The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

*Warning: this post contains spoilers.*

I finished The Scottish Prisoner last night and it’s definitely my favorite in the Lord John series. I’m going to forego a lengthy summary of the book and instead focus on the biggest impressions it had on me.

In a nutshell: it’s 1760 and Lord John is obligated to complete a task asked of him by an army comrade on his deathbed. LJ involves his brother, Hal, who then decides to involve (or rather, use) Jamie (still being held prisoner at Helwater); thus setting up the reunion of LJ and Jamie and their subsequent journey to Ireland in which they must work together to catch the bad guy and mend their own tattered relationship along the way.

While this book is actually quite sad and nothing swoon-worthy happens (which usually does when Jamie Fraser is involved), I ultimately found it to be perfectly paced, simultaneously heartwarming and heart wrenching, and above all, a treasure trove of answers to the myriad of questions surrounding Jamie’s time at Helwater.

Peat bog in Ireland

On the surface, it may seem like a fortuitous dalliance or a random snapshot into the past, but to those of us who are fully invested in the characters, it is a very important revelation of what got those characters where they are today (or, er, in 1781…) and I would say that this book is the most important – regarding character development – of all the Lord John books. Scottish Prisoner is required reading if you want to be in the Outlander fan club!

Jamie Fraser and Lord John Grey are two of my favorite characters (ever). I actually love these men. DG knew exactly what she was doing by devoting an entire novel to them…I daresay she couldn’t go wrong. Jamie and LJ are like golden retrievers: tried and true, an all-around classic. While there may be a few cliques or stereotypes surrounding them, you can’t go wrong with this breed because you’ll always have a loyal, overall good dog (who is pretty to look at) at the end of the day.

I was dying to know what happened after that infamous scene in Brotherhood of the Blade and the niggling thought of how the heck did they ever get past that? was ALWAYS floating around in the back of my mind. Therefore, I am so grateful to finally have an explanation, even though I am still amazed that Jamie did get past it. (Most. Awkward. Situation. Ever.)

This book gave me even more respect for Jamie. The expression “be the bigger man” kept popping into my head because Jamie was always doing just that. He had so much sadness weighing on him and the rawness of his longing for Claire, even after 14 years, was truly gut-wrenching. The fact that he was able to keep his head up and carry on despite the degradation to his name and character (even going so far as to help those who unjustly looked down upon him), further proved that he is a true gentleman.

One scene that I found particularly moving was when Lord John and Lord Dunsany went for a leisurely ride, towards the end of the book. Dunsany describes how the other grooms don’t make things easy for Jamie and that he keeps to himself. Things have never been easy for Jamie, but he stands strong and perseveres. But it was his relationship with William that I found most heartbreaking. He’s been removed from his family, lost his wife and child (without even laying eyes on her), lost his title and rightful authority, and on top of all this, he is forced to watch his only son (the only thing he has left in his life) from a distance and always through a veil of secrecy. And yet he cherishes the small moments and forgoes any chance of freedom to continue that shard of a relationship.

I came away with mixed emotions regarding Lord John’s position in relation to Jamie. While Jamie has the power to make him weak in the knees, LJ is still his master and (by the end of this book) holds authority over his only son as well. In the final pages, when LJ finally realizes that Jamie is in fact, William’s father, I almost got the impression that he happily saw it as another way of lording over the man. But I’m not positive of that, because I can see it many ways: it gives him an excuse to see Jamie (which he was always looking for), and even further, a lifelong connection to him. Not to mention the fact that if he were to give William the best upbringing and education possible (which we actually know to be the case), then Jamie would forever be in debt to LJ for doing what he could not. On the other hand, LJ loves Jamie and cares for him deeply, and would see in William an opportunity to show Jamie how much he loves him, since he can’t actually (physically)show him, which he would very much like to do (don’t we all). As you can see, I’ve not made up my mind on the matter just yet, but Lord John is a very complicated man, which is of course, why I love him ;)

Ruins on Inchaleraun Island, Ireland

Another storyline that I found very enlightening was that of Isobel Dunsany. I have always wondered about her marriage to Lord John, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book sheds a little light on the subject. After carrying on in a decidedly snotty and childlike manner, she experienced a very cruel and unfortunate lesson on the importance of choosing an honorable man. Luckily, it was Jamie to the rescue, but I have a feeling that Lord John’s role in comforting her and his vow to keep her secret (especially considering that this followed relatively soon after their poignant scene in Brotherhood) probably resulted in her seeing LJ from a new perspective.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and deep down feel like it was “for the fans,” if that makes any sense. It’s kind of crazy to think that I’m saying that about a book that doesn’t have Claire in it (!), but…so many answers! I love answers! Even if you haven’t read the other Lord John books, you really must read this one.

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Outlander revisited

I recently finished my first “re-read” (via audiobook) of Outlander. I typically re-read my favorite books and there are undoubtedly some that withstand the test of time better than others, so for that reason,  I was a bit reticent going into Outlander again. I probably love this series more than anything I’ve read to date, and I didn’t know what I would do if it had somehow lost it’s magic.

I went into the initial read blindly; I had read no reviews or summaries and thus had no subconscious bias based on other people’s opinions. I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to find myself completely waylaid. Typically, I’m a pretty reserved person, but Outlander brought out the hyperactive, excitable, flailing-arms, high-pitched squealing fangirl in me like no other. I was obsessed with this book and thought of nothing else for months after the initial read. I cursed the unfairness of a life that forced me to leave my house and go to work while I was right smack in the middle of major Jamie and Claire drama! How cruel that my boss did not understand the gravity of my situation!? On the job, I was jittery and sleep-deprived and desperate for an open ear to listen to me ramble on and on about all the incredible things that had just happened. (Keep in mind, I was completely ignorant of the online fanbase at this point in the game.) Just recently, I cleaned out my old-emails and came across several that had been written during that time period. Bless my poor friends who had to endure my madness…

(click to enlarge)

Also during that time period, I had to help my brother and sister-in-law paint their new house. I had my nose buried in the book while waiting for the paint to be mixed at the store; and once we actually got to work, I painted faster than I’ve ever painted before! I was flying from room to room, unscrewing and removing light switch and outlet plates at lightening speed and futilely attempting to motivate the others with rapid hand claps and shouts of “Chop-chop, people! Let’s get this done!!” Afterwards, I declined a complimentary dinner and sped home so that I could get back to 1700’s Scotland.

As crazy as I was, I loved every minute of that euphoria. It still amazes me that a book can evoke so much emotion and make me so darned happy. While on the surface, it appeared to be making me regress in both intellectual ability and emotional age (what with all the girlie squeals and the extreme new-found boy crush); in reality, it was making me smarter. I learned so much history and increased my vocabulary with this book, and it spawned an interest in a country that I probably never would have even thought about otherwise. Of course, that feeling can almost never be re-captured after the first time, no matter how resilient said story may be. Therefore, I didn’t expect to revive that first time high and only hoped for at least another spirited experience. As you may have predicted, I was much relieved to find that Outlander still has what it takes to make me a very happy girl. Suffice it to say, it will still plaster a huge, goofy grin on my face :)

I was able to listen better and pay more attention to details this time around since my brain wasn’t hijacked by newbie mania. What struck me the most during my second go round was the emphasis on how young Jamie was. I knew all along that he was 23 years old of course, but I suppose I didn’t pick up on the multiple references to how young he appears, or the fact that Claire is sometimes caught off guard by his youthfulness.

I took a lot more notice of Frank this time. I had initially found him very distant and cold, but now have a different impression. I saw more clearly that he was quite loving with Claire and simply very dedicated (with a tendency towards complete immersion) to his research. I must say that I am notorious for switching “teams” upon second reads: I switched from team Edward to team Jacob and I switched from team Bill to team Eric (although, I watched “True Blood” for the first time in between those re-reads and I have to admit that Mr. Skarsgard had something to do with that about-face…). While I did see Frank in a more agreeable light, it definitely wasn’t enough to sway me from team Jamie. It did however, force me to much more critically evaluate Claire’s decision to abandon Frank. I’ve always found Claire to be a bit selfish, but I now see her decision as more foolhardy and callous. (It worked out in the end of course, so I can’t say that I blame her for it…)

I didn’t shed a tear during the Wentworth scene with Jamie and Black Jack Randall (compared to my first read when I WEPT LIKE A BABY). I understand Claire’s “solution” to Jamie’s depression at the abbey much better this time as well. The first time around, I was so emotionally drained and my mind so muddled that after the opium abbey brawl, I found myself blinking dazedly and thinking “wait….what the hell just happened?” but I was too excited to jump into Dragonfly in Amber to go back for clarification.

After finishing An Echo in the Bone, I consistently told people that the first book was my least favorite and that this is the rare series that gets better and better with each additional book. While I still believe the latter part of that statement to be true, I can not believe that I ever uttered the words “least favorite” and “Outlander” in the same sentence! It is so not my least favorite, I really can’t choose the “best” one because they are each so wonderful in their own way. Each book builds upon the last and weaves each thread tighter and those thousands of pages together are what makes the characters so richly realistic.

I’m starting to gush…so brace yourselves…but as I’ve said before, I feel like I know these people, actually I feel like I’ve known them my whole life. I’m constantly comparing this series to a real-life relationship: you enter into a whirlwind courtship, you’re madly in love and can see or think of nothing else, and then you settle into it, get comfy and feel like you’ve know that person (*cough* or character) forever. Seriously though, all of you hard-core fans out there, can you remember the time before you met Jamie and Claire? ;)

Anyhoo, I’ll wrap this up by saying that Outlander is a classic, it will never get old or lose it’s magic and I should’ve never doubted that (however tiny that doubt may have been). It’s the unique book that simultaneously stimulates both my giddy inner fangirl and my studious inner historian. You’d think that after a year of reading this series and writing multiple blog posts (well, basically a whole blog) about the same characters, that my excitement would have quelled at least a bit, right? Well, I’m still in love and still a loyal devotee and I think it speaks to the quality of the writing. Next up: the audio version of DIA.

Rebel by Bernard Cornwell

Rebel is the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s “Starbuck Chronicles,” and introduces us to Nathaniel Starbuck, a Yale seminary school drop-out from Boston who finds himself stranded in Richmond, VA the day after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. Tensions between the North and South are very high, and Starbuck, with his Boston accent, is detained in the street by an angry mob and accused of being a Northern spy. It doesn’t help that he also happens to be the son of the infamous Northern abolitionist, Reverand Elial Starbuck – a man who is vehemently detested in the South. In a stroke of good fortune, Nate is rescued from the tar and feathers by Washington Faulconer, a wealthy Virginian and father to Adam Faulconer, Nate’s best friend from Yale. Faulconer goads Starbuck  into admitting the embarrassing circumstances which brought him to Richmond, i.e., that he fell in love at first sight with an actress, Mademoiselle Dominique Demarest of New Orleans, who was performing in a travelling show called “The Only True and Authorized Stage Version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Complete with Real Bloodhounds.” She persuaded him to drop out of Yale and travel with the troupe, eventually asking him to commit theft and run away with her to Richmond…at which point she immediately dropped him for her true partner in crime (who was waiting to take the money).

Washington Faulconer is self-absorbed, obsessed with becoming a famous General, and very preoccupied with the oncoming war (and how he can use it to his advantage); but he takes pity on Nate, and since he is a friend of his beloved son, welcomes him into his home and offers him a position in the newly formed Faulconer Legion. Starbuck has never seen himself as a soldier, and to fight with the Confederacy means that he would be fighting against his family and friends; but his distaste for his father’s radical behavior, and the fact that he now sees himself as a rebel (in the literal sense of the word), as well as the desire to please Faulconer and thank him for the gesture of good will, cause him to step up to the challenge. The first battle of his life will also be the first major battle in the Civil War: the Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run, if you’re a Yankee).

I really enjoyed this book. It’s historically accurate with regards to the military details and the battle scenes are very descriptive and amazingly vivid. Cornwell brings to life so many of the historical names that are associated with the Civil War: Beauregard, Johnston, and Stonewall Jackson to name a few. The accuracy of the novel appeals strongly to me, but perhaps more appealing is the rich diversity of characters throughout the book. There’s Thaddeus Bird (also known as “Pecker” because of his jerky bird-like movements), who is the village schoolmaster (and hater of all children) and brother- in-law to Mr. Faulconer, who finds himself appointed a Major in the Legion because his sister wished it; Thomas Truslow is a hard-scrabble mountain man who does not want to get involved in the fight, but chooses to volunteer after he is taken aback by his instant likening to Starbuck; Sally Truslow is Thomas’s illiterate, uncouth, vixen of a daughter who uses her feminine wiles to get her way; and Ethan Ridley, the young rake who plans to marry Washington Faulconer’s daughter as a means to gain access to the family bank account.

I love the character of Starbuck – he’s an underdog, and I’m a real sucker for underdogs. He’s innocent and naive and truly torn between his oppressive religious upbringing and the newly discovered desires to experience women and war. He does a lot of dithering, but I found it to be very endearing, and I love his penchant for falling head over heels in love. He eventually finds his footing, although I think he will truly blossom as the series progresses.

Rebel is really a great read, especially if you have an interest in the Civil War. There is a lot of adventure and tons of action. There’s a love story on the horizon, but it is not prominent in this book. Diana Gabaldon listed Bernard Cornwell on her Methadone List in The Outlandish Companion, and I agree that his writing will appeal to the Outlander fan who particularly enjoys the battle and adventure aspects of DG’s books. (As a side note: Cornwell’s other series, ” The Sharpe Books,” was made into a PBS miniseries and I have seen several people drop the name of the lead actor – Sean Bean – as a potential Jamie Fraser. I think he’s probably too old at this point, but he’s worth checking out for mental imagery.)

Spreading the love of Outlander

I have a couple of stories that I need to share here, because only my fellow Outlander fanatics will truly appreciate them. The first story is from my husband. Last week, he went to the doctor and while returning his paperwork and clipboard to the front desk, he noticed that the receptionist was reading a book by Diana Gabaldon.

Husband: Oh, I see you’re reading one of the Outlander books?

Receptionist: Yeah! Have you read them?

Husband: No, but my wife is obsessed with them, so I kinda feel like I’ve read them.

Receptionist: They are so great.

Husband: My wife carved a pumpkin that was a big hit with all the Outlander fans she talks to online – she has a blog- actually, her blog and pumpkin recently made it onto Diana Gabaldon’s website. You should check it out.

*At this point, he is called back to see the doctor. After his check-up, he speaks with a different lady behind the front desk and is making his way out of the office, when he hears this…*

Receptionist: Oh! Sir! SIR! WAIT!

Husband: *walks back to the front desk*

Receptionist: OH. MY. GOD.

*In my husband’s words, she was “attempting to suppress a high-pitched squeal, while slightly flailing her arms and trying to maintain a professional decorum.”*

Receptionist:  I saw the pumpkin! Please tell your wife I said thank you, thank you for that pumpkin! Oooohhhh! That just made my day!

Husband: *smiling* Sure thing.

Aww, my hubs is going around promoting the Outlander series! As a side note, I asked him which book she was reading and he said “I don’t know, it was this ugly neon green color.” HA!

Next story:

My mom was at the beauty shop, getting her hair done, when the topic of conversation switched to vampires and then Outlander. (Just to set the stage: picture a Southern beauty salon with a hairdresser named Diane, who calls everyone “Honey,” “Sweetie,” “Baby,” or the like, and doesn’t get in a hurry for anything. Diane’s son was working as a graphic designer on the 4th and 5th Twilight movies that were being filmed in Louisiana.)

Mom: My daughter loved Twilight, but she likes the Sookie Stackhouse series better.

Diane: I haven’t heard of that one. What’s it about?

Mom: Vampires. The show True Blood is based on those books, so I’m assuming they are a bit darker and more adult than the Twilight books.

*Let me just say that I forced my mom to read Twilight during the height of my obsession and when prodded for her opinion on it, she said “Well, honestly I wish they would just go ahead and get it on with each other! This back and forth is driving me crazy!”*

Mom: Now she’s in love with a new series though, it’s called Outlander. She bought it…

*At this point, an older lady looks up from a book and interrupts my mom…*

Older lady: Oooooohhhhhhhhhh! I’ve read the Outlander books! They. Are. Amazing!

Mom: Ha! You sound just like my daughter! Have you read them all?

Older lady: (who has now relocated to fully join the conversation) Oh yeah. They are the best books I’ve ever read. I am DYING waiting for book 8 to come out! It’s coming out in March though, so I’m just biding my time until then.

My mom called me later that night to relay the story and to tell me that book 8 is coming out in March. I informed her that it hasn’t even been written yet and it will be years before book 8 comes out. Then she says to me “Well, that lady seemed to be a pretty big fan…I’d bet she knows what she’s talking about.” I had to act very offended that my mom was questioning my level of fandom and my knowledge of when the next book is coming out.

And finally, I was at Barnes and Noble this past weekend, just browsing, when I overheard a woman at the information desk asking about Outlander. Of course, my ears perked up instantly and I walked to the end of the aisle to get a glimpse. The clerk checked in her computer and informed her that it was in the fiction section, and they began walking in that direction. I actually really wanted to go over to this girl and gush about how amazing the book is and tell her about Jamie Fraser and how she will never be the same, etc, etc, but when I rounded the corner and saw her pick up the book…the way that she was tenderly cupping it (clearly already coveting it), with a big, goofy grin on her face, I realized that she already had insider info on this series. It made me smile.

I’ve seen Diana G. describe her books as “word-of-mouth books” since they are so hard to describe or categorize and these stories reminded me of that notion. I actually found the series all by myself, I was reading the USA Today Top 150 best sellers list and saw one tiny little line that said An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon and described it as “a Scottish husband and his time-travelling wife in the 1700’s, latest in a series” (or something along those lines) and for whatever reason, that little sentence spoke to me! I went to the used book store and found books 2,3, and 4 and bought Outlander new (albeit on sale). And the rest, as they say, is history!

Do you have any funny Outlander word-of-mouth stories? I’d love to hear about them!

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas holiday! I will be posting pics from my beautiful trip to East Tennessee very soon, but for now, here is my review of Echo (copied and pasted from Word, since I was forced to suffer the anguish of no internet or blog access during the height of my post-book delirium).

I just finished An Echo in the Bone and I’m here in the mountains without internet. *fists waving in the air* Oh, Diana Gabaldon! Diana, Diana, Diana. My mind has sufficiently been blown, yet again. I shall try verra hard to harness my bottled excitement and control my trembling fingertips enough to write a coherent review of my thoughts.

Remember my review of A Breath of Snow and Ashes in which I said that upon finishing any Outlander book, the only adjective that seems to come to mind is “amazing?” Well, expect a lot of that. And there will be spoilers, because I simply don’t see how I can talk about this book without them.

The book starts out as a slow read. Not slow as in there is no action or slow as in boring, but slow as in there is a lot of information being disseminated and lots of groundwork being laid. The first half of the book felt like I was reading a Lord John novel. Not only because several threads are told from Lord John’s perspective, but also because there is a lot of military talk and battle discussion that wasn’t prominent in the prior books. In the beginning, we are mainly getting to know William, who is headstrong and eager to fight, but who also has a softer side and quickly realizes that he has a lot to learn about the art of war. I was somewhat indifferent towards him in the beginning. I very much enjoyed his storyline, but wasn’t fully invested in him as a character. It didn’t take long, however, for it to dawn on me that William could very well be a looking glass into Jamie’s young adulthood. Since they are so similar in personality, temperament, and of course, physical appearance, is this what Jamie was like when he was coming of age and finding his footing as a natural leader? I like to think there is a lot of similitude there. I began to worry about his eagerness to fight and naiveté regarding who to trust in such tumultuous times; but, for all intents and purposes, he is Lord John Grey’s son, and he has Jamie Fraser’s genes, so he’s going to be a good man. How could he not? At that point I sort of stopping worrying about him and was ready to get to the meat of the story, a.k.a., Jamie and Claire.

There wasn’t nearly enough Jamie for me. The only solace I found was that what little bit we got, was really, really good. I think Diana G realized that she was depriving us in the Jamie department and thus resolved to give us quality over quantity. Is it just me, or was every single scene with Jamie nothing short of amazing? We got back to the introspective, sweet, heart-breakingly poetic Jamie of yore, and for that reason alone I can forgive Diana for giving us so little. After Saratoga when Claire has just rescued him from the battlefield, given him laudanum and is preparing to do surgery on his hand? That was perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the book because Jamie is so incredibly open and vulnerable. He is dazedly explaining his rationale for risking his life to save those of complete strangers and all walls are down and we see his complete trust in Claire to pick him up, fix him and see him through it. The scene was just overflowing with love and emotion and trust and sincerity and while I was grieving for him and the loss of his finger, I was drinking it all in.

Another favorite scene -a happy one this time- was when Jamie and Claire are stopped in Edinburgh en route to return Simon Fraser’s body for burial in Scotland. Finally we get to see Jamie and Claire relaxing and actually enjoying life without freezing, starving, or running for their lives. They have money and time to leisurely dine at expensive restaurants, shop for new clothes, and pick out spectacles. I envisioned them walking down the stone streets arm in arm, strutting confidently,( bespectacled) with the sun on their shoulders, enjoying the brief respite from worry or fear. It had been a long time coming and they totally deserved it.

One aspect of the book that took me by surprise was Ian. I felt like I was really seeing a different side of him than I’d ever seen. I finally saw the fierceness that had been mentioned so often before, but never really illustrated (to me) until this book. In addition to that, he opens up and we’re given so much more insight into the way his mind works and how he manages the balance between his Scottish roots and his newly acquired Mohawk beliefs. Poor Ian was truly raked through the coals in this one: his anguish over the accidental death of Mrs. Bug (and the subsequent terror of being pursued by Arch Bug), tying up loose ends and finding closure with regards to Emily and his lost child, his separation from Rollo (who had just been shot), the reunion with his parents after (how many?) years, the death of his father, and falling in love with a Quaker girl who found it hard to reconcile his warrior nature with her non-violent beliefs. I’ve always loved Ian, thinking of him mostly as an easy-going little brother, but he has now officially grown up in my eyes. I had so much respect for his unwillingness to be something he is not and for not faltering in his beliefs. He was clearly anxious and reticent about his return to Lallybroch, but confronted it head on, donning Mohawk finery and holding his head high as if to say “This is who I am now. I can’t go back and you must accept me for what I am, or not have me at all.” Such a dramatic change from the boy who sacrificed himself for Roger back in Drums of Autumn because he was groping for his calling in life and had no idea what he was supposed to be. Am I happy that Rachel Hunter accepted him in the end? I’m not sure yet…I admire her loyalty and her dedication, but I’m not completely convinced that she is an adequate partner, not yet at least.

Another aspect of the book that pretty much knocked my socks off was the marriage of Lord John and Claire. I already knew that they had sex under the pretense that Jamie was dead (as a result of listening to Diana G read an excerpt from book 8 during a Dragon Con panel ), and yet it still came as a huge surprise to me. It’s still scandalous to think about, but here’s the kicker: I liked Lord John and Claire together. Is that wrong? I ABSOLUTELY LOVED the scene with them lying in bed talking after their drunken rendezvous the night before. John’s openness and honesty was lovely and I felt like he had genuine respect and admiration for Claire. And his story about the white deer, oh my god, my heart melted when he stopped her in the doorway and told her to “…think of the deer. My dear.” In that moment, in my eyes, they were perfect for each other! (By the way, did anyone else catch the possible symbolism there? Claire is called the white woman/witch; John’s associating her with the mysterious white deer? Is it just me?) I have long wanted Lord John to find someone with whom he could have a meaningful relationship that consisted of more than just sex, and I felt like he found that with Claire, however untraditional and fleeting. It all happened rather quickly and I wasn’t sure if Ian, Fergus, Marsali, or anyone else really knew the extent of what was happening (if at all), but quite frankly, I loved every minute of their marriage. When Jamie finally did return to America and unexpectedly walked in on Lord John and Claire, casually dressing and getting ready for the day in John’s bedroom, he was clearly not of the proper mindset to grasp the significance of the scene.  I believe that he would have immediately realized the casual intimacy between them, behaving like a settled old married couple, had he not been fleeing from the British army and seeking refuge. And once he does realize?? The intensity of this cliffhanger reinforces my prior fear of my inability to cope with the 2 year void until book 8 is released.

And speaking of cliffhangers, what about Jem?! And more importantly, Roger?!? At least we know that Jem is still in the tunnel (for now), but Roger has just travelled through the stones! If he is concentrating on Jem (in the theory that it will help direct him through time), where will he end up?! And what about Percy and Fergus?! My nerves are shot, people.

I love this book so incredibly much. It’s absolutely amazing. How fitting it is that I bought Outlander in an after-Christmas sale in 2009 and now I have finished the series almost exactly a year later? I shall forever think of 2010 as the year of Outlander :) Without any new books to turn to in the coming year, I suppose I will have to resort to some meaningless one night stands with sexy vampires and civil war soldiers to tide me over until my reunion with Jamie and the gang, but I most definitely see some re-reads in my future…

Five book reviews, one blog post

The tagline at the top of this page indicates that this blog is partly about books, but you sure wouldn’t know it from looking at my recent posts. I actually have been reading steadily (if not a wee bit slowly), but I just haven’t felt like writing about them. The weather finally decided to get cold and the loss of daylight savings time means that my excruciatingly long commute home is once again in complete darkness. This makes me want to sleep…all the time. Oh, and I pulled out the Snuggie…which instantly brings any productivity to a screeching halt. I need to get back into the groove, but I think I’ll just ease into it with some mini-reviews.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Seth Grahame Smith, what is this hold you have on me? I love reading about the Civil War, I love Abraham Lincoln, and I love vampire stories. Nuff said, right? (That goes out to you, Diana.) Abe’s mother is killed by a vampire when he is a young boy, thus igniting a lifelong quest to kill all vampires in America (with the exception of one “H,” who actually works with Lincoln to give him tips on the locations of especially evil vamps). He discovers that the vampires are funding slave owners in the South because the slave trade creates an endless, easy blood supply (here’s the vampiric connection to the Civil War). And John Wilkes Booth is a vampire, which I thought to be a touch of pure genius because he was such an outlandish character in real life that one has no problem believing that he was a vampire. There are also several old black and white photos (with slight modifications, of course) that genuinely creeped me out, especially the portrait of Booth.

I did have issues with this book, and if I were to analyze it and ponder the deep meanings within, I would probably not like it. I would be upset that it sort of shifts the real reason for the war away from slavery, which detracts from my image of the noble President Lincoln; and I would think it a little strange that he didn’t inform the country of the existence of vampires, instead of trying to slay each one individually with his trusty axe; and I would be most upset that Abe did not let his wife in on the fact that he became a vampire and instead continued to appear out of the darkness, causing her to be diagnosed as crazy and eventually institutionalized. BUT, I’m not going to over-think it, because this book is obviously not an accurate history and therefore not meant to be picked to pieces, thus, based solely on entertainment value, I loved it.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw was my first experience with Henry James and his millions upon millions of commas. It took me a long time to adjust to his style of writing and I grew a little impatient since it took me so long to read such a short book. I think it is a decent story, but there was so much suggestion that I felt a little lost because there were several times when I honestly had no idea what the heck he was suggesting. Perhaps this book is a little too high brow for me, but what I took away from it was this: the governess was insane and I’m not even sure that any of the ghostly occurences actually happened.

The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I loved The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and went around singing its praises to everyone I knew. It was the first book that had genuinely scared the dickens out of me since my middle school days with Stephen King. ( I can remember lying in bed during a bad storm, literlly crying with fear, after just finishing Salem’s Lot because I was convinced that if  I pulled back the curtain to investigate the scratching at my window, I would be face to face with a floating vampire. And thanks to Christine, I still get creeped out at night when I see oncoming headlights of old cars from the 1950’s.) This book scared me so much that I was actually worried about a vampire attacking our plane when we flew out to California just a few days after finishing it. And the first description of the Strigoi and the pic-pic-pic of this cane?! I still shudder at the thought.

That having been said however, The Fall did not live up to all of my own personal hype. I wasn’t the least bit scared and at times I found the descriptions of the newly turned vampires to be comical. I’m not a huge fan of zombie-esqe vampires as it is, so when said zombie vampires morph into crab-like vamps that scuttle along walls and ceilings…I found it a little hard to swallow.  Also, I don’t especially love the style of writing because (this may sound weird) it reads like a movie that was turned into a book. Like it’s more  movie than book? (This makes sense though, considering del Toro is a filmmaker and that there are already plans to turn these books into movies.) I was able to overlook that aspect during The Strain since it was so wonderfully scary, but it becomes more obvious when the creep factor isn’t there to distract you.  A few new characters are introduced, I particularly enjoyed Angel, the retired Mexican luchadore, but some of the major characters that I would have believed to be crucial to the finale are killed off. Overall, I was disappointed with this book, but I am still curious to see how it will end and I will undoubtedly read book three.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I finally got around to reading Mockingjay. I absolutely adore this series, but I have to admit that I have major issues with the ending. I was perfectly satisfied (albeit not on the edge of my seat, as was the case with the first two books) up until page 385-ish, when it felt like she suddenly realized that she only had 15 pages left to hastily wrap everything up. It didn’t sit right with me and I’m agitated about the resolution of one character in particular (I can’t really say much about this without spoilers) that just didn’t make any sense whatsoever. However, I will continue to recommend the series.

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

I listened to the audio version of this book and was absolutely enthralled from beginning to end. It’s the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman painter to ever be accepted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence in the 1600’s. Her story is tragic and heartbreaking, but I was really moved by her drive and determination to follow her dreams. Vreeland is a master of creating atmosphere and I found the scenery to be more vivid than anything I’ve read in a long time. The audio aspect added an additional layer of ambience since I could hear the reader correctly pronounce the Italian words and I went around talking with an Italian accent for several days afterwards. I also found her paintings online and was able to envision them while she was creating them in the story (which made me giddy with excitement). I knew nothing about this author prior to this book, but I will definitely be adding her other novels to my TBR list. I would highly recommend this book!

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1630

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The beautiful cover of this book caught my eye as I passed by the bargain book table at Barnes and Noble; and after a quick glance told me that it was a supernatural puzzler about the Salem witch trials, well, I was sold.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe is about Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student studying American colonial history who has just been accepted into the doctoral program. Her plans of spending the summer researching for her dissertation are turned upside down when she is asked to move into her grandmother’s dilapidated 17th century home in Salem to clean it up and ready it for market. The home doesn’t have electricity or a phone, and is chock full of history, which is right up Connie’s alley, and it’s here that she stumbles upon an old bible containing a key and the name “Deliverance Dane.” She learns that Deliverance was tried as a witch during the Salem witch trials, and also that she was in possession of a “book of receipts,” which Connie is determined to get her hands on as an original source for her research.

The story jumps back and forth between 1991 Massachusetts and the late 1600’s/early 1700’s as we find out that Connie is descended from a long line of cunning women. The book gets a little more interesting when Connie meets Sam Hartley, a young historical preservationist currently working as a Steeplejack, who takes an immediate interest in both Connie and her quest and hastens to join in the search. Through the back stories about Connie’s ancestors, we learn that the significant other of each cunning woman suffered a premature death and come to realize that the lovable Sam will soon be in danger. Connie has to track down Deliverance Dane’s physick book in order to save Sam.

My overall opinion of this book is that I enjoyed it, but there was definitely something off about it that makes me pause ever so briefly before saying that. It held my interest and thoughts of it floated through my head while I was at work; and I always enjoy rich historical descriptions about the Salem witch trials. At times however, Howe’s writing style sort of read like a textbook about colonial history (again, which wasn’t a problem for me) but something about her phrasing/wording just didn’t flow smoothly. My main gripe is with Connie and the descriptions of life as a  Harvard grad student, both of which came across as pretentious and highfalutin. When my mind starts to envision preppy men with sweaters tied around their necks and tennis rackets slung over their shoulders… it’s not good for me.

Also, when it came time to hit the library in search of Deliverance’s book, it seemed like Connie, having just completed her Master’s in history at Harvard, should have been more familiar with things and such a task would be old hat. I realize I’m being a little harsh, and I should cut her some slack since her mind was preoccupied by a new distraction: Sam. I totally fell for Sam. It’s not everyday that a girl runs into a ruggedly sexy Steeplejack complete with rappelling gear and ponytail, right? I even let it slide that he nicknames her Cornell because of her “second-tier-school attitude” (gag!). Sam’s easy-going, warm personality is a nice contrast to Connie’s uptight attitude and he thankfully loosens her up a bit.

It has its flaws and the ending is a bit hokey, but I would still recommend this book if for no other reason than the generous historical details and descriptions. I respect Howe’s idea to look at the Salem witch trials as if “witches” really did exist, instead of the standard perspective that the trials were rooted in the baseless accusations of a paranoid religious community or hapless little girls afflicted with hallucinations after eating moldy grains. And props to the cover artist for making this gorgeous book completely covet-worthy.