The title and idea of this is…borrowed…from Den Patrick and the other good people at Blackwell’s in Charing Cross. They have written about 5 books that changed their life so go here and read them. So far I’m managed to whittle my list down to 8 books. I’ve probably missed off a couple so I’ll add them later. It also turns out I had more to say on these books than I anticipated so I’ve split it into two parts.
Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – When I was ten or eleven I remember seeing my brother reading this book. It wasn’t a big book so I wasn’t intimidated by it and when he told me it was fantasy I was intrigued. Looking at it now, in my thirties, I’m less enamoured by it and can’t read it without wincing, however, at the time it was fresh, exciting, and quite simply a wonderful book. Tolkien is a huge influence on many fantasy and genres writers, and he did have an impact on me, but I think Eddings had a greater influence because I read all of the Belgariad and then years later the Mallorian and several other books by him. I spent more time immersed in the worlds that he created and I spent a lot more time with his characters than Tolkien. I felt like Garion was someone I could see wandering the hallways of my school and I really wanted an aunt like Polgara and a grumpy old grandpa like Belgareth. By this time Tolkien had already passed away, so in my mind (at the time when I was eleven) he was old-fashioned fantasy, whereas Eddings was current and writing it for me, right now! Eddings gets a lot of grief from some quarters, and I think some aspects of the criticism are valid, however he was instrumental in my early reading and my love of the fantasy genre, so he definitely deserves to be on this list. These are definitely books to give to younger readers, pre YA even, to ease them into the fantasy genre.
Dune by Frank Herbert – There are some really amazing books, like certain TV shows, films, comedians or even individual comedic sketches, that people will quote for decades after the fact. Monty Python hasn’t been on TV for a long time but people still quote the Dead Parrot sketch, the Knights of Ni from the Holy Grail film, bits from the Life of Brian and so on. This book not only spawned several sequels by Frank Herbert, but it also generated several prequels written by his son and Kevin J. Anderson several decades later. The book has also been adapted into one film and, in my opinion, one really good mini TV series. Regardless of the quality of the sequels and the other spin-offs and adaptations, the ideas in this book are vast and the ground so fertile and rich, with ideas that they need exploring. The material is so interesting and so thought provoking and unique, that I still quote sections, ponder some of the decisions made and I also re-read it. The latter might sound like no great achievement, but there are so many books being published nowadays, and there are so many other distractions vying for my attention and my time, that to actually go back and reread a book is something I almost never do anymore. What Herbert did with Dune is expand my horizons and make me think beyond not only myself and my life, but beyond Earth to the future of mankind and what we, as a species, might accomplish if we ever stopped looking inwards so much and went out there to the stars. It also exposed me to ideas that were so big I couldn’t really grasp them at the time. The first time I read Dune I was too young and I knew I was missing some of the nuances and other material that was there between the lines. It’s such a rich and fertile universe that I just love spending time there and going on an epic journey with Paul. The other incredible thing is that this book hasn’t aged and someone reading it for the first time in 2012 would be as gripped as someone who read it in the 1960s or 1980s. The power of some classic SF novels has diminished, not just because of the advances in technology, but also because the world went in a different direction.
The Green Mile by Stephen King – I first read this in 1996 when it was still coming out in a serialised fashion. I was working in the USA for a summer and on the regular trips into town with my roommates I would regularly check the book store to see if the next installment had come out. You can buy it as a complete novel now, but back then King was releasing in approx six 100 page little booklets. It wasn’t my first King book by that time, but it is the one with which I connect the most. I’ve read many King books, not all of them, and some I’ve enjoyed more than others, but this is still my favourite King novel by a long distance. It’s been more than fifteen years since I read it and I’m still thinking about it. The man is an amazing storyteller and in my opinion he excels at characterisation and making the impossible and the unreal and the scary seem very possible. This is also one of the most emotional novels I’ve ever read and although the phrase rollercoaster is over used, the story took me through a huge range of emotions. This is an incredibly powerful novel about love, loss, the human spirit, sacrifice, compassion, cruelty and miracles. It really puts you through the emotional wringer and for me it is an incredible and very moving book. I should also point out that it is rare that a film adaptation of a novel is very good. The Green Mile by Frank Darabont is one of the exceptions and the film is one my favourites of all time. It’s just that good. For those who are unsure about Stephen King, I always recommend this book over his others.
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz – I came to Koontz quite late and I took a risk on him, because at the time, I’d not heard much about him. I was browsing a book shop and I lamented to a friend there was nothing new in the SFF section that looked very interesting. She told me to try another genre, so in a slight huff I wandered slightly to my right into the horror section and started reading the back of several books. This was my first Koontz novel but definitely not my last. Some of Koontz’s novels are brilliant and some I haven’t enjoyed, but I’ve now probably read 90% of his back catalogue. In terms of sheer creativity and the breadth of ideas, the man is a genius. He starts with a tiny seed of an idea on a card, often just a few sentences, and from that he turns it into a gripping and spellbinding story. He doesn’t plan, he does it all as he goes along completely organically and most of the time he’s successful in making the story a cohesive whole. Only a few of his novels are huge doorsteps and he taught me about economy of words and that you don’t need to waffle on and on to get the message across. Like King he also taught me that using an everyday word is often far better than something you’ve picked out of the thesaurus. He also taught me about conveying character through dialogue. Odd Thomas is a spooky, weird, and gripping story which starts from a slightly familiar premise but Koontz then takes it in a very unique direction. This novel proved to be so popular that he’s gone on to write several more with the same character, which is something of a rarity for him that he’s only done on a couple of occasions in his career, so it shows you there was something very special about this first one.
Part 2 next week.