The Way of Kings & Words of Radiance - Brandon Sanderson
I started reading these while looking for something new to read (ignoring my backlog of books I already own). Immediately, the prologue of The Way of Kings had me hooked with action and fight sequences I could easily picture in my head. I felt like I was watching a movie or playing a video game because the words just came to life. And that’s just the beginning!
The world Sanderson built is so alive and both complex and simple at the same time. And by the end of Words of Radiance, you can’t help but feel excitement akin to each of The Avengers movies, when you see all these heroes finally team up. Any one looking for an escape to a new, unknown world that isn’t Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Westeros, look no further than the Stormlight Archive (though I warn you, pretty much all of his books are connected so you’ll read these, and then like 6+ more).
The Poppy War & The Dragon Republic - R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang has created what could be considered a more adult, daring, and exciting The Hunger Games with The Poppy War. While a little more work to get into, by the mid-way point of The Poppy War you’re invested in the fate of Rin and her friends, all while imagining the cinematic level of powers the characters have summoning the gods.
By the time The Dragon Republic is half over, the actions by Rin and her enemies echo scenes similar to the X-Men or the Avengers in their stories, while successfully embracing the wuxia heritage of China. And that’s not even addressing the political games that are played around Rin.
Rising - Elizabeth Rush
I’ll be the first to admit my anxiety from thinking about world ending catastrophes, and even thinking about this book when came out would also send me into a panic attack. And that’s exactly what Elizabeth Rush needs to accomplish in order for the reader (and everyone really) to understand how bad the increasing water levels are and that action now is still action too late.
BUT, even in the darkness, there is a tiny light, a little hope, which she doesn’t leave out amidst the doom and gloom when it comes to discussing climate change and rising water levels. While Rush finds a way to convey the despair in her subjects she talks to - from the Gulf coast to the mid-Atlantic and across the country to the West coast - you can’t help but really see people who are both powerless to fight the change, while being warriors for this new climatically changed world.
Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse
“One time, I read all of Siddhartha at a traffic stop.” - Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), Parks & Recreation
Chronicling the journey of a young man through material fortune to spiritual, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha finds a way to convey the real values of life and how one can achieve happiness and peace through simply adjusting their world view.
Battle Cry of Freedom - James M. McPherson
Being a Civil War buff, I didn’t read James McPherson’s encompassing history of the American Civil War until long after college. McPherson is able to cover every facet of the Civil War, starting long before the first shot was ever fired at Fort Sumter. Perhaps one of the more interesting events are the attempts by some in the South to settle a new slave colony in South America, an event that is often left out of American History classes, in my experience.
SPQR - Mary Beard
Mary Beard’s rather short chronicle of the Roman Empire was a pleasure to read, while covering all of the major events in Roman history up to the final fall of the Empire. I was especially impressed with her explanations of the Senate and its workings, while also explaining the motivations of Julius Caesar leading up to his declaring himself emperor (and in a way, the reader almost sympathizes with his choices). This also makes SPQR a very easy to read history for anyone not well versed in Roman history, European history, or government.
Dune - Frank Herbert
With more political intrigue than Game of Thrones, Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time while still focusing on the human. From the growth of Paul Atreides’ character, to the revolting and disturbing Baron Harkonnen, the human actions are what really center a story about a desert planet in space. Herbert’s use of Arabic phrases and vocabulary make the book fun to read amidst the evil and despair some of the characters show.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
The investigation of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance by Mikael Blomkvist got to a point in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that gave me actual chills.
Also, Lisbeth Salander is one of the best anti-hero heroines in all fiction. Fight me.
The Talisman & Black House - Stephen King and Peter Straub
It still puzzles me why these haven’t been turned into movies or TV series yet. Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman is about growing up, and having to reconcile being an adult with still kinda being a kid. Some of the scenes as the world around Jake changes are downright horrific, and - like many of King’s stories - it’s the regular people that are the most evil.
Black House took me a lot longer to get into it, but it ended up being better, as we’re reunited with Jake, the boy from The Talisman, twenty years later as an adult. Instead, though, we get a murder mystery and a creepy house set far back in the woods. This one left me in tears as parts.
Moby-Dick - Herman Melville
Look, it’s a long book with an extremely boring middle section where Melville goes off for several chapters talking about whale anatomy and the whaling industry as a whole which really has nothing to do with the classic story everyone’s familiar with, that of a crazy Captain Ahab and his quest for revenge on the white whale that took his leg. And honestly, if you’re looking to just get the story part, then skip almost all of the middle chapters. But to really get the effect of what the crew of the Pequod went through, floating for days in the doldrums at the equator with no wind to move you while questioning the actions of your leader, the middle chapters are absolutely essential.
And by the end, those last chapters with the final battle against the white whale, are absolutely astounding and some of the best in American literature.
The Shining - Stephen King
Everyone’s familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s classic haunted house (or rather, hotel) tale, but the book is so radically different, with a story that gives us a different side of Jack Torrance then Jack Nicholson and Kubrick gave us in the film. While both the movie and the book are excellently made and special in their own right, the book should be essential reading for anyone who enjoys the movie, or Stephen King in general.
The Rum Diary - Hunter S. Thompson
Before Hunter S. Thompson became known as a drug-fueled, gun toting lunatic that drove through Bat Country with his attorney (not that any of that is bad), he was a young reporter in Puerto Rico, where drinking ice cold rum was slightly better for you then the water. The Rum Diary is also an excellent beach read.
'Salem's Lot - Stephen King
First, it’s “‘Salem’s Lot”, not “Salem’s Lot.” It’s short for Jerusalem’s Lot and not a play on the history of Salem, MA. Important distinction that I’m sure Stephen King intended for a play on Biblical names.
King’s second novel takes the styles of classic New England horror, mixes it with old European vampire tales, and brings it into the 20th century, and it’s still scary in the 21st century. ‘Salem’s Lot is the book that really cemented King as the best modern horror writer, inheriting the mantle from the likes of Lovecraft, Poe, and Hawthorne before him.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories - H.P. Lovecraft
Whether you know it or not, you’re probably familiar with some aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s lore. Maybe it’s the tentacled old one Cthulhu from “The Call of Cthulhu”, or the small New England town with a terrible secret in “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” or from the 80s camp horror film Re-Animator based on the story of the same name, or maybe it’s the countless takes on “At the Mountains of Madness” wherein ancient and terrifying secrets are uncovered in the Antarctic. Regardless, they’re all here and will make your imagination run wild until you yourself can’t sleep. After all, “That which is not dead can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die…”
The City of Brass & Kingdom of Copper - S.A. Chakraborty
Much like The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, S.A. Chakraborty has created a sort of Middle East version of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Here, we have an entire city - Daevabad - made up of djinn’s (or genies) in the Arabian desert. Here, Nahri learns about her own past and how politically unstable even supernatural beings are. Racial and class tensions are everywhere, while djinns, marids, and ifrits contribute to cinematic levels of battles and scenes, all painted in words.
By the end of Kingdom of Copper, you’ll be aching for more (the last book in the series, Empire of Gold comes out soon!)
UNSUB - Meg Gardiner
Based on the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco in the 1960s, Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series starts here with a thrilling, impossible to put down hunt for a killer in… the San Francisco area. The simple premise of an unknown suspect (or, an UNSUB) using symbols in murders is where the similarities end, though, as Gardiner creates surprising levels of tension while Detective Caitlin Hendrix hunts down the killer that has haunted her family for over 20 years.
Gardiner continued Caitlin’s UNSUB hunting in Into the Black Nowhere - based on Ted Bundy - and The Dark Corners of the Night - based on Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker. Both are excellent follow-ups, but UNSUB was impossible to put down.
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse 1) - James S.A. Corey
For all I had heard and seen about The Expanse series on Sy-Fy and now Amazon Prime, I had held off until I read the books. And boy am I glad I started reading the books (the series is still excellent, but the books are a whole other level of amazing). Following the crew of the Rocinate, James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has created an epic space series where the future mankind that is the opposite of Star Trek. There are no lasting peace agreements, people still live in poverty, and corporations have more control than any government. Meanwhile, tensions between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets (colonies on the Asteroid Belt and moons around Jupiter and Saturn) mirror the racism and classism we see in our own world today.
And then, just as happens in the real world, an outside threat comes along (of course, all that other stuff still happens while all life is threatened with extinction). Where the writing really exceeds here, though, is the portrayals of real science - like gravity and thrust force - and the voices of each character that feel totally unique and alive. Read all the books, then watch the show.
Locke & Key Vol 1: Welcome to Lovecraft - Joe Hill and Grabriel Rodriguez
Knowing that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King explains a lot about what happens in the Locke and Key graphic novels and where the influence comes from. That being said, as excellent as the writing is across all the panels (and the whole series is a must read, but this volume is the most memorable, hands down), it’s Gabriel Rodriguez’s illustrations that are the attraction. You wouldn’t think a jump scare would be possible on paper, but he somehow found a way here, and it’s still one of the most unsettling comic panels in history.
The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher - Andrzej Sapkowski
I’ll be the first to admit that Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing is very difficult to get into. I admittedly had to read this collection of short stories twice to really digest everything involved. But it’s here that we are introduced Geralt of Rivia - the White Wolf, the Butcher of Blaviken, the titular Witcher - the first time. Separate from the video game series, Sapkowski has created a rather unique world with ties to Lord of the Rings, but where nothing is as simple as good vs evil (while the series became more well known after Game of Thrones, The Last Wish predates Martin’s series by 3 years).
It’s in the title story here that we’re also introduced to Geralt’s (literal, possibly) soul mate, Yennefer, a powerful sorceress. Other stories include an introduction to Dandelion - Geralt’s “friend” and traveling troubadour - a twist on Beauty and the Beast, and the first mention of the Child of Destiny, Ciri (most of the stories here are also covered in the Netflix series).
Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer
Taking notes extensively from Lovecraft’s style of “make them imagine,” Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation will most likely take more than one read to understand (which is OK since it’s a pretty short book). While the film capitalizes on the ability to create the horrors that readers have to imagine, VanderMeer’s narrative is the most unsettling as we question the legitimacy of each of the four women on the expedition in a world where the laws of science no longer apply. The feeling you’re left with at the end is one that will force you think long and hard about existence and what it means to be human.
The Big Short - Michael Lewis
Probably the best record and explanation of the Financial Recession of 2007-2008, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short approaches complex economic theories and ideas in a way that any person not familiar with how the stock market works could understand. While he doesn’t point fingers at any individuals responsible for the crisis, Lewis draws clear lines where various banks and investment groups brought the concept of gambling with other people’s money to new heights, and how no one really stopped them.
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the March girls - Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth - growing up in Civil War New England swings from being funny to shocking to sad without ever sacrificing the character’s developments (at least not outside the bounds of reality, after all Laurie can be a real jerk sometimes). Anyone with sisters of their own can relate to the stories each girl shares of fighting and bonding with each other.
The White Album - Joan Didion
Ever since first reading her, I've been in love with the way that Joan Didion writes. This collection of essays encapsulates some of her non-fiction writing at the end of the 60s through the 70s, and her ability to put herself into the reporting as a character. The title essay chronicles Didion’s views of the real end of the 60s in California, in 1969 after the murders by the Manson family. But the real highlights, here, are in the other essays, where Didion touches on the feminist movement, the empty California governor’s mansion, and on shopping mall theory.
While the opening sentence of the title essay/book is perhaps the most well known, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” I’ve found the last sentences in the essay “On the Mall” to be far more interesting: “In the literature of shopping centers these would be described as impulse purchases, but the impulse here was obscure. I do not wear hats, nor do I like caramel corn. I do not use nail enamel. Yet flying back across the Pacific I regretted only the toaster.”
Exhalation - Ted Chiang
Unlike what most sci-fi - and especially the short story form - does with presenting different universes and unique stories, Chiang’s collection here isn’t all doom and despair. Not one of these stories had me feeling like life is pointless and humanity if doomed to destroy itself. While some of these stories come across this way, such as the title story, each one finds a way to present some semblance of hope. Even “The Great Silence,” a story about the extinction of parrots in relation to humanity’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has a sense of hope or forgiveness from the narrator - a parrot - that finds a way to make us aware, guilty, but ultimately with a sense that despite the damage we’ve done to ourselves, our environment, and our culture hasn’t brought us to the end just yet.