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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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Claire North – The End Of The Day

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In life, only two things are certain…

Publisher: Orbit Books (Hachette)
Pages: 401
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-356-50733-0
First Published: 4th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 7th December 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death – the Milton Keynes office sends him the details of his next appointment, he gets on a train, bus, or aeroplane, and goes to see someone who is dying or whose world is fading away. It’s a tough job at times, very tough, but Charlie enjoys it; his role is to honour life.

The End Of The Day is a philosophical literary fantasy novel that explores many moral and ethical questions and issues we have in our world today.

This book is original; starting with the potential of a Terry Pratchett influence in its basic concept, it uses a gentle fantasy-type humour, and whilst it appears at first simply to be a solid addition to the genre, it soon reveals itself to be a blend of this and literary fiction.

The plot is scant – in fact it’s more a series of events than anything else – and the character development is not big, but both these things are intentional and with good reason; this is where the philosophical nature comes in. North’s book is primarily a study – a very good, enjoyable-in-its-own-right study – and secondly a good old work of fantasy. Death here is of a distinct type – whilst quite likely being fond of cats (its the personality, the basic construction of Death that is like Pratchett) – the defining nature of North’s Death, which doubles as one of the points the author wants to get across – is that it doesn’t just appear at the end of someone’s life, but at the end of an idea, at the end of a world, a culture in decline.

And it’s not just the usual thought of a cultural element ending (though a language dying along with its last speaker is one of the things North looks at) but also things like the end of a tradition that excludes black or poor people, and the start of a society that denies LGBT rights. Here Death comes at the last instance of the old way to usher in the new.

The above is part of the philosophy North includes – most of the blunter referencing, that becomes blunt the more you read, happens in extracts that aren’t directly related to Charlie. It’s apt here to bring in the writing as it’s part and parcel of this; North uses various different writing methods and markings to deliver her commentary; poetical verses sit alongside sentences full of ellipses, dialects, accents; different languages – even different scripts – are scattered throughout; bunches of sayings, stereotypical sentence beginnings, opinions, and presentations are added as paragraphs and verses, the different sentences of one whole effective conversation jumbled up with the others – a handful of different thoughts displayed at once. To summarise (the following statements are here as examples of the sorts of topics covered) “I’m not racist but…”; “won’t anyone think of the children?”, “well I think”; “but they come to this country…”; “I might be a woman myself but I’m not going to go employing young women – they’ll all go off getting pregnant”.

I only get seventy-two pounds a week to cover everything… will that stop, now I’ve got money for my flat?
And the copper wasn’t sure but wondered if maybe it would, if perhaps now that Jeremiah had savings and no roof over his head, the government didn’t regard his welfare as its concern.

There is a great number of ideas, thoughts, political and social points included so often-times these sentences are generalised or simply provide more insight into what North is doing, but on occasion – more than a few occasions – the author looks at something in more detail. The more generalised do include a certain amount of detail for the sheer amount of insight they provide in just a couple of sentences, it’s just that the chapters (very short in most cases) have more space to give a concept.

Speaking of chapters and thus the writing as a whole, North’s use of language is exceptional. Then there’s the way she goes about her philosophy openly, the obscurity near the beginning of the book there only due to the fact you’ve not yet realised what it’s all about.

And then the world turned, and someone tweeted something new, and everyone retweeted it and moved on, and nothing fucking changes.

The subjects are heavy, and North sends Charlie all round the world, showing that it’s not one place but the entirety. One of the more poetical, experimental aspects included – the only experimental (this is an easy enough read) – is the different number of repetitions of the words ‘human’ and ‘rat’ that are used in all parts of the book – both statements and sentences, and Charlie’s narrative. What is it to be human? What separates us from animals? When are we good or bad? There are a variety of ways this can be interpreted.

The one drawback is the book’s length. There is a lot to cover and it’s all excellent but there comes a point where Charlie’s journeys and the philosophy becomes less powerful simply due to the amount to think about. It’s a difficult one because it’s all important and relevant to North’s study but still just a bit too much, and there’s the possibility with it that you’ll become over-exposed to the point of it becoming less powerful.

But then is that the point? Is it, to reference a completely different book that nevertheless shares a few ideas, rather like The Hunger Games, wherein Suzanne Collins seems to be using over-exposure on purpose, making the reader reach a point where the absolute horrific violence ceases to produce a response because they’ve seen so much of it, and then using that lack of response to make her point? Is North showing you what she wants to both to the point where you ‘get’ what she’s saying but also to the point where you become so used to it that it’s easy to just keep reading without being constantly shocked, rather like we’re so used to seeing pictures of starving children in Africa and the many different charities that promote other causes that it becomes a sort of background worry, spoken about, but then left? It’s open to interpretation.

If you’re looking for either a literary book or a fantasy book this isn’t the one to go for because it’s both and neither at the same time and is the opposite of escapism. But you absolutely do want to make the time to read it and see for yourself. As much as any review can tell you what it’s about, there’s a great level of individual interpretation here, a resonance for each reader and, in a very unique way, there is something for everyone.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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Hanif Kureishi – The Last Word

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Or words, plural. Many.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 344
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22755-1
First Published: 21st October 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Harry is charged with writing a biography of Mamoon Azam, a literary giant; his editor promises it will launch his career. And so Harry goes to meet Mamoon and his Italian wife – his second wife, previously a fan of his work – and stays with them for a time, getting to know them both. There’s a lot to Mamoon’s life that Harry thinks should be included but the literary star has other ideas.

The Last Word is a somewhat comic novel looking at the situation and life of a fictional, rather pretentious person. Some reviews have said it seems to be a parody/based on V S Naipaul – Naipaul’s love life as reported on the internet does match Mamoon’s, albeit that Mamoon’s in this case is incredibly exaggerated.

The novel begins well and is very funny, but it quickly becomes stoic, with Harry, Mamoon, and Liana spending their days talking about various subjects and doing nothing else. The slight philosophical vibe of the book becomes overdone and repetitive, the plot never really going anywhere.

In addition to this the main characters are difficult. Harry spends his time talking about his strong feelings for his fiancée, Alice… whilst in bed with Julia, a person who works at Mamoon’s. Is this whole situation and sexual promiscuity likely part of the whole parody? Yes, but when there’s no really story arc to it and it’s included just because, it’s hard to say it’s of any worth.

This is to say that no one in this book learns anything, there is no character development at all and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the book, except perhaps, if it’s simply a sort of inside joke about another, factual, writer.

If you know a lot about Naipaul – if we consider it could be about him – then you might enjoy it but beyond the first few chapters (which are admittedly stellar) it’s difficult to say this one is worth your time. The type of comedy has a lot to recommend it – in another book, perhaps.

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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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