Category Archives: books

Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

The Shadow of the Torturer, a science fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer is a science fantasy novel written by Gene Wolfe. A favorite among fantasy fans for decades and the first in the series The Book of the New Sun, it is usually forgotten in lieu of its later descendants…and for good reason.

Shadow’s only saving grace is its highly literary writing style which is polished and masterfully executed. However, that is the only good thing to be said about this book. This reviewer can’t help but wondMinimalist Review of science fantasy novel Shadow of the Torturer book by Gene Wolfeer how many people were blinded into thinking this book belongs on the shelf of greatness due to its excellent writing style and not for its merits of storytelling, of which mastery is entirely absent. In fact, the technical elements of the story are so poorly handled that it feels written by a first time amateur who doesn’t know what he is doing.

The Shadow of the Torturer starts with the idea that an insular guild of torturers produce sheltered individuals who do poorly when dealing with reality and the outside world. But that’s as far as the story goes with it. From there, the plot devolves into a masturbatory wandering through a directionless plot that has little to do with the story’s setup. Its gimmicky ending cuts the story off mid-action without ever deciding what the story is going to be about or without any type of conclusion. The only connective tissue between the first and second parts of the story is a long-winded setup for the explosive mess that follows it.

Exposition is delivered in an unskilled, forced manner. World-building lore and history rarely pertains to the plot or the events at hand. At one point the main character asks his companion if she would like to hear a story and she turns him down, so he TELLS IT ANYWAY. OUT LOUD. TO HIMSELF.

The world in which the story is set is simple, inorganic and incomplete to the point that it is difficult to get a grasp on its sociological elements. Its neatly containered societies are too neat and easy, the cultures being completely non-present in day-to-day life. The author introduces new concepts seemingly to just introduce them. Rarely do these concepts become relevant to the story and even more rarely do their setups have any payoffs.

Although several thematic elements establish themselves early—presumably for a thoughtful exploration later on— no such examination ever takes place. Even the title, The Shadow of the Torturer, promises a wealth of thematic material as a central spine but fails to deliver in any form.

What passes for characters in Shadow are more akin to two-dimensional sheets of gray paper than actual living, breathing beings. Their complete lack of depth or imagination can be seen in the way they react like vague clichés of characters borrowed from the 1940s pulp era. And while several characters are presented with interesting setups, none of their story arcs ever deliver a meaningful payoff.

The main character is the only exception to the rule. His inner emotional life is visceral and effective, and certain details of his person add interesting dimensions to his character, such as his perfect memory. But ultimately even these facets of his character serve no purpose in advancing or enriching the story.

The protagonist lacks a strong motivation or drive to seek his goal. He spends most of his time falling into the company of characters unrelated to the main through-line and letting them direct him from one pointless task to another, consuming nearly two-thirds of the book in nonsense shenanigans and depriving the reader of a more substantial experience. Finally, most (if not all) of the inter-character relationships play out to like juvenile wish fulfillment subplots of the protagonist, and not relationships of believability or value.

Granted, The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in a cycle of four, all of which were written and completed before Shadow was published, so many of the issues that arise in the first book are likely (read: hopefully) addressed in others. In fact, the vast majority of the fanatical acclaim associated Shadow groups it with other books from the series and not as a standalone. However, being part of an award-winning series does not excuse the story from lacking the basic ability to stand on its own.

The Shadow of the Torturer has received much praise over the years. It is sad to think that such a poorly-crafted novel has been so lauded, as if the genres of fantasy, science fantasy and speculative fiction were so sorely lacking for quality content that Shadow stands above the rest as a mark of excellence. It is also interesting to note that while the book is worshiped as sacred and sacrosanct, seldom do adherents actually say WHAT is so good about it, probably because evidence is remarkably scant.

An interesting read for the curious mind and perhaps of significant importance to those willing to read the entire series, but for this reader the experience was nothing less than infuriating.

Rating: 2 / 5

10 Great Books to Read Before You Die

1. 1632 by Eric Flint

(sci-fi, alternate history)

book cover for alt history fiction novel 1632 by Eric Flint a book to read before you dieA small West Virginia town is transported from the year 2000 to the year 1632 in central Germany during the midst of the Thirty Years’ War due to an alien technology called the Assiti Shards.

You’ve probably never heard of 1632, Eric Flint or the Thirty Years’ War, have you? Let’s start by pointing out that the Thirty Years’ War was among the deadliest in human history and almost no one has ever written fiction or fantasy about them. As to Eric Flint…he wrote a book called 1632, a novel with a concept that sounds so horribly bad there is no way it can be any good. But it is. And not just good, but great. Flint tackles his premise with elegant execution that ensnares the reader in a strange and unique world and makes us love him for it. Available on Amazon.com.

Read my Minimalist Review of 1632!

2. 1984 by George Orwell

book cover for classic fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell a book to read before you die

(sci-fi, literary)

Set in a dystopian socialist future, a low level bureaucrat goes in search of a rebel organization that promotes free thought, only to find himself ensnared in a devious government plot.

Orwell’s masterpiece is one long illustration of why communism is evil and in so doing creates one of the greatest and most haunting futuristic worlds in all of literature. 1984 is one of the few books with an overt message that isn’t beaten over your head every five minutes. If you walk away from this book with a new-found fear of rats eating your face off, we will understand. Available on Amazon.com.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker

book cover for classic horror novel Dracula by Bram Stoker a book to read before you die(horror, literary)

A young engaged couple is haunted by nocturnal visits of a reclusive vampire named Dracula. With the help of Prof. Van Helsing they follow the vampire across Europe in an effort put a stop to his long trail of gruesome murders.

This classic vampire tale is widely regarded as one of the best horror novels ever written. Bram Stoker uses implication and psychological terror to spur the reader’s imagination and heighten emotions. Everything Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer wrote derives from this source. Except for Nosferatu, no one has ever been able to make a decent screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s best novel. Available on Amazon.com.

4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

book cover for sci-fi fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card a book to read before you die(sci-fi)

A young boy goes to battle school in preparation for war against a hive-minded insectoid alien race but soon discovers that he alone is central to winning it.

Just as Dracula is one of horror’s best, Ender’s Game is one of sci-fi’s greatest. Originally a novelette, Orson Scott Card later expanded the story into a full-blown novel. With one of the biggest and most emotionally devastating twists in all of readingdom, Card knocks this one out of the park with a story like no other. It’s kind of like a vanilla Full Metal Jacket in space, but without as much Vincent D’Onofrio. Ender’s Game (2013) has also been recently adapted into a feature film starring Harrison Ford. Available on Amazon.com.

5. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

book cover for horror thriller novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson a book to read before you die

(horror, thriller)

A lone survivor barricades himself in his home while the dead come back to life and cover the earth.

This is where it all began. Before Anne Rice and George A. Romero there was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend which introduced both zombies and vampires into the same story of post-apocalyptic survival and paranoia all the way back in 1954. In spite of being an absolutely incredible story, much was lost in its adaptation from page to the silver screen, including the most thought-provoking ending in all of undead literature. Our condolences to Richard Matheson‘s family; he passed on June 23, 2013. Available on Amazon.com.

6. Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

book cover for literary fiction novel Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan a book to read before you die

(literary)

A group of American tourists disappear in the political uncertain country of Burma (Myanmar).

Combine a group of tourists who find themselves lost in the backwoods of a third world country with a character-centric story by novelist Amy Tan and what do you get? A perfectly constructed novel called Saving Fish from Drowning. You may recognize Amy Tan from her famed Joy Luck Club, but sadly Saving Fish doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Available on Amazon.com.

7. Sphere by Michael Crichton

book cover for science fiction novel Sphere by Michael Crichton a book to read before you die

(sci-fi, thriller)

A psychologist is sent to a military science base on the bottom of the ocean floor where a mysterious airplane has crashed.

While Sphere is easily author Michael Crichton’s best novel, the movie adaptation does the book little justice. And trust me, the plot sounds cheesier than the actual execution. Using an introspective protagonist to analyze a mysterious brain-wrenching plot, Crichton navigates the reader through certainty, doubt and speculation and into an immersive science fiction experience. Available on Amazon.com.

8. The Giver by Lois Lowry

book cover for young adult science fiction novel The Giver by Lois Lowry a book to read before you die

(YA, sci-fi)

In a seemingly utopian society, a 12-year old boy enters training to become the new “Receiver of Memory” and comes to realize that their utopian society has eliminated all individuality and emotion.

Even though The Giver is intended for middle schoolers it is worth the quick read. Sporting a beautiful story with a universal message, Lois Lowry‘s Newbery Medal winner expounds the values of art, individuality and deep emotion better than most adult novels. Available on Amazon.com.

9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

book cover for classic literary novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper a book to read before you die

(literary)

Two young children in the American south experience racism first-hand as their father, a lawyer, attempts to defend an African American in a small town court.

There’s a reason To Kill a Mockingbird appears on every high school lit class syllabus. It’s beautiful. It’s terrible. And it is still one of the most effective works of fiction about racism and inequality ever written. For an added bonus, read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were close friends as children and the pair appears in both novels in two different but fascinating interpretations. Mockingbird and Other Voices are both available on Amazon.com.

10. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

book cover for revisionist oz fiction Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire a book to read before you die

(fantasy, literary)

A revisionist version of L. Frank Baum’s original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which follows Elphaba as she faces a series of misfortunes that ultimately turn her into the Wicked Witch of the West.

It’s a shame this book has been nearly forgotten in the shadow of its sequels and the hit Broadway musical of the same name. Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked is truly a work of art in the form of a literary novel which thoroughly examines the nature of good and evil through a lengthy, in-depth discussion of surprising gravity. Available on Amazon.com.

Read my Minimalist Review of Wicked!

5 books that didn’t make the list (but you should read anyway):

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (fantasy): A fully-realized fantasy world starring a large cast in a character-centric fantasy epic.  Available on Amazon.com.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (sci-fi, thriller): If there is ever a way to revitalize your childhood love for dinosaurs, this is the book is the way to do it.  Available on Amazon.com.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (mystery): A dark mystery novel featuring one of the most interesting characters to hit the written page. Adapted into several films, including [list here].  Available on Amazon.com.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (sci-fi, thriller) One of the most intense books you will ever read.  Available on Amazon.com.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (literary, war): A haunting, surreal account of chaos in war.  Available on Amazon.com.

Starship Troopers, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein

A nearly forgotten military sci-fi classic by author Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers pushes science fiction beyond the commonplace genre novel toward the realm of literary fiction and its penchant for universal truth. By setting the story in a futuristic fictional setting, the author disassociates the book with any specific real-world war, allowing him to focus on a thorough examination of theme and moral philosophy.

Part science fiction novel, part moral essay, Starship Troopers devotes considerable time to philosophizing about the role of the soldier, the military, and the obligations of individuals in a collective society, especially to their fellow man. Drawing from the author’s own experience in the Armed Forces, Heinlein uses his well thought-out universe to constructively criticize the faults of American society through the eyes of a militaristic fascist one.

front book cover for science fiction novel Starship Troopers written by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein

The novel’s thematic backbone creates a solid skeleton through which to elegantly explore the psychology of the soldier, specifically the infantryman, as he graduates through the various phases of his career from pre-enlisted civilian through mature officer. Heinlein also explores adjacent branches of this theme tree, including the developing relationship between master and student, commander and enlisted man, and father and son. With each new step toward maturity the protagonist sees the military machine with greater discernment and understanding (the military organization being a thematic substitute for ‘the world’ because in this case the military is the protagonist’s world).

Despite being published in 1959, Starship Troopers provides the experience of reading a novel written 10 or 20 years later than its actual publication date. Unfortunately, the dated dialogue continually bursts this illusion, ever reminding us that the novel was written in the 1950s. An over-use of unnecessary dialogue hedges such as “Uh” and “Umm” at the beginning of character responses slows the pace of many scenes and takes the reader out of the world of the story.

Readers expecting heart pumping action and thrilling space battles will be sorely disappointed in Starship Troopers. Heinlein deliberately steers clear of these tropes by means of the anti-“war genre” (e.g., anti-genre) to maintain focus on his themes and the insightful exposure of a combat soldier’s psychological journey. Despite the agedness of the book, many of his philosophical ideas remain universally valid to this day.

Starship Troopers was adapted for the big screen in 1997 by writer Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner

Book cover for As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner, on Minimalist Reviews.By James Gilmore

As I Lay Dying examines the uncensored inner monologue of family members experiencing deep grief in what is more aptly titled a work of narrative poetry than literary fiction. Seemingly written in a single fever-pitch binge, Faulkner’s poignant discourse and extensive use of symbolism comes to the reader through the enigmatic filter of the inner mind.

As I Lay Dying warrants close study and an open mind. It is not for everyone.

Rating:  4 / 5

1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint

By James Gilmore

Eric Flint’s 1632 is an alternative history science fiction novel about a small town in present day West Virginia that is suddenly transported back in time to Germany during the devastating Thirty Years’ War in the year 1632.  At its heart, 1632 is a romantic view of classic American ideals clashing with and conquering those of the oppressed, war-torn 17th century continental Europe, pushing normal small town folk into extraordinary circumstances.

Book cover for 1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint, on Minimalist Reviews.

Eric Flint executes the unusual and exceptionally difficult premise with marvelous ease and methodical reasoning, exploring the promise of the premise with detailed thoroughness.  Despite reviews which misleadingly describe the book as “action packed”  1632 is mostly a relationship-oriented piece with a few periods of intense action counterpointed against extended laconic sections of blossoming romance.

The plentiful characters populating the novel surprise the reader with their variance, color, and very human likeability, which makes the exploration their relationships a pleasure, even if the story does get bogged down in a disproportionate amount of romance during the second act.  The large cast prevents great depth in character development.  Regardless, it’s obvious to the reader that Flint is an author who genuinely loves his characters.

One of the greatest shortcomings of 1632 is its failure to live up to the high stakes generated by the premise.  Main characters have things pretty easy and rarely (if ever) actually lose anything of value, while any obstacles that do arise are circumvented without great difficulty.  Greater challenges and higher stakes conflict are needed in a world where innumerable dangers lurk in the shadows.  Unfortunately, the dangers threaten but seldom actually emerge from the periphery.

Eric Flint’s 1632 may be an acquired taste for most, but don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you are in the mood for something new, unique and quasi-historical.

Rating:  3.5 / 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery thriller novel by Stieg Larsson (“Quickie” Review)

By James Gilmore

Book cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery thriller novel by Stieg Larsson, on Minimalist Reviews.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is an altogether pleasurable and smooth read, even in spite of the frequent, overly burdensome exposition and a vast proliferation of details almost too numerous for the reader to continually to keep in mind, requiring an extra dosage of concentration while reading.

As for the character of Lisbeth Salander, she is one of the most fascinating, inescapably magnetic characters in modern fiction, a curiosity or enigma that sucks us into slavering to learn more about her.

The author Stieg Larsson passed away on November 9, 2004.

Rating:  4 / 5