I don’t think I could ever write a list of my favourite books. I’m asked all the time what my favourite book is and most people don’t understand why I freeze and then start spluttering and trying to explain why it’s impossible to choose just one.
So, as a compromise, I thought I would write about those books that really mean something to me and whose influence continues to affect me today. Perhaps inevitably they are all books I read either as a child or a teenager; after all, I can’t say whether the book I finished yesterday will have such far-reaching consequences as ones I read 10 years ago.
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m sure millions of people born in the early 90s would have this series on their list. I grew up with Harry Potter, both the books and (to a lesser extent) the films. I remember the midnight launches at Borders and the thrill of reading the first sentence and realising that the next part of Harry’s story was in my hands.
There’s something about opening my battered copy of Philosopher’s Stone and seeing the familiar font of the chapter headings that feels like home. I’ve considered buying a new, pristine set of the HP books but seeing those multi-coloured spines lined up on my shelf brings me so much joy that I don’t think I would ever have the heart to replace them.
Harry Potter takes me to a place where magic is possible, where good will triumph over evil, and where even the most seemingly unimportant character has a part to play.
These are my favourite books to turn to whenever things in the real world get too much; there is real joy and comfort in knowing that Hogwarts will always be there to welcome me home.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
And now for something completely different…
This was the book that first introduced me to the Gothic genre; the genre of darkness, of brooding heroes, locked rooms in isolated castles, bloody crimes, broken taboos and supernatural happenings.
I studied Dracula at sixth form and as such my copy has been highlighted and scribbled on to within an inch of its life. Not only did the book introduce me to vampires that (crucially) didn’t sparkle, it was the first book I read with an epistolary structure (a story told through a series of documents, e.g. letters, diary entries, etc.). I loved the gaps this left in the narrative, forcing the reader to make up their own mind about the series of events, and it showed me that not all stories have to follow an easy path from A to B.
Dracula, for me, sparked an interest in the Gothic that persists today, both in my own writing and in my reading choices. Give me a mysterious aristocrat, frightened locals, and castle battlements silhouetted against a stormy sky, and I’m hooked.
- Wideacre by Philippa Gregory
I first picked this up when I came home from school early one day because I was ill, and was looking for something to distract myself. I think this was the first book I read by Gregory and to this day I can barely contain my excitement when the queen of historical fiction releases a new novel.
Wideacre follows Beatrice Lacey, an aristocratic woman who will never inherit her beloved home because she is a woman, so she commits a series of horrible crimes in order to take what is rightfully hers.
Although over-the-top at times, this was the first book I read that was completely frank and open about sex, of all kinds – and from a woman’s perspective too! Any woman will sympathise with Beatrice’s plight and find themselves conflicted over whether to cheer or condemn her. She is malicious, obsessive and amoral, but it is the world around her that has forced her to be this way, that has condemned and corrupted her, and many readers will find themselves chafing at the bonds placed upon her as an eighteenth century woman.
This book also proved that not all protagonists have to be nice and ultimately good at heart. Beatrice is evil to the core, and it’s thrilling accompanying her on her journey down the darkest paths.
If you’re a fan of Wideacre, make sure to check out the sequels, The Favoured Child and Meridon.
- A Note of Madness by Tabitha Suzuma
Early on I developed a strange obsession with books that feature characters suffering from mental illness. It’s an area of life that, for whatever reason, never fails to catch my attention and pique my interest.
A Note of Madness follows Flynn, a student at the Royal College of Music in London, who develops wild mood swings that threaten to derail, not just his promising career as a pianist, but his entire life.
Suzuma herself suffers from bipolar disorder so her portrayal of this illness in her debut novel is heart-breaking and affecting. She doesn’t play for sympathy and refuses to shy away from the terrible things such an illness makes you say and do. Her characters are realistic and three-dimensional; it’s so difficult to make characters on a page sound like real people but Suzuma manages it admirably, and the relationships between the characters are shot through with humour that alleviates otherwise dark subject matter.
I rarely read the same book twice but I’ve read this one at least five times, and each time I do so it makes my chest ache.
I would also highly recommend the sequel, A Voice in the Distance.
- Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
I remember there was a time in secondary school when everyone was either reading or talking about this book. Even the more immature teenagers among us who usually didn’t read were fascinated by that sex scene.
Basically a Romeo and Juliet story set in a world where white noughts are ruled over by black Crosses, this series is so much more than just a romance. It has political intrigue, class conflict, terrorist violence and enough tension to make you grip the book until your knuckles turn white.
You’ll grow to love the characters, which makes their tragedies all the more upsetting. Prepare to be put through the emotional wringer.
I’ll never forget the surge of joy I felt when a new book in this series came out (although the first book remains the best).
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
(I tried to keep it to five but I just couldn’t, okay? Don’t judge me.)
I actually saw the LOTR films long before I read the books, but the books gave me a far greater scope of the majesty of Tolkien’s creation and introduced me to his beautiful, softly lulling writing style. Despite the fact that the books are largely concerned with war, there’s still something strangely comforting about opening these books and returning to Middle Earth.
When I first read these books, I couldn’t believe the depth of the world Tolkien created, the geography, the languages, the different races. It was utterly mind-blowing and made me realise that there’s no reason to place any limits on my imagination.
Now that I’m older it’s easier to point flaws in Tolkien’s ‘everyone is either good or evil, there is no in-between’ mentality, but no sweeping fantasy will ever replace the space reserved for LOTR – no, not even you, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Of course I enjoyed the epic journies and the big battle scenes, but at the heart of the books is Frodo and Sam, and to this day there’s no scene that breaks my heart quite like when Sam thinks Frodo is dead, and says, ‘Don’t go where I can’t follow’.
What are the books that influenced you the most? Were they books you read as a child, a teenager, or an adult? Let me know in the comments!