As a former student of literature and all around book-snob, I didn’t get into genre novels until quite recently. Having been only interested in literary fiction and classics, I turned first to genre novels as a way of escaping some of the usual challenges associated with reading books that are… well… challenging. Interested only in a fast-paced good read, I discovered that Genre Fiction is deeper than I’d imagined. I quickly became invested in finding the greatest sci-fi, horror, fantasy and mystery novels I could get my hands on. Here’s my selections from each category.
Favorite Science Fiction Novel: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Solaris was everything I wanted from Science Fiction. It was deceptively simple, mind-expanding, filled with lush visuals, and character-driven. Unlike a lot of Sci-Fi, it’s not bogged down with the impossibly complex inner workings of an interplanetary political or military situation. Its scope is a bit smaller and more human.
Three scientists dwell in isolation in a space station on a strange distant planet called Solaris. Solaris is covered in a semi-sentient ocean, which may or may not be a single organism. Attempts to communicate with the lifeform are unsuccessful until the ocean makes its own attempt at communication, sending phantom clones of individuals from the scientists’ pasts into the station with them – for what purpose? No one can say.
The novel is a claustrophobic, melancholy meditation on memory, grief, and the inability to understand or communicate with that which is other. Truly fascinating and page turning as well.
Second choice: Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune is pretty much the opposite of Solaris. It’s totally bogged down with the inner workings of an imagined world and it’s deeply complex and at times hard to follow. Despite all that, I couldn’t put it down simply because the imagined world is so believable and unbelievably cool. I loved reading my way through the strange world of the Fremen – a desert dwelling people living on the strange and barren planet, Arrakis.
Favorite Horror Novel: The Shining by Stephen King
I wanted to read this book because the movie is one of my all-time favorites. I knew, however, that the Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King did not see eye to eye and that King actually hated Kubrick’s take on the novel. With that in mind, I was curious if I would, as a lover of the movie, have a negative take on the book.
At first this was the case – until I let go of the expectation that the book and movie should be similar. The book is obviously slower paced and more filled with detail. But once I got into I realized that it was terrifying enough that I could only read it in daytime in public spaces.
Close second: The Shining Girls by Laura Beukes
I’m not sure if The Shining Girls has anything more in common with The Shining than a similar title. Except that both feature personified, evil buildings. This is a truly crazy story about a time-travelling serial killer – who kills at the behest of a demonic bungalow. What I love about genre books is how anything is possible within them. This novel definitely takes that to the extreme.
Favorite Fantasy Novel: Harry Potter
Harry Potter might be a bit of an obvious choice. But when it came to fantasy novels I found that most of them were too long, too complicated, and too boring for me to get into. As a kid I loved fantasy novels – but always favored stories like The Wizard of Oz over The Hobbit. Some may love Tolkien and his way of adding magic and strange creatures to what is essentially a retelling of early European history – but I prefer my fantasy to be more fantastical… and whimsical as well.
The Harry Potter series is simply unrivaled in this department. And J.K. Rowling is a truly talented writer. Every other major book franchise that has come in the wake of Harry Potter (The Hunger Games, Twilight, Etc.) has paled in terms of quality of writing. No matter how many times I return to it, I still enjoy it.
Close second: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. It’s hard to compete with a classic like this. It’s strange, trippy, dark, funny, and unapologetically frightening. It’s a kids’ book that works best on adults.
Favorite Mystery Novel: The Maltese Falcon by Dashielle Hammett
The Maltese Falcon is an amazing mystery novel to read for those just starting out in the genre (as I was). That’s because it’s literally the foundation stone of the genre. Sam Spade, the protagonist, will be familiar to just about everyone because he’s the prototypical hard-boiled detective, and has become so influential a character in literature and TV and cinema.
The novel has everything you could possibly want from a good mystery: beautiful dames that seem like trouble, snappy dialogue, plot twists galore, gunshots, and a good deal of homosexual subtext to boot. But you won’t see that in the classic film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart.
Close Second: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
In this book you can see the far-reaching effects of Dashiell Hammett’s influence. Haruki Murakami takes the legacy of the hard boiled detective story and turns it on its head, placing it in the context of modern day Japan. The main character’s cat goes missing and he goes out to find it. I’ve always found this an especially alluring way for a mystery to start. It begins a novel in which the strange and the unreal border on the ordinary and the mundane. Don’t expect everything to get wrapped up neatly at the end. Some mysteries are best left mysterious.