Book Review: Escape

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Escape, by Dominique Manotti, is a short novel that manages to pack in as much action and character development as a work of twice the length. It tells the tale of a small time criminal who escapes from prison in the company of a political freedom fighter. The sparse language and fast moving plot require attention, although the book is not a difficult read, and I found myself having to put it down from time to time to digest what had just happened. As in life, the narration of the tale is not always clear cut, memory being as much influenced by audience and current circumstance as on what happened in the past. The reader is left to ponder which, if any, version of the ‘escape’ is actually true.

The book is a translation of the French novel, L’Evasion, but this never detracts from the flow or pace. The detail of the politics can be hard to follow at times for those who are unfamiliar with Italy and France in the 1970’s and 80’s, but the camaraderie and self righteousness felt by those fighting for a cause can be universally recognised.

I found few of the characters likeable, but could empathise with their reasoning and aspirations in light of events described. As the layers of the freedom fighter’s character were revealed, his love life and relationships with those he met in prison, his subsequent, apparently contradictory, actions became more believable. It was interesting to consider him through the eyes of those who had known him at different points in his life.

The ease with which the small time crook had his book published seemed a little unreal, but as this was pivotal to the plot I can understand why the author did not wish to waste too many words on the process. Throughout the book few words are wasted, it is tightly written and riveting.

I particularly liked the way the author developed the character of this young man, a fabulous example of smoke and mirrors. In learning quickly from his publisher and effectively reinventing himself through his writing, he could have been in any one of the versions of the ‘escape’ described. Was he weak, naive, a quick learner or a clever actor?

The denouement was not a surprise, it is hard to see how else the book could have ended and it was certainly well written. We are told in the Afterword that the author herself turned from political activism to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. Perhaps, just as those in her story wondered at how much truth there was in fiction, we could be asking that question of her.

My copy of this book was provided, gratis, by the publisher, Arcadia Books.

Give me books made of paper

Today is World Book Day. I am fortunate to have parents who brought me up in a house full of books, who instilled in me a love of reading and introduced me to the stories that shaped my life. A book is the closest thing I know to a Tardis; a simple object that can go unnoticed by so many, which contains entire worlds, transports the reader through time and space, enables them to experience previously unimagined lives and places.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” (Jorge Luis Borges) 

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I fulfilled an ambition when I created a library in my home last year. This is where I write, surrounded by my books, cocooned and comforted by their presence.

“In a good book room you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” (Mark Twain)

Libraries and book shops are my oasis in the stressful battlefields of town centres, places of peace and security away from the busy shoppers who jostle and intimidate. Buying a book that I have not yet read excites me as I contemplate the possibilities that it offers. A book is an undemanding friend, there when desired but willing to wait until the reader is ready to offer the time it deserves.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

All of my books are of the old fashioned kind; I do not own an eReader. When the Kindle started to gain in popularity a few of the ladies in my book group purchased one; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I heard tales of them inexplicably freezing on a page, never to come back to life; or frying in the sun whilst on holiday. I even read of one reader whose electronic copy of a book vanished overnight when a dispute over a seller’s right to provide the work ended with all those sold being remotely removed from the devices that had received the download. I had never envisaged these problems; my concern had been how I could lend this type of book to a friend.

I like physical books. I like to hold them, carry them around, leave them on tables inviting me to dip in. I feel an affinity with books that I cannot explain but is akin to love. When I sit in my library at home I feel at peace.

“Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” (Neil Gaiman)

There are times, however, when I question my decision not to purchase an electronic device. These times are increasing in regularity as I get to know, on line, authors who have poured their heart and soul into a work of fiction that will not be physically printed. I could download the fruits of their labours at very little cost, sometimes even for free.

So why do I not just go out and buy myself an eReader, even if I only use it for works that are not available in any other way?

Just before Christmas I offered to be a beta reader for an aspiring author that I knew only via Twitter. His novel was described as ‘ideal for anyone who enjoys Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones!.’  This sounded like good reading for the Christmas period, and I enjoy reviewing books so looked forward to providing feedback. I received my download and sat myself down, ready and willing to immerse myself in his world. I discovered that my reading habits do not suit the electronic medium.

The story was compelling, full of characters that I wished to get to know. My problem was that, as I progressed, I could not see how far I had read, how far I still had to go. I could not nurse the book lovingly as I paused to consider the plot, or idly flick through the pages as I answered a query when disturbed. I realised that this was how I enjoyed reading, that I engaged with the physical form of my reading matter. Sure, I could check electronic numbers, bookmark, even make notes as I went along, but it wasn’t the same. Reading on a screen was computer time, not my means of escape to another world.

I failed as a beta reader, which is a useful lesson for me to learn. It is unfortunate that, in acquiring this knowledge, I let the writer down. I know that he found other beta readers, but I felt bad for making an offer that I could not fulfil.

Yesterday evening I was excited to read that he has completed his work and today, World Book Day, he becomes a published author. You can buy his book here Salvation eBook: AMC: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store, go check it out. I hope that many people choose to download his book and enjoy what he has created.

He is not the first author that I have taken an interest in only to find that I cannot read the results of their labours in the form of my choosing. One did offer paperback copies to order but at a price that I was unwilling to pay, and therin lies the rub. Physical books cost so much more to produce and distribute. They require a significant volume of sales if they are to be economically viable.

If ebooks encourage others to read more then, in my view, they are a good thing. I can see the attraction of being able to carry a library of books around in such a small device, particularly when travelling. I realise that I tested my ability to read a book on a screen using a computer, albeit a portable one that fits in my handbag, rather than a dedicated reader. Nevertheless, for me, I desire a book made of paper.

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On World Book Day let us enjoy and celebrate books, in whatever form we choose to read them. I will be finding time for Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’. What will you be reading?

“I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” (J.K. Rowling) 

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Poem by Bo Burnham 

First day blues

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme the First Day of School.

You can steal me and use me as your own

I had never intended to be there. This had not been a part of my grand, life plan, dreamed about for so many years. Nevertheless, there I was, standing around waiting to meet up with a few old friends from school who had also ended up at this place. We were getting together to attend the Fresher’s Bazaar on our first day at university.

In 1983 The Queens University of Belfast was not the university of choice for most British students. It had a highly regarded medical school where students got to see first hand how to treat bomb damaged bodies and the victims of shootings. Being so close to the centre of a troubled city was not, however, regarded as ideal for those unfamiliar with the province. However good the teaching may have been, location mattered.

It was not The Troubles that I was trying to escape from but rather the mindset of the people who perpetuated what I regarded as a pointless conflict. Some of the teenagers I had grown up with were starting to talk like their parents, to harbour the same prejudices. I wanted out.

I had applied to study at The University of Western Australia and received a generous scholarship offer dependant on acceptable grades in my final school exams. I also had an offer from The University of Warwick, and my safety net offer from Queens. All the locals knew that Queens could provide a safety net because there just wasn’t the same competition for places at that time.

Some chose this place because they were happy to stay close to their families. I was not one of them.

The day my ‘A’ level results came out my hopes and dreams were shattered and I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had studied subjects that were beyond my ability and had not put in the effort that would have been required to sufficiently raise my grades.

I would not be flying away to sunny Perth to start my life anew, or even travelling across the water to the mainland. Instead I would be catching the Number 38 bus from outside my parent’s house and travelling three miles down the road, past both my primary and my secondary schools, to attend my local university, Queens. I recognised that I was fortunate that they had agreed to take me despite my poor results. I knew some had not been even this lucky.

September was filled with pub crawls to say goodbye to the friends who had got away. At the end of the month those of us who were left arranged to meet up at the Fresher’s Bazaar. We were a motley crew, brought together by chance and circumstance. It was not the exciting new start that I had anticipated.

The Fresher’s Bazaar was full of stalls manned by the various clubs and societies run by the university. I stopped off at the University Air Squadron stand where one of the volunteers tried to chat me up. The banner overhead invited students to learn to fly; I rather liked the idea of that. However, it soon became clear that there was a problem; I was female. Oh, they most definitely wanted me to join, but they could not offer to training me as a pilot. The heated discussion on discrimination that I was eager to pursue was cut short when my friends pulled me away. Somehow this episode seemed to sum up my day.

We organised our student cards and membership of the sports club before retiring to one of the many bars in the Students Union, a place where I spent a lot of my time in that first year. I attended the parties and balls, sold the Rag magazine, dressed up for parades, but never felt that I fitted in. Most of the friends I had were from my school days, friends and friends of friends. I lost touch with the few new acquaintances that I got to know when I left the place five years later.

On that first day at university I knew that I had put on hold the life that I wanted in order to gain the qualification that I needed to eventually fulfil my dreams. Queens is a fine university and the quality of the teaching could not be faulted, it was simply not where I wanted to be.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that everything happens for a reason, that the life I now lead and love would not have come about had I achieved my ambitions way back then. At the time though, that first day had the taste of failure. I determined that I would do all that I could to ensure I never experienced that taste again.

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To read the other posts in this Blog Hop, click on the link below.

Creating my perfect room

I have decided to change one of the rooms in my house. I am going to get a carpenter to build two wall to wall, floor to ceiling sets of bookshelves. I will have the bureau that I had custom built to my design years ago against one wall and the Yamaha upright piano that we bought last year against the other wall. I will have two comfy armchairs with a matching footstool in the middle, each with a reading light behind. This will be my room; books, music and writing in one perfect place.

I have never had enough shelf space for all of my books. Over the years I have had to cull my collection periodically  and I am now regretting sending some of those treasures to the charity shop. I don’t miss the trash novels or the autobiographies that I once thought I might find interesting but never did. However, I so regret giving away some of the children’s books that my three had grown too old for.

I mean, I had the original Famous Five series where the girls go off to make the tea. It’s not that I want my boys to think that this is what girls are for, but I object to anyone messing with an author’s work. If you don’t like the way a book is written then fine, don’t read that author, don’t recommend it, but don’t change it! I loved Enid Blyton as a child and so did my daughter. She makes the tea for no one but herself.

And what possessed me to give away ‘The Gruffalo’ and ‘Owl Babies’? Those books are fabulous. I guess we just didn’t have enough space to store all of the boxes we would have needed had we held on to every book that I endlessly read to my growing kids. The bookshelves in their rooms have always been overstuffed; sometimes we just had to clear them out and let go.

Not any more though. I am going to have so much storage space for books that I will have to go on a buying spree just to fill up those shelves; what a joyful prospect! I am making lists, reading reviews, noting down recommendations from friends. I am planning how I will organise the books that we will have; how I will separate fiction and non fiction, children’s and adult’s.

My room will be my haven; my escape from reality. It has a walk through to our family room and my daughter and I played with the idea of filling this in with double sided bookshelves and a ‘secret’ opening. What fun that would be. I can only guess at how much a carpenter would charge for such a novelty, but I suspect he may enjoy the commission. It would, however, rob the internal room of natural light. We will leave the walk through as it is; I do not wish to cut myself off from my family entirely.

The ordinary bookshelves that are currently in this room have been claimed by my elder son for his bedroom. The shelves he currently has will move to his sister’s room. Everyone will end up with more storage space for their precious reading material. I am so happy that my children share my love of books, particularly when they enjoy one that I have recommended and we can discuss what we liked and why. However much I exasperate these developing young adults with my inability to grasp and appreciate their emerging ideologies and reasoning, we can share the pleasure to be found in the fictional worlds and characters that we discover between the pages of our many good books.

As with any home project that I decide to go ahead with, I am now impatient for work to begin. I will then be even more impatient for it to be completed. When it is done and I am organising my collection for display, which books would you recommend for inclusion?

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