Saturday, 13 July 2013

Five books that changed my life

There are some books you happen to come across which simply change you drastically. They can alter how you think about things, challenge the status quo, or give you life lessons otherwise neglected. In this post I'd like to share the top five books that really influenced me, in both my professional and personal life. You might be surprised, or even introduced to a new book!

So, without further ado, let's take a look at my top five books that influenced the person I am today...

5. The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine (James Le Fanu)

I read this book during my GCSEs, when I was thinking about a career in medicine (which I inevitably ended up doing). I'd been advised to do some outside reading on the subject, and this was in our school library. I was intrigued by the title, so I picked it up. Although it's probably a bit dated now, Le Fanu raised some seriously controversial points, like the 'failure' of the promise of modern genetics and how the use of steroids ultimately backfired when they went from miracle cure to one of the most potent and dangerous medicines we have today, as well as how the model of infectious disease treatment no longer works for other diseases like cancer and heart disease.

The thing he highlighted the most, though, and which remains with me today, is my scepticism. Until this point, I had never questioned things I'd read in the news, in textbooks, or what my teachers told me. Once I'd read this book, that changed. Suddenly I wanted to know where these newspaper claims of miracle cures came from, how we knew what we knew about things, etc. As a doctor today, this scepticism is hugely important in my work, as we are constantly researching new interventions and we need to establish as clinicians what works and is safe for our patients and what isn't. Recently there's been a lot of pushing about unpublished research, too, which is causing bias, and people are trying to change that (check out Ben Goldacre's brilliant TED talk on this).

So, thanks James, for bringing out my inner sceptic!

4. The Forging of the Sword (Mark Robson)

I actually met Mark Robson in person in my local WHSmith when I was in the process of writing my first (now abandoned) book. I liked the colourful covers and Robson himself was very friendly and approachable, and he encouraged me with my own writing. I bought all 4 books of his first series and he signed them all for me, too! It follows the journey of a boy named Calvyn, as he embarks on a grand adventure following the razing of his village. He meets a kindly man named Perdimon, who is actually a Magician, and ends up tangled in a plot to save the kingdom.

The story introduced me to a delightful cast of characters and an interesting world setting. At first glance it looks like your staple fantasy, but when you know about the author's background (he's an RAF pilot), it all takes on a new light. We actually follow soldiers being trained (reminding me of my days in the Combined Cadet Force in school), the magic system is different (if not the most original), and there are some great villains and side characters. This was the first fantasy book for me that tried to do something extremely different, managing to blend modern concepts with more archaic ones, and inspired me further with my own writing.

So thanks Mark, for showing me that fantasy doesn't have to be all the same!

3. Slaves of the Mastery (William Nicholson)

This is actually the second book in Nicholson's 'Wind on Fire' trilogy, but is easily my favourite. Having been freed from the grip of an ancient spell in The Wing Singer, the Manth people are now captured by the Mastery and forced into slavery, except they are allowed to choose what kind of slave they want to be. Of course, one of the main characters escapes, vowing revenge, and all sorts of subplots intertwine.

For me it was the concept of slavery, control and order vs. freedom, autonomy and chaos that really grabbed my attention. It really challenged my thoughts about the subject, and made it much less black and white as to which was 'right'. The magic system was also interesting, and the character development was very strong, too. It was the first sequel to make me like a character I had really disliked in book one, and it really played with my expectations as to what was going to happen, setting things up for the third and final book.

I really adore Nicholson's style and how he can take complex philosophical and psychological drama and weave in into a fantasy story. This helped inspire me to think of bigger, broader concepts in my own writing, and expect more from the fiction I read.

So thanks William, for broadened my horizons and raising my expectations!

2. In Transit (Brigid Brophy)

This was a huge surprise for me. As part of my Masters degree, I did a Literature and Gender module, and this was one of the books we studied. Now I NEVER, EVER would even DREAM of reading a literary novel, so this was a totally new experience. But it was fantastic. Brophy isn't one of the more well known female canon authors, like say Virginia Woolfe, but she knew how to write, and have fun doing it. This didn't come off as pretentious or obnoxious; it was just a romp of fun with a tonne of literary references, and I enjoyed it.

It took a while to get around the concept of no real plot, of course, but I started to enjoy picking out the references I knew (especially the ancient Greek ones) and studying the ones I didn't. The book is essentially about a character who is in an airport and 'forgets' their gender. A whole host of events happen, including a split narrative, weird formatting, jokes ranging from Odysseus and Orestes to Don Quixote, speculation on duality and the binarism of sex segregation, and everything else in between. You could just tell from reading it that the author was having immense fun writing and slipping in the references, and I'm very glad to have been introduced to it.

That said, I probably won't be reading any more literary fiction, but this book will remain with me forever.

So thanks Brigid, for proving that not all literary fiction is dull and even those who aren't fans can enjoy!

1. Sabriel (Garth Nix)

I was introduced to this book by a friend, and it really had the biggest impact on me. It was the first YA book I read, introducing me to the genre, and it remains my all-time favourite book. It was also one of the many factors that spurred me to start writing with original characters and not simply fan fiction.

Where do I start? I love pretty much everything in it, from the characters, the concepts, the setting, you name it! It actually had a heroine who could DO things, who wasn't an impulsive child (like Lyra from Northern Lights), but a reserved young woman confident in her own ability, yet with enough doubts to make her real. Sabriel was magnificent, a protagonist I'd been yearning for and yet never found. The magic vs. technology concept was also good, as well as the idea that magic could be harmful. Having bells as weapons, too, were unique, and it isn't often you have a necromancer as your hero. And not a damn vampire in sight...

The plot was good, the action exciting, the romance didn't get in the way of the plot, and it had a fitting ending, too. It showed me that female protagonists didn't have to fit into the bossy, know-it-all stereotype (Hermione, I'm looking at you), and that gender shouldn't have to dictate what role in the story characters take; a big gripe I have with the modern paranormal novels of today which seem to have sent us back to the 1950s.

So thanks Garth, for creating a really memorable character, a fascinating story and some amazing concepts that I personally feel have yet to be matched!

What were the books that changed you? I'd love to know!

1 comment:

  1. My copy of Slaves Of The Mastery is still sitting in my TBR (to be read) pile... I really need to get to it soon...

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