Watership Down by Richard Adams

Read: 8 June, 2009

When Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to the warren, only his brother and a few others believe him. Unable to convince the other rabbits, this small band leaves on a journey in search of safety that takes them through farmyards, across roads and rivers, and into warrens with very different cultures.

This is an absolutely fantastic book. The adventure story alone is well worth the read, but the amateur mythicist in me was especially impressed with the construction of an entire rabbit culture and religious system, language included. Especially impressive is how familiar and, yet, distinctly alien the rabbit culture is. This rarely felt like a book about people that happens to be set in a rabbit setting. Rather, this was a book about rabbits, only slightly anthropomorphism. The characters and their culture retain a great deal of what can only be called ‘rabbitiness.’

Most books get at least one aspect right. Some get a few things right. When this happens, the book may be called masterful, or great. But Watership Down is one of the very few books that tempt me to use the word ‘perfection.’ This is a masterpiece and I think that anyone who hasn’t read it yet is somewhat impoverished. There’s something about it that just touches the Jungian collective subconscious. This is the hero with a thousand faces pulled off in a way that feels natural.

Though marketed as a children’s book (although perhaps a little too gruesome/frightening for younger kids), Watership Down is a must read for adults as well.

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Read: 6 April, 2010

True love is incredibly rare, but Buttercup and Westley have found it. When Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. She’s kidnapped just before her wedding, and is followed by a mysterious stranger. Who is he? Has he come to rescue her?

This was a fantastic book. I was pretty sure it would be after knowing and loving the movie for many years, but there was so much more to the novel form. The movie follows the story of Buttercup and Westley pretty accurately, but that’s only half the book. The other half describes the narrator’s relationship with S. Morgenstern’s novel, the way it impacted his relationship with his father and with himself, and the way he hopes it will impact his relationship with his son.

The Buttercup portions of the novel are greatly entertaining for readers of all ages. The adventure is exciting and fast-paced, and it never takes itself too seriously. But the addition of the narrator’s story is what promotes The Princess Bride from great novel to masterpiece. The novel could pass for a treatise on the value of books and literacy, and for the deeply personal and emotional ties we can have to our books.

Choose to read this superficially and be entertained. Or, choose to read it deeply and be challenged. Goldman pulls both facets off with rare skill. This book should be on everyone’s reading list!

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Earth’s Children #4: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

Read: 23 May, 2011

Ayla and Jondalar continue on their journey back to Zelandonii lands, a journey that takes them just over a year. On the way, they revisit the Sharamudoi from The Valley of the Horses, meet a tribe that has enslaved its men, and have various other adventures.

For nearly half the book, Ayla and Jondalar are travelling alone. Rather than simply skip ahead to more interesting bits, Auel made the interesting choice of narrating two people walking for hundreds of miles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite so boring. Perhaps sensing that “two people walk a really long distance” does not an interesting story make, Auel decided to splice in a sex scene every couple pages. They come in such rapid succession and are so gratuitous that even the most ardent romance novel fan couldn’t help but feel some burn-out.

Indeed, the first 300 or so pages could have been cut out without losing any story. There are a couple interesting incidents, but these could easily have been strung together with far less padding in between.

As a result, it took my nearly two months to read the first half of Plains of Passage. Once I passed that hump, however, and our travellers started meeting people, I read the rest in a mere two weeks – leaving me ready for the next instalment. Like a junky, I just keep coming back…

The point of the novel, beyond simply getting Ayla back to Jondalar’s people so we can deal with that drama, was for her to confront her past with the Clan and make sense of the relationship between Clan and Others. Like in The Mammoth Hunters, her heritage is outed a couple times and she must deal with the prejudice that brings. When the travellers meet the S’Armunai, they see what happens when Clan gender-specific roles are corrupted and brought into an Other society. Later, Ayla gets to actually meet a few members of the Clan (and a half-breed).

I very much enjoyed the interactions with the Clan, particularly the Clan encounter itself. I had a feeling that the book was moving toward a Clan encounter (even without cheating and looking at the map) and I was eagerly awaiting it. Of course, it didn’t happen until nearly at the very end, but it was well worth it.

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His Dark Materials #2: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Read: 16 December, 2008

Awesome book – a complete page-turner. My only issue would be that Lyra seems much more passive than she did in The Golden Compass. She seems to just follow Will around rather than acting for herself. I can understand the idea that she is sacrificing her own desires to help Will accomplish his destiny, but it just seemed a shame to have the female character acting in such a way to a male character.

Reading some of the reviews on Shelfari, I have to agree that this book was more of a page-turner than the first one, but had less substance. Certainly, the action moved along quite quickly and a great deal of information was given out about the subtle knife and the Authority, but I guess that because we already know most of the characters, less time was needed to establish them. The result was a more plot-driven book than the first had been.

Also, Pullman used variations of the word “wary” far too much in the first dozen or so pages. Other than that, it was a fabulous book and I can’t wait to read the third instalment!

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His Dark Materials #1: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Read: 3 August, 2008

Absolutely fantastic book! While I do think it would be fabulous for children to read (I don’t think it would be appropriate for anyone younger than 10, though), it has more than enough content for adults as well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I found it more complex and “intellectual” (quotes used because I hate that word) than most grown-up books I’ve read. And now for a lengthy list of some of the things I especially liked:

Lyra feels like a real kid. I’ve read many kids’ books where we are told that the main character is a tomboy and so forth, but then the character never acts like that once the introduction of the story is over with. Lyra, on the other hand, wants to play and be a child throughout the story. She also thinks like a child. While most stories with children will pay some lip service to the idea of childhood, Lyra actually feels genuine. She is also afraid, she doubts herself, she moans and wishes that it could all be happening to someone else instead. She has real character flaws, not just insignificant details tacked on as an afterthought to make the main character seem like less of a super-human.

That level of characterization doesn’t end with the main character. The other important characters were ambiguous. They had motives of their own that went far beyond “I’m, like, totally evil! MUAHAHA!” Right from the beginning, we think the master of Jordan College is evil because he’s trying to poison Lord Asriel only to find out a few pages later that he was only doing so because he was trying to protect Lyra. This continues on throughout the story so that the characters feel real and can never really be pegged as either “good” or “evil.”

Often, when I read children’s novels, there will be bits that make me uncomfortable. A perfect example that comes from a grown-up novel is Lucky You by Carl Hiaason. The main characters are obviously supposed to be Good and they do their whole speech about how murder is wrong, then they leave the main Evil character to die on the island without any guilt whatsoever. Had an Evil character done something like that, it would be thought of as horrible – but because a Good character did it, it’s no big deal. These sorts of things make me feel very uncomfortable when found in any novel, but most especially in a kid’s book. I hate the thought of exposing my own hypothetical children to that sort of corrupt value system. The Golden Compass had no such moments. There were times when Lyra had to do things that, under ordinary circumstances, I would consider bad, but she always feels guilt about them. They are always acknowledged as being bad, though necessary. At no point did this novel offend my personal morality, and that’s saying a whole lot.

I also liked all the positive lessons of the story – the triumph of Iorek among the bears tells kids that it’s better to be yourself than to weaken yourself trying to be something else; Lyra is afraid, but she masters herself and perseveres anyway, showing kids that it’s okay and legitimate to feel afraid, but that they, too, can master their fears. Lyra is also a very active protagonist. She initiates much of the plot in a way that is woefully rare for characters, female ones especially.

And finally, Pullman writes with a perfect balance of ideas and action, allowing me to enjoy my reading of the book immensely (I must say, I found myself holding my breath several times while reading) while also giving me plenty to think about once I put the book down. This is an all-over fantastic book that I can’t possibly praise enough. I’ve now ordered the next two books in the series and here’s hoping they come soon!

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The Epic of Qayaq retold by Lela Kiana Oman

Read: 2006

As Qayaq’s siblings grow up, all leave home to seek their fortunes and never return. Qayaq, the youngest and last of his parents’ children, decides to go in search of his siblings. From there, the story cycles through episodes of Qayaq’s legendary journey over land and by kayak.

Qayaq has something of the trickster in him making these stories very interesting. In particular, I found the fluidity between the animal and human worlds very interesting. Qayaq is able to turn himself into animals and they into humans. Because the book is a collection of stories from an epic cycle each functions well alone and they make for a pleasantly varied experience if read all at once.

I especially enjoyed my edition because the edges of each page contained short summaries of the stories as well as illustrations that fit the action described. It may seem like only a small detail, but being able to see the Inupiat art along with the stories added a fantastic extra dimension.

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