Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife is even more exciting and suspenseful than the first.  In this installment, Lyra has gone into another world and is determined to find the source of Dust.  She is convinced that when she does, she will know what it is she is meant to do.  Shortly after she arrives, she meets Will, a boy about her age who is from still another world.  He is running from something and desperate for a place to hide. 

An important moment occurs just as Will is introducing himself and Lyra has to explain about daemons.  Will has no idea what Lyra is talking about and says, "I don't know what you mean about demons.  In my world demon means devil, something evil."  I feel this is important because it demonstrates that what we understand may be entirely different from the "reality" in another world.  I raise this point because so many people were bent out of shape about the concept of these books.  The most important thing to remember is that these are works of fiction.  When a reader begins a novel, it is my philosophy that she should suspend all disbelief and be prepared to adopt an entirely new vernacular.  I imagine there were many people who picked up The Golden Compass, read the very first four words, "Lyra and her daemon...", and immediately pictured something evil.  Reading further, we discover that Lyra's daemon is the physical manifestation of her soul, her spirit.  This is nothing evil, but it is a concept that we simply have to accept.  Surely something like this should be no more difficult to believe than Frodo's journey to Mordor or that wardrobes can lead to Narnia. 

One of the main characters, Lord Asriel, is searching for Dust as well.  He is planning to use it in his great rebellion against the Church and perhaps even a war with the "Authority", their God.  It is again important to remember that this is fiction set in another world.  While I can understand how some people might be offended by such a concept, I try to remember that this is fantasy.  Lord Asriel believes that this Authority must be bad because he sees so many of the bad things for which the Church is responsible.  In his world, the Church doesn't do good and serve men, it controls and oppresses them and punishes anyone who dares to question their power, even to the point of death. 

I am loving these books.  It is clear to me that this is a tale of good versus evil, but currently I'm not sure which side is good and which is evil.  I'm not sure the characters themselves know which is which just yet.  This story is so full of suspense that I hated to put it down.  I was constantly on the edge of my seat and rushing to find out what would happen.  I kept telling myself it would be okay, that the main characters would somehow make it out alive and yet I was at times forced to accept that not every main character survives. 

What will happen in the third book?  I cannot wait to read it, but I will have to wait just a bit longer.  It is time for me to begin my book club book or I won't have it finished in time for our meeting.  I do not want to be that girl- we are relentless when someone fails to finish the book.  Our family is headed on a little staycation next week, so I am hoping to get in a lot of good reading time.  I will be back to Mr. Pullmans lovely characters before long.

As always, I welcome your comments!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Most Striking Book Settings

Hi, Smart Girls!  I wanted to try something a little different today.  I've mentioned before that I follow several other book blogs and The Broke and the Bookish is one of these.  They run a weekly feature known as Top Ten Tuesday.  They pose a topic and we list our top ten books in that category.  I haven't done it before, but I thought I would take a swing at it this week. 

Today's topic is top ten settings in books.  You know how it is, some books just sweep you off to another world and some even make it difficult to return to reality.  Here is a list of ten of my favorites:

  1. The world of Harry Potter.  I suspect that JK Rowling has actually been to Hogwarts because I just can't imagine being able to dream up such detail.  It is a true talent.  Of course now you can visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, an entire theme park developed from the details that Rowling created.  Someday I would love to make that trip.
  2. Philip Pullman's world in His Dark Materials.  I am halfway through the second book, but I am astonished at all the worlds he has created, complete with barely visible windows hanging mid-air that lead to still other worlds.
  3. Camp Green Lake in Holes may be a small world, but the dust, the dirt and the heat seemed to radiate from the pages of this wonderful little book. 
  4. In The Night Circus, I was fascinated by the magic, but also by the descriptions of each of the tents at the circus.  A scent memory tent where you open a small bottle and are transported to someone else's memory of a day at the beach?  A tent full of creatures made of paper that move and fly on their own?  Such vivid imagination!
  5. Scott Westerfeld's world in Uglies extends far beyond the Jetsons version of the future.  Hover boards and communicators that are embedded in one's body and surgery to make your body nearly invincible.  So interesting and at the same time frightening.
  6. The first half of Room: A Novel is set in just one small room, but the reader feels as though she is actually confined to that tiny cell.  It is so believable that the reader can forget this is fiction, especially considering the news stories of Jaycee Dugard. 
  7. I can't even walk by the cover of Winter Garden without feeling the cold and the desperation of this novel set in World War II era Russia. 
  8. Philippa Gregory is a fabulous writer of historical fiction.  You may have read The Other Boleyn Girl around the time the film was released (the film was a ginormous disappointment and I know people were put off from reading the book if they saw it).  The way she describes the goings on in the King's Court makes it so tangible.
  9. I am a huge fan of Amy Tan and reading The Joy Luck Club planted in me a real desire to visit China.  I feel like I've been there in my mind and now I want to see it and touch it.
  10. While I didn't actually enjoy reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire, the world was richly described.  He may have gotten his jumping off point from L. Frank Baum, but Maguire added to it in a way that was unexpected and vibrant.

So that's my first Top Ten Tuesday.  In what worlds have you lost yourself?  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Holes by Louis Sachar

I can't believe it took me so long to read this book.  (It seems like I've been saying that a lot lately, doesn't it?  I must have a lot of catching up to do.)  Holes by Louis Sachar is the 1999 Newberry Medal winner and the winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Young People.  Critically acclaimed books are not always books I enjoy reading, but we loved this one.  I say "we" because I read this book to my children, mainly my 8-year-old son.  He came to me and asked if I would read it to him a few chapters at a time and I was happy to oblige.  We love reading in our house and while I encourage him to read on his own, I also see a lot of value in reading together.  It is wonderful- we cozy up on the couch, I read and he listens.  I don't think it gets better than that. 

Holes is about Camp Green Lake, only there is no lake, nothing is green and it's certainly no camp anyone would actually want to attend.  Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to eighteen months at Camp Green Lake where the main punishment is digging holes day after day to "build character."  As it turns out, there is more than character building going on.  The hideous warden of the camp is actually looking for something and Stanley has figured it all out.  He knows what they are looking for and where to look, but he is in no hurry to give away that secret. 

This was a fun book to read with my son and we were both excited to find out what would happen next.  It took us a couple of days to finish and we talked about the book even when we weren't reading it.  I was especially glad we were reading the book together when we came upon a few subjects that my little guy didn't understand.  It is never easy to attempt to explain complex social issues such as racism, the death penalty and homelessness to an innocent child, but I am glad I was the one to do it.  It gave us some interesting topics to discuss and I was able to gently explain in a way that hopefully he understood.  My five-year-old even sat in on several of our reading sessions (though she did mention that she prefers books with pictures) and would join our discussions of the book.  I love reading with my children and I feel like doing so has such a beneficial impact. 

What do you read to your children? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is not a new book.  It was released in 1995, but I am finally finding time to read it.  Perhaps you remember the controversy surrounding the 2007 film release.  You can read about it here and also here if you are interested.  It seems many folks were offended by the use of "The Church" as the antagonist in this and the other two books in the trilogy.  While Pullman doesn't specifically name the Catholic church, he does make use of terms common in Catholicism.  Pullman, according to ABC News, is a self-proclaimed atheist and so it may well be that he has a beef with organized religion.  Or it could also be that he is using the church as a powerful entity in his story.  It is no secret that for centuries the Catholic church played a significant role in government and the sciences and Pullman is using that as a plot point. 

In The Golden Compass, a young girl named Lyra is living in Oxford, England, at Jordan College, "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford."  Being an orphan, she is in the care of the school's master.  She runs wild most days and receives a scattered education from whichever scholar is currently charged with teaching her.  A great crisis begins to trouble the city and the country.  Children are beginning to go missing.  "Gobblers" are taking the children and they are never seen again.  Lyra is determined to find out if this is true and it leads her down a path she could never have foreseen.  Lyra has a destiny of which she must remain unaware though she has been spoken of for centuries - a twelve-year-old little girl at the center of one of the most mysterious "theological riddles" known.

This book speaks of "experimental theology" and Consistorial Courts charged with overseeing any and all theories.  Lyra knows very little about it, only "that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the starts and planets, with tiny particles of matter."  Each of the humans in the book is also accompanied by "daemons" which represent the soul of the human.  I loved the way Pullman delays giving specific information regarding this and other secrets in the book.  I appreciate a writer that lets the story unfold as opposed to laying everything out at the beginning.  Witches, talking polar bears, and of course a golden compass that can tell the truth in any situation all add to the fantasy of this novel. 

This story played on every emotion:  several times I laughed out loud (I get funny looks, but when the book is good enough I don't really care), I sobbed at one part (you know I'm a cryer), and I was often on the edge of my seat.  If I were a nail biter, I would be typing this with nubs for fingers.  The characters are cleverly written and the dialogue is excellent.  Twists and turns in the plot abound and I can't even begin to tell you about them because it would be a crime to spoil such enjoyment.  I wish I could quote to you all the wonderful tidbits I marked with all my little sticky notes, but I fear it would take all day for you to read and it would ruin the story.  Instead, I will just encourage you to pick up your own copy and read it for yourself. 

I am now off to read book two in the series, The Subtle Knife.  I hope that I will enjoy it as much as I have this one.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

I don't read a lot of YA (young adult fiction), but I do read some.  I loved the Harry Potter series, for a while I talked to everyone I saw about Twilight (just ask my poor husband) and even though I was shocked that Hunger Games was written for a YA audience, I loved it as well.  I also read a lot of YA book blogs.  Honestly, most book blogs seem to be YA focused.  That is where I found my latest read.  Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson came highly recommended by Estelle @ RatherBeReading

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour is told from the perspective of Amy, a soon-to-be high school senior being forced to move across the country.  Her father has just died (something for which she blames herself), her twin brother is in rehab, and she is not happy about being uprooted.  To solve more than one moving issue, Amy's mother asks a family friend to drive cross country with Amy in her car.  This family friend is, of course, Roger.  Roger is a college student that is suffering from a recent heartbreak.  Amy's mom has a road trip arranged including hotel rooms reserved for each night.  The trip is intended to take four days, but Roger and Amy decide a little detour is in order.  And so begins a journey during which Amy and Roger have a chance to discover the country and themselves. 

As I said, I do read YA, but not a lot because I often feel there isn't quite enough meat for me.  That is how I felt about this book.  It was okay.  Amy is an awkward, insecure teenage girl, but that really started to irritate me after a few chapters.  Roger is a nice guy, but he is obviously hung up on a girl that none of friends like because she treated him so badly.  They can see what she is, but Roger can't.  

I did enjoy reading about the road trip.  It was fun to read about all the different things Amy and Roger saw and all the local food they ate.  The only thing about the food that irked me was when Matson described Roger sipping a Dairy Queen Blizzard through a straw and calling it a drink.  You cannot sip a Blizzard.  Blizzards are cups of thick soft serve with toppings mixed in.  Blizzards are so thick that when the DQ employee hands you your Blizzard, they are required to turn it upside down first.  You cannot sip a Blizzard.  I also liked the secondary characters that Amy & Roger met along the way.  I would love to have a friend like Bronwyn and as awkward as Amy feels, everyone she meets seems to really like her.
Overall, this was a quick, entertaining read, but I don't know to whom I would recommend it.  On GoodReads, I gave this one three stars. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Months ago, my sister read Shanghai Girls by Lisa See for her book club.  She said I just had to read it.  Fast forward several months and I still hadn't gotten to it when my darling friend Amy mentioned that she had read it.  I asked her if she had loved it because I had heard good things about it.  She said it was okay and suggested that I read it so we could discuss.  Then, like any dear book-loving friend, she loaned me her copy. 

So what did I think?  Well, I'm with Amy on this one- it was okay.  I am a big fan of Amy Tan's writing and I had hopes that Shanghai Girls would be similar and it did begin that way.  I loved Pearl's description of her home life and the family dynamics there.  I also loved her detailed description of Shanghai, though I did choke a bit when she matter-of-factly mentions "step[ping] around a dead baby left on the sidewalk."  I also enjoyed the historical descriptions that Ms. See brings.  The reader feels like she is discovering a part of the world she didn't realize existed.  So many things that I have read about China have focused on the countryside.  Shanghai Girls is partly set in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai.  It is a city filled with wealth and poverty.  I found the markets particularly interesting:  "As tempting as the watermelon sellers are, we ignore them.  Too many of them try to make their melons sound heavier by injecting them with water from the river or one of the creeks.  Even a single bite could result in dysentery, typhoid or cholera."  Can you imagine?

I very much enjoyed the first half of the book.  Beyond that, I couldn't help but feel that it rambled a bit.  The plot took unexpected turns that I waited to grasp.  The characters seemed to lose some of their color.  I did appreciate the relationship between the two sisters.  No matter what happened, they were always sisters; they were always supporting one another.  I can't say that I have any interest in reading the sequel, but please tell me if I'm wrong.  Have you read Dreams of Joy ?  Is it worth the read?  I would love to hear what you think!