Completing Dahl: Gremlins

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Gremlins-coverThe Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story aka
The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production

This month I’m dealing with Dahl’s earliest book for children: The Gremlins (1943), adorably attributed to ‘Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl.’

If you are anything like me, you associate Gremlins with Gizmo, and the phrase “don’t feed them after midnight.” But Dahl’s Gremlins are… different. Dahl’s Gremlins—which he claimed to the end of his days were his creation, and therefore the original Gremlins—are a second sentient race on our earth, who destroy airplanes with hand drills and other simple machines because they’re small, adorable eco-warriors.

Sounds cute, right? It is, for the most part. Dahl’s other version of this story, which appeared in his first novel, Sometime Never, will be my topic for next month. Just… keep all this in mind.

Anyways. The plot of The Gremlins is this: a square-jawed RAF pilot named Gus is flying his Hurricane against some German fighter pilots (Dahl, for the record, loved flying Hurricanes) over the English countryside when he notices a small, horned little man with suction boots using a hand drill to bore holes in his plane. He goes down when the creature bores holes in his engine. He reports this to the mechanics, denying the holes came from bullets, and calling the beast who perpetrated the crime a “Gremlin.”

The entire squadron laughs Gus off until the Gremlins (and Fifinellas, the female of the species) start appearing all over the place. They find out the Gremlins have been destroying planes because they’re annoyed at the destruction of British forests for the sake of warfare. The humans promise them the deepest woodland of England (apparently rank and file RAF pilots are granted the power to negotiate with unknown, malicious species) if the Gremlins will help them in their fight against the Germans. They come to an agreement.

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YA Sexytimes: A Personal Journey

Twitter’s been rather aflutter following Caitlin Moran’s explanation to the Bookseller that her forthcoming YA book is bringing strong female characters and sexytimes to YA. So what did we read back in the bad old days when YA showcased neither strong female characters nor sex? Well, I don’t know about you, but I found enough to keep me happy.

Here are a few of my old favorites:

Valley of horsesThe Valley of the Horses (Jean M. Auel, 1982)

Jean M. Auel’s cave people sexxxytimes series appears on a lot of ‘first sexy books I ever read’ lists, and lo and behold, it’s on mine, too. My mother handed me the first three in the series (back when there were only three) when I was 12, suspecting (rightly) that I’d like Ayla’s self-sufficiency. I don’t know if she forgot about the sex or just didn’t care, but I didn’t just learn what stone-knapping is by reading these books.

No, they were educational in many, many ways. (Spoiler: sexual positions and acts are all thoroughly explored.) Notably, however, The Valley of the Horses is also extremely sex-positive, which is a relief considering that rape is a plot-point in The Clan of the Cave Bear. And, yes, Ayla is a very, very strong character – indeed, she invents everything from sewing to cornrows to the bow and arrow, all the while keeping a cave lion as a pet.

  • Sex: Yes, and lots of it.
  • Sex-Positive: Extremely much. (He's essentially a sex-teacher and has a huge... well, let's just say he's very good at flint-knapping and impresses everyone he meets with his flint-knapping skillz.)
  • Strong female character: Boy howdy, is she ever. She gets really good at flint-knapping too, by the way.

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Completing Dahl: Dirty Beasts and Rhyme Stew

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Dirty beastsWell, they can’t all be winners…

Dirty Beasts

Dirty Beasts is a companion to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. My father bought me Revolting Rhymes when I was young, and I remember thinking was absolutely hilarious. I have no idea if it would induce side-eye and skeptical eyebrow now, as did many of the pieces in Dirty Beasts. Though, to be fair, I liked this book better than Rhyme Stew which I’ll get to in a moment here.

So… Dirty Beasts. It contains nine poems, all about animals such as the pig, the scorpion, and the anteater. (Wikipedia thoughtfully lets us know, however, that “The Tummy Beast” is made up—who says it’s not a reliable source?) Many of them are enjoyable if you’re into the schadenfreude and misanthropy of Dahl (and if you’re not, I’m not sure why you’re reading this). The pig from “The Pig,” for example, doesn’t need a spider and a whimsical plan to save himself from being butchered—instead, he just up and murders the farmer… and eats him. Nice!

In fact, animals devouring humans is a major—dare I?—motif in Dirty Beasts. “The Ant-Eater,” in another justice-for-exploited-animals story, eats an aunt. The lion is super into devouring kiddies. Crocky-Wock, the Crocodile, also enjoys a spot of child. My personal favorite was not one of these, however—it was “The Porcupine” which isn’t so much about porcupines as how terrifying dentists are.

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Review Round-Up: This Song Will Save Your Life & The Bunker Diary

The challenge with 'issue-based YA' - the sort of young adult fiction that has teens in difficult 'real world' (ish) situations - is that is completely relies on the reader connecting to the protagonist. Even more than, say, dystopian YA or epic fantasy or Westerns or any other sort of genre. This is about a character, their response to a crisis, and their triumph (or not). Throw in a secondary world setting or a zombie or two, and you've got distractions - an element that can (and often does) offset a character of dubious verisimilitude.

(I understand that I'm backing up into the whole 'lit fic' vs 'spec fic' argument here, and I think that's the same challenge. Speculative fiction is awesome because you have the entire range of human imagination, the possible and the impossible to play with. Literary fiction is awesome because you don't.)

Because I like putting things into buckets, it would seem there are a few ways about this:

  1. The protagonist as mirror. The book has a protagonist that is That Type of Person. They work because they're a recognisable type of person, and they work especially well if the reader is that type of person. They don't work empathetically when they veer into pastiche, but even then, they're tropes - they still work as shortcuts. The range includes everything from Geek Girl to Gossip Girl.
  2. The protagonist as shadow. The protagonist is the everyperson - a blank that can, potentially, be any of us. Possibly they are defined solely by external events, for example, Spiderman, or damn near any character from Neil Gaiman. They work because they're abstract enough for us to slot ourselves into their shoes without having to dislodge an existing personality.
  3. The protagonist as individual. I realise I'm veering into Stating the Obvious territory, but - writing the protagonist to be a person of their very own. They're not meant to be anyone but themselves. They're neither a reflection or a shadow, but a distinct personality. Francis Hardigne's Mosca Mye and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet (the Spy) are the two that immediately leap to mind. Patrick Ness speaks and writes about this all the time, and it boils down to two key points (I think): a) authenticity - teens that act like teens and b) respect - not underestimating the (young) reader. Teenage readers recognise teenagers. 

In my eyes, this isn't a hierarchy, these are different writing 'tactics' to get the job done. There are certainly less successful tactics out there (both 'character as wish-fulfilment' and 'character as sock-puppet for author' spring to mind).

The Bunker DiaryThat out of the way, let's get to the reviews - Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary and Leila Sales' This Song Will Save Your Life.

First, a warning - Brooks' The Bunker Diary (2013), is about as hard-hitting and unpleasant a book as I've ever read. Being 'young adult', it is getting the obligatory references to Lord of the Flies - I'm personally leaning more towards "No Exit" or Concrete Island. 

Linus is a teenage busker. He's a runaway (from a fairly wealthy background) and has taken to the street to find/lose himself. Take your pick. The story opens with him in the titular bunker. He's been kidnapped off the street, drugged, and transported to this prison: six bedrooms, one bathroom, a lot of cameras, no exits.

With his mysterious captor watching everything he does, Linus keeps a diary as his one means of rebellion - he can write what he wants, say what he wants and, in a sense, be free. If the circumstances weren't so horrifically macabre, this is everything he was looking for whilst living on the street. (Hint: theme alert.)

Things swiftly become even more complicated when other prisoners arrive and the captor begins to engage in a more tangible fashion. With every new arrival and new 'stimulus', Linus finds himself tested. Not just physically (in truly awful ways), but - if you'll forgive the word - existentially. With his world reduced to the head of a pin, Linus is continuously challenged to verify his individuality and his animus. What makes him a person and not a nameless victim or a statistic? What makes him unique, distinctive and 'Linus'? All this, plus all the in-fighting, despair and horror that you might be able to anticipate from a hard-hitting tale of kidnapping and torture. 

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Completing Dahl: The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang & More

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is one of the last stories Dahl wrote, and was published posthumously along with The Minpins and a few other odds and ends. It’s a slender volume - shorter than even The Twits. The plot revolves around a “charming and God-fearing” vicar, Reverend Lee, who is affected by a rare form of dyslexia which causes problems for him when he becomes the (title!) vicar of Nibbleswicke. The thing is, Lee’s dyslexia takes the form of his saying backwards the “most significant” word in his sentences. But in typically Dahl-ish fashion, it’s not always the most significant word; it is often any word that, when spelled backwards, is amusing or rude. So he tells his parishioners not to “krap” on the church lawn. The scandal! Also he tells some lady not to gulp the communion wine, but to “pis” it gently. Hilarity ensues until he figures out how to manage his dyslexia, whereupon order is restored.

Not much here to interrogate, or explore… it’s pretty straightforward. To me, what makes The Vicar of Nibbleswicke interesting is that Dahl wrote it specifically to benefit the Dyslexia Institute. According to the introduction by Quentin Blake, Dahl offered them all worldwide rights for the period of copyright, very generous indeed. And the Dyslexia Institute is actually a setting within The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, which I’m sure is cool for any dyslexic kids at the Institute reading it.

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Review Round-up: Rooftoppers, Geek Girl, All the Truth That's In Me

Three books shortlisted for young adult prizes - Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers, Holly Smale's Geek Girl and Julie Berry's All the Truth That's In Me. Two Care Bears and a grizzly. Oh, and a random shout-out to Avengers Arena.

RooftoppersKatherine Rundell's Rooftoppers (2013) - one of this year's Carnegie finalists - is charming to the point of Disneyfication, a collection of adorable figures and improbable coincidences that would be utterly saccharine if it didn't work so damn well. Sophie is an orphan - the survivor of a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case and claimed by an eccentric bachelor, Charles. Charles raises her in the best cinematic fashion: they write on the walls, eat jam for every meal, climb on the roof and replace formal schooling with lots of Shakespeare. Sophie doesn't even wear dressesCharles gives her trousers instead, the crazy fool.

Well, naturally the Welfare people (a YA novel where the state is the villain? What are the odds?!) don't like this arrangement. Charles isn't raising Sophie as a lady and they're going to put her in an orphanage instead. Charles and Sophie do the sensible thing and scamper over to Paris, prompted, in part, by Sophie discovering a Parisian address in her cello case. Once there, the two become an unlikely pair of detectives: Charles trying trying the legal avenues and Sophie, well, she takes to the rooftops. It seems that Paris is inhabited by tribes of feral orphans, bounding from roof to roof, free as the birds they hunt and eat.

There are certainly some dark moments, but on the whole, Rooftoppers is just cute. From the beginning the whole foppish Shakespeare and jam thing signposts that this is a charming unreality, where Sophie and Charles blithely and anachronistically bound from adventure to adventure, with roof-picnics and music lessons and more. I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with this: Rooftoppers is cute, but it is clever, adventurous and, on the whole, good clean fun. Certainly recommended for fans of Frances Hardinge (who strikes a similar tone, though with more, um, substance), or, for that matter, steampunk.

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Review Round-up: Ravens, Angels, Avengers, Cops & the Apocalypse

Five books, all given less space than they deserve. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, David Almond's Skellig, Warren Ellis' Endless Wartime, Katie Coyle's Vivian Versus the Apocalypse and Rachel Howzell Hall's upcoming The Land of Shadows. Young adult, graphic novels, science fiction and a good ol' fashioned serial killer...

The-Raven-BoysMaggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys (2013) - a recommendation from Justin Landon, who occasionally isn't wrong on the internet. And boy, is this fantastic. A group of kids - private schoolboys and a third-generation witch - all go searching for a lost magical something-or-another. Small town silliness plus high stakes mystical weirdness.

The Raven Boys has a lot of the now-familiar tropes that I like in YA: an examination of what it is to be a 'have' and a 'have not', plus poking around at the idea of what it is like to belong (in a school, a group, a family...). The Raven Boys also addresses one of the themes that I find most fascinating in YA (and weirdly absent in adult genre fiction) - what it means to be a "hero". Not in the Chosen One sense, but in the "does that make the rest of us sidekicks?" sense. In The Raven Boys there's a clear, charismatic focal point - someone at the centre of a prophecy, someone that binds the others together. That's great... but how does that make everyone else feel? Too often - again, especially in genre stories for 'grown-ups', do books assume that everyone is happy to subsume their own agency in favour of the Obvious Protagonists. It is a strange and unrealistic behaviour - I much prefer The Raven Boys' model, where everyone is the hero of their own story.

This book also breaks the mold in that the authority figures and family members aren't all evil. Plus, despite the charm and warmth of The Raven Boys, it doesn't hesitate to tackle big, dark issues. Plus, fun - I would've loved this as a kid, and immediately started plotting out ley lines and doing bonkers research and filling notebooks with esoteric nonsense. 

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Review Round-up: Dressed to Kill, The Morning Gift, Aurora Floyd

Dressed to KillThree odd ones - Milton Ozaki's worst pulp (or, if not, close to it), Eva Ibbotson's strangely flawed The Morning Gift, and Aurora Floyd - a (very) old 'sensation thriller' that's the best of the lot...

Milton Ozaki's Dressed to Kill (1954) is a fairly uninspiring pulp read - the genre (and Ozaki) both have better to offer. Rusty is a down-on-his-luck private who, in the search for quick cash, starts chasing down stolen cars for insurance companies. Much to his delight, he finds one right off the bat - a Cadillac that as we speak is driving across the state line. Rusty zips off after it and repossesses the car, much to the chagrin of the leggy blond behind the wheel. 

On the way back to Chicago, Rusty and the girl head reach some sort of... negotiation. Cash won't do, but when she suggests they stop at a motel, he thinks a deal might be in the works. The intended tryst comes to a swift halt, however, when he finds a body leaking out of the trunk of the car...

It isn't just the purple prose or the meandering plot, Dressed to Kill flounders because Rusty himself never has any sort of clear motivation. The best part of the book comes in the opening few pages, when we understand that Rusty is broke and the car hunt, however, petty, is going to pay the rent. But once he's got the car, he's suddenly, abruptly adrift: he kind of wants money, he kind of wants sex... then he kind of wants to stay out of trouble, then he kind of is in trouble.

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What editors want (1921 edition)...

From The Stories Editors Buy and Why (published 1921):

AdventureAdventure (editor - Arthur S. Hoffman)

We regard it as vitally important that the illusion should be kept up. We want the reader to leave his own world and to live entirely in the world of the story. For this reason we dislike too pronounced mannerisms of style, too unusual names for characters, misstatements in local color, improbability in plot details. We also wish that the author would avoid the obtrusion of his own personality into the story, too much surface cleverness, the specific call upon the reader to philosophize (thus making him think, rather than keeping him in the receptive mood), a too cynical or sophisticated attitude on the author's part. 

We have in addition certain types of story that we try to avoid: those that involve international or political questions; we dislike stories of opium smuggling; stories in which all of the main characters are "natives"; stories which feature intermarriage. Generally speaking, we do not care much for a villain in the role of central character.

[Pure escapism. Don't make the reader think. Don't challenge. Don't be political. Don't feature anyone that's not white. Ah, the "golden age" of genre literature!]

Below the jump, editorial guidance from The American Boy, Detective Story Magazine, Saucy Stories, The Atlantic Monthly and more!

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Friday Five: 5 Classic Space-faring YA Science Fiction Stories

This week's Friday Five comes courtesy of the award-nominated poet and author, Dennis M. Lane.

His work includes a compilation of poetry 8 Million Stories (2010), the collection The Poring Dark (2012) and two YA SF novels - Talatu (2013) and The King's Jewel (August 2013). (You can find them all here.)

You can also hear Dennis - he narrates stories and poems and presents a regular Film Review on the StarShipSofa podcast. (He also plays the harmonica.) 

Dennis is taking us on a blast to the past with a new look at some older YA novels...


heinlein rocketship galileoScouting gets a pretty bad rap nowadays; but it taught me to parachute, skin a rabbit, build a bivouac, and take anything that the world could throw at me. The books that inspired the same feeling in me when I was a teenager were, for example, the Heinlein Juveniles that I discovered in my local library in the early 1970's. Readers of contemporary YA science fiction may be surprised that SF has been doing strong teen (and pre-teen) protagonists for decades.

So here are five of the novels that I read as a 1970s schoolboy, ones that inspired me to pack my bags and follow my dreams...

There's Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), the first of what became known as the Heinlein Juveniles. I recently re-read this and, while it is quite heavily laden with forties slang and quite a lot of the "science" has been proved wrong, it still stands up as a short, easily read adventure. With a plot that follows three teenage boys as they build a rocket, travel to the moon, and defeat Nazis who have set up base there; what’s not to like?

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