Book Review: “The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”, by Phillip Pullman

Let me preface this review by stating that I’ve been waiting for this book–any book in the His Dark Materials series, really–for almost two decades. Rumors of The Book Of Dust have been swirling out there in Publishingland for at least a decade, if not longer. The fans of His Dark Material I know wondered whether we would ever see it, and what it would be like. Pullman himself once described it as a “very big book”, which I always took to mean that it would take forever to write and that we may never get to enjoy the finished product.

Behold! The finished product has arrived!

And what an arrival it is. La Belle Sauvage is the first book in this new series, entitled The Book of Dust. I have not found a book recently that I dropped into immediately and felt comfortable being led by the nose by the author through the land of his invention, Lyra’s Oxford. And make no mistake, we are indeed led by the nose, the author’s lyric prose the golden ring to which the lead is hitched. Pullman has brought us right back to where we started, an alternative England that is by turns a steampunk world and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world where the church exhibits tremendous authority and power over state affairs, and where the world is lit by a combination of electric light (called “anbaric”) and good old fashion fossil fuel (naphtha). It is the world of Gyptians and their strange ways and uncanny foresight of the natural world, and of the bravery of boys called upon to be heroes too young.

It is the world of unspeakably evil characters that make you desperately fear for the heroes safety.

The heroes in question are Malcolm Polstead, a boy who works in his parents’ tavern, helping as part of the wait staff and as busboy when not in school or doing homework; and Alice, the eighteen year old girl who washes dishes in the tavern. Despite their grievances toward each other, they find a away to put aside their quarrels when they rescue the infant Lyra from a flooded nunnery. The flood that comes to Oxford is a flood to end all floods, Pullman’s version of the Biblical flood, and it washes them in Malcolm’s canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage, south toward London in search of Lord Asriel, the girl’s father. They are pursued by a madman whose calm demeanor is betrayed by the hideously maimed hyena that is his daemon, the physical embodiment each human’s soul.

If everything I’ve just said is gibberish to you, then you have not had the enjoyment of the original His Dark Materials series. Pullman spend almost no time grounding you in the world. You are plunged once more into Lyra’s world, and like the rest of Oxford when the great flood comes, it’s either sink of swim. In his trip down the River Thames with our two heroes and their infant ward, we encounter all manner of beings, fearful and fantastic, revealing in part the direction Pullman appears to be taking this new series. The second book, tentatively due out next year, is entitled The Secret Commonwealth, a reference to a book of the same name written four hundred years earlier, and detailing the world of fairies in England. The groundwork for a world of fairies is laid in this first book.

Is The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage as good as the original trilogy? If pressed, I’d probably say no, not quite, but that is my own prejudices talking. The Golden Compass, known as The Northern Lights in the U.K., is one of my favorite books, and my favorite of the series. I could argue that the second and third books aren’t as good as the first, and I would make that argument for La Belle Sauvage as well. But don’t let my silly nostalgia dissway you from reading this one. It is a fine, fine book, and one that I will likely go to again, something I reserve for a very few select titles. The Book of Dust is a marvelous book, and my autumn was made richer by it.

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Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 

Book Review: “Made To Kill” by Adam Christopher

81ufyzQWMuLMade To Kill” is a book by Adam Christopher that I really wanted to enjoy. Like, *really* wanted to enjoy.

Alas, I couldn’t even finish it.

There have been a lot of reviews for this book that praise it lavishly for marrying two genres into one good, old-fashioned, B-movie pulp fiction novel. Which is exactly what Christopher is going for in “Made To Kill”. The concept is deceptively simple: What if Raymond Chandler had written science-fiction? It’s an interesting thought, considering how notoriously down on the genre of science fiction Chandler was. In 1953, Chandler sent off a really fantastic letter to his agent regarding science fiction. It’s too fun not to include, so here it is below:

(Source: Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler)

6005 Camino de la Costa
La Jolla, California

Mar 14 1953

Dear Swanie:

Playback is getting a bit tired. I have 36,000 words of doodling and not yet a stiff. That is terrible. I am suffering from a very uncommon disease called (by me) atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself. That being so, I could hardly fail to bore others worse. I can’t help thinking of that beautiful piece of Sid Perelman’s entitled “I’m Sorry I Made Me Cry.”

Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

They pay brisk money for this crap?

Ray

It’s Chandler’s love affair with detective fiction and his loathing for science fiction that inspired Christopher to combine the two in a single story.

The main character is Ray Electromatic, the world’s last robot. He (it?) just happens to be a private detective in 1960’s Los Angeles. But, due to some basic reprogramming, he now operates more as the world’s last robotic hitman than detective, though being a private detective certainly has it advantages. It lets him move around, ostensibly investigating private cases for clients, but actually killing people for money instead. In this endeavor, he is assisted, if not guided, by Ada, a supercomputer that acts more as an operative handler than a receptionist, though it’s as a receptionist that Ray imagines her in his mind (circuits?). The book opens in a way that has become synonymous with the beginning of a hard-boiled detective novel, a dame walks into the office.

There is so much material in the basic premise that could have been mined for gold. A robot investigating crimes: how does he relate to people who can’t get over the novelty or fear of being questioned by a robot? How does he react when faced with a situation that would willfully go against his base programming?  How does he handle himself in a bar fight or a high speed car chase? Or is he perhaps his own vehicle?

Christopher wastes these and other opportunities by making the character a reprogrammed killing machine. Clearly he’s playing against Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Because Ray is a robot, he has no feelings to feel. He’s simply carrying out instructions as fed to him by Ada. Even when stumbling into a weird variation on the commie-Red-Scare motif, around which most of the primary plot takes place, there are no emotional reactions from him. Because our character is nothing more than a thinking piece of metal who kills people for a living, we have no accessible way to empathize with him. He is an anti-hero who is not interesting.

Therein lies another major fault with the book, the distinct lack of character development. Any possibility of making the character of Ray, or his situation, interesting is completely overlooked. A good example is how Ray’s memory works. He runs on a data tape system (this is the ’60s, after all). He has twenty-four hours of data tape, and a battery that lasts on a 24 hour charge. Essentially, if he is not back at his office by midnight, he turns into a pumpkin. This offers so much potential that is missed. The opportunity to turn this into a “Memento” style mystery, where the character must relearn things again each day, could offer such a complex and twisting narrative that you cling on every word, wondering what mystery will be revealed next. Instead, every morning, Ray is filled in on the day before by Ada, then sent on his merry investigative-cum-murderous way. If Ada is filling Ray in at the start of every day, why bother having the prop of a data tape in there at all? Even if Ada feeds Ray bad information for her own purpose, and I suspect maybe she eventually does, it still does not make the characters any more compelling than a hunk of walking metal. 

Perhaps the book picks up as it moves along, redeeming itself in the final act. I gave a good 100 pages before I gave up looking for reasons to continue it. 

Much of what Christopher is going for is striking a balance between the noir and the fantastical, while keep things from becoming so heavy they sink the book. But in the end, it simply a boring read, with little interesting in the way of character development, to keep you asking “What happens next?” Instead, as we see Ray go and ask another person another question, we ask ourselves, “Who cares?”

The answer is, “Not me.”

Book Review: “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainThe last of the books I snarfed down at the end of this summer was “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This was the “it” book of the summer, the one everyone was talking about and that everyone couldn’t put down. It was supposed to be the page-turner with the twists you couldn’t see coming. And so I too engulfed this one to see what everyone was talking about.

Truthfully, if I had to sum the book up in a word, it would be “meh”.

It’s hard to give too much of a plot summary without giving too much away, and while I, unlike the rest of the world, did not think the book was all that and a bag of chips, I still don’t wish to spoil it for those you enjoy these things more than I do. Or as my wife would describe it, “everyone else but you.”

Fair enough.

The essence of the plot, then, is that a woman named Rachel, down on her luck and sipping gin and tonics from a can while taking the train back and forth to London, fantasizes about what the people in the houses behind the tracks do, the kind of lives they lead. Her own life has fallen apart and she takes a kind of solace in the lives these fantasy people lead in her head. She has even given them names, since their real names are unknown to her.

Then, one day, she sees something as she’s staring through the train window, something that turns her fantasy on its head. At that moment, her life changes from fantasies about these people to an all out obsession about what she saw. An obsession so deep, she risks her life and livelihood, and perhaps darkest of all, her integrity to get close enough to discover the truth.

It sounds like an enthralling premise, doesn’t it? Critics have been using the term Hitchcockian to describe it. It does have a certain “Rear Window” quality to it, that strange voyeuristic quality of Jeff Jefferies looking out his back window and seeing something he thinks is a murder. But that’s were the comparison ends. It starts with a voyeur and turns into a study of a life in freefall. In that regard, the book actually became hard to read. As the main character made bad, then worse, then catastrophic decisions, I wondered how much longer I could read until the unraveling of her life became too unpalatable. It never quite got there, but it came really darn close.

The plot relies largely on what the New York Times referred to as “unreliable narration”, meaning you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you. Except that you can. The narration flickers between three narrators, all of the women, all of whom are involved in the plot. Each one has their quirks and problems, each has moments of fooling themselves, but that’s really all they’re fooling. Unreliable narration only goes so far, and when at least one of the characters is a blackout drunk, you can readily expect that their memory will be a bit, shall we say, fuzzy.

Another of the devices used to confuse the reader is a jumbling of the timing of the scenes. The cutting is designed to bring the reader back and forth and possibly add some confusion, but a careful reading will show that each chapter is timestamped. You get a certain anticipatory feeling as you near the time when you know that the precipitating event happened, and that you’ll finally get to see it, feeling like maybe you’ll be surprised by what’s around the corner. But you aren’t.

Or at least I wasn’t.

Also, the book was written in the first person present tense. Don’t get me started.

The climax doesn’t twist nearly as much as everyone had been claiming it did. I found myself unsurprised at the ending, indeed, hoping for something different. I was disappointed when I was right. Of the four books I’ve reviewed in the last few days, having gulped them all down like a thirsty man in a desert, I’d have to say that “The Girl On The Train” was my least favorite.

Sorry everybody.

Queue up the backlash. 

Book Review: “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” by Ace Atkins

wonderlandI needed something to cleanse the mental pallet after Lou Berney’s “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It was such an intense read, the way Berney knifes the reader in nearly every single scene, that I needed to visit some familiar friends. Queue up Spenser.

Since Robert Parker’s sudden death in 2010, Ace Atkins has been carrying on the Spenser tradition with the blessing of the estate. Hand picked to keep Spenser going, Atkins has written four Spenser books thus far, and will likely keep going for the foreseeable future. The first one, called “Lullaby”, I reviewed here. It wasn’t a bad book, so I thought I’d give “Wonderland” a try.

Doesn’t hurt that I got it on remainder.

This time, the client is Henry Cimoli, the owner of the Boston gym where Spenser and Hawk used to (and still do) box. He’s being muscled out of the condo he owns so that a Las Vegas casino developer can move in and build. The novel explorers Henry more than I remember Parker ever doing, and Atkins mostly nails him. There is of course the usual cavalcade of characters that Atkins likes to bring to the stage, and to a certain extent, this feels like Atkins is trying to prove to the Parker faithful that he knows the Spenser work so well. Despite the fact that the book is chock full of characters Spenser has had contact with in the past, the characterizations largely work to the novels advantage.

There is one exception. The relatively new player in the on-going adventures of Spenser is one Zebulon Sixkill, the American Indian that Spenser has taken under his wing to train as a private investigator. This relationship feels forced, as if Atkins picked up a leftover character from the Spenser dinner table and decided to do something with him. In the final Spenser book by Parker, “Sixkill“, we’re introduced to “Z”, as Zebulon has come to be called, but there is nothing to indicate that he’ll be a continued or recurring character. I’m not sure if this is Atkins taking liberties, or whether any of Parker’s notes indicate that Z will continue, but in this case, it feels forced.

As a crime novel, it’s a good one. The plot is more complex than the ones Parker used to set up, at least in the later Spenser novels. Spenser’s sarcasm is present, though more muted than it was in “Lullaby”, which isn’t a bad thing. “Lullaby” felt a little over the top with the hard-boiled quips. Spenser is still sarcastic in “Wonderland”, but he never ventures down the path of snarky. The prose is not as lean as Parker’s was, but then again, few hard-boiled novels written these days are as lean as Parker wrote. Parker, self-admittedly, loved dialogue because it “chew[ed] up a lot of pages.” One could look at this as being lazy, but I find that Parker’s style was such that the plot, characters, and danger were all conveyed convincingly through dialogue, and sometimes dialogue alone. A great example of how this works is through the Jesse Stone novels (which I highly, highly recommend).

After the last page is done, Atkins still isn’t Parker. They’re tough shoes to fill. But Atkins does a nice job with most of the characters and the location of Boston itself. Spenser will continue to live on, and in Atkins hands, that’s not a bad thing.

Book Review: “The Long and Faraway Gone” by Lou Berney

Right after reading “Third Rail”, I jumped into Lou Berney’s gut-wrenching “The Long and Faraway Gone“. And when I say guy-wrenching, I mean knife plunging into the gut, then barbs opening at the tip, and then twisting all around until your digestive tract is the groundest of ground meat.

long and faraway goneOstensibly a mystery, the book opens with a movie theater robbery prologue that leaves your legs wobbling before moving forward with the story proper. Picking up a couple of decades after the opener, we follow one of two main characters, Wyatt, as he comes back to the city of the prologue and face to face with doubts and demons that filled him before he left, being the only survivor of a brutal slaying.

At the same time, the book follows the story of Julianna as she wrestles with the disappearance of her big sister Genevieve, who vanished around roughly the same time period as the movie theater robbery. She’s been trying to find out what happened to her sister. It’s become an obsession for her, costing her money, and even potentially her job.

The book is, essentially, two separate stories that barely overlap and where both could just as easily be a book unto their own. Why Berney felt compelled to collect two crime stories, each with its own arc, into a single book is unclear. It gives the book volume, and allows the narrative point of view to flicker back and forth without staying with one character the entire time. Perhaps it’s out of a desire to avoid point-of-view reader fatigue that the individual arcs are combined.

Does it work? Sure, well enough for the stories. The tension Berney builds is at times intolerable and you beg for the release of a scene change. He invests the reader in the obsessions of these two primary characters so that you root for them to find the answers they’re looking for. Each chapter examines the characters, both as they are now, and how the events of their earlier lives have made them into who they are. But each examination draws on the sorrow and madness of the pivotal moment of their youth, and with each examination, Berney gives the reader another rabbit punch to the kidneys.

As Wyatt and Julianna crisscross the city trying to dig just a little deeper into their wounds, there grows in the reader the hope that perhaps they will cross paths. But if you’re expecting them to find each other, join forces, and help resolve each other’s quest for answers, you’ll be left wanting. Wyatt and Julianna intersect briefly, and then part, each continuing to pursue their own obsession.
Somehow, this theme of partial satisfaction was the major theme that emerged for me while reading. As I neared the end, I realized that neat answers will not be handed out like pretty little presents left under the tree. This feeling of partial satisfaction is overwhelmingly what the reader feels by the end. Wyatt and Julianna both find the answers to the questions they have been asking, but the answers provide no solace, no real closure. Maybe they have been asking the wrong questions. Or maybe life is messy and unsatisfying and sometimes the answers you get don’t get you anything you need or hope for.

Berney offers the reader only a slight small satisfaction that the protagonists never get. It’s contained in the final two chapters, which feel more like a concession to the journey the reader has taken more than a requirement of the story. By the end of the book, I was exhausted and when I closed the last chapter, I felt like I had read a powerful and moving statement on the human condition. And I was happy to leave it in the past and not look at it again.