Mercedes Lackey: Phoenix & Ashes (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2014

Phoenix and Ashes

I wasn’t going to do that anymore but after 270 pages of boredom, I had to put the book aside. I’ve got a pile of books on a small shelf, just opposite my bed, and while reading Mercedes Lackey’s novel Phoenix & Ashes I kept on looking at the titles of books I just bought (The Flamethrowers, The Interestings, Nobody is Ever Missing . . .) that I wasn’t reading because of this. I skipped to the end, read the last two chapters and that was that. The idea sounded so original. A retelling of Cinderella set right after WWI. Unfortunately the result is neither a proper historical novel, nor did it feel like real fantasy. It was more like an author filling pages using painting by numbers for books. You can’t just take a fairy tale, and use the story as plotline. Fairy tale retellings need to tell us something new about a fairy tale. They shouldn’t just be abused because the author has no story of her own to tell.

A novel like this needs great characters but I found them all very one-dimensional and uninteresting.

The period detail was well done, but it wasn’t anything new. You could watch Downton Abbey and get more out of it. Or read one of the many excellent historical novels set at that time. No need to trudge through 480 pages of something like this.

I was also annoyed because of the very poor editing. Or shoddy proofreading. So many mistakes in a book are not acceptable.

Luckily I have only one of Mercedes Lackey’s novella’s on my shelves. I’m not going to pick that up any day soon. I thought this book was a waste of talent, because she isn’t a bad writer as such, but sadly this is a lifeless, uninspired book.

My sincere apologies to all those who picked this up because of the readalong. I know Emma had the same reaction and gave up after some 100 pages. But I’m equally sorry if someone loved it and has to read such harsh words now.



Phoenix & Ashes is the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth. Discussion starts on Friday 28 November, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Cassandra Clare: City of Bones (2007) Mortal Instruments I Book and Movie

City of Bones

A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie City of Bones and liked the imagery and the story so much, I had to pick up the book. The movie got dreadful reviews; it seems I’m the only one who really liked it. The book was said to be much better. It’s tricky to read a book after having watched a film with such stunning visuals. For the first 200 pages I didn’t really see the descriptions of the book but the movie images. After that I got a better feel for the book because it contained some major plot elements which had been left out in the film.

The story might be familiar to you by now. Clary and her best friend Simon live in New York City. One night they go to the Pandemonium Club and Clary witnesses a murder. Funny enough Simon can’t see anything. Neither the murder, nor the people who commit it. When Clary’s mum is abducted a little while later, and Clary is attacked by a demon, it dawns on her that the life she has been living might have been a lie.

Together with her friend Simon, Jace, one of the guys who committed the murder, and his friends, she embarks on a big adventure. Clary like Jace is no real human. She is a shadow hunter. Shadow hunters kill demons, but they co-exist with downworlders like werewolves and vampires. I’m not going to write much more about the plot as it’s one of those that is easily spoilt.

I thought the movie did a good job at tightening the plot. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have missed the scenes and episodes that were cut but I thought they were not that gripping. Clary’s interior monologue in the book is often silly, like when she wonders why there are only good-looking vampires. I’m going to spare you her reasoning. It’s NOT clever. Interestingly though, the greatest appeal of the book are the dialogue sections. Jace, Clary and Simon and not only witty but very sarcastic, which made me chuckle quite a few times.

Overall I would say, book and movie both have their strengths, but I prefered the movie because I absolutely loved the imagery and the interiors they created – the club, Clary’s house, the church in which the shadowhunters live.  I also liked that they made the plot so much tighter. And I thought the cast was perfect.

What I didn’t like so much in both lies in the nature of this specific type of story. There are numerous ways to tell (urban/dark) fantasy stories. I tend to prefer those in which magic/fantasy are part of the world the characters live in, and their existence are known by everyone, or when the main character is part of the paranormal world. Normal humans who are thrown into a paranormal situation or who discover at the beginning of a book that they aren’t entirely human are just not as appealing to me. I find that these stories stretch believability too much. At the beginning of City of Bones, for example, Clary is a normal teenager and after only one day, she’s immersed in a paranormal world she never knew existed, her mother’s abducted, she’s attacked by demons, werewolves and vampires, but she accepts this without questioning it too much. This premise can work sometimes. Neil Gaiman made it work in Neverwhere, but often it feels unrealistic.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining book and I might even read part two, if only for the dialogue. If there is another movie, I’ll certainly watch it.

This is my first contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. Don’t miss the review site, which can be found here.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008) Readalong Part III

Last week I wrote about chapters 4 – 6 of  Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, this week we have read the final chapters 7 and 8.

It was obvious that the man Jack would be back and also that he would be part of the final episodes. What wasn’t entirely clear but was revealed in the final chapters was why he was after Bod’s family. This is where The Graveyard Book turns almost into a Greek tragedy. In order to prevent something that is predicted, the man Jack commits a crime but, as is the case in the Greek tragedies, fails and the murder itself sets in motion his own undoing. Ironic really.

The final confrontation with the man Jack was something I expected and I wasn’t too surprised, still there are many surprises in the final chapters. I was wondering from the beginning how the book would end in terms of Bod’s development and future. Would he forever stay with his ghost family and friends? Would he start to follow Silas on his trips? Would Miss Lupescu show him how to become like her?All these were possibilities and I was keen on finding out which solution Gaiman had chosen. The end isn’t exactly like I expected it. I thought it was almost a bit sad. I know, I’m allowed to, as this is a readalong post, still, I don’t feel like spoiling the book, so I won’t say more.

There is something I like about Neil Gaiman’s books and stories and that is that he often provides a lot of information on how he his novels and stories came to be, what inspired him, where he wrote them.

As I said in my first post, The Graveyard Book is strongly influenced by The Jungle Book but one of the very first inspirations came, as he writes, from watching his then two year-old son riding his tricycle between the graves of a cemetery. He finally started the book with chapter four and if his daughter hadn’t wanted to know what would happen next, he would have stopped there.  Tori Amos is one of the people he mentions in the Acknowledgment section. He also adds some lines from her song Graveyard. I can only assume it inspired him too. It’s a very short piece. You can listen to it on YouTube.

I’m not sure which will be my next Gaiman. I guess either Coraline or American Gods.

I read The Graveyard Book for Carl’s readalong which is part of  R.I.P. VII.  If you want to read what other’s thought, don’t miss visiting Carl’s blog for the other reviews.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008) Readalong Part II

Last week I wrote about chapters 1 -3 of  Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, this week we have read chapters 4 – 6.

I’m glad to report that I’m still enjoying the book a lot. The structure is less episodic now, some elements return and we already know that the man Jack who killed Bod’s whole family is still around and hasn’t given up.  Bod meets new people in these chapters and one of the most important is a witch. She may be one of my favourite characters and the relationship between the two is quite touching. But there is more. The story of the witch illustrates that there is a very interesting historical dimension to this book which could be overread but it’s present and very well done. The witch is in a part of the graveyard where people lie who have no gravestones, because they were suicides or otherwise cast out by the church. In a place in which gravestones play such a prominent role, to be without one, is like being bereft of your identity. The witch is very sad about this fact and Bod, who is a truly goodhearted little boy, tries to buy her a tombstone. Unfortunately this very nice thought brings not only a lot of trouble but at the end of the whole undertaking, the man Jack is informed that the little baby he couldn’t kill has turned into a boy and is still alive.

An element which didn’t strike me at first is how the many inhabitants of the graveyard are often presented. Gaiman gives us the inscriptions of their headstones like in this example “Majella Godspeed, Spinster of his Parish, 1791 – 1870, Lost to All but Memory”. When you’ve read half a dozen of these the effect is quite uncanny. It looks as if all that is left of us is our name, our dates, and -when we are lucky – an inscription that is poetical and wise and not one that is unintentionally funny.

In these chapters Bod gets into trouble more than once and what is sad is the fact that it is always when he tries to help others. But we do also discover another side of Bod. He has truly become a person who is able to move between the living and the dead and to use their respective talents. One of the scenes I enjoyed the most is when he uses his skills to haunt two particularly nasty children.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest now which will probably be this afternoon. It’s cool outside and rainy, the perfect weather for a book like this.

I’m reading The Graveyard Book for Carl’s readalong which is part of  R.I.P. VII.  If you want to read other’s thoughts, don’t miss visiting Carl’s blog for the other reviews.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008) Readalong Part I

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

From the very first lines we are drawn into the story of the little boy Nobody Owens and the man Jack who kills his whole family at the beginning of Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book.  We don’t know why the man Jack kills the little boy’s family, all we know is that he isn’t happy he didn’t get the little boy as well. While he was killing Nobody’s parents and brother, the baby escapes through the door, down a hill and into the graveyard.

Mrs and Mr Owens see the little boy and Mrs Owens, although she is a ghost, feels an intense, until now unfulfilled longing  and wants to keep the baby for herself. At first there is debate. The other ghosts are not sure it is a good idea. How will she feed him? How will she take care of him? But when the man Jack arrives at the graveyard door and they become aware the baby is in great danger, they agree to protect him and keep him in the graveyard. Luckily Silas, who isn’t really a ghost but no real human either, can move between their and our world and is capable to provide food for the little boy.

In the subsequent chapters the boy who the ghosts have baptised Nobody Owens is introduced to the ways of the living and the dead. He learns to read and write, is taught history and other things, makes friends with a little girl, is abducted by ghouls.

The story as such, which is inspired by Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is not that special but the way it is told is fantastic. More than a writer Gaiman is a story-teller. He is a very musical writer with an ear for language and it’s not surprising his books work well as audio books. The sentences have a hypnotic quality, they draw you in, captivate you by their sound and their meaning alike.

What I thought was particularly great is that we know the man Jack will turn up again. We know his story isn’t over. And we don’t want it to be over. We want to find out why he killed Nobody’s family and what he will do to access the graveyard. The inhabitants of the cemetery may not be corporeal but they still have power. They were able to protect Nobody once, will they be capable to do it again?

I can’t tell you how much I like this novel. It’s wonderful, it feels as if Gaiman when he writes is connected to the very source of story telling itself. In an introduction to a short story collection Gaiman wrote that he thinks the only proof a story is well written is when the readers ask the question “What happened next?”. Gaiman certainly achieved this and much more.

I’ve bought The Graveyard Book a couple of years ago but never read it. I’m so glad it is part of this year’s R.I.P. hosted by Carl. 38 people have signed up to read along. If you want to read what other’s thought of the first 3 chapters, don’t miss visiting Carl’s blog for the other reviews.

Patricia A. McKillip: Solstice Wood (2006)

No stranger to the realms of myth and magic, World Fantasy Award-winning author Patricia A. McKillip presents her first contemporary fantasy in many years-a tale of the tangled lives mere mortals lead, when they turn their eyes from the beauty and mystery that lie just outside of the everyday…

Patricia A. McKillip is one of the most renowned fantasy writers and rightly so as she combines great stories with refined writing. Last year I’ve read her Winter Rose and was quite enchanted by its mysteriously poetic qualities. Winter Rose is a typical fantasy novel regarding the setting. It depicts a time long gone and a pre-industrialized society. When I found out that she had not only written a sequel but that she had set it  in modern times, something she normally doesn’t, I was very curious to read it. Solstice Wood takes place many decades, even centuries after Winter Rose and apart from the setting and some elements, I’d say the two books do not have a lot in common. The style is very different and you could say, they really are stand-alones with a few common traits.

Sylvia grows up with her grandmother. Her mother has died when she was still little and she doesn’t know who her father is. When she finds out that she is half fey, she flees from Lynn Hall and settles in a big city where she becomes a book shop owner. She never wants to return as there is one thing her grandmother hates and tries to keep at bay and that are fairies. When she gets a call informing her of the death of her grandfather she is very reluctant but eventually gives in and flies back home for the funeral. Her aunt and her cousin Tyler are there, as are her grandmothers’ brother and her grandmother Iris.

She feels like a stranger but at the same time she is happy she gets to see her friends again. She would never have left them if it hadn’t been for her secret an only now she becomes aware how much she missed them. Still Sylvia is really anxious and wants to fly back right after the funeral but strange things happen. It seems that the dark wood forces, guided by the queen of the fairies, are about to break loose. Her grandmother, together with a dozen other women, is part of a fiber guild. The magical quilt they are crocheting has the power to keep the two worlds well separated. When Tyler is suddenly replaced by a changeling and the women find out the web of their quilt is about to unravel and the worlds are merging, it’s about time, everyone gets active. For some of them that means entering the Otherworld. The big question is whether they will all survive and if they will, whether they will admit that some of them, not only Sylvia, are not just humans.

I liked Solstice Wood, it’s well written and the way McKillip describes how the worlds merge is interesting. I enjoyed the idea of the fiber guild. What worked very well too is that you can interpret the world of the fairies as anything which feels strange and unfamiliar. The book offers an interesting variation on the themes of prejudice and bias. The more the worlds touch, the more the people get to know the other side, the less it’s frightening. In the end it’s all a matter of being open.

I liked to read a contemporary fantasy novel by McKillip. It’s a lovely and quick read, no big suspense or anything, much more a family story with a fantasy touch.

Robin McKinley: Chalice (2008)

Beekeeper Marisol has been chosen as the new Chalice, destined to stand beside the Master and mix the ceremonial brews that hold the Willowlands together. But the relationship between Chalice and Master has always been tumultuous, and the new Master is unlike any before him.

My favourite fantasy authors are Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman. I’m not such an avid fantasy reader but I think when it comes to genre writing, psychological crime and high fantasy are my favourites. Of course I was intrigued every time I saw Robin McKinley mentioned but what really pushed me to read her was when I saw the review of Chalice on BookRain’s blog and that she compared her to Julliet Marillier.

I wasn’t disappointed, Chalice is such a lovely book, one of the most beautiful fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s like the honeycombs it evokes, with every sentence fitting in its right place and making it a finely constructed whole.

Marisol the beekeeper and woodkeeper has become Chalice of the demesne of Willowsland. Never has there been a honey Chalice. And never has there been a Chalice who hasn’t been an apprentice before. The Chalice is the second most important person of the Circle, the entity who rules over the ritual part of the demesne, responsible for its spiritual and physical well-being.  At the head of the circle is the Master, followed by his Chalice.

Usually there is a bloodline for both Master and Chalice but in this case, the former Master and Chalice have died a violent death and since there was no heir, the next in line, the master’s brother, a Fire priest, had to be called back. He isn’t human anymore, his touch can burn a human to the bones, his face is black with red, flickering eyes.

Marisol, the Chalice and the Fire Priest are both unprepared and struggle to find their way in this highly ritualized environment. The Chalice studies as many books as she can find, looks up on ceremonies and meanings and at the same time invents new rituals, helped by her bees and the earthlines who speak to her.

Not everybody is happy about a pair like these two and so the Overlord, the political head of the demesne, wants the Master to leave and hand over his place to an outblood heir.

Marisol knows that this is the worst that could happen to the demesne. That would mean turmoil and chaos and she hopes it will never happen. But whether he can stay or not, will be decided in a duel.

What I loved so much about this book is the atmosphere. Sweet and floating, like the scent of beeswax candles. The descriptions are beautiful and following Marisol’s journey has something enchanting and almost hypnotic. The world building is exquisite. I was there in Willowsland the whole time. And Marisol is such a great character, so real. She is very insecure and has to find her way in an hostile environment but her strength and her love for her home guide her. I liked how she lived, on her own, outside of the Great House or the village, only with her bees whom she treats like pets. She learns about the tradition of Chalice but because she never underwent a proper training she dares to invent new ways which she combines with the tradition. Every Chalice mixes ritual cups but Marisol adds honey to hers. Even before she was Chalice she knew how to heal with honey, knew that every variety has its own properties.

Chalice is a magical story, a love story as well as the description of a land in chaos that is slowly brought back to peace by a heroine who can accept her weakness and trusts herself completely.

I’m going to read more of Robin McKinley. I’m not sure which one I will read next, maybe Beauty or Sunshine. Any recommendations? Which is your favourite Robin McKinley book?