Roald Dahl – Five of the best

A short while ago, fellow blogger “The Color Lime” posted on reading “James and the giant peach”, the fabulous children’s book by Roald Dahl. This book reminds me of being at school aged around 7 or 8, having this book read to us over a number of story time sessions. Sitting with a class full of 20 to 30 other children, the book still kept me captivated, and brought colourful and interesting imagery to my mind,  something the memory of, triggers even now. It was quite a reading moment. Many of his books have the power to do this. The word “fabulous” could be applied to most all of Roald Dahl’s books for children and adults with imagination.

A few years ago when still living in England, the firm I was working for had a small book club. Various books would appear on offers, and if you wished, you could buy them at a bargain price. For the most part, it was not the sort of books I would want or read. But on one occasion, a box set of Roald Dahl’s books was there. The books still contained the illustrations by Quentin Blake, just like the originals. These days, I feel the illustrations alone are worth the price. I told my wife I was going to buy the set so if we had children, when they were old enough they would have a good start on books to read. She liked the idea because I had given her “The BFG” as a gift, and had enjoyed that. It was a good excuse to buy it, no? We now have a small child.

Roald Dahl was also involved in British television series from the eighties “Tales of the Unexpected” based on some of his short stories for adults. I believe he introduced each episode. On wikipedia stories are described thus: “The stories were sometimes sinister, sometimes wryly comedic and usually had a twist ending”. I recall this show being interesting, and fun, but little details about the stories themselves. The children’s books on the other hand are rich with memories. The boxset contained the following books:

  • The Magic Finger
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Esio Trot
  • Fantastic Mr Fox
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
  • The Twits
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Danny, the Champion of the World
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine
  • Going Solo
  • The Witches
  • Matilda
  • The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
  • The BFG

In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to my son getting a bit older so we can read these together, or more likely me reading them before he can read them himself. Either way, it should be fun. With that in mind here are the five I would pick first. I’m going to exclude Charlie and the Chocolate factory for being over familiar with the recent film, and (my preferred) the Gene Wilder one. Also I haven’t read these in years so I’m relying on the younger me i.e. memories, to inform the older me which ones to go for. When I do get chance to go through them again, I might have another opinion. Anyhoo:

  1. The Witches – “This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches.” I must have borrowed this from the library several times when I was a child. The version which is pictured above. It considers the bond between a boy and his Grandma (the boys parents had died). I was close to my Grandma as a child, having lived very close. That never occurred to me at the time. I loved the descriptions of the witches, the long gloved hands, the wigs, the larger nose holes than ordinary. I still think someone with large nose holes is a witch now. Sort of. There could be one living next door to you.
  2. The BFG – The Big Friendly giant who collects good children’s dreams in a jar, so he can distribute them later. He is different to the other giants who eat children. He meets a small child Sophie, and together they plot to stop the other giants. The book is populated with terms such as “snozzcumber” and “whizz popper”. You can find out what they are for yourself. I used to work at a firm where one of the directors was a tall bloke with big ears. Many staff kindly referred to him as the BFG.
  3. James and the Giant Peach – Poor James Trotter, sent to live with his horrible aunts after his parents were eaten by a Rhinoceros. After a weird spell transforms a giant peach outside their house, he crawls inside and befriends six anthropomorphic insects. An adventure begins. The book gives you an odd respect for insects (or at least giant ones). It is fun and amusing, and emotional.
  4. Danny, Champion of the world – A book more grounded in realism (to a point) featuring the boy Danny and his widowed father, a pheasant poacher. Danny finds him missing one night, drives out to the woods and finds him. Thus begins a plot to humiliate the “evil” Mr Hazell, enemy to the two of them, and rich neighbour, about to host his annual pheasant-shooting party. Unless Danny and his father can get the pheasants first. I think this book may contain a small story which formed the basis for “The BFG”, but I’m struggling to recall how much of that is in there. Another story playing on the bond between close family members.
  5. The Twits – About a gross elderly couple who are stupid and always playing tricks on each other. No-one likes them much. Some birds and monkeys take their revenge. I remember the book being short and funny, and some of it being in the descriptions of the filthy state of the Twits. With its length, it would make a good starter book.

I’ve seen a few people like this around…

I’m aware that many of these books have been turned into films. I have not seen many of them. Even at a young age I realised that it won’t be as good as the book(s) and I had no wish to spoil it or them.

What do you think of my choices? Would you have chosen differently, and is their a favourite for you?

Lexicon word of the day: anthropomorphic.


Novel titles and chapter headings


Maybe all this should arrive later?

A good novel takes you to a different place. It gives you someone else’s story. It might be good things or bad things, something easy to relate to, or something as far away from your own life as here to the moon. Which depending where here is, might be very far away. A good novel takes you away from your own life, but also explains a little about it. Myself, and many other bloggers are working on a novels, or projects of a similar nature. It is hoped that with the right mix of words, ideas, technical bits and passion, that these will become good novels, and find some readers. Hopefully the reader finds that little thing that gives them thought after they put the novel down, it finds a connection with a part of their life.

A well written novel does not make the technical bits too obvious, even if they are staring the reader in the face. Perhaps chapters are of a similar length so the reader can look, understand the structure and think, I can get through two or three of these before work, or before sleep. Perhaps the title infers something that leads the reader to think a certain way. I have noticed some bloggers will discuss their various writing projects, referring by the project’s title, i.e. it has one to refer to, where as others like my self just refer to a “project” itself. Why might this be?

I am a little secretive about my fiction projects, I like to give little away. It is not so much that I am embarrassed about the title, or I think it might be stolen. I just see it as my project, my thing, until it is finished, and then it can belong to everybody else as well. For me the title is a part of that, although hypocritically, it could be used as a teaser as well, if I feel I have a good one. More often, there is something else. When I start a project, I do not always know what the title is. I prefer to have a working title, then let the title arrive organically through the writing. If a good one pops up, then it will be kept, and maybe used. It needs to grow from the project. For me, it does not need a title whilst being written. For other writers, it is a little like a child, they prefer a name that they can lead, or leads them, through the story. They nurture the story from it, and help it grow.

A title could be important in marketing the project. That could be a further reason why I am happy to leave it until later.

As I pointed out above, how the chapters are structured in terms of length if important to many readers. They usually do not want to read a short 1000 word chapter followed by a 7,000 word chapter. People have busy lives, they pick up and put down books. They read on the train, or for half an hour before a tv show starts. They want to read the segments of it knowing they can pick it up and put it down at a convenient point in the story. Different authors break the book up in different ways. Many books just use numbers to separate the chapters. There is nothing wrong with this, it keeps the focus on the story. It just gives convenient breathing points in the story. Dividing the chapters up in any other way is not necessary for them. Others e.g. George R. R. Martin in his Game of Thrones books, use character names. This is important in these books because there are a lot of characters, and the chapter name is a device to immediately tell you which character, point of view, and story that you are following.

Other books use titles, which I find an interesting approach, because if done well, it can point your brain into a specific direction. I really don’t know how much notice most readers take of this. Many likely just leap into the next part of the story. It could temporarily take you out of the story. It depends on the story as to whether or not this is a good thing. I see the same thing with chapters which have a quote, prior to the story continuing. Some of these I read, others I don’t. I suppose it can add a layer, or take your thoughts in a different direction if you read it and take it in, but as with chapter titles, it can briefly jump you out of the story. I wonder if that is a bad thing or not. Given that you have taken a breather from the previous chapter, why not? The reader can ignore it if he or she so wishes, and continue on with the main text. I quite like the way some tv shows use titles to name episodes, many HBO, AMC,  and Showtime shows do this. Sometimes the title is made up, other times it comes from a specific line of dialogue in the episode, which loosely, and sometimes cleverly, sums up either what the episode is about, or the theme of the episode is about.

Would using the same technique and putting “clever” titles on a chapter actually be a clever thing to do? I’m tempted to do this with my current project. It might make the chapter headings more interesting. Would it be a distraction? Maybe, but if it really doesn’t work, it could easily be changed for numbers. You could apply the same logic to book segments. Some authors like to break the novel up into sections or parts containing a group of chapters. The novel might be changing track, or a significant point has been gotten to, so the chapters are grouped together in a separate section. It is a bit like books within books, a technique often used in mysteries or thrillers, or epic voyages. These could be labelled with numbers, titles, with either plus a quote, or clever titles.

So how a writer uses a title could be important to how the work progresses, but is also important to the reader. How we use chapter or segment headings can be done in a number of ways, but it ought to suit the story and the pacing of the story, how and when it should be broken up or paused. Get these right and it helps the reader connect with the work a little more, and sets them on the journey to that other place.

So how much importance do you place on a project title whilst working on the project? Do you need it before or during, or afterwards? How do you use chapter headings, and how important is the format of these to you?

N.B. This weekend, I’m heading off to another family reunion from the other side of my wife’s family. I may be a little late in getting to read and respond to comments.

Lexicon word of the day: insipid.

How much do you plan a story?

Recently Rolling Stone has inspired a couple of posts. Once again the current issue has something interesting, worth sharing, concerning how much planning goes into a story. As you might expect, this comes through an interview with an author, in this case George R. R. Martin. You might be familiar with his works on the “Tale of Fire and ice” series, recently turned into a little TV show “A Game of Thrones”. I might have covered it a few times in TV Vegetable.

It is a decent interview, especially his opinion on the use of sex in the series and how it relates to US culture. However in the part I am concerned about George was asked a question about how much he plans his stories. He starts by describing story writers as two types, either “architects” or “gardeners”. The architect knows what he will be building, has detailed plans, knows where the walls, will go, where the pipes will be laid and so on. The Gardener plants a seed and watches it grow. The gardener knows what is expected to grow i.e. the type of plant or flower, but not exactly when or how, there are plenty of surprises on the journey.

Obviously these are analogies of how someone plans a story. He explains how he is closer to a gardener (in the context of a game of thrones):

“I know the ultimate end to the series and I know the fates of all the principle characters, but there’s a lot of minor characters and other details that I find along the way… it’s about the journey not the ultimate destination”

If you have read any of this series of books, you will know how long they are, and how they have a lot of characters, and jump perspective a lot. This allows for a lot more with the minor characters, but still, you’ve got to love his approach. This is the approach I try to take, to have a basic spine of the story, and certain events which need to happen. But I also try to see also what happens as I write it. I’m still learning, and this approach seems to work for me. I would be happy to come up with something half as good.

Obviously either approach has it’s positives and negatives, and some approaches are better suited to different types of story, e.g. the architect approach to a murder mystery. However, generally speaking you may stick with one approach. Which approach do you take?

Lexicon word of the day: impecunious.

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – The alternative take

What do you need to know about it?

His dark materials is a trilogy of books by Phillip Pullman. In order they are Northern Lights (renamed The Golden Compass for the shoddy film), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The books are all part of a large story which primarily follows Lyra Belacqua, and later, also Will Parry. The story takes place in several parallel universes and feature fantasy elements such as beautiful witches and armoured talking bears. No come back, these books are well thought out and intelligent. They drew some criticism for being a little anti Christian and anti religion in general (or more in theme), but if you have a brain I wouldn’t let that stop you reading them.

The first book was made into a beautiful to look at, but somewhat soulless film called The Golden Compass. If you’ve seen the film and it put you off reading the books, think again. Compared to the book, the film is a turd, a polished one, but still a turd. The film explains nothing of why the bears wear armour, and how they come about them (if you watch Game of Thrones, think the iron price), or how the bear Iorek Byrnison became exiled, or even how big a deal it was that Lyra could speak to him. Or even how he was friends with Lee Scoresby. And plenty of other things, you can probably see what I’m getting at. The film ended sometime before the book did, the book had a cliffhanger ending or sorts.

Where did I first become acquainted?

About six or seven years ago, a friend asked if I had read them because they were very good. I had never even heard of them. Then I mentioned it to another friend who said he had also read them and they were very good. I checked out some reviews, they were very good. So if they were very good, I can probably assume they are worth reading. So I bought the trilogy and guess what? They are very good.

I did have the ending of the third book spoiled a bit as a friend referred to the emotional element so I was waiting for it. (I will say to avoid spoilers that it might be happy, it might be sad, it might just be a surprise twist, or it might just be straight forward and well built up, i.e. I’m telling you nothing).

What to buy:

All three books. Once you get to the end of the first one, you will want to read the rest.

Anything related to look at:

Check them out on here, or here.

In a quite comedy element, especially if you a) have a brain, b) have actually read them, c) are not a moron, d) like to encourage some thought, you will laugh at Phillip Pullman appearing second on the US banned books list. This means a lot of people tried to have his books banned in case, you know, someone has a thought about something. You can read about it in the Guardian here. This might suggest that the books ought to come highly recommended, hint, hint.

Anything else?

Not really. Oh hang on, there are a few smaller related books that I have never read called Lyra’s Oxford, and Once upon a time in the North. According to wikipedia, a book called The book of Dust featuring some of the same characters, but an independent, set later in time book, is in the works.

Lexicon word of the day: asseveration.

Monday Haiku and things I learnt last weekend

This weekend was a relative weekend of relaxing after finishing part three of an essay on the art of computer games being underrated. I finished Bill Bryson’s book “At Home“, which was good, if not slightly different to what I was expecting. Now I’ve moved onto Mark Oliver Everett’s book “Things the Grandchildren should know“, which is good thus far. He is the “bloke from the band Eels”, has had a somewhat depressing and stressful life in some aspects, that makes for an interesting story thus far. I have a bunch of his records which are somewhat neglected, so I expect this will give me a good and convenient excuse to listen to them.

Sunday afternoons have recently become a bit of an excuse for larking about on the PS3, so I had a go on Fifa 12 and UFC3 which was fun. Sunday evenings have some great TV. The Walking dead, was excellent last night and a good lead in to next weekends finale. Luck, I have recorded along with the superb Kenny Powers in Eastbound and Down. Life’s too short, was also amusing. His secretary is brilliant. As a show featuring Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant, saturday night’s An idiot abroad was much funnier and will be sadly missed. This last show was kind of like a studio version of The old Ricky Gervais radio show / podcast featuring Karl Pilkington. They are very funny if you’ve not heard them. They have been animated to some extent on HBO’s Ricky Gervais show, but to me work better listening to them as audio only.

Coming up in the next few weeks are the new series of Game of Thrones, Mad men, and The Killing too, sunday night TV will still be something to look forward to.

So mondays now feature two re-accuring features. The first is Haiku. Todays word prompts in the spirit of previous week which was about the weekend, this week are some things from this weekend. They are, The quick Ultimate fighter knockout (more below), a smoky oven (when my wife was trying to do some food which goes towards feeding the homeless), and my local “Henrys” has now become sprouts. The last of the three relevant because the smell of that place always reminded me of my earliest visits to this country long before deciding to, and moving here. So (in the spirit of UFC) “here we go”:

Now cold is my head

Struck a quick blow to my jaw

Fighting contract gone.

This one is an example of where Haiku is just not long enough to do justice. On the other hand, maybe I’ve not done a good job at it.

Burnt food stops the cook

Carve the nourishment of hunger

Feed our homeless folks

I’m not sure I’m quite with this today. I might revisit this one later. Oh well, onto the last one.

Henry’s became Sprouts

In the springtime of this Year

Pay only tribute

Ok so not too serious that one. Still, I convince myself it is all good practice, but if nothing else is fun.

Things I learned this weekend:

  • I still needed to learn how to defend myself in UFC 3 undisputed on the PS3. So I did some of the training and now I’m a bit better.
  • I’m not the only one who needs to learn to defend myself. In the Ultimate Fighter on friday, Erin Beach lost after Sam Sicilia popped him on the chin and knocked him out, in 8 seconds of the first round. All that training and he doesn’t get through 10 seconds!
  • LFC also lost again this weekend giving them three league defeats in a row, the first time this has happened since 2001.
  • ABC family channel is made up of more commercials than content.
  • Actually it is made of more commercials about it’s content, than actual content itself.
  • If we didn’t know before, The Walking Dead world is not a good, and certainly not a safe, place to live in.
  • Eels frontman Mark Everett seems like a nice bloke. I don’t think his book will take too long to read.

Lexicon word of the day: inosculate.

Poetry and Me

I like many fiction books. I like many non-fiction books. I like books about music. I like some biography books. I’m not much keen on self help books. I don’t like romantic fiction. I don’t really like poetry books.

I like different forms of writing, different styles, be it more direct, simple description, or more embellished, a beautiful flow and tone, a rhythm to the language. With that in mind, I’m not really keen on poetry.

I like music, I love the sound of music first, but I often find lyrics I love as well. I like the rhyming couplets of Morrissey (especially his lyrics in the Smiths), but  also find something in the stories of Bruce Springsteen (check for example lyrics like, The River, or Highway patrolman). But I don’t find much enjoyment in Poetry.

Why is this? I’m well aware that the great Poets use language very well, that well chosen words evoke powerful or colourful images, or juxtaposed words invoke a particular emotion or context. I know the power it is supposed to have. I know it it is great to learn from, I don’t hate it, so why do I just, not like it?

I think it started all started on a wrong foot and went down from there. The image of some drippy fop lying on the grass with his jumper tied round his shoulders, notepad on his lap composing an ode the women he loves, but is afraid to talk to, well that didn’t represent my life. It didn’t look like anything from my life at all, nor what I wanted it to be. It kind of felt a bit, well a bit like my second point, a bit snobby. Poetry seemed albeit along time ago in my life, to be a bit upper class toff, a thing for the snobs. Once I learnt more about it, and how it is often viewed as the upper tier of writing, the correct way to use language, then that just reinforced it. And you may have learnt already what I feel about snobbishness in writing. Sure I would subsequently learn that the use of language is no bad thing, even if I don’t agree that it is necessarily the pinnacle of writing, but the pattern was set. It didn’t feel like a club I wanted to be a part of, it felt like something to avoid. It felt like too much hard work.

Well that was then and this is now. These days I’ve had a complete turn around and I cannot get enough of it. It is the best thing ever. – No hold on, it isn’t. When I read some poetry now, I can appreciate it more for what it is, as an art form, and I try and evaluate the use of language. I’ve softened on it a bit, but I wouldn’t say we’re common acquaintances. We might have a passing hello and a quick catch up to ask how life is, how things are going, but we wouldn’t hang out. When I start reading poetry, after a short while my eyes begin to droop. It’s like one of those lectures you might have to attend about something you need to know, but once the lecturer gets going, the presentation makes you want to sleep. Oh Poetry, why must you be so dull to me? Must I have to offer you something in return?

Perhaps I do. Let me give something to it and see what I can get in return. In a few days I may attempt on this here blog, some “simple” poetry. I think I shall start with some Haiku. It will be unplanned, from the top of my head, the opening draft. Feel free to pop by and see how poorly I do.

Lexicon word of the day: Circumlocution.

What music and writing have in common

I confess, I seem to be on a music kick this week as far as writing is concerned, on this (dramatic drum roll), … the 15 minute writer exercise blog. Well that sounds kind of clunky doesn’t it? Well it is only an exercise, re-drafts must be on a separate post,you understand – I am enjoying this daily writing, I must confess, there is little about it that is under duress. Hmm…

In a reversal of how rhythm with words is a fine take on (ahem), “good” writing, and I’m not talking about the bad punning, and birthday card poetry of the previous paragraph here, today I’m interested in a different way that music and writing have something in common. It is about how music and writing interact for me, how they may interact for you, and the symbiotic relationship they have on each other, at least in my head.

Pretty generally speaking and excluding people who are trying to listen for specific instruments, people listen to music such as pop, rock, folk, and similar in two ways. The first way is to listen for the lyrics and enjoy a song that way, the music is a lesser priority. The second way is the opposite, they listen to the music, the melodies, riffs, the rhythms, timbre, and so on. The lyrics are the lesser priority, sometimes even picked up phonetically, so that words might be learnt without the meaning considered. This is more common than you might think. I’ve often done it in the past myself. So, and this is interesting because I like reading and writing, I tend to be the latter. The music comes first for me. Now I didn’t choose it that way, that is just what happens, I usually have to work a bit more to get the lyrics, or read them if provided (yet another downside in downloads, which is aside from the quality issue). Yet I still love quality lyrics, they just are not up front for me. Therein lies what appears on the surface to be the first contradiction, but as you shall see, it is not.

I’m a big music fan and in return, music can provide a big inspiration to me. For example, there are times when I may be sitting round, a bit bored, or maybe a bit tired, but seemingly not on the ball creatively. But then I plug the headphones into the laptop, put them on, and play some tracks (oh iTunes you little devil you). Usually within a minute or two I’m caught up in it. Something has happened. I’m caught up in a riff or melody, maybe synchronised with a beat, or riding the changes in tempo. I’m following the story of the music, the ups and downs and everything else, a particular lyric or phrasing, even the emotion of a vocal performance, perhaps the way award is phrased. There is a something. It gets me flowing. Suddenly I have a tempo, or a realisation on an emotional up or down. It can be a bit fantasy, a bit dream like, if you will, it takes me away from where I was and places me somewhere else. It gives me imagination. Somewhat amazing is the amount of times an idea I had in the back of my mind, flies to the front, without conscious prompting, then suddenly I have four or five ideas around it. Things I can add to, or revisit and edit later. Notes that need to be taken.

Sometimes I use music in a different way. Music listened to over time can be very nostalgic, it will soundtrack certain things in your life. Re-listening to songs can bring back memories, feelings, or often different emotions. It might remind you of a great trip somewhere, a little shared moment, or a horrific breakup that tore up your insides at the time. Listening to a song can take you away from where you are now, and in these instances, practically right back to that other place. To me when this happens, it gives me an emotional depth, or an emotional water well from which to draw from. It gives me the emotional thing, the feeling I want to try and replicate. It tells me how something should be, what I should be striving for when I put it into context. It is a way of realising what is in myself, some might take this as what is in my soul. Whichever way you want to take it, the music shows me what is there, it is merely my task to try and use it for what it is. To translate it from the electrical noise in my brain to the written word on the page.

It occurs to me now that as I like music and have quite a lot of it, that my music library is to some extent, a personal library for me, of me. I’m just using it to access me, (or at least parts of me), a bit like an index.

It ought to be clear from the above that I can also use music as a reboot. It triggers my brain into some kind of action. When I really get it right and choose something I’m (often unconsciously), yearning for, then I literally am taken away. I can be swept away  into a different mental state, I can be somewhere else, I can move up out of here and fly. It sounds a little cringeworthy but that is what it is.

Music also makes me respectful of what it is as a piece, as a work, or a project. It can be small and throwaway, it can be about a theme a heartfelt, wrought, piece of emotion. It could be a story, a diary, an emotional moment of someone’s life. It could be days of hard work, or five minutes of inspiration. It can be genius, it can be terrible. It can be a showcase of talent, it can be three or five guys in tune with each other, feeding off each other. It could be the result of hundreds of hours of practice, or something that just seemed to appear and write itself. It can be an attempt to create something specific, to a theme or story, or just something that seems throwaway, that gives a few minutes of entertainment. It could be made in an expensive studio, or in the singer’s bedroom. It could be all this and more. What is not to respect about this? It is someone creating something. When it works it is (in gestalt terms) “greater than the sum of it’s parts”, it is something alive in our hearts and minds. It is the result of everything that got it there, before it slots in and becomes apart of you. It is that we must respect and admire, for if we wish to write something that engages, we wish to do the same thing. It embodies the idea of what we are trying to achieve as a writer.

With all this in mind we must also consider that music can also be used to add to life’s moments. I’m talking about the little things that make you smile, or make you realise that whatever else is going on, a little moment is all that is needed. My 14 month old son is starting to notice music a little more. He is also is getting steadier on his feet, and combining this with bouncing up and down, or throwing his arms around, or even all three. There have been a few times where a song has come on that has grabbed his attention, he looks at me and does his little dance, so I can do it back to him. He laughs, it’s fun, he’s only 14 months old so it is genuine. It makes me love the little fella a little bit more, and thankful that I’m his dad. It’s one of those moments. It is real it was there. What it has in common with writing, and especially fiction, is producing these moments. The moments people can say, “I understand, I was there as well, I shared in it”.

And that is what music and writing have in common. Music can inspire me, it can take me away to a different place, or return me to an old place. It can show me an emotional moment, or it can create a new one. It makes me respectful of what people can achieve, and the process involved in getting it there. If we wish to write, to communicate with others then a great way to do it is to try and create these similar moments. Moments which take a person away from where they are, show them something new, tweak an emotion, make them think, or respectful of what they, or others have. That is what music and writing have in common for me, and why they cannot be separated. I hope you have something like this that works this way for you.

Lexicon word of the day: Magniloquent.