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.

Wow!

I didn’t dare use the word hope last week. In the last UK general election, in the Europe Referendum and in the US Presidential election I held onto optimism that the compassionate side of voters would win out, that a better quality of life for all people everywhere would be a greater wish than looking after localised interests. After those results I didn’t dare to start hoping that things would change in last week’s election (even, or especially, given the poll results leading up to voting day) and after the weekend I’m still unsure how much actually has changed – for now. Although the turnout in younger voters, if nothing else, offers a tentative hope for the future.

When I started blogging I was sure I would keep away from potentially controversial subjects – I’ve never told anyone how I have voted in real life (a very British upbringing – never ask anyone how much they earn, how they vote or their views on religion. Sex, drugs and music tastes were completely fair game though.) But things have changed radically in the last year and I posted about why my views on speaking up about potentially controversial issues have altered; it is actually my most liked blog post but I have a suspicion some people may have just liked the title and not looked further.

I hope things continue to change around us, that people no longer feel emboldened to commit hate crimes against those they see as different, that the vital services that keep the UK safe and healthy and educated receive more, not less, funding – and how can any of that even need to be stated?! Last week hope and compassion did indeed stand up strong, long may it last. Please.

Time for a cup of tea

Almost exactly a year ago, while still a very new blogger determined to keep to my weekly schedule, I found myself unable to post my prepared piece due to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. The events of the last two weeks in Manchester and London have weighed heavily on me as well – this time last week I was in London myself for a relatively rare evening of friendship, culture, drink and food. The atmosphere around the city was wonderful; a busy, hot sunny afternoon and evening. I didn’t myself notice the increased police presence that I knew was already in place after Manchester and the attack on Parliament earlier this year.

To say my heart aches for those whose lives have been cut cruelly short, and for their families, is not enough, but I’m not sure what else to say because it’s the simple, painful, endlessly sad truth.

We will fight terrorism in the only way Brits know; with dark humour, with determination and probably quite a bit of ineptitude. I hope we will remember everyone’s right to life, liberty, justice and human rights.

Today, 8 June is the 104th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davidson. She died for the right to vote. A right that not everyone in the World is entitled to and yet which so many in the UK take for granted or fail to use. Now, more than ever, in the face of terrorism and also in the face of growing hatred and intolerance around the World, I hope all who can, do vote, and that love and compassion are stronger forces than fear and selfishness.

Season’s Greetings

A rather belated wish of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. I shall see you again in the New Year – with luck. Until then I wish the world and everyone and everything in it peace, happiness and love.

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I was going to post a photograph of our decorated Christmas tree, but I can’t get a good photograph of it. Instead, I offer this. On a walk this week I paused to trace the intricate intertwined twigs overhead and became lost in the endless paths and patterns they made.

Stark. Bare. Beautiful.

I shall take more photographs in the same spot as they shimmer with the first green of spring, as they shade me in high summer, and as they turn to gold and begin to fall as the year turns again. Here’s to 2017.

Don’t write about sex, politics or religion?

What gives a Brit the right to have an opinion on the US presidential election? I’ve seen such sentiments expressed a few times lately and the most common answer – apart from opinions are free and everyone is entitled to them – is that the election result does indeed affect the whole world, not just the US. Global warming. Nato. There are many effects, both big and small.

But the main reason I have an opinion is because the result affects people I care about. They are afraid of getting hurt. They are being hurt.

People I care about but who don’t even know me. People who, mostly, I haven’t met. People who have educated me. People who have made me laugh, and cry, often at the same time.

I’m talking about the romance community, mostly about authors but also editors, agents and readers. Over the years I’ve watched people argue, inform and campaign about; plagiarism, shady publishing practices, racism, diversity, authors bullying readers and reviewers attacking authors.

When I started on Twitter I followed comedians, actors and authors that I liked, and editors that I thought might offer valuable information (they do). I followed the bloggers who had previously impressed and informed me and I followed authors I hadn’t read but whose work I had seen praised on those websites, or whose names kept cropping up in interesting discussions. Thus I found out that as well as writing brilliant books and blogs, a lot of the romance community were bloody funny, witty, compassionate and passionate – about so many things. I could list my entire Twitter feed but the ones I look forward to hearing from every day include; Bree Bridges, Julie Cohen, Alyssa Cole, Victoria Dahl, N K Jemisin, Susanna Kearsley, Colleen Lindsay, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai and Carly Silver. Their willingness to educate others about writing and publishing romance is amazing (I often wonder how the heck they find time for their other jobs).

This year these ladies have written tirelessly, fearlessly (although I know many are deeply deeply fearful) and honestly about the election. They have been tweeting or retweeting for years about race, religion, LGBQT and neurodiversity issues whether or not those are subjects that impact them personally. (Edited to add that they have also written about disability issues – it might just have been simpler to list things they don’t discuss – because I can’t think of any. I suppose what I was trying to illustrate is that with many of these women I have no idea of their race, religion, sexuality or any disabilities that might affect them, but they still speak up on behalf of others who are being marginalised or targeted.) They write about them because they are important, because there is so much injustice out there (in the romance world and of course elsewhere). They have made me realise so much about my own deep-seated unconscious prejudices and how much I take for granted, I have started challenging lazy perceptions in others in a way I didn’t before because every small step is important in challenging bias and privilege.

And because of their bravery in speaking up for their community, their families and friends, these women are attacked on line regularly and many fear attacks in the street any day soon. The election result has made life unsafe for people because of how they look, live, love and believe. It has made me afraid and angry on their behalf and that is why I will feel free to have an opinion on American politics and why I am retweeting so much that makes me so angry and so afraid. Not just because of the effect globally or in Europe. But because of the women to whom I owe so much.

I should add that I started thinking about this post as soon as the election result was known; I wanted to howl my horror and disgust at the moon, but feared I had no right. Over the next days as I read the gut wrenching despair of these women my own revulsion seemed pitiful in comparison with those who are going to live with this open hatred and prejudice and fear every day for the next four years. I wanted to offer support but it seemed puny in comparison with the phone calls and demonstrations being organised on line. Then someone in the UK posted one of those “10 things writers mustn’t do on line” lists and on it was “Don’t talk about politics, sex or religion (unless you write about those things in your books)” and I was incensed. How can it not be in our books when it’s everywhere in the world being shoved in our faces whether we like it or not? How can a rise in hate crimes not affect everyone who hears about them?

I’ll admit I’d already unfollowed an author or two in the last weeks. Such bad luck if you had a book release scheduled and need to try and do promo while people’s worlds are crumbling around them. Many have managed it tactfully and respectfully while acknowledging how the world has changed, and is still changing. But if you tweeted eight links to your book or glowing reviews with not one tweet about current affairs? I’m not really sure there’s going to be anything in your book to interest me. Yes, authors are not their books, you can have wildly different politics to mine and I may still enjoy your writing – especially if I have no idea what your politics are, so yeah, keep quiet about it. But I notice your silence, and my admiration for you has diminished and I will remember it next time I see one of your books. No, I am not trying to shame anyone into sharing what they don’t wish to, I have never told anyone how I have voted in any general or local election and nor will I; but I will speak up on horrors like a President elect with no respect for women or people of colour, the ongoing crisis at Standing Rock and anyone who claims all romance books show that women secretly long to be grabbed by a masterful man.

Every one of the women I have mentioned above has voiced their anxiety (to put it mildly) in the last two weeks, but they have also continued (with a lot of effort) to write, edit and publish books that give pleasure to millions. They have helped me to remember that when hatred and fascism are on the increase, the love and hope in art is needed more than ever for the promise it gives us all.