Review: The Subtle Knife

SPOILERS AHEAD

The second installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials struck me as almost entirely different from the first. It was darker and more gruesome, set in a different world (England as we know it, not the alternate version in Northern Lights). An array of new characters are introduced in this novel alongside the characters I already know and love, and a whole new meaning of Dust is revealed.

We are immediately introduced to Will, who doesn’t comply with novel stereotypes – he’s not the wise kid or the one who tries to act tough. He is set on protecting his mother at all costs, his thoughts continually wondering back to her throughout the novel. His familial circumstances have affected his upbringing, as he comes across as older than his years. This is further shown through his friendship with Lyra, who is now in a completely different world to her own. He looks after her in ways that reminded me of a parent and child, such as stopping her from being hit by a car and teaching her how to cook an omelette and baked beans. I loved their relationship, seeing them look out for one another while they fight to stay alive. They both grow up as the novel progresses, them making each other coffee in the mornings just seemed so cute.

The overall plot of the book was kind of like two novels in one. Any scenes that related to Mrs. Coulter, Scoresby or the witches seemed like the sequel that I was expecting, but when the plot followed Will’s story, it just seemed so different to what I was reading a few chapters ago. I loved the story and enjoyed following Will and Lyra on their story, but when the two merged or switched to one another it just didn’t seem to fit for me; it was disorientating in a way. I didn’t think it was a smooth transition.

It also took a while for the subtle knife to turn up, but when it did, I loved the concept. A blade that can cut through everything, including air, was different from anything I’ve read, and it was nice to see Will with his own device, like Lyra’s alethiometer.

Like the first book, Pullman’s writing was breathtaking. I’ve been struggling with my writing recently, so this novel has been just what I needed. From little descriptions of fire, ‘the embers of a fire glowed’ to the horror of Lee Scoresby’s death. The final words of his life were heartbreaking:

“Lee saw the fireball and head through the roar in his ears Hester saying, “That’s the last of ’em, Lee.”

He said, or thought, “Those poor men didn’t have to come to this, nor did we.”

She said, “We held ’em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra.”

Then she was pressing her little proud broken self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died.”

The last sentence of that passage brought tears to my eyes. The phrase ‘her little proud self’ broke me, as the wording presented Hester as a superhero in a children’s book, which is what she and Scoresby have been throughout the series so far. They come across as soldiers who died fighting, and the fact that that’s how they’ll be remembered is somewhat comforting but horrible at the same time.

I also love the idea of Spectres. They reminded me of Dementors from Harry Potter, which is probably partly why I liked them. I pictured them as ghostly figures floating hazily around adults, and when they suck the souls of various characters throughout the book, I had goosebumps.

Overall, I didn’t prefer this book to the first one, but I did still really enjoy it. My reading suffered this month, so that could partly be why there were times when I felt like I was reading a completely different trilogy. I also really missed the ice bears! I’d say this book succumbed to the middle book syndrome, although Pullman’s language and characterisation certainly made up for it.

Review: Northern Lights

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’ve heard so many good things about the His Dark Materials trilogy, and so many people have told me to read the books. The film The Golden Compass was my favourite when it came out, but I still didn’t read the books. For Christmas, I received The Folio Society’s editions, and Northern Lights was the last book I picked up in 2018 and the first I finished in 2019. Safe to say, it certainly lived up to my expectations.

I love Lyra. She’s feisty and intelligent and curious, everything that I want to be, essentially! I also enjoyed the moments when her childish nature shone through the text: ‘But it didn’t seem to Lyra that she would ever grow up.’ It highlights the fact that even though she is on this long journey and is part of a huge task that could change everything about her world, she is still a child at the end of the day. But that fact that she is not letting the weight of her journey crush her is what makes her one of my favourite fictional characters.

It’s not just Lyra’s characterisation that’s brilliant, though. Pullman gives each character their own dialect – the gypsy’s slang, or the educated upper class – which makes them feel more real, and they all have a range of personalities that will have you sympathising with them at least once in the novel, even if you despise them.

Saying that there is one thing that I didn’t like, and it is the tiniest of criticisms. When Lyra reunites with Ioreck just before his fight with Iofur, she calls him ‘dear’ multiple times. This could just be me, but when I was a child, the word ‘dear’ made me shudder and think of an old man addressing his wife. I can’t see Lyra using it for Ioreck, or anyone even if she grew up in a world of scholars. Again, this could just be me though, as I’m not one for pet names, especially ‘dear.’

Pullman’s style of writing draws you into the narrative. The world he has created is beautiful, even though many of the locations, such as Oxford, Lapland, and Svalbard are not fictional. However, he has transformed them into places that seem more magical and alive, in a way it saddens me that our version of these places is not filled with armored bears and witches and sacred devices like the alethiometer.

Speaking of the alethiometer, I think the idea of that alone is incredible. I would never have imagined an object that can answer your questions through symbolism. Pullman has a vivid mind, and it’s this fact alone that makes me want to read more of his works.

One scene that stood out for and still replays in my head, even while reading The Subtle Knife, is the fight between Iorek and Iofur in part three. The language Pullman uses here is beautiful:

‘Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake.’

‘And that was when Ioreck moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes a little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself high into the sky, terrifying the shore-dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power.’

As a writer, I struggle with fight scenes. My novel is set in the 1600s, and the weaponry and techniques were very different during this period. I can never create the right imagery, but the way Pullman has in these lines is overwhelmingly clever. The nature imagery and similes convey the power and brutality of the fights while maintaining the grace and dignity of the two bears. This technique also works well with the third person narrative, for, if the story was told in the first person, he may not have been able to use this technique as well, as Lyra would probably not have seen it this way.

I do find that this book is a bit like Harry Potter, in the sense that it’s adaptable for a wide audience. It’s a children’s book, and yet I’m reading it at 22 years old, and loving every minute of it. However, I do sometimes struggle to see how someone Lyra’s age could read this and not get confused at times, such as the conversations surrounding Dust.

It has taken me far too long to read this book; I wish I started it sooner. Pullman has created a beautiful world filled with wonder and magic, and it has left me in awe. I’ve started reading the next in the series, The Subtle Knife, and I’m already enjoying it just as much.

Also, while I was writing this, I took a quiz to see who my daemon would be. I got a golden monkey, because I’m ‘ambitious, worldly and smart’. I’d prefer to have an owl though…

Let me know which animal your daemon would be!

Are fairy tales sexist?

This is a debate that keeps popping in and out of social media, the news, classrooms, pretty much anywhere you turn. I was reminded of it when reading Little Women, in which the girls tell stories that reminded me of fairy tales.

In an era of #metoo, people have been finding issues with fairy tales, claiming that they are offensive towards both men and women as they encourage gender stereotypes. It was recently brought to light once again by Keira Knightley, who refuses to let her daughter watch Disney’s Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. While her comments focused solely on Disney, many people have been considering fairy tales in general as well, with one mother wanting to ban the story of Sleeping Beauty in schools.

In all fairness, you can see why people view fairy tales as problematic. In most, women are damsel in distress’ who wait for their princes to save them, and in both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, they are both kissed while unconscious (in the original Sleeping Beauty, the prince rapes her, and she wakes up to give birth to twins!). Ariel gives up her voice for a man in The Little Mermaid, and in Cinderella, only by marrying the Prince can Cinderella escape. I mean, none of this screams female empowerment to me.

Also, they don’t exactly set good examples for men either. Fairy tales glorify the ‘perfect’ man who is strong, handsome and able to defeat any villain that he encounters. He is fearless and doesn’t appear to have tear ducts. And with suicide being the most common cause of death for men in the UK, being reminded of these emotionless expectations aren’t exactly ideal.

I personally love fairy tales, from the originals, retellings and of course Disney films. They are ancient stories that have lived through centuries. They’re great for quick reads, and I like to think of them as a reminder of the progress we have made when it comes to gender equality.

Fairy tales are pieces of history. Cinderella was first published in 1697, with many other stories published in the 1800s. They are old stories, and folktales passed through the ages. If we were to ban these, we would be erasing evidence of the ideas people used to have. They belong to a time where people were not encouraged to question what they read like we are now. People were less skeptical; they followed what was written. We can see glimpses of this in classic literature. To ban fairy tales would be like banning Little Women or Taming of the Shew, or any Austen novel. They are going to be seen in a different light; much loved at the time of their release, now the flaws in society during the time are exposed. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate them as what they are: iconic pieces of literature.

Furthermore, if we’re looking at ‘modern’ fairy tales, we can clearly see that they too reflect the social values at the time – of our time. Dark retellings are extremely popular, and often the author reverses the roles in the story, so the ‘princess’ saves herself. The remake of Beauty and the Beast portrays LeFou as a gay character (not focusing on it too much of course, so that the attention remained on the film itself) which deters from the heroic male stereotype and Frozen, which is based on The Snow Queen, focuses on the love of two sisters. Angela Carter’s collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, even though it was published in the 80s, takes the tropes in fairy tales and turns them around, such as the protagonist’s mother rescuing her from her husband’s (Bluebeard) castle instead of her brothers. And that was written decades ago! Writers for both fiction and film are listening to what our society is saying, and it shows. Children having access to both the originals and more modern takes of these tales will show them just how far we’ve come regarding gender ideals, and they will be encouraged to continue this progress.

Also, let’s give people, no matter what age, a bit of credit. The fact that people believe that children will grow up still thinking that they should spend their lives waiting for their Prince Charming to find them. I can remember Holly Willoughby saying that banning fairy tales is insulting to women as it suggests that we can differentiate between fact and fiction, and I agree. It creates the impression that we’re as stupid as they make out in the stories. We’re going to go out and work, see our friends, build our own lives, and Prince Charming can arrive whenever he wants to. But we’re not necessarily going to drop everything for him and succumb to a life of domesticity.

Times change, ideas change, and so does society. But stories stand the test of time. If we were to ban a piece of literature just because it doesn’t agree with our views, then we would eventually ban every book out there. And who would want to live in a world with no books? I certainly wouldn’t. History has never been completely moral, but I’d rather accept that any misogynistic line that’s crept its way on to a page is nothing more than a sign of its time, instead of erasing a beautiful story from the world.

The books I got for Christmas

I’m writing this on Boxing day, at my dad’s house with a cup of tea and the smell of my second Christmas dinner roasting away in the oven. I received so many amazing gifts this year; I’ve been incredibly lucky. I hope you’ve all had a lovely Christmas that’s been warm, cosy and full of fun.

Before Christmas, I posted a list of the books that were on my Christmas list, which did have a few more additions by the time Christmas came around. Some I received and some I didn’t, and I had a few unexpected ones as well. Keep reading to see which ones I had.

A Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

 Image by  Waterstones
Image by Waterstones

This is one of the books that was not my list, but I was still delighted with it. I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard plenty about it. When I was at uni, it was read as part of a module some of my friends were on, and they all spoke highly of it. So now I can read it myself and see if I feel the same.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

As I said on my Christmas list post, I thought I had the whole of Little Women, but once I got to the end of my edition, it turns out I only had part one! And so I’ve been wanting to read the next half ever since. I received the Clothbound Classic edition, the one I was hoping for. The cover is so pretty! I know what happens in the next half (which was called ‘Little Wives’ when it first came out) and I can already tell that it’s going to be emotional.

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

 Image by  Pinterest
Image by Pinterest

Another Clothbound Classic. I’ve read this story before, and Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors. So naturally, I have to own the Clothbound Classic edition. The cover is stunning, and I can’t wait to give it reread.

Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald – J.K Rowling

I’m not usually one for reading scripts and screenplays, but I received Fantastic Beasts, and the cover is so beautiful, I think I’m persuaded. The film was incredible, and it’ll be interesting to read the screenplay.

Spelled – Betsy Schow

 Image by  Amazon
Image by Amazon

So I got this the week before Christmas as part of my Bookstagram Secret Santa. My Secret Santa bought me this book because I love fairy tales, and this book combines all fairy tale characters in one world, like Once Upon A Time. The main character is Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, which makes a nice change to many fairy tale rewritings that I’ve read, as I’ve never read one that features her before.

The War of the Worlds – H.G Wells

This is another one that wasn’t on my list. I’m not a big reader of science fiction, but this book was written during the Victorian era, and I think it’ll be interesting to see what sort of ideas there were concerning aliens. I wasn’t aware of how much knowledge there was about the solar system around this era, as the theory of evolution was still considered to be controversial at the time. The Victorian Era is one of my favourite time periods to learn about, so I’m looking forward to furthering my knowledge.

Poor Unfortunate soul – Serena Valentino

 Image by  Amazon
Image by Amazon

This will be the second of the darker Disney books that I’d have read, the first being based on Beauty and the Beast. I love fairy tale retellings, and so seeing ones based on Disney movies is right up my street. The Little Mermaid is also one of my favourite princesses (and I really like the original story by Hans Christian Anderson), so this book is just perfect for me.

A Literary Christmas – The British Library

There are no words to describe how excited I am to read this book. Christmas has been mentioned in so many books and poems over the years, from Dickens to Alcott, Eliot, and Tusser. This little anthology has included all of these authors and more, allowing you to read about the ghosts of Christmas past and present, what Christmas would be like on a diet, or Christmas day as a Tudor. Filled with short stories, poems, and essays, this book explores Christmas in the literary world, and I can’t wait to dive in.

His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

 Image by  Folio Society
Image by Folio Society

If you read my Christmas list post, you’d know that I originally wanted Folio Society’s edition of Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. However, after finding out just how expensive they were, decided to settle for a cheaper version instead. So you can imagine my surprise when I unwrapped Folio’s books! I was speechless. I now own the most beautiful editions ever, and I’m so so so happy. I still can’t get over how exquisite they are, and not just the cover, but the quality of paper and Folio’s signature stitched binding. The collection weighs a ton, but I love them. The only downside? They make some of my other books look plain in comparison!

 

 

Review: Coram Boy

SPOILERS AHEAD

Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Award, Coram Boy relates the intertwining stories of Meshak Gardiner and Alexander Ashbrook, two young men of different abilities and backgrounds who nonetheless find their fate inextricably linked. Meshak, the mentally handicapped son of Otis Gardiner, helps his father dispose of unwanted children; generally infants whose mothers think that Mr. Gardiner will transport them to Coram Hospital, a newly-created facility to care for abandoned children. Able to convince the distraught mothers that their newborns will be well-cared for in exchange for a small fee, Mr. Gardiner later hands the infants over to Meshak, who then buries the children in the woods. Years of burying infants and selling older ones into slavery have made Mr. Gardiner rich, but one day he is accused of blackmailing the wealthy mothers of these children. Everyone believes that he was hanged for his crimes and that his son, Meshak, quietly slipped away. Not until years later do people realize what happened to the Gardiners and all of the abandoned children.

***

Historical fiction is my favourite genre. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and so reading stories that allow me to live the lives based upon past events excites me so much. I’m currently writing a historical fiction novel myself, and for the setting, I’ve been inspired by the Forest of Dean, my home, and its surrounding areas. Coram Boy takes place in Gloucester as well as London, so it was nice to read a book of this genre that’s set in the same county as mine. I could see how Jamila Gavin captured two 18th century cities, both of which were clearly researched in meticulous detail, in their dirtiest light, exploring the lives of the lower classes instead of just focusing on the more privileged.

One of the things that stood out for me was the character of Meshak. He is described as a ‘simpleton’ and is treated poorly throughout the novel, particularly by his father. He has a strong moral compass, even though there are times when it becomes a bit warped (trying to keep Aaron from his parents to protect his ‘angel’s’ son, for example). He is plagued by the voices of the children that he buries, feeling guilty over the fact that he didn’t save them. Gavin capture this with chilling sentences like ‘He feels the need to be dead.’ For a boy as young as Meshak to think something like this is just heartbreaking.

While the story is told through an omniscient narrator, the majority of the events are experienced through the children’s perspective, which, in a way, makes some of the horrific events seem worse. When Meshak sees black slaves, for example. ‘It was human, wasn’t it? He licked his finger and smoothed it over the baby’s skin to see if the black would come off.’ The way that this baby is alienated because of his skin colour is shocking, and the way that Meshak innocently rubs him with his finger to see if the colour would come off shows the severity of the racism during this period.

Racism is also explored through Toby, a black orphan and Aaron’s best friend. Toby’s treatment at Mr. Gaddarn’s party is exceptionally saddening, as ‘the ladies adored him, and loved to bounce him on their knees, feed him sweets, and push their fingers under his turban to feel his extraordinarily crinkly hair.’ I never knew that black children were hired to be poked and prodded simply for entertainment during this time period, and, to say the least, it was appalling.

The characters of Alex and Thomas are two of my favourites in this novel. They both come from different worlds and yet are united through their love of music. I felt so sorry for Alex, as his father forbids him to follow his passion. I have to say though; there were times when I forgot Alex’s age and thought him as older, so the times when I was reminded of his age completely changed my image of him.

I also felt this way with Melissa, who, at the start of the book, is fourteen years old. She acts her age at the beginning, from joining in with her sibling’s games and experiencing her first period, but then also sleeps with Alex and gets pregnant. I could not imagine characters as naive as these having sex. Also, the fact that Melissa was able to conceal her entire pregnancy and birth is hard to believe tbh. There were moments when her youth was highlighted, such as when she thought she could raise her child at home without her parents noticing, not realising how noisy a baby could be, her focus on knitting cute little clothes for it. Not to mention her reaction to her growing ‘roundness’ and her disbelief when her maid informed her of her pregnancy. If anything, moments like this made it so much harder for me to believe this subplot.

I enjoyed Coram Boy, mainly because of the amount of history intertwined in this novel. Gavin covers a range of diverse perspectives when it comes to 18th century London, allowing the reader to explore this world in so many different ways. It’s a dark book that features some appalling attitudes amongst the characters, and Gavin conveys their beliefs in such a gripping way that you can’t help but feel shocked at some of the events. Aside from the issues regarding ages, I think this novel is beautifully written and an incredible read for both adults and children.