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This is a collection of many of the books I've enjoyed. I'm not limiting it to genre fiction (though you'll find a classical, historical, oriental, science fictional, fantastic and criminal bias, I'm sure!), while I'm trying to concentrate on good stuff that's obscure or easily missed instead of the books that everyone's already enjoyed (e.g. Earthsea, Dune, 1984, Lord of the Rings, etc.). I don't really mind whether or not you agree with my literary taste - but if you find that you like many of these, and have another favourite book that isn't on my list, please email me with your recommendation: it might well be something I'd enjoy!

Want to know more about a good book?
See if reliable Mr. Langford's reviewed it!


For a start, here's some authors who almost always get it right:

James Branch Cabell - every book I discover in second-hand shops or vast libraries is a new treat. The "core" Poictesme novels (Figures of Earth, The Silver Stallion and Jurgen) are the most famous, but others are just as good - try anything you can find, and you won't be disappointed!

C.J. Cherryh - I usually prefer her science fiction to her fantasy, but both are streets ahead of the competition, with wonderfully flawed protagonists. The Merchanter/Compact series are her mainstream, and include most of her best books (try Downbelow Station, The Pride of Chanur, Merchanter's Luck or The Faded Sun for starters) - sadly, her recent SF explores new settings (for commercial reasons: the old stuff's out of print, and the publishers want to draw new readers in), which is a shame. She writes despair better than anyone else I can think of.

Michael Dibdin - the Inspector Zen series of Italian crime/mystery/thrillers (Ratking, Vendetta, Cabal, Dead Lagoon, Cosi Fan Tutti, A Long Finish, Blood Rain), a hilarious depiction of police corruption where the detective's first thought is always, "How can I get out of taking on this case?" and/or "Who'd be easiest to frame?" His other work is also good clean fun.

Robert Graves - especially King Jesus, The Golden Fleece (aka Hercules, My Shipmate) and Homer's Daughter, but obviously including I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Count Belisarius, Seven Days In New Crete, and frankly anything else. I still can't get all the way through The White Goddess without coming up for air (and a reality-check). His commentary to The Greek Myths is wonderful.

M. John Harrison - the Viriconium series (The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights - now available in one volume from Fantasy Masterworks) presents a beautifully textured Eternal City: living, breathing, weeping, decaying...

Tony Hillerman - OK, they're almost mainstream, but these Navajo shamanic cop stories are way too good to pass up. Crimes committed on the reservation are investigated by the doggedly persistent, slightly lateral-minded Navajo Tribal Police.

John James - Votan and Not for All the Gold in Ireland are a sequence (the Greek priest-merchant-adventurer Photinus becomes the god Votan to secure the Amber trade, then spearheads the Roman conquest of Ireland); The Bridge of Sand (Juvenal the satirist leads Roman troops to conquer Ireland) and Men Went To Catraeth (Aneirin the bard leads "Roman" (Celtic) troops to glorious defeat in battle) stand alone; his other books are also worth a look.

Christopher Logue - War Music is the first part of his poetic retelling of Homer's Iliad in modern verse; its more recent sequels, Kings and The Husbands, are also worth a look.

Amin Maalouf - especially for Samarkand (Omar Khayyam and the Assassins), The Gardens of Light (the life and times of Mani), Leo the African (mediaeval Arab explorer), and The Rock of Tanios (Ottoman village feuds): all full of colour and character, bringing their exotically alien settings to glorious life.

Tim Powers - what a guy! Start with On Stranger Tides (pirates, zombies, sorcery, etc.), The Anubis Gates (time-travelling tourism to Byron's London), Last Call (tarot mysticism in Las Vegas) or Declare (occult Cold War shenanigans). Then branch out into all the other wonderful stuff he's written. Mostly hits, a few misses, and they're so weird it's hard to tell for sure...

Jack Vance - a wonderful stylist, always worth a look (apart from some of the really early pot-boilers). It doesn't matter that his plots have so many elements in common: if you can tell one good story, why not keep on doing so? I'm particularly fond of the Demon Princes, Tschai, Alastor and Dying Earth series: others can start off brilliantly, but go downhill as the author loses interest (e.g. Durdane, Lyonesse, The Cadwal Chronicles...).

Robert van Gulik - the Judge Dee series of traditional Chinese detective stories: every one a winner! Judge Dee is a strict Confucian, and so delights in thwarting the schemes of evil Buddhists, Taoists, and other weird cults that seek to mislead the Emperor's loyal subjects. Usually several different plots entwine, and the Judge and his assistants must unravel them simultaneously.

Gene Wolfe - read everything apart from the Book of the Long Sun ("My accountant told me to write them"), and don't miss the short stories in Endangered Species or the un-put-downable Free Live Free, as well as the exquisite Book of the New Sun: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, (pause for thought), The Urth of the New Sun.


Next, some specific recommendations you might easily miss:

Michael Baldwin - The Rape of Oc is a dazzlingly imaginative caper through the Albigensian Crusade. Perronelle the Virgin flees from the crusading army of the bastard Shitface de Montfort and the far more sinister machinations of Dogskin Raymond, the Sorcerer of Brousses. Huge, weird, and unmissable.

Lindsay Davis - the Marcus Didius Falco series of Roman crime novels. Her protagonist (a "private informer" gum-sandal walking the mean streets of Vespasian's Rome) is engaging, but sometimes the wealth of domestic detail and anachronistic "knowingness" buries the crafty plots. Still, the first books are a great taster for the series: read The Silver Pigs and Shadows in Bronze, and you'll know if you want to pursue his career further.

Ian Dennis - The Prince of Stars in the Cavern of Time (originally released in two volumes, Bagdad and The Prince of Stars) is an exquisite parody of the Arabian Nights. Characters are constantly telling each other stories, the main plot is clearly an allegory of something (but it's hard to tell what), and the motley crew of protagonists never fail to engage and amuse.

George Alec Effinger - his Marid Audran series of Arabian Chandleresque cyberpunk novels are set in the streets and bars of the Budayeen, a ghetto in some obscure middle-eastern city. Starts with When Gravity Fails, then A Fire In The Sun and The Exile Kiss.

Christopher Evans - Aztec Century is a wonderful alternate history, which begins with England's conquest and occupation by the Aztec Empire. The slightly different world is gently but thoroughly explored, hints of Horrible Secrets are deftly dropped and left to fester, and the novel's main plot is just as engrossing as its setting.

Robert Holdstock - the Mythago Wood books. Lavondyss is the best of these, but you should probably read Mythago Wood first for context. The others (The Hollowing, Merlin's Wood, Ancient Echoes, The Fetch, etc.) are worth a look, but not nearly so resonant. After a while, you can have too many autistic/telepathic children...

Phyllis Ann Karr - The Idylls of the Queen, an Arthurian murder-mystery. Refreshing to find an author who doesn't need to retell the whole Arthurian saga from beginning to end, but is content to bring a small corner of Malory to vivid, original life.

Michael Moorcock - Gloriana, or the Unfulfill'd Queen is better by far than his routine rent-paying sword'n'sorcery hackwork. Though I confess a sneaking admiration for the first Hawkmoon series, where the insane masked hordes of the Dark Empire of Granbretan are overrunning Europe...

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - The Mote In God's Eye is a classic of Space Opera, the first contact between the Empire of Man and the inscrutable, hyper-advanced, but strangely-crippled Motie civilisation. Whatever else you do, do not read the "sequel" - a completely unnecessary travesty!

Robert Rankin - The Brentford Trilogy (now five books and counting) is undoubtedly his best work (though the last one was slightly lazy): in order, they're The Antipope, The Brentford Triangle, East of Ealing, The Sprouts of Wrath, and now The Brentford Chainstore Massacre. Pass up the rest. The X-Files have nothing on Pooley and O'Malley!

Steven Saylor - in his Roma Sub Rosa series, another Roman detective, Gordianus the Finder, works back-up on many of Cicero's finest cases in the political maelstrom-cum-cesspit of the late Roman Republic. I particularly enjoyed Arms of Nemesis - the setting for the crime (and the greater one that would follow a failed investigation) are brilliantly chosen. I studied the Republic (with a special emphasis on Cicero) for my degree, so maybe I'm biased, but this series never fails to amuse and entertain me.

Robert Silverberg - Gilgamesh the King is an autobiographical retelling of the world's oldest epic; and they do say the old ones are the best. (His semi-sequel, Gilgamesh in Hell, begins marvellously with the world's weirdest literary double-act, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, exploring the fringes of Chairman Mao's Celestial Kingdom for King Henry VIII, but can't hope to keep it up. For what it's worth, C.J. Cherryh wrote some stories and novels for this unusual series, which are worth a look for her Roman protagonists alone...) .

Dan Simmons - Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are enthralling: the first is the Canterbury Tales in space, the second is the best Space Opera I have ever read (but under no circumstances read the dust-jacket blurbs). His two sequels set in the same universe, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, are not nearly as good, but they do feature a magnificently corrupt interstellar empire run by the Vatican (it's hard to go wrong with an Evil Catholic Galactic Empire, in my book). Everything else of his that I've read is a Stephen King pastiche, doubtless lucrative but hardly worth the effort, other than the excellent Song of Kali (a must-read).

Norman Spinrad - The Iron Dream is the last, Hugo-winning novel by that great SF writer of the Golden Age, Adolf Hitler. Read this, and you'll never be able to read other "Classics" of SF and Fantasy without a momentary qualm. Everything about this book is marvellous, including the list of "other books by Adolf Hitler" inside the front cover, the biography, the lit-crit appraisal of reasons for the book's popularity, and the tributes on the back...

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash. I love this cyberpunkish caper for the black windcheaters with MAFIA on the back, the Sumerian mythological over- and undertones, the sheer audacity of having a hero/protagonist called Hiro Protagonist, the cyberspatial viral barlife...

Colin Thubron - his novel, Emperor, about the psychological undercurrents of Constantine's march on Rome, is excellent. He also writes marvellous travel books, and I can't recommend The Lost Heart of Asia and Among the Russians highly enough.

Harry Turtledove - The Guns of the South (time-travelling South Africans supply Robert E. Lee's army with AK-47's), Agent of Byzantium (an alternate history where Mohammed converted to Christianity, leaving a powerful Byzantine Empire still facing the Persians in the thirteenth century) and How Few Remain (second US Civil War, decades after the first) stand out, among much routine hackwork.

Gore Vidal - don't miss his historical novels, Creation (Ancient Persia, India, China and Athens) and Julian (the last pagan Emperor's autobiography). His American political/historicals are also good fun: I particularly enjoyed Burr for its iconoclastic portrayal of the Revolution, and Lincoln likewise for a new view of the Civil War.


Finally, don't pass up anything by Poul Anderson, Iain M. Banks, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Bruce Chatwin, Lord Dunsany, Umberto Eco, John M. Ford, George MacDonald Fraser, Jonathan Gash, William Gibson, Frank Herbert, Gary Jennings, Fritz Lieber, Robert Nye, Mary Renault, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Shea, Brian Stableford or Bruce Sterling without first giving it some serious consideration. You might be missing a treat!


The History Section

Edward Bovill - The Golden Trade of the Moors brings sub-Saharan Africa to intricate, steaming, festering life. (The sub-title to my edition is West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century, a period that takes up maybe a dozen pages of this gripping, evocative history!)

Georges Duby - the greatest French mediavalist you're ever likely to read. Try his The Knight, the Lady and the Priest on the origins of modern marriage, romance, etc., The Three Orders for a dissection of feudal society as its practitioners imagined it, and The Early Growth of the European Economy for a staggering description of Dark Age material poverty.

Keith Hopkins - an inspired ancient economist and sociologist: check out Conquerors and Slaves (the dynamics of imperial expansion, with a special focus on slaves, eunuchs, and emperor-worship) and Death and Renewal (the biological realities that derail ancient genealogical myths of social exclusivity).

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie - Montaillou is an exploration of life in a French mediaeval village in the Languedoc, made possible through the copious interview transcripts kept by the Inquisition, which were preserved by purest chance (the chief inquisitor went on to become an Avignon Pope, so this product of his early career was moved to the Papal Library). By quizzing the inhabitants about their daily lives and opinions, the inquisitors sought to discover how heretical notions were propagated in this backward region. Utterly fascinating.

Mogens Trolle Larsen - The Conquest of Assyria, tells the story of the rediscovery of a "lost" ancient civilisation, Anglo-French rivalry, larger-than-life characters, and colourful feuds. Everyone had their own Nineveh, their own transliteration scheme, their own dreams of publiction, celebrity and renown.

Bernard Lewis - The Muslim Discovery of Europe shows what it's like when we're the "savages" being examined by a supposedly superior civilisation: a good antidote to Victorian delusions of cultural supremacy. Also see The Assassins, and his one-volume history of the Middle East.

Ivar Lissner - Power and Folly, vivid biographies of the Roman Emperors, drawn always from the most scurrilous and irresponsible sources.

Jean Markale - The Celts is a Romantic excursion through Celtic and Romano-Celtic history and tragedy and myth, which tries hard to avoid drawing any dividing lines. Accepted history blends into epic exaggeration; heroic parallels are found for figures and events known from Livy, Caesar and the Greek historians; the Celtic Twilight thickens with every page.

John Julius Norwich - another fine historian: urbane and informative, he is greatly enamoured of Byzantine cultural sophistication: try his three-volume history of Byzantium, or the single volumes on The Normans in Sicily and Venice.

John Prebble - his histories of Glencoe, Culloden, The Highland Clearances and other incidents in Highland history help explain why the Scots have so many chips on their shoulder, and how much they did themselves to put them there. All very moving stuff.

Stephen Runciman - the greatest historian since Herodotus: pick up everything you can find, starting with 1453: The Fall of Constantinople (a gripping, tear-jerking read) or The Sicilian Vespers (a Who's Who of Dante's Inferno: the greatest empire that never was), and you'll be hooked. Don't miss his three-volume History of the Crusades.


Cranks Corner

I must confess a sneaking admiration for Immanuel Velikovsky, the Emmanuel Goldstein of ancient chronology, for his audacious redating of absolutely everything: stuff the weird cosmological rubbish, read Ages in Chaos and its various sequels, and don't miss Oedipus and Akhnaten while you're about it.

Centuries of Darkness, edited by Peter James, is an unacknowledged continuation of Velikovsky's re-dating saga. And Martin Bernal's Black Athena, though at times loopy, beautifully exposes how cultural prejudice could for centuries blind ancient historians to what they were actually reading in the sources.

John Michell's Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions covers everything: Flat and Hollow Earths, British Israelites, Welsh Druidical Revivalists, conspiracy theorists, self-trepanners, bibliomaniacs, eugenicists, anti-Shakespearians, ufologists, and all the rest - and does so with sympathy and humanity.


For Younger Readers

These are the books that made me what I am today: consider yourself warned!

Who Knows?, by Jacqueline Hope-Stevens, and Chance, Luck and Destiny by Peter Dickinson; T.H. White's The Once and Future King; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising and Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydein; anything by Rosemary Sutcliffe or Leon Garfield (especially the latter's The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow, written with Edward Blishen); Henry Treece on Vikings and Alan Garner or Andre Norton on just about anything; Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are; everything by Joan Aitken; Russian fairy-tales, especially those illustrated by Jan Pienkowski; Andrew Lang's multi-coloured collections; Tove Janssen's Moomintroll; and, of course, my great ancestor: Leslie Brooke's Childrens' Books.

(Not forgetting Pooh, and Alice, and Toad, and the Wardrobe, and all those other classics).

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