A wee while ago (okay, a fairly big while ago) my blogger friend Valerie Francis invited me to write a post about my top five favourite books. Ever. Valerie had blogged about her own top five after being invited to do so by a fellow Canadian writer. You can read her post here.
Around that time I was planning a playlist for my Big Birthday. I wanted the music to include tracks from all five of the decades I’ve been around so far: tunes I danced to (or tried to), fell in love to, cried over, celebrated with, sang along to with my hairbrush. Songs that saw me through broken hearts, helped me through exams, and were responsible for some dreadful fashion faux pas. Music that reminded me of summers, winters, school days, university, singledom, good jobs, bad jobs, marriage, motherhood, friendships, love, loss… in effect I wanted the soundtrack to my life.
Of course it absolutely had to include that song from my first boyfriend, dream-boy Donny. And my second boyfriend, dishy David, well, he had to get a look in too with I think I Love You, the song he sang just to me! As for my next boyfriend, dangerous David, well, he’d get two: probably Gonna Make You a Star and Hold me Close. Hell, with his Romany looks and bad boy charm he deserved it!
Yeah, yeah, whatever – I hear you! You want to know what any of this old boyfriend malarkey has to do with books, don’t you? Well, nothing really. Except that as I was compiling my very own personal tracks of my years playlist (which, I promise you, included some bloody good stuff not in any way connected to any of the great loves of my life: Teenage Kicks, Atomic, Story of the Blues) I began to idly wonder what the booklist of my life would be. So when Valerie emailed me asking me to take part in the Favourite Five blog hop, I was already prepared.
Except, of course, I wasn’t. Five? Five books? How in the name of Jane Austen was I going to chose just five books from fifty years of reading? (Fear not – my Mills & Boon ‘blip’ referred to in a previous post was automatically excluded. Still can’t believe I actually admitted to that.)
So, I started randomly listing books which I have read and loved at some point in my life. By the time I got to 100, I realised I was in trouble. It was time to get ruthless: fifty had to go. It was tough, but I did it – then promptly abandoned the exercise due to exhaustion.
Then, finally, fifty became twenty five. God, this was hard work. I needed another break. Many days later, twenty five became ten – but then crept back up to twelve because, really, it was too unfair of me to have dropped Peter Pan and Notes on a Scandal from the list. And then what about The Book Thief? I was all over the place. I needed a system, I realised. I needed to establish some boundaries, or else, frankly, this was never, ever going to work. I thought again about my birthday playlist and how I’d assembled a mottled musical mix from each decade of my life and realised that the solution had been staring me in the face all along – I just needed to apply the same formula to my book choices. Easy.
Aye, right – as we say in these parts.
So, I’ve amended the criteria slightly to suit my own dilemma, indecision, general crapness – call it what you will (sorry, Valerie). And as we’re now playing by my rules (sorry again, Valerie) I’ve included a winner and two runners up in each of my newly decreed categories.
You’ll be pleased to hear that none of my favourite books were written by any of my old boyfriends – though Robert, the man I was supposed to marry, did star in the original movie version of one of them. (Leo, who starred in the re-make, just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry, Leo. You win some, you lose some.) And the book by the man I did marry (he asked me before Robert realised I was The One) is non-fiction, so that’s my get-out-of-jail-free card for this particular task!
As a child my nose was never out of a book. Under the bedcovers with a torch late at night and locking myself in the bathroom for complete peace and quiet were my two preferred reading environments, but I literally would read anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The highlight of my week was the Thursday evening trip I made to our local library with my dad – well, that and the arrival of my Twinkle/Bunty/Jackie magazine. So many books from those early years of mine made that final 50 list and most survived the cull to 25. But, after a lot of mind changing, and way too much angst than should ever be necessary for a task as joyful as this one, I finally settled on my top three.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Oh, how I ached with love for this book. I poured over every word, laughed, cried, held my breath and felt the first stirrings of feminism thanks to the fearless, feisty, ferocious Jo March. I knew that one day if I had a daughter she was bound to be called Meg, Jo, Amy or Beth – and I’m chuffed to bits that today my very own Aimee is a huge Little Women fan herself!
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume
I’m not religious, but when I was 11, on the cusp of teendom, I too wanted to know the answer to every question Margaret asks ‘God’ about periods and bras and boys. I clearly remember thinking that Judy Blume wrote that book for me, and me alone. How did she know? I wondered. How did she know?
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
I fell in love with Peter, wanted to be Wendy and was furiously jealous of Tinkerbell. As with Are You There God, I still have the copy I read when I was about ten. A magical, timeless classic, this book represents storytelling in its purest, most delicious form.
This was the time of my reading life when a whole big brilliant world of literature was revealed. It was during my teens that I discovered many of ‘the classics’, met literary legends like Austen, the Brontes, Hardy and Dickens, fell in love with Fitzgerald, swooned over the genius of Sallinger, and first experienced the ‘wish I could write like that’ feeling when I encountered Harper Lee. This was a tough category, and I might just change my mind again tomorrow, but here goes (and as I’m starting to bore myself – which means I’m bound to be boring you too – I’m restricting my reasons for choosing these books to one name only).
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Nick Carraway – of course!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout – obviously.
Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Eustacia Vye – what a woman.
(To be honest, four books were slugging it out for this final spot: Native plus Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles along with Austen’s Emma, and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. But Return of the Native shoved the others out of the way with a final push by the feisty Miss Vye.)
This period represented the best of times and the worst of times in my reading life. The reading list for the English Lit part of my degree introduced me to some of the masterpieces by other literary Gods: Plaith’s The Bell Jar, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I discovered, to my joy, that Fitzgerald was not a one trick pony with both Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and the Damned enthralling me as much as Gatsby had. In these years I also discovered Waugh and Steinbeck and Forster and Capote, and read hip modern classics such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Catch 22 and Bonfire of the Vanities.
But then came the candy-floss phase, the, you know (gulp) M&B thing. And (gulp again, eyes closed, breathe in – breathe out) perhaps a bit of Miss Cookson and co. Maybe a Collins or two. Definitely a few Jilly Coopers. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of candy floss fiction now and again – hell, it’s probably good for the soul. And obviously I’d rather a person was reading something rather than nothing at all (afraid I DO draw the line at 50 Shades tough – I’d actually rather you played Candy Crush, or did some knitting), but coming on the back of a degree in English and Drama, and all those books I’ve just been gushing about…well, let’s just say it was a little surprising. To me, at any rate. I didn’t really recognise myself for a while – who was I turning into? But then I read The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, and to my relief, normal services resumed.
There are two good memories I carry from that phase, however: Maeve Binchy, and – this one will really shock you – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, by the insufferable Jeffrey Archer. Binchy is pretty obvious – she spun a glorious yarn – Archer, less so. I detest the man, and I can’t remember why I ever read it in the first place; but I had to admit, and still maintain, that Not a Penny More… is a master class in storytelling, detail and plot. So there!
Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier
The winner of this section was the easiest of all my choices. In fact, when Valerie first contacted me about the favourite five thing, I immediately knew that Le Grand Meaulnes would be there – top of the pile, sitting proudly on the winning podium.
I read this book at college in the final year of my degree course, and it swept me off my feet, brazenly seducing me in a way no other book came close to – until I read the winner of my ‘Forties’ section. I was mesmerised, entranced, completely and utterly captivated by the dreamlike tale of youthful obsession. It reminded me of Gatsby, but with a more ethereal charm – and then, of course, I discovered that Fitzgerald had most likely modelled his Nick Carraway on Fournier’s narrator, François Seurel, and his Gatsby on Meaulnes. The book has influenced many other great writers too: Sal Paradise carries a copy with him in Kerouac’s in On the Road, John Fowles claims it influenced everything he wrote, and Henry Miller also fell under its spell.
Whilst I have never re-read this work of art, I do think about it often, and occasionally I’ll pick up my tattered old copy and flip through the pages, breathing in the memory of it. The thing is, I don’t think I ever will read it again. I’m terrified that in some way I’ll be disappointed. My memory of reading Meaulnes is so precious, so intimately special that I know the experience could never be repeated – a bit like the perfect holiday romance, or the best live gig you’ve ever been to, or a day that was so flawless from beginning to end that you want to pause time half way through so that you can walk around it, stand back and admire it, look at it from the outside in. Some encounters, or occasions, or experiences should stay in your memory box, wrapped up gently in soft white tissue paper, only taken out from time to time to be peeked at or gently caressed. That’s the way it is for me with Meaulnes.
Tragically, Alain-Fournier lost his young life in the early months of World War One – and the world lost all of the glittering, glorious stories he would surely have gone on to tell.
The bell Jar by Sylvia Plaith
Brilliantly devastating, shockingly fabulous, this book had a profound effect on me when I read it as a naïve, angst-riddled, 20 year old girl. There were times I may have thought I was going mad myself, or couldn’t cope, or didn’t want to try. The bell jar made me realise I most definitely wasn’t, I completely could, and I absolutely must. It remains a literary rite of passage – a masterpiece that all young women should read.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
My dad gave it to me. He told me I would love it – and I did. Enough said!
At the very start of my thirties I was a single career girl with my very own mortgage who liked to party and could write a mean press release. By the end of that decade, I was a married mum who had left my job to become a freelancer. I still liked to party, but was growing tired of writing press releases. I felt an itch somewhere deep within that I couldn’t quite reach, an increasingly unsettling irritation. And then I read my winning book in this section – and finally I could scratch.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
This was the book that made me want to write. Well, I’d always secretly wanted to write, but I’d buried that childhood ambition so deep within – folded it up and tucked right inside my ribcage – that I didn’t recognise the ache when it started to unravel. But the Lovely Bones dragged it out and slapped me around the face with it.
I don’t know exactly what it was about the book that triggered such a physical reaction. Perhaps, as murdered Susie Salmon narrates the tale from Sebold’s intriguing interpretation of heaven, it was the realisation that with fiction, anything is possible. It still took me a while to get going, but that book made me realise I couldn’t ignore my dream forever. Of course it hasn’t quite worked out the way I’d imagined, as I’m still writing press releases (along with lots of other copy formats, and honestly, I do love my job). But, hey, there’s always my 50’s…
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
My favourite Banks novel – I think – and the first novel my husband and I read back to back for our own wee mini book-club.
I Love You Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clarke
Okay – it’s not a novel, but this exquisitely beautiful picture book was Aimee’s absolute favourite when she was tiny, and retains a very special place in our family’s heart today. By the time she was six, Aimee could well have set up her very own library, and, like me, she finds it difficult to let a book go. This one will never go. It will become a pass-down book, I hope, for generations to come.
I possibly read more books in this decade than in all of the others put together – probably because once I started writing fiction myself, the need to read became more of an obsession than ever before. It’s a bit like a drug habit: if I don’t have at least three new reads lined up at any given time, I feel anxious, jittery and a little bit panicked. And because the past ten years represent the most recent phase of my reading life, I remember more of them. Which made choosing just three so flaming difficult.
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Quite simply, this epic fantastical mystery took me on a journey that no other book has done. If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s a bit like Le Grande Meaulnes – on acid. Like a wild kiss on a drunken night, it leaves you utterly breathless – euphoric, even, yet with an unsettling sense of uncertainty: did that really happen? Still, to this day, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘did I really read that?’ I have recommended this book to so many people – and if you’re reading this now and you haven’t yet had the Gargoyle experience, I implore you to do so. A word of warning though: the first 100 pages or so are gruesome, so grisly in fact that you may feel like giving up. I know I did. But hang in there – the ride you’re about to embark on is so worth it!
Joint winner: (my rules!)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Everyone should read this remarkable book. Everyone. It is achingly beautiful, exquisitely written and mesmerizingly clever. Devastating yet uplifting, heartbreaking yet triumphant, it is, quite simply a glorious work of art, and once read it will live with you forever. That’s all I can say. That’s all I need to say.
One Day by David Nicholls
This is perhaps one of my more predictable choices, but I absolutely loved it. The premise is cute, yes, but clever and intoxicating too – and I think it has been unfairly labelled as a gimmick by some up-their-own-arses literary elitists. I wish I’d thought of it! It’s also my era, so I loved following Emma and Dex through the years, my memory ignited by so many poignant references. And then, of course, there is ‘the thing’: the event that you absolutely mustn’t tell anyone about so that it hits them like a bus. It certainly floored me. I read it at a kids playground just a couple of weeks after my dad passed away, and whilst my daughter and nieces and nephew played merrily on the swings, I sat and bawled big guffawing sobs, completely paralysed by grief. My husband had read it just before me, and he knew I’d love it – but he was concerned about my reaction to ‘the thing’ given my recent bereavement. I called him from the playground, unable to speak. “Ah,” he said, “so you’ve read it.” For a moment I hated him for making me read this compellingly brilliant, un-put-downable book – but I’ve been grateful ever since.
So there you have it – the stories of my story so far. If you’re not drunk by now, or haven’t gone to bed with a migraine, or taken up yoga – thanks for sticking with me. Bet you’re glad I’m not 60, though!
I’d really love to hear about your own personal favourites, so do please tell me, but I’m officially tagging my blogger friend, Jackie Buxton, for the next leg of this fabulous game. Jackie is a brilliant blogger and a talented writer, and I’m pretty sure she’ll have a few crackers on her list, whether she sticks to Valerie’s rules, follows mine, or re-writes them herself!