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.

Return of the King

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: JRR Tolkien
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: 1954 (re-read in Oct. 2019)
Series: The Lord of the Rings #3

I re-read the first two books in the series back in June, but I got a little sidetracked over the summer before finally picking of Return of the King this month. I’ve had the goal to re-read Lord of the Rings for several years now and I’m so proud to have finally accomplished it!

The Fellowship of the Ring has pretty much always been my favourite of the 3 movies, but there’s no denying that it’s the weakest of the trilogy in book form. Tolkien spends a lot of time in the Shire in Fellowship and to be honest, it’s pretty boring, But TT and ROTK don’t suffer from that flaw at all! I found them both to be so fast paced and Tolkien has really created the most immersive fantasy world and some of the best heros and anti-heros.

All of the characters have grown so much since they first set out from Rivendell and it was really enjoyable to watch Merry and Pippin come into their characters in this book. Legolas and Gimli’s roles are much smaller in this book, but there was a marked change in Aragorn’s character as he finally lays claim to his birthright. There are also some really wonderful secondary characters in this book. I really liked Theoden. He suffers a little bit of pride in the Two Towers, but he’s incredibly kind and selfless in ROTK Eowyn is also totally badass in this book and it’s so fun to watch her and Merry team up and prove themselves.

Faramir proves himself at the end of TT, but is driven by his need for the approval of his father, which results in some bad decisions. However, you cannot doubt his love for his city and his people. Even Denethor seemed to be a better character in the book then his is portrayed in the movie. He is obviously flawed, but he has been corrupted by the seeing stones and is grieving the loss of his son. Unfortunately, he fails to maintain morale and be loyal to his soldiers and citizens, so it is hard to forgive him his faults.

I talked a lot about Sam in my review of TT and I have to devote some time again to him here because he is really the hero of the series for me. Sam is the most selfless, loyal, and caring character. He never gives a thought to himself and gives his whole being over to the cause of the ring and Mr. Frodo. I don’t want to dismiss Frodo’s role in the story, because he is also a hero, despite his failings. He was served a very hard choice and a heavy burden, and it took everything he had just to carry that burden.

But undeniably, he could never have made it to Mount Doom without Sam. Even when Sam is rejected by Frodo, he never gives up on him. He thinks little of himself, but he is one of the most courageous characters. He is driven only by love for the shire and Frodo and he is propelled by hope. Frodo has no room for hope, so Sam takes on that burden too – constantly pushing the two hobbits forward by his belief in a better world. The chapter where they are climbing the slopes of Mount Doom was one of my favourite chapters and I was totally inspired by Tolkien’s writing of these two characters and their ability to just keep pressing on despite all the odds stacked against them.

If I have one complaint about this book though, it’s that the climax is followed by 100 pages of “what happened after”. It’s not surprising because Tolkien is an indulgent writer, but it’s a little hard to power through for so long once the ring has been destroyed. Although, it is a story of epic proportions and in some ways it does feel fitting to give it all this closure.

The Scouring of the Shire is definitely Tolkien’s indulgence at its best. The whole chapter seems entirely unnecessary, but I have to admit I did still kind of love it. It seems more appropriate as a short story, but it was fun to watch the hobbits flexing their muscles around the shire to purge it of all the “ruffians” and “sharkey”. Plus it wasn’t totally without virtue and serves to highlight how all of the hobbits have grown and been changed by their experiences. Most poignant to me was Frodo’s total aversion to violence. I would argue that Frodo actually saw the least violence throughout his quest, but he is the most impacted by it. He wants to save the shire, but he is adverse to partaking in any more death.

But overall, this is a totally epic conclusion to a classic fantasy series. There’s a reason people respond so much to Lord of the Rings. Tolkien lived in this world and explored every part of it, so it’s existence feels so complete. It’s a classic story of good versus evil, but it is filled with flawed and inspirational characters. Now I can’t wait to go re-watch the entire movie trilogy to complete this experience!

Little Women

Rating:
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. date: 1869 (read Sep. 2019)

Little Women has been on my TBR FOREVER and I’m so happy to finally have read it! I picked up the world’s ugliest copy of Little Women at a book sale back before I was a book collector and it has just been sitting on my shelf taunting me for years. So thanks very much to my book club for this one because we decided to do classics month for September and we all read a different classic. Plus I couldn’t have had better time timing to read this with the new movie coming out this Christmas.

So what did I think? Little Women is exactly the kind of classic I love. It’s poignant and character driven. At times it reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, although it poses no threat at dethroning Anne as one of my all time favourites. I really liked Meg, Jo, and Beth, and even Amy grew on me over time. It’s a book about many things, but mostly it’s about family, love, and growing up. And I do love a good coming of age book.

I have to admit though, as much as I enjoyed the themes of this book, it is damn boring at times. I felt like I never built up any momentum while reading it. When I started I calculated that I had to read 2 chapters a day in order to finish in time for book club, which would usually be a joke for me, but I really did struggle to read more than 2 chapters a day and finished it with only 2 days spare. I did pick up speed at the end, but it was more out of a desire to move on to something else.

So I did want to acknowledge that there is a lot of fluff in there that I think could be cut out, but honestly that could be said of most classics. However, I did still give this 4 stars, despite my pacing frustrations. It is a little heavy with 1800’s morality, but there’s a lot to love about Little Women. Namely, Jo. The novel features all 4 of the March Sisters, focusing on different sisters at different times, but it’s hard to deny that Jo is the main protagonist of the story. Which makes sense when you learn that this is a largely autobiographical novel, with the author cast as Jo.

Jo is the kind of independent, rule-breaking, inspiring woman that I love to read about. So much of classic literature is focused on men and written by men, that it’s always amazing to see mold-breaking women like Anne Shirley, Francie Nolan, Scarlett O’Hara, and Jo March. There were (and still are) so many expectations placed on women about what their goals should be and what roles they should fulfill as they mature. The roles primarily being wife and mother. But women are amazing and not content to sit within the roles that society has defined for them and I love reading about women who try and break free of that mold – doesn’t matter what the era – but it is particularly more impressive in older books.

Jo March is a girl who wishes to an extent that she could be a boy. Not because she particularly wants to be a boy, but because she wants the opportunities afforded to men. The only role that’s ever been defined for her is housewife and she wants to be free and independent to chase after her own dreams. And Jo’s biggest dream is to be a writer. She faces all kinds of challenges in getting her work published, but it’s something she decides to go after because she loves to be able to provide and take care of her family.

So I do think that Jo is pretty revolutionary for her time, but what I really loved about Little Women is that Alcott doesn’t want to showcase just one kind of woman. Yes, Jo is different and important, but I loved the contrast between each and every sister and how each of them was just as special as Jo and their dreams just as important. Jo initially struggles to understand her older sister Meg because she sees all the talents that Meg has to offer the world and it breaks her heart to see them lost for Meg to be a housewife. But we all have different dreams and they are all valid. We need women that want to break down the barriers that have confined us, but we also need women that have a great love for people. Women who are kind and empathetic and want to take care of others.

Amy and Beth have different dreams still. Amy is spoiled and selfish and thinks mostly of herself, but learns to control her ego and to put her efforts into others and not just herself – that being kind and selfless can still bring us rewards beyond what we could dream. I do wish Beth had played a larger role in the story. She is extremely shy and battles health issues throughout most of the book, so her interactions with other characters are much less than the other sisters, but she does serve to demonstrate how every individual has the ability to have a profound impact on those around them.

I have to get into some spoilers now, though this is a 150 year old book, so there’s probably not a whole lot left to spoil for people, but I have warned you nonetheless. Spoilers ahead.

One of my favourite parts of this book was Jo and Laurie, though they broke my heart more than once throughout reading. I loved that they became such good friends in an era where boys and girls weren’t really encouraged to be friends with one another. Their upbringings and circumstances were very different from one another, but they were still able to develop a close bond, despite the differences in their experiences. But what I loved most was that Jo rejected Laurie’s romantic advances and that was the end of it!! I thought that was totally revolutionary for a book published in the 1860’s! Because they’d been such close friends growing up, you expected for romantic feelings to develop between them. I wasn’t surprised that Jo rebuffed Laurie because that was totally in line with her character as an independent woman, but I was totally expecting for Laurie to try again to win her over and that she would change her mind. I loved that she knew they weren’t meant to be together, was firm in that belief, expressed her feelings, and then moved on without jealousy or regret. It was wonderful.

But then of course, Alcott has to go and ruin it all by deciding to pair up Laurie and Amy. This was completely disappointing to me because it’s a jarring change after watching Jo and Laurie interact together for 80% of the novel. It was like she had to give everyone a happy ending. I’m glad that Jo and Laurie were reconciled, but I’m sorry, if my best friend who professed to be in love with me started shacking up with my sister, I would definitely be a little pissed and jealous. So I guess Jo is just a better person than I am. I’ll also blame the setting a little because it’s not like casual dating was a thing back then.

I wasn’t really feeling the professor either, but hey, even the most independent of women still want to love and be loved and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that message.

On a side note, I finally let myself watch the trailer for the new movie coming out at Christmas and OMG it looks so good! Like I seriously think it looks even better than the book because there won’t be any over-indulgent rambling. Emma Watson and Saiorse Ronan are two of my absolute favourite actresses and I think Saiorse is actually the perfect casting ever for Jo! Plus Emma as Meg and Meryl Streep as Aunt March! Not a huge Laura Dern fan though, so we’ll see how she does as Marmee. I haven’t really seen any of Timothee Chalamet’s movie’s, but he’s pretty much exactly how I pictured Laurie, so I’m excited for it!

So overall, I thought this book had some flaws. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the patience to read through it again, but I can finally say I have read it and it did live up to my expectations!

The Two Towers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: JRR Tolkien
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: 1954 (re-read in Jun. 2019)
Series: The Lord of the Rings #2

I’ve never been able to decide what my favourite Lord of the Rings movie is. It’s always been a two way tie for first between Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King, with Two Towers sitting firmly in second. But I loved The Two Towers book!!! I’ll have to see what I think of Return of the King when I re-read it, but as of right now, I definitely liked the second book better than the first.

In my review for Fellowship, I talked about how I was nervous to re-read it because I was afraid of the run-on descriptions and dense text, but ended up finding it easier to read then anticipated. Granted, I still love Fellowship and gave it 4 stars, but I think it does have the fault of having too slow a start. It takes forever for Frodo to leave the shire and for the story to get going, only to have it stall again with copious amounts of storytelling about each character in Rivendell. It’s not until the Company departs for Mordor that things properly pick up.

At no point does Two Towers suffer from this flaw. I remember being really frustrated when I read this book for the first time and I discovered I was going to have to wait until half way through the book to find out what happens to Frodo and the ring. But because I knew what was coming, I was able to enjoy the first half with the rest of the company a lot more. I think on my first read-through I didn’t really understand how important the rest of the characters were to the story because until that point, the narrative had always been centered around Frodo and the ring.

This book is way more fast paced and it was interesting to remind myself of Tolkien’s version of events, which differ from the adaptation. I think Peter Jackson does a great job on the adaptation (seriously, they are a masterpiece), but I think the reason Two Towers is firmly my least favourite movie is because it drags on a lot. The single chapter battle of Helms Deep dominates the movie and a fair chunk of the events that happens at the end of books 3 and 4 were moved to the final movie. I understand why this was done, there’s not a whole lot of material about Frodo and Sam’s quest in the final book, but it made for a bit of a dragged out movie (for reference, the third book is the shortest of the trilogy, while the movie is the longest).

I also didn’t like how Jackson changed Faramir and Frodo’s characters. He introduced a lot more internal and character conflict in the movie (I’m thinking specifically of Faramir trying to take the ring to Gondor and Frodo sending Sam away). But in reality Faramir was a total stand-up guy who did not suffer the same character flaws as Boromir and Frodo and Sam have a really beautiful relationship as they climbing the stairs and never question their loyalty to one another. There’s some beautiful text about Frodo and Sam imagining themselves in the great stories, which Peter Jackson did include in the final movie, but I loved how the two of them supported each other on the stairs, never letting Gollum come between them despite their differing opinions of him.

In the movies, I do love all of the characters and really enjoy the split between the different narratives. Peter Jackson definitely does a better job with the Ent scenes and I liked that this part of the story is told in real time in the movies, versus as a flashback like it is in the book. But Frodo and Sam in book 4 really do steal the story. Their story is so compelling and I love their strength of character. I love Frodo for his willingness to forgive Gollum and to trust him and treat him with respect, understanding what he went through as a ring bearer and how that still impacts him. But I also love Sam and his unfailing loyalty. I’ve always loved Sam, though Aragorn has generally been my favourite character in the movies. But Sam really shines in the books and he was hands down my favourite. There’s all these quotes about Tolkien and Sam and how Tolkien always viewed Sam as the true hero of the story. There’s not really any definitive proof of this, just heresy, but for me Sam has always been the true hero. The final chapter, the choices of Master Samwise, was definitely my favourite of the book. I love that a small hobbit that has mostly been afraid and unsure of himself, becomes a total bad-ass and takes down Shelob, and then immediately switches to be vulnerable and empathetic, garnering his courage to move forward in the bleakest of circumstance. Sam is the most selfless character, never making choices for himself, only for the good of Frodo and the quest.

I’m dying to pick up Return of the King right away, although I’m not looking forward to having to wait another 200 pages to read about Frodo and Sam again. Tolkien leaves us on a brutal cliffhanger at the end of Two Towers. But I have to read my book club book first, so I’ll have to wait another week or so to start the final book. I loved this second book and I’m thrilled and relieved to find that I still love these books after so many years!

The Fellowship of the Ring

Rating:
Author: JRR Tolkien
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: 1954 (re-read in Jun. 2019)
Series: The Lord of the Rings #1

So I first read Fellowship of the Ring when I was around 10 or 11 years old. My Dad played a big role in fostering my love of reading and encouraged me to read the series before the first movie came out. I have to admit, I’m a little impressed that I read this whole series as a pre-teen and actually loved it. I’ve always remembered the books (and heard them described by others) as being super dense and descriptive, and for some reason I was totally intimidated to re-read them.

I’m a huge fan of the movie franchise and I re-watch the whole trilogy every couple of years. I recently re-watched it with my friends and convinced two of them to re-read the trilogy with me. I’m a little embarrassed now at how much I was actually intimidated by this book, because while it is a little indulgent in the descriptions, it’s nowhere near as dense as I had built it up to be in my head and I really had no problem reading it.

I’m going to skip the synopsis because we all know what the Lord of the Rings is about. It’s a classic good-versus-evil fantasy story that puts everything else in the genre to shame. It was fun to re-read and compare what lines Peter Jackson lifted right out of the book and what liberties he took with the characterization (I’m looking at you, Arwen). This is our introduction to hobbits, middle-earth, and the fellowship and re-reading the first book only cemented my love for all of Tolkien’s characters. ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures’ and I loved Sam, Merry, and Pippin for being so willing to follow and support Frodo, no matter where he went or what challenges they faced. Even hobbits like Farmer Maggot and Fatty Bolger went out of their way to support the hobbits without asking anything in return.

I’m giving this 4 stars instead of 5 stars because there were parts of the story that dragged. It felt like it took forever to actually get out of the Shire and Rivendell and Lothlorien went on a little too long for my tastes. I was really impressed with how Tolkien wrote Gollum in this book. He dogs the fellowship for the entire second half of the book without them ever putting a name to what’s following them and it was pretty creepy. It takes a while to get to know each of the nine in the fellowship as well, but slowly Tolkien starts to tease out their personalities and develop each of them into more fully fleshed out characters.

The action definitely translates differently then it does on the screen, but the book had me on the edge of my seat for most of the second half. I thought things picked up a lot once to the fellowship left Rivendell. There were a few parts from the book that weren’t in the movie that I did remember, like the old forest and Tom Bombadil, but there were other parts I didn’t remember at all, like the fellowship getting attacked by wolves. Overall, I still think Peter Jackson did a great job on the adaptation and I can’t wait to re-watch the series again and get started on Two Towers!