So, at the moment, the wonderful Waterstones, whom I work for, are running an online campaign called The Book That Made Me! It’s very simple, we’re stirring up passion for the books that we feel had the biggest impacts on our lives. You can discuss yours on the special Waterstones microsite http://www.thebookthatmademe.com/ , or you can follow the discusssion on Twitter using the hashtag #tbtmm! I’ve submitted my all time favourite already, but I felt there were several other books that I was neglecting… So I made a list of ten! I like lists. I encourage you to do the same… Here are mine!
10. The Wakening by Paul Stewart
I picked up this book from a bargain basket in a Boyes store when I was eight or nine years old, purely grabbed by the jacket. Once I’d flicked over the blurb I knew this book was for me, a child fascinated by the macabre & obsessed with ghost stories. Paul Stewart has gone on to make a great name for himself, especially through his Edge Chronicles & Muddle Earth Fantasy novels with illustrator Chris Riddell, but this little stand alone novel from 1996 was my first encounter with him, & I wouldn’t hear of him as an author until I started working at Waterstones many years later. The book tells the dark tale of a young boy, Sam, who’s day to day life is haunted by his parent’s money worries, & his nighttimes haunted by the recurring nightmare of a circular clearing in a forest, where a hand of something long dead claws its way through the soft soil. This nightmarish image has stuck with me for well over a decade, & I can still bring back the whole sequence in my hand with startling accuracy. The book filled my head with conspiracy, fascination & horror, keeping me gripped ‘til the very end, & causing me to babble to my school friends about hideous hunchbacked horrors, incorporating such woodland clearings into most of our games for what felt like months. It’s ultimately a story of power, of overcoming adversity & of the supernatural, of course, but it’s a story that shaped my love for anything creepy for the rest of my life.
9. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
The only non-fiction book to make my list, but not without VERY good reason. Carl Sagan is a legend of science popularisation, & his TV show which accompanied the book is the most watched science based show in the world. I first read Sagan’s book in my year between college & uni (it wasn’t really a gap year, I was working), & his amazing passion really leaps out of the pages & seeps into the reader’s head. Focusing not just on the scientific theories, but also on the quirky lives & personalities of the scientists behind them, he manages to create a social history of humankind’s discovery of the world around them, describing how their personality flaws led to thought processes leading to some of the most important discoveries in human history. The book taught me so much about the universe, but also reinvigorated a passion for science that I had clung to so dearly as a child, & which has stayed with me now into my adult life. By using simple terms, shying away from complex maths & adding in this human element, Sagan explains the fundamental principles of our world, & our universe in a way that anyone can grasp, but does so without oversimplifying or missing out any important factors. Stretching his story from the very ancient days of the Greek & Egyptian philosophers to the modern day, he follows scientific ideas through the mistakes & falsehoods over the centuries to help explain how science is a constantly evolving entity, & a powerful force for understanding our place in the Cosmos.
8. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I don’t think there’s much I can say about this seminal novel that hasn’t been said a thousand times the world over. I was lucky enough to have not studied the book at school, which is fortunate, because I often find books I’ve been forced to over-analyse I grow to loathe (I’m looking at you Great Expectations!). For those who don’t know, To Kill A Mockingbird is a beautifully written story set in the American Deep South in the mid-nineteen thirties, telling the story of the lawyer Atticus Finch, defending the African-American Tom Robinson, who has wrongly been accused of the rape of a white woman. The novel is told through the innocent eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout Finch, & because of her perspective, we get to see some of the horrific actions of adults as interpreted by the minds of children. Her narrative also lends the book a sense of warmth & humour though, with a definite child-like quality throughout, & combined with Harper Lee’s amazing talent for spinning descriptive storytelling pieces, it creates a unique, profound reading experience which tackles some incredibly tough issues of racial inequality, rape & the loss of innocence with a soft wit & warmth that makes it accessible & engaging.
7. Streams of Silver by R.A. Salvatore
For those of you who don’t know, R.A. Salvatore writes Fantasy novels set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, which also happen to be some of the most compelling fiction I have ever read. Streams of Silver is actually book two of Salvatore’s critically acclaimed Icewind Dale trilogy, & is another prime example of a book passed on to me by my older brother that had a huge impact on my teenage mind. I don’t remember why I read book two, and then book one & three, but it didn’t seem to matter to me at the time. Streams of Silver tells the story of the outcast Dark Elf Drizzt Do’Urden, a race of fearsome & mysterious underground dwelling evil. Drizzt lives on the surface, his own moral compass setting him apart from his own people & forcing him to make a place for himself in the world above, which fears & rejects him. It follows his adventure to reclaim his friend Reigis, seized by the notorious assassin Artemis Entrei, with his few loyal friends in tow, the Dwarf lord Bruenor & the Barbarian raised by Dwarves, Wulfgar. The book has some really inspiring characters, all so much more than the usual Fantasy 2D stereotypes, & Drizzt’s constant drive to do good despite the hate he encounters everywhere makes him a character which readers root for over multiple books. Artemis Entrei is a deep, emotionally written character too, much more than just a cold blooded assassin, he’s intelligent, passionate & driven, making him a compelling villain, but also an unlikely source for reader’s affections too. The interplay between Drizzt & his friends is warm, touching & often genuinely funny, which makes the companion’s journey such a joy to read. Salvatore took the already beautiful backdrop of the Forgotten Realms, & added a really human element to its citizens & adventures. It’s a shame later novels lose the plot slightly, but certainly the first eight or so Drizzt Do’Urden novels are brilliant.
6. The Witches by Roald Dahl
I still have customers who ask where the Roald Dahl books are. I have young children in my section that I have conversations with about which are their favourite Dahl stories. Why? Because Roald Dahl is quite simply a classic children’s author. I don’t think there will ever be a time when his intelligent, funny & quirky novels won’t be beloved by children the world over, & that fills me with joy. The Witches is my favourite of his stories, & it’s one that has stuck in my memory from a very young age, because as far as I’m concerned, this is the quintessential Roald Dahl novel (except maybe Matilda, which is amazing too). The Witches is seriously dark, but also seriously funny. It has inquisitive children, a warm & caring grandparent, & some truly horrific witches, who are described in such eye-popping detail, that many of the passages stick with me to this day. Dahl has a wonderful ability to never patronise his young readers, but also doesn’t hold back on some of the more unpleasant aspects of life, creating what I feel is an important coming-of-age narrative in his books, & the grossly funny & often disturbing The Witches is my favourite example of Dahl’s mistrust of adults, teaching his readers that you shouldn’t always respect your elders, because sometimes they’re just as mean & petty as children, & you should stand up to them.
5. The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
GRAPHIC NOVELS?! What is this madness?! A valid storytelling medium is what it is, so stick with me. I’ve been reading comic books since… Well, since before I could really read them properly! I used to follow the pictures in my brother’s Transformers & Amazing Spiderman comics & only just grasp the story, but I was transfixed by the bright, action packed images. Many years later, I was given a copy of The Long Halloween, a Batman graphic novel by one of DC’s most well renowned author/artist combos, & was instantly introduced to a Batman that no film had ever been able to capture, The Dark Knight Detective. Away from the bombastic & brightly coloured villains, The Long Halloween is a dark, gritty noir story of a serial killer who strikes members of the Falcone mob family on special occasions throughout the year, dubbed ‘Holiday’. Batman must use his cunning, ingenuity & instincts as much as his fists in this murder-mystery which spans an entire YEAR of events, & features cameos from all of The Caped Crusader’s most well known villains. The artwork is sublime, proving the Graphic Novel world is just as valid as an art form as it is a storytelling narrative, with Tim Sale’s sharp, bright & simple illustrations adding to the feeling of a noir story from the silver screens. Personally, one of the finest outings from the character, who is too often misrepresented, his intelligence & crime solving skills highly underused.
4. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
Horror has been one of my passions since I was actually quite young. I have vivid memories of being a child, reading ‘True Ghost Stories’ & ‘Unsolved UFO Mysteries’ & being unable to sleep. I was never scared of the stories where a hook handed killer murdered the amorous teens though; those were always predictable & kind of dull. No, the stories I was kept awake by were the ones where some unseen force terrorises people, the sort of malevolent creature that drives characters to sheer blind panic. So imagine my delight when I first discovered the early 19th century works of H.P. Lovecraft! Famed for his novella The Call of Cthulhu, it was another short story that really cemented his masterful skill in pants-wettingly subtle horror, the snowy & isolated At the Mountains of Madness, which tells the story of an archaeological research team uncovering a mysterious & ancient alien civilisation deep under a remote mountain range. Immediately Lovecraft creates a sense of foreboding, of unknown, intangible malevolence, like the scientists have stumbled across something that was never meant for human understanding. From there, Lovecraft delves into a beautiful series of descriptive passages, almost entirely free of dialogue, simply setting up the alien & unsettling nature of the site, & these descriptions really draws the reader deeper underground with the characters, itching to know more, but horrified at what might be dwelling in the depths. When the payoff finally comes, it isn’t with tentacles, blood & gore. Rather, we never actually *see* what the scientists see, we only get to understand their horror is enough cause one to remove his own eyes, & go completely insane. It’s a fully self contained short of horror, tensions, isolation & alien oppression, without ever having to revert to gore soaked teen body parts. The finest horror writer of all time, although a tad obsessed with cats. Also, slightly racist (as was the style of the time).
3. Sorcery by Terry Pratchett
When I was ten, I went to a local book fair at my Primary School. We would trade books for other books, often third or fourth hand copies dog-eared & obscure, but for a youngster like me, a great chance to find new stories. Well, I strolled in & exchanged an armful of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books for a handful of beat up paperbacks. Amongst these where Guards! Guards! & Sorcery by Terry Pratchett, & within the first few pages, I had laughed, gasped & read a swearword written down, which was an amazingly big deal at the time. I soon became fascinated in Pratchett’s Discworld, a hilarious take on the Fantasy genre I had become familiar with through Warhammer & my brother’s own interest (it would later turn out he was already very familiar with Pratchett, & built my knowledge up like any good sibling should), a strange world of silly puns & cleverly constructed jokes, long-winded & rambling but rib-tickling footnotes, & most importantly, genre melding, fantastic storytelling. Terry is often seen as a jokester, but he’s also an avid reader of all kinds of fiction, which he takes back to weave into his own bizarre world, almost seamlessly. Sorcery takes aspects of Fantasy & epic adventure novels, the Conan stories for example, & turns the stereotypes on their heads, as well as creating a tense, thrilling & fully absorbing story. I think what I took away from Sorcery, & subsequent Pratchett novels is that you can still have a love & respect for a genre, but still find aspects of it ridiculous. It’s okay to poke fun at what you enjoy, otherwise life gets too serious. He also convinced me to branch out of my comfort zone & into genres I would normally never pick up, so kudos to Sir Terry Pratchett, one of our finest writers.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
It’s one of those books that I know isn’t for everyone, & I know people who just don’t get it. It runs a dangerous line of Hipsterish & Teen Angst Pretentiousness. I don’t care. I know millions of people probably feel this book speaks to them; well I am one of those people. When I finished this book, at four am, in floods of tears, I felt like I’d finished a personal journey between me & Charlie, like this book was my little secret, written just for me. It deals with being an overly sensitive individual in a world that is harsh & loud, which is how I often go about my day to day, finding people rude & intimidating. Charlie finds refuse from this world through books, classic literature such as Harper Lee & Steinbeck, through music & through a group of accepting, non-judgemental friends, & this speaks to me too, because this is exactly how I cope with the seemingly insurmountable parts of life. Charlie & I think in the same way, self deprecating worriers who want to try to make everyone happy. What this book did for me was make me realise that it’s okay to be that way, that even though it might not seem like it every day, people really do appreciate you, & the little things you do for them.
1. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Okay, so technically a trilogy, but it’s one piece of work if we’re honest. Anyone who knows much of anything about me, either in the real world, or through my twitter, will have heard me praise this set of books ‘til the cows come home. Seriously, three of the best books I have EVER read. I first read Northern Lights when I was about ten years old, not reading The Subtle Knife & The Amber Spyglass until I was thirteen or so. What I took from these books goes beyond things that are described in words: ideas of thoughtfulness, passion & a desire to question the world around me that have shaped me ever since & never left me. Lyra instantly struck a chord with me, as an inquisitive & imaginative child, & she remains for me, the prime example of a strong, independent female protagonist, especially in the world of teen literature, where many female leads exist purely as romance interests. More than just her tenacity though, all of the characters are unique, original & refreshingly break away from caricatures that litter so much fantasy, & the bonds I formed with them are still with me today, fifteen years later. Ultimately though, the reason I come back time & again to this trilogy is Pullman’s masterful ability to create a multi-layered narrative, from different perspectives, across dozens of beautifully crafted & original parallel worlds, without seeming forced or like too much is ever going on at once. A beautiful Fantasy, with rich environments, strong characters & biting themes of individuality, curiosity & of questioning authority, I love them with all my heart. NEVER SEE THE FILM. It’s appalling. It makes me cry. If you see it I WILL CRY. Don’t make me cry.
You can also find me talking about His Dark Materials on the Books That Made Me microsite.
Thanks for reading! I hope you were inspired to pick some of these up. I’m hoping to have some posts from guest bloggers on their top tens, so please do join the discussion!
(You can always find me on Twitter, @ShinraAlpha)