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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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Lewis Carroll – Through The Looking-Glass

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Mirror mirror on the wall.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1871
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Alice is playing with her chess pieces whilst cat Dinah tends to her kittens, but Alice isn’t happy where she is – there’s a big mirror over the mantelpiece showing the room in reverse and she wants to visit it. She goes up to the mirror to have a look, and finds she’s able to climb into it.

Through The Looking-Glass is the slightly lesser known sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Shorter to a fair degree, it shares a couple of the same Wonderland characters but is rather a lot different.

Speaking from an adult perspective, there isn’t any character development here – Alice is exactly the same as she was in the book published 6 years prior and she hasn’t learned anything from her previous time away, that is to say she’s as stubborn as she ever was. It’s an interesting factor because you might reasonably expect a character, particularly in a children’s book, and no matter the era it was written in, to learn something solid, but this book is very much about the fantasy.

Speaking more generally and thinking of the target age group, this is a fun book, just not as good as the first. There is no White Rabbit or Cheshire Cat, and whilst it appears at first glance as though the Mad Hatter and the Hare make an appearance, that appearance is deceiving – they appear to be different characters entirely. The story has a satisfactory concept – a game of chess with human/fantasy creatures, but it’s not as well-plotted as the first. It’s worth a read, but will disappoint if you’re – reasonably – expecting a second visit into Wonderland; this Wonderland sports the same strangeness of character but is otherwise quite different.

But it is fun and has a lot of content for both children and adults. Clever turns of phrase are the ruling factor. The poetry is out in full force. And well-known concepts – such as the afore-mentioned chess – are given a lot of time. There’s having to hurry up if you want to remain in the same place; there’s this:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

And there’s handing round a cake before one actively slices it. Lots of wordplay and thinking.

The relative shortness of Through The Looking-Glass is good – the story and characters are rather too strange for comfort and leaving the world is a bit of a relief; Alice might want to spend longer but it’s more nightmare than dream. It’s a good book but you’ll likely find the original better.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Tree has a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

I received this book for review.

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Samantha Sotto – Love & Gravity

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The apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.

Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Pages: 284
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-399-59324-6
First Published: 7th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Andrea sees a boy seemingly inside her wall whilst she plays the cello, she knows he’s real, but a resent loss in her family’s life means her explanation is not taken well. In time she starts to push the event out of her mind but one day it happens again and it’s impossible to ignore. As Andrea becomes an adult she tries to work out what’s happening and who the boy is. At the same time 400 years in the past, a young Issac Newton attempts to use science to understand the girl who he realises is from the future.

Love & Gravity is a story of time slip and travel that takes the idea of an undiscovered box of papers and crafts a bold tale from it.

Sotto has based her story on a factual person, inviting interest because her tale is fantastical and ascribes the person with a purely fictional romance. However despite the obvious implausibility of it, Sotto has surely chosen the right person for the job. Using Issac Newton works well; it’s hard to dispute the thought that Newton could have been interested in time travel, a subject of scientific interest.

And beyond the travel, as much as it may sound an oxymoron, Sotto has stuck to reality. The amount of research and the effort to get things correct is evident – though the author doesn’t info-dump. Sotto has woven all her ideas around and in between Newton’s own, always defaulting to a mathematical or scientific reason or method for what she creates. She incorporates Newton’s theories and discoveries in such a way that even a person who dislikes fantasy may be interested in the book.

The writing is at times overly descriptive. There is a lot of use of that construction wherein a reference is made to something and then the next paragraph re-describes the item in other terms – think ‘cake’ and ‘the pink sugary confection’. A few contemporary phrases have crept into the historical sections. But the writing does the job and isn’t bad at all.

The mystery surrounding the ‘postman’ could be considered predictable – there’s a good chance you’ll guess correctly immediately and there’s also a chance, no matter whether you guessed or not, that you won’t like this particular element.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, this book is very difficult to put down. The readability of it doesn’t excuse the flaws, nor will you gloss over them, but the novel is enough of a page-turner that you’ll want to keep reading regardless. Sotto has upped her time travel game – this, her second book, has a lot less going on which means that whilst a lot going on wasn’t a bad thing in the first, this new book is more refined. Suffice to say that if you like time travel novels, it’s very likely you’ll like this one.

There’s a lot of romance towards the end; at times it seems the whole atmosphere of the book might get taken over by it but this is not the case. Sotto is always aware – it’s evident as you read – that a balance must be struck between providing a satisfactory time travel experience and sticking to the concepts we as a society have come to see as important were time travel possible, namely that one shouldn’t change history, should be wary of changing themselves, should consider doing things that would have a very minor impact.

Of note is the fact that the characters may not be forever memorable – they may be, they may not be – but that it doesn’t matter. The focus here is on the fantasy, the history, the possibilities of science and the power of music, and these objectives hold the novel together and keep it going. This is a book steeped in time and cultural history and references, very aware of it, using them openly and to good effect.

It works very well.

Love & Gravity is that rare book – it may have flaws but you may well find you can forget them. Recommended? Yes!

I received this book for review.

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