A Month in Books: January

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Us by David Nicholls (2014, Hodder & Stoughton)
Us is the story of Douglas Petersen. On the eve of a tour of Europe to mark his son Albie’s completion of school and start of college with his wife, Connie, she tells him she wants a divorce. But she still wants to go on the holiday. Douglas is convinced that if the trip goes amazingly well, he can win back his wife and his son’s affections. Of course, what happens is a comedy of errors across Europe’s cultural capital.

As in his hugely popular One Day, Nicholls is great at writing relationships. As Douglas wonders about the state of his relationship; we see his relationship with Connie from the night they met through the ups and downs of their marriage. It is easy to see what attracted them to each other; her artistic exuberance being a breath of fresh air for him, his steadiness being a breath of fresh air for her. Whilst I did sometimes query how they lasted quite so long, Nicholls’ exploration of their relationship just feels very true. The same is true of his unpicking of the complicated relationship between Douglas and Albie, a mess of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The characters are neither likeable nor unlikeable, they’re just very real.

Outside of this, I will say the ‘Grand Tour’ plot was just a lot of light relief; from accidentally being arrested to Albie hooking up with an anarchic accordion player. It was fun, but not really anything more than that.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017, David Fickling)

When Philip Pullman announced he was writing a new book, I was very excited, and to hear that he was returning to the world of His Dark Materials just made me anticipate it even more. Fortunately, La Belle Sauvage is so, so worth the wait.

It takes place prior to the events of Northern Lights, and follows Malcolm, a young boy who works in his parents pub, The Trout, who becomes fascinated by the baby Lyra who is sheltering at the nearby Abbey and who seems to be the centre of intrigue. When a great storm comes, Malcolm finds himself having the responsibility of keeping Lyra safe.

Reading La Belle Sauvage in someway reminded me of the feeling I got when I watched Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; it was just a delight to be back in a world that I recognised so fondly. Pullman’s alternative Oxford, with its daemons and magical elements, remains so vivid, and retains so much depth. This novel also offers a real insight into how the world order that is recognisable from His Dark Materials was created; the way that the Magistrium’s religious fingers managed to enter all aspects of society. The League of St Alexander, which sees children reporting heresy on the part of teachers, parents & other adults, was particularly sinister and obviously has its roots in real world totalitarianism.

Another one of the delights of La Belle Sauvage is getting to see characters that play a central role in His Dark Materials in cameo (Lord Asriel, Coram van Texel etc); but the new characters are fun to discover too. Malcolm is an engaging protagonist; he’s smart without being ridiculous, and I liked that Pullman showed his vulnerability at times too. Alice, who works as a potwasher in The Trout and ends up being pulled into the mystery, is again an interesting character who is hiding a lot more vulnerability than first appears. I did wish that we could learn more about her, but as the story is really Malcolm’s we don’t spend as much time with her as I’d have liked. I also really liked Hannah Relf, the academic who serves as Malcolm’s entry to the mysteries around Lyra. It was nice to see a talented woman in academia play a central role, and I’d like to see her pop up again in the series. The antagonist is also horrendously evil, and I also hope we get to find out more about how he figures into the story later on.

I really loved La Belle Sauvage, I basically didn’t want it to end, and cannot wait for Pullman to release the second part.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight (2015, Quercus)

I was pretty excited to read this. As a chronic worrier and someone who definitely cares too much about what other people think, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck seemed like a must-read.

However, whilst I appreciated some of Knight’s advice, and a Fuck Budget is definitely a thing that I will be bearing in mind; a lot of the advice just seemed…harsh to me. This is probably a sign that I missed the message of the book, but it occasionally felt a little too self-involved and almost too mean for me to really follow all of the messages in this book.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014, Picador)
The Miniaturist attracted a mad amount of attention upon its release a couple of years ago, but for some reason I never actually picked it up. With the BBC adapting this for television over Christmas, I finally picked up the book so I can watch the adaptation.

The Miniaturist is the story of Nella, who is married off to an older, wealthy merchant, Johannes, and is propelled from her country life to Amsterdam. However, rather than a loving welcome from her husband, Nella instead is met by his formidable sister Marin, their servant Cornelia and Johannes’s African servant Otto. In an attempt to bridge the gap between them, Johannes purchases Nella a cabinet house which begins to take on a life of its own; potentially even predicting events.

I know next to nothing about 16th century Netherlands, and I did really like this insight into life for the wealthy, who were involved in the trade that made the country rich. I also found the importance of faith in many people’s lives to be really interesting; and Burton writes interestingly about people of minority genders, races and sexuality during a time that is allegedly enlightened.

In terms of characterisation, I did feel like The Miniaturist fell into a trap where the main character is incredibly bland and you just want to spend more time with the more interesting secondary characters. Nella is just a bit dull, and goes through a very speedy character transformation towards the end of the novel. I found Marin, Johannes and even Agnes Meermans, one half of a couple desperate to make money of the sugar trade, to be far more intriguing and I was slightly disappointed that Burton chose to use Nella as the protagonist.

The Miniaturist is very readable, and I’m excited to watch the series as it feels ripe for adaptation. Although it was page-turning, particularly toward the end, I did see pretty much all the major plot points coming a mile off which I think potentially detracted from how engaged I was in the story. I also found the magical realism of the miniaturist herself was just a bit…strange and was not really resolved. I felt that aside from being a good way into the story, that element was a bit unnecessary (and I love doll houses).  In all though, this is engaging read and I’m excited to read more of Burton’s work.

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