Book choice for April

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman [suggested by Lisa Williams]

front cover

Lyra's life is already sufficiently interesting for a novel before she eavesdrops on a presentation by her uncle Lord Asriel to his colleagues in the Jordan College faculty, Oxford.  The college, famed for its leadership in experimental theology, is funding Lord Asriel's research into the heretical possibility of the existence of worlds unlike Lyra's own, where everyone is born with a familiar animal companion, magic of a kind works, the Tartars are threatening to overrun Muscovy, and the Pope is a puritanical Protestant.  Set in an England familiar and strange, Philip Pullman's lively, taut story is a must-read and re-read for fantasy lovers of all ages.  The world-building is outstanding, from the subtle hints of the 1898 Tokay to odd quirks of language to the panserbjorne, while determined, clever Lyra is strongly reminiscent of Joan Aiken's Dido Twite.

Read an alternative (much longer) review of Northern Lights here.

Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946, and educated in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia, before his family settled in North Wales.  He received his secondary education at Ysgol Ardudwy, Harlech, and then went to Exeter College, Oxford, to read English.  He started teaching at the age of 25, and taught at various Oxford Middle Schools before moving to Westminster College in 1986, where he spent eight years involved in teaching students on the B.Ed. course.  He has published nearly twenty books, mostly of the sort that are read by children, though the natural audience for his work spans many ages.

Pullman's first children's book was Count Karlstein (1982, republished in 2002).  That was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), the first in a quartet of books featuring the young Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart.

The above is abridged from his website but don't expect it to be updated much.  His home page bears the legend: "Welcome to my website.  I hope you'll find it interesting and easy to find your way around.  I shall be updating it regularly, so do keep coming back to see what's new." but then has a "January message" (at the end of March) which continues: "The trouble with intending to say something regularly is that I haven't always got something to say.  How in the world do newspaper columnists find 600 words without fail every couple of days?  And these people who fill cyberspace with their blogs day after day after day?  Or preachers coming up with a sermon every week?  It's not like writing a novel.  I know how to keep going at that.  But most of the time I'd rather read than write, and rather listen than talk..."


Shortlisted for this month

Slaughterhouse 5 [suggested by Kathryn Berzins]

Slaughterhouse 5

Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel.  He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.  One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..."  Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945.  Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority.  Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humour.

The book is so famous it has its own Wikipedia page

About the Author

Most readers interested in the fantastic in literature are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut, particularly for his uses of science fiction.  Many of his early short stories were wholly in the science fiction mode, and while its degree has varied, science fiction has never lost its place in his novels.  Vonnegut has typically used science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them.  His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality.  Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it.  In his vision, the fantastic offers perception into the quotidian, rather than escape from it.  Science fiction is also technically useful, he has said, in providing a distance perspective, "moving the camera out into space," as it were.  And unusually for this form, Vonnegut's science fiction is frequently comic, not just in the "black humor" mode with which he has been tagged so often, but in being simply funny.

All the above information is lifted from Kurt Vonnegut's website which then goes on to discuss his graphic art at great length.


Enduring Love [suggested by Vicky Walker]

Enduring Love

Joe Rose has planned a postcard-perfect afternoon in the English countryside to celebrate his lover's return after six weeks in the States.  To complete the picture, there's even a "helium balloon drifting dreamily across the wooded valley."  But as Joe and Clarissa watch the balloon touch down, their idyll comes to an abrupt end.  The pilot catches his leg in the anchor rope, while the only passenger, a boy, is too scared to jump down.  As the wind whips into action, Joe and four other men rush to secure the basket.  Mother Nature, however, isn't feeling very maternal.  "A mighty fist socked the balloon in two rapid blows, one-two, the second more vicious than the first," and at once the rescuers are airborne.  Joe manages to drop to the ground, as do most of his companions, but one man is lifted sky-high, only to fall to his death.

In itself, the accident would change the survivors' lives, filling them with an uneasy combination of shame, happiness, and endless self-reproach.  (In one of the novel's many ironies, the balloon eventually lands safely, the boy unscathed.)  But fate has far more unpleasant things in store for Joe.  Meeting the eye of fellow rescuer Jed Parry, for example, turns out to be a very bad move.  For Jed is instantly obsessed, making the first of many calls to Joe and Clarissa's London flat that very night.  Soon he's openly shadowing Joe and writing him endless letters.  (One insane epistle begins, "I feel happiness running through me like an electrical current.  I close my eyes and see you as you were last night in the rain, across the road from me, with the unspoken love between us as strong as steel cable.")  Worst of all, Jed's version of love comes to seem a distortion of Joe's feelings for Clarissa.

Apart from the incessant stalking, it is the conditionals - the contingencies - that most frustrate Joe, a scientific journalist.  If only he and Clarissa had gone straight home from the airport...  If only the wind hadn't picked up...  If only he had saved Jed's 29 messages in a single day...  Ian McEwan has long been a poet of the arbitrary nightmare, his characters ineluctably swept up in others' fantasies, skidding into deepening violence, and - worst of all - becoming strangers to those who love them.  Even his prose itself is a masterful and methodical exercise in defamiliarization. But Enduring Love and its underrated predecessor, Black Dogs, are also meditations on knowledge and perception as well as brilliant manipulations of our own expectations.  By the novel's end, you will be surprisingly unafraid of hot-air balloons, but you won't be too keen on looking a stranger in the eye.

About the Author

Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England.  He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970.  While completing his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, he took a creative writing course taught by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim.  Among them are the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and Prix F�mina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999.  He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction three times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998.  His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday.

A film version of his award winning novel Atonement is currently in production.

The above much-abridged version of his biography is taken from Ian McEwan's website.


Previous Months' Book Choices

March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006