book recs, read around the rainbow

Read Around the Rainbow: top three non-romance reads

The question for this month’s Read Around the Rainbow posts is…what are your top three non-romance reads? Which is a dreadful question, because how to even begin to narrow this down…? *gazes helplessly at bookshelves*

So I’ve decided…because there’s no way I can pick an overall top three, and the answer depends on the day!…to essentially do a top three in three categories: fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction (for a long time, primarily what I read for fun!); general fiction/mystery/historical fiction; and scholarly/academic works.

First up, fantasy! I think all three of these ended up being fantasy, in fact, though there’s some author/genre crossover.

One: Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn. Every time I read it I find something new—it’s a book that grows with you, that moves with you, that gives back what you bring to it and also gives you more. It’s about loneliness, and great grief and great sacrifice, and magic, and getting what you might’ve wanted, and regret, and above all it’s about what unicorns and princes and magicians and stories are made for. It’s beautiful.

Two: Terry Pratchett, Night Watch. It’s my favorite Discworld novel (though it’s not the one I recommend people start with, because it means more if you know the characters), for the complexity, the moral interrogation (the Boots theory!), the sheer powerful anger about people being treated like things, the humor, the sacrifice, and the sharp-edged compassion.

Three: Patricia A. McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe. McKillip’s prose is maybe the best I’ve ever read: luminous, lapidary, glowing, always a portrait in a sentence. Every line is a jewel-box, sometimes opening in unexpected ways, drenched in color and music and light and sometimes sea-salt or a raven’s wing or a stew-pot. And I have a soft spot for redemption stories and magicians; I love Atrix as a character, trying his best to make things right, even when he’s never known how.

Second, mystery/historical fiction/fiction!

One: Barbara Hambly, A Free Man of Color. Hambly is another one of the writers who’ve been the biggest influences on me: memorable characters, meticulous world-building, the ability to flip between evocative description and pointed dialogue in a sentence’s turn, and deeply literary—her prose is always rich with references and quotations. This one is the first in her Benjamin January historical mystery series, and maybe still the best—it draws you right into January’s complicated, multilayered, tension-laced, nineteenth-century world.

Two: Mary Renault, The Charioteer. Is this one sort of a romance? I mean…kind of, in the sense that one of the driving forces of the plot has to do with love, and what it is and what it means, and how it defines you and what you choose. But it’s really more of an extended character study, beautiful and bittersweet, full of characters and understated subtle moments that work more by implication than exposure, and it’s unforgettable.

Three: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret. I almost put Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone here, which is also great, but I think Braddon’s more fun to read, and more unified in terms of a single narrator, rather than multiple narratives connecting. And Braddon is indeed so much fun: one of the earliest detective novels, nineteenth-century sensation fiction, and a successful early female novelist! And this particular novel has murder, bigamy, Australian gold fields, insanity, arson, secret marriages, and people being pushed down old wells—I mean, what’s not to love? (I also personally want to read Robert—our detective—as bisexual/queer/demisexual, and probably in love with George, but that’s my romance-writer heart…)

Finally, academic/scholarly books!

First, Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic:Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. Luscious and beautifully researched work on medieval romance, scholarly but approachable (and with some gentle humor in the footnotes). This isn’t her newest book, but she does an excellent analysis of race, gender, early colonialism, and East-West encounters in the Middle Ages.

Second, Istvan Cicsery-Ronay Jr, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. It’s really just a lovely book: erudite, overflowing with knowledge, but also acknowledging the love that we as scholars have for our objects of study: we’re fans too, and science fiction is beautiful and grotesque and strange and pleasurable and fun.

Third, George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. One of the few academic books I’ve read more than once not for research but purely for pleasure! The wealth of historical detail is immense, the portraits of historical moments and characters are vivid and compelling, and it reconstructs a long and vibrant queer history: queer people are part of history, and were always here. (Along the same lines, I will also recommend Roland Betancourt’s Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages, and Greta LaFleur et al, Trans Historical: Gender Plurality before the Modern! Both excellent.)

Well, that’s definitely more than three—sorry! English professor and book nerd!—so I’ll stop there! Looking forward to seeing everyone else’s recommendations – links below!

Nell Iris

Ofelia Grand

Fiona Glass

Ellie Thomas

Amy Spector

Addison Albright

16 thoughts on “Read Around the Rainbow: top three non-romance reads”

    1. I’ve totally been reading through everyone’s posts and making a mental list! I also appreciate that several of us came up with 19th-century Gothic/sensation novels, like the Bram Stoker or the Mary Elizabeth Braddon. :p

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    1. I really just want everyone to read more Mary Elizabeth Braddon. :p

      I could’ve substituted a few others – there’s no Shakespeare on here, or early Robin Hood ballads, or graphic novels! – but I felt like this was a good range, from fantasy to mystery to scholarly! Though the very last one is sort of cheating because I snuck two more into the parenthetical…but those’re worth reading, and probably of interest to authors of queer historical romance! 😀

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  1. You’re cheating. 😉 But how lovely to find someone else who’s not only heard of The Last Unicorn, they love it too. And as for The Charioteer, that’s on my all time top 5 of any genre, ever.

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    1. It’s…um…three threes! Which is better than only one set of three, right…? :p

      The Last Unicorn is one of those books that you just keep coming back to, over the years and at different moments in time, and it’s never quite the same book, and different scenes or lines will stab you in the heart unexpectedly. I loved it when I was younger, and when I read it again in college, and when I read it again for research (Robin Hood related!) in grad school, and then again a couple of years ago. I’ve got three copies, or I used to – I can’t find the oldest one anymore. But I’ve got a signed copy and also a “reading and research purposes” copy!

      I’ve also realized that I managed to talk about The Charioteer and my love for Laurie (and Ralph! oh, Ralph…) and not mention, y’know, the fact that it’s a *gay* romance-adjacent novel. Good description, there, me. :p

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t re-read Unicorn for ages so I’ll have to dig it out and remind myself why I loved it all over again. As for the Charioteer, I could bang on about it forever, even if I still don’t understand some of the nuances!

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  2. Oh, this is so good. Made my think how have I never read Lady Audley’s Secret? and right I’ve been wanting to read The Moonstone again, and I could not agree harder about Patricia McKillip. Some of your luminous – I seem to always use that word about your writing – evocative animating of the material world reminds me of her lush, shimmering language. Now I’m off to reread Beagle and Atrix Wolfe and my TBR is HATING this rainbow thing.

    So, where DO you suggest people start with Pratchett? I’ve read some randomly over the years, but would like to be more systematic. And I want to read the book where the boots analogy comes from but I am an originalist and I always want to read What Comes First.

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    1. Lady Audley’s Secret is a delight! I’m amazed no one’s done a lavish mini-series adaptation yet – so much drama! Such spectacle! Memorable characters and plot twists! (I also recall, when reading it in a grad school seminar on sensation fiction, our professor going, “…SOME scholars have done a queer reading of this novel, here’s one of those articles because you should know about those arguments, but REMEMBER, we should be careful applying modern categories to older texts…” and me and the other non-straight students just being like, “okay but Robert is totally in love with George, right? that’s…obvious? like, if we’re not supposed to read it that way, how on earth are we supposed to read it? and also he’s probably somewhere on the ace/demisexual spectrum, right? like, this book opens with him not only avoiding marriage but being distressed by the whole idea and uncomfortable with the idea of sex, and the one thing he cares about, the thing that motivates him and turns him into a detective, is George disappearing, right? and the girl he ends up with is literally George’s sister and the text makes a fairly relentless point of *just how much* she resembles her brother and it’s so clearly an “oops we need Robert to be less queer, ahaha, here’s a Girl so it’s Not Gay” moment, except that only makes it more obvious) (I kind of want to write the Gay Version, actually, now…)

      Pratchett…for non-Discworld, I always suggest starting with Nation; it’s the book he himself called his favorite! It does a beautiful job with…grief, and rage, and hope, and rebuilding, and that very Pratchett brand of productive anger, the anger that looks at the world and says, this is unfair and people are being hurt, I need to do something, I need to protect them–! It’s also an interesting interrogation of colonialism – imperfect by nature since STP is inescapably an old white British man, but a very clear and explicit rejection of the colonial impulse, and celebration of empathy instead.

      For Discworld, I usually suggest people start with Small Gods – it’s a stand-alone (relatively) so it doesn’t matter about not knowing the characters first, it’s a good example of what I think of as the ‘middle’ Discworld novels (he’s settled into his voice and style, but it’s a little less self-referential than some of the later books), and it’s a fantastic and incisive look at organized religion, Greek philosophy, engineering, and compassion. Witches Abroad is also pretty good but leans a little more parody (he’s still doing some random digressions just for fun, and they’re often hilarious, but it’s less tightly focused than some of the later books – though the moral center is there, and it’s strong, and that’s the book that first articulates Pratchett’s theory about stories and narrative causality) (it’s not the first in the Witches subset but it’s a stronger starting point than, say, Equal Rites – STP himself used to tell people to skip the first few Discworld novels, in fact!).

      The first in the City Watch subset (which will eventually get you to Night Watch, which is still the best, at least in my opinion!) is Guards! Guards!, which, like a lot of the early novels, is a little more on the parody side (but very very funny, especially as a parody of Epic Fantasy!) – the City Watch books get better and better as they become more and more about character, but that also means they’re harder to just jump into in a later book; I’m inclined to suggest starting with Jingo (excellent, excellent satire of politics and war and patriotism and prejudice) and then going back (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay) and then forward (The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff, and sort of tangentially Monstrous Regiment, because Sam Vimes shows up as a supporting character). (Actually Monstrous Regiment is a decent jumping-in point, aside from maybe a little less depth if you don’t know who Vimes is, but the actual main characters are new in that book, and it does some interesting things with feminism and war and gender and crossdressing and the military….)

      The last one that I tend to suggest is The Truth, which is also (more or less) a stand-alone and a marvelous commentary on journalism, the printing press, class warfare, and ethical responsibility, and also language itself. 🙂

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