“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.

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“Life, The Universe And Everything” by Douglas Adams (1982)

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“The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let the recap begin.

Since we left everyone at the end of the last book, they’ve all very much gone their own ways. Arthur has been living in a cave on prehistoric Earth for five years, occasionally chatting to trees. Marvin has spent a million and a half years turning in a slow circle on a marshy planet with only a mattress called Zem for company. Zaphod has been moping around since completing the mission he’d been trying to put off, and Trillian got so sick of him she teleported off the Heart of Gold without even bothering to set any destination coordinates. And Ford has spent some very productive time going mad.

However, there are eddies in the space-time continuum and once Arthur and Ford have chased a sofa across a field, they find themselves transported to Lord’s Cricket Ground, two days before the destruction of the planet. Inexplicably, things become even weirder when Slartibartfast arrives in an Italian bistro to whisk them off on a mission to save the universe. The people of the planet Krikkit, once the most violent and destructive race in the galaxy, are gathering the materials required to escape from the slow-time envelope that encases their planet, and if they succeed in getting out it will spell certain doom to life itself. Along the way, Marvin loses a leg, Arthur learns to fly, Agrajag fails to exact his revenge, and the English are proved to be about the least sensitive race ever to exist.

And if any of that made any sense to you, I advise you seek medical help immediately, if not sooner.

It’s completely bonkers and despite the fact the main premise is that of seeking a solution to save the universe from certain destruction, it actually feels like not a lot happens. That is, there are many events, but most of them don’t feel pertinent to the main event. That doesn’t stop them being hilarious, insane and altogether welcome. The scenes where Arthur learns how to fly – the trick being to throw yourself at the ground and miss – are rather sweet among everything else, and he remains a character I have a lot of affection for. He didn’t ask for any of this to happen, but he’s handling himself terribly well. There are some great references to the first two books as well, and we also get to meet Agrajag, perhaps the most tragic figure out there. Every time he is reincarnated, it is Arthur Dent who causes his demise, and as such, he is very, very annoyed.

Whereas the last book seemed to focus more on Zaphod, here Arthur is back at centre stage. Last time I said that Trillian barely got anything to do, and here, while she is only in a handful of scenes, she’s a much more interesting, pivotal and engaging character, easily the sanest of them all. Adams is, of course, on great form with the universe he has created, with its many ridiculous and improbable events. If you stop to question any of it, you’ll just give yourself a hernia. His use of language is, as ever, beautifully precise, unique and incredibly creative, my favourite line probably being, “He got a large and extremely disreputable cocktail party in the small of the back.” What a wonderful image. The book also manages to handle the idea of immortality by showing us a character who, with the entirety of time to work with, has decided to personally insult everyone in the universe. It’s just the right side of funny and it’s a good enough use of immortality as any.

Utterly bananas. And yet still so brilliant.

“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

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Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remove that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

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.

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

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.

“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

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