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.

Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.