I have been ordered by my brain twin, Pignut, to pick up a challenge that’s doing the rounds of the blogosphere. The idea is to choose five books that have had profound influences on your life: one from childhood, one from your teenage years, two from adulthood and a guilty pleasure.
Not an easy challenge when reading is one’s most-loved pastime. I owned more than a thousand books before moving to America, not to mention the hundreds I’ve borrowed, nicked, Kindled and lost. I have so many favourites it’s taken me a week to convince myself not to just list them all; I have, however, finally managed to pick my five.
The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark
It was a toss-up for favourite childhood book between this and Black Beauty, which I’d read about six times by the time I was five. I can’t quite put my finger on any particular influence it had on me though, other than a love of horses and a long-standing confusion as to how an ostler could have lasted five years without a drink. Surely he was really bloody thirsty by the end. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, on the other hand, was an almost constant companion during my formative years. It’s about Plop, an owl who is, as the title suggests, a bit iffy about night-time, and his long-suffering parents’ attempts to enlighten him.
On his nightly adventures, he meets various other characters who show him positive aspects of the dark, such as fireworks, camping and astronomy. I found it endlessly funny and profoundly comforting – and it’s probably the reason I became a bit nocturnal. These days it seems only to be available in picture book form, which is a shame because most of the lovable text is missing.
The Lord of the Rings
I first read this when I was quite young but, much like Joey from Friends putting books in the freezer, I was so upset by Shelob that I weepingly gave it to my mum to look after. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to appreciate the sheer depth of its wonders, and it remains my favourite book to this day. It has inspired me to imagine and attempt to realise my own worlds, and the stories within them, and ignited a general love of fantasy that has influenced my reading choices ever since.
Such is my appreciation, and also Hubby’s, that, between us, we own seven different copies of the trilogy. The fact that Peter Jackson’s dabblings in Middle Earth are also my favourite movies does nothing to hurt.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors; if you have not yet read his books, you may perhaps have seen adaptions of his work in Stardust and Mirrormask. Endlessly inventive and two sidesteps from the norm in terms of style, his books take you to worlds you’d never thought to imagine. I also have a soft spot for Neverwhere, about a man who gets trapped in an alternative London where Earl’s Court tube station is literally the court of an earl and The Angel, Islington is literally an angel, living near Islington. Good Omens, which he wrote with Terry Pratchett, is arguably the book I should have chosen as far as life influence is concerned; it was, after all, in response to my blogging of a passage from it that Hubby and I first spoke.
But, for good or for worse, American Gods is the first I read and the first time I was dragged into Gaiman’s mad genius mind. The premise is that gods and mythological creatures only exist because people believe in them, and the book focuses on the old-world gods that immigrants to the US brought with them. Because belief has declined radically since that time, the gods, too, have diminished. And they’re not particularly happy about it.
World War Z
Less a book about zombies and more an examination of psychology, sociology, geopolitics and the general human condition, World War Z uses the concept of a worldwide zombie outbreak as the backdrop for a thought-provoking examination of how humans really would react in such a life-or-death situation. It’s told as a series of interviews, each with a different survivor, each one with their own experience of the outbreak. Some of the behaviour exhibited by individuals, officials and whole governments is utterly reprehensible, but in all cases understandable, and gives the shining moments of heroism, no matter how tiny, even more impact.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in humanity’s foibles. Ignore the zombies, if they aren’t your thing – it’s not that hard to do, because they are secondary, at best. The horror comes from actions of their prey, making this a social commentary that hits the mark on every level. It was suggested as something I might like several years ago by Sparky Malarkey and, since then, I’ve read it several times and we often listen to the audio book on long road trips.
The Farseer Trilogy/The Tawny Man Trilogy
A bit of a cheat wrapping six books up in one, I know, but you can’t really have one without the rest. It’s also only a guilty pleasure if you’re a bit sniffy about fantasy novels, which I know a lot of people are.
It is, however, the best written piece of fantasy I have ever come across, aside from, of course, Tolkien. Unlike the majority of authors within the genre, Robin Hobb refuses to rely on the traditional bestiary dreamed up by Tolkien and invents an entire culture without a single reference to orcs and cave trolls. Her concepts of magic and race are a far cry from the norm and her story is unique. The books are each the size of doorsteps, but I devoured them within a couple of weeks. Admittedly, I stayed up till about 4am to do so.
(Honourable Mention: The Other Hand
I’m sneaking this one in because I only read it a couple of months ago and its influence is therefore new. Written by Chris Cleave, it’s the tale of a London journalist and a refugee from Nigeria – and that’s all I will say about it, for fear of ruining its impact.
What I will say, however, is that it is incredibly touching and beautifully written and there are sentences in that book that will stay with you forever. It will also make you cry, several times.)
And in summary…
The books I love best, as you can see, are the ones that pull me into a world that’s not my own, one where I can lose myself in mythologies, cultures and ideas. I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, other than that I sort of wish I was a wizard.