Sunday, May 1, 2011

Books of a Lifetime by Margaret James (includes a giveaway!)

I’m delighted to be a guest blogger on Historical Tapestry, and to have the chance to share my books of a lifetime with fellow readers. 

A big thank you to Marg for inviting me!

The books which mean most to me and will be on my shelves forever have one thing in common – they’re all inspirational and uplifting in some way, even if the stories they tell are sad or even tragic. Whenever I re-read them, I’m always cheered and heartened, because their message is – life can be what you make it. You don’t have to accept defeat. You’ll never be a failure provided you do what you know is right and are true to yourself

These books don’t pretend it’s ever going to be easy to meet the challenges of life. But they do encourage the reader to try harder, do better, and they show us that with a bit of luck and a wagon load of determination it’s possible to win through. As a writer myself, trying to make my way in one of the world’s most challenging professions, I find that concept enormously empowering.

So, let’s get started on my keeper shelf...

A novel which helped me get through a troubled adolescence, took me into a world I hadn’t known existed, and showed me what real courage is all about, is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the Deep South of the USA in the days of racial segregation. The hero of this novel is small town lawyer Atticus Finch, a widower who is doing his best to bring up two motherless children and keep his own self-respect in the face of prejudice and hostility to almost everything he holds dear.

Atticus takes on a case he can never win, even though his client is obviously innocent of the crime of which he’s been accused. The client is a black man, so Atticus knows he’s defeated before he sets foot in the courtroom. But, as the novel itself makes clear, courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what.

My other favourite read as a teenager was Jane Eyre, another story of courage and determination, narrated in the first person by someone who could easily have been one of life’s losers. Jane is poor, plain and socially disadvantaged, but she has the soul of a born fighter, and this keeps her going even when it looks as if she might lose everything – her livelihood, the man she loves, and perhaps even life itself.

Jane’s love for Mr Rochester is requited, and all that needs to happen for them to end up together is for Jane and Rochester to achieve some kind of parity – for her to go up in the world and for him to come down – which eventually they do. But one of my other heroes, Pip in Great Expectations, suffers the torment of unrequited love throughout the novel, and his courage in the face of constant rejection must surely get every reader on his side. He doesn’t deserve to be put through so much pain, especially as he grows in moral stature throughout the story, eventually risking his own life to save those of two people – Miss Havisham and the convict – who have deceived him, and candidly owning up to all his past mistakes. The ending of this novel is ambiguous, and the reader can decide if Pip marries the cruel beauty Estella, or if they part.  Personally, I think she’s already given him enough grief, so I hope he married someone else, had several children, and lived happily ever after!

Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One is another story of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. It tells the story of Peekay, an orphaned child living in South Africa at the time of apartheid, a boy who is bullied and tormented by almost everyone, but who finds salvation in sport. Peekay becomes a boxing champion and, in a terrific showdown, beats the hell out of a man who has tried to ruin his life. Hurrah!

Now, before you assume I’m a gore freak, let me assure you I don’t like boxing. I think it’s a degrading and demeaning activity, and as far as I’m concerned the thought of two men trying to beat each other’s heads in is pretty disgusting. So it’s a tribute to the author that I’ve read this book five or six times, cheered the hero on throughout, and been thrilled when he wins through. If you don’t like boxing either, I still recommend you give it a go. You can skip the really brutal bits…

If you’re the runt in a bright and brilliant and physically gorgeous family of brothers and sisters, how do you manage to make any sort of life for yourself?  Robert Graves’s I, Claudius shows us how.  Claudius stammers, stutters, is lame, is ugly, and is not particularly smart, either – or so his family believes. Loyal to his family and friends, even when they don’t deserve his loyalty, Claudius is one of those quiet heroes doing their best in difficult times, and I’ve never found it hard to identify with him – or with his fictional version, anyway. The real Claudius was apparently just as cruel, ruthless and tyrannical as the rest of the Caesars. But we’ll let that pass…

I’d like to end on a lighter note and mention my last book of a lifetime, which is Winnie-the-Pooh.  The bear of very little brain has been delighting me, my children and my grandson for many years and, if you’re going to give a child a role model, you could do worse than Pooh.  He’s kind, he’s loyal, he never makes out his mistakes are anyone else’s fault, he encourages Piglet, he tries to bring a bit of sunshine into Eeyore’s miserable life, and he puts up with the eternally tiresome Tigger without complaint. Sometimes, he even has a brilliant inspiration, for example when he and Christopher Robin escape a flood riding in Christopher Robin’s open umbrella, hastily rechristened The Brain of Pooh.

So there are six of my literary heroes and heroines, whose stories never fail to delight me. I have plenty more heroes and heroines, such Flora in Cold Comfort Farm and the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. But the characters I’ve mentioned above are the ones who inspire me and my own fiction, in which I write about many different kinds of courage, the character trait which always most impresses me.

My latest novel The Silver Locket is a historical romance set during the Great War of 1914 - 1918. The heroine Rose Courtenay is the spoiled, bored only child of wealthy parents, and Rose is expected to marry well. This means marrying the man her parents have chosen, but Rose falls in love with Alex Denham, the local bad boy, who is also a married man. When war breaks out, Rose goes to London to become a nurse, and later she is sent to France, where she meets Alex again. They begin an affair which has huge repercussions – enough for two more novels, in fact!

I’m on Facebook and Twitter – I have a blog at and a website at

The Silver Locket is published by UK independent Choc Lit – – where heroes are like chocolate, irresistible!

Giveaway details

If you’d like to meet the handsome, brave and gorgeous Alex Denham, please complete the competition entry form below, and you could win a copy of The Silver Locket. The book is available in either ebook or paper form and the competition is open to all. Entries close on Sunday 8 May.


  1. I found this really interesting, especially as I share some of those books with Margaret (in particular, Jane Eyre is a keeper for me).
    Thanks so much for hosting!
    (P.S. The giveaway isn't working for me at present).

  2. Sam, can you try for me now?

  3. Jane Eyre is definitely a keeper for me as well - I loved her courage in the face of adversity! I remember liking Great Expectations too, although it's many years since I've read it now. Ditto I, Claudius. There are so many lovely books, aren't there! (Including The Silver Locket which I've read and loved!)

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird is a definite keeper for me. I haven't read a couple of the books on the list. I'm going to check them out!

    Grace @

  5. I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. If you can believe it, I didn't read Jane Eyre till this year. I was missing out all this time.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  6. Alexis, don't tell anyone, but I still haven't read Jane Eyre!

  7. Thanks for sharing your books, Margaret.

    Please do not enter me for the giveaway as I have read The Silver Locket.

    Just wanted to add what a wonderful read this is.


  8. I just read Jane Eyre for the first time two months ago and really enjoyed it. Thank you for the interesting post and giveaway. :)

  9. Thank you for inviting me to be a guest blogger, Marg - I enjoyed writing about my favourite novels very much indeed, and am delighted to see that my keepers are other people's keepers, too!

  10. The Power of One is one of my favourite books.

  11. I really enjoyed reading the guest post. To Kill a mocking bird was one of my O level reads many moons ago & my faithful friend Winnie!

  12. Jane Eyre is my absolute favorite book. I will never give up the little antique-looking volume that has a permanent spot in my book case and am always delighted to see it in others' favourites lists.

  13. May I simply just say what a comfort to find somebody who truly knows what
    they are discussing on the internet. You definitely realize how
    to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people have to look at this and
    understand this side of the story. I was surprised you aren't more popular given that you most certainly possess the gift.

    My website ... louis vuitton bags outlet