Sunday, 30 January 2011

Book #15

The Witches by Roald Dahl

A book about 'real witches' - the ones that absolutely loathe children and are always plotting to get rid of them.

And so we come to the final book in my wonderful Roald Dahl boxset - and it's one of the best. I can remember it terrifying the wits out of me when I was younger, and upon reading it again at the grand old age of twenty-three, I still felt quite uncomfortable in places. It's a dark novel, and incredibly disturbing, but I like the fact that it is. I like falling through the trap door into Dahl's ludicrous worlds and seeing unconventional things happen to the characters.

The story is also bittersweet. Our protagonist's mother and father are killed at the beginning of the story and he is looked after by his grandmother. Their relationship is one of the focal points of the novel, and it's truly heartwarming and wonderful. Their mutual love and respect for one another could bring a tear to a glass eye, and this certainly happened to me at one point. Click here to see the page in question.

Our protagonist has a horrific encounter with the witches at their annual meeting, is turned into a mouse, and barely makes it out alive. He then goes on to get his revenge, with the help of his lovely grandmother. The ending is oddly satisfying but disturbing; with both of them agreeing they will die at roughly the same time due to the boy's rodent life span. This is a children's book, and I find this part insane and absolutely heart wrenching.

There are some scenes in this book that have been imprinted on my brain ever since I was little, and these will never disappear and I will never recover from them. It is truly terrifying, especially for children, but I feel it's one that most certainly has to be read, despite it being absolutely macabre.

Roald Dahl is incomparable when it comes to children's literature. He shaped my childhood, and carved me a love for reading which is now irrevocable. I have had a wonderful time reading through fifteen of his most famous works, and I think now I'll do my best to source some of his adult fiction, since I've never had a chance to dip into any of that. I'd recommend The Witches and all other fourteen of the Dahl novels I've read this month. The man is one of my heroes and a true inspiration, and he'll live forever in the form of these stories.

15 / 72 books. 21% done!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Book #14

The Twits by Roald Dahl

Mr and Mrs Twit are extremely nasty, so the Muggle-Wump monkeys and the Roly-Poly bird hatch an ingenious plan to give them just the ghastly surprise they deserve!

This is another one I read repeatedly as a child; I could recite it to you from memory. It is so typically Dahl - disgusting antics, laugh out loud scenes, captivating prose, and sheer imagination. It is slightly darker than Dahl's other works, and some may say for a children's book it's disturbing in places.

The tricks the Twits play on one another are hilarious. They are so foul and repulsive that you can't help but hope they will get their comeuppance. But this is a Dahl novel, and of course karma catches up with them in the form of the good guys – some monkeys and birds!

Dahl's moral message in this one is that no matter how you look on the outside, if you maintain happy, kind thoughts, then these will shine out of your face and make you look lovely. Unfortunately, the opposite also applies, and we are shown this in the form of Mr and Mrs Twit. So be happy and be gorgeous, think nicely of people and you will be a beautiful person. I don’t think there are many messages better than this.

I don't think I've mentioned much of Quentin Blake in my Dahl reviews, but his illustrations are what make Roald Dahl books so wonderful for me. He really helps to characterise Mr and Mrs Twit with his drawings; they are so impressive and add a lot to Dahl's stories. Click here to see my favourite illustration from The Twits. I found this one breathtaking.

This is such a lively book, and it's a great one for kids because it's so funny. It's definitely worth a read, and it's only short so it's a nice way to pass half an hour.

14 / 72 books. 19% done!

Book #13

The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl

The story of a little girl with magical powers. When someone makes her angry she zaps a punishment on them with her magic flashing finger!

I had never read this one before as it isn't as popular as Dahl's others. I can see why this is; it's definitely my least favourite.

A little girl 'puts the magic finger' on her neighbours as they are hunters and she doesn't like it. They subsequently grow wings and are forced out of their house by four ducks. All very odd.

It's written in the first person, which is unusual for Dahl. It's clear that he's going for some sort of anti-hunting message, but there is something lacking here that is present in his other moral messages.

There’s not a lot of character back story, and I'd have liked to have learned more about how the girl discovered she had this magic finger, and some other things that she had done with it.

On the whole, I didn't think this was great, but it was short and interesting, and would probably be a bit more entertaining for a younger person. It just didn’t feel very Dahl to me.

13 / 72 books. 18% done!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Book #12

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me by Roald Dahl

In this much-loved Dahl story, the giraffe, the pelican and the agile monkey set out to prove that they are the best window-cleaning company around.

This is one of Dahl's slightly more outlandish stories, and I think it's meant for a younger audience than most of his others. Dahl introduces us to three animals - the Giraffe, the Pelly, and the Monkey - who run a ladderless window cleaning company. Stories don't get much more fantastic than this.

The three animals and Billy go to the Duke of Hampshire's house to help clean his 600-odd windows and whilst there manage to catch a thief! This results in a happy ending for everyone, with the Duke allowing the three animals to live on his estate in return for window cleaning, and he buys Billy his coveted sweet shop!

I think here Dahl is trying to instill in us that all the good deeds we do in life will be rewarded, and how important it is to be kind and help people.

The imagery is marvellous as usual. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the Pelly's beak being like a retractable tape measure, and the Giraffe's extendable neck.

It's a lovely quick read, and would be an excellent one to read aloud to a younger person. And there's a happy ending! What more could you possibly ask for?

12 / 72 books. 17% done!

Book #11

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The well-loved story of a big friendly giant who spirits a child out of bed to the land of the child-eating giants.

This is another firm favourite of mine; it's so adorable that I believe it has the ability to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Dahl's creativity clearly knows no bounds. Although he is incredibly fantastical in his writing, he writes with a respect for his target audience and never condescends to them. This is his appeal to his target age group. He gives us this charming giant who catches dreams and blows the best ones into children’s windows at night. An orphan called Sophie looks out her window and sees him, so he plucks her out of bed and carries her off to Giant Country! The then proceed to build a wonderful friendship, and begin a very big adventure.

The BFG's patter is my favourite part of this novel. The way he talks is astoundingly funny, describing nightmares as "trogglehumpers" and telling Sophie she is talking "flushbunking rubbish," which is one I might actually try to incorporate into daily conversation. I feel Dahl really surpassed himself in wordplay here, my favourite part being the BFG referring to Charles Dickens as Dahl's Chickens.

There is a subtle lesson slipped in towards the beginning of the book, with the BFG explaining that giants don't kill other giants, and in fact humans are the only species who kill one another. Although I am sure there may be some exceptions to this rule, I liked the message that Dahl was trying to put across.

I love this one almost as much as Matilda. It's a wonderful quick read, it's heart-warming, it's adorable, and it's definitely one for everyone - especially (as I said above) for people with the coldest of hearts.

11 / 72 books. 15% done!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Book #10

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Five-year old Matilda longs for her parents to be good and loving and understanding, but they are none of these things. They are perfectly horrid to her. Matilda invents a game of punishing them each time they treat her badly and she soon discovers she has supernatural powers.

This is my favourite Roald Dahl book, and also one of my all time favourite books. What's not to love?

I must have read this book over a hundred times, it was never out of my hands when I was younger. I thought at the time that this book was surely written about me; I read books too, so why couldn't I move things with my mind? I tried and failed; I am not Matilda. Despite my supernatural failings, I will always come back to this book. It is wonderful, touching, interesting, enchanting, and evokes the same emotions in me every single time.

Matilda is such an amazing character, and one of my favourites. She comes from a sad home life, where no one appreciates her, but she maintains a positive attitude and eventually begins to teach herself to read to pass the days. She plays hilarious tricks on her parents when they are foul to her, and eventually develops supernatural powers due to her excessive brain power.

Dahl writes fantastically from a child's perspective - he is a man who never forgot what childhood felt like. He captures Matilda's triumphs and defeats perfectly, and she is a wholly believable and loveable character.

I think Dahl shows us here how Matilda uses her intelligence to overcome obstacles in her life. This is a nice message, and Dahl does it in such a subtle way. He is essentially sending us messages like believe in yourself and don't give up, which is something I love about Dahl's books in general.

This book made the world a better place for me when I was younger. I read it countless times and it showed me a world I wanted to live in, people I wanted to meet, and one little girl who I wanted to be. I honestly think everyone should read this; it's mesmerising.

10 / 72 books. 14% done!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Book #09

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

James's aunts call him names, beat and starve him and make his life a misery. If only his parents hadn't been eaten by an escaped rhinoceros, he wouldn't be in this mess. But one day he meets a man who gives him a bag of magic crocodile tongues and so begins the adventure of his dreams.

This was one of my favourites as a child. It's just so entirely fantastical, and has all the important parts of a children’s novel - goodies who get a happy ending, baddies who get their comeuppance, a nail biting part in the middle where we're not sure if our heroes are going to make it, lovely character history and development - and so much more!

It has a brilliant sense of escape to it, and it's really a book for anyone who has wanted to up sticks and leave for somewhere a bit more magical (this is, coincidentally, exactly how I am feeling at this point in my life, and perhaps this made me love the book more).

The imagery and wonder is exciting - Cloud-Men painting rainbows, would you believe! It's broken down into lovely little short chapters with cliff-hangers, and these along with the excellent rhythm and pace make it a perfect children's story.

After reading Going Solo, Dahl's autobiographical work which details his time in the RAF, I could understand more where he was coming from in certain passages. I particularly liked the paragraph where he described the peach as a beautiful, slow, silent flying machine not at all like noisy, clattering airplanes. This was a clear nod to his flying days, and why not describe how much more wonderful a peach would be to fly on!

This is one of Dahl's works which gives us a lot of his silly poems, which are a favourite of mine. I'd love to use some impressive poetry terms here to impress you all, but I've never been big on poetry. The rhythm is my favourite part, though, along with the nonsense words.

I also liked the way Dahl sneaked in the lesson to see things from other's point of view. Miss Spider describes how she has watched various relatives being flushed down the toilet, or beaten to death with a newspaper. Her descriptions are horrific, especially for the target audience, and we are taught to think a bit more before we act. Most people will, however, continue to massacre the poor spiders. I like to think of myself as more humane than that, but that is by the by.

Read this. It's trippy, but it's gorgeous. Read it especially if you've read it as a child, read it if you have your own children, and most importantly read it if you are looking for an escape.

9 / 72 books. 13% done!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Book #08

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

The second part of Roald Dahl's remarkable life story tells of his time working in Africa and his wartime exploits.

This is Dahl's second autobiographical work. It begins where its predecessor Boy left off, with Dahl moving to Africa to work.

I didn't enjoy this half as much as I enjoyed Boy, and I think this is due to the lack of whimsical boyhood tales and insight into Dahl's writing history and inspirations. This one was a lot more serious, giving details of Dahl's life as World War II broke out, and his initiation into and time with the RAF.

I loved Dahl's descriptions of the African landscapes, culture and animals. It really made me crave travel; his imagery is so wonderful that it's almost right in front of your eyes. The book was littered with photographs Dahl had taken on his travels, and each one of these was wonderful to look at - whether it was a scenic picture, or one of his old car, they were each one of them interesting.

Despite the doom and gloom of his time spent in the RAF; the times he stared Death in the face through lions, black mambas, and dogfight; and the depressing sights he had seen, Dahl's writing remains cheerful and witty throughout. I was amazed he survived as many times as he did in some of the situations he found himself in. He came out of these in one piece, and with personality enough to write this book and all of the other wonderful children's stories he went on to write. He was a wonderful man.

Dahl's style is effortless in every novel he has written. I'd recommend this one to Dahl fans, and people who'd like to find out more about him. It lacks a lot of the magic his fictional tales possess, but it's a wonderful insight into his life. The man is an inspiration.

8 / 72 books. 11% done!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Book #07

George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

When George's parents are away for the day, he's tempted to do something about his tyrannical grandmother. "Something" means going round the house collecting all kinds of horrible ingredients that will make up a magic potion to make her disappear. But instead of disappearing, she gets bigger.

One of the best things about Roald Dahl is that he can take kids fantasies and turn them into wonderful stories like this one. Every child has some authoritative person in their lives who they'd like to wreak a little havoc on; George concocts a potion in order to give his ghastly grandma a little fright.

It is so cute, so funny, and so typically fantastical of Dahl. He brings so much wit and creativity to the story, it just seems so magical. I liked that everything that was put in the medicine was named; I couldn't believe half of this stuff was going in there. But it's light-hearted and wonderful; a world where real-life consequences don't come into play. What could be better?

There are lots of opinions batting around about this book. Many people think that kids shouldn't read it because of the dangerous substances George was coming into contact with, and the possible consequences of someone drinking something like this. I think kids are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for, and if they are reminded of real-life consequences, then this book could really be an excellent one for them. It was one of my favourites growing up, and I certainly didn't try to feed anti-freeze to any of my grandparents.

7 / 72 books. 10% done!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Book #06

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Boggis, Bunce and Bean are the meanest three farmers you could meet. They are determined to get Mr Fox - but he has other plans!

I love this book. The story is exciting and fast-moving, with the characters being really funny and loveable. I liked that the three farmers were almost caricatures of vice - gluttony, alcoholism, greed etc. They were shown as being increasingly horrible and odious, and quite typical of Dahl villainy. In the same vein, Mr Fox is quite the cunning Dahl hero. I liked the way he took charge and came to a satisfactory solution, his sheer genius, and his love for his wife and kids.

Like most Dahl books, there are a few moral questions to be raised. For example, is it okay for Mr Fox to steal to prevent his family from starving? If animals are humanised in this world, then surely the chickens and ducks will be humanised and are being eaten? Why did the female animals get tired and give up so early on?

It was a lovely quick read, nonetheless. It's recommended to kid aged four to eight, which I'd agree with, but it's a wonderful read for adults too.

6 / 72 books. 8% done!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Book #05

Esio Trot by Roald Dahl

Mr Hoppy, a retired bachelor, harbours a secret passion for his neighbour, the lovely Mrs Silver. Unfortunately she lavishes all her affection on another… Alfie, her pet tortoise. Mr Hoppy’s wildly ingenious plot to defeat his rival and win the love of his lady will delight and amaze, involving, as it does a cryptic riddle and no fewer than a hundred and forty tortoises, large and small.

I never had the chance to read this one when I was younger - in fact I had never heard of it until a few months ago. It's quite a unique and quirky little story, and I did really enjoy it, but I found it quite worrying for various reasons.

Mr Hoppy tricks Mrs Silver into believing her tortoise is growing, by replacing it with other tortoises of varying size. She falls in love with him because of this, and never learns the truth - that her beloved tortoise Alfie isn't who she thinks he is!

Essentially, this story is about building a relationship through lies and deceit. It is about obsession and neglect, and it also has a slight "men are very clever, women are very silly" undertone. It's a kids book, but it isn't really sending the best message.

It was cute in a way, and Quentin Blake's drawings really brought the story to life. I also liked the word play throughout the book - can you guess what Esio Trot is code for? A nice quick read, definitely worth passing half an hour with.

5 / 72 books. 7% done!

Book #04

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny feels very lucky. He adores his life with his father, living in a gypsy caravan, listening to his stories, tending their gas station, puttering around the workshop, and occasionally taking off to fly home-built gas balloons and kites. His father has raised him on his own, ever since Danny's mother died when he was four months old. Life is peaceful and wonderful ... until he turns 9 and discovers his father's one vice. Soon Danny finds himself the mastermind behind the most incredible plot ever attempted against nasty Victor Hazell, a wealthy landowner with a bad attitude. Can they pull it off? If so, Danny will truly be the champion of the world.

This is a lovely story - one of Dahl's less zany works.

Dahl's writing here is wonderful. His descriptions of Danny's beautiful relationship with his father almost moved me to tears; it was almost lyrical. We are told at one point that Danny doesn't ever invite his school friends over simply because he loves spending time with his dad so much. I particularly liked the chapter where Danny's dad told him a bedtime story about the BFG! It was nice to see the origins of that.

Danny is one of the most adorable Dahl children; he is brave and warm, and just a generally lovely child. You can't help but love him. I liked that he was a normal little kid, living a normal little life. There were no Oompa Loompas, or magic powers, or potions, or witches. It was just Danny and his dad living in their quaint little caravan and living a cosy lifestyle. This was the book's charm for me.

Although morally questionable in places, I loved Dahl's descriptions of the various methods used in poaching pheasant. They seemed so ludicrous, but also feasible, and the fact that they managed to pull off their crazy idea made me love the two of them even more.

I think it's unfortunate that this one is often overlooked in favour of Dahl's crazier, more famous works, but it's definitely one of my favourites simply because of the beautiful father and son relationship we are shown. I would love to read this one to children; it's beautiful, powerful, and it's full of love.

4 / 72 books. 6% done!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Book #03

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

Picking right up where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator continues the adventures of Charlie Bucket, his family and Willy Wonka, the eccentric candy maker. As the book begins, our heroes are shooting into the sky in a glass elevator, headed for destinations unknown. What follows is exactly the kind of high-spirited magical madness and mayhem we've all come to expect from Willy Wonka and his creator Roald Dahl. The American space race gets a send-up, as does the President, and Charlie's family gets a second chance at childhood. Throw in the Vermicious Knids, Gnoolies and Minusland and we once again witness pure genius.

This book is about one hundred times crazier than I can remember it being. The plot is completely random and all over the place, with the characters being in space fighting aliens one moment, and back in the chocolate factory turning grandparents into babies the next.

I can remember being disappointed in this book when I was younger, and I still feel the same now. Although it picks up exactly where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left off, it lacks a lot of the charm and enchantment that was the constant static right through its predecessor. The tone of the book is so drastically different from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there are changes in the characters too. I was particularly disappointed in Grandma Georgina, who I had taken to be a lovely old lady until she turned out to be absolutely frightful. My favourite character, Grandpa Joe, took a bit of a back seat in this story too, which I didn't enjoy.

The humour seems a bit too subtle for kids to understand. It's centred a lot around word play, which is really funny, but perhaps would fly over the heads of some younger readers.

It's very scattered, and overblown, but definitely one for someone who enjoys some random madness. I'm not sure it's a wonderful one for kids, I didn't think it was as captivating for children as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but perhaps some children will enjoy the story.

3 / 72 books. 4% done!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Book #02

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

The gates of Willy Wonka's famous chocolate factory are opening at last--and only five children will be allowed inside.

Almost everyone is familiar with this story, whether it’s through the novel itself, or whether its through the films. I fell in love with this book at a very young age, and after having read it again in my old age, I am still in love with the characters and the story.

I think this book teaches a wonderful life lesson. Charlie Bucket is one of the loveliest Dahl children, and he is quite the moralist. It's a rags-to-riches story, and I quite like those.

The book dishes out karma of the most severe kind, with horrible characters getting their comeuppance and Charlie winning his wonderful prize in the end. I think this is a good way to teach children not to be vile, and that being a nice person has its advantages (not that all of us nice people have chocolate factories given to them, we can only dream). To begin with, the nasty children are shown as having everything they could possibly hope for, and then they are brought down by their own gluttony. Karma is a bitch, kids.

Dahl's ability to move the story along is uncanny. Skills such as these are especially required in children's novels, so as not to dull the story down and cause readers to lose interest. He uses dialogue quite a lot to convey scenes, feelings, and actions, and this allows the story to move along at a perfect pace.

This is a lovely light-hearted fantasy novel, and it's a quick and easy read that would be suitable for anyone. It'd also be a delight to read aloud, so it's good for little ones too, and in my opinion should be the staple of each and every childhood!

2 / 72 books. 3% done!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Book #01

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

The remarkable story of Roald Dahl's early years at school and with his family.

Roald Dahl is a hero of mine. I was given the Phizz Whizzing Collection for Christmas which is comprised of fifteen of his most brilliant works, and couldn't think of a better start to the year than working my way through that.

I had never read this one before, nor have I read any of Dahl's other autobiographical novels. I was excited to read about Dahl's younger life, and I wasn't disappointed. His non-fiction writing is exactly the same as his fictional work - eccentric and barmy. His imagery is excellent, the writing is lovely and smooth; it's refreshing.

The book is full of nice little episodes in Dahl's life that he remembers in particular. I'm not usually a fan of autobiographies, they seem very contrived to me; I am always very dubious of them. But in this one, Dahl admits that he doesn't remember much about his childhood apart from a few random happenings, and it’s these we are given. There is also a brilliant disclaimer at the beginning of the book, warning us, "An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography." Genius.

The lovely thing about this book is that you're shown from time to time, with clarity, where Dahl found influence for his subsequent children's novels. He mentions a certain episode that influenced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but other characters are apparent in these pages; one in particular being Dahl's various nasty school teachers, and even the matron, who all reminded me of Miss Trunchbull from Matilda.

I'd definitely recommend this one if you're a Roald Dahl fan. I absolutely loved the insights into his inspirations, and also being allowed to get to know him better. It reads almost like one of his fictional works, which is wonderful, and it’s a light and easy read.

1 / 72 books. 1% done!