The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I loved this book, and even more importantly, my darling hubby liked this book. I give him about 12 to 20 books a year to read, after I have read and liked them, and think he might like them, and he only likes about a fifth of them. So either he is very hard to please, or I am rubbish at guessing what he will like (a bit of both really.)
So, you have probably heard about this book by Mark Haddon - that it is about a 12 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome, and neighbour's dog that gets killed with a pitchfork. And since the title is a well-known quote from a Sherlock Holmes story, you would guess that it's a sort of detective story. Well, it is and it isn't. Mostly it isn't. I think this is mostly a story about how people's brains work, and how they don't all work the same way. And this can be a tragedy. There is a certain amount of tragedy in this story, and I felt some overwhelming maternal protectiveness for the likable hero, Christopher.
This has occasionally been referred to as a children's book, but I have never seen it in the children's or young adult section. It is no more a children's book than Life of Pi, which also features a young boy protagonist and is a very similar book in many ways. It is far too short a book to get away with telling even a little bit of the narrative (apart from the fact that a dog is killed in the opening chapter, but everyone knows that). I prefer to concentrate on why I liked it, and why DH liked it. I think we both liked it because the boy reminded us of ourselves, but for each of us, these were very different aspects of ourselves. I identified with Chris's inability to "take in" all of his sensory environment, while being unable to screen it out the way normal people do. Although I do not have Asperger's syndrome or any diagnosed condition, I am what is known as a "low-screener" which means that all my senses are very acute (although often not particularly accurate) and I can be very "oppressed", like Chris, by colours I don't like, crowds, smells and chaos in general. And, like Chris, I use mental exercise to calm myself, often pursuing activities that would drive normal people crazy, in order to drive myself sane. DH, on the other hand, is a very, very "high screener". But he has another of the traits of Asperger's syndrome (in common with some other conditions) which is an extreme difficulty "reading" the emotions, facial expressions and body language of other people, and an aversion to the sort of familiar touching that most people do as part of their socializing. DH again is not diagnosed with a syndrome, and he likes hugs and has no problem shaking hands or anything, but still there is that commonality there and I think that plus the boy protagonist's clever maths-geek atheism, made him really identify with Chris.
This is, I think, the great strength of this wonderful little book, that it enables anyone to feel a real kinship with someone with a condition which usually makes its sufferers seems very alien to the rest of humanity. And it makes his condition, and mental illness generally, very knowable and understandable and not a cause for fear and dread.


Northern Lights / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass : His Dark Materials Trilogy

Editor's Note: In the US, the first volume of the trilogy is called The Golden Compass. Also, a film has been made.

I heard these books described as a thinking-person's Harry Potter. That doesn't really do them justice. The format, the intent, the audience, the world-view, all are different in several degrees from Harry Potter. The main thing is that the Harry Potter stories are in the familiar reductionist mode of children's fiction that has borrowed from the highly stylized world of Saturday morning cartoons. Utterly absent are moral nuance, and pleasures are simple and greedy, even for the "good" characters. Everything is very easy to identify as good or evil, fun or boring, giving feelings of pride or shame, and the violence is strangely sanitized. The only moral choices the "good" characters face is whether to act loyally to their friends ("friendship" being the highest imaginable "good" in this world-view) and the power of loyalty to friends neutralizes any other action, from being silent and stubborn to authority figures, right on up to remorselessly killing "bad" characters.
Pullman's stories, though, apart from seeming to me to be too intellectually challenging for most modern pre-teens (I don't mean that to sound as insulting as it probably does, but really they are quite philosophically rarefied in parts) are more in the old style of children's literature, being as weird as Alice in Wonderland and as violent as Grimm's fairy tales and yet as modern as The Little Prince was in its day. And talk about moral nuance, hard choices, and ethical grey areas, these not only proliferate as the story goes on, they more or less drive the entire plot. There are parts that are better than others in the books, and this is something that I imagine young readers will find especially difficult, because there are times when as the focus switched from one group battling unspeakable evil to another, I was quite tempted to read ahead to where the dropped thread was picked up again, and got quite annoyed at almost turgid parts, even though I could tell they were necessary for the whole picture. The sweep of the stories are quite broad, encompassing universes and their creation and destruction, yet somehow not in the old SF Dr. Who kind of way ("Oh, well, when you've seen one megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe, you have pretty much seen them all") but more in that vertiginous way one feels if one allows oneself to really think about the possible implications of quantum physics.
To sum up the trilogy, without injecting any narrative or teasers, I would say that these three books comprise a Faustian fairy tale about parallel histories, theology and physics, featuring a pair of protagonists who are a twist on the old Tristan and Iseult mythology. And it's got talking warrior bears and witches and magical implements that can be replicated in a physics lab.