Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Starting Sparks #1 // I accidentally start planning a novel

Good evening all!

Do you remember a little thing called Starting Sparks?

I wrote an explanatory post here, but if you missed it, here's the gist: Ashley from [insert title here] and I are hosting a monthly writing link-up! You may have read our starting posts at the beginning of October and then forgotten. I don't blame you. I occasionally forget my own name.

In true Emily style, I am, of course, at the very last minute of participating in my own link-up. Oops. But better late than never, right?! If you'd like to, there is still time -- four days! -- to link up.

The October prompt is this:

Now, I should probably tell you about the novel I've accidentally started planning.

I had an idea at Easter-time -- I can remember very clearly having this idea, as I got into the car one rainy afternoon in the suburbs of Glasgow -- to write about a massive, arty family in a huge house in Surrey.

Obviously, I am writing a novel currently, and when it's done I'll be writing the sequel -- and there may be more than one sequel -- and I'm not going to start anything else until it's done. So I put the idea to bed.

But a few weeks ago, we were doing Creative Writing in English, and creating characters, and I thought back to my big family in their Surrey house, and all of a sudden, I'd written five pages on Felicity, one of the daughters.

From there I couldn't stop myself from thinking about her parents, her grandmother, her aunt, her siblings ... and when it struck me that I could write about them for Starting Sparks, I couldn't resist.

In case you don't know, the "servant bells" I discuss in the second paragraph are this type:

Surrey is a county in the south of England, and Durham is a university in the north of England.


In Rain

It was the one rainy day of the summer, and the house wept with them.

It had always been draughty, with mould growing unexplained round the cornices and ice on the windows’ insides in the winter. Teresa would walk from room to room, imagining the people who once lived there: earls, ladies, long dresses and parasols. A platoon of servants, buzzing about the hallways in response to the brass balls that hung on their panel on the old stone wall. When they were little, she and the others would play at Victorians, pulling the tasselled ropes in one room and shrieking with laughter as they heard the bell ringing downstairs. Those were the days when it was always sunny, and, in their memories, they seemed to be forever on holiday; running through the fields around the house and swimming in the lake. Later, afterwards, they spoke of all the time until that rainy July day as the time before. They remembered it in golden flashes, with smiles and the wistful voices of those longing for a freedom they will never quite recapture.

There were four of them, the Ruskin children, standing in a row in the sodden garden on that day and looking better turned-out than they’d ever been. Matthew, the eldest, off to Durham in the autumn: black-suited, standing with his arm around Aunt Rosalind. It was he who’d organised the day, side by side with his grandmother; he who’d ordered flowers and food, and made polite conversation with the guests afterward. Aunt Rosalind was ineffectual at the best of times, now overcome by ostentatious grief, and as for his father, though never the most affectionate of husbands, he’d locked himself in his room for three days and been, in Felicity’s words, “neither use nor ornament”. She was thirteen, then, Felicity, standing there in her pretty black dress with its lace sleeves, already aware of the way to smile at each person, the things to say to them, the ways to make them like her. It was a skill that, over the years, she’d practise to perfection.

But between Matthew and Felicity, always overlooked, was Teresa: big-eyed, uncomfortable in her dress, crying at intervals and almost overbalancing as she thought too hard about standing still. Something huge and deeply grey had opened inside Teresa, something that had kept her awake these past three nights; something broken, something afraid, all mixed up with some longing for she knew not what. She was very aware of the rain on her skin, the coldness of it, the trembling balance between pleasure and discomfort. She had complicated feelings about rain; it was both the outdoor running through wet grass, laughing at a wide sky and thrilled by the game of living; and it was grey sorrow, a forehead pressed to a school bus window as the drops trickled down. Teresa had complicated feelings about everything. She exhausted herself trying to work them out.

Last was Edmund – Edmund, the youngest, the one whose world had truly been shattered with an impact like the falling of the sky. He was eleven, and the rain picked him up and carried him into desolate landscapes of grief, leaving him gasping and guttering in the dark. Matthew didn’t understand, and Felicity didn’t try; as for Aunt Rosalind, she repelled him with her foggy hugs and her weeping. His father was an absence, not in his sphere, and his grandmother did not seem to notice the drowning pain that was attacking him. Only Teresa could come close to comfort, but she had her own night-time heartaches, and when Edmund talked to her, he found that their sorrows muddied each other’s and left them both drifting off into new waves of grief. Today he was too stunned to cry; he merely stood there with his siblings, holding his grandmother’s hand and watching the trees flap wetly in the grey rain. A lot of people spoke to him and he floated with glazed eyes, no longer able to fit the world into the right shape.

So they stood there, the Ruskin family, with their beautiful old house behind them; not looking at one another, but still a band against the world even as they sank in their individual miseries. How strange, the ties of blood; at once binding, and yet allowing a separation of hearts and minds that yawns wider with every passing silence.

Friends and relatives turned out to see the procession down to the church, offering what help they could. As they returned to their own lives these people would speak in lowered voices, commenting on how smart Matthew looked, how pretty Felicity had grown, what a shame that it rained this one day in July. The house needs repairs, they’d say to one another, and never know the significance that house had for the Ruskins: the memories that walked its halls, the long-ago games and conversations, the lives that had interwoven within its walls and now stood, here, in the rain that swirled and lingered around them.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015


The Goldfinch is a painting by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). He was Dutch, a pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer: one of the most important and influential links in the art world. Have you heard of him? Neither had I, until last month, because the majority of his work was destroyed in the explosion that killed him in 1654, when he was just 32. The Goldfinch is one of the very few paintings to survive.


Theo Decker is thirteen when a bomb planted in the Metropolitan Museum of Art changes his life forever. After his unreliable father left him and his mother, they were two against the world; she was his light, his anchor, and his best friend. When tragedy snatches her from him, Theo is left alone and directionless in New York, bewildered and heartbroken as he is passed back and forward between social workers and eventually taken in by a rich friend's family. Heartsick with loneliness for his mother, he clings to his last memory of her: the painting they saw together, Fabritius' The Goldfinch. Throughout years, journeys and personal darknesses, it is a symbol of beauty and lost things.
The Goldfinch is my new favourite book.

It was Ruby from Rustled Pages who recommended it to me. We have very similar taste in books and I trust her implicitly, so I bought the book and then, as is my wont, let it sit unread for a few months. Normally I'm the type to leave books for a few years -- really, there are some unread ones I own that fall into that category -- but for some reason I felt drawn to The Goldfinch, and decided to give it a go.

Utterly beautiful, captivating, and one of the best things I've read this year.

I love art, and I was fascinated by the way it centres around the painting; I'd never heard of Fabritius, and to learn a little bit about him was marvellous. I think it's so clever as a premise: to take that explosion in Delft, Holland in 1654 -- the year The Goldfinch was painted -- and to reimagine it as a terrorist attack on the Met Gallery. Tartt clearly shows the enduring power of art: the fact that a painting could survive such a thing twice, and retain its importance.

"Even when I couldn't see it I liked knowing it was there for the depth and solidity it gave things, the reinforcement to infrastructure, an invisible, bedrock rightness that reassured me just as it was reassuring to know that far away, whales swam untroubled in Baltic waters and monks in arcane time zones chanted ceaselessly for the salvation of the world.
        ... "Time warp: a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice. Just as my dad's rituals, his betting systems, all his oracles and magic were predicated on a field awareness of unseen patterns, so too was the explosion in Delft part of a complex of events that ricocheted into the present. The multiple outcomes could make you dizzy. Steadily the goldfinch watched me with shiny, changeless eyes."

In years to come, I guess that what I'll remember most about The Goldfinch is its utterly captivating quality. It's a long book, and so much of it is reflective or introspective; so much of it is an ordinary person's ordinary life. But it was still wholly encompassing. "Unputdownable" is an ugly, constructed word that should never be applied to something as beautiful as The Goldfinch, but that's what it was.

The prose was faultless and stunning. I do not exaggerate. Even reading the quotation I inserted above makes me shiver; Tartt has a beautiful, clear style, with the perfect balance between crisp language and winding description. A chapter-long passage on love was one of the most stirring and affecting things I've read in a long time:

"For the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom, the unbruised part of myself I'd lost with my mother. Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination, from the antique valentines and embroidered Chinese coats she collected to her tiny scented bottles from Neal's Yard Remedies; there had always been something bright and magical about her unknown faraway life. ... She was the golden thread running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone."

So it goes on for several pages (and if I could in any way justify typing out the entire thing, I would). On every page of the novel a fresh feeling or emotion jumped, another thought that I myself have had, a sensation that I've felt; again and again I had to sit back, look up for a minute, wrapped in waves of awe that Tartt had so magically captured my inarticulated feelings. It is a marvel of writing, and I could not be more sincere in saying that. 

Theo, our narrator, was broken and messy and loveable. He makes terrible choices; allows himself to be caught up in terrible things; but throughout everything he retains his nobility, and from the first page to the last, I never stopped rooting for him. It's not exaggerating to say that his life goes from sorrow to sorrow, starting with his mother's loss:

"Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead."

Theo has issues -- serious issues -- but the wonderful thing about The Goldfinch was that it didn't feel like an "issue book". So often authors dealing with serious problems -- alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, any sort of mental illness -- manage to turn their book into a horrible manual. "This is [main character]," they say, "and he/she struggles with [insert condition here]." Then they proceed with a novel wherein the MC is wholly defined by said struggle; there is nothing outside it. The Goldfinch was the opposite. Tartt somehow managed an amazing balance between Theo's tragedy and his pragmatism as a likeable narrator. Again, I can say truthfully I was in awe.

What of the other characters? They were all so developed and complex: Boris, the unreliable but attractive Russian friend; Theo's father; Pippa; Kitsey; Hobie. Each was distinctive, and each I'll remember for a long time.

"Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn't actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obejying the pace of his antique-crowed backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world."

On one level, The Goldfinch was a love song to a lost world: an old world of antiques and art and simpler times. The character of Hobie represents this. But in another way, we see through Theo that the world has an enduring nature: a brutal coldness that makes it very easy to be lost, to scream and have no one hear you.

What more can I say about a perfect book? Only that it wasn't perfect; it was dark and unsettling, heartbreaking in fact, and the worldview that permeated it was one of hopelessness. It left me raw and full of questions, but I'd be wrong to say there was no uplifting note. Theo managed to convey the commonality of humanity; a sense of togetherness, perhaps, or some sort of hope that ties of love will continue. 

"The point is maybe that the point is too big to see or work round to on our own."

"Just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colour across the sky -- so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime."


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Versatility // pictures, French texts and my mysterious nationality

I have been nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award! Thanks so much to Marian and Kat, who passed this little one my way. I have a bunch of awards in the pipeline currently, but I'm trying to space them out. I try not to barrage you with award posts -- or any kind of posts, actually. I like to mix up ... I guess you could say I'm a versatile blogger.

I used to dislike award posts, but this fact-giving lark is a great way for lifey type posts, which you all seem to enjoy.


Ripped photos by Jacob a.k.a. Mailbomb:

Also I can add a lot of pretty things from Pinterest. 
[NB: All images were found on Pinterest. I do not claim ownership of any of these images.]

The Rules

1. Link back to the blogger who nominated you.
2. Post 7 facts about yourself
3. Nominate 15 bloggers of your own

favourite song:

Thanks again to my nominators! Marian @ Ivory Clouds is one of my best and oldest bloggy friends. Her blog is adorable. Kat @ Word Spillers is a newer friend, who runs a great book blog. Check them both out!

The Facts


1. Last week I received an unconditional offer to study English Literature at the University of Glasgow. For non-Brits, this means that no matter what I get in my upcoming exams, I still have a place, based on the exam results I got in May.

Happy kinda doesn't cover it. 

Architectural Sketches - Artist Sketches Each Lonely City He Moves To - Zachary Johnson:


2. I have been painting all this week and actually really enjoying it! I thought I couldn't paint, but apparently I kinda can! I'm working on two portraits, in two different styles, and they are actually going kind of well. 

elfin lakes trail:


3. I have a lot of favourite films, but here are a few: Napoleon Dynamite, Green Card, Brief Encounter, Monsters Inc., Ice Age, Toy Story (1-3), She's the Man, Shakespeare in Love, Before Sunrise, Love Actually, About a Boy, Notting Hill (I'm a big Hugh Grant fan, can you tell?), Miss Congeniality, Mulan, Ten Things I Hate About You, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek. 

Henriette Harris 2014:
^me on a day to day basis:

4. I recently discovered this song and I absolutely love it to pieces:

Amy Rice:

jetty love:

5. My favourite painter is Egon Schiele.

- Egon Schiele -:

egon schiele:
Standing girl with blue dress and green stockings: Egon Schiele, Vienna, 1913:

6. Last month I posted this vlog and, following it, a few of you commented RE me being Scottish. I'm not. I understand, watching the vlog, that I may have implied it, but I'm not, I'm English. However, I live in Glasgow because ... logic. (That's why, in my bio, it says English Glaswegian. You see?)

Glasgow Skyline by marck vacation, via Flickr:



Gatsby, I love you:

7. I have recently become a little bit obsessed with this French feminist literary theory from the 1970s called l'ecriture feminine.

It's about empowering women through writing and removing set, male-dominated meanings from words to give language its fluidity back.

I'm slightly in love.

Clare Owen:

Extracts from Medusa by Helene Cixous, the pioneer of the movement, translated from French:

Her scene of wild writings forever escapes vigilance armed reason, force, jealousy, death wish, Schadenfreude, the traps and bites of life's enemies.

Antoine Cordet, SNOWY AUTUMN FROM HOUSE  on ArtStack #antoine-cordet #art:

As linguist the freedom with which she crosses several unconsciouses to transmit the secrets and powers of a soul in another tongue and of a body in another in which to grow and transform without restraint.


The pliancy of her libido, accomplishing her comings and goings between the diverse parts of her letters and her types and her forms, has the grace of nocturnal liberty and the vigour of the conscious and unconscious woken dream.




I'm not going to nominate anyone, because it's 9.30 on Thursday night and I need to pack because I'm going away for the weekend. "It's not Thursday night!" I hear you exclaim. Ah, bloglings, that is the magic of scheduling posts.

I have of late been absolutely atrocious at reading your beautiful blogs, but I'm on holiday next week (thank all that is good and merciful) so I will actually do a big catch-up.

Until then, farewell.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Title Taboo

Fantasy is very much getting its time in the YA spotlight right now.

Like everything, book trends vary. With Twilight (published in 2005) we had the wave of the moody vampires; then The Hunger Games (2008) and Divergent (2011) sparked the dystopia craze. Now -- probably with Throne of Glass (2012), the Grisha trilogy (2012) and Daughter of Smoke and Bone (2011) largely to blame -- it's fantasy's turn.

I am, of course, well up for this. Admittedly I'm not very good at reading new books (of the three cited fantasy examples, I've only read books #1 and #2 in the Throne of Glass series), but fantasy is my genre of choice.

However, the sheer volume of YA fantasy has led to similarity of the worst kind: repetition.

I'm still debating the title for my WIP fantasy novel, so titles are very much on my mind. And I've been noticing some fantasy title tropes.

Observe ...


[Heck, how many "shadow queen" books are there?!]


Blood, prince, thorns, fire, throne, glass, sword, snow, ash, shadow, smoke, bone. They have become buzzwords for fantasy.

I guess the question is: is this a problem? Is this trope bad? Not necessarily; these aren't intrinsically "bad" titles, in fact, I think some of them are brilliant and effective. But the truth is that they've become so ubiquitous that for me, at least, they've lost their power. When it comes to naming my own book, I'll be steering clear of these words. They have become title taboo.