Monthly Archives: October 2010

Feasting on Roald Dahl

I’ve been having a bit of a Roald Dahl thing today. I’m tutoring a little girl to help her improve her literacy, and I thought that a great text to base the reading and writing activities around so that there would be an obvious theme for her while she practises writing for different purposes and gets to practise her reading would be George’s Marvellous Medicine.

There was always something which appealed to me about Roald Dahl’s description of George adding the various ingredients to the magic mixture which always appealed to me. Maybe it was partly George’s silly puns (Canary Seed – that ought to make the old bird sing) or the gloopy, glossy textures of paints, shampoos and ointments but I’ve always loved the great appeal to the senses in Dahl’s description, even though the stories are otherwise basic. I think that’s where their brilliance lies.

The lists of food Mr Fox stole from the mean farmers always made my stomach growl, never mind the descriptions of goodies in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. So I decided that I would bake a cake in tribute to Dahl’s food. A Bruce Bogtrotter vs Trunchbull masterpiece I am going to make a massive chocolate cake.


Teenage Kicks- YA Fiction with Grown Up Ideas

I often enjoy reading teen/adult fiction, because the authors are generally happy to tell a decent, well written and engaging story without getting bogged down in literary pretentions of feeling the need to be, well, boring. I would hasten to add here that the Twilight Series are a clear exception here- I think they’re poorly written and thought the Wuthering Heights references were pathetic. So shoot me.

However, some books for young adults which have impressed me recently, and which will be enjoyed by old adults as well are listed below:

Before I Die- Jenny Downham

Tessa is 16 and like most teenage girls, she has a whole list of things she wants to try before she dies. But Tessa is dying of leukaemia. Before I Die tells the poignant story of Tessa trying to cram those important life milestones: getting drunk with friends, losing your virginity and falling in love into the short time that she has left. A beautiful bittersweet book which was totally devoid of melodrama, I cried my eyes out.

Th1rteen R3asons Why– Jay Asher

Imagine this. One day you come home to find a mysterious package on your doorstep. You open it to find that it is a shoe box full of cassettes, with numbers painted on them in nail varnish. When you play number 1, you realise that they are recorded in the voice of your first love and they want to tell you something important. That’s what happens to Clay Jensen. The only problem is, Clay’s first love Hannah is dead having committed suicide a fortnight before, and everyone named on the tape contributed to Hannah’s decision to kill herself-including Clay. Truly thought-provoking, this book made me reassess the way everyday interactions can have far seen effects upon an individual.

Before I Fall-Lauren Oliver

Sam Kingston is not your typical 18-year-old girl, in the sense that she is self-assured, a member of the most popular group of girls in school and loves her gorgeous boyfriend. In short, she lives what she believes is the perfect teenage life. That is until she is involved in a horrific car crash, bad enough to kill her, and she wakes up forced to live out her last day on earth over and over until she gets it right. A fusion of Th1rteen R3asons Why and Groundhog Day, Sam’s story makes you think again about how you treat your peers, regardless of where they come in the pecking order.

Rowling to Write More Harry Potter Books?

I’ve just read this BBC article which claims that Rowling has hinted at the possibility of more Potter books. Reading what is written she hasn’t so much hinted as said that she could write more, never say never and all that. Hmmm.

No one enjoyed the Harry Potter series more than I did. When I got each of the later books it was an eight-hour reading spree without food, with my family instructed to bring drinks but not to speak to me (Okay, I’m a weird herb, but they’re used to it…).

For me though, the Potter series came to a natural conclusion. I don’t think that she should write any more about Potter et al because it would seem to the outside world that she is milking a cash cow. And what would she write about? The obvious one would be to follow the offspring who are starting Hogwarts and for a rivalry between the Potters and Malfoys to be ongoing. But who would be the big bad?

I just really hope she doesn’t do this. It was sad that they ended but it will be worse if they carry on. Thoughts?

PopCo- Scarlett Thomas

“If you stop and look around,” Chloe says, “you see that we have decorated our world with lies.”

Alice is a cryptanalyst and cryptic crossword setter, hired by PopCo, the third biggest global toy company as an experiment. They want creatives from new fields to help in the ideation of a new product which will wrestle the cash from the one elusive cash rich market they have so far failed to connect with- teenage girls. But how can Alice connect with the teenage market, when her own childhood was marred by the death of her mother and disappearance of her father? Having spent her childhood breaking codes to find buried treasure with her grandfather, can she develop a product which appeals to the teenage girls of today? When coded messages start appearing, and people start behaving strangely, Alice’s eyes are opened to the hidden truths which have been in front of her all along.

PopCo is a wonderful fusion of cryptoanalytic theory, maths and cultural criticism, but enjoyably so. When you think back over the novel and consider what actually happens, you realise that in terms of actual storytelling, not a lot has- and yet you’ve enjoyed the novel immensely. In this respect, Thomas’ writing reminds me of the novels of Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World in particular) that I used to read as a child, where the story is a frame for the philosophical content, and the whole point of the book is what you learn along the way. Her skill as a writer, I feel, lies in the fact that unless you sit and consciously deconstruct the novel afterwards, as a reader you don’t really notice where this is happening.

As someone who is somewhat allergic to Maths, I found it amazing that I was enjoying the Mathematical content of the book to the extent that I am actually considering taking an A-level in Maths as a result. I think you would have to know me to appreciate this. Through the discussions of cryptography and cryptanalysis, you begin to realise that the whole world is run around numbers to the extent that you are lead to think about the concept of God as a 4D being, and the idea that we are driven to create our own universes- thus explaining the popularity of web based phenomena like Second Life et all. I genuinely never realised the extent to which codes and ciphers are used in modern day life, and I find it fascinating. Conveniently, if you read PopCo, you learn a little about coding messages along the way- which I intend to try out on some unsuspecting victims at some point in the future!

All of this is fused with Thomas’ comments on modern life, and what passes for culture; the study legitimised in the novel by being based around the mysterious PopCo toy company for which Alice works. As I am in love with Thomas, and her seemingly endless expertise in everything, I found out that she has a first class honours Bachelor’s Degree in something like cultural studies. And you can tell. I find the presence of these all powerful corporations in life a little bit worrying anyway, but again, when I read the book and learned about their research methods and mirror branding etc… chilling stuff, but I won’t spoil it for you.

I am aware that this post is mostly me gushing about how in love I am with Scarlett Thomas, so I will stop that now and get a little bit more analytical. Because despite my finding the book enjoyable and informative, as a work of fiction it does have some massive, gaping flaws, other than the constant mentions of green tea, which it is really only fair to point out if you read books for the story (and there is nothing wrong with that, novels are meant to be a source of entertainment!)

I’ve mentioned before that part of Thomas’ cleverness lies in her ability to use smoke and mirrors to convince you that you have read a fascinating story, when actually the story is pretty weak. In many ways, I found the characters somewhat lacklustre and 2D (though perhaps appropriately, given the discourse of the book) and the story… didn’t really happen for me. Thomas is so busy educating, and no doubt some would argue preaching to us, that the story is a means to an end.

Thomas tries to mix a little mystery and a love affair into the story, and this had huge potential, but I found myself quite disappointed by the end product. A convincing back story is built up around the main character’s romantic involvement with her boss, though not to the extent that it is credible when she decides that she loves him, and ultimately goes nowhere. This should have been exploited further to create further impact with later revelations in the book, but I kind of thought, so what? Also Thomas has little hobby horse moments when she preaches about women’s sexual liberation and saving the planet to us, and, whereas I agree with these things in principle, they are awkwardly forced into the book and don’t explain her love affair with a second character. It comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t fit the tone of the story, but Thomas tries to cover it up with preaching, which was a little disappointing.

Another thing which began to grate on me, having read The End of Mr. Y, another Thomas novel, was that the main characters in both of these books are worryingly similar. Very little, other than their names, occupations etc. have been changed. It isn’t a huge issue having only read two Thomas books, but I hope to read more of her novels, and I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t shake things up a little bit soon.

The novel’s end is very hurried, and lots of loose ends are left just that way, loose. Though in a way, Thomas acknowledges this, suggesting that Alice has in fact, written the book that we’ve read so far. I don’t think that this was very successful though, and I think it was the sign of a writer who needs to finish the good book that she has written, but has no idea how to bring it all back together with any sense of unity. It was a little amateurish and disappointing.

I can appreciate that this is a very mixed review. If it helps, I am already looking for other Thomas novels to read. I really enjoyed this book, which is why I read, and I can let the flawed storytelling slide on that front. It really is a case of horses for courses. You know what matters to you in a book, and should choose accordingly. I will say one thing though. There is a puff on the cover from some critic or other gushing that this book will change your life. I am usually scathing of such things, but I do have to agree. This book has really changed the way I look at the world, and I sincerely mean that. It may be a bit preachy, but it is wonderfully clever and forces you to think; I don’t think you get many books like that these days.