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Nov 2014

Ten Books that have stayed with you.

Ten Books that have stayed with you.
Only missing “Rendezvous with Rama”, which is on Kindle as I foolishly lent out the original.

1. “The Hobbit"¯ (JRR Tolkien)
I'm sure this book will feature in many people's top ten. "The Hobbit” was one of the first books that I read and reread regularly. Yes, its style is not as adult as "The Lord of the Rings"¯, but it is full of joy and adventure, whereas the trilogy has always felt dark and doomed. I have to confess that "The Silmarillion"¯ came very close to taking this spot as the shear epic feel of the sweep of history really hit the mark for me, despite it being difficult to read in some parts.

2. ”¯Downbelow Station"¯ (CJ Cherryh)
CJ Cherryh writes character driven novels where the science fiction is almost incidental. "Downbelow Station"¯ won the Hugo and the Nebula awards and is a book that I have returned to again and again, and is probably my favourite SF novel. Cherryh writes from the perspective of the character she is voicing, so you only ever know what they know. "Downbelow Station"¯ is a story about the impact of war on people living at Pell's Station during the conclusion of a conflict between different human factions. Space battles, refugees, politics, and love are all in this, and I found the book nearly impossible to put down when I got it one Christmas. I can remember being at my grandparent's house and being unable to put it down. I can also recommend the audiobook, which - despite my having read the novel many times - revealed little details and nuances of the plot that I hadn't really dwelt on when I read it normally. Oh, and once you've read this, "Cyteen"¯ is a must.

3. ”¯Rendezvous with Rama"¯ (Sir Arthur C Clarke)
My Australian Second Cousin Kathy F gave me this book (along with another cracking tome on aircraft) when she left from staying with us, and it has stayed with me ever since. It's a story about humanity encountering an alien vessel and trying to work out what it is, what it does and whether the entry into the Solar System is just a coincidence. It's short compared to modern novels, and a great story of discovery. My only regret is that the original copy that I had was lost by someone who borrowed it. The BBC radio adaptation is also worth a listen if you can find it.

4. “¯Postmarked the Stars"¯ (Andre Norton)
When I discovered Andre Norton at Holmes Chapel library as a young lad, I discovered science fiction and fantasy. The first novel in her free traders books "Sargasso of Space"¯ had me hooked from the start with a tale of a young man joining a merchant trader and seeking his fortune in the stars. However, it's the third book in the series that stays with me and so I have named it here. This involved a colony world where all was not as it seemed. I still have the copy that I found at a bookshop in Cornwall or Devon on holiday, and I know that it has heavily influenced my love of the Traveller RPG. I have re-read this many times.

5. ”¯Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin)
Again, a book that I stumbled upon at the library, probably when I worked there as a Saturday assistant. Sadly, I've subsequently lost the glorious hardcover I had, but I have paperback and Kindle versions. This is a tale of love, of loss and of magic, set in a mythical version of New York. Peter Lake is a burglar who meets Beverly, a girl terminally ill, when he is breaking into her family's house and falls in love with her. Beautifully written, dreamy and evocative, it's not a book that I can read very often but it's one that I love very much. Recently filmed as 'A New York's Winter's Tale', which was a nice adaption.

6. “Neuromancer"¯ (William Gibson)
I found this book - which I'd been looking for following reading a review in Dave Langford's column in White Dwarf - on a book stand while I was away at a Scout Camp. I think it may have been in Bala in Wales. It has stayed with me ever since (and got me into trouble with my father when I got it, as he didn't think it entirely appropriate for my age). It was the novel that crystalised a change in SF and I loved it. The vision it presents is bleak, but less technology obsessed than many of the roleplaying games in the same genre. The plot twists and Gibson's prose crackles with energy. I recently re-read this and had the chance to listen to the BBC Radio adaption which is fantastic.

7. "¯The Earthsea Sextet"¯ (Ursula K Le Guin)
Le Guin's fantasy series is superb, and very different to many other fantasy series. I read this while at secondary school and loved it. I was even more excited when a further three books emerged over the years since I read it first, and one of my happiest book purchases was when I found the hardback edition so now I have a lovely set. It has meant that the original, well worn and loved, paperbacks can be passed onto Nathan when he is old enough.

8. "The Dark is Rising"¯ Sequence (Susan Cooper)
I'm naming the whole sequence here, but if I had to choose one, it would be "The Dark is Rising"¯. This is a darkly-lensed fantasy tale of a young boy who discovers that he isn't like the rest of his family and has special powers, and is drawn into an age-old conflict between the Light and the Dark. Starting in a family farmhouse, at the onset of winter, in our modern world, this novel was really evocative for me as it reminded me of the Cheshire countryside where I lived. This was an optional text for English at secondary school, but I went out and read all five books, and have done repeatedly. The film adaption, 'The Seeker', isn't brilliant. The film makers were a bit too influenced by Harry Potter.

9. The Merlin Trilogy (Mary Stewart)
This is the sequence "The Crystal Cave"¯, "The Hollow Hills"¯ and "The Last Enchantment"¯. I was introduced to these by my paternal grandmother who was fascinated by the Arthurian legends, the Celts and history. The books very strongly influenced my view of the Pendragon RPG, which I always ran in a more gritty, less Mallory inspired mode. Mary Stewart weaves the Arthurian legend well, telling it from the perspective of Merlin. Her setting is in Greater and Lesser Britain as the Romans retreated, with the island threatened by the Saxons. It is epic, and - whilst told from the perspective of Merlin - the magic is mysterious and low key. It is almost believable. I have read this many times and will do again. There are two linked books; "The Wicked Day"¯ which continues the story after "The Last Enchantment"¯ with a somewhat sympathetic Mordred as a focus, and "The Prince and the Pilgrim"¯, which I have yet to read, and is set within Arthur's reign.

10. "Mythago Wood"¯ (Robert Holdstock)
A magical book, set just after the Second World War beside and inside a tract of primal woodland called Ryhope Wood in the south of England. The wood interacts and generate myth imagos representing the fears and hopes of the people who have lived in and around it. The world inside the wood is far bigger than it appears from the outside, stretching in space and time back thousands of years. The Huxley family get drawn into the world of the wood, full of conflicts and discoveries. The book is beautifully written, evocative and one I love to dip back into. There are a number of sequel/prequels which are also worth considering.

Ten Books... the shortlist
Missing the original Foundation Trilogy, which I am not sure where I’ve stored it!

This post grew from a meme on Facebook, which I found very difficult to finish as there are so many books that have meant so much to me over the years. There were several that - had I been in a different mood - would have made the cut, so I decided to give them an honourable mention.

The first was “Eagle of the Ninth” and its various sequels (“The Silver Branch”, “The Lantern Bearers”, “Frontier Wolf” ) written by Rosemary Sutcliff. Set in Roman Britain, these really fired my imagination (especially with the Legionnairy Fortress of Chester nearby) and impacted upon both my interpretation of Glorantha and the Pendragon game settings.

John le Carré didn't make the cut because although I love his work and will seek out and buy a new novel the moment it is released, I rarely re-read his books. However, his recent novels starting from “Absolute Friends” have been on fire, and he has been griped with a passion and anger that was absent post Cold War.

Isaac Azimov's Foundation Trilogy was a huge influence on me from an early age. My father had a copy of the Pan release with black covers and abstract shapes, and the epic scale of the tales resonated with me. Yes, the characters can be cutouts, but the overall scope is great. The expanded books are also good, but not in the same league for me.

Much as Chester influenced my love of Rosemary Sutcliff's Roman Britain books, another part of Cheshire is entwined in my love of some books. Alan Garner's wonderful, distinct “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” and its sequel “The Moon of Gomrath” are long time favourites. I loved walking on the Edge at Alderley, and his books capture it and embue the place with even more magic than it naturally has.

Another author whose books have had a great influence on me is Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is a true gem amongst authors, as most of his books eschew the traditional trilogy favoured in the fantasy genre. He writes well, and creates stand-alone stories in near historical analogues to our past history. One of my favourites is “A Song for Arbonne” but I could easily have picked any of his books.

Finally, how can I end this list without mentioning M. John Harrison's epic “In Viroconium” sequence. He writes beautifully; the sets of linked tales, gradually becoming more and more unfocussed from the dreamy, almost Moorcockian, technological fantasy they open with, shift and twist until they end up in a cafe in Yorkshire. The book is brilliant, and the audiobook even more so.

Actually, mentioning that, I have surprised myself that Michael Moorcock hasn't made this list with at least “Stormbringer”’s brightly paint, fast moving sorcerous war between law and chaos with the albino prince and his demon blade. Visual, probably drug-influenced, colourful and engaging text, worthy of a mention.
November 2014