Every writer is a reader first, and, amid all the excitement of finally seeing my debut novel go into print, I thought it would be nice to take a moment to reflect on the books that have been particularly important to me over the years. They are all different, of course, and significant to me in a variety of ways but, to my mind, all are wonderful, wonderful books. I hope you might be inspired to try one.
As a child I read like crazy, mostly from the library, getting six more out once or twice a week. ‘The Mona Lisa Mystery’, by Pat Hutchins, was different. I owned it (I think it came from a school book fair) and I must have read it hundreds of times. It has glamour, adventure, humour and ketchup. And of course ordinary children who save the day. It’s sadly out of print, but I’ve managed to dig out my much-thumbed copy and am delighted to report that my son now loves it almost as much as I did.
Aged 11 or 12 I received ‘Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth’ as a school prize. It sat on the shelf for ages, looking a bit boring and intimidating. But when I started it – what a revelation. Sublime story-telling, which inspired a love of historical fiction that has stayed with me ever since. I do think teenage readers today have it much better than my generation did, with an explosion in high-quality YA fiction over recent years. But I’m pretty sure that one would still make the grade.
In my later teen years I went through a bit of an Arthurian phase and adored Mary Stewart’s ‘The Crystal Cave’ and the series that followed. They were 1970s classics, apparently, and so vivid and earthy compared to the prissy versions of Arthur I’d read and seen elsewhere. Back in the world of 1990s contemporary fiction, I was in love with Helen Fielding’s ‘Bridget Jones’ which fitted neatly into my obsession with that 1995 adaption of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ (brought to you by the BBC in conjunction with Colin Firth’s wet shirt).
With the whole world of adult fiction available, it’s even more difficult to pick the books that have meant most to me in my adult life, despite the fact that my reading rate has plunged. Some of my favourites are thought-provoking prize-winners, some are commercial successes that I’ve lapped up along with everyone else, and others are slightly more under the radar books that seemed to have been written to speak directly to me.
‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, and subsequent books by Christopher Brookmyre quite simply blew my mind, showing me that the grimmest crime stories could be written with belly-laughs, as well searing social observation. ‘Twelve Bar Blues’ by Patrick Neate, spoke to my love of historical fiction, although it’s also so much more. I was lucky enough to attend a writing course with Patrick, who had a sensitive and sophisticated take on cultural appropriation even before the phrase was widely in use. His books, and others, have made me think deeply about which stories I might be best-placed to tell, and which I am not. Finally, Carys Bray’s ‘A Song For Issy Bradley’ is set amongst a Mormon community in Southport and opened my eyes to the fact that compelling stories can be found in the most unexpected places.
Although there are literally hundreds of books that have helped make me who I am, both as a person and as a writer, I decided to limit myself to eight (that may have something to do with a Desert Island Discs obsession). It seems obvious that the last choice has to be If They Knew. The biggest dream of that little girl, queuing up to exchange her library books was to write a book of her own. I know that it’s a dream shared by so many people, and I feel so privileged to have it come true. If, as a writer, I can touch even one reader in the way these books have touched me, I’ll be absolutely delighted.
You can pre-order If They Knew from Amazon and will be available to buy from good bookshops from 15th November.