Isaac Asimov. When I read An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction from my father's shelves, it started me on a lifelong appreciation of the genre. I gave the well-thumbed (to put it mildly, more like falling-apart) hardbound to my nephew when he came of age, so I can't even be sure if an Asimov story was in it, but let's just say he can stand for the whole principle of sci-fi giving me stuff to think about. In this case The Foundation Trilogy supposed there could be a Plan, stored on a tiny cube that would project itself onto walls. A Plan for humanity, and society, the galaxy, maybe the whole universe. Grand thinking, mind-blowing without the foreign substances.
Greg Bear. More excellent sci-fi. Darwin's Radio put the idea in my head that long-dormant strands of genetic material could awaken, with, um, interesting results.
Joanne Harris. Would it be politically incorrect to say I am drawn to female novelists for a certain quality of ideas? Maybe it's the wonderful female protagonists they can draw. Chocolat was made into a terrific movie that inspired me to read the book. Then I had to go on to every bit of her I could find. I find a common thread in many of her books, an uncommon woman and her uncommon daughter (seldom a significant male) making a life in a small and narrow-minded village. A woman of mystery, and often damn sexy to boot. Joanne Harris, you rock!
Robertson Davies. Acknowledged as the greatest Canadian writer ever, I say one of the greatest ever, period. He also tends toward trilogies, and since I love trilogies, well, he da man as far as I'm concerned. Highly recommended: The Salternon Trilogy (starts with Tempest-Tost) and The Deptford Trilogy, which in its evocation of mystery and illusion takes us to worlds far beyond the provincial Canadian origins of its protagonist.
Tim Dorsey. My favorite discovery of a small but remarkably productive sub-sub-genre, the funny Florida crime novel. Browsing a Books-a-Million to spend a gift card, I finally settled on Florida Roadkill. It was the garish cover as much as the goofy title that grabbed me, and I've been hooked ever since. Turns out Dorsey's a Florida fanatic, not the football team or the college but the state and its history. Grew up in Riviera Beach, a stone's throw from me (if you have a hell of an arm), and after a career writing for The Tampa Tribune managed to make Roadkill the first in a whole series of successful funny-florida-crime-novels. I own the complete set, about half in hardbound, an incredible extravagance for this otherwise thrifty, er, cheap reader.
Carl Hiaasen. The Godfather of funny Florida crime novelists, of course. In fact, Dorsey's press says he's "like Carl Hiaasen on PCP" which is about right. Just as Dorsey wrote for the Tampa paper, Hiaasen wrote for The Miami Herald. (I think Ruth Rendell wrote for The Miami News, although there's nothing funny about her chilling crime novels and they're not set in Florida, unlike those of Hiaasen and Dorsey). Start with Tourist Season, you could do worse.
Lawrence Shames. Bet you never heard of this funny Florida crime novelist, but you can thank me later. Try Florida Straits. Love the retired Mafioso Burt the Shirt and his little Chihuahua.
Hm...five to go, gonna make this quick so I can get to my oatmeal.
Kurt Vonnegut. Best novelist who never appears on official lists. In high school, after someone turned me on to Slaugherhouse Five and I began wading through his stuff, I could never understand why my teachers woulrn't even talk to me about him. I mean, it was like they never even heard of Vonnegut! Player Piano started it all, 1952 tale of a guy who lets them copy his movements so they can apply it to an automated process, then is fired. Sort of like Brave New World meets Roger and Me. Don't miss Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. Special mention: as a kid in Indianapolis my dad would take me to Vonnegut's Hardware. Turns out it was an uncle or something. Vonnegut was one of those Hoosiers known less for being from Indiana than more important stuff (see Cole Porter and jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery), so aside from the thought-wrenching stuff in his books, he gets an extra star for the accident of being from my own home state.
Kinky Friedman. Much better-known as the country-singing leader of a band improbably called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, and later for running for governor of Texas, he is also a wonderful mystery novelist. Don't let the punny titles fool you. Armadillos and Old Lace and Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola are wonderfully weird plot-strosities weaving the Kinkster and his real-life friends with ficitional murders in his adopted home town of New York City. The cowboy hat, the foul-smelling cigars, the noir slang straight from Mickey Spillane - great stuff.
Garrison Keiller. William Gibson. Neal Stephenson. They each deserve a lot more than I can dish out at the moment, Breakfast calls, must feed the inner blogger.