Monthly Archives: August 2013

30 day book challenge – day 3 – The longest book you’ve read.

Les Miserables.

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Oh, that was a slog to get through.  I received the book as a Christmas present, with the intention that I would read it before I saw the film.  The film came out in early January, so that was never going to happen!  I am a quick reader and it took me the best part of a month to complete.

For anyone not familiar with the story, Les Miserables follows Jean Valjean, a man who has completed 19 years hard labour before being granted parole.  A chance encounter with a kindly Bishop gives him the opportunity to turn his life around and walk away from his past.  However, he cannot escape and is dogged by Inspector Javert who is a firm believer in the righteousness of the law.  Valjean ends up on the run in Paris, during a time of great turbulence and civil unrest, doing all he can to evade Javert’s clutches to keep a vow he made to a dying woman many years before.

I don’t mind reading a long book, but I think there is a lot more pressure for the author – the longer the book the more engaging it needs to be because there will come a point when the reader is fatigued and it has to be really good to continue.  I continued with Les Miserables out of pure obstinacy – I hate to give up and I can only think of 3 books that I haven’t managed to finish.

I didn’t enjoy it that much – every time I started to get into it, it would switch into a new part which would invariably start off with chapters and chapters of general history which did not involve any of the characters we had been introduced to.  The characters themselves (with the possible exception of Jean Valjean) did not really come to life in the way that they do in the musical adaptation.  I found Marius and Cosette utterly unbearable in the book, as they completely lacked any substance or principles.

I visited Beijing a few years ago, and I was told then that Chairman Mao said that you are not a man until you have walked along the Great Wall of China.  Well, I walked the wall, it was damn hard and I did feel like I had achieved something at the end.  My feelings towards Les Miserables are similar – I can’t say I enjoyed it much at the time, but I am proud that I didn’t give up.

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30 day book challenge day 2 – Favourite side character.

I struggled a little with this one at first.

I toyed with  Dr. Watson, from the Sherlock Holmes stories but I didn’t think I could truly call him a side character given that he is the narrates all of the stories.

I nearly went for the wonderful creation that is Mrs Danvers from Rebecca.  She is not an obvious choice as there is nothing likeable about her at all.  She is unfriendly, creepy, manipulative, dangerous and unhealthily obsessed with Rebecca, but I love her because she walks right off the page and seems so real.  There is one particular moment in the book when she is trying to plant the idea into the second Mrs De Winter’s head that she should commit suicide.  For me, that is one of the most atmospheric and memorable scenes I have ever read.

In the end, there was only one that could take the mantle of favourite side character…

Neville Longbottom

I have always had such a soft spot for Neville.  He starts off as a bit of a hopeless case – socially awkward and little magical talent (his family thought he was a squib for a long time).  But Neville has the heart of a lion.  In order to be truly brave, you have to be scared.  Neville could easily have been forgiven for wanting to hide in the background and not take a stand against Voldemort given what happened to his parents and his less than impressive magic skills.  But he doesn’t do this.  He has the courage to take a stand, to be loyal to his friends, to put himself in danger to fight for a cause he believes in, and in the end, J K Rowling rightly rewards him with his own moment of glory.  If I had the power to make J K Rowling go back to Harry Potter, it is not what happened to Harry next that I would ask her to write.  I would ask her to tell me the story of that last year in Hogwarts from Neville’s perspective, where he found the courage not only to take a stand himself, but to lead others as well.  Neville Longbottom – I salute you!

 

Day 1 of the 30 day book challenge – book series

A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just end already.

I am probably a bit of a bandwagon jumper when it comes to reading book series.  I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until a few months before the 5th book was published.  Twilight, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials and Steig Laarson’s Millennium trilogy, were all complete series before I opened any of the books.  I missed out on a lot of the hype waiting for the new instalments to be published, but I also did get to enjoy the entire series all in one sitting back to back.

However, there is one series that I am currently reading, which I wish I think ticks both of the boxes: Game of Thrones (or a Song of Ice and Fire to use it’s proper name).

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I love the series.  It is ambitious and complex and epic.  I am in total admiration of George R R Martin’s level of detail of the story and the history of the story in particular.  He has created a fantasy world in which every noble house and region has its own culture, traditions, history, rivalries and motivations.  He keeps track of these brilliantly.  He keeps us readers on our toes with so many shocking moments that we would never have predicted.  There have been times where I have had to put the book down for a couple of days because I am so taken aback by what has happened that I need to build myself up to read on.

I had vaguely been aware of these books through the TV series and because a friend of mine read them.  I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels and so I didn’t really consider reading them myself until I read an article in a magazine on holiday one year.  The paragraph that caught my eye was saying that fans of the series were worried that George R R Martin would not live to complete it (he is 64).  A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, was published in 1996.  17 years on and we are onto book 5 of 6, with the next instalment due out next year.  I started reading the series last year and I feel for those really devoted fans who picked it up at the beginning.

Whilst his level of detail is admirable, it also slows everything down.  The cast of characters is already phenomenally large and growing – new faces are being introduced faster than he can kill them off.  It does make it a bit hard to follow at times, and can be frustrating when you are really getting into a character’s story and then it is suddenly cut off until the next book.  So I wish this series would come to an end – I am desperate to know what is going to happen and I want it all to happen quicker.

But, this is also a book series that I want to go on longer.  The events depicted in the series are ultimately the consequence of a previous war in which the ruling family were overthrown.  This previous war is not part of the series, but it is referred to a lot and so we are given the basic story.  Every time it is mentioned in the books, I always think that it would make an absolutely brilliant prequel.  The Song of Ice and Fire series is more than enough to be going on with for now.  But I know when we do eventually reach the end, I will be wishing for that prequel.

…and starting a reading challenge

I have been really enjoying reading the posts from the 30 day book challenge by Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic and The Day Dreaming, Candy Eating, Red Headed Bookworm and so I have decided to join in!

The idea is that I will post a new blog every day for the next 30 days answering a given question.  The full list of the questions can be found here on Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic.

I’m really excited about this.  I absolutely love reading books, talking about books, thinking about books – anything book related, and so this challenge is right up my street.  Feel free to join in with any comments or suggested reading!  My first post will be about a book series and will follow tomorrow.

One week in – changing my writing challenge…

I set myself the challenge of not losing creativity during the working week by setting aside time every day to complete a writing exercise.  You can read the blog about this here.

One of my aims had been to post the results of the daily exercise into this blog.  However, after completing 4 exercises in a row about about opening lines, I realised that simply posting the outcome of the exercises is not going to make for very interesting content.

So I am going to have to be a little bit more creative.

Instead of simply posting the exercises into the blog, I am going to use them as a starting point to inspire short stories, which I will post instead.  I am still going to set aside the time and complete a new exercise every day, but I will use this as a starting point rather than as an aim in itself.

When I defined myself as an aspiring writer, I said I wanted to create finished stories, adopt writing routines, maintain my creativity, feel more comfortable in sharing my writing and work on improving my writing.

It seems to me that using the writing exercises from my writing challenge to create new characters and stories is a much better way for me to achieve those aims, rather than treating it like a homework exercise which I will complete and then forget about.  It will take me longer to create stories to post, but hopefully it will make for more interesting blog posts and it  be more beneficial to my writing in the long run.  Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to open the door on the host of characters who are currently tapping away, looking for a way out.

Is the book always better? Film and TV adaptations

I am one of those people who will almost always insist that a book is better than a film adaptation.  If there is a film or TV series coming out that I want to see which is based on a book, I will always read the book first.  I find reading a book is such an intensely personal experience – the writer gives me the characters and the settings which then live in my imagination.  My own experience of a book and interpretation of the characters and events is mine alone, and will not be exactly the same as anyone else.  That is what makes talking about books such a joy – we can discuss and share and analyse and disagree about books for hours, and no one will be wrong.  The writer has given us a gift which belongs to each of us individually, but which we can all collectively enjoy.

A film or TV adaptation is such a different experience.  We are presented with the director’s interpretation of the story and we lose some of the individuality of the experience.  I want to form my own views and opinions of the characters and the story, and that is why I always want to read the book first – I don’t want to just picture the actors and settings from the film when reading a book that has been adapted.

But sometimes, there will come along a film or TV adaptation that is every bit as good as the original book.  Here are some of my favourites:-

1. Parade’s End

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It is actually Parade’s End that inspired this post.  I have just finished watching the DVD of the BBC series, which I think was a fabulous adaptation of the book.  I will post a separate book review of Parade’s End as it is one of my favourite reads of the year so far.  I did feel the ending of the adaptation was a little rushed but still beautifully done.  Benedict Cumberbatch really brought out Tietjens vulnerable side, but Rebecca Hall as his cruel wife Sylvia absolutely stole the show.  I don’t think that they could have cast that role any better.

2. Revolutionary Road

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This novel surprised me.  I picked it up for a bargain price having vaguely heard of the film as Kate Winslet had been nominated for an Oscar.  It blew me away.  It was a really intimate portrayal of a struggling couple in suburban America in the 1950s.  I was left wondering by the end of it why I had never heard of this novel before and why it wasn’t part of the syllabus to study in school.  I caught the film later, and I loved the book so much, the bar was suddenly set very high for the film.  It did not disappoint.  Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were both outstanding, and they really captured the struggle of this couple with banality and the realisation they were not the people they had hoped to be.

3. Game of Thrones

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These books are fantastic for their sheer ambition, and for all of the twists and turns that you just don’t see coming.  However, the pace of the books can sometimes be quite slow as there is a huge cast of characters and numerous sub-plots to try to keep track of.  The TV adaptation takes all of the best bits  of the books, cuts out everything that is unnecessary and condenses it into a really exciting and well paced series.  Not all of the characters are portrayed in the same way as I see them in my head, but it is incredibly well written and well acted.

4. Les Miserables

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I have seen the film adaptation of this and an amateur production, and then I read the book.  It is a huge book at 1200 pages plus appendices.  On the whole, I far preferred the musical version both on film and on stage.  I skipped parts of the book, as there was a lot of chapters dealing with general history rather than progressing the narrative.  I found the characters of Marius and Cosette to lack substance in the book; in particular Cosette, who was portrayed as a silly little girl.  The wonderfully comic Thernadiers only really came to life for me in the musical adaptation.  I think I can safely say that I will not re-read Les Miserables, but I am now desperate to see the West End show.

In spite of these gems, I do on the whole much prefer the reading experience to the film/TV experience.  My least favourite adaptations are:-

1. The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights for British readers)

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I absolutely loved Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and Lyra Belaqua is one of my all time favourite characters.  The world of daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, dust and gobblers was so rich and full of imagination that I thought it would be fantastic on the big screen and I really looked forward to the adaptation.  Unfortunately for me, it fell completely flat.  There is a lot going on in the book and perhaps too much to comfortably fit into one film.  As a result, the whole thing felt rushed.  I also felt that the film shied away from some of the darker aspects of the book, and there is one particular incident that drives Lyra throughout the next two instalments in the trilogy which was totally left out of the film version.  I was so disappointed in this adaptation and I am not surprised at all that the sequels have not materialised.

2. The Da Vinci Code

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I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code the first time I read it for it’s original and controversial storyline.  However, there is a lot of information to be conveyed in the book which does make it a bit wordy at times and slows down the narrative.  I thought the film adaptation would be a really good opportunity to move away from the book a little and create something with a bit more pace.  However, the adaptation sticks very closely to the book and so it is slow.  I really feel like this was an opportunity missed to create something really special.

3. Harry Potter

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This is maybe a controversial one, because I think the Potter films are loved about as much as the books.  But I really loved the books and the Hogwarts world that J K Rowling gave to me was absolutely precious.  Not one of the characters in the films came anywhere near the characters that I had in my head.  The closest was Lucius Malfoy in the Chamber of Secrets – I thought the actor playing him would have made a fantastic Snape (blond hair aside).  The worst for me were Voldemort and Dobby.  I have seen all of the films and I am now scared to re-read the books in case the films have now taken over my world created from the books.

Whether it is a hit or a miss, film/TV adaptations and books go hand in hand.  If a book is a huge hit (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey) then Hollywood will follow with a film adaptation.  Sometimes lesser well known stories will be picked up and adapted which will then in turn increase the readership of the book.  If there is a book that I have read and enjoyed then I will always be pleased to see that it has been adapted to (hopefully) give me another chance to enjoy it all over again in a different medium.  There is one book on my bookshelf (Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant) that I am desperate for someone to adapt into a film, because I think it is a fantastic story which should be more widely read.

I am a total bookworm so I think I will always be a “book is better” girl, but whatever my opinion on the final product, I am glad that these adaptations are made to bring great works of fiction to new audiences, and hopefully inspire some of them to pick up a book and discover these worlds for themselves.

Where were you last night?

The exercises that I’m completing in my writing challenge are still focused on beginnings.  Today, the exercise was to write from a given opening line.  Here is my effort – it is free written, totally unplanned and unedited:

“Where were you last night?”

I opened the fridge door and peered inside, buying some time.  That sounded casual enough, I thought, but I could hear the trap behind the words.

“Hannah?  I said, where were you last night?”

Definitely a hint of warning this time.  Sighing deeply, I straightened my back and came out of the fridge holding a shrivelled orange in one hand and an out of date yoghurt in the other.

“Why is there never any food in this house?” I asked, walking past her and sitting down at the table.  She didn’t reply this time, but the question hovered between us, choking the air like humidity before a storm.

I dug my fingernails into the orange rind, pulling out tiny chunks as a time and dropping them onto the glass table top.

“I think you know where I was,” I mumbled, staring down at my pickings.  She didn’t respond.  I looked up and she was staring at me, stony faced, no flicker of reaction at my words.

“What? No lecture?” I leaned backwards in my chair, folding my arms across my chest.  I reeked of orange.

“I told you what would happen if you went back there again,” she said quietly.  She stood up and walked towards the door.  Without turning back to look at me, she said “you can go and pack your bags now.”

She didn’t even slam the door when she left the room, or raise her voice.  I hurled the orange at her retreating back, tears pricking my eyes.  I think I hit her but she didn’t turn around.  My mother really was done with me this time.

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

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I first discovered Emma Donoghue when I read the wonderfully written but disturbing Room.  I was blown away by how she was able to create and maintain such an authentic voice for a child whilst allowing us to understand the true horror of his situation, of which he himself was completely unaware.

Since then I have kept an eye out in libraries and charity shops for anything else by Emma Donoghue, and that is how I found Slammerkin.

Even if I hadn’t like Emma Donoghue as an author, Slammerkin would have appealed to me.  It is the story of Mary, a teenage girl growing up in 18th century London.  After being cast out by her mother and step-father at the age of 14, Mary is forced into a life of prostitution.  Suffering ill health, she seeks refuge in the Magdalen Hospital for Reformed Prostitutes, before fleeing to Monmouth to seek a position in the household of her mother’s oldest friend.

One thing I love about Emma Donoghue’s novels is her characterisation.  This is no exception.  Mary is incredibly well drawn and I found myself feeling very maternal towards her.  She is flawed, as she has an unshakeable belief that she will better herself.  This shapes her relationships with and attitude towards the other characters, and leads her into some big mistakes.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slammerkin.  It is very well paced with a cast of fully developed and believable characters.  It is a historical novel and it is very well researched.  As with many other Emma Donoghue stories, this was in a work of fiction which is inspired by a real life Mary Saunders.  I am in awe of her ability to take tiny fragments of information gleaned from the past and spin whole worlds around them.

For fans of Emma Donoghue, I would definitely recommend Slammerkin.  For anyone who has not yet discovered Emma Donoghue, I would definitely urge you to give her a go, and this book is a great place to start.

 

Opening lines – the most important?

I love opening lines.  I love reading opening lines.  I love writing opening lines.  I love being given an opening line and freewriting from there.  It is the rest of the story after the opening lines that causes me problems!

When I browse for books in bookshops, I not only read the blurb at the back but I always read the first sentence.  If I want a book from the blurb, I will probably not reject it if the opening sentence doesn’t grab me.  But for anything I am 50/50 about, it comes down to that opening sentence – if it grabs me, I will buy it, if it doesn’t, it goes back on the shelf.

The first exercise in my writing challenge deals with beginnings which aim to make the reader feel that they are plunged right into the story.  The opening sentences that I have written are not related to any characters or stories that I already have in my head or my notebooks.  Some are semi-inspired by real life, some are from little kernels of ideas that I haven’t yet thought out how to develop, some are completely random.  However, my aim with all of them is to start in the middle of the action (even if I’m not quite sure what that action is yet!)

Here they are:-

  1. The only reason I had anything to do with Ray is because the library had flooded one Monday in June.
  2. The wave smashed into my stomach, knocking me over.  I was dragged under, eyes wide open, watching the shingle roll away from the shore.
  3. The last time I really knew myself was when we went for lunch with the little white dogs.
  4. I knew it was bad news as soon as he opened the door.
  5. The election was over and I failed to get a single vote.  I didn’t even vote for myself.
  6. My mind went blank as the curtains rose.
  7. It was only a week ago that Ellie and I liberated the turtle from the old man’s garden and already we’ve added a goldfish and a cat to our collection.
  8. My mother always said I would be ruined by my handbags in the end.
  9. In the prison, we were known as “Nelson’s ladies”.
  10. I didn’t think I was famous until the day that the photographer was waiting outside my Uncle’s house to capture a picture of me in my uniform.

Reading back over these, I think that 2 and 4 probably achieve the objective of starting right in the middle of the action the best, but out of the list, I am most interested in seeing where number 5 will go.

So that is my effort.  Here are some of my favourite first sentences from my bookshelves:-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl” (The Other Hand, Chris Cleeve)

My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen” (City of Thieves, David Benioff)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; Susie first.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973” (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere” (Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

Any one of my favourite ever openings, on the strength of which I bought a book that I previously had no desire to read:-

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born,  and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents ere occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kiind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger)

I was sold when I read that first sentence, just for the directness of it and the authenticity of the character’s voice.  After reading all of these opening lines, I knew that I was in good hands for the rest of the book.

The opening lines are the writer’s first chance to introduce the character and to create something engaging to make the reader want to read on.  To leave the reader with questions to which they need to find the answers.  To make the reader want to know the character better.  A story can’t rely on it’s opening line alone – the rest of the story needs to deliver what the opening line promises.  If the writer is able to achieve this, then as readers, we are in for a treat.

Inspiration, creativity and the 9-5

A few years ago, I participated in a writing course.  At the time I was working in family law, and when I told this to the group, one member commented that it must give me an extraordinary amount of source material for my writing.  After all, working in family law, I got to see the very best and the worst of people.  I heard stories of unimaginably horrific and abusive family situations.  I have been exposed to all of the hurt, anger and bitterness that is often the consequence of family breakdown.  I have been moved by incredible courage, strength, positivity in the face of adversity and love.  It definitely sounds like rich pickings for a writer, doesn’t it?

But I have never used my work as a source of inspiration.  Not once. Not even a little bit.

Part of the reason for that is a question of ethics.  People come to me and trust me with intimate details of their lives.  It would feel like a betrayal of that trust if I used their stories as a basis or inspiration for my own.

It’s more than that though.  After all, 99% of the time my writing is just for myself.  The other 1%, I may share it with a small group.  If I am writing something that no one else will ever see, why can I then not use my work to inspire a story?

The problem is that I just don’t feel creative when working.

Until that comment was made, it genuinely never crossed my mind that I could have source of inspiration in my 9-5.  I am a lawyer.  My job is to listen to problems and find solutions.  That is fine – it is the career that I chose for myself and it is one that I like to think I’m good at.  However, it is a challenging job, which can be mentally exhausting and I find it does sap  my creative energy.  I know that this must be down to work, because whenever I have a couple of days off, I can feel it coming back to me – characters and scenarios that I thought long abandoned pop back up and demand my attention.

I need to find a solution to this.

Between the hours of 9am and 5pm, I am a lawyer.  Achieving outcomes for my clients is the most important thing during that time.  However, I need to find a way to switch into creative mode from 5pm and not have to wait for a couple of days off before feeling able to pick up a pen.

My writing challenge.

One of the ways that I try to kick start my writing is using little writing exercises and prompts.  Every now and then I will trawl through the hundreds of books on creative writing on Amazon (which I suspect is just another form of procrastination!) and order something that I think will inspire me.  A few months ago, I purchased “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Bernays and Painter.  I haven’t yet really made any use of it.

I am going to try to overcome the feeling of a lack of creativity by setting aside 30 minutes each day to get something, anything, down on a page using the writing exercises in this book as a guide.  In that way, much like Pavlov’s dogs, I am going to try to train my brain to switch into creative mode as soon as I leave the office.  To keep me focused on my goal, I will post the results of each exercise into this blog.  There are 83 in total, and I will do one each day (though the results may take longer to appear on here as I do prefer to write by hand).

I’m really looking forward to starting this challenge as I think if I can be disciplined enough to keep it up on stressful days when I’m tired and can’t be bothered, then this could really work for me.

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