10 Books That Made Me Who I Am

“You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” – Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

The first time I heard this song, I’ll admit to tearing up, because as a writer, it meant that I have tremendous power to influence others, for good or for ill. I hope my own writing someday makes someone’s life a little better.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much certain books changed my life and shaped me i. Here’s a small sampling of the books/series that made me who I am today:

  1. Little EngineThe Little Engine that Could – I have a scrap of memory of sitting with my mom while she read me this book. I also remember one night “reading” it back to her (I memorized it) and telling her when she missed/skipped parts (I’m sure she loved that.) To me, this book symbolizes the time and care my mom took to instill a life-long love of reading into me. Plus, as I’m navigating the world of becoming a published author, I still repeat, “I think I can, I think I can,” to myself every step of the way. (I think that’s the 80s version of “just keep swimming.”)
  2. The Bernstein Bears series – This may sound silly, but I’m an only child, so books were my best friends growing up. A recent Huffington Post article reminded me what an effect these books had on my formative years. I have to say I learned quite a few life lessons from them, and I hope they made me a better person.
  3. Sweet-Valley-HighThe Sweet Valley Twins/High series – As I said, I didn’t have siblings, so for me, Jessica and Elizabeth were the sisters I never had. I always wanted to be Jessica, the popular, fun, cool twin. I decided my favorite color was purple because it was Jessica’s (it’s still my favorite color today). In high school, I took French because that was what Jessica studied (it probably would have been wiser to take Spanish, not that I remember any of it anyway). In reality, I was definitely Elizabeth, the bookish, do-gooder twin. I didn’t like the New Adult reboot that came out a few years ago, but the twins live on in my imagination, growing as I do. And yes, I still want to be Jessica.
  4. Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies – This is the first history book I remember buying. I was in fifth grade and obviously a strange child, if I bought history books for fun. But I was born with a love for castles and the Middle Ages in general. (It was only in college that my studies turned toward the Celts.) I devoured this book and the other books in the series (life in a village, life in a town). It gave me my first sense of how different daily life was in other times, and I began to imagine the people’s stories. I should have known then and there that I’d write historical fiction some 25 years later. (By the way, I still have this book.)
  5. interior-castleThe Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila – I’ve been fascinated with religion since I was little. I got a hold of this classic of mystical literature when I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve been a Teresa fan ever since. I like her intimate, personal relationship with God (she goes so far as to describe the union of the soul with God as a “mystical marriage”). I continue studying her and other mystic saints to this day. You’ll see my fascination with mysticism reflected in my writing.
  6. Silverthorn by Raymond Feist – I actually came to Feist’s work through the computer game Betrayal at Kronor, which will always hold a special place in my heart (even though the later novelization didn’t do it justice). I was in love with the characters of Jimmy the Hand, Owyn, and Gorath (*sigh*), so I sought out other books with them and found Silverthorn. It was my first adult-level fantasy and is the book I credit for hooking me on the genre.
  7. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – I’ve mentioned this before, but this book is the reason I write Arthurian legend. Besides wanting to make me write a strong Guinevere, it also opened my mind to the possibilities of the old faith and coincided well with the beginning of my studies of Druidism and other neo-pagan paths when I started researching for Guinevere. This book is part of a very personal change in my life and is one that I will always treasure.
  8. moll-flandersMoll Flanders by Daniel Defoe – Okay, so I saw the BBC miniseries starring Alex Kingston before I read the book, but I did read it. Moll showed me a side of a historical (albeit fictional) woman that I’d never seen before, one who defied all the conventions of her time, grabbed life by the horns and did what she willed. I think she influenced some of my characters even though I didn’t realize it as I was writing them.
  9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – Laugh all you want. Yes, I was a Twihard. I think the reason this book qualifies for me is that I read it around the same time I started taking my own writing seriously. Stephenie was the first author I knew of with a web site and she just seemed more accessible than those I’d heard of growing up. I loved the book (shut up, I did) and when I read her story, I thought to myself, “well, if she, as an ordinary person, can get published, so can I.” Hence, an author was born.
  10. Discovery-of-witches_360A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – I reviewed this book here, back in 2012 when I first read it. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, each time finding new nuances to the language, new layers of meaning and plot. Her character of Diana still speaks to me in ways no other character has. While I may not be a witch or be able to walk through time (that I know of…), I share Diana’s dedication to history and unfortunate suffering with anxiety. I even took rowing lessons because of this book. Maybe someday I’ll find my Matthew, too. Plus, next month I get to live with and learn from the author for a week. That will make it all the more life-changing!

What are your life-changing books? Which ones had the most effect on you throughout your life? Have you read any of these? Please share your stories with me in the comments.

Announcement: Learning from One of the Best

Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness

I am beyond thrilled to announce that I’ve been accepted into a week-long Master Class/writing retreat taught by New York Times best-selling author Deborah Harkness! It is at the beginning of March and will be held at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, which is a few hours outside of Seattle, Washington.

Some of you may remember how much I loved Deborah’s first book A Discovery of Witches, which I reviewed here. I also really enjoyed its sequel, Shadow of Night, but never got around to reviewing it. (The final book in the trilogy, Book of Life, comes out July 15.) Beyond a love of her writing, I consider Deborah a mentor because she’s a historian, and more importantly, she inspired me to want to get my master’s/PhD in history. (I have the school and program picked out. I just need to money to move, be able to pay tuition and support myself as a full-time student.) Deborah’s writing proves that having a strong background in history really can make your historical fiction better, but at the same time doesn’t have to make it dry – her books are anything but!



So what am I going to do during the retreat? I haven’t received the particulars yet, but I know there will be lectures, one-on-one time with the instructor, as well as time for writing. I’m taking the old, red editing pen to my first draft of the final book of my Guinevere trilogy. Right now, it’s missing chapters toward the end (I know what they will be, I just haven’t written them) and the new (second) beginning doesn’t match the middle, so the middle needs to change. Add that on top of all the normal editing and you can see why I need a week to dedicate to hacking it to bits and putting it back together again!

But beyond Book 3, I’m really hoping to learn all I can from Deborah. Basically, I’m going to sit at her feet and soak up all I can, whether it’s history or writing. I’m hoping to pick up some tips and tricks that I can use both for the four books I have in flight and those yet formed. I’m hoping to get inspiration for future books or at least ideas for new places to look. I’ve got two additional books in my head, as well as a few half-baked ideas, but I’m always looking for more. This is a life-long career, after all.

I plan to blog while I’m there if time permits. If not, I’ll certainly do a wrap-up post after it’s over and share what I can of what I learned. I am so humbled to have been chosen for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

It’s rare to find a book that you think about even when you’re not reading it and whose world you’re more involved in than your own. But that’s how it was for me with Deborah Harkness‘ A Discovery of Witches – a book that’s pure magic to me (no pun intended). It’s now in a three-way tie for my all time favorite book (with Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones and Anne Fortier’s Juliet, in case you were wondering). The very fact that I wanted to read it again right away and was actually sad to have to return it to the library says a lot.

The story centers on Diana Bishop, a 30-something historian who specializes in  Medieval alchemy. When researching at Oxford, she accidentally calls up a long-lost, spellbound manuscript, Ashmole 782. She senses something strange about it and opens it, but doesn’t read it. Although she’s descendant from a long line of witches, she wasn’t trained to use magic and so doesn’t realize the impact of her ability to break the spell. She returns the manuscript just like any other book. That’s when a host of vampires, demons and other witches start following her every move, all desperate to unlock the mystery of Ashmole 782, even if it costs Diana her life. Along the way she discovers she does indeed have magical powers (something else those otherworldly creatures are interested in) and forges an unlikely bond with vampire Matthew Claremont, an alliance that will both threaten and change her life in ways she could never imagine.

I’ve seen this book described as “Twilight for the academic set.” That’s like comparing foie gras with a hot dog. Yes, they both have controlling vampires. That’s where the similarities begin and end, in my opinion. Twilight was a teenage love story with nothing more at stake (seriously, no pun intended) than Bella’s life and heartbreak. This book is about the interaction of witches, humans, vampires and demons (which could be seen as an analogy for racial tolerance), evolution and the future of all of their kinds. It’s about magic and mystery and their place in a scientifically dominated world. I’d say the stakes are a little higher here.

I had no idea there were vampires in this book when I picked it up.  It contains three of my very favorite things: ornate libraries, an old, mysterious book, and magic (the Wiccan kind, not the Harry Potter kind), so I was hooked immediately. Even if that doesn’t do it for you, the mystery surrounding the manuscript of Ashmole 782 will.

I’m a huge fan of character-driven fiction and a Discovery of Witches excels in character development. You learn so much about them from their day-to-day lives and interactions with each other. Some are likeable, others are not, and there are a few you don’t know if you can trust. Diana is by far my favorite, but then again, I relate to her on a number of levels, including her love of history, old books and unfortunate propensity toward panic attacks. For some odd reason, I was captivated by Diana’s hobby of rowing (sculling to be precise) and plan to take that up myself as a result of having read this book. Matthew, despite being the main love interest, doesn’t make me fall in love with him. I like him as a character, but I think it’s my inability to trust him that keeps me at a distance. My favorite character is Marthe. Somehow, her mix of humor and down-to-earth wisdom is the perfect foil to Diana, Matthew and Ysabeau, all of whom can be too serious.

The world, writing and plot of this book are also handled with expertise. I’ve never been to any of the locations, nor had I ever seen sculling before, but thanks to Harkness’ evocative descriptions, I could see and hear it all. And all of the meals and wine that were described kept me hungry and in need of a drink (in a good way)! I especially love the Bishop House, which really is a character unto itself. It gave the book some much-needed levity.

A Discovery of Witches seems to be a love it or hate it book, judging from the number of one- and five-star reviews on Goodreads. It’s a very layered story, and if you only take the time to focus on one point, you’re going to miss a lot. This is a book that should be savored. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its flaws. There were some plot points I didn’t believe and others that I felt deserved more explanation, but I’m trusting Harkness has her reasons for handling things the way she did. That’s one of the problems with not being able to read a series all the way through. A lot of times the author does things a certain way that will make perfect sense once you can see the story as a whole as she does. But as readers, we don’t have that option along the way (at least not until all the books come out).

(This is the short version of my review. If you want to read my long, spoilery, very passionate review, you can find it here on Goodreads – but I would suggest reading the book first because I touch on almost all the major plot points.)

At the time of this writing, I’m about half way into second book and enjoying it immensely as well. Stay tuned for a possible review of that book in the future.

PS – If you get the chance to listen to the audio book, Jennifer Ikeda does an incredible job as the narrator.

Have you read A Discovery of Witches? Did you like it? Why or why not? What kinds of books interest you?