This post may be a little different than usual, because I’m going to talk about authors, rather than individual books. Well, actually, I’m sure book titles will come up quite a bit. Anyway, here we go, in roughly chronological order. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ll miss some favorites, but it is what it is.
I wasn’t much of a reader in my early years. I guess I just hadn’t found anything that tripped my trigger. Then my first week of junior high I ventured into the library for the first time and started poking around. There they were, right next to each other on the top shelf of the section labeled SCIENCE FICTION—Asimov and Bradbury. I checkout out I, Robot and Martian Chronicles, read them each in a day.
That was that.
I read all the Asimovs and all the Bradburys, then I branched out. Heinlein juveniles, Arthur C. Clarke, Verne and Wells, and about 100 Andre Norton novels. Apparently junior high librarians truly loved Ms. Norton. Reading four or five books a week, it didn’t take me long to burn through that bookshelf. Happily, I discovered that my local city library had a large, well-curated science fiction section. I hit the motherlode.
Being a little obsessive, I started at the top left and worked my way alphabetically through it all. I discovered all the golden age giants in the field, and a lot of then-contemporary authors as well. I began to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t. Two goldmines: Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies and Terry Carr’s Universe anthologies. Through those I would find authors that I still read and enjoy today:
• R.A. Lafferty, the gentleman from Oklahoma who did not start writing until relatively late in life, but was, for a while at least, the best short story writer in the English language. No one, before or since, wrote like Lafferty.
• James Tiptree, Jr. wrote intense, lyrical, and altogether original short stories that pushed science fiction in new and intriguing directions. When it turned out that “he” was actually a clinical psychologist and grandmother named Alice Sheldon, my teenage self thought that was exceedingly cool.
• Harlan Ellison. Much has been said about Harlan (usually by his own self), but the fact is he wrote some of the most seminal short stories in science fiction, and edited my favorite anthology of all time, Dangerous Visions. Again, Dangerous Visions, the even-bigger sequel, is just as good.
• Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry N. Malzberg, Felix Gotschalk, Gene Wolfe, Norman Spinrad, Philip José Farmer, Poul Anderson, Clifford Simak, Frederick Pohl, John Brunner, Thomas M. Disch, this fella named George R.R. Martin who wrote really good short stories long before he started writing about dragons. The list goes on and on, this is just scratching the surface. A special shoutout to Alfred Bester, who wrote The Stars My Destination, still maybe the finest science fiction novel ever written.
Ursula K. Le Guin challenged me and thrilled me in equal measure with each new book. Her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is a masterclass all by itself, one of the world’s most perfect short stories.
As I got into high school, it wasn’t all science fiction, although clearly a lot of it was. My library had a spinner rack of beat-up paperbacks, where I found a novel called Carrie. In the 45 or so years since then, I’ve read nearly everything Stephen King’s written. His On Writing is my favorite writing how-to. In 1974, the same year Carrie was published, a writer named Robert F. Jones wrote a novel called Blood Sport. Jones only wrote a couple of other books, and I said I wasn’t singling out individual novels, but Blood Sport is special. It’s the violent, fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, filled with jarring magic realist imagery and audacious language. And because Jones wrote non-fiction for outdoor magazines, all the fishing and hunting details are spot on. I’m not much for re-reading, too many other books to read out there, but I’ve read Blood Sport at least a dozen times. It’s my favorite novel. When my son was 15 we took a canoe trip on the French River delta, and this is the novel I gave him to read on the journey.
Tom Robbins taught me that the through line from the beginning to the end of a novel does not have to be a straight line, and in fact the byways, asides, parenthetical comments, and wild-ass detours are what make his books so much fun. The death of Bonanza Jellybean in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was the first time a book made me cry. Hopefully that’s not a spoiler since it was published decades ago.
Reading Slaughterhouse Five was a revelation—how could seemingly simple language say so much, and move me so deeply? I read everything Vonnegut wrote, continuing to marvel that such a humane, beautiful writer existed in the world. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.
Philip Pullman, for a simple enough reason—His Dark Materials is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time, end of story. Sorry, Lord of the Rings. Also, I’ve wanted my own daemon ever since reading it.
Late high school/early college found me discovering more authors who would stay with me. A friend handed me his well-worn paperback copy of The World According to Garp, and I dove headfirst into the work of John Irving. A completely different writer from Vonnegut, yet just as humane. And as a high school wrestler, his focus on that sport from time to time made me happy. I love it when authors get the details right.
Harry Crews introduced me to a gritty, harrowing version of southern gothic. Brutally beguiling.
I certainly didn’t give up on horror. Along with King, I discovered Clive Barker and Peter Straub, two writers who weave together rich, complex meditations on the nature of evil. Add Robert McCammon to this list. He writes horror as well as anyone, plus, with Boy’s Life, one of the great coming-of-age novels in American literature. This is not an exaggeration. If Mark Twain wrote about small town Alabama in the 1960s, and sprinkled it with magic realism, it might have resulted in Boy’s Life.
So what am I reading today? Glad you asked! Many of the authors listed above are still a regular part of my TBR list, but I’ve added a bunch more to my collection of must-reads:
• I didn’t come to Neil Gaiman through his comics like many people. For me it was American Gods, after which I immediately read everything he had written up to that time. He understands that intersection between myth, magic, and fairytales better than just about anyone. Depending on the day, I tell people he’s my favorite writer.
• Speaking of that intersection between myth, etc., Margo Lanagan inhabits that same space. Her work is beyond original. I first discovered her with her story Singing My Sister Down, which will gently, sweetly shatter you.
• On the days when Neil Gaiman isn’t my favorite author, Joe Lansdale usually is. He writes horror, westerns, crime, and historical fiction with equal skill. His Hap and Leonard novels are the most consistently entertaining works of fiction being written today. Best dialogue writer this side of Elmore Leonard.
• Andrew Vachss writes crime fiction that’s so beyond hard boiled, it makes Raymond Chandler read like Goodnight Moon. Writing is only a sideline for him…he uses the profits from his books to finance the pro bono legal work he does exclusively for abused kids.
• John Scalzi reminds me of Robert Heinlein, but without the troubling politics and misogyny. Rip-roaring space opera, believable humans and aliens, wonderful world-building.
• Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels are of such a high degree of difficulty that it boggles the mind. Personal yet universal, which is hard to pull off.
• I first discovered Chuck Wendig through his blog, where he dispenses writing advice and expounds on the world with profane delight. His fiction is a nice mix of horror, fantasy and apocalyptic science fiction. Do yourself a favor and follow him on Twitter, as well.
• Seanan McGuire, who also writes as Mira Grant, is a true original, and alarmingly prolific. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all of it amazing. Her Wayward Children series is portal fantasy that I recommend to anyone who will listen.
• Lynda Barry is an award-winning cartoonist who has written several books, but truthfully, she’s here for just one—the graphic novel Cruddy. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often downright scarifying. Should be required reading in every high school in the country.
• Joe Abercrombie is LordGrimdark on Twitter, and the name is apt. He writes dark, gnarly fantasy, blood-drenched and dense. I space his novels out, because they require concentration that is richly rewarded.
• Richard Kadrey’s singular creation is Sandman Slim, a half man, half demon whose adventures on earth, in hell, and all points in between span a bunch of novels, and I hope they never stop.
• Simple enough—Paul Tremblay is the best new horror writer working today. Starting with Head Full of Ghosts, he’s redefined the genre. His new one is coming soon, and I can’t wait.
I guess that’s it for now. There are many other authors I love, but they don’t yet have the body of work to make this list. Or I just forgot them. I know this went a bit long, but I’ve really enjoyed this read down memory lane. Thanks for joining me.