The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

Book two in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, a trilogy that functions as both a prequel (Book One, La Belle Sauvage) and a sequel to his original Dark Materials series, 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, before being catapulted into momentous 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 to her in 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, and which links to the growing might of the Magisterium, then it’s apparent much darker forces are at play.

When Lyra is forced 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 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 – 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 among strangers, some with no agenda but wishing to be of aid. But what is most exciting in this book is following Lyra’s quest – 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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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Encouraged by son to read this book, I have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve been so thoroughly fascinated, challenged, made to feel worried, guilty, ashamed and then infuriated by my reading material, and often in the course of a page.

The sequel to his phenomenal Homo Sapiens, in Homo Deus, Harari writes about where humans were in history, what we’ve become and where we might be heading. Drawing on a range of discoveries and thoughts in fields as diverse as the sciences, economics, philosophy, psychology, politics, humanism, liberalism, religion etc. he posits a series of facts alongside possible scenarios and invites the reader to think – deeply. Going back into early history, when humans formed an agricultural and quite violent society, he takes us forward to where we are now, a species that values not just information, but our ability to access and share it. Whereas once upon a time power was contingent on having access to a range of organic and  the kind of resources that could develop strong (as in mighty) cultures, Harari argues that nowadays, alongside some traditional forms of power, knowledge is the key. He argues that historians study the past not to repeat it, but be liberated from it.

Some of the most thought-provoking and disturbing parts of the book, for me anyhow, were what he revealed about human’s relationships with animals. I felt sickened and deeply disturbed by what he reveals and I found it shored up some personal decisions. Likewise, I found his contention (based on research and scientific evidence) that humans are basically, like all sentient beings, simply a series of algorithms at once perplexing and basic, fascinating. It’s this idea, mainly (but not exclusively) that leads him to posit that the new religion of Dataism might be our future. After all, if all we are as humans is a series of sophisticated algorithms, like other creatures with which we share the planet but who we currently feel are less sophisticated than us, what’s to stop computers, those powerful processors of data/algorithms in one day governing us? Might we, as intelligence and consciousness are uncoupled, go the way of the Dodo and other animals we have helped to extinction?

It’s a scary yet real notion and one which this book puts out there, along with some other very credible ideas, for us in the here and now to contemplate. Whether we want to change what could be a catastrophic future for all the creatures who share this planet with us is, in the end, up to us. It’s a huge responsibility – are we up for the essential challenge?

Excellent brain food which I think will nonetheless give many some indigestion!

 

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The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

 

Where do I begin with this heart-achingly, lovely book that moves between utter despair and glorious hope? Once I started, I couldn’t put it down – the prose and sto

ry captivating me in a way I haven’t been for a long time. Not only that, but I found myself shedding tears I didn’t even know were gathering. Some were from sadness, but others were from the joy descriptions of simple things arouse – like a beautiful flower opening its petals, a painter’s palette summer sky, the cry of a native bird, the sunlight refracting on a river. It was unexpected, quite astonishing and testimony to the power of Ringland’s writing and the magic this tale weaves around your soul.

So, what’s the book about? It tells the story of young Alice Hart who, at nine years of age, suffers a shocking tragedy that forces her to leave her childhood home and the oft dark memories and wonderful stories that reside there, and relocate with her grandmother, someone whom she’s never met before. Like Alice, her grandmother, June, carries dark secrets, secrets borne from a deep maternal urge to protect those she loves and which is reflected in the flower farm she runs and, even more significantly, in the broken women she takes under wing and who work for her. Known as The Flowers, they too have secrets and histories that both bond them and, in an attempt to shed the past or at least reconcile it, cause emotional pain. Among these women with their love of stories and each other and the gorgeous flowers, Alice finds a modicum of peace, many more stories to nourish her soul and even love – that is, until something occurs which catapults her into a future she neither imagined or wanted.

From fields of sugar cane and the deep rolling ocean, to the flower farm by the river, and ultimately, central Australia replete with its chthonic magic and ancient stories, the book spans over twenty years. It explores different kinds of love, our connection to place, how stories shape us, how secrets do as well. It also examines the choices we make – good and bad – and the consequences of these upon both the individual making them and those they inevitably affect. It’s about residence and forgiveness as well.

This is such a soulful, gorgeous book that it’s hard to put into words how it made me feel. All I can say is that my signed copy (gifted by my publisher – and signed to me personally by Holly – thank you, Holly) is something I will treasure. I have also bought the book for others so they too might share in this enchanting novel.

There’s no doubt that Ringland is a voice to watch – poetic, powerful and moving – one that has the ability to take the reader on a journey that doesn’t end when the novel finishes. If that’s not an accomplished storyteller with a great gift, I don’t know what is. Cannot wait to see what Ringland produces next.

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Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series is like comfort food –ironically in the crime genre, though the novels are so much more than crime. For those who await each instalment eagerly (as I do), it’s wonderful to follow in Brunetti’s dogged, measured footsteps as he paces around his beloved Venice, glides the canals in a gondola or rides a vaporetti, patiently interviews suspects in whatever crime he’s attempting to solve and opines about the fly-swarms of tourists infecting his calli and piazzas along with the corruption of those who hold the reins of power and who would sell their mamma’s souls as quickly as sink the ancient city. The interactions he has with his academic wife and growing teenage family, his irascible boss and clever PA, never mind his loyal staff are manna from reader heaven.

Moreso than the others in the series I’ve read, Earthly Remains is the most languid and leisurely paced. Part of the reason for this is, after behaving in an unusual manner to save the reputation of his side-kick, Brunetti’s given leave from the Questura. Encouraged by his wife, he leaves the main island and enjoys a sojourn on an outlying one, Sant’Erasmo, in a home belonging to member of his wife’s family. While there, not only does Brunettti begin to shed the tension and anger that his job sometimes provokes, but to fall back into the rhythms of his past and which he finds nourishing and fulfilling. While there, he befriends the caretaker of the house, an old widower with a history he’s reluctant to share. Inviting Brunetti to join him as he rows the laguna to check on the health of his bees each day, swims and fishes, the Commissario finds the man’s laconic companionship, the water, sun and peace living alone with good books, a much-needed restorative.

When the caretaker goes missing after a storm, Brunetti is drawn into the investigation. What he discovers not only takes him into the caretaker’s immediate and distant past, but into that of Venice and the very people with the power to either restore Venice to its greatness or sacrifice its soul.

Beautifully written, the prose steals upon you, warming your heart before chilling you like the winds that whip across the water. The pace is slow, measured, much like Brunetti, but this only adds to the mystery, to the sense of building towards a climax that rather than being shocking, is heart-wrenching in its utter callous indifference.

In many ways, this novel is analogous to so much that’s happening in the world today – how greed and the desire for power rips apart the lives of the innocent and not-so-innocent. How those at the top are out for themselves and will sacrifice whoever and however many it takes on the altar of avarice and narcissism. The manner in which corruption infects everything – not only in the short-term, but sadly, and with greater consequences, in the longest of terms.

A wonderful, thought-provoking read with a beloved character who, despite the themes, leaves you with optimism at its heart. As long as we have Brunetti and people like him, the world will be left a better place…we hope.

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The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is an author whose work I not only thoroughly enjoy but wait with great impatience for her next book to appear. Her historical works of fiction, which take an intimate look at the lives of often overlooked as secondary women – those behind, beside and under the throne, if you like, are fascinating. Some I like better than others but this latest, The Taming of the Queen, ranks (in my very humble opinion) among the best.

25106926This time her subject is Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen and already, at the age of 30, twice widowed. Despite loving another man, Thomas Seymour, when Kateryn is offered the toxic chalice of becoming Henry’s next wife, like any woman Hnery sets his sights upon, she has no choice but to accept.

Dismayed at how her future appears to be unfolding as the sixth wife to an arrogant, spoilt and morbidly obese man – a serial killer by any other name – with a propensity to change wives, policies, friendships and even faith as one does underclothes, she determines to make the best of things, even if it means stifling her feelings for Thomas.

Uniting the fractured Tudor family is no easy task and yet she undertakes this, feeling sorry for Henry’s estranged daughters from his earlier marriages (Mary and Elizabeth) and his over-protected son, Edward. With no real political or religious convictions, she soon learns that a neutral position, while safe, will not do and sets about to not only educate herself in these matters, but form a very important study circle at the heart of the court, something Henry initially indulges.

Clever, Kateryn is soon writing her own religious tracts and debating fiercely with some of the finest minds of the time and those she trusts, all the while her eyes and mind are also focussed on not displeasing her mercurial and hot-tempered husband. What Kateryn hasn’t bargained for is the machinations of those closest to Henry, those who don’t like the influence this wise and wonderful woman has over the sovereign and what this represents to them in terms of the power they currently wield.

All too soon, danger stalks Kateryn and the grim realisation that she might soon meet the fate of Anne Bolyen and Katherine Howard faces her.

Even knowing this period of history so well, I was spellbound by this book. The challenges Kateryn faces (no less having sex with her husband), the pride she must continuously swallow and what she does to both survive and with her dignity in tact is phenomenal. The tension is wonderfully built and the first person narrative aids this, breathing a different life into this era and this passionate, honourable woman about whom we know very little.

In this portrait of Kateryn Parr, Gregory has worked a particular kind of magic, recreating the era, representing Henry as the monster he surely must have been, yet also imbuing him with qualities and insecurities that somehow prevent him from being utterly detestable.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves history, Gregory’s work, or just a damn fine read.

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