Monthly Archives: May 2012

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Another children’s book, #132 is the story of a boy and his father and a great caper. The main character is Danny and The Champion of the World is the title his father gives him when he has a brilliant idea which they then put to the test.

Quentin Blake did the illustrations for Danny and, as I mentioned when I reviewed Matilda, his beautiful drawings add an extra layer to the story and help the reader picture each scene as they go along.

A criminal mind
The caper involves a crime – but one which is fairly rare and archaic, at least in the UK, so not one the reader is likely to have been a victim of. The crime is accepted and practised by most of the secondary characters in the book, including the local policeman, and the victim is an unpleasant character, all of which frames the criminal activity and makes it seem very light hearted and a positive act of benefit to the community.

It’s interesting, not because it’s unusual – action heroes, even in kids’ books, steal stuff and kill people all the time – but because the characters talk about it being illegal and because it’s a real-world scenario. Danny and his father aren’t spies on the run from a shadowy foreign government – they’re a fairly ordinary family and they have no special powers. And yet, between going to school and going to work, Dahl sends them out to commit a crime, and the audience cheers them on.

The moral lesson – if one can be drawn – is probably the same as in most of Dahl’s books: revenge is best served dramatically.

Introducing the BFG
Early on, Danny’s father tells him the story of where dreams come from – and he describes the Big Friendly Giant who is one of Dahl’s best-known and best-loved (#56 on the Big Read list) characters.  Danny was published in 1975 but readers didn’t find out the rest of the BFG’s story until 1982. The description matches so well – it’s interesting to see that this odd, lovely idea was already well formed in Dahls’ head years before The BFG was published.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Published in 1932, #88 Cold Comfort Farm is set in “the near future”, probably about 1945. This is perhaps the most startling thing about the novel – it’s mentioned by the author at the start of the book but the only science-fiction elements I spotted were video phones and planes being more common than taxis.

I have no idea why Gibbons chose to set the novel in the future as it’s set on a farm which is firmly mired in the past. Flora Poste, thoroughly educated and recently orphaned, writes to all her relatives looking for somewhere to live. The letter from her Aunt Ada Doom at Cold Comfort Farm is the most interesting of the lot, so off she goes, ready to meddle. And meddle she does – Flora Poste is as self-confident and interfering as Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Luckily for her relatives, her machinations are rather more fruitful.

An odd sort of comedy
Written as satire, Cold Comfort Farm is funny but it’s an unusual, wry humour which I find takes a while to get used to. It’s also parodying a popular genre which hasn’t really survived that well – the closest most modern readers will have come to the melodramatic rural novel Gibbons is aping is probably Wuthering Heights.

That said, I think the novel stands alone well, and although – like Gulliver’s Travels – I think I missed a fair number of sly references and contemporary nods, the story rackets along and draws the reader with it. It’s a quirky book and is – as I think Gibbons intended above all – highly amusing.

In praise of libraries

In praise of libraries

I went to the library today. I had some time and – more importantly – I know I’ll have time to read the books and also be able to return them in a few weeks. I’ve only been a couple times in the six months I’ve been working in London, and it’s a shame. It explains why I haven’t been reading many new things and thought my reading list was starting to get stale: it’s really hard to browse for ebooks but it’s so easy to try new things in the library.

There’s something special about walking through a library, skimming titles, pulling attractive books off the shelves, browsing. Every book you see, you can take home and read for free which means that you can take any book you like – a dozen, even, at my local library – without checking a price ticket or spending the grocery money. The possibilities, the adventures, the stories are nearly endless.

Books on a shelf, spine outward. Each one has a symbol sticker on the spine indicating genre e.g. a rocket ship, castle, etc

Nowadays, libraries offer so much more than books – they have computers, rent out DVDs and CDs, have genealogy and local history sections, language classes, computer lessons, story time for children… – they’re an amazing resource and it’s a real shame that so many are under threat or having their budgets and facilities cut.

I don’t remember ever imagining my wedding day when I was young but I do remember imagining my library. I was convinced that one day I would have a whole room just for books – and I made a concerted effort to turn my bedroom into that room. I don’t think I got rid of a book until I was at least 18. I kept the books I loved and the books I didn’t like and I reread most of them on a regular basis. I read books which were too old for me and books which were far too young.

Looking across a room. All that can be seen is a bookshelf, filled with books, a bed and a pile of books on the bedside table

Nowadays, I have just one bookcase and it’s half-full of DVDs and knitting magazines.

This fairly major attitude shift built up in several waves. I discovered Bookcrossing while I was at university, which made giving books away fun. I didn’t stop buying books though, and a couple years after graduating I had almost a whole bookcase of unread books. I then moved several times in fairly rapid succession and got thoroughlysick of packing, hefting and unpacking books I hadn’t opened from one move to the next.

The final nail in the coffin of my childhood library dreams was the Kindle. And although I love having 600 books in my pocket, it’s not the same as having 600 books in a room. So I’m really glad that part of my taxes go to paying for several rooms around the city with thousands of books in each of them. And I’m really glad that I went to visit the books again.

Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne

Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

There are a lot of books for children on the list, but #7 Winnie-the-Pooh is the first one I’ve read which is aimed at really young children. It’s a short book with plenty of lovely pictures drawn by EH Shepard and the stories are all written as though they’re being told to a very young child, Christopher Robin, about the adventures he and his toys have had together.

The adventures are fantasy (discovering the North Pole rather than visiting the dentist) but the scope of the stories is limited and the world is small (it turns out the North Pole is about half a mile from home).

How stories work
Winnie-the-Pooh is a fascinating book to read if you’re interested in how stories are told, because Milne has stripped each one down to its essential parts, while still retaining a strong flavour and atmosphere.

Each story is about 10 pages long in my edition – and that includes several pages of pictures – yet each has a beginning, an adventure and an end. Many of them have character development, snippets of song or interesting digressions. There’s a lot of skill and artistry in these stories but it’s tucked away. It’s like hearing a top-class musician play, and then looking at how quickly, precisely and confidently their hands move.

To be read aloud
The stories are written as though they are being told live, made up on the spot. It’s interesting as it highlights the collaborative nature of story telling – it only works if the audience believes and cares about the story, and this caring is the heart of the book. The author / parent / narrator talks to Christopher Robin and together they come up with bits of the story, all the while maintaining the fiction that they’re talking about something which really happened. Talking about Eyeore’s birthday, they have the following conversation:

“And didn’t I give him anything?” said Christopher Robin sadly.
“Of course you did,” I said. “You gave him — don’t you remember — a little — a little –”
“I gave him a box of paints to paint things with.”
“That was it.”

When I started reading Winnie-the-Pooh I was sure I knew what I was getting. The character is so familiar from my childhood and endless merchandising that I was surprised to be surprised by the book. It’s also a lot more complex than I imagined, while also being simple enough for tiny children to enjoy. All in all, I’m surprised it’s not taught in schools or at least at first year of university – it demonstrates a wide range of story telling techniques and literary tricks without any obscure language or drab descriptions.

How quickly do you read?

How quickly do you read?

There are plenty of gadgets online to assess your reading speed but this reading speed test from Staples has a couple of interesting features. First, it places you on a scale marked out by familiar groups like ‘third grade students’ and ‘college professors’.

ereader test
Source: Staples eReader Department

Second, it tells you how long it will take to read certain classic and well-loved novels. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of crossover with the Big Read list, which made me wonder how much time I’m actually dedicating to this project.

If  I read as quickly as I did in the test – which is unlikely, I think, as a one-page sprint is not the same as even a 50-page chapter – then I could finish Alice in Wonderland in just 37 minutes but it would still take 14h14 to read War and Peace. Assuming that the books they’ve chosen are of fairly typical length and complexity, each book would, at that unusually fast pace, take 3h40 on average. Multiplied by 200, that suggests it will take at least 733 hours to get through the list, or about 20 weeks, working full time.

I suspect that the real answer will be double that, so while, in one sense, this is like signing up for a year-long project at work on a whim, as I’m not in a rush to finish, 30 minutes or an hour a day seems like a reasonable investment. I’ve already reread several books I fondly remember from my childhood and discovered one really absorbing new author (I’ve just finished book four of the Outlander series) and I’m looking forward to rereading The Fantastic Mr Fox and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Book #65, Mort is one of 15 Pratchett novels on the list. I’ve read it before, but it’s not one of my favourites so I haven’t picked it up in several years. This made rereading it all the more enjoyable as there were parts of the book I didn’t remember at all, and having ‘new’ Pratchett to read is always a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

A good place to start
Like Small Gods (my review), Mort is a good book to choose if you’re wondering where to start with the Discworld series. First published in 1987, it’s the fourth book in the series and doesn’t depend on any of the previous novels.

It’s also the first one to feature Death as a main character, and although it might seem odd, Death is a sympathetic character and his appearances in other Discworld novels are part of the charm of the series as a whole.

Mort tells the story of a young man who is taken on as Death’s apprentice. Unsurprisingly, it all goes a bit wrong and trouble ensues for both Mort himself and the world at large.

A good book
I’ve yet to find a Pratchett novel I didn’t like, but Mort is one of the ones I don’t love. It’s still a good book – it’s well written, interesting, well-paced and very readable. It’s definitely worth making shelf-space for, but when I’m in the mood to visit  Discworld I tend to pick up something else instead, even though Death is one of my favourite characters.