Through lockdown I have been replanning my book quilt, and designed eighteen blocks of book spines with one face on book per block. Each block measures 8 ins by 10 ins plus sashing. This has made for a quilt of a more manageable size, which will be a wall hanging or a single bed cover. The books are either individual titles or represent a series, so the total represents about 370 books. All the titles have been chosen as books I would love to read again, on my desert island, and hold meaning and memories for me. As I stitch the spines, I remember when I read the book, and the pleasure it gave me.
On the top shelf is Treasure Island , Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate story for children, recounting the seafaring adventures of Jim Hawkins and the larger than life characters he has to deal with.
Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, is a trilogy in five parts, full of humour as the very grounded hero, Arthur Dent, is hurled into a series of adventures in outer space.
The Wallander novels by Henning Mankell are a brilliant series of ten books developing the characters and their relationships and reflecting Swedish society.
Two favourite books I read as a young teenager are Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, set in North Devon. Williamson writes beautifully about the countryside. It is all the more poignant for me as that area of North Devon is where the paternal side of my mother's family are from, and she returned there for several happy years later in her life. I used to love going down on the train, along the pretty Tarka Line, to Barnstaple to visit her. Then there is Gavin Maxwell's inspiring Ring of Bright Water which is set in coastal Scotland and is again beautifully written and moving.
My second block has my three favourite books by Thomas Hardy, although it is difficult to exclude stories like Tess of the Durbevilles. My mother always said that they were sad books, and I suppose there are not many happy endings, but I love the characters and the portrayal of the countryside, together with the twists and turns of life, the decisions we make that have far reaching consequences. I don't know how many times I have read and reread these books, particularly when living in London and missing Shropshire. The story of capricious Bathsheba Everdene and her suitors had to be included. Far from the Madding Crowd is closely followed by The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native.
Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford is a Hardy like memoir of a time now quite lost, but is beautifully written evoking the best of the countryside.
H E Bates' Darling Buds of May stories tell of the Larkin family's exploits and their zest for life, both rural idylls that were all the more engrossing on my daily commute into central London.
By contrast, Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm is a wonderful and wickedly funny parody of romantic novels about the rural idyll.
CLASSICS OLD AND NEW
Pride and PrejudiceJane Austen's classic romance of family values is rooted in the social niceties of Regency England yet its essential truths about the human character with all its weaknesses and pretensions, its kindness and honesty, are timeless.
I love the intensity of feelings played out in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The book also has a darkness at its heart, of mystery and menace, in the treatment of Rochester’s wife.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte has another strong female lead which appeals to me. It’s considered to be one of the first feminist novels. Helen fights to protect her son and escape her husband’s debauchery, and seeks to make her own living through painting.
In Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns’ written in 1902, we can still identify with its strong female character. When I first read the Five Towns series years ago, the Potteries setting was a refreshing change to all the rural idylls and landed gentry of many of the classics. Bennett wanted to make literature accessible to ordinary people, and his success did mean his work fell out of favour, after his death, with the literati he despised.
George Eliot’s Silas Marner again has a darkness to it in its depiction of the weaver’s betrayal and subsequent solitary life and his obsession with his gold. He is redeemed by the child he finds in the snow and brings up, and eventually finds happiness.
Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy follows the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell from his very humble roots, which are never quite forgiven by those in Henry VIII’s glittering Court, to become one of the most powerful men in England. The interplay of vested interests and power struggles are fascinating, and provide a persuasive alternative to the villain Cromwell was often portrayed as.
THE FRENCH COLLECTION
When I read Grand Meaulnes at school, I fell in love with both the character of Meaulnes and that fleeting glimpse of the Fete Etrange which seemed so other-worldly. His pursuit of his lost love is doomed yet he persists with his obsession.
In Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black, I fell for another young man, Julien Sorel, hopelessly idealistic, and both determined and devious in pursuing his ambition to rise above his humble origins, despite the strict hierarchy of Paris society and politics.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is another doomed romantic, seeking an escape from humble origins and the boredom of provincial life in a series of love affairs. But her affairs lead her increasingly into debt and she pays the ultimate price.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner tells the story of romantic novelist Edith Hope, fleeing a failed affair in a hotel on Lake Geneva. She uses the insights she gains at the hotel to finally decide her own future.
Joanne Harris' Chocolat series is a sensuous delight. All that chocolate and passion. Strong characters, great stories, and all told with a whisper of mischief and magic. Each of the four books in the series have a strong story and intriguing characters. Her Five Quarters of the Orange is again set in France, mainly during the German Occupation, and is a dark recounting of those times, focussing on the effect on the children and how their lives are shaped by their experiences.
Rose Tremain’s Trespass is set in rural southern France, which is an important character in itself, and is a dark tale of jealousy and revenge, with some great, if unlikeable, characters.
Finally, some light relief. Peter Mayle’s A year in Provence has the landscape again as a strong element in his memoir of his time refurbishing his property. Another cast of strong, entertaining characters. Great fun.
A SENSE OF FOREBODING
I have many favourites among Dickens’ work, but Bleak House is top of the list. A satire on the legal system runs alongside the story of Esther Summerson, and Lady Dedlock’s part in both Esther’s life and the long running court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to settle a Will.
The novels of Doctor A J Cronin, who had practised in the South Wales coal mining area, include Dr Finlays Casebook, and have fallen out of fashion. The Citadel, which I discovered was also my father's favourite book, draws on his experience with the mining community and reflects the inequalities of the time, and the conflicts of medical ethics. The book is said to have paved the way for the NHS a decade after its publication. Hatters Castle, Cronin's first novel, is a powerful portrayal of a cruel tyrant of a father and his eventual downfall.
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series is another favourite. Started early, took my dog introduces Brodie, and develops intriguing and compelling characters and tells their disparate stories with a humour that is refreshing among all the gloom and violence.
Rene Denfield’s The Child Finder also has a bleakness and foreboding but is redeemed by a wonderful sense of place and a dream like quality in the writing.
Finally, in The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H Cook, there is a sense of foreboding as the past is retold, amid the petty cruelties and claustrophobia of small town life.
HOME AND AWAY
The Go Between by L P Hartley recounts memories of a long ago summer and Leo’s part in a doomed love affair. It is exquisitely written, and reflects the boy’s anxieties in growing up. As the opening lines suggest, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
I love the idiosyncratic characters in Marina Lewycka’s Short History of tractors in Ukrainian and her strong sense of humour as two daughters vie to protect their elderly father from an unwise marriage.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, is beautifully told, capturing the amazing sight of Monarch butterflies in their epic migration, alongside the story of put-upon wife Lusa and her neighbours in remote Appalachia.
Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves beautifully evokes the icy wilderness almost as a character in this intricately plotted murder mystery.
For a complete change, Shropshire gardener Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos is about letting go and discovering the joy of plants, and allowing a little magic back into the garden.
In South Riding, Winifred Holtby's strong heroine, idealistic teacher Sarah Burton, tackles local corruption in politics to help the community.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast is peopled by often grotesque characters within the forbidding walls of the sprawling, crumbling Gothic heap that is Gormenghast Castle. The first book of the three, Titus Groan follows the first year of Titus' life governed by the Castle’s age old rituals and set amongst the plots and petty jealousies of the servants. The second book , Gormenghast, sees Titus growing up and rebelling against the constraints of society until he finally escapes.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is laced with a dark sense of humour. It tells the story of Balram who claws his way up from the darkness of poverty into the light of success and corruption, to become an entrepreneur through his wit and determination, not to mention a murder. In the new modern India, there are only two castes, he explains:
men with big bellies, and men with small bellies.
Set during the last days of the British Raj, 1942–47, leading up to Indian independence, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, examines the politics and prejudices of the time reflected in the stories of its principal characters. E M Forster's A Passage to India is set in the 1920s British Raj with the move for Indian independence. Racial tensions and prejudices are examined through the story of the main characters, and the dire consequences for the Indian Dr Aziz.
Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is set after Indian independence up to the years of the Emergency of 1975–77, and reflects changes in Indian society through the stories of its four main characters from different backgrounds, and their heartbreaking fates.
PAST & PRESENT
George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss tells the story of headstrong Maggie Tulliver and her brother, as we watch them growing up and cope with the injustices of life.
There was much to identify with in Sarah Moss's book Night Waking, not least the clash between career and motherhood on an unforgiving Scottish island. Despite the tensions arising from her situation and the sleepless nights, there is a lot of humour in the way the small children are depicted. Added to that is an older story and the secrets they uncover from the past.
Helen Dunmore's book Exposure is set in Cold War times, a spy story but with a family at its heart, and their determination to protect their children.
Jane Harper's two novels, The Dry and The Lost Man are set in Australia and give an almost tangible sense of the heat there. Two great stories with strong characters and many a secret.
Erin Kelly's The Burning Air is a cracking story about revenge, with a breathtaking finale. What is the truth and who do we believe in Henry James' ghost story The Turn of the Screw? Always a great read.
A story set in Amsterdam's merchant past is The Miniaturist. Jessica Burton's story is about family secrets and the strange and sudden appearance of doll's house furniture which reveals them.
Arundati Roy's The God of Small Things is again a book about growing up and coping with life's misfortunes and cruelty.
MYTHS & MAGIC
I was first drawn into Tolkien's world in the late 60s at university, and have reread Lord of the Rings a couple of times since. Good though the films have been, nothing can compare with the drama and images it conjures in the imagination.
Pat O'Shea's Hounds of the Morrigan is a wonderful evocation of creatures from Irish mythology as two children engage in the battle between good and evil.
Similarly Jenny Nimmo's Snow Spider trilogy sees the boy Gwyn becoming a magician, battling evil, in a landscape of Welsh mythology.
Impossile to choose just one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld creations, so I would have to add all 41. Such a mammoth feat of imagination. Interestingly, of all the book spines in the quit, Discworld is the only one facing the other way. Totally accidental, but somehow so right.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Yet another Dickens favourite, Great Expectations which follows the story of Pip, who once helped an escaped convict, and the impact on his life.
Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala series follows the fortunes of an investigator for Stalin, and creates an engrossing picture of sinister and dangerous Russian leaders and their political battles, set in an atmospheric Russian landscape pre WW2.
A chilling alternative future for Britain had WW2 been won by the Nazis as Robert Harris's detective, Xavier March, hunts down a high ranking murderer in Fatherland .
John Le Carre's George Smiley spy novels reflect much the same atmosphere though set much later, in the Cold War era of the 1960s .
Tom Rob Smith's trilogy beginning with Child 44 is also set in the Soviet Union and features investigator Leo Demidov, again reflecting the difficulties of the Cold War era and the criminality rife at the time.
In Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and subsequent novels in the series, Russian investigator Arkady Renko seeks to solve murder cases while battling with the secret services of the Cold War era, creating a realistic feel of the Soviet Union at that time.
Mary Webb's Precious Bane is set in Shropshire and is filled with Shropshire folklore and reflects the beauty of the landscape, with delicately observed characters. Another of her novels, Gone to Earth has the same love for the Shropshire landscape and tells the tragic story of the beautiful Hazel Woodus.
Two of my favourite novels by the compelling storyteller Daphne du Maurier are Rebecca which was also my mother's favourite novel, and Jamaica Inn, both compelling stories with an air of menace.
Again rooted in the North Devon landscape he knew well and had grown up in is R D Blackmore's tragic love story Lorna Doone. I was delighted to discover recently that my mother's family are his distant cousins.
Winston Graham is another expert storyteller and I remember well during the 70s we would eagerly pounce as soon as a new Poldark title came out. These historical romances are set in Cornwall, but he also wrote contemporary suspense novels, the best of which is probably Marnie with its unreliable narrator.
Kilvert's Diary starts in January 1870 and continues till just before his death in 1879, narrating aspects of rural life he experienced as a curate in Clyro, on the Welsh border. His enthusiasm and his description of the landscape on his walks to visit parishioners are a delight.
J. R. R. Tolkien's children's fantasy The Hobbit introduces Bilbo Baggins and a cast of characters interwoven with mythology, all of which is developed in The Lord of the Rings into such an immersive experience with its own world order.
Joan Aiken's children's books which form The Wolves Chronicles are set in an imaginary world, part Dickensian, part Steam punk, and see the heroine caught up in a series of dramatic adventures.
Black Beauty was an early favourite of mine, and never failed to make me cry in Anna Sewell's depiction of the cruelties of life for working horses.
Richard Adams' Watership Down was probably the first book I came across with a strong ecological message. In the book, the rabbits have their own world, mythology and culture.
Another distinct world and its philosophy is created by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows , inhabited by good and bad animals, all with their own recognisable characters.
TALES OF WALES
The grim side of Dickensian life in London, with its poverty, squalor and crime, are vividly depicted in another of my favourite Charles Dickens' books, Oliver Twist.
Wales was the home of poet and writer Dylan Thomas, born in Swansea my own birthplace, and his A Child's Christmas in Wales perfectly captures the excitement of that time as a child, with Swansea very much one of the characters in the piece. It reminds me of all the stories my mother told of her own Christmas memories, and the large and loving family of my great grandparents. His radio play, Under Milk Wood I fell in love with at school, with its bold character sketches and beautifully crafted landscape of the little town by the sea.
Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley is set in the mining communities of the Welsh valleys during the Victorian era and is full of the danger, difficulties and heartbreak of those times.
I was captivated by the character of Brother Cadfael from the start, and by the light touch and the love imbued in the books, and of course the beautiful depiction of the Welsh Marches landscape. Cadfael is an ex soldier who fought in The Crusades but is now a monk and herbalist tending the sick and dying who come to Shrewsbury Abbey, and uses his past experience and plant lore to solve murders. The author Edith Pargeter, who wrote the Cadfael novels as Ellis Peters was a member of a local writing group and was a lovely and generous lady.
Though not a work of fiction, the world recreated in Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill seems other worldly now. The twin brothers farm their isolated land in the Welsh Marches using traditional methods and the book explores their difficulties in expressing emotions, and reflects the repressive attitudes of the time.
SNOW AND ICE
Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend involves a mixture of intrigue, greed and betrayal with Dickens' usual vivid memorable characters.
In Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Pledge, set in Switzerland, we follow the trail of detection in which the murderer is sought but despite the detective's promise to find a child's killer, and his growing obsession with the case, the murderer is not caught and his life and retirement are ruined. The postscript provides an ironic and heartbreaking twist.
M J McGrath's series about Inuit Edie Kiglatuk, a former polar bear hunter, is set in the Canadian Arctic and conveys the beauty and harshness of the land as well as the culture of the Inuit people and their clashes with modern life.
Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snowby Peter Hoeg is set in Denmark but draws on Miss Smilla's Greenland upbringing in the hunt to find the killer of a Greenland boy. There are conspiracies and secrets aplenty, and a culture clash between the poorer but close society of Greenland and the affluence of Denmark.
Karin Alvtegen's novel, Missing , set in Sweden, unusually features a homeless girl, shunning her privileged upbringing, who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery which she has to solve to prove her innocence.
John Fowles' 'postmodern' French Lieutenant's Woman is the story of independent Sarah Woodruff, a former Victorian governess, and Charles Smithson, a wealthy naturalist who falls in love with her. The book is set in Lyme Regis, which is rich in fossils, and contrasts Sarah's modern outlook with Charles' more traditional views.
Ian McEwan's Atonement explores an upper class family and the class divisions over three time periods, showing the outcome of a youthful yet wilful mistake.
I read Waterland not long after it was published in 1983 and was fortunate to hear Graham Swift talk about his novel when he came to Shrewsbury Library. Set in the Fens, the book pieces together fragments of narrative to create the family story and uncover its secrets.
Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck is a tremendous book, examining the rise to power and fortune, through her skilful plotting and manipulation, of a lowly born concubine who becomes the last Empress of China. The insight into Chinese society at that time and the power games at play are fascinating.
I have not singled out any one title of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster books, as any one gives the flavour of the whole. Wooster, Bertie's long suffering butler, is the one with common sense enough to get him out of the scrapes he gets into.
Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale is a satisfying gothic mystery set in a beautiful old house full of secrets.
MURDERS & MYSTERIES
Donna Leon has written a wonderful series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti set in and around Venice, and exploring some of the problems of modern industry and politics in an ancient area. Brunetti's home life with two teenagers and his aristocratic wife, a college lecturer, is meticulously depicted and complements the story, and the food they regularly eat is deliciously portrayed.
Another Italian series, Christobel Kent's Sandro Cellini books, take us to Florence and ex policeman Cellini's fledgling business as a private detective.
Going back to Elizabethan times, S.J. Parris' series featuring Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno who is involved in the intrigues and political games of the Elizabethan court.
I have been a fan of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels since reading The Murder on the Links when I was fourteen. Somehow the Miss Marple books never had the same appeal.
Ian Rankin's Rebus series follows the detective's chequered career, interspered with his taste in music, and prompts memories of Edinburgh for me.
Ann Cleeves' series, Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope has an unlikely heroine in Vera Stanhope, but looks deceive, and her detection skills are sharply honed. The books are set in the North East of England, a landscape that can be very bleak and isolated, yet beautiful too, which we have enjoyed visiting.
C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series has hunchback lawyer Shardlake solving the problems and uncovering secrets of his clients in Henry VII's England, including Cromwell and the King himself.
BY THE COAST
E. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News has Quoyle rebuilding his life in Newfoundland, and discovering his family's secrets.
Ann Cleeves' Shetland books feature detective Jimmy Perez and are steeped in the culture, history and landscape of the islands.
In Peter May's Lewis trilogy, it is the Outer Hebrides and the island of Lewis that feature, as the detective Fin Macleod returns to his roots from his life in Edinburgh.
Travelling to Norfolk, and staying on the atmospheric North Norfolk coast, I feel I can identify with Elly Griffiths' Dr. Ruth Galloway novels. The history and archaeology of the area is fascinating, and brought to life by Dr Galloway's investigations as a forensic archaeologist.
The clever antihero, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's series is a compelling character, with a gift for art and murder.
Colin Dexter's Morse books have now become entangled in my mind with the excellent TV series so that I can now only picture Inspector Morse as John Thaw, and love the clever lyrical theme music of Barrington Pheloung.
Frances Hodgson Burnett's story The Secret Garden tells of orphan Mary Lennox's slowly acclimatising to life in a bleak Yorkshire hall after living in India, and of her friendship with gardener's boy Dickon and the son of the Hall's owner, Mary's uncle, who till her arrival has been treated as a frail invalid. The garden they find has a power to restore and unite them all.
Mary Norton's series of stories about The Borrowers involves the perils of their lives hidden away behind the skirting boards and under the floors, living on things the humans neglect or throw away.
Edith Nesbit's family story of The Railway Children tells of the children's lives in their new home after their father is wrongly imprisoned for spying.
Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons stories feature two families of children who enjoy great freedom in the summer of 1929 to sail on the Lakes and have adventures.
Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom is a much darker book by contrast. Set in September 1939, on the verge of WW2, it features the children being evacuated from London to the countryside. One of them sent to Tom Oakley has the bruises and mental scarring of an abusive upbringing. Returning home to London only results in a return to the abuse, and he is rescued by Mr Tom. Together with the realities of his life and the grim details of the war's toll, it is far from a happy read, yet is redeemed by the warmth of the characters.
Not a children's story, but another excellent historical series of murder mysteries is Andrew Taylor's Ashes of London set in London in the aftermath of the Great Fire, where James Marwood, employed by the government to do their bidding, comes across feisty Cat Lovett.
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