I was complaining last night on Twitter about a pet hate of mine: Just how bad Amazon are at book recommendations. They’re really mind-bogglingly awful, at least for fiction. There’s absolutely no middle ground between “Oh, you like this author. This book is also by this author. Here, have it!” and “Hey you read a vampire book. Let me recommend every one of these 6000 Twilight knock-offs to you!”
This puts me in mind of a story by Derek Sivers about a meeting with an online music company back when he was running CD Baby.
“The reason we flew out to meet you is because we’ve been looking at many music recommendation engines, and the one that’s powering cdbaby.com is one of the best we’ve found. Could you tell us a little something about the algorithms and data points you’re using?”
Uh… I was confused, and asked what they meant.
They said, “The «if you like this you will like that» recommendations. We’ve been testing them on your site, but they don’t seem to be sales-driven like Amazon. The music-matching algorithm comes up with incredible recommendations. What software are you using for that?”
Ah! I get it. I smiled and pointed to my ear.
“No software. I just listen to everything that comes in, and recommend other good stuff like it.”
So, yeah. Here are some books I like. You might like them too. It’s hugely biased towards sci-fi and fantasy, with a sprinkling of non-fiction, because well I’m a stereotype and that’s what I read.
I’m largely skipping over the super mainstream ones that you’ve probably heard of (lets assume that if you have any interest in doing so you’re already reading Charles Stross, Alistair Reynolds, George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, etc).
This list is mostly generated from reading through my Amazon cloud library and going “Oh, yeah, I should recommend that!” with a few others mixed in. As such it’s in reverse chronological order of when I read it, rather than anything terribly significant.
Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt
I mentioned this series recently in what is possibly the most over-interpreted blog post I’ve ever written (everyone seemed to take something different away from it).
Like I said at the time: They’re pretty good. Not amazing, but pretty good.
They’re essentially smart mystery/archaeological thrillers. They happen to be set in a sci-fi universe which has an awful lot more archaeology than our own to play with, most of it space-faring. This is both significant to the plot and feels kinda incidental. The world they’re in has all the trappings of sci-fi, and is maybe a little more socially liberal than ours (they have a basic income guarantee, and people seem to have a much more relaxed attitude to poly relationships), but really the society and the characters therein wouldn’t be remotely out of place in the 21st century.
The characters are likable and human, the investigations are generally an interesting read, and the writing is definitely engaging. They suffer a little bit from the fact that every single book has exactly the same plot structure (Someone discovered something important! But they died before telling anyone! Now Alex and Chase must follow the tantalising trail of clues they left to find out what the great mystery is!”), but it’s a plot structure I enjoy so I don’t mind that too much.
Recommendation: Nothing too deep. Thoroughly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. Qualified but heartfelt. I certainly liked them.
The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
As you might have noticed, I’m a bit of a raving lefty. I depart from the lefty hive mind consensus on a few things, but it’s safe to say that on most issues I’m solidly left wing.
A common complaint I hear amongst similarly left wing friends is that they really don’t understand the right. Not in some rhetorical “I don’t understand how you could possibly behave that way” sense, but in the literal sense that their behaviour and opinions do not appear to make sense.
Haidt’s book provides a toolkit for dealing with that.
It is essentially a descriptive account of different moral systems across the world: Both left vs rightwing within western countries, but also religious moralities in different countries, tribal moralities and others. He essentially posits that there are 6 “big” moral foundations, which different people express to different degrees. Left wing people tend to focus on two of these moral values (Care and Liberty) to the exclusion of the other 4, whileas right wing people seem to care a little bit less about the harm foundation and care significantly more about the other four (Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity). This is where a lot of the confusion lies: When we e.g. judge laws based on a Harm/Oppression foundation and they are being proposed on a Fairness or a Sanctity foundation, we’ll get slightly nonsensical answers about the people proposing them.
The book is more descriptive than normative. It describes what people do believe rather than what they should believe. It does make a reasonably compelling case that we should care at least a bit about all six foundations, but there’s no sense of “And people who believe this are Bad People”.
Recommendation: If you have any interest in the above issues, strong. The book is well written, interesting, and may help you make sense of a lot of things that were previously confusing.
Wool, by Hugh Howey
Fairly oppressive society trying to survive in vaults after an apocalypse when the world outside is thoroughly uninhabitable. Unsurprisingly, things are Not Entirely As They Seem. It’s pretty standard fare, but with enough interesting variations that little to no eye rolling is required.
Recommendation: Moderate. I enjoyed reading them, but they’ll either to be your taste or they won’t.
Saga of the Exiles/Intervention/Galactic Milieu trilogy by Julian May
I first read these when I was quite young (maybe early teens?), so I expected them to be a disappointment when I came back to them. They’re totally not. It’s really hard for me to describe them though.
Julian May’s books are… you know that thing where a galactic civilization welcomes humanity into its fold despite them basically being plucky barbarians and finds itself a bit overwhelmed by just how darn good humans are at things?
Yeah, this is one of those.
Only really, really, Catholic.
The entire books are steeped in a very strong Catholic morality and philosophy. They mostly stop short of being preachy (there are a few bits where they really don’t, but it’s mostly kept under control), but even without overt attempts to convert you there’s just a strong sense of this is just how things work.
Ultimately, basically all sci-fi is an exploration of sociological and philosophical ideas. Mostly they’re about the roles of technology, but Julian May’s work is much more an exploration of ideas around sin, redemption and Teilhardian unification (think of it as the Catholic version of the cult of the giant global brain).
All of this however is woven into some really good science fiction (in places bordering on fantasy. Saga of the Exiles really reads more like fantasy than science fiction, it just happens that the magic is provided by technology and psionics and the faeries are aliens).
Recommendation: Strong, with the caveat that you may find the moral and philosophical framework off putting.
The Sharing Knife, by Louis McMaster Bujold
Up front recommendation: I’m pretty much of the opinion that everyone ever should read just about everything Bujold has ever written. That being said, I’ve only read this series and her Miles Vorkosigan books so far, so it may be she has some howlers lurking in the other series.
That being said, about this one…
I spent a long time not wanting to read it. Why? Well, the blurb:
In this romantic fantasy novel, runaway farm girl Fawn meets Dag, a Lakewalker, a patroller who is a kind of sorcerer/soldier. Fawn’s own confidence blossoms as she travels with Dag, helping to combat evil “malices” that blight the countryside and also fight the strange and sinister “mud men.”
The description is, well, true I suppose, but it makes it sound like trash D&D fiction, which it really isn’t.
If I had to sum up a theme for the series, it would be that there are no dark overlords, and evil is not defeated in a single climactic battle, but instead it’s a constant struggle.
If I had to sum up an overall description of Bujold, it’s that she creates really interesting worlds which are currently in the midst of having to adapt to significant sociological change, then she puts wonderfully human characters down in the midst of that change and crafts really interesting stories around them. The Sharing Knife series has that in spades, as the Lakewalkers realise that they basically can’t take responsibility for the world all on their own and they have to adapt to and include the non-magical culture of the farmers (“farmer” in this case meaning basically anyone who doesn’t come from their magical lineage) who are rapidly heading in the direction of an industrial revolution. The two groups decidedly don’t get along, and a lot of the books are around breaking down those old prejudices.
Recommendation: Look, just go read Bujold, OK? I don’t care if you start with these ones of the Vorkosigan books, whichever is to your taste, but if you’re not reading Bujold you should fix that.
What the best college teachers do, by Ken Bain
This is a fascinating account of what college teachers do differently and what the ones who seem to produce amazing results do. I possibly only like it so much because it confirms all my prejudices, but I still think it’s a very good read and contains a lot of good advice. I have reviewed it previously here, so I won’t do so again.
Recommendation: If you have any interest in the subject matter you should read this. If you don’t, you might want to think about reading it anyway.
The Frontier Magic series, by Patricia C. Wrede
Charles Stross once asked a question on his blog that I still use for a litmus test.
ask yourself when you last read an SF/F novel where the protagonist didn’t kill someone – you might be shocked: if not, you ought to be
I am sad to admit that despite the fact that I think I read this series over a year ago, it might still qualify for that category.
The Frontier Magic series is lovely. It’s a novel set in the early days of an alternate America at the frontier. There’s magic and dragons and woolly mammoths.
It’s a lovely little set of exploration books in which the problems are those posed by nature and society, and the plot is much more driven by discovery than conflict. They’re not especially deep, but they’re light and really enjoyable and a nice change of pace from normal fantasy plots.
It is, sadly, worth noting that the complete absence of native Americans from this story is more than a little problematic. I believe the in-universe explanation for this was that America was full of giant man-eating monsters, so was rather hard to colonize until magic and guns were further along, but that doesn’t make it any less white-washing.
Recommendation: Pretty solid. If the above description sounds at all appealing, check it out.
Kate Daniels series, by Ilona Andrews
Ok. So the Kate Daniels series is something of a supernatural romance featuring vampires and werewolves.
No, wait! Come back!
It’s not like that you see. It’s a supernatural romance with a difference.
Stop shuffling your feet and siddown and listen, dammit.
The difference isn’t just that the vampires are different (though they are. The vampires are basically non-sentient animals, and not sexy in the slighest. The sophisticated well-dressed ones are the necromancers controlling them). It’s not just that the werewolves are different (though they are. The shapeshifters come in all shapes and species, and the alpha is in fact a werecat of some description. I forget what, but it’s large).
No, the real difference comes from the fact that the protagonist, Kate Daniels, is a hard-bitten private detective with a fairly respectable arsenal of magic and an extremely intimidating giant flesh-eating magical sword.
Honestly, it’s more Dresden Files than it is Twilight.
Look, no one is going to claim that these are great works of literature, but if you enjoy noir-style urban fantasy at all you will enjoy these books. The characters are solid, the writing is engaging, and the plots definitely leave you wanting to know what’s coming next.
Recommendation: If you liked Dresden Files, or anything else of that ilk, you really will like these. Don’t fret about the vampires-and-werewolves trappings.
The Parasol Protectorate, by Gail Carriger
This is out of order, but I feel like we should get all the vampires and werewolves supernatural romance out of the way while my credibility is at a local minimum.
The Parasol Protectorate is a steampunk series set in Victorian england which not only has Vampires and Werewolves of a fairly traditional type (there are a few quirks, but nothing too notable), but in fact they’re downright respectable and part of polite society.
Our protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti, stands out in this society for two important reasons. The first is that she is far more independent and direct than is traditionally suitable for a good Victorian lady. The second is that she finds herself inconveniently lacking in a soul.
The best word to describe this series is “charming”. It’s part Victorian propriety, part mystery, and yes a little bit supernatural romance. The characters are great, the writing is good and the plot is engaging.
Recommendation: Read these books. They will make you smile.
(side note: At this point I’m realising just how much I read, so I’m starting to skim. I may do another post at some point later)
Farsala series, by Hilari Bell
The Farsala series is about how legends get formed, and about how the reality behind them is much more complicated.
It’s told from the point of view of three characters as their home country of Farsala (loosely based on Persia) gets invaded by the Hrum (loosely based on the Roman empire). As they organise the resistance against the invading Hrum, a legend gets woven around their actions, creating a mythical hero where none actually exists.
The story of their actions is interleaved with how the legend is later told. In the legend it is a clear story of a hero defending them against a wicked invading force. The reality is is… more complicated, as our protagonists realise that in many ways the invaders aren’t that bad, and indeed are rather a lot better than most of their neighbours.
Recommendation: Solid. It’s not going to make any 10 best lists, but it’s really quite enjoyable and if you’re looking for something to read you could do far worse.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Imagine a mix of Narnia and Harry Potter as played by disaffected 20-somethings who don’t really know what they want to do with their lives.
It’s very much magic as metaphor for escapism. Which makes me feel somewhat obliged to put it in the middle of a long post in which I recommend lots of magic-fiction-to-be-used-for-escapism.
In a word: “bleak”. If I were allowed a sentence “Maybe a bit too self-absorbed”. It’s an interesting read, and I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed it.
Recommendation: Decidedly qualified.
The Magister Trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
In this series there are powerful magic users, referred to as witches regardless of their gender. They can really do an awful lot of very cool things.
Except… there’s a price. Every time you use magic it burns a little bit of your life. Witches do not live long.
There are also magisters. Their magic is very like that of witches, but they don’t have to pay that price. Also they’re all male. And kinda creepy.
This is a trilogy that starts with the first woman to become a magister, and goes on to explore what the price the magisters actually pay is, and the consequences for the world they live in.
Recommendation: Solid high fantasy. Quite dark. If you like those things you will probably like this.
…and that’s it for now. Hope some of these recommendations are of interest. And feel free to share any recommendations of your own in the comments, given that I’m in need of new books and Amazon is failing to live up to it.