Book Review: The Amber Spyglass

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And through it all went the two nolongerquitechildren, seeing the Specters almost clearly now.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

I sped through The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, but for some reason, it took me a much longer time to read The Amber Spyglass. Sure, I was busy with other things. But for some reason, I was less intrigued, less interested, in the last instalment of the trilogy than the previous two.

Don’t get me wrong. Again, the book is full of interesting ideas, especially about sexuality. There are the two male angels, Bathamos and Baruch, whose relationship, I would say, is far more passionate than any other couple in the book. The angels do not seem to be explicitly sexual beings, but one is scarcely mentioned without pining after the other, and the fact that they love each other is made quite clear. I found Will’s non-judgmental admiration of their relationship refreshing, especially for a children’s book. But like I said before, I would have a hard time classifying His Dark Materials as children’s books.

Although the story is set in mostly fantastical universes, with characters including armored bears, tiny humanoid beings called Gallivespians, and witches flying around on pine branches, the issues that Lyra and the others encounter are very much relatable to the reader. There’s sexuality, of course, with Lyra and Will beginning their transition from childhood, but there’s a myriad of other ideas that make The Amber Spyglass, and the entire series, a worthy read. The bomb, the war, the armored bears being forced to migrate from their native Arctic to the mountains due to melting icecaps. This all sounds relatively familiar.

I liked the fantastical universes Lyra and Will visit, especially the world of the mulefa. When I was younger, I used to attempt to write my own fiction (aspiring to become the next Rowling, or Murakami, or whoever was my favorite author at the time). For a while, I tried to write fantasy, but I found that my imagination was lacking. My magical creatures tended to be borrowed from books and movies I’d enjoyed. The mulefa are pretty unique in their anatomy, their harmony with their environment, their relationship with the trees that sustain them and that they sustain.

But now I can move on to what I didn’t enjoy so much about the book. For one thing, there were simply too many new characters. Pullman adds onto the cast introduced in the earlier two books, bringing back old characters and introducing new species and new people.

The narrative skips from Lyra, to Mrs. Coulter, to Lord Asriel, to whoever else can provide the next convenient perspective. And, to be honest, although I found the Gallivespians interesting, I thought that sometimes they lacked individual characterization, and were just there to propel the plot forward. Having a tiny person present at clandestine meetings to report back to Mrs. Coulter or whoever was awfully convenient. Aside from that, it got difficult to keep track of so many characters of different species, in different worlds.

And although I won’t go into it too deeply, I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. It took away from the uniqueness of the series that made me like it in the first place. The novel’s narrative voice, while rich and intriguing in its descriptions of magical worlds and beings, turned rather cheesy and derivative. I liked the series, so I forced myself to continue, but I would have to say this was my least favorite of the three.

YES OR NO?: YES. I saw that I’d written that The Subtle Knife is not as strong a read as The Golden Compass, but I somehow think this third book is the least interesting out of the trilogy. It’s a bit busy. But obviously I would recommend that you finish the trilogy, which as a whole has been my favourite read of 2015, so far.

Soft Peaks and food blogging in Vancouver

At the beginning of February, I received an invitation from Soft Peaks, an ice cream shop in Vancouver’s Gastown, cordially offering complimentary ice cream for me and a friend. If you’re from Vancouver and you’re at all active on social media, you must be aware of Soft Peaks. My Instagram and Facebook feeds have been clogged with photos of Soft Peaks’s organic milk creations, topped with luxurious toppings, and it’s been impossible to avoid when skimming food blogs (of which there are literally hundreds in Vancouver), which is how I torture myself when I have a hankering for a midnight snack.

So why did I receive this invitation? Was Soft Peaks being generous to random Vancouverites, spreading goodwill in the form of cups of refreshing treats? Actually, no. I used to write one of the hundreds of food blogs that I just mentioned, although I haven’t been active for more than a year.

I used to love food blogging. It gave me a creative outlet when my day job mostly consisted of writing fairly formulaic web articles. It also was a nice way for me to look back on meals I’d had, and, in the case of my travel posts, relive my travels a little.

But for some reason, I stopped enjoying it. There were a few reasons for this.

For one thing, I found I was in a rut. I focused on writing interesting preambles and conclusions, but my actual descriptions of the food I consumed seemed stale. I resorted to using the same analogies over and over again, and for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with so many ways to describe a negitoro roll.

There are many food blogs in Vancouver, many with excellent photos that show the food up close, making their readers’ mouths water with envy by exhibiting that perfect medium rare steak, that sweetly rounded scoop of salted caramel of Earnest Ice Cream, those perfectly seared pieces of aburi nigiri. I had a decent DSLR and I was capable of taking decent photos of my food, but I wanted my blog to be more about pictures. I wanted it to be about words.

Food blogging stopped being creative for me. I found I was going to restaurants simply based on what was trendy, and I wasn’t being adventurous in trying out new places based on my own volition. Vancouver, with its huge community of food bloggers, made me less confident that I could offer up something unique for potential readers.

With this blog, I hoped to be more creative, by writing about a topic I’ve always been enthusiastic about–books–while occasionally writing other posts as they occurred to me. Recently I’ve realized that reviewing books can have the same caveats as reviewing restaurants, and that I need to be more creative and motivated about producing content, which is my goal for future posts.

Oh, and going back to the ice cream at Soft Peaks–it’s delicious. I had the rocky mountain with caramel syrup, and my snacking companion had the Mudslide. It reminded me of soft serve I had in Myungdong on my latest trip back to Seoul. Perfect for a hot summer day, or even a chilly February afternoon. Sometimes there’s a reason that places become trendy, other than the pure aesthetics (ie. Instagrammability) of their food.

Book Review: The Subtle Knife

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But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

After thoroughly enjoying The Golden Compass, I moved speedily onward in the trilogy. I find that middle books in trilogies can often be dull. The first book is exciting because introduces the reader to a new universe, and the finale is exciting simply because it is the end of an epic tale. But the second book is often full of unnecessary plot points, lazy characterization, and filler material (I’m looking at you, Catching Fire).

In that respect, The Subtle Knife is much more than a run-of-the-mill middle book in a trilogy. The reader is introduced to new universes, each with their own unique characteristics, and despite the large number of new characters, they’re not difficult to keep track of, and all of the stories converge by the end of the book. I missed reading about the armoured bears, but it was interesting seeing Lyra navigate an Oxford closer to the one I had the chance to explore a few summers ago.

One thing I loved about The Subtle Knife is something I usually love about fantasy novels–the notion of destiny, as cheesy as that sounds. Or maybe it’s more correct to say destined greatness, to avoid the image of melodramatic, star-crossed lovers. For me, fantasy is a way to escape the mundanity of real life, and the idea that someone is the Prince Who Was Promised, the centre of some great prophecy, is just too, well, cool. And The Subtle Knife is full of grandiose hints, from the adults, the witches, the narrator, that both Lyra and Will are more than just children, that they are destined to do important things.

Will and Lyra are both on the cusp of adulthood, and I liked that Will reflected certain qualities in Lyra’s personality that I liked–that he is a good person overall, but makes mistakes. He cares deeply for his mother, and eventually for Lyra, but he’s willing to lie, cheat, and even murder to accomplish his goals. He’s human, and relatable, like all of the characters, even the ones who technically aren’t human.

For me, even Mrs. Coulter has her human moments. Of course, her background story as related in The Golden Compass elicits some sympathy, but when I considered how much Mrs. Coulter has to bend the Magisterium’s rules, simply because she’s a woman, I understood her character more clearly. Her frustration with the church is clear.

The book gets a little preachy about how the church is oppressing its people, suppressing natural impulses, making people ashamed about their sexuality, etc., but I personally didn’t find it unbearable. I took it as more of a lesson to question authority, and to think analytically about situations, which I don’t think is necessarily bad to teach young adult readers.

YES OR NO?: YES. This isn’t as strong a read at the first book in the trilogy, and the story gets a bit convoluted, but I’d still recommend it for all readers. And onward to The Amber Spyglass!

Book Review: The Golden Compass

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The powers of this world are very strong. Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

I wouldn’t say that high fantasy is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve always reserved a special spot for it in my heart. I have memories of countless summers spent poring over my favourite fantasy series until the books themselves fell apart and had to be Scotch taped together by my ever-patient mother. As a teenager, I made a tradition of rereading Harry Potter each summer, and like the rest of the world, I’ve more recently become obsessed with A Song of Ice and Fire, but the series that I’ve reread the most is The Chronicles of Narnia.

Narnia introduced me to basic elements of storytelling and familiarized me with various magical creatures out of Greek, Christian, and other mythologies. Once I passed puberty, I recognized all the not-so-subtle Christian overtones in Lewis’s prose. And as someone who grew up in a household disdainful of religious indoctrination, I found many things about my formerly beloved Narnia that troubled me.

There is, of course, the oft-cited character of Susan Pevensie, who doesn’t get to return to Narnia (ie., go to heaven) because she has become obsessed with boys and lipstick (ie., discovered sex). But one thing that has troubled me about the heroes of Narnia is that they are all good. Even characters like Edmund and Eustace, who initially struggle with sins like greed and envy, reform, and once they have reformed, they are nothing but good. There’s no relapse. This is fine, and fitting with C.S. Lewis’s Christian themes, but not very relatable.

I liked a lot of things about The Golden Compass, but what stood out the most for me was Lyra. Lyra is exactly what I want in a hero: morally centered, but also willing to lie and deceive to achieve her goals. She falters, struggles, and sometimes cries, as anyone her age would when faced with the situations she is forced to deal with. And for a child her age, Lyra is clever and adaptable enough that she carries the plot forward swiftly, all the while easily manipulating humans and other creatures in order to get closer to her goals.

I especially enjoyed the portrayal of gender in The Golden Compass. Lyra, while a tomboy, freely explores both stereotypically male and female interests. Despite roughhousing with the neighborhood boys during her days at Jordan College, she also initially enjoys a life of shopping and glamour with Mrs. Coulter. I thought Pullman cleverly expressed this duality in all people through the daemon. In this universe, all humans have a daemon, an animal that acts as the physical manifestation of their soul, that is of the opposite gender.

Daemons, armored bears, and witches. These are creatures and characters familiar to the fantasy genre (well, maybe not the armored bears so much), but what Pullman does with them in The Golden Compass is unique. The solemn tone of the whole book, with the subtle moments of humour, made it an engaging read for me.

YES OR NO?: YES. While researching this book, I read that Pullman eschews designating books for certain audiences, encouraging readers to pursue whichever books they’re interested in without regard for gender or age levels. Well, The Golden Compass is a book I would recommend to anyone, regardless of age or gender or even interest. Despite being fantasy, it easily appeals to anyone interested in human rights, religion, sociology, and the language is somehow sophisticated enough to not bore adults, but not complex enough to confuse children. I highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to get through the rest of the series.

Book Review: Dracula

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And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere “modernity” cannot kill.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula is one of those books (and characters) that needs no introduction. The character of Count Dracula and his surrounding folklore have become such an integral part of popular culture that Stoker’s novel has forever coloured how modern readers perceive vampires.

I’ve been on a classics binge for the past few months, but Dracula is the first classic that has raised this thought for me: It is no longer possible for any modern reader to feel the same sense of suspense, dread, and excitement when reading Dracula.

While reading Dracula, I felt hopelessly frustrated with the characters, especially Jonathan Harker. Obviously, for Stoker’s contemporary readers, who would have approached the story with little knowledge of Count Dracula’s true identity, Jonathan’s adventures in Transylvania would have actually aroused some excitement. However, as someone who is well aware of the Dracula myth, some of the ominous hints that Stoker strews through his novel, especially the first half, are too much to bear. Jonathan keeps making comments about how it’s odd that he’s never seen the count eat or drink, or how it seemed as though the count lacked a reflection in the mirror, but he must have been imagining things.

As a modern reader, I couldn’t help but think, ‘HE’S A VAMPIRE! OPEN YOUR EYES!’ Not that this is Stoker’s fault. He probably didn’t envision his novel enduring for so long.

And, to be honest, I’m not sure why it has. The first half of the novel is exciting enough, with Jonathan being trapped in the count’s castle and encountering the three vampiric sisters, who are just dripping with morbid and forbidden sexuality. But the second half of the novel…as much as I wanted to enjoy it, I just couldn’t. For one thing, the most exciting character–Count Dracula himself–is largely absent, except for a few scenes.

There are a few female characters in Dracula, the two heroines being Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. Both women are sweet, beautiful, good, loving, and, while intelligent (especially in Mina’s case), almost stupidly subservient to the men in their lives. Some of the men, like Dr. Van Helsing, are somewhat deserving of this subservience, because of their age and experience. But Lucy and Mina are constantly making misogynistic remarks about how women are less deserving of trust than men, and their greatest desire is to improve themselves, not for the sake of self-improvement, but to be useful to the men in their lives.

Sure, you could say that the Lucy and Mina are both products of their time. However, Dracula was published in 1897, a time when the ideal of the New Woman was rapidly gaining ground and more and more women were seeking autonomy. Considering what was actually historically happening for women’s rights, Lucy and Mina are both quite insipid. Even Mina, who shows such promise as an intelligent, capable woman, ends up depending on men to save her, practically quivering with gratitude at being saved, to the point that it could come across as a bit offensive to a modern reader.

YES OR NO?: NO. I guess it’s slightly my fault for reading Dracula with my modern expectations for the depiction of women, as well as a more fast-moving, exciting plot. But still, considering that this is basically the best-known title in vampire fiction, I found it a dull read, especially the second half. Although it is a historically important book, I think I could have done without reading it.