Home Books What I read in: November 2019

What I read in: November 2019

by Ellie Hopgood

As you’ve probably gathered from a few of my recent posts, I spent the second half of November in Indonesia. I took this trip as an opportunity to work through a few of the series I’d been planning to read for a while, but never seem to find the time for as I’m always drawn to my huge pile of unread non-fiction books. I don’t read a lot of young adult books, but I have always loved the Hunger Games movies and have been curious about the books for some time. Also, should I end up writing a novel at some point, I have a feeling that it will include some dystopian elements and so I’m starting to read more dystopias to familiarise myself with the genre. I also ploughed through the His Dark Materials trilogy, prompted by the release of the new BBC adaptation. Before leaving for Indonesia, I read a few more books about politics and climate change, but I’m so glad I decided to only read novels on my trip – non-fiction will always have my heart, but there’s nothing like getting lost in a good story.

Out of the Wreckage – George Monbiot

This quick read was a very perfunctory explanation of why we are in such a dire state and what might be done about it. Out of the Wreckage discusses democracy, local politics, consumerism and neoliberalism, and suggests “the politics of belonging” as an alternative to our current way of doing things. If you read a lot of political writing, this book is unlikely to blow your mind, but it is a decent look into what’s going wrong in the world at the moment. If anything, I think Monbiot could have pushed his arguments further, with more rigorous analysis and a stronger call to action. The topics he covered were just too large for such a short book, which means that, while interesting, I didn’t feel like it went far enough beneath the surface.

Don’t Even Think About It – George Marshall

There are so many angles through which we can try to understand climate change. We can view it through the lens of science, social justice, economics, inequality, racism, feminism, technology, philosophy and, as Marshall attempts, psychology. I have been crying out for a book like this! Climate change is caused by people, and will only be addressed by people in the next ten years. The reasons that we deny the science, or do nothing despite accepting the science, are paramount to understanding how to make change.

Most climate change books focus on all the bad things that are going to happen and why we should be afraid. Not only does this book not do that, it also breaks down exactly why these narratives are unhelpful. Marshall speeds through the psychology of climate denial, effective climate change communications and why prominent activists are still frequent flyers. Each chapter is very short, which did break up the flow a little for me; I would have preferred fewer, longer chapters that joined up his many ideas in a more cohesive way. Nevertheless, I think the psychology angle is often sorely missing from climate change activism, and this is a great book for starting that discussion.

Fences and Windows – Naomi Klein

Yes, I’m continuing to work my way through Klein’s back catalogue. Fences and Windows is a collection of essays and speeches from around the turn of the century, a period which Klein spent protesting and reporting on the anti-globalisation movement. This book is chock full of short essays on corporate power, trade, globalisation, neoliberalism and consumerism.

These essays were interesting, and I loved how international they were; Klein’s work has always seemed truly global in a way that many journalists don’t quite manage. But really, they were too dated at this point to truly pack a punch. As Klein emphasises, these articles were written while hiding from police or traversing the Americas, offering a timely, powerful insight into the massive anti-globalisation protests. Almost twenty years later, the urgency of the essays does not translate as well. I read this book because I love Klein’s writing and I wanted to read more about globalisation and consumerism – while this book technically delivered, I am definitely looking for something more current.

It was also sad to see how relevant these issues remain today. I mean, what happened to these movements? Here is a whole book detailing a global movement against increasing corporate power, full of passion and urgency. Now, these issues remain pertinent as ever, but there are no global protests about them anymore. It makes me worry that caring about climate change will follow the same path.

Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

Who else is watching the new BBC adaptation? I am! In fact, it was only after being so thoroughly sucked into the new TV show that I decided to pick up the trilogy again. I read Northern Lights in my early teens, but got bored somewhere in the Subtle Knife and promptly forgot about this series. The excellent new adaptation changed that (as I’m sure was the idea). The great thing about being enthralled by a book-to-screen adaptation is that I don’t have to wait weeks to find out what happens – I can pick up the book and gorge myself on the rest of the story in a matter of hours.

This book is wonderful. As I think I’ve mentioned in every book review post of the last three months, I am constantly awed by the creativity of epic fantasy authors. I love the dæmons and the armoured bears and the alethiometer. I love the world Pullman has built and Lyra’s epic journey. I also got the bonus joy available to only a few readers of being able to place all the locations and collegiate customs immediately from my own experiences growing up in Oxford and studying at Cambridge. It made the reading experience all the more rich.

Without sharing any spoilers, the section that cut me the most deeply was when Lyra found Tony by the lake holding the dried fish. Broke my heart. Pullman does a fantastic job of conveying the absolute cruelty of the Gobblers’ activities. I am so glad I picked up these books again!

The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman (SPOILERS!)

This is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which the above-reviewed Northern Lights is the first. There were parts of this book I loved, namely the existence of multiple worlds and the subtle knife itself, which is a knife that can open doorways into other worlds with one edge and cut through any material like butter with the other. While the Subtle Knife is clearly the sequel to Northern Lights, the focus on all the new worlds does make it feel like an entirely different story. Pullman spent a whole novel building this incredible world of magical creatures and customs in Northern Lights and made it feel all-encompassing, an effect which is lost – and cannot be recreated – when that rich world fades to become one of many. It also set Pullman the task of building multiple worlds with fewer pages dedicated to each. For this reason, much of the book feels transitional, as the author sets up this strange new paradigm and slots the mysteries of the first book into the bigger picture. For these same reasons, the story starts to focus less on Lyra, as the other main protagonist Will enters the picture and all his plotlines need to be given thorough explanation too. I was most invested in Lyra’s story by far – even at the end of the book – so the sections that barely concerned her struggled to keep my interest. She is great main character and the story suffers when her role is diluted.

I also struggled to understand what Dust actually is. Each world has its own name for the mystical substance, and our world (which is where Will is from) calls them Shadow particles, or dark matter. Now, dark matter is a real thing, so I found myself wondering whether or not Pullman meant that the dark matter as we know it is Dust, or whether he had just borrowed the term on the assumption that most people know very little about it. Regardless, the more I learned about Dust, the more confused I became about what it is and what it does, which seems a little backwards. The Subtle Knife is a solid book but it is not as a strong as its predecessor and suffers from many of the issues and inconsistencies that come to plague the series’ final book.

The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman (SPOILERS!)

This is the conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy. Before I launch into my proper review, I would like to draw the distinction between my thoughts on the plot and whether or not I generally enjoyed the story. I think this book has a lot of plot holes, and pales in comparison to Northern Lights. That being said, I did enjoy it. By the third book in the series, I was invested, and I was happy to hang out in Pullman’s world(s) for a little longer, even if I found specific scenes or storylines farfetched. A few of the reviews I’ve read suggest that the various issues with the story ruined the book entirely for those readers, so I wanted to make clear that I did enjoy the read – and indeed the entire series – tremendously, even if I had some general reservations.

This book has too many characters. As I said in my above review of the Subtle Knife, Lyra has always been the protagonist for me, and I miss her in the sections where she is absent. Also, the huge cast of characters all having slightly different adventures means that it takes forever to move the story on. By the time you’ve revisited each character and got an update on their journey, fifty pages has passed but the story is at a standstill. This book would have been better if it had been simpler, not just regarding the characters and plot but the overarching themes too.

The big theme of this book, which the whole series has been building too, is that religion is evil. His Dark Materials is designed as an indictment of the church, and the Catholic Church, specifically. However, religion is largely absent from the series. Even the most dedicated members of the Magisterium do not seem to attend church, or pray, or make decisions based on their Christian faith. The entire series is based on the premise that religion is the worst, but religion is almost nowhere to be found in the characters’ societies, which feels a little discordant as Lord Asriel is planning to wage a multiverse war against God. The book is building to this enormous crescendo, but the basis for all the drama is hard to find in the text itself. We are told it is there, but we can’t see it.

It just didn’t flow. Huge obstacles kept being set up to foil Lyra – the bomb and Father Gomez being the most notable to me – but they were dealt with in a matter of a few seconds after chapters of build-up, and the war itself passed far too quickly. The many, many pages of Mary and the mulefa were unnecessary and dragged those sections down. I can’t imagine how challenging it is to wrap up such an epic story, but even with that leeway, it’s impossible to ignore that this book has major issues.

One thing I wish dearly is that Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel had received a bit more airtime. I felt like they had great chemistry, and although these are books for young people and have to stay fairly PG – though the passage where Asriel threatens to gag her and she tries to goad him into doing it was clearly written for the adult readers – I think more could have been done to explore their twisted love story. Also, I wish there had been a final meeting between Lyra, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter. It seems a shame that they both fell into the abyss and she just shrugs and moves on – they were her parents, and she had complicated relationships with both of them that deserved more closure. However, this gripe comes from a place of finding these characters fascinating and wanting more of them, which is really a credit to Pullman.

I agree with other reviews that Lyra was different, softer almost, by the end of the book. The bratty, headstrong, brave girl from the first book is unrecognisable, though I am conflicted as to whether this is poor character development on the part of Pullman or if it’s just Lyra growing up and becoming less impulsive. Regardless of my questions and criticism, I will say that I’m glad I read the whole trilogy and that there were parts of all three books that I enjoyed immensely. The first book in particular is a masterpiece. I just feel like, by the final novel, Pullman had lost control of his worlds a little, and it shows. Still definitely worth a read.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I continue to be both awed and disgusted by this premise, which is what drew me in to read these books now as an adult and has seen me watch each of the films multiple times. It doesn’t matter how many times I consume the story, kids being forced to kill each other for the entertainment of the elite is boundless in its cruelty. The prose is clean and efficient, which suits Katniss, and I think Collins has paced this book to perfection. This all being said, I also think that the movies are worthy representations of the books, and these books are definitely pitched to the young adult audience. This might be sacrilege, but I think that if you’re an adult who wants to hear the story of the Hunger Games, the movies will suffice.

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Again, I love the premise, and I think the plot is fantastic and revealed at the perfect pace. Catching Fire is my favourite movie of the four, because, as with the first book, I find the idea of the Quarter Quell so memorable in its barbarity. I will say that, by virtue of reading the books from Katniss’ perspective, you do get more of a sense of her internal monologue and just how awful it is to be expected to murder these people you otherwise quite like. But Katniss was a lot more tiresome in this instalment, because of her obsession with Peeta. Maybe it’s just because I know the films so well and always found Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta to be fairly bland, but I can’t cope with her throwing away chances and moments and plans solely to protect this dude. This might sound cruel, but I don’t think Collins makes him interesting enough to deserve her obsession.

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins (SPOILERS)

Katniss is at her peak of being annoyingly concerned with Peeta in this book. I found it so tiring. I understand that she feels tied to him in some way, as anyone would given what they’ve experienced together, but it felt so much out of duty than real love and yet she was behaving as if he was the most important person to her on the planet. It was also disappointing to be reminded of just how much she was isolated from the war. I found myself wondering what this period would have looked like from Haymitch’s perspective. Yes, she played an important role in encouraging the districts, but she has little to do with taking the Capitol at the end of the book and her whole secret mission to kill Snow seems to only serve to kill her friends, because not only does she not kill Snow then but her private mission has little to do with the broader military plans for bringing down the Capitol.

Also, not to get too fangirl, but I did not think that the explanation for choosing Peeta over Gale was satisfactory at all. I have always been team Gale. He was her partner, someone she chose to love without needing the Hunger Games to force a twisted romance upon them, and the idea that she would choose Peeta – who had spent most of the book trying to kill her – over Gale because he had some involvement in designing the bomb that Coin used to kill Prim, even though he had no idea that she would do that at the time and she wasn’t doing it to weaponise Gale’s bomb specifically, does not make sense to me. They all had a part to play in the war, designing weapons and coming up with strategies and killing people in cold blood. I don’t think Katniss would have held this against him; it was Coin’s fault anyway, and she did it deliberately. The text even says that it was clearly a calculated move on Coin’s part to put thirteen-year-old Prim in the front lines of battle.

However, even if I think Gale was a better match for her than Peeta (or that an even more fitting conclusion would be Katniss ending up alone), I do think Collins nailed the ending. That final paragraph is perfect.

What should I read next month?

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