Nicola here, introducing the July Ask A Wench. This month we’re talking about a book that is special to each of us, whether it’s something that was recommended to us, or a book that was given to us a child, or something we came across on our own that sparked a new reading interest. The results are fascinating and varied, funny and poignant, and we hope you will enjoy them and contribute a special book of your own to the discussion! As you might imagine, choosing just one book was a real challenge to such a bunch of avid readers and the horrified response was "One book only?" We hope you don't find the task as hard as we did but we think you just might…
Mary Jo writes:
Georgette Heyer, the gateway drug
When Regency addicts gather, the topic of "My First Heyer!" often comes up. I found my first Heyer when I was in college and browsing for cheap books in the bargain basement of the Economy Bookstore in downtown Syracuse, NY. I didn't know it was illegal to sell stripped books, but as a poor student, five cent books were appealing and they had a lot by this Heyer person.
After much perusing, I walked out with Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, which looked like an interesting parody of the Gothic romances.
And that day, I changed my future, because that led me to fall in love with Regency romances. Heyer's voice and wit and characterizations and plotting appealed to me in a way that the historical romances of the day didn't. I read and reread my favorites, and in the process developed something of a Regency voice myself.
Which is why years later, when I got my first computer and learned how to use the word processing program and decided to find if I could write the stories that were always jumbling in my head, I started writing the book that became The Diabolical Baron.
By sheer chance, I'd found the genre niche where I fit during a time when the romance genre was expanding and editors were looking for new voices. And in the process, I found a career as a writer that had once been only the vaguest of dreams.
I've written a whole lot of books since then, including fantasy, Georgian, Victorian, contemporaries, fantasy, and Regency fantasy YA. But by and large, I've stayed true to Regencies because it's such a great period to work in.
And it all started with a five cent stripped novel by Georgette Heyer…
I was a senior in high school, and I don’t remember how the topic came up, but my Mother and I began discussing books. Now, my mother was an avid reader, but her tastes ran to The New Yorker and non-fiction books. She didn’t read a lot of novels. However, she had once told me that she polished her English when she first came to this country (she was from Switzerland and came to NYC to attend Pratt Institute, an art college) by going to the public library and asking the librarian to give her some of the classic works in English literature. So, when I started talking about books we were reading in English class and what I was really enjoying, she asked in an offhand sort of way what I thought of Pride and Prejudice.
I paused for a moment and said, “Umm, I’ve never read that." Her eyebrows shot up in shock. “You’ve never read Austen?” (I was ashamed to say I hadn’t.) “You must!” she intoned, in a tone that was more of an order than a suggestion. “Get it tomorrow at the library. I think you’ll like it.”
Well, I did . . . and I did (like it, that is—or rather, loved it.) Of course I immediately ran out and read all the others, and fell in love with the Regency romance. it took me a little longer to discover Heyer, and then the Signet Regencies, so it was P&P that ultimately changed my life. That I was drawn into writing by the classc Regency romance tropes is all because of Austen. And as footnote, our local library has a well-known summer sale of used books (it’s huge, and people come from all around New England to browse through the huge tents set up on the lawns) and next time it came around, my Mother bought me a lovely multi- volume set from the 1920s of Austen’s novels. I still have it, and it's one of my special book treasures.
I get very fed up/bored/annoyed with people who denigrate romantic fiction, as if it’s some kind of lesser type of reading material, so I retaliate by being biased against so called literary fiction. That means I don’t normally buy Booker Prize winners or anything recommended by the posh literary reviewers in papers like the Sunday Times. However, a friend once gave me Possession by A S Byatt (which had just won the Booker Prize) and told me I had to read it. I said thank you, of course, without actually having any intention to do so, but eventually I figured I’d better in case my friend asked me what I thought of it. And OMG, I was completely blown away! Yes, it was very literary, with incredible prose and long Victorian style poems, but the actual story (or stories plural as it’s a dual timeline novel) were fantastic. I was totally spellbound and later watched the film of the same name as well, which I thought was a wonderful adaptation of the book. So I guess this taught me to be less judgemental in my choice of reading material and that you never know where your next great read is going to come from. I would recommend Possession to anyone who wants a truly epic love story. Here is a photo of my copy – I bought myself the first edition as a treat.
This is such a hard question — I have so many special books that I simply can't make up my mind. But if I narrowed it down to childhood beloved books, I'd have to say The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne, which I knew chunks of by heart, well before I could even read. My parents and older siblings used to read the stories aloud, and it taught me that books could make me laugh. Those books are full of wonderful humor and gentle wisdom. I've never grown out of reading them — they speak to adults as well as children.
Many years later, when I was teaching adults how to read, I remembered the lesson of those AA Milne books — that reading could be fun. So much of the curriculum was about serious practical reading and writing, and it never occurred to my adult students that books and reading could be anything other than work. So I did my best to find things to make them laugh, or take their breath away, so that reading was not just something hard and boring they had to do, but was something that could also be a pleasure. Thank you AA Milne, and Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and Wol and all the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. And thank you to my family who read those stories aloud, over and over.
Since I’m normally surrounded by less experienced readers, I spend more time recommending books than having people mentioning them to me. Although, I once had an elderly neighbor recommend the Pollyanna books. She brought me a stack of them when I was twelve. By that time, I was reading the likes of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and Pollyanna was more than a wee bit twee for cynical me. But I was desperate for reading material back then and would read cereal boxes if handed one.
My one great story recommendation—which was great at the time and wouldn’t be so great now—was way back in the late 70s. I was a young mother, a fan of literary and historical fiction, with a limited book budget. The library generally provided what I needed, but I liked having a paperback when we traveled. So as I stared at the array of colorful covers at our local Kmart, a little blue-haired old lady pointed at one historical, but slightly spicy cover, and whispered, “Get this one. It’s really good.” So I bought it. That book was the FLAME AND THE FLOWER.
I had never read anything other than classic literary romance before, so I was captivated—and a bit wide-eyed at the graphic scenes. I went on from there to grab every historical romance I could find, learned which ones I liked, and when I couldn’t find them—started writing them for myself. There was no turning back after that. So there was one recommendation that made a difference!
(and the image is of that original copy that set my career in motion!)
I'll pick just one among the many books that I have found unforgettable, books that have had a profound impact on me as a person and as a writer — I could go way back to Pippi Longstocking (hey, I was six, that book turned my life around!) or Jane Eyre (in high school, I read it over and over, literally would close it and start it again). Those and more are on a special keeper shelf that I'll tote around with me until I'm, well, not around anymore. Today I'll choose a more recent read from that shelf: Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers was a profound reading experience for me. It is the story of four women among the 900 Jews on Masada just before the Romans arrived to place them under siege. The power of the story, the characters, the writing, spoke deeply to me–I've rarely been so completely immersed in a novel. The story is vibrant, gritty, whole cloth, the characters walking that landscape so strong and real that the book displaced the world around me. Part of its impact for me is that it not only pulled me in, but demanded something of me, the little reader in her safe little world — I came to love these characters, cared about them, felt dread and hope for them. Hoffman weaves such a tight net of reality with language, image, and historical authenticity that I was in awe–and more than that, I realized the story was asking courage of me. The Dovekeepers is a powerful reading experience and I found it unforgettable. I will one day draw up my courage again and give it another read. It will be worth it.
Nicola: I've mentioned before that my grandmother had a big collection of romance books hidden away at the back of the wardrobe in her spare room which I discovered at about the age of eleven. One of the books on the shelf was Madam, Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart. I'd already discovered the Regency genre via Nanna's collection of Georgette Heyer books and now it was the turn of Romantic suspense. As you might imagine, this opened up a whole new world for me. Glamorous and exciting stories with danger and adventure, set in places like the South of France, Corfu and Greece that were impossibly exotic to me! It was amazing! I was transported all over the world through my reading, and the books were so romantic too!
I was lucky enough to find almost all Mary Stewart's books in my local library and grabbed them one after another, detouring from romantic suspense into the Arthurian world of The Crystal Cave and its sequels, which also enchanted me. Eventually I tracked down every one of Mary Stewart's books and created my own collection, but one evaded me – the novella The Wind off the Small Isles which had been published in the UK only in 1968 and never re-published. I looked for that book in every secondhand shop I came across which in the days before the internet and online shopping was a life's work! Eventually I tracked it down to the famous Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, and couldn't believe it! I snapped it up and here it is. Inside it's inscribed "To Pat, with love and best wishes, Feb 1969, from Eve and James." I hope Pat enjoyed as much as I still do!
So now it's over to you – please share with us the one special book that means a lot to you and tell us how it came into your life!