You’d think that choosing five books that changed my life would be easy for a writer—for a writer who, as a child, surrounded herself with books as bountiful as the plastic balls in a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pit; but literally hundreds of books have made an impact on my life since I learned to read at three years old. I spent three years studying classics of Western literature in college, first through the Great Books Colloquium then as an English major—everything from Plato to Kierkegaard, from Shakespeare to Hardy. Taken together, these authors shaped the way I look at literature, the world, intellectual discourse itself. But I could no sooner identify specific books that changed my life than I could tell you the first book I ever read.
Instead, I want to share the books that acted as milestones on my journey from reader to writer, those turning points without which I probably wouldn’t be writing today.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This was the first real work of literature I read as a child and loved. I can’t remember whether my first-grade teacher or my fourth-grade teacher recommended it; I just know I devoured it. I have distinct memories of reading it in the car, carefully marking the page with my little, gold, heart-shaped bookmark. The language had to have been dense for an elementary schooler of any age, but I was enchanted by everything about it, particularly the descriptions of India and England, which seemed as distant and exotic as the moon. This story was the first to truly show me that books could be a portal into other worlds . . . and it was soon followed by books about portals into other worlds like The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
I first read this book in high school, after the movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis came out. I was sorely disappointed. Where were my battle scenes, my romance? Puzzling out what made the movie so thrilling while the book was so, well, boring was my first true foray into analyzing what made a good story. It also spawned an excessively terrible attempt at a first novel, all records of which have been carefully destroyed. I wrote two more terrible historical novels over the next two years, which is when I learned I wasn’t so interested in writing historical fiction, thanks to the discovery of . . .
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
I’d always shied away from fantasy because I didn’t care for the sword-and-sorcery variety, and I didn’t know there was anything else. Then a fantasy-loving friend handed me his copy of Tigana right before college graduation, and I was hooked. Kay, most well-known for helping edit Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, set his works in recognizable historical periods; his books are beautiful and layered, and they represented everything that I loved about historical fiction, without the pesky need to abide by actual history. I credit this book for the fact that I wrote fantasy for the next fifteen years. And despite the fact that my first published novel was romance, the first books I sold were fantasy, based solidly in Irish history.
My Stubborn Heart by Becky Wade
Somewhere during the painful process of reducing what would become Oath of the Brotherhood from 130,000 to 100,000 words, I had a choice—find something else to do or set fire to the manuscript. I decided to write a contemporary romance for fun, originally intending it to be a clean, general market story. With a shocking dearth of Christian bookstores around me, I didn’t realize there were options for Christian romance other than Grace Livingston Hill and Lori Wick novels—great stories, but not what I wanted to write. Then an acquaintance recommended Becky Wade’s book to me, and I realized there was a middle ground between the sweet historical novels of my youth and the racy contemporaries at the supermarket. This book was responsible for the decision to turn what would become Five Days in Skye into a Christian romance.
The Art of Helping Others by Douglas C. Mann
Somewhere after writing my fifth novel, I had a mini existential crisis. My old coworkers were advancing in their careers or starting their own businesses; my Christian friends were starting nonprofits or going into the mission field. What was I doing, sitting here typing stories all day? I certainly wasn’t making an executive salary to support my family, and I wasn’t doing something daring for Jesus. Along came The Art of Helping Others, described in the author’s words as a book for Christians “interested in pursuing art as a lifestyle of social justice, service, and worship.” This book helped me understand that I had been planted exactly where God wanted me and that I had been gifted the opportunity to “point others to this great mystery of freedom—to Christ.” It encouraged me to give my work wholly over to God without any expectations of success, and since then He has proven that He was simply waiting for me to surrender all along.
The Saturday Night Supper Club by Carla Laureano
Denver chef Rachel Bishop has accomplished everything she’s dreamed and some things she never dared hope, like winning a James Beard Award and heading up her own fine-dining restaurant. But when a targeted smear campaign causes her to be pushed out of the business by her partners, she vows to do whatever it takes to get her life back . . . even if that means joining forces with the man who inadvertently set the disaster in motion.
Essayist Alex Kanin never imagined his pointed editorial would go viral. Ironically, his attempt to highlight the pitfalls of online criticism has the opposite effect: it revives his own flagging career by destroying that of a perfect stranger. Plagued by guilt-fueled writer’s block, Alex vows to do whatever he can to repair the damage. He just doesn’t expect his interest in the beautiful chef to turn personal.
Alex agrees to help rebuild Rachel’s tarnished image by offering his connections and his home to host an exclusive pop-up dinner party targeted to Denver’s most influential citizens: the Saturday Night Supper Club. As they work together to make the project a success, Rachel begins to realize Alex is not the unfeeling opportunist she once thought he was, and that perhaps there’s life—and love—outside the pressure-cooker of her chosen career. But can she give up her lifelong goals without losing her identity as well?