My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox
I've asked authors and people in publishing to share with us a list of the books that are important to them and have made a lasting impression on their life
Please join me in welcoming author Lyn Farrell to Random Things today. Lyn is the author of The Wacky Man which I read and reviewed on Random Things in May last year. The Wacky Man also featured in my Top Reads of 2016.
Here's a snippet from my review: "Lyn G Farrell writes with incredible insight, I don't know of her background, I don't know how she's captured Amanda's life so well, but she really is one of the most talented and gifted authors that I've come across for many years. Mental anguish, brutality, family relationships, fear and ignorance; these themes make up the heart of this story."
Follow her on Twitter @FarrellWrites
My Life in Books ~ Lyn Farrell
When I was asked to take part in this I was delighted. I’ve enjoyed reader other authors’ choices and love going through the list to discover I’ve also read and been captivated by many of their choices. As others have noted, when it comes to listing your own, it’s a much harder thing to do. My bookshelves and kindle groan under the weight, physical and virtual respectively. However, I’ve gone for just some of the choices that were pivotal in changing how I viewed the world.
Mr Dizzy – Roger Hargreaves I loved the Mr Men, so much so that I wrote to Roger Hargreaves. He sent a lovely letter back with a picture of the World’s first Mrs Dizzy (it was Mr Dizzy with a bow on the head!). My sister reckons it was my letter – titled the Mrs Madams – that led to the Little Misses. As a small child I loved Mr Dizzy the best because, like me, he was being bullied and he gave me hope as he overcame it. I liked the sense of justice I got from the baddies getting their comeuppance. If only life was always like that.
Watership Down – Richard Adams As soon as I read the news of Richard Adam’s death, I could see Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig in my mind’s eye. I’ve read this book many times in my life and I always break down at the end. It’s a marvellous feat of imagination and it gives children a way of coming to terms with the harsher realities in life. I don’t recommend it for young children though – in either book or film format. I was taken to see the animated film, as a treat for my seventh birthday. Unfortunately I was traumatised by the wall to wall rabbit death (how the hell did this get a ‘U’?!) and screamed the place down, yelling ‘Mum, make the eagle bring the rabbit back’. We were nearly thrown out because I was frightening the other kids but somehow I made it to the end.
This book was hugely important to me as a ten year old. It was my first encounter with a character that was suffering the extreme violence I was at home. Ranofer, the Egyptian orphan in the story, was beaten and starved by his half brother. Despite this, he clung to his dream of wanting to be a goldsmith. I found a comrade in Ranofer, found comfort in the fact that stories like this could be told. It also took me into an amazing world of exotic foods and landscapes and let me escape my own surroundings. I read this book countless times, over many years, and will never forget how much it helped me.
My oldest sister bought this book for my 11th birthday and it was truly life changing. You can find a lot of positive messages for women and girls today (though I realise that sexism is still, unfortunately common, and that girls today don’t have it easy) but when I grew up in the 1970s, there was a lot of limiting ideas about how they should behave and what they should aspire to. In this book I read, for the very first time, that I could choose how to be a girl. I found the story of a group of girls who successfully protested for the right to wear trousers to school in winter inspiring, and it also taught me about the right to protest and the power of community action. I suddenly felt that, once I’d escaped the tyranny of home, I’d be strong enough to choose my own path in life. I’ve never forgotten that message.
Possibly my first encounter with fantasy/dystopian writing. I identified with Sophie, who was ‘different’ to other children. I found it a terrifying but captivating tale and I remember gasping when Sophie’s wet footprint on the boulder gave away her secret. Apparently it’s widely considered to be Wyndham’s best novel and though I adored his other stories too, I’d have to agree.
Dystopia meets Utopia! I read this novel when I was about 15, not realising then that it was one of the great sci fi novels of the 1970s written by women. Connie, one of the main characters, is trapped through prejudice and poverty in an psychiatric asylum. Her psychic abilities transport her into a better, future, world where women are equal to men and everyone in the community has equal opportunity, after the work is done, to pursue their creative passions. At the same time they’re forced to fight a world, much like ours, where the rich and powerful oppress the poor. Incredibly powerful writing from an author who astonishingly accurately predicted the rise in extreme plastic surgery (“breasts so large they couldn’t walk properly”) to adhere to society forms of beauty. It made me think about the big questions; freedom, society, power and poverty. I could also have chosen Vida by the same writer in terms of the effect it had on me but this was the first book I read by her.
I have to confess that I’m quite jealous of people who can weave comedy into their writing. I love books that are so funny they give me hiccups and I hope it’s something I could do one day. The Hitchhikers’ guide was the first book that I remember reading that made me laugh out loud until I felt sick (I’ve never got along with the film or the radio series but the books oddly enough). I fell in love with humorous writing at this point and have read so many great books since, from Bill Bryson and Michael Carson to Roddy Doyle and John Irving. Oh, and most recently, Jonathan Franzen. There are dozens more that I’ve enjoyed but these spring to mind.
Speaking of comedy in writing – and what I consider to be magic realism – the Illywacker is one of my all time favourite novels. Peter Carey is one of my favourite novelists too, so skilled that I bow my head in awe. I am not the biggest fan, seemingly, of magic realism. I don’t like Angela Carter (please don’t write in, I’ve spent YEARS trying to) and never got on with Salman Rushdie either, though I do, at least love Gabriel García Márquez, especially the incredible ‘One hundred years of solitude’.
The Illywacker is actually beyond description. If I tell you it’s about a 139 year old professional liar learning the art of invisibility, it doesn’t do it justice. Some writers are in a different sphere of excellence and Carey, for me, is one of them. Sometimes, when I get sad that I cannot possibly read all of the best quality novels in one singly lifetime, I cheer myself by saying ‘At least I read The Illywacker’.
I’ve chosen this book because it defeats the ‘write what you know’ law us authors are supposed to obey and that gives me great hope. This is a book set in China, about a British soldier who deserts the army during the Korean war and surrenders to the Chinese. Everything about this story is authentic to me, from the landscapes to the farming and houses and to the sense of aloneness he has throughout the story. When I found out he’d never even set foot in China, but used research to fuel the details in his story I almost applauded. He’s another role model for my collection of ‘writing craft heroes/heroines’
The Queen of Tudor times – writing about the Queen of Tudor times. What a book – the scope of it, the details and the tight control she keeps over the movement through time. When I read a novel, there is often a part of my brain telling me off for not attending to my own research or writing. With Wolf Hall my brain just said ‘No worries’ and I jumped in with both feet. The same is true, actually, for ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and like everyone else, I’m waiting for the final part of the trilogy. Valerie Martin, herself a prize winning novelist whose ‘Property’ is another of my favourite books, praises Mantel to the high heavens for her ability to write historical novels. She is a modern master and anyone who wants to write better should read this book, many times. She is an inspiration to other authors.
My favourite McCarthy book (2nd is No country for old men). The way the style and vocabulary matches the story is a work of genius. The no frills depiction that pares everything down to a journalistic record of ‘what is’, dialogue that is bleak, sparse and only spoken when absolutely necessary. There is absolute and gut wrenching horror in this book; I had to snuggle up to my partner after reading some passages, to have the comfort of the warmth of another human. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, despite the nightmares.
Is it cheating to include a book you’ve not yet finished? I’ve included it because I feel like some higher power move have brought this book into my life, just at the very time when I need it most. It’s about the art of writing, about Mailer’s thoughts and fears and experiences over his lifetime of producing great works. The two things that have given me great comfort so far are: he never knew what the ending to a novel would be when he started it and he found his second novel incredibly difficult, both in terms of writing it and the response to it. I’m at that exact point right now – paralysed with fear – and he’s made me realise that even if it goes belly up, you just keep going. There is always a third novel and a fourth…..
Lyn Farrell - January 2017