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February 9, 2010 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Help me find some fun books for my commute.

So I got myself a library card and I'm looking for some escapist-type reading on the train.

My work involves a lot of dry technical stuff, so by the end of the day I really want a break. I'm looking for some funny, interesting, intelligent light reading. Recently I discovered that I really like books in a series and I have no idea what's out there. Bonus points for those recommendations.

I loved Harry Potter, although I’m not usually a fan of fantasy or YA books. The Sookie Stackhouse novels were fun, but mostly for the extra context it gives the True Blood series. I’m devoted to David Sedaris, but I’ve already read everything of his I could get my hands on. I'm not really into bodice rippers or gory violence, but I love some smart science fiction.

Given those broad outlines, what do you think belongs on my reading list?
posted by Space Kitty to Grab Bag (47 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed the Temeraire series for exactly this kind of reading.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:40 PM on February 9, 2010

PG Wodehouse?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:40 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Terry Pratchett
posted by IanMorr at 2:43 PM on February 9, 2010

Second Terry Pratchett, life is not the same after you start reading him. Seriously!
posted by Ferrari328 at 2:52 PM on February 9, 2010

Try the Bartameus trilogy. I'm hooked on these books. The audio version is awesome, BTW.
posted by bearwife at 2:52 PM on February 9, 2010

P.S. Don't know how you feel about the detective/crime genre, but if you haven't read them, it is hard to beat the Sherlock Holmes books and the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers.
posted by bearwife at 2:56 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis! It's like Oscar Wilde and PG Wodehouse collaborated on a sci-fi novel.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Absolutely Terry Pratchett. Also, anything by Douglas Adams but especially his Hitchhiker's Guide and Dirk Gently series.

For scifi, although I'm not sure that everyone would consider it "light reading": I'm a big fan of Iain M. Banks Culture series for smart Scifi. Excession, Consider Phlebas, Player of Games. Also, The Algebraist, which was not part of the Culture series but was still brilliant.

David Brin's Uplift series are classics, especially Startide Rising and The Uplift War.

Jasper Fforde is light reading, funny and interesting, but can be an acquired taste.
posted by zarq at 3:00 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I highly recommend Eat, Pray, Love. It's not a series book (although she came out with a sequel of sorts), but it's great and I thought about you when I was reading it.
posted by Kimberly at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2010

I found myself unexpectedly addicted to the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. Bonus #1: There are 20 books in the series, so if you get hooked there's a lot to love. Bonus #2: Each book is just a regular paperback, maybe ~300 pages or so, so you aren't lugging a brick around in your bag.

I've read the Temeraire series too, and it's similar, but one has to be willing to make a leap about dragons during the Napoleonic wars, and I'm not always in the mood for that.
posted by ambrosia at 3:05 PM on February 9, 2010

I really enjoyed The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books. They are charming and funny, with a great heroine.
posted by kimdog at 3:05 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't dismiss Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series as for young adults only. The audio version of the trilogy is quite good. It may be heavier and darker than you're looking for, but it is a well-told tale of good, evil, alternate universes, armored polar bears, soul-like animals and adventure.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:06 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, Dan Simmons is an excellent writer. His Endymion series is made up of four novels: Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion and Rise of Endymion. The first two are hardcore scifi. Somewhat dense. Consider starting in the middle of the series, with Endymion. It's a lighter fare "hero's journey" type of book that nutshells the events of the prior novels well, then tells a story in a completely different style than its predecessors.

The late Robert Aspirin's Myth Adventures series were aimed at young adults, but were still pretty good. Lots of humor and puns. Same with Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy and Eoin Colfer's Artemus series.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods and Good Omens.
posted by zarq at 3:07 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

More on the light and fun side of your requirements:

Candy Freak

Yes Man (completely different from the movie)
posted by dogwalker at 3:10 PM on February 9, 2010

If you've not read Bill Bryson, you might give him a try. He's smart and witty, yet accessible, and writes his travelogues in manageable vignettes that work well when you have only a short time to read and don't want to worry about losing the thread of the plot.

I'd personally start with "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and move forward and back chronologically in his travelogue output from there.
posted by drlith at 3:14 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you don't worry about being seen reading "comic books" in public,

Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman
Y, the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
posted by cross_impact at 3:18 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: Would you consider historical (well, semi-) fiction? I've enjoyed Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco novels. Think Sam Spade in a toga -- Falco is an informer in ancient Rome, and his investigations often involve wine, women (well, one high-class lady in particular) and danger, from the streets of the Aventine to the lead mines of Britain. Rollicking stuff, light but also jammed with the trivia of the time. Some of the novels are better than others, and, at least for me, they're better spaced out a bit rather than consumed one after the other.

I almost forgot about a similar series, Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody archaeological mysteries. The novels are (mostly) set in Egypt before and after the turn of the 20th century. Light and funny.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:19 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend my #1 favorite book ever, Milk Sulphate and Alby Starvation by Martin Millar.
I mean it's not for EVERYONE, but what decent book is??
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:26 PM on February 9, 2010

*Christopher Moore is great (especially Lamb: The gospel according to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal).
*Neil Gaiman-American Gods followed by Anansi Boys etc. (oh and Good Omens for the Gaiman/ Terry Pratchett combo)
*Spider Robinson wrote a wonderful series beginning with "Callahan's Crosstime Saloon" Sci-fi/comedy/good buddies/philosophy.

I know, these are all fantasy-ish but they're super fun.
posted by Iggley at 3:43 PM on February 9, 2010

For light reading, that's kind of sci-fi/fantasy(ish) try Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures series.
posted by patheral at 4:09 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: These are awesome! I can't wait to get to the library. Thank you for all the suggestions and please keep them coming. I've already read all five books of the Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy, so I'll look into the Dirk Gently series.

I may get myself banned for this, but I'm not really a fan of either Pratchett or Gaiman.
posted by Space Kitty at 4:10 PM on February 9, 2010

Whenever anyone mentions David Sedaris, I check to make sure they've read Jonathan Ames too. Same idea, not quite as clever, slightly raunchier, really gut-bustingly funny. If you don't mind LOLing on public trans, that is.

Seconding Spider Robinson. They're the punniest books I've ever read.

The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov is deliciously epic sci-fi that, should you need a break, can be read alongside some of his excellent robot detective novels (Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, etc.)
posted by carsonb at 4:15 PM on February 9, 2010

I see you're in LA - I absolutely love Michael Connelly's crime fiction, all set in the city. Los Angeles is as much of a character in his books as the people are. Be sure to read them in order.
posted by something something at 4:59 PM on February 9, 2010

Urg - the link should be this.
posted by something something at 5:03 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: David Sedaris led me to David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell, both funny, both smart.
posted by ersatzkat at 5:18 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really dig Dawn Powell--she definitely counts as funny, interesting, intelligent light reading. I can loan you the ones I have, if you want.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:22 PM on February 9, 2010

For scifi authors, I'd recommend Alastair Reynolds (an astrophysicist whose stories have the most believable and terrifying technologies I've read about) and Neal Asher (for good action).
posted by sninctown at 5:33 PM on February 9, 2010

Gail Parent wrote some of the funniest books I've ever read. Most of her novels are about unmarried Jewish girls in New York, similar to Sex in the City. Her books were written in the 1980's but do not seem dated.
posted by JujuB at 5:56 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: Sarah Vowell, of course! Love her stuff. It's on the list!
posted by Space Kitty at 6:06 PM on February 9, 2010

Fantasy but punny and 27 books in the series so far, the Xanth series by Piers Anthony.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:44 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nick Hornby is really fun to read. Humorous, but covers serious topics.

Have you tried Cisneros?
posted by eleanna at 6:52 PM on February 9, 2010

If you want something out of the ordinary and you like crime/supernatural fiction, I would recommend the Watch series by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko. There are 4 novels in the series, each broken into discrete sections. Also, I might recommend the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. The easiest way that I can describe them is if Harry Potter was raised by Mike Hammer.
posted by slavlin at 6:53 PM on February 9, 2010

China Mieville's Perdido Street Station has everything you could need for escapism: giant killer moth, birdmen living in crumbling apartment buildings, a Mayor who speaks with demons, and cactus people. And a nice little subplot about mutant labour strife to round things out. Bit of a mindfuck, the prose is overcooked at points, always teeters on the edge of absurd but never falls in. Definitely not for everyone, but it's richly imagined and unlike anything else. It was followed by Iron Council, set in the same world, though I never really got in to that one.

Since you said you like smart sci fi, you've probably already read William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but if not, run don't walk. Urusla LeGuin would be worth your time too. Her two best - Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness - aren't light fare, but there's plenty more, including a number of short fiction collections. And her wonderful Wizard of Earthsea series is technically for young adults, but then, so is Harry Potter. In fact, Earthsea did the "young wizard in training" thing first, albeit without the whimsy.
posted by regicide is good for you at 7:17 PM on February 9, 2010

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is absolutely addictive. They're like potato chips, those books. Though they are rather violent, and rarely funny, but highly entertaining all the same.
posted by zardoz at 7:47 PM on February 9, 2010

Seconding Nick Hornby.

But if you like Harry Potter and Sookie Stackhouse, I really think there might be more YA titles that you'd really enjoy (Sookie, I think, has more in common with many YA heroines than she does adult heroines--and I mean that in a good way). One recent book that I really, really loved was Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, which was a really, really fun and engaging book about a girl learning to hunt killer unicorns. I found it to be an awesome page turner.

And, if you like smart sci-fi, give Octavia Butler a shot. Adore just about everything written by her.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:57 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you tried Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum books?

They're on the trashiness spectrum near Sookie Stackhouse, but I like them a lot better. Honestly, there's so much hypothetically dumb stuff going on with these books that I forget why I like them, and then I pick one up and just dive right into it. And Stephanie ("a spunky combination of Nancy Drew and Dirty Harry") is a lot funnier and significantly less whiny than Sookie can be. The only thing the books are missing is Eric Northman (sigh).
posted by sallybrown at 8:10 PM on February 9, 2010

I think you'd like The Elegance of a Hedgehog . It doesn't seem like it falls under of the titles you've listed, but it is an incredibly witty and well written book. I wouldn't exactly call this the most light hearted book, but seeing how you liked David Sedaris, this ought to fit.

For some smart science fiction, Enders Game is a must read! You've probably already heard of it, or the series. Orson Scott Card in general is a nice bet in terms of science fiction.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:13 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" and its two sequels, all by Libba Bray, are smart escapist reading. This is a young adult series set in a Victorian girl's boarding school, starring 16-year-old Gemma Doyle who is beginning to realize that she can do magic. The trouble is, a dark force is afoot, her mother was recently murdered, her father's addicted to laudanum and her father's a prick. Oh, and dealing with teenage girls at boarding school can be rather trying. One could describe these books as female Harry Potter series. Libba Bray's not quite as strong a storyteller as JK Rowling, but she's more emotionally and politically astute.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:18 PM on February 9, 2010

You should try Barbara Hambly's Bride of the Rat God, which is a fantasy set in 1920's Hollywood. It's a hoot.
posted by gudrun at 9:26 PM on February 9, 2010

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is fun
and seconding Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:52 PM on February 9, 2010

Seconding the Libba Bray books, and for some smart YA sci-fi-ish thrillers, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Catching Fire (there's going to be a third book in the series coming out later this year). I'm ashamed to admit it, but I ate up Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments trilogy (she was a Harry Potter fanfic writer, and I hear the similarities between her published work and fanfic work are ridiculous).

Also, the Stephanie Plum books are pure trashy gold, they are fantastic. Someone recommended Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog up the thread- I would not have enjoyed that book nearly as much if I hadn't read her Doomsday Book before it. Both are extremely enjoyable.

Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series has been enrapturing me lately, it's smart and escapist, and there's a bunch of them.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:40 AM on February 10, 2010

Ooh, seconding Suzanne Collins, too. Great, great books.

I wasn't such a fan, but you might enjoy Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series also--fast paced, light sci-fi for teenagers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 AM on February 10, 2010

This is a great thread. I completely second Michael Connolly. (The Lincoln Lawyer alone is a fantastic book.)

One more thought: I've got mixed feelings about Terry Brooks, but really liked his trilogy, Running with the Demon, A Knight of the Word, and Angel Fire East.
posted by bearwife at 10:14 AM on February 10, 2010

Terry Pratchett may look like fantasy-humour, but really it's profound commentary on society, literature and the human condition. Only funny.

My huband really likes Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga; I adore her one-off novels -- The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt. Again they are (officially) fantasy, but the fantastical elements are really literary devices for contemplating things like the human soul.

I've noticed that you have a lot of fantasy/sci-fi recommendations in this thread. I suppose that's because mefi is a) geeky and b) a lot of great lighter but still smart literature is happening in these genres. Thematically and stylistically, there is a huge variation within the SF&F genres -- more so, I would say, than a more restrictive genre like romance literature. Think of it like genetic variation -- one SF&F book is more likely to be very different in style, plot and themes from another SF&F novel than a romance novel, or even genres like mystery of suspence (not dissing either -- I read romances sometimes precisely for their generic predictability which can be comforting).

The generic quality of SF&F is solely that the setting contains elements which are not possible in our current or past universe, and those elements are not primarily metaphorical (as in magic realism) but are considered to be a part of another world. But given that, anything goes. There are subgenres within the SF&F world -- the Tolkieneqsque epic fantasy (Tolkien, some Guy Gavriel Kay, Kate Elliot), the epic but not quite Tolkien-esque (Robin Hobb, other Guy Gavriel Kay), the intrigue and death court-based fantasy (like Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin), the almost-our-world-but-the-shadows-have-faries-or-gods-or-demons-or-all-three fantasy (famously Neil Gaimen, also Robin Hobb writing as Meghan Lindrom, some Tanya Huff), the lighter sword-and-sorcery novels where there is a vaguely medieval/rennaisance world in which magic is just another force (lots, but Tanya Huff is good on the light side) -- and I haven't even begun with the sci-fi yet. All of these genres have profoundly different writing styles and plot tendancies. I'm not really a fan of either the Tolkien-esque epics or the intrigue-and-death court epics, but I like some of the urban fantasy and light swords and sorcery and other epics (where epic just means many pages and probably life and death for thousands). I used to read a whole lot of sci-fi, but never did like the more science oriented sciency fiction, and gravitated towards that which used sci-fi settings merely as an excuse for exploring interesting social or psychological questions (like the Vorkosigan books).

Basically, I'm just saying that if you are clearer on what you like/do-not-like within the fantasy genre, you could help people cater recommendations to your taste. Some people, for example, just can't stand non-realistic elements in their fiction, which pretty well puts all SF&F outside their likes. (Yeah, they'll read insanely unrealistic historical or thriller or romance, but acknowledged lack of realism for some reason just doesn't work for them). Me, I don't know why, but I rarely like horror-fiction, for all that I like urban fantasy -- the few vampire/werewolfy books I like are relatively light books (with good humour) by Tayna Huff, and I much prefer her non-vampire books; ghost oriented books do nothing for me -- but fairies in the subway (ala Gaimen's Neverwhere), that's awesome.


On a different note: children's literature does include some of the best novels ever written -- smart, touching novels which are nonetheless (because they are suitable for less experienced readers) not hard-slogging like other literary classics. I grew up on novels like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Summer of My German Soldier, as well as older classics like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and The Chronicles of Narnia. Some read well as an adult, like Anne and My German Soldier (especially the sequel to that, which is essentially an adult novel); Little Women didn't age as well for me, but maybe that was because of the overtly Christian elements that I notice more now (though it's not a problem with most of Narnia).

Whether you would like other children's novels or young-adult novels really depends on why you don't like some -- if it's the style, plot, etc, of the pulp YA novels, I can definitely see not being interested. Just like adult books, there are a lot of not very good novels written every year. If it's the themes of childrens/YA that just doesn't interest -- generally the experiences of growing up, finding one's place in the world -- then you are less likely to like even the better novels, because they just don't speak to what you are interested in. Me, I love growing-up/bildungsroman stories, and read a lot of them as a consequence. (One of the best I've read is Entries from a hot pink notebook, which captures teenage angst better than anything I've ever read -- it was my Catcher in the Rye). Harry Potter is considered a bildungsroman, but I actually thought that the growing up part was a weaker part of the series -- J.K. Rowling captured how children think well, but her depictions of adolescents just don't ring true for me.
posted by jb at 1:18 PM on February 10, 2010

Agatha Christie novels! Especially the ones featuring Hercule Poirot. They're a "series" insofar as they have a recurring character and later books sometimes reference cases from earlier ones, but you can read them in any order and they will make sense. They're also great public transit books since they're short and easily digestible.

I often recommend the His Dark Materials series (Golden Compass, etc.) by Philip Pullman because I think they are just lovely. You might also enjoy The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud - they involve magic and history and have lots of the quirky footnotes similar to the Hitchhiker's Guide. I re-read these a lot.
posted by meggan at 3:20 PM on February 10, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events, although squarely in the YA field, is entertaining and intelligent enough that it's worth giving a read.

If you enjoy Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman has another set of books geared towards grownups that's pretty good, although the name of them eludes me. It's set in Victorian times and involves a sleuthing female financial advisor.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:03 PM on February 10, 2010

Response by poster: You know what's crap? I now have the best reading list of all time and every ounce of spare time has evaporated.

Thanks to everybody who made suggestions, I can't wait to get to these!
posted by Space Kitty at 12:46 PM on March 12, 2010

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