Sunday Post #8: Reading Challenges Update

Sunday PostMarch 1 seems like a good time to reflect on how I’m doing with the various reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. As of today, I’ve completed nine books. The goal of the Outdo Yourself Challenge is to read more than the previous year. So far, I’m on track with that challenge. I don’t think I have ever been in the position of having read nine books at the beginning of March before.

I’ve read four books for the Historical Fiction Challenge: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel; The Wolves of Andover aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent; The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon; and The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore. I committed to reading ten historical fiction books for the challenge. I’m currently reading The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. I’m only a little over two chapters into it, but wow, what a beautifully written, gripping read so far. I have to read it in small sips, put it down and think about it, and plunge in again when I’m ready. I got a pencil and went back over the two chapters I had finished and underlined my favorite parts.The Lotus Eaters

This is how the world ends in one instant and begins again in the next.

It seems early days to be predicting this will be my favorite read of the year, but perhaps not. It is gorgeous so far.

I’ve read three books for the Reading England Challenge:

I committed to reading twelve books for this challenge.

The Literary Movement Challenge involves reading at least one book a month for that month’s movement. So far, I’ve read one selection each for the Middle Ages and for the Renaissance: The Lais of Marie de France and As You Like It by William Shakespeare. I committed to reading twelve books.

The Back to the Classics Challenge involves reading classic selections from various categories. I committed to nine books and have read two:

This week I posted reviews for As You Like It by William Shakespeare and The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am about an hour away from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning.

One last glimpse of The Lotus Eaters before I go.

The Lotus Eaters

 

Related posts:

Review: As You Like It, William Shakespeare

I read William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It as my selection for the Renaissance era in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. I had been wanting to read it ever since reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

For those not familiar with the plot, it’s one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies. Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior, the rightful duke. Duke Senior’s younger brother, Duke Frederick usurps his older brother’s dukedom. Frederick allows Rosalind to stay when he exiles his brother to the Forest of Arden because his daughter Celia loves Rosalind so much. Frederick arranges a wrestling match that is supposed to end in defeat for Orlando de Boys, but Orlando is victorious. He captures Rosalind’s heart. In a fit of pique, Frederick banishes Rosalind. However, Celia decides to leave with Rosalind as the two are close, and Celia cannot bear to see Rosalind exiled without her company. They decide to disguise themselves, Rosalind as a boy, Ganymede, and Celia as Ganymede’s sister Aliena, and they also decide to take the fool Touchstone with with them to keep them company. They plunge themselves into the forest, where they find Orlando has been carving Rosalind’s name on trees.

While in the forest, they encounter shepherds who help them find shelter. The shepherd Silvius is in love with a woman, Phoebe, who falls in love with Ganymede, not realizing Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise. Meanwhile, Orlando is hiding from his brother Oliver, who wants him dead. Orlando rescues Oliver from a lion in the forest, which leads to Oliver’s decision to change his ways. In typical Shakespearean fashion, everything works out in the end with a bunch of marriages. Oliver is further transformed by love for Celia and no longer desires Orlando’s destruction. Orlando and Rosalind find happiness. Rosalind manages to set Silvius and Phoebe together in a problematic marriage, and even Touchstone marries Audrey. Duke Frederick experiences a religious conversion and sees the error of his ways.

As Shakespeare goes, it’s not my favorite. I much prefer A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comedy. However, I do see maturity in his characterization of Rosalind that had me wondering greatly about the boy actors in his acting company at the time he wrote the play. It would have taken a strong actor to pull off that part. I found her to be a refreshingly smart character, and in control of so much of the action. I liked her very much. As You Like It is perhaps most famous for Jaques’s speech “All the world’s a stage.”

I waited to watch the film version directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind before reviewing the book. She is a wonderful Rosalind. The cast is great: Celia is played by Romola Garai, Touchstone by Alfred Molina, the Dukes by Brian Blessed, Orlando by David Oyelowo, Jacques by Kevin Kline, Audrey by Janet McTeer, and that’s just a start. Set in feudal Japan, the story begins as Duke Frederick and a bunch of ninjas take over Duke Senior’s palace and send the rightful Duke and his men into exile in the forest. The setting change was interesting and still worked despite the importance of the Forest of Arden as setting in the play. The costumes were beautiful. The actors were fine. But I still didn’t like it, and I don’t know why. I liked parts of it, but as a whole, it was just sort of boring. I kept picturing how my students might respond to it if we watched in class, and I kept picturing them nodding off. I wonder if the issue with this play is that in order for this story to remain compelling, the action needs to move a little more quickly? I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it, as I liked the elements separately. They just didn’t cohere for me. Your mileage may vary if you decide to watch it.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

Set in Warwickshire, this book will serve as my entry for that county in the Reading England Challenge and will serve as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge.

 

Related posts:

TLC Book Tour: The Tell-Tale Heart, Jill Dawson

The Tell-Tale HeartJill Dawson’s novel The Tell-Tale Heart begins with an unusual premise: Patrick, a fifty-year-old history professor, undergoes a heart transplant. He begins to notice subtle changes in his personality. He discovers his heart donor was a teenage boy named Drew Beamish, and he finds himself becoming curious about Drew.

Patrick discovers Drew was a local boy with a long family history in the Cambridgeshire Fens close to the hospital in Papworth Everard where Patrick’s transplant occurs.

Patrick’s story is woven together with that of Drew and of Drew’s ancestors, who were involved in the Littleport labor riot of 1816.

The heart has always been the symbolic seat of human emotion, and when Patrick finds himself changing after his transplant, unsettled with his previous self and wondering about his link to Drew and his family, he begins to wonder if the heart’s role is more than symbolic.

Patrick is a womanizer and a bit of jerk, but given his reflective nature and the changes in his personality, it’s easy for the reader to like him. His new heart not only gives him a second chance at life but also allows him to rethink his old ways. Even Patrick seems not to like the old Patrick very much (perhaps old Patrick didn’t like old Patrick either).

Drew, on the other hand, inherited a rebellious streak from the Beamishes, who first make waves in Littleport when they are involved in labor riots. Drew himself discovers his family’s history and becomes fascinated not only by their story but by history itself—and his history teacher. A young boy with much intellectual promise, much like his ancestors, Drew has also inherited a constant heart from another of his ancestors as well.

I enjoyed this story. The historical aspect was intriguing and was told in the novel much as it actually happened. Papworth Hospital, the setting for Patrick’s transplant, is a heart and lung hospital known for performing some of the first beating-heart transplants, just as described in the novel. Interspersing Drew’s story along with that of his ancestors underscored the circular nature of time, and Patrick finds himself connected to the Cambridgeshire Fens in ways he can’t explain after the transplant.
QuoteI have felt this kind of connection myself to places near where I later discovered my ancestors lived 200 years earlier. Patrick’s desire to simplify, reflect, and reconnect made sense to me. I found myself much more drawn to his story than to Drew’s, but that may be because I’m closer to Patrick’s age and stage of life than I am to Drew’s. I found the flashback to Drew’s ancestors interesting, but it also felt a little disconnected from the rest of the book. It establishes some rather important aspects of Drew’s personality, but I wonder how it might have been integrated more tightly with Patrick and Drew’s stories.

The Tell-Tale Heart is an interesting read that will make you wonder about the power of the human heart.

Jill DawsonJill Dawson’s website | Twitter

tlc logoRating: ★★★★☆

Related posts:

Sunday Post #7: Forest and Fen

Sunday PostI finished up two books this week, but I am waiting to review both of them. The first is William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which I had never read before, but had decided to read way back when I read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (review). It was during that year that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. I liked it, though not as much as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, but I wanted to watch a movie version of it so I could review both the play and the movie version together. Unfortunately, Netflix is being extremely slow about sending it along.

The other book I finished just today is The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am reviewing this book as part of a TLC Book Tour this coming Friday. The book has an interesting premise regarding the after-effects of a heart transplant, and it did get me thinking quite a bit, but more on that this Friday.

Both books allowed me to explore two counties in the Reading England Challenge. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It was in Shakespeare’s own home county of Warwickshire. Sadly, I discovered, not much of it remains aside from a few very old trees. The Tell-Tale Heart is set in some smaller towns around Cambridge in the Fens in Cambridgeshire. Both books relied a great deal on setting in the stories to the extent that moving them might change the story quite a bit, especially in The Tell-Tale Heart.

I am still reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette and Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I will probably take up a new paperback today since Marie Antoinette is on the Kindle and Trigger Warning is an audio book. Some weeks ago, I was feeling in the mood for The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. My dad was serving in Vietnam when I was born. He left when my mother was, I think, about six months pregnant with me. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set there. I have several students from Vietnam. Last year, one of my Vietnamese students used to have really interesting conversations with me about the differences between our countries.

I am still waiting for The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan and I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira to arrive in the mail, though I’m really looking forward to reading those books. I did order them from third-party sellers, so shipping is not the quick Prime shipping I’m used to from Amazon. I think I have decided to read Hilary Mantel’s massive French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety as well. I am not sure when I’ll get to that one, but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. I’ll likely get that on the Kindle so I don’t have to try to hold it up.

In case you missed it, I posted my review for Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice this week. I haven’t written any other reviews this week, nor have I started other books.

Given how much snow we’ve had, I suppose it’s logical that I have been able to do so much reading. I think I’ve read more so far this year than I can remember reading in the same time period… ever. Also, my kitchen scale broke, which is a necessity for soapmaking, so I wasn’t able to make soap this weekend either. It’s sad because I have a few wholesale orders and a custom request as well as some spring soaps I want to make up. It will have to wait!

In other bookish news, I have a book club! I am an idiot and somehow missed the memo about the book we were supposed to read until it was too late for me to finish before the meeting, but I did go, and we did talk about the book, and it was wonderful. For the record, the book I was supposed to read (which is on my list, though I didn’t get to it this time) was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. We are reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for next time, so I should be in good shape for that meeting at least.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Related posts:

TLC Book Tour: The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore

The Serpent of VeniceWhat do you get if you take a generous helping each of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello, a dash of King Lear, and a big splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and put it in a blender with Monty Python? I’m not sure, but I think it would look a lot like Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice.

The Serpent of Venice is the continuing story of King Lear’s fool, Pocket, first introduced in Moore’s book Fool. Lured to Venice by Montressor Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio, Pocket is chained and walled up inside Brabantio’s dungeon. A mysterious creature rescues Pocket, who seeks his revenge against the trio with the help of Othello, Shylock, and Jessica and the mysterious creature, the Serpent of Venice herself.

I found the mashup of Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays to be interesting. A little stitching, and it all comes together nicely, though the tragedy of Othello is sacrificed in this comedic novel. Moore explains in his Afterword that he shifted the time settings of the two Shakespeare plays, which are more contemporary to Shakespeare’s own time, to the thirteenth century and adjusted some of the finer points (Othello is fighting the Genoans rather than the Turks). A famous Venetian of the 13th century makes an appearance late in the book. As Moore explains:

I chose Merchant and Othello, obviously, because they are set in Venice. Early on, as I dissected them to see what parts I could stitch back together to make the abomination that became The Serpent of Venice, I started noting that the characters in each of the plays perform similar functions, and although I didn’t research it, I suspect the parts were written for the same actors.

I admit the Shakespearean scholar in me wants to take that project on. It would be interesting to uncover—I’m sure someone’s done it already. For the record, The Merchant of Venice is dated from around 1596-1597, while the earliest mention of Othello is 1604. Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s famous clown, departed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company in 1599 and thus his successor Robert Armin likely played the Fool or Clown in Othello and also in King Lear, though Kempe probably did play Lancelot Gobbo in Merchant. Richard Burbage certainly played Othello, and this epitaph suggests he played Shylock. More research is beyond the scope of the resources I have at hand.

Nevertheless, the entire Afterword reveals the depth of research Moore did in order to bring 13th century Venice alive, as well as combine the three major works of literature that comprise this tale. Further, it’s intriguing that the two Shakespearean plays, aside from being set in Venice, are also the two major plays that include marginalized characters such as Shylock and Othello.

In fact, I quite enjoyed the characters in this novel, particularly the protagonist Pocket and Jessica. Pocket is smart and resourceful, but he’s no one to mess with either. For that matter, the same could be said of Jessica. Where the book particularly shines is in its witty dialogue. The book’s Chorus is a lot of fun. Witness this exchange, a flashback to events preceding the book’s main narrative, when Othello saves Pocket’s life:

CHORUS: And thus was friendship formed. Two outsiders, outside a palace in the night, found fellowship in their troubles, and there one’s problems became the other’s purpose.

“Who is that?” asked the fool.

“I don’t know him,” said the Moor. “Is he following us?”

“No, he’s just yammering on about the bloody obvious to no one. A nutter, no doubt.”

“I cannot carry him, too,” said Othello. (28-29)

The reviews on this one are a little mixed, and I gather it’s mainly folks who don’t appreciate the humor who give the book low ratings. I laughed often as I read. Moore has a gift for humor, or at least I think he’s funny, though I should think folks who find it sacrilegious to tamper with Shakespeare and don’t even like it when his plays have modern settings should probably not read this book. I think having read Shakespeare will help the reader appreciate the humor and allusions in this book. This book is probably not right for everyone, but I loved it.

For the record, I think Shakespeare himself would have loved it, too. Edgar Allan Poe? Famously a strange guy. I’m not sure what he would have thought. Of course, I also think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best King Arthur movie ever made (and I’m not even kidding about that—it’s closest to the Welsh stories that are the origin for Arthurian legend).

Possibly as good a test as any to determine whether this book is right for you is this bit of dialogue between Pocket, shielding himself behind the identity of Lancelot Gobbo, and Shylock:

He wheeled on me, stopped, and assumed the posture of one about to lecture. I had seen it before. Everywhere. “Since the time we were first chosen, Lancelot, suffering has been the lot of our people, but still, we must take our lessons from the prophets. And what do we learn from the story of Moses confronting the pharaoh? When Moses did call down the ten plagues upon the Egyptians? What do we learn from this, young Lancelot?”

“As plagues go, frogs are not so bad?” I was raised in a nunnery. I know Testaments Old and New.

“No, what we learn is, do not fuck with Moses!” (79)

If you think that’s funny (I laughed out loud), then you’re probably game for the rest of the book. If you were offended, this is not the book for you. For my part, I’m running right out to read Moore’s other books.

Christopher MooreChristopher Moore’s website | Facebook | Twitter

Rating: ★★★★★

tlc logo

Related posts:

Sunday Post #6: A Year in France

Sunday PostIt’s been a quiet week. We had more snow over this weekend, but I’m not really sure how much. Did you know we are the snowiest city in the US? I’m sure you’ve heard a great deal about all the snow Boston’s been getting, but her lesser-known neighbor to the west, which is, after all, the second largest city in New England, has had hardly any mention. My children have a winter break this week, but I just have Presidents Day off. I hope the streets are plowed before I have to go back to work Tuesday. I can’t remember the last full week of work I had. I think it might have been before MLK Day.

I’m still reading the four books I started last week:

I have read three acts of As You Like It. I will probably finish it this week. I have listened to several stories from Trigger Warning. At this stage, much as I like Neil Gaiman’s reading, I am wondering if I did the wrong thing by listening to it on audio instead of reading it. The stories are not similar at all, but I have no sense of them as separate and will not be able to remember their titles without help when I review the book. The book I’m most enjoying at the moment is Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. She emerges as quite a sympathetic character, which I understood was the case with this biography before I started reading it. I can definitely see how Sofia Coppola used it in her movie (which I discussed last week). One of the ways I can tell I’m interested in a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is when it prompts me to start looking things up. In the case of this book, it’s the labyrinthine French aristocracy that is more than a little difficult to keep up with (and the helpful family trees at the beginning of the book don’t show up well on the Kindle). There are a lot of folks to keep track of.

I was also trying to figure out who might be the King of France today if the Revolution hadn’t happened. Folks, the answer to that question (besides being moot because the Revolution DID happen) is a rabbit hole you might not want to go down. I was going to try to summarize it, but I can’t. Suffice it to say, there ARE royalists who want a monarchy, despite France being pretty proud of being a republic and celebrating Bastille Day, and they are basically split three ways, so there are three Pretenders to the French throne (four, actually—and that part is complicated). Who knew? You can dig into it starting here if you like. You were warned, though.

I did just order a couple of Belle Époque novels:

Don’t those books look great? They both feature Edgar Dégas. I read a Kindle preview of the first book, The Painted Girls. It grabbed me. Well written and evocative of the time in just the few short pages I was able to see. The second book, I Always Loved You, is about Mary Cassatt’s relationship with Dégas. One of the reviews I read convinced me to get it.

I’m still looking for more French Revolution books. I’m a bit daunted by Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. It seems to have some mixed reviews, and it’s over 900 pages long. Have you read it? I’d be interested in your thoughts. A book that long is a huge commitment, even considering how much I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It does look interesting, however, and I’m intrigued that it features Desmoulins, Danton, and Robespierre. So many books seem to take the Royalist perspective rather than that of the Revolutionaries. I read a bit of it as a Kindle sample, and I liked what I read, but I’m still not sure.

This is shaping up to be a French year in terms of historical fiction for me, isn’t it? There are worse things than spending a year in France, I suppose. One of the things I love about books is that even if I can’t really go somewhere, I can go there in a book. And it’s not limited just to place. I can go to any time as well. I suppose that is one reason I like historical fiction so much. I admit, however, I’m starting to get pickier about what I’ll read. I downloaded samples of a couple of other highly-rated books with positive reviews, and deleted them after a page or two. A couple of years ago, I think I might have kept reading.

Coming up this week you can look for my review of The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore (TLC Book Tour). I’m hoping I will also have a review of As You Like It, but I’m not sure I’ll have finished anything else.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Related posts:

Sunday Post #5: History Makers

Sunday PostSince last week, when I mentioned that we have all the snow, I can tell you we probably have five feet on the ground with more on the way tonight and tomorrow. My children have yet another snow day tomorrow. My own school just called me to let me know I also do not have school; however, I do believe I have a meeting via Google Hangout, and I need to make some soap for a wholesale account, so I imagine I will be busy. We have had record-breaking snowfall the last few weeks.  The Sunday Post is starting to sound monotonous with the weather report each time. When you’re more or less snowbound, however, there’s not much else going on.

I finally finished listening to the audio book of Diana Gabaldon’s novel The Fiery Cross this week. I also finished reading The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore. Look for the review for that book to be posted on 2/17. I started reading four books this week as well:

The Tell-Tale Heart, like The Serpent of Venice, is part of a TLC Book Tour. I’m reading As You Like It as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge. Finished Act I as of yesterday. I am listening to Neil Gaiman read the short story collection Trigger Warning. After finishing The Fiery Cross, I didn’t want to dive right into another really long Gabaldon audio book right away. I have had Marie Antoinette: The Journey in my Kindle library for a very long time, but I finally decided to read it after watching the Kirsten Dunst film Marie Antoinette, which reminded me how fascinated I am by the French Revolution and all the history leading up to it.

The movie itself, I have to say, was kind of weird. The costumes and sets were gorgeous. The music was strange. Some of the casting was bizarre. The jury’s still out on whether I liked it or not. I searched in vain for a documentary about the French Revolution on Netflix last night, so I decided to start reading the book. Also on my list at some point is Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction set during this time period as well, so let me know if you know of anything. I have previously read Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution (loved!), Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud, and Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess. And of course, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t recall any others, so let me know what I’ve missed. I am not particularly more interested Ancien Régime versus post-Revolution or nobility versus Estates-General. I’m not picky.

I love reading historical fiction, which is one of the reasons I always try to participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, no matter how active I actually am in the challenge. If I had to peg my favorite periods, I would say 18th and 19th century America (particularly New England, but really, it’s all pretty interesting), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, 18th century France and England, and 19th century England. I do not much like to read WWII historical fiction, which reminds me of a post of Stefanie’s that I read over at So Many Books: “Books I Won’t Read.” I am not going to go quite so far as to say I will not read books about World War II. I really hesitate, though. I find it mentally exhausting and very depressing to read about that war, for obvious reasons. Inevitably, the books are heart-wrenching. I hate to say it feels like manipulation on the part of authors to write about the events of that war, especially when they really happened, but it’s also quite difficult to criticize. After all, anything you say in critique of books about the Holocaust just makes you sound heartless. So, I’m really careful about what I choose to read from that era. If a book has a whiff of cashing in on that tragedy at all, I can’t read it.

So far, I’ve finished seven books this year. I can’t recall ever having read that many at this point in the year. Honestly, I think the goal I set of reading 52 books has been a good motivator for me. I know I’m making more of an effort to read. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it looks like I have managed to pick up speed over time without noticing much. I very rarely can sit and read an entire book all day, and I haven’t tried timing myself to see how fast I’m actually reading. It’s more just a sense I have that I’m able to read books faster than I have in the past.

The biggest news in the book world this week is the impending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which will feature an adult Scout Finch. Some speculation in the media has made me wonder if Harper Lee was aware of what her lawyer was doing, but it’s hard to tell. This New York Times story does a fair job discussing the controversy. I am going to read the book. I have actually already selected it for my school summer reading choice. I called dibs the day the announcement was made. I am not going to miss another Harper Lee novel. Am I worried it might not be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? Of course. It’s natural. But there is no way I’m going to miss it. And while I’m on the subject, I wish Goodreads would stop people from reviewing or rating unreleased books. Or, to be more specific, unreleased books that no one has read yet. I actually find ratings and reviews from folks who had uncorrected proofs or early access through other channels helpful. This book already has a 3.72 rating on Goodreads. Come on.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Related posts:

Review: The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaladon, narrated by Davina Porter

I finished my first audio book of the year, The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, fifth book in the Outlander series. If you are not familiar with the series, it is now eight books long (and I don’t think she’s done yet!), not including the novellas, short stories, and Lord John Grey books. All of the books are quite long and chronicle the story of Claire, who was a World War II nurse on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland when she steps through standing stones and finds herself about 200 years in the past. Starz has screened part of the first book, Outlander. The Starz series will return in April. I do love the books. But I have a caveat about this one, as you’ll see if you keep reading. However, there are a few spoilery bits throughout this review, so proceed carefully if you haven’t read all the books and want to read them.

I started listening to The Fiery Cross so long ago I can’t remember when I began it, but it was likely in September 2014 some time. It’s over 55 hours long. I mostly listened to it while making soap or puttering around the house doing chores. It seemed to take forever to finish.

The Fiery Cross picks up where Drums of Autumn (review) leaves off. Jamie and Claire are settled in Fraser’s Ridge, but the Revolutionary War looms on the horizon, and nothing brings that impending danger into sharper focus than when Jamie is commanded by the governor to muster a militia in response to a rebellion. Roger and Brianna, now properly married, settle on the Ridge as well and ease into their new lives in the 18th century. All sorts of horrific things happen, including the return of Stephen Bonnet, horrible villain, rapist, pirate, and worse scourge on the Fraser family, as it turns out, than old Black Jack Randall ever was. At least Randall died. (Oops! That might have been a spoiler. Sorry.)

The most fascinating part of the book doesn’t come until the end, when one of my favorite minor characters returns and brings with him some really excellent information in the form of a mysterious journal left behind by a man known as Otter-Tooth—a man whom Claire is certain was also a time traveler.

This book ties up several loose ends from the previous book, but as the series goes, it’s my least favorite so far. Lots and lots of details, and perhaps some editing was needed. Gabaldon does quite a bit of research, and it seemed that she wanted to show just about everything she’d ever learned about 18th century life off in this book. As such, parts of it are plodding and not much happens. I felt the first few books were much more tightly written in terms of action, but this book continues in the vein of its immediate predecessor, which I don’t much like either. Of course, it’s Diana Gabaldon, and expertly read by Davina Porter, so I won’t give it less than 3½ stars—even “bad” Diana Gabaldon is better than a lot of stuff. She’s a good writer, and she has a lot of fans for a good reason.

One quibble I do have with the book, however, and perhaps I only notice it because I make soap, is that Gabaldon gets some things about soap making wrong. To wit:

  1. Lye soap is not especially harsher than other soap because all soap is lye soap. What she probably means is lye-heavy soap that has too much lye in it. Yes, that’s harsh soap. And it resulted from soap makers using too much lye in recipes when they made soap.
  2. Tallow soap is not the same thing as lye soap because again, all soap is lye soap. It is not inherently harsher than soap made with vegetable oils and was often the only kind available because tallow (or lard) was much easier to obtain than exotic vegetable oils. In fact, if your great-grandma made soap, she probably used tallow or lard.
  3. That being said, some vegetable oils, such as Claire’s sunflower oil, do make nice soap, but if Claire’s tallow soap is too harsh, it’s because she used too much lye. Not because she used tallow. And if the sunflower soap is NOT harsh, it’s because she didn’t use too much lye when she made that batch.

I hope that exposition didn’t bore, but the repeated incorrect understandings about the chemistry behind soap making bothered me, as similar issues would likely bother most folks who have some area of expertise that is not quite properly understood by a writer.

I would not advise the casual fan to read this one. If your goal is just to know what happens in the story, skip this one and look up a synopsis. In fact, don’t read it at all if you haven’t read the previous four because you will not be able to follow it at all. If you prefer Claire and Jamie in Scotland, definitely skip it. If you are a true fan of the series and have read the previous four books, do read it if only to find out what happens for two main reasons—Otter-Tooth’s journal at the end is totally worth knowing. I might actually re-read that part in the paper copy of the book I have, and also a reference to Master Raymond, whom Gabaldon has said before is a prehistoric time traveler and possible ancestor of Claire. I hope we do read more about that guy in future books, and I do hope we learn a lot more about how time travel works, too.

So yes, I’ll read the rest of the series even if it’s more of the same. I will give Diana Gabaldon this credit—even when she’s in desperate need of an editor, she’s still better than most of the stuff out there. But when she’s really on, she’s fantastic. In my opinion, she wasn’t really “on” with this book, but I won’t give up on her yet.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

2015 HF Reading Challenge Button_FINAL

Related posts:

Sunday Post #4: We Have ALL the Snow

Sunday PostWorcester had 30.5 inches of snow as a result of the blizzard I mentioned last week. I had two snow days, and my kids had three. Another foot of snow is in our forecast for tomorrow. I’m not sure where we’re going to put it. I already have a snow day tomorrow as well.

This week I finished William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher. I am close to finishing the audio book version of Diana Gabaldon’s fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross. It’s a long audio book. Well, all her books are long. This one is 55 hours and 34 minutes. I am 4 hours and 36 minutes away from being finished.

Now that February has arrived, I plan to read my next book in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge, a Renaissance book. I have chosen As You Like It. I haven’t ever finished that play, and I have long wanted to.

I’m also still reading Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice. I am enjoying that one quite a bit. I won’t be reviewing until February 17, no matter when I finish it, because I’m reading it as a part of TLC Book Tours, but a review will be coming soon. Next up, also as a TLC Book Tour selection, is The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson.

I’m still thinking of picking up either The Lotus Eaters, All the Bright Places, We Were Liars or Men Explain Things To Me after I finish The Tell-Tale Heart. I’m leaning more toward The Lotus Eaters than the other three mainly because 1) I already have it, and 2) I’m feeling in the mood for it right now.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Related posts:

Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, Ian Doescher

I know what you are thinking. What is this ridiculousness? Ian Doescher’s book imagines the answer to a question I’d wager everyone wishes they had been thinking: what if William Shakespeare had written Star Wars? The result is, of course, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. It’s as hysterically awesome as you could wish, and if you think about it, it’s not such a strange idea: surely if any film series is Shakespearean in scope, with its complicated villains, scene-stealing minor characters, and emphasis on Fate, then Star Wars certainly is.

I don’t think I need to review the plot, and let’s face it: no one is reading this book for the plot—it’s for the fun of the Shakespearean language used to tell a familiar tale. I will say this: the dialogue in this book is quite a lot better than the dialogue in the movie.

Dramatis Personae and PrologueSprinkled throughout, too, the reader familiar with Shakespeare’s plays will find allusions to Shakespeare’s own writing as well.

Tatooine's Two Suns

I love Luke’s soliloquy as he gazes at the two setting suns. But even more than that, I love his rumination over the Storm Trooper he has just killed.

Alas, Poor Storm Trooper

Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too?
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me. (124-125)

There are also some fun in-jokes for Star Wars fans:

Han Shot FirstSprinkled throughout is some great line art by Nicolas Delort. I am particularly fond of this picture of Grand Moff Tarkin:

Grand Moff TarkinThe asides, monologues, and soliloquies give a great deal of insight into characters’ motivation, particularly that of R2-D2.

My daughter gave me this book for Christmas 2013, and I’m only sorry I waited so long to pick it up. I will certainly now read William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back and William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return. I really can’t wait to see how Doescher handles Yoda.

If you love Shakespeare and you love Star Wars, you really can’t lose with this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts: