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?
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