Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth – Masterful Storytelling

Lynn:  Ask a reader what they are looking for in a book and you will get a myriad of answers. Some want to be informed, others seek to be uplifted, diverted, or entertained. Some readers want a thriller, or a mystery, while others want romance, a good laugh, or a satisfying cry. But I am convinced that what is basic to all readers is the love of story. There are few writers working today who tell a better story than Philip Pullman. Since The Golden Compass (Random/Knopf, 1995) burst into the children’s book world, Pullman has enthralled readers. He has also challenged, enraged, confused, and astonished readers at times but his richly inventive books have never failed to weave a story like no other.

His latest, The Secret Commonwealth (Random/Knopf, 2019) has just published and I dropped everything else to read it. I will admit to groaning when I first got it and discovered that it was 633 pages long! As a book reviewer with towering stacks of books waiting to be read, that 633 pages meant that 3 other books got pushed way back in the queue! But Pullman worked his magic again and I was snared from the first word, sinking with exquisite pleasure back into Lyra’s world. I speak from the heart here when I say that I was immediately deeply immersed in the story. 633 pages flew by. I hated having to put the book down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, and found every reason to return to it. I’m thinking about it still. Philip Pullman is a master storyteller and this book should not be missed.

Plot??? I can’t begin to do it justice. Let’s just say that this is 8 years after The Amber Spyglass (Random/Knopf, 2000) and 20 after the events of La Belle Sauvage (Random/Knopf, 2017). Lyra is now 20, a student at St. Sophia’s College, and deeply miserable because she and her daemon Pantalaimon have quarreled seriously and are barely speaking to each other. Can you hate your own soul? Authoritarianism is rising, there are desperate immigrants fleeing horrors in their homeland, once benign governments shaping information to manipulate their citizens, brutal terrorists, and cynicism and scorn rule. There are journeys and mysteries, love and sacrifice, hope and despair, good people and bad, and of course, the question of the secret commonwealth. This is a magnificent sweeping story and I loved every word. There is also a whopping cliff-hanger that has left me bereft as I try to calculate how long I have to wait till the next book. This reader cannot wait.

Cindy: A few weeks ago, before even realizing that The Book of Dust, book 2, was imminent, I showed the HBO His Dark Materials book trailer to my 8th graders before book talks. Every copy of The Golden Compass circulated, something I hadn’t achieved through my booktalks. The first episode of the HBO series airs November 3rd. Then Lynn alerted me to her reserved library copy of The Secret Commonwealth and I ordered the audiobook immediately. I am happily immersed in the story, about halfway through, and can’t wait to get back in my car each day. Lyra and Pantalaimon’s arguments are fierce and heartbreaking and the narration makes them come painfully to life. Michael Sheen did such a beautiful job narrating La Belle Sauvage that I knew I wanted to listen again. It will take me longer to read it, but as Lynn said, we don’t want this story to end.

New Fantasy Series Starts for Middle School Readers

Lynn: According to our middle school book club readers, there are NEVER too many fantasy series to keep them busy! Yup – they are a bottomless pit of fantasy eagerness. I’m sure you have readers like ours so I’m happy to suggest some brand new series that will delight our readers and yours. Of course this also means they will be bugging us all for the next book in the series the MINUTE they finish the first one!

Anya and the Dragon (Houghton/Versify, 2019) by Sofiya Pasternack

What would it hurt to help the Tsar’s people kill the scary river dragon? Anya thinks it would be worth it to save her family’s home and farm from being taken over for unpaid taxes. Her soldier father hasn’t been heard from and Anya’s Jewish family is often harassed by the villagers. But then the dragon saves Anya’s life and he turns out to be young and nice! What should she do? Pasternak fills her debut fantasy with creatures from Slavic and Jewish folklore and sets this exciting tale in an alternate Kievan Rus.

Touches of humor balance the more serious subjects of antisemitism and oppression. Anya is a strong and determined heroine and Pasternak’s dragon is fresh, inventive and easy to care about. A well-drawn cast of characters and the friendships with newcomer Ivan and the dragon are central to this tale of a lonely girl taught to avoid notice. There’s plenty of danger and adventure here and readers will be eager for the next installment.

 

 

The Changeling (Algonquin, 2019) by William Ritter

A goblin creeps into a nursery with a changeling who is desperately important to the magical world of the Wild Wood. But something goes wrong and he ends up leaving both babies in the nursery. Everyone knows one of the babies is a changeling but it is impossible to tell them apart and Annie Burton raises the twins, loving them both with her whole heart. 13 years later a mysterious letter arrives that leads the twins into the Wild Wood. There they encounter a fantastical array of magical beings including an annoying shape-shifting little girl, a hinkypunk and the Thing.

SO much fun with just the right amount of scariness and ultimate reassurance about the boundless capacity of love and family. I cannot wait to see where this leads next.

 

The Last Chance Hotel (Scholastic, 2019) by Nicki Thornton

Seth dreams of being a great chef like his father who left long ago. But for now he is a kitchen boy at the remote Last Chance Hotel, owned by the cruel Bunn family who take advantage of the lonely boy. Now an important gathering of magicians is taking place at the hotel and the Bunn’s are desperate to please the important guests. Seth creates a fabulous dessert especially for the most illustrious guest, Dr. Tallomius. The magicians meet in secret behind locked doors and Seth hopes his dessert will win him a ticket out of the Last Chance. But when the door are flung open, Dr. Thallomius lies dead on the floor and Seth is the chief suspect.

A little Agatha Christie, a little Harry Potter, but mostly this fun magical mystery is entirely its own original and entertaining story. Lots of engaging characters including a talking cat and a whole school of red herrings!