“Matilda” by Roald Dahl (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

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.

“The Wind In The Willows” by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

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wind“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

I was trawling the shelves last week for a new book to read, and became interested in my top shelf, which is mostly stocked liberally with humour books, trivia books, a few things from my childhood. However, my attention was grabbed by The Wind In The Willows, which I plucked down, blew dust from and immediately decided that it needed to be read. I didn’t even know I owned it, sat up there sandwiched between Black Beauty and The Swiss Family Robinson, both of which were also something of a surprise. Where the books came from is anyone’s guess, but I may have inherited them down from my mother. My copy of Willows is from 1981 and apparently cost 95p on release. Ah, inflation.

Having seen a few adaptations of the novel, I realised that I’ve never actually read the original book, a fact that needed rectifying post haste. This is the story of four animal friends – Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger – and the adventures they get up to in their forest and on the riverbank. It begins with kind and sensible Mole getting tired of his spring cleaning and heading out into the wider world. He stumbles upon the river for the first time and there he meets Ratty, a dreamer who wants nothing more than to please his friends and spend his days “simply messing about in boats”. He loves the river and his life, and soon he and Mole are spending every day together. Ratty introduces Mole to his friend Toad, a very wealthy amphibian who lives in Toad Hall, a huge, decadent mansion and, while he’s smart and very friendly, he’s also arrogant in the extreme and prone to getting obsessions that consume him fully.

The final member of the main quartet is Badger, a wise old mammal who dislikes Society and will only come find you if he wants to speak to you. He appears to run the Wild Woods with an iron paw, but he’s quite soft at heart where his friends are concerned. The main crux of the story involves Toad developing an obsession with motor cars and, after stealing one and joyriding it around the countryside, he is taken to prison, from where he must escape.

What surprised me most about the book is that it reads far more like a series of short stories. There is a central plot, certainly, but there are a couple of chapters that don’t do anything to drive the story on. That’s not to say I disliked them, but they’re a slow-paced addition to the novel. One involves Ratty (actually a Water Vole) meeting a seafaring rat who tries to convince him that the best way to live is to travel the world. In another, Ratty and Mole go to find Otter’s son, only to have something of a religious experience on the way. The book is also wonderfully illustrated, the drawings provided by E. H. Shepard, who also provided the famous illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh.

The novel is certainly of its time, and there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. There are villains, but they come into play late and aren’t much of a threat, and the four main characters are all certainly able to be described as “nice”. They do have flaws – Toad is conceited, Mole is stubborn, Badger is prone to grumpiness – but above all they want to keep one another happy. This is most surprising of Toad, who in adaptations seems to become someone that prompts questions as to why the others would bother to be friends with him. Here in the original text, Toad is shown to be generous, gregarious and intelligent, and you can understand why the others put up with him.

The strangest thing about the book is simply that the anthropomorphism is so wonky! It’s not a complaint, because it’s actually quite funny, but it does seem odd that Mole lives in a burrow (although in some human comfort) and Ratty implies that some of the animals eat one another, but Toad lives in a mansion, drives cars, is tried via human courts and is apparently big enough to disguise himself as a human. On a couple of occasions as well, Grahame mentions Toad’s hair, which … well, I still don’t know what to do with that one. You just go with it all because to question it would be to ruin the charm.

It’s a wonderful tale in a pastoral England that seems almost heavenly. Upon finishing, Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad all feel like real friends, and I will not forget in a hurry the time I have spent with them.

“Witch & Wizard” by James Patterson (2009)

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witch

A title that keeps you guessing.

“It’s overwhelming. A city’s worth of angry faces staring at me like I’m a wicked criminal – which, I promise you, I’m not.”

Strolling through the streets of Brighton, copies of this book were being given out for free. Never one to turn down a free book (or indeed one I have to pay for), I took one and it has sat on my shelf since then, about three years ago. I finally read it and was transported, rather bumpily, to a very twisted version of America.

Witch & Wizard is about brother and sister Whitford and Wisteria Allgood, two apparently ordinary teenagers who are kidnapped from their house in the middle of the night by agents for the strange and mysterious New Order, the current ruling political party. They are put before The One Who Judges, on trial for having magical powers. They have no idea of their abilities but soon Wisty is catching fire and Whit is falling through walls.

They are taken to a prison with magic-dampening properties and locked in a grimy cell. If they want food, they’ve got to face angry, vicious dogs, and the idea of escape is impossible. That is, until the ghost of Whit’s ex-girlfriend turns up and says that the siblings are part of a prophecy and will be responsible for saving the world. She sets about helping the teens escape, all while they’re trying to learn how to use their powers.

And if you think that none of that makes any sense, it only gets more complicated from there on in.

As I always like to clarify for books like this, as if defending them, I am not the target audience. I’ve never read James Patterson’s adult work, but apparently this is his attempt at writing for children. His son is a reluctant reader and this appears to be an attempt to appeal to kids. So, would a fifteen-year-old version of me like this book? Still, probably not.

The plot seems to make itself up as it goes along, and not in the good way. The characters are thrown about and much of the action takes place over a few days, with a section between implying that there are several weeks of events in between the key moments. While most of that time revolves around the two in prison, which is hardly an exciting narrative, it seems to make the whole plot scurry along without any breathing space. It’s rushed and the narrative is split between the siblings, their similar names occasionally confusing speed readers.

I like magic and mystery as much as anybody, but this story seems to not be so sure. Because of the short time period, the siblings have very little time to get to know what they’re capable of. They discover most of their abilities by accident and while they don’t have any control of them at first, they seem to become competent very quickly. Too quickly. While I’m on record as saying that I find child narrators irritating, Wisty is a particularly egregious example.

It’s a story where too much is trying to be packed into one novel, where characters take sudden changes of heart, where Patterson is trying so hard to be “down with the kids”. It’s not our Earth, with new pop culture references like rapper Lay-Z or book series Gary Blotter, but still mentions of Charles Dickens and Red Bull. There’s a big department store called Garfunkel’s, which means something to the characters but nothing to us. Patterson throws too much into the first novel of a series, mixing up magic powers, a totalitarian government, prophecies, too many characters, several alternate universes and a talking weasel.

Whit and Wisty may not be criminals, but this book is.