Summer is here and it’s time to read! On the beach, at camp, poolside, at a cafe, on a boat, on a plane, on a train…just don’t read in an automobile, it will make you sick. Here’s a list of some of my favorite summer books. They are all relatively short, fast reads with compelling plots that are well written. No giant tomes on this list. I’ll collect my favorite big-ass, long books in another post.
Wool by Hugh Howey – I was late to the party with Wool (and finally reading e-books), but I finally read it recently and it’s great! Howey is very good at feeding you just enough information to keep you moving forward, but not completely in the dark. Wool shares some DNA with The Hunger Games and Orphans of the Sky, but is not young adult fiction, so people occasionally swear and think about sex. While reading Wool, I often felt like I was reading vintage Stephen King like Firestarter, Misery or The Stand.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan - This is the book that brought me back to contemporary sci-fi. After trying Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jack McDevitt, and Greg Egan, I turned right back to Herbert, Heinlein, Clarke and the gang with no intention of looking back. Then, my dad called me to tell me he heard this guy on BBC talking about his first book, Altered Carbon, and that it sounded interesting. He was right. Richard Morgan writes solid, hard sci-fi full of big ideas, interesting characters and, in the case of Altered Carbon, a noir mystery set in future San Francisco. One of the most compelling characters is the A.I. that runs a hotel downtown on Mission Street. No, really. A hotel A.I.
Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko - I’m a big fan of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch film, and the book is even better. The Moscow office of the Night Watch enforces the centuries-old treaty between the forces of Light and Dark, investigating unlawful use of magic, and other supernatural activity by “The Others” who live among us normal people. It’s sort of like Law and Order meets Harry Potter…in Russia! In fact, there are two new worlds to discover in Night Watch: the secret, magic world of “The Others” and the equally fascinating world of post-Soviet Moscow.
Daemon by Daniel Suarez - You know when you’re reading a popular thriller and get pulled out because someone says some crazy batshit uninformed thing about Unix or encrypting files or e-mail or image enhancement or anything technical that pulls you out of the book and ruins the author’s credibility? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in Daemon. Suarez knows his shit and it shows…and that also makes the premise of this novel extra terrifying. What would happen if a billionaire computer game genius set up a series of daemon programs to do his biding after death? An awesome, page-turner of a novel, that’s what would happen.
Ready Player One By Ernest Cline - This one makes a nice pairing with Daemon. The set-up is similar: a billionaire computer game genius sets up an intricate machine that begins comes to life upon his death. But this time it’s more of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory situation than a nightmare of automated killer motorcycles. The audiobook version is read by Will Wheaton, who does a great job and actually makes a cameo in the book.
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fford – Shades of Grey, not to be confused with 50 Shades of Grey, is a triumph of world-building and trusting a reader to get there without being spoon-fed (although spoons are important to this story). Like Burgess before him in A Clockwork Orange, Fford drops you into a world that’s clearly related to ours, but with very different social rules and some physiological differences. And you figure bits of it out as the narrative sweeps you along, and at some point in reading, your mind goes “click” and you get it. Really deft.
Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens and Fuzzies and Other People By H. Beam Piper – Yes, yes, it’s three shortish novels, and I should probably put series on a separate list, but Little Fuzzy is great, and you’ll want to immediately move to Fuzzy Sapiens when you finish it…and then you’ll want more after that. If you can find this excellent omnibus edition, you should just grab it. From the very beginning, it’s hard to put down Piper’s Fuzzy novels, which combine sci-fi homesteading, courtroom drama, scientists, first contact and hard questions about what it means to be sentient. The Fuzzies themselves were clearly an inspiration for both Wookiees and Ewoks, but have a charm and depth of their own. Warning: you will probably cry.
Straight Man by Richard Russo – This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Russo is a really good writer and it’s too bad that Straight Man is the first of his books I read. I had unrealistic expectations going into Empire Falls, which is a fine novel, but it’s no Straight Man. The first time I read it was shortly after I joined academia full-time, and Russo captures that particular type of disfunction, insulation and pettiness perfectly. Even if you just went to a liberal arts college, you’ll detect the ring of truth, which Russo then pushes into absurdity…but a sadly plausible absurdity. Genius!
A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – This novel, which even some Clarke fans are unaware of, exemplifies why he is one of the very best there is. Hard science provides the mechanisms for both the dilemma at the heart of the narrative and it’s potential solutions, and for some authors of his generation, that’s enough to hang your story on. But Clarke deftly unfolds his tale of disaster from the viewpoint of fully-realized characters on both sides of the situation. And it is definitely a situation, and Clarke builds tension as expertly as Hitchcock or Crichton. While the scope of many of Clarke’s most popular novels is giant, the intimate nature of A Fall of Moondust pulls you in by putting a small number of real people in jeopardy rather than all of humanity.
. Hospital Station, Star Surgeon and Major Operation by James White – Another omnibus! And it’s worse, because there are a total of twelve Sector General books! But, I started reading them at the beginning of a junior high summer vacation and by Labor Day I’d plowed through four of them. When I saw House for the first time, my first thought was “Wow, it’s like a non-sci-fi version of Sector General!” It’s a series of medical procedural stories set onboard a giant space hospital staffed by aliens of every description. White quickly establishes the rules for his universe and builds them firmly atop the existing rules of physics, biology and psychology. Each case is an opportunity to explore what it means to be truly other and what it means to be truly empathetic. Of course, it’s much easier to be empathetic with an alien patient with the recorded personality of one of that race’s great physicians riding shotgun in your head.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami – A few years ago, I might have told you that Battle Royale might be too much for you. That teens forced to violently kill each other for sport was too out-there a concept for a mainstream audience. But then The Hunger Games happened. There are lots of similarities, to be sure, but Battle Royale is not a young adult novel, and is a bit more graphic. It’s also almost impossible to stop once you start reading it. The film version is OK, but I read the novel first and really prefer it. I don’t often recommend the film, but I bought a second copy of the book just to loan it to people.
The List of Seven by Mark Frost – I was on-board with The List of Seven when I heard it included a scene in which Arthur Conan Doyle was trapped inside the British Museum and all the mummies started coming to life and attacking him. Then I realized that it was written by Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks! Win! The fictionalized version of Doyle, who serves as the protagonist of Frost’s novel, teams with Jack Sparks, a Special Agent to the Crown to uncover a supernatural plot that threatens England and, indeed, the world. The List of Seven feels at times like an Indiana Jones adventure, at other times like a successor to Young Sherlock Holmes and occasionally like Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.