Hi everyone! I’d like to introduce Rachel Neumeier, author of the recently released Black Dog (watch this space for a review soon), as well as The House of Shadows, The Griffin Mage trilogy, The Floating Islands, and The City in the Lake.
I love hearing recommendations from other readers, and today Rachel has a fantastic list of books that might not have gotten the attention they deserve. There’s a few here I’ve not heard of that I have to get my hands on now, and I can tell you she’s not wrong about the books that I have read.
Thanks for inviting me over to Spec Fic Romantic – it’s a pleasure to be here!
I’ve been writing a good many guest posts about Black Dog lately, so this time I’d like to try writing on a topic that’s slightly removed: I’d like to share with you a handful of my favorite books that should be right at the top of your TBR pile, but that you might not have heard of because they are old, or have been “flying under the radar,” or are simply outside your normal reading range.
These days, I think many of us get most of our book recommendations from blogs and Twitter. Certainly I do, especially now that I have a Kindle. One enthusiastic recommendation from a blogger whose taste matches mine, and I may very well just pick the book up immediately. Naturally, following book-review blogs leads to a huge TBR pile and promotes some excellent books, but I suspect it also leads to a concentration of social-media attention, so that a handful of new releases pick up the lion’s share of notice. Often those books are great and deserve every bit of the attention they get, but all too often an equally great title languishes because it didn’t happen to get that initial buzz. And, of course, anything published before the social media Phenomenon is simply out of luck. With all the new, shiny titles hitting the shelves, it’s almost impossible to generate buzz for anything published more than a year ago, much less more than a decade ago.
On the other hand, blogger recommendations can lead you straight to titles or authors you wouldn’t ordinarily try, which is an unmixed blessing.
So, here we go. I think that anyone whose taste runs toward character-driven stories with beautifully drawn settings ought to consider trying the following titles.
1. I thought I’d start with the oldest. How many of you have ever read anything by Rumer Godden?
Godden wrote a whole lot of books from 1936 right up through 1997, an amazing career that ended a trifle in advance of the social media explosion. In This House of Brede was published in 1969. It is not fantasy. It is not adventure. It is not a romance. It is a contemporary novel (not actually contemporary anymore, true, but set in our world).
I read mostly fantasy, with some science fiction, mysteries, and historicals thrown in. I don’t read many contemporary novels. But this one? This one is simply one of the best and most powerful novels I’ve ever read, of any genre.
For those who particularly enjoy YA, Godden’s Thursday’s Children is one you should really look up. Especially if you love dance. I don’t know anything about ballet, but this perfect little novel had me completely enthralled with the story of a gifted boy who tags along with his sister to ballet class. Read it the first time for pure enjoyment and a second time as a character study, because the depth of characterization is amazing.
2. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is a true contemporary published only a year or so ago. This one is a good example of a single blogger recommendation leading to an out-of-the-usual purchase for me. Ana at The Book Smugglers raved about this book, so even though it’s a YA contemporary, I picked it up. It is a very intense book and you should have a box of kleenix handy when you read it – but you should read it. And then go back through and read all the scraps of poetry:
At 4:48 pm on a Friday in April / my sister was rehearsing the role of Juliet / and less than one minute later / she was dead. / To my astonishment, time didn’t stop / with her heart.
This is a story about grief and recovery, but it is also a story that celebrates friendship, family, and love. I think absolutely everyone should have this title right at the top of their TBR pile.
3. I really don’t read many romances, so this next one, a contemporary romance series set in Paris, represents an even greater departure from my normal reading range. In fact, this is another example of a series I tried solely because of a blogger’s review. But, whether romance is your first love or not, you just have to try Laura Florand’s Chocolate mysteries.
The first is The Chocolate Thief, which is light and fun; the series deepens as you go on. My favorite is the third, but all of them are wonderful. Florand can make any character sympathetic; it’s amazing. The poor little rich girl? Yep, sympathetic. Anyone could learn plenty about characterization and using backstory to deepen character from this author. Luckily, she is a fast writer and has brought a good many titles out over just the past couple of years.
4. I do like mysteries and read a fair number of them, but one mystery series that has completely faded from view is the “Dolly” series by Dorothy Dunnett. You’ll also find them referred to as the “Johnson Johnson” mysteries. I think a lot more people have read Dunnett’s fat historicals – which I like a lot – than have even heard of her mysteries. Dunnett wrote these in the seventies, but they’ve all been recently republished under different titles.
I discovered this series when I was just starting to think seriously about writing, and I found Dunnett’s technique fascinating. Every book in this series is told in the first person by a different young woman, but the real protagonist is arguably Johnson Johnson himself – famous painter, owner of the yacht Dolly, and perhaps a bit more than he seems at first glance – whose point of view is never shown to the reader.
5. RA MacAvoy wrote a good handful of fantasy novels in the eighties, of which one of my favorites is Tea With the Black Dragon. This is a wonderful little gem of a novel, with just the most subtle fantasy elements laid into what seems on the surface a straight contemporary. I mean, is Mayland Long really a dragon or isn’t he? (Personally, I’m positive he is.)
Plus, Tea is one of those vanishingly rare stories where the romance involves middle-aged people. How often do you see that, right? I can’t really talk, because most of my protagonists are young, too. But I really enjoy seeing a great story where one of the central characters is an older woman.
6. While on that topic, anybody who hasn’t read Martha Wells is missing out. Her standalone fantasy Wheel of the Infinite is a great story, with wonderful worldbuilding – wonderful everything, actually, but Martha Wells just excels at worldbuilding. This one has a Southeast Asian feel to it. Plus, the main protagonist in Wheel is an older woman who is at the height of her power and basically doesn’t ever need to be afraid of any ordinary threats. How often do you see that in a fantasy novel, right?
Wheel has been out for more than a decade, but Wells’ more recent Raksura trilogy, starting with The Cloud Roads, was only completed in 2012. Again, spectacular worldbuilding, this time of a world that is completely unique among fantasy settings. You trip over an ancient city built on an immense turning platform, or whatever, everywhere you go. The nonhuman shapeshifter protagonists are equally unique; these are not just funny-looking humans who sometimes have wings, but a different species with their own body language and ways of thinking.
Plus, people, let me tell you, you really don’t want to miss the giant zombie sea serpent.
7. I wonder how many people know that Jacqueline Lichtenberg wrote two books as Daniel R Kerns? Hero was first published in 1993 and Border Dispute in 1994, and it’s a crying shame Lichtenberg didn’t go on to write half a dozen more. I don’t know whether to call these books space opera or military SF, but either way, if nonhuman protagonists appeal to you, these slim little novels will make you stand up and cheer. It’s not that there aren’t humans in these books, but the protagonist, Indiw, certainly is not human. His confusion at human behavior is endless, and Commander Falstaff is certainly equally confused by Ardr behavior. I don’t know of anyone who has ever done this kind of culture clash better than Lichtenberg.
8. Speaking of military SF, Tanya Huff’s Valor series is amazing. If military SF doesn’t normally appeal to you, well, pick up Valor’s Choice and see if that doesn’t change your mind at least for this one series. Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is a wonderful protagonist, smoothly handling her superior officers so that she can do her best by her mission and her people. I don’t know what inspired Huff to make the protagonist a sergeant rather than the commander, but it was an excellent choice. Every book stands pretty well on its own, but there’s also plenty of room in this five-book series for another installment, and I sure hope Huff has one in the works.
9. Nick O’Donohoe wrote a handful of widely disparate books in the eighties and nineties, of which the best, if you ever thought you might like to be a veterinarian, is the Crossroads trilogy. The first book, and probably the best, is The Magic and the Healing. If you’d like to know how to repair the horn of a unicorn or diagnose gout in a griffin, this is the series for you. The veterinary medicine is well done (says my vet, who borrowed these books from me), and the actual story is top notch as well. I have a soft spot for The Magic and the Healing, which demonstrated to me the difference between an author declaring a character is smart when she is actually stupid as a post; and the author actually writing a smart character. Obviously, this is book offers an example of the latter. BJ Vaughn is one of the most perceptive characters I can think of, in her quiet way.
The griffin in this book also directly inspired the griffins in my Griffin Mage trilogy. Though O’Donohoe’s griffin is actually nothing at all like mine, he made me fall in love with griffins.
10. I don’t usually read self-published books, but enthusiastic reviews from The Book Smugglers and from Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks made me pick up And All the Stars by Andrea Höst. That one was good enough that I went on to pick up Höst’s Touchstone trilogy. And that was so good it was my top read of 2013 and led me to pick up the rest of Höst’s backlist.
Lovers of romance should particularly look for her Medair duology and And All the Stars, both of which offer stunning plot twists that will leave you absolutely dumbstruck. Everyone should read the Touchstone trilogy, which is a wonderful portal SF story that explores issues of technology and privacy while following the battle of, um, psychic space ninjas against extradimensional monsters. Sort of. Anyway, Cassandra’s voice is wonderful, the slow-burn romance is wonderful, the setting is wonderful, and this trilogy (plus the Gratuitous Epilogue) belongs right at the top of everyone’s TBR pile.
So there you go, ten excellent authors that might not be the subject of a lot of current buzz, but are well worth a look. I hope you’ll look up one or two of them no matter how many new titles you have cluttering up your TBR piles. Enjoy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rachel Neumeier started writing fiction to relax when she was a graduate student and needed a hobby unrelated to her research. Prior to selling her first fantasy novel, she had published only a few articles in venues such as The American Journal of Botany. However, finding that her interests did not lie in research, Rachel left academia and began to let her hobbies take over her life instead.
She now raises and shows dogs, gardens, cooks, and occasionally finds time to read. She works part-time for a tutoring program, though she tutors far more students in Math and Chemistry than in English Composition.