The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

Book Two in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, a trilogy that functions both as a prequel (Book One, La Belle Sauvage) and a sequel, is a deeply disturbing and at times very dark read that sees the main characters from La Belle – Lyra, Pan and Malcolm, thrown into personal and professional turmoil as their world and lives are threatened and, as a consequence, how they’re catapulted into life-altering journeys.

Commencing with a murder that Pan bears witness to, it’s a while before the significance of the death becomes apparent. What’s of concern to the reader is not only the fact that Lyra and Pan can separate (those who’ve read The Amber Spyglass will recall the heart-wrenching circumstances that facilitated this ability), but that they’re at terrible odds with each other. Now twenty, Lyra is a student at Jordan College in Oxford and, despite what happened in her childhood, is filled with the new, rationalist and materialist philosophies of the latest academic and literary “celebrities”, notions which cast doubt on what Lyra has not only experienced, but sees around her on a daily basis. This makes Pan totally despondent as he tries to debate the futility and absurdity of these viewpoints. But whatever Pan says, it simply makes Lyra more determined than ever to try and adhere to them. Initially, the tension between the two is just disheartening to read, but when you begin to understand this isn’t simply a personal change in perspective for Lyra, but part of a much broader way of thinking and being – a kind of existential crisis – and which has strong links to the growing might of the Magisterium, then it’s apparent much darker forces are at play.

When Lyra is ordered from her lodgings under a slim pretext and Pan, fed up with what she’s become, decides to go on a quest for her “imagination” (which he is convinced has been stolen from her), Lyra is left with no choice but to go and find him. Only, where Lyra believes he’s gone is linked to the murder Pan witnessed, the political and power plays moving in the wider world and, most strangely, the fact that a certain genus of rose, which can only be grown in parts of Asia, is being wiped out.

What follows, is a mighty quest that sees Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polstead, who in his role as an agent of Oakley Street as well as someone who cares deeply for Lyra, crossing England, Eastern Europe and entering incredibly dangerous territory. In the meantime, moves are afoot to disband those who would protect what’s been important in the past – academic freedom, the right to free speech and faith, to imagine and create – as the Magisterium and the men behind it rise to incredible heights and gain unprecedented control. Not only are they seeking to quash any kind of resistance, but put an end to those who represent that: the central figure being Lyra Silvertongue.

While the book plumbs some terrible depths – I am thinking particularly of a scene on a train with Lyra and some soldiers, as well as veiled and real threats levelled at all the main players – there are also some enriching and warm acts of kindness to offset these. They occur among friends and familiar characters (many of whom tread the pages of the book), but in a heartening gesture, often from strangers, some with no agenda but wishing to be of aid. But what is most exciting in this book is following Lyra’s pursuit – not so much the physical one she undertakes to find Pan, but the spiritual and psychological one she embarks upon as slowly and surely her eyes are (re)opened to what she’s wilfully closed them: The Secret Commonwealth.

This is a highly political, deeply engaging read that keeps you turning the pages and often while on the edge of your seat. A fabulous addition to an incredible series. I cannot wait to see where Pullman (and Lyra, Pan and Malcolm – and the rest!) take us next.

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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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Heavenfield by LJ Ross DCI Ryan #3

I guess I should start this review with a Happy New Year! It might be belated, but is no less sincere for that. I reImage result for happy new yearally hope 2018 is a cracker of a year for you. I am excited about it – not only do I have two novels coming out this year (the US version of The Locksmith’s Daughter in May with William Morrow, replete with a gorgeous new cover which I will preview soon and The Chocolate Maker’s Wife in Australia/NZ through MIRA Harlequin/Harper Collins in October – 2019 release slated for the USA,), but I also commence a new writing job as an advice columnist for a magazine. Watch this space. So I really feel writing is my living now – from fiction and history to contemporary politics, social issues and pop culture to advice. Feel ever so fortunate to be making my living with words and the ideas they inspire, imaginations they fuel, knowledge they impart and also the ability they have to console, excite, arouse, enrage, and satisfy.

I have made a promise to myself to read a lot this year – non-fiction (which I will do researching my new novel) as well as glorious fiction from all genres. Currently, I am reading the book that, before its release, caused so much controversy – Fire and Fury by Michael Woolfe. OMG.  Stay tuned for a review of that in the next few days. In the meantime, here is the first of  my reviews for 2018. So many great books, so many lovely words. Never enough time! Happy New Reading Year!

NuImage result for heavenfield LJ Rossmber Three in the Detective Chief Inspector Max Ryan series ups the ante by commencing the novel with Ryan being placed into custody under suspicion of murdering a man in a church. While it’s evident to the reader he is no more guilty of such a crime than we are, and for those following the series we understand how and why he’s been detained, it’s the one flaw in this otherwise good book that other investigators take their time releasing him so he can do what he does best: track down the real culprit.

Focusing once more on the mysterious “Circle” who have been the bane of Ryan’s life, in this book, they turn on each other and one by one, die gruesome deaths. Suspects become victims and Ryan and his team find rather than narrowing the pool of potential perpetrators, they are at a loss to know who is responsible. But time is running out as not only the death toll grows, but the murderer sets his or her sights on one of Ryan’s own.

Dark at times, but also interwoven with gentle humour and romance, this book, like the others in the series, is a light and easy read. With each book, the characters grow on you, even if the plot around the Circle is becoming thin. That said, they are well worth a read and great for holiday escapism.

Have already bought the next one.

 

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