It’s World Book Day.
Across the UK, primary school children headed off to school this morning dressed as characters from their favourite books. Some wore lovingly crafted hand-made costumes, the product of hours of activity on the part of inventive and exhausted parents. Others wore outfits they’d desperately hoped would be delivered in time by the postman. Whatever they wore though, they’ve thought about books.
And that got me thinking too…
The question “what’s your favourite book?” might appear simple enough, but choosing just one? Impossible. Do you mean a book from my childhood, a book that inspired me, a book that taught me something, a book I know by heart?
I learned to read in the Village with Three Corners. Billy Blue Hat, Roger Red Hat, and Johnny and Jennifer Yellow Hat guided me through those first, stumbling years like endlessly patient and encouraging friends. I left them behind to go Through the Rainbow, and from there on, there were no walls, no barriers, no limits on the places stories could take me.
Many characters and books influenced me as a child; Meg and Mog in my formative years, The Worst Witch and Dorrie as I got older, then more complex stories like The Back House Ghosts, Tom’s Midnight Garden and Eleanor,Elizabeth. My penchant for the spooky, the gothic, and the time-slip novel was evident from the very beginning and remains to this day.
As a teen, I devoured apocalyptic fiction, becoming obsessed with the what-ifs of both history and the future. Children of the Dust, Brother in the Land and Plague 99 were read and re-read. Every teen I knew eventually ended up reading Stephen King, Anne Rice and the like (maybe that was just the people I hung out with though?), but I guess I should highlight The Witching Hour for this phase, for being one of most perfectly formed stories I’ve ever read. I’ve re-visited it so many times over the decades and it still amazes me.
Coincidentally, one of the best time-travel / alternate history books I’ve ever read comes from the unlikely pen of the aforementioned Stephen King. 11/22/63 is, quite simply, stunning. Beautifully written, with just the right atmosphere and a suitably surprising twist, it’s one I’ve recommended (and bought for) both friends and family.
So, back to that question, What *is* my favourite book?
For sheer size, scope, style and depth, it has to be The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. This 1989 tome (no other word could describe its 1221 length) set in early 19th century England, centres around a mystery which will change the life of the young John Mellamphy. Modern attributes such as an ambiguous ending and unreliable narrators prevent this being merely a pseudo-Dickensian melodrama. Indeed, many of the puzzles that are apparently solved during the story have an alternative solution in the subtext, and have generated discussions among readers around the world.
Quite simply, I adore this book. And that’s why it comes out on top of a shortlist which might very well be described as long.