The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Ember and the Ice Dragons

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: Oct. 1, 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

I wish I didn’t wait so long to write my review for this book because I really loved it! Heather Fawcett is killing it with her books and I’m really drawn to the settings she creates. I loved her Himalaya inspired fantasy world in Even the Darkest Stars and loved the blend of fantasy she created in Ember and the Ice Dragons.

Ember and the Ice Dragons is a middle grade fantasy series set in our world, but with magic. Ember’s adoptive father is a magician that chases storms because they are where he gets his magic from. On one adventure he discovers a baby dragon, Ember, and turns her into a human to save her life and hide her, because unfortunately the fire dragons have since been hunted to extinction.

As you might expect, Ember struggles in England because she has a tendency to randomly burst into flames and as such, is afraid to make friends. Eventually she convinces her father to ship her off to Antarctica to live with her Aunt because she is much less likely to catch fire in the cold climate. Once in Antarctica, Ember is surprised when two other children, Nisha and Moss, attempt to befriend her. She’s also enraged to discover that the ice dragons of Antarctica are also being hunted and targeted, same as the fire dragons were in England. She teams up with Nisha and Moss to take down the hunt and save the ice dragons.

Like I said, I loved the setting. Most of the book is set in Antarctica and loved reading about it. Fawcett likes to set her stories in the bitter cold outdoors and it just makes for such an enjoyable reading experience in the fall and winter. Ember is the perfect heroine – with just the right amount of spunk and vulnerability. I liked watching her come of age and finally starting to make friends and build relationships with those around her instead of constantly being afraid of being discovered. Fawcett is also good at writing perfect villains and anti-heros and I like that some of her characters are flawed, yet still good.

This read like a standalone, so I’m not sure if Fawcett is planning on expanding the world or not. I kind of hope not because I think this works well as a standalone and I want to see what other types of worlds she will dream up!

The Amber Spyglass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 2000 (read on Audible in Oct. 2019)

I read the first two books in this trilogy about 8 years ago, but never got around to finishing the series. I’ve been wanting to read the Amber Spyglass ever since, but felt I needed to re-read the first two books again since it’s been so long. I don’t regret re-reading the first two, because I enjoyed them a lot more the second time around, particularly The Golden Compass, and I think the full cast audiobooks are wonderful. But after waiting 8 years to read The Amber Spyglass, it was a huge disappointment.

There’s a lot going on in this book. It is significantly longer than its predecessors (at least it’s a lot longer in audio form) and I felt like the plot had no clear direction. The Golden Compass is really an excellent book, with just the right amount of mystery, metaphors about the catholic church, and a feisty main character. The Subtle Knife was not quite as strong, but was still a great exercise in world building. I thought both books were super creative and that the fantastical elements, though seemingly a bit random (talking polar bears, witches, etc), all worked well together.

But wow, The Amber Spyglass just really didn’t work for me. First of all, I feel like it was almost several books in one. When I think back now to the start of the book, I can’t believe that Lyra was unconscious for the entire first section and that those parts were still part of the same book. Pullman goes heavy on the religious symbolism in this book, but somehow it became less obvious to me what his point actually is. He lost the subtlety and I think the story suffered for it. The Golden Compass really made me think critically about the church and it’s roll in government, whereas in this book, there were so many religious references that the themes became confused.

I felt Pullman tried to accomplish a little too much. There’s an entire side story with Mary Malone that I think offers absolutely nothing to the series, as well as side stories with Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, that while more interesting, still felt a little tangential. We also meet the Galevespians in this book, which again, while interesting, still didn’t really add anything to the story. There are a lot of different mystical beings in this series and instead of introducing more, I would have preferred to spend time learning more about the polar bears or the witches, who aren’t really relevant after the first book. It’s not that I necessarily had a problem with any of these elements, I just felt like they made the story unnecessarily long.

Mostly I just wasn’t sure where Pullman was going with this book. At first I thought we were working towards an epic battle between Lord Asriel and his allies against the angels and the “authority”, but the battle with Metatron ended up feeling more like a bit of a side note than a climax. It felt more tangential than central to the story and made me wonder what the whole point of Lord Asriel even was. On a separate note, I found Mrs. Coulter fascinating and really liked how she had a change of heart in this book, but I found her ending to be anti-climatic and would have preferred to see a reunion between her and Lyra. I thought it would be really interesting to explore whether or not Lyra would be capable of forgiveness and whether Mrs. Coulter was even worthy of it after having committed so many atrocities.

Lyra’s plotline with the World of the Dead was a lot easier to follow along with, but it just dragged on forever with a ton of heavy metaphors that were honestly over my head. I’m pretty well versed in Christian doctrine and scripture and I still wasn’t sure what Pullman was getting at or what his ultimate theme was.

I thought the World of the Dead was going to be a side plot that impacted the eventual main plot, but apparently the World of the Dead was really the whole point of the book. Lyra was meant to open up a permanent way out of the land of the dead to free all the trapped ghosts, but I’m not sure what the land of the dead represented – was it hell? purgatory? – I don’t really know. Pullman had obvious beef with the ‘Authority’, but by the end of the book I wasn’t even really sure who I was supposed to be mad at. Was the ‘Authority’ to blame for trapping all the ghosts in the World of the Dead? Because that doesn’t seem very in line with the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell, so I had a hard time buying into it and I wasn’t really sure what the point was. If anyone has a little more insight, I’d love to know.

In turn, I thought the whole ‘Lyra as Eve’ theme was a little overdone and that the ending with Lyra and Will was the stupidest thing ever. Like, they are 12 years old and suddenly they are passionately in love and kissing constantly, envisioning their life together forever? Give me a break. They are 12! It just felt so cheap to suddenly have these two main character mature so quickly. The reader knows that Lyra and Will are both right on the cusp of puberty and that Dust will soon start to collect around them, but like, please ease us into it a little more.

Then there was the whole thing with the witches and closing all the doors between worlds. It just seemed like too neat and upsetting an ending. Again, I’m not sure what message Pullman was trying to leave me with here, but I didn’t like the way he suddenly just tried to tie up all these loose ends after I invested so much time into reading all the stupid and indulgent drama between the other characters.

Anyways, I could continue griping, but at the end of the day this was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Pullman went too big with the last book and was too self-indulgent. He lost his subtlety. I enjoyed thinking critically about his themes in the first book, but here I just felt like he was trying to beat me over the head with every problem he’s ever had with Christianity and it just didn’t make sense. But I’ll end it here because I know this is a beloved series to many and I know the series has a lot of merit beyond my criticisms. I’m probably just not advanced enough to really understand what Pullman was going for with book, so any fans are welcome to take a stab at trying to explain it to me, because I really would like to understand.

The Subtle Knife

Rating: .5
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1997 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

I flew through The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife and I’m currently about halfway through the Amber Spyglass (Or I was at the time of writing – I’ve since finished it). It was my second time reading the first two books and I have to say, I’m enjoying the series a lot more on my second read-through.

Unfortunately I didn’t like The Subtle Knife quite as much as I liked The Golden Compass, although I did still in enjoy it. I think it may suffer from middle book syndrome in that is does a lot to prepare the plot for the final book, but doesn’t seem to have that much action. The Golden Compass was extremely fast paced after the initial few chapters and The Subtle Knife just doesn’t quite carry that momentum through. The biggest change is that it goes from a single story narrated by Lyra, to a multi POV book featuring a large cast of characters – most of whom are new characters.

Lyra was one of the highlights from the first book for me. She’s spunky and outgoing and has a bit of a lying streak that becomes a large part of her character. Pullman takes the story in a very different direction in The Subtle Knife. It was interesting to see the introduction of other worlds into the narrative, but the religious themes definitely become a little more heavy handed. I liked the subtle commentaries that Pullman makes in the first book about the church, but there’s nothing subtle about it in the second book as Lord Asriel is off on a mission to destroy the Authority.

I really liked the introduction to Will’s character though. He’s probably my second favourite character after Lyra and it was fun getting to learn more about him and postulate on what his significance will be to the greater story. Like I said, I found the existence of many worlds really interesting and thought the knife was a fascinating subject, but I did feel that  a lot of this book was set up for the finale and that too much world building took place to prepare for that. It’s a complicated system and there’s a lot going on. I got a bit bogged down by the details at times and just kept waiting for something more exciting to happen.

I think where this book fails is that it loses some of the mystery element from the first book, as well as the villains that were driving the story. It’s just not as exciting without the creepy Mrs. Coulter and the enigmatic Lord Asriel. That said though, I did still enjoy this one a lot and flew through it.

The Golden Compass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1995 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

The Golden Compass was a re-read for me. I started the series back when I was in University, but I never finished it because University is just a huge giant time suck that doesn’t allow you to read for pleasure. I read the first two books, but never got around to the final book.

I had heard lots of great things about the series and my husband raved about it, so I expected to love it, but ended up being very underwhelmed by it. I think I would have been unlikely to return to it had I not stumbled upon the full cast audiobooks and known there was a tv series coming out later this year. But I’m so glad I made a second attempt at the series because I have been absolutely loving it on Audible!

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to ours, but with some substantial differences. In this world, everyone has a daemon, which is a sort of animal companion that is bonded to you. Children’s daemon’s can change and take any animal form, while adults daemon’s eventually settle into one form. The story starts with our protagonist Lyra, a young girl whose age I can’t recall (let’s say ~10 or 11), hiding in the retiring room at Oxford and overhearing a very interesting discussion surrounding the concept of Dust.

Lyra is an orphan who grew up at Oxford, surrounded by scholars and street urchins. She’s a bold girl who’s not afraid to boss the other children around and has a terrible habit of lying. She doesn’t know what Dust is, but the scholars are fascinated by this Dust and are enthralled to learn that Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, has been able to photograph it in the North. Lyra’s curiousity is piqued and she becomes desperate to explore the North and see the Dust and magnificent aurora for herself.

At the same time, mysterious things are happening at Oxford and children start disappearing. To explain the disappearances, the other children blame the mysterious Gobblers, who are said to kidnap and eat children. Suddenly Lyra finds herself engulfed in the plot and travelling to the North to save her friend from the Gobblers and find out more about Dust and why everyone is so concerned about it.

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I’m a bit shocked it’s a children’s book. I know children read all kinds of horrific stuff without being affected by it, but this book has some seriously crazy shit in it. But more impressively, it has a seriously convoluted plot, which is what impresses me more about it as a children’s book.

I will always maintain that the best children’s books are the books that appeal to both children and adults. The Golden Compass is definitely one of those books that is sold to children, but really targets adults. There are so many levels to the storytelling that it can really be enjoyed at any age. Children enjoy it for its strong protagonist and fantastical elements, like flying witches and armoured bears, while adults will enjoy it for its mature themes about religion and the church.

Yes, you read that right, the underlying themes of this book centre most prominently on the church and its power. Pullman explores other themes like the loss of innocence, morality, and the existence of souls, but at its core this is a book about the role religion plays in our society and how religious doctrine has snuck its way into our governments and legal systems.

The religious overtones are subtle for most of The Golden Compass, but it becomes more clear towards the end of the book where Pullman plans to take this series. There’s a great air of mystery throughout most of this book – what is dust, who are the Gobblers, what is the Magisterium doing – but once we start getting answers to some of these questions, it becomes clear how far the power of the church reaches. They have a great fear of sin, which causes them to commit unspeakable atrocities.

The church, or Magisterium, is strongly reminiscent of the catholic church, however, I think Pullman’s themes apply to really any branch of the christian church. I’m about halfway through the second book now (or I was at the time of writing this – I’ve since finished the series) and I do find Pullman a bit heavy handed at times, but sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point and do I think he makes several relevant arguments. The “church” in general is a very powerful institution, and no matter what religion you look at (christianity, islam, hinduism, etc), it has very much infused itself into modern governance. The question is, does the church belong in our governance systems?

Personally, I think no. The core message of most religious texts is simple – love others. If that was as much as we tried to infuse into our government, I’d say sure, but unfortunately the church is much more caught up in control, and that’s where it gets dangerous. The christian church in America (and yes Canada), is very caught up in controlling everything from women’s reproductive rights, to marriage rights, to access to healthcare, to scientific freedom, and what can be taught in schools. Then if you look further into institutions like the catholic church, they’re also interested in controlling families by keeping women out of positions of influence.

But why is the church so interested in this control? If your mandate is to love others, why does any of that other stuff matter. For me, everything that the right-wing christians are selling in America right now is about protecting the long held power and privilege of straight, white men.

One of the best ways that I think they do this is through misdirection. One example is the anti-choice movement. They would have us believe that they’re all about fetus rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s really about power and control. If the anti-choice supporters actually believed in the sanctity of life and protecting women and children, they would support access to birth control, healthcare, welfare, and sex education. There is no wealth and power without poverty and those in power want to maintain all the privileges they’ve become accustomed to.

But a lot of it leads back to this notion of “sin”. The church condemns women who want abortions as immoral, gay marriage as abhorrent, and science as the loss of faith. But this fear of sin is what drives the need to control it. Religion generally acknowledges that everyone sins, but all these additional rules and restrictions just make it that much easier to “sin”.  The theme of sin is only introduced at the end of The Golden Compass, but I’m interested to see where Pullman takes it in the rest of the series because the word “sin” means different things to different people and part of the problem is that we all have our own definition of what constitutes “sin”.

In Lyra’s world, the magisterium wants to eliminate sin from the world, and in their quest to do that, they cause incredible harm. Not unlike the way the church still alienates everyone who is different or who does not fit within their narrow view of what is “right”.

Anyways, I didn’t expect to get into such an in-depth discussion on religion, but these are issues that I do spend a lot of time thinking about. I do want to keep the ideas of the church (or organized religion) separate from spirituality though because I do think they are two completely different things. You can condemn the church as an institution, without condemning the idea of spirituality and the existence of a greater being.

So I did like this book a lot more on the second read through and I’m interested to see where Pullman takes these themes in the next two books. The full cast for this audiobook was fantastic. Lyra drove me nuts sometimes because she can be really obtuse and made a lot of stupid decisions, but she’s a child and she has a lot of spunk, so I can forgive her for that. Mrs. Coulter was deliciously evil, Lord Asriel enraging, and Iorek endearing.

But mostly what I liked was how wild the plot was. I truly never knew what was coming in this book. There were so many twists and turns and it had a huge amount of depth. I love stories that have a lot of balls in the air and maintain several different plotlines at the same time, while weaving an air of mystery under the whole story. Pullman did this very well and when we arrive at the conclusion of the novel, it really just feels like the beginning.