Over- and under-rated

Each week the Guardian Review asks an author a similar set of questions, collectively called “The Books That Made Me.” Some of the authors I’ve even heard of.

Two of the categories are: The book I think is most overrated, and The book I think is most underrated.

What would you say?

I don’t know what your answers would be, but:


I don’t deny that Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series has many good qualities. It is exciting, using ancient themes in new, often enthralling, ways. There are scenes of horror and pity (the death of Tony Makarios, for example) that haunt the reader. Many of the characters are lively and involving (although there are too many of them, and Mrs Coulter’s behaviour remains baffling.) The concept of the soul/daemon is entertaining, although I don’t find it as rewarding as some.

Obviously as a Christian I’m going to say “But.” And I do. But I don’t just think it’s religious prejudice to find the plot confusing (could you describe it?) with a grotesque number of coincidences and non-sequiturs. The most preposterous is perhaps the death of Will’s father, for no sensible reason, just after they’ve finally met.  More crucially, it was never plain to me why all of creation is changed forever because Lyra falls in love, something many people have done before her. (She is the subject of prophecy. Huh. I never think it’s fair to insert apparently inspired prophecy into a story without some Being doing the inspiring. This may be a spoiler for one of the Tales from Ragaris.)

And as the anti-God epic for today’s youth HDM does not play fair. It starts with shades of grey: the likeable academics try to murder Lord Asriel (why?) We’re on Lyra’s side as she saves his life. The first book ends with Lord Asriel murdering a child, apparently in order to start a Holy War against God – and also because he wants to explore the forbidden, and people have a right to do this. Well…

By the time we’ve reached the end of the saga, we are ultimately invited to overlook his crimes because his cause is so just. Except it isn’t. The horrific cruelty at Bolvangar was not sanctioned by the Magisterium, but was carried out by a rebellious inner cult. The Magisterium in Lyra’s universe is indeed cruel and domineering – and sexist – but we aren’t given any real evidence that its equivalent in other universes is doing anything like this. Pullman is inviting his readers to equate a murderous tyranny with all churches, everywhere, all the time.

I don’t find Lyra quite as adorable as many readers, and more seriously I don’t find her adorable enough to explain why so many characters risk their lives for her sake when they’ve only just met her.

And the title is incomprehensible.

On the other hand…

When my children were small, I came across several examples of the rarely-reviewed Lift-the-Flap genre. One of the most sensibly sturdy – because you lift a whole page each time – is Gus Clarke’s “Ten Green Monsters.” This delightful saga, like HDM, takes a well-known legend (ahem, song) and plays with it.

“Ten green monsters standing on the wall/Ten green monsters standing on the wall/But if one green monster should accidentally fall…” Why are the monster children falling off one by one? Look closely… and watch the gang solve the crime.

Is it a detective story, a graphic novel, an ensemble character drama, or a spot-the-difference game? It’s all of them, and I’m not kidding.

I can’t understand anyone over three not being charmed by this book, which withstands many reads, and I also cannot understand why it isn’t as famous as say “The Gruffalo.”

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS I owe everyone a humble apology for the failure of the Blog to appear on its proper date last Friday. It was just a busy week, sorry!

PPS. As part of the Book Bingo I mentioned a few weeks ago, I would like to read William Horwood’s “Skallagrigg.” (Category: a friend’s favourite book.) Judith Renton, could you lend me a copy?

  • Judith Leader

    2nd July 2021 at 5:38 pm Reply

    The only book I have read by Phillip Pullman is his one about Grimm’s Fairy tales, rather dark but very interesting.

    What puzzles me is as you obviously don’t like the books much, and I must admit they do sound dire, why do you read them. This is a genuine question because you obviously have a reason and I don’t understand. To read one sounds unfortunate to read two ……..

    • Stephen Sheridan

      2nd July 2021 at 6:07 pm Reply

      It may be the “sunk cost” paradox: you invest time and money in something that is supposed to be good and when you don’t feel it, instead of just dumping it you persevere in the hope that the brilliance will reveal itself later. This often applies to watching films in the cinema – you are so invested in the seat that you feel rooted to it and you don’t want to disturb the others. Fortunately a few years back I broke out of this trap and have had a few satisfying walk outs with Eyes Wide Shut being my most happy exit straight to the pub!

  • Stephen Sheridan

    2nd July 2021 at 6:01 pm Reply

    You make good points about HDM.
    I read the HDM trilogy when I was a rabid atheist and while I persevered to the end, I found it derivative, nonsensical, pretentious and portentous.
    The many worlds set-up with the prime one teaming with airships was grabbed out of Michael Moorcock’s The Nomad of Time trilogy. The Magisterium had no substance – it was apparently a religious organisation, but we learned little or nothing about its theology or ideology except that it desired power and was evil. The daemon concept didn’t really work, because it wasn’t really clear how the physical manifestation interacted with the physical world. In a world where such spirit creatures existed – it would be a massive field of research, ideology and philosophy, but that didn’t seem to have happened. I really felt this credibility gap on how the Daemons worked in the battle scenes.
    It doesn’t make any worthwhile moral or philosophical point in its tale, it simply sets up a straw-man religious bureaucracy as evil and knocks it down. In summary it just felt like the author was working out his prejudices in novel form, but in doing so he simply revealed his own bigotry against those he considers bigoted.

    I was puzzled how it came to be so highly regarded, but I suspect its popularity was due to it being considered the next step up from Harry Potter for the privileged children of the bien pensant bourgeoisie. It was the fashion. Then again don’t get me started on Harry Potter!

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