“Danny The Champion Of The World” by Roald Dahl (1975)

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“When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.”

I was expecting to be reviewing a collection of supernatural stories by Rudyard Kipling this week, but I struggled to get into them and in a new policy of not forcing myself to read something I’m having a hard time with, I decided to read the short stories in between other novels and so found myself back in the imagination of Roald Dahl.

Danny grew up with only his father, William, who he worships without question. His young life is happy, spending his days helping his dad fix cars, working at their petrol station, and living in their tiny gypsy caravan on the outskirts of a small village. When he’s nine years old, however, his life takes an interesting turn. He wakes up to find that his father is gone and, feeling scared and alone for the first time in his life, he is unable to sleep until his father returns from out of the mist. It’s then that his father reveals a secret – he is a pheasant poacher.

Having not indulged in his hobby since Danny was born, the temptation has grown too much for William and he is determined to once again steal some pheasants from the land owned by the vile Mr Hazell. His old methods don’t appear to work very well anymore, and the keepers in the woods have become more savvy to old tricks. But Danny has a trick up his sleeve – one that will very likely change the face of poaching forever…

The biggest takeaways for people about this book, I suppose, is about the importance of family, and it seems particularly to be a love letter to fathers everywhere. Danny and William have a very affectionate, sweet relationship and it can’t fail to make you smile. They clearly enjoy one another’s company and completely adore each other. Danny is originally shocked to learn that his father – and indeed every other adult in the village – has a dark secret, but it’s definitely a moment of growth for him, and one that most of us experience at one time or another. It can be quite a moment to learn that the heroes that we’ve been looking up to, particularly our parents, are infallible and perhaps not always on the right side of morality. Danny almost seems to grow up in that moment, and while he still knows when something is right or wrong, he’s able to see in a few more shades of grey.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this one more than ever plays up the links between all of Dahl’s worlds, as William tells Danny all about the BFG, the dream-catching giant who runs above the hills with his suitcase and blowpipe. This story is written seven years before The BFG would become its own story, so one wonders if Dahl had it planned all along, or he took the notion from this book later on. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, the peach rolls across the countryside demolishing a famous chocolate factory. There is definitely a thread running through his work that seems to imply they’re all somewhat linked. Danny even lives only a few miles from where Matilda grows up, although at the time of this publication, her story is still thirteen years away. Perhaps Danny’s school is Crunchem Hall before the Trunchbull took over?

Danny is a funny little book – the policeman’s dialogue is particularly well-observed – and my edition seemed off somehow, until I realised a few pages in that in my edition the illustrations aren’t by Quentin Blake. It’s not quite Dahl without him. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. It differs to most of the other stories, lacking in a magical or fantastic element, and being one of the few books to include a stated moral, and the content is particularly weird given that it’s about a father teaching his son how to commit crimes, but it still works. It’s probably the most forgotten of Dahl’s novels, and unfairly so.

If you’ve bypassed this one, turn around and come back. You’ll thank me.

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“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

“Ivy & Abe” by Elizabeth Enfield (2017)

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“I’m aware of him looking at me.”

Most, if not all, of us spend parts of life wondering “what if…”. We think about how different our lives would have been if we’d gone to different universities, met different friends, or made different choices. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these questions focuses on the nature of soulmates. If there is one person out there for each of us, then does it matter when we meet them? Elizabeth Enfield takes a look at this premise in the sweetly moving Ivy & Abe.

Ivy Trent and Abe McFadden are soulmates, that much is clear, but is there a right time to meet them? Told from vignettes of Ivy’s life, this novel recreates their first meeting over and over again, every time at a different age and in a different situation. From 1965 to 2032, there are several versions of how they met. Perhaps it was when Ivy was widowed and not much looking forward to a future alone. Maybe they met as teenagers on a French holiday. Maybe they were both already married to other people, and didn’t expect the affair. Or perhaps they meet just fleetingly, for five minutes, and nothing ever happens.

This is a charming book, with an awful lot of heart. Ivy and Abe are both beautiful creations and it is fascinating to see their lives play out in numerous ways. I found myself every time hoping that this would be the right timeline, but they don’t always end in happiness. It seems that there really is a “right time” to go along with the “right person”. Ivy and Abe’s relationship is pretty much always, for the most part, loving, at least. Abe is a classic gentleman, and Ivy is very sweet. Both of them, in every timeline, have hardships to deal with that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ivy’s mother, for example, is chronically ill, and her early death casts a shadow over her later life, and this in turn will also affect how Abe fits into her puzzle.

Despite all the timelines being separate, there are a few overlapping themes in them. Ivy and Abe both end up in the same careers, both suffer great tragedy, and they are always nice people. To tie them together, though, there is often a mention of déjà vu, and a frequent recurring element is a lorry containing hay bales and someone being concerned that they don’t look safe. Sometimes this concern is justified and relevant; other times it’s just mentioned in passing.

I was curiously struck by a note in it that resonated in this week’s return of Doctor Who. Our new Doctor, played wonderfully by Jodie Whittaker, gave a speech in the first episode of the series about how, as people, we evolve and change over time, never forgetting who we were, but not feeling tied to being that person for our whole lives. This is definitely a theme in this book, as the characters are slightly different people at different ages, and circumstances around them perhaps make them do things that other version wouldn’t have done. Like it or not, we are – at least partly  – products of circumstance and environment.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of the book, lest I give away some of the sweeter moments, but it’s definitely one worth reading and Enfield is one to watch. She creates rich characters in a detailed world that makes itself clear that this is our world, with a number of scenes set around important times and trends of the era she’s dealing with.

I like a book that makes you think, and this one will leave you pondering about your life for some time.

“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.

“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

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