On falling in love – like finding the perfect book

Greetings, welcome and salutations and happy new year to one and all. I know it’s been a long time since I’ve posted but I’ve brought a special story out of the woodwork for the occasion.

Now you’ll have to give me some lee-way, because I didn’t read today’s book as a child. I have little excuse, save the fact that although most of these stories are about my childhood, they are primarily about the feelings that I had the first time I read certain books. With that in mind, I’ll be looking back on a novel I discovered only a few years ago: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, or, the book I read the summer I fell in love.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – I Capture the Castle

I’m  a firm believer that some books come to me at the exact right moment in my life, they show up with stories that mean more, say more because of the point I am at when I come across them. These are the books that feel like they can set me on fire, just with their words. Stories that seem like the author looked into some crystal ball and reached down into my very soul to fish out the perfect words for exactly how it feels to be heartbroken, or raging, or totally, stupidly in love.

“Certain unique books seem to be without forerunners or successors as far as their authors are concerned. Even though they may profoundly influence the work of other writers, for their creator they’re complete, not leading anywhere.” – I Capture the Castle

For once I’m going to refrain from giving dates and ages but suffice to say it wasn’t all that long ago and the summer wasn’t all that warm. Sometimes you just discover the exact right story, at the exact right time.

My original copy, long since rescued from the bookshelf

My original copy, long since rescued from the bookshelf

But that wasn’t the case with I Capture the Castle. I had bought the book about five years previously, when I discovered JK Rowling’s recommendation on the front cover. It then spent weeks, months and years sitting on  a shelf in my bedroom, ignored for its offensive lack of wizards and knights and magic. I let it gather dust and ink stains, never getting read.

That was, until that summer, the one where it rained too much and I didn’t care. The summer where I finally understood what it felt like to have your heart leave its chest. The summer that I fell in love.  I found myself in my favourite second hand bookshop and I came across a second edition reprint of the novel from 1950. It’s a beautiful book, with a dusky yellow hardback binding, leather embossed lettering on the spine and blackened edges to every single page. I’m almost certain that it’s worth virtually nothing – except to me – but at that moment, it  was one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous volumes I’d ever seen.

I still  couldn’t tell you why. I suppose I’ve always had something of a soft spot for books that are old – books that have lived. And although I know that the story hadn’t changed one single bit in more than five decades, somehow, this book felt different. Suddenly the words of Cassandra Mortmain meant more to me, the girl who was writing her words from the kitchen sink was suddenly someone I had to know. All at once, her words had weaved some sort of spell over me, and  I was hooked. It didn’t matter that there was no mention of magic to be found in her pages. This book was enchanted all by itself. Needless to say, I bought the second copy of the book ( something which only bibliophiles seem to understand – that even though a book can have the same words inside – it can still feel like a different story) and carried it home like it was buried treasure.

“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it – or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.” –I Capture the Castle

It looks a little something like this, without the dust jacket

It looks a little something like this, without the dust jacket

I remember reading Cassandra Mortmain’s diary in a week, like it was the most delicious dessert I had ever found and I never wanted to stop eating. It didn’t matter that she was a girl from a different time, a different world to mine. For that week, with my weathered novel, I felt like I was living inside of the dillapidated castle, right alongside Cassandra and her eccentric family, eating meager breakfasts with them, watching Stephen in the Garden and Rose practice her seduction. Trailing after Topaz and of course, falling desperately, head over heels for Simon.

“Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known. The thought came to me that perhaps it is the loving that counts, not the being loved in return — that perhaps true loving can never know anything but happiness. For a moment I felt that I had discovered a great truth.” -, I Capture the Castle

I never would have thought that falling in love would change my perspective on the way that I would read. I had spent years falling in – and out – of  love with characters, living vicariously through unreliable narrators who had raging love affairs and passionate embraces. I was sure that books were the one thing that wasn’t going to change, just because I had met someone who could make my insides melt by walking into a room, someone who made me feel like a thousand different versions of myself all boiled down into the best possible one. Someone who could make me happy, incandescently happy, just by smiling at my face. I never thought that it would change how I read, how I felt when I opened up a book. Because that part of me – that sacred, secret corner of my mind, so long a refuge from the weathers of the world – was supposed to stay constant. But my addled, lovesick brain managed to invade it, and instead of paling the words that I had so lovingly stored there, instead of disproving them and setting them alight in the harsh light of day,instead, it made them shine. It took the words that were already beautiful, words filled with yearning and hope and tentative first love of  Cassandra Mortmain and solidified them into diamonds.

“But some characters in books are really real.” – I Capture the Castle

Even though our stories were entirely different, and luckily for me, mine continued on a much happier note than Cassandra’s, I still felt a deep and powerful affinity with her throughout that summer. Because for the days I was reading her diary, and meeting her family, and watching her fall in love, Cassandra Mortmain was my friend. And I got to fall in love right alongside her. And even though technically she was in my life for much longer than that, it took meeting the right person and finding the perfect book for me to unlock Cassandra from her pages.

I fell in love with her reality just as much as I did with my own. That summer I was filled with that feeling of happy anticipation, like the first light of dawn on morning clouds, or the smell of chocolate before you’ve tasted it on your tongue, like I was on the cusp of a roller-coaster about to plunge downhill. I was falling in love and I was taking Cassandra Mortmain’s diary with me. Because those are the words I want to remember. The words that will always be beautiful. The ones I read, the very first time I fell in love.

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The Philosopher’s Stone: Why context is important and drills are interesting

I was a reluctant Harry Potter reader. Despite being aware of the books from the age of six, I didn’t actually read them until I was nine. There was a simple reason for this: Harry Potter makes absolutely no sense when it’s taken out of context and this can prejudice a young reader.

You see, from the ages of six to ten I attended Speech and Drama classes once a week. Speech and Drama, for those who are unfamiliar is like an English class crossed with Theatre. We would put on plays once a year, but we would also do an exam at the end of each year so we could earn a certificate and move up to the next level. It was like a music exam but not quite as terrifying. Generally you prepared a project to talk about, a book to discuss and a passage to read. The first year I attended a boy from my school was in the same class as me, and when we were preparing the passage we were to read for the exam, he arrived with Harry Potter. Now I’m not certain, but I’ve a feeling that I recognised the cover of the book – but I didn’t know the story (that’s important).

 

I apologise to businessmen and eleven year olds everywhere

I apologise to business people and eleven year olds everywhere

I remember thinking that Harry looked in his mid-twenties (just visualise the cover of Philosopher’s Stone without knowing Harry is 11 – I still think I’m justified) and that he was carrying a briefcase. Already, my interest was waning, I had no interest in reading about businessmen. My confusion was compounded by the fact that the passage he had chosen to read is Harry’s final confrontation with Quirrell. I’ll let that sink in for a few seconds. I had no idea who these characters were and no idea what they did, to bring them to this point of the story.  I think I was vaguely aware they were wizards but then I also thought they were businessmen, so my opinion of their magic was coloured. I thought that Harry and Quirrell were lawyer-y types arguing about magical boring documents (because that’s what it sounds like if you’re dumped in the middle of that story without any background information).

A few interesting things to note about that scene for those who have not read the rest of the book:

1.The fact that Hogwarts is a magical school for teenagers isn’t mentioned ( I would have been totally into that).

2. Hermione is the only female character to get even a mention, and again, she isn’t in this scene, so I think I thought she was a secretary and not a particularly important character, so I was under the impression there were no girls in Harry Potter (I hated it when children’s books were either all boys or all girls – I liked to have a mixture of characters).

3. Snape’s sabotage of Quirrell’s sabotage at the Quidditch match is mentioned: I think I interpreted this as corporate match fixing. (It all sounded like very dull business to me).

4. As you can see from the above: The Quidditch match is mentioned. Now that’s just gobbledegook to the uninitiated (Dumbledore is mentioned by surname, another headscratcher, I think my brain decided he was Harry’s boss in the firm) but I think I was savvy enough to figure out that it was a sport of some kind (I disliked many sports in my youth, particularly books about sport), as far as I recall I decided it was a magical version of Rounders. (again, had they mentioned broomsticks I would have been totally into it).

5. It’s a very talk-y scene, with no magic and no action (very compelling once you’ve read the rest of the book – but I hadn’t) so for all I knew, the entire rest of the book was like this. It was the worst book advert I’ve ever encountered.

It made such an impression on me that every time after that when friends of mine (who knew I was into reading and fantasy) swore I would adore Harry Potter I refused to believe them point blank. I don’t think I even picked up a copy off the shelf to read the back cover (because I still believe that would have convinced me). I was a very stubborn child, and when I decided that I wouldn’t like something, I was fairly sure of my own judgement (as disastrously wrong as it may have been on this occasion).

It wasn’t until a friend of mine gave me a copy of Philosopher’s Stone for my 9th birthday that my curiosity was piqued. After all, I was never one to turn down new reading material if it was handed to me. So I began my foray into Harry’s world, starting with the Dursleys.

Now, for someone who had been refusing to read these books because I thought they were about boring business people, perhaps the Dursleys were a bit of a rocky place to start. But I remember beginning the book, reading the first page, and stopping. I remember feeling the way you do only when you discover a new author, a new story, and you stop and savour. Because a part of you knows you have discovered something wonderful, something magic. You’ve just opened Ali Baba’s cave and stepped into the wardrobe all at once. For a second everything is as magic as what’s in those pages, because you don’t know what’s going to come next but you do know that whatever it is, it’s going to be amazing. A part of you almost doesn’t want to continue reading, because then the awesome potential of that magical story will always lie before you, never tarnished by reality.

But you open the pages and continue on your adventure anyway. Elated and excited in only the way books and stories can make you.

The funny thing is that I had that feeling not when I was reading about Harry’s destiny, Hagrid’s flying motorbike or Harry’s first letter from Hogwarts. I felt it when I was reading about Vernon Dursley’s factory, Gunnings, the book I refused to read about businessmen changed my mind forever, not with magic, but with drills.

I had no idea about the thrill ride that was coming next.

The first to make me cry

I’d like to think that everyone can remember the first book that ever made  them cry, the first book that made them dream, and the first to make them want to be something other than themselves.

One book achieved all of those things for me. When I was nine years old I never had a secure idea of where books came from. In my head there was some abstract concept of ‘the author’ I’m sure, but I never really acknowledged them as being particularly important to the story. More often I believed that all stories existed independently of their respective authors, and that the ‘writer’ merely wrote them down. I thought an author’s job was much like the BFG’s, to catch dreams in bottles and spread them out to children all around the world.

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The Summer of Lily and Esme by John Quinn was the book that changed all of that for me. It’s an unusual story, about eleven year old Alan and his friendship with his new neighbours, octogenarian twins, Lily and Esme. Both appear to be suffering from dementia, believing themselves to be children and they mistake Alan for their childhood friend Arthur. This sets up an interesting premise all by itself but it’s coupled with the fact that Arthur lies at the centre of a disappearance just a few months after Lily and Esme’s 11th birthday. With his new friend Lisa (only up for the summer from Wexford) Alan begins to unravel the mystery surrounding Arthur and helps to rekindle the youth of Lily and Esme.

That really doesn’t do it justice.

It’s a small book, but packs a deep emotional impact. For me, it was the first time I ever remember identifying that someone sat down and wrote this story right out of their head. It was also the first time I remember realising that something was written well. Once again, before meeting Lily and Esme, I was aware of books that were exciting and engaging but I can’t remember knowing that someone had done it deliberately.

The real impact lies in the fact that a nine year old could relate to Lily and Esme – whose dementia was a complex idea to grasp ­- and yet it’s never a story told in a patronising tone. It treats its readers as if they are smart enough to understand what’s going on, and it’s all the better for it. The best parts included Lisa, who was an Irish equivalent to Ellie at the beginning of Up (The happy bit). The only time it got better was when her Granddad showed up, perfectly executing his role as ‘somewhat irresponsible adult’ that seems to turn up a lot in kids lit.

I remember thinking that it was an incredibly honest story, not romanticising Irish country life, but not ridiculing it either. It remains beautiful all the way through, from the twins experience of a circus for what they think is the first time, to Alan’s first entertaining experiences of the bog. It was also the first book to ever make me cry. I’ve wept for many a book since, but The Summer of Lily and Esme was the first time I ever felt so moved by something I knew wasn’t true. And that hit me hard at the time.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting its author, John Quinn, at a festival launch. When I told him how much his book had meant to me as a child, he commented that although he had written it 20 years ago, it was still the book that people still mentioned to him most often. I remember thinking it was easy to see why.

It remains one of the most special books that I’ve ever read. Not just because it was beautiful, but because The Summer of Lily and Esme was the book that made me want to be a writer myself.

Hogwarts: A Friendship

I really and truly cannot write about books that influenced my childhood without bringing up Harry Potter.

Now I’m not going to bore you with a summary of the story that you’d have to have personally carved out a rock, tunneled to the centre of the earth and disabled all internet for the last fifteen years not to have heard of. The boy wizard who lived to become the chosen one  at a magical school where he and his two best friends seem to have severe death wishes (see what I did there?) has captivated me ever since I read the first words about the uptight Dursley’s and their dislike of unusual fashions… I wonder how they’re surviving in a world with Lady Gaga…?

harry-potter-books

It is my firm belief that Harry Potter will remain children’s classics- books which will be given to children as birthday presents in 50 years- provided we don’t all download them directly into our heads while wearing silver jumpsuits. But- that being said- I don’t believe that any generation will have as powerful a connection to the stories as we have. Our generation was the one that waited in line, ours was the generation who didn’t know what would happen next. And because of that, I would argue, that we are the ones who were closer to Harry than any of those who will come after.

We were the only generation to grow up with Harry- and by that I mean- literally grew as he grew. We were children and then teenagers with him. And that gave us a reading experience where – I would argue – we could imagine all the adventures he was having in between. I came to Harry Potter mid way through the series (books 1-4 had already been released) and although countless people had encouraged me to read them, it took actually getting the first book as a present to make an addict out of me. I was ten years old. I was sixteen when Deathly Hallows came out. I grew up along with Harry.

I used to have rituals based around getting a new book. For days, no one was allowed to talk to me while I shut myself up in my room. Food was another thing that was essential, as JK’s descriptions of the feasts in the Great Hall were by far the most delectable things I have ever read. And of course you had your eagle eye trained for whatever clues were casually slipped in to make you feel like an idiot later on, because you missed them. I remember being incredibly disappointed when I turned 11 and no owl arrived at my door. Because this was a world that we all dreamed of being real. The magic, the moving staircases, the ghost teachers, Quidditch (the only time I have ever felt enthusiastic about sport in a book), the talking pictures and the Gryffindor common room all combined to create a universe that I loved being in, but, more than anything, I loved Harry Potter for his friends.

The reason I believe I fell in love with JK Rowling was because she could write a believable adventure that was built firmly around a trio of friends. Think about it, most books for kids up to then rarely had you having adventures with your FRIENDS. You had adventures with your siblings ( á la Narnia) or your cousins (Narnia again, also Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and most any Irish book written in the 90s). If you were really, really lucky, you got an adventure with most of your siblings and maybe one or two friends. It was rare I had ever found a book that focused on friendship alone (I mean sure you have the ENTIRE Weasley family to deal with, but it wasn’t until later books that they really got in on the action). It was Harry, Ron and Hermione that owned those books and the adventures within them.

Another surly cousin...

Another surly cousin…

It’s also worth pointing out that not many books had friendships between boys and girls (His Dark Materials, The Summer of Lily and Esme, Murder at Drumshee, The Silver Chair, and Bridge to Terabithia are all notable exceptions but keep in mind that most of those friendships were between one boy and one girl and heavily implied young romance). As I said earlier if you were unlucky enough to have a boy/girl coming on your adventure it was almost definitely your annoying cousin/younger sibling whom you would grow to love as part of the adventure, usually because their life was threatened in some manner.

With Harry, Ron and Hermione we got a friendship that lasted as well (again, often you could get a book that included a friendship between boys and girls but it would be solely for the summer, or a weekend away like the Irish version of The Breakfast Club- Siobhán Parkinson’s Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (Maybe)– and even that included a whiny cousin). The Hogwarts trio are clearly shown to have been friends from the age of 11 to however old they’re supposed to be in the epilogue at least. They fought like normal friends, argued, bantered, helped each other with their homework (well, helped… had Hermione not existed it’s worth questioning whether we would have been reading countless books about how Harry and Ron repeated First Year because of their constant tendency to skip class while saving the world).

This one has it all, cousins, random strangers, witches, a complete lack of parental supervision....

This one has it all, cousins, random strangers, witches, a complete lack of parental supervision….

That’s another thing: Hermione wasn’t defined by the fact that she was ‘the girl’ in their band, she was their Q division. The brains. And it was incredibly refreshing to meet a character who was smart, strong and a girl. Because although Harry is ‘The Chosen One’ and has destiny fueled magical powers, based on her sheer amount of knowledge and talent, Hermione is easily the most powerful of the three. And she was the one I identified with most – not really because she was a girl but the fact that she was smart, she cared about school and she was unequivocally the conscience of the trio as well (Harry even mentions at one point in the series that there’s a part of his brain that speaks with Hermione’s voice).

Ultimately the friendships were what drove my love of the books, a friendship that I believe all who read them felt like a silent participant in. As I said, I saw myself in Hermione, but I laughed with Ron, and wished he was my best friend too. And Harry himself…? Well, I have no qualms confessing to dancing around my bedroom to cheesy music, only dreaming of the day that I could marry him. I’m 100% certain I was not alone.

Hogwarts was a world that changed me as a reader. I can’t be certain but I can confidently say that I don’t think I would have fallen for fantasy the way I did without it. I don’t even think I would have read as much as I did. In between the reading the new Harry Potter book and waiting for the next one to come out, you had to find a way to occupy your time, so I sought out more and more books hoping that I would find ones I loved like I loved these ones. And in some cases I did. I found new friends, new places to go, new adventures to take, new schools to attend. And they were wonderful, and I do believe I would be worse off not having read them.

But, even though I never got my owl, Hogwarts will always be my first Alma Mater. And sometimes I still remember roaming the enchanted halls with Harry, Ron and Hermione, class of 1997.

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An Apology and a Re-introduction

Okay, I know. I know it’s been months upon months since my last post and that makes me a pariah in Blogland. I can only plead forgiveness and hope that people will continue to read- because this one’s a good one, I promise, I swear. I triple swear on my bookshelves- and The Precious.

But in honour of the rejuvenation of this blog, I’ve decided to give it a much needed facelift. We have a new year and a new look and- for those of you paying attention- we have a slightly new name too. Re-branding does wonders for celebrities- or so I hear. And you should continue to check in here, because I have ideas and they are not going to be ignored. Among those ideas include more forays in to Irish kids lit of the 90s and why it was always neccessary to have a cousin around, we will also be delving into darker territory with Milton for kids, how Nancy Drew was the pre-teen Scooby Gang and why Enid Blyton shouldn’t be left alone with children. But for now, I have some readers to win back- And I can think of only one way to do that.

I’ve had to come up with a fairly drastic post to get some traffic on this blog again.  I’ve brought out the big guns. The giant fish. The one that made me a fangirl before I knew what fangirling was. Yup- it’s Hogwarts time. (Cue ‘Hammertime’ playing in the background).

Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Hogwarts in all it’s glory. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Yes, if you click onward, I have re-started this blog with a post on Harry Potter (consider it the shock of life this place needs). But, for a series that I would consider one of the formative parts of my childhood reading experience, there cannot be merely one post. Yes- there will be seven. One for each book. Not including this one- it’s going to be a Harry Potter fest. So if you’d like to join me in my journey back through the pages of Hogwarts, sit back, relax and let the nostalgia wash over you.

Travels through Drumshee

Out of all the books I read as a child, there were few series to truly take me back in time. Those who remember trends in children’s books in the 1990’s might recall the overload of books about Irish myths, legends and history. I was better educated about Ireland’s past from my local library than any school book.

The popularity of Ireland’s past among its writers for children was not a new one, but there did seem to be an overload of the books in my local library. But I wasn’t complaining, history had long been a favourite subject in school and Irish history was of particular interest to me. Mostly because Irish history were the chapters with the stories, the legends, the tales about how people lived long ago. Of the many authors who wrote about Ireland’s past either through time travel, stories and flashbacks, only one actually took you to the past, to the same place again and again and again.

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Hand Holding

Be warned, today I’m not talking about books. But moments like this one are the reasons that I read. So I could feel them again.

When I was six years old there was a boy who sat on the opposite side of the class room to me, across the red carpet and in the desks with the oblong edges. He was older than me, taller than me and I was sure  he didn’t know who I was. And he performed one of the most memorable acts of my childhood.

He was the first boy ever to hold my hand.

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Imaginary endings: after the page

I grew up in between the pages of my favourite books, almost constantly leafing though pages of black and white print.

My love affair with books continued from a young age, mostly because when I read a story I stopped seeing the words upon the page. Instead I would watch as colours and characters danced before my eyes, while the words slipped in and out of focus. My mind became a miniature film projector, a tiny nickelodeon, clicking and hissing, missing the odd frame. But it crakled the book to life.

It filled my head with characters, allowed me to meed witches who weren’t green, faeries spelled with an’e’ and princes that were rescued by dragons.

Books filled with adventure

Where I wept for Atreyu, discovered new worlds with Lyra and Will, and sailed still on a lake with Winnie and Tuck. There were no boundaries in a book. I had whole universes in the palm of my hand, places I could visit with friends that I had made along the way.

However much I write, and however many writers I meet I will never get around the idea that their characters are not real, that they did not stroll, fully formed out from the authors head. These places were all infinitely real to me.

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Ladybird Readers: A rite of passage

As most people may have gathered at this point, I like to read. I liked to read as a child too but my attitude towards books may have very nearly been soured to hate at the tender age of seven.

Well, perhaps hate too strong a word. Some of you who attended an Irish primary school may be familiar with the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme, or The Peter and Jane Books or as I knew them, ‘those blue books with the numbers and letters on them’. And while hate might be too strong a word, to this day there’s a part of me that thinks there should be a special circle of hell where the person who wrote those books is forced to read them on loop. Continue reading

Matilda: A role model for life

It’s a new year and a new blog for 2012. And it’s hard to believe that it’s been 24 years since child genius Matilda Wormwood wandered onto children’s bookshelves. The consummate reader, Matilda made being a reader being a rebel. With her Roald Dahl delivered an empowered, psychic, independent genius who was three feet tall and had hair down to her ankles.

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