“Matilda” by Roald Dahl (1988)

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“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.”

Given that this is something like my 500th book review, it can come as no shock to anyone that I quite like reading. Matilda Wormwood, therefore, has long been one of my literary heroines. Like her, I come from a family where I am the only reader (although let’s make clear immediately that that’s about the only thing my parents have in common with hers) and so even from a young age I related strongly to her and, as I’m sure we all did, wished for our own magical powers. I haven’t reviewed every one of Dahl’s books I’ve re-read this year, but this one I felt needed to have a little said about it.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story and have somehow avoided the book, film and stage show – all of which are brilliant in their own ways – this is the tale of Matilda Wormwood, an incredibly intelligent five year old who has taught herself how to read and do complex mathematics with absolutely no help from her parents. Her mother is far more interested in bingo and her appearance than learning anything, and her father is a con man who sells used cars and believes television is all you need in life. When Matilda begins at school, she meets two new women: her kind and nurturing teacher Miss Honey, and the psychotic and violent headmistress Miss Trunchbull. As Matilda tries to find her place in the world that doesn’t appreciate her talents, she soon discovers she has another talent she’d not yet known about, and with it, she begins to do the most amazing things…

Matilda is a rare example in the Dahl canon of a female protagonist, with only The BFG and The Magic Finger being female driven, although Matilda still comes out of this as being the only one with a full name. The rest are headed up by boys – Charlie Bucket, George Kranky, James Trotter, etc – who are wonderful characters for sure, but perhaps skew the opinion of Dahl being that he’s a writer “for boys”. In Matilda, he conjures up a character that teachers children – and especially young girls – that reading and intelligence are to be valued, and that there is nothing wrong with loving reading. This was an important lesson for me, and I know I’m not alone in admiring Matilda.

The book is also home to one of the very few adults in a Dahl novel who isn’t horrific. We are used to the nasty grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, the questionably moral Willy Wonka, the cruel Aunts Spiker and Sponge, and of course the odious Twits, While Miss Trunchbull serves that role here (and what a brilliant name Dahl conjured up for her), we also meet the kind, sweet and very lovely Miss Honey, a woman struggling with her own problems but never letting them interfere with her teaching. I’ve seen the joke made that because of this, she is the polar opposite of Severus Snape, who made his students’ lives hell because he let his personal life mix with his professional life too easily. All in all, it’s a very female-driven novel, with only Mr Wormwood and Bruce Bogtrotter serving as central male figures. Miss Honey is the perfect role model, and there are fewer fictional characters that young people could love more.

I last read the book in 2012, just before seeing the stage show, and like that time, I had forgotten both how young Miss Honey is (she is only twenty-three) and how little Matilda’s magical powers feature into the story. I think because the film is very familiar to me – and a lot of us of a certain generation – we tend to focus on that. I can see why the film did, because it’s a visual medium, but here the touches are smaller but all the better for it. The ending is also slightly different to the film, but this isn’t a bad thing. Again, I can see the reasons for each.

Laced with charm, wit and joy, and jammed with the usual darkness that we expect from Roald Dahl, Matilda may have been one of his last, but it’s also one of his best.

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“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi (2017)

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“I’m just going up to the room for a second.”

I’ve never been one for travel or holidays where one sits by the pool or on the beach for hours at a time. If I’m somewhere new, I like to explore the museums and landscape. Some reading time is, of course, essential, but there’s only so much time you can spend laying in the sun in my opinion. However, despite the heatwave that ravaged the northern hemisphere for much of the last few months, the last week or so has been wet and chilly, so a beach might be a decent idea. Without the time or funds to take off to one, however, I instead hid myself inside a novel set on the sunny shores of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. However, this is a book, so there’s naturally trouble in paradise.

While enjoying a family holiday on the beautiful resort of Saint-Gilles, Liane Bellion goes to her hotel room for a moment leaving her husband Martial and daughter Sopha by the pool. When she hasn’t returned after an hour, Martial goes to find her, but all he finds is a locked room. When it’s opened, there’s no one inside, but no one ever saw her leave. The police are called and Martial is initially worried about the incident, but after a couple of days when Liane hasn’t returned, he grabs Sopha and the pair go on the run across the island, evading the police at every turn.

Things look worse when another body shows up, and Martial’s fingerprints are all over the weapon. Who is he, and what is he running from?

Honestly, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the story. The premise is great – a locked room mystery is always good fun – but I never properly clicked with any of the characters or their motives. Martial Bellion is a confusing character, at times a terrified husband but simultaneously a master criminal with the ability to outrun an entire police force. While some characters have motives that make sense, Martial’s aren’t always clear and even when everything is explained at the end, it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. Sopha, the six-year-old daughter, too, is irritating, as her narration is entirely unconvincing and makes her seem much older than she is.

The novel is unfortunately also heavily reliable on deus ex machina, with particular clues being revealed or unlikely coincidences happening on at least four occasions that I can think of. Being surrounded by police just as thick fog envelops you and allows you to escape? Please. It’s all a shame really, because my friend was hugely positive about the novel, but for me none of it stacked up. It is interesting to learn more about the culture and people of Réunion, however, as it’s an island I’m unlikely to ever visit, and some of the descriptions of the landscape are fascinating and give the reader an image of a land that seems almost otherworldly.

The book had such potential, but there were threads left hanging, a somewhat hurried denouement, and a cast of characters none of whom ever really sparkled for me. Nice to spend a bit of time in the sun, but my TripAdvisor review would leave a lot to be desired.

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

“The Man I Think I Know” by Mike Gayle (2018)

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“You’re stopping my dole money?”

Mike Gayle has long been one of my favourite writers. With a tone that always sounds like he’s just telling you a story over a pint, and a sharp turn of phrase, his books are lined up for a re-read sometime soon, as only a couple of them are on the blog so far, which means it’s been a long time since I read his earlier books, and I think they’re all worth talking about. Let’s focus today, however, on his newest book, The Man I Think I Know.

Danny and James haven’t seen each other for many years – not since their time together at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools. Every student who attends ends up curing a disease, serving in government, making big headlines, or generally just being a complete success in whatever field they chose. And yet our heroes are entirely at odds with this. Danny has just had his dole money cut off after failing to find work yet again, and James has had to move back home with his parents after The Incident that changed his whole way of life.

When James’s parents go on a much needed holiday, James is booked into a care centre for the duration, where he meets Danny who now works as a carer. Trouble is, when he introduces himself, Danny says he doesn’t recognise him. This is a lie. The two men form a strange bond. In James, Danny finds someone who doesn’t think he’s a hopeless waste of space. In Danny, James finds someone who treats him like the man he used to be before The Incident, and not as a fragile patient. Desperate to get out from his parents’ home, James offers Danny the chance to move in with as his live-in carer. What happens next will change both of their lives for the better.

In my experience, media focuses far more on romantic relationships than any other, with family coming second, and platonic friendships a long way down the list. Even rarer are stories about male friendship. Mike Gayle is one of the few writers who has tapped into this market and writes brilliant stories about men growing up and trying to maintain friendships. This is perhaps his most tender, with the relationship between James and Danny front and centre of the story. They are both single thirty-somethings who have been dealt an unfair hand by life, although in very different ways.

Gayle sympathetically writes about ABIs (acquired brain injuries), which is what James is now suffering from, and it’s clear he’s done his research into this world. In the chapters narrated by James, it is clear from his way of speaking that The Incident had a profound affect on him, and while we aren’t treated to any scenes of him before his ABI, indications of who he was do slip through. James is a great figure as he also destroys the harmful stereotypes some people have about those with mental illness. As James reminds us throughout, people treat him differently because he has difficulty walking and talking, but inside he is still intelligent, ambitious, and capable of telling jokes. This is an important thing to never lose sight of in the real world, as too often we judge on appearances. Danny is also very compelling. Perhaps at first it’s easy to write him off as someone unworthy of our sympathy as most of his problems seem to have been caused by his own failings, but as the story unfolds, we learn the tragedy at the heart of his existence and cheer him on as he picks himself up and finds some direction in life.

Gayle’s usual warmth, wit and charm are all present in this book and I’m far from the first to heap praise on it this year, but I’m more than happy to add my name to the list of fans. A very engaging read.

“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

“Want You Dead” by Peter James (2014)

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“Karl Murphy was a decent and kind man, a family doctor with two small children whom he was bringing up on his own.”

The Peter James series about Brighton detective Roy Grace rolls on, with Want You Dead being the tenth instalment. In the hands of a lesser author, the series could be getting tired by now, and yet here we are, with me finished and wanting to get hold of the next one. We return to Brighton’s criminal underbelly to meet with an obsessed stalker.

Red Westwood had left a dull relationship and tried online dating, where she met the rich, charming and handsome Bryce Laurent. He seemed too good to be true, but while her family and friends had reservations and told her to be careful, she blindly ignored them, until it was almost too late. Bryce became violent and jealous, and eventually, after Red’s mother had hired a private detective to prove that Bryce’s history was a tissue of lies, Red kicked him out. Bryce, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight. Red might be under police protection, but Bryce is determined to destroy everything she loves in the city: her new boyfriend, her favourite restaurant, her old car…

Red is now stuck in a nightmare she can’t wake up from, and despite the restraining order, Bryce seems to know everything about her, and is becoming more and more unhinged with every passing day. The spate of arson across Brighton doesn’t go unnoticed by Roy Grace and his team, however, and when they discover that Red is the link between the murder of Karl Murphy, the fire at a swanky bar, and the incident at an old block of flats that leads to the death of one of the police force’s finest sergeants, they pull out all the stops to see that Bryce is stopped. And on top of that, Roy really just wants to get married and have his honeymoon in peace, but crime doesn’t stop just because you’ve got a flight to Venice booked…

Starting out a little slower than usual from James, the emphasis – for the first half of the novel at least – is firmly on Red and her life. We know from the off that Bryce is responsible, so the mystery here is more how the police will capture him, rather than who is starting all the fires. Bryce Laurent is one of the most villainous characters in perhaps any crime novel in recent years; mentally unbalanced and damaged by an abusive childhood and an obsession with fire. He’s an egomaniac with a nasty temper, and will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he is owed. Roy and his team are on fine form here, too, and for a while it seemed like a run-of-the-mill entry into the series, but I should’ve prepared for more – as ever. With the death of one of the characters we have grown to know and love over the last ten books, and the return of another Roy hoped he’d never see again, it’s all change here and promises drama for the next book in the series.

James’s style is as readable as ever, with characters and scenes leaping off the page, particularly given any reader who has made it this far has is now very familiar with the characters. There are some huge tragedies awaiting in this one, so brace yourselves if you’re regular readers. It’s also worth noting something that I don’t think I’ve dwelt on too much before on these books – they are incredibly dark. The criminals are not those you’d find in an Agatha Christie – these are some proper bastards with evil minds and broken moral compasses. Ingeniously written, and you sometimes have to sit back and admire that Peter James – who otherwise seems a charming and friendly man – can create such odious characters and incredible scenarios.

Keep ’em coming.

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