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Thursday, 18 July 2013

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

I was quite looking forward to this. Much as I like things with a bit of subtext to them, I am also a bit of a fan of gore and violence on occasion. So, with one of the goriest of Shakespeare's plays in front of me, how could I resist? 

The plot of Titus Andronicus starts in the days following the death of the Roman Emperor, with the deceased's sons, Saturninus and Bassanius, arguing about who should inherit their father's throne. Returning from war with the Goths with prisoners in tow, the eponymous Titus breaks up their argument, lending his support to Saturninus who is then crowned Emperor. So far so good. The newly crowned Saturninus then makes known his desire to marry Lavinia, Titus' daughter; at this point, Bassanius absconds with her, stating that she was already betrothed to him, accompanied by Titus' four sons. Bereft of his bride, Saturninus decides that instead of Lavinia, he will marry Tamora, the Goth Queen amongst Titus' prisoners. The same woman whose son Titus sacrificed in honour of his dead sons. I'm sure you can see why the prospects of Titus and his family aren't great from that point onwards. 
If you are going to read Titus Andronicus for anything, then I would say that it should be for the character of Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover. He is unashamedly evil, adding to the suffering of the Andronici with obvious glee. Highly unpleasant, but an absolute joy to watch: why else would he get all the great speeches? This is amply shown in Hugh Quarshie's performance in the BBC adaptation, so much so that I almost wanted him to win. Not quite, but almost. 
The adaptation overall was pretty solid, with decent make-up effects and very solid acting, especially from figures like Trevor Peacock and Edward Hardwicke. There was an odd focus on the largely incidental character of Young Lucius, although I can see that they were trying to show how much damage is done to the Andronici through him. I thought it was kind of moot though, considering what happens to Lavinia in the course of the play. 

Definitely worth watching or reading, so much so that I will be looking to get the Julie Taymor adaptation with Anthony Hopkins. Possibly not for those with weak stomachs, and especially those for whom rape is a no-go area. Otherwise I would definitely recommend it to Shakespeare fans. 4/5 

Next review: The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

I picked this up in Hay-on-Wye, I had no real preconceptions. I could just about gather that it was a fantasy novel, but otherwise the blurb was spectacularly unhelpful. Now that I've finished it, I have very little idea of how to express what opinion it left me with.

The plot of Worldstorm is a tad difficult to explain, simply because the narrative doesn't really act like a traditional fantasy narrative. On the one hand, it does initially follow a quest-style fantasy narrative. In it, Elder Ayn, a scholar who has mastered the ability to see into his own future, sets out into the world with his scribe Khollo, in order to find a way to stop the destruction of the eponymous Worldstorm. To do this, he must find two additional companions: Gregory, a boy who has bucked the family trend by not having fire-based powers, and Yashu, an islander seemingly without powers of any kind. That seems straightforward enough, until I consider the pacing. In most novels, fantasy or not, the main characters are usually forced to team up within the first few chapters. Not so here; instead, it takes nearly 3/4 of the narrative to get everyone together. In the meantime, each of them are essentially having their own mini-adventures. Don't get me wrong, these aren't bad story-lines in and of themselves, they just didn't feel like they really should have meshed together as they did.
The characterisation and world-building are fantastic. Each of the main characters, as well as a few of the secondary characters that pop up, are fleshed out fantastically within a world that has been explored and thought out in incredible detail. The world is one where element-based powers are the norm, almost acting as races, with all the unfortunately inevitable tension that arises from their misunderstandings of one another. It is also a world blighted by the Worldstorm, an untiring storm that constantly travels across the globe, leaving destruction in its wake. The way these characters interact with the world is what kept me reading until the confusing and unsatisfying ending. First, there is Elder Ayn who has lived the majority of his life secluded in Stonehaven, an academic sanctuary for those with Air-Inclined powers; whilst there he realises that he is inherently dissatisfied with what he has achieved in life, prompting him to leave on a journey to destroy the Worldstorm. He initially appears to be solemn and dignified, but it soon becomes clear that he is an incredibly flawed man, often unable to see that what he sees as reasonable and justified is actually thoughtlessly cruel. Second is Khollo, a young man with the ability to remember everything from the age of 13 onwards with perfect clarity and accuracy. He's quite understated and quiet, but by the end he was my favourite by far, simply because of his good heart and intentions. Third, there is Gregory, a boy who finds that he has the Earth-based power of regeneration and heightened durability, despite having been born to a pure-bred family of Fire-Inclined. The sense of bitterness that he feels for being sent away after his family find out about his abilities is entirely understandable, and he is otherwise an admirable character who is easily the one who suffers the most by the end. Finally, there is Yashu. She's probably the only character that I felt was horribly misused. Her characterisation is brilliant, that of a no-nonsense and practical girl who is nonetheless incredibly sheltered. I just think that her character had so much potential that wasn't used. In order to explain, I will need to spoil the ending somewhat. You're free to skip if you want.

So, at the start it looks like Yashu exhibits no powers, a state of being that the majority of society look down on. It turns out though, that she just happens to have a different inclination to that of the other people on the archipelago that she lives on: while other people have Water-based powers, she can tell when people are lying, a power that is associated with Air. As a power, there are so many things that you can do with that. Unfortunately, it's pretty much ignored, used only as a means to make her an opposite of Gregory. And then she gets pretty much reduced to a baby-maker. I appreciate that one of the wonderful things about being a woman is the ability to create life, I get that. But at the same time it frustrates me that you can boil down Yashu's role to one of "she got pregnant", when she could have had so many other interesting adventures. It's kind of a pet peeve.

Overall, this is a novel that has a lot of good things that helped me finish reading it. Unfortunately, it has just as many bad things, meaning that I can only look at it and think how it could have been so much better. Ultimately, it started off well, but the author just failed to bring the characters' individual stories together in a satisfactory way. 3/5

Next review: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis

This was a weird purchase for me. I'm more familiar with David Thewlis' work as an actor, specifically his work in the Harry Potter films, so when I found out that he'd written a novel I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like what I've seen of him. On the other, I only knew him as an actor, so there was no real guarantee of whether he'd be as good in a different profession. But I decided to pick it up anyway, because I've started reading something on far worse expectations before.

The Late Hector Kipling is an odd book, to say the least. It follows the catastrophic fall of the eponymous Hector Kipling, an artist known for painting giant heads. He starts the novel in that odd place found by those who are moderately successful: famous enough that the name rings a bell, but not quite successful enough to be widely known and discussed. In comparison, he has two other artist friends: Kirk Church, a failed artist obsessed with painting cutlery, and Lenny Snook, an artist up for the Turner Prize (and very much in the vein of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). So far, so innocuous. It is only when Kirk announces that he has a brain tumour that Hector's life starts to spiral out of control.
The characters populating this book tend to fall into one of two categories: unlikeable or just kind of bizarre. In the first category, there is Hector himself, as he manages to single-handedly destroy his whole life through the combination of selfishness, cowardice and a weird apathy and detachment towards others. He is not wholly detestable though, which helps things hugely. Most of the other characters tend to fall more in the bizarre category, simply because of their oddly two-dimensional natures. This might be because of Hector's strange outlook on things though, which could bring up some interesting discussions.
As to who I would recommend this to, there are a few things to consider. The writing is, on the whole, pretty damn good. It can get a bit overly-snobbish when it comes to art, but then that fits Hector's character as a second-rate artist. At the same time, it does have quite a bit of bad language, which may bother some. And overall, there are some very strange, if interesting, metaphors sprinkled liberally through the narrative. So there's that to consider. If you're on the fence, I would say give it the benefit of the doubt. I would definitely recommend it if you've been looking for an author similar to Will Self, although I would say that David Thewlis is perhaps more accessible than Self is.

A part of me is still a little nonplussed by The Late Hector Kipling, but I am definitely glad that I read it. I'd try it if you're a Will Self fan, or if you're trying to work yourself up to him. If I were to see more of Thewlis' work, then I would be more than happy to read it. 3.5/5

Next review: Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

Signing off,