narfna’s #CBR5 Review #104: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWell . . . that was certainly an experience. Parts of it I LOVED and parts of it were SO WEIRD I didn’t even know what to do with myself.

It’s clear that Gabaldon pretty much wrote whatever the hell she wanted to, ignoring a lot of steadfast  “rules” in the process. The result of this is a book that could fit into dozens of different genres, and that contains dozens of scenes that make you go “wait, did she just write that?”

For those of you not familiar (and I’m betting there are still some of you out there), Outlander is the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s titular series about a nurse from World War II-era England who travels back in time two hundred years to Scotland, and among other things, is accused of being a witch, becomes a healer, is forced to marry a handsome young Scot, and deal with a psychopathic Englishman, all the while dealing with her reduced freedoms as a woman and navigating both the smaller and larger political and historical issues that she alone knows are coming.

It’s a long book, and it’s hard to describe. Even if you think you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, I guarantee there will be at least once scene you won’t see coming at all, and more than one that will make you need to put the book down, like under your pillow or in a freezer or somewhere else that is safe and away from you while you alternatively cool down/stop being weirded out/insert overextended emotion here. It’s a romance, and an extremely well-researched historical novel. And it’s speculative, and a bunch of other shit as well.

And I enjoyed it. And I was weirded out by it. And it made me need to go take a cold shower.

The most notable thing about it, of course, is the central romance between our time-traveling heroine Claire and young Scottish virgin, Jamie Fraser, which was extremely swoonworthy, excepting one notable scene involving corporal punishment. I realize Gabaldon needed to have Jamie conform to time-specific ideas about male/female relationships, but I really think I needed to see Claire be more vocal about refusing to be subjected to anything like that in the future, and I needed to see Jamie agree. The scene at the end with Jamie and Randall was . . . interesting. And I’m still not entirely sure what the point of all of it was.

Also, there was probably more sex in this book than in any other book I’ve ever read. Just . . . there’s so much of it. So, so much of it. I kind of wish she’d been a little more spare with it, because after the first three or four times so close together, the scenes sort of began to lose their spark.

Anyway, I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, but probably not until after the first season of the TV show airs on Starz next year. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Ron Moore can do with this story (and with it being on Starz, I’m sure the sex scenes will get their due as well).

And with that, I have finished my Double Cannonball goal for the year, and so now I shall go collapse into my bed and not wake up until Thursday.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #103: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

house of hadesPlot has taken over where character development used to be in Riordan’s writing. I suppose it was inevitable when he started writing two books a year (at least he’s back down to one, now that the disappointing Kane Chronicles series is over with). And actually, the action and the mythology are still really, really fun, I just prefer the old version of this story. The original Percy Jackson series felt intimate and original.

In fact, I kind of hope after he’s done with this series that he moves on to writing about other things besides mythology-is-real books. I think he’s pretty much milked the concept for all its worth at this point. (I say this knowing full well he’s got a Norse mythology series in the works.)

That’s not to say I don’t like this book or this series, because I do. I especially liked this one, which I think is my favorite in the series so far.

It’s been almost two months since I finished it, so details are a little hazy. The action is basically split in two: half of it lies with Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus, and the other half with the remaining demigods as they fight their way to the Doors of Hades from the other side, encountering gods, monsters, and mythological creatures along the way. Frank in particular got some great stuff in this book, after basically being a doormat in the last two. And the mythological tricksters The Kerkopes made me laugh out loud.

But really, my heart belonged to Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus for this one. That whole arc, as they make their way to the heart of Tartarus, is genuinely terrifying, and frankly, kind of ballsy for a middle grade author. The themes they were dealing with down there were super intense. Also, Riordan introduces the Titan Bob, who gets some good stuff out of Percy, and is completely delightful (and surprisingly heartbreaking) in his own right. He almost entirely makes up for the fact that the Titans have been sort of neutered by this series. They were horrifying in the original series, and here they’re barely a concern.

Anyway, very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and I have faith that Riordan can pull it off.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #102: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

bone seasonThe next J.K. Rowling? Uh, nice try, Bloomsbury, but no. Extremely false. This isn’t the worst book I’ve read, by far, but it is one of the most frustrating, mostly because Samantha Shannon is clearly very smart, so that makes it all the more aggravating that this turned out the way it did. I have lots of thoughts, as if you couldn’t tell from all my status updates. I will try to parse them out in a concise and entertaining manner, but I make no promises because it is New Year’s Eve and I’m in my party dress.

So let’s start out with that awful marketing plan, since I’ve already brought it up. Comparing their extremely green author to one of the most beloved authors of all time was not a smart move on Bloomsbury’s part. I’m sure they miss all their Harry Potter revenue dearly, but all it did was set up Samantha Shannon for failure. And that was going to happen whether or not the book was any good. This book, which in my opinion is a hot mess, needed to be edited within a half inch of its life. It didn’t need to be praised as “the next Harry Potter.” Honestly, what I think it needed was for its author to incubate a little more. Her fine education and precocious imagination aside, she bit off way too much with this series, and did not have the life experience necessary to pull it off. This book screams AMATEUR to me. As stated above, I’ve certainly read worse books, but I almost think the experience of reading this one was so horrible because I could see the potential hiding in there. This story could have been great given five or so years, and a lot of patient editing.

To sum it up quickly, The Bone Season is the first of seven novels that take place in a dystopian/alternate world that diverged about two hundred years before present time. It’s a world where clairvoyance is real, and those possessing the ability are either persecuted or conscripted for police service, and where others choose to practice their talents in criminal underworlds as an alternative. But just as Shannon begins to describe this world to us, and we’re already feeling lost, our main character, whose name I have now forgotten, is kidnapped by a mysterious race of beings who are also clairvoyant, and then we have to learn about THAT world on top of the other one. Everything has a label, there is a new and confusing terminology for everything Shannon could have possibly thought of, and it is an incredibly trying reading experience. Not that challenging books are a problem, but there’s a way to do it that Shannon didn’t manage.

And then it quickly became clear to me that the plot of the novel was just the standard YA/romance with a super speshul heroine hiding underneath the thin veneer of the very confusing exterior of the world Shannon has created. Our heroine is SO SPECIAL and nobody has ever had powers like hers and the bad guy falls in love with her! And only she can save the day! It was about 1/3 of the way through the novel when I just gave up trying to keep track of everything and just let the crazy wash over me. The cardboard cutout secondary characters, the way the heroine fixated on things for no reason (and Shannon clearly expected us to care about those things as well, only I didn’t want to), the constant info-dumping and violations of Show, Don’t Tell. She uses complicated words to impress when simple ones would do. Last minute plot contrivances to get her story in place. A romance that comes out of nowhere. She basically lifts a character straight from A Clockwork Orange, and probably thought we wouldn’t notice, maybe because her target market won’t have read that book yet:

Look at you with dewdrops in your shiners. Raise your head, O my lovely! What do you want–sympathy? Pity? You won’t find that from him, just like you didn’t find it from me. The world is an abattoir, my mollisher. Raise those barking irons, now. Let me see you give him hell.”

Ugh, shut up.

I might read the second book in this series. But maybe not. Reading this one was torture, if I’m being honest, because a lot of the things I see Shannon doing as an author are things I used to struggle with as well. It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing my past self, and I can see myself thinking the wrong things are good, and being an idiot, and I don’t have the power to stop myself. Anyway, in my case it didn’t matter, because nobody was publishing the shit that I wrote when I was her age, and mistaking complicated worldbuilding for complexity and depth of content, as Bloomsbury seems to have done with this series.

Most of all, I just really wish whatever person accepted her manuscript for publication would have been thinking with their brain instead of their wallets. This book and its author are going to suffer for it.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #101: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

bridget-jones-mad-about-the-boy1SPOILERS AHOY. Just this whole thing. Don’t even read it. Unless you don’t care about being spoiled about something that was in the news and people freaked out about on Twitter and also you learn in the very first paragraph of the book. In that case, welcome, dear friend.

When I say that I was sad about the news that Helen Fielding would be killing Mark Darcy in her third Bridget Jones book, I am practicing the rhetorical technique known as litotes, which is fancy asshole for “understatement.” The reason I am being a fancy asshole about it is that I have never in my life been more upset about the death of a fictional character than I was about Mark Darcy. ‘Devastated’ would be an accurate word for my emotional state. Also ‘destroyed.’ And ‘demolished.’ I am laid waste to. The more astute of you will notice that I am now employing the opposite of litotes, hyperbole, which is one of my favorite and most used forms of expression. I am doing this because I am a fancy asshole, as stated previously, but also because I am putting off as long as possible having to write the rest of this review, which I am convinced will crumble me until I am nothing more than dusty remains of what used to be a person.

Because Fuckin’ A, Mark Darcy is dead.

Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the thing. I felt betrayed. I felt it was unnecessary and cruel. And I hadn’t even liked the second book all that much anyway SO THERE. But then I got curious. And a friend reviewed it positively. And I gave in.

I’m so glad I did. I loved this book. I loved it hard. I loved it against my will.

If the first two books were about Bridget coping with the life of a terminally single woman, and then learning to navigate the perils of adult relationships, and both of those things were now accomplished, then what is the point of having a third book? Well, it turns out that what Bridget is coping with this time around is how a person can live through their grief and come out the other side. Fielding is also clearly interested in examining through Bridget the process of coming to terms with aging, and what’s like to have to start over after you thought you were done. You had it in the bag. And I think it’s something she succeeds at handily.

It’s not that these topics are anything new. Actually, I’m fairly sure there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books written surrounding similar issues. What sets this one apart, however, is that we knew Bridget before she was a fifty-year old widow with two young children, grieving over a husband she loved very much. We fell in love with Mark Darcy as she fell in love with him, we experienced their relationship pangs and joys together, and we were almost as happy as she was when their story ended in a — what turned out to be — temporary happy ending. So now, we’re not just reading a story about a widow trying to start her life over and cope with her loss, we’re experiencing those losses with someone very like a friend. And we’re not just reading about her grief; we’re experience it right along with her. I felt physical pain during the scenes when Bridget thought about her dead husband, what his face looked like the night their daughter was born, how he kissed her goodbye the last time she saw him, how he would never see his children grow up.

And the thing about those scenes is that Fielding uses them so sparingly, interweaving them with episodes of Bridget’s awkwardness in dating, in parenting, in friendship, and in work, that they hit all that much harder when they appear. Bridget is trying so very hard to move past the death of her husband. She isn’t dwelling on it (at least anymore, but it’s been years in book time since Darcy’s death). Fielding’s style very much reflects Bridget’s state of mind. I found myself alternately sobbing and laughing on more than one occasion.

Because yes, this is a sad book. But is also a very, very funny one.

So if you take anything from this review, if you’re one of those people who are refusing to read this book because of what you heard on the news, I ask that you reconsider. It might stil be painful for you, but it will be painful in a way that feels true, and you will come out the other side just fine, just as Bridget does. Maybe you’ve just got a little more sadness mixed in with the rest.

I’m almost tempted to give Mad About the Boy five stars, writing this. But she did kill Mark Darcy after all, and we can’t let her completely get away with it.

[4.5 stars]

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #100: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Offical-Allegiant-CoverI’m going to say it right up front: the reason I did not like this book had nothing to do with the ending.

Well, almost nothing. The ending was what she was building up to, and since I had a problem with the build-up itself, I sort of do have a problem with the ending by extension, but that’s just semantics. Actually, I was so burned by this series after Insurgent that I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book at all, so when I accidentally spoiled myself over THAT THING before I had even cracked the spine on my brand new copy, it had the opposite effect on me it had on most readers. It actually made me more excited to see how she was going to pull it off. And I was still disappointed. Sigh.

I do have to give Veronica Roth credit. She may have fumbled the execution (a lot, in my opinion), but I do think she had her priorities straight. She was dedicated — perhaps too much so — to seeing out her themes and serving the narrative, as opposed to taking the easy way out in the way she ended her story, which is what her readers wanted her to do. The problem here is that the structure of this third act in the story is just a big old mess, and the way she crafts her words and her sentences and her dialogue, I think, actively worked against the goals she was shooting for.

From here on out, be warned, spoilers ahoy.

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Tris totally bites it. She croaks. She is annihilated. She goes belly up. She buys the farm. She’s checking out the grass from underneath. She goes the way of the dinosaurs. She’s popped off. She’s permanently out of print. She’s shuffled off the mortal coil.

She’s stone dead.

Continue reading

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #99: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

I don’t know what it is about this book, exactly, but I think it might be my favorite in the series so far. I’m giving it five stars because I really like the direction Butcher is taking this series in, and because it had all of my favorite Dresden stuff in it in a more fun way than the last two books, which were five star reads in a more intense way.

The book opens with Harry being in rehab for, well, for being dead for six months. You can imagine the recovery time for that. Mab has got Harry in Winter and is nursing him back to health by trying to kill once or twice a day. Classic Mab. When he’s recovered enough to take up his duties as the Winter Knight, that’s when the fun really starts. On top of most of the sidhe being out to get him, and his friends and family being pissed he didn’t tell them he was alive sooner, Harry has 24 hours to figure out who and what are going to blow up Demonreach, the island that Harry became the magical warden of several books back. If he doesn’t stop it, the explosion is going to take most of Illinois with it and release hundreds of thousands of demonic beings into the mortal world. And he has to do it all while trying to figure out who’s good, who’s bad, and which people in either group want him dead (the answer being lots on both sides).

There were so many things I liked about this book, it’s hard to list them out. I loved the whole tone of the thing, Harry having to face the challenge of coming back from the grave (so to speak — he wasn’t really technically “dead” after all), dealing with Molly and his brother (Thomas and Harry <3) and Murphy. I loved how different in structure and intent this one felt to all the others, especially the first eleven books (the last two broke the mold in their own special ways). I loved the lurk of Mab, and the uncertainty of her intentions. I loved the new fairy, who better end up being Toot’s girlfriend. I loved how the plot actually managed to surprise me, not once, but several times (a rare thing, simply because I read so much). I loved how each of Harry’s interactions with recurring characters show how far he and this series have come. I loved Demonreach, and Harry being inexplicably naked for the entire last part of the book. And I super loved the glimpse of The Big Stakes that we and Harry get, because it sets the whole series in a new context, and hints at the future to come.

The direction of the series from here on out is a complete mystery. Other than the vague hints we get (Harry and Molly working for Winter, for instance, and that giant wall of fighting fairies), Butcher’s previous rulebook just doesn’t seem to apply. There’s a lot of stuff in play right now, and it’s very exciting. Can’t wait for Skin Game to come out on 2014, and it’s been a blast catching up on this series this year.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #98: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

steelheartThis wasn’t my favorite Sanderson ever. I had some issues with it on a technical level, but the worldbuilding was SO MUCH FUN that it almost didn’t even matter. (It’s actually kind of a relief to read a book of his I don’t LOVE ALL CAPS because it means he’s only human after all. Dude writes SO MANY BOOKS and they’re ALL GOOD.)

Steelheart, the first book in Sanderson’s Reckoners series, is an extremely creative take on the superhero genre. It’s been ten years since an event people have dubbed Calamity, which granted certain members of the population superpowers. These people are called Epics, and they are all of them huge dickwads: violent, egomanical, emotionally unstable, power-hungry assholes. With the appearance of the Epics, society descended into chaos. Epic after Epic took control over whole cities. The government collapsed. In some cities, Epics rule like monarchs. Such is the case with Chicago, now called Newcago, which is ruled by an Epic called Steelheart, who has the power to turn anything to steel, and is seemingly invincible.

This is where our protagonist, David, comes in. David’s father was a firm believer that one day an Epic would come that would be good and kind, who would wish to help rather than hurt. David’s father is murdered by Steelheart, right in front of David’s eyes, when he was ten years old. Steelheart then demolished the bank they were in and killed everyone in it, except for David. David is now the only person alive to have seen Steelheart bleed. And he’s gone looking for a group called the Reckoners, whose sole mission is taking out Epics one by one. He knows he’s the only person alive that might be able to help them take down Steelheart, and he’s made it his life’s mission to do so.

Like I said, exploring this world that Sanderson created, learning its rules, was pure pleasure. It was refreshing to read a take on superheroes that had the superheroes as the bad guys. It’s a very cynical outlook on human nature, and I found it intriguing, especially given the presence of David’s father, who believed so strongly that Epics could be good. It bodes well for future installments in the series. I also really liked that this book had a self-contained element to it, a beginning, middle and end. It also felt a bit like a crime/heist caper story, which was really fun.

I did have some issues with it. With a couple exceptions, the characters didn’t really grab my emotions by the balls or anything. I didn’t care about most of them very much, and actively disliked the one that kept saying y’all to refer to a singular person. I know I also had some other technical issues with it, but it’s been over a months and a half since I read it, and I don’t remember what those issues were. Also of concern is the protag, David. Because he’s so driven by his mission, he doesn’t have much of an emotional arc. The focus in this book is definitely on plot and worldbuilding, and I’m hoping in future books we get a bit more characterization for him and the others. I know plot and worldbuilding are Sanderson’s strengths, but he can do characters too. I’ve seen him at it.

All in all, a really fun book, and I’m confident/hopeful that the issues I had with it will be addressed in future books. And even if they’re not, I’ll probably still enjoy them.