Article published on January 26, 2016.
Jade Craddock, our BookGeek expert, conjures up the image of Eamonn Andrews – for those old enough to remember him, for our younger readers try Michael Aspel – and a long gone but still resonant TV programme.
From the mid-1950s, there used to be a television programme called This is Your Life, where celebrities were taken through the story of their life with the help of the famous ‘big red book.’ The original series was slightly before my time, but maybe the big red book spoke to the bibliophile in me. Anyway when I was asked to write a brief introduction, it was this TV programme that came to mind. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with baby snaps and holiday shots, nor have I done anything remotely of note to warrant a ‘life story’. No, instead I’m going to give a whistle-stop tour of a different kind – of the books that have had an impact on me and shaped some of my reading interests and passions. Think of it as my life in books, rather than my life in a big red book.
The Secret Garden – Whilst I wasn’t (I hope) a precocious child, I was a precocious reader and this is the first book I have a clear memory of enjoying and loving. I have vague recollections of Peter Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh, but The Secret Garden was the book that got me hooked. It has a lot to answer for, not least groaning shelves and hours of my life completely lost to reading. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Fearless – The gap between children’s fiction and adult fiction seemed a lot more pronounced when I was a teenager than it is nowadays since the explosion of YA. But then Francine Pascal’s Fearless series came along and all my prayers were answered. It was powerful, refreshing and original back then, and for a teenage girl, the feisty, ‘fearless’ female lead was a shining light amongst other heroines. Pascal kept me going through my teens – the only problem, she couldn’t write the books fast enough. But she did write 36 books in total, so I’ll let her off.
Sense and Sensibility – or substitute with any Austen book, it’s hard for me to choose a favourite. Austen was one of the first ‘classic’ authors I read, again in my teens, and to my mind, having read all six completed novels several times, she’s simply peerless, unsurpassable. A writer of wit and knowing, she remains one of my favourite authors of all time, it is just a shame that her life was cut short and we didn’t get to see her full repertoire.
PS I Love You – If Austen introduced me to the classics, Cecelia Ahern introduced me to contemporary fiction and continues to be a go-to author today. Writers like Ahern, in my mind, get both undue criticism and insufficient recognition. Quickly brushed aside for not being rigorous or literary, critics often miss the significance and value in contemporary women’s fiction. Ahern’s PS I Love You exemplifies a genre rich in emotion and relatability, and introduced me to a whole sphere of novels that are a balm for the soul.
Canterbury Tales – Chaucer’s classic continues to be a staple on most English Literature courses and probably suffers as a result for seeming too academic, too inaccessible, which is a huge shame because it is one of the funniest, most nuanced and enjoyable books ever written. Yes, there’s the not insubstantial matter of ‘olde English’, but even if you can’t get your head around your als from your ay, at their heart, the stories are universal.
Possession – This isn’t a book I would have necessarily picked up of my own volition, nor would I have been compelled to had someone pinned its label of ‘postmodern historiographic metafiction’ to it. But as recommended reading, it was one of many books I had thrust upon me, and one of the few that was truly brilliant. Again one of those books that I don’t think has been surpassed.
Notes From a Small Island – There haven’t been many books that have truly made me laugh out loud but Bryson’s was the first, followed by Neither Here Nor There, Made in America, A Walk in the Woods and so on, you get the picture. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon Bryson – I’m not one for reading travelogues per se – but he’s long since become an author I can rely on for a bit of laughter therapy.
Cloud Atlas – This is perhaps the one book that completely blew me away. I love the multi-narrative style of the novel and the way Mitchell can turn his hand so adeptly to each format, but I also love his subtlety and the way he links it all together into a beautiful whole. One of the best modern storytellers around and Cloud Atlas is proof of this in action.
Collected Sonnets Edna St Vincent Millay – To me the sonnet is the apotheosis of poetry, so small – just fourteen lines – yet so expansive and full of potential. Shakespeare and Petrarch may get all of the plaudits, but Millay is the mistress of the form.
Gap of Time – In recent times, there haven’t been many novels that have left such a vivid impression, The Narrow Road to the Deep North one of the few. Then, last year I read Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and knew I’d found something special. Taking on the icon of Shakespeare would leave lesser writers flailing in his wake, but Winterson not only honours the original but creates her own classic.
So there you have it, my book life so far. And I hope I’ll find a few more to add to the collection along the way.