Yesterday was a tiring, but utterly triumphant 13 hour round-trip to the little town of Stratford-upon-Avon to watch what might be the greatest play of all time. Actually, scratch that – THE greatest play of all time. William Shakespeare’s magnum opus, King Lear, this time starring the great theatrical actor Sir Antony Sher at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For those of you who don’t know, King Lear is the story of a nation divided. It opens with an old king retiring with the intention of dividing Britain between his three daughters, according to which of them love them the most. His favourite, Cordelia, refuses to get embroiled in a war of words with her other sisters – Goneril and Regan, so is disowned. From then on, the entire play show the murky destruction of a land and the attempts of the old King to redeem himself even as he is overtaken by madness.
From an acting point-of-view, King Lear is often seen as the Everest of any career – the inescapable peak that has to be scaled. I’m reminded of the climber George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said “because it’s there.” Why does any actor want to play King Lear? Because it’s there. The part requires the actor to juggle multiple strands of character and storyline, while much of his backstory remains submerged in the unwritten past. Antony Sher certainly looks the part, with a wonderful grey beard and amorous wardrobe, but I sometimes felt he was too consistent in the role. He nails the madness and the humanist aspect of his character, and is overall pretty brilliant, though a part of me wanted to see more of the tyrant in Lear, particularly during the first scene and the legendary “Blow winds” speech.
What makes this particular production excel, however, is the strength of the entire cast and the epic scope of Gregory Doran’s staging. Paapa Essiedu, fresh from playing Hamlet for the RSC, is fantastic as the villainous bastard Edmund, while there is a definite roundness to the performances of Antony Byrne, David Troughton and Oliver Johnstone as Kent, Gloucester and Edgar. I also enjoyed Nia Gwynne as Goneril and Graham Turner as the fool. This is a big, complete play, and this version captures so many of the most important elements of the play brilliantly. The final scene, with Lear and Cordelia, is staged with genuine emotion and sadness. I really do highly recommend King Lear.
King Lear is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15th October before arriving at the Barbican in London for a month between 10th November and 23rd December.
After much thought and contemplation both on and off of twitter, I have decided that today’s blog post will be a rallying cry; encouraging YOU (yes, YOU!) to read my favourite book series of all time. And yes, that’s even with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in the mix.
So, let me first present some background information. The Belgariad is a five-book fantasy epic that was written by David Eddings (with a lot of help from his wife Leigh) between 1982 and 1984. This makes these books part of the traditional wave of medieval fantasy that seemed to sprung up after Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings. Some readers may view the books as cliched. I think that The Belgariad is anything but, and is in fact a glorious example of a book which helped to create the Fantastical tropes you see in pulp fantasy fiction nowadays. After he and his wife had written the series, they continued in creating a five-book sequel series: The Mallorean, and two prequels that were written between 1987 and 1998.
Now, you may be considering that a ten-book fantasy series is a fearsome opponent, but you have no need to fear. The Belgariad is actually quite easy to read quickly, and I can finish the first series in a week. The Mallorean can take a little longer, as the text is deeper and more sophisticated than the original five, but you can still read all ten books in a fortnight or so. I forced the book club which I run at school to read the first book in the series last year. Those who only read the first book thought it was good, but the guy who read the whole series fell in love with the world and characters like me.
So, what is The Belgariad about?
The blurb on my copy of The Belgariad: Pawn of Prophecy (the first and shortest book in the series), reads:
Long ago, the evil God Torak fought a war to obtain an object of immense power – the Orb of Aldur. But Torak was defeated and the Orb reclaimed by Belgarath the sorcerer. Garion, a young farm lad, loves the story when he first hears it from the old storyteller. But it has nothing to do with him. Or does it? For the stories also tell of a prophecy that must be fulfilled – a destiny handed down through the generations. And Torak is stiring again…
The Belgariad takes place in a well-lived world, with a plethora of characters and cultures appearing throughout the series. In each book, the novel distinguishes between the different lands while several maps inside the books also help to lower the info dump. Some of the nations that you would encounter throughout the series include: Cherek – who are essentially Vikings with bigger boats, Tolnedra – who bare similarities to the Roman Empire, the ever-warring Arendia – which sets itself in the medieval era; and the Angaraks – who could be compared to Far East Asia. The sole negative point about the books is that the attitude towards the Angaraks has not aged well. At the beginning of the series, there is a widespread paranoia about the Murgo (a branch of the Angarak culture) traders who are moving throughout the west. Later on the in the series, and we are effectively told that each and every Murgo is a spy – which seems a bit unfair, (though Eddings would correct this in The Mallorean).
So, why should YOU read The Belgariad? The Belgariad is the only book series to which I can commit myself to reading once a year, every year. I first read the books when I was ten or eleven, around the same time I first read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. While Tolkien’s writing style makes Eddings’ look like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Belgariad is written using the vocabulary that the main character, Garion, would use (and as he is fourteen when the adventure begins, we can’t assume him to be highly literate). The Belgariad is also re-readable because of the characters.
There are not a greater ensemble of entertaining characters than there are in The Belgariad. Garion is a more interesting protagonist than the vast majority of literary characters, as you seem him evolve throughout the series (while his awkwardness adds a very good sense of comic relief). Mister Wolf and Aunt Pol are also surprisingly funny as Garion’s much older guides, and the two’s constant father-daughter bickering is a delight to read. From the second book, you will also fall in love with the character of Ce’Nedra; but the scene-stealing award for best guy in the series goes to Silk. Silk counts spying, thieving and being an acrobat among his skills, and counts being the nephew to the King of Drasnia as an unfortunate occurrence which is kept as a hobby. The ‘banter’ between him and Mister Wolf is legendary. Silk comes with at least a hundred quotes of genius:
“I didn’t particularly feel like being arrested, so I argued with the soldiers a bit. Several of them died during the argument – those things happen once in a while. Unfortunately, one of the casualties was Taur Urgas’ oldest son. The king of the Murgos took it personally. He’s very narrow-minded sometimes.”
I would also say that The Belgariad features the best magic/sorcery system that I have seen in a book. Mister Wolf calls it the will and the word; and the process is elaborated on as the series progresses. Sorcery isn’t overused or starved of mentions, and Mister Wolf is more than capable of turning into his namesake.
I dare you to find a book that uses a more appropriate tone than The Belgariad. David Eddings doesn’t try to make the story funny; and it doesn’t use humour and fantasy in a tongue-in-cheek way that someone like Terry Pratchett might. The world and characters that Eddings has formed don’t make comedy on their own. A lot of the comedy comes from the different relationships between the characters. If you liked the banter between Legolas and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings films then you’d probably love The Belgariad; but Eddings doesn’t shy away from making big statements. Using his engaging tone and narrative voice, he is capable of evoking laughter on one page and tears on the next as the characters also encounter slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism.
The Belgariad may rarely appear on the lists of best fantasy series of the 20th century, but I think that it is a cult gem. You probably wouldn’t want to write an essay on the books, but they are a tremendous yarn. The second time I read the series, I was in floods of tears by the last pages of The Mallorean.
Having read this article, I am now encouraging you to get your hands on a copy of The Belgariad (try and read at least the first two books before making your mind up; as Pawn of Prophecy is incredibly short and simple) so that we can have a discussion about your thoughts of the series. If you’ve read the books before, leave a comment – am I right? Or am I completely wrong? (I would opt for the former)
WARNING – THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK THAT I AM REVIEWING (and ‘V for Vendetta’)
by Rohan Gotobed
There are two annoying things about ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (which will henceforth be known as TFIOS). The first is that it’s so good I feel forced to admire John Green even though he supports Liverpool Football Club (Man Utd are much better mate!) While the second is that the book will exist forever; therefore meaning that I will never ever be able to use my favourite book title for my own work. I admit that for the last day I have been articulating ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars; but in ourselves’ in a slight Irish accent.
Before I read the book I already knew a fare much about it from my sister and other nerdfighters across the interweb: that it was very sad, that it was very funny, and that Augustus Waters dies. Though it would have been interesting to read the book without this information it did mean I could notice the clever pieces of foreshadowing that John puts in before Gus reveals that he is dying to Hazel (more on that later).
Hazel Grace Lancaster is a normal 16 year old girl – driving, drinking champagne and watching America’s Next Top Model – except from the added factor that she has cancer and an incurable lung problem. I love the phrase ‘cancer perks’ which is repeated several times throughout the book though I’m annoyed that I’m just as old as Hazel yet won’t be able to drive for another year. We meet Hazel ‘in the heart of Jesus’ which we return to later in the book. This is where she first meets Augustus Waters (and also where she says goodbye). I’m not going to lie; Augustus is pretty damn cool despite the fact that he speaks like the 11th Doctor after reading the complete works of Shakespeare and Byron. If I didn’t know better I would’ve had a hard time trusting Augustus as he did seem a bit too nice. However, this was solved a little as it turns out the original reason that he likes Hazel is that she looks like his dead girlfriend. (Not as romantic when I put it like that, is it?)
Isaac is also cool despite the fact that I think a novel based on his life could eclipse TFIOS on comedy and tragedy. His relationship with Gus is never quite explained but their friendship helps to flesh out Gus and prove that he’s not just being a nice guy for Hazel.
Hazel and Gus become good friends as John Green ruins the ending of ‘V for Vendetta’ and they also swap their favourite books. Looking back it’s now easy to see the inner workings of Augustus; in ‘Vendetta’ the main character sacrifices himself to save Natalie Portman (as any good man should do) whilst his favourite book series is about a soldier saving people and killing the bad guys. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see that Augustus is scared of dying before his time (something which I certainly connect with more than anything else in the book). The contrast between the boy and the girl is interesting. Augustus gets sad about himself and that his obituary won’t feature in the New York Times whilst Hazel, Harry-Potter-esque, is most concerned about damaging the people around her.
The main subplot of the book sees Hazel and Gus trying to meet reclusive writer Peter van Houten in Amsterdam so that he could tell them about what happens to some of the characters after the abrupt end of their favourite novel – ‘An Imperial Affliction’. Why Hazel couldn’t settle for an internet forum and other forms of online speculation means she has to steal Gus’ one wish to get them to fly to Amsterdam and meet van Houten. Augustus puts on a brace face and says that he’s going so that ‘they can spend time together’ or some such lie. I’m sure he’d much rather have got to go to a movie premiere or whatever.
Peter van Houten becomes the strangest, most annoying and coolest character of the novel. He is completely mad quite amusingly (knowing that Willem Dafoe of ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’ fame was playing him in the film adaptation delivered a marvellous collection of images into my mind). Hazel vents her frustration towards him when it’s apparent that he’s an utter bastard. At this stage I was feeling the same emotions Frodo would’ve felt if he had reached Mount Doom to find the door locked.
Augustus and Hazel make the step from friends to special friends during a visit to the Anne Frank museum. Hazel thinks that the other visitors would be angry when they kiss there but the last guy to visit was Justin Bieber, inspiring the Dutch to applaud the act of love instead. (If you are Dutch, can you tell me if all Dutch people really are so nice? Hazel and Gus are very lucky that van Houten didn’t decamp to Slough after writing his masterpiece.
I didn’t cry when Augustus finally reveals that his cancer has returned to Hazel. Considering that they might have just had sex this seems like quite bad timing. However, this culmination of their love turning into a nightmare scenario must stun the unsullied. The book (which has previously been very light considering the subject matter) turns a bit darker as Augustus loses his Gusiness. It’s genuinely sad and moving watching this amicable person die slowly. The worst part is that he knows that he’s dying. Imagine seeing yourself shrink into a ghost when you are perfectly aware of what is happening and that he will never get his obituary and that he won’t get to die covered in glory.
The final act of the book is a slow funeral march. Augustus dies and Hazel goes through the grief that she was scared she would cause other people to feel. Van Houten stalks Hazel and goes to Indiana for the funeral. There’s one moment which genuinely made me fearful that John was about to plunge us into a world with Hazel doing an act of necrophilia but (thank God!) that doesn’t happen. The story leaves us with Hazel reading a eulogy which Augustus has written for her.
TFIOS is a very touching novel. Though this review hasn’t particularly taken the book seriously it is important to note that John Green has done a fantastic job in writing a story that makes you laugh and makes most people cry whilst establishing and developing very memorable characters in just over 300 pages. In the last fortnight, either side of ‘The Silkworm’ I have read two books released in 2012. Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars. They are both completely different books but I loved both and both made me think a
‘When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days – as he has done before – and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.
But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the book is published it will ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.
And when Quine is found brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…’
I read a lot of books last year but perhaps one of the best was a crime detective novel by Robert Galbraith on Comoran Strike and his newly arrived assistant Robin (surname forgotten). Of course, we all know that Galbraith is in fact a pseudonym for JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. ‘The Silkworm’ is an interesting book which can be certainly described as a page turner – 450 pages in less than 4 days of limited reading is fast by most counts. However, I feel that compared to the first book in the series, ‘A Cuckoo’s Calling’ (which is also around 450 pages), ‘Silkworm’ seems to be a lot shorter than ‘Cuckoo’ because of the escalation of events.
Comoran Strike I think has to be one of the most interesting detective characters to be created in living memory. I find him to be a complex character who you enjoy the company of whilst respecting his actions. Robin is developed a little in the sequel and though I also like her character; she doesn’t have the layers to her personality like Strike whilst her fiance Matthew needs some redeeming qualities (at the moment he can be described as “jealous boyfriend” correctly and easily) the other characters are also interesting as they fill in parts of the story as Strike attempts to solve the murder and I like the unfriendliness between Scotland Yard and Strike due to events in ‘Cuckoo’.
I was quite close on my prediction of who would be the murderer and was slightly surprised by the outcome. The murderer doesn’t quite jump the shark like in a couple of Agatha Christie’s later novels but there is an aura of not making sense when Strike reveals all. I think that ‘Silkworm’ obviously suffers from mid-book crisis as not every thread and plotline is completed by the time we end. I feel that the reveal is a bit sudden and it’s quite easy to get confused.
Overall, however, I feel that ‘The Silkworm’ is an excellent book with memorable characters and moments whilst Strike steals the show yet again with realistic moments of detective work. I’m certainly looking forward to book 3 and hope it comes sooner rather than later. I would be interested to know what people think of ‘The Silkworm’ as I think that (dare I say it) that Robert Galbraith is a better writer than JK Rowling.