The once and future King by T.H. White

The first time I came across this book was when Magneto read it in prison in the second X-men movie from 2003. I don’t remember if the book functioned in the rest of the movie, but I have a weakness for both X-men and evil characters with a twisted past, dubious motivations and a sliver of goodness, so I had to read this book. To my great delight characters like that are also present plenty in this book (Mordred for example!). So I was overjoyed with the opportunity to revisit this book when it was requested.

This book is actually a compilation of four shorter books each telling a part of the story. Since the four books were published in one book I’ll review them as a whole. There is also a fifth instalment, but that one was published posthumously and is not part of the book I own, so I will not include that in my review. The four books are: ‘the sword in the stone’ in which Arthur grows up; ‘the witch in the wood’ where the round table is born; ‘the ill-made knight’ which surrounds mainly around Lancelot and Guenever and ‘the candle in the wind’ which is the last sad book where everything ends and Arthur ponders right and wrong. The fifth non-reviewed book is the book of Merlyn.

The books focus on explaining the reasoning and rationality behind the people instead of focusing on the actual events in the myth. This means that the books are not full of epic swordfights, knights who are always leaving their wives to go on quests and tales of undying love or betrayal. All those things are still present of course, because this IS a re-telling of King Arthur’s myth, but it is not the main focus. In this way this book is a very interesting read for everybody who wants to understand the ‘people behind the myth’ as human being with all their faults and complexities.

Because this book focuses more on explaining the people than telling the actual story it felt very strange to me at first. Especially because my first expectation of the book was a fun, adventurous re-telling of the legend of King Arthur, Merlyn and his knights. It took me a while to see how the different four books came together. Only in the last one, the candle in the wind, does White tie all the different storylines together. This is because the four books separately each tell a very different kind of story which have to be seen together to make fully sense.

The first book for example consists mainly of many disjointed scenes of a boy named ‘the wart’ being transformed into various animals. This is done by Merlyn as part of his education for when he will be king. All the loose scenes made it difficult for me to get into the book initially, because I had no clue what White was trying to do. Only at the end of book one it becomes clear that ‘the wart’ is actually Arthur and that he learned how to be ‘a good king’ through the transformations. This makes book one not a very interesting book in itself in my opinion.

In the remaining three books things really become interesting, especially when Arthur starts to set up the round table to bring back some peace and morality to England. This is very difficult because most times his own knights do not even keep true to the knightly morals of the round table. This ties in nicely with the idea that king Arthur will return to England once more when he is most needed, because in these books he was also a king when the country most needed him. At times Arthur’s efforts to improve the morality of the land becomes woeful because it is very clear he is raised to have a certain set of standards nobody around him seems to find important. It is also sad when Arthur starts to fear the round table and all of its ideas were doomed from the start. Let it be clear: this is not a cheerful book, but I suppose King Arthur’s legend is not a cheerful one as well. This is made even more abundantly clear because of the attention Lancelot, Guenever and Mordred get in this book.

The writing style of this book is quite old-fashioned and at some points difficult to understand. That is because this is quite an old book (the first book is published in 1938). This makes it not a book you can easily read through in a lazy afternoon. This fits very well with the nature of the book because the slowness of the prose forces you to think about everything that is said, giving the reader ample time to make up their own mind about every character. For example there is one character explanation in this book I have always remember because it feels so true and understanding of humanity and its constant debate of what is good and bad. It is how White explains Lancelot: “But the curious thing was that under the king-post of keeping faith with himself and with others, he had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. His word (his oath towards the round table) was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is bad people who need to have principles to restrain them.” This quote also shows the superb job White does with giving depth to characters everyone knows from the myths, which makes this re-telling original and gives even the most knowledgeable king Arthur-fanatic something new to read.

A book recommended for everyone who either reads everything King Arthur related or who is interested in books trying to explain the Human psyche behind persons.

Honourable knight award for a story about humanity told with sadness which will make everyone pity poor Arthur.

T. H. White, the once and future king (New York 1939)

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Bella G. Bear

Peggy and Me by Miranda Hart

Before we begin: this book is much, much better if you know the woman who wrote it: Miranda Hart, comedian and actress. So if you don’t (shame on you!), please look her up in one of her chat show interviews or her sitcom, ‘Miranda’.

Done? She is great, isn’t she? It gets better: she writes exactly as she talks! This book is a love story about a woman and her small dog Peggy, but veers off in any direction at any moment to deal with elephants, crazy cat ladies, sitcom-writing and Proper Romance.

Miranda always had a soft spot for virtually any animal on the planet, but considered herself a Cat Person as opposed to a Dog Person. When she more or less accidentally finds herself the owner of a Shih-Tzu/Bichon Frise cross puppy (or ‘Shitty Frise’, as she calls it) she is rather reserved about the whole situation. At that moment in her life she does not feel up to caring for herself, let alone for a tiny little creature that poops all over the flat. The word ‘poocalypse’ is used frequently throughout the book, be warned. However, over the course of months or even years, she comes to love little Peggy and her entire species, as proven by an excellent list titled Miranda’s Bold and Bouncy Argument As To Why Dogs Are Better Than Cats.

The love lasts through thick and thin and not-always-succesful attemps of romantic conquest. Once, Miranda takes Peggy to the vet with a bout of food poisening in the middle of summer. This particular vet turns out to be rather handsome and Miranda makes a rambling attempt to flirt while the man questions her about the consistency of Peggy’s bodily excretions. Overcome by nerves and the heat, Miranda tries to take off her polo-neck jumper but gets stuck and ends up jumper-less, shirtless, in her bra and mortified.

Miranda Hart writes in a peculiar way that makes you feel very comfortable. She breaks the fourth wall by continually addressing the reader as My Dear Reader Chum, MDRC for short. Peggy, copying her owner, does this as well: ‘Peggy’s Dear Reader Chum’. Because of course she also tells part of the story, mainly the part about how wonderful and fabulous a dog she is herself.

In between anecdotes a more serious story emerges: of depression, anxiety, the struggle of having relationships with the different people in your life. Of perhaps coming to love yourself, and of gingerly coming to trust in something or Someone bigger than yourself. Through a good dose of canine, unconditional love, Peggy is able to teach her woman some lessons in how to deal with life. I am sure we can all use some of that.

And if you are still not convinced this is the book for you: it has lots of cute illustrations of Peggy doing things!

Goofy Award for making you want to get a dog as soon as you have the housing and sufficient income to support it

Miranda Hart, Peggy and Me (London: 2016)

Illustrations by Jenny Meldrum

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Jo Robin

Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices #1) by Cassandra Clare

This book was recommended to me by a lot of people whose opinion I hold in high esteem, but frankly, I was a bit disappointed. First off: I did enjoy reading this book. I finished it in a couple of days, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that I was in fact reading a rather poorly written fan fiction: Fun for a while, but just not that good. It was however entertaining, with a fun theological detail to it.

Clockwork Angel is set in Victorian London, in a sort of parallel universe, where there are creatures of the dark living in the shadows and half-angels protect humans against these creatures. Meanwhile, vampires, demons and warlocks roam the underworld streets of London. This book centres around these half-angels, called Nephilim or Shadowhunters, and the institute they live at. Tessa, a young girl from America, comes to London in search of her brother, but ends up in all kinds of trouble. Soon she finds herself at this institute and at the very centre of a mystery. The Pandemonium Club and the creepy clockwork creatures cast a dark shadow over the city and Tessa’s search for her identity soon becomes of lesser importance, when a battle starts taking shape that’ll change the history of London or even the world…

What first drew me in about this book was the setting of Victorian London. I love London and I love all things steampunk. But after a while this aspect of the story started to bore me as well, and I wondered why. That’s when it hit me. It’s as if the author simply googled ‘Victorian London’ and based on this only, wrote the book. Sure, Dickens himself was guilty of romanticising London, but Clare is guilty of a worse crime: she makes London seem two-dimensional. Even the steampunk element of the story appears to have very little research behind it.

But the biggest problem for me was the lack of depth in the characters. They’re like cardboard cut-outs. I’m not even sure they are people at all; they’re stereotypes. Clare keeps suggesting that there’s a whole world and history behind each character, but because this is never apparent in the way they react to anything, I didn’t find this very convincing. I didn’t grow to care for any of the characters. Tessa is just whiney to me, Jessamine is a brat, Sophie is scarred for life, Jem is oh so mysterious, Will is just up himself, Henry is the quirky professor and Charlotte is the woman in charge of a heavy burden. We’ve all read about characters like these before. I think I’ll go for Henry, if I had to pick. Did I forget anyone important? Probably, but they didn’t stick with me either…

The same goes for the story. There’s plot twist that I saw coming from the very beginning. How could anyone not? This kind of ruined it for me, because apparently the characters with all their wit and ancient intelligence didn’t have the brains to figure this out! The story is filled with clichés, awkward romance and recycled quotes from famous authors. At times, the book is even boring and just drags on for far too long. At other times the story is simply overarching, but predictable and lacks complexity. Original, by any means, this book is not.

Of course I did like some parts of the book. I read the entire thing and I must say this again: I enjoyed reading it. It’s a fun read, you do get sucked into the story and the supernatural steampunk London setting, though it could have been explored further, is great. I very much enjoyed the relationship Henry and Charlotte have, being both adorable and stable. Cassandra Clare’s writing style is easy to read and full of imagination. Also, the story was woven together quite nicely. But I don’t understand the hype surrounding this book. Maybe if I’d read the Mortal Instruments series as well?

However, I am a student of theology and can never resist a great theological reference in any book. The word Nephilim is a Biblical term. Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 mention the Nephilim as the Sons of God or fallen angels who lusted after mortal women. Some say the Biblical Nephilim were the giants of the Old Testament, as a result of falling angels sleeping with mortals. Some say the Nephilim are aliens… Many theories, but the word Nephilim comes from the Hebrew root meaning ‘to fall’, and this fits beautifully into the story.

This was a fun afternoon read, just slouching away with a good book, but would I read it again? Probably not.

Fireplace award: a fun Sunday afternoon read, in a cosy spot

Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel (New York: 2010)

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Thura Nightingale

A walk in the woods by Bill Bryson

If you want to know how many ways there are to die during a hike on the Appalachian trail, this is the book for you. This book tells the story of Bill Bryson’s trip together with a childhood friend of his, named Stephen Katz, on the longest hike through America. In total the hike spans fourteen states and is about 3.500 km (2.200 miles).

Bryson starts the book very optimistically by telling how many bears there are in the area and that there is no consensus whatsoever on how to survive meeting one. Also every new part of the hike he tells anecdotes of who died at that part and how. But despite the fact that the trail is clearly not a walk in the park, this does not stop them, something you can only admire them for. This shows a thing about hiking that always amazes me and which is very clear in the book: we, as people, can take so much more than you would imagine in simple day to day life. Especially in the beginning of the book they really do not have that much food and are really not well-prepared despite all the knowledge of the area Bryson has, but somehow they manage to keep going.

The book starts with the preparations they take for the trip, or rather Bryson takes. Katz does not see the importance of preparing himself, or even of buying good supplies. On the whole he does not seem to take the walk seriously at all. You might even wonder why he went along anyway. This attitude of Katz colours a big part of the book, especially in the beginning. Part of the fun of the book is the two men bickering with each other as two grumpy old men.

Everybody who has been on hikes knows that friendships are sorely tested: which is also a topic in this book. Katz and Bryson had not seen each other for a long time without Bryson really knowing why, but being on a trip with him makes him realize the reason again very soon. Katz is really annoying, stubborn and does not take Bryson seriously and should not be on a walking trip at all. But to be honest Bryson is an annoying know-it all, too much set in his own ways. It is no surprise that they fight and even break up at a certain moment and decide to go their own ways.

But despite all their problems they survive and manage to do quite well, which brings me back to the point that a person can do way more than initially believed if you are stubborn. This leaves one reading the book with a great feeling of capability because if Bryson and Katz can do so much, imagine what you yourself can do! Therefore I think this book benefited from being written by an inexperienced mountaineer because that makes the book very accessible and inspirational. It also helps that Bryson has a very witty writing style that makes the difficulties and dangers of the trail seem less dangerous. It took me as a reader as long as Bryson and Katz to realize that the trail was actually very difficult.

The final great thing I am going to mention on this book is the huge amount of information about the history of the trail and surrounding towns Bryson gives. This familiarizes the reader with a broader area than only the trail and helps the reader to get to know this part of America a bit. I personally was very awed by his story about the underground coal fire in Pennsylvania that has been burning since 1962, which lead to potholes and the evacuation of villages.

So in conclusion this book is not only recommended for people who already love to hike, but also for people who do not understand why people do it at all because it tells you about why Bryson started hiking and his experiences as new hiker. The funny and accessible way of writing makes the book a joy to read for anyone who loves a good tale. But be warned if you are a hiker like us because this book will give you a great sense of nostalgia and will make you want to pack your hiking gear and climb some mountains.

Confidence award: Proof you can do anything you want to, even walk over mountains.

Bill Bryson, A walk in the woods (London, 1997)

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Bella G. Bear