Roald Dahl: Three Novels

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So, while this year I started re-reading Douglas Adams, I also pencilled in another go over Roald Dahl’s back catalogue. I read one of his adult collections last year, and in enjoying it, it made me nostalgic for those of my childhood. I was going to wait until I’d finished Adams, but instead I decided to make a little dent in the collection this morning and powered through three before lunch. Here, therefore, are short reviews for three of the shortest in Dahl’s oeuvre.

The Magic Finger (1966)

“The farm next to ours is owned by Mr and Mrs Gregg.”

The Magic Finger is possibly Dahl’s weirdest, and given what it’s up against, that’s certainly saying something. The plot is tiny, featuring an unnamed girl who has the ability to point her finger at people when they make her angry and punish them in supernatural ways. She vows never to use her powers again after accidentally giving her teacher whiskers, but when she sees her neighbours have been hunting again and killed a beautiful deer, she uses the magic finger on them and gives them a taste of their own medicine.

While the story isn’t perhaps his most memorable, its brevity is full enough with the qualities you expect from him. It’s dark, somewhat macabre, and given a vitally important moral that almost certainly turned more than a few children vegetarian, for a while at least. As with all the books though, the real magic actually comes from Quentin Blake’s gorgeous illustrations. While sketchy and perhaps derided by those who don’t understand the style, they fit perfectly with the tale. I love that the story gives us absolutely no indication of how the heroine got her powers, when else she’s used it, or what she’ll go on to do with the rest of her life. It’s a slice-of-life that’s bizarre and treated as totally normal, making it even more fun.

Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)

“Down in the valley there were three farms.”

This is probably one of his most famous stories. In it, Mr Fox and his family are besieged by three evil farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. When the farmers reach breaking point with Mr Fox stealing their animals to feed his own family, they decide to dig him out of his hillside home. Mr Fox, however, is much smarter than them, and while they have left their farms to hunt down their enemy, the animals of the forest set about ensuring a bountiful feast.

Again, the short story is wonderfully illustrated by Blake, and the characters shine through. The villains here are particularly revolting – although still nothing compared to the third story listed here – and starkly memorable. Once they’ve set up position on the hill awaiting Mr Fox to reach desperation and come out to find some food, the drama abates, and while there are a couple of other threats installed later, they don’t seem to have the same heft as the three farmers.

Nonetheless, this is one of my favourite Dahl books. While not perhaps actually as dark as some of his others, it’s still a really engaging story and one worth returning to due to its morals about sharing, community and obsession.

The Twits (1980)

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.”

If there was ever more proof needed that fashion and style trends are circular in nature, the opening line of The Twits is evidence enough. I was going to say that the rest doesn’t really apply, but then again, it’s about incredibly vile, stupid people doing incredibly vile, stupid things, so maybe there are parallels to modern society?

Mr and Mrs Twit are retired monkey trainers who now spend their days playing mean pranks on one another, commanding their caged monkeys to do tricks upside down, and painting glue on trees to catch birds for their weekly Bird Pie. It seems that no one can stop their deranged activities, until one of the monkeys comes up with a plan to get revenge.

They are two of the most disgusting characters in literature, and not just in Dahl, but oddly engaging. The moral here is about being a good person, and contains the famous analysis that it doesn’t matter what you look like, but people with good thoughts will always appear beautiful, while nasty, toxic thoughts will poison you and make you look unattractive. There’s more than a touch of surrealism about this one, but it’s also quite funny, and I particularly enjoy the scenes where Mrs Twit believes herself to be shrinking thanks to a prank by her husband that’s actually pretty well executed.

All in all, in diving back into Roald Dahl I’m realising that there’s perhaps a lot more of these books than I thought. I’d never really associated any of them as having morals, save for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really lays it on thick, but these are definitely books that have something to teach you. While aimed at children, and notable as much of Dahl’s work is for having adults who are fundamentally useless, there’s definitely cause for adults to return to their childhood and have another look at these unusual, dark and yet somehow charming stories.

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“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.

“The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe” by Douglas Adams (1980)

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“In the beginning the Universe was created.”

Way back in my early teenage years (which feel now like a hazy memory as a milestone birthday approaches with alarming speed), I discovered Douglas Adams, quite by accident. I had borrowed one of the book’s from the school library, and it happened to be The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yep – I didn’t even start at the beginning. I didn’t even know there was a beginning to start at. Ergo, I came to the series in the wrong order, which somehow feels apt and irrelevant. There are spoilers below, but they too don’t feel particularly relevant.

Restaurant picks up about two hours after the ending of Hitchhiker’s, with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod. With the ship’s computer using all of its power to work out quite how to make tea at Arthur’s request, there seems to be little they can do to escape, until Zaphod suggests a seance and calls on the help of his great-grandfather. The irritated and irritable relative performs some jiggery-pokery and now Ford, Arthur and Trillian are left on the ship, while Zaphod and Marvin have vanished.

They have, it turns out, been transported to the publishing headquarters of the titular guide. Zaphod has received instructions from himself to meet with a man called Zarniwoop, who in turn has a quest to seek out the Ruler of the Universe. The plot zigzags through the universe taking in deserted planets, angry robot tanks, delayed shuttle flights, a Total Perspective Vortex, a colony of telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, but all culminating in one of the most amazing experiences of all time – dinner at Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Like the first book, there’s a lot of philosophy in here. The biggest debate of all comes during dinner when they encounter the animal they’re about to eat, and it happily suggests which parts of it are the tastiest. Arthur has massive problems with this, while the others all seem to be OK with it. Arthur thinks its barbaric to eat an animal that wants to be eaten, but when it’s pointed out to him that surely this is better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten, he is somewhat forced to backtrack.

The universe is once again packed with bizarre races, species and characters, many of whom exist solely for a throwaway joke, such as the Jatravartids who have over fifty arms each and “are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel”. Adams is again funny, sharp and surreal, but I’ve come away with one thought that I’m sure I’ve never properly dwelt on before – the universe seems to be entirely inhabited by men. Trillian is the only female character that I think I can name at the moment (and we don’t really get another until Fenchurch turns up in either book three or four, I forget which), and while she appears in quite a lot of scenes, she has about five lines in two hundred pages. Most of the other aliens that appear that have certain genders are all male. I am a feminist, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed quite how unbalanced this whole thing was until now. It feels like Trillian is there more because she’s mentioned a lot, and has a bigger role in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s film, but really, she’s not given the page time she deserves.

It is a great novel, nonetheless, but looking back now I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first one, although exceptions can be made for the scenes at Milliways, the character and concept of Hotblack Desiato, and any time Marvin pops up to share in his misery. I also realise that it’s at this point my memory in what happens with the rest of the series fails me. I’ve got a few notions, but from here on in, I’ll be going in pretty much blind. Wish me luck!

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Illywhacker” by Peter Carey (1985)

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“My name is Herbert Badgery.”

This week I did something that I haven’t done in years – I gave up on a book. I’m unfamiliar with Peter Carey’s work, but Illywhacker has been sat on my shelf for years, waiting for the right moment to be read. Maybe I chose the wrong moment after all, I don’t know, but I do know that when it’s taken me a week to read the first third of a book, something is wrong. Someone asked me this week, “Well, why are you continuing then?” and, frankly, I was struck by that. People have asked me before and I’ve always said that I’m too far in now, that it has some redeeming features, or it’s not very long, but this time, giving up seemed the only option. Thus, I present a review of the first third of Illywhacker.

Herbert Badgery is an Australian confidence trickster who has had a long and interesting life. We meet him as he begins to reminisce about that life, leaping into the time he was selling cars in Victoria, but had visions of being an aviator and bringing the first Australian-built aeroplanes to the world. Moving in with a kind family, he begins to get feelings for their young daughter, which are apparently reciprocated when she accosts him on the roof one day. The rest of the novel’s first part details their marriage, their passion for aviation, and what happened as they both got to know one another better. From then on, I can’t say.

I think my trouble stems from the books insistence in it being a “dazzling comic narrative” when, actually, it’s not all that funny. Oh sure, the situations are surreal and unusual, but that’s not the same thing. I need to stop being lured into books simply because they tell me that they’re funny. So often I end up disappointed or bemused. The writing itself is quite good, and there’s an interesting narrative path being taken, but it just didn’t captivate me enough to want to hang around for nearly six hundred pages.

The main character, Herbert Badgery, has one interesting trait – he’s telling this story towards the end of his life when he’s 139-years-old – and otherwise I found little about him that gripped me. Some of the characters around him, his wife Phoebe, and her former lover Annette, are quite interesting, but their stories are wrapped up in Badgery’s own, and only he and Carey seem to think his story is one worth telling.

Perhaps the novel gets better, I can’t say. Perhaps I would have fallen in love with the character as time went on, but I simply don’t have the will right now. I might return to the book one day, because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but right now I need something that’s going to excite me a little more after a couple of sub-par books. Stylistically pretty good, but very much lacking in a coherent, engaging plot.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy (2013)

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“The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man.”

Some people (including Michele Roberts in her introduction to this collection) say that the short story fits our age better than longer narrative structures because we now live in a world where we have short attention spans and can’t or won’t commit to anything that takes up too much time. I think this is nonsense, given that the average length of a film these days seems to be about two and a half hours instead of ninety minutes. In truth, the power of the short story is that it reveals quite a lot about you as a writer. I’ve certainly written more short stories over the years than I have novels, but I find them a lot harder. You have to be so economical with your prose that I think it quickly shows up if you’re not very good at them.

Deborah Levy’s collection falls somewhat flat to me. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I can’t compare this to her other works, but I wasn’t that keen. Each of the ten stories has a European flavour, and focuses on someone who is struggling somehow in the modern world, but most of their problems are most definitely of a “first world” nature. In “Pillow Talk”, a man has an affair while on holiday, leading to a tense reunion with his girlfriend. In “Vienna”, a recent divorcee sleeps with a new woman. The most interesting is “Cave Girl”, in which a young woman radically changes her appearance and personality, leading to a change in the dynamic of her relationship with her brother.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but my overall opinion was that the stories are just an act of sheer pretension. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the actual writing is good, but the stories aren’t inspiring and feel oddly detached from anything real. I see that they are representative of “people scared of not seeming cool” as described by Michele Roberts, but that’s not something I really relate to. (Not because I’m cool, but more because I’m quite uninterested in what people think of me.) She also says the stories force us to question our places in the world, but I felt no such compulsion. Instead I just found myself slightly irritated by everyone and unsatisfied by most of the endings. I enjoy it when a story ends with an unanswered question, but here I found that even if there was a question being asked, I wasn’t totally sure often what it was, nor did I have much interest in finding the answer.

Intriguing and some very nice uses of language, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“The Twitch” by Kevin Parr (2013)

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“I’m not certain whose head I can see the top of, bobbing rhythmically into view about the low brick wall by the potting shed.”

I like a bit of nature spotting, and there is something particularly endearing about watching birds. I’m not someone who’s going to be haring up to some remote coast to get a glimpse of a curlew, but I’m quite happy to sit and watch them in the garden. Our garden isn’t particularly big and we only really get collared doves, jackdaws and blackbirds popping in. My grandparents have a plethora of feathered visitors from blue tits to woodpeckers in their garden, and when I was at university, I lived not far from a colony of wild parakeets. It’s the birds of prey that really do it for me though. I still get a lurch of excitement when I catch sight of a kestrel or a buzzard. For some people, however, this is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Edward Banger took up twitching a couple of years ago under the tutelage of his friend Mick. It’s January and time for the annual competition to see who in the club can spot the most birds in the coming year. Edward is determined to break the record and be crowned the champion, but he’s got some stiff competition from rivals who have been doing this a lot longer than him and seem to be using knowledge granted to only the group’s “inner circle” to bump up their tick lists.

After a couple of his rivals die in strange circumstances that Edward may or may not have been intentionally responsible for, he begins to realise that the best way to win would be to bump off the others and make sure they won’t be around to compete. Becoming obsessed with ticking off every bird on the list, he begins to spend his life on the road, letting his job fall by the wayside and ignoring his home life with his wife and two daughters. Around him, he cannot see what is happening to his life as he’s a man on a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of him achieving his goal. Nothing.

Edward is an appalling human being, and steadily gets worse as the novel progresses. He has such little interest in his family that when one of his daughter’s mentions she can drive, he admits he didn’t even know she’d had a test. The obsession that consumes him is one that is probably a genuine issue for some people, but I can’t imagine being this enamoured by anything. While everything does crumble around him, it’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for him as he’s pretty much brought on all of his issues himself. He’s not entirely irredeemable, though, despite being a murderer. He has a sweet – but increasingly strained – relationship with his younger daughter Nicola, and he’s portrayed as having a good turn of phrase, meaning he’s quite a funny man. But he’s selfish beyond all sanity, and his friends are hardly the most pleasant company.

I also found it odd that, despite many high-profile members of his twitching club all dying in strange circumstances, the finger of suspicion never seems to point at him, and indeed, no one ever seems to find it particularly odd, giving the impression that this competition is such a big deal that it’s quite common for three or four of the twitchers to die every year. There are also a few plot threads that seem to be leading somewhere and then never do. For example, Edward says he is terrified of gulls, and yet we never really find out why and nor is there any payoff to this.

It ends rather abruptly with a lot of unanswered questions and I’d certainly be intrigued to find out quite how he managed to restore order to his life and what happened, but I guess he’ll just continue being an obnoxious git until he’s snuffed out in a tent. It’s darkly funny and quite interesting, but there’s only so many bird names I can read before they all start merging into one. A nice concept though, and a great look at how obsession can make anyone do things they never thought they could do.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

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