How to Make a Reader: Ten Books that have Shaped Me

So. As many of you have probably guessed, I read all the damn time. I read everywhere – in bed, on the train, while cleaning my teeth, while going down stairs (not recommended), while helping my dad paint a fence and while eating my dinner, which explains why so many of my books are covered in paint flecks and curry stains.

But not all books are created equal. The vast majority of the books I’ve read I’ve forgotten about, or disliked, or experienced that special kind of apathy which is way worse than actually hating something. But there are some books I’ll always remember. Sometimes I will look back over my long history as a reader and see distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases in the way I think and the type of things I seek out. Some books leave marks.

These are mine.

 

  1. The Witches by Roald Dahl

This was my favourite book when I was about six years old and the most goffik little child you ever saw. It was the first ‘scary’ book I can really remember enjoying, and I’m not really sure why – for some reason, the idea of seemingly-normal women ripping off wigs and gloves and masks to reveal their terrifying faces was kind of amazing to me, instead of horrifying. I had it on tape, read by a man with a very sinister British voice who may or may not have been Richard E. Grant. All I’m sure of is that even now, nearly twenty years after throwing that tape away, I can still remember the way the narrator says “Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”

 

  1. Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary

This was another book I read at the age of about six or seven, and it sparked a lifelong love of history. For those of you who aren’t aware, this is part of the Horrible Histories series – a series of short history books aimed at kids that highlight all the really gross bits of history. This was the first one I read, and for years afterwards I was obsessed with ‘The Curse of the Mummy’, even though the book went to great lengths to make it clear that it wasn’t real. Horrible Histories was a hugely important part of my childhood, and I read them all until I was well into my teens. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t picked up Awful Egyptians, I wouldn’t have ended up doing my history degree.

giphy loans
Me paying back my student loans. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Greek Myths, Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams

Another childhood favourite. This was the first book of myths and legends I remember reading. It was a fairly sanitised version of the classical Greek myths, illustrated with silly little cartoons which I can still picture really clearly. I don’t remember much about the way the actual stories were told, unfortunately, as I was really small when I first read this one. However, after I read this book I spent the rest of my primary school years reading all the books of myths, legends and fairy tales that I could get my hands on. To this day I’m still really interested in folklore and mythology, and I can trace it all back to this book.

 

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

I’ve already touched on my love of the Harry Potter series before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that I read it as a slightly older child and continued well into my teens, and it completely dominated my childhood. My relationship with the series has changed as I’ve got older, and I don’t see it in quite the same way as I did, but there’s no denying it was a hugely important part of my life.

 

  1. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Picture this. It’s the mid-2000s and my snotty teenage self is having a crisis: I’m on holiday, but I’ve read all the books I brought with me. The only solution is to drive my family mad. In desperation, my dad finds an English-language bookstore, grabs a Terry Pratchett book (“No, you’ll like it”) and presses it into my hands. I loved it, and I never looked back. This was the moment that ‘proper’ fantasy as a genre unfolded for me – at this point I’d already read Lord of the Rings and had felt kind of shut out by it. I read this book and a door unlocked. It’s not my favourite Pratchett book now, but it is one of the most sentimental, because I can still remember the moment it all fell into place when I was reading it.

giphy tears
I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is another teenage darling of mine. Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to read horror – I got nightmares really easily and my parents didn’t want to make it worse. Obviously, this ended up triggering a massive secret horror phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I persuaded them to let me read Dracula because it was a ‘serious’ book, and read it on holiday at the age of about thirteen. I was completely spellbound – and to be honest, I still am. There’s something about the novel which keeps pulling me back, and I find the idea of an ageless, immortal being adrift from his own time utterly fascinating. My copy is falling to bits and still smells a bit like chlorine and suncream, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

 

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This book taught me the value of the slow burn. Again, I read this one as an impatient teenager, and I found the book incredibly frustrating until I was about halfway through. Then, it got weird. When the twist was revealed, I saw the entire book in a completely different light. It completely blew my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed the way I read. Without it, I never would’ve looked at half the books I now consider favourites.

giphy book baby
Before, I used to read like this. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I really love this book. This was another novel that took a while for me to get into it, as I read it when I was a bit too young to appreciate the set-up of the first part. But as I got older, and read it again and again, it kind of blossomed for me. The more I read it, the more I discovered. Over the years it’s become a book I really lean on when I’m finding things difficult, and I’ve really grown to appreciate its bittersweet mix of hope and despair. I’ve listened to the audiobook when I was writing my dissertation, and in the aftermath of a very sudden death in the family, and every single time it’s an incredible source of comfort for me.

 

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one of those rare books that I have to cuddle after I finish, it breaks my heart so exquisitely. I don’t usually go in for stuff set around the Second World War, as it’s not one of my favourite periods of history – I often find war fiction either very depressing or far too simplistic. But The Book Thief paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany and the ways people resisted it, and in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It stomps all over my feelings every time and I still keep coming back for more.

giphy wrestle
I don’t know why I enjoy so many books that basically put my feelings in a headlock. (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I absolutely loathe this book, as I have repeatedly made clear. But there’s no denying it had a massive impact on me. I first read it at the height of the Twilight craze, and the first time I breezed through it in a few days and enjoyed it. But then, I read it again – and this time, I slowed down and actually thought about what I was reading. And I hated it. This was the first book that made me stop and look at things critically and engage with the text on a deeper level. I’ve never looked back! My experience of Twilight was by no means positive, but it encouraged me to be a critical reader and actually think about the mechanics of plotting and prose. Credit where credit’s due: I never would’ve started up this blog if it wasn’t for Stephenie Meyer.

 

 

And there you have it! It was really hard keeping this list down to ten books, but I managed it without crying once. It’s by no means set in stone. Ask me again in ten years and it’ll be completely different – but that’s one of the best parts about reading.

Advertisements

Book Recipes: How to Write a Sports Novel

Time for another book recipe! It’s been brought to my attention that there is some sort of sport thing this weekend and I intend to join in, in the most sitting-down-and-not-getting-off-the-Internet way possible. Grab your favourite sports top and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • A plucky bunch of ragtag misfits. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The loveable prankster
    • Big and dumb
    • Child of another famous athlete
    • Twins
    • The nerd
    • That one really angry kid
    • A girl
  • One grizzled yet not-too-jaded coach
  • A big ol’ trophy
  • A team of professional yet evil players
  • A beloved community thing in peril
  • One sleazy corporate betrayer
  • Sports, I guess

 

Method:

  1. Choose your setting. It can be anywhere, as long as you make one thing perfectly clear: it’s being held together by one (and only one) beloved community thing. Probably sports-related. Sure hope nothing happens to it.
  2. But oh no, here comes the sleazy corporate betrayer! They’re going to buy the community thing and turn it into a mall! (It’s always a mall.) There’s only one way to stop them…
  3. …entering this sports competition and winning the big ol’ trophy!
  4. Assemble your team of ragtag misfits. The one who came up with the idea is the leader.
  5. The team try and play the sport, but they’re bad. Like, really bad. Looks like they need…
  6. …a grizzled yet not-too-jaded coach! Good thing we found one staring wistfully at an old sports thing.
  7. Training time! Don’t forget to listen to an eighties power ballad.

  1. Time for your first match!
  2. You lose. But not permanently – it’s all about the journey. More training!
  3. The grizzly old coach dispenses some life advice. Pay attention, it’ll help you resolve a moral dilemma at the end.
  4. One of the players is having an issue that means he’s having trouble with the sport thing. You know what this means – more training.
  5. Time for another match and this time, you win! You’re through to the next round of the sports competition, oh boy!
  6. The professional yet evil players make their first appearance. They’re this year’s favourites to win, which means they’ll never win.
  7. Time for more matches! The team are winning, all thanks to the power of love working together.
giphy care bears
I mean, that’s not what I had in mind, but I guess that’d work. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Time for the semi-final and it’s a close thing. That one player with the issue freaks out and the team almost don’t make it through.
  2. But oh no, here comes the sleazy corporate betrayer! They offer the leader a massive, MASSIVE bribe to let the evil team win.
  3. Angst about it for a bit. The bribe would save the beloved community thing, but what about the teeeaaaaaam?
  4. Remember the grizzled coach’s life advice right before the final. Give a rousing pre-match speech and decide that you’re playing to win. To heck with the corporate betrayer!
  5. Time for the final! It’s, like, soooo tense. The evil team cheat, that one player with the issue finally gets over it and does some good sport, and nothing is resolved until the final five minutes of the game…
  6. …where you win by just one point! Hooray! The beloved community thing has been saved, the coach is 20% less jaded, and we’ve all learned a lesson about team spirit. Go home for tea and medals with the big ol’ trophy.

THE END. Serve painted in sports team colours, so everyone knows you’re serious about sports.

 

Tips:

  • Your coach can’t be too grizzled and sad because he needs to get over it by the end of the novel. Instead of going for a properly dark backstory, just have him mutter about ‘the worst mistake of my career’.
  • All your characters must be invested in the sports, apart from one comedy side character who just doesn’t get it. This character is either blonde or a nerd.
  • Don’t get too technical with your sports talk. Your reader wants to see the ball get put wherever it goes – no-one’s here for a discussion about windspeed.
  • Always put your rivals in matching clothes, but like, in a sinister way. It’s got to be about 20% more evil than normal sports gear.
121125_ful
EXACTLY. (image: atlantasportandsocialclub.com)
  • Winning the trophy fixes literally everyone’s problems. Can’t afford university fees? Trophy. Need a prosthetic leg? Trophy. Dead parents? Trophy.
  • Always let your characters make big life decisions live on air.
  • If there’s a couple, make them break up about two-thirds of the way through. Then one of them gives a big speech on camera at the big game, and then they get back together while the crowd cheers.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

As he walked home from the Community Sports Centre, Tommy King ran through the match play in his head. It had to be perfect. The big game was on Saturday, and there was still so much to do. The legs training, the arms training, the strategy bits…not to mention he still had to get his mum to wash his kit. But it would all be worth it. Once they’d won that trophy, they’d all be free to –

“Ah, Mr King. Let me offer you a lift.”

A shiny black limousine had pulled up alongside him. The back window was rolled down – tinted glass, he noticed – and a man in dark glasses was smiling at him. Tommy kept walking. He’d sat through the Stranger Danger talk at school and okay, that was seven years ago now, but his old headteacher had really known how to hammer home a point. He’d done the voice and everything.

The man’s smile didn’t even flicker. “Be reasonable, Mr King. It’s going to rain. You’ll ruin your sports shoes. We don’t want anything to happen to them before Saturday, now do we?”

Tommy glanced up. Big, dark clouds were building like a metaphor over the Community Sports Centre. The car door opened.

“Get in.”

He did, and his mouth fell open. The seats were upholstered with the fur of a snow leopard. The door handles were made of diamonds. A light-up bar ran along one side of the car and when he sat down, a robotic voice said ‘Good evening, Mr King’.

“Don’t forget your seatbelt,” said the man, “it’s real silk. Champagne?”

He pressed a button as the car pulled away. A compartment in the wall popped open to reveal a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice, and two tall glasses. Tommy instantly became very aware of the smell of his sports kit.

“I’m only going down the road,” he said, “there’s no need for all this.”

The man opened the champagne with a pop. There was a brief explosion of swearing from the driver’s compartment and the car swerved widely.

“On the contrary, Mr King,” he said, pouring out a glass, “I’ve wanted to meet you for some time. We have a lot to discuss, you and I.”

“We do?”

“My card.”

The man stuck a business card into the glass of champagne and handed it to Tommy. It was made of embossed glass. He fished it out and read the name: Edgar Slythe. Now, he remembered. Edgar Slythe worked for CompanyCorp, the company that wanted to tear down the Community Sports Centre and build a mall on the spot. Tommy tried to crush the card in his fist, but he just cut his finger instead.

“You’ve made quite the impression, Mr King,” said Slythe, sipping his glass of champagne. “Everyone’s talking about you and your little team. I see you managed to sort out that unfortunate business with the rackets and the clubs.”

Tommy took his bleeding finger out of his mouth. “Anyone who knows anything about the sport knows that you need both.”

“Yes. You’ve shown real promise. But tell me – do you really think you’re ready for the Big Sports League?”

“Of course we are! We’ve been practising. Coach McGroughlin has taught us all about how we’re not supposed to do handballs, how to do a two-handed grip on the club and the racket at the same time, and about how we’re not supposed to hit the ball with our feet, except when we are. We’re as good as any other team!”

Slythe raised his eyebrows. “If you say so. Remind me, how many sports trophies have your little band of misfits won?”

Tommy said nothing. He couldn’t; his finger was in his mouth.

“The other sports team,” continued Slythe, “are up against you in the final. They’ve won last year’s trophy, and the year before, and the year before that, and they’ve all been nominated for the Sportiest Sportsperson Award for the past five years. You’ve got a tall order, beating them.”

Tommy inspected his bleeding finger. There really was quite a lot of blood, and he was starting to feel a bit queasy. He poured a bit of champagne onto the hem of his sports top – Slythe winced – and wrapped his finger in the damp material.

Slythe leaned forward. “Listen. Tommy. We all know how Saturday’s game is going to go. You’ll be eaten alive. Why not spare yourself the humiliation? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“What do you mean?”

“A full scholarship to Sports Academy. When you’ve graduated, you’ll be drafted into the bestest sports team in all the land. And after that, a job with CompanyCorp, as our official sports spokesperson.”

Tommy sat back in his seat. He’d dreamed of going to Sports Academy since he was a kid, but only the very best at sports got to go there. Nobody knew how to put the ball in the place where it was supposed to go like a Sports Academy graduate.

“All you have to do is lose on Saturday.”

Tommy bit his lip. Getting into Sports Academy would set him up for life, even without the job at CompanyCorp. He’d be able to buy himself a limo just as nice as this one, and still have enough money to buy his mum a new house. But throwing the match… What would Coach McGroughlin say? How would he face up to his teammates? There was a stinging feeling in his lip; he’d bitten it so hard he’d drawn blood. He always did that when he was thinking.

“I can see you’ve got a lot to think about,” said Slythe, looking slightly disgusted. “My number’s on the card. Give me a call when you’ve thought about your future.”

The car slowed to a halt. Tommy handed back his glass of champagne and tried to put Slythe’s card in his gym bag. To his credit, Slythe didn’t even flinch at the smell. And when Tommy dropped and broke the card, slicing open his finger again, he reached into his pocket and pulled out another.

“Wrap it up in a hanky or something,” said Slythe.

Tommy reached for a sock.

Slythe went white and shook out his hanky. It was silk, and printed with a copy of the Mona Lisa. “No, no, take mine, I insist.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)