The Tragic Tale of My Reading Slump

The other day I went to Barnes and Noble and the unthinkable happened…

I didn’t buy a book.

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No, really.

I went to the bookstore and I didn’t purchase any books. Not even one that I thought looked cool but knew deep in my soul I would never read….a.k.a a quarter of the books currently in my possession.

I went home with nothing.

Nada.

Zilch.

Once or twice my attention was stolen by an intriguing premise but ultimately I would place them back on the shelf, forgotten.

I couldn’t figure it out.

I have been a reader my whole life. Why was I suddenly feeling so indifferent to literature. Why couldn’t I experience the same level of excitement that I normally feel while lurking around a bookstore? Why did I feel so apathetic about the whole enterprise?

I’ve given it some thought and I think I have come up with a semi-rational explanation for my sudden reading slump.

This will seem like a shallow and potentially absurd complaint but…it felt like every book I came across was trying too hard to change my life.

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When I read the dust jacket of all these lovingly crafted tales, most of them were imploring me to let them teach me about the human condition or understanding life and love and….I wasn’t interested.

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That was it. That was the problem.

I didn’t want to be molded into a better human being.

I didn’t want to have my world-view reshaped. I didn’t want to have all the ills of the world revealed to me or have some nihilistic hippies wax poetic about the futility of existence.

I wanted to have fun reading.

That’s not to say I never like a transformative reading experience or that books with poignant messages don’t have their place, but every so often I just want to read. 

I want to retreat into a fictional world for a couple of hours and have it not mean anything. 

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I want to laugh and cheer and get excited purely for the sake of it and not because it “starts a conversation” or “it’s bringing awareness to something” but because it brings me joy. Maybe I will forget about it later on in life since it gave me no permanent message to cling to, but it will have brightened my day, or week, or even month.

Is that so wrong?

Am I a pleb for having a desire to escape from the intellectual questions of our time in favor of placing a metaphorical ice-pack upon my throbbing nerves?

If it is, maybe I don’t want to be right.

Hell, I didn’t become a reader because I was interested in changing the world. I did it because it allowed me access to worlds I would otherwise have no entrance to, meet people I normally couldn’t or see un-seeable sights.

Not every reading experience has to be meaningful.

Sometimes all I need is a vacation from reality.

If any of you have recommendations for a good read I am all ears.

 

 

Spoiler- Free Thoughts on “11/22/63” by Stephen King

Summary: Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke…Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

The best way I can describe this book is it’s Stephen King for people who don’t like Stephen King. Many of his tropes are in evidence (Maine, alcoholism, dumb rednecks, religious fanaticism, etc), but they are mercifully kept in the background, making their inclusion more tolerable.

I enjoyed the idea of time being like a sentient being that sets upon Jake like white blood cells on a foreign body, throwing unexpected obstacles in his way to change the future. It’s an interesting concept that I don’t think has been done in many novels. We’ve seen how changes to the past have detrimental consequences for the future, but we haven’t seen the past itself as a living organism. It raises a lot of interesting questions about destiny. If the past resists change, does that mean time itself has already been written and we’re doomed to follow one track forever?

I was genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering how King would wrap this whole thing up and, without giving anything away, I was not disappointed.

It is a long book (like many of King’s novels), but it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a big novel. The pacing is always snappy and even the more subdued scenes have a steady forward-moving momentum that makes it seem like everything is in aid of the overall plot and not just an excuse for the writer to lolly-gag.

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However….that’s not to say I had no problems with it.

In fact, there’s one issue that dogged me for a greater part of the novel: Jake’s motivation to stop the Kennedy assassination.

In all honesty, when you look at all the variables….this is actually a pretty stupid idea.

Jake’s hypothesis is that if Kennedy had lived he would have put a stop to the Vietnam War which would invariably save the lives of thousands of people.

Without getting too political,  JFK was objectively a competent leader who did more good in his tenure than harm. However, the question of whether or not Kennedy would have chosen to continue the war had he lived is an on-going debate even today. In fact, many Vietnam historians both left and right of center, believe he would have continued to keep troops overseas regardless of any personal hang-ups he had with the conflict.

Simply put, Jake is banking on a lot–and I mean a lot–when it comes to the potential outcome of saving Kennedy.

Imagine sacrificing six years of you life, virtually everyone you’ve ever met, all modern amenities including medicine, your freedom, and potentially your life, all based on a theory. 

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I might be more willing to buy his dedication if he was a public defender or former military with a checkered past he needed to atone for, but he was an English teacher with a squeaky clean record. It wasn’t as if he had become a jaded post-modern lump that wanted more fulfillment in life either. From what I could tell, he was perfectly content living as a high school teacher in a small town. He really didn’t have a reason to dump his life so quickly, family or no.

I would be lying if I said this ruined my reading experience, but these were thoughts that followed me as I read deeper and deeper and the stakes grew ever higher.

Even as someone who normally does not gravitate to King’s writing, I found this to be a very engaging and entertaining read. I recommend anyone, regardless of literary tastes, give it a try.

It’s suspenseful, dramatic, engrossing and overall good fun.

8/10

Spoiler-Free Thoughts on The Books I’ve Read In 2019 (So Far)

I made a promise to myself that I would try to read more books in 2019  since I didn’t feel as though I read that much in 2018.  Fortunately (and surprisingly) I’ve managed to keep this vow even with my turbulent schedule and lack of desire to be productive.

So here are some thoughts on the books I have managed to read thus far.

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The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz 

Summary: After working with bestselling crime writer Alan Conway for years, editor Susan Ryeland is intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries in sleepy English villages. His traditional formula has proved hugely successful, so successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job. Conway’s latest tale involves a murder at Pye Hall, with dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects. But the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

As someone who grew up on PBS British detective shows, I absolutely loved this book.

I was reluctant to read it initially because I knew it was a story within a story, nevertheless, I found both tales –the one written by Conway and by Susan–both equally captivating and I was just as eager as Susan to discover the conclusion to Pünd’s story.

It’s easy to see Horowitz has worked on many on-screen productions as the pacing is quick and engaging, leaving little room for superfluous details or fluff, but still dedicates enough time to developing characters and setting the scene.

Apart from the plot itself, what makes the story interesting is how it inwardly reflects on the genre of mystery as a whole. It asks why people are so drawn to the subject and provides interesting theories all without being overly sentimental.

It’s a quintessential love letter to Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and many other mystery writers, all while keeping its own unique identity.

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The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

Summary: Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare. What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems. 

I’m a fan of Hitchcock films and a self-proclaimed junkie for unreliable narrators so this book was a match made in Heaven for me. Apart from being a page-turning mystery, it’s also a well-crafted character piece.

Anna is more than just an unreliable narrator. She’s a completely sympathetic person that is as much the victim of her circumstances as she is the cause of them. She’s a three-dimensional character forced into a situation beyond her control and the unravelling of her past is as tragic as it is interesting.

When I learned the author of this book was a man, I was genuinely surprised. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be writing for the opposite gender, but Finn does so with such skill and sincerity you completely forget the author is not a woman.

I wasn’t 100% thrilled with how it ends as it comes off as a bit too cartoonish, in my opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Hitchcock-like stories you will enjoy this one.

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah 

Summary: For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival. Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Kristin did an excellent job of showing the brutal beauty of the Alaskan landscape as well as the complexity of human nature. At times I thought it was a little too bleak, rife with almost Jodi-Picolt-levels of drama where one implausibly awful thing is followed by another implausibly awful thing, but the constant conflict was genuinely gripping and kept me going in spite of it all.

This is just a personal hang-up that I have with the novel so take it for what you will, but I found Leni’s love interest to be a bit unconvincing as a character. It was difficult to believe that a boy that grew up in such a harsh, unforgiving climate and had so much of his life devoted to survival would give a crap about poetry. Nor does it seem that plausible that he would have that much devotion to a girl he met when he was a little kid. That could be my own cynicism talking, but I did grow up in a very small town and absolutely none of the males I encountered were anything like this.

I will say this in the novel’s favor, I genuinely didn’t know where it was going and yet I  trusted the writer to lead it to it’s rightful destination. Some suspicions I had early on were confirmed, but Hannah threw many unexpected curveballs that made it damn near impossible for me to put the book down.

I won’t say what happens as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that wants to read it, but it’s worth all the emotional torture the reader has to go through to reach the end. 

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The City of Z by David Grann

Summary: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century”: What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

I’m typically not a fan of nonfiction, but I made an exception for this book since the subject was intriguing to me.

I picked up this book to learn about the City of Z, but I stayed for the man that tried to uncover its mysteries. Fawcett was a character straight out of myth, both seemingly impervious to hostile-climes and disease as well as endlessly tenacious in his willingness to see a journey through to its end. He was instrumental in increasing our understanding of the Amazon, sacrificing almost everything he had to find Z, even when many scoffed at the notion that such a place ever existed.

I admire Grann’s ability to weave such an interesting narrative all while unloading boatloads of information on the reader without making them feel as though they are trapped at a boring lecture.

The intimate details, journal entries, the attention to socio-political climates at this time really made this story come to life.

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His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Summary: A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?

This book is a novel disguised as a true-crime book, written by a supposed descendent of the murderer in question. It’s part “memoir” told from Roderick Macrae and part compilation of “historical documents” that describe the events leading up to and after the murders.

Roderick is an interesting character in that he’s surprisingly intelligent in spite of his limited education as well as a seemingly perplexing narrator. The story begins with him explaining his backstory, life and misfortunes and then slowly delves into the crime itself. From the tale Roderick weaves it would seem he was merely a victim of his circumstance, however, the reader will notice several inconsistencies with Roderick’s version of events and the accounts that are later brought to light at his trial. This forces readers to re-evaluate all they thought they knew.

Is Roderick a good person that was driven to murder by his hopeless situation as a tenant farmer? Is he criminally insane? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

There was a lot of research that went into the making of this book. The rural landscape and lifestyle of the average 19th century Scottish Highlander was very vividly depicted. I also appreciated the incorporation of the prevalent sociological theories that existed around that time period. Criminology was in its infancy in the 1800s and it was interesting to see how the school of thought in regards to criminals has evolved over the years.

If you’re a historical fiction lover like I am, you’ll really like this.

I Couldn’t Finish “The Last Unicorn” by Peter Beagle

So spoiler warning, I guess, even though this book was written over forty years ago. 

I usually don’t write blog posts about books I don’t finish but I thought I would make an exception with this one as it hasn’t been since The Magus that I have had such a drastically different opinion from the masses.

I was surprised by the overall positive reviews on GoodReads in regards to this book.

They keep referencing the gorgeous writing style, the wonderful plot, the lyrical prose and the spell-binding metaphors. I’ve read several pages worth of these opinions and I keep thinking…did we read the same book?

In my opinion, the metaphors were usually clumsy at best and downright cringe-worthy at worst.

Molly’s own face closed like a castle against him.”

Um…what?

Does he mean like a drawbridge? Is that what he was going for?

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It was actually one such metaphor that convinced me to put down the book and walk away.

It’s after the gang make it to Haggard’s castle and Molly “put[s]her face in the little cat’s random fur.

What is “random” fur? I guess he was trying to say its fur was patchy, but if that’s the case why didn’t he just say the cat’s fur was patchy?

Another complaint I have against this novel is the hopelessly confusing tone. I believe it’s possible to balance genuine peril and whimsey (most of the staples of fantasy have done so in the past) but the issue is this author doesn’t do this very gracefully, and even some fans of the book seem to agree on this point.

There are obviously humorous moments like when they meet Captain Cully and his motley band of Merry Men wannabes and they are subjected to his humungous ego, but these scenes are usually followed up with something serious happening like the appearance of the Red Bull.

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Then there are the historical anachronisms.

I know these references are meant to serve as jokes, but most of the time they come across as needlessly distracting rather than genuinely comedic. If they were more consistent with these inclusions it would be fine, but they are spread too far apart to to be all that funny.

I feel the same way when they occasionally break the 4th wall and acknowledge they are characters in a fairy tale. While this can be done well, it makes the tone more confusing.

It’s like it’s trying to be a satire of fairy-tales but not wanting to commit to it 100%.

As for the characters, I don’t particularly care about any of them apart from Schmendrick who is bust-a-gut hilarious. He’s essentially Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy balled up into a single person.

The unicorn’s character is undoubtedly the least interesting of the lot. I’m not opposed to an aloof personality, but her motivation to find others like her isn’t all that compelling since she seems to have done well enough without them for ages. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that her main reason for wanting to find them is not necessarily because she misses them as individuals, but rather she thinks of them as extensions of herself because unicorns are total egotists.

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I have been told that she undergoes more character development after she becomes human and learns to regret and stuff but…I wish there had been more instances of people calling her out on her bs.

Instead of being transformed into a beautiful woman for whom anyone would do anything for, she could have been changed into a normal person and have to live with the fact that nobody (except maybe the prince) thought she was anything special. That could have opened up a lot of comedic opportunities.

Molly is…there.

From what I’ve seen so far she’s mainly just tagged along to tag along. When I stopped, she hadn’t done anything integral to the plot yet, apart from have witty banter with Schmendrick. She’s not a bad character so to speak, she just doesn’t really do anything.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the book at all, there were moments where I was genuinely amused (the part with Captain Cully being one and Schmendrick’s origin story being another). It just didn’t grab me as much as it should have. For all the tongue-baths this book receives, I was expecting something a bit more.

What I got was essentially Shrek without as much charm or heart.

Oh, well.

Back to the TBR list, I suppose.

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Why Books Are Better Than People

It could be my experience in customer service that has inspired me to write this post, however, this is something I’ve always believed to some degree:

Books are better than people.

Don’t believe me? You will soon.

Books are always available. If you are up in the middle of the night, you can just roll over and pick it up. A book won’t care that it’s late. Conversely, if you want to put the book down and come back to it later in a few weeks/months/years, the book won’t be offended. It will be more than happy to let you enjoy its wordy-goodness some other time.

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You don’t have to make small talk with a book. A book does all the talking for you. That’s literally it’s job. You just comb over the pages with your eyes and let the words transport you to another time and place. There is no horrifying pause as it waits for you to comment on something it’s said, or exchange vapid pleasantries. It’s so undemanding.

It’s portable. If you have a small bag, the sky is the limit. You can take them on your commute to work, to a party, to your grandparent’s house, to your backyard, on vacation. Taking a human everywhere you go is just impractical. And why would you want to? They make so much noise.

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If it annoys you, you can get rid of it. Unlike humans, if a book annoys you, you can simply dispose of it. You can force it on your enemies. You can write a strongly-worded blog post. You can leave it in a stranger’s mailbox. You can light it on fire and burry it in the woods. All without fear of receiving a lawsuit.

They smell better than people. Old or new, books have an amazing smell. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of walking into an old library, the beautiful vanilla fragrance of forgotten pages is enough to make you drunk with lust for the written word. I could honestly smell books all day, but, you know, I need to work a day job to buy food or whatever. People on the other hand…..well, anyone who has ridden public transport knows that humans don’t boast such a pleasing odor. I bet you’re wrinkling your nose just thinking about all those unwashed bodies you encounter on a daily basis.

Now stick your head in a book.

See? Isn’t that better?

Ssssssssh.

There are many wonderful books to read. There are so many imaginative, energizing, inspirational, magical, excellent, titillating, colorful books to read. Somewhere out there is a book about any subject you could possibly imagine.  You could spend hours– days even–exploring a library and reading and never want for anything besides food.

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People? Nah. I think there are, like, three wonderful people in the world and all of them are dogs.

Books are free (at the library). People demand more than long stretches of time sitting in silence. They require “fun” activities to ensure a working relationship. Want to go to the movies? Money. Want to catch up with a friend at the coffee shop? Money. Want to entertain yourself for hours by reading the latest best-seller? Library. Boom. Take that, other humans.

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Happy reading!

Damn you, Outlander Series: Thoughts on A Dragonfly in Amber

WARNING: POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SECOND BOOK IN THE OUTLANDER SERIES, A DRAGONFLY IN AMBER. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. 

My relationship with the Outlander series so far is mired by indecision.

There’s so much to adore about these books: the remarkable characters, the rich descriptions, the sexy-fun times, the action-packed storyline that constantly keeps you on your toes.

However, there are also problems with it as well. Problems that are often very difficult to overlook.

For example, the distinct lack of plot that seems to dog each story from the get-go.  Plenty of things happen, mind you, and there is conflict for days. Nonetheless, it just doesn’t always feel as if it is working towards something.

It’ll give A Dragonfly in Amber some credit in that it is a lot better than it’s predecessor at having some direction. The Frasers’ plan to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion counts as a plot…I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s often thrown by the wayside in favor of entertaining weird diversions that have nothing to do with anything. Hell, you could make trading cards out of all the pointless interludes these books dole out: random sword fights, Jamie being dared to piss into a bucket but then being unable to after suffering a trampling by a horse, some argument between Jamie and Claire about him getting horny over some hookers.

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Oh, speaking of Clarice and Jamie.

To add to my list of grievances, there is one exchange between Claire and Jamie that’s a bit too Freud-like for my taste. At one point, Clarice mentions to Jamie that she wishes she could –I’m not making this up, I swear– put him in her womb to keep him safe. 

Let me repeat that:

Claire wanted to put her grown, adult husband inside of her womb to keep him safe.

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Um… I haven’t had an overwhelming amount of romantic entanglements in my life, but that does not seem like a normal compulsion for someone to have. Especially not a compulsion that the layman would voice out loud to anyone for any reason ever.

Not to mention Jamie’s reaction to it is fondness bordering on indifference. Look, I know you’re used to her saying weird shit to you, what with her being a time-traveler and all, but that has to give you some pause, doesn’t it?

Pretty much any  sentence that could be formed in the english language would be less awkward than that one. If she said she wanted to shrink him and put him in her pocket that would be kind of cute. But her womb? Her baby-holder? Her Dutch oven? She wants actually put him in-

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It doesn’t help that they shared a quasi-incestuous moment in the previous novel. When Claire is trying to snap him out of his rape-induced depression, he literally calls her “mother” and she encourages him to come to her bosom and-

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Okay, moving on.

So, Captain Randall should be renamed Captain McGuffin as his only function seems to be to get things rolling again once the story has become stale.

No, really, he shows up everywhere they go: France, Scotland, your closet. I know he’s important since he’s the great-great grandaddy of Claire’s husband, but come on.

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What are the actual odds? They could be sitting on a park bench feeding the birds and all of the sudden weeeep a Wild Randall appears!

Randall uses Creep Attack.

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It’s super-effective!

Bearing all of this in mind, what nice things do I have to say about this book? Well, it kept me guessing, I suppose. Although I already knew they would lose the battle, you know, because the story began with Claire in the future having already been through-

Okay, good things dammit.

Claire’s reactions seemed quite a bit more realistic in this book than in Outlander. When she and a friend are set upon by rapists, she has a breakdown and doesn’t just shrug it off and shag her husband like she did in Outlander. There’s also a reference to when she murdered a 15 year-old soldier who was just trying to do his job, which had previously gone unobserved until this book. I found it pretty disturbing it hadn’t gotten much of a mention before since, you know, she committed murder of a child.

Uh….in spite of the many distractions, the pacing overall was a lot snappier than the previous novel and from the beginning it jumped right into the action instead of lolly-gagging around forever.

As usual, Jamie is wonderful in every way as is his inability to understand modern beauty standards such as waxing your private parts.

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The chemistry between the two main characters continues to be engaging and a joy to read about (at least when they aren’t going full Oedipus on us, that is). Truth be told, I think the story shines the brightest when it’s focusing on their relationship with each other. I appreciate the Bonnie Prince story line for giving these stories a reason to exist, nevertheless, I never found it as enjoyable as reading Claire and Jamie simply being in each other’s company.

Another point in this book’s favor is that Gabaldon doesn’t particularly romanticize the past (apart from, well, the actual romance, of course.) She is unflinching when it comes to describing the horrible living conditions and bleakness that comes with 18th century living. It’s not all fancy dresses and handsome heroes. There’s a sinisterness and hopelessness about it as well. I also appreciate the fact that none of her characters necessarily make it out unscathed. When they aren’t being raped (which happens quite often) they are being tortured, or captured, or dying. The pain they feel is quite real and, unlike in the first novel, isn’t glossed over as much.

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I was afraid after reading the ending of the first book that the horrible torture Jamie experienced at the hands of Captain Jack Randall was going to be brushed under the rug, however, I was pleased to learn that this was not so. Jamie’s experiences still haunt him and has a visible impact on who he is as a person. I’m grateful that his rape had a lasting effect and wasn’t just used as a plot devise to create more tension.

I loved that more of Clarie’s psyche was explored in this novel. In fact, the dream she had about being in Frank’s classroom while he was lecturing may have been my favorite part of the entire book, oddly enough. It just made her seem more three-dimensional as we don’t often hear that much about her past aside from the odd parcel about being raised by her uncle and such. I would actually be interested in reading a chapter or two dedicated to describing a scene that occurred in her formative years or during the War. We get a snippet here or there, but I’m always left hungry for more. We hear quite a bit about Jamie’s past, but not that much of Claire’s.

Overall, I enjoyed reading A Dragonfly in Amber even as I mentally criticized it. There’s just something about Gabaldon’s writing that sucks you in.

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I told myself in the past that I was going to give up on this series, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do so. Maybe it’s the romance, the fascinating historical backdrop, the characters, or Jamie’s sexiness. I don’t know, but whatever foibles this series may have, it’s still a damn enjoyable story and I don’t believe it will be long before I begin the next one.

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Thoughts on “The Terror” by Dan Simmons

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD TO SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. 

The Terror and her flagship, Erebus, are stranded in the arctic.

Their food source is contaminated.

Sickness is rampant.

Their ships have been ravaged by ice.

And no rescue is expected.

…….Oh, and, also, there’s an immortal polar bear demon that can only be appeased by allowing it or someone else to play another human’s vocal cords like a flute.

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What I liked: 

The characters. I thought Simmons did a pretty stellar job distinguishing between each crew member which is saying quite a bit considering how many characters there are in this thing. As someone who often struggles with remembering who is who in most stories (another reason why I have yet to actually read the Game of Thrones series) his repetition when describing each character and their physical features and rank was very much appreciated. While many other characters could have used a bit more development, I believe he did a good job of making them come alive, especially Crozier, the Captain of The Terror and Erebus‘s Goodsir, the anatomist who remains one of my favorite characters.

The attention to detail. It’s obvious that Simmons did a lot of research with this piece from boat geography, to describing an arctic landscape without just using the word “ice” over and over again, to the ranking system. It’s impressive to read. You actually feel like you’re there, freezing along with them. Before reading this book I had no idea how awful scurvy really is, not to mention the other illnesses the crew had to suffer through. And make no mistake, this book does not skimp out on the gross details or give the dying any sort of dignity. It reports on how they crapped themselves, screamed, bled and farted. While this can be tedious to read it does a fantastic job of conveying the pure hopelessness of their situation which made this piece all the more engrossing.

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Historically accurate attitudes. While it is a bit cringy reading bits where characters go on racist or homophobic diatribes, at the very least I can say that it is historically accurate for that time period and I’m glad Simmons didn’t try to politically correct the characters in order to make them more sympathetic or likable.

Crozier’s second sight. While I didn’t think all of his visions were strictly necessary I loved the reoccurring dream he had where he is forced to partake in communion with his eccentric grandmother. It painted a perfect picture of what was to come and provided the audience with beautifully creepy imagery.

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The surprise ending. I admit I nearly quit reading this book because of the sheer hopelessness of it all. I knew that it real life none of the crewmen survived so watching them furtively cling to life in what essentially would be an exercise in futility seemed like a chore. However, I didn’t give Simmons nearly enough credit and he ended things on a note I had not expected.  Turns out my favorite character, Captain Crozier, survived after all and made a family amongst the natives.

What I didn’t like: 

It’s too damn long. I’m not opposed to slow burns, but this book went on waaaaaay longer than it needed to. I, personally, think they could have cut out maybe 100 to 200 pages or so and it would have been just fine. I actually thought about giving up on this book just because it was such an uphill climb.

Not enough monster. At a certain point in the books, after the crews decided to abandon their ships and go it alone, the monster attacks just…stop basically. And for no discernible reason. I guess it’s because the story would be over with too quickly? I’m not sure but it’s absence is sorely missed and hard to explain. In fact the monster more often than not appears as a sort of McGuffin. If you look at the story itself you wonder if the book even needs a monster at all. It’s not as if the crew didn’t have enough problems already. I mentioned the starvation, the intolerable atmosphere and the spread of illness. Then again, I did like the creature and the mythos surrounding it so I guess I can excuse it.

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Some of the character perspectives are pointless. Not many of them, you understand, but I’m still trying to figure out where Simmons was going for when he wrote the part where one of the oldest shiphand was talking to a former lover of his about the chances of rescue and Darwin and whatnot. It wasn’t a badly written scene or anything, I just don’t see why it needed to be there. Especially when neither of the characters present for that scene had that much of a part to play in the grand scheme of things.

Overall opinion: 

So, in spite of this book’s foibles, I did enjoy it quite a bit and even consider it one of my favorites now. I’m hoping to sample more of Simmons’ work in the future and hope his other pieces are just as entertaining as this one.

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TL;DR: The Problem With Big Books

This may make me sound like a traitor to readers everywhere, but I am generally not a fan of big books, specifically ones that exceed 450 pages in length.

That’s not to say I don’t like any large books. One of my favorite books of all time, Gone With The Wind, is nearly 1,000 pages long. However, in recent years, it seems to me most of the thicker novels I’ve suffered through have been long purely for the sake of being long.

Unfortunately, I believe I know the reason for this.

Across the literary community, there is this presumption that if a book is large and takes ages to read then said book is deep and important and the reader should take it seriously. After all, so many classical works of literature boast a heavy word count.

“Why use one word when you can use twenty, my good man?” say the classic writers, smoking their pipes and not raising their ten plus children. “Why not add in a stock character and detail their entire lives even though they will ultimately have no baring on the plot whatsoever?”

I’m not saying I’m incapable of being patient and waiting it out, but you got to give me something book.

Don’t string me along for 300 plus pages just because I’ve become invested enough in the plot and characters to wait.

Don’t put in pages worth of padding just so you can disappoint me with a predictable twist and cardboard villains.

One of the most aggravating reads I’ve ever sat through was The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma, a hefty 720 page monster that took me over a month to finish. I stayed with it for so long because it had an excellent premise which the author got to…eventually. But in the meantime the reader had to slog through hundreds of pages of extraneous material that had no impact on the story at all.

Honestly, I have no idea how it got past an editor’s red pen of doom. The main character doesn’t even show up until the novel is almost halfway over. How do you even get away with that?!

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Then there was The Magus by John Fowles which was the most dense, pretentious, and mind-numbingly dull book I’ve ever read. Getting past the annoyingly self-congratulating attitudes of the main characters, the readers is subjected to page upon page of backstory that can be summed up in a paragraph or two.

(Sidenote: If you’re having difficulty sleeping, listen to the audiobook for The Magus on Youtube. I haven’t slept this heavily in years.)

That’s not to say a story should never be long, but there has to be some criteria, wouldn’t you agree?

I’ll answer my own rhetorical question with a non-rhetorical yes.

Here are a handful of justifications for writing a large novel:

  1. It takes place over the course of many years/months.
  2. There are multiple characters whose prospectives help increase the depth and overall quality of the story.
  3.  The story requires time devoted to explaining the world and how it operates to further engross the reader and create a feeling of realness.
  4. Extra time is needed to tie up loose ends.
  5. It is creating an atmosphere that will help with the climax’s pay-off.

If none of the reasons above are applicable, then I have no interest in reading it. I’m sorry, but there are hundreds of books out there that I could be enjoying and I don’t want to waste my time with a story that just wants to meander on forever.

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My Emotionally Abusive Relationship with Daphne Du Maurier

I can say with unshakeable certainty that Rebecca is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. It wasn’t an action-packed gore-fest like many books of the same genre, but in my mind that’s what makes it one of the greats.

It’s a British novel positively dripping with atmosphere and dramatic tension with an excellent pay-off.

It’s for this reason that I’ve found many other of Du Maurier’s works to be…less than stellar.

After reading Rebecca, I thought I had discovered an unsung hero of classic literature. Why had I gone so many years without knowing who Daphne Du Maurier is? Why had I been deprived of knowing her name?

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I looked farther into her works and rejoiced to find My Cousin Rachel, a novel that promised more atmospheric English countrysides, three-dimensional characters, an intriguing storyline and a gut-punch ending…..

Well, three out of four isn’t bad….

You see, the more you read Daphne Du Maurier, the more it seems that you run into this problem. The woman can write. She is a wonder at creating haunting environments, interesting characters and working up mysteries.

The problem is, more often than not, her endings tend to be woefully underwhelming. And when they aren’t, they’re just frigging weird.

One such example is Don’t Look Now wherein a couple that has just lost their child decide to go on holiday to Italy. While there they meet a pair of elderly twins, one of which purports to be psychic and prophesies doom for John, the main character. Well, the story keeps you on the tips of your toes in true Du Maurier fashion. Red-herring after red-herring is thrown at you, Then…the climax and……!

He’s murdered by a serial-killing midget…..

A serial….killing…midget….

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Kay, that was f*cking weird, but the next ones gotta be….!

Okay, guy is randomly murdered and random weird greek symbolism that doesn’t…really relate to the climax…

Okay, this next one will….! Okay, massive homophobia-

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In spite of the many times she’s disappointed me, I just can’t give up on her.

She’s just good enough at what she does that she is able to draw me in again and again. But those endings…man, those endings kill me. And not in a good way.

I just don’t understand how someone could have such a strong character and personality, only to demure when it matters the most. She makes all of these promises and she never keeps them. She beguiles me with gorgeous imagery and diction, only to leave me crumpled on the floor like a used tissue.

Why? Does she feel too much pressure to perform? Am I more invested than she is? Has she just moved on to bigger and better things?

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Why, Daphne? Why didn’t Rachel just kill Philip when she had the chance? It doesn’t make sense, Daphne.

I’m currently working on Jamaica Inn and I’m fretful that I’ll drudge through it and experience the same kind of disappointment again. But I’m just so curious….I have to know what happens.

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe she will have that jarring jump-out-of-your-pants ending I’ve been waiting for. I mean, it’s not like all her endings were that, bad right? Maybe I was being too hard on her. Perhaps I’m the one to blame for my high expectations.

I’ll give you another shot, Daphne.

I can’t quit you.

I’m Still Alive and Also Writing Things, or Going on a Writing Bender

It’s been an inexcusably long time since I update this blog, I know.

I try to update at least once a week, but this obviously hasn’t been happening recently. I have a good reason for this, however……

Okay, not a good reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.

You see, I’ve actually been writing recently. Like properly writing. Every day. Ever. Single. Day.

You know, that thing I’m supposed to do but blog about instead. And, to be frank, I’ve been more concerned with this project than I have updating. I’m starting a new chapter in my life and I think this is the start of more serious writing.

I can’t tell you how awesome this has been. I feel like I’ve been training for a triathlon for months and made first place.

This could potentially mean I update every other week rather than every single week. However, I don’t plan on abandoning this blog any time soon. I’ve put too much work into it so far.

I will see you guys later!

*plays theme music*

My time has come.