Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten TBR Titles for Fall

It's announcement time, ladies and gentlemen!  I, Soy Chai Book Lady, am.... going back to school!  After a year of griping about crappy jobs and a useless English degree (which I so loved earning), I'm returning to Rutgers to for a Masters degree in Social Work.  Classes start on Thursday, and I couldn't be more excited.  There are a lot of reasons I've decided to switch tracks into social work but I won't bore you with them here.  The point of today's post is to talk about some reading decisions.

In undergrad, I generally saved up books I wanted to read for breaks and lulls in my syllabi, because multiple English classes generally gave me enough to be getting along with.  Now, though, I actually get to keep choosing my books year round which has been giving me some things to consider: should I tackle one long book over the semester?  Maybe stick with short stories so that it won't matter as much if I'm distracted and can't read for a few days?  Maybe reread some past loves?  Or just read as normal and see where it takes me?  I've decided to do a combo of rereads that I never seem to get around to, because they're familiar and gaps in reading won't be as difficult to overcome, and short stories because, well, they're short and will easily fit into my schedule.

This whole thought process leads me to today's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish: Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List.  The following are the books and story collections I hope to/plan to/may not actually tackle in the coming months:

1) The Awakening by Kate Chopin: I actually just started this short novel last night.  My edition comes with some short stories by Chopin as well, so it should keep me busy for the first week of the semester.
2) My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me edited by Kate Bernheimer: I love retold fairy tales and have been meaning to pick up this collection of forty short tales for a while now, so when I saw it at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, I knew that now was the perfect time to add it to my list.
3) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Making an appearance for the second week running, this is an old favorite of mine that I plan to revisit over the next semester.  What with my course load and multiple part-time jobs, it may take the entire semester, but that's okay too.
4) The Boat by Nam Le: After reading about this story collection on Lucia's reading list of Australian fiction over at The Blue Bookcase, I rather impulsively added it to an order I was already putting together from AbeBooks.  It sounds lovely, so why not?
5) The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde: This is neither a reread nor a short story, but it is a fun, light read that will probably make it's way into my semester.
6) Hateship, Courtship, Friendship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro: I started this collection of short stories while I was writing my own collection for my senior honors thesis, but quickly realized that it wasn't connected to my project (I was focusing on connections of connected stories) and stopped reading.  I did like it though, so I think it's finally time to pick it back up and give it the attention it deserves.
7) The Help by Kathryn Stockett: I feel all bandwagon-getting-on for adding this to the list, but my book club chose it for our September book pick, so what can I do?  In all fairness, it does sound interesting; I just don't feel any specific desire to read it.
8) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Okay, so I know I just read this, but I loved it so much that it's worth rereading.  Also, it's our October book pick so that gives me an excuse. :]

Okay so I only hit eight, but considering that I'm going to have four classes to attend a week, 15 hours a week of field placement, and two part-time jobs (three if I get a research assistantship), I think this is already an overly ambitious reading list.  What will you be reading over the coming months?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Meatless Monday ~ Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World!

When I started Soy Chai Bookshelf, I meant it to be about books (as the name implies) and food (as the name less explicitly implies), as well as anything else I feel like writing about.  After a few months, it because pretty obvious that the blog was becoming a plain old book blog, and while that's fun, I like to babble about food (and vegetarianism) just as much!  So I've decided to install a feature at Soy Chai Bookshelf: Meatless Monday.

Meatless Monday is a movement to get Americans to eat less meat and more veggies by the simple expedient of not eating any animal products one day a week.  It's a great way to segue into vegetarianism or even veganism, or just make a small but real difference in your health and the environment.  To that end, on Meatless Mondays here at Soy Chai Bookshelf I will talk about anything related to food and vegetarianism, from cookbook reviews to to recipes I've created (don't hold your breath) to bragging about the delicious vegetarian feast I just whipped up to discussing in a (hopefully) not-too-judgemental way why vegetarianism is a great choice.

To kick off the feature, I'm going to share my favorite and most fun vegan cookbook - Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.  It may sound frivolous, but vegan cupcakes are actually a great way to introduce people to animal-free dining.  Think about it - when trying to convince people that meatless food tastes good, is it best to start with miso-marinated tofu with seaweed and multigrain rice or a cupcake?  I'm pretty sure that cupcakes always beat seaweed.

But enough with the reasoning behind the cupcake - on to the cupcakes themselves!  Isa and Terry's cupcakes are legitimately the best cupcakes I've ever made or even had, bar none.  I haven't made a single recipe from this book that wasn't amazing and I've made of bunch, including:

Tiramisu Cupcakes
  • Golden Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream
  • Your Basic Chocolate Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
  • Peanut Butter Cupcakes and Peanut Buttercream
  • Tiramisu Cupcakes
  • Crimson Velveteen Cupcakes
  • Black Forest Cupcakes
  • Chai Latte Cupcakes
  • Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing (an unexpected and amazing combo)
Chai Latte Cupcakes
What's interesting about these recipes is that often, on their own, the cake and frosting are just okay.  But when they're merged together, they become this symphony of delicious glory.  Sometimes I buy cupcakes from bakeries and cupcakeries (that's a word, right?) just to see if they compare, and they never do.  These cupcakes are special, and not just because they're vegan!

And, for those who fear baking from scratch, most of these recipes are super-easy.  The chocolate cupcakes especially are perfect for when you don't have much time.  Stir up some wet ingredients, stir up some dry, and combine.  Simple as that!  You can even transform each cupcake recipe into one 8-inch round cake recipe, simply by baking for ten to fifteen minutes longer!  Thanks to things like Earth Balance buttery spread and all-vegetable shortening, and Tofutti's Better Than Cream Cheese, you can have all the flavors and richness you so love without compromising the little baby cows.  And no eggs to worry about cross-contamination with (which also makes it okay to eat as much batter as you want)!

Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World is a must-have for any kitchen, whether vegan, vegetarian, or meat-loving.  It's just that good!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Top Thirteen Unreviewed Books

And I'm back!  It's been a while since I've participated in one of these, but a chance to babble on about some beloved books that I've never babbled about here before?  Yes, I think so.  That's right, I'm participating in this week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is "Top Ten Books I Loved But Never Reviewed."  Oh, and what's nice about this list is that it proves that I don't actually hate everything I read, a fact which my blog would tend to belie.  The following are all books that I love but haven't read since starting this blog.  I've read nearly all of them multiple times and plan to read many of them again.

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: The idea of something so horrifyingly other but not so far from reality (at least in how certain politicians and many others discuss women) captivated me through multiple rereadings.  I recommend this to anybody.  Even if you don't enjoy it, you will be thinking, and that's half the battle.
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell: I loved this story of a controlling government, the way that accepted texts control how we think, and the sheer loss of privacy and rights.  Again, is it so unlike our world today (hello regal eagle on the cover of everyAmerican childhood history textbook)?
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:  Okay, you caught me.  I love dystopias.  The sheer difference of Brave New World to my other dystopian choices is striking, especially since it also captures a very real aspect of today's world, even decades after it was written.  Ignorant, easily led people feeding on meaningless words of comfort - is that so strange?  Also, on a completely random note, Huxley has permanently affected my reading of the word pneumatic - anywhere I see it (i.e. Solaris, and that's about it), I can't help but think of Brave New World.  Kudos on taking full possession of a word, Mr. Huxley.
4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky: I love, love, loved this book in high school.  I read it several times and even went so far as to purchase used copies of every single book that Charlie's English teacher assigns him outside of class (though I only read about three of them).  Charlie's loneliness and inability to fit in spoke to me in a very real way.  This is a must-read for any teen, especially those who don't quite belong.
5. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: Clever rhymes, fantastical creatures, and an environmental cautionary tale for children?  I was sold the first time I read it (and I was at least fifteen years old at that point).
6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  I'm just going to quote my comment on Dead White Guys's recent review of this book: I read this before knowing about magical realism and whatnot, and it took me a while to wonder why there were all these ancient characters and bizarre things going on, and I didn't care because it was AMAZING. I use a bit of the novel in SAT tutoring (the bit where everybody gets really angry at the movies), and my students don't like it. So sad. This is on my reread list as well. Hopefully I will be equally not-disappointed.  (I won't be.)
7. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The only author to make this list twice!  This is a lovely story of love in all its twisted peculiarities, against the backdrop of a port city in the Caribbean threatened by a cholera outbreak.  I copied this quote from the novel into my (still mostly empty) journal sometime in 2008 and I still love it: "Delirious with joy, Florentino Ariza spent the rest of the afternoon eating roses and reading the note letter by letter, over and over again, and the more he read the more roses he ate, and by midnight he had read it so many times and had eaten so many roses that his mother had to hold his head as if he were a calf and force him to swallow of dose of castor oil" (68).  Love.
8. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: In my junior year, I needed to take a math class but had yet to take a placement test, so in the meantime I registered for an elective English class that I figured I would end up dropping.  However, I decided to read one of the books between semesters, since the class sounded great, and ended up loving it so much that I dropped creative writing instead.  In case you couldn't guess, that book was The God of Small Things, a novel of two twins and a pickle factory in an area of India influenced by Marxism.  Wonderful.
9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: A novel of an Indian family in America, in which a son is named for the past and fights against both it and his culture, before coming to accept both.  Lovely to read and, strangely, makes me hungry.
10. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant: This is a novelization of the Bible stories of Jacob and his descendants.  Wonderfully imagined and strangely informative.  A great choice whether you're religious or not.
11. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil goes to Moscow!  Though the political agenda flew right over my uninformed nineteen-year old head, the creepy, weird otherness of it had me at privyet.
12. The Hours by Michael Cunningham: (Last one, I promise.) I loved both the novel and the film, a story in three parts: Virginia Woolf on a day in summer as she writes Mrs. Dalloway and visits with her sister; a suburban housewife as she reads Mrs. Dalloway and acknowledges how unhappy her life makes her; and Clarissa Vaughn as she lives out a modernized version of Mrs. Dalloway.  Seamlessly intertwined and beautifully written, all three stories are equally captivating and never leave you wishing for another one.
13. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: I know I said I was done, but I couldn't mention an ode to Mrs. Dalloway and not put her on the list too, could I?  This is probably one of the first "classics" that I loved (or finished).  Unlike the rest of my senior year English class (who loved The Mayor of Casterbridge, the crazies), I lost myself in the not-quite-stream-of-consciousness writing and the bells of London (did you know a working title of The Hours was "The Bells"?).  Lovely.  If you don't like it or can't get through it, read it again.  I command you.

Okay, so I cheated and put thirteen instead of ten, but you'll forgive me, right?  Can I help it if my love for literature just won't contain itself?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lost in a Good Book ~ Jasper Fforde

As mentioned at the end of my review-type-thingy of Middlemarch, I have been reading Lost in a Good Book, the second book in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, which I read and reviewed a few months back.  Before I put in my two cents about Lost in a Good Book, I'm going to quote what somebody else said about The Eyre Affair (because apparently there are only quotes about the previous book in the series on my copy).  It's described by Independent (whatever that is - a magazine? a website?) as "a silly book for smart people" and that's exactly accurate.  Both books made me laugh out loud, hassle my husband with silly quotes, and pat myself on the back whenever I "get" a literary reference.  Kudos, Mr. Fforde.

So, Lost in a Good Book is, as I jotted on the first page of the book, a pun-erific, literary satire.  Brief summary: Thursday Next, newly married and happily pregnant, is being hassled by Goliath to get Jack Schitt out of the pages of "The Raven."  She is also the victim of several coincidences (which can be spotted by shaking up a jar of dried rice and lentils and analyzing the patterns that they fall in), all of which seem to point to her untimely and violent death, and is being prosecuted in a fictional court (from The Trial) for changing the end to Jane Eyre.  One day, her husband goes missing - apparently he has been eradicated by Goliath as a means of convincing Thursday to rescue Jack Schitt and/or give up her father.  Her husband having drowned at the age of two begs the sensitive question of who that is in Thursday's uterus.  Meanwhile, Thursday learns that she can jump into books at will (who needs a Prose Portal?!) under the instruction of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the rest of Jurisfiction, the organization that patrols books from within books.  Along the way, Thursday meets the Cheshire Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, who runs a library of all that has ever been written, discovers a lost Shakespearean play (though of course neither Shakespeare nor anybody else ever wrote most of his plays), learns that her dodo bird is actually a girl, and saves the world from Dream Pudding (strawberry flavor).

I thought the book was great for all the reasons I've already mentioned and those I gave for The Eyre Affair.  It's a great chance for light reading that still feels smart, with a silly adventure that works despite its sheer impossibility.  Again, my only issue relates to the Fforde's treatment of Thursday as a woman.  At the end of the novel, she's semi-forced to take a break from saving the world and defeating evil because she's got a bun in the oven.  She's managed both up until now - why must she suddenly turn into a Victorian woman and go into confinement?!

I'll end with some fun quotes: 

"The so-called 'unfair cheese duty burden' is a very contentious subject at present.  Any reference to it might be constructed as an inflammatory act...  Old ladies who are not dissimilar to the actress in this picture will have to go without their hip replacements and suffer crippling pain if you selfishly demand cut-price cheese... [The Master of the Sums] could raise the custard duty... The pudding lobby is less - well, how should I put it - militant." (15-16) -Mrs. Jolly Hilly, governmental representative

"Wait a moment!" I exlaimed.  "This is the conversation you had in Alice in Wonderland, just after the baby turned into a pig!"
"Ah," returned the cat, with an annoyed flick of his tail.  "Fancy you can write your own dialogue, do you?  I've seen people try; it's never a pretty sight.  But have it your own way.  And what's more, the baby turned into a fig, not a pig." (164) -conversation between Thursday and the Cheshire Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat

"In this 1631 printing of the Bible, the seventh commandment reads: 'Thou shalt commit adultery.' ... I don't know who did this but it's just not funny.  Fooling around with internal Text Operating Systems might have a sort of mischievous appeal to it, but it's not big and it's not clever.  The occasional bout of high spirits I might overlook but this isn't an isolated incident.  I've also got a 1716 Bible here that urges the faithful to 'sin on more,' and a Cambridge printing from 1653 which tells us that 'The unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God.'  Now listen, I don't want to be accused of having no sense of humor, but this is something that I will not tolerate.  If I find out the joker who has been doing this, it'll be a month's enforced holiday inside Ant & Bee." (274) -the Bellman from Sense and Sensibility, leader of Jurisfiction meetings

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Middlemarch (at last) ~ George Eliot

I've landed the whale.  That's right, the book I've been whining on about for something like three months (I really should note start dates when I read behemoths) has come to a close.  The book that spawned a midway-through complaint review as well as a poorly thought out early morning rambling character list is complete.  I'm done with Middlemarch and I couldn't be happier (or more miserable, depending on how you look at it).

So, Middlemarch.  It's the kind of book that makes you vaguely wonder if it's best to just end it all now if life really does suck this much.  The book is full of miserable people doing miserable things and suffering miserably for miserable things they've done in their miserable pasts.  I found myself telling a friend the other day that the story gets in the way of the writing, which seems a bit counterintuitive but is exactly how I felt.  The writing was lovely, as George Eliot's writing is, but the story was just so miserable that I couldn't enjoy it.

There were a couple bright spots, however: I enjoyed the early-18th century discussion of medicine, in which it's most respectable for a doctor to always prescribe something, no matter what the cause, because that's how he gets paid: a magic pink potion can cure jaundice, pregnancies, and broken legs, apparently, and brandy is a perfectly reasonable medicine for alcoholism.  The Garth family was nice too; despite their poverty, they seem to be the only reasonable well-adjusted and all-around happy people in all the pages of that book.

Eliot seems to have attempted to redeem the misery of her tome in the last lines, claiming that "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomes" (889).  That's a nice little sentiment on its own, but taken in the context of the novel as a whole is a little hard to stomach.  Nobody accomplishes anything.  Dorothea never accomplishes any of her philanthropic plans (her vagina being a hindrance) and eventually decides to give up her money and respectability for love.  Lydgate accomplishes nothing with his forward-thinking plans in medicine, and dies young, miserable, and beholden to a snooty, domineering wife who cares for little but her image.  Nobody else seems to have any interest in improving the world, so I can only assume this conclusion applies to these two and their good intentions, and I'm sorry but happy thoughts are just not enough to convince me.  If positive energy was enough, or even half-enough, as an American citizen, what's between my legs wouldn't affect my abilities or even be considered, and that's just not the case.  Sorry, George Eliot.  It's a wonderful message, but does not redeem the book.

Like when I read Anna Karenina, I'm feeling like I must have missed something and actually kind of thinking about rereading this, and then telling myself that that's crazy.  It's okay to not like things.  No reason to spend several more months of my life trying to like something because I "should."  That said, I can't bring myself to trade it in.  Oh well.  Classics have their grip.

And now, to lighten the mood, I've moved on to Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book, the sequel to The Eyre Affair.  Ah, to laugh aloud once more.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cold Mountain ~ Charles Frazier

I just finished Cold Mountain last night, which means this is one of my promptest book reviews in the history of Soy Chai Bookshelf.  I want to say something while it's still fresh, while I'm still aching with the tears that threatened to spill over when I turned the last page.  I'm not so sure what it is that I want to say though.  How do you put impression into language, much less the language of literature?

Let's start with the basics.  There is no true plot, which is part of what's so lovely about this novel.  There are settings and situations and motivations, but no core story.  There are two protagonists: Ada and Inman, who love one another, though neither seems to be sure why.  Perhaps because there was nobody else around to love, perhaps because Inman was leaving for war and needed something to hold onto.  Perhaps Ada wanted to play into that.  But four years have passed since he left and they're still writing the occasional letter.  Severely wounded, Inman is in a war hospital when the novel begins.  Having just lost her father, Ada is penniless and alone on a large farm on Cold Mountain which is just about all she has in the world, with no idea to run it or even take care of herself.  Inman leaves the hospital, a Confederate outlier, setting out for Cold Mountain, home.  Ada, hungry and ragged, is approached by Ruby, a girl with nothing in the world but knowledge of its natural world.  Together they turn Ada's farm into sustenance.  Though physically apart, Ada and Inman change together, into lovers more suited for one another.  The novel is set against the southeastern United States in Inman's rambles, a mountain farm in Ada's education, and, more broadly, the Civil War.

Inman's journey is often compared to The Odyssey.  Though I was supposed to, I never read that, so I can't be sure.  However, I did read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and it reminds me a lot of that.  Inman meets people, friendly and not so much, encounters situations, faces challenges beyond belief.  Unlike Christian's journey in Pilgrim's Progress, however, I actually enjoyed Inman's tale.  Frazier's descriptions of the changing landscape are glorious and the complexity of Inman's character as revealed to us is intense.  He is certainly a good person, but vengeful; imaginative, but tied to life; and filled with a despair that can't help but counter the hopefulness of his journey.  Unlike Christian, Inman stands for himself and no larger concept.

While Ada is a good character, I actually found Ruby a lot more interesting.  Like Ada, she never knew her mother.  However, she grew up with an absent father and no resources, and was often left to fend for herself as a very young child, and was forced to learn about the land around just to find a way to survive and to find meaning in life.  It's never quite explained how she knows so much about farming as well as foraging, but since other families seem to have fed her occasionally, perhaps she learned from them.  Whatever it is, it works, and the way that she transforms Ada as much as the farm is just lovely.  She doesn't just tell Ada to do this and that, but teaches her and befriends her.  Both save each other.

Overall, Cold Mountain was a lovely read and I was entranced throughout.  It definitely deserves a reread, partially because it just made me feel so happy - not because of the situations but because of the language and descriptions (I must have stopped to read bits out loud to my husband at least a dozen times) - and partially to more fully appreciate the allusions.  The only negative thing I can think to say is that I wish I hadn't read the epilogue.  Not only did it make me depressed but it's just the kind of thing I don't like, a ten-year later recap.  How everything wrapped up wasn't exactly original and it certainly wasn't necessary.  I had already come to that conclusion on my own anyway, but I prefer to have it open.  However, except for those two pages, this was a wonderful book and it won't be long before I reread it.  I high recommend it, particularly to those who loving reading about the American landscape and/or farm life.

Friday, August 5, 2011

His Dark Materials ~ Philip Pullman

I somehow missed the His Dark Materials series as a kid.  I read (and loved) other books by Philip Pullman, namely the Sally Lockhart books.  I remember a friend of mine reading His Dark Materials when we were in middle school, but somehow I never picked it up until a couple of years ago, when a kid I babysat and Anthony Cardno were reading it at the same time.  I read The Golden Compass and I remember thinking it was okay, but no Harry Potter (although, what is?).  So I shelved it and rented the movie when it was available and didn't bother with the rest of the series and that was that.

Until I discovered audiobooks.  And also discovered that audiobooks are best with action and not overly complex writing (i.e. meant for kids and teens).  A couple of months ago I decided to start the series on audiobook, and this time I was actually blown away by The Golden Compass.  Underlying the adventure, there's this really interesting discussion of "dust," a sort of elementary particle recently discovered that sticks itself mostly to those with conscious thought (i.e. humans) and particularly after they hit puberty.  In Lyra's world of The Golden Compass, the Church is disturbed by this and seeks to eradicate it by separating child from daemon (furry little friends that accompany people always, changing shapes until puberty when they settle into a form reflective of something about the child).  Of course, Eve is blamed for the existence of dust, but what's really horrifying if the cutting.  Daemons are people's souls, except outside the body and visible, and cutting them away nearly always kills the child, except supposedly it's done for their own good but also in the name of science.  It's a twisted concept.  The rest of the series follows Lyra through other worlds as she and many others explore the question of dust and, ultimately, try to preserve it, because it's what separates us from the animals.

Each volume in the series take it's name from a different powerful object: the golden compass is an "alethiometer," a small instrument that uses symbols to tell the truth about things and which Lyra as a child understands intuitively; the subtle knife, a two-bladed knife of which one side can cut through any substance, and the other can cut through to other worlds; and the amber spyglass, the only object which is actually built by a character, which is a sort of rough telescope that can be used to actually see dust.  All powerful, but not exactly magical objects.  Though they seem beyond reality (because they are), they are based on discoveries of what is true in the world Pullman has created, and they are all interesting.  The spyglass is perhaps the least exciting but also the least flawed.  Lyra loses her skill with the alethiometer when she hits puberty, while the knife causes spectres (evil floaty things that attack adults, who are covered in dust), and causes dust to leak away.  The spyglass is lovely because it can see but not interfere, and does not require anything of the seer.

Of course, there were inevitable comparison to Harry Potter while listening to His Dark Materials.  Both exist in different worlds (though I believe one of Pullman's worlds is ours), and both revolve around a child orphan at the center of some larger difficulty.  However, Pullman lets his children be children.  Lyra is brave and righteous and adventurous, but she is also a child that knows she can't do everything and sometimes has to rely on an adult to save her.  She can provoke war, but she can't fight it on her own.  Likewise, Pullman's story is a bit more real that Rowling's.  While Rowling never lets Harry kill anyone (even though he does kill Quirrel, she just doesn't admit it), Will (Lyra's friend) does find that he has to kill.  He is filled with remorse and wishes that he didn't have to do this, that his mother could just take care of him rather than him taking care of her, but he does kill because that is the way of war.  Pullman is a bit harsher than Rowling in presenting these realities of the children's limitations and the truth of what they are forced to do, but it is a satisfying harshness and very well done.

I like the story, and I would recommend it, but I don't adore it.  As the story goes on, more and more characters are introduced and they become very difficult to keep ta.  Maybe it would have been easier if I'd read it on the page, but the sheer numbers of them just seemed excessive.  I gave up identifying people by names and started to base it on their actions (which is probably more telling anyway) but even still it was difficult.  Then, in the third book, Pullman introduces this world with animals that all have this diamond body structure (i.e. one leg each in front and back and two on the sides) and I was just like WHAT IS GOING ON?!  It just seemed a bit excessive to me and kind of went beyond the parameters of the story.  It didn't really seem necessary.  Overall though, good story.  It's the kind of thing parents and children can enjoy together, and I know that I'll be sharing it with my own kids.