I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. My parents tell me I taught myself at the age of three, and I think they must be right, because I can’t recall ever seeing letters as just incomprehensible squiggles of black ink. I lived half my childhood in a book after that, captivated by the alchemy that turned words on a page into images and pictures in my head. It was a kind of magic, and it still is, only now I get to weave some of those spells myself. There’s no greater enchantment than that.
It’s hard to distil a life of book-loving into five books, but here is my list. Some of these I read and loved as a child, and some have turned me into the writer I am today.
The God beneath the Sea, by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen
This is a wonderful re-telling of the Greek myths for children. I remember I had another book on the same subject before this, which I must have read a hundred times (and stood me in excellent stead when it came to my English literature degree) but what I loved about this particular one was the sheer joy of the language. The muscularity of it, the richness and inventiveness of the prose was an absolute revelation. When I started writing this article I looked the book up on Wikipedia and found that it inspired Philip Pullman too. It seems I am in good company!
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
There must be thousands of people who would have this book on their list of favourites, and probably for many of the same reasons. I read it first at the age of twelve, and my love of it has never diminished. That’s a very formative age, especially for a thoughtful child growing up in an ugly London suburb, and I think my love of nature stems in great part from this book. And when I read more about Tolkien and found he was a professor of English at Oxford, that inspired me to try to study there myself. In fact I recently met someone at my old college who went to Tolkien’s lectures in the 1940s – extraordinary.
Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
Well this one really had to be on the list! I studied this book for A level (and can still recite huge chunks of it by heart), but even at the age of eighteen I thought there was something odd and intriguing about it. It’s so like, and yet so very unlike all Austen’s other works. Even back then, I wondered if there might be the ghost of another book in there, trying to get out, and it was that book – that ‘re-imagining’ of Mansfield Park as a murder mystery – which was the first novel I had published. And how much fun writing it was.
A Masculine Ending, by Joan Smith
Some people might think this is an unusual choice, but I include it here not just because it’s a really good read in its own right, but because it was the first book that made me think I might be able to be a writer myself. Joan Smith is great at ‘clever crime’, and that’s what I’ve try to write too. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple of years ago, and tell her the influence she’d had on me. Definitely a fan-girl moment and one I never dreamed would ever happen!
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles
If you’ve read Tom-All-Alone’s you won’t be surprised to find this one in my list. The first and still one of the best ‘neo-Victorian’ novels, and an inspiration for my own second book. When I first read it I was exhilarated by the way Fowles tells a Victorian story from a 20th-century perspective, and I adopted the same ‘knowing’ narratorial stance in Tom-All-Alone’s. And I later discovered that they filmed a tiny sequence for the film just yards from our old house!
Published in 2014