Mind Meld: Books We Want to Bring into the Spotlight

This month I reached out to many of our previous Mind Melders to chat about the books they always find themselves thrusting upon their fellow readers.

Tell us about a book that was particularly amazing, possibly one that flew under everyone’s radar, that you always find yourself recommending to people.

These are the books you constantly bring up in conversations. You always have at least one copy on your shelves, and you’re constantly gifting copies to friends and family. What about this book sparked a passion and dedication in you?

Django Wexler
Django Wexler is the author of the military fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns and the middle-grade fantasy series The Forbidden Library.  You can find him on Twitter at @DjangoWexler or at http://www.djangowexler.com.

The book that unexpectedly blew me away this year was Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends and its sequel The Arm of the Sphinx.  These are self-published books that had a fairly low profile until Mark Lawrence read them as part of his Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and started telling everyone in sight about them – he convinced me to pick up a copy, and man was that not a mistake!

First and foremost, Senlin Ascends is just great writing, in a wonderfully dry style that blends something like the magical realism of Borges or Gogol with a more “traditional” epic fantasy adventure.  It’s a relatively simple story about a man who loses his wife and has to climb the Tower of Babel looking for her, but the excellent characters and creative world design make it a joy to read.  I’m eagerly awaiting the third installment.

Usman Malik
Usman Malik is a Pakistani writer of strange stories. His work has won the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy awards and been a finalist of the Nebula and World Fantasy awards. He lives in two worlds, but you can find him on twitter @usmantm.

It is a travesty that Naiyer Masud’s work is so under read in the western world. Inspired by Kafka, reminiscent of a subcontinental Kelly Link with shades of Ligotti’s paranoid worldview, Masud’s stories range from uneasy melancholy to the drastically uncanny. He is the best contemporary post-partition Urdu writer and his work is devastating in its precision, clarity, and strangeness.

Naiyer Masud: Collected Stories came out from Penguin India in Nov, 2015 and, in my opinion, belongs on the shelf of all dark or uncanny fiction lovers.

John DeNardo 

 John DeNardo is the bagel-loving founding editor of SF Signal (the previous home of Mind Melds), a two-time winner of the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine, and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews where he writes about science fiction, fantasy and horror books. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter as @sfsignal. Or don’t. See what he cares. 
I’m going to cheat and give you three books packaged as a single omnibus volume: The Eisenhorn Omnibus by Dan Abnett. It’s set in the incredibly rich and imaginative Warhammer 40K universe and if you hate media tie-ins, this book will change your mind.  Abnett is a master storyteller who pulls out all the stops. Simply calling it a futuristic, alien hunter detective story is shortchanging it; it’s also got superior worldbuilding, memorable characters who are likable and expendable, jump-off-the-page action sequences, plot twists, relentless pacing, and — despite this being a popcorn book — deeper themes of good vs. evil and how far one should go to fight the forces of Chaos. It’s a great introduction to the WH40K universe, too.  I read Eisenhorn five years ago. Since then, when someone asks me for something fun to read, this is the book I name every single time.
 Yoon Ha Lee’s first novel Ninefox Gambit came out from Solaris in June 2016, and its sequel, Raven Stratagem, is due out in June 2017.  His short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.
I haven’t been hearing much about Sean Danker’s Admiral but enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s an sf adventure in which a mysterious (and mysteriously inexperienced) admiral wakes up with a few trainees on a ship that’s crash-landed in the middle of nowhere under mysterious circumstances. Not only do they have to unpuzzle what went wrong and where everyone went, they have to survive the dangers of the planet they’re on. I was not surprised to learn that Danker served in the Air Force–the details are great without ever becoming overwhelming, and it’s page-turning fun. I can’t wait for the sequel.
 Lesley Conner is the managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine. Her debut novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in 2015. You can find out all of her secrets by following her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.
I wrapped up four copies of Rosewater by Tade Thompson for Christmas this year. It is just such an amazing book. Set in Nigeria, Thompson deals with an alien invasion in a way that is refreshing and new. The main character Kaaro is far from perfect. The women in his life kick ASS. And to top it off, the book is smart. It isn’t a fluff read that you forget as soon as you are done. Kaaro and Rosewater and the xenosphere stick with you long after you’ve finished reading and beg you to discover them again. Perfect.
 Jim C. Hines is the author of twelve fantasy novels, including the Magic ex Libris series, the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, and the Fable Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. He lives in mid-Michigan with his family.
I’ve read Janet Kagan’s Hellspark more times than I can count, and recently read it to my 11-year-old son as well. The world-building—no, the universe-building—is amazing, and I love her characters. The hero, Tocohl Sosumo, is a Hellspark trader with a gift for language and culture. She’s bright, capable, tough, thoughtful, loving, and a delight. Then there’s her childlike AI Maggy, and a cast of characters from fascinating and distinctive cultures. Like all of Kagan’s work, the book has a much-needed sense of optimism and joy and hope, and I love it.
 Malka Older is the author of the scifi political thriller Infomocracy and its sequel, Null States, which will come out in 2017, as well as short stories, poetry, and essays (for links see https://malkaolder.wordpress.com/publications/). A PhD candidate at SciencesPo studying the sociology of government disaster response, she also consults on international development and humanitarian aid. 
I picked up The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley without knowing anything about it and got exactly what I wanted. It’s a subtle, strange, romantic novel that develops a (more or less) coherent framework for its magic based on the science of the late 19th century. There is a range of unusual characters, including some amazing steampunk devices, a mystery of international importance, and a delicately told love story. For a book that involves a considerable amount of foreknowledge, it kept me guessing right up to the ending.
 Gail Carriger writes steampunk comedies of manners mixed with paranormal romance. Her books include the Parasol Protectorate, Custard Protocol, Supernatural Society, and Delightfully Deadly series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. She is published in many languages and has over a dozen NYT bestsellers via 7 different lists (#1 in Manga). She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea.
Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts
First of three books about a brilliant lady playing the political game to win. When she can’t win? She makes up her own rules. This sweeping epic set in an alternate Japanese culture is full of honor, nobility, and fraught love affairs. I find myself recommending it for the perfection of it’s world building and details of character. It contains everything you could possibly want from epic fantasy without all the things that always annoy me as a female reader about the tropes in this sub genre.

Haralambi Markov
Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, Markov enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors… usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets at @HaralambiMarkov

As I pour through my reading list for the last three years, I encounter numerous books I have loved fiercely and cradled into my heart, but there’s one I’ve championed with frequency and that book is Lisa L. Hannett’s A Lament for the Afterlife. It’s one of the most poignant and nuanced depictions of war as it examines the psychological wounds alongside the corporeal ones. The reader is trapped in prose that’s so beautiful it hurts and can’t make out the factual truth of the story. Gorgeous, haunting and unflinching, Hannett comes closest to depicting the fracture in reality after shell shock.

Cassandra Rose Clarke
Cassandra Rose Clarke writes speculative fiction for teenagers and adults. Her work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, and YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and her latest book is Our Lady of the Ice, out now from Saga Press.  Find all her online hangouts at www.cassandraroseclarke.com.

I first read Aura, by Carlos Fuentes, in college at a professor’s suggestion. Technically it’s a novella (my copy is 145 pages and that’s the bilingual edition), but it’s one of those books that had a huge impact on me when I was a baby writer. It’s a horror story, a love story, a story about beauty—and the writing is absolutely gorgeous throughout. It’s also one of the first books I ever read that utilizes second person present tense, my very favorite point of view.

Lee Kelly
Lee Kelly is the author of City of Savages and A Criminal Magic.  An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced law in Los Angeles and New York.  She currently lives with her husband and two children in Millburn, New Jersey.

The book that I’ve found myself pushing on family, recommending to friends and repeatedly mentioning at conferences this year is Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.  This book is everything: it managed to make me laugh, make me cry and make me believe all in 173 pages.  Get yourself a copy, if you haven’t already — it’s phenomenal.

Gareth Powell
Gareth L. Powell’s alt-history thriller, Ack-Ack Macaque, won the 2013 BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Seiun Awards in Japan. His new trilogy, Embers of War, will be published by Titan Books in 2018.

When I first came across Generation X by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s, it spoke powerfully to me about what it was to be twenty years old at that time: the sense that all the good musicians were dead, all the good jobs were taken, and all we really had to look forward to was nuclear war. I strongly identified with the main characters. They had all abandoned their “careers” and rejected a consumerist culture they couldn’t possibly afford, in order to move to the desert and search for some meaning and clarity in their lives. I re-read the book about once every two or three years, and it feels like having a conversation with my younger self.

K.C. Alexander
K. C. Alexander is the author of Necrotech, an aggressive transhumanist sci-fi, and is a co-author of Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising. Specialties include imperfect characters, reckless profanity, and an inclination to defy expectations.  

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley is often caught in The Hero and the Crown‘s shadow, but it deserves its own mention. Hari’s story, that of a stranger in her own land, mirrored my overwhelming sense of loneliness. It taught me to look beyond the blinders I was raised with, that it was okay to feel out of place in the culture I was born into. Anyone can be a warrior. The Blue Sword is my gifted reminder that those of us who feel trapped in biases we didn’t choose can learn so much more by traveling beyond our walls.

Paul Weimer
An expat New Yorker unexpectedly finding himself in Minnesota for the last 13 years, reader, writer, podcaster and photographer Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 35 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 30 years. Besides his chatty presence on Twitter (@Princejvstin) Paul can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, and many other places online (including here at the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog).

There were a number of books that resonated with me after I read them in 2016. 2016 was replete with followup novels, new discoveries, and dips into new territories for favorite writers. And given my propensity to talk about the books I read, choosing just one is difficult. I ultimately am going to here choose a book that in this somewhat dark season is high on entertainment value, has the advantage of not being a followup novel, and requires no other background or previous books to read. I choose a book that any and all readers can and should pick up and read, today: Michael J Martinez’ MJ-12 Inception.

Martinez’ novel answers the burning question of what you would get if you decided to fuse the X-men with James Bond in early Cold War mode and put it into a novel. With a broad spectrum of characters of all sorts, secrets, lies, betrayals, and excellent and entertaining action pieces, all of the technical development I’ve seen the writer undergo in the Daedalus series really shines off here in a novel that engaged me as a reader and never let go. Martinez carefully, without falling into the perils of didacticism, critiques the sexism and racism of the 1940’s era that the novel is set. Quite to the point, Martinez’s 1940’s feels painfully real, and in this day and age where we still struggle with those questions, feels immersively relevant. And it is the first of a series. I look forward to where the characters and his world go from here. Get in on the ground floor yourself and read it.

Alasdair Stuart
Alasdair Stuart is the owner of Escape Artists, the podcast company behind the Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders short fiction shows. He’s also a tabletop RPG designer, writes for tor.com and MCM Buzz and is totally stoked about getting the Momofuku Milk Bar Corn Cookie recipe right this Christmas. Find him online at @AlasdairStuart.

I’m going to Kobyashi Maru this one and go for the work of two authors, both of whom had big 2016s. Matt Wallace has been one of genre’s best (and unfairly) kept secrets for years now and his Sin Du Jour series has absolutely blown me away all year. The story of the catering company who deal with supernatural events it’s Leverage by way of Labyrinth and even more fun than that sounds. The three titles released to date have included an elaborate heist where the objective is NOT to cook an angel, the most horrifying chicken you’ll ever meet, the best Hollywood wedding you’ll ever read and the worst Hollywood function you’ll ever survive. The cast is huge, the ideas are bigger and the prose has Matt’s unique combination of dry wit and note perfect emotion threaded all the way through it. They are the best work to date of one of the best authors working right now and I’ve been recommending them all year not just because they’re funny and weird and kind and brilliant but because, well…
They make me want to learn how to cook new things. And I love that:)
The other one is also a Tor novella. Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw, is a singleton so far but the sequel is en route next year. It’s also the best horror story I read this year.
John Persons is a private investigator. He’s just been hired to kill someone. The abusive father of his ten-year old client. It’s a terrible job and one that’s far more complex than it first seems, because everyone involved has something up their sleeve…
It’s an extraordinary novella that balances an unflinching look at human horror with the inhuman. It’s angry as Hell, blackly funny and plays with convention and genre the way that a three card monte hustler works a mark. It’s also a book that moves like it’s lead; simple on the surface, restless and complex beneath. There’s incredible strength and rage and compassion on every page of it and I wanted the second one as soon as I was finished.
Those two authors and their work has been the absolute highlight of the year for me. It’s been a delight to see the tor novella range really bed in and even more of one to see unique voices like Matt’s and Cassandra’s given room there. I can’t wait to see what they, or the line as a whole, do next.

Alex Bledsoe
Alex Bledsoe’s latest novel, Chapel of Ease, is available now. You can find him on Twitter (@AlexBledsoe) and Facebook (Author Alex Bledsoe).

I stumbled across mention of William Sloane’s 1937 novel To Walk the Night on the paranormal/UFO/cryptozoological website Mysterious Universe.* Sloane was an editor, playwright and occasional novelist who (much like another favorite, Henry Kuttner) popped up, did some amazing genre work, and then somehow faded from literary view.

To Walk the Night reads like a British thriller, although Sloane was American and it’s set here.  The reserve, the characters’ loyalty, and the upper-crust setting do seem more Anglo than Yank. And when the story moves to the desert southwest, I was most reminded of the sudden locational gear-shift in the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet”.

But the author Sloane most resembles in this novel is also American: H.P. Lovecraft. He touches on that same sense of cosmic horror, the idea that there are things man not only shouldn’t know, but that would destroy him if he did.  There’s one specific Lovecraft story that this resembles in concept (and I don’t want to say which one, because I don’t want to spoil the novel’s slow-burn reveal), but the execution is completely different.

And that difference is in the characters. No one reads Lovecraft for his compelling characterization, but that’s what Sloane brings to the table. His story is about friendship tested by the advent of maturity, in the form of a woman who may or may not be a femme fatale. Our POV character is one of the friends, who sees his brotherly relationship broken up by his friend’s romance with said mysterious woman. There’s also an unsolved death in the first few pages that hangs over the rest of the book, coloring everything that happens.

The high-society setting can be a little off-putting, but it was a common trope then (see Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man for a great comedic riff on this). And freeing the characters from the drudgery of the world (jobs are mentioned but never shown) allows Sloane to concentrate on his story and atmosphere, which he does with great success.

To Walk the Night has been recently reissued as part of a two-novel omnibus (along with The Edge of Running Water, which I’m still reading) by the New York Review of Books, with a new introduction by Stephen King. But as King himself recommends, don’t read his intro first; just dive into To Walk the Night.  It’s a tight, haunting little novel that will stick with you long after you’ve read it.

*I feel the need to add that I’m a total skeptic on these things, but nonetheless find them fascinating (and they make great story prompts, too).

What book do you love enough to share with the world?

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