“The Witches” by Roald Dahl (1983)

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“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”

I’ve been re-reading all of Roald Dahl this year, but most of them I haven’t reviewed as they’re often too short for me to have much to say about them. The Witches, however, I have to talk about. Inexplicably, despite being a Dahl fan throughout my childhood and this battered copy sitting on my shelf for as long as I can remember, I’ve somehow never read it. I don’t really know how it slipped by me, but it’s OK, the matter has been resolved now.

The Witches is the story of a young boy who is taught all about the evil hags by his kindly grandmother, with whom he lives after his parents die in a tragic car crash. Grandmother likes telling the boy stories about witches and warning him to stay away from them. She gives him advice on how to spot a witch including the fact that they wear gloves to hide their claws, and they’re always itching their heads because of their wigs, used to hide their bald heads. On a holiday in Bournemouth, our hero discovers that he’s sharing the hotel with all of England’s witches who have gathered under the instruction of the Grand High Witch. She has come up with a plan that will rid England of all its children.

Before he can warn anyone, the boy is caught and turned into a mouse, which prompts him and his grandmother to formulate their own plan to eradicate all the witches and make the country a safer place.

I don’t think I knew anything about the plot of this one, save for the fact it contained a Grand High Witch and a small boy was the hero. I certainly knew nothing of him turning into a mouse, which arguably is one of the main features of the novel. Like in many Dahl novels, there isn’t an awful lot that really happens. The novel takes place over a short space of time and the plot is simple to grasp, none of which is a complaint. There’s still more of a plot than, say, The Twits, which always felt quite loose to me.

I have heard people say, however, that this is Dahl’s scariest book and I think I probably agree with them. The darkness is much less subtle here, with genuinely vile characters and a pair of protagonists you care about strongly. It’s creepy, and the witches are portrayed very well as malevolent and just the wrong side of odd. The fact that they have slightly different noses or feet to real humans is the sort of thing that would appeal to a child who wants there to be some fantasy in their world. The Grand High Witch is repulsive and genuinely quite terrifying – the polar opposite to the kind, warm Grandmother in the novel. The Grandmother’s inclusion is perhaps the most important aspect. Dahl explains that all witches are women, but does say, “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely.” I presume this is so children don’t go through their young lives fearing all women or believing them to be evil – I suppose there’s a suggestion of internalised misogyny here, if one wanted to take on that aspect – so the inclusion of the kindly Grandmother is in direct contrast to the witches.

I sense that had I read this as a kid, I would’ve found it very scary, and I still do to some degree. It’s that fear of something evil lurking in plain sight, I think. Nothing is so unnerving and eerie as something ordinary suddenly becoming dangerous. A great story.

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“Lost Boy” by Christina Henry (2017)

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“Sometimes I dreamed of blood.”

When books enter the public domain, it’s always an interesting moment. People suddenly have the freedom to explore the worlds and add to them, for better or for worse. Many books, will eventually spawn prequels and sequels that probably stray entirely from the plans of the original writer. The Alice in Wonderland books have been explored repeatedly, and there’s always the “companion” books to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (Death Comes to Pemberley and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively). Sometimes it’s done badly, but other times the results are very interesting and add new layers that still fit with the original text. Lost Boy explores the history of Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, and long before he ever met Wendy…

Our narrator is Jamie, one of the Lost Boys that Peter has taken from the Other Place to his magical island where the only adults are scary pirates and the children never have to grow up. It is not, however, the Neverland that we would expect. Here, the Lost Boys can and repeatedly do die, with Peter never seeming to care, instead disappearing to get some more. Jamie is the heart of the troop, actually taking time to care about the boys, especially Charlie, who was far too young to be brought across.

Peter is jealous of Charlie, and later Sal, two recruits who take away so much of Jamie’s time that he feels he’s losing his oldest friend. Their adventures become more dangerous than ever, involving the Many-Eyed (a race of giant spiders that inhabit the island), a fight to the death with an uncooperative Lost Boy, and the pirates who are even more enraged than ever when Peter burns down their camp. Jamie comes to realise that Peter is not the benevolent figure he always assumed he was. Peter has been keeping secrets for a long time, and when they start to spill out, it threatens the life he wants. Jamie, it seems, can’t stay young forever…

I can’t say that Peter Pan has ever been one of my favourite stories ever – I’ve not read the original and I’ve not seen the Disney version in a very long time – but it is certainly a world that seems to require exploring, given that it has so many unanswered questions there within it, such as where Peter came from, why Hook hates him quite so much, and the biology behind those fairies. This book serves as an interesting prequel and one I’m fully happy to accept as canonically correct. It’s hard to write about this without giving away one or two of the reveals towards the end of the book which I’m always loathe to do, but it’s quite obvious from early on – if not from the cover – that the Jamie narrating the story is (or will one day be) none other than Captain James Hook. It’s a great twist to have him as one of Peter’s young friends originally but lose his faith in his leader.

The themes of guilt, blame, friendship, belief and loss jump around one another playfully, but it’s important to note that while we think of Peter Pan has being quite a whimsical character thanks to Disney, the concept of never growing up and having young boys do battle with genuinely threatening pirates is pretty dark. Christina Henry has no problems in taking the story to even darker places, explaining exactly why Peter does what he does and how he manages to never get hurt. The Peter in this novel promises adventures that he can’t deliver, and is selfish in the extreme, with every action being done simply to make him happy. He is unwilling – or maybe unable – to give anyone else much of his time, with the exception of Jamie, who he does seem to particularly love. As the backstory of how Jamie arrived on the island unfolds, however, it reveals itself to be a very sick and twisted kind of love.

I feel it’s not a book that’s going to drop easily from my mind, and if you like delving into expanded universes, this is certainly a strong contender for the best Peter Pan based fiction. But then, I’ve not watched Hook in a long time either.

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

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“My name is Kathy H.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was this month awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the news marked one of the very few times that I’ve agreed with the results of a major literary prize. I would have awarded it to him on the strength of this novel alone. Despite the huge fanfare that exists around The Remains of the Day, I’ve yet to have read it – the focus of this review and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I’ve read, but they’re heaven.

This is actually the third time I’ve read Never Let Me Go, but it had yet to feature on my blog and what with the need to be somewhere familiar and meaningful and the aforementioned award, I felt a reread was in order. I was wary about how many spoilers I would put in here, as I’m not sure how well integrated the story is to the cultural consciousness, but there are aspects I want to discuss that I can’t without giving away major plot points and so I say here now, there are spoilers below – stop reading now if you want to discover this book on your own.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H. She’s a young woman in England, reminiscing about her time at Hailsham, a prestigious school that houses some of her fondest memories. She is now trying to understand her childhood, with her friends including the bad-tempered by innocent Tommy, and the somewhat manipulative and tactless Ruth, and what it means for her adulthood. She now spends her days driving around the country, working as a carer, but it’s quite soon evident that Hailsham wasn’t quite what it seemed to be at first, and Kathy isn’t exactly ordinary.

This is an alternate England, where medical science clones humans and uses them for organ donation freely. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all their friends at Hailsham, and at various other schools around the country, are merely clones, and are taught that one day they will grow up and begin donations. As they grow up, their relationships strain, against maturity and the inevitability of their futures, and Kathy now just wants to try and make sense of what she’s been taught. And maybe she’s hopeful … maybe there’s another option. What if they could find their old teachers and ask for help?

The text is haunting in the way it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I first read this as a set text at university – one of the very few I enjoyed – and it hasn’t left me yet. There’s no big reveal as to what’s happening – information just drips in, mimicking the way the students seem to learn about it. This fits, too, given that Kathy is seemingly writing to a reader who is in the same position as her. You can’t help but feel sorry for them all, but the discovery of the truth is so gentle in its delivery that when it arrives, you’re also not terribly surprised and seem capable of taking it all in.

The characters themselves, the main ones at least, feel very rich, and while some people have questioned why they don’t try to run away from their circumstances, they fail to appreciate that psychologically their “purpose” is too deeply ingrained and besides, they have nowhere to run too. Because they can’t reproduce, sex isn’t a taboo among the students and is discussed freely, whereas topics of religion and philosophy are ignored or shied away from. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all very deep and I enjoy them all. Ruth is catty and downright poisonous to Kathy and Tommy’s relationship, but she seems to be the one struggling most of all with their situation, lying to herself and to others. Kathy is perhaps the most passive, but also the most introspective, but part of that may just come from the fact she’s narrating, so we only really know what she’s thinking.

The biggest aspect of their time at school is that the main focus is on creativity. The best examples of their paintings, pottery and poems are then collected by the mysterious “Madame” for reasons they are unable to fathom at first. When the explanation comes, it will break your heart, as so many aspects of this book do. It’s easy to read, but it’s hardly the most uplifting novel. However, like I said, you get drawn in and if you emerge unchanged, then you might be beyond emotional rescue.

Little is explained about the wider world and exactly how and why this timeline veered off from our own. However, much of England is hinted at being somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated, and it’s explained later that the clones began to appear not long after “the war”, again assumed to be World War 2. But in a creepy England, where science and medical advances run on without much apparent worry surrounding ethics, it’s only later you begin to wonder – who won the war?

As a bibliophile of the highest order, I know I’m not really meant to have an answer when people ask me what my favourite book of all time is. It’s like asking a parent which of their children they love most. In all honesty, I don’t have a concrete answer, but Never Let Me Go sits, without question, somewhere in the top five. I can give little higher praise.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.