I always find it difficult to recommend books or authors. Literature is highly subjective, and even two people with near-identical upbringings (like my sister and me) can have very different tastes. I like the books I like for specific reasons—reasons that may not apply to anyone else. For example, in my office I have a book called Rig Warrior: 18 Wheel Avenger that I bought solely because of the awesomely bad first line:
Barry was bored just about out of his gourd.
Isn’t that delicious?
Moreover, I find it impossible to pick just one book or author as my favorite. No one novel, and no one body of work, encompasses all of my interests.
Still, there are a few authors I feel strongly about, and perhaps I can explain why. Please note: some of these books are for adults.
1. Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina was the first book I read where the characters grappled with the same questions about life that I had myself. Up until that point, most of the books I read—Tolkien included—contained lots of running around, fighting, and general unpleasantness for the characters, but the characters themselves never really thought deeply about their situations or about the workings of the world around them. Anna Karenina, then, was a revelation for me. Even though the world Tolstoy wrote about was completely removed from my own upbringing, I could empathize with the characters in a way that had previously been impossible.
It was Anna Karenina that showed me the true possibilities of fiction—that it could be so much more than just physical adventure. Reading it changed who I was and also how I approached the task of writing.
And I’m still amused by how Tolstoy described Count Vronsky as looking like a sleek Danish pickle.
2. Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and The Beginning Place. Great mythic storytelling in the tradition of the old legends. Le Guin’s prose is a delight; oftentimes it verges on poetry, and unlike many of the authors I’m listing here, her books tend toward the shorter side.
Le Guin has had an enormous influence upon me. She’s one of the few writers who is consistently able to capture a dream-like atmosphere. The Beginning Place is the best example of this, but in all of her work, she conjures up a superb sense of mood and place. What’s more, she understands the almost magical power of language (and most specifically of names) in a way that few authors do.
To me, Le Guin’s work is like a distillation . . . an essence . . . fleeting and elusive, but as evocative as a scent.
3. Frank Herbert: Dune is one of the best examples of the hero’s journey in fiction. Most authors, myself included, need more than one book in order to tell an epic coming-of-age story. Herbert did it in one while also creating a unique and interesting setting. Part of his genius as an author was his ability to imply far more about his world than he actually showed. As a result, Dune feels as if it was written by an inhabitant of Herbert’s universe; no small achievement.
As with Anna Karenina, Dune goes beyond the usual surface elements that so much of fiction relies upon. It deals with questions of leadership, ecology, and philosophy (and so much more) while also telling a darn good story.
And it contains one of my favorite quotes:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
The book does have some flaws (the death of Muad’Dib’s son is dealt with too quickly, and the only homosexual character is the villain), but even with them, Dune is a masterpiece.
4. Octavia Butler: Wild Seed—an examination of both racism and sexism through the lens of speculative fiction. That may not sound like much fun, so I’ll give Wild Seed the highest compliment: It gives you absolutely no reason not to keep turning the pages. Seriously, I read the book in one sitting.
5. Peter Høeg: Smilla’s Sense of Snow contains one of the best strong female characters ever. That is all. If you liked The Girl With the Dragon, then you’ll love this book.
One of the best things Høeg does is capture the price that people pay for living outside the normal social conventions. Having lived my entire life in an unconventional manner, I thought he did an excellent job of depicting that conflict.
6. Evangeline Walton: The Mabinogion Tetralogy. Imagine Tolkien crossed with Stephen King, but without King’s profanity. Need I say more? Awesome, awesome stuff.
7. Mervyn Peake and E. R. Eddison: the Gormenghast trilogy and The Worm Ouroboros respectively. Gormenghast is the ultimate gothic fantasy, while The Worm Ouroboros has some of the most elaborate and delightful prose out there coupled with a pre-Christian ethos. Both of them had a great deal to do with the author I became.
As you can see, it’s quite an eclectic collection. There are many different books that offer diverse pleasures to a reader; these are just a few that I have enjoyed.