“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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“The BFG” by Roald Dahl (1982)

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“Sophie couldn’t sleep.”

Back to Dahl this week, as I’m away this weekend and wanted to finish up a short book before I went away so I could take a new one. There seemed little that was more appropriate than another dip back into Roald Dahl with a small story about a big-hearted giant.

Sophie is an orphan and has a horrible existence in an English orphanage. One night, unable to sleep, she peeks out of the window into the witching hour and across the street sees an enormous creature peering into bedroom windows and using a trumpet to blow something inside. Before she can process any of this, the beast spots her, and before she knows what’s happening, she is in the giant’s pocket being spirited away at great speeds to a place she could never have imagined.

Her captor is the BFG – the Big Friendly Giant – who lives in Giant Country, scared of the other giants who are twice as big as he is and love nothing more than to eat “human beans”. The BFG, however, is much nicer, and he spends his days catching dreams in Dream Country and his nights blowing them into the minds of human children. Sophie, naturally, is appalled by the behaviour of the other giants, and sets a plan in motion to save humanity and make sure the giants can never eat anyone ever again. Her plan is ambitious, and involves speaking to the only human she thinks has the power to stop the killings…

You probably knew all of that, of course. The BFG is a childhood staple, and reading it again I found myself transported back into the mind of a child, more so than I did with the other Dahl’s I’ve read this year. While Sophie has no particularly remarkable features to set her aside from a generic child hero, except perhaps a bright mind and her kindness – she feels a rough version of Matilda who would come into existence six years later – the BFG provides a fun, engaging character. His use of language is, as he would say, phizzwizard and while there are plenty of made up words to entertain kids, there are some great malapropisms and mistakes, such as referring to fun and games as “gun and flames”. This novel also feels almost unique in the world of Dahl in that there is at least one adult who isn’t entirely useless – namely, the Queen. Although not named as the same Queen we know, it most certainly is supposed to be. It’s fun to see her in a fictional light and whether she would be so calm about discovering the existence of giants, we can only speculate, but I imagine she’s the sort of woman it takes a lot to fluster.

Despite, of course, being a book for children, there is an underlying message on how horrible humans are. The BFG says that giants don’t kill other giants, and humans are the only animals to kill their own kind. This isn’t strictly true, as many animals have been recorded murdering their own species – not least the cannibalistic spiders and mantises, but also meerkats and wolves – but it is true that these are often in cases of sexual dominance, or infanticide to give their own offspring a better chance of survival. Humans are indeed one of the very few species that kill other adults. It’s a big topic for a book of this sort, and I wonder how many children really ponder on this.

Despite the deeper themes, it can be read on a much more superficial level. It contains the perfect combination of magic, humour and horror that we’ve come to associate with Roald Dahl, and it’s well worth revisiting.

“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

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.

“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“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.

“Let’s Kill Uncle” by Rohan O’Grady (1964)

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uncle“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for publishing houses to be rooting around in forgotten books of the last century, dusting them off and republishing them. I don’t have any complaints with this. The British Library is focusing on crime novels, but Bloomsbury seem to have cast the net a little wider. I knew nothing of Rohan O’Grady (real name: June O’Grady Skinner) but I was intrigued by the title and blurb, so dived into this novel from the sixties.

Barnaby Gaunt has been sent to a remote island of Canada for his summer holidays, but his Uncle hasn’t arrived yet, so he’ll have to stay with Mr and Mrs Brooks in the meantime. Also spending her summer holidays on the island is young Christie McNab and, being the only two children on the island, they are forced to become friends and play together. While things start off a little rocky, the eventual harmony is shattered when Barnaby learns that his Uncle will soon be there. Everyone thinks he should be happy about this, but no one knows the truth – Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune, and his Uncle is trying to kill him.

The island’s Mountie, Sergeant Coulter, tries to be fair to the children and forgive their misdeeds, but he doesn’t believe Barnaby for a minute when the young boy confides in him his fears. Barnaby and Christie, therefore, decide to take matters into their own hands. They must kill Uncle before it’s too late.

Despite the premise’s promise of being about two children plotting to kill a relative, this only forms half the tale. The rest is taken up by the thoughts and feelings of the Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. He is a native of the island and the only one from there who went to war and didn’t do the decent, brave thing of dying in battle. He is kind and fair, and has a complex relationship with the children, of whom he is very fond, but also can’t wait to see them leave. Despite the kindness he shows to humans, he is far less patient with the island’s lone cougar, One-Ear, and ruthlessly plots to kill the beast.

As I often find with children in novels, Barnaby and Christie are fairly irritating, but you can see that they mean well. Barnaby has many issues to deal with regarding his Uncle, and these become clearer as the book goes on. At first they seem irredeemable, but like Coulter I came to have a certain grudging like of them by the end. The oddest character of all, though, is Uncle himself. He doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the narrative, and while we know he’s out to kill Barnaby – and there’s no question that it isn’t the imaginary ramblings of a small child – he is almost cartoonishly villainous, a sociopath of the highest order. He seems to have stepped into this book from one that was somewhat lighter. Because don’t be fooled by the childishness suggestion given by the title – this is rather a dark novel.

A review on the cover says that the book is ahead of its time, and I can see that in a couple of ways. It reads a little like something Lemony Snicket would produce, with the same set-up of children in a small community of adults, none of whom believe the danger they are in. Uncle reminded me throughout of Count Olaf. It also makes an oblique reference to sexual abuse towards children, as Uncle is noted a few times to have a fondness for little girls, and there’s a mention that he’s made many of them disappear in the past. When he muses on the fact that Christie is too wise to be fooled into following him in exchange for candy, it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine. The mix of the naivety of the children and the horrors like this jar occasionally, but it’s rather a good book nonetheless.

What strikes me most about the book is the sense of loneliness and stagnation hanging over everything. With no young men or children left on the island, the place is slowly dying, and everyone is hurting and has lost someone. It’s always quite a moment when you find a line in fiction that reveals such a truth about you that you have to stop reading for a moment and contemplate things. I leave you with a quotation from the book that particularly struck me.

He couldn’t stand it and walked down to the beach, feeling as though the main stream of humanity had passed him by and that he would stand on beaches, forsaken and forgotten, for the rest of eternity.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (2008)

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Let the Games begin...

Let the Games begin…

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

For years I’ve been saying I’ll get around to this series. It’s not that I’ve not wanted to read it, I’ve just never been so desperate to get my hands on it. Most people I know have already read it and have their opinions, and perhaps I’ve been shaped by some of these. The first in the trilogy is already seven years old, and with the films having been released, many plot points had already been revealed to me, although not necessarily with the right context.

Nonetheless, I have finally read the first book. As usual, I’ll start with a summary of the plot (for those of you who are even later to the party than me) and then I’ll get on with the gritty analysis.

So, The Hunger Games takes place in an undisclosed year of the future in a country called Panem that was once the USA. After a war, the country was divided into thirteen districts and the capital city, The Capitol, each district having a responsibility for a certain product or aspect of the country, be it fishing, mining, agriculture, power, etc. Every year, two teenagers are chosen at random from each District and forced into an arena together where there are no rules and the last one left alive is rewarded with great prizes of food and comfort for the starving population of their District.

This year, Katniss Everdeen, a keen archer and natural hunter, and Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, are the tributes for District 12. Katniss wasn’t selected, it was her younger sister Prim, but unable to see Prim go though with the trial, she volunteers to take her place. Her world is thrown into turmoil as she and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, dolled up to look beautiful and make the public love them, before being thrown into an arena from which only one victor will emerge, the other twenty-three contestants having died. And everyone in the country will be watching.

OK, so, I’ll get my complaints out of the way first. Naturally, through the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, we know from the outset that Katniss will survive. (That’s not a spoiler, right?) The tension is also diminished by the fact that the series is over and we know that it’s a trilogy. By rights, Katniss has to survive. I’ve also come to note that people really play up the love triangle aspect of the book and say that the film took it to extremes, but if you ask me it’s not exactly an undercurrent here. I’m aware that the Katniss and Peeta relationship is being played up (by Katniss at least) for the cameras, but it’s definitely not a minor plot point that she has feelings for her friend back home, Gale, too.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

Also, I have to note that Katniss is one of those protagonists that I simply don’t like very much. She joins the ranks with Lyra (His Dark Materials), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and, yes, Harry Potter (let’s face it, no one’s favourite Harry Potter character is Harry) of protagonists that I find irritating. I know she’s playing up to the cameras for a lot of it, but, come on, how right is she about what’s going on out there? She has plot armour on up to her eyeballs, and I find her something of an insufferable know-it-all. I know you’re supposed to take all this with a pinch of salt, and I ran with it for as long as I could, but disbelief can only be stretched so far.

HOWEVER.

As young adult books go, this isn’t badly written. It’s smart and pacey, has a lot of very interesting ideas and builds a world that is horribly foreign and yet, at the same time, worryingly realistic. While I’m fundamentally bored by Katniss (Peeta exhibits traits that might make him a little more interesting), I do want to know so much more about this world. Who’s idea were the Hunger Games? How did the country get divided up? What’s going on in the rest of the world? Have they ever tried to stop Panem?

The supporting characters are more interesting, too. Effie Trinket is obviously a cog in the evil machine of the Capitol, but one that occasionally reveals glimpses of her true personality behind the mask, possibly suggesting that she doesn’t necessarily like everything that goes on. Haymitch is great, and while his alcoholism feels slightly tacked on at first, it quickly becomes obvious as to why he’s like that. Caesar Flickerman is also an interesting one, as I really can’t tell if he’s meant to actually be on the tributes side, or if he’s as bad as the rest of them and it’s all a front. My favourite of the supporting cast, though, is Cinna, who seems to be the only genuinely good person there. The other tributes feel pretty one-dimensional. Obviously many are killed quickly to bring down the number of characters we have to contend with, but even those that survive longer don’t excite me that much. That’s the nature of the story, I suppose; we have to know and see what Katniss knows and sees.

I’ll carry on with the series, sure, but not without trepidation. Most of what I knew about the series has happened here (although obviously my knowledge had enormous gaps; I had no clue that the Games were literally about hunger and the supply of food) so I’m going into murkier waters, although I can make a good guess at some of what’s coming. If you haven’t read the books yet, and aren’t put off by any spoilers I’ve revealed above (although I don’t think I’ve done too badly), then be prepared for the first few chapters to be a bit of a slog, but stick with it. The payout is very good.

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