Ever been influenced by a book? I have, many times, although I haven’t always realised its full impact until much later. Today, saga author Lizzie Page shares with me the books that have changed her life…
I’ve always loved reading the adventures of women in the past so it seemed natural to me to write historical fiction. The War Nurses is the first in a trilogy inspired by some of the incredible women who served on the Western Front. I like to think its a ‘fierce-friendship-story’. I hope the series helps shine a light on the achievements and relationships of women in war, and that you find all the books entertaining and moving.
BOOKS THAT HAVE CHANGED MY LIFE
I grew up in the seventies. I was a working-class girl and my parents weren’t great readers. But the one thing many of us kids in the seventies read, was Enid Blyton. Every few weeks, I’d go up to WHSmith’s at the top of Southend high street and get my Enid Blyton books. Whereas my friends liked ‘Secret Seven’ and ‘Famous Five’, I preferred the lesser known ‘Five Finder outers’. This series about a group of rural posh kids who, when they weren’t discovering gypsy criminals with flashing black eyes were snaffling all the jam tarts, really spoke to the suburban seven-year-old me.
At that time, all the women I knew were called Pat, Linda, Susan or Maureen. I didn’t know a single Enid. And the title font on the cover of all her books was kind of curly, even obscure. Without fail, I asked the shop assistant for the latest Gnid Blyton books.
She never corrected me.
One-time Dad went away. I have no idea where he went. He was a market trader and his job should not have involved long periods of overnight travel. When he came back he gave me a present: It was a copy of ‘Peppermint Pig’ by Nina Bawden. The amazing thing was, it was signed to me! This was brilliant.
For the first time, I realised that there was, kind of, a human inside all books. And from that, came a tiny spark in my head, that one day, I could be that human too.
I still don’t know where Dad had gone or how he got it, but it was a lovely book!
Back then there was no Young Adult sections in the library or shops, so straight after you’d read the wonderful ‘When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr or the beautiful ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfield, you graduated onto Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ and then did not pass go until you read ‘Flowers in the Attic’ by Virginia Andrews.
What a series! There were Flowers in the Attic, Petals in the Wind, Seeds of Yesterday, Incestual goings on in the Loft…etc etc. For the twelve-year olds at my all girl grammar school these best-selling books were the perfect accompaniment to Duran Duran and the perfect lead-in to ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins Hollywood series.
Through these books, I learnt everything I didn’t really want to know.
At sixteen, I went to a sixth form college, and had an inspirational English teacher which was a revelation to me: And there were boys at College too which was great. (“Hello, Ralph!”). I studied Wuthering Heights for A-Level English and I adored every convoluted word of it. ‘Heathcliff, you are more myself than I am,’ I told my first boyfriend, Kevin, much to his bewilderment.
Wuthering Heights told me a lot about passion: (not the Shirley Conran goldfish kind of passion) the esoteric love that involved bashing your head against a tree. I was never that keen on the moors though. I like being indoors far too much. I also realised that Kate Bush was terrifically clever, and I liked her even more than I already did. (which was a lot).
I did a Politics degree at University and while I should have been immersed in Hobbes, Locke and JS Mill, two fiction books affected me far more than they ever did: ‘Brother of the more famous Jack’ by Barbara Trapido opened me up to a new landscape of scatty North London, lefty intellectuals. I was completely hooked by this world and immensely jealous. It was a far-cry from Southend.
The other book was ‘Hotel New Hampshire’ by John Irving. There was a bit in this book that said: “keep passing the open windows,” which boils down to ‘keep on, keeping on,’ or more simply, ‘don’t kill yourself’. What great advice! From that book onwards, I have always loved Irving’s accessible writing style, his characters, his plots and his humanity. He hits ALL the notes just right.
I graduated into a recession and some of my twenties and thirties were, as they are for a lot of people, grim times. When life turned out to offer less possibilities than I thought it would, it was the classics for me: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham, and ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert both helped me understand the human condition, (sometimes life sucks).
But it was a very modern book that really changed me. ‘The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing’ by Melissa Banks was about love, work, family, romance and failure. Like me, the narrator was a young(ish) woman yearning for something she couldn’t find. Unlike me, she lived in New York. (I had always felt I should live in New York. If only my grandparents had kept straight on at Southampton, I would have been just like Melissa Banks). I revelled in her word play and sense of fun. It’s a cool book.
Susan Cain’s non-fiction text ‘Quiet’ has had a big impact on my understanding of myself. Although I initially read this because I was worried about my shy son, I soon realised every word in it applied equally to me. It’s a discussion of being an introvert and explores how society is geared towards extroverts. I now use being an introvert as an excuse to avoid doing things I don’t want to do. It’s bloody brilliant.
A few years ago, my husband and I were in New York. (I got there afterall!) We were browsing the second-hand book-shops of Greenwich Village, like the bohemians we were not, when by chance I picked out a book that I had never heard before. I picked it because it had the most beautiful cover. I read it non-stop on the flight home.
‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula Mclain is a fictionalised account of a real person – Hadley, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. It’s about fascinating people in a fascinating time. I think it’s also about those times when love is not enough. (Beware: it’s quite heart-breaking.)
I completely fell in love with this book. Written in memoir style, it completely brought the past to life for me. It opened me up to the power of historical fiction and it was a major reason that I started to write my own stories about incredible, inspirational, real-life women.
Parenting is hard for the introvert 😊 but one of my favourite times of the day is the bed-time story. Gnid Blyton wasn’t a great hit with my kids but ‘Pippi Longstocking’ by Astrid Lungren, ‘Claude’ by Alex T. Smith and ‘The Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio all were.
The books, I think, that have given us the most pleasure is the ‘Harry Potter’ series. I know it’s a cliché, but there is so much to love in these books: the good versus evil, the strong characters especially Hermione, the politics, the humour etc. etc.
For me, one of the things I love most about Harry Potter is the way JK Rowling deals with grief: My mother died many years ago and my father more recently, and the way the books explore that painful yearning to see those we have lost is exquisite. Only people who’ve been around death can see Thestrals – this poetically conveys the isolation we may have after a bereavement but also the potential for growth.
JK Rowling – or as I like to call her – GK Rowling – has given me and my family so much.
*** Thank you so much, Lizzie! I was a huge Five Find Outers fan, too. I used to save up my pennies (literally. The assistants at WHSmith must have dreaded me coming in, as I always paid in 1p and 2p pieces) and devour each book in the series. As for Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights – yes! It’s been fascinating to discover which books have changed your life and why. ***
Lizzie’s book, The War Nurses, is out today, 17 April!
1914 – Two young nurses pledge to help the war effort: Mairi, a wholesome idealist hoping to leave behind her past and Elsie, a glamorous single mother with a weakness for handsome soldiers. Despite their differences, the pair become firm friends.
At the emergency medical shelter where they’re based, Elsie and Mairi work around the clock to treat wounded soldiers. It’s heart-breaking work and they are at constant risk from shelling, fire and disease. But there are also happier times… parties, trips and letters. And maybe even the possibility of love with an attractive officer in their care…
But as the war continues and the stress of duty threatens to pull the two women apart, will Elsie and Mairi’s special nurses’ bond be strong enough to see them through?
A powerfully moving wartime saga – you won’t want to put it down!
TO FIND OUT MORE, CLICK HERE