What Should I Be Reading?

by wjw on September 12, 2008

I’ve read some disappointing stuff lately. Either the subject matter didn’t float my boat, or the book was structured badly— with 200 pages’ worth of padding, say, or with a climax that happens two-thirds of the way through the book instead of toward the end, or with a protagonist so dumb that he makes a box of hammers look like Einstein.

Or, y’know, the writing just sucked.

So I’m open for suggestions. What should I be reading?

Will I really enjoy Neal Stephenson’s 600-page recapitulation of Western Philosophy with all the terms changed? Especially as I’ve already read Western Philosophy?

Should I really try to start the Kushiel books even though I’m not into leather and whips?

Should I be reading about Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragons even though I’m a genuine expert on Napoleonic stuff and might really be pissed by what I find?

You tell me.

My tastes are eclectic. I’m not into generic fantasy, generic space opera, generic military SF, generic anything. It has to have the tang of the true and at least a modicum of ingenuity.

I want your opinion. Please offer it to me.

JaniceG September 12, 2008 at 7:38 am

I just finished Poison Study by Maria Snyder, which I thought was pretty good. Haven’t read the sequels yet, though.

I highly recommend a series of Regency mysteries by CS Harris, first one is What Angels Fear. It’s one of the few series I’ve read where the third book is as good as the first and the writing is really top notch.

And if you haven’t already read Jo Walton’s Farthing and Ha’Penny, do.

Al September 12, 2008 at 8:32 am

Actually, Stephenson’s new tome is 960 pages. You’re off by 50%. 🙂

I’m a reformed Neoplatonist and I quite enjoyed the book but I must admit it was heavy going.

For a short story collection, I really recommend “Pump Six and Other Stories” by Paolo Bacigalupi. That man can WRITE.

Novels… There is always John Meaney’s recent “Bone Song” (or its sequel published in the UK). There is also Richard Morgan’s new (and first) fantasy, “The Steal Remains,” but that is only out in the UK as well.

Steve September 12, 2008 at 9:13 am

SF has been pretty damn disappointing recently — so my positive recommendations would be for software engineering texts 🙂

The last thing I finished was Greg Bear’s new tome, but seriously I’d suggest that rather than reading that, you go (re-)read Hodgson’s The Night Land and Barker’s Imajica or Weaveworld and cut out the middle-man.

The new Stross (Saturn’s Children) is sitting there looking accusingly at me, but I can’t work up the enthusiasm since stalling part-way through Glasshouse — I think he needs to get a chick-lit book or two out of his system.

Jvstin Tomorrow September 12, 2008 at 9:38 am

Re: Novik: You probably will be pissed since you are a bona-fide expert. Don’t get me wrong, the books are entertaining and she did her research.

Re: Kushiel. It’s not all whips and chains. Its an excellently designed AH world (which, if they ever made a GURPS supplement for, I’d grab in a second). There is a lot of sex and a lot of that sex is of the S/m variety.

Erik September 12, 2008 at 10:14 am

I really liked Abercrombies ‘The First Law’ series.
Everything by John C Wright .
Alastair Reynolds, Neil Asher, China Mieville are other names that comes to mind.

Lawrence M. Schoen September 12, 2008 at 12:34 pm

I suspect you’ll really enjoy the work of Karl Schroeder. In books like Ventus and Permanence and Lady of Mazes he’s been exploring some of the fresher ideas in SF (similar in concept to some of what you did in Implied Spaces), and in his current SF Pirate series (which begins with Sun of Suns), readers are treated to just some rollicking fun, which in some ways reminds me of some Zelazny works like Doorways in the Sand.!

Johan Larson September 12, 2008 at 12:38 pm

I just read “The Watchman” by Robert Crais, and enjoyed it. Crais’s usual main character is Elvis Cole, a detective in LA. Joe Pike, who I suppose should be called a professional tough-guy, helps out occasionally. This book is a bit of a departure in that it focuses on Pike instead.

Chris McLaren September 12, 2008 at 1:40 pm

It’s nothing like the stuff you mentioned, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Disch’s Word of God, and by how hard it is to explain to someone what the book is.

I don’t know if it would be up your alley or not, but it’s certainly a good book. Maybe do a little Google and see if what you turn up looks like something you could enjoy.

I think I’ll probably be giving a couple of copies away to people who I know will enjoy smart, mean, funny, dark, bitter, insightful, and occasionally tender, and who won’t be too upset by the lack of a plot.

Chris Meadows September 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

I’m rather fond of P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyr books: God Stalk, Dark of the Moon, Seeker’s Mask, To Ride a Rathorn (and a short story collection whose title I forget). Gorgeously-realized Gothic fantasy.

Ralf the Dog September 12, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John von Neumann & Oskar Morgenstern.

Don't start it unless you have allot of time. The math is not light. Reading the book without working through the math is pointless.


Dig into Project Gutenberg and find something random that you have not read before.


Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. The first book is quite cool. The second book Axis is ok but not fantastic.

Ralf the Dog September 12, 2008 at 2:39 pm

One other thing you should be reading.


I would very much like to hear your opinion on this.


mindseas September 12, 2008 at 5:17 pm

I read the Novik books, which are fun. It’s like she took the Patrick O’Brian series and turned one of the protagonists into a dragon. I found the 1st 3 better than the last 2. I’m no Napoleonic expert, but she made one mistake that really annoys me–and she’s not the only author who’s done it–she describes leopards as having cat pupils, but the big cats have round pupils.

As for Kushiel, I read book one and decided not to go on. She writes as if who had sex with whom is the one driving force behind politics, in addition to being the one thing gods care about, so I found it very monochromatic (blood-red) in the end, despite its intricacy.

Someone suggested Karl Schroeder. I’ve read his books, except for the sequels of his current series, and enjoyed them greatly. Not 1-dimensional! Permanence was my favorite.


Jvstin Tomorrow September 12, 2008 at 5:21 pm

I’ve only read one Schroeder (Lady of Mazes). I did enjoy it and will buy and read more of his novels

Anonymous September 12, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Walter, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Dorothy Dunnett book, and #2 is waiting in the queue.

Here are some interesting titles for you–books that really stood out for me:

– William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It

– Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books

– K.L.Parker, Devices and Desires

– Jan Morris, Hav

–Debbie Roggie

john_appel September 12, 2008 at 6:12 pm

If you haven’t taken a look at Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Sharing Knife” books, I submit they’re worth the time. They definitely don’t fall into the “generic fantasy” category.

I’m looking forward to the new Richard K. Morgan book as well, and if you missed “Thirteen” (the US title) I recommend that.

Zora September 12, 2008 at 6:16 pm

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. I didn’t want to like this book, which rips off plot and characters from every damn extruded fantasy product ever written … BUT, he did it well. A triumph of good writing over blah basic material.

Kate Elliot’s Spirit Gate, start of a series not yet finished. Refreshingly free of any faux-medieval material. Based on Asian history, and well-written and plotted. So far.

Courtship Rites, Donald Kingsbury. Jettison your tired old prejudices against eating babies.

Breaking the Maya Code by Michael Coe. Fascinating story of the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics. If you like that, you’d probably like John Chadwick’s The Decipherment of Linear B.

Or perhaps you’d like to read some OLD OLD sf. Look up Astounding Stories, 1930, at the Internet Archive. Images only. We’re still processing the various issues at Distributed Proofreaders, turning them into ebooks (text files, much smaller).

Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan will rearrange much of your basic mental furniture. Must read.

dubjay September 12, 2008 at 7:35 pm

Yeah, that Deborah Roggie is really good!

Karl Schroeder has been recommended to me so many times that I’m embarrassed that I haven’t actually read any of his works. I’ll send for some first thing.

Otherwise, guys, keep going! I’m taking copious notes.

Jvstin Tomorrow September 12, 2008 at 7:39 pm

How about the Lords of Creation duology by S M Stirling (The Sky People, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings)

An Edgar Rice Burroughs type solar system with an inhabited Venus and Mars–engineered that way.

dubjay September 12, 2008 at 7:48 pm

Actually, if you’ll look at =Crimson Kings,= you’ll note that I blurbed it. It’s the most fun thing Steve Stirling ever wrote. I hope he does about a hundred sequels.

dubjay September 12, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Ralf, I would really love to commend on the article you posted, but I’m off to a science fiction convention and don’t have time.

It’s really appalling, though. It’s out of some half-baked right-wing paranoid fantasy— “UN conspires with NSA to steal Internet rights.”

john_appel September 12, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Chatting with a co-worker reminded me of Sandor Marai’s little gem [i]Embers[/i], a very fitting book for the season.

Jvstin Tomorrow September 12, 2008 at 7:55 pm

I don’t have my copy here at work of course–but darn it, when you’re right you are right.

Okay, another recommendation…

How about some of the work of my personal friend (and now Hugo award winning) Elizabeth Bear.

halojones-fan September 12, 2008 at 8:33 pm

“Ralf, I would really love to commend on the article you posted…It’s really appalling, though. “

You say that as though you don’t want to learn my real name and address, come over to my house, and rip my legs off.

Besides which, privacy is not a fundamental right; it’s a social convention. It requires that both ends agree to pretend it exists–as anyone who’s heard his neighbors having sex can tell you.

halojones-fan September 12, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Oh, recommendations? Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” is fun. So are Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan” and “Planetary”.

Anonymous September 13, 2008 at 1:52 am

Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery. It’s a love song to New York City immigrant culture and music. The language is rich enough to frost a cake.

Second the recommendation for Name of the Wind. I wanted not to like as soon as I spotted the main storytelling device. It still sucked me in.

Mark Wise
a.k.a. Devlin du GEnie

David W. Goldman September 13, 2008 at 6:20 am

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton.
Non-fiction linguistics: why is it that creole languages from many different places on Earth all have common features?

Anonymous September 13, 2008 at 7:58 am

“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” by Michael Chabon. Alternate history and a decent mysterry.

Urban September 13, 2008 at 8:45 am

I also first thought of Mike Mignola (provided “graphic novels” are OK, of course), but some older stuff, namely “Ironwolf: Fires of the Revolution” with script by Howard Chaykin.

birdhousefrog September 13, 2008 at 10:57 am

There’s this great story in the latest Analog called “Re\Creation.” Page 106. Pretty good. Restores faith in sf and all that. Not what one would think of as an Analog story, but obviously Stan thought it was.

Jason didn’t care for the Naomi Novik series and he likes most anything.

Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns. That’s the one to start with. Queen of Candesce, the 2nd, has a great villainess.

And there are a bunch of “light reading” series that Jason’s enjoying. Email me if you want any of those suggestions…I get most of Jason’s reading list based on Larry Smith’s recommendations.


Anonymous September 13, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Ack! I didn’t get it until I looked back and saw my signature looked like the 5th item on the list.

Well, someday…


Foxessa September 13, 2008 at 5:03 pm

You may like the Richard Morgan books, if you haven’t already read them.

TH1RTE3N, for instance, has a fair amount to say about gender, as well as lots of kick-ass violence on the order of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Hard Man Lone Wolf White Knight. Morgan’s SF though and Child’s is not.

Love, C.

Dave Bishop September 13, 2008 at 5:05 pm

I wonder if you've read 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke?

It's set in an alternate Regency England in which magic works but has been suppressed and largely forgotten – except by certain 'academic' magicians.
One of these, Mr Norrell, is persuaded to use his powers in the struggle against Napoleon. In so doing he carelessly unleashes a truly terrifying, malevolent entity (a fairy) which his apprentice, Jonathan Strange, eventually has to confront.

It is, in my opinion, a highly original work and is very well written. Parts of it have a very unsettling feel about them. At over a 1000 pages I suspect that it could have been edited down quite a lot – but then it might not have read like a Jane Austen novel with magicians and fairies!

Dave Bishop September 13, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Sorry to post twice but I’d like to recommend another book – not SF or Fantasy but an historical novel.

The book is ‘Birds Without Wings’ by Louis de Bernieres (of ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’ fame). It’s about the events following the fall of the Ottoman Empire – mainly as experienced by the inhabitants of a small Anatolian town. Their tribulations, and often appalling sufferings, are juxtaposed against an account of the career of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) – who I kept thinking of as someone out of one of your novels, Walter!

Frankly, I was stunned by this book and believe that it is one of the finest novels that I have read recently.

Pete Johannsen September 13, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Chopper from the Inside by Mark Brandon Read
The true (if someone exaggerated for manhood purposes)story of Chopper, a famous Australian criminal who was a “Standover Man” basically a criminal who kidnaps and tortures other criminals to find out where their loot is stashed. Honestly, I could not read this book in one sitting, because even though it’s fascinating…Chopper is too smugly proud of himself. I’d slap him, but he’d promptly stuff me down the garbage disposal.

Son of the Revolution by by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro. Journal/story of a young man growing up in the middle of the cultural revolution. Informative and fascinating…never degenerates into despair.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, a low culture manifesto by Chuck Klosterman. You know that guy at every party who has had 2 too many beers, and has begun lecturing everyone about the large hadron collider, Toucan Sam and their relationship to Clauswitz? Chuck is that guy, except he’s actually quite funny, and I sometimes stop myself mid conversation when I realize I’m actually quoting him.

Foxessa September 13, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Chuck’s even worse than that in real life. Run away!

Love, C.

Anonymous September 13, 2008 at 8:29 pm

You are one of my top three favourite current sf authors, the other two are Robert Charles Wilson (try Darwinia) and Paul McAuley (try The Quiet War). I have also enjoyed Jo Watson’s Farthing, and of course it’s always worth reading Dozis’ year’s best SF. For non fiction I would recomend Jared Diamond, and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza

Margot Otway September 14, 2008 at 5:37 am

. . . And if you're at all into Earth history, I strongly recommend Andrew H. Knoll's Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth. It's a wonderful book. He's a major researcher in the field, and he can really write.

I also really liked Supercontinent by Ted Nield. It's so nice to know what Pangaea looked like. The discussion of Snowball Earth in the final chapter is a real page-turner. Nield is the Science & Communications Officer of the Geological Society of London, and he can write.

erika September 15, 2008 at 2:05 am

RANT!. . . read RANT, by chuck palahniuk.

and if you’ve never read Watchmen. . . there’s always that.

Fred Kiesche September 15, 2008 at 4:38 pm

Patrick O’ Brian. And when you finish all twenty and read the fragment that is twenty-one, you can start all over again and discover different joys and pleasures.

Thai September 16, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy… the only book to ever help me truly understand that greatest of all mysteries: “how a woman thinks”

Warning: “NOT” light reading

philrm September 16, 2008 at 11:32 pm

The Testament of Gideon Mack,, by James Robertson, about a Scottish minister (who has no religious beliefs) who may or may not have met the Devil. Stunning.

james-nicoll September 17, 2008 at 4:25 am

It’s not new but One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night by Christopher Brookmyre.

It starts off with a lesson in why if you are putting together a gang of heavily armed thugs without much preparation, it’s still a bad idea to hire both pIRA and Unionist thugs (At hte very least, you want to keep them away from the rocket launchers).

He doesn’t currently have a US publisher but I think he did for that one.

philrm September 17, 2008 at 8:54 pm

Oh, and also Matt Ruff’s outstanding Bad Monkeys (his Sewer, Gas and Electric was also great) and, although a little overdone in places, Stephen Hall’s inventive and affecting The Raw Shark Texts.

Matt September 18, 2008 at 4:30 pm

I second the The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. Reminds me of Robin Hobb but less meandering.

If you want to read a hard boiled detective novel James Crumley’s Dancing Bear is terrific.

Michael Bernstein September 20, 2008 at 12:49 am

You might take a look at ‘The Plausibility of Life’ by Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart. The title is somewhat misleading as it’s actually a popular-science title about how genomes evolve for robust and generative modularity, and how this enables random mutations to at least *potentially* result in detrimental, useful, or neutral novel features rather than just a completely non-viable organism.

It’s completely outside my field (software development), yet I found it engaging and approachable, and it suggested to me some interesting ideas about technological contingency and robust software market ecologies.

Another book you might find interesting is ‘IBM and the Holocaust’ by Edwin Black. A fascinating look at the banality of corporate evil.

Do you read Graphic Novels? If so, have you seen Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ (it is a non-fiction examination of the comic as a medium, in comic form)? I can recommend it very highly.

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