Book review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

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Confession time: I’m pretty sure I’ve had this book since I was in high school. Maybe even middle school. A long time, regardless. It was a gift, and I’m so, so, so sorry that it took me at least ten years to read it.

I read it for two reasons:
1) I’m doing this personal challenge where I “kill” my TBR pile by reading at least three books per month that I’ve had for over a year.
2) It’s Banned Books Week and I know this book has been challenged many times for its supposed atheist message, or whatever.

Anyway, I was really pleasantly surprised, because after a rather slow start, it got really exciting! I did watch the movie when it came out years ago, but I remembered almost nothing of the plot, except that I thought there was some kind of animal following Lyra around, and there was something about a polar bear.

So, anyway…

Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan, lives with the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College. She doesn’t much like it there, since there are few people her own age to play with, and her lessons are half-hearted and dry. One day, her uncle, Lord Asriel, shows up talking about Dust, and the North, and a bunch of people Lyra has never heard of before. Lyra is intrigued by this mysterious Dust, and even more intrigued when nobody will bother explaining it to her.

Shortly after, the beautiful and charming Mrs. Coulter shows up, offering Lyra an opportunity to be her assistant and travel around the world with her. Lyra, who has never had consistent attention in her life, jumps at the chance. It’s not long, though, before Lyra realizes that something is off with Mrs. Coulter, and she may be connected to mass kidnappings in the area.

With the help of her daemon, an armored bear, and some unexpected allies, Lyra must fight her way out of Mrs. Coulter’s grasp, rescue her imprisoned uncle, and save the kidnapped children from horrific experiments.

So, all the time I was reading this book, I had one thought running through my head – “I can’t believe this is for kids.” This book is so intense! It has horrific and terrifying scenes! I mean, maybe it’s like that scene in Toy Story 3, where the toys almost get shredded and they’re preparing to die, and I was basically sobbing on the edge of my seat. Maybe kids interpret it differently. Also, I’m really sensitive and emotional, like all the time. Especially when it comes to stuff with animals, but I legit almost cried when Lyra finds out what the Gobblers actually do.

But, since I was reading this book for Banned Books Week, I do feel like it’s necessary to point out that I still liked the book, despite my strong emotional response, and I in no way think it should be pulled from library shelves.

Let me get on to the things I really liked:

1) Lyra. What a spunky kid. She never gets discouraged, never gives up, never thinks she can’t do something because of her age or her gender or her status. She finds something that needs to be done and she does it. Just like that. This is such a great thing for kids to read about. It was inspiring to me, and I’m 25!

2) The daemons. I would love to have my own daemon! Of course, I really love animals, but the thought that an animal can be a physical representation of your soul, actually linked to you, with a deep emotional connection was just so great. When it was revealed that the Gobblers were experimenting to find a way to separate people from their daemons (not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb), I cuddled my cat because it was like I could actually feel Lyra’s daemon being torn away from her.

3) I loved how the plot just twists and turns and never slows down. Think you have it figured out? You don’t. Think Lyra’s finally safe? She’s not. Think you know who the good guys and bad guys are? Nope. Think again.

4) I loved the alethiometer/symbol reader/lie detector. Lyra is the only one who can read it, and even though she’s a “just a little girl,” as some might say, she understands the importance of it and doesn’t let anybody else take it away from her. The alethiometer helps her through a number of tricky situations and turns out to be an invaluable asset.

This book was such a pleasant surprise, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.


Final rating: ★★★★☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #33: a book from your childhood.

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Frenchie Garcia is struggling.

She’s just finished high school, and nothing is going as planned. She didn’t get into art school. Her best friend constantly blows her off to be with his new girlfriend. Their plans to move to Chicago have imploded. And the cherry on top of this disastrous year? The guy she’s had a crush on for as long as she can remember committed suicide after spending the night adventuring with her.

She’s withdrawn, depressed, antisocial. Her friends don’t understand what her problem is, but then again, they don’t know what happened with Andy. Frenchie pushes everyone away with her snippy, snarky attitude. And here lies my biggest problem with this book: instead of reaching out for help, Frenchie pushes her friends away with well-timed, sometimes vicious jabs. And it didn’t feel necessary to me.

You know, sometimes when you’re reading about a character like Frenchie, you understand that they need to act out. You feel bad for them. You forgive their indiscretions. But that was really hard with Frenchie, because more than feeling her pain, I just felt like she was trying too hard to be edgy and mysterious.

I didn’t feel much better about her friends. Joel keeps secrets from Frenchie. He tosses his long time best friend aside for his new girlfriend. Her other friends aren’t much better, insisting that she drown her sorrows in the bar’s cute bouncer, Colin, without even asking her what’s wrong. (Not that she probably would have answered truthfully.)

Strangely, the only character I felt a semblance of connection with was Colin – the one character who doesn’t back away from the barbed wire fence that Frenchie has constructed around herself.

As for the topic of suicide, I felt that it could have been dealt with a lot better. I remember reading 13 Reasons Why while I was working a college job and struggling to hold in the tears as students and their parents swirled around me. That is a book that properly deals with suicide. It’s more of a plot point here than anything else. “This guy died; how is Frenchie going to handle it?”

I can’t fault the writing style, but I had trouble getting into the book, and most of the characters fell flat for me. Honestly, I’m really disappointed, because this book has been on my list since it came out and I didn’t win a free copy. This book could have been so much better than it was. 

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #28: a book with antonyms in the title.

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For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m supposed to read “a popular author’s first book.”  I’ll be honest – I had some trouble finding a popular author.  Because if it’s a popular author that I actually like, I’ve probably already read their first book.  I thought about John Green, Marissa Meyer, Libba Bray, Colleen Hoover.  I thought about Chuck Palahniuk, Meg Cabot, Judy Blume, Tamora Pierce.  I looked through lists of books by Sarah Dessen, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Perkins, Cassandra Clare. Nothing really spoke to me.

Then, on a whim, I realized I had ordered Wicked Lovely, which just so happens to be Melissa Marr’s first book.  At 30 distinct works and almost 320,000 ratings, I think she qualifies as a popular author.  At least according to Goodreads.  Anyway, on to the review.

Aislinn has always been able to see faeries.  It runs in the family.  And since she was a little girl, her Grams has always reminded her of the rules.  Don’t attract the faeries.  Don’t look at the faeries.  Certainly don’t speak to the faeries.  And Aislinn has always followed these rules… until Keenan, the Summer King, starts courting her, and turns her life upside down.

This book came out when I was in high school.  (I feel really old saying that.)  Back then, the praise was incessant.  "This book is so amazing,“ they said.  "Aislinn is so feisty and awesome,” they said.  "It’s such a great story,“ they said.  I was so excited to read this book, but for some reason, it took me eight years.

And, now that I’ve read it, really none of those things are true.

At best, this story is mediocre.  It’s not well-developed.  The plot just kind of meanders along, dragging around the possibility of romance between Aislinn and her best friend, Seth, while the possibility of Keenan ruining everything never quite goes away.  It’s actually painfully obvious that this is the author’s first book.  That, and the fact that nobody wanted to polish this story to be the gem it could have been – with a little more effort.

I was more or less indifferent to Aislinn and her struggles.  I wasn’t swayed by Keenan’s supposed charms.  (Possibly because the only Keenan I’ve ever known was something of a jerk?  That and shiny, superhumanly beautiful men are not a weakness of mine.)  I saw all the plot twists coming.  Aislinn’s friends and their drinking, drugs, piercings, and sexual exploits didn’t excite me the way they might have when I was 17.  In fact, it kind of made me sad.  Kids throwing their lives away because of too little supervision, and all that.

The thing that got to me the most, I think, was Aislinn’s mortality being casually taken away from her.  Sure, she’s a little miffed, but she basically accepts it without too much of a fight.  She actually accepts most everything without much of a fight.  Oh, my whole life is about to change.  I won’t die.  Okay… if you say so… as long as I can keep Seth…

There’s so little conflict, so little angst, so little of any emotion other than teenage hormones in this book that I had trouble connecting with the characters.  Even when Aislinn panics, thinking she might have unknowingly lost her virginity when drunk on faery wine, there’s a sort of blasé attitude about it, like well, things happen and I’d hoped my first time would be special, but oh well.

All in all, it’s just disappointing, and I wish I’d read the mountain of negative reviews before diving headfirst into this book.  It’s a quick read, but I can’t say that it’s worth the time, and I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #15: a popular author’s first book.

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I read Little Women for my 2015 reading challenge, specifically #21: a book your mother loves.

Of course, I’ve been hearing great things about Little Women for literally as long as I can remember.  So, of course, when I finally decided to give it a try, I was… kind of disappointed, actually.  Sure, I can see why it’s a classic.  The writing is good and the themes are pretty much universal.  But I found the characters boring, and I just couldn’t buy into the super-virtuous plot.

Maybe if I’d read this book as a child, it would have been different.  Or, maybe if I didn’t go into it knowing it’s a much-beloved classic. Maybe then I would have liked it more.  But, honestly, Little Women just fell short for me.

Sorry, mom.

Final rating: 


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Room 702 is the story of Emma, a Spanish accountant, who has somewhat of a one night stand with John Davies, a famous British actor.  Not usually one to swoon at the sight of a celebrity, Emma is surprised when she not only feels attracted to John, but also feels that the two of them share an instant connection.  She can’t stop thinking about him after their night together, but it’s hard to build a lasting relationship with someone whose work keeps him away for months at a time.

Honestly, this is an enjoyable book, but it’s nothing new.  Every conversation, every plot line, every character quirk has been done to death.  The entire book is cliche after cliche – which isn’t automatically a bad thing.  The writing was lively enough to keep me going, but I still had the whole book figured out by approximately page 30.

The biggest thing for me was probably the characters and the strong dislike that I felt for most of them.  Nobody was particularly likable, including the two main characters.  Emma’s incessant whining, complaining, and clinginess was exhausting.  John was a jerk, regardless of his charismatic jokes or generous gifts.  Emma’s friends were offensive and annoying, and Emma’s mother was obviously written to be hated – only tolerable in the presence of small children.  The only character I found remotely likable (and even he had to grow on me) was Leo, a mutual friend of Emma and John.

But even though I disliked the characters and could predict literally everything that happened, I still more or less enjoyed this book.  I feel that the quality of the translation was a big reason for this.  As someone with a degree in both Spanish and Linguistics, who has done translations for fun and for grades, I have to give this translator a big pat on the back for avoiding all the telltale signs of a translated work.

Final rating: somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars

Room 702 is currently available to Read Now on Netgalley.  Goodreads also has 20 copies available in a giveaway that closes on August 18.

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #44: a book that was originally written in another language.

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As a child and young teen, Judy Blume’s books were some of my favorites. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret totally defined my childhood. I read and re-read it until it literally fell apart. Her other books – the Fudge series, Freckle Juice, Blubber, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, to name just a few – sat on my grandma’s bookshelf waiting for me whenever I visited. So when I saw that she’d written a new book (finally! after all these years!) and it was available for request on Goodreads, I jumped at the chance. Imagine my excitement when I actually won! I ran through the halls of my office telling everyone I’d just won a free advance copy of Judy Blume’s new book. (Nobody knew who she was, but that’s a sad story for another day.)

I have to admit, it took me awhile to get into in this one. There are an awful lot of characters, and there’s an awful lot going on. We start with a plane crash in Elizabeth, NJ. A horrible event, but not one that’s likely repeated, right? Wrong – it happens twice more in the same town over the next few months. Three plane crashes, all changing the characters in different ways.

In the midst of it all, we have Miri’s coming of age story. This is where the book shines, as expected, since this is what Judy Blume is known for. Out of all the characters, Miri stands out as the best developed, the most interesting, and the most relatable. Even while dealing with the aftermath of three local plane crashes, Miri also has to navigate her first love, her best friend’s mental health issues, and her single mother jumping back into the dating pool.

Although it takes awhile to gain momentum, it’s worth it to slog through the first few chapters for another glimpse into Judy Blume’s mind. After all, the book is based on true events from her childhood. Knowing that there’s probably a lot of Judy Blume’s own experiences in Miri makes the book that much more touching.

I’d highly recommend In the Unlikely Event, because even after all these years, Judy Blume’s still got it. 

Final rating: ★★★★☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #19: a book based on a true story.

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I received a free copy of Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty at a meeting I went to for work last year. Why, at a meeting for medical administrators, about Ebola, no less, did they bestow upon us autographed copies of Diane Keaton’s memoir? It’s a complete mystery. Anyway, the book sat in the closet at work for about eight months before I finally decided to suck it up and read it. And, ugh, it was just as horrible as I’d heard.

I knew I would have a problem with this book when, in the first few pages, Ms. Keaton refers to a wall filled with photographs of famous men as her “prisoners.” That was my first inkling that something was going to be a bit… off about this book. It only gets worse as, throughout the next several chapters, she rambles about her thinning hair, her dislike of the bump on her nose, how she’s never liked the slant of her eyes, and how she would never, ever think about having work done. Not that she’d shame another woman for it, but, wait, maybe she would.

The book is completely disjointed, with certain themes repeating over and over again – her thinning hair, for one, is mentioned frequently, as are her frequent trips to the dermatologist to get her precancers frozen, her skin cancers removed, and her prescription for Solaraze. I’d reference this book at my job – celebrities get skin cancers, too! But I’d feel so bad making the patients struggle through it. There’s nothing to tie the chapters together, so it just comes across as a laundry list of things Ms. Keaton doesn’t like about herself.

While much of the book was odd, I felt, in particular, that the chapter on her daughter’s first trip to Victoria’s Secret was completely inappropriate. A detailed debate of her then fifteen-year-old daughter’s bra size – 32B vs. 34C – culminates in her buying $200 worth of bras and underwear, and don’t worry – there’s a detailed description of her choices, too. I’m sure this was put in to make Ms. Keaton more relatable to the average mother, but it came across as attention-grabby, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Dexter, who now has her lingerie choices on display for the world.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why this was published. There’s no flow – in fact, there are sections of the book where Ms. Keaton literally just lists every cliche phrase she can think of relating to the topic at hand. There are sections where she analyzes her dreams. Sections where she just quotes lyrics from songs her daughter likes. It’s a mess.

Do yourself a favor, and don’t waste the two hours it takes to read this book.

Final rating: ★☆☆☆☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #26: a memoir.