the five books that have stuck with me

I have not been officially tagged by anyone – except, indirectly, by the act of reading Chuck Wendig’s list – but I never needed much of an excuse to talk about my favourite books. I’ve also reduced the list from the top ten to the top five books that have stuck with me, because it turns out I have quite a lot to say about each one.

1)  Oath of the Renunciates, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is a complicated choice, given the recent accusations that Marion Zimmer Bradley physically and sexually abused her daughter. But I cannot deny that this book stuck with me in a way that no other book ever has.

Also, technically, this is two books – Thendara House and The Shattered Chain – but I first encountered the hardcover omnibus edition called Oath of the Renunciates in the basement of the library in the small town where I lived during my teenage years. I was fourteen years old, and unhappy, and I read this book over and over and over again. It was formative in a way that books can only be when you encounter them at fourteen.

Oath of the Renunciates is sword and sorcery about women, and only about women. A whole subculture of women who choose to live without men. A wide variety of women – midwives, travel guides, mercenaries, bakers, priestesses, and so on. I hadn’t ever encountered that before.

Most of all, though, the lead character goes through the process of realizing she is sexually attracted to women. I wasn’t ready, at that age, to admit even to myself that I might feel the same way, but seeing those feelings, that process reflected back at me by characters I admired was hugely important. It widened my world, and it made the idea of being lesbian or bisexual less scary. And this, this book, this reaction, is why it’s so important to have diversity in science fiction. This is so much more important than ‘it gets better.’

This book was SO important to me, in fact, that I can’t actually read it anymore. It is irretrievably linked with my teenage years, and trying to bring adult sensibilities to that relationship just doesn’t work.

2)  Hellspark, by Janet Kagan. By rights, all three of Janet Kagan’s books (Hellspark, Mirabile and Uhura’s Song) should be on this list, but I’m going to let this one stand in for all of them. I love every word Janet Kagan ever wrote, and I’m crushed that she passed away and there won’t ever be more than three of her novels.

I met her once at a convention in New York. I was there to see the media guests – Claudia Christian and Nana Visitor – and I didn’t even realize there would be author guests as well until I got there. I kicked myself the whole time for not bringing my copy of Uhura’s Song with me for Janet Kagan to sign. I bought a copy of Hellspark and she signed that instead. (For K – Rise with the sparks!!! Cheers, Janet Kagan. PS – I love your outfit!)

I tried three or four times to read it, and kept miring down in the prologue. I couldn’t get into the book at all. And then one day I picked it up and managed to push through into chapter one, and the book just opened up like a sunflower.

I realized that the reason I was having trouble with the prologue was actually the same thing that made the book amazing. Janet Kagan’s aliens were alien, with alien body language and thought patterns and customs. The prologue was told from the point of view of one of those aliens, and I was having a lot of trouble connecting with how different he was. In chapter one, the point of view character changed, and the new narrator was much more accessible and able to ‘translate’ for the reader.

I devoured Hellspark after that. I love this book. In it, as in all of Janet Kagan’s work, her love of learning and language and science – biology in particular – is wonderfully, accessibly, enthusiastically woven through. Not only did I learn things while being thoroughly entertained, this book changed the way I look at the world. You can’t ask more from a book than that.

3)  Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery. And its sequels – all of them. And the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And Louisa May Alcott. And Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read a LOT of historical fiction as a child, and something about that Victorian sensibility has stayed with me. It’s something about the self-sufficiency of the women in these books. All my crafty hobbies, my delusion that I know anything about horses, my dream of one day growing my own food from my own garden, my yearning to learn to make jams and preserves and quilts, they all stem from my love of these books and their worlds at a very young age.

These books gave me strong female role models at a time when it was harder to find them in science fiction and fantasy. Not to mention that Anne Shirley and Jo March were both young writers.

When I first started writing, it took me a long time to shed the Victorian wordiness I had picked up from these books. I’m sure it has had a lasting impact on my ‘voice’, though I’m too close to see it anymore.

4)  Summon The Keeper, by Tanya Huff. I met Tanya Huff at Ad Astra (a literary science fiction convention in Toronto) the same year I met Janet Kagan. I had been to a number of media conventions by that point, but hadn’t ever been to a literary con before. It blew my mind that published authors would get together and talk to me (not personally, but you know what I mean) about writing in general and writing science fiction in particular.

I sat down in one of the panel rooms on Saturday morning, and stayed there for hours as the guest panelists came and went in front of me. I soon realized that Tanya Huff was by far the most entertaining panelist there, so instead of letting the discussions come to me, I sought out her panels and basically followed her around the convention for the rest of the day. We bonded over a discussion of Star Trek vs Babylon 5 in the afternoon, and then again when she broke a beer stein over my head (well, next to my head, and it was accidental – long story) in the evening. We’ve been friends ever since.

I bought a copy of Summon the Keeper at that convention, the first one of Tanya’s books I ever read. The book was just as funny and clever and entertaining as Tanya herself, and I have since read my way through every single book she’s written (and even made a minor guest appearance in one of them). I think her Valor series are my favourites, but Summon the Keeper has stayed with me most in the form of the friend I made that day.

5) To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I have bought so many copies of this book it’s possible that Connie Willis owes me royalties. I hand them out like candy to anyone who will stand still long enough.

I love this book. It has exactly my wordy sense of humour, it’s smart and complicated without being impenetrable, it’s set in both the past and the future, and there’s even a little romance in there. It is so thoroughly researched I learn things just from reading it, and I think the book could qualify as a master class in plotting all by itself. (It is also the reason that Victorian furniture makes me laugh, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Last year I was in Oxford for work, and all I could think of the whole time was this book, which is partially set there. I found myself taking photos of various places and landmarks mentioned in the story and emailing them to a friend who loves the book as much as I do. It’s been probably 15 years since I first read it, and yet it is clearly still firmly lodged in my brain.

What are the books that have stayed with you most? If you’ve already blogged, you can link back there in the comments. I’m always curious about how books can shape people. So much power in those little black squiggles.


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