Desert Island Books – with Alex Martin!
UK writer, Alex Martin and I became acquainted a couple of years ago – I discovered her wonderful WWI novel, Daffodils, and from that moment, became an ardent fan. This book and its sequels are the kinds of novels from which TV series are made. It was only natural that I include Alex on my Desert Island guest list – we share a lot in common – coasts, dogs, herbs, French countryside, and of course, we are both indie writers.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Prue. Desert Island Books is a great idea. I’m a dedicated fan of Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 here in the UK. It’s amazing what you can learn about interesting characters on that programme and now I know why they always say how difficult it is to select a few favourites from a lifetime’s musical soundtrack! I think it’s even harder with books but, just like most of the choices on the radio, I’ve selected those that resonate with me emotionally. This means they might not be the best books in the universe but they are the ones that have given me most pleasure.
Okay, let’s dive in:
1) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Truth to tell, I’d like all five novels written by my favourite author and found it hard to select one. I almost know it off by heart, word for word. It was the first ‘proper’ book I read as a child and the romantic story gave birth to my desire to write. Her characterisation, witty dialogue and unforgiving satire on human frailty remain masterful. Watching the DVD set is my default activity when I’m poorly. The family know it’s serious when that goes on!
2) Howards End by E M Forster. I adore E M Forster’s writing. Again he sees deep into the human psyche against a network of social niceties prevalent during his era as does Jane Austen. His characters fascinate me and in this book he mixes the working classes with the liberal elite in London in the time just before World War One. The novel was published in 1910 and Merchant Ivory made a wonderful film of it in 1992 with Emma Thompson in the leading role as Margaret Schlegel. The play between the classes fascinates me, whatever the period, and lead me to write Daffodils, set a little later than Howards End, so that the characters are drawn into the war and we see how this upsets the social mores that prevailed at the time.
3) The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. A children’s book that I read from cover to cover, finished and started all over again. It tells the tale of some kids in an undefined period between the wars who break out of their middle class homes and start a theatre group. As a child I identified with each of the seven characters in turn, seeing them as role models and envying them their easy interaction with each other, the banter, the aspirations to board the stage, the glitz of performance and the sheer creativity as they conjured up costumes from discarded curtains, painted back drops from left over paint from their parents and, for me, most important of all, wrote scripts out of thin air. The book fizzles with energy and optimism and was a great companion on rainy days.
4) These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. Georgette Heyer is frowned upon by literary circles but she wrote very well and knew the Georgian period inside out. Her later books became very formulaic and predictable but these early ones were not only gripping tales but also crammed with witty dialogue and intriguing plots. This remains her best novel, I think and my copy, bought in a second-hand shop when I was a legal secretary and desperate to cheer up my lunch hours, is tatty from re-reading. I fell in love with Leonie and Alistair and their love affair, bizarre though it was, touched my young heart. Set in Britain and Paris, it involves cross-dressing, kidnap, a trip to the Palace of Versailles, a shoot out and a daring escape. Georgette Heyer effortlessly captures the essence of each character with so light a pen, the reader does not guess how skilful the writing is.
5) Poldark by Winston Graham. Now made famous and accessible by the new TV series, I read Poldark many years ago and the original TV series (which I prefer) had me entranced. The acting was a little patchy, I admit, although I will accept no criticism of Robin Ellis, but the first series contained much more dialogue and followed the books more closely. I read them all voraciously. Again – there’s a theme in my choices I’m realising! – it’s all about a sense of place and time and great characters. Cornwall is one of those characters and just as alluring as any of them with its wild cliffs and crashing surf. Gower, where I live in Wales, is not unlike Cornwall in its scenery but it remains delightfully undiscovered, especially if you know the secret places.
6) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Another historical novel, this time set in America during their civil war. A simple tale of four little girls whose father is away with the army. Through their little triumphs and tribulations a much deeper message is given about love of family, simplicity, the effect of war on those left at home and the deep poverty hidden from affluent society in Boston at that time. A deceptive book that has helped many children think about the important things in life while delighting in the March girls’ innocent childhoods. Again they are a creative bunch, writing stories (Jo March was a definite role model for me and a fellow tomboy and aspiring novelist), putting on plays and learning how to settle their differences.
7) Stoner by John Williams. Definitely not a children’s book this one but a standout example of excellent spare writing. Stoner has been acclaimed as ‘the perfect novel’ and I read it to learn more about the craft I love. His writing is sparse, and full of space; he trusts the reader to understand any point he is making without telling them anything. It’s up to them to make what they will of it. That is indeed a rare skill. It’s quite bleak, there’s no happy ending, but you are resolutely inside its pages, can see every scene very clearly and wince at the cruelties that unfold because you are so involved. Set in 1950’s America.
8) Aromatherapy – An A-Z by Patricia Davis. Not a novel, a textbook of the other craft I love and earn my living by. Invaluable as a resource on essential oils and their application in health and illness. I went on to attend Pat Davis’ course on aromatherapy, qualifying nearly thirty years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed using the knowledge gained in my professional practice and everyday life.
9) All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Duerr. I am currently steeping myself in World War Two for my fourth and final book in The Katherine Wheel Series and I got a lot out of this book. It’s a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. Both clever and simple it takes two young people from opposing sides and follows their stories through the degradation, privations and hardship of wartime until, only briefly, their lives collide, leaving indelible impressions on each other and the reader.
10) The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. My final choice is another recent bestseller. I’ve yet to watch the film, though I’ve heard it’s very good and highly cinematic due to the arresting and unusual location of a lighthouse off the coast of Australia. (Alex, some of the scenes for the movie were filmed in my state of Tasmania, around a little town called Stanley!) And yet, the book was so vividly written, I could see and taste the briny backdrop easily through its pages. As with radio, the best images are found in our imaginations. Again not a complicated plot, but a deep one, contained within the intimacy of a marriage put under an intolerable strain by an impulsive decision emanating from personal tragedy. As with Poldark, the scenery is an important character and is vital to how the story unfolds. My only criticism is (and I won’t reveal a spoiler) that I hated the ending.
So, there you have it. A highly emotional list of my favourites! I hope this inspires somebody to read these books and enjoy them as much as I have.
Thanks for this great opportunity, Prue. I’ve learned a lot in the process!
Alex – it was a pleasure. It’s the emotional connection to certain books that I want to hear about and you’ve certainly revealed that with your selection. Also, I can see a child’s book I should like to read from your list. One that didn’t cross my pathway as a youngster.
There’s much more about Alex at http://www.intheplottingshed.com
Join me in a couple of weeks when I introduce writers like Michael Jecks and SJA Turney.