Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 10th, 2000
Format: Hardcover, 518 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

The final war with the Authority has come. The sides have been drawn. Ignorance and control or knowledge and freedom. That which was known as God was really just taking credit for creating that which was in existence long before him. Now his second in command is power hungry and wants absolute control over all worlds. A modern inquisition, which Lord Asriel will fight until his dying breath. Yet it's the breath of his daughter that is needed. She needs to live. She needs to fulfill the prophecy that she will put an end to death and become the new Eve. This might prove rather tricky as the Magisterium has sent a priest to kill her and her own mother is currently holding her captive in a drug-induced sleep in a Himalayan cave. It is up to Will, Lyra's staunch friend, to pull himself together after seeing the father he spent his life searching for killed in front of him by a witch and then have a pair of angels appear to direct the bearer of the subtle knife to Lord Asriel. But Will is up to the challenge and along the way to Lyra meets one of her old allies, the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison, who has fled the arctic as the opening between worlds Lord Asriel has created has destroyed his icy fortress of Svalbard. They find Lyra in the nick of time, taking her out from under the hands of the Magisterium and Lord Asriel. While Lyra was drugged she dreamt of her friend Roger in the land of the dead and upon waking knows what she and Will must do. If his knife can open a window into any world, surly that includes the land of the dead. They will journey there with two new companions, the Gallivespian, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia who ride upon dragonfly steeds, and speak to Roger. Will might even get a chance to talk to his father. After that? Well, who knows how their journey will effect the war... but effect it it will, especially once they are reunited with their friend Mary.

Well, the "end" is here. I say "end" in quotes because as we know now it's not really the end but back in 2000 it was that. The big battle, the Authority toppled, the end and the beginning all in one. Pullman could have concentrated on the war, made an unsubstantial confection of explosions worthy of the big screen sometime in the summer months with angels fighting angels but instead he decided to focus on his characters. Lyra and Will take center stage, as well as new favorites, and instead of a grinding depiction of war we're given something bigger. A journey of self discovery and redemption and hope while the war just happens to be going on off to the side. Am I the only one to say "thank god" only to realize that Lord Asriel would totally disapprove that I, as a thinking person, am giving thanks to an organization that thrives on ignorance and he made a holy war to topple? While The Golden Compass is Lyra's story and The Subtle Knife is Will's story, The Amber Spyglass is about their journey towards not just growing up, but the knowledge of what it is to love. They are the Adam and Eve of this story and as such they must taste the fruit of knowledge offered up by Mary and basically reboot the world. The problem in this though is the vagueness that Pullman uses when describing their love. I can't tell if it's because he's trying to write around it because this was intended for a younger audience, but is their love more than love? Are they sneaking off into the savanna for some hanky panky? He's embracing the ellipses, more than once I might add, and after this long of a journey with these characters I NEED to know if just the knowledge of love was enough to bring about the second fall or if Lyra and Will actually had sex.

As for those we know had sex... let's look to Lyra's parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, I'm sorry, she's too scary to ever to refer to her casually by her first name. SO much of this series is dealing with parental issues. A lot of that is to do with the fact that as we grow up we have our parents to look to as to what we will become and this either is something we embrace or something we buck. But there's no getting around the fact that Lyra's parents are horrible parents and this is the crux of the series. Lyra is drawn into their world and their war. She is at times a pawn but usually THE major player in all of it. But her parents aren't static, they change over time until they make the ultimate sacrifice for Lyra and one is believable and the other isn't plausible in the least. Lord Asriel's journey and his faith in Lyra make sense. He saw her grow up, pretending to be her uncle, and he is willing to die to protect Lyra because he knows that his daughter will end the war he has wagged. His sacrifice at the end makes sense. He dies taking down the angel in power while also giving Lyra time to escape and fulfill her destiny. But Mrs. Coulter. I just don't get her. When she shows up in Oxford and swoops Lyra away to be a part of her world it's almost like Lyra is a doll she's picked up to dress and play with. Yes, she does save her from intercision at Bolvanger, and she saves her again from the church to hide her away in a dank cave in the Himalayas, but why? She claims it's because her grinchian heart has grown three sizes because of her daughter, but I don't buy it. They say every mother has this overriding instinct to protect their child and lavish it with love, but that's not true. Just look at the world around us, just look at this story. I don't buy that Mrs. Coulter would sacrifice herself for Lyra. For her own purposes, yes, but for her daughter? No way.

Yet I don't have as many issues with Mrs. Coulter as I have with the Mulefa. Those loving elephant faced, diamond skeletoned people whom Mary spends all her narrative with freak me out. But to be fair, it's not in their nature, it's in their wheels. Father Gomez the killer priest was so right when he said that their use of wheels was evil, and yes, I know I'm agreeing with an evil assassin, but seriously, wheels! Yes, I know, technically it's ingenious evolution, but the truth is me and wheeled creatures have a dark history, one which makes me hate them all. Are there things that you saw as a child that just ingrained themselves so deeply in you that they make up a substantial part of your nightmares and neuroses? Not the standard teeth falling out nightmare that so many of us suffer, but a hate of zombies from seeing a certain movie too young. Or a fear of elevators because of what the hell was in outer space when Charlie and Willy Wonka stepped out of the glass elevator (and yes, I cop to this one). Well, when I was very young I stumbled on the comic adaptation of Return to Oz. If you haven't seen Return to Oz, well, firstly you should, but secondly, it's a really dark re-imagining of Oz and the second and third books in the series by L. Frank Baum. There's shock treatment and a lady with removable heads. So while the shock treatment just gave me interesting knowledge, and the lady with removable heads made me slightly freaked, there was one part of the movie that terrified me: The Wheelers. Forget flying monkeys, these minions of the witch Mombi are "people" with wheels for hands and hatred in their hearts and they will hunt you down. Therefore I can not condone these Mulefa, they are in essence that world's Wheelers! BEWARE THE WHEELERS!

OK, no more Wheeler talk, it's near Halloween, this movie is bound to be airing and the nightmares will return. Let's discuss a pet peeve of mine; quotes at the start of chapters, or even at the start of a book. I know for a lot of authors that they have a special meaning, that perhaps this certain line that they have included inspired them or sheds meaning on their writing or captures the essence of whatever is to come like some cryptic clue, but can I just ask all you writers out there to stop. If it's a clue or whatever it's annoying because after reading the chapter you have to go back and re-read it and see if you got it and if you didn't you just end up feeling really stupid. But most of the time, it just comes off as pretentious: "Yes, I have a Shakespeare quote because I've read all Shakespeare and know more than you, ha ha." "What, this obscure poet, you've never heard of them? How can you even live with yourself?" "Don't you just feel that this line wouldn't get it's meaning fully across without the weird spelling of the words and all that is implied by it's antiquity." So IF you're one of these authors, just know, THIS is what's going through my head and makes me hate you just a little bit. Or, if I'm honest, quite a lot occasionally. Here though, besides making me hate Pullman a little, because yes, I can see these quotes at the beginning of each chapter do reflect the world he's created and inspired him so I can't completely hate them though I reserve the full right to hate the tiny ass font they were set in, I can hate them for a logical reason... These quotes are all from authors from our world. Yeah, I agree, quotes from another world would be weird, but then again it might work. Why might it work? Because it wouldn't be grounding The Amber Spyglass so completely in Will's world. Like 10 pages in the whole book take place in that world yet each and every quote comes from there? Bad move Pullman. Bad move. You are tearing down the worlds you built and I don't even know if you realize it.

Though for all my nitpicking what I think Pullman got SO right is the new definition of the Kingdom of Heaven. Lyra and Will are told that each world has to build their own Heaven, which means that it's about cherishing and caring for the world and it's people because you're building the Kingdom with each act, with each thing you put back into the world. Which makes Will and Lyra's final separation into their own worlds make sense. Yes, it may pain them, but they are each such extraordinary people that think of what they can accomplish and build in each of their worlds? Their journey and their sacrifice create a new start, a new chance to fix the problems they see all around that have been caused by three hundred years of damage from the subtle knife and millennia of damage from the Authority. It's not just the humanitarian nature of this that so resonates with me, it's that when I think of heaven I don't think of some weird ethereal place I think of the world around me. Hence, if there is a heaven it would be here on earth. The best thing we could be given is a chance to live again, which is why reincarnation makes sense to me. Though within this I still have to question where Mary stands. She's an ex-nun who doesn't believe in God anymore and hence has turned to physics. Yet while the events around her show that "God" was really just taking credit for something he didn't do and that now his second in command is going power crazy, I think some part of Mary should have gone, "Oh wow, there really was a God and angels and etc etc." Yet she's still firmly entrenched in her new beliefs and despite there being correlations she just doesn't see that both things can be true. But then again she was friends with people who had wheels!!!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: July 22nd, 1997
Format: Hardcover, 326 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lyra followed her father across the bridge in the sky and lost him. There was a fog. A dense, impenetrable fog and she has found herself in a world with no one. The town she is in is deserted until one day Will shows up. Will is from an Oxford different than her own. His father was a great explorer and his mother is mentally ill. Will has been caring for his mother all his life since the disappearance of his father. Only now he and his mother are in danger. Men have broken into their house and are searching for something that his father left behind. He secrets his mother away and when he goes home to retrieve that which is sought he accidentally kills one of the intruders. On the run he sees a window into another world and climbs through and meets Lyra. They decide to join forces as the only outsiders in this weird little world they've found themselves in, which isn't empty after all. The town is run by gangs of children because the adults fled due to Spectres, dangerous beings that are invisible to children but destroy adults. The two kids go back and forth between Will's Oxford and Cittàgazze. Lyra is trying to learn about Dust and Will is trying to find his father. Lyra soon learns, thanks to nudges from the alethiometer, that perhaps her questions will be answered by helping Will find his father. Because as it turns out, his father might have played an important role in Lyra's life so far, as he one day found a window into another world like his son did and walked through, never looking back. But how are these windows even formed? Will will learn the hard way about the Subtle Knife, but it also means that in spite of the danger to him he can always go home.

If you're expecting The Subtle Knife to be a straightforward sequel to The Golden Compass you're in for a bit of a surprise. Yes, it is a continuation of Lyra's story, but perhaps not as anyone growing up reading the Harry Potter books would foresee. Harry Potter is always front and center, but here, Lyra takes a backseat. The spitfire we've grown to love has been drastically changed because of her father's betrayal and therefore it is up to the new character of Will to fill the void. While you could say that it's all about the balancing of these two characters, of male and female, I think the shifting of focus off Lyra might be more in the vein of another famous writer who dealt with church indoctrination, C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia pick up and drop the various Penvensies like they're going out of fashion, and while Pullman never deserts any of our beloved characters, they all have their specific heft depending on the book. And The Subtle Knife belongs to Will, and to a lesser but more emotionally charged way to Lee Scorsby the Texas aeronaut. This kind of results with the reader feeling a little alienated. We've fallen in love with this world and now we're back at square one. Even weirder, we're back in our own world. We have to rebuild our love of this expanding universe while our heroine is in shock. Because Lyra's absenting herself from steering the book makes sense when you think of the very real situation she is in. She's in shock from the death of her best friend Roger. She doesn't know what to do, she's just pinballing around looking for something, someone to rally around and she finds Will and makes him her new cause. Lyra is actively promoting Will while stifling her and Pan's voice.

This change up just adds to the fact that this book is suffering from typical "middle book" problems. Everyone has heard of middle child syndrome, but I think more people need to be aware of the problems inherent in middle books. Ah, the issues facing the bridging book of a trilogy... you need to make it interesting enough that people will wait with baited breath for the final volume, yet you must give them a story that holds up on it's own, while also having a satisfying ending. If you want a master class in a successful middle book look to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers or Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight or Galen Beckett's The House on Durrow Street. I could go on because when a middle book gets it right it just stays in your mind as being the exception to the rule. While The Subtle Knife does "technically" hold up on it's own, it's not due to any overarching story, it's due to little moments that take your breath away. Imagery that is unforgettable, while Pullman struggles with setting up all the pieces that will be needed for the epic conclusion. Lee Scorsby's last stand in that rocky gulch will just rip your heart out and put it back in all gritty and pained. The witches swirling through the sky, like the unforgettable illustrations of Adrienne Adams's A Woggle of Witches. The dangerous yet somehow ingenious heist of the alethiometer from the odious Sir Charles Latrom. These moments stick with you. I remembered these moments in all the years since I first read The Subtle Knife, but as for anything else like plot? It had slipped out of my head because of all those middle book issues... and worst of all Pullman decided to end the book on a major cliffhanger... sigh. You know, minor cliffhangers can be just if not more satisfying. They also don't alienate your readers.

While there are those who grow to love Will as much as Lyra, I have to say that I've always been on the fence about him. Yes, he has struggled, yes he has survived against the odds, and yes, he has a soft spot for cats, yet there was always something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Until now. Will's mother is mentally ill. This isn't the problem, the problem is the way in which Philip Pullman describes Will's thoughts in regards to his mother. I don't know if Pullman is trying to show that Will is young and naive or if Pullman himself just doesn't get mental illness. And yes, there are people out there that try as they might just aren't able to comprehend what mental illness is in any form, from having it to dealing with someone who has it. Will is very straightforward about knowing that his mother's problems come from within, that there's something wrong. She obviously has OCD as well as other more serious problems yet when Will hears about the Spectres he starts to fantasize that somehow in his world, this world, that perhaps they are what cause mental illness. While yes, a child does dream of there being some external force that can be removed and their parent returned to normal, the actual belief wouldn't be there. Having spent a childhood growing up seeing those with problems and having OCD myself Will would never be this naive. What's more he describes what his mother does as just things she does, he never once focuses on the underlying compulsion. It's like a flip got switched in her and she does these things without any logic. But the truth is for the person suffering there is a logic, a drive. They might not want to do it, they might be fighting against it every step of the way, but Pullman just doesn't get this across. Mental illness becomes just another problem Will deals with instead of the horror it really is. Pullman trivializes it for his character's backstory.

I guess the reason the way Pullman handles mental illness annoys me is because he's dealing with such weighty issues, reconciling religion and science and yet he got something so wrong that can I trust his analysis of anything? This weird give and take between religion and science is one we have fought of centuries and which is sadly still being fought as Creationism is being taught again in many schools. Yet in Lyra's world experimental theology is what physics is in our world, indicating that there science and religion are more entwined and accepting of each other. As the series continues you see that yes, it is the battle between free thought and that of indoctrination but it's not so clear cut as The Magisterium would want you to think. And yes, this book is taking many ideas and bringing them together for you to think about, especially the fall of man as Milton depicted it in Paradise Lost, but to me, at this point in the series, it almost feels as if Pullman isn't sure what his side is. Both sides have committed atrocities in his narrative, yet we have yet to learn what is the truth. Because this is fiction, while we might speculate day and night and a book that leads to a good discussion is the friend of all book lovers and book clubs everywhere, we still need to know where Pullman's opinion lies. Did God create the universe or did science? This needs to be stated. Clearly. And it wasn't here. Here we suffer once again from middle book issues and have to wait. Sometimes I just want to find authors and shake them. As I write this I'm about a third of the way through The Amber Spyglass and the truth has been revealed and with that revelation I wonder why he waited. Yes, he's created a big set piece with it, so it would have made this book a little longer. But some of the building blocks were in place and a touch more foreshadowing might have made this book a more satisfying read.

But life isn't about satisfaction most of the time. Life is about just living day to day wondering about the mysteries of the universe that if we think too long on we'll be right there with Will's mom. Yet in the end I keep coming back to the more supernatural elements of this story, the fantastical, the prophetic. The witches. The witches have a prophecy that Lyra will be the end of fate by initiating the second fall of man. Here's the thing though, how is there really fate in this "world" that Pullman has built. Prophecies are all nice and good but he's clearly shown us that the multiple worlds theory is at play here and that each and every decision creates a different universe that has splintered off. Therefore everything is possible and everything IS happening at the same time. In a multiverse where everything is possible how exactly does prophecy come into play? Is it just for this ONE Lyra and this ONE Will? If something happened to them could Lord Asriel or Mrs. Coulter or the church go to another universe and nudge that other Lyra or Will into line with what they want? I get that this is a multiverse changing war that's on the horizon, but if everything is possible at all times yet you need a certain chain of events to happen how do you do this? It's almost too hard to reconcile these opposing ideas. So Lyra will end fate. What does that mean? I mean, really, how is fate possible in these books? It could be possible if the worlds were self contained. But travel between them is possible, so then what? Again, middle book issues! It's like he just threw everything at this book and figured he'd work it all out in the end. The problem I have is can he actually work it all out? I seriously don't remember from when I first read this series!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: October 17th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 464 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Renowned storyteller Philip Pullman returns to the parallel world of Lyra Belacqua and His Dark Materials for a thrilling and epic adventure in which daemons, alethiometers, and the Magisterium all play a part.

The Book of Dust will be a work in three parts, like His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). The book is set ten years before The Golden Compass and centers on the much-loved character Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon.

Philip Pullman offers these tantalizing details: “I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up. This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her twenty years later. As for the third and final part, my lips are sealed.

“So, second: is it a prequel? Is it a sequel? It’s neither. In fact, The Book of Dust is . . . an ‘equel.' It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, and characters they’ve met before. Also, of course, there are some characters who are new to us, including an ordinary boy (a boy we have glimpsed in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world.

“Third: why return to Lyra’s world? Dust. Questions about that mysterious and troubling substance were already causing strife ten years before His Dark Materials, and at the center of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organization, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free. The idea of Dust suffused His Dark Materials. Little by little through that story the idea of what Dust was became clearer and clearer, but I always wanted to return to it and discover more.”

The books of the His Dark Materials trilogy were showered with praise, and the Cincinnati Enquirer proclaimed, “Pullman has created the last great fantasy masterpiece of the twentieth century.” With The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman embarks on an equally grand adventure, sure to be hailed as the first great fantasy masterpiece of the twenty-first century."

What it's all about people. What it's all about.

Harry Potter: A Journey Through A History of Magic
Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: October 17th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 144 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"As the British Library unveils a very special new exhibition in the UK, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, readers everywhere are invited on an enchanting journey through the Hogwarts curriculum, from Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology to Defense Against the Dark Arts, Astronomy, and more in this book uncovering thousands of years of magical history.

Prepare to be amazed by artifacts released from the archives of the British Library, unseen sketches and manuscript pages from J.K. Rowling, and incredible illustrations from artist Jim Kay.

Discover the truth behind the origins of the Philosopher’s Stone, monstrous dragons, and troublesome trolls; examine real-life wands and find out what actually makes a mandrake scream; pore over remarkable pages from da Vinci’s notebook; and discover the oldest atlas of the night sky.

Carefully curated by the British Library and full of extraordinary treasures from all over the world, this is an unforgettable journey exploring the history of the magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories."

Anything that makes Harry Potter more real, am I right?

House of Shadows by Nichola Cornick
Published by: Graydon House
Publication Date: October 17th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 464 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The wooded hills of Oxfordshire conceal the remains of the aptly named Ashdown House—a wasted pile of cinders and regret. Once home to the daughter of a king, Ashdown and its secrets will unite three women across four centuries in a tangle of intrigue, deceit and destiny...

In the winter of 1662, Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, is on her deathbed. She entrusts an ancient pearl, rumored to have magic power, to her faithful cavalier William Craven for safekeeping. In his grief, William orders the construction of Ashdown Estate in her memory and places the pearl at its center.

One hundred and fifty years later, notorious courtesan Lavinia Flyte hears the maids at Ashdown House whisper of a hidden treasure, and bears witness as her protector Lord Evershot—desperate to find it—burns the building to the ground.

Now, a battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues Holly Ansell has to finding her brother, who has gone missing researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with Lord Craven. As she retraces his footsteps, Holly's quest will soon reveal the truth about Lavinia and compel her to confront the stunning revelation about the legacy of the Winter Queen."

Yeah, I love house books. English house books are even better!

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: October 17th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays...

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive..."

One for Christmas, which despite being October is still fast approaching...

Cooking Price-Wise by Vincent Price
Published by: Calla Editions
Publication Date: October 17th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 208 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Best known as a star of stage and screen, Vincent Price was also a noted gourmet whose enthusiastic promotion of home cooking included several cookbooks and a television show, Cooking Price-Wise. This charming book of Price's favorite recipes is based on the Thames Television series he hosted in the 1970s, which showcased timeless international cuisine. Scores of easy-to-make dishes from around the world include soups, breads, main courses, sidedishes, and desserts that can be made from ingredients readily available in supermarkets and food shops. Fascinating food-related historical tidbits add extra zest to the newly typeset recipes and numerous color and black-and-white photographs that enhance this handsome collectible edition.

This special expanded edition of Cooking Price-Wise stands as a true family affair, featuring new contributions from the author's children, including a Preface by his daughter, Victoria, and a Foreword by his son, V.B. An extensive bonus section, "The Culinary Legacy of the Price Family," includes baking recipes from Vincent's grandfather, the inventor of baking powder; journal entries from the author's eye-opening trip to Europe as a 17-year-old; and a selection of family favorites from Victoria Price's childhood. Plus, Victoria also provides a wealth of insights into the Price Culinary Legacy."

Seriously, HOW DID I NOT KNOW OF THIS BOOK!?! Also, extra points if it's cost efficient, LOL! 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review - The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
Based on the book by Philip Pullman
Starring: Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dakota Blue Richards, Freddie Highmore, Ben Walker, Clare Higgins, Charlie Rowe, Jack Shepherd, Magda Szubanski, Nicole Kidman, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, Edward de Souza, Christopher Lee, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Sam Elliott, Kathy Bates, Ian McKellen, Jason Watkins, Paul Antony-Barber, Hattie Morahan, and Ian McShane
Release Date: November 27th, 2007
Rating: ★★
To Buy

There are parallel worlds, worlds joined by Dust, some are just like ours with the only difference being that humans have constant animal companions called daemons. This is a story of that world and a girl, Lyra, and her daemon Pan. Lyra's living a carefree life in Jordan College, Oxford. She has her best friend Roger and all the gyptian kids to play with. They run amock and stage their childish wars and whisper about the evil gobblers that take kids away. Only maybe the gobblers are real... After a visit from her uncle, Lord Asriel, wherein he once again said Lyra was not to accompany him on his adventures to the north the beguiling Mrs. Coulter arrives and offers Lyra what Lord Asriel wouldn't, a true home and a northern adventure. Only Roger isn't there to see Lyra off. Soon Lyra is in London and thoughts of Roger are long gone. But life isn't perfect in Mrs. Coulter's world. She can be cruel and is obviously hiding things from Lyra. Of course Lyra is hiding things from her as well, in particular a Golden Compass, a symbol reader that the Master of Jordan College gave her. It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Coulter is actually the head of the gobblers who are kidnapping children to perform an operation on them called intercision and Roger was one of the kids taken. This and Mrs. Coulter's daemon trying to steal the Golden Compass is the last straw. Lyra runs into the night and is reunited with the gyptians. They are mounting a rescue mission north to rescue the children and Lyra wants to come. There she can rescue Roger, see an ice bear, and perhaps her uncle. But the journey is dangerous and she and Pan could be separated forever...

As the music soars and the end credits roll you realize that yes, not only are they ending the story before it's true grim final act, they are overly confident of a sequel that will never come. Could it be Daniel Craig's fault, as this is the first of many would be franchises that he kills proving he's only able to successfully churn out Bond film after Bond film? Or could it be that Chris Weitz shouldn't have had such grand ambitions? Whatever it was that went wrong, and a lot must have gone wrong, what was to be the next Harry Potter cum Lord of the Rings franchise was a sanitized steampunk odyssey that just didn't get it. Back when it was released in 2007 I remember getting all my friends together and just being dumbfounded that the whole movie was such a misstep. I seriously sat there unable to believe that they ended the tale on a happy and hopeful note. The reason I love the books is that despite being firmly rooted in fantasy there is realism with it's real world consequences. But the only real world consequence for the film franchise was that it was one and done. Girding my loins to actually watch the film for the first time since the theater I was struck by it's try-hard nature and that despite everything that went wrong, it wasn't as bad as I remembered. There were enough British actors that I love peppered throughout that they were able to distract me from the epic fail that was the overall film. Little things would occasionally be right, but overall it reeked of failed hope, even Saruman and Gandalf reuniting wasn't enough to save this floundering mess. Bloodless battles in a world that is too sleek and too dismissive of what the heart of the book is lead to a movie that makes no sense.

Moving beyond the illogical internal timeline that takes away all cause and effect, The Golden Compass was about flash and spectacle. The flash of a daemon being killed verses the substance of the connection between a human and their daemon. There is no heart and no soul. The irony shouldn't be lost on the faithful book readers. The story by Philip Pullman is all about growing up and learning about cause and effect and what if there was a procedure that could arrest childhood innocence. It's about separating the self from the soul in order to maintain this innocence. By stripping out all the layers on which the book works and going for a bowdlerized glitter-fest the movie has no soul. How can you ruminate on losing something you never had? This movie literally has no meaning. What's more is that while the soul is gone there could have been some glimmer of lessons learned. They could have maintained Lyra's loss of innocence with her journey from Jordan College to the perfumed, complicated, and adult world of Mrs. Coulter, but instead, once again, they vetoed that idea. By ending the tale on Lyra's balloon ride to her father she's still full of hope. The future is wide open. Yes, she's had harsh lessons, but all of them have been reversible. She fully loses her innocence when her father kills her best friend Roger, the one whom she had vowed to rescue. This false, and baffling to book fans, ending means that the entire moral of the story is gone, the cost of growing up is lost, and so was any chance at the film franchise succeeding.    

Yet the complete lack of insight into what the book is about wasn't just reserved to Lyra's journey, it encompassed the entire world Philip Pullman had built and can be seen most clearly in the daemons. This film literally just does not get daemons. The films opens with Eva Green's husky voice explaining about parallel worlds and Lyra's world and what exactly daemons are. But the truth is they tried and failed quite quickly while setting down the rules. There are glaring omissions and breeches that the uninformed viewer would just not see. One such omission is the whole distance rule. Humans and their daemons can only be a certain distance apart. Why is this important? Because when Lyra and Pan freak out not knowing where Mrs. Coulter's evil monkey is you don't get the reasoning behind it. It's because there should be no way that her monkey is off doing it's own thing. A HUGE revelation, and yet? Brushed aside. As for daemons touching each other and humans touching daemons not their own... well these are taboos NEVER laid down. The fact that Pan is all cosy with that creepy golden monkey about five seconds after meeting him, no no no. Touching is a no no. Lord Asriel's daemon bullying Pan? Again, NO! I mean, did Chris Weitz actually read the source material? Because once again by not setting the rules down a later scene doesn't have the impact it should. When the scientists at Bolvanger grab Pan no one watching this film would get the horror this implies. As for the Dust going THROUGH the daemons, lets not even go there. But all these things are nothing compared to how shitty the CGI is. Oh. Dear. Me. The truth is if you couldn't be sure of nailing this you just shouldn't have done this movie. The daemons are weirdly suffused with light and they don't move right, almost like the animators had never even seen a real animal. As for the fur? It shouldn't move by it's own wind and it shouldn't move in individual strands. 

Yet oddly enough it was the voices of the daemons that bothered me most. I'm not sure if it was miscasting or what, but the connection between a human and their daemon is so deep that I kind of feel weird hearing their voices aloud versus being a voice in their human's head. But I will say that this film isn't exempt from bad casting. Daniel "franchise killer" Craig aside I think anyone watching this film knows who is to blame, and that's Nicole Kidman. Sure, she's a big name, but that doesn't mean she's the right choice. She is ALL WRONG for Mrs. Coulter. This character has to be a split personality, she has to have a motherly seductive warmth that lures children in while also having a terrifying side embodied by that evil golden monkey. Here she only has the terrifying side. She's cold and calculating and just not right. It's like they took the arctic idea that threads through the book and instead of discussing the aurora or ice they just decided to have Nicole embrace these ideals, once again without looking at the bigger picture. The only plus that can be said is at least she hadn't at this point had so much plastic surgery that she looked more daemon than human, but that is a very small plus. Also, let's not even get started on Jim Carter, aka the beloved Carson from Downton Abbey wearing enough eye shadow that he could front a Glam Rock band because at least he was well cast. In fact the smaller roles were all so well cast that I almost want to go back in time and reshoot this film with almost the same cast but with a script that gets the bigger picture. For a film franchise you have to look to the future, not strip everything out and just hope it works. 

What was completely stripped out was the church. And this is unacceptable. I understand the reason behind this and I also understand why you'd be confused by me even mentioning the church in this review had you not read the source material. See, The Magisterium, the evil organization that Mrs. Coulter works for is really The Church, they are one and the same. Yet this adaptation took pains to make sure you never thought this by making cardinals councilors and throwing a few emissaries around the place. The production thought that the film would be too controversial if the big bad was the church. They removed them from Europe, plonked them down in London and made them an evil worlds dominating organization, not trying to, you know, stop the spread of sin, but helping these children become mindless zombies that they could control? Um, WTF!?! I just don't get it. The books are ALL about the church and if you remove it the domino effect happens, as you can see from all my previous complaints. You change one thing, and another, then another, all trying to fill the void by the initial change and in the end you end up with a near incomprehensible mess. A happy ending without a single grain of truth. Now, the church of old, the great old inquisition of centuries past might like the irony of this, but as a fan of the book just all the no. If you were going to change so much why even bother making this an adaptation? Make something new, something original. Don't take something with soul and strip mine it for something marketable, something soulless. Yes, I might not have loathed this film on second viewing, but it made me sad and wistful. The what could have been is so tangible that the ensuing disappointment is almost more of a letdown than the film itself.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 1995
Format: Hardcover, 399 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lyra Belacqua has had the run of Jordan College in Oxford her whole young life. The poor scholars just don't know what do to with the unruly girl. With her daemon Pantalaimon by her side and her best friend Roger she has scaled the roofs, waged war on the Gyptians, and spent her life going where she pleased. Though she'd never made into the Retiring Room... the night she does is a momentous one. It's not just the success of a campaign she's long wagged, but her uncle Lord Asriel has arrived unexpectedly and within a short amount of time she saves his life and learns about something that is to become her obsession, Dust. She can feel the capital "D." But Lord Asriel leaves, alive, and life goes back to normal, that is until kids start disappearing all over England. The kidnappers are given the moniker of Gobblers and soon they aren't just in Oxford, but they've taken Roger! Lyra is determined to save him yet she is sidetracked by the lovely Mrs. Coulter. She arrives and whisks Lyra off her feet and to London, where she is to serve as her assistant. The coincidence of Mrs. Coulter's arrival and that of the Gobblers isn't noticed by Lyra until later. When she realizes that this mysterious woman is responsible and is bankrolled by the church she runs away to find Roger. Teaming up with the Gyptians they travel north. There Lyra will see the most amazing sights and also face the most horrific betrayal. But with Pantalaimon, an armoured bear, witches, an aeronaut, and the mysterious alethiometer, Lyra might just succeed and find out what this Dust is.

I first stumbled on His Dark Materials during a very turbulent time in my life. There was loss and chaos and somehow these books reflected that and made me realize things were going to be OK. I would even go so far as to say that they really helped inform my DNA and pushed me to read more, to escape into the magical worlds located innocuously between two covers but also to look outside myself, to forge new friendships and rebuild what had become of my life. These books even helped form one of my most lasting friendships. You know how finding someone who likes the same book as you is like a recommendation for that person? Well I recommended this series to my friend Jess early in our friendship and her embracing of them was like a gold star next to my name saying that I would make a good friend, which I hope I still am! But having our friendship founded on books, and I will add Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has lead to me finding more and more friends through the love of literature. I guess, as I write this, I never really grasped how much this one book changed me. The Golden Compass isn't my favorite book, but it is a formative book and all these years later I still enjoyed sinking back into Lyra's world.

Though this time I saw Lyra's world very differently. It's not that the book has changed in the least since I first picked it up or even since I re-read it before the movie came out, it's that I have changed and my world view has expanded. This of course not only makes sense but also is part and parcel of the book. The Golden Compass is all about growing up and becoming a part of the adult world. Learning about all the things, all the innuendo that slipped past you for years. Losing your innocence. It's like having the blinders taken off and what struck me forcibly this time was how much The Golden Compass is like an adult version of The Wizard of Oz. Now I'm not talking Wicked territory, though having read those books probably helped me to see this book more clearly. I mean all the elements are here, though slightly distorted. There's Lyra's daemon standing in for Toto, there's the Wicked Witch, Mrs. Coulter, there's bears and balloons and misunderstandings and and and... I just found it so interesting how the themes and the imagery from L. Frank Baum's book seemed to have so much influence here. Yet while it mirrors it it's not a carbon copy. While The Wizard of Oz is a classic, it's a flawed classic that's too saccharine and too condescending. Here we are given a new classic, it has all the elements there but is better. More adult, more adventure, and more, dare I insult a Tin Man and say heart?

The heart of this series is not our heroine Lyra, but the relationship between Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. I had a daemon once. He was black and white and furry and was quite literally my soul. When I first read The Golden Compass I had just lost his brother and at the age of fourteen Spot became an indoor cat. Over the next eight years we became even more inseparable so when the inevitable separation came I was gutted. It has been almost nine years of feeling like I'm not all there. Feeling as if a part of me is gone. On my previous two readings Spot was alive and well and with me and our parting was a thing never to be contemplated. Yes, it would happen, but one didn't dare actually think about it. This time though he is no longer with me and therefore all the emotions that Lyra feels at the possible severing, of the intercision between her and Pantalaimon devised by Mrs. Coulter to stop Dust settling wasn't hypothetical to me, it was a reality. My soul has been split and I can well see why those who actually survive this horror become ghosts or zombies. The pain is almost unbearable. Yet to never have had the connection would be worse. Philip Pullman captures the connection between humans and animals so exquisitely that while I was hurting all over again the fact that someone else out there gets it. That someone else out there knows the power of that connection, a power to literally unlock worlds, is something of a comfort.

Yet there were also discomforting thoughts that this book brings up, questions about the Church. The school my mom was a librarian at actually banned these books when the movie came out because of Philip Pullman's beliefs. Though I think reading the books and having a discussion over the content would be far more productive than slamming a book because its author is an atheist. But the parent to lodge the initial complaint kind of has a point in that the church is depicted very badly. No that doesn't mean I'm in favor of banning any books, it just means that I am open enough to see that they have a point. The church, through the process of intercision, wants to maintain the innocence of children by not allowing dust to settle on them. And yes, they are willing to do this at the expense of their young lives. This brings about a lot of questions. Mainly, if their daemon is their soul and it is cut from them how exactly do they enter heaven? The soul is what is most important, not what happens here on earth and yet they are forfeiting their souls through this procedure. I just don't get the church's backward thinking. Of course I believe all this is addressed in the proceeding volumes, I haven't read them in awhile and this is something my mind kept coming back to while reading The Golden Compass. What's more just look to the church in our world, with all the molestation and sexual assaults. These scandals clearly show that the church itself is one of the greatest risks to children's innocence and yet in Lyra's world they are all about protecting it? Yes, these are heavy thoughts that perhaps need more time to be addressed than in this review...

Let's move onto other topics, how about worldbuilding? Philip Pullman has built this amazing and parallel world to ours with steampunk elements and animal familiars and then he ever so slightly slips up. There's the scholarly world of Oxford, the glamorous world of Mrs. Coulter, which I picture very 1920s, the rough and tumble like of the Gyptians, all fitting together into this very British world view and then there's the Bolvager facility. A facility that just doesn't fit into this written world. I'm not talking about what they do at the facility, that is very much of this imagined world, I'm talking about the building itself with it's tunnels under the snow and the ceiling tiles that can admit a girl who is rather small for her age into it's secrets. It's just too Michael Crichton. I felt like I was reading the description of the facility built at the bottom of the ocean in Sphere. Or like I was about to watch the episode of The X-Files "Ice" which was clearly an ode to Michael Crichton with it's alien parasite living in the frozen tundra. Yes, the book regains it's momentum after this bump in the road, but it's still a bump that could have been fixed! This one little section takes you out of the story and makes you feel like you're visiting your own doctor's office. Yes, facilities like this the world over are very similar, but did this facility a world away have to be? Couldn't it have had some of the vast imagination that fueled the rest of this book? Pretty please? Make the connection to itself NOT to us.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Death in St. Petersburg by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"After the final curtain of Swan Lake, an animated crowd exits the Mariinsky theatre brimming with excitement from the night’s performance. But outside the scene is somber. A ballerina’s body lies face down in the snow, blood splattered like rose petals over the costume of the Swan Queen. The crowd is silenced by a single cry― “Nemetseva is dead!”

Amongst the theatergoers is Lady Emily, accompanying her dashing husband Colin in Russia on assignment from the Crown. But it soon becomes clear that Colin isn’t the only one with work to do. When the dead ballerina’s aristocratic lover comes begging for justice, Emily must apply her own set of skills to discover the rising star’s murderer. Her investigation takes her on a dance across the stage of Tsarist Russia, from the opulence of the Winter Palace, to the modest flats of ex-ballerinas and the locked attics of political radicals. A mysterious dancer in white follows closely behind, making waves through St. Petersburg with her surprise performances and trail of red scarves. Is it the sweet Katenka, Nemetseva’s childhood friend and favorite rival? The ghost of the murdered √©toile herself? Or, something even more sinister?"

Lady Emily and St. Petersburg! Can you think of a better fit for Tasha's character?

Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan
Published by: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The first book in a classic Golden Age mystery series perfect for fans of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

When Mordecai Tremaine arrives at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame on Christmas Eve, he discovers that the revelries are in full swing in the sleepy village of Sherbroome―but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests.

When midnight strikes, the partygoers discover that presents aren't the only things nestled under the tree...there's a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas. With the snow falling and suspicions flying, it's up to Mordecai to sniff out the culprit―and prevent anyone else from getting murder for Christmas.

Murder for Christmas is a festive mystery for the holiday season: mulled wine, mince pies... and murder."

The holidays and murder just go together so well... 

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson
Published by: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Called to the peaceful wooded churchyard of St-John’s-at-Hampstead, Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose faces one of the most audacious and unusual murders of his career. The body of the church’s organist is found in an opened grave, together with a photograph of a manor house and a cryptic note. The image leads Archie to Cambridge, where the crisp autumn air has brought with it bustling life to the ancient university and town.

Mystery author Josephine Tey and Archie's lover Bridget Foley have each recently settled in Cambridge, though both women are not equally happy to see him. One has concealed an important secret from Archie which now threatens to come to light. Meanwhile, the change of seasons has also brought with it a series of vicious attacks against women in town, spreading fear and suspicion through the community.

Soon, another body is revealed, and in the shadow of King’s College Chapel, Archie uncovers a connection twenty-five years old which haunted both victims―as well as some of their living companions. As Archie and Josephine each grapple with savage malefactors intent on making their victims pay, they must race to stop another attack in this beautifully written, intricately plotted mystery."

This week is ALL about the cover lust. WANT!

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s scariest stories, with a foreword by PEN/Hemingway Award winner Ottessa Moshfegh.

After the publication of her short story “The Lottery” in the New Yorker in 1948 received an unprecedented amount of attention, Shirley Jackson was quickly established as a master horror storyteller. This collection of classic and newly reprinted stories provides readers with more of her unsettling, dark tales, including the “The Possibility of Evil” and “The Summer People.” In these deliciously dark stories, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods. There’s something sinister in suburbia.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators."

October should just be renamed Shirley Jackson.

Ghosts of Empire by George Mann
Published by: Titan Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the aftermath of the events seen in Ghosts of Karnak, and with the political climate somewhat eased, Gabriel takes Ginny to London by airship to recuperate. But he isn’t counting on coming face-to-face with a man who claims to embody the spirit of Albion itself, sinister forces gathering in the London Underground and an old ally – the British spy, Peter Rutherford – who could desperately use his help."

How long have I had this preordered? Since before it had a release date!

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry
Published by: Inkshares
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 300 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Five-hundred years ago, sorcery began to fade from the world. As technology prevailed, combustion engines and computers replaced enchanted plows and spell books. Real magicians were hunted almost to extinction. Science became the primary system of belief, and the secrets of spell-casting were forgotten. That is... until now.

Sorcery for Beginners is no fantasy or fairy tale. Written by arcane arts preservationist and elite mage Euphemia Whitmore (along with her ordinary civilian aide Matt Harry), this book is a how-to manual for returning magic to an uninspired world. It's also the story of Owen Macready, a seemingly average 13-year-old who finds himself drawn into a centuries-long war when he uses sorcery to take on a school bully. Owen's spell casting attracts the attention of a ruthless millionaire and a secret society of anti-magic mercenaries, all of whom wish to use Sorcery for Beginners to alter the course of world history forever."

Do you have shivers? Because I have shivers. And hopefully not just because I'm really cold...

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
Published by: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Here is a thing everyone wants:

A miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears:

What it takes to get one.

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado, is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect."

Right now, I'd take any kind of miracle. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Published by: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship."

If the protagonist isn't all about the Terry Pratchett love I'm calling foul on this title. Yes, I KNOW Terry Pratchett doesn't hold the patent on the "Turtles All the Way Down" saying, but he should! It's implied that he has ownership of it.

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power  by Mariko Tamaki
Published by: Amulet Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Welcome to Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. The five scouts of Roanoke cabin—Jo, April, Molly, Mal, and Ripley—love their summers at camp. They get to hang out with their best friends, earn Lumberjane scout badges, annoy their no-nonsense counselor Jen . . . and go on supernatural adventures. That last one? A pretty normal occurrence at Miss Qiunzella’s, where the woods contain endless mysteries.

Today is no exception. When challenge-loving April leads the girls on a hike up the TALLEST mountain they’ve ever seen, things don’t go quite as planned. For one, they didn’t expect to trespass into the lands of the ancient Cloud People, and did anyone happen to read those ominous signs some unknown person posted at the bottom of the mountain? Also, unicorns.

This hilarious, rollicking adventure series brings the beloved Lumberjanes characters into a novel format with brand-new adventures."

Firstly, if they just got an editor to check all the typos I'll be happier than I am reading the comics. BUT there's a big secondly... no Noelle Stevenson!?! For shame!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Collectors

The Collectors by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 22nd, 2015
Format: Kindle, 24 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

On a winter's night at Oxford College Horley sits in the Senior Common Room with his guest Grinstead. As the room gets colder and the hour gets late the other occupants slowly leave while the two talk about Horley's recent purchase of a painting and it's link to another piece of art, a rather terrifying bronze monkey. The painting Horley bought because it was a rather arresting portrait of a young women with an enigmatic air whose expression seems to always be changing. The dealer he bought it from had already made the sale so the story that came with it appears to be genuine. The painting has never been in one owner's hands for long. But wherever it goes the bronze monkey is soon to follow, though occasionally it is the monkey that arrives first and the painting shows up later. These two objects have some connection that cannot be broken as the provenance of the two pieces has undoubtedly shown. As it so happens the monkey has just arrived in Horley's possession as payment for a debt just after he purchased the painting. He hasn't even opened the packing case but the fact of it's arrival proves the story to be genuine. At this point Grinstead almost demands of his host that the time has come for Horley to show him these two pieces. They return to Horley's rooms where things take a turn. Grinstead has not been entirely honest with Horley and the story that was told wasn't new to him. These two pieces have a storied past steeped in mysteries from a distant world. And their subjects? They might just be pleased at the fate of these two men.

The Collectors never registered on my radar when it was first released in 2014 because it was an audiobook and while I am a fan of books in all forms there's something about audiobooks that I just tune out. Therefore my recent discovery that it was released as a short story for Kindle was a joyous surprise because it took me back to the beginning of Lyra's story in The Golden Compass and reconnected me to what I loved best, Lyra's life at Oxford before her journeys began. If there's one image seared in my brain from His Dark Materials it's Lyra sneaking into the Retiring Room at Jordan College. That musty and fusty domain of the male teachers that holds so much interest to the young girl and also catapults her into her destiny. With Horley and Grinstead I felt I was back in that room hearing about the adventures as the true armchair traveler that I am. I was totally absorbed until the story went a little too Douglas Adams and I felt Dirk Gently wandering about. But issues aside, what Pullman does here is to tap into the zeitgeist of the traditional English ghost story and deliver his own spin on classics like The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black. There's not just the mystery surrounding these two pieces of art which is almost timeless, but something akin to an ancient Egyptian curse. Something about these kind of tales that fascinate people down through the generations. Why else would people still talk about the curse of Tutankhamun?

This story taps into something primal with this idea of worlds touching and bleeding into each other and through this we get another way to look at ghosts. When I was little I had an imaginary friend. Years later I started to wonder if he was actually imaginary. I remember when we moved across the street I told my parents that Robbie couldn't come over anymore. Later I learned that the previous owner of our old house had hanged himself in the garage, right near where I saw Robbie. What if Robbie was a ghost? Or, here, what if he was someone from another world who slipped through and played with me until one day he couldn't. Maybe it was his ghostly tether or maybe it was his doorway into this world. Whatever it was this story showed me another way to look at the world. Yet this little glimpse into the fluidity of worlds was nothing for what I felt for the connection the two pieces of artwork had for each other. The painting was of Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, before her marriage, and the bronze was of her daemon. While within Pullman's stories these two are morally ambiguous characters leaning towards being unrepentantly evil their connection even after death is so touching to me. That their link was so strong that inanimate objects that are basically their totems or avatars must always be together shows the power of love. They had each other and would always return to each other. So while yes, this is a ghost story, true ghost stories always, deep down, highlight something more, something human, and here, it's the power of love.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: April 8th, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 104 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lee Scoresby has set his balloon north in the hopes of finding some work. He's recently become an aeronaut, having won the balloon on a hand of poker. Though teaching himself has been a little hairy, something his hare daemon Hester would agree with, what with the balloon coming with only half a copy of The Elements of Aerial Navigation. One day he will find an intact copy of that valuable guide, until then as he lands in Novy Odense his number one goal is to line his pockets, which are perilously empty. And in a town built on every kind of oil imaginable not to have enough for a drop to fix his pistol feels downright shameful to Lee, so he sets out in search of some job leads. Stowing his balloon he walks to the nearest bar to look for employment and to wet his whistle and realizes he's walked into a town in the midst of an upheaval. There's to be an election that week for mayor and the incumbent looks to lose to the ex-senator Poliakov who's taken a strong anti-bear stance. Poliakov is a cunning man who is working with the powerful Larsen Manganese mining company which has supposedly just struck it rich in Novy Odense. All this Lee learns from a rather chatty poet, Sigurdsson, who happens to make his money as a journalist. While all these political machinations should be of some concern to Lee he's more interested in a distressed sea captain in the bar. Lee's interest in this man will put him in the center of all Novy Odense's problems and unit him with a powerful ally, the armoured bear, Iorek Byrnison.

While I picked up Once Upon a Time in the North when it first came out almost a decade ago I couldn't bring myself to read it because at the time this slim volume was THE END. This would be it from Philip Pullman with regard to his magnum opus, His Dark Materials. There were rumors and whispers that there would eventually be more but until the announcement this spring I just couldn't bring myself to read this story about when Lee and Iorek first met. I couldn't take the heartbreak that their story was over even if this was just the beginning chronologically. But what's odd is I'm really glad I waited. The book isn't just a great read, it's so relevant now that it is shocking. I mean it couldn't be more timely and it made me wonder, does Philip Pullman actually have an alethiometer? To so accurately depict the political climate almost a decade in advance is spooky. There's an election with Russians causing havoc, there's a charismatic leader whose entire platform is the removal of illegal immigrants taking jobs from the community in order to secure his win while really he's there to aid big business and the military industrial complex and line his pockets all the while having thugs working for him behind the scenes with his own personal army and the press in his pocket. I mean, seriously!?! Russians! Poliakov/Trump! Bears/Mexicans! Novy Odense Courier and Telegraph/Breitbart! It's spookily accurate. But what this does is rise the book from not just a story with bears and balloons into a fable for our time. Fairy Tales are there to teach people lessons, and I think the lessons shown here are ones that need to be taken to heart so we never end up in this situation again.

Yet the book wasn't all relevant to today, after all Lee Scoresby is a cowboy and a Texan through and through so Once Upon a Time in the North also deals lovingly with all the wonderful western tropes we've come to love to this very day. There's a reason Westworld would work in the real world as well as on the screen. Lee has a soft spot for the ladies yet he's honorable, giving advice to lonely women while not tarnishing their virtue. He's a crack shot, when his gun actually works. He has a weakness for gambling, but luckily with Hester by his side she'll keep him on the straight and narrow. He does what is right even if it gets him into a whole heap of trouble. Plus, there's something about a cowboy in a situation that is so beyond his ken that calls to me. Like Ethan Chandler on Penny Dreadful, he's without a home and in a foreign land and falling into a dangerous adventure but his moral compass will steer him right. There is also a villain from Lee's past! Poliakov has one Mr. Morton in his pay, an assassin from America whom Lee had a previous run-in with, though he knew him by the name of McConville. They had a set-to in Dakota Country that had elements of Deadwood and more than a dash of Pinkerton justice gone wrong. Like Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest, there's a trail of bodies in this man's wake, friends of Lee, and Lee isn't about to let him get away this time. With the politics and the vengeance I feel that this book actually can stand on it's own. In fact, I think that not only can anyone read it, but that this would be a good starting point for anyone considering reading Philip Pullman's work. Yes, there are some spoilers, but the microcosm of characters is so rich that I would recommend Once Upon a Time in the North to anyone. Even those skeptical of fantasy.

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