Five Favorite Books

It’s always hard to pick a few favorite books. For one thing, I think it’s easy to slip into listing only favorites from childhood, because those formative years are so vividly imprinted on us. For another, I know a lot of authors personally, and I don’t want to hurt any feelings, nor do I want my personal love for an author to bias me in favor of the book (we can call this my Ann Leckie rule).

I’m going to limit my favorites on this list to authors who are deceased, or who I’ve never met personally. …I’m also just going to let the childhood thing go, though, and list some books I’ve loved since I was young.

I’m also limiting this to books with speculative elements, just to make the volume a bit more manageable.

Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee — This was my favorite book through high school. Tanith Lee’s dreamlike, intricate prose reads like a string of jewels with dazzling clarity. I was enamored of the strange world–a merging of utopia and dystopia. In retrospect, I think its treatment of gender was a strong allure. People could design new bodies when they were bored with their existing ones, and switch to male or female and back with minimal fuss. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Beloved by Toni Morrison – I first read this in college. The raw, painful emotion is deeply affecting, and sensorily rendered. It’s beautiful, though also dark and unflinching in its dealings with its intense depiction of the psychological aftermath of slavery. (Also, the poetic passage in the middle is brilliant and weird, and I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to be reading the book in a class where the teacher was able to help us interpret it, because I’m not sure I’d have understood on my own.) Toni Morrison may be the greatest living writer, although of course that’s a silly thing to say, because there is never one “greatest” by an objective criteria. She’s clearly in the top tier of brilliance one way or another, and for my standards, is a strong contender for greatest.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler – I’m going to make another “greatest” claim, which is that Octavia Butler is the best and most important science fiction writer of the twentieth century. (Obviously, there are strong arguments that can be made for other people, too.) Lilith’s Brood is, I think, the height of her talent. It’s emotionally vivid, and takes place in a deeply strange world. Butler’s aliens really read like aliens. Like many of her books, Lilith’s Brood considers how humanity might evolve in the future, and whether it’s possible for us to shed our instincts toward violence and xenophobia.

And here are a couple of recent books I’m excited by, written by authors I’ve never met. I don’t know if they will stand in my pantheon forever, but they were books I’ve found impactful in the past few years.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma – A dark horror novel that brilliantly weaves together multiple timelines. It’s told from the perspectives of two teenage girls — one imprisoned for allegedly murdering her stepfather, and the other a ballerina. The ballerina’s best friend has been convicted for murder, and now she’s the first girl’s cell mate. The rendering of the characters is sharp, interesting, and emotionally engaging, and the tightly woven plot of flashbacks and revelations, creates a magnetic, urgent force that draws you through the book.

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King – It’s sort of random that I picked this book by A. S. King as opposed to one of the other books by A. S. King, almost all of which are excessively brilliant. (The others are merely quite good.) I picked this one because I remember the plot best, and because I argued for its inclusion on the Norton ballot when I was on the jury. This book has a spare, almost aggressive style, which helps illuminate the psychology of the main character. The teenaged main character is a boy who is bullied for seeming insufficiently masculine and socially adept, and I like it when books treat that subject matter seriously and well. I thought it did an excellent job of capturing that trauma, and the reactions it can create.

So, there’s five books, y’all! What are your favorites?

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14 Responses to Five Favorite Books

  1. 1
    Kate says:

    I also love Octavia Butler. It’s hard to decide which I’d choose, but probably her collection of short stories, Bloodchild, just because of the variety.

    Sticking to fiction with speculative elements:

    Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time

    Anne Lecke, Anciliary Justice/Sword/Mercy

    Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan

    Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    I’m going to send that to Ann!

  3. 3
    Kate says:

    Please do! I read Provenance for my “Other Worlds” book club and then proceeded to binge-read Anciliary Justice/Sword/Mercy.

  4. 4
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I can’t give a top five because that shifts too much and is subject to recency effects – I’ve noticed that I almost always name books I’ve read in the past 2 years or so when asked.

    But I can tell you my all time favourite book which I return to every so often and each time o appreciate it more than the last – Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse.

  5. 5
    Kate says:

    I can’t give a top five because that shifts too much and is subject to recency effects – I’ve noticed that I almost always name books I’ve read in the past 2 years or so when asked.

    I don’t think that would be against the nature of this inquiry.

    I like Virgina Woolfe, but she’d never make my top five overall (Middlemarch, Franny & Zooey, Persuasion, Seed to Harvest & Woman on the Edge of Time would probably be it at the moment for all fiction…but also The Bell Jar, can I have six?.
    I had a non-fiction work Virginai Woolfe and the Servants, which might be in my top five non-fiction – Facing the Extreme, Gulag Achepelego, Between the World and Me and Ancient Egypt: An Anatomy of a Civilization

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Like many others here, it’s hard for me to pick… so many great books! And I guess it won’t surprise anyone that most of my favorites are graphic novels.

    In no particular order:

    Love Bunglers, by Jaime Hernandez, probably my favorite living cartoonist.

    Maus, by Art Spiegelman.

    Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

    This One Summer, by Tamaki and Tamaki

    And Cages, by Dave McKean.

    Four Americans and a Brit. There are a lot of Euro comics I love, but none of them made the top five at the moment.

    I’m not sure which five I’d pick if I limited myself to prose novels, but I’m sure one would be Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

  7. 7
    Kate says:

    I loved Doomsday Book! Willis also wrote a two volume work about World War II, which was fantastic, but I can’t remember the title.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    I love Maus. And Fun Home. And Doomsday Book. And Known World. And…

    I like to put some things on lists like this – in this case, Walls Around Us, and Everybody Sees the Ants, which it’s likely most people haven’t read yet, and which could use the shout out. But lord knows, there are always so many beautiful things.

  9. 9
    J. Squid says:

    I think I’d have to go with which ones really had some kind of effect, emotional or otherwise, on me. And since I’m old and my memory fails it could take some time.

    But I’d definitely say:

    The Catcher in the Rye

    The Sorceress and the Cygnet
    I could definitely choose any of a number of McKillip’s books, but this one sticks out due to what was going on in my life when I read it.

    I’ll come back when I think of some more to differentiate from the hundreds of books that I love.

  10. 10
    David Simon says:

    A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason

    Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

    Red/Green/Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

    Thud! by Terry Pratchett

    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin

  11. 11
    David Simon says:

    And I loved the Ancillary series by Leckie as well! Such great world-building.

  12. 12
    Ben Lehman says:

    @david I’m so glad to see someone else who loves “A Woman of the Iron People.” It’s such an extraordinary book!

    My top five novels (books is too broad), today:

    The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin
    The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany
    Four Ways to Forgiveness, by Ursula le Guin
    Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
    Digger, by Ursula Vernon

    It’ll change tomorrow, though. The only stable thing on that list is The Story of the Stone.

  13. 13
    Harlequin says:

    That’s funny, I have the opposite problem to Eytan–my top five lists (of anything) are almost always things I loved circa college or just after. I don’t know if I’m more critical now, or if my memory of criticism fades faster than my memory of the stuff I liked, or if it’s just that there’s less that’s new and surprising to me now and I like new and surprising. Like, I will usually say my favorite book is The Dispossessed. But I haven’t read it in a decade, out of fear that I won’t like it as much as the first time I read it, I think. (Not explicitly, but I never seem to pick it up for a reread, and I think that’s why.)

    Anyway, shockingly to me–given that I read primarily SFF, mostly by women, and that’s been true most of my life–I haven’t read a single one of your top 5, Mandolin, so I guess they’re getting added to my list! And same with many of the other top 5s listed here.

    Today, my top 5 might be:
    – The Dispossessed
    – Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I reread this one recently and was surprised that what I think of as “the plot” doesn’t start until halfway through the book!
    – Sandman. The entire run is one book, right? :) A Game of You if I have to pick, although I don’t love some of the stuff about how the trans character is portrayed.
    – The Magpie Lord, by K.J. Charles. Historical gay fantasy/horror romance.
    – Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, which is what turned me from a general reader into a SFF-specific reader, and which even now, as an adult, has this incredible sense of place to it.

    If I remember correctly, first read those at: 16, 20, 21, 30, 8. And the one from age 30 is a new genre of the last few years for me (romance). So maybe it is just novelty.

  14. 14
    Andrea Ferguson says:

    Kate, the Willis books you were trying to remember are Blackout and All Clear.