Category: Authors


I’m conscious not to make these posts all about me. I know that that is sort of the point of some blog posts but I do try to steer the content away from myself whenever I can. Trouble is, I am all I know at the moment, so it makes it quite difficult, particularly when I’m in need of a good vent. Blogging is cathartic. Yesterday, I read something that was such a blatant massaging of the writer’s ego that it made me audibly shudder and make noises I was even embarrassed to make in an empty flat. I really hope this blog is never seen as self-indulgent, because that’s not my intention, but for the time being you’ll have to put up with the ramblings about half-written stories, experimental classroom content and rants about EastEnders until my life takes a more adventurous turn.

Anyway, last week was half term. A chance for a much needed recharging of the batteries before it’s full throttle into killer Christmas season (which, of course, I secretly love). By the end of half term my mind was typically racing and I was crawling towards that Friday finish. The problem with this job (and, I’m sure, many other jobs) is that you can never drop the ball. It’s impossible to switch off. I’ve spoken to teachers who say that feeling of unrest doesn’t leave you until well into retirement. You’re constantly feeling like you need to be doing something and the guilt that follows a duvet day is unreal. It’s one thing I’ve struggled with, as I appear to have lost the ability to relax. I was always a bit tightly strung but since starting the PGCE, it’s just been impossible to chill. Even on a Spanish beach, drink in one hand, book in the other, I had to take frequent breaks to go for a walk, check my emails or just do something! It’s relentless. And dangerous. Because, along with every other member of staff and the children, I was ready for a break.

Now for someone who enjoys being active, it’s not necessarily a bad thing (at the moment, but I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll feel very different). I’m so precious about the time I have ‘off’ that I’ve started making a list of all the things I want to achieve over the holiday (that’s right. I’m setting myself targets. Welcome to the system.) On the list last week was; a blog post, work on a new story, edit an old story and another little project which I’m not going to talk about yet, but have been meaning to do for a long time. All little jobs that I’m sure mean nothing to anyone else but they’re important to me because, as I’ve said before, I’m finding it hard to express myself at this stage in my life, so I wanted to take advantage of the break from work to explore my ideas.

Guess what. Very little of it happened.

It’s frustrating because I know I am to blame. I make the choice. But a contributing factor is the many online distractions. I’ve ranted about the online world before and I don’t want to run at it with a pitchfork because, obviously, it provides a lot of support for people, including myself. It’s bloody hardwork though, when you’ve got an idea, but you can’t quite pin it down because your phone is buzzing, or an email comes through, or you find yourself scrolling through Instagram without even remembering opening the app. I’ve heard interviews about the online world being an addictive space and I believe that is true. I can’t help opening up these apps in the hope that something will interest me or that someone has got in touch, when 9 times out of 10 those things don’t happen. So instead it’s just a big waste of time.  Time where I could have been writing.

I worry that it’s not just my written work that is suffering. I’m craving a book that I can be absorbed into. A world where I can just sink in and forget the real world. I’m a constant reader but, even with something I’m so passionate about, I’ll gladly interrupt my reading to reply to a whatsapp or a snapchat or check my twitter. I hold stories so highly yet I’ll stop to check my phone. What the hell is that all about?

At times I feel like I’m losing the ability to connect. I’ll choose the saddest film, because I want to feel sad. Just to know I’ve felt something. But lately, I’ll find I’m bored after ten minutes and reading old whatsapp messages. I’m desperate for a new TV series that will absorb me and distract me from my smartphone, but after watching introductory episodes of lots of programmes, I just can’t get into anything. I long for the days when I was obsessed with Doctor Who, Torchwood, Lost…..this was about ten years ago when I didn’t have the access to the internet that I have today. I used to just sit and binge and enjoy and feel. I worry that I can’t do that anymore. Nowadays I’m checking Twitter during ad breaks of American Horror Story to see how everyone else feels about the episode. Who cares?

A safe retreat from all this is the theatre. The theatre is different. That is a space where I can immerse myself and I can connect. And, what a coincidence – phones are not permitted.

I’ve heard of people going unplugged and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s a brave thing to do in this era where we’re so dependent on technology but I’m sure it would be good for the mind and the soul. I long for a quiet space, physically or mentally, where I can just sit and think and write and flow, but I’m struggling to see where that would fit into my life at the moment. My goal for next year is to figure it out, express myself and find the time to be unplugged.

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Image result for How not to be a boy In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to experience two works of art that have really ‘spoken to me’, having never really understood the phrase before. The first was the touring production of Rent in October 2016 (after which I spent several weeks sobbing). The second was How Not to Be A Boy by Robert Webb.

I knew from pre-publicity that this book would be right up my street, and I was correct. Not only was the main thread relatable, but How Not To Be A Boy is beautifully and passionately written by Webb. I absorbed this book. It was actually ‘unputdownable’.

How Not To Be A Boy is Webb’s memoir with a focus on the pressures he encountered to conform to society’s ideas of masculinity. Webb writes honestly about his upbringing and childhood, and with hindsight is able to identify some of the dangerous messages he was given which effected his adult life. It begins with his closeness to his mother and difficult relationship with his father, and ends with his modern day struggles to steer away from following his father’s path.

Webb’s discussions on gender go beyond the ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ debate, and he relives insightful anecdotes, (some warm, some hilarious, some tragic), in a way that had me unable to resist the urge to fling my hands in the air and shout ‘Amen!’.

Webb talks about the patriarchy, and how the rules and gender stereotypes created by society are damaging to both women and men. A striking moment is when he talks about how ‘clever’ boys and girls are viewed by society. He notes how when labelled ‘clever’, girls have to respond with how hard they’ve worked for it, whilst boys are expected to shrug it off, as if it all came naturally. If you’re a boy who does well at school, excuses have to be found for this ridiculous behaviour, and often you’re labelled with having no common sense. ‘He’s a clever lad, no common sense though.’ (How many times did I hear that growing up?)

A common thread throughout  is of males suppressing their emotions. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book comes at the mid-point, where Webb tells of the loss of his mother. Webb writes about his grief and suffering so eloquently that it’s frustrating to comprehend why we are constantly told to ‘man up’ and hide our true feelings. We’ve all had experiences with this, to various degrees, and it’s important that Webb highlights the problem in his book. With almost three quarters of suicide victims in the UK being male, it’s of vital importance that we breakdown the ‘man up’ culture and talk about our problems, as Webb does in university. The patriarchy strikes again by enforcing a false notion that only females open up and talk about their feelings. What a dangerous message. Webb talks candidly, and admirably, of his battles with suicidal thoughts and his subsequent therapy sessions, in a way that may give hope to many.

How Not To Be A Boy also brings to light just how old fashioned words such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are. As Webb explains, all they do is conjure up archaic stereotypes which, in 2017, are unnecessary. He describes masculinity as a repressive process which needs to be recovered from and explains how the term only really means ‘not being a woman’. Why not a woman? Women are strong, brave, loving, thoughtful, sensible, loyal, trustworthy and millions other admirable adjectives so….why do we have to avoid being like that? Why do we need these words?

The restrictions that we live under should be blindingly obvious, but Webb unmasks these hideous stereotypes with flair and style, adding his own thoughts, warm humour, and prompting many outbursts of ‘YES!’  from this reader. In an era where people are angry at clothes shop for removing labels, and the walls of gender stereotyping are being slowly eroded, How Not To Be A Boy is essential reading and a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

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I’ve always been partial to a good surprise. I was one of those children who secretly hoped for a surprise party or who would hint heavily to his friends that his birthday is just around the corner and wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone in his class sang to him? (Note: Rest assured, I’ve grown out of that.) I love surprising people too. I like to see their faces when I give them a meaningful gift or organise a treat for them. I’m a big fan of surprises – they break the monotony.

A few Christmases ago, my mum decided to tell me weeks before the big day that she had bought an iPad for me and I went ballistic. I was totally grateful for the cracking gift but I was furious that she spoilt it! Part of the joy of Christmas is the excitement and build up and she had casually demolished the mystery! Ooof! I was annoyed….

So, it’s probably not a surprise that I am totally anti-spoiler when it comes to TV. I don’t watch much TV, so the shows that I do watch mean a lot to me. And it means a lot to me that those programmes aren’t spoiled. I present to you, Case Study One: EastEnders.

Sometimes, particularly in these upcoming cold, dreary winter days, the thought of getting home, putting on my pyjamas and watching EastEnders (and thinking ‘Well, at least my life isn’t that bad…’) is all that makes the day bearable. I haven’t missed an episode for about three years. I know it’s a sad fact, but nevertheless, it is true. This week was a big week for EastEnders, with plenty of shocks and surprises promised. There was a lot of hype and, I admit, I was a bit excited. So you can imagine my disappointment when all the shocks and surprises were announced before transmission. I spent the whole week sighing and tutting as another storyline unfolded in the predictable or previously announced way. It shouldn’t have been boring, but it was. (OK, there were a lot of things wrong with last week’s episodes, but I maintain the stance that if everything had been kept secret I would have enjoyed the episodes a lot more.) Why do shows feel the need to leak everything beforehand? Alright, there is an argument that I shouldn’t go looking for spoilers, but we’re in an age now where even logging onto Twitter or Instagram can ruin a show for you – I didn’t have to look far. In the last few years, under the previous Executive Producer, some of the best storylines were transmitted by surprise. Look at the 30th Anniversary episode – they brought back Kathy. Iconic and memorable and a total shock. So, EastEnders, stop spoiling things for your fans! You CANNOT hype up a mystery ‘major character death’ and then, days later, announce an actor is leaving and not expect us to put two and two together. We’re not stupid.

On the topic of Twitter, I was getting increasingly agitated by the constant stream of spoilers in my news feed for Game of Thrones (which also happens to be Case Study two, for those of you keeping score of that). I understand people want to talk about it when they’ve watched it but what I don’t get is the need to spoil it for everyone. You don’t need to tweet (in detail) about it. You certainly don’t need to record clips from episodes into a snapchat story!! (I actually had to block someone for this – What kind of monster does something like that?!). Digital Spy also seem intent on spoiling it for others by revealing spoilers in their article titles or, even worse, writing a vaguely mysterious title about a possible death in the episode then spoiling it with a picture of the dead character in question! Stop! I will read your article but let me watch the bloody episode first!

There was a time when, keen for more information on plots and such, I would have gone looking for spoilers online but I have since discovered the art of watching spoiler-free. The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who taught me this can be a very rewarding experience. I enjoyed the episode so much more because I didn’t know what was coming and I was able to immerse myself properly. The same goes for the last season of American Horror Story. Despite each episode airing in the USA days before the UK, I was able to avoid spoilers and it made the season for me. I was totally obsessed with the show and it made me want to tune in each week. If I’d known what was happening, I’d have just been tuning in out of habit or to prove my findings correct, which isn’t quite the same experience.

My earliest memory of spoiler-rage is set in the school canteen. (This could be Case Study three, but to be honest, I’ve sort of lost track of that). I was (and still am) a huge Harry Potter fan and I used to buy each new book the day it was released, then spend as many hours as possible reading. I’d take the books everywhere – I’d read in the car, in the bath, in school during lunch time, and during 90% of the time I spent at home. I’d invested so much time in these stories and I really cared about what was happening. So, imagine my absolute (hormonally-assisted) meltdown when a girl in the dinner queue casually told everyone that Sirius dies in the fifth book. I was just pages away from the heart-breaking moment, and to hear it being announced (so proudly, by someone who hadn’t even read the sodding book) sent me into a rage! If she thought it was a good idea, she was gravely mistaken. ‘Oh! Thank you! Thank you very much for revealing that bit of information and saving me the trouble of finishing the book I’ve spent the last 48 hours reading during every waking moment. Phew! For a minute I thought I was going to have to enjoy it!’

Urgh. It still makes me cross. I can hold a grudge.

I don’t understand this necessity to prevent people from enjoying something you have had the privilege of enjoying. If you have watched something awesome, why would you want to spoil it for someone else? The guy who streamed Game of Thrones over his snapchat story – what was he benefitting from that? EastEnders weren’t benefitting anything from their pre-publicity reveals. If they’d have kept some mystery people might have watched to find out the answers.

So there are no positives to spoilers. The clue is in the name. It spoils everything. So stop it. Stop it right now!

I’ve always fancied writing about living in London. I tried to do it once when I dabbled with a sequel to Reset but the whole thing fell flat because….I’ve never lived in London! How could I write about something that I don’t have a clue about? I don’t know street names, hidden locations, shortcuts. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up there every day. To have my faced pushed against a tube window during a morning commute. To dash through the rain and streetlights in the middle of the night. To sip a drink in the shadows of a bar. I don’t know what it’s like to live in London. So I couldn’t possibly write about it.

It might sound like an obvious idea but this lesson has taken me a long time to learn.

When I was growing up my projects usually focused on characters in a theatre group or at school, because that’s all I knew. I didn’t click at first, but my projects all had similar threads. Reset is based in Cardiff because I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. After Caitlyn focuses on a toxic friendship and the repercussions it can have. Alex’s story is about the struggle to find your place in the world. The strongest threads come from my own knowledge. Naturally.

A few weeks ago something happened and the more I thought about it the more I felt the need to write it down. I started with this tiny incident which grew, and is still growing, into a full story. I’ve got a character who is becoming more and more real and situations which I think are running very natural courses because the initial basis of the story is truth.

I’m sure it goes without saying that the best writers are those who have lived through pain and truly experienced life. It’s no wonder I’ve been getting so frustrated with my ideas, feeling like they’re old news, like my imagination is drying up. I’ve used up all my stock. How can I write about different cities if I’ve never visited them? About life experiences if I’ve never experienced them?

The message is to write about what you know. And if you don’t know it, go and find it.

Half term. I’m sat in the window of my apartment at a newly created workstation strategically placed so I can look out over the busy road, the commuters bustling through the train station and those handsome Welsh mountains in the background. I’ve been meaning to set this spot up since I moved in almost 15 months ago but only now have I managed to take action.

The last half term, in October, was a bit of disaster. I don’t have a good track record when it comes to half terms. Christmas, Easter, the Summer – they’re all great, but it’s these week long holidays in between that I can’t seem to handle properly. I always end up with cancelled plans or no plans at all. I just can’t do half terms! This was one, however, was going to be different.

For a few weeks I’ve felt myself bubbling. Frustration tightening a knot around my waist (but for more of that, see last week’s rant!) and I knew that this half term I needed to fix it. The most prominent activity in my busy schedule is ‘writing time’. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to grab quality writing time. A run of a few hours where I can lose myself in an idea. In fact, since September I have only managed to write for the odd hour here and there. And that’s not enough for me.

Saturday night, I settled down in my new spot and began to type. I’ve barely thought of anything else since. I seem to be having some sort of inspiration overload. Closing the gates on work for a week has unlocked a boxful of ideas and I am loving the luxury of time.

My first project to hit was the big one. Reset. I’ve been working on this since 2010 and I’m finally at the stage where its feeling polished. It’s ready. It’s my pride and joy and I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed it.

After a few re-workings of Reset, I bounced over to my second pride and joy – After Caitlyn. Shorter than Reset by a country mile and totally different in tone and style (hmm…perhaps I need to squeeze some poetry into this week) but I couldn’t be prouder of this story. Although it brought unwelcome reminders of the real-life elements that run through the story, I enjoyed being reunited with these characters and adding tweaks to the story here and there. This one is almost ready.

A project that has taken me by surprise this weekend is something I didn’t think I was ready to do. In September, I agreed to lead Performing Arts Club at school. We have lots of fun and the children are buzzing with creative ideas and energy. When the time came for us to consider our big production I was adamant I didn’t have the time (or the energy) to write it. We’d have to order a script in. End of.

Well, here I am, 16 pages into an epic tale of Welsh Myths and Legends. I have to give credit to the children for their inspirational passion. I just couldn’t stop myself and I hope my script provides them with the material they deserve.

And on top of all that, I’ve even had time to re-visit that sitcom (the sitcom that’s not a sitcom. Don’t worry, I’m just as confused as to what it is at the moment) I’ve been talking about for years. If I can get the pilot done by the summer, I’ll be very happy.

So, I’m at an inspirational peak. I find myself thinking about a Reset sequel in the car and those first stirrings of excitement leave my fingertips tingling. I listen to a soundtrack – RENT, some of the most raw, evocative lyrics you’ll ever hear – and I start to think about the characters in After Caitlyn. I look down at the road bringing people to and from my town, and I start to think about a new project altogether, the characters already having a blazing row in my head. I finish The Girl on the Train and I’m in awe of the storytelling. This is what I want to be capable of. My mind is bursting with ideas and I’m relishing the process of channeling them into words. I’m feeling creatively rejuvenated and after a very dry few months, it’s about time too!

I solemnly swear that you won’t find any spoilers in this review.

I have devoured Cursed Child, barely putting it down in the 24 hours since it arrived. Initial responses were mixed. It made me feel a lot of emotions. I felt excited on opening the beautiful golden cover. I relived that childhood delight at a fresh Hogwarts story. I felt nostalgic at the initial references to the HP world. And then I felt just a tiny bit sad.

Cursed Child is everything a HP fan could have wanted from the very first page. A fresh new story combines old with new in remarkable fashion (…….and that’s all I’ll say on that matter.)

Revisiting the much loved characters of the series could have easily been a disaster but Cursed Child succeeds on every level. It doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky. We see some familiar characters, we hear of others, some don’t appear at all. It’s all very natural and never gratuitous.

The shift in format also works very well. Though some have argued that the absence of prose diminishes the magic of the story, I think it strengthens the drama. After all, this is a story that is meant to be viewed, not read. The dialogue is powerful and true to the characters. Ginny Weasley in particular sparkles through the page with her fiery wit. The struggle between Harry and Albus is beautifully written, as is the friendship between Albus and Scorpius. The pressure these boys are under, living in their parents’ shadow, is intricately explored with plenty of thought provoking discussions.

What’s remarkable about Cursed Child is that so much has been kept secret. It’s a testament not only to the creative team but to the fan base that nothing has been revealed. The best way to read/see this story is by being completely spoiler-free, something that’s very tricky nowadays.

On closing the book, I was a bit sad. Sad that this probably is the last time we’ll see these characters, though I was so grateful to be given one last visit, and overjoyed that it was a successful one. (Though I’ve said before Rowling has the upmost respect for her characters and her work – it was never going to be a flop, she wouldn’t allow that.) Mainly, I was sad that I hadn’t waited and watched the play first. Yes, I’ve loved reading the story, but seeing it would have been spectacular. The many twists, turns and reveals that happen would, I imagine, create a truly epic performance. There were moments in this story were I had to close book and take a minute to think ‘how on earth do they pull that off on stage?’. Experiencing this live must be very special (and that’s all I can say because I promised not to spoil).

So Cursed Child is a treat for fans but my advice would be to wait it out for tickets and resist reading (but if you are impatient, like me, you are forgiven). It’s a must read, but even more than that, it’s a must see, and I’ll definitely be getting tickets.

Mischief managed.

 

‘The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.’

I remember reading those final words nine years ago and feeling utterly lost. I had grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione and when they finally left my life I mourned them. All these years later, I experienced the same feeling as I finished my re-read of the whole series – a testament to the power of Rowling’s work.

Hallows is not only the perfect ending to an epic story, but a heartfelt love letter to fans. It has everything. Everything! Just when you think Rowling can’t cram any more action packed twists, emotional reveals or heartwarming nostalgia into the book, she pulls something else from her bag of tricks.

I could easily write an essay listing all of the fanstastic moments within Hallows, but I’m going to try and fit it all into this one post.

It’s always been clear that Rowling has the upmost respect for her fans, but I think Hallows is solid proof of this. It can’t have been easy, tying up a story that spans seven books featuring hundreds of beloved characters, but Rowling tackled this with perfection and her hard work shines through every page. I first read this book when I was 17.  I raced through it in just a few days and it never left my side. 9 years later, I feel like I was able to appreciate it even more, taking in every reference and moment but still rarely straying far from my copy.

Hallows is littered with references from previous books – characters, locations, events, objects – it’s almost as if Rowling has challenged herself with squeezing every ounce of Potter into one book. Saying that, the references never feel unnatural or forced. It’s a great feeling when you recognise or revisit something. The visits to the Chamber of Secrets, the Forbidden Forest, the Shrieking Shack, Godric’s Hollow, The Ministry of Magic and Gringotts Bank all bring back welcome memories of the previous stories, like revisiting a childhood den.

But Rowling doesn’t just re-tread old ground. This book ventures out of Hogwarts and sees our friends journey around Britain. Plenty of new characters turn up, including many that have been mentioned before but never seen. Xenophillius Lovegood, Ron’s Aunt Muriel and Tonk’s Parents all make long awaited, if brief, appearances, each progressing the plot in some way.

From weddings, to duels, to undercover missions, to breaking out of a bank on the back of a dragon – the story rockets a long, hopping from tense scene to another. Soon, we’re back at Hogwarts, where the magic all started, for one final battle.

It’s not all fun though. The stories have got progressively darker and this is book with the highest death rate. Hedwig and Mad-Eye start us of in dramatic fashion as they bow out during an airborne battle , leaving us distraught pretty early in the book. The pang of losing Hedwig, Harry’s loyal owl, matches the foreboding doom that comes with Mad-Eye’s death, who was Harry’s last remaining protector. Many characters are picked off throughout the book as the drama escalates but one of the most painful deaths is that of Dobby the House Elf. Loyal friend to Harry since book two, Dobby’s final heroic act is followed by tragedy as he is hit by Bellatrix’s knife (making us long even more for her demise! First Sirius, now Dobby!). Dobby’s death is a beautiful piece of writing, a moment that will have life-long fans snuffling into their pages.

I’ve said before that Rowling is incredibly skilled at writing dark, tricky themes for younger readers. These books tackle so much – death, torture, discrimination, power, teenage angst and jealousy. The list is endless. The scene where Bellatrix tortures Hermione is particularly harrowing to read, not to mention the earlier chapter where a snake is found to be inhabiting Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse. We’re not dealing with Enid Blyton here. Rowling flexes her talent by including these dark moments but never over stepping the mark. She doesn’t mollycoddle her reader, she exposes them to the dark side of the world, but always stops just short of traumatising her reader. I find that incredible.

However, to counter that darkness, Rowling sends a very strong message on the power of love. Love as protection has a strong presence in Hallows particularly that of a mother’s love. Harry’s survival is all down to his mother’s sacrifice for him as a child and Lily Potter’s presence is certainly felt throughout the final book, even more so at the end where she appears to Harry to reaffirm her support of him. Narcissa Malfoy also protects Harry, in a surprising move, by lying to Voldemort in order to protect her own son. So desperate to save Draco, she buys Harry the time he needs to overthrow Voldemort. And then there’s Molly Weasley. I think every reader cheered when she fatefully cried ‘NOT MY DAUGTHER YOU BITCH!’. Mrs Weasley’s fearsome protection of her daughter leads to her killing one of Voldemorts closest companions, Bellatrix (hooray! Justice for Dobby!).

Another kind of love is revealed as we learn that, after all these years, Snape was in love with Harry’s mother and has been protecting him as penance for (accidentally) playing a part in her murder. Snape is one of most wonderfully written characters as his true intentions have never quite been known from book one, but now the truth is out it all fits in to place. His whole story arc is a testament to the subtlety within Rowling’s writing. Snape’s patronus is revealed to be a doe, the same as Lily’s, and in book six we hear small references to Tonk’s patronus changing to reflect her love. Rowling plans every single detail.

I’d forgotten how much I loved these books and just how much they meant to me as I was growing up. Re-reading them over the last few months has transported me back to my teens and I’ve found myself looking forward to my pre-sleep read every night. Rowling makes you care about these characters and the world they inhabit, making it the perfect form of escapism at the end of a long working day. When I finished Hallows, I was eager for more. I spent last night searching Pottermore and can’t wait for the eighth story to be released in July. If its predecessors are anything to go by, it’s going to be amazing.

As a writer, I find Rowling’s dedication, subtlety and ability to make the complex accessible so inspiring and hold her high on my list of role models. As a teacher, I can see the endless lessons these books can teach children, generation after generation. As a reader, I find them utterly magical, with a story I can revisit over and over again, and still find something new. I really can’t imagine life without these books. They bring just as much comfort and wonder to me now as they did ten years ago. They have become classic books which will be read for many years to come and I hope Rowling realises just how many lives she has touched with her stories. She has brought magic to an ordinary life, and for that I’ll always be thankful.

 

 

 

Continuing with the HP re-read, it’s the turn of the penultimate book….

I really couldn’t remember much about Half-Blood Prince. A lot of the story felt completely new to me. However, that just makes for better reading, as I’ve spend the last couple of weeks gripped by Harry’s latest adventure.

Half-Blood Prince sets up the mega-finale of Deathly Hallows, introducing horcruxes, Tom Riddle’s past and, of course, bumping off Dumbledore. The book is not just one big plot device though. This is the book where the Hogwarts students are written as adults. Snogging, jealousy and hormones all appear in this book as we start to get the first solid references to romances between Hermione and Ron (I still can’t believe that, reading as a 15 year old, I didn’t see this coming!) and Harry and Ginny.

Ginny is a must stronger character in this book. She’s no longer the timid girl, who peeks out from behind her mother’s skirts and is too terrified to speak to Harry.  She is now fiery and mature, with a string of admirers. I was surprised at the lack of fuss from Ron when Harry and Ginny finally, and publicly, get together. It is a relationship that works. After those disasterous dates with Cho Chang, it’s  refreshing to see Harry in a happy, but brief, relationship. Happiness can never last whilst Voldemort’s at large and Harry makes the choice to end the relationship for the sake of Ginny’s safety. Ginny’s graciously accepts Harry’s decision, a testament to her true feeling for him. It’s clear to the reader that this is not the end.

Although the darkest book of the series so far (they really do keep getting darker, don’t they?), there are some moments of relief. The banter between Ron and Hermione is as good as ever and now tinged with stronger romantic tension. New potions master Horace Slughorn mixes in some comedy with his pompous and heavy-handed attempts to make links with his ‘most talented’ students.

The story builds to a gripping three act finale. Harry finally gets to join Dumbledore on an adventure to find a horcrux in the middle of an underground lake. Obviously, it doesn’t go to plan, leading to a terrifying attack of Inferi (basically…zombies) which leaves poor Dumbledore severely weakened. Harry forcing the poison into Dumbledore’s mouth (on Dumbledore’s orders) is not easy reading and a cruel twist in the beautiful friendship between headmaster and student. The next part of the epic ending sees the pair return to Hogwarts, only to find the castle under attack from Death Eaters. Frozen and hidden safely thanks to Dumbledore’s quick thinking, Harry is forced to watch as his headmaster is murdered by Snape. Trust is a huge theme of the series and Dumbledore’s last moments cast another cruel twist on the tale, as his strong trust in Snape leads to his demise. Snape’s true intentions are never quite known throughout the whole series, but the murder of Dumbledore seems to securely confirm his villainous nature. For now, at least.

The final act sees a dejected Harry mourn the loss of the last of his parental figures. It’s at this point that Harry realises the importance of the task ahead of him – he alone must stop Voldemort. But, of course, he’s not alone as Hermione and Ron are soon beside him, vowing not to return to Hogwarts until the war is over. Each book seems to age with its readers, with Half-Blood Prince carrying darker and more mature themes than its predecessors. These are not children’s books. The way Rowling describes the lake of bodies is genuinely creepy and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to some of the fluffier descriptions of Philosopher’s Stone. Dumbledore’s funeral is also quite hard-going emotionally. You’ll be bawling like Hagrid by the end of the chapter.

Half-Blood Prince acts as a pre-cursor to the grand finale but also stands firm with its own tale. Rowling continues to deliver with her usual mix of emotion, humour and killer twists that you never see coming. Re-reading these stories ten years later is reminding me just how much I love them. These stories are perfectly written and I cannot wait to re-live the final chapter…

Short post this week as I’m on a roll and determined to spend as much time as possible on the five year project!

So, in the last couple of weeks major developments have happened. The first episode is almost complete. Which, considering this has been five years coming, is a major step for me! I had a bit of an inspiration burst over Easter and began changing my plans for the pilot. One thing led to another and here I am, close to a full first draft of ep. 1. I’m so excited!

I decided to give my planning the ‘Reset treatment’. Whilst I was writing Reset, I stuck a huge piece of paper to the wall and covered it in post-its – each representing a chapter – which details key points in the plot. I was able to mix these around and throw some away and add new ones as well as get an overall view of where my story is going. It also served as a constant reminder (because it was huge!) that I needed to be working. So, when I sat down at my laptop I realised I needed some visual prompts. I took a piece of paper and sketched out an episode map which showed each characters journey throughout the eight episodes. Having this in front of me has been a great help.

Another planning device I used with Reset was to create a scrapbook of images – whether that be actors who would play characters, key props or pictures of potential settings. So over Easter I created the Big Red File. I split the file into sections, one for each main or recurring character. Each section starts with a collage of images of actors who could play that character, then on the reverse I have the random facts page. The random facts page is a working document which I plan on adding to as I go along. This page has the character’s key information (e.g., full name, DOB, family, etc) as well as any other facts (Such as stories from their childhood or guilty pleasures). The big red file is going to be my bible.

Something which I also found handy when I wrote After Caitlyn was to create a playlist of songs. I’ve not reached that stage yet, but I have jotted down a few songs which could feature.

Getting creative with my planning has definitely spurred the project on and rejuvenated my enthusiasm. It’s like looking at the story with a fresh pair of eyes. I can see what works and what doesn’t, and I’m able to make tweaks and changes, which leaves me very excited! I’d be interested to hear of any other techniques writers use to immerse themselves into their stories and develop their writing.

In the meantime, I’m pressing on with Ep. 1 and my next step is to give it a proper name, as five year project is getting a bit naff.

The great HP re-read continues and this week it is book five’s turn.

It’s the largest book (it could easily be used as a weapon) so I strategically planned to read to it over the Easter Holidays so I would actually have time to read and it wouldn’t take me thirty years to get through it (I have a chapter-a-day habit during term time. Any more than that and I, frustratingly, end up falling asleep.)

It’s been a good ten years since I read this series and, although I remember the gist of each book, a lot of things have slipped my mind – which in a way is great because it’s like I’m a new reader again. This book certainly coughed up a lot of surprises for me. I’d forgotten about occlumency, sirius’ mother, Bellatrix’s connection to the Malfoys, and Grawp. I was also surprised when Lockhart popped up in St Mungo’s. I’d signed Lockhart off as a character we wouldn’t see again so it was great to have that short scene, even if it was tinged with sadness. I can’t help feeling sorry for Lockhart. I know he was a first class prat but still….there was a moment of sympathy as he signed those autographs in his hospital bed. But of course, the main emotional pull of that chapter is the appearance of Frank and Alice Longbotton. Alluded to in previous books, this was our first glimpse at the severity of their condition and the impact it has had on Neville. Alice handing Neville a bubble gum wrapper was very touching and it’s easy to see how, as Dumbledore later explains, Neville could have easily been in Harry’s shoes. You can’t help feel immediate hatred for Bellatrix Lestrange before she’s even introduced! Her callous destruction of the Longbottoms serves as a warning of just how dangerous she can be….

Speaking of villains, this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is probably the most evil yet – Dolores Umbridge. I remember her being my favourite DADA teacher because she was just so vile.  Umbridge’s danger is palpable because she is so desperate to rise to the top and please those in authority. I’ve met so many Umbridges – backstabbing, manipulative and quietly wicked – with a sickly sweet exterior. Ruthless throughout, the moment she suggests using the cruciatius curse is actually gasp-inducing. She a true villain. A villain that could be found in day-to-day life. She could be in any place of work , any family or on any street. That’s what makes her so frightening – we all know a Dolores Umbridge.

In terms of magical creatures, we’re introduced to the Thestrals in this book. JK has a clever habit of harking back to past stories with the invisible creatures pulling the Hogwarts carriages finally being revealed as Thestrals – dark, winged horses that can only be seen by people who have witnessed death. The mythology and legend surrounding the Thestrals is interesting with wizards believing them to bring bad luck due to their connotations with death. They’re described beautifully in the book and synch well with the darkness of the novel. 

Harry is certainly changed since Goblet. He spends a lot of the book arguing with his friends, which does get slightly tiresome. Hermione and Ron are relentlessly loyal to Harry so it is frustrating that he keeps snapping at them. His relationship with Cho provides a glimmer of happiness in quite a bleak book, but even that fizzles out due to her mistrust and Harry’s indifference. Cho was a promising character in Goblet, but in Phoenix she comes across as fickle and …well…a bit unstable. Yes, she’s grieving for Cedric, but nobody seems very sympathetic as she continues to breakdown in tears. I would have been interested to see Cho and Harry date but this was not meant to be and by the end it’s clear this relationship is a non-starter. I suppose it’s in Cho’s interest to stay away and stay safe.

This is certainly the most emotional book so far. Rowling set the bar in the final moments of Goblet, with the death of Cedric Diggory, but the last few chapters of Phoenix certainly meet that standard. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last remaining hope of family, is a suckerpunch. Voldemort using Harry to lure Sirius to his death is a clever move by Rowling which also gives way to some tragically dark moments. Harry’s resulting guilt is beautifully written – his angst, frustration and pain as he wanders the grounds of Hogwarts is very touching but the most poignant moment comes in his last conversation with Luna Lovegood. Luna seems to wander purposelessly throughout the book but she is finally defined in this last moment with Harry. It transpires that people have been taking oddball Luna’s possessions. Harry offers help but she proclaims

‘[I’ll] wait for it all to turn up…it always does in the end.’

Totally lost on me the first time round, but now as an adult I can see Rowling is using Luna to give profound advice to Harry. Nothing lasts forever and in the end everything works out one way or another. Another emotional moment comes from fan-favourite Dumbledore, as his finally explains the truth about the prophecy to Harry. Dumbledore is notably absent throughout most of the book, and here he explains he was deliberately avoiding Harry for his own protection. As Dumbledore admits his mistakes and reveals that he ‘simply cared too much’ for Harry, the reader can’t help feeling touched by the Headmaster’s attempts to keep Harry safe. His final admittance that he thought Harry had enough responsibility without being a prefect is a very strong moment and perhaps a defining one in Harry and Dumbledore’s friendship.

Goblet marked the start of a dark spiral to the finale and Phoenix certainly develops that. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last caring relative, begins Harry’s journey to adulthood and marks the death of his childhood. Not only does he now have to face the challenges of all young adults, but he also has that little problem of vanquishing the Dark Lord or dying at his wand. Yup, dark stuff.