Book Review: Tangled Ashes by Michele Phoenix

Tangled Ashes is an interesting story. Two parallel threads of tale are told: the main action, about a modern-day architect restoring a French castle, and the ‘back story’ of two girls in German-occupied France during WWII.  It’s clear the two stories will eventually weave together, but it’s a ponderous slog to that point, and even then the connection is rather disappointing. Worse, the WWII story is meandering, with no goal introduced until what ought to be the third act.

Still, the story does have its strong points. The characterization is better than I expected, with an intriguing tension between the two main characters. The main character, Beck, is–shall we say–a struggling alcoholic, and his struggle manages to come off as realistic, without seeming melodramatic. The setting feels very authentic and concrete; I read in the afterword that the author actually attended school in the castle in which she sets her story, and that familiarity comes across strongly.

Notice I didn’t say much about the plot. This is because, unfortunately, there isn’t much of  one. Ostensibly, Beck’s goal is to finish his renovation project within  his employer’s time frame, but relatively little of the story is devoted to this task. Still, especially taking into consideration this lack, it’s a good read. It’s not riveting, but I enjoyed the time I spent reading it, and wouldn’t mind peeking at a sequel.

I received a free review copy from the publisher, and am not obligated to present a positive review.

Word in Silence

I am a word in silence,

Striving against the nightmare.

I am the breaking dawnlight,

Celestial rays of dreamlife.

I am a drop of ocean,

Wrapping up the whole of it.

I am a mote of sunshine,

Cascading breeze in twilight.

I am the sum completing

Every covenant need.

Book Review: The Reason by William Sirls

Why do good things happen to bad people? Does it mean God’s mad at them? Does it mean He doesn’t care? 

It’s the age old problem of pain and suffering, the discussion of which is the purpose of Sirls’s first novel. The story follows the plight of a young mother whose five-year-old son is diagnoses with leukemia. It’s difficult to go into more detail with the plot without giving things away because it’s one of those wonderfully layered stories in which events unravel bit by bit and we learn what’s happening along with the characters.

It’s definitely a tear-jerker. To be honest, it’s not the most well-written book you’ll ever read, and yes, some parts are predictable but it’s a powerful story. It makes you think, ponder some questions that perhaps you haven’t considered in awhile, or if you have, perhaps provide some answers. It’s definitely a tear-jerker, and the kind of book you’ll want to share. In fact, I gave my copy away about twenty

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255, I am disclosing that I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My opinions are my own, and I am not required to write a positive review.

Chapter 4: Over Hill and Under Hill

Enter the goblins.

They’re underrated, they really are. Sure, you’ve got The Lord of the Rings with its orcs and uruk-hai and they’re a bad lot to be sure, but there’s something about those goblins.

On one level, they’re the perfect bad guys for a children’s fairy tale. Not that The Hobbit doesn’t have other antagonists, but the goblins fulfill an essential role. The spiders are creepy, but they’re not so much evil as they are—well, spiders. Spiders eat whatever they can catch in their web; it’s just what they do. Likewise, the trolls are too clumsy and stupid to really justify being called evil. The elves are mean, yes, and selfish, but you can’t really hate or fear them. They feel more like immature children with too much power than calculating villains (why yes, I did just put elves in the ‘bad guy’ category. So sue me). And there’s Smaug, of course, but he’s more an ancient force of nature than a malevolent entity.

Which is where the goblins come in. They are malicious and cruel and vicious. They are the wolf in Grandmother’s clothes or the witch with a gingerbread house and child-sized oven. They say, “See here, children, I am what badness looks like. I am the thing you lie awake at night dreading. I am fear and death and loss and pain.” And so when Bilbo—or Little Red Riding Hood, or Hansel and Gretel—overcomes or outwits the specter of childhood nightmare, the child curled up under his blankets reading with a flashlight is assured that he, too, can vanquish the night. Remember when you were three and a half feet tall and had to trot to keep up with your mum or dad? The world was scary place then, do you remember? Everything, even a good-sized dog, was bigger than you were. You were a Hobbit living in a Man’s world. When Bilbo escaped his enemies unscathed, you felt sure you could, also.

That’s why The Hobbit needs its goblins. Generation after generation of kids read of Gandalf appearing among the goblins in a flash of light and know they’re not alone with the monsters under the bed. Not only that, but the goblins provide a healthy and satisfying target for animosity. You can wholeheartedly root against them and not worry about niggling shades of gray. They are not simply misguided or behaving according to animal instinct: no, they’re well and truly bad, so you feel a sort of righteous thrill when Gandalf smites them dead.

And on an entirely different level, the goblins represented that which Tolkien abhorred. They are creatures of caves and fetid air, turning their backs to the sunlit land to dwell in darkness. They are clever and creative, but rather than using these attributes to better themselves, they turn their abilities toward inventing new methods of pain and destruction. To take a line from my English professor, they “devote most of their creative power to coming up with efficient ways to hurt people.”

I read an article the other day in what was probably “Wall Street Journal” (or it may have been “The New York Times”) that discussed the goblins’ song. You know the one:

Clap! Snap! The black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!

The writer compared the song to others in the book—the majestic Misty Mountains song, say, or the dwarves’ rollicking threats to destroy Bilbo’s crockery—and noted how Tolkien used the rhythm and lyrics of his songs to reveal aspects of the singers. The goblins’ song is full of sharp, jarring syllables and caustic syntax, mirroring their propensity for harsh actions. They see a way they can hurt someone and see no reason not to do it. They hurt people and laugh while doing it. If that’s not disturbing, I don’t know what is.

So yeah, there’s something about those goblins.

The Older Broth…

The Older Brother

I once was lost and now I’m saved, the hand

Of God did pluck my soul from hellish pit

To which I ran with all my strength to drown

Myself in walls of rules of I spun and built.

I knelt and prayed in clean white cloth, a cross

Of gold around my neck and feet stripped bare

On  holy ground, proclaimed my purity.

But I could not myself to save with hands

Still stained with filth and grime and red and blood,

The crimson drops an endless life destroyed,

By me. And yet ’twas  me He came and saved.

And So It Begins. . .!

Today is the first day of The Hobbit read-along. For all of those interested in following along, I’ve created a page with links to all the posts (that is, a link to the one post so far, but more will come swiftly). Happy reading!

And Here’s the Exciting News. . .

So here’s the deal, guys. I meant to get this post up last week, but, well. . .(insert your standard procrastination excuse). Anyway, here’s a little run-down on what’s going on for the next little while. As I’m sure you know, The Hobbit is finally coming to theaters this December, in just a few short months. What? You there in the second row? You didn’t know that? Well, you probably shouldn’t admit that out loud. Just go now and IMDb it, and then pretend you knew all along.

In honor of Bilbo’s long-awaited theatrical debut, David over at The Warden’s Walk (and if you don’t know his blog, check it out now, it’s awesome. . . and don’t worry, this post will still be here when you get back) has organized a series of blog posts about everyone’s favorite band of thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, and a wizard. Every Tuesday and Thursday, beginning September 25 and lasting a month, one of several different bloggers will muse on a chapter from The Hobbit. Naturally, the comment threads will be full of opinions, discussions, and dialogues, so it’ll be awesome.

Why am I telling you all of this? As you may have guessed, I’m honored to be one of the participating bloggers. I’ll get links up to the whole series so that you can join the throng. In the meantime, before postings actually start, here’s the list of participating bloggers, so that you can check out the reading schedule and the other blogs (which are well worth reading).

Lastly, I’d like to invite you to join in. Grab your copy of The Hobbit, crack it open, and reread it along with us. Or, if you’ve never read The Hobbit, now’s the perfect time to become acquainted with it, so that you can be properly excited come December. You are welcome—no, implored—to comment, opine, and discuss, because I would love to share this rereading of one my favorite books with you.

So what are you waiting for? Let the reading begin!

Hello, Old Friend!

We’re reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my English class. I love the poem, but haven’t read it from cover to cover since I was twelve or thirteen. It’s funny, how differently the story strikes me now than it did so many years ago. When I first read it, unsurprisingly it was the very first scene that stuck with me the most. You know, the one where the Gawain slices off the Green Knight’s head, and then the Green Knight summarily picks up his head from where it’s rolled under the table and issues his challenge. And I remembered all the scenes when Gawain steadfastly refuses to be seduced by his host’s wife. And I remembered the climax (and this is where you should look away if you haven’t read Sir Gawain), in which Gawain resolutely upholds his end of the agreement (there, I tried to not make it too spoiler-infested, since I knew you were going to look anyway).

And in my mind, that was King Arthur’s knights. Actually, that’s how I pictured all knights. Basically, all guys in suits of armor were, in short, Sir Gawain. Well, Sir Gawain and a hint of Gareth (oddly, though Gareth has been my favorite knight since I was seven, as a kid I rarely thought of him as an actual knight, probably because I pictured him in a suit of kitchen grease rather than a suit of armor).

So now, fast-forwarding ahem cough cough number of years later, I find it fascinating to read Sir Gawain in a class, to try to pick apart the discrete elements of a favorite childhood tale. I think it’s the best of both worlds: I get to delve into a story with the intent of intellectual inquiry, yet simultaneously relive my heedless, youthful joy that devoured the poem for simple enjoyment.

So, my readers, have you had a similar experience? Reread a childhood favorite for a class, or even on your own, and been struck by the two varying modes of consumption? Did you enjoy the book more the second time? Or did you find some of your enjoyment eroded by the deadlines and requirements of a class?

Oh yes, and my deep, dark confession: I didn’t read Sir Gawain that first time because I loved King Arthur or knights or poetry or the calligraphy on the cover. No, I read it because it was translated by Tolkien, and I had by that time run out of other Tolkien stories to read. Yeah, my introduction to medieval poetry was via Frodo and Felagund.

Don’t you hate that moment when you open your word processor (or browser, as the case may be) and then suddenly can’t think of anything to say? Now before you opened it up, you had several things running through your mind. “Oh,” you thought, “I could write about what delights my fourth (or fifth? I can’t remember) rereading of Beowulf is revealing, or craft a review of the that great book I read the other day.”

But then you get yourself situated to write, and absolutely none of your options seems remotely interesting, or even matured past the primordial soup stage. Another one that happens to me all. the. time is that I come up with an awesome short story in the minutes between crawling into bed and falling asleep. So I wake up the next morning to write it down, and I can’t. It’s dry and flat and featureless. The worst part is that I know perfectly well it was much better in my head the night before, but now I’ve forgotten all the interesting bits and cannot for the life of me remember them.

Ever happen to you? Or maybe it’s just me, I don’t know.

Book Review: The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

The first book in the series, The Name of the Wind begins with an unassuming innkeeper in a world that’s getting darker and more dangerous. And then the innkeeper begins to tell his story, how he is the legendary hero Kvothe, who has become a myth in his own time. So he takes us back to his childhood, beginning his tale when he was just a small boy growing up with his nomadic parents and continuing on to tell of his search for the evil Chandrian. Because the story is spread over so many years, it’s difficult to give a more detailed summary without giving spoilers for any part of the story.

I love the world in which Rothfuss sets his story. No name is ever mentioned, which makes sense because when’s the last time you happened to tell a story and mention it took place on planet Earth, but it is one of my favorite fantasy worlds. The history feels layered and nuanced, and Rothfuss does an amazing job with creating different cultures, each with its attendant customs and languages. One culture, for example, records its stories in knots, rather like the Incas. Another conveys emotions and expressions with their hands rather than their faces. Each geographic or ethnic group is distinct, yet they all feel as if they belong in the same world.

The character of Kvothe is skillfully handled as we see him grow from eight or nine to a teenager. He always feels like the same person, yet matures and changes. He doesn’t always make the wisest choices–and then again, sometimes he does–but it’s all natural and true to his character. Stubborn and youthful as he can be at times, his loyalty and surprising tenderness are endearing.

And then there’s the magic. Much of the story takes place around Kvothe studying alchemy and magic at the University (there is, apparently, only one seat of higher education in the world, so it needn’t be bothered with having an actual name). In Rothfuss’s world, magic is mostly a mixture quasi-physics and the idea that knowledge of a thing’s true name imparts the ability to control that thing. The few other caveats are that Kvothe lives on the streets for some time and survives as a pickpocket; characters curse occassionally; and while the first book is fairly clean, the second book in the series has several scenes depicting, shall we say, ‘adult relationships’.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the books and can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy. Rothfuss is now one of my favorite fantasy writers and I only regret that The Name of the Wind is his first book, so I can’t read anything else of his while I wait. I highly, highly recommend these books for those who are looking for their next fantasy adventure.