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!

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Saving Francesca

Rating:
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Mar. 2003 (re-read May 2019)

This was super enjoyable to read for the second time and I actually enjoyed it more on my re-read than I did the first time I read it. I’ve been dying to read her newest book, The Place on Dalhousie, but it’s not available at any bookstores in Canada or on the kindle store, so I finally broke down and ordered a copy from Book Depository. After ordering it, I discovered that it actually includes some of the same characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son.

Saving Francesca was Marchetta’s second book, published in 2003, and The Piper’s Son was published several years after that. I believe all 3 books involve some of the same characters, but could all be read as stand-alones. The Piper’s Son is the only remaining Marchetta book that I haven’t read, so I decided to take the opportunity to re-read Francesca and Piper before I read the newest book.

I liked Saving Francesca on my first re-through, but it didn’t stand out to me. I think this is because I read it right after the first time I read On the Jellicoe Road. Jellicoe Road is one of my favourite books of all time, so after reading it I was enthusiastic to try out some of Marchetta’s other books, but Francesca couldn’t really compete with Jellicoe, so I didn’t rate it as highly. I’ve probably read Jellicoe 4-5 times since the first time I read it, but this was my first time re-reading Francesca and I really liked it a lot more. Now that I’ve had the time to separate it from Jellicoe Road and view it on its own merits (rather than just comparing it to Jellicoe), it’s actually a really good book.

Saving Francesca is about 16 year old Francesca Spinelli and her family. Francesca has always had a really close relationship with her mother and then one day, her mother basically shuts down and fails to get out of bed. She suffers from depression, which is something Francesca has never really been exposed to and struggles to understand. At the same time, Francesca has just started a new school and she misses her old friends and doesn’t feel like she belongs at her new school.

Even though none of her other books have been as great as Jellicoe Road, I have always loved Marchetta’s writing style and characterization. I would absolutely classify her as one of my favourite authors and even though I’ve outgrown a lot of YA, I don’t feel like I’ll ever outgrow Marchetta’s work. I love the way she writes teenagers and friendships. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I read her books, I feel like I’m walking into a world already fully realized. She is great at Show, Don’t Tell, and I never feel like I’m being introduced to a story, so much as just becoming immersed in it.

Her characters are so vibrant and I love the way they relate to one another. Melina is the master of the “from-hate-to-love” relationships and I love how she develops friendships in her books. Saving Francesca is a coming of age story as well as a book about mental illness. I mostly liked her approach to mental illness, with the exception of the aversion to taking medication for it. There shouldn’t be any stigma associated with taking medication for mental illness and wish it would be normalized more in books. Many people suffer from many different mental illnesses and medication really helps them. Francesca’s family was pretty adverse to it in this book, which was too bad because I think drugs could have helped Mia get back on her feet a lot faster.

But I did like her other themes about being there for one another and that having good days doesn’t mean that you’re better, but that having bad days also doesn’t mean that you’re not okay. The characters gave each other space to work through their issues and I liked that Francesca understood that while there maybe wasn’t a lot that she could do for her mother, simply being there might be enough.

One thing that really makes a book a winner for me is when an author writes well developed secondary characters. I loved all the secondary characters in this book, especially the teenagers. Every single one of them was flawed, yet they all had traits that made them special and likable. I loved Tara’s spirit and Siobhan’s unapologetic approach to life and Justine’s goodness and Thomas Mackee’s nonchalance and Jimmy’s soft understanding and support. I even kind of liked Will this time around, who I definitely didn’t on my first read through. He’s a bit of a shitty character, but I was willing to forgive him for his mistakes this time around and appreciated that he was able to grow and make choices outside of the rigid plans he set for himself.

This is a short book and subtle. I liked the honest depiction of mental illness, but as usual with Marchetta’s books, what really made it stand out was the characters. I love a good character driven book and she never lets me down. Can’t wait to read The Piper’s Son and The Place on Dalhousie!

The Stories You Tell

Rating:
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery
Pub. date: Jul. 9, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Roxane Weary #3

Thanks for Minotaur Books for providing me with a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This series is fantastic! I really liked the first book, but honestly, they just keep getting better and better. Roxane is such a great character and I love the balance Lepionka has found between the mystery element and the development of her recurring characters. The secondary characters change up a bit from book to book, but I love Roxane’s relationship with her family and her growing friendships with Tom and Shelby. No comment on Catherine.

Lepionka is a really great writer. I’ve said this in other reviews, but I know she’s great at connecting her readers with her characters because of the level of frustration you feel for them. The characters are extremely compelling and her plots of so relevant to today’s society. They are always, predominantly, mystery novels, but she weaves a lot of relevant social commentary into her stories that makes them so much more meaningful and relatable to her readers. She didn’t have to do anything special with these books and I think they still could have been successful, but I love that she takes the effort to make her stories diverse.

I love that Roxane is bi-sexual and I love how she incorporated some thoughtful commentary on racial justice and equality in this book. Her previous books have focused on the inequity that women face in the justice system and I like how she spent a little bit of time in this book looking at how black people are disenfranchised in the system and drawing attention to the ways in which white people don’t realize what kind of privilege they actually have.

I’m not going to get into the plot too much. At this point, the plot of the mystery doesn’t really matter to me, I’m here for Roxane. I would definitely recommend reading the series in order though because otherwise you’ll miss out on all the great character development! The only thing that wasn’t great about the book was that the transitions between scenes were very abrupt, with no break in structure to let us know the scene had changed. I think this is just a quirk of the ebook arc I had though and I’m expecting this will be changed in the finished copy.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend this series. I totally flew through this installment and read the whole thing in a single day!

The Crimson Crown

Rating:
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub date: Oct. 2012 (read Mar. 2019)
Series: Seven Realms #4

I need to write my review for The Crimson Crown before I start forgetting things!

As I said in my review for The Gray Wolf Throne, I absolutely flew through the last 2 books! I got a little bit hung up on the first half of the series, but the second half totally blew my mind. And if I liked The Gray Wolf Throne, then I LOVED The Crimson Crown.

Cinda Williams Chima knows how to write a finale! The final book is non-stop drama, action, and romance. What I loved so much about this series is that is was the perfect blend of action, political scheming, world-building, and romance. Han and Raisa very much carry the story, but there is a vibrant cast of secondary characters supporting them.

Chima really ups the ante in this book and weaves so many different plot threads through the story. This book has really high stakes and I literally could not put it down! I felt like all of the other books could maybe have cut down the length a little bit, but even at 600 pages, I wouldn’t have cut anything from this book. I’ll try and keep this review spoiler free for the last book, but my review will contain spoilers from the first 3 books.

After Raisa’s coronation at the end of the previous book, she is suddenly tasked with trying to unite the peoples of the Fells, while simultaneously continuing to avoid her many would-be assassins and hope that the war in the south remains in the south. She immediately takes steps to clean up the river and integrate homegrown soldiers into their army, which until this point has been comprised mostly of southerners. Because of her Briar Rose ministry, she is beloved by the townsfolk, but struggles to fight against the wealthy and privileged wizards on her council.

The wizards, particularly Gavan Bayar, are desperate for more power, as are the clans. The Bayars seek to elevate their positions by either removing the Gray Wolf line or marrying into it. The clans also seek a marriage into the line, but they are driven more by the desire to bring more clan blood into the Gray Wolf line. And poor Raisa is stuck in the middle of their warring interests. Raisa has always known that she would likely have to seek a political marriage. Queens don’t have the privilege of marrying for love, they must marry for the good of the realm. She’s always been prepared for this, but her prospects for marriage both within and outside of the kingdom are disappointing, especially when faced with the reality of actually losing the person she really loves.

Raisa was my favourite character in the first two books, but I thought Han really started to come into his own in the last book and I adored him in this book! For someone who grew up in the slums, he is incredibly smart and self assured. He continuously seeks to better his position, partly in a desire to prove his worth, but also as a way to take down his enemies. Suddenly he is more powerful than he’s ever been. Han has always held his cards very close to his chest, reluctant to trust anyone. But he is really forced to grow in this book and learns that while trusting others can make you vulnerable, it is also rewarding.

Han never really struck me as a romantic or as a person who feels entitled to anything. But I loved his principals in this book. He’s both unwilling to give Raisa up, but also unwilling to settle for only a piece of her heart. At some point he realizes that he can’t fault Rebecca for lying to him because he’s never really been totally honest himself. It would have been so easy for him to hold on to his anger against Raisa, but I loved that he knew his heart well enough to decide to stay. After having lost everyone he’s ever cared about, I thought he was incredibly brave to be willing to love again.

I loved how some of the secondary characters grew in this book too. I am in love with Dancer, Night Bird, and Cat. Dancer is so willing to see the best in people and to be the bridge that the wizards and the clans so desperately need. I love that Night Bird is able to see past her prejudice and see people for who they really are, good or bad. And I love Cat’s unfailing loyalty and trust, both to Han and Raisa. I also loved how Chima grew Crow’s character in this book and reconciled the story between Hanalea and the Demon King. I wasn’t super into the historical aspect of the book and found it kind of confusing in earlier books, but I liked how it was integrated into and impacted the main plot in this book. History is very much written by the victors and just because something has been the same way for 1000 years, does not make it right. As people and communities, we need to learn to forgive and accept one another.

Overall this story just had so much depth. The characters go through such a huge transformation between the beginning and the end and I liked how Chima plays with the conceptions of good and evil and how perception sometimes is everything. The clans and the wizards have been at odds for 1000 years, with both sides trying to consolidate more power. The task of uniting the wizards and the clans is seemingly insurmountable, but Raisa, Han, and Dancer, individuals who were born of both factions, are brave enough to try.

We get a lot of new drama with the Wizard Council in this book, as well as with clan politics and Raisa’s tense relationship with her sister. Some characters from Oden’s Ford return in this book and help Han in shaking things up. Though I loved all the politics and the drama, I’m still a little unsure how to feel about the Bayars. I think that Gavan, Micah, and Fiona make for incredibly dynamic villains because they are united, but at the same time each working towards their own goals. They often work at odds against each other, posing multiple problems for both Han and Raisa.

Gavan has always been classically evil, while Micah and Fiona have been more nuanced. I’ve never really been sure how to feel about either one. Micah kept giving me whiplash in this series because he is at times evil and selfish, but he also clearly cares about Raisa. I definitely condemn his actions and thought he didn’t deserve the time of day from Raisa, but he is also a victim of his father’s ambitions and was in his own way, just trying to do the best thing for Raisa. I’ll admit though, I didn’t really love how things were resolved with each of the Bayars, particularly Fiona. I feel like I never really figured out who Fiona actually was and I don’t like how things ended with her story.

I also didn’t love how things ended with the clans. I always admired the clans and I was a bit disappointed with how things ended up with Elena, Averill, and Nightwalker. But throughout the course of the novel, the wizards were consistently the bad guys, so I do think it’s an important reminder that people on both sides have made mistakes and escalated the conflict between wizards and clan. The Bayars are definitely the villains, but to an extent, everyone is at fault in failing to acknowledge their prejudice against one another.

But, with the exceptions of these few minor criticisms, I absolutely loved this! I was really impressed with both the world building and character development. There is a follow up series to the Seven Realms series called the Shattered Realms series, so I’m definitely planning to read that series, but for now I’m planning to go on a little fantasy break for a while to work through some of the historical and literary fiction on my shelf!

The Simple Wild

Rating: 
Author: K.A. Tucker
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

5 Stars?! Are you okay Maria? Are you really going to give a romance novel 5 stars??

This book was so out of my element that I feel like it actually came full circle so that it was exactly in my element. I don’t read very many purely romance novels, but I definitely love a good romance subplot in other genres. However, I was drawn to this book for the setting over the plot. I’ve been obsessed with Alaska ever since I read The Great Alone earlier this year and I couldn’t turn this book down,

I say it’s out of my element because it’s romance. But the setting is right up my alley. I’ve been living in Vancouver for the last five years and I’ve become a little bit obsessed with the great outdoors. I spent almost every weekend this summer either hiking, backpacking, camping, or kayaking, so I love books with isolated settings. Even though I would have had a totally different approach to visiting Alaska than Calla did, I still found this book very relatable.

Calla Fletcher was born in Alaska, but she’s spent her entire life in Toronto. Her mom fell in love with an Alaskan bush pilot, but she couldn’t handle the Alaskan wilderness and moved back to Toronto when Calla was only 2. Her dad, Wren, couldn’t bear to leave his plane company, Alaskan Wild, and over time, Wren and Calla became estranged.

Fast forward 24 years; Calla is 26 and has just been restructured out of her bank job. She loves city life and has been pursuing fashion and lifestyle blogging with her best friend Diana when she receives a call from Alaska that her Dad is sick and this may be her only chance to finally re-connect with him and re-visit the place where she was born. She’s out of a job and her and Diana think the photos would be great for their blog, so she makes the trip up to Bangor, Alaska.

In the beginning, Calla struggles with Alaskan life. She’s used to fast paced city life, being able to get a soy latte where ever she wants, and spending lots of time every day making herself look good for photos. Next to the wild people of Alaska, she seems vapid and vain. I’m a lot different than Calla. I don’t wear very much makeup and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at wearing the same grungy outfit every day if I had to (I certainly would never bring two large suitcases on a one week trip to the wilderness). But even so, she’s very relatable. I understand her desire to look good and take beautiful pictures. She’s in the great unknown and I would definitely be posting pictures all over my instagram if I was her. But she has a hard time adapting to the change of pace in Alaska and struggles with other emotional issues, like re-connecting with her sick father.

The setting of this story was different than I expected. I was expecting the gorgeous mountain and glacier views that I got in The Great Alone, but what we get instead is a dingy little town in the middle of the flat, Alaskan bush. I thought Tucker’s description of the run-down buildings when Calla first drives through town was so great because I could just picture this little town in my head and because it doesn’t have the stunning mountain backdrop that I was anticipating, it was a lot easier to relate with Calla’s initial culture shock. This book ended up being a lot more than just the setting of Bangor, but the community of it. You really get a sense of what it’s like to live in a backwater community in rural Alaska – the way people depend on one another and support each other. It gave the setting depth. And though Calla was slow to appreciate it, she got there in the end.

This was my second romance book in the last month (recently read Colleen Hoover’s, All My Perfects) and what I liked about both books was that they weren’t solely romance novels. I wouldn’t really even call The Simple Wild romance because it has so much else going for it. This book is really about all the different kinds of love in the world. It’s about making peace with your past, being open to new experiences, and making time for the things that really matter to you. Tucker strikes a wonderful balance between Calla’s relationship with her dad, the romance, and all the different kinds of platonic love that are showcased in this book.

So on to the romance! I haven’t even mentioned Jonah yet. It’s obvious from the synopsis where the book is going, but it was a super fun ride. Jonah is Wren Fletcher’s best pilot. He’s a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he has a lot of love for his job and helping the villages scattered around Alaska get the supplies and resources that they need. He will go above and beyond to help someone in need. But this is not the person Calla first meets. Wren sends Jonah to pick Calla up in Anchorage and they get off to a bad start. Jonah has seen girls like Calla before and he doesn’t have any patience for them. He thinks she’s entitled and vapid. But Calla also has little time for Jonah. He’s rude to her from the get go and dismisses her intelligence. It’s the classic couple hates each other, misunderstands each other, and then loves each other dynamic. But it worked.

Calla is many of the things Jonah thinks of her, but she is not dumb and she does care about her dad and his business. In the same way, Jonah was many of the things she thought about him, he was very mean to her and his honesty starts them off on the wrong foot, but he is also a deeply caring individual. I definitely loved Jonah. Any guys who loves the outdoors already has brownie points in my book and I liked that he was honest, even though it was sometimes hurtful. He realized his mistakes and apologizes in his own way, but I think he also had a lot of fun bantering with Calla and kept it up because it was fun for him to set her off kilter. I also loved that he was able to laugh at himself and his joy for life.

I definitely got a kick out of all the pranks they played on one another. I was a little concerned when he stole her make-up bag because make-up is definitely a crutch for some people and has the potential to be pretty traumatizing (plus there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving make-up). But I ultimately decided it was okay because Calla’s prank on Jonah was pretty bold and could easily have crossed the line. She pulled a prank on him that made him more attractive to her and by swiping her make-up from her, he was essentially doing the same thing.

Overall this book makes me yearn for more quality new adult fiction. I am years past lusting over the 17 year olds in YA contemporary and most YA fantasy, but I can’t yet relate to books about parents, their kids, and their failing marriages. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good family drama, but I think the romance in this book appealed to me so much because it’s actually where I’m at in my life. I’ve talked a few times about how literature needs more books about college and university (which I still think it does), but I also think we need more books about mid to late twenties, when people are out of school and starting to figure out their lives, but haven’t yet settled down into the standard family dynamic. I would love some great new adult reads. I’m sure they’re out there already, but they definitely aren’t getting the kind of love and promotion that other types of books get.

Finally, I loved the ending of this book. I love books that hit me with tough choices. Nothing annoys me more in love triangles then when the author makes one of the triangle into a jerk so that we don’t have to feel bad for them getting the axe. There’s no love triangle in this book, but I love stories and decisions that have two equal sides that are both valid. I love when the author doesn’t try to push us toward one ideal or the other or write the story in such a way as to make one choice easier or more obvious. Calla and Jonah are basically re-living her mother and fathers love story. Calla is a city girl, Jonah’s in love with the wild. They know there’s an expiration date on their relationship, but they fall in love anyways. There’s no easy answer to their dilemma. One of them has to be willing to move for the other to make it work and no one wants to be the one to either give up their life, or ask the other to give up their life. I thought the ending happened just a little bit too fast, but I really liked how Tucker approached their conflict.

So overall, I really liked this book. My only problem was that it took me a little while to get into it at the beginning. I’m not really sure why. I wouldn’t change the beginning. Overall it’s a bit of a slow burn type novel, but it reads really fast and once I got invested in the characters, I totally flew through the book!

 

SPOILER: The ending is still left pretty vague, but I really liked Jonah’s compromise. It actually broke my heart to see him in Toronto because it’s obvious he wouldn’t be happy there and that it would never work. But he wasn’t willing to give up and he was still willing to move somewhere where they might both have a chance at being happy. Would moving to anchorage so that Calla could still have a semblance of city life be enough? Maybe not, but I loved that he recognized what wouldn’t work for them and decided to try and find something that would work. With this approach, I feel like there are a lot of places that the two of them could be happy. There are many Canadian centres where Calla and Jonah could make a life and still be on the brink of rural life. It was such a simple approach and I really think it could work for them. Relationships don’t have to always be about sacrifice – they shouldn’t be about sacrifice – but about compromise, and this compromise made me really hopeful for this fictional couple. Plus I think it sends a way better message then having Calli give up her life in Toronto for a guy. Women and girls have been preached that message enough.