Review: This House is Haunted, John Boyne

John Boyne’s novel This House is Haunted is the story of Eliza Caine, a teacher grieving the recent death of her father. She responds to a mysterious ad for a governess in Norfolk, in part for somewhere to go, now that she’s learned her father never owned the house in which they lived and she’s being unceremoniously thrown out, and in part to escape her sadness. As soon as she arrives on the train, she realizes not only that she has been hired under false pretenses, but also that there is a presence in Gaudlin Hall, the home of her young charges Isabella and Eustace, that does not want her there.

Anyone who is familiar with ghost stories/madwomen in the attic tropes will recognize this story. With serious nods to both The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre, as well as bit of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and explicit homages to Dickens, many readers might well accuse this book of cribbing from more illustrious forebears a bit too much. Perhaps there isn’t a whole lot here that is new. As a ghost story, it’s fairly predictable, and despite some pretty chilling scenes (as I described them to my husband, I realized based on his reactions that they were scary at least in the abstract), I wasn’t really scared. I didn’t really want to be terrified. I don’t read much horror for a pretty good reason. It’s not my favorite thing to imagine the absolute worst people do, and I can’t stand gore at all. But a creepy ghost story, like, for instance, The Little Stranger? I’m all over that. This story wasn’t really like that. I think it might make for a pretty interesting atmospheric movie, but it didn’t really deliver any seriously good chills, at least not for me. But it is a quick read, and the story was engaging enough for me to keep turning the pages. It was a nice way to get my feet wet for the R. I. P. Challenge this year.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Sunday Post #28: One Month of Reading

Sunday Post

It has been exactly four weeks since I have written a Sunday Post. I have had a pretty busy summer, but I didn’t realize I hadn’t updated in that long. I have made some excellent progress on reading goals, mainly because I’m teaching a new course this year, and I needed to read some of the books to prepare. I’m in the process of re-reading some others in order to have them fresher in my mind as I teach them.

Since I last wrote a Sunday Post, I have finished reading Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonThe Song of Solomon by Toni MorrisonThe Piano Lesson by August Wilson, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I have also been re-reading the Harry Potter series on my Kindle, which I find an easy way to get through those fat monsters at a faster clip. I am about a third of the way through my re-read of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I also read The Complete Maus, but I didn’t review it because I think I have already reviewed it before.

I have completed the level of the Historical Fiction Challenge to which I had committed. I should go up another level. I’m nearly there for the next level, and there is still plenty of time. I’m just never sure how much time I’ll be able to commit to a challenge. I hate to say I’ve abandoned a challenge this early, but I have pretty much given up on the Literary Movement Challenge. I didn’t have time to get to the literary movement for May, and I just never moved forward from there. It’s okay. I had plenty of reading I needed to do for school. I’m doing okay with the other challenges, and I’m ahead on my total reading goal of reading 52 books, which is a good position in which to be, given I will most likely get pretty busy as school starts and will need some cushion time.

I have not added a lot of books to my TBR pile, which is a good thing, as it’s already too big.

 

Right now, I’m re-reading both King Lear and A Thousand Acres for my new course. I am really enjoying reading these books concurrently, and I am especially enjoying listening to the Naxos Audio production of King Lear featuring Paul Schofield as Lear, Toby Stephens as Edmund, and Kenneth Branagh as the Fool (and a host of other superb actors). I highly recommend it.

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 Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

I have mentioned before that I’m working my way through the books I plan to teach for AP Literature, starting with the ones I haven’t read. Kazuo Ishiguro’s modern classic The Remains of the Day was the last of the books I hadn’t read (I will now need to do some re-reading, as I haven’t read some of the others in a long time, but I put them off since I did at least have some familiarity with them). I don’t know what took me so long to read this book, given I have enjoyed other works by Ishiguro and also that I just love books like this (not to mention television like Downton Abbey, and yes, I can see Ishiguro’s influence on that show in many ways after reading this book).

If you haven’t read the book, perhaps just a short introduction. The Remains of the Day is told in the first person viewpoint of Mr. Stevens, longtime butler of Darlington Hall. Stevens dedicated his life to serving Lord Darlington and is currently in the employ of the American, Mr. Farraday, who gives Stevens leave to visit Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) to determine whether or not she might consider returning to Darlington Hall. Most the book takes place in the form of recollections as Stevens drives to Cornwall to visit Miss Kenton.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Stevens’s voice is so expertly captured by Ishiguro. He is all restraint, and yet Ishiguro manages to make his deeply rooted feelings all the more palpable for the control that Stevens exerts over them. My heart ached for him. Even as he denies it, his regret over the way he has spent his life and the mistakes he made with Miss Kenton are heartbreakingly clear, and when he does finally say near the end (sorry, spoiler alert here), “Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking” (239), you know it’s really been smashed into a million pieces, and frankly, I wondered if he would be able to go on. In addition, it’s an interesting portrayal of the times in which it’s set, particularly poignant for its focus on characters who are on the wrong side of history, and, indeed, who find it difficult to adjust to modern times after World War II. It’s absolutely breathtaking and brilliant writing.

Even though the movie has been out for some time and stars many of my favorite actors, I have deliberately avoided it because I always had it in the back of my mind that I would read the novel. Now I really want to see the movie, which I know is brilliant as well. I just have no idea why I waited so long. It was a gorgeous book, and I can’t wait to see what my students think of it. I have an excellent list of books to share with them.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is set on a trip to Cornwall, but given that most of the novel is a reflection on experiences at Darlington Hall near Oxford, I’m going to count it as my Oxfordshire book for the Reading England Challenge (I have previously read books set in London, Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire, and Yorkshire, so this is my fifth book. I’m also counting towards the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Review: The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

I am reading my way through the list of texts I will teach in AP in the coming year, and as August Wilson is an important writer who often appears on the test, I found myself reading this play. I’m so glad I did. I have read and taught Fences, which might be his more famous play, but I found this play to be much more exquisite, and I liked the characters a great deal more.

The Piano Lesson is the story of a family piano. An intricately carved work of art, the piano’s legs include family portraits carved by Willie Boy, the family patriarch. Willie Boy, a slave owned by the Sutter family, was asked by Sutter to carve the faces of his wife and child, whom Sutter had sold away, into the piano to please Sutter’s wife. Instead, Sutter carves the faces of his entire family. Willie Boy’s son Boy Charles steals the piano because he believes it more rightfully belongs to his family than it does to the Sutters, The piano entwines the two families even in death. Siblings Boy Willie and Berniece spend most of the play arguing over the piano. Bernice wants to keep it because of its importance to the family, but Boy Willie wants to sell it in order to buy the deceased Sutter’s land.

There are many things going on in this play: the tension between enjoying art for art’s sake instead of more “practical” objects, such as land; the importance of family; what it means to be successful in life. The piano lesson of the title is really the argument that Boy Willie and Berniece are having about the piano: would it be better for the family to keep it or to sell to buy Sutter’s land? It’s an important conversation to have, as the play is set at a time when many African Americans did not have either a family history they knew and could cling to or an opportunity to own land.

Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, and I can see how a production would be quite something to watch. However, Toni Morrison makes a successful argument for simply reading the play in her introduction, and it is indeed a delight to read as well. I would consider this an important work of the Great Migration and of American drama in general. I’m not sure if this would make a good movie—I think it is meant to be on the stage. It does look like it’s been made into a movie at least once.

Rating: ★★★★★

This story is probably set no later than the 1930’s, solidly in the period of the Great Migration, as Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandparents had been slaves, and Sutter would have had to have still been around at the beginning of the play. However, as the play also includes a truck (that is one of the liveliest characters in the story, I will add), vehicles have to be somewhat common. As it was published in 1988, it counts as historical fiction.

 

Review: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

I read Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon in order to prepare to teach it this coming school year. Song of Solomon is the story of Macon Dead III, also known as “Milkman.” Milkman feels lost and disconnected, but he goes in search of his family’s history and in the process discovers himself.

I hardly know what to say about this book. It’s incredible in way few things I have ever read are. I loved the magical realism. I think a lot people find magical realism confusing perhaps because it doesn’t fully conform to fantasy, so you can’t really suspend your disbelief and just go with it, but it also doesn’t conform to realism, and sometimes events can happen that are hard to make sense of. This story is so perfectly layered and carefully written. It’s a masterwork in the art of writing. It’s not only one of the most beautifully poetic books I’ve ever read, but it’s also spiritually fulfilling and a captivating story as well.

One suggestion I have for anyone who reads this novel is not to miss Toni Morrison’s forward. When she reveals the care and thought that went behind just the first sentence, you will understand just how tightly written a work of genius this novel is. I appreciated the way that no thread was left abandoned. Every idea that was introduced was brought back. There was nothing “extra”; no details were just thrown away. As such, it requires quite a close read. Be careful though. I found errors in the online help sites SparkNotes and Shmoop that might cause a reader to be confused, especially if he/she makes the egregious mistake of reading the help sites alone instead of the novel.

I am so glad I read this book. I think I loved it even more than Beloved. This novel deals with some of the same themes as Beloved—the legacy of slavery that resulted in cycle of abandonment by black men and single parenthood and grief for black women. In another writer’s hands, exploration of these theme could go badly wrong. Morrison is an essential writer for our times. She could teach us so much about the ways in which the past still impacts us today and will impact us in the future.

Man. What an excellent book.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is a bit contemporary for historical fiction, but I’m still counting it because the ending occurs at least ten years before it was published, and many of the events concern the past. Not everyone may agree with this categorization, but given the importance of the past in this book, I think it’s fair.

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: The Annotated Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, ed. Janet Gezari

I have read Wuthering Heights in several formats now, from my first Barnes and Noble paperback, to an audio book, to this new annotated version edited by Janet Gezari. It’s interesting how one notices different things about books upon re-reading, and no matter how good a friend a book might be, a re-read introduces nuances never noticed before. So it is with this annotated edition of Wuthering Heights.

In the past, when people have asked me (rather aghast upon my pronouncement that this is my favorite book) why on earth I liked it so much, I have been at a loss. After all, aren’t the characters all horrible human beings, impossible to like and therefore sympathize with? I had no real answer for that observation. I shared it. I don’t think I do anymore, however.

I mentioned in my Sunday Post recently that I had noticed Nelly Dean emerging as a much more troublesome character—I might even say a villain—than I had previously thought. Because she tells most of the story, the people she does not like, Catherine and Heathcliff, suffer the most from her descriptions of their character. Heathcliff probably is a pretty horrible person, though the case can be fairly argued that he was made horrible by the way he was treated. We want to feel sorry for him, and then he does something cruel, so we can’t. I am not so blind as to argue he’s a poor, misunderstood innocent. I think people who think of Heathcliff as a great romantic hero either haven’t read the book or don’t understand his character very well. But to me, he’s interesting precisely because he’s horrible. Not interesting as in “I want him to be my book boyfriend.” Let’s get that straight. Yet, Catherine is the one person who sees who Heathcliff really is because, as she says, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”

Catherine is probably not as horrible as Nelly depicts her. Nelly doesn’t like her, and her daughter, Cathy, shares many of her mother’s faults but comes off better in Nelly’s description. I think I really understood in this reading how much Nelly prejudices the reader against Catherine. One of the annotations remarks that the Heights’ housekeeper, Zillah, describes young Cathy in much the same way as Nelly describes her mother. I had found young Cathy’s treatment of Hareton inexcusable in the past, but I felt I understood it better in this reading. After all, she considers him in league with Heathcliff, and he did help Heathcliff imprison her in Wuthering Heights. That she ever does, in fact, warm to him and come to love him is miraculous given the start they had, and it shows her capacity for love and forgiveness. Nelly certainly comes off as meddling and judgmental. And why is she spilling all the family dirt to a perfect stranger in the first place?

Another thing I noticed really for the first time in this reading was the bird motif. Birds appear in various forms throughout the narrative. Nelly introduces Heathcliff’s history by describing him as a “cuckoo,” and birds, nests, and feathers are woven through the remainder of the narrative. Birds can be petted caged creatures, like Isabella Linton, or wild creatures like Catherine and Heathcliff. I was thinking about the part in the story when Catherine describes Heathcliff allowing the lapwings to die when she is sorting the feathers in her torn pillow:

And here is a moor-cock’s; and this—I should know it among a thousand—it’s a lapwing’s. Bonny bird, wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds touched the swells, and it felt rain coming. This feather was picked up from the heath, the bird was not shot—we saw its nest in the winter, full of little skeletons. Heathcliff set a trap over it, and the old ones dare not come. I made him promise he’d never shoot a lapwing after that, and he didn’t. (188)

Later in the novel, Heathcliff’s son Linton, Catherine’s daughter Cathy, and Hindley’s son Hareton become like the lapwings in Heathcliff’s trap. Linton is killed, but once Heathcliff notices Cathy and Hareton’s affection for one another, all the will to continue his revenge seems to vanish. He tells Nelly,

It’s a poor conclusion, is it not… An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have not beaten me—now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives—I could do it; and none could hinder me—But where is the use? I don’t care for striking. I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I have been labouring the whole time, only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case—I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing. (416)

I believe Heathcliff has come to equate the children with the lapwings. He destroyed them for no reason, and remembering Catherine’s injunction, he stays his hand just as his perfect revenge is in his grasp. And he quite literally gives up on living and dies.

I also think I fully appreciated for the first time that young Cathy’s story is her mother’s story “in reverse,” as the “‘movement of the book’ is away from Earnshaw and back, like the movement of the house itself. And all the movement must be through Heathcliff” (65). I think of the scene in which Lockwood finds himself in Catherine and Heathcliff’s old room and sees her three names written: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff (a name she hoped to have), Catherine Linton. Her daughter begins Catherine Linton, becomes Catherine Heathcliff, and eventually Catherine Earnshaw. The book ends on a hopeful note that what was lost will be restored in this second generation.

Reading this annotated version opened many connections, especially to Romantic writers such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, that I had not considered before in Brontë’s writing. Though Heathcliff is a famous Byronic hero, I didn’t know, for instance, that Thomas Moore’s Life of Byron may have been in Brontë’s mind when she wrote the scene in which Catherine says she cannot marry Heathcliff because it would degrade her, but that she can marry Linton and help Heathcliff to rise in the world. Byron apparently overhead or perhaps was told that Mary Chaworth, a woman whom he loved, said “Do you think I could care anything for that lame boy?” (140). I was also surprised to learn of a possible connection to Shelley’s Epipsychidion in the declaration that Catherine makes that she “is” Heathcliff: “I am not thine: I am a part of thee” (142). Natural references similar to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s observations occur throughout. It was a more fitting choice for the Romantic era in the Literary Movement Challenge than I even realized when I decided to read it.

It’s a gorgeous book with a great many illustrations and illuminating footnotes. It also includes Charlotte Brontë’s biographical notice and preface to the 1850 edition of the novel. I don’t think Charlotte fully understood what her sister had written, and I don’t agree with much of what she has said about the novel.

If you are a fan of this novel, you definitely want this beautiful edition for your library. If you haven’t read the novel, this edition will enrich your reading. If you don’t like the novel, but you want to figure it out anyway, you might find this edition will give you a lot to think about, and it might just change your mind. I have to say, I fell in love with it all over again on this reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I will count this selection as my Yorkshire novel for the Reading England Challenge. Taking place some 50 or so years before it was written, this one qualifies as historical fiction, and I am counting it as my Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge as well.

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: ★★★★★

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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: ★★★★★

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Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier
I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½