Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, $8). A riveting detective story set in a bleak high-tech future where death has nearly been rendered obsolete. Morgan's two sequels to this novel are just as riveting.
How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper (Bantam, $15). A husband mourns his wife, whom he's lost in a plane crash. This was the first Jonathan Tropper novel I ever read. It must serve as a perfect introduction to his work, because as soon as I finished it, I immediately sought out and read every other novel he's written. I now list Tropper as one of my favorite writers, and he's one of the few novelists whose work consistently makes me laugh out loud.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (Puffin, $7). I've always adored Dahl's books, especially the ones with humble, downtrodden child protagonists who get lifted out of their terrible circumstances and carried away on a fantastic adventure. I also have a weak spot for stories about wealthy eccentrics who hold outrageous contests, and this is one of the best.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Spectra, $15). One of the greatest science-fiction novels ever written. A large portion of the rapid-fire story takes place in the Metaverse, a perfectly realized virtual world that Stephenson crafted with a programmer's eye for detail. And the central character is a computer hacker/master swordsman named Hiro Protagonist.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Dell, $15). Vonnegut somehow manages to tell a dark, compelling tale about the end of the world that is also filled with humorous and astute observations on the human condition. And in the process, he invents a new religion with its own unique lexicon.
Replay by Ken Grimwood (Morrow, $14). In 1986 (seven years before the release of the film Groundhog Day), Grimwood published this riveting novel about a man who dies of a heart attack and then wakes up in his college dorm room 25 years earlier. He discovers that he has the chance to live his life over again. And again. And again. I recommend this novel to everyone.