As a writing exercise more than fifteen years ago, I constructed a list of my top ten books. They aren’t in any order because choosing one book over all others is just an impossible task for me. Most of them wouldn’t make my top ten books list now (which you will see in a couple of days when I post a current list) and I wonder if I was genuinely impressed with these books or if my reading choices were so narrow that this list is simply the result of that.
1. The Last Grand Passion by Emma Darcy
This book was the first Mills & Boon novel I ever read that didn’t have some stupid, made up, easily overcome reason keeping the hero and the heroine apart. And I’ve read a lot of Mills & Boon novels. Back when I thought I wanted to be the next queen of romance fiction, I read as many of them as I could as a teaching tool to find out what to do and what not to do.
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “Although romance isn’t always high class literature, it can have an actual plotline that means something. This is the kind of novel I aspire to write, with believable conflicts and an ending that makes your breath catch and your heart skip a beat with the absolute beauty and perfectness of it.”
2. Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell
This is a strange but compelling effort by Patricia Cornwell, one of her best as far as I’m concerned, although this series is almost always overshadowed by her Kay Scarpetta books (probably justifiably because the subsequent novels involving the same characters weren’t as good).
A good portion of this story is devoted to the main character’s cat trying to send a message to its owner about a crime taking place, which sounds bonkers but is absolutely charming when you read it.
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “I was completely engrossed in the relationship between Andy Brazil and Virginia West and although he was 22 and she was 40, the age gap didn’t matter. It really taught me something about relationships.”
3. Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed Kennedy by Bonar Menninger
I was, and if I am honest still am, obsessed with Kennedy assassination theories. I have dozens of books on my shelf about this subject but this book really resonated with me. I think the premise has basically been disproved now but it was very convincing when I read it as a 20 year old.
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “This was really the first non-fiction book I ever read that was completely understandable to me. I learned that I have to be interested in the general subject matter of a book before I start reading it, otherwise I will never get through it.” That remains true to this day. No matter how good a book is supposed to be, if I don’t care about the topic, then I’m going to be fighting a losing battle as I struggle to get through it.
4. A Choice of Christina Rossetti’s Verse by Christina Rossetti
I love Christina Rossetti’s poetry – her poem “Remember” is one of two that I can recite from beginning to end from memory. This book taught me that poetry from other centuries was actually palatable to me just when I was beginning to think that I was a modernist in all respects (not the case at all).
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “I always thought I liked modern poetry over everything else but the truth is if it has that undefinable something that hits me between the eyes and insinuates itself into a dark corner of my memory, refusing to leave, then I like it, regardless of the social period and setting in which it was written.”
5. The Bible
This might seem like a strange choice amongst all this fiction and poetry but my reasoning back then pretty much says it all: “Okay, I haven’t actually read the entire Bible but the bits I have read or heard in church astound me. I’m not here to debate whether or not it is a true account, although I like to think it is, but I’ve always said if it’s not true, then it is the greatest piece of fiction ever written.”
6. The Giant Book of Killer Women edited by Richard Glyn Jones
The inclusion of this book was really an open acknowledgement of my morbid fascination with women who kill (perhaps it was also an early indicator that I would go on to write action adventure with women killers – see my debut novel, Enemies Closer).
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “The funny thing about my interest is I’m always trying to justify it as if it isn’t completely normal, which it really is. People are always fascinated by the things which seem the furthest from their reality.”
7. Postcards from Planet Earth containing the works of various poets
This was the poetry book we studied in Year 12 and that, in and of itself, makes it a rare specimen because I think I can safely say that with the exception of Shakespeare (and we didn’t do nearly enough of that) and this book, I hate with a passion every other book we studied.
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “This is one of those rare books of poetry that just keeps getting better. Every time I read it I get something different out of it. I’m not sure exactly what I love about it but the variety is extraordinary, the viewpoints fascinating and the beauty is limitless. As soon as one poem from the collection loses it shine, another is there to take its place.”
8. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
This was really the first Shakespeare play I read and understood – two things that can be very separate from each other. I had a special edition that on one page had the original play and on the facing page had interpretations, explaining the poetic language I was too literal to understand. It makes such a difference if you know what all the Shakespearean actors are blathering on about – and knowing that it’s not just blathering!
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “The language is so beautiful and the ideas and concepts so advanced that you have to wonder if literature hasn’t gone backwards from Shakespeare’s time.”
9. Writing Yourself Home: A Woman’s Guided Journey of Self-Discovery by Kimberley Snow
A friend gave me this book when I was in my early twenties and at the time I doubted that I would ever use it. It seemed like another women helping women, self-help, spiritual discovery book of the sort I hate. But essentially it was a book full of writing exercises and prompts (in fact, the creation of this list was one of the exercises in it). Yes, some of the exercises require writing about extremely personal things but writing is writing as far as I’m concerned. I still have the pieces I wrote more than fifteen years ago and reading back over them now is like a history lesson about my own life. I’m very good at forgetting pieces of my personal story – there’s only so much room up top and personal stories are the things that tend to get deleted – and it’s interesting to look book and see someone so different from the person I am now.
10. 1984 by George Orwell
Even though it makes this top ten list, now I can’t even remember having read it. I will have to add it to my Read Again list (which, just like my To Be Read list never seems to get any shorter).
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “This may or may not have been the first ‘classic’ I read but reading it, I was struck with the absolute beauty and clarity with which Orwell could write. This was only confirmed when I read Animal Farm. It was not only the ideas behind the stories that struck me but also the way the stories unfolded. They almost seemed like entities that had emerged fully formed and perfect. It is likely that what Orwell intended readers to get out of them is not what I got from them, but what is literature for if not differing, personal interpretations?”
As you might be able to imagine, my Top Ten Books – Now is a very different animal. Keep an eye out for my next post so you can compare. Thanks for reading!