Laurie R. King Virtual Book Club discussion

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Archived VBC Selections > The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman - VBC Sept 2019

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message 1: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Hi all! I’m Sabrina Flynn, and I’ll be your guest moderator for the month of September. Our selection this month is a fast-paced young adult mystery by acclaimed author Philip Pullman, who is best known for His Dark Materials.

From the jacket:
Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty. Her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art and music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.

When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn't know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen - and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke…


A young female protagonist with an unusual set of skills… The description alone made me want to read The Ruby in the Smoke. My younger self would have loved this series.

I believe we have ten days of spoiler free comments, and then it’s open season. To get things started:

Is this your first time reading a YA novel? How do you define the YA genre?


message 2: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Sabrina wrote: "Hi all! I’m Sabrina Flynn, and I’ll be your guest moderator for the month of September. Our selection this month is a fast-paced young adult mystery by acclaimed author Philip Pullman, who is best ..."

I've read a fair number of YA novels, including the Divergent and Hunger Games series - I don't necessarily seek them out, but I go more for what just looks like a good read. I think it's really hard to define YA these days as many of the books are quite sophisticated - I suppose you could say YA is adult literature, usually featuring a young protagonist, and without graphic sex or violence?
I still haven't read this book but am hoping to do so before the discussion concludes!


message 3: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments I am an occasional reader of YA novels if it’s the right genre or author. I didn’t make the Golden Compass connection to the author until I read the back cover. I’ve just started reading the book, and so far I am drawn in enough by the story and quirky characters to continue.


message 4: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Merrily wrote: "I think it's really hard to define YA these days as many of the books are quite sophisticated... "

It really is. It seems the YA genre means something else to each reader. I was surprised The Ruby in the Smoke was written in 1985, and won a Best YA book award. I didn't realize the YA genre has been around for so long. For some reason, I had the idea that it popped into existence with Hunger Games.

Also… for Doctor Who fans. There is a TV adaptation of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries starring Billy Piper and Matt Smith. Though I can't quite envision Matt Smith as young Jim from the books…


message 5: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Dayna wrote: "I am an occasional reader of YA novels if it’s the right genre or author. I didn’t make the Golden Compass connection to the author until I read the back cover. I’ve just started reading the book, ..."

Have you read The Golden Compass, Dayna? I've heard of it, but never got around to reading the series. Apparently, Philip Pullman is known for having surprising themes in his YA novels that some consider too mature.

I was surprised by one scene in this book, considering it was written in 1985.


message 6: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments Sabrin—yes, I read Golden Compass a number of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve also seen the movie at least twice. There was some controversy over the movie because one or more conservative talk show hosts deemed it anti-Christian.


message 7: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments Sabrina—sorry for shortening your name!


message 8: by Laura (new)

Laura Stratton | 240 comments My understanding is that Young Adult is defined as being aimed at teens or having a teen as a main character.
I have read a number of YA books including several Tamora Pierce books, the "Golden Compass" and "The Fault In The Stars and "Wonder". Some readers actually classify "To Kill A Mockingbird" in the YA category.
My favorite YA books are the early Mary Russell books. Even though we don't always think about it, in "Beekeepers Apprentice" Mary is only 15. Mary was a fantastic role model for my daughter in her
teens.
I'm looking forward to reading this months' selection.


message 9: by Emily (new)

Emily | 341 comments Dayna wrote: "Sabrin—yes, I read Golden Compass a number of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve also seen the movie at least twice. There was some controversy over the movie because one or more conservativ..."

Pullman is explicitly atheist, so they are not exactly wrong.


message 10: by KarenB (new)

KarenB | 352 comments I've read a good bit of YA literature, often because I wanted to know what my kids were reading. One of the things I like about YA is that writers don't try to be "literary." They're writing a story, not attempting to create the most elegant prose ever. I get impatient with elegant prose with a lack of character and plot development - it's like eating a cake made entirely of frosting.

Some of the characters in this book reminded me a good bit of Dickens.


message 11: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments Emily—I didn’t know that Pullman is an atheist. Certainly Golden Compass highlights the less savory aspects of religious societies.


message 12: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Dayna wrote: "Sabrin—yes, I read Golden Compass a number of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve also seen the movie at least twice. There was some controversy over the movie because one or more conservativ..."

I do remember that controversy about Golden Compass. But also that he includes sex scenes in many of his YA books. I think now that's not so uncommon, but he seems to have been something of a trendsetter in that regard.


message 13: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Laura wrote: "My understanding is that Young Adult is defined as being aimed at teens or having a teen as a main character.
I have read a number of YA books including several Tamora Pierce books, the "Golden Com..."


I enjoyed it, Laura! And yes, that's another definition I've heard: that a book only has to have a protagonist under 21. I tend to go with that one, because I've read some pretty brutal YA.


message 14: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
KarenB wrote: "I've read a good bit of YA literature, often because I wanted to know what my kids were reading. One of the things I like about YA is that writers don't try to be "literary." They're writing a stor..."

That's a really good point, Karen. I never thought about it that way before, but it's true. YA stories usually involve a coming of age journey that leaves the protagonist a little more wise than when they started out. On the other hand, I've heard the definition of literary fiction as 'stories that go in a circle'. Basically they don't go anywhere.


message 15: by Mary (new)

Mary (storytellermary) | 260 comments I read THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the rest of the series, loved the books and the movie, wishing I could ride a giant bear.
My motivation to read came from one of those "don't read this" emails, forwarded by a "friend." I got input from my niece, who had read it, and then replied to the advocate of banning that I'd be reading and deciding for myself, quoting my niece's reaction to the book. I don't much cotton to book banning, and since I'd hit "reply all" I learned that others on the forward list didn't either. My "friend" said I was "opinionated" and never to contact her again. My smart niece pointed out that she wasn't much of a friend.


message 16: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Mary wrote: "I read THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the rest of the series, loved the books and the movie, wishing I could ride a giant bear.
My motivation to read came from one of those "don't read this" emails, forwa..."


Good for you, Mary, as a librarian I am completely opposed to book banning and think we should all respond the way you did!


message 17: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Mary wrote: "I read THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the rest of the series, loved the books and the movie, wishing I could ride a giant bear.
My motivation to read came from one of those "don't read this" emails, forwa..."


Good for you, Mary, as a librarian I am completely opposed to book banning and think we should all respond the way you did!


message 18: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
I have never read any of "The Golden Compass" books although they've been recommended to me multiple times. I decided to read this one since the VBC had chosen it and so far am enjoying it very much - he's a writer who (like J.K. Rowling) has a great ability to create wonderful pictures with words, and I like the way he starts this story with a bang. I've only just begun but look forward to further discussions as I catch up with those of you who've gotten farther and/or finished.


message 19: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
KarenB wrote: "I've read a good bit of YA literature, often because I wanted to know what my kids were reading. One of the things I like about YA is that writers don't try to be "literary." They're writing a stor..."

I couldn't agree with you more, Karen. Sometimes it seems that literary fiction is mostly shapeless and frequently depressing. And what's so wrong with telling a story, I ask? Loving stories is one of the things that makes us human.


message 20: by Erin (new)

Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
KarenB wrote: "One of the things I like about YA is that writers don't try to be "literary." They're writing a story, not attempting to create the most elegant prose ever."

That's what draws me to YA as well, Karen. There generally isn't hundreds of pages of world building either. Come to think of it, what I like best about YA is the same as what I like best about a good mystery series, LOL.


message 21: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments Regarding YA fiction, depending on the age it is written for, it can also work for English for speakers of other languages (ESOLs). I recently used Hatchet in my adult ESOL class, and they loved it. This book (Ruby) probably would not be of interest, but I’m open to suggestions from others with more YA experience. What works best for my group is something in the 5th to 8th grade range and not too long. The most I can expect them to read is about a page a day over a 12 - 14 week period.


message 22: by Erin (new)

Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
Laura wrote: "My understanding is that Young Adult is defined as being aimed at teens or having a teen as a main character."

That is how it's usually defined, I think, Laura, but the latter is kind of tricky. I've read a few books with young protagonists that clearly do not fit in the YA category. Or maybe the first book in a series could, but the rest do not (like Russell).

I'd say that defining YA comes down to the issues that the book is dealing with and the themes being explored. Dealing with first loves or major losses. Realization of adult fallibility and human frailty (the "kid with cancer/disease" trope seems to be kind of big lately). Coming of age stories in general.

But I think there is also a writing style element that is harder to pin down. No drawn-out world building without plot movement, as you often get in epic fantasy. Major focus on character and plot development. Faster-paced plotting. It's one of those "Not all books that do this are YA, but all YA books do this" kind of things. Same with the age of the protagonist.


message 23: by Elisabeth (new)

Elisabeth | 113 comments Erin wrote: "But I think there is also a writing style element that is harder to pin down."

This. Some things I read "sound" young to me, and others don't, regardless of the ages of the characters or the types of struggles they're dealing with. I have never been able to identify the specific feature/s that cause this. The Psychology of Time Travel is an example: the characters are adults, the problems they face adult-ish, yet the whole thing reads like middle school. Similarly, The Calculating Stars, in spite of its subject matter, strikes me as a tiny bit lightweight, as if the author were holding something back.

Or maybe it's just me. :)


message 24: by Mary (new)

Mary (storytellermary) | 260 comments Merrily wrote: "Mary wrote: "I read THE GOLDEN COMPASS and the rest of the series, loved the books and the movie, wishing I could ride a giant bear.
My motivation to read came from one of those "don't read this" ..."


Thanks! Our school librarians modeled well. When a board candidate wanted to ban BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, I mentioned I hadn't read it and wanted to. When I got to the library, a copy was waiting, already checked out to me. <3


message 25: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Erin wrote: "No drawn-out world building without plot movement, as you often get in epic fantasy...

I thought the Harry Potter books had some great world-building. Definitely not Brandon Sanderson detail though. Could it be that YA books work the world-building into the plot better?


message 26: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Elisabeth wrote: "Erin wrote: "But I think there is also a writing style element that is harder to pin down."

This. Some things I read "sound" young to me, and others don't, regardless of the ages of the characters..."


I've read some mysteries like that. For me the adult characters lacked depth, or the writing never moved me. Too shallow, I guess.


message 27: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
On the topic of banned books: I think most of us think the idea is ridiculous, but would there ever be a circumstance where you'd think 'Yeah, that book needs to be banned'?


message 28: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments There are certainly books that I’d want to have a large label on the cover warning of its contents. Do I want some things in my head? No. The only book I’ve ever destroyed was Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird (Kosinski was the official Bad Boy of the 80s) and I came to this hugely unpleasant rape scene and thought nope, I’m not having anyone else on this train fishing it out of the garbage and reading it.


message 29: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments Oh how funny—in the Guardian this morning:
The Painted Bird review – savage, searing three-hour tour of hell
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019...


message 30: by Mary (new)

Mary (storytellermary) | 260 comments One of our faculty book club books was so disgusting (IMHO) that I put it in the recycling bin. I just didn't want to be responsible for another person reading it. My colleagues followed up by warning me of books and movies that would be "too intense" for me.
I warned our librarians one year when the "Read MOre" selection for state-wide reading was not going to please the church book clubs.
Warning labels would be a boon, though there might be disagreements on what needs warning. Warnings can also be enticements. I once told my Shakespeare students that I would not be able to show the Fishburne OTHELLO in school, knowing full well that they'd be picking it up at Blockbuster and we could discuss it on Monday. ;-)


message 31: by Erin (new)

Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
Sabrina wrote: "I thought the Harry Potter books had some great world-building. Definitely not Brandon Sanderson detail though. Could it be that YA books work the world-building into the plot better? ."

Oh yeah, that's what I meant, Sabrina. Like they don't do a world-building data-dump before even getting to a plot like some of the epic fantasy authors tend to do. Or go off on world-building tangents that don't develop plot at the same time.

The world-building in Harry Potter took seven books! And there was still enough world that hadn't been explored to warrant another movie franchise.


message 32: by Erin (new)

Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
Sabrina wrote: "On the topic of banned books: I think most of us think the idea is ridiculous, but would there ever be a circumstance where you'd think 'Yeah, that book needs to be banned'?"

There's only one book I can think of and I didn't actually read it, but heard about it in book news. It was basically a how-to guide for sexual predators that someone published as a Kindle ebook.

I can't think of any works of fiction. Though I agree with warning labels and age-appropriate shelving. I remember a while back I was at the library looking for a particular graphic novel that most definitely should have been labelled "for mature audiences only" (I think it was Sex Criminals maybe; which is hilarious, but really really not for kids) and had been shelved in the YA section. Because, you know, comics are for kids. My eyes almost popped out of my head.


message 33: by Lenore (new)

Lenore | 1078 comments Sabrina wrote: "...On the other hand, I've heard the definition of literary fiction as 'stories that go in a circle'. Basically they don't go anywhere. "

I realize you're quoting someone else, so not blaming you, but I think that's a really inaccurate and unfair description of literary fiction.


message 34: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: I realize you're quoting someone else, so not blaming you, but I think that's a really inaccurate and unfair description of literary fiction.

Yes, I'm just quoting a simplified explanation I heard. But Wiki has a similar definition for it.
-A focus on introspective, in-depth character studies
- …literary fiction, by it's nature, allows itself to dawdle
- Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern

And another source says 'literary fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer's being, and is experienced as an emotional journey'.

How do you define Literary Fiction?


message 35: by Sabrina (last edited Sep 04, 2019 07:41PM) (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Laurie wrote: "Oh how funny—in the Guardian this morning:
The Painted Bird review – savage, searing three-hour tour of hell
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019..."


Oh, that sounds horrible. Movies and books have a tendency to glorify. It’s such a fine line. Real life atrocities should never be turned into artsy entertainment.


message 36: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Mary wrote: "One of our faculty book club books was so disgusting (IMHO) that I put it in the recycling bin. I just didn't want to be responsible for another person reading it."

I've had that reaction too, Mary! I always think it's interesting to discover the reason people want a book banned. Most of the time, it seems like they are trying to protect others from a perceived danger. Except maybe when the government gets involved, then it's usually for nationalistic reasons.

For some writing research, I had to look into Marquis de Sade, and after reading portions of some of his stuff… I thought, 'Well, yes. I understand why they banned his works, and tossed him in a dungeon.'


message 37: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Erin wrote: "Oh yeah, that's what I meant, Sabrina. Like they don't do a world-building data-dump before even getting to a plot like some of the epic fantasy authors tend to do."

Ugh, yes. Good fantasy writers aren't supposed to do that, but sometimes it's really, really hard to get by without it.

I thought The Ruby in the Smoke does a great job of world-building. Really, historical novels have the same job of world-building as fantasy, I think. This book explained just enough so readers wouldn't be lost with unfamiliar historical events or terms. It made me interested in learning more about the… erm, maybe I shouldn't mention it yet due to spoilers. Anyway, I really appreciated the research that went into the book.


message 38: by KarenB (new)

KarenB | 352 comments The only book I’ve ever destroyed was Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird

Oh dear lord, yes. Truly appalling. But that being said, no, I'm not in favor of banning books because where do you draw that line? Do I wish some books were never written? Yes, I do. Do I wish some books were kept out of the hands of people who would abuse and misuse them? Again, yes, but . . .


message 39: by Kathy (new)

Kathy  (readr4ever) | 399 comments I was so excited when I saw that Ruby in the Smoke was the book for this month, and if ever I wanted to do a reread, this is it. This series is one of my favorite, YA or adult. There are four books, and I highly recommend that you read beyond Ruby in the Smoke. It's a great read, but reading the whole series is something so special. I own two sets of the series, for the different covers. I have read quite a bit of YA and children's lit, but it seems I don't get to much of it anymore. I am going to try so hard to reread this book with the group. Now, a note on the writing. I haven't read the Golden Compass and that series by Pullman, except for a few snippets, but even so, I can assure you that liking that series or not liking it has nothing to do with how you will feel about Sally Lockhart. And, if you're looking for another YA mystery, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is wonderful. Also, my ten-year-old granddaughter is enjoying the Shelby Holmes series by Elizabeth Eulberg.


message 40: by Kathy (new)

Kathy  (readr4ever) | 399 comments Laurie wrote: "There are certainly books that I’d want to have a large label on the cover warning of its contents. Do I want some things in my head? No. The only book I’ve ever destroyed was Jerzy Kosinski’s Pain..."

I love lots of Stephen King, with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon being my favorite, but there are some of his books I wish I'd never had in my head, like Rose Madder and The Apt Pupil. It took a long time to get over those. Of course, I wouldn't want them banned, but as you say, Laurie, I wish there had been a warning that this book might make you think you're losing your mind.


message 41: by Kathy (new)

Kathy  (readr4ever) | 399 comments Elisabeth wrote: "Erin wrote: "But I think there is also a writing style element that is harder to pin down."

This. Some things I read "sound" young to me, and others don't, regardless of the ages of the characters..."


I was disappointed in The Psychology of Time Travel.


message 42: by Kathy (new)

Kathy  (readr4ever) | 399 comments Erin wrote: "Laura wrote: "My understanding is that Young Adult is defined as being aimed at teens or having a teen as a main character."

That is how it's usually defined, I think, Laura, but the latter is kin..."


When I got my Masters in Library Media, I did the majority of my work in children's and YA. I know it's been a while since then, but I've kept up with the books because of my granddaughters. I disagree that YA is teen. Some YA is teen, but there is a line between younger teen lit and older teen lit, so I include the younger teen lit in YA, and it usually begins around middle school, although some books for 5th graders fall into YA. Really, you can pretty much count on up to 4th grade being children's lit, reading level and subject matter. The lines are not black and white though, much blurring. The problem we have with my ten-year-old granddaughter is finding material that is challenging to her but still interesting to her age group. Her reading level is past high school, or says the testing. I know that there's much context-wise that would probably challenge her in older-age texts. But, we can't let her read older teen material because the subject matter is just outside her wheel house, and I'm not going to be explaining sex to her. Hahaha! Parents today have a real challenge in sorting out what is age appropriate when you get into YA and teen. I've never been one in favor of censoring or banning, but it is true that there is such a thing as age appropriate. Of course, we all disregarded that as we read Valley of the Dolls and other books in our teens.


message 43: by Sabrina (last edited Sep 06, 2019 06:37AM) (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
KarenB wrote: Do I wish some books were kept out of the hands of people who would abuse and misuse them? Again, yes, but . . .

…next thing we know 'firemen' will be barging into our homes to burn our books and ereaders. And with my memory… I call dibs on memorizing 'Big Smelly Bear'.


message 44: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Kathy wrote: "I was so excited when I saw that Ruby in the Smoke was the book for this month, and if ever I wanted to do a reread, this is it. This series is one of my favorite, YA or adult. There are four books..."

I hope you get to do a reread, Kathy! I enjoyed the mystery. It sure started with a bang with the line: Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.

Did anyone else love that opening?

Also, Kathy, have you read the Enola Holmes series? I love that series, and so excited that it's being made into a TV mini series by Millie Bobby Brown.


message 45: by Kathy (new)

Kathy  (readr4ever) | 399 comments Sabrina wrote: "Kathy wrote: "I was so excited when I saw that Ruby in the Smoke was the book for this month, and if ever I wanted to do a reread, this is it. This series is one of my favorite, YA or adult. There ..."

Yes, Sabrina, I did love that opening. And, thanks for the rabbit hole this afternoon. Hahaha! I started looking at the Enola Holmes series (I think I might have heard of them before, but I'm not sure), and then I read about the author, Nancy Springer, whose life and emergence as her own self and a full-time author is quite interesting. I'm ordering the first three in the series. I love Millie Bobby Brown, so that's a real enticement to read the books, too. I'm going to share with the granddaughter. Thanks!


message 46: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
Kathy wrote: "Sabrina wrote: "Kathy wrote: "I was so excited when I saw that Ruby in the Smoke was the book for this month, and if ever I wanted to do a reread, this is it. This series is one of my favorite, YA ..."

Hope you enjoy the series! I love Millie Bobby Brown too. What an amazing young woman for starting her own production company. I'm looking forward to see what she produces in the future. She was a huge fan of the Enola Holmes series, so that's why she wanted to make a mini series of it.


message 47: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Flynn | 1158 comments Mod
We're getting close to the date where we can discuss spoilers. This book is kind of difficult to discuss without spoilers, I think. Hopefully everyone has been able to get started on it.

What are your initial thoughts on the book? And the main character Sally Lockhart?


message 48: by Lenore (new)

Lenore | 1078 comments Sabrina wrote: "...What are your initial thoughts on the book?..."

I know I'm going to be in the minority here, but I really didn't love it. I found the Victorian novel style (as opposed to the setting) of the book cloying, and I thought the early convenient appearances of the incredibly smart office boy and the attractive sympathetic photographer -- not to mention his wonderful sister and gifted and sympathetic assistant -- were just entirely too coincidental and unrealistic.


message 49: by Mary (new)

Mary (storytellermary) | 260 comments My library hasn't yet obtained a copy of the book (working on getting an ebook or ILL) but they had a DVD of the Masterpiece Theater production of it, which did seem a bit of a melodrama, but I liked it. It is, as you say, convenient that she finds so many reliable allies . . . but then I think of the many times good people, strangers, have helped me, and I find it easier to suspend disbelief.


message 50: by Dayna (new)

Dayna | 204 comments The book was entertaining in a “willing suspension of disbelief” way. A nice, light read.


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