Ten Classic Books to Read & Reread

Writers write, but writers also read. And we read lots. We’re talking piles of books, no, mountains of books! If you tell me you’re writing a book, don’t tell me that you don’t have time to read. It’s an essential part of the job – and it’s delicious!

Every book is a personal journey and sometimes we want to travel a new route, while other times we want to revisit the familiar. I love rereading books because you always notice new things; and I find this is especially true when it’s a book I read as a youngster.

Here are a few classic children’s fiction books that I highly recommend. I consider them old friends; stories and characters that I read as a child and revisit time and again. They always remind me of where my love for stories came from and why I want to write.

Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines: This is the only book that ever made me cry. The setting was similar to where I grew up, and as I’ve always loved nature, I was completely engrossed in Billy’s journey. I spent many days searching for my own kestrel to nurture! Set in a single day, the range of emotions you’re pulled through is truly intense. I could read this book over and over for the rest of my life.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett: I could never quite understand how I could love a book with such a despicable main character – the opening lines say it all! But this is a beautiful book about discovery; of gardens, of self, of how to trust and how to make friendships. A remarkable coming of age tale with all the necessary ingredients for a tug at the heartstrings – and don’t worry, you’ll like Mary by the end.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: travel is one of my favourite things and when I was a child I always dreamed of taking long journeys. We had an old, abandoned rail track called ‘The Black Path’ near my home and I used to love rambling under its bridges, past the banks of briars, conjuring up images of this book. The ending is so satisfying that when you finish, you just want to start over again.

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian: Set during World War II, this historical fiction novel is a real page turner. I love the dual settings of city and countryside, the steadfastness of Mr Tom (I kept him in mind when I created Grandpa Tobias in The Book of Learning), and how the book deals with an abusive home life. The way each of the characters grow is just wonderful.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White: this story of Fern Arable, a pig called Wilbur and his spider pal Charlotte is just so beautiful and yet so sad; and it is still completely unique. I grew up in a council estate so the farm setting really appealed to my love of nature. There’s just enough tension and a sprinkling of hope – perfect!

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: I adore the characters that Dickens creates – especially the mean ones, they’re so vile! And the way he uses the environment to depict mood is stunning. I read my first Dickens book aged ten (Hard Times), and I was hooked – but this is the one I return to time and again. A dark yet heartwarming tale of rags to riches.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett: a riches to rags tale, I was attracted to this book as a child because I loved the way it showed how delicate our fortunes are, and the impact this has on the people around us. I admired the way that Sara kept her resilience and good nature, even though her fortunes had changed so much. The fact that she makes friends with a monkey was a real draw also, and the ending is sublime. I love a story where people get their comeuppance!

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Anne is such a vibrant, bubbly, and enigmatic character, I was drawn to her right away. I remember feeling like I had lots in common with her, and I think she’s still one of the best female characters in children’s fiction today. Her antics always make me smile – she’s a ray of sunshine.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson: buccaneers, buried gold, mutinies, kidnappings and a one legged pirate – what’s not to love? I remember my heart pumping when I was reading this epic book as a child, and it still has the same effect today. The ending makes me want to jump on a boat and go searching for the buried treasure.

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme: although the language is a little old-fashioned now, I still adore this tale and would recommend it to any young reader that loves animals and nature The characters are wonderfully colourful; wise yet grumpy badger, naive mole, clever ratty and barmy toad – they’re unforgettable. The setting is also incredible. Reading this always makes me want to go off on long countryside treks, foraging.

What are your favourite classic books that you revisit time and again? What is it about them that you love?

How do you choose your next read?

Why do you choose to read what you read? And how do you select your next book?

If you’re anything like me, you have a stack of unread books and still you purchase/borrow more. So what makes you pick up a book and buy it in the first place? And how do you choose which title will be read next?

Do you need to be in the mood for a certain read at a certain time? Or do book reviews/radio interviews with the author influence your choice? Is it the cover, the story or the author that attracts you? Or is it completely random? Or do you go for the 69 theory that Hazel Gaynor discusses over on writing.ie?

When I’m selecting my next read, I always have a stack of five or more books to choose from. They’ll range in genre, length and style and I’ll reread the blurbs before narrowing my choice down.  Then comes the final stage; I read a paragraph or page (whatever the book dictates) and will go for the one that grabs me.

I thought seeing as reading is such an integral part of my life, I’d take a look at what I’ve read so far this year and what it was that attracted me to the book. So this is my year so far in books… What have you read recently? And how do you choose your next read?

green fingered writer book choice

This was one that slipped through the reading list & my hubby bought it for me for Christmas. The winters are long here so it was the perfect choice for winter nights.

green fingered writer book choice junk

I’m attending an Arvon course in July with Melvin Burgess – so I’m rereading/reading more of his books now in preparation.

green fingered writer book choice gone to the forest

I love Japanese writers and apocalyptic stories & this was a new author & a great-sounding story, so I couldn’t resist it.

green fingered writer book choice thomas hardy

This was a book club choice – we decided to delve back into the classics.

green fingered writer book choice burial rites

Another book club choice, this was chosen because one of our members met the publisher on her travels and he recommended it.

green fingered writer book choice adam marek

I bought this at the 2013 Cork international Short Story Festival as I try to read a short story every day during winter. This was so good, I decided to read the whole collection from start to finish.

green fingered writer book choice melvin burgess

This is further research/preparation for my 2014 Arvon residential writing retreat.

green fingered writer book choice Karen Perry

I actually won this book on twitter – and I happen to know one of the authors (Paul Perry) so I was doubly excited about this one.

green fingered writer book choice zeitoun dave eggers

I like Dave Eggers and the concept behind this creative non-fiction book sounded incredible – and like nothing I’ve ever read before. I’m also writing an apocalyptic story so I used this as research.

This is a regular reread to help keep going and make sure I don't forget any basics.

This is a regular reread to help keep going and make sure I don’t forget any basics. (Apologies – not the best image!)




Book swap anyone?

If you’re anything like me, your home is swamped with books; on the table, beside the bed, overflowing the shelves and tucked behind cushions on the sofa. These ever-growing stacks are wonderfully comforting but if, like me, you have very limited space, sometimes you have to clear some of the clutter.

I often give books to friends or to the local charity shop, but the stacks keep growing! It’s impossible to not buy books. You could read every minute of every day and there would still be more books you want to read.

Some books I want to keep because they’re gifts, special editions, or have sentimental value. Some of them I’m forced to keep because I know I’m going to have to reread them again very soon because they really were that good. Or perhaps there’s a stylistic element I want to look at and consider in detail (without it hindering the story). Other books are like good friends and I simply like having them around.

So how do you reduce the number of books you own yet read more? I do use the local library – I adore libraries and cannot advocate them enough – but that only helps with one part of the problem.

So I came up with the idea of a book swap. Not a completely original idea, I admit, but a new concept for this blog. The idea is this: I post photos and descriptions of the books I’m (reluctantly) willing to part with and you offer a swap in the comments. We exchange postal info and voila – a new book for the price of a few stamps. What do you think? Interested?

OK, here are my first few swaps:

book swap the parasites

Stylistically brilliant, you don’t have to like the characters to love the book. A clear winner with our book club.

the slap book swap

Never has a title been more appropriate. Personally, I found this impossible to read but everyone else I know raved about it. See for yourself.

burial rites book swap

One of the most talked-about debuts of 2013 about the last people in Iceland to be publicly executed.

locker 62 book swap

A Young Adult title recommended for fans of Jacqueline Wilson & Sarah Dessen (Note: this is an uncorrected proof)

Support Independent Booksellers Week

Whyte Books, the bookshop in West Cork

My local independent bookshop – even lovelier on the inside!

In case you weren’t aware, we’re in the middle of Independent Booksellers Week – a worthy celebration for writers, readers and booksellers alike.

Contrary to belief, independent booksellers are not a dying breed (read this post from Bob at The Gutterbookshop if you don’t believe me). But the fact remains that they could become extinct, if not supported.

The beauty of independent bookshops is that they are not monopolised by trends or marketing departments or limited to the bestsellers list. The buyers (who usually turn out to also be the owner, barista, baker, counter assistant & accountant) are free to stock the books that reflect the varied tastes of their customers.

That means knowing their customers well and catering to their needs. In other words, delivering a very personal service. Like the Independent Booksellers Week motto says: real people, real books, real conversation.

For me, the most wonderful thing about independent bookshops is that the bookshop is also someone’s dream. Independent bookshop owners adore what they do because it is their passion, their calling.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

An incredible book – one of those I wish I’d written! highly recommend.

As writers, this is something we can easily relate to. And don’t forget, we also need homes for our books – especially much-loved bookshelves created from someone else’s dreams.

So when was the last time you bought a book from your local independent bookstore?

Yes, ordering a basket full of books from Amazon and get them delivered to your door is convenient – but where’s the personal touch? The lively debate about which titles to select? The surprise of an unexpected recommendation?

And of course, a big chain bookstore has much to offer. I’m not suggesting a boycott, I’m just reminding you that independent bookstores also have plenty to offer and need your support too.

My most recent purchases were John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, and TransAtlantic by Colum McGann.

What will you buy from your independent bookseller today?

What should children read?

Some personal favourites – but what about you?

I’m starting some children’s book clubs this winter and would love your thoughts on what to select for the reading list.

I live in such an amazing rural community which has not only been welcoming and supportive, but has also enabled me to create the kind of environment necessary to write full time.

As summer draws to a close, I’m aware that the winters here are very quiet and the nights are long. Perfect for writing – but not always so great for the local children. So I thought I’d give something back.

The local bookshop was thankfully looking to start some children’s events and has agreed to host the book clubs. So, we’ve a lovely, comfy room, with hot chocolate, brownies and wall to wall books – now all we need is to choose the reading list!

The aim is to encourage and nurture a joy of reading through a a range of stimulating and exciting books. I’m thinking a mix of genres, formats and styles. The books on offer should excite, inspire and challenge; but reading is such a personal experience, I don’t want the list to be completely coloured by my own preferences and opinions.

This is where I need your help.

The book clubs will be for 10 – 12 and 12+ age groups and will run weekly. I’m planning six week blocks, and thinking of covering 2 books per six weeks (depending upon the reading ability and enthusiasm of the group, this may change). At first, the books will be chosen by me but as I get a feel for the group, I’ll give choices and put it to the vote. Of course, as time goes by, the children can also make suggestions. But there has to be a starting point.

As a child, I was an avid reader and would read every minute I could. I’d read anything and everything. When I was ten I was diving into classics such as The Railway Children and Secret Garden, Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. I moved on to Dickens and the Brontes, probably understanding very little but enjoying it immensely. The language, the rhythm; that’s what attracted me. By the age of twelve I’d skipped to Lord of the Flies and Stephen King; I wanted gritty content, and I wanted to look cool.

I still love reading – and, writing children’s fiction, I also read plenty of it – but this is not about me; it’s about fostering the same love of reading in others. After all, I believe the gift of reading is one of the best gifts you can ever receive.

So what I would like to know is…

1) When you were 10, and when you were a teenager, what books were you reading? And which ones stayed with you?

2) If you’re a teacher of have children of your own – what books would you like your children to be reading and why?

Thanks very much in advance for your ideas.

Libraries and the joy of reading

My latest library finds

I’ve always moved house a lot and although it’s second nature to me, the heart-breaking bit is having to part (yet again) with my books. Sifting through ‘keep’, ‘discard’ and ‘maybe’ piles is soul-wrenching; and so, even though I’m planning on staying put, I’ve rediscovered the beauty of libraries.

My local library has weird opening times,  – which means that I can spend Sunday morning tucked up in the children’s section, reading picture books (for research purposes, of course!). I can then order in some absentee books and take out a few choice reads. I find libraries not only a lovely environment for taking some time out; but they allow me to read more voraciously. Not necessarily because of the choice they have (my library is tiny and limited so I order lots of books in), but because of the freedom they give.

Looks like I'll have to share with Plato

Through libraries, I have rediscovered a child-like joy of reading. I can select books that friends/my trusty Mslexia diary/a stranger on the bus recommend and if I don’t like them, stop reading without feeling an iota of guilt. This may sound harsh to some (and completely unthinkable to many) but I wasted a lot of time (and money) over the years purchasing books which I didn’t enjoy.

These days, I’m thinking more like my good friend @DerekF03 (see his literary bucket list blog post) and have decided to be more discerning when it comes to reading. I’ve come to the conclusion that time is too precious; I don’t eat foods I don’t like so why should I waste time continuing with a plot/writing style/character I’m not enjoying?

What’s your take on libraries and what are you reading right now?