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We’re living in the era of the book series. Publishers are a pretty risk-averse lot at the best of times, and especially today. Like the people who run the movie studios, they like to go with people and ideas that have a track record. It’s for reasons like this that we’re on our twelfth Star Trek movie with a thirteenth scheduled for release next summer. This also explains the mega-series authors like James Patterson, Sue Grafton, Nora Roberts, etc., some of whose characters (for instance in the case of Robert B. Parker) persist long after their originator has shuffled off this mortal coil.
For the discerning consumer of literature (or at least for this one) each successive book implies an element of risk. One of my colleagues recently mentioned that she’d read a book by an author whose previous release we’d both really dug and found it to be so bad that it made her reconsider whether the earlier one was as good as she’d thought. Still, there are a number of authors whose books I’ll at least give a shot even if the previous ones haven’t quite been up to snuff. Here are ten of them.
1. Charles Stross: It tells you a lot about a guy if Cory Doctorow describes him as the nerdiest guy he knows. Stross can do it all. The Laundry Files is, I will just tell you now, the best humorous sci-fi series going now, full stop. His other series, The Merchant Princes, is good too, although admittedly not as awesome. His free standing novels, such as Accelerando, Glasshouse, and Neptune’s Brood (the last is technically a sequel to another novel, but really stands alone) are also very entertaining. Stross’s stock in trade is his exploration of the way that technology will shape human life and culture. This can be a little unsettling, but Stross handles it with a lightness and humor that is quite appealing. There are magical elements but, true to his tech nerd roots, they are framed in a way that makes them, I don’t know…plausible? Anyway, the sixth full Laundry Files novel, Annihilation Score, came out earlier this month and, I’m happy to say, keeps the good times rolling.
2. Neal Stephenson: It’s a little hazardous getting seriously into Neal Stephenson’s work. His books tend to be enormous: Cryptonomicon (1168 pages), Anathem (1008 pages), the Baroque Cycle (three volumes averaging nearly 900 pages apiece), etc., etc. In general I really love Stephenson’s writing. The Baroque Cycle was not my favorite, and Cryptonomicon could probably have been about 200 pages shorter without losing anything substantial, but his recent work has been very, very strong. I haven’t read his latest one, Seveneves, yet, but my colleague here is reading it and she seems to really be enjoying it. I recommend his earlier works, particularly Snow Crash (1992) and Diamond Age (1995). They’re a bit shorter and easier to digest. Stephenson is at his best when he does a sort of cyberpunk take on the near future and both Snow Crash and Diamond Age are excellent examples of his skills.
3. Jim Butcher: I was a bit of a latecomer to the Dresden Files. I admit that I actually liked the short-lived TV series, but that had a lot to do with my appreciation for Paul Blackthorne (who played the starring role and who now has a continuing gig on Arrow). Don’t tell a real Dresden Files fan that you like the show. Just don’t. You’ll get sneered at. I will say that after reading Storm Front, the series opener, a couple of years ago I was totally hooked. It took me a while to get up to speed, but I’m now up to date through Skin Game, the fifteenth book in the series. He says he wants to take the series into the low 20s. I second that emotion. Dark, urban, and magical, Butcher’s work is what a lot of people in the genre aim for but very few are in the same league.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien: Well, it’s not like he’s going to be producing a lot more (having died in 1973) but his output of stuff relating to Middle Earth was quite extensive. People who know me know that I have a fascination with the Lord of the Rings novels that borders on the pathological. I got started early. The Hobbit was the first book I ever read (at least that didn’t have pictures) and I was hooked. [I would really like to see Peter Jackson subjected to the sort of tortures usually reserved for heretics in the middle ages for what he did to The Hobbit, but that’s a subject for another post.] Personally I think The Silmarillion is a really underrated book, and his books of stories and poetry (Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, etc.) are quite enjoyable as well. Tolkien’s son Christopher has released a bunch of his father’s work posthumously, some of which is just notes and drafts, but some of which is fully fleshed out. The best of this stuff is The Children of Húrin which is reasonably short and a lot of fun to read, although sad.
5. Jane Austen: Another author whose oeuvre isn’t getting any bigger, unless you count Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or other various adaptations in book and on screen (Clueless, Bridget Jones' Diary, Death Comes to Pemberley) that have been done in the last few years. People tend to be kind of surprised when they find out that I really love Austen’s books. Her work is often pigeonholed these days as “chicklit,” which is a problematic concept in the first place, but in any case does a serious injustice to Austen. Her writing is smooth and elegant, and her characters have a depth and substance that make you care what happens to them. And even if this weren’t enough to spark your interest, her novels are rich with detail about the era in which she lived, one of the most interesting in the history of Europe.
6. Craig Johnson: I found out about Johnson’s Longmire series when I saw the TV adaptation on A&E. This was awesome, and the fact that the bigwigs at the network cancelled it (apparently because it wasn’t attracting the right demos) is proof positive of the utter fatuousness of network executives. People tend to assume (with some justice) that books will be better than she shows that are made from them. Sometimes the reverse is the case (for instance the dramatizations of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse which are very much better than the books on which they’re based). In the case of the Longmire stories, both are excellent. Johnson’s books center on events in a fictional county in Wyoming located on the edge of a Cheyenne reservation. I feel a special attraction to these books as the places and people they discuss remind me a lot of my own hometown in eastern Washington state. Johnson’s prose is spare and beautiful and his characters have real depth. Most importantly, his representations of Native American culture are done with realism and moderation and without being patronizing. This is one of the very best mystery series going right now, and there’s every indication that there’s more to come.
7. Alan Dean Foster: I don’t know how many of ADF’s books I own, or have owned, but it’s a lot. Since 1971 he’s been fleshing out his interstellar polity, the Humanx Commonwealth Universe, comprising the Pip and Flynx novels, the Icerigger trilogy, the Founding novels, and a something like fourteen free standing books. Foster’s writing can be a little campy, but that’s not the worst failing in a science fiction writer. They tend to be pretty fun to read, and they don’t require a lot of deep thought. I have to be in the right mood to read him, but when I am I generally get through four or five of his books before I’m done.
8. Robert B. Parker: The first modern detective fiction that I ever read was Parker’s A Catskill Eagle and since then I’ve read practically all the others. The forty canonical Spenser novels, running from The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) to the posthumous Sixkill (2011), are remarkably consistent in terms of their (high) quality. Parker’s knowledge of Boston gives his novels a real sense of place, and Spenser himself is one of the more remarkable characters in the history of detective fiction. He’s literate, but can be hard-nosed when he needs to be. He’s subtle, but he can knuckle up when the situation requires. Most importantly, he has a sympathy for the human condition that prompts him to help people even when they are too confused and deluded to help themselves. Spenser is the kind of guy you’d like to hang out and have a beer with, but he’s also the kind of guy who’d have your back. Parkers’s other series, particularly the Jesse Stone novels, are good, but not in the same league as Spenser. That’s kind of what you’d expect. After all, most writers don’t even create one character as compelling as Spenser.
9. John Le Carré: He’s not really to everyone’s taste, but I’ve always found Le Carré’s writing really entertaining. The Smiley novels are, for me at least, about as good as spy fiction ever got. They don’t have a bunch of phoney gadgetry à la James Bond. The characters are real people trying to do a difficult job. They have feelings and they have doubts, even as they understand the underlying justice of their cause and the necessity of doing some questionable things from time to time. If I was going to pick one Le Carré book to read that wasn’t from the Smiley series it would be The Constant Gardener (2000). As with so many of Le Carré’s stories, this one is very much informed by his work in foreign intelligence. The arc of Le Carré’s writing is, in a lot of respects, that of the 20th century, running from his Cold War-themed books early in his career to his more wide-ranging later works.
10. Margaret Atwood: Few writers have explored the possible outcomes of the interactions of science, politics, and society in the way that Atwood has done. Her Maddaddam Trilogy is seriously disturbing, especially the first volume, Oryx and Crake (2003) which gave me nightmares. Atwood is at her best when exploring the ways that the future might pan out for women, usually not very well. Futuristic fiction tends to fixate on rocket ships and computers. Atwood’s writing has the virtue of exploring the ways that human culture will change when science has the power to make us much different than we are. A good place to start with Atwood is The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) which looks explores a very alarming (and very possible) future for women in society. It’s a bit depressing, but also uplifting and, as always with Atwood’s books it’s written in a way that’s pleasant to read.
Which authors have you read the most from?