I'd been meaning to read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass for some time now. (In this respect, it's just like 90% of the books I finally get around to reading.) When Anne read it recently with the kind of rapt, page-turning intensity that usually signifies a compellingly readable book, I decided to bump it up to the top of my list.
"Compellingly readable" turned out to be pretty much on the mark, too. I whizzed right through this book, and felt a sense of great irritation whenever I needed to put it down at the end of a spate of reading. Pullman's sense of pace (which, as longtime readers know, is one of the characteristics that I most desire in a book) is impeccable.
The other stuff in the book ain't half-bad, either. The world-building is fascinating: Pullman builds an alternate Earth with magic of a religious bent, with many names and institutions pulled from our own history, but subtly twisted into a still-coherent but very different world. The characterization is absolutely top-notch: Everyone in the book is distinct, memorable, and complex.
The weird thing about this book is that I'm pretty sure it was at one point marketed as a YA fantasy, but it has absolutely nothing YA-ish about it, save that the protagonist is young; and even there, she's not young in the same sense that Harry Potter is young -- she's not worried about candies and school bullies. There is in this book no trace of silliness, no trace of moral simplicity, no need for idiot-plotting. If this can really be said to be in any way a kids' book, it single-handedly redeems the entire genre.