Tag Archives: Philip Pullman

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Shadow in the North’

My dears.

I have just this moment finished reading the most extraordinary book.

Image: reviewcentre.com

Image: reviewcentre.com

You’ll all know the author, Philip Pullman, from his wonderful work as the creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy – if you don’t already love these books, you’d better get your act together, is all I’ll say, as they are the best series of children’s books I know of. However, a lot of people don’t know that Pullman was an author for years before these books became huge, and this one – the second in his Sally Lockhart quartet of mystery stories – was originally published in 1986. My edition is from 1999, published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

I make a particular note of the publisher because, at several points during the reading of this book, I had to stop and take a look at the flyleaf, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. Why? Well, The Shadow in the North is the least children’s book-y children’s book I have ever read.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I loved this book, and I’m about to tell you why. But it’s not a children’s book. I wouldn’t even class it as a YA book. It’s definitely a story for people who’ve done all their growing up, and who like to have their heads challenged by an intriguing mystery and wonderful characters and soul-wrenching loss and political-economic wrangling and steam power and social class… In short, it’s fantastic.

Sally Lockhart, for starters, is a wonderful character. Several years ago I read The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the four books in which she features, but this book is a huge departure from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s partly because it’s been so long since I stepped into Sally’s London, but there’s also the fact that six years have passed in her world. We left Sally as a young woman – now, she is an adult who runs her own business and who has worked very hard to set herself up. It is 1878, an era of gaslights and steam power and carriages and gentry, and every corner of this story drips with detail – but it’s done so well that you never feel crowded. Sally has become a financial advisor (which is such an amazing thing for a woman of her era to do, I can’t even tell you how pleased I was by it), who knows her way around stock markets and share prices and investments. She is also closely involved with her dear friends Fred and Jim, photographers, and the three of them occasionally solve a mystery or two, too. She has offices, and a wonderful dog named Chaka, and a life she has fought hard for. She is proud, independent, intelligent and hard-working, and I love her.

But then, into her office one day comes a woman who had sought advice from Sally about where to invest her money a couple of years before the story opens. Sally had advised her to put it into shipping – the North Star line in particular – but the business subsequently collapsed. Sally is appalled. She hadn’t realised this had happened, and she’s devastated that her client has lost her money. She promises to get back her investment in full – but then the woman says that she’s convinced there was more to it than a simple company collapse. All was not well in the workings of the North Star, and she feels sure it was scuttled deliberately. People were killed, and many thousands lost their money. Sally, of course, is determined to get to the bottom of it.

So begins a tale of shadowy financial goings-on, stage magicians, back-street clientele, spiritualism, power, money and bankruptcy, not to mention invention, weapons dealing, and love. The further Sally pokes into the affairs of the mysterious and powerful Axel Bellmann, the owner of the White Star group of companies, the deeper she involves herself in a darkening web of terror which draws in gentry and street-dwellers alike. The connections between people in this book are fascinating – is a particular gentleman the lover, or the son, of a particular lady? Is another character married, and if so to whom, and why? What connects the old showgirl Nellie Budd, now working as a spiritualist, to Alistair Mackinnon, the stage magician? – and I admired the way Pullman wove the story together, right to its (tear-inducing) climax. The tale takes in politics – the instability in Russia which would become the revolutions of the early twentieth century, and the disruption of social class which was beginning to unseat the gentry in England, not to mention Sally’s own status as an unmarried working woman and the assumptions made about her as a result – as well as the most wonderful love story between two characters matched perfectly in intelligence, understanding and mutual respect, so proud and independent that it almost keeps them apart, until – but I can’t say any more for fear of spoilers, and also because it pains me to think about it.

There’s a tip of the hat to Bram Stoker and to the social conditions of the time (the poverty in which some characters live is unstintingly described), and it’s a book very much sited in the realities of nineteenth-century life, but really it’s a love song to the steam age, featuring trains and steam power at the heart of its mystery. It takes in British ingenuity and hard work, clashes between unions and employers, the thrilling fear of inventiveness and what the human brain is capable of producing. It is perfectly paced, and the set-up to its (absolutely brilliant but heart-shredding) ending is masterfully handled. It did, perhaps, get slightly sentimental in the last few paragraphs, but perhaps that’s another nod to the era in which it’s set.

Just in case I haven’t convinced you already, it also features illegitimate unions, and the selling of daughters as brides (as well as a threat that money will not be paid if the girl is found to be anything less than a virgin on her wedding night), and accusations of moral impropriety, and a love scene. It opens with a detailed discussion of socio-economics. Also, it features exactly one child, who is a peripheral character – wonderfully drawn, of course, but utterly unimportant to the story – so, you can see why I marvelled at its publisher, and the fact that I found it shelved under the children’s section.

So. Not a children’s book, but a brilliant book nonetheless. If you like period mysteries, give it a whirl.


Top Ten Tuesday REWIND – Klaatu Barada Nikto*

There’s this really cool meme I’ve been seeing on all the best blogs (dahling) over the past few weeks, and it’s called Top Ten Tuesday. It’s hosted by the lovely people over at The Broke and the Bookish, and – I’ve got to say – I’ve been wondering about taking part for a while now.

So, in honour of the fact that I took the plunge back into submitting work for publication yesterday (because it’s the ‘being brave enough to submit’, not ‘actually getting the nod’ that counts), I thought perhaps I’d try this other new thing today.

Because, you know me. I love new things.

Image: marottaonmoney.com

Image: marottaonmoney.com


Today is a ‘Top Ten Tuesday Rewind’, which means you have the pick of a long list of Top Ten lists to choose from (the full list is on the Broke and the Bookish website); my choice is number 86 on that list.

Top Ten Books I Would Quickly Save If My House Was Going to Be Abducted by Aliens (or any other natural disaster)

Because aliens are so a natural disaster.

1. Elidor (but only if I can bring all my editions, currently three)

This one should come as zero surprise to anyone who has read this blog, ever.

Image: lwcurrey.com

Image: lwcurrey.com

The book which fed my childhood imagination? The book which gave me my love for medieval stuff? The book which frightened my shivering soul itself almost to the point of insanity – but which had me coming back for more? Yes. A thousand times, yes. I love this book, and so should you.

2. The Earthsea Quartet

Oh, wizard Ged and your wonderful ways! I couldn’t possibly leave you behind. Not even if giant silver humanoid killing machines were smashing through my window. What would I do without the magnificence of Orm-Embar, the calm dignity of Tenar, the terror of the Dry Land? No. I would bring my Earthsea Quartet, and I would try to smuggle in ‘Tales from Earthsea’ and ‘The Other Wind’, too.

Dash it all. I’d just clear off my entire Ursula Le Guin shelf, and have done with it.

image: aadenianink.com

image: aadenianink.com

3. Six Middle English Romances, ed. Maldwyn Mills

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

I don’t have a reason for this beyond the following: I am a huge giant nerd; I love Middle English, particularly these six texts, and I can’t imagine not having them to hand; I would want to save them from the huge squid-like aliens with their giant fangs and scant regard for human culture; most importantly, they rock. Seriously.

4. Lords and Ladies

Terry Pratchett has written a lot of books. I would, of course, want to save them all if something with far too many legs was attempting to rip off my head, but I think I would save this one as a representative volume. Mainly, it’s because ‘Lords and Ladies’ is my favourite of the Discworld books, but it’s also because my current edition was a gift from my husband. So, you know. Kudos.

5. The Dark is Rising Sequence

Aha. I see you are on to me. ‘What’s all this, then? Saving trilogies and quadrilogies and that? You’re cheating!‘ Well, yes. Yes, I am. But the ‘Dark is Rising’ books are all in one volume, so therefore it counts as one book. Stuff it, aliens.

image: yp.smp.com

image: yp.smp.com

This book is far too excellent. I couldn’t allow it to fall into the hands of an alien civilisation, possibly because they’d eat it and spit it out and that would be that. So, it’s coming.

6. The Little Prince

I have four editions of this. Two in English, one in French and one in Irish. I’m bringing ’em all.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

What would be the point of surviving an alien attack, I ask you, if I leave behind a book which teaches me about the love of a little boy and his flower, or the loneliness of a fox, or the fact that every desert has an oasis at its heart, or how laughter amid the stars sounds like little bells, or what a boa constrictor who has swallowed an elephant looks like? Non. This book is precious. It’s coming.

7. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, ed. Christopher Betts/Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales/Alan Garner’s Collected Folk Tales/Grimm Tales, ed. Philip Pullman

This speaks for itself, I feel. Yes, they are four separate books but come on. How can you save Perrault without Grimm? How can you leave behind Garner’s British folktale treasury? How can you expect me to walk out the door Angela Carter-less? It’s not happening.

image: goodreads.com

image: goodreads.com

This isn’t just about saving my favourite books (even though these are all my favourite books); it’s about saving human culture from the ravening maw of destruction. These books are, collectively, a brilliant gem of human culture. Truth. (Also, they’re pretty.)

8. Neverwhere and/or American Gods

I’m beginning to get the feeling that I’ll be eaten like an oversized, screaming hors d’oeuvre by these alien overlords. I’ll be too busy dithering at my bookshelves to bother about running away. Perhaps I should prepare a grab-bag of necessities, just in case?

Image: list.co.uk

Image: list.co.uk

I cannot choose between ‘American Gods’ and ‘Neverwhere.’ I can’t! Could you?

Then, of course, there’s the graphic novel adaptation of ‘Neverwhere’ (as illustrated handsomely above), which I also love, and then – horrors! – there’s my ‘Sandman’ collection, which I could hardly bear to leave behind… curse you, Neil Gaiman, for being so talented. You, and you alone, will be responsible for my being chewed up by aliens.

9. What Katy Did/What Katy Did Next

Susan Coolidge’s masterpieces kept me company all through my childhood. I owned a beautiful hardback edition of these two books, all in one volume, which – now that I think about it – I haven’t seen for a while.

I was fascinated by Katy and ‘all the little Carrs’, and the lemonade they used to make and the swing outside their house and the descriptions of their area and Katy’s utter gawkiness and… all of it. Just all of it. I loved these stories as a little girl, and so they’re coming.

I just hope I find my copy of the book before the aliens get here.

10. Whatever Jeanette Winterson I can get my hands on before the killer death-rays start blowing the roof off my house

Yeah. So, I have a problem with Jeanette Winterson, too. Do I save ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’? How can I save that and not save ‘Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy’? And then, how can I ask myself to live the rest of my (probably, rather short) life without ever casting my eyes upon ‘Sexing the Cherry’ again? I don’t feel life would be worth living without ‘The Passion.’

And that’s before we get anywhere near her children’s books.

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

I think what we can all take from this exercise is that if aliens do arrive on my fair isle, I shall not survive. However, at least I shall die happy, in the company of my books, and that is more than I deserve.

Happy Tuesday to you.

*Psst! Did you see what I did there?