Tag Archives: 1980s

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I’ve just finished reading #49 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and it’s a beautiful book. I think it deserved to win the whole show.

When war is declared in 1939, Willie is evacuated from London and sent to stay with Mr Tom, a widower living in a country village. Mr Tom has lived alone for 40 years, and didn’t expect to start childrearing at this late stage. Willie is frightened of the countryside, and worried that Mr Tom will be as strict as his mother. And yet, one way or another, they have to learn to live together.

Just lovely
I couldn’t think of any other books Magorian has written, which sort of surprised me. This is such a beautifully written novel that I feel like all the author’s books should be hits, and I should have read them all. Looking her up, it seems that she hasn’t written much, by the book-a-year standard of other authors, and also writes for younger children.

I don’t know when it was written, but it’s a clever, lovely book. It’s got a mix of happy and sad, rough and smooth. It’s engaging and interesting all the way through, and I treasured the small victories as much as the big ones. It also has an effective sense of perspective, remembering that in an individual life – particularly in an individual childhood – apparently small things, like a bike or a trip, can loom large. That learning and growing isn’t always easy, isn’t always dramatic, but it is always happening.

Let’s talk about The Issues
Given that I’ve read two Jacqueline Wilson novels recently, I’m attuned to noticing when children’s books tackle serious or traumatic issues. Goodnight Mr Tom is set during the Second World War, so it’s not surprising that it deals grief, loss and change. Coincidentally, like Secrets it also tackles child abuse and what parental love really means.

Comparing Goodnight Mr Tom to Secrets, I feel that Mr Tom has much greater depth. It’s a book that I’d be happy to read again, one that I was looking forward to reading after all these years, and one that I’d happily pass on to a child. Secrets is good, but I don’t feel that there’s as much to it. It’s shorter, simpler, and perhaps expects less from its readers. That said, I don’t think that Mr Tom has complex or archaic language in it, although it does have some historical items and situations that aren’t explained. I think it is probably almost as easily accessible as Secrets, as long as the reader isn’t put off by the extra pages.

I would guess that this is a book aimed at and recommended for older children, probably age about 10-12. Willie is nearly 9 when the book opens, but he has a different mix of adult and childlike traits, as children in the 1930s and ’40s had very different responsibilities and restrictions than they do now.

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 Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

I haven’t read #92 The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel since I was about 14 or 16, when it was one of my favourite books. My dad recommended it, and I remember being really pleased when I got a copy of Shelters of Stone (the fifth book in the series) for him, before he knew it was out. I wish I could remember what he thought of the books, beyond liking them. He told me he had suggested them to my 6th grade teacher, as we were studying the period. Mrs H apparently agreed that they were a good topic match, ‘apart from all the sex’, so he decided to wait a few years before handing them over!

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set around 25,000 years BC. Ice covers northern Europe, and woolly mammoths, aurochs and the giant cave bears roam the land. The stone age homo sapiens share their world with Neanderthals, not always peacefully. When an earthquake destroys the home of 5-year-old Ayla, a homo sapien girl, and the cave of a Neanderthal tribe, their paths cross. The Neanderthal group take Ayla into their clan, and she tries to become a good clan woman. But her differences are more than skin deep, and as she grows up both Ayla and the Clan wonder if she can truly become one of them.

Not as good as I remember
I enjoyed revisiting Ayla and the people of the Clan, but honestly, the book isn’t very good. It’s one of those sweeping epic stories where impossible things happen regularly and million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This first book is about 500 pages long, and there are six in the series. Ayla is the main character, and she changes and grows (quite literally: she grows up) but I don’t feel like the other characters developed much.

Ayla is boringly perfect and lucky. I complained about the convenient back story issue when I reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Ayla suffers from the same affliction. She has just the right background to make sure she shines in any situation, and the author struggles to find someone who isn’t won over by her charms. However, it’s important to add a bit of strife, so one person resists, and conflict ensues.

I probably wouldn’t mind the clumsy narrative devices, such as how many discoveries Ayla makes (approximately 10,000 years worth, over the next few books, if I remember correctly) if the book was internally consistent. It isn’t. There’s a lot of detail to remember, but in a couple of places the story was definitely revised as it went along, so something happened for the first time at least twice. I found it jarring, but other people may not notice these details.

Fake pre-history
The blurb for the book says it was praised by scientists and paleontologists. Although my understanding of the period is severely limited, I can’t imagine that praise was unambivalent. As I’ve said, I’m no expert, but I’d be highly surprised to discover that the prevailing understanding of Neanderthals is that they were telepathic, with a race memory that extended back to the primordial seas.

The characters are also very well equipped with accurate and effective herbal remedies. Medical training is a recurring theme, and the characters involved seem to have a surprisingly modern understanding of illness and health. They have a few blind spots, where narritively convenient.

All the sex
I would give a content warning for the sex, and not because of erotic or pornographic descriptions. The sex is strange, and uncomfortable. It’s not described in much detail in Cave Bear (although I have a feeling that there’s a more graphic and steamy account of consensual sex in Valley of the Horses), but the sex is primarily non-consensual, and exists in a culture where meaningful consent is impossible. In Clan society, any male can demand sex from any female, and it’s culturally impossible for a female to refuse. Most females wouldn’t even consider refusing.

A culture where refusing sex is impossible is something I find weird and creepy as it is. That most of the characters are under 16, adds an extra dimension of weird uncomfortableness, even though Auel establishes that lifespans are abbreviated and adulthood comes earlier. As if wrapping one’s head around the idea of a 10-year-old being an adult and a 20-year-old being a senior citizen wasn’t hard enough, sex in Auel’s Clan society starts in childhood. Children apparently imitate what they see their parents doing, the games getting more realistic as the children age. But, she clarifies, there’s no prohibition on adult males having intercourse with female children, it’s just less common.

Auel switches between dry, almost academic detachment and in-character view points. She doesn’t really give us an in-character view of what a healthy, normal sexual life in the Clan would be like. An abnormal one is portrayed, and we’re given a little lecture on how sex occurs in this society, but there’s little emotional information. It’s not a big part of the book, but it’s not handled well, and it does stand out.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read the book again, as it made me think about my dad, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I’m unlikely to hunt down the other books, even though I don’t think I ever read book six, Land of Painted Caves. I got Clan of the Cave Bear out of the library, as I couldn’t find Dad’s copy – he tended to lend books he liked out, and didn’t worry too much about getting them back. His rule was ‘when you lend, mentally give’, which is a sound one, even if it leaves a few gaps on the book shelf.

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.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

I’m back in Cambridge, which means I can use my library card to break out of my rut! I’ve made a list of all the books you recommended – and now I’m reading other things, until the plan takes off in May! First up, one of the books I’ve been rationing: #69 Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

Ankh-Morpork is the Discworld’s largest, smelliest city. Its stench is usually enough to warn off invaders, but not when the marauder is a dragon. Faced with a fire-breathing menace, the City Watch swing into action to defend their city. Shame there’s only 3 of them, plus the new recruit…

One for the NPCs
In role playing games, both computer and table-top, characters that aren’t controlled by the player are called ‘non-player characters’. These NPCs may give you the last jigsaw piece, kidnap your party, or serve drinks in a bar, but their main role is to die a lot. In Guards! Guards! Pratchett has taken those characters and brought them to centre stage.

I hadn’t reread Guards! Guards! since I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts, another fun book which takes a look at the same sacrificial lambs from a different angle. Coming back to Guards! Guards! I had a different perspective, which is always fun. It makes reading a book for the dozenth time feel fresh. I’ve also played a lot more games since I read the book for the first time, and I can confirm that it’s fun whether or not you’re a role playing / gaming / fantasy geek.

Character development
Pratchett introduces a lot of characters that he later developed and reused in this novel. It’s the 8th Discworld novel, first published in 1989, and introduces (if I remember correctly) several key characters, including Captain Vimes, Nobby, Sergeant Colon and Carrot, swamp dragons, Lady Ramkin and the Patrician. It’s also the first book to really dive into Ankh-Morpork, as in the earlier Rincewind largely runs away from the city, the witches mostly stayed in Lancre, and the wizards in the university.

I reread Snuff, the 39th Discworld book, recently. It features many of the same characters as Guards! Guards!, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve all evolved. It’s hard to recognise the later characters of Vimes and Carrot in their earliest incarnation, and yet the seeds are there. I do feel that Pratchett doesn’t always ensure a logical character growth, particularly when he’s off and running with a new idea. He doesn’t usually reinvent people whole cloth, so the arcs tend to sort of work, but I do sometimes feel the bumps.

While Guards! Guards! isn’t my favourite Pratchett novel, it’s still a good book and a very enjoyable read. I’m glad I found it at the library, and I’m happy to break my slump with a new review for you.

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 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’d never heard of #33 The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, which is a shame as I went through a phase of loving books like this. It’s not my usual fodder now, but I still rather enjoyed it and got through its 940 pages rather more quickly than I expected.

As the book opens, it’s 1123 and somewhere in southern England, Tom Builder is working on a new house for the lord’s son. His dream, however, is to build a cathedral and when the project ends, he and his family take to the road. In the mean time, a young monk has become the leader of his chapter, and is looking for ways to do more good in the world…

A very short summary
I didn’t have many preconceptions about the book, and I found that the way it unraveled was one of my chief pleasures, so I won’t say much more. Follett mentions in his author’s note that his agent described it as ‘a series of linked melodramas’, and that’s a good description. The book is at once very personal, following just a few families, and epic. By tracking these imaginary people, Follett can describe the whole process of building a cathedral in a level of detail that would be hard to sit through or absorb otherwise.

I don’t think it’s giving much away to say that the great European cathedrals lie at the heart of the book. It’s clear from the text that Follett has a great reverence for these buildings and is fascinated by them. They are astonishing buildings, and only get more interesting as you realise that they were built with very rudimentary tools. And it’s not just the physical tools that were basic – the intellectual and design tools available to the builders were very limited, too. With little more than a strong arm and a lever, they built these towering monuments that still exist a thousand years later.

Real history, fake history
Clearly, Pillars is historical fiction and it’s set in a period that’s far enough back that modern readers would struggle to understand the writings of the time, never mind the common speech. I believe that it’s impossible to write perfect historical fiction. I believe that anachronisms are inevitable and I don’t think authors necessarily need to try to avoid every one. However, I think they should be fair to the reader, and make it clear how authentic they have tried to make the book. Typically,a brief author’s note is enough for this: just to say if they’ve monkeyed with recorded facts particularly or done any extraordinary research.

Pillars takes place in the 12th century England which is not a period I’m particularly interested in. I can’t fact check Follett’s work beyond the very obvious. I will say that to me, it seems that he has done a significant amount of research, particularly into the physics, social and financial aspects of building a cathedral. He also gave me a clear understanding of the complex political backdrop to the whole thing. In the early 12th century, the succession to the English throne was in question, and civil war (not The Civil War) reigned.

While the facts seem accurate enough to hang a plot on, the language doesn’t. Everyone speaks much as they would do in a late 20th century novel, and there’s no real effort to reconcile the different languages used by different groups (English, Welsh, French, Latin…). I’d also guess that some of the attitudes and social circumstances are equally anachronistic. And, of course, a surprisingly large number of interesting things happen to a small group of people. It’s all par for the genre, and I can forgive a lot of an author who kept me interested in the challenges of cathedral building for almost a thousand pages.

If you can forgive the historical inaccuracies, I do recommend the book. I thought it was good fun, and a pleasant introduction to 12th century English life and politics. As a content note, apart from the historical issues, I will say that there are scenes of war, cruel violence and torture in the book. They’re not long, frequent or relished, though.

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 Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

I have a strong memory of reading #169 The Witches by Roald Dahl when I was a child. I remember reading it in a friend’s car, and I remember being so scared I couldn’t finish it. The friend in question moved away half way through year four, so that puts a fairly narrow time frame on it. It’s one of the few books I read when I was a kid that I remember vividly but didn’t reread a lot.

The Witches tells the story of a brave boy and his grandma. After his parents are both killed in a tragic accident, the boy goes to live with his grandma, and they comfort each other. She lives in Norway, where there are many witches, and warns him to be wary of them, telling him how to spot them. Faced with the problem, the pair eventually come up with an unusual solution.

A Roald Dahl classic
The Witches is probably one of Dahl’s best-known books. It’s got all his favourite elements: a brave child, weird magic, absent parents and a fight with evil. The language is clear and simple without being condescending. In The Witches, Dahl treats the children in his audience like grown ups. More than that – he expects them to know and understand things that grown ups have forgotten, put aside or dismiss.

The edition I have is, to the best of my knowledge, the one I remember reading when I was about seven. It’s beautifully and very evocatively illustrated by Quentin Blake. I really do think the pictures are an important part of the story. They bring the characters to life in a particular way, giving them a form. I do wonder if some of Dahl’s books would be a little sparse without the pictures but perhaps that’s because I’ve only known and loved them this way.

Horror for children
As I mentioned, I remember being scared by The Witches, and I can’t imagine that Dahl wrote the book without being aware that he was writing a scary story. I have mixed feelings about scary stories for kids – and for adults, too, for that matter. In On Writing, Stephen King divides horror into, I think, three categories. I usually find that two are enough: gore and ghosts. In my definitions, gore is a story where the violence is the horror. I don’t like stories like this, as I find that the audience is usually expected to be enjoying the bloodshed, and I don’t. Stephen King’s Under the Dome fell into this category for me, as do a lot of mainstream horror and action films. 

Ghosts, on the other hand, are things that are scary because they aren’t real, but their presented as plausible. The Witches is this kind of horror, and it does it very well. I find that this sort of book can be fun to read as long as, to paraphrase Pratchett, the book shows you that the monsters can be killed.

As an aside, I thought about adding a third category, which is people. I’ve encountered a number of stories where the truly scary element was the human one. One example of this, sticking with King as he’s clearly a horror writer, was Rose Madder, where the monster is entirely human. A woman is on the run from her husband, as he’s violent and likely to kill her. The scary part is that there’s no way to deal with him, without invoking a supernatural element. In this case, it’s an inverse of the ghosts theme: the monsters are real, and, in the real world, the magic sword doesn’t work and they can’t be killed.

My point is that The Witches is deliberately scary in a plausible way. After reading the book, it would be all too possible to start seeing witches in real life (they look almost exactly like ordinary human women). As the book makes it clear that adults (even parents) can’t be expected to recognise a witch or to save a child when they’re in peril, it’s a pretty scary set of ideas.

I think it’s a good book, well written and effective – I’m just not sure that the intended effect, a good scare, will be enjoyable for every child. Perhaps one to rate PG or a 12A, although the reading level is probably first or second grade.

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 Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I didn’t like #94 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. If you did, I’d recommend Jonathan Livingston Seagull as I have similar problems with both books, and people who find one enjoyable or inspiring seem to enjoy the other.

The Alchemist is a fable, which is to say a story designed to impart a lesson. It follows the adventures of a man called Santiago. At the start of the novel, he is a shepherd in Spain when he hears a call that leads him to cross the sea and travel far from home, searching for a treasure he’s been promised. The story is the least important element of the book – more on the rest below.

Short book, long read
My Kindle estimates how long it’ll take me to finish a book. For The Alchemist, the initial estimate was just one or two hours, and yet it’s taken me over a week to finish it – long enough t that I’m writing this post Sunday night instead of Thursday. I think this might be a first, in the Big Read challenge, and I mention it because I think it says something about the strength of my reaction to the book.

I dislike the book strongly, because I believe it provides a false view of the world, and encourages readers to treat this view as reality. Also, the novel wasn’t magical enough for a good magical realism (I’m looking forward to rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, which does this well) or realistic enough to be self-help.

A story of miracles, an age of charlatans
Santiago’s path in The Alchemist is guided throughout by miracles and magic. I don’t have a problem with magic in stories, even stories that are supposedly set in the real world. I do, however, have a problem with preaching based on those miracles. For example, early in the book, Santiago has a dream in which his Personal Legend is revealed to him. He is then visited by a magical personage who advises him to follow his dream, and the book bases it’s advice on this starting point.

While I do think that people should be brave, take some risks, have adventures, seize the day, and other proactive sound bites, I hate this beginning. Either the advice is (1) that you should treat your dreams as literal truth, if you have them twice (in which case, dinosaurs will be making a come back any day now, you heard it here first) or (2) you should only believe in your dreams when a miraculous mind-reader appears and tells you to. If you’re going to try this at home, kids, go for option 2.

You might argue that I’m being too literal. That the book is primarily about following your heart’s desire, about reaching for the stars, and it’s designed to be inspirational, rather than pragmatic. I do not begrudge anyone the enjoyment they get out of this. (Well, maybe only a little, because I’ve now had to read it a second time, thanks to people enjoying it enough to vote for it.)  However, the truth is that in the world we live in, if someone claims to be an ancient king who can read your dreams or an alchemist who can turn lead into gold, they are lying and you will get conned. It’s like buying a book titled: Wishing On Stars As A Profitable Career.

I do not believe

  1. That everyone has one true heart’s desire or life quest that never changes. Hell, that isn’t even true in The Sims 3, where you can set such things in ones and zeros
  2. That fulfilling such a quest or attaining fulfillment is time limited
  3. That ‘Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.’
  4. That if men have quests, heart’s desires or grand projects, women don’t. Neither of the two women in this book travel more than a hundred steps from their door, and all they express a wish for is that Our Hero will come back and marry them.
  5. That ‘there is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend’ or that when someone went on such a quest, ”the entire universe made an effort to help him succeed’
  6. That ‘When you play cards the first time you are almost sure to win.’ (This is apparently the force mentioned above. It ‘whets your appetite with a taste of success’.)
  7. That ‘Everything in life is an omen’
  8. That ‘There’s no such thing as coincidence’
  9. That trying to read and follow omens, whether in the movement of birds, the rolling of dice or stones, or some other method is a reliable method for decision making, never mind route planning.
  10. That ‘intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where…we are able to know everything’
  11. That intuition is a good or reliable way of making complex decisions
  12. That everything on the Earth has a soul
  13. That the natural world is an imitation or copy of a paradise

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God (guiding hand or otherwise) or souls (human, animal or otherwise). Perhaps this means I was bound to have problems with this book. However, there’s strong evidence that simply longing, wishing, praying or hoping for something does not cause magical kings to appear or populate your dreams with accurate treasure maps. If someone can give me evidence to the contrary, I’ll listen. But it needs to be good, because the Wishing Doesn’t Work team has come up with sterling work, and many experiments you can try yourself at home, to produce the same results.

Unsatisfying story
Because the premises the quest is based on don’t ring true, I found both the story and the message unsatisfying. It’s very clearly written as a fable, by which I mean a story instructing the reader on how to live. Part of the reason I find it frustrating and distasteful, I think, is that there’s some good stuff in there. Yes, strive. Yes, adventure. Yes, hold out for love that loves you as you are, adventures and all. But no to the rest of it.

Santiago is about 20 when the story opens. He has no responsibilities, he has cast off his ties, and is free to wander the world. So wander he does. I think choosing such an example weakens the story considerably. If you believe that people should take care of each other, of their children, for example, then having him be young and free doesn’t show how we deal with the complex social ties that bind us to other human beings. Or if you believe that these should all be severed, brutally, in favour of living the dream, then show that. Show us the extreme form of your thesis, so that we can understand fully.

Worse – in terms of the story – pretty much every time Santiago faces a big problem, he’s rescued by something magical. It’s rather like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in that sense. Santiago has long conversations with things that don’t really talk, which tell him things that aren’t possible, which turn out to be true. It’s like watching someone in a video tell you how to climb a mountain, starting with ‘step one, get on this clearly blue screened magic carpet.’

Just cross
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of the book entirely, but mostly, as I read it, it pissed me off. Even – or particularly – the phrase ‘Personal Legend’. It’s almost nonsense in English. A legend is usually an ancient, untrue, story, sometimes it’s a motto. Neither is the use Coelho (or his translator, perhaps) is putting it to, but explanation is not given, only example.

The thing is, I’ve gone wandering. Like Santiago, I’ve longed to wander, cast off expectations and material things (including a yarn stash that must be worth at least half a sheep) and gone to look at the world and see what’s in it. That’s good. But it’s not the only possible form of fulfillment, something the book doesn’t show. Oh, and I’m a woman, and I’m not a prize in someone else’s quest, another thing the book doesn’t show (and that I’m angry about).

I can picture at least 13 fabulous lives I could have had, and having chosen or chanced into this one doesn’t make the other dozen less brilliant, less fulfilling. Moreover, I’m not the same person I was at 20, which to me suggests that we should, at least, have a new Personal Legend for each age, a proposition which, if you have to sell all your belongings and spend three years travelling thousands of miles, would rapidly lead to the breakdown of society.

Oh, I’m just cross about this book. I think it’s quackery. I think it’s trading on the malaise everyone gets sometimes, the feeling that life could be better or that adventure is over the horizon, and peddling a cure that won’t work. Romance novels are criticized for offering an unrealistic portrait of love and relationships, particularly marriage. Well, this book is the equivalent of the worst of that genre, offering, to my mind, an unrealistic portrait of travel, of striving for something valuable, and of fulfillment.

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.

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Deservedly famous, #56 The BFG by Roald Dahl is another childhood favourite of mine, and I enjoyed rereading my battered old copy for this challenge.

BFG stands for Big, Friendly Giant. Sophie, an orphan, sees this 24-foot-tall man sneaking around her village one night, and he snatches her to prevent her telling the world what she’s seen. When Sophie discovers that the other giants are the opposite of friendly – they eat people by the handful – the two of them hatch a plot to bring them to justice.

More than words
Dahl has a way with words, and The BFG is packed with new inventions, words whose meanings are usually obvious but which aren’t found in any dictionary. It’s a masterpiece of gymnastic language, and is worth reading as an example of a living language, and how expressing yourself well can be more important than correct spelling or grammar.

That said, there’s more to the book than words and if you’re going to read The BFG, get an edition with the Quentin Blake illustrations. They are a critical part of the book, in my opinion. The illustrations are simple line drawings in Blake’s usual, sketchy style and they bring the characters to life. They also pad out the book, and transform it from a pure reading experience to something more mixed-media.

I may be a little biased though – the picture of the BFG always reminded me of my Granddad. Although he wasn’t 24-foot-tall he was tall (particularly from a child’s point of view) with big hands you could lose yours in, a similarly slender frame, strong nose and big ears. And a lovely smile. Like the BFG, he also had mysterious powers and cared very much for a small, not particularly special, girl.

A grown up’s eyes
I read all the Roald Dahl books I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and yet only really liked about half of them. Matilda was probably my all-time favourite, and Ioved The BFG but remember hating The Twits and being too scared to finish The Witches the first time I read it, age about 8. 

It’s interesting reading them again as an adult as the books – even the ones I still enjoyed – really aren’t that nice. Dahl has a surprising amount in common with Stephen King in that when his books are good, they’re very good – the best ones are finely crafted portrayals of people in extreme and usually gory situations – and when they’re bad they are horrid.

In both cases, the stories are like fairy tales in the sense that “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – a quote the internet attributes to GK Chesterton, but a sentiment I remember from a Pratchett book, perhaps Witches Abroad or Hogfather.

Dahl expresses anti-adult sentiments quite regularly in his books. He’s in the class of children’s authors who suggest that adults are, typically a bit dull, talking about mortgages and not getting it but more often than not are stupid or untrustworthy. It’s probably a reaction to the Blyton style, where authority figures abound, but it’s not quite a modern sentiment – it suggests that children shouldn’t trust grown ups, even their own parents, and shouldn’t expect to have fun with them. Although, not all grown ups in his works are like this – there are exceptions, like Danny’s father in Danny The Champion of the World. And certainly, it’s not a terrible message to give that not all grown ups are smart, trustworthy or have your best interests at heart.

The BFG is easy to read, good fun and beautifully, effectively, illustrated so it’s ideal for younger readers and those beginning to read on their own. However, there are monsters in this book. The unfriendly giants eat human beings, joyfully, and gather them by stealing them from their beds at night. Somehow, the world has remained oblivious to the scale of these disappearances through the centuries. Further, giants aren’t born – they just appear – so there’s no real reason to suppose that dealing with them once in a time which is clearly Long Ago to modern readers, (the Queen of England is a young woman, for one thing) is enough to stop the problem for good. Waking up in the middle of the night, it can be hard – even as an adult – to be absolutely certain that monsters aren’t real and your bad dreams aren’t prophetic, so this is simply a note of caution as the book is generally wonderful, but is, in a certain sense, junior horror.

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 Twits by Roald Dahl

The Twits by Roald Dahl

In at #81 The Twits tells the tale of two decidedly unpleasant people who meet a sticky – but poetically just – end. It’s another one of Dahl’s nasty morality tales, the Victorian tradition updated. In this case, the Twits are smelly, cruel to animals and each other, and deserve what they get. The book is brutish and short – I remember disliking it as a child, personally, but there’s nothing in it worse than a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Against beards
A page in the back of the edition I read mentioned that The Twits started life as a note from Dahl to himself reading ‘do something against beards’. Apparently, he didn’t like beards and certainly his author photo is clean-shaven. The beginning of The Twits includes a diatribe against beards – bearded people, it seems, are necessarily dirty and therefore unpleasant and smelly.

These might be good traits for a villain – and the Twits are villainous indeed, although hampered by lack of imagination – but aren’t good traits in a parent, and many parents have beards. In fact, despite Dahl’s assertions, it seems entirely possible to have a beard and keep it clean, neat and pleasant, making the rant odd and rendering the whole book a bit suspect, I thought, as the narrator has clearly proved himself unreliable early on.

On beauty
Dahl’s villains are always clearly marked, and it’s interesting to see how he does this. In The Twits, he explains that Mrs Twit started out fairly pleasant looking, but years of thinking ugly thoughts made her ugly. While this is intended, I imagine, to encourage children to think and act appropriately, tempting them with the carrot/stick of beauty/ugliness, I do wonder if it would make kids assume that ugly old people are villains? It’s a logical conclusion, and one reinforced by so many popular tropes, but hardly accurate.

Marking villains physically is problematic if you think about it, but there are so many caricatures and stereotypes that it’s easy to do. Dahl does it in most of his books – the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox… In Matilda the Trunchbull, evil headmistress, is marked as a villain by her height, muscle and unfeminine hairstyle and clothes. She’s so unfeminine, it seems, that the recent musical version cast a man in the role. (Which, incidentally, I think is a crying shame: there are few enough parts for women who don’t fit the delicate-and-pretty-heroine model as it is and the Trunchbull is a great part.)

I didn’t much care for The Twits, but it was a quick read and I can see why it might appeal to some people. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of grotesque literature, and this is grotesque. The book is short, and the illustrations are lovely – and I did enjoy the escape of Mugwump the monkey and his family – so your mileage may vary.

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 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.