Look! I read things other than fantasy novels, I swear!

December 12, 2013

Don’t believe me, it’s okay.  Totally fair.  But I promise you, I do sometimes wander off and read something without dragons in it.

Below is an incomplete list of non-fantasy books I’ve read and liked in the past 2 years or so, and I’ve got reviews of the bolded ones below.  Some are sci-fi or dystopic, and I consider those non-fantasy, so I am sorry in advance.  If there’s one on the list that I don’t review but you’d like me to, please tell me!  I tried to review a variety so it didn’t turn into “here’s my favorite dystopian fiction,” but perhaps that should be my next set of reviews.

In the order particular to my brain when I ask it, “Brain, what non-fantasy books have we read recently and enjoyed?”, I present…

The Long Walk by Stephen King
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall 
 The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Children of Men by PD James
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Bridget Jones’ Diary  by Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Winter of the World by Ken Follett 
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
-Read if: you’re a runner in any definition of the word; you like exercise science
-Don’t read if: you want to punch barefoot runners in the face

On recommendation from another runner, and incredibly fascinating.  Part science, part personal travelogue, part weird history of ultrarunning (peeps who run like 50, 100 mile races across deserts and up and down mountains), the author knows what he’s doing and you never lose interest.  The book revolves around the author’s investigation of the Tarahumara, an indigenous people from Mexico, who seem to be basically built to run, and a race set up between them and the big deal ultrarunners from the States.  McDougall is a crazy good writer, throwing really complicated concepts at you in digestible language, and manages to hold suspense for this race throughout the whole book.

The author is definitely very pro-barefoot running, and I know this is a polarizing topic, so if you really can’t stand the barefoot soapbox, maybe don’t pick this up, or skip the chapter where he’s advocating for it hardcore.  The book also might be harder to get through if you genuinely hate running.  However, I’d recommend this even if you’re not a runner, and if you are, oh my God read it now. Especially read it if you need running motivation, because any time you finish a chapter of this book you’re like I CAN DO ANYTHING LET’S GOOOO.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Read if – you like crime/suspense; you like really flawed, unreliable narrators
Don’t read if – you need to have faith in humanity after you’re done; you don’t have a block of 3-4 hours to knock this one out in one sitting

Finally jumped on the bandwagon, and this book was cray-cray.  Crime/literature, the book is about a woman who disappears on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and it doesn’t look good for her husband.  Two narrators, the husband and wife, both unreliable.  Flynn is incredible about changing the voices, and I was super impressed at her ability to both flawlessly transition from narrator to narrator, and to give both narrators unique voices.

If you’re in a rough place about the quality of the world and the people in it, maybe don’t pick this up right now.  I say this because I had to put this down every page or so and reread something just so I could say “yep, people are apparently all sociopaths.  Like, all of them.  Literally everyone is the worst.”  With that said, I still very much enjoyed it, and the author has considerable skill keeping the suspense going the whole time, to the extent that it’s very difficult to put this book down.  Block out the time and read it. Worth the time, for sure.   

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Read if – you’re a non-sci-fi person who wants to try sci-fi; you enjoy having feelings
Don’t read if – you’re not willing to have your life absolutely ruined by a book

Oh my God, read this book. It takes place in a relatively current England, and is in a sort of parallel world where clones are real, and they exist for the purpose of farming them for organs.  They do not live past young adulthood, and die (or “complete,” as the novel calls it) after a series of “donations.”  The novel is from the point of view of one of the clones, who is currently serving as a “carer,” or a clone whose job it is to calm her fellow clones before they donate.  She covers her life up to the current day.  The science fiction aspect of it is the clones, but it’s just straight literature after that: this is a novel about growing up when you don’t actually get a chance to grow up.

I’m going to warn you now that this is not a happy book.  I was a mess for about three days after reading it.  However, if you are willing to invest your time and emotions, it will tear your heart out in the best way, and you will be left thinking about the book for weeks after you put it down.  Honestly, it’s really NOT science fiction, it’s not science-y in the least, it is about love and people and how we value both.  Read it.

World War Z by Max Brooks
Read if: you like the concept of a collected oral history; you’re a zombie fan
Don’t read if: you really can’t get past the whole zombie thing; you can’t handle unfinished stories; you’re expecting it to be like the movie

Guys, I hate zombies.  Hate hate hate, will not watch things.  They terrify me enormously, and I don’t understand how people think they are cool (they’re your friends and family and they’re dead but also alive and they’re gross and they make scary noises and AHHH).

Keep that in mind when I say: I LOVED this book.  I’ve reread it twice.  It’s simply fascinating.  The author goes around interviewing survivors of the Zombie War from all walks of life and all parts of the world: doctors, soldiers, housewives who became soldiers, government representatives, even an astronaut.  He’s very good at crafting each person as an individual with a backstory and a unique voice, and he covers basically the entire world: China, Russia, India, Israel, South Africa and the States definitely get prominence, but he goes almost everywhere.  This feels at all times in the book like an event that really happened, and the author is fantastic about keeping his facts straight while also telling individual stories.  Yes, I was scared at times reading it, but it’s just SO GOOD that I kept going.

If you watched the movie and think you might want to pick this book up: they’re not the same at all.  I mean, still do it, but there’s no Brad Pitt and the zombies aren’t fast.  The one hangup critics have of this book is that each person gets like 10-15 pages max to tell their story, and for some of them, you really, really want more, but that’s it.  The book also states in its intro that “you can go to any library and read a comprehensive study of the Zombie War,” but obviously you can’t, and I really wish it existed because I got so curious about everything!  Oh well.  Read this anyway it’s the bestest and you know that’s the truth because I am a Wimpy McWimperson NoThankYouZombies-type person.

The MaddAddam books (3) by Margaret Atwood
Read if: you loved The Handmaid’s Tale, you like dystopias that feel like they could happen, you’re really into environmental advocacy versions of Catholic hymns (stick with me here)
Don’t read if: you need to not be sad at the end of these, you need to like all the male characters

Guys.  These books, I caaaaan’t.  So good.  There are three: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam.  The first book starts off after some terrible event has left Snowman, our narrator, alone with some human-like creatures, thinking he’s the last of his kind.  He narrates his life up to that point, with a specific emphasis on his friend Crake.  Book two has two new narrators covering the same period of time while in an environmental religious fringe group, and book three uses one of those narrators to continue the story.

If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you know how good Atwood is at dystopias, or what she calls “speculative fiction.”  There’s a bit of sci-fi here, but her craft is to make this feel like it might/could/will happen.  For example, there are lots of weirdly named products and companies in this world (AnooYoo [“a new you”] is the name of a spa, for example), and at first I thought they were ridiculous and unrealistic…until I realized I order Frappuccinos and don’t think anything of it.  This stuff is real.  She does a good job giving her different characters unique voices, and even plays around with first and third person narration.

In case you haven’t noticed, I seem to like “cry forever after you finish this” as a book genre, and this is no exception: these are not happy books, but they make you think so hard you almost forget you’re sad.  I’d have to say I enjoyed the second and third books more than the first, and I think this is because Atwood (like many authors) writes characters of her own gender better, so you end up vaguely disgusted with Snowman at points.  If you can get past this, the series is just so well crafted I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The third book recently came out so go start and finish now and then talk to me when you do.

Winter of the World by Ken Follett
Read if: you like well-researched historical fiction; someone recommended Pillars of the Earth to you but you just didn’t care about that stupid church
Don’t read if: thousand-page monster books are not your deal; you need POCs in your history books; you don’t like switching narrators

This book is the second of a yet-uncompleted trilogy called The Century Trilogy, and it is written by the author of both Pillars of the Earth and World Without End.  All of these books are similar in structure: sprawling epics that cover real history through the eyes of some of the little people.  The first book in this trilogy is called Fall of Giants, and it starts, understandably, just at the turn of the 20th century.  The book has characters in Wales, England, Russia, Germany, and the United States, and the series has covered both world wars thus far.

I really, really like these books.  I truly enjoyed Follett’s Middle Ages historical fiction, and if you did as well, you will love these books.  For me, the medieval stuff was freaking fascinating, but I am a weird loser who liked hearing about the sinking of the White Ship and learning about the Black Death: in case you haven’t noticed I have a pattern of loving sad things with swords and poor hygiene. There are plenty of people who couldn’t get into it.  If you’re at all interested in the time periods he covers, and want to learn about the causes of wars outside of the acronyms we’re taught in high school history classes, get at these two: they’re SO good.  His descriptions of the Russian revolution and the Spanish Civil War are particularly heart-wrenching and great.

I will acknowledge that these are white people books, for sure.  There are certainly some people of color, especially in the second book, but none of his narrators are non-white.  Other than that, he does do an excellent job of allowing those without privilege (especially in their time periods) to tell their stories, including poor women, the disabled, single mothers, victims of abuse, gay men, and Jews.  This is not some “oh my gosh everything back then was just cuter and happier and better”: this is some serious, heavy, things-were-awful stuff.  He does switch narrators frequently, so you can get confused if you’re not keeping track of the characters, but to Follett’s credit, he doesn’t usually end on cliffhangers when he switches: it feels like the right time.  Just read these: they’ll make you learn and feel all the feelings at the same time.

If you have recommendations for me, do it up in the comments!

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