Archive for the ‘Audible’ Category

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There are times when comfort, familiarity and ease are, actually, exactly what you need; at other times, by all means, challenge me, make me confront my preconceptions, subvert my genres in different ways. When I’m tired, poorly and stressed, however, enfold me in familiar settings, tropes and – hell, yes – even the comfort of overused clichés.

And, that is broadly speaking what The Boy on the Bridge, Carey’s prequel to The Girl With All The Gifts, offers.

Having read the original, the concept of the world in which the Cordyceps fungus has infected the human race, creating the familiar post-apocalyptic environment of zombie hungries, plucky scientists and gung-ho soldiers. Carey’s tale occurs ten years after the fungus pathogen emerged, turning the majority of the population into “hungries”, motivated purely by a desire to eat fresh raw meat and with enhanced speed, strength and endurance. It takes place in a Britain where London has fallen and humanity has retreated to the coastal defences of Beacon or has become “junkers”, marauding through the ravaged landscape stealing, raping and turning cannibalistic. All of which, however, is very much in the background: just like the original novel, Carey focuses on a small group of people, in this case, a team of scientists, accompanied by a team of soldiers, who are travelling the length of Britain in the Rosaline Franklin, which is essentially the bastard child of a tank and a science lab and a submarine. The purpose of the journey is a little weak – ostensibly to collect samples left in a variety of places and to perform a range of dissections – but is really just to isolate a group of characters in a hostile environment.

And who do we have in the field? Colonel Carlisle, an adherent to the military chain of command who clashed with the authorities in Beacon before the novel; McQueen, the trigger happy rebellious soldier; Samrina Khan, a motherly and reasonable scientist; Steven Greaves, a child savant on the autistic spectrum; Dr Fournier, the cowardly and pusillanimous civilian commander, more than open to being manipulated by the powers back in Beacon. Plus a range of generally dispensible others. Had this been Star Trek, they’d have been in red shirts. Nothing original, nothing challenging and the trope of the genius autistic child is so overdone. Greaves is more credible and engaging that Wesley Crusher, – and has a more plausible conclusion – but only barely. Familiar enough tropes, rubbing against each other in ways which will be familiar to anyone used to film or television or comic books – a genre in which M. R. Carey writes. Conflict, betrayals, reconciliations and accommodations are made.

As readers of The Girl with All the Gifts will no doubt suspect, the Rosalind Franklin’s crew encounter a group of children, second generation hungries where an accommodation has evolved between the human and hungry: enhanced, hungry but also capable of thought and communication and social life. Conflict with the children becomes something else by the end of the novel and Carey successfully shifts our sympathies from humanity – who generally come across as venal, selfish and flawed – to the children… but that itself comes as no surprise to readers familiar with the first novel.

The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, occurs in the Epilogue, twenty years after the main narrative and perhaps a decade after the events of The Girl with All the Gifts when Carlisle – now in a mountain fortress – confronts a cadre of children who have scaled the mountain in search of the last remnants of humanity. Led by a familiar character. I have to say, I was surprised by how effective that conclusion was.

Well played, Mike Carey. Well played.

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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I’ve not read anything by Jonasson before, although I am aware of the acclaim that The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of A Window And Disappeared attracted. And it had appeared in Waterstone’s May Book recommendations so I had pretty high hopes. Social satire, I thought; comedy, I expected; characters, I looked forward to.

I’m not sure I got any of that.

And that disappointment wasn’t even the worst.

The novel follows Per Persson, the hapless and penniless grandson of a criminal multi-millionaire horse dealer, whose father’s a drunkard and whose mother’s almost invisible. He drifts into a job in a brothel and, when the brothel becomes a hotel, he drifts into a situation living and working as the receptionist there. The Receptionist is, in fact, the name by which he is most often referred by the narrator, even 150 pages after leaving the hotel.

The narrative style is very knowing and the tone of that voice comes across as rather arch and dry, which I did rather enjoy. At least, initially. It was different from the intimate narrative voices I usually read or the wide sweeping divine narrators. I did not, however, find it either warm in its humour, nor terribly funny. Which seems to be a major issue in a novel sold as comical.

It seemed, instead, just a little mean.

I don’t know. Maybe it was the fact that it was in translation.

Persson meets two more unlikely charachters: Johanna Kjellander, a priest who does not belief in God and has just been evicted from her Church; Hitman Anders himself, recently released from prison following two murders and unwilling to return to the criminal justice system so avoiding committing any more murders. But quite happily handing out beatings and broken limbs for various criminals. Obviously the police in Sweden only deal in murder. Well, with the wealth of Nordic Noir novels, there seem to be a lot of murders to deal with!

In any event, Persson and Kjellander end up managing Hitman Anders’ contracts in exchange for a healthy slice of the profits., boosted by a somewhat hysterical media interest in the Hitman, the most dangerous man in Sweden.

And this is only the first of three unlikely business enterprises that they develop to exploit the intellectually challenged Hitman who finds God, becomes a Pastor of a church and a patron of the needy. Public opinion swings from hysterical terror to adulation.

Fraud, deception, drunkenness and assassinations follow. Tax evasions, heaven forfend. Dead bodies are left in their wake.

And, in all of this, not once did I really like either Persson ot Kjellander or the Hitman. Nor was there any real pace to the story which wandered around. And I found the incessant anti-Church commentary from Kjellander and the mockery of the church in the book uncomfortable. As a reader, it was just a little tedious and, although I am not a church-goer, I didn’t think that the  Communion becoming merely a winefest and the mockery of the congregation and the clergy and the administration was actually done in very good taste. Especially bearing in mind the final chapter.

Which brings us to the concluding chapter. Which didn’t. Conclude, that is. It didn’t conclude. I was listening to it as an audiobook and it literally just stopped. With no real sense of ending, it just stopped. I’m a fairly avid reader. I’m an English teacher. I am a writer. I know how to signpost an ending; I know about narrative structures; I can feel narrative arcs. And I did not know this book was ending. I cannot recall any other book that I have read where the ending was so blunt. I literally had to check to see that I’d not skipped over a couple of chapters.

I must say that, on the strength of this, I am not tempted to try to dig out a copy of The Hundred Year Old Man!

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This was … not what I expected.

A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.

What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.

Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.

And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot,  a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?

Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?

I could go on.

I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.

Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.

There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.

In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.

So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.

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I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.

We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.

And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.

And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.

Anyway,  in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.

This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.

We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.

The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.

It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.

If that’s all you expect, it delivers!

And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.

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This book – a Booker Prize shortlisted book from a Booker Prize winning novelist – has been sat on my book shelf since forever.

I was convinced I’d read it.

I am sure I’ve had lengthy and enthusiastic discussions about it. Heated debates.

Yet, having downloaded it from Audible as a re-read, expecting something familiar and recognisable and suddenly I realise something.

I have never read this book before. Ever. It has sat as a treasured icon on my shelf … unread. I had never met Kathy, Ruth or Tommy before. I had never been inside Hailsham before.

And what a ride I’d missed out on!

Ishiguro is so adept! Kathy’s knowing but controlled narration, circling back, hinting ahead, foreshadowing and foregrounding the whole narrative. The precisely controlled and delayed the revelations of the book. Kathy narrates the novel from the final months of her life, knowing everything, but as a reader we don’t share that whole knowledge until the final chapters.

And it never seemed like a gimmicky trick – which in the hands of a lesser writer it could have! Kathy’s voice was authentic and real throughout. Clinical perhaps. Resigned. But who the hell wouldn’t be?

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth – who share a tempestuous history and relationship – are clones, bred to be harvested for their vital organs. Raised in Hailsham, which first strikes us as a simple boarding school with all the usual mixture of cliques and friendships and teenage travails, art shows, lessons and teachers, neither the characters nor readers realise that the school is anything unusual. In reality, the school is an experiment to demonstrate the humanity of the clones and, by extension, the inhumanity of the harvesting process.

And the school and Ishiguro succeed: Kathy in particular is as real and human a character as you’d want to meet.

But the novel offers absolutely no hope to its own characters. In fact, worse than offering no hope, it offers a dream of hope which it’s characters cling to desperately but which is illusory.

And heartbreakingly bleak.

It certainly does not have the tenderness and gentility of The Remains Of The Day

It is not an easy read and listening to it, excellently narrated by Kerry Fox I must say, was even more so.

There is a film of the book with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan.

I’m not sure I could manage to watch it thoug

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What the hell was that?

There is this much fuss over … this?

Now, I suppose I should confess: I’m not a great science fiction reader. Especially not hard science fiction. And I’m neither a scientist nor a historian of the Cultural Revolution in China. But this was not a good book.

I didn’t dislike it and it maintained my interest; I also didn’t like it and I wasn’t engaged by it.

I don’t know. Maybe it is the fault of my own limitations and ignorance, or of the cultural divide, or the fact that this is a translation and much of the nuances and subtlety of language may have been lost. But even so. It just didn’t work as a story. Not for me anyway.

The novel itself has three narratives orbiting each other: Ye Wenjie’s account of her trauma during the Cultural Revolution and her time at the Red Coast Base listening for evidence of extra-terrestrial life; Wang Miao’s – somewhat tangential – entanglement with the Frontiers of Science, the shadowy ETO and an investigation of the suicides of a number of high profile theoretical scientists; and a narrative within a computer game or simulation called Three Body.

Apparently, the motions of three bodies is a classic mathematical and physics and quantum conundrum: how can the movements of those three bodies (whether orbiting in space or within the nucleus of an atom)? If the three bodies in question are three suns, with orbiting planets, this novel suggests that the puzzle is essentially insoluble and chaotic. Much to the frustration of the players of the Three Body game and – by analogy – the inhabitant of the Trisolaris planet, whose evolution the game is intended to imitate. Whilst at Red Coast, Ye Wenjie transmits a signal to the universe, amplified through the sun, and eight years later receives a warning reply not to make further contact because it would pinpoint the location of the Earth for an invasion. Because of her traumatic experiences in the Cultural Revolution – with which the books opens in a rather Kafkaesque way – Ye ignores the warning and invites the Trisolarans to Earth. As part of their invasion, they attempt to destroy scientific progress on Earth …

… by creating miracles.

As a result of which scientists kill themselves.

Wang – a nanoscientist – becomes embroiled in the investigation of these suicides and is targeted by the Trisolarans himself.

I find it hard to believe that the ‘miracles’ and disturbances created by the Trisolarans would have had the effect that they did on scientists. I really do. I’ll not put any more spoilers in than already exist, but seriously… the book seems to laud science as a god itself, yet scientists fall apart terribly easily. To the extent that a rather two-dimensional straight-talking cop is drafted into the investigation as well – Shi Qiang – who stole cigars, swore, drank and generally played the role of the provider of a no-nonsense common sense perspective.

The science within the novel appears – to my untrained eye – credible and realistic, as does the politics in both the totalitarian early days of the Cultural Revolution and the more relaxed present day… but I don’t read books for science and politics. The novel expounded huge sections in heavy-handed and clunky sections; its dialogue was turgid and unrealistic without it feeling consciously crafted in that way. And Wang Miao had a family: his wife and child are introduced in one chapter as the ‘miracles’ start to manifest. But they are never ever referred to again! They don’t even appear on the Wikipedia entry for the characters in the novel.

There was not one meaningful relationship between the characters in the novel.

And that – the emotional and human warmth – is what I read books for.

The book was an intellectual stimulation and I did enjoy that. But it left me feeling empty.

I’m also irked that I did not actually ever see a Trisolaran, nor visit Trisolaris save for through the interface of the Three Body game. And the game presents Trisolaris via the medium of human shapes and culture so does not even pretend to be Trisolaris.

Take a look at what I think is the original cover art.

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What is that? It looks like something from Stargate or Star Trek, doesn’t it. A portal to Trisolaris? A plucky explorer venturing into the unknown? This is not the book I read! There is no portal. No explorer. No pluck.

No, I’m sorry judges of the Hugo and Nebula awards, I don’t see what the fuss was about.

There is a film adaptation and two further books in the trilogy available (Dark Forest and Death’s End). I doubt I’ll be seeing or reading any of them.

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I’m genuinely unsure of what to make of this book.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad book; listening to it as an audiobook was a pretty pleasant way to spend my journeys to work.

But it didn’t seem to be what it was packaged as and marketed as: a crime mystery. It felt more like a soap opera in which the main character is a policeman – Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. And terribly middle class.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m middle class.

But Serrailler lives in a pristine flat overlooking the Cathedral, and takes extended breaks to Venice; Cat and Chris Deerbon – his GP sister and brother-in-law – live in their rustic farmhouse; Serrailler’s parents’ garden is landscaped. Tea seems always accompanied by biscuits or cake. They all have larders!

My granny had a larder. But I don’t know anyone else who has ever had one. I’d quite like a larder but do these things even exist anymore?

These people are not the so-called squeezed middle: they are comfortable and content and just a little… smug. A little Midsomer. And that did alienate me a little.

As did the portrayal of Andy Gunton. He’s released from prison in the opening chapters, into the care and home of his sister, Michelle. That home was such a two-dimensional, stereotypical and grotesque – blaring televisions, food dripping in fat, fry-ups and fags. An army of harridan mothers harassing a suspected paedophile. It was all just a little Jeremy Kyle.

To be fair, Gunton was actually a decent character who had made a mistake when he was kid and is trying to go straight on his release. I did feel for him. But it never got to the point where the novel felt like an analysis or exploration or critique of the lack of support given by the probation service. He did fall back into crime but it just sort of… happened. And it didn’t connect to the main plot in any more than a tangential way. It happened at the same time in the same place. Literally, a co-incidence.

But then, was there really a main plot? Was it the abduction of David Angus? Was it the destruction of the Angus family as a result of the abduction? Was it the death of Martha Serrailler, Simon and Cat’s disabled sister? Any of those could be the main plot; all get fairly equal time spent on them. Along with Gunton.

And then a variety of secondary characters drifted in: Karin who appears to have beaten the cancer which riddled her in the first book through the power of organic berries and willpower alone; Diana, Simon’s friend-with-benefits who, after a year’s absence, starts harassing him in an utterly unrealistic way for a fifty-something year-old business woman; or even Cat, whose pregnancy and new son turn her into a domestic goddess.

And then there’s Simon Serrailler himself. In the first book, Various Haunts of Men, Freya Graffham was our primary point of view character and we only really saw Serrailler through her eyes. In this novel, for obvious reasons, Hill brought Serrailler to the forefront … and the mysterious and enigmatic DCI speaks to us directly. And is, at times, quite unpleasant. Particularly towards women: the only genuine relationship he seems capable of are with his sisters.

As I say, it was a decent book. A pleasant comfortable read. Pleasant in the same way that The Archers is pleasant and comfortable. I’m guessing that this novel is introducing a series of threads which will be picked up in future novels – I’m half-a-dozen books behind where Hill’s got to in writing the series. Just take it for what it is; don’t expect social realism.

  This is an absolute gem of a read – or more likely a listen, as Pullman wrote it for Audible as a free giveaway at some point. That’s how I collected it – see what I did there? – and it’s been lurking in my library ever since and today I thought I may as well read it.
It is a delight!

Don’t be put off by the reviews which talk about it as a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it probably does work as that. It is at heart a self-contained, delicious and creepy horror story which is very reminiscent of M. R. James and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Boy in particular.

Academics and art collectors with their own little petty squabbles and rivalries. Mysterious objects being found and horrific incidents occurring, apparently through their agency. Or maybe coincidence.

The objects in question are a portrait of an enigmatic and beautiful woman and the sculpture of a repugnant and malicious monkey. That’s the connection with His Dark Materials: it’s a young Marissa van Zee before she became Mrs Coulter and her monkey dæmon. But that’s almost beside the point. This is just a cracking good classic gothic yarn!

By golly, Pullman can write!

And as an extra bonus, it’s read by Bill Nighy!