There's lot of fantasy out there. Just keeping up with the books by Brandon Sanderson is essentially a full-time job—that guy writes about as fast as I read. Maybe faster. Occasionally, however, I step outside the realm of the fantastic in search of something else. Here are a few recommendations from the other side…
The Best of It; New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan
For most of my life, well before I started writing epic fantasy, I wrote poetry. I did both my undergrad and graduate degrees in poetry, and I try to keep a book of poems on the toilet at all times. I apologize for that detail, but there you have it. Kay Ryan is the best poet working today, bar none. Her dense, musical lyrics remind me of a cross between John Donne (not nearly so verbose) and Emily Dickinson (but funnier). Everyone with even a vague, glancing interest in poetry should own this book.
The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, by Colin McEvedy
I love maps. When I open a new fantasy novel, I spent ages just poring over the map before I even being writing. The New Penguin Atlas series is the best I’ve ever found. The genius is that every page has the same map, but with the borders redrawn to correspond to the relevant date in history. The facing page includes McEvedy’s text, which does a brilliant and witty job boiling down forty or sixty years of history into a few paragraphs. You can use this literally the way you’d use a flip book, flipping the pages and watching empires expands and collapse.
The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt
Let’s be clear right out of the gate that this novel has nothing to do with the movie starring Tom Cruise. It’s about a brilliant but slightly unhinged single mother raising a super-genius child by herself in London. She’s concerned about the lack of male role models in her son’s life, and so she shows him Kurosawa’s classic film Seven Samurai every day, hoping he’ll learn the right life lessons. The book is a coming of age tale and a quest novel all rolled into one, as the boy sets out on a search for his real father, and for someone worthy of the role.
Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson
I have a four year old, and I’ve been reading him books from this series since he was two and a half. Jansson wrote them over half a century ago, but they’re still among the best chapter books out there—filled with unforgettable characters (the Muskrat, the Hemulen, the Groke!) and unexpected incident. Also, unlike some children’s literature, they’re a real pleasure for adults to read as well. I have a good friend who reads one book from the series every year for his entire life.
I’d add more, but in the time I was writing this, Brandon Sanderson just produced another novella, so I need to get back to the fantasy!
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