4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster


As much as I love books, I was somewhat daunted by the colossal size of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Coming in at 1070 pages, this is not a quick read by any stretch of the imagination and has been on my ‘to be read’ pile for the past few years. However, with the lockdown situation in the UK, I finally found myself with the time to plow through this American epic. What I found was a lengthy but lovingly crafted study of America in its post war ascendancy.

We follow the life, or rather lives, of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born shortly after the close of WWII. 4 3 2 1 follows four different lives for Ferguson, with small changes in the circumstances of Ferguson’s upbringing having huge consequences for his future. Each chapter is divided into four ‘sub-chapters’, showing how Ferguson’s development alters in the different strands of his life. While he has many of the same people and places around him in each version of his life, Ferguson ends up taking a widely varied route through early childhood, school, and college over the course of the 50’s and 60’s. 4 3 2 1 shows how Ferguson, and indeed all of his generation, lived a life in the US shaped by the dramatic events of the period. The Cold War, JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam were key flashpoints in post war America, and Auster shows how the ‘baby boomers’ were strongly affected by these through his protagonist.

I enjoyed seeing a period of US history that I’ve always been fascinated by through Ferguson’s eyes. The character represents a generation leaving behind the formalities of their predecessors to embrace a new lifestyle. Each iteration of Ferguson holds the same desire to be a writer, but does so in varying ways from pursuing a career in journalism to working with a small independent publisher to have his own works published. His ambitions reflect the desire of a generation to take its new place in the world, while his mistakes and misfortunes are representative of the troubled times during this period.

From a narrative standpoint, the decision to have four separate iterations of Ferguson is an interesting one. The reader sees how these versions of Ferguson fan out from the same initial place, developing different views on the world and new relationships as a result. A lover in one section will barely be an acquaintance in another, Ferguson’s father will be a major part of his life in one section and an absentee in another. Our protagonist will seek to go to a major college in one sub-chapter, while experimenting with his sexuality in another. By the end of the book, there’s a wide contrast in the different iterations of Ferguson. It is a case of both nature and nurture, the external and internal pressures, that help to pave the way for Ferguson.

4 3 2 1 takes place in a period of great change in the US, and we see events such as the Kennedy assassination and Martin Luther King’s marches through the eyes of Ferguson. I’ve studied this period in my educational career and watched many documentaries on this period of time, but this book gave me a great appreciation for the personal impact that these events had on ordinary Americans. The assassination of JFK leaves Amy Schneiderman, a constant presence for all versions of Ferguson, in tears for one chapter, an event that proves to be a major foundation of this Amy’s personality. We also see the student protests at Columbia University in 1968, in response to the Vietnam War and plans for a racially segregated gym. The book does an excellent job of showing the human response to these events, and their impact on the American psyche, as well as how they divided society across generational and racial boundaries at the time. In this way, despite the events of the novel occurring now over sixty years ago, 4 3 2 1 feels extremely relevant to current events at the time of this review.

One thing that did surprise me, given the size of the book, is that we are only shown Ferguson’s early life through to graduating college. I assumed we would see an older Ferguson, perhaps grappling with Watergate and the return to Republican values over the 1980’s. The book instead keeps its focus on Ferguson’s formative years. While this is successful in showing how Ferguson develops into a young man, it does mean that the pace is extremely slow. There are a few hundred pages completed before Ferguson even reaches high school. The book is well written throughout, with some very memorable scenes in Ferguson’s life lovingly detailed. Acts of young love, pursuing grand ambitions, and experiencing heartbreaking loss are very poignant. Inevitably though, for a book of this size, there are a few descriptions of Ferguson’s writing influences and overly descriptive scenes that turn this epic into more of a slog.

Experience is key in 4 3 2 1 and this book was certainly an experience for me. It’s a tough book to recommend, not just for its doorstop size but also the challenging nature of the content inside. That said, if you do find yourself willing to take this book on, you’ll experience a novel that wraps itself in the history and culture of America so much that it comes close to being one of the great American novels.

Changeling – Matt Wesolowski


I’ve gushed over Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series, and its ability to subvert expectations, twice previously. The first entry in the series, Six Stories, updated the mystery genre for the 21st Century, turning a whodunnit into a true crime podcast and guiding the reader through a tragic crime from six different perspectives. This was followed up by Hydra, which traded the ‘who’ in ‘whodunnit’ for ‘why’, with the story focusing mainly on the motive for a horrifying massacre at a normal family home. For the series third entry, Changeling, Wesolowski switches things up again, but in ways I completely didn’t expect.

In this particular ‘episode’, the Six Stories podcast focuses on the case of Alfie Marsden, a seven year old boy who goes missing after his father pulls over his car near Wentshire Forest. Alfie’s father, Sorrel, is initially suspected but once proven innocent, Alfie is nowhere to be found. The forest is synonymous with unusual occurrences and tales of hidden forest folk, with some speculating that Alfie has been ‘claimed’ by the forest. Podcast host, Scott King, guides the reader through this tale from six different perspectives, seeking information from people who knew Sorrel, Sonia and Alfie, as well as those familiar with the fearsome Wentshire Forest.

From the outset, it is clear that Changeling is a different type of story to its predecessors in the series. While Wentshire Forest may initially bear a resemblance to Scarclaw Fell, the harsh woodland of the original novel with its own mysterious inhabitants, Changeling creates a supernatural environment that builds a sense of dread in any who visit. The loud bangs on every surface and mysterious shadows that lurch around feel more akin to a horror film than a mystery novel. Understanding this place is key to realising why so many theories about the disappearance of Alfie popped up, as well as why this tale was perfect for Six Stories.

Speaking of the podcast, the reader is provided with an alternate narration outside of the transcript of each individual episode. In the previous books these were presented by characters related to the mystery but for Changeling these come from the perspective of Scott King himself, as he investigates the mystery and speaks with his main investigative source. It’s fascinating to see how Scott differs as a character when not acting as the host, coming across as slightly less confidant and more subjective than his narrator persona. Including these sections helps to develop the character of Scott beyond our previous understanding of the man. It’s a welcome addition and, again, helps to set this book apart from its predecessors while also retaining the welcome format for the series.

I’ve focused heavily on the supernatural so far, but Six Stories always excels in showing the very human motivations behind crimes. This comes to the fore in this novel as we learn about the Marsden family and the conflicts within. It’s difficult to cover some of the themes that feature in this family dynamic without lessening their impact in the story. As we learn more about the family it becomes clear that the forest isn’t the only place where horrors lurk, and the full extent of this becomes quite shocking as the book goes on. As I was reading I was left surprised by how deftly Wesolowski covers sensitive topics that can resonate with any modern reader. There’s a remarkable turn from supernatural fears to psychological ones, but both are handled well by the author.

I could possibly say that I was disappointed in being able to work out the central mystery of this book at the two thirds mark (there’s a clue dropped which felt a little obvious in retrospect). However, the more I read, the more I became convinced that the real mystery wasn’t the fate of Alfie Marsden, but rather the secrets buried both in Wentshire Forest and in the Marsden family. By focusing so heavily in these areas, Wesolowski creates an ambitious, brave story that goes beyond its genre trappings.

Hydra – Matt Wesolowski


Last year, I discovered the wonderful Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski. It was a book I discovered by pure chance, but that I was utterly gripped by. A classic murder mystery told in an innovative ‘True Crime’ podcast format, where chapters are split into episodes of the podcast. It teased the truth of a shocking crime, pulling off a brilliant twist at the end. It’s an absolutely brilliant book and so it’s perhaps surprising that I ended up waiting a year to read the follow up novel, Hydra. I’ve burned through it over the past week and I’m eager to share my thoughts. I’ll try and avoid spoiling the story as much as possible but I will go into the background of the mystery a little so bear this in mind.

In 2014, 21 year Arla Macleod is found to have murdered her mother, stepfather and younger sister with a hammer at the family home. Arla is convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and is sent to a mental health institution where she is expected to stay for the rest of her life. There’s no questioning Arla’s culpability in committing the crime, but the reason for the ‘Macleod Massacre’, as it is termed by the tabloids, remain a mystery. The case gains notoriety online, catching the attention of Scott King, host of the podcast Six Stories. He interviews people who knew Arla to try to understand what caused this event to happen. However, some don’t want King investigating the murders, and start to target Scott instead…

Much like the original novel, Hydra is split six main ‘episodes’ with interludes from another character. In the original novel, this one of the characters who finds the body which starts the mystery off. In Hydra, it’s Arla herself who fills these spaces, with recordings from the institution she is in. She talks about the fears that she has, and the various ‘creatures’ which torment her. For the reader, this provides insight into Arla’s mental health, and provides context to the stories we hear about her. I won’t comment on how well Arla’s psychosis is portrayed, as I’m not in a position of experience to do that. I will say that it does convey to the reader how much the character changes from being a quiet schoolgirl to the troubled young woman we meet. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic for her, especially how she is portrayed in the media.

This focus on Arla is interesting, as it feeds into one of the main differences between this book and its predecessor: this is a not a ‘whodunnit’. There’s no dramatic reveal of another party being behind the murders. Instead, it’s more of a ‘whydunnit’, seeking to understand why the ‘Macleod Massacre’ occurs in the first place, given Arla did not have a history of violence. This might disappoint those used to the suspects being rounded up in the parlour to be denounced, but it works excellently in the podcast format. We learn about the people and places that influenced Arla and gradually build up a clearer image of what happened that night in 2014.

We also get a better understanding of Scott King, the podcast host. Hydra is an early story in the Six Stories chronology, serving as a prequel to the original novel. The podcast is relatively new, and Scott is establishing himself. It quickly becomes clear that some object to Scott ‘raking up graves’ and work to stop him. It’s fascinating to see the subtle shifts in our narrator over the course of the novel, becoming more like the more secretive host we see in Six Stories. I wrote about how much I admired the format of the podcasts in my previous review and it holds true in Hydra as well. I don’t listen to the likes of Serial but I can recognise in this novel the same style that is recognisable in so many other podcasts. Little details such as Scott addressing the audience after an interviewee reveals something really help to sell the authenticity of the experience.

Hydra is a worthy follow up novel to an excellent mystery. It succeeds in bringing new ideas while reinforcing the elements that made the original a success. If you are interested in the mystery of the Macleods, I highly recommend you give this a look.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton


I first came across The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (or seven and a half if you’re in the US) not through a recommendation but rather an article on video game website Eurogamer of all places. The article focuses on a novel that, much like a video game, is as focused on the mechanics that underpin the world as the narrative that drives the protagonist forward. It highlighted a murder mystery in which the protagonist repeats the same day over and over again, a la Groundhog Day but witnesses the day’s events from a different ‘host’ each time. As the day resets, the hosts tick down one by one, like video game lives, until none are left. After reading this overarching synopsis and the relation to various games, many of which I’ve played, I was eager to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for myself and experience this unique combination of narrative and mechanics.

Our protagonist is Aiden Bishop, but that is not how he is introduced. We initially find Bishop inhabiting the body of a doctor named Sebastian Bell. Bell is part of a mixed group of upper class socialites and their staff at the Blackheath estate, a formerly reputable manor which has lost its glamour. The same holds true of its owners, the Hardcastle family. Despite their troubles, the Hardcastles are holding a large party to celebrate the return of their daughter Evelyn. Bishop, as Bell, gradually pieces this information together but his world is shattered again when Evelyn is killed at the end of the night and he wakes at the start of the day in the body of a different guest.

Aiden is then tasked with finding out the truth of what is happening at Blackheath by a figure dressed as a plague doctor. If he brings the name of Evelyn’s killer by the end of the day, then Aiden is allowed to leave. However, others at Blackheath are also looking to escape, and there’s a footman stalking the halls to ensure no one finds out the truth…

Stuart Turton, the author, has spoken about his desire to emulate Agatha Christie with a high society murder mystery, and his novel certainly has the elements that make Christie’s most well known stories shine. There’s the sprawling manor, the family with a hidden secret, the shocking twists and turns that the narrative spins. It’s all here, but there’s also the major element that helps set The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle apart; its Groundhog Day style repetition of the day’s events.

This might sound like a gimmick when looking over the blurb, but Aiden’s long day helps to create unique and interesting scenarios. Early on, Aiden finds a note which tells him that he’s left his gloves too close to the fire. Sure enough, he turns around and finds them smouldering. It’s only later in the story that we find the one who left the note was Aiden himself, using the knowledge he gained in the first outing to warn himself, establishing a closed loop in the process. This is just a small example of the complex scenarios that play out as a result of the repeated day and ‘lives’ that Aiden possesses. Clues are found and events seen from a different angle that help piece together the truth behind the mystery. It’s an intriguing and unique set up that helps the novel stand out in the crowded mystery genre.

However, this focus on rules and mechanics underpinning the narrative can make things convoluted as well. It can be difficult to keep track of who is due to appear when in the novel, or who is aware of Aiden’s identity when he is swapping between hosts. One character who assists Aiden is Anna. She routinely speaks with Aiden while he is in different guises. Because he interacts with her at different times throughout the novel, it’s often difficult to work out exactly how much she is aware of, sometimes informing Aiden of what’s happening but also sometimes having very little knowledge of what is occurring herself. This reflects the jumbled timeline of the novel, but it can also make for a confusing read at times. The fact that some characters will only feature in one or two timelines due to their connection with the host Aiden is inhabiting makes it difficult to keep track of who’s who as well.

The primary focus of the novel is to tell a good mystery though and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle does this with good world-building. One of the most understated elements of the novel is how the Blackheath estate has echos of the grand manors of other mysteries, yet is shown in clear decay as well. Walls are crumbling, the garden is overgrown and the guests are clearly unhappy there. It creates an abrasive atmosphere that runs throughout the novel. We can understand why people are obliged to court the Hardcastles, even while recognising their gradual fall in high society. There’s a hard to describe ‘wrongness’ about that the place that sets it up well as both a murder scene and a looping prison. The author deserves credit for how memorable a location Bleackheath is.

So while The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle succeeds in establishing the unique mechanics of a time twisting adventure, does it manage to create a successful murder mystery? I’d say yes, for the most part. While the narrative can be sometimes cluttered as a result of the book’s core concept, the unorthodox approach helps to create some satisfying puzzles and conundrums that can only be created in this way. If you’re a fan of a mystery but want a new take on the genre, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is one to try out.


Forever and a Day – Anthony Horowitz


Few characters in literature have as much staying power as James Bond. With it now being sixty six years since Casino Royale was published, Bond has outlived his creator, his early post WWII routes and even the dawn of a new millennium. Plenty of taken the opportunity to pick where Ian Fleming left off and it’s Anthony Horowitz who enjoys the privilege of coming up with the newest guns, gadgets and girls for Bond. Horowitz is the preferred choice to pen Bond’s adventures after 2015’s Trigger Mortis showed that Horowitz’s love for the suave spy could easily flow out in a new adventure. For his follow up, Forever and a Day, Horowitz has chosen to move forward by going back further in time, right to the point where Bond’s 00 career begins.

After the previous 007 is killed while investigating drug smuggling in the Marseilles, Bond inherits the title and is ordered to resume the investigation and find out what his predecessor had uncovered. Bond’s investigation leads him to cross paths with the bulbous gangster Jean-Paul Scipio, as well as a former British agent turned informant code-named ‘Madame Sixtine’. Investigating these threads leads Bond to uncover a much wider conspiracy and a plan that could have devastating consequences for the world.

Horowitz picks up Bond at a much earlier stage than in Trigger Mortis. Many of the elements that make up Bond are present, his quick, slightly cynical mind judging the people and places around him in an instant. Yet it also feels as though Bond in this adventure is slightly more impulsive than the experienced agent we’ve grown used to reading. He makes mistakes and rash choices, and we see how the character is shaped by the dangerous mission he has into the spy we know. By the time we reach the book’s surprising conclusion, Bond truly feels like 007.

When I wrote about Horowitz’s previous turn writing Bond, I said that the author had to tread carefully between mimicking Ian Fleming while also acknowledging that the elements that make Bond who he is are more controversial in today’s world. It feels as though Horowitz is more willing to embrace these elements in his second turn with Bond though whether this is good would depend on the sensibilities of the reader. At one stage, Bond meets a female receptionist and is immediately wondering about her age and how she needs ‘a strong man’ to show her the world. For most modern books, this scene would be ridiculously over the top, yet it feels authentic to Fleming’s version of Bond, as well as the early 50’s setting.

That’s another interesting element to Forever and a Day. Most Bond adventures have a strong Cold War association, yet here the focus is more on post-WWII. Bond ruminates on his experiences in the conflict, and we see a version of France that is gradually recovering to normalcy. It’s a small detail, but one that I found intriguing throughout.

Forever and a Day’s prequel status allows Horowitz to play around and establish the relationship between Bond and long standing characters like Bill Tanner and M. For long time fans, it’s exciting to see how these connections are made, even they mainly serve as small moments.

Of course, Horowitz introduces plenty of original characters to the novel as well. I particularly liked the duo of Scipio and his translator, with the venom and malice of the former contrasting well with the monotone of the latter. It’s a dynamic that would be interesting to see in film. Sixtine also makes an interesting ‘Bond girl’ though the term feels ill fitting for a character who has experience over Bond, both professionally and in age. I quite liked that Bond was presented as the junior in their partnership, with plenty to learn from her.

I enjoyed Horowitz’s latest look at an iconic character. Forever and a Day sits comfortably amongst Fleming’s works, delivering a bold and punchy page turner with plenty of intrigue and thrills. The title might be Forever and a Day, but don’t wait that long to pick it up.

The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman


All good things come to an end and The Amber Spyglass is one hell of an ending to the His Dark Materials trilogy. What started out as one girl and her dæmon looking for her missing friend evolves into a universe hoping adventure involving a variety of characters old and new, fantastical places, and the development of many of the series key themes. Lyra and Will’s tale comes to a dramatic conclusion that does justice to the series as a whole, and may be the best of the lot.

Following on from The Subtle Knife, a number of different factions are coming together for an upcoming battle, as Lord Asriel attempts to destroy the being known as The Authority. Lyra is targeted as her role in the centre of this conflict is revealed. When she is kidnapped, Will sets out to rescue her with the help of some of the series most well known characters. Lyra meanwhile has an important role in uniting the different factions and protecting not just her world, but all others as well.

As the final entry in the series, The Amber Spyglass has plenty of characters to examine. While Lyra and Will remain the key protagonists, the book follows a number of characters such as Dr Mary Malone, the fiendish Mrs Coulter, small spies Tialys & Salmakia, as well as Lord Asriel himself. Having this multiple viewpoints in the book helps to flesh out these characters we have mainly seen through the eyes of our child protagonists up to this point. It’s intriguing to see Mrs Coulter’s attachment to Lyra from the older woman’s perspective, or learn more of Mary’s history. It also allows us to gain a greater knowledge of some of the series key themes, such as the connection between ‘Dust’ and original sin. This is the story that features more of an ensemble cast than its predecessors, and is all the richer for it.

Ultimately though, it very much remains Lyra & Will’s story. It’s fascinating to see how these two develop both over the trilogy and over the course of The Amber Spyglass itself. Lyra and Will are both defined by their cunning and courage, yet their childlike innocence is stripped away as they find themselves growing both mentally and physically. Both characters develop over the course of the novel, the connection between them growing deeper. It leads to a bittersweet moment of realisation for them which is a heartbreaking as it is brilliantly executed.

Pullman remains masterful at creating wonderfully realised locales, and so it is in this novel as well. From the plains where the elephantine like mulefa roam, to the harpy infested bowels of the World of the Dead, these places are striking and vivid. These, and other places from previous books, help to highlight the scale of the conflict in this book and exactly what is at stake.

The Amber Spyglass is a fitting end to the His Dark Materials trilogy. As I said when discussing Northern Lights, much of what made this series special passed me by as a child. It’s only rereading this series now that I can come to appreciate just how valuable the series is. I eagerly recommend all three books to both the young and the young at heart. As for me, I’ll be moving onto the companion trilogy, and returning to this wonderful world.


The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman


Following rapidly on from Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife expands on the dramatic conclusion of the previous book. The actions of Lord Asriel have had huge ramificationsnot just for Lyra’s world, but a whole host of other universes as well. One of those that feels the effects is our own. The Subtle Knife opens in Oxford (the real world version, rather than Lyra’s) and follows Will, a young boy who has to deal with men who raid his home looking for something left by his missing father. When this incident ends in a violent conclusion, Will runs away to find help.

However, things take a turn for the mysterious when he finds a window to another world. Desperate, Will enter and finds himself in a city where children run freely and adults are hunted by ghostly creatures known as Spectres. While searching this new land, Will comes across Lyra and Pantalaimon. Together, the two of them embark on an adventure that sees them meet up with new friends and old foes, while moving between worlds and encountering the mysterious ‘Subtle Knife’, a weapon that can cut through virtually anything, including the gaps between worlds.

The Subtle Knife focuses on expanding the lore introduced by Northern Lights. Where the original book focused on elements like dæmons and Dust, The Subtle Knife explains how the intricacies of Lyra’s world match up with others. Will suggests that Pantalaimon is a visual form of a person’s soul. It’s fascinating to see how Pullman introduced these concepts in the first book and expands them over different worlds in the second. The focus on different worlds helps to provide the book with a fresh vibrant style. In having two main protagonists covering multiple worlds, the narrative style alters as a result. This is further impacted on by chapter following other returning characters, such as Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby. All are distinctive personalities, but each of them brings something unique to the story.

This is true of Will as well. Will tends to be more cautious than Lyra, but also carries a lot of self doubt and concerns as a result of the difficult childhood he has endured. He clashes and plays off of Lyra’s more privileged upbringing, but the two come to rely on each other greatly as the book develops. I remember not liking Will’s character when I originally read the book, mainly as he seemed the opposite of the more rambunctious Lyra. However, this reading has given me a greater appreciation for the qualities that both characters share, such as their determination and desire to do the right thing. The characters do differ, but it’s those differences that helps to make their relationship so rewarding to follow.

I should also mention Mary Malone, a researcher from the ‘real world’ conducting experiments on a mysterious phenomenon. Lyra encounters her and talks to Mary about Dust, believing there may be a connection to the substance she is aware of and the one Mary researches. She’s another interesting, well developed character whose role becomes increasingly important as the true nature of Dust (or shadow particles, as Mary knows them) becomes clear. She helps guide Lyra and is a friend in an unfamiliar place for her. As for Mary’s later significance, this is something that will develop further in The Amber Spyglass.

If there is one complaint I’d have of The Subtle Knife, it’s that neither the ‘real world’ or Cittàgazze, the world where Will and Lyra meet, feel as developed as Lyra’s world. This might be inevitable, given Lyra’s world had a whole book to be developed, but we hardly glimpse outside of one city in either world. Lyra’s Oxford dissected society down to the different groups sharing the city. Neither location enjoys such analysis in this book. It’s a small negative, but one that has an impact.

It’s easy to take the success of The Subtle Knife for granted now, over twenty years after its publication, however it represented a big risk for the His Dark Materials trilogy at the time. By opening up these books to the concept of multiple worlds, the credibility built up by Northern Lights could easily have been lost. Thankfully, by creating intriguing new worlds, memorable characters and maintaining the themes that made the first book a success, The Subtle Knife successfully bridges an enthralling trilogy before arriving at a thrilling conclusion in The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights – Philip Pullman


I was around ten years old when I first tried to read Northern Lights. As one of many kids who had been caught up in Pottermania in the late 90’s/early 00’s, I devoured pretty much any book that had a fantasy setting and Northern Lights was one that I was drawn to both with it’s gorgeous cover art (still a favourite to this day) and it’s description of a world similar to our own, but with spirits and demons. I was excited at the prospect, but my young mind couldn’t grasp some of the headier concepts of the book and its focus on spiritual and religious conflict.

It wasn’t until my teenage years (still a favourite of the fantasy genre) that I gave the book another go. On a second reading I burned through Northern Lights and the rest of the His Dark Materials trilogy, gripped not just by the setting but by its colourful cast, tense and fraught plot, as well as the deeper meaning behind the story. I revisited the first book recently, partly drawn in by nostalgia but also the release of the prequel novel La Belle Sauvageas well as the news of a BBC adaptation of the book. I found that this children’s book still has plenty of appeal, even for an older audience.

Northern Lights is the tale of Lyra Belacqua, a twelve year old girl who resides in Jordan College in Oxford. Lyra’s world bears a resemblance to our own, but is a world where people have spiritual companions in the form of dæmons, a manifestation of a person’s soul. Lyra has her own dæmon, Pantalaimon, who stays by her side. One day, Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel visits and informs the scholars present about particles known as ‘Dust’ which are attracted to adults, as well as his belief that Dust is tied to parallel universes. Lord Asriel heads on an expedition north, in order to find out more about this mysterious phenomenon. At the same time, children are disappearing from Oxford, snatched by a mysterious group given the moniker ‘Gobblers’. Lyra finds herself leaving Jordan College after being given a device called an alethiometer, a sort of ‘golden compass’ which reveals truths to its holder. After spending time with the mysterious Mrs Coulter, Lyra ends up heading north, following her uncle’s footsteps in order to find out the truth behind Dust and the mysterious city seen in the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights has a complex storyline for what is ultimately teenage fiction. Setting to one side the nature of the fantasy world not far removed from our own, the clash between the scientific and the religious that runs throughout the novel (and the series) is a grand concept. Yet Philip Pullman doesn’t attempt to dumb down the themes of the novel, allowing the reader to disseminate the reactions of both Asriel and the Church to Dust and their conflicting views on what it represents. Reading the book now, it’s perhaps a little more apparent why my younger self struggled with Northern Lights, but I can appreciate the themes that underpin Pullman’s world now.

Of course, this is a fantasy novel and Pullman creates a vivid tapestry in his prose. We see a wide array of dæmons, witches, ‘aeronauts’ and, most strikingly of all, armoured bears who can talk and fight. The characters who aid and assist Lyra of the course of the book all help to give credence to this universe. All are complex characters with unique and interesting backstories which help to flesh out the concepts that Pullman introduces. The sight of a talking polar bear may seem a little absurd initially, but a complex, morose character like Iorek Byrnison helps dispel any scepticism quickly.

Still, a fascinating world can only go so far without a compelling protagonist to lead the way. Fortunately, Lyra fills this role perfectly. As a twelve year old who has been living in a luxurious college, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Lyra is… well a bit of brat, in all honesty. She can be rude, lies routinely and often disrespects authority. Yet she also has a childish naivety and enjoys a rough and tumble lifestyle with other children in Oxford, regardless of social standing. She isn’t a paragon of virtue, like the children from The Chronicles of Narnia, yet it’s hard to dislike Lyra or her honest intentions. The reader is drawn in through her vivid view of this unfamiliar world and how she brings people to her side.

Northern Lights was a joy to reread and a reminder of the universal appeal of these books (I’ve already finished The Subtle Knife and will soon move on to The Amber Spyglass). As a series, His Dark Materials may not have the pull of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but it certainly should be placed among them. If you’ve never had the chance to visit Lyra’s Oxford before, get a copy of Northern Lightand do it now!

The President is Missing – Bill Clinton & James Patterson


I should probably admit now that I’m not the biggest Patterson fan. I started off reading his Michael Bennett books, about a New York detective who juggles fighting crime with looking after his ten (!) adopted kids and navigating a ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship with an Irish nanny. It was enjoyable nonsense for awhile but the annual releases and fairly ridiculous plots ended up burning me out in the end (ironically with Burn). Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s legacy, for better and worse, is well established at this point. I imagine a book like this wasn’t on his mind around this time two years ago, but can his unique insights and Patterson’s considerable experience create something memorable?

On paper it makes sense. A political thriller that’s the product of one of the most well known thriller writers and the former President of the United States? It should be the recipe for success, but it’s unlikely this will see four more years.

The President is Missing follows President Jonathan Duncan, a troubled man at the top who’s having to deal with issues both domestic and foreign. He’s facing calls for impeachment after allowing a foreign terrorist to seemingly escape, as well as unknown threat being levelled against the country as a whole. If that wasn’t enough, Duncan has to consider the possibility that someone in his team is trying to sell him out. As the novel progresses, we see the lengths that the President has to go to in order to avert disaster, save his administration and ultimately the country.

I found that President Duncan wasn’t the most intriguing protagonist I’d ever seen in a political thriller. There’s little substance to his character, with the novel giving little away beyond a cliched ‘wanting to do what’s best for the USA’ attitude. There’s no hidden steel, like House of Cards Frank or Claire Underwood. We’re given no insight into his political affiliation either. This is somewhat understandable, with a  former Democrat President coauthoring with a right wing novelist, announcing Duncan as leader of one of the two main US parties would only alienate potential readers. That being said, it’s hard to grasp what Duncan stands for beyond an idealistic vision of America. Having the insight of a former President helps in providing some insider insight not just into the mindset of a President, but also the day to day routine. There’s definitely elements to Duncan that a writer who can only imagine being President could never grasp. Unfortunately though, there’s a listlessness to this President.

The supporting cast are fairly unremarkable too, with a cavalcade of scheming politicians, dedicated White House staff, non -descript guns for hire and a main villain written in the style of a 24 baddie who gets bumped off just before reaching the halfway point of the series. The most striking character in the novel is a beautiful female assassin (is there any other kind?) who is undoubtedly a Patterson original. She’s an ace who listens to classical music while on the job, hence the very on-the-nose codename ‘Bach’. Even this character feels fairly out of place though. There’s a jarring disconnect when a chapter focused around White House protocol with Duncan transitions to the mournful musings of Bach’s troubled past. It’s at these moments that the co-authorship feels lacklustre.

The story itself is a standard thriller, with the looming danger always close and on the President’s mind. I did have a few issues with the story though. Firstly, The President is Missing may be one of the most misleading titles I’ve seen for a book. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’re expecting the President to endure a lengthy period undercover or be the victim of a kidnapping, you’ll be disappointed. The President is Mildly Inconvenienced for a Few Hours would feel more accurate. There’s a few points where the story sags as well, with the middle of the text slowing the pace right down. Like most of Patterson’s works it’s definitely a page turner, but doesn’t quite maintain speed the whole way through.

Ultimately there’s a decent thriller in The President is Missing, but it’s lost amongst cliched twists, a less than stellar hero and unremarkable supporting cast. I don’t see re-election in the cards for President Duncan.

Six Stories – Matt Wesolowski


It’s all too rare to find a great book by chance. A while ago, I went into my local bookshop (a recurring weakness of mine). I browsed the shelves and stumbled across Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski. I was intrigued by it’s premise of a cold case brought to light by an investigative podcast, as well as being drawn in by the book’s distinctive cover. It immediately went on to my ‘to-be-read’ pile and I’ve just recently finished reading it. All I can do now is question why I didn’t read it sooner, because I absolutely loved it. A chilling mystery with a thoroughly modern premise, if you have an interest in mysteries, need something for your book club or just want to read an engaging debut from a new novelist, this is absolutely the book for you.

Six Stories is the fictional podcast that the book is set around. The podcast is hosted by amateur ‘investigator’ Scott King, who throws light on mysterious cases and unresolved events. The podcast has obvious inspirations like Serial (referenced heavily in the book) and This American Life. It provides multiple accounts of the event (the eponymous ‘six stories’) and encourages the listener to draw their own conclusions.

The case that the podcast focuses on in the book is that of Tom Jeffries, a teenage tearaway who was found dead on Scarclaw Fell, a haunting marshland in Northumberland. The body is found by Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, the son of the wealthy landowner, who is contacted by King two decades later for an interview. The coroner’s verdict had been death by misadventure, but King wants to know if there is more to the case than first reported on. The novel takes two perspectives. The first is the podcast itself, where King speaks with six people involved with Jeffries and the case in some way, gaining their perspective on the victim and events leading up to Jeffries’s death. We also follow Harry around as he looks through Scarclaw Fell, twenty years after the grisly discovery, while also recounting what happened the night he found the body while with friends.

I should write at this point that I’m not a regular podcast listener. There are a few that I tune in to from time to time but not Serial, which has such a major impact on this novel. That being said, Six Stories goes to great lengths to mimic the style of many of the major podcasts out there and it succeeds brilliantly. From the brief intro of each episode, an excerpt of the interview for that session, to King’s narrative interludes to the listener, the whole experience of these sections feels authentic. It reminds me of one of the few podcasts I have worked through, Shittown. The reader is drip-fed bits of information about the case, small details which help to create a vivid picture of the events which would lead to disaster. Friends of Jefferies and suspects in the original case all feel unique and provided varying accounts of what the teenagers were like at the time. Wesolowski has gone to great lengths to create a narrative that feels like a genuine podcast, albeit without the constant ads for web designers and mattresses thank goodness.

In contrast, the modern day exploration of the Fell with Harry adds a creeping sense of fear and dread. The case may be cold, but the reader is shown that the ghosts are alive and well with Harry. He is plagued with guilt and fear about his discovery of the body all those years earlier. Interspersed with this jaunt is the events of the night he found the corpse. The descriptions of the boy and his friends in the Woodland Centre during a stormy, fearful night is genuinely unnerving, winding down to the grisly discovery of the body. While Scarclaw Fell may be fictional, Wesolowski draws on his local knowledge to create a dramatic wilderness, untamed and frightening to explore, yet impossible not to be drawn to. By the end of the novel, I felt I could draw a rough map of what the Fell covers from the vivid description given both by Harry and in the podcast. It’s definitely a setting that stays with the reader, a prime example of the idea of ‘writing what you know’.

The mystery itself is a satisfying one, never taking any cheap twists and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from what they read. Each of King’s interviewees has their own perspective and add elements to the story or contradict what has been said previously. It all leads to a dramatic conclusion which I can’t spoil here, but serves as an excellent ending that I never saw coming. The mystery genre may be well covered, but Wesolowski’s unique take on it is novel and stands out above the rest.

So are there any issues with this novel? Only very minor gripes, like a couple of grammatical flubs which unfortunately landed in the final text. There’s also a moment where a little bit too much of the truth is revealed early on, an observation by one of King’s interviewees that felt a little forced considering the conversation taking place at the time. I won’t go into too much detail, and I still did not ‘guess’ the ending, but I remember finding it unnatural at the time.

This shouldn’t diminish a masterful debut by Matt Wesolowski though. Six Stories briefs fresh life into a well trodden genre, offering a unique perspective on a chilling mystery. This is not one to miss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read the next one. Stay tuned!