Book Reviews · Musings

Ba-ZAM! Books of 2016

Sharing

There are 3 books I super loved in 2016, and I’d like to share them with you.

Ka-POW!

The first book is the one I just read. It is a contemporary YA novel, with no magical flashings – not my usual read. But I found it on a list of BEST YA of 2016, and became curious because of the book’s description.

I don’t want to give too much away, but at the same time, I want you to know that the book is interesting. How to do this!? Well…

the-serpent-king-hires

Book title: The Serpent King

Author: Jeff Zentner

Genre: YA, Drama

This book has 3 main characters who are best friends. Lydia, Dill and Travis live in Forrestville, Tennessee, named after the Ku Klux Klan leader. Their fellow high-schoolers are racist homophobes who don’t have a lot of creativity or substance. All 3 of our MCs are in their senior year of high school. Some look to the future, and some don’t.

Dill and Travis suffer at home. Lurking in a cloud over Dill’s head, daily, is the fact that his pastor father is now in jail for child pornography, and also had his church congregation hold snakes and drink poison because he misinterpreted a Bible verse. Dill lives in a state of constant embarassment. Lydia hates her town and is trying her best to leave it behind by mind, by running a creativity, anti-establishment fashion blog that has thousands of followers. She tries to hide her origins from her fans as much as possible.

Travis’ father can’t handle his grief over Travis’ older brother Matt, killed in Afghanistan, so his father drinks and becomes a bully when he’s drunk. Travis buries his nose in fantasy books, especially those by his favorite author, who is releasing the last book of his famous Bloodfall series in March. Even though his father calls him names and his mousy mother looks at him with sorrow, Travis can’t help but fall into the world of Bloodfall, eager to escape home, and he even carries a staff he made himself everywhere, as a guard against the normalcies and demands of the real world.

I don’t really know how to put into words how this book affected me. It really got across how close these three friends are, and it really made me love them, and it really made me sad to think of them parting after graduation. Their difficulties were very raw and rough, and very believable.

The dialogue was so realistic, and moving. The poetry of Zentner’s words did not seem out-of-place in the heads of these struggling teenagers. It all flowed so smoothly, and tension built up so well. I read it almost in a day, because it was so good I just couldn’t stop. It made me think about friendships, communicating your love to your friends, and what it means to be brave, and to live a life for you, and for God, and not for anyone else.

jeffzentner

Go read it. Go read it now!

And please follow the author’s twitter: @jeffzentner   . The Serpent King was his first book. I want him to write more, so let’s give him encouragement!

A Different Brand of Zombie

The second book that I really enjoyed reading this year was The Girl With All the Gifts, by Michael Carey. I just found out that this book is going to be made into a movie! Exciting!

This book is not your typical zombie book. If fact, even my divulging that zombies are in it is almost a spoiler; the book is secretive about it, in a way, at first. Sorry to give it away; but you can tell, probably, from trailers – if they’re out yet?

Anyway…I love how Carey makes the zombies the protagonists, in a way, because you’re in the head of one of them, a girl named Melanie. I don’t want to give much away here, but let’s just say it’s an adventure, and that crisis that the earth has encountered is a horrifying, realistic ones that could happen some day, in some world, maybe even ours.

The way Carey turns the tables by making us sympathize with the usual antagonists really is what made this novel so gripping for me. Also the tension. It rattles along so well! It just builds and builds!

This book was moving and mesmerizing. If you want something different, if you want to see an author making a “cliche” thing (think: vampires and how everyone is sick of vampire books now) good again, go read this book!

the_girl_with_all_the_gifts

The end of the world as we know it

Emily St. John Mandel’s book, Station Eleven, I mention last. I mention it last not because it was best or worst, but because it made me think the most about writing. Sometimes when I read, I think as a reader, and other times, as a writer. Station Eleven just awed me as a writer.

I love how this story of a post-apocalyptic world has so many viewpoints. I love how we see an innocent person transform into an antagonist, and how it makes sense why they would, and we pity and hate that character simultaneously. I love how the book floats from an action scene in one chapter to a series of docile letters in another. I love how it gives us many angles on one important character who, even after death, shapes the lives of people living in the post-apocalyptic time that he died before seeing.

Okay. Pull back. Let’s give some context. Here’s what the book is about:

This book is set in Year 15, 15 years after the world has collapsed. The Georgia Flu from Georgia first infected Russia, and then entered Canada when ill people on a plane arrived in Canada and were rushed to Canadian hospitals. Then it infects Canadians. Then it infects other places, other continents – until it’s infected the whole world, and so many people are dead.

Cars don’t run anymore. There’s no one to get the oil, to get the gas to the gas stations. Laptops, the internet, are myths that the youths of today long for and don’t understand. Now, humans hunt for game and avoid dangerous towns where other humans kill them, out of fear. Prophets rule towns. Presidents don’t exist. The U.S. and, probably other counties, can’t communicate with other countries. Planes and flight are absolutely gone.

20170404

The Symphony is a group of musicians from all over the U.S. and Canada that survived the flu. They travel all around Canada and the U.S., never stopping in any town for long, performing music wherever they go. There’s Kirsten, who has tattoos for people she’s had to kill, performs as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and vaguely remembers computers from when she was 8 the year the world collapsed. She carries 2 comic books from a memory she can’t quite recollect, and collects news about the movie star that she saw die, right before the flu entered Toronto.

This book was exciting, mysterious, and moving as a reader. It spans many years, and slowly unfolds before you, like a flower. The story begins at the flower’s outermost petals and hones in, until by the end you’re sitting there thrilled, gasping, to see how all the pieces have connected.

As a writer…

As a writer, this book threw me for a loop and then some. I love how Mandel begins with the death of the famous movie-star, from the point of view of a practicing medical student, and also has points of view from Kirsten, 15 years later, who saw that movie-star die. There’s the point of view of the writer of Kirsten’s comic books. There’s the prophet, who he was, and who he becomes. There’s the point of view of people who are lost on the way, and remember the world how it was, and shake their heads at how easy it was.

Okay but I’m getting distracted here. Yes, the book makes you think about how easy life is now, all of our luxuries – cold boxes that store our food, AKA fridges, glowing, portable screens that hold information and games and so much, AKA laptops, and so much more.

But what I love is that Mandel didn’t go for a constantly heart-pumping narrative. She wrote a book about the world’s collapse, but isn’t super fast, nor is it full of melancholy. There are moments of wonder. She dares to skip around in her timeline, going from year 1 to year 5, back to before the world collapsed, forward to year 15 – and the time leaps work! They do not take away from the story, they make it better.

650full-emily-st-john-mandel
Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel was brave, in my opinion, to write such a disjointed narrative. I get the feeling that she wrote what she wanted to write. The book, as a result, reads almost like a long poem, and not a novel. It doesn’t have stanzas and all that; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, it isn’t apologetic for what it is, it doesn’t try to fit a mold, or a genre, like novels do. It just IS.

And it is this unapologetic, open, FREE way of being that I want for my books, for my writing. To write whatever I want, and not worry about, “Will the readers like this? Does this fit the genre? Is this too cliche? Is this monologue too long?”

Obviously we have to do some of that, and I’m sure Mandel and every author does, especially in revision. But…just try to remember, even in that stage, that it should be free. It should be loving. It should be you. Don’t get lost trying to write whatever everyone else likes and wants. Write what is you, what you want to. Write what is yours. Write you, and let you just be you. I know that’s so cheesy, but hey, maybe that’s just me?

I hope you get to read at least 1 of these fantastic books I enjoyed in 2016. And may the books be just as good, or even better in 2017! I hope you all have a great New Year!

Until next time,

Chaitanya

Save

Save

Genres · How Writers Write

Fantasy isn’t just Escape

Studying Writing About Tough Topics

There are endless books to capture the tougher things in life, because life is generally tough, and people write about life, don’t they? But some books capture the tougher things in life better than others. Even fantasy!

Some would say that fantasy, the genre that is my very favorite, is all about escape. But I disagree with this. Yes, fantasy can be an amazing escape from bills, laundry, and the like, but in the end I think the reason fantasy fans love fantasy so much is because it speaks to us EVEN while being set in worlds, with creatures and magics, that we do not have (or DO we?) in our world.

It can be very difficult to write about the tough subjects in life. Death. Rape. Suicide. Depression. Mental disorders. Trouble with family. Having no family. Poverty. Starvation. There’s a lot going on in many places in the world, and these things break our hearts, our bodies, and our minds. We can’t just avoid them and write about rainbows and flowers. So how do we write about these difficult topics, without sounding…trite, cliche, stupid, or insensitive?

I do not claim to have figured this out, but I am studying how to write about these topics. I have characters who have experienced tougher things than me in life, and I want to write about their struggles in a way that speaks to my readers, and does not fall flat.

But back to the main subject…how do fantasy authors tackle these challenging subjects?

the2bgreat2bhunt2busa

Example

Here is one example of a book which, I believe, tackles difficult topics while still being breathtakingly exciting and mystical:

The Wheel of Time Series, by Robert Jordan

For a fantasy fan, I know I’m horribly behind on reading this series. I am only now reading book 2. I know, I know! It’s a travesty, and how can I truly call myself a fantasy fan? Nonetheless, here I am reading book 2, and there’s a lot of things that come up in this book and the one before it:

  • War

The Dark One is razing the countrysides everywhere, sending half-animal, half-man bloodthirsty Trollocs to kill, and other “Darkfriends”, all so that he can get at The Dragon Reborn, aka our hero, and rule the world forevermore. Sounds like a typical fantasy quest series, doesn’t it?

But Robert Jordan knew his stuff. He shows war in a very visual and stunning way that is very stark and terrifying. He shows the heaps of bodies at the side of the road. The way families struggle just to get bread on the table. The fact that even if the good guys eventually win, the entire realm has been ravaged and so many lives lost that it will never, ever be the same again. He shows how traumatizing it is to live in a time of war, and how that sucks the hope out of you.

wheeloftime-randalthor
Photography by Matt Peterson

Here’s an example from book 2, The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan:

For once the trail had led straight to human habitation. Straight to the houses on the hill. No one moved on the single dirt street around which the dwellings clustered.

“Ambush, my lord?” Uno said softly.

Ingtar gave the necessary orders, and the Shienarans unlimbered their lances, sweeping around to encircle the houses. At a hand signal from Ingtar they galloped between the houses from four directions, thundering in with eyes searching, lances ready, dust rising under their hooves. Nothing moved but them. They drew rein, and the dust began to settle…

At first Rand thought the figures hanging by their arms from the thick gray limbs of the stoneoak were scarecrows. Crimson scarecrows. Then he recognized the two faces….Eyes staring, teeth bared in a rictus of pain…

“Skinned alive,” he heard someone behind him say, and the sounds of somebody else retching. He thought it was Mat, but was all far away from him, inside the void. But that nauseous flickering was in there, too. He thought he might throw up himself.

It is not easy to write about the violence of war. It can be easy to make battle sound glorious, with the good team stampeding over the other, slashing and hacking, yay for the cause, yaddah yaddah…but really it comes down to a loss of lives, and violence, and the imprints those leave behind.

Jordan shows the mercilessness of his villains in this scene, as well as the plain discomfort and ugliness, the urgency and the sorrow, of war.

  • Class distinction

Here, Rand and his friends are stuck in an alternate, sinister dimension, when they meet a strange and beautiful woman who wears the outfit of a noble lady:

“You will be a great man when you’ve found the Horn of Valere,” she told him. “A man for the legends. The man who sounds the Horn will make his own legends.”

“I don’t want to sound it, and I don’t want to be part of any legend.” He did not know if she was wearing perfume, bu there seemed to be a scent to her, something that filled his head with her. Spices, sharp and sweet, tickling his nose, making him swallow.

“Every man wants to be great. You could be the greatest man in all the Ages.”

It sounded too close to what Moiraine had said. The Dragon Reborn would certainly stand out through the Ages. “Not me,” he said fervently, “I’m just -”

he thought of her scorn if he told her now that he was only a shepherd after letting her believe he was a lord, and changed what he had been going to say – “just trying to find it. And to help a friend.”

siuan_sanche_by_jieroque-d60i1n3
The Amyrlin Seat, Siuan, by Jieroque on Deviant Art
  • Gender Equality

Here, Rand is summoned to a meeting with the Amyrlin Seat, the ruler and master of the mystical all-women group, the Aes Sedai. They can channel the Power, a magic which has been used only by women for many years, since it made the male Aes Sedai of the past go mad. Now, Rand has the Power and can wield it; will the Aes Sedai kill him, take away his power, or let him go free, so he can become the Dragon that will fight the Dark One?

The women at the entrance to the women’s apartments looked up calmly as they came closer. Some sat behind slanted tables, checking large ledgers and sometimes making an entry. Others were knitting, or working with needle and embroidery hoop. Ladies in silks kept this watch, as well as women in livery. The arched doors stood open, unguarded except for the women. No more was needed. No Shienaran man would enter uninvited, but any Shienaran man stood ready to defend that door if needed, and he would be aghast at the need.

Rand’s stomach churned, harsh and acid. They’ll take one look at our swords and turn us away. Well, that’s what I want, isn’t it? If they turn us back, maybe I can still get away. If they don’t call the guards down on us. He clung to the stance Lan had given him as he would have to a floating branch in a flood; holding it was the only thing that kept him from turning tail and running.

One of the Lady Amalisa’s attendants, Nisura, a round-faced woman, put aside her embroidery and stood as they came to a stop. Her eyes flickered across their swords, and her mouth tightened, but she did not mention them. All the women stopped what they were doing to watch, silent and intent.

This scene may not be very obviously about gender equality, but I feel that it is. It shows that women have power in this particular culture and case, and that they have more power than men. The men follow what they dictate, and they are comfortable with doing so. Rand, who comes from a different culture more like our modern one, feels strange submitting so much power to the women. He is afraid that the Amyrlin Seat will “gentle” him, taking away his magic, and he does not feel that it is fair, just because he is a man.

Notice how the women look at the men in a frosty way, because they are carrying swords in the women’s apartments – forbidden, and something a Shienaran man would never do. He “would know better”, but Rand is not a Shienaran, and in his village, the mayor of the village has most of the power (although, a female Wisdom is consulted from time to time).

wisdom_of_the_two_rivers__nynaeve_by_endave-d6zw13e
Nynaeve, the Wisdom, by endave on Deviant Art

Conclusion

I wanted to give more examples from other fantasy books of how they tackle difficult topics, but since that would be too long of a post, I hope that the examples I chose from Jordan’s The Great Hunt gave you something to think about.

I am interested in studying how authors communicate these difficult topics in a way that is sensitive, emotionally engaging, and uses powerful words; in a way that is concise, not long-winded but effective; in a way that makes readers who can or can’t relate to the specific topic, FEEL and connect with the character who is struggling.

What do you think? How do you write about difficult topics? Are there any books, fantasy or not, that you have read which discuss difficult topics in engaging ways?

Until next time,

Chaitanya

 

Book Reviews · Musings · My Writing

Of Writing Progress and Reading Steampunk

Recently I joined a fun website to keep myself accountable about writing something every day, even if it’s just journaling. The website requires you to write 750 words a day, and gives you badges as rewards for hitting special rungs of the ladder.

Here’s a bit of a journal entry today; please excuse my sleepy typos and bad sentence structure:

Journal Entry

Writing is good. I think that is what makes me happy and contented, today and yesterday, basically. I wrote a few paragraphs in Chapter one in Emna’s point of view, ad then I went over them a little, and they were good. I like them. I think they serve the story well, and show who Emna is, an dmake her likeable, and they also show who the queen is a bit and why she is likeable. I wanted the readers to be able to care about her later, when she is in trouble and Emna is very worried, and has to choose between Phen and the queen, who to help.
I think I am getting better at seeing the overall arc of the story and at tying things together. What I want to get better at now is tying overall themes together, and plot. The thing is I still don’t know the exact end and middle, since so much is changing from the rough draft, so….still gotta work on some sort of outline. I think that will help a lot.
Once I get it outlined, I will know what happens. Once I know at least a general idea of what happens, then I can think about what I want the main points to be, and how to say them.
I read this great article on the “golden thread”, where you basically have an “aha!” moment and find out what your story is really and truly all about. What the heart of it is. Then you go through your entire book and you pepper in that golden thread. Sometimes the point gets in a few times per chapter; other times, it is given a rest and doesn’t appear for chapters at a time. But each successive time it is present, Jennie Nash‘s article seemed to say, the golden thread gets more and more powerful. Sortof in such a way that the reader gets an “aha!” moment with you. The readers gets more and more excited about what you are saying in your book, as it gets more and more clear what it is you are saying. By the end of the book, they don’t want to leave it. They want to keep reading. You have succeeded in thoroughly engrossing your reader in an idea, in your characters, in your book. Your book is thus a success.
Thinking of this makes me happy and excited. I want to do this with my books.

worldbuilding
Worldbuilding

At the same time, I am also realizing how many aspects there are to this book I am writing. Fantasy is complicated. There is so much worldbuilding to do. A lot of politics seems to come up in fantasy. I am not a big fan of politics and don’t take much interest in it, but somehow it got in my story. There is a civil war going on. It takes a back-burner to the rest of teh story, but it IS still going on, and of course it affects the story, the setting, the characters, etc. So I have to research and think on all of THAT, even though it’s just in the background.
There is also just so much to think of, regarding magic. I don’t think anyone knows about this except a fantasy author/writer. It is a whole other realm unto itself. For instance, what rules are you to have in the magic of your story? In Harry Potter, they wave wands and have to memorize certain phrases and tricks. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf has a staff, but the Elves seem to do magic just by force of will, or through song. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe has to know the names or essence of things before he can have access to them. And etcetera, etecetera, etcetera. There are so many books and so many types and ways of accessing magic. It’s all so interesting and fun! Where I am not excited by politics, I AM thoroughly excited by all the magical concepts. Deciding how my magic works is hard but fun.

nathan-steampunk
Steampunk

Recently I have started a big binge on steampunk. I am hoping to get some ideas that I can jot down, during downtime from Phen and Emna’s story, for my steampunk book about witches, a sort of grief/adventure love story.

The way that the airships work, and the way the books’ authors change history to suit the steampunk genre, are very intriguing. I don’t know the first thing about mechanical devices, but some of the authors make it fun, even for me (others are boring, I do say).

westerfeld-behemothdirigible
Illustration from Leviathan by Keith Thompson

The one I am reading right now is a YA, set in pre-World War I drama. It takes the idea that Darwin discovered DNA and that Britain uses it during wartime to make creatures that are animals all mixed up together, that act like machines. The airship in book 1 of Steven Westerfeld’s trilogy, Leviathan, is like this. There are also krakens, and walking machines driven by the “Clankers”, which is the British nickname for the Germans, Austrians, and Russians. The two main characters are a girl disguising herself as a boy to join the British airship, and a prince who has been disabled from a royal title because his royal father married a common woman. The two have individual points of views and individual adventure stories, until suddenly their two points of view intertwine into one story – both points of view still separate, still going – later in the first book. I am in the second book now, still happily reading. A third one is yet to come out, the last of this trilogy. I really recommend these books. They are so fun!

The two  main characters are very engaging. Deryn, the girl in disguise, is a very funny tomboy who has a knack for being more clever at being a boy than some of her male counterparts on ship. Alek, the prince on the run, is less confident of himself but very determined to do right by his friends, and make allies.

4092805240_c528f1bf4b_o
Illustration from Leviathan by Keith Thompson

9780670073030

Please check out this trilogy! =D

 

Until next time,

Chaitanya

 

Artist's Way Book Journey · Book Reviews

The Censor VS the Inner Child – Reading “The Artist’s Way” – Part 1

Ok, I know I’ve been saying this – I will update this blog weekly again! This time though, I really mean it. I have new motivation. A few friends and I have started reading The Artist’s Way: Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self, by Julia Cameron.

In case you haven’t heard of it, this book has been revolutionary. It has helped a lot of artists get unblocked and a lot of new artists rev up their creative engines. I heard of this book many years ago from a friend; now I wish I had, and wonder what would have happened!

So far I’ve only read the introductory chapters and done “week 1” of this revitalizing creativity course, but…so far, I like it! Cameron has each student of her house do 3 daily “morning pages”, stream of consciousness journaling, as well as a weekly “artist’s date”. She also has the group share turns facilitating a grup activity.

I have been doing my morning pages for 1 week now and I find it works. I “drain my brain” as Cameron says, and find my day is fresher, my mind freer to focus on important things. I’ve even found myself getting ideas for my current WIPs – something I’ve been longing for in the dry creative month since I’ve moved.

Anyway! On to this post’s focus – the censor versus the inner child.

The censor is that demoniac part of ourselves that says (pardon my language), “You can’t write/draw/photograph/etc. for shit”. It’s the voice in our heads the stops us from doing creative endeavors, even before we’ve started. It’s our inner critic, inner editor, it’s the demon that haunts us all and kills our creative juice.

As artists, we NEED that creative juice. It’s not like juice; it’s more like water. If we don’t have it, our worlds feel upside-down and funky. Maybe you’ve felt it. I know I have. When I don’t write or at least think about writing, doodle, SOMETHING, I feel the lack. I feel uninspired, and not only that, but cranky, angry, even deeply depressed.

Cameron’s book urges us to unblock, so that we can get the water we need to survive. Her methods in her book encourage us to shut up that censor. A lot of writing books talk about this, but they don’t give a method for how; they just tell us, “shut it up. Freewrite or something”. Cameron’s book gives more.

Cameron’s book, like other artsy books, encourages us through personal and anecdotal stories. Not only that though, she has a really peppy mood, a real rejuvenating feeling, to her author’s voice. I also enjoy how she comes at it like a teacher. You, the reader, are a student, and you must do your homework if you want to pass. The rewards for passing, or acing the class, are to have the creative water that gives you life, joy, money, happiness, etc. You need it.

I like the teacher-student format, because it forces us reader-artists to be accountable – to ourselves, to Cameron, etc. Other writing books haven’t done this so much.

Today I was the facilitator for my group, and we tapped into our inner child by decorating our notebooks with stickers, Disney Princess stickers, no less! And we also drew/colored/sparkled with glitter, and illustrated our artist’s self/inner child, and our censors.

What would your censor look like? What about your inner artist child? What writing motivating books have you read that helped you?

Night night,

Chaitanya

Book Reviews

Book Review – “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Wow! It’s been waaay too long since I have posted here. I didn’t realize it had been so long.

I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving! It was so funny to see Christmas decorations up on Thanksgiving Day. Now that Christmas is creeping closer to us, I’m feeling more comfortable with all the wreaths, Santas, etc. flooding the shopping areas.

Just yesterday I watched the most recent episode of The 100, a somewhat cheesy, suspenseful YA TV series in which 100 delinquent kids from space are put on earth to see if it’s still inhabitable, and start a war with earth’s residents. Even The 100 managed to make a tribute to the holiday season, in an eerie scene that has a group of space kids stuck in an underground, abandoned garage with enemies. Then one of the military-type guys “guarding” them presses a machine inside a car that plays a Christmas song…only to have it lead his enemy straight to him! He meets his death by a “Reaper”, an earth-resident cannibal. Oooops!

Anyway, holiday season is making me feel excited to go up to the snow sometime later this month. Enough of that, though! There is blogging to do.

Today I am going to do a scrambled-together, sloppy but fun book review for:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Yes, Outlander! Maybe you have heard of it, maybe not. It was published in 1991, more than 26 million copies worldwide. Starz has just made it into a TV series (which we have to wait 6 months to see Season 2 of! Tragedy!). It is a romance/adventure/time travel story of grand makings…

Take a 1945 nurse who is on a Scottish holiday with her handsome husband whom she hasn’t seen in six years. Put her in an ancient circle of stones, and make her walk between two – bam! She’s back in 1700s Scotland, being called a whore and a spy at turns, being accused of witchcraft, having her husband’s ancestor attack her, and falling in love with a young Scotsman who has a bounty on his head…a lilting accent, red-golden curls, a beautiful smile…and…the list goes on! =)

Claire Beauchamp/Randall and Jamie Fraser, from the Starz TV show of Outlander

This book is mostly one that appeals to women. I love it for the romance, the witty banter, and the conflict Claire has between her two romances, but…that’s not all this book has to offer. It gives us details about historical Scotland, particularly the conflicts between Scotland and England, and all with a very personal touch. Gabaldon knows how to make history interesting.

One of the things that struck me as I started reading this work was how Gabaldon brought out the facts that we needed to know about the time period (1945, at first), while not filling up pages with junk that we’d skip over (one is reminded of the two-page tree descriptions of Tolkien’s The Two Towers when Merry and Pippin are in Fangorn Forest…not to blaspheme, but…they are dull, and I was twelve when I first read Lord of the Rings).

Gabaldon intertwines all the historical facts with emotional engagement with her characters. She does it so well that there is never a moment when I want to skip over the historical details.

For instance, when Claire arrives, she is thought a whore due to her dress being above-the-knees…later on, during her stay at Clan Mackenzie’s Castle Leoch, she is being watched closely because the Clan leader Colum Mackenzie and his brother Dougal think she is an English spy.

Another point that I’d like to make in this review is that Gabaldon’s book, while romantic and told from a woman’s point of view, does appeal to men. I take my partner as an example. He started reading this book after I convinced him to watch the first couple episodes of the TV show with me, and almost his first reaction was laughter – good laughter. “Wow,” he said, “She is really good at writing from the male perspective. She is so spot on!”

He really loved Gabaldon’s showing of the male character through Claire’s Scottish male lead, Jamie Fraser. He said that there wasn’t anything he felt Gabaldon wrote about men that was “off”. She got it right, from the dirty jokes to the over-done bragging, but not only that, he said, she got into the mens’ heads – the why of what they do.

The men of Clan Mackenzie of Castle Leoch, where Claire is hosted in 1700s Scotland

Gabaldon also has an excellent villain, I should say, before you all think the only conflict in this story is romantic in nature. No! Gabaldon makes Claire’s 1945 husband a historical scholar who is very interested in his ancestors, particular one Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, who did work for the English crown against the rebelling Jacobites who wanted to keep their clans (and tartans and kilts!) intact.

As we discover in 1700s Scotland with Claire, Black Jack Randall’s reputation from 1945 is anything but true. He was not noble, or good, nor did he do great things for the English. Rather, he was vain, proud, a rapist, and just overall a horrible specimen of a human being. (Little does Claire’s admiring husband, Frank, know – a good example of how history can tell things wrong!) Randall ends up being the main villain of the story, as it goes on and we find out that he is after Claire and Jamie for various reasons.

Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, the story’s villain

Not only is Randall a force to deal with, but also, of course, are Claire’s feelings. I feel that Gabaldon doesn’t do as good a job of showing this conflict in the earlier part of Outlander. She shows us a lot of her historical Scotland setting, and develops the romance between Claire and Jamie, but…in my opinion, there is not enough longing on Claire’s part for her husband, Frank, or for her world of 1945. Later on, and in book 2, Gabaldon gets better at getting into Claire’s head on this inner conflict.

That brings me to characters. The character of Claire is well done. She feels real, at times brave, funny, or scared. She has a knack for medicines, having been a nurse in 1945, which gets her in trouble in 1700s Scotland, because she knows too much. She struggles with her growing pull towards Jamie, her curiosity about inter-clan politics with her Mackenzie hosts, and hiding her identity as a time-traveler-by-accident. Claire is outspoken, which gets her in loads of trouble time after time. She is also attractive, which means men are giving her the eyeball left and right. Nowadays we have guns and pepper spray to help us out with the threat of rape, but in 1700s Scotland? Claire has to learn how to dig a tiny knife, hidden in her voluminous Scottish gowns, up between a man’s ribs to his heart. Yeowch!

That’s one of the best things about reading historical fiction. You get to see the great juxtaposition between life “then” and life “now”, whenever they are. Gabaldon makes this continuously intriguing in her book, for hundreds of pages, without it ever getting old, so I would say she’s an expert on it.

It’s really funny, since she wrote the book having never written other novels, “to see what it took to write a novel, and if I wanted to do it”, she says on her website.

I love this kind of story, while also being somewhat envious. Such a stellar novel, and she never wrote one before? Wow! I think that is impressive. Writing is hard.

Anyway, this post has become far too long, and like I said, it’s a mess. Perhaps in another post I will write more, since I do love Jamie Fraser (*wink* to all the understanding ladies out there!) and I am in the midst of reading book 2. I apologize for not writing a more concise, organized review. Please take a look at the book!

If my review wasn’t enough to entice you, here’s a description of the book in Gabaldon’s own words:

In essence, these novels are Big, Fat, Historical Fiction, à la James Clavell and James Michener.  However, owing to the fact that I wrote the first book for practice, didn’t intend to show it to anyone, and therefore saw no reason to limit myself, they  include…

history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, herbs, horses, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…

I’ll leave you with that to chew on!

Happy winter,

Chaitanya