Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Every couple of years, I find myself in the mood once more to read the Harry Potter series. The story never gets old; it’s earned itself a special place in my heart.

harry_potter_and_the_sorcerers_stoneI think people are still drawn to these books because they feel like home. When thousands of people gather to read a story, it creates a sense of belonging which doesn’t fade when we finish the series. I think that’s the reason why Harry Potter will never die.

These books lack the elaborate description to which I am normally drawn, but that is not a weakness. We must take into account factors such as the age of the targeted audience. It surprises me a little that I enjoyed it, being a person who prefers old books with long paragraphs, but I then realize there’s more to a good story than flowery writing. J.K. Rowling is a master at writing action that keeps us turning the page, and I appreciate that, by not over-describing, she gave us room to imagine.

As for the story, I don’t think much description is necessary, however here is a loose overview:

Ten-year-old Harry Potter lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle and cousin, the Dursleys. This family take pride in being perfectly normal and respectable, unlike Harry, who has nothing in common with them at all. He is not normal; strange things happen when he feels threatened or upset. For example, one time Harry jumped onto the roof of his school, when all he’d wanted was to dive behind a trash can.

The worst of his mishaps comes to pass on his cousin Dudley’s birthday. During a trip to the zoo, Harry Potter finds he can talk to snakes. Then, when his cousin Dudley pushes him, Harry–in a flash of anger–causes the glass case to vanish, setting the python free. Though unable to explain how he did this, Harry is punished for it, locked in his cupboard under the stairs for days.

Just when he is convinced that he will never have any friends, a letter arrives in the mail for him. Uncle Vernon does not let him read it, though apparently he knows who it’s from, because it sends him into a panic. It doesn’t end there: soon dozens of letters begin to arrive, identical to the first. Then hundreds come pouring through the chimney and all the crevices along the windows. These letters can find Harry wherever he happens to be, whether under the stairs or at a hotel.

Driven mad by paranoia, Uncle Vernon moves his family to a desolate island. At last he is certain no one will be able to find them, but he is wrong. While on the island, the clock strikes midnight on Harry’s eleventh birthday–which, of course, the Dursleys haven’t celebrated–but he is about to receive the ultimate gift, that which loyal readers long to receive, even after we’ve grown old.

On his eleventh birthday, Harry Potter meets Hagrid, the gentle giant, who breaks into that island shack and hands him a letter like those Uncle Vernon had been hiding. In the letter, Harry Potter discovers that he is a wizard, a famous one at that. Most of all, he discovers that he has a home away from these unkind people, a place where he will belong.

Though we readers will never receive our letters from Hogwarts, dedicated fans will always feel like witches and wizards. This is the belonging: we might have nothing else in common, but our love for Harry’s story will bring us together for a very long time, perhaps for life.

Have you read the Harry Potter books? What House were you Sorted in? I am a Ravenclaw!

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The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Provençal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust


kruse_swanns_wayOccasionally we find books so beautifully written that it seems the style, not the plot, keeps us turning pages.

Though translated from its original French, Swann’s Way did not lose its beauty in the process: every sentence reads like a verse from an old, nostalgic poem. As an example:

Meanwhile the scenery of his dream-stage scattered in dust, he opened his eyes, heard for the last time the boom of a wave in the sea, grown very distant. He touched his cheek. It was dry. And yet he could feel the sting of the cold spray, and the taste of salt on his lips.

That’s not to say the plot was dull–I only mean that I was entranced by the scenes, described in such a way that they drifted before me like dreams. Of the plot, I can say it’s unique in its depth, two points of view cleverly blended.

The two points of view seem as though they shouldn’t have anything in common. In Swann’s Way, the first scenes focus on young Marcel, loosely based on the author himself. This fact adds another layer of mystery. We want to get to know the author, and we wonder what traits he shared with his characters.

Marcel, the character, opens the novel with flashbacks to powerful moments in his childhood. It’s a sad, anxiety-ridden childhood; his fears plague him to a point where he cannot sleep if his mother doesn’t go upstairs to give him a kiss good-night. These kisses become ritual, seldom broken except for when the wealthy Charles Swann comes to visit.

Swann is the second main character. He is a wealthy stockbroker, friends with many important figures in Parisian society, and also controversial because of his marriage to a woman named Odette. Their courtship is a mark on his name forever, a favorite topic of Marcel’s grandparents to discuss when he is not around. His passages in the novel follow that tumultuous time.

We see his admiration for Odette become an obsession, then morph into anguish when she doesn’t reciprocate his love. When Odette distances herself from Swann, he begins to hate her as much as he wants her. Though he once thought her beautiful, he now loathes even her appearance. He fantasizes of a life without her, yet sends friends to stalk her and report her daily activities.

This jealousy is a trap for him as well as for Odette. This is where the story ripples like a reflection on water: as a reader, I didn’t like Charles Swann, but couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I knew he would never be happy, and I read many scenes with a grimace.

Swann and Odette eventually marry and have a daughter named Gilberte. Young Marcel falls for Gilberte in a manner similar to Swann’s obsession with Odette; it is here that their two stories become linked in an intriguing parallel.

Proust wrote this book in a way that he managed to manipulate time, much in the way painters mix color blends that tell stories; if we allow ourselves to soak in the sentences, we feel each emotion until the end.

This book may not be for everyone, because it is a rather heavy read, and a long one. It requires great patience–I found that speed-reading would not do, and forced myself to slow down so I could taste each word. If we miss one phrase, the enchantment does not grip us.

It is ideal for readers who like heavier stories, and those who soak in poetic writing. Swann’s Way will leave marks with the characters’ strong conflicts; there are certain scenes in which my heart will lurk forever.

I know I will read this book again one day.

If you would like to read Swann’s Way, it’s available for download here at Gutenberg! Have you already read the book? What are your thoughts on it?

Adventures in French


They say to pay attention to what interests you most, because it is part of you. In the past, if asked what my passion was in life, I would likely have responded, “Writing.” I would have said without hesitation that I lived for story, nothing more and nothing less, but as we grow, we learn.

My recent interest in French seems to have come from a mix of things–the convenience of Duolingo, the lovely sound of the language, and my own stubbornness. I didn’t go into it thinking it was a passion, though: usually it doesn’t take long for me to quit a new hobby. This time, things were different.

For almost a month now I’ve been obsessively learning words and phrases in French, using not only Duolingo but Memrise and even Tumblr. (Of the three, Tumblr makes learning more enjoyable; it helps to see regular people blog in their native language.)

Though I cannot speak it aloud with ease yet, I’m getting the hang of reading it, and if I keep going at this rate–well, I can feel very optimistic. I already know Spanish because my mother is Peruvian, and she taught me. It will be nice to speak a third language now. This makes the world so much bigger for me, and also makes me wonder if my passion really was story all along.

chris-coudron-133542.jpgCould it be that my passion is really language–that I am in love with the art of words, and not the stories they tell? Do I have the heart of a writer or a linguist? Am I a storyteller, or do I collect vocabulary used in lovely poems?

I have no plan on what I’m going to do with my French. I hope to learn well enough to write short pieces in the language; I most certainly hope to read French classics in their native languages. I enjoy meeting people who speak it–I’ve made many good friends since my journey began.

In the end, do we really need a reason to learn new things–to explore and see the world differently, even if it’s through the way things are said? I have no reason not to learn a new language, and as I slowly piece words together in the form of sentences, I feel myself changing as a soul.

I am growing, and the French might not be the only reason, but it certainly shows how I as a person have become stronger. I’ve lost 13lbs since August and I wrote a new book; I’m learning a new language and enjoying the process. For the first time in a while, I am comfortable with myself.

C’est la vie. I will keep you updated–and maybe one day I’ll have a blog in French!

In the Pages of a Dream Journal


Where do you go when you fall asleep? Have you ever wanted to know more about your dream land?

We writers encounter plot bunnies in bizarre things while awake. We find something that catches our interest and store it away for later, usually forgetting it–there’s no way for us to write all of our ideas.

Most of the time we overlook adventures we have while sleeping. Anyone who remembers their dreams will be baffled by the odd things that happen. Are your actions things you secretly hope for, or mere dust as your mind clean itself?

photo-1489703197108-878f05f4b31bWhatever the case, dreams deserve attention: they’re unpredictable. Dreams are special adventures that reveal colors we never encounter while awake.

Most of the time I remember dreams, but only recently have I taken up the challenge of recording them. My dream journal is unique because they’re stories I came up with–me but not me, uncharted territory of my brain.

It can be hard to hold details of a dream while I scramble for my journal, so I don’t record them chronologically. This journal isn’t organized like a novel; events and details are tangled. What matters is having as much as possible on the page for reflection.

This will become a collection of journeys that will one day puzzle me. I wrote this–yet I didn’t–it’s me but is not me. These are people I know doing things they probably wouldn’t in real life.

Maybe some of these entries will become proper tales.

I’ve only been keeping this journal for a few days, but it’s already worth the effort. Should you decide to take up the challenge, keep your journal somewhere you can reach it upon waking.

Be patient if events slip through your fingers, because there are no rules in dream land. The point isn’t to write an award-winning story, but to know yourself and have fun.

It is therapeutic to keep a journal, digging into the corners of your own inner wonderland. Have you kept a dream journal? What has it taught you about yourself?

Is it Writer’s Block?


Recently I asked myself why I never update my blog, even though I have so many ideas. Writer’s Block is portrayed as blankness; it’s the absence of a muse, staring at a notebook without hearing her sweet whisper.

We claim the Block as a reason why we have nothing to say. I wondered, Do I keep silent because I can’t say things perfectly? Is it Writer’s Block or fear? Does perfectionism keep words in my heart because I am apprehensive?

photo-1505682499293-233fb141754cThere’s a difference between having nothing to say and having much to say that you can’t phrase. You might be full of thoughts that make you speechless. Ask yourself if you have the Block or are afraid to brainstorm.

The only way to know is by starting!

I might have Writer’s Block on one topic, but can’t have it for all of them. I need to stop letting Writer’s Block become an excuse not to write anything.

We’re able to write lovely words; we have freedom to express ourselves. We even have the means to communicate them instantly! I don’t think we should waste this–I certainly won’t.

The next time you have Writer’s Block–for novels or for blogging–ask if you truly have nothing to say. You might find that the muse never left–she got bored and moved on to another topic. Follow her and keep writing!

About the Mysterious Rewrite


Anyone I’ve spoken to in the past month knows about my mysterious rewrite. Back in July, I began work on a new, fresh version of a novel you may have read (hint hint: it’s called Dissonance) but, being me, I did not outline at all.

In my experience, letting a novel loose to do whatever it wants is a guarantee that it will look nothing like the original.

Now I am baffled at the parallel: it is a rewrite of Dissonance, but has little in common with Dissonance at all. The characters have different roles, names and backstories. Reflecting on it, I’m not sure what the rewrite has in common with Dissonance.

Perhaps it’s different enough that I can try something that has been nagging me all year – traditional publishing. However, I don’t know when that would be, since The Autumn Prince is still first in line for querying. It could be years: I still have to edit Mysterious Rewrite, and chances are I’ll get impatient and start working on the next books of the series.

I’m surprised as you are with this development. Don’t ask me why I wanted to rewrite so badly – perhaps I knew that certain elements in the Dissonance plot could be focused on and improved. Perhaps I wanted to delve into characters that didn’t get much attention the first time.

Don’t worry about the original series – I still have a Book Three draft somewhere on my computer, and it’s so different from Mysterious Rewrite that I don’t have to abandon it, like I had feared initially.

For now, I’m just going to celebrate that I’ve completed a draft longer than 60,000 words. I’m basking in the job well done and sipping lots of orange juice. I’ll figure out what to do with all my manuscripts later.

Check back for updates when I eventually figure out my path.

A Writer is Never Finished


One is never truly finished writing a story.

I’m not an expert on technique; my attention span does not allow me to study complicated books on style. My muse shies from the idea of outlining, flash cards don’t help me at all, and I follow the 7-point method very loosely.

The one thing I know for sure after all these years writing is that an author is never quite done. I’ve spent weeks pondering the meaning of imagination, how humans can take an idea—a goblet or a stream of water—and then write universes surrounding it.

You can play with object size and volume (you cannot contain the stream in the goblet; if you throw the goblet into the stream, it will disappear.) You can play with the history of the object (where does the stream come from? Did the goblet once belong to a king?) You can explore creatures that dwell in the water, gemstones on the side of the goblet, the craftsman who made the goblet.

A writer can do all this until there is a web of facts and lore. When it’s a character we’re dealing with, things become more complex, because—as the old cliché goes—each person is a universe. For those of us who write the story, we are never done and never want to be. However, there’s a contradiction, an instinct when we must find a place where imagining stops and story makes it onto paper.

Most writers have the desire to see our story bound as a book on someone’s shelf. This means we have to work out when to stop imagining the words, instead forming them with ink. It seems I’ve not figured that out yet.

I’ve been thinking of my ideas and characters, some of which you might know, wondering how they got where they are. Rereading my novels, I realized that even the secondary characters would have epic tales. Like most protagonists, they start out in a low place; I want to know how they got higher. I want to know how they succeeded.

Because I am the writer—because ideas are loud—I have been exploring the hows and whys of the universe I created. The answers are surfacing in the form of a new story. I’m not far into it and haven’t a clue whether I will finish, but writing from a new perspective has unlocked different parts of my imagination.

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to think about your stories—your characters—their hobbies and their favorite objects. Delve into their histories and explore qualities you never thought were important. Petty things like this will help you get to know your universe.

Elizabeth Gilbert and Madeleine L’Engle wrote of writing as if it were a religion or magic. Storytelling helps us create things that, to us and our readers, are very real. A dedicated reader, when engrossed in a good story, will reach a point where they forget they are turning pages.

When you reach that depth, you have made magic.

Read Walking On Water by Madeleine L’Engle and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I know there are other books about storytelling, but again, I don’t spend much time reading technique.

Though I recommend these books, remember we only learn so much from the discoveries of others. An artist’s joy is in the complexity of our own ideas. Consider these great writers as guides to help you on your own journey.

Take time today to think on your own, exploring your worlds in a new way. I promise it will be worth the effort to bask in the eternity of a brainstorm.

The Forest of Heldbreath


Imagine your mind is a forest. The edge of the forest is a place where you pause and get distracted–a place of heldbreath, of course.

Sometimes we wait at the edge of heldbreath for days, months, or years. I’ve been lurking there for several weeks, skillfully talking myself out of a very important task.

Should I start editing now? I asked myself, then laughed and shrugged it off, eager to examine the next tree.

Some writers enjoy edits more than they do writing. I have never been one of those writers; in my haste to move on and write other stories, I put off edits again and again…and again.

In the forest of heldbreath, it’s easy to pretend we aren’t procrastinating. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in that place; the only difference now is that I’m writing about it, giving this place a name and personality.

Heldbreath is procrastination.

I inched away from editing until it was a small place hidden by the trees. I know where it is! Somewhere in that general direction – between two oak trees – it might be that hollow, or perhaps the one after?

Two weeks ago I searched the forest of heldbreath, looking for the corner where my manuscript for The Autumn Prince was. I found myself surprised by the short length of the novel, and thought this couldn’t take long.

It would be quicker if I would keep walking and stop procrastinating.

It’s easy to get distracted while searching the forest of heldbreath; we can convince ourselves we are where we’re supposed to be, when it’s quite far. I want a decent, clean version of The Autumn Prince this summer; I will wander the forest heldbreath in circles until I make it.

Have you been to the forest of heldbreath? Of course you have, we’re both human! Let’s meet at the edge and talk about the goals we will meet someday.

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


Jonathan-Strange-and-Mr-Norrell-by-Susanna-Clarke

I have spent two weeks with my nose in this book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a thousand pages long, but its spell extends beyond the pages. Its charm is bolder than its eye-catching cover; this book provides complete immersion in a story I wished would last longer.

It tells of the movement to restore English magic. It’s full of clever political strife, well-written battles, pesky faeries and beautiful forests. Faeries favor the least likely people; those with power and authority often lose faster.

With her magical style, Susanna Clarke takes historical fiction and gives it new depth. She takes England and enchants it with a new system, dynamic characters, and plot twists that creep up to the very end.

If you want a good work of escapism, I recommend this book. It will take some of your time, but I promise you’ll be glad you gave it.