Run a quick search through your favourite search engine and you will find thousands upon thousands of articles listing The Top X Books of All Time Ever or X of the Worst Books Not Worth the Paper They’re Printed On. They come in a crazy variety of categories including (but not limited to) Thriller, Romance, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Fantasy Epics, Fantasy Saga, Classics, Modern Classics, Children’s Classics, Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Futuristic Dystopian, Alternate History… You get the idea.
Weirdly, these actually make for an enjoyable read from time to time, you can discover so many authors and books you’ve never heard of (although that’s not always a good thing). The simultaneous problem and joy of these things is that they are so subjective. Of course, the irony of a definitive list of something which does not agree with another definitive list on the subject is not lost.
How one even begins to chose a mere two (or even ten or twenty) of their favourite books is beyond me. When people ask what my favourite book is, my response is usually:
Do you mean in a certain genre? A specific time period? By a particular author? Be more specific!
You could spend your whole life making lists of good (or bad) books and some people do but rather than that, I thought it might be interesting to talk about five books that have shaped me as a writer.
Every book I have ever read or (in rarer cases) binned has had an impact on my writing in some way, shape, or form but these are the ones that taught me the most memorable lessons. These are the ones to which I find myself returning to time and time again.
I hope you discover something new. A friend of mine would roll her eyes and call the choice typically obscure but I blame the excellent taste of my parents and my aunt. Where there are spoilers, I will try and warn you ahead of time but I aim to keep them to an absolute minimum.
Without further ado: five books that have shaped me as a writer.
The Wingfeather Saga
Choosing a series is cheating, I know, but it’s difficult to pick just one out of the series. They were written by Andrew Peterson, a musician I’m quite fond of (which is how I discovered them). The series follows three siblings, Janner, Tink, and Leeli, as they find themselves travelling the length and breadth of Aerwiar (and beyond!) in an attempt to free the land from the dreaded Fangs of Dang and their terrifying master, Gnag the Nameless.
I love the series because they are so imaginative and funny while still containing tender moments and difficult truths. I also love how the children grow and develop throughout the series.
The Wingfeather Saga reminds me that Christians can write quality fiction too – something I often despair of. The books are very honest about the faults and struggles of the characters and (I don’t think this is a spoiler but just in case) I appreciated the fact that there are major as well as minor characters who die in battles and skirmishes and not even under particularly heroic circumstances. The reason I appreciate it is because that’s life.
Andrew Peterson’s books taught me to write my own stories no matter how crazy they seem to other people. They also taught me that to make a story great, you need to underpin the whole thing with hope, as illustrated by the epilogue of The Warden and the Wolf King.
If you liked the Wingfeather Saga you may also like The Edge Chronicles (by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell – you are best beginning with Beyond the Deepwoods) and The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis.
Although Persuasion is my favourite Austen, Mansefield Park has a special place on my shelf as the first of her novels I ever read. If you aren’t familiar, the book begins seven years or so after Anne Elliot broke off an engagement with a guy called Wentworth because her family didn’t approve. All these years later, the Elliots are in debt so they rent out their house to Wentworth’s sister and her husband which causes Anne and Wentworth to cross paths again. It’s all very awkward and frustrating and a little sad.
Persuasion is one that people tend to love or just not care for. Personally, although you want to bang their heads together at times, this is still my favourite Austen. It has been since I read it because it is the most human of them all. There are some absolutely beautiful quotes and bittersweet moments which create a really lovely book.
Suffice to say, I like it. Once more, it taught me to have hope running along beneath the storyline but it also provides an excellent insight into writing tension and drama even when there’s nothing particularly happening. Austen showed me how to keep what the characters want just far enough out of reach to both torment and capture the reader.
If you like Persuasion you could also try My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes by Fredrik Backman or Saskia’s Journey by Theresa Breslin.
The Book Thief
Oddly enough, it was an accidental find and I very nearly didn’t pick it up. Upon the reading the blurb, I was torn between curiosity and contempt at the idea of Death narrating the story. In my mind it seemed like a creepy blend of Skulduggery Pleasant and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Curiosity won out of course and my assumption was wrong. I’ve yet to regret the number of times I’ve read it and the number of friends I’ve annoyed by recommending it to them again and again.
Markus Zusak narrates the tale from the perspective of Death. It follows the story of Liesel, an orphan, and her life with her new foster parents in a poor part of Munich during WW2. In it, Liesel discovers a love for books, plays football and steals apples with her best friend Rudy, and brings crosswords to a Jewish fist-fighter hidden in their basement.
It’s beautiful for many reasons and rather than wax lyrical about it, i’ll just say that it helped me to realise that words can be beautiful but efficient at the same time. You can write a stunning story using almost poetic language but without sounding gushy and forced. If there was ever a book I wish I’d written, this would be in the running.
If you enjoyed Book Thief (and seeing the movie is not good enough), you should try Morpurgo’s Waiting for Anya for all the emotional WW2 storyline and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey for interesting narrative point of view.
Goodnight Mr Tom
I was given Goodnight Mr Tom towards the end of primary school in an attempt to stave off the boredom of the classroom. Be aware of an upcoming spoiler but I suspect it was one of the first books to make me cry. The reason was (and here I repeat the spoiler warning) that I hadn’t read a book where a good character, a character I liked died. Because it happens off-stage so to speak, I was holding out hope of a mistake and when Will, the main character, sees Zack come cycling round the corner and down the lane, my little heart soared and then was crushed within the space of a couple of sentences. Then later on in London, there is a second blow which I felt was just unfair. So far in my (evidently limited) reading career, the only people that had died had been bad guys who deserved it.
Anyway, it’s a great book. It follows a little boy called Will who is evacuated during the London Blitz and ends up being taken in by a reluctant and grumpy old man called Tom. It transpires that Will’s home life was less than happy and through the course of the book, he and Tom both heal from their different wounds and become like family.
Goodnight Mr Tom was the first book to teach me that stories can be painful and don’t necessarily have a happy ending for everyone you think deserves one. I guess it was important because it shattered the illusion that the world of storytelling is any different or fairer than real life.
If you liked Mr Tom you should try Once, Next, Then, and After by Morris Gleitzman or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
‘For you canna write a word even, but you show yourself – in the word you choose, and the shape of the letter and whether you write tall or short, plain or flourished…’
Mary Webb’s Precious Bane is as captivating on each rereading as it was the first time my dad lent it to me. I can’t remember why he did, only that I was to bring it back in mint condition on pain of death.
The story follows a young girl, Prue growing up in a rural community in Shropshire on the brink of both the Industrial Revolution and her own adulthood. She falls in love with a local weaver, Kester, but says nothing because she has a hare lip, her ‘precious bane’. It’s romantic, it’s tragic, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s a fascinating insight into life in that time.
It’s been ages but I’m currently rereading this classic after finding it for a penny on Amazon.
The tale of Prue Sarn introduced me to the idea that it is not only epic adventure sagas that make good reads and love stories are not obliged to be gushy and cringeworthy. This isn’t really a spoiler (but I’m warning you just in case) but it also taught me that character development is not necessarily about movement but about depth. After all, though Prue goes through a lot as she grows up, she matures but doesn’t change in many ways. In the beginning, she relies on her brother for help and protection and by the end she still needs someone else to rescue her. It’s not a bad thing (although it’s probably pretty triggering for the feminists out there), but it is interesting.
If you like Precious Bane, try Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It’s a satire taking the mick out of books like Precious Bane and it is hilarious, she even puts asterisks around sections of purple prose so that you can skip them if you want to. Be warned though, it has something nasty in the woodshed. You could also try I Coriander by Sally Gardner or Gatty’s Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland for girls coming of age sort of stories.
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There, not a definitive list, and certainly not an exhaustive one, but interesting nonetheless. I hope you discover at least one new book to add to your ever growing favourites list.
A few obscure but great books that deserve and honourable mention are The Stainless Steel Rat (sci-fi series by Harry Harrison), Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, anything by Michael Morpurgo,and The Ladies’ No1 Detective Agency by Alexander Mcall-Smith. Watchers, a Christian futuristic dystopian was on the list but I cannot for the life of me find the author’s name or a copy of it anywhere online (so if you know the book or who it’s by, feel free to let us know because it’s a good one).