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?