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.

The Romantic Suspense Plait

IMG_3154 (779x1024)Harlequin editor Leslie Wainger said that in a romantic suspense, the suspense plot and the romance should be so tightly interwoven that if you removed one strand the plait – or story – would collapse. This is the image that has fuelled every romantic suspense I have written and is the standard to which I hold those I read.

The reason for deciding to blog about this is that I often see some of the keenest and most widely read fans of romance saying that they have been burned too often by romantic suspense. One book review lead to a conversation in which people agreed that the main love story and characters were great, but that the suspense plot was unbelievable, manipulative and mainly there to keep the protagonists from falling in love too soon. One person said they liked the romance so much they skipped the suspense plot and ended up enjoying it far more.

While I have never read a book where the two plot lines could be so easily disentangled as to be ignored, I have read a few where by a little over half way the couple are more or less in love and the rest of the book is mostly solving the mystery and some cosy romance. I believe if any time before the last chapter either plot strand could be resolved and leave the other strand intact, they are not tightly enough intertwined and it’s not a true romantic suspense – it can still be a good book, a romance with mild suspense elements, or a suspense with some romance, but not what I was hoping for.

What I mean by resolving one strand would be someone’s boss suddenly appearing and saying, “hey, we caught the villain, he confessed and there’s no more threat, take some leave.” What do the hero and heroine do then? If they smile and say thanks and jet off for a fortnight making love on a beach there wasn’t enough romantic conflict. In my writing and in those books I adore, at least one of the protagonists would turn and run away as fast as possible – solving the suspense is all that is keeping them alongside the other person and by doing so they find out enough about themselves and each other to move forward to love and a hea.

Maybe I love forced proximity stories too much, or reunions where there’s a lot of baggage, or enemies to lovers. But in my opinion solving a mystery or a little shared danger isn’t enough for a hea, I want real personal gaols and motivations keeping them apart, not a deranged killer. It’s having to work together to find a solution that forces them to face their internal emotional conflicts, makes then appreciate the other’s strengths – and weaknesses – and makes them reluctantly fall in love. The suspense is actually pushing them together, inadvertently creating character growth and strength, rather than being a device to stop them falling in love too soon or creating artificial tension.

That’s how I like the romance to be dependent on the suspense, but it needs to work the other way as well – to keep the plait taut in all directions. What if half way through the book the H&h decide they are in love and go to the boss in charge if the suspense investigation and say, “we’ve had enough of this danger, get some other cops/spies/scientists/soldiers to solve this while we go off and make out for a week.” If the boss says, “sure, have fun,” then the suspense plot could belong to anyone. It needs to be personal to this particular H&h. There has to be a reason why they are determined to find answers, why are they putting their lives in danger, why is this story being told?

I’ll admit that this aspect only became clear to me fairly recently, but it’s why so many suspense books have a protagonist in danger such as being a witness or survivor of a serial killer – they will never be safe until the bad guy is caught. Or it’s someone out to clear a family member’s name, or get justice for a murdered partner, or to right something they feel guilty about, or because someone close to them is in danger. Of course there doesn’t always have to be a personal link to the suspense plot and I have read a few brilliant examples where the H&h just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the whole the braiding together of the suspense and romance is made stronger when at least one of the protagonists is personally invested in the suspense. Can any moment be darker than when a choice has to be made between solving the mystery to which they have dedicated their life or saving the person they have reluctantly fallen in love with? The ultimate romantic suspense dilemma.

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Of course a plait, or braid, has three strands, not two. For me that’s perfect because in Harlequin Romantic Suspense they like the romance to be of more importance than the suspense, they used to specify 60% romance to 40% suspense and while I don’t think it’s that rigid any more it’s the kind of balance I try to aim for. So, what is the third strand in my plait? One is the suspense or danger or mystery plot. One is the romantic conflict, the inner reasons why they can’t instantly fall in love, the cerebral romance and barrier if you like, the past history and all the things that keep them at arm’s length – even while they acknowledge that there is a connection or an attraction there. So the third strand is showing us, and them, that attraction. It’s the awareness, the sensual details, the touches and glances and reluctant appreciation that they can’t help even though mentally and emotionally they know it’s a bad idea.

And of course these are the moments that happen while everything else is going on. When you’re on the run from bad guys there’s no time to stop and date or get to know each other as we would in “normal” life, everything is heightened and fast and pressured and that’s why suspense stories are great for bringing people together who would never work under any other circumstances – whether they are warring exes, childhood best friends or Montagues and Capulets – the suspense throws them together and all the while they know they can’t be together they are watching each other solve clues, adapt under pressure, be cool under fire, be resourceful and brave and compassionate and no matter how hard they fight it they start to grudgingly appreciate the other while they are solving the suspense plot. It makes them see each other in a light that they wouldn’t without the suspense – the strength in someone’s fingers as they hot wire a car, the gentleness as they bandage a wound, the way they bite their lip as they try to solve a puzzle, or the impatient way they push their hair out of their eyes even while having the kindness and time to calm a scared child. All of these are the little moments that make up a romance almost before we’re aware of it and that can happen literally under fire. When the danger has passed, then is the time for the cerebral strand to come back to the fore and for the doubts or reasons not to fall in love to have the upper hand, but then the suspense is upped again giving a moments respite from romantic dilemma, and so on, constantly twisting and highlighting one of the strands while the others are still visible, holding it all in place.

I doubt that I have stated this as clearly as I would like, but it shows what I hope for as a reader and aim for as a writer. I believe that Leslie Wainger has now retired from Harlequin although her “Writing a romance novel for dummies” book is still available. I was fortunate enough to discover the forums at harlequin.com in 2001. Leslie was the senior editor of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line (published in the UK as Sensation) and she had an “ask the editor” thread where she dispensed nuggets of wisdom, humour and Buffy (mostly Spike) appreciation. I think I had already realised that Intimate Moments was the line that most suited my reading and writing taste and so I lapped up every bit of advice and have some saved in clunky document files. This was how she phrased it:

It also helps to think of your book as a braid. Many new authors think of plot and romance as the side rails of a railroad track, going on together, parallel but never really crossing, though occasionally there are switches that connect them. But in a braid, you have many strands woven together to create a whole. Remove one and the whole thing falls apart.

20170504_195502 (622x1024)And that’s (just one reason) why she was a genius editor and entertaining giver of advice. I hope some of it causes a few lightbulb moments for other romantic suspense writers and that I have applied it correctly to my current work. If I haven’t, I leave this image as a warning of what happens when a plait goes wrong.

*Post edited on 15 May when I realised I had mispelled Leslie’s surname. I did a last minute check of her name against her book on Amazon UK and it picked up the incorrect spelling from a  review as my top search. So much for attention to detail… dammit.

 

 

My manuscript has a better social life than I do

I sent my completed MS to my critique partner and thanks to the wonders of Kindle it has been having an exciting week around London. So far it has been read in a coffee shop, the Design Museum and two different Pizza Expresses. Every time I get a text and photo I experience several emotions –including thirst.

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There is the “oh goodness I hope she likes it.” The “I wish I was there too” (and not just because of the wine, but a bit.) The “wow, it looks like a real book.” The “I should have edited that section before I sent it.” And did I mention the “what does she think of it?!” panic that sets me off in a cold sweat each time she mentions she’s reading it?

The comments she has sent so far have been mostly amused and teasing and occasionally admiring – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get the odd snigger at the uses of “mount” and references to a good ride – we both know it’s referring to horses but we were also both raised on Carry On films. Even so, there is still the moment of paralysing fear at having someone else read my work. It doesn’t seem to get easier and maybe this is a little different as I have deliberately not said much about this story nor shared chapters as I go along as I have in the past, I wanted a completely honest and gut instinct response to the whole story. (No pressure eh gemmaw700?)

My list of questions that I am hoping for feedback on started with;

  • is it a romance
  • is it suspenseful
  • can you see these two people fall in love
  • do you care
  • is there enough keeping them apart

All of which is very basic when writing romantic suspense, but when you’ve lived with the character and story for so long it’s possible to get too caught up in the fine tuning of the prose, or the intricacies of the plot, or the beauty of the location and atmosphere and the basic essential elements of romance can get sidelined. I need to be sure my hero and heroine’s attraction and appreciation and admiration come through without it reading like a list of fanciable features.

(This is as far as I had written last week, hoping to post on Friday afternoon, alas, trying to sort out a niggling laptop problem with right and left click led to the loss of my task bar, and fixing that led to the blank screen of doom. Taking out the battery eventually restored things but by then my wonderful friend was here and the gin was open. The rest of this post is written with her critiques known to me.)

Of course, as soon as I had sent it and started to think what points she might raise, I began to wish I had changed things. Surely she would suggest I merged two chapters that were low on action but imparted important information (she didn’t.) I was spending too much time on that irritating but important secondary character, he needed pruning (she agreed.) That plot point that made sense 2 drafts ago stuck out like a sore thumb – it made sense but was given too much importance and could be scaled back (“Oh I wondered why that was there” said my wise friend tactfully – a very valuable lesson; I can remember all the plot strands or events I have deleted in different drafts and I think I have snipped off all the tendrils they wove throughout the story, but to someone reading it afresh an occasional reference or overreaction to a trivial point leaps out.)

So even before we met up I had made myself face the details that had niggled at me but that I had put off in my eagerness to get a second opinion – a friend might forgive this, an editor or agent might not. How often have I heard – You never get a second chance to make a first impression?

Fortunately, after enough gin and good food all the points that were made to me were extremely helpful and kind and insightful. I mostly agreed with them, or could explain why I had made that choice (and noted that I need to make it clearer in the MS – if it needs justifying to a friend you can be sure an unknown reader will want the full picture too.)

I am extremely lucky in having such a best friend; one who has read widely in many romance genres, who has entertained me for years with short stories and serialised fiction, who has taken a creative writing course, who has always had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than I have and has the humour and tact to point out my errors in a way that encourages me to learn rather than to sulk.

For all this, I will forgive the fact that she drank all my tonic water – and sent me this picture on her way home.

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My manuscript has travelled first class on a train – I’ve never done that!

Now to just ensure everything else about my work is first class too.

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

Or

My fingernails have never been this long. Why?

Or

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?

Or

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

Or

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)

Or

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

Or

Even tea tastes wrong

Or

It has been ten days with no internet

Or

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…

Read of the year 458 BC

I always have such a huge TBR pile that I rarely read a book in the year it was published and am rather awed by people whose “best of the year” blogs are all about current favourites. However, even by my standards, my top read last year had been out there for a long while; two and a half millennia in fact.

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I think it says a lot about the events we lived through last year that so many books I read were either written centuries ago, or were about ancient history. The past seemed far safer, if only because we know who the heroes were who came along and got rid of tyrants, or which particular gods meted out their own brand of justice. My reading of ancient Greek plays was actually awakened at the end of 2015 but this was the year I finally read the Bacchae, the Oresteia trilogy and the Oedipus trilogy. They are all stories I thought I knew but I had never read the complete plays and was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

I’m also ashamed (due to how much I revere her books) at realising just how much of the ancient myths and texts Mary Renault seamlessly incorporated into her novels about ancient Greece. Now I know why Oedipus appeared in the Bull from the Sea. I long to go back and re read all of her books but have so far limited myself to The Praise Singer as being the one most closely associated with the days of Aeschylus.

Reading plays is not to everyone’s taste, and the skill of the translator can add – or detract – so much from the pleasure. I first read some Homer (a poem rather than a play – or of course a song given how we think they were performed) before I was ten years old. I’m ashamed (again) by how little of the complete plays I read when I got a degree in Ancient and Medieval History (it was too easy to just read the key passages that were quoted in lectures and text books.) In a way though, I’m quite glad. I’d’ve read them for the passages that proved an essay’s point rather than reading them for the love of the story or the language and I’ve lost count of the times I paused to marvel at the imagery they evoked and it was the Oresteia by Aeschylus, particularly Agamemnon that most delighted me.

Here are just a few examples:

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, P76, The Chorus

  • …., and feels
  • Pang and pulse of groin and gut,
  • Blood in riot, brain awhirl,

Do I love this because of my fondness/weakness for alliteration? Or was it reading Homer early on that gave my alliterative appreciation?

Aeschylus, The Choephori or The Libation-Bearers, P119, Just after Electra has said “O fierce flint-hearted mother” she goes on:

  • A husband laid unhonoured,
  • Unwept in a cruel bed.

And a few lines later:

  • And so my father perished;
  • And I, despised, unwanted,
  • Shoved to one side, and shunned
  • Like an ulcerous dog, let flow
  • Tears reckless and unstinted
  • As laughter, sobbing unseen.
  • Let this on your heart be printed
  • When you hear what grief can mean.

It’s always nice to find I’m not the only person to love “un” words.

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I do wish they hadn’t changed from the lovely matt black and gold cover to the glossy black one. Not least because of how hard they were to photograph together

Of the other books I read in 2016, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch was a favourite, and yet another source of bafflement (this post can only contain so much shame) that I hadn’t read them earlier in my life. Dr J recommended The Eagle of the Ninth a few years ago, it was one of the few books other than the Lord of the Rings that he read in his teenage years and directly led to his love of history and his choice of a degree and subsequent career – more proof of how important books are. I loved the Eagle when I read it a year or so ago and was both pleased and anxious to discover she wrote two “sequels.” Pleased because I had loved the book so much, anxious as sometimes an author seems to want to capitalise on a book’s success and spins out further adventures for characters who had the perfect character arc in book one and then have nowhere to go. The Eagle felt nicely rounded for me and so I was delighted to find that the Silver branch followed new characters only loosely linked to the first – in short it was a perfect sequel; adding and enriching the experience of the first book yet a stand-alone adventure that held me gripped with its plot but also her wonderful writing, here again were marvellously vivid descriptive phrases such as;

  • Salt-soaked timber
  • Smoke-blackened atrium
  • Storm-lashed woods
  • Smoke-dimmed sky

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Sparkling prose is of course one of the most famous things about Raymond Chandler’s books, the book covers boast famous descriptions that live in the memory long after the book is finished. He deserves a whole post of his own, how I only read him in recent years, long after reading other books or watching films that spoof his style of dialogue and hard-boiled detective; I’ve seen and been baffled by a few of the adaptations of his own books too but nothing prepares you for the joy of his imagery and characters and dialogue and the world weary jaded eye he casts over his world. If I’m honest, the Long Goodbye didn’t grip me as much as his previous books, I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind for it and I look forward to a re-read when I’m not puzzling over the plot; but if nothing else, I can thank the book for introducing me to Gimlets. I have no need to worry about getting scurvy any time soon with all the lime juice I’ve consumed this year.

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The final books I shall mention are the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses that I read. I actually didn’t think I’d read as many as I had, because I read none after May when I became absorbed in finishing my own manuscript aimed at this line. I keep a record of all the ones I read with a brief review, purely for my own memory and to help me when working out why some books worked for me better than others and I’m pleased to say that all the ones I read last year scored highly with me. I have no intention of reviewing authors that I hope to be published alongside but I will single out Mel Sterling’s Latimer’s Law (they are arranged in the order I read them in the picture.) The first chapter of this book was entered in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 and it leapt out at me for its freshness, its voice and its complete unexpectedness. I entered my own first chapter on the same Romantic Suspense category but I knew from the moment I read Mel’s work that it was on a different level altogether – I said as much as well before voting had been counted and felt mildly smug when it was one of the 28 short listed chapters, and was proved right again when it became a top three finalist. I can at least spot brilliance, now to just achieve it in my own work…

And here’s to more excellent books (and drinks) in 2017.

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…)