My Shelfie by Lucy Foley

Best-selling novelist and Portsmouth High School alumna Lucy Foley on the books that have inspired, educated and entertained her.

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Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
I hold so much affection for this book: I read it when I was a similar age to the protagonist, Cassandra, and I really felt that I was being spoken to by a friend. It’s such a wonderful, tender coming of age story: by turns thrilling, poignant and slightly magical. Who wouldn’t want to grow up in a tumbledown castle with this loveable, slightly mad family and adventure around every turn?

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I’m a huge Kate Atkinson fan — I think I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I could really have picked any of her books: I love her more literary fiction and I love her Jackson Brodie detective novels for the fact that they offer a complete refutation of the idea that crime fiction is plot at the expense of character. Kate Atkinson’s characters are fallible, loveable, they jump off the page. This is perhaps my favourite of hers because it’s so clever conceptually: a life lived again and again, starting in the same way but taking different paths. It’s a fascinating premise because I think it’s something we all wonder about: what if we’d said yes to that invitation, or missed that train, or slipped on that patch of ice? Would our lives be different? Would we be different? As a reader I continued thinking about it long after I finished the final page and I’m hugely inspired by it as a writer because it’s such a fabulous exercise in storytelling — yet in the hands of a lesser talent one that could be tedious or confusing. It’s an example of a wonderful author at the height of her powers.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith
As a writer I’m grateful for Highsmith’s generosity with her wisdom and experience in this ‘how to’ book (which is so much more than that): she talks us through how to tease out the narrative strands and develop character, how to know when things are going awry, even how to decide to give things up as a bad job. She’s unabashed about sharing her own ‘failures,’ and in my experience, there’s nothing more encouraging for a writer than learning that our literary gods are mortal! As a reader, it provides a fascinating insight into the genesis of one of my favorite novels of all time — The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as the rest of her brilliant oeuvre. And because it’s Highsmith, it’s so much more than just a manual: it’s hugely engaging and, while accessible, also provides a glimpse into the mind of a genius. I’ve read it twice — while working on each of my thrillers, The Hunting Party and The Guest List — and I know I’ll be returning to the well-thumbed copy on my shelf again soon!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
I was hugely inspired by the queen of Golden Age crime in writing my two murder mysteries, The Hunting Party and The Guest List. I first read her books as a child and enjoyed them for the pure puzzle, trying to guess the solution. Later, I came to realise quite how dark they really are: not at all the cosy crime they’re sometimes made out to be. Her murderers are husbands and wives, neighbours, doctors, shopkeepers: Christie looks at what makes ordinary people kill one another — and to me that’s a far more terrifying premise than the crazed axe-murderer. I particularly love this book simply because it’s so clever, the sort of read that makes you actually chuckle with surprised pleasure when you read the solution, because it was there all along but so well-hidden in plain sight. It’s also equally enjoyable a read when you know the solution and read through, as I have done, trying to work out how Christie does it.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite
This is such a fun read! And perhaps that’s an odd thing to say when it’s narrated by a woman who’s helping her sister clean up after she’s murdered her boyfriends, but to me it was a brilliant example of how there can be an element of lightheartedness, even comedy, in the thriller genre. I love Korede’s matter-of-fact narration and deadpan humour. I also like that alongside the thriller elements there was a brilliant exploration of the complex, thorny bond between sisters. The love, the jealousies, that tension of sameness and difference — of coming from exactly the same background but being very different people (hint: in this book one sister saves lives for a living, the other one takes them). I love the sense of place: the book is set in Lagos, Nigeria and there’s such a strong depiction of local customs, culture and language. It’s also utterly gripping: Oyinkan Braithwaite writes in short, punchy chapters and somehow moves back and forth in time so deftly you don’t notice she’s doing it: she has the lightest touch. Because of that light touch, when we are confronted with the darkness in Korede and Ayoola’s past, it comes like a punch in the gut.

Lucy Foley (alumna of Portsmouth High School, Class of 2004) studied English Literature at Durham and UCL universities. She then worked for several years as a fiction editor in the publishing industry – when she also wrote The Book of Lost and Found, which was a bestselling debut of 2015. Lucy now writes full-time and her first two crime novels, The Hunting Party and The Guest List, are both Sunday Times best-sellers.