“I know every book of mine by its smell, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”
This morning autumn rapped its knuckles on my window, cleared its throat and pronounced, “Summer’s gone; I’m in charge, deal with it.” The morning was blue and old-gold, smudged, as if someone had buttered the glass; but outside the air was thin and sharp, heavy with the smell of leaf mould.
I walked to work behind a man and his dog. The man was obviously in a hurry to get somewhere; the glossy black Labrador not so much. There was so much to smell! His black nose pulsed and twitched like a sea anemone as he went from one blade of grass to the next, one corner to another, bins and hedges and bricks and weeds and just the road itself. His owner tugged on his lead, trying to be patient and failing, but the dog was lost in his own world, made frantic by the exciting, enticing scents surrounding him. It made me think that the nose of a dog must be the most hard-working nose in the world, and briefly I longed to have one for the sheer joy of it. Then I remembered that a lot of the time it goes straight up the bum of another dog and I changed my mind.
The agitated, overawed sniffing made me think of how I feel about books. There’s so much to read, so much to re-read, so much to discover. How can I revisit one of my favourites when there are books and authors I’ve never heard of, stories I haven’t yet discovered, characters I haven’t met, phrases I haven’t gobbled up – and yet I’m longing to: to refresh my friendship with David Copperfield, read all Phil Rickman’s Merrily series one after the other, punctuate them with T S Eliot’s Quartets and Jilly Cooper’s 1970s romances. My bookshelf still holds unopened volumes of Scottish ghost tales, reflections on Titanic, stories of World War 1 and God knows what else which make my conscience twitch every time I go near it because I am desperate to read them too.
Going into a bookshop makes my heart stumble and my breath catch. The smell of brand new print, unbent spines, fresh smooth paper, is as intoxicating as whatever my four-legged friend discovered on his morning trot. You never know what you’re going to find if you stick your nose in it.
Here’s what made up my most recent literary bouquet:
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda, about a community in New York hit by a tragedy when friends Val and June take a raft onto the Hudson. Only Val returns, and the mystery of June’s fate threatens to tear the fragile blue-collar community apart. This novel uses multiple narrators to spin a beautiful, stark and hugely readable story.
In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume. Reading Judy Blume again was like cuddling up with my gran; familiar, caring and hugely loved. She hasn’t lost her matter-of-fact yet fascinating style, and she knows exactly how people tick. Hugely recommended!
Ditto The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton. Unlike Elizabeth Heynes and Sophie Hannah, both of whom in my opinion have yet to better their debut, Lupton gets better and better. Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby fly to Alaska in search of Matt. They are told he has died in a fire, but Yasmin isn’t convinced and they embark on a terrifying and dangerous journey to track him down. I had to take a hot water bottle to bed while reading this; it genuinely chilled me.
H for Hawk by Helen McDonald is the story of both the devastating loss of a parent and the birth of a new relationship. I found McDonald’s voice fresh and her prose heart-breakingly honest; sometimes her grief is raw it stings the reader. As she sets about training Mabel, her goshawk, she begins to recover from the blow and find a new purpose in life. Wonderful stuff.
Mr Mercedes and its sequel Finders Keepers introduce us to new characters from Stephen King; characters I hope to meet again very soon. Bill Hodges, a retired detective, is contacted by “the one who got away” – a psychotic killer – and decides to take up his challenge to track him down. He is joined by a cast of misfits who you really root for. I was ashamed to find Mr Mercedes, which I’d bought last year, unopened on my bookshelf when the library told me Finders Keepers had arrived for me, so I read it first. I regret not reading it sooner but reading the latter directly after the former was a real treat.
Another author back on form after the rather disappointing Coptown is Karin Slaughter. Pretty Girls, her latest, about a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly and unwittingly reveals secrets of horrific proportions, made me feel dizzy by the time I put it down: I’d been pulled backwards and forwards, spun around corners and smacked my face into walls, had my head shaken and my feet pulled out from under me. That’s what this book is like. I had no idea who to trust or what would happen next: I just knew I couldn’t stop reading.
I started House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, then put it down. I think it was because the narrator, a married doctor called Marc, started getting quite unpleasantly graphic about some things. I left it for a bit, tried Professor of Poetry by Grace McLeen which was impossibly verbose and protracted, and then returned to it. I’m glad I had a break and gave it another shot because I raced towards the end. Marc is invited on holiday by his famous-actor-patient Ralph and their family, but things go terribly, horribly wrong and Marc winds up being accused of murder. I can’t believe that I nearly missed out on this story and it shows sometimes you do have to keep going if you find a book not your thing. Not always, but sometimes.
No links this time – Bookmail have moved to eBay, and you can find them there. Happy reading – and sniffing – and heed the advice of dear Terry Pratchett:
“Don’t stick your nose where someone can pull it off and eat it.”
P.S. If you’re not watching Midwinter of the Spirit on ITV at 2100 on Wednesdays, which is adapted from Phil Rickman’s books – why not?