Most of the books referred to on this page are fiction (with the addition of a couple of autobiographical writers in the "favourite authors" listing). This isn't because I read mostly fiction (the reverse is actually true). It is more to do with the fact that my recreational non-fiction reading list is very broad, and extremely hard to summarise. So I've not included very much non-fiction here, for simplicity's sake.
Authors in this list are those who write books that I can pick up and be fairly sure that I will thoroughly enjoy without having read them. These are authors who are on my buy-on-sight list (or would be, if I had the spare cash to buy lots of books).
C J Cherryh
Cherryh, for the uninitiated, writes bloody good hard sf and fantasy, and is my Favourite Author Of All Time. Firstly, there are her characters, who act like real people with all their flaws, uncertainties and erratic reactions. Then there's the way she writes her characters so that the reader can get under their skin and actually see why they act as they do and react as they do, and what they feel when they do so. But wait, there's more! Her wonderful economical prose style, which gets positively minimalist in places; her dense and complex plotting, her grasp of social interaction, her ability to write believable aliens with believably alien mindsets. Need I go on? Personal favourites from among her output: "Cyteen"; The "Faded Sun" trilogy (particularly volume 2); and the "Foreigner" series (which is still being written).
Charles de Lint
This author is a writer of urban fantasy who is, in my opinion, definitely a cut above the majority of writers in this genre when it comes to characterisation, writing style and plotting. I find it hard to think of generalisations that do his work justice. I suggest you read them yourself if you are even vaguely interested in urban fantasy. You won't regret trying them.
Tim Severin's books are descriptions of his various sailing adventures. This man's favourite pastime seems to be recreating legendary sea voyages by building replicas of the ships described in said legends and then setting forth. He has re-created the voyage of St Brendan from Ireland west across the northern Atlantic Ocean in a boat made of leather ("The Brendan Voyage"), and the journeys of Sindbad the Sailor around the middle-east in a boom, a sailing ship sewn together with coconut fibre according to traditional Middle-Eastern techniques ("The Sindbad Voyage"). Fascinating stuff, particularly the chapters in both books discussing how he relates traditional boatbuilding techniques to the descriptions of the boats found in the earliest versions of the stories.
Ursula Le Guin
What could I possibly say that is adequate to the skills of this true Master of speculative fiction? This is the author of the "Earthsea" series, the first three books of which I read in my formative years, and have stayed with me always. She also wrote "The Left Hand of Darkness", a classic exploration of sex and gender issues; and "Always Coming Home", which is more a series of anthropological essays on a fictional culture than a novel. It describes a world that to me would be as close to a utopia as I can imagine, at least in part. It is a place I return to fondly when I can.
I discovered this author recently when a friend of mine lent me "Snow Crash", a cyberpunkish novel that I had heard many favourable things of. And I was completely blown away. Oh, the witty and animated prose, the dry humour, the weird and wonderful plot devices! When I encountered another book of his ("Zodiac") in the library, of course I had to read it. This second book (actually written before "Snow Crash") was equally good, but this time was based on an eco-terrorist-as-hero figure. I recall that the intro blurb said that it "had achieved cult status among water sanitation engineers" or some such [giggle]. I look forward to reading his other books, and immersing myself in his darkly glittering worlds once more.
Do you remember "Ring of Bright Water", that film about the guy who has a pet otter? Well, Gavin Maxwell was the author of that book and a number of others, all autobiographical (although not all about otters). I've found four books by him so far ("The House of Elrig", "Ring of Bright Water", "The Rocks Remain" and "Raven Seek Thy Brother"). I've heard that he has written a fifth book ("Harpoon at a Venture"), but I've not seen a copy of it. "The House of Elrig" is about the author's rather unusual childhood in Scotland, and is full of fascinating characters and interesting anecdotes. He tells the stories very frankly and does not always come out looking good at the end of them... and I admire his honesty. "Ring of Bright Water" is familiar to many folk, and is about his life with a couple of otters; the other two books are about what happened after, much of which was unpleasant or unfortunate, but all told with Maxwell's characteristic frankness and integrity.
Greg Bear writes what I call "big SF" - The End Of The World As We Know It is a common theme in many of his books, but the way that things end is a variable - meteors crashing into the Earth ("The Forge of God"), the world being overrun by sentient microbes ("Blood Music") - all sorts of odd stuff, written in a very accessible and enjoyable style. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and the nature of consciousness are recurring themes in a number of his novels. I recommend "Eon" and "Eternity", along with "Queen of Angels" and "Slant". But then again, everything I've read of his has been enjoyable. So take your pick.
Kim Stanley Robinson
If you like tales of space colonisation and you haven't red Kim Stanley Robinson's "Blue Mars" trilogy, you have missed what I consider to be the finest example of the genre. Robinson has a dry, spare writing style that depicts three-dimensional characters with an economy and depth that sometimes staggers me. He includes no cardboard cutout characters in his novels, and does not write about heroes and villains - all his people have human strengths and human weaknesses, and what is truly heroic is how much they achieve and how they do so despite not being the flawless superheroes that many lesser writers depict. I definitely approve of his politics, by the way. Oh yes, and if you're at all interested in geology, you will likely find Robinson's detailed rhapsodising over the Martian landscape to be a true delight!
This author writes about the ultimate "getting away from it all" lifestyle. Originally he and his wife lived in London and did the high-pressure lifestyle thing, but one day they decided that they'd had enough and up and left for life on a Cornish flower farm. Warm and approachable in style, the many books by Derek Tangye that chronicle their chosen lifestyle in loving detail are a true delight. They tend to focus on the various cats that move through his life, and are definitely books for cat-lovers; however, there are many anecdotes about local events and people that give the reader a sense that they have come to know this world that Tangye describes. The books are also peppered with little snippets that provide a real sense of depth beyond cheerful anecdotes: discussions of the Tangyes' home-grown philosophy of life, recipes for bread, and details of the pros and cons of various daffodil varieties, for example. While he doesn't pretend that making a living by raising flowers for the florist market is in any way easy, I come away from his books feeling like I've just spent some time in a little corner of paradise.
This is a broad grouping, and includes all sorts of cool stuff that is very dissimilar. The common thread here is that something about the conceptual devices used by the author appeals to me.
"The Stress of Her Regard" by Tim Powers
This is a very unusual vampire story. Tim Powers has a knack for taking a vast heap of totally unrelated stuff and tying them together in a way that actually seems to make sense. In this case, imagine if you will that the entities known to myth as the Muses are in fact real, but destructive - a second species of intelligent life that has co-existed alongside humanity and predated upon us since antiquity. And suppose that all the great works of art and music and literature were born out of the inspiration given to their victims by these creatures as they predated vampirically upon them. This is the premise that this fantasy novel is based upon. It is set in the Nineteenth Century, and the narrator spends a lot of time wandering around Europe with assorted Romantic Poets (who are, unsurprisingly, all preyed upon by these entities, who have inspired them to their greatest poetry). It sounds rather lurid, but it actually very well put together, and works very well. This is definitely my favourite vampire novel.
"Earth" by David Brin
I enjoy reading this book a lot, probably because of all the interesting ideas and concepts that the author tosses in for "local colour". It is based in the near future, and the narrative bounces around from character to character and is interspersed with excerpts from newscasts, interviews and net broadcasts. It depicts a world where current trends are extended and built on, and a few examples of the elements included in this complex novel are: a world where pollution and environment destruction has got to a point where endangered species are protected in arcologies as they have no habitat left; wars have been fought over "secret" data inaccessible to the general population, and as a result "privacy" is a dirty word; divisions between youth culture and senior citizens have almost escalated to warfare; a vast flotilla of rusty barges, ancient fishing boats and refugee boats have collected together in the middle of the ocean to become an independent state. After all that, the actual plot (involving miniature black holes orbiting inside the Earth's core and possibly destroying it) seems rather irrelevant!
"Seal Woman" by Ronald Lockley
This is a charming tale set in Ireland and based very loosely on folktales of selkies, or seal-people. The story revolves around the narrator's ongoing relationship with Shian, a wild and fey young woman of unknown origin. The villagers who raised her told her stories about her mysterious beginnings (being found washed up on a beach after a storm as a baby) and call her their "sea princess". Thus she believes that she is a selkie woman, and that the arrival of a sea-prince will break the spell that is on her and her seal-cousins and then they will all be able to return to a magical kingdom over the horizon of the sea. Of course, when the narrator arrives on the scene (who is in no way a "sea-prince", but in fact a soldier who has lost the power of speech through an injury), Shian decides that he is her longed-for rescuer, and she draws him into her wild life among the seals and rock pools. He, smitten, follows her.
The whole story has the feel to me of a dream just after waking - warm and vague and drifty, with the mythic feel that sometimes attaches to dream experiences and gives them extra depth beyond the skewed narrative of dream-logic. It's partly this folklorish flavour that appeals to me, and partly the ambiguity of Shian's nature, which is never entirely clarified - is it a fantasy story, or a slightly odd romance? This is left open, and definitely adds to the enjoyment of this offbeat and gentle tale.
"Native Tongue" and "Judas Rose" by Suzette Haden Elgin
These are interesting books. They are based around a sort of anti-feminist dystopia where "the Patriarchy" is a literal as well as a figurative entity, and the major advantage that the otherwise utterly repressed womenfolk hold is their superior linguistic skill: only women of Linguist families, brought up from infancy immersed in a multi-linguistic milieu, have the skill and training needed to be able to communicate with the alien societies upon which Earth's economy has come to depend. There is a third book to this series, but I found it inferior to the first two so haven't listed it here. I find a few aspects of Elgin's novels very awkwardly written (for example, the institutionalised sexism in this society is drawn in such a way that it is heavy-handed to the point of parody), but there are some wonderful elements that more than compensate for these lacks. One of those is Laadan, the "secret women's language" devised by the Linguist women to express a female worldview and perception, and thus spread subversive thoughts and ideas to non-Linguist women in a method inaccessible to their oppressors. I also find intriguing the idea of "new encodings" - described as "a word for a perception that never had a word of its own before". Here are a couple of examples of Laadan words with definitions (from the appendix of "Native Tongue") to give you an idea of what is meant here:
radodelh: a situation which has not one single point in common on which to base interaction, often used of personal relationships;
zhalaad: the act of relinquishing a cherished/comforting/familiar illusion or frame of reference.
"The Legacy of Heorot" by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Stephen Barnes
This book would be fairly standard Niven & Pournelle fare if it weren't for the rather intriguing monster that it revolves around. This beast has a particularly odd lifecycle, based on a very limited ecological niche, and I understand that it is based on the habits of a real-world frog. Believe it or not. I won't give away the details since much of the tension in the book derives from it. Neat stuff, at any rate, and worth a read if you're interested in space colonisation/survival/thriller stories with an interesting twist.
"Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
And here we have another "end of the world" tale - but this one has a few differences. For a start, the world doesn't actually end, it is just expected to end shortly when the novel starts. And the main characters (insofar as one can identify "main characters" in a tale this densely peopled) are Aziraphale (a somewhat ineffectual angel who is also a rare book dealer in his spare time) and Crowley (a Satanic henchman and ex-angel who "did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards", and whose major achievement involved arranging the M25 London orbital motorway to form the dark sigil odegra). We also are introduced to Newton Pulsifer (wages clerk and witchfinder private), Adam (an Antichrist, age twelve), Madam Tracy (Painted Jezebel [mornings only, Thursdays by arrangement] and medium), and The Four Other Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. "Good Omens" is full of dark humour which adorns speculations on the nature of free will and Ineffable Divine Purpose. I definitely wouldn't call this book "light humour" - but it is truly hilarious, and in places thought-provoking (assuming that one has an inclination to have those sorts of thoughts).
I include this as a separate category because it is uncommon that I find a character in a novel that I can see aspects of myself in to any degree, or who reacts emotionally as I would. Consequently when I do find one, that novel becomes a particular favourite ("hey look! Here's someone like me!") and I tend to return to it time and again.
Antryg Windrose in "The Silent Tower", "Silicon Mage" and "Dog Wizard" by Barbera Hambly
Antryg Windrose is the supposedly mad but actually very clever mage who plays a central role in this fantasy trilogy. I suspect Antryg and I would get on famously. We have so much in common! Both of us are cheerful, whimsical and absent-minded, and considered somewhat daft by our associates. We're both rather vague and distractable but very capable when in our element, and both of us will chatter for hours if given an audience, leaping from topic to topic with gay abandon. Of all the fictional characters I've encountered, he's the one I most strongly identify with. Perhaps we were twins in a former life [grin].
The Crow Girls in "Someplace to be Flying" by Charles de Lint
Maida and Zia, the Crow Girls in this novel, are a pair of strange supernatural entities who present as a pair of feckless, feral, irrepressible adolescents. They take a childlike delight in clowning and teasing and wear their hearts on their sleeves. However, they turn this face to the world through choice, and in reality are much much deeper and more potent than this.
Here is an edited-for-brevity excerpt from the book which shows their true nature rather more clearly. This quote starts at the point that another character (Ray) has realised that there is more to the Crow Girls than simply dizzy pranksters who pay no attention to anything except the next source of amusement.
"You remember everything, donít you?" He said. "You only pretend to forget."
Maida blinked. "When we don't remember, we really don't," she said.
Ray didn't recognise her voice at all now. It held neither a giddy good humour nor a hardness, but was as matter-of-fact as Chloe's.
"But that doesn't mean it goes away," she added.
Zia tapped a finger against her temple and nodded. "Everything goes on living somewhere in here. Mostly we choose not to think about it."
"Because if we did," Maida explained, "we might start thinking like Cody and try to change the world."
"Maybe that'd be a good thing," Ray found himself saying. "Maybe you wouldn't screw it up."
They both shook their heads sadly.
"That's where Cody's got it wrong," Zia said. "You don't change the world by stirring up something in Raven's pot."
"Then how do you change it?"
"By being strong and true. The best change you can make is to hold up a mirror so that people can look into in and change themselves. That's the only way a person can be changed."
"By looking into yourself," Zia said. "Even if you have to look into a mirror that's outside yourself to do it."
Friday in "Friday" by Robert Heinlein
I never thought I'd see the day when I saw something of myself in a female character by Heinlein, but I suppose that all things come to those who wait, or so they say. Friday seems to be a bit of an exception for Heinlein women in some ways. The aspect of her that I most strongly relate to is her sense of alienation and her longing for acceptance. Like me, she is different from most of the folk around her in ways that they cannot or will not accept, and like me she sometimes sabotages her own attempts to get close to others by letting her fears get in the way.
Francis Crawford of Lymond in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Saga
(ie. the series that starts with "The Game of Kings")
Lymond is a very complex and intriguing character. He has many characteristics that are rather different to mine - for example, charm, panache and charisma at levels that induce hero-worship in those around him (a feat I've yet to achieve!), and a tendency to martyrish self-destruction. But he also has a number of attributes to which I do relate as well - such as his preference for not displaying his deeper reactions to the world, and his fondness for wordplay and clever language. I also see his idiosyncratic sense of honour and a fierce loyalty to his friends, family and dependants echoed in myself, along with a regrettable tendency to self-flagellation regarding character flaws or errors.