Outlander ★

I must say, I have never been so close to rage-quitting a book halfway through since I read The Courtship of Princess Leia. As I write this now, I’m only halfway through it, and I think the only reason I’m going to keep reading it is to find more things I can hate about it.

People have been recommending The Outlander series to me for many many years, and I’d just never bothered to pick them up. Well, I was out of things to read and figured it was about time I do so, and yes, I heard there was a TV series and I wanted to be a book-snob when I watched it. I don’t know how, but somehow I got the impression that the series was, well, weirder. Darker. Stranger. That it was about people who get lost in the cracks, lost in time, yes, but in the dark weird way of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or Charles deLint novels. I thought the characters would be the outliers to society, people who are foreign wherever they go, who fit nowhere, and so created a land where only the strange was normal. You know…. London Below. Where did I get this impression? I honestly have no idea. Maybe I’m thinking of an entirely different series, and this one just fell into my lap instead.

Anyways, what I was not expecting was a harlequin romance with a lot of extra words and some real history written in as if to make me take it seriously. Even then, I probably would have been okay with it. I’m a big fan of saying as long as a book is entertaining to me, and enjoyable to read, I’ll call it a good book. I don’t necessarily need a deep philosophical message, or a darkly gritty cast of characters, or a unique landscape, or even any originality at all. I can be a big fan of trashy romance novels. I read, and even sort of enjoyed Twilight. That’s right, I’m saying it out loud. She lost me with the later sequels, and I’m not saying its a healthy story for teens or that it should get the attention it’s gotten. But I enjoyed parts of it, and it was not as offensive to me as this book.

Something about this story so far just sets my teeth on edge. I’m only halfway through it, and I had to stop to express my rage while its still this potent. Right, so the main character is Claire. She was living in 1945 with the husband she’d just reconnected with after WWII (he was a soldier, she was a nurse) when wham bam she falls through a time-hole in Scotland and is taken back 200 years.

Where she generally makes trouble by not acting correctly for a woman of the time, and being a mystery in a politically awkward time where people hate mysteries. She finds out that her husband’s ancestor was pretty much an evil dick, and makes friends with a dashingly sexy scotsman who has his own dubious history and dramatic reasons he wants to take revenge on said husband’s ancestor. Whoops, under some very contrived circumstances she is suddenly compelled to marry this sexy scotsman she is so attracted to, to save her own life, of course, yes…. Right, I was totally with you up until that moment. Unbelievably contrived and classic romance novel, sure. Still, I can envision some great costumes, and there’s some fun sex scenes. Sure, the sex scenes make me uncomfortable, because, you know, SHE’S STILL MARRIED TO HER HUSBAND AND ALL. And she dithers, constantly, about oh she misses Frank (husband) but something keeps drawing her to Jamie. His animal magnetism. And, well, she couldn’t NOT have sex with him, they NEED to consummate the marriage or it won’t count and she’ll still be in danger!

But then, of course, given the first time she finds herself alone (really, the FIRST time, in the last three months, that she finds herself alone?) she realizes she can run back to the stone circle where she came through the weird time portal. So off she goes…. and gets captured by the English (and the evil ancestor of her husband). Where he takes her to his office, tries to find out who she’s spying for, and then proceeds to nearly rape her. When (drumroll please) the husband arrives to rescue her! Yipee! Whatever, I’m not entirely enjoying it, mostly because I was expecting something completely different, but it hasn’t lost me yet. My expectations don’t change what’s written, I just have to be in the mood for a romance, so I’ll read it as if I was…

Until of course, the new sexy scotsman husband takes her back to safety and proceeds to beat her. Because its good for her. And she needs to learn the consequences to her actions. Because as her husband its his duty to teach her to right her wrongs, and his men and the soldiers they’re traveling with expect it.

Um, excuse me, what? Oh, she’s angry that he beat her so badly that she couldn’t sit down last night, but then he tells her a story about how his parents beat him when he was a child, and it was very beneficial and helped him learn. And she forgives him, after all, she DID act a bit rashly (by running away from a marriage she was forced into) and she DOES need to think about consequences (like how it made HIM feel to watch her being nearly raped). So yes, she forgive him, for beating her. And then he says, “You should be grateful I went easy on you. I enjoyed beating you so much, I really wanted to have sex with you afterwards. You should be glad I didn’t demand sex from you right then as my husbandly right.”

And she says “Oh, I love you! But if you ever beat me again I will cut your balls off.”

At which point he swears upon his dagger that he will ever be loyal to her, and never beat her again in rebellion or anger (note that he can still totally beat her again if its for her own good), and will she please have sex with him now?

And this is where I stopped reading, so enraged that I needed to get my thoughts down on paper and express my disappointment and hatred RIGHT NOW.

I will keep reading, at least to the end of this book, if not the rest of the series, on the bright side because I want to know if it gets better. After all, so very many people recommended it to me. And on the dark side, because I want to keep finding things to hate about this book.

So far though, I’m mostly curious that the internet has not raged about this book before now. I can’t count the number of hate-filled posts have passed through my tumblr about everything from Twilight, to Frozen, to con girls and costumes and all the rest. And no one has raged out about Outlander before me? Is it just because I wasn’t expecting this and everyone else just already knew about it?

Girl Genius Comparison ★★★

Well well, where to begin? Begin here. If you’ve never been introduced to the multiple Hugo Award-winning online web comic/graphic novel of Girl Genius then your life has been emptier than you knew. And its about to be more full and colorful and steampunk-adventure-filled than you could ever guess. I apologize in advance, its going to become difficult to leave your computer for the next few days. Possible side-effects when you reach the last page include symptoms of intense withdrawl, possible temporary depression followed by strange desires to build clock-work friends. And in one rare, but well documented case, plans to kidnap the writers with giant laser cannons and force them to write at gunpoint.

If you’ve read Girl Genius before, then you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been through the crushing defeat of hitting the “next page” button and having nothing happen. Of realizing you’re reading the most recent page, and nothing you can do can make the next chapter appear. Three pages a week just isn’t going to cut it, and life is never going to be the same again. Luckily, you can go back to the beginning and start all over again with Agatha H and the Airship City. Yes, thats right, the creators of Girl Genius have decided to go back and create a novelization of the story from the very beginning. Agatha H covers the first three volumes of Girl Genius.

Girl Genius tells the story of a girl named Agatha, and the desperate adventure she’s thrown into. Agatha’s world is one full of chaos, conflicting rulers, harsh empires, and complicated politics. A few people every year are born with “the spark.” This appears to be an intense drive, impossible to resist, to use mad science to create life from machinery. Sparks are often called “madboys” by the normal people, because while they have the brilliance to create, they don’t often have the will to control their creations. Most of them end up dead at the hands of their constructs, or at the hands of the locals when the constructs destroy whatever village it was born in. The few that aren’t killed locally are usually taken out by a neighboring Spark who feels their territory is being threatened.

Years ago, the populace was helped and saved by a group of heros and adventurers who happened to be some of the few sane sparks. They were led by a pair of brothers known as the Heterodyne Boys. The only problem is, the boys disappeared sixteen years ago when their home and families were destroyed by an unknown villain called merely “The Other.” Since then, most of the lands and smaller kingdoms have come under the control of the tyrant Baron Wulfenbach.

Agatha is a quiet girl, raised by her parents and uncle in the smaller but less anarchic city of Beetleburg. Her uncle left them 10 years ago, and since she came of age Agatha has been studying at the local Transylvania Polygnostic University. The only problem is, she’s not very good. Everything she builds just falls apart, and on the unlucky days does it with a ball of fire and smoke. She’s only merely an unrespected lab assistant on the day the Baron comes to inspect Beetleburg. Before she even really knows whats happening, the Baron has killed her teacher and protector, taken over the city, and her parents are missing. Mostly by accident, she is taken aboard the giant flying airship of Castle Wulfenbach, and only then does she really begin to learn about her family, and the world outside Beetleburg.

The original webcomic of Girl Genius is brightly colored and expertly drawn. (They publish high-quality physical volumes of them now, and they are well worth owning, even though you can read it for free online.) Its highly imaginative, filled with images of strange clockwork devices, expressive characters, and expansive cities and landscapes. The plot instantly draws you in with romance, and wonder, and silly science, and hilarious creatures. Agatha is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever read, especially in a graphic novel. Comics have been written for boys for so long that its about damn time someone wrote a female character that is not a side kick, or a love interest, or helpless, or just there to look good. She’s smart and smoking hot, and can kick all the boys butts with her use of science and her plain stubborn will-power. And they know it, and adore her for it.

If I have one problem with the Girl Genius comics its just that they are too complex and involved to read in a page-a-day format. I actually have to force myself to stop reading and checking up on it on a daily or even weekly basis. I enjoy the story much more when I actually ignore the website and every six months or so go read the newest volume. And sometimes I can’t help but reread the whole thing from the very beginning.

It was during this most recent reread that I found out they’d actually published a novelization of the first three volumes. Oh the wonder, oh the glory! Same loved story, but new and different and exciting format!

Well, I can’t possibly say I didn’t like it, because the Girl Genius story was there, and was just as good in its basic elements. But I feel like they didn’t utilize the power of the novel as well as they could have. The written version definitely has some of the back story explained that isn’t in the graphic novel. But I don’t feel that they translated the scenes from the comic very well. It was written very… descriptively. It felt more like they were just trying to describe everything they’d drawn, but copied over the dialogue nearly verbatim. It fell into the classic problem of telling the reader everything instead of showing us and letting us imagine some for ourselves.

I think if they had just accepted that capturing the visualization of the graphic novel was going to be impossible, and instead fleshed out the power of the words more it would have gone better. A book is just so different than a comic, you shouldn’t try to make them similar. Just work to the strengths of each of them. I would rather have seen more of the emotional changes in Agatha and gotten a glimpse inside her head as her life is being turned upside down, than just read another pale description of a room in the castle that I’ve already seen drawn in full technicolor. They could have gone so much more into the motivations and true personalities of all the characters, and instead spent time just describing everything around the characters.

The authors have mastered the creation of a brilliant plot and lovable characters, they’ve excelled at witty dialogue, their imagination is broader and more colorful than we could ever believe… But this novel is merely a “good first try.” I fully hope that they’ll keep trying, and that they realize there is room for improvment, because right now their writing style outside of the speach bubbles is rather juvenile. Keep trying guys, I know you can get there!

View all my reviews

The American Heiress ★★

I admit, I enjoy the good fluffy romance novel every now and then. I like them because their purpose is generally to provide the easy happy ending we all want in life, to give us the same feel-good feeling of home cooked comfort food. Its the grown up version of a classic disney movie, it makes you believe in grown up fairy tales (though I admit, I still watch those too).

I didn’t enjoy this book because, from the description, I was expecting the usual historical romance plot. Up until the very end, I thought the girl would get the boy, the bad guy would be suitably punished, and everyone would be happy! Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that wasn’t really the case. Other aspects of genre were there in abundance. Looming gloomy English mansions were described in infinite detail. The wardrobes of all the female characters were vividly imagined, and fairly historically accurate. Every article of jewelry was given at least four adjectives.

The main character is a plucky American girl who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it: life away from her mother. She is the closest thing to American royalty that exists, the sole heir of one of the wealthiest families in New York. However, her mother wants the respect of the highest branches of society, and knows her daughter can buy it for her through marriage. She is determined for her daughter to marry into the House of Lords in England. Cora is perfectly fine with this plan, as long as it gets her away from her mother. Yes, the daughter’s name is “Cora Cash” … There’s some subtlety for you.

Mother and daughter therefore plan a trip to tour the counties of England, and pick out a husband. Of course, right before they leave Cora decides to beg her childhood best friend to marry her instead, so that she doesn’t have to spend months with her mother abroad. He (of course) says that he likes her well enough, but he wants to be a painter and go off to Paris to study with the masters and he must not allow anything to distract him from achieving his dream.

Oh well, not even barely miffed, Cora goes off to England, falls off a horse, lands practically in the lap of an impoverished English count who is desperate for some cash (pun intended) to brighten up his ancestral home. They are rather quickly engaged. And of course a battle of the in-laws ensues.

All the while, we are also following the story from the point of view of Cora’s maid, a girl of mixed blood from South Carolina, who is just glad she can find a job that lets her send home a little money to her mother. She finds that in England she’s only a second-class citizen only once because of her position as a maid, and not twice because of that and the color of her skin. She starts a passionate affair with the butler of Cora’s soon to be husband.

And of course, there appears to be some intrigue in the history of the Count. He was the perfect second son, frivolous and happy, until his father and older brother died within a year of each other. Now he is weighed down by a country estate he was never interested in, and the obligation to keep the family name respectable. He is also blessed with an overbearing mother who remarried a step higher in the social ladder the moment her first husband was cold. Needless to say, she is not enamored with his new wife.

Cora is having trouble fitting into the confusing and ever treacherous rules of English high society. She makes many mistakes, and is constantly humiliated by her staff and the various “friends” she’s made. Added to this, she doesn’t even know if her husband really loves her. But oh, look, here is her childhood friend who’s come to visit from Paris! Even though she’s been married for over a year, and now has a baby son to take care of, he’s decided to let her know that he was an idiot, and he really does love her. Rumors abound that her husband is having an affair, but he is there and will take her all away from it if only she would ask him to.

Ridiculously unrealistic and overly dramatic plot lines are standard operating procedure with this genre, but I think where I lost it was the lack of motive for many of the characters’ actions. So much of it was written as though the author was trying to incite emotion and drama into the story, but just didn’t quite get there. She has her characters going through the motions, reacting to the things that happened to them, but it just never felt fully formed. The motivations felt flat. The antagonists acted evil because they were evil. We were never shown why they had a grudge against somebody, or what their aim in ruining the lives of others was. They were there just because the author knew she needed to have tension in the story.

And maybe my beef with the end of the story is unfair. It was probably more realistic than any ending I would have preferred. I like gritty depressing realistic stories. And I like my fluffy fantastical romantic stories. But I just don’t like them mixed. That’s not to say no one should ever try to mix them, just that I don’t think this author succeeded this time. My personal preference rating: * Within its genre, compared to similar books: *** Will I read anything else by this author: unlikely, but then I probably wouldn’t have read this one in the first place, except that it was a goodreads advance copy.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation ★★★★

This book has everything one requires of a fluffy romance story. In fact, its a romance within a romance, simultaneously a story of post-revolution France and mondern day London. We follow an awkward woman researching a mysterious historical character, and a young girl desperate to join a famous league of spies and save her country. We’re given a charming and spunky heroine who surprises the daring and handsome hero with her intelligence and determination. Our hero is one part Robin Hood, one part Zorro and one part Indiana Jones, with a title and money to boot. What more could you possibly ask for? Steamy sex scenes in a garden in Paris? Got it. Spies and missions and sarcastic butlers? Got it. A modern day lord with a handsome face, a misanthropic attitude and library full of secret historical documents? Yep, that too. Historical accuracy? Well… who wants that anyways?

We first meet Eloise Kelly, a student of Harvard writing her dissertation on the history of English spies who helped the French noblemen during the revolution. She travels to London to further her research on the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian, both of whom’s real identities were eventually revealed and documented. However, her true interest lies in the Pink Carnation, who’s identity was never discovered. Disappointed by the lacky of any solid information about the Pink Carnation, she eventually reaches out to the descendants of the two known spies, hoping for a tie between the three. In this way, she meets the elderly Mrs. Arabella Selwick-Alderly, who just happens to have a trunk full of old letters and documents relating to her ancestor, The Purple Gentian.

Through letters and journals, Eloise dives into the story of Amy Balcourt, a half French half English girl whose parents were killed in the revolution and was raised in rural England. Amy has always wanted to revenge the death of her parents, and return to the land of her birth to join the league of spies led by the man known as The Purple Gentian. She wants to free France from Napoleon and restore the monarchy, and simultaneously save England from the invasion everyone knows must be coming.

She returns to Paris, now 20 years old, with her cousin Jane and their dragon of a chaperon. There she meets Richard Selwick, apparently a dandy working as an egyptologist for Napolean. She automatically detests him for what seems like a traitorous job, often comparing his actions to those of her dream man, The Purple Gentian. The get into many passionate arguments about the good of England and France, and while she despises his morals she just can’t help admiring his lips, and the shape of his hands. Oh, wait, could it possibly be? Richard IS the Purple Gentian, and working for Napolean is just his cover story! Insert comedy of errors including false identities, masks and capes, and coincidental meetings in libraries at midnight here.

All the while, Eloise is getting into arguments with the young nephew of her benefactor, who just happens to be the current Lord of Selwick Manor. He quite dislikes nosey academics, and seems determined to protect the secret of the Pink Carnation at all costs. He delivers an ultimatum, nothing Eloise learns can leave the circle of his family or become public knowledge in an academic paper. And while Eloise quite dislikes his high-handed and rude attitude, she can’t help admiring his fast smile and blonde hair….

Amy and Richard are of course eventually married, on a boat, by the captain/butler/actor Richard employs, as they escape from Paris after freeing Richard from the dungeous of the French Ministry of Police. Having run out of letters and journals, Eloise breathlessly inquires about what happens next, are there any more documents? Oh, well of course there are, but they’re over in Selwick Manor. She’ll just have to go spend a few days there, with the irritatingly handsom nephew…

This book is so fluffy a marshmallow is as heavy as a rock in comparison. That is not a criticism, I believe fluff has as much a place in literature as, well, actual literature. We need fluff sometimes, because we should never forget that it should be FUN to read, no matter how silly that fun sometimes is. This book was exceedingly fun to read. If you don’t like nonsensical fluff, this book is not for you.

(I really should post a description of my rating system at some point…)

A quote, for your enjoyment (must be read in as dramatic a voice as possible):

Delaroche strode on bandy legs to the door, clapped his hands together, and bellowed, “Prepare the iterrogation chamber!”
“The regular interrogation chamber, sir?” one guard ventured, keeping well on the other side of the stone door frame.
“Oh no.” Belaroche unleashed another of his humorless laughs. “Take him to the extra-special interrogation chamber!”

And that is all!