How do you read?

Does the film of the book run through your mind? Is it a serious of snapshots? Or is it all about the words? Can you dip in and out of multiple books at once or do you fully immerse yourself in one and rarely come up for air?

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My 5 favorite books, their relative batteredness depends on how many people I have lent them to, and how new they were when I got them

Every book I have read since the age of eighteen has been kept, some have been read more than once and will be again and again. Each time I take them down I can see and feel and remember where I last read them. Listing favourite books is almost impossible – I did it in my Q&A post below after years of mulling it over – but what exactly is a favourite? Is it because of the writing? The plot? How it made me feel? How it affected my life? The person I was when I read it – or the person I was when I finished it? Especially if I didn’t actually enjoy the book. There are ones that are important because of when or where I was reading them, or because of who gave them to me, or recommended them – subsection disappointing recommendations by adored people. Those whose importance is that I found them myself – or they chose me by being irresistible on a book shop table, those that led me to even greater book, those I still dream about.

One of the things I plan to do on this blog is talk about favourite books, but I’ve realised I need to talk about how I read first. Since about the age of seven or eight I have read constantly, but slowly. Friends who would say they aren’t really readers finish more books a year than I do. I can partly blame small children and family life for that these days but even when I lived alone and my time was my own – oh for some of that time back now – I didn’t finish many books a year simply because of how slowly I read.

Being positive I would say I read thoroughly – but does that sound too dismissive of fast readers? I don’t mean it to. I guess I read cinematically, I visualise everything in the scene as I read it to the point that if something is mentioned in a scene that I haven’t registered before, I sometimes go back and re read the scene to “picture” it correctly. The most common instance of this is when someone is driving a car in a US set book and one of them turns their head to the left to look at the driver and I remember that we drive on the opposite side of the car here and I have to go back and re read the scene with each character in their proper place. Why? I’m not sure, I’ve just always done this, the words create moving pictures in my head and it’s why as soon as a book is mentioned , no matter how long ago I read it, a scene is instantly there in my mind.

It is possibly because I read like this that I never need book marks. I am baffled by people who scream if their place in a book is lost (never mind my rage for those who bend over the corners of pages to keep their place.) How can they not just pick up the book and find where they were? Don’t they remember? If you open the book at random and read half a line don’t you know if you have already read it or not? Because I either see the scene instantly, or don’t (having not yet read it), I can work my way backwards or forwards until I find where I was, although I usually open the book within three pages to either side as my hands seem to know as soon as I pick up the book how far into the book I was.

This also gives me the ability to find any given scene in a book many years after I read it. I thought all people had this knack until my best friend said that in her book club she is always asked to find the pages they are discussing because no one else can find the place as surely or swiftly.

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2 books, both over 900 pages long and both read on beach holidays. One was also borrowed by someone else (and ok, I’ve read it far more than once)

As for how you do this with electronic books, well that would be a whole new post. Is it wrong to love the physical feel and look of books so much? This brings me back to the dog-earing of pages I mentioned before. Oh the horror. For a while none of my family would ever borrow books from me because of the rage or anguish I exhibited (or worse, tried to hide) when they returned the book in anything less than a pristine condition. I’ve managed to read paperback books of over five hundred pages and not left a mark on the spine. But I have mellowed (presumably now I show more than a few marks of wear and tear myself) and I value the dents on a book’s cover that tell as much a story to me as the printed words (the sand stuck in the pages of Tom Jones from a very windy Cretan beach, the water damaged pages in Vanity Fair due to an exploding bottle of fizzy water on a Cuban balcony.)

One other reason for being a slow reader is that I usually have three to four books on the go at once. The main book that is my first choice, a romance and a classic text, either ancient Greek or Arthurian. The reason for this is that no matter how much I am loving a book, I can rarely read more than 50 pages in one sitting. One of the most exciting parts of going away for a two week holiday was always planning my reading; going through my stacks of to-be-read books, getting a long list, or pile of around 15 books, usually still popping into Waterstones when I was supposed to be in Boots buying sun cream and mosquito repellent and buying 2 or 3 new books, getting the list down to 8 and trying to never take more than 6 (even on a fortnight away with nothing to do but enjoy myself – which would mean reading from dawn till dusk if I was lucky – I knew I wouldn’t read more than 6 books because I would be taking books I had been longing to read and savouring them even more than my usual slow cinematic style.) So I would read 50 pages of one, then dip into another, onto a third, then back to book 2 again and so on all day all holiday. Maybe it’s a delayed gratification thing, making as many books as possible last as long as possible, rather than racing through one to rush onto another? The bittersweet finishing of a book you have loved reading is hard to beat and this way I could postpone the parting, or have several giddy goodbyes close together.

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The 4 that wouldn’t let me put them down

My inability to read more than 50 pages has only been over ruled by book passion on a handful of occasions which saw me staying up till 3 in the morning before having to go to work the next day – John Le Carré’s Honourable Schoolboy and Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (this was a book I had discovered just days earlier after almost giving up on Diana Norman ever writing another book and I tried to make it last but failed.) Two years ago when I was laid up with a damaged ankle and read voraciously for two weeks, I devoured the last 150 pages of Ian Rankin’s The Falls and the last 200 of Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I on almost consecutive nights (I was sleeping a lot during the day due to pain.) I put those two binges down to the fact that for the first time ever I thought I had guessed a Rebus villain – and I was right! And because Gillespie and I had the most unreliable narrator I had ever read and I was desperate to find out their final comeuppance.

In the last few years, when my reading time has been reduced, I have still managed to read books that fill all my various criteria above – writing and plotting that has blown me away, ones that make me look at the world and myself differently as I close the final page, ones that have made me cry, ones that I have instantly recommended to friends and family, ones that I want to re-read as soon as possible. No matter how much I love a book while I am reading it, I know there are more treasures out there to be found and savoured. Reading truly is the gift that keeps giving. Which books have made you stay up all night, or keep you returning for just one more re-read? Can you narrow your favourites down to five?

Poised on the border between the known and the unknown

This was a (mis)quote about the universe, but is also a perfect description of falling in love; of that pivotal moment where all out previous experiences of love and loss are balanced against the unknown possibilities in this new love before us.

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It could also describe the feeling when we pick up a new romance to read – or start to write one. There is the history of all romances read and written before, if it is a category romance there is a defined word count and a restricted cast of leading characters (depending on whether it’s a Presents or a Western for example.) Readers and writers have a wealth of research and past knowledge and experience to draw upon – but how that story will play out, the twists and turns of plot, the depth of character, the sights, sounds and scents of the location will be something new, and hopefully, something amazing.

I’m sorry if I have managed to repeat myself already in only two months on this blog about the infinite variety and possibility contained in romance novels; it’s the cumulative effect of years on line seeing romances denigrated by non-readers, interviewers, other authors and even those who have ridden the coat tails of romance to financial and popular acclaim and then want to say “oh my books aren’t really romance.” Fine, not everyone has to like or read romance, there are many genres I don’t read, but I see no point in singling them out or putting them down – especially when I have no knowledge of them – and I would never try to sell my books on that genre, nor pour disdain on its readers.

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This photograph was taken on the same day as the other two standing stone pictures and shows how quickly Welsh weather can change

I didn’t plan to write any of that, but it’s some of the thoughts inspired by seeing Professor Brian Cox in the snow talking about the centuries of research, speculation and experimentation that have formed theories about the nature and origins of the universe. (I am paraphrasing, and badly as I wasn’t paying total attention.) Scientists now stand on that knife edge with history behind them and the vast unknowable universe before us waiting to be explored. Just as a reader opens that first page and waits to see what fresh characters and intriguing situation will cast a new light on the tale of falling in love and earning a happy ending against the odds.

It’s why humans keep on trying new romances even after disastrous break ups. I ended up single and celibate for almost five years after too many broken hearts (mine and other people’s), but eventually the pain had faded enough and someone offered a fresh view of the possibilities ahead; I reluctantly took a few hesitant steps and low and behold fell in love all over again, almost against my will (certainly against reason) and am still marvelling at it (and never taking it for granted) today.

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And what has any of this got to do with standing stones? I wrote a blog last week about castles (not posted yet due to the heart breaking stories in the news, I’m hoping I’m not tempting fate posting this one with its title on the day the UK votes whether or not to remain part of the EU.) In that blog I tried to explain how it is the love of the unknown in ruined castles and ancient monuments that inspires me – as a story teller and as a visitor puzzling over clues left by people long gone. I love reading about the history as well, but it is more the untold story that fires my soul and makes me return again and again to some sites.

One such place is Avebury (the solstice this week also made my mind take this particular tangential trip down memory lane, with my by now familiar clumsy attempts to tie it to romance.) I first saw Avebury no older than ten on a frosty morning. I have seen it in rain and sun and have always been awed by the mystery and majesty of the place. And been baffled and amused by the village that was built centuries later slap in the middle of this unique landscape; a very British piece of practical vandalism – why not build houses near a handy pre-quarried source of stone and with nice earthworks to keep animals in? Our attitude of veneration and conservation now shudders at what was done just a few hundred years ago – a fraction of the life span of these ancient sites – but what will future generations think? About the sites, about the recent past, about our twenty-first century views? Which will be laughable, which valued, and which utterly incomprehensible?

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Avebury on a sunny day when it was impossible to take pictures of stones without people in the background – or foreground

So much about these ancient sits will be forever a mystery; we will always be on that knife point of knowledge and the unfathomable. And for me that is the main part of their charm. Maybe that goes for falling in love too; I’m hoping for happy ever after but I know it’s not guaranteed or easy, and it’s never boring. Which applies even more to the books I love to read, and write.

Love

Last night I was too heartsick to post the blog I had ready. I had already had doubts about posting in a week when 49 people were murdered in a gay bar in Orlando in the US; and then here in the UK an MP was shot and stabbed to death outside the library where she had been holding her constituency surgery.

I know many people will say that to continue with our everyday lives, to carry on loving and laughing and living our lives to the full is the best way to fight the fear and hate and terrorism that drives individuals to these horrific acts. And I agree. But last night I couldn’t even write this for crying.

I will just copy the words of Brendan Cox, the widow of MP Jo Cox, and the picture he posted shortly after the attack. And I will continue to believe that love can triumph over hate.

A trip down memory lane

This post came to me while I was driving last week. My sister took us to a woodland nature reserve that I’d never visited where the kids and her dog could splash and play in a shallow stream, she described it as being near a village but as we drove further and further I realised the wood was in fact in the middle of Inglestone Common, a place I hadn’t visited for at least thirty years. When it was time to leave I was sure that going on over the common and along the edge of the Cotswolds was a quicker way and so I headed off, much to my sister’s amazement – she was convinced I’d get lost. I didn’t, and every mile was crammed with memories.

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I have walked up and down this lane thousands of times in the last six years; in deep snow and gushing floods, on days when the cool green shade felt like a caress and one autumn day when I kicked a cider apple all the way down it until I was intoxicated by the bruised smell of the fruit. No matter how often I walk it, different things catch my attention – a new violet opening in spring, different bird song and glimpses of their plumage, a stronger gust of wind making the pine trees sing or sigh, a silent buzzard resting in the apple orchard. Twenty people could walk that lane a day and describe it differently, just as hundreds of romance novels are published a year but all tell the same basic story of two people meeting and finding love and making it work against the odds.

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The same lane in thick snow. It’s actually taken from almost the same spot – look at the leaning fence post on the right and the ivy-clad trunk on the other side of the road

I read something on twitter this week – I can’t find it now and hate to not credit it properly. Its gist was that all stories are about someone wanting something; in popular fiction they achieve it, in literary fiction they don’t. Given the flak that women’s fiction gets, especially romance, that made me smile a lot (and yes I do read literary fiction – I think. I rarely even think about how a book is classified until I have trouble locating in it a book shop (Really? Euripides in history rather than classics or poetry or drama?)). Romance readers and writers have to develop a thick skin, or a serious headache from all the eye rolling we do each time we hear that the books we love are formulaic, clichéd, repetitive and all the same. Do hill walkers and ramblers get told that all walks are the same? You end up back at your house or car, tired and possibly muddy after seeing some countryside, just like you did on your last walk, why do you keep doing different walks? Or even worse, why do the same walk again? Because as I tried to describe above, it changes every day, heck every hour.

No romance and no book is ever the same. There are familiar rituals and goals, but the accidental tangential diversions and the deliberate off-piste excursions described in my post two weeks ago can make them come alive in different ways, revealing each author’s distinctive voice. Just as the flower that made me smile yesterday can be eclipsed by the sight of a fox crossing my path today, so the breath-taking moonlit roof top chase in one book can be replaced by a champagne supper on a Mediterranean beach the next time, languid lovemaking between crisp cotton sheets in one story and frenzied still-half-dressed passion in a dusty cellar the next. I don’t need to tell other romance readers and writers this, but as well as the variety of plots, it’s the tiny details that count towards making the bigger picture different from author to author and book to book.

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Higher up the same lane in a freezing fog that was as thick as snow on the trees

What’s even better is that those tiny details can tell us a lot about the character experiencing them. Everyone notices different things depending on the situation and their background. A city girl and a country one will react to the smells and sights of a farmyard differently, a hero and heroine might react differently to a bathroom in need of a good clean. The words they use, the descriptions, especially the comparisons they draw and the memories that are invoked are deeply personal and can tell us so much about the character as well as the location. It can tell us what they are experiencing right now as they look around them – that patched old sofa covered in dog hairs will look disgusting or inviting depending upon how exhausted or in danger the character is.

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That same stretch of road in January sun, over a mile from home and our cat still accompanying us

The recollections can also be incredibly important. I’ve been guilty in the past of writing pages of backstory and then having to cut it. I still let myself sometimes because just thinking about a character or what has shaped them isn’t enough, I have to start physically listing it on the page or keyboard and then it comes alive and my fingers can’t keep up with scenes and anecdotes that have made that person who they are. Those passages will never end up in the finished work, but they are there for me and they inform everything else I write about him or her, I may allude to them, or show a brief snapshot of that moment in how they react to something in the present.

Which brings me back to Ingelstone Common. Last week, it all looked unfamiliar and then I recognised the very first road junction I came to; I hadn’t been that way since I was fourteen or fifteen and I had been on a horse, not in a car, but I knew it at once. The rest of the journey was one of crystal clear memories: the pace where my sister fell and broke her collar bone, the wide grass verge that provided the only place to canter for miles, the corner where there used to be a pig farm and our pony could smell that distinctive odour long before we did and would start snorting and shying. There were houses where I remembered fields, and houses that I had seen being built now looked tired with the paint peeling on window frames, the small village shop where we sometimes bought ice lollies was now a house. As I changed down to third gear for a particularly steep and winding hill I relived the moment that a thunderstorm passed over me and my horse and the thunder and lightning happened in the same split second.

I live in the countryside where every other house seems to be called the Old Forge, Old Schoolhouse or Old Post Office; on that drive I passed the Old Bakery and felt even older as I recalled how we used to drive there on a Saturday morning and bypass the shop to go into the actual bakery and wait for the fresh loaves to come out of the huge ovens in the wall. I remember flour covering everything and the dim light coming through ancient leaded windows and the stifling heat. We had to wait for the bread to be cool enough to eat but it was best when still warm and soft and springy, by the afternoon, the top of a cottage loaf would have hardened to iron and when you bit it the crust would shatter and lacerate the roof of your mouth. I knew the bakery closed years ago due to the cost of modernising it, but it was still a slight shock to realise I am old enough to remember a place before it became the “Old” in a house name.

If I put any or all of the above in a book it would add colour, but also read like too much irrelevant padding/backstory, all it tells you is that I’m past the first flush of youth and I used to ride a lot in the British countryside. But just one anecdote alluded to, or given a wider context can add vital individuality to a fictional character. If the heroine knows her fear of thunderstorms is irrational, but only recalls later riding through that storm and her horse nearly bolting in fear; it gives her more motivation and rationalises her dread.

So my trip down an accidental memory lane made me think of my writing and back stories, about picking the right detail, and how when it’s done with skill I can read the same authors telling me tales of falling in love again and again because every time they show me something different and make me want to take that journey with them.

Inheritance tracts

This was not the blog post I intended to write this week (and it’s a little later than planned) but a visit to my parents had an unexpected outcome. My mum told me she had some books for me, this happens quite often; books she has read and thinks I will enjoy and lends me. Or more often these days, books she has decided she won’t read again. She has been doing this for over ten years, mostly because she still buys books and is picky about which get to stay. Last time I saw her, only two or three weeks ago she gave me Tom Bombadil and also Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood which I pointed out was actually my copy that she had refused to return as she enjoyed it so much. However I was not expecting her to give me these books:

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They have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can picture them on a shelf in the living room, although mostly I recall them on a shelf by her bed, where all her most treasured books or comfort reads were. Her excitement when she unwrapped Dunnett’s King Hereafter for a Christmas present in 1982 is also clear in my memory, even though she knew exactly what was in the parcel.

I must have taken these books down and looked at them many times; I remember that terrifying leopard so well and being annoyed that Checkmate’s glossy plastic cover did not match the beautiful matt paper of the others, and that its art work was far less imaginative and evocative (great, I was an aesthetic book snob before the age of ten) I also remember being bothered that there were only six books with their chess related titles – where was a bishop or rook one? They were among the only books in the house that I wasn’t encouraged to read, mum treasured them so much and said they were very densely written, and complex – those are compliments – and that they weren’t something to be read too soon. (I made that mistake with the Lord of the Rings, rushing onto it after the Hobbit and finding it very slow going and hiding my copy of Five go to Smuggler’s Top inside it so that mum wouldn’t know I wasn’t enjoying one of her favourite books – I’m not sure if this means I was reading Tolkien too soon, or Enid Blyton too late.)

It was a very odd moment when I was offered these books. Mum said that at nearly eighty she isn’t going to read them again. I haven’t felt such a pang when she’s said similar things about other books and she has been frank and wonderfully sensible about aging, knowing her limitations, not fighting it but adapting with grace and practicality. I just can’t imagine ever giving away my most treasured books like this (and she is of course still holding onto a lot and ordering books every week through the local library so she’s hardly giving up) I just associate these with her so strongly. They take me straight back to my early teens when my dad worked away from home mid-week and my sister and I took it in turns to be allowed to sleep in their double bed with mum; lying there in the morning looking at these magical books with their matt covers, gothic lettering and tantalising illustrations was like peeking into a treasure chest of jewels.

And now they are mine.

I just need a quiet few years to read them in….

I hadn’t realised how much fun I would have with a dictionary when I started this blog, nor just how atrocious my taste for puns and word play would be. This blog title is borrowed from BBC Radio Four’s Inheritance Tracks where a known public figure talks about one piece of music that they “inherited” or grew up with, and then nominates another piece to pass on. I frequently find the stories they tell about why the music means so much to them far more emotive than the music.

I was sure that tract referred to a written piece of work, as well as to an area of land – anyone who loves Monty Python will never be able to forget the allure of a Princess with “huge tracts of land” in the Holy Grail. I had also forgotten until I checked my dictionary that a tract can be a passage in the body – I love my mum but have no wish to inherit her digestive tract. The writerly tract is “a short treatise or discourse, especially on a religious subject” and I feel that at times my reverential approach to books is bordering on worship. I must also remember to look up the definition of short as well one of these days…

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Among other hand-me-down books are my mum’s copies of Winnie the Pooh. Published just after the war they are flimsy and battered but so loved, I have a hardback complete collection that I have been reading to my daughters and while the illustrations are fabulous in this large format, it’s a bugger of a book to read in bed. I have our original copies of the Narnia books – although we had to replace the Horse and His Boy before I was ten years old as I wore it out. Again, I am reading hardback copies to my girls, easier on my eyes and with quite frighteningly atmospheric covers, but I am more attached to the very loved and battered covers on the 1970s versions.

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And then there is mum’s Mrs Beeton. Anyone who visited my flat and was at all interested in the books on my shelves always commented on this one. Partly as it was at eye level but also because there aren’t many books almost as wide they are tall, they also loved the fact that it was called a new edition whilst being the oldest book in the house. I have never cooked anything from it, but again, it was a part of my mum’s bookshelves and something that defined “home” for me for years.

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These then are just some of the books I have physically inherited, there are others I have bought myself and would never have tried if mum, and occasionally dad (he’s only become more of a fiction reader after he retired) hadn’t recommended them and thus I think of them as inherited books. I hope at least one of my daughters loves reading as much as I do and I wonder if I will be able to pass on my mothers’ books to them; which I will allow out of the house in dribs and drabs, and which, to use a slightly morbid phrase, they will have to prise from my cold dead hand? I have a feeling these Dunnetts may be here a long time, alongside Diana Norman, John le Carré, Mary Renault and Raymond Chandler…but it will probably be quicker to list the books I don’t treasure. I’ve only been pondering this topic a few days so maybe I shall write another post if I am able to narrow my selection to one book I have inherited, and another to pass on to future generations. Do let me know any of your inheritance tracts.