This is something of a record for me, managing to get through three books in less than four months. It certainly helped that two of them were real page-turners. While the third I probably only read about two-thirds of, as I was skipping big chunks of boredom as I went.
All three were off the list, but another first was that four books actually came off of it this time. That’s because I tried and failed to stick with The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. I was fascinated to find out what one of the true masters of sci-fi predicted for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929. But I’ll never find out because I just couldn’t manage the incredibly slow pacing of the book. Wot a Philistine. Anyway, onto the fluff I could manage…
The Book of Dust, Volume 1: The Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
I absolutely loved Pullman’s first trilogy, his Dark Materials. And I’ve really enjoyed reliving it recently via the excellent television series. So I was excited to see him return to the universe for this prequel series. This time we’re concentrating on the happenings around the time of Lyra’s birth. with unlikely heroes rising to the challenge of protecting the infant Lyra from evil forces.
I guess I was set up to be disappointed. Lyra was such a fantastically well-rounded character. Naively ‘good’ with an infectious tomboy streak. While the whole idea of dust and demons was fascinating. And while the whole’ good and evil’ Christianity thing was a little on the nose, you had to remember this was a children’s book series. It knocked the Potter-verse into a cocked hat in terms of depth, essentially being the new Tolkien vs the new Blyton. Both have their place.
So, to the Book of Dust. I hated it. The main characters were uninspired and cliched. But somehow also inconsistent. In the hands of such disappointing ‘heroes’ the old demon/dust angle soon became pedestrian. While the story itself was a sub-Lord of the Rings wander (albeit in a boat) with added nappy changing. Lots of nappy changing. By halfway I was skipping every second page and I almost gave up. And now, having decided there’s no way in hell I’ll read any more of this tripe, I wish I had. I’m not sure what amazes me more – that such a clearly excellent writer can be this poorly advised/edited. Or that the reviews were so generous. This is surely one of the biggest drops in form in literary history.
Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler
After such a miserable waste of my limited reading time, I felt I had to turn to another old favourite – but one that never disappoints. Author Christopher Fowler has terminal cancer. And when his time comes, I’ll be as upset as I’ve ever been about the loss of someone I’ve never known. He’ll be up there with John Peel and David Bowie. Because he’s a brilliant author and a brilliant person. Don’t believe me? Go check out his website. He speaks my language.
The Peculiar Crimes Unit investigations, or Bryant and May detective novels, have been popping along every year or so since 2003. They star two elderly detectives who bicker like the best of them and whose relationship is hugely compelling. As are the other personalities in their dysfunctional police unit. But the real star of the series is London. Fowler has an insatiable lust for knowledge about the city’s largely unknown and often dark historical underbelly. And its this combination, along with some brilliant storytelling, that makes the books shine.
Wild Chamber is no different. It calls back cleverly to a previous story and contains all the usual oddball characters. The plot twists and turns, never giving you the chance to put the pieces together. But the relationships are so charming to read you just enjoy the ride. My only minor complaint is the continued repeat plot of the dark forces trying to close the unit. After this many books, it’s tired. Yes, the threat puts a time limit on proceedings that helps add a little tension. But it seems to happen in every book. For a man with such a vivid imagination, it seems odd to keep flogging this particular horse. That said, the moving on of a few minor character subplots made up for it in the end. Brilliant, as always.
Chaos Walking 1: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
I’d heard loads of good things about this series and found Book One in a charity shop cheap as chips, so gave it a go. The writing style immediately drew me in, having an uneducated Western-style (as in cowboys) feel but in a sci-fi setting. As a sucker for Firefly, I was hooked – and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.
Without giving too much away, our heroes are human settlers on a distant planet that has a strange effect on its male occupants. Basically, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. It’s a fascinating premise, which the book handles incredibly intelligently – while sticking to the first-person, uneducated narrative. Things soon heat up, leading to a rip-roaring yarn that promises much and – in many ways – goes on to deliver.
I wholeheartedly recommend it and look forward to reading the following books in the series. But I do have some reservations. I think the book could’ve comfortably been 100 pages shorter. There’s a lot of repeating of pretty basic points and overemphasis on the obvious. Sure, it’s aimed at a younger audience – but this still seemed OTT when you think of some of the intelligent writing now considered standard for young adults. Also, there was a bit too much of the Lord of the Rings traveling syndrome. Get there already! Especially when a lot of the drudgery just seemed thrust in to bring home overly repeated points.
What’s next on the list?
Numbers one, two, and four are read off the list since last time, while number three fell off the list (see the intro above) – the first time that has happened. This all means there are four – yes, FOUR (count ’em) new entries. The world’s gone MAD I tell you.
- A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Third time on the list. I need to get around to reading some more non-fiction. This time from a genuine board game design legend. How better to get my design mojo back?
- Shadow Prey by John Sandford. New entry! Sequal to Rules of Prey, which I read back in 2020. Hopefully more game designer/detective gritty murder goodness.
- Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. New entry! Famous, innit?
- Hero of the Underworld by Jimmy Boyle. New entry! I have no idea why this is on my shelf. Answers on a postcard. But I may as well read it!
- Crikey, I don’t know. Any suggestions?