I’ve read thousands of books over my lifetime most of which I’ve instantly forgotten because I have a terminal case of goldfish brain when it comes to remembering titles. The ones that have stuck in my memory aren’t necessarily the ones I’ve enjoyed most, or the ones I rate the highest but the ones that are linked to a particular moment or period in my life. Just as certain songs or smells transport you back to childhood, so some books can provide a portal to the past, to a time when what was in those pages fulfilled a need you might not even know you had, or answered questions you weren’t conscious of asking. We all know books can entertain, but very occasionally, they can also transform, and not always in the way you expect.
The book that taught me about love - Anne of Green Gables
Could there be a more perfect boy than Gilbert Blythe? Handsome, bright, gently teasing, always admiring, loyal, kind and intellectually Anne’s equal. He loved Anne for her quirkiness, her huge appetite for life and her deep passions and he never, ever tried to change her. Instead he stood quietly back and watched and waited, occasionally stepping in when things went too far (who could forget The Lady of Shalott episode?). I sometimes wonder if I have subconsciously measured all boyfriends/love interests throughout my adult life against the Gilbert Blythe gold standard.
The book that made me grow up – Catch 22
If I read Catch 22 now, I suspect I’d have all sorts of issues with it, not least to do with Heller’s attitude towards women, but it’s hard to overstate the effect this book had on me as a sheltered suburban teenager in the drab early 1980s. Like most kids my age, I’d grown up on a diet of John Wayne-style heroics, where there were good guys and bad guys and a huge chasm in between. This was the era of the Cold War and the flag-waving Falklands. Catch 22 was the first book that made me question whether the people in charge always know what they’re doing, and woke me up to the absurdity and senselessness of war, and the fact that the bad guys are just as likely to be on the same side as you. And in addition, it made me laugh out loud.
The book that restored my faith in human nature – The Accidental Tourist
Normally I’m a great fan of dark and disturbing books, but I went through a stage, when my children were very small, of being convinced that the world was a terrible place. As a result I found it really difficult to find things to read. I wanted smart and thought provoking, but nothing that was going to make me more scared than I did already. I stumbled on The Accidental Tourist in the library. I’d never read any Anne Tyler, but I fell instantly in love with her emotional intelligence, her gentle but acute observations and above all the fundamental decency of her characters, in spite of all their many flaws. After that I worked my way through all the Anne Tyler books I could lay my hands on and as a result, the world regained its balance.
The book that made me a writer – We Need To Talk about Kevin
When I first read this book in which the mother of a teenage mass killer looks back on her son’s childhood and asks herself how much she is to blame for what he did, I had three young children of my own. Now I’m not saying any of my own children were serial killers in the making (not so far anyway) but the book touched a nerve in its raw honesty about the complexities of motherhood. How hard it can be to keep hold of your sense of self, the difficulty of balancing career and young children without feeling you’re short-changing both. How, while you never stop loving your kids, there are moments (thankfully usually fleeting) where you might not actually like them that much. We Need To Talk About Kevin hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. Here was a powerful book, dealing with a sensationalist subject, but addressing really common parental fears. I’d always written – journalism, non-fiction, the odd (very odd) attempt at a Mills & Boon even - but when I read We Need to Talk About Kevin I thought: ‘This! This is what I want to write’
The book that got me through the darkest times – 101 Poems that could Save Your Life
A few years ago, I suffered a bout of depression. It seemed to come from nowhere and left me utterly poleaxed. My heart raced all the time. I was constantly anxious. Black thoughts spooled endlessly through my head – I was a failure, the future was terrifying, I was going to die, everyone I loved was going to die, there was no point to anything. For the first time in my life, I found myself unable to read. Words held no meaning. I couldn’t get to the end of sentences, let along whole pages. Books had always been my refuge and my means of escaping when times were tough, but now they deserted me. Then one morning a package arrived through the post from a dear friend. The book it contained, 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, wasn’t the type of thing I’d normally have picked up. Yet, for me at that time, this anthology of comfort verse was a lifeline. Because the poems were short, I was able to follow them, and because they were about people going through crises, they resonated. I relearned how to read and then reading, as always, pulled me through. (Well that and the happy pills).
The 2018 Quick Reads titles are published on 1st February, price £1 in paperback, with books by Fern Britton, Dorothy Koomson, Mark Billingham, Kit de Waal, Tammy Cohen and Vaseem Khan.