Authors are arranged alphabetically. I don’t make much distinction between genres – a good story is a good story, and a good idea is a good idea – so everything from hard scifi to high lit is represented. More authors added as I have time.
The best young adult fantasy series in existence is the Chronicles of Prydain. Taran Wanderer and The High King, the last two books, are the best. When I have kids, these will be early favorites for bedtime stories.
Dull, monotonous lecturers for characters, but massive, world-encompassing ideas. Better at short stories, I think.
Smooth dialogue, provoking ideas, bizarre protagonists. Everything under tight pressure. Few write like this. The classics are The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, but there is more.
Extremely imaginative fellow and the science is also good. Mostly known for the Uplift Saga. Kiln People, The Practice Effect, and The Postman are also good, and he is also a great short story writer.
Brust is probably the closest living author in terms of style to Zelazny (see ‘Z’). He wrote a lot of books concerning a witty assassin named Vlad Taltos. The first of these is Jhereg. They start funny, and then get gradually more serious, and then parody themselves to a degree as Vlad’s collection of immortal allies starts to sprawl. He also used Vlad’s world to retell the Three Musketeers as a nice tribute to Dumas. I have not followed his work in some years; the last few books I read seemed a little off. Plan to revisit.
Orson Scott Card
Card has to be here for Ender’s Game, but he has to share some space with Robert Jordan for Best Self-Destruction of a Literary Setting, given the many unnecessary sequels/prequels/whatnot. Not sure what happened – for awhile there, he was about the best there was.
Saw this book in the store. The Killing Floor. Picked it up. Looked interesting. Don’t usually go for action thrillers but I felt reckless. Turned out it was good. Reading some more. Strange side effect, though. Now everywhere I go I’m narrating in first-person staccato.
The later books move to omniscient third, which allows for more complex, if increasingly unlikely scenarios. Reacher either has incredibly bad, or incredibly good, luck. Still, I like the constant focus on observation and induction in the protagonist, so the series feels less like a guilty pleasure. You can read them fast or slow.
The biggest problem with protagonists is making them human, and Connelly is very good at making Harry Bosch just that – an imperfect man that repeatedly makes mistakes. Still, over the course of 14+ novels, he can clear a homicide like nobody else. I am occasionally annoyed by Connelly’s insistence on having a last-minute revelation in every book, but I would by lying if I didn’t also say I don’t always figure it out in advance. Strong plots, strong characters – he deserves his mass-market position.
Elvis Cole and Joe Pike run a small detective agency that is characterized by Elvis’s quirky chivalry and Pike’s grim arsenal. Where Connelly is gritty, Crais is funny; Elvis can hardly go a page without a quip, and he has the ultimate straight man in Pike.
Philip K. Dick
The first novel I can remember reading was Dick’s Eye in the Sky, which is still a good read.
What I call a “second wave” sci-fi author, most of Dick’s work centers on the horrible limitations of human perception, which is not surprising for a guy who was simultaneously brilliant and disturbed. A Scanner Darkly is probably his best novel, though I might change my mind.
I haven’t read even half of his output, but I have to say that Way of the Pilgrim is in my top ten.
Reading Donaldson is a perverse pleasure, like slowing down to look at a multiple-fatality car wreck while simultaneously picking at a scab on your arm. I am referring of course to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, starting with Lord Foul’s Bane and including its five increasingly masochistic sequels. Covenant may be the least likable protagonist in the history of fiction.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Holmes! Second favorite fictional character. See ‘O’ for the first.
I recall liking his stuff – when I was younger. Now I think it would taste a little like rock candy. But I give big credit for anyone that can drag me through a series to completion.
Philip Jose Farmer
Another second wave author. Farmer wrote quite a bit, though I am mostly familiar with him via To Your Scattered Bodies Go and the four following books concerning Riverworld.
Deserves some immortality for creating the Stainless Steel Rat. My personal favorite is The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted.
Dune remains my vote for the best science fiction novel, hands down. The rest of the Dune books go in interesting but unpromising directions, largely abandoning everything that was so fascinating in the beginning – the balance between the ecology, the Fremen, palace and Mentat intrigues stop working. I blame the clones. Herbert has a lot in common with Card; they both pushed what worked too hard.
The Dune movie and minseries both neglect (by omission and abuse, respectively) the most important minor character of the novels, Count Fenring, which makes much of the plot of the adaptations pointless.
Politics aside, the Heinlein juveniles are about as good as it gets in hard sci-fi. My favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, but it’s hard to pick it over Rocket Ship Galileo or Red Planet (some of the more obvious ancestors to Varley’s Red Thunder), or Space Cadet. And let’s not even mention Starship Troopers or The Puppet Masters.
The rest is a mixed lot, possibly by my dislike of his politics, possibly by comparison to the above gems (even Troopers), and possibly due to declining skill or changing taste. But he is the quintessential postwar SF author, ahead of his time.
As long as you stay away from the really long ones, King is hard to beat. The novella collections are him at his best. Different Seasons, for example. Too many to list. Recommend Danse Macabre for a change of pace. For a parallel, try Peter Straub.
H had me listen to Larsson’s three books about Liz Salander and Kalle Fucking Blomquist on tape, so I actually don’t know how they read, I suppose. But they’re just delightful, even if the first one has about the slowest opening for a novel I’ve encountered in awhile, discussing insider trading in Sweden at length. Eventually, though, and disturbingly enough, you want to hear more about insider trading in Sweden…
Ursula K. LeGuin
This is an incomplete entry as I have not read Earthsea. But I have read The Dispossessed.
George R.R. Martin
Martin is still writing the massively depressing fantasy epic that he started in A Game of Thrones. But I’d be lying if I didn’t want to see how it ended.
Author of all the Rumple of the Bailey short stories, most of which are also TV episodes penned by the same. The formula rarely if ever changes, but why change perfection?
Another of the heavy hitters of hard sci-fi. Best known for Ringworld, which spawned many an imitation. Also wrote a lot of great books with Jerry Pournelle (See ‘P’) – The Mote in God’s Eye (probably the best), Inferno, Footfall, Lucifer’s Hammer, etc.
Stephen Maturin is my favorite fictional character, even more so than Holmes. Master and Commander is the first of the series; The Reverse of the Medal is the best.
O’Brian more or less mastered the art of prose rhythm in a way few have. You barely have to comprehend the sentences to feel it.
See Larry Niven, which he often writes with, for a list. Pournelle is the first guy I would call for advice if I was a military dictator on a frontier world, and that’s only because the author of The Prince is unavailable. I would pay him a hefty consultant’s fee and we would get along fabulously.
Ok, ok, I give up. I read them, too. She’s funny. It almost veered into Jordan territory, but she ended it pretty well.
You could accuse Saberhagen of milking the idea of beserkers and magic swords to death, but why? It would be like booing Ted Williams for hitting singles.
Another Heinlein descendant – see Old Man’s War and The Last Colony. Has written other stuff that I haven’t gotten to yet.
Wrote Shane, which is without equal.
Stableford has written a massive amount and still does, but I recall him mostly for the mid-1970s stuff – the Hooded Swan saga, and the Daedalus Mission books. Good chain sci-fi.
Wrote Armor. I should probably explain further, but why? Read it.
Stephenson writes like someone permanently hooked up to a sugar and caffeine IV, with a cybernetic hookup to the entire holdings of the British Museum. Snow Crash, Cryptonomion, the entire Baroque Cycle, and Anathem are all very good.
This probably marks me as lowbrow, but Steinbeck is my favorite ‘lit’ author. Of Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, etc. Southern California = the most epic place on Earth.
Wolfe and Archie are America’s answer to Holmes and Watson. Stout’s mysteries are not always that mysterious, and sometimes tediously social, but Wolfe and Archie are rarely not entertaining. My favorites are The Doorbell Rang and the Zeck trilogy, but I could easily add a dozen more.
There’s a formula to Tepper’s books, but it’s a good one. Grass seems to be the basic template.
The movies are a blasphemy; the books are divine. I read them front-to-back every five years or so. The Hobbit flows the best.
Turtledove has cranked out a lot of alternative history books over the years, but the one I can’t forget is The Guns of the South. Great premise, executed well.
The Gaea trilogy – Titan, Wizard, and Demon – is Niven’s Ringworld with slightly less math, a lot more lesbians, and a sense of humor. Just as good are Red Thunder, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder, an ongoing tribute to the Heinlein juveniles.
The critical “ideas per page” ratio that is so important in hard sci-fi is consistently favorable in Varley.
It’s no big secret that Zelazny remains my favorite author. His style was much like that of Alfred Bester’s, but more witty, more philosophical. Most of his stuff falls under “thinking man’s fantasy.” His protagonists are typically immortal, embedded in a complex mythology, and wickedly sardonic. Without Zelazny, there is most likely no Brust or Gaiman.
Very few get dialogue better than Zelazny. Hell, very few get description better than Zelazny. He wrote his share of stinkers, but the bright points are very, very bright. His best and best-known novel is Lord of Light, but I am also partial to Jack of Shadows, Creatures of Light and Darkness, A Night in Lonesome October, and of course all ten of the Amber novels – the first five in particular, starting with Nine Princes in Amber.
There are also five collections of excellent short stories, including my favorite short story of all time, “For a Breath I Tarry,” which is in the collection The Last Defender of Camelot.