I’ve been thinking about the books that will stay with me for a lifetime, that have for some reason affected me profoundly and have probably had an influence on my own writing. There are only a few that fit into this category, although I’ve read thousands of great books over the years.
As a child the book I most loved was ‘Round the Clock Stories’ by Enid Blyton. My original copy of this book became so worn from repeated reading that my mum threw it away! I was so horrified by this that when I started work and earned my own money I actually bought myself a copy and read it again. So what was it I liked so much? I think it was just the general fantasy nature of the stories, and the various Otherworlds that Blyton created.
In my teens, I picked up ‘Andra’ by Louise Lawrence from the library and was totally overwhelmed. I loved everything about this story, except maybe the ending, which at the age of fourteen or fifteen was a little too grim and shocking. This book made a huge impression on me because it was one of my first encounters with a dystopian future. It might seem outdated now, as it was influenced by the Cold War and has some ‘spy’ themes, but my main interest was the destroyed Earth, and how Andra could remember it the way it used to be; the way it is for us. It made me appreciate what we have far more. The other aspect of the story that impressed me was Andra’s non-conformity. I very much identified with Andra. It took me years to buy my own copy of this book, and then I had to get it from the US, but it’s now safe on my shelves.
Next comes Mary Stewart’s ‘The Hollow Hills’. I read this series out of order and bought ‘The Crystal Cave’ later, so it’s still ‘The Hollow Hills’ that I think of when it comes to her Arthurian Saga. I fell totally in love with Myrddin Emrys (so much so that I named a character after him in my own first book). I almost wished I could transport myself into the past, I was so caught up in his story. This was my first encounter with the Arthurian legend (other than the TV series ‘Arthur of the Britons’!) and I was a little disappointed when I discovered that there almost certainly never was a Merlin, and most of these things almost certainly never happened.
In the 80s I started attending Star Trek conventions and my new friends kept telling me about a great book series they all loved about the planet Pern and its dragonriders (and indeed Anne McCaffrey herself was a guest at my first ever convention). I’d seen these books in the shops already but dismissed them as they looked too much like total fantasy to me, and I was a fan of SF. Still, I decided to give them a try, and lo, on came the light bulb! I loved the Pern books, and the Doona books, and the Crystal Singer books, and more. If I have to pick out particular favourites I suppose they are The White Dragon, Decision at Doona and The Crystal Singer, but it’s a close one. There’s no doubt that Anne McCaffrey was a big influence on me. I liked her attention to detail, the way she built her worlds.
And last, but by no means least, there’s ‘Mockingbird’ by Walter Tevis. I must have read this book ten times. It comes second only to ‘Andra’ in this regard. Yet, oddly, I can’t put my finger on what it is I love so much about it. Once again it’s about a dystopian future, and a pretty grim one at that, but as with ‘Andra’ there is hope. It’s a satisfying story with a credible robot/android as one of the main characters. Maybe it was that I read this during my ‘android’ phase – when much of what I was writing was about androids – or maybe it’s the variety of SF themes that Tevis explores, but whatever it is, this book may well qualify as my favourite ever.
Of course, that could be subject to change!