Tag Archives: entertainment

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.

Once Upon A Time

With the arrival of Phoebe, I haven’t been able to do a huge amount of reading. She strongly prefers sleeping on me to anywhere else, especially if she’s going through a growth spurt or a developmental leap, but flinches at the sound of a page turning so my tablet and Netflix subscriptions have been life savers for long feeds.

I’m typically late to the party again, but The current series I’m watching on Netflix is ABC’s Once Upon A Time which aired on Channel 5 a few years ago in the UK. To be honest, I wouldn’t normally have given it a chance but needed something to keep me awake during sleep deprived nights breastfeeding and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it.

Set in a town called Storybrooke, characters from popular fairy tales have been ripped from the Enchanted Forest and sent to modern-day Maine where they have been robbed of their identities by the Evil Queen, Regina, who having failed to kill or destroy Snow White decides to curse everyone and tear away their happy endings. However, as in many good stories, there is someone who can defeat the curse and save them all, but our heroine is a somewhat dysfunctional 28-year old who doesn’t believe in fairies and has been lured back to the town by the son she gave up for adoption when he was born, who, as luck would have it, was taken in by the Evil Queen.

Everyone knows that I love a fairytale and Once Upon a Time is a pretty impressive mash-up of fairy tales , novels and films. True, the fairy tales nod a little too strongly to Disney at times (Sleeping Beauty is Princess Aurora, the Little Mermaid is Ariel and Snow White’s dwarves have the names of the characters from the film- I would love to know what licensing they have agreed with Disney) but I suppose that is what the majority of viewers would expect and it doesn’t stop the programme subverting our expectations of the stories to create new character origins, redeem traditional villains (or at least inject a little more complexity into their characters)and blacken the names of a few storybook heroes.

Far and away the best thing about the series is Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin who is by turns demented, monstrous, hilarious, human and touching. (Dis)Honourable mention also has to go to Captain Hook, played by Colin O’Donoghue who since his arrival has balanced out some of Snow White and Prince Charming’s irritating insipidness in the present day scenes. In her flashbacks, Snow White is kick ass… it’s a pity that she couldn’t stay that way after remembering her happy ever after. Good may always win, but it’s not nearly as much fun as mild evil.

We Are Here by Michael Marshall

we are here michael marshall“Love is not a charm that pops into the world from a better place to bless two individuals before flitting back home, leaving the couple broken back in two parts and forlorn but fundamentally unchanged. Love is a fire that burns in the soul, sometimes for good, sometimes just for now, sometimes hot enough to scorch and sometimes with a low and sustainable glow. Either way, it leaves the original constituents permanently altered. After the fact everything is different—not just the relationship, but the people involved.”

We Are Here, Michael Marshall

David is about to leave New York after a meeting with his publisher about his debut novel when a strange man instructs him to remember him. John and Kristina’s friend thinks that she is being stalked, and when they look into it they find that the truth is stranger than she might believe. Their worlds collide in this grown up urban fantasy which sees magic realism explode over a familiar city, melting not only the ley lines between genres but the borders between the real and the imaginary.

Bold, vicious and clever, this is a must read for daydreamers, the imaginative and anyone who has ever wondered just who else might be in the room with them.

Harry Potter and the Irresistible Squeeze Page

shocked owlCongratulations if you’ve been living under a rock long enough to have missed that JK Rowling posted new Potter material (specifically an article from Rita Skeeter bitching about Harry and other members of Dumbledore’s Army) on Pottermore today. If you did miss it, then you can access it here.

What’s that? You don’t have a Pottermore account? Neither did I until I used my lunch break to sign up and read the Daily Prophet article. But wasn’t it an effective squeeze page? Pottermore now has the contact details of almost everyone who has read the Potter series and has used the internet today. I’m guess that has to be numbers in the high thousands who’ve signed up today.

As for the article itself? It was all a little bit pointless. It didn’t tell me much about the characters, and I found it a bit weird that Victor Krum (who is older than Harry) is still playing Quidditch at international level when Ginny (who is younger than Harry) has retired from playing the sport professionally to become a writer… I mean, he has to be even older than Ryan Giggs, doesn’t he?

Maybe I’m jaded because I’ve finally gotten over my five-year Harry Potter themed book hangover, but whichever way you look at it, it’s a clever way to attract new users to your site. JK Rowling’s team should run courses on, how to get a million website hits in a day without using magic, charms to increase numbers of unique visitors or clever book marketing that doesn’t rely on the dark arts.

 

Image of owl by Sharon, under terms of the Creative Commons attribution license

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

the bone season samantha shannon“Knowledge is dangerous. Once you know something, you can’t get rid of it. You have to carry it. Always.”
The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season has been much hyped and much criticized, as you might expect of any novel written by a 21-year old which sparks a bidding war that results in a six figure publishing deal and 20th century Fox optioning the rights. For every person touting Shannon as the next J.K. Rowling, there is someone keen to call her writing derivative and suggest that her style will improve “after all, she is only 21”.

So which is it? Another talented writer becoming the victim of tall poppy syndrome at the hands of those bitter about her success, or a precocious Oxford undergrad who struck it lucky? I picked up The Bone Season on my way home from shopping, started it on the bus, then took to my bed with the book until I finished it and let me tell you, her success is no fluke, the girl can write up a storm.

Set in 2059, The Bone Season follows Paige Mahoney, a powerful clairvoyant and member of crime syndicate The Seven Seals as she attempts to stay off the radar of Scion, the oppressive anti-clairvoyant system which controls several major world cities. Declaring war on unnaturalness, they have recruited voyants to help identify others of their kind who are then imprisoned, tortured and executed, whether they are aware of their ability to access the spirit realm or not. Of course, it isn’t too long before Paige falls into the hands of Scion, where her problems really begin when she falls into the hand of the Rephaim, rulers of the penal colony Sheol I in the lost city of Oxford.

I find it difficult to express exactly how much I loved this novel and the many reasons why. I really would love those who’ve called it derivative to explain what they think it’s been derived from to me, as I am pretty widely read and thought that it was a fresh, imaginative and punchy. Shannon has developed an entire lexicon, political system and history to fit her dystopian world, which splinters from our own universe in 1859 when the Rephaim first arrive. Her categorisation of the different voyant abilities is complex, with different voyants having varied abilities and degrees of power within these, of course Paige is a rare and powerful form of voyant, but I look forward to seeing the various categories of voyancy being explored later in the novel. I’m also wondering how far the theological allusions will be pursued in the series- are the Rephaim and the Emim more closely related than the voyants have been lead to believe? What’s the significance of Paige’s dreamscape being a field of poppies? Exactly how long can oil and fire mix before oil is burned up or fire extinguished?

The next book in the series, The Mime Order (in which I expect to find out the full extent of how much Paige’s Mime Lord, Jaxon Hall, is a psychopathic, evil, bad ass) is out in October 2014 and I cannot wait. I’ve already recommended it to loads of my friends who’ve enjoyed it as much as I did, and I received this text from my brother who deserves it published online for failing to call me back when he promised to:

Can you try and hook me up with The Bone Season author please? I think I have a crush on her writing ability x

City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

city of heavenly fire cassandra clareWay back when, I mentioned that I’d started reading Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series and was quite enjoying them. I dutifully worked my way through the various cities (namely, City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels and City of Lost Souls) before realising that City of Heavenly Fire wasn’t due to publish for about another year. Hate it when that happens.

Fast forward a year and I spotted a copy in Tesco while shopping with my father and niece. Readers, I have read it and my thoughts are below- these WILL contain spoilers, you know I normally don’t but there were some very specific points that stuck in my head and I wanted to get these down.

 

*Here Be Spoilers*

On the whole, I enjoyed the book well enough. It has many of the strengths of the previous books in the series, snappy dialogue, beautifully wrought magical worlds and some engaging characters but for me this book went a little bit off the boil and at times felt as though the author was writing fan fiction of her own work.

While Clare’s series standalone, she works characters from other series into her books to maintain the world narrative throughout (something you can do when you have cast of immortals) but in this book, she begins foreshadowing a new series which for me left a chunk of the narrative unresolved. I don’t mind characters being brought in from elsewhere, but when I read the last book in a series I do want to have a sense that the book is finished. Otherwise it feels a bit like a fanfiction hook to get you reading the author’s corpus. I won’t be reading The Dark Artifices on principle.

As I hinted before, there were times when it felt a bit like the author was… fangirling. Nowhere was this more evident for me than in the scene (massive spoiler here) where the Heavenly Fire has left Jace’s body and Jace and Clary have sex for the first time. I felt as though the author seemed overwhelmed by the fact that she’d been building up to this for so long that her writing felt very clichéd and a little too saccharine. It also felt very politically correct to the point that I felt that the characters were lapsing out of character. I get that you have to be very careful writing a sex scene in YA literature because there are so many issues and sensibilities are at stake, so the emphasis on consent in the passage was fine and in keeping with the characters. But the issue of contraception and STD protection is an interesting one (and no, apparently shadowhunters don’t have a rune for that). Shortly before the scene takes place Clary “wished she’d worn something prettier, but it wasn’t like ‘fancy lingerie’ had been on her packing list for the demon realms”.  Reminding us that at this point, the characters are in the midst of hell, awaiting a battle in which there is a very good chance that they will die. And Jace, a reckless character and brilliant strategist who would have been focussed on preparing for the battle with weapons etc has made sure that he’s brought a condom on the off-chance… to hell. Right. Since it was so explicitly brought up (enough to really stand out in the text) it felt really incongruous to me.

But don’t worry, because everything turns out fine in the end. I think this bothered me most. It was as though nothing had ever been at risk. Everyone gets out fine, and Simon who has exchanged his immortality and memories for their freedom gets to be a shadowhunter and regain his memories. Very much like they all lived happily ever after (except Jordan who Maia replaces very quickly with Bat). Maybe I’ve been dabbling too much with Divergent and The Hunger Games, but I don’t think it’s a real battle unless a central character is harmed. I think I would have let Isabelle die from the demon wound and have Simon stay in hell after that. It felt a lot like fan pleasing at the expense of a story, but I can see that I’m not the primary market.

On the whole, an enjoyable enough read but a bit too neat and sterile for my liking.

Hilarious quotes from book reviews

Following on from my old post about the best book Tumblr pages, I have come across this gem which takes funny(and often stupid) quotes from one star reviews around the internet and shares them along with the cover of the book in question. Some of my favourites include:

“This book reads like a series of Twitter posts by an arrogant alcoholic hanging around with his irresponsible alcoholic friends.” Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

“Where was Egor?” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“This book not only ruined a week at the beach but also damaged my self-esteem.” James Joyce’s Ulysses

and

“Mr. Beowulf should be required to repeat his nighttime writer’s class at the learning annex.” Beowulf

Quote me on that… how the witch became wicked

how the witch became wicked gregory maguire

Adapted from original by MetaSarah

When I was little I never wanted to be a princess. I wanted to be a witch. I collected books about witches and wrote my own spell book. I have a really vivid memory from when I was about three of drawing a picture of a witch and feeling upset because my great-grandfather complimented me on drawing a beautiful princess… she was meant to be queen of the witches.

Maybe it’s as a result of this that I love the quotation from Wicked. Witches and villains are people too y’all, and who doesn’t love a complex fictional character?

A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

a new york winters tale colin farrell jessica brown findlayIf you’d told me that I would consider not buying a book because it had Colin Farrell on the cover when I was thirteen, I would have told you that you were mad. Ballykissangel, Falling for a Dancer… I was young, leave me alone.

Anyway, it did nearly put me off buying a copy of A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which had been released with the poster from the new film, starring the aforementioned Colin Farrell (I’m over it) and Jessica Brown Findlay, but I was intrigued by the blurb which promised:

 

One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . . Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.

Who doesn’t like a love that defies death? But despite the blurb, that’s not really what you get. It’s more than that, and less than that. It builds to the point where you’re invested in the lovers, then spits them aside and moves on with the story. A bit like life I suppose.

Helprin is a fantastic writer and has created a vast and imaginative magic realist epic. The book is original, the writing nuanced and many of the minor character are more clearly realised than the main characters in the majority of the bestsellers you will find in bookshops. The problem for me that it slipped around between genres in a way that didn’t add to the story but detracted from it. Audrey Niffenegger showed us that you could have a masterful time-travelling love story, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t have a time-travelling love story which leads to a quest, but for a reader to engage with a quest story they need to understand what the characters involved are hoping for, what they want or need to achieve. I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but it lost me towards the end as the characters began to run around in a desperate attempt to do something fuelled by a secret knowledge that the reader just didn’t share.

It’s a magical read for the most part, but the plotting towards the end was more than a little lacklustre.

 

I read the Divergent Trilogy (no spoilers)

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”

This weekend I read the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. Yes, the whole trilogy. I had a seven hour train journey back from Edinburgh to look forward to after a work thing, my brain was a little frazzled and I’d nearly finished A New York’s Winter Tale so I decided to pick up the first book in the series as something “light” for my journey. Something light? Books should carry addiction ratings.

There are plenty of people out there who looked down their noses at the stories and criticized the writer. Yes, there are editing mistakes that you could point out if you were feeling picky- times where Tris’ memories change between books, the whole Jonathan/George Wu name change thing.  And of course, plenty of fans flipped out at the ending. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I will say that these responses miss the point.

Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant are a brave and powerfully written series of books which hold a mirror up to Roth’s concerns about our society and the way it’s headed. Genetics and science aside, I think that a world where people’s identity is defined by the groups that they belong to, their worth weighed up by how well they fit into those groups and society’s widespread suspicion and prejudice towards those who are other or don’t belong is something that everyone can recognise and would be wise to fear. I think it makes the books highly relevant and worth reading.

The author’s unflinching commitment to the brutality of her storyline is impressive and hammers home the cruelty of society both at the micro and the macro level. All the characters are flawed, all of them are human, most of them think that they are right. I like that Four recognises and admires Tris’ strength. I like that she recognises his. I love that their relationship is based on mutual admiration and that there is so much emphasis placed on the need to respect each other. I like that the novels show that life is about the choices you make, both good and bad, and how identity stems from these and how you move on from them.

Yes, people will dismiss it as “just” YA fiction, but there’s a reason that the books are so addictive. There’s a truth and a power in what Roth writes, and I think that everyone could take something away from these books, regardless of their age or “sophistication”. It’s a strong work of speculative fiction.

Image from Empire of Books