'The curious Incident of the Dog in the Night' by Mark Haddon

By mrcreosote (not verified) on 18 Jun 2009 #permalink

My reading, 'riting, etc., work is quite similar; on forms that ask "Hobbies" I fill in same answer re books. Altho my daily diet contains more fiction, no doubt you share a certain skill/instinct I use to find for-fun reading. Results of the rather random technique are rewarding as recommendations from strangers, however well-read. At my NYPL branch, I browse "New Fiction" closely & judge books by their covers. As I'm not fond of genres, I skip all w spine label "Mystery" et al. Some jackets scream the content you either love or hate. 75% of books borrowed satisfy picky me thoroughly; 1/4 go unfinished. Same might be done online - read flap copy, sample a page or two of prose, note art/style & pub., the au's location & background. Blurbs I weigh based on source. Some titles I recall reading about book or au. It sounds terribly casual for book professionals, but done well it's succeeded in recent years for my for-fun fiction. Only you know best what thrills/ charms / captivates you. Only after rereading your query did an idea pop into my head, and I'm nervous to mention this 2005 random pick. Not only did I read twice, once aloud, my middle son "reread" it, listening at age 12, then begging for the title we couldn't remember when age 14. That's a most glowing recommendation for a book unlike any other of my favorites! Dana Adam Shapiro's THE EVERY BOY - quirky realism, it's LOL-funny, tender, and familiar yet original as can be in substance and form.

Coming in a bit late on this, but it looks like others are still commenting. Some of my recent favorites:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.

The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau. I think this will probably be found in the young adult section; I read it with my (then) eight-year-old son, and we both adored it.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. How to describe my feelings about this book? This is the first book in YEARS which made me feel the way I used to feel regularly when reading books as a child. Transported, totally involved in the story. I thought it was a wonderful adventure.

I also love most of the books I've read by Jodi Picoult, but you have to be in the right frame of mind to read them, I think. Many are completely heartbreaking. "My Sister's Keeper" is probably my favorite.

And I hesitate to do this, and promise that I'm doing it from a place of respect for the commenter who recommended it, but I really disliked "The Time Traveler's Wife."

(If you intend to read this book and don't want your reading of it colored, just skip the rest of this comment. It's not got any real spoilers, but I thought I'd give a warning anyway)

I know so many people who raved about it, but I found it an only passably interesting read, and at the end, it left me feeling awful - it's hard to explain why without spoilers, but I had the feeling that the author thought it was a great romance, and that the dynamic between the main characters was supposed to be wonderfully inspiring, or something, but I found the relationship disturbing and deeply dysfunctional. If you do end up reading it, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. :)

Oh, yeah, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, was amazing. It totally snuck up on me. Similarly for Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I also found myself sort of quietly sucked into, until there was a point late in the book when I found that my heart was literally pounding as I realized what was happening.