There’s a meme going around, I’ve seen it on Twitter and now it’s on a Discord I’m on, where you post the picture of the cover of a book you love every day for a week. It’s much better than asking what one book you love, but for anyone who reads a lot and has been reading a lot for some considerable time now, it’s too difficult to pare it down to seven books, from all the books there are.
Paring it down is a case of canon forming even when it’s “books I love,” because you want to be representative and that always means leaving things out that I love just as much. I am discriminating but wide ranging in my book love; I love a lot of books. Why, ha ha, I thought, walking over to the bookshelves, even if I limit myself to one per author I could almost find seven books I love just on the alphabetical-by-author fiction shelves under A! And indeed I could, with no trouble at all, and they were a fun mixed set. So I thought I might share them with you, and perhaps you could share your favourite books whose authors begin with A, and if this was fun we could go on through the alphabet, and if it wasn’t fun we could stop.
Daniel Abraham, An Autumn War (2008)
This is volume three of the Long Price Quartet. Abraham has written a lot of books I love, but if I have to pick one it’s this one. I’ve written here about this series more than once, because it’s incredibly clever, as a series, and rich and rewarding, and doing something really different. While the series is a whole thing, the books have remarkably good volume completion and are their own things—there are some series where I read the books all together where I can’t remember which volume something happened in, and this isn’t like that at all.
The books take place fifteen years apart, which the characters aging as they go. An Autumn War is the novel where it goes to the next level, where everything set up in the first two books pays off, where Abraham makes you really care about the consequences of an entirely fantastical thing, and about people on both sides of a very complex conflict. Just thinking about it now, I’m shaking my head with awe at how great it is. If you haven’t read this series, treat yourself now. Genuinely feminist, powerful, moving, well thought through, with great characters, exactly what I want from speculative fiction. I didn’t read these until the first three were out and the fourth was out imminent; they were recommended to me by someone in comments here, and every time I’ve read them I’ve liked them more.
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
This was one of the first books I wrote about here. Of course I loved the Hitchhiker radio series and books, and those are where Adams is most influential on the genre, but this is the one I really admire and keep coming back to. Sometimes I just think about the way it works and how all the pieces fit together and smile.
Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2015)
This is a modern demotic poetic retelling of the Canterbury Tales that understands the original, the modern world, how to reset things, and the life of language. I discovered this when a friend reviewed it on a blog and quoted a little—I went straight off and bought it. It’s an absolute joy to read, it’s both playful and unflinching in the same way Chaucer was. Powerful, clever, beautiful, and lovely to read aloud.
Joan Aiken, A Small Pinch of Weather (1969)
I had great difficulty deciding which Aiken to choose, as I love both her work for children and adults so much, but it’s so different. This collection was the first book of hers I ever owned, as a kid, and it contains my very favourite story of hers, “The Serial Garden” which reliably makes me both laugh out loud and tear up every time I read it. Aiken had an amazing whimsical imagination, and she made her funny fantasy children’s stories work in a space where many stories fail by holding them at the wrong level of reality. It’s possible to learn a lot by watching the way Aiken integrates the fantastic elements. I could not guess how many times I have read this book, but the covers are soft and worn. I read it as a child, I have read it to children, and I still read it myself for pleasure.
Poul Anderson, Guardians of Time (1955)
This was the first time travel book I ever read, and one of the first genre science fiction books. It’s a fix-up of stories about a time patrol, and I can’t say what I’d think about it if I read it for the first time now but I absolutely imprinted on this book when I was thirteen and have followed it around like a duckling ever since. It starts off small and up-close with a man getting a job with time travellers, and then time travelling himself out of his own era, and by the end of the book it has opened up all kinds of ethical questions about what time is and whether and how it should be interfered with. There are two other books in this universe, but either they are not as good or I was older when I read them. I love this book because it opened doors for me. It’s also the book that made me think “That’s what I want to do, I want to write books like that!”
Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (1993)
I’ve written about this one too. I like a lot of Atwood but this is the one I like best, the story of three friends, and one enemy, and their lives over time, with just a little magic and a lot of very sharp social observation of people’s lives and how they change. I like this one best because the characters are so very different and so closely observed in their own and each other’s POVs, except for Zenia who we see only as she affects the others.
Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818)
Hard to choose just one Austen, but if I have to it’s this one. Persuasion is the one where all the characters are grownups. It has Austen dialogue and hilarious and complex family situations, and a plausible and charming love story. I’d been put off Austen by doing Pride and Prejudice (still my least favourite) in school and didn’t read any more Austen until I was in my late twenties and Lancaster, where I lived at the time, had a Georgian Legacy Festival. It was a ton of fun, and Austen was recommended and had recently been republished in cheap paperback editions and I read all of her books in about a week, the first of many such readings. Persuasion was last and best.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and fourteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her previous novel, Lent, was published by Tor in May 2019, and her fifteenth novel, Or What You Will, came out on July 7, 2020. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal. She plans to live to be 99 and write a book every year.