I love listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and have often thought about which books and pieces of music I would choose to be marooned with. You could argue that, stuck on a desert island, it would make sense to choose a book that you haven’t read yet. But we all know the rules! In a twist on the radio show format, I’m choosing eight books, rather than discs, that I’ve never forgotten – books that made a real impact on me at different stages in my life, books that I’d love to read again one day. The kind of books that, when you finish them, make you go ‘into the zone’ for at least three days until you feel the fog has lifted enough to start something new.
So, in no particular order…
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
I was probably 10 years old when I read this, and I was engrossed. I can’t remember much about it other than there were two groups of kids, a lot of sailing, swimming, camping and rivalry. So I’d love to read it again to rediscover the magic escapism this book gave me the first time around.
Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan
I was about 12 when I discovered this author, and what a find! It wasn’t long before my friends and I were spending our school lunch hours discussing all her books, plots and characters. Stranger With My Face was the first one I read and it was unputdownable: a girl’s life starts to spin out of control when her boyfriend claims he’s seen her with another guy and strange things start happening to her friends. The supernatural element – there’s a bit of astral projection going on – had me hooked, and night after night I felt compelled to try projecting my soul out of my body.
“Any joy?” I would ask my friends at school each day.
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry
I must’ve been about 13 when I read this. I took it on a family holiday and boy did it stop me from getting bored! It was the first grown-up novel I’d read and I think I borrowed it from my mum – or I’m not sure how else I would’ve come across it. It was full of emotional drama, swearing and scenes of a sexual nature. I was transfixed! I suppose my mum thought it would be educational for me, and might make me look at our mother-daughter relationship from a more mature perspective. It certainly did raise a few questions…not all of which I felt comfortable putting to my mum though.
Germinal by Emile Zola
I didn’t read this by choice. It was on my reading list for 19th Century French literature, part of my French degree. I can’t say I felt that switched on by any of the other books in that module, but Germinal had me gripped – I couldn’t put it down. A mining town community living in extreme poverty. A young couple falling in love for the first time amidst a climate of starvation, anger and violence. It got made into a film with Gerard Depardieu, but trust me – the film doesn’t compare to the book. A nail-biting read that made up for some of the other duller tomes I had to get through. (And no I didn’t read them in French or else I’d never have made it to le fin.)
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
When I was in my early twenties, my elderly French great aunt pressed a £10 note into my hand and urged me to go and buy Wild Swans. Having fallen out of love with reading at university, it was tempting to spend the tenner on a bottle of wine and a Marie Claire. However, knowing that I’d eventually have to report back what I thought of the book, I reluctantly went and bought it. Holy Cow. What an epic read! Not one dull moment. A lesson in history, culture, and how the other half lived, all rolled into one. It’s the true story of three generations of women in one family in China, from the turn of the last century, through the revolution and beyond. A jaw-dropping read. Major respect to my late great aunt for that recommendation. (And for making it to 92 years old as a chain-smoking carnivore – she sure had some gene genies going on there.)
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
I read this while backpacking around Asia with my now husband and devouring books on a speedier-than-usual turnover. For some reason I didn’t read the blurb properly and assumed Arthur Golden was the person the geisha told her story to – a ghostwriter or translator. I was about two thirds of the way through before I realised it was a novel rather than a true story. I couldn’t believe how the drama in this woman’s life was so timely – just like an epic novel! Oh. Hang on… it is an epic novel. Right. That’ll teach me not to dive in without studying the back cover and acknowledgements first! Anyway, bloody brilliant. Left me desperate to visit Japan and name my first child Chiyo. (Husband refused.)
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
I read this about four or five years ago after another hiatus in my reading life (children, this time – hence no energy to read more than the ingredients on the back of a jar of pasta sauce). A twisty-turny tale set in Victorian England. An orphan grows up with a family of thieves, and ends up becoming a maid at a mansion where she meets another orphan who lives a mysterious life with a wealthy but sinister uncle. The plot of this story didn’t let up the pace at any point. You get so sucked in to the world that Sarah Waters has painted, you feel like you’re living inside a Victorian snow globe. Great storytelling.
The Right To Write by Julia Cameron
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But back in my twenties, I went through a phase of reading a lot of it – mainly because I was finding life hard and so I sought out guidance. So I read a lot of self-help books, with a fair few that focused on writing and creativity. This book in particular helped me to believe that I was a writer, that writers weren’t some exclusive group I wasn’t qualified to join. Every page is littered with nuggets of wisdom that I’ve underlined in order to programme them into my brain. I owe a lot to this book and its insightful author, and every now and again I skim through it, reminding myself of truths I’ve forgotten.
Music and a luxury item?
As with the Radio 4 show, I also get to take a piece of music and a luxury item. So I would choose Say Hello, Wave Goodbye by Soft Cell, which I would sing passionately from the top of my lungs into a twig and an imaginary camera. And for my luxury item, it’s got to be an enormous note book and pen. Wait – does that count as two items? Ok, well it’s one of those notebooks that comes with a pen attached. Sorted. Bon voyage!