Thursday, 26 May 2016

Take Me There // places I want to visit because BOOKS

Cait recently posted a very valid and not at all sarcastic list of the dire risks of reading too much. She's right, people, being a bookworm is dangerous. As well as giving you issues such as thinking too much and having opinions, it prompts you to SPEND ALL YOUR MONEY ON BOOKS, or if not on books, book-related activities.

As for me, I get terrible bookish wanderlust.

Because ten is a nice round number ... Ten Places I'd Eat My Head to Go, Because of Books.

[Images are not mine, obviously, because I haven't visited most of these places. Cry.]

1. NEW YORK

nyc-cab
[source]
Well, this one is pretty obvious. I have actually been to New York twice! The first time I was seven and I remember nothing. The second time I was twelve and I:
a) went to the Bronx Zoo,
b) went into the Met but left when we saw we needed to pay, and
c) spent ages queuing outside Hollister and got a dress and a jumper.

I WAS LITERALLY ON FIFTH AVENUE AND I WENT TO HOLLISTER.
I DIDN'T GO TO THE MET.
I WASTED TIME IN A ZOO.
 I'm so so so so ashamed. 

Recently watching Friends, Penelope and What a Girl Wants has reinforced my desperate desire to live in New York for a little while. But also BOOKS. 

Twilight in Central Park, NYC! Def want to go here in the winter ! Done the middle of summer so pretty !!!:
Central Park South // [source]
I walked east to the library (the lions! I stood still for a moment, like a returning solider catching my first glimpse of home) and then I turned up Fifth Avenue -- streetlamps on, still fairly busy, though it was emptying out for the night -- up to Central Park South. As tired as I was, and cold, still my heart stiffened to see the Park, and I ran across Fifty-Seventh (Street of Joy!) to the leafy darkness. The smells, the shadows, even the dappled pale trunks of the plane trees lifted my spirits. 
//
Everything blazing, everything sweet. They were playing old Bob Dylan, more than perfect for narrow Village streets close to Christmas and the snow whirling down in big feathery flakes, the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with you arm around a girl on an old record cover.
~ both from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Often have I attempted to explain the brilliance of The Goldfinch; always have I failed. You guys know how much I love that book, because after all I never shut up about it, do I? One of its myriad beautiful qualities is the wonderful, vivid settings. New York, New York.
I love New York. You can pop out of the Underworld in Central Park, hail a taxi, head down Fifth Avenue with a giant hellhound loping along behind you, and nobody even looks at you funny.
~ Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

 I have a proper thing for characters who love their hometowns -- it really endears me to them -- and one of my favourite things about the Percy Jackson series is how much he loves New York.


2. PARIS

Hotel de Ville de Paris, France:
Hotel de Ville // [source]
One of my (many) favourite things about Les Mis was how awfully much Victor Hugo loves Paris. Just as I love characters who love their cities/countries/homes, I love to read authors writing settings that they clearly love themselves. He loves every inch of Paris, the people, the streets, the sewage system ...
Paris is a sum total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. All this prodigious city is an epitome of dead and living manners and customs. He who sees Paris, seems to see all history through with the sky and constellations in the intervals.

3. FINLAND

Pispala, Tampere, Finland:
Pispala, Tampere // [source]
This is the newest addition to my list, brought to my attention by Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.
There were forests on both sides of the highway. He got the impression that the whole country was covered, from one end to the other, by a rich green. Most of the trees were white birch, with occasional pines, spruce, and maples. ... The air felt purer here than in Helsinki, like it was freshly made. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the white birches, and the boat made an occasional clatter as it slapped against the pier. Birds cried out somewhere, with clear, concise calls.
I went into this book fully expecting to get wanderlust for Japan, where it's mostly set, but the descriptions (or rather, bland non-descriptions) of Tokyo and Nagoya had no effect on me. I think that was maybe the point. In contrast, Tsukuru's trip to Finland was vivid and beautiful and I want one.


4. LONDON

Trafalgar Square.   ** Busy as always. Great shot with the buses in the middle ground.:
Trafalgar Square // [source]
Along with New York this is the place on this list I've visited. Like New York, I'd love to live there for a bit. Unlike New York, I actually made the most of my time there (you can read about my most recent exploits here and here).

I think the first books that made me desperate to visit were the Threads trilogy by Sophia Bennett (which I LOVE). They're set in London. The main characters just casually meet up in the V&A! My V&A dreams were realised once in 2012 when I visited an exhibition of ballgowns (I died. Repeatedly) but I want to go again and again and again!

More recently JK Rowling's crime series, the Cormoran Strike novels, have incited my London love. Cormoran loves London a lot and the settings are so vividly described. Take me there.


5. PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Lupins and phlox flowers, Clinton, Prince Edward Island by John Sylvester.:
[source]
You know, because I frigging never shut up about them, that I'm obsessed with I really love the Anne of Green Gables series by LM Montgomery. And, amongst the trillion reasons to love them, the setting towers!

The rocky red shores of Prince Edward Island Canada [OC] [4896x3264]:
[source]
Montgomery loves PEI. Anne loves PEI. The descriptions of the scenery are stunning. I have heard Canada is an amazingly beautiful country and I want to go there so badly.
It was a shore that knew the magic and mystery of storm and star. There is a great solitude about such a shore. The woods are never solitary -- they are full of whispering, beckoning, friendly life. But the sea is a mighty soul, forever moaning of some great, unshareable sorrow, which shuts it up into itself for all eternity. We can never pierce its infinite mystery -- we may only wander, awed and spell-bound, on the outer fringe of it. The woods call to us with a hundred voices, but the sea has only one -- a mighty voice that drowns our souls in its majestic music. The woods are human, but the sea is the company of the archangels.
~ Anne's House of Dreams 


6. AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam, The Netherlands:
[source]
I was too disoriented by my surroundings to listen very closely and with almost painfully heightened senses I stirred at the potato mess with my fork and felt the strangeness of the city pressing in all around, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, cafe walls the melancholy brown of an old leatherbound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel, the cobblestoned loneliness of a city that felt -- to me, anyway -- like a place where you might come to let the water close over your head.
Amsterdam- would love to live here! It is beautiful in the winter but it's too cold for me!:
[source]

Bells, bells. the streets were white and deserted. Frost glittered on tiled rooftops; outside, on the Herengracht, snow danced and flew. A flock of black birds was cawing and swooping over the canal, the sky was hectic with them, great sideways sweeps and undulations as a single, intelligent body, eddying to and fro, and their movement seemed to pass into me on almost a cellular level, white sky and whirling snow and the fierce gusting wind of poets.

~ both from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Well, if you thought we'd get through a post with only one mention of The Goldfinch, YOU WERE MISTAKEN! Basically I want to visit all the European cities. But, Amsterdam, man. 


7. BARCELONA

La Rambla
La Rambla // [source]
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Mónica in a wreath of liquid copper.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a really great book and it very much put Barcelona on my radar. I've been to Spain twice, once to Madrid -- a short and exceptionally badly organised school trip, but enough to make me desperate to go back -- and once to the beautiful coastal town of Roses. We flew to Barcelona for that holiday ... but driving out of the city by night does not count.

Catedral de Barcelona - I loved the courtyard here, not many cathedrals have courtyards with geese and palm trees!:
Barcelona Cathedral // [source]
You guys know I'm a tad obsessed with cathedrals.
Anyway, Shadow is a wonderful gothic novel set in 1945. Whilst I cannot visit that Barcelona, I'd love to see today's city of art, architecture and culture.


8. WALES

Precipice Walk, Barmouth. Wales, UK by Howard Somerville:
Barmouth // [source]
This is a weird one, because who wants to go to Wales, right? No one, that's who, it's wet and full of sheep. In Britain it's considered the boring tiny part of the UK that we don't really talk about. At least, that's what I thought ... until I read How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.
In and out of the sunlight, under the shadow of the trees, into their coolnesses, where leaf mould was soft with richness and held a whispering of the smells of a hundred years that had grown and gone, through the lanes of wild rose that were red with blown flower, up past the flowering berry bushes, through the pasture that was high to the knees, and clinging, and that hissed at us with every step, up beyond the mossy rocks where the little firs made curtseys, and up again, to the briars, and the oaks, and the elms, where there was peace, and the sound of grasshoppers striking their flints with impatience, and birds playing hide and seek, and the sun blinding hot upon us, and the sky, plain bright blue.
This is one of my all time top 5 favourite books, though I feel like I rarely talk about it. It's unreasonably beautiful and wonderful and passionate and compelling and all the adjectives, OK? OK.
There is a look in the eyes of a man in love that will have you in fits unless you are in love yourself. If you are, you will feel something move inside you to be of help to him, to try and have him happy even if there is no chance for you.

This look was in his eyes. You will see part of it in the eyes of sheep fastened to the board and waiting for the knife. The other part you will only see in the eyes of a good man who has put his heart in the hands of a girl. It is a light that is rarely of the earth, a radiance that is holy, a warming, happy agony that do shine from inside and turn what it touches into something of paradise.
That one wasn't even about the scenery. Couldn't resist. I have an intense craving to reread this book.

9. THE AMAZON

Sacha Lodge, Ecuador:
Sacha Lodge, Ecuador // [source]
Do we have any Eva Ibbotson fans in the room? She was one of my favourite authors when I was younger -- HER BOOKS ARE SO GOOD -- and Journey to the River Sea is an adventure along the Amazon. I can't remember that much about the book, except desperately wanting to make the journey myself. As of February I am a denizen of South America (I went to Chile), but I want to go back and go everywhere!


10. VENICE

Canal in Venice:
[source]
Prague sits at the very top of my European Bucket List (and just general travel bucket list, in fact), but Venice is a close second. For one thing I'm obsessed with the idea of Italy, especially ITALIAN ART HOLD ME (and Italian FOOD hello), and Venice is a city built on water. !!!

Bridge of Sighs, Venice, Italy  Just visited its namesake in Oxford :) <-- as have I! Last week!:
Bridge of Sighs // [source]
But even before I was wise about Venetian art and culture, I read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, and it was incredible (cannot wait to return to her books this year!). This may be the book from this list I read longest ago, so I think it's fair to say Venice is my original Bookish Wanderlust destination.

If only I had an unlimited budget, eh?

~***~

What's been on your travel bucket list for longest? Did a book do it to you? Are there any places you've visited because of books? Tell me your stories!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

God and Magic

God and magic. Did your eyes just catch fire with horror because I put those two words in one sentence?* That's why I'm writing this post.

*OK but you should probably go to the hospital. Not that you can read this any more because your eyes are on fire. So it's a pointless footnote. So I'll stop now.

Many Christians have many opinions on many topics, but honestly, the majority probably don't have strong opinions on magic in books. (I mean, who even reads fantasy, right? It's a weird genre.) But here within the world of the bookworm, it is a subject that raises hackles.


I've lost count of the number of people who've told me that this book or that book was banned from their house when they were a kid, because of magic. I've met Christians who've told me they've not read Harry Potter because their parents wouldn't let them. Heck, I actually once found a book (in a very weird secondhand bookshop in Singapore) written to defend Harry Potter from the attacks of Christian parents. It's a touchy topic! I'm not saying I know better than these parents -- I mean, they've raised a kid, what have I raised? Some very badly behaved dogs and a few cakes -- but I would like to explain my own position: that God and fantasy books can go together; that magic in fiction can glorify him.

The Bible has got a bit to say about magic, namely, don't do it.
[the pagans of Babylon] stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have laboured from your youth ... Those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you. Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame." (Isaiah 47:12-14)
These people put their trust in sorcery rather than in God, and it's pretty clear where that will end up. “The fire consumes them"; here God is making the point that magic is dangerous. You may be blinking slightly and muttering, “but Emily, you don't actually believe in magic, surely?" And no, I don't, not Harry Potter magic anyway (much as I wish it were real). But I do believe that the Devil has extensive and dark power. He, like God, is a supernatural being, and in the New Testament we see many examples of people infested by supernatural darkness. Jesus calls out various demons in the gospel. You may think that possession doesn't happen anymore -- if you're not a Christian, you probably don't believe it ever happened -- and it's true that messing around with ouija boards or dark magic" or whatever is probably a load of baloney and therefore harmless. But equally, we should be careful!


I think that this presence of dark power in the world is the reason Christian parents are nervous of magic in books. Let's take Harry Potter (my go-to example, apparently). The magic in that series is a neutral force, neither good nor evil, and Rowling clearly shows her characters using magic for good. But what if a kid reads those books and says, aha, I want to be a wizard like Harry, too!", and goes online and searches for spells and finds themselves in horrible dark parts of the internet, being encouraged to use ouija boards and speak to the dead, etc.? It isn't Harry Potter itself that is the problem, but rather the type of thinking and/or activity to which it could lead.

However, I have a quibble with this type of thinking, which is this. The basic argument there is that if a book is going to lead a reader to sin, they shouldn't read the book. But if you're going to say that, you need to ban pretty much every book ever. The Great Gatbsy is one of my favourites (“Emily, we know!" you cry. “Shut up about it for five seconds!"), but it is all about corruption, adultery, etc, etc. A book doesn't need magic to make it sinful. Any book about human beings is going to do that very well on its own.

I'm not saying that makes the sin in these books OK. Of course I'm not. And of course we need to be discerning about the books we read. I'm not saying that, if you know Fifty Shades of Grey is about sexual sin, that means you're OK to read it. The books we read do shape our thinking and if a book is pushing a particular worldly agenda that's going to infect our own minds. This is why as Christians we need to draw the line when it comes to certain books, films and TV shows. But equally, you have a brain. You know how to be discerning. In all honesty, it's probably far more damaging for you to read about teenagers having sex, than to read a kids' fantasy book with magic in it. But I have read and do read and have greatly enjoyed books of both those types, and that is because I've been taught to be discerning. I know that the sex outside of marriage is wrong, and I also know that I shouldn't dabble in magic.

But does that mean that magic is a sin that should be put on the Wrong List with all the other sins? That's not what I mean, either! Think about CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien. They were both Christians and they both wrote fantasy. How do we equate the two?


In Narnia, God's presence is very clear. Aslan = Jesus, and he speaks of “my father across the sea", that is, God the Father. We have no doubt that God created Narnia. That means that he also created magic, talking animals, dryads, the whole shebang, and that idea makes some Christians bristle. But this is what I think.

In our world, “all the trees of the fields will clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12) is a metaphor. The trees are not going to clap their hands. (They don't have hands.) But in a book, you can, as it were, shift the balance of metaphor and reality. By doing this you bring metaphors into reality, so that the scene described here -- sentient trees -- really takes place. It's magic. But, in that world, magic is not an evil force, but rather part of creation. He is, after all, a supernatural God, with supernatural power. In our world he chose not to create magic -- maybe to draw a clearer line between our power and his power. (As a side note, it is important not to have magician characters playing God.) That's how we know that the supernatural in this world is part of Satan's power. But in the fantasy world of a book, why not? God is my creator, and since I'm the creator of my book and its fantasy world, he sort of created it, too. In my book there is a God, and he made everything, including magic. It is not something to fear, but a way of glorifying him.

~***~

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Wretcheds

Here is a small fact:* I am irretrievably in love with Les Mis, musical and book.

Since last summer, “Les Mis retelling" has been bouncing around my head, but retelling the French Revolution seems a bit tricky, by which I mean, stupid and inconceivable, so LesMisBook has remained shrouded in dust, silently festering in the back of my mind.

*This is a reference and I hope you got it.

Starting Sparks: a monthly link-up for sparking your writerly creativity, hosted by Ashley @ [insert title here] and myself. For the nitty-gritty, head on up to the Starting Sparks page.
The May Starting Sparks prompt. I'm not exactly sure why this prompt called me back to LesMisBook, but it has happened and I am actually rather ecstatic. I had more fun writing this short story than I've had with a non-novel project in a long, long time.
Disclaimer: you don't need to know anything about Les Mis or its plot, really. It doesn't even feature heavily in the story. (Though, if you are a Les Mis geek, you can fangirl with me.)

Les misérables is a French phrase that does not translate well into English. It carries a sense of unhappiness, obviously, but also of societal breakdown, of the down-and-outs and the outcasts in a social group. Can be translated the wretcheds

~***~

The Wretcheds 

The day after I made a fool of myself concerning Jonathan Holcroft was the day the cast list went up. Jonathan bloody Holcroft, running through me like a disease as I braved the squall between station and school, hands deep in anorak and thoughts deeper in darkness. I felt rotten, groggy from too little sleep and raw after what had happened, and now I was here, for this rehearsal I couldn’t care less about, scowling through the corridors to the dim hall where a crowd bunched around the sad typed page on the wall. 

Heads jostled in front of me, and the thought of pushing through those rain-damp shoulders, past those bodies likely unshowered after last night, those people I mostly didn’t like and didn’t want to see, made me feel sick. So I stood there, waiting, eyes scanning the heads in front of me and pretending I wasn’t looking for anyone. But Jonathan bloody Holcroft wasn’t there, because why would he be, for a Sunday morning rehearsal? Why would he be, when he thinks the world was created for him, and we his devoted serfs? What possible reason would he have to grace us with his presence? 

You are his devoted serf, an infuriating voice said. 

Shut up, brain, shut up. 

An inane face turned to me – a boy called Kieran, the kind of boy who multiplies in schools with dirty floors and faulty lights like this one. “Cheer up, Nina, it might not happen!” 

I tried to rearrange my thunderstorm face, without overwhelming success. 

“Yeah!” His friend, David – was it David? – turned too, Kieran’s smile on his vapid face. His gelled hair looked obnoxiously perky – what right had it to stand so tall this early in the morning? He was grinning and prattling about something useless, the kind of Type A Nice Guy whose conversation makes me want to scream. If you were attracted to nice guys you’d be better off, my mind advised me. But no, you had to pick Jonathan. 

David was still talking. “Yeah, you’ve got a part!” 

“Oh,” was all I could think to say. 

They parted, a Red Sea of hoodies, and there the list was, not quite straight on the noticeboard. 


        EPONINE – Nina Seth 


“It should have an accent,” I said without thinking. 

“What?” said Kieran. 

“Éponine, it should … oh, it doesn’t matter!” My thoughts were chasing in circles and a headache was pounding behind my eyes, and I should have been glad, so glad, for my favourite part in my favourite musical, but I was in school at the weekend, which is never a good sign, and I was tired, and heartsick, and furious with myself for being heartsick, and these ridiculously nice boys wouldn’t know Victor Hugo if he gave them the uppercut they so desperate needed, and— 

And there, flashing, beacon-like, commanding my attention: 


        MARIUS – Jonathan Holcroft 


Of course he would have a main part. Of course, it was to be expected. But Marius? My Marius, my unrequited lover? It made me want to kick something. Or someone. I could imagine it already, the exquisite break in his voice, A heart full of love, while I waited, seething, in the shadows, Every word that he says is a dagger in me … His voice, his face, were pulsating behind my eyes, and I couldn’t erase him as I’d seen him the night before. I could feel the dull flush as I saw him there, the blinking lights of an unfamiliar bathroom, the infuriating tears pricking my eyes. I never cry. I wanted to scream. 

Kieran and David and their clones were drifting away, and I leant against the wall with shut eyes. Now was the moment to check my phone, a generational reflex action for every pause, but what would I find? A text from Beth, apologising? No chance. That was the worst part, the part that really made me want to shriek with rage; that I had no right to be angry, because I’d told Beth, again and again, that I didn’t like him. So really, she had done nothing wrong, and the resentment I felt was poisonous and unfair. 

She’s your best friend, some rationale told me, or at least she was – she should be able to tell. 

I can’t expect her to read my mind, I told myself. 

Dimly I could hear footsteps clacking, high heels on the laminate floor. I looked up. Heeled brown boots, skinny jeans, fitted shirt, head of blonde curls and a perfect lip glossed sneer. 

I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue. Grunted in pain. 

“Hi, Nina,” she said brightly. 

Not you, damn it. Anyone but you. I was halfway to a midlife crisis in the Geography corridor, and as if Beth and Jonathan weren’t ghosts enough around me, here she was, immaculate in her Hollister, proud topper of the long list of girls I couldn’t stand. I moved my hand, the distant cousin of a wave, the rock-bottom minimum of politeness. If that. 

“Oh, you’ve got a part, good for you. I wonder if …” 

I looked up, back to the cast list I’d been ignoring, and knew it straight away. She was every smiling soprano I’d ever learned to loathe, and there she was, my opposite number. 


         COSETTE – Verity Locke 


Verity Locke, pink jumper wearer and professional ice queen, the Cosette to my Éponine. How many nights had I made fun of her with Beth, how many days had I glared her down in the corridors? Verity Locke as Cosette, Jonathan Holcroft as Marius, and me in the middle, slap bang like an unwanted Christmas present. I rammed my foot against the wall, and Verity smiled. 

“You were at Katie’s last night, weren’t you?” she said. “Did you know Beth and Jonathan kissed?” 

Through gritted teeth I said, “Beth’s my best friend, of course I know.” 

“Oh.” Her smile widened. “Only, I heard you left without her, so I wondered if maybe you guys were fighting.” 

Seeing them entwined on the sofa, I stumbled to the bathroom, and when I returned Beth was looking for me. Across the room I caught Jonathan’s eye and that was the look, that brief look, that was flickering over and over again like a camera shutter. I wasn’t sure what I said to Beth, exactly, but I booked a taxi with hurt and angry fingers and fell into the welcome cold of the night. I was meant to be staying with her but I couldn’t bear the thought. So came the dark drive through rain-smeared, orange-lit streets, the scraping together of change I hadn’t known I’d need, the the slumping on the doorstep realising I’d not got my key. I had to phone my mother, there at 1am, and she came to the door with a nightgown and a livid expression. 

“I thought you were staying at Beth’s!” 

After the stupid excuses I fell into bed, but sleep took a long time. I kept replaying it, a film I couldn’t turn off, Jonathan bloody Holcroft flashing in my head like an never-ending TV advert. 

Verity Locke was smiling at me with her perfect pink mouth. 

“Nope,” I said. 

“Right.” She looked back at the cast list. “And Jonathan’s Marius, ha, that’s funny. Well.” She gave me a conspiratorial smile. “Not bad, for my romantic lead.” 

I forced my teeth into what probably came out a grimace. “Rather you than me.” 

She gave me a long look, probing me with her snake eyes. Eventually she laughed, a pretty laugh like a bell. It carried a note of victory. “See you, Éponine,” she said, and clacked off. 

In the school bathroom I looked in the mirror and wished I hadn’t. My hair glowered back at me. I thought, irresistibly, of the bathroom at Katie’s house, where I’d splashed my face with water to quench the ridiculous tears threatening me. My make-up had run, a nightmare black in the glass, and that was the face Jonathan saw when he gave me that look. What was it? Pity? Triumph? Maybe it was just another edit of the Jonathan Bloody Holcroft Brand, Registered Trademark, an arrogant quirk of the lips to the match the stupid quirk of his hair. I left the school bathroom scowling. 

In the hall the music teacher was playing the overture. Do you hear the people sing? I could hear nothing but the chatter of inane students, and above it the cruel laugh of Verity Locke. The drama teacher clapped her hands for silence. 

“Right, guys, can the principles come onstage? Valjean, Javert, Fantine …” She counted them off, a straggle of tired-looking students. I despised them all. I wanted to go to bed with tea and Netflix, but here I was in the draughty hall, nails digging into my palms, Jonathan bloody Holcroft an absence yawning in the crowd. 

“Cosette, Éponine …” Verity Locke gave me a smile as we climbed onstage. She was small, a good three inches below me even in her boots, but she carried herself like an Amazonian. 

Damn her. 

The drama teacher frowned. “Marius? Where is Jonathan? Oh, well, it doesn’t matter today, I suppose …” 

I slumped into line beside Verity, catching a waft of her shampoo. My phone sat silently, no text from Beth, and my headache throbbed with the piano. 

Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? 

I scowled as Verity’s soprano rose above me, Cosette in every fibre of her shiny-haired, manipulating being. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again, but what was I if not a slave to this school and these people and this stupid, unshakeable attraction to Jonathan bloody Holcroft? Shut up, shut up, I shouted at myself, but I couldn’t mute my mind. 

The drama teacher cut us off and broke into a lecture at Kieran or David or similar. They had been sniggering through the song, a joke about girls, I bet, or whatever other miniscule pleasure buzzed in their miniscule minds. Verity’s nails lay perfect on the pockets of her jeans, tips pearly white. I wanted to break every one of them. As the piano struck up again I stifled a groan. This was going to be the worst term of my life.

~***~

That was tremendous fun; I love Nina already! TCATT is in first person, but apart from that I never write in it, because it feels weird and disloyal to Corrie? So this is actually quite a big deal. 

When I conceived the idea it was going to be an Awesome Girl Power story in which, Wicked-style, the girls who hate each other become best pals and it's all beautiful. However, that only lasted for approx five seconds before Jonathan Bloody Holcroft (shall we call him JBH?) took over, as he's obviously so good at doing. For about three sentences I was thinking that Nina would Rise Above and come out A Strong Independent Woman Who Don't Need No Man, but I have to admit I already quite fancy JBH. You'd think I'd go for the quiet, bookish ones, wouldn't you, the introverts who have glasses and read Keats? I'd think that too, but here's a fun fact for you, with only one exception, every single guy I've ever had a crush on has been an extrovert, normally the more obnoxious the better. So JBH is right up my street and I have to say I'm already shipping him with Nina. She's a sarcastic little so-and-so, and so is he!

They're perfect for each other!
Not that I'm willing to give up the Verity storyline, because I would fight tooth and claw for what is clearly (?) going to be a beautiful friendship, but equally, two I-Hate-You-But-End-Up-Loving-You relationships might be a bit much for one book?

I'm talking as if I don't have three other novels to write before this one could possibly get a look-in. Also, unlike my other projects, this is 100% fluff, which I have no idea how to do. So we'll see about that. Somehow, though, I feel like Nina and JBH want to stick around. They're certainly loud and annoying enough. 

In other news, I started the fourth draft of TCATT yesterday.


But more on that in the future. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this story, and if you'd like to link up with Starting Sparks, we'd love to have you along!

~***~

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Story of My Life (+ Giveaway Winner)


“A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.”
~ CS Lewis

In the dim and distant shadows of the half-forgotten past, Sunny from A Splash of Ink sent my way a tag of her creation, the Children's Books Tag. It has a simple premise:

What books did you read as a child?

I am a huge believer that all the books I've read have shaped me, as a person and as a writer, so today I am going to throw some appreciation on the favourites that I talk about less often: the children's books.

Thank you to Sunny for the tag! Also, you should definitely go and read her blog because she's awesome and shares lovely things about books and writing, and her picture skills are like WHOA, and also her header is the prettiest I've ever seen, which is reason enough to follow, right?

Even the smell of these books brings back so many memories. The illustrations are the most beautiful things; everything about them is gorgeous, the typeface, the size (they're tiny!), everything. Beatrix Potter was a genius.

I would 
also like to spotlight The Mice of Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem and Oakapple Wood by Jenny Partridge, some other charming books about mice in clothes. The illustrations!

 Also, on the topic of talking animals, The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. I was reading this to my nephew a few weeks ago and it is genius. I don't think there are many better artists or storytellers than Judith Kerr. When we become older, we stop taking magic and talking tigers and nefarious waistcoated mice as a matter of course, but as children we are more than happy to accept these things in books. I think that the key to writing well is, as we grow older, not to lose our sense of wonder in the world, or our love of the magical and the strange.
Speaking of talking animals! A childhood devoid of Narnia is a sad thing to contemplate. It's all part of the same thing, that child's belief that maybe, if you push far enough through the wardrobe's fur coats, you'll find yourself in a magical world on the other side. This is the boundary writers need to break down; we need to keep alive the idea that, through the pages of the book, we can reach those magical times in those far off worlds.
Also, CS Lewis is the master of religion in fiction. As a Christian fantasy writer, he is my gold standard. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical  explanation is that I was made for another world." ~ CS Lewis
All hail the king of the macabre and the strange! A boy who concocts a bizarre growth potion to mutate the animals on his farm and eventually his own grandmother. A giant, mutant peach full of giant, mutant insects. A very definitely mad inventor living shut up in his factory. Bald and terrifying witches who eat children. The more you think about Roald Dahl's books, the creepier they are ... and the more wonderful. It is a truth universally acknowledged that children like to frightened out of their wits, and I can't forget my sense of gleeful dread whenever I read The Witches. Dahl just proves what I've been talking about: that an adult should never lose their fascination with the strange and the unbelievable. He is very near the top of my Dead Authors I'd Give A Limb to Meet list. And his stories for adults are amazing -- like the children's books, but darker.
A lot of people are a bit disparaging about Enid Blighton, because the Famous Five books are a bit tame, but they are also the soundtrack of my childhood! I found them very, very exciting, and they introduced me to gender-balanced character squads, which YA does not always possess (because apparently all trios need to be two boys and one girl). As for The Faraway Tree, it was my favourite book for a time! Yay for magic trees! (My current novel is about magic trees, so along the way Enid Blighton and CS Lewis have obviously been doing something right.) AND I LOVED THE SCHOOL STORIES! I think the first ones I read were The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and then Twins at St Clare's, and then finally (the most famous) Mallory Towers. All the heroines of these books are spunky girls who sometimes lose their tempers but at the end of the day are always Jolly Good Sorts, and there are always midnight feasts and irascible French teachers addressed as Mademoiselle, and catty girls whom everyone dislikes but usually have tragic backstories, so the heroine befriends them (as I said, she's a Jolly Good Sort), and, gah! I'm making myself want to reread!

I just love Enid Blighton and I have no regrets.
Jacqueline Wilson = an essential part of a tweenage British girl's education. Her books cover (almost) everything, and they are so funny, and so often have hilarious sassy narrators, or shy timid narrators, or any kind of narrator ... whoever you are, you can find yourself in Jacqueline Wilson! I distinctly remember my feeling of sadness when, aged fourteen or so, I saw her new book in the library and knew that I was too old to take it out. But from the age of nine to twelve I solidly read through her corpus. Love that woman. My favourites of hers were Midnight and My Sister Jodie, and I would love to reread one day. 

This is also the place to highlight Jean Ure and Cathy Cassidy, two authors in the same vein as Wilson. Out of the three I think Cassidy was my favourite; I loved Scarlet and Dizzy and Cherry Crush and all of them! Agh, this is making me quite nostalgic ...
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery // Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield // Little Women by LM Alcott
(Slowly) rereading the Anne series over the past couple of years has been one of life's true joys. 
PERCY IS AWESOME! Along with Jacqueline Wilson he introduced me to sassy narrators (most children's books are in the third person, have you noticed that?), and also I went through a massive (I mean it) Greek mythology phase because of these books. (I did have friends, I promise.) So, even nowadays, if you need some handy info on the Olympians, I'm your gal. Over the past year I've reread the first five, which has been delightful, and I can't wait to start the second series (which I've never read).
Fantasy! Genre of my heart!
I don't remember much about the Inkheart trilogy, except that involves reading yourself in and out of book worlds, to which I say heck yes! But I'm going to reread them this Christmas. Yay!
I love the Septimus Heap series! They have lots of cool stuff about magic-y lore and alchemy and what-have-you, and are set in a very cool world, and are just generally a top class fantasy series. I never actually finished them -- I fell off the end -- but when I reread I feel my life shall be complete.
THIS TRILOGY!
This is another high fantasy series that has really influenced me. I reread them last Christmas and it was a true experience of joy. I've seen them called “Game of Thrones for youngsters", which is not a bad description, They have: an amazing feisty kick-ass heroine; a lot of brilliant humour; many richly diverse fantasy cultures; LOTS OF BLOOD AND WAR; and also the shipping is real. AND YET, to this day I am the only person I've ever met who has read them. Why?! Why and how?! Somebody do me a favour and get to it with this trilogy. Love, love, love.
THIS SERIES IS MY ONE LOVE. These were the books that introduced me to historical fiction (which I used to love, before I got older and historical fiction turned into historical romance, which I kind of detest with something of a fiery passion), and to my love of the Roman world. Over the past year I've reread the first six and they really are such a delight! The heroine, Flavia, can be bossy but is wonderful, and her friends are marvellous, and though they're little short books each one has an individual mystery which keeps me guessing! I find these as exciting as any adult crime fiction, no word of a lie. And again, the shipping is very very real. Do yourself a favour and read the Roman Mysteries. 
If we're honest with ourselves, there isn't much point in my trying to convey the importance of these books to me. How can I do justice to the characters, the heartstopping plots, the beautiful complexity of a world that is unlike any other? I was recently reading a post on the Perpetual Page Turner about Jamie's first-time reading of the books at 30, and it almost moved me to tears. She said this: “the magic of Harry Potter is that it gives you what you need when you read it." It really resonated with me. On first reading the books aged nine I loved the exciting magical world of Hogwarts, the brilliantly woven stories and the character of Hermione, the bushy-haired, sharp-tongued, clever girl who reminded me so much of myself. Then, when I was twelve, the deaths hit home. Aged fifteen I loved the teenage angst, Harry's first crush on Cho and all the hilarity of that relationship, and the friendships within the Golden Trio, which are sometimes strained but ultimately pull through thick and thin. That reading was also the time I fell madly in love with Fred Weasley, and the time when Hermione's fear of failure hit me hard. Through understanding her character, that was also the time I realised I was not a Ravenclaw as I had vaguely imagined but a Gryffindor. Harry Potter has taught me so much about writing, fantasy, magic, characters, the world and myself, and I will never stop being grateful to these incredible books. I can't wait to read them aged eighteen and see what new thing I discover.
Before my Harry Potter related emotion overwhelms me, I'd like to jump in with one last book, not fiction this time. I will probably always maintain that this is the best book I've ever purchased. I love stories, but you can get stories out of the library. This book, however, has been my companion for nearly ten years and it still never lets me down! If you are at all craftily inclined, JUST BUY THIS BOOK. Osborne is a fount of dreams and this book is air.
Thank you once again to Sunny for this tag! This post has made me both emotional and nostalgic for the books of my childhood. Thank goodness rereading exists. Imagine if there were a rule that we could only read books once. What a cruel dark world that would be. 

ONE LAST THING: Thank you to everyone who entered my fourth blogoversary giveaway, and thanks especially to you lovely lot who filled out the survey! The winner of the giveaway is Debbie K. Congratulations to her!

~***~

So, have you read any of these? Would someone please read the Icemark Chronicles, please?! What resonated with you the last time you read Harry Potter? And what was your favourite book as a child?

Saturday, 7 May 2016

WE WERE LIARS // American Dream Narratives

The American Dream: the belief that anyone can come to America and, with hard work, achieve whatever they want, regardless of background; the ideal that anyone can climb to the top and reach happiness.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
       No one is a criminal.
       No one is an addict.
       No one is a failure.
    The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.
      It doesn't matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn't matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn't matter if there's a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
       It doesn't matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.
       So much
       in love
       that equally desperate measures
       must be taken.
       We are Sinclairs.
       No one is needy.
       No one is wrong.
       We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. 
       Perhaps that is all you need to know.

~***~

Well. I am, without hyperbole, three years late to the We Were Liars party, but after around 736594 bloggers threw this book at my head and demanded I read it, I took their advice. I'm glad I did. We Were Liars is remarkable.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family; welcome to American perfection. On the private island of Beechwood they live their Dream life; the perfectly furnished houses, the picnics on the beach, the golden Labradors and the smiling grandchildren and the sunshine. Harris Sinclair, the patriarch of the family, is the American ideal:
Harris came into his money at twenty-one after Harvard and grew the fortune doing business I never bothered to understand. He inherited houses and land. He made intelligent decisions about the stock market. He married Tipper and kept her in the kitchen and the garden. He put her on display in pearls and on sailboats. She seemed to enjoy it. 
Granddad's only failure was that he never had a son, but no matter. The Sinclair daughters were sunburnt and blessed. Tall, merry, and rich, those girls were like princesses in a fairy tale. They were known throughout Boston, Harvard Yark, and Martha's Vineyard for their cashmere cardigans and grand parties. They were made for legends. Made for princes and Ivy League schools, ivory statues and majestic houses.
He is the Sinclair family, and the Sinclair family is money the world over; the Sinclair family is privilege and entitlement and ancient wealth. The Sinclair family is not the American Dream, because they didn't work for what they have, but in America, the Land of the Free, they may pretend to be. 

The American Dream has been the theme of many “great American novels". The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925) is perhaps the most famous and most important of these, but from the twentieth century until now the trope has never died. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937) tells the story of two migrant workers who want to settle and buy their own farm, but their Dream is thwarted by prejudice, against the disabled, women, and non-white people. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) pictures the American Dream as a construct imposed by the government to create a regulated society that suppresses individualism, in which the authorities control the masses into believing that they have happiness in their worthless lives. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) shows the end point of the Dream, in a post-apocalyptic America where capitalism has burnt itself out and left the world covered in ash, inhabited by cannibals and refugees in the never-ending purgatory of the road. 

We Were Liars shows a family living the Dream of wealth, despite their heartbreak, bitterness and the regret of the past. Because what do you do if the Dream does not live up to its promise? You lie.

Cady, our narrator, tells us she has had “an accident", but she cannot remember what it is, and the family refuse to talk about it, because to admit it would be to admit themselves less than perfect. “Be normal now," her mother tells her. “Right now. Because you are. Because you can be." This symbolises the American Dream's dirty secret; the fact that it cannot admit its flaws, and must build a facade to pretend that everything is ideal.

In The Great Gatsby, this is the Valley of Ashes, where the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight." In contrast to our rich Manhattan MCs, Nick, Gatsby and the Buchanans, the working class toils in the Valley of Ashes, making the capitalist gain of the American Dream possible. They are the underbelly of the Dream; for some to “make it", others must suffer.

That is the flaw and the futility of the American Dream; it is exclusive. It claims to accept all; it claims that anyone can reach the top; but in fact only a select group will ever manage.
“You only know the me on this island, where everyone's rich except me and the staff. Where everyone's white except me, Ginny and Paulo."   
“Who are Ginny and Paulo?" 
Gat hits his fist into his palm. “Ginny is the housekeeper. Paulo is the gardener. You don't know their names and they've worked here summer after summer. That's part of my point."
On Beechwood, Gat Patel is the outsider. He is the nephew of one of the Sinclair daughters' Indian-origin partner. Cady, who loves him, wants to think that all their summers can be perfect, but Gat argues that Harris Sinclair will never accept him because of his colour. The American Dream, Gat says, will not let him to the top, because though it claims to accept all, in reality it has a white ideal which he does not meet. 

I am convinced that Gat is Gatsby's direct heir. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby works hard and makes millions, hoping to be accepted by Daisy Buchanan, the woman he loves. But she is the old-money all-American princess, like the Sinclairs, who, remember, are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive." Gatsby, by contrast, is the son of an immigrant and has come from having no money; his house, whilst extremely lavish, is gaudy in comparison to the Buchanans' Georgian mansion. Unlike their sophisticated taste, Gatsby wears pink suits. However hard he tries, he cannot reach their ideal; the American Dream has promised him everything, but though he makes so much money, he is not truly accepted.

Now, look me in the eye and tell me that E Lockhart wasn't thinking of Gatsby when she named her male lead Gat. I will know you are lying. We Were Liars is The Great Gatsby of the twenty-first century, Gat a reincarnation of Gatsby.

OK, this is where it gets really exciting. I'm going to put the next bit in white because it contains spoilers for both novels, but if you have read them both (and not if you haven't, because you MUST read them both, and spoilers will be a disaster!), highlight it and get excited with me. (This is what my English teacher calls “nerd muttering.") If not, skip merrily down and I'll get excited by myself.

Both Gat and Gatsby are tragic heroes. A tragic hero is one who has a fatal flaw which leads to his death. Gatsby's fatal flaw is that he cannot see the falsity of the American Dream; he can never stop dreaming, and always thinks he can achieve his impossible hopes. At the end of the book he still believes Daisy will love him -- that's why he waits all night for her outside her house, while she colludes with Tom -- and that's why he doesn't turn her in for Myrtle Wilson's death, which in turn is why George Wilson kills him. If he could accept that Daisy won't choose him, he would not die, but he cannot. Gat, meanwhile, recognises the Dream's falsity, but he lets his love for Cady cloud his judgement. The fire is an attempt on their part to burn the inequalities down, so that they can be together, but of course, the fire is also Gat's downfall.

We Were Liars is a beautiful examination of the interplay between privilege and heartbreak, of the lies that we tell ourselves to pretend that everything is fine. I'm not American, so it's hard to say why American Dream narratives resonate so much with me; I think it's because the Dream is, in fact, universal. We all want to hope for something better; we all want to believe that, if we try our hardest, we can reach perfection. We are all disappointed, time and time again.

I realise I've not said much about the plot, or the characters (apart from Gat), or really much at all about We Were Liars, but honestly, it's best to go into it knowing very little. I can tell you that it is stunningly written and stunningly plotted, and though it only took me a day to read it has stayed with me and will stay with me for a very long time. I'm already desperate to reread it, and I think it deserves its place among the very best of American fiction.

~***~