enjoyable reads that won't rot my brain
March 14, 2017 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I've been enjoying fun fantasy books but slowly have been feeling my brain become fluff. Anything I've been finding as critically acclaimed/recommended for excellent writing just seem to be full of drama, betrayals, and sadness. Any recommendations for an excellently written and enjoyable book?

I generally enjoy books with happy endings, solid friendships, women leads, some romance, tons of adventure, etc. (See prior book AskMes: 1 and 2. Can be whatever genre (not YA), I'd be happy to read more fantasy or branch out.
posted by inevitability to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Martha Wells, specifically her first book The Element of Fire. (It's her first book and is old by now so it's very inexpensive on Kindle. Her books are generally excellent but I adore this one because it buckles my swash. It has some sad elements, but it ends happily, a woman is co-lead and there are other strong female characters present, and it has adventure and romance.
posted by PussKillian at 9:39 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Uprooted by Naomi Novik was recomended a couple times in your last ask - if you haven't read it yet, you should definitely give it a shot. Like you, I'm a total snob about writing, and I loved it. I wound up getting another copy for my mom for Christmas. It ticks all of your boxes (happy endings, solid friendships, women leads, some romance, tons of adventure).
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:39 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

The Three Body Problem.
posted by miyabo at 9:44 AM on March 14

Landline by Rainbow Rowell.

(That "(not YA)" hurts! It hurts so bad!)
posted by jillithd at 9:44 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]

The Three Body Problem.

That book is pretty much the polar opposite of a fun fantasy romp with a happy ending!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:48 AM on March 14 [13 favorites]

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:48 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin! One of my two favorite books!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:51 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Version Control, by Dexter Palmer. It has a woman lead who has a lot of agency, an exploration of friendships/romantic relationships and how they change over the years, and is also some solid near-future sci-fi. The protagonist does have something tragic happen to her, but I ultimately think the book has a happyish, satisfying ending.
posted by topophilia at 9:55 AM on March 14

You might like Ali Smith's How To Be Both, which will give your brain something to chew on but is generally uplifting and has a strong emphasis on relationships between girls/women.
posted by praemunire at 9:56 AM on March 14

Not fantasy, but I've been on a big John McPhee kick recently. Very enjoyable.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:03 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]

You could check out Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist's Empire trilogy, starting with Daughter of the Empire. I thoroughly enjoyed it at least.
posted by General Malaise at 10:10 AM on March 14


Have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell?

Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book is a very happy book.

Niccola Griffith's novel Ammonite is a swashbuckling adventure tale set on a planet of women. There are some sad plot events, but basically it's a happy book with a cheerful ending.

Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn and Folk of the Air are a little melancholy in places but are very nicely written and basically happy.

Angela Carter's novels Nights at the Circus and Wise Children are beautifully written fantasy/magic realism which are truly sunny in outlook, particularly the second one.

Sarah Tolmie's The Stone Boatmen is strange, beautifully written, extremely engaging and has a...well, happy isn't quite the right word, but "optimistic about the world" ending. I recommend it highly.

Angelica Gorodischer's books Trafalger and Kalpa Imperial are odd and engrossing (very Borgesian) and may not leave you in a "woo-hoo happy" mood but I find them very soothing.

Have you read Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits and Eva Luna stories? Again, not entirely happy but very calming.
posted by Frowner at 10:14 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]

The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa.

Not a female lead. Spoilers: Minority, identity, myth, layers of overlapping fantasy/reality, a kind of happy ending.
posted by runcifex at 10:19 AM on March 14

A Wizard of Earthsea is a classic, and while written for a younger audience, the writing and themes are universally enjoyable.

Vance's Dying Earth books are often darker in tone, but they aren't depressing and stressful in the GRRM style.
posted by howfar at 10:23 AM on March 14

Enjoyable and not overly sad:

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Good House by Ann Leary
posted by loveandhappiness at 10:23 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]

If you're not ruling out genre entirely, murder mysteries? Specifically, PD James, Agatha Christie, and the Phryne Fisher series. The first two are really tight, well plotted and written mysteries (obviously) that usually wrap up with the bad guy found/punished (also obviously, there are dead bodies along the way). There's also an adorable Christie thriller, They Came to Baghdad, with a female lead that's pretty silly but charming and needs to be made into a movie. The Phryne Fisher series is maybe not so 'ploty' or well written but they definitely have the characteristics you're looking for.
posted by hydrobatidae at 10:29 AM on March 14

Came in to suggest Angela Carter's Wise Children. My go-to comfort read. "happy endings, solid friendships, women leads, some romance, tons of adventure" is a solid synopsis of its plot.
posted by corvine at 10:39 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

I've recommended it before, but Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is an easy-to-read, but enjoyable historical novel. I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction, but this one just draws you in. I'm not sure it's critically acclaimed, but it's well-written, not fantasy. It has dramatic suspense, some romance, and a strong female lead.

I'd also recommend The Great Gatsby for drama and a bit of romance. It's a great read.
posted by hydra77 at 10:42 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Oh, and how could I forget: Circle of Friends. The movie is great. The book is even better. All strong female leads, with some romance, and great friendship thrown in. Bonus: If you like Irish accents, you get to hear them in your head as you're reading her words.

Please read Maeve Binchy. (I read another of her books, and it was fabulous, unfortunately, I am completely blanking on the title of that one.)
posted by hydra77 at 10:47 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Jane Austen?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
I don't know if you would consider this more of the fluffy fantasy you want to get away from, but also Charles de Lint
posted by katieanne at 10:52 AM on March 14

I though the Goblin Emperor was a pleasantly gentle book.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:13 AM on March 14 [10 favorites]

Have you read anything by Connie Willis? For instance, Blackout and All Clear.
posted by Redstart at 11:33 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]

I just finished All the Birds in the Sky and really liked it - it seems to fit what you're looking for. I also always recommend Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World - not quite a female lead, but very important ass-kicking female character.

I second Connie Willis, especially To Say Nothing of the Dog, but if you want fun, you should stay away from The Doomsday Book, which is excellent, but bleak as hell.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:39 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Ooh, I have just the books for you!!

Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. (Unfortunately on my mobile, hard to link to amazon website).

The main character is Thursday Next, a female detective who investigates literary and other crimes in the Book World. There is time travel, entropy, genetically-modified food, the end of the world, and a lot of literary allusions -- Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations to name some books. The one I remember best was where Thursday Next stepped into Jane Eyre book and interacts with Rochester (is that his name??), who was the male lead and falls in love with Jane Eyre. Won't spoil the ending for you (literally), but Thursday literally changes the ending of Jane Eyre.

Fun to read, with science! adventure! mystery! romance! And filled with literary allusions and with mostly happy endings!
posted by moiraine at 11:51 AM on March 14 [6 favorites]

Juuuust finished reading the last word in Suzette Haden Elgin's Ozark Trilogy. I regret not reading it years earlier, so that this could've been a reread. I've read some of Elgin's other work before and got a lot out of it, but for some reason hadn't gotten around to these books. They're not perfect, but they're different, and they fit all your criteria to some degree.

Also, while I know Rosemary Kirstein has been recommended in both your previous questions, there's no word about whether you've tried her books, so I'll post the obligatory rec. Librarian and barbarian meet cute, have adventures, learn neat stuff about the world. Try to avoid spoilery reviews.
posted by asperity at 11:51 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

Oh yes, you must read the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. It's one of those series you almost wish you hadn't read so you could read it again for the first time. They're fantastic. And not simple.
posted by mirabelle at 1:25 PM on March 14

I've just finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was on the Booker short list, so it has the "good writing" cred, but it's also an uplifting book, I felt. It's hard for a bit in some places, but yeah.

There's no real romance, so there's that, but there's an awesome relationship between a 14 year old girl and her great grandmother that is a joy to read. The protagonists are both women. Hm, it's also a little short on adventure, so I don't know, but I'm recommending it anyway. I also love fantasy and a lot of the stuff you list here are also my love-a-book buttons, so.

As far as good writing plus fantasy, it's worth taking a look at Hugo winners and such (though be careful of the finalists, because of Puppies and some messy skewing over the past few years). I love Connie Willis to pieces (though if you happen to be British I hear she can induce rage with some bad research). NK Jemisin's Fifth Season is, well, actually, bleak as hell, so nevermind, but god it's good.

A little clarification on what you consider fluff would probably help. I mean, are you reading the Drizzt books and watching your brain rot, or are you reading the best the fantasy genre has to offer and going "but it's not poetic and thinky enough?" Like, there's a lot of very solid writing out there that isn't necessarily high art, but the stories are good fun and well told, like the Rivers of London series, or Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, or basically anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (except I'm a little meh on the Sharing Knife stuff). There is suffering in all of this stuff, but it tends to end happily. In this vein, others have recommended Uprooted and The Goblin Emperor, which YES. Uprooted is especially well matched to your request. If you're into YA, Ash by Malinda Lo is another good one in that vein. And basically any of Ursula Vernon's fairy tale stuff that she writes as T. Kingfisher.

Also, I am so very not a fan of the Thursday Next books. I mean, hell, I'm outnumbered here, so what do I know, but they're so self-knowingly post-modern that they end up feeling bleak and un-fun to me.
posted by hought20 at 6:17 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]

Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher. Long, lovely, deeply absorbing story about good people. Really Big Things happen in a way that makes you want to keep reading instead of hide under the sofa, and everyone ends up okay.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. Time-Travel, Croquet, Garden Fetes, Absolutely Atrocious Victorian art, a bulldog and a Very Bad Cat, Romance in spite of itself, and a pressing need to stop the world turning out wrong.
(whoops - saw that this has already been recommended. I'll recommend the recommendation then. + 1000-billion. It's my big-ass happy-read fantasy book.)

Mockingbird, by Sean Stewart. Fantasy novel about good people in a Houston that isn't quite the place you'd reckon it is.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. The characters are certainly living in a fantasy - a very big-hearted one.

And if you haven't dug into the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker and Dirk Gently Novels, I reckon they'd fit your bill perfectly.
posted by tabubilgirl at 6:31 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]

Also - seconding the reccomendation to avoid Jemsin's Fifth Season books. I read them when i needed something uplifting and ended up hiding under a quilt with a LOT of chocolate.
posted by tabubilgirl at 6:33 PM on March 14

The Hilary Tamar mysteries by Sarah Caudwell. They're basically about a group of barristers in London and their professor friend, Hilary Tamar, solving mysteries.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 6:35 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Thanks all! Can't wait to look into the book recs.

In terms of fluff, I've recently finished Anne Bishop's The Others and Ilona Andrew's Innkeeper series. While totally enjoyable reads, not particularly complex in writing or storyline. I started looking through recent literary award lists for something else that may work the brain more but they all seem like depressing or not so enjoyable reads. Hope that clarifies it a bit.
posted by inevitability at 7:45 PM on March 14

I really like Terry Pratchett---they're light, but clever, and no bad stuff happens to people. You might like Small Gods or Going Postal.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:51 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]

Favourite picks from 2016:
- Have you read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? I know it's probably classified as YA but it's EXCELLENT!! I loved it!
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- I loved Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Are you open to non-fiction? I liked Philosophy Gym a lot
- Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett was kinda silly but I liked it
- Are you a feminist? If so you might enjoy A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf even though it is kind of disorganized. It really articulated some of the things I've been experiencing.
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 4:45 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

His Dark Materials is definitely excellent, but not exactly happy - upon completing her second read of the series, my wife had to call in sad to work and spend the day snuggling the dog.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:00 AM on March 15 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure either of these has tons of adventure, but I definitely enjoyed "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" and "2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas."
posted by kristi at 10:00 AM on March 17

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