Books as an escape

A book can transport you anywhere; to worlds both real and unreal, to lives and loves better or worse than our own. Every unread book holds the tantalising potential to make us see and feel something completely new. They can offer insights into everyday matters that we may be struggling with, or they can offer a brief escape from our day to day existence.

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None of that is going to be news to anyone who reads regularly, and especially those who read romance. One of the most oft quoted appeals of romance novels is the escape they offer; it’s why over the top premises with billionaires, royalty, vampires, or FBI agents are so popular – protagonists that we are unlikely to meet in everyday life, can for a few hours, seem like people we could meet, know, like and fall in love with; people and plots we would hate to cope with in real life but which are exciting on the page at a safe remove. Then there are the romances with more prosaic day to day lives and loves and problems, they offer hope in their familiarity but with a guaranteed Happy Ever After – something most of us still work at every day.

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It’s why books have been even more important to me, and to so many others, in the last year or so. As disaster after disaster has occurred and the political norms around the world have shifted, people will seek escape and hope wherever they can. I’m far from the only writer to have found it hard to sit down and create tales of people falling in love against the odds when acts of terrorism have been taking lives all around us and when peace between nations seems to be an increasingly fragile thing. Can I still believe in Happy Ever After when so many lives are being cut short and families ripped apart? Well I have to. Hope and love are two powerful forces and they may be what separates us from those who want to destroy our way of life – whether they be terrorists or politicians.

I’ve personally found it almost impossible to write in the last ten days given the appalling verdict on the death of Philando Castile in the US and what has happened at Grenfell Tower in London. Not even the amazing heroism of the firefighters can stop me from thinking of the people trapped and knowing what was going to happen….no, can’t do it. So I have been reading far more than usual these last few weeks and decided to post a few pictures of my years reading so far; if nothing else to remind me of how much pleasure books have brought me, how much of an escape they have offered, and to help me get back to my own writing, no matter how hard.

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The first photo is of the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses I have read so far this year; it’s already almost as many I read all last year due to my giving up my reading time to write regularly back then. This year I’ve got better at managing my time and have also sacrificed tv watching to get back some precious reading time. I also didn’t read that many books in the latter half of last year as I (foolishly) decided that the way things were going politically and globally, it would be a good time to re-read 1984 and be reassured that things weren’t all that bad. Wrong. I posted a few thoughts while I was still part way through and I hope to write a longer post about it soon. As I also hope to do about The Secret History, a book I have been meaning to read for years and finally did and that (mostly) lived up to the almost impossible weight of expectation. It reminded me that this was why I started reading the classic Greek tragedies in 2015 – I knew I ought to have read the Bacchae before starting the Secret History but I became so caught up in the joy of reading the originals that I forgot to move back to the book that had inspired me! Again, the delightful morning spent in Foyles in London comparing translations of Euripides deserves a longer post.

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Having bought the last Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I went back and re read the previous Tiffany Aching book, I then struggled to read the Shepherd’s Crown, partly because of the thought that once it was finished, that was it, there would never be another Discworld novel; but also due to the slightly diminished style of the writing. Terry Pratchett was taken from us far too soon and I treasure all his books, even when his flashes of brilliant wit were fading and finally cruelly stopped before he had finished his last book as he would have wished. I can still remember the day my mother first gave me one of his books to read – Equal Rites – and how impatient we got for each new book (and ended up buying them in hardback as we just couldn’t wait.) It feels so wrong to have outlived the series. Indeed, because I was struggling with the Shepherd’s Crown I started another book – back when I lived alone I would have 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time as I discussed here, when talking about how I read, and I also said that the last Ian Rankin I had read had been a rare book where I could read a hundred pages a day – and it happened again. I think I read it in 5 days which is possibly a record for me, although it’s also a sad reflection on how much in the real world I was trying to forget.

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How is everyone else’s reading year going? I am currently stuck trying to decide what to read next. After the Secret History I feel I need something where every sentence doesn’t make me pause to let its beauty sink in – I  loved it and almost want to read more by Tartt right away, but I know it’s too soon. I have many books by authors whose writing inspires a similar – desire I suppose! Their writing makes me fall in love with the written word, and make me long to write half as well. But I still think I need a change of pace, the Rankin and the Pratchett gave me that a bit but I need to be in the right frame of mind to immerse myself certain books – it’s why I delayed the Secret History for so many years. I was reminded today of the Greek Classics, maybe it’s time to re-read Aristophanes for something a little lighter, or back to Aeschylus. It will be interesting to see what my end of year list looks like.

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And most importantly of all, the blessed moments of respite, escape, hope, love and laughter that I have found in reading other people’s books have driven me back to writing my own; maybe I can offer someone else a few hours happiness further down the line.

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George Orwell had a few views on how refugees might be seen in 1984

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused… man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him… saw him through the helicopters gunsights… the sea round him turned pink… audience shouting with laughter…you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it… a middle-aged woman… a little boy about three years old in her arms… screaming with fright… covering him up….as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him….then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them…a lot of applause.

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I started re-reading 1984 by George Orwell this summer as I hoped it would be antidote to a terrible year, that it would show me that no matter how bad things seemed politically, socially and financially; they could be worse. Unfortunately it has seemed more and more as if Orwell’s nightmare future is coming closer by the day. The relentless parade of xenophobia disguised as patriotism has been sickening to watch, the UK parliamentary conference season and the headlines in the British press meant I didn’t recognise my country nor want to be a part of it.

I’ve not blogged for a few weeks or been active in social media and one of my few tweets was along the lines of how I intended to never write about my personal feelings or politics or contentious issues – and how therefore 2016 was the wrong year to have taken up being more active as a writer. There is so much this year, around the world, that stirs a visceral and horrified response. Not just politics – although my longing for the US election to be over is only equalled by my fear of what will follow – whoever wins. So much hatred has been stoked on both sides of the Atlantic, experts are mocked and ignored, ignorance and lies appear to be welcomed and anyone who expresses concern or dissent is told to “get over it” or that they will “get what they deserve,” while Syria is torn apart and aid convoys are bombed with impunity.

The fear of immigrants has been fuelled for years but there was still an outcry when they were described as “swarms” or “hoards” and people seemed to remember that they were in fact human beings – although it took pictures of a child’s dead body to make some people realise this. And now this year they are back to being demonised, or worse, dehumanised. Any offer of shelter or help is contested and given begrudgingly, if at all.

The passage I have quoted from above is on the 6th page of 1984 and it shocked me out of the book with a sickening familiarity. These last few years have been full of tragedies in the Mediterranean, most people now turn away and ignore such stories, the thought of the sea being patrolled simply to turn back such boats, not to help them, is approved. We are not yet at the stage of deliberately sinking them – although there have been reports of grappling hooks used on inflatable boats – nor of bombing them and filming such acts for entertainment – but is it really as impossible to imagine as it ought to be? Some of the baying, jeering crowds we have seen this year might well cheer at such news; how long till they actively welcome the idea and salivate at it?

The image of the refugee woman sheltering the child is revisited later in 1984 when Winston Smith recalls scenes from his own life. The poignancy in the simple description of that sheltering arm, of one human drawing another closer, offering shelter and protection despite knowing it is futile, is, I believe, one of the key messages of the book. The fight to stay human, to care for another person over oneself, to offer hope, aid and shelter even when you have little yourself and know it will never be enough but do it anyway. I’m desperately hoping that 2016 is not the year that urge is obliterated.