Book Review, British Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, James Hanley, Middle Grade, Modernism, Philip Pullman, R.L. Stine, Young Adult

Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, Atheism, Book Review, Fantasy, Humanism, Philip Pullman, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Review: The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 27

4 – Plot/Story is interesting, believable and impactful.

The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights and/or His Dark Materials, Book 1) is the first in the world-famous fantasy trilogy by English writer Philip Pullman. This book won the Carnegie Medal in Literature in 1995, then was named the “Carnegie of Carnegies” in 2007, after a public vote on the best Carnegie-winning books of the past 70 years.  The first impression one gets while (and after) reading this book is that it is not a typical Young Adult fantasy novel, though it is often described as such.  Author Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) described Pullman as being an author “whose books have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction.”  This is certainly true with The Golden Compass.  The story tackles deeply philosophical themes and widely cherished traditions, putting its main character, Lyra, in direct conflict with two powerful schools of thought: Christianity and Humanism.  Though the main character might be a child, the dangers are very real; indeed, some scenes are shockingly adult in nature.  Largely an adventure story, Lyra finds herself companion to Gyptians (gypsies), armored bears, witches, and clockwork spies.  She sets off to save a friend of hers, who has been captured by “the Gobblers” and, along the way, learns more about the world and herself than she could have ever imagined. 

3 – Characters well-developed.

The only somewhat disappointing element to this largely enjoyable and thought-provoking story was its characterization.  While there are absolutely a wide-range of characters, including those of different species, different political and philosophical viewpoints, and different temperaments, none of them (with the exception, perhaps, of Lyra’s parents – who might somewhat surprise the reader, in the end) are expressly or purposely developed, including Lyra.  For some reason, it is hard to connect with Lyra, except, perhaps, in the moments when she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are at risk of separation.  Perhaps this is intentional, considering the major conflict in this story is the idea of intercision – the separating of a youth’s physical body from their daemon, the animal aspect indicative of their soul.  In general, though, the interaction between characters was believable and interesting.  One of the most fascinating elements of the story is the relationship between humans and their daemons – Pullman truly captures what a special relationship this is, and creates certain rules that are never expressly spoken (such as the fact that all daemons are the opposite gender from their humans), but which add wonderful layers to the story and the fantasy world overall.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

After reading The Golden Compass, it is safe to say that this series may become my second-favorite “YA” (I use that descriptor very cautiously) fantasy series, after Harry Potter.  This is partially because the story itself is deep, interesting, and unique, but also largely because of how well it is written.  Pullman’s style is refreshing – it comes across as serious and important, which is sometimes lacking in the fantasy genre, particularly in fantasy for younger readers (Tolkien, Salvatore, etc. excluded).  What is genius about the prose and language is that it somehow manages to match the tone of the story, which is complex and dangerous, while also keeping in mind the youth of its main character.  Pullman has created a beautifully vivid, well-imagined world, where multiple-universes are possible, and his talent for translating that world onto the page and into the readers’ minds is superb. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The trilogy is perhaps best known as the athiest’s answer to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series.  Pullman, a self-described “agnostic atheist” and Humanist told The Washington Post in an interview that the trilogy was not created “to offend people;” instead, he saw them as “upholding certian values that . . . are important, such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place.”  He went on to say that he thought “we should do what we can to increase the amount of widom in the world.”  Ultimately, Northern Lights is the entryway for these ideas – a pursuit of knowledge, a questioning of traditional doctrine and authority figures, and a commitment to one’s self and one’s own personal growth and development.  We see these ideas at work in the main character, Lyra, especially in her bold individuality but also in her devotion to her daemon, Pan, and in her willingness to listen and to learn (if not always to obey).   

Suggested Reading for
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Fantasy, Multiple Universes, Atheism, Humanism, Spirituality, Independence, Good & Evil

Notable Quotes:

“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

“That’s the duty of the old,’ said the Librarian, ‘to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”

“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”

“Being a practiced liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.”

“Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.”

“We are all subject to the fates. But we must act as if we are not, or die of despair.”