10 Books: #10 The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s back to my childhood for the very last book. Although, FWIW, I did buy myself the pictured edition as a Christmas present last year, and started reading it all over again. (I mean, who could resist Inga Moore’s illustrations? Seriously?)

I honestly do not know if my first experience with this story was via the book or a BBC television children’s series. Either way, there are a bunch of things about this story that had a profound impact on me.

First things first, let’s start with the central concept. The idea of a secret garden, a place of green, growing things that was once cultivated and manicured, but is now running a little wild, is something that has entranced me my whole life. Especially a place that has been hidden away, and is there, waiting to be discovered and explored. There are so many delicious themes wrapped up in this concept. I love everything about it.

I also love the mystery at the heart of this story. The little moments of discovery leading to Mary finding her way into the garden are completely enchanting; a perfect combination of her personal determination and a little bit of low-key magic. But finding the secret garden itself only leads to more questions and the discovery of a deeper mystery that must be solved. There’s nothing quite so compelling in a story as layers and layers of secrets!

The undercurrent of natural magic that pervades the story is another compelling element for me; the close observations of the cycle of the seasons and the way animals and birds have their own agency and power.

Then there’s the house – I’ve always been obsessed with big, old, complicated houses with too many rooms and corridors and mysterious parts you’re not supposed to go into but you do anyway because how could you possibly resist?

And I have to mention the heroine, Mary, a strong female character with agency in spades, having adventures under her own steam. She is cranky, irrepressible, inquisitive and utterly unsubmissive. She’s also interesting from the perspective that her physicality, as a female person, over the course of the story, is not primarily characterised in terms of her attractiveness to others, but in terms of her health.

First published in 1911, the Victorian sensibilities are strong in this story, and I’ve found a new raft of things to be fascinated about and to critique in reading it as an adult (the role of mothers, for example, and the way class privilege plays out).  But there are so many aspects of my personal aesthetic I feel emerged from my early engagement with the story of The Secret Garden, I have to count it as a book that had a profound, early impact on me.

10 Books: #9 Desolation Island

Soooo… it’s been a while. Serves me right for trying to pick just 10 books. It was fine until I realised I only had 2 spots left… (Procrastination has always been my first choice for dealing with tricksy problems.) BUT! Australian Reading Hour is a mere 3 weeks away and on 20 September I’m doing a couple of gigs where I’ll be talking about reading and why I love it. So I’ve done some soul-searching & at long last hit on the two books I’m gonna use to fill those last three spots. I mean two spots. Wait, maybe I should just start over from 1…

Desolation Island

Desolation Island

(Well, actually ALL the Aubrey-Maturin novels…there’s 20…and a half)

By Patrick O’Brian

I first encountered these books when I was working in a bookshop in my early 20s. They were some of my favourites to tidy on the shelves, because the covers were great (you can’t see it in the cover pic above, but the publisher used old maps – a different one for each book – for the spine & back cover, and I have a bit of a hopeless fascination with old maps) and the titles were fantastic. Here’s a few of my faves: The Nutmeg of ConsolationH.M.S. Surprise, Treason’s Harbour, The Letter of Marque. For some reason, though, I didn’t pick them up and read them at the time. Just admired them.

Then my grandfather asked for the first one for Christmas as he had heard good things about them. I think I gave him the first three or four. Anyway, not long afterwards my grandfather’s health deteriorated significantly. He had a couple of small strokes and afterwards found reading difficult. So he gave them back to me, thinking I might like to read them. They sat on my shelf for a good while. I don’t know when I picked them up, and I don’t know why. But… Oh my.

Patrick O’Brian’s prose is like drinking a really good, red wine. He’s the only 20th century author I’ve read who successfully (and flawlessly) manages to capture a truly 18th century writing style. His knowledge of that era is nothing short of encyclopaedic, encompassing all things naval, the medicine of the era, natural science, music, mathematics, global geography in astonishing detail… the list goes on. He’s also funny, with that kind of understated humour where it takes a beat for the other foot to drop and suddenly you’re gasping with laughter.

He’s also written one of the most masterful suspense scenes I have ever read – and it’s in this book, which is why I picked it (it also happens to be the book they used for a chunk of the plot in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Two warships chasing each other down in a storm with mountainous seas… Holy hell, I had no nails left to chew on at the end of that one.

And his heroes are wonderful – flawed, genius, wonderful. And the world… Oh my. If you love wandering around in the 18th Century, these books are for you, my friend. They taught me so much about that era. They certainly cemented my burgeoning fascination with tall ships and naval officers (which possibly, probably was started watching Ioan Gruffudd in the Hornblower series). Honestly, there are too many things to rave about. One day I will sit down and read them all again.

10 Books: #8 The Secret River

And now for something completely different.

The Secret River

The Secret River

Kate Grenville

I’m going to qualify my inclusion of this book by reiterating these posts are about 10 books that have had a significant impact on me. And this one absolutely did. It is an incredible book. The writing is top shelf. The story is compelling. The characters have depth and substance. They are human and monstrous. It is a very hard book to read, and it hurts to think about. This book opened my eyes to the depth of the injustices done to Australia’s Aboriginal people by white settlers and the awful, unhealed wound of the atrocities white settlers visited upon them (read this & you’ll understand why it can’t heal. Yet, anyway.)


In posting about this book, I acknowledge that the very fact it took a book by a non-Aboriginal woman to bring me to this place of understanding and awareness is, in itself, a perfect example of how the problem – the roots of which are so eloquently and awfully laid bare in this book – continues to exist and perpetuate in Australia today.  Some voices are not given the opportunity and the platform and the amplification that other voices seem to so easily find.

I used to think this was a book every non-Indigeous Australian should read. And to a certain extent, I still do. This is a brilliant book. By all means, if I’ve intrigued you with this post, read it. But what you should do is start with one, or all, of these.



10 Books: #7 Harry Potter

All of them. For so many reasons.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and All Of The Things

J K Rowling

A friend lent me the first three HP books when he was heading off on an overseas trip. The fourth one was due out whilst he was away, and he promised me I’d have bought it before he got back. I had resisted reading them until then, thinking “Surely they can’t be all that.” Well, yes. Gregg you smug bastard.

What a comprehensively wonderful story world lives in these pages. This book (by which I mean the entire series), more than any other, encapsulates for me the idea of the story world as a character all on it’s own. I don’t re-read this so much to re-live Harry’s adventures as to just immerse myself in the world, explore Diagon Alley, hang out with Hagrid in his hut, try & find the Room of Requirement, open up the Marauder’s Map to find out who is sneaking around Hogwarts after hours…

10 Books: #6 Howl’s Moving Castle

This book contains my favourite story hero, my favourite sidekick and one of my favourite story magic-systems ever.

Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne-Jones

If for nothing else, you have to read this book to meet Calcifer. Calcifer is worth the price of entry alone. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about Calcifer.

This is one of those stories that left me gasping at the ingenious complexity of the plot at the end. Yet the key elements are deceptively simple. The characters are also completely ingenious. Take Howl himself, for example. There are so many aspects of his character that should render him completely repugnant – he’s vain, arrogant, autocratic… Yet he is so utterly and incorrigibly kind-hearted, he’s adorable. And Sophie. Oh Sophie. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful Sophie is. You just HAVE to read it.



Book 10: #5 Persuasion

The first Jane Austen book I ever read.



by Jane Austen

I can’t believe it took me so long to find her. I was in first or second year at uni when this came up on my set list. Oh my goodness. It completely swept me away. It remains my favourite Austen novel (along with P&P). But the romantic tension in Persuasion is certainly the most exquisitely excruciating of any book I’ve ever read. And it doesn’t matter how many times I re-read it, Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne – oh my heart – sweeps me off my feet every time.

10 Books: #4 Beauty

Just one more fairy tale before I move onto other books (I can’t promise there won’t be more later.)



by Robin McKinley

This is my own rather battered and much-loved copy of this beautiful tale.  I first read it in high school after finding a copy of the hardcover in the library. I probably borrowed it and read it again at least four or five times after that. This book was an utter revelation. This wonderful, beautiful genius of a writer, this word-sorceress named Robin McKinley, had taken a fairy tale – my favourite fairy tale, no less – and turned it into a whole entire novel. I hadn’t known you could do that. It’s this book, more than any other, that made me want to be a writer and taught me what I wanted to write.

And look where I’ve ended up. 🙂

10 books: #3 Red As Blood

Time for a book for grown ups.

Red As Blood

Red As Blood

Or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer

by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee is one of my favourite authors, and this is the book that kicked it all off for me. It absolutely taught me that fairy tales could be dark and luscious and very, very adult. These stories also taught me that fairy tales aren’t museum pieces, locked away in amber, forever preserved and unchangeable. This collection showed me how all the stories and motifs I loved in the tales I’d been reading since childhood could be fractured, tilted and tipped over to reflect new themes, or old ones in unexpected ways. Discovering this book was like being Alice and stepping through the looking glass to find  a whole new world of fairy tales to explore that was just as rich and delightful as the world I was familiar with, but with new surprises around every corner.

10 books: #2 The Ordinary Princess

I was a huge reader as a child. So naturally when I think about the 10 books that had the most significant impact on my life, I’ve gone right back to where I started falling in love with stories.

The Ordinary Princess

M. M. Kaye

The Ordinary Princess

I was given this book (with this cover) either for my birthday or for Christmas when I was 6. I still have it. 🙂

I think it might be perfect.

It’s a fairy tale (tick), but it totally subverts all the usual elements of fairy tales (tick) and does so with the most delightful, gentle-yet-slightly-snarky, understated humour (tick). It’s romantic (tick). It’s beautiful (tick). It’s got a strong, independent heroine who isn’t going to let other people’s expectations mess with her life choices (tickety tick tick tick). It’s got castles and forests and fairies (cranky ones) and climbing out of windows and running away…

This story absolutely set my ideal of exactly what a fairy tale princess is supposed to be.

10 books: #1 The Enchanted Wood

There’s a Facebook thing I got tagged in recently, where you put up ten posts of books that have had a significant impact on your life. But I’m a multi-platform kinda girl, so here you go.

The Enchanted Wood

The Enchanted Wood

by Enid Blyton

This was the first chapter book my mother ever read me. I can remember sitting in bed, feeling nervous because she was holding a book that didn’t really have any pictures in it. It’s OK, she told me. There are a few. And she showed me the simple line drawings – maybe one per chapter – that seemed utterly inadequate to my four year old mind.  I mean… there were whole pages in there with no pictures. How…? What…?

Oh my sweet summer child.

I have subsequent memories of sitting in bed begging her for just one more chapter PLEASE!!! And I’m pretty certain she ended up reading me the entire series more than once. Then I probably read it a few times myself.

This book is absolutely one of the flames that ignited my imagination. I’m sure I owe my fascination with forests to it. Also, it’s a sterling example of my favourite kind of fiction: stories set in an immersive world that is a character all of its own. Just thinking about it takes me back to leaning out the cottage window, seeing the trees with leaves of a darker shade of green than usual, and hearing the sound of their leaves rustling, wisha-wisha-wisha, as though they are whispering secrets to each other…