Take the ten book challenge

Six of my top ten books

Have you come across the Facebook ten book challenge? The idea is to list the ten volumes that have stayed with you over the years. They don’t have to be great literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.

My friend Suzi posted her top ten the other day and challenged me to share mine. As I compiled my list, I realised that whether they were novels or autobiographies, all the books I’d chosen were about wonderful characters involved in amazing stories.

What more could any writer offer? It’s certainly what I want to do. So what are your ten most memorable books? I’d love to know. Here, in no particular order, are mine:

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger Holden Caulfield has stayed with me since my teenage years and there are echoes of him in Sanders, one of the central characters in my novel Tandem.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Another one from my teens. Sadly, the novel that cemented my love of Austen’s unparalleled powers of characterisation has long since vanished from my bookshelves.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin I read and adored this series in my 20s. Mary Ann Singleton and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver are two of my favourite characters. Great storytelling too. Unfortunately, I lent the whole lot to a friend years ago and never got them back.

Growing up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser The omnibus edition tells the story of Glasser’s childhood spent in desperate poverty and his escape, against the odds, to Oxford University. Truly inspiring. Not sure where it went, but it’s no longer on my shelves either.

The Shipping News by Annie E Proulx I’ve loved this book for two decades. Again, characters are key, reinforcing a powerful lesson that I’ve tried to apply to my own writing.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg Another one that has stayed with me since I first read it 20 years ago. More wonderful storytelling woven around a great central character.

Toast by Nigel Slater My favourite autobiography. I can identify very strongly with many of the food memories that provide the framework for this deeply affecting story. I’m hoping whoever I leant it to will read this and let me have it back soon – it’s the second copy of this book I’ve lost!

This is Not About Me by Janice Galloway Another stonking autobiography that – along with its sequel All Made Up – contains some unforgettable characters.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel My favourite book of all time. Thomas Cromwell? What’s not to love – there is no greater character, real or imagined.

Tandem by Alex Morgan I’ve included my own first book not because it’s great literature, but because it contains the characters and story that launched my career as a novelist – and, for that, it will be with me forever.

Journeys with strangers


There are only two basic novel plots. This is something I remember reading years ago, and it has floated to the front of my mind over the past few days as I’ve started thinking seriously about my new novel.

It was the American novelist John Gardner who said it all boiled down to this: the central character goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

It may seem simplistic but I think it’s true. All novels are about change. Something must happen to the main character, otherwise there is no story. And that change must be prompted by something they do themselves – a physical or emotional journey of discovery – or by someone else – the stranger – who does something to affect their life.

Think about the books you love and see which category they fall into. Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourites, revolves around the arrival of several (male) strangers. Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell’s journey from poverty to power.

My first novel, Tandem, is actually about both. The Amazon blurb says: “Paula abandons her London life and travels through the night to a Scottish village where she once spent a childhood holiday. Desperate to avoid a painful loss, she tries to hide away. However, the locals are keen to know more about their unhappy visitor and she is soon tangled in the life of 12-year-old Sanders. Can Paula help her new friend? Can we ever run away from the past?”

So Paula embarks on what turns out to be both a physical and an emotional journey, while for the villagers of Craskferry, particularly Sanders, she is the stranger who comes to town and changes lives.

My new novel, Pressmennan, has just one plot theme: it’s all about strangers. What will your novel be about?

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