Saturday, January 6, 2018

2017 in Review

Last year I built upon Goodreads’ review of our reading in a blog post. Here are this year’s numbers, with comparisons to 2016:

How much did we read?

As in 2016, the group met 9 times and read 19 titles. Altogether we read 6,334 pages, which is a huge drop from the amazing 7,247 that we managed last year, with the average dropping from an impressive 381 pages per book to a more sedate 333. Our shortest read was The Uncommon Reader, which is actually classed as a novella, at 120 pages. However, this was balanced by All the Light We Cannot See that filled a much more Pulitzer-worthy 531.

Who did we read?

This year the male authors outnumbered the females by 10 to 9, although both Terry Pratchett and Brandon Sanderson are authors that I love and will continue to suggest to the group. All the other authors, whether male or female, were new to the group, although I suspect that some of them will make repeat appearances in the future.

How old were they?

The oldest book we read this year was The Haunting of Hill House, which was published in 1959, a whole 6 years earlier than The Left Hand of Darkness, our oldie last year. Again, the newest titles were from the preceding year, with both Behind Closed Doors and My Name is Lucy Barton published in 2016. Also again, the others showed a definite skew towards newer reads, with 14 titles published after 2000. I keep looking for older titles, and I do suggest them at meetings, but the ladies seem to prefer something newer and unfamiliar.

What genre were they?

We read a wide range of genres this year, falling into 16 categories other than ‘Fiction’, up 1 from last year. Last year we read a lot of Fantasy (11 titles), but this year the most popular categories were Mystery (8 titles) and Historical (5 titles). I am not sure if this is due to me being more varied in my suggestions or just the luck of our selection procedure. Of course, it helps that so many of my favorite Fantasy / Sci-Fi titles are monstrous tomes that I can never suggest, even over the summer hiatus – I am looking at YOU George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson!  

Did we like them?

Yes, although we were more ambivalent this year, with an average rating of 3.4, down from 4.2 last year.

We had one title that we all absolutely hated: Behind Closed Doors. Goodreads does not allow a 0 rating, but that is really what we wanted to give it. I personally could not complete it once a puppy arrived to be tortured and / or killed by the dastardly villain. Also it was badly written with poor characterization and a ludicrous plot. Many in the group were seriously under-impressed by The Woods by Harlan Coben and also Louise Penny’s Still Life, which both received 2 star ratings. All the other titles earned 3 or 4 stars, and whilst some of us would have given some of them a full 5 stars, no one title was unanimously declared outstanding, although A Man Called Ove and All The Light We Cannot See came closest.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

* * *

It seems amazing that this is our first venture into the works of Bangor’s most famous resident. Of course, as most of Mr King’s books are tomes of gigantic proportion, they are often too long to meet my criteria for nomination. I was looking for a diverse selection of Horror stories for our Halloween reading, and this fitted provided a nice alternative to all those vampires, ghosts, serial killers and ravening beasts.

Horror is a strange genre, in my opinion, because it can be difficult to predict what will be truly horrific. For example, I am much more upset when the victim is an animal, especially if it is a trusting domesticated one. I know that this is completely illogical, but it has stopped me reading books in the past; for example, Behind closed Doors by B. A. Paris, which involved the abuse of a puppy. However, I can be somewhat unmoved by the death and mutilation of humans, especially if they are disposable characters which the author sacrifices without even trying to get me emotionally attached to them. Some of the group could not cope with the physical aspects of Annie’s treatment of Paul and so did not finish the book, whilst I found it only moderately horrific. For me, the true horror was the way that Paul’s soul was slowly destroyed by the isolation and hopelessness of his situation.

The whole book is seen through Paul’s eyes, although there are a few sections where he imagines how events are unfolding in the outside world. He speaks to us in a stream of consciousness, so that we share thoughts and follow his dreams into some very disturbing visions. Perhaps it was this very intimate voice that made people highly uncomfortable reading Paul’s experience of Annie’s attacks. It was even more difficult to distance yourself from his pain because you were stuck in his head with him: and just as powerless to stop what was happening. Indeed, powerlessness is something that Paul experiences from the very beginning of the book, when Annie has to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He feels assaulted and invaded: describing it as rape even as it is occurring, before she has given him any reason to dislike or fear her. 

This first ‘assault’, dragging him away from the peaceful blackness of death, sets the scene for a series of attacks that become increasingly violent. At first it seems as if Annie, who is a trained nurse, is actually trying to help Paul to recover, but it soon becomes clear that she may never have intended him to leave. She splints his broken legs with no effort to set the bones in place, so that they are anything but straight and one is several inches shorter than the other. She also chooses to give him huge doses of an opioid whilst being totally aware that it is extremely addictive. All of this makes it surprising that she bothered to save him in the first place – especially as she did not know his identity until she checked his wallet. That she happens to be his ‘number one fan’ is pure coincidence, and one is left wondering what she might have done to him if he had just been a random person.

Of course, Annie’s adulation of Paul is cut short when she reads the latest Misery book and finds that her beloved character is dead. Paul is saved by his quick thinking exploitation of Annie’s desire to see Misery rise from the grave, and so begins his role as Scheherezade. At first he uses Misery’s Return as a way to postpone Annie’s decision to kill him, just as Scheherezade’s stories buy her night after night with the murderous king. However, it later becomes clear that Paul’s writing is also giving him a reason to live, so that he becomes Scheherezade to himself as he chooses not to commit suicide. Eventually, he values the book so highly that he decides to save it as part of his plan to escape captivity.

Sections of Misery’s Return are included in the text, and it should be noted that we all found them laughably awful! They are horribly melodramatic, with massively improbably plot lines, terrible dialogue and totally unlikable central characters. We all agreed that we would never want to read the book in its entirety. At the beginning of the book, Paul would probably agree with our assessment of the series: he hates it and resents its popularity in comparison to what he considers to be his more literary works. Of course, we have no idea if they are equally badly written, although it seems that Paul probably has an inflated opinion of his ability as an artist. He is genuinely shocked when there is little effort made to search for him until his car is found: it seems that nobody is really upset that he has gone missing. We wondered how much this reflects Stephen King’s opinion about his own work and value to society.

Annie Wilkes is possibly one of the best villains ever written and is especially creepy because she can appear very normal at times. Perhaps her ability to seem normal is what allowed her to remain undetected for so many years as she killed patients in her care, although it seems likely that she was also cunning enough to move on before suspicion led to hospitals to act against her. Interestingly, unlike that other famous serial killer, Hannibal Lector, she is not godlike in control of her environment: she seems to suffer from some form of mental illness, although we do not know if that caused her murderous behavior or is a symptom of it. I suspect that she is an amalgamation of many fans that have been ‘over zealous’ in their admiration of Mr King’s writings and is his way of telling fans that they have no say in what an author chooses to write.

For those with a strong stomach, I would heartily recommend this claustrophobic exploration of powerlessness and obsession. It will also make you much more careful when driving your lawn tractor!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Books for January

As I write this, the snow is drifting past the library windows with the promise of several inches to come. We have had surprisingly little snow and ice so far this winter, so I thought a few ‘cold’-themed books would be appropriate. The selections for the January meeting are The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Be careful what you wish for. A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning.

She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear. When she finds him, he is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets--what turned one to ice and the other to fire.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Meeting Schedule for 2018

We will meet at 6pm in the Business Centre on the second floor of the library

January 18th

February 15th

March 15th

April 12th

May 10th

June 7th

Books for December

After the horror of Halloween this month’s selections took their inspiration from Veteran’s Day. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell follows one of Arthur’s soldiers in this retelling of mythology whilst The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman recounts how non-combatants fought against the Nazis in occupied Poland.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere. Will the old-world magic of Merlin be enough to turn the tide of war in his favor?

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find inspiration when I am compiling the list of choices for the book group. One way around this is to pick a theme and use Goodreads to find suggestions: it has an excellent, searchable List feature compiled by its users. This has the great advantage of highlighting books and authors that I have never really noticed before, and in this case it led me to find this excellent debut title.

At the outset, the story seems rather predictable: two young girls go missing and the alcoholic, abusive father of one seems a good fit for role of the typical ‘Bad Guy’. However, there is much more going on in this seemingly peaceful neighborhood and crucial events in the past are slowly revealed as the search continues. Whilst we soon learn that Petra is the girl in true danger, the mystery of Calli’s selective mutism is almost as important to revealing the truth of why these events occurred. Following the multiple POV characters, we gradually piece together the disaster that is Calli’s home-life, which becomes ever more heartbreaking as we discover the depth of the abuse that she has suffered and witnessed. I do not want to discuss important plot points, but while some are pretty obvious, others are skillfully hidden until the answers are revealed.

Looking at the more negative reviews for this title, I saw that many people are highly critical of Calli’s mother, Toni. They see cowardice in her failure to protect herself and her children from Griff’s abuse and believe that she should have left long before this tragic event unfolds. We thought that this was a rather simplistic way to view another person’s life. It is clear that Toni was very much in love with Griff when they first set up home and that she knows that sometimes he can be a great father. She also knows that he is dangerous once he has consumed a certain number of beers, and will remove the children from the home when he gets to that point. We concluded that his job in Alaska also contributed to her inertia: because he only returned for short periods, she could always see a return to ‘normal’ in the near future and so was never pushed far enough to feel the need to leave him.

Perhaps more deserving of criticism was Louis, the police officer. His past relationship with Toni occupied far more of his attention than seemed reasonable in this situation. He and the other local police were rather lax in their investigation of the scene of the abduction and in finding some of the prime suspects. We were not sure if this was normal operating procedure, but I would have wanted someone else searching for my lost child.

Another point of criticism for us was the historical treatment of Calli’s mutism. Apart from Mr Wilson, the school counselor, nobody, not even her mother, uses writing or drawing as a mode of communication. The school is particularly appalling in its attitude to her, including one incident where she is punished for refusing to speak and Petra is punished for trying to communicate for her friend. With regard to Toni, we could understand that she might have been unwilling to push too deeply into the reasons behind the mutism, because she would then have to confront the unpleasantness of her relationship with Griff. However, we were generally appalled that nobody really expressed concern about what trauma had caused Calli’s psychological damage.

Indeed, the writer emphasized this damage by recounting Calli’s chapters in the third person, past tense. All the other POV chapters were given in the first person, present, so that we had a constant reminder of how badly Calli had disassociated with the world around her. It made it seem as if she were viewing her life as an observer, rather than a participant, as a way of defending her true self from the pain of experiencing her real life. Remembering that she was only seven years old made this all the more painful.    

This is a compelling exploration of domestic abuse and how different people respond to a horrific crisis. The group thoroughly recommends it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

This is the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

* * *

“Women are the ones who know what's going on,' she said quietly. 'They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

This is how Precious Ramotswe explains her decision to become the very first lady detective in Botswana. Indeed, it is easy to draw comparisons between Precious and Christie’s Miss Marple. Both operate in a small, village-like situation, relying on sharp observation and local knowledge to solve crimes. They are both underestimated by many people because they do not ‘look’ like the expected image of a detective, and they often use this to their advantage. However, to view this title as simply another cozy mystery is to underestimate the beautifully evocative way in which it depicts Botswana and its people.

Africa is a huge continent with a multitude of peoples and cultures, but we tend to get a very narrow view of it here in the West. Of course, this is mostly because news organizations fail to report peace and tranquility, especially when it occurs in other countries. We see the wars, famine, poverty, disease and corruption because they are deemed ‘news-worthy’ while the ‘feel good’ stories are restricted to local cats stuck in trees and the like. Then, of course, we tend to view Africa as one homogenous entity, forgetting that it is bigger than Europe, the US, China and India all added together and divided into 54 countries. The colonialism and exploitation of past centuries also acts as a lens to distort our view of the African peoples and their lives. For these reasons, it is a delight to read a book that presents the world view of a proud Motswana woman even though the author is a white British man born in Zimbabwe. It is clear that Mr McCall Smith has a deep love and respect for Botswana, where he spent several years helping to found the Department of Law at the University of Botswana in Gabrone.

The Botswana that we encounter here is a mostly peaceful, democratic place that has avoided some of the pitfalls of independence that still disrupt daily life in other African nations. Precious is very proud of this and attributes it to the influence of the first President, Sir Seretse Kharma, who placed emphasis on infrastructure, industry, education and corruption-free government. Because of the largely law-abiding populace, most of her cases are relatively benign: a wayward teenager with an overprotective father, a cheating husband, a stolen car, insurance fraud and a man abusing the tradition of supporting your family. Some of them are more serious, involving a missing husband or medical malpractice, but the most disturbing case is one that involves the kidnap and possible dismemberment of a young boy for muti (traditional medicine / witchcraft).

The range of cases reflects a ‘warts and all’ portrait of the country: Precious loves Botswana but is critical of many aspects of its people and attitudes. She sees tradition as mostly very important, but despises the use of muti and resents the sexism that she sees constraining women. Indeed, her attitude towards ‘men’ is rather negative and she tends to expect the worst of them. However, this is hardly surprising once we learn about her history with her husband, Note Makote, and we can see why she is jaded and cautious in trusting men that she does not know. In contrast, she has deep respect and love for several men that have earned her trust. Primary amongst these is Obed, her Daddy. We hear his story in his own voice, relating a horrifying story of working in the mines of South Africa, which took him away from home and also wrecked his lungs. He is a quiet, observant man who is devoted to his small family and an excellent judge of cattle. His gentle support allows Precious to blossom into a strong, independent woman with a sharp intelligence, a powerful sense of right and wrong and a burning desire to help others with their problems.

The other major male character in the book is Mr JLB Matekoni, the owner of Tlokwneg Road Speedy Motors. He is the complete opposite of Note in that he is much more like her father: gentle, careful and quiet. However, he loves her completely, has dreams where she is improbably naked, and his dearest wish is that she will agree to marry him. Given that she is a very strong-willed person, his more easy-going, passive attitude to life makes it very easy for her to walk all over him, something that may cause problems if they do marry in the future.

However, the success of this title rests firmly on the ample shoulders of Precious herself. She is a rather refreshing character, being very comfortable with herself and seemingly immune to the self-doubt that plagues so many female characters. She does not worry about performing as well as a man – she knows that she is superior to them! She is proud to be ‘traditionally built’ and pities thin women, although this possibly reflects cultural attitudes to the ideal woman in Botswana rather than her own personal indifference to fat-shaming. She looks at her world with positivity and love, enjoying life and feeling blessed to be living when and where she is. This is wonderfully uplifting and helps us to overlook her rather negative character traits. She is very quick to judgment, sometimes too quick, and that can lead her to incorrect conclusions. It also suggests a certain intolerance of other peoples’ decisions and preferences. She is also rather bull-like in her impatience to do things: she sometimes rushes in without really planning what she will do. Fortunately, she is quick-witted enough to change direction as needed, but a little more caution might be advisable.

It is no wonder that this series is wildly popular, with Volume 18 scheduled for publication later this year and a spin-off series of Children’s books recounting Precious’ first cases. If you want books to restore your faith in humanity and put a smile on your face, give the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a try!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Books for November

Halloween = Horror!  This month we have a Gothic classic and our first Stephen King novel to provide our chills and thrills.   

Both titles are now available on the Nooks.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Books for October

Now that the days are getting shorter my thoughts turn to falling leaves and curling up in a comfy chair with a good book and a steaming cup of cocoa. With that in mind, the suggestions for this month have a connection to trees or woods.

They are both now available for download to the Nooks.

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

Twenty years ago, four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night. Two were found murdered, and the others were never seen again. Four families had their lives changed forever. Now they are about to change again. For Paul Copeland, the county prosecutor of Essex, New Jersey, mourning the loss of his sister has only recently begun to subside. Cope, as he is known, is now dealing with raising his six- year-old daughter as a single father after his wife has died of cancer. Balancing family life and a rapidly ascending career as a prosecutor distracts him from his past traumas, but only for so long. When a homicide victim is found with evidence linking him to Cope, the well-buried secrets of the prosecutor's family are threatened.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a general assumption that adults read Adult books and only picked up Children’s books at bedtime to entertain their offspring. This all came to an end when a certain young wizard arrived on the shelves and adults got their very own edition so that they could read on the bus or the train without admitting that they were reading *gasp* Children’s Literature. Coupled with the rising popularity of the new YA genre, it has become increasingly acceptable for grown-up readers to openly admit that they enjoy books from the non-Adult part of the collection. Of course I am over-simplifying, but I know that Harry Potter was something of a gateway novel for me: having progressed to Adult books at a young age I had never before thought of returning to the Junior Library for my reading material. Authors like Philip Pullman have convinced me that the age of the intended audience is no indication of the excellence or seriousness of a piece of writing.

The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it is called in the UK) begins in the labyrinthine halls of Jordan College, Oxford, as our orphaned heroine, Lyra, sneaks into the Master’s Retiring Room, which is forbidden for non-Scholars and all females. Although this all sounds ordinary enough, we are introduced to a world that is subtly different from our own. The technology has a steam-punk feel to it, opium poppies are widely used by the Scholars and the social structures are built around the Magisterium, a theocracy that strictly controls most areas of life. However, the most significant difference is that all the humans in this world exist in two distinct bodies: a person and their daemon.

A person’s daemon is an external embodiment of their inner being. They are almost always of the opposite gender to their human and share their person’s level of intelligence and ability to communicate. They can act independently and we certainly see Lyra arguing with her daemon, Pantalaimon, quite a lot as he tries to stop her taking risks. During childhood, a person’s daemon can change shape and size at will, so we see Pan in a variety of forms as the situation demands. Once puberty arrives this ability to change is lost as the daemon ‘settles’ into a final form which heavily reflects the inner character of the person. It is noted that servants usually have dog daemons because they are loyal and follow instructions, while more unique characters are accompanied by suitably magnificent, vicious or sneaky daemons. Given this duality, it can be tempting to treat the characters and their daemons in this universe as separate individuals; however, I will continue assuming that Lyra is the heroine of the story even though Pan is with her every step of the way.

The exact nature of daemons, and their link to humans, is something of a mystery to the people of this world but one that is fundamental to this particular story. Once she is trapped in the Retiring Room, Lyra witnesses a presentation on a strange substance called Dust, which can only be seen using special equipment. Dust falls continually from the sky but is attracted to adults whose daemons have ‘settled’ but not to pre-adolescent children. Later, we learn that the Magisterium believes that Dust is a manifestation of Original Sin and are seeking ways to protect children from it. In order to do this they are taking unaccompanied children from the streets, leading to whispers of the ‘Gobblers’ hunting the poor neighborhoods. When Lyra’s friend, Roger, disappears she believes that the Gobblers are responsible and sets off to rescue him. In doing so, she begins a journey that will lead her into the frozen wastes of the farthest North and into the company of water-roving Gyptians, tribes of ancient witches, an American balloonist and a drunken armored bear.

During her journey, Lyra displays a fierce courage and a stubborn determination to help her friend, with her actions creating ripples of consequence that change the entire world. She is revealed to have a Destiny that could affect the whole of creation, in this world and all the others, however, she is less than perfect. Her disregard for rules, personal hygiene and ethical behavior is a problem for those who try to raise her. She is particularly adept at deceit and can create the most spectacular lies when the need arises. Whilst this allows her to overcome some highly dangerous situations, it is hardly a character trait that you would want young readers to emulate. Fortunately, Pan is a much more cautious character and he usually counsels against her most reckless and impulsive behavior.

As a hero, Lyra displays a prodigious amount of good luck, but is otherwise fairly normal, making mistakes and suffering like any other person. The only super-human power that she displays is her uncanny ability to use the precious alethiometer, a compass-like device that the Master gives to her. It has a series of images around the edge that can be used to frame any possible question and provide a truthful answer, although it usually takes a lifetime to master the framing of questions and the interpretation of answers. Lyra has an instant understanding of how to use the alethiometer and uses it to make some crucial decisions during her journey although the source of her gift is unknown at the end of this first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

As a small and uninspiring physical specimen, Lyra relies on other characters to provide her with money, resources and muscle. Perhaps the most memorable of her comrades is the entirely alien panserbjorne, Iorek Byrnison. When we first meet Iorek he is an armored bear stripped of his armor and forced to do manual labor for a small town, resorting to alcoholism to deaden the pain of his humiliation. In return for finding his missing armor, Iorek agrees to accompany Lyra on her quest to rescue Roger and gradually becomes her staunchest ally. Whilst the idea of having a ‘tame’ armored polar bear is always going to be appealing, Iorek is a favorite character because he is so well-drawn and non-human. There is nothing remotely cuddly about him, even though he is very furry: shortly after he regains his armor he kills a seal so that he can use its blubber to lubricate the various pieces and remove the rust. Although Lyra introduces him to the concept of deception, he remains totally alien throughout the series in both his thought patterns and attitudes.

We encounter a second non-human society in the tribes of witches that agree to aid Lyra. Although appearing as young and fragile women, they live to be hundreds of years old and so have a detached attitude towards the humans who live such short lives in comparison. Although they often fall in love with human men and have children with them, this is a source of great pain because the men wither and grow old so quickly and any male children will inherit their father’s short life span. As with the panserbjorne, the witches view the world differently from us, able to ignore the intense cold even though they wear little clothing and flying on branches of Cloud-Pine. The otherness of these and other peoples in the series adds a rich depth to Pullman’s universe, making it feel real and fully realized.

As might be expected in a Children’s book, Lyra is an orphan and initially distrustful of most adults. However, she is taken in by the beauty and generosity of Mrs Coulter and is happy to be taken away from boring Oxford and introduced to the excitement of sophisticated London. Unfortunately, Mrs Coulter is not all she seems to be and her behavior becomes increasingly creepy and cruel when Lyra continues to be unruly. Her daemon is an unnamed golden monkey that reveals a much more violent and uncaring personality lurking beneath the beauty. It is later revealed that Mrs Coulter is actually Lyra’s mother, which makes some of her behavior even more unpalatable. Throughout the series she remains a fascinating character who probably shows the greatest development as her love for Lyra begins to overwhelm her ambitions and sense of self-preservation. In many ways she reminds me of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter universe: a character that we despise initially but whose motivations are slowly revealed to be less evil than they appear at first.

Whilst I love this series and would encourage anyone to read it, I need to add a warning about the controversial aspects of the world depicted. These are not heavily addressed in the first book, although we are told that the witches have a prophecy about Lyra and her destiny to be a second Eve. However, as the series progresses we see Lord Asriel creating an army to fight a rebellion against Heaven itself, which can be reached through a window between parallel universes. Philip Pullman is an atheist so his depiction of the Authority / God may be appalling to some, although he has many supporters within various denominations of Christianity. The series discusses ideas of free will and personal responsibility whilst railing against the dogma of oppressing people ‘for their own good’. This is most clearly seen in the experiments that the Gobblers are conducting on the stolen children: whilst their intentions are to prevent the children from being subject to the effects of Original Sin, their methods are barbaric and horrifying.

In summary, I would recommend this series if you want a jolly good read that will entertain you and also alter the way you think about the universe.