I’ve always been an avid reader – my mum taught my brother and I to read before we even started our primary school education so it’s no wonder I ended up as a writer myself.
Most of my books were either purchased with pocket money from second hand bookshops (one particularly fantastic one we used to get taken to in Swindon was three storeys high) or from the local bookshop using book tokens which were a staple part of my birthday and Christmas presents growing up.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve started hunting online bookstores to track down copies of the books which for some reason or another resonated with me the most and I thought I’d share some of them with you here.
I’ve included the links to the books on Goodreads, (just click on the book title below) using the edition I had as a kid wherever possible and I’ve posted the cover artwork to help you track them down in second hand bookshops. In no particular order then:
The Famous Five - Enid Blyton
I was at a thriller writing seminar about a year ago and most of the attendees there admitted that the Famous Five appeared on their bookshelves as kids.
I started off with Five On A Hike Together which my mum bought for me from a second hand bookshop in Watchet, Somerset – I was five years old, had just read through her old hardback copies of three other Famous Five books and was then struggling with the Wind in the Willows (yeah, I know, I was over-ambitious as a five year old reader!).
I quickly devoured the rest of the Famous Five series over the next 3-4 years. The BBC televised some of the books and if you fancy a laugh it’s worth doing a search on YouTube for these – I don’t think the television series has aged as well as the books!
The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper
What can I say? I think the Dark is Rising series may have influenced a lot of today’s fantasy authors – I’d be interested to hear what you think. I picked up The Grey King in our local bookstore using a gift token I’d received for my birthday, then back-tracked and read the whole series from the beginning.
I managed to find an omnibus edition of the entire series in an Oxfam bookshop before leaving the UK some years ago and still enjoyed the story.
The Ring of Nenuphar – C. B. Rutley
Right, I’ll be honest here – I’m not sure I’ve got the title of this one spelled correctly but if you do a search in Google for C B Rutley, you’ll find it – eventually.
This is the book which inspired me to try my hand at writing as a kid. I think this one came from that second hand bookshop in Swindon I mentioned earlier – I know my copy of the Crimson Rust I had by the same author certainly did.
Unfortunately, I lost mine or passed it on as a teenager and I only found a replacement copy of it about four years ago – and it cost me twenty-five quid then. As far as I can tell, it’s getting rarer because I’ve just done a search for it and have come up blank.
However, if you do track down a copy – get it. It’s one of the few books from that time (1940s) to feature a female protagonist in an adventure story, and it’s brilliant. It’s based in the 1920s – the protagonist is an aviator (flies a biplane, what else?), and her father is an adventurer. When he goes missing in the desert, it’s up to her to find him – and the only clue is a ring he gave to her on her birthday. Think along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara, but based in the 1920s and you’re halfway there.
If you fancy reading The Crimson Rust in the meantime, click here for the Goodreads link.
The Moon Stallion – Brian Hayles
I was absolutely fixated with the BBC series of this book as a six year old, especially as it featured a local landmark, Uffington White Horse (readers of my Dan Taylor series will note the connection!).
Soon after the TV series ended, the book came out, adapted from the script by Brian Hayles. I remember lending it to someone in my class who didn’t give it back (you know who you are!).
It wasn’t until this year that my cousin located an exact copy of the one I’d lost in a second hand bookshop in Cambridge (thanks cuz!).
Brian Hayles is probably better known for all the Doctor Who episodes he penned during the 1970s – certainly my favourite Doctor, Tom Baker, appeared in many of Brian Hayles’ scripted shows.
Again, the BBC series can be located on YouTube so if you want to see why I’m raving about it, go and take a look and then find a copy of the book to read.
Flambards – K. M. Peyton
Once again, a book serialised by the BBC became one of my favourite ‘go to’ books growing up.
I recently tracked down the entire series again, one by one building up the collection that I’d lost as a teenager (the shame of it, I know!).
I think growing up in the countryside as I did, and being keen on horse-riding at the time I watched the television series, this book developed my love of historical fiction, especially as it’s written in the era leading up to the First World War, describing the devastating effects it had on families. It’s also a good social commentary on the dying class system at the time.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
Another second hand bookshop purchase, and in my humble opinion, still the best C.S. Lewis book.
I’ve no idea how old this particular edition is – my other half says he remembers having this version on his bookshelf as a kid and he’s 13 years older than me so they must be getting rare now J
The first time Lucy discovers the world at the back of the Wardrobe – that moment where she steps through the coats, to find snow on the ground and THAT lamppost – wow.
Somehow, the other Narnia books didn’t resonate that much with me as a kid, and I’ve read since that there are religious connotations dotted throughout this book. However, this isn’t something that I can honestly say I ever noticed – I was just caught up in the whole story at the time.
Meanwhile, if you find yourself in Oxford at any time, I recommend a pint in the Eagle & Child pub where Inklings used to meet. It’s a great atmosphere and leads me onto the next book on my list...
The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
Okay, I’m going to put my neck on the line here and say I was disappointed with Peter Jackson’s interpretation of this book.
I first read this as a ten-year-old because our primary school teachers, in their infinite wisdom, picked this for the annual Christmas school play – and we were all expected to take part.
Anyway, yours truly got picked to play – a spider. Yep. Must’ve been the legs (I was tall even then). Luckily I redeemed myself in my parents’ eyes by pestering the music teachers to use a piece of music I’d written for one of the songs from the book. I still have the programme from the play somewhere in a box, signed by everyone who appeared in the play.
To those that had to sit through my composed music, I apologise. In my defence, I had originally written it to a 120bpm rock beat but was overruled by Miss Foster, my fourth year teacher. I knew my dad shouldn’t have answered the front door to her wearing his apron depicting a bra and knickers ensemble...
And that’s the end of my list – thanks for indulging me.
Of course, there were many other books I read during my childhood which influenced me, or at least kept me quiet for several hours while I got lost in another world, but there are too many to list here.
If you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve been reading over the years, do feel free to join me over on Goodreads here – I’m always keen to receive recommendations.
(Or, how does a female author know this stuff?)
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked at book signings this year is along the lines of ‘You’re female – how do you know anything about guns or how to stop a bomb going off?’
It’s a fair question. I haven’t served in the armed forces for a start. Yes, I’m female. The majority of authors writing in my particular genre are blokes that have served their countries in one way or another. Yes, sometimes (on a bad day), I kick myself for not writing under a pseudonym (although that would’ve brought about all sorts of problems at said book signings...).
So – how do I know?
I do a LOT of research. I ask a LOT of questions. And I have a group of experts I can turn to, in order that I can check my facts to ensure that my thrillers are authentic – without drowning the reader in detail.
With a warning that the following contains spoilers, I thought I’d share with you some of the emails my technical expert Stephen Davies and I shared over the course of 2010-2012 while I was writing White Gold and then Under Fire
Steve’s background was as a bomb disposal expert with the British Army who then worked in close protection while still serving. I’d filed his emails under a section in my research notes, aptly entitled ‘Blowing Stuff Up’:-
Me: Hi Steve. My lead character is going to help overpower some bad guys on a docked ship, and he’s given a handgun rather than an assault rifle – what are his choices?
Steve: Hi Rachel. Well, James Bond always preferred the Walther PPK 9mm of course however the British Army standard issue was the Browning 9mm. That said, if I was him, I’d be using either a Glock or a Sig Sauer 9mm.
Me: Hi Steve. How many bullets does the Sig Sauer 9mm carry? If I have my main character shooting at bad guys, it’s useful to know how many bullets he has left...
Steve: Hi Rachel. It’s safe to assume that both the Glock and Sig Sauer would hold thirteen rounds of ammunition. Anything else, just ask.
Me: Hi Steve. Me again. I recall you saying that you did some close protection security work while in the Army... I’m writing a scene at the start of the story where Dan is tasked with protecting a Qatari Sheik at an evening gala event. I wondered what sort of thing Dan would be looking for when he’s checking out the venue before the event? Here’s what I’ve written so far...
Steve: Hi Rachel. Looks great so far. You would need to check roof access (helicopter landing or fast rope descent), fire escapes down the side of the building, close proximity of buildings next door (jumping across from external balconies) – you’d also want to get hold of a comprehensive guest list, a full list of the sheik’s bodyguards and photos and establish and command and control centre...
Hopefully the above shows the sort of detail I drill down into when writing the Dan Taylor series of thrillers, and how much fun it can be. If you’re starting out, the best advice I can pass on is that there’s no such thing as a silly question – Steve’s responses always fired up my imagination so that I was often made to think about things I hadn’t previously considered, and the books are better for it.
It’s not just military experts I correspond with. The storyline for Under Fire meant that I was consulting with doctors, policemen, ex-submariners, and weapons experts all the time I was writing.
Sadly, Steve lost his fight with cancer earlier this year before he could read the finished manuscript for Under Fire but his email responses always make me smile and I hope to one day find another expert who is as enthusiastic about my writing as he was.
In the meantime, I still scour news websites and magazines, read a lot of military non-fiction, ask questions of those around me and keep my eyes and ears open for the next snippet of information.
After all, you never know when you might have to dismantle an atomic bomb...
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