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 most likely would have thought this book was 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. 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 I think it would have been more satisfying 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.

Research, Write, Repeat: Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction.

Especially novels that take place around the Victorian or Regency era.

I realize I’m romanticizing a period of inequality, poor hygiene, and convoluted social rules, but dammit if they didn’t look good in those waistcoats.

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What I don’t love (well, besides everything I listed above) is all of the research that goes into writing historical fiction.

Right now, in between projects, I am writing a story that involves an alien in Victorian England. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to familiarize myself with the time period. However, it turns out this is far more intricate than I anticipated. You see, the Victorian era had quite a few social rules.

By quite a few I mean there are enough to make War and Peace look like a bit of light reading.

Not to mention I have to know the titles of The Help as well as what they did, how much they were payed, where and what they ate, when their day started, how it ended, etc.

Doesn’t sound too difficult, only there isn’t too much literature when it comes to servitude in the Victorian age Most of the information regarding servants doesn’t start until around the early 1900s, a.k.a Downton Abbey era. Most likely because that’s when a lot of societal shifts took place.

I’ve read quite a few Victorian novels but not a lot of them are told from the staff’s perspective. Most likely because no one gave a $h*t about them. With my story, I was hoping to break that mold. In fact, one of the more pivotal characters is a lady’s maid.

Then come the gentry….oh….oh God. The titles.

The titles.

Of course, there’s also the business of what they ate, what they read, what they did recreationally, what happened at their parties, the dances they danced, their courting rituals, spousal relationships, clothes they wore, their morning rituals, their evening activities–

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That’s not to say it’s all bad. Actually, most of it is really interesting. There’s just sooo much to remember. I could write notes for days and not even scratch the surface. It was a very complicated society with each person working as a cog in the machine.

It was also a revolutionary time that paved the way for modern transportation and business practices, one of the many reasons I wanted my story to take place in this period. I will do my best to portray the societal customs accurately.

Nonetheless, I hope my readers won’t mind too much if one of my characters accidentally introduces themselves first to a higher member of society, or refers to the second child as Miss Soandso instead of Miss Jane or Miss Jane Soandso.

We can’t all be Jane Austen.

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