Dec 19, 2014

Last year, as Chair of the Harrogate History Festival, I hosted Sandi Toksvig, as she shared her Desert Island Books.

sandi &mandi

And because I can, these are mine: eight books I’d take with me anywhere.

First is Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper.  This is the first book I ever bought with my own money.  The BBC had just done one of the best historical adaptations ever produced – in black and white, shot in real forests, with real people, not a flimsy costume drama – and I had just woken to the fact that there were people alive on the planet, not so long ago, who actually knew how to live, how to be in the real world, not the fake world of shops and cars and schools.  Particularly schools. I had teachers who thought my parents were insae for letting me read an ‘adult’ book. I am endlessly grateful.

Next is The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner.  Actually, given the option, I’d have all four of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen series, but if I can only have one, it has to be the one with the Wild Hunt in it.  This was my introduction to fantasy and it blows Tolkien out of the water: the quality of the language, even although it’s aimed at children, is amazing.  Everything he writes, is amazing, actually. If you haven’t read Thursbitch, or Strandloper, or the Stone Song Quartet, read them just for the quality of the language. But read Moon of Gomrath for the magic made real, for the taste-smell-feel of it on your tongue, for the understanding of how the world works, in the ways beneath the surface we are taught.

Third, and one I read soon after, is The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart.  This is actually the second in her Arthurian trilogy – the first is The Crystal Cave. I never read the third; I had so identified with/wanted to be Myrddhin Emrys that I couldn’t face watching him grow old and lose Arthur. And that, to me, is the testament to good writing. I loved these people. I wanted to be them.  And because of that, because of the monument to Mithras that started me on that particular path, because of the crystal cave and all that it meant, and the magic within it, this is, for me, one of the greatest series in the Arthurian canon. (The greatest single book is, without doubt, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘A Sword at Sunset, which came out a handful of years before and from which this clearly borrows a great deal.)

Fourth is King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, a glorious Scottish writer who, for a long time, was my role model.  Her characterization is beautiful, but it’s her prose that really shines off the page.  There’s a passage in the middle of this book, where the hero, Thorfinn (the future MacBeth, a Viking) stands on his longship looking out over a loch on the seaboard of Skye, and watches the sun rise.  It’s a small, simple passage, but it’s one of the most enduringly beautiful I have ever read and I’d have this book for that alone – although it’s big, intricate, detailed and for that alone, I’d want to have it on my desert island.

Fifth is The Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. I found this after I’d qualified as a vet, in the year when I read all of Carlos Casteneda back to back – at least as much as he had written then – and needed something grounding to bring me back to something approaching reality.  For me, Renault is, and has been for many years, the best historical writer our nation has ever produced.  It is possible that Hilary Mantel might have taken that mantle now, but Renault did something exceptional in bringing the distant past to life and making it real without at any point compromising on the sense of time and place. Her Alexander the Great, as told from his boyhood, is one of the most engaging, compelling fictional characters of all time. A lot of my writing has been an endeavour to come close to Renault’s work and when Publishing News called me ‘the new Mary Renault’, it was one of the greatest accolades I could ever have asked for.

Sixth is moving further forward along the timeline of my life and into the period when I began to write. I met Andrew Taylor at a crime conference – Dead on Deansgate, I think – and fell in love with his work.  He’s one of the most accomplished writers of our generation and while it’s hard to choose amongst them, the Richard and Judy top pick, The American Boy is a captivating crime thriller and an astonishingly accomplished period piece.  Set at the time when Edgar Allen Poe was a young boy, the sense of time and place feel utterly authentic, and the dialogue is perfect. If you want an object lesson in how to write dialogue that gives nothing to the modern day and yet is completely comprehensible, even poetic, this is it: but read it first as a magnificent book.

Seventh is bringing us forward to the time when we set up the HWA and, as first Chair, I had the privilege of also chairing the HWA Debut Crown judging panel. Our first Crown went to Robert Wilton for his novel Treason’s Tide which is, and will always remain, one of my favourite first novels, favourite spy novels and favourite historical thrillers.  This is the first – indeed the only – book where I have sat by the fire and not just read paragraphs out to my partner (that happens often: ‘hey, listen to this! Isn’t it glorious?) but the entire first chapter.  The prose is exceptional, but the concept is unique and this is what makes it stand out from the crowd.  The Comptrollerate General for Scrutiny and Survey may sound alike a government department designed to put anyone to sleep, but that’s rather the point: working behind the scenes, and through men and women who often have no real idea of the motives of those who push them, this organization has been keeping Britain safe for centuries. More shadowy than MI6, more underhand than the NSA, we can nevertheless depend on them to do what is right. The result, in this novel set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars brings us to the brink of an invasion of England.  I love spy thriller. One of the reasons I wrote the Pantera/ROME series was that it meant I could re-read Kim and every single le Carré novel and tell myself I was working (!) – and this is the first spy thriller I have ever read where I genuinely had no idea what had happened until the final page. It’s a masterpiece and the subsequent volumes, which cover the English Civil War and the start of WWI respectively, are every bit as good. Eighth and last is hard. There are so very many good books out there.

Because I’d need a bit of non-fiction to leaven all the fiction, I’d choose Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.  Partly because I’ve just read it and the effect is still writ raw in my gut, but partly because it did, actually, change everything.  I defy any human being on the planet to read this and not come away shocked. The question, of course, is what we do about climate change, the elephant in the room that is never going away and to which we all contribute. So that’s my eight books.  By the rules of the game, I would get a track of music – my pick is Caroline Hillyer’s amazing ‘Heron Valley’. And for my luxury, I’d have a cat.  Unless that doesn’t count as a luxury, in which case, I’d have my shamanic drum.

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