‘The Book of Dust’ By Philip Pullman

His darker materials…

Before I took a long break from writing and embarked on year one of my literature course, I was reading The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. It was another hardback novel gifted to me at Christmas, and upon receiving it, I was enticed by the sleeve’s beautifully carved lino print design and the front cover itself, which was sprinkled with flecks of golden dust. On its spine reads a quote from the story: “Ah, it’s a proper canoe, said Lord Asriel, as if he’d been expecting a toy. Malcolm felt a little affronted on behalf of La Belle Sauvage, and said nothing as he turned her over and let her slip quietly down the grass and on to the water…” the lettering, which has been embossed in the same metallic foil.

The Book of Dust which has taken Philip Pullman many years to complete and was hotly anticipated in the run-up to its publication, is set before the Northern Lights trilogy. As opposed to being a prequel, Pullman has decidedly called the new edition an ‘equal’ to the original series, as although the story takes place ten years previous when Lyra is a baby, The Book of Dust simultaneously sits alongside the original novels. As a heads up, yes, the novel does feature the Magisterium, the alethiometer, Lyra Belacqua, Jordan College, Oxford and of course, daemons.

FullSizeRender (6)

The Book of Dust is by no means a disappointment. I thought it was well written with events moving at a steady, often swift pace. The narrative maintains a consistent level of suspense, striking a fine balance between being too dramatic or otherwise not enough. I caught myself gasping at a number of points! Although Pullman usually states that his work isn’t written with a particular audience in mind, I probably wouldn’t recommend the ‘equal’ to readers under sixteen or so, as there is an instance of moderate adult content which the child protagonist is disturbed to witness. That said, I very much enjoyed the novel’s mysterious tone and strong maritime atmosphere, depicted in an underlying weather narrative, which meandered its way through the main story. Eventually, these two merge in a spectacular climax in the final third of the novel.

I’ve summarised the first three chapters as follows… no major spoilers here.

Chapter 1 ~ Malcolm Polstead is an 11-year-old boy who works at the Trout Inn beside the River Thames, with his mother and father, and a miserable cow called Alice. For Malcolm, who is known as an inquisitive boy to passing travellers and sister Fenella at Godstow priory, he leads an uneventful but content life. Though he’s inspired by the conversations of gentry punters and dreams of being a scholar – with his limited education at Ulvercote school, he expects to inherit the responsibility of the family pub. One day, three politicians enter the Inn and a Lord Nugent is interested to know about the local priory across the Thames. Lord Nugent is an ex-chancellor from a previously more liberal govt. Malcolm and his daemon Asta notice that he seems particularly interested in the story of an orphaned baby, but Malcolm is not aware of such a story. Though, Mrs Polstead’s daemon Kerick seems to know something more.

Chapter 2 ~ The next day, after his shift, Malcolm visits Fenella to inform her of the visiting Lord Nugent and his keen interest in the priory. Fenella isn’t aware of a baby but suggests that it may have been protected there in the past. Later that day, Malcolm fetches his boat and rows down to the river with Asta where they see a man in a grey suit who accidentally drops something in the river bank. He eventually leaves but is intercepted on the bridge by two men dressed in black, and bundled away. Malcolm and Asta row across the river to the opposite bank and find an ornamental acorn. Unnerved by what they have seen, Malcolm rows back home. Malcolm and Asta get home and manage to open the acorn which contains an anonymous letter talking about a hypothetical substance called ‘Dust’ and something called an ‘alethiometer’. Upon arriving for his evening shift, Malcolm learns from his father that two members of the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) an agency of the Church are at one of the tables. To his lowkey alarm, Malcolm is beckoned over by one of them who asks Malcolm if he has seen a man. Malcolm recognises him as one of the fellow politicians who accompanied Lord Nugent to the Inn the previous day. The CCD man defiantly rips down some notices from the cork board to pin up his WANTED poster but a regular punter, George Boatwright makes an objecting stand. He is soon seen out in fear and disappears before the CCD can arrest him.

Chapter 3 ~ In the coming days, Malcolm repeatedly rows upriver to see if he can find the man who dropped his acorn. He also pops into the Chanderly for some paint and rope and reluctantly opens up to ask Mrs Carpenter about the man he saw by the riverbank. She shows him an article in the Oxford Times confirming a man called John Luckhurst a historian of Magadelane College was found dead in the river sometime during the week. Malcolm is terrified he and Asta and think it possibly had something to do with the CCD. Malcolm and Asta plan to find out more – but by only by stealth through chatting to college student punters at the Inn, in order to avoid the attention of the CCD – just in case they’re after the acorn. Upon returning home, Malcolm hears from his mum that the famous explorer Lord Asriel is in the pub. She tells him that he has a love child with the wife of Mr Coulter – Mr Coulter was furious and stormed down to his estate – but Asriel killed him and had to pay honour expenses for doing so. Mrs Coulter didn’t want anything to do with the baby and so has been taken in by the sisters at Godstow. Three days later at earliest possible notice, Malcolm visits sister Fenella and when he asks her, she obliges and reveals that a baby girl has been left with the sisterhood. Fenella takes Malcolm to visit the child and from that day forth Malcolm becomes baby Lyra’s guardian for life.

Overall, I would rate The Book of Dust 4/5 stars and I look forward to Pullman’s second edition in the trilogy – whenever it comes out!

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Peter Abrahams.

 A cosy Young Adult novel.

Dear followers, I hope you enjoy this cosy book review. Snuggle down with a hot choccy!

On what was a suitably wet and windy afternoon in 2012, I gave up the ongoing struggle to make friends and sought refuge in a quiet corner of the school library, which was always warm and inviting in September. After a couple of minutes scanning through the limited selection of ‘New Releases’, wrapped and sealed in their protective jackets, I came across a distinct purple paperback – it seemed better quality than most YA fiction.

It had a cover illustration (now out of print) of a towering solitary house secluded by a pair of tall, crooked trees, and the title itself – ‘DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE’. I couldn’t resist a novel that honoured the classic children’s story. And at the time, I was stuck in a deep pit of confusion and rejection, longing for a sense of connection and familiarity – when this empathetic little gem fell into my hands. No one had read it yet, it’s pages smelt new, undiscovered! I borrowed it there and then.

image
Front Cover of the newest edition.

‘Down The Rabbit Hole’ is a 352-page Young Adult crime/ mystery novel written by Peter Abrahams. Whilst this may not be the newest book to write a review on (it was first published in 2006!) I still think that it’s an enthralling, lesser-known fiction which all inquisitive, cosy book lovers should have the opportunity to discover!

Thirteen-year-old Ingrid Levin-Hill lives at 99 Marple Lane in Echo Falls, with her mum and dad, her brother Ty and the family dog, Nigel. Ingrid plays football, has landed the lead role of Alice ‘in Wonderland’ in the school play, gets decent grades at school, and idolises Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes. One day, when Ingrid gets lost between her orthodontist appointment and football practice, she crosses paths with Katherine Kovac, or “Crazy Katie”. A retired actress turned social misfit, she lives alone in the poorer part of town and invites Ingrid into her home to call for a cab.

Harking back to childhood, I could remember the shameful experience of getting lost in town and the feeling of panicked disorientation and desperation to get back home again. And so, I could strongly connect with Ingrid’s sense of unease in these early scenes.

image
Ingrid meets “Crazy Katie”.

The next morning, however, Ingrid reads that Katie has been found dead in her home, and Ingrid is a key witness in the moments before her death. Perhaps more disturbingly, Ingrid has left her football boots behind – at the scene of the crime! In a mission to retrieve her Pumas and a compelling desire to solve the mystery, Ingrid slips into a dark subculture of murder and mystery and metaphorically falls ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’.

What I truly loved about this novel, was it’s rich sense of atmosphere. Echo Falls is a gentrified suburban town, with discreetly obscured secrets. Abrahams goes a long way to emphasise this through the use of light imagery contrasted with shadows and a detailed history of a family known as the Prescotts. As a child, Ingrid finds herself caught up in this dangerous adult world and despite coming off as a bit ‘Famous Five-ish’, it does give leeway for some gripping, scenes towards the main chunk of the novel.

image
The beautiful Back Cover.

However, there were some topical issues in this novel which I didn’t agree with, simply for the way they were handled by the author. The apparent normalisation of younger brother Ty’s use of steroids in his physical training regime and then, we have a casually brushed off incident where Ty flies into a fit of rage and gives Ingrid a black eye. Another was with Ingrid’s continuous dishonesty towards those around her – particularly her relationship with Detective Inspector Strade. My final issue was that this was written by an America author; I couldn’t understand the American sporting aspect of the novel which featured quite heavily, and a lot of the regional social characteristics went straight over my head. There was also the use of cell phones and MSN-style chatrooms which seemed slightly dated, haha! Nevertheless, I enjoyed ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ and I would describe it as an atmospheric, gripping, rainy day, good quality sort of book.

Though the novel seems to be aimed at teenagers, I would recommend it to pretty much anyone.

Published in Great Britain in 2006 by Walker Books Ltd, Reprinted in 2012

Written by Peter Abrahams, front cover design by Richard Merritt

ISBN: 978-1-4063-3070-0

Wishing you all a lovely bank holiday weekend!

‘After Me Comes the Flood’ by Sarah Perry.

 

{Saturday 21st April}: If like me you live in Britain, you’ll be well aware of the recent heatwave we’re experiencing, with temperatures as high as 29.C degrees – the highest in April for 70 years! I woke up this afternoon (cheers, insomnia) from the depths of an amazingly vivid patchwork dream, which I’m still experiencing the hangover from. And in my state of confusion and distant consciousness, I remembered reading the equally evocative and heady writing in Sarah Perry’s debut novel ‘After Me Comes the Flood’. First of all, I didn’t like it much. Here’s why…

IMG_4117
March Winds and April Summers.

Since I’m sitting here in an empty house with a mug of hot tea, (we Brits drink tea in all weathers) I think, to establish the opening scenes of the novel is the perfect way to begin.

This 230-page debut by Sarah Perry centres itself around the mundane life of a solitary man, John Cole, who owns a bookshop in London. When the perpetual silence of his shop and the feverishly hot weather become too much, John decides close early and leave for Norfolk where his brother lives by the coast. On his way, John’s car breaks down and when he ventures off in search of help, he comes across an unusual house in a clearing in the countryside. The mood from this point on takes a colder turn and starts to decline.

 

IMG_4109
A gorgeous cover, but looks can be deceptive!

John is welcomed by a scruffy and slightly childlike family who know his name and claim to have been waiting for him for some time. There is a broken sundial on the lawn and John later finds mysterious, cryptic graffiti in his laid out room. The house emanates stagnation from its unsightly descriptions and sensory imagery to its inhabitants who seem to have become part of the woodwork, not attaching themselves to a particular time or place. Not only did I find this slightly disorientating, but the juxtaposition of setting with the family’s warmth and friendliness created a feeling of unease throughout.

John tries to inform them that he is not who they think he is, but every time he is briskly ignored or misses the opportunity to speak out. Accepting the family’s hospitality with some degree of guilt, he waits for the earliest opportunity to make his unannounced escape. Of course, this is prolonged further and further, which only added to my level of frustration. I got the impression that the novel was like a very weird dream and its style reminded me very much of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. You’ll have to read into it to find out, but let’s just say it’s left a lasting impression upon my studies in Literature!

yellowwallpaper.jpg
Credit: Unknown Source.

I thought the novel started off very promisingly with a high degree of intrigue, and Sarah Perry’s beautiful flair for lyrical and poetic passages is indisputable. However, when this and an excessive amount of boring dialogue overwhelms the novel, her writing (in my humble opinion) comes across as quite pretentious. The story lacked a chunky middle and an end, and it quickly became confusing and dull. Instead, I got the impression that the novel was a showcase of Sarah Perry’s capabilities as a creative writer rather than a fully fledged author. I’d say that it’s a typical book that will appeal to the feminine mind – only I’m not a typical female reader. Nor is it my cup of tea. 

 

IMG_4110
Some positive reviews. I’ll leave it to you!

Published in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail, Reprinted 2017

Written by Sarah Perry, front cover design by Peter Dyer

ISBN: 978-1781259559

‘The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack’ by Mark Hodder.

One place you’re most likely to find me is: nowhere. I don’t get out much; I mainly escape through the pages of the latest book I’m reading. After many school years over-analysing lines of text, I had forgotten how to simply read a book. It wasn’t until Christmas that a tall stack of gifted novels triggered me into making a first determined effort to break the back bone of my reading anxiety. As it turns out, I enjoyed the first book I read so much, that I decided to write a book review on it here:

image

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack’ (2010) is a 479-page Victorian Steampunk novel, written by Mark Hodder. I was initially apprehensive, because if reading the dystopian passages of Mortal Engines was anything to go by, then I would find this one mighty tough read. However, this exciting novel is set in an alternative ‘Albertian’ London and makes use of an array of 19th-Century historical figures. Sir Richard Francis Burton is the multi-disciplined and charismatic protagonist who investigates two parallel subplots. The more interesting of which is his terrifying encounter with the alien figure of Spring-Heeled Jack. I enjoyed Hodder’s use of a third-person narrative, told from the perspective of Burton, as I ‘shared’ the sensation of being plunged into a murky world of terror and mystery. I also liked the fact that I had stumbled across a story about the lesser-known urban myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. There are too many stories which revolve around Jack the Ripper and if you haven’t heard of Spring-Heeled Jack before, then just a mention opens you up to a new avenue of education into English folklore.

image

   Credit: The British Library.

At no point is the plot tiresome and this is diverted with the aid of Burton’s youthful and naive companion Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne not only provides opportunity for exciting and daring plot twists but instant likeability and flippant humour along the way. I was able to sit down with this book and become engrossed in its pages 2-3 hours at a time.

Another thing I appreciate, and respect is Hodder’s extensive knowledge of the period and this is clear with his rich detailing of factual events that occurred at the time. Not only does this offer a real flavour for 19th-Century history, but the material is beautifully entwined with fictional creativity. If you have an appreciation for the Victorian period, this book will be well within your comfort zone – both engaging and rewarding with a few delightful guest appearances sprinkled throughout. On the fictional side, the narrative is set against the backdrop of an alternative London, where the Romantic-like factions of society known as the Rakes and hard-line Libertines are waring with the Eugenicists and Technologists, who form the backbone of the empire. There are velocipedes and swearing messenger parakeets, a vicious albino panther man, and wolves which kidnap chimney sweeps in the smog. And Burton finds himself plunged into this insane reality when he is called upon by Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone as the King’s secret agent, to investigate the strange disappearances. For a considerable chunk of the novel I wondered about the significance – if any – of Hodder choosing to write a story in ‘Albertian’ Britain. As it turns out, there was a lot of significance and this concept was a result of a key part of the plot.

image.jpeg

Just when I thought things were being tied together, Hodder flipped the narrative on its head and the reader gains a completely new version of the story from a different perspective. Yes, the novel has elements of Victorian Steampunk in it, but I’d argue that this doesn’t define it. The combination of a 19th-Century setting, the mystery, grime and Hodder’s detailed navigation around London are what largely set the mood, and this isn’t the typically ‘dry’ result you get from a lot of books set in similar periods, like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Dodger’ (sorry Terry).

image.jpeg

If I had to find something potentially negative in Hodder’s writing, it would be his characterisation of female figures. And characters like Isabell Arundell and the famous Florence Nightingale have very limited dialogue to none whatsoever, which makes them come across as quite two-dimensional. However, in a period which was effectively a man’s world, I guess this can be accepted. Another questionable aspect were instances of assault, but again in the greater context of the storyline, it made sense in its own twisted way. Hodder’s writing was plausible enough to even make me feel pity for person responsible for the acts. Whilst I did get the impression that the story became convoluted and it dissolved into dramatic fantasy near the end, the overall experience of the novel was so enjoyable that the next book in the Burton and Swinburne series is on my eventual wish list. If you’re into mystery slightly more than crime, as well a clash between science-fiction and history, then I’d recommend.

Published in 2010 by Snowbooks Ltd, Reprinted 2017
Written by Mark Hodder and Illustrated by Kate Hiscock

ISBN: 978-1-906727-20-8