My favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013

As always, last year I read so many good sci-fi/fantasy books, I can hardly remember them all. Here are the ones that stuck in my head because they were especially great.

The Drowned Cities

Paulo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to his YA novel, Ship Breaker, tells the tale of Mahlia and Mouse—two orphan refugees trying to survive in a war-torn future America where global warming, resource mismanagement, and corporate greed have brought about profound social and economic collapse.

When Mouse is forcibly conscripted into an army of child soldiers, it’s up to Mahlia and a genetically modified half-man, half-beast weapon named Tool to save him before the depredations of war damage him beyond all recognition. Not a light tale by any stretch of the imagination, but Bacigalupi creates compelling and realistic characters, and the grim future he envisions is frighteningly easy to believe in.

 

Amulet

amuletMy eight-year-old son got The Stone Keeper, the first book in this graphic novel series as a Christmas present in 2012 and immediately borrowed the rest of the books from the library. He inhaled them all.

The books tell the story of Emily and her younger brother, Navin. After the tragic death of their father, the siblings are forced to travel to an underground world populated by menacing elves, man-eating demons, and robots to rescue their kidnapped mother and save a world threatened by unspeakable evil.

Although ostensibly written for the 10-13 crowd, Amulet is one of those rare graphic novel series that appeals equally to all ages. The story is gripping and the artwork is gorgeous. I’m just as impatient and excited as my son is for book 6 to come out hopefully this spring.

 

Embassytown

embassytownOh, China Mieville. No other writer’s imaginary worlds are as dark, twisted, alien and somehow still irredeemably human as yours are.

Embassytown tells the story of a colony of humans living on a planet inhabited by a benign and mysterious alien species on the far edge of the galaxy.

The Arieke, or “Hosts,” speak a complex language that makes it impossible for them to express anything other than literal truth and can only be approximated by Ambassadors, cloned human twins raised from birth to telepathically anticipate each other’s thoughts and speak in unison. When a new type of ambassador comes to Embassytown, the equilibrium between the humans and the Arieke is destroyed and the colony finds itself threatened with annihilation.

This story is as much a meditation on the power of language to shape reality as it is a compelling and original vision of what living on an inhabited alien planet might be like.

 

Leviathan Wakes

leviathan wakesIf you’re hankering for a well-written, exciting space opera, look no further. This thrilling series opener kicks off with a ship’s entire crew getting reduced to a horrifying puddle of goop when they come into contact with an ancient alien bio-weapon that was supposed to reach Earth a billion years ago but instead got hooked into orbit around Saturn.

Now that this ancient bio-weapon has been discovered by one of Earth’s most powerful corporate entities, what does it mean for the future of the human species? (Hint: nothing good.)

Leviathan Wakes is the first book of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse trilogy and is one of those rare page-turners that kept me guessing the entire way. I’m currently a third of the way into the final novel and still have no idea how the story’s going to end – the mark of a fantastic story, in my books.

 

REAMDE

reamdeOkay, so this story isn’t strictly science fiction or fantasy, but given that it was written by Neal Stephenson and a significant chunk of the action takes place in a World of Warcraft-like video game environment, I had to include it. (Mostly because I loved it oh so much and wanted to write about it.)

REAMDE kicks off with a classic “wrong place at the wrong time” scenario in which the niece of a millionaire video game creator gets kidnapped by the Russian mafia, who need her shady computer programmer boyfriend to help them find the Chinese hacker who has compromised their sensitive banking information.

The story takes them from the Pacific Northwest to China and then into the wilds of the BC interior and involves gangsters, Muslim terrorists, British secret agents, evangelical Christians, drug runners, and mountain lions. A fun and gripping read and a great introduction to Neal Stephenson if you’ve never read any of his other books.

 

The Night Circus 

night circusWhat do you get when two ancient magicians make a wager on who can train the most powerful apprentice – and a 19th-century traveling circus is the stage on which their protégés are forced to do battle? One of the darkest, most original and unforgettable love stories you’ll ever read.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, so all I’m going to say is that this book will either make you want to run away with the circus – or run screaming from anyone who professes to have magic powers. One of the best stories I’ve read in years.

 

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making


the girl whoIf you love Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, then you need to read this book by Cathrynne M. Valente. In my view, it’s the first true successor to these time-honoured children’s classics that manages to pay homage to them while still being a completely original work that deserves to become a classic in its own right.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland tells the tale of September, a 12-year-old girl who’s whisked away from her boring life in Nebraska by the mischievous Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland so she can have an adventure of her own. On her quest to retrieve a spoon from the tyrannical Marquess who now rules Fairyland, she teams up with a Wyverrary (half Wyvern, half library) and an Arabian djinn named Saturday.

When her friends are kidnapped by the Marquess and taken to the other side of Fairyland, she is forced to unravel the mystery of the beloved Queen Mallow’s disappearance and the Marquess’s rise to power.

Although it’s ostensibly written for 10-12 year olds, this book is rich with deep allegorical meaning that appeals to adults as well and will make you and your children want to read it over and over again.

And best of all, it’s only the first book in a series. I can’t wait to read book number two!

So what were your favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013? Or do you read books from a different genre? Let us know what your top picks were in the comments!

 

The end of the world as we know it

Ever since the world didn’t end last weekend, I have been thinking about lure of the apocalypse.

Here’s how one FamilyRadio.org follower who believed Harold Camping’s assertions that the End of Days would begin on May 21st expressed his disappointment when the Rapture didn’t happen:

‎”I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth.”

To me, that sums up all the world’s problems in a nutshell.

It’s so easy to ignore the real and pressing issues that face the world when you believe we’re hurtling toward inescapable doom.  After all, why bother fighting evil or working to change things for the better when God could bring down Judgment Day at any moment?

Even worse, if you grow up believing that everyone on earth is going to be punished for their sins, it becomes hard not to think they deserve it. You become desensitized to the idea of the vast majority of the world suffering. In fact you begin to associate that with something good, dare I say, “rapturous”—your own personal eternal salvation.

… How could such a belief ever lead to any positive change?

Yet even as I’m horrified by the idea of so many people expecting and praying for the world to end in an instant, I can understand the allure and am not entirely immune to it myself. As a teenager, I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out exactly what I would do if the nukes rained down and destroyed everyone in the world but me.

It’s not that I wanted it to happen. I just felt like I had to be prepared.

From elementary school to university one of my all-time favourite books was Stephen King’s The Stand. I loved post-apocalyptic tales such as The Chrysalids or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or “whoops, here comes the asteroid” stories such as Lucifer’s Hammer.

As I lay in bed at night, I would try to imagine what kind of role I would play in a world where civilization as we knew it had collapsed.

Even though I shuddered to think of the gut-punching sorrow of seeing most of my friends and family die, at the same time, there was a small part of me that bought into the appeal of the blank slate—the opportunity to start afresh in a brave new world and maybe even build a better society than the one that we had lost.

But as I’ve gotten older, apocalypse fiction has lost its appeal. When we had to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, I couldn’t get past page 100. The sparse elegance of the prose notwithstanding, I just couldn’t handle being in that head space. I could not stop myself from imagining my husband and son in the roles of the main characters—and the thought made me sick to my stomach.

Now that I’m a mom, the idea of adopting a “Hulk, smash!” attitude toward the world’s problems no longer works for me. After all, I’d like my kids to live long and happy lives in a healthy society.  So from now on, instead of dwelling on all the ways we’re killing the planet and killing each other or how we’re at the whim of an indifferent universe (or a judgmental God, take your pick)—I want to spend more time focusing on solutions.

And so I was wondering if any of you have any particularly good books you could recommend that focus on exactly that: solutions.

I want to spend less time filling my head with useless garbage and more time learning about the amazing solutions people are developing right now to improve the human condition and help us live in greater harmony with the world around us.

Because I KNOW these solutions are out there… I just don’t think the spotlight gets focused on them often enough in the current “if it bleeds it leads” media environment.

So if you can recommend any great books that focus on solutions—books on permaculture, urban farming, clean energy, alternative transportation, conflict resolution, whatever you can think of—please share them in the comments.

Because who will create that brave new world if not us?

Who are your favourite moms in literature?

favourite moms in literatureI loved Koree’s recent post about Tabitha, the idealized mom in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Keeping in the theme, and in honour of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d ask: who are your favourite moms in literature?

Off the top of my head I’d have to go with…

  • Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter series
  • Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
  • Marmee in Little Women (though I always hated that she was called “Marmee”)
  • Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
  • Good old Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan

Can you think of any to add to the list?

Mental spring cleaning

[This one was written by our esteemed Leah J. I’m just the humble poster — Erin]

I find myself taking stock in April – a little mental spring cleaning, if you like. So I’ve been thinking about our book club project – asking our favorite authors to suggest their desert island book choices.

I asked Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, to suggest a book that makes her happy. Her suggestion was an older book named Happy All the Time — a sketch about life in New York City in the early seventies. The book reminded me a bit of Jane Austen’s style of story writing, very character driven. And yet, as much as I loved and emulated many ideas from The Happiness Project, I didn’t love Happy All The Time. It was an interesting book, but not one I would have picked up in a bookstore. I just didn’t have a connection to any of the characters – upper class New Yorkers struggling with keeping up appearances.

But it really made me think that how we interact with books is such a unique experience. Asking authors for their favorite book almost leaves out half the story. What were they doing when they read the book? What does it remind them of? Is there a favorite passage they reread to take them back to a moment in time? Did their choice influence their writing?

We were lucky to have Hal Wake at a recent meeting, where we could share his memories of his book choice. Although I found the book Not Wanted on the Voyage difficult and cumbersome to read, I found his memories of discovering the book exciting, interesting and much more enlightening than the book itself.

Although I still hated the book, I grew to respect his choice.

So I look forward to reaching the end of this challenge and getting back to reading books recommended by our members and sharing their intimate and initial reactions to a fresh choice. It’s good to clean house once in awhile, but I will have a new appreciation for getting the whole story behind our book recommendations.

What I’m reading now


Just started reading Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. It’s been a few years since I’ve read a Rushdie novel and he’s long been one of my favourite writers. And two of my other favourite writers — Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon — have written blurbs for the book that appear on the back cover.

So excited to dive into it!

He, She, They — or I?

do you like books written in first person or third personI recently realized that almost all of the YA books I’ve read in the past two years have been written in the first person. (E.g., “I did this, I did that” instead of “He did this, she did that.”)

Many of these books are ones I’ve absolutely loved — such as the Hunger Games series.

… And of course, I’ve also read many great literary works that have been written in the first person as well. Portnoy’s Complaint comes immediately to mind as well as Grace River, by our own lovely Rebecca Hendry.

And yet if you asked me, I’d have to say that I tend to prefer books that are written in the third person. I have no idea why that would be. Maybe because so many of the classics I studied in school — as well as all of the epic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy sagas I devoured in teens and early 20s — were written in the omnipotent third person?

In other words, maybe in my subconscious mind that’s how books are “supposed” to be written?

… Honestly, I have no idea.

So I thought I’d put this question out there: Which do you tend to prefer — books in the first person or books in the third? Do you have a particular favourite or would you say it depends on the type of story?

Your thoughts, please!

What I’m reading now — by Leah

[This post was written by our esteemed Leah J. I’m just the humble poster — Erin]

At the moment I have a high school class of English students, so my challenge as a teacher is to find books they’re interested in reading. This challenge has become significantly easier since finding the “Stellar Book Awards” online.

Fortunately, our library had a little money in the budget so we were able to get a few copies of every title for students to read. Here’s what I’ve read and loved so far this month:
The Apprentice’s Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain by Melanie Little

It wasn’t until I got this book home that I realized it was written in free verse. What was I thinking? Unless Shane Koyczan is reciting it from memory, any type of verse would be a little tedious for spring break reading. That’s what I thought at first. How wrong I was – I read this book in one sitting! (Actually I was still in bed, occasionally calling out for cups of tea). Hard not to review this one without resorting to clichés, so I won’t, just find it and read it.

Getting the Girl by Susan Juby

A quick paced book, slice of high school life with several characters providing comic relief. Wonder what’s on your teenaged kids’ mind? Read this, and you won’t have to bug them by asking “How was your day at school?”

Lockdown by Diane Tullson

What really happens if a “shooter” shows up at your school? And what would your reaction be? Tullson writes a story that catches the reader by surprise, and appeals to the reluctant reader with a gripping story uncluttered by a long, drawn out plot.

In Search of the Literary Page Turner

I recently read an article by Ken Follet in The Writer Magazine that had me shaking my head in disbelief.

Follet begins the article by asking, “Why are good books so boring?”

At first, I thought he was being facetious, but as I read the article further I realized that Follet really seems to believe that most critically acclaimed literary novels are difficult, dry, and just plain boring. He makes assertions such as…

  • “Nowadays, melodrama is unfashionable.”
  • “Character [is] the only permissible subject for a serious novel.”
  • “The light-comic approach of intellectual fiction today generally can’t cope with much more than the trivia of middle-class life.”
  • “The elite were allowed to dispense with plot, story, excitement, sensation, and the world outside the mind, so long as they were deep.”

… To which I reply, “Really? REALLY?”

It seems to me that there is an abundance of critically acclaimed books that are as gripping as they are well-written.

Here are just a few favourites that come to mind…

I love all of these books and consider them all to be works of literary genius in their own way, even though they have gripping plots and use mystery, humour, adventure, sci-fi, melodrama, and/or magic to propel their stories along and make them impossible to put down.

So I was wondering, what do YOU think? Are quality writing and page-turning excitement two mutually exclusive concepts? Or do you too find it easy to point to books that are as fun as they are fine?

If so, please mention in them in the comments. We’re always looking for great new book recommendations here at Book Club Unbound. :-)

Book Club Suggestion: Choose Books Outside of Your “Comfort Zone”

Looking for book club suggestions on great novels to read?

… Here’s a friendly tip: don’t feel like you always need to pull your books out of the same literary hat.

For example, just because your book club has enjoyed reading and discussing literary novels that usually get nominated for the Booker, Giller, or Pulitzer prizes, that doesn’t mean you have to opt for contemporary high-brow literature every single month.

At Book Club Unbound, some of our most energetic and stimulating discussions have resulted when we’ve gone outside our “comfort zone” to choose books that are totally different than the books we would normally choose to read.

For example, some recent “outside of the box” book club suggestions  that have been generated great discussions have been…

  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This graphic novel tells the powerful, funny, and heartbreaking story about a young Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution. This might seem like bleak subject matter for a graphic novel but Satrapi’s bold black and white illustrations often portray far more about the surreal dichotomy between Satrapi’s liberal home life and the increasingly brutal authoritarian regime cracking down on her nation than words could ever express.
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  • The Dirt by Motley Crue. You might think that the whiskey-soaked tale of a boozing, whoring, drug-taking quartet of glam-rock stars who turned debauchery of epic proportions into an art form wouldn’t hold much attraction for a group of refined, erudite, and well-spoken ladies such as ourselves….

     
    You might think that, but you’d be wrong. This surprisingly well-written rock ‘n roll autobiography made for an interesting read and an even more compelling conversation as we related our own experiences with Motley Crue’s music and recounted the ways in which we too “shouted at the devil” during our salad days.
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  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyers. Yes, you can argue that this story of Bella and her sparkly vampire love, Edward, is poorly written and features a hackneyed, predictable plot that does great injustice to the whole vampire genre. But the fact remains that the story has huge appeal for girls and women aged 11 and up, and has spawned one of the most successful book and movie franchises of the 21st century.

     
     Plus,  because many of us have “tweenaged” daughters we thought it would be a good idea to check out the book to see what all the fuss was about. And the resulting discussion was spirited and often hilarious (and of course devolved into a fierce debate over which type of monster made the best supernatural lover. Team Werewolf represent!).

… Those are just a few examples of the types of “outside of the box” book club suggestions that have resulted in spirited and memorable book club discussions. We have also read nonfiction books that represent different philosophical viewpoints across the whole “liberal/conservative” spectrum as well as books that fall squarely into genres that the majority of us don’t tend to read, such as science fiction. And while we don’t always *love* the book that was chosen, the discussion that results is almost always thought-provoking and fun.

So the next time it’s your turn to make the monthly book club suggestion, don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and choose a a different kind of reading experience for your book club.

… Do you have any other suggestions for great book club choices? If so, please leave them in the comments. We’re always on the lookout for new books to read!