A Call for Recommendations!

So, it’s allegedly a new year now (although I’m still suspicious – is there any chance we could have a recount?). And a new year brings with it, like whelks adhered to a hull, new ambitions and determinations. Or in my case, the same ambitions as before, but again. Like: I should read more.

Specifically, I want to read both more, and more widely. So I’m hoping some people might take pity on me and make some recommendations. I’d like to suggest six categories:

1. A classic (say, pre-1985) fantasy novel.

2. A “literary” novel from the 20th century.

3. A notable but underappreciated fantasy novel from the 21st century.

4. A popular fantasy novel from the last two or three years.

5. A “literary” novel from the last two or three years.

6. A science fiction novel from the 21st century.

7. A “popular”, “mainstream” novel of recent decades. I don’t know, a Grisham or a Clancy or something – but not TOO unreadable, please.


In each case, standalone novels are preferred, although I won’t automatically rule out, say, a book that happens to have a sequel.

For the “classic” fantasy novel, I’ve read a few of the big names already – there’s no point suggesting Tolkien, Lewis, Eddings, Brooks, Donaldson or Feist. And you can consider Cabell pre-suggested (as I hope to gradually read through his oeuvre over the years). But it would be nice to find something less famous that was still an interesting read.

For 20th century literary novels, Sholokov is already on the list (indeed, I’ve started, paused, and am now waiting for a non-abridged translation). You needn’t suggest Sinclair Lewis (although I doubt anyone was going to anyway…). I’ll be skeptical of suggestions of Hemmingway, having tried and failed to be interested in the past.

For 21st century fantasy, I don’t actually know that much, although I’ve read some Abercrombie and Abraham (as well as 90s holdovers like Hobb and Martin).

In general, I like to think I’m open-minded – I can appreciate beautifully-written classics, and genuinely gripping potboilers. I’m more inclined to like things that seem interesting and unexpected, but I’m willing to give anything a try.

I’m not necessarily looking for books to change my life. I’m looking to try to get more of a sense of what people are reading in categories like these where perhaps I’m currently too ignorant – although if I can learn while also enjoying the experience, that would be ideal…

Any suggestions gratefully received…

8 thoughts on “A Call for Recommendations!

  1. Elle says:

    For 5, I think you’d get a lot out of Milkman, which just won the Booker Prize (so, “literary”)—it’s set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the ’70s, and it describes a kind of deeply oppressive society, with a set of very specific social rules and constraints, so that Burns is almost doing the kind of worldbuilding that you might expect from a genre novel.

    Re popular, mainstream, but non-shite authors, I always recommend Robert Harris, who can genuinely write, although he writes things that happen to be extremely entertaining. Lee Child is also a very capable writer, despite his immense popularity (!)

  2. Thanks! Milkman looks interesting – particularly as I’ve a personal connexion to the Troubles (I’m English and Irish, and I’ve cousins in NI). My one hesitation is that a novel set in Northern Ireland might be just too depressing – I mean, Mordor I’ll happily read about, but Northern Ireland? Then again, by the time I’ve gotten through “And Quiet Flows the Don”, I might be yearning for the relative peace and quiet and cosmopolitanism of the Troubles…

    I read Fatherland, some time ago – I found it not as good as some people think, but enjoyable, and quite professionally put together, so I probably should try some more Harris at some point. The Lee Child recommendation I’d never have thought of, though – I’ve heard of him, but I’d always assumed he must be godawful (popularity, plus subject matter, doesn’t seem to bode well). Yet it seems he’s won a lot of prizes and been relatively well-acclaimed, so yes, he certainly seems like someone I’d be interested in…

  3. joeshupac says:

    I read a few books I really loved this past year, which I think fall in your categories 1 and 2: The Siege, by Ismail Kadare; The Towers of Trebizond; and Perelandra. They were all fairly short books.

    The only newly published book I read was The Nix, which probably fits both your categories 5 and 7. I listened to the audiobook of it and thought it was good and funny. Meryl Streep is going to be starring in a tv version of it soon.

  4. James says:

    My favorite “classic” fantasy author is probably Lloyd Alexander. He’s best known for his Chronicles of Prydain Series, which is great post-Tolkien high fantasy, but I actually would recommend his book The Kestrel instead for your #1. It’s set in a pseudo-revolutionary France and it’s really good, though it is the second book in a trilogy and I don’t know if you’d want to read the first one beforehand.

    Oh! There’s also The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley which is a great retelling of the Arthurian Mythos from the perspective of the women involved. It’s pretty slow-burn, but the payoffs are great.

    For your #4, I’d recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant which is political fantasy or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which is more dark, fair-tale inspired fantasy. For fantasy releases that came out in 2018, I’ve only read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, which is a fantasy riff on the Sino-Japanese war and has an interesting magic system based off psychedelic drugs.

  5. Owen says:

    Category 2: If you haven’t read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, I highly recommend it.

    Category 5: If we can be lax on the exact timeframe, A Sense of an Ending came out in, I think, 2011, and I got around to reading it this year.

    I second the mention of Perelandra, which I enjoyed although not sharing the author’s point of view. Middle book of a trilogy, third book (That Hideous Strength) is interesting but very different than the first two and took me two tries. I don’t believe any of them require reading the others to understand, although it might be slightly helpful.

  6. Thanks, guys! I’ll make a note of these…

    I haven’t read Perelandra, but I did read “Out of the Silent Planet” a long time ago…

  7. Hans-Werner Hatting says:

    I don’t know whether you’ve read that already or whether it would go into 2 or 7, but with your interest in the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” should be right up your ally.

  8. Oh, that’s a point. That’s something that i’ve been recommended so often I’ve tended to put it on the mental “I’m sure I’ll read it at some point so no hurry” pile and forgotten about it…

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