This is one I've only read once, when it first came out, and I've only seen the movie once too, so there was lots of "ne...moreThis review contains spoilers.
This is one I've only read once, when it first came out, and I've only seen the movie once too, so there was lots of "new" details for me on this re-read. This isn't the copy I originally bought back in 2000 (it was first released in paperback; book 5 was the first hardcover edition on release); I had to put that one in the recycling bin and buy a new copy (and I was shocked at how expensive it was: at $32, it's much more than the other children's/YA hardcovers) because it had water damage and black mould on the bottom from the time when my brother stored some boxes of my books under his house - on dirt, on a steep hillside - while I was in Japan. Idiotic thing to do. I also lost my original copy of Philosopher's Stone too, which is why I have the Raincoast (Canadian) edition of it now.
The Goblet of Fire starts, as usual, at the end of the summer holidays before Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. Because Harry now has a godfather - escaped mass murderer Sirius Black - the Dursleys are being, not nice, but careful not to overtly abuse Harry less this mad protector hears about it. So when Harry is invited to the final match in the Quidditch World Cup by his best friend, Ron Weasley, Uncle Vernon reluctantly agrees.
The World Cup final is between Ireland and Bulgaria, and the Weasleys have seats in the top box. After the game, several Death Eaters - supporters of Lord Voldemort - make an appearance, as does the Dark Mark in the sky. It's just the beginning of the signs that Voldemort is on his way back, and when Harry's name comes out of the Goblet of Fire, making him a fourth school Champion in the Triwizard Tournament, it's clear that something foul is afoot.
I tend to think of this book as the end of Harry's childhood, because things get extra serious, Cedric Diggory is murdered, and Lord Voldemort returns. The next three books are noticeably darker in tone and deed, and unlike in Chamber of Secrets, people - Harry's friends - start dying. I always felt more tense, here on out (in a good way).
The ending of this book always makes me cry. Cedric's death is one of those horrible, senseless deaths. Rowling makes sure you're going to have a personal stake in Harry's drive to defeat Voldemort, after Cedric's death, for Cedric was a genuinely good, likeable boy. Dumbledore's memorial speech at the end is incredibly moving - truly, Dumbledore gets some of the best lines, and is a phenomenal character and role model. To be honest, this series is as good for children learning about right and wrong etc., as the fairy tales used to be. (Fairy tales are cautionary tales using analogies to impart warnings etc.) If children learn morals from books, this series has lots to impart.
Goblet of Fire is a busy book, with a great deal happening over the course of a school year. We also learn more about Snape, though we've barely scratched the surface with this complex character. I love Snape as a perfect example of someone who seems bad but fights for "good" - not black and white, in other words. The introduction of two other wizarding schools - Beauxbattons and Durmstrang - as well as learning about Hagrid's giantess mother, also introduced issues of race and prejudice (further from the Muggle and Mudblood prejudices) into the story, as well as some fun new characters.
We not only get this wider scope of the wizarding world in terms of learning about other schools, we also get a more political novel - ministry officials not only make an appearance but have important roles in the plot, their "adult" politics filter into Harry's world and awareness: that awareness that adult decisions have huge impact on a child's world, their life, and that adults don't always make the right decision or know everything; that it's more than okay to question an adult. Because, just because adults are adult, doesn't make them irreproachable, or wise, or unquestionable. And when kids realise that, they've taken the first step into the adult world of disabused notions, unfairness, hypocrisy and ulterior motives.
And Hermione's determination to make the school's house-elves see that they're slave labour and insist on fair wages and freedom, raises questions not only about workers' rights but also misguided assumptions and placing your own views and beliefs on others just because you're sure you're right, regardless of other "people's" culture and belief system. (Yes they are technically slave labour, but it was more interesting reading it as an analogy for colonialism and/or religious preaching/missionary work in "uncivilised" parts.)
The events in this book make it one of the more exciting ones, as well as its climactic ending, but there's still some very nice character development going on. Ron's insecurities, as coming from a large family that overshadows him, comes out again and you have to feel for him, his reaction is understandable (as someone who comes from a family of five kids, all of whom are much louder than me, I know the feeling!).
One of the things I noticed this time 'round, knowing who the enemy at Hogwarts is (who put Harry's name in the Goblet), was how much Harry learnt off Moody, who, yes, was making sure Harry won the Tournament, but in doing so taught him much, gave him the tools or motivated Harry to get them for himself (all the hexes and jinks he learns, for instance), to battle Voldemort and defend himself. It's quite ironic really. I always felt equally betrayed by Moody/Barty Couch, because I liked him so much as Harry's teacher and mentor! The real Moody I feel you never really get to know, in comparison.
It's funny, I've only seen the movie once too but I was surprised, when reading the book, that it's Dobby who gives Harry the gillyweed and solves that problem for him - Moody plants the information with Neville but Harry never asks around for help. In the movie, Neville does help him in this task, and I loved that. I love it when Neville gets appreciated, he's one of my favourite minor characters and more important than you ever realise. The movie did a good job in changing that around, it worked well for the screen. But I had completely forgotten that it's Dobby who helps Harry, in the book!
Overall, the story becomes more complex and more gripping, with this fourth instalment. Things are chugging along at a fine pace, the stakes are higher than ever, Voldemort is a real threat now and the wizarding world continues to be developed and added to so that it's hard (or simply more fun) to remember that it's not real. Now I'm off to watch the movie again! :)(less)
Harry's summer with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon ends badly, with him accidentally-on-purpose magically inflating his uncle's obnoxious sister, M...moreHarry's summer with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon ends badly, with him accidentally-on-purpose magically inflating his uncle's obnoxious sister, Marge. Fleeing the Dursley's house on Privet Drive with all his belongings, Harry doesn't get far before despair takes over: not only does he have nowhere to go, but he's just used magic outside of school and while the last time he just got a warning from the Ministry of Magic, this time he's looking at expulsion from Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is the best thing in Harry's life.
But the Minister of Magic himself, Cornelius Fudge, has no intention of punishing Harry; quite the opposite in fact. And when Harry overhears Mr and Mrs Weasley arguing about the reason why, it comes clear: a wizard believed to be high up in Lord Voldemort's entourage has managed to escape Azkaban, the wizard prison, and everyone is certain he is after Harry - since it's indirectly Harry's fault that he ended up in prison and Voldemort was defeated. The escaped wizard is Sirius Black, and he does indeed seem to be after Harry when he's spotted inside Hogwarts, the one place everyone thought Harry would be safe in.
I've always considered this to be the book where the series took a turn into a darker realm, a more mature, adult realm. There was always the feel of something rather fun about the first two books, even though they too dealt with a dark plot - somehow, there was still a feel of childlike innocence to Harry and his friends that, by the end of book 3, is no longer there. Perhaps it's the werewolf, and the deeper insight into Harry's parents' deaths, but I'd say it's the Dementors, scary things that can suck the soul right out of you, that give this novel an element of horror and time-running-out for Harry.
Which is interesting, this feeling of time in The Prisoner of Azkaban: time plays a very important role, and the plotting of the book is very clever. I was impressed the first time I read this, and just as impressed now. I will say, though, that I really liked the movie adaptation of this one, and a lot of the scenes and visuals from the film filled my head as I was reading this, which made it feel a little lacking in lustre in comparison to the first two, the films of which I didn't care for and haven't seen as often as this one.
But I do love the third book, a great deal. It introduces two of my favourite characters: Professor Lupin and Sirius Black. I adore Lupin, he could very well be my favourite of the entire series - and the fact that he was played by David Thewlis only makes me love him even more. Same for Gary Oldman playing Sirius. Perfect casting (for all the films, in fact). Really, as a side topic, the movies are a who's-who of British acting, with all the big names nabbing a character. It's quite fun really, seeing who turns up. Anyway, the scene where Lupin is sleeping the carriage on the way to Hogwarts, eavesdrops on Harry's conversation with his friends, drives off the dementor and then offers chocolate - especially the latter - is, strange to say, one of my favourite bits of the book. I know, weird huh? But I find Lupin's presence so utterly comforting and reassuring and warm, never mind how he looks or what he really is, that he puts me in mind of Tom Baker's Dr Who. And later scenes where he rescues Harry from Snape's wrath, and comes to the Shrieking Shack... He's like a guardian, a good one, and I'm so glad he pops up in the other books too.
I find Azkaban to be exciting, and the over-arching plot gets deeper and more details are revealed, both from the past and the present. There's such a great sense of plot control and direction, and I love how Harry, Ron and Hermione continue to mature.(less)
I had thought that the second Harry Potter book was my least favourite of the series, but on re-reading it ten or so years after the first read, I had...moreI had thought that the second Harry Potter book was my least favourite of the series, but on re-reading it ten or so years after the first read, I had to wonder: Why did I think that? This is a great story, full of adventure and mystery and suspense and danger, even more so than the first book. Harry's world keeps on expanding and being fleshed-out, the characters continue to grow (more thoughts on that below), and if it seems a shade paler to us now it's probably because of how much darker and more mature the later books are. There was so much here that I'd forgotten about but remembered enjoying hugely the first time around, and it was just as much fun this time too.
It's Harry's second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it's easily his favourite place to be in the world. His aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, have essentially locked and barred him in his room over the summer holidays lest his presence embarrass them, and it takes his best friend Ron and his brothers, Fred and George, to rescue him with a bespelled car that can fly.
But even before the school year has started, Harry has had a strange encounter: a house elf called Dobby - who is possibly Harry's biggest fan - has taken a huge risk to warn Harry that his life is in danger if he goes back to Hogwarts. Nothing is going to stop Harry escaping the Dursley's, though, not even missing the train back to school. And once there, it seems like Dobby's warning is coming true - at least, something is attacking students in the school, petrifying them, but Harry is the one being accused by his peers of being behind the attacks. Harry, Ron and Hermione are determined to find out who, or what, is behind the attacks, and what the Chamber of Secrets is - before the school is closed down for good.
Definitely, compared to some of the later books (especially after Goblet of Fire, in which the truly dark and tragic events matured Harry quickly), Harry, Ron and Hermione are less developed in The Chamber of Secrets than we would like, and yet I have to think back to my first read years ago and remember that this series began as a children's series, and when first reading them they didn't feel under-developed at all. Like many series, Harry Potter starts out with smaller steps (shorter books) and more contained story-lines; each book gets more and more involved, the plots get more complicated, and the personal side more detailed. From the perspective of new readers, it's the best way to introduce a new world and characters, making you feel like you're discovering it all alongside Harry, the newcomer. On a re-read, that sense of wonder and excitement comes back, and small details you'd forgotten or missed the first time around are more noticeable.
That said, there's very little of Hermione in this one, and little is added to Ron's character; there are a couple of new characters in Ron's sister, Ginny, and sweet little Colin Creevey who I'd forgotten all about but who I absolutely love, he's such an adorable little twit - what happened to him anyway? I don't remember him appearing in any of the other books, which seems a sad shame. There's also the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, the insufferable and vain Gilderoy Lockhart, who is rather priceless and more layered than many of the other characters. We learn why Hagrid was expelled fifty years ago, which is a sad story, and then there's Tom Riddle, and the parallels between him and Harry are definitely creepy.
I don't know how much of it is baby hormones and how much of it simply me being my usual sensitive self, but the ending really made my heart clench in my chest - the valiant and loyal Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix, helping Harry defeat his enemy, almost made me want to cry. I do tend to get weepy when animals do wonderful things for humans. And Dobby, protecting Harry at the end there - it's rather incredible to think of these little ugly house elves who are possibly more powerful than their human masters, being completely subjugated by them. And once free, where did Dobby go?
And then there's Dumbledore's words of wisdom at the end, where he says "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (p.245) It is very true, and an important thing to say to children especially, who are all too often pressured by high expectations, their parents' ambitions, peer pressure and their own concept of how people are valued, to push themselves and focus on achievement at the expense of character and healthy morals. By which I mean, you can be a champion Quidditch player and a mean person at the same time. (less)
There's nothing like re-reading absolute favourites, is there? This is only my third reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's ama...moreThere's nothing like re-reading absolute favourites, is there? This is only my third reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's amazing how many little things seemed new to me. The first time I read it was in I think 2000 (or whenever The Goblet of Fire came out), when I was at uni - a friend had recommended them but it wasn't until the fourth book was released and the hordes of small children queuing for a copy made news headlines that I really took notice. So I guess I jumped on the bandwagon! I don't regret it for a second though - sometimes the hype is perfectly justified, and sometimes kids really do know a good thing. I remember reading this one, and then as soon as I was done going straight out to the bookshop and getting the second one, and then the third - I think by the fourth I'd run out of money and had to borrow from my flatmate! It was like an addiction.
But this is where the story starts. Harry Potter is an orphan being reluctantly raised by his aunt, Petunia, and his uncle, Vernon, a horridly normal couple who know the secret of Petunia's sister Lily and intend to "stamp out the nonsense" in their nephew, Harry. They have a boy of their own, a repulsively fat and spoilt bully called Dudley, who's the same age as Harry. Harry sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs, gets all Dudley's cast-off clothing (which are way too big for him), and knows not one ounce of love in the Dursley household.
Then, just before his eleventh birthday, he gets mail. He has a place at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but his uncle is having none of it. It takes a visit from Hogwart's gamekeeper, a half-giant called Hagrid, to fill Harry in on who he really is and get him prepared for his new school. For Harry, his eleventh birthday is a day of many shocks and surprises, not least is learning that he's a wizard born. The bigger shock is learning that, in the wizarding world, he's famous: he is "the boy who lived", a baby who seemed to somehow defeat an evil wizard called Voldemort.
Harry's life has changed forever, but the adventure has only just begun.
There are so many things to love about Harry and this series, it's hard to know where to begin. From the moment I first read the opening sentence ten or so years ago, I was in love. The sardonic irony of the opening sentence reminded me so warmly of other British favourites of mine - Roald Dahl especially - that I felt like I was home. The characters are a genius of comic humour, caricatures of themselves, funny just for being who they are before they even open their mouths. Rowling describes them with a few sure, concise brushstrokes, and they leap to vivid life in your head.
I've always found Rowling to be an excellent writer - she laboured long and hard over these books and the effort was worth it; a far cry from the lazy writing of so many Young Adult authors, churning out the latest whatever-story to fit the latest popular fad before it gets too old. The early Harry Potter books are clearly written for children - older children, but pre-teen; as Harry ages, so did the audience, and the later books are more YA yet without alienating younger children just starting on them. Not to mention all the adults who've loved the series just as much, and you can understand why the books are so successful. There's something here for everyone, the humour reaching both children and adults, the adventures and mysteries suspenseful and exciting, the characters wonderful, the imaginative world a nice balance of traditional and original. The books still have the power to make me laugh, or bring tears to my eyes, and keep me on the edge of my seat.
It's curious, when you're re-reading a book, how you can find yourself reading a passage or even a whole chapter that feels utterly new to you. For me, it's the first chapter of this book. As familiar as I was with the opening sentence, the rest of the chapter up until the end when Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid leave baby Harry on the Dursley's doorstep seemed new to me. Isn't that weird? I couldn't remember reading before about Vernon Dursley panicking at all the weird-looking people suddenly popping up, though I know I had to have read that before. So it felt like reading it for the first time.
This is actually my second copy of the book, a Canadian edition - my first (Bloomsbury) was ruined by mould: that's what comes of letting your brother store boxes of your books under his house while you're overseas - yes, on bare earth under a house on the side of a hill. It wasn't the only book to grow black mould and have to be thrown out. It's very painful, throwing out damaged books, but at least this one was easily replaceable.(less)
It is the summer holidays and Harry is once again whiling away his time at his hated aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, but this time...moreIt is the summer holidays and Harry is once again whiling away his time at his hated aunt and uncle's house in Little Whinging, Surrey, but this time his time there is short: Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts himself, is coming to take him to the Burrow, where his best friend Ron Weasley lives, after a little side trip to visit an ex-teacher of Hogwarts, Horace Slughorn. Slughorn has a talent for surrounding himself with students who will go on to success, likes to "collect" them, and Dumbledore knows that the lure of Harry Potter - the "Chosen One" the papers are calling him now - will be enough to make him come back to Hogwarts to teach.
Harry assumes Slughorn will be taking the cursed Defence Against the Dark Arts job, but actually Slughorn is a Potions master and it is Severus Snape Dumbledore has given the DADA position to, much to Harry's shock and dismay. In his Potions class, Harry uses an old book from the store cupboard; it is heavily marked with corrections and additional instructions, and when Harry tries them he discovers he can make perfect potions - outshining Hermione for the first time ever. The previous owner declared themselves to be the "Half-Blood Prince", and alongside great potions tips are invented spells Harry eagerly tries out.
Staffing isn't the only change this year at Hogwarts: Dumbledore himself takes Harry on for additional "lessons". Together they explore memories of people that together paint a picture of Tom Riddle, now Lord Voldemort. Harry learns of his parentage, his life at the orphanage, his hunger for power and dark secrets, until finally he and Dumbledore discover the secret to killing Voldemort once and for all.
But meanwhile, Harry has his eye on Draco Malfoy, who seems up to something. Harry is convinced he's become a Death Eater and is trying to kill someone, and that Snape is helping him, but no one sees it as anything more than Harry's obsessive hatred for Malfoy and Snape.
Once again, there's a lot going on here and it's often interconnected, so it's hard to pull out the main plot points without giving everything away. After the mammoth size of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this one seems almost short, but really it's the perfect size for the story it tells. Once again, I have no complaints with Rowling's writing, and she has managed to write a story that makes me feel like a kid again - completely absorbed in the magic of the world and the characters, something I always fear I've grown out of.
We get more of Dumbledore in this instalment than in any other, yet such is the figure of Dumbledore that I still feel like I don't really know him. I was mildly distracted during this reading by knowledge from the 7th book that I don't really want to share here in case you haven't read it, but that fore-knowledge affected the way I read scenes with Dumbledore and Snape, though my poor memory of book 7 meant that, while I knew there was something fishy going on, I couldn't remember exactly what it was. So, mystery remains intact, which is great, but now I'm thirsty to read Deathly Hallows not least to find out about the Snape-Dumbledore plot-line.
I find the title of this one interesting - it's a great title, but it's interesting to me because the Half-Blood Prince seems like such a minor element throughout. But then I thought, when you find out who the Half-Blood Prince is, it does actually work to bind the various elements of the story together, and reinforce the importance of a certain character (again, trying not to spoil it). Another part of me, the teacher part, was distracted - and always is, really - by the poor quality of pedagogy employed at this school; it's completely irrelevant really but the teachers do little more than supervise, they never actually teach, so it's no wonder a Potions book helped Harry so much. I just had to get that off my chest. I hate reading scenes set in classrooms that demonstrate poor and old-fashioned teaching styles.
Harry and his two best friends continue to mature - here, love finally intrudes. Ron and Hermione are realising their attraction to each other, but Ginny's taunts lead Ron to start snogging Lavender Brown every chance they get - though that wears thin for Ron pretty fast. And Harry starts to see Ginny as something much more than just the sister of his best friend. Dumbledore's insistence that it is love that will defeat Voldemort, that love is the one power Voldemort has never understood and continues to dismiss. Obviously there are many kinds of love, but it's so important and satisfying seeing Harry learn this kind of love.
On the other hand, I find the Bill and Fleur romance a bit odd - probably because it seems to just suddenly happen, when we had no idea Fleur was working at Gringotts and knew Bill, and also because we never see the two of them together - not until the very end, anyway. It just sticks out a bit, to me.
This is also the book where we learn about Voldemort's past, his parentage and his childhood. I loved the way this was done, it's certainly original and never dull (flashbacks can be hit-and-miss). I really appreciate the importance placed on understanding Tom Riddle - yes, in order to defeat him, but also in understanding how he is like he is, why. I would be instantly contemptuous of a story where there is Evil, with no explanation - my problem with old-fashioned Fantasy (and one of the reasons why I never got far reading Lord of the Rings). Evil doesn't just "happen", and in reality no one is "just evil" - Hitler was undoubtedly a horrible man suffering from personal issues but he believed he was a good person; it's just that his perception of good and bad was way off. Others, like Caligula, were plain mad. Then you get the ones whose deeds are proclaimed "good" depending on who's writing - like the Templars, and certain (if not all) missionaries. If Hitler had won, we wouldn't think of him as an "evil" man because we would have grown up in a different environment. My point being, there's no black-and-white, and even Tom Riddle cannot be dismissed simply as "evil", period. I find the Harry Potter books to be exceptional in encouraging children to explore the complexities of people and events, to think critically of them - children's minds are already in that space, but a poor education system and some media will quash it. There are wonderful themes and messages in these books.
As soon as I finished it, I put on the movie. It was a bit strange, going through the story all over again when the book was so fresh in my head, and the changes to fit the visual, film medium really jumped out at me and occasionally confused me - maybe I should take a longer break next time! Humour continues to be a strong element of the books, and nicely balances the darker, sadder themes and scenes, and is definitely present in the film as well. I love the Potions classes - the film even caught Hermione's increasingly bushy hair in the first class, as she struggles to make her potion work - and when Harry take Felix Felicis (liquid luck); makes me giggle! But I'm still not happy with the portrayal of Dumbledore, even if he is more serious in this book.(less)
I've been a fan of Heyer's historical romances since I first read my mum's old copy of Beauvallet when I was a teenager. If you've never read one you...moreI've been a fan of Heyer's historical romances since I first read my mum's old copy of Beauvallet when I was a teenager. If you've never read one you don't know what you're missing! My edition is very old, actually it's the First Australian Edition from 1948, it has no dust jacket, and the pages are brown and brittle. I have 39 of her romances (she also wrote about eight detective books with the help of her detective husband, but I've not read any of them); there are about three or four I don't have, though I've read almost all of them.
It is 1586 and Dona Dominica and her father, the late governor of the island of Santiago, are returning to Spain by ship when their vessel is captured by a British pirate - by the infamous Sir Nicholas Beauvallet, no less! Dubbed "Mad Nick", he is a dashing figure, tall and dark with a "neat" head of curly black hair, bright, mocking blue eyes and a pointy beard as was the fashion, friend of Sir Francis Drake and pet of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. He's a bit of a devil and laughs at everything. Finding the beautiful Dominica on board the Spanish galleon is a surprise, but Beauvallet commits himself to taking them safely to a Spanish port despite how incredibly dangerous and reckless it is. He's fallen in love with the spirited Spanish woman, and pledges to come back for her within a year and "make an Englishwoman of her".
Dominica doesn't believe him, but despite everything finds herself wishing it were true. Once Beauvallet decides on a thing, he doesn't waste much time, but getting into Spain isn't an easy matter for any Englishman, let alone an infamous pirate whom the Spanish believe has witchcraft on his side. Circumstances see him and his valet, the finicky, chatty Joshua, enter Spain from France with a Frenchman's papers, and the disguise is a tenuous one. He has to fool the king of Spain, the French Ambassador, and the many Spanish nobles while locating Dominica and planning how to bring her out.
Tense with looming danger, Beauvallet is a rollicking ride of romance, sword fights, mad dashes across country, midnight escapes, scheming aunts, dastardly cousins and one very engaging, lovable hero. Dominica is spirited, fiesty and intelligent, quick-witted and interesting - it is not hard to see why Beauvallet would fall for her so quickly.
One of the most remarkable things about Heyer's work, of which most are set in Regency London, is the historical accuracy with which she writes. You could learn more from reading one of her books than from one written in the time it was set! From the details of the clothing, to the etiquette and social graces, types of equipage, dances, food, liqueur, sentiments, current affairs and manner of speech - Heyer has it all nailed down, and with effortless ease. Her prose is never stiff or self-conscious, but full of wicked humour and confidence. Her skill as a writer is especially manifest in her ability to write dialogue, which I've always wished to emulate, and her great cast of supporting characters. Reading Beauvallet is a bit like watching Blackadder the Second for me, from references to men's plate-sized ruffs to sneaky asides about Raleigh and here and there a "beshrew me!", making it one of the most comforting, familiar books for me to read in a day :)(less)
I think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World;...moreI think this was the first Dahl book I ever read, though my memory's a bit confused now - it was either this book or Danny the Champion of the World; I think it was this one. I think I borrowed it so many times from the school library that my mother caved and bought it for me - inside the front cover, where I've written my name and the year (1988 - when I was 8), it says "TREAT!" in big letters. We didn't get things very often outside of birthdays and Christmas, so when I did get something as a treat it was doubly special to me.
The BFG is about Sophie, an orphan, who one night during the "witching hour" in the middle of the night, when she can't sleep, goes to the window and sees something extraordinary: a giant, as tall as a two-storey house or more, peering into bedroom windows as he goes down the street. The giant sees her, plucks her from her room and runs off, running so fast and so far she has no idea where she is when he finally stops - which turns out to be in Giant Country.
The giant has an underground cave with a giant-sized table and chair, and shelves full of glass jars. Sophie is sure she's going to be eaten, but it turns out the giant who kidnapped her is the BFG - the Big Friendly Giant. (His English isn't very good and is riddled with grammatical mistakes, so you have to forgive him for calling himself a big giant.) However, the other giants - much bigger than the BFG - aren't friendly at all. Every night they race off to different countries to guzzle down humans. They're smelly, hairy, ignorant and lazy, but they're very very big and very very strong. The BFG lives on a disgusting vegetable called the Snozzcumber - it looks like a giant pimply cucumber and tastes simply awful.
Sophie learns all about the BFG's life, and what he was doing looking into children's bedrooms at night: he collects dreams, and the good ones he blows into children's rooms while they are sleeping, so they have good dreams. His jars are full of dreams, each labelled with the gist of the dream in the BFG's childlike writing:
I IS MAKING MYSELF A MARVELUS PAIR OF SUCTION BOOTS AND WHEN I PUT THEM ON I IS ABLE TO WALK STRATE UP THE KITSHUN WALL AND ACROSS THE CEILING. WELL, I IS WALKING UPSIDE DOWN ON THE CEILING WHEN MY BIG SISTER COMES IN AND SHE IS STARTING TO YELL AT ME AS SHE ALWAYS DOES, YELLING WOT ON EARTH IS YOU DOING UP THERE WALKING ON THE CEILING AND I LOOKS DOWN AT HER AND I SMILES AND I SAYS I TOLD YOU YOU WAS DRIVING ME UP THE WALL AND NOW YOU HAS DONE IT. (pp.104-5)
The BFG's dream collection gives Sophie an idea for how to rid the world of the giants, but it will involve cunning, courage and the help of a very important lady.
I know this story so well that even though I haven't read it in years, every word seemed familiar to me as I read along. It all came back, not in a rush but in a trickle, as I read. It makes for a very comforting, fond read! I felt a little bit like I connected with my eight-year-old self, because I could also recall how I felt about the different scenes. Like the very beginning, with Sophie awake in the dead of night - the witching hour - and seeing the giant in the moonlit street and trying to hide behind the curtains. I remember how that scene filled my head as a child, seeming much larger and deeper a scene, Dahl's words crafting something much bigger than a mere children's book. And I felt some of that again, felt the chills, the anticipation, the fear of the other giants, the wonderment of the almost invisible dreams, and laughed at the funny stories the dreams wanted to share with children.
So the magic was still there. I think, with Dahl, it always will be. He was such an amazing story-teller, no one really compares to him. He had such fun with his stories, with delighting children and, I'm sure, making their parents laugh despite themselves. He wasn't ashamed to play, to have fun, and to make the world an exciting place. And he taught us how to love language, and how to have fun with it.
No doubt, if you never read any Dahl as a kid, starting as an adult probably won't satisfy as much. (For you, I would recommend Henry Sugar, a collection of short stories for adults that are quite different, almost disturbing, in a fascinating, can't-look-away way.) Then again, maybe they will. I would like to think they would. And you can start anywhere, with any Dahl book, because while we fans have our favourites, they're all treasures. Other books of his came to eclipse The BFG as my favourite - The Witches, for one - but this book will always hold a special place for me. I like to give authors like Dahl credit for encouraging my imagination as a child, my wonderment, and my openness to other possibilities.
Reading The BFG as an adult, of course you notice implausibilities - not the giants, or the dreams, but in the plan to capture the other giants, for instance - but none of it matters. It makes sense to a child who built forts out of straw bales and sticks and made towns and roads for matchbox cars out of piles of fine gravel - I'm sure if Dahl were around today he would scorn the plastic junk toys and computer games that keep kids indoors, glued to a screen or stifled by a toy that only has one function.
One thing that I still find refreshing about Dahl - especially after the spate of YA books I've read over the last few years which like to pretend that teenagers don't even swear - oh golly gosh! - is that he's very un-PC. I've never ever found his books to be offensive in any way; rather, he felt even more like a family friend for being so real about things. It does make me wonder, though, if the days of someone who writes like this - for children - getting published are over. I'm sure there are authors writing today who are just as irreverent and silly and a bit rude, I just can't think of any right now.
Dahl wasn't just an author to me, as a kid - he was like the best uncle ever, a mentor, someone you looked up to and wanted to make proud. You wanted his attention as much as you wanted to hear his stories. You wanted a bit of Dahl in your life, however small. Because he was magic, and I'm so glad I still have that.
Well, this isn't really a review of the book, is it, so much as a memorial service twenty years too late - but that's what The BFG means to me, and that's what I wanted to share. :) (less)
I got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their...moreI got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their life in the old gypsy caravan by the petrol pumps and garage - it was at once a whole new other world, and something very near and dear to me.
Danny is raised by his dad, a mechanic and Danny's hero. They live in a colourful wooden caravan under a large apple tree, serving petrol and fixing cars. Danny's father teaches him all about cars and how to fix them, and Danny is a great help in the garage. At night his dad tells him fabulous stories, and when Danny starts school at seven, his dad walks him there and back every day. Danny has the best life, and he loves his dad more than anything.
Then one night Danny wakes up to find his dad missing. Anxious, because it is the first time his father has disappeared like this, Danny waits up for him. When his father returns, Danny learns that his dad has a secret: he's a pheasant poacher! His own dad was one before him and came up with several ingenius ways of poaching the birds, and Danny's own mother used to join him on poaching nights. This night marked the first night Danny's father had been out in the private woods - owned by the brutish Mr Victor Hazell - since Danny was born.
And so, Danny's father introduces Danny into the world of pheasant poaching - and Danny discovers that virtually the entire town enjoys a spot of pheasant poaching! Even the doctor and the policeman and the minister's wife is involved - and no one likes Mr Hazell, with his "tiny piggy eyes" and "smug superior little smile". But it is Danny himself who comes up with the most clever poaching plan ever conceived - a way to steal all one hundred and twenty birds at once, the night before Mr Hazell's shooting party arrives!
Perhaps because of the different illustrator, or perhaps because it is more of a realistic and human story than many of Dahl's other, Danny the Champion of the World has a different tone and feel to it than classics like The Witches and The BFG. It is more like his memoir of his childhood, Boy, and similar works. It is written for children, and has humour and a lightness of spirit to it, but it is also more serious. In keeping the story "real", though, Dahl shows just how fantastic our real lives can be, without giants and witches and other fantastical things.
It is also a story of one boy's childhood in what I figure was the early 50s, and as such it reads like a story of a completely by-gone era. The chances of someone now having a childhood like Danny's is pretty slim, and so there's something nostalgic about his story - perhaps, again, inspired by Dahl's own childhood, not in the details of the story but in the characters, and the mischief. It's also nostalgic in that small English village way, where everyone knows everyone's secrets, finds clever ways of pulling the wool over the eyes of people they don't like, and can generally be counted upon in a pinch.
In the schemes for poaching pheasants, there is definitely a touch of the wildly flamboyant Dahl we all know and love: "The Horse-hair Stopper" and "The Sticky Hat"; and in the description of oafish and cruel Victor Hazell. Danny's father, who's never named, is a fantastic figure, and when Danny calls him the best father in the world, you find yourself easily agreeing with him. Well, he may be at times irresponsible and a little wild, but he has the qualities you want in a great father - and this is Dahl's message, proudly spelled out at the back of the book:
A MESSAGE to Children Who Have Read This Book
When you grow up and have children of your own do please remember something important
a stodgy parent is no fun at all
What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is
It's great, even as an adult, to come to that at the end of the book (something I had completely forgotten was there) and be reminded of what I loved and admired in adults when I was a kid. I loved the artist friend of my parents who, when he and his wife came over for dinner, would take the time to entertain us with magic tricks and make us laugh. Or my nanna when she would put me on her lap and read fairy tales to me. Or my dad (and grandad) when he'd lie on his back in the passage, put me on his feet, and toss me over his head, always catching me and setting me on my feet. Learning about plants with my mum. These are the memories we keep, after all - the ones that chase the darker shadows away. It seems like the current trend in parenting is to fill your kids' days with activities, sport, hobbies, studies, rather than spend time having fun with them. Or even to buy horrid plastic toy sets and computer games for toddlers and older - it's so much better to let kids invent their own games, make their own toys and things out of random household odds and ends and scraps, and play amongst themselves.
Danny's inventiveness in the poaching scheme earns well-deserved praise from his dad and others, and his father calls him the champion of the world - far from being a form of gross steroid to a child's self-esteem, it humbles Danny but leaves him re-affirmed in the greatness of his one remaining parent. The two are a close family unit who share everything with each other, and so it doesn't matter that they're poor, that they live in a little caravan with just a little paraffin stove to heat up food on: they have each other, and love, and great stories and fantastic adventures. Having money isn't the key to happiness, is I think Dahl's other message here.
On a side note, it was interesting reading this after so many years, because I had a vivid memory of one of Bennett's illustrations at the very end of the book, which doesn't exist! I remembered it ending - with accompanying illustration - with all the pheasants roosting in the apple tree above the caravan. I must have invented this ending for myself, as a child, and improved upon it each time I read it until it supplanted the real ending in my head. I've done this with other things from my childhood, so it wouldn't surprise me in the least. It is the ending I would have liked, but not a realistic one! (less)
Only Dahl could make such a delightful children's story out of two such miserable, horrid, nasty characters! Of course, he knew how to write an ending...moreOnly Dahl could make such a delightful children's story out of two such miserable, horrid, nasty characters! Of course, he knew how to write an ending that would satisfy our (childish?) sense of justice. It's been years since I read this book, but it was just as I remembered it: delightfully wicked, uproariously funny, and a little sad.
Mr and Mrs Twit are two very ugly people, whose ugliness reflects the ugliness of their hearts. They live in a windowless brick house, play mean and spiteful tricks on each other, and keep a family of monkeys in a cage in the yard, which Mr Twit trains to be the first Upside-Down circus - forcing the poor things to stand on their heads for hours.
Mr Twit also uses an incredibly powerful glue to catch birds for Mrs Twit's bird pie - he paints it on the branches of a dead tree by the monkeys' cage and when the birds land in it to roost, they are stuck fast. When the monkeys meet a bird that can speak their language, they warn it of the danger and it spreads the word to the other birds, so thwarting the Twits. It is only the first step in the monkeys' revenge to give the Twits a dose of their own medicine!
As a child, all my sympathies were in the right place: I laughed at the cruel things the Twits did to each other, because they are funny and they're not sympathetic characters (the saying, they deserve each other, applies well to this pair); I felt upset at the poor tortured monkeys and the poor stuck birds; and I cheered the animals on in their plan to get rid of the Twits once and for all. Since it was also clearly fiction, I certainly didn't see it as a lesson in how to treat real people. The difference is quite obvious. But it does appeal to what I referred to as a "childish" sense of justice - that sense of what's fair that is beaten out of us by experience.
The book wouldn't be complete without Quentin Blake's illustrations, which so delectably capture Dahl's concise descriptions and flesh them out to wicked proportions for our feasting imagination. And, this being one of Dahl's more comic stories, there's plenty of fodder for the imagination (I should also point out that the nastiness of the Twits never bothered me partly because I read it after having watched many times, a-hem, an adult sitcom from the UK called The Young Ones - which quickly became a family favourite and still gets quoted at opportune times - so the Twits seemed like harmless fun to me).
A note on this edition: Dahl's books are usually published by Puffin, the children's imprint of Penguin, and they do a fine job. This is the U.S. Scholastic school library edition, with the same cover and everything, but the binding is very very cheap and nasty and I don't recommend it. I don't like Scholastic for their cheap bindings - I have other books printed by them and they always feel like they're going to fall apart, and the pages are puckered inside. Funny, considering it's meant for school distribution only - the way kids handle books (i.e., roughly), they can't last very long at all!(less)
I first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which i...moreI first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which is the narrator's description and explanation of a character called Robert Cohn. I don't know why I had so much trouble reading it, just that I couldn't follow it, couldn't keep track of it. It wasn't a good way to start. Then, I was hoping right up to the last page for a happy ending. I felt cheated that I didn't get it. Kind of like "why the hell did I read this then?"
This time around (reading it again for a book club - I missed the meeting, incidentally), because I knew what to expect, I could focus on all the other things in the novel, knowing that the narrator, Jake, would still be alone at the end of it. That he wouldn't get to keep Brett. And I had no trouble reading the first chapter. Really, the prose is incredibly easy to read, simplistic even, except for when the descriptions get vague.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Set in 1924, Fiesta is the story of Jake, an American living and working in Paris, who goes to Pamplona in Spain to see the bull fighting with some friends, a mix of American and English ex-pats - one of which is Brett, Lady Ashley, a beautiful and charismatic woman of 34 who's waiting for her divorce to come through so she can marry a bankrupt, Mike Campbell.
Jake and Brett met during the war, when he was recovering from an injury. They fell in love, but his injury was of the groin variety so they can't be physically together - hence, she doesn't want to stay with him even though she loves him. Instead, she has casual relationships and affairs, while Jake has to watch. Sometimes he even introduces them. But there's nothing he can do about it.
The story is heavily detailed with the kind of descriptions that, while apparently perfectly acceptable in classics and other works of literature, can be the cause of some rather heavy criticism in genre fiction. Like so:
"I unpacked my bags and stacked the books on the table beside the head of the bed, put out my shaving things, hung up some clothes in the big armoire, and made up a bundle for the laundry. Then I took a shower in the bathroom and went down to lunch." (p.207)
It would be petty of me to ask, Where else would he take a shower? wouldn't it. Shame.
This book is all prose, very little plot. It's not that it's wordy, rather that it reads like a mouth full of crooked, over-crowded teeth. The dialogue is very 20s-specific, and if I was the kind of reviewer who liked to write snappy, witty, clever little reviews, the first thing I'd do is satirise the dialogue. Like so:
"I feel so rotten!" Brett said. "Don't be a damned fool," Jake said. "The count's a brick." "Let's have a drink." "Here's the pub." "This is a hell of a place," Bill said. "Why don't you see when you're not wanted, Cohn? Go away. Take that sad Jewish face away," said Mike. "I feel like hell. Don't let's talk," said Brett. "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Do you still love me Jake?" asked Brett. "Yes." "Because I'm a goner. I'm in love with the bullfighting boy." "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Where's that beer?" Mike asked.
And so on. A lot of repetition, a lot of drunken mouthing off, a lot of really very pointless, empty conversation that goes round and round in circles. The problem is, of course, that the characters are all horrible, shallow, self-interested, boorish, ill-mannered, childish tourists, the kind that make you cringe. Jake is probably the only character you can feel any real sympathy for, but even he has his moments.
As the first-person narrator, it's amazing how little we know Jake's thoughts. He hides behind recounting pointless dialogue and describing mundane things. There are times when he gets thoughtful, wistful even, and those parts are what make the novel worthwhile. It's also very easy to feel like you're in Paris, and Spain. The heavily descriptive prose does help create a realistic, breathing setting. Especially when they reach Pamplona, to watch the bull-fighting. It just also happens to be the place where their behaviour becomes even more embarrassing.
I'm not sure if Hemingway was criticising his fellow ex-pats or not - but I think he is. Maybe he was just describing it how it was - and it is believable. Jake isn't a judgemental character, but I wonder how much of that is Jake and how much Hemingway? This edition doesn't come with any additional notes or introductions or appendices, so I haven't read anything about the novel that might shed light on this. As a chronicle of ex-pat life, especially among those who have money, in the 20s, and of bull-fighting, it's a success. But it's still two-dimensional.
As for the bull-fighting, it's one of the more interesting sections, especially towards the end where there's an involved recounting of three bull-fighters at work. We now know that bull's are red-green colour-blind; it's the movement of the cape that enrages them, not the colour. So I wonder what was wrong with the bull Jake assumed was colour-blind?
As simplistic as I've made this novel sound, there is quite a lot going on in the details, things that make it both interesting and deplorable. The bull fighting, for instance, is both a commemoration and a presentation of a highly controversial topic. There's certainly a parallel between the beauty and brutality of the bull-fighting, and the way these ex-pats treat each other. They are at once unlikeable, and likeable. It just goes to show how confounding humans can be, and how contradictory.(less)
Jane is a poor, plain orphan girl living with her aunt Reed and cousins Georgiana, John and Eliza. She has no friends or protectors now that her uncle...moreJane is a poor, plain orphan girl living with her aunt Reed and cousins Georgiana, John and Eliza. She has no friends or protectors now that her uncle is dead, and with her active imagination sees his ghost in the Red Room where she is locked up as punishment. Sent to a girl's school in the country where she is promptly forgotten, she makes her first friend in Helen Burns - who is taken from her when typhus sweeps through the school.
Conditions afterward improve somewhat and she becomes a teacher at the school. Desirous of making her own way, though, she puts out an ad for a governess position and secures one at Thornfield Hall, teaching a little French girl called Adele who is ward to the master of the house, Mr Rochester. Rochester is almost always absent but when he does return home they form an unlikely and, for Jane, a surprising friendship.
Her new happiness increases as she finds herself falling in love with the bad-tempered man, only to have it beaten at when he boldly hints at marrying Miss Blanche Ingram, a very pretty but cold young woman who lives nearby. The truth will out, though, in more ways than one, and at the peak of her happiness, Jane's world will shatter irrevocably. Or perhaps not...
This remains one of my favourite books. I first read it in primary school - and right proud I was too of reading such a grown-up book! - and have found that the Jane and Rochester pairing is as wonderful as Lizzy and Darcy, if not better, 'cause let's face it, Rochester is a lot more intense and Jane is such a familiar, shy girl who just needs the right person to notice and appreciate her.
I can read this in just a couple of days, though I like to savour it. The writing is a bit sickly in the scene where Jane threatens to leave - I have a hard time picturing Rochester like that, behaving like such a little boy! The third section where Jane lives with her new-found relatives is the least interesting (I've never liked St. John). I also don't like how she gives St. John the last word. But none of this takes anything away from the overall power this story continues to have over me.(less)