Talking Books

Book Review of The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

la belle sauvage

The long-awaited prequel to Phillip Pullman’s classic YA series, His Dark Materials is finally here. And fans of the original series will not be disappointed with not only a return to the world of the beloved main character Lyra Bellacqua, but a return to Lyra herself.

Just an infant, Lyra is still driving the narrative of La Belle Sauvage.  Hidden away with nuns, Lyra is already being pursued by a number of groups, and especially the real villain of this novel, Gerald Bonneville, a man so evil he torments and savages his own daemon (remember the charming quirk of this world is that each person expresses a part of their soul as a small animal).

The main character of this series though is Malcolm, a young boy who stumbles onto adventure whilst working in his parents’s pub.  Malcolm hears both about the existence of the hidden baby Lyra, and those pursuing her and takes an interest in her prospects.  This also leads him to connect with a group opposing the Magisterium – a rapidly growing group of religious zealots which we know take over the political landscape from His Dark Materials.  The closest relationship he forms is with Dr Hannah Relf, who reads Alethiometers.

Malcolm’s tender heart is captured by the baby, and when a flood occurs, he decides to take her to Oxford to seek sanctuary.  He is joined by Alice, a plucky girl he meets in the kitchens.

The two spend the second part of the novel hiding the baby from a variety of magical and non-magical foes.  This meanders a little, and feels a little like padding out the real story.  But all is clever and engaging.

A delightful return to a beloved magical world – it’s undoubtedly going to be popular with fans.  Pullman has given them more of what they want.

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Book Review of Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping BeautiesStephen King co-wrote this novel with his son Owen, passing the chapters between them and re-writing each other.  The result is a novel that feels very much like King himself – his stamp is all over it.

Sleeping Beauties imagines a world in which women fall asleep and begin constructing some kind of cocoon. It’s a dangerous kind of slumber – when someone attempts to wake them unnatural strength and aggression is the result.  The world of men goes pretty much as you would expect – sense and reason fall very much by the wayside.  King is clearly a feminist.

Meanwhile, the women wake up in an alternative setting and begin setting up their own society which, while technologically behind the times, is pretty successful.  Time passes differently there, and while the Aurora virus has only taken hold in the real world for a few days, a year or more passes in the world of the sleeping women.

Behind it all is Evie Black, the supernatural force you would come to expect from a Stephen King novel.  Both malevolent and insightful, its hard to cast her as either hero or villain. She clearly sits somewhere in between.  Awake and safe in a prison cell, she forms much of the conflict in the text as the characters battle for what to do with her.

Nothing extraordinary here, this novel is very much “in the pocket” for King.  No more than a comfortable read.

Book Review of The Last Tudor

In the afterword to The Last Tudor Philippa Gregory says she may not revisit what haslast tudor been an incredibly successful series of novels about women during the War of the Roses and the Tudor Ascension. And while I have really enjoyed this series – its easy to see why. She is stretching a little here in this final installment.

There are actually three narrators in The Last Tudor – all of which have part of a story to share about Elizabeth’s coming to power. The first is Lady Jane Grey – who was crowned queen for all of nine days. She was then imprisoned in the tower by Queen Mary and later executed for treason. Lady Jane is an uninspiring narrator, and it is actually a pleasure to move on to the second narrator, her younger sister Katherine.

When Elizabeth comes to the throne it is still amongst talk of her unmarried status. And as time speeds by and she remains unmarried (clearly due to her love for Robert Dudley in this text) pressure mounts for her to name an heir. Unfortunately for Katherine, she is too likely a successor. Elizabeth, portrayed as tyrannical queen desperate to hold on to the throne at all costs, sees Katherine as a threat. When Katherine marries into another high-ranking York house for love and in secret, she makes herself a target. Elizabeth imprisons her, her husband and her children.

Although we follow Katherine’s tragic yet touching history for some years and long into her confinement, the youngest sister Mary takes her turn narrating. Mary is the most interesting of the three sisters – a pragmatist with a unique perspective. Pretty as a doll but likely what would have been referred to as a dwarf in those times, Mary is incredibly wary and astute about Elizabeth – who never let any of her ladies marry. Mary too weds in secret, but far below her. She too incurs Elizabeth’s wrath.

It is interesting to see each of the sisters through each other’s eyes, and their damning portrayal of Elizabeth, who is long considered to have ushered in a ‘golden age’ in British history. The last section is by far the best, but it’s clear this is wearing thin. A novel parallel to this, set from Elizabeth’s perspective, would be most welcome though.

Review of My Dad Wrote a Porno Podcast

UnknownImagine if your ageing father wrote an erotic novel.  And not even a good erotic novel… what would you do?  Would you avoid family dinners?  Pretend it doesn’t exist?  Or – like Jamie Morton – would you get together regularly with your friends and read it aloud, laughing the whole way through?

Author Rocky Flintstone (definitely a pen-name) delves into the sexually-charged pots and pans industry, and his main character, Belinda Blumenthal, is a woman who isn’t afraid to use her sexuality to get ahead in this cut-throat world.  Or actually, she’s quite happy to use her sexuality anywhere, any place, at any time and literally WITH ANYONE.  Through scenarios sexy, saucy and sickening, Belinda is always on her game.

Rocky however, is a terrible writer and there is a lot of questioning to be done in regards to his knowledge of Biology – especially the female body.  Fortunately, Jamie, James and Alice are all on hand with their commentary.  And it’s brilliant.  Witty and no-holds barred, they spare no thought for Rocky’s feelings.

My Dad Wrote a Porno is the podcast sensation I’ve been waiting for all my life.  For weeks before I began, I kept hearing people raving about it.  I’ve ripped through the first three seasons (and Season 3 actually ended on a riveting cliffhanger – who would have thought!).  Looking forward to experiencing Season 4 as a weekly production!

Book Review of Mischling

28664920The Holocaust must be one of the most written-about events in history – and so this makes it a risky bet for a novelist.  You need powerful storytelling or a real angle.

Affinity Konar definitely comes at it from a different angle, telling the story of a set of twins who catch the eye of infamous Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.  Pearl and Stasha are those twins so intertwined that Stasha often answers to Pearl and resents anything that reinforces their separateness.  This unfortunately makes them fascinating to Mengele, who longed to explore this kind of connection, purposefully protecting one twin whilst damaging and deforming the other to watch it impact the pair.

Konar definitely exposes the world of Mengele’s ghastly twin experiments and uses some astonishing language to describe the strange beauties of the environment even in the most horrid places in the world.

“Night. It had forgotten it should not be so beautiful in Auschwitz.  There was no stopping it’s velvet sway..”

But beyond language and conception, there isn’t much original about the story Konar tells.  Some takes place in Auschwitz, but there are also long and meandering sections afterwards.  The title too is a strange misnomer… ‘Mischling’ is the German term for a person of mixed race.  Is it meant to suggest that each twin is merely the product of the mixing of both?  This seems limiting and redundant.

Although Pearl and Stasha make interesting characters and the nature of their “twin-ness” is heartwarming, I’d save my reading of the Holocaust for Eli Weisel’s Night or even Martin Amis’ Times Arrow instead.  These have real power.

Book Review of Carve the Mark

carve the markVeronica Roth’s Divergent series was so incredibly popular, that publishing a new storyline, especially one markedly different, must elicit some angst – for the author and readers alike.  And while I haven’t read that many positive reviews of her latest offering Carve the Mark, I ended up really enjoying it.

Much less dystopian than Divergent,
is pure science fiction.  It concerns itself with two peoples who live on the same planet – the Shotet and the Thuvhe – but cannot live in harmony. The Thuvhe live quietly and peacefully while the Shotet pillage and scavenge, and violent existence best represented by their tradition of carving a mark on their own arms each time they take a life.

Naturally, a young man and a young woman from each culture are thrown together and fall in love.  But its a little more complicated than that.  This is a galaxy with two particularly interesting features. Firstly, oracles make the fates of important people public – and this causes political manipulation to attempt to challenge or protect fate.  The second, is the energy source known as the ‘current’ which flows around them all, and gifts each inhabitant with a particular ‘currentgift’. Cyra, our Juliet character, can make others feel pain, but the cost is that she lives in constant pain herself.  Akos, kidnapped from Thuvhe by Cyra’s brother as he was fated to serve them, is gifted with the ability to block the currentgifts of others – and thus relieve Cyra’s constant pain.  Eventually they come to mean something more to each other than forced companions and Cyra is forced to confront her brother – a violent dictator – and take a stand for the rights of others.

There’s more to the story than this, including the brother of Akos who becomes a willing oracle to the Shotet and an underground rebellion.  Overall, I thought this was a well-realised fictional world with interesting moral quandaries and the beginning of a tasty story.  Definitely worth a look.

Book Review of The Girl Before

thegirlbefore.jpgThis is the kind of book you know is going to have legions of female fans – and no doubt will be made into a movie as well.  It’s very much in the style of The Girl on the Train – an entertaining mystery, cleverly told and deep in fiction’s mainstream.

In two different narratives separated by a handful of years, two women move into an architectural experiment, a home so minimalist that it actually trains the tenant to change and let go of unnecessary thoughts, feelings and possessions.  Each woman is running away from a tragedy, and the house seems like a safe haven – and the architect an irresistible bonus.

But nothing is quite as it seems and the reader becomes increasingly alarmed as the house takes on a slightly sinister role for both, and both engage in highly controlled relationships with its designer.  But then both women learn the woman who lived there before them died in mysterious circumstances….

This will keep you guessing and entertained right towards the end.  A good choice for holidays any teacher friends.