Man vs Bookshelf: Grandpa’s Great Escape

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

After struggling to get through Good Omens in the allotted time, I wanted to dive into a quick read.

I choose Grandpa’s Great Escape. It may look beefy, and weigh in at over 450 pages, but don’t let that fool you. It is, after all, a kiddies book, and thus utilises BIG words and plenty of pictures.

So I intended it to pose no problems, and it didn’t, as I raced through it in three days.

Nice and easy.

So what did I think?

David Walliams and Me

If you had asked me twelve years ago if I could see Little Britain’s David Walliams writing successful children’s books I would have asked you who you were and what you were doing in my school.

Totally inappropriate.

I suppose it’s not that weird to think that David Walliams is now writing children’s books.

Yes, Little Britain and Come Fly With Me were utterly inappropriate for kids, but that kind of irreverent toilet humour is ripe for translation into the type of books David Walliams now writes.

So, when I heard Walliams was writing fab kid’s books, I wasn’t surprised. Not only that, but I was keen to give them a go.

Now, full disclosure, I’m not a child.

Well, not in a legal sense, anyway.

Nor do I know any children to whom I could read these stories. But, if you think kids books are for kids and kids alone, you are a poop (ha!)

Kids fiction is at its best when it works on two levels. One for adults, one for kids. After all, it’s the adults that read the books to their kids, so it has to work for them.

And, when it’s top notch, it transcends age boundaries altogether.

Remember, Harry Potter was a kids book once.

(If you haven’t heard of Harry Potter, it is a series of books about a boy wizard. It was initially intended for children but has achieved a reasonable level of success across all age groups in the past twenty years, having sold at least forty trillion copies.)

So I was ready to give Walliams a go, and my girlfriend was kind enough to buy me three of his stand-alone stories. The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny, and Grandpa’s Great Escape.

Grandpa’s Great Escape

‘Grandpa’ was the third of the three Walliam’s books I read.

Set in the 1980’s, it is the tale of Jack and his Grandpa, a World War II pilot who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. When Jack’s parent feel they can no longer look after Grandpa, he is moved to the old people’s home, Twilight Towers, run by Miss Swine.

When it becomes clear that Miss Swine is mistreating her wards for person gain, Jack must help his Grandpa make a daring escape. An escape that, if successful, will give Grandpa a final chance to relive his past and once again take to the sky in his beloved Spitfire.

As with Gangsta Granny and The Boy in the Dress, this is a fast-paced, exciting read, and ‘Grandpa’ is certainly the most action-packed book of the trio, racing from set piece to set piece without ever losing the heart of the novel.

It’s also – as the others were – funny. There’s plenty here for kids – fart and poop jokes – but also for adults. The sly humour that kids won’t notice and only adults will get. Always very well done.

Based on humour and pace alone, it’s easy to see why children and parents have fallen in love with Walliams’ books, but there is something else he achieves in his writing I find so impressive.

Dealing with ‘adult topics’.

I don’t read a lot of children’s fiction, but I imagine many writers shy away from the issues Walliams utilises in his books.

The story of Grandpa’s Great Escape is all about Jack helping his Grandfather escape the horrible old people’s home – Twilight Towers.

This, alone, makes for a great story, but it’s the framework, and the heart of the tale, that really sets it apart.

See, as mentioned above, Grandpa is inflicted with Alzheimer’s. Now, this is a horrible illness, and one I can imagine is difficult to convey to children in a way they can understand.

Walliams’ does it brilliantly. It is not shoehorned in as some idealistic message, tacked on to the story. It is the story. It drives the plot along. Nothing happens if not for Grandpa’s illness, and we, the reader, are never left in any doubt that this is the case.

What is particularly touching is that, given Grandpa’s condition, grandson Jack is the only one who can communicate with him. By learning to live in Grandpa’s memories with him, Jack can help grandpa more than anyone else. He coaxes the elder down from great heights when he – grandpa – believes he is in his Spitfire and he – Jack – understands that, just because Twilight Towers is not Colditz Castle, does not mean it is not a horrible place, worth escaping.

This entangling of adventure and illness sets up a beautiful – and emotional – finale, which I won’t ruin here. But is thoroughly earned and the perfect culmination of everything that has gone before.

I’m not ashamed to say; it would make some people teary.

Not me though. I’m well manly, and this isn’t Lion King.

No matter how popular Walliams gets, a lot of people will be put off these books because of Little Britain, or Come Fly With Me, or because you’re not a twelve-year-old boy.

Don’t be put off.

Pick up a Walliams book.

Give it a go.

You won’t regret it.

“Hang on, before you go…”

Yes, yes, yes, I know what you’re going to ask, why did I give it a 3/5 on Goodreads?

I don’t know, to be honest. I probably should have given it a 4. If it had been a ten point scale I would have given it a seven.

Hey, have I mentioned how much I hate Goodreads’ five-point scale before?

Next Time

We’re going away from fiction next time out as I will be reading the first of two Brian Clough autobiographies I have.

I hope I’m reading the first released, but it’s hard to tell.

See you then!

Man vs Bookshelf: Horowitz Horror

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Last Thursday, when I began my Man vs Bookshelf challenge, I said I was going to start with Lisey’s Story by Stephen King.

This turned out to be a lie.

Not that I intended to be dishonest with you so early into the challenge.

I even had Lisey’s Story out ready to read.

Then I wrote my intro post and went through to my bedroom where I had left the book, ready to begin.

And I stopped.

There it was, back cover pressed against the bedside table and front stretching towards the sky. Almost touching the ceiling.

Okay, not that far, but it’s a big book, is my point. Some 667 pages (give or take) and I was afraid.

The point of this challenge is to do 210 books in 210 weeks, and I am not fool enough to think it will fall simply as that. Some books will take much less than their given week. Some (like The Stand or Game of Thrones) will take much longer.

Lisey’s Story, I knew, could well fall into the latter category. This is fine in principle, but not from the start.

I had visions of being down by week two, and how I might react. I hate losing and could see myself tearing down my bookshelf and setting fire to it. A much more dramatic end to the series but one less satisfying in the long run.

No, this series was going to be Sam Mendes, not Michael Bay.

So, leaving Lisey’s Story where it was, I returned to my bookshelf and looked for something I could read in a couple of days. Something which would earn me the time I needed to finish Lisey’s Story without falling behind.

In the end, I went for Horowitz Horror. By, surprise surprise, well known English author, Anthony Horowitz.

So, let’s talk about that, shall we?

Anthony and Me

Before I dive into my thoughts on the book, I’d like to talk about my relationship with the author. As an author that is, not as a person.

In short, it’s variable.

Like a lot of guys who grew up in the 90s, I’ve been reading Anthony Horowitz for a long time. His Alex Rider series began when I was 8 and ran through my teenage years. I read (but no longer own) the first six of those and always had mixed thoughts about them.

The plots were good. They were exciting. They always finished with a bang. But I considered them to sag a little in the middle. I’ve often found that in a Horowitz series, the descriptions can seem a bit slow and overwritten.

I remember one scene (and I no longer remember which Rider book it was from) when Alex spent a whole chapter walking around a boat doing not much.

I almost fell asleep.

Then there was the Gatekeeper series, which started in 2005. I loved the first of these (Raven’s Gate) but after that struggled with how slow they were. I think I got part way through four and quit.

But it’s not all bad. Recently I read The Switch, which was fast-paced, smart, and a great read all through.

And of course, we have the Diamond Brothers Series, the first of which came out before I was even born. These have been on my shelf for over a decade, and are still there now.

As they will become part of Man vs Bookshelf, I won’t talk too much about them. I will just say, they’re brilliant. Quick, clever, and funny, whether you’re twelve, twenty-five, or ninety. I’ll be reading and re-reading them my whole life I imagine.

Horowitz Horror

Given this breadth of enjoyment across Horowitz’s books, I went into Horowitz Horror (which I’ve not read before) unsure what to expect, but excited to find out.

In the end, I gave Horowitz Horror a 3/5 on Goodreads. It was an easy read. The pacing was good with nothing unnecessary thrown in.

The problem was there often wasn’t much substance. You can say it’s down to length but plots often felt rushed, and this isn’t the case in all short stories.

My other general problems with the series were that it wasn’t frightening, and was often predictable.

Maybe it’s not scary because it’s for younger readers, but I remember being 12. I would have wanted this book to scare me. As I wanted it to scare me as an adult.

As for predictability, each story ended with a reversal or twist. The problem was you could usually see these coming a mile off. Again, I’m an adult, but I’m not sure these would fool many 12 year-olds either.

But, I don’t want to put the series down. There were some decent tales in here and a couple of twists that did take me by surprise.

So, let’s get into it, starting with…

  1. Bath Night

We open with a story that is well written and paced. Two arguing parents buy an antique bath which turns out to be evil. Isobel (our hero) realises this and attempts to destroy the haunted object.

The story employs a well-worn horror cliche: an object haunted by a killer who once used said object when murdering his victims. How a killer has come to haunt an object they owned is rarely explained by horror writers. Horowitz is not an exception.

There is also the classic YA/Children’s fiction cliche on show here. The evil object only acts up in front of the child, never the parents.

In Bath Night, Isobel is bathing in blood but, when her mother enters the room, it’s back to water.

Dick move, bath. Dick move.

This doesn’t make sense from a plot point of view. The killer is a killer. He has no reason to torment only the child. However, you can understand why writers have so long been using this trick. It keeps the kid isolated, and helps build the suspense. If you can suspend your disbelief, it works well again here.

What doesn’t work so well is the lack of roadblocks the character faces. In fiction writing, they say you should put your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, then let them down. In Bath Time, and many of the stories in this collection, there aren’t enough rocks.

For Isobel, a couple of horrible incidents (including the above) are enough. She heads back to the shop where they purchased the bath and, lo and behold, the first shop assistant she speaks to gives her what she needs. No fight. No needing to check. No lies. He just tells her the bloody history of the bath and sends her on her way.

Of course, this is to keep the story short and helps to contextualise the climax that follows. A climax that, while exciting to an extent, offers little surprises or obstacles for Isobel.

All in all a good story but not much thinking necessary. Don’t expect this to change further down the line.

Out of the collection, this is our Bronze Medal story.

2. Killer Camera

Recently I read Goosebumps’ Say Cheese and Die (released six years before Horowitz Horror).

Killer Camera is in much the same vein as that and is as predictable.

From the moment our hero, Matthew, sees the camera, you know it’s going to be evil. It doesn’t take the seller of the camera saying the owner’s disappeared for you to know bad things will happen to the subject of any pictures.

Like the first story, this is fast-paced. The problem is we want to see the camera in action, and Horowitz goes to some lengths to avoid a human subject. To the point that it just doesn’t ring true.

When Matt first buys the camera and wants to test it out, he doesn’t pick a person at random to photograph; he picks a mirror (which promptly smashes).

When Matt then gives the camera to his dad as a present, the latter professes it is too dark to take a picture of younger son Jamie. This would be fine if not for the fact he then takes a picture of a tree in the garden and the family dog.

Is the tree filled with lanterns? Does the dog have a radioactive glow?

It isn’t explained why it is too dark to take a picture of Jamie but not a dog and tree, and it was a point I found jarring.

However, if you can suspend your disbelief (a common theme in this collection), then there is a lot to like here. Not least the well-executed race against time climax which sees Matt return home to find his parents and brother have gone out with the camera.

Desperate to save them, he races to find them, and the story ends with a nice twist which is clever, dark, and suitably surprising.

3. Light Moves

The first of two first-person stories. A lot here is the same as the first couple of stories. What’s different is that the object of focus does not appear to be inherently evil. In fact, it begins as downright useful.

This time our object is a computer, given to our hero (Henry) after it’s owner (a racing correspondent) has died at his desk.

Not being an axe murderer (Bath Night) or a satanist (Killer Camera) the possessed computer seems less interested in murder. Instead, the ghost of journalist Ethan starts spitting out the winner of one horse race a day.

Why does the columnist’s death give him precognitive powers?

Who knows, maybe the afterlife is timeless. It’s never explained, so we suspend our disbelief again.

In doing this, we have a story that rattles along. The tips work, but Henry is too young to bet. Because of this, he enlists the help of deranged older kid, Bill, to place the bets for him, splitting the winnings.

This, as Henry’s smart friend Leo warns him, is a terrible idea. It is clear from his first appearances that psycho Bill is not someone you want to do business with. But Henry, blinded by greed, is not apt to listen to the warning bells in his head, or to Leo.

Such disregard for the warning signs leads to a climax in which Bill comes to steal the computer. Not much happens here, and the disappointing thing is that our hero steps aside and lets it happen. All this to facilitate a twist we saw coming.

This story is not awful, but neither is it as good as the first two. It has a weak ending, and as in previous tales, some of the devices for moving the plot along are clunky.

How does Henry find out what the word ‘Casablanca’, the first to appear on his screen, means? He walks past two teachers, one telling the other he won money on the horse Casablanca.

Hmm, very likely.

4. The Night Bus

One of a couple of tales where the story is the twist and the twist very good.

Two boys trying to get home after a late night party jump on a night bus which is, alas, not the one from Harry Potter.

The story is nothing more than one of the boys – Nick – watching people get on and off the bus, each arrival further spelling out the twist we got from their first conversation with the conductor upon arriving at the bus.

As such, when this twist is finally ‘revealed’ by the mother, no one is very surprised or interested.

5. Harriet’s Horrible Dream

As above, we all know what’s coming here from very early on. This story has more substance but signals the first of three unbearable POV characters.

In a row.

Now, I’m all for an anti-hero, and characters we ‘love to hate’. Frank Underwood and Patrick Bateman immediately spring to mind.

This story, however, gives us Harriet. A spoilt snobby little girl who revels in getting her nannies fired and who is happy to leave her parents for a stranger the moment her father loses all their money.

The intention here, presumably, is to get us to hate Harriet for reasons that become clear at the end of the tale.

It works, but sitting in Harriet’s head for 18 pages is still an intolerable experience. Especially when we know where we are going the whole time and are not surprised when we reach the end.

6. Scared

The second of three stories with a thoroughly unlikeable main character.

This tale’s only saving grace is that we are stuck in Gary’s head for just 11 pages – making it the shortest of the book.

In those 11 pages, Horowitz treats us to a laundry list of terrible things our ‘hero’ has done. Ranging from being generally awful to his mother and grandmother, to opening a farm gate in the hope the cows will escape.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gary admits to having stolen his favourite jacket from AN OXFAM SHOP.

Yeah, Horowitz really wanted us to hate this one.

The story itself is about Gary getting lost after going for a walk. You may not see the ending coming, but neither is it enjoyable. There is no climax, no excitement. Just an underwhelming end.

I would give this tale the esteemed Worst Story Award.

7. A Career in Computer Games

The final (thankfully) hateful character. Here we have an idiot thief whose crimes include (but are not limited to) stealing from his mother and throwing a brick at a cat for no reason.

What a champ.

The story involves our ‘hero’ – Kevin – signing up to test a new game.

It’s evident from the get-go something dodgy is going on, but Kevin isn’t bothered. He hears two grand a week, and signs on the dotted line.

The story from here is as you’d expect. His life becomes a game, and this gives Horowitz the chance to have some fun. He treats us to the most action-packed plot so far as Kevin tries to stay alive against numerous faceless killers on foot, bikes and in helicopters.

There’s not much more to it than that, but the ending involved an enjoyable twist. Yes, he’s in a game, as you expected, but perhaps not in the way you expected.

Not a great story in all, but the action and the last lines bring it well above the two that preceded it.

8. The Man with the Yellow Face

The second of two first-person stories. A boy waiting at a platform gets some pics at a Photo Booth. Upon printing the photos, he finds the third of four pictures is not of him at all, but of an ugly man with a yellow face.

This story proves that lack of pages does not mean a lack of suspense. Horowitz foreshadows the climax brilliantly here, and my heart pounded as I read towards it.

The twist I guessed, but only moments before the reveal, and it was still satisfying.

This story proves it is possible to be clever and build suspense, even over only a few pages. Although the twist is not quite as good as the one to follow, this is still my favourite story.

Our Gold Award Winner.

9. Monkey Ear

A take on the classic tale ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (which is referenced here, albeit attributed to Edgar Allen Poe rather than W. W. Jacobs) but with a nice twist.

The story starts with a family on holiday and not enjoying it. Looking for a taxi rank, they step into a shop. Here the shopkeep’s nephew sells them a Monkey’s Ear, saying it will grant four wishes.

At home father, mother and son, place three wishes, although they don’t believe they will work.

In a way, the ear vindicates their disbelief. Something does happen after each wish, but it seemingly has nothing to do with the request made.

I confess this one got me. I could not for the life of me see how we were getting from wish to result. It was driving me mad.

In the end, and for the first time in this book, I needed the hero to spell it out to me. And, when the child Bart obliged, having worked it out himself after three wishes, I was impressed.

And there was still one wish to go!

Now, with the trick behind the Monkey’s Ear revealed, there is one more surprise in store as father and son fight over who should get the final wish.

Here Horowitz ends on a high point, with the best twist of the series coming right at the end. And this story, following our Gold Award, wins the Silver Medal.

Verdict

Nothing here will linger in the memory for long. But the series was an easy read and at least somewhat enjoyable throughout.

An excellent way to start the challenge (I started this on Thursday and finished Friday morning) I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads.

Up Next

Okay, this time, I promise, it’s time for Lisey’s Story.

As a big Stephen King book, I imagine this could be a world away from what I’ve just read.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Man vs Bookshelf: Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Over a three year period, my Uncle Colin gambled away everything he had. Home, pension, car. He even lost his wife after betting his daughter in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

He told me all this while sitting on my sofa; part of his plea to let him stay at mine for a while.

He said I would never understand what it was like to suffer an addiction.

But he was wrong.

I already have an addiction. I’ve just never admitted it before.

That changes today.

I’m addicted to buying books.

That’s right. Buying books. Not even reading them. I’m like an alcoholic who spends all his money on alcohol then just chucks the full bottles away. I’m surrounded by books I’ve never read. They’re piled high on my shelves. They litter my floor. They infest my dreams.

Until my uncle’s story, I’d never really considered this affliction. But his words had a powerful effect on me, and after I had sent him away to begin his life as a homeless person (no room to stay at mine, too many books), I decided it was time to face my addiction.

So here goes. A challenge to combat my problem.

I will not buy another book until I have read (or re-read) every single book in my flat.

It’s a daunting feat and will leave me a long time without engaging in my favourite hobby of buying books I’ll never read. But it’s necessary, and it gives me something to blog about, which is a bonus.

So it goes like this: 210 books, 210 weeks (that takes us to 2021 if you’re wondering).

Due to my eclectic tastes, the books are of all sorts from Stephen King to Darren Shan, from Anthony Horowitz to Douglas Adams, from Harlen Coben to David Walliams. I’ve got it all, and I’m going to read it all.

Some books I will love. Some will be meh. Some I will hate, but I’m going to get through them all. That’s the challenge.

And it begins today with a beefy book by Stephen King – Lisey’s Story.

Let’s get stuck in.