Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I still have a copy of Little Women, given to me by my mum in 1976. She loved the Louisa May Alcott books herself as a child and wanted to pass it on. I cherish the fact that Mum wrote a message inside ‘to dear Ruth, lots of love from Mummy’.
The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by J M and M J Cohen
For Christmas 1960, when I was 12, my parents gave me a copy of The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by J M and M J Cohen. I read it from cover to cover – all 660 pages, all 12,000 quotes – and I just loved it. It introduced me to literature – and politics. All human life was there – and all so wittily and pithily expressed. Nearly 60 years on, it’s still on my desk and I dip into it almost every day. Yup, I picked up a Penguin and it changed my life.
The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford
One of my most treasured possessions is a battered, hand-marbled, 1919 copy of The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, originally my mum's. When I first read it, I must have been around the age Daisy was when she wrote the book - about nine or ten - and although I found it funny and touching, what really impressed me was that a child had written it, someone my own age, living in the very town where I did now. Somehow that made the possibility of being an author so much more real than any book by a grown-up could have done. Daisy was 37 when she eventually published The Young Visiters (complete with verbatim spelling), the same age I was when In a Dark, Dark Wood came out, and while I can't honestly say that The Young Visiters influenced either my subject matter or my style, it was one of the first books to put the idea of being an author tantalisingly within reach, and it remains one of my favourite comfort reads.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
A boy I thought I was mad about gave me a copy of this for my 24th birthday. I began reading it to impress him; I carried on reading it because it was the saddest, most sophisticated tale, with subtle sketches of romanticism, desire and longing.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
People don’t buy me books. Why would they when I get sent HUNDREDS a week? So, inevitably, this is a book I bought myself. That’s cheat number one. Cheat number two is that I’m going to pick A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I know, I know. But bear with me. I’d (shamefully) never read it so picked it up on a whim. That Christmas Day I was afflicted with some ghastly germ or other and took, forlornly, to my bed. As the sounds of merriment seeped from downstairs, I read it in one go, disappearing for the first time into the so-familiar, enchanting London scenes of 1843. Any grumbles I might have had floated away with Scrooge’s newly discovered bonhomie (the Jack Daniels and honey might have helped here). It became the book that redeemed my own poorly Christmas.
Collected Stories by William Trevor
A few years ago, my husband gave me a beautiful two-volume hardback edition of William Trevor’s Collected Stories for Christmas and it’s a book that I’ve treasured ever since. Whenever I feel in need of some restorative fiction, it’s this book that I return to. I know that I’ll always discover something wonderful in these pages, quiet moments of life, unspoken truths and extraordinary pleasures. Trevor had a gift for apparent simplicity in his writing but, of course, that level of effortlessness is very difficult to achieve, which is why he was such a master.
Grey Rabbit Finds a Shoe by Alison Uttley
This was the first book I was bought that was my own and I didn't have to share with my four siblings. I was obsessed with woods, animals and fairies and regularly dressed as a sprite. Alison Uttley was a childhood favourite and many of her books made their way into our home. Second hand usually. When I look at the cover to this day I get a thrill.
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
Shortly after the publication of my novel, I received an unexpected but incredibly touching parcel in the post from Maria Dickenson, the MD of Dubray Books in Ireland. It contained an original hardback edition of The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, a beloved book of mine that I mentioned in my novel and that also happened to be beloved my Maria - her bookseller grandfather had in turn given her a copy many years before. Inside Maria had inscribed from the book, ’There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.’ I remain incredibly moved and so grateful. Long live the booksellers.
Carrie and Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
D’you remember when you used to get two books combined into one big hardback like a book double bill? I remember getting Carrie and Salem’s Lot together one Christmas. That was pretty awesome. Oh, and annuals. I had the Doctor Who Annual every year!
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