Showing posts with label Philip Pullman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Pullman. Show all posts

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Count Karlstein by Philip Pullman


Rating: WARTY!

I've typically liked stories by Philip Pullman with a few exceptions such as Clockwork, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and Tiger in the Well. I have to add this audiobook to that small group, I'm sorry to report. It wasn't engaging me at all, wasn't interesting, offered nothing of value, and I DNF'd it.

The story isn't aimed at me, yet while I've enjoyed many middle-grade stories, I found this one tedious and the character names trite. For a parody, they might have been amusing, but for a story like this, they seemed a bit like profiling! Arturo Snivelwurst? Signor Rolipolio? Really? If I'd known that Kirkus Reviews (who apparently never met a novel they didn't like) had boasted of its "whirlwind plotting, manipulated into a pulsing tale of darkened hearts, treachery, and at long last, redemption" I would have avoided it like the plague. If all of your reviews are positive, then what's the point?

The story is of two young girls (Lucy and Charlotte) whom their evil eponymous uncle is going to offer up as sacrifices to appease Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, who has granted Karlstein his riches. How exactly that worked remains unexplored - at least in the bits I listened to. Set in Switzerland in 1816, the story relates how the count's scheme is derailed by the actions of Hildi Kelmar, a servant at the castle where the count lives.

Hildi helps Lucy and Charlotte escape (at least temporarily), and later becomes attached to an amusing shyster named Doctor Cadaverezzi, an illusionist. The ending (part of which I listened to, the rest of which I read of in Wikipedia) is so irrepressibly happy that it's nauseating. I advise having insulin on standby if you plan to read the ending.

The book featured an ensemble cast featuring three of the four Strallen sisters: Zizi, Saskia, and Scarlett. I assume it was recorded in winter because Summer didn't take part.... There was also someone by the name of Schrapnell! The reading of the various parts which wasn't too bad, it has to be said. I loved the English accents (despite these girls supposedly being Swiss!), but was bemused by the differing accents among other characters, and also by some of the pronunciations.

In German, 'stein' for reasons which escape me, who speaks no German to speak of, is pronounced like 'schtine', but with less spittle than you might expect(orate!), yet the pronunciations of Karlstein's name were all over the place and actually seemed out of place given that most accents were English! It's a pity the content of the book wasn't as entertaining as the accents, so all I can do is paraphrase Much Ado About Noting's Benedick, even if it means being a dick: in faith, I consider it too low for a high praise, too simple for an intricate praise, and too little for a long praise; only this commendation I can afford it: that were it other than it is, it were unappealing, and being no other but as it is, I do not like it.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman


Rating: WORTHY!

I listened to the audiobook read very ably by Welsh actor Michael Sheen. He doesn't sound very Welsh here it must be said. He often plays a weasely villain in movies. You might remember him from the first three Underworld movies where he played Lucian. He's also played Tony Blair, HG Wells, Kenneth Williams, David Frost, and Brian Clough! He did get a bit overly dramatic, even frantic at times in his reading here, but otherwise I enjoyed his effort as I enjoyed the book. It's a worthy addition to the 'His Dark Materials' canon and I commend it, although it's far from perfect, it has to be said.

This particular story is a prequel to the original trilogy, when Lyra was literally a baby and had to be rescued from the machinations of the Consistorial Court and also from a vengeful scientist by this young boy Malcolm Polstead and a moody girl named Alice Parslow.

The other two volumes in the series will cover Lyra at later stages in her life (this is why Pullman has described it as not a prequel, nor a sequel, but an equal). The story is very much told from Malcolm's perspective, but blessedly not in first person. Pullman is a writer who gets just how pathetic and limited first person voice truly is. The story is aimed at a young adult readership, but be warned it has bits of quite brutal violence and swearing throughout the narrative.

Malcolm's parents own the inn where Malcolm helps out and Alice works. Across the Thames from the inn lies a priory wherein nuns are caring for an infant girl named Lyra. Malcolm plies this river in his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage and he helps at the priory, too.

The more Malcolm learns, the more involved he becomes and when a flood prophecy from the Gyptians proves to be true and a once-in-a-century deluge hits, and Oxfordshire is swamped, Malcolm is unexpectedly thrown into a chase across three countries trying to deliver Lyra safely to Lord Asrael in London. He finds himself throwing in his lot with the antagonistic Alice to save the child.

Note that there are spoilers here which might make you regret trying to read these books in order. I recommend starting with the original 'His Dark Materials' trilogy (Northern Lights published in the USA as The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) before tackling this one. You may also be disappointed. This book is much more mundane that the initial trilogy, and the chase across the flooded landscape goes on with almost metronomic repetitiveness, so for me it sagged rather during that time.

I understand the print book is some 450 pages long. I listened to the audiobook and it didn't seem that long at all, because I was enjoying it so much, I guess! That said, I think Pullman could have used some self-editing here. The repetitive cyclic nature of the 'slow speed chase' rowing across the endless water, finding an island, rowing the water, finding an island might turn off many people, but for me in was just interesting enough to keep me reading and I'm looking forward to the next volume.

There were problems with this journey: almost no other humans were ever seen during the long aquatic trip, and the few that were, were always the villain, Gerard Bonneville, or the Consistorial Court boats. At one point we learned the Gyptians were out looking for Malcolm but they had only half as many boats as the Court, yet never once do we see one of those Gyptian boats, nor any boats bearing anyone else. How the Court and Bonneville managed to so expertly track Malcolm and Alice when no one else could was a bit too much to swallow and felt more amateurish than I thought this author capable.

I read some negative reviews that complained that Malcolm was boring and Alice never changed, and their roles were genderist, but it really wasn't that way at all. Just because Malcolm was in charge of the boat (his boat that he was an expert at using and Alice wasn't), doesn't mean she was confined to a traditional female role! This is not set in 2018, but at some time in the past when traditional gender roles were the norm, so this isn't a surprise, but Alice came through repeatedly, including decking Bonneville at one point, and Malcolm was repeatedly shown to have what might be termed a more traditional feminine side, so I really don't know what those reviewers were complaining about.

There's nothing weak about being a woman! There's nothing weak about playing to your strengths whatever they are. Some women want to be jet fighter pilots, others want to be homemakers and to chide the one for being traditional is insulting to the woman who choses such a role. Alice was doing what she chose to do and often telling Malcolm what's what. He consulted her frequently and she had no problem expressing her mind at will. How is any of that weak?

I recommend this as a worthy addition to the cannon. Just don't expect too much from it!


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman


Rating: WARTY!

Published in 1990, for me this was the weakest book in the quadrilogy so far (I have one more volume still to read). Frederick is dead. Sally has had his child from their one brief dalliance right before he died, and it's this child, Harriet, who is at the heart of this story. Sally's closest friends and associates: Frederick's brother Webster Garland, Jim, and Charles are off in South America on a photo expedition.

What Sally doesn't know, but finds out very quickly, is that her foe from the first novel in the series has very carefully, sadistically, and expertly been putting in place her downfall, as she learns when divorce papers are served on her by a man named Arthur Parrish. This is a surprise to Sally because she has never even heard of Parrish, has never met him and has certainly never been married to him or to anyone else.

As she digs into the claims and accusations, Sally realizes that she has been set up in a way which will be very hard to fight, and especially so for a woman in that era. This situation is exacerbated, sadly, by the fact that the tough and capable Sally Lockhart from the previous two volumes is also dead. She has been replaced by a replica, exact in every detail except resolve and fortitude. This new Sally has the constitution of a wet biscuit, which is inexplicable. Why Pullman chose to do this to her is a mystery and a serious mistake.

The original Sally was not perfect by any means, but she did not let the fact that she was treated as a second class citizen (being a woman in Victorian times) get in the way of turning her life around in the first volume, or of taking down a dangerous and advantaged foe in the second. I know that here we have a child to consider, but to me this should have made Sally even more formidable, not less. That's not what we get.

The Sally here is weepy, lackluster, hesitant, nervous, distracted, aimless, clueless, and is pushed around by everyone she meets. It's sad to see a completely different person from the one we have loved in two successive volumes. Rather than stand up and fight, this sally effectively runs. Yes, she engages a solicitor, who in turn briefs a barrister to represent Sally in court, but both of these men, and particularly the barrister, are complete jerks. They aren't even willing to consider that the marriage never took place, and they treat her like a whore (the common term for a single mom in those days) and a victim.

Sally never once stands up to them much less fires them. Instead, she simply fails to turn up at her own trial, and of course loses - something she pretty much knew her barrister was going to do beforehand. She goes on the run with Harriet, which is ill-advised at best. In that era women, regardless of what they had or who they were before the marriage, became effectively the property of their husband once married, and he took possession of everything they owned and all of their children. They had no rights. Sally, therefore, as a now 'proven' wayward wife, lost everything. She knew this was coming yet took not a single step to counter it. She's not your Ruby in the Smoke sally, sorry to report.

Just as in the first novel, she's now penniless and on the street, this time with a very young child in tow. She could have transferred her ownership of her home and her business interests, and although that would have been challenged, it would have been something - a delaying tactic at least. What she could certainly have done is remove every penny from her back account, but she failed to even consider this, much less actually do it. Now her "husband' has everything and she has nothing.

Once again a man comes to her aid. He's a Jewish agitator who is also up against Parrish for his exploitation of Jewish immigrants. His associates give her shelter and hide her and Harriet from the police and Parrish. One of these, a man named Dan Goldberg, reveals to Sally that Parrish is a criminal who is running frauds and scams all over London, including houses of prostitution and exploitation of minorities. She learns from him that the man behind Parrish is known as Tzaddik, and it's he who is really doing all this to Sally, but Sally doesn't make the connection to a man named Lee with whom she had a run-in - and shot, but not fatally - back in book one, the events of which took place many years before those occurring in this volume.

Tzaddik is outright evil and to bring him down Sally takes a job in his house as a maid. he doesn't know what she looks like, and it all works out in the end, including Sally magically forgetting about the terrific romance she'd had with Frederick and having no problem shacking up with a different guy that she hardly knows. It's not a great story, and I cannot recommend it. The only thing which made me want to read volume four is that it's really a different story altogether, otherwise I would have quit right here.


The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman


Rating: WORTHY!

This was first published in 1986 as The Shadow in the Plate and is set six years after the previous volume The Ruby in the Smoke, this novel takes place in 1878. I know that they tended to go in for long engagements in the past, but six years seems like an awfully long time for nothing to have changed between Frederick and Sally. Indeed, it's like things have actually gone downhill. They are frequently at odds and outright name-calling arguing in this volume, so perhaps the long-term outcome was all for the best.

The dark stories continue with both Frederick, who is inexplicably a private investigator now, working with Jim, and Sally tackling different ends of what turns out to be the same problem. Sally, now with her own financial advisory business and a large dog, is trying to help a client recover the three thousand pounds which she lost after investing it on Sally's advice. The company went bust and Sally just knows that it wasn't any accident or poor planning. On the contrary: the collapse of the company was planned in detail by Axel Bellmann.

Meanwhile, via Jim, a showman and magician Alistair Mackinnon has had death threats. Mackinnon supposedly has the power of psychometry - being able to divine things from touching objects, and through this he has become aware of a murder. At a séance conducted by Nellie Budd, Jim and Fred learn of the very death which Mackinnon has seen. Evidently Nellie has psychic powers despite the fraudulent medium game she pursues.

Bellman sends a lackey to threaten Sally, who works alone out of her home. He has documented many visitations from men - obviously seeking financial advice, but Bellman plans to spin it as a house of prostitution if Sally doesn't back off. Sally doesn't back off.

To further his interests and influence, Bellmann plans on marrying the daughter of Lord Wytham. I have two observations here. The first is purely regarding my own amusement when I read this sentence: "Lord Wytham was a handsome man" to which I wanted to append, "Lord without 'em he was ugly as sin," but that's simply frivolity. It does, however, offer an insight: you should be careful how you write things, and also how you choose your character names if you don't want to provoke unintended mirth amongst your readership! Moreover, why were his looks important? No answers are to be found here.

The second thing relates to this with regard to the complementary sex (not opposite, surely!) in describing female characters as beautiful. It's almost like there's a law forbidding female characters from being ordinary or plain. It seems that male characters - even major ones, in novels can get away with any amount of ordinary and average, yet females are required to be young and beautiful - not pretty, not attractive, not good-looking, although these do occur, but outright beautiful. I think it's a poor choice and worse, a clichéd choice against which I've railed on more than one occasion

I want to give here, thanks to Philip Pullman, an example of how it can be done and made to work well. Frederick, the photographer, has his breath taken away by Lord Wytham's daughter, Lady Mary. The text reads, "...beautiful wasn't quite the word. The girl was astoundingly lovely, with a grace and shyness and delicate coral coloring which made him want to reach for his camera..."

So here is the first part of it - a photographer's view. Note that it's not the author telling us she's beautiful, but a character observing her to be so, and he's doing this because he is a photographer - someone who we would expect to react to beauty whether it's in the face of a woman, or in a sunset, or a flower, or something else.

Later, another character says to the main character, Sally Lockhart, "...Lady Mary's beauty would fade. Yours is not dazzling, but it is a beauty of mind and character, and it will grow stronger...." To me, that is exactly how it should be approached and how it can be done well. Anything else is cheap by comparison and insulting to women in general.

In addition to Sally, there is another strong woman in this novel - she's an ardent admirer of Mackinnon's who has no illusions about her own lack of beauty. Her face is disfigured by a birthmark, but she shows her inner beauty by how strong she is in the face of her poverty and in her lack of a more ordinary-looking face. She is the one who shows them a newspaper clipping which confirms the visions both Mackinnon and Budd have had. It's someone Bellmann killed in a duel. We also have confirmed something which has been a growing suspicion for attentive readers: that Mackinnon is actually the son of Lord Wytham and Nellie Budd.

Sally has by now learned that Bellmann is building an automated steam gun. His belief is that once every nation owns these guns, peace will inevitably reign because no one will dare start a war. He's delusional of course, as the arms race between the US (United States) and the US (Union of Soviets) conclusively proved. The big guys simply pay the little guys, one way or another, to fight proxy wars. As long as there are haves and have-nots, war is inevitable. But this is not the problem with the steam gun as Sally discovers. It's confined to railway tracks. With such limited mobility, Sally determines that it's intended to be used against a nation's own population, not against foreign aggressors. But Sally has a plan.

Pullman evidently likes to kill off main characters with the glee of a Joss Whedon or a Jo Rowling, and he manages to slaughter both Sally's dog and her fiancé, as Frederick is by then. Bellman is also dead, and we're left with the knowledge that Sally's one brief dalliance with Frederick has borne fruit. I recommend this as a worthy read.


The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman


Rating: WORTHY!

Published in 1985, and set in Victorian times, 1872, this is the first of a quadrilogy, three-quarters of which I enjoyed overall. It's been a long time since I read this though, and I still have to read the last volume in the set!

I have multiple problems with Goodreads (not least of which is that it's owned by the unforgivable Amazon), but one of them is that the blurb for this book begins: "Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty." I don't see what that has to do with anything. If she were sixteen and plain would her story be not worth telling? Are her age and her looks her most important qualities? Goodreads makes me sick at times.

Yes, maybe that blurb was posted by some reviewer, but if Goodreads librarians were not among the most useless people on the planet, they would fix things like this. I'm surprised that Pullman himself hasn't complained about it. I know I would if someone characterized one of my main characters so shallowly. But then he's not listed as a 'Goodreads author' whatever the hell that means, so maybe his voice doesn't count since they don't own him? Or maybe he gives less thought to Goodreads machinations than I do? I dunno.

The Wikipedia entry isn't much better! The entry doesn't talk about beauty, but it's so obsessed with TV and stage adaptations of the book that it completely fails to say a word about the plot! Pathetic. An encyclopedia entry that says not a word about its subject! LOL! That's sadly underperforming for Wikipedia I have to say.

Take it from me that Sally Lockhart's looks are unimportant in this story. It's her character that's the critical quality and she has that in abundance. She's an orphan, her mother some time past, and her father having died in a shipwreck. She's under the care (so-called) of a cold bitch of a woman, but this doesn't hold sway for long.

Sally is called to the shipping office to which her father had ties and she learns of some information there that sets her on a course of conflict with the bad guys, which consist of a mysterious Asian and an evil woman who works for him and who isn't entirely lacking in similarity to Marisa Coulter of the 'His Dark Materials' hexalogy. Sally bests them both and makes a friend of Frederick with whom she has only a short-term relationship, it turns out.

I really liked this story and commend it as a worthy read. I also commend the TV adaptation starring two Doctor Who alumni: a very young Matt Smith and Billie Piper.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Stéphane Melchior, Clément Oubrerie, Philippe Bruno, Annie Eaton


Rating: WARTY!

This graphic novel taken from the original novel by Philip Pullman, adapted by Stéphane Melchior, with art by Clément Oubrerie, and coloring by Clément Oubrerie and Philippe Bruno, and translated from the French by Annie Eaton was a disappointment I have to say. The text was so-so and the artwork was blah. Really blah. It told the story in a very workmanlike manner, with no flashes of anything exciting or remarkable. The colors in the artwork were muddy, and the artwork itself really was unappealing.

I cannot recommend this as a worthy read; instead I recommend either the original novel or the audiobook version of it, which is narrated by Pullman himself along with a cast who play the characters. I like the movie, too. It’s pretty sad when a movie makes well-over a third of a billion dollars and is considered non-viable, but the USA is a very fundamentalist religious society, first amendment be damned, and this is effectively what killed this movie series, I think.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Clockwork by Philip Pullman


Title: Clockwork
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WARTY!

Clockwork is a very short-novel - about one hundred pages - and it's the first thing by Pullman that has interested me since I got done with his two trilogies: His Dark Materials, and The Ruby in the Smoke, both of which I loved. Unfortunately, his series seem to be the only things of his that I end-up liking, and this volume was no exception.

It's set in a previous time - a time of the of skilled craftsmen and of creation of clockwork time-pieces. One of these is a man who is on the verge of finishing his apprenticeship and becoming a master, but in order to do this, he was supposed to have created a clockwork figure that would be added to the collection of figures in the town clock. The problem is that he's done no work and has nothing to exhibit. Now on the eve of his disgrace, he's in a bar with his friend, who happens to be a story-teller.

His friend tells the weird tale of the time the Prince went hunting in the mountains one snowy night with his young brother and a certain other gentleman. On page 77 we read the confusing description where "...two nights later..." - that is, two nights after the prince left "...three nights before..." he returns! This made zero sense to me. If he left three nights before, how can he return only two nights later?

But that's a minor problem. What returns is the sled with the prince mechanically driving the exhausted horses - mechanically because it turns out he's dead, and the only thing which kept his whip hand moving was a clockwork mechanism which someone had placed in his chest.

Right at the point where the story teller is revealing that the count never returned on the sled, the count himself comes into the bar, which precipitates everyone else leaving in panic. The only ones to remain were the about-to-be-disgraced clock-maker and the count himself.

Thus begins the tale, and it wasn't disastrous, but it was a bit boring with nothing of great import and certainly nothing engrossing happening. It's a very short novel, which is the only reason I bothered to finish it, but that does nothing to improve the overall quality. I can't recommend this one.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman


Title: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Canongate
Rating: WARTY!

Having read of the religiously-motivated controversy surrounding Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, when I came across this audio book, I was curious to find out what he had to say. Pullman reads it himself, and it makes for entertaining listening, although I confess I'm not sure what his motivation was in writing it or what he hoped to achieve in doing so.

I'm not religious and I do not believe there ever was a Messianic son of god roaming around what is now Israel some 2,000 years ago. Certainly there never was a "Jesus Christ" - which is all Greek to me! Yes, there were people named Yeshu, or Yeshua or Yehoshua - it was a common name as was Miri (Mary) and Yusef (Joseph). There may even have been one or more rabbis going by the name of Yeshu, one or more of whom may have been crucified. That doesn’t make the contradictory stories in the New Testament true. There's no evidence that any of those poor victims of Roman barbarity ever rose from the dead.

Pullman tells it like it's true, but he puts a spin on it which is unique to my knowledge: that Jesus Christ wasn't one man, but two: Jesus, and Christ, brothers, both of whom could perform miracles, but only one of whom, Jesus, took on the mantle of Messiah. Directed by a creepy anonymous benefactor, Christ remained in the shadows recording and documenting Jesus's words and activities.

Pullman tells the story very much like it’s told in the NT, including some little known tales from New Testament era apocrypha, but on some occasions he puts a slightly different spin on the stories, heightening the interest and drama, while all the time, Jesus is becoming more well-known and popular, and the authorities increasingly taking an interest in his activities.

And so it goes, but in the end I can't recommend this as a worthy read because it really didn't offer anything new or startling - apart from the aforementioned and rather schizophrenic aspect of it. Kudos to Pullman for reading his own stories in the audio versions, but this isn't something I really enjoyed or would want to read again, unlike the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which I adore.