My Five Favourite series is focused around the three categories in which I now have books published. The last post was my Five Favourite Creepy Stories, and the next and final one will be Poems. That means this time it’s my Five Favorite books aimed at the audience of my own series, The Secret of the Tirthas. These are mainly pre- and early teens, but with crossover appeal to older readers. They’re books that I think can be enjoyed by the whole family – or at least all of them over nine-years-old!
1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OK, so there’s no surprises with the start. Harry Potter is hardwired into our lives now for a very good reason – it’s brilliant. I’ve chosen Goblet of Fire as my favourite although it’s marginal over the first and all the later ones.
Why do I like this one in particular? I like the fact it’s where it starts to get properly dark, with the fate of Cedric and the proper return of Voldemort. I like the first battle between Harry and Voldemort. (I also like the fact the Quidditch World Cup in the film is set on the Sussex Downs, near where I was born.)
Whilst including Harry Potter is a no-brainer, I will admit something here. When I first tried to read the Philosopher’s Stone I was turned off by one phrase on the first page and put it down… for years. It was only thanks to my wife, a big fan, that I picked it up again, pushed past that section – and then devoured the whole lot in a few weeks one summer.
2. Northern Lights
So I’m getting the obvious out of the way first. Philip Pullman has been a major inspiration in my writing. I like Northern Lights best out of all the books in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust. I love the settings, the cold north and Oxford spires, the armoured bears, the nuanced appearance of Mrs Coulter – and of course the sharp mind and character of Lyra.
3. Chicken Dance
Now for something completely different. I read this book on my own years ago, and then read it again recently to my two boys. They loved it too.
Chicken Dance is the story of a boy who lives on a chicken farm and gains fame in his hometown by entering them into competitions. Don Schmidt has his own special take on the world, quirky, cautious and observant. Despite poor treatment by his family, he remains the true grown-up – even when events take a strange turn, and he begins to investigate the mystery of his sister who supposedly died when he was born…
I remember my excitement at seeing a Tintin book, King Ottakar’s Sceptre, in a shop in Eastbourne when I was nine. I was staying on a long summer holiday with my grandma. I asked her if I could buy it with my book token but she was hesitant as it was a comic (or graphic novel, as we’d say now…) She eventually agreed and so began my passion for Tintin.
It was hard to select my favourite. It came down to a fight between this one, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and the superb Tintin in Tibet. I chose Cigars of the Pharoah because it was a breakneck adventure and it made me laugh – a lot, especially the eccentric archaeologist, Dr Sophocles Sarcophogus. You can read about how Tintin inspired The Secret of the Tirthashere.
5. The Girl Savage
I love Katherine Rundell and find it hard to select my favourite from excellent books such as Rooftoppers, The Explorer and The Wolf Wilder. But ultimately I think The Girl Savage pips it, particularly for the sheer exuberance of the opening section where tomboy Will runs through the South African countryside, living a wild and free existence. She is loved by her father, and adores every bit of her life. But it’s all about to be shattered by the arrival of a terrible stepmother. Like all of Rundell’s books, The Girl Savage drips with poetry whilst retaining a strong sense of plot and direction.
And now for the ones that got away…
Moominvalley in November. Not really young adult, but I didn’t feel I could leave the Moomins out. I read them when I was eight, but think they appeal up to ages twelve or older. They have a beautiful combination of friendship, strangeness and adventure – surrounded by a wondrous delight in northern landscape and nature.
The Three Investigators – The Mystery of the Screaming Clock. I loved loved loved this series as a kid. They’re now out of print but you can still get them second-hand online – and I keep finding them rummaging around in old book stores. Good news, as my boys love them too!
Skellig – David Almond has a masterful touch for fantasy that subtly encroaches the edges of reality – and of the ability of kids to accept and engage with it. This story of a boy finding a damaged angel in his garage is truly magical.
Earthsea – a wonderful fantasy series from the late Ursula le Guin. The moment in the first book when the young mage Ged accidentally summons a shadow creature is every bit as dramatic as the ‘You shall not pass’ Gandalf-on-the-bridge moment in The Lord of the Rings.
A Library of Lemons – a fantastic book about the relationship between a boy and his father, struggling to cope with the loss of their mother / wife.
And finally, I couldn’t finish without superlative praise for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I read them all in my early teens but think of them as adult fantasy, which is the only reason they’re not in this top five.
If you’re inspired to read more young adult novels, why not check out my own adventure mystery series, beginning with The City of Light. What would you do if you inherited a garden with a portal to India – and found a killer was using it?
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.
My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.
I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.
After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.
Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey
Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.
Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.
The City of Light has reached its first no.1 spot in the Amazon charts!
OK, let me qualify that for a moment. It’s no.1 in Germany, in the chart of free children’s books in English. It also got to no.6 in the equivalent UK chart, and no.13 in the US at one stage, kept off the top spot by The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and some books on Minecraft.
Anyway, it’s a start – and thank you to all those German readers who are downloading my book!