Review: The Book of Dust, Vol. 2 – The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

9780241373347In this sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy and La Belle Sauvage, Lyra Silvertongue is a disenfranchised college student, seduced by the writings of a popular author, whose toxic ideas — including one that proposes daemons are mere illusions — have formed a wedge between Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. Pan believes Lyra’s imagination has been stolen — a fate worse than death, leaving her hollow, lacking the spark and tenacity that bolstered them throughout their various escapades — and so sets off to find it. Which propels Lyra on a journey to locate Pan. And Malcolm Polstead (from La Belle Sauvage) to track Lyra. 

If this sounds like a lot, just wait, there’s more. Under the guidance of its sinister new leader, the authoritarian church The Magesterium is beginning to extend its powers. Meanwhile, terrorists are destroying rose crops in the name of an ambiguous Holy Purpose. The whole world is mired in a state of hyper-discontent. The parallels to our own aren’t nuanced or oblique; Philip Pullman seems determined to make the similarities as opaque as possible. Like it’s his mission to state: you think this world is fucked up? Look outside your window.

The Secret Commonwealth is wonderfully ambitious in scope and energy. Pullman’s world is sublimely imagined. It hardly matters that after more than 700 pages we’re left with more questions than answers. We know he’s more than capable of sticking the landing. It’s the long wait until the third instalment that’s the killer.

Author: Phillip Pullman
Publisher: Penguin UK
ISBN: 9780241373347
Ages: 12+
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 03/10/2019
Pages: 784

Review: Bruny by Heather Rose

9781760875169The only access to Bruny Island — a 362-square-kilometre island located off the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, separated from the mainland by the D’Entrecasteaux Channel — is by boat, or the two vehicle ferries that run across the channel. But when Bruny opens, after four years under construction, a new suspension bridge as high as the Brooklyn Bridge, and two hundred and twenty-seven metres longer, is three months short of completion. Until a deep rumble shatters the tranquillity of the morning, and the bridge quivers and shakes, and drops into the sea. The Bruny Bridge — “a project of national significance,” says premier John Coleman — has been destroyed by terrorists. But he is determined that come March next year, the bridge will open on schedule; and “the next chapter in the success story of Tasmania will begin.”

Tasmanian native Astrid Coleman, a troubleshooter for the UN, answers her brother’s call when he asks for assistance in calming the tumultuous climate back home and lending a hand into the investigation of the bridge bombing. It’s an awkward homecoming, not least because her brother and sister are combative figures on both sides of politics, and her parents are dealing with major health scares, but because of the myriad conspiracy theories flaring tempers among the locals, and igniting diplomatic tensions with Australia’s newest and most important ally, China.

Heather Rose’s Bruny is an enthralling family saga set against the backdrop of the calamity of present day international and national politics. The book has Big Ambition written all over it, defiantly blending two seemingly antithetical genres into a pacy and involving page-turner. It’s an accomplished balancing act that never tilts entirely into full-out family saga or full-blown political thriller; ultimately an evocative, powerful hybrid; gripping and atmospheric, and a stirring love letter to Tasmania. Bruny achieves what great fiction always achieves — it commands us to be aware. Of what, precisely? You’ll need to read it to find out.

ISBN: 9781760875169
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 424
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 1-Oct-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

9781526612151Announcing the arrival of an exceptional new voice, Such A Fun Age is a wry, sharp novel that brilliantly intertwines ruminations on race, romance, motherhood and class, in a novel that’s equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming, and never anything less than mesmeric. With her unflinching portrayal of life as a young black woman in America today, Kiley Reid has crafted an important book that sparks empathy and outrage, illuminating both its characters and larger social issues.

Definitely one to watch for in 2020.

ISBN: 9781526612151
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 240
Available: 7th January 2020
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Review: Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Lady in the Lake.jpgI ended my review of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn (2018) declaring it the best book the author had ever produced — a bold statement, given her extraordinary catalogue of mysteries and thrillers. But somehow, impossibly, Lippman has done it again, elevating her craft to an entirely new stratosphere. Lady in the Lake is Lippman’s boldest, most ambitious novel to date; part mystery, part character study, part rumination on the racism, sexism and classicism of Baltimore in the 1960s.

The story belongs to Madeline Schwarz, a mid-thirties Jewish housewife who leaves her husband and son to pursue her dream of becoming a newspaper reporter, and Cleo Sherwood, a black cocktail waitress, whose body is found in a lake in a city park months after she vanished. Maddie becomes obsessed with the case, and Lady in the Lake follows her long investigation into the young mother’s fate, dealing with the vicious patriarchy of the newsroom (and the world beyond) and juggling an illicit romance with her lover; a black policeman, who has ambitions to make detective.

The narrative cuts from Maddie’s perspective to the ethereal, ghost-like omniscience of Cleo, and various first-person interludes from side-characters. This collage of voices might grind another story to a halt, or at least undermine its pace, but in Lippman’s hands they add luminous depth, and turn what might’ve been a simple procedural (albeit a good one) into something genre-defying.

Lady in the Lake is an addictive mystery served with a panorama of nuanced characters who come alive in its pages with intelligence and depth. Alongside Dervla McTiernan’s The Scholar, it’s firmly locked in as one of my favourite crime novels of the year.

ISBN: 9780571339440
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 25-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

9781529355406Lately Stephen King has seemed determined to thrill rather than chill, forsaking the spine-tingling spookiness of his seminal (and my favourite) books — hello, Pet Sematary; hi, It; good to see ya, Cujo! — in favour of telling exhilarating, completely absorbing, rollicking reads, replete with the kind of dazzling pyrotechnics and fantastic characters only he could conjure. The Institute is exactly that: a masterclass of entertainment, in which paranormally blessed kids are conscripted into a secret government lab in Maine (naturally) and forced to endure horrific tortures.

The book opens with Jack Reacher-like wanderer Tim Jamieson ex-(decorated) cop taking a job in the small South Carolina town of DuPray. King lays all his cards on the table: this guy is going to be a hero. We’re rooting for this guy. The question King dangles is, what force is he up against? We don’t get an immediate answer. Instead, smash-cut to Minneapolis, where the super-intelligent Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his own home while his parents are murdered, and transported to the facility known as ‘the Institute,’ run by the evil Mrs Sigsby. After the first hundred pages, readers know Luke and Ellis’s paths will cross: but when, and how? And what will the ramifications be?

Cancel all your plans and settle in for the ride. This is escapism at its purest and finest.

ISBN: 9781529355406
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 496
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell

9781529008630A gorgeous, big-hearted, beautifully illustrated and hilarious graphic novel about two ‘seasonal best friends,’ who ditch work at the Succotash Hut to find love on their final night at the pumpkin patch in Omaha, Nebraska.

Every autumn, throughout high school, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the pumpkin patch. They say goodbye every Halloween and are reunited at the beginning of September. But their time is almost up. Deja and Josiah are seniors, now; this is their last shift together. And they’ve got unfinished business. Since they started at the pumpkin patch, the bashful, goody two-shoes Josiah has steadfastly refused to talk to his unrequited love, who works at Fudge Shoppe. He has one last shot, and the outgoing, loquacious Deja is determined he take it.

Pumpkinheads spans the entirety of their final night together, as Deja and Josiah search desperately for Fudge-Girl, going from one pumpkin patch landmark to another, reflecting on their friendship, their shared sadness at leaving this very special place behind, and the excitement and trepidation for what’s to come. With intimate, touching observations — and plenty of humour! — Rowell and illustrator Faith Erin Hicks remind readers that substantive relationships don’t necessarily hinge on big, dramatic moments; oftentimes it’s the accumulation of smaller moments that matter more. Pumpkinheads is a delightful testimony to the power of friendship and young love.

ISBN: 9781529008630
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 224
Imprint: Macmillan Children’s Books
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 5-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

xthe-testaments.jpg.pagespeed.ic_.esvxttsz3fMargaret Atwood’s Booker-shortlisted sequel to the knockout classic The Handmaid’s Tale is, quite simply, sensational. The Testaments features some of the most carefully crafted, well-groomed pages I’ve read in years; prose so smooth you could swallow it whole, accentuating a bold, ambitious, dynamic story that builds on the events of its predecessor (and the television series) without being hamstrung by it.

Set fifteen years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel is narrated by three characters, their perspectives presented as found historical documents: Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead, who rejects her arranged marriage, but still has faith; Aunt Lydia, who readers and viewers will be familiar with, responsible for turning women into Handmaids; and sixteen-year-old Daisy, whose life is completely upended when she learns the truth of her past. Their intertwined stories are full of danger, suspense, and heart, and build to a grand crescendo and a pitch-perfect postscript.

The obvious question is whether The Testaments holds a candle to The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a bit of an unfair comparison; they’re such different, equally compelling novels. The Handmaid’s Tale is more a novel to marinate over, I think; to turn the pages slowly, savour each word, every detail of life in Gilead. The Testaments reads more like a thriller; tightly-plotted, pacier,  while still providing glimpses into this theocratic dictatorship where women are subjugated and indoctrinated. The narrative hums and roars along like a high-performance vehicle. Atwood is a natural storyteller, perhaps the finest of her generation, and The Testaments is a genuine masterpiece. Every so often you read a book and wish you could go back and read it again for the first time. This is one of them.

ISBN: 9781784742324
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 432
Published: 10th September 2019
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Country of Publication: GB