Books, Writing

Writing Tip of the Day: Emily Brontë

I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas;

they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.

And this is one: I’m going to tell it – but take care not to smile at any part of it.

 

– EMILY BRONTË

 

 

Books, Writing

Writing Tip of the Day: J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling. Image from writerslobby.com

Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.

I believe in hard work and luck, and that the first often leads to the second.

– J.K. ROWLING

Books

Favourite Young Adult Book: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

My favourite young adult story takes me back in time fifteen years ago, when the grass was ten feet tall and Barbies ruled the world: the start of my childhood, when I first saw the adaptation at age five. I would sit wide-eyed in front of the little black television as we pressed rewind on the VHS tape, eagerly awaiting the moment that “two figures [would trudge] up the steep path that leads…to the little village of Dorfli”.

I must have seen the film version countless times as a young girl. My older sister and I were rarely a quiet bunch, but both of us were entranced by the cheerful and curly-haired kid, Shirley Temple, in the main role of the 1937 motion picture, Heidi, directed by Allan Dwan.

The Grandfather and Heidi, played by Jean Hersholt and Shirley Temple respectively

It was the black-and-white simplicity of the Swedish tale on the screen that first drew me to the story, but the unforgettable characters of sullen Grandfather, excitable Klara, goat herd Peter and, of course, the young heroine Adelheid made me remember it. Despite not even being ten years old at the time of filming, lead actress Temple was by then a star in her own right, perfectly cast: she really captured the spirit of the innocent and sweet child from the original story – written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri – looking as if she’d hopped straight out of its pages.

The child star in 1937, as the renowned literary character, ‘Heidi’

It was only in later years that I read the book in question, but the visual connection I had with the film only served to enhance my Heidi experience. Heidi was up there with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess Sara Crewe and Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children in terms of strong characters that had made a massive impact on me in film adaptations before I turned to them in their literary form.

I consider Heidi to be a young adult book in this case because I did not read the book until I was an adolescent. Heidi is perhaps the most special YA book to me because of how much the film touched me as a child. Shirley Temple was iconic in the role and the character of Heidi is forever immortalised in my mind how the young actress portrayed her. But no matter how many versions of the story there will be, it is truly one of those classic tales that will never grow old: the adventures of the little girl from the Swiss Alps.

The story of ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri
Books

A Book You Wish You Could Live In: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The crazy, mad world of today is hardly ever quiet: from the bleeping of text messages, banging of doors, screeching of owls, and the blaring of the radio, sometimes curling up with a great book in your warm bed or a snug armchair can be the best way to get away from it all.

When we read, we immerse ourselves completely in the universe that the author has created: we visualise the sprawling setting, hear the thoughts and comments of the narrator and envisage the different characters. We allow ourselves to be swept away by the world of the story. If we are not convinced by the tale the writer has produced, we simply cannot believe in it.

A book must be spilling over with imagination.

‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ by J.K. Rowling

That is why the book I wish I could live in would be Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. Published in July 1999 by Bloomsbury, it became an instant bestseller, satisfying the cravings of Harry fans worldwide.

Not only did Jo Rowling stay faithful to the original world she had established in the first books of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (both of which I will discuss in this book challenge), she went above and beyond readers’ expectations. Revealing the new setting of the enchanting wizard village of ‘Hogsmeade’, showcasing the new characters of Professor Remus J. Lupin and Sirius Black (the latter being briefly mentioned in Book 1) to name but a few, and adding the chilling Dementors, scary Boggarts and majestic Hippogriffs to the list of astounding creatures that inhabit the Potter universe all served to enhance J.K. Rowling’s story.

WANTED: The Azkaban Prison escapee, Sirius Black

As her protagonist, Harry, learns more about his father and why his parents died, we, the readers, follow him on his journey into the past, and, indeed, the future. The book is jam-packed with plot twists, seemingly insignificant but vital characters (Scabber and Crookshanks) and the author’s ever-present humour (Harry inflates his aunt before he returns to Hogwarts).

His discovery of the Marauder’s Map (an enchanted piece of parchment, mapping the school grounds and detailing the whereabouts of everyone on it) gives a whole new dimension to the secrets that can be uncovered in Hogwarts. It aides Harry in his adventures and proves to be a source of increased tension among the characters, in the midst of a renowned murderer on the loose. This map, however, is not the only outstanding magical object in Prisoner of Azkaban; in fact, my personal favourite is Hermione Granger’s Time Turner. The scenes that it is featured in are beautifully written and wonderfully evoked.

Hermione’s Time Turner

The world that J.K. Rowling captures in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of mystery, beauty and magic. Remarkably, this is the only book in which Lord Voldemort, the series’ villain, does not make an appearance, and the novel does not suffer for it. Rather, the novel’s strength is based on its engaging characters, its prose, and its originality, which is why it is the book I wish I could live in.

What book would you choose?

Books

A Book That Makes You Cry: Atonement by Ian McEwan

You know those people that are so sentimental, it’s almost comical? They sniffle over the ending of a series, they shed a tear over Titanic and absolutely bawl their eyes out after seeing The Notebook?

I’m one of them.

We cluster together, unified by our heightened emotion: knowing that the sad part is coming, the lump in our throat is getting harder and harder to ignore, our eyes sting as we try to avoid the tears…receiving the odd pat by a bewildered, wary and usually guy friend, who can’t understand this outpouring of grief…

Sad films always get me. They make me cry more than literature, probably because of the huge emphasis on the visual and aural elements, with 3D dramatic death scenes – complete with close up shots of the characters – unfolding before my eyes, accompanied by a soaring music score. Books have a slight disadvantage in this regard, because they do not have so many elements to appeal to the reader’s senses; they can only trigger those tears through the power of the words on the page. It must be one outstanding book that has the ability to move a human being by just an arrangement of black marks on paper.

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

This masterpiece of a book by Ian McEwan, entitled Atonement (2001), is written so beautifully that it can’t fail to move you. The tender subject matter is treated delicately and thoughtfully by the author, captured through the eyes of a young playwright named Briony, who makes a terrible mistake about a serious crime. It really struck a chord with me. The innocence of the child at the start of the novel has been shattered by the end. Her lack of life experience makes her unaware of the gravity of the situation at first, but when she realises the horrific error she has made, she spends the rest of her life trying to make amends. The sad fact is: she can never atone for what she’s done.

It is a wonderfully composed novel, well worth the read, and it might even bring a few tears to your eyes too.

Books

A Book That Makes You Laugh Out Loud: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

The sight of me roaring with laughter over a book is a rare one. The joys of being an English Literature undergraduate mean that most of the books I read have a serious literary undertone to them; even the non-academic ones that I enjoy reading often don’t have many parts that make me giggle.

I like subtle comedy: the glimmer of the odd funny line, the quick banter of dialogue, or the comical clash of personalities. Believe it or not, the book that makes me laugh out loud the most is not by a comedian or television personality, but by a quiet author who spent her early writing days planning the development of her book series in small Edinburgh cafés, with her baby daughter by her side.

J. K. Rowling is known for her creation of epic battles, flawed characters and complex plots, but little is spoken about her use of humour in the world renowned Harry Potter series (1997-2007). She employs her clever, sharp wit regularly throughout the seven novels for comic relief (usually from redheaded Ron), but the increasingly dark tone towards the end of the saga tends to conceal the interwoven flickers of comedy. The first two Harry Potter novels – Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets – in my opinion, are the most lighthearted of the series; while both deal with heavy subject matters, such as death and evil, the young age of the protagonists (eleven in Book One and twelve in Book Two) gives that little bit of extra freedom to Rowling to include more humour, as the kids establish themselves in their wizard school, Hogwarts.

Ron Weasley

Having successfully completed the first step of Harry’s journey in Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling flies off the mark from the get-go in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, showcasing her comedic skills.

“‘Do I look stupid?’ snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy mustache.”

These sly and funny comments, the ones you’d hardly notice dotted here and there on the page, are the ones that make me laugh the most, not some big anecdote from a comedian’s autobiography that I will remember and be bored by the next time I read it. Rowling integrates her humour with particular aspects of her characters’ personalities, to make it all the more entertaining. Dudley, for instance, is Harry’s greedy, selfish cousin, whose interaction with Harry always gives me a few laughs:

“Dudley hitched up his trousers, which were slipping down his fat bottom.

‘Why’re you staring at the hedge?’ he said suspiciously.

‘I’m trying to decide what would be the best spell to set it on fire,’ said Harry.

Dudley stumbled backwards at once, a look of panic on his fat face.

‘You c-can’t – Dad told you you’re not to do m-magic – he said he’ll chuck you out of the house – and you haven’t got anywhere else to go – you haven’t got any friends to take you -‘

Jiggery pokery!‘ said Harry in a fierce voice. ‘Hocus pocus… squiggly wiggly…’

‘MUUUUUUM!’ howled Dudley, tripping over his feet as he dashed back towards the house.”

Rowling’s comedic value is hidden amongst her more prominent talents of character description and plot development, which is a shame, but it’s these golden moments of humour in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that make me laugh ridiculously loud.

J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
Books

Favourite Book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

As I type this on my clattering keyboard, my wooden bookshelf sits opposite me, groaning under the weight of literature and film it has accumulated since it happily took up residence in my bedroom at the beginning of the year. (Only five shelves to contain the majority of books I own, plus my entire DVD collection. I mean, really?!) Crammed ledges are starting to feel the burden, as they are crushed slowly under the pressure of The Shelf.

The Bookshelf… a lot more full now than when I first got it!

Every bibliophile can spot The Shelf from a mile away – the scent of freshly bought written word, the sight of devoured, eagerly-page-turned novels, or the delicate and deliberate order in which the books are allocated a place. The Shelf exists for the sole reason of stocking the selection of your favourite worldwide literature, perused over your lifetime, each chosen carefully to permanently reside on this ledge. They have proudly retired here after earning their badge of honour: your thorough enjoyment. The Shelf is the very persona of your book passion. It is the essence of flowing words, effortless communication and graceful composition by gifted authors, celebrating their creative skill side by side. It is your Holy Grail of Prose. It is the victorious army of successful published authors, who have bravely risen from the grey smoke drifting across the battlefield of wounded writers who didn’t make the cut. It is…well, you get my drift.

Flanked by bestselling novelists, dramatic titles, French translations and histories of Modern Ireland, my most preferred book to date nestles quietly on The Shelf between its younger siblings, Human Traces (2005) and A Week in December (2009), both fleshed out by the same author, Mr. Sebastian Faulks, of whose wondrous talent I have developed a ridiculous amount of respect, not just because he hails from possibly the best city in the world.

‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks

I have to be honest. I did not stumble upon this masterpiece of a novel merely by chance. Birdsong (1993) was recommended to me by some well-read old friends: remarkably, they couldn’t explain exactly why they loved it, but just urged me to read it. Curious, I began my foray into the world of Stephen and Isabelle, never to look back. I was immediately hooked on the immortal and poignant tale of love and war, set amongst the roaring French trenches of World War One. Its simple cover – a black outline of a soldier and a crucifix – barely alludes to the captivating tale between its pages, but perhaps the magic of this story is its sweet integrity and the passion with which Faulks tells it.

The wonderful characters jump out from the pages, each with their own distinctive personality, traits and feelings. The author vividly describes his journey with them in the introduction of the novel. His well-honed voice speaks clearly and directly to the reader, as he recounts his exploration into their world. This personal glimpse of Faulks’ literary experience offers a unique and rare view of his writing career: from the perspective of the author himself. He reveals snippets of his reasons for Birdsong‘s creation – “in the opening section, I wanted the texture of the prose to increase the sense of social and sexual claustrophia” – and simultaneously evokes an honest and moving portrayal of a writer hard at work. “Sometimes I felt choked by rage and indignation; […] at other times, in the spring sunshine, among the headstones, I felt oddly tranquil and at ease, as though among friends. […] Could I really do this thing?”

The introduction is only the beginning. The story of Birdsong is one that has truly captured my imagination and set it on fire. I am always inspired when I read Faulks’ elegant narrative, see his three-dimensional characters stroll about in my head, and witness the flashes of genius present in his writing.

Out of all the books I have read over the last fifteen years, this novel has had the most profound effect on me, as a writer and as a human being. Faulks’ tale is sheer magnificence, which is why Birdsong has received the title of my Favourite Book. I may not always be so in love with the exquisite literature that pours from its pages, but it will always be there, waiting on The Shelf, for the day when its words will once again see light.

Books

Book Challenge

This, my friends, is a book challenge. I discovered it on a writing blog (of which I trawl through many, eager for some creative wisdom), and while my fingers ache to tap all the answers out on the keyboard, I’m trying to stop myself spilling all the answers at once. So here is the list, of which I’ll choose a few to write about:

Favourite book
Least favourite book
Book that makes you laugh out loud
Book that makes you cry
Book you wish you could live in
Favorite young adult book
Book that you can quote/recite
Book that scares you
Book that makes you sick
Book that changed your life
Book from your favorite author
Book that is most like your life
Book whose main character is most like you
Book whose main character you want to marry
First “chapter book” you can remember reading as a child
Longest book you’ve read
Shortest book you’ve read
Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like
Book that you felt a lot of emotion over
Book you’ve read the most number of times
Favorite picture book from childhood
Book you plan to read next
Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)
Book that contains your favorite scene
Favorite book you read in school
Favorite nonfiction book
Favorite fiction book
DLast book you read
Book you’re currently reading
Favorite coffee table book

‘My favourite book’ to follow. How on earth can I choose?!

Books

My Top Five Reads of All Time

I’m quite enjoying this blog-writing escapade. So I have decided to embark on another. 🙂

My Top Five Reads of All Time:

1) The ‘Harry Potter’ Series by J.K. Rowling

Anyone that knows me is painfully aware of how much I worship the Harry Potters. It is not enough to say that the series encompasses a variety of fully-formed, well-rounded characters with strong opinions, fight-to-the-death battle sequences and the trials of true love. What I love most about Harry Potter is both the sheer integrity and respect with which the author treats the characters and their friendships, and also her beautiful, poignant tone that is clearly woven throughout the narrative. The characters have grown up with me, from a little girl of ten years old to a stubborn bibliophile of twenty. Jo Rowling’s words have seen me through the worst and best of times – the death of my grandfather, new starts in life (college in a different part of the country, meeting new friends and keeping old ones) – and helped me through perhaps one of the toughest times of them all, dealing with my grandmother’s onset of Alzheimer’s. Nothing can ever change the impact that the Harry Potter books had on my growing up and development through the years of my adolescence, and I suppose that’s why I have such a special connection with them.

 

2) ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks

I attribute part of my recent re-appreciation of history to the wonderful novel that is ‘Birdsong’. Faulks combines the horrific descriptions of trench warfare in World War One with a beautiful and eloquent captivation of true love in the early twentieth century. His story is so vivid and rich that I really felt as if it was real. I loved his mixture of powerful English and scatterings of French, which appealed to the linguist in me and revealed his gift with language. Some day I hope to emulate his fantastic writing ability and career, and I really can’t give him much more praise than that.

 

3) ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

I think I saw the film before I read the book, but my mind was blown by both. It was a really original story for a rather short novel. Of course, McEwan is renowned for his writing prowess and this book is a tribute to his fantastic ability with the craft. I loved the choice of name for his main character, Briony, and the fact that she too is an author. The plot is touching and enduring for the reader and relentlessly challenging for the characters.

 

4) ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by C. S. Lewis / ‘The Hobbit’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

  

I am obviously enthralled by fantasy, which is why I adore both the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and have given them equal pride of place on this blog (I just couldn’t choose!). I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet tackled the immense volumes of the latter, but I have read their predecessor ‘The Hobbit’, which I thoroughly enjoyed and I look forward to seeing the two-part films of it. The screen versions of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, I thought, were pretty fantastic and I wanted to see how the books compared, particularly as I am usually an advocate of book over film. Both of these authors are world-famous. Their stories appeal to many generations of people and I am really glad that these writers are so appreciated as they are.

C. S. Lewis seems to be more concerned with character (especially with regard to the gentle yet strong-willed Lucy) while with Tolkien, the focus is plot. They both manage to contain many in-depth and fascinating characters in their work and, vitally, they never lose focus of where the story is going. I am completely in awe of the complex landscapes and unbelievable creativity that they exhibit in their novels. They appeal to the fundamental humanity within us, and there is always a sense of the authors just recounting a story of a journey.

 

5) ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

For people that haven’t read her, perhaps the hype surrounding Jane Austen’s writing seems a little over-the-top, even unnecessary. I myself was not particularly a fan before I read her work. I knew that it was just remarkable what she achieved in the restrictive times that she lived in. Being a female and an author was almost unheard of in those days – she did both and she did it so well that her name is now eternally remembered. I was never fully convinced that she would live up to my expectations and her famous name. But she did.

Having read her classics such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and most of the others she wrote, my focus then turned to one of her lesser-known novels, ‘Persuasion’. I knew I would get a cracking story and fantastically vivid characters. But Anne Elliott was refreshingly different to Austen’s other heroines. Communication, as always, is central to the Austen story, but there was something rather unique about this tale. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Perhaps because I hadn’t seen a film or other adaptation of ‘Persuasion’, I went in to it pretty blind, and came out awestruck by the captivating prowess of the renowned mistress of English literature.

I believe rereading Austen is essential to realising the full extent of her capability. She sets up plot twists early on and evokes real characteristics of human beings, and these resound with her readership even centuries after she walked the earth.

Marése O’Sullivan