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.

Why does everything taste disgusting?

Or

If this pressure in my sinuses builds up any more my eyeball will explode

Or

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Nothing that shade of green should come out of my body. Ever.

Or

Why am I shivering? I can’t stop shaking, I’m so cold, I’m – I’m sweating buckets, I’m on fire!

Or

My chest shouldn’t bubble and crackle each time I breath should it?

Or

Coughing up blood isn’t good it is?

Or

What do you mean there’s no internet? It’s half term

Or

Thank goodness for Lego. And dvds.

Or

What do you mean the tv’s broken? It’s half term!

Or

Thank goodness for all the hundreds of pens and crayons scattered about the house

Or

Did I mention I hate antibiotics?

Or

The joy of permanent indigestion/nausea

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My fingernails have never been this long. Why?

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At least I’m getting some reading done

Or

Why am I still sleeping in the day even though I go to bed before 9?

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I can’t remember what it’s like to have an appetite

Or

How can we have run out of tissues when we bought 4 boxes yesterday?

Or

There has been enough mucus produced in this house to float a battleship. Or to sink one.

Or

I am fed up of having to sleep sitting bolt upright

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The children are glad to go back to school to escape sickly parents

Or

Thank goodness for freezer meals cooked in bulk and for tomato soup and ice cream (not all together)

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If I stand up for more than ten minutes I get back ache

Or

Even tea tastes wrong

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It has been ten days with no internet

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I have had two gins in two weeks

Now you know how serious it is. I had forgotten that I had already written one post about a cold distracting me from blogging and writing and editing. I think this is the same cold, there has certainly been very little respite since January. The third member of the family is now on antibiotics and the two of us who had a course over a week ago are still suffering and producing new and varied shades of green and wheezing like old men on 40 cigarettes a day. Blogging, or even checking the writing community of twitter has been far from my thoughts – not to mention impossible with no internet – and only in the last two days have I returned to my editing – this book was supposed to be sent off by now! Oh dear, that’s two exclamation marks in one post, I must be ill. On the plus side, I have read 4 Harlequin Romantic Suspenses and finished reading 1984 which I started last July. On the downside no housework has been done for almost 3 weeks. However, the sun is out and just the promise of a little vitamin D on my skin is making exercise and cooking and eating seem possible again. Here’s hoping…

One woman’s clutter is another’s motivation

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What does this picture tell you? That someone treasures their pony books as much as their older fiction? That they have eclectic reading taste – Gothic, Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain, Hollywood noir, spies? What about other things on the shelves? The stash of Cadbury’s crème eggs, the clutter of perfume bottles, the envelopes of photographs – is this an historical picture? The small brick-like mobile phone and the audio cassettes suggest this is a pre-digital time, or is it a current photograph and this is where things go before they are thrown away? Or are they all precious? Pine cones and bits of stone?

This was my bedroom in my flat and everything on that bookcase was put there very lovingly when I set up my own home at last. I had lived for four years in a bedsit; one room, a tiny kitchen and freezing bathroom. A sofa bed. This is why I bought a super kingsize bed for one and would lie there every weekend morning feasting my eyes on beloved books and prized possessions that had lingered in boxes for years.

But many visitors or a burglar would have overlooked them. Why did I have these things on show?

  • The cat statuette that looks more like a fox painted black was a present for a University friend that I have lost touch with. I regret that and keep the ugly little figure as a reminder not to be so careless again.
  • The cut glass bottle was my gift from the bride and groom when I was maid of honour at my best friend’s wonderful wedding. Inside it is the toenail that got flipped off as I moved into the flat. A reminder of the day it was finally all mine and useful if I ever disappear and the police need some DNA for any reason.
  • They could also use the wisdom tooth on the top shelf, kept because I still can’t believe I had a root that big pulled out in my lunch hour.

There are three small pieces of red pumice stone, collected at the top of an extinct volcano in Iceland. After pocketing them I careened down snow clad slopes in a mild blizzard. The sight and feel of those lightweight rocks in my hand brings back the harsh beauty of the country, the blue of the glacier we crossed, the toilet with no door that looked over a lake, the five days of trekking across the island and how on our return we went to a karaoke bar as it was the only way to keep drinking all night. I remember watching my fifty-nine year old father singing along to Dancing Queen before stumbling down to the harbour in Reykjavik to watch the sun rise even though it had barely set and then standing outside a youth hostel drinking whisky from a hip flask and trying a cigar to celebrate having had my first shower in seven days.

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There are at least two bits of red pottery there. One from an archaeological dig in Hampshire where, again, I only showered once a week – slightly worrying theme developing here. The other is from Tiryns, a Mycenaean site in Greece. It was closed for refurbishment when we tried to visit and lots of small fragments of pottery had been dumped outside the gates as waste.

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These two horses date back to when I was seven or eight and my sister and I stayed for a few days with my step-grandmother in Bognor Regis. We’d only been away from our parents once before and it was both exciting and scary. Although she must have been in her late 60s or 70s she was full of life; she was a volunteer at “Hep the Aged” because she didn’t consider herself old at all, she swam in the sea every day and tried to teach us how to do underwater handstands. I remember her driving excitingly fast in her Mini around the town and taking us to visit a distant relation who lived in an Edwardian terraced house crammed full of dark antique furniture, dusty chandeliers and enormous mirrors. The pewter pony was bought in Bognor’s largest department store and the carved wooden foal in one of the charity shops that my granny helped out in. One evening, she walked us through the town park and as the shadows deepened under the trees and the roses turned to sepia, she taught us how to waltz in the deserted bandstand.

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So many memories that can be summoned back by a few simple trinkets, or dust magnets. And what of the bookcase itself? It used to belong to a library and you can still faintly see where years of sunlight on the etched glass signs have marked the shelves for Art and Sport. I paid only ten or twenty pounds for the shelves when the library had a reorganisation and got the complete Oxford History of Britain at the same time for about the same price.

I could go on with everything in sight.

  • The broken gold bell that is older than me and that I always hung on the Christmas tree near my presents so its clear chime sounded whenever I picked up a parcel and wondered what lay beneath its layers – it’s yellow bead clanger is still waiting to be reattached.
  • The hat-brush painted with the name and profile of the first pony I looked after at a riding school when I was nine.
  • The shell that I picked up at Agios Konstantinos, a small port on mainland Greece that a boyfriend and I reached after a night flight, a taxi driver who ripped us off and a dusty battered bus drive through endless Athens suburbs. It had not been a good start to a holiday and then we arrived at the port, bought tickets to Skopeleos and the sun came out. I found the shell as we waited for our ferry and knew that things were looking up.

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The reason for listing all this, apart from giving more background on me than anyone could ever want, is to show how one item can have a history and meaning for a character in a book that is far greater than its appearance or size. I wrote before how the ways each protagonist views a room tells us as much about them as it does the setting, and likewise the importance the person places on a seemingly insignificant object can reveal so much about their personality, or about their past. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as X picks something up and says “what’s this junk?” before Y tells all about a fascinating or traumatic incident in the past, but a writer can imagine that scene and then allude to its significance elsewhere.

I’ve spent plenty of time planning or describing the locations my characters inhabit and I feel that I know their back stories and motivation, but I’m always looking for new ways to convey that rather than introspection, information dumps or stilted conversations.  Far more interesting to have Y pick up the object and have X watch how their face and posture changes – in sadness, joy, regret, anger? X can ask why later, or Y can reflect on it alone, it gives a solid tangible sense to pure emotion and is hopefully showing, not telling.

When the idea for this post first came to me I tried to picture my current heroine’s bookcases and wondered what oddments she would have like this. I could think of none, couldn’t picture such a shelf. Then I realised that that was key. She has given up her own career twice for her family and not yet had a chance to rebuild a proper home. All such mementos are packaged away safely and that in itself tells me and the reader a lot that we need to know. Someone who has locked away precious memories and daren’t bring them out yet, who doesn’t feel at home anywhere, or not proud enough of herself to display her desires or achievements to anyone else. This is only very obliquely alluded to in the manuscript but it’s helped me a lot in having a rounded picture of my heroine and gave me the key to a later confrontation scene where things locked away in a bookcase are highly emotive.

I know that my next heroine has a large collection of art postcards but very little else, and I know why. And suddenly I wanted to give one of my Egyptian jackal heads to another heroine; making her have a passion for Egyptian history and archaeology has opened her up to me in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

What trinkets, junk or precious objects are on your characters’ shelves? Or what are the stories behind some of the treasures you look at every day?

The sound of self-imposed blog deadlines whizzing past

Last Thursday; another evening not spent cursing my clumsiness as I fail to resize photos before uploading them, or deleting them when I’m trying to add captions, or spotting grammatical errors after I’ve hit publish. It was actually an evening when I fell asleep trying to get a small child to sleep and woke up at 11 grumpy and swearing about lost evenings instead.

I could blame the youngest child for catching a cold first and keeping us all up with sniffles and coughs, I could blame the pile of soggy tissues which almost hide my keyboard, I could blame the steady drip of nose which makes me break off –

– midsentence. Or the stuffy head which makes it feel as if there is a layer of fog between me and the world, or the clarity brought on by medication which fades all too abruptly and leaves everything hurting and aching more than ever.

In short, I have a cold, and a house full of snotty children and a half finished blog post and some notes on my editing which seemed brilliant and incisive and new when I wrote them but which now read like… well, like the ramblings of a semi delirious soul.

So on the plus side I don’t feel guilty for reading someone else’s work instead of editing my own into Benylin fuelled incoherency. The blog post I was writing was about my top reads of last year and it made me realise how few Romantic Suspense books I’d read (how few books of any genre) because I would normally be reading at least one Harlequin a fortnight and usually closer to one a week.

A proper blog post will hopefully appear soon. This one was brought to you with the aid of a lot of whisky macs – I guess the gin deserved a break.

(I wrote this on Monday with a plan to post it last night and now the cough is descending onto my chest, you would not believe the pure green I am creating – is everything better with a Blackadder quote? I may be some time…)

Finding your daily squirrel

It is the little moments, sometimes almost unnoticed as they wiz by, that make up a life. And a year. Globally 2016 wasn’t the greatest (nor the worst) but I wanted to remember the positives that happened personally. When I worked in Oxford I had many commutes over the years; but whether walking, sitting in a traffic jam or waiting at a bus stop, the day could be immeasurably brightened by the smallest or silliest of things. The easiest was a squirrel, anytime, anywhere, even rooting through a bin. When you walk the same streets twice a day you can see the infinitesimal changes in gardens and trees, tracking the growth of furry magnolia buds in spring, or hearing the scuffling of your feet get louder every day as more leaves fall in autumn. I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I can walk through parks or have to cross a river to get to work; the sight of tiny brown ducklings makes me smile just remembering it. Little positives are everywhere and finding the ones that lift your spirit every day, is, I think, one of the secrets of life.

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So, after a classic Tangent Alley overlong opening paragraph, here are a few of the things that I had almost forgotten made 2016 sparkle amid the tears and fears. (Quite a few of which are illustrated here in my what we did on our holidays post.)

  • Climbing the first Welsh One Hundred for a few years. My partner Dr J has a book about the highest one hundred mountains in Wales, and in our first year of dating we added several more to his list of those achieved. Small children have hindered such adventurous walks and climbs for a while so this was a great achievement, especially as our 6 year old walked all the way herself (the 2 and a half year old was in a back pack much of the way.)
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The Gruffalo’s Child climbed with us
  • Lots of days on beaches –I think of this as mostly for the kids but I had far too much fun building, and destroying, dams on beaches this year.
  • Many ice creams, even ones that make your tongue go blue.
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Not my tongue
  • Many picnics, in woods, up mountains, in the garden. Everything tastes better outdoors and this was the year I finally got to appreciate tuna mayonnaise.
  • When we gave the girls the choice of what to do on a day out our eldest said “Mummy likes castles and waterfalls best.” I am lucky to have a generous daughter with a great memory – but then  I do go on about it a lot I suspect. This year has indeed been  very rich in castles.

As for waterfalls, I was treated to a wonderful wet walk at Nantcol in Wales, where I fell in a bog and got filthy feet and loved every minute. I looked at the pictures recently and wondered why I was grinning like a fool in every picture, then I remembered, I was having such a perfect day and wanted to be sure the family knew it. It’s a little alarming to realise my happiest face looks so deranged, but hey, they seem to love me anyway.

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  • Having other people be happy is of course one of the very best things that can happen, that’s partly why I think of picnics as being such a highlight of the year; the glee on a small child’s face when you show them you brought their favourite snack is an utter joy. Who knew scotch eggs and pickled onion flavoured crisps were so valuable?

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Sadly this year hasn’t featured as much reading as I would like. It started well with my passion for ancient Greek dram still in full flow, but then I realised those precious two hours when my youngest slept would be better used to write rather than read. As I said,  you have to give up something for writing  and this year it was my reading. I don’t regret it, but I do miss my books and am determined to find some more reading time (tv watching has already gone by the wayside so I think it will have to be bath time, I don’t like showers but they are a bit quicker – or else I have to get used to reading in the bath again. Since I needed reading glasses the steaming up problem and condensation running down my nose has meant it’s not as easy to lose myself in a  book while the bath water goes cold.) Oops, this is supposed to be a positive look back at the year, luckily for me, the few books I did read were excellent and I plan to blog about them later this month.

Speaking of reading though, this was the year I discovered Gimlets, all due to Raymond Chandler. I enjoyed rather more than I should have on sunny evenings, and actually, having just bemoaned the lack of reading time (I think my memory is biased because I’m still reading two books I started in the summer holidays, I know I’m a slow reader but this is ridiculous) I did have a golden patch of reading in the dusky evenings after tea. One memorable night I had to turn on the outside lights as it was so dark but still warm in the garden – sadly the rustling noses by the door when I went in for a top up of my drink put me off staying out too late; mice and gin don’t mix.

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A highlight of any year is a trip to London to see my best friend and visit the theatre. This year even more people will envy me when I confess that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all due to the organisational skill and generosity of my friend gemmaw700. That trip also deserves its own post, partly due to my first visit to the revamped Foyles where I could have happily spent the day, but also because I have only once before heard an entire theatre gasp in such shock as they did at one line of dialogue and I can’t remember the last time I cried so much with laughter as I did at one scene – the fact it involved a library was just an added bonus.

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A few other moments that I have been reminded of when looking for photos to accompany this:

  • How many people ever actually have the cliché happen to them of a crab nibbling their toes? I did!
  • And I saw a snow leopard! (Not at the same time as the crab, that would be quite a dream. The leopard was at Dudley Zoo, awaiting a mate, and looking beautifully healthy and content.)
  • I went back to Avebury, one of my favourite places in the world.
  • I discovered  Dunraven Bay and castle, a new favourite place.
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Our broken dam flooding Dunraven beach

One major thing which has brought me pleasure, (and occasionally stress when I’m late, like this week, oops) has been finally starting a blog. OK, so I’m ten years behind other aspiring writers I mixed with back then, most of whom are now published. But the time was right for me in 2016; back then it would just have been another thing to distract me from writing and to then feel guilty and stressed about when it dwindled into nothingness. I haven’t quite stuck to my Thursday posting each week, but I’m still enjoying it and planning to continue.

The main personal achievement last year, and cause of a great amount of happiness and inner glowing, was that I finished writing a book. OK, the first draft. I have completed books before but this one has been written and – especially the last half – finished with such delight and a drive to get the story out there. It still needs work and I’m not happy with all of it, but the overall story and the characters and what they have to go through still move and excite me (rather than the “oh god I don’t know how to finish this book and can’t wait to see the back of these dammed people” feeling which did rather haunt the ending of a couple of previous manuscripts. These are people I want to revisit in editing and make sure I’m doing their story justice, every time I think of the final scene I feel full of trepidatious (is that not a word? It should be) hope and happiness.

None of these miniscule moments of happiness are meant to in any way diminish the things that went wrong in 2016 or the fact that so many people (individually and as nations) are facing an uncertain future. I’m just trying to remember for myself the little moments that make day to day life brighter and better and that give us hope. It’s why authors are continuing to write; because we all want those moments of escape, and the promise of love helping people to thrive. We’re all looking for our daily squirrel.

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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.

Persuasion

Today’s blog should have been

a) Posted 12 hours ago

b) About one of my top 5 books

However, my tangential thoughts went even more spectacularly off piste than usual. I could see it might end up needing to be split into two posts and now it’s turning into three. Suffice to say I’m stopping myself from posting in a rush and then blogging again correcting myself, for now I suggest instead of reading my waffle you go and read or re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen, or preferably go and hunt down the 1995 BBC film version and watch that. On no account watch the 2007 version unless you want the best scene in the book completely ruined.

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Part of what caused the failure to get my thoughts sorted in a way that does justice to the book was an attempt at a brief summary of the plot. I made the colossal error of describing it in contemporary terms – a reunion romance where they are forced into reluctant proximity and where overheard conversations and malicious or innocent misinformation creates resentment and jealousy. That’s all fairly accurate but does the book such a disservice and I ended up defending the story when its brilliance should never have been in doubt in the first place.

I will start again for next week but it has brought me back to a problem I often hear expressed; that of finding it hard to enjoy books as easily as we once did after we have begun to analyse our own writing in great depth. When goals, motivation and conflict have become something we obsess about in our writing, they are woefully obvious when they are missing in another’s book. I usually only have this problem when reading contemporary books – I am lucky that the harlequin romantic suspenses I read are all of an extremely high standard – but reading older romances, even ones I once adored, can now be a trickier task; it’s harder to switch off my critical writer’s eye (ear? mind? I hear the stories I am reading and see them played out before me) and just enjoy an escapist read.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining. The more we learn, the more enjoyment we can get. I just think that looking at Austen, even for a moment, through the eyes of a modern romance reviewer was wrong; not because she fails any of the criteria I hold for contemporary writers – she after all helped create those tropes that are now so familiar – but it has distracted me from her charm and skill and wonderful characters. I was also simply forgetting to explain why it is one of my all time favourite books.

Does anyone else have this problem? Being unable to switch of their inner editor when reading? And is it wrong to apply modern standards or creative ideals in writing to authors and books or another era?