Welcome to The books that shaped me - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Julie Ma, debut author and winner of 2020's Richard and Judy Searcg for a Bestseller competition.
Julie was born and still lives in west Wales, where she runs the family Chinese takeaway business. In July 2020, she entered Happy Families for the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, supported by WHSmith and in October, she was announced the winner from over nine hundred entries. The publication of Happy Families sees Julie becoming a debut author at the age of 51.
How have books impacted your life?
I do wonder if I would still be a reader if I’d grown up during this YouTube, Netflix, TikTok era. I like to think so. Reading is still a quiet corner for a child who is trying to find their place in a busy, noisy world where everybody acts as if they know what they’re doing even when they don’t. Books help you make sense of all that, in your own time, with nobody else there to pass judgement on you. If you see yourself in a book, you are reassured. If you see someone else, you are informed. If you hold your breath and want to know what happens next, you are entertained.
The childhood book that's stayed with you...
Although it might seem more obvious to plump for A Bear Called Paddington, the first in the series, I’ve gone for More About Paddington by Michael Bond. The last four stories in the book describe Paddington’s first winter living with the Browns in 32 Windsor Gardens. For someone immigrating from the Peruvian climate, it’s not entirely without peril. Paddington gets very ill and the Browns worry he won’t recover. Spoiler alert: he does.
Then there is the problem of what to do on Bonfire Night and at Christmas when you’ve never done these things in Britain before. Paddington finds out how to do it properly and through him, so did I. There is no better role model for all of us – human or ursine – than Paddington Bear.
Your favourite book of all time...
In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, 14-year-old Theo Decker steals the 17th century painting of the title. It’s unwittingly done in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing that kills his mother. He’s forced to move from his familiar and sophisticated enclave of New York to the brash gawdy neglect of his father’s home in Las Vegas. But how is he to return himself and the painting to where they belong?
I love this book so much I took my copy to see The Goldfinch when it made a flying visit to the Scottish National Gallery in 2016. Yes, I know it’s mad to take a book to see a painting and I think the curator thought so too.
In telling a story of how a great work of art can redeem you, Donna Tartt creates another one.
The book you wish you'd written...
Milkman by Anna Burns. If I’d written this, not only would I now be in possession of the Booker Prize but I’d also have shown I can flow a story across the page in an unconventional, barely chaptered, sparsely paragraphed and wonderful way. The unnamed main character likes to read even when she’s walking down the street. Her best friend tells her, on behalf of the community, that this is ‘disturbing’ and ‘deviant’. Given that the story is set in a time and place that looks suspiciously like Belfast during the height of the Troubles, such criticism is a bit rich. Don’t let that put you off. Unlike other novels that present themselves dauntingly as an impenetrable block of text, this one is a funny, moving tale of questionable boyfriend material, annoying sisters and a mother who dared to have a life before the birth of her children. Arm yourself with a post-it note to place exactly where you finished reading last time and dive in.
The book you wish everyone would read...
This is just as much a case of choosing a book everyone could read. Most of my working life, I’ve been surrounded by gruff Welsh men who consider never having read a book a badge of honour. I think they’d enjoy some of the short stories in Thomas Morris’ We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. Perhaps the one about the 17-year-old whose girlfriend just dumped him? Or the tale of old Jimmy Hughes and his attempt to woo Mrs Morgan at the Big Cheese festival?
Interspersed with these two tales of romance and heartbreak are other stories set in the Welsh valleys, proving that being ordinary doesn’t mean being boring. You don’t have to be Jack Reacher to be good enough to be in a book. And for those who claim they can’t read a whole book, a short story is a much less daunting prospect.
The book that got you through a hard time...
When things have gone wrong, I like to re-read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. It’s about Ursula Todd who can live her life over and over again, changing her fate each time. She is always reborn on the same day in 1910, but the day she dies is never the same. Her sense of déja-vu means she manages successively to avoid dying of Spanish flu, marrying the wrong man and survives the Blitz.
Although none of us can have a do-over of our entire lives, we can change individual events. We can do things differently and do it better next time. As Ursula’s waspish mother tells us having rescued her daughter from yet another childhood death: ‘Practice makes perfect’.
The book that uplifts you...
This is an audiobook that uplifts me. Like a favourite song can bring back memories of where you first heard it, listening to this reminds me of driving to the beach on a hot summer’s day in 2014.
Love, Nina is a compilation of the letters that Nina Stibbe wrote to her sister after she moved from Leicester to London to become the nanny for single working mother Mary Kay Wilmers in the 1980s. It’s narrated by Nina herself and you can hear her tummy rumble during the recording as she’s reading out a bit about a curry she made!
Filled with seemingly mundane details like being late for a doctor’s appointment or how a face cream can smell depressing, it’s actually a hilarious account of the minutiae of the day-to-day activities that make up our lives and provide fodder for the best novels.
Oh, and it includes the best advice I’ve ever read of how to be a good person: ‘Most importantly you have to be nice without seeming to be or overdoing it.'
Happy Families by Julie Ma is out now, published in paperback by Welbeck, £8.99. It won the 2020 Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, run in partnership with WHSmith.
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