February 14th, 2013


February Books 1) Matilda, by Roald Dahl

She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike. There was an aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal... Thank goodness we don't meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime.

For some reason I had never read this particular Roald Dahl book before. It is rather good. Little Matilda has learned to read at a very young age; school and library provide an intellectual refuge from her comically awful dysfunctional family; it turns out that dysfunctional family relationships are at work among the school staff as well; and there is a happy ending, brought about by Matilda's brief acquisition of psychic powers (slightly reminiscent of Henry Sugar). It is interesting to read a children's book where a terrible family background is actually mere coloration for the real story, rather than being awfully earnest about it all; yes, Matilda's parents are odious and the headmistress is a psychopath, but she looks for things in her life to enjoy, and enjoys them. Quentin Blake's illustrations, as ever, multiply the effect of Dahl's prose.


February Books 2) The Menagerie, by Martin Day

The much larger Taculbain flying about their heads were providing a diversion, the Mecrim jumping into the air whenever one came close. A ring of Dugarqs with guns had surrounded the beasts.
I found this rather a confused and slightly tedious tale, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe landing on a planet where medievalish humans are dominated by an anti-science cult and various subterranean alien races emerge to do battle or otherwise prop up the plot. The is one nice scene with Jamie and Zoe driving a hovercar together. And there is a nice continuity touch: the I in IMC originally stood for Issigri.


February Books 3) Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Somehow the Earth people must have found a way of making heavy things fly. But how? Well, I had no more idea than Jeffo or anyone else. I was no different from the rest. We knew so little, and Earth knew so much. We might as well be blind for all we understood about things. No wonder we longed for Earth.
As ever, the BSFA shortlist continues to deliver good reading, with this story of an accidental human colony on a distant, cold world, decided from two survivors of a lost expedition, and now subject to politics and splintering. It's of course reminiscent of Tunnel In The Sky (Heinlein) or The Face of Evil (Doctor Who), but Beckett brings a nice dimension of rebellious, factionalised youth, of control of history and culture, of the power of new ideas in an alien environment. I really liked it, and a couple of trailing plot threads indicate that there is room for a sequel.


February Books 4) Slaapkoppen, by Randall C.

I have been enjoying reading Leo's bande dessinée series Aldébaran in the original French, but reflected that actually Flanders has a fairly vibrant graphic novels culture of which I know shamefully little (my previous ventures into Belgian comics have all been Francophone). A little research of recent award-winners gave me a list of five or six writers to try, and this was te one which seemed most appealing.

Randall Casaer actually first achieved prominence as a standup comedian, half of the double act known as Vrolijk België (Happy Belgium) around the turn of the century. I wasn't aware of that either, and in fact little of it translates to Slaapkoppen, apart from a sense of the theatrical. The story - if indeed it is a story - is about a couple, talkative bloke and quiet woman, and their loquacious dog, exploring a series of peculiar dreamscapes - caves, dinosaurs, the ocean floor, clouds, all the interesting places from Freud and Jung. At the same time Olav and Igor, shipwrecked rom a Russian submarine via a Portuguese whaling boat, discuss the meaning of life and the charms of the long-lost Natasha on their desert island.

The art is rather beautiful, and the basic ideas are pretty sound. It is notable, however, that even the dream world is bounded by Portugal to the west and Russia to the east, and Olav and Igor unfortunately lurch into Russian stereotype a bit. I was also a bit confused by repeated references to the sea being to the east, which of course it isn't in Flanders; I suppose it is a wider metaphor about dawn and waking up, but it jars a bit with the sense of Western Europe (even in Britain and Ireland, which do have east coasts, one does not think of the sea as being purely to the east).

Still I think I recommend Slaapkoppen (or the English translation, Sleepyheads, available here and reviewed here) for the reader who wants to try something a bit different.