Reasons to be Optimistic

An agent’s rant

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Sep 28, 2017
Hi everyone,

What are your favourite books and why? That's what I want to know.

When we signed up to Litopia, we had to share that info. Do you remember? The site wouldn't let us join until we'd offered up that most precious information – what are our favourite books.

I must admit, I'm not really a favourites kind of guy, not in an absolute sense anyway. Tastes change, people grow, mood is such a driver of desire. So I struggled a bit when choosing what to write in that box. But in the end, I went for comfort. I went for impact. These are they and why:

On the Road, Jack Kerouac – I came of age in the nineties. Gen X, rave culture, club culture, the end of the Cold War. I was in London, sharing a flat, working for a TV company in Soho. Life was fast, wild and new. And very, very bright. Someone gave me On the Road. I read it in one sitting. It felt like Kerouac was speaking to me across the decades, speaking directly to me. The music was different, the details of the journey, the discoveries. But the road was the same. Devouring his racing prose was mind-expanding, at a time in my life when I was desperate to devour the world.​

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs) – In the noughties I upped sticks and started over in Spain. As part of the starting over, I bought myself a shelf-full of Penguin Classics and settled in to broaden my literary horizons. I read War and Peace in half-hour bursts over three weeks on the Madrid Metro (I spent a lot of time on the Metro). I was expecting the book to be a slog. I came to it as something to tick off a list. But in it I discovered the power of character. And reading it set me on a path that slowly brought me back to my childhood passion for writing stories. It lit a spark – one day I'll write a scene as powerful as Natasha's dance!​

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien – I won't linger over this one. I write fantasy. And this is why.​
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin – The Tolkien antidote, makes my hairs stand on end. Everything after sits between these two.​

So that's me. Why did you choose the books you chose? What are they, and what do they do to you?

I feel like whatever I'm reading atm is my favorite. And I haven't had time or had space to read for weeks which is likely why I'm so forlorn. Right before shit hit the fan, I had dipped my toe into the Rivers of London series by (I can't remember). Even though I only did about a chapter, that book has been calling me from across the abyss and I can't wait to pick it up again. So I'll call it my favorite.
My tastes have definitely shifted. I'm with @Malaika, whatever I'm reading is a favourite normally, having said that my current read IS NOT, it's confusing, head hopping and the magic system is poorly described, I just can't experience it. But it's a best selling YA, so I'm slogging this one out because it's got to get better!!!

Recently, I'd say my favs are Uprooted and Spinning Silver, both by Naomi Novik, and Bear and the Nightgale by Katherine Arden, who's deft at omniscient, especially for a debut author. She entwines Russian fables with fantasy.

But my all time favs are anything by Jane Austen. And Anne of Green Gables by LMM Montgomery.

Then there's The Princess Bride and A Game of Thrones, whose authors are well-known.

I want to try War and Peace, I liked Anna Karenina, so that seems a good progression.
So far, these. Not that I necessarily 'like' them but because they have stayed so present with me:

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.
Schindler's List, Thomas Kineally
Precious Bane, Mary Webb
Dragon Under The Hill, Gordon Honeycombe.
The Once and Future King, TH White
Don't Look Now, Daphne du Maurier
Millstone Grit, Glyn Hughes
The Peregrine, JA Baker
The Haunting of Gad's Hill, Norah Lofts
Martha Quest-Children of Violence, Doris Lessing
Man and Dog, Konrad Lorenz.
Ghost and Ghoul, TC Lethbridge
Red Shift-Alan Garner
Promise At Dawn- Romain Gary
The Story of San Michele, Axel Munthe
@Malaika, I often feel the same – that the current thing's the favourite. Probably because reading is always me time. But you've got six books and a series on your profile page. Were you reading them all the day you wrote that list? ;) Or are there other reasons you included them?

@RK Capps, same again – those all-time favourites, what do they do to you? Why are they important?

@Katie-Ellen Hazeldine, another list! We all love a list, but the why of it is where the story is. Could you pick one or two and tell us why they stay present?

I wonder if we all share our whys, there might be patterns. Could be interesting, for a writer...


These books have stayed with me because most of them, in their own different ways, make me feel the ways in which I am physically connected to the earth, the patches I know and the ones I never will except through virtual travel, and these writers make me feel the vibrations of all those who came before me, human, non human, as I consider how they have felt about the world, and shaped the world as I am living it now.

And why people do what they do. Life lessons.

The Levant Trilogy. Displacement by War, displacement by marriage to a man popular and gregarious to an insufferable extent, who collects everyone else...but you, because he sees you as an extension of himself. How to live with him and not effing kill him, with all the war going on around as you shift around the Levant in your mobile expat community with all its tensions and in-fighting.

Millstone Grit: a smorgasbord of the Pennines of West Yorkshire. The hills and Mills and the people made by them, sometimes broken by them. Ted Hughes. Other poets. The echoes never fade. Graves of orphanage children used as mill workers.

Ooh, how could I not have included African Genesis in this list. I don't believe it!

Katie-Ellen's review of African Genesis

I LOVE the fact the writer was not a scientist. Away with boundaries and barriers! Here is a naturalist with poetic insight.
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I don't have favourite books but I have types: anything with complex, dark characters. Humour in dark situations. But mainly, I follow strong voices. I like delving into the mind of the protagonist. I enjoy understanding and exploring them even if what they do is wrong. And I like when characters stay with me when I close the book at night. I guess that means they need to be strong and memorable.

But I also read 'escapist' books. I like to escape every now and then.

Plays. I love reading how interaction between people develops. In a play, people being confronted by people.
I once picked up a book in a charity shop entitled The Black Saxon. It was a gripping read, but (and I hate to admit this) it was published by Mills and Boon. I think my all time favourite read has to be Stones of Evil by Bryan Cooper. It is set in Bronze Age Britain and features a stone cutter called Haril.
Books I enjoyed reading as a child include The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy and the Tripods Trilogy. In recent times I've enjoyed reading the work of both Philip Pullman and Suzanne Collins.
This sounds rather vain, but my favourite book is always the one that I'm writing! I'm chafing at the bit to begin the sixth Cornish Detective novel, Kissing & Killing which I'll start once I've finished designing my blogs. Me, as a blogger, resembles a grizzly bear playing a church organ.

For comfort reading, two books I've re-read more than any others: Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows and An Island To Oneself by Tom Neale (if you see a cheap copy grab it, as they're selling for 100 quid online).

They're not only comforting, but also thought-provoking about what it means to be a part of society with friends and enemies—or to withdraw from society to live with yourself.

In recent years, the two novels I think about the most and which I'd re-read, are Kim Zupan's The Ploughmen and Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting. Both have influenced my writing. Zupan's crime novel is really strange with the interplay between a young and innocent policeman and an ageing and implacable contract killer. It has two great moments—which make you go "Good!" and "Oh no, surely not...."

The sweep of Mytting's ambitious novel scoops the reader up, making one keen to discover what happens next to the naïve protagonist. It's sure to be filmed, so read it before they ruin it!
Sometimes in 1966 (I think it was), I read a book, "Valley of the Dolls" and I was so upset by it- I just didn't like it, that I wrote an article for the caollege magazine called "Why I don't read books anymore." Someone once said, I can't remember who, they were writing the kind of book they wanted to read, because what was/is on the current market does not satisfy them. I tend to feel a bit like that.

So, although I don't remember what I put on the list of my favourite books when I signed-up for Litopia, I do know what wasn't there- namely anything within the last 30-40 years or so, nothing not based on reality unless it was "Animal Farm" or "Lord of the Flies" because the first deals with politics and the second with the darker side of human nature.

I probably mentioned Agatha Christie's books because I go overboard for good detective stories: "The Nun's Story," and the "Thorn Birds," because those deal in the kind of subject matter that draws me in and consequently some of it probably rubs off in my writing.

I must have mentioned my long-standing favourites, from the early 20th Century; ALL of E.M. Forster's, most of D.H. Lawrence's, some of Virginia Woolf's and the shorter ones of James Joyce's.

No doubt ALL of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte's and Charles Dickens' books were listed and I could not have omitted Shakespeare's tragedies and history plays.

So, what have all of these books got in common? They all deal with the psychology of the human mind and relationships... and they are all believable.
I think books I have re-read after a span of years and loved all over again qualify as my favourites.

I've mentioned Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals a few times on here because I return to it over and over again. Hilarious characters, fascinating creatures, idyllic setting and vibrant writing. It's my go-to book if I'm feeling blue.

Like @RK Capps I remain enthralled by Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. The characterisation is excellent and the main character is intensely beguiling and yes, it also has the idyllic setting, humour and vibrant writing that appeal to me (see above).

Penelope Lively's The Ghost of Thomas Kempe ticks the same boxes for me in many ways as LM Montgomery's classic novel, but with a supernatural twist. It really is a great piece of writing and I enjoyed it just as much when I read it as an adult as I did as a child.

Finally, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is a wonderful flight of fancy, with hard-hitting themes, a compulsive plot and moments of great poignancy. A fantastic read.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger made me laugh out loud and remains a favourite. I really empathised with Holden. So I know I could read that again and again. I was astonished when I recommended it to a friend and she said she couldn't finish it because she found it a bit heavy going and not funny at all... so there you are.

I love A LOT by Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere was fab. Ursula K Le Guin is another favourite – Tales From Earthsea. I never managed to get beyond the first chapter of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, though I really wanted to like it. Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses was a favourite: made me laugh and cry, and The Road. McCarthy's writing style has a spare, poetic beauty about it, which I love. It's the complete opposite to Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Mordant's Need, which are incredibly rich and FULL of description and all the things we're told we shouldn't do... but I love them too.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, absolutely fab. I don't think I spotted a dodgy sentence in the whole book.

A few I really want to read yet again: Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel L Clemens, aka Mark Twain, a man I wish I had met. And Jack London's The Call of the Wild, White Fang and Other stories – storytelling at its best. I liked Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie but can't remember anything about it now except a rich writing style that appealed to me. Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls was lovely writing but made me sad, so I never read anything else by him. The Little Prince and Wind Sand and Stars by Saint-Exupéry... oh there are so many! :)

Having read your comment about War and Peace @Rich. I think I'll give that a go some time. When I've got a spare few months (no metro, you see) :)
I've found this question harder than I expected! Whereas I can easily tell you what my favourite films are, I've read a lot of good books and most of them have stayed with me for different reasons. Some inspiring (Miracle in the Andes, Nando Parrado), some gripping (The Fireman, Joe Hill), some beautifully descriptive, (Tale of Two Cities, Dickens), some epic (The Stand, Stephen King), some hilarious (Catch-22, Joseph Heller), some scary (Salem's Lot, King) but those are examples rather than favourites.

The experience of picking up a good book and immersing myself in the world, the story and the characters is rewarding every time and remembering and reliving those stories in my mind has made me realise how hard it is to separate them.
So many favourites, but a couple of the ones I find myself recommending again and again to people are:

A Secret History by Donna Tartt (mystery): Difficult to describe, but I think it's standout difference is not to find out who committed the murder (you learn who at the start), but why.
The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee (memoir): The story of a North Korean defector—eye opening is all I can really say to summarise it.
The Farseer, Livership Traders and Fitz and the Fool trilogies by Robin Hobb (fantasy): Probably "slow burns" by today's standards, but the characters are second to none. My copies at are tattered and dog-eared.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown (sci-fantasy): A more recent read that roped me in and it was all I could think about for days until I finished the third book of the first trilogy.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (science fiction/literary): interesting exploration of gender roles in society. Also left me thinking long after I finished.
Embassytown by China Miéville (sci-fi/weird): Admittedly the first 100 pages was a slog, but the pay off was brilliant. This one blew my mind, I couldn't predict where it would go.
Bartimaeus Series by Jonathan Stroud (fantasy/YA): A light and easy read with many a wise-crack from a 5000 year old djinn.

Recently, I'd say my favs are Uprooted and Spinning Silver, both by Naomi Novik
I am reading Enchantée by Gita Trelease (a re-imagined Cinderella) and it reminds me A LOT of Novik's work. I'm only part way through, but I may even like this story better than the Novik's Uprooted. Highly recommend (so far).

I never managed to get beyond the first chapter of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, though I really wanted to like it.
This is me too! I really want to enjoy it, but I just can't get past Tom Bombadil before I want to throw the book at the wall.
I once picked up a book in a charity shop entitled The Black Saxon. It was a gripping read, but (and I hate to admit this) it was published by Mills and Boon. I think my all time favourite read has to be Stones of Evil by Bryan Cooper. It is set in Bronze Age Britain and features a stone cutter called Haril.
Books I enjoyed reading as a child include The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy and the Tripods Trilogy. In recent times I've enjoyed reading the work of both Philip Pullman and Suzanne Collins.
Love Philip Pullman❤️
This is such a hard question, because there are books I love for their pure silly escapism (Say, anything by Douglas Adams), and there are books I love for their clever prose (Much of Dickens' work comes to mind), and books I love because of their characters (Kristin Cashore's Graceling series, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind series, Barbara Kingsolver's and Isabel Allende's books) And then there are books for which I have no excuse--something about them captured me, and they're not all fiction:

Dandelion Wine--Every word of this book speaks to my childhood--pain and pleasure in equal measure reading it.

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: This was the book I quit my job to came out weeks after I started writing full-time, and spoke directly to me.

For Love of Insects by Tom Eisner--Eisner is one of the most well-known and respected entomologists and chemical ecologists in the world, but this book is so full of his wide-eyed wonder about insects, I can't help but be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

And if I think too long, there will be dozens more on this list (A Tale of Two Cities, City of Brass, The Hunchback of Notre Dame...)
Thank you all for sharing. I'm enjoying this thread!

Oh I forgot about The Little Prince- I bought two copies of that in case I lost one!
I have a friend who collects translations of this. He has many, but not yet all 300-odd(!).
A great question, Rich. It makes me sift out my true, occasionally cheesy choices, from those with more kudos, which I didn't really like quite as much but would like to namedrop, so:

Enid Blyton's Brer Rabbit books - childhood favourites
All the Dick Francis books - easy reads, formulaic but oh so enjoyable
The Whitsun Weddings - Larkin's poetry collection, studied for A level, and loved ever since despite that
One Day - David Nicholls - romantic and great concept and fluent writing
Any Human Heart - William Boyd, fiction so well depicted it reads like autobiography
I forgot to mention why I am besotted by "The Little Prince". Like the others I like, it's about human relationships, friendship, love, hate, ignorance, betrayal, selfishness, kindness, courage, enlightenment and God.

May I add those are ingredients sadly lacking in much of today's "literature". In fact publishers are more concerned if a work fits on a certain kind of shelf rather than what values it contains. Sadly, I feel one cannot apply the title of "authorship" to many writers nowadays.
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I had to go searching for what I chose as my favourites... hadn't a clue!! And they change weekly, depending on what I'm reading, as others have also mentioned. I also have noticed recently that I am particularly drawn to books with an artist's process described in them (I am a visual artist), and see now that this is true for a lot of my list :)

What I chose when I joined:
The Time Travelers Wife: loved the premise, the writing. Took me a while to figure it out (it hops a lot). Read it a second time, something I rarely do.

I Know This Much Is True: I spoke about this on Pop-Ups. Cold hall, nursing baby, all-nighter. Also read it twice. Epic and I was in the story, totally invested in the characters. Bereft when I finished!

A Little Life: Not sure this would still be down as my favourite, I think it could be improved somewhat by edited and knocking off many thousand words, it was at times unwieldy.... But very epic. I was traumatised by the ending!! I'm not a weepy person, but I think I cried for the entire second half of this book, it really made me sad.

Tin Man: Gosh, this book! Also very sad, but I loved how it was written, and I loved the characters. I had to be in the right frame of mind, though. I bought it because I really liked the cover (!), started it, gave up because it didn't grip me, then when I was in a (calmer? perhaps) state of mind, started again and devoured it in one sitting.

All The Light We Cannot See: I went through an unintentional WW2 reading phase, and read this, The Book Thief and a couple more. Very enjoyable, loved the descriptions (and the model town! All my doll-house fantasies realised).

The ones I didn't list, which stand out for me are: The Secret Garden: this was one of the books I read as a child that has welded itself to my mind. The writing, the story; Mary and Colin, so dislikeable at the start, but you couldn't but have such empathy for both. I read this recently again to my kids and it was such a pleasure. We have a Secret Garden at the end of our long, wild garden thanks to this book :)

The Little House on The Prairie series: the details! Fantastic stories.

Anne of Green Gables: I also read this to my kids recently. So beautifully written, such a sense of place and people. Deeply enjoyable and so very funny!

But of all the books I've read in the past year, one @Leonora recommended, The Skylarks War has to be one of my all time favourites, I adored this book. Every single thing about it, from the characters to the plot, the detail. I read it with my daughter, and oftentimes we would read for hours. As soon as we finished, I went straight back and reread it.

(BTW, I think @Rich. , I need to get a medal (or slap) for this lengthy post. I'm halting myself here before I waffle on until Christmas. And I probably still didn't answer your question :rolleyes: )
Having read your comment about War and Peace @Rich. I think I'll give that a go some time. When I've got a spare few months (no metro, you see) :)
Do, you won't be disappointed! (And the lack of metro can be cured by standing in the corner of a hot room and having someone jostle you while you read.) :)

BTW, I think @Rich. , I need to get a medal (or slap) for this lengthy post.
Medal. Definitely. You even went to the trouble of putting your book titles in a different font. Above and beyond! :)
I agree with Carol - the list is soooooo long. I'll give you a few, Rich:
the irony of "My family and other animals" by the often mentioned Gerald Durrell;
the devastating content of "The narrow road to the deep north" by Richard Flanagan;
the common sense and science of "The magic of reality" by Richard Dawkins;
the perfection of "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen;
the brilliance of "Extremely loud and incredicbly close" by Jonathan Safran Foer;
the eye-opening "Eating animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer;
the insightful and astonishing poetic prose of "A room of one's own" by Virginia Woolf;
the disturbing and beautiful "A thousand splendid suns" by Khaled Hosseini (mentioned in today's pop-up submissions);
the stark prose of "A village in the jungle" by Leonard Woolf.
I shall stop here, but the list goes on and on. As far as I'm concerned, literature is man's greatest creation.
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You even went to the trouble of putting your book titles in a different font.
Ah! I was just trying to be fancy like you!!

the disturbing and beautiful "A thousand splendid suns" by Khaled Hosseini (mentioned in today's pop-up submissions);
I also loved this book. Couldn't participate in the chat room much today (thanks to a long story involving a vacuum cleaner that no one needs to know) but wanted to say I disagreed also with the review @AgentPete mentioned, and Hosseini's writing is so poetic and beautiful, I loved all of his books. Forgot to mention Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also. What a wonderful, *wonderful* writer.
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Reasons to be Optimistic

An agent’s rant