1. The Subtle Knife / 2. The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
The concluding two parts of ‘His Dark Materials’. Having watched The Golden Compass before starting this trilogy last year it was a pleasure to get past Northern Lights and into uncharted territory, but what’s striking is how very different the remainder of the tale is from book one. The first book is something of a traditional fantasy adventure, with an underlying streak of darkness and philosophy. The remainder is a much more unusual tale of parallel universes, coming of age, angels, death, sin and wars in the heavens. Lyra is no longer the principal viewpoint character but just one of many, although she and her friend Will Parry are at the core of the tale. In some ways it feels like the change in style from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, or from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ to the later books in the series.
It’s a strange, flawed, meandering tale that heads in unexpected directions and leans heavily on coincidence. It draws some of its supporting characters quite thinly, particularly given how much narrative and emotional weight is invested in them, and the pacing is odd to the point of allowing some threads to sputter into anticlimax. By the end the religious and philosophical elements become much more overt, and the conclusion is much too didactic for my taste. Despite those many problems it’s a compelling story packed with interesting ideas and wisdom about human nature. There are several moments of strong, earned emotion, at least a couple of which brought me close to tears. The trilogy as a whole is a real curate’s egg, but I’m glad I read it.
3. Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale – Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook
Anything but the slick “Making of” coffee table book suggested by the cover, this is a year-long email conversation between Doctor Who writer-producer Russell T Davies and the editor of Doctor Who Magazine, falling somewhere between a candid blog and a searching interview. The emails cover the writing and production of the fourth season as it happens. There are some very honest insights from Davies into his ideas, and large excerpts from early drafts of scripts as they evolve.
What’s surprising is how confessional it is. Davies appears to be making a real effort not to self-censor even when he comes across as stubborn or sour. He talks openly about experiences as diverse as writing, drugs, sex, ruthlessness, self-doubt and crippling procrastination. (One real eye-opener is the extent to which Davies does massive uncredited rewrites on every script barring Stephen Moffat’s). It’s an unexpectedly meaty book, one which reminds me that for all the flaws in his scripts Davies is far from the hack some would like to believe.
4. Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler
I saw veggiesu mention this and liked the sound of it. In the event I both did and didn’t like it. Its conceit is to pick up two elderly chalk-and-cheese detectives, Bryant and May, at the end of a famous lifelong partnership and flash back to their first murder case during the Second World War. The settings of a labyrinthine theatre and war torn London streets are atmospherically evoked; in particular there are a lot of minor, telling details about daily life during the Blitz that feel fresh and breathe life into what could have been a generic setting.
Where the book falls down for me is that it tries much too hard, especially in the portrayal two lead detectives. The device of the flashback leads to lengthy authorial reflections on just how iconic and different the two men are, but it’s a very long time before we see or hear enough of them to judge for ourselves. Although this tendency to ‘tell not show’ never entirely goes away I warmed to the book, and the detectives, considerably as it went along. The two lead characters do eventually make an impression, and although the resolution of the mystery is undeniably contrived it suits both the setting and the genre. I’m of two minds whether to read any further entries in the series.
5. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A less successful children’s book than Gaiman’s Coraline, but very enjoyable. Like much of Gaiman’s work it’s an at times whimsical, at times very dark tale which blends simple plotting with a fairytale sensibility and a collision of mythologies. The tale follows Nobody or “Bod” whose parents are killed when he is still a baby (in a fairly nasty opening sequence) and who, in the spirit of The Jungle Book, is raised in the ‘wild’; in this case by the ghosts in a local graveyard who adopt him as their own.
The book is structured as — and always feels like — a series of short stories set at intervals through Bod’s childhood. Some chapters are far stronger than others, with ‘Danse Macabre’ standing out in the memory. Some (as is true of Gaiman’s actual short story collections) feel slightly too mundane. Typically for Gaiman the overarching story spanning the book is fairly lumpy, and he’s clearly far less interested in telling a tautly plotted page-turner than he is in the characters, the creatures and the nuances of language and culture. I particularly enjoyed the sardonic way that every graveyard inhabitant is described by the epitaph from their headstone. Beautiful illustrations by Dave McKean in my edition, too.