Thursday, September 15, 2011

Top Ten Stand-Alone Books

I love series.  (Serieses? Seri? Whatever.)  If I like something, I want more of it.  I have no problem reading a series of a dozen thousand-page books, probably because I've been reading epic fantasy for so long.  However, maybe sometimes you don't want your book to end on a cliffhanger, or you just don't have time to read 12,000 pages.  That's when you want a stand-alone novel.

I actually had more trouble with this list than I expected, probably because 97% of the books I read are part of a series.  I did kind of bend the definition of "stand-alone" to include books that could (or should--I'm looking at you, Dune) be on their own, because they have entirely self-contained plots.

In any case, allow me to present my ten favorite stand-alone books, starting with:

10. The Redemption of Althalus
David Eddings

Althalus has always been an extraordinarily lucky man.  So when his luck deserts him, he doesn't know what to do with himself.  When he finds himself at the end of the world, that's where the real journey begins.  Althalus has to save the world from an evil god and his sorcerer minion, with the help of a cat.

This book is on the list more for the entertainment value than actual quality.  If you've read one Eddings book, you've pretty much read them all, but that doesn't stop them from being fun time-wasters.  They're the candy of the epic fantasy world.  The Redemption of Althalus is light, funny, and predictable, making it an entertaining read for a lazy day.

9. The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield

Amateur biographer Margaret Lea is startled when she receives an invitation to write a biography of world-renowned author Vida Winter.  Lacking experience, Margaret plans to decline until she reads her father's collection of Winter's books.  Intrigued, she decides to take the job, where she discovers a fascinating tale of troubling, deeply-hidden secrets.

I buried my nose in The Thirteenth Tale and didn't come out until I was finished.  This enthralling story of family and secrets reeled me in and brought me to a fascinating world with just the right amount of detail.  Bring a blanket, because this book, which takes place in the middle of winter, is vivid enough to make you feel the chill.

8. American Gods
Neil Gaiman

Shadow's wife dies two days before he is released from prison.  Unsure what to do with himself, Shadow ends up following Mr. Wednesday in a journey across the US, encountering many strange people and creatures along the way to an unknown goal.

This unusual story attempts to define the spirit of America through ancient myths stranded in modern times.  Gripping and often slightly disturbing, American Gods is no comfort read.  It's the kind of book that makes you wonder whether there's a higher purpose in life and whose stories we're really living anyway.

7.  Elantris
Brandon Sanderson

Once Elantris shone, a beacon of light and hope for all its people.  They were human until they were touched by the Shaod, giving them incredible magical abilities.  But one day the magic failed without explanation and Elantris was left a ruin, those with the Shaod consigned to its walls, unable to truly live or die.  When Princess Sarene arrives in Kae, the new capital, for her wedding, she's told that her fiance is dead, but it's clear that her in-laws are hiding something.  Determined to find out what it is, she must uncover the secrets of Elantris and return the magic to her people.

If there's a crown for world-building, Brandon Sanderson deserves it.  Elantris's world is complex and unique, filled with unusual magic and intrigue.  Elantris is a wonderful tale of power, mystery, and love, with compelling characters and a brilliant plot.

6. Dune
Frank Herbert

When the Emperor transfers ownership of the desert planet Arrakis, source of the compound that allows space travel, from House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Duke knows it isn't a reward.  The Harkonnens won't let their largest source of money fall into enemy hands without a fight, and when they strike back, it's with a vengeance, killing the Duke and driving his son Paul into the desert.  Paul joins the Fremen tribes in an effort to regain his seat.

One of the most well-known scifi novels ever written, Dune features a world of depth and massive power struggles.  If you haven't read it by now, you really should, as it's brilliantly written and an amazing novel.  Yes, I know it has sequels, but in my opinion, the second book was sort of weird, the third even weirder, and after that I just stopped reading.  Dune itself is by far the best, and you don't need to read the sequels to complete the story in this one.

5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

While searching for a topic for her next book, writer Juliet Ashton stumbles upon the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  In an exchange of letters, she hunts down the origins of this group, particularly the story of one of its founders, Elizabeth McKenna.

I've already done a review of this book, so I'll just say that I laughed, cried, and highly enjoyed myself reading this story.

4. Mercury Falls
Robert Kroese

It's a proven fact that right before the Apocalypse is the worst time to replace your linoleum.  Unfortunately for reporter Christine Temetri, no one told her the Apocalypse was coming--or rather, too many people did.  Christine has had just about enough of writing articles about groups predicting Armageddon, but never expected it to actually happen.  Accidentally thrown into the middle of the conflict between Heaven and Hell, Christine needs the help of the angel Mercury to stop the world from ending.

Mercury Falls is a wonderfully witty, tongue-in-cheek tale of a jaded reporter and a rather abysmal angel preventing the Apocalypse.  Somehow this superficially silly story manages to tackle such broad ideas as free will and the meaning of life.  The style reminds me a bit of Douglas Adams, but while Adams's wild tangents occasionally irritated me, Kroese's writing keeps to the point while still being hilariously absurd.

3. Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card

Ender Wiggin is part of a government-sponsored training program to mold genius children into soldiers who can defend Earth against alien invaders.  Ender's amazing skill at the Battle Games make him an immediate leader among the other children, though those on other teams hate him with a passion.  Along with his older siblings, Ender has the ability to save the world from the Buggers, but whether they can succeed in bringing about a better world is anyone's guess.

I get it, this one has sequels too.  But Ender's Game has a perfectly acceptable end that doesn't require further explanation, so I'm counting it as a stand-alone novel.  Ender's Game is one of those books you just can't put down.  Its interesting, dynamic characters, creative action, and broader conflict make it an absolutely crucial addition to any bookshelf.

2. The Lions of Al-Rassan
Guy Gavriel Kay

Once a proud empire, Al-Rassan has descended into decadence.  Meanwhile, the Jaddites of the north are gaining strength, and conflicts between the two forces increase.  Chance brings three people of different origins together: Jaddite Captain Roberto Belmonte, Asharite assassin and poet Ammar ibn Khairan, and Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak.  Their friendships develop until war calls them to opposite sides of the battlefield.

With a world evocative of medieval Spain just before the Reconquista, Kay manages to depict the effects of civilizational conflict on individuals.  Featuring themes of love, family, war, faith, and loyalty, The Lions of al-Rassan is a spectacular novel filled with vivid imagery and characters who seem to step off the pages into your heart.

1. Sunshine
Robin McKinley

After the Voodoo Wars, human cities were left decimated and vampires controlled a fifth of the world's economy.  New Arcadia is one of the safer places to live, but when Sunshine goes out to the lake for a little peace and quiet, she's snatched by a group of vampires and chained up with another prisoner--who turns out to be a vampire himself.  Sunshine and Constantine escape the house, but the other vampires are more of a problem, forcing them to work together to save both their lives.

I am a huge fan of Robin McKinley, and Sunshine is my favorite of her books.  Sunshine is a compelling narrator, painting a bewitching world where vampires definitely don't sparkle.  I've read this book so many times it's falling apart.  It's my go-to comfort read, and I still love it every single time.  Sunshine is at times funny, scary, thrilling, sexy, sad, and mysterious.  You couldn't ask for anything more in a book.

Well, there you have it, ten (sort of) stand-alone novels that you can read without worrying about waiting years for the series to finish.  Happy reading!

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