Every book now seems to be either part of some long complicated series with merchandise tie ins, films, cereals and videogames. Sure, there were series I read when I was little but, with the exception of high fantasy (which I got into when I was 10, with the purchase of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, first of the Dragonlance novels), most of the stuff I read was either stand alone or episodic.
What where my favourite books then?
My first literary love I can remember were the Famous 5 books by Enid Blyton. In fact I even had the follow on books written (originally in written in French by Claude Voilier but translated into English) by another author. I cannot emphasise how much of an impact these books made on me; I desperately wanted to be as old as Julian and have adults take me seriously, to be part of a gang and have adventures. I started reading the Famous Five books thanks to my parents signing me up to a book club that would send a special volume hardback containing two of the stories every couple of months. We had recently moved to Hoddesdon from Lowestoft during my third year of infants school and I hadn’t settled in very well at all. These books were a life line to me, pure escapism and I loved them to bits. I read some Secret Seven stories and little other Blyton but for me it will always be the Famous Five I hold dear.
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. This was more famously made into an animated film in 1982 and it must have been around that time I read the book as my copy is the film tie in cover. It was however written 11 years prior to this. It deals with a field mouse attempting to move her house before the farmer ploughs his fields. Mrs Frisby enlists the help of some rats who were experimented on and became super smart. It’s a good kids read and due a revival as there is currently a live action film based on it in the works.
(Alfred Hitchcock and) The Three Investigators. This was a series spanning over 40 novels, written by a handful of different authors from the mid 1960’s unti the late 1980’s. I had a good stash of the earlier books from the 60’s (although they were 1980 re-prints), and even a couple on audio tape (back in the days when everything was abridged to fit on either two or four sides of a cassette tape and made little sense if you had read the book). The stories followed three lads in Holly wood, Jupiter, Pete and Bob, as they basically did the Scooby-Doo thing without a comedy dog. The books were in a sense pretty formulaic, the lads would get a client who would comment about how young they were (12/13), there would be some intimation of the supernatural and then Jupiter would solve the mystery after a certain amount of mild peril. They were great though and I would have read more of them if the library had more. Apparently they’re excessively popular in Germany which makes no sense to me but there you go.
I was particularly good at reading individual books that were part of longer series without actually realising that there was a lot more I could have read. I must have read and reread Swallows & Amazons a dozen times but it’s only in the past few years I found out there were actually 11 other books in the series. Part of me mourns the fact I didn’t know this when I was little. I haven’t read the remaining 11 as an adult because the magic was there when I was little. I also never realised there was a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen nor that Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising was the second book in a four book series. But what was apparent was that from an early age I was particularly predisposed to the fantastical. Some of it was no doubt down to my personal circumstances. I wasn’t a popular or confident little boy after we moved and books were a definite form of escapism.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight was a book that changed much for me, it was a gateway into adult fantasy literature, but I have to say I didn’t much enjoy it. Partly I was too young and it was too difficult for a 9 year old me to read. It’s 450 odd pages of what now would be seen as very clichéd fantasy and I struggled but wanted more. It was a couple of years later that I picked up a bright yellow copy of David Eddings Guardians of the West, the first book in his Mallorean series. This began a protracted period of reading his work, the preceding 5 book series called the Belgariad, the subsequent books in the Mallorean, the Sparhawk novels and various spin offs.
But by the time I was in secondary school (1987), Eddings had become, even to my youthful self, far too twee. It was around this period, my first year in secondary school, that I stopped reading kids books entirely (Eddings would probably be classified YA now if such a thing had existed back then). I got into arguments at school in English library lessons because I wouldn’t take kids books out of the school library; I’d bring in the adult books I had borrowed from the public library. The book that triggered it all was Stephen Donaldson’s lesser known fantasy series Mordant’s Need. The first of two volumes weighed in at over 650 pages and it was hard work but much more rewarding than Dragonlance. I ploughed through it, read his Thomas Covenant series and embarked on a phase of not reading anything that could be considered remotely short (aside from a Terry Pratchett addiction that started around the release of Sorcery!). It was complete luck that I picked it up in the public library, it wasn’t on a rack but instead on a display shelf so I decided on the spur of the moment to take a punt. That pretty much changed my reading habit for the rest of my life. I took a detour into horror, most notably Stephen King and Dean Koontz, who often trod the border line between horror and fantasy anyway, but my heart was with the big doorstop fantasy that I still read to this day. In fact I’m currently finishing the tenth and final book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a full 30 years after I read my first adult fantasy novel.