Ten Books That Changed Me with Tess Woods
The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton
My mum read aloud to me since I was a baby, so I’m sure I loved books before this one. But when I think of the first book that shaped me, it has to be Moon Face and co. of The Magic Faraway Tree.
I have very clear memories of being five-years-old and the youngest by twelve months and up to eighteen months in my Year One class. I had a thick French accent and thick glasses to match and, being a fresh immigrant who had no concept of Australian culture, I was a complete misfit! My saviour was our school librarian, Miss Ogilvie. Somehow despite the language barrier, she picked up on my eagerness to learn and my love of books and after only a few weeks of school, she began to regularly call for me to have one on one reading lessons in the library.
Behind the safety of the glass window in her tiny back office, she sat me on her lap and spared me from the basic school reader picture books that were boring me to tears. Instead she introduced me to the magical world of Enid Blyton. She made me practice saying tree without rolling my ‘R’s’ and patiently taught me not to drag out the ‘y’ sound in Fanny, the heroine’s name. (I’m still miffed that Fanny and Dick were swiped when I bought my kids their box set called The Folk of the Faraway Tree!)
When I finished The Faraway Tree, Miss Ogilvie introduced me to The Famous Five and for a year, I escaped into the library with her a few times a week for respite, learning and Enid Blyton adventures while I settled into my new life and lost the accent under her tutorage. I hate to imagine that period in my childhood without Enid Blyton and without Miss Ogilvie.
I was so swept up in the charm of The Faraway Tree that years later, when we had our own Jacaranda in the front garden, I secretly thought of it as my very own Faraway Tree and I used to climb it with a novel in hand to read hidden up in the branches for hours at a time until I left home as an adult.
(Can I please put it out into the cyber universe that if anyone knows a Miss Ogilvie who was the school librarian at Altona North Primary School in Melbourne in the early 1980s to please hug her from me? I’ve been looking for her to thank her for years with no success.)
Sweet Valley High – Francine Pascal
I already loved books but when I was twelve-years-old, I learned to looooove books thanks to Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth whose misadventures in Francine Pascal’s long running series I followed with close to obsessive interest! Sadly, none of my friends were that into the Sweet Valley High books. But now, as an author in my forties, many of my similarly aged author friends are as hearts aflutter as I am at the mere mention of Elizabeth’s long-term boyfriend, Todd Wilkins and are equally as excited when ‘Which twin from Sweet Valley High are you?” quizzes get put on Facebook!
While reading this series, I was being raised in a strict Arabic home, where the concept of a boyfriend when I was still in high- school was laughable. The Wakefield twins let me live vicariously through them. I fell in love with love because of Sweet Valley High and it sparked a life-long devotion to reading love stories.
Audacity to Believe – Sheila Cassidy
More than any other book, Sheila Cassidy’s autobiography about her arrest and torture as an Australian doctor living under the Pinochet regime in Chile in the 1970s was a game changer for me. I read Cassidy’s heartbreaking and hope filled story in 1986 as a thirteen-year-old and it profoundly moved me. At that time in my life, I’d been largely sheltered by over-protective parents and had absolutely no clue that I lived in a world where human rights abuse was rife. The idea that a government could detain, torture and kill innocent people shook me to my core.
Pinochet, whose regime was responsible for the systematic abuse of thousands of Chileans, was still in power at the time. I was beyond outraged! There was no internet for me then but I was desperate to find out what I could do to fight against the horror I’d just read about. Only weeks after I finished reading Audacity to Believe and with the story still burning in my mind, Sting, my favourite musician in the world, released the song ‘They Dance Alone’ as a protest about the Pinochet regime. That song stirred me up enough to write a letter to Pinochet himself condemning his government. I took the letter to my school librarian and asked her to point me in the direction of the postal address of the dictator of Chile.
‘You should join Amnesty International,’ she said.
I’ve been putting pen to paper on behalf of Amnesty International (and more recently tapping madly on my Mac) as a passionate human rights defender ever since. If it wasn’t for the grief that resonated deep within me when I read Audacity to Believe as a young and impressionable teen, I wonder how differently my life would have turned out, seeing as though such a large part of it has been dedicated to the fight for human rights.
In 1994, my mum saw through a staff memo at the Catholic Education Office where she worked that Sheila Cassidy was giving a talk about her experiences in Chile under the Pinochet regime. I was beside myself with excitement and with my tattered copy of Audacity to Believe, I went to listen to her talk. I expected to be meet a passionate freedom fighter who would rouse the crowd. But Sheila Cassidy was completely detached to her adoring audience. She spoke in a dull monotone and didn’t engage at all with readers after her talk. It was the first author talk I’d been ever to and it took me twenty- two years to go to another one because I couldn’t bear the idea of another author not living up to the God-like image I’d created of them again.
Pat Cash ‘My Story’ – Pat Cash
This book didn’t change my life. Not even a little bit! I just put it in here to annoy my hubby because I know he’ll read this article! It’s always driven Paul crazy that even though I don’t keep books (I give them all away once I’ve read them), I’ve always refused to part with this one that I bought in 1987 and it remains the very first book on the top shelf of our bookshelf to this day!!!!!
The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough
Oh Father Ralph de Bricassart – be still my beating heart! Colleen McCullough’s Australian classic was the first adult novel I ever read. Up until then I’d only been exposed to super sanitised teen romances, namely Sweet Valley High. But the day that curiosity got the better of me, and I started reading the book I saw sitting on my mum’s bedside table, my world was turned. Real sex on paper – who knew!! The illicit passion in this story was like a sexual awakening for me. I’d never had the urge to turn pages so fast. I fell head over in heels in love with Meg Cleary and Father Ralph’s forbidden love story and I have no doubt that it was their Romeo and Juliet tragic love that eventually led to the creation of Mel and Matt in Love at First Flight.
When my agent was looking for a publishing house for me, the one I was desperate for was HarperCollins, based solely on the fact that they published The Thorn Birds. I told Jacinta I was desperate for HarperCollins above any other publisher and I gave her the brief, ‘I want and need the same publisher as Queen Colleen! Please and thank you.’
And then when I first visited the HarperCollins office in Sydney in January 2016, it was all I could do not to burst into tears when I saw The Thorn Birds on a bookshelf and my publisher, Mary casually said, ‘That shelf’s where we’ll display Love at First Flight.’
Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy
Ah Maeve, the late great Maeve. Where do I even start with her? I read Circle of Friends when I was sixteen and, like the rest of the world it seemed, I fell hook line and sinker for Maeve Binchy’s completely original story-telling voice. The young adults on the cusp of romance in Circle of Friends were beautifully drawn, the setting so real you’d swear you’d just been at college with Benny in Dublin yourself. And the way Maeve brought everyone from the village to life – typifying every kind of personality you would come across in any community, regardless of where in the world you lived – she had a way of social observation about her that in my opinion has never been matched.
Since reading Circle of Friends, I went on to read every single published book of Maeve’s and many of her articles as well. She’s my hands down literary hero. When she died I was devastated, like I’d lost a real life friend. Nobody could replace her.
A few years later, a reader of mine, wrote to me out of the blue and said, ‘Have you read Recipes of a Perfect Marriage’ by Kate Kerrigan? If not, you should because you remind of her with your writing style. I looked up the book, read it and was moved enough by it to email Kate, an Irish author, and tell her how much I loved it. I wrote, ‘Ever since Maeve Binchy died, you’re the first author to come close to filling that hole.’
She wrote back, ‘Funny you should say that, Tess, I’ve just started working with Maeve’s life-long editor, Rosie de Courcy who’ll be publishing my next book.’
Fast forward to now, and one of my dearest friends and confidants in this industry is the brilliant publishing powerhouse that is Rosie de Courcy. She’s championed my first book and provides the opening review quote in my second book, Beautiful Messy Love. That’s the same Rosie who worked on twenty-three books with Maeve Binchy – each and every one of them loved by me. Oh and guess which other book Rosie told me she was the editor for which pretty much blew me out of the water? The Thorn Birds.
Is life amazing or what?
The Shell Seekers – Rosamund Pilcher
Rosamund Pilcher comes second only to Maeve Binchy as my favourite author. I’ve hunted down and adored all of her love stories. But by far my favourite and the one I read first, was The Shell Seekers. Pilcher is the first author who made me love a setting like it was another character. The way that she brought Cornwall to life gave me an intense desire to go there. I read the Shell Seekers in 1990 when I was in Year Twelve and decided I had to go to Cornwall and I had to go shell seeking. The cliffs, the surf, the harbour, the picnics on a sunny Cornish day, the raging wind in the late afternoon – I had to experience it for myself.
It took twenty-four years but I finally got there on a beautiful day in May in 2014.
We drove over five hours from London with our kids and arrived in the sleepy village of Trevone, a few minutes away from Padstow, at dusk. We headed straight down to the beach and I cried when I saw the iconic setting of The Shell Seekers in real life. It was too dark to go shell seeking then though.
The next morning before we walked to the beach from our little white cottage on the cliff, we checked emails and there waiting for me was a contract offer from my future agent Jacinta di Mase, some five years after I’d written a book I thought would never see the light of day. I’m completely convinced that it was my love for books and story-telling that divined that contract for me. Of all the days in all the years, it came on the day when I was moved enough to drag my family to the other side of the world to collect shells on a beach because of a book I’d read twenty-four years earlier.
I did go shell seeking that day, and then I sat with my feet in a rock pool, mesmerised by the way the flecks of sunlight caught on my toe nail polish. I made myself a promise then and there that in honour of Trevone Bay in Cornwall being the place where I found out I now had an agent and a shot at publication, that I who would set my next story there. And I did. Destiny in a Day was one of four stories published the following year in the HarperCollins anthology Hot Stuff: Surfing Love. The opening scene in Destiny in a Day is of the heroine, Gemma Knox, sitting with her toes in a rock pool in Trevone Bay 🙂
Tully – Paullina Simons,
The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller,
The Horse Whisperer – Nicholas Evans.
Yes, I’ve snuck three books in here but let’s not get too hung up on minor technicalities, people. My all-time favourite book is The Bridges of Madison County. I think it’s about as close to perfect as you could get in a novel. But on its own it didn’t change me, rather it was the combination of the Iowa set love story of a brief and passionate affair between Francesca and roaming stranger Robert Kincaid, along with Tully and The Horse Whisperer that collectively formed the basis of my own story-telling.
I read all three of these books around the time I was engaged and then newlywed. They all rattled me and made me question myself as a wife, as a woman, as a future mother. I was desperately in love with my new husband, gosh I was obsessed with him! But what if I wasn’t? All three of these stories were so utterly believable and convincing in portraying the wife who falls head over heels in love and goes through with adultery, risking her children, her marriage, everything, despite being married to a good man who loves her. And they all left me with a burning question. What if you met the love of your life and he wasn’t your husband? What then? That question never left me. It sat there in the recesses of my mind and niggled and niggled for over fifteen years. And then… guess what the tag line on the front cover of my debut was? What if you met the love of your life and he wasn’t your husband?
The Last Chance Saloon – Marian Keyes
This was the first Marian Keyes book I read and it was like discovering that a new kind of ice-cream flavour had just been invented that was a million times better than the boring flavours you’d been settling on for years. I devoured this book! I also remember it distinctly as the first book I was so engrossed in that when my then baby Tommy, who’d been fast asleep in my arms, woke up I realised I’d been transported away from being a mum for the first time in months and that made me happy. Up until then, I’d been living and breathing nothing but being a new mum. The Last Chance Saloon gave me back the gift of escape from my every day routine and it’s always been that escape into alternate worlds that makes me such a passionate bookworm.
The Last Chance Saloon was also the book that made me fall in love with Chick Lit as a genre. From Marian I went on to discover Jane Green, Cecelia Ahern, Monica McInerney and Dianne Blacklock who all became firm favourites. (Dianne went on to become my editor – no shit!)
I read every Marian Keyes book after that. Rachel’s Holiday and Sushi for Beginners became my favourites but there’ll always be a special place in my heart for The Last Chance Saloon.
Twilight – Stephenie Meyer
Since having children, I certainly read books I adored, like the ones mentioned above but I wasn’t completely obsessed with a book until I read Twilight in 2009. My obsession with Twilight was akin to my Sweet Valley High days of compulsive reading. I simply could not put the damn thing down and was greatly annoyed that real life was coming between me and my need to sit and read to the exclusion of all else! I think Twilight took me back to those books I’d loved previously, all with that Romeo and Juliet theme of tragic love, from The Thorn Birds, to Tully, The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer.
I was completely hooked by Edward and Bella’s love – how the hell could their story have a happy ending? I devoured all four books in the series, gradually getting more and more annoyed with the plotline until by the last book I wasn’t even really enjoying the story anymore but still dying to know what happened in the end.
I’ve never read books as fast as I read The Twilight Series. As soon as I finished reading the fourth book, I went to see the first Twilight movie at the cinema. That night I dreamed about my character Mel. Before Twiliight, I’d never entertained the thought of becoming a writer, like literally, not a single thought about it. But the day after the dream, I began to write for the very first time since I’d left high school. In three days I had fifty-thousand words and the basic plot of Love at First Flight from start to finish. So there’s no question that there was definitely something in Twilight that spoke to me. Reading it changed the course of my life more than I ever imagined could be possible.
Beautiful Messy Love
What happens when love and loyalty collide? Two couples must deal with the consequences of their messy love not just for themselves but for those who depend on them. For lovers of passionate romance in the vein of Nicolas Sparks.
When football star Nick Harding hobbles into the Black Salt Cafe the morning after the night before, he is served by Anna, a waitress with haunted-looking eyes and no interest in footballers famous or otherwise. Nick is instantly drawn to this exotic, intelligent girl. But a relationship between them risks shame for her conservative refugee family and backlash for Nick that could ruin his career.
Meanwhile, Nick’s sister, Lily, is struggling to finish her medical degree. When she meets Toby, it seems that for the first time she is following her heart, not the expectations of others. Yet what starts out as a passionate affair with a man who has just buried his wife slips quickly into dangerous dependency.
Through attraction, breakups, triumphs and tragedies, these two couples learn just how much their beautiful messy love might cost. A West Side Story for the modern day.