Book review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) by Philip Pullman


Philip Pullman can tell a good story. I put off reading The Secret Commonwealth because I didn’t know whether, after so long, I was ready to meet Lyra again. I suppose I had the same fear we all have when we meet an old friend once more, after a long time apart. I was scared we’d no longer have anything in common, that the connection I used to feel to Lyra would have disappeared. But I needn’t have worried — the second part of Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy was both enjoyable and gripping.  

It begins twenty years after the end of Volume One, La Belle Sauvage, and seven years from the end of The Amber Spyglass. Lyra is now an adult and a university student, struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it, as she gets swept up in a dangerous quest across Europe and Asia. 

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m slightly obsessed with the series again now. I somehow didn’t realise that The Book of Dust was going to be a trilogy rather than a duology, and when I discovered that none of my burning questions would be answered at the end of those nearly 700 pages, I felt deeply frustrated and impatient. Still, it’s nothing like the way I felt after the end of The Amber Spyglass. Teenage me cried for literal days about the tragic separation of Lyra and Will. The emotional trauma caused was far greater than the end of any of my own real-life romantic entanglements. 

Pullman is clearly now trying to set us up for a romance between Lyra and Malcolm, the protagonist in La Belle Sauvage, who crops up again in Commonwealth as another central character. I’m far from convinced. I don’t like the positioning of Malcom as a romantic hero and no amount of love letters between Malcolm and Lyra will convince me otherwise. 

I think part of the problem for me is that I didn’t really enjoy La Belle Sauvage. Malcolm was ok as a character in that book, but I didn’t appreciate the magical-mystical-mythical bent of the story.

I did go into Commonwealth with some trepidation as a result, but I preferred what was done here. At the heart of this new trilogy is the idea of the secret commonwealth itself. This is the mysterious world of magic, myth and fantastical creatures (including daemons) which Pullman envisages juxtaposed against cold and unfeeling rationality. (Pullman took the phrase from the title of Scottish writer Robert Kirk’s  17th century compilation of ghost stories and fairy tales.)

As a motif, I found it a bit forced. The weakest part of the HDM trilogy was the brow-beating about organised religion, and here I rolled my eyes quite a lot over Pullman’s equally didactic message on the ills of overt rationality. I do think it’s interesting to see this new trilogy as a riposte to some of the critique of his first three volumes — there’s definitely scope to explore both trilogies side by side and examine how his rhetoric has changed! 

Pullman is not subtle when he has a political point to make. The refugees we hear about in Commonwealth, heading from Africa and the Middle East to Europe in desperate hope of refuge, are a case in point. Much as I agree with Pullman’s sentiments, I felt that this aspect of the novel felt grating and forced. It’s a small detail, but one which broke the flow of the story for me and brought me abruptly back to our own unpleasant reality. 

That aside, Lyra’s world was as vividly imagined as ever. I really liked some of the new information we got about daemons and the way they work. I  loved reading about adult Lyra, and the way Pullman imagined her life after her great adventure. The rift between her and Pan was realistic and handled well. The story rollicked along, and despite only being mildly interested in all the machinations of the religious organisations involved, I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. 

This is unmistakably the middle book in a trilogy – there’s so much left unresolved. I like the way things have been set up though, and it’s not an exaggeration to say I’m desperate for more. I’m holding out hope for the return of Will in the third book. I had no idea how passionately I still cared until I re-entered Lyra’s world. 

I’m actually surprised about how much I enjoyed this book, especially as I was lukewarm on Belle Sauvage. I’m immersed in this world again and fully invested in the central mystery Pullman has created. Just don’t try to foist Malyra on me – I’m not here for it and I never will be. 

Book review: The Last by Hanna Jameson

This book began as a strong four stars out of five. By the end, I rated it one. This rarely happens; I can usually tell within a few pages whether a book is for me or not. But The Last had a really interesting premise, introduced several intriguing characters…. and then it failed to deliver. I’ve not felt so let down by my own raised expectations since I ordered the Toasted Marshmallow Hot Chocolate in Starbucks last week and there was nary a whiff of bonfire. 

It’s hard to create a new spin on a post-apocalyptic novel. I know this on a personal level, with my own attempt stuck permanently at 30,000 words. The blurb for The Last promises us just this unique spin, a whodunnit in a creepy haunted hotel, after the world as we know it has ended. The opening chapters do a good job of building up suspense, which then completely dissipates. Jameson hints that persons unknown may be roaming the corridors of the dilapidated, Shining-esque hotel where the bulk of the story takes place but then this suggestion comes to nothing, a smoking gun left to smoulder on and on without ever being shot. 

Likewise, the murder mystery which seems as if it will be central to the story proves unimportant, while the eventual solution is both bizarre and unbelievable. The book’s protagonist, Jon, is an American academic fixated on solving this murder. He seems so odd and unreliable that I spent most of the novel convinced that a grand twist was coming which would reveal him as the murderer and explain away his strange and obsessive personality. Spoiler: that never happens. Apparently he’s just weird. Ok, fine –  another unexplored avenue. 

I do have some positive comments! The other characters were interesting and I liked their interactions and the dynamic that developed in the hotel. I bought into the whole apocalyptic scenario, and I thought the hints about what happened were just the right side of mysterious.  

Yet everything else was far too mysterious. We’re teased with the idea of something supernatural at work but this never coalesces into anything concrete. Then in the final act, the characters discover the beginnings of a new society in a nearby town. It’s suggested that something sinister is going on and that it’s rather too heavy-handed and regimented, but this is left frustratingly unexplored. 

And then the book just….ends. The entire last section felt ridiculous and like Stephen King at his incoherent worst. (Sidenote: I speak from a place of love – I think I’ve read all King’s published work to date.) It felt like Jameson had no idea how to bring this all to an end, so it just disintegrated into chaos. 

If nothing else, this book has convinced me to leave my own post- apocalypse WIP languishing in the dreary depths of my dropbox, until I can figure out both an original angle and how to actually execute it. 

Edinburgh Fringe with a baby: a guide

A month after the end of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and ten months before the beginning of the next one, here’s your badly-timed guide on how to not just experience but to actually enjoy the Fringe even with your progeny in tow. (NB: I have limited Fringe experience and even more limited baby experience, so this is squarely aimed at all you other clueless fools blundering through life. If you read this intro and wondered why a guide was necessary, feel free to ignore and go back to considering your child’s investment profile or polishing up your Mandarin, as you see fit.)

DO seek out the most bizarre and/or highfalutin shows aimed at babies you can find. Korean puppet theatre? Fox-themed Scottish Opera? Avant garde baby theatre productions? Over-the-top all-singing, all-dancing mini-musicals? These shows are all out there and offer something different to the off-key recitations of the Grand Old Duke of York and the Wheels on the Bus you’ve been subjecting your baby to in music class after music class every other week of the year.  

DON’T panic if your baby actually loves nursery rhymes ad nauseam and hasn’t yet learned to appreciate opera. This is the perfect opportunity to teach them that experimental theatre is often more an endurance test than it is an enjoyable day out.  

DO accept that when you inadvertently bring them to a show they love, you’ll hate every over-the-top, eardrum splitting, eyeball straining, brain melting minute of it. That’s ok. Welcome to your life once they gain control of the tv remote. 

DON’T schedule shows for nap time. It’s not worth it. We spent thirty pounds for E to sleep on my lap through the entirety of a show called The Amazing Bubble Man. That was a bubble-filled hour of our lives we’ll never get back. I still feel like weeping when I think of all the (admittedly bubble-free) things I could do in an hour. 

DO seek out the baby shows which involve a bar. Win-win. 

DON’T be like me and take your baby to the Royal Mile to ‘soak up the atmosphere’. No. The performers are outnumbered by the desperate students trying to give flyers to everybody but you because you, of course, are an invisible idiot with a pram. I did find that the parasol attached to our pram (in Scotland often redundant in its primary role as a barrier to the sun) doubled up nicely as a bayonet for bludgeoning my way through the crowd. 

DO try and ditch your child and see some baby-free shows. If you can’t conjure up a friend to do this with, fear not. There were plenty of lone weirdos – probably calling themselves reviewers – at every show I went to. 

DON’T assume that you can bring your baby to a show just because it’s about parenthood. This is in fact the worst kind of adult show to bring a baby to. Everybody there is there to escape their children! Without exception, they will hate you more with every squirmy, shouty minute which passes. 

DO take your baby out day drinking. Choose your venue carefully and it will be genuinely enjoyable. We had a midday drink at George Square and it was perfectly family friendly. It rained, but in true Scottish fashion we braved it out, sheltered under the big umbrellas. E ran circles around the table and we were all briefly content. 

DON’T spend a fortune on lots of shows. I got a bit overexcited and booked us into a couple of things a week for the duration of the Fringe. By the end, both E and I were as blasé and bored of the performance arts as any world-weary, coked-up luvvie on stage nightly in the West End. Lesson learned – you don’t need to repeat Enriching Activities over and over. Do it once, save your money, and go to the park. 

Book review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Why is it so much easier to write a negative review than a positive one? I can be funny and insightful whilst tearing a work of art to shreds, but if I like it I’m reduced to gormless statements like my toddler’s verdicts on everything: ‘Nice. Good. Fun. Thanks.’ 

I’m not by any means capable of writing the review that Sula deserves. I’ve started and stopped and done laundry and cooked dinner and washed dishes and watched TV and scrolled mindlessly on my phone rather than writing about this book. Probably because all I really have to say can be encapsulated thusly: Sula is brilliant. You should read it. Everybody should read it. 

I expected to hate it. This is infinitely embarrassing for somebody who has a degree in literature, but I have struggled previously with Toni Morrison. I was given Song of Solomon at around fourteen. I read it but I didn’t get it. Worse, in my teenage arrogance I thought the problem was Toni Morrison rather than me.  

I went into Sula expecting to have to force myself through it. I thought it would be well-written but tedious, removed from my life and experiences. Surprise – it’s not only great literature but also funny, shocking, rude, real, never boring.  

Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettless. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh.

Most reviews for Sula, and the blurb on the back of the book, talk about the relationship between Sula and Nel as the focal point of the book. And yet they only meet a quarter of the way into the book and we are told they become great friends rather than seeing this develop on the page. To my mind, their relationship is more important for what it tells us about the different ways of existing as a black woman in America at the time the book is set. 

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

The community surrounding these women is carefully set up and explored by Morrison. The narrative is bookended by sections which are the literary equivalent of the cinematic establishing shot. The eccentric Shadrack, founder of National Suicide Day, appears at both the beginning and end, as well as lurching ominously through some more of the book’s more dramatic moments. 

It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day.

The concept of National Suicide Day (a day when people are encouraged to joyously kill themselves to stave off the uncertainty of future disaster)encapsulates the at once funny and tragic nature of Sula. The book’s central themes are explored through this lens – the ways we try to save others from pain, and how often in doing so we end up hurting them more, how we think we know best how others should live and die, the fraught relationships we often have with family and society. 

“But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.” “Really? What have you got to show for it?” “Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” “Lonely, ain’t it?” “Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Morrison’s characters are sympathetic and complex, particularly Nel and Sula, but most notable is her treatment of female desire. It’s extraordinary that in 2019 it still feels revolutionary to read a literary novel which deals with sex from a female point of view. Throughout university and in dutifully tackling prizewinning literature I’ve been subjected to so much male-gaze writing about women and sex. Morrison’s detailed, insightful novel is a revelation. 

She went to bed with men as frequently as she could. It was the only place where she could find what she was looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow.

This is not a book for the squeamish. Morrison uses arresting imagery to unflinchingly capture the most transcendental moments of life alongside the bleakest; the trickle of urine down a leg, a gorgeous summer day, a character burning her own son to death in his bed. On a single page we range from the tragic to the absurd, from Eve’s one leg to the ridiculous modified rocking horse she uses to get around.

I wish I could read Sula again for the first time. I wish I had read it long before I did. Read it now!

Book review: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad

This book is a journalistic masterpiece. At the same time, it was extremely hard to read. It’s also the most difficult book I’ve ever tried to review.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is not just an account of Breivik’s terrorist attack on 22nd July 2011, but also details Breivik’s life until that point and the trial which followed.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing this is that I read it in translation. Sometimes when reading a translated work I can forget that it wasn’t written in English. With this book, I felt conscious of it at several points while reading. The text was so journalistic and pared back that the sentence structure took on an added significance. Sometimes it just felt a little clunky, a bit dry. There were turns of phrase which were given narrative importance and emphasis which I’m sure would have had more impact in the original Norwegian than they did in English. 

I’m aware how churlish the above paragraph sounds. This is another difficulty for the reviewer – how to treat a book which deals with such a tragedy? It seems somehow petty to pick at minor literary details when the greater discussion is of matters of life and death. Professional reviews of One of Us focus on the book’s subject matter, rather than analysing it in its own right as a literary work. 

I suppose some of my discomfort when it comes to writing this review stems from my own fear of succumbing to a ghoulish voyeurism. When a book handles such an atrocious crime is it ethical to quibble about its entertainment value? 

I’m not sure about the correct answers here, but I’m going to do my best to evaluate One of Us and share my thoughts on its handling of this sensitive subject matter. 

 One of Us has been compared, in scope and in its attention to detail, to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I haven’t read Mailer’s Pulitzer prize winning epic, but I have read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another classic of this genre. While In Cold Blood skipped over depicting the actual murder of the Clutter family, One of Us opens with a chilling in media res description of part of the massacre on Utøya island. It then backtracks to begin its forensic examination of Breivik’s personality and the familial, societal and political forces which helped mould him. 

The detail presented here is exhaustive. This dive into Breivik’s life prior to the massacre lasts for around 250 pages, or half of the book. Much of it was interesting but I did feel that a lot of this detail was included for the sake of journalistic completeness. In my opinion, the objectivity of the book wouldn’t have suffered if some authorial judgement had been used to filter and summarise the events of Breivik’s childhood and adolescence. A clear picture of Breivik does emerge from the material presented. He’s represented as a strange and lonely character, a misfit who failed to find a place within society.  (And whom society perhaps failed in turn, as a small child in a home strongly suggested to be abusive.) 

I haven’t read enough books dealing with true crime to know if this is unique, but one of the standout features of the book was its determination to make this as much the story of the victims as of Breivik. To achieve this, Seierstad interspersed material on Breivik with chapters recounting the lives of the victims and their families. This was obviously a laudable aim, but I found the execution a bit clumsy structurally. I think I would have preferred these chapters collected together and even expanded, rather than mixed somewhat randomly between the parts on Breivik. That said, even in its current form, these chapters were undoubtably powerful. By the time Breivik kills these children, the reader feels that they know them and their families intimately. It’s almost unbearably tragic to read, and I applaud Seierstad for painstakingly telling us about the teenagers’ relationships, ambitions, football skill, etc so that we can’t lose sight of just how atrocious the destruction of their young lives was. 

As the book goes on, its attention to detail and keen observation of Breivik lends it a true sensation of horror. The level of detail which was at times dull in the first half becomes excruciating in the second half. I nearly cried in public several times. This latter half of the book, handling the attack and its aftermath, is fascinating and horribly painful in equal measure. I do wonder whether the rather dry set-up was calculated. To return to the question of voyeurism, it’s almost as if Seierstad was saying – ok, here’s the macabre description of murder you came for. But first you’ve got to wade through pages and pages on Breivik’s teenage years as a graffiti artist. 

The question of Breivik’s sanity was crucial to the trial and is dwelt on in the book. He was deemed accountable in the end and given the maximum sentence allowed by law – just 21 years. The discussion of the sentence given is one of the few places within the text where any explicit editorial comment came through. The emergency service response to the attack was also (rightly) given short shrift by Seierstad. Throughout most of the book though, the narrator is deliberately absent. While In Cold Blood felt distinctly novelistic, One of Us was obviously striving for neutrality on questions such as Breivik’s accountability. And yet the choices made in its composition (focus on the failings of social services who had early dealings with Breivik’s mother, inclusion of chapters on the victims, detailing of the missteps made by police on the day of the attack) are all themselves purposeful and reveal Seierstad’s opinions. 

I think that’s absolutely fine. Knowing where the author stands doesn’t for me detract at all from the work involved here. I initially thought that much of the material dealing with the massacre had to have been invented, in the vein of In Cold Blood. I was totally wrong – the author’s note at the end details the huge amount of primary sources available to Seierstad, ranging from coroner’s reports and police interviews to phone recordings and accounts by survivors. Her commitment to the research involved was clearly meticulous. 

The final page of the book’s 500+ also offers some modest editorialising. Seierstad posits that this is a story of belonging, and what happens to individuals who have no sense of belonging anywhere. On this basis she argues for the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive Norway.  

The part of this powerful book which really stands out to me isn’t anything to do with Breivik’s rather pitiful life or terrible crimes. It’s not the horrendous actions he undertook or anything to do with his political motivations. I found one small vignette Seierstad included utterly heartbreaking – the tale of a teenage immigrant to Norway, Mehdi, whose only friend (Simon) was killed on the 22nd of July 2011. I wonder where he is now – Seierstad doesn’t know or doesn’t tell us. 

One of Us was a difficult and at times far from enjoyable read, but stands as a remarkable achievement in nonfiction.

The hell that is holiday planning

I’m sure there was a point in my life when the prospect of going on holiday didn’t fill me with an all-consuming dread. I definitely recall there was a time when it was enjoyable, exciting even, to speculate over where to go and then look at lots of over-filtered sunny pictures in the process of narrowing it down. I have a friend who told me years ago she found the whole holiday-booking process horrendous. I laughed politely and murmured agreement, not actually getting it at all. I’m sorry, Liz. I understand now. It’s truly terrible. 

My husband and I have spent the last few months talking about going on holiday. It’s now August, and we’re not going on holiday. To sum up the issues involved: I wanted somebody else to plan and book the entire thing for me, but I wanted it to be perfect and cheap and I didn’t want to pay this person or have to interact with another human being because I’m also tight and suspicious and I know I’m capable of using Google. 

Post-child, there seemed to be so many more factors to consider. For the first time as adults we’re living within visiting distance of friends and family, and now that we have a toddler they’re paying us more attention than they have in years.  I believe the solution to fitting a holiday in between social engagements is to plan it in advance, but that’s for people who can manage to get through a calendar year without having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car. 

All we could seem to agree on is that we wanted to go to a villa or an apartment somewhere in the world. Anywhere with a separate room for the baby. And we wanted to be able to cook because the thought of hotel buffets made us both very anxious, food being the essential point of any holiday. Genuinely, a bad meal has ruined many an evening out and created much relationship drama, so this is an important consideration. 

Aside from that, the whole of Europe was up for grabs. We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know where to find anywhere to go. We didn’t know how to manage all the logistics of going abroad with a baby. We knew there were answers to be found, but the time involved in finding them seemed always to be beyond our grasp. When it comes to research, D and I approach it from a position of competition. We both secretly feel we are better at it, and distrust everything the other person comes up with. Any suggestions must be researched by us both individually. It’s a time-consuming process. We felt like we needed a holiday to plan our holiday. 

The entire thing was making me feel exceptionally anxious whenever I thought about it. It was really almost a relief when we realised it was entirely a moot point, as the whole having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car scenario had rendered our available holiday funds basically non-existent. Instead we’re staying in Edinburgh for a week. We’ll go to festival shows every day and the only decisions involved will be gin and tonic or white wine. I can’t wait.