James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.
2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!
4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!
6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.
7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.
8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.
9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.
And coming in for a tie…
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!