"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Filth by Irvine Welsh

Filth is told through the deluded eyes of sadistic, coke-addicted, and bipolar Detective Sergeant (though hopefully soon to be Detective Inspector) Bruce Robertson. A black man has been brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death with a hammer, and Bruce, keen to enjoy a Christmastime holiday of debauchery in Amsterdam but with no suspects yet to speak of, seeks to frame some thugs for the crime before the investigation threatens to eat into his vacation. His colleagues aren’t convinced by his unscrupulous approach however, and as difficulties in incriminating the chosen scum mount, the promotion Bruce so desperately craves begins to look more and more out of reach as his mental state begins to rapidly deteriorate.

Filth is a fascinating book about the harrowing mental decline of one man - Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson - but it’s not all as depressing as it sounds. The novel has fun with Bruce’s ‘filthy’ behaviour, and the first half of the book is very funny: it is full of sharp, infectious humour as we observe Bruce try to manipulate his way to the top by pitting his co-workers against one another, as well as banging hookers, snorting lines of cocaine, and working through his friends’ wives.

In this way, the novel has an almost cartoonish quality; it is a grotesque black comedy on the surface, but the deeper into the book we venture, the closer we get to the dark corners of Bruce’s mind as we come to realise how broken and lost he is. Filth is so much more than it initially appears to be: underneath the repulsive hilarity and dark humour, Filth is bleak, brutal and powerful.

The book is much more of a character study than a novel with a strong story; nonetheless Bruce’s intriguing and complex character effortlessly holds the novel afloat. The first person perspective means that the majority of the novel is written in Welsh’s trademark Edinburgh dialect, which I think adds a distinct immersive quality to the book, an’ althoogh this is tricky tae kin at first, it doesnae matter as ye will suin gie use tae it. Bruce is an unreliable narrator, but not through intent; he is deluded and confused, and the truths of his past and present are revealed to us and to him through an unusual narrative voice which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses: a tapeworm which resides within Bruce’s bowels. The tapeworm begins as a parasite with little conversational capacity, merely saying ‘eat’ over and over again for its first few appearances, but as the book gets deeper and darker, it gains a more fluent voice and helps Bruce to confront his trauma. The tapeworm distorts the text, feeding through Bruce’s perspective, like so:

Bruce himself epitomises the title of this book; his behaviour is filthy, but as the novel progresses the filthier he seems to become physically too - he develops tapeworm, he has an eczema rash ‘down there’, he never washes his trousers and he always comments on the horrid stink they exude, and his home falls into a messy disarray too. He is fun and I couldn’t help but like him, but at the same time he despicable and more than anything by the end he is a pitiful creature; I found him quite relatable in certain ways, although I’m sure many will just despise him. 

Filth has plenty of diverse and interesting characters. There's Bruce's boss Bob Toal who fantasises about writing a movie script, Peter Inglis, a colleague who Bruce suspects might be gay, and inexperienced co-worker Ray Lennox who loves cocaine and over whom Bruce holds a certain power since he knows he harbours an unusually small penis in his trousers. Then there’s Clifford Blades or ‘Bladesey’, an insecure and kindly Englishman and Bruce’s alleged best mate who accompanies him to Amsterdam. Bladesey suffers greatly from Bruce’s behaviour when Bruce decides to begin prank calling his wife - the voluptuous Bunty - pretending to be a pervert from Manchester, amongst another heinous acts committed against his friend.

Filth affected me deeply and is a new favourite of mine: it is very funny - especially Bruce and Bladesey’s trip to Amsterdam - it has an innovative narrative style, it addresses serious issues such as mental health, homosexuality and drug abuse, and it has a shocking, sad and harrowing finale which won’t fail to disturb. It manages to seamlessly mingle dark humour, poignancy and a bleak and gritty overtone to create a profoundly powerful novel that completely floored me. 

Rating: 10/10

My other Irvine Welsh reviews:

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell

Ada Goth is an only child and lives with her widowed father and an abundance of servants and ghosts in the enormous Ghastly-Gorm Hall. Ever since her mother died in a tight-rope walking accident, Ada’s father has developed the belief that children should be heard and not seen, forcing her to walk about the castle in ginormous clomping boots so that he can hear her coming. As such, it’s difficult for her to make friends, and she’s rather lonely.

One day William and Emily Cabbage come to stay at the Hall - the former enjoys chameleon-like powers and the latter is an avid painter - and together with Ishmael, the eponymous ‘ghost of a mouse’, Ada and her new friends set off to solve and foil the dastardly plot that the indoor gamekeeper is hatching before it’s too late!

Goth Girl is a really enjoyable little book, filled with references to plenty of classic gothic novels which adults will appreciate, such as Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper and Frankenstein.

The book itself is gorgeous: it is a small hardback filled with lovely illustrations by Riddell - who also illustrates several of Neil Gaiman's books - on almost every page, it is sewn at the spine, the inside cover is embossed with beautiful silver skulls and the pages are trimmed with a deep, metallic purple colour. There is also a ribbon bookmark, and a tiny book placed in a pocket inside the back cover, which is a poem detailing the memoirs of Ishmael the mouse.

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is a solid children’s story with spooky overtones and tons of delightful illustrations as well as much humour and peril, and some clever nods to gothic literature. The characters are diverse and entertaining, and there are lots of magical, unusual creatures that Ada and her friends encounter on their adventure; all of which make this beautiful little book a worthy venture for adults and children alike.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel I have been urged to read by my Aunty for years, but I never got round to it because it didn’t sound like my sort of book. I was very wrong! 

Set on the small Greek island of Cephalonia during World War 2, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is both a romance story and a bitter tale of the devastating consequences of war on a small community. Studying the effects of such destruction on a tiny island gives the novel the emotional and personal touch that makes this book so special. 

The story follows Dr. Iannis and his daughter Pelagia over a long period of time, following their lives both during and after the war. Pelagia becomes betrothed to the handsome young fisherman Mandras, but he leaves the island to fight and Pelagia’s letters to him go unanswered; fearing the worst, she finds herself instead falling for the Italian captain stationed on Cephalonia, a mandolin player named Antonio Corelli...

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a brutal, heartbreaking and honest story, but at the same time it manages to be sweet and poignant. Because the plot spans such a long time, the premise doesn’t reveal much about the events to come; it’s just the very beginning of this tragic yet beautiful story. The plot is enticing, albeit a little slow in parts - particularly when history-enthusiast Doctor Iannis details a lot of the island’s past. However there are also really lovely, almost anecdotal chapters (such as ‘Snails’) which are heart-warming as well as sweetly saddening since the characters we have grown to care so much about are all trying their best to remain positive, strong, and happy together despite meagre possessions and devastating circumstances.

The writing is beautiful and descriptive, seamlessly incorporating subtle humour. The characters are carefully crafted and wonderfully real. Mandras was my favourite, though I can’t say too much here about why this is; he is complex and fascinating and represents how damaging war can be on a person, as well as the theme of villainy and heroism. Pelagia is a strong, fiery woman who questions the role of the female in Greek society with her yearning wish to become a doctor; de Bernières addresses other controversies such as homosexuality in the military through the character of Carlos, adding multiple layers to this already awe-inspiring novel.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin blew me away: it is bitter, heart-warming, sad and romantic, with an addictive plot, real characters and gorgeous writing. Don’t wait like I did - just read it! 

Rating: 9/10

Thursday, 31 October 2013

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed opens with a haunting folktale, told in the form of a bedtime story by the impoverished Saboor to his children, Abdullah and his beloved little sister Pari, of a monstrous div who visits a poor household and demands one child from the father, or it will kill all of his offspring. The child is chosen and taken away in a sack. Years later, wracked with guilt and half-mad with anguish and sorrow, the father sets out on a quest to find his son, whom he finds living in luxury at the div’s palace, much better off than he would have been living at home, and with no memory of his original family. The story serves as something of a heartbreaking allegory; it swiftly becomes a nightmarish reality for the young siblings, as shortly after the tale is told, Saboor sells his small daughter to a wealthy family in Kabul.

The novel deviates somewhat from Hosseini’s first two novels in that it does not focus on one character alone, nor is it set mostly in Afghanistan. And the Mountains Echoed is instead reminiscent of a collection of short stories as each of the nine chapters rotates in perspective and follows characters all over the globe, from Afghanistan, to Paris, California and Greece.  

All of the separate narratives are linked by the devastating event that occurs at the beginning of the novel - the brutal separation of Pari and Abdullah - which forms the foundation of the main plot.

The novel begins strongly - Hosseini’s beautiful, lilting prose eases you into the tale, telling the story with a gorgeous simplicity. The folklore story of the div made for an innovative opening, and the tragic removal of little Pari so early on was reminiscent of the shocking and tearful events of both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns; I thought this was going to have me bawling.

Nonetheless, this is where the positive aspects end. The adoption of so many different voices meant Echoed lacked the depth of character that brought his first two books alive. Since the novel does not focus as much on the plight of one character, it is not as emotionally wrought or as intricate and personal. Some of the stories felt a little unnecessary - such as the one set in Greece - which was a touch boring, seemed to come to nothing, and had little to do with the main story. All I cared about was Pari and Abdullah; I was desperate to know if they would ever find one another again, and I think Hosseini might have benefited by focusing on this a bit more, as overall the plot is not very strong. 

What’s worse, this is the only Hosseini novel which has failed to make me cry! I think this is because it lacked the subtle complexities of his other two novels, as well as a character we get to know on a personal and emotional level. It is undoubtedly a sad book, but it is not as deep, meaningful or tear-jerking as I was hoping and expecting it to be. 

If you liked Hosseini’s first two novels, don’t expect quite the same with this. I was beyond excited when I heard Khaled Hosseini was releasing a new book, and although this one is - despite my grumbling - very good, it doesn’t have the same magic and emotion which make both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns so special. It’s definitely worth your time and is a solid novel, but if you’re new to Hosseini, I would recommend trying his other books to begin with. 

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 25 October 2013

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

NOS4R2 is an intelligent, thrilling and highly imaginative supernatural horror novel, which in spite of its title has nothing to do with traditional vampires; no, Charlie Manx’s leaching power is far more sinister and insidious. Manx drives around in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith which bears the license plate NOS4R2 (a reference to the vampire of the classic 1922 German silent-film enititled ‘Nosferatu’), capturing children after murdering their families to take them to a place called ‘Christmasland’. In Christmasland, it is Christmas every day and unhappiness is against the law; it is a place that exists solely inside Manx’s head, it is his ‘inscape’. Manx traps the children there forever and ever, stealing their life to retain his youth, leaving them as empty, soulless, hook-toothed monsters.

But other people have inscapes too, such as Maggie Leigh, who can read the future in her magic Scrabble tiles and the protagonist Victoria “Vic” or “The Brat” McQueen, who uses her inscape - a magic covered bridge - to find things which are irretrievably lost on her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike. As a child Vic encounters Manx, and is the only person to ever escape the Wraith, but now Manx is on the road again; Vic is desperate to forget, but Manx has not forgotten her, and he has acquired a new target - Vic’s own son, Wayne.

In NOS4R2, Joe Hill achieved something that most would consider to be impossible - to make Christmas into a scary concept. This inversion of an archetypal Christmas is very clever and I must salute Hill for his intelligence and inventiveness. The story is incredibly well thought out and interesting, and it is actually frightening. Manx’s ability to spirit children away into his own private inscape is chilling, as it is virtually impossible to retrieve anyone from Christmasland; the evil place existing only inside Manx’s mind. The transformation of the children into creepy little demons is also horrifying and visually written. There is a particularly unnerving part when Wayne has been kidnapped and is travelling to Christmasland with Manx, his teeth falling out to make room for the hooks, and some of the things he thinks are downright disturbing:

“Wayne waved. The little girl saw him and waved back. Wow, she had great hair. You could make a rope four feet long out of all that smooth, golden hair. You could make a silky golden noose and hang her with it. That was a wild idea! Wayne wondered if anyone had ever been hung with their own hair.”

Despite the inspired and twisted nature of the story and the sharp writing style, for me the characters let this book down a little: Vic’s personality in particular prevented me from really loving NOS4R2. I understand that Hill wanted her to be troubled and to highlight the difficulties of mental health issues, but I found her to be very self-pitying, whiney and overall quite unlikeable. She is also purposefully quirky and unconventional as a protagonist - for example her love of motorbikes and the fact that she’s covered in tattoos - as though this should make her interesting, but it doesn’t. Furthermore, this sort of character has already been done in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Although the concept of Christmasland and the creepy soulless children are terrifying, the villains themselves are not very scary. In fact they sometimes act like bumbling idiots - particularly Bing, or the Gasmask man, who works for Charlie Manx. Bing is an unhinged, sociopathic individual; he uses Gingerbread flavoured gas to put the parents to sleep and then will do with whatever he pleases with their unconscious bodies until he finally decides to kill them; he constantly yearns for Manx's approval. Manx for the most part seems like a rather jovial old man - albeit one who can turn at any second; he reminds me of a fairy-tale creature who can transform from an kind elderly woman into a wicked witch at whim. He genuinely seemed to think he was doing the kids a favour by taking them away from their parents, which makes him more mad than evil; he didn’t seem to have coherent motivations.

Furthermore, the book is long - nearly 700 pages, and it feels a little padded and not very well-paced; the story spans from when Vic is a little girl in 1986 all the way to present day, which means some parts are boring and drawn out. 

NOS4R2 does not live up to Horns, but it is enjoyable, clever and inventive. The characters were mostly lacking for me - except for Wayne and his father, the superhero fanatic and horrendously overweight Lou - and it is too long. Nonetheless, NOS4R2 manages to be both a horrifying story and emotionally rich at the same time. The writing is engaging, the concept is spine-chilling, and the story is captivating.

Rating: 8/10

My other Joe Hill reviews: