Book Review: The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

It has been a few weeks since I’ve posted and this is not due to a dearth of reading material, let me tell you. I just started my summer job and it’s been a little exhausting trying to find a moment for myself while juggling my job and other responsibilities and still trying to have some summer fun. I feel a little more at ease now and am happy to return to my blog! My other issue was that I had been weirdly locked out of my WordPress Account for a week or two so I’m glad to be back with full access! I’ve also been racing to get my visa paperwork through for my impending move to France which has been a slog but I can finally see the light! I actually finished this book in the same week as the other two in the trilogy but was unable to take time for put down my thoughts. After having finished all three books, I can still say that I loved the trilogy and enjoyed the ride. Each book had a different flavor and overarching themes but I really enjoyed them all. I will say that Pullman seems to have shifted direction a little bit in the last book but I still loved the story. So without further ado, The Amber Spyglass!

At the end of the Subtle Knife, Will gained possession of the Subtle Knife and Lyra was stolen away by her own mother, ostensibly for her own protection. The Magisterium is hot on Mrs. Coulter’s trail and decides to destroy Lyra for her role in the upcoming battle between Lord Asriel and the Magisterium. However, Lyra and Will find themselves pursuing a parallel adventure in search of Roger, Lyra’s old friend from her days at Oxford College. At the end of the book, the Magisterium and the Authority battle with Lord Asriel for cosmic control of the universe while Lyra discovers just how painful the sacrifices can be. Honestly, I was about halfway through this book while getting my car serviced and I legitimately began to cry in the middle of a car dealership because of how invested I had gotten and how painful things were in the book. Pullman did a wonderful job of animating each character and you can feel their joy and happiness and pain and sorrow just as if it was your own. This book really did destroy me a little bit and I do not regret that experience. I would recommend reading the whole series, I would absolutely not read this as a stand alone book as it is too intertwined with the broader narrative within the trilogy. I also didn’t think that it was as blasphemous as was claimed before I read the book. I’ll leave it there because to give much more detail would spoil the book. I hope I haven’t been too vague about the book, I just don’t want to give away precious details that the reader should discover on their own. I loved the trilogy and I hope that all young adults get the chance to read it. Happy Reading!

Book Review: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I’m glad that I was able to grab this book right away after finishing The Golden Compass because I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I raced through this book, absolutely devouring each page. I think I finished it in a day or two and I read it so quickly after The Golden Compass that I was debating putting the two together in a book review. However, the plots differ quite a bit and I felt that it was unfair to the author to lump them together even if they were a delight to devour one after the other. This book was just as magical to me as The Golden Compass. Pullman creates new main characters that he is able to masterfully tie into the main storyline as if they were meant to be there all along. It makes me wonder if he had mapped out the wider story before writing The Golden Compass or if it was the product of workshopping various ideas together to fill out Lyra’s universe. Either way, what a book! It did get a little confusing at points because Pullman introduces SO much new material in this book and just expects the reader to absorb it as quickly as he’s writing it. In order to clarify things, let me explain the plot briefly to help you get your bearings a little better.

By the end of the first book, Lord Asriel has jumped into another world and Lyra decides to pursue. However, she ends up in an entirely different world, our own. She meets a young boy, Will, and they begin to search for Will’s father, John Parry. Still in Lyra’s world, the witches and Lee Scoresby seek out Lyra by any means possible. Lee Scoresby searches for Stanislaus Grumman in an effort to locate an entrance into the world where Lyra is. At the end, all are reunited, Grumman, Lyra, Will, and the witches but all is not what it seems. Meanwhile, Lyra is still being pursued by the dreadful Mrs. Coulter and has to evade her minions throughout the book. The hallmark of this new book is the world hopping, which Will and Lyra do multiple times in an effort to evade their enemies. This world hopping can be disorienting to the reader but Pullman describes each new world with a few specific clues that readers can use to distinguish where Lyra and Will have ended up. Pullman does a great job of giving each of these worlds their own characteristics and paints a rich picture of a multiverse where Lyra and Will can traverse across many unique worlds. I loved this book just as much as The Golden Compass and hope that my readers get the chance to read this book as well as The Golden Compass. I would recommend against reading the books out of order as you may lack crucial information from the previous book. Happy Reading!

Book Review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

This book review has been a long time coming! It’s been over a month since my last post and I appreciate the patience as I tackle a few old challenges and some new adventures! Finals were tough and I’m happy to be back at home and up to my old tricks once again! I’ve tried a few times to read The Golden Compass and almost finished it last time but didn’t quite get there. This time, I borrowed the whole series and set out to read them all. And WOW was I shocked at how good these books were. At the moment, I’m already halfway through the third book and the review for the second book should be out sometime soon. Pullman does an incredible job of creating entire new worlds that seemed pulled from nowhere and investing the reader into the little life of Lyra. I would like to address the biggest controversy around the books, which is that they are heretical or anti-God. I didn’t really understand why these claims were being made until I reached the end of the first book, then the lightbulb went off. They do have a distinctly anti-organized religion bent and one could even say they are anti-God. However, these are fantasy novels and are not being presented as factual by Pullman. I feel that they might not be appropriate reading for a very religiously focused household but I think that with the use of deeper literary analysis, these books can be understood just fine. I also have a strict policy of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These books contain some fantastic writing and I feel transported every time I open them. Some people may take offense at the longer plot points but I don’t think that is any reason to deprive yourself of some truly fantastic fiction. With the elephant in the room addressed, let’s move on to the actual book!

The Golden Compass follows Lyra Belacqua, a precocious eleven year old and her beloved daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra has grown up running feral through the halls of Jordan College in Oxford and becomes swept away from her beloved home and friends in a tide of destiny. She travels with gypsies, explores the Arctic, befriends an armored bear, and confronts the horrors sponsored by her own mother. By the end she is reunited with Lord Asriel, her guardian but that is certainly not the end of her story. Lyra uses her wits and innocence to bend others to her will and complete her destiny. Lyra is a wonderful character and following her journey in the book was a joy. Not only is Lyra a marvel of literary creation, all of the lands that she travels through are described so vividly that they feel as real as the chair that I’m sitting on while I read. If you couldn’t already tell, I loved this book. I know that it’s classified as young adult fiction but I really felt that it was a book that was more meant for adults? I enjoyed it much more as a young woman than I would have in my younger years.

Book Review: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This book was a wild ride!!! It was another one of my Christmas books and I was very happy to see it! I saw this in the same bookstore as “Hidden Valley Road”, which was Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia. This being said, I implore you all to try and patronize your local or independent bookstores as much as you can during this never-ending pandemic. Often books from local or independent sellers can be pricier than Amazon or other larger sellers, but when I have the extra money to do so, I try to think of the higher price as part of an investment in my community. Local bookstores provide so much more for their communities than Amazon can ever do so try to support them if you can! Back to the book! As I mentioned, reading this book is a journey and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed with some minor misgivings about the author’s style. As a novel about opera singers, it is written as a love story to the art of opera and I would highly recommend listening to the operas or just specific songs as they are mentioned in the book. I didn’t do this and I think my reading would have been richer for doing so because I am not super familiar with opera.

The book follows Lilliet Berne, a fictional soprano from the Fin de Siecle in France. The book follows her recollections of her curious ascent to the heights of operatic fame and the cost of such a journey to herself and others. I loved the story which was inspired by Jenny Lind who ended her career touring America with PT Barnum and his circus. Lilliet’s life is full of twists and turns that were delightful to explore! My only issues with the book were stylistic. Mr. Chee chooses to not differentiate his lines of dialogue from the rest of his prose which can be confusing. I did get used to it eventually but not without irritation on my part. Furthermore, Mr. Chee writes the novel in a mix of past and present which can be jarring but I didn’t take as much umbrage at this as I did with the dialogue. I really loved the story, it absolutely drew me in but I was so frustrated with Mr. Chee’s style at certain points that I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel was delicious to devour but future reader, be warned! Happy reading and please support your local bookstore if you can! (My copy of The Queen of the Night was from Vroman’s in Pasadena, a fabulous bookstore that ships nationwide!)

Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

So in the past few days, I finished this book and it was really a delightful escape to the Paris of many years past. A Moveable Feast was published posthumously and is a chronicle of Hemingway’s time in Paris after the First World War with his wife Hadley and the people they encountered during their adventures. The last section is devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald and their friendship. Despite the title, there is not much feasting going on but the book contains beautiful and melancholic descriptions of Paris. I choose this book because it came highly recommended from several expatriate sites when I was looking for books about France. As it was written about life in the twenties, I’m not sure how relevant it will be for my journey to France but I really did enjoy the book. This is yet another one of my secondhand reads which I love but please, please, please go buy something full price from your local bookstore! I love saving money on books but if you can spend it, your local bookstore could really use the support with the lack of walk-in traffic these days. I know that my favorite southern California bookstore was really struggling and they ended up asking people for business which really helped! But don’t let your local bookstore get to that point please! Bookstores are a super important part of the community so please support them! Now back to Hemingway!

I have never read any of Hemingway’s work but I was aware of his very “macho” reputation and propensity for being called Big Papa. Coming into this book with those assumptions, I was absolutely floored by the tenderness and melancholy that I found in this book. Not only was Hemingway emotive in the extreme, he also recognized his own foibles and didn’t shield them from the view of the reader. I really enjoyed just reading the little vignettes about his various experiences in Paris. In other parts of the novel, he was coarse and rude and terrible but overall, he wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps because he was in Paris during a period of relative peace and was yet building up his reputation as an author, he was more free to write about his entire experience and emotions. Hemingway’s last view chapters are dedicated to his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and it’s clear that Hemingway cared both a great deal for F. Scott while vehemently hating Zelda Fitzgerald. Overall, I enjoyed the book because it was very refreshing and I felt that I got to experience Paris as Hemingway did. However, as any author, Hemingway takes liberties with the personalities involved, twisting them to suit the story. I would just caution the reader to not judge all the persons presented based on Hemingway’s account of them. I would recommend this book, especially to people who read a little before bed. The chapters are more like self-contained stories and are read quickly. If you’re looking for a little literature at night, this is an excellent place to start!

Book Review: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

WOW!!! What a ride this one took me on! I devoured this book in a few days after finishing from Dawn to Decadence. I was desperate for a good read to take my mind on an adventure and boy did I find that here! Also, I must add a disclaimer that I loved reading this book but I also really enjoy the genre of true-crime in books, podcasts, or even television shows. If you don’t love crime or are not a huge fan of thrillers, this book will not be for you. It’s definitely got a deeper exploration into the suburban mentality that some may enjoy but it is very heavy on the crime drama and the suspense!

The book follows the perspective of the husband who has been married to his “lovely” wife Mildred for fifteen years. The pair have to hustle everyday for a place in their suburban paradise of Hidden Oaks in Florida and to raise their two children. However, their relationship takes an interesting turn when they decide to begin murdering together! Normal spousal fun right? Things take a turn for the worse when the pair resurrect a serial killer to cover their crimes and their deadly romance takes a turn for the worse.

As mentioned, I really enjoyed this one. It kept me on the edge of my seat but I was a little disappointed in the end. I felt that Millicent wasn’t as fleshed out as a character as she could have been but if she had been, the final twist wouldn’t have caught me like it did. I would recommend this but probably not to younger readers! It’s one to take on a nice long road trip or just to bring with you to the beach! Happy reading and let me know what you think if you happen to pick up a copy!

Book Review: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

All I can say is OMG I FINALLY FINISHED!!! This book is a WHOPPER of a read and it was recommended to me by a very dear family friend. This family friend has recommended many books to me over the years and it was a treat when he was able to drop this book off for me during the early months of our societal quarantine. I started this book in April which both seems like yesterday and like a lifetime ago! This book is around 800 pages, give or take a hundred additional pages for the references and notes. I’ve been reading this in the background as I couldn’t tackle it all by itself without a serious headache. I feel very accomplished that I was able to finish it but I don’t know if I volunteer for the task again anytime soon.

This tome by Barzun is truly a masterpiece of Western cultural life. I am glad that I read this book; just by reading a few pages a day I’ve learned so much more about the history of culture in the West. While I’ve always treated culture as an interesting footnote in my historical studies, Barzun shows how culture plays such a meaningful role in shaping history and the course of the world. My biggest issue with the book was that Barzun did such an excellent job of describing the first 450 years covered in his book and did such a poor job describing the most recent years that his book purported to cover. I felt that the last fifty years have been done a great injustice by Barzun. Perhaps he was writing from a spot that made him too near to something to write objectively. Barzun’s description of the last fifty years before the close of the work, 1995, was a confused diatribe against modernity. Barzun did a wonderful job of shedding light on the cultural pathways of the west before World War 1 but after his writing is disorganized and extremely critical. Perhaps in the last fifty years, our society has descended into such a state of decadence that it will collapse but I felt that Barzun didn’t do the recent past justice. I enjoyed the experience of reading Barzun’s work but would not recommend this to be consumed by the average reader.

Book Review: The Orchid Thief

I’m writing this post after just finishing this book less than ten minutes ago. It was such a thought-provoking read that I feel like I both digested it as I read it but also have no idea what kind of literary journey I just took. The Orchid Thief was Susan Orlean’s debut novel after being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years. I actually read her second novel, The Library Book, over the summer. The Library Book was such a poetic tribute to the power that books and the literary arts hold over ordinary lives that I limited myself to a certain page count per day in order to stretch out the reading experience and savor the words. I enjoyed The Library Book so much that I couldn’t help but search out Orlean’s first book in an effort to repeat the experience. While I was disappointed that The Orchid Thief didn’t evoke such an emotional response for me, it was a great book. Orlean spends the novel both detailing her experience with the exotic plant world of Florida while recounting the history of exotic plant collection. She interweaves the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title, with a larger reflection on the existence of Florida as both a part of the United States that stands truly alone.

Some of the description in this book didn’t resonate with me very much but I’m also not an attentive plant lover. Orlean’s writing was powerful in this first novel and I think that she really perfected her prose in The Library Book. I’m also from California and was able to find resonance in her words about California and its history more than I was able to relate to the story of a state that I have never visited. Orlean does meditate on a lot of the elements of modernity in this novel and I would say that for that alone, The Orchid Thief deserves a read. Orleans passes no strong judgement upon the people that populate her book which I think is part of the fun. Orlean’s presence as a neutral narrator makes the reader think harder about their own biases in life. Definitely a book for an adults, The Orchid Thief is a unique reflection on life and plants and everything in between.

Book Review: Monsters of Men

I could not believe how fast I finished this book. It’s the third in the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness that I posted about about a week ago. Wow!!!! This was a thrilling conclusion to the books and most of it was totally unexpected and the action kept coming! I started on a Wednesday and finished by Thursday evening! I absolutely ripped through this book and am still reeling from the ending!

The last installment of Ness’ trilogy brings us right back to the end of the second book, The Ask and the Answer. Just as Mayor Prentiss and Mistriss Coyle are about to have their epic showdown, their rivalry has to be put on pause to combat the massive Spackle army that has marched on their city. The Spackle previously appeared in the trilogy but not as main protagonists. When the settlers from the Old World settled on the New, a massive Spackle war ensued with several thousand Spackle being enslaved to the settlers as part of the peace agreement. These enslaved Spackle are slaughtered wholesale by Mayor Prentiss in the second book, leading to the mobilization of the Spackle across the planet. In the third book, the settlers face extinction in the face of the imminent arrival of more settlers and the rivalries of the second book haven’t gone anywhere. Tension is high and Todd and Viola are doing all they can to save each other while saving the rest of humanity but will they succeed and keep their lives?? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I talked over the entire trilogy with the aforementioned friend who introduced me to the trilogy and we both had some pretty strong opinions about each of the characters in a world where nothing is quite black and white. I found that this trilogy is incredibly insightful in its treatment of humans and the basic moral battle of good versus evil that has faced humanity for many millennia. Ness does a really good job of showing how easy it is for evil to seep into our lives but encouragingly shows how to confront that same evil. I cannot believe how much I enjoyed reading these books and would recommend them to YA lovers. It provides a layered and nuanced story that makes you question even your own perceptions of the world.