Six books that inspire me to be a better writer

I spend a great deal of my time writing.  My latest novel is out! The Old Girls’ Network was released several days ago and I’ve started to edit the next one, which is very exciting. I’ve also just finished writing another – the life of a novelist is all go! – and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But in the middle of coming up with a new idea, writing it down, editing it, tweeting about it, and talking to radio hosts, I must still make time to read. 

It’s so important to read widely, not just in order to stay constantly familiar with good writing and good ideas, but also for inspiration. I’ve read a few books by some brilliant fellow Boldwood writers. I’m so impressed with the quality of current novels by Fay Keenan, Jina Bacarr, Shari Low, Emma Murray, Gemma Rogers, Jennie Bohnet, Ross Greenwood, Mary Grand, Beth Moran, Frances Evesham and Jessica Redland, just to name a few (and there are many, many more).

But I’ve selected six books I’ve recently read, below. They each have a specific reason for being inspirational and helpful to writers, offering their own unique skills: they demonstrate how to create character, style, storyline, effective writing. It’s all here, a masterclass for authors to read, reflect and learn.

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter

This novel uses language so well to evoke place, time and character. It’s the story of Martha, who is accused of being a witch because she is adept with herbs and remedies and, when a landslide occurs, she is blamed.

The opening is incredibly gripping in its clever use of language to evoke time and place and the whole story is a perfect example of how to sustain tension and hold a reader’s interest through the quality of the writing. Characters and tension are superbly handled; it’s a well-written, well-shaped novel about a woman who is outspoken and strong in a community where small-mindedness prevails and small-minded people are eager to judge.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester

Helen’s story is autobiographical; born in 1919, she came from a middle-class Birkenhead family, used to privilege, who fell on hard times in the 1930s and lived in poverty in Liverpool. It’s a brilliantly told riches-to-rags tale, compassionate, humorous and without self-pity, in a style that is firmly rooted in days gone by but it still feels pertinent. The author’s voice is authentic: the use of language is, in fact, fascinating, as Helen uses many phrases and words now seldom used, and the world she creates is one we’d never be able to access without the primary evidence and the powerful way she evokes her story. It’s a very lucid account that reveals so much about the early twentieth century and social change, but the novel is in fact far more than that.

I know  Liverpool well and I thought I understood a little about its poverty in past generations, but the world and the lives Helen Forrester evokes in her novel are a real lesson to us all: the story she tells is very moving. Poverty has always been a part of society and it is heartbreaking to read Helen’s experience and to remember that, although times have greatly changed,so many vulnerable people continue to be let down and children still go hungry today. It’s an important and well-written series of stories about the past that still resonate loudly.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I love this book because it’s so brave, challenging and fresh. Set in an unspecified time and place, the community that unfolds as the story develops is both credible and terrifying. The writer has taken a chance with this book and it has worked so well. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read: it is a story of tribalism, patriarchy, religion and conformism and the Milkman himself is an incredibly scary character. 

It’s a gripping tale that is an excellent example of the writer taking its readers outside their comfort zone and making the story sing so loudly that it resonates a shocking truth about our own lives and our futures. I imagine the style and the concept won’t be for everyone but it’s the sort of book that will make many readers sit up and reflect.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This novel is successful because of its style, panache, protagonist and its political energy. The writer is not afraid to be a little subversive and it is the strength and courage of Queenie that shines through. It is about race, straddling cultures and the experiences of a twenty five year old Jamaican-British woman, told in a breezy and humorous style. This story pulls no punches, though, as it deals with the title character’s journey as she splits up with her white boyfriend and attempts to navigate the modern world and all the prejudices and difficulties that it brings in terms of relationships, experiences and self-worth. It is strong, moving and superbly written from the first page to the last.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Not only is this book excellently researched, but it is also a strong cleverly-told tale about a character who defies others’ restrictions and expectations. This is a beautifully constructed and written story, which evokes character and place so well and is powerful in its ability to draw the reader in and to create empathy. Circe is a nymph, she is immortal but she is a woman who is scorned and isolated because she does not fit the mould others dictate for her. She learns to become a witch – it doesn’t happen by magic – and she develops power, strength and independence, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. A cleverly written story which is gripping and inspirational in so many ways.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I had to include this book. It’s an interesting read for its wisdom, its logical arguments and clarity. As writers, we are always trying to make what we write accessible and meaningful to readers, and not to overcomplicate what we are saying, but to explain thoroughly and accurately. This book is very well-written, but it is so much more. In a time when a ‘white lives’ banner is flown over a football stadium and some Facebook posts demonstrate that there are people who don’t understand the issues at stake, Eddo-Lodge explains her perspective perfectly: it’s not just about discrimination and prejudice, it’s also about power and institutions and the meaning of privilege. This is an important, powerful and relevant book, and it offers a necessary dialogue to be continued so that we can thrash out the best way to end racism.

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