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. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

Book #68

If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work by Irvine Welsh

In 'Rattlesnakes', three young Americans find themselves lost in the desert, held captive by armed Mexicans; in 'The DOGS of Lincoln Park', a mysterious Korean chef may or may not have something to do with the disappearance of a socialite's pooch; an English bar owner battles to keep all his balls in the air on the Costa Brava; a film biographer becomes a piece of movie memorabilia himself in 'Miss Arizona'; and in the 'Kingdom of Fife'; an ex-jockey and table-football star of Cowdenbeath takes on the charms of Jenni Cahill and her remarkable jodhpurs.

It’s mental to believe that your faithful Welsh Fangirl #1 hasn’t read this one before now, despite it being published ten years ago. I don’t even have a reason, other than I’m an arsehole with too many books.

There’s a lot of mixed reviews out there, but I got real feel here of Welsh trying out different styles. Folk just don’t like change. Although I prefer his stories set on home soil, and most of the stories in this collection were American-based, it was class to see the sickness he could drag out in the land of the free.

It’s just pure uncut depravity, and if you say you’re not looking for that from Welsh, you’re lying. I get this mad feeling of excitement when I’m sunk into his rank mind, a crazy adrenaline feeding my brain with thoughts on what the fuck he’s going to hit me with next. It leads to wild behaviour like lying next to a pool, reading with a pint, and shouting out “HE’S COOKED THE FUCKIN DUG!” 

Aye, some of them are better txhan others, but you get that with any short story collection, and as I've said, this really feels like an experimental work, and it’s total class. And everyone on Goodreads who has said The DOGS of Lincoln Park was shite is cordially invited to come and fight me.

Book #67

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies painting obsessively in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind an extraordinary and acclaimed body of work - but she also leaves a legacy of smecrets and emotional damage that will take months to unravel.

I like to think of myse lf as someone who can judge a book’s entirety, if not by the cover and summary, then definitely by the first few pages. Once in a while, this ability is brought into question - and rather than feeling thwarted, I always relish the defeat.

Notes from an Exhibition is far more complicated, deep, and poignant than any summary can begin to justify. Telling the tale of Rachel Kelly, artist, wife, and mother, we are shown non-linear vignettes of her life told from differing perspectives. This style of narrative was essential in trickling information, foreshadowing, and subtly building tension to drive us onwards.

Rachel suffered from bipolar disorder for most of her life, and Gale shows us how this affected her decision-making, and her ability to build and maintain relatbionships with others. This is a very tricky subject to tackle, but Gale’s portrayal was gentle without omitting any of the more uncomfortable parts of living with the illness.

Each of the characters here are gloriously rounded, and I inhaled every new piece of information I was given on them. They are poetic yet relatable; pitied and envied. I loved them, flaws and all.

It’s difficult and also cruel to describe this novel in too much detail. It’s one to savour, to nibble away at, and to consider. It’s one to allow to open up in front of you and to discover for yourself. An absolute beauty of a novel; a little gem.