Five Books that Changed my Life
Part 1: Fiction
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby sits on many people’s ‘favourite book’ lists because, like me, they read the novel at a formative time in their lives. Passions run hot when you are a sixteen-year-old trying to grasp the concepts of love and loss, the elusiveness of the American Dream and the power of money to corrupt. The Great Gatsby is for me all those things, but it is also I feel one long love-poem to the Jazz era – a time when anything was possible in the world – and a sobering depiction of the shallowness and self-serving nature of humanity. That all sounds grim, I realise, but the writing is so beautiful that whenever I read it (and I do so every few years), I am transported to a place where all those terrible things about humanity are true, but I still want to go there and experience them again.
Until I’d read The Great Gatsby, I’d never really understood that words can be transformative, that a writer can convey so much with so few strokes of a pen. This book showed me that less is more.
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge Mem Fox & Julie Vivas (Illus.)
This book is an affectionate view of families, old age and what it means to reach out to others in the community. The illustrations are warm and naturalistic, and the text is so heart-warming one can bear the reality of old age coming to us all.
Children have a great capacity to be cruel, but they also have an even greater one to be kind. Wilfred grasps the abstract concept of what comprises a memory and wraps it up in such a kind gesture that ‘sublime’ isn’t a strong enough description of the text.
As soon as I read this book, I knew I wanted to write picture books. My hope was that I could move others the way Wilfred Gordon MacDonald Partridge moved me.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
This young adult fantasy novel blew me away when I first read it in the early 2000s. Not only did Nix manage to create a strong female protagonist who was both credible as a girl torn between two worlds, he created such a rich alternative world – the Old Kingdom – that readers can’t help but feel they’ve known of its existence all their lives. Many writers will use monsters and magic users in their fantasy worlds, but Nix has also created a beautiful depiction of a multi-layered magic system with subtleties that rival the scholars of antiquity. I can believe in magic symbols that illuminate the objects they are held within, just as I can feel the cold of the waters of the river of death where all souls (benign and otherwise) must travel to their final end.
Sabriel is the first of Nix’s ‘Old Kingdom’ series, which I cannot get enough of. This book and its sisters made me realise that well-written YA fantasy can often tell a greater truth than much gritty realism does.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
Part of the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic is a hilarious, seemingly disorganised but cohesive story from the mad mind of Terry Pratchett. I’d avoided reading these books for years as the series had such a strong following and I felt that there had to be flawed in some way in order for it to be so popular. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once I read The Colour of Magic, I was hooked.
Once I started reading these books (I’m up to about book 25 at the moment), I realised that whilst I’m no Pratchett, there’s a place for my writing…writing that makes a reader laugh with absurdities, nod at the sharp wit and cringe at the astute observation.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I read this book, and the three volumes of Lord of the Rings, in the year I ran the student newspaper at uni. Leaving aside the brilliance of Tolkien’s craft and world-building, these works taught me that stories of epic heroism and Good versus Evil were not just for children. At the time, popular culture was enmeshed in hyper realism and stories of personal awakening, which I could not relate to. I knew who I was, knew I could do whatever I wanted with my life and I was pretty comfortable in my own skin – pretty much like Bilbo Baggins thought he was at the start of The Hobbit (although quite a bit less hairy).
Stories like these showed me that being thrown out of your comfort zone was a good thing, and that the meekest of us could face up to challenges, no matter how daunting they may seem.