Thursday, 30 August 2012

Review: Paralympic Games' opening ceremony

Pride, joy, wonder - they were all emotions that coursed through me as I watched the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games in the Olympic Stadium.

I was lucky enough to get a last-minute ticket to the show, and I'm so glad I did - it's an experience I hope never to forget.

From the moment I walked into the Stadium and was stunned by its size and the riot of colour that made up the stage for the main show to the moment I left, surrounded by a sea of people on a high from what they'd just seen, every moment was close to perfect (despite the cold).

Months ago, when it was announced the opening ceremony would be titled Enlightenment I met and briefly interviewed Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings, co-artistic directors of the show. 

Both of them said something that has stuck in my mind ever since - that they didn't want people to watch the show and go: "Wow, wasn't that an amazing show for a group of people with disabilities?" Instead, they wanted people to watch the show and go: "Wow, wasn't that an amazing show?"

Well, they succeeded, at least in my mind. I was stunned by the scenes I saw last night, from people flying in on umbrellas to the performers swinging dangerously back and forth on the sway poles to the performance of Spasticus Autisticus (a personal favourite moment) to Professor Stephen Hawking wowing the crowd with his words, challenging us to challenge our own preconceptions and to reach for the stars.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew many of the performers in the opening ceremony were disabled, but watching in the Stadium, where I could either look at the action as a whole in front of me or in bits on the television screen, I had little concept of which of the dancers or singers or actors had missing limbs or were deaf or partially sighted. To me, they all just looked like a group of phenomenally talented people.

Talent was found in abundance. I loved the performances of Spirit in Motion and Eternal Source of Light Divine, with the singers of each causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. As a keen reader, the sequence with all the books made me extremely happy, and seeing all the talented performers who took on aerial work for the show made me gasp.

Of course, at times Hemmings and Sealey's vision to enlighten people about disabled people couldn't be avoided, but it was always done well, and at times with great energy, as when performers took to the stage to sing Ian Dury's disability anthem Spasticus Autisticus.

No one watching can have been unaffected by what they saw, especially as thousands of athletes from 164 countries made their way round the Stadium, clearly ecstatic to be in front of such an enthusiatic crowd. Particularly moving was ParalympicsGB's entrance, when we all surged to our feet as one in the audience and cheered the team the whole way round, waving and clapping and hollering, and hoping we'd get a wave back.

Hemmings and Sealey put together a brilliantly crafted show, which contained humour and anger and hope and beauty, and succeeded in Professor Hawking's mission to get us all to look at the stars. As we did, we said: "Wow, wasn't that an amazing show?"

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Reading challenge book 14: Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Girl Reading is Katie Ward's debut novel
Book 14 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Girl Reading by Katie Ward.

One of The TV Book Club 2012 selections, Girl Reading can almost be seen as a collection of seven short stories rather than a novel.
Instead, it's six chapters, each containing an almost isolated narrative from the one before, and a seventh which brings all the previous narratives together.
With a common thread of women reading, the stories in Girl Reading take the reader on a trip through history, from 1333 to 2008, and then into the future with the final chapter set in 2060.
Simone Martini, the first chapter, reminded me slightly of Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, while Angelica Kauffman, the third chapter, took me to the world of period drama with a dark twist, and Immaterialism, the sixth chapter, was a very familiar world which at the same time was completely unfamiliar.

At first I found myself trying to look for things connecting each of the chapters, but once I stopped I found that the connections were numerous, but not always obvious - something which really added layers to the stories.

Its narrative style is clever, with each chapter having a distinct voice suited to the characters within, and creating a portrait in the reader's mind of that slice of the world at that particular time.

Girl Reading is a fascinating book, with so many layers, and by the time I got to the end I discovered it was something completely different to the book I thought I would be reading - a discovery as fascinating as the very modern world which ends the novel.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Reading challenge book 13: Sam Silver Undercover Pirate: Kidnapped by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler

Book 13 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Kidnapped in the Sam Silver Undercover Pirate series by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler.

So I appear to be reading lots of children's books at the moment, but sometimes you just need an easy read and a fun story, and Kidnapped provided me with both.

The story is the third in a series about a boy called Sam Silver, who found a gold coin which, when rubbed a bit like a magic lamp, transports him back in time to the pirate ship Sea Wolf.

In this book Sam decides to travel back and have an adventure before one of his boring relatives comes to visit.

He returns to the pirate ship, where a battle ensues with what at first look like naval ships. They're not. Instead, they contain other pirates who are after Sam's friend Charlie, who is on the Sea Wolf because her horrid stepfather wants her to sign over her fortune to him.

What follows is a true child's adventure story, where Sam and another friend and crewmate, Fernando, mount a mission to rescue Charlie. There's lots of sneaking around, some cunning employed by both the good side and the bad, and a big fight at the end to top things off.

Kidnapped, in its 126 pages, manages to take you right into another world and then bring you back out again, just like Sam goes into another world.

The language is straightforward, meaning the focus is really on the story, and it's a great story, with just the right amount of excitement and tension, with fun characters and the required happy ending.

I loved this book, and will be passing it on to my young cousin, as it's definitely the type of story that will get youngsters reading.

For all that, I probably could have just written the following when reviewing this book:
This book has pirates, and time travel. How can it be anything other than good?
Yes, that works for me.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Reading challenge book 12: The Land of Stories - The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Book 12 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is The Land of Stories - The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer.

Yes, this book is written by the same Chris Colfer who plays Kurt in Glee. That's the reason I bought it, but the reason I kept reading it was because it's actually quite good.

The Land of Stories - The Wishing Spell follows twins Conner and Alex Bailey as they fall into a fairytale book and find themselves in the land of fairytales, where all their favourite, and not so favourite, characters are actually real. To get back to their world, they must gather all the elements to make the wishing spell, which will grant them anything they wish.

Alex and Conner are likeable characters - Alex is a goody two shoes who is completely endearing because she genuinely cares, and Conner is a typical almost-teenage boy, getting into trouble but with a heart of gold under it all. 

It's the fairytale characters, though, who held my attention. Colfer's take on popular characters such as Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks was interesting, and gave well known and loved, or hated, characters a new edge. I particularly liked that some characters had unexpected personality traits, and that those I thought would have likeable alternative stories actually turned out to be a bit annoying, and vice versa.

Colfer has said in interviews he came up with the idea for The Land of Stories when he was eight, and it shows. There's clearly a child's imagination at work here, and since children's imaginations offer more freedom than an adult's, that means the world in the book is wonderfully created, and took me back to my childhood, where anything was possible.

Much as I loved the story, I do feel the writing could have been better. Colfer wrote The Land of Stories in between other projects (including filming Glee, going on tour, and writing and filming his first feature-length film) and I think it shows a little. Some of the story feels a little rushed, while other bits feel a little basic and undeveloped.

There's also the way that chapters don't always seem to flow. Rather, The Land of Stories reads more like a screenplay at times, which would make sense since Colfer spends his day reading television scripts and previously wrote a screenplay. Both of those require a little less detail than a book, as there comes a point when it's the director and actors' responsibility to fill in the gaps. However, a book does require a little more, and sometimes the space in between chapters seemed to have something missing.

In addition, Alex and Conner often fall into and out of trouble too easily. They spend a chapter fighting a baddie, and then suddenly in the next chapter they're walking down a path in a forest having escaped. The book is clearly episodic, and I would have liked some more narrative flow.

Still, Colfer does have a way with words, and weaves some beautiful lines. Among my favourite is one right at the beginning:
But what the world fails to realise is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn't been told.
Colfer is clearly a very talented writer, and as he is writing a sequel to this book, I hope his editor is a little stricter with him, so the second book reads more like a book than a play.

One thing that deserves a mention is the illustrations in the book, done by Brandon Dorman. They're stunning, and I only wish the British version of the book included the map of The Land of Stories that is apparently in the American print.

The Land of Stories is a children's book in one sense - it's about fairytales, its protagonists are children, it's a story of good versus bad (or not). But Colfer's fan base, largely teenage girls and older women, means that there are probably more older people reading this book than children. And the thing is, this book really works for that audience. As said earlier, The Land of Stories takes me back to childhood, taps into the parts of my imagination I let gather dust as I grew up. That's the sign of a good book, one that takes you out of your world and into someone else's. I definitely found myself in Alex and Conner's world, and it's not a bad place to be.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Reading challenge book 11: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

Book 11 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Forever by Maggie Stiefvater, the third book in a trilogy.

I'm a fast reader, but it took me ages to get through Forever. I started it months ago, read a large chunk and then put it down for a while as I got distracted by other things. Once I came back to it, I was reading just a few chapters at a time and then coming back to it a few days later.

Ordinarily, the only reason it would take me so long to read a book was if I didn't like it. That's not the case with Forever. It's just the kind of book you can take your time with, and there's so much going on that you need that time to absorb all the feelings conjured up by the characters.

The two previous books in the trilogy, Shiver and Linger, introduced us to Sam, a boy who turned into a wolf during winter months, and Grace, the girl who loved him. During the course of the first two books, Sam was cured, but Grace, bitten as a child, finally succumbed to the wolf venom stuff inside her, and at the end of the second book became a wolf for winter.

In Forever the pair are left wondering if they can ever be together as humans. Their struggle though, is against the backdrop of a larger problem - there is a campaign to kill all the wolves in Mercy Falls after one wolf bit and killed Jack Culpepper way back in book one.

It's that storyline that adds an edge of danger to the book, and that makes all the relationships in Forever that much more serious and filled with emotion. And lifts it above something like Twilight, where danger is in the background but never really materialises.

Sam and Grace are compelling as always. Even though they're so young, Stiefvater gives them both a maturity that makes their love for each other completely believable.

But without strong supporting characters, Forever, and the other books in the trilogy, would be much less fascinating. For me, Isabel Culpepper (Jack's sister) and Cole St Clair (a former rock star who chose becoming a wolf over killing himself) are the second heart of the book after Sam and Grace.

Isabel and Cole's relationship is complicated, and the pair don't easily fall together, which makes them absolutely compelling to read about. They are flawed, selfish human beings, but that's what makes them so realistic. I only wish Stiefvater had paid more attention to them in the book, although being able to fill in the gaps for myself is partially what made them such great characters for me.

Forever isn't a happy book. It's sad and angry and devoid of hope by turns, and it's a read that clearly makes you feel the emotions of its characters.

Even though there's no doubt as to what happens in terms of the hunting of the wolves, there are a couple of very important things left unresolved. This is no bad thing - Stiefvater signposts the direction things may go in, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide exactly what comes next. Stiefvater treats her readers with respect, understanding that we are clever enough to come to our own conclusions, and that's what I loved so much about this trilogy.

Reporting tips: Proofreading

This is by far the riskiest blog post I've written, since it's about proofreading and I'm bound to make a mistake that I won't spot on my subsequent read throughs. Still, let's treat it as a proofreading test for everyone. 

Proofreading is a key skill for journalists, since it's really annoying for news editors and subs to get work littered with easy mistakes that would have been spotted had the copy been read through by the reporter before it was filed. Here are a few tips to help you spot most of those pesky mistakes:

This might seem obvious, but reread copy after you've finished it. I have seen so many pieces of copy where a reporter has clearly not even glanced at their work after completion, as if they had they would have noticed the typo in the first line.

Give yourself some time
Often it's difficult to spot a mistake straight after you've written something, so work on something else for five minutes and then go back and reread your work. That little bit of time will often give you the fresh pair of eyes you need to spot any errors.

Read out loud
This does help, because then you're actually taking in what you're reading, and you'll stumble over anything that's wrong.

Read backwards
You don't have to read the letters backwards (!), but start at the end of your piece and look at each word on its own. This sounds strange, but it'll really help you see if you've got the spellings of words right, and if you've used the correct type of word (there/their/they're). It helps because you're reading the word that's actually there, and not what you think you've written based on what comes before and after.

Print it out
A little bit environmentally unfriendly, so don't do this for every piece. Printing something out and reading it in hard copy will make mistakes easier to spot than looking at it on the screen you've been staring at for the past few hours.

Read in a different programme
If you can't print your work out, read it in a different programme to the one you've written it in. So if it's in a content management system you use, copy and paste it into a word document. Again, the different format will make you see it differently and you'll be more likely to spot errors.

Read the contractions
If you've used contractions, read them out as what they would have been if you'd used both words, just to check you've used the right forms. So where you've written "you've" read it as "you have" when proofreading.

And that's it. Mistakes will happen (until humans are perfect mistakes will always happen), but following the steps above means you'll make fewer errors. As an exercise, use the steps above and point out the mistakes I've made in this blog!


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