The Books that Built Me

Well, the first draft of Boundary Lines is off to the beta-readers, and my three-month writing confinement is over. Like the groundhog, I have at last emerged from my winter den and taken a few blinking steps into the sunshine. (Hello, sunshine!) Because of my re-entry into the world, and the upcoming release of Boundary Crossed, my internet presence will be increasing in the next few weeks – which is why this blog includes a chance to win a prize!

You know those viral things that go around Facebook, where you get tagged and have to answer questions, and then tag someone else? Yeah, I HATE those.* They’re so dang manipulative. You don’t own me, Facebook! I mean, you sort of do, but let’s both agree to pretend otherwise, okay!

Anyway. Last summer several people tagged me to do the Ten Books That Stayed With Me list— only I couldn’t handle the pressure of just listing ten books like that, with no explanation or reasoning. I completely forgot about it, right up until International Book Day a few days ago, when I was inspired to go back and work on that list.

After I finished, though, I realized that I hadn’t just named some of the books that stayed with me, but the novels that influenced who I am and/or how I write. These are the game-changers, the mind-blowers, the books that built me. Read on, and be sure to comment on this post with one of YOUR game-changers. On Friday I’ll be picking a commentator to win a neat Boundary Crossed swag bag.

 

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The Princess Bride
This one’s an easy call, because The Princess Bride has been a huge favorite and a perennial re-read since I was a teenager. I read this book out loud to kids I babysat, took a dog-eared copy to college with me, and honest-to-goodness almost cried in line at a movie theater when the girl in front of me explained that the framing story is also fiction.* You know those people who love the movie and quote it constantly? Well, I was never one of them, because by the time I was thirteen I’d realized that as good as the film is, the book is just better. Yeah, I said it. The novel is richer, with even more swashbuckling adventure. If you haven’t read it, I envy you.

 

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 Jurassic Park
I’ve written before about how huge the movie Jurassic Park was for me, but I also remember reading the book over and over and over (but not the crappy book sequel, which I refer to as “Michael Crichton’s Mortgage Payment”). I re-read it just last year, in fact, and found that although the science no longer holds up (THOSE WERE NOT VELOCIRAPTORS) and Crichton isn’t exactly the master of character development, the thrills are still there. As with The Princess Bride, the novel version has many exciting sequences that never even made it to the screen: Ellie toying with the raptors in the fog, everything on the jungle river, counting velociraptors in the nests, etc. Still worth picking up, if you never have before.

 

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Rules of Prey
I’m not sure if I started John Sandford’s series in order or if I picked up a later book first and had to backtrack, but this entire series definitely earns a mention on this list. It is hands-down the longest-running series that I continue to read: I have been enjoying these smart, compelling Midwestern mysteries for twenty years. I’ve said before that if I have any skill at writing tough-guy dialogue, it’s from reading Sandford.

 

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Guilty Pleasures
I first discovered Anita Blake as a pre-teen (I read pretty advanced as a kid), and I gotta say, thank God I found her when I did. She was the first truly strong female protagonist I ever found in books for adults, and taught me to be strong, to be independent, to have a code. I idolized Anita…right up until she broke my heart. Laurel K. Hamilton’s urban fantasy series was fantastic through Obsidian Butterfly, but shortly after that, they stopped being urban fantasy books with some sex and began being sex books with a bit of urban fantasy. Then Anita got this weird disease where she became a sex vampire, and it was all just nuts. After that, I was so heartbroken that I didn’t pick up another urban fantasy novel for nearly a decade.

Still, I’ll always be grateful to Hamilton for showing a teenage girl a truly strong female heroine (and lucky for me, as Anita exited stage left, Buffy entered stage right). I think one of the reasons my own books are PG-13 (with some extra f-bombs) is that subconsciously, I’ve been trying to do for voracious young readers what those early Anita Blake books did for me: show me strength that I could aspire to.

 

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Nightlife
Remember when I said I didn’t pick up another urban fantasy for almost a decade? (You should, it was two paragraphs ago.) This was it. I’ve written before about how this recommendation from my little sister changed my life, but it also stayed with me, by virtue of being so daring. To say more would reveal a very fun plot twist, but if you like UF at all, go check it out.

 

Small Vices

Small Vices
I’ve written about this one before, too. Of all the books on this list, Robert B. Parker’s are probably the only ones who have pretty much lost my respect**. If my daughters want to read Parker when they get older I’m planning to give them Sara Paretsky or Ingrid Thoft instead.

 

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LA Confidential
Reading James Elroy is a game-changer, no doubt about it. Ellroy took everything I’d come to expect from mystery novels and made it seem soft and patronizing by comparison. His books are challenging, epic, corrupt, seedy, hard-boiled, rule-breaking, and like a gazillion pages long. I’ve read LA Confidential two or three times now, because I couldn’t stop going back to mine it further.

 

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Watchmen
Do I even have to explain why this book made my brain explode, and still does?

 

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Frankenstein
This entry would be the most recent book to affect me, because I didn’t really appreciate Frankenstein when I read it as a teen (I much preferred Dracula). It wasn’t until I started teaching Mary Shelley’s novel just last year that I started to really understand the context of the book, and what a stupendous accomplishment it was—not to mention how much influence it had on so many other novels, including some on this very list. If you think Frankenstein is dry or boring, I highly recommend checking out John Green’s Crash Course take on it, which I have shown every time I taught this book.

 

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Lincoln’s Melancholy
Be honest: you never thought I’d actually have a non-fiction book on this list, did you? But I can’t do a list of game-changers without Lincoln’s Melancholy. There are many great biographies of our sixteenth president, but  this one argues that Abraham Lincoln suffered from what we now call clinical depression. That idea alone was interesting enough for me to pick it up, but what really made this book stay with me was that the author goes on to say that when Lincoln was alive, they called depression “melancholy” —and it was seen as simply a quality, neither good nor bad. People with melancholy were prone to bleak moods, true, but they were often also known for being creative, brilliant, deeply thoughtful, and wise. Melancholia wasn’t a “mental illness,” it was simply a trait that some people had, and carried with it good and bad attributes, like being extremely tall, shy, or left-handed.

That fascinated me. We live in a culture where depression is considered either a serious behavioral health illness or some fake thing that whiners complain about. The idea that a former society equated melancholia with both good and bad traits, that changed the way I think about mental illness and disabilities in general. I’ve probably recommended this book to thirty people after having conversations about those things.

 

All right, readers: You’ve made it this far, and now it’s your turn: Give me one book that was a game-changer for you. On Friday night I will choose a random commentator to win a Boundary Crossed tote with swag in it.

 

 

*I mean, except when I love them and secretly send a plea to the universe for someone to tag me
**I’m telling you now, hopefully before you go read the book, to spare you the same devastation.
***If you want to know why, go back and click the link. That’s why I put them there.

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4 Comments

  1. There are three – THE SECOND COMING by Walker Percy, CHILDREN OF LIGHT by Robert Stone, and THE HAWK IS DYING by Harry Crews. All three told unusual stories with very flawed protagonists. They brought to life not just the people, but the place, enlightening through the relationships the protagonists had with the people in their lives. They are all three remarkable books, and forever favorites of mine.

  2. Way to many to mention. So I made a blog. Though I will add Voodoo Dawn to the mix here. It was the novel that inspired Night of the Living Dead. No idea how that may have affected me though… 😉

    https://zombiejoe.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/books-that-made-a-zombie/

  3. I’m often challenged for the top 10 book list. Oddly enough it has changed a lot each time. It is incredibly hard to come up with just 10 books! Your list is close to mine. Princess Bride will always be #1 and Pride and Prejudice #2. Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton is on my list as well. Anita Blake was my introduction to the wonderful world of urban fantasy (unless you count my addiction to Christopher Pike as a teenager). I gave up the series later on because I couldn’t find the plot through all of the sex.

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