The Librarian’s Daughter and her Favourite Books

I have always been a big, if not a fast, reader if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Books play an important role in my life, and not just because I was a student for a full 7.5 years (and therefore theoretically read them from time to time), but also because they are also a hobby. My mum was a librarian for most of her working life, so I grew up with books around me all the time; not only is my parent’s house permanently overflowing with books, but also there are always two large of library offerings (one to be read and one to go back). My own place is scarily similar – between me and the Other Half, three large and two small bookcases have been filled beyond capacity, and there are various piles and deposits of books dotted around the place. And guess what I did during my fundraising gap year before starting my MA? That’s right, I worked in a library.

My favourite genre tends to change over time and really depends on my mood. At the moment, I would certainly go for historical fiction – those huge doorstops of books that are thoroughly researched, such as Edward Rutherford, Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, CJ Sansom, Conn Iggulden, etc. I have started reading “light fantasy” (as Other Half calls it) with mixed results; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work was a little long-winded and overly romantic for my tastes, but I found Nancy McKenzie’s “Queen of Camelot” to be a satisfying read and I have also had some success with Jasper Fforde and Douglas Adams. I also enjoy crime fiction for that matter; a good whodunnit (or the new breed of psychological “whydunnits” that seem to be coming out a lot now, such as Val McDermid) can be absorbing, as I like to try and work out the mystery for myself before the end. Ultimately though, I will try most types of fiction, with two exceptions – I don’t like romance novels (I am of the opinion that all Mills & Boon books should be burnt, along with their authors) and horror stories.

When asked to choose my favourite books, it was a long tough process of deciding who gets on to my list – this is my top 5 in no particular order, with a selection of honourable mentions that I won’t go into detail about at the end:

1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BronteI’m afraid the first book on my list is a bit of an unoriginal choice, but then I suppose it is a classic book for a very good reason – it is because of Jane Eyre that we get the literary clichés of the lonely governess and the “mad women in the attic” (and by extension, Jasper Fforde’s best-selling “The Eyre Affair”, I suppose). It is a book I first read in my teens, and which I have read over since; a story that I have seen adapted many times in many ways in film and on TV. It is a very good story that is very well written, but that doesn’t fully explain just why it is one of my favourite books. Perhaps it is because it is a story when the quiet, scholarly girl without a huge amount in the looks department gets the happy ending, or maybe because I just like Jane so much as a character – she stands up for her friends, is forthright and honest, answers her mean aunt back and is the all-round heroine. I think when I first read the book I could identify strongly with her as a character (in the sense of being plain and bookish, I wasn’t parentless) and wished I could be as strong as her, as unafraid to give my opinions. Jane is how I saw myself in many ways when I was growing up, and that is why I loved reading about – and why I will doubtless love reading about her again in future.

2) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustinAnother classic and another story of the smart girl ending up with the handsome guy, so perhaps an odd choice for someone who has already stated they don’t like romance novels. But “Pride and Prejudice” is not just a romantic story, it is also a sharp and witty comedy of manners (one of the funniest books I have ever read, in fact), and gives us the wonderful heroine of Elizabeth Bennett, who is not the demure little women that her parents might want – she is generous, sensible, honest and intelligent, and what girl reading the book could resist her?

3) Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. AuelAs someone who has studied archaeology, it is almost inevitable that I would include this one on my list. The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those books that a lot of people have heard of or read, which has something of a cult following, but which never makes it into top lists of “books to read before you die” or the best books of a year/decade/century, I guess because it doesn’t quite qualify as “proper literature”. Despite this, it has always been a special book for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, the unusual setting – Auel sets her novel in the last Ice Age, at a time when both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals inhabited Europe, and writes about what may have happened when the two cultures came into contact. This is a setting that is ripe for fiction, but which very few authors have been brave enough to take on, presumably because of the huge amount of background knowledge you would need to get any story set then to work. This is why secondly, the phenomenal amount of research that went into the book, becomes important (both to me as I find it impressive, and to the story itself). Auel spends years researching each novel she writes, turning herself into a respected expert on Stone Age Europe in the process. This level of knowledge is very evident in the novel, and the story she weaves out of it feels realistic and really sticks in your mind – in my case for years. It is unfortunate, however, that the subsequent books in the series never managed to live up to the standard of this original. Just a word of warning – never attempt the Daryl Hannah film of the book!

4) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

“To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history….”

The Historian by Elizabeth KostovaI like the Historian for two main reasons – the first is because it is a damn good read, and the second because it demonstrates excellently how you can take a well-worn story from a tired genre, and make it new and fresh and enjoyable. Essentially it is a spirited update of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, thus appearing to pander to recent trends for stories involving vampires, but unlike other vampire stories of late, there are no brooding teens or irritatingly implausible love stories in it. The writing and pacing are both excellent and there is more than enough suspense to keep you glued to the book. This is one to read for any writer who aspires to take something that appears to be clichéd to death and turn it into an incredibly addictive story for modern audiences – it is a favourite of mine both as a reader and as a writer.

5) We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver“Kevin” is a very dark novel, even more so than “the Historian” and you would struggle to call it an enjoyable read because of the subject matter is covers and the awful sense of inevitability that hangs over the story; you know perfectly well what is coming from early on in the book, but you are compelled to read on and take the characters to their unpleasant endings nonetheless. I like this book because it is unafraid to tackle themes and ideas that many readers find unpalatable (her agent initially refused to send the manuscript out to publishers because he was worried it would upset too many people), and in a world where we are too afraid of giving offense or being made to feel uncomfortable, that is an important thing. Shriver rejected any notion of a self-imposed censorship of her work, however, retorting: “if you don’t allow yourself to write characters who do disagreeable things – if you only allow yourself to write about what you would be glad for your readers to imitate in real life-then you’re pretty much constrained to characters who help little old ladies across the street and rescue cats from trees, you’d never write ‘Crime and Punishment’, lest arrogant young men take axes to miserly crones”. Although I want to recommend this book, I do so with a warning: it is by no means a light read, it will not give you faith in humanity, and it is more unsettling that many a thriller novel. It is one that will get, and keep, you thinking though. If it is an intelligent, elegantly written book you are after, you could do a lot worse than read “Kevin“.

Honourable mentions:

· Empire of the Sun, JG Ballard

· The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

· The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway

· The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas

· Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracey Chevalier

· The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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