Category: books


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!

November 2005

15 year old G is taking part in a compilation show with the town’s theatre society. I am compering and introduce two of my friends singing a song from ‘the prequel to the Wizard of Oz.’  It’s the first time I’ve ever heard Defying Gravity and those opening bars certainly grab my attention.

‘I didn’t even know there was a prequel…’, I say to my co-host after the show. One of my friends plays a couple of songs from the soundtrack at the after party and I start to feel nauseated. ‘Oh, no, I don’t like it. They all sound like they’re on helium.’ Poor Kristin Chenoweth.

January 2006

I am obsessed. Caught in a twister of witches, flying monkeys and dramatic riffs. I have my own copy of the soundtrack and it is permanently in my portable CD player. I’m working in the evenings at my Grandad’s shop and, during quiet periods, I sneak into the back room, pinch a can of vimto and listen to more Wicked. The build-up of Defying Gravity sends tingles down my arms and I can’t get my head around how magical it sounds. I am actually in love with a song.

May 2006

I’m getting ready to leave high school and in between revisingImage result for Glinda and Elphaba catfight for exams, my close friends and I are listening to Wicked at whatever chance we can get. In the art room at lunch time. On the steps to the main hall at break. We weren’t very popular (‘-lar’) and at one point a particularly gobby girl accused us of listening to ‘goth music’.  If only she knew. (and if only I took a GSCE in Wicked)

October 2006

Wicked is coming to the UK and after months of failed pestering to family members (I even told my mum I would never expect a birthday present again.  It didn’t go down well), one of my grandparents caves and reveals she has bought tickets for me and my cousin. I have to wait 2 weeks which feels like two years. We travel down to London and I am almost sick with excitement when the cab turns the corner and the Apollo Victoria is revealed, all lit up in green. The show is amazing and, aside from a man who most definitely wasn’t Munchkin-height sitting in front of me, it’s everything I hoped it would be. Plus, I saw Idina Menzel. Bonus awesome points. A week later, I am still so hyped that I write to the cast and they reply with personalised, signed autographs.

October 2009

3 years after my first viewing, I see Wicked again, this time taking my Grandma. When the stage lights up during Dancing Through Life she looks at me with big eyes and says ‘Oh, it’s beautiful.’ Defying Gravity continues to give me chills.

October 2012

I take my mum to see the Wicked tour in Manchester. She is a life-long fan of Oz, and spots Nessarose’s stripey socks before I do. Wicked is the show that keeps on giving – there is always something new to see.

Image result for galinda gifA few weeks later, I go again with my friends from the theatre group. They’re fellow fanatics and some of them are seeing the show for the first time. We rock up wearing witches hats and sing Defying Gravity on the street outside the theatre.

October 2016

So, it’s been ten years since I first saw Wicked live. I don’t know where the time has gone, but Wicked still has the power to make me laugh, cry and send tingles down my arms
. The music is the closest I have ever heard to perfection. It can sound magically whimsical one minute, poignantly moving the next, and end up dark and bleak. It bounces from joyful to devastating in minutes and you’ll never watch that famous melting scene in the same way again. There is always another nugget of awesomeness to spot in the stage show or the soundtrack. (This weekend I noticed the opening bars of No One Mourns the Wicked and As Long As You’re Mine are almost identical! It’s taken me 11 years to spot that.)

I was never really a big fan of The Wizard of Oz but Wicked sparked my interest in a darker, twisted Oz. It was from here that I became familiar with Wicked’s source material, Gregory Maguire’s book, which I have read and written about countless times. I love the way the story links with its predecessor – from subtle nods (‘lemons and Image result for elphaba gifsmelons and pears’ ‘Oh my!’) to more obvious references, like plonking a big old farmhouse in the middle of the stage. It’s a masterclass in storytelling. One of my favourite moments is when Elphaba, wearing her pointed hat from the Ozdust Ballroom, picks up the broom she has used to barricade a door and is shielded from the cold in a black cloak by Glinda. Suddenly, in the middle of the show, everything has come together and Elphaba is the Wicked Witch of the West. My favourite scene though has to be just before ‘No Good Deed’, where Elphaba and Glinda square-off following Nessarose’s death. (‘Well, we can’t all come and go by bubble!’. Bitchy! Elphie is fierce!)

In many aspects Wicked is beautiful but visually it’s stunning. The set design is genius, with everything from the grandeur and greenery of the Emerald City to the shadowy corridors of Kiamo Ko being strikingly atmospheric. Any show that has both its leading ladies flying (via broomstick or bubble) plus a giant mechanical dragon looming over the audience is alright by me.

Wicked is not just a wonderful production, but it’s a reminder of my teenage years. It reminds me of friends near and far, and the many nights of singing around the piano. Every October, as pumpkins are being carved and witches hats appear in shops, I get the urge to belt out those riffs and melodies. It’s become synonymous with autumn.

Ten years, countless drunken renditions of Defying Gravity, dozens of re-reads of the books, thousands of soundtrack-filled car journeys and 4 official viewings and I can’t get enough. Wicked has a reference for every occasion (does anyone else blast No Good Deed when they’re angry?). Defying Gravity has to be one of the most empowering songs ever. It packs enough punch to energise you in a second.

For me, Wicked is definitely a show that will stay with me forever. It’s part of my life and it was most prevalent during the time that shaped who I am today. Ten years ago, I might have been Team Glinda (I was inconsiderate and obsessed with what people thought). In 2016, I like to think I’m Team Elphaba and I have been changed for good.

Image result for defying gravity gif

 

Read for Speed

 

‘I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in a three hours’ – Former school friend

‘I couldn’t put the book down…I read it in a day!’ – Some Twitter guy 

‘I couldn’t wait to get the end so I read it an afternoon’ – A woman in a shop 

As you know, I love reading. I read every single day and have cupboards, drawers and shelves teeming with books. I even have book wallpaper in my living room, for crying out loud. I’m a book person. A booky. I’m also a Harry Potter fan so when my copy of the Cursed Child arrived last Sunday, I was a bit over-excited. I was book-ravenous. Itching to get going. I examined its cover, I stroked it and, yes, I admit, I sniffed it. I couldn’t wait to read it.

But there was also a part of me that could. I’d waited a long time to find out what the next Potter installment involved and I was hesitant to race through the book because…well….that would mean reaching the end sooner (said Captain Obvious). Yes, I wanted to devour every little secret hidden in its pages, but I also wanted to enjoy the story and take my time. [It took me just over 24 hours. With restraint.]

Anyway, taking to twitter, I noticed a lot of people bragging about how fast they read the novel and it got me thinking….why? Alright, I did rush Curse Child but in my defence I’d pushed my self-control to its absolute limit. Also, it was a play script so it’s naturally going to read quicker than a novel. But why do people feel the need to rush read?

Reading, for me, is a hobby. It’s what I do for pleasure. It can sometimes take me a month to read a book that I’m really enjoying. Sometimes people ask me how long I’ve been reading a certain book for and I might say ‘Oh about three weeks….but, you know, I’ve been so busy with work…’

Straight away I feel like I have to defend my slow reading. Being busy might be true, but sometimes I’m taking my time because  I’m enjoying the story, making the most of spending time with characters and living in that world. I shouldn’t feel pressured to read faster – where’s the fun in that? Who rushes a hobby? Who wants to rush enjoyment? What kind of mad person does that?

So, to the skimmers of the World I say ‘Slow down! Relax! And enjoy!’. Embrace the slowness. Enjoy each story. Our lives are busy enough as it is so why should we deprive ourselves of our enjoyment by forcing it to end sooner? To the slow readers, I salute you! If you’re a passionate reader, I invite you to take a seat, delve into your nearest paperback and immerse yourself in brilliant new worlds, one chapter at a time!

*puts feet up and opens book*

 

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.

 

I’m never one to be out of Oz for long. Hot on the ruby heels of my re-read of Wicked, I took a twister back into Maguire’s Oz in his sequel novel, Son of a Witch. Like Wicked, I’ve found Son to read better each time I re-read. Although it does lack some of the magic of the first book, fans of Maguire’s Oz won’t be disappointed as his trademark darkness is still evident.

The story starts with a mysterious stranger, later to be revealed as Lirr, suspected (but never confirmed) son of Elphaba, being admitted to the same mauntery where he was born. Liir has been the victim of a strange attack, leaving him comatose and inches from death. He is nursed by the silent Candle, who uses her musical skills to lure his mind into reverie where the truth about the attack is revealed.

We’re taken back to the moment Wicked ended, seconds after Elphaba’s death. In these early chapters, we get to spend time with those familiar travellers from Baum’s novel, though they turn out to be bitchier than originally thought! Their bitter quarrels and the Tin Man’s sassy advice to  Dorothy (that she should invest in a leash for Toto) provide plenty of humour before events turn pretty bleak.

The re-appearance of Glinda is very welcome but Maguire taunts us with the idea of her becoming a more prominent feature and adopting Liir. Unfortunately for both the thought is far too fleeting and Glinda is soon off to her country retreat. Obviously a favourite character from the original book, Glinda’s short and sparse appearances in Son are refreshing, with Maguire still proving he is capable of mixing the familiar with the new. Glinda is still as air-headed as ever but it’s touching to see her so affected by her friend’s death. Her loyalty to Elphaba remains apparent through her support of Liir.

As for our protagonist, Liir transforms from the pathetic, mild-mannered child lingering around Elphaba’s skirts, to a brooding and angry young man, emotionally blunted by the vagueness of his past, his own self-loathing and loss of his (poor) mother figure. By the end of the novel Liir has expressed many of the traits which made Elphaba such a strong hero. He is determined in his quest to find Nor. He shows very little sentiment for others, or himself, and his desire to make some sense out of a very messy situation binds him to the reader. One of the strongest themes of Son of a Witch is that of relationships and, in this story, Liir becomes part of a very modern love triangle. Whilst Liir does love Candle, the mother of his child, he also has a touching relationship with Trism, Minor Menacier for the Ozian Army. Remembering that Son of a Witch is now eleven years old, with Wicked being published ten years prior to that, Maguire’s portrayal of relationships, sexual fluidity and that idea of indecisiveness over our desires is quite contemporary. Liir never actively questions his sexuality – it isn’t an issue of whether he likes men or women, it’s whether he loves Candle or Trism or both! Maguire should be admired for putting a bisexual (or pansexual, it’s never really clear which) character at the heart of his work. By the end of the novel, the reader is left feeling equally torn over which lover Liir should be with. Both relationships are written so delicately and naturally that it is clear both sets of couples care very much about each other. However, at the end Liir is left alone, with both his partners missing, therefore leaving him unable to come to any arrangement. His attentions, instead, are focused on his daughter, who he has found wrapped in blankets and hidden in the barn, abandoned, for reasons unknown, by Candle. Maguire certainly is the master of the cliff-hanger with that final line – ‘She cleaned up green’. Does this confirm Liir’s parentage as he carries the green gene? Will history repeat itself now another green child lives in Oz? Will the child live up to her grandmother’s name? Maguire sets up questions as fast as he answers them.

Another thing that strikes me about Maguire’s work is his ability to mix the familiar with the unknown. Oz is painted in Baum’s book as this wonderful, magical fantasy land, whereas Maguire blends that beautifully with familiar elements which makes Oz appear imperfect and closer to our world. Creatures such as Draffes and Tsebras are often referenced and briefly described, making it clear, without deliberately stating, these are just Giraffes and Zebras, but given a new name in a new world. The mauntery has never been directly referenced as a nunnery but through Maguire’s descriptions the comparison is clear.

As expected with a sequel, Son of a Witch ties up a few loose ends from Wicked but also introduces more questions for the third book. Princess Nastoya is finally released from her human body and sent to death. Maguire tackles Nastoya’s story with striking truthfulness, commenting on her decaying body, diminishing mental state and foul smell in way that creates a tight anxiety about our own mortality and the idea of being trapped in life whilst longing for death. The story progresses rapidly, with few references to events from Wicked and Baum’s original Oz. On the road to the Emerald City, Liir bumps into an old crone and her companion, a young boy named Tip. Tip appeared in Baum’s original sequels to Oz and it’s thrilling to see Maguire continue to reference Baum’s original work. Readers of the full series will also know this is an early hint at a future story thread to be tied up in the next two novels.

Overall, Maguire’s sequel provides a welcome return to his vivid but twisted land of Oz. Though it may just be shy of reaching the dizzying awesomeness of Wicked, Son of Witch still dazzles with its story of frustration and belonging. Liir is a suitable replacement protagonist but, pleasingly, the shadow of Elphaba still looms. Fans of the first novel might be frustrated at the inevitable death of Elphaba, but her presence is certainly felt throughout the second book, not just as Oz recovers from her actions, but as her (suggested, never confirmed) son steps into her boots, dons her cloak and takes flight in her name.

Six thousand strong, they cried in unison, hoping that the echo of their message would be heard in the darkest, most cloistered cell in Southstairs as well as the highest office in the Palace of the Emperor.

“Elphaba lives! Elphaba lives! Elphaba lives!”