Monday, 14 June 2010

Genre Books You Must Read (Alt:Fiction Panel)

I attended Alt Fiction on Saturday - a cosy, but very professionally run, one day event. I'm going to produce a post detailing what I got up to on the day itself, but I wanted particularly to highlight the details of the one panel I attended. It was Genre Books You Must Read, something I felt would be interesting given the panellists. I was dreading the seemingly unavoidable mention of The Lord of the Rings, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book mentions were imaginative, very varied and had me scribbling on my book wishlist. Here is a little summary...

Graham Joyce kicked us off with a couple of canonical works - usually listed as some of the literary classics, but definitely the province of genre fiction (one more so than the author). One of these was Robinson Crusoe, but more crucially Joyce recommended Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. As Joyce pointed out, this is definitely not a children's book! It details an investigation of the human psyche by using fantastical elements. It is also political satire and a treatise on the nature of humanity; examining our perception of ourselves as rational beings.

Joyce also talked passionately about Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, a book that gained much approval from his fellow panellists and members of the audience. This delicious rural fantasy is highly original and definitely follows a different root to most high fantasy, showing a dreamlike environment in which English folklore is brought to life. Both Joyce and John Jarrold think that Lavondyss, the sequel to Mythago Wood, is just as powerful. Sadly, these works will be read with some poignancy, knowing that Holdstock is one of those fantasy authors who has departed before his time.

Juliet McKenna took us even further back than the work of Jonathan Swift, pointing out that some of the first fantasy can be found in the plays of Euripides, one of the three great Greek playwrights. These plays show the relationship between God and men, a theme that can be found in books by writers as diverse as Steven Erikson and N K Jemisin in more recent times. They also show the fluidity in the treatment of myths - the fact that the same story can be told many different times, and from different points of views.

She also spoke with passion about The Wizard of Earthsea by LeGuin - one of the first books to use that trope about a young boy discovering he has powers - and Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn - a book that shows the effects of the abuse of absolute power. Out of those authors writing today that McKenna admires, she particularly mentioned Kate Elliott.

Steven Erikson (author of the rather amazing Malazan sequence) had some rather unusual choices. He stated that he does enjoy reading realist fiction that contains surreal components or intellectual absurdist elements. One of his choices was The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton, seen as a metaphysical thriller. His other key choice (which inspired a rather lively discussion from the panel on how to sell books to publishers) was The Short Timers, by Gustav Hasford: a semi-autobiographical novel about Hasford's experiences in the Vietnam War that was then developed into the film Full Metal Jacket. Erikson particularly wanted to highlight the psychedelic dream sequence where it seems that a vampire invades the book. This managed to thoroughly intrigue the rest of the panellists, and there might be a spike in the reading of this (sadly out of print now) book.

Erikson wanted to highlight these books because he believes that Vietnam war fiction, in particular, led on to books such as Glen Cook's Black Company (a series of books he is so fond of that he lent his words to the cover):

John Jarrold gave us an interesting mix of books. One of these was Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, a science fiction novel that Jarrold believes encapsulates the very best of the genre. Mixing light and dark elements, with comic moments and points in the prose that made Jarrold cry (he was not too proud to say so either!)

In response to McKenna's offering of Euripides, Jarrold suggested Morte D'Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory. This sequence of tales encapsulates many of those oh-so-familiar fantasy tropes these days: quests, beasts, a group of heroes doing good deeds. He also mentioned The Once and Future King - which is *nothing* like Disney's Sword in the Stone!

Finally Pete Crowther spoke with great warmth about three books. The first of these was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury - examining the familial relationship between children and parents. Seriously, the guy made me want to leave the panel, go to a bookstore and immediately pick this book up! (More than a little frustrating considering my book buying embargo *grin*)

He also talked at length about Pet Sematary by Stephen King. Crowther believes that King's strong characterisation in every scene helps the reader to suspend disbelief when it comes to the introduction of the supernatural parts of the book. He said that any aspiring writer can learn so much from King's writing.

Lastly Crowther mentioned Jack Finney's Time and Again:

It is supposed to be a defining work on time travel (Jarrold thinks that Finney's work is deeply under-rated) and sounded excellent. The book is enormously pretty as well, with illustrations that show elements of the novel perfectly.

In conclusion, I was enormously pleased to hear a number of recommendations for books that I hadn't even heard of, let alone read! All the panellists spoke with great affection and knowledge for the genre, and introduced their particular choices with enthusiasm. I enjoyed this panel very much and, like I said, added a number of the above to my reading list - chief amongst them, Time and Again.

So, what do you think? Any of these catch your eye? Do you have any recommendations for genre books that everyone should read?


  1. Excellent post!

    Mythago Wood, Man Who Was Thursday, Wizard of Earthsea, Morte D'Arthur, The Once and Future King, Gulliver's Travels, everything by that snarky bastard Euripides...all brilliant and should be read by everyone! :D

    Have you really never read Something Wicked This Way Comes? It was one of my *favourites* as a child, I remember being about 7 or 8 and utterly terrified yet enthralled...and the film was one of my most memorable as a child too. SO GOOD.

  2. Read all but the Hasford (but am familiar with the film adaptation). Very nice list.

  3. great!! people were talking about this panel and I was hoping someone would know what was recommended. Nice one Amanda, sorry I didn't get to say hi.

  4. There are some lovely book choices in those recommendations. I've not read the Banks novel or Mythago Wood (I know, shame on me!). I've never even heard of The Short Timers. Will have to keep an eye out for that one.

    How is the book-buying embargo going? If it's any consolation I'm on one as well. Thankfully, I don't have the temptation of having any spare cash at the moment, otherwise it would be a hell of a struggle.

  5. Great post Amanda.

    The King og Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
    At the Mountains Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
    The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

    These were the first three books that came to my mind in Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction that I think everybody should have read. (Ok, one is a trilogy,but go read it anyway.)

  6. Some lovely comments! But please don't congratulate me on the post - I'm just repeating what those five knowledgeable people had to say about their favourite genre books :-)

    @Neverwhere - my reading of the classics of genre fiction is woefully limited.

    @Larry - a book you haven't read? :-o

    @Adele - you were waaaay busy, my lovely! Fantasycon for sure :-)

    @Sharon - I agree that there are some awesome choices, and some really unusual ones. The book buying embargo is running pretty smoothly right now - managed my first week and a bit with nary a sniff of trying to buy a book. Hard though!

    @Ole - Ooh, those are some nice extras to the list! Having read Galileo's Dream, I'm really keen to try more KSR as well!

  7. The Black Company books sound like something I would like and I still want to read the Once and Future King.

    I started The Earthsea series at one point a few years back but couldn't get in to it, though I plan on giving that one another go in the near future.

    I have actually read the Morte d'Arthur, for a class at university, though then it was as one of the founding works of English literature. Hmmmm, might have to re-read that one and see how it works as a canonical fantasy book.

    Lord, reading all these blog books is so bad for my book wishlist, it's getting longer by the second!

  8. @Mieneke - I must confess, I found it difficult to get into The Earthsea series as well. I have The Black Company books at home, so I think I shall be giving them a try sooner rather than later :-) And, yes, my wishlist is long and sprawling thanks to all my book blogging buddies!

  9. This is wonderful because the list is so varied. There are many titles which I wouldn't have thought about reading but which I might now (as soon as my TBR pile comes down a bit of course.) And I also love Steven Erikson's Malazan series!

  10. I would completely support all of Pete Crowther's choices - Time and Time Again is excellent - as well as Mythago Wood. One thing all of these books have in common is a lack of action/violence which is interesting when seen against current trends in fantasy.

    I would also recommend my own favourite, Little, Big by John Crowley which is lyrical and whimsical and compares with Mythago Wood in its dreamscapes.

  11. Popping back in to concur that King of Elfland's Daughter is a must-read, and Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirreless (whose name I feel I can never spell correctly ;-), and of course Little, Big is *brilliant* :D