Reading by Ear: The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
read by Anton Lesser

Back in high school, I read the first three books of the Sally Lockhart Quartet in sort of a breathless week or so. I was still sorting out how to ferret out books I might like, and had hit upon the tactic of going through the back catalog of every writer I knew I liked. (This is no longer my approach to books, but it is my approach to music, which has, in recent months, helped me discover my love for The New York Dolls.) Philip Pullman, by virtue of His Dark Materials, was a prime candidate. I remembered them fondly but vaguely when I picked up this audiobook to revisit it, but perhaps I should have left it on the shelf…

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Review: Lyra’s Oxford

Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

I really enjoyed revisiting His Dark Materials, even if I didn’t quite enjoy the second two as much as the first. Lyra is just such a fantastic heroine—clever, good-hearted, and sneaky. For the most part, the current run of Journey Into Mystery has been keeping me well-stocked with a similar hero (kid Loki would definitely give Lyra a run for her money; and, given the laws of the Internet, I have just summoned that fic into being), but sometimes, you just have to go back to the original. Plus, I’ve been meaning to revisit Pullman’s works, and I rather like the idea of getting through the new His Dark Materials stuff before revisiting the Sally Lockhart trilogy. (Via audio, of course.)

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Reading by Ear: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

In early high school, a generally abominable time filled with enormous bangs and the genial neglect known as “debate”, I bought myself a nice box set of His Dark Materials, the edition that spells out the name of the series when they’re all put together on the spine. They were (and are—I still own them) so pretty that I dared not take them to school, something I was happy to do with Wicked or Good Omens, which I reread constantly in high school. So I read The Amber Spyglass at night, all tucked into bed, handling the orange book delicately. Of course, it’s been long enough that I only remember the highlights, but it’s a nice memory all the same.

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Reading by Ear: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

I remember the first chapter of The Subtle Knife pretty well. I have a sneaking suspicion it was attached to the copy of The Golden Compass I was handed as a child, although it’s not in the editions I actually own. In any case, while I distinctly remember getting around to The Amber Spyglass in early high school, I think I did read The Subtle Knife in middle school, as the cover is familiar to me in an odd way. But the most likely thing is that I started, abandoned it, and actually read it in early high school when I revisited the entire series. My memory, man—sometimes it’s like solving a puzzle.

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Reading by Ear: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
performed by a full cast

I was first introduced His Dark Materials in middle school. A teacher lent me a copy of The Golden Compass, which I read, but I think I only adventured into The Subtle Knife a little. Later, I bought myself a nice box set of the series, which is when I read The Amber Spyglass. I remember sitting up in bed and finishing it, because I didn’t want to take the copies to school with me. After finishing up my Harry Potter relisten, I was starting to feel nostalgic for the series I read as a child. Be thankful there aren’t Babysitter’s Club audiobooks. (…or are there?)

The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights in the UK) takes place in a world different from ours, the chief difference being that people’s souls live outside them as animal spirits known as dæmons. Lyra, a young orphan who has been essentially half-raised and half-neglected by Jordan College in Oxford, saves her uncle Lord Asriel’s life when the Master of Jordan College tries to poison him. With this act and her impending coming of age, Lyra is pulled into a world of intrigue, child kidnappers, vile experiments, armored bears, witches, and, last but not least, the “golden compass” itself, a rare instrument that only Lyra can use to discover the truth.

I first read The Golden Compass a very long time ago, but the ending has always stuck with me. It may, in fact, be the reason I love desperate chases across icy tundras to this day. Besides the ambiguous ending of The Giver, which I read in middle school, this was the first book I read as a kid that actually had a downer ending. But it was the bitterness that made it all the more real, and that’s something Pullman seems to very conscious about doing. Lyra might be a child, but this isn’t a world that revolves at her level. There’s a brilliant moment where Lyra is concocting an escape plan, and Pullman points out that a child with imagination would realize that their chances were utterly hopeless. While Lyra is an engaging character, it’s often sheer luck and clever talk that propels her on her journey to save Roger, her best friend, from the child snatching Gobblers. The world Lyra inhabits is a real world, with cursing, religion, children’s skewed priorities, the awkwardness of growing up, and death.

The fact that the worldbuilding holds up very well definitely helps. The only truly fantastical elements are dæmons, witches, and talking armored bears; the rest is alternate history with a dash of steampunk to account for the zeppelins. (While a date corresponding with our world is never given, it feels very 1920s to me.) I’ve always been charmed by New France, I’m not going to lie. Pullman maintains the laws and limitations of his world and plays with them—the connection between people and their dæmons is an integral part of this novel, and you buy into it so much so that when we meet a witch’s dæmon, who can travel without his human, it does feel unnatural and violent to the reader. Worldbuilding, especially in children’s literature, can sometimes feel wobbly, so it’s delightful to find Pullman writing with a sure hand.

I’ve never found His Dark Materials as a whole to be particularly anti-religious, but I think that’s a discussion best left for when I get to The Amber Spyglass. But I was more interested this time in the class inequality in Lyra’s world. While it’s part of the setting that I don’t recall is particularly dealt with, I was very interested by the fact that servants always have dog dæmons. Lyra, whose parents are part of the aristocracy, has a remarkably elastic notion of class, as she’s still a child; she adjusts to every situation she’s thrust into. I’ll keep an eye on this as the series progresses and we meet people from our twentieth century.

This was my first full cast audio recording; I’d actually heard some of it before in this fantastic cut of the film adaptation’s deleted ending, although I didn’t know where it was from. Pullman reads the narration and, occasionally, the aliethometer. It was quite a fascinating experience, to have the characterizations provided by a whole cast. Joanna Wyatt is a sly, clever Lyra who also carries the emotional moments well. While some of the children are voiced by adult women (I was surprised to discover the woman who played Serafina Pekkala also played Roger!), the production does a fine job of utilizing actual children to make the proceedings sound more authentic. I did think Mrs. Coulter sounded a little too young, especially against Stan Barrett’s particularly gruff Lord Asriel. I look forward to finishing off the series with this cast and seeking out full cast productions for other audiobooks.

Bottom line: The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights based on your location!) is a sure-handed and deftly executed children’s book set in a very real world. Recommended.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

Challenge: Tigana Read-Along, Part #1—A Blade in the Soul

“I only spoke a prayer of my own.” Alessan’s voice was careful and very clear. “I always do. I said: Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.” (133)

This is me playing catch-up. You see, I was under the impression that the Tigana read-along, hosted by Memory over at Stella Matutina, began on February 28th, not February 23th. Oops. In any case, the book was checked out at the library and I had to wait until March 3rd to get my hands on a library copy. (Which for some reason doesn’t have a copyright page… hmm…) But I’ve just missed one scheduled posting, so I’m going to throw this and Part #2 up today as I dive right in. Spoilers for the novel abound, my friends, so if you haven’t read Tigana or you’re not playing along at home, I’d skip it. That said, let’s dig in.

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Banned Books Week 2010

Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.  Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

via the American Library Association

If there’s anything that’s annoying to a preteen or teenager, it’s being talked down to–and banning a book is talking down to all the children in your community. There’s a difference between a parent making an independent decision that their child isn’t ready for a certain book and someone making sweeping generalizations about what is and what isn’t appropriate for all children. In their patronizing fervor, the parents (and it’s mostly parents) who ban books purely for content miss out on the bigger picture of a work. So, today, to celebrate Banned Books Week, we’re going to look at three wonderful pieces of literature that are often banned.

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The Sunday Salon: Book Shopping

Yesterday, I went to Books-a-Million to pick through the clearance section like a particularly determined vulture, as is my wont. To my great delight, I found The Kiss Murder, the first book in a mystery series I want to read. (I know mystery and I have a tenuous relationship, but the protagonist is a Turkish drag queen who knows Thai kickboxing. How can I not read that?) Since I knew it probably wasn’t in any of the library systems available to me and the price was good, it came home with me.

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The Sunday Salon: Comic Books


I did not grow up reading comic books, I have to admit. The only comic book store in town closed while I was in middle school, and I never really had an affinity for superheroes. Occasionally, I heard about some superheroines I quite liked the concept of, especially She-Hulk, but I never got involved.

However, I did watch Batman: The Animated Series, the fantastic Saturday morning cartoon that gave birth to Harley Quinn, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction–a smart, loony, complex, cheerful, and amoral villainess with a Queens accent and red lips. While I missed her self-titled comic that ran from 2001 to 2003, I’m currently following Gotham City Sirens, which features Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. It is admittedly hit or miss–while the writing is often delightful, the art tends to treat the female leads as simple palette swaps of each other, despite their different fighting styles and physiques. (Catwoman’s given birth, for Pete’s sake!)

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