Saturday, 28 July 2012

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke

Ronald Reng

When someone commits suicide, whether they are well-known or not, there are a few phrases that I hear repeated by many people: "How selfish!" and "They took the easy way out" being two of the most common.

Personally, I have never seen suicide as a selfish act, but it is something that I have never understood. It makes me uncomfortable. This confusion was heightened in November 2011 when Gary Speed, the manager of the Welsh national football team, took his own life.

His death had echoes of Robert Enke's. In 2009, Enke was 32. He was a goalkeeper in glorious form, having played for top European clubs like Benfica, Barcelona and Hannover 96. He seemed to have it all; a happy family life, good friends and the very real possibility that he was going to represent Germany as their first choice 'keeper in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unfortunately, this wasn't to be. In November 2009, Robert Enke stepped out in front of a high speed train and was killed instantly.

A Life Too Short is written by Ronald Reng, a sports journalist and personal friend of Robert Enke. Enke often talked to Reng about the two of them writing Enke's life story one day; Reng was left to write it on his own.

Reng's language is beautiful (credit must be given to translator, Shaun Whiteside). In his book, he presents Robert Enke's life with frank honesty and shows Robert to be a genuinely nice, shy and loving young man. His love for his wife Teresa is shown strongly and we as readers follow Robert's life, both personally and professionally.

We see Robert's stints of crippling clinical depression. This is not nice to read. Robert found it difficult to get out of bed, to make decisions, to play football. He constantly felt that he was letting people down, even when he was doing well.

In his depressive states, it is genuinely heart-breaking to read. To read about such a loving, kind man struggling to function is horrifying. Yet Robert decided he would hide his illness to the world. He felt that he could not be allowed to continue being a professional footballer and role-model if people knew of his "weakness". This idea that mental health issues should be ignored is all too common.

This book should be read by as many people as possible. It helps to allow readers to understand about an illness that is massively misunderstood and looked at unfairly. It is a sports biography but can be enjoyed by people who don't enjoy football. It is a book about human nature, and can bring a new view about depression to everyone. It would be fitting if Robert Enke's tragic passing could have a positive effect on other sufferers.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

Picture the scene: It's 2044 and the world is nearing total destruction. Resources are scarce, while recessions and overpopulation mean that very few people have money and many live in "stacks" (literally stacks of caravans piled on top of each other). The outlook is very bleak indeed. There is only one thing that takes people away from this scene.

OASIS is the huge online multiplayer game where most of Ready Player One is set. It is a virtual reality world in which users can choose their own avatars to look and sound how they want, while they can travel to thousands of different worlds; users can travel in a flying Delorean to the Star Wars galaxy, or to play Quidditch in another. OASIS is the place where people escape their dying world and create their own.

This is how life is lived until the creator of OASIS, James Halliday dies, leaving his vast fortune in his will to whoever can find it. The catch is, he has hidden it within OASIS - and he's hidden it well. The novel follows the protagonist Parzival (real-world name: Wade Watts)'s attempt to find the treasure, along with thousands of others.

The novel is fantastically addictive. The quest for the "Easter Egg" is as much the readers' as it is Parzival's. Within a few chapters, I found myself falling easily into the language of the book (words such as "gunters" became so familiar, it's almost disappointing that they aren't real). With each chapter, I needed Parzival to solve each puzzle put before him. His encounters with fellow OASIS users, in particularly Art3mis, make him a particularly likeable protagonist, while Cline's liberal referencing of 1980s popular culture create a fun, inclusive atmosphere.

Everything about this novel is geeky. However, it is so geeky, it's cool. Massively cool. Ready Player One is ridiculously readable and witty and throws it's readers into a whole new world without them taking notice. It feels as though, while reading the novel, we are in OASIS, playing as Pazival.

Ready Player One is a hugely impressive debut novel, and many writers will wish that they had written it. With a film version of the book supposedly scheduled for release in 2014, I get the feeling Ernest Cline and his work are set to become very big indeed.

Monday, 14 May 2012


Stephen King

I’ll begin with a statement about Stephen King. He is a master of storytelling. He is quite possibly the greatest storyteller of his generation, and don’t let any literary snob tell you otherwise. The statistics do not lie and the numbers involving King are truly remarkable. He has written over fifty novels, had a similar amount of film adaptations of his works (three of which earned Academy Award nominations and success), has won countless awards and has influenced a host of writers. King’s works are nothing short of genius and despite the general belief; he is not limited to horror (The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption spring to mind).

Misery, though, is just that. The tale follows the story of author, Paul Sheldon. His works include the Misery Chastain series; adored by middle-aged American women, despised by himself.  In his latest novel of the series, Misery’s Child, Sheldon has ‘killed-off’ Misery Chastain, ending his unhappy writing time, and the opening of the novel sees him setting off inebriated in his car with a recently-finished manuscript of Fast Cars. Fast Cars is a novel that Paul can feel proud of, and is confident that it will receive favourable reviews from the critics (if not the same paycheques that the Misery books could fetch).

Drink-driving can never be a good omen in a King novel though, and sure enough, Paul crashes his car, badly breaking his legs and falling unconscious. Enter Annie Wilkes, the absolutely brilliant antagonist of Misery. Annie finds Paul and 'nurses' him back to health – or at least saves him from death. To begin with, everything seems good; Annie is Paul’s “number one fan” and she excitedly tells the bedbound and pain-killing-drug-dependent Paul how excited she is to read Misery’s Child. She is not happy with the ending however, and subjects the “dirty birdie” Paul to severe mental and physical tortures.

Annie seems to suffer from a mental illness, most probably bipolar mood disorder, and she forces Paul to write a new Misery Chastain book. Terrified of his prisoner, and dependent of the illicit painkillers that Annie provides, Paul begins to write. Misery is a very claustrophobic novel, with the tone set by Annie’s moods. The darker her moods, such as when she crushes a rat with her hand, staring vacantly as she does, the more uncomfortable the read. The novel is a slow burner, but gains momentum as Annie begins to lose control of herself.

King has a knack of creating extraordinary villains, with Annie being joined by The Shining’s Jack Torrence as two of the most terrifying characters to appear in print. I found myself drawn towards Annie in a way I didn’t with Paul. Of course, I wanted Paul to escape from her hideous entrapment, but I felt desperately sorry for her. Annie’s mental condition leaves her a danger to others, namely Paul, and also to herself. Her strange logic and own set morals (she thinks that swearing is very bad for the soul, yet has no qualms about taking an axe to a disabled man) create darkly comical moments which actually exacerbate the tension, rather than relieve it.

King’s craft is at its finest in Misery. To sustain a 320 page psychological horror novel with only two characters is testament of his narrative voice. The book is written in third person, focalised through Paul. King’s would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-terrifying writing style is evident after Annie angrily told Paul the beginning of his new book wasn’t good enough. King’s narrator writes:

He hadn’t cared for her mood this morning. He supposed he should count himself lucky that she hadn’t re-broken his legs with a baseball bat or given him a battery-acid manicure or something similar to indicate her displeasure with the way he had begun her book – such critical responses were always possible, given Annie’s unique view of the world.

This is typical of a Stephen King novel. He has a way of hooking his reader with his conversational narrative voice. It is this ability to speak to the reader that draws them in, making them care what happens to the characters, and it is why he has had success across the genres, from Westerns to Fantasies.

Misery is just one of many works by Stephen King that I would recommend. Stuffy academia may sniff that King isn’t high-brow enough, but my approach to reading is this:

1.       Did the book entertain me?

2.       Did the book make me think?

On this occasion, Misery has done both. King has written a page-turner with an antagonist that has mental health problems that are actually made clear, rather than simply creating a generic evil villain. For this book alone, Stephen King deserves respect.

Stephen King Misery cover.jpg

Sunday, 13 May 2012

War Horse

War Horse                                                                                                                              [Contains spoilers]
Michael Morpurgo

 Recent media reports into British schoolchildren’s intelligence are, if they are to be believed, terrifying for the future of the nation. According to the BBC, British children are now learning at a slower rate than any other European nation, while another (slightly more dubious) source has claimed that three quarters of six to ten-year-olds could not locate Great Britain on an atlas.

As I said, these figures have possibly been adjusted to cause a moral panic. However, given the increasing amount of video games, films and television shows catering for the country’s youngsters, it would not surprise me if reading books is now a hobby enjoyed by fewer children each year. I am not saying that reading endless novels is the only way in which children can learn, but I believe that reading can be a big part of any child’s development.

Which brings me, finally, to War Horse. Written in 1982 by the brilliant Michael Morpurgo, this children’s novel documents the journey made by a horse named Joey, through the battlefields of the First World War. Joey’s owner, Albert, is too young to enlist, and so Joey has to make the harrowing trek alone.

Morpurgo’s narrative is first person, from Joey’s point of view. Giving the horse a voice is a masterstroke, as it gives the often-overlooked and never-heard, a voice. More importantly, due to Joey’s innocence and neutrality in the war, younger readers are able to get an insight into war that most war books cannot do. Joey lives with and works for both English and German soldiers during the novel and is treated well by Englishmen and Germans alike. He is also on occasion mistreated by characters. Once again though, there are no distinctions between the trenches.

This is crucial to help children understand that in warfare, the soldiers fighting against British soldiers aren’t the ‘baddies’. They are doing their duty, just as the British are doing theirs. Of the many war novels I have read, none portray both sides of the trench quite as effectively as War Horse, and the fact that it is written for children means that it is a great starter for younger readers to understand war.

War Horse has all of the traits of a war novel and they are sensitively handled by an author very adept at writing about difficult issues. The most moving death in the book is not, in my opinion, that of any human, but of Joey’s companion and friend, the horse Topthorn. Joey is devastated by Topthorn’s death and risks his own demise by staying with his fellow horse's body. Once more, the innocence of the animals is exposed, highlighting the sheer futility of war. This senselessness is further summarised by a German soldier, believed by his comrades to be mad because he talks to himself and his horses. He says:

‘It’s the others that are mad, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the man wears a different colour uniform and speaks in a different language? And they call me mad!’

There can be no arguing with "mad old Friedrich" here. Ultimately, the man who is one of the most sane characters in the trenches is killed. Friedrich had to be claimed by the war; surviving would have lessened the importance of his words. War has no mercy and Morpurgo makes that clear with the man's death.

Overall, I believe that Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is a fantastically poignant and important children’s book. If the country’s youth are to flourish and understand the world around them, instead of wandering aimlessly and ignorantly into their future, Morpurgo is required reading. His writing has a gentle, yet brilliantly important message behind it, and leaves the reader, whether they are children or adults (there are many people who are older who could gain a thing or two from War Horse) thinking about his stories for days after.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Dead Clever
Scarlett Thomas

To begin with, I should reveal that I think Scarlett Thomas is the most exciting British writer at the moment. I have been spellbound by every book of hers that I have read, and so I was intrigued to learn whether her first novel, Dead Clever, published in 1998, would be as fascinating as Popco (2004), The End of Mr Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010).

I discovered Thomas’s works in a way that you are always told not to do. I judged her book, The End of Mr Y, by its front cover. Come on, look at it…


Beautiful and enigmatic, with a review from Douglas Coupland calling it “A Masterpiece”, I was intrigued enough to read the blurb. From this little bit of information, I quickly decided to buy the book. I’m glad I did, as I can honestly say The End of Mr Y is without a doubt my favourite book of the 21st century. High praise indeed.

I followed Mr Y with an earlier novel, Popco, which actually made me question a lot of things about the world and large corporations. Our Tragic Universe is another high concept book, which, as with the aforementioned novels, made my head swirl with the absolute cleverness and readability.

But this is about Dead Clever. As I said, I was intrigued as to whether the novel would stand up to the three I had put on a pedestal. After all, it is Thomas’s debut; she could be forgiven if it had taken her several years to find the magic combination to writing a brilliant book.

Dead Clever is different to the other books in that it is not a high concept book; it is a crime thriller following a failed actress/part-time university lecturer, Lily Pascale, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a chase to solve the mystery of who raped and decapitated one of Lily’s students. Lily has only just moved to Devon to get away from her life in London (not to mention her cheating, boring boyfriend) and when she takes the job at the local university, the story of the murder and other strange incidents engage her curiosity.

Lily is not your typical sleuth, something that won me over from the start. She smokes heavily, gets dressed for a date in a petrol station toilets, and she isn’t some kind of uber-intelligent, super-observant detective who solves riddles with ease. Other than some childish investigative work with Eugénie (Lily’s childhood friend, and an interesting character, who I hope will feature further in the other Lily Pascale novels), Lily has no experience in solving murders. She is an ‘everyman’ investigator, which makes her much more vulnerable. Which in turn, left me more concerned for her welfare. She makes mistakes, she misses clues that she later knows she should have seen, and she simply doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.

That leads me to my next point. Another thing that makes Dead Clever – well, dead clever (oh dear) – is the fact that it isn’t as predictable as many crime novels. There are obviously suspects but it felt as though Thomas was leading me down blind alleys; I didn’t want to trust anyone in the book. On top of this, I was waiting for the predictable moment in the novel where Lily’s car would break down at the wrong time. It would undoubtedly happen inconveniently just as she was attempting to escape from the chasing murderer. Lily mentions that her Volvo struggling to start on more than one occasion, and it screamed out that the old cliché of the dodgy car at the vital moment was inevitability. I was just waiting for it to happen. It didn’t happen. There’s nothing about Dead Clever that seems clichéd or obvious. Thomas really does leave you guessing until the final pages, breathlessly reaching a great ending.

Dead Clever is a great book. It’s a confident page-turner that has left me wanting to read the next of the series. Is it as good as Popco, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe? No. As I previously mentioned, Dead Clever is Thomas’s first novel, and it simply doesn’t reach out as far as the other books. However, having read those before Dead Clever put it at a disadvantage. It is definitely a good piece of crime writing, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in a good read. Time for me to hunt down Thomas’s other books, I think.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Woman in Black

Nothing brings excitement about a book more than a film adaptation (except perhaps the death of an author), and Daniel Radcliffe is currently showcasing his acting talent in cinemas around the world in the big-screen version of The Woman in Black. From seeing trailers and hearing feedback from film-goers, the movie seems to be terrifying. I cannot watch a film without having read the book, so I began Susan Hill’s 1983 novel with high hopes.

Hill’s novel is a good old-fashioned ghost story set in a secluded English town, with a first-person narrative. Arthur Kipps is a young solicitor sent to the funeral of Alice Drablow, an elderly woman who lived in the isolated Eel Marsh House. When he gets to the house to do business, he is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who appears to be wasting away. Over the course of several nights, Kipps faces the terrifying battle between the unexplained noises and his own tortured mind.

 It is with Kipps’ narrative that Hill’s incredible craft first appears. Arthur Kipps is not an unreliable narrator. Indeed, after explaining how he felt after seeing the eponymous woman in black disappear suddenly from a graveyard, he says, “I did not believe in ghosts. Or rather, until that day, I had not done so, and whatever stories I had heard of them I had, like most rational, sensible young men, dismissed as nothing more than stories indeed”. The effect that this has is for the reader to realise that Kipps is not a man prone to making claims of being haunted often. In fact, he is a very rational man. Therefore, his story has to be taken at face value. Ghost stories will always more frightening if there is an essence of truth behind them.

For reasons such as this, The Woman in Black actually is a frightening novel. Not since James Herbert’s underrated The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006), have I read a book and felt nervous when I heard a creak in the house, or imagined footsteps behind me. The novel certainly picks at human fears and scratches away at them, until the reader is ragged with nervous energy; a massive advantage for a horror story.

Everything about The Woman in Black is eerie. From the names of the places (“Nine Lives Causeway, and Eel Marsh”), to the long descriptions of the weather, Hill creates something not quite normal, and it is this that grates at the reader most. Everything seems unusual, but it takes place in a world so real that the sense of the uncanny is strong. The way in which Hill makes her work chilling without actually revealing any hideous monstrosities further increases the novel’s cleverness. Hill resists the temptation of including severed heads or pools of blood, and the reader benefits from this. The horrors are left to their imaginations, which makes the fear internal. The effects of the book therefore linger for a greater period of time.

The Woman in Black preys on everything that is frightening; the dark, the unknown, things that go bump in the night…