The Fiery Cross

Without his glasses, my significant other saw this book on my bedside table and mistook it for a box. It is 1443 pages long (which in my mind is a number that signifies a year, not a page count) and its spine is practically the same size as my palm... yet one can read it with surprising speed. The Fiery Cross is Diana Gabaldon's fifth installment in her Outlander series, following the characters we've come to know and love... through a surprisingly small scope of location and time. It feels a bit odd, really, to not be jumping about time and space -- everything occurs within two years and all of it is within the boundaries of the colony of South Carolina. We've got a few years before the official start of the American Revolution and while most colonists might be aware of some discontent that's brewing over taxes, only our small knot of characters know for sure that it's all about to come to a head... mostly because three out of four of them lived in the 1900s and therefore read about all of this in their history books.

The book opens right where we left off -- at the end of the Scottish clan Gathering that's drawn Scots from across this particular swath of the colonies. We had just kicked off this Gathering at the end of the fourth book, but now we're wrapping it up with two very important weddings... though only one actually takes place and the other is postponed. Gabaldon must enjoy weddings, because there are two in this book and the events of both days seem to take forever. Granted, all kinds of things are happening and the services themselves are quite quick, but I suppose she certainly takes advantage of the fact that several people are gathered in one place. At this first one, Jamie manages to get his grandchildren (broadly inclusive of Fergus's kids along with Brianna's) baptized by a priest (even though the priest has been arrested) and then Roger and Brianna finally manage to officially tie the knot (though this one's not sanctioned by a Catholic priest, much to Jamie's dismay). The wedding of Duncan and Jocasta is postponed and so instead, we move straight from wedding to war. Well, perhaps "war" is a bit much, but certainly the preparation for battle. Jamie has been commissioned to recruit and head up a militia of men from his area and report to the governor to help in the quelling of some Regulators. He's well aware that his wife and daughter have informed him of the outcome of this impending war. As a Scotsman, there's no love lost between him and the English crown, so it's not like he feels he must be loyal to a king that killed a great number of his countrymen, but Jamie is smart enough to realize that it's too soon to start arguing and it's better to endure for a little while. The first mustering of troops ends without a fight, but by the middle of the book, we find ourselves in a battle with huge implications for the Fraser/MacKenzie clan if not for the larger colonial conflicts. Other storylines at play in this particular volume include the ongoing search to find and kill Stephen Bonnet, the smuggler who raped Brianna and possibly fathered her child (even if Roger accepts Jemmy as his own son); continued relations with the nearby Indians who look upon Jamie as a great bear hunter; the question of whether the goods of River Run are the only wealth to be guarded or if there's another golden treasure within its bounds; and Claire's attempts to introduce twentieth century medical practices into the eighteenth century (or at least not get caught performing an autopsy and produce a penicillin specimen that the housekeeper doesn't toss into the garbage).

If you're unwilling to have anything spoiled, I suggest you stop reading now, even if I only pick out a few key points to discuss.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the book takes place after the battle of Alamance when Roger is executed by the Governor. Roger, having gone to the Regulators in an attempt to get them to stand down, does a completely stupid thing when he spots his his many-times great-grandmother on the Regulator's side of things; he tells her to get her family out while she can... and then he kisses her in farewell, thus provoking the wrath of his many-times over great-grandfather. William MacKenzie is a right terrible bastard who beats Roger senseless and then hands him over to be hanged as a Regulator ringleader (and Roger is not quite conscious enough to realize what's going on). The surprising thing is not this twist (because Gabaldon certainly knows how to create drama), but that the execution actually goes through! Instead of dying at the end of the hangman's rope, though, Roger somehow survives -- when Jamie and Brianna make to cut him down, they hear him moan and Claire springs into action. As a result of the hanging, his throat is crushed... making it impossible for him to ever sing with the beauty he once did, and indeed, it's feared that he may never even speak again (though he does, with considerable effort). Terrible and heartbreaking as the loss of his beautiful singing voice might be (and indeed, for a while Roger's spirit appears to have been crushed along with his larynx), the whole surviving a hanging thing seems a bit much, eh? He had been hanging there for nearly an hour! And survived! Surely Gabaldon found some instance of this miracle in reality (the detail about the new rope not having any give is too specific a detail for it to not be true) and so brought it to play here, but I hope you understand me when I say that even though this is a novel, this miracle seems a bit too fantastic a thing to happen in a fiction if said fiction wants to be taken "seriously." I write this and then realize that this series is based on the premise that time travel is possible within stone circles, but in fairness, Gabaldon is very dedicated to the historical reality of her settings. She goes to great lengths to impress upon us just how dangerous a time it is, serendipitous events aside (because really, it's a novel, and we all come to accept the moments where a hero arrives just in time or the bullet is stopped by something in a character's pocket). I thought that Gabaldon was pushing it in book three when Jamie was shot in the head and yet the bullet simply went under his scalp because his skull is so thick. But hanging by the neck for an hour and surviving? It's ridiculous! I'm not saying that I want Roger dead, but we've seen a moment like this with Roger before now (two if you count his botched attempt at time travel through the stones), when Jamie nearly killed him in book three. Jamie stopped himself from killing him, but this time, Roger is simply cheating death and if Gabaldon does one more thing to Roger like this and lets him survive, then I'll lose respect in her storytelling skills. Three strikes and you're out, sir. Even if it was tragic that he loses that gift of singing, I would have been impressed with Gabaldon for actually going through with the death of a main character. I often wonder if she isn't simply populating Fraser's Ridge with people who will soon be casualties of war so that our main characters might survive and yet there will be sufficient depictions of carnage.

All that said, I realize my particular ire is brought about by the fact that it's Roger who's been cheating death. When Jamie survives near-misses, I'm not nearly as surprised. But then, this is Jamie's time and place. He's a soldier who's made a life of surviving and is capable of dealing with any number of attacks. He's a much more physical being than Roger, the former Oxford University history professor who has poor vision and approximately zero hunting and shooting skills. At least Bree knows how to ride a horse and shoot a gun (which was a very interesting point, if indeed Frank taught his daughter those things because he knew she would go back). I rather think that at this point, even Roger's surprised that he's still alive. The only thing keeping him alive is luck and, well, the grace of Gabaldon. Clearly he has a larger destiny to fulfill in this epic story.

This book more than any other carries a significant number of small details that I really enjoyed. Roger spying on Claire and Jamie, intent on learning how one maintained a marriage with such a level of passion and love. Brianna writing down dreams in a journal. Claire's foolish pleasure at knowing that men beyond her husband can find her attractive, even if it causes a bit of trouble. Jamie's jealousy over an unknown man bedding a wife he's divorced. One of the particular details that I liked in this book was the acknowledgment of the impulse to speak about things that are not part of the eighteenth century, and yet Brianna and Roger still have those memories of them. The wind in one's hair while driving, the cool taste of Coke, the urge to sing a Beatles song. The last, in particular, would surely get me in trouble, particularly when it comes to singing a child to sleep. They might get by with "Darlin' Clementine," but the songs that I'd feel the need to croon would all carry questions and implications of another time. (And a life without the ability to make pasta? Who am I kidding, I'd be dead quicker than Roger.) A detail I did not like: there was a horrid moment where she started writing in dispatches or diary entries from the governor and they were terribly dry and annoying. Thankfully, even she must have grown tired of them. And speaking of things we're getting tired of, sooner or later, we'll have to figure out if Jemmy is the biological son of Bonnet or Roger. It's a lovely sentiment that Roger doesn't care because Jemmy is his son no matter what, but we all know that sooner or later, blood will out. At least we can content ourselves with Brianna exacting a bit of revenge on Bonnet. It really would be nice if she was the one to dispose of him in the end, rather than the menfolk.

Once again, Gabaldon has created an incredibly compelling book and while things necessarily get convoluted with an ever-growing cast of characters, if you've been a fan so far, you'll continue to enjoy it. Even if Jamie and Claire have to give way to the concerns of Brianna and Roger, they still are firmly settled at the core of the novel. (Indeed, the closing sentiment of Jamie's actually made me tear up a bit as the rest of the book had not done.) If only all couples could age and grow with such wonderful assurance that their life and home was rooted in the other person. So on to book six, where we're sure to further entangle ourselves in the impending war... and there's that newspaper clipping that Roger found that announces Jamie and Claire's deaths. I certainly hope we get to part of it at least, because I'm not sure I can take much more of the lead-up without actually sinking our teeth into it. I'm stubbornly refusing to read the summaries of the books at this point; I know I'll keep reading so I'd rather be swept along and surprised. I'm not sure I would have said this somewhere around book three, when I was annoyed that the series had not yet wrapped up, but Ms. Gabaldon, please keep them coming!


Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. By this point, I wonder if there's a reason to write a true review of the fourth book in a series of thousand-page books. After all, no one's glancing at reviews to say, "I suppose I'll just dive in here and not read the first three, shall I?" People who make it through thousand-page books of historical fiction don't tend to jump around in a series, right? If you do, then stop it this instant.

What I mean is that I feel like I'm not trying to sell anyone on these books by this time. You're either hooked or you're not, so a review becomes unnecessary... unless it's something intended to whet the appetites of expectant readers prior to the book's release? Or sway someone who once liked the books and then was disappointed? Well, rather than write a real review, I'm opting for a plot summary and then something that's more of a discussion of certain points. My assumption is that if you're reading this review, you've already read the book and might simply want to chat about it with someone. Or you're a friend who feels obliged to read my reviews because you love me or at least find me amusing from time to time... in which case, I apologize for the fact that this is the fourth book in this series that I've read about Scottish Highlanders, time travel, adventure and romance. This'll teach you for saying you always read my reviews.

In Voyager, Claire and Jamie Fraser were reunited after twenty years (or two hundred years, depends how you look at it) of separation and now they're together for good (most likely). While rescuing Jamie's nephew Ian from pirates, they crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and not only found Ian, but Claire ended up killing fellow time-traveler/accused witch, Gellis Duncan. Now Jamie and Claire (and everyone else they have in tow) are in the American colonies, trying to figure out just what to do with themselves. Settle down? Continue to travel? Return to Scotland? Claire's a bit terrified about that gravestone in Scotland with Jamie's name on it, but perhaps that's not the best indicator as to where their fate may lie.

Rather than simply stay with Claire and Jamie in the eighteenth century, this book dips back to also pick up the "modern" time. Brianna (Jamie and Claire's daughter) and Roger (descendant of Jamie's uncle Dougal and the witch Gellis) might be mad for each other, but Roger is fairly insistent that if Brianna wants him, it has to be for life... and that means marriage. Brianna was a bit concerned about promising such a thing when they have years of obligations between them (her school, his work) and puts things off, thus keeping them on separate continents. So when Roger realizes that Brianna has gone missing (apparently leaving for Scotland without telling him), he no longer has any idea if Brianna wants him or not, as she's clearly gone into the stones to find her mother. Roger had failed to tell Brianna about a notice he found in a Colonial paper that announced the deaths of Jamie and Claire in 1776, so he knows that Brianna will eventually be headed to the Colonies once she finds out where they've gone. Thus, Roger dives into the stones to find Brianna, uncertain if she wants to be found and uncertain if they'll be able to make it back.

So from this point on, I'll be bringing up some discussion points... which means there are spoilers. Just FYI.

I suppose I see why it had to be America, given the time period, but I will, indeed, miss Scotland. After internal debate and external discussion, Jamie and Claire decide to take the governor up on his offer and settle in the Carolinas, attempting to build up a home for themselves and the opportunity for others to settle. It is, indeed, as though Jamie is creating his own lairdship here in the Americas, except he's insistent that it's not the same. There may not be generations backing up his claim, but Jamie is enough of a leader to command the same amount of allegiance. I suppose if need the drama, then at least we have the same structure we're used to... and we're not creating an isolated settlement where it's just a handful of people. (Of course, the pessimist in me believes that we're simply building up a good amount of characters so we can kill them off soon enough once we hit the Revolutionary War). In this book, there was the tempting offer of Jamie taking up the management of River Run, his aunt Jocasta's plantation, but here I appreciated the fact that Gabaldon knows her characters well (I suppose she ought to by now). Jocasta is quite a strong-willed character and Jamie would have to do things her way... and he's not one to take orders. Better to have him establish something that's his own... and allow us the historical glimpse into everything it takes to set up a settlement.

One thing that I found to be a trifle irritating in this particular book is a trick that Gabaldon uses more often in this volume than in any other (aside from the fact that this was the whole structure of book two) -- she takes us right up to a scene that should be quite important... and then skips forward in time, only to return to this scene much later. I understand there's a desire to spread out the tension and her story structure rested on the need for us to not know the truth of things until it was necessary, but the repeated use of this was the really annoying bit. The two big examples of this are when Bree gets raped by Bonnet and when Jamie potentially kills Roger. (Side note: I'm nearly done with book five by the time I write this review and I have to say that poor Rogers gets the short end of the stick for quite a while to come.) By not coming out with information at the get-go, confusion is caused, and that's important for Gabaldon's storytelling structure. We need to not know if Bree slept with Bonnet, yet know that Lizzie suspects Roger of raping Bree. We need to not know if Jamie has killed Roger. We need the miscommunication (or lack of communication) for her story to do what she wants it to do... it's just that it gets to be a bit wearisome when everything in a thousand page book is based on this story structure. And it also tends to suggest that if Gabaldon can't jump between two centuries, then I suppose we can hardly stop her when she feels the itch to jump between a matter of days or months.

By virtue of shifting the stories to focus a bit more on the drama between Roger and Bree (young and at the start of their romance), we do move away from Jamie and Claire, but only a bit. We have to give way a little, I suppose, or else the book would be even longer, but at least Gabaldon doesn't feel the need to focus on them entirely. After all, Jamie and Claire already have our hearts. Roger and Bree are good enough, but don't quite have the pull of Jamie and Claire. Perhaps it's to do with the fact that their romance doesn't have the same epic feel to it. Perhaps it's that neither one of them are as charismatic as Jamie or Claire. I often find myself frustrated on their behalves, for neither of them were born to the eighteenth century and so they both seem to be fish out of water, whereas at least Claire has Jamie... and her own practical focus that allows her to settle into this world without much fuss. There's also a sense of the tragic with them by the end of the book -- Bree pregnant and uncertain as to who could be the father; Roger bought back from the Indians at the expense of sacrificing young Ian; both Bree and Roger now stuck in the eighteenth century, for Bree won't leave Jemmy and Roger won't leave Bree.

When it comes to villains, I suppose no one should have worried about a lack of them in the New World. Gabaldon does have a tendency to come up with some truly depraved folks. First it was Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, who might be Frank Randall's ancestor and yet was a truly wicked sadist, consumed by his obsession for dominating Jamie. Then we had Gellie Duncan, who seemed to rise from the dead so that she might debauch and kill young boys in her witchy attempts to return to her own time. Now we have Stephen Bonnet, an Irish smuggler who repaid the Frasers kindness with robbery and then raped their daughter, potentially impregnating her. Of course, all of Gabaldon's villains seem to have another side to them (certainly Randall seemed all but forgiven in his grief-stricken descent) and the same is true of Bonnet, though not quite to the same degree -- yet. Bonnet actually does drag John Grey's body to safety from the fire that his associates set (even if it's at Bree's insistence)... and gives Bree the black diamond for the child's keeping. Of course, this can only end badly, as this all but assured that Bonnet will try to return for the child, who he believes to be his son. He'll have to end up dead in the end if Bree, Roger, and Jemmy are to remain an intact family.

In the meantime, even if I wasn't always delighted with this novel, I'm well aware that I've fallen under Gabaldon's spell and will continue to devour her novels. I might need a break soon, though, and I'm a bit surprised I haven't overdosed already. That's testament to an excellent storyteller, I suppose.



Voyager is the third installment in Diana Gabaldon's epic series about the Scottish Highlands, love, and time travel. If you've made it so far that you're contemplating the third book, I'll stop making jokes and excuses about how that all sounds to summarize. Clearly, you're as taken with them as I am as a means of fun escapist literature with some great historical detail tossed in. Warning: I certainly won't spoil the ending of this book in this review, but I will for its predecessor, Dragonfly in Amber, so be careful there.

Years may have passed between the close of Outlander and the open of Dragonfly in Amber, but there's no such gap here (well, aside from that approximately two hundred year gap that separates the "modern" storyline and the historical one). We pick up both stories right where we left them -- that is, in 1968 and 1746, respectively. In 1746, Jamie Fraser had just killed his uncle and knew that between having to answer for such an act and the approaching battle of Culloden, there was no way he would survive to protect his wife and their unborn child. So he pushed Claire though the stones at Craigh na Dun so she might find safety in her own time (which is to say, 1948), and she believed that he met his death shortly thereafter. She returned, gave birth to a daughter named Brianna, and remained married to Frank Randall, despite some obvious issues on both sides. He refused to leave a woman in her condition and ultimately stayed because he loved Bree. When Claire returned to Scotland in 1968, she was intent on telling Brianna about her real father, which all came tumbling out to both Bree and their friend, Roger Wakefield. Roger then found evidence to suggest that Jamie survived. Thus ended book two. Book three opens with Jamie, alive despite all the odds, and Claire shocked to the core by Roger's news. She had been in her own time for twenty years. If Jamie also survived twenty years beyond Culloden, then there's the possibility that Claire might be able to go back through the stones to continue her life with him, albeit with twenty years of time passing. But really, when you're talking about your lover who exists 198 years in the past, what's two decades?

So Claire must decide if she can leave the modern world and her daughter to return to eighteenth century Scotland and the greatest love she's ever known. With Bree's blessing, no one should be surprised that Claire takes the chance and does go back to find Jamie. Of course, twenty years is a considerable amount of time to have passed, with both living their lives as though they'd never see the other again. Claire has time to prepare for their reunion, but Jamie is shocked when she suddenly appears. He's desperately in love with her still, of course (it is a romance, after all), but much has changed in Jamie's life, too. It won't be easy for Claire to simply come back from the dead and it will be a heck of a thing to explain to everyone else in Jamie's family.

I won't go into too much detail on that, but suffice to say that there are an abundant amount of complications as Claire learns more about Jamie's life since Culloden. (It's kind of a shame, I think, that Claire's advanced to become a real doctor in her modern time, raised a child, and done any number of things, but naturally it's not quite so adventurous and story-worthy as Jamie's existence. Is it because we don't see the modern age as being dramatic? Because we're more aligned with Claire and therefore more concerned about Jamie's existence? Or because it's historical fiction and the readers and author are more concerned with time as it was as opposed to time now?) The book does go beyond the implications of her return (though they are substantial) and believe it or not, Claire & Jamie eventually strike out for the New World, chasing young Ian (son of Jenny and Ian Murray) after he's kidnapped by pirates. (The clue that this was coming rested in Claire's modern life and a scene featuring a bodice-ripping romance novel with a pirate theme.) Of course, Claire's seen Jamie's gravestone in Scotland, so she believes that they must eventually make it back, but for now it's high seas adventure and discovery of Caribbean islands.

A few points, now that I've read about three thousand pages worth of this Claire/Jamie romance. I feel like I can make bigger comments about the series as opposed to just the books on their own. During the first book, Jamie joked with Claire that he was tired of men trying to rape her and make him watch. During this book, I kind of got tired of every homosexual man trying to have sex with Jamie. I mean seriously, every single one?? The man might be handsome, sure, but enough is enough. At least in this one we get a fellow who isn't depraved like Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall. Speaking of Jonathan, I was a little surprised how he gets so easily dismissed at the beginning, a victim of Culloden and that's that? He was positively evil in the first book and then in the second, Jamie somehow manages to refrain from killing him... and even seems to be sympathetic when Alexander Randall dies and Jonathan goes to pieces. Perhaps this is more an issue that I have with the second book, but I at least hoped for some comeuppance in this one. There's also this issue I have with Claire and Jamie always being able to find each other to the point where even Gabaldon seemed to move quickly through a reunion after Claire is kidnapped and then escapes and finds her way across Caribbean islands to pop up at Jamie's back. Ah well. It's things like this that make me realize there's a charm some writers can cast once they've made it through a significant number of books about characters -- their fans are already sold on everything and as long as you still maintain a decent degree of quality, they'll probably keep reading. Still, I hope we don't see a decline in future books to where she takes this for granted. It doesn't feel as through she would, but even so.

An amusing (albeit easy) thing that Gabaldon does in this book that I haven't much seen before is her having a sense of humor and making a few self-referential jokes. Both Claire and Jamie read some romance novels with some steamy scenes that go far beyond anything Gabaldon does (which is why her books can still claim space in fiction as opposed to romance). There's also a joke about epic novels and how one can manage to read all those pages, and then a further joke about how life holds adventures enough to fill the pages of a novel (or in this case, the pages of seven novels and counting). It's nice to know that Gabaldon clearly has a sense of humor about her enormous novels -- and her fans will probably be delighted to feel in on the joke.

I must confess a sense of dismay at leaving Scotland and striking out for the New World. Even if we do make it back, I'll miss it as the primary setting for the story. I suppose she needs new locations to keep something fresh, though -- it's enough that we know all books will deal with Claire and Jamie, but it must be difficult to come up with continued storylines to keep everyone interested... particularly when we tossed aside twenty years in book two. Clearly, I'm in it for good, now, and I continue to recommend Gabaldon as a writer for those looking to really toss themselves into an epic storyline with quite enjoyable characters who, no matter how ridiculous the adventure might seem, you're always pleased to see them weather any storm.


Dragonfly in Amber

Dragonfly in Amber is the second book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and when you pick it up, you need to accept a few things. I'll spell them out for you now so at least you're prepared. One: unlike Outlander, this title is so ridiculous that if you're willing to be seen with this book, then you know you're hooked. Two: despite its beginnings, this book once again features Claire and Jamie in their race to somehow change the outcome of Scottish history (and more particularly, to save the Scottish clans from the massacre of Culloden), but it's definitely more focused on the history than the first book. To combine these two points, I might note with amusement that Outlander seems even more like a romance novel than its sequel, but the sequel is the one with the romance novel title. You could be seen in public reading the first book (if you can control your blushing), but the title of the second will make it look like you're reading a romance novel and yet you don't get as many of the benefits (see previous note about blushing). Three: unless you're prepared to take on the rest of the series, you should not start this book. Pretend that the first simply ended happily and leave it there. I say this for your own good, because the second ends with a cliffhanger and as soon as you finish this one, there is no feasible way that you can resist the pull of the third... and once you've read the third, are you really going to stop there? Oh, and two more things before I start the review. Since I find the title so painful, I'm just going to refer to this book as DiA... and since this is the sequel to Outlander, I warn you now that I give away the ending of Outlander so I can better explain DiA.

We open in Inverness, 1968. Already you're thinking "Um, what?" At the end of Outlander, Claire had chosen to stay with Jamie rather than return to Frank, and they were in France after fleeing Scotland with only their lives. It was 1744. Yes, that's all true, but it shouldn't take you very long to realize that something went wrong and for some reason, Claire did go back to her time after all. Since she's introduced as Claire Randall, you can also assume that she went back to Frank... but her ridiculously tall, redheaded daughter is clearly the product of a certain young Scot named Jamie Fraser.

Roger Wakefield was just a boy when we caught a glimpse of him at the beginning of Outlander, an orphan taken in by his uncle who now crops up again with a larger role. (If you're the kind of person to think back about things from the beginning of Outlander that might now come into play, perhaps you'll also remember Frank's encounter with what appears to have been the ghost of a highlander looking up at Claire's room with longing...) Roger is now a young man in the painful process of grieving for his uncle and cleaning out the Reverend's house which is chock-full of books and papers. He opens the door one morning to find Claire Randall and her daughter, Brianna, on his porch. They're in Scotland on holiday and Claire has a request to make of the nephew of Reverend Wakefield, seeing as the Reverend shared her deceased husband's enthusiasm for Scottish history. All too quickly, when Roger agrees to help Claire with some research work (tracing the fates of certain Highlanders who probably fought at Culloden), he realizes that something is amiss. Claire is acting a bit cagey and Brianna looks nothing like the pictures of her supposed father, Frank Randall. Of course, Roger is quickly smitten with the beautiful daughter, Bree, so he spends a great deal of time thinking about her, but that doesn't stop him from snooping around to figure out what Claire is hiding. When he stumbles upon some newspaper clippings from May of 1948, he learns that Claire Randall reappeared after three years of being missing and presumed dead... she was exhausted, apparently unhinged, and pregnant. Of course, whatever explanation Roger comes up with pales in comparison to the truth, which comes out in a rush as the three of them visit the kirkyard of St. Kilda... where a gravestone shows a name that means a great deal to Claire. James Fraser.

Presumably, Claire tells Roger and Brianna about all the events in Outlander before embarking on the second half of the story, which is DiA. Having escaped to France, Jamie and Claire have the opportunity to stay and run Jamie's cousin Jared's importing industry while he travels on business. This allows them the cover and the contacts they need as they attempt to thwart the plans of a Jacobite Rebellion. It's a very different scene in Paris than it was in Scotland, with dinner parties and trade intrigue, but Claire and Jamie remain the same in personality, even if their daily tasks are quite different. Of course, Claire is pregnant now and Jamie's trying to handle her with kid gloves, so the sex isn't quite as steamy in this book as it was in the previous one. Jamie befriends Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender they hope he will never be, and for a time, he seems more interested in his mistress than rebellion. There are a number of near-death and near-rape experiences (so maybe it isn't so different from Scotland after all?) and yet a further entanglement with Frank Randall's ancestors when Claire meets Mary Hawkins (whose name she saw on Frank's family tree as having married Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall) and Alexander Randall (brother of the same). Of course, Jamie and Claire believe that Black Jack Randall is dead, having been stampeded by cows at the end of Outlander. (Stampeded by cows might seem odd, yes, but it was all part of a plan to rescue Jamie from prison, where Randall was torturing and having his way with Jamie.) After what Randall did to Jamie, one can hardly mourn the loss, but Claire is tormented with questions about what this means to her first husband, Frank, and his possibilities of being born if his direct ancestor is killed before having the opportunity to perpetuate the family lineage. I think you can tell, though, that with epics like this, you can never really call someone dead until you've seen the body... and, well, what with time travel and all, I'm sure that we'll even have some issues there eventually.

Lest you fear that we've lost the Highland magic in this book, I'll let you know that we don't spend the whole book in France. With Scotland's history in the balance, there's no way that we could sit that out with only the Frenchies for company. The time in France, however, is well-spent in picking up a few side characters, including an apothecary who looks like a frog (though he might dabble in darker things than simple herbs), a boy named Fergus (well, his name is Claudel but Jamie hardly sees this a fit name for a man) who Jamie employs as a thief to steal letters, and the king of France himself. We also build upon the passionate relationship between Claire and Jamie, which is put to the test in this novel as they make promises to each other which are difficult to keep, given the complicated nature of trying to change the future, but not change everything.

Whether Jamie and Claire can stop the massacre of Culloden and what exactly it is that brought Claire back to the modern age... well, that's the bulk of DiA. The cliffhanger ending should be fairly obvious to those with any foresight, but with several books to go, I'm willing to trust in Gabaldon and let her take us wherever she wants to go. It's certainly been an entertaining ride thus far!



If you're anything like me, even in today's age of online shopping, you still spend a good deal of time lurking in the fiction section of bookstores, idly scanning the spines of books to find titles to add to your growing list of things to read. As a result, you might have noticed an ever-expanding space of shelf in the Gs for Diana Gabaldon. The covers of her books are a solid background color with only the author name, the book title, and an image of a crown or a thistle or something. Having seen these for years, I figured they were some historical epic that spawned countless sequels. I was right. But I'd also, apparently, been missing out on the fact that these rather simple covers encapsulate a romantic storyline that sweeps over the Scottish highlands of the 1700s, yet does so from the perspective of a twentieth century woman. How? Well, there's this magic stone circle...

Um, yeah, let me start over. Outlander opens on Claire Randall and her husband, Frank, who have gone to the Scottish highlands for a second honeymoon. The year is 1945 and the second world war has just ended. Claire and Frank married quite quickly before the war and found themselves separated for years while they both served their country. Claire was a nurse in a field hospital and Frank was sent off to officers' training and then to MI6. They decided that what they need is a bit of time to get reacquainted... hence, the second honeymoon. Frank has his own historical interests, largely wrapped up in his genealogy, and Claire is an amateur botanist, so they both have things to keep them occupied while they stay near Inverness. Things seem to be going well for them, aside from this brief moment where Frank rather cautiously broaches the subject as to whether or not Claire might have some love affair during their long separation, which he insists he would completely understand. Claire vehemently protests that she never did any such thing and only later does it occur to her that perhaps Frank was the one who had done such a thing. One morning, after being tipped off that a Druid Beltane ritual might take place at a particular stone circle nearby, they hide and silently watch women of the town perform an ancient ceremony. The next day, Claire returns to the place to take some plant samples... and by touching one of the stones, she tumbles headfirst into a different time.

Of course, it takes a little while for her to accept this fact, even after nearly being captured by her husband's ancestor Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall and then actually being captured by a band of kilted Scotsmen brandishing weaponry. At first, she tries to convince herself that this is simply some renegade Scottish clan in a particularly uncivilized patch of the country, but no... she's in the 1740s and her life depends on being able to not seem like a crazy woman, babbling about how she's come through some portal from a time 200 years in the future. It's bad enough that she's English and the Scots aren't too wild about the English or solitary women wandering about in what appears to be a very skimpy shift (as opposed to the pretty floral dress it would have been identified as in the 1940s). Indeed, this is the time right before the Jacobite Rebellion/Rising of 1745 and the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Suspected as a spy, Claire saves her own skin by being able to bandage up the wounds of a handsome young Scot named Jamie... and further assists when she tips off the group about a particular marker that she had recently learned (while listening to a history of the country back in 1945) was a favorite location of the English to ambush the Scots.

Claire is taken to Castle Leoch, where the laird, Colum MacKenzie, is to decide her fate. His brother, Dougal, was the man who captured her and while Claire doesn't quite trust the fellows, Dougal does recommend Claire's healing skills to Colum. He asks her to stay on in the castle to do what she can as a healer for the people there while he supposedly tries to find a way to get her to France. (Claire had worked up a story about being a widow, ambushed on the road as she started a journey to relatives in France.) She sticks to the story, but the MacKenzie brothers aren't quite satisfied here and Claire is basically watched every moment. Despite befriending a few people, Claire is still a "sassenach," or "outlander," and she's desperate to see if there's any possible way for her to return to her own time via the stone circle. Things get even more complicated when Claire finds herself in the awkward position of having to marry the young Scot, Jamie, in order to protect herself from Black Jack Randall (who looks far too disconcertingly like her husband, Frank, and yet is filled with cruelty).

I have a feeling that I would have really loved this book back when I was twelve, eager to read historical novels that weren't YA. I still enjoyed it now in its mass market context of a fun, romantic novel. It's packed with quite a few sex scenes that illustrate the passionate charge between Claire and Jamie which leads to Claire being completely torn about the idea of returning to her actual time because of this handsome young Scot. Their fights are pretty impressive, too; Gabaldon seems to believe that with that much passion between them, they'd spend as much time fighting as they would making up... well, maybe a little more time making up. Jamie rescues Claire repeatedly from danger and she manages to do the same for him (though usually with a little less panache). There is, however, a great amount of historical detail that goes into the book, so it's not all romance novel-y. It's chock full of scenes to evoke the time period that involve Scottish politics, witch trials, attempted rapes, battles, and rudimentary medical practice. There's also a surprising amount of references to sodomy, though never really positive. I suppose there's this blunt Scottish attitude that makes things both funny and a bit shocking at times.

Claire is a very warm and likable heroine (I particularly enjoyed her very modern swearing that repeatedly requires explanations, like "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ") and Jamie is a charming hunk of a hero. I initially thought that Gabaldon's choice to write in Scottish dialect was annoying, but it certainly keeps the Scottish burr in your mind, and when it's coming from big, strong Jamie, that's hardly a bad thing. Their growing love is the main appeal of the novel, but the historical detail is great, particularly when we understand that Claire means to change the future and save Scottish clansmen from the slaughter at Culloden that marks the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Whether or not she can will certainly be the subject of a future novel, because what Claire needs to decide first is in what time she truly belongs. Gabaldon has created a thrilling store of highland romance and I finally see what all the fuss was about. Outlander is not great literature by any means, but Claire and Jamie are pleasant companions on a rainy day when the Scottish highlands seem like they aren't quite so far away from one's imagination.


The Lost City of Z

For anyone who ever dreamed of being an explorer, opted for something a bit more practical, and yet still feels the occasional itch to do something off the map, I suggest that you read The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. The Lost City of Z is the account of a modern reporter's search for Percy Harrison Fawcett, an English explorer lost in the Amazon as he searched for a city he called Z, a location that the broader public might identify as El Dorado. The narrative jumps back and forth between a historical account of Fawcett and Grann's own search to uncover new information about the missing explorer and his team, which included his own son and his son's best friend. The insertion of the word "obsession" in the subtitle is important, because that's at the root of this book, in both time periods. It's not just about the obsession to find Z, but it's about the need to find answers about the fate of those who went looking for it. David Grann is a great writer with a passion for his topic that comes across quite clearly. While the story isn't exactly Indiana Jones (though real-life Fawcett did inspire a few other works), Grann has a way of making everything exciting while still affirming your suspicions that it's probably better to sit on your couch and read about this. The bugs really are that terrifying.

After a long career of mapping the Amazon jungle, British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett was 57 and ready to launch the expedition he had always wanted to attempt: a search for the lost city of Z. Fawcett had long believed that within the Amazon, there would be evidence of an advanced civilization. His motives weren't based solely on wealth (though most people equated Z with stories of golden El Dorado), but rather he wanted to prove the theory that an advanced civilization within the jungle was possible and, indeed, had existed and thrived. For years, Fawcett had built a reputation as being the Shackleton of the Amazon (while grumbling about the money that the arctic explorers received in comparison to his own meager funding), and while his personality sometimes made dealing with him a bit difficult, everyone around him (including his wife) came to believe that Fawcett could never come to harm. His final expedition launched in 1925. The men that Fawcett had come to rely upon during his previous expeditions were no longer available, and so he brought two young men whom he believed he could trust implicitly: his son, Jack, and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimell. The last time they were ever seen alive was in April and for years, the Fawcett and Rimell families held out hope that the men would emerge from the jungle alive. Eventually, the rescue parties began... and then simply the expeditions to discover if any trace could be found that gave a clue as to what happened to them. No evidence was ever found, though it's possible that as many as 100 people died in the pursuit of this information.

David Grann was bitten by the Fawcett bug, and while he insists that never developed the obsessive fervor that some Fawcett freaks showed, he clearly went far beyond the usual research. After befriending the living members of the Fawcett family and gaining access to private papers, Grann went into the jungle to see what he could find of Fawcett and of Z. Grann has the benefit of modern technology, but it's clear that the Amazon is still a deadly and dangerous place. While we all would probably know from the news if Grann had achieved ground-breaking success by solving a 90+ year mystery, the answers that he does manage to find are a bit more subtle and yet terribly important.

Honestly, I suggest that you just dive into this book when you're ready for a great read. Just go buy it and enjoy. I don't want to go into too much detail because Grann does a remarkable job of introducing you to one of the last great explorers and the circumstances surrounding his final expedition. There's something so wonderfully readable about Grann's style as he takes you through Fawcett's origins and career, all leading up to his mysterious disappearance. Clearly, everything is well researched and described in incredible detail... often too detailed when it comes to things like the terrible living conditions of the jungle or the pestilence found within. It should be a compliment to Grann for conjuring such a vivid image that I had to take a shower after reading a particular description of maggots that burrow under your skin... yet I can't quite bring myself to thank him for it.

And as for Grann's own interest? Well, obviously I'm pleased that he did everything that he did, or we wouldn't have such a wonderful book to read so I could be an armchair explorer, visualizing the perilous journey through the Amazon from the comfort of my couch... but I also found myself heartily agreeing with Grann's wife, who is supportive and yet a bit skeptical about her husband's sudden obsession, particularly as they have a very young son that just arrived on the scene. Grann clearly seems to be making his last-ditch attempt at being an adventurer as the image of settling down to be a family man looms in front of him. It's not as though Grann is used to long treks through the jungle. Heck, a moment of triumph for Grann is when he decides he should take the stairs up to his second-floor apartment as opposed to the elevator. There is a particularly humorous scene in a camping supply store where Grann loads up on fancy items before the store employee realizes that what Grann really needs are the basics. The modern age and its gadgets are some comfort, but there's still great danger. As recently as 1996, an amateur Fawcett expedition nearly ended in death for its members after they were kidnapped by natives in the jungle.

Seriously, if you've ever named the dog Indiana, posed with a whip and a fedora, or wanted the chance to explore uncharted regions, then I think you'll really enjoy The Lost City of Z. (Sadly, Fawcett never seems to have said, "That belongs in a museum!" but he does actually have quite a sense of humor as evidenced by his writing.) If Grann was going to have a midlife crisis that needed to be worked out via ridiculous travel and danger, then at least this was the wonderful result. So thanks to David Grann for surviving to pen such a fun read... and thanks to his wife for letting him go in the first place.



The story of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje is grounded in the violent dispersal of an already unusual family, and then follows the scattered pieces of people around the globe as they continue their fractured lives, echoing the patterns of other wounded souls that have come before. While the story opens in 1970s rural California farmland, it was not until several chapters in that I realized this was the case -- indeed, the early lives described seemed more fitting for the late 1800s or early 1900s... something post-gold rush and tarnished with the failure of grand dreams. Be warned that even though we get many perspectives in this novel, we may never be told anything that's true, or perhaps there's no way to know if what we remember is true or if it has altered in our memories. Anna, one of the main characters of the novel, tells us that she comes from Divisadero Street in San Francisco (which the reader can immediately identify as a lie, as we've already learned about her childhood in rural Northern California). Of course, the way she describes the word and its origins seems apt for the past the shaped her. “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ” In this novel, when dealing with a first person perspective, we usually have several years' distance between the telling and the event.

A man and his wife take in a neighbor boy named Coop after he witnesses the brutal murder of his own family. Shortly thereafter, the wife dies in childbirth and the man brings home not just his own daughter, Anna, but another little girl, Claire, whose mother met the same fate as his wife, as though he was still owed another person by the hospital. The girls are raised not just as sisters, but with the linked consciousness of twins. The children inhabit their own world that revolves around the quiet life of the farm until they inevitably grow up and feel more complicated emotions for each other. Anna and Coop start a relationship and when Anna's father stumbles upon them together, he beats Coop senseless. Perhaps the only thing that stops him from killing the boy is Anna, who stabs her father with a shard of glass. Her father then drags Anna away in the middle of a storm and the family is never whole again.

The book examines the lives of these three near-siblings in fragmented pieces, shifting perspectives and leaving out blocks of time so that we only see small sections of their lives since the violence that drove them apart. Anna is in France, researching a once-famous writer named Lucien Segura and beginning a relationship with a man who, as a child, knew Segura. After escaping her father as he drove her away from the farm, Anna never contacted anyone in her family again -- not her father, not Coop, not even Claire -- and never speaks about her origins with anyone. Claire works for a legal defender's office, hunting down the answers in other people's lives when she can no longer tie up the loose ends within her own. She remains the only child who still sees their father, visiting the farm on weekends to ride her horse through the hills. Coop, meanwhile, found himself in a vagabond existence as a gambler, winning money by playing cards and perhaps not realizing that the deck is stacked against him. Claire found Coop after the violent beating from their father and again finds him after another such incident. History repeats itself.

Divisadero was a book club selection and there were a wide variety of opinions about it... which makes for fantastic discussion. So even though I did not love this book, I did love the discussion that it drew from us. Rather than purchase the paperback, I bought the audio version, as read by Hope Davis. Ms. Davis has a beautiful voice and does an incredible job reading this novel; her French pronunciation in particular was lovely and it wasn't even until my book club met that I realized I took that for granted. When they learned that I had listened to the audio version, everyone demanded that I tell them how to pronounce several names and places from within the novel which then seemed odd to me to see in print. Ultimately, I found Divisadero to move incredibly slowly (I kept checking to see how much time was left of the file on my ipod, which is never a good sign) and while it was very easy to sit back and let Ms. Davis's voice wash over me, I wasn't terribly invested in the characters and so I just let the audio roll by. The only negative aspect of the audio version is the fact that shifting perspectives often mean that you're left a bit confused for a moment as you realize the narrator has shifted. At least with the book in front of you, you might realize a bit late, but go back to re-read what you had misinterpreted as belonging to a different voice. It was too much trouble to bother with that for audio and besides, it wasn't as though ten-minute sections would pass before such a realization.

Other members of book club adored the book, but those of us in the anti-camp had bigger issues with certain discrepancies in time and the lack of motivation for several characters. One person described most of them as wandering about, uncertain as to who they really are, to the point where it was surprising they hadn't been hit by a car by now for their dazed existence. Everyone seemed to have mixed feelings on just about everyone and everything, from the setting to the believability of the family make-up to the lack of communication between them in later years and so on. In addition to Anna, Coop, and Claire, we also go back to look at Lucien Segura (the author that Anna is researching) and his own broken, complicated family relationships, which take over the narrative before you even realize that we'll never get back to Anna, Coop and Claire. It was a bit of a disappointment to realize that Ondaantje has no intentions of coming to some resolution for them... which perhaps isn't surprising, but it's like failing to realize that your last interaction with a person actually was your last. There was no opportunity to say goodbye or process that this would be the last time. I also felt a bit surprised when Segura became a larger focus of book in the second half, as I had rather assumed he wouldn't enter the narrative at all.

The three not-quite-siblings in this novel are all a bit broken, forever defined by this one violent action in their lives that drove them apart. We talked a lot about what violence does to change people (Coop was the focal point of that discussion, having seen one family murdered and another destroyed) and whether one can really have one's existence defined in such a way in reality. Someone commented that Ondaatje wrote this novel as though it was a depiction of real life -- you get pieces of the picture and never a single, clear narrative. These are broken lives, which rest well in a broken narrative. It goes off on tangents and you may never fully understand a person's motivation or background... or perhaps you come close before being taken off to something else. While this might be the only real way to account for Ondaatje's vision of the novel, it hardly feels satisfying. The quality of the writing seems to demand more, but so it goes. Satisfaction is not his objective. The writing is lovely, but if you do opt to read this novel, I suggest that you do so with someone else so you can discuss it afterward, rather than stew in the book's unanswered questions.