Tag Archives: 1970s

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

While we’re travelling, I’m reading less and also trying to read more books set in the area where I am, so #109 The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Fosyth is probably the last Big Read book I’ll read for a while.

Published in 1971, and set in the early ’60s, The Day of the Jackal is a thriller. A sinister group want to overthrow the French government, and to do so they’re going to hire The Jackal, an expert assassin.

A matter of style
Jackal is a classic airport thriller. It’s fairly chunky (358 pages) but not so thick as to be intimidating. It’s a very detailed fantasy, a careful working out of a fictitious political drama. It’s also a police procedural, as the main body of the story follows a detective who has been tasked with tracking down the killer.

The novel is divided into three sections: ‘Anatomy of a plot’, ‘Anatomy of a manhunt’ and ‘Anatomy of a kill’. The sections get shorter and shorter as the tension picks up. The novel shows both sides of the chase, what the plotters are planning first, then when the police get wind of it and start to hunt them down, and then how it all unravels. It’s easy to read and rattles along pretty well. I did get bogged down in the descriptions of the weapons and some of the details of the work on both sides.

Fact or fiction?
Set in France in the 1960s, Jackal features both real people and fictional characters. And they interact. I don’t like this. It sets my teeth on edge, and I spent the entire book trying to figure out which bits were real and which were fiction. I imagine that the audience at the time would have had less trouble.

Also, as the book was set several years before it was written, and is based around a plot to assassinate a real person, early readers would definitely have known the outcome before the book opened. In case later readers are in any doubt, Forsyth drops a spoiler in part way through. I feel this removes a lot of the tension. If you’re reading this book, it’s not to find out whether the assassination plot succeeds or fails, but to watch it unfold. And that, unfortunately, dragged. Perhaps it’s just a little dated. I did find it interesting watching the police struggle without the instantaneous communications and large databases we now take for granted, but that was about it.

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 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.

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Back in Cambridge for a few days, one of my first stops was the library and I was thrilled to find #177 Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl on the shelves. While I’ve tried to keep all the books I ever loved (not the most sensible of projects) we don’t have a copy of this one.

Fantastic Mr Fox is the story of a family of foxes who live on a hill. At the bottom of the hill are three big farms, and every night Mr Fox goes out to steal a hen or goose or duck from one of the farms to feed his family. Unsurprisingly, the farmers object, and as the story starts they’ve decided to do something about this theft.

I loved the book as a kid and really enjoyed rereading it. I didn’t enjoy the recent film as much, but it does have the voice of George Clooney in it, which may make it more appealing to some.

Entirely (un)natural
All books with talking animals present an odd, unnatural view of nature – it’s inevitable as animal societies don’t work in polite, civilized ways and accuracy wouldn’t fit the fairy tale. One thing I always wonder about is how the author decided which animals can talk and which can’t. Broadly speaking, if it can talk, it’s a friend, not food, to slightly misquote the sharks in Finding Nemo. So I can understand why foxes could talk to badgers but the chickens don’t talk (you have to read The Fox Busters by Dick King-Smith for their side of this story) – but why do foxes talk to rabbits? rats? Foxes eat rabbits – they’re one of the threats in Watership Down – but in Fantastic Mr Fox mammals are not on the menu.

I’m clearly over-thinking this, but I do find it interesting, particularly when two natural enemies team up. In The Princess and the Frog, the frog tries to eat a bug, who immediately becomes a friend and rescuer. Perhaps animals are meant to represent our better selves, but I’d like a little more Darwinian caution.

A life of crime
Criminal behaviour is often rewarded in children’s stories, so Mr Fox’s life of crime doesn’t really stand out. I do wonder how well the story would have gone down with children who have chickens as pets or farm animals – foxes can do an immense amount of damage if they get into a coop, while Mr Fox is quite restrained.

The book is also definitely about Mr Fox – it’s his crimes and his battle with the farmer that put others in danger. One thing I did like about the movie was that Mrs Fox (no other name given in either text, very annoying) was also a sneak-thief and quite as good as her husband. She seems to be taking a few years out the raise the cubs, rather than be entirely dependent – a little more natural, perhaps.

While I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and do recommend Fantastic Mr Fox, it reminded me that there’s another author I should be recommending and rereading – Dick King-Smith. Writing for children, he published dozens of books between 1978 and 2001. He’s best known for The Sheep-Pig which was made into the film Babe, but I don’t think it’s his best work. I loved The Fox Busters (about three female chickens defending their family from foxes), Harry’s Mad (about a boy and an incredibly intelligent parrot), Tumbleweed (about a knight and the witch who rescues him) and Magnus Powermouse (catchphrase: “nasty cat, bite you” still in use in our family).

One of the sad things about the list is that so many truly excellent and well-loved authors are missing – it’s inevitable, but I’m a little shocked that Dick King-Smith and Diana Wynne Jones didn’t rate at all, to name just two of my best-loved authors.

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 Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Like The Far Pavillions, #64 The Thorn Birds had a pull-quote on the cover from the Telegraph comparing it to Gone with the Wind. It is decidedly epic: the novel spans most of the 20th century, ranges from a New Zealand sheep shearer’s cottage to the Papal palace in Rome, covers four generations of a family and tackles some big themes. It also gets kind of dull, for a book with so many juicy ideas in it.

Not my kind of book
I’m reluctant to slate this book as it’s so clearly not for me. I have little patience with people making grand sacrifices for (from my perspective) no good reason and I’m skeptical of grandiose claims of love, and visions of love as something instant and unchanging.

This book is full of both of those things, and also has an awful lot of Catholicism in it. Again, this may appeal to others, but I’ve found that my beliefs tend to be at odds with those preached and practiced by the Catholic church (for one thing, I won’t support any organization which won’t let me be a senior or speaking member because of my sex).

That said
Much of the action takes place on Droghedra, a cattle ranching station in Australia. I did very much enjoy the descriptions of the landscape, the lifestyle and how the two evolved over the decades the book covered. In some ways, it seems, that life didn’t change that much on the stations but the geographical isolation of the stations meant that although fashions like short(er) skirts and rock and roll hardly touched the people at Droghedra, improvements in communications – phones, cars, airplanes, radios… – and labour saving devices – electricity, plumbing… – had an enormous effect.

As with The Far Pavillions, I don’t know much about Australia at this time period, so I can’t say whether it’s an accurate portrayal of life on a big station. It did match with other fictional portrayals I’ve seen – the film Australia, for example, covers a similar period and has a similar setting – and the author did at least live through most of the period she’s writing about, and had lived in or visited most of the communities she discusses.

I realise this is a half-hearted recommendation, but that’s the best I can do: try it, if you like long books, family dramas, pot-boilers and let me know if you love it – as always I’m interested to hear why people like books I don’t.

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.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Although it’s a modern classic, I never read #42 Watership Down when I was a kid, but I don’t think I missed much. While the novel has several  strong points, overall I don’t recommend it.

Watership Down, like Black Beauty, tries to give a human narrative to animals behaving as animals. It’s an odd genre as observed animal is given human motivations. Like The Far Pavillions, I don’t know enough about what’s real to be able to separate fact from fiction and the author doesn’t do that so I’m left with an uncomfortable collection of maybe-true tidbits.

Girls just wanna have babies
I don’t think it’s too spoilerific to mention that, eventually, in the interests of progeny, the male rabbits seek out some female rabbits. The female rabbits are a disappointment. They are largely docile, indistinguishable and only interested in babies.

Adams has written a book where male rabbits do all kinds of ‘unnatural’ things, including – in the first chapter – accurately predicting the future and yet the female rabbits are left tending the hearth. It’s something I see time and time again in speculative fiction: the author rewrites the world and some how women / people of colour / people with disabilites / foreigners / etc still get trapped in the same roles and stereotypes. I am so sick of it, and it’s particularly egregious when it’s a book about psychic talking rabbits.

Survival of the heroes
One of the strong points about Adams’ novel is that he doesn’t shy away from the gorier elements of being a prey animal. As he has an ensemble cast, the reader is never entirely sure which of the characters will survive any given encounter. It also gives the individual characters more scope to be good, bad or unhelpful on a case by case basis, as they don’t have to fight a solo battle. While classic heroes from Odysseus to James Bond are loners working for their own ends, the rabbits of Watership Down are a team, and their heroics – or lack thereof – are measured against the social good. It’s a rather refreshing change.

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 Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

I read #168 The Far Pavillions in a marathon session over the course of two days. As the book is over 1,000 pages long, that would normally be a strong recommendation but in fact it was due back at the library and I couldn’t be bothered to track it down again – my response was mixed and lukewarm at best.

Can’t avoid the word ‘epic’
The Far Pavillions isn’t just long – it’s also sweeping, grand, vast, complex and other words like that. The novel is broken into several sections which are called ‘books’, and honestly I feel the story – or at least the readers – would have been better served by breaking it up.

The novel begins with a young English woman marrying a crusty academic who is studying the languages and politics of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This would be enough plot to fill a novel, but is rattled over fairly quickly, as its the origin story for Our Hero, Ash. After a series of unfortunate deaths and the untimely intervention of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, Ash is left in the care of his nurse, a woman from the hills who treats him as her son.

The novel then shifts through a range of different genres – exotic childhood memoir; young British officer / hero of the Raj; palace intrigue; romance; spy story; war story. Each section is fairly distinct, and the change is fairly abrupt. I consider myself a skilled and experienced reader, but it did leave me scrambling to shift gears and reduced my enjoyment of the book as a whole, although most of the sections were pretty good.

White history of India
A problem I had with the book is that it is set in India, between roughly 1850 and 1880 and written by a white (as far as I can tell) woman whose ties to the country are through the Raj – several generations of her family served in the British army in India, her great-uncle wrote a book about the mutiny mentioned above, her husband’s family were also in the British army.

As I know nothing about the history of India at that period, I can’t tell if MM Kaye has written a reasonable account or if The Far Pavillions deserves the cover line “The Gone with the Wind of the North-West frontier” not just for page count and war stories but also for blatant white-washing.

What I can say is that parts of the book read like a story from Arabian nights – beautiful princesses, evil courtiers, forced marriage and murder – but there again, costumes aside, so do parts of British royal history and so do the family histories of plenty of ordinary folk.

In addition, MM Kaye co-opts actual historical characters for her novel, giving them major roles in her stories and creating backgrounds, episodes and conversations whole-cloth. The line between outright fiction and historical fact is severely blurred – as far as I can tell its as though she had added an extra character to Churchill’s war room or Elizabeth I’s inner circle and personally, I don’t like that. But books like The Other Boleyn Girl have been very popular so perhaps I’m in a minority.

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.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

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.

I read #179 Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a single sitting one morning, and the kindest thing I can say about it is that it’s a quick read.

Like The Little Prince, JLS is an allegory. It’s a ‘fable about making the most of our lives, even if our goals run contrary to the norms of our flock’, according to the blurb. It’s also about seagulls learning to fly – not in the hatchlings learning to flutter by jumping off cliffs sense but in the stunts, aerobatics and speed records sense. I didn’t enjoy it and don’t recommend it – I found both the sociology and the bird watching frustratingly unrealistic.

Not a nature program
Both the book and the title character, Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself, create a very odd view of seagulls. Having watched a few nature programs – and been to the beaches near Torquay – I’m aware that I know very little about them. I’m happy to believe they’re bright birds and excellent fliers – hard not to when you seen them mug a toddler for chips –  but I’m pretty sure that (a) they need to eat and (b) they don’t measure speeds in miles.

These two apparently trivial details sum up my problems with the book. The author and main character ignore any and all physical, social or emotional needs in pursuit of the dream and, frustratingly, this has no effect on either the main character, his charisma or his ability to suceed at his goal.

JLS is a super-gull, and it goes beyond the physical. He has the power to inspire and lead, to change his society. He is, as one character says, a gull in a million. And possibly the son of the Great Gull as well. He is also really, really lucky – and doesn’t have to face any of the usual challenges which dog the search for physical perfection.

Frankly, this golden-spoon maverick trope is tired and not a path I think anyone should emulate. While it’s true that some rules are arbitrary and even cruel, others are there for the protection of others. And while some people can survive outside society, hunting and fishing in a wild land, most can’t, so you better learn to deal with people. And while it’s true that a great idea will find many fans, it will also find many critics – and if the idea’s strong, it will meet them head on. And if it’s physical perfection, ballet, football, or skiing, for example, then physical changes and dealing with growing old is an important part of adjusting and fulfilling your dream.

Soon be over
The copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull I read comes in at under 90 pages, about half of which are grainy black and white photos of seagulls, so it is a very quick read. That it’s so simple to get through was a blessing for me as I have little patience with thinly veiled saviour stories and heros who are good and pure and beautiful without flaws or frustrations. To my mind, The Little Engine That Could – with the 1970s illustrations, natch, because girls can be blue, especially if they’re trains – is a much better fable for modern times.

I don’t understand why people love this book, so if you do, I’d love to hear why. Perhaps I’m 40 years too late, and it was much more exciting in the 1970s? Perhaps I’m too cynical?

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.