“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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“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)

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good-omens“It was a nice day.”

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now there’s a team and a half. Although I’ve devoured most of Gaiman’s work, I’ve only read a few Pratchett novels and never been especially taken by them. I’ve discussed this before. As such, embarking on this book that is continually held up as one of the best and funniest of the nineties was done with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Here’s the situation…

Eleven years before the main story starts, Crowley, a angel-now-demon who “didn’t so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards” has an important job to do involving the Antichrist. It’s not a job he wants to be doing, mind, but you don’t argue with the big boys downstairs. Once the kid has grown up a bit, there are rumblings. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel and part-time bookseller, realise that the end of the world is due this Saturday and neither of them particularly want it to happen. They’ve come to like Earth and it’s many trinkets. They decide to try and stop it.

Elsewhere, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse have received a message to gather. A young man called Newt Pulsifer gets gainful employment as a witchfinder, only to befriend one a short while later. She’s Anathema Device and has been for years studying the only book that means anything to her: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Anathema is the distant descendant of Agnes and has noticed that the prophecies go no further than this coming Saturday. Add to the mix a Satanic hellhound who discovers he’d rather roll in cow shit than do evil, a bogus medium who does extras on Thursdays, two other demons who are trying to make life worse for Crowley, and a former Satanist nun, and things are about to become more complicated than algebraic long division.

And everyone’s lost track of where the Antichrist even is…

That plot summary feels short for what’s actually going on in this book, but it’s one of those ones that is best read in full. So much happens and in such a short space of time that you find yourself tearing through the pages, desperate to find out how it’s all going to get sorted out. It’s immensely funny, and I really mean that. Some books start out funny but then tail off towards the middle and lose it by the end. This one is full of throwaway gags, stupid imagery, witty asides and the most beautiful surrealism. Frankly, I’m jealous. The concepts packed into here are amazing and I’m in awe of them, as well as being pissed off that I will never be this good and wish I’d come up with some of these ideas first.

The main characters arguably are Crowley and Arizaphale, and I adore them both. Crowley may be a demon, but there’s a hint of angel in him somewhere, and while Arizaphale may be an angel, there’s a sliver of darkness in him. Crowley in particular seems keen to cause havoc wherever he goes, simply because that’s what demons do. He drives a beautiful Bentley which only keeps running because he wills it to, and has much to say about the fact that all cassette tapes left in cars for more than two weeks turn into Best of Queen albums. (It’s that sort of insanity I love – it’s nonsense, and yet it feels like that it could be real.)

My favourite characters though are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. who are now the Four Bikers. War, Famine, and Pollution (who replaced Pestilence when he resigned after getting pissed off about the advent of penicillin) are fully fleshed out. Death remains Death, though speaks in the same manner and seems to share a similar appearance to the Death of the Discworld novels. Pollution is a young man who leaves mess in his wake; everything he touches breaks, leaks or becomes toxic. Famine is a food scientist and dietitian who has basically worked out how to produce food that has zero nutritional value (his fast food fries have never even seen a potato) and peddles diet plans that cause people to waste away. He’s incredibly famous among the celebrity world. War is a stunningly beautiful war correspondent who always seems to be in the right place just before the action kicks off. I am in love with War, continuing my obsession with redheads and women who look like they could kill me.

If you’re a fan of Pratchett or Gaiman, come and nestle among these pages. They are magicians, and putting them together creates something particularly wonderful. Indeed, this could be the book that turns me into a Pratchett fan. Perhaps I shall return to the Discworld after all. What an utterly charming, hilarious and at times deeply poignant novel.

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire (1995)

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There are two sides to every story.

There are two sides to every story.

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

If I’m not reading, I do enjoy the theatre, particularly a good musical. One I’ve always been particularly fond of is Wicked, which I last saw in March earlier this year. It feeds into my minor obsession with the fact that there are two sides to every story, and often we only hear one of them. Gregory Maguire, however, has a habit of producing novels that show us another version of events. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, he shows us another version of Cinderella’s tale. In Mirror, Mirror, he reveals the motivations of Snow White’s stepmother. And in last year’s After Alice, he explores the effects Alice had on Wonderland once she’d gone. But in Wicked, we get to see the events of The Wizard of Oz from a completely new angle.

Starting years before Dorothy blows into Oz and meets her rag-tag bunch of friends, a baby girl is born in Munchkinland with bright green skin, something never seen before. Her parents, the devoutly religious Frex and the flighty, flirty Melena are suspicious and find it very difficult to love the child, whom they name Elphaba. Born with razor-sharp teeth and a pathological fear of water, as well as her verdant skin, Elphaba is an anomaly too far, and the family move out to Quadling country where she can be raised without drawing too much attention.

Soon enough though, Elphaba is old enough to attend Shiz, a hugely prestigious university in Gillikin country. There she meets Galinda, the snooty social-climbing wannabe-sorceress; Doctor Dillamond, one of their teachers who happens to be a Goat; and Fiyero, a prince from another land who is handsome but nervous about being in a new environment. Elphaba gets involved with Doctor Dillamond’s research into the differences between animals and Animals, the latter being those that possess sapience and can take jobs among humans. The Wizard seems to want to restrict the rights of the Animals, and Dillamond and Elphaba become determined to stop it.

After travelling to the famous, fabled Emerald City, Elphaba and Galinda meet with the Wizard, and Elphaba decides that she has to stay in the city to help against the plight of the Animals, as fewer and fewer of them are given respect or allowed into the human realms. What she does there sets her on a path that will one day lead to her being dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West.

If you’ve ever seen the musical version of this story, be prepared that this novel is incredibly different to that. While some of the characters are still here, they often have very different backstories and futures. Nessarose, who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, for example, is in a wheelchair in the musical, but in the novel her disability is that she lacks arms. But I’m not going to go into all the differences here, because they simply are too numerous. Let’s look at the book on it’s own merits.

Above all, it’s an exploration of good and evil, and how they can appear different to different people. It also looks at rumour and folklore, and how stories spring up, as well as prejudice, against the Animals mostly, but also against the smart and spiky Elphaba who is judged continually by Munchkins because of her skin colour. Elphaba is called evil and wicked by those that don’t know her, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Her work in the Emerald City can divide even the readers, as we wonder whether she’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter, a distinction that seems to occasionally rise in our world, too. She is not placid, though, and she’s definitely working at something and her intentions are good, even if the execution is less so. Galinda (who later changes her name to the more familiar Glinda) is considered good, but it is suggested simply because of her position in status and good looks. She seems content to stand by and let evil happen, perhaps making her more evil than those performing the evil itself.

I’m not very knowledgeable on the world of Oz, but it feels like Maguire has dug deep into the many original novels set there to build up a world that feels very real, despite its strangeness. He manages to imbue the fantasy world we know from the film with a sense of reality, not letting things just “be”. This is a world where there is sex, education, politics, war, terrorism, racism and murder, despite to some people seeming to be just a funny world of brightly coloured cities and roads, and friendly scarecrows and cowardly lions. We find out how the Lion came to be cowardly, where the winged monkeys come from, and why exactly Elphaba is so obsessed with getting those shoes.

While it’s a really interesting book and a great conceit because I love the idea of seeing stories from another angle, it’s quite dense still and not especially easy going. I wonder, perhaps, if I prefer the musical, and think that I do, as the story is far simplified (and actually on almost an entirely different trajectory) and places an emphasis on the relationship between Elphaba and Galinda. Plus the songs are really good. The book is for completists, and it’s the first of a series which, I presume, will go on to show what happened in Oz once Dorothy and the Wizard had left, but if you really want the story of the witches of Oz, I’d go see the musical.

“The Pale Horse” by Agatha Christie (1961)

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And his name that sat on him was Death...

And his name that sat on him was Death…

“The Espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.”

Packaged, in my version, in the same book as Peril at End House, I am nonetheless counting this one separately, as the two have little in common. This is one of Christie’s novels that could more accurately be termed a thriller, but I’ve resisted that tag for now, as it differs from her few actual thrillers in still being more murder-centric than simply criminal.

The book seems to open with a number of disconnected plot lines. Mark Easterbrook, a historian and our principal narrator, witnesses a fight in a coffee shop between two girls that ends when one pulls a chunk of the other’s hair out. A Catholic priest, Father Gorman, is called to the bedside of a dying woman who wants to give her final confession, but he himself dies later that night when attacked in a foggy street. In the village of Much Deeping, three supposed witches live together, performing seances and apparently causing people’s deaths just by wishing them dead. Crime novelist Ariadne Oliver is having difficulty with a sticky plot point, and has been invited to sign books at a fete.

Things begin to converge when a list of names is found in the dead priest’s shoe, and when it is realised that the names all represent people who have recently died, something fishy seems afoot. There’s also a lot of talk about the Pale Horse, a term that seems to throw numerous people into a lather as they shrilly try to deny that the words have any meaning to them. But the witches live in a converted pub that once held the name The Pale Horse, and after Mark Easterbrook meets them, he begins seeking out answers as to how they seem to be killing people without going anywhere near them. And, perhaps more importantly, why.

While Christie is best known for her straight crimes, she also wrote some supernatural fiction, although mostly in independent short stories and radio plays, leaving her murder mysteries to be entirely lacking in magic. This, however, might be the one exception. Throughout, the characters try and dismiss the supposed powers of Thyrza Grey and her fellow “witches”, but there is doubt within them all as they worry that there really are forces at work here that they don’t understand. The scene where Mark attends a seance is particularly harrowing, and notably one of the few Christie scenes ever to contain much blood (she rarely did a grisly, bloody murder, although there are exceptions).

This book also ties up the whole Christie universe, it seems, uniting Poirot’s occasional friend Ariadne Oliver, the novelist that Christie inserted into her books as her own mouthpiece to discuss her experiences as a famous writer, and Rev and Mrs Dane Calthrop, who previously appeared alongside Miss Marple. This proves that the Poirot and Marple existed in the same universe, although they naturally never met. One wonders how explosive such a meeting would have been. There are also a few references to earlier adventures. For example, Ariadne Oliver is concerned about attending a fete, as the last time she did, someone ended up murdered.

Creepy, but with an engaging and fun cast of characters, this is one of the more tense of her novels, but as usual, if you’re sharp enough you’ll get it, although perhaps the total whys and wherefores would require a certain specialist knowledge. It’s one of her later books, and shows how she has moved a little with the times. This is Christie at her scariest – not through sheer terror, but through a very sinister threat that laces every page. You can never quite be sure who to trust…

“The Atomic Blood-Stained Bus” by Michael J Ritchie (2014)

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I done a book!

I done a book!

“The Atomic Blood-stained Bus has gone by many names over the last few centuries, and many different appearances.”

This isn’t actually a review today, if only because while I have read the book in question, I also wrote it, so to review my own work seems an insane idea. And probably something an American would do. So, yes, I am now officially a published author, which is going to be fun to say when I’m at a party and someone says, “So, what do you do?”

The Atomic Blood-stained Bus is the story of cannibalistic, near-immortal druid Garfield Sutton who drives the titular bus around Britain feasting on unsuspecting members of the public. He is accompanied by Algernon, the former God of Spring who has been ejected from the heavens and now lives on earth, unable to die and filling his days helping Garfield (his part-friend, part-captor) and writing his memoirs about his time as a god.

Garfield is in turn assisted occasionally by Britain’s last witches, who are perhaps more self-serving than they would like to assume and only appear when something big is about to happen. And indeed something big is about to happen, as tabloid journalist Gwen McKenna, a woman with strong interests in both magic and missing persons, has latched onto Garfield’s scent and has begun tracking down the bus, not knowing what far-reaching consequences this will have for everyone involved.

The novel has apparently given my publishers some grief as its genre is hard to pin down, stretching across fantasy, mythology, horror and black comedy. Still, I never wrote with a particular genre in mind – it’s hard to write if you do that. The book was actually written originally for NaNoWriMo in 2012 so the original first draft was completed in twenty-nine days and then edited thoroughly the following year. A journalist friend of mine had some contacts in the publishing world who were looking for new authors so I submitted on the off chance and, well, here we are.

Hopefully some of you at least will like the book (the first chapter is probably a little bit darker than the rest, so if it feels too much to stomach, just hold on a bit) and may even find yourself chuckling at the bits I hope are funny. Or maybe at the bits that aren’t meant to be funny, and that’s OK too. If you have any questions about the book while you’re reading it, or when you’ve finished, please leave me a comment on this post and I will get back to you with an answer.

If you want to download this yourself (and I would love it if you would) then it can be bought on Amazon by following this link. As for me, I’m now off to continue work on my second book. Or, you know, maybe I’ll just read something else instead and write some more reviews.

“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.