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Georgiana89 (London)

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King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 2)
King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 2)
Price: £5.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Continues much of what made book one brilliant, but a little weaker overall, 13 Nov 2014
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I read the first book in this series, Prince of Thorns, and absolutely loved it. The moment I finished, I downloaded Book Two and started reading.

At the end of Book One, Jorg Ancrath, our utterly amoral "hero" had taken one step closer to his ultimate ambition of being Emperor of the Broken Empire by taking revenge on the uncle who'd killed his mother and brother, and becoming King of Renar in the process. Some chapters in this book pick up almost where that book left off, with Jorg newly crowned and exploring the world. Alternating chapters jump ahead four years, when Jorg is facing overwhelming odds, his country surrounded by 20 000 armed men fighting to conquer Renar for the Prince of Arrow.

The Prince of Arrow - good looking, kind, intelligent, seeking to conquer the Empire purely to bring peace - is the sort of character who'd be the hero of most fantasy novels, even fairly edgy, modern ones. Every mystic Jorg meets tells him that Arrow is prophesied to be Emperor and bring piece to the world. Unlike in the first book, where Jorg was basically a bad man amongst bad man, it's therefore particularly disconcerting to find yourself rooting for him when he's clearly the worst of two evils.

Many of the things that made the first book good are still present and correct. The "seemingly medieval but actually post-apocalyptic" world is well developed, the writing is smooth, and the willingness to play with genre conventions is refreshing. Above all though, it's the main character that makes this series special - his ruthlessness, his absolute determination, and his damaged psyche make compelling, repellent, and sympathetic all at once. Though he's by no means become a good guy, he's calmed down a bit in this book compared to the first, due to a combination of the responsibilities of being a king, growing up, and getting a degree of freedom from the corrosive influence of Corion, a sort of evil magician who was partly controlling his actions in the first book. While this undoubtedly makes him a more nuanced and interesting character, I must admit that part of me missed the jaw-dropping awfulness of Book One Jorg.

In some ways, I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as Book One. Firstly, I really appreciated the way the first book demonstrated that contrary to popular belief, it's possible to write a short, tightly plotted fantasy novel. This one was notably longer and felt a bit padded out in places. In particular, some of the "four years previously" sections dragged a little. Secondly, the flashback/jump forward structure, while clever, made the book feel a little disjointed and confusing. I generally enjoy non-linear narratives, but I felt that it didn't add much here.

There were also a few specific plot points that didn't quite work for me. I don't want to go into too much detail here and risk spoilers, but in short - not just one but about five consecutive deus ex machinas during the pivotal battle, Jorg's obsession with Katherine that seems to have no basis in anything (they've only ever met in person very briefly and don't obviously have much in common), and a terrible, lost memory carried around in a box that was both predictable and (considering the terrible things Jorg's done) rather underwhelming.

At the same time, other aspects of the plot - an interesting double twist around the Prince of Arrow, the wonderful concept of a "Mathmagician", one of the most heartwrenching stories of childhood trauma/animal abuse/terrible parenting you'll ever read, a fantastically ruthless child bride for Jorg - were up to, if not exceeding, the standard set in the first book.

Overall, this is definitely worth a read if you enjoyed book one. Most of the good stuff is still in place and there are some new things to enjoy, but for me, it was definitely weaker in places than the first book. It's also worth bearing in mind that you really have to have read this middle volume before you can read Book Three, which both picks back up again and explains some of the things that didn't entirely make since in this instalment.

Kiss Me First
Kiss Me First
Price: £3.59

2.0 out of 5 stars Depressing and not at all thrilling, 28 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Kiss Me First (Kindle Edition)
The basic premise of this book - one woman is paid to impersonate another on the internet to hide the fact that the latter has killed herself - sounded unique and intriguing, if a little far-fetched. Sadly, despite a few potentially promising moments early on, the books was mostly quite dull, quite depressing and didn't really go anywhere. There was some clever commentary on internet use and some believable online conversations, but they couldn't save this book for me.

Both the (seemingly autistic, certainly very socially awkward and isolated) imposter and the (bi-polar and suicidal) real women were difficult to identify with, and while I felt some sympathy towards both of them, I couldn't bring myself to like them. I also feel as though autism as plot device is becoming far too much of a cliché and an easy plot device. Most of the supporting cast also combined being unlikeable with having depressing lives. I'm generally a fairly cheerful person, but each time I picked this up, by the time I put it down again, I felt quite down myself. I'd definitely avoid this if you're at all depressed.

I could have forgiven the characters and the air of gloom if the plot had had some drama and twists and turns. Surely there had to be more to this bizarre plan than met the eye, some sort of conspiracy or murder mystery or clever twist. But no, with a few bumps along the way, the premise is the entire plot, and it eventually trails off with no real denouement. It's presented as a thriller, but there are few thrills to be had.

Drums Of Autumn: (Outlander 4)
Drums Of Autumn: (Outlander 4)
Price: £3.95

3.0 out of 5 stars Some great scenes lost in a meandering plot. An amazing series that feels like it's starting to run out of steam., 27 Oct 2014
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One of my pet hates is when a great series is dragged out for more books than the author ever originally intended and gradually grows weaker and weaker until you struggle to remember what you liked about it to begin with. In my experience, it's a rare author who can keep a series really strong beyond four or five books. The Outlander Series has by no means got to this stage yet, but while this was still mostly an enjoyable book, I got the distinct impression that, after the high point of Voyager, it was starting to run out of steam.

Firstly, I thought the book suffered slightly from the move from Scotland to Colonial America. The Scottish setting always felt like half the point. Secondly, while Jamie and Clare continue to be interesting and sympathetic characters and while there's still something romantic about their love, they are at this point in an established marriage. While there are some touching depictions of married love and while after all they've been through, it was hard to begrudge this well-loved couple a bit of peace, this is inevitably less exciting to read about than the first book's sexual tension, the second's first flushes of young love and the third's painful separation and dramatic, heartwrenching reunion. I also felt that Clare is now far too comfortable with the past - it's easy to forget she's a timetraveller at all. Most of the drama is left to the younger generation, with Jamie and Clare's 1960s daughter and Gellis and Dougal's great, great, great, great, great grandson Roger playing the "will they, won't they?" game and having increasingly unlikely obstacles thrown in the way of their love. Unlike some reviewers, I quite liked these characters, but they lack whatever it is that makes the series' original couple quite so compelling.

The book's major failing is it's size. I suspect that most of the books in this series could do with losing a few thousand words, but here, the lack of plot relative to the length of book felt especially pronounced. And that was sad, as despite my complaints, the book had some great twists and plot devices, and some of my favourite scenes in the whole series. It's just that all these good bits got slightly lost under relentless descriptions, pointless scenes, and meandering sub-plots. I also hated that for the hundredth time in the series, we get rape as a plot device. Surely the author must be getting bored of that one by now. I think this series is at it's best when it keeps some focus on the time travel angle, and I enjoyed this book the most when I was waiting to find out whether Brianna would give in to the temptation to travel back in time to see her mother again and meet her birth father for the first time.

Overall, this is worth a read. Expect some great scenes and high emotions, but don't expect quite the magic of earlier books. I'm in two minds whether the continue with the series or leave it here. I can't quite believe that there are four more books after this one - I'm struggling to imagine what more can possibly happen to our long-suffering hero, heroine and family.

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 1)
Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 1)
Price: £1.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evil hero, interesting world, dark story - and a great read, 27 Oct 2014
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The opening chapter of this book involves a band of brigands slaughtering most of the male inhabitants of a village, raping their daughters, looting the corpses and then setting the whole place on fire. All of them seem to be having a wonderful time, particularly the deeply sinister first-person narrator.

Having picked this book up without knowing anything about it other than that it was a highly recommended fantasy novel, I wasn't sure what to make of this attention-grabbing but disturbing opening. Had the author written a prologue that was broadly unrelated to the rest of the novel to set the scene and demonstrate the grimness of his world? Or was the hero going to swoop into the village and be avenged on this bunch of murderous psychopaths? And then, as dying villager muses that his murderer could be no more than fifteen, the chapter ends with the line, "Fifteen! I'd hardly be fifteen and rousting villages. By the time fifteen came around, I'd be King." And I came to a shocking realisation that this sadist was actually our protagonist, the titular Prince of Thorns. Basically, if you've ever read a Song of Ice and Fire and wished that the whole thing was narrated by Ramsay Bolton, then this is the book for you.

The fashion nowadays is undoubtedly for fantasy characters to be presented in moral shades of grey, and often even to be outright anti-heroes. But I've never read anything in the fantasy genre that makes the "hero" so utterly, irredeemably villainous. The closest comparator I can think of is a Clockwork Orange, and the main character, Jorg, did seem to share some characteristics with that books hero beyond his love of ultraviolence - a scene where he sits and reads Plutarch following a massacre particularly jumps to mind. I can imagine some people really struggling with this approach to characterisation, but frankly, I loved it. It made for such a different read and the author did a fantastic job of making me root for Jorg while hating myself for doing so. He also struck a nice balance between explaining his behaviour (trauma and a desire for revenge following the brutal death of his mother and young brother, the need to survive and thrive in a cruel world, a horrible father) without ever excusing it. Jorg is almost painfully self-aware, and makes no excuses to the reader. I have an awful tendency to fall in book-love with villainous characters, but some of Jorg's specific actions as well as his overall attitude to life were sufficiently beyond the pale that I never got to the stage of liking him. Nonetheless, he fascinated me.

While it's undoubtedly both a clever and a well-executed device, an evil hero is by no means all this book has going for it. The world is interesting, firstly because the concept of a hundred little principalities fighting to seize control of what was once a united empire allows for lots of politics and scheming. Secondly, because what it quickly becomes clear that what as first feels like a classic medieval fantasy world is in fact a post-apocalyptic earth where the survivors have lost the use of technology and returned to feudal ways. And somehow also gained a degree of magic - possibly through radiation left behind by a nuclear war, though that wasn't fully explained. I'm not sure this always 100% worked (why would people replicate medieval norms quite so exactly?) but it added an extra level of interest and distinguished the setting from your average fantasy novel. It did remind me a bit of the approach used in the Book of the New Sun series, where what appear to be towers are actually abandoned spaceships, but that's no bad thing.

The plot is entertaining and flows well. The writing is great. It's not over-clever or pretentious, it simply works. At times it's actually quite funny, if you can cope with dark humour. The violence is ceaseless and at times extreme, but it's never really gratuitous or lingered over. Most of the really bad stuff (the rapes, the torture of a bishop by sticking needles in his brain etc etc) happens "off-screen" and is mentioned in passing by characters, not described in loving detail by the author. I'm not someone who likes to read about violence for violence's sake or who will choose to read a book because it boasts of being "dark." I could never get on with Joe Abercrombie's book, partly because the world depressed me too much, but despite the fact that the world and the protagonist presented here are if anything, even darker, it somehow kept me entertained and almost cheerful, swept along by the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the protagonist. In his absolute determination to succeed in his quest to become Emperor of his fragmented world whatever it takes, he reminded me of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, though unlike Milton, Lawrence knows full well he's of the devil's party.

There are some books I'd recommend to nearly everyone. This is not one of them. If you like clean-cut heroes, shy away from violence or simply want to see some signs of joy and goodness in your fantasy worlds, you should probably stay away. But if you're looking for a very different and original fantasy novel and think you can cope with a dark world and a morally empty lead and a ruined world, this is a great and surprisingly fun read.

Whispers Under Ground (PC Peter Grant Book Book 3)
Whispers Under Ground (PC Peter Grant Book Book 3)
Price: £3.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Much the same as the earlier books in the series - a fun read, but didn't set my world alight, 13 Oct 2014
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If you've read the previous books in this series, then you'll know broadly what to expect - a police procedural spiced up with magic, some Discworld-esque humour, and a loving depiction of the best and the worst aspects of London. All narrated by a likeable, knowledgeable and self-deprecating mixed-race wizard policeman.

I enjoyed both of the first two books, but at the same time, they left me feeling mildly disappointed. I always feel that this series should be absolutely amazing and should completely seize my imagination, and every time, it almost leaves me feeling like that but somehow just misses the spot.

I've kept hoping that the next book will be the one where it all falls into place, the author hits his stride and this becomes one of my favourite series, but once again, for me at least, the literary alchemy was not quite there. I can't quite put my finger on what's missing - it's a bit like when you go on a date with someone who is perfect for you on paper, you get on well, but there just isn't that spark. If I tried to be a bit more specific, I'd blame the rather convoluted plots that don't really go anywhere and the fact that three books in, there's still not a lot of backstory about the wizarding world or much sign of the overarching plot bursting into life.

That said, you don't have to love and adore every book, and when I pick one of these up, I know it will at least amuse and entertain me, and be a light read that still has a bit of substance behind it.

On balance, I'd say this was better than book two but weaker than book one, and despite my slightly half-hearted review, I'd still recommend this one to fans of the series and recommend that people who like this sort of thing give the series a go. I will be reading book four at some point, but I'm not rushing to start it, and for me, the real test of whether I've enjoyed a book is whether or not I can wait to read the sequel.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Price: £3.08

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One interesting "twist", but otherwise a combination of generic family drama and animal rights polemic, 13 Oct 2014
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After reading the first few pages of this, I already disliked the main character/first-person narrator, who seemed painfully self-absorbed and hated the attention seeking drama student who is the other character introduced at this stage. The next few chapters go into dull detail about our narrator's family dynamic and painstakingly outline a tedious and uneventful Thanksgiving dinner. At this stage, it just felt like every other navel-gazing novel about a middle-class, mildly dysfunctional American family, and the narrator like every other over-privileged, whiny twenty-something character.

I was tempted to drop it there and then, but I stuck with it because a)surely all the good reviews and the Booker nomination meant it had to get better, b)occasionally the knowing, self-referential narrative voice caught my attention, and most importantly, c) from both the text and some of the reviews, I was getting the hint that there was something more to the plot - some sort of underlying family secret.

About a quarter of the way through the book, we find out what this secret is. As this isn't mentioned in the blurb and comes as a bit of a surprise, I suppose it should be described as a twist, and I suppose I shouldn't reveal it. But I found it very odd that the author and/or publishers and publicists had decided to treat it this was. For me, this revelation came so early and was such an integral part of the book that it really should have been in the blurb and all over the advertising material. It's sort of like if all descriptions of Twilight were careful to avoid mentioning that the love interest is a vampire in the hope that readers will be shocked when they find out (not that I like Twilight, I hasten to add, but it was the best parallel I could think of!).

It's actually quite difficult to say more about the book without giving away this plot detail. Let's just say this "twist" caught my attention and for a while, made me feel more interested in the book. The flashbacks to the narrator's childhood that linked to it were interesting and if there'd been more focus on those, I might have been better disposed towards the book. But then the narrative returned to the present, and despite the fact that we now have an explanation for some of the oddities of the narrator, I still found her as unlike-able and disinteresting as ever, and found most of the supporting characters to be even more irritating. Furthermore, there were suggestions that there was still one more secret childhood memory to be revealed, but there really wasn't. If the twist didn't quite qualify as a twist, then the final revelation, really, really didn't qualify as a revelation and it made for a huge anti-climax.

There were some meditations sprinkled throughout the book on what it means to be human and whether humans are really any different from other mammals and particularly from other primates. At times, these were interesting and got me thinking, but far too often, the book felt in danger of turning into a lecture on animal rights and the evils of animal testing. I was looking for a clever piece of fiction, not a polemic. Ironically, I think the message would have been far stronger if the plot had been allowed to speak for itself instead of characters being used as mouthpieces.

By the end, I just couldn't see the point of this book. I recently read We Were Liars, and while I didn't love that either, I felt that was a better portrayal of a damaged family and of the way families create their own mythology and can hide secrets. And if I wanted to learn about animal rights or human/animal psychology in detail, I'd read a non-fiction account, or at least a novel that dealt with the issue subtly. The only thing that really makes this book unique or at all interesting is the plot device I'm not meant to talk about, but despite a brief "wow moment", even that didn't bring the book alive for me.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 18, 2014 1:25 PM BST

The Bone Clocks
The Bone Clocks
Price: £6.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lot like Cloud Atlas, but not quite as good - which still makes it better than the vast majority of books, 3 Oct 2014
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This review is from: The Bone Clocks (Kindle Edition)
One of the characters in this novel of many narrators is Crispin Hershey, an author whose books clearly owe something of a debt to Mitchell’s own. So when Crispin is constantly offended that everyone thinks his latest offerings aren’t up to the standards of his greatest literary and commercial success, it seems fair to say that it’s something that plays on Mitchell’s mind. It therefore makes me feel slightly guilty to say that if I were going to sum up this book in one sentence (which I’m not – concision was never one of my strong points) it would be: “a lot like Cloud Atlas, but not quite as good.”

There’s something about Mitchell’s way with words and way with a story that makes me enjoy everything he writes, whatever the genre and style. Cloud Atlas is one of my all time favourite novels, but I also enjoyed the relatively straightforward narrative structure of his more recent offerings, Black Swan Green and the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Underneath all the cleverness, he’s fundamentally got a fantastic imagination and an amazing ability to tell a story.

Nonetheless, I was excited to see that here, Mitchell had returned back to the style of his earlier works and to what (I think) he does best: short stories that somehow coalesce into a complete novel, genre-bending and experiments with style, complex structures and narrative devices, and a blurring of the lines between literary and genre fiction.

That said, while you would never exactly describe the Bone Clocks as a conventional novel, it was actually rather lighter on tricksy devices than I had anticipated.

On the positive side, it felt much less like a cleverly linked combination of short stories than some of Mitchell’s books, and more like a coherent plot that happened to have several narrators and go off at a few tangents. Basically, it’s the story of Holly Syke’s life from 16 to 75, mixed with the story of an ancient battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists. In some sections, Holly was front and centre whereas in others she made little more than a cameo appearance. Similarly, some sections were basically full blown fantasy, while in others, this paranormal war was only hinted at. But the two poles of Holly and Horologists held the novel together as a coherent whole rather more effectively than comet birthmarks or ghosts really managed in earlier works.
On the less positive side, most of the chapters - despite having different first person narrators – felt oddly similar to each other. They were all told using a linear, first person narrative and used a broadly modern literary style. I rather missed the real jumping around between forms – now a diary, now an interview, now letters – and styles that so wowed me in earlier works. Chapter Five, cheerfully abandons the “basically realism but there are a few weird things going on” approach in favour of just giving into the temptation to write things like, “I can invoke Shaded Way acts without disturbing the Chapel, but the Cathar’ll detect psychosoterica from the far side of the Schism.” But while this chapter shattered the genre divide (and there’s nothing I love more than when serious writers bring a bit of fantasy into their novels), it still stuck to the same approach. This isn’t an attack. They were good stories, the succession of first person narrators had engaging and differentiated voices, the modern literary style was smoothly executed. It’s just that it didn’t amaze me, and I was longing to be amazed.

It’s always something of an inevitability with this sort of book that there are going to be sections you like more than others. Here, I struggled with the overly long and overly self-indulgent section about the author, and even more so with the rather preachy “global warming is a bad thing” end section. But I loved Holly’s working class teenager in the eighties bit and the wonderful noughties section that cut back and forth between a war reporter’s time in Iraq and time at a family wedding as he weighed up the relative importance of family and duty. It’s inevitably going to divide people, but personally, I also loved the hardcore fantasy section. Generally, I find that literary writers are rubbish at this sort of thing, but I thought Mitchell cobbled together an interesting enough mythos. Oh, and for anyone who's ever read one of my books, I suspect it goes without saying that I loved the section about the posh, handsome and caddish Oxbridge student who seduces our heroine and then joins an evil cult that grants him eternal life. I once claimed that Mitchell could take any writer’s novel and write a better version of it in one chapter. Now I know how it feels when it happens to you!

Finally, maybe it’s just my imagination or my slight obsession with that book, but at times, I sort of felt that Mitchell was rehashing characters from Cloud Atlas. One of the nicest things about being a Serious Author is that people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. If a real fantasy author had several characters in his new book that were rather similar to characters in an earlier work, he’d be accused of laziness and predictability. If Mitchell has done so, I can only assume that it’s some clever device. But come on. Was Hugo Lamb not just a 1990s Robert Frobisher? Wasn’t cynical author Crispin just a tad reminiscent of cynical agent Timothy Cavendish? And brave war reporter Ed seemed to take a similar approach to life as brave crime reporter Luisa. And actually, those three stories come in the same order in both books, which probably means our too clever for his own good author is doing it on purpose.

This may be the longest review I’ve ever written, and I think that’s indicative of both the complexity of the book – which makes it very hard to summarise or reach an overall conclusion on – and my rather conflicted feelings, between admiring what Mitchell has done, and somewhat unfairly wishing that he’d done a little more. I don’t think this book is for everyone – the fantasy element will put some people off, while the unconventional structure will drive others away. But if you can bear a combination of fantasy subplot and state of the world pretentions, give it a go. There are some flaws and misteps, but there’s also both brilliant storytelling and real literary cleverness waiting inside.

Voyager: (Outlander 3)
Voyager: (Outlander 3)
Price: £3.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Even better but more difficult read that its predecessors, 22 Sep 2014
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I started this book the moment I finished book two, and until about two-thirds of the way through it, I felt quite obsessed with it, remaining n one of those odd "thinking about the book in every waking moment and then dreaming about it" moods that I find my favourite books always give me.

The first third of this novel has a far more complex structure than its predecessors. The chapters alternate between the 1960s, as Claire, Brianna, and Roger try to find out what happened to Jamie after he seemingly survived Culloden; flashbacks to Claire's life over the last twenty years; and chapters from Jamie's life over the same period of time, two hundred years in the past.

I love time-travel stories when they make your head spin, and this achieved it in a way that earlier books in the series didn't quite manage. I loved having the researchers in 1968 find something out about Jamie's life from a dry document, then getting to see the emotional reality of it through his eyes. This is particularly strong where things have passed into folklore. I'm always fascinated bye the idea of the difference between historical myth and reality, and there are some wonderful examples of it here: prepare to laugh at the story of how the place called Leap o'the Cask got it's name - and then to cry at the brutal reality.

I definitely saw the first book and to a lesser extent the second book as being primarily romance novels, even though many fans tend to argue against this. In this instalment, however, I felt that while the romance between Claire and Jamie was still the heart and soul of the book, the genres were genuinely much more blurred. It's certainly a brave romance novelist that keeps her lovers completely and utterly apart for the first third of a thousand page novel.

It's worth pointing out that while the 1968 scenes are a bit lighter, most of this first third is horribly depressing. Jamie's section opens with him living in a cave, and things rarely improve. There's no one scene as horrific as the ending of the first book, but he does have to live with a relentless, soul-sapping grimness. Claire isn't living in a cave in her flashbacks. She's living in a nice house in Boston, with her dream job as a doctor and her beloved daughter. And yet her guilt at leaving, her trauma over Culloden and her inability to either properly restart or fully break off her marriage to Frank means that it doesn't make for much happier reading. And running between both threads is an utter longing for each other, even though Claire is sure that Jamie is dead and he's convinced he's never going to see her again. The author somehow makes this more poignant, and yes, romantic, then many authors manage to make scenes of characters getting steamy together. It's lovely, it's tragic, and any reader is going to be dying for them to get back together, and maybe get a break.

I hate spoilers, but considering that this is an eight book series, I don't think I'm really giving much away to say that eventually, the longed-for reunion does occur. I felt it was perfect - moving and delightful and heartwarming, without skirting around the reality that two people can't just come back together after twenty years apart and expect nothing to have changed.

There's wonderful emotional drama in the immediate aftermath of the reunion but frankly, once it had been more or less resolved, I think the book should have ended. The plot of the final third of the book centres on a trip to the West Indies and pirates and slavery. It's perfectly fun and exciting and its nice to see Jamie and Claire rebuilding their life together, but it just didn't have quite the emotional or literary impact of the rest of the novel. It didn't affect me enough to make me lost interest or to mark the book down, but I don't think it added much.

Most of the things that bothered me about books one and two were gone, or at least substantially improved. There's much less rape and attempted rape, and only one (fairly half-hearted) flogging. The lurching from one disaster to the next aspect was played down in the first half, though did come back with a vengeance once the characters hit the high seas. I'm starting to think that the main characters are simultaneously cursed to have the worst possible things happen to them at all times, and blessed to somehow get through them without dying or permanently losing each other.

In my review of book one, I complained about the negative stereotyping of both English characters and gay characters. I'm delighted to announce that, as though to silence these complaints, this book includes a character who is English AND gay and yet utterly honourable and lovely. Lord John Grey is basically the anti-Jack Randall, and I think we can all be grateful for that.

On the other hand, I was rather upset with the treatment of the man who previously held the mantle of "only nice Englishman in the entire series." One of the real strengths of the first book was that it didn't take the easy way out and make Claire single or married to someone horrid. For me, the genuine love and affection between her and Frank permeated the 1940s opening scenes, and her initial longing to get back to him and later fond memories of him and refusal to let Jamie do anything that might risk his existence were extremely touching. Clearly, at this point, Jamie is the only man for her, but I still found it sad that her relationship with Frankp couldn't regain some of its old spark in his absence.

In addition, Frank seemed so out of character. He supported his wife going off to work as a war nurse and seemed to love her adventurous nature and upbringing and was lovely in book one. Why did he try to stop her becoming a doctor? Why did he complain when she looked a bit bedraggled? At the point when he inexplicably makes horribly racist comments, I felt that the author was just manipulating me to dislike him, and actually, it felt like a cop-out. That said, I only cared so much because of the extent to which the characters and the story had got under my skin.

Overall, this isn't an easy read, but only because the author makes you care about the characters so much before putting them through hell. If you enjoyed the first two books, you have got to read this- just try to find a quiet space where you can read for hours, and get yourself some tissues and comforting whisky!

Dragonfly In Amber: (Outlander 2)
Dragonfly In Amber: (Outlander 2)
Price: £3.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Similar strengths and weaknesses to book one but a better read overall, 21 Sep 2014
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Having finished Outlander, I was fully intending to take a break and read something else before diving back into the series, but in the end, I couldn't resist picking this up almost immediately.

Outlander ended in 1744, with Jamie and Claire together in France and making plans to go to Rome and stop the Jacobite Rising. And yet, with no initial explanation, this book opens in Scotland in 1968, with things being told from the perspective of one Roger Wakefield - remember the little boy who had been adopted by the Reverend that Clare and Frank visit in 1948? In a thousand page book, he appears for about three pages and doesn't really do anything, so you'd be forgiven for not immediately recalling him.

It's hard to say whether the sense of disorientation becomes more or less acute when Roger is visited by Claire and her twenty year old daughter. The narration quickly shifts back to our heroine, and we establish that she's spent the last twenty years living in the present day (well, the 1940s - 1960s anyway) with Frank and "their" daughter. Though the fact that said daughter is 6ft tall with a mane of bright red hair might cast a touch of doubt on her paternity in the minds of most readers.

Once I'd got over my initial confusion, I loved this approach. I felt that the time-travel was rather underused in Outlander and had assumed Claire would never go back. I thought it was much more interesting to have her reflecting on her adventures from a different perspective and have the creepiness of her visiting a ruined Lallybroch or (gulp) finding Jamie's centuries old grave. The first few chapters of the book carry on in this vein as Claire puts Roger to work finding out what happened to some of her 1740s friends, and we get to know Roger, Claire's daughter Brianna, and an older Claire.

For anyone who didn't enjoy the opening 1940s chapters of Outlander and is horrified at the thought of this, fear not. After a few chapters, it's flashback time, and the rest of the book (until the very final few chapters which are again in 1968) tell the story of what happened in the eighteenth century between the end of Outlander and Claire coming back to her own time.

I found this middle section (which is mostly set in France, although there are some Scottish scenes) to be mostly similar to Outlander, with most of the same strengths and weaknesses. I still loved the two main characters and their relationship. I often think relationships in books become far less interesting once they've become established, but here we get a real and touching depiction of married love. Not to mention married sex! The prose was still excellent, the research felt detailed, and we got both the charm and the grimness of the period. On the bad side, the over-reliance on rape and threats of rape persisted, and there were some truly horrible scenes, including far too much time spent lingering on the events at the end of Outlander, which I'd found both disturbing and odd and had hoped would be quietly dropped. I also found the constant lurching from one crisis to another to be quite exhausting.

Where this book was stronger than its predecessor was in the more complex politics and plotting, and the way that Claire made much greater use of her knowledge of what was to come. I also liked that we got the sort of detailed descriptions of battles that would traditionally be more at home in a very masculine historical novel than something often seen as mostly being about romance.

I'd been engrossed in the book throughout, but suddenly, about a quarter of the way from the end, I started to really love it. Most of the problems fell away and I was just reading with my hand over my mouth. Climax, emotion, I'm almost in tears, and then it's back to 1968 for a few revelations and a surprise ending that left me starting Book Three the same evening.

Outlander: Cross Stitch: (TV Tie-In)
Outlander: Cross Stitch: (TV Tie-In)
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strong setting, interesting characters and beautiful writing - but some major faults too, 1 Sep 2014
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As someone who spends quite a bit of time on Goodreads and various book blogs, this is probably the book that has been recommended to me the most, partly because I like history and time-travel, and partly because all of its many fans seem quite evangelical about the series. I was quite intrigued by the premise - 1940s army nurse finds herself in 1740s Scotland and ends up torn between two husbands in different centuries - but worried that the romance might be cheesy and the history badly researched. I was also rather put-off by the 900 page length, which seemed a bit over-the-top for what I was expecting to be a light, escapist read. On a recent holiday, I wanted something I get really get stuck into, so I finally cracked and gave it a go.

Firstly, if you're going to read it, I strongly suggest that you do the same and save it for a holiday or a time when you're able to spend hours reading. Its sheer length means it takes ages to get through (and I say this as a very fast reader), plus, it's the sort of book where you really need to absorb yourself in the world, not dip in and out.

Secondly, I've seen some debate about the genre of this book, but in my opinion, it's predominantly a romance. It's a well-done romance, and there are certainly also aspects of straight-up historical fiction, of paranormal/fantasy, and of adventure, but frankly, if romance leaves you cold, I really wouldn't recommend this one. Similarly, I struggle to imagine many men enjoying it.

So, with those two points, out of the way, what did I think about it? In short, there were lots of things I loved and some that I hated, but the story sucked me in to the extent that I was able to happily overlook flaws that would have had me throwing a different book across the room.

For me, the best things about the book were the prose - which is much better than you might expect in this sort of genre novel - the main character (Claire) and the setting. Enjoyably tough and mostly unfazed by the increasingly strange things that happen to her, Clare was also just vulnerable enough to be likeable and believable. I also loved that she was sexually confident and happy to induct a virgin husband into the delights of the flesh - a nice change from all the painfully virginal heroines that seem to be the current trend. The other characters were generally interesting too, though some of the clansmen started to blur into one. Jamie, the main love interest, isn't really my literary type. I generally prefer suave, charming and slightly edgy men to the rugged but adorable sorts, but while I wasn't swooning on the floor, he was a strong romantic lead and definitely made me smile. If he could get a response out of me, then if hulking kilted warrior types are your cup of tea, you're going to be in love.

The setting - both in terms of history and geography - was lovingly described and seemed well-researched. I really felt like I was right there in eighteenth century Scotland. The author mostly resisted the urge to over-romanticise the period, giving readers the danger and dirt as well as the excitement. In-between several dramatic episodes, there are enlightening scenes of everyday life: delivering a foal, preparing for a feast, treating minor injuries.

I felt that having Claire time-travel from the 1940s rather than from the present day was a stroke of genius, for several reasons. Firstly, it gives readers who love history two beautifully depicted periods instead of one. Secondly, it helps to stop the book from having dated. Thirdly, I found it slightly more believable that someone who has lived through WW2 could cope with the deprivations of eighteenth century life, compared to someone from today.

Moving onto the bad. Firstly, while I liked the way the book spent time fully immersing the reader in its world rather than dashing from plot point to plot point, I thought it was a bit too long overall, and got repetitive in parts. I think it would have felt a lot sharper with, say, 150 fewer pages.

Secondly, I found the way that Claire was constantly bouncing from one disaster to another - including seemingly endless attempted rapes - to not quite work. It felt oddly episodic. I also felt the time-travel elements were underplayed. I'd loved to have seen more use made of the fact that Clare knew things about the characters and knew things that would happen in the future.

Thirdly, there was a rather odd obsession with beatings of every kind - from parents chastising their children, to the clan punishing a teenager for indecency, to a brutal flogging, to a torture session, and perhaps most oddly, a scene that sat uncomfortably between a kinky spanking and straight-up wife beating, leading straight into a scene that equally uncomfortably blurred the lines between rough sex and marital rape. Along with the scenes of gratuitous Catholicism, while it may have had some basis in period accuracy, it sometimes felt like a not altogether pleasant look into the author's psyche.

Above all, the main villain, Randall, was a bit of a let down. The idea that the sadistic English army captain who is oppressing the highlands is Claire's loving 1940s husband's ancestor was a brilliant one, but ended up being underused. It would have been brilliant if he was charming as well as cruel and if Claire was having to fight an attraction to him and stop herself from linking him with her husband in her mind. One scene almost suggested things were about to go down that route, but no. He ended up being the most horribly one-dimensional villain I've come across in a long time. He literally seemed unable to hold a conversation with someone (male or female, young or old) without attempting to rape and/or beat them, and he didn't appear to have any sort of grand plan beyond finding more people to rape and beat. This irritated me more than it usually would, as it seemed to be at least partly playing up to the "English=evil, Scottish/Irish = good" stereotype so beloved of Hollywood directors. At times, this book made Braveheart look non-partisan - not always a comfortable read as an English woman.

Overall, despite those issues, I'd recommend this, and I haven't been able to resist starting Book Two. I'd suggest you consider whether these are things that would put you off a book completely, or whether, with strong characters, a well-realised setting and a generally interesting plot, you'd be able to overlook them.

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