Book Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

city of ashes-cassie clare

 

Title: City of Ashes

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2008

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

 

Plot Summary: The Mortal Instrument Series resumes with the mysterious killings of Downworlder children. The big question on everyone’s minds is whether or not Valentine is behind all these attacks. When the Shadow Sword goes missing, things get worse for Jace. Since word got out that he’s Valentine’s son, he’s found himself in the middle of a tough Nephilim investigation. As for Clary, she’s got her hands full trying to find a cure for her mother’s mysterious coma while dealing with the fact that the boy she likes is actually her brother.

Here’s a common problem for most YA sequels—they’re hardly as good as the first book. While I’d love to say that City of Ashes is an exception to this generalization, Cassandra Clare’s follow-up to City of Bones is a bit lackluster for me. It’s not the premise, it’s not the plot. As I mentioned in my last review, Clare has a really interesting story in her hands. Yes, you have the standards—the werewolves, the vamps, the faeries—but the world of the Nephilim seems pretty original to me.

The problem lies in a number of the book’s characters. Though Clary appears marginally better (more mature) in City of Ashes, it seems that she’s mellowed only to amplify the massive communication breakdown between the adults and the teens in this book. We’re not talking about the basic misunderstandings between parents and their kids—we’re talking about life-changing and life-saving secrets being withheld, the lack of listening between both parties, and the overall daftness of 90 percent of the adults in the novel. It actually seems as if Luke is the only reasonable adult in the bunch. Even Jace comes off as a bit of a brat at the start of the story—and I actually like his character.

All in all, I found this to be a bit of a hard read. The good news is that it does have a few redeeming factors that would make someone like me want to read on further: (1) you see a lot of growth when it comes to Simon’s character, (2) you have a solid plot line with a neat twist, and (3) better action scenes. Despite its character flaws, it’s also, still, a page-turner. So, if you’ve started City of Bones, and you liked it enough, I recommend going for City of Ashes. Otherwise, if you didn’t like the Mortal Instruments’ first book, you might not want to bother with this one.

Grade: C+

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clare_City of Bones

Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2007

Genre: Fiction, YA

 

Plot Summary: When 15-year-old Clary Fray stepped into a New York nightclub, the last thing she expected was to become a witness to a murder that no one else could see. Things take a dive from there. Her mother goes missing and she ends up almost getting killed by a monster in her apartment. She wakes to find herself in the middle of the war between good and evil—a war between Shadowhunters and demons.

With the influx of Young Adult novels in the market, what makes City of Bones from Cassandra Clare a worthy pick?

Well, it really depends on when you’re coming from. I say when, because my choice to pick up this book has to do with history that I have (albeit one-sided) with the authoress. About a decade ago, I found her famous (though in some circles, infamous) fanfics: the LOTR: The Very Secret Diaries and, of course, the Draco Trilogy. Had a few quick laughs with the LOTR fic, but when it came to the Draco Trilogy, man, was I hooked. I would check for updates every week, and would stay up rereading each chapter. At that time, I was still using dial-up prepaid internet, and I thought Cassie Clare was probably the wittiest writer around. Of course, I was also 17, and was yet to meet Wifi, Nick Hornby, or Kurt Vonnegut.

**The fact that Aidan Turner is playing Luke Garroway in the Mortal Instruments film is, of course, added incentive for me.**

Suffice to say, I read the book out of curiosity. I wanted to see if City of Bones was as good as Draco Dormiens. What I found was that when it came to the characters of the book, City of Bones was, in a way, Draco Dormiens. Clary Fray, the 15-year-old protagonist of the Mortal Instruments series was painted as this impetuous, fiery, and passionate redhead—and I couldn’t help but think back to how Clare had written Ginny Weasley in her Draco Trilogy. And Jace Wayland, the sexy, damaged, platinum-haired bad boy of the story, was Clare’s Draco Malfoy. Of course, this is not to say that the novel wasn’t good; but for one who’s loved Clare’s past works, I just found the similarities a bit jarring. It also made it impossible not to compare the two.

On its own, I’ll have to say, City of Bones is actually a REALLY GOOD YA book. It’s creative, imaginative, and scandalous. It has all the elements of an enthralling ride—angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, forbidden love, mysterious bad boys, at least two love triangles, and even incest! Believe me, Clare just upped the ante for countless other YA writers with the incest plot. I mean, who else has the outgoing guts to do that in YA, other than VC Andrews? Genius! The book, judged on its own, is definitely a page-turner.

Except… It didn’t quite live up to what I had expected from Clare. Maybe it was Clary, and the fact that I didn’t exactly find her all that likeable. At times, she seemed more concerned about her relationship with Jace than the fact that her mother was missing and most probably dead. I found that unreal. It’s actually a bit of a peeve of mine, when a YA female leads get too caught up in the romance aspect that she fails to see how the world is falling apart. What can I say? I’m a strong believer in appropriate emotional reactions and investments.

Pace-wise, I found it a bit dragging at times too. The action scenes weren’t particularly exciting, except the scenes with the werewolves, which were really good. And lastly, lastly, lastly. Compared to the Draco Trilogy, I thought City of Bones was somewhat less witty. There were no laugh-out-loud moments for me. And you see, that was what I expected from Cassie Clare. That was what I remembered most about her writing. She had a way of drawing a chuckle out of you when you weren’t too busy rooting for one love team or the other.

That being said, I still think of City of Bones as being a pretty solid summer read. The plot is definitely interesting and promising. And despite Clary’s shortcomings, you do see her mature as the story progresses. The rest of the characters are also likeable enough. Jace is a flawed character, but the vulnerability that belies his cocksure attitude makes him a lovable male lead. Isabelle has her comic moments. Ah, and Simon. Poor Simon, is probably the most relatable character out of the lot. You can’t help but root for him despite the all-too-obvious rejection headed his way.

All in all, City of Souls is a good read that will make you want to pick up a copy of Clare’s second book, City of Ashes.

Grade: B

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad-Jennifer Egan

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Genre: Fiction

First Published: 2010

Uncategorizable, experimental, but like most of its characters, unsinkable—A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the usual mold of Fiction, then comes out victorious in its ultra-realistic portrayal of life. This Pulitzer-winning (2011) offering from Jennifer Egan is told in a non-linear (time-wise) and non-traditional format.

Is it a novel or a pastiche of short stories? Whatever it is, it’s one complex and gripping piece of literature that engages the reader and commands the reader to sit still and pay attention. Blink and you might lose the thread that links all the stories together. What Egan does in A Visit from the Goon Squad is she gives you glimpses of the lives of a number of highly different, and yet, interconnected characters. Okay, that’s oversimplifying it. She doesn’t give you a glimpse of their lives as if you’d know each character at a single glance. She lets you in on specific moments of the characters lives, and encourages you to put two and two together.

Mind you, this isn’t a piece of fiction that you can breeze through without going back a page or two to digest what’s going on. And yet, that’s what keeps the reader (this one, at least) hooked. You’ll end up trying to guess who’s next. Which minor figure in the current chapter will become the next chapter’s main protagonist? How does this character figure into the whole story, if ever, there was a ‘whole story’?

Now, normally, I would attempt to give you a brief summary of the book—and give me a second or two, and I will try—but it might be an ambitious attempt on my part when it comes to this one. You might just have to trust me when I tell you that this is a book worth reading. Either way, here goes nothing: [SPOILERS AHEAD]

A Visit from the Goon Squad starts off with a 20-something woman named Sasha, and her attempt to curb her kleptomania. We learn in the next chapter, that she works as Bennie’s personal assistant. Bennie is a recording executive whose mentor, Lou, discovered him when he was a bassist in his high school band, Flaming Dildos. Lou had a bit of a fling with Jocelyn, Bennie’s bandmate, who was also the sort-of girlfriend of Scotty (their guitarist). Of course, this was all before Bennie married Stephanie, a PR agent who tried to bring back the flagging career of the aging has-been rockstar, Bosco. Bosco, seeing something special in Stephanie’s brother, Jules, decides to give him the exclusive story to his ‘suicide tour.’ We learn that Jules actually has the writing chops for this story, after all, he was a former journalist whose career ended when he tried to rape a Hollywood starlet named Kitty Jackson. Kitty, will eventually work with La Doll, Stephanie’s former boss, as La Doll tries to soften the image of a foreign genocidal general. La Doll, who was once the toast of Hollywood, saw the collapse of her fascinating career during a huge PR spectacle that was simply too hot to handle. Of course, during the time of the PR fiasco, Sasha would’ve been a young prostitute in Naples—right before she went back to college where she met her future husband, Drew. The two will eventually move to the desert to raise their two kids. As for Bennie, at the end of the book, he would’ve found a way to bring back Scottie’s career through working with Alex, an old fling of Sasha’s.

So, Complex? Oh, YES. Confusing? Yup, a bit. Compelling? Definitely. All in all, this is a book that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a good read.

Grade: A+

Book Review: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie – Pamela Des Barres

I'm with the Band - Pamela Des Barres

Title: I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie

Author: Pamela Des Barres

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Music

First Published: 1987

Pages: 320

Status: Read

Here’s a small confession: I have been lusting after this particular book for almost ten years. After reading about her affair with the incomparable Jimmy Page, Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela) reached Rockstar status in my book. I scoured the World Wide Web for snippets of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The odd few pages I found in forums and blogs had me oooh-ooh-ooh-ing over Des Barres’ relationships with music legends like Mr. Page, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Gram Parsons.

So, when my sister handed me my own copy of I’m With the Band, I flipped through the first hundred pages in search of her love affair with Jimmy Page. Reading about her passionate encounters with the Rock God had me aching with envy. It was a sensory overload. I was seduced, and at the same time, set straight by Des Barres’ stories of the infamous 1960s-1970s rock scene.

In I’m With the Band, we follow the transformation of Pamela Ann Miller from small-town girl to the golden muse of some of Rock’s most formidable personalities. We read about how Miss Pamela, and her group—the GTOs, helped pave the way for girl groups and the new breed of baby groupies. The group, which was officially formed by Frank Zappa, went on to record an album called Permanent Damage in 1969. Though the album’s commercial success was limited, it was an admirable effort, which brought the spotlight to the fantastic women behind the rock movement. To me, these women showed the world what it means to really love music–to feel passion, awe, and reverence for those who produce stellar riffs and melodies.

In this book, we also learn more about the LA scene. We are made privy to the backstage secrets of some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Interspersing memories and personal anecdotes with journal entries, Miss Pamela takes us by the hand and guides us through the blossoming sense of awareness of the 1960s and the decadence and excess of the 1970s. Her delightfully candid and well-written memoir details the goings-on and the who’s who of one of the most important modern musical and spiritual revolutions in history.

To be honest, I don’t think I can rave enough about this book. Loved every Page—pun, v. much intended. The only bad thing about I’m With the Band is that it had to end.

Verdict: Highly recommended to ALL music lovers and closet groupies (like yours truly).

RATING: A+

Book Review: Falling Angels – Tracy Chevalier

falling angels - tracy chevalier

 

Title: Falling Angels

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Post-Victorian Age

First Published: 2002

Pages: 324

Status: Read

Told through the shifting perspectives of the members of two very different families in turn-of-the-century England, Falling Angels highlights Tracy Chevalier’s ability to create a cohesive piece of fiction out of a myriad of mindsets. The novel is set in the early 1900s, opening with the death of Queen Victoria. The Queen’s death ushers in this new age of awareness and revolution against the rigidity of what was considered the ‘norm’ during this period.

In this novel, Chevalier touches on Victorian sensibilities that flit between frivolity and inflexibility. Kitty Coleman’s boredom with her life as a married woman pushes her to deny her husband, Richard, and child, Maude, affection. Her cold nature affects sensitive and straitlaced, Maude, who is terribly lonely as an only child.

Maude eventually finds the companionship she craves with Simon Field, the son of a gravedigger, and Lavinia Waterhouse, the spoiled child of the Coleman’s graveyard plot neighbors. The Waterhouses are quite different from the Colemans. For starters, Lavinia’s mother, Gertrude, is a stickler to tradition. She sees Kitty as inappropriate, though she cannot exactly dissuade Lavinia from being friends with Kitty’s daughter. The two families eventually become neighbors, and while niceties are exchanged once in a while, Gertrude and Kitty find that their only commonality lies in Maude and Lavinia’s friendship.

The relationship between the two families become even more estranged when Kitty, after some traumatic events, immerses herself in the Suffragette movement. Take note, the book only starts to really pick up at this point. The series of tragedies in the book seems crammed in the last hundred pages.

Though Falling Angels has been lauded as being ‘engaging,’ ‘appealing,’ and ‘bewitching,’ in this reader’s humble opinion, the book mostly fails to maintain interest due to the marked similarities between the voices of some of its heroines. Kitty’s initial venture into the Suffragette movement even falls somewhat flat, for though the movement itself ought to be exciting enough, Kitty’s main mover, a certain Caroline Black, has caricature-ish elements to her personality. The movement feels cartooned somehow. (Oh Virginia Woolf, how you’ve spoiled me.)

Falling Angels’ saving grace comes in its final hundred pages. The pace picks up, the characters grow up, and essentially, the novel becomes a worthy read. Now, would one consider it Chevalier’s best work? Well, in this reader’s case, No. I’d recommend that first-time Chevalier readers go for either Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

Title: Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Romance

First Published: 2009

Pages: 406

Status: Reread

 

I am no Nick Hornby expert, but I do consider myself a fan. I also believe Juliet, Naked is one of Hornby’s best works. In it, the author showcases his unique ability to create something beautiful out of a messed-up relationship and an unhealthy obsession with a washed-out musician.

The novel, in a nutshell, tells the story of how nobody is ever completely beyond redemption—how no life is beyond salvaging. In the book, we follow the lives of our three main characters—Annie, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe. Annie and Duncan are residents of Gooleness, a small, bleak, and dull town in the East Coast of England. Nothing ever happens in Gooleness, the same way nothing ever happens in Duncan and Annie’s 15-year relationship. Like the dead-end town, theirs is a relationship that’s free of burning passion. At least, free of the kind of passion that Annie wants in her life.

Duncan is passionate enough about one particular topic—the retired and reclusive 80s musician, Tucker Crowe. Duncan’s obsession makes him the ultimate Crowologist, an expert in all things Tucker Crowe. He owns thousands of bootlegged copies of Crowe’s performances. He dissects the lyrics of Crowe’s songs to find ‘hidden meaning’ that eludes even the actual songwriter. Though almost seeming like a caricature of a ‘fan’, one can’t help but recognize how there’s a bit of Duncan in all of us. That passion Duncan feels for Crowe stems from the same brook where our own unhealthy fascination for Late Greats like Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and in my case, Sylvia Plath, springs from.

And though Annie doesn’t exactly share the obsession Duncan has for Tucker Crowe, she recognizes it, tolerates it. She tolerates it enough to join Duncan on a trip to the States to look at a toilet in a small bar in Minneapolis. Of course, the toilet isn’t just any toilet for Duncan. It is THE toilet where Crowe had an amazing epiphany that caused him to walk out of his own life forever—which isn’t to say he died, so much as disappeared from the face of the earth, its public face anyway. The fact that Tucker Crowe did this right after the release of his most critically acclaimed album, the break-up masterpiece Juliet, just adds to the mystery of his quitting.

Although Annie puts up with Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, cracks in their staid relationship begin to show when the pared down version of Juliet is released. The album becomes known as Juliet, Naked. Duncan, understandably, almost wets himself in excitement after hearing the album. In it, he sees genius. Annie, on the other hand, sees just potential. Both write their respective reviews on a Tucker tribute website, which Duncan owns. But when the real Tucker Crowe contacts Annie, the lives of our three protagonists begin to change drastically.

Now, Hornby has always had the gift of bringing his characters to life. For some odd reason, despite being deeply flawed, all the characters in Juliet, Naked are also quite lovable. Even the music nerd Duncan, with his arrogance and elitism has his great speech, his flaw-free moment.

When Duncan reveals the extent of his obsession with Tucker, the reader can’t help but feel embarrassed for the guy. After spending over 20 years trying to establish himself as a credible and serious Crowologist, he becomes no different from some deranged fan who breaks into someone else’s home. And yet, can one really hate Duncan for it, I wonder? If you had the chance to ransack the drawers of your favorite writer or musician and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t you do the same? That type of dedication is rare, creepy, flawed, and yet so telling of the extent of one’s love. To debase yourself for another—ah, but I digress.

Then, there’s Annie, who is the quintessential modern heroine. Dissatisfaction is her primary mover. At one point in the novel, she asks Tucker Crowe: “What do you do if you think you’ve wasted fifteen years of your life?” To which Tucker, the King of Time Wasted, tells Annie to reevaluate her life by using some complex formula that would account for the years ‘wasted.’ Though the advice was clever enough, I was more struck by the question. Isn’t it completely human to feel like we’ve wasted time? I thought, where does one waste 15 years? And then I realized the answer was in the everyday. We waste it on the sameness of the everyday. We look at the conflict between contentment and happiness without fully grasping how those two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Yes, compromise is necessary in living, but there has to be some sort of self-imposed limit on compromising. And I digress, even more.

Lastly, there’s Tucker Crowe. The washed-up, once-was musician. At the time of the novel, he was a recovering alcoholic who has done nothing in the last 22 years that constitutes as ‘work’. For decades, he depended on his ex-wives to keep him afloat. And though he hates this dependency, he feels powerless to work through it. In a way, Tucker feels like the most hopeless of all three characters. His, seemed like the hardest character to redeem.

And yet, there is some form of redemption for all three characters. Maybe not the kind that’s perfect, but there are lessons learned and changes made. To quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And ever the optimist, I do believe that Duncan, Tucker, and Annie have all taken the first step by the end of the book.

So obviously, one of the central themes of the novel is “Time Lost”. One of the lingering questions from the book is whether or not we can still salvage our remaining years—few as they may seem.

The book’s ending is for the affirmative. Yes, it’s never too late to find happiness. And though the book’s ending is, well, open to interpretation, Annie’s conversation with her shrink, Malcolm, is enough to give the reader some hope. Hope that maybe things will work out for Annie and Tucker, at least.

 

SPOILER ALERT: How does Juliet, Naked really end?

Well, I find that its ending really depends on what you want to believe. In true Nick Hornby fashion, our dear author gives no certainties of sad or happy endings. The story doesn’t end, it merely stops. It mimics the fluidity of real life.

Now, the first time I read Juliet, Naked, I fell upon the bleakest ending. Like Annie predicted, life slid into place after Tucker. As for Tucker, his next album was a major disappointment.

But upon rereading the book, I discovered the possibility of something good. Maybe, just maybe, Annie and Tucker found their way back to each other. That would certainly explain Tucker’s newfound contentment and new album. After combing the net for like interpretations, I found that a number of readers believe that “Uptown Girl” in the forums is actually Annie. They believe that Annie married Tucker in the end. Also a likely outcome, IMO. I think if we read between the lines hard enough, ala Duncan, maybe we can come up with even more possible endings for the book!

Either way, with its endless possibilities, its endless questions, there is no doubt in my mind that Juliet, Naked is the type of book that is truly worth reading and re-exploring. Highly recommended to all book lovers.

GRADE: A+

Featured Author: Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Like many other Jane Austen readers, I first came upon Austen after seeing one of the many films adapted from her novels. I was in grade school in the late 1990s when I saw Sense and Sensibility—the film with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet. I loved everything about the movie too! The cast, the characters, the scenery, and most importantly, the plot.

Upon finding out the film was adapted from a novel, I looked for Sense and Sensibility in the school library, finished the book in two days, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’m under the opinion that one simply can’t stop with a single Austen book. Suffice to say, I was hooked. And I’ve been reading and rereading Austen since.

Austen Bio

 Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 to a country parson in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father, Reverend George Austen, was by all accounts, a supportive father. After Jane showed interest in literature, he encouraged her to continue reading the works of prominent writers like Sir Walter Scott, George Crabbe, and Henry Fielding. Apart from devouring the works of these literary masters, Jane was also interested in creating her own stories. She started with sketches of popular romance stories, and gradually progressed into her full-length novels. She wrote in secret too—in between her household chores. How she found the time to pen six of the most beautiful novels in Classic literature is beyond me!

During her lifetime, she saw four of her novels published—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818), were published after her death.

Austen fell ill sometime around 1816. She attempted to ignore her illness, but her health continued its slow and steady decline, until she succumbed to this illness on 18 July 1817. In the last century, many medical experts have tried to figure out Austen’s mystery illness. Some have suggested Addison’s disease, others, Hodgkins lymphoma or tuberculosis. Others still, believe that it was a type of typhus called Brill-Zinsser disease.

Either way, the disease was slow in coming and gave Austen time to continue writing. Time, however, ran out before she could finish Sanditon (1817).

Today, Jane Austen is considered one of the most prominent female novelists in history. Her writing is lauded by critics and literary masters like Somerset Maugham and Sir Walter Scott for portraying the‘real’ and ‘commonplace’ in such a remarkable manner, which makes it impossible to dismiss her writings as merely ‘romantic’ in nature. Her exemplary technique of transforming the ordinary into something worth reading shows her mastery over human emotion and the English language.

Though her works are often classified as Classic Romance novels, many believe that they are also excellent social commentaries that border on satirical at times.

List of Novels

  1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  3. Mansfield Park (1814)
  4. Emma (1815)
  5. Northanger Abbey (1818)
  6. Persuasion (1818)