My dad’s birthday was on Wednesday. Apologizes for this blog going up less on-time than when I wrote about my mom’s birthday; I had one thing planned to write about it, and then something happened which entirely altered my previous idea.
You see, the problem with being an avid reader is that I have a lot of writers who I would love to meet- to talk to, to ask advice, to share my most-loved moments from their work, et cetera. And often with writers this is much more attainable than with people like film stars. Writers tend to be less busy- they sit at home and write, or they go on tours and to conventions.
Anyway, the problem with being particularly an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy is that many of the best writers (in my never humble opinion) of the 20th century, and at least so far in the 21st, are not exactly young. JK Rowling is perhaps the youngest to come to mind who is really well-known by people who are not huge geeks, and she is 45- not old, certainly. Not fresh out of school, though, either. Many of the other authors I have loved are significantly older…the result of which has been that many of my favourite authors, and many of whom I have shared with my parents, have recently died. By recently, I mean in the last 10 years. And several of them were actually not, by any means, old. They just seemed to be, well, unlucky.
I bring this up because everyone in my family, of the ones whose reading habits I know anyway, are fantasy/science fiction geeks to the highest degree. Star Trek was a regular part of my childhood long before I could understand it. Our most-watched family television included the aforementioned Star Trek- TNG, DS9, and Voyager-, the excellent 1980s Robin of Sherwood, and the equally excellent TV miniseries of The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Even more than television, my family loved to read this genre. I thus had the basic understanding of such classics as The Hobbit long before I could actually read them, and received, as did my brother, a copy of the book for my 11th birthday(If you don’t get the significance, it comes from the importance of the age 111, or eleventy-one, in the Shire. Yeah, sure, go ahead and judge). Even my brother, who has never been much of a reader, enjoyed classic fantasy and modern science fiction. I don’t know what my life would have been like without this degree of nerdiness, which I did not realize until almost middle school was not quite what other families were like. Therefore, I would like to go on by listing five of the authors that have really shaped me, and who my father (and in many cases, my mother) also really liked to read-and who, sadly for us, will not be producing any more novels.
1. Douglas Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001).
The first to pass away, Adams’ death, from a cardiac arrhythmia, was possibly the most shocking on this list. At 49, he had finished 5 books in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxy trilogy- yes, you read that right, and it should give you an excellent look at his whole personality; two novels about hapless detective Dirk Gently; and several other short stories, essays, and other works. He had been at work on multiple incomplete manuscripts and beginning talks on a film version of his first book, which when it was made barely resembled the original brilliance at all. A posthumous book of essays and a novella, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, collects his stories and the beginning of one of his incomplete works; a sixth Hitchhiker’s book, written by Eion Colfer, was published in 2009 called And Another Thing…– while brilliant, it was a different brilliant.
I remember watching the 80s’ miniseries several times when I was younger, long before I read the book. In my house comments referring to 42, mice being smarter than us, dolphins, or Marvin the robot are common. Once again, something I didn’t realize wasn’t normal until much later.
2. Lloyd Alexander (January 30, 1924 – May 17, 2007).
I think that I first read his books, starting with the Prydain series, when I was in late elementary school. I then went on to read the Beggar Queen trilogy, Time Cat, and many others. I can’t remember how many of these my dad read, but I am pretty sure he at least read The Book of Three and the other 4 about Prydain, which tell about how a pig farmer becomes a high king- the second in the series, The Black Cauldron, was made into a Disney film. While I have not seen it, I imagine at least that the story is not accurate. Judging by the front cover, they already got one detail wrong-Hen Wen, the white magic pig, is pink. Fail, Disney. Fail.
3. Robert Jordan (October 17, 1948 – September 16, 2007).
The Wheel of Time is an epic series. Even if you don’t like it, you have to admit admiration for any writer who can consistently continue a story in 1000-page installments, all while introducing new characters, continuing the story lines of old ones, and making sure his details about things like magic use check out. I loved the series and introduced it to both my parents; my dad especially was hooked. In fact, within about a year of going to college my dad had surpassed my reading of the series- around book 8- and was going further and further. By the time of Robert Jordan’s death from cancer in 2007, my dad had read nearly all the books published, and by now I am pretty sure he has also read the final book, completed by another author, Brandon Sanderson, based on Jordan’s final notes and drafts.
4. Brian Jacques
I started reading these books at a fairly young age, I think around 8 or so. The first that I bought and read, Salamandastron, was probably one of the largest books I had read at that point, around 300 pages. My dad and I then read a few together, and after that we both kept reading them on our own, passing back and forth, borrowing new ones from the library and buying used copies of the ones we didn’t have. There was just something so fascinating about this world of animals and adventures, even though sometimes the books seemed like variations on a theme, which went something like this-
1. Oh no! The countryside is threatened by an enemy, most like a rodent of verminous origins- one of the kinds with its own musk, like a weasel or a ferret.
2. This means that Redwall Abbey is in trouble! We must ask the ghost of Martin!
3. One of the abbey dwellers, most likely a mouse with a biblical name, has a vision- Martin the Warrior tells him/her about a strange and still-hidden chamber on the grounds. which holds the secret solution.
4. The aforementioned chamber holds some sort of Mouse-Excalibur. The Weasel/Ferret/Rat is defeated.
5. Huzzah! Let’s have a feast.
This has been the big complaint about these books, though for me it was more about using this model to tell new fables, to make new heroes, and to write new poetry. While the concept of cockney rats, north-English moles, and Scottish eagles might not appeal to everyone, I was definitely hooked. Similarly to Wheel of Time, though, I got way behind in these during college. My dad is, again, way ahead of me.
Jacques also wrote another, less well-known series called Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In it, a boy and his dog who are stowaways on the ship; when an angel comes to curse the crew to sail the seas forever, the boy and dog are instead given immortality to use for helping others. The three books in the series chronicle some of their attempts to solve problems, prevent chaos, and otherwise help wherever they go. It was an entirely different idea, and I really enjoyed it.
5. Diana Wynne Jones (16 August 1934 – 26 March 2011)
This is perhaps the hardest for me. If you asked me my favourite book-absolutely favourite, hands down- it would be a fight between Hexwood and Howl’s Moving Castle. Of the books I find it legitimately worth my time to constantly reread (as in, at least once a year), hers consist of most of the list.
If I buy someone a book for a gift, it is almost always a Diana Wynne Jones book. I have given copies of Howl’s Moving Castle to at least two people, and the number of people I have told to read it is exponentially higher. She is one of the writers that both my parents have really enjoyed- and every friend who has been given her books, or told to read them, has invariably given them a favourable review.
When I forget why I want to write, I read one of her novels. When I find a new one to read, I read it. Last summer I spent about 6 hours in a library in Escondido, California while my roommate worked. One of the highlights? Finding and reading a copy of Wild Robert, a novella of Jones’s that I had never even heard of before.
Of the two best books, I will say that I read Hexwood, as I said, at least once a year. I find that if I go long enough without reading it, I actually forget the ending- it is that complex and rich. I even enjoy relearning the twists, every time. I would recommend it to anyone, and have. Both my parents, to my memory, found it ridiculous, but in a good way.
Howl’s Moving Castle, for anyone only familiar with the 2004 anime film, is far more worthwhile than that version. One of my dreams in life would be to act/direct in a live-action movie, but we’ll see. Trying to explain the concept is pretty difficult- Howl is a wizard, known as evil, who has a flying castle with multiple doors to multiple parts of the countryside in a country seemingly based on England, though geographically their world is vastly different. Its sequel, Castle in the Air, is set is an equally vague land seemingly based on old-fashioned Arabia.
I just discovered, writing this, that there is a third book, House of Many Ways. Clearly this will be the first thing I read on returning to the states.
If it seems depressing to celebrate my dad’s birthday with a list of deceased authors, it probably is. At the same time, though, both of my parents have always encouraged a love of reading, and all of these writers were ones that all of us will be sad to no longer see producing more work.