Thursday, March 5, 2009

My favorite reads in other genres

Elizabeth Zelvin

While mystery makes up the bulk of my reading for pleasure, I do pick up books in other genres now and then. Some of them are even among my all-time favorites. Very few of them are literary fiction—been there, done that as an undergraduate English major many years ago. Even fewer are commercial fiction, much of which is plot driven and lacking in character development for my taste. I don’t read hard science fiction or straight romance. So what’s left? Character-driven novels with elements of fantasy, speculative fiction (a term I prefer to “science fiction” because it’s about the “what if” of storytelling rather than the hardware), historical fiction, and yes, mystery and romance. Genre benders. Brilliantly written genre benders about characters I want to take home with me—same as my criteria for mysteries.

At the top of my list is Lois McMaster Bujold, author of the Vorkosigan saga. The books take place in a galactic setting, but they focus on the conflict between a science-fiction kind of universe and a planet that has recently emerged from a low-tech Time of Isolation, complete with horses and a feudal aristocracy. The stories are engrossing (several are mysteries), the world-building impressive, wit and ideas and moral dilemmas abound. And the characters—oh, the characters! Miles Vorkosigan and his friends and family are as real to me as any fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. My favorite book (in all genres, including literary fiction and classics) is A Civil Campaign. Bujold crosses galactic space opera with comedy of manners and comes up with a complex, intensely satisfying, and laugh-out-loud funny read. She dedicates the book to Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy—and I think Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers, once they adjusted to the premises of the genre, would all love it.

Another wonderful writer who takes a science-fiction premise and embeds it in a low-tech world is Sharon Shinn, whose Samaria books I reread almost as often as Bujold’s. Samaria is a world where humans are protected and guided by angels who perform their intercessions with the god Jovah through glorious singing. The first book, Archangel, reads like fantasy. But as the series unfolds, the reader gradually learns that things on Samaria are not what they seem. Each book is a stand-alone with different protagonists. Each displays Shinn’s utter mastery of the arc of story and romance. The conflict and resolution is sheer perfection every time. And the characters, both human and angel, with their vivid and distinctive personalities, have very real flaws, virtues, and dilemmas.

Kate Elliott is another writer whose first series, the Jaran books, is my favorite. Again, she takes a galactic premise—in this case, humans have been conquered by a mysterious and powerful alien race and have to live as a subject people—and pits it against a freshly imagined horse culture on a world so primitive that the Jaran don’t even know that inhabited planets and space travel exist. There’s a heroic romance in the first book, Jaran, and the sequels follow its protagonists and add others. Elliott turned to other projects after the fourth book, so long ago that at least one subplot has become outdated (as Internet addiction has emerged in our present). But I wish she’d go back to the Jaran universe. That alien race is still a mystery.

This is Part I of a series, as there are other authors I’d love to talk about: Sheri S. Tepper, Diana Gabaldon, and Dorothy Dunnett, among others. Who are your favorite non-mystery authors and series, and why?


Auntie Knickers said...

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorites. His speculative fiction includes The Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy in which young Canadians end up in a parallel universe and have adventures; and a number of semi-historical novels also set in a parallel universe where there are two moons, but it's very much like medieval Europe -- so for instance A Song for Arbonne deals with the Provencal troubadour period. I wish he would write another book soon.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've read some of them, Kay is a fine and original writer, but his tendency to kill major characters and the rather cruel eroticism in at least one were not to my taste.

Kaye Barley said...

Hi Liz!!

Jan Karon. I loved her Mitford series and although they have a sweetness to them, they're not all over the top saccharriney. But even better, I think, is the second series featuring the main protagonist, Father Tim, growing out of the first. There's only one so far, but it takes on some tough issues that would not have been suitable in the Mitford books.

And Joan Medlicott's Ladies of Coventry series.

Sandra Parshall said...

Some "commercial" fiction (meaning it has sold well, I guess) is wonderful and well worth reading. I thought The Secret Life of Bees was lovely. I do read literary fiction, but these days I don't have as much time for it as I used to. I used to be an avid science fiction fan, but the realities introduced by space exploration have turned that genre too techy for me. I love Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, which don't rely on a lot of science and techno-speak. I can read Bradbury's books again and again without tiring of the beautiful writing and astonishing characters.

In nonfiction, I gravitate toward history, especially European history and biographies of kings, queens, czars, and assorted evil princes and popes.

Sandra Parshall said...

Me again. :-) Did you read Cold Mountain, Liz? I was furious over the ending to that book. I felt the author had betrayed the characters and the readers.

Kaye Barley said...

Sandy! Regarding Cold Mountain! ME TOO!!!! Furious and haven't gotten over it yet.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

No, Sandy, but I saw the movie. :)

caryn said...

I'm a historical fiction junkie. I like Philippa Gregory in particular. I also read a fair number of memoirs and biographies.
I've read the Mitford books but not the one with Father Tim that Kaye mentioned. Hmmm another book for the library reserve list.
I loved The Secret Life of Bees, and in fact, daughter Beth and I just this afternoon watched the movie.
Count me as another one who was very disappointed with Cold Mountain's ending.

Lesa said...

I read some women's fiction, but I'm particular about the authors and plots. But, my favorite non-mystery author is actually one who uses elements of suspense and mystery in his urban fantasy - Jim Butcher's Dresden Files about the wizard, Harry Dresden, in Chicago. I read these years before the TV series, and I certainly wasn't happy with the series. I like the elements of fantasy combined with mystery, the sense of humor despite the dark plotlines, and the relationship between Harry and the skull, Bob. Love that Bob. There's also a great dog in it, Mouse. Butcher's next book is due out in May - yes!

Meredith Cole said...

When I take breaks from mystery fiction, it is often to enjoy some non-fiction. I enjoy history (as the daughter of a historian, how could I not?), some true crime, and philosophy/science (I loved the "Time Paradox" and "Traffic"). My husband is the sci-fi reader in our house.

Chester Campbell said...

The ending to Cold Mountain was sad, but the whole Civil War was a sad period of history. I'm as quick as anybody to glorify wartime heroes. The things that soldiers do to each other, however, are not pretty sights. Although I claim to be an incurable optimist, I don't see wars fading away. For the survivors, it's a happy ending. For too many, it isn't. Just my thoughts.

Dave said...

My alternatives to mystery include Age of Sail (Horatio Hornblower, Nicholas Ramage, Richard Bolitho, etc (those are characters, not authors)), science fiction if done well (still like a good space opera once in a while, but I think most of it lately has been novels based on Star Trek); a little fantasy. I'm glad to see mentions of series I haven't encountered yet. I'm also glad Chester mentioned "survivors" of war, rather than winners. I don't think anyone really wins in a war, given the costs.