Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I started watching the Outlander TV series after the first season had aired, and I fell in love with the story immediately. I’m a hopeless romantic, but I stopped reading romance novels a long time ago. I started feeling like the stories lacked substance. But watching the TV series, I was totally in awe of Claire Beauchamp – the heroine who doesn’t wait around for a man to come save her.

I tried getting a hold of the books, but I could only find the latest in the series in the bookstores in my city. So I waited and waited to see who I could impose on to bring them for me from the other side of the pond. Luckily, I was gifted all the EIGHT published books on my birthday this year. (Best birthday present EVER, eh?)

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

Goodreads

Reading the book after watching the TV series, I was already aware of many of the major plot points. But, for me, reading a book is always more enlightening than watching the adapted screenplay. You can’t really grasp the nuances of character on screen as you can in words.

Claire Randall née Beauchamp is an amazing heroine. She is a force to be reckoned with and I feel she takes pride in shocking people around her – especially in when she’s thrown into 18th century Scotland.

James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser is breathtaking – and everything a romance novel hero would be. And there are moments when his perfection breaks my heart. And I don’t think anyone could’ve played a better Jamie than Sam Heughan.

Despite my aversion to romance novels, this one was a delightful read for me because of one key factor – the heroine was not helpless (at least not a complete damsel). I was already in love with the series, as I’ve mentioned before. And reading the book I got to experience the story even more vividly. Diana Gabaldon paints such a beautiful picture of 18th century Scotland, despite all the political unease of that time. The story progression, the historical details, the characters – everything seems to blend in perfectly and results in a an excellent book.

This book is a great pick for readers like me who like their a book that squishes together a bunch of genres. Outlander serves up historical fiction + fantasy + romance in a wonderful package, and this book is highly recommended.

*swooning intensifies*

The Bells ft. Dracarys

I stealthily avoided spoilers all day long by staying off social media as much as possible. I had friends messaging me and writing on my timeline urging me to watch the episode and asking me what I thought. A couple even told me that I was in for disappointment. They were right, I was disappointed, but not for the reason they were.

If you haven’t seen the episode, STOP NOW. If you have seen it or aren’t afraid of spoilers, please continue.

First off let’s discuss the one things everyone has been talking about:

The Character Assassination of Daenerys Targaryen

I understand the general sentiment. Daenerys was introduced in season 1 as a timid shadow of her brother Viserion who she grew to outshine. She saw great loss in the form of Khal Droggo and her infant son, and also in the form of her brother (now now, he WAS her brother after all). She turned the loss of her beloved into the rage that led her to walk into a fire and come out with her dragon babies. And she traveled far to become the Breaker of Chains – and a monarch worthy of the Iron Throne because of her sense of mercy and justice.

And where has she ended up now? As the Mad Queen? Following in the steps of her father Aerys, the Mad King?

There was a pivotal moment in the episode – the moment before the bells start tolling surrender. Dany sees the Red Keep, a castle that was built by her ancestors, the castle where her father and the rest of her family were assassinated, the castle that was usurped all because Robert Baratheon felt personally victimized by Rhaegar Targaryen, the castle which, for Dany, epitomizes a lifetime of exile, of loss, of unendurable pain, of isolation.

Then the Royal Guard lay down their arms, the bells start tolling, the gates have already been blown to smithereens, Cersei has effectively been defeated. BUT the Red Keep still stands – an ode to all that was taken from Dany. And that’s when she decides to burn it all.

I strongly disagree with people who say that Dany’s character has been assassinated by the showrunners. I believe they have quiet strategically led up to the burning of the Red Keep, and that the psychological build-up of Daenerys Targaryen throughout the series has been remarkable to watch.

Now the burning of King’s Landing – well, I didn’t like the city to begin with, it was a cess pool – as told by the books and shown in the first season of the series. As for the people, I’m sure some of them were truly innocent, but again not many sympathies for King’s Landing.

Apart from all the carnage, some of the key moments that stood out for me were:

  • The Execution of Varys: The Lord of Whispers had been one of my favorite characters from the start, and he really grew on me with his “for the realm” dialogue. I would’ve liked to see his letters received and the hubbub they would’ve caused, but I guess we’ll never see that now.
  • The Tyrion & Jamie Moment: Call me melodramatic but I almost cried when Tyrion was telling Jamie how he wouldn’t have survived without him. It was a beautiful goodbye, and one that really provided necessary closure for Jamie Lannister’s story.
  • The Final Words of Euron Greyjoy: “I’m the man who killed Jamie Lannister” – at least he died happy.
  • The Jamie & Cersei Moment: For all the chaos Cersei has caused, I would’ve liked if she met a bloodier, more gory end. And she didn’t deserve the comfort of dying in Jamie’s arms – but Jamie deserved it, and I guess that’s what the showrunners were aiming for.
  • The Moment of Realization for Jon Snow: Despite him not wanting the Throne, despite him telling Varys and everyone who would listen that Dany is his Queen, when Jon sees all the carnage around him he finally realizes that maybe Dany isn’t fit to be Queen. I’m anxious to see what he does with that information.

I am both excited and anxious about the series finale. I feel that our collective expectations are at an all-time high and nothing the showrunners do will be able to meet them. But I have my fingers crossed and I’m hoping for the best.

Also, now that the Red Keep is rubble, is there really even an Iron Throne?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’m not a cry-baby. I’ve never been easily moved by the small things or even the big things for that matter. I spent a long time in my life believing (and making others believe) that I was the most stoic a person could get. That has changed considerably, but I’m still far from being a cry-baby.

Having said that, I must confess, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern made me cry. ACTUAL tears. From-the-heart kind. It is a beautifully written, perfectly paced, poetic piece of literature that I feel honored to have read.

Look at all these gorgeous covers!

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements.
It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

Goodreads

The complete blurb on Goodreads does not do this book justice. I doubt any description would. The magical realism contained in this book is breathtaking. It was an immersive experience that I’ve rarely experienced before.

The book contains a love story, but it is not a romance.
The book is supremely thrilling, but it is not a thriller.
The book is magically mysterious, but it’s not a mystery.
What it is is a mesmerizing fantasy.

The two main characters are pitted against each other since childhood. They grow up learning magic. Once they are old enough each begins creating magic (and hiding it in plain sight as Cirque des Rêves) first as a challenge and then as an ode, a gift to the other. The romance is such a slow-burn that I didn’t even notice – and when finally I did see it I wondered how I hadn’t before.

The Night Circus is filled with magical realism, thought-provoking dialogue, intense mystery, and at the heart of it all is a relationship that reduced me to a crying heap.

It took me more than a week to get over this book. And having read it as an e-book I can’t wait to get my hands on a paperback so I can go through it again! I’m not much of a re-reader, so this is saying A LOT.

Erin Morgenstern made a stunning debut with this book. Her next book, The Starless Sea, is set to be published in November, 2019 and I can NOT wait!

If you’re looking for a book that completely enchants, this is highly recommended!

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

Have you ever come across a book that not a lot of people around you have read and you feel really proud to have read it because it makes you think a bit differently?


Listen.
All the world forgets me. First my face, then my voice, then the consequences of my deeds.
So listen. Remember me.

Goodreads

I picked up last year The Sudden Appearance of Hope because it was winner of the World Fantasy Award (Novel) in 2017. And fantasy is my book genre of choice.

The premise of the book is unique. Hope Ardern disappears from people’s memories as soon as she’s out of sight. She uses this to her advantage to fight a cult-like app, Perfection.

As I started the book, and as the premise became obvious, I was wowed. To be reading a book so unique after such a long time, and that too a book not a lot of people in my circle knew much about,
was refreshing. Granted I didn’t have anyone to discuss it with. But well, that’s the price you pay for reading different.

I was glued to my phone (having to content with an e-book, since I couldn’t find a print copy anywhere in K.S.A.) for the first half of the book. I loved how sneaky and smart the protagonist was, how she kept fighting through her vanishing curse, and she always landed on her feet. The rest of the characters were good complements to Hope, and I felt sad that the handful of friends she made kept forgetting her.

Halfway through the book, though, something shifted. It started to slow down and, TBH, it became boring. The pace literally slowed down to a crawl and it felt like the book kept going in circles.

It took me almost THREE MONTHS to finish this book because:

  1. It became so boring that reading it felt like a chore.
  2. I did not want to DNF it, and kept coming back to it but leaving it again and again.

When I finally did finish the book, the last chapter again felt like a breath of fresh air – especially since it took me a long time to get there. It sums up the story beautifully and gives the book a good close with Hope ending up with the only relative who can remember her – her sister.

Overall, the book provides a unique premise. The story is fresh and a page-turner for the first half until it peters out into a snail-crawl. But the last chapter is worth it.

Haven’t picked up another book by the same author. Not sure I ever will. But I do recommend The Sudden Appearance of Hope if only for the uniqueness of its story line.

The Last of The Starks ft. Starbucks

I spent all day trying to avoid social media in lieu of avoiding spoilers. But on one of the occasions when my resolve died, I came across a headline which claimed this one as the most disappointing episode of the season – which, IMO, is grossly misinformed.

Yes, this episode was not filled to the brim with carnage. But it was filled with important information, plot points, character development, and closure – to name a few.

Before I delve into how this episode was NOT a disappointment, we need to get this out of the way:

Everyone saw it. It was pretty obvious. And it was obviously a production mistake. Happens to the best of us, and only shows that despite being part of one of the most viewed shows of our generation, the production team are still human.

Moving on.

Moving on.

Moving on.

Moving on.

Let’s talk about closure, as this isn’t something Game of Thrones offers up everyday.

  • Jorah and Lyanna Mormont and Dolorus Ed being laid to rest properly was a nice touch. I still wonder what they did with all the Wights’ bodies.
  • Clegane and Sansa finally got to talk. And I feel that she cleared his conscience a little bit, at least in far that he isn’t going to be obsessing over not having saved her from the rest.
  • Gendry being proclaimed rightful heir to Robert Baratheon and being made Lord of Storm’s End makes his story come full circle for me.
  • Tormund and Gendry got their hearts broken – but I think this was better than having one of them killed uselessly. (Yes, I’m aware that that could still happen, but one can hope.)
  • Ghost is alive and will live out the rest of his life bounding around the True North, thankfully. It was sad seeing him being abandoned by Jon, but at least this way he’s out of harm’s way. Here’s to small victories.

Now for the character development. You’d think that this being the last season, they would stop rounding out characters and start just killing them off. But it is GoT!

  • Varys has been surprising me from season 1, and this episode was no different. He’s always been one for self-preservation but who knew he had it in him to be the voice of the realm. Bravo, Lord of Whispers.
  • Brienne being made knight in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was pretty intense. Brienne sleeping with Jamie in The Last of the Starks was slightly less intense – but we’ve seen that coming for a while now. But the one thing I didn’t need to see was Brienne begging Jamie to stay and crying for him. I understand it was important to show that she was human and female – but was it really necessary to make her cry for him? It does show that she truly loved him, but she also knew his history with Cersei. This was disappointing and the writers who wrote this scene need to be ashamed for reducing Brienne of Tarth, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, to a blubbering cry-baby.
  • Daenerys is beginning to resemble a time bomb, and I think Cersei knows what she’s doing. Feeling isolated as she was, having Rhaegal and Missandei killed in back to back (both uncalled for, IMO) is not going to do her mental state any favors. She might just end up like her father, the Mad King.
  • Sansa is becoming my new favorite character on the show. She has been wary of Dany from the moment she begrudgingly proclaimed, “Winterfell is yours, your grace“, and I believe she’s been right to be sceptical. Dany’s decision to march on King’s Landing so soon after The Great War has cost her and not listening to counsel will cost her a great deal more. Sansa knows it, she’s far from the little bird she was in season 1 as she says herself, and she is growing into her role as Lady of Winterfell – a title I’m sure she’ll end up with, if she survives till the end.

Lastly, the important plot points:

  • Cersei’s pregnancy really has me worried. Her lying to Euron about it being his is true to Cersei’s sneaky self-perservative nature.
  • Daenerys becoming isolated and losing loved ones is driving her towards becoming like her father – or is it?
  • Jon’s true identity is now information, as Varys put it, but how long before it becomes public knowledge? Jon’s promises to Dany aside, this morsel becoming public will have adverse effects on their relationship and he might just end up on the Iron Throne – if the North (and Sansa) has something to say about it.
  • WHERE THE HELL IS ARYA GOING?!
  • The final battle will probably end up being among the women. GoT is setting up three of its main female characters (Sansa, Dany, Cersei if you gleaned that till now) for something big.

Having watched the teaser for the next episode, I’m thrilled and scared at the same time. Here’s to hoping Dany doesn’t go batshit, or at least kills Cersei if she does.

RIP Rhaegal and Missandei – you didn’t need to die and I’ll miss you.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning

Let’s face it, we’ve all watched The Little Mermaid, and we’ve all loved it. It was one of my all-time favorite movies as a child, and it inspired me a in a lot of way. For one, I dyed my hair red. Secondly, it instilled a deep sense of family. It was King Triton (and her friends like family) who came to Ariel’s rescue in the end, despite being angry at her for disobeying him. And that is what family means – having each other’s back despite the differences.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning is essentially a re-telling from the perspective of Ursula. It is a prequel to the events of The Little Mermaid and sheds light (tries but fails miserably) on how Ursula came to be the cunning, conniving, wretched, witty creature that we all have a love/hate relationship with. It was a widely anticipated release last year, and I was really looking forward to reading it. But it pains me to say that it was a let-down. Maybe my expectations were too high considering my love for the movie. Or maybe because as I’ve grown up I feel myself relating more with Ursula than Ariel, and it was disconcerting to see her reduced to a simple, albeit witchy, girl.


Everyone knows what happens in the end. A mermaid, a prince, a true love’s kiss. But before that young siren’s tale, there were three friends. One feared, one royal, and one already dead.

Goodreads

The story revolves around childhood friends Evie, a commoner and secretly a witch, and Nik, a prince. They share the loss of their friend Anna, and when a girl named Annemette with the same face as Anna appears, Evie‘s world slowly starts to unravel.

Sadly, there are a number of problems with this book and it is hurting my mermaid-loving heart to enlist them.

  • World-building: The setting is so confusing. It’s Denmark-ish but fictional, as Henning opts to base the fictional town-kingdom of Havnestad in the real world. But the strict court etiquette and the steamboat are products of different centuries.
  • Vague Characters: All the characters seem hazily written and are difficult of visualize. Some characters are only introduced by name or by their relationship to the main three, and none of their ideals or intentions are explained. I enjoy a compelling backstory, and the lack is glaringly obvious.
  • Flat Storyline: The story itself feels flat and under-developed. There were a great many things that could’ve happened, a few that should’ve. But the story just goes around in the same two dimensional circles.

I believe I would not have been as disappointed in the book had it not been labeled as a re-telling. And that too of one of the most loved fairy-tales that has been re-told time and again to moderate/great acclaim.

Source: Giphy

Considering the Disney adaptation, they made Ursula as grotesque as they could possibly while keeping the film child-friendly. What we ended up with is the most savviest villain in Disney animation history. (Hades from Hercules is a close second.) Reading Sea Witch, it is impossible to think of sweet-tongued, girl-next-door Evie as Ursula. She lacks the basic character traits that could morph into pure, savage power such as what Anderson originally captured in his writing.

The follow-up to this book, Sea Witch Rising, is set to release in August 2019. Let’s hope it takes the story of Evie to a place where it can be salvaged.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

I’ve recently given up my reluctance towards e-books. There are a bunch of reasons, but that’s a whole other story.

I started reading The Incendiaries because it was one of the shortest books I had on my phone when I found myself stranded in a waiting room without the paperback that I was reading. (which at that time was The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon) I personally can’t sit idly for any stretch of time. And waiting room banter is beyond me.

A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Part of blurb from Goodreads

Starting the book, I was a bit confused. It took me a moment to get a hang of the story and the writing style. I generally don’t like books that are confusing to begin with – but I persisted. Slowly the characters began to get familiar, albeit slightly. I couldn’t seem to relate with any of the characters to begin with. But that changed somewhere around Chapter 15 when the character’s individual losses and tragedies started to surface. (Also, maybe I couldn’t relate because I’m not half-Korean?)

The book revolves around:

  • Will Kendall – boyfriend to Phoebe, ex-Christian evangelist, transfer student at Edwards University, struggling to make end meet and with the Christ-shaped hole in his life.
  • Phoebe Lin – girlfriend to Will, party girl, trauma survivor
  • John Leal – leader of religious cult, gulag survivor (or is he?), fanatic

Will and Phoebe’s relationship starts fraying at the edges when Phoebe joins Jejah, John Leal’s cult. The whole book is broken into POV chapters for the three characters but we see everything through Will’s eyes, read everything through his perspective.

One aspect of the story that I did related with was fractured identity. I’m a diaspora child, having been born and raised in a country that is not my own, and one that does not allow for the semi-acceptance granted by hyphenation. I understood how Phoebe was both apprehensive but also interested in visiting Seoul, and how Phoebe’s father started preaching at the church because that was one place where his name mattered.

My feelings about this book kept changing throughout the read – first I was confused, then I began to like it as I began to grasp the threads, then I was afraid of the turn the story was taking, and with the ending I was just angry. But to me that’s good writing – when one book makes you go through such a range of emotions. The characters were a bit unreal to me even to the end.

I do hope Kwon writes more as I’m looking forward to reading more from her.