Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

One of the reasons I picked the BBC Big Read list for my reading challenge is that I was looking forward to rereading many of the books I’d read – and that includes all 15 Pratchett books on the list.

#93 The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett is the first book in his famed Discworld series. There are currently 39 books in the series, so it’s no surprise that this one isn’t my favourite (that would be Small Gods). In my opinion, all the Discworld novels are above average (particularly for the genre), and The Colour of Magic is an enjoyable read.

The book is a comic fantasy following the misadventures of Rincewind, a wizard who can’t do any magic but is good at running away, and the Discworld’s first tourist, Twoflower.

To fantasy tropes…
The Colour of Magic is broken into four books, which read almost like novellas or episodes in a TV series. In each, Rincewind and Twoflower encounter hostile fantasy characters (the barbarian hero in leather and fur, implausible dragons, the princess in nothing but a sword…) and, of course, have to escape from certain death at least once but somehow manage to live to run away another day.

If the book took itself seriously, it would be hard to stomach but as it is it’s enjoyably tongue-in-cheek and the world – even in this early form – has better explanations and more internal consistency than a lot of the source material, it’s rather good.

…and beyond
Ironically, the characters Pratchett created to play with common fantasy tropes are now better known and better loved than the originals.

While Colour of Magic is, compared to later books, quite raw, it’s still got the wit and care which characterize later books. When Pratchett is spoofing over-used devices from pulpy sword-and-sorcery books, you get the jokes because you’re into that sort of thing, and you get the feeling that he loves the genre, warts and all, and it’s the fan’s mix of enjoyment and frustration which has inspired the book.

I definitely think that you can enjoy the Discworld series without being a fantasy fan or knowing the genre, and I think that’s still true of Colour. However, many of the jokes assume a certain familiarity with the conventions of the genre and as the series doesn’t need to be read in order, I’d strongly recommend you start somewhere else. As I mentioned earlier, Small Gods is my favourite and also stands alone so makes an excellent gateway into the series.

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.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

I picked up #112 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ when it turned up as the Kindle Daily Deal a week ago. The best bit of this reread for me was when the book abruptly stopped 75% of the way through the document – the first couple of chapters of The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year were much more interesting!

About a wanker
Adrian is literally and metaphorically a wanker. He’s self-absorbed, ignorant and utterly without gorm. Because the book is written as his diary, the reader is relentlessly forced to view his world through his narrow and biased viewpoint. I kept getting the feeling that something really (or at least moderately) interesting was happening off cameraand I couldn’t get at it. Frustrating to say the least.

Most books I actively like or dislike, but I just couldn’t care about Adrian Mole. Given that I never have to meet him (or read the sequels) I’m okay with the books being enjoyed by other people. Quietly. Somewhere else.

Which is sort of the point
I find it hard to fault the book beyond saying that I didn’t like it because it’s so clearly, deliberately crafted. Townsend is a skilled writer, and although I didn’t enjoy the book, it was easy to read and flowed well, even when I was bored to tears.

Often when I reread a book I remember from my childhood I’m torn between enjoying the story and supporting the values I have as an adult. Adrian Mole is the opposite – I’m inclined to agree with the values but can’t recommend the story. I may just be entirely the wrong audience: I was born in 1983, the year the book is set, and grew up ‘abroad’ so the comprehensive – grim ’80s – Thatcherite backdrop is alien rather than familiar. I think I’m missing half the jokes and – unlike in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the ones I understand I just don’t find funny.

My edition had an introduction by David Walliams who described the book as ‘probably the biggest phenomenon of my youth after Star Wars and Star Wars was bigger than God.’ Walliams made the book sound good – funny, irreverent, transgressive – and maybe it was. But it’s 30 years old now, and frankly the introduction was more interesting than the novel.

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.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Another one of my own childhood favourites, my battered copy of #35 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has the cover line ‘The best-loved children’s book ever!’ It may even have been true before that boy wizard turned up but looks a little ironic when it’s not even top 10 in its home country.

That said, Charlie is still good fun, and I enjoyed rereading it. It’s a very quick read and suitable for kids just starting to read on their own.

Surprisingly preachy
It’s not news that people writing for children tend to try to get a message across, or that they can be very obvious and heavy-handed about it, but I honestly thought Dahl was different. Matilda was a paen to creative naughtiness and Danny involved breaking the law. Charlie, marked down in the list of characters as ‘The hero’ does absolutely nothing heroic. He suffers bravely at the beginning, and then barely speaks as the four so-called horrible, disgusting children, each with their signature vice, is dealt with in a poetically just way.

It’s interesting to see which vices are considered worth punishing and what the punishments are: extreme, cartoon-style violence which – if this were anything like a real world – would physically and mentally scar the children for life.

The attack on TV is particularly interesting as it suggests encouraging kids to read instead. Authors tend to favour reading as an activity for obvious reasons, but it’s an interesting reversal from pre-TV stories where reading – especially novels and fairy tales – is seen as dangerous and lazy.

A delectable world
The strength of the book – and its adaptions – may be the world rather than the characters. Willy Wonka himself isn’t particularly likeable, and Charlie is so invisible that it’s easy to imagine yourself exploring the fabulous factory without an intermediary. Charlie never does anything you wouldn’t do – because he never really does anything at all – leaving the reader free to enjoy the candy.

And the world is undeniably fabulous, packed with wordplay brought to life – from the square sweets which look round to Butterscotch and Buttergin (no Butterbeer though).

Racism and post-publication editing
The Oompa-Loompas in the 1971 film have been called a racist caricature and I was curious to see what they’re like in the book. In my book, they aren’t described as hailing from darkest Africa  – although their land is jungled – and the only physical description (apart from size) we get is this: “…beautiful white teeth. His skin was rosy-white, his long hair was golden-brown…”. So, I thought: not racist.

Except that, it seems that this may be due the age of my edition: if I had an earlier one, the Oompa-Loompas might have been black and Dahl changed it for a later edition after, shall we say, feedback. I cite the link for reference and certainly don’t agree with the author, Cassandra Pierce, entirely – for example, she says: “Since Dahl seems to have been writing in [the Victorian] tradition, it is unreasonable to fault him for not realizing the impact it would have on a modern audience” which I think is a poor apology for a very smart person. It is hardly unreasonable to ‘fault’ someone for failing to realise that the rules of their society haven’t changed, however immersed they’ve gotten into another world. For example, no matter how long you’ve been playing GTA for, carjacking is not a legitimate way to get a Ferrari outside the game.

I’m actually glad Dahl changed the book, although I would have preferred he left a note indicating what he’d done and why. Post-publication editing is a big deal now, with blogs and ebooks letting authors change their words after they’ve been read, and it poses a number of challenges for writer and reader. Changing your mind after feedback; admitting you were wrong; changing your behaviour or language when you hurt someone accidentally – all these are good, hard things to do and a better role model for kids than poor Charlie who does nothing but get lucky.

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.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Mel from The Little Wash-House asked if I was going to review any of my own childhood favourites, which gave me the perfect excuse to actually pay for #127 Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.

Angus is the diary of Georgia Nicholson, age 13, and covers mad scrapes, hot dates and make up. I do have a few criticisms, but can’t be too harsh as I still found it madly funny, to the point where K asked what I was laughing at (yes, I was laughing out loud) and I had to say ‘I don’t think I can explain it’. Very teenage.

Definitely for teens
While I think Angus is appropriate, for teens, I’d be reluctant to give it to younger kids as it is very much focused on boys, boyfriends, make-up, holding hands and kissing. There’s not much plot, otherwise, so it probably wouldn’t interest younger kids anyway.

This is Rennison’s first book, and it doesn’t have the same finesse or social awareness that the Jacqueline Wilson books I’ve been reading have. On the one hand, nothing really bad happens (maybe a detention or two) but on the other hand, I’m not sure Georgia is a good role model for dealing with friends, school, boyfriends, etc as she lives in a zany made-up world with a lot of the hard edges rubbed off.

The book is written as Georgia’s diary, which means it focuses entirely on her priorities and as she seems to have no real empathy for anyone else’s point of view it’s a bit one sided. This does make it funnier though, as it’s hard to make sharp jokes about a teacher, parent or friend when you’re feeling sorry for them too. And perhaps Georgia will grow up over the next 10 books – 13 year-olds aren’t renown for being social paragons.

Good fun
I don’t think I can explain what I found funny in Angus, but the character of Angus definitely helps, so I’ll leave you with an excerpt. Angus is Georgia’s pet, found on a holiday in near Loch Lomond, probably part Scottish wild cat. He is completely bonkers and constantly terrorizing next door’s dog.

I should have guessed all was not entirely well in the cat department when I picked him up and he began savaging my cardigan. But he was such a lovely looking kitten, all tabby and long-haired with huge yellow eyes. Even as a kitten he looked like a small dog. I begged and pleaded to take him home.

“He’ll die here, he has no mummy or daddy,” I said plaintively.

My dad said, “He’s probably eaten them.” Honestly, he can be callous.

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.

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

The front of the Pantheon, a large stone building, showing the portico with pointy roof and columns

We’re in Rome for a week. It’s amazing – the whole city is so old. I thought I was used to old places, having lived in Bath and Cambridge, but Rome is on a different scale. There are so many truly ancient bits that the medieval and renaissance stuff pales by comparison. And is getting rather crumbly in places.

It’s a great city to walk around (do watch out for the traffic though) as there’s plenty to look at and enjoy between the well-known sights. We’ve got a couple of walking tour guidebooks which have been surprisingly useful.

Me (white chick on left) kissing K (white dude on right) on cheek in front of the Colosseum, which is a part-ruined 2,000 year old circular arean built of stone arches, stacked.

We made a slight mistake with the timing of this trip – it turns out that 1 November (All Saints Day) is a public holiday in Italy, which is why the only open campsite is still on high season prices. It does mean more things have been open, and the city may quiet down a little now that it’s a working day again.

The other thing we hadn’t realised until we checked at last minute is that although the general speed limit in Italy is 130km/h on the motorway it’s only 80 for caravans. We were expecting to be driving a little faster than that as we had 900km to cover. It took about 14h of driving in all, which made for a very long day.

Despite everything that’s happened in the last few weeks, we’re having a good trip. I’ll report back with more later – got to go look at a few more things first, maybe even go inside something!

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

One of my own childhood favourites, #41 Anne of Green Gables is available for free on Project Gutenberg along with many of its sequels.

First published in 1908, Anne of Green Gables tells the story of an orphan girl with a vivid imagination who comes to live with the Cuthberts on their farm. After arriving at Green Gables, Anne gets into plenty of scrapes but as is common in pre-war children’s literature nothing too serious happens.

A mood, a moment
I remember hunting down the sequels for Anne – it took years – but rereading it I realised I don’t remember much of what actually happened in the books. I remember a few key moments – who she marries in the sequels, for example – the landscape – Prince Edward Island seemed totally alien to me and very exotic – and the flavour of the books but not much of the plot.

I remember Anne well though. I suspect she’s a version of the author, as she has a lively imagination, is constantly making up stories and is very good at writing and English at school. She’s very like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess in this way and like Sara she has been orphaned at an early age and spent her childhood looking after other peoples’ children with no thanks and little food. I’d entirely forgotten this back story despite the fact that it involves three sets of twins.

Anne’s major troubles end just as the novel begins, and she spends the book – and the later books – growing up in a peaceful village. Unusually the sequels follow her life until she’s grown up and beyond – until her daughter is grown up, if I remember correctly, so Anne would be 40 or 50 when we last see her. I remember enjoying that side of it immensely – I always want to find out what happened next to characters I’m really fond of, and Anne was a favourite.

Growing up myself
Rereading Anne of Green Gables was odd because everything was familiar but none of it was clear. I had no expectations about the plot and just came across things as they happened. It was rather lovely, actually, as I was still fond enough to enjoy it and forgive a few oddities but couldn’t be disappointed.

The book is firmly in the moral lesson genre of children’s literature and although Anne is a decidedly flawed and human character she does spend the entire book on a quest to Be Good. That she never succeeds in becoming a paragon of restraint and gentility is probably the only thing which saves it from being dull.

One thing I noticed is how many strict rules there are in the book – not just moral precepts like “it’s a terrible wicked thing not to say your prayers” but endless rules for life like “redheaded people can’t wear pink” and “[Ben Hur is] a little too exciting to be proper reading for a Sunday”. It seems stifling to me, but I can imagine that it would suit some people down to the ground to have such clear guidance on how to behave correctly.

Having finished Anne of Green Gables I immediately went onto Project Gutenberg to download the next couple in the series – I’m looking forward to reading more of Anne’s story and meeting other characters I remember. The book held up surprisingly well, considering how disappointed I’ve been with other recent reads, and I’m glad it’s on the list. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoyed A Little Princess or Little Women.

A note for knitters
One of the characters, Mrs Lynde, is “knitting a “cotton warp” quilt” the first time we meet her, and there’s a good explanation of what a cotton warp quilt is at lady_n_thread. Fascinating – but I don’t want to make one!

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.