Books

Russian Blue by Helen Griffiths front cover. Copyright Hutchinson 1973.
Russian Blue by Helen Griffiths front cover. Copyright Hutchinson 1973.

“Reading – food for the mind! Have you eaten today?”

A sign I wrote and displayed on the wall early in my teaching career.
 

Books are an important source of inspiration for me and have been since before my teens. I was an avid reader from the age of about 10 – 14. I stopped at 14 because of having to read given texts for GCSE (I found the experience boring precisely because I loved books) but began again with children’s books when I began teaching. So, this is a list of my favourite books and for once, it is in order of love.

Russian Blue by Helen Griffiths

I looked for this book for over forty years and finally found it on Ebay when searching for works illustrated by Victor G Ambrus (my favourite book illustrator ever). Unfortunately, I’d searched in bookshops and the internet for “Prussian Blue” and “Persian Blue”. I didn’t know if it would live up to my memories of it. As I read it, I realised how it has shaped my life in more ways than I can share here. Most interestingly, the Victor Ambrus illustration that has stuck most in my mind over the last forty years (that I have seen so clearly, in his inimitable style) doesn’t exist, it was born entirely from my imagination – now that is the power of a great book!

The Hound of Ulster by Rosemary Sutcliff

I have read this book once or twice a year since I first read it. Also illustrated by Victor Ambrus (as were most of the books I would have read during the early 70s) it is a re-telling of the story of Cuchulain of the Red Branch heroes of Ulster. It began my love of all things Irish (though I still haven’t actually visited Erin’s Isle, just a few hours away by ferry). The notion of ‘geise’, a prohibition or rule for living in a moral way is important to my way of life. Sutcliff’s style is very much out of fashion currently and difficult to read to a group of children (more is the pity) but for reading solo – it is bliss. Any of her books is a reading treat.

Beowulf: Dragonslayer by Rosemary Sutcliff

Great re-telling of the tale that fed my early mind. Also interesting are Kevin Crossley-Holland’s version and Seamus Heaney’s translation.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

No surprise here! Everything I need in one volume – philosophy, spirituality, a moral message, a ‘Middle Eastern’ setting and a plot that goes full circle. Inspirational to many people. I love the bonus story about the Piano player in the Mall that is at the back of my edition as much as I love the main text. As with many other people, I have bought and given away copies of the book just for the sheer pleasure of ‘gifting’ a great book. “The Universe conspires to help us” – I just love the notion!

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper tries to discover why five people are killed when a rope bridge collapses on the high road between Lima and Cuzco. The conclusion that the writer comes to is, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” One to read again and again.

The Earths Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

I’m only nearing the end of the second of the four books but I’m already hooked into this set. Ursula’s storytelling style appears unique to me.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series by Joan Aiken

A fantastic series of books that I have yet to finish. The books featuring Did twice are outstanding.

The Snow Spider Trilogy

A trio of books set in the north of Wales with ancient Celtic mythology woven through the narrative.

The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

A modern day Arabian Nights. It weaves story into story and loops back again to a previous story and jumps ahead to later stories and at all times is thoroughly confusing and bewitching. Most importantly, at the end, you still don’t know who did it or if anybody did it. Just like life!

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Brilliant book which for me wasn’t so much about the burning of books but the gradual dumbing-down of society and culture.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A great series of stories that inter-connect over centuries.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

In all honesty, more than just simply inspired by “The name of the Rose”. Vastly superior in many ways though. Each chapter is narrated by a different character (some just drawings on a wall) and ‘unputdownable’. I had to keep reading through to the end and the murderer really did surprise me!

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The inspiration for “My Name is Red” – a Medieval mystery featuring a library with many hidden secrets and a habit of filling in far too many religious arguments. Worth the distance though!

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

Probably the best plotted, best written and best paced book ever published. I am ashamed to admit, the only Daphne DuMaurier book I’ve read. Sheesh!

Rumi Selected Poems (Penguin classics) and Rumi The Book of Love (Harper One)

So many spiritually uplifting verses filled with divine love. You needn’t be religious to be moved emotionally.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Fantastic children’s work with a strong female character in Anne Shirley. All the more important to me because a past pupil gave me a copy of the book when she left my class.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A gentle way of explaining why and how the West makes mistakes in its relations with the rest of the world all wrapped up in a love story and with a little twist at the end.  Philip Pullman said of it, “Beautifully written… more exciting than any thriller I’ve read for a long time.”

The film is a very interesting restructuring of the narrative.

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

A book I had to read twice before I could begin to understand the plot and which keeps revealing hidden revelations on each re-reading. An interesting spin on a Welsh folk tale too!

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

A book that is filled with vivid descriptions of life for a WW II evacuee (and a marvelous plot resolution).

The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman

A children’s book every bit as emotionally moving as “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne. A useful narrative for promoting discussion with children.

Kissing the Sword by Shahrnush Parsipur

A harrowing account of the author’s unwarranted incarceration in Iranian jails.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Philippa Pearce has been a favourite author of mine since childhood. I probably saw this as a BBC dramatisation before I read the book. The definitive text of the time-switch genre for me. “What the Neighbours Did” is equally enjoyable.

The Night Mare by Robert Westall

Westall was a fantastic story teller with a great sense of pace and a rare ability to bring a setting alive. This is filled with many memorable events.

Clockwork and The Firework Maker’s Daughter by Phillip Pullman

I love Pullman’s ability to weave plot elements around and to have a new slant on old things. The thinner children’s books are my favourite and these two my most favourite although “I was a Rat” deserves an honourable mention. “His Dark Materials” is too long for me and “The Amber Spyglass” filled with too many ideas about divinity which are barriers to the plot resolution.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahmi

An intriguing story set in a single room. A young Afghan woman tends her (apparently) mortally wounded, comatose, soldier husband. You need to read it to find out more.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Fantastic book though a little in-credible in places (though I guess that’s the point). I love the way that the young (and old) Pi embraces all faiths. I haven’t see the film yet as of the time of writing (Jan 22nd, 2014) but the cinema trailers were what drew me to the book.

Extraordinary…Life of Pi could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life (New York Times Book Review )

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Fantastic book that spans several decades of different conflicts. It was this book that drew me back into reading again after a long, long time away.

The Complete lyrics of Ira Gershwin

Lyrics from back when lyricists were literate and sought out the new. I have no specific book but Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are my favourite in the whole wide world (except Love is Here to Stay).

The Goalkeeper’s Revenge by Bill Naughton

The only book I had to read in school that I actually enjoyed. I used Spit Nolan for a literacy lesson in a full (or general) school inspection in 2001. We all enjoyed it – inspector included!

The Celestine prophecy by James Redfield

A bit of a hippy vibe about this one and originally a self published and distributed novel. Flawed but an enjoyable romp with good intentions.

“A spiritual classic… A book to read and reread, to cherish, and to give to friends” (Joan Borysenko, author of Fire in the Soul)

A Passage to India by E. M.Forster

“A book of tolerance and understanding… years ahead of [its] time.” Margaret Drabble

The Bookseller of Kabul

A completely unsentimental account of an Afghanistan family. From a western viewpoint, the ‘hero’ is flawed but admirable none-the-less. Told from a female viewpoint but in a dispassionate manner with no great axe to grind other than representing the people as they are in truth.

” Fascinating … a colourful portrait of people struggling to survive in the most brutal circumstances … bear[s] witness to the power of literature to withstand even the most repressive regime” Michael Arditti, Daily Mail (“An intimate portrait of Afghani people quite unlike any other book available on the country. It is a compelling read” Sunday Times)

Dune by Frank Herbert

The original trilogy only. There’s so much that I like in here – references to desert culture, ideas from different faiths, great sci-fi concepts like bending time and space to see the safest journeys through the stars and the Bene Gesserit readings. I just wish the series had stopped at The Prophet and the Jihad had been stopped.

Edit: I’ve since read Dune Messiah and children of Dune and have to say that, for the most part, I enjoyed how the trilogy panned out. I don’t think I’ll be reading the remainder however.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

It took me until my early 50s to read it and I’m glad I did. Particularly since it isn’t what I thought it would be. I haven’t seen any of the Peter Jackson films and, if the excerpts I’ve seen on Youtube are anything to go by, I won’t be any time soon.

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