Spoiler-Free Thoughts on “Drood” by Dan Simmons

Summary: On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens–at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world–hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.

Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research . . . or something more terrifying?

I love Dan Simmons’ The Terror and consider it one of my favorite novels of all time so  I thought I would give this novel about Charles Dickens and the mysterious vampiric figure named Drood a stab.

To sum up my thoughts:

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Based on the summary, you would think the focal point of this novel would be Dickens and his relationship with Drood.

Well….you’d be wrong.

To start, the main character of the novel is not Charles Dickens, but rather Wilkie Collins, real-life writer, contemporary of Dickens and full-time toss-pot.

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This bitch

I love flawed characters but Collins is the most tedious narrator I have ever had to sit through. And coming from someone who used to read a lot of YA, that is saying something.

It’s not enough he’s sexist even for the time period, he’s also a baby and hypocrite with virtually no positive attributes.

Scarlett O’Hara had her indomitable spirit, Holden Caulfield his relatable loneliness. But this guy? There’s nothing worth gravitating towards. When he isn’t suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia no doubt exasperated by his rampant drug-use, he’s a boring douche-bag.

Did I mention he’s a total mama’s boy?

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As for the novel itself, it begins on a hight note when Dickens describes the train accident at Staplehurst that left dozens of people dead and Dickens alive but shaken.

The titular character of Drood, a vampiric figure with horribly mangled features and ambiguous dark powers, is brought into the picture and from there we are left to wonder who (or what) he could possibly be. Is he a vampire? Is he a human with arcane abilities? This is the perfect introduction to such a frighting figure so mired in mystery.

The problem is for a great chunk of the novel Drood is not only absent from appearance but conversation as well.

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me for half the book

The narrator abandons the hunt for Drood for long stretches at a time in favor of going through his and Dickens’ life and their respective professional careers.

While I enjoy historical fiction and learning about famous people of the past, there was at least 100 pages worth of material that should have been cut from the story.

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When the focus is on Drood and his origins, the story flourishes. When it isn’t it’s a mixed bag of mild curiosities and abject boredom.

I, personally, think the novel could have benefited from a split perspective, one following Dickens and the other Collins. That way we could have had the benefit of viewing both characters from the other’s perspective as well as thrown in a red-herring or too.

In Drood‘s defense, there is a pretty satisfying twist at the end. I had a hunch about the direction the story was going, but that didn’t stop me from being impressed by it. That being said, the drama of it was undercut by the main character’s anti-climactic response which, in turn, soured my enjoyment of it.

I guess you can’t have everything.

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I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of weeks now because I’ve been indecisive about whether or not I like this book. While I was engrossed most of the time, there are just as many parts to this story that I don’t like.

The atmosphere is haunting and visceral as any Victorian drama should be, yet the numerous digressions and pit-stops in the plot tempted me to put it down for good.

I suppose if you twisted my arm, I would give this book at 6/10.

It wasn’t a horrible read, but I think it could have been a lot better if an editor had taken the red pen of death to it.

If you are more interested in the life of Charles Dickens (and Wilkie Collins) than the supernatural, then you will likely enjoy this book more than I did. However, if you find yourself more interested in Drood, I would suggest reading something else.

Overall I don’t regret reading Drood, nevertheless, I am hoping my next Dan Simmons book will be a bit more on-point.

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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

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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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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Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.

Thoughts on “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL.

As an avid fan of du Maurier’s Rebecca, I have to confess that I was a bit disappointed with My Cousin Rachel.

It started off very strong with little Philip coming face to face with the corpse of a man who had been hanged for murdering his wife, a scene which instantly hooked me into the story as it seemed to indicate that shit was going to go down.

Unfortunately nothing that happens in the novel thereafter really has as much of a punch as the beginning would seem to indicate.

What I did like: 

Du Maurier does a fantastic job of setting up atmosphere and generating feelings of unease as well as mystery. I think she also does a magnificent job of creating characters and relationships. None of them came across as flat or one-dimensional, even the side characters who didn’t do all that much.

I award du Maurier bonus points for writing a male for the lead. As someone who often struggles writing for members of the opposite sex, I thought du Maurier did an excellent job of capturing the mindset of a 19th century Englishman. If I had no indication as to who the author was, I would have thought this book had been written by a man.

The pacing is excellent too, never focusing on any one scene for too long.

What I didn’t like: 

As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of build-up for not a lot of pay-off. It became clear as soon as Philip recovered from his “illness” that du Maurier was not going to go balls-to-the-wall as I was hoping she would do.

What puzzles me is why Rachel allowed him to get better. Did she have second thoughts? Was it because the writer needed him to? I’m so confused.

Also I’m disappointed there was no final confrontation between the two of them where Rachel dropped all pretense and showed Phillip her true colors. Perhaps that would have been a little too soup opera, but it would have been more satisfying for me to see the real Rachel for a moment, instead of just the repercussions of her actions.

It  would have been so interesting to see how she interacted with someone who has her confidant, a.k.a the doctor. You could make the argument that it’s creepier because we don’t know but I disagree. I think more would actually be better in the case of this story.

Overall opinion: 

This was by no means a bad book, I’m just disappointed because I know it could have been better. If it had been just a little bit more I would probably rank it up there along with Rebecca which is one of my favorite horror novels of all time.

I’m curious to see if the movie does a better job on delivering on scares. Based on Hollywood’s track record, I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

Why I’m Disappointed By Neil Gaiman’s “Trigger Warning”

Perhaps I’m just whingeing over semantics here, but I had to get this off my chest.

When I purchased the audiobook for Neil Gaiman’s book on short stories I was very excited. Not only am I a fan of Gaiman’s writing, I am also a big fan of his narration. His dulcet tones and faint English accent make him a perfect narrator.

I was preparing myself for another boring day of organizing charts upstairs at the dermatology clinic where I worked and I needed something to listen to in order to keep the monotony from reducing my brain to yogurt.

So I placed the charts on a table, plugged in my earbuds, and I began to listen.

Gaiman gave a perfect introduction into this collection, explaining how he’d come to discover the term “trigger warning.” He conceded that, while trigger warnings may be well intentioned, sometimes we need to read things that make us uncomfortable, that force us to ponder imponderable things, see the world in darker hues.

He warned us readers (or listeners in this case) that what we were about to read would likely disturb us.

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I listened for several hours, nearly finishing the book in it’s entirety during a single shift. It was interesting, imaginative, captivating, visceral, everything a book should be. However, there is one thing that it was not: triggering.

I loved the stories, loved the narration, but I kept listening with a growing sense of expectation. Is this the story that’s going to trigger me? Is this the story that’s going to challenge my preconceptions about life and put me on a 2001: A Space Odyssey styled journey to self-discovery?

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The answer to that would be a nope.

Again, I loved the stories, in fact I consider this the best short-story collection I’ve ever read.

But with a title like Trigger Warning you expect something a little more…triggering. That’s not to say they weren’t disturbing. There are stories with murder, revenge, cannibalism, monsters, stalking, etc. They’re horrifying and dark with lovely twists and turns, but nothing I wasn’t expecting from something written by Gaiman.

And they were not what I was advertised.

Now, it’s not Gaiman’s responsibility to make sure that I, specifically, have all of my desires met. He is perfectly entitled to write what he wants and I believe he he does an excellent job of it.

However, let me explain why I was a bit disappointed.

There has, I think, been a shortage of books and stories in recent years that truly push the envelope. Books and stories that challenge ideas and behaviors that we see routinely in our day-to-day lives.

In our new easily-offended world there are any number of taboo subjects that deserve to be explored, but it would seem as if  no one has the nerve to tackle them in a literary capacity in a long while, lest someone get their grandma panties in a wad.

I was hoping that Gaiman, in his uniquely stylized way, would touch upon such subjects or, at least, ignore the restraints that these perpetually offended people insist writers use. Nonetheless, there wasn’t much in his book that would truly “trigger” someone, provided that person doesn’t live in a perpetual state of duress.

I just wanted something a little more challenging. I wanted Gaiman to approach the likes of Lovecraft or King and throw down the gauntlet, saying, “No, gentlemen, this is scary.”

I’ve read a handful of the Sandman comics, I know what he’s capable of.

I only wish he’d gone balls-to-the-walls the way he did with that series.

Or Coraline.

Now that would have been truly triggering.

Book Review: “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE AFOREMENTIONED MEMOIR. 

A synopsis taken from the writer’s website:

At 23, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent of J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in the plush, wood-paneled agency, where Dictaphones and typewriters still prevail and old-time agents doze at their desks in the late afternoon, and at night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic talent, Joanna is tasked with responding to Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the deeply candid letters from his fans, she finds herself abandoning the agency’s form letter and writing her own responses. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and wonderful terms.

Pros:

The writing style. While the premise intrigued me, what drew me in was the author’s voice. From the first page, Rakoff grabbed my attention and held it tight for the duration of the novel. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader so I was entranced by the novel-like style in which it was written in.

New York City. I loved how she describes New York in all it’s hipster-y splendor. She talked about the shops, the club scene, the restaurants, just the attitude of the city. Admittedly, I think New York tends to be over romanticized (particularly by those that live there), however, she was able to capture my awe and attention. It wasn’t an overblown love, but it was enough to show me why this city is considered so magical to some.

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It’s a story about growing up. I am around the same age Rakoff was when these events took place, so I found myself in her. She addresses many of the drawbacks of growing up such as paying the bills for the first time, growing apart from friends, watching other people make it big and become successful, and the doubt you experience in your own abilities. More than this, however, she accurately describes the loneliness of going through life, feeling as if nobody cares about you. It’s a relatable book, particularly if you’re in (or have recently graduated from) college.

Cons: 

The dust-jacket is misleading. While Rakoff’s job of responding to the Salinger’s fan letters is an important part of the memoir, the description makes it sound like it’s the crux of the story, or that she somehow mislead people into thinking she was Salinger when this is not the case. As I mentioned before, this story is more about growing up and figuring out what you want to do with your life than it is about Salinger or her acting as his mouthpiece.

Why Don?  Rakoff was never able to convincingly explain to the reader  why she stayed with Don, her roommate/boyfriend. From what I’m given to understand, she had a phenomenal boyfriend who went to California for school and….for some reason she didn’t go with him. She then decided to cheat on said boyfriend with Don, a egotist with little regard for Rakoff or her feelings, and even moved into a crappy apartment with him. My question is why? Why did she stay with him if she had a much better option? If Don had been the college boyfriend and she was just reluctant to let him go because of their history, I would be able to understand her thinking. However, that was not the case. I think it would have been important to discuss considering it probably reveals quite a bit about Rakoff as a person.

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Rushed ending. If I had to chose which part of this book was the worst, then I would easily say the ending. Up until this point, everything was well paced and shaping up nicely. However, there is no real emotional pay-off with her boyfriend Don. We don’t see or hear about the death throes of their relationship, the narrative just says she left him at some point for her much more desirable college boyfriend. There’s a jarring jump into the future where she learns about Salinger’s death and…nothing else about her life. We know she had kids and that she’s married to someone (she doesn’t tell us if this is the angelic college boyfriend of yore or not), but she doesn’t go into any detail about her life in the future. I wish we could have seen more since it would have been nice to know how her relationship with Salinger altered her adult life. Otherwise there’s not much point in including it other than to say “wow, sucks that Salinger is dead and stuff.”

Overall opinion: 

While I had a few problems with this book, my overall impression of it was a positive one. I was able to really connect with the writer and her experiences working at The Agency. It’s difficult to put down and I definitely think it was worth the read.

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“The Infinity Doctors” a Doctor Who Novel Review

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the novel. It’s been out since the 90s, but I thought I should give you a heads up anyway. 

Pros:

Gallifrey. Firstly, I would like to say I love how in-depth the writer is when describing Gallifrey in this novel. You would think that it would bog down the plot, but if anything it enriches the reading experience. Precious little is revealed about Gallifrey in the show so being introduced to the culture in all its complexities was a thrill for me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is the best thing about this book.

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The Sontarans and Rutans. I was surprised by how invested I was in the conflict between these two races. They were just a tiny subplot that was mostly abandoned after the second act, but the resolution to their conflict was hilarious. I honestly laughed out loud. I loved how Sontar and the Rutan leader interacted with each other and the way they finally made peace was the cherry on top.

The plot. The book was pretty heavy on techno babble and, admittedly I got a bit bored with all the sciency speak. However, the plot itself was pretty solid and it introduced a lot of interesting concepts like people who remember the future instead of the past.

The characters. I won’t say that I was heavily invested in these people, but I did find myself a great deal more interested in the original characters than I normally am in DW novels. Most of the time I just want to skip to the parts with The Doctor, but this time I was actually interested in hearing Larna’s perspective and what it was like being a recently initiated Time Lord. They also seemed more organic rather than stock characters as is custom in most of these EDAs. I even found myself liking the Chancellory Guards Peltroc and Raimor even though they didn’t play that big of a roll in the grand scheme of things.

Cons:

Shot through the heart and you’re to blame. I will admit, there was one scene in particular that nearly made me stop reading the book. If you haven’t read the book, I would suggest you not continue with this post. Still here? Okay. Larna, a bright Time Lady and The Doctor’s favorite student, tries to stop The Doctor from entering the Station and The Doctor decides to retaliate by stabbing her in the heart.

No. Literally. He stabs her in the heart

He knows she’ll be able to have a surgery that will reverse any negative side effects that such an injury would create, but um…he stabbed her!!!!

This girl trusted him with her life. They were very close friends. And he stabbed her.

And then what happens? She moves the blade so it severs her spinal cord.

And she dies.

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I mean, sure, he asks Omega to bring her back to life later, but that’s beside the point. He stabbed an innocent person who got in his way. This leads me to another con.

No long-term effects. So my second biggest problem with this book is a bit ironic, especially if you’ve read the conclusion to this little piece. One of the largest issues with The Infinity Doctors is there are hardly any consequences.

What’s funny is the book openly admits that this is what happened:

“Nothing had changed, because nothing ever changed on Gallifrey except over geological timescales. Nothing was better, nothing was worse”  (pg 279-280)

There are no consequences for The Doctor having tried to play God and there are no consequences from him having murdered Larna. Yeah, the Doctor Who Wiki classifies it as suicide, but for all intents and purposes The Doctor killed her. There’s no confrontation, their relationship doesn’t suffer, she doesn’t remember it…it’s basically brushed under the rug.

Um…excuse me but…THIS IS A BIG DEAL!

He murdered one of his friends. And not because of some Save-The-Universe issue. He did it because he wanted to get with his dead wife whom he ditches after, like, two chapters.

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But no, no. Lance Parkin says it’s cool, guys. It’s cool. Just have a jelly baby and push the undo button.

The Doctor, himself, said that a universe without consequences is devoid of meaning and yet all of his actions go unchallenged. Maybe it’s addressed in the next book? I don’t know. All I know is that at the end of this one, Larna and The Doctor are totally cool with each other and The Doctor going all stabby-stab on her is never addressed again.

He doesn’t have an Oh-God-What-Have-I-Done moment, nor does he reflect on what such an action says about him as a person. It’s just kind of…forgotten.

Conclusion:

I did enjoy this novel even though the zero consequences thing kind of irks me. It did quite a bit considering how short of a book it was. However, I felt that everything moved along at a decent pace, not too long but not too short. I loved how fleshed out Gallifrey is in this novel considering how criminally underdeveloped Gallifrey is as a society in the TV show. I also found myself enjoying the side characters as well. I haven’t forgotten you Magistrate…even though everyone else seems to have done so.

Overall, I would give this book a B+ or an A-.

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