Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Rereading #4 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is bittersweet for me because it’s something my Dad introduced me to and it really hurts to write a post about the book knowing he won’t read it. When I first started working in publishing, he subscribed to every newsletter or blog I told him I was writing for, even though most of them, at the time, were about knitting or card making and he had no interest in either.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is hard to describe. The novel is quite short, funny and brilliant. It’s the story of a human, Arthur Dent, and what happens when his home planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, leaving him stranded in a universe which is wider, wilder and weirder than he ever imagined.

A cult phenomenon
It’s hard to describe H2G2 because the whole is somehow much more than the sum of its parts. As I reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I kept highlighting bits of the story that have crept into my personal lexicon. This is partly because I grew up with the Guide, listening to the radio shows on long car journeys, reading the books until they fell apart, and partly because they’re just really clever, catchy and memorable. Adams has a knack for creating zany, wonderful worlds which also say something deeper. Certain phrases just seem like such a good way to express a certain concept or sensation, usually one that is ignored by standard English.

I’m not surprised that so many people love H2G2, and I definitely recommend it to everyone I know. That said, although I grew up so immersed in it that asking me about it is like asking a fish about water. I do recognise that comic science fiction – even when it’s brilliantly done – is not for everyone. I think you have to leave the part of your brain which demands accuracy and realism in all things, the bit that insists that objects in motion should remain in motion and rain always falls down, at the door, or gag it at least, while you read the books.

A complicated multi-media delight
H2G2 started out as a radio show, first broadcast in 1978, and the first novel roughly follows the plot of the radio show. After that it gets complicated – the novels started as a tie-in with the radio show, of which there were 2 series aired in the late 1970s, but Adams eventually wrote 5 novels, the last published in 1992, rapidly moving on from the plots on radio. A TV series in the 1980s overlapped with the novels, and since Adam’s death in 2001 there has been another book (written by Eoin Colfer) 3 more series of the radio show (based on the books) and a movie. 

I definitely recommend diving into H2G2, but I don’t mind where you start. Usually I’m all about the book, and I do think the books are brilliant. But the original radio shows are excellent, very well crafted, and I think some of the extra emotion and characterization comes through from listening to it performed by actors, with all the sound effects and technologies they had available. In this case, I’d say dodge the audio books – although they’re read by Stephen Fry – and either go straight for the radio show, or pick up the novels. I also enjoyed the 2005 film, although I know some fans didn’t. All three versions are family-friendly and kids will – if my brother and I are typical, which we may not be – love them.

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.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

#101 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome is available for free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a light-hearted account of a trip on the river Thames. The three men are J, the narrator, and his friends George and Harris. All three are finding work and life dull, and decide that there would be nothing better to revive their health and spirits than a two-week boating holiday. Like The Wind in the WillowsThree Men in a Boat is about the joys of messing about in boats.

A different time
Three Men in a Boat was written to be funny and topical, and has held up surprisingly well. It’s very easy to recognise the characters and situations Jay and his friends find themselves in, and to sympathise. That said, it’s also a glimpse into a lost world as it’s a contemporary report of a Victorian holiday.

First published in 1889, Three Men describes white collar Victorians at play. Jerome assumes that his readers will recognise the situations and topics he’s discussing, and will find the humour there. As a result, he covers the details of the trip, even down to the packing list, methods of rowing and division of labour, in great detail. It’s not often that a packing list makes me laugh out loud, but Jerome managed it.

For modern readers, this is an absolute blessing as it not only clears up troublesome questions (for example: how did the Victorians stay so smart while boating? Answer: they had their laundry done professionally, mid-trip) but also takes us behind the scenes in ordinary late-Victorian lives. It’s like Diary of a Nobody in that it’s not only still funny today (at least, I found it funny) but also illuminates the period. While reading Dickens might be a good way to discover the squalor of early Victorian London, Three Men in a Boat is a much more fun way to visit a late Victorian spree.

Funny and wise
I really like this book. It’s joyful and funny and quirky and clever. Jerome illustrates his story throughout with little bits of wisdom, ironically included and usually illustrated by his characters ignoring them. In many ways, Three Men is a lesson in how to travel and covers a broad range of topics from how not to pack to the importance of being good humoured with your companions.

K and I have been travelling a lot this summer, and I’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of travel as we go (I will probably write more about this next month, when I have reliable internet access again). Three Men in a Boat is definitely part of my ideal library for armchair travellers. It’s not about travelling half way around the world, like The Beach, and it’s not a story about a great adventure, breaking records and dealing with extremes of human endurance. It’s much more relevant than that, and no less inspiring: it’s a story about getting out and doing something, about leaving the house, even if you’re underprepared, and about staying friends while you do.

It also makes the River Thames sound absolutely beautiful, and despite the 120 years which have elapsed, and my own lack of rowing skills, I’m strongly tempted to go down to the river, hire a boat and head off upstream. I will try not to expect everything to be just as Jerome describes, although his book does actually make a pretty good guidebook, easy to read, easy to follow and listing all the major sights.

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.

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

I can’t find my copy of #134 George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, so I was thrilled to find a copy when I was in the UK recently. I remember it being one of my childhood favourites. It’s probably my second favourite Dahl book, after Matilda

George’s Marvellous Medicine tells the story of George, who lives with his parents and his very grumpy grandmother on his parents’ farm. One day, as an act of revenge, he decides to replace his grandmother’s medicine with a concoction of his own, with astonishing results.

Fabulous story
I don’t know why I love this book so much. I think it’s because the book is gleeful and joyful throughout. Pretty much everyone in the book – and there aren’t many characters – spends a large part of the story in a state of highly pleased excitement. It’s like reading a successful birthday party, where everyone laughs and dances and enjoys themselves. 

It’s also a quick, fun read, and well illustrated by Quentin Blake. It’s a story about pushing boundaries, crossing the line of polite behaviour, and reaping the unpredictable consequences. The story is imbued with Dahl’s trademark zaniness and wild invention. In this case, it works, in my opinion.

Entirely unsafe
Like all of Dahl’s books, there’s a grim undertone and if you think about some of the things that happen seriously, you’d get a rather different feel than the jaunty rollicking ride Dahl conducts you on.

The thing I found most shocking about the book is that George’s mixture is made of some really lethal ingredients, and yet that’s fine. It has horse medication, anti-freeze and household cleaners in. It’s properly poisonous, and that seems like a terrible example to be setting small children. I’m at that stage where I haven’t been a kid myself for a long while, and yet my friends mostly have toddlers, so I really don’t know how likely a curious 8-year-old is to mimic George’s concoctions. I know I didn’t, but then I wasn’t exactly a whirlwind child.

I really enjoyed reading George’s Marvellous Medicine again. I don’t think I’ve read it since the 1990s, and I probably wouldn’t have reread at all if it weren’t for this challenge. I grumble about quite a lot of books on the Big Read list, but I think it’s worth doing for the new books I try (even if I don’t love them) and the old loves I revisit.

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.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

I really enjoyed #145 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, and definitely recommend it to readers young and old. It’s one of my preferred Dahl books and has survived an adult reading remarkably well.

James, orphaned in a tragic accident, is sent to live with two cruel aunts. They force the little boy to toil for them, cooking and cleaning and mending and fetching, giving him no time for fun. One day he meets a stranger who gives him a magical gift – and then fabulous things start to happen.

James and friends
Getting rid of the parents is a common starting point for children’s stories – after all, if you’re happy and comfortable at home, there would be less appeal to being the first person to cross an ocean by peach. It does mean that a lot of famous characters from children’s literature come from really abusive homes, and James is no exception.

The book was published in 1961, when hitting children was a standard form of correction or punishment, and Dahl wrote about his own experiences of being beaten at school in his autobiography, Boy. So I don’t imagine he intended James’ home life to be quite as grim as it looks to modern eyes – and it’s pretty grim.

That said, Dahl has a knack for making the ordinary extraordinary and visa versa, so he glosses over the grim opening with a few jokes and some quirky songs, then moves on to the exciting bits. And the exciting bits are definitely good fun, although a bit odd and macabre in places, as all of Dahl’s books are.

The Roald Dahl collection
I’ve been reading a lot of Roald Dahl novels lately as there are 9 on the Big Read list and I’ve noticed a few things. First, the TV or film adaptions are usually, if not outright dreadful, then rather worse than the books. Which is sort of odd, as the books tend to be beautifully illustrated and quirky in a very visual way. Perhaps it’s impossible to transfer. That said, the musical version of Matilda which is out in London is excellent.

Second, although Dahl’s books were written across several decades, he doesn’t seem to have changed much as a writer, or altered the settings in his novels. You can read James and the Giant Peach (1961) and then Matilda (1988) and, if you didn’t know the dates they were published, it would be easy to believe that Dahl had waited 27 days between writing them, not 27 years.

Third, I can’t tell whether Dahl didn’t know certain things about the natural world or just didn’t care. Perhaps it’s a mix. In any case, in James, people get eaten up (entirely and suddenly) by an angry rhino, seagulls fly nicely without crapping everywhere and don’t eat peaches and a few other odd things occur. I don’t think it really matters, but I do get a little jolt out of the story whenever something fairly ordinary (like a seagull) acts in a way which seems completely out of character.

Finally, while I won’t say I loved them all, I can say that I’m thoroughly impressed with Dahl as a writer. Each book is distinct and different, with its own set of quirky characters, wild new words and bizarre circumstances. It’s very impressive and well worth a read.

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.

Goosebumps: The Night of the Living Dummy by RL Stine

Goosebumps: The Night of the Living Dummy by RL Stine

I’m behind! I meant to get this review up for last Friday, as usual, but haven’t had any internet access. Apologies to anyone who was waiting for it.

Sometimes, it’s really not clear what the Big Read list is referring to, and #188 Goosebumps by RL Stine is a case in point. Goosebumps is, in fact, the name of a series of gentle horror books for kids. There were 62 books in the original series, so Wikipedia tells me, and probably at least 40 more written by the time the Big Read list voting happened in 2003. There’s no way I’m adding a hundred extra books to this challenge, even if I liked the genre, which I don’t.

I did a bit of research and selected Classic Goosebumps #1: Night of the Living Dummy as probably being the original book in the series – it now seems like I was wrong about that, but that’s what I read, and I’m counting it.

Night of the Living Dummy is a mild horror story aimed at young teenagers, I would guess. It tells the story of twins, Lindy and Kris. Lindy finds a ventriloquist’s dummy in a skip, and Kris, jealous, demands one of her own. When spooky, mean things start happening, could their family be in danger – and could the dummies be to blame?

Night of the living boredom
Horror is not my favourite genre, which is perhaps why I found the book somewhat creepy but mostly a drag. I didn’t enjoy Night of the Living Dummy and I don’t recommend it. It’s predictable, trope-bound mild horror and doesn’t do anything exciting. Ventriloquist’s dummies seem to be almost universally regarded as creepy, so the story isn’t even unusual. I suspect that its success is down to being junior horror – when you’ve only read one book with ghosts / vampires / evil living dummies in, then you’re likely to have lower standards than when you’re a jaded reader like me, who has seen it all a dozen times.

How scary is junior horror?
There are quite a lot of deliberately scary books for kids out there. I remember the Goosebumps series from when I was a kid and also an imprint called Point Horror, although I didn’t read many of them. Horror stories are likely to give a pleasant chill when the reader believes that the characters are in trouble – but the trouble is purely fictional – and nightmares when you think the trouble might spill over into your world. I believe that junior horror needs to be even more clear than adult horror that the fiction is, well, fictional, as convictions are things one grows into, and they’re hard to hold onto in the middle of the night. I remember watching an all too plausible vampire film at university and waking up in the night, after a nightmarish rehashing of the plot with myself in the victim’s role, unable to fully convince myself that vampires couldn’t possibly exist.

People will react differently to different plots, but on the whole I thought Night of the Living Dummy wasn’t too scary for a kid. A benefit is that the horror elements are largely impersonal – the problems are outside of the family. I think the [insert monster here] type are far less creepy than the possessed parents want to eat your brains type.

However, like most horror novels, it does have a fairly high amount of conflict between the characters, and no one believes that the terrible things are happening, not great messages on either count, although perhaps accurate.

Nightmare-free horror also depends on the villain being thoroughly vanquished at the end of the book, and the Goosebumps series are terrible at this. The bad guys just keep on coming back, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it but switch to another series.

All in all, I don’t think I’d object to a child of mine reading these books – as long as they were reading other books, too, balanced diet and all that – but I would keep an eye out for disturbed sleep. And perhaps pass on my top tip, from my own childhood, which is this: if you’re reading horror before bed, and want a good night’s sleep, read a couple of chapters of the drippiest Enid Blyton novel you own before you go to sleep. It’s pretty much impossible to have a nightmare in her uber-saccharine world.

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.