Tag Archives: talking animals

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.

The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews and the review will be split over several posts.

Reading #1 The Lord of the Rings is a slow process for me. Clearly, a lot of people love this book very much. I really don’t understand why, but I would be glad if you could tell me what it is you like.

Book One is the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows on directly from The Hobbit – well, sort of. Bilbo has handed over the adventuring to his nephew, Frodo. Advised by Gandalf to quit the Shire, he packs up a few friends and a few ponies and heads into the dark and magical woods.

The timings
After the adventures in The Hobbit, Bilbo waits 60 years before handing the ring of the title onto his successor, and Frodo waits another 30 years before setting out on the next adventure. In the mean time, nothing has changed whatsoever in Middle Earth. And everyone’s still alive, apart from one grouchy relative and two dwarves.

I don’t understand why the lifespans are so extended. It doesn’t add anything to the story as nothing has changed – at least so far. There’s no evidence of 90 years of progress in any of the places we’ve visited. Also, humans (at least, I assume Gandalf is human) seem to live for ages as well. What’s the point of having super-human supernatural races if humans are just as good?

The races
As in The Hobbit, each race has distinct characteristics and individuals are slave to them. It seems like lazy world-building, but perhaps Tolkien is making some meta point about how he views the world. There aren’t enough humans in Book One to provide a test, but in The Hobbit it seemed that humans were allowed to vary, having no one type, so I think it’s a lack of detail. And, of course, some races are good and some are bad and no one shall ever swap sides.

The woman
There is a woman in Book One. Her name is Goldberry and she is as beautiful as I don’t know what. She’s a very gentle river goddess, so far as I can tell, and married to the god of the forest. She’s a hostess, and says nothing that doesn’t relate to her guests’ comfort.

Another woman is mentioned, an elf maid who is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s captured by a human man who has determined to own her. There’s something really off about this, and even Tolkien calls their first embrace ‘her doom’. This is glossed over and she gives up her immortality for him and they die happily ever after.

The poetry
I don’t like it. I like poetry by other poets. I don’t like Tolkien’s comic songs, I don’t like the elf-lore, I don’t like the historical ballads. They all seem pale imitations of the real thing – they are a bit soppy and far too nice. I remember reading Beowulf at school, and it’s it’s strange and beautiful, even in translation. This is a bowdlerised version.

The luck
One trait not mentioned, is that hobbits are incredibly lucky. In Book One, Frodo and friends get rescued at least three times. On each occasion, the timing is critical. A few minutes more and everything would have been lost. Fortunately, someone turns up and saves them each time. In once case, this is literally the only other person for a hundred miles. How lucky! How unsatisfying.

Sam’s servile attitude
It’s bugging the crap out of me. I really don’t understand why there’s this ongoing distinction between the different hobbits. And given that Sam is so low-class and servile, who are Merry and Pippin? And why haven’t they brought valets?

The economy
I don’t understand how hobbit society survives. What has Frodo been living off for all these years? Bilbo’s gold from his adventure? What about everyone else? Where do things like ponies come from? They actually pay for a pony in this book, and it gives the reader a glimpse of the economy. A pony costs about 4 silver pennies, and that’s a lot of money to working folk. And yet, throughout The Hobbit, people scratching a living in the wilderness gave ponies away like water. So who is making what, in Middle Earth? And who does all the cooking and cleaning?

The geography
Who makes all these paths? Who maintains them?

What I liked
I am growing fond of the hobbits – I feel like they could be rounded characters, if they were allowed. I also liked Strider (Aragorn). He’s been my favourite character in every incarnation of this story I’ve encountered. I don’t know why, but he’s less frustrating that the rest of the crew. I liked the barrow wraiths, and thought they were a good villain. I really liked the image of the river taking the form of foam horses, and sweeping off the threat. I quite like the Nasgul. They have a lot to put up with. I was sad to encounter the trolls from The Hobbit again. They were some of my favourite characters in that book and deserved a better fate. (I also don’t understand how trolls work, seeing as they can’t ever stand daylight? Not a good evolutionary tactic for creatures that live above ground…)

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 Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.

The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.

I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway TreeTolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).

The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?

Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.

On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way. 

I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?

Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.

It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.

I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?

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 Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

I didn’t like #9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis when I was a kid. I read most of the Narnia books eventually but probably only once or twice each, simply because they were there. So unlike many of the books I’ve reread for this challenge, I was pleasantly surprised. The book wasn’t bad – problematic, of course – but didn’t seem to justify my strong dislike at the time.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children. Evacuated during the Second World War, they find themselves in a mysterious old house. Exploring, they come across a magical wardrobe, which acts as a door to another realm. Narnia, the land through the wardrobe, is a magical place full of talking animals, dryads and magic, where giants walk the land and people can be turned to stone in an instant. The children must fight to break the land free from its 100 year winter.

Unusually, I remember reading the Narnia Chronicles. We only had odd copies, sort of passing through, but my brother had a friend whose parents were friends with my parents. If they’d had a child older than my brother, it might have been perfect. As it was, I was often bored at their house. I don’t remember them having other kids’ books – probably those were kept in the boys’ rooms – but the Narnia ones were on the landing, where I could hide and read. They were surrounded by adult books, second shelf from the bottom on a white floor-to-ceiling book shelf at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t like the books much to start with, and I don’t, having reread this one, know why. I did like The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew was the next best one. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested, and I went off them entirely when, age about 12, I discovered that they were a Christian allegory, with Aslan standing in for Jesus. Learning that made me feel like I’d been duped.

The religious elements also bother me as an adult. Everyone ‘just knows’ that Aslan is special, and good and evil are determined pretty much entirely by gut feeling. You don’t need to see the traitor betray their friends because you’ll get a gut feeling. You can tell if someone has been tainted by evil by looking into their eyes. I think this is horrific, for two reasons. One, it suggests that if you get a strong bad feeling about someone, they are evil. Two, it completely excludes anyone who doesn’t feel a rapture walking into a church, suggesting that if you don’t, this religion is not for you. What I’m saying, I guess, is that as propaganda it seems poorly aimed and poorly launched.

The the sexism, the talking animals and the real problem
As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, it’s no great surprise that it’s sexist in an Enid Blyton way. The girls go on all the adventures, and step back when one person needs to fight something and step forward when one person needs to be tender or weep. Lewis says things like “battles are ugly when women fight”, as though they were so pretty when it’s all boys together.

The talking animals are inconsistent, as is typical, but more worryingly the magical creatures are used to a line between good and evil, putting some races on one side and some on the other. It’s a lazy, racist thing to do. It’s deterministic, as well – the villain is villainous because “There isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch…that’s why she’s bad all through.” She’s half Jinn (descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, apparently) and half giant. So she must be bad. Given it’s apparently as inevitable as a rock falling downwards (more so, I’m sure there are levitation spells in Narnia) it seems unfair to punish her so severely.

But none of this is unexpected, given the age and religious overtones. The real problem, to my mind, with this book is that there’s no strong positive to balance these flaws. All the characters are a bit wet. The villain is villainous, but ineffectual. Aslan is omnipotent. One child is pegged as evil from the get go, and does moderately evil (thoughtless) things. The others are good and do good things. Everything is, as predicted ‘finally defeated before bedtime’. At no point did I wonder if the ending would be other than happy. At no point did I think any of the characters were in real peril. Plus, they don’t ever seem to change, except through a magic conversion. There’s no growth or character development even across the series, if I remember correctly. The book just isn’t that good, although Narnia is an interesting world to visit.

I’m not sorry I read the book. It only took an hour to get through the whole thing, so it wasn’t a big investment. But I don’t really recommend 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.

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.

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Looking for books off the list at the library makes the reading order fairly random. I picked up #170 Charlotte’s Web by EB White last time I was in, although it wasn’t one I had in mind. When I walked in the door, I was looking for On the Road or A Town Like Alice and I got this instead. No regrets though – it’s rather lovely.

Charlotte’s Web is the story of Wilbur. Born the runt of the litter, he’s saved from death by Fern who hand-rears him until he’s weaned, when she sells him to her uncle, Homer. Finding out that Homer is fattening him up for winter bacon, Wilbur, quite naturally, gets very upset. The rest of the farmyard is fairly blase about his situation, but Charlotte, a spider, steps in to save his life.

Talking animals
All the animals in Charlotte’s Web talk, apart from flies. It’s interesting as the only predators in the book seem to be Charlotte herself and the humans – the other characters are herbivores. I don’t even remember seeing a farm cat or the dog talk. Moreover, Charlotte recognizes the moral quandaries associated with her position, something the humans don’t seem to do. Another interesting point is that Fern can understand the animals talking (at least when she’s young) so she has an additional insight into their plight. And yet, so far as I can recall, her family still eat ham and mutton and other meat products, including, one assumes, Wilbur’s siblings.

Eater or eaten is a critical power dynamic in so many animal stories, and the communication element makes it more interesting. What if mice really could plead for their lives? What if the cat could understand them? What if pigs really could object to being killed with a reasoned speech? Would you become vegetarian? If not, what would that do to you?

The book itself
I enjoyed Charlotte’s Web, although not quite as much as I thought I would. It’s an intriguing, unusual story and well told. EB White is a talented writer, and I have very fond memories of The Trumpet of the Swan, which we read in school so I had a copy of for my very own. Charlotte’s Web must have been a library book, so I wouldn’t have reread it as often and as a result don’t have strong childhood memories of it.

Wilbur is something of a stereotypical princess-in-a-tower. He’s somewhat hard-of-thinking, prefers comfortable confinement to difficult freedom, and can’t save himself. Charlotte, on the other hand, is fabulously complex. She’s smart, creative, analytical and has a clear, complex moral code. She’s the star of the book, and it’s interesting that all her energy goes into saving the life of a creature who isn’t her equal. But then, Wilbur is both childlike and quite literally a child, being only two or three months old at the start of their friendship, so it’s hard to argue against saving him on the grounds that he’s kind of dull.

Charlotte’s technique for saving Wilbur is also very clever and another interesting side to her character – while it saves Wilbur’s life, it’s only through the superstition and gullibility of the humans who prefer to believe in divine intervention than a clever spider.

All in all I thought the book was interesting, definitely a good read. I didn’t remember the ending, and now I know it I’m tempted to read the book again, to look at Charlotte’s words more carefully, get my hindsight in, but as it’s gone back to the library, I can’t. The book does have a few sad moments and there is a risk that young readers may stop eating meat, but otherwise I think it’s a good choice for new readers.

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 Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

A short, rather lovely book, #16 The Wind in the Willows is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

The Wind in the Willows tells the story of Mole, who gets fed up with spring cleaning one bright new morning and blows out of his hole and down to the riverbank, where he falls in with Ratty, Toad and Badger. Hijinks ensue, and the book reminds me of nothing so much as Three Men in a Boat.

First published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows is an Edwardian idyll, packed with evocative descriptions of the English countryside – descriptions which, in my experience, are generally more pleasant than reality – picnics, boating and a little daring-do.

Talking animals eating animals
The Wind in the Willows is a story about talking animals, and I’m curious about the way that works out. It gets interesting, as a moral puzzle, when there are several kinds of animals talking to each other – and they’re not all vegetarian. Is it ethical to eat a talking animal if you are a talking animal?

Honestly, I suspect most of the authors never consider this sort of thing, and it’s one reason my own fiction rarely gets past the first few pages – I am too easily distracted and derailed by this sort of quandary. The characters in The Wind in the Willows are more like Edwardian gentlemen than real-life animals. It’s like Three Men in a Boat with fur, and without the dog. The food and the clothes and the boats are human, and it seems that talking animals do eat talking animals – we encounter rabbits as people, characters who talk and get scared, and yet Toad has a delicious pie which contains rabbit, and says this to a human woman, with no shudder of distaste:

‘O, never mind about the washing,’ said Toad, not liking the subject. ‘Try and fix your mind on that rabbit. A nice fat young rabbit, I’ll be bound. Got any onions?’

It’s something like cannibalism, honestly.

Vanished women
Like many of the other books I’ve read, both on this list and off, The Wind in the Willows is a boy’s club. All the animals are male – even when a group of animals move en masse later in the book there are no females amongst them. There are three human women in the story, and this is interesting – while they’re forthright, headstrong, minor characters, they’re all domestic workers or shown in a cleaning role. It’s interesting that all the females the animals encounter are well away from the animals’ native haunts (the river / the wood) and also doing domestic work, because it’s clear the animals have domestic workers themselves, probably female.

I was wondering about this for a while, as meals seemed to pop up without much effort, but then no one ever goes shopping in lots of books, and that doesn’t mean a bachelor can’t cook for himself – and the Mole did his own spring cleaning. However, late in the book, there are only two characters at home at one of their houses, and yet – they’re waiting for dinner to appear. Unseen hands, hands which never make it into the story, take care of these debonair gentlemen at every turn.

It’s not obvious, but it was disconcerting. Perhaps Grahame simply couldn’t figure out who would wait on a Toad or a Rat, and left it to the reader’s imagination or perhaps he was simply so accustomed to food and clean clothes appearing that it didn’t occur to him to write in a method – much in the way that most Regency romances have no smells, no sewage and are surprisingly well-lit.

I don’t want to be too cynical about The Wind in the Willows, because I did genuinely enjoy it. It starts with a lovely description of spring and spring cleaning and it did make me want to get outside and go mess about in a boat. It’s absolutely charming, and nothing very bad happens – I wouldn’t hesitate to read it with a child now and again, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a steady diet!

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.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The original edition of #46 Animal Farm by George Orwell was sub-titled A Fairy Tale and honestly, it reads like one. For the most part, it reads like a slightly grittier Enid Blyton.

Animal Farm tells the story of a group of animals, somewhere in England, who take over the farm. However, with their mix of abilities and needs, they rapidly run into problems.

It’s a very short book, and easy to read – however, Animal Farm is a book with not-so-hidden depths. Like fairy tales, there’s plenty going on behind the surface story of pigs and sheep.

Allegory all over
Animal Farm is an allegory, using the animals to tell Orwell’s version of the history of Russian communism. Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945, when the Cold War was just kicking off and McCarthy wasn’t even a senator yet. However, capitalists had been worried by communism since before the Russian Revolution in 1917, which overthrew the Tsar and the aristocratic system, so Orwell wasn’t carving a new path so much as following a six-lane highway.

However, Orwell was, himself, a socialist and not so much anti-communist as anti-Stalin, although with almost 70 years between his writing Animal Farm and my typing this, the distinction has blurred. Too much has happened since to make untangling what Orwell meant and the context in which it would have been received at publication simple. In 1945, the war was fresh as new paint and all the horrors and brave deeds had not yet been revealed – we’re still waiting for some things to be declassified now, after all. Suffice it to say that the revolution in Animal Farm stands in for the events of 1917, Napoleon is Stalin and Snowball is mostly Trotsky, and if none of those names mean much to you, you’re going to miss a lot of what’s going on in the book.

Out of date or ripe for a modern reading?
As it’s so clearly rooted in a particular situation, not just Orwell’s story of the Russian Revolution but also their role as Allies in the Second World War, Animal Farm has lost a lot of its subtlety with the passing decades – not because the text has changed but because the readers have. One of the first major news events I remember is the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 (I was 6) and by the time I got through to high school, the Cold War was already part of the history program. For most new readers, Animal Farm is going to be a story about some pigs – to try to put it in its proper context, you have to work at it.

That said, the messages Orwell presents, the ideas inside the story and the techniques Napoleon uses to gain power and control are still strong, shocking and valid. With the omniscience of a reader, it’s hard to see how the animals could be led on by the pigs and accept the changes they insist on, and yet it all sounds familiar, too. Napoleon’s tactics don’t require an actual army to be effective – you’ll find bullies in schools and workplaces as well as at the head of a state, and forewarned is, to an extent, forearmed. Perhaps now, the strength of Animal Farm isn’t its scathing attack on one bully, but the sympathy it draws for the victims of all bullies. I didn’t like the book well enough to reread it immediately, but it’s interesting to consider the lies, intimidation and misinformation in other contexts – to think about reading Animal Farm as an allegory for domestic abuse, for example, or schoolyard bullying, rather than violence and cruelty on a national scale.

Animal Farm is very short and quick to read, but it’s one to think about. It’s like poetry – it’s not the time you spend reading it but the time you spend living with it in your head that really makes the book.

Animal Farm is available for free on Project Gutenberg Australia – it’s only out of copyright in a few countries, so do check before you download if it’s legitimate in your area. 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.

Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne

Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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