Posts Tagged ‘scholastic’

It’s lucky that I’m usually a pretty dilatory blogger. If I blogged about everything straight after I read it, I wouldn’t have anything to write about during the run-up to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’m currently preparing to launch 16 books at the 15 Minutes of Fame book launches, so I’ve been reading, yo, but this ain’t no spoiler zone. Instead, you may have noticed that I’m trawling through the books I read over the summer (a noticeably long time ago now – brrrrrr).

When I’m in need of a gear switch, I often read YA, so Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was the first book I cracked open at the airport. Needless to say, its action-themed front cover brought me plenty of ribbing from my (serious, boring, closed-minded, God I need new) friends. And truly, in their defence, actually, I hate this cover and much prefer the stark US cover, whose golden bird struck in the tail feathers with an arrow is a far more powerful image.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopic future North America, now called Panem, which is divided into twelve Districts and the ruling Capitol. In punishment for having risen against the oppressive government, the twelve Districts are each forced to select two of its children every year to participate as ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games, a televised survival contest from which only one child will emerge alive.

Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the worst part of District 12 – nicknamed the Seam. Her mother is severely depressed and barely functional, so it’s up to Katniss to support them and her 12-year-old sister Primrose by selling the fruits of her illegal hunting and gathering. Hardened and rational about her chances of being chosen as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss is aghast when Primrose’s name is drawn, and in a radical and long-unseen gesture, volunteers herself instead.

Published in 2008 (the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, is due out in a matter of months), The Hunger Games is definitely a book of its time. While its reality television setting has the potential to seem cringeworthy and too ‘now’, Collins investigates its moral conflicts thoughtfully. In particular, she portrays with vividness the complicity of regular people in grotesque societal practices. Heartbreaking, too, is the class divide that Collins has posed in Panem – children can barter another entry in the name draw for a portion of food, which inevitably means that the children of the wealthy are much safer than those who are struggling.

Of course, none of this would work if the characterisation was weak, and Collins has a winning protagonist in Katniss. This teenager is an Andromeda figure without the promise of a Perseus, but fortunately, she’s also a heroine in no need of a saviour. Katniss defies the role of sacrificial lamb to her people’s powerlessness, and plays the game by her own terms. She’s canny but compassionate, and her humanity is something she refuses to trade for her mere life.

There are a couple of places where the dialogue is too glossy, and the darkness underpinning the book’s concept occasionally – and a bit oddly – disappears, but The Hunger Games is still engrossing and rich. It’s impossible not to feel that The Games are but a small part of a much larger and more oppressive system, and Katniss’s major rebellion at the book’s end promises that the scope of the sequel, Catching Fire, will explore this greater territory. Can’t wait.

The cardinal rule of British culture isn’t anything to do with tea or the Queen. The rule is that if there’s a pretty, spunky character in a TV adaptation of a book, she shall be played by Billie Piper (see also Doctor Who, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and, uh, okay, Mansfield Park doesn’t count since Fanny Price is basically a blancmange with a piece of muslin draped over the top.) Suffering the indignity of reading a book with her face on it in public is pretty minor, though, since the book is written by Philip Pullman. Plus, she herself doesn’t annoy me all that much — it’s her ubiquity I find so galling.

The Shadow in the North is the second of Pullman’s ‘Sally Lockhart’ books. Plucky, ahead-of-her-time Sally is a financial consultant in 1800s London. One of her clients, Miss Walsh, has lost a lot of money in a shipping company called Anglo-Baltic, and Sally vows to get Miss Walsh’s money back. But it’s all a bit mysterious, because Anglo-Baltic’s ship, the Ingrid Linde, has just sunk without a trace in the middle of the sea. Meanwhile, Sally’s friend Jim has come across two standover men threatening MacKinnon, a skittish magician who can see into the future.

Yay — a mystery, and a mystery with a principled, brave, intelligent heroine. Sally is very quickly a character to get behind:

“You had three thousand pounds — isn’t that right? And I advised you to go for shipping.”
“I wish you had not,” said Miss Walsh. “I bought shares in a company called Anglo-Baltic, on your recommendation. Perhaps you remember.”
Sally’s eyes widened. Miss Walsh, who’d taught geography to hundreds of girls before she retired, and who was a shrewd judge, knew that look well; it was the expression of someone who’s made a bad mistake, and has just realised it, and is going to face the consequences without ducking.

But it’s not all goody two-shoes. Sally and her friends traipse through dance halls, lie their way into soirées, expose fake mediums, fall in love, learn card tricks and escape attempted hits. Well, Sally does go to the library at some stage to check out the patent registration lists. But Pullman can really write plot-driven stories, even with scenes set in libraries; he fills the pages with character and twist after character and twist.

One thing I love about young adult books is their capacity to unambiguously highlight the morality of actions, decisions and lives. It isn’t all angst and burgeoning hormones and unicorns, you know. Before long, Sally discovers that the disappearance of the Ingrid Linde isn’t her only problem: Axel Bellman, the owner of Anglo-Baltic and an extremely wealthy industrial entrepreneur, is involved in the manufacture of the Hopkinson Self-Regulator, which may be a weapon the likes of whcih the world has never yet seen. The book culminates in an exploration of violence, utilitarianism, love and power. Just as good books should, hey. Why are your friends reading Twilight? They should be reading this instead.

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The Tin Princess is the fourth of Philip Pullman’s Victorian young adult mystery books. I’m the first to acknowledge that my blog has been broken-recordy lately: Philip Pullman … blah blah blah … amazing … Philip Pullman … amazing … blah blah blah. Sorry. But he really is super good at what he does.

So instead of a regular thumbs up review, I thought I’d say something about why I think he is so good. When I am impressed by an adventure story, it’s because I feel like I myself take a kick in the guts every now and then. Pullman is good at serving up that kick, and one of the tricks he uses is pulling a moment wide open right in the middle of an action scene, using detail to forge a connection between the characters. For example, a seemingly benign introduction:

Jim noticed that both of them were immediately aware of the way he made the introduction: they were introduced to her, not she to them, so she must be their social superior. There was a bristle of surprise, and then it was his turn.

or, at the end of a wild chase:

Off balance, they stumbled and gathered themselves to look up at the face of a woman: a beautiful, dark-eyed, bare-shouldered, raven-tressed Spanish-looking actress in a scarlet gown. She was frightened; she could hardly speak for the rapid beating of her heart.

Notice the way he uses the physical reactions of the characters. Yet he doesn’t give the characters or the reader the luxury of contemplation, he moves right along. The result being that you know that something important has happened, but not what the significance of it is yet. Effective, and much more exciting than just a plain old donnybrooking.

Recommended for: you, her, him, them, everyone.

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I am a total broken record about Philip Pullman, ‘you should read him’ ad nauseam. Sure, you wish you could turn me off like a radio. But eventually you’ll pick this up for a young cousin or something, and you’ll read the (killer) first couple of pages and you will curse yourself a thousand times for not listening to me, and you’ll read it until you finish it or fall asleep with your nose on the paper.

I wish I’d read this fifteen years ago. It’s the third in the Sally Lockhart series — a Victorian mystery about a heroine who is feminist in word and deed, written so well that you can’t believe Pullman’s heart rate ever cracks a hundred. It’s just that good. It doesn’t dumb down to a younger audience, and would be a top instrument for introducing the complexities of legal process, race hatred, socialism and poverty to a future caring intellectual. I think it’s Michael Robotham who said that he doesn’t plan when he writes his crime books, and that he gets to a point where he feels like he can’t possibly extricate his character from the predicament he’s put them in. Reading this book is exactly the same, so urgent and heartbreaking that the ending is almost irrelevant because you’re so busy admiring Pullman’s guts. Ten out of ten resounding hurrahs.

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When Helen Garner was asked at the Melbourne Writers Festival (yes, I’m still milking it) about the books she loved, she said that the last books she had read with a kind of crazed greed were Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Those are absolutely three of my favourite books in the world. I read that series ensconced in bed, the diary cleared, and tea and biscuits within reach.

It’s not uncommon for writers to have hits and misses – I loved all of Tamora Pierce’s books but I couldn’t get through a single of one of her Circle of Magic books. So, on the same logic, I never sought out Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books (the first of which is The Ruby in the Smoke). Finding it in the City Library last week, then, was a wildly mixed blessing. But I needn’t have worried because the first page is an absolute ripper. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good one.

The Ruby in the Smoke is set in London some time in the 1800s. Yes, I found this book in the YA section, but there are things in this book that would have the anti-Harry Potter brigade tutting for sure. Sally Lockhart is a very pretty 16-year old who carries a gun and doesn’t take to officious authority, but she also loves accounting and knows obscure things about photography. Plus she speaks Hindustani. If I had kids I’d much rather have them reading about her than the Olsen twins.

The titular smoke refers to opium, and during Sally’s search for her father, she discovers the wretchedness brought upon the Chinese and British people unfortunate enough to come under its spell. In Sally Lockhart, Pullman has given us a wondrously human heroine who is loyal, brave and capable, just like Lyra after her. Though there’s no comparison between this book and the His Dark Materials books in terms of scope (which deals with God and parallel universes, for crying out loud) The Ruby in the Smoke is certainly equal in compassion, excitement and intrigue.

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