Review: Drums of Autumn

I’ve been binging on Outlander books lately, so today I have a review of the fourth book in the series by Diana Gabaldon,titled Drums of Autumn. As usual with a series, I’ll refrain from spoilers beyond giving a general sense of what the book’s about, but I won’t recap previous books, either. Follow these links for my thoughts on Outlander (book 1), Dragonfly in Amber (book 2), and Voyager (book 3).

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About this book: Jamie and Claire begin the long process of establishing a new home of their own in America, accompanied by their nephew, Ian. The biggest plot points of this volume, however, center around Brianna and Roger. Brianna tries to acclimate to the idea of her parents living two hundred years in the past, one of whom she misses dearly and one she’s never met, despite growing curiosity. She and Roger can’t help learning more about the Frasers’ lives, and are soon faced with life-or-death choices that affect everyone they love most. Jamie and Claire may be in danger, Brianna walks right into danger and must deal with the aftermath, Roger has danger thrust upon him and must choose whether to keep fighting or retreat to safety, if he’s able, and Ian is so hell-bent about adventure that he doesn’t give danger a second thought. Everyone is struggling to find their place in a new place, and then of course there’s the upcoming revolution to worry about. There’s hardly time to worry about politics, however, between the appearances of crafty pirates and unpredictable native tribes. Everyone must stand for what they believe in, and they can’t stand alone. But can they stand together?

“The humming noise disturbed him. It wasn’t in his ears but in his body–under his skin, in his bones. It made the long bones of his arms and legs thrum like plucked strings, and itched in his blood, making him want constantly to scratch. Fiona couldn’t hear it; he’d asked, to be sure she was safe before letting her help him. He hoped to God he was right; that only those who heard the stones could pass through them. He’d never forgive himself is anything happened to Fiona–though she’d been in this circle any number of times of the fire feasts, with no ill effect…He stamped both feet and shook himself like a horse with flies, trying to rid himself of the humming. God, it was like being eaten by ants! Was Fiona’s chanting making it worse, or was it only his imagination?”

One thing I’ve really enjoyed about this series is that each of the first four books takes place somewhere new. They’re distinctly Scottish throughout, but Gabaldon shows her readers a lot more of the 18th century than the Scotland town of Inverness where Outlander began. And then each book, while linked in so many ways to everything that’s already happened, is it’s own distinct adventure.

Which brings us to another point that I particularly love about Gabaldon’s writing: it may be long, but the continuity is remarkable. There are so many specific references to people and events from the characters’ pasts that nothing seems superfluous–on the contrary, you want to hold onto every possible detail you can keep together in your memory at once, because every thread of the plot is beautifully connected, not just between the covers of each volume but throughout the entire series. For example, I’d been waiting from the first book for Claire to tell Jamie that it was Laoghaire who mixed Claire up in the witch trial with Geilis, which they finally discuss in the fifth book. This is such a small detail that has very little bearing on the plot once the “trial” in the first book has been escaped, but it’s a notable example of how Gabaldon doesn’t let any plot points go, instead connecting them carefully at the most opportune moments. I’m only mentioning this detail from later in the series now because the fourth book lays the groundwork for much of the rest of the series. I’m in the middle of the sixth book now, and while the adventures continue, the Frasers travel less, and therefore the people and plots of Drums of Autumn keep coming up as far ahead as I’ve read now. This is the point at which I’d recommend paying a little closer attention to the details Gabaldon includes. Everything is important.

And now I want to talk about Roger. He’s not new, but newly important as he’s forced to decide over and over again with life-altering consequences how much he really loves Brianna. I didn’t think much of Roger in earlier books. He was there, but he didn’t really stand out to me as a good guy or a bad guy or even a distinctly important guy. Even now that I’m into the sixth book I’m not sure what to think of him. I can’t decide whether he has the worst luck in the world, or whether he’s making regrettable choices.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars for this one. There were some great surprises (meaning captivating, not always good for the characters) plot twists in this one that made Drums of Autumn hard to put down. But this book, like the others, seemed to start slowly. It’s not that the beginning isn’t relevant or interesting, but there always seems to be a gap between the end of one volume and the beginning of the next in which the characters move to a different emotional plane than where we left them, and we’re not quite sure why for a few chapters. Beyond that, Roger becomes a major character in his own right in this book, but there are very few times I’m really invested in him. It’s not that I want things to be difficult for him, or even that I don’t appreciate his presence in the story, but there seems to be less…fire about him. I suppose it’s a sense that his fellow characters would be less devastated by his loss than by any of the other main characters’. Regardless, this book is just the whirlwind I was expecting, and certainly worth the read if you’ve made it this far.

Further recommendations:

  1. Reading about pre-America really put me in the mood for more American historical fiction. Although it takes place later than Drums of Autumn, every mention of slaves in this book made me want to reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you’re interested in historical fiction about America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a must, and I think it would be interesting to time it with a break in the Outlander series sometime between books 3 and 5, when slaves are mentioned more frequently.
  2. I’ve made a dent in the Lord John sub-series now, and my favorite so far has been Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, the second novel. If you’re less interested in Lord John but still want to experience a little of his story, try Brotherhood of the Blade. Each piece of this series refers to previous events, but they stand alone a lot better than the Outlander books would. You could plausibly read only this one, the fourth story, which is a sizeable representation compared to some of the shorter pieces but still much shorter than any Outlander book. I’ll probably have a more formal review of the sub-series coming in the next few weeks if you’re interested in hearing more about each individual piece.

What’s next: I’ll have a review for the fifth book of this series, The Fiery Cross, coming soon for my fellow Outlander fans, as well some info and thoughts about the Lord John sub-series, but in the meantime I’m planning to share a different sort of book that I read recently, Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which is probably one of the creepiest but most intriguing books I’ve ever read.

Recommendations for me? Specific requests? Comments or questions about what I’ve read or written? Don’t hesitate to share!

Until next time, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: Follow this link to read my next Outlader review about book 5, The Fiery Cross!

Review: Career of Evil

I’m Wrapping up a loose end today with a review for the third book in the Cormoran Srike series, Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling). As usual, no major spoilers, but this post will make the most sense to those who know a bit about the first two books of the trilogy. Check out my reviews of The Cuckoo’s Calling (book 1) and The Silkworm (book 2) if you’re interested in the other Robert Galbraith books. And now, let’s talk about my favorite addition to the Cormoran Strike series, Career of Evil.

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About the book: After two successful high-profile cases, private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, are pulled into another violent mystery which the police seem unable to stay ahead of. This time, however, they have no choice about their involvement, because they have been personally targeted. Someone is out to ruin Strike, and sees Robin as a point of vulnerability for him. With news in the press of violent crimes somehow attached to Strike, he quickly looses business and must either give up his chosen profession or solve the case himself to clear his name from the confusion. The problem isn’t coming up with names of potential suspects who’d wish to do Strike personal harm–it’s in coming up with too many. Strike thus finds himself spending all of his time tracking down unpleasant acquaintances from his past to eliminate those who weren’t involved in the particular evil crimes under investigation, hoping to stop the criminal before reminding too many other dangerous individuals how much they dislike him. Strike must delve back into his past and come to terms with unsettling events that continue to nag at him. Meanwhile Robin deals with a shocking revelation from her fiance, Matthew, and the usual clashes between him and Strike are exacerbated as Robin simultaneously becomes more involved in the workings of the detective agency and in arranging (or not) the final details of her wedding. Time, money, and safety are concerns for all, but the criminal plunges ruthlessly forward with his schemes, dragging his enemies along for the ride.

Why it’s different: In this volume, the reader is taken into the minds of the killer. This book alternates between the viewpoints of Cormoran, Robin, and the mysterious criminal who’s got the detective and his assistant locked in his sights. These vantage points allow the reader to understand all angles of the case; while there is no particular sympathy for the killer, or desire to see him succeed, there is a recurrent reminder of his presence and enough detail of his life to give the reader some insight into whether Strike’s investigation is on track or off, and whether Robin is indeed as safe as she feels. At the first glimpse into the killer’s mind, he seemed a little stereotypical, but that impression quickly evaporates as we spend more time dissecting his life and habits. Although the perspectives revealing Strike’s and Robin’s actions and thoughts are familiar at this point, they also seem more revealing in this book. This case is so much more personal for each of the characters, which adds extra dimension to the mystery, and certainly rounds out this series by adding in the missing pieces of Cormoran’s and Robin’s histories. There’s no more room for secrets, at this point. Also, this is the book that will decide matters once and for all in Strike’s relationship with Robin.

“Everyone liked Robin. He liked Robin. How could he fail to like her, after everything they had been through together? However, from the very first he had told himself: this far and no further. A distance must be maintained. Barriers must remain in place…The sapphire on Robin’s third finger had been a bonus, then: a safeguard and a full stop. In preventing the possibility of anything more, it set him free to…what? Rely on her? Befriend her? Allow barriers to become imperceptibly eroded so that as he looked back it occurred to him that they had each shared personal information that hardly anybody else knew…For all his determination to keep her at arm’s length, they had literally leaned on each other. He could remember exactly what it felt like to have his arm around her waist as they had meandered towards Hazlitt’s Hotel. She was tall enough to hold easily. He did not like having to stoop. He had never fancied very small women. Matthew would not like this, she had said. He would have liked it even less had he known how much Strike had liked it.”

Strike and Robin’s relationship is one of the best I’ve come across in any sort of detective story, because it’s completely normal and unpredictable. They seem to have real potential, but they’re both a little awkward and hesitant. It’s the kind of mutual regard and appreciation that warms the heart, not the intense life-or-death kind of love that’s tailored to the written page. They’re ordinary people, with a connection that feels real. I had no idea whether or not these two would have their moment, or end up together, or completely go their separate ways, until the book ended, and…well, I won’t give it away. But even after three books of speculation and uncertainty, I was still surprised at how it turned out, even though I think it went the right way.

A follow-up: For the second book, I left a warning about the goriness of some of the details, and I only mention it again now to say that I didn’t really feel that way about this book at all. There were definitely still some violent events and recountings, but nothing that was dwelt upon in any grotesque way. That said, this book is delightfully disturbing. All of the main suspects in this new string of crimes is someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. The antagonist, whose disturbed mind we are granted access to, is far from squeamish about conveying just how far he’s willing to go to sully Strike’s good name.

My reaction: I thought this was a great series overall, but this book was by far my favorite. I give 5/5 stars, and I would recommend this series just for this book, although the first two are certainly enjoyable as well. J. K. Rowling spins a great web of plot and characters, but this one particularly I couldn’t put down.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is also set in modern day England, and features a mystery that’s driven by personal connections and violence. The characters of this one feel just as real and understandable as those in the Cormoran Strike books. Find my review of Hawkins’ novel (soon to be a movie) here.
  2. This may be a bit of an odd recommendation, but I’ve been so immersed in the Outlander series these past few months that I’m definitely drawing a connection between the Cormoran Strike books and the sub-series by Diana Gabaldon about Lord John Grey. Strike was wounded in the army, and returned to London to work as a detective. John Grey, about 250 years earlier, also resides mainly in London, is an active soldier, and is inevitably swept into solving mysteries that often turn out to have personal ties like the main plot of this third Strike novel. It’s not even necessary to read the massive Outlander volumes before picking up the John Grey series, which is made up of considerably smaller stories. If you’re interested in reading about London life, the British army, and unending mysteries that occassionally seem supernatural, the first story in Gabaldon’s John Grey series is “Lord John and the Hellfire Club,” and the first novel is Lord John and the Private Matter, either of which would make a good start.

Do you have any recommendations for me? Feel free to let me know, and to comment any other questions or thoughts below.

What’s next: I’m reading Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, at the moment, which I am eager to share with you, but since I’ve had some technical difficulties this past week and fallen behind in my posts, I may add the next Outlander review for book 4, Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon, before I finish reading You. So depending on how soon I post again, and how fast I read, it’ll be one of those two, and both are great reads!

As always, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silkworm

Welcome back, readers! Today’s review features the second book of Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike series, entitled The Silkworm. Several weeks ago I posted a review of the first book (The Cuckoo’s Calling), which can be found here. I’ll try not to include spoilers, for those of you who haven’t begun the series yet, but my comments will probably make more sense if you’ve already read the first book. And without further ado…

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About the book: Cormoran and Robin are back in business after their success with the Lula Landry case brought new customers and fame. But despite a number of paying cases, Strike is intrigued by the pleas of a woman he fears will never be able to afford giving him more than thanks. Her husband, an egotistical author named Quine, has disappeared, but his colleagues and supposed friends are offering as little assistance as possible in helping to locate him. Quine’s disappearance coincides with his sharing a new manuscript in which many of his acquaintances appear as awful characters with secrets that may have some relation to unsavory truths. When a killing occurs mimicking a gruesome death in the manuscript, the hunt for answers becomes a dangerous chase, where each of the main suspects know all too well of Strike’s involvement with the case. The police, of course, have jumped to hasty conclusions that Cormoran believes will land an innocent person in jail and tear a fragile family apart, leaving Strike to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, Robin’s career and engagement remain uncertain, and she’s forced to choose over and over what (or who) she loves most, and how much she’s willing to fight for it.

“‘Writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.'”

As always, Rowling’s writing is superb. In The Silkworm, the careful and adept writing is made more intriguing by the fact that many of the main characters are authors, editors, publishers, etc., making this one of those fascinating pieces in which the author is writing about the writing process. Characters’ thoughts of reading and writing in fiction are always interesting to me because characters who like to read are one of the most constant aspects in literature, and I like to believe a bit of the author shows through his/her representation of these bookish characters. Those of The Silkworm certainly know the ins and outs of the publishing world, as Rowling certainly must.

All of the characters, however, writers or not, possess great depth in this series. Returning characters have more to their pasts than was unearthed in the previous book, and new characters are diverse and rich enough to keep the reader busy sorting out the lies from the truths. The plot is carefully constructed to avoid those convenient coincidences that feel unrealistic in mysteries, although I should probably warn future Silkworm readers that this book contains much more gore in its details than The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m not usually one to shy away from a bit of blood and tragedy, because such aspects keep otherwise calm stories engaging, but I was honestly a little squeamish about a few of the descriptions in this one. I mean, I watch The Walking Dead, and I enjoy the story line of it quite a bit, but I try not to look too closely at the people-eating parts. That’s the best description I can give for the gore in this book–it wouldn’t have stopped me from reading it, but I had to grimace to myself a couple times as I read.

One point of frustration for me in this addition to the Cormoran Strike series is the turning point at which the reader doesn’t have all the answers–not because the detectives are lacking them, but because Strike suddenly assembles the puzzle and refuses to share the final picture with the reader. More simply, I mean that I find it frustrating to follow Cormoran and Robin on their fact-seeking ventures only to be excluded from that level of equal access to their thoughts and actions once they understand how all the pieces fit together. There was a similar sort of turning point in The Cuckoo’s Calling where the information exchange between narrator and reader suddenly changed, but I found it much more obvious and, personally, a little more annoying the second time around.

“Like the turning lid that finds its thread, a multitude of disconnected facts revolved around Strike’s mind and slid suddenly into place, incontrovertible correct, unassailably right. He turned his theory around and around: it was perfect, snug and solid. The problem was that he could not yet see how to prove it.”

Then the narrator takes his/her time about getting around to sharing the theory while Strike is working on his proof.

Despite the gore and the necessity of patience toward the end, however, The Silkworm is a great mystery, and more. I particularly love that Cormoran and Robin are very normal people–they have no superhuman abilities, and deal with personal problems just like anyone else. They deal with breakups, repress private thoughts and emotions, hide insecurities, and fall short. They have great chemistry as work partners that constantly leaves the reader wondering whether they belong together more than they’re willing to admit. Theirs isn’t the obvious romance of typical detective stories where the unlikely couple inevitably fall in love, bonding over their need for answers and justice, but they’re bound together by their interest in their cases, nonetheless. It’s difficult to discern whether they’re destined or doomed, but they make a great team nonetheless. I can read almost any poor plot as long as the characters are captivating, as Cormoran and Robin certainly are, but the plot is far from poor here and both aspects encourage each other, as in good books they should.

Rating: 4/5 stars. The Silkworm was my least favorite Cormoran Strike book, but I definitely enjoyed it, and it was a worthwhile contribution to the series. If you’re on the fence for any reason, I personally found the third book much worth the effort of getting to it, which isn’t to say that the rest of the series was a drag, either.

Further recommendations:

  1. Stephen King’s Misery might be a good fit if you like this particular Robert Galbraith volume, and vice versa; there’s less mystery in Misery, since the narration follows the missing writer rather than the people looking for him, but I think there are similar elements between these two.
  2. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is also perhaps a bit more sinister than The Silkworm, but if you enjoy mystery and unstable characters, this one is a good pick. Dark Places lacks the missing writer angle, but shares the investigative aspect.

Feel free to send me your questions, comments, and/or recommendations!

Up next: I’ll share why I found Galbraith’s third (and final) book of the Cormoran Strike trilogy, Career of Evil, the best of the group.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: here’s my review of the third Cormoran Strike novel, Career of Evil!

Review: Voyager

This review is for my fellow Outlander fans, particularly those interested in the third book of the series, Voyager. As with my previous post, I won’t recap previous books, but you can find my impressions of the first two volumes of the series here and here. Again, I will refer to the series as a whole, and mention necessary characters and plot points with the assumption that you know a bit about the first two books of the Outlander series, but I’ll try not to give too much away for those of you reading this review before Voyager.

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Okay, so between finishing Dragonfly in Amber and getting my hands on Voyager, I started looking up more info on this series and found out quit a bit about upcoming events, which probably skewed my reading a little. I usually try not to know much of anything about a book before reading it, but if it’s one I know I’m going to read anyway, I won’t let a few untimely spoilers stop me. Therefore, after a few days to formulate expectations about what would happen next, and then having had time to search the internet for concrete evidence of my suspicions, very little about this book surprised me, and yet I loved every page. Although practically everything has changed between books 1 and 3, I did feel that these first three were similar, and would’ve worked as a trilogy. While most of the the Gabaldon books I’ve read so far seem to “end” more with a pause for the narrator to take a breath before the next calamity unfolds than with any solid sense of resolution, the end of Voyager felt to me like the end of an era for Jamie and Claire. That’s not to say that I was ready to quit reading, of course.

About this book: there are basically two halves to this book that are more or less two distinct stories. The first part focuses on Claire’s attempts to reunite with Jamie, and all the obstacles of reunion that naturally appear when two people who love each other have spent many years apart establishing their own separate lives. There is still drama going on here and there, but the Frasers are so focused on each other that their misadventures seem like no more than momentary hiccups between serious conversations about Jamie’s and Claire’s present situation and future intentions. Once explanations and compromises have been made and the two are minimally reacquainted, typical Outlander plot-heavy drama takes off again in the second half of the book, when pirates enter the story and take something Jamie needs back. Naturally, Claire and Jamie rush off to France to seek transportation across the Atlantic Ocean from cousin Jared, in pursuit of the pirates. They have to deal with sickness, French soldiers, rebellious slaves, and a whole lot more of the supernatural element that’s been surfacing  throughout the series.

“‘Claire,’ he said softly. ‘I must say something.’ I knew already, and groped for his mouth to stop him, but my hand brushed by his face in the dark. He gripped my wrist, and held tight. ‘If it will be a choice between her and one of us–then it must be me. Ye know that, aye?’ I knew that. If Geilie should be there, still, and one of us might be killed in stopping her, it must be Jamie to take the risk. For with Jamie dead, I would be left–and I could follow her through the stone, which he could not. ‘I know,’ I whispered at last. I knew also what he did not say, and what he knew as well; that should Geilie have gone through already, then I must go as well. ‘Then kiss me, Claire,’ he whispered. ‘And know that you are more to me than life, and I have no regret.'”

One of my favorite things about this series, which stood out to me particularly in this book, is how human and realistic the characters’ actions and reactions are. Even when some of them do bad things, their circumstances are explained in such a way that whether or not the reader may agree with the choices, they are always comprehensible. This series is an emotional roller coaster that spans the entire range of human feeling, which, I believe, is what makes the ever-moving plot so exciting. When the Frasers are dealt a difficult blow, the reader feels the anger or sorrow necessary to that moment, but also an anticipation of their longer-term response. How will they cope? With retaliation, or forgiveness? Will it strengthen them or tear them apart? We don’t wish for strife to plague the Frasers, but strife is exactly what makes these books so addicting. I sincerely hope Jamie and Claire find their happy ending eventually, but…not too soon, because lives in which nothing goes wrong are considerably less fun to read about. On the other hand, there’s definitely an interesting contrast (which I thoroughly enjoy, when it’s successful) between the rational human responses these characters display, and the completely unlikely chance that so many problems of such a vast array would arise for a single family. I must admit that I was worried about this series starting to drag eventually, considering the length of the books, but I’m happy to say that I don’t think it’s reached that point yet. The characters’ personalities remain consistent, as far as basic morals and principles go, but their attitudes toward other characters and events develop in time, so that each new plot twist brings an entirely new set of emotional challenges to the forefront.

Something else I found interesting in this book was my interest in Young Ian, Jamie’s nephew. Each book in this series seems to branch out a little more with the introduction of new characters and then the adoption of new perspectives of narration to follow these additions more closely. Ian was particularly interesting to me because he appeared very suddenly, and then wouldn’t go away. I think I started caring about him just because Jamie did, and I got used to having him around. By the time I started Drums of Autumn (book 4), I couldn’t imagine the story continuing without him, which surprised me since the narration of Voyager didn’t give us much of a first-hand account of his experiences–rather, we hear about his life through the dialogue and eyes of more prominent characters. And yet, somehow Ian becomes one of the most important.

Speaking of emerging characters…Lord John Grey is (re)introduced in this book, and while I didn’t feel particularly strongly about him either way in Voyager, he does have all the makings of an important character. Which is good, because he has his own subseries that fits into the time frame of the years while Claire and Jamie were apart, and can be read any time after Voyager. I usually end my reviews with further recommendations, but I kept thinking of films in relation to this book, rather than literature. Maybe I just haven’t read enough books about pirates? Recommendations, anyone? Anyway, I haven’t delved too deeply into the Lord John books yet, but as far as I am I do think that they bring more depth to his character, and if you’re at all interested in him or just in reading more of Gabaldon’s work, you may want to check those out. And for anyone wondering about the films I was reminded of by Voyager,  the top two were the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series (similarities include pirates, the Caribbean, and the supernatural), and the TV show LOST (similarities include islands, time travel/other supernatural elements, and oddly coincidental–or perhaps not–connections between the characters). For more recommendations, check out my other Outlander series reviews.

My reaction: 5 or 5 stars. Like many third books, this has been my favorite part of the Outlader series by far. I couldn’t sleep while I was reading this book because I had to find out what would happen next, and I don’t regret a single second of the exhaustion that led to.

As always, feel free to send comments or recommendations my way!

Up next: On a little break from Outlander books, I’ll post updates next on Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)’s  The Silkworm and Career of Evil, the last two books of the Cormoran Strike series. For my thoughts on The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book of this series, click here.

Whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s brilliant!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my review of the 4th book in the Outlander  series, Drums of Autumn!