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the influence of books

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to get tickets to listen to Terry Pratchett talk at the recording of Radio 4's "With Great Pleasure" Christmas special. In it, with a cast of brilliant readers, he would introduce and elaborate on the books that had an impact on him and his writing. It was a very well done, hugely enjoyable and very much got me thinking. A couple of weeks ago I happened to read this lovely post by Eyoki that talked about the books that were present in his home when he grew up. Sian's blog also has a number of intelligent and intriguing posts about the books she grew up with, which are well worth a read, or particular note (for me) being this recent one about graphic novels.

Books influence us in many ways, of that there is no doubt, be they fiction or non-fiction. They can inspire and/or enrage us, leave us warm and cosy or thoughtful and melancholic. They can, and will, evoke a range of emotions in us that, often unknowingly, will echo down through the rest of our lives, influencing and colouring our thinking and the decisions made.

I love books and find brilliant ones every day (okay, every week or so, ish). And they do evoke emotion and thought and do stimulate me in different ways, reinforcing or reshaping the way I think and feel with great subtlety. There are, however, a few books that resonate on a deeper level, that make me think and ponder anew every day.

Tanith Lee's Night's Master has long been one of those books. Short, it is effectively a collection of linked fantastical fairy-tales, set in an other worldy place not so removed from our own. With intense and yet somehow sparse prose, the stories are beautifully written, and in the tradition of fairytales they deliver a heady mix of the cruelty and bliss both, playful and brutal in equal measures. In here are the roots of much of my writing, and Lee's prose is full of dark beauty, distinctive and telling. It is a book about morals and lessons and the savage nature of the semi-mythological world of gods and demons that lies alongside our own, matched only by the cruel necessity of the humanity that exists inside it. It taught me, at the most basic level, that we are ever intertwined with our tales and myths, shaped by the powerful ideas that sit at their heart, and that they, in turn, are shaped by us.

CJ Cherryh's Book of the Faded Sun is science fiction at its best. She has ever been wonderful at realising and emphasising the nature and psychology of the alien, making it accessible and understandable despite its other-worldliness. The mri are a race of castes, and the book is about the last of them, fleeing across the universe, accompanied by a solitary human. This is the crux and heart of the story, the tension between two different species, between psychology and culture and nature, contrasting the malleability of humanity against the rigidity of the archaic, anachronistic mri culture. It is here that we begin to see the elegance and freedom of such unforgiving, unrelenting adherence to caste and structure. In the mri nature, culture, biology and psychology have evolved to a singular complete point, diamond hard and immovable, where each individual has their place, integral and relevant and justifiable by the simple fact of it. It is this evocation, this tension, this gap between two different and opposed mindsets that echoes out, reminding me constantly that everything has a place, no matter what my views; that mine is not the only right and wrong.

Reach for the Sky, the story of the Battle of Britain fighter pilot Douglas Bader, inspired in me the heroic ideal of derring-do and battling against the odds, reflections of which I have long since sought to emulate in the stories I write and the tales I dream. Bader represented the best of what it was meant to be British, stoic, skilled, fighting with flair and leadership, despite having lost both legs and eventual incarceration in a PoW camp. Heady stuff for a young boy.

Ted Hughes' Crow remains a powerful influence on me, containing a near perfect evocation of such mythological and primal life force as to be contained by the written or spoken word. Deep and dark and inventive Hughes reflects back on us the urges and desires of our race, hints at a multitude of hidden secrets and layers and meanings. It has forever lain over my eyes and imagination a veneer of what may be; the mundane can indeed be interpreted in the most profound and ridiculous and primeval of ways.

Finally, and by no means least, Festival in My Heart (example poem/post here) is the perfect antidote to the heaviness above. Touching, beautifully written and translated, these poems express the world in a more open, honest, innocent voice, all captured with surprising delicacy and simplicity. Sometimes the world needs to be viewed with a child's eye, with a child's creativity and a child's sense of trust. Sometimes the world need be nothing more than what it is, a world of wondrous mystery and possibility.

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Night's Master, Tanith Lee Book of the Faded Sun Trilogy, CJ Cherryh Reach for the Sky, Douglas Bader Crow, Ted Hughes Festival in My Heart, Bruno Navasky

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