Category Archives: Reference

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?
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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

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Balloon to the Moon

There are a lot of crazy people in this world. There always have been, and that’s lucky, because where would we have been if no one had crazy ideas and tried them out?

Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen, Balloon to the Moon

Gill Arbuthnott has traced the early days of space flight, which seems to have been balloons, several hundred years ago. Who’d have thought?

Even then, they started cautiously by sending a sheep, a duck and a chicken, rather than humans, up in a balloon in 1783. And after that there was no stopping them.

This book is illustrated throughout, by Christopher Nielsen, and I rather like his snakes and ladders approach to showing how what happened and when. It all began with kites in China in the 5th century BC. And here we are, two and a half thousand years later with a Chinese space probe on the ‘wrong’ side of the Moon.

In between there were many men, but also quite a few women doing daring things, and various dogs and monkeys and other animals.

It’s funny how it’s possible to get excited about a thing – in this case space exploration – over and over again. No matter how many books, it’s still fun.

I thoroughly recommend this book to, well, almost anyone. You don’t have to be a child. Like Gill, I was a child in 1969, and it seems neither of us has outgrown this fascination for space. I feel sorry for those who didn’t experience these milestones in real time. But here’s this book, anyway. In case you are young.

Body Brilliant

I’d like to add an extra l and o to the title of Nicola Morgan’s new book, Body Brilliant – A teenage guide to a positive body image. Because it is bloody brilliant, as are all Nicola’s advice for teens books. She’s the best friend one could hope for, and as we are considered teenagers until we are 25, and most of us are not a day over 29, these books are for everyone.

Just think how many hours of my life I could have saved back then, by not worrying about my eyebrows. These days I know I have more than the requisite number of stomachs and chins, but can grudgingly accept that there might be something good about me regardless.

Nicola Morgan, Body Brilliant

Reading all those advice columns in magazines, we’d have been so much better off with Nicola’s books. I’m glad they are here for young people today, as well as the not so young.

I won’t tell you which chapter I headed for first, but it was very satisfying and while I don’t know if I learned anything new, it’s good to have these things mentioned again.

For each chapter Nicola has comments from normal people, young and slightly older (I thought I could identify some people there), as well as her own words of well researched wisdom. She then finishes with a list of suggested websites, organisations and books, including fiction, for us if we need more.

It seems body image has nothing to do with mirrors. It’s all in the mind, and we should learn to love ourselves. There is something good about all of us, even if it’s the ability to touch worms. (I’d rather not.) Nicola covers food, exercise, the internet, sex and gender identity, and much more.

As with her previous books, I’d advise you to keep Body Brilliant to hand for when you feel a bit wobbly. It’s like Nicola, a good friend to tell you what you need to hear, and what to do. In a way it’s all pretty obvious, but every once in a while one forgets what is sensible, and you need a friend to remind you.

Embarrassingly out-of-date. Or an antique?

Can’t remember what made me get the old atlas out. We were talking about something or other.

At some point in the mid-1960s Mother-of-witch bought a new atlas. It was about time. She’d had an absolutely ancient one for about 25 years or so. It was all brown and generally embarrassing. The old one, I mean.

I was very pleased with the new atlas, even if it wasn’t mine but hers. I could still study it. And study it I did. Aren’t atlases great?

It is now being held together with brown parcel tape, mostly due to excessive crossword-puzzling by Mother-of-witch. It was one of her reliable sources, so no wonder the spine died.

But last week we got out the old brown one. I think maybe we’d been talking about Berlin and train lines, and I felt that they could surely be found in the 19th edition, published in 1940?

Ancient atlas and holiday crime

It’s fascinating! The railways, yes, but also all the dated stuff from 1940, where they had simply over-printed some information from the 18th edition three years earlier. I’m guessing that school pupils understood about the changing maps of Europe right then.

And it’s no longer embarrassing. There’s so much to see and think about. Besides, it’s in far better condition!

Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals 2

This is the most sarcastic book about animals I’ve ever come across. It’s also the funniest. (Unless the first book was. I don’t know, as I didn’t read it.) But yes, as it says on the cover, ‘more brilliant beasts you never knew you needed to know about.’

Martin Brown, Lesser Spotted Animals 2

Though, I don’t know. Yes, actually that would seem to be the problem. I don’t know. They don’t know. The text freely mentions that the specialists don’t know. That’s how unknown these animals are. Phrases like ‘biologists think’ (of course they do. They have to do something…) and ‘even the people who know about them don’t know a lot’ don’t give you much hope.

I had never heard of any of these creatures, and I dearly hope I don’t meet many of them either. (As for the 280 types of squirrel, I hope Barry Hutchison isn’t reading this.)

Do you know of a one-year-old toddler with a long tail? No, neither do I. Anyway, that’s the size of the Dingiso. Oh… Maybe they mean it’s the size of a toddler, plus it has a long tail?

Hm, that makes sense.

This book should appeal to any child with a sense of humour. Possibly also to ones without, as a plain guide to unusual animals. But it’s the writing you want, accompanied by the illustrations. If any adults were to read aloud to their long-tailed children, they’d probably find it hard. They might laugh too much. (Luckily I don’t have that problem.)

And yes – or do I mean no? – you should not kill musk deer. That, as he points out, is a job for the Yellow-Throated Marten. That one with all the teeth, grinning…

Well, all I can say is that this book wasn’t another boring and worthy book about animals. And while there is a lion in there, like in every single animal book, it’s only there to illustrate the fact that it isn’t in the book. You know.

Mapping the Universe

You like art, don’t you? And you like space too? Then you’ll like this book by Anne Rooney.

Yes, it’s Anne again. She can do books on so many subjects, and subjects in so many ways. This is astronomy again, looking at countless old images – art – showing us space.

Anne Rooney, Mapping the Universe

You could easily just look at these pictures, treating them like so much art. You probably already have, in many cases.

In Mapping the Universe Anne tells us a bit about the old men of science. You know, old Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler. Yes, I’m afraid it is mainly men.

This fairly large book is full of old space art. It’s the kind of thing you can look at again and again. Cosmos for the coffee table.

Astronomy

This is the book I’d have wanted as my course book in Astronomy at school. That is, if I’d been able to take Astronomy, which I wasn’t. In my day this was the subject of the last chapter of the Physics book, and we never got to it.

Anne Rooney, Astronomy

I don’t actually know who the book is aimed at, except for the 14-year-old witch. How The World Works – Astronomy, From plotting the stars to pulsars and black holes, by Anne Rooney, is an excellent book. It seems to do what that front page description suggests, and according to the Resident IT Consultant it could well cover 80% of the GCSE Astronomy course.

That’s presumably why I am itching to read the book with a view to learning all of it, and then maybe sitting the exam.

It’s mostly words, so we get descriptions of everything astronomical, from historical backgrounds to what we know now. There is [mostly] none of those scary equations or difficult diagrams and things that would have turned the young witch off. Well, not off so much, as just making it incomprehensible.

Beautifully illustrated, this is simply a very attractive book. In fact, it’s quite goldilocks-ey in that it’s neither too much, nor too little. I like authors who can introduce a subject for those of us who’ll never be specialists, and make it seem quite normal.

Towards the very end of its 200 pages there is a ‘recipe’ for how to find exoplanets. I discovered I sort of already knew most of that.

While this strikes me as being most suitable for the secondary school student, I imagine that it can be more than readable for the really keen, and much younger, space nerd. If they’re interested, try it early, and before you know it you could have a little astrophysicist on your hands.