Leslie's Book Fort

Worlds full of imagination

The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman

Twelve-year-old Will Parry is on the run. His father, a retired soldier and explorer, vanished in the Arctic soon after he was born, and now mysterious men (government? military?) are after the letters that he sent to Will's mother during his last expedition. Determined to find his father or at least what happened to him, Will leaves his emotionally fragile mother with a friend. He returns to his home to find the men there, and one of them is killed. Fleeing from the house, cat lover Will follows a strange cat through a "hole" in the air, and finds himself in another world.

This is the opening to The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. In Cittagazze, a city in the spectre-haunted world where Will ends up, he meets Lyra Silvertongue, the protagonist of The Golden Compass, and they form an uneasy alliance that matures over the course of the book into a deep and abiding friendship. Will's natural gentleness, as well as the cautiousness and sense of responsibility he has been forced to develop in "parenting" his childlike mother, provide a counterweight to Lyra's weaknesses of impulsivity and recklessness, while she prods and sometimes bullies him into action, as well as giving him some of the nurturing he has lacked in his life.

Will finds himself, after a violent fight in which he is forced to kill a man, the possessor of the "subtle knife," which can, in addition to cutting through any earthly surface, also cut windows between worlds. The two children will use the knife and Lyra's alethiometer (the "golden compass" of the first book), to pursue their self-appointed quests, finding his father in Will's case and discovering more about the mysterious "Dust" in Lyra's. Along the way they are caught up in an escalating revolt against the church authorities and "the Authority" in heaven, led by Lyra's father, Lord Asriel. (I do not believe that Pullman means "the Authority" to be God, but the twisted, desiccated "God" which many people see as the "real God.")

Not only do many of the wonderful characters from the first book (Serafina Pekkala, Lee Scoresby, Mrs. Coulter) make an appearance, but several new ones who will play vital parts in the denouement of the story are also brought in, most notably Mary Malone, a physicist in our world who has lost her Catholic faith. She is enlisted by Lyra to explain the mysteries of Dust, but ends up being far more important in the scheme of things.

This is a book that is filled with adventure and heroic sacrifice, as well as friendship, loyalty, and abiding questions about good and evil.

Breathtakingly original

The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman

I can't count the number of times I've listened to (never read) this book in the past several years. I highly recommend the audio version, which is performed by the author and a full cast. I cannot praise the whole trilogy too highly. What it seems to me that Pullman is doing, essentially, is creating a secular humanist "mythology," in which an inversion of Paradise Lost, fragments of gnosticism, and the "many worlds" theory of quantum physics are among the many things that provide grist for the mill of his wonderfully creative imagination. It has also been referred to as the "anti-Narnia," although in my view that is unfair. While Pullman has been openly critical of the Narnia series and has a decidedly uncomplimentary view of organized religion in general, and his critics may certainly carp at the malignant, monolithic Church of Lyra's world, I think that he presents a positive vision for living in this world, where so many, particularly young adults, at whom the series in aimed, have been appalled at both the excesses of fundamentalism and the anemic responses of "mainstream" religion. Nor on careful reading, does he seem to me to come down definitely on one side or the other of the "God" question, as Lyra, at the end of this book, rejects the absolutism of both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.


One unique feature of Pullman's world, or at least the alternate version in which The Golden Compass is set, is that every human being is accompanied through life by a manifestation of his or her soul, usually of the opposite sex and always in animal form, called a daemon. During the early years of a person's life, her daemon can take many different forms, but during the teen years when her personality becomes fixed, her daemon will "settle" in a single form, often indicating the type of person she is. The idea of the daemon has been referred to by many as Pullman's most brilliant innovation, although of course it has roots in traditional cultures and some analogues in Jungian psychology.


Whether as an ironic nod to Narnia or not, The Golden Compass begins with a wardrobe. Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who has been placed by her uncle Lord Asriel in the care of the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford, is trapped in the retiring room and is forced to hide in the wardrobe. She hears her uncle give a presentation to the scholars about the aurora borealis and a mysterious substance called Dust, which only seems to be attracted to adults. As we learn later, the Church, a curious amalgamation of the worst elements of Calvinism and Catholicism, considers Dust to be the physical manifestation of Original Sin, and the race is on to either control it or destroy it. Lyra's quest to find her kidnapped friend Roger, to deliver the alethiometer (the Golden Compass, or truth-measurer of the title) to Lord Asriel, and to discover the nature of Dust will take her to London, through the Fen country of England, to the northern reaches of Europe, and finally into the "other world" behind the aurora.


Lyra, as it turns out, is pivotal in this struggle, and her allies include the Gyptians (Gypsies); armored bears, an intelligent and warlike species of polar bear; witches, a fierce and long-lived race of women from the far north; and Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from Texas. Her antagonists include the Church, mainly a group known as the General Oblation Board; the beautiful, seductive (to children, in a non-sexual way, as well as to adults) Mrs. Coulter, and, in the end, Lord Asriel as well. Until the middle of the second book I was unsure which "side" he was on, but that is one of the wonderful things about this series, and one of the dangerous things, to those who like their morality black and white. There is no absolute good or evil, alliances shift with events, and the reader is left to find his or her way through the maze, together with Lyra.


I believe that Lyra herself is one of the great characters in literature. She is alive, insatiably curious, passionate, and deeply flawed. At the beginning of this book, she is a "coarse, greedy little savage" in the words of her creator, and her main talents are what J.K. Rowling would call "skiving off" her lessons and lying. Her strengths are a fierce loyalty to her friends and to her sense of what is "right," a comfort in her own skin that is remarkable for someone who has received very little nurturing in her life, and a natural knack for leadership. Many people might object to her lying and defiance of authority, but of course a "good" girl would never have been sneaking into the retiring room in the first place, much less had (or survived) the other challenges that Lyra ends up facing, and even by the end of the first book she has learned and changed a great deal. Before the climax of The Amber Spyglass, she will have learned the importance of truth in a most painful way and will be well on her way to becoming a strong, passionate woman.


This is one of those books that can be enjoyed as an adventure story at a relatively early age (though not before 10 or 11 at the least, in my opinion) but read later in life as a profound commentary on good and evil, death and the soul, free will and destiny. It literally takes my breath away every time I read it.

Teaching Company Classics of British Literature

Teaching Company Classics of British Literature - John Sutherland I gave this four stars because there was a LOT of material here and it was generally handled in a competent and interesting manner, but the professor made several errors that really made me cringe. Maybe it was because he was outside of his field of specialization or because it was getting on in the course - the ones I caught, at least, were all in the last quarter - but he got quite a few things wrong about the Brontë sisters (claiming that Emily had worked as a private governess when she was the only sister who never did - she taught in a school - and that Anne was sent to the Cowan Bridge school along with the other girls are just a couple). One of the big ones, to me, at least, was his attributing the same witticism (about America and Britain being separated by a common language) to both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in subsequent lectures. I'm not sure which one said it, but Wilde said much funnier things and I'm sure Shaw did as well.


Longbourn - Jo Baker Finally - a fresh, original take on Jane Austen. This is the "Downstairs" to Pride and Prejudice's "Upstairs" - the story of the servants at Longbourn, who have their own lives and dramas with surprisingly little reference to the family that employs them. Now, however, as with anything fresh and original, we will have to brace ourselves for an onslaught of inferior imitations.

Open Heart

Open Heart - Elie Wiesel In June of 2011, author, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize honoree Elie Wiesel learned that he was in imminent danger of a heart attack and that he would need emergency open-heart surgery. Open Heart is his account of the experience.

In this short but beautiful book, Wiesel recounts not only the surgery itself and its aftermath, but the memories, questions and doubts that assail him as he faces his own mortality. He thinks of his family, both those he has lost and those who surround him and support him in the present. This remarkable man, who has spent his life speaking for those who died in the Shoah and oppressed people everywhere, wonders if he has done enough, or too much. “All of us who have fought the battle [against fanaticism],” he concludes, “must now admit defeat.”

As he confronts the possibility of his own death, he also wrestles (as Jews have done since the time of Jacob) with his relationship with God and the meaning of the religious observances he still performs, despite the “theological scandal” of Auschwitz and the atrocities that have happened since. In the end, however, he still holds to his belief “in man in spite of man,” and though he feels essentially unchanged by his experience, “I now know that every moment is a new beginning, every handshake a promise.”

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes: 37 Short Stories Plus a Complete Novel - Sidney Paget,  Arthur Conan Doyle My first-ever edition of Sherlock Holmes!

The Exploits of the Second Mrs. Watson

The Exploits of the Second Mrs. Watson - Michael Mallory A very entertaining collection of stories featuring Amelia, the never-named second Mrs. Watson, the only reference to whom, in the canon, is a somewhat peevish note by Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" that "The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association." While the problems are interesting and the obviously tense relationship between Amelia and Holmes can be amusing, the writing leaves a lot to be desired, especially for those of us who are used to the good doctor's polished prose.


Rosings - Karen Aminadra An interesting take on Anne de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy's seemingly insipid, sickly cousin from Pride and Prejudice. I know that I always thought there might be some hope for her if only she could get out from under the thumb of her mother.

There are actually a lot of things to like about this book, despite my initial misgivings upon reaching the first instances of awkward writing within the first few pages. However, that, along with some things that I don't find quite believable, as well as the fact that everyone in the book is on first-name terms with one another, including Anne and a man who is old enough to be her father, which would be unheard of in that day and age, is enough to keep it from a 4-star rating for me.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle Probably one of the best, if not THE best, of all the short story collections.

Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt (MP3 Book) - Barbara Mertz, Lorna Raver Maybe it was because I was listening to this, but I had a lot of trouble staying with it, and I love Ms. Mertz's novels. I also enjoyed her other book on ancient Egypt, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs.

Shadow People

Shadow People - James Swain Just some random thoughts. I want to like these books more than I do, but I just can't make the connection with any of the characters. Maybe it's picky, but one thing that annoys me, as it does in every book that uses it, is the witch who is "descended from the original Salem witches," which I just find incredibly offensive, given that those people were innocent and would probably be appalled by the suggestion that they actually were witches, even "good" ones. Maybe it will cause some conflict in future books, but I find the character of Holly, one of the aforementioned witches, to be positively creepy and stalkerish, and her attempt to compel Peter to have sex with her, if the genders were reversed, would be considered attempted rape - it certainly doesn't seem like any kind of real love to me. Yet at least one of the other characters insists to Peter that he is REALLY in love with Holly, because of course he's too stupid to know his own mind. Not to mention that the "rhymes" she uses when casting her spells are positively painful.

Lessons In Stalking... Adjusting To Life With Cats

Lessons in Stalking... Adjusting to Life with Cats - Dena Harris Very cute, and easy for a cat owner to identify with. The formatting was kind of screwy, though - page numbers kept showing up in the middle of text.

Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel

Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel - Talia Carner Esther Kaminsky is a young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girl growing up in Jerusalem in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Allowed by her indulgent father to attend a secular school, she discovers that she has artistic talent, but her strict religious training defines the drawings and paintings she loves to create as graven images. So begins Talia Carner’s novel Jerusalem Maiden, and this conflict between her joy in her talent and the obligations imposed on her by her faith will haunt Esther through the rest of the book.

This is no simple coming-of-age story with definitive choices and an easy ending for all concerned. Life in the Haredi community is hard and constrictive, especially for a girl who wants something besides a life bearing sons to bring the Messiah, but it is also comforting and secure. Despite her questioning nature, Esther still must fight against the conditioning of her upbringing, as well as the superstition that makes her see any misfortune as a punishment for her wayward behavior.

Moving from Jerusalem to Jaffa and then to post-WWI Paris, Jerusalem Maiden paints a vivid picture of life in those turbulent years, the hardships and the joys, and the difficult and complex choices that this spirited young woman faces in her quest to remain true to herself.

Kiwi in Cat City (Kiwi Series, #1)

Kiwi in Cat City (Kiwi Series, #1) - Vickie Johnstone While I'm aware that I'm not actually part of the book's target audience, it doesn't impress me even by the standards of children's literature. It's a nice little story but very unfocused, the word coinages (catizens, catsquaddies, catema [cinema], caticopters) are way too cutesy for my taste, and there are way too many loose ends. Maybe they will be cleared up in future installments, but I was left as mystified at the end about what was going on as at the start.
Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes - Charles Prepolec,  Kim Newman,  Kevin Cockle,  Lawrence C. Connolly,  Simon Clark,  Paul Kane,  William Meikle,  Tom English,  Christopher Fowler,  J.R. Campbell I would have given this book three stars, but I found the last story to be just so excruciatingly long and dull that it knocks a star off for me. It seems that a lot of reviewers don't agree with me, since quite a few seem to be citing that story as the best, but I kept wondering if it would ever end. De gustibus non est disputandum!

Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds

Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds - Steve Hayes, David Whitehead This is one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did. I didn't really feel that the author really captured the essence of Holmes and Watson, and the third person narration didn't help. Then there was the time frame issue, which really bugged me. Holmes and Watson met in 1881 and Jesse James, who makes an appearance, died in April of 1882, and yet Watson thinks at one point "in all the years he had known Holmes..." Really?

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