A(nother) Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Back in February I read the latest Frank Cottrell-Boyce and I said he was one of those authors that I ought to have read before.

 

This latest one is of a similar ilk. I really ought to have read Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman long before now.

 

It’s taken the announcement of The Book of Dust – which is neither sequel or prequel, rather an equal – to make me finally get around to it.

 

For those of you that don’t know, Northern Lights is about a young girl named Lyra who lives in an alternate version of Oxford, where ever human has a constant companion, a dæmon. In adulthood the dæmon’s form is permanent, but in childhood the dæmon switches through various animal guises.

 

The dæmons – Lyra’s is named Pan – are seen as a physical manifestation of the soul of a person.

 

As an orphan, looked after by the scholars of Jordan College, Lyra’s bond with Pan is more precious than most.

 

When children start going missing, Lyra embarks on a journey to find her absent friend Roger.

 

It becomes quite the adventure with Lyra not quite aware of how high the stakes have risen.

 

Lyra is a good character, but she is the only constant one – apart from Pan, who doesn’t seem to be used as much as he should be – and with any book, a large revolving cast of secondary characters becomes confusing at times.

 

The plot – the missing children, and the mystery of dust – is intriguing and keeps the pages turning, but Lyra is such a hard and matter of fact character that the emotional impacts of the twists and betrayals don’t resonate. This is despite the fact that the character witnesses some quite gruesome events… she barely cares.

 

The ending is… odd, a definite set up for the next book, but no sense of conclusion or resolution to many of the events that occur.

 

Will I read the next two in the series? I’m not in any rush to. I’ll probably watch the television adaptation later this year, and the idea of a Pullman enriching his world via new companion novel does intrigue me, so it’s not a straight out never.

 

But this might be why I’ve never read Pullman before – there are many other, better things to read first.

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A(nother) Rambling: Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit #GrippedByFear

Never judge a book by it’s cover.

 

I’ve probably started a blog post with that phrase before. Over the last couple of years, I feel I’ve covered every last literary cliché in the book (that there might have been the last one), but bear with me. After all, like books, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.

 

Having said that, in my job you do have to judge a book by it’s cover, sometimes that’s all there’s time for. I personally get around 200 books pass across my desk a year that pique my interest. At the rate of one a week, I can only actually read a quarter of those.

 

I have to use something to tell them apart. Often, it is the recommendation of someone I trust, someone who knows my reading style.

 

Sometimes, it’s the cover.

 

In the case of Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit, it was a little of both.

 

Posted by a colleague (who reads this blog and will get a kick out of seeing her name, therefore I won’t mention it… let’s just call her “Ginger Spice”), the back cover which simply promises ‘Become an accessory to murder’ – pulled me in, coupled with, what is a striking, unique cover.

 

Ginger Spice usually has the same taste in books as me, so I went with it and managed to get hold of a copy.

 

Sitting down to read it, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting a pacy thriller, maybe a psychological thriller that became commonplace after Girl on the Train was released.

 

At the very beginning we know that our ‘hero’ has assisted in the murder of his neighbour. His father shot him. We even know the motive.

 

This is something Ginger Spice pointed out to me – there seems to be no mystery, no reason to read on, and yet… we do. This book is compelling. The hashtag the publicists are using is #GrippedByFear

 

I agree with the first part, gripped. As we explore Randolph’s history with his father, his family… with Dieter, their downstairs neighbour. There’s something here pulling us on. Just what was it that finally pushed Randolph over the edge to contract his father to kill.

 

I’m not sure ‘Fear’ is the right word, though. The book is translated from German, and I can’t help but wonder if it was originally one of those German words that doesn’t have a direct English translation.

 

Sure, there is an element of fear that Randolph experiences, both as a young boy in the presence of his father, and for his young family. But it’s not something the reader experiences.

 

The bad guy is dead at the beginning of the book, there’s no fear that he will win, because we know that he doesn’t. Whatever he does do, it doesn’t lead to the total destruction of Randolph’s life.

 

So, what is the feeling the reader is left with?

 

That famous German word for which there’s no direct translation – Schadenfreude – the feeling of pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone else, it’s not that. But maybe it’s something similar?

 

Some kind of pre-schadenfreude. The anticipation of something bad happening to someone else? The idea that Dieter is going to earn his comeuppance that we’ve been promised in the opening pages.

 

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover – or it’s title, or even it’s hashtag – sometimes it delivers more than it promises. Having said that Fear is a better title than Pre-schadenfreude.

 

Fear will be published by Orion in January 2018 (Sorry – perk of the job… look out for it then, it will make a wonderful January read!)

A(nother) Review: The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

 

What even is a guilty pleasure? If we enjoy something… why should we feel guilty about it?

 

It was the phrase guilty pleasure that came to me when I started reading The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly.

 

It is the fourth in a series of books that started with Seven Ancient Wonders back in 2005. They follow the adventures of Captain Jack West who dashes around the world solving riddles and uncovering the earth’s greatest secrets.

 

It was followed by The Six Sacred Stones in 2007 and The Five Greatest Warriors in 2009. Seven years later, and we’re finally halfway through the series.

 

They are thrillers in every sense of the word, they follow the traditional short chapters and lack of exposition and description. But Four Legendary Kingdoms deals with all that by only giving is what is necessary for the plot.

 

The plot is king. There is little time for feeling or for the characters to naval gaze. They are the complete opposite to the books I normally enjoy which focus more on character than plot, which I guess is why I describe them as a guilty pleasure.

 

But despite them being everything I normally don’t enjoy… I love these books. They are actually incredibly creative, taking myths and legends and historical facts that already exist and building a what-if world around them.

 

It takes a lot of skill to do that, and while they might be easy reads, they can’t be easy to write.

 

It’s hard to tell you what The Four Legendary Kingdoms is actually about without revealing too much, but West wakes to find himself, kidnapped, cut off of from his friends, in a cell, facing a minotaur. He escapes only to find himself in an arena with fifteen other men, all of them competing in deadly challenges.

 

The series of books are best described as Dan Brown-esque. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code along with the rest of the world, but I found I enjoyed Matthew Reilly’s work more.

 

I called The Four Legendary Kingdoms a guilty pleasure but now I feel guilty for saying that. They are wonderful books that I thoroughly enjoy. They are fun romps that make you completely engage with all the characters, even with the limited exploration of their inner selves.

 

I can’t wait for the next book, but with eight years between the last two, I might have to wait a while.

 

At this rate, GRR Martin will have finished his Song of Ice and Fire series before we get to the last in the Jack West series (presumably entitled …And A Partridge in a Pear Tree).