Category Archives: Book Reviews

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

A review of Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, aka Outlander number 3, in which I visit the Outlander series once more, with spoilers.

And now that little disclaimer is out of the way…

I’ve decided that if you’re going to buy into the love story of Jamie and Claire beyond book one in the series then you have to do so with total moral ambivalence. They are a pair of absolute wrecking balls, so focused on themselves and each other that they trample on the lives of everyone around them, especially those closest to them, with barely a backward glance.

Jamie wakes up lying on the battlefield after Culloden, Jack Randall’s head on his thigh. Well of course he does, sometimes the love stories with sudden, tragic endings are the most compelling, but it wouldn’t be much of a reunion with Claire if he expired in the opening pages. More interesting from my point of view was how Jack Randall’s corpse came to be lying on Jamie- did Jamie finally take his revenge or did Jack Randall save Jamie on the battlefield, thus throwing in yet another example of the Outlander series perpetrating the myth that sexual violence has anything to do with love? Well, finishing off this paragraph of spoilers with another spoiler… reader, you won’t find out in this novel. But I daresay it will come up again later in the series.

It looks as though he’s going to be executed, but his life is spared by the brother of John William Grey, the young soldier who tried to rescue Claire from the rapacious Scot in Dragonfly in Amber. From there we have a whistle stop tour of Jamie’s last twenty years without Claire, with such highlights as seven years in a cave, a spell in prison, fathering a child in a sex scene with a seventeen year old girl called Geneva which raises even more question marks about the sexual politics of the series, before heading back to Scotland with a pardon to take up a career in sedition and smuggling. Oh, and marrying Laoghaire. Remember her? The one who tried to get his one true love burned as a witch? Yeah, he married her.

So when Claire arrives back in the 18th century, after a few cursory glances into her last twenty years for good measure (which knock Frank of his pedestal and bring out the Randall genes, in case anyone had been left feeling sorry for him…) she’s roughly the same age as Jamie again, removing our prospect of a January/May romance and allowing her to favourably compare her appearance with that of every woman she comes across. And she used to be such a strong character.

It isn’t long before the cat is set among the pigeons by Laoghaire (Jamie’s second wife) catching him in bed with his first wife and taking a gun to him. Fair enough really. And it explains why Mr Willoughby, Jamie’s pet Chinaman (yes, he’s taken in a Chinese man that he found at the docks, adopted a paternalistic attitude towards him and given him a pet name… let’s not start with the imperialist, race relations connotations of this) keeps calling Claire honoured first wife.

Aaaanyway. To buy himself out of marriage with Laoghaire, Jamie needs to sell some treasure that he’s found and left in the middle of the ocean on at LEAST three separate occasions, meaning that his young nephews have to risk their lives to retrieve it when the family needs money every now and again. Why wouldn’t you just keep it hidden in the priest hole or his cave? This time, when his youngest nephew tries getting some treasure to buy off the lady scorned, he finds himself kidnapped by pirates meaning that Jamie, Claire and Fergus (with his fifteen year old wife) have to chase him around the globe to get him back.

I found this to be the weakest book in the series so far. A bit like the last novels of the Hunger Games, it feels a little like this was planned and written after the success of the initial novel so the plotting isn’t as considered as that of a novel which was conceived as a part of a series (like the Harry Potter books). Although the novels do refer to one another, it feels as though Jamie and Claire are now causing a lot of the problems they find themselves caught up in rather than finding themselves the pawns of fate. The reappearance of Gellis Duncan was problematic for me as well, and the whole forensic anthropologist moment with the skull at the start of the novel was just trite.

The Drums of Autumn is the next book in the series, which apparently will see Jamie and Claire’s abandoned daughter travel back in time to save her parents’ happiness. Looking at the dates and location I can only presume that the wrecking balls are instrumental in starting the American War of Independence… I think I’ll be taking a break before reading it.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I’ve been reading lots about the Danish concept of hygge recently, it doesn’t have a direct translation in English (or any language apparently) though I like to think that it’s quite close to the Welsh cwtch. I tend to get a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter, so was keen to learn more about the Danish secret for surviving winters with only three hours of sunlight a day. Anyway, during this course of this reading where I came across interesting blogs like Hello Hygge and Hygge House, I came across The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.

A successful journalist, Helen was quick to spot that the Danes are routinely rated the happiest people in the world. So when her husband was offered his dream job at Lego’s headquarters in Billund, she decided to go freelance and investigate the Danish secret of happiness and see how she could apply these to her own life.

In some ways the concept sounds a little bit like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, both books are structured to apply different “happiness lessons” on a month by month basis. But while Rubin alludes to large amounts of research then tends towards anecdote, The Year of Living Danishly actually delivers concrete statistics to back up numerous, very entertaining observations and recollections. If The Happiness Project is the prim, preachy and slightly inauthentic maiden Aunt (I’m not sure you should be allowed to give us proles tips on keeping your home free from clutter when you employ a cleaner…) The Year of Living Danishly reads like an old friend you could let your hair down with. Within ten pages, I’d woken the baby giggling at Russell’s turn of phrase. Worth it.

Though the book touches on some of the darker sides of Denmark (high rates of violence against women) it does tend to focus on the positive takeaways, which is kind of the point in a book on why everyone is so happy- if you want to debunk the Scandi myth there are other books for that kind of thing. What I would say though is that the causes of happiness that it identifies are highly credible and most of them are changes you could easily adopt into your own life (bar genetics and a secure social welfare system).

I’d really recommend this book. My boyfriend rolls his eyes every time I bring up a fact from the book, but we have a box set of The Bridge and I’m already plotting a city break to Copenhagen.

The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood

I’ve never seen Death in Paradise, but I am a big fan of murder mystery novels, so I was excited to be review The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood, who originated the BBC series and the detective Richard Poole.

The second in a new series of Richard Poole novels published by MIRA Harlequin, it tracks back in the timeline of the original detective (spoiler for the TV series- Wikipedia tells me he was killed off so the actor could spend more time with his family) in Death in Paradise as he investigates the apparent suicide of world famous supermodel Polly Carter on Saint-Marie. Being a murder mystery, it naturally isn’t too long before foul play is suspected.

Murder mysteries are, by their very nature, pretty formulaic. Even when you’re not reading locked room mysteries, they have a fairly limited cast of characters, nearly all of whom are suspects, and the test of the author’s skill is to play the reader like a fish, throwing out red herrings and characterisation as bait. The problem with The Killing of Polly Carter, for me, was that it didn’t do either of these especially successfully.

It is a proud tradition for the lead detective in murder mystery novels to be quirky but brilliant, but while Richard Poole is quirky in a heavily stereotypical, Englishman-abroad sort of way, I was unconvinced of his brilliance. “Clues” were nodded to heavily, while red herrings, alongside detective insight. were in short supply. This was compounded by an unnecessarily large team of detectives (there was a ratio of about four detectives to seven suspects) swarmed over the novel making limited progress. Throw in an unengaging subplot involving the lead detective’s strained relationship with his parents, couple that with a summary of the murder which was very much at odds with the initial description, and  for me, any sparks of interest were lost.

I think that part of the problem in this respect was that the novel was written almost as a storyline for a TV episode which gave basic stage directions as to the layout of the scenery but which still needed the set designer and wardrobe department to come in and fill in the colour, then the actors to inject their own sense of personality from the limited description which had been provided. The Caribbean setting was certainly a novelty, but for me, the plot didn’t live up to the promise of the setting.

Maybe one to read on a Caribbean holiday, but I prefer my murder mysteries with a few more chills and thrills.

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander 2)

Be warned, this review will contain spoilers for Outlander (book 1) and for Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander book 2). With that in mind…

Dragonfly in Amber, book two of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon annoyed me in a number of ways. I picked it up wanting to head straight back into the story of Jamie and Claire who I’d left in 18th century France at the end of Outlander, only to be confronted (and frustrated) with a frame narrative which led me back to the Scottish Highlands of 1968. The frame narrative picks up a minor character from the first novel, Roger Wakefield, who has grown from a shy orphaned child to an Oxford scholar specializing in the Jacobite period who Claire and her (tall, red-haired) daughter task with tracing the destinies of the men of Lallybroch after the Battle of Culloden. As part of the project, they find Jamie’s gravestone near that of Jack Randall in a church yard far from Culloden, which leads Claire to breakdown and tell them the story of her time with Jamie following on from the events of Outlander. And about time too.

I may be getting censorious in my third decade, but if I were to give the Outlander novels descriptions in the style of Friends episodes then I’d have to go with something like The One Where Claire Makes a Concerted Effort to Give Her Unborn Child Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Jamie Demonstrates That He is an Unsuitable Father. Coming so soon after my own pregnancy problems earlier in the year the description of Claire’s pregnancy made me really, really dislike Claire and Jamie. Apparently FAS wasn’t discovered until 1973, so coming from the sixties Claire probably wouldn’t have been aware that the copious amounts of alcohol she consumes in the novel would have harmed her baby, but she does knock back so much wine, brandy and brandywine that she feels drunk on several occasions. That coupled with her and Jamie’s insistence on rushing into peril at every available opportunity left me unsurprised if saddened when their daughter Faith is stillborn at five months gestation.

In fact, for me, the whole France section of the novel felt like an unnecessary farce to link the end of the first Outlander section of the novel to Claire and Jamie’s return to Scotland and the build up to the Battle of Culloden in the second. Claire and Jamie behave in ways which feel entirely at odds with their characters from the first novel, with Jamie especially transforming from the cultured, intelligent Scotsman to something which reminded me of one of my friends’ ex-boyfriends… nice guy, but rash and slightly apelike. Which is how he ends up in the Bastille…

Still, by the time Claire has sprung him from prison for the second time (the less we say about King Louis XV and the rose oil the better) and they are back in Scotland, the novel got back on track and I found myself once again engaged with the story, though I have to say I find the degree of sexual violence in the novels, especially that implied in Jamie and Claire’s relationship, unnecessary and a little uncomfortable.

The Scottish Rising section of the novel is especially interesting to me, because it brings up the question of the influence a time-traveller can exert on a period they visit, especially in the context of a sensitive and emotive period of history. For me it begged the question of whether Claire and Geillis Duncan had created something of a causal loop. Geillis in Outlander 1 claimed to have raised £10,000 toward the Stuart cause, and Charles Stuart has some initial success in waging war in Scotland. Would the Scots still have been defeated at Culloden in Jamie and Claire hadn’t worked so tirelessly to prevent him achieving his aims?

At the end of the novel, I found that I’d switched from hating the frame narrative to appreciating it when Roger (who throws up a nice little time-travel conundrum in being a descendant of Geillis Duncan… was she her own Grandpa, in a manner of speaking?) discovers that Jamie didn’t die at Culloden as planned but was one of the few Scots to survive…

So yes, obviously I hopped straight on my computer and reserved the third book in the series from the library.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

A bit of a bookworm fail here, I fancied watching the Outlander series (the concept was similar to A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, one of my favourite books as a child, which sees a girl experience a similar phenomenon arriving back in the time of the Babington Plot) but couldn’t stretch to an Amazon Prime subscription…it hadn’t occurred to me that they were originally a series of books. At least, not until I came across a review of the series from Dewette Decimal Reads. So I loaded up the pushchair and took a trip to my local library to source a copy.

Outlander is the first novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and tells the story of Claire Randall, a young nurse taking a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank in 1946 when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself back in 1743, face to face with her husband’s ancestor- Black Jack Randall, an English redcoat, who is very unlike the man she knows and loves. Attempting to escape from him, she falls into the hands of a group of Highlanders, who take her back to their clan’s castle believing her to be a spy. Attempting to gain their trust and find an opportunity to escape and return to Frank, Claire puts her medical skills to use in the castle where she increasingly finds herself drawn to a handsome young Highlander called Jamie Fraser. And wouldn’t you know it, it isn’t too long before she finds their fates very much entwined…

In the main part, I really enjoyed Outlander as a rollicking historical adventure complete with kidnappings, fights and witchcraft. The characterisation really added colour to the novel; an independent, headstrong 20th century woman finds herself confronting a very traditional, 18th century, conservative Catholic masculinity. The conflict arising as a result of the mores of the two ages created a credible dynamic between the characters of Jamie and Claire, and really allowed Gabaldon to bring 18th century Scotland to life.

I’ve already finished Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the series, and am trying to get hold of the third novel, Voyager, from the library… someone seems to be reading the series at the same time as me!

One thing I would say about the novel for anyone thinking of reading it, although the premise is similar to young adult fiction such as Uttley’s and A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively (which the UK title of Outlander, Cross Stitch, seems to have been a nod to) this is not a novel which is suitable for children as it contains exceptionally graphic sexual violence. I wouldn’t consider myself to be especially delicate about violence in fiction, but this really is very graphic and I do think it is necessary to warn about it.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

When Holly Ansell is woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call telling her that her older brother Ben has gone missing, her only clues to his disappearance are the diary of a nineteenth century courtesan and a mirror reputed to be a lost treasure from the court of the Winter Queen. As Holly clings these clues, she doesn’t realise that her quest to solve the mystery of his disappearance will draw her into a four hundred year old love story involving the Winter Queen, ghosts and a cursed pearl…

Fusing thriller and romance, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows is rooted in the historical romance of the Winter Queen and William Craven, but draws in elements of fantasy, evolving to create an alternate history centred on Ashdown Park in which refrains of the original love story echo down through history in a narrative split between the court of the Winter Queen in the seventeenth century, and Ashdown Park in the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

One of the things that I most enjoy about historical fiction is learning about the lives of historical figures, and in this respect the book doesn’t disappoint. Although aspects of the novel are fantastical, the historical details about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen are factual, and the novel serves to illustrate the profoundly interesting and important life this relatively overlooked Queen had. (For example,even though like most British students, I had studied the gunpowder plot at school, I hadn’t realised that the plotters were ultimately aiming to place Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen. I was very drawn to this section of the narrative, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the novel that Cornick manages the transition between the time periods successfully without losing the reader’s interest.

In many ways, the star of the novel is the location. Some readers may find the author’s decision to create an alternate history for Ashdown Park or Ashdown House problematic, given that the novel is to some extent a historical fiction, but provided you aren’t familiar with the house itself I don’t think that it is problematic to suspend your disbelief, especially given that the novel features a magic mirror!

As a fusion of genres, the novel is a little bit more Philippa Gregory than Dan Brown, in that the emphasis is strongly on the romance and less so on the thriller, but it’s definitely an enjoyable read and I am already planning a trip to Ashdown House to check out the setting- even if the lavender garden doesn’t exist as described in the book.

The House on Cold Hill by Peter James

I’m a massive fan of Halloween, so was very excited to be invited to review The House on Cold Hill by Peter James, even though I wouldn’t normally select a “haunted house” narrative myself. After all, once you’ve read one you’ve read them all, right? Haunted house clichés in books and films are so common that you don’t need me to compile a list of them for you… the challenge is for an author to either completely break the mould, or to work within the tropes that a reader will expect while still offering enough unpredictability to creep them out. Not easy.

The House on Cold Hill is definitely in the latter camp and though James brings out many haunted house classics (cold rooms, frightened animals, glimpses of shadows), these are cleverly used. Having stunned the reader with an unexpected plot twist in the first chapter, the opening of the novel then focuses on the cataclysmic restoration of Cold Hill House. Initially I felt as if I was watching a channel four mash-up of Phil Spencer Secret Agent and Most Haunted, a cautionary tale of dabbling in property with horror tropes drip fed slowly into the narrative. But all the while the subtle cues of a haunted house story gradually built tension while I was looking the other way. By the time the novel is reaching its climax, I found myself hooked on the story. Although there are a few elements that are a little predictable (an aspect of the genre, rather than the author’s imagination) there are enough false leads and red herrings to keep you wrong footed and guessing at the ending until the penultimate chapter.

If you’re looking for a ghost story for 2015, then The House on Cold Hill is definitely worth a read. And who doesn’t like curling up with a spooky tale on a cold winter’s evening?

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas


Never let it be said that Scarlett Thomas’ novels are pedestrian. The Seed Collectors reads like a mash-up between a Jilly Cooper novel, a botanist’s almanac and a New Age Spiritualist Guide.

Following the death of their Aunt Oleander, the younger generation of the Gardener family, whose parents disappeared while seeking a mystical plant during their offspring’s teenage years, each receive a seed pot, purportedly from the same magical plant which offers those who consume it instant enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, albeit with the side effect of a very painful death. Despite the title and this premise, the narrative focus of The Seed Collectors is less on the plants than on the lives of the younger generation of Gardeners who live outwardly normal lives but lean on drugs, sex, alcohol, eating disorders and shopping addictions to medicate their inner dysfunction.

The novel starts strongly and cohesively, building a credible narrative around characters that you simultaneously dislike and pity. However, just as you begin to wonder if and how Thomas will tie the various storylines together, the novel shifts genres from family drama to spiritualist fantasy, taking much of the tension and a good measure of the pleasure of the read with it.

This insistence upon shifting from the believable to the bonkers is increasingly becoming a feature of Thomas’ work (along with her preference for characters to be tied closely to the Academe, ideally holding a PhD, but studying for an MA at the very least). In some instances, such as The End of Mr Y and PopCo it works brilliantly, but on this occasion I wonder if the read might not have been even more enjoyable if Thomas had stepped out of her comfort zone and forced her characters to face their problems instead of escaping into the realm of fantasy? With characters like Beatrix, the internet savvy granny with a penchant for playing the stock market and googling c(l)ocks; Oliver, the lecturer who fantasizes that his nubile undergraduate student is his daughter and Holly, the teenage anorexic who might just be the most stable member of her family, the novel was lively and entertaining, but with huge potential to go further.

I liked it on the whole, and loved the first three-quarters, but the ending with its stock descent into Scarlett Thomas’ token escapism did leave me feeling a little bit like Jack’s mother when he came home with the magic beans.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Callanish is just a little girl when the Circus Excalibur sails to her tiny island and she witnesses a terrible tragedy, but years later she will find that she and North, the circus’ bear-girl, share a common story, their lives linked by the secrets that they both keep.

Set in a waterworld, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan imagines a society after catastrophic climate change has caused the oceans to rise, leaving little land behind. Unlike many novels which explore post-distaster landscapes, The Gracekeepers takes us back to an almost primitive society which sees the island inhabitants (landlockers) in conflict with the nomadic sea-dwellers (damplings). Their relationships with one another are characterized by a mutual antipathy, but they are forced to trade with one another in something of a barter system for survival.

Callanish is a landlocker, and in adulthood, has become a gracekeeper, a hermit like individual responsible for the burial at sea of damplings. North is a dampling and loves her nomadic circus lifestyle, but this is under threat from an arranged marriage which would see her forced to live on land. Their narratives are interesting enough in themselves, but I found that my attention was more drawn to the setting and background characters than the main events of the narrative. Logan writes well and her secondary characters hint deeply at stories untold. I wanted to know more about the revolutionary clowns, the extent of the military’s power, how Callanish came to be a Gracekeeper and the rules and strictures this involves.

This is more The Year of the Flood than The Night Circus (the magic here is quieter, more subversive if you’re looking for ritz and razamataz) but The Gracekeepers is a read that you can get swept up in. I’m interested to see what Logan’s future writing plans are as I’d be keen to read further novels set in this world.

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

iconicon“Sometimes when people ask you for a full explanation, you know damn well that’s the last thing they want. Really, they want you to give them a paragraph that confirms what they already think they know. They want something that will fit neatly into a box on a police statement form. And that can never be a full explanation.”

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

 

Alex Woods is odd, no doubt about it. We first meet him aged 17, where he is being arrested at Dover customs having scandalized the British media by returning to the country with an urn full of human ashes and 113g of marijuana. This is his second brush with celebrity, the first occurring when, at the age of ten the universe decides to mark him out as one of its more improbable inhabitants by sending a fragment of meteor through his bathroom ceiling which hits him on the head, leaving him with a permanent scar and epilepsy. But these incidents are not the story, or at least, they are only a part of it, in a tale of unlikely friendship, integrity and difficult choices.

I bought The Universe versus Alex Woods for my brother for Christmas when it first published in 2013 and it’s taken me this long to read it because other family members have kept swooping in like the book vultures they are before me. Nevertheless, it certainly merits the word of mouth hype that it’s received, both in my family and the wider world.

In Alex, Gavin Extence has created a character who is suitably naïve to form an unlikely friendship with an aged Vietnam veteran, but one who is precocious, irritating and stubborn enough to make it a friendship of equals. Likewise, Mr Peterson is grizzled and grizzly enough to the eyes of the young Alex, but with enough wry charm for the reader to appreciate and feel amusement at his burgeoning friendship with the bizarre child the universe has seemingly thrust upon him. Like any story about a socially awkward young boy with a big heart and an unusal friend, this is a book which could easily have become mawkish, but Gavin Extence has created a character sufficiently remote from the socially awkward stereotype to sweep aside the sugar-coating and tell this important and improbable story with warmth and good humour.

Definitely one to add to the reading list if you haven’t already.