Top Ten List
Books that had a big impact on me over the years. (This isn’t necessarily a “top” ten, but a list of ten books going all the way back to my childhood.) In no particular order:
OH, BROTHER by Johnniece Marshall Wilson. The same 3rd grade teacher that got me into writing also gave me this novel, which was about two brothers with jarringly different personalities who had to share a bedroom. I found a ton of parallels in it when I considered my relationship with my own older brother (it’s written from the POV of the younger brother.) I read it several times, just absorbing it over and over, and as I reflect on it, I’m glad my teacher knew me well enough to know what book would find a place in my being the way this one did.
UNWIND by Neal Shusterman. I could write pages and pages about this book. Let me just cite two things: first, Shusterman found a way to take a hot-button social issue (abortion) and write a story about it that examined a very, very scary solution to it…without revealing his own opinion on the matter. And second, there’s one particular scene in the book that made me put it down and just not say anything for a while. It kind of wrecked me, it was so powerfully written and well thought-out, and it jarred my soul. If you’ve read this book, you know which scene I’m talking about. Nobody could mistake it. I want to learn how to do what Shusterman did in this book.
EDUCATION OF A WANDERING MAN by Louis L’Amour. If I hadn’t taken one of my college English classes, I would never have read this. Louis L’Amour was a frontiersman and a writer. These two things, plus his own views and philosophies about life, history, the world, and his craft, made for an impactful combination, and I find myself wanting to emulate a lot of his attitudes and methods on things. His writing philosophies especially shaped my approach to historical fiction.
HARD MAGIC by Larry Correia. Oh, man. What a rip-roaring adventure. This was the book that taught me never to hold back, that you don’t have to have just one good idea in a story or a series or a world. If you want to have magical secret wizards using X-Men style powers with awesome guns on airships while they fight magical samurai in an alternate 1930s Prohibition-era America, then by golly, why would you not? Because if you write the dialogue and the narrative bits the way that you would write any other serious piece of fiction, all of the cool bits are just icing on the cake.
THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl. Another great book from my 3rd grade days. I read the cover off this thing almost. I can only say that about a few books in life, and most of them are on this list.
BRIAN’S WINTER by Gary Paulsen. Of all the Brian Robeson books that Paulsen wrote (aka the Hatchet series) this one swept me away the most. I read it half a dozen times in the span of a few months back in 1998, and every time I read it afterward, it was less of a book and more of an experience. Paulsen knows how to sweep you into a world of wild solitude and show you the ways of survival without making it a tale of conquest. Love it.
THE SUPERNATURALIST by Eoin Colfer. One of his least-known titles, but probably his boldest. It’s only ten chapters long, but Colfer does more in those ten chapters—in terms of injecting ideas, details, motives, settings, characters, and scenarios—than a lot of writers can do in three books. This was the first book I gifted to my wife back when we were dating. We’re married now and have two kids. You do the math.
THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner. Watching James go from a practically-unknown dude with two books in the Jimmy Fincher series with a small publisher, to the megastar that he’s become now, really grounded my own dreams and visions for me. I’ve read plenty of books that were hugely successful and got turned into movies and so forth, but this was the first time that I saw it happen in real-time. James explained his idea for the book at a writer’s conference I attended in 2006, and three years later I was reading the ARC courtesy of the publisher. While it’s not my favorite book, it’s definitely important in my lexicon of encouraging publications, a testament that dreams really can and do come true, to real people, people I’ve interacted with and watched over the years. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving. Imagine that, a classic that’s actually worth reading centuries later! Irving’s style and prose capture so much in such a short span, it’s hard not to get swept up in a book like this when you start reading the first few lines. I read this one regularly and I love it more every time. One day I will write a book that ties into it, but I’m almost scared to, because I know it won’t really be on par with Irving’s craft. (That won’t stop me, though.)
THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen. If Larry Correia taught me to kick every component of my story up to Level Ten on the Fantastic Awesome Magic Firepower Scale, Jennifer Nielsen taught me that you can still punch people in the stomach with a fantasy book using nothing but the characters and the story. Seriously, for a “fantasy book” (set in a fictional kingdom), there is no magic, no non-human races, no monsters, none of that, and yet it blows most of its competition sky-high. I was floored by the roster of intriguing, ruthless, amusing characters, led by an incurable smart-mouth named Sage, who proves over and over again that you have no idea what he’s going to do next. This book is a true testament to wit.
Here’s a scene from REBEL HEART. It’s not the Boston Tea Party, but, well, the similarities are there.
Calvin recalled the trip he’d taken with his father. They’d left Baltimore and led a horse-drawn wagon all the way up to Massachusetts, where Father knew of a captain who would deliver their wool to a wholesaler in Nouveau France, for a small commission. Their meager stock from that season had filled only a small part of the deck on the captain’s ship; the rest of it was dried tea leaves in strong crates secured with a special kind of iron.
“Frosted iron,” the captain whispered to Father. “So as it can’t be magicked away by the mages, you see. It’s a special product from Ohio. Your load’s safe on this ship, Mr. Adler.”
Father was impressed. “And all this tea?”
The captain told how he and a handful of his friends had planted the valuable crop many years prior, tended to it themselves, harvested the leaves and dried them with painstaking care. It would catch a king’s ransom on the open market, compared to what the crew normally sold on their voyages.
Father and the captain shook hands and parted ways. Yet it would seem that not all of the captain’s commercial associates had been so discreet that year. After Calvin and Father had gotten off the ship, a trio of mages showed up, wands in hand, and matching sneers on their faces.
At the time, Calvin hadn’t understood what was happening. The mages demanded to know the captain’s intent for the tea. He and his crew bristled at the question. Some of them quietly grabbed nearby instruments off the deck, but they weren’t holding them the way they held tools. The captain stated his business, that they meant to sell their haul, and the mage casually said he’d have to confiscate the load.
“It just wouldn’t be fair to the other colonists, who don’t have any tea to sell,” the mage had said, signaling for his companions to seize every crate of product. Calvin scratched his head at this; if the captain and his men had done all the work, why shouldn’t they sell it?
Apparently the captain agreed with this sentiment. What happened next was burned into Calvin’s memory sure as a branding iron marked livestock.
Some of the crewmen were still loading crates of tea leaves onto the deck of the boat. Half a dozen crates sat on a platform mounted to the dock, all rigged up with ropes and pulleys so it could swing out over the water. While the platform hung between the dock and the boat, the captain uttered a word in what sounded like an Indian language. One of the crewmembers, a bronze-skinned man with pitch-black hair shaved in an extreme pattern, drew a tomahawk from behind his belt, spun around and hurled it with stunning accuracy at the rigging. The tomahawk’s blade bit into the ropes, sliced them clean through, and unlaced the complicated weave that allowed the platform to move. Six crates plunged into the salty water below, instantly ruined. To save the falling crates, the mages uttered summoning spells in the Old Saxon tongue, but the anti-magical iron did its job.
Calvin was pretty sure a fight had broken out after that, but he didn’t get to see it. Father clapped a hand over Calvin’s eyes and quickly whisked him away, telling him they were to return to Baltimore immediately.
Even now, Father refused to let Calvin speak of that day, and all of his questions since then had been met with a sharp command to put it out of his mind. Calvin had never forgotten it, though. After years of seeing Fitz and Birty squeeze coins out of the Baltimore residents, Calvin eventually understood why the captain had destroyed his load.
Here’s a scene from SUICIDE RUN, introducing Sophronia Brimble, one of my favorite side characters.
A young lady emerged from the back room, her figure trim and muscular, covered primarily in form-fitting leathers and thin cotton fabric. She wore a leather vest and a black canvas skirt over skintight leggings tucked inside gatorskin boots that accentuated the curves of her calves. She also wore long daggers strapped to either leg. Unlike most faunamancers Godfrey had known, she let her hair grow long, though she braided it in a stiff tail that reached almost to her waist. A bandana covered her forehead and most of her hair, giving her a working-girl image that invited no nonsense.
“Yeah?” she demanded, half-interested.
“Eh, the owner . . .” Godfrey trailed off.
“You’re looking at her.” She had a lilting colonial accent. Fitz’s badge indicated to Godfrey that this was not the same owner Fitz had known.
“Um, hello,” Godfrey said.
“Something I can do for you, bobby?” She asked it in such a way as to imply that she wasn’t in the mood to waste her time.
“I was under the impression that Iphigenia Brimble was the manager?”
“Aunt Iffie kicked the bucket two years back, din’t she? Ain’t no warm fuzzy neither, thanks for bringing it up.”
“My apologies, I—”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, I’m Sophronia Brimble, this is my gig. You got coin or what?” She fixed him with a hard stare.
Godfrey didn’t like that; he’d meant to come from a position of power. He’d have to come at her tough, really play the hard mage if he was to get her services. He curled his lip and tried not to straighten up too abruptly.
“Name’s Fitznottingham, Deputy of His Majesty’s Continental Bureau of Intelligence.” He flashed the badge like he’d seen Fitz do it a dozen times. “I require the services of three fast airborne animals, post-haste. Official business.”
“You’re a kid.”
At this, Godfrey glared. “And a bloody accomplished one. Age matters less than skill, Miss Brimble.”
“Oh bollocks, you ain’t commandeering my flock, are ye?” Sophronia demanded. Godfrey steeled himself, doubling down on the act.
“In the name of the Crown, yes. You will be generously compensated for answering the call to aid the kingdom in this time of crisis.”
“I’d better,” she growled, and mumbled something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like wanker. “I’ve only got one other flyer on duty. Can you handle a wyvern?”
1) Calvin is trapped in a burning house, surrounded by mages.
Think, think, think!
Sweat. Cloth. Layers. Damn it all, the jacket wouldn’t cover him forever. Water! Was there any water in the kitchen?
The wash basin! Mother kept a barrel full of water in the kitchen and emptied it once a week. It would be dirty. But it would also be water.
Wool would soak up water like a sponge, if he could remove his coat. It clung to him, having absorbed his sweat. Maybe he could tip the barrel over himself? Too heavy, he might waste it.
Think! Come ON!
The tablecloth! It was heavier, thicker than his coat, and likewise made of wool. It was the one family heirloom that his parents had brought from Europa before getting married in Meryka. Calvin grabbed a handful of the cloth, balled it up and dunked it in the barrel.
Hotter. Smokier. Harder to breathe…
When he could stand it no longer, he tugged the heavy cloth out and draped it over himself. The steam and smoke smothered what little air there was left. Now or never, do or die.
Gritting his teeth, he raised himself to a crouch and aimed at what he hoped was the remains of the back wall; it was impossible to see or make sense of his surroundings. He looked straight ahead and ran for it, and when he sensed that he was going to hit something, he shifted and put his shoulder into it, bracing for the worst.
2) The “honeymoon phase” of Calvin and Amelia’s relationship is over. They have a massive disagreement about something, and, well…
Calvin bit his lip and descended the ramp. His feet had just touched the tarmac when the ramp retracted and the lifter fans kicked back into gear. The downwash knocked several people aside, and he found himself sprawled on his back, shielding his eyes from the intense rush of air.
There were shouts of alarm and orders from Yahola to cease, but the wyvern went on, heedless. Calvin could only watch helplessly as Amelia spun it around and pointed it at the open hangar doors.
She took one last look at Calvin’s face. That face that she had come to love in such a short time. The life she had left everything to save…oh, how it killed her to do this, to know that she had to do this.
There could be no more delays. No more side trips. The Culper box had to get to Harrisburg, and now, with the machine a thousand pounds lighter, she could probably make it with her current fuel level. She had to finish Dad’s work.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Before she could change her mind, she hit the throttle and took off, settling in for another long flight.