Today I've given myself the task of taking every single book off my bookcase, dusting them and putting them all back again. It's nearly killed me, but reminded me of some of my best friends, to share with you today.
1. I grew up with a good dose of Enid Blyton (and used to spend hours practising 'forgeing' her signature!) especially The Famous Five and Mallory Towers, but was much more deeply captured by a set of books by Antonia Forest about a family of children known as the Marlow family. These books were a lot more grown up than the FF books, and the characters had real depth. It took me years to collect them all (scrounging them out of stock from my local library, as well as buying them secondhand). I still have them, despite moving house so many times over the years.
If I had to choose I'd have to say Peter's Room is my favourite. It sparked my love and curiosity of Charlotte Bronte. More of that later. The last book in the series is called Run Away Home and I never managed to find it. I have sourced it on Amazon, and one copy is worth four hundred pounds! There is a facebook group dedicated to Antonia Forest, which I joined last year, and mentioned in a post that I will now never get to read Run Away Home, and a random woman, who doesn't even know me, sent me her copy to read in the post. I was absolutely gobsmacked by such generosity. Can you imagine the thrill of being able to touch something you've always longed for and thought you'd never see? I can die happy now.
2. Although I cannot recommend these books to my Christian readers (they are not exactly family entertainment!) I have spent many years reading and re-reading Riders, Rivals and Polo by Jilly Cooper. Needless to say, they are about horses, and show jumping but the characters are absolutely fantastic. It took Jilly Cooper fifteen years to write Riders, so you can imagine what a yarn it is. My sister (The Oracle) and Daughter 1 have also read them, and the Oracle isn't horsey in the least and still thought they were brilliant. If I had to choose, I'd pick Rivals out of all of them. Even though I know what's going to happen, I am still gripped to the very end.
3. And while we're on the subject of gripping, I have to say that I have spent many, many years reading books by Dick Francis. Surprise, surprise, they are all about horse racing in some way, but they are brilliant thrillers. I love every single one of them. His main character is always an absolute gentleman (anyone heard of Sid Halley?) the sort of man you could fall in love with and marry (but not in a Mills and Boon sort of way). When we moved to Tiny Cottage I gave nearly all of them to charity (which nearly broke my heart) as my son in law loves these books as much as I do and if I want to borrow one I can always ask him. I brought my favourite one with me though, which is called Proof. Dick Francis is well into his eighties and still writing with utter conviction.
4. I can't choose a particular book from this writer, but hot on the heels of Dick Francis must come John Francome. The plots of his books are also connected to racing in some way, but his characters are grittier than those of Dick Francis. Yes he is the Channel 4 racing commentator, and now I'm going to say something a bit mean. When you look at him, you would never think that this man is capable of writing some of the cleverest stuff I've ever read. I really, really want to interview him and ask him how he keeps track of his own plots. I want to know if he starts at the end of the book and works backwards or what. They are truly brilliant and will have a place on my bookcase from now on.
5. And now we'd better get the whole Jane Austen/Charlotte Bronte thing out of the way. I did Pride and Prejudice for 'O' Level (oh Lord, showing my age!) and fell in love with it. I have read it several times since and still love the whole wit of the thing, the costumes, the letter writing, etc. But I've also had a deep relationship with Charlotte Bronte which started because of reading Peter's Room (above) where they go into the whole secret world that the Brontes' invented for themselves, two kingdoms known as Gondal and Angria, and how they played it as adults, and wrote diaries for it and poetry and laws. I found all of this fascinating as a child and read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I had a row with my A Level teacher when we had to write an essay on Heathcliffe and our teacher said she always felt sorry for him, and when I said I thought he was a creep in my essay she gave me a 'D' for disagreeing with her, even though I backed it up with evidence from the book! Hmmm.
I actually got to go to Howarth Parsonage a few years ago and stood in Charlotte Bronte's sitting room, surrounded by her clothes and her things and cried my eyes out. It was like finally meeting a penfriend, someone you've known for years, but never met. I can't describe it. I felt totally at peace when I finally left.
6. And so to a man that I am going to describe as a modern day Jane Austen. I'm talking about Ian McEwan. I've got to be honest, I've only read one of his books, Atonement. His style of writing is my idea of perfection, and I couldn't put it down. The writing is like poetry, it takes you to another world. I haven't even got the words to describe how good this book is. I kept reading it on the train on the way to work and was so engrossed I nearly missed my station. I would quite happily have stayed on the train and just kept reading, I just had to know. I do love Keira Knightly in the film though, the bit where she says, "She's living in a tiny little flat (pronounced 'flet') in Balham," is to die for.
7. And now to the truly obscure. I have a book on my bookshelf called Rosy is my Relative by Gerald Durrell. He was a naturalist and wildlife expert and established a zoo in Jersey. His own autobiography is very good, but this is a fictional work about a man who is left an elephant in his uncle's will. It is probably the most hysterically funny book I've ever read. You know the sort? Where you read it on a train and laugh out loud and don't care. The next time you remember to read it in your room.
8. If I'm being honest, I'm going to have to include the Flambards books by K.M. Peyton. This is the story of a girl called Christine who is sent to live in the countryside at her uncle's house. It tells how she falls in love with her cousin William who is into flying machines. Her other cousin Mark is into hunting and women and she dislikes him on sight, but you are dying for her to be with him really. They are brilliant books, I have several of hers and read them regularly (Fly by Night is also good.)
9. I must have a place on the list for John Grisham, too. I have read The Client, The Partner, The Summons etc, but have yet to read The Pelican Brief. But my favourite one is called The Street Lawyer. It's about a young lawyer who witnesses a suicide in his office block of a man who turns out to be homeless. He gradually becomes caught up in the world of the homeless and does more and more pro bono work. There is a line in the book that says something like, '... And the Lord said to me, "Make sure this never happens again,"...' that sends shivers down my spine every time I read it.
10. I am going to leave the last word to my very great friend, C.S. Lewis. I can remember my teacher reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to us as children and wondering what on earth she was on about, with Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve, silly woman. Of course, a few years later I read it for myself, and suddenly all became clear. I guess Aslan has been my hero ever since. I've loved The Magician's Nephew for telling us how it all began, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for making me sob like a child. Never, before or since, have I read such a Spirit filled book. I love you all.
Post Script: Since writing this, my good friend Trudi has emailed me to say that Dick Francis died on February 14th this year. He will be sadly missed.