Category Archives: Philip Pullman

The Book of Dust – The Secret Commonwealth

I hope I will be forgiven for having had one major thought in my head when reading the second Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. Yes, I obviously wanted to see where the story was going, and what the adult Lyra was like, having found her fascinating in Lyra’s Oxford. Also what we’d see of Malcolm, and maybe Alice, from La Belle Sauvage.

But uppermost in my mind was to wonder how Philip would portray Nur Huda el-Wahabi, whose name so many of us hoped to see win the auction to have their name in this book. It was such a beautiful working together, with very little fighting to win. I know Philip warned that there was no guarantee for what kind of person he’d give the winner’s name to, but I felt he’d do Nur proud. He did. It took most of the nearly 700 pages before we got to her, but she was as perfect as you’d have wanted.

Thank you, Philip. And I also enjoyed the two other ‘real’ people, Bud and Alison.

Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth

And you know, the rest of the book’s not bad either.

Were it not for its sheer physical size, I’d have said reading it was the perfect relaxation. Well, it was, really.

I’d been expecting more of the seemingly cosy Oxford we’ve been in before, but whether Philip had always intended it like this, or he has been ‘inspired’ by our own current society, I don’t know. But there is much threat in Oxford, both subtle and quite open and violent. And Lyra and Pantalaimon are not getting on. This is very disturbing, and you just want to knock their heads together and make them see sense. Pan is the more mature of them, actually.

So the powers that be – and we can’t be entirely certain who they really are – are chipping away at everything and everyone. This makes the move from Oxford into Europe more welcome, because you can see this must happen. The Oakley Street organisation is still a bit reassuring, but for how long? And Malcolm as a secret agent is a little surprising, perhaps. I know he started twenty years ago, but… Maybe I’m prejudiced.

Well, I’m not going to list what happens, nor how it ends. It’s a very enjoyable read, and I hope Philip is much further along with the third book than he has let on. This ending was almost a cliffhanger of a cliffhanger.

Attaboy!

She even has a temporary flamingo. That’s Daughter, with the flamingo. And it’s only temporary because it’s not hers and it’s going to stay in the temporary place when she moves on. Otherwise I’d like to think it’s very much a permanent flamingo. If only for its sake.

I’m mentioning the flamingo because there were several of them in her last place as well. One wonders if she attracts them.

It’s pink. Pink-ish, anyway.

Dean Atta

Whereas the flamingo that brought this on is black, as in the book title The Black Flamingo. By Dean Atta. You might recall Daughter and I went to hear him talk at the Edinburgh book festival in August, and she ‘just had to’ have the book.

I mentioned taking Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust instead of drugs, last week. Well, Daughter did too. Her own copy, I might add. When life is stressful, it really does help.

But then she went and finished the book. And in temporary places, even those with flamingoes, there are not so many books to choose from when you want to read. But I urged her to pick one of her other two (!) works of fiction, for her continued drug-taking.

Once she’d started she couldn’t stop, and it ended with her sheepishly calling me to say that she had, erm, read the whole flamingo.

So that leaves one book. Plus the Kindle, which apparently has now been fed, so it can dispense fiction, hopefully on demand. Because what’s the point of me having forced her to buy ebooks if the Kindle is hungry?

Burning witches

I have been taking Dust medicinally. By which I – naturally – mean that I am reading The Secret Commonwealth in order to feel better. Most reading for pleasure is good for you, and there aren’t many better things than having hundreds of pages by Philip Pullman standing by to entertain. Especially after the long wait we endured for the Books of Dust.

But then I thought of my Bookwitch timetable and what I had planned for today. So a couple of days ago I told myself that I could very quickly read that book, while Dust waited for me to return. I immediately felt a lot worse. Not because of the other book, which I am certain will be good. No, it was the idea that I’d pause my ‘drug taking’ of one book to hurriedly read another.

It didn’t feel like a great idea. I decided I wasn’t going to interrupt my time with Philip Pullman at all. After all, medicine is medicine. And The Secret Common-wealth definitely counts as medicine.

All this made me think back to the email that arrived in the midst of the Edinburgh book festival, linking to the Notes From the Slushpile blog post by Nick Cross about burnout. The topic line was ‘Are you burning out?’ and I thought, ‘yes, I am. Actually.’

It was very timely. I wasn’t in a position to do much just then, but I made plans. I’ve not done terribly well with those plans, and until my medicinal issues this week, it seemed as though it’d be another fail. Well intentioned and all that, but not going anywhere.

Anyway, not sure what will happen now either, but Philip and I will plod on. I will get to the other book soon. Probably. And to the other ones I happen to have lying around, that I really do want to read. But I shall do my utmost not to hurry.

This could mean fewer posts here, but then so be it.

Besides, I have a kitchen to build in Berlin.

Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth

A definitive guide to HDM

I occasionally fantasise about having written this fantastic reference book – The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – but then I catch myself and I know it’s not something I could even remotely have managed. But I don’t mind knowing the woman who did write it.

The guide first came into my hands over twelve years ago, and it was hard to believe that someone was out there who had not only read and loved the three books by Philip Pullman, and who was crazy enough to write a detailed analysis of every single thing in that trilogy. As Philip himself says, whatever you want to know about the world he made up, it’s all in the guide. He ‘can’t recommend it too highly.’

And now Laurie Frost’s reference book is back in a new fresh version, just in time for the second Book of Dust – The Secret Commonwealth – which is published today, and for the soon to come television adaptation of the original story. If you don’t already have a copy, you will want one, if only so you can show off and obsess and look up anyone or anything you may have forgotten.

Over to Laurie:

Laurie Frost

What on earth possessed you to sit down and write the book?

I figured, if I didn’t write this guide, someone else would. I expected someone was already writing one, so I found Philip’s home address and sent him a few pages. At this point, work was beginning on the National Theatre production and The Golden Compass movie, and he was getting a lot of questions a book like mine could answer.

If it was now, would you start a book like it?

I was 20 years younger and had a better memory and more energy. I’m far better at doing nothing now. I have no desire to deal with publishers ever again. So, no.

Had you ever written a book before it?

Yes. I re-cast my dissertation as Reminiscent Scrutinies: Memory in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a small and eccentric meditation. The little academic publisher and its warehouse burned down years ago.

In fact, did you know it would turn into a book rather than a pamphlet?

It would either be a book or nothing. It passed pamphlet length after a few days!

Has anything been changed since the first – how many? – editions?

Different covers. The 2019 edition has newly drawn maps. I added a sentence or two.

Are you tempted to add The Books of Dust to the guide?
.
Somewhat. But I’d do separate ones for the interludes and Book of Dust. Unless a publisher paid me upfront and handled the page numbers, I wouldn’t do it with the same level of detail.

What are your thoughts on La Belle Sauvage?

La Belle seems prophetic to me on the dangers of climate change and a wake up call regarding the historic and contemporary instances of family separation and undermining of the family as a fundamental unit of stability and humanity.

Have you any specific hopes or expectations for what will happen in The Secret Commonwealth?

I’ve long thought that the found materials at the end of Lyra’s Oxford would mean a visit to the Mid-East. This has been confirmed in this week’s New Yorker interview. The title makes me expect more time in alternative realities, compared to La Belle, almost exclusively set in Lyra’s.

Will you race through the book, or go slow, savouring the experience? Or have you had access to an advance copy?

Slowly.

Did any of the many stage versions of HDM get close enough for you to go and see one?

Not remotely. I haven’t been overseas since 1979.

What did you think of the Golden Compass film?

I thought the movie was awful. It was way too short. It was unsatisfying to readers and incomprehensible to newcomers.

And what do you think the new television adaptation will be like?

I will watch the mini-series, and I think a longer format will work better than the film. But these are novels of the mind. Consider Moby Dick. Credible action movies have been made of the plot, but none approaches the encyclopedic essence of Melville’s masterpiece. The daemons seem like they would be a cool way to reveal a character’s thoughts, but they really emphasize how much the novels are about body, soul, and mind, making them hard to translate to film. We will see. They will probably work better for people not meeting daemons for the first time.

Do you have a daemon?

Well, as a human, I must. But I haven’t glimpsed him. I argue with myself a lot. So I guess that voice is my daemon’s.

How has your life changed through writing the guide?

The best thing that has come from writing the book is the kindness of Philip’s support.

Also, I will have something my kids and theirs can see as evidence that their mom had a curious mind. Or was a bit obsessive. Or both.

Can we expect to see you in Oxford one day? There is a bench waiting for you to sit on.

Some day. Maybe.

Laurie Frost, The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

A sunny evening in Charlotte Square

Luckily the couple attempting to cross an Edinburgh street by stepping out in front of a bus were fine. Otherwise we’d have been a Poet Laureate short. Although, Simon Armitage wasn’t the only one in town, as we’d come across Carol Ann Duffy in a a pavement café earlier that afternoon. You can’t have too many poet laureates.

Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara

Arriving at the book festival, Photographer and I breezed in and started by snapping Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara signing books in the bookshop in Charlotte Square. She had a queue of very small fans. She was soon joined by Harriet Muncaster, whose hair will have outdone just about every other hair in the square. Harriet’s fans were slightly bigger.

Harriet Muncaster

I picked up my ticket for the day, and then we hung around, hoping for the promised photocall with Carnegie medalist Elizabeth Acevedo. We might have missed her, or she us. Her events partner Dean Atta had a go though, as well as doing much clowning around in front of Chris Close and his camera. Felt like pointing out that it’s better to have authors break a leg after their event…

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

After an inspiring talk in the Spark theatre in George Street, we joined everyone else in the – much improved – George Street bookshop. They even have roving staff who relieve you of your money as you queue for the signing. Very efficient. My Photographer might just have told Dean Atta about her hair, while I told poet Elizabeth Acevedo how I don’t really do poetry!

Had hoped to catch Konnie Huq still signing, but were too late. Instead we headed to the Kelpies Prize award ceremony, where we encountered Lari Don and Linda Strachan, as well as Gill Arbuthnott and Sarah Broadley in the audience. It was very crowded. And hot. I sat on what seemed to be a soft, plush birch trunk with a rounded bottom. But I could easily have been mistaken.

Kelpies Prize

Left early so as not to miss Ian Rankin’s photocall. His fans were already queueing for his event, well before the event before had finished. We had to wait while the ever calm and cool Ian slipped into something more comfortable. While he did so Photographer discovered Phill Jupitus a few metres away, and was [un]suitably excited. I’m afraid I had no idea who he was.

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

Then it turned out Phill was also attending Ian’s photocall (I’m guessing he was going to chat to Ian at his event). The Photographer sort of gasped as she went off. I understand that she told Phill that he’s very funny. So he shook her hand.

I’m now looking forward to a considerable saving on the cost of hand soap.

And Simon Armitage is still un-run over by a bus.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Prepping

I do not run a library. I do not run a library. I do not run a …

Yeah, OK, there’s no need to write a hundred lines. I am a – reasonably – normal witch and I should only need to surround myself with a sensible number of my favourite books. But why is this so hard?

The last few times before Daughter has come to visit, I’ve had in mind that she could help me thin the books on the shelves in her room. The shelves with my books on them. It’s not happened. And this time I thought that someone who’s mid-pack, with a whole flat to move, might not appreciate coming to this house and being asked to shift even more unwanted stuff.

So I am approaching this task myself. Thought it’d be a nice touch if her room was nice and tidy. It won’t* be, but it’s a thought.

The purpose of owning books is not to be a library, or to be complete in any way. If I like Philip Pullman, say, there is no requirement for me to have every book he’s ever had published. I could own some of his books, and then part with a few if I reckon I’m unlikely to re-read them. Even Pullman-books aren’t guaranteed a second reading.

And of course I’m not a library. I hate lending books. So why do I believe I ought to be equipped in case someone is interested in borrowing one of my Pullmans? People don’t [always] return borrowed books. So if you wanted to borrow his Clockwork, you can’t. Partly because I don’t lend, as I said, and partly because someone borrowed it and ‘forgot’ to return it, so I don’t have Clockwork any longer.

On that basis I am now clearing out books that even I am surprised by. I am choosing some books I really love, because I probably won’t read them again, and I’ve discovered someone who would be just right for these books.

It’s time to let go.

Bookshelves

(The above is a historical photo, before things got out of control.)

*Partly because the bathroom is being re-done and those bottles of shampoo and  toilet cleaner had to go somewhere…

They come in waves, don’t they?

‘What if I say Beverley Naidoo?’ I asked.

I had been talking YA authors with someone; someone who had only started reading YA not very long ago. And I wasn’t thinking, so mentioned Celia Rees and was met by a blank stare. It’s understandable. If you are recommended books to try right now, it will be the most talked about books and authors, plus some olden goldies like Philip Pullman and David Almond. Names ‘everyone’ has heard of.

Whereas when I began reading current YA novels 20 or 25 years ago, there was no Meg Rosoff or Keren David or Angie Thomas. At the time Celia Rees and Beverley Naidoo were the reigning queens to me, along with Gillian Cross and Anne Cassidy. Adèle Geras and Mary Hoffman and Linda Newbery. Anne Fine. Malorie Blackman.

No matter how many I list here, I will forget someone really important. Most of them still write and publish, but perhaps not as frequently as before.

There’s the group of authors who appeared when Bookwitch [the blog] was in her infancy, with 2010 being a particularly fruitful year. Candy Gourlay and Keren David, followed by Teri Terry and Kathryn Evans. Again, I will have left someone out.

And now, those ladies have many books under their belts, and there is a new wave of YA authors. I mentioned Angie Thomas, because she’s brand new, both in the book world, and to me. She’s also American, which seems to be where things are happening now.

When I reviewed Celia’s latest novel, I compared it to Truth or Dare, and her reaction to that was that I’m probably the only person who’s been around long enough to have read both it, and the new book. This struck me as silly, as surely everyone would have read Truth or Dare. Wouldn’t they? Well, they haven’t, and it’s not lack of dedication, or anything. Most YA readers don’t last a couple of decades. Real, young people, grow up, and move on to other stuff. And if you’re already ‘old’ and catching up, you can’t read everything.

But when I first met Beverley Naidoo, I almost curtsied.

Bookwitch bites #145

Books for teens? Not as popular as they were?

It’s tough for YA authors, and as is pointed out in this Guardian article, they are giving up. It’s no longer enough to have a burning ambition and plenty of ideas. You need to eat and pay the rent, too. With publishers not so active at promoting the books they publish, they sell less well. Not surprising. I practically have to drag both information and books out of their hands.

Kirkland Ciccone isn’t giving up, however. Next month he is back with another YA day in Cumbernauld. He’s lined up six – or seven – authors (it’s hard to know where you are with Philip Caveney and Danny Weston) to come and entertain students from local schools for a day. Yay! YA+

Last night I’d half hoped to attend Noir at the Bar in Edinburgh, had it not been for last minute builder issues. I’ve so far missed every one of these evenings, but am sure one day, evening, I will be there. I had been under the impression it was all noir [crime], but having had coffee with Moira McPartlin the same morning, and learned that she was there to be noir about her Star of Hope where there is a lot of death – cannibals, even? – she reckoned that you could noir pretty much about anything. (And she’s going to be in Cumbernauld for Yay! YA+…)

More good YA news for John Young, who has just won the Scottish Teenage Book Prize for Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist. Very good book.

The Carnegie/Kate Greenaway medal has only got as far as its longlist, but that’s good enough for me. I like seeing how right I was from the nominations, and also to see how many I’ve read. This year, more than expected. And I can’t name one I prefer, which is probably as it should be.

Yesterday’s top ‘news’ was the date for Philip Pullman’s second Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth, which will be with us in just over seven months! Put October 3rd in your diaries.

While you wait, buy a few YA novels to keep those authors going.

Sir Philip

And a knighthood for Philip Pullman!

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman – Master storyteller

They were queueing for returned tickets from late morning on Saturday. That’s how much in demand Philip Pullman is, and will help explain why the book festival organisers had been after him to come back here for years. Last time, I believe, was when Philip had a couple of bishops to chat to in his event, so it must have been for his book on Jesus, in 2010.

But, she who waits for something good… and all that.

Philip Pullman

Philip did not sign books in the bookshop after. Luckily I discovered this before joining a non-existent queue. But with the new main theatre so enormous, I can understand that signings will be considerably harder than they used to be, when popular authors – well, it’s why they will have been put in the main theatre in the first place – could easily spend a couple of hours and more.

He did, however, sign as many books as there was time for, or maybe until his hands dropped off, before the event, so if you’re quick, you might still be lucky.

Val McDermid was the one chosen to chat to Philip, and you can’t really go wrong with Val. Although, I was quite shocked to discover that it was David Fickling who killed Frederick Garland. Or at least, was an accessory to the killing. Hmm.

Philip Pullman

It’s good that it wasn’t only Philip’s recent Book of Dust that got an outing, but that many of Philip’s books were covered. While Daughter didn’t manage to ask her burning question regarding more Sally Lockhart books (just hurry up with Dust!), it’s good to know they have not been forgotten.

To portray a strong woman, you don’t have to portray a man as weak. Obvious really, but not something everyone understands. Philip does have some of the best female characters, but there is nothing wrong with his men, and boys, either.

And as all wise authors do, he pointed out that we really need school libraries, and there needs to be librarians in them. People who can point readers in the right direction, based on what they’ve read already. People who read, in fact.

This sold-out event was great, and not surprisingly was attended by many of the festival’s guest participants. They could probably have run several events.

Philip Pullman

(Photos Helen Giles)