Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2019.

I’m so excited for all of these… as you could probably tell if you took a peek at my pre-order list. A lot of these books are sequels or parts of series, and that’s just fine with me. Here are my top ten anticipated books — see the list below for release dates.

  1. The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell (release date 8/6/2019)
  2. Reticence (The Custard Protocol, #4) by Gail Carriger (release date 8/6/2019)
  3. Snow, Glass, Apple by Neil Gaiman (release date 8/20/2019)
  4. The Institute by Stephen King (release date 9/10/2019)
  5. The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale, #2) by Margaret Atwood (release date 9/10/2019)
  6. Wayward Son (Carry On, #2) by Rainbow Rowell (release date 9/24/2019)
  7. The Unkindest Tide (October Daye, #13) by Seanan McGuire (release date 9/3/2019)
  8. The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman (release date 10/3/2019)
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (illustrated edition) by J. K. Rowling (release date 10/8/2019)
  10. Malorie (Bird Box, #2) by Josh Malerman (release date 12/3/2019)

Are you planning to read any of these? What books are you dying to read in the 2nd half of 2019? Please share your links!





Top Ten Tuesday: A Selection of Favorite Fantasy Books and Series


Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books From My Favorite Genre. I bounce between genres quite a bit, but thought I’d focus here on fantasy. My list includes stand-alones as well as series, and because I’m sticking to just 10, I ended up not including three that pretty much go without saying: of course I love the Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings books! (See? I managed to mention them after all!)

My top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  • Codex Alera (series) by Jim Butcher
  • The Immortals (series) (standing in for ALL Tortall books) by Tamora Pierce (review)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (review)
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (series) by Patricia C. Wrede (review)
  • Wayward Children (series) by Seanan McGuire (review)
  • The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (review)
  • The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (review)
  • His Dark Materials (series) by Philip Pullman
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman

What genre did you pick this week? If you wrote a TTT post this week, please share your link!

Book Review: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

Welcome back to the wonderful world first introduced in the amazing trilogy, His Dark Materials (which I recently wrote about, here). After 17 long years, Philip Pullman takes us back to the alternate reality of an Oxford, England in which the church is in control, people are accompanied by animal-shaped daemons who are really a part of them, like a visible soul that they can converse with, witches are real, and a strange particle known as Dust has everyone in a tizzy.

La Belle Sauvage, the first book in Pullman’s new trilogy (The Book of Dust), is a prequel to the events of The Golden Compass and the rest. Anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows (and loves) Lyra, the preteen heroine who’s brave and clever and ultimately responsible for saving the world.

In La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is a baby — a helpless character, but still very much at the center of the action. The main character here is a boy named Malcolm, an innkeeper’s son with a heart of gold. Malcolm is a smart, inquisitive boy with the mind of a potential scholar, even though he’s probably destined to run the inn when he’s grown. Malcolm works hard at the inn, serving customers and helping his parents, and in his spare time also does whatever odd jobs are needed by the nuns of the Godstow Priory across the river. And when Malcolm has any time left over, he takes his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, out on the rivers and canals to explore and see all there is to see.

When the nuns take in baby Lyra and offer her sanctuary, Malcolm becomes her instant protector, madly in love with the adorable baby and her equally adorable baby daemon. But the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) is out to get Lyra, along with a deranged former scholar with a criminal past, and Malcolm comes to believe that only he can keep her safe and get her to her father, Lord Asriel, for protection. When a huge storm unleashes massive flooding, Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at the inn as well, rescue Lyra from the waters engulfing the priory and set off in the canoe, with all sorts of dangerous foes determined to catch them and take Lyra away, no matter what it takes.

Oh my, is this a good book! The adventure is top-notch. We have spies galore, and Malcolm first becomes involved when he inadvertently witnesses the capture of a member of the anti-Church spy ring by agents of the CCD. We also see the creeping terror as the Church’s iron-fisted rule takes over school and society, as school children are encouraged to join a religious league and inform on their parents, friends, neighbors, and teachers — anyone who steps away from the approved teachings of the Church or dares to break the increasingly harsh rules imposed by the CCD.

Malcolm is a terrific main character. He’s smart and daring, always looking to learn, but loyal to his parents and the nuns, and not afraid of working hard. He’s kind and patient, but ready to step up and be fierce when needed. He and Alice start off as enemies, but as they flee with Lyra, they become allies and then true friends.

Lyra, of course, is adorable. She doesn’t do much, but all the action swirls around her. It’s fascinating to see an infant in this world — something we never see in the original trilogy. What we learn in The Book of Dust is that babies have baby daemons, who are also rather helpless and cute and dependent on others for care. Lyra’s daemon Pan takes the form of various small animals — among them kittens and chicks — and curls up to nap with Lyra, each giving comfort to the other. Lyra and Pan babble together in their own language, and somehow it’s just amazing to see how Pullman plays out the concept of daemons in the context of early childhood development.

I wondered how Pantalaimon got his name — I’d assumed while reading The Golden Compass that the person must name his or her daemon, but in La Belle Sauvage, one of the nuns tells Malcolm what Lyra’s daemon’s name is. So is the daemon named by the parent at the same time as the child? I guess it must be so, since the daemon has a name before the child can talk, but it struck me as surprising — I kind of expected the naming of the daemons to have something to do with the person’s inner truth, or some such thing, rather than to be imposed from an external source. This is something I’d definitely like to know more about!

There are some cool connections to the world of His Dark Materials. I thought Malcolm’s name was familiar… and with good reason. In the novella Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place a couple of years after The Amber Spyglass, Lyra encounters a Professor Polstead, who is described as “stout, ginger-haired, affable; more inclined to be friendly to Lyra than she was to return the feeling.” It’s Malcolm! I’m so happy to know that he’s still a part of Lyra’s life later on, even though she doesn’t know his significance or how he saved her life. I hope we’ll learn more in later books in The Book of Dust. Other familiar faces are (of course) Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s parents, as well as the gyptian Farder Coram and the scholar Hannah Relf.

I absolutely loved the world-building in La Belle Sauvage. Even though this world is familiar from the earlier trilogy, we get to see aspects of the society that are new, through new and different sets of eyes. As I mentioned, the characters are phenomenal, especially Malcolm, but even the more minor characters are distinctive and memorable.

The action is thrilling, especially once the flood comes and Malcolm and Alice begin their adventure on the river. The two show amazing courage and stamina, sacrificing everything for the sake of little Lyra. Their experiences are often truly terrifying, but their essential goodness and bravery keeps them going even when it seems like they’ll never reach safety.

The author never talks down to his audience, and as in the original trilogy, brain power is required. There’s talk of physics and theology and particles and matter, and scholars are among the most esteemed characters. Philip Pullman’s characters value intelligence and curiosity, and reading his books is anything but a mindless pursuit. The ideas and concepts here demand that the reader put some effort in — all well worth it.

Ah, such a good read! Really, what more can I say? I cannot wait to continue the trilogy, and will be eagerly stalking The Book of Dust‘s Goodreads page for the first hint of a publication date for the second book (which, according to Goodreads, will be called The Secret Commonwealth).

If you read His Dark Materials, you simply must read La Belle Sauvage. And it probably goes without saying, but for anyone who hasn’t read the first trilogy, go do it now! Get thee to a bookstore or library and grab a copy of The Golden Compass! It’ll rock your world.

One final note: The book is marketed as young adult fantasy and is published by the children’s division of the publisher, but as with His Dark Materials, I have a hard time defining this book by its intended audience. It’s a great book, period. For anyone. And for anyone who cares about such things, I’d say the tone here is skewed slightly older, as there are hints of more adult content in the context of the actions of a terrible villain, and there’s even an f-bomb, which I don’t believe occurs at all in His Dark Materials. Regardless, La Belle Sauvage is beautifully written and is another excellent chapter in an exciting series of fantasy novels — and should be read by adults and smart kids of all ages!


The details:

Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, volume 1)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy/young adult
Source: Purchased








Audiobook awesomeness: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

Over the last two months, I’ve had one of my most delightful experiences with audiobooks. I decided to revisit the world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, since (a) it’s been many, many years since I read the books, and (b) a new book is coming out this fall. (THIS WEEK! NOW!!!)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years (!!) since the publication of The Amber Spyglass, the 3rd book in the trilogy (following The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife). I remember being blown away by these books upon first read, but after all these years, I was fuzzy on the details.

Side note: I choose to disregard the existence of the Golden Compass movie, which utterly failed to capture the essence of the books and characters. But that’s an issue best left in the past…

So what was so special about these audiobooks?

For starters, they’re full-cast recordings. Oddly enough, full-cast audiobooks don’t usually appeal to me. When I’ve tried them before, I tend to feel removed from the story — maybe because it’s more like listening to a dramatization than like reading an actual book.

Whatever the reason, this time around, I just loved it. Philip Pullman takes the role of narrator, and he’s marvelous. His reading of his own work is nuanced and expressive, and he infuses his lines with wit, humor, and when needed, sorrow and intensity. Beyond Pullman himself, the rest of the cast is simply terrific. I don’t know who these voice actors are, but their talent is huge! The voice of Lyra was perfect — young, intense, brave, emotional — and Will was spot-on too, fierce, loving, worried, daring. Probably most magnificent was the voice of Iorek Byrnison — I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a deep, rumbly voice on an audiobook. If a polar bear could speak English and deigned to have a conversation with one of us puny humans, I bet that’s exactly what he’d sound like. Other stand-outs are the voices of Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the often wicked but strangely sympathetic Mrs. Coulter.

Now, if you’ve read these books, you know that an important part of Pullman’s world building is the presence of daemons — a corporeal, animal being who represents each person’s true inner being. Every human in Lyra’s world has a daemon, and the shape they take is often quite representative of the nature of the person. Children’s daemon’s can change shape at will, until they child reaches puberty, at about which time the daemon settles into his or her final shape. Worth noting, too, is that a daemon is always the opposite gender of the person it’s attached to — so Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is male. On the audiobooks, the daemons who have speaking roles are voiced in ways completely appropriate to their personalities. The absolute best is Lee’s daemon Hester, a jackrabbit with a feminine Western twang.

As for the story, I’m kind of assuming that anyone bothering to read this post is already familiar with the amazing world of His Dark Materials. For those who aren’t familiar, here are the brief plot summaries from Goodreads:

Book 1 – The Golden Compass (also published under the title Northern Lights):

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

Book 2 – The Subtle Knife:

Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.

Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.

Book 3 – The Amber Spyglass:

The Amber Spyglass brings the intrigue of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to a heart-stopping end, marking the final volume of His Dark Materials as the most powerful of the trilogy.

Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Byrnison the armored bear, come a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Gallivespian Lord Roke, a hand-high spymaster to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. So, too, come startling revelations: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk through the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone’s amber spyglass, and the names of who will live–and who will die–for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that–in its shocking outcome–will uncover the secret of Dust. Philip Pullman deftly brings the cliff-hangers and mysteries of His Dark Materials to an earth-shattering conclusion–and confirms his fantasy trilogy as an undoubted and enduring classic.

It’s funny how certain things stick in your mind — or my mind, anyway. I absolutely remembered about Dust and daemons, about Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the Mulefa, Metatron, and more. What I didn’t remember was the sheer power of this story. What starts out feeling mostly like a children’s book (albeit a children’s book with gifted-level vocabulary) by the end has transformed into an epic tale that shares universal truths about love, honesty, the nature of good and evil, devotion, betrayal, friendship, and freedom.

The emotional impact by the end is enormous. I clearly remembered being devastated by the end of the trilogy, and yet I was still pretty much hit over the head with an anvil all over again while listening by the intensity of the heart-ache the characters experience. It’s simply lovely and tragic and uplifting, all at the same time.

As an added bonus, Pullman later published two shorter works set in the same world: Lyra’s Oxford, which takes place two years after the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass, and Once Upon a Time in the North, which is set about 35 years earlier, showing the first eventful meeting of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison. Both of these novellas are available as audiobooks, and like the main trilogy, are highly enriched by the full-cast recording. (It’s definitely worth getting the hard copies as well, as the physical editions include wonderful woodcut illustrations and all sorts of bits and pieces of ephemera related to His Dark Materials — writing scraps, maps, ballooning guides, postcards, and even a board game.)

Finally, there’s a short story available either as an e-book or audiobook. The Collectors is very creepy, and I’d say listen to the audio version. Bill Nighy does a fabulous job with the narration, and it only takes about a half hour, but is definitely worth it.

I realize that this is by no means a comprehensive book review of His Dark Materials and the associated works. And it’s not meant to be. Really, I’ve just gotten completely swept away by these wonderful audiobooks, and I couldn’t keep it to myself a moment longer!

Especially for anyone thinking about reading the upcoming new release, La Belle Sauvage, going back to His Dark Materials via audiobook will be a huge treat, absolutely worth the time.

Needless to say, for anyone who hasn’t read these books at all yet, please do! His Dark Materials is one of those trilogies usually shelved with children’s fiction, but which truly transcends the age or genre labels. These books are just plain good fantasy literature; they transport us to multiple alternate worlds but never lose their human heart.



Books in the series:
The Golden Compass (1995)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000)
Lyra’s Oxford (2003)
Once Upon a Time in the North (2008)
The Collectors (2014)
NEW: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, book 1) – to be released 10/19/2017






Flashback Friday: The Ruby in the Smoke

ffbutton2Flashback Friday is a weekly tradition started here at Bookshelf Fantasies, focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. If you’d like to join in, just pick a book published at least five years ago, post your Flashback Friday pick on your blog, and let us all know about that special book from your reading past and why it matters to you. Don’t forget to link up!

My Flashback Friday pick this week:

The Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart Trilogy, #1)

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
(published 1985)

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty. Her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art and music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.

When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn’t know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen – and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke…

Before the amazing His Dark Materials trilogy, there were the Sally Lockhart books. The Ruby in the Smoke is first, followed by The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, and The Tin Princess.

Set in Victorian London, there’s intrigue a-plenty, as Sally investigates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and faces danger of all sorts, as well as a whole range of shady, nefarious people. I must admit that I never read past the first in the series, but I did like it quite a bit, and have always meant to read on.

Have you read the Sally Lockhart books? Should I finish the quartet?

And a little aside for Doctor Who fans: Hold onto your heads so they don’t explode — the TV movie version of The Ruby in the Smoke (2006) starred Billie Piper and Matt Smith. Awesome, right?

ruby in the smoke

What flashback book is on your mind this week?

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday fun:

  • Grab the Flashback Friday button
  • Post your own Flashback Friday entry on your blog (and mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the host of the meme, if you please!)
  • Leave your link in the comments below
  • Check out other FF posts… and discover some terrific hidden gems to add to your TBR piles!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Book Review: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm

Book Review: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

First of all, for those of you who have been following my struggles: I did it! I actually finished a book of short stories! I’ve mentioned a few times now that I have a big problem with story collections, and generally avoid them like the plague. I made an exception, however, for Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman, because a) fairy tales! and b) Philip Pullman!

And now that that’s out of the way… what can I tell you about this collection? We all — or at least, those of us above a certain age — grew up with the color-themed fairy books, right? I was a bit obsessed with these as a child, and read whichever volumes were available on my library’s shelves at any given book-bingeing visit. It’s been years since I’ve revisited fairy tales in the written form, as opposed to all the Disnified versions that I’ve watched countless times with my kids.

In Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm (let’s just call if FTFTBG for now, okay?), Philip Pullman presents fifty Grimm tales which he’s rewritten in modern, simple English. The language is straightforward and pure, without archaisms that abound in more “traditional” Grimm collections. At the conclusion of each story, the author includes source information as well as his own comments on the story itself and any changes he may have made from the original narratives. He is quite faithful to Grimm, identifying which edition of the Grimm stories he’s pulled from, and only deviates from the source material when he feels that the story is missing a connection or a conclusion.

Pullman’s comments vary from factual — stating source and context — to highly opinionated, and it’s these latter types of comments that are the most entertaining. When the author has something to say, he really says it. Here’s one of my favorites:

However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands simply preposterous… Instead of being struck by wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken very deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety. (Comments on story #21, “The Girl With No Hands”)

The introduction to FTFTBG is wonderful, outlining the history of the Brothers Grimm and their efforts to record and retell folk tales. Philip Pullman gives a very useful overview of common characteristics of fairy tales, among them the immediacy of the characters and narrative: The characters tend to have no backstory, and often lack names other than “the miller”, “the tailor”, “the youngest son”, etc. The stories are tales of actions and consequences, with little to no time spent on descriptions of settings or the natural world, character motivations, or personal growth or development:

There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad… The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely.

I am not an academic; I have no fancy degrees in folklore, ethnography, or comparative literature. I can’t compare Philip Pullman’s retellings to other versions, reinterpretations, or new translations. What I can assess is how this particular collection of stories worked for me as a reader — and the answer is, it worked very well indeed!

I truly enjoyed this collection, which includes both familiar tales (“Cinderella”, “Rapunzel”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”) as well as tales (with wonderful titles!) that I’d never heard of, such as “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, and “The Singing, Springing Lark”. Even for the most familiar tales, I was surprised to realize how far my own memory of the stories had strayed from the Grimm version into the land of Disney princesses and happily-ever-afters. There’s something oddly appealing — at least to me, with my appreciation for the dark and off-beat — in realizing that even a story that ends with kisses and marriage (such as “Cinderella”) also includes self-mutilation, horrific cruelty, and shoes filled with blood. In real Grimm stories, fairy tales are definitely not soothing stories to lull children into peaceful dreams!

Some of the stories which were new to me were quirky and funny, such as “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About The Shivers” and “Lazy Heinz”. Then again, there are plenty of truly disturbing stories. “Thousandfurs”, for me, is the most disturbing in the collection, not specifically because of Pullman’s retelling, but because “Thousandfurs”  is one of the origin stories for the brilliant yet wildly upsetting novel Deerskin by Robin McKinley.

And perhaps that’s the point and the beauty of reading such a well-written and thoughtful collection of traditional fairy tales: We’ve all encountered these stories in so many ways, with so many different interpretations. In reading them anew, we’re instantly reminded of all the associations we’ve developed with these stories, from reinterpretations in modern novels to our grandparents’ versions of fairy tales as bed-time stories to cautionary tales about greed and duplicity. What’s most interesting to me is that the stories resonate so deeply and so widely; your Rapunzel and my Rapunzel may be very different, but the bottom line is that fairy tales like these give us a common language and cultural points of reference. On my bookshelf, I have a wonderful collection of short fiction by women writers entitled We Are The Stories We Tell. Given the depth of experiences we all share thanks to fairy tales such as those in FTFTBG, I’d say that we are also the stories we read.

The Monday agenda 2/18/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

Happy Monday! Three day weekend = more time to read!

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

Y: The Last Man (graphic novel series) by Brian K. Vaughan: Done! My review is here. I could not put these books down. Highly recommended.

Fairy Tales From The Brother Grimm by Philip Pullman. Making progress, bit by tiny bit.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Have only read the first few chapters, but I’m hooked.

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

First up will be to finish Wild. The first chapter was incredibly sad, but I’m looking forward to learning more about the author’s journey.

I’ll be continuing in my quest to get through my book of fairy tales, a few stories each week, until I’ve read the entire collection. Onward!

If I manage to finish Wild by the end of the week, I’ll have to make a hard choice between some of my latest arrivals. The “fresh catch” this week included two new young adult novels that I’m very eager to read: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Both are sitting within easy reach as I write this — I’m hoping one will make it to the top of my reading pile by week’s end!

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

The Monday agenda 2/11/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

Happy Monday! Looking back and looking forward…

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan: Done! My review is here.

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger: Done! My review is here.

I finally cracked open my copy of Fairy Tales From The Brother Grimm by Philip Pullman. I’ve only read the introduction thus far, but hey, it’s a start!

Lastly, I re-read volume one and started volume two of the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man. I’m planning a Last Man read-a-thon for the coming week.

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

First on my agenda will be getting through the entire Y: The Last Man series. The first volume is amazing — can’t wait to see what happens next!

One of my reading resolutions for 2013 was “Attack the Fairies!”, meaning, I need to force myself to actually read the book of fairy tales that I was so excited to receive back in November. I’m a terrible short story reader, and usually get impatient and walk away, no matter how good the individual stories are or how much I like the author. But in the case of Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman, I’m determined to actually read the entire collection. My strategy, at least for starters, is to read one story a night, rather than trying to read the whole book straight through. We’ll see how it works, and if I can overcome my deeply ingrained aversion toward all short stories.

Finally, a coworker lent me her copy of Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a book that’s been on my “must read eventually” list. I have tickets to hear the author speak in April, so now is the time to read it. Plus, this will be my first non-fiction read of 2013, and I did vow to break out of my fiction world once in a while during the current year.

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

Fresh Catch: This week’s exciting new book arrivals

Two books I’ve been eagerly awaiting arrived this week, and I’m just pleased as punch. (Can punch be pleased? Is that punch as in Hawaiian? Or like what comes from a closed fist? Or should that be with a capital P, as in the puppet who abuses puppet Judy? I think I don’t understand this expression after all. But I digress).

Book #1:

I’ve been waiting for this one since August (I even blogged about it, here, in a fit of intense anticipation), and here it is! Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman, is a collection of Pullman’s 50 favorites, including tried-and-true standards such as “Snow White”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Cinderella”. I can’t wait to read these, but I must confess that I’m even more intrigued by the titles of some of the lesser-known stories in the collection. Has anyone ever heard of “Thousandfurs” or “The Donkey Cabbage”? How about “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs”, “The Girl with No Hands”, or “The Nixie of the Millpond”? Listen, I adored Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and I’d be willing to read just about anything he sets his pen to… add to that my love of fairy tales, and this collection seems like a sure bet to me.

Of course, I do have to proceed with caution, as I am admittedly terrible at reading short stories, and no matter how interested I may be in a collection, I almost never make it all the way through. I have a plan, however! I believe I’ll tackle this lovely new book in small bites — let’s say, oh, maybe 2 or 3 stories per week? I think the solution to my unavoidable impatience with story collections is to find a work-around so that I don’t end up frustrated by thoughts of all the novels I could be reading instead. So, if I take this one slow and steady, mixing in fairy tales betwixt and between all my other reading, I should be able to stick with it and get all the enjoyment from Pullman’s new collection that it seems to promise.

Book #2:

Sounds the trumpets! Wave the flags! Send up some fireworks, for Pete’s sake! (Wait, who’s Pete? Never mind…) It’s the newest book from Diana Gabaldon! Yes, Diana Gabaldon Herself, creator of the Outlander series, which I love beyond all reason. But if you live in the US, don’t go looking for this book in your local bookstore — it won’t be there. First things first — the basic facts:

A Trail of Fire, by Diana Gabaldon, is a collection of four novellas, one brand-new and three which were included in already published anthologies. For various reasons related to copyrights, the three already published stories can’t be re-released in the US just yet as they still belong to the anthologies, which is why, if you really want to get your hands on this collection, you’ll have to look outside your usual US sources.**

**So far, I know US readers who have successfully ordered A Trail of Fire from Amazon UK and from The Book Depository. The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Arizona has signed copies available for mail order as well (with a hefty price tag).

The contents of A Trail of Fire are:

1) “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows” — published in the US in 2010 in the Songs of Love and Death anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. (Note to Firefly fans: This is not a Serenity cross-over, and Wash is not a character in this story. Just to clear up any potential confusion.) “A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows” tells the story of Roger MacKenzie’s parents and their tragic fates during WWII, hinted at in the Outlander books but never fully explained prior to this story. This is essential reading for fans of the series, best read after Echo In The Bone.

2) “The Custom of the Army” — published in the US in 2010 as part of the Warriors anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. This story focuses on Lord John Grey, a supporting character in many of the Outlander books and lead character in a spin-off series. “The Custom of the Army” is set in 1759 and largely concerns the Battle of Quebec, plus much military intrigue.

3) “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” — published in the US in the anthology Down These Strange Streets, again courtesy of George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. This is another Lord John story, dealing with his lordship’s first posting to Jamaica at the head of a squadron detailed to deal with a slave rebellion, who end up with much more sinister forces to contend with. In terms of series chronology, the events in this story occur before the events in Voyager.

4) The new one! “The Space Between” has not previously been available, and will not be published in the US until 2013, when it will be included in the forthcoming anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. “The Space Between” takes place in 1778, after the events in Echo In The Bone, is set in France, and has as its main characters several side characters from the Outlander series, including Michael Murray, Marsali’s sister Joan, and the Comte St. Germain. I don’t know anything else about it… but I will soon!

At the risk of sounding like an insane fan, I will admit to already owning the anthologies containing stories 1 – 3, but after much debate (me vs. me), decided to go ahead and purchase A Trail of Fire for two reasons: One, to get my hands on “The Space Between” (obviously!) without having to wait until next March, and two, because it just looks like a beautiful book. Yes, I do sometimes judge books by their covers. When I truly give my heart to a book or series, I get a great deal of pleasure from having nice-looking copies on my shelves. A Trail of Fire will look simply smashing with all its “colleagues” — I have a space reserved for it right next to The Scottish Prisoner.