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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“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

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“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

“Shades Of Grey” by Jasper Fforde (2010)

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Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

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