Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Books of a Lifetime by Elizabeth Chadwick

Writers are always readers first. In my case the love of reading and of becoming deeply involved in imaginary worlds was part of the osmosis that led me to become a storyteller and a writer myself.
So what books stand out from the various phases of my life? Which have stayed with me or had the most influence? Delving into memory archives, I have chosen five favourite books each from my childhood, my adolescence, young adulthood and maturity (if you can call it that). Of course I have many more top choice books than this, but all of the ones in my selection have earned their place by being cherished and read many more times than one.


Green Smoke by Ruth Manning. The story of a little girl who goes on holiday to Cornwall, meets up with a dragon and has adventures.

The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. I was a very horsey little girl but I preferred my horses wild and free rather than pony club types. The Silver Brumby, about a special Australian wild horse fuelled my imagination and I spent many a happy hour not only reading about Thowra the Silver Brumby, but making up new stories about him and his herd.

The Illiad, The Aenid and The Odyssey by Homer. As a child I had a passion for fairy tales and myths and legends of all kinds. So these ancient Greek legends stand as a representative for all of them. I secretly wanted to be Odysseus, even if I wasn't quite sure how to pronounce his name.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. These were charming, make-you-smile books that never lasted me more than a day. I'd devour them in an instant.

Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd. The story of a Scarecrow that comes to life and has adventures. He's a bit of a reprobate with a certain edginess to him, but it all adds to the pleasure in the same way that original fairy tales carry that hint of darkness. These had been some of my mother's favourites as a little girl and she passed on that love to me.


She by H. Rider Haggard. We had to read this at school when I was 12, and to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed this hokum tale of the search for the fountain of eternal youth and the mysterious, all powerful She. It would probably seem a bit tame now but back then I was gripped!

The Hobbit by J. R..R. Tolkien. Again, given to us to read at school. I'd be 14 or 15 here, and again it was a refreshing change from other ghastly tomes we were forced to read such as Lord of the Flies. I had a leaning towards fantasy stories anyway, so this was one that was sold to me straight away and was to lead on to greater things!

Dragon under the hill by Gordon Honeycomb. One of the books I read not long after joining the adult library - and re-read several times. It was my first introduction to the genre of the atmospheric horror story and it haunts me even today. The story of a modern day boy possessed by Viking spirits when he finds an ancient grave while the Norse god Odin looks on in menace. The nearest I have come to it since is Barbara Erskine's Midnight is a Lonely Place.

The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I would guess most women of my age have a bodice ripper somewhere on their keeper shelf that they read as a teen. I am not sure I could read this today, but it is a book of my growing up and when I was about 16, I just loved this one. The story of Norman conqueror Wulfgar and fiery Saxon beauty Aislinn. It is terribly, terribly, un-PC today, but back then it was historical glam-rock in novel form - so over the top that it was wonderful.

The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart. As I hit my teen years, my mother thought that a good way of easing me into adult reading was to give me some Mary Stewart to read. She was right. I took to this author straight away and I've cited Tne Moonspinners here because it was the first of her stories that I read. Back in the day, the holidays abroad thing had only just begun to take off, and places such as Greece and the South of France still had that certain mysterious cachet about them. Add a woman in jeopardy and some beautiful, restrained but lyrical writing and you have a winner. My absolute favourite of Mary Stewart's is The Crystal Cave, but I came to it after The Moonspinners.


The Shining by Stephen King. This book is one of the very few where I have almost been too scared to turn the pages. Stephen King is a very powerful writer indeed and this story of a family falling apart and closed up for the winter in the haunted (and maliciously so) Overlook Hotel is a claustrophobic triumph. I re-read it at least once a year.

Lord of the Rings by J R.R. Tolkien. It was inevitable that after I'd read The Hobbit I would follow through with Lord of the Rings. What an epic journey, with something different to find every time. When I first read it, I didn't appreciate the poetry pieces, but now I do, and some of them are very moving and beautiful.

Alinor by Roberta Gellis. By the time I was a young adult, I was also an unpublished novelist, having started writing when I was fifteen. Around this time I discovered the works of Roberta Gellis. She wrote medieval historical romances but with plenty of meaty historical background, and I learned from her that it was possible to write novels that were both detailed in the history and thumping good stories with a dash of romance. The two didn't have to be mutually exclusive. Alinor is the second of a series of books she wrote titled The Roselynde Chronicles, and it's here that I met one of my all time favourite heroes in Ian de Vipont. He's tall, dark and handsome, but never for one minute cardboard. I swear he just walks off the page and into the room, as does the heroine Alinor.

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. I had already read and loved Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, but Here Be Dragons took my appreciation of her writing to a new level. I think together with any woman who has read this book, I fell hook, line and sinker for Llewelyn ap Iorwerth. The author has a tremendous skill in being able to portray the politics of the time in a way that both adds to the drama of the story and makes them so easy to understand.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. Trawling the library, I had often come across Dorothy Dunnett's novels. I had tried to read them and failed, but something kept drawing me back. Then one day I borrowed The Game of Kings and gave it another try. It was rather like finding a door in a wall that had always been locked before and now was suddenly open. A quick turn of the handle, and I stepped into this wonderful, exuberant, renaissance world, so rich in texture and language that it was almost overwhelming. Returning from it, blinking, was like stepping back into grey. I went out and bought every book in the series and have become a lifelong fan of Dorothy Dunnett.

Red Adam's Lady by Grace Ingram. In contrast to Dunnett, Red Adam's Lady is a light, easy read, but it's one of my favourite comfort companions. It's a fast paced romantic suspense tale of the twelfth century, involving a forced marriage, a conspiracy, and an old unsolved mystery that might just be a murder. I so wish Grace Ingram had been more prolific in her lifetime. She also wrote books as Doris Sutcliffe Adams. I have never read any of them because they are just too expensive on the second hand market, but I would love to do so.


Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill. The story of a band of Lakotah Sioux on the eve of the coming of the White Man. This is an immense, profound book that in some ways reminds me of Lord of the Rings. It's about epic journeys, sacrifices made, wisdom learned as one confronts inevitable change. This book had a deeply spiritual effect on me and also led me to realise that as a writer I was never going to attempt a Native American novel (something I'd occasionally considered).

Two for the dough by Janet Evanovich. I read Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels with great relish, especially when I need a break from weightier, more serious tomes. These books are so outrageous and over the top that they are pure entertainment - with a bit of spice thrown in courtesy of the characters Ranger and Morelli. I have cited this one because it's one of my favourites, probably down to a moment when Stephanie's feisty grandmother remarkes upon a certain male anatomical part received in the post!

The Green Mile by Stephen King. The second Stephen King on my list. I could carry on reading his work my life long. The Green Mile, I think, achieves absolute greatness for Stephen King. If the subject matter didn't involve horror and the supernatural, and if wasn't so mainstream and readable, this one would have been on The Booker list for sure. I'd certainly put it on my alternative Booker shortlist. There are lines in that book of such profound power that they bring tears to my eyes.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. When a friend told me about this wonderful book, I looked at her sidelong. Missionaries in the Belgian Congo? Yeah, right, what a fun subject! However, when a copy came my way, I decided to give it a go. I do tend to be fearless and eclectic, although sometimes you actually have to put the book in my hand! The Poisonwood bible blew me away with its use of language. When describing a lover's touch, Kingsolver says that he 'makes the aurora borealis rise on my skin' (I may be paraphrasing here without looking up the exact quote, but it's very close). There is true beauty in this novel.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett, rather like Stephen King is misunderstood by people who haven't read him, or don't understand the subtleties and the sheer genius of the writing. Pratchett's cutting observations and dry wit make him one of our greatest satirists and almost every line cries out to be quoted. I love all of Pratchett's novels, but chose this one because of the character of Grebo who is perhaps the most magnificent alpha male ever to stalk the pages of a novel - really!

I wonder what others would choose as their books of a lifetime?


Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of an impressive backlist and many of her titles are among our favorite historical fiction books. Her new book To Defy a King will be released today in the UK.


  1. I agree about Ian de Vipont. He's up there at the top of the list. As for Wolf and the Dove, don't ever ever pick it up now. Lol, I challenged some of the gals at Paperbackswap who had fond memories as well and I don't think any of them finished it :p

  2. I just recently read Alinor and you're so right about Ian. What a wonderful hero!
    The Lymond Chronicles is also one of my favorite HF series. Francis is so charismatic...*sigh*
    I never read The Wolf and the Dove but I became even more curious after Misfit's comment.;-)
    Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. I just recently reread The Hobbit and was reminded anew how much I loved it, and now I am reading The Lord of the Rings...very slowly mind you. Other good books keep on getting in the way! I have never read Kathleen Woodiwiss or Mary Stewart although I have been reliably informed that I really should read Stewart!

    SKP - totally agree there, and I have been meaning to read Dunnett for the longest time, and yes, yes, yes to Pratchett!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your list, Elizabeth. It made me ponder whether authors are influenced by the books they read when younger or whether their penchant for a certain subject drew them to a particular genre of book. When I read 'The Greatest Knight' I thought 'here's someone who's a bit of a reprobate with a certain edginess to him.' Now I know why.

    You'd mentioned Dorothy Dunnett in the interview you did on my blog so I must look out her work. And I really must read 'Hanta Yo.'

    Martin Lake