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

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mini Reviews #1: A Trio of Non-Fiction Treats

Hi everyone. In order to get rid of some of my backlog of reviews I’ve decided to release a series of mini-reviews. These will be, for the most part, shorter reviews than I’ve previously written and one post will feature similar books contained within one long post. This way I hope to churn out reviews a bit quicker, as well as reviewing some older books I’ve read without having to worry about going into as much detail as one my regular reviews would require, but still giving you an overall gist of the book. 

Your Voice in my Head by Emma Forrest

Your Voice in my Head is a frank and somewhat eccentric memoir of a young writer’s struggle with bipolar illness. Ostensibly a tribute to her psychiatrist, Dr R., Forrest’s account begins with his untimely death and how this affected her and her disorder.

The book is very much focused on her illness, yet it is neither a self-help book nor a survival manual: no advice is given, but it does help to create a sense of normalcy for those who have experience with mental illness and in particular those with bipolar disorder or depression. The first-hand account of a bipolar sufferer was interesting, insightful and disturbing, with Forrest discussing in detail self-harm and suicide attempts. Forrest’s writing is beautiful and alluring; her descriptions of the disorder are beautifully wrought and resonant:

“Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead things floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips. You stay completely still because you’re so afraid of what is brushing your leg (even though it could be nothing because your mind is already gone).”

Nonetheless, I would have preferred a memoir of this sort from someone who wasn’t semi-famous: Emma Forrest was already a published author by the time she moved from England to America, and much of her account describes her glamorous celebrity lifestyle in L.A., as well as her famous boyfriends, about whom I became tired of reading.

Your Voice in my Head offers a rare glimpse inside the mind of a manic-depressive, but at the same time it is a little self-indulgent and becomes a little repetitive. It is certainly not a book that everyone will enjoy: the subject matter is disturbing and can be upsetting, and people with no interest in mental illness will not find much of interest here. Nonetheless, Emma Forrest is an engaging and honest writer and her insightful memoir is worth a look, particularly if you or someone you know is a fellow sufferer.

Rating: 7/10

A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI by Graham Chapman

A Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI (although this is in fact the only volume…it’s getting very silly already, Chapman’s Colonel will be along any moment…) is a fictionalised account of the life of Graham Chapman, probably most famous for being a member of the Monty Python troupe before his premature death in 1989. The ‘autobiography’ covers Chapman’s time at Cambridge and his involvement in the comedy club Footlights, as well as his medical career and through his time as a Python.

The book does have its comic moments but it is rather rambling as well as lacking a coherent narrative and time structure. Further, in true Chapman form the book is very very silly and oftentimes it is tricky to separate fact from fiction. These factors make the memoir quite difficult to read except in short bursts.

Unfortunately there is very little about Monty Python found within the pages, which is perhaps a missed opportunity to unveil some interesting tales of the comedy troupe and its inner workings. Chapman’s stories and anecdotes instead focus largely on sexual antics or things of complete randomness.

A Liar’s Autobiography is not for everybody but for any serious Monty Python fan it is essential reading. It is very silly and strange, but at the same time it is a fine glimpse into the disordered mind of this intelligent loony.

Rating: 6/10

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin

From one Python to another, Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days is Palin’s account of his travels around the world in emulation of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. The book is a companion to Palin’s TV series, also entitled Around the World in 80 Days – which aired in 1989. In keeping with the novel, Palin decides not to travel by aeroplane, and instead relies mostly on trains and ships. This leads to some frustrating instances for our narrator when several modes of transport are heavily delayed among other obstacles which lead him to trail behind the fictional Fogg for most of his journey.

Palin’s writing is flowing, friendly and personal. He is so likeable and funny; reading about his adventures feels like he is in front of you narrating it first-hand. Palin has a talent for attracting all sorts of strange and interesting people wherever he goes, leading to some fantastic anecdotes and funny situations. The book has lots of lovely high quality photographs of Palin’s travels to accompany the text, adding a personal touch. 

One flaw, which admittedly could not be avoided due to the nature of this particular travel book, is that he hurries through most places in order for him to reach his goal in 80 days. It would have been nice to see him explore places a little more and become more fully immersed in the numerous different cultures – but this is something I shall look forward to in his other travel books.

I had never read a travel book before, but this was a great introduction and I will definitely be reading more of Palin’s books as well as other pieces of travel literature.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

An Apology

Hello there, dear readers. Long time no post!

I'd like to apologise for the absence of book reviews since January. I have been suffering from health problems which meant I had to apply for an extension for my MA, which was originally due to finish in December. As a result I've had little time for reading and have not had the time or felt up to writing any reviews. I like to put a certain amount of effort into the reviews I write and I have not had the time or the energy to do the books I've read any justice.

But on the plus side, I have now submitted my MA thesis so you can look forward to some brand new reviews very soon, and they will (hopefully) be regular now.

I've read some really fab books this year and I can't wait to tell you all about them. However, I have lots of books left over from 2013 which I haven't reviewed yet due to the aforementioned issues; unless I receive any requests from you, I might leave most of them reviewless since a fair amount of time has now passed since I read them. So let me know in the comments if there are any books from 2013 you would particularly like to hear about, and I'll do my best - you can see a list of books I've read by year here.

Thank you all for your patience and thanks for reading.

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Once and Future and King is a sprawling medieval fantasy tale of magic, knights, romance, heroism and betrayal. The story follows Wart, the future King Arthur, beginning with his childhood and years of tutelage from the great wizard Merlyn all the way until his death.

It is split into five books: (The Sword in the Stone; The Witch in the Wood; The Ill-Made Knight; The Candle in the Wind; The Book of Merlyn) which are hit and miss, each one being quite different in tone and focus and are essentially different stories told within the greater framework of Arthur’s life. For example, The Sword in the Stone details Wart’s lessons with Merlyn in which he is transformed into numerous animals – including a hawk, an ant, and a badger - in order that he might learn lessons from these creatures to prepare him for the role of King, such as the senselessness of war from a wise and peaceful goose:

“But what creatures could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?”

This book is light-hearted and playful in tone and is the funniest section of this grand tale, demonstrating some witty humour; even so, Merlyn’s moral lessons do become a little tedious and being about 220 pages it does drag a little.

The second book, The Witch in the Wood, in which the knights which will cause Arthur’s eventual downfall are introduced –Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, bored me to tears and is rather uneventful. Following this, The Ill-Made Knight which chronicles the doomed love affair between Arthur’s wife, Queen Guenever, and his best knight – the virginal, loyal and hideously ugly Sir Lancelot, is brilliant and is my favourite book by far. The conflicted and self-loathing character of Lancelot is fascinating to read about: the book combines elements of forbidden love and heroic adventure, making for a compelling and tragic tale.

Like the individual books, the characters are hit and miss. There are a lot of them, and not all of them are well drawn; Guenever and several other characters lack personality. However others - such as Lancelot and Arthur - are troubled, very human and offer a depth of complexity in their characterisation, making their development throughout the story quite riveting. Merlyn is another fantastic character, who is actually living through time backwards, so he gets younger as the tale progresses. The main negative to this sweeping epic is that it is a little heavy-going; it’s long (approximately 800 pages) and although the language is lovely and often poetic, in places it is quite old-fashioned and verbose, making for a difficult read at times.

The Once and Future King is one of the iconic fantasy novels, and rightly so. The numerous stories contained within its pages are full of imagination, peril and enchantment with several very human characters and numerous tidbits of wisdom. Even though The Once and Future King is not an easy book to digest, finishing this essential fantasy epic is very rewarding and well worth the effort.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting is similar to Filth in the way that it is bleak, gritty and depressing - but at the same time has a throbbing vein of dark comedy running through it. It follows Mark Renton and his group of friends, most of whom are heroin addicts - Sickboy, Begbie (not a junky, but a terrifying and violent psychopath), Tommy and Spud - amongst several other acquaintances. 

I found Trainspotting to be less entertaining than Filth on the whole, but it was a novel which affected me deeply and left me thinking about it for days after I’d finished it. The story of one character – Tommy – is devastating and utterly heart-breaking; to my surprise Trainspotting is quite a sad book once you strip back the layers of dirtiness and black humour. It is preoccupied with the horrifying consequences of drug abuse, covering a range of conventional outcomes such as the burden to one’s family to more severe problems such as limb amputation, the contraction of HIV, and even death. 

Trainspotting is a difficult read at times for numerous reasons. Rather than having a coherent, straight-forward narrative, it is composed like a collection of short stories with overlapping characters and which are all connected by the 80’s heroin culture in Scotland. It is written in Welsh’s trademark Scottish dialect, though the language seemed to me to be ‘more Scottish’ than it was in Filth, however there is some reprieve in the form of several third person perspective chapters; the language that Welsh adopts in his novels should not put a reader off – it is innovative and does not detract from the books but rather renders his novels more immersive. Finally, there are loads of characters: I spent a long time at the beginning trying to figure out who was who and who was doing what because most of the numerous characters have several nicknames. The chapters rotate between characters, which adds to this confusion, but it also ensures that we get a comprehensive view of the junky lifestyle. I found the characters difficult to connect with, but they are for the most part well drawn and interesting to follow. 

Irvine Welsh has thoroughly impressed me a second time round; Trainspotting is an entertaining and funny yet emotionally raw, affecting and brutal novel that I will never forget.

Rating: 8/10

My other Irvine Welsh reviews:

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A Year of Books: 2013 & 2014 Reading Goals

Happy New Year everyone! Sorry I’ve been rubbish at producing regular reviews recently but I have had several work and uni commitments which have kept me very busy, among other things. I will try to remedy the hideous backlog of reviews I have waiting from 2013 as soon as possible.

2013 was a great reading year for me. I didn’t read a single book I really disliked, read several I absolutely loved, I beat my Goodreads reading challenge by one book, and I discovered a new favourite author – Irvine Welsh.

First of all let’s look at my top 5 reads of 2013 (excluding short stories and re-reads):
5. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

and my favourite book I read last year was...

I have a huge list of books that I’m eager to read in 2014. Firstly, I want to get through some books I've had for yonks but haven't got around to reading yet, rather than always buying new ones. Theses are novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Beach, Don't Look Now and Other Stories, and Good Omens. I’m also keen to read more translated fiction – on my list I have a few Russian novels, such as: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky; The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I also have lots of Japanese books waiting to be read, including: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark and after the quake - all by Haruki Murakami; The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto; Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata; The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe and Real World and The Goddess Chronicle, both by Natsuo Kirino.

And of course, I’m hankering after some more Irvine Welsh after reading the amazing Filth and Trainspotting in Autumn. Sitting on my shelf at the moment are Reheated Cabbage, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Crime and Porno

I’d also like to make an effort to read more classics this year, as I read pitifully few in 2013, and one was a re-read (Jane Eyre). So on top all the Russian ones listed above, I’m thinking I should try another of Charlotte Brontë’s works, and one of Anne Brontë’s. And I also want to read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins since I meant to get round to that last year but never did, as well as attempting another Jane Austen: after my unsuccessful encounter with Pride and Prejudice some years ago, I think I should give her another chance.

 And finally, I’m going to try to read some non-fiction because I never ever read it: I’ve had Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot sitting on my shelf for years, and Emma Forrest’s bipolar memoir Your Voice in my Head is likewise calling to me. I recently purchased Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-79 The Python Years and Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography after I managed the secure some tickets to Monty Python Live (mostly): One Down, Five to Go, both of which I’m keen to read before I see the show in July.

What were your favourite books of 2013? Do you have any titles you are particularly keen to get through this year?