What Should I Be Reading?

by wjw on January 16, 2012

Lately I’ve been reading some Worthy Novels.  You know the kind: they’re well-written, have well-developed characters, and situations that ought to be interesting but somehow aren’t.  There isn’t anything wrong with these books: they just aren’t very exciting. Somewhere along the line the author took a turn into Plodsville.  Finishing them felt more like a duty than a pleasure (which may have been the case for the author as well).

I’m lookin’ for some excitement in my fiction.  Please advise.

Note that I do not necessarily equate excitement with action.  I’m perfect capable of being excited by action, but I can also be excited by scintillating ideas, awesome character dynamics, wit, style, and fascinating points of view.

What should I be reading?  Please let me know.

Farhan January 16, 2012 at 4:16 am

Give Tom Perrotta’s ‘Little Children’ a shot.

Probably one of the best contemporary novels in my opinion. Incisive insights into human psychology, polished prose, achingly human characters, and all of this wrapped in a great story, makes it not only a thought-provoking read but also a very entertaining one.

It’s what a novel should be: profound without being obscure, and fun without being shallow. It casts an unflinching look at its characters which is at once revealing and yet full of compassion for human frailty.

Have a go at it, Mr. Williams. I promise you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Zora January 16, 2012 at 4:46 am

Travel books?

Arabian Sands, by Thesiger
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Newby

Newby mentions Thesiger … with awe.

Zora January 16, 2012 at 4:48 am

Oh, wait, FICTION. How about something old? Adventure novels by Joseph Altsheler. Free at Project Gutenberg or Manybooks. I worked on several of the Young Trailers series. That guy could do cliffhangers!

John Appel January 16, 2012 at 5:09 am

Well, as soon as I finish Knight Moves, I’m going to knock out John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”. My son (who’s 14 and a big JG fan) plowed through it very quickly this week, and it’s got him thinking some pretty weighty thoughts for a 14 year old, and this will give him someone to talk about it with.

It’s pretty short, so you could get through it quickly I expect.

Michael Walsh January 16, 2012 at 5:17 am

Howard Waldrop’s epic fantasy series he’s writing under the pseudonym of George R R Martin.

Michaela Roessner January 16, 2012 at 5:19 am

I recommend Teresa Milbrodt’s short story collection, “Bearded Women Stories.” Mostly sort of like what slipstream was like back when Sterling first defined/described it, but each story centers around characters who are mutated or have a freak show characteristic, etc., like a third leg, women with beards, a cyclopean girl, etc., trying to find a way to live regular lives. *Not* “action” type of excitement, but beautiful tales.

Mark Stackpole January 16, 2012 at 5:35 am

Paul Malmont “The Amazing, the Astounding and the Unknown” Simon & Schuster 2011. My vote for the Hugo award.

JamesR. Strickland January 16, 2012 at 6:40 am

Pretty much anything by Richard K. Morgan that isn’t A. fantasy or B. “Market Forces” I think you might find him a kindred spirit, at least in his early work. (His fantasy has been uniformly wretched, and Market Forces was that nasty first novel everyone has that they shouldn’t show anyone.)

Spin State, by Chris Moriarty.


Anonymous January 16, 2012 at 7:00 am

“Among Thieves”, remarkable and “Hard Magic”, even if Correia’s politics are far from yours, the guy do know how to spin a good tale.

James R. Strickland January 16, 2012 at 7:53 am

Oh, also Kitchen God’s Wife, BoneSetter’s Daughter and/or The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan. The very epitome of stories without action but they /move/ just the same.


Ryan Viergutz January 16, 2012 at 8:19 am

I’ll give you three possibilities!

Alastair Reynolds’s “House of Suns”
Mike Carey’s “Dead Men’s Boots”
Laura Anne Gilman’s “Pack of Lies”

Jean-Damien Bastid January 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

Weel the books that thrilled me the most for the last few years was Gagner la Guerre by Jean-Philippe Jaworski, unfortunately it exist only in French.
I would call it adult Fantasy as it does not take the usual Fantasy young adult stuff but use as main character a former soldier going into spying & doing the undercover work for the elected ruler of a free city. It’s like a renaissance time, mixing politics, plots Borgia’s & Machiavel are not far aways… Truly a great book & a one shot. It left me as an orphan as I turned the last page, (and it’s not only my point of view).
When I sell a copy, the reader often come back asking for a novel of the same level & I fell miserable because I don’t know one. It would be a mix of Perez-Reverte’s Alatriste and Martin’s Games of Throne perhaps but the writting is higher.
The writting quality is high & to translate it in another language without damaging will be a difficult task. For some who can read French it’s in Folio Sf at low cost or in moutons électriques for the big edition.

Bruce Murphy January 16, 2012 at 10:08 am

Not sure what genres you’re currently interested in, but The Name of the Wind was an unusually readable fantasy from recent years. Erikson’s Malazan stuff is vast and unconventional and K.J.Parker’s Shadow trilogy has a very unusual view of what might seem at first glance, generic fantasy. SF-wise, the Windup Girl was fantastic.

Hildo January 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Agree wit KJ Parker’s Shadow/Pattern/Memory.
If you like dark fantasy, Joe Abercrombie is good.
The best SF I read last year is China Mieville’s “Embassytown”.

Out of the genre ghetto, I greatly enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and David Mitchell’s “The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet”. I think it was Alistair Reynolds who called Mitchell a writer’s writer and he sure is.

Juanma Barranquero January 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Almost anything by Peter Watts (“Blindsight” packs as many ideas as several “normal” books) or Charles Stross. Also “The Quantum Thief”, by Hannu Rajaniemi. All of them very thought-provoking. For near-future, solar-system Space Opera, “Leviathan Wakes” is interesting, if a bit lacking. And, of course, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, by Julian Jaynes. He’s perhaps wrong, but if so, it’s a magnificent way to err.

Israel January 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Lot’s of good stuff above but I have to add Salt: A World History. The amazing way it tied into the flow of history, politics, technology, and of course food boggles the mind.

DensityDuck January 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I recommend (flavor of the month)! It’s really good! Everyone is reading and recommending it!

Moira January 16, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Shadow of the Silk Road, by Colin Thubron. Non-fiction. Great travel writing, all that lovely stuff about Central Asia & western China you always meant to catch up on. Lots & lots of stunning prose.

Anonymous January 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’An : classical Chinese novel. I don’t know about the English translation but the French one I read taught me why this one is the source of so many novels, plays, movies, etc.

Hélène January 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’An : classical Chinese novel. I don’t know about the English translation but the French one I read taught me why this one is the source of so many novels, plays, movies, etc.

Foxessa January 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.
Derby Day by D.J.Taylor

A novel you blurbed, by Saladin Ahmad, is now out — they will be likely sending it to you, if they haven’t already.

And, as always, Sienkiewicz

Zora January 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Just remembered: anything by Vikram Seth. I’ve read A Suitable Boy three times. He has published several other fine novels, as well as memoirs, essays, and a novel in verse, The Golden Gate.

Allen January 16, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer is the best thing I’ve read recently.

The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman, also good.

The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia, also good.

An “oldie-but-a-goodie”, the very strange Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick.

I’m currently reading his “Dancing with Bears” – not that great sounding a title, but chapter one is off to a good start!

Shash January 17, 2012 at 3:26 am

Anything by Jonathan Carroll, beginning with “The Land of Laughs”. He is scary, serendipitious, wry and just plain weird. Amazingly beautiful things happen in his novels. Amazingly weird ones too. Imagine your wife is really a kite….

Camille Flynn January 17, 2012 at 4:43 am

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart or anything by Terry Pratchett

wjw January 17, 2012 at 6:57 am

Thanks for all the lovely recommendations. I’ve already read a lot of ’em— the Hugharts, the Pratchetts, the Strosses, the Carrolls, and a number of others. The rest sound intriguing indeed.

And if GRRM is really Howard Waldrop, that explains why those books are so late, doesn’t it?

James January 17, 2012 at 8:31 am

Anathem – Neal Stephenson.
Then figure out how the hell he sold that to a publisher.

Emerald Eyes – Daniel Keys Moran
Back in the day, the sequel to this book ‘The Long Run’ and ‘Hardwired’ were what got me right into SF.

DensityDuck January 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Ha ha, I didn’t know anyone else had even heard of Moran…I found “The Last Dancer” sitting on a shelf, and thought it was great, and then I found out it was one of those books that doesn’t end so much as stop.

rushmc January 17, 2012 at 9:54 pm

And now for something completely different:

Big Questions – Anders Nilsen
anything by Georges Simenon

Katherine January 18, 2012 at 4:03 am

I second the Name of the Wind.

Also, please don’t delete this page without warning; I’ve bookmarked it and will want to come back.

Not Todd January 19, 2012 at 7:54 am

A second for Mieville’s “Embassytown”. Fascinating look at how communication can shape a species.

Dave Bishop January 19, 2012 at 9:43 am

One of the best novels that I read last year (apart from yours, of course!) was Ian McDonald’s ‘The Dervish House’ – a complex, multi-layered tale set in Istanbul in 2027. It’s definitely SF – but unlike any SF that I’ve ever read. One of the many things that impressed me about this novel is that all of the main characters are Turkish – makes a change from the Americans and Brits who inhabit most SF (although I suppose that only another Turk would be able to tell if the characters represent authentic Turks). I know that you love ‘The Queen of Cities’, Walter so you might like to give this a go.

Ralf The Dog. January 19, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Odyssey One by Evan C Currie is a very interesting book. It is self E-published on Kindle. It has some basic flaws that could have been polished out by a good editor, however, it did have a unique shape and texture. It had a very fast pace.

Chapter transitions were done differently than I have read before. At the end of one chapter, a person on top of a big pit would drop a wrench, at the beginning of the next chapter, a person at the bottom of a pit would get whacked in the head by a bloody big spanner. It did not have many cliffhanger type endings where the bad guy is about to take the hero’s head off with a chainsaw, you turn the page to see what happens next, then, cut to a grocery store in Tulsa Oklahoma for the next 60 pages.

One thing I found mildly disturbing was, he got most of the science mostly right. Some of the things he got wrong were nitpicking trivialities. Others were probably intentional, not to confuse the reader.

This is a very cool new author who has great character development. I think he has the potential to go up against many of today’s A list authors.

Erik Vidal January 19, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Whenever somebody asks me this (re: the question of “smart page-turners”) I simply reply–

James Clavell’s SHOGUN

And leave it at that–however if you’ve read this one (and most of us have), do try–

John Fowles’s THE MAGUS (also well-known, but just in case you somehow missed it), as well as–
Stefan Zweig’s BEWARE OF PITY (lesser known, and absolutely brilliant, a must read)–


Bruce Arthurs January 21, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Helene’s rec of Outlaws of the Marsh leads me to mention it’s also known under the title of The Water Margin. Partly into it so far. Big fat epic, with literally dozens of major characters. Which has led me to wonder if it’s one of the influences on GRRM’s multi-POV, multi-plotline Song of Ice and Fire.

I actually discovered the book thru a deck of playing cards. Among the items in our friend Anne Braude’s estate was a double-deck of cards, with each card picturing one of the characters from The Water Margin. (Yes, it takes two decks to do most the major characters.) Intriguing enough for me to check Wikipedia and find the basis was a classic Chinese novel, and pick up the book for myself.

John F. MacMichael January 21, 2012 at 11:36 pm

You might enjoy John Biggins “A Sailor of Austria” and its sequels. Excellent historical fiction about an officer in the Royal and Imperial Navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. He strives to survive and do his duty while the dynasty and the empire disintegrate behind him. A nice balance of horror and humor.

Clyde January 23, 2012 at 2:14 am

Well, you asked. I expect you have read some of these already.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson
The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth by Roger Zelazny (Possibly the best book of short fiction I have read.)
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (His best book and his shortest)
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (His best book)
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen (for a nice change of pace)

That should hold you for a while.

Katherine January 29, 2012 at 12:53 am

For something completely different: have you read anything by Greg Egan? It’s the hardest sci-fi accessible (if occasionally only marginally) to my high-school science level education. ‘Diaspora’ has far too many ideas for any one book – to the point where it’s a problem really – but it’s as good a pure science fiction book as I’ve ever read.

That One Guy February 14, 2012 at 4:59 am

WJW, I must know: what are some of these “Worthy Novels” of which you speak? Give me a baseline and I’ll share some current novels as perfect as Angel Station (best SF picaresque I’ve ever read, by the way, and that includes The Diamond Age).

wjw February 14, 2012 at 5:10 am

It doesn’t matter what =I= think is worthy, just tell me what turns you on.

That One Guy February 14, 2012 at 5:38 am

Well, it certainly matters to me what you think, but that’s an academic thing.

Fantasy: Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books are, along with Morgan, some of the most interesting work coming out now, and they even manage to avoid the problems inherent in the chosen one motif. Priest’s Clockwork Century novels are also quite impressive. Dreadnought is guilty of some of your complaints (though I would argue that its picaresque framework excuse some of its faults), but Clementine and Ganymede are perfectly paced.

SF: A previous poster mentioned Reynolds’s House of Suns. That novel and the novella Thousandth Night upon which Suns is based are excellent examples of contemporary Space Opera, though they both lack the picaresque charm of Angel Station. Stross’s Saturn’s Children captures that charm, however, and avoid the occasional . . . plodding moments . . . to which his most recent writing has succumbed.

Also worth reading are Harrison’s Light and Nova Swing, as he is one of the best prose stylists working. I’m sure you have read those, though. You might not have read any of Bill Eakin’s short fiction (although I think you’ve published in the same mags – not sure offhand), however, and he is as strong as Harrison in many ways.

That’s all fairly recent, I think, though perhaps a bit obvious. If you want fringe, let me know.

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