The Lost Symbol

While I'm pleased that I didn't purchase this book for myself, I must note that I don't disapprove of Dan Brown the way some people do. This is the third Brown book that I've read and if nothing else, he's usually entertaining... though for me, a fair amount of that entertainment might be experienced at his or his main character's expense. To read Brown, you have to accept the ridiculous plotlines and the large number of inaccuracies. He's not going for accurate so much as he's a master of finding random facts, tossing everything into a pot and asking, "What if they were all connected?" He doesn't believe that they are, but to weaker minds, he might be easily seized upon as uncovering conspiracies. Brown is not a conspiracy theorist, he's a best-selling fiction writer. He writes suspense novels and you usually get an interesting city tour out of it (even if it's not a trustworthy one). He's not a brilliant writer, but he has stumbled upon a formula that works for him. He writes short chapters that always end on cliffhangers and works up a plot that is designed to make the reader feel intelligent without actually understanding anything that's going on as it pertains to the complicated ideas -- the reader just has to keep up with the constant dashing from place to place. Puzzles that are hyped as unsolveable turn out to be numerals that are just upsidedown and Robert Langdon, the physically fit Harvard professor of "Symbology" (because "Semiotics" was apparently too difficult a word, Brown had to invent "Symbology"?), always seems to be called into a crisis situtation where his interpretation of some symbol, code, or painting will be the key to saving the world.
This time, Langdon thinks he's heading to Washington, D.C. to serve as the last-minute speaker for an event as a favor to his friend and mentor, Peter Solomon. When he arrives, Langdon does not find an audience ready to hear his lecture on Masonic symbols in our nation's capitol, but rather, he finds his friend's severed hand and Langdon realizes that he's been led right into a trap. Peter has been kidnapped (and mutilated), this big tattooed guy named Mal'akh is holding him hostage (and is also looking to eliminate Peter's sister, Katherine), and Langdon's only chance at saving Peter rests in his uncovering a secret that the Masons have spent centuries keeping safe. I'll give you a hint: even though we spend a lot of time talking about Katherine's scientific research in the field of noetics, it has absolutely nothing to do with that. The whole noetics thing has no bearing whatsoever on the main plot, it's just a cool idea Brown thought he'd toss in so we had some "science" in there somewhere. Instead, the focus here is on the Freemasons, an often misunderstood society known for harboring a whole lot of secrets.
If you really like Dan Brown, then it probably doesn't matter what this book is about -- you'll read it and be mildly entertained. I preferred Angels and Demons to The Da Vinci Code and think The Lost Symbol is the weakest of the three. Perhaps it's because we're no longer running through European cities, but sticking close to home in our nation's capitol. Perhaps it's because I probably would have enjoyed watching National Treasure more than reading this if I wanted conspiracies about Freemasons. Perhaps it's because the threats didn't seem quite so mind-bogglingly ridiculous and so they were disappointing. Perhaps it's because I didn't feel like Brown had achieved his goal of at least keeping me entertained. (I stopped in the middle of one of his three-page chapters when I glanced at one of my houseplants and wondered if I could develop a cutting in water. I then proceded to carry out this spontaneous experiment. To me, that's a good indication that someone is bored.) Whatever the reason, by the time I was a quarter of a way through The Lost Symbol, I knew that finishing it would feel more like a chore than a pleasant diversion. It seemed as though Brown had let a lot of criticisms get to him and so things seemed less ridiculous (Dan Brown books have become synonymous with "ridiculous," so what's the point when they don't live up to that?); the ultimate threats seemed lame and the final revelation of Mal'akh's true identity was something every reader should have guessed by Chapter 20 (aka roughly around page five). Langdon spent a lot of time repeating himself and then, in turn, being lectured at by others -- every person at one time or another seemed to serve the purpose of being a human encyclopedia. Even more so than in his other books, I felt like Brown tossed in a lot of random details that seemed cool. Brown books are entirely composed of random facts thrown together, but there were lots of stragglers this time that had no tie-in. Among these random things were Katherine's noetics studies, heat-sensing vision goggles that could show the temperature differences of objects (thus indicating where people had been and so allowing one to sort of see back in time), and breathable oxygenated liquid serving as a means of torture.
I suppose poor Dan Brown must be feeling intense pressure after the success of his past books -- but then, this sold something like a million copies on its first day of release, so in those terms, this one's a success, too. I do hope, though, that if Brown has another Robert Langdon book in the works, he returns to the crazy kind of plots that involve priests piloting helicopters to save Rome from city-leveling explosions during conclave. It's what made him the best-selling success that he is. Yes, it's ridiculous... but better ridiculous and entertaining than driving one's readers to mid-chapter hydroculture experimentation.


The Black Moth

Even the Queen of Regency romance had to start somewhere, so when I picked up what I knew to be Georgette Heyer's first published piece, I was expecting a poorer version of her later work where fledgling ideas did not reach their full potential even if one might see a shadow of what was to come. I must tell you, then, that it's terribly depressing to note that this might be the most exciting Heyer novel that I have yet to read and she wrote it when she was only seventeen. Heyer originally wrote The Black Moth as a serial story to amuse a sick brother, but her father (who always encouraged his children to read and write) found a publisher for his daughter's manuscript and so it was that The Black Moth was published in 1921 when Miss Heyer was only 19 years old. Having read some of her later works, it's easy to see that The Black Moth is the work of a younger writer. It is not as witty and polished as the best of her later work... but it is full of swashbucking, honor-bound silence, thwarted romance, abductions, cruel villains, spendthrift wives, and tearful confessions. In short, it's a rollicking good time that an older writer might not be capable of printing in good conscience. So thank goodness that Heyer went through with it, as it's certainly the most exciting work by Heyer that I have yet read. Its plot rarely flags and the assembly of characters are certain to amuse as we gaily spin off into a happy ending for just about everyone.

Six years ago, Richard Carstares cheated in a game of cards and his elder brother, Jack, took the blame. Their father, the Earl of Wyncham, disowned his elder son and all of society snubbed him, despite the general incredulity that wonderful and charming Jack Carstares should have cheated. Jack disappeared from England, leaving Richard with an unsullied name and the chance to marry a lady named Lavinia, whom both brothers had been courting. For years, this devil plagued Richard's conscience... such turmoil only heightened when his coach was held up... by none other than his brother, Jack! Desperate now to find and help him, believing his brother reduced to such circumstances as highway robbery as his only means for survival, Richard also wants his brother to return home and so assume all that is rightfully his... aka the entire Earldom and estate. But Jack was disowned, right? Well, Richard convinced their father, on the old man's death bed, to reinstate Jack as the heir, thus giving his conscience a bit of peace by cheating himself out of wealth and property, for Richard does not want anything that belongs to Jack. So Jack has been Earl for a month without knowing it... and yet when Richard's lawyer does finally make contact with Jack, the new Earl insists he wants none of it, either. He does not appear bitter, unhappy, or wanting for money... and indeed, he has no intention of returning home with such a ruined name, but nor does he want his brother to confess. He has resigned himself to his life and appears to be in far better spirits than his conscience-stricken brother, making his living by gambling and merely enjoying life as a highwayman so he might roam the countryside of his beloved Surrey.

Richard seems to have nothing but problems, for if he isn't overcome with guilt over the situation with his brother, he's trying to make his flighty and selfish wife see reason. Lavinia belongs to a family of spendthrifts who have no thought of others and seem to exist on pleasure. Her younger brother Andrew is always hitting Richard up for money and her elder brother, Tracy, well... he's quite a villain, indeed. Tracy, the Duke of Andover, is also known as the Devil Belmanoir for his professed concentration of evil and his rather unscrupulous dealings with everyone. (He's also referred to as "the Black Moth" at some point, but it was so quickly in passing that I admit I'm a bit surprised that such became the title of the novel.) His latest intrigue involves a lady that has inspired such a passion within him (indeed, the word "love" seems incongruous with his nature) that he insists she will be his, willing or no... and it seems that Miss Diana Beauleigh knows a bad egg when she sees one, so it will have to be the latter.

Meanwhile, Jack Carstares gets himself arrested for attempted highway robbery and nearly sentenced by his former best friend, Miles O'Hara, who (upon seeing Jack unmasked) is delighted to find his friend once more, having never believed the idea that Jack could ever be capable of cheating in a card game. (O'Hara is a charming and buyoant Irishman with a very pretty and well-meaning wife who impetuously takes it upon herself to save Jack from her husband's justice before she even knows that they used to be friends, simply because she would hate to see a charming nobleman go to the gallows. They might not be the most intricate characters, but I confess that I have a sweet spot for them simply due to the fact that O'Hara calls his wife "alanna," the Irish endearment for "beautiful one" or "fair one.") After being reunited with Miles, Jack is out riding when he stumbles upon quite a scene: a beautiful young lady being forced from one coach into another, resisting with all her might. This is, of course, the beautiful Miss Beauleigh. Jack fights the ringleader of this abduction (aka the Devil Belmanoir) and bests the man, but still the Devil pulls out a pistol and shoots Jack in the shoulder. Jack loses consciousness after ensuring that the abductors have gone. He awakens a week later in Miss Beauleigh's father's house, being nursed by Miss Beauleigh and her aunt. He insists his name is Mr. John Carr and, of course, falls in love with Miss Beauleigh nearly as quickly as she falls in love with him. However, Jack believes that Diana deserves better than one such as he, and so he removes himself from their home, letting Diana know that he wished it could be otherwise.

The story continues on to show that the Devil Belmanoir has certainly not given up on his pursuit of Miss Beauleigh, and indeed, believes he has no choice but to attempt her abduction once more. Richard struggles with his decision to come clean about his brother's innocence and his own guilt, believing that he must ultimately choose between Jack and Lavinia, for Lavinia vows she would never stay with him if he insisted upon ruining himself. Lavinia continues to be a silly goose but perhaps there's hope for her yet before she completely alienates her husband with her behavior. Ultimately, you will not be surprised to find that things end well for Jack and Diana, and the delightful telling makes this a very quick and amusing read. With all the swordplay, I had a hard time not picturing Errol Flynn as the honorable Jack Carstares, willing to sacrifice himself for the love of a brother and risking all to save the woman he loves but believes he cannot marry. Diana is sweet and has an excellent moment when she and Jack speak in a veiled manner about their prospects, insisting that a woman truly in love would not care one whit about some nonsense that happened six years ago... nor would she care if the man in question was a highwayman, even if her father did. Other than the time surrounding this, though, Diana simply remains a lovely but rather uninteresting girl and instead, one gives one's attention entirely to Jack. As for the Devil Belmanoir, well, one can see that Heyer strives to make him more than a one-note villain. He's certainly selfish in all his dealings with his family, and capable of being quite ruthless, but I find it charming that Heyer wants to show that real love can change even a villain... if not in his outward actions, then at least with his outlook on the world. Don't worry, Tracy doesn't suddenly become a good guy or anything, but early on, he has a friend who rather curses him with the wish that Tracy should be genuinely affected by a worthy woman, which will undoubtedly pan out, even if it's not in the Devil's favor.

The Black Moth is certainly the work of a young and wildly imaginative writer as it dashes along with such drama. The whole bit about silently dealing with another's dishonor is very Scarlet Pimpernel (which I imagine could have been an inspiration to Ms. Heyer at some point)... and since most Heyer heroes are such fops, it's quite easy to picture Sir Percy Blakeney. The modern heir to this style seems to be Lauren Willig with her Pink Carnation books (which grow directly from the Baroness Orzcy and the Pimpernel). In later writing, Heyer tries to attain the level of Austen in her romantic plotlines, though not Austen's excellent social commentary. The Black Moth might be my favorite Heyer yet, for all the disconnect with her more mature writing. The enthusiasm is catching and she wasted no time on subtler details, sticking instead to the frolic, fun, and drama of a real serial. Heyer later proves herself to be quite a wit, but The Black Moth is pure fancy.

Should you find yourself unable to purchase a copy of The Black Moth, I direct you to this link, which contains the full text: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/heyer/moth/moth.html


For those who enjoy light regency fiction, Georgette Heyer is a staple of the genre. Arabella is an excellent example of the author's renowned skill with creating charming characters and ridiculous scenes that make for a silly read, perfect for when it's either raining or you happen to be sick. (Or if you're recovering from reading a violent novel and there are no kittens on hand to comfort you.) One always knows what to expect from Heyer's endings (and, indeed, most of the middle, too), but if a light romp is what you want, then look no further.

Arabella's titular heroine is the eldest daughter in a vicar's family of eight children. Blessed with a wealthy and socially significant godmother (who has no daughters of her own to fuss over), Arabella Tallant is going to London so that her godmother, Lady Bridlington might present her to society and oversee the girl's first season... which will hopefully be her *only* season, as she needs to make a good match if there's any hope for her younger siblings and the money to get a girl through a London season doesn't grow on trees. No one seems too concerned that Arabella will make a good match, for she's a beautiful young woman and smart enough, with her only real flaw being a bit of an impetuous streak that often results in her acting before she's thoroughly thought on the matter. Unsurprisingly, for the daughter of a clergyman with eight children, she has very little dowry to speak of, but she does at least have a smart mother who has saved for this very occasion, setting by money and keeping her own old items from her youth so that they might be made up new for her daughter. No one need be in any doubt that everything ends well... and that Arabella not only makes a suitable match with a decently established fellow, but that it will be a matter of love, too, and not just acceptability... but at least the road to get to this happily ever after is entertaining.

While traveling to London in her uncle's coach, an accident drives Arabella and her companion to seek shelter at a nearby home... which turns out to belong to the most fashionable man in London, Mr. Beaumaris. Elegant and wealthy, he is tired of women hunting after him and so when this pretty young girl shows up at his door, he is not inclined to think favorably of her. When Arabella hears him saying just as much to his friend, implying that Arabella might be some girl who has traveled just to disturb his peace and create a sham impromptu meeting, Arabella is furious and acts on impulse. She lies and "lets it slip" that she is an heiress, also tired of being hunted for her enormous fortune, and she makes it clear with her demeanor that she has no interest in Mr. Beaumaris whatsoever.

Well, Mr. Beaumaris's friend might have been taken in by Arabella's heiress claims, but the man himself is not... and yet he decides that to set the girl up as the toast of society would be quite amusing. He allows his friend to spread word of the new heiress come to town and Mr. Beaumaris pays special attention to Arabella upon meeting her. With the approval of the most fashionable man in London and the gossip quickly spreading about the enormous Tallant fortune, Arabella quickly becomes the most sought-after girl in town... and she is just as quickly mortified when she realizes that it's all to do with her lie about having a fortune. Mr. Beaumaris continues to spend time with Arabella, realizing that he's never met a girl quite like her, while Arabella keeps her emotional distance, aware that he's probably just trifling with her, but she can use his attention to her advantage in society. Of course, with news about that she's an heiress, she doesn't feel right accepting any proposals of marriage... not even should Mr. Beaumaris himself offer. Of course, what Mr. Beaumaris wants is for Arabella to trust him enough to tell him the truth so that he can find out her true feelings about him and assure her that his feelings are in no way linked to her mythical fortune.

Before we can settle all this, Arabella's younger brother Bertram appears in town and quickly gets in over his head with gambling debts and bills... which provides Mr. Beaumaris the perfect opportunity to swoop in and attempt to settle everything, but not before Arabella contrives of her own ill-conceived plan to get her brother out of debt. It's all quite ridiculous, yes, but when does one read Georgette Heyer for something commonplace?

Mr. Beaumaris is a charming leading man, cut from the same cloth as many Heyer heroes... a bit older, a bit wiser, and under the impression that he's immune to the charms of a fresh young woman. The twist in this relationship is Arabella's tendency to speak her mind, thus saddling with Mr. Beaumaris with the results. First it's an orphan boy who falls through Arabella's chimney that she refuses to hand back over to his "master" -- Mr. Beaumaris surprises even himself when he offers to take charge of the boy and make him useful. Then it's a dog that Arabella sees being beaten and she swoops in to rescue him... only to realize that her godmother probably won't want him in the house so wouldn't Mr. Beaumaris please keep him? The mongrel dog becomes Mr. Beaumaris's bosom companion (much to his dismay) and some of Mr. Beaumaris's funniest moments come as a result of his single-sided conversation with the dog that he names Ulysses as he scolds the worshipful dog for being a "toad-eater" and muses aloud as to what he can do to get Arabella to confide in him. Arabella, meanwhile, can be a bit soppy as she frets about what he father might think of her if he knew all the wicked lie she has told... but her flashes of fury are amusing enough to absolve her of the soppier moments. Plus, it's nice to see a girl who knows how to play the society game, consciously working the innocent angle from time to time to her own advantage. She blatantly uses Mr. Beaumaris for his society connections and doesn't have any scruples in telling him so. As for Bertram and his storyline of debt, I found myself incredibly bored. It was terribly obvious where everything was going and I didn't particularly care for him, but he must be endured so that everything can turn out right in the end... I should have much rather preferred more scenes with Ulysses, though, rather than Arabella's brother.

In the end, Mr. Beaumaris is quite too good a man all of a sudden, but such is the case with this style of novel. A quick and charming read, Arabella is, at least, a feisty young heroine who has quite a conscience (a vicar's daughter could not escape it) and one can sympathize with poor Mr. Beaumaris, who has visions of his future comfort and happiness being constantly disturbed by Arabella's causes... but of course, that is all part of her charm.



Mark Twain noted that he could never depict violence as completely and truthfully as it occurs in real life, particularly not when he wrote with a market of young boys in mind. He confessed once to a friend that to write the truth of such violence "would require ... a pen warmed up in hell." In Finn by Jon Clinch, you'll note that Clinch has no such problem in wielding that damned pen. Indeed, Finn might be the most violent book that I've ever read... not for depictions of battle scenes and carnage, but for small acts of unspeakable cruelty in cold blood. I warn you that if you're squeamish... well, then actually, you probably should read this book and learn a few things about yourself. And don't worry, no violent acts towards animals are depicted in the course of the book.

Finn does many things but perhaps what struck me most was the fact that it has an objective to not only to create a back-story for Huckleberry Finn's father, but to see just how far one can push the limits of violence in fiction. Our eyes might glaze over at the evening news and think nothing of the tragic violence there, but when it comes to a work of literature, we tend to balk. I say literature because Finn is certainly one of the finest works of literature that I've read this year. Jon Clinch is a master wordsmith with tremendous talent. I rarely underline things in books these days, but I found myself underlining simple phrases or fragments, just so I might return to bask in their beauty and grace at a later moment. One can easily call such writing poetry, for the words beg to be read aloud and lingered over.

Of course, many people do not associate "poetry" with the people and actions depicted within Finn. Our protagonist seems to be a man without conscience or care, living for himself alone in a crude and dirty existence. There are no simple southern days spent whitewashing picket fences here. I'm not questioning the focus, mind, simply noting the juxtaposition of such beautiful language with such a harsh setting. Finn is as fascinating as he is detestable, but he cannot be dismissed by a simple judgment -- his internal contradictions reach down into his very soul. Since Finn is already an adult by the time we come upon him, we never see a Finn clear of blame and in any way on the "right" side of morality. Finn seems to have his own moral code, even if it waxes and wanes with his needs. What we do see is a man who continues to make choices as though he will never feel the repercussions (even if he is unconsciously twisted by those choices) and there comes a point when you can no longer be redeemed, even by love. His descent makes for a twisted and fascinating tale. Clinch writes that this is Finn's book, and Finn is many things in his life, including a father to Huckleberry, the town drunk, a bigot, and a murderer. Calling this a "prequel" to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be incorrect, for while it certainly casts its net to earlier years, it also takes place right along side the events of Twain's novel, too. Clinch neatly fits in his narrative so that takes some liberties with characters, but never contradicts the original Twain text, even if it does pose some significant theories. While it's not important to have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one might find Finn to be more rewarding with some knowledge of the text. Small details here and there cause the reader to delight in their own intelligence, as though they're in on the joke when they can pick up on people and objects that appear in Twain's original text.

The novel opens with a body slowly drifting down the Mississippi River. Both the body and the river are of supreme importance to the text, for the river will be our near-constant companion and the specter of the body will loom over the entire story to remind us of what has happened and what is sure to come. It is important to note even now that the body is stripped of its skin, skin that might identify the color of the woman that once animated the muscle. The color of one's skin is terribly important in the world of this novel, and perhaps to no character more than the woman whose body is found drifting down the river.

The story jumps back and forth along a timeline, so assume that if you feel something hasn't been sufficiently explained, soon enough the story will reach back to do so. Finn's father is the Judge, a loveless and bigoted man who is, just the same, highly respected in the town. He might be disappointed in his sickly younger son, but outright despises his degenerate and drunken firstborn. Finn owes his ramshackle home and supplementary income to his younger brother, who essentially cooks the books so he can slip his brother some money. Finn makes his "living" by fishing and selling whatever he catches to various establishments with various amounts of profit. (By "living" I also mean his whiskey money, as Finn seems to consume nothing else in such quantity as alcohol.) Primarily, he catches and sells catfish, the ultimate bottomfeeder that so nicely echoes Finn's own existence. The river is also Finn's primary source for acquiring other items that might be sold or might find a place in his home, from small things like nails to larger things, like a female companion who is referred to simply as "that woman" for quite a while in the text until we discover her story. After chance finds him on a steamboat, Finn foils the attempt by two black slaves (a father and daughter) to commandeer the vessel and sail to a free state. As a reward for these actions (and as payment for his skiff that was destroyed by the steamboat and, thus, led to his presence in the first place), Finn is given the daughter, Mary. Mary, who is educated and was treated rather decently by her previous mistress as far as slavery goes, is plunged into a much rougher life with a very rough man. Her motivation can make for extensive debate, largely stemming from why on earth she stays with Finn when it seems that the chance of escaping by risking death is a much more appealing prospect, and while words of love are never spoken, the emotion itself must be assumed. Finn has complicated ideas about blacks, ultimately viewing them as lesser creatures than whites but that doesn't stop him from essentially building a home with Mary and having a child with her. She is both his property and his lover, a black slave worth his contempt and yet an educated creature who reads him poetry. He is faithful to her as he is faithful to nothing else. Whether this stems from emotional attachment or the fact that this is the only kind of woman who can't reject him and demand that he change his ways, well, that's something to ponder, and perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. It is a complicated relationship that seems incapable of yielding happiness, and yet it does seem to result in a contented family for a time.

The revolutionary idea that Finn poses is that Huckleberry Finn is the son of a black woman and it's only the fact that Huck has light skin that later allows him to unconsciously "pass." This question of parentage is a significant issue at a time when having a black mother would mean that Huck, too, could be claimed as a slave. As a result, some incredibly heartbreaking moments occur late in the book, involving Mary's struggle with these facts. This is one in a series of tragedies for Mary, who upholds the literary (and real-life) tradition of minority women enduring extraordinary tragedy with grace. Mary is not the only example of such in the novel and perhaps this other woman suffers even greater sorrows than Mary, but she, too, can also lay the blame for those sorrows at Finn's door. When it comes to sins, perhaps the greatest are not those that require action, but those where one does nothing to stop a terrible deed from being committed, thus tacitly condoning it.

My book club had the great pleasure of being able to invite Jon Clinch to discuss his book with us, which was an incredibly enlightening experience in terms of actually speaking with the man who was responsible for such a novel. I challenge anyone to read this book and not, at some point or other, wonder about the author himself who would conceive of such situations and characters, somehow able to find the words to describe what might seem to be unspeakable violence. It's not the kind of violence that might seem "entertaining" in any way, but it's violence that occurs in the world nonetheless and most of us probably want to forget that fact. No such chance here. Yet Jon Clinch is a very pleasant and well-spoken man, a loving husband and father whose liberal inclinations led him to slip a Dick Cheney joke into Finn at the last minute (hint: look for a scene involving an accidental shooting and "Whittington"). Clinch speaks eloquently about a novel that is regularly denounced for its content; he's had a great deal of practice in answering questions about the grislier aspects of it. He even told us a great secret that I disclose here: in order to keep up the constant stream of rather terrible events, he had a rule that something dreadful had to happen every seventy-five pages. My response to this was, "It was really only every seventy-five?!" Indeed, the stream of violence is as steady as the ever-moving waters of the Mississippi itself, which seems so at odds with this lovely man who lives in Vermont and dotes upon his daughter. Of course, Clinch is also fiercely intelligent and patiently eager to argue out the fact that violence exists all around us and has shaped our literature and society, even as books increasingly become less violent. To remove it from fiction is to delude ourselves into thinking it is no longer in our lives when the nightly news confirms the opposite.

Of course, if you let the violence overwhelm you, then you can miss out on many of the other terribly interesting things that this novel does, particularly exploring those complicated ideas about race. After all, in Twain circles, it's evidently quite a controversial idea to make Huck half black (personally, I had always assumed Twain was implying something about Native American ancestry in his dusky complexion and strange reserves of knowledge). In today's world, we tell ourselves with increasing frequency that race "doesn't matter" (or at least "shouldn't matter"), and so it is jarring to explore a novel that purposely calls our attention to the facts of a racist time. Another major theme of the novel concerns the sins of the father as we examine Finn and the Judge, both terrible fathers for very different reasons, who have lasting impact on their children, no matter the age of the child.

Whether the reader finds Finn to be a sympathetic character is something that I cannot predict, for even as I loved the novel, I admit that I took comfort in the knowledge that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer one day find the body of Huck's pap in a floating house. The knowledge of future justice (or at least an end to one man's capacity for terrible actions) is perhaps the only kindness that we are allowed in the stream of unrelenting violence. The price of this is the knowledge that worse actions happened in the real world at this time, actions grounded in bigotry and hatred, and a great many of those perpetrators went unpunished. For Finn, he might meet a bad end in a bad life, but I cannot be sorry for the conception and telling of his story. Finn is worth the intense scrutiny and study... and Clinch more than acquits himself of being a worthy teller of the tale.


The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

With all the hype surrounding the US publication of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I was eagerly anticipating Helen Grant's debut. Sadly, the marketing copywriters are doing better work than the actual author and once halfway through the book, I found myself impatiently waiting for the completion of a book that was decently written but poorly conceived. The publisher would do well to stop likening it to other works because not a single comparison pans out... particularly the idea that the narrator here, Pia Kolvenbach, bears any resemblance whatsoever to the intelligent and delightful Flavia de Luce (the creation of Alan Bradley). If anything comes close, it's the reference to the book having the air of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales -- but the real fairy tales that are frightening and twisted, not the Disney-fied versions, thank goodness -- and yet one wishes that the real plotline had enjoyed some of the imagination that the stories suggest rather than simply lacing Pia's perspective with the stories so that she might half-wonder if fantastic things really are coming to pass. In short, everything that I read about the novel beforehand led me to expect something quite different... and probably soured my reading experience as a result. I found myself a bit annoyed in the beginning because of all this, then was more pleasantly disposed as I focused on the story... but quickly grew annoyed again when the "mystery" worked itself out to be disappointingly predictable. Grant's writing style is acceptable if not particularly noteworthy, but had it not been for the author stumbling onto the legends of this particular German town and retelling them here, I would have found the whole thing very dull indeed.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is set in the late 1990s and I started the novel feeling surprised, as nothing I had read seemed to hint at the modern time period. Also surprising was the fact that since the author's European location is hyped, I expected a translated work and was a bit thrown by the ridiculous abundance of German words purposely inserted into the English text. I feared that this would be the only consistent way to tell that the story was set in Germany and not simply any old European town with a history rich in folklore but there are enough subtle differences of to make this somewhat unfounded... and of course, there's the occasional awkward reference to Nazis and the war. There's a glossary in the back of the book, but it's rather unnecessary once one accepts the presence of the liberal scattering of German words. Needless to say, the author is English and simply moved to the Continent with her family... and actually lived in the town where the book is set, as a matter of fact, but I can't see any townspeople thanking her for putting their location on the map if it's to do with the abduction of little girls.

Bad Münstereifel is a small German hamlet, filled with people who like to gossip and since everyone knows everyone (and often knows everything about them for several generations back), few things are ever forgotten. What our ten-year-old narrator, Pia Kolvenbach, would like everyone to forget is the unfortunate incident of her grandmother's demise, which involved an Advent wreath, a match, and an abundance of hairspray. As a result, Pia is the girl whose grandmother exploded and even if it isn't true (she technically died from a heart attack as a result of the surprise of going up in flames at the dining table), it's the thing Pia will be known as to the rest of the town's inhabitants... particularly the nasty school children. After this, Pia can only claim to have one friend, the class pariah known as StinkStefan, and even having this one friend is enough to make Pia depressed if she's sunk so low as to need Stefan's companionship. (Thankfully, Stefan's unfortunate moniker is a result of his tendency to linger like a bad smell rather than from any odor emanating from his personage.) Pia herself is the daughter of a German man and an English woman, a first of two progeny from very tense marriage that is clearly heading for divorce from the get-go. (Side note: they're also terrible parents. Pia's little brother is a baby and given little attention from the narrator. Neither parent seems to make any attempt to connect with their first born and the entirety of their parental concern is expressed in forbidding Pia to go places so she can be safe in the house.)

Well, if gossip is what the town wants, then that's certainly what it gets. Katharina Linden, a little girl nearly the same age as Pia, disappears in the middle of a town holiday celebration where children dressed in costume. The little girl dressed as Snow White simply vanished without a trace and the town can find no sign of her. Immediately, the other children in town feel the repercussions as parents go into overdrive to keep their children indoors and away from whoever or whatever snatched up Katharina Linden. Pia and Stefan are about as interested as anyone in the missing girl and mention as much to their elderly friend, Herr Schiller, a kindly grandfather figure who Pia used to visit with her grandmother and now continues to visit on her own and with Stefan. The allure of Herr Schiller rests in the fact that he treats children like intelligent beings... and has a never-ending supply of stories derived from the fantastic folklore of the area. Unfortunately, Herr Schiller only seems tired when they try to discuss Katharina's disappearance -- and then the children learn that this is due to the fact that Herr Schiller once had a daughter named Gertrud who disappeared years ago in another instance where young girls went missing. The town is inclined to point its finger towards local recluse Herr Düster, Herr Schiller's estranged brother. Frau Kessel, one of the old women in the town with a reputation for knowing everything tells Pia and Stefan that in their youth, both brothers fought over the same woman and Herr Schiller won -- only to have her die of illness during the war and then have his daughter stolen and murdered by a jealous brother. Of course, this is just her suspicion, but in a town where gossip is enough to condemn you, it was only the fact that Herr Schiller did not give credit to this theory that kept Herr Düster from real blame.

Three girls went missing then -- and more girls will go missing in the present time before Pia and Stefan ultimately play a role in solving the mystery. At least the author is not unaware of the danger facing young children as they attempt to solve a crime and adults aren't always as inept as they can sometimes be depicted. Herr Schiller continues to scare the daylights out of Pia and Stefan with his wonderful stories (which are, indeed, quite interesting) and the kids try to survive school and their home lives, turning to the mystery as a thing that they can work on together. At one point in the novel, Pia is sent off to spend part of the summer with her grandmother in England, enduring cruel cousins and intense boredom, before she starts realizing that perhaps this trip wasn't just to keep her safe from whatever is snatching children in her hometown, but perhaps the move might be more permanent as her parents continue to feud.

Ultimately, while I was disappointed with the novel as a whole, there were elements of Grant's writing that I enjoyed and I hope will serve as the cornerstones of her future work so she might improve... though if she continues to write books with this mystery edge to them, I'm not sure I'll bother much as the question of who (or what?) kidnapped the little girls was easy for the reader to decipher from the beginning. I also like the fact that the story is essentially told by Pia looking back on this time of her life with a few years' worth of distance so that occasionally she might note things she hadn't realized at the time, mostly dealing with the motivations of adults that don't make sense to children. Of course, what I particularly liked about this was the fact that adult Pia didn't feel the need to necessarily spell these things out. In all, I wasn't delighted with The Vanishing of Katharina Linden but I did see some promise in Helen Grant that I hope stretches beyond the creativity of the folklore that was the truly delightful part of this novel to carry her through the next few novels that "Delacorte eagerly snapped up" according to the ARC.


An Education

This was utterly fantastic. An Education is a wonderful memoir written by Lynn Barber, a journalist whose career led her to interesting people and places, and whose family led her to many important revelations about life and love. Chiefly, this memoir has gained recognition for the role it played as the jumping-off-point for Nick Hornby's screenplay for the film, An Education, but it deserves a great deal of fuss simply based on its own merit. Do not think that the movie encompasses the entire memoir -- the film is based on a single chapter from Barber's life involving a relationship with an older man while she prepared to attend university. I admit that I saw the movie first, loved it, and became interested in reading the memoir as a result of that, but when a friend (a journalist who bears a striking resemblance to Carey Mulligan) praised the memoir with such enthusiasm, I knew it would be lovely. I did, however, make the mistake of starting to read this in the evening before bed... and then I looked up to find it was after 2am. This could very easily be a single-sitting read and I already have great plans to give this volume as a gift to several witty and intelligent women in my acquaintance. In my discussion of the book below, I might inadvertently give something away, but when it's a memoir, one can hardly call it a "spoiler." Besides, if you're reading this memoir, you should be reading it for the wonderful style of storytelling.

I suppose one can point to her background in journalism for the fact that Barber was able to write such a short memoir with such substantial content and detail. She's able to focus in on the parts of her life that she feels are important without rambling... and without giving the impression that she's skipping anything as a means of glazing over it. She leaves the reader wanting more -- a true accomplishment, indeed, for a memoir. She quickly goes through her childhood and parents, pausing for some lengthier focus on her first significant relationship with an older man named Simon. Quite the charmer, he even wins over her parents with ease, never pushing Barber into anything and yet still making her feel like she was in his debt for first exposing her to the finer things in life. It helps that she also adores his glamorous friends, too. So she ignores his shady business deals and accepts the lack of information she receives about him, submitting to his infantile pet names and handing over her virginity when she reaches seventeen. When Simon proposes and her parents are delighted, noting that now she need not go to university, Barber feels betrayed by what feels like wasted years of education if this is all they wanted for her. What was the point of instilling such a respect for education and learning if she was going to make them just as happy by getting married? Ultimately, Simon turns out to be married already and even though Barber had to leave her school because of the engagement (coincidentally, at her school, they also believed there was no need for her to be both engaged and sitting for exams to enter university), she ultimately succeeds in her parents' original goal of having her attend Oxford University, but not without some cost... "an education," indeed.

Once at Oxford, she embarks upon a hedonistic lifestyle, determined to do the minimal amount of work at school in favor of learning other things from life... which seems to be working decently well for her until she meets the man that she knows is The One from first glance. After finagling herself into sharing a house with him, she and David quickly become an item and eventually get married, having two daughters and creating a non-traditional but quite functional marriage. Details of her marriage and family life are pushed aside for discussion of her career, which one assumes was true in the living of the experience as well as the re-telling. Barber begins her career by proofreading and writing for Penthouse and despite many people asking if she was ashamed of working for a soft-core porn publication, Barber insists that she's quite proud of the experience and indebted to the people she worked with for showing her the ropes of the industry (publishing/journalism, not porn), allowing her to be part of a small publication and thus experience many different perspectives. Ultimately, she moved on to more mainstream journalism, but also penned two books that offered sex advice to women at a time when many such publications were focused a bit more on seductive undressing and married couples communing with each other.

Her memoir covers her wide and varied career in journalism, relating just the perfect amount of witty stories to the point where one wishes there were more. She also discusses her brief experience as a stay-at-home mother and ultimately the narrative shifts to focus a great deal on her husband, whose health declines towards the end of the memoir. The book closes with his death and her coming to grips with her altered reality, touching upon the question as to whether we ever entirely know someone or if we can spend a lifetime with them and still remain a stranger. For Barber, this question comes up when she receives a photograph of David and believes that he must have been in love with the woman who look the picture -- instead of being furious at the idea of her deceased husband's wandering, she experiences a kind of relief for never being home enough or being a good enough wife. Ultimately, though, she comes to believe she was wrong about the question of David having an affair (at least with this particular photograph-taker) and Barber allows the reader to feel mixed emotions with this -- no doubt, the mixed emotions that she, herself, shared.

While the story of Lynn Barber's life to date makes for a great read, its her writing style and her own charm that are the truly appealing points to this memoir. With a reputation for being a savage writer, it should come as no shock that her parents are not treated kid gloves, but then, she herself is subjected to the same treatment. She frankly offers up the fact that she is not at all what most people expect when they meet her, citing her elocution accent as her worst attribute. Her rise within the field is something she rather attributes to chance, but one can see that her writing style is extraordinary. She really gets to the heart of matters, be in analysis of someone else or herself. In the closing chapters surrounding her husband, she is honest in her own feelings of distaste at lingering at David's side in hospitals, opting not to paint herself as a dutiful pillar of wifely devotion. She also brings David under scrutiny, but at last one can see that she's being somewhat delicate there; clearly there was a great amount of love between the two, whatever other problems might have cropped up.

Life is very real the way that Barber depicts it, without any attempt to dress it up or make false claims to spare the "innocent." People can become hypocrites without realizing it; time marches mercilessly on and somehow a loved one can grow old all of a sudden; money cannot solve everything and perhaps one would be happier without it. She's clearly had a very interesting career and I'm only sorry that it took a movie of her novel to bring her work to my attention. She certainly can stand as a bit of a mentor to any young journalists out there, even if the industry is always changing... her lessons on sticking to her own style and seeking out interesting colleagues are certainly timeless. The movie is a very different experience from the book, though a delight in its own right. I can't imagine a similar circumstance where I was as pleased with both book and movie but for very different reasons. That said, don't let the movie stand as a substitute -- this memoir is truly a gem.



First off, let me say that this four-star rating is for the story of Frederica itself as written by Georgette Heyer... not the ebook publication -- if I were just rating the ebook edition, I'd be forced to give it two stars for the simple fact that chapters nine and ten were not formatted correctly, requiring the long and rather laborious persistence on the part of the reader as one is forced to translate every ",Äò" or "Äô,"into quotation marks... not to mention every dash, umlaut, or accented letter. And Heyer novels are filled with dashes and dialogue. It was terribly frustrating, particularly as the book was just settling into its delightful rhythm. Really, the publishers ought to be ashamed for such a shoddy publication.

Now, on to the much more pleasing subject of Frederica, which is by far the most delightful Georgette Heyer novel that I've read to date. Quite honestly, I look to Heyer as a novelist whose Regency works all have much the same ring to them but I take some comfort in the predictability. A certain Regency time period (to which I am partial) will be depicted... similarly, there will be at least one couple who achieves a happy end by the time the book closes, usually with the requisite amount of worry that all will come to naught. Such is the case in this novel, but it's not the storyline that makes this such a singularly delightful book; it's the fantastic humor that glitters from most every page.

Indeed, Frederica is a terribly funny novel that follows the plight of one Marquis, Lord Alverstoke, a thirty-seven year old bachelor known for being one of the most elegantly dressed men in London... and quite a rake. He evidently cares for no one and takes pleasure in frustrating his others' plans to either have him matched or somehow make him pay for things that he knows they can quite well afford on their own. One of these sisters is quite determined that Alverstoke should hold a ball at his home to launch her daughter into the ton, but Alverstoke sees no reason on earth why he should saddle himself with such responsibility... not until a distant cousin turns up, asking a small favor that he can quite easily turn into some amusement. Since he's used to being asked for favors and money, it's a bit of a surprise when this cousin only wants a trifling thing and then she and her family spend the rest of the book decidedly trying to not inconvenience him... which only makes him want to offer them everything! Frederica Merriville wants Alverstoke's help in introducing her younger sister, Charis, to London society. A beautiful girl with grace and a sweet temper, Charis should not be allowed to languish in the country and be wasted... or so Frederica quite insists. Normally Alverstoke would not put himself out for anyone, but he finds himself liking Frederica's charming chatter and frank manner, so he agrees to not only own them as family, but stand in as a fake guardian so that they might easily pass in the first circles of society. Alverstoke agrees to host his niece's party... but only if his sister acts as the appropriate woman to sponsor the introduction of both Miss Merrivilles, gaining them access to parties and Almack's. It should be a simple duty discharged, but what Alverstoke doesn't count on is the fact that he becomes quite wrapped up with the Merriville family, including the young brothers Jessamy and Felix who are both unique and interesting boys that could really use a guiding male influence.

Having never really known the warm embrace of a loving family, Alverstoke falls in love with them all... but none so particularly as the smart and clear-headed Frederica, who might not hold a candle to Charis's looks, but he feels Frederica is worth a dozen of her sister. Smart, composed, and charming in her own right, Frederica seems to honestly believe that she's as good as an old maid. She's been running the household for so long that she's long given up any ideas on her own future so she can be mother hen to Charis, Jessamy and Felix... with some mild thought spared for Harry, the eldest boy who's up at Oxford and serves as the titular head of the family now that their parents have died. When problems turn up, though, Frederica finds herself relying more and more on the advice of their dear Cousin Alverstoke and Alverstoke is only too willing to put himself to great trouble for others for the first time in his life. And as another first, Alverstoke now faces a dilemma he's never before encountered: he might realize that he wants her, but what if Frederica does not want him?

It's hard to not fall for the Merriville family, they're such a large, loving and bumbling brood. They all have such good intentions and most of them are smart enough to be interesting conversationalists and characters. Felix is ridiculously intelligent and Jessamy is a bit of an old soul, struggling with moral issues without realizing he should be a boy while he still can. Charis is supposed to be the astonishing beauty, only made more attractive by her sweet disposition and genuine lack of pretension. Of course she's quite dim-witted, which means the reader will find her to be a rather negligible character; it's really Frederica and her brothers that delight. Then there's the wonderful Lufra, the family dog, who drags everyone into some scrape or another. (A particularly ridiculous and wonderful event involves Lufra chasing after cows in a London park and Frederica has to claim that the dog is a rare and expensive Barcelona collie that belongs to the Marquis. The Marquis then finds several disgruntled persons upon his doorstep and he has to snap into gear to catch up with Frederica's tale and insert his own humor -- "not Barcelona, Baluchistan! Baluchistan, Frederica!" -- to save Lufra from being seized by the authorities.)

Alverstoke is a wonderful character... thirty-seven and practically set against marriage, though not quite a confirmed bachelor. His rakish ways mostly occur in the past, so we have to take society's word for it, as he quite quickly begins to fall for Frederica. We at least see ample evidence of him being a selfish fellow without a wish to lift a finger for others in the beginning, but his change happens rather quickly, with occasional moments where you can see his old habits flashing up before his new self triumphs. Particularly charming was his interactions with the two schoolboys; he barks orders and calls them names, but it's all in good fun, so as a result, the boys adore him and obey his every command. Alverstoke himself experiencing for the first time the utter power held by an adoring young boy that might make one "[perjure one's] soul without hesitation" for the sake of that boy's peace of mind and do any number of unpleasant things, like tour a foundry or watch the launching of a balloon. His dry wit makes everything endurable and the boundless energy and antics of the Merriville family are made charming as he comes to think of them as quite his own.

I frequently laughed aloud, quite smitten with the ridiculous prattling of Frederica and the dry barbs of Alverstoke. Indeed, his reactions to tense situations are wonderful and I could quite easily see the dialogue (once the story was sufficiently trimmed and streamlined) being turned into a film. A bit of a comedy of errors, perhaps, even though everything is rather predictable, which isn't always a bad thing. The length of the novel could certainly have been trimmed -- somewhere over halfway through, I found myself wishing that we could get on with things. The names are all ridiculous, to be sure... but still, one endures for the sake of light comedy.

I certainly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a light Regency read, and I challenge you to not find yourself laughing out loud at some point as rakish and selfish Alverstoke transforms into a family man quite by accident. You might want to hit each of the Merrivilles at some point, but in the end, it's all quite worth the read.


Lord John and the Hand of Devils

Lord John and the Hands of Devils is a collection that contains three Lord John mysteries... one simply called a short story and the other two meriting the designation "novella" from the author. Prior to starting the Lord John novels, I should have done a bit of research, as the first of these stories comes before the first novel in chronological order... similarly, the second story comes before the second novel and then the third story finishes things up. Reading them out of order doesn't necessarily harm you, but I wish that I had somehow contrived to figure out the chronological order as it would have filled in some details within the larger books that get more attention in the stories (who kills someone in the Abbey, why suddenly the Prussian guy is pining for John, etc.). It's a quick read, but really only worth it to those who enjoy Gabaldon's other work and, in particular, Lord John.

"Lord John and the Hellfire Club" is the first and shortest of the bunch -- though it is to this story that we are indebted for all of the Lord John spin-off works, as it was this story that launched him as an independent protagonist. Lord John comes across the historically famous/infamous Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey as he investigates the death of a young man, a cousin of John's friend Harry Quarry. Immediately returned from his exile in Scotland and still burning with desire for Jamie Fraser, John is implored by Harry Quarry's (gay) cousin for assistance in a certain matter, but before John can meet him to discuss the matter, the young man is killed. John is then courted by the elite club, which includes an ex-lover of his among the members, but he's quite right to believe that there are many things amiss with the Hellfire Club. Very short and simple, this mystery solves itself quite quickly, but one must at least appreciate this story for spurring Gabaldon to write other Lord John tales.

In "Lord John and the Succubus," Lord John is stationed in Gundwitz with a companies of Prussian and English troops as they attempt to rout some French and Austrians, but the men seem more frightened by rumors of a demon spirit in the area. Of course, Lord John is smart enough to see mortal hands behind these actions... though it might take some real magic if he wants to keep out of a widowed Princess's matrimonial designs and get a moment alone to find out if his friendship with handsome German soldier Namtzen is just brotherly love or a bit more. The mystery isn't much of a mystery, but there are some amusing scenes of suspense and the standard fear that men have about their manhood and essence being stolen.

For "Lord John and the Haunted Soldier," you certainly need to have read Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade to understand everything well -- because the story largely concerns the battle of Crefield, which closed out that novel. Lord John is summoned before a military commission that is concerned with the explosion of the gun he had commanded and the death of a lieutenant, floating the veiled accusation that it might have been Lord John's inept leadership that led to it. The military seems more concerned about the gun, which leaves John to try and see what right he can do by the family of the lieutenant and the man's missing widow. Lord John also investigates some leads on what caused the gun's explosion and finds a few problems, including the faulty construction of guns due to someone inside the military stealing copper and the potentially volatile ammunition provided by John's half-brother's company.

In the author's notes before each story, Gabaldon makes jokes about the fact that by the time she's hit the page count for a Lord John novel, she generally feels like she's just starting up the story, so real short stories and novellas were quite the challenge indeed. Her real talent lies in creating wonderful characters and taking them through epic stories, so while individual stories might not be ideal as short stories on their own outside of the context of the larger world, they are lovely little installments in the ongoing story of Lord John Grey. I l like Lord John as a strong male figure who happens to be homosexual -- while this fact of his existence doesn't define his life, it does play a large role. He's witty and clever... and there's always the odd glimpse of Jamie, which is fun. I do hope that Gabaldon eventually gives us a story that takes us through the healing of his friendship with Jamie... which might relieve poor John from pining after his russet-haired Scot.


Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

For those who read Lord John and the Private Matter and shrugged their shoulders a bit, happy enough to enjoy the world of Gabaldon but not terribly impressed with the mystery itself, then I think you'll be quite pleased with Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade. It has enough to delight Gabaldon fans who also happen to like mysteries as well as the fans who are really just looking for a fix while they wait for the next big Jamie and Claire book. In Private Matter, things started off with Lord John was working for the interests of his family (aka making sure his cousin didn't marry a poxed fellow), but overall, it wasn't quite compelling. Here, that's all changed and the story is very personal indeed. Not only does the main storyline have to do with avenging the death of a father and reclaiming the family honor, but we introduce a love interest for John in the form of Percy Wainwright and delve into deeper discussion of homosexuality in the eighteenth century. The book also also gets right into the thick of the workings of the British army and a bit of action from the Seven Years War.

We've caught a glance of Percy before now in the Lord John series, as a handsome young man briefly seen at Lavender House, so we know where his orientation lies. (And those who have read An Echo in the Bone will immediately recognize him. I found myself rather wishing that I had read Gabaldon's books in order of publication so I could have known more about Percy and John's relationship before reading Echo. It wasn't required, certainly, but it would have been nice background information. Alternately, reading Echo first doesn't ruin the outcome of this book, but the reader does get a hint as to how things turn out.) In Brotherhood of the Blade, Percy is not simply a casual acquaintance, but rather, he is about to become John's step-brother, pending the nuptials of John's mother Benedicta. There's an immediate spark between Percy and John, starting with the surprise of recognition as they're introduced and continuing through their every encounter. While they keep attempting to find some private time alone, poor timing means that repeatedly, their attempts at an evening alone are thwarted. Of course, this also means that they get to know each other quite well before any physical intimacy; it all has the warm and exciting air of courtship, which exactly what it is, even if the time period wouldn't quite carry the same view. Percy might be a handsome young man, but as with many handsome young men, he has limited means... which means that his step-father is buying him a commission in a regiment and if he hadn't been inclined to join John's (overseen by John's older brother Hal) previous to their meeting, well he's certainly inclined to do so now. The air is spiced with the thrill of battle as the regiment readies itself for any number of locations, though ultimately they're sent to chase the French army around for a while before they see real action... but if you think this might be a fluffy book, never fear -- there is some pretty intense military action to witness.

One of the fun parts of this installment is the greater acquaintance it provides with Lord John's family. Hal, John's older brother, is an interesting character, also seen in Echo as a much older man, so it's nice to see him a bit younger. While Hal technically has inherited his father's title, Duke of Pardloe, he stubbornly refuses to use what is viewed as a tainted title, following a scandal that indicted their father as a Jacobite sympathizer. Hal and the rest of the family is adamant that such an accusation was false (despite their mother's Scottish background) and before any official claims were laid to the Duke, he died. The death was ruled as a suicide, but John reveals that he knows such a ruling to be false -- it was murder. Seeing as everyone's English, there's a great deal of non-discussion about emotions surrounding this, particularly between the two brothers and extending to their mother. Granted, there's the fact that everyone seemed to be trying to protect everyone else from certain knowledge but ultimately, had they all come clean with what they knew, they would have saved themselves some trouble in trying to figure out who actually murdered the Duke. This is more a criticism of the English mindset in general... as far as the book is concerned, it's a good detail and quite in keeping with everyone's character.

There's a lot of time devoted to Percy & John's relationship... and a lot of time spent with John pining for Jamie Fraser. As far as Percy is concerned, Gabaldon gives Percy and John a short period of bliss before a huge bit of drama is tossed in... which results in Percy and another German fellow being arrested for sodomy and then John winds up as the sole alive/available witness. John needs to figure out what to do as the military investigation draws near -- for perjuring himself would result in the end of his own career but testifying would most likely result in Percy's death (or life imprisonment on the lenient side). Even before this complication which effectively ends their relationship, John was struggling with his own emotions -- for he cannot shake the feeling that while he does like Percy a great deal, he's still hopelessly in love with Jamie Fraser. So I turn my attention to Jamie. Normally, I'm always in favor of more Jamie Fraser, but what Gabaldon gives us is a situation even more complicated and interesting than I could have hoped for. What we have here is a very guilt-ridden, angry, and intolerant Jamie Fraser -- not at all the romantic, brave, kind and in-control Jamie that we're all rather used to. These are dark days for Jamie Fraser and Gabaldon doesn't shy away from this. At this time, Jamie is a convicted Jacobite traitor and John has made allowances for Jamie to serve as a groom at Helwater rather than be shipped off to the Americas. To refresh your memory, the result of Jamie's time in Helwater was this: Geneva blackmailed Jamie into taking her maidenhead before her wedding to Ellesmere, she got pregnant as a result, Ellesmere freaked out out because he never slept with Geneva, Geneva died in childbirth, and Jamie shot Ellesmere after Ellesmere threatened to kill the baby. We know this from Voyager but Lord John doesn't have all these details and consequently, all we see is John being confused as to why everything is even more tense than it should be following the death of Geneva and Ellesmere. We, the readers, know the torment that's going on in Jamie's mind, but John does not, even if he has a sneaking suspicion that Jamie might have fathered Geneva's child. In addition to all this, while those who have finished Voyager know that Jamie and John ultimately do come to have a close friendship, at the time, they are certainly not chummy. Jamie's wracked with guilt about Geneva's death and John is distraught about Percy's situation, so they're both stretched emotionally when John starts asking Jamie for information about Jacobites (in his search to clear his father's name). There's a pretty impressive scene towards the end of this novel where Jamie and John have a massive argument, showcasing Jamie's complete abhorrence for homosexuality. We all know that this mostly stems from his own experience being raped by Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall (and rescuing young Fergus from a similar experience by the same man)... or at least certainly it was strengthened by it. For readers who clearly don't have the same distaste for homosexuality that Jamie professes (otherwise they probably wouldn't have made it so far in this particular novel, given that John is most definitely gay), it's fascinating to still like Jamie even if we don't agree with his feelings on the matter. There are a few things that probably help us maintain our love for Jamie at this point: (1) we know Jamie and John do become friends later, (2) Jamie is pretty insistent that what he finds horrible is the idea of using someone else for one's pleasure, particularly young boys, and (3) at least Jamie is not up for persecution of any kind of person, no matter their deviation from what is accepted as the mainstream. I still find it a to be a testament to Gabaldon's skill at creating complicated and compelling characters that we can continue to like Jamie Fraser. Meanwhile, John acquits himself quite well on his side of the argument, insisting that he be heard in defense of his own sexuality... and then has a rather base reaction to the stimulation of such passionate debate with Jamie. Those who don't want to bother with any kind of plotline around homosexuality will quickly realize this book is not for them -- but it certainly makes me wonder how many people in Gabaldon's fan base are turned off by her acceptance and promotion of Lord John as a strong and incredibly likable protagonist who happens to be gay. (Indeed, in this book more than any other, his sexual orientation is a big issue, but I like to think that Lord John is not solely defined by this one trait.) I certainly hope that her readership is entirely comprised of intelligent and tolerant people, but I would be willing to bet that there are a few homophobic bad apples in any bunch.

While Lord John and the Private Matter showed that Gabaldon isn't a mystery writer deep down, I do think that her second attempt at a mystery novel drastically exceeds the first on all fronts. Private Matter was still pleasant but Brotherhood of the Blade was a much better work on the whole. Perhaps it's just because Lord John was personally invested with the mystery at hand, perhaps not. Either way, I was delighted with this installment of Lord John's adventures and hope you feel the same.


Lord John and the Private Matter

For those smitten with Diana Gabaldon's epic novels about Jamie and Claire but need something to whet their appetites in-between tomes... well, this series seems to have been designed for just that purpose. Lord John and the Private Matter takes up Lord John Grey as its focal point, a character that first appeared in Dragonfly in Amber as an overenthusiastic English lad on the eve of Culloden who later became an important figure in Voyager as the man assigned to run Ardsmuir, where Jamie was imprisoned. At Ardsmuir, John fell in love with Jamie, a love/fondness that has endured despite the passage of time, even if it is from afar without any hope beyond their friendship (helped a bit, perhaps, by the fact that John assumed the role of father to Jamie's biological son).

In this particular novel, we focus our attention entirely on Lord John Grey and a bit of mystery afoot in London. The book starts in June of 1757 and takes place in a relatively short period of time. While Lord John and the Private Matter was published after Drums of Autumn and before The Fiery Cross, as far as the Outlander series timeline is concerned, it's after Lord John's stint running Ardsmuir. John has deposited Jamie (convicted Jacobite supporter) in Helwater to serve as a groom (as opposed to him being shipped to the Americas)... so as long as you have read Voyager, this small volume will not spoil anything else in the Outlander series. For those who are unfamiliar with the Jamie and Claire novels, I would say that familiarity with those novels is not *required* to understand the plot of this novel (and probably its sequels), but I couldn't quite imagine the allure of reading this series unless you were a fan of the other. Those looking for a good mystery novel could probably come up with a better item elsewhere to fit the bill and should leave this series to the devoted Gabaldon fans. The true appeal lies in a better acquaintance with Lord John and a glimpse of other beloved Gabaldon characters in the wings. It's a perfectly serviceable mystery novel -- though one where it's not entirely possible for the reader to figure it all out on ones own, even if one can guess as to the vague outline of responsibility fairly early on. In an author's note, Gabaldon admits that this novel grew out of the intent to write a short story -- though relatively speaking, given the size of Gabaldon's other novels, I think this might qualify as a short story.

Clearly the Lord John novels are meant to be consumed as quick delights and I think the mystery format is more than sufficient for its purpose... it gives one the perfect framework to encompass a small adventure and leave it there, as opposed to building in complications that have a substantial effect on events in the other series. Lord John and the Private Matter focuses on two particular intrigues that (not so surprisingly) end up being quite entwined despite their very separate origins. After stealing a quick peek at another fellow's member while using the facilities, Lord John realizes that the man to whom his young cousin is engaged appears to have the pox... and for this reason, he needs to find a way to end the engagement with the least amount of scandal attached to either party. Simultaneously, John's services as a military man are enlisted to solve the murder of a soldier... but more particularly to learn whether or not said solider was a spy and if he sold particular information to a foreign government. Like most mysteries, the plots quickly become entwined and along with a host of secondary characters, John solves the case and saves the day.

It may not have the length of her other work, but Gabaldon still keeps a quick pace to this novel. I found that I didn't particularly care much for any of the supporting roles, but if one likes Lord John, then I suppose he's quite pleasant enough to carry off the novel without much support. I hope that the next two in this trilogy (for at the moment, I'm under the impression that there are only three Lord John novels, but goodness knows there might be more forthcoming) are graced with some guest appearances from characters we already know. I imagine they will if Gabaldon knows her audience -- and Gabaldon certainly seems to be a writer who can deliver a novel to please her fans.


An Echo in the Bone

At the time that I write this review, An Echo in the Bone is the most recently published volume in the adventures of Jamie and Claire, Diana Gabaldon's creations that have spawned an epic series of novels, the popularity of which is based solely on the devoted love between these two souls, no matter the difference of time and culture. Fans of the series must be delighted to have another installment and indeed, I read the whole of this book with a warm enough feeling simply because I enjoy the characters, no matter much for what they're up to. That said, as far as storyline and execution are concerned, An Echo in the Bone is probably my least favorite installment to date. While I found a few particular plot points to be quite delightful and in keeping with Gabaldon's sense of comedy and drama, mostly I thought that some spark was missing and things were a bit rushed, resulting in an inability to linger and enjoy people and places.

First, a plot summary. It's 1776 and the American Revolution is under way (finally, right?) -- but Jamie Fraser has decided to return to Scotland and retrieve his printing press so he might have the use of it in his fight against the English. He's not getting any younger and while he's clearly still capable of fighting on the battlefield, he believes he might do more damage with the written word. Claire, naturally, intends to accompany him, as she could never be dislodged from his side for long... particularly now that Brianna and Roger have taken their children and gone through a stone circle to the modern time. Without their daughter and her family to keep them at Frasers Ridge, Jamie and Claire feel they can make the trip out to Scotland and back, finally fulfilling a promise to bring Ian back to his parents after years of separation (which all started with his being kidnapped at the age of fifteen). Of course, no one should be surprised that this plan doesn't go smoothly -- after Ian and Jamie are nearly pressed into service on an English ship shortly after leaving America, they have to return to the rebelling colonies and eventually end up at Fort Ticonderoga where Jamie and Ian have to fulfill a short contract of service in the Continental army. They live to see the fort fall into the hands of the British and eventually they make it to Scotland and back, but not without considerable drama along the way.

Elsewhere in the eighteenth century, William Ransom (aka the Duke of Ellesmere, aka Jamie's secret biological son and Lord John's adoptive son) has taken a commission in the British army and is doing a bit of intelligence work... which mostly seems to result in getting robbed or losing documents... and then losing his way and nearly dying. Unsurprisingly, this intelligence-collecting and eagerness to see battle eventually leads to his path crossing with that of his unknown father (to whom he bears a very striking resemblance). Part of Jamie's reason for wanting to be in Scotland was so that he might avoid meeting his son on the battlefield... which we all know is going to happen sooner or later, no matter what he does. William's presence at least means that we get to see a great deal of Lord John Grey, who is trying to do a bit of intelligence work himself, though mostly of the informal variety. Via letters, William also seems intent on convincing his father that he's in love with his cousin, Dottie, but John's a bit suspicious on this count and he wonders what these kids are hiding. Before returning to the colonies to locate his injured nephew (William's cousin and Dottie's injured brother) and supposedly deliver Dottie into the arms of her betrothed, William, John pops over to Europe to do some work and even there, he can't seem to escape Jamie Fraser, whose name pops up more than once. (It does make one wonder how the fellow isn't more prominently featured in the history books if he winds up having a finger in every pie.) As far as the rest of the Fraser family is concerned, Fergus is potentially being tracked by an English/French fellow going by the name of Beauchamp (and Claire is curious if she's found an ancestor of her own) who might have information about his parentage (remember that Fergus was born and raised in a brothel in Paris). Ian Murray (and perhaps William, too) has fallen for a Quaker girl named Rachel, whose religion forbids violence and therefore probably wouldn't look kindly on a potential union with a Catholic turned Mohawk warrior. Meanwhile, we also have the "modern" time to deal with -- Roger and Brianna went back to the modern world so that they might save the life of their daughter, Amanda, who required an operation that Claire could never have managed in eighteenth century conditions. They spent a year in Boston for Amanda's surgery/recovery and then moved back to Scotland, purchasing Jamie's ancestral home of Lallybroch. At the end of the last novel, the two discovered an old case that was preserved in Roger's uncle's effects... which has instructions that it should only be passed down and opened by a Jeremiah MacKenzie, aka little Jemmy. It turns out to be letters from Claire and Jamie, which Brianna and Roger decide to open very slowly rather than devour all at once... because once they've finished reading them, then the idea of her parents being dead and gone will be too real. Their own lives are starting to gain traction: Brianna has just gotten a job, Roger's started teaching classes and is writing a time-traveler guidebook for the kids, and the family is starting to settle in to a nice existence... so you know that it all has to go wrong pretty quickly, right?

Now, normally so much happens within a Gabaldon novel that the reader is quite carried away by events; in An Echo in the Bone, I was surprised that things didn't seem to move with the same amount of speed, save for choice incidents that then felt incredibly awkward and rushed before being cut off. Action would occur in a burst of speed, often requiring me to re-read a passage as I was left with the impression that something had been left out. And indeed, Gabaldon did leave quite a lot out, opting to cut off an action sequence somewhere in the middle and then skip ahead, leaving us to infer the results of the action or have the holes filled in slowly by off-hand details later on. I found myself feeling annoyed several times as a result of this and I wonder if someone wasn't begging her to pick up the pace and stop explaining things... but if so, she went too far and really should have taken a bit more time. Perhaps this is a result of the incredibly fractured nature of this novel... we're dealing with a very large cast of characters, spread across time and space, so we have to keep jumping around... though it didn't feel like this was happening more in this book as opposed to others... just that it didn't seem as fluid. It's also possible that Gabaldon felt that similar scenes had been depicted previously in her novels and so why risk repeating herself? Just the same, I would have preferred more detail to bridge the gap between near-action and results of action... otherwise, we just feel like we're being hurried along.

I'm also not terribly sure that I like the most recent coupling to take place -- aka Ian and Rachel. All the Quaker "thee"s and "thou"s irritate me a little, though I don't mind Rachel and her brother, Denzell, as characters... I just don't quite feel like Ian and Rachel's relationship is founded on much beside attraction. It all happened too fast... first Rachel liked William and then all of a sudden it's Ian or nothing? Other relationships in this novel at least have time to simmer and develop... or they aren't quite so prominent that one can assume the development has taken place in the background. There seemed to be more interaction between Rachel and William for goodness' sake that might form the basis of a more substantial connection. Of course, I'm glad that Rachel opts for Ian over William. William has a long way to go before he can properly hold a reader's attention on his own merit. Clearly he's being groomed for more direct focus and this is his first real chance, but even if he looks like his dad, he's no Jamie Fraser.

As for the modern time, I'm a bit annoyed. For most of the book, I found this storyline to be rather pleasant if not terribly action-filled... and then all of a sudden, Gabaldon decides to just go crazy with complication. You could see her laying the foundation all along, but it seemed to just become a big dramatic thing all of a sudden. Not only does she come up with a real whack-job to suggest that the modern time is just as dangerous as the eighteenth century, but she brings an eighteenth century character through the stones into modern time (which you knew had to happen sooner or later). That doesn't bother me so much as the fact that, for this honor, she selected a character that I haven't liked from the get-go... namely, Roger's multiple-great-grandfather that was responsible for nearly getting him killed. I suppose I just don't find the modern story as compelling as the eighteenth century one... or maybe I just didn't appreciate the build up to sudden suspense and drama that we leave hanging to be dealt with in book eight. There's also hints that another of Frank's ancestors is running around the colonies, too -- namely, the child misattributed to Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall on Frank's family tree, but who's really the son of his brother... all grown up and potentially placed here specifically to mess with Jamie's son, William.

All that said, I still enjoyed the novel. You might think this sounds crazy, but I'm too far in to the series now to have any other real reaction... unless of course things were to go terribly, terribly wrong. (And by terribly, terribly wrong, I mean like Gabaldon separates Jamie and Claire for the duration of the novel, kills Lord John and Rollo, gives most of the narrative control to William, and only writes chaste Ian/Rachel "sex" scenes where they kiss and Rachel whispers, "I love thee" while we fade to black.) As long as Jamie and Claire are there (and together), I'm pretty good. And Lord John. I have a fondness for that particularly complicated character, so his substantial presence here was nice. Clearly, Gabaldon was trying to mix things up a bit, worried that there would be too much repetition if all we did was stay in America. She's certainly right to try and avoid that, but it seems like there just wasn't a really great idea to seize upon -- until the end, that is. My favorite twist of the novel happens quite towards the end (definite spoiler alert) -- when Claire believes that Jamie is dead (she seemed a bit too accepting of this, though) and Lord John learns that Claire might be arrested as a spy... so John insists on marrying her so that he can protect both Claire and her family, a final thing that he can do for his departed love, Jamie. The first bit is annoying, but the second bit is great. Even if Gabaldon had tried to lure us into the idea that Jamie really was dead, we wouldn't have bought it (which begs the question, why does Claire?), so I was pleased she openly let us in on this, even as John and Claire spend a night comforting each other. It was some of the best character interaction in the book -- and certainly suggests that Gabaldon has been spending a lot of time developing Lord John in her series of mysteries that focus on him. The Claire-Jamie-John triangle is pretty fascinating and I'm glad that this means we'll have the opportunity to play with it a bit, given that now Lord John has had carnal knowledge of Jamie Fraser's wife yet not of Jamie Fraser, the man he's loved for years. You could see the John-Claire marriage coming from a mile away as soon as Claire thinks Jamie might be dead, but it's still fun... and the fun gets overshadowed with William's realization as to who Jamie is in relation to him and giant hissy fit, but ah well.

Despite what I saw as a bit of a decline in the storyline quality, if the eighth book were available, I'd have already started reading it before I even started writing this review. I'll content myself with devouring the three short Lord John novels and then scour the internet for any clue about book eight and its potential release.


A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Book six. My self-imposed "vacation" from this series lasted approximately three days -- long enough for me to read my book club's selected book and not a minute more. A Breath of Snow and Ashes is, once again, a very entertaining chapter in the adventures of Jamie and Claire, though this sixth installment has the worst title yet and my particular version has an even worse silver cover. Fans of the series: consider this to be the book where you say "finally!" a lot. We're getting into the American Revolution (and while this book doesn't carry us through all the years of war, we at least get past the Declaration of Independence) and there's a lot of other plotlines where we reach conclusions (or at least stop guessing). After biding his time to keep his family safe from the agents of the Crown, Jamie now has to come clean to declare his support for liberty and the rebels. Not only does this mean physical danger from those who swear allegiance to the King, but it means placing himself and his family on the opposite side of a conflict from many of their friends and relatives.

There are a lot of small storylines at work here to the point where you'd be forgiven for forgetting a few, only remembering when they come to resolution towards the end. Jamie's juggling connections to two different sides of the colonist rebellion and now when he plans to side outright with the rebels, it may take some convincing of both sides to let them know he's in earnest, particularly when his sense of right and wrong might pit him against those with whom he's politically aligned. Claire has finally found a young apprentice (Malva Christie) who appears interested in learning what Claire has to teach in terms of medicine, but Mr. Christie is vehemently opposed to his daughter partaking in such work, particularly when Claire begins experimenting with ether as a means of rendering patients unconscious for more painful procedures. Perhaps more so than in any other book, Claire's life is threatened and she will have many of her own scars (both physical and emotional) before this book is through. Roger Mac assumes a bigger role in helping settle the Protestant tenants of Frasers Ridge and has decided that he should become a minister; while Brianna is thoroughly supportive of his calling, this course of action is a bit complicated for several reasons. Their own relationship is a bit strained as they try to conceive a second child and past villains will resurface to threaten their family once more... though their hardest decision yet will close this book and surely have a role in the next. It's rough times for poor Fergus as Marsali bears a dwarf child and Fergus struggles with his growing depression about being unable to provide for his family. Ian Murray is dealing with his own demons and we finally learn what happened to him when he stayed with the Indians. Aunt Jocasta and Duncan Innes are facing some relationship difficulties, too, but perhaps easier to focus on is the fact that first their slave Phaedre goes missing and then the secret gold kept in Hector Cameron's tomb is stolen. Young Lizzie Wemyss has quite an unprecedented role in this book, with all kinds of romantic turmoil, and she shows rare courage in selecting a life that isn't quite kosher for the time. In fact, many characters that have lingered in the background for a bit are brought into the limelight, including the Browns from Brownsville, the Beardsley twins, Mr. and Mrs. Bug, the McGillivrays, and the Christies. Indeed, if the book has a unifying theme, it's the steady march towards the inevitable war, but life goes on. Lots of time is spent in pursuit of missing persons and repeatedly, we're reminded that it sucked to be a woman during this time period.

On that note, this is a small rant about an issue in the novel. It's not intended as a criticism of the whole novel, just something that I thought a lot about in between reading binges. There seems to be a lot of sex happening in this novel, and only a little of it is the kind between two consenting, unrelated adults without any exchange of money or goods. It's particularly the bad kind as far as women are really the ones to deal with the consequences. There's rape, whores, several cases of the pox, threesomes, Indian women offered as gifts in pairs, incest, both true and false accusations of married men sleeping around, situations involving white slave owners and black slaves, and women who might turn to other women for "comfort" in jail (it's not just the fellas in Ardsmuir, evidently). It almost made me miss the days when it was just every homosexual man lusting after Jamie. Sex certainly complicates life, but it seemed like it turned up some very complicated situations in this particular novel, often involving babies and questions of parentage. I could have made do with a little less of that, if only because it was a bit tiresome. And on a more serious note, part of me is trying to reconcile the frequent use of rape as a dramatic device in this series. Certainly, it was a more common danger back in this time period, and I'm certain that this is simply what Gabaldon is emphasizing with all of this, but does it seem perhaps too frequent? At this point, three our of our four main characters in this series have been violated (and that doesn't count Fergus, who was raised in a brothel and occasionally used as a child whore). Perhaps our particular characters are putting themselves in danger more than the usual person of the time period, but even so. Between the rapes and what desperate events result from unmarried pregnant women, it makes everything seem so bleak for those of the feminine gender. Of course, events like rape aren't handled lightly. It's not trivial at all, particularly in this this book where our main character (and, indeed, our intermittent narrator of the series) is violently beaten and raped. It's arguably the most important and horrid event of the book in terms of shaping actions and opinions about people. A group of rough men (including several personages who we've met that specifically dislike Jamie and Claire) come upon Claire and Marsali. While their stated purpose is to locate and steal Jamie's whiskey casks, they burn his distillery, render Marsali unconscious, and kidnap Claire with the idea that she can show them where his secret stash is hidden. Of course, this gets complicated when she can't really tell them where it is and they are uncertain if it's best to kill her or let her go. Ultimately, Claire ends up violently beaten and raped before Jamie descends with several men of the Ridge to recover her. In vengeance, Jamie has his men kill everyone they can find and only one previously injured man is left alive so Jamie might question him, one of the Brown brothers of Brownsville, but even he ends up dead. (Of course, it turns out that at least one other survived, too -- Donner, a man that reveals to Claire that he's a fellow time-traveler, one of the Indians who intended to go into the past and somehow change the fate of their ancestors, but now he's simply desperate to return home.) Claire refuses to let the violence done to her overpower who she is, but at several points of distress in the novel, she experiences strong flashbacks that cause her to blindly lash out or nearly lose consciousness in panic.

The rape question doesn't end there, though, because there's still Stephen Bonnet lurking around. Those who are ready for answers to the questions of "who is Jemmy's biological father?" and "when can we kill Bonnet already?" will be pleased with this novel, as we see resolutions to both of them. The first is answered inadvertently by a case of lice that requires Jem's head to be shaved and a mole is uncovered... a mole that Roger blithely dismisses as harmless, noting that he has the same kind in the same spot as Jem. Claire confirms that the mole is hereditary and I must say, I was a little disappointed with the lack of fanfare surrounding this assurance that Jem is Roger's biological child. It's not so passed over that you might miss it, but I was expecting a little more fuss. As for the Bonnet issue, we see his return and ultimate demise in this book, too. Gabaldon is a bit too kind to the fellow in my opinion, making it so Brianna can't abide to let him die in a way he most fears, but at least it's Brianna's hand behind his death at the end.

Moving on from terrible men to excellent ones, for those who read these books to sigh over Jamie, I think you'll be particularly pleased with this novel. (It's at this point that I'm wondering how I can slip into feminist questioner mode for the rape issue and then still want to swoon over Jamie.) Older and wiser, he still has the passion of his youth about him at times, yet still manages to temper that with his laird instincts as he assumes care of everyone around him. One can adore him for being a romantic precisely because he is so capable in most other areas of life and his love is so purely focused on Claire. (I think this book features one of the loveliest things Jamie has ever said, roughly paraphrased: if the last words on my lips are not I love you, it's only because I didn't have the time to say it.) My question is this. Is it pure wishful thinking that we completely accept Jamie and Claire as a believable characters, particularly Jamie? Capable of being both savage and tender? Even his faults are endearing. Perhaps. Mass slaughter might not be high on one's list of desired characteristics in a mate these days, but in the scene where he leads the fight to get Claire back from her kidnappers and he unblinkingly decides to kill them all, I had to acknowledge some deep-seeded gender roles that made a man who could unhesitatingly kill for the woman he loves... well, it's terribly attractive. At least the impulse is not gender specific -- wanting to dispose of those who would threaten what you hold dear, I feel that's pretty neutral, it's just that men historically play that role a bit more often.

Ultimately, this book will appeal to fans of the series and really that's all it's going for, right? No one's picking this book up who hasn't read the previous ones, so all Gabaldon is trying to do is maintain the current readership. Nothing is truly new and amazing, but she keeps up her regular level of entertaining story. The historical detail is still impressive (though because we've spent so much time waiting for the Revolution, it's not as fresh and interesting as its been in the previous books) and the relationships are still compelling. Can she keep up such momentum through more novels? Frankly, I'm impressed that things haven't gone downhill yet, so I have hope that she can continue on.