Five books

Maggie Groff: Five books my mother made me read

Author Maggie Groff gives thanks to her mum for providing her with the five books that saved her love of reading

Throughout my childhood and early teens I was a happy and prolific reader, but that little avenue of entertainment came to a crashing halt when I had to read a number of dull, weighty, so-called classic books that were on the high school syllabus for English literature exams. For me it was yet another instance of the authorities interfering with my education, and I remember being halfway through George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss when I lost the will to live. My love of reading had evaporated; books were the enemy. Someone had to do something, and that someone was my mother.

We were preparing for a family holiday in Swanage when Mum casually presented me with a few dog-eared books to pack in case it rained. I half-heartedly threw the books into a suitcase and steadfastly ignored them for three days, preferring to spend my time sunbathing in a new Marks and Sparks swimsuit and flirting with a boy called Gordon whose family had a beach hut three up from us. My mother didn’t mention the books once. My father told me numerous times to put on a cardigan.

Then it rained. Trapped in the hotel while rain thrashed the windows, I sighed and twiddled my thumbs. I looked at the books. Humph! There was no television in the hotel and all my friends, I imagined, were having fun at home in Fareham. Double humph! So I picked up one of the books. I still have four of them.


The Count of Monte Cristo  

Alexandre Dumas

Oh dear. This was big and heavy and I feared it would be monstrously awful, but it wasn't at all. Packed with brave men, hideous scoundrels, false imprisonment, daring escape and chilling revenge, it was so exciting that I had to devour some chapters twice before reading on. I re-read it every few years and the excitement never fades.


The Thurber Carnival

James Thurber

It was a Thurber cartoon that drew me into the wonderful world of Thurber's stories about human idiosyncracies. I'm looking at the cartoon now. A middle-aged man and woman are sitting in bed arguing. Her face is angry, his is defeated. One of them (it doesn't really matter which one) is saying, 'All right, Have it Your Way - You Heard a Seal Bark'. Why is this funny? Because leaning over the head of the bed is a large seal. As promised, the stories were as marvellous as the cartoon and have required repeated attention ever since those rainy days in Swanage. Pure magic.


The Deep Blue Goodbye

John D. MacDonald

The first of many Travis McGee books, it was a revelation to me that crime fiction could be delivered with such toe-curlingly beautiful prose. Who'd have thought? I quickly fell in love with Mr McGee, a tanned and fearless hero who lived on the Florida coast in a houseboat he had won in a poker game. McGee spent his time rescuing damaged maidens and returning lost fortunes to their rightful owners. I wanted to marry a man like Travis McGee. Oh, that's right. I did.


Flying Finish

Dick Francis

Oh good grief, Mum had given me a book by a jockey about horse racing. Worse than that. It was a book about a man who transported horses for horse racing. That, I thought, would be about as interesting as reading about the digestive system of a garden snail. But guess what? It was extraordinary. I loved it, and I was thrilled to discover that there were many more Dick Francis racing stories where that one came from. Truly, I don’t think anyone (except perhaps his son Felix) could touch Mr Francis for creating male protagonists that every man would like to be, every woman would like to be with, and every horse would like to be ridden by. You could probably swap those nouns around and everyone would still be happy. And while I think of it, someone borrowed my copy of Flying Finish about twenty years ago and, if it’s you, it’s time to return it.


My Family and Other Animals 

Gerald Durrell

Hooked from page one, this was the first autobiography I had read. I couldn’t put it down. And, oh joy of joy, here was an unconventional family like mine with an absent father (the difference being that Gerald’s father had died and mine was at sea most of the time). Also like my family, the Durrell’s were slightly eccentric, although Gerald’s mother came across as rather vague and incapable whereas my mother could do the Times crossword while building a London bus. 


Postscript: Thanks to my mother, my love of reading and books was restored. And with regard to those classics at school, I took to reading the first and last chapter and a couple in the middle, and then learned a few important facts about the author and a couple of sentences in case quotes were needed. This, I discovered, was enough to pass exams. But you didn’t hear that from me.

More about the author

Not your Average Nurse

Maggie Groff

'Over time, I nursed victims of war, the posh, the poor, the famous and the infamous... Oh, the stories I can tell!'

To a young girl the life of a nurse sounds exciting, but with long hours and short shrift it’s never easy. So when Maggie Groff embarks on her training at London’s King’s College Hospital she must quickly get to grips with a demanding career. It’s sink or swim.

From the watchful gaze of stern sisters and the trials of nursing on a poor south-east London housing estate, to the explosive dramas of staff health checks at sophisticated Selfridges, Maggie shares warm and witty stories of mistakes and mayhem, tea and sympathy, and the life-affirming moments that make it all worthwhile.

Played out against the march of feminism and fashion, IRA bombings and the iconic music and movies of almost half a century ago, Not Your Average Nurse is a delightful romp through time.

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