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Oh Lydia!

Lydia

I am fifteen years old today, and this journal was a present from Mary.

To me, Pride and Prejudice is the one book to rule them all. Elizabeth Bennett is the utter dream (I wish I was her!) and Mr Darcy is the love interest all other love interests look up to as far as I am concerned. In Austen’s classic, these two are finally brought together through a family scandal – the disappearance of Elizabeth’s younger sister, Lydia. The whys or wherefores of Lydia’s unexpected departure from Brighton with the unsavoury Wickham is only touched upon in Austen’s classic but Lydia by Natasha Farrant aims to fill in the blanks and unmask the mystery once and for all!

Written in the style of a diary, Lydia is a fun first-person narrative that offers an insight to the inner-workings of the spoilt, selfish Bennett sister as Farrant gives Lydia a voice and a platform on which to perform. The story is both familiar and unfamiliar, starting off in the Bennett household, mirroring Austen’s narrative, then following Lydia to Brighton where details of her escapades have always eluded P&P fans.

Now obviously, due to popularity of P&P, spin-off titles are inevitable – got to ride that train! – but I have managed to avoid pretty much all of them bar one ( PD James’ not so inviting Death Comes to Pemberley). I’m not a huge advocate for spin-offs, they are very rarely done well, but Lydia surprised me. Farrant managed to bring life to the youngest Bennett sister, encompassing the character traits created by Austen and develop her into a more rounded literary figure. She finds a depth to the otherwise childish Lydia, maturing her within the tale to a character worthy of attention. The plot and reasoning behind Lydia’s behaviour is credible, the narrative is witty and fast-paced and the titular character is finally able to come out of the shadows of her siblings and shine.

3 star

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Unnervingly Familiar

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I’m wondering what if.

Set in an alternative 1950s England, where the ‘Motherland’ has taken control of the country, Maggot Moon tells the story of Standish Treadwell. He’s not very bright and people underestimate him, but they shouldn’t. Constantly running from the bullies, Standish is about to uncover the biggest secret in his totalitarian world ­– a secret that will cause everyone to question the “truth”s they have been told.

I’ll admit that Maggot Moon isn’t the easiest novel to jump straight into, as the chapters are short snap shots, pieced together by a narrator whose reality is very different to our own. It took me a while to decipher what is what and who is who, which was slightly unsettling but once the novel gathers pace, you gain your bearings and a connection with the events and characters is built.

Gardner creates an atmospheric alternative-past where humanity is questioned and freedom suppressed. There are obvious influences taken from the history books – most notably from Nazi Germany and Cold War Russia and the main story arc even reflects the infamous Space Race. Standish is an innocent observer to his surroundings, having grown up with the Greenflies and abusive authoritarians, and his matter-of-fact descriptions of the world he lives in makes for very effective and raw reading material.

I found Maggot Moon to be a particularly affecting read but it came into its own upon reflection, when distance gave me time to really think about the content. I was genuinely astonished at how relevant it is to our world today. Comparisons and parallels can be drawn with the US goings on as fact and media manipulation drives the story of Maggot Moon, making it a perfect book for teacher’s to use in their classrooms to raise debate and discussion – especially for children who aren’t quite ready to read 1984.

3 star

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A Dahl A Day – Danny the Champion of the World

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When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.

Danny the Champion of the World was Dahl’s first ever book and it is a fitting conclusion to my near-fortnight of his fiction. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the books about the man himself, Boy and Going Solo, but today it is all about Danny.

There are no fantastical elements in Danny the Champion of the World but that doesn’t mean it isn’t utterly magical. Focussed on a father and son, living modestly in the countryside, it’s a heart-warming and sweet story I have loved since first my first read. There is a simple purity to Dahl’s story-telling that sets this book apart from his more wacky titles and makes it all the more beautiful. The whimsy is replaced with a unique narrative honesty that I adore and Danny’s relationship with his father is what makes this book so special.

Danny the Champion of the World takes the reader back to a simpler time without materialistic complications. Danny and his dad live in a small gypsy caravan, run a filling station and make-up bedtime stories each night. They build cars, make kites and fire lanterns and have midnight feasts – living in the moment, for each other. Danny hero-worships his twinkly-eyed father and William tries to give Danny the best childhood he can. They’re a partnership and a team, who take on the world together and embark on an adventure to beat the bully, Mr Victor Hazell.

This book is about how imagination can create sparks in the everyday world we live in and how, even a small boy, can become Champion of the World! The possibilities in the Dahlian universe are endless and even Danny, a tale without magic or miracles, doesn’t limit on anyone’s ability to create change. Dahl empowers his child audience even with his first book and the characters in Danny are genuine, realistic and amazing!

What makes this book even more special, to me particularly, is the brief guest-star appearance. The BFG, another Dahl I adore, was spawned from Danny the Champion of the World when Danny’s dad tells him the story of the BFG as a bedtime story and, from this snippet, another classic Dahl was created. I love this intertextual reference, it links the mini universes of his stories together and makes them seem connected by something more than their author.

5 star

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A Dahl A Day – The Enormous Crocodile

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In the biggest brownest muddiest river in Africa, two crocodiles lay with their heads just above the water.

When the Enormous Crocodile decides to journey into the village for a snack of small children, the jungle animals are shocked and appalled. How could he think of doing such a terrible thing? And surely the children will run a mile as soon as they see him? Ah, but the Enormous Crocodile has secret plans and clever tricks to help him get his lunch – but are they as clever as he thinks?

The Enormous Crocodile is Dahl’s first foray into picture books and I’m happy to say that he packed as much humour and characterisation in this short tale as he does in his novels. The names of the jungle creatures alone are signature Dahl – Muggle-Wump the Monkey, Humpy Rumpy the Hippopotamus, the Roly-Poly Bird and Trunky the Elephant – and they are so much fun to read aloud! The key repetition pattern of picture books is present throughout, allowing children to join in even if they are unable to read independently themselves and Dahl creates a villain in the titular character who poses just enough of a threat to enthralled but not terrify!

Not only is The Enormous Crocodile a fantastic picture book read but it was the first collaboration between Dahl and, the man who came to be his illustrator, Quentin Blake. This professional ‘marriage’ of illustrator and narrative style has created possibly the greatest, or at least the most recognisable, product in the whole of children’s literature – the dynamic duo were born with The Enormous Crocodile. It’s worth a read just to witness where the magic began…

4 star

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A Dahl A Day – Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

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The last time we saw Charlie, he was riding high above his home town in the Great Glass Lift.

And oh how I wish we’d left it there…

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a book to remind us that even the genius of geniuses has an off day. I don’t want to dwell on this book too long because, in my mind, it does a disservice to Roald Dahl’s canon but I’ve always found it to be confused, unnecessary and just way below anything Dahl in terms of humour, narrative and imagination.

Sorry, just not one for me.

1 star

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A Dahl A Day – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

charlie-and-the-choc

These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr Bucket.

There is a mysterious but magical chocolate factory in Charlie’s hometown. It makes the most delectable treats that defy the taste buds but no one ever goes in or out of Wonka’s factory – how are they being made? A shock announcement that five children are to be invited past the factory gates sends the chocolate-loving world into a spin! Who will get a lucky Golden Ticket and does little Charlie Bucket stand a chance?

Dahl created some of his best-loved characters within the pages of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and it’s easy to see why. His loathsome characters are utterly foul and his heroes are incredibly sweet and Willy Wonka…well, he’s just brilliantly, sarcastically eccentric! The Oompa Loompas’ songs intersperse the narrative with comedic timing, echoing the sentiments of their creator perhaps – I’m looking at you Mr Dahl!

Whilst the story is nigh on perfect, I think my favourite parts of this book are the sumptuous intersections. The little anecdotes that don’t necessarily move the story along but enrich it to something truly magical – Prince Pondicherry, square sweets that look round, everlasting gobstoppers, the fudge mountain…they’re wondrously endless!

There is something infinitesimally comforting about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It has always been a favourite of my bookshelf but in this reread I really noticed how the escapism of Wonka’s magic world shut everything else out. That’s what Dahl does best – he creates worlds you never want to leave, ones that stay with you from childhood into adulthood and that we pass on generation to generation. Charlie combines the heart-warming Dahl tale with his signature dark-humour to create a complete children’s classic.

5 star