Top Tens: Novels

A month or so ago, I tweeted a question asking if readers could more easily list their top ten films, books, albums, TV shows, or restaurants. Since I miss LiveJournal and love making list, I thought I'd share mine. All of these lists are subject to change at any moment, and they're personal favorites as opposed to what I think are the "greatest" works in the media.

I started with films and did albums a little later. Since we're talking about the Hugo awards, let's do novels. In no particular order:

East of Eden (and Journal of a Novel) - John Steinbeck

In this case, I lied about these being in "no particular order." East of Eden stands head and shoulders above the rest of them. Not only is it a stunning example of craftsmanship in storytelling, the meaning of it kicked in the head and kept me up for forty eight hours after I finished it. Years later, I read the companion journal that Steinbeck kept as he was writing East of Eden, published as Journal of a Novel. Not only did it drive home just how much intention was invested in every stylistic decision, it gave me insights into how he delivered his meaning without ever getting in the way of the story. Just a towering work and a fantastic read.

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

This was my first Terry Pratchett novel, and it's still my favorite. Mediocre Pratchett is still better than 90% of what I read, but this is absolutely peak Pratchett: Incredibly funny, deep, sad, and insightful. When he set out to skewer a target, that target stays skewered. Small Gods also has the best ending of any of his novels, and I'm a sucker for a novelist who sticks the landing.

Neuromancer - William Gibson

I'm torn here: Do I go with Neuromancer, which changed my reading habits in an eerily similar fashion to the way NIN's Pretty Hate Machine changed the game musically? It's a fantastic story, and even though the future it describes appears to have forked off from our reality, it remains a recognizable future. However, I'm tempted to list The Peripheral, which is a better book in almost every sense, but it didn't set my brain on fire in the same  mid-20s way Neuromancer did? I'll stick with Neuromancer, but really, either book would be worthy of the list.

Zodiac - Neal Stephenson

I picked this up after reading Snow Crash and, at first, I was a little disappointed that this wasn't a cyperpunk novel. Once I got into it, though, it was a delight. Smart and funny and paced better than any of his recent work, this is still my favorite Stephenson book. Snow Crash's highs are higher, and it's certainly a more important book, but I enjoyed Zodiac even more.

Against the Day - Thomas Pynchon

I read this six months ago and I'm really not sure how to rank it. The prose requires a lot of effort on the part of the reader, but it's worth the effort. The overarching story, the very definition of sprawling, plays out like a dream you're not completely sure is a nightmare until way too late. It doesn't all work for me, but what does work is overwhelming. If you're interested, Warren Ellis has some well-worth-reading insights on this book.

Brothers Karamzov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here's a story about why this novel is on the list. When I was in high school, I read a lot, both in and out of classrooms, and felt that I was reasonably well-read. My freshman philosophy professor was unimpressed. It turns out that, while I'd read a lot of books, I didn't understand what most of them were about. In school, we talked about theme, mood, plot, style, and all sorts of things to avoid talking about what the book was really about. My professor has us read two chapters from this book and we went into great detail as to what they were about. They were about things we would not have been allowed to discuss in a public high school. After that, I read the entire book over the course of a weekend. So this is what literature was. It wasn't just theme, mood, plot, and style. It was about trying to express a view of the world, to unmask frauds, and to find the humanity in the gray areas between absolute right and wrong. That is why this book is on the list. 

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

I'm ashamed to say I didn't read this one until recently. It is very, very funny. So funny, in fact, that the underlying cynicism goes down with a spoonful of what you might mistake for sugar. No one is spared. Everyone gets it, and oh how richly they deserve it. I enjoyed reading A Confederacy of Dunces more than I'd expected and look forward to forgetting enough of it to read it again.

Perdido Street Station - China Mieville

I don't like horror movies or books. I respect the genre, but it just doesn't work for me. That said, the middle third of Perdido Street Station is, by a wide margin, the scariest stuff I've ever read. It is absolutely the stuff of nightmares. The first third is an exercise in setup and world building, and it's interesting, but I struggled to remain engaged, and the final third is a little more conventional than the rest of it (although it is still a good distance from "conventional".) It's all good, but man, that middle third? Nightmares. I'm serious about that. Nightmares.

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

There is probably nothing I can say about this trilogy that hasn't already been said. Let's just say that, without it, my years and years of playing D&D would have been less derivative but also less fun.

Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I didn't want to include more than one novel by any author, but if there was going to be a repeat, it was always going to be Pratchett and there was no way this list would honestly reflect my tastes if it didn't have Good Omens on it. This may be the first book I ever read that made me laugh so hard I couldn't stop. Yes, the "Four Other Bikers of the Apocalypse" scene, of course that was it. An almost unique example of a collaboration that lives up to the names on the cover. I love Good Omens.