YA Top 10

Again, not in any particular order:

1)      The Looking Glass Wars-series, Frank Beddor

A new take on the Alice in Wonderland story. Mostly follows Alyss, Queen of Wonderland, as she goes into exile on Earth and fights alongside the Hatter and others to reclaim her throne from the Red Queen (Redd, her aunt) with her assassin (Cheshire Cat).

2)      Artemis Fowl-series, Eoin Colfer

Fun series following the title character as he tries to find his lost father and maintain a criminal empire with the help of a captive fairy and his manservant Butler (from a long line of Butlers). Features the fairy Captain Holly as an increasingly major character and eventually involves time travel. Also has techno-magical fairies. (Irish author)

3)      Harry Potter-series, J.K. Rowling

Again, if you haven’t heard of this, what rock have you been living under?

4)      Tiffany Aching-series, Terry Pratchett

An excellent introduction to Discworld for younger readers. The series follows Tiffany Aching from the age of nine when she first starts to become a witch and work with the Nac Mac Feegle (Wee Free Men, or pictsies).

5)      The Giver, Lois Lowry

Great dystopian, likely post-apocalyptic, novel that deals with issues of eugenics and euthanasia in a future context. Inspired a movie due out soon, though previews indicate that a lot was changed. Don’t expect a happy, or even neatly tied up ending.

6)      Kane Chronicles-series, Rick Riordan

In some ways a companion to Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, this series comes from an Egyptian magic tradition. It chronicles the lives of Carter and Sadie Kane as they discover their lineage (with ties to ancient pharaohs), magic, and ability to channel Egyptian gods while trying to save the world from chaos.

7)      Percy Jackson and the Olympians-series, Rick Riordan

Excellent series about Greek (and eventually Roman) demigods in America. Follows the adventures of the title character, a satyr (Grover), and a daughter of Athena (Annabeth) along with their fellow demigods as they fight Greek monsters, Titans, and Giants to protect the gods and save the world.

8)      Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel-series, Michael Scott

The series follows Josh and Sophie Newman as they learn about the legendary (and still very much alive) Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel. As they are awakened to magic, they meet other immortals (basically anyone who uses magic, since we’re not shown any non-immortal magic wielders) in the modern world including John Dee, Niccolo Machiavelli, Billy the Kid, Gilgamesh, and Joan of Arc. (Irish author)

9)      Narnia-series, CS Lewis

Classic fantasy series and Christian allegory; like Potter, if you haven’t heard of it, what rock have you been living under?

10)  The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman

I’m purposely leaving the other two books of the trilogy out here because I didn’t find them nearly as impressive as the first. Follows Lyra as she tries to find and rescue both her father and lost barge gypsy friend, in the process uncovering a major conspiracy and horrific experimental facility.

Renaissance Top 5

1) The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster

Excellent play, better, IMO, than Shakespeare. Follows the title character’s brother in his descent toward madness due to his illicit desire for her. Also spends an entire act on lycanthropy (for the era, in England, a mental illness caused by excessive melancholy; as opposed to werewolfism, an actual human-wolf transformation).

2) Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

Easily my favorite Shakespeare play, for a number of reasons. I really don’t think his comedies are performed or taught enough, particularly in the high school level. Ultimately, a play about nothing, but hilarious the whole way through.

3) The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

Honestly, only parts of Spenser’s magnum opus. Definitely epic is form and somewhat difficult as a read, but worthwhile nonetheless. Key sections also demonstrate a level of “raunchiness” and explicitness at odds with commonly held beliefs about the period, particularly the tale of Satyrane.

4) The Book of the Courtier, Baldesar Castiglione

The classic work that lays out all the essential elements of the “renaissance man”, and also explains why modern, often self-proclaimed, “renaissance men” are generally nothing of the sort.

5) The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Classic work on politics, governance, and even a touch of military theory. Whether we think Machiavelli is being honest in his writing or simply trying to assuage his patron is, I think, irrelevant. He demonstrates a mastery of political acumen difficult to match in his time, or situation (with the warring, disorganized city-states of Italy).

Medieval Top 10

1)      Beowulf, Anon.

The oldest known piece of literature in English. Also a great pair of stories, whether Beowulf v. Grendel or Beowulf’s last fight v. the dragon. Bonus feature: It offers some insight into Danish and Saxon upper class life.

2)      Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain-poet

Probably my second or third favorite on this list. Fun piece of Arthurian lore by an obscure poet writing in an obscure dialect. Features Gawain, a head chopping challenge, illusion, deception, attempted seduction, and a bit of questioning the ideals of Camelot.

3)      Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The classic English response to Boccaccio. Some of the tales are dry and mildly dull, but there are significant fun ones as well—Miller’s and Reeve’s tales. The piece also gives us an interesting insight into late-14th century cultural views about people in various walks of life. Ultimately, unfinished (there were supposed to be over 100 tales) despite some later claims of “lost” Chaucer tales (actually written by the people who “discovered” them).

4)      Yvain: Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

Probably my favorite of Chretien’s Arthurian pieces, in part because of some links to Tolkien. The story features giants, knights, wars, and Arthur’s conquest of Europe. But it also involves a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible . . .

5)      Lais, Marie de France

While all of Marie’s lais are good and interesting, my favorites are “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” for their shape-shifting elements. Nice pieces of 12th century literature, possibly written in London.

6)      The Romance of William of Palerne, Anon.

A 14th century translation of an earlier French work. A fairly popular and fun werewolf tale taking place mostly in Italy with a few scenes in Spain. Although named for William, Alphouns the werewolf tends to take center stage throughout the romance.

7)      “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Anon.

Short werewolf piece in the Arthurian corpus, much more violent than the two previously mentioned above. Basically, Arthur offends Guenevere and goes on a quest to make things up to her. He meets Gorlagon, hears the other king’s story, and goes home (oddly, it’s not quite clear whether Arthur’s quest was successful).

8)      The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales

Gerald’s account of Irish life, legends, and culture as recorded during one of the Norman invasions of Ireland. Interestingly, Gerald, like many of the soldiers, was half-Welsh, half-Norman, on the margins of society, invading a place on the margins of Europe. Among the stories is the tale of the Ossory werewolves that presents both history and a theological conundrum for Gerald.

9)      Volsunga Saga, Anon.

Classic epic song of the Volsungs, from the gods’ slaying of a dwarf prince to the theft of Andvari the elf’s gold to Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir to the rise and fall of the Volsungs.

10)  Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Anon.

An excellent account of Mandeville’s travels around the world . . . that is, even for the places in Europe, probably totally fictitious. Even so, it’s a great piece to read, partially because it was considered one of the top travel narratives and travel guides in England for roughly four centuries. That said, from what we can tell, the actual author never left England and had no firsthand knowledge of Europe, much less the rest of the world.

Miscellaneous Top 6

Some books that either a) don’t fit into one of the previous categories or b) that I’ve chosen to omit from one of the categories for subjective reasons.

1)      Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

The classic novel from Nabokov, disturbing but good for that.

2)      The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Excellent novel-story collection recounting O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam during the war through fiction. He includes stories of his own, those from friends, those they heard thrid or fourth hand, and some completely fictional as well as some of the aftermath. Throughout, though, he never tells the audience which stories are which.

3)      The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck

Very good take on both Chinese culture within a particular era and a multi-generational morality play.

4)      David Morrell (anything he’s written)

Phenomenal modern thriller-action writer, somewhat similar to Robert Ludlum. Always includes a fair bit of history in his work. In some ways, he’s like Tom Clancy but more focused on psycho-social elements than technological. He’s also written for Marvel (Spider-Man and Captain America) and created the character John Rambo.

5)      Kate Daniels-series, Ilona Andrews

Great urban fantasy series, which I could have included under Fantasy Top 10, but didn’t for subjective reasons. I love the worldbuilding throughout the series, from the magic-apocalypse that is ending the technological world to the idea of living, changing magic to the authors’ take on vampires and other paranormal creatures.

6)      Southern Vampire-series, Charlaine Harris

Also urban fantasy and left out of my Fantasy Top 10 for subjective reasons. Good series that was turned into the True Blood series, although after the first season the two bear no resemblance to each other. Fun series of paranormal mysteries filled with vampires, fairies, shifters, werebeasts, demons (usually good guys), witches, and the occasional dimension hopper.

Horror Top 6

I’m not a big horror fan, so there are only six here:

1)      “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Classic psychological horror piece. My favorite thing about it is that the reader never knows if it is a story about a supernatural event or about a woman’s descent into madness.

2)      Our Lady of Darkness, Fritz Leiber

A classic, IMO, of urban horror based on the idea of dark supernatural beings, almost god-like, either drawn to or created by our cities. Leiber mixes archetype theory and “megapolismancy” (predicting and manipulating the future through large cities). Very influenced by Leiber’s friendship with H.P. Lovecraft.

3)      The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories, HP Lovecraft

Classic Lovecraftian mythos stories from 1971 to 1924 for the most part, all representative of his particular brand of horror.

4)      “The Masque of the Red Death”, Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s take on the concept of the Decameron, in its own way. Wealthy sybarites hide themselves away in a party as death comes to take each of them.

5)      Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson

This 1948 werewolf-vampire novel presents an excellent example of the psychological and psychic projection werewolf. It is also heavily influenced by Williamson’s own (negative) experiences as a patient of Freudian psychoanalysts. A more detailed analysis of the novel appears in my werewolf book (see links above).

6)      Tales from the Sinister City, F.E. Higgins

I’ve tried to describe this series many times to many people. Starting with The Black Book of Secrets, most of the series is written not as sequels but parallel to each other in time. The best description I’ve come up with is Charles Dickens meets E.A. Poe. (Irish author)

Fantasy Top 10

Again, not in any particular order.

1)      Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

A classic from the 1940s, arguably the novel that brought fantasy into the mainstream. Not the best written novel out there, but good enough to be re-read for decades. Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen agree.

 2)      Harry Potter-series, J.K. Rowling

A modern classic from the late-1990s. If you haven’t heard of the basics, what rock have you been under for the last 15 years?

 3)      Elric-series, Michael Moorcock

Classic sword-and-sorcery following the sickly, albino, warrior-mage Elric, last of the Melniboneans. Mostly a series of semi-connected stories, but all returning to Elric’s unwilling fight against both Law and Chaos, struggle to find peace, and struggle to find balance. The series spans decades starting in the 1960s, but was mostly written in the 1970s.

 4)      Lankhmar-series, Fritz Leiber

Classic sword-and-sorcery started in the 1930s and continuing into the 1980s. The current editions take the form of collected short stories and novellas set in Nehwon, charting the adventures of Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser.

 5)      Vlad Taltos-series, Steven Brust

Excellent series following Vladimir Taltos, sometime assassin, witch, swordsman, nobleman, and minor crime lord along with his familiar, a flying reptile called Loiosh, as they navigate the Dragaeran Empire, in which humans are second class citizens at best.

 6)      MYTH-series, Robert Asprin

A comedic fantasy classic started decades ago and continuing after Asprin’s death (Jodi Lyn Nye is putting out more in the series based on his notes). Slapstick mixes with puns and parody references as the characters stumble through the multiverse.

 7)      Discworld-series, Terry Pratchett

Quite possibly the best comedic fantasy series ever. Pratchett mixes serious social commentary with his own particular brand of British humor into a world and series that has captured the hearts and minds of fans around the world. He follows several groups and major characters, so summarizing the series is effectively impossible.

 8)      Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

The novel that moved Gaiman from the graphic novel world into the mainstream. It follows Richard Mayhew as he slips between the cracks to discover a whole other world beneath the one we are used to seeing (London Below). The whole book is based on the London Underground map and was written concurrently by Gaiman with a BBC mini-series.

 9)      American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Considered by many to be Gaiman’s masterpiece. The novel posits an America in which the Old World gods are living, weakening, but living. The rest covers some gods’ attempts to recover their old power.

 10)  Videssos-series, Harry Turtledove

What happens when a pre-imperial Roman legion is transported to a different world in which magic works? What if the nation they land in looks a lot like the Byzantine Empire, complete with Norse, Mongol, Carolingian, and other recognizably post-Roman neighbors? That pretty much sums up Videssos.

 11)  A Night in Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny

A piece of comedic urban fantasy by one of the masters. Told from the perspective of a dog familiar, the novel follows his wandering around town, chatting with other animal familiars about their masters (many of whom are recognizable historical or legendary figures), and finding supplies needed by their masters. Meanwhile, the masters are trying to open or close a portal to other worlds on a night in lonesome October.

 12)  A Song of Ice and Fire-series, George RR Martin

The series that inspired Game of Thrones. Not for the faint of heart, each book is massive, everyone dies, politics abound, and it is much more complex than the show. But, definitely worth it.

Sci-Fi Top 10

After some conversations, I’ve decided that this week and next, I’ll post some of my top 10 (and then some) lists for books (and a couple stories).  None of the lists are in any particular order.

To kick it off, Sci-FI:

1)      Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

One of the top cyberpunk classics, following the adventures of the (aptly named) Hiro Protagonist as he navigates a world of corporate enclaves, private security, and mafioso pizza delivery. Mixes high tech, cyberspace, ancient Babylonian myth, and linguistic theory into an enjoyable ride.

2)      Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

YA adventure novel charting a class of survival students training to lead interstellar colonies. In many ways a response to Lord of the Flies, although Heinlein cheats by giving the students prior survival training and gear.

3)      Foreigner-series, C.J. Cherryh

Space opera following Bren Cameron, diplomat between the “invading” human minority and the alien majority on an alien world. The series evolves from Cameron’s work as a glorified translator into a major mover in the alien society.

4)      Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Classic collection of short stories set on Mars. My personal favorite is “Usher II”, a piece against censorship.

5)      Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

Classic about a telepathic detective that inspired J. Michael Straczinski’s Babylon 5 psi cop Bester.

6)      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Classic better known as Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner. Much more complex and philosophical than the adaptation.

7)      Dune, Frank Herbert

Classic epic of politics, genetics, religion, betrayal, redemption, and empire.

8)      Gather, Darkness!, Fritz Leiber

A relatively unknown novel about a society in which the church governs society and is opposed by “satanic witches”, both apparently using magic. In fact, each side employs concealed technology in their fight for control of society.

9)      A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, Jr.

Classic post-apocalypse piece following the monks of St. Leibowitz who attempt to maintain some semblance of civilization in the apocalyptic landscape.

10)  Stainless Steel Rat-series, Harry Harrison

Interesting series that mixes sci-fi crime drama with military sci-fi as the title character is brought into government service as spy and military officer.