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

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?