Sunday, 26 April 2015

Knife, Lights and Spyglass: His Dark Materials and Me

Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass to anyone Stateside), the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is twenty years old this year. TWENTY. That, to me, is incredible – firstly, that that much time has passed, and secondly, that I didn’t even realise it. I only clocked it because I saw a hashtag on Twitter about a month or so ago (#NorthernLights20), clicked the link and there it was… people discussing the 20th anniversary of one of my most favourite books of all time, and I hadn’t even noticed. 

I could argue here that it’s because Northern Lights is a timeless, ageless book that transcends generations, and so applying an age to it is a meaningless number, blah blah blah – but that’s bollocks because you could say the same about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is thirty this year, and I was marvelling at that anniversary in February. No, the truth is, His Dark Materials no longer matters to me as much as it once did, and so the arrival of such an anniversary caught me completely off-guard. Yet I’m kind of glad – the shock has suddenly sent my mind whirring, remembering just what it is about this series that I fell in love with.  Fair warning: some spoilers to the series, including details about the ending, will come out in the course of this post.

I claimed both copies in the end, like Mrs Coulter claimed Lyra.
It’s not often that I remember how I acquired books – for example, To Kill a Mockingbird may as well have grown organically onto to my bookshelf one day, for all I remember about buying it. I don’t even remember reading it for the first time, not really. But I DO remember that I got Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife for Christmas 2000 (partly remembered because I quite clearly marked it in my copy, in naughties-tastic metallic pen, complete with circles over the i's). Actually, that’s not quite right – that year, my parents gave my sister Northern Lights and me The Subtle Knife, and when I sat down to start my book I had no idea that it was the second in a trilogy, or that my sister was in possession of the first. This meant that my first meeting with Lyra Silvertongue was the same as Will Parry’s – I was as unfamiliar with Pantalaimon, the Alethiometer, Dust and the many-worlds as he was, and I was utterly enthralled by it. Admittedly, Lee Scoresby’s storyline, and Serafina Pekkala’s, were parts I skipped over to begin with, because at that point I had no attachment to those characters and so their plots seemed irrelevant to me. Nevertheless, the strength of The Subtle Knife is that (even though it’s now my least-favourite of the trilogy) I enjoyed it whilst under the impression it was a standalone novel – even with all the questions I had about the worlds and Lyra. In fact, reading the novels out of sequence only strengthened their impact in the end: nearly all my questions from The Subtle Knife could be answered by Northern Lights, and my attachment to Will was increased by my first experience in the various worlds being through his eyes. Even though I read the books completely out of order - Knife, Lights, Spyglass - it didn't matter, because this is a story beyond structure.

So why did His Dark Materials matter so much to me? Well that’s a tricky question, so let’s start with the obvious, easiest, shortest answer: it’s a great story. A young girl sets off to the far North of the world to rescue her best friend, accompanied only by her daemon, Pantalaimon, the animal embodiment of her soul. On her quest she encounters monsters, a kingdom ruled by a despot and a lab conducting unspeakable experiments on children. She makes incredible friends and discovers terrible truths. There’s intrigue and murder and fights, and she meets talking bears, ages-old witches, Texan balloonists, finger-sized humanoids and distant father-figures. Pullman’s world – Lyra’s world - is Narnia, Hogwarts and Oz rolled into one, with a sprinkling of Stephen King.

Those characters she meets, the bears and witches and Texans – they’re another reason the trilogy is so fascinating. No one is perfect in Lyra’s world, and that’s a strong message to send to impressionable young people. Grey character casts have become increasingly popular in recent years, the most famous being the sprawling crew of A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin, where little girls can become murderers and men lose their lives for being honourable. But what I've now realised is, His Dark Materials has the same - and Northern Lights predates A Song of Ice and Fire by a year (A Game Of Thrones was first published in 1996). No one in His Dark Materials is purely good, or without conflicted morals - Lyra famously survives throughout much of the story by lying through her teeth; Will kills a man within his first chapters; Stanislaus Grumman breaks a promise he made a dying man; Lee Scoresby murders thirty men to save one. Even Iorek Byrnison, the bear-king who can talk with humans but can't empathise with them, finds himself conflicted over the fate of the world he lives in. That’s a powerful thing to read when you’re a young girl - that the world is not black and white, that sometimes doing bad things or telling lies doesn't necessarily make you a bad person.
My original copies - well-loved and dog-eared.
Then of course, there was the Homeric feel to Lyra and Will’s journey through the worlds. As a teenager I hadn’t yet become acquainted with The Iliad and The Odyssey, but as I got older I realised that Pullman had littered his work with allusions to Greek mythology and Homeric epic. Take, for example, the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass: it’s basically Hades and, if you know your mythology, you’ll know that Greek heroes frequently made trips down to retrieve lost loves or seek counsel from the dead – just like Lyra and Will. Then there’s the Land of the Dead itself. See, the Greek underworld was never a pleasant place, like the Christian Heaven is purported to be: it had nice corners, sure, with the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed for particularly worthy souls, and Hell-like counterparts called Tartarus and the Fields of Punishment where, if you were evil, you were punished accordingly. However, if you just happened to be a normal person who didn't do anything particularly evil in your life, but never did anything particularly good either, you ended up in the bleak Fields of Aspodel, a dull wasteland where souls spend their eternities doing nothing. All of this was separated from the mortal world by the river Styx, the domain of Charon, ferrier of the dead. Pullman's underworld could be the Fields of Aspodel – it’s an endlessly empty landscape, grey and flat and full of souls without anywhere else to go on to. It even comes complete with a boatman, who ferries the souls across from the living world to the Land of the Dead. And all this is in addition to the shape-changing daemons, who are souls manifest in Lyra’s world but messenger-spirits in mythology, or the Harpies, the half-woman half-bird hybrids who torment Lyra just as they once tormented blind Phineas, the seer. And they're probably the tip of the iceberg -there’s undoubtedly loads more allusions if I could care to scour for them.

The ending of the series also taught me a powerful lesson: that sometimes the right endings are not necessarily happy ones. The first time I read The Amber Spyglass, by the time I finished it I was in floods of tears, and even now – fifteen years later - there are some passages that will still cause my face to crumple. This is because Will and Lyra, the children who saved the worlds, suddenly find at the end of it all they have fallen in love, but just as they realise this - just as they recognise their souls match - they are informed that, in order to maintain the new equilibrium they have created, they must separate forever, with Will to live in his world and Lyra to live in hers (I'm not going to explain exactly why because that will take forever). There are no loopholes, no compromises: they must give up the love of a lifetime, with the only comfort being that they might find each other in the Land of the Dead again, and that in the meantime they will share a bench across worlds for one hour, one day a year. Their final parting is desperately poignant, and yet there is no avoiding that this is the best course: Will and Lyra sacrifice each other so they can both live strong, healthy lives apart, instead of a short and sickly one together, and in doing so will also save all the people across all worlds from having to endure the unending misery of the Land of the Dead again.

Quite frankly, I could go on forever like this, and never quite manage to make my point over what an incredible series of books this is: it’s an adventure story at it's core, but with huge emphasis on both politics and religion, which you don’t often encounter in children’s literature (at least I don’t). It's sprawling, covering several different worlds yet somehow never confusing them, and the imagery used to describethem is rich and satisfying to read. It boasts a huge cast where, somehow, everyone is memorable,well-developed and unpredictable. It covers all the definitions of love you can think of - maternal, paternal, passionate lust, first love, vocational, friendship – and how it affects everyone, regardless of how they started out. When I read it as a teenager, I saw it only as an adventure in a world akin to Narnia or Hogwarts. As I grew older, however, I came to recognise the powerful, controversial subjects it brought up and questioned, which enriched the story and deepened my understanding  and appreciation of it. I don’t know why I forgot about this series, or why it fell out of favour, but I’m so glad that the Northern Lights anniversary reminded of it with such a jolt: it’s made me truly think about what His Dark Materials means to me, and has made me realise that, of all the books I’ve read, all the fictional worlds I’ve visited and all the characters I’ve met, Lyra and Will have influenced more than any other.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

My First Audiobook

I’ve been pondering the idea of using audiobooks for some time now: I’ve never listened to one before, and when I was younger they came in clunky cassettes boxes, usually with several tapes if the book was a long one. They seemed to be aimed at older people who had vision problems and couldn’t read a book – certainly not for me. But the rise of digital media has pulled audiobooks into the limelight, with companies such as Audible regularly touting their wares on public transport, aiming them at people too busy to read, or those who travel on routes that are so crowded that holding books, Kindles or papers are near impossible. It was actually an advert for Audible – ‘first 30 days free trial’ – that finally pushed me over the edge. I’d been so reluctant, after all, about ereaders, and yet now I’m seldom without mine, so who’s to say audiobooks won’t be a similar revelation? I decided to take Audible up on their trial offer.

First things first: I needed an Audible account. This was terrifyingly easy to set up because it’s an Amazon company so, naturally, I could sign in under my login for that site. Everything – including payment details – was transferred without a hitch. So far, so 1984. That unnervingly simple step out of the way, it was time to choose my one free audiobook, as per the terms of the trial offer – but hang on, I thought the offer was a 30-day free trial? Doesn’t that mean I get as many free audiobooks in a month as I want? Actually, no: the slightly confusing bit about Audible is that (as a card-carrying member) you pay a monthly fee of £7.99, and for that you get ONE free audiobook a month; after that, you have to pay per audiobook you download. My free trial meant I didn’t have to pay the monthly subscription fee this month, but would still get a free audiobook. Once that had been cleared up – and chalked up as a bit cheeky, but understandable, particularly from an author’s perspective – I continued on to my selection process for my free audiobook.

Another slight hiccough: it seems the free audiobook is taken from a chosen selection – mostly bestsellers, which is good, but I had been under the impression I could choose any that I wanted. I might’ve been less cranky about that if I hadn’t read most of the titles on offer already, and I thought my first audiobook should be one I’ve never read before. Eventually I settled on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin), which everyone has been telling me to read for ages but I’ve never gotten round to. It was at this point I discovered yet another issue – ish – with Audible: if it wasn’t free for me this time, the audiobook of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (unabridged) was about £25. Now, I understand that there are additional costs involved in creating an audiobook – hiring voice actors, recording studios, etc – so I was expecting it to be higher than the ebook or print, but considering Amazon currently have the paperback available for £3.85 (discounted from £8.99), 25 quid seemed a bit steep. If I wasn’t getting it for free, I definitely wouldn’t have bothered. That’s not because I don’t think the book itself is worth it, but £25 is a bit out of my price range for a print book or ebook, and they’re formats I’m already very comfortable with.
You’ve probably surmised (correctly) by now that I had a few misgivings with Audible, but I figured Audible wasn’t my only source for audiobooks, so I could always take my custom elsewhere if I decided I liked the format: so far, my only qualms were with the service, not the product. However, I had some issues with the audiobook too.

Firstly, I’ll be honest: I overestimated my ability to work and listen at the same time. I started listening to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo during work, assuming I could merrily work away whilst listening the story. That was not so, as may well be obvious to you – I found that I kept tuning out the dulcet tones of Reichlin so I could concentrate more on the task in hand. I only even noticed I was doing this when I suddenly realised the narrator was reading, ‘in hindsight, this was a mistake’. WHAT WAS THE MISTAKE?! I’d completely missed what could well have been a crucial plot point. In a print or ebook, if I’d skim-read the page, or zoned out for a moment, I could go back and re-read the passage again – but with an audiobook, it seems really difficult to replay a specific passage. Even when I left work and entered the realm of the relatively mindless – i.e. my commute – I struggled to concentrate, because external noise kept drowning out the narrator, even with the volume turned up quite high. Buses speeding past, mopeds, even the beep-beep-beep-beep of a pelican crossing all managed to drown out words and passages. So I can’t listen at work because I’m, well, working, and I can’t listen on my commute because my surroundings are too noisy. When CAN I listen to it?!

I also had not anticipated how long an audiobook would be – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about 18 hours and 50 minutes long. Being the nerd I am, I did some maths on how long it would take me to get through in other formats – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong because maths was never my strong suite at school!
  •   Let us assume that, on average, I read for an hour and a half every day – 90 minutes. 18 hours and 50 minutes translates into 1130 minutes. So we can assume that, listening to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo every day (instead of reading) would take me 12.5 sessions – let’s call them days – to get through, at a rate of 90 minutes per day. This made me realise how probably inconsequential it is to gripe about having to pay for the audiobooks AND the subscription – if it would take almost 2 weeks to listen to a 500 page book, it’s not like I’m going to burst my bank downloading audiobooks.
  •  Additionally, as mentioned, this is a 500-page book - 542, to be exact, according to Amazon. Since I started my book log in January 2014, I can say I have read 10 books with page counts between 529 pages and 578 pages – an average of 554. The average reading time for those 10 books was, based on the log, 8.6 days. Excluding one title that took 31 days to read - an anomaly – the average is even lower at 6.1 days. 
So based on that (possibly hairy) maths, providing I didn’t dawdle, it would take me roughly half the time to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo than it will to listen to it. If it would be far quicker – and more enjoyable – for me to read, then why am I even bothering? Because, despite all my misgivings, I am enjoying the story itself, which – so far – is quite gripping, when my environment permits me to be gripped. It’s slightly annoying though, because now that I’m getting quite into it, I still don’t know if I want to continue listening to it, and me being me (also having missed a fair bit through not paying attention), I think I’d have to re-read it from the beginning once I procured a copy. And I know I got it for free, but there’s still that niggling thought in the back of my head that as I already own this in one format, why should I buy it in another unless I really love it – which I won’t know for certain until I finish it? Talk about a dilemma.

I suppose it all comes down to one big disappointment: audiobooks are not something you can multi-task with. I had visions of me being able to spend an entire day at work, listening to a great story whilst I went about my daily business, but this is not so. Audiobooks require as much attention as reading a print book or ebook. If you’ve ever tried reading at the same time as trying to do something else, you’ll know that one or the other will suffer – either the pan boils over, or the hoovering doesn’t get done properly, or you walk into someone on the street, or you just put the book down. I thought audiobooks would be a way to experience a novel without encountering those kind of issues, but it now seems that, if anything, it’s actually easier to be distracted away from an audiobook. This begs the question: why listen, when you can read? I’ll probably stick with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on audio for now, see how I get on and if my opinion improves, but – with 15 hours and 30 minutes still to go – I’m not sure anything will change.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

My New Favourite Book

I have a new favourite book. Sorry, Harper Lee, sorry J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, George R. R. Martin and Phillip Pullman. It’s honestly nothing personal, I still love all your work – I’ve just found something new. I’ve not even finished this new book – barely started it, in fact – but already it’s found its way to my heart. There’s all the usual signs of love-at-first-page: when I’m not spending time with the book, I’m thinking about it, looking forward to when I can next see it. When I am with it, I savour the time we have together, dreading already the arrival of the last page and realising it’s over. Now I have this book in my life, everything just feels a bit better. So what is this gift from the bookish heavens, you might be asking? What book has had such an impact?

It’s a colouring book, Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta.

Now stop rolling those eyes and judging and tsking and whatnot. Alright, it’s not a book like you might’ve been expecting, and it’s certainly not literary fiction – it’s barely got any words, in fact – but I’m telling you guys, it has been a revelation. The trend of colouring books for adults – I hesitate to use the term ‘adult colouring books’ in case it gives anyone the wrong idea – is one that has been on the rise recently, and a quick Amazon search will show to you just how many are actually out there. These aren’t pictures of puppies in baskets or princess castles or teddy bears – these are genuinely complex images that are as beautiful in monochrome as they are in colour, ones that require concentration, a steady hand and time.

The first double-page spread.

I actually only heard about adult colouring books about a month ago – like so much of my knowledge on news, trends and fandoms these days, there was a feature on Buzzfeed about them. I read the article with the same kind of detached interest you may be reading this (I flatter myself anyone has got this far…) but forgot about them, until an unpleasant and stressful few months finally hit their zenith and I was in a bit of a low place. Suddenly, I recalled the article and found myself thinking about how nice it would be to just sit for half an hour, and colour something in. I’m no artist – several attempts at painting and sketching have taught me that – so drawing something for myself to colour was out of the question. Naturally, a grown-up colouring book was the ideal – someone who could draw, providing me with the outlines I needed. So I ordered myself a copy of Animal Kingdom and some pencils, and eagerly awaited its arrival.

When it did eventually turn up (why is it the stuff you’re only marginally fussed about always arrives the next day, when things you REALLY want take aaaaaaages?), it was completely worth the wait and money. It’s a beautiful book to look at, never mind to colour in, and the many images inside are a mix of the immensely detailed and intricate, and the somewhat simpler – ostensibly to allow you to add your own details and flourishes if you like, but I’m interpreting them as just being for simpler souls, like me, or people who don’t want to squint too much. A bit like the easier crossword vs. the cryptic in the papers. Some are double-page spreads, others are single images, and all of mammals, amphibians, insects, birds and fish. The artist puts her botanical experience to good work as a lot of the images incorporate flowers, leaves and general flora to make up and decorate the fauna.
But the best thing about this book wasn’t the beautiful pictures – it was the peace of mind it gave me.

I sat down on Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea, my new colouring book and pencils, put Classic FM on and then entered into one of the most relaxing hours I’ve ever spent in my life. In that time, my only worries were when I selected the wrong shade of blue, or got a bit of hand-cramp because I’m not used to holding pencils for that long anymore, or wondering why Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen has a show on Classic FM. I didn’t think about work, or chores around the house, or personal problems – I just sat and coloured, and it was fantastic. Johanna Basford, artist of the Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest colouring books, made the suggestion that, “Colouring seems to help people think about a time when life was simpler and more carefree,” and it’s so true– the last time I did any colouring for fun (I don’t include schoolwork in that) I was probably about 10, maybe 11, when my biggest concerns would’ve been getting to stay up late on Fridays, maintaining my not-very-convincing ruse that I watched Eastenders to friends and whether I’d be allowed to play outside after dinner. I’m not saying that this colouring book made me feel 10 again, but it certainly allowed me a few minutes of peace that I’ve not felt in a long time – emptying out my brain of all those worrisome thoughts that can interrupt even the most pleasant of tasks or intervals, concentrating just on the page and colours. And best of all, it wasn’t a one-off – later on, I went back to do some more, and managed to capture the same feeling as before.

Colouring in books are the ideal hobby for someone like me – not particularly talented at anything, too lazy to learn a new skill and too poor to invest in the supplies needed for a more complicated hobby. Like all hobbies, it’ll cost, but with plenty of colouring books available for under a tenner and pencils for the same (depending on how fancy you want to get with them), I reckon it’ll be cheaper than taking up, say, knitting, or watercolour painting. It’s certainly proving cheaper than my chain-buying book habit. I’m a complete convert: it’s fun, simple, cheap and requires minimal mental strain (unless you lose your shit over whether to go red or green on a section, in which case, you probably should talk to someone about that).
Yes, my first elephant IS a bit psychedelic.