Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Adventures in Oxford

Finally, I'm on holiday. After hours of dancing and talking I collapsed into bed at 4am on Thursday night, and that was it: the end-of-term dance had come and gone and somehow, miraculously, I'd made it through to the Christmas holidays.

Towards the end of term I was very much running on empty, and I am so thankful to be off now; I type this with the Christmas tree sparkling to my left, the fire blazing and my family around. Folk fiddle twines from the radio, and the wooden shutters are tight against the wind. We are all at rest.

I've had a fairly stressful few weeks, with coursework deadlines slamming into me on every side, and there's been little time to relax; every spare moment, more or less, has been swallowed by writing my book. As such, it was in a dreamlike state that, a couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Oxford.

Ironic, really: so much of the stress and business of the school term has been centred around my Oxford interview, but when I was there, it was an oasis of calm. To get you up to speed: I've applied for English Lit at Oxford, and two weeks ago I had a series of interviews there. I travelled on Saturday, returned on Wednesday, and stayed in Madgalen, the college to which I've applied. 

It was sort of a wonderful experience.


Few cities are consistently beautiful, street to street and building to building, but walking through Oxford was like stepping into a gorgeous dream. It didn't rain the whole time I was there; it was just marvellous dry, mild weather, and the glorious streets that sang to me as I walked through them.


I stayed in the college, in a room looking out on the college church with its stained glass windows. When I arrived there on Sunday afternoon, I sat in bed whilst Christmas carols floated through my window.


I had four interviews over my time there. I had some good moments, and also some very bad ones.


For the most part, it's impossible to say how well they went. I made an embarrassing blunder about Hamlet, forgot the plot of The Mill on the Floss, and lost my footing when questioned about the Reformation, but I also had a hugely enjoyable time fangirling about intellectually discussing The Goldfinch, Wordsworth, and Fitzgerald. (I also managed to mention Benedict Cumberbatch, so I'm quite pleased about that.)

 

When not being interviewed, I wandered about the city. I picked up some secondhand books (of course), and I drank in the beautiful streets and buildings and trees. 



I wandered into one particularly charming little shop, absolutely jam-packed with beautiful things.


The books were gorgeous, and the globes to die for. (I love globes.)


I got lost in the fabulous covered market.


Observe the ancient heraldry on the Sainsburys wall. I'm not joking when I said it was like a dream.


The college chapel was a really beautiful building, like a tiny cathedral. I love the silence of empty churches, with candles burning in the stained glass windows.



The river was one of my favourite parts of Oxford. It winds the rural right through the heart of the city.


One of the best moments of my trip, when I first arrived, was this: walking up the High Street with my luggage, unsure what I would find, when this shop appeared before me. Some of you may know that I'm quite keen on a book called The Goldfinch (and you may know this because I'm really obsessed and never shut up about it), and some of my favourite lines are these:

For the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of myself I'd lost with my mother. Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination, from the antique valentines and embroidered Chinese coats she collected to her tiny scented bottles from Neal's Yard Remedies; there had always been something bright and magical about her unknown faraway life.

When I read the book I didn't know what Neal's Yard Remedies were, and to see this sign was like a gift, just for me, from the dusk. It was a moment of serendipity.


In the evenings, I mingled with other applicants, wrote, and read Hughes and Duffy in my room. The Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes and Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy are two marvellous books.

Chapels, chimneys vanish in the brightening

And the hills walk out on the hills
The rain talks to its gods
The light, opening younger, fresher wings
Holds this land up again like an offering

Heavy with the dream of a people.

~ from The Trance of Light by Ted Hughes

You sprawled in my gaze,
staring back from anyone's face, from the shape of a cloud,
from the pining, earth-struck moon which gapes at me

as I open the bedroom door.

~ from You by Carol Ann Duffy

Now, looking back, my trip intertwines with these two poets: brief, lyrical, magic.

And what now?

I'll find out next month if I have a place or not. A lot of people have said things to me like “It must have ruined you for anywhere else", or, “you'll be so disappointed if you don't get in." I loved it so much that it must be easy to imagine crushing disappointment. But the truth is I won't be heartbroken, not in the slightest. Before I'd even sent my application I knew very, very well that the chances of my being accepted are extremely small. This doesn't upset me, because I think it's very foolish to stake all your hope on something you might not get. If I don't get in I'll still have my family, a country at peace, my novel, books, Jesus. It's called perspective. But I will visit the city, many more times in the future, and I will always keep this trip -- the beautiful December trees, the crisp magic of the streets, the hushed thrill of being on my own in another country for the first time -- wrapped up inside me. It will stay with me. 

The year dwindles and glows
to December's red jewel,
my birth month.

The sky blushes,
and lays its cheek,
on the sparkling fields.

Then dusk swaddles the cattle, 
their silhouettes
simple as faith.

These nights are gifts,
our hands unwrapping the darkness
to see what we have.

The train rushes, ecstatic,
to where you are,
my bright star.

(December by Carol Ann Duffy)

~***~

I'll be back next week with stories and reflections on 2015. For now, much love and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: 2015'S BEST BOOKS

Hello and good evening! I have been MIA these past couple of weeks; unfortunately, my life has been ridiculously busy with school etc. I break up on Thursday; right now, I feel like the whole world is holding its breath waiting for that end-of-term moment when we can finally collapse. The thought of Friday -- my first day off -- shines like a beacon of hope in a very frantic world.


The big thing that's happened is this: I had my interview at Oxford! For those of you who don't know, I've applied to the University of Oxford to study English Lit, and I had an interview (or in fact, four interviews) there last week. It was a five-day trip, which I really enjoyed, though it was very tiring and somewhat stressful at points! But I will give you a proper post on my adventures, in the fullness of time.


Today I'm linking up with Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish!

The prompt this week is a big one: ten best books of 2015.

Choosing is hard enough; to rate these in order would just about finish me off. So I'm going for the order in which I read them. 



1. Blue Lily, Lily Blue
This was my first book of 2015 and remains one of the very best. It's no secret how much I love the Raven Cycle (“Emily, we know!" you cry, “you never stop going on about it!"), and installment #3 had me hopping. Can I just say, the shipping is real.




2. The Cuckoo's Calling -- sorry that the font is so tiny, I can't fix it! ~sighs at self~

I was quite afraid to read this, because I love Harry Potter so much that I was nervous of Rowling's other work -- what if it wasn't as good?
Ha.
The Cuckoo's Calling was a thrilling crime debut; Rowling's characteristic gripping style picked me up and bore me along to the last page. And Cormoran Strike and Robin were a brilliant duo; I really loved them both, and am super super excited to discover more of their adventures! (I'm going to read The Silkworm as soon as I finish my current read!)
Read my full review here.



3. A Feast for Crows
I loved this book for one reason. Jaime. Lannister.
Compared to the rest of the series, it wasn't the best. A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords were still more exciting and gripping, in my opinion. And I read A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold this year, so why isn't it in this list instead?
Again I say: Jaime. Lannister.
Never have I ever read, across a series, a more perfectly developed character. If you're early on in A Song of Ice and Fire, you probably hate Jaime with all your heart and soul, and I don't blame you
(much); I used to be the same! But as the books continue Martin masterfully reveals nuance after nuance of his character. In A Storm of Swords my sympathies were engaged. By A Feast for Crows, I was in love.
That's why the book is in this list; Jaime is probably my best loved new character of this year. I'm reading A Dance with Dragons right now -- two hundred pages in he's still not appeared, and I miss him a lot. For more discussion of his character, go to my review here. For now, suffice to say, I love him, and I love this book.




4. Shiver and Linger (again, sorry about the font size. This is yet another installment of “Emily can't handle technology")
Yeah, so, this is two books, it's cheating, whatever. The Raven Boys introduced me to the wonderful world of Maggie Stiefvater, but obviously I was craving more Maggie in my life, so this summer I finally got round to these two beauties. They were brilliant: I ship Sam and Grace so hard I might explode, and Sam especially is utterly adorable and one of my favourite characters of the year, I love the paranormal aspects; I love the wintry feeling, the snow on the ground, the woods by Grace's house, the whole mood of the books. It all feels so real. I'm so so so so excited to read Forever.
Read my full review of Shiver here.
 



5. The Mill on the Floss

My second Eliot, after I read and loved Adam Bede. This book was just as good: really really beautiful prose, a wonderful heroine in Maggie, a heart-striking study of the nature of suffering. Highly recommended.
Full review here.

 6. A Farewell to Arms

Wow, this book.
A simple story of the First World War; a love story of incredible power. It's a deceptively straightforward book, but it will shake you to your foundations. I really loved this book a lot.
(2015 Top 3 material.)
Full review here.
7. This Side of Paradise
Another of my 2015 Top Three, and, incidentally, the book to which I'm comparing A Farewell to Arms in my Advanced Higher English dissertation. I love Fitzgerald (like, a lot) and This Side of Paradise was, no exaggeration, stunningly beautiful.

The sentimental person is convinced things will last. The romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't."

8. The Handmaid's Tale

The book I'm studying in English. The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling dystopia in which women are state-sanctioned concubines and language is strictly controlled. The craft of this book is amazing; our narrator, Offred, is rebelling against the patriarchal society in which she's trapped, and one of the ways she does this is to litter the text with palimpsests of literature and culture. Page to page, the writing is beautiful, and as a social study of our society, as well as reproductive ethics and issues of fertility, it's as astute as it is frightening.

“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born."


9. The Goldfinch

For what it's worth, The Goldfinch was my favourite book of 2015.
Its scope is breathtaking. Its prose is unthinkably beautiful. The narrator, Theo, is one of the best developed characters I've read all year. As a book discussing art it is sublime; as a study of the human condition, unparalleled. The settings are tangibly beautiful. The plot and pace are flawless. Characterisation is perfect. I run out of words to describe this book.
Review here.

For the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of myself I'd lost with my mother. ... She was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone."


10. Department 19: Darkest Night

The fifth and final book of the marvellous D19 series. I really really love this series -- I've been reading it for four years, waiting patiently for each book -- and this, the conclusion, was really something. To end a series well is a huge challenge, but I thought this one was so well executed. I love the characters a lot. No one else I know has read D19 (except one friend, and I forced her), but I would so highly recommend it. Awful covers; but amazing books.
(I'm so sad it's over.)

BONUS #1: A CHANGED OPINION


I first read The Great Gatsby in 2014, and was distinctly underwhelmed. But in winter 2014 - spring 2015, I studied it, and my opinion was utterly changed. Now, the only book on this list that comes near to my love for Gatsby is The Goldfinch. I didn't want to include it, as I did read it first in 2014, but I couldn't leave it out. I love it transcendingly.


BONUS #2: REREADS



Children's books reread this year: The Cry of the Icemark by Stuart Hill (review here); Percy Jackson #1-4 by Rick Riordan (review here); Roman Mysteries #1-5 by Caroline Lawrence (review here). I have enjoyed restarting these series inordinately, and will gleefully continue with them all. I just ordered Blade of Fire (Icemark #2) and I'm going to binge it and the last one over Christmas! SO EXCITED! I'm also very pumped to read The Last Olympian, and then move onto the next Percy cycle.  


BONUS #3: POETRY

I'm planning a whole post dedicated to these books (I know, aren't you guys lucky), but I couldn't go without mentioning these marvellous items, read this year.
The World's Wife is a beautiful collection taking famous men - real and fictional - and imagining the women in their lives. If you're new to poetry, I'd really recommend Carol Ann Duffy; her work is very accessible, as well as being very beautiful.
Ted Hughes is my favourite poet and forever bae, and Poetry in the Making is a brilliant book about writing poetry. If you write poetry - or indeed, if you write anything - it's a must-read.
Keats' work is glorious. Lilting, meandering, confusing at times, sometimes patchy, but full of feeling and eloquence. Keats was only 24 when he died, yet he remains one of the most important English poets.

There we go! Before I close, I'd like to give a very honourable mention to Crown of Midnight by Sarah J Maas, which was a riveting sequel to Throne of Glass. I'm so excited to read Heir of Fire!

This is by no means the last of these 2015-book-wrap-up posts. New year reflection posts are some of my favourites! So keep a look-out over the next few weeks, when I will be more present than I have been of late. Oh, and I promise to read all your blogs! I have a lot of catching up to do ...

Now here's the hard question: best book of 2015? Maybe top three, if I'm generous. Best reread? Best sequel? Have you read any good poetry? Oh, and what was the most disappointing book? By the way, if you're a TTT-er: link me up to your post!

~***~

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Starting Sparks: December

Happy Advent!

In my last post I spoke about my aversion to Christmas before December, but now it IS December, the tinsel is up* and the Christmas tunes are on!

*Metaphorically. There is no tinsel in my home. At least, not yet!

I am currently at that post-November stage with school/winter/life, the stage of if you don't laugh, you'll cry", so today I wore my hair in bunches to school and laughed hysterically at a lot of things. It is in the only way to keep going. There are three weeks left of term and I'm going to drag myself through them somehow. 

So, as it is the 1st, it is time for Starting Sparks!


Last month we had the first linker who wasn't Ashley or me, so I have great hopes for the future!

The December prompt is this:


Whether you've got a tonne of experience or none at all, we would love to have you on board. Short story, scene, poem, whatever: we're just looking to get your creativity going. If you'd like more information about the link-up, have a look here


And again, happy Advent!