One of my favorite authors, Michael J. Bowler, who wrote the inspiring Children of the Knight series, recently challenged me to create a list of the top ten books that most inspired me growing up. This, of course, led to a non-stop barrage of nostalgic memories vying for dominance and battling to make the top of my list. It was truly epic! Needless to say, for me, nostalgia and melodrama often go together. In either sense, I was an avid reader growing up, so I found the task of creating such a list rather daunting. But alas, I finally settled upon books that I think are either rare, or are losing the immense popularity they once enjoyed and thus need to be rediscovered by a new generation. Hopefully one of my own books will appear on someone’s top ten someday. If not, I'll have to do a Top 11 next time with my book on it. With that in mind, here are my top ten.
10: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A mentally challenged man, Charlie Gordon, is given an experimental serum that gives him a genius level IQ. The book is told from Charlie's perspective as a collection of progress reports from various stages of his mental evolution. It is enthralling as you witness Gordon slowly transform from a man with simple thoughts and words into a towering intellect with complex ideas and perceptions. And the first realization he comes to is that his friends really just use and abuse him. An interesting irony is that Charlie, in many ways, was happier when his IQ was only 68.
9: The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Many people are familiar with Bradley’s best-selling novel, The Mists of Avalon, in which she tells a very familiar story, the life of King Arthur, but from the perspective of a women. In one of Bradley's less familiar novels, The Firebrand, she does the same thing with ancient Greek legends, in this case examining the fall of Troy from the perspective of Kassandra, who is cursed with the ability to see a future that no one wants to hear. It’s an amazing read even if you aren’t familiar with the ancient Greek classics, but even more so if you already are. Highly recommended!
8. On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony – I had a difficult time choosing my favorite book and series from Piers Anthony. I’m about the only Piers Anthony fan who has never ready any of his insanely famous Xanth novels, but that has allowed me to appreciate some of his less popular, but equally brilliant creations. I almost chose his wonderfully imaginative Cluster Series, about an intergalactic civilization that can transmit a being’s aura to other worlds where it occupies the body of other sentient beings. But alas, I finally decided upon The Incarnations of Immortality series, the first of which was On a Pale Horse. The book offers great advice to anyone who might be suicidal. Once you put that gun to your head, look for death, and then shoot him. In the Incarnations of Immortality universe, however, that means you take over his job. I also chose this book because it helped inspire the short-lived, but absolutely brilliant Showtime series, Dead Like Me.
7. Lilith: A Snake in the Grass by Jack L. Chalker – As with Piers Anthony, I had a challenging time choosing just one of my favorite books from Chalker's many brilliant works. It finally came down to either his “Saga of the Well World” or his “Four Lords of the Diamond” saga. But I chose Four Lords, because it was the first Chalker series I read as a kid. Beginning with Lilith: A Snake in the Grass, the Four Lords saga is about a secret agent for the Earth Confederacy, whose personality is implanted into four different condemned criminals for the purpose of investigating a mysterious alien threat. It takes place on the Warden Diamond, a group of four planets circling a single star, ruled by a microscopic symbiotic organism that infects and alters all who come to the planet. Once infected, a person can never leave the planet without dying, which is why it was chosen as a penal colony for the Confederacy. Each book then follows each of the different people the agent has been implanted into. In the first book, the agent finds himself on the planet Lilith, a tropical planet with a feudal style government, and unfortunately, he is a serf. He must learn to summon the powers given him by the Warden organism to carry out his mission. This series is wonderfully imaginative! I also had to choose it because Chalker started off as a history teacher before retiring to write full time, something to which I aspire.
6. Foundation by Isaac Asimov. It’s ridiculous how badly this needs to be made into a TV series or movie! The novel follows the exploits of Hari Seldon, a mathematician from an intergalactic civilization that has long since forgotten its planetary origins. Seldon unfortunately hits upon a mathematical method for predicting the future -- only mass events though, not the fate of individuals. In the process, he discovers a disturbing fact. His intergalactic civilization is about to fall. What to do when no one will listen to you? Set up a special colony, of course, that will preserve the knowledge of their civilization before its inevitable collapse. If done correctly, his equations predict, he can reduce the dark period from 30,000 to a mere 1000 years. Foundation is a fascinating reminder that though we think of ourselves as being at the pinnacle of civilization, many other pinnacles have long since collapsed. Unfortunately, the science in the book feels rather faddish today, as Asimov chose nuclear energy to power his intergalactic civilization. That aside, it’s a fascinating read.
5. Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. I was probably way too young to fully understand this novel when I first read it, but not young enough to appreciate its brilliance. Suffice to say, if you like the British Romantic poets, some steampunk, a few Egyptian gods here and there, and maybe the occasional werewolf, you will absolutely LOVE this masterpiece.
4. The Education of Oversoul Seven by Jane Roberts. This is a little gem that most have probably never heard of. I’m glad to see that the trilogy is still available from Amazon in one special edition. This is the first and best of the Oversoul Seven Trilogy and it tells the enthralling story of an average, everyday, multi-dimensional being trying to come to terms with his many incarnational selves, who are trapped in the simultaneity of time. It's a mind-bending take on everyday reality, reflecting a cosmology where humans create their own reality and live again and again until they get it right. This creative and inspirational read explores the mysteries of consciousness and will have you wishing it were all true, and maybe even wondering if it is.
3. Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. An accidental encounter at a gas station with an enigmatic gas station attendant with special powers, sets a young college student on a path toward enlightenment. This semi-autobiographical novel serves also as a brilliant introduction to the lessons of Buddhism.
2. Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom. Panther in the Sky tells the story of one of the most intriguing characters in American History – Tecumseh. It’s unfortunate that his story is often ignored. Maybe we need a Tecumseh Day, but alas, we rarely get right the true heroes. For those who don’t know, Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader born in Ohio in the 1700s, who grows up to create and lead a giant confederation against the influx of American invaders pouring into the Ohio River Valley following the American Revolution. The book is told entirely from Tecumseh’s perspective, and by the end you are routing for him in every battle against the Americans. Not many novels have the power to make you switch loyalties. It powerfully demonstrates that history is not a matter of fate, and that many alternatives to American expansion and conquest came so very close to fruition. This novel is also exceptionally well researched and easily the best historical fiction I have ever read.
(1): Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. What do you do when you wake up one day to discover that your best friend is an alien, and that an intergalactic demolition team is about to destroy your planet to make room for a hyperspace bypass? Well, you grab a towel, and get ready for the imaginative ride of a lifetime! This book is a pure manifestation of British absurdity from beginning to end. To this day, I can’t get the “Infinite Improbability Drive” out of my head. The founders of quantum theory would be proud.
Jay Jordan Hawke is author Pukawiss the Outcast, published by Harmony Ink Press.