Review: The Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night is the second in her All Souls Trilogy. In the first book, which I read and reviewed here, witch and historian Diana Bishop calls forth the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 792 from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, arousing the curiosity of many other “creatures,” including vampire Matthew Clairmont.

This book picks up Diana and Matthew’s unlikely love story as they prepare to timewalk to the past in the hopes of recovering the mysterious alchemical manuscript known in their time as Ashmole 782, which Matthew hopes will reveal genetic secrets of creatures and help Matthew discover why creatures are dying out. Using Diana’s power to travel to the past, Matthew and Diana go back to Elizabethan London, where Diana discovers her husband is a member of the legendary School of Night. And that’s not his only secret. Diana discovers she has some massive hidden powers, and she rubs shoulders with just about everyone of note in early 1590’s London and Prague.

I have to admit I find both Diana and Matthew pretty grating. People (annoyingly) fall in love with both of them right and left, while they have eyes only for each other. And of course, they have flawless appearances as well. Harkness falls into the trap of making her characters too physically perfect, so she gives them other flaws (that aren’t really flaws). I know they are not supposed to be normal people—they are a witch and vampire—but I still found them both pretty unsympathetic. Even when you’re writing about supernatural creatures, you want your characters to seem believable on some level. On the other hand, as this kind of book goes (think Twilight) this series is entertaining enough. It’s hard to believe even a vampire like Matthew would somehow be to connected to pretty much every major figure in Renaissance London and Prague, too. And I mean, it runs the gamut, from Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, aka the Maharal of Prague, a witch who created the legendary Golem, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more shadowy types like John Dee and Edward Kelley. One can’t deny that Harkness did her research. One wonders if all of it had to be thrown into the book.

Like I said, though, these books are entertaining enough, and they will definitely appeal to people who are looking for fun books about vampires and witches. Jennifer Ikeda’s reading works well with the story and doesn’t hit any wrong notes.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★☆

I can’t count this one for the R. I. P. Challenge, even though I think it would be perfect if you’re doing the challenge and looking for something different to read. I started reading it before the challenge started, however. Given that most of the book is set in the past, I do feel it can definitely count for the Historical Fiction Challenge. Diana and Matthew travel from American to Renaissance London, and then to France and Prague, so it’s hard to figure out exactly where to map it for my settings map, but I’m settling on London, as I’d say the bulk of the action takes place there.

Review: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It is the story of a dying preacher, John Ames, who worries about leaving his young wife and son with no money (and in his son’s case, few memories of his father). The novel is written in the form of a letter from Rev. Ames to his son as a means for his son to understand and get to know his father.

At the outset, such a setup seems like it would be a depressing novel, but the result is actually more uplifting. Ames may be a minister well-versed in the gospel, but he is not holier-than-thou—in fact, he’s quite reflective about the ways in which he falls short, and he’s a rather open-minded philosopher. More than anything else, this book winds up being a sort of philosophical memoir. Ames recalls memories of his father and grandfather, both of whom were also ministers and who often clashed with each other. His grandfather was a abolitionist who was connected with John Brown in Kansas.

Obviously this book is well-regarded, and it has received a lot of praise. Though I did like it, I can’t really say I loved it, but I think part of the problem might be that I listened to it instead of read a print version. I think this book needs a slower digestion that is possible with print. Though the narrator, Tim Jerome, did a wonderful job telling the story, I think I missed some things as I listened to it. I can tell it’s well-written and spare in its elegance, but the story didn’t do as much for me as I wanted it to. I thought the prodigal son Jack Boughton was the most interesting character, and the way Ames wrestled with his conscience over Jack Boughton was the most memorable part of the book for me. In the right hands, I think this book could be a wonderful book. I’m just not sure it was really written for me.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

 

Review: All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven, narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers

I decided that I would listen to All the Bright Places after I finished We Were Liars, which was also read by Ariadne Meyers. She’s a really good interpreter for YA.

First all, if you read or listen to this book, be prepared to cry. Maybe especially if you listen to it, because Ariadne Meyers will make you cry at the end, and if she doesn’t, then Jennifer Niven will in her author’s note.

All the Bright Places is the story of Violet and Finch, who meet in the most improbable place: the bell tower at their high school. Both of them are contemplating suicide. Violet has sunk into depression after losing her sister in a car accident, while Finch’s problems are a bit more complicated—he has bipolar disorder, a disinterested family, an abusive father, and is bullied at school. Somehow, it’s not exactly clear who saves who, as the book’s description says, but soon they become friends and then something more as they work on a school assignment to explore the attractions of their home state of Indiana.

This is a great book, and the narration is particularly good. You are going to like it if you liked books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. In fact, I’ve seen some reviews that insinuate that this book is a bit derivative of similar books that preceded it. First of all, I don’t think that’s the case. The stories all deal with similar themes, but ultimately, this book is Jennifer Niven’s story. I felt her characters were very real and recognizable in some ways that perhaps John Green’s aren’t. I feel his characters are often a bit too precocious and quirky, whereas I feel I have known teenagers who are more like Violet and Finch.

The narration is great, the story is great (give it a chance; the comparisons to other YA books are inevitable, but I really think this one stands on its own), and it’s not a topic that is dealt with a lot in YA. If you’re a teacher, get a copy for your classroom library; it will not be on your shelves very often.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Some spoiler-y parts to follow, so fair warning. If you keep reading, it will help you understand how this book moved from four to five stars for me right at the end, but my assumption is that if you keep reading, then you are prepared to be spoiled because you either have already read this book and WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE FEELINGS or you don’t mind spoilers. You can still turn back if you are not sure.

 

Spoiler alert!

I had figured out that Theodore Finch was going to commit suicide well before he did. I mean, why else include the Help Line and Resource Guide, right? Plus, Finch is obsessed with suicide. He has researched the suicide methods of several famous people and recites them for the reader, and he actively tries to commit suicide at least once before he actually does. Then, he starts getting rid of his belongings and withdraws completely from everyone, even Violet. So I wasn’t surprised when he did it, and my eyes stayed pretty dry until the end when Ariadne Meyers read the last chapters when Violet found the note that Finch left her in one of the places they had planned to visit. Still, just a few sniffles really because, you know, fiction. I know, I know. I can bawl my eyes out knowing Catherine is going to die at the end of A Farewell to Arms (a book from which, aptly, Niven draws a line for her introduction), and I can’t shed a tear for Theodore Finch? Well, like Violet, I guess I was mad at him for not getting help (even though I knew he wouldn’t). I was furious with his parents for not caring enough for him to notice he was in real trouble. I don’t really know how I felt. However, Jennifer Niven explained that this book came from her own story in her author’s note. Her great-grandfather committed suicide, which was an event that left ripples through her family even to the present day.

The same thing happened in my family. My great-grandfather, Omar Gearhart, committed suicide on December 29, 1930. He had been battling some major problems, and I’m not clear what they were, except that later, my grandfather described his father as “crazy,” and his younger brother recalled hiding under the porch from my great-grandfather. There is a lot that I do not know. I know some of his children were taken away from the family and were adopted by other families before he died. I know that my grandfather was one of them. I know also that the children were told their father was murdered, which is something my grandfather’s sisters both confirmed. I guess somehow their mother thought it would be easier to hear, though I confess I’m not sure why, because then the children grew up thinking that their father had been murdered and nothing was ever done about it. I didn’t think that sounded right. More and more, I wondered if the official story was true, so I sent away for my great-grandfather’s death certificate—a matter of public record. And it said he died of a gunshot wound to the head, self-inflicted. Contributing cause was “despondency.” And still, to this day, I had family members whose first reaction when I told them was shame and secrecy.

People, shame and secrecy is not how we prevent suicide. It’s how we perpetuate the problem. We say that having a mental illness is something to be embarrassed about, hidden. Finch says, “Labels like ‘bipolar’ say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.” He, too, is reluctant to connect himself with this label. Even though I didn’t know the truth about my great-grandfather until recently, his death did ripple across the generations.

Niven also shares the other personal connection she had to this story: she loved a boy when she was a teenager, and that boy committed suicide. And Jennifer found him. How devastating. I think, but I’m not sure, that my great-grandmother found my great-grandfather. My dad says he remembers her. He remembers visiting her. He told me that even when she smiled, she seemed sad. She lost several of her children for reasons I will probably never know, though she was allowed to visit them, and she lost her husband. She had a very sad life. And she was beautiful.

Omar Gearhart, Gertrude Perkins & John Douglas Gearhart
My great-grandfather Omar Gearhart, great-grandmother Gertrude Perkins Gearhart, and great -uncle John Douglas Gearhart, circa 1912

So, I don’t know, that personal connection somehow added a star to the book. I think books are sometimes mirrors for us, and I could see my own story in that book, in some way.

Spoiler over.

 

Review: We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, narrated by Ariadne Meyers

Wow. I’m going to try not to spoil anything for you because the less you really know about E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars going in, the more you are likely to enjoy it. Having said that, I know a little taste of the book is sometimes necessary for readers who might be on the fence about reading a book. Here goes.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman, known as Cady, is the granddaughter of the wealthy and WASPish Harris and Tipper Sinclair, who own a private island near Martha’s Vineyard complete with a full staff, a large manor house where Harris and Tipper live, and three houses for each of Harris and Tipper’s daughters: Carrie, Bess, and Penny. Carrie is the oldest and has two sons: Johnny and Will. They live in New York City. Bess, the middle daughter, lives in Cambridge with her four children: Mirren, twins Liberty and Bonnie, and Taft. The youngest daughter, Penny, is Cady’s mother. They live in Burlington, Vermont. Each summer the family gathers to spend their vacation on the private island, known as Beechwood Island.

We Are Sinclairs

Cady can’t remember much about the year fifteen summer due to an accident she had, and a shroud of secrecy surrounds the story. Her family does not speak to her about it. Cady is desperate to return to Beechwood Island and see her two cousins Johnny and Mirren along with Gat, nephew of the man Cady’s Aunt Carrie is living with. Gat has been visiting Beechwood Island as a guest of the Sinclairs for years, and over time, Cady has fallen in love with him. Together, they were the Liars, and they forged a close summer friendship that waned as they returned to home and school each year, but picked up right where it left off the following summer. But even the Liars are strangely silent and reluctant to talk about Cady’s accident.

I anticipate that some readers will have difficulty identifying with the privileged Sinclairs and their idyllic summers on their own private island. I admit it’s a barrier, but if you take a peek at the family dynamic, it’s a great deal easier to feel empathy for the family. They have a secretive, fractured family. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was its connection to King Lear and an assortment of fairy tales. In fact, I’m wondering if this book might not be a good one to bring into my AP Literature class, which will be reading both King Lear and Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation A Thousand Acres. I could see a small literature circle group really enjoying the connections between this novel and the other texts.

I understand that some readers don’t like the writer’s style. I listened to the audio book, and the narrator naturally had a great deal of influence over how the text was interpreted, so I can’t speak to those complaints except to say that if the style is bothering you, you might try listening to the book instead. I don’t think I have ever finished an audio book in one day before. I just wanted to find out what would happen. The suspense of not knowing what was going on with Cady’s family or her accident kept me up late until I finished the book some time after 1:00 A. M. Saturday night.

Silence

This was a perfect start-of-summer read, even if the story is a tough one. While it is YA, I would classify it as more mature YA—for high schoolers rather than middle schoolers, but it’s definitely appropriate for students in high school, whom I would imagine would really love it. I know this is the kind of book I would have inhaled had it existed when I was in high school.

Ariadne Meyers’s narration is perfect for the story. She emotes when necessary, and she pulls the cynical teenager when it’s called for. I liked her reading so much that I downloaded another book that I’ve been wanting to read that she also narrates through Audible.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, narrated by Colin Firth

I’ve been listening to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth as I have puttered around the house, washing dishes or making soap, for about a month now.

This production was the Audiobook of the Year at the Audies in 2012. It is, in fact, a beautifully read audio book (which I will get to in a moment).

The End of the Affair is the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is reflecting on an affair he had with Sarah Miles, wife of Henry Miles. During the war, Maurice’s apartment building suffers damage as a result of German bombing, and Maurice is knocked unconscious. He wakes to find Sarah looking over him, and he quickly realizes something is wrong. Sarah abruptly calls off her affair with Maurice. Thinking it must be another man, Maurice hires a private detective to follow Sarah. Rather than losing Sarah to another man, Maurice discovers he’s lost her to something much larger and more complicated than he imagined.

I was surprisingly moved by this story. I think it was perhaps the unlikely friendship of Maurice and Henry, the wronged husband. I don’t want to give away plot points if you want to read the novel, but the two men form a bond, and the strangest thing about the bond is how “not weird” it is. In fact, the way Greene sets it up, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. Despite glimpses at her personality through her diary and letters, Sarah remains more of an enigma than Maurice and Henry. Greene’s characterization of all the characters, whether major or minor, is rendered realistically. I did feel as if all the people I read about existed somewhere, and that this story might really have happened to them.

The novel is also an interesting study of psychology. Greene is an astute observer of humanity. Those interested in Kübler-Ross’s theories about the acceptance of death (here applied to the end of an affair), will recognize much of Maurice and Sarah’s behavior, even though Kübler-Ross’s model of the stages of grief was not published until 1969. In particular, the book focuses a great deal on bargaining, which I found interesting. Maurice’s arc as he moves through the stages is particularly fascinating psychologically, but to say much more would spoil the plot.

Colin Firth is an expert reader. Of course, you would imagine that he would be. He renders Henry Miles’s parts in a sort of Mark Gatiss tone that is perfect for the character. I think I could honestly have listened to Firth read the phone book and be mildly entertained. He gives the same breadth and nuance to this performance as he does to his acting performances. He’s an excellent narrator.

Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Published in 1951, The End of the Affair is my selection for a 20th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Review: Conversion, Katherine Howe, narrated by Khristine Hvam

My most recent audio book was Conversion by Katherine Howe and read by Khristine Hvam. Conversion alternates between two stories. Colleen Rowley is a high school senior at St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s currently in a heated competition for school valedictorian and is stressed about getting into Harvard. Her classmates suddenly develop mysterious ailments—one girl has an apparent seizure, but soon another girl is losing her hair, while others develop tics and coughing fits. What is going on?

The other story is that of Ann Putnam, Jr., one of accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and a real historical figure who later confessed to being “deluded by Satan” and apologized for her role in the deaths. As she tells the story of her involvement in the trials to Reverend Green, it becomes increasingly clear she’s still disturbed (which might not be historically accurate, but it was fun). What exactly caused the girls of Salem Village to think they were bewitched in 1692? And what was wrong with the girls at St. Joan’s 320 years later?

When Colleen is given an extra credit assignment by her AP US History teacher to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and write a paper about why Miller changed the details connected to some of the girls—Ann Putnam in particular—she discovers an eerie connection between the events in the Witch Trials and the girls’ illnesses at St. Joan’s that no one else seems to have noticed.

Katherine Howe has written about Salem before, particularly in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which happens to be one of my favorite historical fiction novels). In fact, Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and her descendant Connie Goodwin all make cameo appearances in this novel (which I rather enjoyed). In this case, she was also inspired the the story of a mysterious illness that afflicted students at at high school in Le Roy, New York. The true cause of the “hysteria” in the Witch Trials has been debated, and we will likely never have an answer—just perhaps more plausible theories. In juxtaposing the events in modern-day Danvers (which used to be Salem Village) and Puritan Salem, Howe shows us it’s just possible that the girls were under a great deal of stress and that their treatment as girls and, in some cases, lower class servants, contributed to the deaths of innocent people when the witchcraft accusations began to fly. It’s certainly a plausible explanation and takes into account that perhaps the girls really were faking at first and later became caught up in a shared delusion.

Conversion is a highly enjoyable book that has a lot to say about the stress teenagers are under in today’s competition for grades and college spots and also the ways in which we discount teens’ voices. I should think that teenagers would find a lot to relate to, and at the same time, they would learn some interesting things about American history and literature.

The narrator, Khristine Hvam, did an excellent job not only capturing the voices of the teenaged girls, but also the old New England cadence of Ann Putnam’s speech. She was perfect for the novel, and she’s one of the better book narrators I’ve heard. I am really glad I listened to the audio book with the exception of one reason: the Author’s Note was not included in the reading, and it has some interesting information for readers. I had to track it down so I could read it.

I really liked this interview at Bustle and this other review at the Nerdy Book Club.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

(P. S.: Some of the novel is set in the past, but as the focus is more on the present, I have decided not to count it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.)

Sunday Post #12: Bossypants

Sunday PostAfter saying last week that I usually review books in their own posts, here I go reviewing a book in this post, just like I did last week. It just so happens that I only finished one book this week, anyway, and I finished it today.

First, an update on my reading challenges. I’m still keeping up with my Literary Movement Challenge. Next up in April will be the biggest test of this challenge so far because I’ve decided I want to read The Annotated Wuthering Heights for April (Romanticism). Up until now, the works I’ve read have been shorter and not quite as dense as this book, but ever since I ordered in it December, I have been looking forward to cracking it open. Can’t wait! It’s been a while since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, and and can’t wait to see what the annotated edition offers.

I am doing fairly well with the other challenges, and thought it’s still early days, I feel that I might be able to complete them all this year. I may actually be able to increase my participation level in the Historical Fiction Challenge. I am trying to decide what book to listen to next, now that I’ve finished Bossypants. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to the Diana Gabaldon books yet. I might read Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. I enjoyed listening to the first book in this trilogy. I keep thinking I might enjoy the other two, and I already have them in my Audible account, but I just haven’t listened to them.

I’m not really close to finishing anything else, unless I really read a lot this coming week. I have lots of books in the TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to getting into them. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a busy week, so we shall see.

I think perhaps the best way to read Bossypants is to listen to Tina Fey’s Grammy-nominated audio version. Hearing her delivery added some spark to the book, and I’m not sure I’d have liked it as much if I had just read it. The book has some genuinely funny moments. I loved her descriptions of starting school, her high school days participating in theater, and her early improv days. Hearing her discussion of what it was like to work on SNL, to create her Sarah Palin character, and to create the show 30 Rock were all very interesting to me as well. One thread that runs through the book is that Tina Fey came up in comedy dominated by men, and her experiences of sexism in the industry were particularly though-provoking if not surprising. One thing I didn’t like is that the book didn’t seem to have a narrative arc. It was more a string of different life experiences, and I didn’t see them woven together as clearly as I might have liked. However, Fey’s delivery made me not care so much—I felt like I was having a conversation with a smart friend.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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.

Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, narrated by Stephen Fry

I may in fact be the last person on Earth to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I will, therefore, dispense with any summary. The Internet makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read this book.

Stephen Fry’s narration was excellent. He gave the perfect irritating note (in an American accent) to the ship’s computer. He made Zaphod Beeblebrox sound a little bit like Austin Powers, but not so much that you decide he’s not cool.

If I had to pick favorite parts, they would be as follows (in no particular order):

  • The dolphins, unable to communicate Earth’s impending doom to less intelligent humans, leave and say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
  • The bowl of petunias thinks, “Oh no, not again.” After which many people speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this, we would know a lot more of the nature of the Universe than we do now.
  • The poor sperm whale created by one of the missiles.
  • The Infinite Improbability Drive as a whole concept.
  • Shooty and Bang Bang, the Galatic Police.
  • Devious super-genius mice who seem to be running everything.
  • Oolon Colluphid’s books.
  • Vogon poetry.
  • The Babel Fish. We should get those things for real.
  • The Earth as a giant computer designed to figure out the the Question.

I first tried to read this book when I was in sixth grade, and perhaps some sixth graders could have read it and appreciated it quite a lot, but I didn’t get it, so I put it down without finishing it. Then years passed, and for one reason and another, I never managed to pick it up again until now. It’s hard to believe it was written in 1979, as much of seems prescient while other parts of it are timeless. It’s quite funny, and I could definitely see its influence on other writers I enjoy, such as Neil Gaiman. I see its influence on Doctor Who as well. And yes, I realize Douglas Adams wrote for that series.

So, one more book I should have read a long time ago crossed off the list, and wouldn’t it have been perfect if I had read it last year, when I was 42? My daughter Maggie told me on my birthday that year that I was “the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman

I listened to Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, on Audible, mainly because I know that Gaiman is quite a fantastic reader (not all writers are). Unfortunately, that also meant that I didn’t have a real sense of the way in which the collection might hang together as a whole because I listened to it mostly in bursts as I cleaned house or made soap. As such, I can only really recall my favorite stories with any clarity, and I don’t have a print book to examine in order to refresh my memory, so I skimmed what pieces I could find in Amazon’s preview and Google Books. Finally, I found this review, which discusses each piece with a rating out five stars. I won’t discuss each story. Just the ones I liked or remembered better than the others.

“The Lunar Labyrinth” is the first story in the collection (following the poem “Making a Chair”). This story made me think of American Gods, and given that I knew the collection had an American Gods story in it, I assumed it would be this one. It wasn’t. Still, the story does nod toward the American Gods concept that those silly roadside attractions are more than they seem.

I liked the story “The Thing About Cassandra” quite a bit. How would you feel if you made up an imaginary girlfriend, and years later your friends and mother are insisting they ran into her?

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” reminded me of straight up fantasy. It’s a little bit Tolkienesque, but doesn’t quite make it.

“Orange” story told completely as answers to questions the reader doesn’t hear. Humorous and a little scary at the same time.

“The Case of Death and Honey” is a Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’s quest to solve the ancient question of how to live forever. I quite enjoyed this one as both a story and a contribution to the Sherlock Holmes repository.

“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” is a poignant comment on loss of memory as well as a love letter to one of Gaiman’s favorite authors.

“Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. As I listened to this one, I kept wishing it had been filmed. It would have made an excellent episode. It’s set during the time of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond. The Doctor and Amy land on Earth in the TARDIS to discover that no one exists, and a voice insists they’re trespassing.

“Black Dog,” as it turns out, is the American Gods story, and I didn’t like it. As with American Gods, I could see that Neil Gaiman was doing something interesting with the idea of ancient gods in modern times, but in the end, I just wasn’t into it.

The other stories and poems didn’t leave enough of an impression on me to merit discussion here.

I thought the collection as a whole was a bit uneven, despite moments that I absolutely enjoyed. The individual stories I mentioned in this review are worth seeking out (with the exception, in my opinion, of the last. As much as I did enjoy Gaiman’s reading, I don’t think I’ll listen to another short story collection on Audible. I can’t recall enough of the individual stories, and there is not an easy way for me to glance back at the book again. I was tempted to give this only three stars, but the truth is, when the stories are good, they are really good.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★