So over on Tumblr I got tagged in a meme:
Rules: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you.
And, like, I don’t always do memes. But when I do, they’re about books. So, in no particular order, here goes…
1. After Man: A Zoology of the Future, Dougal Dixon
This has the honour of not just being the only book I’ve ever considered stealing from a library–my primary school’s library, at that–but also the Very First Thing I ever bought off Amazon, way back in circa 1995. (And when I say “I bought” I mean “my dad bought me” because, hello. Primary school.)
Basically, this is a bestiary of “future Earth”, imagining animals on a world 50 million years from now, where rabbits are deer and penguins are whales, amongst other awesome things.
I’ve always really liked bestiaries. As a kid this was my favourite, but an honourable mention also goes to Una Woodruff’s Inventorum Natura, which for years I thought was an actual illustration of an actual ancient Latin text. Whoops.
2. Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett
When I was about twelve I had a friend whose mother was a big SFF nut. Pratchett was one of her favourites, and she was constantly trying to get my dad to read the series. Dad was… not so keen, partly because he seemed to be of the opinion that Pratchett was “just silly stuff”, but also partly because I don’t think he liked my friend’s mum all that much.
Anyway. For whatever reason, the name-dropping eventually got to me and I went and bought Witches Abroad. I got through about a third of it before thinking, “Jesus, Dad’s right. This is crap!” and tossing it on the shelf to gather dust.
Well, as it turns out, twelve is probably a bit too young to be reading Terry Pratchett.
For some reason–probably boredom–I picked this book up again a few years later. My old bookmark was still between the pages, so I just picked up where I’d left off.
I finished the rest of the book within a day. Then I bought the next. And the next. And the next…
3. The in-game journal guide thing that came with Zork: Nemesis
Yeah, really. This was back in the day when video games–just regular ones, not even Collector’s Editions (which didn’t exist)–used to come with physical boxes and actual printed manuals. I’ve talked about my love of Zork: Nemesis elsewhere, so I’ll try not to rehash it too much but, essentially, Zork is a contemporary portal high-fantasy. The game journal is a “found object” diary, hand-written (well, in a handwriting font) and containing mock-ups of scrapbooked documents. It’s allegedly the record of the previous government investigator–sort of the Zork equivalent of the FBI–sent to investigate the same crime you, the player character, have been sent to investigate.
Basically, this is a short book but it’s just really cool, combining two of my most favourite things; urban fantasy and found objects.
4. Litany of the Tribes, Vol. 1
When I was about fifteen, I got some money for my birthday. I used it to buy my Very First RPG sourcebook.1 Because I had no freakin’ clue how RPG sourcebooks worked at the time, I ended up with this one, mostly because it had a lot of narrative and pictures in it.
That was the start of things, really.
I don’t know why urban fantasy grabbed me so much. Dad was a big SFF reader when I was a kid, so our house was stacked with paperbacks. I’d tried reading some and had done the whole Wizard of Earthsea and Redwall thing, to varying degrees of success (the latter yes, the former not so much), but medieval fantasy was always just a bit too… medieval for my tastes. Also sexist. And the hard sci-fi dad was into didn’t really interest me either. Enter the World of Darkness, which was, like. Magic and werewolves and ghosts and cellphones. Holy shit was that perfect or what?
It also didn’t hurt that, for all its flaws, LotT1 is very political. Modern-day political. For those not down with the WoD, the book describes three of the “origin clans” a player werewolf character can be from. The books lists the clans in alphabetical order, so this one details the Black Furies, the Bone Gnawers, and the Children of Gaia. Or, to put it another way, the Feminist Werewolves, the Occupy Werewolves, and the Hipster Liberal Werewolves.
Maybe it’s kind of weird to get your crash course childhood education in social justice–feminism, class warfare, acceptance of minority sexualities, issues impacting mental health and people with disabilities–from a roleplaying game source book… but I sure as hell wasn’t getting it from anywhere else, either. (The Internet was only just becoming a thing Back In Those Days.) And, yes, old WoD was hella problematic in a lot of regards, but…
It was urban fantasy, and it was aggressively, progressively political. After that, I never could separate those two things.
5. Spares, Michael Marshall Smith
This was an ex-boyfriend’s favourite novel he loaned me and that I promptly manage to ruin by leaving next to a window in a rainstorm.2 Written by then-hard-to-find English author, Michael Marshall Smith (a.k.a. Michael Marshall), it was pretty much like nothing I’d ever read before.
Spares is basically a cyber-punk thriller, featuring a deadbeat snarky first-person protagonist (sound familiar?) thrown into something he’s really, really not prepared for. The basic plot is about cloning humans for replacement organs, like that shitty film from Michael Bay. Unlike that shitty film from Michael Bay, Spares is dark. Like, really, really dark. Torn-off-face-sliding-in-a-bloody-mess-down-over-a-TV dark. Without spoiling things too much, there’s a subplot in the book featuring what is basically a Vietnam war allegory in a parallel universe. The way this ties back into the main story of the book’s titular clones is both horrific and testament to Smith’s skill at foreshadowing.
6. The Maxx, Sam Keith
This is sort of cheating because I originally watched this as the (awesome) MTV animated series. But I also own the trade and, more importantly–as I’ve mentioned elsewhere–The Maxx is the first time ever I saw myself reflected in a piece of pop culture thanks to Sarah, the overweight, awkward, glasses-wearing teenage wannabe-writer.
More broadly, The Maxx is a superhero deconstruction story from an era when that sort of thing was The Hot Shit. However it never really took off in the pop culture collective consciousness, and if I had to take a guess I’d hint this has something to do with it being, well, pretty damn feminist. The plot itself revolves around rape–specifically the rape of series heroine, Juile Winters, but also other rapes committed by series villain, Mr. Gone–but, unlike a lot of other comics that deal with the issue, The Maxx is specifically about Julie’s experiences and Julie’s recovery.3 Because this is a comic book, said “dealing” involves things like alternate universes and “spirit animals”4 and also a giant purple superhero with claws, but… yanno.
Bonus points (and slight spoiler) to give you a feel for the comic: at one point, fairly early on, Julie is kidnapped by Mr. Gone, tied up, and dressed in a sexy bunny costume. She responds to this by faux-posing for him, then delivering a scathing lecture on objectification as a distraction while she saws herself free, then cuts off his head. Yeah. It’s that sort of comic.
7. The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice
Seriously. This was my generation’s Twilight. Yeah, we’re still bitter about that.
(Funfax: this is also the only book on this list I don’t outright own. I borrowed it from our high school’s library. Go libraries!)
8. H.P. Lovecraft, in general
I don’t even remember how I first learnt about Lovecraft. Possibly from that aforementioned Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands, and possibly from a macabre fascination with the covers of the omnibus editions of his work in the local bookstore. Either way, he was always somehow there, part of the culture. So, naturally, when I got into horror in my teens (care of The X-Files), he’s one of the guys I turned to.
Lovecraft is, in some respects, a difficult writer to like. It’s good that most of his works are pretty short, because I swear the “P” in this guy’s name stands for “Ponderously-overwritten”. But he’s one of the cornerstones of modern pop culture; the guy who detached horror from morality, whose atheist gods aren’t evil so much as they are simply alien and unfathomable, as the universe is alien and unfathomable.
He was also massively, massively racist. Leik woah. Even for his time people would be all like, “Woah, dude. Calm down. That’s pretty fucking racist.”
Er… yeah. I really have no excuse for that. Sorry.5
9. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Andy Orchard
When I was about twelve or thirteen or so, two things happened. The first was the film version of The Mask got massively, briefly popular at my school. The second was that I read Robin Jarvis’ book The Raven’s Knot. Both of these things, in their own way, referenced Norse Mythology, which I subsequently got obsessed with in the way pre-pubescent girls do.6 Just my luck, our local bookstore had a hardback copy of Andy Orchard’s dictionary.
It cost $39.95. Which I know, because for some reason the bookstore bound the book with clear plastic (like a library does), over the price sticker. Go figure.
Oh yeah, I still have this book. I don’t reference it too much any more, partly because I have other, more detailed and/or specific reference books, and partly because I also have Wikipedia. Yet this dictionary still sits on my writing desk, clear plastic still intact and pages only slightly yellowed from years of grubby fingers. And it does have one, irreplaceable feature; a whole bunch of appendicies featuring name lists (dwarves, giants and giantesses, Odin’s aliases) and their translations. If I’ve ever given a Viking-sounding name to an OC, I can almost guarantee it’s been taken from one of these lists. Not to mention the translations were how I started to teach myself Old Norse, back before I had access to actual dictionaries (and that Learn Old Norse 101 workbook I really should read more of one of these days).
This is the book, out of all the books on this list, that I owe my current career to. So now you know who to blame.
10. Sushi, The Civil War ‘Verse
Yeah, as if I wasn’t going to put at least one piece of fanfic on this list. Hell, the real challenge here was limiting myself to one.
Sushi’s Civil War ‘verse was my first crash course in just what a juggernaut fandom could be. It wasn’t the first fic I ever read–that honour goes to a Harry/Fred/George PWP I’ve long since forgotten the name of–nor was it the last, but it is the only fic I’ve ever bought the official t-shirt of, and it’s pretty much the sole reason I’ve read as much of Harry Potter as I have.
For those not versed in this classic fixture of the good ship SS Snarry, Civil War is a half-million word epic that is dark as fuck and veers wildly away from the tone and intent of its canon source, while still being ridiculously compelling. It pretty much single-handedly spawned the Snape equivalent of the Draco In Leather Pants trope, a.k.a. Snape In Fussy Victorian Buttons, and consumed years of my life while subtly teaching me that fanfic was valuable art in-and-of itself.
Oh, and the author, Sushi, I remember as being one hell of a nice lady. Who is apparently still around on Tumblr.
… And there you go. Those are my ten books. What are yours?
- This is not quite true; I also have a copy of S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands which is technically a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook. However it doesn’t have any mechanics–being more of a straight-up bestiary with pictures and words–and I have several other non-RPG examples of those, so I’m not counting it here. ↩
- Or possibly spilt juice on it on a plane… yeah I ruined a few of his books. Oops. ↩
- At least in its first arc. The second arc is more about Sarah. ↩
- Yeah… I know. There’s a bit of that. Cultural appropriation of “native warrior woman” stereotypes as escapist power fantasies is thematic in the story. ↩
- Okay, so. My theory on this one is actually that Lovecraft’s most effective stories are the ones dealing with topics that personally frightened him. And two of those biggest phobias? The cold and “foreigners”, apparently. Go figure. ↩
- It didn’t hurt that I was also a pesudo-Wiccan at the time, albeit one looking for a “cooler, more obscure” set of gods to worship. Look. I was thirteen, okay? Shut the hell up. ↩