Review: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlander-book-cover

Outlander is by no means a new novel. It was published in 1991 by professor and historian Diana Gabaldon. Since 1991, though, it and its sequels have developed a huge fan base. The Outlander series come to new prominence this year because of the Starz television show based on it. If you are a fan of the books, you’ll love the show, as it is completely faithful to the novel, and the rich backdrop of the Scottish highlands provides an ambiance first developed in the book itself.

The story begins with Claire Randall, a British Army nurse who, after the conclusion of World War II, reunites with her husband, Frank. They go on a second honeymoon to Inverness, Scotland, where Frank- an Oxford history professor- researches his family’s ancestry. The couple have resumed their physical connection, but such a long time spent apart during the war created a tension neither speaks of.

One day while Frank is deep in his research, Claire goes to explore the area around ancient druid standing stones called Craigh na Dun. There she hears a loud buzzing and drumming sound, which becomes louder as she approaches the stones. It overwhelms her, and she faints.

When she comes to, she ventures away from Craigh na Dun to where Inverness should be. On her way, she becomes lost after running from what appear to be soldiers riding on horseback and shooting pistols. She runs straight into a man who, at first, she takes to be Frank. However, he is dressed in the red coat of a British soldier and claims to be Captain Jack Randall- Frank’s ancestor and war hero… from the 18th century. “Black Jack” Randall, cruel and sadistic and nothing like her husband, nearly rapes her before she is rescued by the Scottish rebel Jamie McTavish.

McTavish takes her to the rest of his troupe, a group of Clan MacKenzie soldiers. They return her as prisoner to the castle of the MacKenzie lands. Claire realizes that she has-somehow-awoken in the year 1743. Now, her only hope to return to her time lies in the standing stones of Craigh na Dun- but first she must get there. She acclimates, slowly, to 18th century Scottish life, but her captors are less than eager to let her go. Especially when she proves herself to have extensive medicinal knowledge.

Then there is Jamie, the Scot who rescued her and who she is,  undoubtedly, attracted to. When circumstances force her to wed Jamie, she realizes their intense emotional and physical connection will make it even harder for her to escape back to 1945 and back to Frank.

Let me be the first to warn you: this book is not short. The first installment in what became the Outlander  series spans over 600 pages, and the story continues on in seven sequels, not to mention the various companion books. Once you commit to reading the entire thing, you have quite the project on your hands.

As mentioned above, before becoming an author, Gabaldon worked as a professor and historian. The amount of research she must have put into her novels is staggering, and it pays off. Everything, down to the very last sentence, feels like you are in 18th century Scotland. Even if you haven’t been there to see the lush, green highlands yourself, Gabaldon paints a picture that makes you feel like you have.

As all well-researched novels do, though, Outlander definitely has some dry spots. While the setting- the lands and the history- certainly is a character of its own, sometimes it overwhelms the people and the narrative. More than once, I skipped over several pages because I wanted to get back to the plot and did not want to hear any more about the intricacies of an 18th century Scottish kitchen.

But what a plot! Originally marketed as a romance, Outlander is so much more than that. It is a romantic story, but that romance is accompanied by a fair share of history and science fiction. Gabaldon has admitted that the idea for the book originally came from an episode of Doctor Who, which only makes me love it more. Time travel is a trope that we see in a lot of stories, but never has it been done in such a way as this. You have a character set in a historical backdrop for modern readers, who time-travels even further back to an era hardly ever explored. The story itself is brilliant, the characters well-developed, and the setting magnificent.

So, while you may find your eyes losing focus during some sections, Outlander is definitely worth the read for fans of romance, history, and science fiction. Once you’ve read the first installment, you’ll find yourself reading them all, as Claire and Jamie’s epic story enthralls from the onset. Might as well start watching the show as well to hear those alluring Scottish accents come to life!

 

Review: “A Triple Knot” by Emma Campion

Before I get into my review of Emma Campion’s latest novel, let me apologize for my long absence! Currently I am on a tour of the US, the end of which will see me settling in Georgia. Attempting to keep up with work and blogging has proven very difficult in the midst of my move down South.

But I am back! And busy as ever. Recently, I was hired to blog for the website Law Street Media– a news and blog site reporting on public policy currently affecting society (my first post can be found here). Please check it out and let me know what you think in the comments!

urlNow back to what this blog is all about: books! Some of you may have read The King’s Mistress, the debut novel of Emma Campion (author Candace Robb’s new pen name). It tells the untold story of Alice Perrers- aging King Edward III’s infamous mistress.

In A Triple Knot, Campion takes us even further back in history, to when Edward III was a young king trying to arrange a marriage for his cousin Joan. By the age of twelve, the future princess was already called the Fair Maid of Kent; her delicate  features and golden hair attracting suitors from the places Edward needed as allies.

Though she was seen as simply a child with a pretty face, Joan was very intelligent and had her own ideas about who she wanted to marry. The moment she began her journey to Edward’s court, she set her sights on Thomas: a handsome soldier almost fourteen years her senior.

Thomas Holland is perfectly content with his life in the military and the attentions of his vivacious mistress, so when he is immediately drawn to Edward’s young cousin, he must try to fight his growing attraction. Joan does not make it easy for him, first classifying him as a friend and protector, then bestowing her favor upon him in battle. It does not take long before they are stealing kisses on palace grounds- even as Edward plots Joan’s marriage to a foreigner.

Joan’s non-royal kin, who wish to protect her from noblemen with less than noble intentions, see Thomas and Joan’s love and hatch a plan. They have the couple married in secret, so that Joan is protected.

But wedded bliss is far off in the future for this clandestine couple, as Thomas is soon sent off to the Crusades and Joan must keep their love and marriage hidden from those who would tear them apart. Inevitably, Edward finds out about her betrayal, and has her married off to another.

When Thomas returns from war, wealthy and newly titled, he and Joan are in for the fight of their lives. Campion takes the reader along on their wild, emotional ride, which is historical proof that love can conquer all obstacles.

I have said it before and I will say it again: I love historical fiction. The fact that these characters actually existed makes their story all the more exciting. Joan of Kent is a particularly intriguing figure, because- while she married her first husband for love- she ended up the wife of Edward, The Black Prince, and the mother of King Richard II.

My reaction to Campion’s second novel was much the same as my reaction to her first: lots of confusion but overall satisfaction. The first few chapters of A Triple Knot were packed full with historical figures (many of whom shared names and titles) and their back stories. The effect was a multitude of characters that distracted from the plot, and initially turned me off the novel. In fact, I stopped reading it entirely for a while and picked it up again after about two weeks. How could the author expect me to get into a book without being able to pinpoint the main character?

However, once I waded through the befuddlement that is the first few chapters, the plot began to emerge and side characters began to disappear. I found myself rooting for Joan and Thomas, and was impressed with Campion’s ability to interweave her substantial knowledge about medieval life with their love story. At times, the historical facts read a bit too much like a text book, but these instances were few and far between.

I will say that, while I enjoyed the plot and overall characterization, the fact that Joan was twelve when she consummated her marriage to Thomas was a tough thing to accept. These are probably my modern sensibilities talking, but a twelve-year-old and a twenty-six-year-old should not be getting married. Was it historically accurate? Yes. Was it at all strange back then? No. Still, it may come off as creepy to modern readers. Luckily, just as the plot becomes clearer as the novel goes on, Joan grows older and more mature.

In the end, I applauded Campion’s skill at bringing Plantagenet England to life, while untangling the knot of one of history’s most famous love triangles. The title, too, is extremely clever, since it gives simultaneous nods to Christianity’s Trinity, the various problems Joan and Thomas face, as well as Joan’s three marriages.

The Fair Maid of Kent sadly outlived Thomas and ended up marrying Edward III’s son, The Black Prince, who is painted as a villain in the novel. So, while history’s ending to their story is unsatisfactory, Campion’s portrayal of it was certainly a success. I would recommend to all reader’s of historical fiction or romance- you just have to get past the first few chapters!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: “The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness

16054217This is a review of the third book in a trilogy, so if you don’t want spoilers DO NOT READ ON!

Consider yourself warned.

The Book of Life, the conclusion of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy, finds the witch Diana Bishop and her husband, the vampire Matthew Clairmont, back in the present after their long trip to 1590s Europe. A lot has happened while they were in the past, including the death of Diana’s beloved aunt, Emily.

But the de Clermont family does not have time to dwell on tragedy, as Diana’s pregnancy with Matthew’s twins means trouble from the Congregation, and Peter Knox’s feverish search for Ashmole 782 spells trouble for everyone. Diana enlists the help of witches, vampires, and daemons, friends and enemies, to discover the secrets of the Book of Life before it is too late.

One thing I love about this series is the complete casualness with which supernatural creatures are introduced. From the get-go in the first book, A Discovery of Witches, it feels totally natural for witches, vampires, and daemons to exist in the world Harkness has created. She even finds a way to include time travel without it feeling ridiculous or out of place. All of the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book are deeply rooted in history and science. Admittedly, that may make it boring for some people.

I am a history buff, and I find witchcraft lore fascinating, but even my eyes started glazing over during some parts of the book. There are a lot of alchemical, historical, and scientific facts that require explaining and the result is pages filled with lessons rather than plot. For me, those sections don’t detract from the overall story, which is brilliantly concluded in this novel.

What does detract from the story, though, is the sheer number of characters Harkness has accumulated since the start of the series. They all come together in The Book of Life and are often in the same scenes together (mainly at Sept-Tours, or any time the massive de Clermont family is amassed). Harkness does an admirable job of keeping tabs on everyone, but as a reader I found it difficult to keep each character, their supernatural status, their relationship to Diana, and their back story straight. Often it was distracting and I was focused on figuring out who was who, rather than on what was happening in the story.

But let’s focus on that story for a second, because it is, in truth, excellent. It is one of the most original fantasy series I have ever read, and its ending is  both satisfying and realistic. There was not one plot twist I could have predicted, and Diana’s character somehow manages to become even more bad ass than she was in the second book. She is probably my favorite heroine in contemporary sci fi/fantasy, because she is legitimately powerful in her own right even without the help of her vampire husband. With the exception of those passages I mentioned above, where she stops to explain things, Diana’s sense of urgency moves the story along.

Overall, I really enjoyed this conclusion to Harkness’s masterpiece trilogy. As in all trilogies, though, the last book is not necessarily as good as the first. I would recommend this series to any fantasy nerds who enjoy a lot of history, but if you can’t handle a lot of background information- don’t go for it!

 

 

Review: “Where I Belong” by J. Daniels

ebook-coverRomance novels are my guilty pleasure.

Actually, I don’t feel so guilty about it. I love romance books. Reading about some fictional character’s happily ever after gives me a bunch of warm and fuzzy feelings. The sex scenes don’t hurt either.

It is true that romance novels, usually, are quite formulaic. Generally it goes something like this:

Step 1: Create a heroine, either a virgin or a widow, who is emotionally damaged in some way.

Step 2: Create a hero, usually a known rake or single father, who does not believe in love.

Step 3: Create a back story that gives the hero and heroine reason hate each other. Alternatively, have the heroine run to the hero to make some sort of bargain.

Step 4: Hero and heroine fight their attraction to one another, unsuccessfully.

Step 5: A misunderstanding or crisis creates drama for the hero and heroine and so they are separated briefly.

Step 6: The make up sex, the end scene, the resolution. Generally they get married or the heroine becomes pregnant. Or both!

One might expect this formula to get old or stereotypical, but it is surprising how each author brings a new flair to the same story. Authors really have no other choice but to break the mold when everything has been done before.

That being said, Where I Belong- the first of the Alabama Summer series- sticks so completely to the formula that it felt like I was reading the same story I’d read a hundred times.

Mia Corelli (I know, for some reason I’m drawn to books with a Mia as the heroine) is a Georgian college girl going back to her childhood home in Alabama for the summer. She’s looking forward to spending the sunny days out by the pool with her childhood best friend, Tessa. She just hopes she can avoid Tessa’s older brother, Ben, who made fun of Mia relentlessly when they were children because of her weight.

But Mia isn’t the fat, ugly duckling anymore. Thanks to her foray into the world of high school and college volleyball, she’s got a great body- and she wants to flaunt it. Tessa promises her she’ll get a bunch of guys while she’s in Alabama, but Mia’s first goal for the summer is losing her virginity.

She goes to a bar with that goal in mind, and it doesn’t take long for her to be noticed by a tall, dark, and handsome man. They don’t know each other’s names, but that suits Mia’s purposes perfectly. Wild, hot sex ensues, and Mia leaves the next morning deflowered and ready for a summer of fun.

Her one-night-stand won’t give up so easily, though. Mia left an impression on him and he is dead set on finding out who this magical woman with the magical vagina is- until his sister calls because she needs him to clean out the pool. What is his sister’s name? Tessa. *Gasps!* Surprise! Mia’s paramour from last night was none other than her childhood tormentor, Ben. Who saw that coming from a mile away? *raises hand*

Needless to say, when Ben goes over to clean the pool he discovers his magical woman next to it. She wants nothing to do with him, so he decides he wants everything to do with her.

We are then brought along on their turbulent love story, as Mia tries to resist Ben because of the jerk he used to be and Ben tries to win Mia’s affections. Along the way we are introduced to a whole cast of characters including Ben’s ex-one-night-stand, who is the unreliable mother to his young son. Add into the mix Tessa’s pregnancy scare, a custody battle, and some cop uniforms and we’ve got ourselves a regular soap opera.

In the end, of course, Mia and Ben get together, Tessa’s not pregnant, and Ben wins custody of his son. Cheers for a happy ending!

Other than the predictable plot line, this book also suffered from flat characterization and poor transitions. For example, Ben’s ex is made out to be this horrible woman but we never get to see another side of her. It was so one-dimensional it hurt to read. We are introduced to new characters so suddenly you have to go back and re-read sections just to make sure you got all the information.

As far as romance novels go, I would not recommend Where I Belong. I’m not holding out much hope for the rest of this series, either.

The book’s one redeeming feature? The cover. Top notch work there, and that is not sarcasm.

Review: “If I Stay” by Gayle Forman

if_i_stay_gayle_forman_book_cover.jpgThe USA Today quote on the cover of this novel reads “Will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.”

I think that’s a horrible thing to say.

This book is a thousand times better than the Twilight books. It is better written, has a better plot, and has a heroine who you don’t want to throttle every two seconds.

However, like Twilight, it is about death.

After a tragic car accident on a snowy Oregon road that leaves her mother, father, and younger brother dead, seventeen-year-old     Mia alone survives. She watches as the paramedics take her comatose body to the hospital, but is powerless to communicate with     anyone around her. She stands by helplessly as friends and loved ones visit her, begging her to stay alive. One of them is her boyfriend, Adam, and as Mia’s life hangs in the balance, she tells us about their love story.

He is a punk rock musician with dreams of making it big with his band; she is a classical cellist who just got into Julliard. In the beginning, they struggled to understand one another, but now Adam knows he couldn’t possibly go on without her.

Mia realizes it is ultimately her choice: stay for the people who love her, or go and rejoin her family.

This story was a heartbreaking read. Part of the reason for this is because the author does such a fantastic job of introducing us to Mia’s family. Their dynamic is hilarious and relatable, and then suddenly they’re gone. You know that going in, but that doesn’t stop it from hurting. It doesn’t help that Forman’s depiction of Mia’s consciousness awaking is truly haunting:

“…there was so much noise. A symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees. Then it went quiet, except for this: Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3, still playing. The car radio somehow still attached to a battery and so Beethoven is broadcasting into the once-again tranquil February morning.”

Mia trudges through the snow, finding first her father’s eviscerated body, then her mother’s, and then herself. Her denial is palpable as she is rushed off to the hospital.

From there, we meet several of Mia’s remaining family members, as well as her best friend Kim and boyfriend Adam. Mia’s narrative switches back and forth between her present and her past. The juxtaposition of her life before and her life immediately after the accident might seem jarring, but Forman’s graceful prose lead you through. Her writing is made more beautiful by the musical language and metaphors she employs, which can be found woven in througout the novel. The love story, while it is the novel’s main focus, does not detract from Mia’s other relationships or seem like a cliche teenage fling. Mia and Adam truly love one another and it is evident. In the end, Adam is the one who convinces Mia to stay.

This was a relatively quick read, as the plot moves along rapidly even though we dive into Mia’s past so often. It is also a short book, and it felt like it ended too soon. Luckily there is a sequel entitled Where She Went that ties up any loose ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to others! It is definitely on the NYT Bestseller list for a reason!

Favorite moments:
“I shouldn’t have to care. I shouldn’t have to work this hard. I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.”

“Seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”

“All relationships are tough. Just like with music, sometimes you have harmony and other times you have cacophony.”