However small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance was there.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latest book on my Roald Dahl odyssey, is perhaps his most famous, due to the various screen and stage versions (I wrote about the musical here). I enjoyed this so much more than James and the Giant Peach – perhaps because its more grounded in reality (well, within reason), perhaps just because I’m more familiar with it, and so it’s like slipping on a big fluffy bathrobe every time I open up a chapter. How quickly the commute melted away (ha – see what I did there) to be replaced with the magical world of Willy Wonka and his hardworking Oompa Loompas.


Published in 1964, the story tells the tale of Charlie Bucket, a young boy growing up in extreme poverty whos only means of escape from his life of drudgery is provided by a mentally unstable recluse who tortures young children for fun.

Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips. Just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of night.

Well, not quite. There’s also a group of possibly illegal immigrants slash trafficking victims who never see daylight and only converse through naughty rhyme.

KIDDING! If you don’t know the story by now a) why not?? and b) go sort it out. Go on, I’ll wait. It’s only a slim novel. Hurry back.

It’s a great morality tale – who doesn’t whoop when the spoiled kids get their comeuppance, and cheer when goodness wins out over all – and told with the usual subversive charm and wit we all expect from Roald Dahl. No wonder it’s a perennial favourite, and been brought to life in so many different guises.

Mr Wonka: Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.

Charlie Bucket: What happened?

Mr Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

If you want more evidence of the twisted beauty of Roald Dahl’s storytelling, check out this thread about Snozzberries (which talks about the film, but the words are lifted straight from the book).

According to Wikipedia (and why would we doubt it), the story was originally inspired by Roald Dahl’s experience of chocolate companies during his schooldays – with Cadbury often sending testers to schoolkids, hoping to get their feedback on the new products. At the same time, Cadbury and Rowntree’s used to send spies – posing as employees – into each other’s factories to try and steal their secrets. Because of this, the world of chocolate-making became more and more mysterious, as they hid their methods – and their elaborate machinery – behind closed doors.

Roald Dahl Fact Of The Day: Did you know that he came up with The Gremlins? The term “gremlin” was originally coined by RAF pilots in the twenties (Roald Dahl himself served as an RAF pilot in World War II), as an explanation for anything that went wrong with their aircraft. In 1943, Dahl wrote his first ever children’s story about these creatures, as a commission for Walt Disney to accompany an animated film, that actually never got made. Roald Dahl writes about his experience in writing this story in his book of short stories The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, and this Roald Dahl fansite has more detail, including a link to the whole story!

Next on the list is The Twits, which I vividly remember reading back when I was a nipper. I hope the memory isn’t so vivid because I identify with the characters…


My dear young fellow,’ the Old-Green-Grasshopper said gently, ‘there are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.

So my plan to read a Roald Dahl book a week – as so many of my plans – failed at the first hurdle. Having raced through, and loved, Danny the Champion of the World, I looked at the slimness of the next volume in the boxset – James and the Giant Peach – and thought to myself, this will be a breeze. I remember not really liking James and the Giant Peach as a kid, and it turns out I haven’t changed that much as an adult, as I kept picking up this book and putting it down again only a couple of pages afterwards, and it sat looking at me accusingly from my bedside table for weeks. Try as I might, I just couldn’t love this book.


The original cover for James and the Giant Peach (Picture taken from Wikipedia)


JGP (not to be confused with JGL) is about a young boy James (obviously) who is sent to live with his two aunts – Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge – when his parents are killed in a tragic rhino-related incident. Magic happens*, and James Henry Trotter (to give him his full name) ends up living inside a giant peach with (wo)man-sized creatures – including a centipede, spider, glow-worm and earthworm. Adventures ensue.

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Gratuitous picture of JGL. Have suddenly come over all unnecessary.

I’m not sure why I’m so down on this book. Perhaps it’s aimed at too young an audience for an adult to get much out of it – perhaps it’s the over-fantastical premise, or maybe that there’s less of a moral story running throughout the book (except perhaps “don’t mistreat children in your care, otherwise you might get squashed by an oversized piece of fruit”) – either way, my conclusion was that I wouldn’t relish it if this was the book any future child chose for me to read and reread night after night. (Also – think of all the different insect voices I’d have to come up with! As anyone who’s heard my “Scottish” can attest, I am not good at accents)

I did, however, learn a new word – vermicious.

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Also – did you know that grasshoppers make their music not by rubbing their legs together, but by rubbing their leg against their wing – like playing a violin! Don’t say you never learn anything from this blog.

One interesting thing I discovered as I read the Wikipedia entry (never say I don’t do research) was that because of the story’s “occasional macabre and potentially frightening content”, it has become a regular target of the censors and is No. 56 on the American Library Association’s top 100 list of most frequently challenged books. (I actually couldn’t find proof of this on their website, but if you fancy a bit of a giggle or a few WTF moments, I recommend you visit the ALA website here – apparently someone tried to ban To Kill a Mockingbird because it contained racism. Mmmkay.)

As in Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl seems to have referenced a future book at a couple of points in the story. At the beginning, when the peach (Spoiler!) rolls off the tree, it rolls right on through a “famous chocolate factory” – Willy Wonka’s? James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory following three years later. Also, Whangdoodles, Snozzwangers, Hornswogglers– mentioned in this book – all, according to Will Wonka (always a reliable source), apparently live in Loompaland (home to the Oompa-Loompas of course, do keep up). (Note – I just noticed before publishing this post that I wrote Will Wonka rather than Willy Wonka, but I want to leave it as I imagine Will being the sophisticated alter-ego of Willy)


A Vermicious Knid, yesterday.

Which brings me nicely to the next book on the list – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Very much looking forward to this one!

I’ll end with a random Roald fact – did you know he wrote the script to You Only Live Twice? What a life story this man has.

Today’s quote is from the book – I think it’s not a bad attitude to have, and fits with my idea that you should never stop learning about the world.

A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.

After seeing two musicals last year inspired by Roald Dahl books (Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), I was reminded just how awesome his stories were, and I resolved to read my way through his books this year.

I then promptly forgot, but luckily my boyfriend didn’t – and he bought me the full set of books for my birthday.


Image taken from Amazon.

 I started with Danny the Champion of the World – the first one in the boxset. First published in 1975, it’s the story of how Danny and his father use their pheasant poaching skills to teach the greedy Mr Hazell a lesson.

The original book cover from 1975.

It’s a fun read, even at my age – and I was surprised by the clearly liberal moral of the story – something I don’t know whether I would have been conscious of at the time. And basically, the story is proposing thievery as a legitimate response to capitalism. Nowt wrong with that, I say (in the context of the story), but I wonder whether any books written these days would have the same approach.

And how’s this for meta – one of the bedtime stories Danny’s father tells him is the story of the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (published later as a full novel in 1982). Mind. Blown.


A pheasant, yesterday. (Image from RSPB).

As I was reading, I was intrigued as to whether the poaching techniques described in the book would actually work in real life – only a quick Google later, and turns out they do! Both the Sticky Hat and the Horse Hair Stopper work (see here for more details). Pheasants love raisins, apparently. Strange creatures.

I’m planning to read roughly a book each week – next on the list is James and the Giant Peach.

Today’s quote comes from the beginning of the book. Something to remember for when I become a parent!

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.

I was really struggling with reading The Finkler Question recently – just feeling that I didn’t get it. All the quotes at the beginning of the book say how funny it is – The Guardian even calls it dazzling! – and yet the most I could raise was a wry smile. So I was extremely chuffed when three of the books I’d ordered from the library came in and I could legitimately put Howard Jacobson aside and work my way through those (My excuse for shameful book abandonment? Books from the library are mine for a limited time only, and so have to be read first).

The first on the list was The Serpentine Affair by Tina Seskis. This tells the story of seven University friends who, 25 years on from graduation, meet every year to catch-up, fall out, and make-up. The book focusses on one fateful picnic in Regent’s Park, which ends in tragedy, and jumps back and forth between that night, and its repercussions, and earlier years in the story of their friendship. It’s a gripping book, well told, with lots of twists and turns to keep you interested, and I devoured it in just a couple of sittings.

The next book on the list was Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I’d head good things about this one, but given how much I’d enjoyed the last book, I thought the chances of reading two awesome books in a row extremely unlikely (it’s the statistician in me, I guess). However, I absolutely loved this book, and will be leaping to recommend it any time I hear one of my friends (or, indeed, any passing stranger) wonder out loud what they should read next. Another book with an unusual structure – this one told mainly through letters and emails – it tells the story of 15 year old Bee – daughter of Bernadette, a former recipient of the Macarthur Genius Grant, and Elgin, a Microsoft whizz – and her quest to find her mother when she suddenly goes missing.

Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life.

This is a really funny book (as you’d expect from a book by a former SNL and Arrested Development writer), at times touching, and extremely engaging throughout. I have a bit of a soft spot for  books from the perspective of a precociously intelligent child (See also: Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Fault in Our Stars), and this one doesn’t disappoint, with Bee being an extremely likeable and intelligent narrator. I started reading this on a Thursday evening tube journey, and finished it in my lunchbreak on Friday. Get this book, read this book, then tell all your friends.

And now I’m onto the third book. A totally different kettle of fish altogether – Fatherland by Robert Harris. I’ve not read any Robert Harris before, so wasn’t sure what to expect. This is his debut novel – a murder-mystery-conspiracy-thriller type, but with the intriguing twist that it’s set in Berlin in 1964, in an alternative world where Germany won the second world war. I’ve not finished this one yet, but so far so hooked – I’m fairly racing through it, and can’t wait to see where it’s going to end up.

So, I’m feeling pretty pleased with my latest library haul. What are you reading at the moment?

Today’s quote is from Lemony Snicket in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid.