15 books that matter (to me)

in no particular order

Inspired by something I saw on Facebook I’ve spent this morning trying to come up with a list of 15 books that for one reason or another are important to me.

I’ve stuck to fiction and despite finding it difficult I haven’t added any comic collections (that is likely to need a list itself!).

This list just represents my (slightly hampered by a hangover) thinking this morning and I will surely change my mind the minute I press publish.

It is pretty clear I don’t exactly have ‘intellectual’ tastes but I stand by them ☺

The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald

I wrote my dissertation on the works of Fitzgerald and for a long time I re-read this book once a year. I hadn’t done that for a while but I revisited in light of the recent movie. I’m glad I did as I still love it and it helped ease the sour taste the film provided.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Micheal Chabon

I love this novel. If I am honest I originally picked it up based on a half read review which suggested it was loosely based on the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story (the guys who created Superman.) It may have some parallels with their history but this book is so much more, dealing with big topics in a beautifully crafted manner.

The Big Sleep — Raymond Chandler

One way or another the classic, ‘hard boiled’ style of US detective fiction still pretty much dominates my reading list. Sure it hasn’t really evolved since this early classic but why mess with a working format ☺ I also love the fact that even Chandler never really kept track of the mystery at the heart of the story — it was so complex even he lost the thread and just wrapped it up without worrying about the logic!

The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks

The Culture novels from the late, lamented Iain M. Banks are amongst the greatest science fiction ever written in my opinion but they require a certain…commitment?…due to their complexity. This is the book that opened up that universe for me. Slightly more accessible than some of the other books in the series it is nonetheless a cracking read, full of examples of incredible imagination and storytelling.

The Fortress of Solitude — Jonathan Lethem

It is hard to describe this book. It is part coming of age tale set in Brooklyn at the birth of hip hop. Part fantasy tale with elements of classic superhero tales. It pulls no punches in covering issues like race tensions and drug abuse.

It is also about graffiti.

Microserfs — Douglas Coupland

I haven’t read this book since about 1997 but it remains something I remember fondly because in many ways it was the introduction to the culture that was about to become my world. I was never really that interested in computers and certainly not video games. Then the web came along and everything changed.

A Red Death — Walter Moseley

Another ‘hard boiled’ detective novel but one of the few to really start to try and do something more with the genre. Easy Rawlins is a complicated hero in these books and this story is no exception. All of this series are worth reading but I think this is the most interesting with its portrayal of a part of US history ripe for investigation.

American Gods — Neil Gaiman

Let me share a secret. I think Gaiman is over rated as a comic book writer. Sandman has moments but I don’t believe it deserves to be in the same elevated company as things like Watchmen. None of his other comic work is even close.

This novel though is fantastic and I love the very premise. These fragments of ‘gods’ wandering the US because of the way it became a land of immigrants but these ‘gods’ following their worshippers.

It’s Superman! — Tom de Haven

Despite the profile of the character as perhaps the most recognisable superhero in the world there are actual very few truly great Superman stories even in the comics.

This novel is brilliant though. Treating the classic origin story as a tale of the US depression and grounding the book as much as possible in the realities of that period.

Fletch — Gregory McDonald

Thank you Chevy Chase. If it had not been for the movie based on this character I would never have discovered this series of funny, clever stories. I remember discovering them at my local library in my early teens and devouring as many of them as I could. Ordering missing titles from all over Bristol.

Years later I discovered they were out of print in the UK and I found myself flying home from a trip to San Francisco with a full set of them in my luggage!

King Suckerman — George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is my favourite current author. As well as writing many amazing novels he was also one of the lead writers on ‘The Wire’ and now ‘Treme’.

His stories are based in a very different version of Washington, D.C. than you would ever know existed from television and the way he peppers his novels with references to the musical tastes of his characters is educational. One of these days I am going to create Spotify playlists for each of his novels.

Miami Blues — Charles Ray Willeford

The Hoke Moseley stories are both dark and amusing. Hoke is an unlikely hero and the rogues galleries he inevitably encounters are always just a little bit off kilter.

The books are like a twisted reflection of the more popular Carl Hiaasen stories.

He was also clearly an influence on Tarantino.

Freaky Deaky — Elmore Leonard

This is the first Leonard novel I remember reading. At this point I think I have read all of his stuff (including Westerns) at least twice. Nobody ever wrote dialogue better and his stripped down writing style influence my taste ever since the first time I encountered his work.

His writing rules are all that needs to be said on the topic.

The Puppet Masters — Robert A Heinlein

In my teens I was obsessed with the science fiction of Heinlein. His stories seemed fantastic but they were also about adventures rather than just ideas. I never enjoyed Asimov anywhere as much even though it always seemed more…worthy to read the Foundation stuff.

I think this was the first of his novels I read. I often get elements of it mixed up with the various version of the Bodysnatchers movies I’ve watched over the years and I am pretty sure it is far from his best or most influential work but it got me started.

The Godfather — Mario Puzo

One of those rare occasions when the movie far outstripped the book it was based upon but the film is my all time favourite and so the novel deserves a little bit of love as well.

I think the amazing thing about the story (both the book and the film) is that they created much of the mythology of the ‘mafia’ that people now treat as gospel when much of it was little more than imagination run amok. Then it became something for these criminals to live up to so fiction became fact.

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