Recommended Reading List

Something I was asked for when the site first went up.  More than anything, these are starting points – it’s the stuff I was reading in the long period before I was published, the stuff that drove me to write the stuff I do.  Just recently, I added in a couple I’d – unjustly – forgotten to mention.

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SF/ Fantasy

(Old School)

Poul Anderson – his books introduced me at a very early age to the concept of human characterisation and fallibility in an SF context. Prior to that, I’d been reading Asimov. Like a lot of old school SF writers, who were writing into a pulp-driven market, Anderson’s output was truly prodigious and, to be completely honest, variable in quality. A lot of his earlier stuff also shows the ravages of time in its quaintly old-fashioned (though never misogynistic) gender roles. Perhaps deservedly, he later acquired a reputation for being on the right wing, but it’s worth pointing out he arrived there via libertarian politics and a clear horror at the human tragedies the state is given to perpetrating. Anderson was never anybody’s politically correct fool – above all, he was a humanist. And meanwhile he produced some stupendous work, including a ground-breaking, definitive fantasy novel (The Broken Sword) that beats the crap out of Tolkein and everything like it since, plus some of the best loved series characters to ever grace the SF genre. Sadly, he died in 2001. A lot of the stuff I’ve recommended here is likely to be out of print and only available through second-hand outlets, but never mind – it’s well worth the effort. Start with:

  • Guardians of Time (four long short stories)
  • Flandry of Terra (three novellas)
  • The Enemy Stars
  • The Broken Sword
  • The Merman’s Children

Ray Bradbury – astonishingly prolific Golden Age fabulist whose work has deservedly made it into the Literary Canon.  As with Anderson above, Bradbury’s outlook can sometimes seem quaintly old fashioned, but he still penned some of the definitive science fiction and fantasy of the twentieth century.  Start with:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • The October Country (short stores)

Bob Shaw – another old school practitioner (he died in 1996) and a similarly humanising influence on my early experience of the genre. Shaw’s heroes tended to be tough but grumpy men in their thirties and forties, perhaps overly competent but nonetheless porous to a sense of wonder at the workings of the universe and the human heart. To me, he always seemed most at home with the short story form and his novels often bore the hallmarks of short fiction welded together in sequence or superamped to book length. Try:

  • Ship of Strangers (short stories)
  • The Palace of Eternity
  • Terminal Velocity
  • Cosmic Kalaidescope (short stories)

Ursula Le Guin – the only writer I’ve ever written a fan-mail to.  And this was back in the days before the internet – it was an actual paper letter  mailed to her publishers, a letter I have no idea if she ever received.  The book that blew me away to that extent?  Le Guin’s patient and probing political critique of anarchism and its opponents:

  • The Dispossessed

(Middle School)

William Gibson – the man who made us cool. Rightly or wrongly, the crowned king of Cyberpunk and certainly a massive influence on me. Everything he’s written is worth reading, for its texture as much as anything else, but personally I think he was strongest right at the beginning. Ergo:

  • Burning Chrome (short stories)
  • Neuromancer

M John Harrison – word for word, probably the greatest prose stylist working in the English language in any genre. Harrison has maintained a love/hate relationship with SF and Fantasy for nearly forty years and arguably produced the first cyberpunk novel (The Centauri Device) nearly a decade before Gibson’s Neuromancer. He’s also written some of the most convincingly detailed fantasy fiction since Mervyn Peake. On his own admission, his real love is short story writing, but to read his novels you’d never know it. Try:

  • The Centauri Device
  • The Ice Monkey (short stories)
  • A Storm of Wings
  • Travel Arrangements (short stories)

Iain M Banks – follows on from Harrison with good reason – Banks’ space operas were apparently inspired at least in part by The Centauri Device. That said, the Culture novels pretty much re-invented space opera as a sub-genre, breathed a much needed infusion of fresh and startlingly political life into something that had become terminally stodgy and unsatisfying.  It’s all good, but start with:

  • Use of Weapons
  • The Player of Games

Lucius Shepherd – took the cyberpunk ground staked out by Gibson and his crew, and married it very convincingly to Latin American magic realism in a lush, dazzling war story called, appropriately enough:

  • Life During Wartime

Simon Ings – wrote a superb first novel back in 1992 called:

  • Hothead

(New School)

Jeff VanderMeer – is doing something very weird with animals. That plus fun-house mirror-distorted versions of SF reality. I was sent his first novel, and tore through it like a starving man through steak. Something new, something brilliant:

  • Veniss Underground

Stephanie Swainston – the soon to be crowned New Queen of the so-called New Weird. Fantasy fiction with a depth of character, a sword-edge of nastiness and a riot of unrestrained imagination which current fantasy rarely bothers to attain. Warning: contains a wicked sense of humour, something that even current cutting edge fantasy seems sadly short of. It’s not out until April 2004, but when it is make sure you grab a copy of:

  • The Year of Our War

Crime Fiction

Sara Paretsky – gets an early honourable mention. I came originally to crime fiction through the feminist angle, and Sara Paretsky was my first. Combines all the usual hard boiled elements with a female sensibility and a deep political commitment to just causes that’s generally lacking these days. Paretsky’s V I Warshawski books are all worth a look, but the high points are:

  • Toxic Shock
  • Burn Marks
  • Guardian Angel

James Ellroy – nothing like it under the sun, the guy writes like a maniac with fifteen minutes to live. Early stuff is a bit weak, but by the time he wrote the so-called LA Quartet, he’d really hit his stride. Rapid, brutal period crime thrillers that unzip the seamy side of fifties America.

  • The Big Nowhere
  • LA Confidential
  • White Jazz
  • American Tabloid

Lawrence Block – his Matt Scudder series is in some way the exact opposite of Ellroy – measured, cool, contemporary. Every single Matt Scudder book is beautifully crafted and well worth reading, but the real gems are:

  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
  • Out on the Cutting Edge
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones
  • Everybody Dies

James Sallis – a crime writer leaning towards poetry and existentialist musings – that’s not unusual in itself, I suppose, but Sallis leans far harder than most and some of the results are pure beauty. Try:

  • Moth
  • Black Hornet

James Lee Burke – another practitioner of pure prose beauty married with hard-boiled character and action. His New Orleans based Dave Robicheaux series is strongest where it begins, ergo:

  • The Neon Rain
  • Heaven’s Prisoners
  • Black Cherry Blues

Walter Mosely – the black experience counterpoint to Ellroy. Try:

  • Devil in a Blue Dress
  • White Butterfly

Raymond Chandler – obviously:

  • The Big Sleep

Philip Kerr – before he got round to churning out Michael Crichton-esque technothrillers, Kerr wrote three thoughtful and painstakingly researched detective stories set in Nazi Germany and its aftermath. They were all brilliant and not quite like anything else I’ve read in the genre. They’re published as a single volume titled:

  • Berlin Noir

Boston Teran – powerful prose and intensity almost to equal Ellroy and a fascinating take on the place of religion in a hard-boiled desert world:

  • God is a Bullet

Seth Morgan (no relation) - only got to write the one novel before he totalled himself with a cocktail of cocaine, alcohol and un-helmeted motorcycle use.  Prior to that he’d been Janis Joplin’s boyfriend, a junkie, an armed robber, a strip club barker and a convict; if any author ever walked the walk he talked, it was this guy, and the book is a black-comic white-knuckle retrospective rampage through most of those experiences.  It’s like a street level Bonfire of the Vanities with heart, or a Jay McInerney novel with blue collar GTA balls.  Not quite a memoir, not quite a crime novel, not quite literary, not quite pulp, it came out in 1990 to a slew of great reviews and forecasts of greater things to come.  Instead, we got a great loss to American literature, and a single enduring tombstone:

  • Homeboy

Non-genre Fiction

Haruki Murakami – bizarre, moving and utterly modern. Probably my favourite author full stop, Murakami combines everyday urban living with strains of SF, horror and noir to create some of the finest novels and short stories to ever see print. The best of them are:

  • The Wild Sheep Chase
  • The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
  • Dance Dance Dance
  • The Elephant Vanishes (short stories)

Rupert Thomson – writes luminous, beautiful prose and weirdly damaged characters against backdrops that combine harsh reality with flash glimpses of an alternative dreamworld. His best are:

  • The Five Gates of Hell
  • Air and Fire
  • Soft

Thomas Pynchon – I would guess that this guy is the modern heir to James Joyce. He writes massive, sprawling novels, on average once a decade, that switch location and viewpoint with dizzying speed and deal savagely with the major historical and political issues of the twentieth century. Try:

  • Vineland
  • V

Anthony Burgess – the man whose writing forced me out of a slightly autistic “sensible” conservatism as a teenager and into an understanding of the brutality inherent in all human power structures.  And that’s all power structures.  The same man’s writing also neatly short-circuited any potential slide into knee-jerk doctrinal leftism.  Witty, erudite, compassionate, powerful – Burgess’s work was my early introduction to the potential flexibility and strength that lies at the heart of the literary form, and an unashamed declaration of secular humanist intent.  Shame he’s not still around, we sure could use him in these idiot times.  Try:

  • The End of the World News
  • Earthly Powers
  • 1985
  • Clockwork Orange

Mikhail Bulgakov – this guy died in 1940, but his stuff reads like it was written yesterday. Even more incredible, he managed to write it in Moscow under the nose of Stalin and not get a bullet through the back of the head for his trouble. His best work is undoubtedly:

  • The Master and Margarita

Jay McInerney – Like reading Tom Wolfe without the misanthropy. McInerney is probably most famous for

  • Bright Lights, Big City

…but his real masterpiece came out quietly three books later and was called:

  • Brightness Falls

Peter Hoeg – not sure if this book should appear in the crime fiction list – it is, among other things, a detective story, but there are rather a lot of those other things and I suppose they’re what drag it into mainstream. This is the book that kicked off the so-called ‘white noir’ sub-genre:

  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

Anne Michaels – the woman is a poet and she apparently took a decade to write this novel, so it’s worth savouring every carefully chosen word:

  • Fugitive Pieces

Poetry and Graphic Novels

I’m not going to comment on these, since neither is a genre I feel qualified to say a lot about. I’m not going to separate them out, either.

  • Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis
  • Carol Ann Duffy – Standing Female Nude, Mean Time
  • Anne Michaels – Skin Divers, The Weight of Oranges
  • Ennis & Dillon – Preacher I & II: Gone to Texas, Until the End of the World
  • Neil Gaiman – Sandman IV: Season of Mists
  • Sylvia Plath – Ariel
  • Frank Miller – The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, That Yellow Bastard
  • T.S. Eliot – Selected Poems

Non-fiction

No real comment for any of these either – simply that everything I’ve listed here helped contribute to my clearer understanding of the way the world we live in works. I’ve tried to list them approximately the historical order their subject matter suggests; the origins of the universe, the basis of life on earth, the history of the human species, politics and gender, and so on up to the fuck-up that is contemporary global economics. There’s a lot more where these came from but they were the most inspiring (and best written) of my experience to date:

  • Janna Levin – How the Universe Got its Spots
  • Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene
  • Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel
  • David E Stannard – American Holocaust
  • Samantha Power – A Problem from Hell
  • Robin Morgan (no relation) – The Demon Lover
  • Noam Chomsky – Rogue States
  • John Pilger – The New Rulers of the World (and his back catalogue: Heroes, Distant Voices, Hidden Agendas)
  • Joseph Stiglitz – Globalisation and its Discontents