Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Five favourite books

Choosing favourite books is like choosing your favourite children; you really can't have more than five of them.

Er. Or something like that.

I've been thinking about what makes a favourite book, because one of the books I think of as a favourite, I just can't read. (More on that later.) I think, for me, a favourite book is one that involves me totally and at which I look and think, There is no way in the world I could ever write a book like that.

So, in no particular order, here are my five favourite books right now.

1. Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock

Holdstock's first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, was a revelation, but this one was even better. In some ways, this may be the most perfect book I've ever read.

What Holdstock does better than anyone else is evoke the real feel of mythology, where things can be real and unreal at the same time, and where there can be multiple truths.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the series, the basic premise is that ancient, untouched woodlands are capable of bringing to life the myths that exist inside humanity's collective unconscious, and inside the woodlands, where time and space are warped, these myths live on.

In this book, Tallis Keeton journeys into Ryhope Wood in search of her lost brother, making her way to the realm in the center of the woods where all myths begin.

I've always been drawn to woodlands and mystery, and to stories with ambiguous endings, and this book has all of that. It's enormously perceptive and affecting, and it's one of the most convincing demonstrations of non-rational (which is not the same as irrational) fantasy around.

I found Mythago Wood occasionally a bit dry, but Lavondyss certainly isn't. Much recommended. 

Robert Holdstock was one of the authors I would most like to have met, but he died in 2009, far too young, and I never got the chance.

Mythago Wood won the World Fantasy Award, and I think Lavondyss should have too.

2. Dune, by Frank Herbert

I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction (although there are plenty of SF books I love), and Dune has more than a little in common with fantasy, with its feudal society, its low-tech universe and powers of prophecy, but it's science fiction nonetheless.

I'm not sure there's much I can say about Dune that hasn't been said many times before. It is, after all, one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written. In fact, I'd like to cheat a bit here and nominate the whole Dune series for this 'favourite novel' selection.

The whole Dune series, that is, by Frank Herbert. Not the unending series of Dune-books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, where they attempt to turn every slight hint of backstory into a whole novel by itself (without seeming to realise that backstory and world-building are what give life to a story, and that if every last bit is explicated in detail, then the depth and colour are sucked out of the story; but I digress).

There was certainly a drop in quality with the first two sequels by Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but by the end of the series, I think it was developing into something quite interesting again. Sadly, like Holdstock, Herbert died before he was finished with the series, leaving his son and his son's collaborator to exploit and degrade it. (Okay, getting bitter again...)

Brief summary, for anyone who has managed to have their head in a sandworm since 1965:

Dune (or Arrakis) is a desert world whose value comes from the 'spice' melange which increases mental powers, allows some limited glimpses of the future, and which allows navigators to guide their ships through space. This is a universe in which computers have been outlawed and in which dominant, feudal houses contend with each other for power. The imperial emperor has decided that House Atreides have become too powerful, and although he can't move against them himself, he gives them Arrakis and leads them into a trap.

This is a book about politics, power, ecology, religion, personal struggle and a whole let else. It really is a remarkable achievement.

Dune was turned down by every major publisher it was sent to, and eventually was published by a house that specialised in auto books and technology magazines. So, yah, boo, sucks to foolish publishers.

3. Passage, by Connie Willis

Can you actually have a favourite book that you can't read? I do, and this is it.

The first time I read Passage I was absolutely blown away by how Connie constructed this novel, how the structure and theme and style fit together so unexpectedly and so perfectly to produce something that is so much more. I'm struggling to say much here, because I don't want to give anything away to anyone who hasn't read it yet. But it is very unusual to have a book where the whole structure and action parallel the ideas so effectively.

Passage is funny and tragic and painful and brilliant. 

Joanna Lander is a psychologist investigating near-death experiences in a research hospital, desperately trying to get good data before people's experiences are contaminated by the fraudulent Maurice Mandrake, who takes advantage of the patients to sell his vision of the afterlife to gullible people.

This is about death and honesty and the lies that people tell each other about death.

Connie Willis's book fall into two rough categories: comedies, and comedies that turn into tragedies. Passage is one of the latter, like the more famous Doomsday Book before it. For myself, I've always preferred these to the comedies, because they have more emotional depth and stronger storylines.

My problem with Passage, and the reason I can't read it anymore, is that the emotion is simply too powerful. This is a book about death, and since I've read it, I've had too many people close to me die. If I hadn't read Passage before and I didn't know how it ended, I think I would be able to manage, but I have, and I simply can't put myself through this anymore.

Passage will always be one of my favourite books, but I think it'll be a long time before I can actually read it again. And that is probably a mark of how brilliant it is.

4. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Okay, I'm not going to insult anyone by giving a plot summary of this book. You know what it's about. You've almost certainly seen the movies, and you've probably read the books.

The Lord of the Rings has been imitated many, many times, but no one else has managed anything comparable. 

In the various tales of Middle Earth, Tolkien was attempting to construct a possible root mythology for the northern European myths that remain. (He wasn't, as some unperceptive critics have suggested, simply retelling Norse mythology.) These are the stories of the ages before this one, imagined in an incredible depth, with a vast history, languages, cultures and legends of their own.

In fact, The Lord of the Rings is a book written about one tiny part of the history and world that Tolkien had constructed. 

When you read The Lord of the Rings, you can't help but feel that you're entering a world that has been imagined in the every last detail over periods of thousands of years. It is this depth, along with the warmth of the storytelling, that make it much more than any other high fantasy around.

Really, you either already like this or you don't. Nothing I say will make a difference.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin

This one really is cheating, because we're at five books and counting in this series (more if you're in the US, where some of the books were split in two). If anyone can make claim to a fantasy world as rich as Tolkien's, it's George Martin. 

This is an enormous story, full of rich, believable characters, compelling storytelling, and a vast scope. There's political intrigue, war, love, death, and betrayal, and characters who seem to be competing to be the most vile.

Yet one of the big achievements of Martin's series is that none of the characters are wholly good or wholly bad. There's no black and white here, and even the most vicious and cruel characters can be sympathetic, because they genuinely are the heroes of their own individual stories. These aren't the kind of baddies who think they're being bad. They think they are doing the right thing, by their own priorities and moralities.

A Song of Ice and Fire has been described as a fantasy version of the War of the Roses, but actually it encompasses a lot more, over a larger area and with more protagonists. In some ways, it's the history of Europe, in particular Britain, re-imagined in a fantastical alternate world.

But all of that is really besides the point, because the thing that makes A Song of Ice and Fire such a great series is that Martin is a remarkably compelling storyteller. Even though he jumps from place to place and character to character, the reader is pulled, sometimes against their will, with an inevitable force into the stories.

The other books

An awful lot of other books could have made it into this list, if I'd made it on another day or week. Excession, Feersum Endjinn and Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks. A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. The Malazan series by Steven Erikson and the one by Ian C. Esslemont. The last two Harry Potter books. The Kat Incorrigible books, by Stephanie Burgis (omitted purely to avoid the appearance of nepotism). Stephen King's Dark Tower books. And so on.

At various points, these have all been favourites of mine, and I won't hesitate to recommend them to anyone.

So, what are your recommendations or your favourite books?


Sonia Gensler said...

Oh my. I could have sworn I read Mythago Wood a long time ago. I see 2003 for the reprint edition, does that mean it's actually a lot older? That title is so familiar. Wish my memory wasn't so crap.

I've read DUNE, PASSAGE, and LOTR and loved them, so yeah. Good stuff! I'm enjoying the HBO series of GoT, and everyone tells me I should read the books, but I'm not even tempted at this point. Hmmm. Too many books on my TBR pile.

Unknown said...

Agree on Dune, LOTR, ASOIAF and Malazan. My favourites list would look very similar, with China Mieville being on it a couple of times for Perdido Street Station and The Scar.

Clearly, we both have very good taste.

Anonymous said...

I knew there was a reason we got along. ;-)

I'm leading a book club at FaerieCon this year for MYTHAGO, which is really, really fun.

Anonymous said...

the one by Ian C Esslemont - I don't actually rate them myself, but would it improve your day any if I point out that Ian's written at least four Malazan books?

Patrick Samphire said...


Well, personally I'll join the chorus. The GoT books are *way* better than the TV series, although I'm enjoying the TV series too.

Mythago Wood came out in the mid-80s, if I recall correctly. '85 or '86, I think.

@"Unknown" Tony

For some reason, China Mieville's stuff never really clicked with me, but I do see why people like it so much. Just not really right for me, I think.


Now I wish I was coming... :(


I totally get clicking with the Malazan books. Most of the time reading them, I have no idea what is going on, where, or who is involved. But I love them anyway.

Yeah, I did know there more Esslemont books. I just phrased that really badly. I didn't totally love his first one, but the later ones are fantastic, IMO.

Stephanie Burgis said...

Picking just five is hard! But today, in no particular order...

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

LotR, of course

The Talisman Ring, by Georgette Heyer

Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

But the funny thing is, I've read all of those SO MANY times that I'm not likely to reread any of them any time soon. Then again, I don't need to - I've almost got them memorized. They're my literary backbone!

Stephanie Burgis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Samphire said...


It's slightly embarrassing that the only book of your five that I've actually read all the way through is LotR. It's lucky that *in general* we like the same books. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on Lavondyss and and Passage--they're way up there for me.

Patrick Samphire said...


I must admit, I struggle to decide exactly which of Connie's books is my favourite. Doomsday Book is a near contender, for me, but there's just something extra in Passage.