Tag Archive: books


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*

 

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…

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!”

The great HP re-read continues with Goblet of Fire, and this time I managed to squeeze in a re-watch too. This was the story I could remember the least about. I realised it’s been 16 years since I first read the book (feel old? Don’t give me a panic attack) and 11 since I saw the film.

It’s definitely the darkest HP story so far. This is where shizz gets real. The fun of the last three books is still evident but the story is streaked with dark overtones and takes a sinister turn in its final act, paving the way for final three books. By the last few pages there’s a real sense of the beginning of the end.

The story opens in Voldemort’s dilapidated former home. He’s hiding out with Wormtail and Nagini when he is interrupted by muggle Frank, who he quickly executes. It’s quite a disturbing start to the story and I remember as a ten year old noticing the shift in tone. The plot continues with lots of references to missing people, wizards tortured into insanity (poor Neville) and the introduction of three terrible curses. I’ve said before that JK is able to skilfully handle adult themes whilst maintaining a focus on her younger audience. Well, this is even more evident in this story.

This is also the story where Ron, Hermione and Harry start…well…erm….noticing the opposite sex. I totally missed this the first time round (well…I was ten!) but Ron’s crush on Hermione is so obvious and quite cute to read. (I know. I’ll vomit later.) It did strike me as a bit weird though that Viktor Krum is supposed to be 18 and Hermione is supposed to be 14.  I don’t think many 18 year olds nowadays would want to pursue 14 year olds.  Also, why does everyone suddenly have long hair? Harry…Ron…Neville…all the boys have suddenly developed floppy long locks! Perhaps the Hogwarts Hairdresser was another of Voldemort’s victims…..

The biggest shock of the fourth book is the death of Cedric Diggory. Knowing Cedric is about to meet a grisly end certainly adds a chilling dynamic to his introduction. It’s clear his father,Amos, idolises him which makes his final appearance even more upsetting. Reading/watching Cedric gear up for the final task with the knowledge he won’t survive is actually awful and almost unbearable. I actually wept (stop chucking) during the film as everyone celebrated the end of the tournament, slowly realising Harry was crouched over Cedric’s body. Wow, talk about dark. Amos’ cries of ‘That’s my son!’ nearly broke me *sniff*. His actual death, in both versions of the story, is so swift and sudden. It’s genuinely shocking and you can’t help feel that he deserves a farewell speech or heroic moment or something. Cedric is built into a key character throughout the story, and comes across as a decent, genuine guy. Then flash. He’s dead. Just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. How cruel. I suppose this re-establishes Voldemort’s ruthlessness and the fact that he’s just so damn evil. What a bastard, eh?

Anyway, here are five things missing from the film that are awesome in the book.

  • P.E.W. – Remember Hermione’s civil rights campaign for house elves? I’d forgotten all about it to, but her determination makes for some fun scenes.
  • Dobby – Our favourite little elf was cut from the film but plays an integral part in the book, handing Harry the gillyweed he uses in the second Triwizard task. In the film, Neville gives him the weed (*ahem*) which does kind of make sense with him being a top herbologist.
  • Blast ended Skrewts and the Sphinx – No, this isn’t a hip new indie band. There’s quite an absence of magical creatures in the movie compared to the book, with unicorns and flobberworms also not making it to the big screen. Although the mermaids, dragons and grindylows are visually brilliant, it would have been nice to see the odd Skrewt appear.
  • Beetle Skeeter – Journalist Rita Skeeter’s subplot it tied up quite neatly in the final chapter of the book, as Hermione reveals her to be an unregistered animagus who can transform herself into a beetle. In the film, no reason is given for her ability to seek out secret scoops.
  • Ludo Bagman, Peeves, Bill and Charlie Weasley – These characters, particularly Bagman, play vital parts throughout various plots in the book but sadly don’t appear in the film. Ah, the curse of the edit strikes again. Let’s just blame Voldemort. Or the Hogwarts Hairdresser. 

The first book on my 2016 reading list was After Alice by Gregory Maguire. Maguire’s signature move is to take familiar tales and flip them on their head. This time it was the turn of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice begins shortly after Alice has taken that faithful tumble and we join Ada on the search for her friend. Ada encounters Alice’s snooty older sister, Lydia, who is reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream beneath a tree. The story splits off here as we follow both girls in the aftermath of Alice’s disappearance. Ada finds herself crashing into Wonderland whilst Lydia remains above ground, bickering with the Victorian servants and falling for the charms of an American gent.

It’s this split in storytelling that makes After Alice a bit…well…odd. It’s hard for me to criticize Maguire’s work (because I really do think he’s a genius) but I can’t help feeling like After Alice is a bit rushed. The majority of the story takes place above ground in Victorian Oxford. A place which, let’s face it, is considerably less interesting than Wonderland. I found myself hoping that the next chapter would rejoin Ada down under but was disappointed to find another chapter set in the grounds of Alice’s home. It feels like Maguire has wasted an opportunity to Oz-ify Wonderland – expose the darkness and revel in the absurd. That’s what he does best. Ada’s encounters with the inhabitants of Wonderland – particularly the Mad Hatter and the March Hare – do feel wonderfully genuine and reminiscent of Carroll’s original creations. Maguire has certainly captured the quirky style of Carrol but too much time is spent in the real world. It feels like Alice is having all the fun in Wonderland and we’re stuck on the wrong side of the rabbit hole, missing out on one hell of a party.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book, it’s just that I was expecting more from it. Wonderland, like Oz, is an impossible place and therefore bursting with possibilities. To get the chance to write in a setting like this is a writers dream and, whilst it’s clear Maguire has a lot of admiration for Carrol’s work, it feels like more could have been made of his opportunity to explore this world. There are some lovely moments – Ada’s freedom from her iron equipment, Siam’s decision to stay and a reference to Victorian’s needing a whacky fantasy novel – and Maguire has created a likeable character in Ada.

The Wonderland stuff works pretty well. It just feels like we should have more of it. The London based stuff is where the novel sinks slightly. A lot of conversations seem more like extracts from a thesis rather than a novel and I’m not really surely what the point of Lydia’s hinted relationship with Mr Winter was. It was an interesting touch to have Charles Darwin appear as a friend of Mr Winter’s and Alice’s father. Darwin and Carrol are two figureheads of the era so Darwin’s presence feels right. His final words on the human being’s capacity for imagination is also a neat way to end the story.

Overall, After Alice is a must for any fan of Maguire or Carroll but don’t expect another Wicked. The front cover declares it a ‘Christmas gift to the dear reader of Wicked in memory of Alice in Wonderland.’ I think this is pretty accurate. I’d be grateful to read any new work from Maguire, particularly if it’s within his fantasy style, and After Alice does feel like a love letter to Carroll’s work, but to not explore Wonderland further, Maguire is clearly mad. Then again, all the best people are.

This year I decided to take a leap back into my youth and re-read a set of books that were a permanent fixture throughout my childhood. I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 11 years old. Fourteen years later, and the same book had me gripped all over again. There is something magic about Rowling’s work. She manages to discuss so many adult themes within these books – loss, death, betrayal – whilst ensuring they are still appealing to that younger audience. Philosopher’s masterfully introduces the wonderful wizarding world and its inhabitants, setting us with up for a journey that will last a further six books. I think it is a faultless children’s book, offering plenty of escapism, without being too childish for us adults either. I used to dream of worlds like this when I was a child and suddenly there was a whole book based around that dream!

When I re-read Chamber of Secrets I was struck by the cleverness of the plot. It really is the perfect whodunit! All the subtle references to snakes and events of the past are tied up beautifully at the end and I was almost jealous of my younger self for reading the story without knowing the outcome. The reveal of Tom Riddle’s true identity is beautifully written and a real surprise (to my younger self).  Rowling finds a neat way of using her main antagonist without actually using him (if that makes sense!) which means fans don’t get bored of Voldemort (after the first book, he doesn’t actually appear again until the fourth, but his presence is certainly felt.)

After plunging back into the non-muggle world, I was keen to move on to Prisoner of Azkaban. Again, I could not put this book down, even though I knew what was coming. The world Rowling creates through her descriptions of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is wonderful. It really fizzes through the pages in Harry’s third outing. The subplots of Hermione’s timeturner and Scabbers’ apparent illness also pay off in the big finale and prove to be more highly significant details that Rowling has seeded through book. She create a brilliant faux-villain in Sirius Black and it’s really heartbreaking when Sirius is forced into hiding, meaning poor Harry is sentenced back to life with the Dursley’s.

Reading these books reminded me of that excitement I would feel on the eve of a HP release. It was like Christmas Eve. My mum would head to town at midnight to buy the book for me, so that when I woke up it would be there. I remember the weight of it. Running my hand over the cover. Studying the artwork. Then the reading would begin. I would read at EVERY opportunity until I had finished. I have never loved a book like I loved the Harry Potter books. Now, as an adult and a writer, I can appreciate their brilliance on a whole new level. To all wannabe authors, Rowling is the perfect teacher. You can tell that she immersed herself fully into this world and truly loved creating these characters and their stories. When it comes to writing, Rowling is a wizard.

Warning: This blog contains spoilers.

In the autumn of 2006 I was introduced to what would become my favourite ever book. I’ve made no secret of it in previous posts – I love Wicked and I love Gregory Maguire. Autumn, for me, has become synonymous with Wicked (as each time I’ve seen the show and read the books it has been September/October) and every year I find myself listening to the soundtrack or reaching for the book. Musical aside, what’s special about Wicked is that each time I read it I spot something new. I always take something different from each re-read. My last re-read was in 2012 so I decided I was long overdue a visit to Oz. The story never ceases to capture me and I am always devastated to reach the end. It’s one of those rare books that you cannot get enough of but are wary of visiting too many times in case the magic wears off. (Though, I don’t think that’s possible).

Maguire manages to re-vision Oz in a completely new light to Baum’s world by using vivid and powerful imagery (who would have thought the yellow brick road would be described as ‘a noose’ around Oz? A symbol of its controversial political implications). Maguire’s Oz is magical but it is also a horribly sinister place – which makes it a lot more like our own world. Maguire’s Oz is real. Yes, there’s magic and talking Animals (note the capital) and TikTok robots but there’s also political unrest, discrimination and conspiracy.

One of the brighter highlights of the novel is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. In earlier chapters, Glinda’s snooty judgements are often comically countered by a sarcastic sting from Elphaba. As the two settle into a friendship they develop a powerful bond which leaves the reader genuinely saddened when Elphaba sends Glinda back to Shiz, leaving her in the Emerald City. Their brief reunion at Colwen Grounds years later is a treat to read with Elphaba’s spikiness continuing to douse Glinda’s snobbery. By their last meeting, it’s touching to see that Glinda truly cares about Elphaba, a stark contrast to their initial meeting. It’s also poignantly clear that Elphaba cares about Glinda but is too proud and enraged to show it.

From this year’s visit to Oz I picked up to two references to previous Oz stories which I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, the sands surrounding Oz are said to be considered in some cultures as ‘deadly poison’, a reference to the wheelie’s description of the sand in Return to Oz. I also yelped when I deduced that the famous scene from the movie where the Witch spells ‘Surrender Dorothy’ above the Emerald City could actually be Elphaba asking the Wizard to ‘Surrender Nor to Me’, as she pleads with him at Colwen Grounds. (Oh! I just love Gregory Maguire!)

A major issue throughout Wicked is the struggle between good and evil. Elphaba tells her son, Liir, that ‘evil is always more easily imagined than good’, which links in to my discussion last week about finding villains easier to write. This phrase struck me as an unfortunate truth as, as well as when writing, us humans do tend to focus on the evil within the world and ignore the good. It’s evident in our newspapers, our televisions, even our classrooms sometimes. What is it about evil deeds that fascinate us so much?

Maguire’s main achievement with Wicked is that he casts doubt over the position of the Wicked Witch of the West on the evil-o-metre. Though it could certainly be open to interpretation, I don’t think Elphaba is evil, just a victim of injustice, society and…well…bad luck!  In this latest re-read I really felt for Elphaba in her pre-death descent into paranoia and desperation. She has harboured this urge for forgiveness for years and Sarima slyly refuses her that by befriending her and forbidding her to discuss Fiyero (talk about cold anger!) It hadn’t moved me so much before. Following a life of neglect, failure and loss, it’s no surprise Elphaba sinks into an alcoholic and sleep-deprived madness following her failed attempt to kill Madame Morrible.

Her apparent death at the hands of Dorothy is a final insult and indignity to a modern literary hero.

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For about two months I’ve been haunted by one of my own creations.

I’m in the middle of a re-draft and I am constantly querying my antagonist. Do we need to know more about her? Why is she like this? What would she do in this situation? What would she say to this person? Who is she?

I see her everywhere I go. She’s in the supermarket, she’s in work, she’s in my car, and she’s even joined me in the bath!

I know this is the case with every writer but the troubling thing is…… She is pure evil.

She is the most outrageous, offensive, cruel and manipulative character I have ever written. She’s Voldemort, Patsy Stone, Cersei Lannister and Darth Vader all rolled into one.

Last time I wrote her she was about to be challenged spectacularly in the women’s toilets of a bar by one of my (sort of) protagonists in what could be the campest showdown I’ve ever written. (Seriously, Kathy and Sharon? Pfft!)

To me, she is now real. I’ve created someone who I love to hate.

Now, I’ve always been one for a good villain. When I was a child I was more inclined to be fascinated with Ursula, Captain Hook, Scar and Maleficent than the heroes of their stories. It’s no secret that my favourite book is Wicked by Gregory Maguire that delves into the backstory of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. I am just a sucker for a good baddie. I’m intrigued as to what makes them tick and if they are misunderstood, like Elphaba, that earns them even more points.

I had two sets of villains in Reset. There was the elusive Marston, whose wickedness was probably crafted due to the pressures and experiences of his former career, and then there were Roache and Tremaine. These two weren’t pure evil, they were just doing their job, but happened to be pretty horrible people.

Caitlyn is a different story. From the beginning she is cold and mysterious and as the novel progresses she turns into a spiteful, poisonous bitch. By the end, the only redeeming feature is that she is…well….kind of funny. Her put downs and one liners are cruel and often upsetting but sometimes they can’t help provoke a chuckle. Those who have read the story have all said that it’s a shame she is so evil as she is such an interesting character. Isn’t this the case with all villains? For me anyway, the heroes are safe and boring but the villains have the real fun and there is something satisfying about unadulterated loathing. Look at Joffrey (and many other characters) in Game of Thrones. I hated him so much but his wicked doings were super entertaining (and I did cheer loudly when he finally bit the dust).

Anyway, anyway, anyway, my point is villains are just far more interesting than heroes. I think there is so much more scope for a gritty, powerful backstory with a villain and they, of course, can get away with fantastically wicked deeds. They can also say exactly what everyone else is too scared to say, which is something of a theme in After Caitlyn. I believe Caitlyn is a brilliant villain because none of the other characters realise it until the end. She connives, schemes, manipulates, bitches and backstabs right until the end, remaining mysterious and elusive even up to her sudden exit.

When I think of Caitlyn, I think of Shakespeare.

‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

Saturday night. Whilst other twenty-somethings were downing shots, snogging strangers and being sick in the back of taxis, I was blissfully reading through the full first draft of my second novel with a glass of milk and a Cadbury’s Flake.

I wasn’t bothered about how tame my Saturday was because in front of me was something I had done all by myself. I love that sense of achievement and I will always crave it.

It was all there in front of me (and now I’m going to say the title for the first time…oh God…ready?) – After Caitlyn, draft one. The total opposite of Reset – shorter, more humble and grounded – but still holding enough power in those few pages to make me feel totally fulfilled.  I’d written the whole thing in about two weeks after a sudden and unstoppable burst of inspiration (see last post!). So, again it differed to Reset which took me about a year and half to write.

Now the tough part begins – editing.

Tough for a couple of reasons (mainly because the editing stage is where I find myself most distracted to a point where I can no longer be arsed. Soon, months have gone by and I’ve disengaged with the story completely and have to re-read!). I’m sure it will be different this time. I start with a team of readers (who are reading as I type) then carry out a second edit following their feedback.

Tough, also, because I can be very indecisive. Several characters in this story have emotionally complex backgrounds which are often given as excuses for their behaviour. The dilemma I have is – how much backstory do I give them? I’ve been careful not to explain too much so as not to distract from the main story. I know what happened to my characters before After Caitlyn begins, but I’m not sure I want/need to share all of that with readers. In some novels I’ve read, the fact that a characters backstory is left uncertain contributes to the brilliance of the book, but in others it’s been necessary to know about the character’s history in order to make sense of their actions. I wanted to make this story as real as possible – focusing on real, human people in a real, human situation – so omitting details from a character’s past might work to promote that as, in life, we can never really know anyone.

One character has their background heavily alluded to but details are not given. I think I’ll stick with that. But another prominent character, who carries out really despicable deeds and behaves in a totally unacceptable way, does not have their history fully explained. By the time I’d reached the end of the story I couldn’t help worrying there was a danger of this character becoming 2D and…hmm…slightly pantomime! This character has had a very tricky past and I’m unsure whether explaining that would make their actions a bit more understandable (but not forgivable!) I don’t want to lay on this character’s backstory too thickly as I think their story needs an element of mystery to fit with their sudden arrival and subsequent disappearance. So, is it necessary to know a character’s backstory? Or can great characters often come from mystery and the reader’s own assumptions?