Tag Archives: eco

LA BELLE SAUVAGE by Philip Pullman

I have had a handful of encounters with Philip Pullman through work, most recently in the run up to this year’s general election, when I called his house and his wife told me he wasn’t able to speak to anyone. He was busy writing. I have no idea whether he was working on LA BELLE SAUVAGE but I like to think he was, or perhaps on its sequel, and of him retreating from the madness of early summer in Oxford in 2017 to the wildness of the Oxford he created in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and which is revisited here.

LA BELLE SAUVAGE goes back to one beginning, to the days when Lyra from the trilogy, is a baby. It explores the political and scientific forces trying to control her life and shape both her destiny and the world around them. Familiar characters such as Mrs Coulter and Coram the Gyptian, rub shoulders with wonderful new creations, including Malcolm and Alice, an unlikely duo who team up to protect baby Lyra as a flood of biblical proportions sweeps through Oxford and its famed colleges.  And of course, the daemons are back too, from Panatalaimon to a whole new cast including a very disturbed and damaged hyena.

Pullman draws on and is inspired by a wealth of stories, myths, ideas and legends. He does so with confidence and imagination. What is essentially a simple narrative about a baby being chased down, becomes the most glorious, captivating, magical tale in his hands. Just as good as the originals and I profoundly hope that if I were to call his house again, Pullman is working hard on the next installment. I cannot wait.


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THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.



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“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”




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pandemonium by lauren oliverrequiem by lauren oliver

I read DELIRIUM some time ago and wasn’t overly impressed. These two books complete the trilogy and are much better and edgier. “The animals are on the other side of the fence: monsters wearing uniforms. They speak softly, tell lies, and smile as they’re slitting your throat”.

Central protagonist Lena has grown up overnight after losing her first love, Alex, as the pair escaped to the Wilds in a bid to avoid the Cure, a compulsory procedure supposed to protect everyone from amor deliria nervosa – otherwise known as love. In the Wilds she’s taken in by Invalids who are part of a resistance movement and, after they nurse her back to full strength, is sent back amongst the Cured to gather information that will help those fighting for the right to love. She is sent specifically to spy on the members of deliria-free America (DFA), an evangelical political group who want to quell public unrest by administering the Cure at an ever younger age. When one of the DFA’s rallies comes under attack, Lena ends up following Julian, the son of one of DFA’s key figures, then being captured alongside him by mercenary inhabitants of the Wilds. The connection they make as the pair try to escape persuades him that falling in love isn’t the curse he’s been raised to believe and Julian decides to join Lena and the rest of the resistance fighters. In the final book, we pick up the story of Lena’s former best friend, Hanna, who is supposed to marry one of the DFA’s rising stars and this thread gives us a new insight into life after the Cure and the political struggle to control an increasingly fractured and unhappy society.  Lena’s cousin Grace makes a reappearance towards the very end too, as a symbol of innocence and a potentially better future.  She is also proof that, despite what is claimed for the Cure, the past is more than a “the barest impression on sparkling glass”, and choice means embracing and learning from what’s gone before, rather than letting it bury you.

There’s much about freedom and choice woven into the different stories Oliver gives us and some stand out lines, including about the power to choose the wrong thing and how that’s beautiful. It’s an idea picked up at the end of the book, which feels much less extreme than some of these kinds of trilogies. Lena knows true rage and despair, at one point promising, “If you take, we will take back. Steal from us, and we will rob you blind. When you squeeze, we will hit.” But as the books draw to a close, we understand how she has been changed irrevocably by the loss and suffering she has both seen and endured. She learns that hatred “will feed you and at the same time turn you to rot”. And now she  talks about tearing down walls and living together, rather than destroying those who have caused  misery. In fact the books very consciously identify reconciliation as the key to a peaceful future:

“Take down the walls. Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verses of terror and tightness. Otherwise you may never know hell, but you will not find heaven either. You will not know fresh air and flying.”

Lena’s emotional journey is just as gripping as her political one. She struggles to accept the loss of Alex, and her feelings of guilt at surviving are compounded when she starts to fall for someone else. The soppy self indulgent teen who irritated me in DELIRIUM has been replaced by someone far stronger and in control though and this keeps the story from subsiding into mush. She is reunited with the mother she once thought was dead, and, when the streets of her hometown of Portland become a battleground between the resistance and the DFA, Lena makes a series of brave decisions that mark her out as no ordinary young woman. As one of the lines from a forbidden text reminds her “He who jumps may fall, but he may also fly”. She takes risks without being reckless and this grounds the book amidst plenty of action and adventure. No doubt the film makers who buy the rights to bring this series to the screen will have a field day with the number of explosions that happen, and there’s plenty of hand to hand combat, apocalyptic flooding, bombing and trekking underground too.

Exciting, thoughtful and as addictive as amor deliria nervosa, these books are five star young adult fiction.

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the maze runner trilogy by james dashner

I saw a trailer for THE SCORCH TRIALS and this piqued my interest in the books. They are OK but I don’t think I’ll bother going to see the films. The premise is that most of the human race has been infected by something called The Flare, which was unleashed in a government experiment and slowly eats away at your brain, turning you mad. Those who appear immune are part of a programme to develop a cure, which entails putting them through various trials to see how they react and rebuild various pathways in people’s brains.

Things I liked about the series:

  • In common with much of this genre of fiction, there’s a powerful sense of right and wrong in the big picture, but the grey areas are explored too, by the way individuals respond and relate to events and the world around them.
  • There are strong, well developed female characters who provide more than just love interest for the main protagonist, Thomas. He in turn is sensitive, caring and complex, as are several of the other boys in the books.
  • Each novel has a distinct landscape that gives it a very different feel to the others in the series (much like eg HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy) and those landscape are vivid and very visual.
  • The endless double-crossing, twists and manipulation – the reader is always at the same disadvantage as Thomas, including about his own role in initiating the trials, and that keeps things interesting.
  • Alec, a central character in THE KILL ORDER, who is by the far the most interesting and likeable across the entire series.

Things I liked less:

  • The ending is far too abrupt – or at least it was when reading on my Kindle and not realising that THE KILL ORDER, which is really just a novella, was tacked on the end. The conclusion of THE DEATH CURE is also hugely idealistic and unsatisfying, even for a fan of happy, idealistic endings, like myself, with no real political resolution to the issues of control and corruption that have been centre stage through much of the series.
  • The whole series feels like it’s written with a franchise in mind – from the  grand sets, which are pitch perfect for the big screen, to the extra books, which don’t really add that much in terms of plot and could just have been woven into the original trilogy.
  • The Grievers, automated slugs who wield spikes and shears, and can administer stings that bring on disturbing symptoms not dissimilar to taking large quantities of acid. They make this list not because of their inherent unpleasantness but because I felt they were superfluous and because I prefer my baddies to be human.

The plot is far too complicated to reprise in any detail but overall it works, it’s convincing and gripped me for a few weeks. Credit where credit’s due, Dashner has started with a compelling idea and turned it into a story that’s entertaining and asks all the right questions. There’s just one problem: I read every one of these new young adult trilogies in the expectation it will match up to THE HUNGER GAMES and I am repeatedly disappointed when it doesn’t.

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THE BEES by Laline Paull

the bees by laline paull

This book is unlike anything I have read before and defies all the terms I normally use to categorise books on this blog. I’ve classed it as thriller and factual but that really doesn’t do it justice. Paull has built a moving, and at the same time terrifying, story around life in a bee hive. There’s some elements that feel like a children’s story book, such as the Patisserie & Pollen area of the hive where the bees’ bread is made, and others that are distinctly adult, such as the mass blood lust which disposes of drones who have outlived their usefulness. Every kin in the hive has its place, from the high priestess Sage to the lowly Flora, and each bee is entranced by their daily diet of propaganda – Accept, Obey and Serve. But at the centre of this story is a bee who is gifted beyond what’s usual in her kin: Flora 717, strong, good at foraging and soon adept at keeping secrets from her superiors.

The hive faces numerous challenges – including an attack by wasps, a particularly harsh winter, disease and the loss of their Queen – and this keeps the narrative moving. But really this book is a homage to the incredible way in which a hive operates, albeit one that reflects the brutal realities of an uncompromising totalitarian society. The fertility police who patrol the hive are truly frightening, as is the way in which the Queen’s entourage manipulate and control the other bees.

From the way that the bees dance out directions to the sweetest nectar, to their regular Devotions to the Queen; from how they enter into a trance over the winter, to how they mummify hive invaders they’ve stung to death in propolis with remarkable disinfectant powers; from how they use scent to communicate, to the joy the forager bees experience as they hunt for flowers; THE BEES is a window not just into the hive but into every aspect of the way in which it survives. Purists might question the liberal use of personification upon which the story rests, but I was perfectly happy to go along with it, and was rewarded with a truly astonishing and original novel.

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WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey; THREE by Sarah Lotz; THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood; THE HOURGLASS FACTORY by Lucy Ribchester; BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo; THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

So the last several weeks have been dominated by general election campaigning and that’s meant no blogging – though I’ve still managed to read plenty. Here’s a quick run down just for the record:

wool trilogy by hugh howey

WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey. By far and away the best of its kind I’ve read in a while. A dangerous visionary triggers Armageddon and a mass experiment that sees the creation of several communities living in underground silos, with only a very few individuals entrusted with the knowledge that they are not the only survivors. Regular “cleanings” are used to eradicate anyone who comes too close to discovering the truth or asking awkward questions. But one day someone survives a cleaning – a tough mechanic made sheriff called Jules – setting in motion a chain of events that forces her and others to question everything they think they know. Howey has created a dystopian future that is credible, detailed and deeply disturbing. He’s ruthless in his disposal of key characters and brutally honest in his assessment of both the best and worst of human nature. Jules is easily the main attraction though. No selfless hero, she nevertheless possesses something most of her peers have abandoned – hope. It drives her to take huge personal risks, endure extreme physical hardship and inspire others.  It also made this the perfect book for the desolate political climate in which I was reading it.

three by sarah lotz

THREE by Sarah Lotz – four planes crash simultaneously, killing all but 3 children who survive against seemingly impossible odds and one woman, Pamela May Todd, who clings onto life just long enough to record a message on her mobile phone. Told by way of interviews, transcripts of voice recordings by their family members, newspaper articles and webchats, this is the story of how the world races to explain what’s happened. Religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, paranormal specialists and alien take over experts abound. Gripping and attention grabbing, this was the perfect read at a time when not much succeeded in distracting me.

the one that got away by simon wood

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood. Zoe Sutton and her friend are abducted by a psychopath who hangs his victims from a hook, brands and whips them for perceived misdemeanours. Zoe manages to escape but cannot remember what happened, just that she abandoned her friend. Now working as a security guard in a shopping mall, she’s rebuilt a life of sorts, although it’s marked by guilt, erratic bouts of aggression and a determination to push friends and families away. When her abductor strikes again, Zoe is determined to track him down and find out the truth about the night which haunts her. This book seriously got under my skin with tension that builds from page one towards a brutal finale.

the hourglass factory by lucy ribchester

THE HOURGLASS FACTOR by Lucy Ribchester. The Suffragettes provide the backdrop for this unusual crime novel that involves an underground plot to blow up Parliament, corset fetishists, a trapeze artist, snake charmer and an ambitious young woman journalist called Frankie. Ribchester perfectly combines sinister and strange to great effect and I really enjoyed her clever plot, some laugh out loud moments and a good dose of feminist politics thrown in to boot.

blood on snow by jo nesbo

BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo. This is not a patch on Nesbo’s other books. Centre stage is a contract killer who, though fascinating, falls far short of the glorious Harry Hole. He’s been ordered to take out his boss’s wife but ends up falling for her instead. There’s drug gangs, the stench of fish and  hiding out in coffins. But despite a double bluff I didn’t see coming, there’s a real absence of the wonderful twists, turns and blind alleys Nesbo usually does so well. It helped pass the time but only just…

the angel's game by carlos ruiz zafon

THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This Faustian novel is epic fable full of gothic horror. Zafon populates his twisted and surreal Barcelona landscape with menacing characters that are warped by their dark secrets. At its heart is frustrated novelist David Martin, whose craving for recognition sees him abandon any sense of morality and of reality. He weaves a tale worthy of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, yet, unlike that narrator, Martin himself seems unsure what’s truth and what’s fiction. Clever, atmospheric and self aware, THE ANGEL’S GAME  is a book of two halves – the latter being where the plot really gets going but also, sadly, where some of what makes the first half so special gets lost. A tribute to the power of storytelling, with Dickens’ Great Expectations as a key reference point, it gets a little lost in all those winding dark Spanish streets and, for me at least, failed to completely live up to its promise.

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