. I have a tendency to say I love books. But there are only a few books I really and truly love. These are the special ones. These are the ones I don’t read a lot, but save for special moments. These are the books that give me a little tingle down the spine when I open up it, because I know something magical is about to happen.
Wind in the Willows. I was given this book when I was very young, about five, and I still own this copy (with the E.H. Shepherd illustrations. It must be). I always loved it. I identified with shy, quiet Mole and his yearning for light and freedom and adventure, and I always wanted to be cool, insouciant Ratty, and laughed at Toad. I cried every time I read about Mole bringing Ratty back to his home, and it’s cold and dirty and Ratty makes it all alright, even before I knew why I cried at it. I cheered at the battle of Toad Hall, and giggled at Toad’s adventures. When I first read it, I didn’t understand the chapter Piper At The Gates of Dawn, and I still remember, when I was 13, reading that again, and understanding it, and seeing for the beautiful piece of writing it is.
Jane Eyre. I was 13 when I first read this, and it was the first 19th Century novel I read. This book led me on to all the Brontes, and Dickens, and Austen and George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell and all the other 19th Century novels I love so much. And the book itself was wonderful. The brooding, sexy Mr Rochester gave me a new standard for men to live up to, and Jane herself was wonderful – intelligent, independent, demanding a life of her own, passionate and fierce, and yet all with a sharp, ironic sense of humour (a trait that doesn’t always make it to onscreen adaptations). Here was a heroine I felt I could be, and I loved her from the first page.
Nightwatch by Terry Pratchett. I love all the Discworld books, but especially the City Guard ones and most especially this one. Sam Vimes is one of my favourite heroes, flawed and unherolike, but always doing the right thing, sometimes reluctantly. This book deals with timetravel (always one of my favourite subjects), with Sam Vimes somehow becoming his own mentor (there’s a touch of Life of Mars, but it was written before). And because it’s a time travel story, we already know what the ending is. We can see it coming – and so can Sam. Add one of Pratchett’s most disturbing villains, exciting chases, extremely funny humour and some truly dark moments, and you have an amazing book. The moment where the men pluck lilac to pin on always makes me gasp, and cry.
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill. This is one of the Dalziel and Pascoe series of detective novels. Dalziel is a gruff Yorkshire man, Pascoe a younger, university graduate. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the novels are interwined with mythology, and music and literature and philosophy and yet all are totally readable, and understandable. Hill never talks down to his readers, he just assumes we’re all as knowledgeable as he is. And Dalziel and Pascoe are fascinating characters. But this book – this one is special. Once, long ago, a village was drowned. Was there also a clue to a child murder in that drowned village? An opera singer returns home, with her translations of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children). And then, the graffiti starts – the killer is back. There’s something about this book, something haunting and fascinating – like the Kindertotenlieder themselves. It sends shivers down my spine.
Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by M.R. James. Strictly speaking, a short story. M.R.James is known as The Master, in deference to his skill with ghost stories. And this is his best. Nothing much really happens. Even the possible ghost sightings are only possible. And yet, there is an rising atmosphere of dread, and fear, and horror. This is what I aim for when I write ghost stories. (And if you do read it, you’ll never want to sleep in a room with an empty bed in it again)
These ones are, as I said, the special ones. These are the ones where the author has gone beyond good, to creating magic. These are the ones that make me catch my breath, and read slowly, to take in every word. These books set the standard for me to aim for.