It’s that time of year again where you’re going to start buying people things. Books are good gifts because they are fantastic, cheap, and the act of giving them can be selfish without appearing so. That book you’ve been telling your friend to read all year and they haven’t gotten around to yet? Done. Happy Holidays Emily.
But what about those friends and family members or young adults in your family who read all the time but with questionable tastes? Your brother who is obsessed with Robert Jordan? Your twelve-year-old niece who talks on and on about the Maze Runner series? Anyone ever who has ever even thought that cursed word “Twilight?” You want to convert these people away from weak plots, flat characters, sloppy prose so they can get to the good stuff and you can make more selfish recommendations of books to them.
We all know this is no small feat to sway these people off their chosen path or to lead them to at least making better choices. (I am not here to have the “genre” fiction fight with you, but let’s both concede that some books regardless of subject matter are definitely written better than others.)
Here is a list of some books I like to call “Gateway Books” that you can give to your friends in need of a light hand of guidance towards quality. Remember. A lot of people first started getting into reading in the science-fiction fantasy genre and then later move on to other things. I’ve also included a few older YA books at the end in case you’ve forgotten where most of us started reading from.
They are also maybe books that you could consider reading.
Do not just hand your Robert-Jordan brother Infinite Jest or a bunch of Proust and say “Hey, I’ve noticed you like big books. This is what you should be reading. No need to thank me.”
Come on, now. Behave responsibly.
Game of Thrones, regardless of your opinion of it, would be a rather obvious choice for the fantasy crowd on this list, but in the meantime, here are some other books to consider. (The YA books may spark some memories and are closer towards the end with possible age ranges marked.)
Here they are, in no particular order:
- Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. This is a good book particularly for the Sci-Fi/gaming crowd. It features funny and sharp prose, three-dimensional characters and a well flushed-out, insanely well-built and unique virtual world. It’s very strong all the way through and so colorful it’s difficult to even describe. Linguistics and brain hacking and viruses and actual quality writing. The main character is also a pizza delivery guy named “Hiro Protagonist.” It’s a genuinely great read.
- The Kalevala. (Compiled by Elias Lönnrot, Anonymous, Keith Bosley (Translator) This is the book for your friend who “has opinions” about Tolkien’s The Sillmarillion *shudder*. Take heart, oh ye of little faith. This epic Finnish Poem is compiled from oral folklore, written well, is shockingly easy to follow, and tells one hell of a story about the adventures of the various heroes. This is the Finnish Iliad. It is considered one of the most significant works of Finnish literature and the stories and imagery within it are unbelievably well-crafted and unique. You can read it and weirdly geek out together.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne. Chances are you’ve heard of this book before but never got around to reading it. It’s a good one for pretty much any reader. Verne is definitely of his time (this book was written in 1870) but a genuinely good adventure writer. Back in the 1990’s the teen reading show Wishbone did an episode about Journey to the Center of the Earth, which played on Hollow-Core theory from the 1800s and had dinosaurs in it and things. This book is better than that one. The imagery and mystery of the story is fantastic. It also has some strong prose moments, and more well-rounded characters than in a lot of his other work. Also: submarines, some philosophy on the follies of man, and of course—A GIANT SQUID.
- The Broken Crown. Sun Sword Series, Michelle West. Michelle Sagara is Japanese-Canadian and publishes under her husband’s last name. This is probably actually the best book (other than possibly GOT) to try and coax out your Robert Jordan brother—assuming he can handle strong three-dimensional female characters, and the cover art. It’s pretty well done art really, but obviously they had female readers and a certain kind of marketing in mind when they picked this cover. While there is of course always the issue of gender politics and whether or not something looking “feminine” should be an issue for male readers: the publishers really did not do this book any favors when they made it look like a freaking romance novel. Which it is so not. Like many giant fantasy book series (this series is 6 books of 700-1000 pages) it can take a while to get into, but once your brother makes it past the first 100-150 pages he will be hooked. (I know it sounds insane to you, but he is totally used to doing these kinds of things if he reads Robert Jordan, trust me. Hardcore fantasy readers have stamina.) This world is one of the most unique and best developed fantasy worlds out there.
- The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. You may have also read or heard of this one. It’s probably not for your Robert Jordan brother—the prose will be too ornate—but an insanely well written, interesting and haunting murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 1300s. Great for people who can get behind historical fiction, have a fascination with the medieval period, mysteries, etc. It is intellectual and kind of heavy for the more casual reader—it might move a bit slow for them—but someone who can handle serious Tolkien can probably do it. It’s an amazing ride: murder, a secret and forbidden library with all the amazing things you could ever hope for that to entail—definitely a Gateway book. If your friend can get through this book and enjoy it, you have freaking got them.
- The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. (Not traditionally YA but it could be depending on your definition, teenage) Wizard of Earthsea is great too and more of a YA possibility, but this book by Le Guin has won prizes for a reason. A beautiful, amazing world and haunting, nontraditional love story of a human ambassador visiting a planet where there is no gender. It is amazing. The prose is clean and beautiful and it moves quickly as well. Strong, beautiful arctic images. Any reader could handle it and should.
- Watership Down, Richard Adams. (YA, probably ages 7yrs-100yrs) A book for everyone. A world, culture, and folklore of rabbits. A group of rabbits leave their warren after a disturbing prophecy in search for a new home. Their trials and battles. It’s written so simply and well, with only the first chapter feeling distinctly childish in prose. It’s a classic and it really is the best.
- Something Wicket This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury. (Dark YA. 12yrs to 100yrs.) Bradbury straddled a lot of genre lines in his day. This is a dark, halloweeny type book is well written with Bradbury characteristically strange yet sharp prose and an amazing nightmarish story about two boys and their encounters with a travel carnival that comes to town. It is a novel, not a short story collection like Bradbury leans towards, but neither is it as literature as Fahrenheit 451, which would also deserve to be on this list. In the way of that, Orwell probably would too, but we don’t have time for everything. In the author of this list’s personal reading history, reading Bradbury proceeded moving straight on to Kafka and the “official” break into reading mostly literary fiction, so do not underestimate the power of Bradbury.
- Sabriel, Garth Nix. (YA 11yrs.-100yrs.) (Also see Lirael the sequel etc.) This series by Australian author Garth Nix is beautiful and otherworldly. One of the best YA series out there. Written simply and cleanly but with quality and without being embarrassing the way a lot of other YA prose tends to be. There are two fictional countries in the book, one which has modern technology and is like our world and then one—the Old Kingdom—which is magical and like a fantasy world. There is a beautiful tale in here about family and love and complex, dark, rich world. Also, the main character becomes an abhorsen who is someone who tries to put ghosts and zombies and the dead to rest who are brought up by dangerous necromancers. The images, characters, and world are incredible. The sequel takes place in an amazing, immense, secret underground library. So much better than a lot of what else is out there.
- The Maid of the North, Ethel Johnston Phelps. (YA AS YOUNG AS YOU LIKE AND ALL OTHER AGES) This is an amazingly written and illustrated collection of 21 feminist folktales from around the world. There is no other way to say it. It includes a section from the Kalevala which is also mentioned above and different countries all over the place, not just the European ones. Well worth a read for your friends, your friend’s kids, your kids, and you yourself.
There is no time really to list all the wonderful options you have, but here are some other more to research (both YA and other) if you want more options: The Giver, The Last Unicorn, Ender’s Game, Dune, The Chosen, I am the Cheese, The Golden Compass, Narnia, Swamplandia!, Perfume-(Patrick Suskind) and on and on and on.
Happy hunting, friends. You can do this. You’ll win your friends over and “get them” to come to the dark side yet. I have faith in your manipulation skills.
Mirri Glasson-Darling is a first year fiction MFA student at Virginia Tech.