The Big Read

Books from Childhood – No.22 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

I don’t know if you had noticed but I had started at the bottom of the list and made my way up. I am now going to break from form as we have reached the Harry Potters. The next on the list should be The Prisoner of Azkaban but I don’t like starting in the middle so I’m going to start with the first one and work through in chronological order.

*Do I still need to put a spoilers warning on Harry Potter? I you haven’t read it come out from under your rock and read it.*

How on earth do you review Harry Potter? What can possibly be said that hasn’t already been said a million times before? I can only talk about my experience with them I guess so time to get personal. I was born in 1994 so I was 3 when The Philosopher’s Stone was realised. I am by no means claiming that I read or even knew about Harry Potter aged 3, actually I can’t remember when I first read it. I know for certain I was at least 7 due to other mile stones in my life and I think I my older brother who was 10 at the time wanted to go and see the film but he made me read the book before we went. I hadn’t finished the book when I saw the film though as I was completely shocked that it was Quirrell and not Snape.

I left the book unfinished for several years. I started on the second one but got bored (for shame!) and left the series altogether until 2004 when the film of Prisoner of Azkaban came outNow aged 10 and with renewed interest in the series I finally read The Philosopher’s Stone in it’s entirety quickly followed by all the others until I was conquered by the enormous Order of the Phoenix.

So back to The Philosopher’s Stone. I fell in love with Hogwarts. I waited for my letter, I wanted to buy a wand I fell hook, line and sinker into what would now be called ‘the fandom’. I had a Harry Potter sticker book and you could buy the stickers for 20p in newsagents, I had a cuddly Hedwig (side note I was nearly called Hedwig after my great-Grandmother kinda glad I wasn’t), I joined the ‘hype’ if you like just in time to grow up with Harry, to feel the buzz of the new book being published although I never went to a midnight book release and these are my most treasured memories of childhood.

Harry Potter makes me feel the same way that Charlie Bucket does, this poor neglected little boy finally manages to escape the world of torment and heartache he lives in and find happiness. Of course later on in the series it gets all dark and sad and I cursed J.K. for ruining Harry’s happiness but in The Philosopher’s Stone Harry gets to escape and be happy and I am pretty sure that is why all of us still read Harry Potter and I know I will continue to my whole life.

I have to go now because I have a bad case of ‘the feels’.

Rating: 5/5 unashamedly

Would recommend to: ages 10-100

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The Big Read

Books from Childhood – No.31 The Story of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson

I am really sick of having to review Jacqueline Wilson books. This one was also a part of the box set my mum got me and I feel pretty much the same way about it as I do all the others. However, I so have a few good things to say about.

This book was made into a children’s T.V. series which I quite enjoyed. I actually met the guy who played Duke once when he was in a production of Kiss Me Kate.

It is set in a children’s home and is about the struggles Tracy faces as she tries to be fostered. Let me tell you something. As a ten year old your parents not being around to take care of you is unfathomable. But what? How can that? Then after you try and figure out how the whole system works based on shaky knowledge about orphans from Oliver! you become very grateful for your parents and I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing.

Tracy narrates the story and as she describes all these wild fantasies she images about herself and her mum you know even as a child that she is lying to herself to make herself feel better and I think that that is the real success of Wilson’s most popular work.

Rating: 2.5/5

Would recommend to: All children, it’s not exclusively ‘girly’.

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The Big Read

Books from Childhood – No. 35 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

Oh God. Just thinking about this book makes me want to cry. I am sure that you all know the story of how impoverished Charlie Bucket inherits the most famous chocolate factory in the world so I won’t bore you with a summery I will just tell you why I well up thinking about it.

Charlie is a good boy, he’s selfless, kind and grateful in spite of the fact that he and his family are horrifically impoverished and he has every right to be angry and bitter. That’s tragic enough as it is, a little boy still manages to find some good in a cruel unfair world. But then against all the odds and after having his hopes dashed 3 times, he get’s to fulfil his dream and go to the chocolate factory *sniffs*. If it ended here it would still be a fabulous story. But no, it gets even more moving because the person who gets the factory isn’t the greedy, indulged Augustus Gloop, it isn’t rich, spoilt, ungrateful Veruca Salt, or arrogant, self important Violet Beauregarde, nor ignorant, snide Mike Teevee, it’s humble little Charlie Bucket.

I can’t. Its too sad. There is justice in the world.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: naughty children to teach them a lesson.

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The Big Read

Books from Adulthood – No. 45 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

The first of my reviews for books from adulthood. Just. I read Brideshead the summer after I turned 18 in preparation for my year of intensive English Literature study. We got a list of suggested reading over the summer for our upcoming study of Modernism so I went to the college library to have a look at which ones I fancied reading. I went for this one after opening Ulysses and running a mile from its impenetrable text (I shall have to tackle it at some point as it is No.78 on the list).

I loved this book because, as with all my favourite books, the world Waugh creates is all consuming. You are completely transported to the 1920s and the hedonistic lifestyle of the English upper classes. It rather openly, for its time, explores homosexuality; both in a sexual and romantic sense. Although nothing is explicitly said there is no doubt in your mind that Charles is in love with Sebastian and you would have to be down right naive to miss the ‘sodomy’ that is rife at Cambridge.

Brideshead also deals heavily with religion in a rather un-Modernist way. Many writers and many people at the time were struggling with loss of faith after the atrocities of the First World War. Yet in Brideshead there is a finding of faith, a return to Catholicism while the rest of the world was searching for new ideas, new beliefs. Waugh was a convert to Catholicism himself and he not only explores the difficulties of being a Catholic in a society with so little moral principle but also historically and somehow he manages to do it in a way which I can only describe as ‘non-preachy’. It is a very intimate, personal story, elements of it are almost certainly biographical, and the religious struggles feel just as personal; they hardly effect the reader at all except to create empathy.

There is also an element of being on the outside looking in to the story. Charles doesn’t really belong at Cambridge, he doesn’t really belong at home with his family and then he finds Brideshead but he doesn’t really belong there either, nor can he. The story at times feels like Charles is studying the people around him to make a record of them before their species becomes extinct but unlike Waugh’s other work this is not a satire. It is almost a tribute to a world that burned furiously until there was nothing left.

Rating: 5/5

Would recommend to: People who feel that they don’t belong.

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The Big Read

Books from Childhood – No. 51 The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Another one of my childhood favourites. I have always loved classics as they fall into the ‘another world’ category, the visiting of which is why I read. Stubborn, spoilt Mary Lennox, named for the nursery rhyme Mary Mary Quite Contrary, is sent to live with an Uncle she has never met after a cholera epidemic in colonial India where her parents are killed. At first she resents her new home and everyone in it but then she finds the secret garden and soon starts to realise all is not as it seems with her new home.

Reflecting on this story as an adult it strikes me that it follows several Gothic traditions: the healing power of nature, the spooky house and the mysterious noises. The entire story is shrouded in mystery, which I loved, as you try to unravel the secret of the garden and of Misselthwaite Manor with Mary. The suspense is well built keeping you reading desperate to find out what will happen but at the same time you never fear for Mary’s safety; the balance is perfectly struck for children.

It is also a story about finding love. Mary’s contrary ways are a result of the lack of affection that she suffered at the hands of her parents in India, and her Uncle’s cold nature is due to his own heartbreak. The garden brings the family together and we leave the story confident that they will all live happily ever after. It is a sentimental ending I admit but what else can you expect from a piece of Edwardian children’s literature? I love it, it fits so nicely with the characters’ progression you almost feel as if they earned their happily ever after.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: children aged 9-13 (the language is a little archaic)

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The Big Read

Books from School – No.52 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

The first book that I had to read as part of my school curriculum. I studied Of Mice and Men for my GCSE English Literature exam and rather surprisingly I really enjoyed it; not that I mentioned that to my school friends at the time because you know “euch reading sucked!!”. Set in the Dust Bowl in America shortly after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Of Mice and Men follows the lives of two itinerant workers George and his intellectually disabled friend Lennie.

Oh God it’s a wonderful book. It is technically a novella and its structure is crucial to its storyline. At only six chapters long you can feel that every word is carefully chosen and every moment crucial to the story. Yet for such a short book so much is explored: race, gender, disability, revenge, jealousy, love; the entire human condition is examined in just over 100 pages. It is a book that needs to be examined in close detail to be appreciated for so much slips through the net of observation on first reading it. The animal references, at first appear trivial and then they morph into one of my favourite literary examples of foreshadowing.

The character’s names as well. At first you give them no notice and then with the information that George means farmer and Lennie derives from lion ever metaphor comes full circle in a way so satisfying it’s like a perfect cadence at the end of a piece of Baroque music.

I also wish to point out that I have never read a book with so many disabled characters in it. If every thing else is ignored this book could be interpreted as a criticism of the ill treatment of disabled people. Disability in the novella means insecurity, for Lennie, for Candy and for Crooks, not to mention Candy’s dog and Steinbeck gives a voice to those so frequently silenced or ignored completely.

It would be naive not to mention the context in which this book was written. Life was horrific for many in the Great Depression but especially in the Dust Bowl, where people lived entirely on ‘the fatta the land’ as Steinbeck calls it. When drought struck, desperate people were now not just impoverished but starving. And yet the characters in the book all have dreams, The American Dream you could say of living a quite life and bettering themselves. But Steinbeck never allows the reader to believe that there is any hope for the dreams of George and Lennie. Their destitution is so complete the audience never escapes the sense of foreboding that builds throughout the novella to its inevitable tragic end.

Rating: 4.5/5

Would recommend to: everybody

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The Big Read

Books from Childhood No. 66 – The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton

Now this was my kind of childhood book. Nothing much happens but there is a riot of imagination and adventure. When Rick goes to stay with his cousins Joe, Beth and Frannie (I just found out that they changed their names from Dick and Fannie because of the sexual connotations. Right like that wouldn’t have gone way over my head as a child) they take him to the enchanted wood to meet their friends in the magic faraway tree; a tree so tall that there are several different worlds at the top.

I remember very little of what happens and lots of my memories are jumbled together with the other books in the series. I know at some point there is fudge making and I seem to remember something about wanting to get off a roundabout but I have no idea whether that actually happened.

Growing up in the countryside I would always look at the enormous old trees near where I lived and wonder if Moon-face was up there with the Saucepan Man and whether I would be able to climb to the top and find out. I liked the idea that there was endless worlds just out of reach in the tree tops. I can’t remember any moral or message from this book so if there ever was one it was probably pretty lame; it was just fun.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: parents to read as a bed time story.

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