Fiction

Adventure

Book cover The Codex. Douglas Preston, 2003. A tomb-robber now dying of cancer hides his priceless collection of artifacts in a hidden Mayan crypt and challenges his estranged sons to work together to find their inheritance. Reasonably fun, but the scenery is often better drawn than the characters.
Book cover Dirk Pitt series. Clive Cussler, 1973-. A mainstay of adventure fiction, Dirk Pitt and his teammates in the fictionalized National Underwater and Marine Agency have survived more tight spots and dastardly schemes than James Bond and Indiana Jones combined. They're airplane reads, but they're diverting and competently done. The full series is too numerous to list; titles I've read: Sahara (1992), Inca Gold (1994), Treasure of Khan (2006).
Book cover Ethan Gage Adventures. William Dietrich, 2007-. William Dietrich grounds this globe-trotting series with real historic detail. An American expat is wrested from his dilettante life in post-revolutionary France and falls in with Napoleon Bonaparte on his mission of military and scientific conquest. Gage, resourceful but out of his depth, makes for an appealing hero as he finds himself on both sides of every conflict while reluctantly seeking mysterious ancient relics. Dietrich succeeds by keeping things believable, avoiding anachronistic dialogue and wildly implausible ancient technology. The series must be read in order: Napoleon's Pyramids (2007), The Rosetta Key (2008), The Dakota Cipher (2009), The Barbary Pirates (2010), The Emerald Storm (2012), The Barbed Crown (2013), *The Three Emperors (2014), *The Trojan Icon (2016).
Book cover The Frozen Franklin. Sean Hanlon, 1990. Evil Australians kidnap an Alaskan to help them pull off a bizarre scheme in the Canadian Arctic that involves the body of Sir John Franklin. Too goofy to be taken seriously but not funny enough to be humor.
Book cover The Great Zoo of China. Matthew Reilly, 2014.
Book cover The Haunted Mesa. Louis L'Amour, 1987. Based on the Pueblo Indian legend that their ancestors fled a world turned evil, emerging into this dimension from a hole in the ground, this modern-day fantastical adventure was a major departure for L'Amour. Unfortunately it matches an interesting premise with a nearly unreadable execution. The supposed hero spends the majority of the novel wrestling with indecision and rahashing what little plot has been doled out. Add weak world-building and a conclusion involving several characters introduced much too late, and I am forced to dub this the worst book on my list.
Book cover Ice Hunt. James Rollins, 2003. A Fish and Game warden rescues a survivor from a plane crash in the Alaskan bush and an experimental submarine finds a secret base frozen inside an iceberg. Pretty soon a cast of sympathetic heroes and villains is duking it out above and below the ice of the polar sea. Crichton-esque, but with a cast that's not just cannon fodder.
Book cover Jack West, Jr. series. Matthew Reilly, 2006-. An implausibly-prepared commando team races around the globe after ancient artifacts needed to avert astronomical catastrophes. It's far-fetched even for Reilly, who substitutes his usual brilliant stunts with the foiling of ridiculous booby-traps. I keep saying I won't read the next one, but I do anyway. Must be read in order: 7 Deadly Wonders (2006), The 6 Sacred Stones (2008), and The 5 Greatest Warriors (2010).
Book cover The Jester. James Patterson & Andrew Gross, 2003. A historical adventure filled with suspense and military action. A French innkeeper is forced to join the Crusades, deserts only to find his family terrorized by their wicked liege lord, and infiltrates court as a jester to get his revenge.
Book cover Last of the Breed. Louis L'Amour, 1986. A captured Air Force pilot escapes from a Soviet prison camp and must draw on his American Indian heritage to survive in the frigid wilderness and follow the path of his ancestors across Siberia to freedom. L'Amour fleshes out this thrilling journey with a well-drawn cast of Soviet officials and dissidents who hinder and help his quest, but doesn't quite cap an otherwise excellent tale with the most satisfying possible showdown.
Book cover The List of Seven. Mark Frost, 1993. This imaginative "origin story" follows a young Arthur Conan Doyle as he is caught up in a lurid occult conspiracy in Victorian England. Joined by a ratiocinating secret agent, Doyle and his allies battle the supernatural minions of a mysterious cabal of seven. Frost, best known as the co-writer of Twin Peaks, presents an enjoyably over-the-top cinematic ride if you can buy into it. Sequel is The Six Messiahs (1995).
Book cover MIND MGMT: Volume 1. Matt Kindt, 2012.
Book cover The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Edgar Allen Poe, 1837. Contriving to go to sea against his father's wishes, a young stowaway gets far more than he bargained for in a bloody mutiny, shipwrecks, becalming, and a voyage to the South Pole. Poe's only full-length novel has some serious continuity issues and ends bizarrely, but the first half is a masterpiece of survival adventure. The balance is fantastical Victoriana involving the discovery of a lost tribe amid a warm polar sea.
Book cover Sandstorm. James Rollins, 2004. An explosion at the British Museum sparks a desperate race to find long-buried answers in Oman's Rub' al Khali desert. The fantastical elements are a little harder to swallow in this, Rollins' last adventure novel before switching to thrillers, but he continues to make great use of likeable characters and exciting locations.
Book cover Shane "Scarecrow" Schofield series. Matthew Reilly, 1998-2005. Australian Reilly has an incredible talent for writing stunts, especially gleefully protracted vehicle chases. Despite thin characters and, especially in the first book, immature prose, Reilly's exploits of a U.S. Marine are hugely enjoyable. Ice Station (1998), Area 7 (2002), Scarecrow (2003), Hell Island (2005 novella), and Scarecrow Returns (2011).
Book cover Temple. Matthew Reilly, 2001. A professor of ancient languages is impressed into a U.S. military mission to recover a powerful Incan artifact in Peru. Reilly's exhilarating gift for sustained action shines here, particularly in a 100-page long chase sequence on an Amazonian river.
Book cover Thunderhead. Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 1999. Enthusiastically middlebrow tale of an expedition searching for a lost Anasazi city.
Book cover Tyler's Gold. Andrew Grant, 1999. Salvage expert Tyler leads a dangerous expedition to New Zealand's subantarctic Campbell Island. Quite enjoyable, and surely the most obscure book on this list.
Book cover Underground. Jeff Parker, 2010. In this well-done graphic novel, two Kentucky state park rangers are pursued through a cave when a local dispute between preservation and development gets out of hand. It's a simple story elevated by humanistic characters, realistic caving techniques, and art that nicely depicts an interesting setting.
Book cover The Whale Road. Robert Low, 2007-2010. As the Viking age is drawing to a close, a young man is recruited into a hard crew of mercenaries who can't forget the old gods and the raiding lifestyle. Their shrewd and merciless leader will draw them into a quest leading from Norway to Scotland to the steppes of Russia. Low, an ardent Viking recreationist, brings great detail to this rousing and bloody adventure saga, which continues in The Wolf Sea (2008), The White Raven (2009), and *The Prow Beast (2010).

Fantasy

Book cover Across the Nightingale Floor. Lian Hearn, 2002. Beginning of a fantasy trilogy set in an analogue of feudal Japan, in which a member of a persecuted, pacifist religious group (allegorical Christians, awkwardly) is forced to become an assassin. Atmospheric, but neither the plot nor the hero's moral conflict deliver.
Book cover The Alloy of Law. Brian Sanderson, 2011.
Book cover American Gods. Neil Gaiman, 2001. Just out of jail, the protagonist Shadow becomes a bodyguard for Odin. For America abounds with incarnations of all the gods and goddesses brought there by immigrants. On a road-trip both mundane and fantastical, Shadow follows as Odin rallies the other old gods to fight against their irrelevance in the modern world. Wonderfully observed, but Gaiman's attempt to also make this the Great American Novel waters down a brilliant premise. Sequel is *Anansi Boys.
Book cover Chathrand Voyages series. Robert V.S. Redick, 2009-2012. Under the guise of a peace mission, the last of a line of giant sailing ships embarks with a stew of conspiracies and competing agendas aboard. Redick's masterful tetralogy mixes intrigue and adventure with good world-building and three-dimensional characters. I particularly liked how elements of cutesy fantasy like talking animals, brownies, and merfolk are used in a grown-up way. Must be read in order: The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2009), The Ruling Sea (2010), The River of Shadows (2011), and The Night of the Swarm (2012).
Book cover Chalion series. Lois McMaster Bujold, 2005. These three character-based adventures share a setting, a well-realized medieval world, but are each reasonably standalone. Bujold builds detailed plots involving political intrigue and a surprisingly interesting theology of gods and demons around her likeable characters. There's some action and a good dose of romance, weaving into a very satisfying whole in the case of The Curse of Chalion (2001) and Paladin of Souls (2003), while The Hallowed Hunt (2005), set centuries earlier, isn't as tight.
Book cover The Dark Tower. Stephen King, 1982-2004. In King's genre-bending magnum opus, a western-style gunslinger journeys across a post-apocalyptic world, joined by allies from the New York City of our world, in his quest for the Dark Tower at the center of it all. The series must be read in order: The Gunslinger (1982), The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012), *Wolves of the Calla (2003), *Song of Susannah (2004), and *The Dark Tower (2006).
Book cover Desert of Souls. Howard Andrew Jones, 2011. Magic forces threaten Baghdad in this rousing adventure set in the mytho-historical Middle East of Arabian Nights. The narrator - a resourceful swordsman - and his friend, a brilliant scholar, have a delightful Holmes and Watson vibe. Sequel is The Bones of the Old Ones (2012).
Book cover Discworld. Terry Pratchett, 1983-. This long-running comedy series takes place in an exaggerated high-fantasy world of multicultural cities, witches, magical universities, bumbling city guards, thieves, and vampires. The modern-day satire takes me right out of the fantasy setting, and the books need to be either more whimsical and less plot-driven or vice versa; the 50/50 mix is not satisfying to me. Different books focus on certain characters, creating various subseries; the handful of titles I've read are Small Gods (1992), Men at Arms (1993), Maskerade (1995), and Thief of Time (2001).
Book cover The Dreaming Dark. Keith Baker, 2005-2006. When the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons held a contest to design a new game setting, the winner was Baker's steampunk-influenced world of Eberron. Now the creator presents the first novels set in his world, and they're actually quite decent, with a strong plot and believable characters, all before a detailed and well-realized background. Trilogy order is The City of Towers (2005), The Shattered Land (2005), and The Gates of Night (2006).
Book cover Eddie LaCrosse Novels. Alex Bledsoe, 2007-. This clever genre-blend imports the tropes of noir mysteries (the world-weary detective, the moral corruption) into a plausible fantasy setting of princesses, mercenaries, and deities. The latest case of investigator Eddie LaCrosse, a gruesome murder in a locked room, forces a confrontation with the tragic past he's been suppressing. Each entry is fairly standalone: The Sword-Edged Blonde (2007), Burn Me Deadly (2009), Dark Jenny (2011), Wake of the Bloody Angel (2012), *He Drank, and Saw the Spider (2014).
Book cover Fables. Bill Willingham, 2002-. This comic book series posits a secret society of humankind's fairy tale characters living in modern New York. Trade paperback collections I've read are Legends in Exile (2002), Animal Farm (2003), Storybook Love (2004), March of the Wooden Soldiers (2004), The Mean Seasons (2005), Homelands (2006), Arabian Nights (and Days) (2006), Wolves (2006), Sons of Empire (2007), and The Good Prince (2008).
Book cover Half a King. Joe Abercrombie, 2014.
Book cover The Icewind Dale Trilogy. R.A. Salvatore, 1988-90. This trilogy introduced the dark elf ranger Drizzt Do'Urden, a popular character in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons. It's more of an ensemble piece than Drizzt's later outings, I am told. I'm not sure where Salvatore has been able to take his character in subsequent books, because Drizzt is already pretty invincible. However he builds on the setting and conventions of the game to produce readable, standalone fiction. The Crystal Shard (1988), Streams of Silver (1989), and *The Halfling's Gem (1990).
Book cover The Kingkiller Chronicles. Patrick Rothfuss, 2007-. This slow-building trilogy presents a deeply-realized character, a seemingly unassuming innkeeper who begins to narrate his fabled past: from child in a nomadic performing troupe to homeless city urchin to magical university student. Rothfuss grounds the book with profound believability, from the emotional impact to the setbacks and successes of the plot to the almost science-based magic. Sequence so far is: The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man's Fear (2012).
Book cover The King's Blades. Dave Duncan, 1998-2004. Topnotch combination of swashbuckling adventure and clever intrigue in a European fantasy setting. Tales of the King's Blades trilogy: The Gilded Chain (1998), Lord of the Fire Lands (1999), Sky of Swords (2000). Chronicles of the King's Blades series: Paragon Lost (2002), Impossible Odds (2003), The Jaguar Knights (2004).
Book cover King's Dragon. Kate Elliott, 1997. In the wussiest cop-out of world building ever, Elliott dumps in the geography, politics, literature, and religion of the Holy Roman Empire, changes the names (a little), and adds gender-equality. A wretched waste of time.
Book cover Locke Lamora series. Scott Lynch, 2006-. Locke Lamora was an orphan inducted into a secret priesthood of con artists. As adults, he and his fellow thieves lay everything on the line to perpetrate the most audacious crimes. Their schemes are fascinating and the settings are detailed and hugely original. The stories don't always follow through on their promise, but Lynch is a new novelist and I will eagerly follow him as he hones his craft. Must be read in order: The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006), Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007), The Republic of Thieves (2013).
Book cover Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. Hope Nicholson (editor), 2015.
Book cover Red Country. Joe Abercrombie, 2012.
Book cover Scott Pilgrim. Bryan Lee O'Malley, 2004-. To date the girl of his dreams (literally: she's been using his subconscious as a shortcut on her delivery route), Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim must fight her seven evil ex-boyfriends. This hilarious and sweet Western take on shojo freely mixes realism with non sequiturs and videogame elements. The series should be read in order: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (2004), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2005), Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness (2006), Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe (2009).
Book cover A Secret Atlas. Michael A. Stackpole, 2004. Asian-flavored tale of cartographers and samurai facing dangers on mapping expeditions and from intrigue back home. Dead-wrong pacing and characters who act unbelievably demolish a promising concept.
Book cover Seventh Son. Orson Scott Card, 1987.
Book cover Ship of Magic. Robin Hobb, 1998. Highly original beginning to a trilogy about maritime traders and their magically living ships. It's slow-paced and often depressing, but Captain Kennit, the manic-depressive pirate, has to be one of the most interesting fantasy villains ever. However this was balanced by characters so annoying I can't bring myself to spend more time with them.
Book cover Sir Apropos of Nothing. Peter David, 2001. Witty parody of the fantasy genre and its reluctant protagonists destined to be heroes. However Sir Apropos suffers one too many setbacks for what should be a lighthearted romp.
Book cover A Song of Ice and Fire. George R. R. Martin, 1996-. Engrossing saga of a continent rife with political and martial intrigue, filled with fascinating characters and expert world-building. Despite their length, each book constantly surprises, as major characters die or suffer unexpected setbacks. Highly, highly recommended. Reading in order is essential: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011).
Book cover Steven King's The Dark Tower. Peter David, 2007-. The early days of King's Dark Tower hero Roland Deschain and the gunslingers of Gilead are being fleshed out by this graphic novel series. Beginning with a chronological retelling of tales originally presented as flashbacks in prose volume 4, the series has gone on to original material with assistance from King himself and The Dark Tower: A Concordance author Robin Furth. Peter David and crew successfully capture the fantasy western speech of the books and brings them to life with striking art. Must be read in order: The Gunslinger Born (2007), The Long Road Home (2008), Treachery (2009), Fall of Gilead (2010), Battle of Jericho Hill (2010), The Journey Begins (2011), The Little Sisters of Eluria (2011), The Battle of Tull (2012), *The Way Station (2012), *The Man in Black (2013).
Book cover Sword of Shadows. J.V. Jones, 1999-2010. An outcast from a sub-arctic clan and a foundling imprisoned by a cruel warlord must seek their destinies in Jones' richly imagined northern world. The plot could have been tightened, but the details of the wilderness and its peoples' material culture are vividly conveyed. The absorbing but frustratingly unfinished series runs: A Cavern of Black Ice (1999), A Fortress of Grey Ice (2002), A Sword from Red Ice (2007), and Watcher of the Dead (2010).
Book cover The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan, 1990-. This epic fantasy saga begins promisingly with a large, interesting cast of characters and detailed world-building. Unfortunately the series succumbs to bloat, repetitiveness, and increasingly unsympathetic characters. Titles I read before giving up: The Eye of the World (1990), The Great Hunt (1990), The Dragon Reborn (1991), The Shadow Rising (1992), The Fires of Heaven (1993), and Lord of Chaos (1994).
Book cover Wolf in Shadow. David Gemmell, 1996.
Book cover Zadayi Red. Caleb Fox, 2009. This retelling of an ancient Cherokee legend follows a mother and son who suffer the demands of destiny when their villages fall into dark times. The author, who is part Cherokee, mixes realistic details of the ancients' social and material culture with fantastical elements such as animal spirit guides and visits to the realm of the gods.

Historical Fiction & Westerns

Book cover The Berrybender Narratives. Larry McMurtry, 2002-4. A family of stubborn English nobles and their swarm of retainers and guides forge into the American West of the 1830s. McMurtry ups the black comedy in this fish-out-of-water satire. Considering the death rate of the first two books it's a wonder there are enough characters left for volumes 3 and 4. Should be read in order: Sin Killer (2002), The Wandering Hill (2003), *By Sorrow's River (2003), *Folly and Glory (2004).
Book cover The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster. Robert Edric, 1992. With haunting prose and vivid characters, Edric combines history, archaeology, and speculation to tell the story of the real-life Sir John Franklin and his 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a journey from which no man would return alive.
Book cover The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour: The Frontier Stories Volume 2. Louis L'Amour, 2004. The swift and satisfying Western tales in this anthology feature a variety of protagonists who solve seemingly intractable dilemmas with their fast wits and even faster draws. Several stories are fair-playing mysteries.
Book cover The Cowboy and the Cossack. Clair Huffaker, 1973.
Book cover Cuba Libre. Elmore Leonard, 1998. Leonard combines his two primary genres, crime novels and westerns, into the tale of a bank robber and a gunrunner who try to make a fast buck in Cuba only to find themselves embroiled in the start of the Spanish-American War.
Book cover Doc. Mary Doria Russell, 2011.
Book cover Eaters of the Dead. Michael Crichton, 1976. Don't let the footnotes fool you! Crichton's fictional novel takes a real historical person, an Arab emissary who travelled to Russia in 921 CE, and makes him a character in a retelling of Beowulf. It makes for a fast-paced adventure with interesting historical details and intercultural contacts as an urbane Muslim joins forces with a band of Vikings to ward of a barbarous invasion. Crichton has said he wrote the book to disprove a friend's claim that there was no way to make the story of Beowulf interesting.
Book cover The Greenlanders. Jane Smiley, 1988. A family saga of Norse settlers in 14th century Greenland written in full-blown saga style. A dark story of the decline of a society in isolation. The matter-of-fact tone makes it intensely readable for fans of epics, as major plot events are sprinkled without warning among the details of domestic life.
Book cover Hard Country. Michael McGarrity, 2013.
Book cover Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars. Ethan Hawke & Greg Ruth, 2016.
Book cover Jonah Hex. Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, 2006-. A horribly scarred bounty hunter traverses a brutal and bloody west in this revived comic book series. I was initially enthused, but the unremittingly heartless antihero frequently puts innocents in harm's way and most stories are resolved with a corpse-strewn landscape receding behind a character who seems not to have learned anything. I gave up after Face Full of Violence (2006) and No Way Back (2010).
Book cover Lonesome Dove series. Larry McMurtry, 1985-1997. Epic saga of two cowboys and the broken dreams and tragedies of the West. Two prequels tell of their days as Texas Rangers. McMurtry's greatest gift is his ability to depict the often-comic inner thoughts of both white and Indian characters, which leavens the constant heartbreak. Can be read in either publication or chronological order: Dead Man's Walk (1995), Comanche Moon (1997), Lonesome Dove (1985), Streets of Laredo (1993).
Book cover Pompeii. Robert Harris, 2003. A Roman aqueduct engineer investigates ominous clues both criminal and geological in the unsuspecting towns ringing Mt Vesuvius. A blend of thriller and mystery that is lively yet still historically accurate.
Book cover Red Moon. Ralph Cotton, 2013.
Book cover Runestone. Don Coldsmith, 1995. This unique western speculates on the origin of the Heavener Runestone, a disputed Norse inscription found in Oklahoma in the 1800s. Coldsmith draws on his talent for writing cultural interaction to spin this tale of 2 Viking explorers, survivors of an attack on the St Lawrence River, who flee inland with an Indian slave whom they come to befriend.
Book cover Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland. Jeff Janoda, 2005. First-time Canadian novelist Janoda brings to life 10th century Iceland, where the protections of law and hospitality evolved to buffer families against marginal conditions and scheming neighbors. The novel adapts a portion of the Eyrbyggja Saga, one of the many epic stories passed down from the time of the island's settlement and later written in the 13th century. The story concerns the rivalry between two chieftains as it escalates into a deadly feud, and the choices of their followers. There is definite crossover appeal to fans of westerns, with its depiction of frontier life, and fantasy, with its matter-of-fact treatment of supernatural elements.
Book cover The Sisters Brothers. Patrick deWitt, 2011.
Book cover Trail: The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Louis Charbonneau, 1989. This retelling of the great American journey of exploration is fairly straightforward, other than making Lewis's Newfoundland dog Seaman a major POV character.
Book cover The Voyage of the Narwhal. Andrea Barrett, 1998. A brother and sister eclipsed by the fame of others struggle to survive a misguided 1855 expedition to the Arctic, he in the icebound wilds and she in stern Philadelphia society. Barrett vividly conveys the details of 19th century life and the harshness of nature and the human heart.
Book cover Wilderness. Roger Zelazny and Gerald Hausman, 1994. Two celebrated tales of the mountain men are retold here: John Colter's desperate flight from Blackfoot warriors in 1809 and Hugh Glass's vengeful 100-mile crawl of 1823 after being mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead. Told in alternating chapters, this surprising collaboration between a sci-fi author and a recorder of Native American folklore presents a lyrical take on two incredible true tales of endurance and survival.
Book cover Zorro. Isabel Allende, 2005. Sets a Zorro origin story in a detailed historical context. Diego de la Vega is a quarter Indian, influenced by racial injustice and Enlightenment philosophy, educated in Spain, befriended by gypsies, and captured by Jean LaFitte. Light but literary.

Horror

Book cover American Vampire. Scott Snyder and Stephen King, 2010. If the Great American Novel were a scary comic book, it would be this series featuring antihero Skinner Sweet. The bound Volume 1 (2010) presents overlapping tales of the first vampires created on American soil, which confers new powers that old guard European vampires regard as an abomination to be wiped out.
Book cover Beneath the Dark Ice. Greig Beck, 2010. A joint military/scientific team races into an Antarctic cave system exposed by a plane crash. However their rescue and reconnaisance mission turns into an outré battle for survival when they delve into a lost world populated with prehistoric horrors. First-time novelist Beck tries to ground his fantastical horror/adventure with scientific details, but mostly it's an excercise in mercilessly dispatching the cast of characters.
Book cover The Children of Cthulhu: Chilling New Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Edited by John Pelan & Benjamin Adams, 2002. An anthology of short stories bringing Lovecraftian horror into the modern-day. Unfortunately the concepts (e.g. a cyberterrorist threatens to upload the text of the Necronomicon to the internet) are mostly better than the executions.
Book cover Cold Skin. Albert Sánchez Piñol, 2005. A survivor of World War I arrives on a subantarctic island to man a weather station and escape from his past. The only other inhabitant, the lighthouse keeper, won't speak to him, and that night he is attacked by relentless amphibious monsters. A short and brutal meditation on the dehumanization of war.
Book cover Frontier Cthulhu. Edited by William Jones, 2007. These new Lovecraftian tales are set on the expanding frontier of the New World. The scope is impressive, from Viking explorers and the Roanoake Colony to the more-expected Wild West, but ultimately most of the stories lack any real innovation. Characters stumble upon forces beyond their ken and either die or escape. The tales near the end are the best, featuring more imaginative genre-blends like a snake oil cult and a zombie cattle stampede.
Book cover A Laugh in the Dark and Other Minnesota State Park Ghost Stories. Gary W. Fehring, 2010. Eight original (meaning overtly fictional) campfire stories go hyper-local, each making good use of a setting in different Minnesota state parks. Fehring keeps things fresh with distinctly different tones, plots, and park locations. The tales are creepy and pitched toward adults without being gruesome.
Book cover Shadows Over Baker Street. Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, 2003. What a great idea to test literature's most rational man with the horrors of Lovecraft. Instead this anthology presents a Sherlock Holmes already well-versed in the Cthulhu mythos. Despite some big name contributors, a real dud.
Book cover The Terror. Dan Simmons, 2007. The story of the lost 1845 Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage is retold once again, but this time the perils of Arctic exploration are ratcheted up with the presence of a fearsome monster stalking the doomed sailors. Simmons shows a mastery of several genres, stuffing his lengthy tale full of historical details, evocative descriptions of the cold and ice, horrors both realistic and inexplicable, and an allegory about Western civilization's treatment of the environment.
Book cover 30 Days of Night. Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith, 2003. The sun has set on the town of Barrow, Alaska, and won't rise again for a whole month. Out of the shadows steps a group of vampires, one of whom says "I don't know why we never thought of this before." The stark, impressionistic art of this graphic novel underscores the bloody plight of the husband-and-wife sheriffs and their rapidly decreasing band of survivors. The concept is better than the execution, but the ending is excellent.

Literary Fiction

Book cover Cannery Row. John Steinbeck, 1945.
Book cover Case Histories. Kate Atkinson, 2004. In this character-driven mystery, a private detective investigates three separate cold cases of lost girls. Well-written and enjoyable, though moreso if one is forewarned that the plotlines' "surprising intersections" claimed by the reviews are overstated. The follow-up One Good Turn (2006) interlocks much more satisfactorily.
Book cover Gloryland. Shelton Johnson, 2009. In this philosophical historical novel, a young black man must leave behind his South Carolina home and its post-Civil War racial perils and joins the U.S. Cavalry as a Buffalo Soldier. He struggles to understand freedom as he is forced to oppress other people of color during the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War, but ultimately finds himself when his division is posted to the newly created Yosemite National Park. The eloquent Johnson, who was featured prominently in Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, bases his first novel on this little-known historical fact but is far more concerned with the inner environment than the outer.
Book cover The God of Impertinence. Sten Nadolny, 1997. After 2000 years imprisoned inside a volcano, the Greek god Hermes emerges into the baffling modern world and finds that Hephaestus, master of all things technological, has shouldered the other gods into ineffectuality. While Zeus spends his days playing golf, Hermes embarks on a journey to inject some of his trademark impertinence back into the world. This comic fable, translated from the original German, has a catchy premise but doesn't really take off.
Book cover Indian Killer. Sherman Alexie, 1996. In the guise of a suspense novel, casts a sharp eye on race relations between indians and the whites who study, write about, and adopt them. Alexie balances several vivid characters, but sidesteps the kind of denouement suspense fans may prefer.
Book cover Life of Pi. Yann Martel, 2001. Pi Patel, son of an Indian zookeeper, tells the story of a childhood fascinated by religion and his plight stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. More conventional literary sections bookend a middle that is an engrossing, well-researched adventure novel.
Book cover Mr White's Confession. Robert Clark, 1998. A hollow cop and an introspective amnesiac intersect in 1930s St Paul, MN. Clark drapes his novel in hard-boiled trappings, but shortchanges the mystery to pursue literary pretensions of memory and identity.
Book cover O Pioneers! Willa Cather, 1913. The moral of the story is: love your land, not your neighbor.
Book cover The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Nikos Kazantzakis, 1958. Would the quintessential wanderer be happy sitting at home in Ithaka? Major Greek author Kazantzakis said no, and spun 33,333 dense lines of verse as Odysseus heads south with a couple pals, first to Crete and then to Africa. A parable of Kazantzakis' struggle with religions and philosophies, and the quest for complete spiritual freedom.
Book cover Pym. Mat Johnson, 2010. A professor of African-American literature, denied tenure for refusing to join the Diversity Committee and trying to specialize in Poe, chances upon a manuscript revealing that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was a true story. Soon he's launching an all-black expedition to Antarctica. This layered satire of academia, race relations, and celebrity painters works as adventure, sci-fi, and literary deconstruction of Poe's confounding novel.
Book cover The Sea-Wolf. Jack London, 1904. Impressed into the crew of a sealing vessel after a ferry accident, an upper-class writer fights to survive under the cruel but magnetic captain. London's classic balances adventure and philosophy.
Book cover Smilla's Sense of Snow. Peter Høeg, 1993. Half-Danish, half-Inuit Smilla has an impeccable ability to read snow and ice. The tracks left by a boy who fell to his death from the roof of her Copenhagen apartment building tell her unsettling details which the police dismiss. Her informal investigation leads her home to Greenland and an incredible discovery. A highly literate and atmospheric thriller.
Book cover Swann. Carol Shields, 1989. A Canadian farmer's wife murdered by her husband has developed an obscure literary following based on a posthumous volume of her poetry. Witty prose introduces four characters preparing for the first symposium on her work. A clever, satirical look at creativity, constructed reality, and academia, with a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure.
Book cover Tales of the City. Armistead Maupin, 1978.
Book cover Victim of the Aurora. Thomas Keneally, 1977. The microcosm of a British scientific expedition wintering in Antarctica is disrupted by the death of one of its members. Although pitched as a murder mystery, the mystery here is disappointingly weak. Much more of a meditation on original sin and the society of man.
Book cover Waiting. Ha Jin, 1999. Constrained by the society of the Cultural Revolution and his own unwillingness to act, a Chinese doctor writhes between his arranged wife and his nurse sweetheart. Balances an evocative setting with universal themes, but don't expect a lot of excitement or likeable characters.
Book cover Weight. Jeanette Winterson, 2005. Winterson retells the Greek myth of Atlas and Heracles, mixing classical and postmodern styles into a brooding, highly original examination of fate and choice.

Mystery

Book cover The American Chronicles of John H. Watson, M.D. Larry Millett, 1996-2002. Real-life railroad magnate James J. Hill hires Sherlock Holmes to come to 1890s Minnesota to investigate a series of fictional mysteries. Local architecture historian Millett's take on the character seems flawed, and his real interest seems to be St Paul's historical buildings. Moreover by introducing his own master detective, Shadwell Rafferty, Holmes' presence is degraded to a stunt to attract readers. Series order: Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996), Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders (1998), Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery (1999), *Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance (2001), *The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes (2002).
Book cover The Anasazi Mysteries. Kathleen O'Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear, 1999-2001. This trilogy attempts to interweave the story of a 13th century Anasazi band targeted by a serial killer and modern-day archaeologists uncovering the evidence. Unfortunately the prose is repetitive and the ridiculously overcomplicated plot doesn't seem to add up. The Visitant (1999), The Summoning God (2000), *Bone Walker (2001).
Book cover Anna Pigeon series. Nevada Barr, 1993-. Deftly plotted series featuring a National Park ranger. Anna Pigeon is an extremely well-developed character, and the settings (a different park in each book) are extremely effective. Reading in order isn't critical: Track of the Cat (1993), A Superior Death (1994), Ill Wind (1995), Firestorm (1996), Endangered Species (1997), Blind Descent (1998), Liberty Falling (1999), Deep South (2000), Blood Lure (2001), Hunting Season (2002), Flashback (2003), High Country (2004), Hard Truth (2005), Winter Kill (2008), Borderline (2009), Burn (2010), prequel The Rope (2012), Destroyer Angel (2014), Boar Island (2016).
Book cover Arkady Renko series. Martin Cruz Smith, 1981-. This world-hopping series traces the fall of Communism through the eyes of a cynical Russian policeman with a burning need to expose truth despite the personal consequences. Series order is Gorky Park (1981), Polar Star (1989), *Red Square (1992), *Havana Bay (1999), *Wolves Eat Dogs (2004), *Stalin's Ghost (2007).
Book cover Ashes of the Earth. Eliot Pattison, 2011.
Book cover Aztec Mysteries. Simon Levack, 2004-2007. It is 1517 in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and a former priest who sold himself into slavery is charged with finding a group of kidnapped sorcerers. The plot is a bit muddled, but Levack makes up for it with a unique setting, identifiably human characters, and plenty of black humor. The books form a continuous story arc: Demon of the Air (2004), Shadow of the Lords (2005), *City of Spies (2006), and *Tribute of Death (2007).
Book cover Bangkok mysteries. John Burdett, 2003-. British ex-pat Burdett provides a fascinating window into a completely different worldview. His protagonist Sonchai Jitplecheep is a Bangkok police officer, the half-Caucasian son of a former prostitute, whose investigations are informed by wry cultural observations about the East and West and spiritual elements from his Buddhist faith. His cases explore the labyrinthine Thai underworld of prostitution, drugs, and corruption. The complex characters and frequent plot jumps demand higher-than-usual attention. Series should be read in order: Bangkok 8 (2003), Bangkok Tattoo (2005), Bangkok Haunts (2007), *The Godfather of Kathmandu (2009), *Vulture Peak (2012).
Book cover A Beautiful Place to Die. Malla Nunn, 2009.
Book cover Doctored Evidence. Donna Leon, 2004. From a long-running series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a police detective in modern-day Venice. Here Brunetti reexamines the murder of a nasty old woman, whose case was tabled when the most obvious suspect was killed trying to flee Italy. The chief attraction of this leisurely police procedural is the Old World charm, not the plot, which doesn't even play fair.
Book cover Edie Kiglatuk Mysteries. M.J. McGrath, 2011-. White Heat (2011), The Boy in the Snow (2012)
Book cover Eye of the Red Tsar. Sam Eastland, 2010.
Book cover The Fifth Woman. M. Fagyas, 1963. A police inspector finds a murder victim hidden among civilian casualties during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Fagyas vividly portrays the chaos and tragedy and their effect on the people of Budapest for a unique police procedural. However the demands of the historical fiction side of the story compromise the satisfaction of the mystery.
Book cover The Grave Tattoo. Val McDermid, 2006. It is a historical fact that Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and poet William Wordsworth were childhood friends, which provides a jumping off place for a novel about a bog body with South Seas tattoos being discovered in the Lakes District. Could the rumors be true that Christian made it home from Pitcairn Island and maybe, just maybe, tried to tell his side of the story to his old friend? This standalone from Scottish suspense writer McDermid takes a promising premise and approaches it in entirely the wrong way. The characters are well-realized, but I would have preferred to see them discovering the connection clue by clue rather than knowing it from the start and rehashing it to everyone who will listen.
Book cover Holmes on the Range. Steve Hockensmith, 2006-. Inspired by the "deducifying" in the Sherlock Holmes stories he's heard, a cowboy long on smarts but short on social graces strives to become a detective in the Wild West, dragging his amiable brother with him. Hockensmith successfully balances laugh-out-loud humor, historical detail, and clever plots in this highly original and entertaining series. Reading in order is not crucial: Holmes on the Range (2006), On the Wrong Track (2007), The Black Dove (2008), The Crack in the Lens (2009), World's Greatest Detective! (2011), and short story collection Dear Mr. Holmes (2011).
Book cover In Cold Pursuit. Sarah Andrews, 2007. Andrews, author of the mystery series featuring forensic geologist Em Hansen, introduces a new protagonist in this stand-alone. A graduate student arrives in Antarctica to find that her sponsoring professor has been arrested over a suspicious death. Andrews herself spent six weeks in Antarctica on the Artists and Writers Program, and the details of life at McMurdo Base anchor the book. However you'd think an experienced mystery author would be able to keep the identity of the killer less blatant.
Book cover Joe Pickett Novels. C.J. Box, 2001-. Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden who stumbles onto complex crimes. I want to like this series but am put off by the amount of time devoted to Pickett's family life. I've only read two so far: Open Season (2001) and Free Fire (2007).
Book cover Katya Hijazi and Nayir Sharqi Novels. Zoë Ferraris, 2008. How do two people work together to solve a mystery if society barely allows them to be in the same room? In Saudi Arabia, a male guide and a female medical examiner risk capital punishment to investigate the death of a teen runaway from a wealthy family who has inexplicably drowned in the desert. This fascinating and fair-playing mystery rises to a true literary level with its well-drawn characters and startling look at a foreign society. Finding Nouf (2008), City of Veils (2010), Kingdom of Strangers (2012).
Book cover Leaphorn & Chee Mysteries. Tony Hillerman, 1970-2006. Well-plotted series featuring two members of the Navajo Tribal Police, one older and secular, one younger and interested in becoming a traditional shaman. Wonderfully descriptive of Navajo culture and the southwest landscape. Later entries are sub-par, but then Hillerman was entering his 80s. Reading in order isn't critical: The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), Listening Woman (1978), People of Darkness (1980), The Dark Wind (1982), The Ghostway (1984), Skinwalkers (1986), A Thief of Time (1988), Talking God (1989), Coyote Waits (1990), Sacred Clowns (1993), The Fallen Man (1996), The First Eagle (1998), Hunting Badger (1999), The Wailing Wind (2002), The Sinister Pig (2003), Skeleton Man (2004), The Shape Shifter (2006). His daughter Anne Hillerman continues the series with Spider Woman's Daughter (2014), *Rock with Wings (2015).
Book cover Libertus Mysteries of Roman Britain. Rosemary Rowe, 1999-2008. Freed slave Libertus is now a mosaic-maker whose eye for detail prompts his former owner to have him investigate delicate matters in 2nd century Roman Britain. Series order is The Germanicus Mosaic (1999), A Pattern of Blood (2000), Murder in the Forum (2001), The Chariots of Calyx (2002), *The Legatus Mystery (2003), *The Ghosts of Glevum (2004), *Enemies of the Empire (2005), *A Roman Ransom (2006), *A Coin for the Ferryman (2007), *Death at Pompeia's Wedding (2008).
Book cover Mark of the Lion. Suzanne Arruda, 2006. Just after World War I, an American ambulance driver travels to colonial East Africa to investigate the dying request of her pilot beau. The mystery is original and well-plotted, with a drop of romance and the supernatural.
Book cover Mysteries of Colonial America. Eliot Pattison, 2008-. A disgraced Scotsman arrives in the New World on a prison ship, becoming embroiled in unsettling crimes on the treacherous frontier between colonial and Indian lands. Pattison replicates entirely the tone and style of his Shan Tao-Yun series into the French and Indian Wars era, which is great because they're exactly what I'm looking for in a story. Should be read in order: Bone Rattler (2008), Eye of the Raven (2009), Original Death (2013), *Blood of the Oak (2016).
Book cover The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Alexander McCall Smith, 1998. Cozy, strongly distaff beginning of a series featuring a fallible female private detective in modern Botswana. The structure intersperses episodic cases with stories of the main characters' lives and relationships. If you have a Y chromosome, avoid!
Book cover The Red Pavilion. Robert van Gulik, 1964. Having translated an 18th century Chinese mystery novel into English, Dutch diplomat Gulik wrote a series of original novels featuring the same character in the style of historical Chinese mysteries. Gulik's fair but irascible Judge Dee investigates crimes and dispenses justice during the Ming Dynasty.
Book cover Red Snow. Edward Topol, 1986. On the eve of the opening of a Siberian gas pipeline, the mutilated bodies of three party officials are discovered. A policewoman is dispatched to the frozen lands around the River Ob with the expectation that the indiginous Nenets are to blame. Topol, a Russian expatriate, travelled to the area many times as a journalist and brings a verisimilitude to this disturbing mystery.
Book cover Roma Sub Rosa. Steven Saylor, 1991-. Often excellent series featuring Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator in the turbulent years at the end of the Roman Republic. Some entries lately have emphasized the historical fiction at the expense of the mystery, but the best entries involve unexpected twists on actual Roman crimes. Should be read in order: Roman Blood (1991), Arms of Nemesis (1992), Catilina's Riddle (1993), The Venus Throw (1995), A Murder on the Appian Way (1996), The House of the Vestals (1997 anthology), Rubicon (1999), Last Seen in Massilia (2000), A Mist of Prophecies (2002), The Judgment of Caesar (2004), A Gladiator Dies Only Once (2005 anthology), The Triumph of Caesar 2008, The Seven Wonders (2012 prequel), Raiders of the Nile (2014 prequel), *Wrath of the Furies (2015 prequel).
Book cover Sherlock Holmes: the Missing Years. Jamyang Norbu, 1999. When Sherlock Holmes returned from his apparent death in Doyle's "The Empty House," the detective mentions having spent some of his years in hiding in India and Tibet. Jamyang, a major Tibetan author, presents an insider's take on what may have happened. A few fantastical elements may rub some Holmes fans the wrong way, but overall one of the most energetic and original Sherlock pastiches yet. Reprinted as The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes.
Book cover Shan Tao-Yun series. Eliot Pattison, 1999-. A former Beijing policeman, now a prisoner in a Tibetan hard-labor camp, is released to sweep a murder under the carpet. However his allegiance to truth and his fellow prisoners, Buddhist lamas, compels him to walk a razor's edge. Intricate plots set in an evocative landscape bursting with long-hidden secrets, moral ambiguity, and resilience in the face of brutal repression. The follow-ups are a little unfocused, but the first book is my all-time top recommendation. The Skull Mantra (1999), Water Touching Stone (2001), Bone Mountain (2002), Beautiful Ghosts (2004), Prayer of the Dragon (2007), The Lord of Death (2009), Mandarin Gate (2012), *Soul of the Fire (2014).
Book cover Solar Pons. August Derleth, 1945-1973. The Adventures of Solar Pons (1945), The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1951), The Return of Solar Pons (1958), The Reminiscences of Solar Pons (1961), The Casebook of Solar Pons (1965), Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (1968 novel), The Chronicles of Solar Pons (1973), and The Final Adventures of Solar Pons (1998).
Book cover The Sword of General Englund & The Ghost of Major Pryor. Donald Honig, 1996-7. As he and the rest of the nation heal from the Civil War, U.S. Army investigator Captain Thomas Maynard is dispatched to solve mysteries in the Dakota and Montana territories. Strangely, the second book written takes place before the first book. I wish so much he'd written more of these.
Book cover Tay-Bodal mysteries. Mardi Oakley Medawar, 1996-2000. Highly original series featuring a Kiowa healer in the 1860s. The way Plains Indian life and culture determine the plots is quite impressive, and several of the characters are historical figures. Essential to read in order: Death at Rainy Mountain (1996), Witch of the Palo Duro (1997), Murder at Medicine Lodge (1999), The Ft. Larned Incident (2000).
Book cover Tortoise Soup. Jessica Speart, 1998. Rachel Porter is a lone wolf Fish and Wildlife Agent with more conviction than she has sense. I would prefer a more realistic tone, but the series (this is book two) has promise.
Book cover The Turquoise Dragon. David Rains Wallace, 1984. Esteemed nature writer David Rains Wallace tried his hand at writing fiction, setting a part-mystery, part-suspense novel in the rugged landscape of Northern California and Oregon. When his best friend, a herpetologist, is murdered, a forester with a shady past discovers a clue in the form of mysterious blue salamanders. Wallace depicts wonderful outdoorsy locations and a complex villain, but gets the plot to work by making the protagonist not entirely likeable.
Book cover Whiteout. Greg Rucka, 1998 The lone U.S. Marshall assigned to America's Antarctic base would rather be alone with her demons but must contend with the continent's first murder investigation. The pencil artwork of this graphic novel effectively conveys the physical and emotional starkness of "The Ice." The strong female lead is a welcome element, the half-baked espionage angle is not. Whiteout 2: Melt (2000) deliberately switches genres to a full-blown thriller.
Book cover Wiki Coffin mysteries. Joan Druett, 2004-2012. A half-Māori/half-Yankee seaman ships with the United States Exploring Expedition as a translator in 1838 and finds himself applying his quick wits to murder at sea. Series should be read in order: A Watery Grave (2004), Shark Island (2005), Run Afoul (2006), Deadly Shoals (2007), *The Beckoning Ice (2012).
Book cover Wild Indigo. Sandi Ault, 2007. A Bureau of Land Management agent stationed near a (fictional) New Mexico Pueblo Indian village witnesses a death in a bison stampede. However the investigation is frequently sidelined in favor of visits to local wise women and long passages extolling the agent's pet wolf. Between the lurching plot and inconsistent cultural sensitivity there are glimmers of mystery-writing talent. If you can tolerate the mystic elements and doggie-worship, future books in the series could be promising.
Book cover Woods Cop Mysteries. Joseph Heywood, 2001-. Another unique police procedural series whose main character is a conservation officer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Heywood shows a palpable love of the outdoors, and a commitment to depicting the random, unrelated incidents that punctuate CO's lives. Series order is Ice Hunter (2001), Blue Wolf in Green Fire (2002), *Chasing a Blond Moon (2003), *Running Dark (2005), and *Strike Dog (2007).

Science Fiction

Book cover Cowboys & Aliens. Fred Van Lente & Andrew Foley, 2006. A clever premise gets a disappointingly derivative execution in this graphic novel. An alien invasion of the Wild West initiates a trite alliance of gunslingers, indians, settlers... and the aliens' own subjugated underclass. The analogy is over-obvious and the characters uninspired.
Book cover Dune series. Frank Herbert, 1965-1985. One of the most famous examples of truly literary science fiction, the Dune series spans millennia and solar systems to examine the relationship between politics and ecology, and the tragic consequences even good heroes wreak on ordinary people. The series would have to be read in order: Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), but I would recommend reading just books one and four for the real highlights.
Book cover The Eyre Affair. Jasper Fforde, 2003. Fforde presents a clever alternate reality in which great literature is still the dominant medium of popular culture, but then piles on additional gimmicks (time travel, teleportation into and out of books, cloning, roving black holes) to the point where neither the world nor the plot can believably function.
Book cover The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. Douglas Adams, 1972-1992. This beloved science fiction comedy series follows the zany misadventures of a befuddled Englishman, whisked off Earth moments before its destruction to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The memorable characters and madcap style of wacky asides are justly influential. The "increasingly inaccurately named trilogy," which should be read in order, is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1985), and Mostly Harmless (1992). The series was resurrected with Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing... (2009), which seems less unneccesary when one remembers just how poorly Mostly Harmless ended.
Book cover The Martian. Andy Weir, 2014.
Book cover Ready Player One. Ernest Cline, 2012.
Book cover Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. Matt Ruff, 1997. This off-the-wall satire, set in New York City in 2023, unleashes a billionaire building a new Tower of Babel, the eco-terrorists out to stop him, a hologram of Ayn Rand, and a mutant great white shark at large in the city's sewer system, et alia. Ruff achieves the difficult task of not letting the kookiness hijack the story.
Book cover Space Ghost. Joe Kelly, 2005. This graphic novel presents the first-ever origin story of Space Ghost, bringing surprising depth to the cheesy 60s cartoon hero. While the plot isn't particularly inventive, the art is good and it's interesting to see a new take on the character.
Book cover The Sparrow. Mary Doria Russell, 1996. Alternating between 2016 and 2060, Russell brings to life the preparations for and tragic fallout from an interstellar first contact mission led by a Jesuit priest and linguist. Emphasizing the extremely well-drawn characters over technological description, this is a great choice for readers who wouldn't ordinarily touch sci-fi.
Book cover To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Philip José Farmer, 1971. In this unique story, nearly every human who ever lived is simultaneously resurrected on a mysterious planet with a river that winds its way across the entire surface. While disparate cultures coexist and compete, a handful of explorers set out to investigate how and why they were resurrected. Another 4 books ultimately complete the Riverworld series.

Suspense

Book cover The Bodies Left Behind. Jeffery Deaver, 2008. A sheriff's deputy following up on a 911 hangup stumbles onto the scene of a contract killing at a remote summer home, propelling her into a desperate cat and mouse chase through the adjacent (fictitious) Wisconsin state park. Deaver strives so hard to keep the surprises coming that he doesn't play fair, giving the characters uncanny abilities to second-guess each other. The undeniable excitement of the nighttime chase, however, gives way to a stultifyingly misguided third act, inexplicably focused on the deputy's family problems, which fails to provide a showdown or follow through on any foreshadowing.
Book cover A Grue of Ice. Geoffrey Jenkins, 1962. A British oceanographer and former navy captain is ensared in a megalomaniac's mysterious quest in the storm-tossed South Atlantic Ocean. Jenkins was known as South Africa's answer to Ian Fleming. He has the pacing and the larger-than-life villain, but even more exotic locations like Tristan da Cunha, Bouvet Island, and the long-lost Thompson Island.
Book cover Icebound. Dean Koontz, 1995. A multinational team of scientists is marooned on an explosives-laden iceberg in the Greenland Sea. Just as possible rescue appears in the form of a Russian spy submarine, a potential murderer adds to the evocatively described natural perils.
Book cover Purgatory Road. Bob Reiss, 1996. A geologist stationed in the Antarctic Peninsula suffers political and emotional fall-out for rescuing an environmental protestor during a blizzard. Disgraced, he and she must race against time when a suspicious death indicates a threat to an upcoming international summit.
Book cover Shadow of the Raven. David Sundstrand, 2007. A multiracial Bureau of Land Management officer stumbles into a deadly battle between poachers, pranksters, and bikers in the canyons of the Mojave Desert. The loner antagonist and evocative descriptions of the stark Californian landscape will appeal to readers of Nevada Barr and Joseph Heywood, and the soft-spoken, malevolently intelligent biker gang leader deserves a spot in the villain hall of fame. Follow-up is Shadows of Death (2009).
Book cover Shell Games. Kirk Russell, 2003. In an environmental twist on the gritty police procedural, John Marquez is a California Fish & Game warden. When two abalone poachers are gruesomely killed, Marquez sees clues that a vicious criminal from his past is active in the San Francisco Bay area. Terse, dark, and engrossing, but surprisingly not all that outdoorsy.
Book cover Tales of Terror and Mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1977. A posthumous sampling of Doyle's short stories, featuring horror both fantastical and mundane, and crime suspense. The matter-of-fact tone builds the tension up expertly to the revelation of each story, demonstrating that Doyle should be known for more than just Sherlock Holmes.

Thrillers

Book cover Airframe. Michael Crichton, 1996. Insightful depiction of the airline industry and how news is distorted through the media. Devoid of characterization or drama, though, it is no accident that this is about the only Crichton novel never made into a movie.
Book cover Blood and Ice. Robert Masello, 2009. Stories about finding something frozen in ice which then revives and wreaks havoc are hardly uncommon, but Masello's supernatural chiller sets itself apart with a leisurely pace, realistic detail, and sympathetic characters. Visiting an Antarctic research station to distance himself from a personal tragedy, a modern-day journalist finds a story of a lifetime with unexpected physical and emotional peril. Intercut flashbacks present a historical romance between a Crimean War cavalry officer and a nurse, setting the stage for a tale midway between Michael Crichton and Diana Gabaldon.
Book cover Enigma. Robert Harris, 1995. At England's hidden cryptography headquarters during World War II, a mathematician reeling from a breakup and breakdown is pushed to his limits to crack Germany's new secret code before a supply fleet is torpedoed and to investigate his ex-lover's apparent act of treason. Harris makes the decryption process understandable and produces a clever spy thriller with a unique setting.
Book cover Heart of the Hunter. Deon Meyer, 2003. A retired Xhosa assassin finds himself racing along the backroads of South Africa evading military intelligence when he sets out to aid a friend. Unfortunately the Afrikaner writer bogs down his chase thriller with so much supporting detail it never actually goes anywhere, and the plot fizzles out unsatisfyingly.
Book cover Ice Reich. William Dietrich, 1998. A washed-up Alaskan bush pilot naïvely joins a German expedition to Antarctica in 1938. In the ice clogged waters of the Antarctic Ocean they stumble on an uncharted volcanic island with a deadly secret. Envision a melding of Indiana Jones and The X-Files, with a dose of romance.
Book cover Labyrinth. Mark T. Sullivan, 2002. It's Die Hard in a cave! A cave biologist can't face the subterranean after a traumatic accident. But when her husband and daughter are kidnapped by escaped criminals and forced to lead them through a (fictitious) Kentucky cave system to retrieve a stolen scientific artifact, she must face her fears and guide a rescue party. Sullivan achieves a fast pace, though partly by glossing over some logic, but carries the book with his sympathetic characters, unique location, and sense of scientific discovery.
Book cover The Mullah's Storm. Thomas W. Young, 2010. Shot down over Afghanistan, the survivors of a military transport must prevent a captured Taliban mullah from being rescued while a grinding snowstorm delays any hope of their own extraction. The tense plot is elevated by good characterisation and depth. Young, a decorated Air National Guardsman, brings great authenticity to a flyer's worst nightmare: being grounded in enemy territory.
Book cover Prey. Ken Goddard, 1992. A veteran cop is recruited into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's undercover investigation team. However a sting on a trio of sadistic poachers inadvertently puts them in the crosshairs of a covert military unit being assembled by an anti-environmental cabal. Goddard, director of the real FWS forensics laboratory, mixes the high-tension of undercover work with bursts of gun-blazing action. However his propensity for over-explanation and outrageous coincidences dooms the sequel Wildfire (1994).
Book cover Riptide. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 1998. A buried treasure on a Maine island (but clearly inspired by Nova Scotia's Oak Island Money Pit) has brought nothing but tragedy to its seekers. Having lost his own brother in a childhood foray, a doctor reservedly partners with a team of professional treasure hunters to solve the mystery. The stock characters are offset by brisk pacing, historical and scientific details, and subtle subversions of plot clichés.
Book cover The Shadow Walker. Michael Walters, 2006. A series of murders in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, seems too professional to be the work of a serial killer but too brutal and random to be contract killings. First-time novelist Walters deflates the exoticism of the setting by saddling himself with a painfully dull British detective sent to assist the investigation and spends most of the book discussing how there are no leads in the case. Further titles in the series could redeem themselves by focusing on the Mongolian investigators and jettisoning the half-baked political intrigue.
Book cover Siberian Light. Robin White, 1997. The lawlessness of post-Soviet Siberia provides a compelling setting for a geologist turned reluctant politician to investigate several deaths. There's a standout scene in which the protagonist makes a series of brilliant deductions by examining a single pebble. The climax takes an unexpected turn into techno-thriller territory, but this book and its more consistent sequel The Ice Curtain (2002) are well-observed and deftly plotted.
Book cover The Tavernier Stones. Stephen Parrish, 2010. When a bog body found clutching an enormous ruby is identified as a (fictitious) Renaissance cartographer, it sparks a hunt for cryptic clues to a fabulous treasure. German author Parrish successfully conveys the worldwide interest such a discovery would spark while staying focused on a small core of characters. One feels a crypto-thriller should have a bit more globe-trotting, but the book is elevated by its well-drawn cast, including an outcast Amish mapmaker, a jewel thief, and a penurious aristocrat shrewdly keeping up appearances.
Book cover White-Out. James Vance Marshall, 1999. Compelling and evocative story of survival under the most gruelling conditions. A British naval base in Antarctica is torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942, and the one survivor must face the bitter, sunless winter alone and without supplies. His recovery after rescue is equally challenging, and Marshall pulls off the difficult feat of centering a novel on a single character in isolation.
Book cover Wired Kingdom. Rick Chesler, 2010.
Book cover The Worst Thing. Aaron Elkins, 2011. A kidnapping and ransom expert, left with intense phobias and panic attacks by his own childhood abduction, comes face to face with his worst fears when a hostage situation erupts while he's conducting training in Iceland. Some plot surprises are set up rather late, but this standalone tale mines a fertile vein in which the protagonist's demons are as dangerous as the bad guys.

Weird West

Book cover The Six-Gun Tarot. R.S. Belcher, 2013.
Book cover Territory. Emma Bull, 2007. In this unique genre-blend, Emma Bull reimagines the events leading up to the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in which key inhabitants of Tombstone have magical powers. The fantasy elements rest fairly lightly on the vibrant realism of the historical fiction. The story moves among the points of view of two fictional characters and Doc Holliday, as the Earp brothers' feud with Ike Clanton and John Ringo escalates. While there are cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws, the story is enriched by depictions too of the women and the Chinese immigrants of Arizona Territory.

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