Outlander

I first read Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander in about 1998 or 1999. I remember loving it. In fact, I liked it so much that my first early forays into creating websites were focused on a Diana Gabaldon fan site. For the uninitiated, the Outlander series is the story of Claire, who takes an early morning walk to the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness while on her second honeymoon with her husband Frank Randall and finds herself nearly 200 years in the past. She is captured by members of the MacKenzie clan and falls in love with and marries Jamie Fraser, but she knows the second Jacobite rising is coming, and she fears for his future.

On a re-read, Outlander definitely holds up. Diana Gabaldon describes her method of writing as creating scenes and then putting them together like a puzzle. I am not sure I knew that last time I read, but knowing as I read this time, I could see it in action. None of the scenes appears to stop the plot; instead, they serve to add realism and round out the characters. I remarked to my sister that the book is a little more “rapey” than I remembered, and we laughed. What I mean by that is I had forgotten that Claire was so often in imminent danger of being raped. Once again, a horrific scene of torture near the end of the novel struck me as gratuitous and over-the-top, just as it did on my first read. Gabaldon has created a gift of a character in Jamie Fraser. He pops off the page, larger than life.

Gabaldon has a gift for storytelling. I know I certainly keep turning the pages. She also has a gift for humor, and if she doesn’t flinch from describing scenes of violence, she leavens it with one of the best love stories I’ve read. I have not read a time-travel romance yet that tops Jamie and Claire’s, and I’ve read a few. 😳 What? It’s a guilty pleasure. One of the things I like best about her books is that I do learn things. I find the herbalism and history particularly interesting. The herbalism and setting of Gabaldon’s books strongly influenced my own book, A Question of Honor.

I have not read the last three books in Gabaldon’s series, and given the amount of time that has passed since I last read the first four, I thought perhaps a re-read was in order before attempting the last two. I am a little nervous about the time commitment. I have a friend who has read The Fiery Cross (I never finished it) and parts of An Echo in the Bone, and she said they were somewhat boring. I can’t recall if we talked about A Breath of Snow and Ashes. Anyone read them and can verify? I’ll probably try to read them, but I admit to being wary. I felt the early books in the series, even among the first four, were the best.

Related posts:

The Fourth Bear

Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear is the second in his Nursery Crime series. Detective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crime Division, is investigating the disappearance and possible murder of Goldilocks. She was last seen alive by three bears, and things just don’t add up. To top it off, deranged psychopathic murderer the Gingerbreadman has escaped from the mental hospital where he’s been confined since Jack collared him twenty years ago, and he’s on a murderous rampage.

OK, this book is just silly, but you have to expect that with Jasper Fforde and just go with it. Fans of nursery rhymes and fairy tales (as well as other types of fiction) will enjoy Fforde’s sly references, and however silly his stories become, he always manages to make me laugh in a few places and keep turning the pages. I had a friend on Twitter ask me if this book was any good because he’d heard this series was not as clever as Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and I have to say that all things considered, I enjoy the Thursday Next books more. However, if Fforde returns to Nursery Crime, I will read the next book, and I plan to be in line when he makes an appearance at the Buckhead Barnes and Noble on January 15. None of my books are in good enough shape to be signed. I may have to purchase his new one. Oh, drat.

Related posts:

Dracula

While I didn’t finish Dracula in time to meet the deadline of the R.I.P. Challenge, I did finish it within days of the end of the novel’s action on November 6 of some indeterminate year. One of the things I’ve noticed about reading a book like Dracula, around which a cottage industry of adaptations, homages, and even an entire genre have sprung, is that the story in the actual book becomes altered to the point that the reader had different expectations. For instance, I had the idea that the character of Renfield had a much larger role and was a servant of Dracula’s. I didn’t realize the Count came to England, and I was surprised by Dracula’s small role in the actual novel.

The novel holds up well as a gothic tale. I wonder how it might have fared had Stoker chosen to tell it with a straight narrative rather than as a series of journals. He is constricted by what his characters are able to report. I don’t know enough about vampire tradition to know if Stoker originated some of the aspects we have come to associate with vampire narratives: the fear of garlic and Christian artifacts such as crosses, crucifixes, and the communion host; the inability to rise during the day and activity at night; and superhuman strength that grows more powerful over the ages. On the other hand, I was surprised to discover that sunlight didn’t necessarily seem to be harmful to the vampires in this novel. They avoided it, but when coffins were opened during the day to look on them, they didn’t disintegrate into dust as Anne Rice’s vampires do (and hers are not afraid of crucifixes).

I am glad I read Dracula. It is a great read for anyone interested in how the literary craving for vampires came to be, but you won’t find the seductive and charming Louis de Pointe du Lacs, Lestat de Lioncourts, or even Edward Cullens in this novel. Dracula is just a monster, and there’s nothing attractive or seductive about it.

I read Dracula with the iPhone app Classics. I usually have one book going in DailyLit, one paper book, and one iPhone book. I haven’t decided which book I’ll read next on the iPhone, but I haven’t finished Crime and Punishment on DailyLit, nor have I finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle in print.

A short update on NaNoWriMo: I am a little behind the wordcount. By the end of the day yesterday, I should have reached 11,667 words, and I am currently at 9,304. It might not seem bad to be behind by 2,363 words, especially compared with some folks who are working with larger discrepancies than that, but it also means that in order to be caught up by the end of the day today, I need to write 4,030 words. And that is a lot for one day. I’m not sure it’s going to happen, particularly as I have two grad school assignments due. But we shall see. The writing is not coming as quickly or easily as it did at first, I think because I really did sort of know how to start off. Cross your fingers for me that things pick up. I’d really like to win NaNo this year.

Related posts:

Grendel

John Gardner’s novel Grendel has been on my reading list for years. I have picked it up and read the first chapter or two several times. This time, the confluence of the R.I.P. Challenge and the fact that I am teaching Beowulf provided me with two excellent reasons to finish.

Beowulf is, of course, our earliest epic in English. It tells the story of a mighty Geatish warrior named Beowulf who comes to King Hrothgar’s meadhall in Denmark to help Hrothgar and the Danes with their monster problem: a creature named Grendel has been attacking the meadhall for twelve years. In Beowulf, Grendel represents the essence of evil. His motives are not examined aside from a note that he descends from Cain, which should explain everything. My own students became intrigued by Grendel’s story, and we did discuss his motives. I mentioned I was reading this book. Our library’s copy immediately disappeared, and I think some of my students have been waiting for me to finish reading my copy so that I could loan it out. As it turns out, Grendel’s motives, at least as John Gardner imagines them, are a little more complex than a descent from evil beings or jealousy of mankind.

Gardner tells the story of Grendel’s war against Hrothgar, as he calls it, from Grendel’s point of view. Gardner’s Grendel is on a quest to find meaning and determine his place in the world. The novel begins before events in Beowulf really start. Grendel watches as Hrothgar becomes king and builds his meadhall, and he watches Hrothgar gain power as his kingdom grows. Grendel is mesmerized by the man he calls the Shaper, who spins stories of the greatness of the Danes. Grendel remembers being present when the truth occurred, and yet he, like the Danes, wants to believe the Shaper’s stories. When Beowulf himself arrives toward the end of the novel, Grendel is drawn to him and mesmerized by him, a feeling echoed by Beowulf himself in the epic when he says he believes that he and Grendel have been drawn together in this fight.

Gardner’s creature is not the creature of the epic poem. He’s as vicious, but more thoughtful, and the Danes are not as great a people or as innocent as the epic’s composer would have us believe. Gardner, a professor of English, would of course have been familiar with the epic. Parts of the story in the epic are told again through Grendel’s eyes in this novel. I particularly liked the scene in which Unferth, the thane who challenged Beowulf’s prowess and was quickly shut down, challenges Grendel—interesting comment on heroism. Grendel’s description of the charismatic Beowulf were fun to read, too. We also have an interesting picture of Grendel’s mother. This book ends before her battle with Beowulf, of course, because Grendel dies before that time, but it’s hard to see, based on Grendel’s description of her, how she had the sentience to carry out her attack on Heorot. I enjoyed this novel, and I think we’re going to have to put it in the early British literature curriculum at my school. The novel’s ideas about the nature of good and evil and who frames history will make for interesting discussion.

R.I.P. ChallengeThis is the second book I’ve finished in the R.I.P. Challenge (the first being Coraline). I am still reading Dracula. I will start Joe Hill’s collection of short stories 20th Century Ghosts next. With two of the four books down before September is out, I’m feeling more confident that I’ll finish the challenge. I love taking challenges on, but I have a lot of trouble finishing them. Perhaps this year is my year.

Related posts:

Coraline

Coraline Jones is bored. Her parents are too busy to play, and the weather isn’t cooperating, so she explores. Behind a locked door, she finds the entrance to a completely different world. Neil Gaiman’s novel Coraline is compared to Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia on the book jacket, and while the comparison is fair, Coraline’s world beyond the locked door is different: it’s far creepier and in some ways more believable than Carroll or Lewis’s worlds are. Every child knows that there is a mysterious world beyond the mirror or behind the locked door no one ever seems to open.

Gaiman is a master storyteller. I have thoroughly enjoyed all his books I’ve read, and I love to read his blog and even keep up with him on Twitter. He’s a true dry wit, which comes through in his stories as well as his blogging. The characters and the world he creates in this book, as well as the others, however fantastic, always seems believable and real. If you’ve not read Coraline, you should definitely pick it up. It’s a quick read, and though it’s classified as a children’s or young adult novel, I wouldn’t let that classification stop you any more than it should stop you from reading the Harry Potter series.

R.I.P. ChallengeThis book is the first book I’ve finished in the R.I.P. Challenge. I also plan to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (currently in progress), John Gardner’s Grendel (my next selection), and Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. If I actually complete the challenge ahead of schedule, I may continue reading the creepy books, which are a perfect way to usher in the fall weather.

Related posts:

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

Laurie Viera Rigler’s novel Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict begins with an interesting premise for any Jane Austen fan: what if you woke up one morning and found yourself in the middle of the Regency, with folks who act and look like characters right out a Jane Austen novel? Courtney Stone, Rigler’s protagonist, is a huge Jane Austen fan. Her love life is unfulfilled. She has recently broken up with her fiancé Frank after catching him with another woman, and she has severed ties with her best friend Wes after discovering he has been complicit in helping Frank hide his dalliance. All of a sudden, she is Jane Mansfield, she’s apparently suffered a bad fall, and a doctor wants to bleed her in the hopes it will cure her.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict explores the question of how a women with 21st century attitudes might fare in early nineteenth century England. Courtney makes several missteps and finds it difficult to accept her more constrained position in Regency society. It’s a fun, light read. It’s clear Rigler has read and enjoyed Austen’s novels. The danger in associating oneself so closely with Austen is that one cannot possibly compare, and Rigler’s prose certainly suffers from the comparison. However, there are passages to admire. Rigler manages to capture Bath and London well. I found Rigler’s heroine wearing and perhaps not as sympathetic as Rigler intended. The characters in general do not sparkle with life in the same way that Austen’s characters do. Few of us, however, are up to Aunt Jane’s standard.

Related posts:

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens’s popular novel A Tale of Two Cities is the first Dickens novel I chose to read. I knew I wanted to read a Dickens novel, and Maggie helped me select this one. While it was very well written and some characters were particularly well-drawn, I had more difficulty following the plot and caring about some of the characters than I expected. I suppose I like complicated characters, and the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” was so clearly drawn, they might as well have been wearing white hats and black hats. They weren’t particularly interesting for that reason. Dickens also used the novel as a platform to moralize about the violence, and when it waxed poetic, it was interesting, but the frequency verged on annoying, even though I agreed with Dickens’s views about the violence.

Unfortunately, though this book was shorter than others I’ve read on DailyLit, I became overwhelmed with work in the middle of reading it and had to suspend my subscription for an extended period. I think perhaps the long gap between when I began this novel and when I finished it may have increased some of my confusion. I can’t say, however, that I didn’t enjoy it or that it was badly written, for it is clear to me that Dickens is a master of characterization, and I definitely plan to read more Dickens.

My next DailyLit read, however, is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book I initially tried reading in high school (for fun, no less) and discovered was over my head at the time. If you’ve not tried DailyLit, you should check it out. You can keep track of my DailyLit books progress in the sidebar to the immediate right under the DailyLit section (beneath Reading and Recent Books).

Related posts:

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

I am not generally a big reader of biographies or nonfiction of any stripe, aside from professional reading, but I became interested in Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, after seeing the movie based on this book: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is not quite like the movie, but one would expect moviemakers to take certain license with with truth in the interest of narrative. The true Georgiana who emerges from the pages of this biography is at one less sympathetic and also more interesting and genuine than the character played by Keira Knightley.

I admit I really don’t know much about British politics. Much of this biography is devoted to Georgiana’s work on behalf of the Whigs. She had several friends who were prominent in the party and used her influence to help them get elected: Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles Grey (1st Earl Grey). In a time when women did not wield much power, Georgiana influenced politics more than many men did. The realm of fashion, she reigned supreme.

More attention is given to Georgiana’s gambling addiction in this biography than in the movie. She borrowed money from many of her friends with promises of repayment that she rarely fulfilled. I have to admit this part of her personality was maddening to read about. The pain it caused her was acute, and it hurt her relations with her husband and friends, but she seemed unable to control it.

Lady Bess Foster, the friend who “steals” the Duke of Devonshire from Georgiana in the movie, comes off considerably less sympathetically and much more conniving in this biography. No doubt Georgiana valued her friendship, but Foreman’s depiction of her character leads the reader to believe Georgiana’s judgment in the matter to be sincerely flawed. In contrast, the Duke of Devonshire is not quite the villain he’s painted in the film.

Foreman includes the Cavendish and Spencer family trees, but I found myself wishing there was a glossary of characters, as so many similar names made it difficult for me to keep up with some of the people mentioned in the book. To Foreman’s credit, she did as much as she could to prevent confusion through repetition and extensive notes. It is clear that this biography was painstakingly researched. Foreman allows the people in the biography to speak for themselves as much as she can through primary source documents quoted extensively throughout the entire book.

If you watched the film The Duchess, you haven’t met the real Georgiana yet. The figure that emerges from the pages of Foreman’s biography is at once more compelling and more intriguing than the film hinted.

Related posts:

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy, the first in his Nursery Crime series, is a hilarious send-up not only of familiar nursery rhymes but also detective and thriller fiction. I am not sure the book would be to everyone’s taste. Fforde’s sense of humor runs toward the silly and punny, especially in this book. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his new partner, Detective Sergeant Mary Mary investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty and quickly find themselves embroiled in the “seedy underbelly of nursery crime.” Just as he did in his Thursday Next series, Fforde shows a thorough knowledge and clever use of literary allusion. I’ve heard Fforde’s books described as beach books for book nerds, and they are.

Fforde’s characterization of the murdered egg leaps from the pages, even though he has passed on by the time we meet him. We also meet other nursery favorites such as Old Mother Hubbard, Solomon Grundy, “Giorgio Porgia” (crime boss!), and Wee Willie Winkie. DI Spratt’s Nursery Crime Division is in trouble, and his boss is putting pressure on him to crack this case. Meanwhile, a former rival, Detective Chief Inspector Friedland Chymes, is trying to horn in on Spratt’s investigation and steal the case. Mary Mary isn’t so sure she wants to work with Spratt and his small, rag-tag staff. By the end of the novel, twist after twist follows as Spratt must use all his detective skills to unravel what really happened.

Fans of the Thursday Next series will recognize Mary Mary as the character that Thursday Next took over as part of the character exchange program. While we don’t go to Caversham Heights, we do hear a little bit from Arnold, Mary’s overenthusiastic admirer. Mary does have a little bit of the ring of Thursday Next about her.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who like Fforde’s other books or likes a good laugh over a silly joke.

Related posts:

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White is one of the first “detective novels” and is still considered one of the finest Victorian “sensation novels.” I decided to read it after reading a student’s praise of it while reading AP applications (we have an application process to take AP English courses at my school). I have heard references to the novel for some time now, one of the most recent in conjunction with the recent spate of Charles Dickens novels such as Drood and The Last Dickens. I decided to download the eBook version on my iPhone. I have been reading it since about April. It might be a little too long to read on the iPhone. I had some trouble with the files, too. Near the end of the book, I found an odd bug that caused me to be unable to turn to the next page. The only way I found around it was to use the slider to scan ahead a few pages and then backtrack. Also, one version of the eBook that I tried did not break the book into chapters in the way it was designed to be broken and instead had one long chapter to cover the whole book. If you’ve not used eBooks on Stanza before, this likely won’t make much sense, but chapters are fairly important to me because they help me keep track.

In reviewing The Woman in White, I should point out that though many might consider the novel to be clichéd, it is in fact the originator of many tropes that became clichés in later fiction: the innocent girl who marries a man who is deceptively charming, but alters into a cruel wastrel only after her money once they marry and the mysterious character who looks uncannily like one of the other characters. However, Collins shows a propensity for developing some interesting characters. It’s rather a shame that Laura Fairlie Glyde, whom I considered so dull and uninteresting, is the one who captures the main narrator Walter Hartright’s love, when by all rights, it should have been her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, who is much more intelligent and interesting a character. Collins’s characterization of the evil Count Fosco and Laura’s uncle Frederick Fairlie are also excellent. Frederick Fairlie’s voice as he narrates his portion of the story is truly funny. The novel is often described as an epistolary novel, but I’m not sure that’s a good description. It is told by multiple narrators, all of whom have different pieces of knowledge about the main plot: Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco’s plot against Laura and her fortune. However, it is not precisely told in the form of letters only. The journal of Marian Halcombe and narration of Walter Hartright form the bulk of the novel, and it’s not made clear that any of Walter Hartright’s narration is epistolary. I found the book to be engaging, particularly when the plot picks up steam. I think anyone who likes Victorian fiction might be interested in reading this book for its portrayal of the times in which it was written. I don’t think most book lovers would consider time spent reading The Woman in White to be time wasted.

I have three books ready to read on my iPhone: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and E. M. Forster’s Howards End. I have not decided which to read yet. If you have strong feelings about one of the three, I’d love for you to let me know in the comments. I should note that Mansfield Park remains the only Jane Austen novel I’ve not yet read, and Vanity Fair was cited by a colleague (a well-respected English teacher) as his favorite novel. On the other hand, there are a lot of novels in the Classics app that I haven’t read yet, either: Dracula could also be calling my name. Choices, choices.

Related posts: