Saturday, 30 June 2012

A work of fiction: Chapter 1

The last two years have been the craziest of my life.  It started with my mum taking the riskiest, stupidest ever career change, and my dad letting her.  I was like: OK, fine, but where does this leave me?  Dad was staying at home in the suburban semi so you'd think that would be a good place for me to be, too – close to my friends, easy bus route to school, walking distance to shops.  Suddenly all these things I depended on so much would be snatched from under me when I went on tour with Mum.  She's a comedian.  Or she's supposed to be – I don't find her funny.  Although I did laugh when she told me I'd be leaving everything behind to go with her.  Turns out that one wasn't meant to be a joke.

You'd think living in hotel rooms and staying up late to go to shows would be fun.  To begin with, it was, but being left all day with people you hardly know isn't.

At first I kept in touch with my friends all the time.  Then my phone ran out of battery while we were staying in a caravan at a festival.  Since then I haven't been good at keeping in touch.  Occasionally I'll find my charger, and boot up the laptop or charge up the phone, but I need to keep the line free for Mum and Dad.  When we have signal.

When I stopped using my phone and laptop so much, I got into reading.  I read loads.  I read all the books I had with me.  Then I had nothing else left to read.  I was no longer a reader.  I needed a new thing.

When we were staying in a big city, I'd go to the cinema.  We staying in one place for two weeks.  I went to the cinema every day.  I saw every film that was out at the time.  And I ran out of money.  Money was getting tight, with the shows not going as well as expected, so I wasn't allowed to go to the cinema any more.

I needed a new thing.  A new thing that didn't cost any money.

One day I went out for a walk.  It felt good.  We were staying near a big park.  I stomped through the crunchy, brown leaves in my comfy, brown boots.  A dog came up to say hello, before it was called back to its owner.  Then I felt lonely.  I had no friends, no home and almost no family.  I never saw my dad, I hardly saw my mum, I'd read all my books, seen all the films and had no money.  And I was getting cold.  As I looked around me, I saw flakes of snow beginning to swirl around in the air.  My new hobby was gone – it would be too cold to go out for walks – winter was coming.

By a stroke of good luck we were staying in a posh hotel that night.  I went up to our room, put my pyjamas on and ordered room service.  By a stroke of bad luck, my mum was out at a party, so I was dining alone.  Apart, of course from the chaperone (well, I was too old to have a babysitter by this time) Mum had sent.  She was medium height and medium build with dark skin and curly black hair.  I had no idea what she'd be like.  Would she sent me to bed early or ignore me and let me do what I wanted?  The answer: neither.  After a couple of minutes of eating and watching TV together, I thought she must be magical: she made me laugh.  Not the fake kind when Mum glares at me after practising her material on me.  A real laugh.  I laughed so hard I nearly cried.  I can't remember what the joke was now, but looking back I think I kept laughing because it felt so good, not because the joke was that funny.  It was such a release.  I'd had no one to talk to, no way of expressing my emotions, a lot was released in that laugh.

When at last I could no longer keep my eyes open, my chaperone finally suggested going to bed.  I don't know what time it was.  She said something about saying prayers before bed.  I mumbled sleepily that we didn't believe in God.  She must have heard me say I was too tired or some other excuse because she didn't argue.

The next morning, my mum was sitting having breakfast when I went down to the dining room.  She was wearing a plain grey jumper and hiding behind a newspaper while she sipped sweet black coffee.

"Morning," she said blandly.  I murmured acknowledgement as I dropped into my seat.  "How was your evening?" she asked.

"Fun," I replied after a moment's pause.

"What did you get up to?"

"Not much.  Watched TV.  Ate room service.  The chaperone was funny – she made me laugh,"  I recounted as I rubbed my eyes sleepily.  When I looked up, Mum was just putting on a grin, her 'I'm covering up my true feelings' face.  I've seen it when she's about to respond to a heckler with a witty remark.  It was a long time since I'd seen her do it off stage.  Right now, it worried me.

"She made you laugh?" she asked.  I didn't know if it was an innocent question, meant to show interest in the evening I'd spent or the friend I'd made.  Or if it was loaded with ammunition waiting for a trigger.  It turned out my "mmm" of a response was the trigger.

"She made you laugh?" she repeated.  "She made you laugh," she said more firmly.  I couldn't take my eyes of her reddening face.  "For the last year I've been on tour making people laugh.  People pay for me to make them laugh.  They travel, they pay, they come and see me and they laugh.  You follow me round wherever I take you, but you've never laughed at a single witticism.  But the babysitter I pay to keep you out of trouble is funny and makes you laugh?"

I wasn't sure what response she wanted.  I wasn't sure she wanted one at all.  I sat glued to my seat, wishing the waiter would take her away with her dirty plate.

She must have continued ranting and I must have zoned out, because the next thing I knew she was in the middle of telling me I must be defective for not appreciating good humour or art, and for being so moody all the time.

I started to feel sick.  Then I realised that I wasn't really sick, but homesick.  I realised I hadn't felt at home for over a year.  After the novelty had worn off, I'd stopped feeling excited wherever we went and often felt uncomfortable and ill-at-ease, like I didn't belong.  Not even that I didn't belong there, but that maybe I didn't belong anywhere.  I even started to worry that we'd never go home, that I'd never have a permanent address, the same view every morning or regular pocket money.  Would I ever see my dad again?

Before she'd finished talking – she was now considering getting Dad to send money so she could pay to send me to a child psychologist – I got up and left.  I'd had enough and needed to get out.  I collected my thick coat and comfy, brown boots from my room then, too impatient to wait for the lift, I took the stairs down to the lobby.

By the time I got to the front door, I was really warm.  I was tempted to take my coat off but I knew the wintry air outside would soon cool me down.  A little snow had settled overnight, making the ground sparkly white.  It looked so pretty, it nearly made me smile, 'til I thought better of it and thought I'd better make some distance between me and the hotel before showing any emotion, for fear my mum would see me.  I stepped out of the doors, turned left and started walking.  I didn't know where I was going, didn't have a route or destination in mind, but my feet seemed to be carrying me somewhere.  Or was it my heart?  Something in me was longing for... something.

It was still quite early in the morning and there weren't many people about.  A few cars went passed and a few men passed on the other side of the road.

I got to a roundabout and turned left.  The road ahead was straight and narrow.  There were a few trees along each side, still sparkling with frost.  At the end of the road was a large, stone building I recognised as a church.  As I got nearer to it, I could hear singing.  As I climbed the steps to the big, oak doors, I realised how hungry I was.  Not because I hadn't eaten breakfast but a hunger deep inside.

I crossed the threshold and suddenly felt at home.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Amethyst Sparkle

Amy the teddybear
This is Amy.  She will be 10 in three months' time.  Her name is short for Amethyst Sparkle.  Amethyst Sparkle is the name of my favourite nail varnish.  On holiday nearly 10 years ago, whilst painting my nails, we decided that Amethyst – shortened to Amy – would be a nice name for a girl.  I then bought Amy as a birthday present for Nicholas two months later.  In a later post, I will introduce you to Barak, the bear who was bought during the holiday which happened nearly 10 years ago.  I might wait until July so I can post about him on his birthday.

Amy is a very clever bear.  She loves to read.  She lives to read.  If there's a new book in the house, she knows about it.  We say that she has book radar.  She makes a good reading buddy because she's nice to snuggle up to.  She's not always very patient, though, if she gets to the end of the page before you do.

Right now Amy is sitting on the bed behind me sneaking a peek at what I'm writing about her.  She's a curious bear who, because of her extensive reading, knows a lot about lots of things.  Sometimes she shares her knowledge, by way of a discreet whisper in the ear.  At other times, she withholds her know-how, not out of spite or a refusal to share her expertise, but because she wants you to find the answer for yourself – she doesn't want to spoil your eureka moment.

In this photo, Amy is wearing her pink butterfly t-shirt.  She tends to wear a lot of pink.  Although she isn't particularly girly in the sense of make-up, gossip or other characteristics associated with girls, I think she dresses in a girly colour because she has a lot of brothers and wants to hold on tightly to her identity as a girl.  Ever the practical bear, she is wearing pink joggers with her pink butterfly t-shirt.  The joggers have a matching jumper, which we bought because it says 'Sparkle' on it.

Amy is the most sensible of our teddybears.  She's the one we can trust to be in charge of the others when we go out.  She looks after them, referees their football matches and makes sure they behave.  She tries to do the same to us, jumping on us to get up in the morning when we oversleep and telling us to go to bed at night (although that could just be because she wants a bedtime story!).  She's good at giving getting-up hugs (giving you a hug in the morning before you get up) and at staying in one place to hug you all night and keep you warm and comfortable.  Barak, on the other hand, is not as good at that, but you'll learn more about him at a later date.

I have to stop writing now because Amy is telling me that it's late and I have to go to sleep (or read with her) because I have to get up early in the morning.  It is true that I have to get up early in the morning, so I will give in to her nagging this once.

I'll leave you with another photo of Amy.  In this one she is with her friend Jeremy under the umbrella I got for Christmas, which I realised just yesterday matches my Twitter background!

Amy and Jeremy under the umbrella

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Read the book or watch the film?

In short, both.  But in the right order.

There are few pastimes more pleasurable, more peaceful, more relaxing or more satisfying than getting lost in a book.  I'm sighing with happiness at the mere thought.  I love the way you can really get into someone's head, know their innermost thoughts, get to know how they tick, what makes them mad and what makes them smile.  Over a series you can really get to know a character, like you can a real person.  You get to know how they react to certain situations, the sorts of people they enjoy spending time with, the things they like to do in their spare time.  You get more than just the action of a story: you get the internal monologue of the main character's thoughts, their own point of view on the things they see, a peek into their heart; you get a rich description of the world in which they live, which evokes the desire to live there or not; you are transported to another universe, where yours does not exist and you, as but an onlooker, are safe.

I enjoy watching films based on books I've read because they help me to envisage the characters and places described.  They're also a great way to share a story, because you can watch a film as a group and easily fit a film into an evening spent with friends.  Watching a film, or indulging in other spin-offs from a novel (for example, other books, websites or merchandise) prolongs the experience, makes you feel part of that world for longer.  Watching a film is an easy way to get a quick fix of a story you enjoy.

Two things are experienced when reading a novel: the first is discovering the action as it unfolds; the second is building up a picture in your mind's eye as the surroundings are described to you.  When you watch a film, you also discover the action as it unfolds, but the difference is that the pictures have been drawn for you.

If you watch the film before reading the book, half of the experience has been taken away.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

A few thoughts on The Hunger Games

I've recently finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy. I was determined to read the first book before going to see the film, and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  I was so glad, as I always am, to have read the book first!

I was suprised to discover that the books were written in the first person, present tense, but soon found that this created a very fast-paced narrative that was easy to get into and easy to be entranced by.  It was soon easy to see why so many people loved the books and were eagerly anticipating the release of the film.

Harry Potter is another series I have also very much enjoyed reading, so it seems reasonable to make some comparisons here.  In her Harry Potter series, JK Rowling has created a fantasy world which readers would love to experience, to escape to, to dream about living in.  The world Suzanne Collins has created in the Hunger Games triology, however, is not one I would like to escape to or dream of having grown up in.  This is the fundamental difference I make between the two series.

The ending of the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, was logical enough in itself, it kind of made sense, but it didn't feel very satisfying.  I'm torn between concluding that the author ran out of time (or enthusiasm) and wanted to quickly find a comfortable resolution, and that the author wanted to make a point that people who have been through as much as Katniss and Peeta would still be emotionally scarred by everything that happened and would automatically be drawn together by their common experiences (which no-one else can understand and therefore offer any comfort for) and that life isn't always as dramatic as it seems in stories so settling down with a family is what everyone ends up doing (in fiction and in real life).

Like the end of the last Harry Potter book, the epilogue gave a very final end, making it nigh on impossible to continue the series.  In both cases I feel that this was appropriate.  Both series deal with a time of war in their respective worlds which comes to an end when the baddies are defeated by the protagonist.  There couldn't be another Harry Potter book (much as we Potterheads would love to read one!) because there is no Voldemort left to defeat; there couldn't be another Hunger Games book because the Hunger Games are no longer an annual event in Panem.

Whenever I read the Harry Potter books, I get very quickly immersed into the wizarding world.  I get obsessed by it: I want to read about it and talk about it all the time; I want to look up Harry Potter websites, play Harry Potter games and watch Harry Potter films.  It's the world JK Rowling has created that captured my imagination.  When I read the Hunger Games trilogy I was captured by the fast-paced first person, present tense narrative.  It was the way it was written, rather than the desire to be part of the story, that kept me reading all day and most of the night.  It would be horrible to live in Panem at the time the books are set, to be thrown into the arena, to not know what's going to happen to your loved ones or where your next meal will come from.  Although there are dark times in the Harry Potter series, and times when characters do lose their loved ones, much of the books is taken up with creating a sense of community between the magical people, with making you want to be part of their world, and knowing that you'd be happy there.  I mean, who wouldn't be happy with Mrs Weasley's home cooking or playing Quidditch in your spare time?  I wouldn't want my daily life to be taken up with having to break the law just so I could find something to eat, though, or living in constant fear of losing my family.

For this reason, I don't think I'm going to get as obsessed with the world of the Hunger Games as I have done with the world of Harry Potter.  I also don't think there will be as many spin-off websites, TV programmes, books or other merchandise.  The Hunger Games trilogy hasn't defined a generation the way the Harry Potter series has.  I started reading the Harry Potter books at the age of 14 (I think).  The last film has been and gone, but I don't feel like it's ended.  Pottermore is still new (although it is a bit rubbish) and more and more fans are being added to our number.  I do think all three of the Hunger Games books will be made into films, but because much of the way it's written is about getting into Katniss's head and hearing her inner thoughts, they will be a very different experience.  An analysis on the difference between reading books and watching films, however, is another story, for another blog post.