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Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Genesis.

Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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Dan Richards – Climbing Days

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Almost every mountain.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 322
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-31192-7
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Rating: 5/5

Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.

Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.

The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.

As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:

My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.

The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.

I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.

A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.

‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1

Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.

The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.

It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.

References

1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.

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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

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Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Michael Palin – Around The World In 80 Days

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Easy – until you rule out aeroplanes.

Publisher: Orion (Phoenix)
Pages: 241
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 1989 (this edition with extra content, 2010)
Date Reviewed: 28th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Star of Monty Python, Michael Palin, was challenged by the BBC to undertake a journey around the world, imitating Phileas Fogg – to follow Fogg’s example, Palin forgoes aeroplanes for slow sea voyages and train rides and he tries to get from the Reform Club in London, to the same club once again (which he’s not allowed to enter), travelling through the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

Around The World In 80 Days is a rather brief (this detailed later) account of Palin’s journey, a book published to accompany the TV series the journey was primarily created for. It’s safe to say you can read the book without having seen the series, though of course your overall experience would be enhanced by making time for both.

The most obvious element that needs to be commented on, considering the bulk of the content was written and concerns the late 1980s, is that the book is understandably dated. Writing in the then-present, Palin carries in his Walkman, ship crews watch films on VHS, and a lot of the country-specific references are now irrelevant or historic-sounding. There isn’t a laptop in sight.

Yet as long as you keep this in mind, the book isn’t old enough to pose any issues. Perhaps the very young reader, who wasn’t born before the Internet, might have trouble catching every reference, but for the most part it isn’t hard. Indeed the book offers the chance to relax in an age where technology wasn’t yet persistent and journeys were more hazardous.

It’s worth noting that the new edition contains Palin’s mini follow-up trip twenty years after the 80 days. It’s written in the same style, details the landscape changes Palin notices, and recounts the reunion with the ship’s crew he was sad to leave those twenty years previous. It’s not a big addition, but it makes the new version of the book the better option nowadays. This said, the book does not end with a grand finale. Palin makes his trip and that’s it. Given the reason for the journey – to attempt Fogg’s mission in reality – there is little think about afterwards.

There is a lot of cultural information in the book, and a lot of it is ageless. So too the historical information. Through Palin’s words it is easy to see how his journey differs in emotion and thought to Fogg’s – Fogg simply travelled without wishing to see the countries he went through, Palin makes a point of using any spare time to talk to people and try local food and wares. He goes clothes shopping in Japan, rides a camel, becomes an extra in a film – for Palin the list goes on and on; one almost feels sorry for Fogg’s belief in western superiority, fictional character or not.

There is a great deal of humour in the book. A lot of it is very British but of the kind that is accessible to anyone. For example, a running theme is Sheffield United Football Club. Palin doesn’t say so outright, but it’s obvious that one of the things he wants to stay updated on is news about his favourite team. There are references to other Monty Python members, and jokes about the many ‘Michael’ incidences on his journey – the camel and its owner being called Michael (a sales pitch it would seem), Palin being called Michael Jackson (as the latter is/was more well-known), and so on. There are also lots of jokes about the different idiosyncrasies and ideas Palin comes across, which may at first seem wrong – but Palin soon starts joking about Britain, too.

Truly this is a book in which the highlights are the comedy and Palin’s focus on getting to know the countries themselves (rather than only the tourist attractions). The book has a lot of information about sea vessels and trains – understandably none on cars or planes – and will therefore appeal to transport enthusiasts too.

This is where we come to the mention of the book being ‘brief’ – there is detail, but only in parts. The book is often written as though bullet points wouldn’t be amiss, and the style is in no way literary. Palin jumps from one day to another, and whilst this could be a reason for suggesting the TV series is paramount to appreciation, it’s more the case that the style is the inevitable effect of the book being a product of Palin’s diary. Indeed if you didn’t know this prior to reading it, you would soon realise, as the amount of detail that is there is more than most people would be able to remember off the bat.

Briefness aside, it’s admirable of Palin that he wrote about every day, come rain or shine, happiness, headache, or sickness.

To sum it up, Palin’s book is relatively short, but it’s sweet. It’s necessarily primarily concerned with transport but this shouldn’t put off those looking for culture. And it’s a whole lot of fun. There are plenty of photographs included – you don’t feel ‘outside’ – and that it is now dated may just be part of its charm. Those with wander lust will love it (note that it may lead to tickets purchased), those who love the slower pace of life will enjoy its use of the sea and the way of the crews as they take their time, and those looking for reports of the culinary kind will find what they seek. With a lot to recommend it to a lot of different people, Around The World In 80 Days is one set of days you’ll want to be escaping to.

I received this book for review from Titan Travel.

Update on 29th March 2016: I see the question, ‘which feature of michael palin’s “around the world in 80 days” best shows that it is a primary source?’ a lot in my stats so I’ll answer it. Palin’s book is in the form of a diary; the book is a published version of the diary he kept whilst on his travels. Diaries are considered primary sources therefore the diary format of the book shows best that it is a primary source. (If we wanted to look into it further we could suggest the book is also bordering on being a secondary source because it’s in part a commentary of Vernes’ original book both through its detailing of the differences and the very fact Palin is following in Phileas Fogg’s fictional footsteps.)

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Debbie Dee – Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt

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A fine story to introduce readers to ancient Egypt.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Teen/YA
ISBN: 978-1-49230-609-2
First Published: 27th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Twelve-year-old Tiy went to the bank of the Nile with her parents to watch the Royal barge as it sailed past, but when her curiosity wasn’t sated by the far off sight, she ran further downriver for a better glimpse. Hot on her tail was a sandstorm. As the prince and his friends leave the barge to play, Tiy has a choice to make – use her knowledge to save them and potentially harm herself, or leave them to their fate. She chooses to save them and her act of selflessness will be rewarded in ways she would never have imagined.

Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt is a story to fill in a gap history forgot. In writing her tale, Dee has relied on the history she was able to find (this is suggested in the author note) and constructed a story for young readers from what was left out. The target audience means that the book is by nature quite simple, lacking in detail, and often convenient.

And that is the way it should be. For the older reader, who must be referred to as this reviewer is one, the book may prove an incredibly easy read, but it would be impossible not to say that Dee has written something that is likely to open up the world of ancient history to her young audience. From the features of the story, one couldn’t recommend this to young children unless they were advanced for their age, but for the slightly older reader the book should prove appealing.

Just as she did in The Last Witch, Dee doesn’t coddle her reader. The violence of history, such as punishment for treason, is included as it surely would have been in the day – discussed as simply as if it were a question of who wanted coffee, and carried out without further thought.

It is this, along with the romance in the book, that sets it up as an older child’s read. There is no sex in the book, but there are scenes that might invite questions. The romance is drawn out and full of all the hearts and flowers. The theme of love envelopes the entire story; the characters are seventeen by the end of the tale.

There is not all that much action in the book, a lot of the time is spent on Tiy’s thoughts and day to day life with Amenhotep, but what action there is is thrilling. And whilst Tiy can be foolish and unthinking, she is generally a strong person.

What brings the book down a few notches are the errors and uses of modern day language. Perhaps many readers will not notice the language, but the keen historian will. The errors are of course a bigger draw back here than they might have been otherwise due to the target audience.

Besides the errors, the book is a fine story that will delight any reader looking for boys, adventure, royal status and to be a little awed. It is as much a fantasy as a regular story as much of what happens would never happen in real life, but reality wouldn’t be as appealing.

Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt blends a good dose of history with fun fiction and the sort of fantasy you look for.

I received this book for review from Sage’s Blog Tours.

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