My Year in Reading: Fifteen Favorites

I read a lot and 2015 was no exception. I read almost exclusive on a device these days, most often through the Kindle app on my ipad mini. As a retrospective, I went through my Amazon account and made a list of my favorite books I read this year.

Note, these are not all new books published this year. Nor are they my favorite books of all time or the books I would most recommend. They are simply books I read this year that I really enjoyed.

Fiction:

10. Summer Confessions

Summer Confessions shows how broad my reading interest are. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, but I love a good lesbian romance once in awhile. Summer Confessions is that, but more.

Growing up in a small conservative town, Macy Diaz doesn’t intend to come out of the closet until she leaves for college. But when she falls for Rachel, all bets are off. Their budding relationship is threatened by Rachel’s sister, who has a jealous crush on Macy.

9. Ancillary Justice

By Anne Leckie, who was one of our guests of honor at ICON this year, Ancillary Justice has won a ton of awards including a hugo.

Ancillary Justice is a classic sci-fi tale set in a distant world where the Radchai systematically invade and “civilized” new worlds. Told from the point of a sentient AI, the book twists and turns itself from plot twist to plot twist.

8. Widdershins

Who can resist a gay paranormal romance with a steampunk feel? Not me, that’s for sure. Widdershins is the first novel in a series set in the town of that name. Bookish young man meets dashing private detective and save the world from destruction by things from beyond. Good stuff. Good stuff.

7. Deadland Rising

Rachel Aukes finished her Deadland trilogy this year and it was a good strong finish. The zombie apocalypse has decimated mankind, but the few survivors struggle to hold on to humanity, especially after the discover a plot to sacrifice most of humanity in an effort to wipe out the remaining horde. It’s a great saga all around.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale

I love the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s so tight, so crisp in it’s reading. It sucks you into the world of the narrator. The dystopian world of the Handmaid’s Tale is so frighteningly believable, you could almost feel like we are living out the prequel to that story today.

The Handmaid’s Tale would probably be higher on this list, but this isn’t the first time I’ve read it, so I decided to push it down a bit. It’s still one of my all time favorites and it does hold up well for rereading.

5. Lucifer’s Hammer

I picked this up early in the year, as an antidote to one too many YA dystopians. Lucifer’s Hammer, a classic and far more adult dystopia did not disappoint in the slightest. When a comet strikes the earth, everyone’s life is upended. Told through multiple points of view, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle tell a riveting tale of survival against the odds.

4. No Haven Beckons.

I picked up volume one We Feared to Fly on bargain sale this year. I’ve now read book two and plan to pick up the rest of the series, once I get my tbr pile under some sort of control. The series retells the tale of the Musketeers. It’s familiar, in parts, but the author adds wonderful layers of grittiness and historical realism to a fun, intriguing tale. The black death, which ravage France during that time period grounds the reader in why the political intrigue is going on and what motivates many of the characters. D’Artagnan is a flagellant, and his self abuse, it’s psychological and religious reasons are all explained remarkably well.

3. There is No Lovely End

I met Patty Templeton and picked up her novel There is No Lovely End at ICON this year. It’s an incredible read, a fast paced novel set in the eighteen hundreds and retelling the story of Sarah Winchester.

Hester Garlan, psychic medium and all around scoundrel and her illegitimate and quickly abandoned son, Nathan Garlan have become a couple of my favorite characters ever. A dark super natural tale, There is No Lovely End is fast paced and fun to read.

2. Game of Thrones

I am grouping the entire series together because I read them all back to back and frankly, I can’t remember which book was which. It’s a long engrossing tale worthy of the time it takes to plow through. Great world building, lots of intrigue and plot twists, all the things that fantasy readers demand in a good series.

1. The Parable of the Sower

I’ve read and loved a number of Octavia Butler books over the years. I am not sure how I missed the Parable of the Sower before now, but it’s my favorite so far. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, its a dark dystopian world, but one that seems frighteningly possible. The economy and the environment are both in a free fall. Those with jobs and money live behind walls in armored communities. Street people fight and die for survival every day. And endless stream of refugees are on the road, looking for anywhere that’s better than here. Here is California.

Despite it’s darkness, the Parable of the Sower is about hope. God is change, or so Lauren Olamina decides. Resisting change is pointless. Instead we must be willing to let it change us, transform us into what we need to become to survive. When her enclave is over ran, Lauren must take the survivors, and her new ideas on religion, on the road.

Octavia Butler is one of those writers I wish more people knew about. And this is one of her best works by far.

Non-fiction

I didn’t read nearly as much nonfiction this year, so I will list only the top five. Most of them pertain to my passion, writing.

5. Your first 1,000 copies.

Is an indispensable guide to being an indie author. I recommend it highly.

4. Love Plots

Gave me the courage to try writing a romance novel. It’s still in beta stages, but I think I might have a new genre to write.

3. Think like a Publisher

When it comes to writing Dean Wesley Smith has cred oozing out everywhere. He was a successful traditionally published author for years, ran a small publishing house, returned to writing and recently made the transition to indie. He’s seen it all and he’s happy to dish what he knows.

2. For Love or Money

Susan Kaye Quinn teaches how to balance writing for the love of it, and writing for money in a seamless sort of way. She shares her insights in this book. Projects written for the love of it, and those written for money need to be approached differently. There is no judgement in this book either, you can do either or both. There is no shame in writing in a popular genre to earn a living, or in writing something you love that you know will never lead to financial success. The trick is to make peace with whichever path you choose.

1. Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers

I re-read this book as research for a nonfiction book I am working on. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s about brewing, but its written in such a marvelous way that it’s about a hundred other things, too. Stephen Buhner knows his stuff. He’s studied brewing in traditional cultures around the world, herbal medicine and science. He blends it all together in amazing ways. Each chapter covers an herb used in brewing, telling the story of its history and use, but also folklore surrounding it, modern medical discoveries and much more. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself so entertained by what, in the hand of other writers, should be a dry topic.

A huge honorable mention goes out to the Des Moines Writers Workshop. I’ve been working with this critique group for more than three years now. It’s been an amazing experience. My one big complaint is this, there are so many great stories that should be on this list, and will be, once they get published.

The Soundtrack for Bear Naked 3

A long time back now I posted about the music I was listening to while writing the first Bear Naked book. It proved a popular post so I repeated the post. For this weeks Bear Naked 3 teaser, I am reposting this, the soundtrack for Bear Naked 3: The Hunted.

I listen to music a lot when I write. Most of the time it’s simply to drown out distractions, what I am listening to isn’t that important. But music can also help set the mood, and I will find myself listening to the same albums and artist over and over through some novels, only to switch when I start a new project.

The entire Bear Naked series has a folksy feel to it for me. Not surprisingly, Turn of the Wheel by Tempest remains at the top of my play list as I wrote The Hunted. Tempest is a celtic rock band with a very unique sound. It fits the feel of the neo-pagans in Bear Naked, Uncle Darren and his whole family.

Bear Naked 3 finds Uncle Darren missing somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Amanda and her pack have to find him. It’s Skinwalker territory and these Native American cousins to the werewolves aren’t always on the best terms. The Skinwalker’s relation with other tribes is complicated by Native American history and they are suspicious of outsiders like the Leidulfs.

One of my favorite Native American artists, Robbie Robertson climbs to the number two spot on my playlist for Bear Naked 3. Music for the Native Americans by Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble is the album that plays the most while I write.

Coyote Grace has an incredibly folksy feel and they continue to be among my most listened to artists, especially Boxes and Bags. I can almost imagine my characters listening along as they hike through the mountains.

I used to refer to the Irish band Clannad as “the most famous band no one’s heard of.” Irish music buffs know the name, but outside that group you will mostly get blank stares. But their music is everywhere. From movies like Harry’s Game and Last of the Mohicans to TV shows and commercials, everyone has heard their music. Listening to their greatest hits you’ll see why. Their music is powerfully evocative.

I have an eclectic collection of music with over a hundred albums on my laptop and two or three times that on my CD shelf, slowly accumulated over the years. It ranges for Bjork to the Best of Bollywood, with a fair amount of classic rock, pop and folk music. My listening tastes change with my mood and I could list a lot more albums, but these are the ones that seem most connected to Bear Naked 3.

Fellow writers, do your listening habits change with your writing? Are their particular songs that seem to go with certain novels?

Readers, do you like hearing about the music I am listening to? Does it add to or take away from the reading experience?

10 signs you just binge read the Game of Thrones

I just finished reading the final book in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. It’s one of those highly immersive series, where you get sucked into the world. It affects how you see the world for weeks after. Here are my top ten signs that you’ve just binge read all five Game of Thrones books.

It’s Songs of Fire and Ice, you stupid TV watching cretins

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but we literary types can be snobs. Like insisting that the book series was really named Songs of Fire and Ice, not Game of Thrones.

Phrases like “mayhaps” and “ever so” have suddenly become part of your vocabulary.

Initially some of the archaic language and made up medieval language bothered me. You might even say I had my smallclothes in a bunch over it. But by book two it starts to roll off your tongue easily and by book five, you find yourself using it in daily life. As in “Mayhaps we will have pizza tonight. That would be ever so tasty.”

You are craving stew served in a trencher, even though you have no clue what a trencher is.

A trenchers were rounds of flat bread that were used as plates and then eaten afterwards, the medieval forerunner of the bread bowl. And yes, that does sound pretty tasty. The less tasty aspect? Trenchers were generally served with stews to soften stale, dried breads. Hardly the grossest thing in the Game of Thrones world, but I personally prefer my bread fresh.

 

Wait, pease porridge is a real thing?

They eat pease porridge frequently in the series. All most of us know about pease porridge is the old children’s rhyme;

pease porridge, hot,

pease porridge cold,

pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.

A common recipe in medieval Europe, pease porridge is a thick stew made from dried peas, not unlike split pea soup. It was often left to congeal overnight and then eaten cold in the morning. In some cases a large pot was left to warm by the edge of the fire as a quick any time meal. More was added to the stew as needed and it was quite possible that some of the ingredients had indeed been in the pot nine days by the time they got eaten.

When your spouse asks you to do a chore you reply, “Valar Dohaeris.”

Valar Morghulis, “All men die” and Valar Dohaeris, “All men must serve” are sayings from old Valyrian. Both are heavy with meaning both in the series and without. Valar Morghulis however is harder to work into everyday conversations.

You call poison control to ask if there is reliable antidote to Tears of Lys.

My day job is working as a nurse. The first indication I had that I had become too entrenched in the world of Game of Thrones came at work. There was a note on a patients chart about contacting poison control. It took several minutes trying to figure out who would try to poison them before I realized it was about an overdose attempt. Oh, right, people don’t generally poison each other in real life.

When you see an eleven year old girl walking down the street, you cross to the other side. (It might be Arya Stark.)

Arya Stark is a pretty bad ass character, until you stop to consider the fact that she’s an eleven year old girl. And she’s killed how many people? Yikes.

All your other fannish friends are saying things like: “I wish I could go to Hogwarts.” “I wish a blue telephone box would materialize right here.” You just look at them and think, “nope, I’m fine with this world, thank you very much.”

Most fans would love to live inside the world of their favorite series. I don’t blame them, but the world of Game of Thrones is way too bloody for that. Life is cheap and characters die unexpectedly throughout the books. If you are a noble, your life is in constant danger. If you are smallfolk it’s even worse. No thanks, I’ll pass.

Two missionaries knock on your door. You demand, “Can your god protect us when the cold winds blow and snows are ten feet deep, when the others come and the dead walk? I think not. Winter is coming.”

Just a few short weeks ago you thought all those fanboys and fangirls complaining about the slow progress on book six were being whiny brats. Now you feel their pain. Come on, George, hurry up already!

Most importantly though, if you binge read the saga you will have the satisfaction of knowing what a great bunch of books they are. Enjoy.

What Makes a Great Sci-fi/Fantasy Story?

I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?

I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.

Lush World Building

I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.

I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.

In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.

Mythic Storytelling

An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.

To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.

I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?

Challenging Assumptions

What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.

There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.

Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”

Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.

On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.

Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.

It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.

 

Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.

 

Five Fantasy Stories to Read to your Kids

The best way to teach your kids to love books is to read to them. Here is my top five books to read to your kids. Some of them are well known classics and some are ones I’ve discovered at the back of library book sales. I’ve read all of them and I’ve read them to my son.


1. Watership Down
I have to admit that when I went to read this book to my son I hadn’t read it. I had no clue what an incredible experience we were both in for. Watership Down tells the story of a group of rabbits fleeing from a warren that has been destroyed by man. They are seeking a new home on Watership Down.
Make no mistake, this is no simplistic animal story, like so many kids books. The rabbits tell their own stories within the larger story. Their stories have a strong mythic feel to them.

2. The Hobbit
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It’s one of my favorite opening lines. I’ve read the hobbit a dozen times or more. Seriously, from junior high to high school I wrote a book report on the Hobbit every single year for nearly six years straight. The sad geeky truth is that I re-read it each time, too. Of course I introduced my son to the Hobbit as soon as he was old enough to understand the words.

3. The Magic Thief
My son actually found this book on his own in elementary school. One of his teachers was reading it aloud, a chapter every friday. He was so entranced and so eager to find out how it ended, that he checked his own copy out of the library. We took turns reading, a page each, and plowed through it over a long weekend.
One of the ongoing jokes in the book is Conn’s terrible cooking skills. One of the wizard’s other henchmen has to take over cooking just to have some bearable food. At the very end of the book there are two recipes for biscuits. We made both. Benet’s biscuits looked like biscuits and tasted great. Conn’s turned into a running pile of dough. Still my son insisted they were just as good and ate the entire batch.

4. The Harry Potter series
I discovered Harry Potter a year or two after it came to America, when it was still mostly a geek phenomena. I read the first three books to my son as I read them and then we had to wait for the next like everyone else.
I have a friend who made her son read them to her. I think that might be better approach. They grow darker and more adult as the series goes on, but if a kid is reading them for themselves, they keep pace pretty well. i.e. an eight year old isn’t going to plow through The Deathly Hallows by themselves, most likely, but if they fall in love with the first one at eight, by the time they hit number seven they’ll probably be ready for it.

5. The Hounds of the Morrigan
Pidge discovers an old Latin book at a rare book seller near the Irish cottage he shares with his Grandmother and little sister, Brigit. Opening the book, he accidentally releases an evil spirit. He and his sister must go on a mythic journey to return the serpent to it’s trapped state. Filled with celtic mythology and figures, the book is a delight to read.
I discovered this little gem by accident at the back of library sale. The spine was damaged and I picked it up for quarter. I loved the story and it became a treasured book. After my son was born, it was one of the first I read to him. We read it again later, when he was old enough to really understand the story.

Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No One Reads

There are books that everyone has heard of, are frequently discussed in various circles and yet almost no one has ever actually read. Here is my list.

1. The Bible


When I was a young person, the Lutheran church gave every kid, upon reaching a certain age, a copy of the Bible. Being an avid reader even then, I plowed through it from start to finish. Chapter upon chapter of so and so begat so and so. All the disjointed stories of the old testament, the list of rules in Leviticus that make almost no sense to the modern reader, you name it. I only recall a fraction of it now, but I read it once upon a time.

It is not my intention to get into a religious debate. But there is something that has always bothered me about a lot of fundamentalists. If you believe this one book is the actual written word of God, shouldn’t you read it? But in many churches, this is not how it’s done. Instead “Bible Study” is largely learning a few choice phrases out of context and very little actual reading of whole books in context.

And yes, I know, a lot of people have read the Bible. Still it belongs on this list because the number of people who have read it pales to the number of people who claim it as the holy testament of their religion.

2. The Big Book


Sometimes called the blue book or even the big blue book (not the one you find car prices in) because the dominant cover is a light blue. Written in 1939 by Bill W. one of the founders of AA, the Big Book is a long rambling testament, laying out the twelve steps, peppered with lots and lots of anecdotes about people who have been helped by them.

As AA has grown to become the predominant treatment for addictions of all kinds, the Big Book has undergone many editions and printings. It is handed out in meetings, sold in bookstores and passed from hand to hand by many people.

The quintessential symbol of what the Big Book has become was a recent TMZ photo of actress Lindsay Lohan entering a nightclub clutching the Big Book, as though it were a talisman to prevent relapse. Perhaps her recovery would have gone better if she had stayed home and actually read the damn thing.

I work in mental health and our unit always has a half dozen copies of the big book floating around. One night I got curious enough to crack the Big Book and see what it’s all about. And I have to say, I tend to agree with the non-readers on this one. It’s long. It rambles. The twelve steps are pretty well known by now, and explained more concisely in other books. The Big Book remains important as a testament to the history of the movement.

3. The Constitution


The Constitution of the United States of America is not really a book. I include it in this list because it shares so much in common with the first two books on the list. It’s often held up as a symbolic emblem by people who haven’t read it and are often arguing against it.

I won’t open an ugly can of worms by discussing politics here. However, in my school days every student had to read the Constitution and at least attempt to understand it. Judging from the state of politics today, I doubt many people have done either.

4. Atlas Shrugged


Love it or hate it, Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged in one of the most important works of the twentieth century. A large chunk of the Neo-libertarian Republicans in politics today swear by Ayn Rand’s philosophical world view.

If you want to appear intellectual and hip among that crowd, you must have a passing familiarity with Atlas Shrugged. But if you try to engage such people in debate you will find that it often ends at a passing familiarity.

Honestly I am not a fan of either the philosophy or the book. Judging the book solely on its literary merits, it’s long, dense and stilted. The characters are flat and spend most of their time espousing Ayn Rand’s philosophy rather than interacting with each other. I tend to agree with reviewer Dorothy Parker, who said, “This is not a novel tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And all the pseudo-intellectuals that quote Ayn Rand should be forced to read her entire collection for themselves.

5. Anything by James Joyce


“For this, O Dearly Beloved, is the genuine Christinne: body, and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, Gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.”

James Joyce is the great grandmaster of the modern novel. Stream of consciousness? He practically invented it. He revolutionized novel structure. He wrote in his own Irish accent and voice, and in doing so championed a new literary form. His work is some of the most scrutinized and studied in all of literature.

The literary snobs of the world will sneer their contempt at anyone who suggests that they would prefer to read something, well, a little more readable than most Joyce. Which probably explains why literary aficionados everywhere tend to agree with the snobs, mutter an apology for not having “gotten around” to Joyce and quickly change the subject.

6. War and Peace


Tolstoy’s great masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is a giant of a book. Everyone knows its a masterpiece and one of those books you ought to read. But they never seem to get around to it, put off by the size of the book or the long Russian names.

It’s too bad, because it really is one of my favourites. How I finally got around the size of the book was to realize, it’s not any longer than many of the fantasy series I read regularly. If you have read all seven of the Harry Potter books you’ve devoured more pages than War and Peace. So grab a copy and get cracking.

7. The Communist Manifesto


Karl Marx’s short little book, The Communist Manifesto belongs on this list because it’s influence far out reaches it readership. It has spawned revolutions, been the primary influence on numerous communist, socialist and marxist governments. But how many people have actually read the manifesto?

8. The Tao Te Ching


The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese classic, penned by the sage Lao Tsu. The book is second to only the Bible in terms of the numbers of language it’s been translated into. It has been enormously influential in the east. It has been seeping into western thought since it’s translation in the mid eighteen hundreds.

Carl Jung was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. Many of the new agers, from Wayne Dyer to The Secret, will quote freely from the Tao Te Ching.

But reading the book is another story. It’s an ancient spiritual text and it tends to be dense and obscure at times, not what you would call light reading. Which explains why so many people talk about it, own it, but few have actually read it.

That’s my list. What books would you add?

Ten Adult Dystopian novels now that you’ve read Hunger Games

Now that you’ve read the Hunger Games, Divergent and a slew of other YA dystopias, including one titled Dystopia, where do you go next? Dystopian novels are nothing new. Long before Suzzane Collins brought them to the YA genre, writers were exploring dystopian worlds in literature, science fiction and fantasy. Here are my favorites.

What makes a novel Dystopian?

Before we begin the list, what makes something dystopian? I will give my answer in two parts. First, what makes a society dystopian and then what makes a novel dystopian.

What’s a dystopian society?

Dystopia, at its simplest definition, is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a perfect society, so a dystopia must be a terrible society. But that’s pretty vague. I prefer to define a dystopia as a dysfunctional society.

Some families or groups look and act crazy, but function fairly well together. Others act normal but are loaded with dysfunction once you get inside. So what makes a group dysfunctional? A common litmus test that sociologists and psychologisst use is the Über rule. The űber rule is; you can’t question the rules.

Every group has certain rules and expectations. Ideally these rules were established for a reason. Members understand why the rule is there, when it was instituted and how. There is a protocol in place for discussing and changing rules as the situation changes.

But when the űber rule is in place, you aren’t allowed to question the rules. The reason the rules are in place are hidden or forgotten. Any attempt to discuss the rules or change them is an act of treason against the group.

For example, the United States might act a little crazy at times but we all know how the laws are made, how they can be changed and we are free to discuss what changes we might want to make, so it’s not a true dystopia. Of course you can argue that there’s corruption in how laws are made, unequal enforcement, etc. and we are times, pretty dysfunctional. But it’s still short of a true dystopia.

In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, laws were made by a small group who didn’t have to explain how or why they choose those laws. Any attempt to question the regime was harshly dealt with. It does qualify as a dystopian society.

So what makes a novel dystopian?

I have two simple criteria. The dominant group in the novel must be dysfunctional to the point of being dystopian. The group’s dysfunction must drive the novel.

A lot the novels that you find on the average listopia don’t really qualify as dystopian to me. By the same token there are a lot of good novels that should be considered dystopian but aren’t.

I don’t have any zombie or apocalypse novels on this list, because the dysfunctional society, if it exists, doesn’t drive the story. It’s a side effect of the apocalypse. Most epic fantasies don’t qualify either, because they tend to be about stopping the totalitarian regime (AKA evil wizard) from taking over. A true dystopian novel is about the character’s struggles living within a dystopian society.

Here are my top ten picks for adult dystopian novels.

 

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

When a conservative Christian group takes over the United States, the Republic of Gilead is formed. Marketplaces now features pictures since women aren’t allowed to read. Facing declining fertility they begin to employ handmaids, to let the ruling caste procreate. In order to avoid the idea that this is adultery, the handmaid must lay under the sheets while the man stares at his wife.

Told from the point of a view of a handmaid, there is no doubt the novel is both dystopian and adult. It’s very well written.

2. Make Room! Make Room! (AKA Soylent Green) by Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel about an overcrowded urban society facing food and space shortages, became the inspiration for 1973 movie, Soylent Green. It’s a great dark dystopian novel. Fans of the film beware, Make Room! Make Room! doesn’t include cannibalism.

3. Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool tells the story of a future where the world has been blighted and unlivable. Survivors live in underground silos. What really makes Wool a true dystopian is that the survivors don’t even remember what happened to make it that way, and even thinking of outside is a criminal offense punishable by death.

4. The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert had a thing about survival of the fittest. It shows up frequently in his works. The Fremen of Dune are tough because they’ve spent generations in one of the toughest environments ever, the planet Arakis. Arakis, however, can’t hold a candle to Dosadi. The novel is set in the Whipping Star series, though it’s easy to read as a stand alone novel. Aliens have conspired to keep a small group of aliens and humans trapped on a toxic planet, until the survivors have become so strong they now fear to let them out.

5. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


Snow Crash is a classic cyberpunk novel but it also qualifies as dystopian in my opinion. The government has more or less ceased to function and sovereign corporations have moved into the power vacuum. The result is a byzantine world of sovereign corporations that is well described.

I have always admired Stephenson’s gutsy writing style, but never more than his decision to make his hero a half-Japanese American named Hiro. Hiro is a hacker turned pizza delivery guy who is drawn into a friendship with a young skateboard courier named YT. The two of them must work together to uncover the secret of Snow Crash, a computer virus that can infect hackers brains.

6. 1984 by George Orwell

Published in 1959, when the title date seemed far in the future, 1984 is a dystopian classic. It’s so old school that most 1984 fans still think old school is a popular catchphrase. Even so, it’s a must read, especially if you have ever wondered where terms like thought police, big brother and double speak come from. It’s a world that is so fucked up and dystopian that after the main characters is caught and re-educated for his thought crimes, they leave him alive until he is so brainwashed that he agrees with his sentence and volunteers for death.

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

One of Bradbury’s classic novels, Fahrenheit 451 is an allusion to temperature at which a book will ignite and burn. The novel tells of a world where knowledge is censored and books are all banned. Guy Montag is a fireman. It’s his job to find and destroy books. That is until he is sucked into a secret society that strives to save literature by memorizing books whole.

8. Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Life under the dome is perfect, except for one small fact. To conserve resources everyone must die at thirty. That doesn’t seem like much of a problem when you are in your early twenties, and as you near thirty, well that’s what the Sandmen are for, to make sure no one runs.

9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. His style is dark and cynical, and several of his novels show up frequently on listopia and elsewhere as dystopian novels. Most of those novels don’t make my cut. Titles like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are unrelentingly dark, but the societies are not true dystopias. But Player Piano is different. The society is one where machines are rapidly replacing humans in virtually all jobs, creating a new lower caste of unemployed or barely employable men. Strikes a little too close to home at times.

10. The sword of truth series by Terry Goodkind

I have left almost the entire fantasy genre off this list for one simple reason. Most epic fantasies are about the struggle of good and evil. The evil is the threat, a wizard, lord or ruler that is trying to take over the land. While that can make a great story, its not a dystopia. A dystopian novel must be driven by the characters reaction to living within a dystopian society. The Sword of Truth series is one of the few that meets that requirement.

My Shameless Promotion:

I’ve dabbled in post-apocalypse and have one book out that could be defined as dystopian. In Children of a New Earth, Amy Beland has been raised on Freedom Ranch, deep in the Rocky Mountains in the years after the collapse. The ranch is run by white supremacist. They don’t allow much discussion or input in decision making and they’ve lied to the younger generation about why the collapse has even happened, making it a pretty clear dystopian society. You can download a copy from Amazon:

Children of a new earth, front

 

Six Books that Prove Book Banners don’t Read

My last post, banned books I have loved, featured ten books that are often banned or challenged by conservatives. I told the story in that post of another book I was reading when book banning first entered my life. It was far more suggestive and sexual than what the ones they were seeking to ban, causing me to opine that conservatives must not read much.

So here is my list of books that to my knowledge have never been challenged or banned, but if conservatives actually read they might be.
1. The Heaven Makers by Frank Herbert

This is the book I was reading when my school was trying to ban Romeo and Juliet from the library. What I am going to say about the Heaven Makers is true of hundreds, if not thousands, of other books. There is sex in it. Not a lot, but as much as Romeo and Juliet, or a dozen other books that have been banned for sexual content. Conservatives don’t seem to get themselves into a book banning fever over sex in the average genre novel.

The point is that the classics often get attacked for relatively minor things that abounded in genre writing.
2. Billy Budd, by Herman Melville

While a Texas school board went after Moby Dick for head scratchingly vague reasons, no one seems to notice that his other great work, Billy Budd is about a homosexual encounter. The language is veiled, but the subtext is there.

Maybe subtext is okay because the conservatives can ignore it. Or maybe they see that as the proper place for any LGBT discussion, in the shadows. Either way it makes no sense to go after Moby Dick but not Billy Budd.

3. Darkover Landfall by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Left Hand of Darkness is frequently challenged for, among other things, presenting the concept of a hermaphroditic race that can become male or female depending on their potential mate. Darkover Landfall does the exact same thing, with Chieiri, with not a peep from conservatives.
4. Odd Girl Out

Again what I have to say about Odd Girl Out could easily be said of anything Ann Bannon, or many of her contemporaries, wrote. Bannon was noted for saying that there was one rule about writing gay novels in the days before stonewall, you could say anything as long as it had an unhappy ending. Unhappy endings aside, Bannon’s work gives us a glimpse into what gay life was like in the fifties.

Odd Girl Out was published in 1957. In 1975 Annie on my Mind was published, and immediately banned for violating the unspoken rule about unhappy endings. My point is that conservatives seem to object to specific LGBT titles that come to their attention, while entire genres of books fly under their radar.
5. The Moon Under Her Feet by Clysta Kinstler

Conservatives get up in arms over the Davinci Code, especially Dan Brown’s suggestion that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene and they might have had children. Little do they realize, that was not Brown’s creation but a long standing, if heretical, belief in many gnostic sects. And someone already wrote the book. The Moon Under Her Feet retells the entire story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. It was published in 1991, beating Brown to the punch by more than twelve years.

6. Every fantasy book ever written

Conservatives want to ban Harry Potter because of stuff and reasons. Magic is treated as normal. There are battles of good and evil. Demons and spirits appear.

You know what, there’s a whole genre of that sort of thing. I can’t even begin to list them. If you don’t like this sort of stuff, fine. If you want to keep your kids away from its evil influence, don’t let them near any library, bookstore or pile of books larger than two, because it’s everywhere. For that matter, don’t let them read the bible either. There’s magic in it, stories of angels and miracles, battles of good and evil.

I guess my conclusion is this, I disagree with banning books on principle. I don’t, however, object to people having strongly held beliefs that are different then mine. But could you please be a little more consistent about those beliefs?

My ten favorite banned books

When I was in high school a local politician riled up a bunch of parents to start a campaign to ban certain books from the school library. The big concern for this group was Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, which depicts teenagers having sex.

At the time I was reading a science fiction book, which I had gotten from the school library, by Frank Herbert. In the book, The Heaven Makers, an alien races manipulates mankinds emotions because they are immortal and easily bored. There was one scene as I recall where these aliens turned the pleasure centers on one of the female characters up and down, just to watch as she spontaneously orgasmed. I told one of my friends, “I don’t think these conservatives have a clue what is actually in most of these books, or they wouldn’t have started with Romeo and Juliet.”

The book banning frenzy didn’t go anywhere. I grew up in a small town filled with strongly Lutheran immigrants, either German or Norwegian. You couldn’t have described them as liberals by any stretch of the imagination but they had two traits that made book banning unlikely. They valued education, a lot. The notion of stopping someone from learning went against the grain. They also had enough common sense to realize that banning a book about a certain subject wasn’t going to make that subject go away. Keeping teens ignorant about sex was not going to stop them from discovering it on their own. In fact, if your daughter was at home reading Romeo and Juliet she was not in the back seat of some boy’s car getting knocked up.

One good thing came out of that incident. I already had a passion for books, but after that I had a passion for banned books specifically. Here are my favorite banned books.

1. All is Quiet on the Western Front


All is Quiet on the Western Front is the granddaddy of modern banned books. It was condemned almost as soon as it was published in Germany for being defeatist and anti-nationalist. During World War II it was banned by many governments, because it’s bleak portrayal of war was too damaging to recruitment efforts.

2. Farenheit 451


Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of censorship and book banning has had its own brushes with banning. When it was first published it was criticized for its language, indeed some schools blacked out the damns and hells from early versions. Personally I can’t help but think it’s an excuse. Anyone interested in banning books is not going to like a book that discusses the consequences of banning books.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale

 


Just as book banners don’t really want a book about banned books, they really don’t like a book that talks about what happens when fundamentalist take over the country. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak dystopian world ruled by religious conservatives where women are less than second class characters.
Fans of the Hunger Games and Divergent might want to check out this classic dystopian tale.

4. Annie on my Mind


Annie on my Mind is a coming out tale written in the mid seventies. While it’s not the first lesbian story to be told by any stretch, what made it the source of wrath for conservatives was that it had a happy ending.

Annie on my Mind was also my first “official” banned book, in that I knew it had been the source of controversy before I read it, and I read it during banned book week.

5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee


Even the textbook version of Native American history today accepts that they were mistreated by white settlers. But in 1970 when this book came out, that was a controversial suggestion. The book was banned or challenged in schools across the country for creating controversy.

6. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Another anti-war book, banned or challenged, frequently for it’s language and sexual content.

Cat’s Cradle, also by Vonnegut, has an equally long history of being challenged and condemned, for mostly the same reasons.

7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 


Mark Twain’s classic has been challenged throughout it’s history. Dealing frankly with race and slavery made it an instant target for conservatives in it’s day. Ironically now it’s more often liberals, offended by the language of the times, that challenge the book.

8. The Color Purple


Why get bent out of shape over graphic depictions of racism, or open depictions of LGBT characters when you can have both? The Color Purple has everything a good book banning needs. Alice Walker challenges racial stereotypes, gender, sexism and sexuality in this book.

9. Moby Dick


This book was banned in Texas back in the nineties, in a case that has the American Library Association scratching it’s head. Why was it banned? Apparently it “conflicts with the community values.” It’s a great novel and worthy of reading, banned or not.

10. Harry Potter


The entire Harry Potter series is one of the more popular challenged books of our generation. I discovered Harry Potter long before the book banners had any clue about the boy who lived. My best guess is that they don’t like magic, the muggles.

Bonus Round!

Major geek points if you already knew this.

 

Once upon a time, the prize of banned book collection was a slender volume, La Stratoj De Askelon (The Streets of Ashkelon) by Harry Harrison. The story goes that the short story was so controversial that Harrison couldn’t find an English publisher willing to touch it, so it was first published in the international language of Esperanto.

It tells the story of a missionary attempting to spread Christianity to a group of aliens. The attempt goes horribly awry when the aliens decide to test the crucifixion by stringing up the missionary to see if he would come back to life in three days.

The story was eventually published in English and has been through many anthologies.

 

Margot Adler

I stopped being a Christian when I was sixteen. It was a conscious decision. I was raised in the Lutheran church. My parents insisted that I go through catechism class, at which point they considered me a spiritual adult and I could make up my own mind.

Even at the time I saw a lot of good in the Christian religion. The problem was that I struggled to find a personal connection inside that religion. I wanted, more than anything, to really feel that God was part of my life. I never got that feeling from praying or worshiping in a church.

From the time I was sixteen until I was twenty two, I described myself a spiritual seeker. I read about and practiced many faiths for a time. I meditated with a Zen Buddhist group in Iowa City. I studied Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism, several New Age groups. I learned a great deal from all of them and I had a deep respect for all of them as well. But none gave me a sense of personal connection to the divine. I despaired every finding such a thing in real life.

In 1992 I was working at a summer camp for the disable just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. One weekend between sessions, I went to the public library and stumbled across Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. I read it over the course of the next week. I was struck, forcibly, by a sense that she was talking about people like me. It’s almost cliche in pagan circles, but I felt a sense of homecoming.


The next weekend after the campers and staff left (I was one of the few live in staff) I hiked deep into the back forty. I pondered and prayed over her suggestion, that the divine was originally female. I asked the mother goddess to show herself to me. A sense of presence came over me, the feeling you get when someone walks into a room only many times greater.

Over the years, the Goddess has shown herself to me many times and in many ways. But I attribute a lot of my start in paganism to that one book.

Margot Adler’s soul slipped out of it’s mortal coil yesterday. She was sixty eight and had been battling cancer for more than three years. In addition to being a pagan writer and elder, she had a long successful career as a journalist, working for NPR.

She will be missed by many. May the Goddess welcome her with open arms.