Interview with Publishing Consultant Vanessa O’Loughlin

Irish writer, literary scout, publishing consultant and mum Vanessa O’Loughlin has achieved a remarkable amount in a very short time. After much success with short story writing competitions for the likes of Poolbeg and Mills & Boon, the literary guru founded Inkwell Writers’ Workshops in 2006 and it has gone from strength to strength. Continue reading

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

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?

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’

Least Favourite Book: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

While I found it really difficult to decide on my favourite book (they’re all so brilliant!) from the collection I have amassed for well over a decade, choosing my least favourite book was possibly harder. My bookshelf encompasses literature that I adore – the first editions, the hardbacks, the signed copies – the books that make me love writing more and more every time I read them. They are the books that make life a little easier, by putting distance between me and the bustling, crazy world for just a little while. I already know my favourites, easily identified by the worn spines, the many bookmarks pocketed between their pages, and the familiar covers.

The books I dislike, however, have somehow magically managed to fade into darkness. They no longer loom on my shelves, half-finished, with the price tag still on the front. They have sunk deep into oblivion, with little hope of return. Selecting a favourite book was a mere matter of choice. Picking a least favourite has forced my mind to swim through murky memories of “Who edited this and left these grammar mistakes?!” and “How did this get published?!”, of which, thankfully, I have only a few.

There is a clear difference between abhorring a book for its subject matter (which I will discuss in later posts) and loathing a book for the dodgy writing within it. It is the latter that is the focus of this particular post, with the culprit being the novel The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly (2011).

‘The Little Women Letters’ by Gabrielle Donnelly (image from chicklitreviews.com)

I personally am not a passionate fan of the original Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, although I have read and enjoyed it. Stuck at the airport early this summer, I was browsing the Fiction section and happened upon the newly published sequel. Raising my eyebrows, I knew how much pressure Donnelly would be under in order to live up to the expectations of the diehard Alcott fan. I mean, you’d really only write a follow-up book to Little Women if you really knew what you were doing. Donnelly flails about trying to do justice to Alcott’s creation, which results in an exaggerated attempt at the production of an authentic sounding voice when she writes from the perspective of Alcott’s famous character Jo: “Bless the infant, she is the reddest and the squallingest baby you ever did see!”

While I am putting this down to nervousness on Donnelly’s part in following the renowned Alcott’s footsteps, her terribly prolonged protagonist descriptions worsen the situation. She dedicates entire paragraphs to each character and their blow-by-blow summary as she introduces them to the reader one after the other, providing information she could easily have popped into another part of the novel, or cut altogether. “[The character of Emma] wore well-cut trousers for work, and for leisure jeans in the winter or flowery skirts in the summer, which she topped with shirts from Zara or Whistles.” At no point in the book does the fact that Emma shops in ‘Zara’ become a major plot point, I hasten to add. It doesn’t really enhance Emma’s character at all. It merely feels like Donnelly needed more content for her word count.

The Pressures of Writing

Donnelly is also guilty of ignoring the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule that pretty much every author knows is part of learning how to produce great writing. At one point in the novel, she states, “Fee and David Atwater were a happy couple” (and she continues in this same vein for another paragraph, of which I have quoted only a snippet here): “Both agreed that the space his travels put between them did their marriage good. Whatever the cause, their marriage was a strong one”. The end of this tirade, however, reveals their contented relationship to the reader with one little action: “After nearly thirty years of marriage, [they] still reached, almost unconsciously, for each other’s hand when they walked down the street.” That wonderfully composed sentence makes me want to shake the editor for not taking out the rest of the paragraph!

Donnelly certainly has her writing strengths: dialogue seems to be where she shines most and it is this device that she employs throughout The Little Women Letters to divulge more of the characters’ personalities. “‘Are you sure you want her there? She’ll complain about London, and make comments about Lulu’s hair, and get that disapproving look when Lulu and Sophie start to crack jokes.'” Donnelly does saturate the book in dialogue, but it really is one of the novel’s redeeming attributes in the context of the writing quality.

The respect that she has for Alcott is undeniable, but, in my opinion, Donnelly fails to provide a worthy tribute to the classic and immortal tale of the four young girls from Little Women.

‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, first published in 1868

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.