Highfalutin' Genre Fiction
November 4, 2013 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Give me your most well written genre fiction!

I want engaging, highly readable fiction in my life. My sense is I should look to genre fiction to meet this need. I was a huge scifi/fantasy fan as a teen and have read mysteries on and off, and I'm open to other genres too if they're super engaging and readable.

I have two limitations:

1) Prefer low on the sexism/racism spectrum please thank you. And feh to cliches in general.

2) Writing quality is absolutely most important to me. I want good skill and craft. No Dan Brown*. In my literary fiction life I've lately loved Roberto Bolaño, Vasily Grossman, Tove Jansson, Kenzaburo Oe, Jose Saramago. I'm just throwing out names I've liked lately that will help give you a sense of what I think of as "good writing", however, I am not looking for "literary" writing at the moment. I know about Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin, and feel free to point me to their best work, but I am posting this imagining writers who are less complex and deep than these two, but share their writing skill. I guess I'm imagining less ambitious than DIck or LeGuin, more skilled and complex than the Robert Asprin I enjoyed as a 15 year old.

Also, if you can point me to other reserouces for more ideas (like, was there a Tor.com blog series on great scifi from years past or something I should look at?)

Thanks so much in advance. I'll follow up if you have more specific questions about my taste.

* I hope this doesn't feel like a judgement if you love The Da Vinci Code. Reading is so personal, I'm just trying to be very precise in my description so I get recommendations that are right for me!
posted by latkes to Writing & Language (49 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
Michael Marshall Smith! I am a hopelessly pretentious snot when it comes to my reading material... I cannot abide crappy writing, not even on a plane or at the beach or what-have-you. This dude's sci-fi stuff, however, is an utter DELIGHT... clever, exciting, cheeky, even emotionally resonant at times. Start with "Only Forward" or "Spares".
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:18 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and also Dennis Lehane, if you like hard-boiled detective stuff... the dude's also an incongruously luminous light of the trade paperback set.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:20 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Since it seems like you like the European style, why not Stanislaw Lem?

I'm not sure whether John Crowley is more or less "complex and deep" than PKD and UKlG, but John Crowley is the best pure writer among SF writers (try ENGINE SUMMER.) He is is deeply weird, not at all bound by the usual genre conventions, but definitively SF.

Jonathan Lethem GUN WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC is certainly genre, maybe SF, maybe detective (Tor put it out), very well-written but not self-consciously "literary."

If you want something contemporary, Jo Walton's AMONG OTHERS is quite well-written, too.
posted by escabeche at 7:26 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am similarly discriminating/picky/a total snob (depending on who you ask).

Try A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. And if you want recommendations for Le Guin, I actually suggest her book of short stories The Compass Rose (if you like short stories).
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:27 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Came in to suggest 'A Fire Upon The Deep' and it's companion 'A deepness In The Sky'. So seconding showbiz_liz.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:31 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Justin Cronin's The Passage and The Twelve. They are the first two novels in a trilogy about a vampire apocolypse. Cronin went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and knows how to write amazing, vivid characters, but he can also keep a plot moving in a very gripping way. I am seriously on the edge of my seat waiting for the last book in the trilogy.
posted by lunasol at 7:33 PM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Octavia Butler! I am very picky about genre fiction in particular, and she is one of the few authors I love unreservedly. Thinking Kindred and Fledgling here in particular.

China Mieville's prose might be more flowery than what you're after, but if you're willing to overlook some of he grandiosity his world building is so inventive. You'll be able to figure out whether you like his general fantasy style within a few chapters of Perdido Street Station. (First and imho best of his Bas Lag books.) You might also check out The City and the City, his less verbose take on the hard-boiled detective story.
posted by ActionPopulated at 7:45 PM on November 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

John Le Carré is a must-read author. Many people love Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I preferred its sequels. The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, and The Looking-Glass War are all excellent as well.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:48 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

M. John Harrison's Light and the two books that follow it are fantastic.
posted by neroli at 7:50 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Frances Hardinge. She's slotted in as a YA author but holy moly her prose is enjoyable. Start with Fly By Night. I found her via Book Smugglers, who may be a good resource. Poke around their top-reviewed lists.

I also really love P.C. Hodgell's fantasy series - some big ideas with some brilliant humor. God Stalk is her first book.
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:50 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. It's an alternate history where Alaska becomes populated by Jewish refugees from the holocaust. It owes a lot to hard boiled detective fiction and I loved how it drew from that genre.

Some other genre fiction I've liked (I can't say that any of it has great writing, but the writing quality didn't bother me):

I quite enjoyed World War Z. Writing it as a fictional oral history worked really well.

In general Neal Stephenson is pretty good, although his strength is more world building and detail than writing per se (try Cryptonomicon).

William Gibson writes pretty well (Neuromancer is still my favorite, though dated; his more recent stuff is good but less fantastic).

Metafilter favorite Ted Chiang's stories are amazing.
posted by pombe at 7:51 PM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Peter Straub edited an anthology called Poe's Children. It's all horror, in the vein of what you're asking.

Peter Straub in general is like a more "sophisticated" Stephen King. When he's good, he's excellent. Check out Floating Dragon and Koko.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:52 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Carroll
Early Chabon
David Mitchell
and try Cormac McCarthy

years worth of good reading among them, but the links are to the books most likely to spark an interest based on what you've written.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:58 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have loved for a long time, in mystery: George Pelecanos.

Just discovered, fantasy, only read one book: Patricia McKillip (Alphabet of Thorn is what I just read).
posted by rtha at 8:02 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ruth Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine write phenomenal police procedurals, psychological thrillers, and mysteries.

I'm so sorry, because they're sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic by turns but even so, oh my God, Raymond Chandler can write books.

She eternally denies she's writing science fiction, but Margaret Atwood does exactly that and she usually does it pretty well.

(I can't read Cormac McCarthy because he eschews quotation marks and apostrophes but won't refrain from dialogue and contractions.)
posted by gingerest at 8:17 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

F/SF: Scott Lynch, Kage Baker, Nora K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, Neil Gaiman (too obvious?), Banana Yoshimoto (only occasionally tiptoeing into genre), Kij Johnson, Christopher Priest, Charles Stross, Jasper Fforde, Patricia McKillip.

Mysteries: Christopher Fowler, Miyuki Miyabe, Jasper Fforde (he also does mysteries), Sarah Waters (e.g. Fingersmith).
posted by wintersweet at 8:34 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Connie Willis' two part time travel mystery Blackout/All Clear. I can't link to it (on phone) but it's one of the best stories I've read this decade.
posted by troika at 8:36 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh! Tim Powers. And though he's only written one book so far, Daniel O'Malley.
posted by wintersweet at 8:37 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fritz Leiber, particularly in his Lankhmar / Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, was a Shakespearean actor who was one of the best pure writers among 20th century American fantasists. Incredibly witty and clever, deft and able to draw rich pictures with words.
posted by graymouser at 8:42 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think Daniel Abraham is one of the most interesting and original authors working in fantasy right now, and definitely skips a lot of the cliches associated with the genre.

One caveat: his books tend to be light on physical action, although his latest series, The Dagger and the Coin, does lean a bit more in that direction.
posted by Broseph at 9:08 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since it seems like you like the European style, why not Stanislaw Lem?

I'll second this. The Cyberiad is one of my favorite books.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Romance: Georgette Heyer. Start with The Grand Sophy or Cotillion.

Historical romance/swashing of the buckles: Dorothy Dunnett. Start with the Lymond Chronicles. Persist - it's worth it.

Patrick O'Brian - they really are as good as the fans say. The first can be safely skipped - it has much more "sailor talk" (and by that I mean literally sailor talk, "put the yardams in the f'c'sle etc" , not swearing) than the others.

Spy: Nthing Le Carre - he really is a strong writer, with his biggest strength being his prose. I personally find his pre 9/11 novels stronger, though be warned, if you read a couple his narratives are all broadly similar (much like Philip K Dick, I suppose).

Crime: Martin Cruz Smith, starting with the masterful Gorky Park (the sequel, Polar Star is as good. They're a bit more... typical after that though still good). Cruz Smith is one of the most under-rated modern literary writers, imho. Gorky Park is a great book with such an awareness of Russia and Russian literature.

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). The Parker books really are lean, mean, and the prose is so sharp you could shave with it. They are short, often brutal, and brutally compelling.

Also Nthing Chandler. People forget how good his prose is.

Western: Anything For Billy by Larry McMurtry. Leaner, more colourful and simply better than the much-more-famous Lonesome Dove, imho.

SciFi: Alfred Bester, the Demolished Man or Tiger Tiger/The Stars My Destination are both terrific. Unbelievably forward-looking as to where the genre would go.

Fantasy: The Roumania Quartet by Paul Park. Extraordinary books, cruelly undersold and under-acknowledged. They are sophisticated, clever, and wonderfully written with a pervading otherwordly sense.

Guy Gavriel Kay's books, whatever their other flaws are always beautifully written. Tigana is a good stand alone. The Sarantine Mosaic is another good place to start.

Note: I have attempted to pick genre books where I feel that the prose is genuinely a cut above. There are many other authors in these genres I enjoy and read regularly, but these represent the best prose amongst that bunch. It's a very personal assessment, however. I recommend you utilise the "look inside" feature on Amazon or whatever as these - and other recommendations from other mefites - may not be to your tastes.
posted by smoke at 9:16 PM on November 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

Nthing Connie Willis, but for To Say Nothing of the Dog, an earlier time travel mystery in the same series as Blackout/All Clear
posted by girih knot at 9:23 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Blind Man With a Pistol by Chester Himes. He's not high falutin, but really you must read his work.

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi.

And I too nth Le Carre. I've read Smiley's People about four times and could read it again right now.
posted by brookeb at 9:25 PM on November 4, 2013

Oh and if you're going to go with Connie Willis start with the book that started all the other time travel novels, Doomsday Book.
posted by brookeb at 9:31 PM on November 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Connie Willis is great! Just... avoid the one about the Titanic. There's a reason I found it in the free bin.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:41 PM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would just like to say, as a huge Patrick O'Brian fan, that I completely disagree with smoke about skipping the first volume of the series. In my opinion, it is entirely necessary for establishing the lead characters and is one of my absolute favorites. A great series, though the quality declines some towards the very end, imo.

Dashiell Hammett is a master of hardboiled detective fiction and a great writer - start with The Maltese Falcon, and if you like that, read the Continental Op stories (most are collected in The Continental Op and The Big Knockover) and then Red Harvest, a novel featuring the Op. Those are my favorites, but the rest are good too (tho I wasn't impressed by The Dain Curse).
posted by sumiami at 9:51 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, some more great mystery writers: Linda Lippman, writes really interesting books about twisty mysteries in Baltimore County (also happens to be David Simon's wife); seconding Dennis Lehane who does the same for Boston (though his can get a tad clunky in that exposition-heavy way that serialized detective novels often do); Tana French writes about detectives in Dublin - her novels are a bit more on the literary side, but still lots of fun.
posted by lunasol at 10:02 PM on November 4, 2013

In SF/Fantasy try:

Gene Wolfe

Robert Silverberg

J.G. Ballard

Iain M. Banks

Richard K. Morgan

In mysteries try:

Lawrence Block

Ross Macdonald

In both of the above and then some, try Charlie Huston
posted by soundguy99 at 10:18 PM on November 4, 2013

(Mefi's own) Charlie Stross. I recommend the "Laundry" series - here's a short story set in that universe.
posted by pmb at 10:47 PM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Karen Russell's short story collections are great (nearly every one involves some kind of fantastical hook, but it's 'literary' in style.) She also has a novel, which I haven't read, but which I've heard is (a) very good BUT (b) involves sexual violence in the climax.

Seconding Ted Chiang.
posted by kagredon at 10:50 PM on November 4, 2013

Try the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch.
posted by gudrun at 11:11 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Elmore Leonard, late and great
posted by philip-random at 12:09 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some authors who might fit (on phone, no links - sorry): Gene Wolfe, Ted Chiang, M. John Harrison, Samuel Delany, Christopher Priest, John Crowley, Mark Helprin, Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar.
posted by inire at 2:57 AM on November 5, 2013

Try James Sallis, author of Drive, upon which the movie is based, as well as many other fine books.
posted by dortmunder at 4:01 AM on November 5, 2013

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully written fantasy novel, set in an alternate Britain where magic is a real thing.

Maybe it's obvious, but: George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice And Fire" series (AKA the Game of Thrones series) is very well written as well.

I've never read Anything for Billy but I hope Smoke's comment won't turn you off Lonesome Dove, which is one of my all-time favorite novels.

Are you open to children's books? I loved Lloyd Alexanders "Chronicles of Prydain" series as a child, and I returned to it recently and was pleased to discover it is still funny, thrilling, and well-written.
posted by yankeefog at 5:39 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my opinion, some of the best writers in science fiction and fantasy: Christopher Barzak, Ted Chiang (as mentioned), Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Elizabeth Hand, Margo Lanagan, M. Rickert, Lucius Shepard, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne M. Valente.

They all write beautifully (I have a weakness for style), and their work is fresh. Even when they use familiar tropes, they do so in ways that feel unique.
posted by xenization at 6:37 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

John Crowley's Little, Big is gorgeously written.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 6:57 AM on November 5, 2013

Western: True Grit. Charles Portis is just the best. That novel would have been a beloved classic if it hadn't been for the John Wayne adaptation.
posted by LucretiusJones at 7:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just came in here to say Dorothy Dunnett but saw that someone else already had. I'm most of the way through the Lymond Chronicles and desperately waiting for the next one to come from the library (IN TRANSIT ok get here already). Definitely a little swashbuckly and high drama but just lots of fun and hard to put down. Some beautiful scene-setting, and real, human characters to balance the action scenes (though they're well-written and well-paced) and all the quote-slinging dialogue (witty sometimes to the point of opacity).
posted by little cow make small moo at 7:51 AM on November 5, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson
Theodore Sturgeon
Jim Thompson
posted by Chenko at 8:40 AM on November 5, 2013

Judging by the authors you've already listed, you probably know about NYRB classics. But if you don't, you should check them out. http://www.nybooks.com/books/ They have a lot of mystery or comic fiction in with their more "literary" plotted stuff. And many times, they're reprinting comic/satiric mid-century novels by women, which I think are both well written and entertaining.

I have enjoyed "The Fountain Overflows" by Rebecca West (sort of magical-realist autobiographical novel).

Comedy: "The Dud Avocado" by Elaine Dundy. "Great-Granny Webster" by Caroline Blackwood. (Not in NYRB, but if you read her books as light, frothy comedy, Georgette Heyer has some good stuff. My husband, who doesn't like romances-qua-romances, reads them as comedy but enjoys them.) And of course, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.
posted by Hypatia at 9:51 AM on November 5, 2013

Agree with sumiami that O'Brian's first book, Master and Commander, absolutely should not be skipped, and that his prose is fantastic.

Also, consider Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry. Very very funny. Very very well-written.
posted by bluejayway at 10:44 AM on November 5, 2013

Daniel Woodrell (of Winter's Bone fame)
posted by qldaddy at 2:35 PM on November 5, 2013

I definitely second the recommendation for China Mieville. I don't find his prose flowery (and I'm pretty allergic to flowery prose). It's wordy and weird and whimsical. He creates unbelievably detailed worlds and I love that he basically just throws you into the world with very little explanation of how it works. You figure it out as you go along. I really liked Railsea, Embassytown, and The City and The City. I thought Kraken was meh.

For historical fiction, Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up The Bodies"--the first two installments of a fictional trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell--are just wonderful, wonderful books. I just love them.
posted by elizeh at 2:36 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Y'all are great. Judging by the few recommendations I'm already familiar with and the explanations of why I might like others, I can tell these are exactly the sort of suggestions I was hoping for.

Just ordered the first few of these from the library, looking forward to reading as many as possible. Do keep them coming. Thank you!
posted by latkes at 4:03 PM on November 5, 2013

I was happily reminded recently of what a terrific read "Presumed Innocent" is. I've read it several times. I know how it ends. And yet I just listened to it on audiobook and just ate it up. I followed up with "Innocent", which is the actual sequel (The Burden of Proof was next published but Innocent is the sequel). While I don't think anything could ever live up to Presumed Innocent, Innocent came damn close. Edward Hermann read both on the audiobooks and he was great.

I also want to second elizeh's recommendations -- Mieville is funny -- some of his books just grab you by the neck and don't let go (Perdido Street Station, The City & the City, Embassytown) and some are so meh that they'll turn me off of his writing for literally a year or two.

And there is nothing better than Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will always be my favorites but she writes some astounding fiction.
posted by janey47 at 4:30 PM on November 5, 2013

For other resources, take a look at fivebooks.com -- they interview writers and experts on various topics and ask them to choose their five favorite books on the given topic, so, for example, Alison Weir is asked her perspective on historical fiction, Chad Harbach is asked about novels with sporting themes. Poking around on that site will whet your appetite for amazement.

This is a link to the "What Novelists Read" page. Here is a link to the "Language and the Mind" interview that I found fascinating. My one caveat with this site is that I have to restrict my own access -- every time I browse it I find at least one that I feel like I must have!
posted by janey47 at 5:10 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.

It was originally a serial novel published in New York Times magazine. It's a swashbuckling adventure set in the kaganate of Khazaria (now southwest Russia) around AD 950. It follows two Jewish bandits who become embroiled in a rebellion and a plot to restore a displaced Khazar prince to the throne.
posted by moons in june at 11:37 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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