In fact, after the break, we've listed some mutual and personal recommendations, and why we love these different books.
Warning: our tastes do run to the science fiction/fantasy genre (unsurprising, given that we're fans of the show Chuck), so if that's not your wheelhouse for reading, you may not like this list. Good thing we accounted for that somewhat! And who knows? Some of this may surprise you.
Writer: Tanya Huff
Series: Second Book out of Five
Synopsis: Staff Sergeant Marine Torin Kerr, famous after her victory on the Silsviss homeworld, learns her lesson about annoying the brass when she and a special unit of Marines are assigned to investigate an alien ship floating dead in space.
Why Frea Loves It: Tanya Huff is one of my all-time favorite writers for a myriad of reasons. I love her style, I love her characters, I love her action scenes, but I most love her sense of humor. And this book, the second of a series of five books about Torin Kerr, definitely brings all of that to the table. Torin Kerr as a main character shines with everything I love about my favorite characters: she is flawed and human, dedicated to her principles, hilarious, and pretty damn great at her job, which is simple--keep her people alive, come hell or high water. The books, written by an ex-Marine, definitely explore the Non-Commissioned Officer mindset and rank structure that I imagine would take place in any unit of troops, but with the added benefit of aliens and space battles. In addition, Huff's world-building and culture-building skills are simply divine. There is some harsh language in the books for those among us who don't like the f word, but seriously, everything else in the books more than makes up for that.
Why mxpw Loves It: Um, because Torin Kerr is badass? What else do you need? Funny, clever, and way too competent for her own good, watching Torin Kerr lead her motley crew of Marines through the belly of the mysterious alien ship is great fun. Huff manages to give each character a distinct personality, with her alien characters being some of the most amusing and dynamic ones of the book. Infused with plenty of action, great science fiction concepts: space battles! aliens! bureaucracies! (wait a minute…), if you’re a fan of sharp, witty dialogue, irreverent, wise-cracking aliens, a kickass Marine, and military science fiction, then this book is for you. Plus, come on, Torin Kerr is pure awesome.
Writer: Dan Simmons
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Space Opera
Series: Yes. First book of the Hyperion Cantos
Synopsis: Mankind stands on the brink of Armageddon as a consequence of imminent warfare with the Ousters, post-humans genetically altered to live in deep space. Humanity's deliverance may rest with seven pilgrims whose unique experiences offer understanding of the unsolved riddles of the Time Tombs, located on the planet Hyperion. The unthinking hubris of man resulted in the death of the home-world (Earth), and this arrogant philosophy was carried forth to the stars, only to meet the wrath of a powerful creature called Shrike.
Why mxpw Loves It: It’s the Canterbury Tales. In space!
Published in 1989 and winner of several awards (including the Hugo), this book basically has it all: complex human relationships with even more complex emotions, sacrificial love, family, time travel, a grand science fiction story spanning several different worlds and times, a mysterious alien being that can manipulate time and impales people on a massive metal tree, the age old question of what makes us human, AIs, John Keats as a major character (yeah, you read that right, the 19th Century poet that died almost two hundred years ago plays an important role), religion and faith, and war.
Seven pilgrims have either been selected or chosen to go to the ancient and mysterious Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion. There they hope to ask one wish of the Shrike. Each character (a Catholic priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar, a detective, and a diplomat) tells a tale of why they are going to see the Shrike, and their journeys all interconnect and interchange throughout the narrative. It’s a highly complex story told from multiple viewpoints and spread across multiple timelines, so it requires you to pay very close attention. But each tale told by the pilgrims is engrossing and thought provoking, with the scholar’s tale (a truly heartbreaking piece of writing about parents and their love for their sick daughter, seriously it made me all choked up) and the detective’s tale are my favorites. Dan Simmons manages to hold what should be an unwieldy plot together with great aplomb, and the prose is beautiful, at times extremely lyrical, and complex. Probably the most literary sci-fi book I’ve read in years, if you like complex science fiction with a grand scope, this is the book for you.
Author: Diana Peterfreund
Series: Yes, four books and assorted short stories on the writer's blog
Synopsis: Eli University junior Amy Haskell never believed she would get "tapped" to join the Rose & Grave Secret Society (read: like Skull & Bones). Everybody knows those societies pick from the wealthy, the elite, and the beyond intelligent, and even though Amy's smart enough to do well at an Ivy League school, she's none of the above. She's also female, which automatically disqualifies her...until now. Change is coming to the starched and proper Rose & Grave, and not everybody is happy about that.
Why Frea Loves It: A lot of my love for this series comes straight out of my love for Amy Haskell. I've made it no secret on the blog that characters are my weakness: I will read anything and everything as long as I like the characters, and Peterfreund's ensemble casts are just awe-inspiringly awesome. Amy is a great narrator and focal point for the series. She's down to earth and intelligent and witty, and Peterfreund uses a lot of footnotes and humorous asides in her chapter titles to really add dimension. The counterpart to Amy in almost every way is a guy most commonly called Poe (they all have secret society names. Just wait until you see what Amy's is!), and he remains one of my favorite romantic leads of all time.
The plots and scenarios also definitely bring up a lot of interesting issues, both for Amy and for the world. I'm not sure coming of age is an appropriate term, as that tends to happen mostly in your teens, and Amy is old enough to drink, but perhaps it's a "coming of adulthood" tale. These are not the action-adventure books I know a lot of Chuck fans like (well, mostly; Amy does end up in peril a couple of times), so they may not be your cup of tea, but I do heartily recommend them to anybody looking to see great character writing. Even the most minor of characters have well-fleshed out personalities, which isn't easy to do when there's a huge ensemble cast!
Writer: Robert Jordan
Genre: High Fantasy
Series: Yes. First book of the Wheel of Time series
Synopsis: The Eye of the World revolves around the lives of a group of young people from Emond's Field in The Two Rivers district - Rand al'Thor, Matrim (Mat) Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, Egwene al'Vere and Nynaeve al'Meara, and the people they meet on their journey to find the Eye of the World so that they may help save the world.
Why mxpw Loves it: It’s kind of like a more complex and insane version of Lord of the Rings. The Eye of the World introduces you to the world and the themes that will permeate the Wheel of Time series (spanning over ten books and nearly five million words) for its entirety. What I really like about the book (and the series) is the characters. There are just so many of them. You have the ones listed up above, and all of them get POV chapters at one point or another, plus a whole host of other major characters that they meet on their journey to the Eye of the World that really suck you into the narrative. Each character is pretty unique and interesting, with the female characters being surprisingly developed and interesting for a fantasy novel (no offense to the fantasy lovers out there, but in my, admittedly limited experience, female characters don’t often do too well in fantasy writing). In fact, I think nearly all of my favorite characters in EotW are women. That is not to say that the writing is perfect, but I really enjoy the way Jordan does friendships (and some of his romance is okay) and Eye is really the book that establishes it all.
A ridiculously complex world, with very detailed rules for everything (seriously, if you want to know how to worldbuild, just read Robert Jordan), an exciting coming of age story that revolves around magic, friendship, love and romance, war and sacrifice, embracing one’s destiny, and an epic story of good and evil and what that means, I definitely recommend this book and the series.
Writer: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Literary Fiction/Fantasy/Parody
Series: Yes, the first of six or seven books
Synopsis: This is not your mother's Great Britain. The Crimean War is still going on, there is a huge tax on cheese, and instead of being obsessed with television and movies, people are instead obsessed with literature to the point of there being hundreds of legally name-changed Bill Shakespeares and Miltons and Brontes running about. When the Third Most Wanted Criminal, who's already killed Martin Chuzzlewit from the famous Dickens manuscript, sets his sights on Jane Eyre, it's up to Special Ops officer Thursday Next and her partner Bowden Cable to stop him...even if it means changing the ending to a beloved book.
Why Frea Loves It: This is a series written by a book nerd for book nerds. Seriously, if you love literature, you need to pick up this book right away. Fforde proves in the very first line of his series that the man knows his way around a pun--Thursday Next's father's face can stop a clock. Literally. He's a time cop, whose job is to travel through time and make sure that time stays on its right and proper course, and he constantly stops time to drop in on his daughter when she least expects it. Literary references and bad humor abound as Thursday Next faces all sorts of problem, and given that she has the special ability to jump into books and interact with the characters, it gets pretty insane in a good way. I mean, what other book series could possibly pit Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the Amazing Mr. Toad in an auto race and have it make complete sense? The world is crazy--Thursday has a pet dodo bird named Pickwick--but the writing is absolutely brilliant, and if you're a great reader or writer, definitely a must-read. I've learned so much about writing from this series.
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Western/Historical novel
Synopsis: This book is really hard to sum up, but basically the narrative follows the adventures of the protagonist known only as “the kid.” It’s about his time spent in the American Southwest around 1850, where he eventually joins the Glanton Gang on a scalphunting expedition. The bulk of the book details the kid’s time spent with the gang.
Why mxpw Loves It: Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors and this book is a great example why. The prose is beautiful, poetic, and sparse. McCarthy doesn’t compromise or shy away from his recounting of the activities of the Glanton Gang, and the descriptions of violence in the book are some of the most vivid and evocative I have ever read. The violence serves a purpose, it’s not just there to shock you, and this is a book that will definitely leave you thinking by the time you reach the end. It may seem like there isn’t much to the book from the synopsis, but this book is just really hard to pin down. It makes you think about humanity and religion, it satirizes and indicts American Manifest Destiny and the western genre, and contains a strong undercurrent of morality that one might not expect. But be forewarned, McCarthy is not your usual writer. He uses archaic or unusual words, his dialogue doesn’t have quotation marks, he sometimes doesn’t use apostrophes for contractions, he loves repetition and poetic elements. If you are not a fan of violence or language, you might want to shy away. If westerns are not for you, I don’t know if you should read this.
Well, that’s not true, you should definitely read this if you want to see a master at the top of his craft, but I understand a book like this isn’t for everybody. But McCarthy has had huge influence on my original writing over the years and this book, along with The Road and No Country for Old Men are all must reads in my opinion.
Writer: Jim Butcher
Series: Yes. It starts with Storm Front and goes to Changes
Synopsis: Harry Dresden has never made any secret of the fact that he's a wizard. In fact, he's listed in the phone book under "Wizards." And he's the only one in the book, which means that if something goes bump in the night in modern-day Chicago, you can bet Harry Dresden is going to be the one to deal with it.
Why Frea Loves It: A lot of writers try to take on urban fantasy, mixing the modern day with the magical, and more often than not, I feel like they fail horribly. The Dresden Files, however, is a series that manages to do so without feeling like it's cheating...because it doesn't cheat. Yes, Harry is a wizard. Yes, he conjures fire and blasts things and mixes up potions. But he doesn't turn around and then spend hours being a computer genius or having a different day job: he can't be around electronics without frying them. Which is why Harry lives in a basement apartment with no air conditioning (not such a problem in Chicago) and no heat (now that is a problem), and drives a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle named The Blue Beetle. The hardcore nerds among you just laughed, I know, because the car's not really blue.
This is another first-person series, and as the main character, Harry is delightful. He's sarcastic and fun and witty, but more importantly, he's bad-ass. His sense of justice is strong, which is a good thing because Butcher loves nothing more than to test Harry at every level, every chance he can. If you think I'm mean to my characters...yeah, I've got nothing on him. Things in Butcher's universe have lasting consequences, and Butcher doesn't flinch. Characters are allowed to have reactions that may be viewed as socially acceptable or even logical, psychological and physical trauma has lasting, sometime permanent affect. In addition, Jim Butcher is a master juggler. He can have so much going on in a book, but you can bet it's all going to come together in some way you'll never expect, and that Harry will pull through and save the day. That's what he does. He's Harry Dresden, Wizard.
Why mxpw Loves It: Honestly, basically one huge ditto to everything Frea just said. I love the Dresden Files because Butcher does the one thing all writers should do: he commits. It doesn't matter how bad or bleak or daunting the action is, if he introduces it, he follows through with it till the end. Physical trauma doesn't magically disappear by the next book (no pun intended) and mental trauma certainly doesn't either. Harry is still dealing psychologically in the tenth book with many of the things that happened to him in the first few books. That might seem like it would get old after a while, but Butcher handles it incredibly well by making Harry an extremely smart and witty character. Not a book goes by where I don't laugh out loud multiple times while reading, especially when Harry is facing impossible odds (which happens distressingly often) and laughs in the face of danger. The supporting characters are frequent and they too suffer and remember and deal with their own issues much like Harry does.
That's another reason I love this series, the supporting characters. From Toot-Toot, a small faerie that Harry befriends to Karrin Murphy, an ass-kicking pixie of a cop that takes no prisoners, the supporting characters in these books are just awesome and well developed. And just wait until you meet Mouse. Plus, of course, all the cases are interesting and keep you guessing, the magical world (vampires, wizards, fairies, demi-gods, shapeshifters, werewolves, and fallen angels) is probably the best I've ever read.
The Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher
This is a huge, fantasy series brought to you by the same author that gave us Dresden Files. This focuses on a world based on the old Roman legions where everybody has the power to control at least one fury--which is like an elemental power that manifests itself usually in an animal shape. Everybody, that is, except for Tavi. This series, which follows the clever Tavi and several other main characters throughout battles and wars that just grow more epic with every passing book, is a great read and an even better example of worldbuilding at its best. Plus, there's a very Chuck and Sarah-ish relationship in there that fans will definitely love. Kitai is awesome! Starts with Furies of Calderon and goes all the way to First Lord's Fury.
The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Be warned that there is major character death in this series, so if you're not fond of that sort of thing, it might not be for you. But the Mistborn trilogy, which is fantasy/sci-fi set in a dystopian society, is a great example of using world mechanics in order to make something new and interesting. It focuses on a huge societal rift between the noblemen of society and the skaa, the plantation workers/slave class. Among the nobility, the ability to "burn" metals and manifest powers like heightened strength or eyesight/hearing, manipulating metal, or even seeing into the future is rare. Among the skaa workers, it's even rarer. Rarest of all, however, are those individuals able to "burn" all of the metals, those called the Mistborn. There has only been one skaa Mistborn: Kelsier, the survivor of the pits of Hathsin. And now he has an apprentice, the sixteen-year-old Vin. Together, with a delightful crew of misfits and renegades, they're going to overthrow the Lord Ruler. What happens next is anybody's guess. Worth a look: Vin is a lot of fun, there's a Chuck-like character, and definitely entertaining.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Basically, the funniest take on the apocalypse that you will ever see.
And that's all we've got for now. If we think of more, we'll be sure to write about it. Got any yourself? Leave a comment!
mxpw and Frea
PS - I posted the Fortune Favors Fools ebook on the downloads page last night, so there's always that if you've read everything on the list!