This week our alphabetical survey of where to start reading different writers gets to I—or it would, if I wasn’t the shortest section of my bookshelves apart from the entirely absent Q. So as well as I, we will take in the rather more prolific J.
If there are any authors I’ve missed, please add them. Also, if you disagree with me or with each other about where to start, don’t hesitate to jump in with your own views. I’m thinking that these posts will be useful to people in the long term, and seeing reasonable and informed people’s reasons for disagreeing might be even more useful than my idiosyncratic recommendations.
Christopher Isherwood didn’t write any SF or fantasy. He was a gay British novelist who moved to the USA just before WWII. His best known book is Goodbye to Berlin, a set of stories edging on autobiography, set in 1930s Berlin, on which the musical Cabaret was based. Isherwood wrote a whole pile of novels and far more autobiography than most people manage. He was always most interesting when talking about himself. I’d start his autobiographical works with Christopher and His Kind.
Kazuo Ishiguro is another British literary writer—he emigrated to the UK from Japan as a child, and grew up and was educated in Britain. He writes about the English with the kind of eye you develop when you are both deeply embedded in a culture and also always in some ways at an angle to it. I’d start where I started, with his dystopian SF novel Never Let Me Go or with the equally brilliant The Remains of the Day.
I told you I was going to be brief…
J begins with John James, and I’d start him with Votan but even though Not For All the Gold in Ireland is a sequel, it stands alone perfectly well.
P.D. James has written half a ton of cosy mysteries, most of them featuring the policeman Adam Dalgleish. They’re a little repetitive—if you read all her books in a couple of weeks, you may find yourself wishing to inform Mr. Dalgleish of a list of places where he could buy farm bacon just to make him stop complaining in book after book how modern bacon is full of water. Most of James’ books are clever and forgettable mysteries, and you can start them anywhere, it doesn’t matter, though you should read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman before The Skull Beneath the Skin. James also wrote the sci-fi novel The Children of Men, about which the less said the better. But my favourite of her books, and the only one I think is genuinely good rather than sufficiently entertaining fluff, is Innocent Blood—a tense and excellent psychological novel about murder and adoption that ranks with Barbara Vine rather than the rest of James’ work.
Tove Jansson—start with Finn Family Moomintroll. And be four years old at the time. Or if you can’t manage that, have a four or five year old friend handy and read them aloud, sharing the pictures.
The only Ben Jeapes I’ve read is His Majesty’s Starship, which is Hornblower in Space.
And J ends with the inimitable Norman Juster, and The Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of those books that sounds silly if you describe it to someone who hasn’t read it.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.