Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Book #83

As If by Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison attended the 1993 trial of two 10-year-old boys in Liverpool, England, who were accused of killing a 2-year-old; he wrote about the case for the New Yorker. Three years later, the case was still haunting him, so he returned to the subject to examine its impact on a more personal level.

An utterly uncomfortable read, and not in the way I was expecting.

In 1993, Morrison was tasked with attending, and reporting on, the trial of Thompson and Venables. As any human would, he was desperate to find out the reason why. That, in fact, was the main reason I picked this up, as I imagine would be the incentive for anyone reading this - what could possibly have driven two ten year olds to commit such a deplorable crime?

As I had already subconsciously assumed, no why is provided in Morrison’s commentary; no why ever seems to have been found. Instead, he documented facts of the crime, the trial, and the criminals, and chose to pepper alongside these some anecdotal whims from his own life. I found these largely unnecessary. 

The book began well and engaged me, until Morrison’s sympathy for Thompson and Venables shone through more clearly. He makes no secret of this, and puts forth arguments on how both children were hard done by - tried in an adult court, raised in violent or emotionally abusive households, exposed to films targeted to much older people, etc. He argues a lesser verdict, or lesser sentence, would be more appropriate. He suggests we would live in a brighter world should society move from current lynch mob attitudes, to a far more liberal and therapeutic retribution for criminals. When it comes to a beaten two year old, who has been subjected to terrors we cannot even begin to imagine, I beg to bloody differ.

It’s a serious look at both the Thompson and Venables families, casting light on past abuse, sympathising with both sets of parents, and painstakingly making a case for their veneration. Although I can also sympathise with the parents to a degree (how do you come to terms with having a killer as a son?), the sympathy for the Bulger parents was clearly lacking. Coming from the same types of backgrounds as the Thompson and Venables parents, the Bulgers weren’t given the same care. Morrison grotesquely criticised Denise in particular, and at one point made uncomfortable comments on her outfit choices, which almost felt like a fervour of fetish.

For James himself, no remorse was overly apparent. Yes, Morrison had a few dreams about him (how sick I became of reading of his insipid dreams), and mentioned him a few times in an attempt to reestablish some humanity to the essay. But nothing rang true. Morrison’s sympathies lay with the killers, and only the killers, not the little boy who lost his life, not the complete trust he put in two strangers only to have his trust mercilessly broken, and not the guilt and heartbreak of a woman who was only permitted two years with her beautiful son.

Morrison also makes disturbing comparisons between the crime, and children's games, in an attempt to suggest Thompson and Venables were too young to realise what they were doing. In a macabre and unsettling description of himself as a child playing doctors and nurses with friends, he argues children are merely exploring bodies without the prior knowledge of sexuality. Exploring bodies and ending the life of a body are completely different things. This was such a distasteful and harrowing point to even attempt to make.

And, towards the end, we soon discover where Morrison’s sympathies come from. As he admitted to a sordid act he took part in during his own adolescence (similar to doctors and nurses, only far more unacceptable), the bile raised in my throat and it took all of my willpower to reach the last page. Morrison is sympathising with James Bulger’s murderers in a horrific attempt to absolve himself of his own sins.

Call me No-Heart (many have), but if you harm a child, you pay the price. Any attempts to justify will only do greater injustice to those already hurt by the crime. A disgusting attempt to make excuses for two boys who committed one of the most vile atrocities in our lifetime. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Book #82

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. 

A heartbreakingly raw account of a woman’s life and thought processes.

The prose is gorgeous; structured in tiny vignettes, we almost sail through the wife’s tragedies and joys, fleeting or otherwise. It’s emotional, it’s abstract, and yet it’s completely real. Offill’s choice of structure here has had far more of an impact on me than, say, a standard linear first-person approach. The small snippets documenting marriage, children, and adultery, form a scrapbook of pain and anger, but also highlight some of life’s little moments of bliss.

I would have a liked a more satisfactory conclusion, however, with the novel being so true to life, perhaps a nice tied up ending wouldn’t have fit. We continue.

Other than that, I’m finding it difficult to describe exactly what I enjoyed so much about this little novel. Perhaps it’s just come along at the right time in my life, allowing me to connect with it as much as possible. Perhaps it’s just one of those novels where you can’t put your feelings into words. And strangely, it’s not one I will be shouting from the rooftops and urging everyone to read. I do feel strange about this.

Beautiful, evoking, and charged. I’ll remember this one for a while. 

Friday, 16 November 2018

Book #81

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Here is a story told inside out and back to front
Five Dunbar brothers are living – fighting, loving, grieving – in the perfect chaos of a house without grown-ups. Today, the father who left them has just walked right back in. 
He has a surprising request: Who will build a bridge with him?
It is Clay, a boy tormented by a long-buried secret, who accepts. But why is Clay so broken? And why must he fulfil this extraordinary challenge?
Bridge of Clay is about a boy caught in a current, a boy intent on destroying everything he has in order to become everything he needs to be. Ahead of him lies the bridge, the vision that will save both his family and himself.
It will be a miracle and nothing less.

I am being very strict with myself in the writing of this review, adamant not to make Bridge of Clay vs. The Book Thief comparisons. One quick one though - Bridge of Clay pales in comparison. God, I’m devastated; it was painful.

We are shown the lives of five brothers and their parents through lenses smeared with metaphors. Zusak’s flowery language, and use of time travel, made the plot utterly confusing, disengaging, and difficult to get through. I almost didn’t finish.

It was like a dream, in the worst way possible. No sense of time or space, no idea what’s happening, no connection to the confusing, misty characters around you, and everyone consistently speaks in riddles.

There are many reviews stating that it takes a while to get going, but I found the opposite to be true. Filled with excitement and adrenaline, I plunged in, only for my hope to dissolve slowly with each page turn. I felt it started with promise (it’s Zusak), and just descended more and more into the abysmal. Most notably, my tolerance for the style, my suspension of disbelief, and my wavering patience, gave out immediately after a majorly tragic event which should have affected me, but didn’t - couldn’t. I wanted it over with.

One more comparison (sorry) – I feel Zusak has misunderstood the success of The Book Thief. Yes, he also used many metaphors and symbols in that story, alongside flowery language. But, it’s almost as though he’s written a metaphor or something of ‘poignance’ into every sentence of Bridge of Clay, believing that’s what makes a bestseller. But, at least for me, it’s not about the quotable parts. The Book Thief was entirely about the characters and how he built them. The Dunbar brothers will disappear from my literary memory very soon.

My advice here would be to give it a try, but if you’re considering giving up after 100 pages, it’s not going to get any better for you. If this review disappoints you, please know it’s not the review I was expecting to write. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Book #80

A Slip under the Microscope by H.G. Wells

Three disturbing, mysterious and moving stories from Wells, science-fiction pioneer.

Oh, the Little Black Classics formula strikes again! Smack ‘em with a few collections which make them want to put pins in their eyes, then present something so wonderful that they will continue with the series. As this range goes, it’s probably the only admirable ploy they have used.

These are two beautiful stories from the master of science fiction, and yet there is no science fiction to behold. Some may be disappointed in this, but I found both stories incredible in their own ways.

The Door in the Wall was powerful. Wells speaks of regret, of wonder, and of a potential utopia only accessible when you least expect it. I loved that there could be many interpretations of Wallace’s encounter with the green door – psychosis, raw wanting, the afterlife – any of these can be applied here, and the beauty of it all is that Wells allows us to spin our wheel of thoughts to land on whichever interpretation we see fit. Very infrequently do I finish a story only to turn it over in my head for hours afterwards, and I have an unbridled respect for authors who can provoke my thoughts and feelings in this way.

A Slip Under the Microscope wasn’t quite as thought-inducing as The Door in the Wall, and yet there was something simplistically resonant here for me. Wells allows us to consider the importance of honesty in contrast to the importance of self-protection, and how the consequences of being an upright and honest person sometimes don’t manifest themselves positively. As someone who truly believes in openness and honesty, this was actually a bit of a blow, but also an important possibility to consider.

So yes, no time machines, invisible men, or extraterrestrials, but some really gorgeous prose on humanity. This is definitely up there with some of the most enjoyable titles in the Little Black Classics range.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Book #79

Going to the Sun by Eddie Owens

Danny and Beth are high school sweethearts in small town Montana, looking forward to graduation before they join the army.
Then a tragic accident tears their lives apart.
We follow both of their stories: one to prison and one to war.
They are finally reunited in a desperate race to save the people they love.

I reviewed Owens’ Fat Jimmy and the Blind Ballerina last September. I absolutely loved this novel, and was pleased when Owens got in touch to ask me to review Going to the Sun.

This was a really interesting concept, and an entirely different approach than that taken with Fat Jimmy. Owens tells the story of two American high school sweethearts, whose lives diverge on separate paths, only to be brought together again after a tragic, devastating crime.

The only characters who were truly developed and well-rounded here were Beth and Danny themselves. Any smaller characters weren’t given the same depth or structure, yet watching Beth and Danny grow was great. Both emerged from their teenage years in ways I hadn’t expected, and the events which shaped them were clearly documented by Owens – except one.

Beth grew from a virginal schoolgirl into a woman who found fun and release in no strings attached sexual relationships. Although I don’t see a problem with this in any person, her many trysts peppered throughout the pages felt like pointless filler. Other than the interpretation of Beth becoming her sister (who is called slut an uncomfortable number of times in the first few chapters), I felt there was no reason for us to be shown this side of Beth; it had no bearing on the plot, on Beth’s character, or on any sort of overall development, and felt tacky to me.

The plot itself is complicated and gritty, as we follow Beth through life in the military, and Danny through life in prison. They both learn valuable, and similar lessons, and Owens is bold enough to make these lessons clear to us. It’s a long story, mainly focussing on the growth of our protagonists. Owens slowly filters information to us in the first three quarters of the novel, only to ramp up the pace in the end. There wasn’t enough time spent on a slow path to the ultimate climax, and it felt very much as though the finale was jammed in at the end to ensure some shock value.

Despite the above, I did enjoy working my way through this and learning alongside Beth and Danny. Their complicated relationship with each other, their growth, and both of ending up in dangerous environments, appealed to me, and kept the plot going nicely. A good novel for someone looking for a good military or prison read – or both. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Book #78

26a by Diana Evans

In the attic room at 26 Waifer Avenue, identical twins Georgia and Bessi Hunter share nectarines and forge their identities, while escaping from the sadness and danger that inhabit the floors below. But innocence lasts for only so long--and dreams, no matter how vivid and powerful, cannot slow the relentless incursion of the real world.

This was absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking in equal measures. Evans skilfully explores the twin bond using a perfect blend of magical realism. Her prose is beautiful, her characters perfect, and her story utterly gut-wrenching.

Georgia and Bessi were born 45 minutes apart to an English father and a Nigerian mother. Although born in England, we see them grow in both the suburbs of London and in Lagos. Evans contrasts the cities, and the emotional effects they have on the twins, starkly, and this impact is one of the main drivers to the overall tragedy of the novel.

I adored each and every one of these characters purely for their rawness, their struggles, and how each of them rub against each other, creating sparks. The father is an alcoholic, forcing the mother and the girls to tiptoe around him, unsure of how he will react to a messy house, a cold dinner, or any other aspect of life which seems out of place. The mother is homesick for Lagos, poisoned by depression, and filled with regret. The oldest sister rebels, the youngest can’t work out her role in the family. And the twins, oh my heart, the twins.

The most important message from the story is that of how childhood can mould us irrevocably; how one single event, however minor, can have debilitating effects on us in later life. It’s bleak, and it’s horrible, but it’s so true to life. I felt Evans dealt with it perfectly; the red days, the yellow days, the unable to leave the house days. How others can’t understand why it can be so bloody difficult to drag yourself down to the shop for a bottle of milk.

Towards the end of the novel, things became incredibly mystic, and strange. I didn’t dislike this, although I’m now reading many did. I interpreted this in two ways, and I am yet to decide which one I prefer. I like the folk story the twins’ Nigerian grandfather told them, and I liked the way they reacted to it. For this to come true for them in the end was, I felt, poignant and fitting. Alternatively, this could be viewed purely as an eventual coping mechanism, which is also a perfect conclusion. Both meanings running parallel, for me, really underline Evans’ skill for weaving her magical realism throughout the pages and the lives of the family.

Finally, after finishing the novel, I did some frantic Googling to find more information on Evans; for the main part, trying to find some of her other work. What I found was so akin to the plot of 26a, it was painful. I am so sorry, and I can understand why this book is so well crafted.

A complete masterpiece of words, I would (and will) urge anyone to read this. Beautiful, real, and utterly agonising. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Book #77

O Cruel Alexis by Virgil

Virgil's lyrical, wistful and often witty pastoral poems. 

I was around halfway through my struggle with Virgil’s pastoral poetry when a brand new idea occurred to me. Perhaps my recent lack of enjoyment with the Little Black Classics range isn’t my own fault. Could, perhaps, this be the fault of Penguin?! The more I considered this, the more I realised it was most likely a joint fault, however, I would like to discuss Penguin’s shortfalls and lack of foresight with this range. Sorry, Virgil.

Firstly, my main motivator in purchasing these tiny vignettes of hell, was to learn more about different genres, authors, countries, and people. I wanted to broaden my literary experience, and potentially find new loves. Penguin has prohibited me in doing so by making these so utterly horrible to read.

Take Virgil here; the poetry flows beautifully, his words are lyrical, and the scene setting glorious. Did I enjoy the poems? Did I hell. In many of these instalments, Penguin seem to have just randomly selected a chunk of text from a larger work, and deposited it within their eye-catching black covers. No context is provided, no explanation, nothing that will help the reader absorb and learn. That’s all, folks.

Secondly, translation. I’m no expert on this, but for many of the instalments I’ve absolutely despised, other reviewers are slating translation. Why would Penguin allow poorly translated works to be included in, what is effectively, a collection of the greats? Why sully their name, and make fools like me believe their work to be disengaging?

So – not my fault. Or partly not my fault. I’m sick of journeying through this bloody collection believing myself to be thick as mince, when in actual fact I am not entirely to blame.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Book #76

Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole

A young Nigerian writer living in New York City returns to Lagos in search of a subject-and himself.
Visiting Lagos after many years away, Teju Cole's unnamed narrator rediscovers his hometown as both a foreigner and a local. A young writer uncertain of what he wants to say, the man moves through tableaus of life in one of the most dynamic cities in the world: he hears the muezzin's call to prayer in the early morning light, and listens to John Coltrane during the late afternoon heat. He witnesses teenagers diligently perpetrating e-mail frauds from internet cafes, longs after a woman reading Michael Ondaatje on a public bus, and visits the impoverished National Museum. Along the way, he reconnects with old school friends and his family, who force him to ask himself profound questions of personal and national history. Over long, wandering days, the narrator compares present-day Lagos to the Lagos of his memory, and in doing so reveals changes that have taken place in himself.

This is such a strange, yet gorgeous little novella. Widely labelled as fiction, it’s almost impossible to categorise; constructed of a series of vignettes detailing the narrator’s return to Nigeria, there is no plot, no character development, and no real fictional feeling to any of it. Cole’s words and structure lean more towards non-fiction, to a memoir or travelogue.

Strange also is the knowledge that although this is a fictionalised account, it’s really only the characters who don’t exist. The scenes in Nigeria, the corruption, brutality, and poverty, are all true to life, and Cole depicts this expertly as an Nigerian expatriate examining his home with fresh eyes - eyes which have seen the West.

Our unnamed narrator is jarred by what he sees, despite expecting it, remembering it, and accepting it. His words are detached, almost like words in a reference novel, yet smooth and compelling, still managing to convey emotion. The vignette-like structure didn’t allow for development or plot; they were mere snapshots which could have (excepting the first and last) have come in any order at all. A very surreal reading experience.

And yet, despite taking some time to become used to Cole’s style here, I enjoyed it. I was exposed to a new country, a new writing style, and brand new knowledge. Words from an innocuous observer – unique and poignant. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Book #75

Kansyan from the Beautiful Lands by Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev's accounts of hunting in rural Russia, and the extraordinary characters he meets there.

I was absolutely desperate to start this one as I’ve never encountered a work of Russian literature that didn’t blow me away. Turgenev holds the honour of being the first Russian author to disappoint me.

To be fair, and perfectly honest, it was one of the better choices within the Little Black Classics range, despite its lack of impact. The two stories are taken from a collection of Turgenev’s short stories which recount his time hunting in rural Russia, and the various characters he met on his travels.

Using District Doctor to ease us in was an excellent move. The story tells of love, death, family, and lies, and does so in such a way to disorient the reader at a time where most of the characters are ablaze with confusion themselves. I relished this; the strange word choices, the behaviours, the utterly bizarre ending. And yet, upon the last word, I wondered what the point of it all was.

The titular short story left a lot to be desired. Although Turgenev skilfully displayed his writing skill with wonderful descriptions of nature, his plot wasn’t entirely compelling. I was baffled, frustrated, and, dare I say it, a bit bored.

I’m unsure whether this one’s failure is the fault of Turgenev for his poor plot outlines, or Penguin for their poor choice of stories. I do wonder whether these would make more sense within the collection they are taken from, yet Penguin haven’t compelled me to explore this any further.


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Book #74

Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon

A bounty hunter with a death wish. An orphan with her head in the clouds. A conspiracy with the power to bring down a kingdom.
Serena dreams of leaving her harsh desert home behind in her very own airship. But when an assassin’s knife meant for Serena kills her friend instead, the rebellious orphan ventures into the corrupt heart of Dalthea to discover who put a price on her head. With each new turn, she edges closer to uncovering the awful truth… And the mystical powers brewing deep within her.
After his fiancée’s death, soldier-turned-bounty hunter Tyson Gallows is eager to sacrifice his life in the line of duty. When a foreign enemy assassinates a high-ranking official, he vows to bring them to justice. On the hunt for a killer, Gallows exposes a sinister plot that proves his fiancée’s death was no accident.
Driven by revenge, Serena and Gallows must join forces to take down the conspiracy before the kingdom falls to ruin.

I read the prequel to this (The Fury Yet to Come) a couple of months ago, and I’ve been desperate to continue my journey with Tyson Gallows. We left him reeling from his encounter with a mind-infiltrating witch, and find him again in Dalthea, a member of the Hunter’s Guild, yet broken and grieving for his departed fiancée. But Gallows is one of those guys that trouble just seems to find, and soon we’re catapulted into tornado of crime, corruption, and a shitload of fighting. Sign me up for this series immediately.

People often ask me what I’m reading, and when I’ve tried to explain this one over the past week, I’ve found myself lost for words. I would open my mouth and attempt to describe the novel, but what I heard coming out just wasn’t selling it, or doing it justice. It’s impossible to put the premise of this book into words, never mind write a concise review. But here goes.

There is so much to digest here. There’s politics, conspiracies, magical powers, lore, genetically modified animals, genetically modified humans, not to mention the complex characters and their intricate relationships with each other. The delicate, and often confusing, aspects only made the novel more true to life – excepting mind-manipulation and the undead – and the story quickly becomes something you are completely embroiled in.

The pace is unbelievably fast, and yet you’re constantly learning. Although my favourite sections were where I was being given information on people and their motivations, I also relished the action scenes (of which there were many), which isn’t like me. You hold some of these characters close to your heart, only to be propelled into danger with them. Some of them are saved, some of them aren’t, but most of them experience some gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moments where you’ve no idea how they can possibly survive.

Best of all is the world McKinnon has created here. The faith, the government, the technology, the fallouts of war, all felt in the beginning as though they were flashed before our eyes and taken away just as quickly. There are no explanations, just subtle mentions of words and names of which we are clueless to their meaning. And yet McKinnon explains when it matters, and does so slowly without patronising us. I truly loved this method; the slow reveal is far more satisfying than droll histories and lengthy lectures.

A wonderful first novel in the series; I am so delighted to have been asked to review this, and very impatient for the second instalment. There are lots of people I’ll be recommending this one to with the caveat they read The Fury Yet to Come in order to set the scene. Nevertheless, after all that fast-paced bloodshed and mind-bending, I think I’ll read the entire series of Mr Men books to calm my heart down a bit.  

Monday, 15 October 2018

Book #73

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy...
Malcolm's father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust--and the spy it was intended for finds him.
When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl--just a baby--named Lyra.
Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make chocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

I feel I only enjoyed this as much as I did because I’ve only just finished reading His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage draws its charm by subtly referring to characters and plot points in the original books, and it’d be a bit of a push for this to stand on its own, even as the first instalment of a new trilogy.

In the main, Pullman’s characters were gorgeous. I fell in love with Malcolm who, despite being a pretty beige and unassuming pre-teen, has clear growth and increasing maturity as the novel progresses. His friend Alice, who is with him for the majority of the novel, is far more complex and easy to understand as a young woman. And Lyra as a giggling baby – although she couldn’t be characterised well at that age - seeing her and baby Pan was just lovely. Apart from these three, and their daemons (Ben was a love), there was nothing much in the way of characterisation to compel and engross us.

A young Dame Hannah (flashback to His Dark Materials) was introduced; curious, nervous, and at the beginning of her career, it was gorgeous to see her become involved with Malcolm, giving him guidance, support, and a good few different works of fiction to borrow. She becomes deeply involved in matters she’s unsure of, there’s a lot of foreshadowing on Malcolm’s fate, and then she completely disappears from the pages. I was desperate to find out what happened to her – did her books survive the flood?? – but the way she dissolved completely almost rendered her character utterly futile.

Pullman’s antagonist, a seemingly friendly man with a fierce three-legged hyena demon, started out as completely interesting, and yet his story fell flat for me too. Information on his life was slowly trickled through gossip channels, landing at my feet with glee. But no more. I didn’t find out what he was attempting, why he was the way he was, what exactly he had done in the past and how it was all connected. For both of the above characters, it’s possible the answers will come in the next instalment, however Pullman has stated this one will be more of a sequel to His Dark Materials. So many questions.

Although the story itself is beautifully and lyrically written, with the most stunning illustrations supporting Pullman’s words, the plot itself doesn’t have much going on. The first half feels pretty anticipatory; we see Malcolm go about his daily rituals whilst we’re safe in the knowledge shit is about to go down, but the second half of the novel is purely a mildly concerning boat ride. There’s no real terror (as, if you’ve read His Dark Materials, you know they will be okay), no direction, and an awful lot of changing nappies.

Pullman once again comments on theology and democracy, but definitely not in as hard-hitting a fashion as the previous trilogy. Dust was mentioned a few times, but I was pleased it wasn’t the main focus of the novel; I am sick of that glittery shit and its scientific causes. I was also pleased there were no roller-skating elephants in this one.

I’m unsure what else to say. Perhaps my complaints will be solved upon the release of the next novel, perhaps they won’t. I will always retain a love for Malcolm, however, and I really hope Ben settles into bulldog form. Goodnight, La Belle Sauvage. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Book #72

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel - by the command of his dying father.
But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and and intrigues that beset him. 
The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead.

I have no idea how I feel about the finale of His Dark Materials. This trilogy has been a hell of a ride through multiple universes, where I’ve met baffling and interesting characters (Thumbelina riding a dragonfly – yes; elephants on roller-skates – no), and fallen deeply in love with my protagonists and their dæmons. It’s difficult for me to bash the series as a whole, but there were parts of the final novel that I simply couldn’t make myself enjoy.

Firstly, in my review of The Subtle Knife, I stated I was hoping for a reduction in the theological turn the plot was beginning to take. This dream did not come true, and I was embroiled in battles and plans to kill God and build a new heaven. I could not get on board with this, not for religious reasons, but for the way in which this factor seemed to steal away from Pullman’s fantasy. Any chapter which involved the Church, the angels, or Lord Asriel’s plans, dulled my curiosity completely. It has taken me a while to finish the novel for this reason.

And secondly, I felt even less spellbound than I did during The Subtle Knife. There was nothing to fill me with wonder and disbelief, nothing to completely tickle my brain with incomprehensible new ideas or situations. A large section of the book was devoted to battle, to zeppelins and gyrocopters, and trying to escape the bad guys. It dragged on. I much preferred the deceit, the sneaking around, the plotting, the discovering, and the things falling into place.

I think Pullman’s downfall has been writing such a stunning first instalment that its shine simply couldn’t be matched. Everything he introduced in Northern Lights was utterly magical, engrossing, and compelling. Everything since has been akin to buying a fake handbag – it’s all right, but poor in comparison to the original.

Still, there were parts I absolutely adored – the progression of Lyra and Will’s relationship, the world of the dead, Lee Scoresby! And that ending – just stamp all over my heart, why don’t you?

I have definite mixed feelings about this series, but I’ll always hold a love for Lyra and Pan. Let’s see if Pullman can bring out more of his imaginative skill (and hopefully fewer angels) in La Belle Sauvage. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book #71

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Will is twelve years old and he's just killed a man. Now he's on his own, on the run, determined to discover the truth about his father disappearance.
Then Will steps through a window in the air into another world, and finds himself with a companion - a strange, savage little girl called Lyra. Like Will, she has a mission which she intends to carry out at all costs.
But the world of Cittàgazze is a strange and unsettling place. Deadly, soul-eating Spectres stalk in its streets, while high above, the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. And in the mysterious Torre degli Angeli lurks Cittàgazze's most important secret - an object which people from many worlds would kill to possess.

Although The Subtle Knife is the second instalment in the trilogy, Pullman tugs the direction of our journey strongly on to another path. Everything we’ve learned and become accustomed to in Northern Lights feels like an old dream, as new and baffling components are introduced, and we’re transported across a multitude of different worlds. Most of all, Lyra appears very little, as our new protagonist takes the helm.

It’s like a completely new story, which is a genius move in maintaining our wonder and awe in the worlds Pullman has built. Each chapter differs in its narrative, giving us a rounded view of Pullman’s cast of characters and their experiences. Multiple voice always gets a big tick from me, and I was particularly pleased to see the majority of chapters were fixed upon side characters, rather than our two protagonists.

Yet, The Subtle Knife felt slightly lacking in the creation of an utterly spellbound feeling in me, in comparison to what Northern Lights evoked. Pullman delves heavily into physics and religion; in explaining the first in depth, and in implying the problems with the second, he refuses to patronise his readers, but also turns a deep fantasy series into a philosophical religious commentary. I can accept armoured bears and elephant type things on wheels, but as soon as angels are mentioned, I am completely disengaged.

I loved the introduction of Will, of the knife, and even of the biblical elements three of the characters symbolised. I’m just unsure of the religious path the plot is taking, to the detriment of the genre. Nevertheless, this is the middle book in a trilogy, always difficult to review, and sometimes even difficult to understand. I shall focus my attention on The Amber Spyglass with fingers crossed for a reduction in theological debate. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Book #70

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

When Lyra's friend Roger disappears, she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. 
The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies - and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.
Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting for her - something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights.

The first and only time I read this series was as a fourteen year old girl. Seventeen years later, with the arrival of La Belle Sauvage, I am embarking on this journey again, no longer a fresh and lovely fourteen, but a bitter and miserable thirty-one. I’ve gone from resembling Lyra, to resembling Mrs Coulter minus the monkey. But some books can transcend your years - I loved this as a young woman, and utterly cherished it as an old one.

Pullman’s first notable skill here is his ability to widen the appeal of what is essentially a young adult novel. For the young, it’s a story of adventure, of overcoming adversity, of survival, of fuck the grown-ups and their macabre plans. For the old, it takes on a far more philosophical approach, a symbolic study of childhood, free will, and hierarchical horrors. And for all of us, every single one of us, Pullman delivers a beautiful and compelling story in a curious and enchanting world. This is the embodiment of fantasy for me – you can stick your Lord of the Rings where the Northern Lights don’t shine.

The universe Pullman introduces to us holds a number of interesting factors; one of the first we come across is the existence of dæmons. Each human has a creature attached to them, as though with an invisible cord. This creature is their companion for life, and also, in effect, their soul living outside their body. Children’s dæmons have the ability to change form at will until the child comes of age, when the dæmon will settle into a fixed form. I adored this concept; the idea that your dæmon doesn’t settle its form until you’re secure in your adulthood; the assumption that no child understands who they are, hence ever-changing dæmons, and adults absolutely do understand themselves, hence fixed dæmons; the way the children’s dæmons flicked from shape to shape dependent on the child’s mood; the ability to judge an adult by which form their dæmon has fixed upon – this list is endless. Dæmons are an amazing plot device, and god help me, I want one.

In terms of the story itself, Pullman completely nails everything. The pace is excellent, the world-building exquisite, and the characters deeply weaved and utterly gorgeous. It isn’t often I love a character so much that my heart wrenches in pain, or leaps in joy for them, but I felt everything here, and almost had a few embarrassing outbursts in public whilst reading.

I’m so pleased to find this novel delights my heart as much as it did many years ago. It’s amazing how an author can evoke the same feelings in you, regardless of whether you’re in your teens or your thirties.

Now it’s time to reacquaint myself with Will. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Book #69

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.
To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

This novel is based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, a man who tried women as witches in the seventeenth century, and sent over one hundred of them to their deaths. Realising this fact makes the novel all the more harrowing, despite Underdown having fictionalised his personal life somewhat.

Witches were identified by completely ridiculous measures; is your neighbour a wee bit eccentric, likes solitude a bit too much, maybe she has some mental health problems? Witch. Has she wronged you in some way, leaving you with a debt to settle? Call her out as a witch!

Hopkin’s reign of terror left Essex excited and terrified. It’s unsettling to think how this could be allowed to happen, yet Underdown highlights the power of hysteria, rumour, and religion very well. There’s a constant dark undertone throughout the novel which doesn’t allow the reader to relax for a moment. And in no way does Underdown shun the idea of the supernatural; there are some inexplicable moments which only create more doubt and dread, in both the characters and ourselves.

Although the first and final thirds of the novel were perfect in setting up and boxing up the whole ordeal, there was something lacking in the middle third which I just can’t really put my finger on. Perhaps I would’ve liked (and I use the word very lightly) more information on the accused women and what they were going through; some more depth in the townspeople and their reactions to the situation. In historical novels focusing on this type of barbarism, I think it’s important to focus on the human element as much as possible - the further away we get, the more difficult it is to understand these unspeakable acts happened to real people, the same as any of us.

I enjoyed this, and it’s clear to see Underdown has done extensive research on Hopkins and his campaign. The final sentence of the novel dropped my heart to the floor so quickly, I thought I’d lost it. Very, very clever.