Making a list, checking it twice, something, something…
I should be writing about the whole getting an agent thing, and how the submission process is going. So, an update: I’ve been out on sub for a very small amount of time (weeks) to the “Big Seven’ of the SFF industry (or so I’m told). The US publishing industry kinda shuts down over Thanksgiving so things will be slow. Still, I’ve had one snippet of news, which, while I’m not really at liberty to discuss due to my irrational inbred Irish superstition, can be safely classified as a “bloody good start”. As always, I’m Eeyoring it for all it’s worth, and not getting excited at all. But keep them fingers crossed, my lovelies.
Now, list time. By no means is this a list of the best books I’ve ever read, in terms of brilliant writing or plotting or impact they had on the literary world. This is just a list of books that spoke to me, mostly when I was very young, and have stayed with me my whole life. These are the books I respond with when someone asks me “what should I read?”
I don’t claim to be a voracious reader. Truth is, I’m very slow. People make lists of “the best 10 books I read this year” – I’d be lucky to make a list of “10 books I read this year, period”. I’ve been struggling through Johnathan Strange and Mister Norrell for more than a month now, when someone like the A-bomb would devour a brick like that in two weeks. I don’t’ really make the time to read that I should, I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, and truth is, now that I’m some kind of writer (what kind is yet to be determined), I always feel like I should be working on the new book instead of reading. But anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a list of books I love, and will remember til my dying day.
1. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak. Probably the mostly beautifully and strikingly illustrated book I’ve ever seen. I first had this read to me when I was around five years old, probably on an episode of “Play School”. I still own it today.
It’s an exploration of the concept of rage told from a child’s POV – the emptiness and ultimate fruitlessness of it all, a cautionary tale about the potential loss that stems from unchecked anger. Nothing like it had been done before. It was brave, and it was brilliant.
I’m an angry person. I always have been, always will be. And though I’m a firm believer in the power of rage, and how it can be channeled into positive and brilliant endeavors, I always have to be mindful of where it can lead if left unchecked. I am Max, and whether it’s loud and screaming or tucked away in some tiny corner, there is always a Wild Rumpus going on inside my head.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. This book (and its Sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) are ultimately a story about how ludicrous we tiny little creatures actually are. How we fill our lives with bullshit trivialities that are nobody else’s business, with institutions and bureaucracies, and how the pattern repeats in micro and macro scale. How ultimately, people really are very silly, that we search for meaning in an existence where there probably is none beyond being, you know, nice to each other, that we’re always looking for the “will-be” and never savoring the “now”. How everyone needs to just fucking take it easy.
But most importantly, this book is funny. Laugh out loud funny. And it probably contains the greatest narrative device I’ve ever read to pass exposition along to the reader. Shall we have paragraphs of info dump? Shall we have long and tedious conversations amongst each other to explain to the reader what’s going on? No, let’s build ourselves a n00b named Arthur, and hand him a tiny electronic book that will not only explain everything the reader needs to know, but make them giggle like five years olds to boot.
Mr Adams, sir, you are missed.
3. The Hobbit – J.R.R Tolkein. Yeah okay, what a cop-out. Anybody can stick Tolkien on their lists, he’s overrated, blah blah. I can still remember the exact moment I got exposed to the Hobbit. I was eight years old, in class, reading some weird anthology thing that contained single chapters from a bunch of recommended books, and I came across a chapter called “Riddles in the Dark”. I read it. Twice. Then I ran to the library and asked if they had the whole book, and an entirely different world opened up inside my head.
This was the first fantasy book I ever read, and it will always be my favorite. Not because it’s the best written SFF book I’ve ever seen, not because I’m some Tolkein fanboy who can quote the Simarillion verbatim (I got twenty pages into that beast before I hit the eject button), but because it opened my mind to possibilities that I always suspected where there, but had never seen before. It turned on a light inside my head that has never gone out.
And Thorin Oakenshield fucking rocks.
4. ‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King. When I was a kid, I used to go grocery shopping with my mother, but when I reached the age when I was “too cool’ to be wandering around the store with an authority figure, she’d drop me off at the news agency in the mall while she went and got groceries. It would take her about an hour. So I would plonk myself down in the book aisle and just read. The store owner never bugged me about it, I was always careful not to bend the spines. It got to the point where I would rip tiny edges off the newspapers and stick them in the pages so I would know where I was up to when I came back next week.
This was the eighties, and horror was king, and of course, the king of kings was Mr King (see what I did there?). They had an entire row of Stephen King books in that store, and I pawed through every one. Of course, being eleven years old, I had no time for two hundred pages of exposition before we got to the bloodletting. I’d just skip to the “good bits”, and no King book had as many “good bits” as ‘Salem’s Lot.
Funny thing is, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever actually read this entire book, cover to cover, word for word, and it’s still one of my favorite books of all time. I haven’t picked it up in twenty years, and I still remember scenes and lines as vividly as the day I read them. “I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher.” “I’ll kiss you like your mother never did.” “The boy makes ten of you, false priest.” The struggle of weak mortals against ancient and soulless evil, true, pure evil, set against a backdrop of a brilliantly detailed, mudane, mindless little town in nowheresville.
This is vampire fiction as it should be. I look around now and see what vampires have become in modern fiction and it really makes me sad. But thank christ that when the glut of sassy urban female + sexy vampire alpha male books flooding our shelves atm are acknowledged as the saccharine bubble-gum bullshit that they are, this book will still be in print, and it will still DESTROY.
5. Neuromancer – William Gibson. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” So begins my favorite work of sci-fi, a revolutionary, genre-defining, 271 page piece of goddamn poetry that nothing has come close to, before or since. If there is one writer that’s influenced me stylistically more than any other, it’s WG. I don’t even do it consciously, it’s just the way my brain works. Some people close their eyes and see rainbows and flowers. I see rusted steel, split wiring, choking gutters and cigarette ash.
Neuromancer is the seminal cyberpunk work, written by a guy who didn’t even own a computer at the time.
To me it’s a story about defiance, and search for self. Wintermute/Neuromancer and its quest to become the Deus Ex Machina. Case’s search for self-destruction, the truth, that old feeling. The struggle against insurmountable odds, and the search for identity against a backdrop of brilliantly textured visuals of a dystopian future that sing on the page. It’s nearly thirty years old, and I read it again this year and it still wrecks the face of anything in its field. It’s poetry.
.ay ev’I tahw si em tuoba wonk uoy llA