The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
I gobbled all seven chronicles of Narnia when I was eleven years old and the impact has never left me. I remember I believed in the reality of Mr Tumnus the faun and the talking beavers and Aslan the lion and for some years afterwards I convinced myself that when I died I would go to Narnia. It was only after I experienced that complete absorption in another world that I began my lifelong addiction to reading.
Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer.
I could have chosen at least five of Heyer’s Regency romantic comedies but this was the first one I ever read. Her novels are the best medicine I know for treating depression or weariness or illness and I am sure they were pivotal in my own decision to write romantic comedies. The ability to make people laugh is an underrated art and Georgette Heyer’s books could be just as funny as any P. G. Wodehouse novel. I cannot help thinking that if she hadn’t been a woman and she hadn’t chosen to incorporate romance in her stories, her genius would be more universally recognised.
Katey by Lucinda Hawksley.
This is a fabulous biography of Charles Dicken’s daughter. It is a compelling story of a vast family dominated and broken by a charming but unstable genius. It goes into my top five because it illustrates so well the fact that everyone is a complex combination of characteristics both good and bad. That is an obvious fact of course but one that writers can easily forget, simply because it is easier to depict characters in black or white rather than confusing shades of the rainbow.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith.
This is a terrifying thriller set in Russia in 1953. It shows the full horror of life in a totalitarian state and the corrosive effect it has on the humanity of its citizens. It is a million miles away from the books that I write but I learnt from this that every chapter should push the story forward and every character, however small, should be carefully drawn. It also has one of the most nail-biting finales I have ever read!
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.
Anne Tyler’s novels are all about her characters. Her ability to create quirky, fascinating and ultimately lovable individuals is what makes her one of the greatest of contemporary writers. Breathing Lessons, is on the surface an account of a long-married couple travelling across America to a funeral. Yet it depicts the marriage of these two people with such tenderness and understanding that by the end of the novel we feel we really know them. Best of all, Tyler shows that it is never too late to learn and to change.