Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon“Oh, aye, Sassenach.  I am your master…and you’re mine. Seems I canna possess your soul without losing my own.”

Before I get started I should be very clear about one thing, I generally do not like “romance” novels, unless we are talking classics.  After the hell that was my experience with Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and basically every other recent contemporary or YA romance that I have read, I have avoided them like the plague.  Then I heard about a time travel romance set in eighteenth century Scotland – how could I pass that up?

It is 1945, the war has ended and Claire Randall is reconnecting with her husband Frank on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands.  While gathering plants by the ancient stone circle at Craigh na Dun, Claire passes out only to awaken in 1743.  Understandably bewildered, she gets caught up in a fight between two local clans and has a less than pleasant encounter with none other than her husband’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Black Jack Randall, before being carried away by a band of Scotsmen.  It doesn’t take long for Claire to realise the danger she is in and she takes her only chance of safety, which lies in Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish soldier who she finds herself undeniably drawn towards.  Torn between Frank and Jamie, Claire struggles to choose between the life that she had in the future and the life that she is living in the past.

Outlander is an over the top, trashy, fluffy, sweeping epic and by all rights it should be awful and I should have hated it, yet it is so unapologetic and honest about what it is that I couldn’t help but get completely caught up in the story.  There is fighting, adventure, romance, sex, drama and a lot of fainting! Yes, fainting!  I don’t think I have read a book that was published post-1900 that has so much swooning and fainting in it!  As for the setting, the Scottish Highlands were perfect for this story, they are wild, dangerous, beautiful, and vast, and there is something particularly appealing about living in a time where nature isn’t scarred by development and the pace of life is much slower, if much more dangerous and much less certain.

When it came to Claire as a character, I found myself spending a large chunk of the novel going back and forth between liking her and finding her exceptionally annoying.  Despite being a competent nurse during the war I found it strange that she spent a lot of her time acting like a petulant child (putting the lives of her companions at risk on multiple occasions) and she seemed somewhat disagreeable at times (her constant sarcastic comments regarding Frank’s interests).  She did grow on me, however, and when she was with Jamie, Gabaldon managed to make her appear vulnerable while still remaining strong, and she is certainly resourceful and resilient; for a heroine in a romance novel she is surprisingly practical and makes some pretty big decisions without sentiment clouding her judgement.  So, while I don’t imagine we would get along very well I did enjoy her as a heroine.  The only thing that I didn’t understand was her ambivalence towards her husband, Frank. She claims to love him but from the beginning it seemed as though she found him boring, they seemed to have no shared interests (other than sex) and I didn’t really believe her when she occasionally remembered to be sad about his being 200 years in the future, it felt almost as if he was added solely to create conflict within Claire and to give her a reason to want to go back to the future (yeah, I couldn’t help it).

As for Jamie, well he is young and idealistic, gallant, vulnerable, self-deprecating, hot headed, handsome and exceptionally virile.  Despite clearly being the man of Gabaldon’s fantasies, Jamie is also a very well written character and he is probably the first male character in a (contemporary) romance for whom I can understand all the fuss.  Truthfully, it is nice to get a break from the bad boy love interest because Jamie is, very simply, a good person with a good heart, he is brave but he doesn’t take pleasure in killing and he is endearingly sweet.  Yes, I swooned and I loved the romance because Jamie and Claire are just so flawed both alone and together, and in that sense it felt real.

Were there problems?  Definitely.  I had some major issues with how certain things were portrayed (I am not talking about the attitudes that are expressed by the characters here because I can accept that due to the time period) but I can’t get into it due to the fact that I want to keep this spoiler free.  Ultimately though, I enjoyed the book enough that I could simply choose to overlook these things.

Honestly, reading this book felt like sitting in front of a roaring fire on a gloomy afternoon, it was comforting and after I got past the first third (which was a little slow) it took me much less time than I had anticipated to finish all 864 pages.  The only unfortunate thing now is that I have been sucked in enough to want to continue with this sprawling series.


Mistborn: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson“Faith,” Spook said, “means that it doesn’t matter what happens.  You can trust that somebody is watching.  Trust that somebody will make it all right.”

Everything that I loved about The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension (reviews here and here respectively) – the wonderfully developed characters, the edge-of-your-seat action, a great magic system and some fantastic worldbuilding – can be found in The Hero of Ages, along with the perfect conclusion to the Mistborn trilogy.

(There will be spoilers for the first two books below.)

After Vin inadvertently released Ruin at the Well of Ascension, the Deepness has returned.  The Empire is still fractured from the Lord Ruler’s fall, ash falls heavy and constant around the globe, food and supplies are running scarce and the ground quakes beneath the feet of our heroes.  While the first book was heavily plot driven and did a good deal of world building, and the second concerned itself with politics and character development, the final instalment of the Mistborn Trilogy brings all of these elements together to create an exciting, heartbreaking, and satisfying end to the series.

The aspects of the story that I had been most interested in previously but which hadn’t been delved into in much detail, the Steel Inquistors and the Kandra, finally had their moment.  Through the point of view of TenSoon and Marsh we got to learn more about the mysterious and secretive Kandra society, the art ot haemalurgy and many more things that I can’t mention without spoiling anything.  I loved reading from the point of view of Marsh and Tensoon, they were wonderful characters and two of my favourites previously – especially Marsh, who I think gets overlooked a lot considering just how conflicted he is, how strong his resolve is, and how unique his situation is – so getting inside of their heads was wonderful, however it was Sazed who once again stole the show for me.  Despite the strong themes of trust and faith that have run through the entire trilogy, I didn’t expect the amount of time that would be spent on Sazed and his internal journey.  His struggles with his own faith and his desire for answers made this book for me and while I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination the questions that he asks are the same ones that I find myself grappling with at times and this part of the story was what I ended up enjoying, and identifying with, the most.

Throughout the previous books I found both Vin and Elend Venture incredibly frustrating, my opinions of them were constantly changing back and forth, and it wasn’t until I finished the series that I fully understood why that was, that they were young and unsure of who they were and what their role was within the world.  In The Hero of Ages there is no doubt that they both grow up, finally able to reconcile the different sides of themselves. Watching them slowly come to terms with their self-doubts, fears, and limitations, and then seeing how they accept all of the different facets of their beings and assemble them in order to become who they need to be was gratifying and  Sanderson does this with enviable skill.  While I have said it before it definitely warrants a repeat  – this man excels at writing characters.

While both this book and the Mistborn trilogy follow a fairly standard fantasy structure and story, it ended up being much more than what I was expecting.  There is so much more that I could say about this book and about this series (and I won’t because I am wary of spoiling anything) but I will say that you should buy it, read it and enjoy it because I had a great time and Brandon Sanderson is wonderfully skilled at emotional manipulation.

The Classics Club Reading List

The Classics ClubI have been on the waiting list for the classics book club at my library for about 6 months now and I’ll be honest, unless a few people relocate or die, there is little chance of my moving up that list any time soon, so when I found out about the The Classics Club and their challenge I got to writing a list.

I had a lot of trouble narrowing my list down so in the end I decided to stick to books that were published before 1950 (with The Chronicles of Narnia being the only exception – the first book was published in 1950 and the final book in 1956), to not include any re-reads (I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe many, many years ago but I have not read any of the other books, so The Chronicles of Narnia is kind of an exception in this category too) and to only have one book per author.

I am sticking with the 50 books in 5 years, meaning that these 50 need to be read by the end of May 2020.

The Classics Club Reading List
(in no particular order)

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  4. Moby Dick by Heman Melville
  5. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dicken
  6. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  8. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
  9. Dracula  by Bram Stoker
  10. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  11. For Whom the Bell Tolls  by Ernest Hemingway
  12. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  13. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  15. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  16. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  18. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  19. Ulysees by James Joyce
  20. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  21. The Trial  by Franz Kafka
  22. As I Lay Dying  by William Faulkner
  23. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  24. The Divine Comedy  by Dante Alighieri
  25. The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
  26. Doctor Faustus  by Christopher Marlowe
  27. Of Mice and Men  by John Steinbeck
  28. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  29. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  30. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
  31. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  32. Rebecca  by Daphne de Maurier
  33. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  34. Vilette by Charlotte Bronte
  35. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  36. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  37. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  38. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
  39. Walden  by Henry David Thoreau
  40. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
  41. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  42. The Pilgrim’s Progress  by John Bunyan
  43. The Iliad by Homer
  44. Beowulf
  45. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  46. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
  47. Paradise Lost by John Milton
  48. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
  49. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  50. Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson“I write these words in steel, for anything not set in metal cannot be trusted.”

I have no idea where to begin with this book, and it will be impossible to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first book, so I will just say that I absolutely adored it and I will try to keep my thoughts as concise as possible.  While The Final Empire (you can read my review here) was an action packed introduction to the story, themes, main players and setting of the trilogy, in The Well of Ascension Sanderson focusses less on driving the plot forward and instead spends his time fleshing out the characters and the world he had set up, resulting in the best book I have read so far this year.

The Well of Ascension picks up one year after the events of The Final Empire, the Lord Ruler is dead and Vin, Elend Venture and the Survivor’s crew are attempting to rebuild the world from the ashes.  This book really centres on the politics of the new empire, how the world has suffered without the tyrannical, yet ultimately stabilising, influence of the Lord Ruler and as the political landscape shifts we watch as the men of power flourish or flounder in the new environment.

The character development in this book is fantastic and in my opinion this is Sanderson’s biggest strength, with this trilogy containing some of my favourite characters ever.  The growth of crew members that weren’t of such a big focus previously, most noticeably Breeze and Clubs who have some very touching moments, and the addition of some new faces was wonderfully done (I am giving nothing away here as I do not want to spoil anything) and I would also be remiss if I didn’t quickly mention Straff Venture, he makes a great antagonist and I thoroughly enjoyed disliking him.

Vin’s journey and her struggle to fit into her burgeoning roles as a Mistborn, the Survivor’s Heir, Elend’s lover, and as a young woman trying to find her own identity, felt very real and it was rewarding to watch her grow into herself.  However it was Sazed, Marsh and the Kandra, OreSeur, who absolutely made this book so wonderful for me, and all for very different reasons.  I find the Steel Inquisitors so interesting in general (and I am desperate to find out more!) and as a character Marsh is something of an enigma, he actually appears very little in this book, but he still managed to make a huge impression in spite of, or perhaps because of, his very noticeable absence.  OreSeur, with his sarcasm and sassy back chat has been the most interesting character to watch grow.  As with the Inquisitors, the Kandra are a very secretive bunch and Sanderson definitely teases us with small, but important, snippets of information which are revealed as the relationship between OreSeur and Vin develops.

Sanderson expanded on the different point of views that we got in this novel and Sazed is, without a shadow of a doubt, the star of this book for me.  He is a scholar and combined with his introspective nature his observations allow us insight into events and people that we wouldn’t otherwise get as he has a skill for gently peeling away their outer layers, and there are some affecting moments between Sazed and Clubs, who I will admit I had mostly overlooked previously.  While most of the other crew members are very much focussed on the here and now, Sazed is delving into the past through his studies into the prophesies in order to find answers for the future and it allows him more time to question his changing role.  While the others are forced to change through action without much time for thought, by comparison we can see Sazed question more deeply his role and who he is; as a Keeper and a Terrisman his role was more clearly defined, through a quiet and constant lifelong resistance, by the presence of the Lord Ruler than that of the rest of the main cast.  Throughout the first two books he has become a comfort to those around him, his faith and knowledge making him a strong support for the rest of the characters and I am interested to see how his role will be developed in the final book, as I was left with the impression that events have led him to further question his place, along with the beliefs that he previously revered.  There are many other things I would like to mention about Sazed here but I do not want to spoil anything that happens in this book, so I will just say that in The Final Empire I loved his character but it was during the course of The Well of Ascension I fell in love with him.

As with The Final Empire I had a wonderful time with this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough, it is rare to find the second book of a trilogy surpass the first but that was definitely my experience and I hope this trend follows with the final instalment.

Mass Effect Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn

Mass Effect Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn“I am a Spectre, an agent of the Council,” he declared, a timbre of nobility giving strength to his voice.  “I am a servant of justice, sworn to protect and defend the galaxy.”

I just want to point out that there will be spoilers for both the Mass Effect series and this book below, and I should also admit my bias when it comes to Mass Effect; this is my favourite game series and is set in one of my favourite fictional universes.  In fact my not-so-guilty secret is that I like to indulge in a bit of Shakarian fan fiction every now and then, so I am less than discriminating when it comes to getting my Mass Effect fix.  Saying that I have avoided these books until now due to their wildly polarized reviews, my own bad experiences with novels based on games, and I had actually forgotten about them until The Marvelous Reading Room uploaded a video about Mass Effect Revelation which persuaded me to give this one a chance.

Revelation follows David Anderson as he investigates a devastating attack on a top-secret Alliance research base and searches for the sole survivor, Kahlee Sanders.  Pursued by a Korgan assassin and partnered with a rogue, human-hating, turian Spectre, Anderson must follow the intrigue and uncover a sinister conspiracy.

Briefly mentioned in Mass Effect, this is the mission that leads Saren towards the reaper Sovereign and, eventually, the events of the first game and I actually enjoyed this novel much more than I had expected.  Karpyshyn excels at dialogue (unsurprising, given that he was the lead writer for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2) but I just felt that there was something missing.  The writing is very factual and I constantly felt like I was being told information instead of being shown it, and the story telling was frequently interrupted with large sections of information (i.e. Codex entries) which, while interesting, got in the way of the flow and pacing of the book.  I am not saying it was badly written, I found the book engaging and it was what I expected from a game tie-in, but it frequently felt like something was being held back and that may be down to the time restraints that Karpyshyn mentions in the acknowledgements.

However, fleshing out the universe is where this novel was the most successful.  There are certain things that just can’t be captured in a game; the crushing crowds on the wards, how it would feel to be on the receiving end of an unfriendly turian’s stare, the splendour and tranquillity of the Presidium, or chatting to a friendly volus bartender at Chora’s Den.  The action was also enjoyable, very well written and, again, there are certain things that are more difficult to show in a video game, details that I had never stopped to consider during game play, such as how an opponent would feel after unleashing a biotic attack or the mess that a shotgun to the head would make!  These are the details that, as a fan, I enjoy reading about and that make the universe feel more alive which is ultimately what I wanted from Revelation.

The real draw for me was finding out more about Saren who I have always felt was one of the most interesting characters from the entire series.  I enjoy ambiguous characters in general and there was something about his motivations that intrigued me, I have always felt that he was doing the wrong thing but for the right reason – siding with the reapers in order to protect organic life – no matter how deluded (or indoctrinated) he was.  Sure he was ruthless and arrogant but it always seemed as if he took pride in being a Spectre, he was protecting the galaxy and was willing to sacrifice as many lives as that required.  In this novel there wasn’t much, if any, ambiguity to his character at all, it’s like he just popped into existence already a badass and ready to destroy the galaxy if it got in his way, which makes it difficult for me to understand why the council trust him so readily.  I suppose I would have preferred to see how he changed from whoever he was before into this merciless, driven, xenophobic Saren who has no regard for life, and the boring and predictable “humans killed my brother, now I am going to find a reaper to bring the turians to power” story was just so … boring and predictable.  Still,  the scenes with Saren were some of my favourite because he is merciless, he is intelligent, he would kill you rather than fill in paperwork and he says things like “never kill anyone without a good reason” followed by  “you can always find a reason to kill someone”.  Plus he is just kind of cool, he rides motorcycles and waltzes into a building flashing his weapons and wearing a trench coat.  Really.

The other characters were mostly interesting  because of their roles in the games.  Kahlee Sanders appearance in Mass Effect 3 made more sense to me (I always felt as though I should know who she was) and while she started off as a pretty great, strong character I saw her wilt as the novel progressed, as if the more she cared about Anderson the less she was capable of doing.   As for Captain Anderson, or Lieutenant Anderson I guess, he was the same character that we get in the games and, while I enjoy him as a game character – he’s the kind, grounding, father figure – he is also not the most interesting one.  I did like finding out more about his background and I loved seeing the Citadel, and everywhere else, through his eyes.  Ambassador Goyle, the first human ambassador, was an unexpected and great character.  Her scenes with the council, in the Citadel Tower, gave a better insight into their inner workings and how they felt about humanity and our role within the galaxy, plus I enjoyed how she presents herself and refuses to back down.  Ultimately my biggest issue is that every character who makes it to the end of the novel have not changed or grown in any way, so character development was lacking.

Personally, I did really enjoy this book but I went into the story already emotionally attached and interested in learning more details about how the universe works and who these people are.  However, the book did feel like a companion piece to the game series and, while it elaborates on a lot of background information that many fans will enjoy,  I don’t imagine that this book would hold much interest for you if you haven’t already played the games.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

“Plots behind plots, plans behind plans.  There was always another secret”

 I  wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting from this book, or the Mistborn series in general.  While everything that I have heard has been incredibly positive, I wasn’t 100% convinced because I usually find that when a book or author is talked about with such hype, as Sanderson is in the Booktube community, that disappointment is sure to follow.  On top of that there were certain aspects that didn’t appeal to me, in particular the magic system, Allomancy, which sounded slightly absurd no matter who was explaining it.  I mean, swallowing metals and then “burning” them to enhance physical and mental capabilities just sounds … silly, right?  Yet, it works.  The way Sanderson describes the mechanics makes it believable and watching it in action is wonderful, exciting and fun, which is exactly how I would describe the experience I had reading this book.  The Final Empire is the first book in the #YearofCosmere read-a-long and the first work by Brandon Sanderson that I have read.  It will definitely not be the last.

Set in a world where ash continuously falls from the sky, where heavy mists roll in at night forcing most to hide indoors in fear, and where the Dark Lord has been in power for over a thousand years, The Final Empire follows Vin, a sixteen year old girl who has grown up on the streets of Luthadel amongst beggars and thieves.  The population has been split into two main sections: the noblemen, descendants of the Dark Lord’s supporters who are allowed to posess the gift of allomancy, and the Skaa who are slaves, property who are worked or beaten to death, raped and starved.  Vin and her newly acquired crew walk a fine line between the two as they risk their lives to fulfil their plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler.

Sanderson’s writing style is very simple but that works well for this story. I felt that I was being shown the world through the characters as they inhabited it instead of being told through unnecessary description or the flowery prose that I tend to see so often in high fantasy.  It felt like a natural unfolding and I found that I had incredibly vivid images of characters and places despite not being told too much about them.  Someone in the Goodreads #YearofCosmere group pointed out that Sanderson likes to write scenes, almost building a set and lingering there as opposed to jumping around frequently and I found this technique wonderfully effective for pulling me into the world.  On top of that his action sequences are some of the best that I have read and I often had to slow myself down when all I wanted to do was rush ahead, getting more and more caught up in the action.

However, it was the characters that made this book for me and Sanderson has a knack for revealing just enough information to get you hooked and then leaving you wanting more.  Each character is revealed slowly to us as Vin gets to know them and I was left with the sense that there was so much left to be told, that each person had their own complete history and a wealth of experiences behind them.  Not to mention that they were likeable.  I genuinely enjoyed spending my time with Vin, Kelsier and their crew, which is something I find rare in books these days.

All in all, a great read and I am really looking forward to reading the next book of the series at the beginning of March.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf “When I was a kid, I was just like anybody else.”
– Jeffrey Dahmer

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels but as soon as I heard about My Friend Dahmer I was intrigued.  I have an Uncle who is fascinated by serial killers and their psychology, so over the years I have borrowed plenty of books and movies on the subject and for some reason Dahmer always stood out (maybe it was the skull-drill-brain-acid thing that I have never been able to shake).  I was interested to read about Dahmer before he was “Dahmer the serial killer” and from the point of view of a high school friend so I bought this book with  absolutely no idea of what to expect.

I do have to point out that there was one big thing that bothered me.  Backderf utterly glosses over the fact that he was not actually Jeff’s friend.  Instead he, and his group of friends, were part of the “Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club” which was a group of kids that amused themselves at the expense of the strange young Dahmer.  That these were his only friends is sad, that Backderf is either unable or unwilling to see what the impact of his actions, of treating someone like a one-man freak show, might have had is deeply uncomfortable.

Beyond this, the portrayal of Dahmer is surprisingly sympathetic and utterly tragic.  Backderf paints a picture of a teenager who is ostracised by his peers, ignored by his family, forced to keep his sexuality hidden and who abuses alcohol in an attempt to maintain the tenuous grasp he has on his own sanity.  He comes across as lonely, lost and desperately trying to be a normal kid, just like anybody else.

It might seem like a strange topic for a graphic novel but it works exceptionally well.  Backderf used his own memories and those collected from his close friends, along with interviews, news articles and FBI reports, in order to create an incredibly haunting story.  There is a stillness in the frames that managed to keep me grounded in the past and, despite knowing exactly how this story was going to play out, I couldn’t help but hope someone would notice that he was slowly losing himself to his dark fantasies and stop the inevitable from happening.

The juxtaposition between Dahmer and the “regular” kids is felt throughout and you can’t help but get the feeling that despite being right there he was also curiously absent.  How the adults in his life didn’t notice something is astounding and Backderf poses this question frequently, especially considering that Dahmer was showing up to school drunk and chopping up road-kill in the woods! While his parents were dealing with their own demons and a very messy divorce, I can’t help but wonder if this invisible quality that Backderf captured was what kept him hidden from attracting the attention of the other adults in his life.

Ultimately I don’t imagine there would ever have been a happy ending for Dahmer but if circumstances had been different perhaps things would have turned out a little less dark and a little less tragic.