Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Book: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release date: June 8, 2010
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: The Passage #1
  
Summary from Goodreads: It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born. 

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey spanning miles and decades towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.

It took me two tries to get through this book. The first 200 pages or so were terrific. The middle section draaaaaaaagged. After 540 pages, with a looming library due date in front of me, I gave up. I decided the last 200 pages couldn’t possibly be worth the effort it was taking me to slog through and returned the book.

Fate wasn’t letting me off the hook so easy. Two days after I returned the book I received an email from the library that my ebook hold for this title (which I’d forgotten I had reserved) was available. I took it as a sign to push on and see if I could finish, so I downloaded the ebook and jumped back in, with a bit of trepidation. 

And I finished! Even more surprising, I actually liked the ending, and I’m curious about the sequel now. I think taking a break to read something quick and fun was a good idea, because I came back to it without the boredom slowly beating me to death as before.

Final verdict: great beginning, good end, horrible middle. 

In the beginning, I didn’t mind the slow pace because the characters were interesting and the story was intriguing. We get a nice setup to this world and how it’s about to change. We get a sense of the players involved and a hint of how they’re going to intersect later. At this point, I was still trusting Cronin to see us through to a satisfying conclusion and was willing to relax and go for the ride.

After the beginning sections end with the release of the virus, we fast forward nearly 100 years to post-apocalyptic life on one of the last human strongholds, the Colony. Here is where things ground to a halt for me. New, bland, barely distinguishable characters live boring and uneventful lives. Each character talks us through their excruciatingly detailed backstories as we learn who’s who in this entirely new setting. It was like starting a whole new book, but it paled in comparison to the one you’d just finished.

When exciting events do occur (which is oddly rare for a world populated by terrifyingly lethal vampires), Cronin delivers the action in narrative shifts that completely remove any trace of tension. One minute the characters are facing down a vampire horde, and the next minute you’re reading one of the character’s journal entries describing the attack. Why take us out of the action and have the character, who obviously lived since they wrote a journal entry about it, tell us how it happened? Why not just let the action happen? Most of these events could easily have unfolded as part of the regular narrative, and the distance created from these shifts made me care even less about the story. 

The characters’ behavior was often inconsistent. Where was the fear in these people? They’ve lived for almost a hundred years in a compound to keep out the vampires, and yet they never seem scared. It was mind numbingly boring to wait for something even mildly tense to happen. After 500 pages, when they finally have an objective, they set off on a quest across the Southwest without hesitation or fear. You can practically see them standing around, shrugging, and then loading up their backpacks.

I also didn’t buy the cultural and linguistic changes that Cronin created for the future-set Colony, either. After only 92 years, we’ve forgotten the concept of the ocean or basic geography? We’re calling kids “Littles” because the word “children” wasn’t working anymore? We’ve invented a new curse word and abandoned all others? We still know how to use stethoscopes and provide medical care, but we’ve stopped telling time? If Cronin had bothered to explain (perhaps in one of the lengthy backstory recaps) some of these influences or how they evolved, I’d have bought in to the world a little better.

Though I liked the mystery around the Amy character and the virus, the boring and tension-free writing made me throw in the towel. I’m glad I finished it, though, because things picked up again in the last hundred pages. The plot moves, big changes occur, and past characters from the beginning sections return. I liked the ending enough that I’m probably going to at least start the sequel, just to see where it’s headed. I find the story really interesting, and I do think it’ll make a great movie, but the hefty length of this one sure made it a chore to get through.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Book: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: DAW Books
Release date: March 27, 2007
Source: Bought ebook
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1

Summary from Goodreads: Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen.The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

First impressions: I’m not generally an epic fantasy fan, but after hearing everyone and their mother rave about this book, I had to try it. I’m so glad I did! The first few chapters had just enough mystery to suck me in, and once the story-within-a-story kicked in, there was no turning back.

Lasting impressions: Parts of this book were so beautiful I could hardly breathe, but there were times I wanted the pace to pick up a bit. You have to commit for the long haul with this one.

Conflicting impressions: The story Kvothe tells is meant to span three days, and this novel is the first of those. At times, because of the length of this tale, I felt the story lost its focus. I got swept up in the adventures Kvothe undertook, but occasionally got impatient wondering where this was all headed.

Overall impressions: There can be zero doubt that Patrick Rothfuss is a masterful storyteller. His patience and attention to detail, combined with a clear love of words and the beauty they can create, make it obvious that storytelling runs in his blood.

It should be no surprise to see a family of storytellers at the heart of this book. Kvothe is the son of a traveling band of performers, and learns most of life’s major lessons from plays, literature, and stories. As he grows up, and suffers a devastating series of losses, he vows to research the history of his world’s most dangerous stories – those surrounding the mysterious and deadly Chandrian.

Rothfuss juggles between Kvothe’s present and past, with the past related to the reader by Kvothe himself as he recounts his journey to a transcriber known as Chronicler. In the present, Kvothe is a man of many secrets, and the action is nailbitingly tense. I was desperate to know how this man’s life had shaped him into the innkeeper so many refer to as a “king killer.” Meanwhile, as we listen to the incredible tales from his childhood, I rooted for this boy of poverty and heartache to find his way in the world and realize his strengths.

Kvothe has remarkable abilities – his intelligence is quick and sharp, he can make music that causes even the most hardhearted men to weep – and at times he has an ego to match. He’s grounded by his extreme poverty and a hard life, however, and as often as his mouth gets him into trouble, he usually has the sneaky grace to get himself out of it. As he starts to learn magic, make friends, and fall in love, we get the pleasure of seeing how the smallest of stories can create a hero. Intentions do not generally find a way into history books, and though Kvothe may have reasons or circumstances that affect his actions, the stories quickly become larger than life. Actions speak louder than words, remember?

This is a dense book that took me nearly two weeks to finish, but it was absolutely worth it. Rothfuss has a gift for words, and he can spin them into scenery that fills the mind. Rarely have I felt so transported into the world of a book. Though the story is long, it is certainly not boring. I had the feeling that I was simply experiencing one part of a long journey, that would come to a full and satisfying resolution by the end of the trilogy. That doesn’t mean there was not a definite conclusion to this part, which had a great ending of its own. Instead, I was being prepared for an epic tale that required the patience of a good setup to give me the payoff of a glorious ending.

Well, if this book is any indication, that ending is going to be magnificent. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Book: Hounded
Author: Kevin Hearne
Publisher: Del Ray
Release date: May 3, 2011
Source: Local library
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #1

Summary from Goodreads: The first novel in an original, back-to-back three-book series The Iron Druid Chronicles–introducing a cool, new, funny urban fantasy hero Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old–when in actuality, he’s twenty-one “centuries” old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.

Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power–plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a sexy bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish–to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

First impressions: Knowing absolutely nothing about Celtic mythology, this book threw me into a madcap new world full of hilariously entertaining gods and mortals.

Lasting impressions: This one lives up to the hype. Atticus is a charming protagonist with plenty of opportunities to dazzle us, both in this book and the rest of the series.

Conflicting impressions: I didn’t get a good sense of the danger involved with this plot. Atticus seemed to have an easy fix for everything, and although the final battle was realistically short, things resolved themselves a bit too quickly for my taste. I wanted him to have to work a bit harder to keep Fragarach from the bad guys.

Overall impressions: Don’t even ask me to use names other than Atticus, Oberon, and the Morrigan. There are so many Irish names and places that the book has to start out with a pronunciation guide, and even then I mostly made it up as I went (good thing Mr. Hearne suggests that as an excellent solution). I think Missie had the right idea with the audiobook.

Atticus is thousands of years old, but currently living as a 21 year old occult bookstore owner near the Arizona State University campus. He’s accompanied almost everywhere by his Irish wolfhound, Oberon, whom he has magically charmed into the ability to communicate through a kind of telepathy. Atticus can bind himself to Oberon’s mind, and the two trade a fair amount of dialogue throughout the book.

And let me tell you – Oberon is fecking hilarious. He knows how to push Atticus’s buttons, he has snarky comments about everyone and everything going on around him, and yet he remains sweetly dog-like so as to remain believable. If my dog could talk, I would hope she’d sound like Oberon.

The plot moves quickly and is pretty straightforward. Atticus has a magical sword that one of the unpronounceably-named gods wants for himself, and the rest of the gods are picking sides and forming unwieldy alliances among themselves, a coven of local witches, and even the demons of Hell. Lots of betrayal and mystery, thrown in a blender with copious amounts of action and battles. Add in the colorful side characters (like the possessed bartender and the vampire/werewolf lawyer team) and you can’t help but fall in love.

Despite the too easily achieved resolution and what I found to be an inadequate backstory for us Celtic mythology-challenged readers, any urban fantasy reader will gobble up this series. I’m excited to continue on to the next book, and thank you, my fellow bloggers, for convincing me this was a must-read.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Comic Book Review: American Vampire Volumes 1 & 2

Book: American Vampire Volume 1
Author: Story by Scott Snyder and Stephen King
Publisher: Vertigo
Release date: October 5, 2010
Source: Bought from Graham Crackers Comics

Summary: (from Goodreads) From writers Scott Snyder and Stephen King, AMERICAN VAMPIRE introduces a new strain of vampire â?? a more vicious species â?? and traces the creatures’ bloodline through decades of American history.

This first hardcover volume of the critically acclaimed series collects issues #1-5 and follows two stories: one written by Snyder and one written by King, both with art by future superstar Rafael Albuquerque. Snyder’s tale follows Pearl, a young woman living in 1920s Los Angeles, who is brutally turned into a vampire and sets out on a path of righteous revenge against the European monsters who tortured and abused her. And in King’s story set in the days of America’s Wild West, readers learn the origin of Skinner Sweet, the original American vampire â?? a stronger, faster creature than any vampire ever seen before.

Don’t miss out as Snyder and King set fire to the horror genre with this visionary, all-original take on one of the most popular monster stories!
This beautiful collection features a new introduction by Stephen King and bonus art including character sketches, variant covers and more!

Book: American Vampire Volume 2
Author: Story by Scott Snyder
Publisher: Vertigo
Release date: May 31, 2011
Source: Bought from Graham Crackers Comics

Summary: (from Goodreads) While trafficking in a bestselling sub-genre, AMERICAN VAMPIRE introduces a new strain of vampire â?? a more muscular and vicious species, born of the American West.

Itâ??s Las Vegas circa 1935, and Skinner Sweet and our gal Pearl are about to learn the hard way that the bloodsuckers in Hollywood were nothing compared to what awaits them in Sin City.

In just a few short years, young police Chief Cash McCogan has watched his native city of Las Vegas go from cow-town to wild, glittering boomtown. And when the bodies of prominent businessmen start showing up drained of blood, Chief McCogan finds himself facing a threat much darker and deadlier than anything he could have imagined . . . and the only sure bet in town is that Skinner and Pearl are right in the thick of it.

Features issues 6-11.

First impressions: Scott Snyder and Stephen King did not set out to make a sparkly vampire tale. This is dark, scary, disturbing, and violent. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

Lasting impressions: This has become my most anticipated monthly comic. Skinner Sweet is deliciously evil, and reading his progress from being turned in the Old West, to taking over a Vegas brothel in the ’30s, to battling vampire genocide in WWII is terrifying and compelling.

Conflicting impressions: Multiple readings make this one a bit easier to follow. The history of vampires is somewhat re-created here, and the large amount of information and competing story lines can get confusing.

Overall impressions: American Vampire is a monthly comic, currently on issue 19, supplemented by a 5 issue miniseries, American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest. It follows Skinner Sweet, the first American vampire, and the vampire he creates, Pearl.

Stephen King jumped on board with this comic to tell Skinner’s backstory. Through the first 5 issues, he trades panels with series creator Scott Snyder, interspersing Skinner’s origin as a new strain of vampire born in the Wild West with his present saving/turning young actress Pearl in the 1920s. The back-and-forth in time works well for the most part, as I enjoyed seeing how Skinner became a vampire, but it also seemed to read like two different stories that didn’t need to be told simultaneously.

Pearl is an interesting character who goes through the most significant changes across the arcs of these volumes. Though Skinner saves her from a gruesome death by turning her, he does little to help her navigate her new life as a vampire. Determined to not turn out as sadistic as Skinner, she allows herself to fall in love with jazz singer Henry, though they are often on the run from the Vassals of the Morning Star (VMS), a group determined to kill vampires.

Volume 2 fast forwards through time to the 1930s, where we meet Cash McCogan, Las Vegas police chief, investigating a string of murders that make him cross paths with the VMS and vampires. Cash and the VMS are the subject of the spin-off miniseries, which puts them in contact with Nazi vampires out to purify the vampire race.

This series is beautifully illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, who manages to deliver creepy and grotesque content without the images themselves becoming overly graphic. The vampires are drawn to achieve the effect the writers wanted – scary, not seductive. These vampires are more monsters than they are humans, and the cruelty of Skinner Sweet is a constant reminder that these vampires are not exactly woeful about the loss of their humanity. Although Pearl is more human than the rest of them, she can still attack with little regard for the pain she causes, particularly when she or Henry is threatened.

The unique history of vampires and the setting in varied important periods in American history make this a joy to read. This is pure horror at its best, with twists and turns full of scary things ready to jump out and spoil the party. Skinner Sweet is one of my favorite fictional characters right now, because despite his nasty and cruel ways, he is still lashing out at a monster he never wanted to become. Sure, he’s a bad guy, and was long before he even became a vampire, but he’s unpredictable and clearly has a soft spot for Pearl. I can’t wait to see where his story takes us next.

I highly recommend this series to all horror, vampire, and Stephen King fans.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review and Book Club: Lover Unbound by J. R. Ward

Today I’m participating in Bookaholic Does Blogging’s Black Dagger Brotherhood Book Club for her BDB Challenge. Every month, in addition to reading one of the series’ books, I’ll be participating in her book club posts, so we can all gab about BDB!

Book: Lover Unbound
Author: J. R. Ward
Publisher: Signet
Release date: September 25, 2007
Source: Bought for Kindle
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood #5
Summary: (from Goodreads) Ruthless and brilliant, Vishous, son of the Bloodletter, possesses a destructive curse and a frightening ability to see the future. As a pretrans growing up in his father’s war camp he was tormented and abused. As a member of the Brotherhood, he has no interest in love or emotion, only the battle with the Lessening Society. But when a mortal injury puts him in the care of human surgeon, Dr. Jane Whitcomb compels him to reveal his inner pain and taste true pleasure for the first time – until a destiny he didn’t choose takes him into a future that cannot include her.

Questions:
1. On a scale from 1-5, what would you rate this book? Briefly tell us why.

Snooze alert! I gave this one 2 stars because it was so boring I almost couldn’t finish it. I did enjoy getting V’s back story, and I loved seeing John Matthew through his transition, but I found Jane to be completely unsexy and uninteresting. That made it difficult to sustain my interest in V’s love story, and I do kind of wish they’d just made him gay instead of giving him a boyish woman to love. Major bummer.

2. There were a lot of revelations in this book. What did you think of the Scribe Virgin being V’s mom?

I thought it was interesting, but the formula of having the Scribe Virgin solve all of their love problems is getting old. I felt this revelation didn’t add much to V’s story. I don’t know if it just didn’t have enough impact or if I’m not up on the significance, but I found the whole scenario very underwhelming.

3. Sticking to that theme, what did you think of the Scribe Virgin’s request that Vishous become the Primale?

Well, I never believed he would actually become the Primale once Jane came into the picture. That’s not how Ward rolls. If there’s a love interest, then the Brother winds up with her somehow, so I didn’t find much tension in the request to be the Primale. I did like seeing more of the Chosen and their culture, though.

4. Phury stepping up to the plate is nothing new — what did you think of him taking V’s place as the Primale?

I have mixed feelings. It was very noble of him, but it seems more like an escape and an excuse to martyr himself yet again. He felt he was the last, obvious choice, so made the most of it. I can’t fault him for wanting to step up, but I feel bad for him more than anything that he can’t ever really do anything for himself. He’s such a pushover! Will he find true happiness ever? Guess the next book will tell us.

5. Back to the Scribe Virgin — we learned that V has a sister she’s been “hiding” for 303 years. What do you think will become of her? Do you think the Scribe Virgin will — for lack of better terms — let her live again?

I thought that was kind of weird and out of nowhere. I want to know more about the force that told the Scribe Virgin to have a baby, and only one. Why did she go against that? Is that God? Why have two babies and hide one? Hopefully I don’t have to wait for Payne’s book to find out!

6. What happened to Jane was a tragedy. What did you think of the Scribe Virgin bringing her back for V at the cost of her own happiness?

It was a nice effort, but I’m not clear on the rules. She’s a ghost, but she’s corporeal? It seemed like she was able to continue working and carrying on like normal, so it doesn’t seem like much of a tragedy to me.

7. What did you think of Butch’s theory that V thought himself to be in love with Butch because he was the first person V really cared about (until Jane)?

I think there is some truth to that. I also think that’s kind of the definition of love. V obviously loves Butch, and because of that, he’s attracted to Butch. Nothing wrong with that – they just have a different dynamic than that of the other brothers. I liked that Butch was cool with it, but wish he wouldn’t have brushed it off as something other than truly being in love.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Comic Book Review: Elephantmen Vol. 1 TPB

Book: Elephantmen Volume 1: Wounded Animals
Author: Story by Richard Starkings; Artwork by Moritat, Henry Flint, Tom Scioli, David Hine and Chris Bachalo
Publisher: Image Comics
Release date: July 2008
Source: Bought from Graham Crackers Comics

Summary: (from HipFlask.com) They were genetically engineered to be supra-human weapons of mass destruction, but ultimately dismissed collectively as Elephantmen. Hip Flask, Ebony Hide and Obadiah Horn count amongst their number; wounded animals who, despite their differences and origins, must live in the world of man.

Collects ELEPHANTMEN #1-7 featuring art by Ladrönn, Moritat, Henry Flint, Tom Scioli, David Hine and Chris Bachalo.

First impressions: I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. I knew nothing about it when I ordered it other than that Lia Habel said the series is so good it has left her sobbing, and that it was about, well, Elephantmen. I love nothing better than a glowing recommendation, so I decided to spring for it despite my limited knowledge of the subject matter.

Lasting impressions: I think that in the future, Lia Habel should be in charge of determining all of my reading material. She has never failed to steer me toward incredible stories and this is certainly no exception.

Conflicting impressions: I don’t think you could pay me to say a bad thing about this one.

Overall impressions: This trade paperback collects the first 7 issues of the Elephantmen series, which follows a group of hybrid animal-men in the future. Billed as “pulp science fiction,” the story is dark and at times violent, exploring the consequences of private military experimentation when its products are introduced into society.

The Elephantmen, as they are collectively called, consist of Hip Flask (a hippo), Ebony Hide (an elephant), Obadiah Horn (a rhino), and others. They were born from experiments by the Mappo corporation to combine large animals with humans that could be trained to be the ultimate killing machines. They spent their youth under Mappo’s control, unaware that a world existed beyond pain and suffering. They massacred North African communities under the command of their brutal leader.

Fast forward 15 or so years, and the Elephantmen are now living in California, having been rescued by American forces. They now work as operatives for the U.S. government, and much of the focus of this book is on Hip Flask’s quest to track down an African doll/idol.

We also witness the prejudice they face in society. They are outcasts, misunderstood, and supposed to maintain a quiet presence, yet Obadiah Horn has risen to become a powerful corporate leader. He is challenging the status quo by getting engaged to a human woman, Sahara, who has her own history and ties to Mappo. There seems to be conflict brewing between Hip Flask and Obadiah Horn, particularly where Sahara is concerned.

Though definitely dark, the book is surprisingly touching, particularly in the opening issue. Ebony Hide has a conversation with a young girl named Savannah, who fails to understand the complexities or differences between people, as only a child can. Her unflinching desire to befriend, rather than fear, Ebony is a heartbreaking moment. Ebony feels he is only as good as his past actions, and the violence he committed in Africa haunts him. The gentle and giving soul he confronts in Savannah certainly gives him room for thought.

The thematic elements in this book around war, animal experimentation, love without boundaries, and the consequences of power are beautifully explored through the rich plot and gorgeous artwork. The images are complex and easy to follow, with neither the text nor the art outshining the other. Instead, they work in perfect tandem to convey the story with ease, and I could not put down this book until I’d finished it.

For anyone interested in the subjects explored through this title, with even a passing interest in comic books, I urge you to give this one a try. Check it out from a library, borrow it from a friend, or even read the first issue for free online. I get that it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but if you even think you might like it, you simply must read this book.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Amazingly beautiful and painstakingly crafted signature courtesy of Small Review

Special Review: My love for Outlander

Books are like every other art form in that they’re analyzed subjectively. My experience of a book will never be exactly the same as anyone else’s. Sometimes I love a book, sometimes I hate it, and sometimes (perhaps worst of all) a book can fail to inspire any feelings in me whatsoever.

This is not the case with Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

I actually stumbled across this book through a routine Barnes & Noble visit. I wandered the stacks, seeing what caught my eye, and saw that now-oh-so-familiar large format blue cover on an end display:

Book: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Publisher: Delta
Release date: August 10, 1998
(first published 1991)
Source: Bought

Summary: (from Goodreads) The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon–when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach–an “outlander”–in a Scotland torn by war and raiding Highland clans in the year of Our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life…and shatter her heart. For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire…and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

The summary convinced me that this was a book I needed to have. Romance, time travel, adventure – I was sold. I loved that it was time travel between two different historical time periods. Not only did Gabaldon have to research 1945 England and Scotland, but also 1743. I get to read about a woman in the past, who travels even farther back into the past? Done.

As with many, many books that I buy (especially impulse purchases), the book then sat on my shelf for months. In fact, I had very nearly forgotten about it, until a coworker mentioned it to me. Also an avid reader, Erin was chatting with me about our latest and greatest reads, and told me she thought I’d like a little book called Outlander.

When I told her I actually had a copy that hadn’t been read yet, she convinced me to start it ASAP. She had read most of the books in the series multiple times, and had even gone to see Gabaldon do readings at area bookstores – something that I up to that point had never even considered. I was in awe of her passion for the series, so picked it up shortly after that.

I spent the next few days updating Erin on my progress and spending late nights reading in bed while the hubs slept beside me. When I got to the horrifying, heartbreaking ending, I read into the wee hours, skimming as fast as possible to at least find out what happened. When I finally got through it, instead of going to sleep, I turned back those pages and read them all the way through again in detail.

I couldn’t put it down.

Outlander isn’t for everyone, though. It’s the kind of epic love story that you either connect with, or find incredibly cheesy. Just scan the Goodreads reviews to see some quite diverse opinions about the book. It’s one of those that you either love or you hate, and whichever side of the continuum you land on, it seems that feelings run hot.

Claire is happily married when she travels back in time and meets Jamie. She’s attracted to the tall, fiery redhead (because who isn’t?), but only winds up marrying him in an effort to protect herself. She struggles with the idea of being married to two men, though some readers don’t find her predicament persuasive. Honestly, I liked that Claire and Jamie’s relationship was as complicated as Claire and her husband Frank’s was.

Is it hard to root for a romance between a married woman and a young hot new man? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. Claire, in her own time, had been a successful, smart, and somewhat independent woman. She thinks for herself, speaks her mind, and is stubborn as a mule. Jamie is likewise intelligent, strong, decisive, and stubborn as hell. They drive each other crazy, but in 18th century Scotland, there’s only so much Claire can get away with. There’s a scene where Jamie must chastise Claire by spanking her to reassert his dominance among his clansmen. Though it’s difficult to swallow, it’s also a glimpse into another time.

That time included all sorts of injustices against women, not the least of which was physical violence. Claire escapes sexual violence at the hands of the sadistic antagonist, Captain “Black Jack” Randall, though Jamie is not as lucky. If that’s not the kind of thing you can get through, then maybe this isn’t the book for you, but I urge you to give it a try. I don’t usually mind when it’s not simply salacious, and here I think the character of Jack Randall is well done. He’s evil, and unforgivably so, but he’s also unforgettable. The threat Randall presents is real, terrifying, and compelling.

Claire may be perceived as a cheater, and Jamie may be perceived as a wife-controlling hothead, but at the heart of their relationship is mutual respect. Claire’s medical knowledge saves Jamie (and many others) from wounds and illness, and Jamie protects Claire from all of the things that go bump in the night. As the series progresses, they encounter even more obstacles across time and location, but their love holds them together. They are perfect for each other.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Outlander‘s release, and this weekend I received my copy in the mail. It has a gorgeous padded cover, a map, some essays, a reader’s guide, a timeline, and a CD with some songs from Outlander the Musical. It was a purchase I had gone back and forth over, but am now so glad I bought it. It’s the version I would recommend to new readers also, since the extras contain lots of good information about the series and background.

Plus, the hardcover makes these hefty tomes a bit more wieldy, and the padded feel of this one is extra nice on the hands. And did I mention the gorgeous new design?

Book: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release date: July 5, 2011
(first published 1991)
Source: Bought

Summary: (from Goodreads) Twenty years ago, Diana Gabaldon swept readers into her mesmerizing world brimming with history, romance, and adventure. In celebration of the series that has captured the heart of millions, here is a special 20th anniversary edition of the novel that started it allâ??including a new essay, a new map, a CD with Outlander the musical, and more.

If you still haven’t read this beautiful book, or if you’re looking for a new copy, I highly recommend this anniversary edition. I’ve bought this book four times now – the large paperback, the Kindle edition, the small mass market sized paperback, and now this hardcover. I’ve lent both paperbacks out to friends and family, and if I get them back I’ll be giving them away. I can’t ever do enough to spread the word about this book. I love it so!

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

QUESTION: I have seen lots of read-alongs for other books popping up around the blogosphere, and with the reader’s guide in this one there are a lot of good discussion questions. Is there any desire for an Outlander read-along? I’m thinking it would be a fun thing to do this fall, but if there’s no interest then I won’t bother. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Review: When You Dare by Lori Foster

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Book: When You Dare
Author: Lori Foster
Publisher: HQN Books
Release date: April 26, 2011
Source: Purchased for Kindle
Series: Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) The tougher they are, the harder they fall . . .

Professional mercenary Dare Macintosh lives by one hard and fast rule: business should never be personal. If a cause appeals to him and the price is right, he’ll take the mission he’s offered. But then the lovely Molly Alexander asks him to help her track down the men who’d had her kidnappedâ??and for the first time, Dare’s tempted to combine work with pleasure.

Fiercely independent, Molly vows to trust no one until she’s uncovered the truth. Could the enemy be her powerful, estranged father? The ex-fiancé who still holds a grudge? Or the not-so-shy fan of her bestselling novels? As the danger heats up around them, the only anchor Molly has is Dare himself. But what she feels for him just might be the most frightening thing of all.

First impressions: Hello, pretty cover. I’d ask how you are, but I think it’s fairly obvious. You’re doing great. So what’s going on back there, behind your beautiful abs of awesome? No, you’re right. I don’t really care.

Lasting impressions: A smart, strong woman meets a smart, strong man and somehow both are surprised they fall in love. I’m all about the slow burn, but with this one I was snapping my fingers hoping they’d move it along. I gots thangs to do.

Conflicting impressions: Dare is a mercenary, and a lot of time is spent talking about his job or watching him protect Molly, but we get snubbed when it comes to actually seeing his dare I say, daring rescue? I could pun all day with this guy.

Overall impressions: It took me probably three weeks to get through this book. I would read a few chapters, put it down, then not ever really get the urge to pick it back up. I was on board with a handsome mercenary who rescues a young woman, then falls in love while trying to track down her kidnappers. If only that was the book I got.

Instead, I got a really boring but handsome rich dude who says he’s a killer mercenary but in reality is just dull and likes dogs. A LOT. He calls them “his girls” and I think that’s supposed to be cute but I thought it was weird. The author wanted to make us think he had daughters by using this vague phrase.

Yeah. We get it. Very clever.

The book starts after the main event, which annoyed me. Dare has just rescued this woman out of the goodness of his heart while actually in Mexico to rescue his friend’s sister from human traffickers. There was this extra American lying around so he just scooped her up and put her in the bin with the others. It’s a good thing Lori Foster doesn’t try to make Molly feel indebted to him for going out of his way to save her because that would be super extra annoying.

But no. Molly feels indebted not because Dare rescued her, but because she hasn’t paid him. She spends the rest of the book worrying about the expenses Dare is racking up in order to get her things like food, clothing, and shelter (the nerve!) and is so overly apologetic about being scared and seemingly weak that she drives Dare (and us) crazy.

The secret is that Dare doesn’t think she’s crazy for being scared. He thinks she’s actually handling things really well and is so impressed with how awesome and strong she is that he wants to smooch her. Instead of going all Moonstruck and slapping Molly while Cher-ily telling her to “Snap out of it!” he just dives in and plants a kiss on a shell-shocked recovering kidnapping victim who was beaten and starved in a Mexican shack for almost two weeks.

Surprisingly, Molly reacts by wondering if she can get some more of that smooching. That pain in your eye? That’s called an eyeroll sprain. You may want to go put some ice on that.

The single most frustrating part of this book was that despite the somewhat forgivable back-and-forth nature of the characters’ escalating feelings, the plot itself didn’t really go anywhere. We come in after the exciting rescue and then spend a few hundred pages watching Molly try to build her life back up to normal, then spend the last 50 pages finding out whodunnit and watching Dare take them down in a very brief scene. Where was the danger I was promised in the summary? I wanted way more action than I got, and was disappointed with how slowly the book moved.

Our main characters spent most of the book telling each other the same thing over and over again, highlighting their mutual admiration. “You’re perfect.” “No, you’re perfect.” “You’re so strong.” “No, you’re so strong.” “I secretly love you.” “No, I’m the one in love with you secretly.” Ad nauseam. If you can stomach the slow pace and just want to follow the romance, this is for you. If you’re looking for some excitement or surprises, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Want a different perspective? Read these well done reviews by Ruby’s Reads and The Unread Reader.

Book & TV Show Review: A Game of Thrones

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Book: A Game of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Release date: August 6, 1996
Source: Bought for Kindle
Series: A Song of Ice and Fire #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

First impressions: I love a good prologue – it sets the stage, gets you interested, and dives right into the action. Believe me, Martin gives good prologue here. It gave me important information about the northern area of the country, was full of suspense, and made me want to learn more. What else could you ask for?

Lasting impressions: This is undoubtedly an epic story. It covers lots of characters over a long period of time in a vast world. At times this was overwhelming, particularly to someone who doesn’t read a lot of epic fantasy, but ultimately the story was powerful and satisfying.

Conflicting impressions: Having spent so much time lately reading first person intimate narratives, the switch to a more distant third person point of view was a big change up. I was frustrated at times by how Martin seemed to power through difficult moments and present them so matter of factly. Where was all the angst and hand wringing I love? Oh, right. Not that kind of book, so no real points off from me.

Overall impressions: I have to emphasize again that I am not normally an epic fantasy reader. That, in and of itself, is a huge reason I did not rate this book higher. It’s just not my preferred genre. I love fantasy stories, I love swords and action and betrayal and lots of other fantasy elements, it’s just that slogging through 850 pages is not my idea of a good time. It takes me months to get through one of Diana Gabaldon’s behemoths, and I love them, but the process itself is a struggle. I have a short attention span.

That said, I struggled to get through this one. If it weren’t for the HBO premiere, I don’t think I would have had the motivation to finish. As much as I liked the characters and the story, it didn’t quite move fast enough to keep me engaged. It took me three weeks to read the first half of the book, and the second half I simply forced myself to sit down and read in a marathon 4 hour reading session on Friday night.

Am I glad I did? Absolutely. Like I said, it’s a great book. The characters were fantastic, and with the revolving POVs, you really get a chance to get to know them individually. My favorites by far were Arya, the 10 year old (I think) daughter of House Stark, and Tyrion Lannister, dwarf brother to the Queen. Arya is a tomboy who only wants to fight and be outside, though custom dictates she must learn sewing and act a lady. Tyrion is called “the Imp” by his countrymen, a nickname he despises, and because of his perceived deformity, is looked down upon by nearly everyone he encounters.

The beauty of the story is that all of the characters are deeply flawed, so as events quickly get out of their control, these flaws dictate devastating consequences. Martin is truly not afraid to show the darkest sides of people, nor is he afraid to take things from the characters we love so dearly. This book was frustrating often because I just wanted things to get better instead of get worse, and that is not usually the plan.

I highly recommend the book to fantasy fans, although most of them have probably already read it. Although it’s not my particular cup of tea, I still enjoyed the story and am glad it is getting a well deserved boost in publicity thanks to the HBO series. For my thoughts on the show, read on.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

First, I just have to say how much I love the posters and publicity materials circulating for the series. The production design of the entire show is exquisite, and the posters are equally amazing.

I was quickly swept up into the TV show hooplah around this premiere. After seeing a pre-movie ad for it months ago, I vowed to read the book. I followed the show’s Twitter feed, scoured the Wikipedia pages, and dove into the novel with a few weeks to spare.

Last night, it finally arrived.

I was impressed with the level of fidelity to the source material. Of course, having Martin as a consultant probably helped, but HBO really pulled out all the stops. The world was richly designed, down to the smallest details. The opening credit sequence was beautifully done, with House sigils next to the actors’ names designating their characters’ alliance, and an overview of the map of the world, giving us an idea of where we were. My husband, who hadn’t read the book, felt this was really helpful.

The casting was superb as well. I thought all of the characters looked the way I had pictured them, as if they had walked right off the page and onto the screen. The acting is great so far, and likely to only get better as the plot thickens. There are some opportunities to do some incredible work with this material, and I have no doubt that every actor on board is capable of really going there. I imagine they are all very excited to have the chance to dive into a story of this scale and depth.

In a way, knowing the story takes some of the fun out of the big reveals of treachery. The cliffhangers will likely be a bit muted, but that hasn’t taken away from my enjoyment so far. This series is definitely living up to the hype and I cannot wait to see all of the book’s incredible scenes come to fruition on my television.

I’ve already said it to one friend, but it bears repeating: the HBO subscription price for the duration of the show is definitely worth it.

Dark Lover by J. R. Ward

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Book: Dark Lover
Author: J. R. Ward
Publisher: Signet
Release date: September 6, 2005
Source: Purchased on Kindle
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there’s a deadly turf war going war going on between vampires and their slayers. There exists a secret band of brothers like no other-six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Yet none of them relishes killing their enemies more than Wrath, the leader of the Black Dagger Brotherhood…

The only purebred vampire left on the planet, Wrath has a score to settle with the slayers who murdered his parents centuries ago. But when one of his most trusted fighters is killed – orphaning a half-breed daughter unaware of her heritage or her fate – Wrath must usher the beautiful female into the world of the undead…

Racked by a restlessness in her body that wasn’t there, Beth Randall is helpless against the dangerously sexy man who comes at night with shadows in his eyes. His tales of brotherhood and blood frighten her. But his touch ignites a dawning hunger that threatens to consume them both.

First impressions: I was really excited to read this book because so many people love this series, but the first few chapters were not the most attention-getting. Wrath is really what kept me reading because he’s so well developed. I love that he has a visual impairment but is still totally badass.

Lasting impressions: I will definitely stick with this series. The story started to pick up about a quarter of the way through and kept me turning pages until I’d gobbled the whole thing.

Conflicting impressions: There are some cheesy moments (Does every vampire have to hang out in a dark, bass-thumping club?), and Beth got on my nerves quite frequently, but these are easily overlooked.

Overall impressions: Here’s the thing. Did you see that cover? I suffer from cover shyness, and for that reason I have long avoided reading romance novels in public. This is another in a long list of reasons I love my Kindle. And because of said Kindle, I finally gave myself the chance to read this book.

I was really surprised by how funny and unique it turned out to be. Ward has obviously spent a lot of time crafting this world, so it’s easy to get immersed in it. That’s one of my favorite qualities in a book.

Beth is kind of a blah main character for most of the book. She’s a gorgeous woman with no interest in men, which she comes to learn is because she’s turning into a vampire. I loved how Ward played around with female character tropes and made them work for her instead of against her. Beautiful, unattainable woman who can’t get a date? Got a perfectly good explanation. Later in the book, she jokes about how she wishes her name was something shorter than Elizabeth, “like Mary. Or Sue.” Mary Sue! I had a good chuckle over that one. Ward is playing us like a fiddle.

Despite their cheesy names (Wrath, Rhage, Tohrment, etc.), the BDB boys are pretty cool. I struggled a bit to keep them all straight, since we don’t have a lot of opportunity to learn their individual traits in the midst of what is primarily Wrath’s story, but they are still enjoyable and interesting, and sometimes downright scary.

The romance element here does not disappoint, either. Again, because Ward is a genius at twisting tired devices in her favor, she’s written a world where maturing vampires are at their sexual peak, so when Beth starts to turn, things heat up pretty quickly with Wrath. I felt like they genuinely cared for each other, though, and the love story that follows their initial, erm, encounter is believable and sweet.

In fact, I felt the love story was far and away more interesting than the conflict with the bad guys. The Lessers are militant counterparts to the Brotherhood, and both groups want to destroy each other. It does seem a bit exhausting as a reader since these battles have raged on for centuries and there doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite for the win. With 8 more books in the series, I have to assume this thing is going to drag out, and that may be a big part of why I felt so much more attached to the Beth/Wrath storyline.

This was a fun book with a great balance of mystery, surprise, steamy romance and hot boys fighting. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, where each book allows us to get to know another BDB member in more detail.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Want to get in on the discussion? Check out the Dark Lover BDB book club post at Bookaholic Does Blogging.

Steampunkery & Book Reviews