Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book series worth reading

1. The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. If you can, check out the unabridged audio recordings, read by James Marsters of Buffy fame. Almost no romance, whatsoever, thank the gods. My only peeve in reading them is when, as a Chicagoan, it becomes quite clear that Butcher has very little idea as to Chicago geography or slang. I remember one instance where Dresden kept talking about "the JFK expressway", and it was several minutes before I was able to figure out that he was talking about The Kennedy Expressway! A minor point to be sure, but worth noting. The stories themselves, however, are quite solid. They star a private investigator named Harry Dresden, who often consults for the Chicago PD a Wizard, under which title he is listed in the yellow pages. Everything you've ever heard of in the supernatural exists in this universe, as it is ostensibly the side of ours of which we are blissfully unaware. There are numerous short stories set in this universe as well. The next book in the series, Ghost Story, is due on 7-26-11. This series was adapted into a short-lived Sci-Fi channel television show, which made such significant alterations to its characters and plots that it was cancelled after one season.

2. In second place comes Simon R. Green's Nightside series. I was introduced to this world via the anthology Mean Streets, which also contains a Dresden story. This time there's even less romance, and since it occurs almost entirely within a world created by the author's imagination, there's no (as far as I'm aware) such geographical inconsistencies. Also, quite a number of books in the series, the last of which resolves nearly every plot thread left dangling throughout. Like Butcher, Green keeps the series universe building from the very first book. The setting is also featured in several short stories. As an adjunct to this series, one can also check out Secret Histories, which are set in the "real world" of which the Nightside is an element. This series stars Edwin Drood (of Poe fame) a sort of occult James Bond type figure, although that description is extremely oversimplistic. There is some slight crossover between the two series as well. Also there are romantic elements, there is zero descriptive sex, which is gratifying. This last series is ongoing, and the last book published ended with a cliffhanger. The next Secret Histories installment, For Heaven's Eyes Only, is due on 7-7-11.

3. Similar, yet different, is the Greywalker series by Kat Richardson, featuring private investigator Harper Blaine. Although it does contain some romance, it is thankfully a very small part of the series and plays directly into the interpersonal relationships which are an important part of it. The author lives in Seattle, and sets most of the action there, so it is extremely accurate, to the point where much of the geographical detail is inconsequential for a non-native. However, it does lend authenticity to the work, which goes a long way towards establishing the necessary degree of suspension of disbelief. As with Simon R. Green, I came to this author via the Mean Streets anthology, and also as with his work, this series is building towards something. The next book in the series, Downpour, is due out in August, 2011.

4. Dean Koontz has written several books featuring Odd Thomas as their point-of-view character, a character who, similar to Harper Blaine, can see dead people. No, this is not that movie. This is entirely different and far more sinister. Odd attempts to help the dead pass on by resolving their unfinished business, and often finds himself in the midst of diabolical plots with threaten to kill many people. Four excellent novels and a series of webisodes have been published. There are also two graphic novel prequels, but they are drawn in a manga style that is entirely unsuited to the character and tone of the prior works, and their narrative voice is extremely different than that of the novel. Additionally, the second GN contains elements that directly contradict parts of the novels. I recommend you skip them.

5. On the subject of comics, X-Men writer Mike Carey has an interesting little series, the Felix Castor mysteries, featuring an "occult detective" living in London. This series is set in a world where the dead have begun to return, leading to zombies, loup-garous, and ghosts being normal parts of the everyday world. Felix operates as an exorcist, however, his role begins evolving as of the end of the first book in the series. There are two titles in the series which have already been published in the UK, but only three of these have been released in the US.

6. Sometime comic writer Charlie Huston has also written an Urban Fantasy series, The Joe Pitt Casebooks. These feature a vampire who begins the series as something of a private investigator, but whose role quickly morphs into something else entirely. The series has ended after five books, which leave the reader wanting more, the hallmark of good storytelling. There is zero sex, (since the main character's girlfriend has HIV,) minimal romance, and a balls to the wall pace that may leave the reader gasping for air.

7. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles offers a drastically different mythology and setting for vampires. The finest works in this series are those which focus on individual characters and are set in the historical past. Regarding sex, there is lots, much of which contains overtones -- if not blatant depictions of -- homoeroticism, which may make the series uncomfortable for some. Also, with the publication of Memnoch the Devil, Christianity and the assumed truths of its core beliefs becomes primary to the underpinnings of the series. With the publication of Merrick, Rice integrated her other series, Lives of the Mayfair Witches, into the Vampire Chronicles universe. This second series also has strong sexual elements, this time with lots of incest, which again, may make it uncomfortable to some. Personally, I find it to be distracting. These taboo or religious elements seem to be themes that Rice is interested in exploring and therefore has managed to work into her text, but they distract one from the overall narrative for the most part. These elements notwithstanding, the series in general is quite enjoyable.

8. The Hollows, written by Kim Harrison, blends romantic vampires with detective fiction, in a different way. These books are set in Cincinnati, following a catastrophic plague known as "The Turn" during which enough of the world's normal population was wiped out, leading its supernatural element to come out of the closet and become fully integrated into society. The series' protagonist, a witch named Rachael Morgan, operates with her vampire best friend Ivy as a "runner", a sort of bounty hunter who goes after supernaturals. This series only starts to become good after the first two books, in which the status quo for the series is established. Unfortunately, this series wastes a lot of time on sex. However, beginning with the third book, said romantic elements have normalized and become less distracting.

9. A series with much, much, much more sex and romantic elements is the Southern Vampire Mysteries, now also known also as the True Blood series. These books are written by Charlaine Harris, and, for those living under a rock, feature a barmaid named Sookie Stackhouse whose peculiar talent of mind-reading lead her to be drawn into the affairs of the newly publicized vampire population of the United States. Although there is an unhealthy amount of sex in the series, the mysteries which form the basis of the novels are quite gripping, and the extended cast is extremely well fleshed out. The series of novels is actually much more entertaining and much better plotted than is the current HBO series. Additionally, there are quite a number of short stories set in this universe, the best of which do not involve Miss Stackhouse whatsoever, leading one to wish that they would be fleshed out into another series of novels, rather than being relegated to a mere handful of short stories. The most recent book, the eleventh in the series, entitled Dead Reckoning, was published quite recently.

10. Another series which has had a successful cable series created from it is the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay. Again, for those who have been living under a rock, this series centers on a blood spatter analyst in the Miami Police Department named Dexter Morgan, who also just happens to be the Miami area's most prolific serial killer. If you choose to read these, however, I recommend you skip the third book in the (so far) five book series, which features an abortive attempt at introducing an unnecessary supernatural element into the saga of a self-professed monster who has spent his life trying to fit into society. Also, it's the only book in the series to not be narrated exclusively by the protagonist. Skip it. The remaining novels are much better, in my humble opinion, than the Showtime series of the same name, as Dexter actually begins to develop real emotion as of the most recent installment. Also, unlike the television series, it doesn't feature the brutal murder of recent mothers as a "plot element". In my opinion, that's the point at which the television series entered the realm of Identity Crisis, if you get my meaning. It's also the point at which I stopped watching the television series, having been overly traumatized by the aforementioned "plot element" of last season's finale. Also, the television series has way too much sex...especially considering the fact that the title character is supposed to be repulsed by intimate contact. However, critics seem to love both of these elements, which either shows what a prude I am, or how deeply depraved the majority of television critics are.

11. And now for something completely different, to which I was introduced to via its Devil's Due Publishing comics adaptations. I am speaking, of course, of R.A. Salvatore's series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms world of Dungeons and Dragons, featuring one of fantasy's most popular characters, Drizzt Do'urden. Drizzt, a dark elf, or Drow, is born in the cavernous interior of the continent of Faerun called the Underdark. Unlike the majority of his race, Drizzt's alignment is towards Good, rather than the Evil worshipped by the matriarchal society into which he was born. Finding himself a philosophical outcast, he sets out on a journey which brings him to the surface world. He eventually finds acceptance as the world's only dark elf Paladin. I mention this series specifically because it is one of only two pure fantasy series I have ever been able to read and enjoy. This is largely due to the cast of the novels which are written with such depth, and such infinite relatability, that the world in which they are set in largely inconsequential. As an added bonus, the author was once a boxer and a bouncer, and thus his fight scenes are uncharacteristically well choreographed. The series is made of smaller series, with two spinoff series, the Sellswords trilogy, and the Cleric Quintet, and another series, War of the Spider Queen, overseen by Salvatore, while written by various authors. Drizzt was so successful as a character, that another Drow of similar persuasion was created by a different writer who parlayed her into another successful, albeit less so, series of novels. There has been much speculation on adapting this series for television, but, admittedly, its core Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms fan base is an extremely small niche.

12. The only other pure fantasy series which I have enjoyed immensely is the Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin. These books feature a young man who becomes the world's greatest mage. Again, what sets these tales apart from others is the intensiveness of their character development, leading the settings to be largely inconsequential, however beautifully rendered. This series was adapted into a television miniseries of which the less said, the better.

13. Moving the fantasy setting to the America of the early 1800's is something that Orson Scott Card did very well in his as-yet unfinished Alvin Maker series. Set in a world where all folk magic and superstition is real, this series blends fantasy with history in a wonderfully seamless -- and even educational -- manner. Born the seventh son of a seventh son, Alvin has much more than the "knack" of some sort to which many people in his world can lay claim. He has the potential to use every knack and then some. The series is littered with historical characters such as Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, Davy Crockett, and many more. The second book in the series, Red Prophet, has also been adapted into twelve issue Marvel comic series.

14. As have most of the books in Orson Scott Card's more famous Ender's Game series. This series has succeeded beyond OSC's wildest expectations, blossoming from a short story to the six book Ender's Game series, and its four book counterpart, the Ender's Shadow series. Beginning with the tale of a young boy trained to be the finest military commander that Earth has ever known, the Ender's Game series morphs into something entirely different with the next released book in the series, Speaker for the Dead. With the subsequent publication of Xenocide, the series again morphs into something different with a much greater theological bent to it. Although the theology starts occupying massive sections of Xenocide and Children of the Mind, it can, for the most part, be ignored in favor of the story itself. However, it is the lack of said theological element that makes the counterpart Shadow series superior in some ways to its parent. Numerous short stories exist which greater inform this universe, and some of its stories have begun their existences as comic books, primary among which is the current series The Formic Wars: Burning Earth.

15. Another series being successfully adapted into comic format is the Dark Tower series of Stephen King. Originally begun while he was in college, its first installment, The Gunslinger, became much more than originally planned, eventually encompassing a majority of King's ouvre, including such seminal works as Salem's Lot, Hearts in Atlantis, and The Stand. Of particular note in this all-encompassing story is the children's book The Eyes of the Dragon, which, although written for kids, is an essential part of the mythology which makes up Roland Deschain of Gilead's world. For a long time, there was great concern by many that this magnum opus would forever remain unfinished, especially following the author's being struck by a van while walking on the side of the road one day, an event which eventually worked its way into fictional format with the publication of the sixth book in the series, Song of Susannah. (King's son, Joe Hill, has also found success recently with the publication of two novels, a collection of short stories, and the Locke & Key comic series for IDW.)

16. One of King's most recent books, Under the Dome, is set in the world of another author's character, one who, under his creator Lee Child (Jim Grant), exists in a world much more recognizable as the one we live in. Child's character, Jack Reacher, is a former Military Policeman, who, since being RIF'ed from the US Army, has spent his retirement wandering around the United States as a drifter. Reacher has a tendency to always be in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or any other variation of the phrase, depending on your point of view. Four of the fifteen novels in which he features have been written in the first person, which Child says is more natural for him, with the remainder being written in third person. He is a supporting character in one short story, James Penney's New Identity featured in Fresh Blood 3.

17. Another character along similar lines is John Clark, a feature character in several of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels. Beginning with The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan and his world have been featured in thirteen novels, the most recent of which, 2010, Dead or Alive, was co-authored by Grant Blackwood. Although Clancy in ostensibly somewhat of a fascist, especially with respect to his work The Teeth of the Tiger and various of his political statements, his knack for the dramatic is clear, especially with respect to politics and the military, his knowledge of which is made quite clear through the scope of his novels and non-fiction works.

18. Next, an entire series with two authors. FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is a character in eleven novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The series begins with Relic and its sequel Reliquary, in which Pendergast plays a supporting role, before graduating him to lead character with their third novel, The Cabinet of Curiosities. The series has also encompassed two of their stand-alone works, Thunderhead, which introduces supporting character Nora Kelly, and The Ice Limit introduces supporting character Eli Glinn. The fourth Pendergast novel, Still Life with Crows, makes reference to an as yet unpublished work by Preston and Child, Beyond the Ice Limit, and the later book Dance of Death mentions a further sequel, Ice Limit III: Return to Cape Horn. Pendergast is such a memorable character due to several unusual traits: he is extremely well-educated, having graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard, followed by a dual PhD at Oxford; he has an extensive knowledge of myriad subjects unrelated to said degrees; he is a connoisseur of the finer things in life, including his Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith; he is a Southern Gentleman; he speaks at least six languagues; he is a master of disguise; he spent a year in Tibet studying meditative techniques. He is, in effect, a modern Sherlock Holmes.

19. Which brings us to the last series, Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Undoubtedly the greatest fictional detective, and one of the most famous literary creations of all-time, the Sherlock Holmes stories can be used as case-studies in deductive reasoning. Even, now, more than 100 years after his creation, the Holmes mysteries remain as popular as they ever were, if not more so. Holmes has been used in several films, (most recently portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr.,) radio plays, stage plays, comics, and novels by other authors. Conan Doyle's masterful creation deserves his spot on any list such as this.


Most of the novels, short stories, and series related above exist as unabridged audio recordings as well, some of which, notably the Dresden series', may serve to enhance the enjoyment of the work.

If that's not enough reading material to last you for quite some time, I don't know what is!

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