Reading and Me
Updated: Jul 2
It's often said that every writer starts out as a reader—and presumably continues to be one. I know that's true for me. From time to time I may mention books I've just discovered, but this list is all about my favourite books and authors, nearly all of them ones that have been on my bookshelves for a long time. You'll be able to spot the more recent additions by their publication date. Inevitably, some of these seem to me to have had some influence on my own writing (and in at least one case on my photography career as well), but you might think I'm over-reaching.
This is not intended as a list of 'set books' or 'required reading'—but if there are books here that you don't know, and if you feel inclined to try them, there's a good chance you'll be glad of it.
On this page, a 'Desert Island Dozen' of all-time favourite novels. I'll follow on by doing the same for non-fiction.
I'm going to start with Ursula K Le Guin, the author I admire above all others; it probably wouldn't be too strong to say 'revere'. All her SFF is worth reading and, for me, re-reading time and again, but everyone has their favourites and I'm no exception. I simply don't think any single book has ever meant more to me than…
I said this wasn't a list of 'set books', but if you're an SF devotee and you've missed this till now, do yourself a favour.
For me, its impact wasn't simply that it was and is a great book. I also came across it at just the right time, some years after its first publication in 1969. I've often described it as my first grown up SF read. That's not to say that none of the SF I'd read before was grown-up stuff; to name but one, the Foundation trilogy (as it was then) may have its faults, but I'd hardly call it juvenile.
No, LHOD marked a transition in me and my reading as much as it was groundbreaking SF in its own right, most of all for its consideration of gender. In contemporary literature, non-binary, gender-fluid, and trans characters, though still challenging for some readers, are no longer a novelty. Over 50 years ago, things were a little different. Le Guin has subsequently been criticised for making her protagonist, Genry, male, but it has to be looked at against other SF of the time. Take the aforementioned Foundation, for example; when I reread the trilogy a few years ago, I was both shocked by the virtual invisibility of women*, especially in the first volume, and shamed to realise that I had scarcely registered this fact when I read it in the 1970s. But that's enough about Asimov; I'm not featuring any of his books on this list.
Much has been written about the way LHOD plays with gender roles through the Gethenian people, who are both asexual and genderless, except in their intervals of kemmer. (It's no real spoiler to mention this as it's revealed in the first few pages anyway.) This of course is a central and vital element of the book, but it appealed to me on many other levels too. It nailed, once and for all, the myth that SF doesn't do character; it focused on sociological rather than technological themes; and it offered some wonderful descriptions of landscape and outdoor experience, guaranteed to resonate with me.
There are many books that I read in my early years that have proved deeply disappointing on re-reading later (most crushingly, Steinbeck's East of Eden). The Left Hand of Darkness absolutely wasn't, and isn't, among them.
*Rectified in the Apple TV adaptation, along with a host of other changes.
Twelve novels in all, though I'm particularly partial to the five set in the English Lake District, which I've known since my own childhood. The first, Swallows and Amazons, is one of those rare books for which I can remember exactly where I was when I first turned the pages. I was about nine, and we were at a wedding in Warrington. My mother handed me the book during the reception to stop me dying of boredom during the speeches and (worse!) dancing. It may have coloured my view of weddings ever since; it certainly gave a new slant to my reading, and helped sow the seeds for a life-long love of the outdoors, already primed by family holidays in the Lake District. Thanks, Mum.
In later life I made something of a study of Ransome's work, particularly in relation to the Lakes; I wrote and illustrated a book on the subject, later revised (with lots of new photos) as an e-book. I've also written several articles, and gave a talk on Swallows, Amazons, and Adventure at Kendal Mountain Festival.
In this talk I touched on the leading roles taken by girls in Ransome's books. In Swallows and Amazons itself, four of the six young leads are girls, and in my two favourites of the entire canon, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, it's five out of eight. In my early readings, the character I was most drawn to was Nancy Blackett, captain of the Amazon. It didn't matter that she was a girl and I wasn't. She very much defied conventional notions about femininity anyway, repudiating her given name, Ruth, because Amazons were ruthless. Ever since, I've loved and related to female characters just as much, if not even more than, males. Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Dorothea in Middlemarch, or dozens of others. There’s another Dorothea in several of Ransome’s books, starting with Winter Holiday and, in a quiet way (quite unlike Nancy) she is another great character.
I suspect Ransome has also had an influence on my own writing. At least, I aspire to emulate the lucid clarity of his mature prose.
Malafrena, by Ursula K Le Guin (1979)
I sometimes think that what I am doing with The Shattered Moon series is like mixing up LHOD with my other best-loved Le Guin novel, Malafrena.
I was never going to limit myself to one UKLG, the question was, after LHOD, which other(s) to include? I could so easily have gone for the Earthsea sequence (personal favourite The Tombs of Atuan). How many novels since have featured a school for wizards, as in A Wizard of Earthsea? And how many have ever done dragons as well as Le Guin in The Farthest Shore (and also Tehanu)? I could certainly have gone for The Dispossessed, arguably a more mature novel and wider in scope than LHOD. And there are many more.
But there's something about Malafrena that makes it one of the most often-read books on my shelves. In fact my original paperback copy fell apart and I had to track down a replacement; it seemed strangely important to find the same edition if I could (I did).
It's not SF or fantasy, but a historical novel, set in the early 19th century. The setting is the imagined Central European state of Orsinia, which I've always thought of as somewhere in the region of modern-day Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. I'm fortunate to have visited all three countries, and I now get jumbled images of Prague and Bratislava for the city of Krasnoy and the glorious Julian Alps for the mountains around Val Malafrena. But I loved the book long before I'd been to any of them—which was more difficult when I was young as they all lay behind the Iron Curtain.
Malafrena is not solely a political novel, but it is deeply concerned with politics, and you can trace themes of freedom and repression which recur in many of Le Guin's other works, notably The Dispossessed, and the Werelian story/novella sequence. Being Le Guin, of course, there is a lot more to it. Above all it's the story of one young man, Itale Sorde, whose youthful idealism is sorely tested. I think I related to the idealism if not the testing, but it's full of memorable and richly-drawn characters, notably Itale's sister Laura and their friend Piera. If you're like I was the first time, you're going to wonder from early on whether Itale and Piera will ever get together; well, I'm not going to tell you. Read the book, it's bloody marvellous.
I don't only read SFF, and if I had to give one piece of advice to aspiring authors it would be 'read outside your genre'. I know this contradicts the received wisdom of many people who sell a lot more books than I do. It does make sense, if you're writing in a particular genre, to have a good understanding of its traditions and tropes, but there's a difference between being well-read in one genre and reading that genre exclusively.
That said, there is a kind of speculative tinge to Life After Life, with its manifold timelines. It's hard to know how to say more without revealing the key, and many people will have seen the BBC adaptation anyway, but, like most things, it's best to read the book first, and without too many preconceptions. Let's just say it directly approaches one of the questions most frequently asked when discussing time-travel—which is not to say it's a time-travel story. Or not in the usual sense.
I love all of Chambers’s Wayfarers series in their own right, but I love them even more because they proved that there was a real market for the kind of SF I wanted to write; what I am tempted to call humanistic or people-centred SF. I think this is subtly different from saying it’s ‘character-driven’. It is, but it’s more than that. It’s about the ways in which people live together, and if not all of those people are Homo sapiens, that’s fine by me. In that sense what Becky Chambers does is the same kind of thing that Le Guin does, and you may have guessed that that’s about the highest praise I can give.
I've named 'Long way' here as it's the first in the series, but I think I might be even more attached to the second book, A Closed and Common Orbit. It has a lot to say about AI, and the desire a synthetic being might feel to be more like humans. This is a theme which arguably goes all the way back to Frankenstein, often considered the first ever SF novel, and has been explored many times since, a notable example being the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (see also the first series of Picard). Even so, Becky Chambers's take on it is fresh and engaging. In fact, both the main characters, Lovelace and Jane/Pepper, are engaged in discovering what it means to be human.
I'm very partial to a good whodunnit, but all the more so when there's something more to it than a puzzle to be solved. (Other favourites would include Sara Paretsky, Ian Rankin, and the Jackson Brodie novels of the aforementioned Kate Atkinson.) Which is why, when considering the so-called Queens of Crime, I'd put Sayers head and shoulders above the more famous Agatha Christie. By the way, take ten points if you can name the other two 'Queens'. (No, Ellery Queen isn't one of them.)
Gaudy Night is hardly what modern readers expect from a detective novel. There are no murders, for a start, let alone gruesome ones. The crimes here are apparently minor: vandalism, graffiti, poison-pen letters, but they still threaten to unravel the close community (an Oxford women’s college) and one student is driven close to suicide. The stakes are high enough for those in the midst of it.
I’d recommend all Sayers’s Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane novels, but the other that strikes me as truly outstanding is The Nine Tailors. And if you are looking for a properly convoluted whodunnit with lots of suspects a la Christie, try The Five Red Herrings (published in the USA as Suspicious Characters).
Another author for whom I could have picked several different books, both from his 'mainstream' oeuvre and from his SF (published as Iain M. Banks), where favourites include Inversions and The Algebraist.
The Crow Road is, like much of Banks's work, a little hard to categorise. Yes, you can label it 'literary fiction', but what does that tell you? Is it a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, a social satire? It's all of those and more; like many of the best novels, it isn't just one thing. Having struggled to attach genre tags to my own work, I'm hoping it's not too much of a handicap.
One more thing about The Crow Road: it has my pick for the best first line ever. And no, I'm not going to tell you. Read it!
There aren’t many public figures whose death really affected me. Stephen Hawking was one, Terry Pratchett another. I discovered his work almost by accident, having previously steered clear of it as I'd picked up the wholly erroneous notion it was mere parody a la Bored of the Rings. A copy of Wyrd Sisters turned up in lost property at the place I was working and when it wasn’t claimed I appropriated it. I very quickly realised that it wasn't parody at all, nor mere pastiche, but something that deftly used fantasy tropes—and comedy—to say far more than most 'epic' fantasy novels ever do. (To be fair, I'm not sure every epic fantasy writer is aiming to be significant). But what can you say about Pratchett that AS Byatt and Neil Gaiman, among others, haven’t said already? At his best, he manages to be clever, humane, and wildly entertaining all at the same time. Achieving any two out of the three would be good going for most authors.
There’s plenty of 19th-century literature I could have gone for. Any of Jane Austen’s novels (if pushed, Northanger Abbey); Wives and Daughters or North and South; The Way We Live Now, and several others. Though I must confess I've never been able to get through Jane Eyre. I know that will seem sacrilegious to some, but that's the honest truth.
So why, with all the wealth of 19th-century novels to choose from, pick Middlemarch? It's unquestionably a masterwork, but more so than Austen or Gaskell or Trollope? Well, maybe; but like many of the books on this list its place in my affections has something to do with when I read it. I will admit I don't remember the first read with the immediacy I've described for Swallows and Amazons or The Left Hand of Darkness, but I was probably about the same age as Dorothea Brooke is at the start of the novel (19)*. Old enough to grasp most of the themes, young enough to be outraged by Dorothea's decision to sacrifice herself by marrying the appalling Casaubon. Though I still wonder, even now, if Middlemarch can really be read as a feminist tract?
*And, I've just realised, the same age Jerya is at the start of Three Kinds of North.
Not a children’s book, but a novel of childhood, and for me the greatest of that category. Apparently it's been banned by some school boards in the more backward corners of the American South, which tells you a lot more about those school boards than about TKAM. Yes, it deals with 'difficult' topics, but you don't protect children by pretending racism doesn't exist (not to mention sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. . I can't think of a better way to introduce the topic and generate discussion. Kids, like Scout, are generally wiser than a lot of adults give them credit for. In fact, when I think of some of the things so-called adults do, I could have chopped the last four words from the previous sentence.
If The Crow Road has the best opening line, this has my favourite closing one. “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” I’m getting emotional now just recalling it.
I’ve named Red Mars, but of course I’m really talking about the whole Mars trilogy. Politics, adventure, characters who jump off the page, and some of the most impressive world-building in all SF; the Mars trilogy has it all. I never quite know whether to be exhilarated by its brilliance or depressed because I feel so outclassed.
Robinson has since written a number of books explicitly addressing the climate crisis, which also show his skill at dealing with deep issues from a properly human perspective, but the Mars trilogy is his magnum opus for me.
What was that about 'character-driven? One test of a book, especially one you haven't read for a while, is how many characters you can immediately recall—and how many of those you could whip up a quick pen-portrait of. In a few seconds I came up with nine. Favourites? Maybe Sax but probably Nadia.
Yes, I know, how obvious can you be? On the other hand, whether you think it deserves the honour or not, it's incontestably the most influential fantasy work of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. You can't say that about any single Science Fiction novel.
LOTR is another of those books I first encountered as an undergraduate. I'd read a lot of SF already, but wasn't into fantasy to anything like the same extent. I think initially I was lent a copy by my friend Robin Taylor, so thanks for that.
Of course there's little I can say about LOTR that hasn't been said many times already. If there's one thing that I may have picked up for my own writing it's the way it starts in the safe and rustic setting of The Shire, gradually moving into wilder and more dangerous realms; and the way the tone of the prose reflects the same progression, from simple and straightforward in the land of the hobbits to something altogether more ornate and ceremonious in the final stages of The Return of the King.
I might just mention that this is another book/author that has prompted some of my non-fiction writing. I've described Lancashire's Tolkien Trail more than once (but no, the Ribble Valley isn't the inspiration for The Shire) and wrote an article for TGO magazine on the wider part walking plays in The Hobbit and LOTR.
LOTR is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but a flawed one. It's been fairly criticised for its limited and stereotypical female representation. It's also often argued that its portrayal of Sauron's allies, especially the orcs, is racist; I think this is less clear-cut. And it can also be accused of glorifying a quasi-feudal social order, though hobbit society seems to have a relatively flat hierarchy.
But for an alternative take on a lot of LOTR's assumptions, look for The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov. (I'm indebted to Martin Farncombe for introducing me to this.) It may not be easy to find: even Amazon only has the Russian original, not an English translation, and you'll probably have to read it online, but it's worth the effort.