In the past I’ve done lists of my favourite characters, and I’ll do so in the future as there are many types of categoriesof characters, and I find lists useful for finding examples of a character type at short notice. However today I wanted to tackle a biggie, my overall favourite stories in books. Now this necessitates a bigger list, I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my life time.
My literary interests are quite spread, but there will be a slight propensity towards science fiction and fantasy as they’re mainstays in my library.
Old, new it matters little, ultimately it’s how much I enjoyed it, how much it made me think and feel, great writing, and lastly just because I want it there. It’s a very personal list at the end of the day, I’m not an expert critic.
A couple of warnings – some of these go on quite a bit, and may have spoilers (I really need to learn to do reviews…), and it started off as my top five, but that proved impossible, as did the top ten… now we’re at top fifteen and there’s so much more I’m leaving out. Which isn’t a bad thing, it just means I’ll have to explore some of my favourite books outside of this list in genre specific lists.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin
Dune, Frank Herbert
Probably the first adult book I ever read, and it was a doozy, way beyond my pre-teen brain, I probably skipped over so much that first read, yet it still grabbed me. I’ve read this book at least a dozen times since then, and it’s so rich and detailed that everytime I become aware of something else with in it.
In terms of what it is, well to put it succinctly it’s a glorious source opera, with a cast of strong supporting characters, the protagonist is a chosen one and also an everyman being the character who we follow and introduces us to this rich world through multiple forms of exposition. It’s dramatic and punchy in places, though overall through such rich detail is slow going. The thing I like most is the world it sets up, and future books explore, yet there are events that are a given that all the characters understand X happened, and it’s simply a part of their world. In a western novel, you don’t really have try explain the history of rockets, you can do a story without talking about World War 2, the space race and man walking on the moon, you can reference them and your readers will understand – Frank Herbert does this but with fictional far future events from where we are, and it’s obviously not lazy given the detail of current events within the world, instead it makes the world lived in, it makes the Princess narrating the story feel genuine, and it makes you wonder just what happened.
Also his choice of fictional events actually fixes a problem that didn’t really exist at the time the novel was written, how do you get round sci fi stuff seeming dated? If you’ve seen the new Star Trek reboot, you’ll know that somehow technology on board the a Enterprise is a lot more advanced than it was in the original 60’s show, because large high definition screens, touch screen computers, multi tasking programs are here now forty years later, but not in the space travelling future designed in the 60’s. Frank Herbert has cut off the past way of doing things from the book’s present, an event a moment in a very history changed that universe. It’s something very cool and not done often, mostly in post apocalyptic novels.
Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
I read this when I was a teen in school and it was profound. I’d already been exposed to the Little Shop of Horrors film, and so it engaged me immediately, (never under estimate the effect of nostalgia… Hollywood certainly hasn’t).
It felt like unique apocalypse, and was my first foray into survival horror. I really feared for Bill Masen’s life, especially as the world becomes smaller and smaller as the scale of the disaster grows. The speed at such society goes down when simply deprived of its sight, humanity versus humanity as groups form and break down, only then to be hit by a viral outbreak, and then these background things, seemingly accepted as normal become a threat. It’s a lesson in escalating stakes, the characters are never allowed to settle, never allowed to feel safe, every moment of relief is met with me terrors.
If I had one criticism, it would be having the Triffids in the title, because you know something is going on with them throughout the early part of the book, and I think that it would work just that bit better if it just seemed like some random repeated detail of the world until all is revealed. Then again some people may find it far more surreal if it came out of no where.
I love it though, when you do get Triffids, it’s the epitome of a Doctor Who villain archetype that would be seen again and again in the years that followed, not to mention in horror movies both big budget and B movies.
And the whole thing seems ahead of its time, with biological warfare being seen as a threat for decades, genetic modification making larger and more resilient plants, (we’ve even sent plans to space to expose them to intense solar radiation and an them grow huge).
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
A novel both exciting and thoroughly depressing, a dark tale of revenge beautifully done, but not just revenge it’s also an epic long con involving fake identities, framing, wire fraud and murder.
What it isn’t is a tale of redemption, unlike the Hollywood films based off of the book, in the book he has his revenge to the last. It wouldn’t normally be something I’m all that interested in, but Edmond Dantes is put through the so much, you can’t help but root for him has he begins his campaign of revenge. The plan he concocts is so deep and complex you find yourself turning page after page long into the night just to reveal the layers.
It is long, originally it was a serialized novel and by all accounts across many countries people would be queuing up to get their hands on the next part. I can see why, it is gloriously melodramatic, suspenseful, extravagant, globe trotting, with well developed characters – and wonderfully unique… Or it was, elements and themes from this have been borrowed, developed time and time again.
A beautiful bit dark book from a great writer, (also check out the original Musketeer novels, also Percival favourites of mine, while lighter in tone they have dark moments and will developed characters).
Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
Another book from school, the nature of being at an impressionable age schools can impress upon you anything they like, and for whatever reason they liked this odd nostalgic trip of 1920’s boyhood in rural England. I’ll admit this is an autobiography, but it’s still written, and executed well and does have a plot as it takes the protagonist from being happy and care free to being just short of a man and having that wanderlust that sets up future biographies, and that to be was wonderful so deserves it’s place.
It’s stuck with me, as a boy I identified with it a lot, the awkward exploration of self, the world, even sexuality to a degree, with the titular Rosie.
One of my favourite moments is even he wakes up, but his eyes are glued together by sleep, and how matter of factly his older sister deals with him, it’s amusing and while it didn’t happen to me, love is punctuated by these misunderstandings when your young and naive, and the book captures that nostalgia for an innocent time beautifully.
War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells
One of the earliest science fiction stories, and arguably one of the most successful, a bleak tale of survival, impotence and luck.
It has a fantastic protagonist who has to find his way through a dark and terrifying world after monsters from Mars quite suddenly appear. He has to deal with the various remnants of society also struggling to survive.
The city while dark is vividly recreated, the aliens are unknown and develop in more and more scarier ways.
The book was ahead of its time, and for me the ending is prefect, I know modern audiences of the film like to describe it as deus ex machina, but the main character isn’t an action hero, and humanity has world War One technology to fight off an alien invasion. It’s not dissimilar to the invasion of America by the Europeans, except the ending flips and the invading forces fall victim to new and exotic viruses. Humanity is left in tatters, and it will take generations for us to recover, all in the knowledge that the Martians could come again they would surely be better protected. So yeah, the ending works for me, and that Hollywood keeps the ending in most renditions despite the criticism is one of few redeeming qualities about the Hollywood machine.
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
I only discovered this novel a few years ago, and I can’t remember how or why, but I vaguely have the feeling I saw it referenced in another book somewhere. However I found it, I’m glad I did, because this blew my mind.
It’s a fascinating tale of how the world meets its end by the last human, told through flashbacks as he goes about surviving in the present dealing with mundane and very slightly fantastical challenges.
Your main character, the narrator isn’t just an every man, he’s a gullible fool, selfish, lecherous and petty, I genuinely feel very little affection for him, and I don’t find him to be a reliable narrator – which is odd for a book so engaging.
Set in the future where genetic engineering is on the verge of running a mock, and yet feels stagnant culturally from our own present day, like rather than being the future it’s an alternate version of now. You understand the villain and hero Oryx to some degree, you can’t condone or excuse his actions, and there is a certain self serving element to every he does.
I was struck as to how much the plot of the book reminded me of James Bond, only from the other side. If it had had a recurring antagonist trying to investigate and stop them, (without James Bond’s uncanny success), this would have been perfect.
Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
This book, I don’t know if it’s an endorsement or an indictment of an authoritarian future, it is seemingly both and neither simultaneously, which is an impressive achievement in of itself.
Move away from the political discourse and it’s an account of a soldier in a futuristic war, a tale of survival and luck, leadership and ambition. Everytime I read it I get something different out of it.
You’ve got a heady mix of the life of the rank and file, the preparation for combat, the fear as parts of the battle are out of your control, moral musings as to the impact of the orders he’s following, even as he does so blindly. Rico is a likable character taking us through this world, he’s easy to engage with, ask through it I genuinely wanted him to succeed.
If you’ve seen the film, don’t assume the book is the same and bypass it, it lifts elements Heinlein’s work but not the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, the film is great, but the book is much deeper and richer. I highly recommend both.
A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Conan Doyle
Sherlock had to get in there somewhere, I’ve probably only read somewhere between half and three quarters of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it’s nice to know I’ve got more to go. From what I’ve read, my standout favourite was A Scandal in Bohemia, it’s a short story, but beautifully done, it has nice pacing, the main characters are interesting, except for Watson who has very little to do in this one.
Orion, Ben Bova
Granted, this is a little low key for a best of list, however it makes my list for one simple reason, it captures my imagination. The basic premise borrows from all over, but the story comes out greater than the sum of its parts.
Picture this humans of the future, highly evolved enough to be something other than human, messing around with history to ensure their own creation the way they want it, masquerading as Gods, (though beings of immense power would by rights be gods). Being gods isn’t enough, it’s broad strokes when detail is needed, so they create a tool a human dedicated to their service, getting involved in history through the ages, convincing leaders individually, leading directly, fighting their enemies, continuously being destroyed and recreated for mission after mission… What would happen if that tool became aware? That’s what Orion promises. Orion the Hunter has many advantages, he’s not just human, he’s the peak of what human can be, and yet he is always lost, always alone, kept separated from the woman, the Goddess he loves.
He has a counterpart though, a being from another time, a lost time thanks to the Creators, thanks to Orion himself. Aware of time, of the creators much as Orion himself is. The future of all humanity, creators and mortals alike is at stake.
It’s my favourite Ben Bova novel, of many, love his short stories, I love the tour of the Solar System books, and my second favourite Sphere.
On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony
This was a troubling one, you see Piers Anthony use a tendency for very misogynistic writing, and there’s no avoiding that, and yet he writes these amazing stories. I’m a modern guy, liberal in views, I support feminism and I support the rights of people to be who they are. To hide an author away, would be dishonest, and would be a gap in the books that inspire and instructed me in the art of storytelling. So that’s the obligatory please don’t judge me statement out of the way.
On A Pale Horse is our introduction to the world of the Incarnations of Immorality, where supernatural offices are filled by real people, such as Thanatos or Death, (the other major offices being Fate, War, Nature, Time, and Evil). It is a world where magic and science coexists, (both cars and magic carpets exist, and their PR departments are engaged in an advertising battle, which is a hilarious aside in the novel).
Zane, our protagonist, a down on his luck artist is at the end of his tether and ready to die. Just at the moment in walks Death, and against the odds Zane shoots him dead. This the office of Thanatos passes to Zane and he’s thrust into a world of immense scope learning to live with the most terrible of duties, and forced into a confrontation with the other Incarnations, including Satan himself.
The thing I love about this book in particular, and Piers Anthony’s books in general is that amount of time and attention he puts into setting up the fantastical worlds, explaining the rules – he makes magic maybe sense, and seem orderly and controlled rather than just feeling like it plugs a hole here or there, that way you don’t notice when he uses it to plug a hole here or there. Frank Herbert sets up his world with grand detail and a sense of events unfolding before during and after where your reading, Piers Anthony feeds you the detail just a you need it without taking you out of the novel. I admire both methods.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
This was a tough choice, I love both Animal Farm and 1984, but I went with Animal Farm because surprisingly I think it still has the most to say. It’s now a much more dangerous message, in intent it’s a warning against Communism generally, and Sovietism specifically – but it’s dangerous now because of you read it wrong, it is a defense of white, make privilege which in 2016/2017 seems to to be the cause to win all elections. But I reject that, it’s not what the book is about, it does not say that everyone can not be treated with equity – it is a call to be wary of those leading the cause. In the book the farmers that try and take back the farm from the pigs
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
The most astounding piece of post apocalyptic fiction one ever read. It’s a character study in fate and how a disparate group of Australians handle not just their impending deaths, but the impending deaths of their whole country, after most of the world has already succumbed to nuclear explosions and the clouds of deadly radiation, a cloud that took a year to spread down to Australia.
Everyone deals with it differently, everyone treats their last day differently, but none go out railing against the inevitable, that acceptance packs such an emotional punch, you get to know these characters you don’t want them to die, so you rail against the inevitable foot them.
And it begs the question, what would you do if your end is nigh? Would you use up all the fine things that were saved out never enjoyed fully, such as old wines and racing sports cars, would you spend it with your family, or would you try and leave something behind that will outlive you?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
It’s a heck of an example of writing at its starkest, an open look at Victorian culture. Nearly no one talked about the gender inequality, conversations about social and religious inequality had few proponents, but not to any native degree. Today these are part of the national conversations, but we still shut away from the tougher subjects.
It truly is a brutal romance novel set in my home county of West Yorkshire, (and if you ever get chance, check out Haworth is a gorgeous place, but you can see the starkness in those craggy moors, and feel the darkness when the sun goes away.
I do the love the Yorkshireness of it, I’m Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, and proud of it too – but even I have to think long and hard when I read lines like:
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
But the Yorkshire dialect extremely regional, (dialects become increasingly nuanced and distinct every few miles), and this was a hundred and fifty years ago, long before radio and television started its quest to harmonise dialects and even accents – but that is long subject in not an expert on, so expert my ill thought opinions in a future post.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
I’m a huge fan of Asimov’s Robot series, and I’m cheating here as I, Robot is a collection of short stories, but I couldn’t pick just one, and it’s by far my favourite Asimov book, so you’ll have to indulge me.
What I love about Asimov’s robot series is that as you explore the nature of the positronic mind you’re really exploring the nature of humanity. There are some truly fantastic characters and concepts in this collection and they’re all well worth a read.
Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region by Robert Holdstock
A haunting book that encapsulates a coming of age story with deep exploration of a fantasy world. It’s also weird, an right year old girl gets lost in this prehistoric wood where magic still holds sway – she spends a life time there, going onto have children, who in turn have children. Eventually she leaves and she’s an eight year old again, and time hasn’t past. That’s pretty heavy.
But the girl, the protagonist is fascinating, and the wood and its rules are fascinating.
It’s the second in the Mythago words series, but a clear favourite, and I love reading it despite its weirdness. It’s not as up front about the rules of its world, and the magic cards help it get out of sticky plot points, which usually takes me right out of the story, but here is done well, coming across more like revealing layers to the story, than a get of jail free card. The mystery keeps you engaged, and it’s definitely a skill I would very much like to learn no matter the genre.