Review: The Fiery Cross

Welcome to the fifth round of (Literary Elephant) Outlander reviews! Clearly, the obsession continues. This time we’re talking about The Fiery Cross, book five in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Click the titles for my thoughts on the first four books of the series here: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn.

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This was probably one of my least favorites of the series and it took me a little longer to get through than some of the others, but even so I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else once I’d started. The Fiery Cross was the only Outlander book so far that I’ve been a little relieved to reach the end–but, as usual, still a little sad. Especially since this volume has a GREAT ending. It’s a comfort to be reading along, right in the thick of things, and know that there are still hundreds of pages ahead, because these books are the kind you never want to end. Unfortunately, even if the end is far away, it is eventually reachable. The end of this one felt like the end of a marathon, but in the exciting kind of way where as soon as you’ve finished you’re immediately enthused about the next one. Book 5 is the necessary bridge to the fantastic story that is book 6–but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

About The Fiery Cross: Jamie and Claire have settled into Fraser’s Ridge by now, but there’s a new element to the meaning of “home” for them as they help Roger and Brianna establish their lives and family in a place that’s very new to them. The Colonies are in political turmoil, necessitating preparations both mental and physical for the Revolutionary War they’re all wary of, and Jamie is recruited to lead a troop of militia toward a Regulation battle that none of them have any memory of encountering in history books, and which, therefore, could have any outcome. Roger meets trouble when he encounters one of his ancestors, Jamie is inquiring all over the colonies for the whereabouts of one Stephen Bonnet, Claire accompanies Jamie virtually everywhere for fear of being separated from him for more than a few moments, Brianna adapts to motherhood, and they all wonder how Young Ian’s faring with the Mohawk. There’s a life-threatening snake bite, a hanging, an encounter with a pirate, and a strange introduction to the Beardsley family. There’s more drama at River Run, as well, which Jamie always feels obligated to help resolve. And in the end? Expect to be reunited with a character who was supposed to be gone forever. As usual, plenty of danger and excitement all around.

“The bones of his hands popped and a line of liquid heat ran down one arm as a muscle tore. The sword fell, a flash of sunlight from its blade. His buttocks slid back over the horse’s rump, legs trailing helpless, and his weight fell free in an empty-bellied plunge. A wrenching jerk… And he was spinning, choking, fighting for air, and his fingers scrabbled, nails tearing at the rope sunk deep in his flesh. His hands had come loose, but it was too late, he couldn’t feel them, couldn’t manage. His fingers slipped and slid on the twisted strands, futile, numb, and unresponsive as wood. He dangled, kicking, and heard a far-off rumble from the crowd. He kicked and bucked, feet pawing empty air, hands clawing at his throat. Chest strained, back arched, and his sight had gone black, small lightnings flickering in the corners of his eyes. He reached for God and heard no plea for mercy deep within himself but only a shriek of no! that echoed in his bones. And then the stubborn impulse left him and he felt his body stretch and loosen, reaching, reaching for the earth. A cool wind embraced him and he felt the soothing warmth of his body’s voidings. A brilliant light blazed up behind his eyes, and he heard nothing more but the bursting of his heart and the distant cries of an orphaned child.”

This book has some great action scenes, as all Outlander books do, but it’s much more introspective than any of the others so far. The characters are faced with choices and difficult circumstances that leave them questioning how much they can take, and how much they’re willing to stand for the people they love. Everyone’s got something to come to terms with, and they all need to be prepared for the war that’s coming. It was in this book that I realized Jamie and Claire are older than they once were. Obviously, after the explanation of their twenty years apart,  it was plain that they weren’t in their 20’s anymore, but they seem markedly more mature in this book. Not old, but wise, wary, and appreciative of what they have. This is their first opportunity to be parents together, and grandparents, as well as the leaders of Fraser’s Ridge. They start having serious discussions about what would happen if one of them were to die. Jamie and Claire have never been particularly selfish, but in this book it becomes apparent that they’re extremely aware of how their choices affect all of the people around them, and they’re more invested than ever in posterity. Religious differences are more prominent and connect with further questions about whether the past can be changed, and what implications that may hold for the purposes of their lives. Jamie, Claire, and their extended family have never been the sort to take things lightly, but decisions and beliefs are markedly heavier in The Fiery Cross as America tips slowly over the brink into war, dragging the Fraser family from the sanctuary they’ve been building.

So far all of the Outlander books have been relatively self-contained, centered around a main challenge or two from which a thousand little plot threads sprout, but this one seems like the beginning of something bigger. This one opens up the challenge of surviving the Revolutionary War, which will persist throughout the next three books, at least. There are still little skirmishes, both amusing and intense, but the plot is being carefully laid toward an immense convergence as we move forward in the series. There’s a shadow apparent in this book, of something huge looming ahead.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars, with one star missing mostly for the sake of wanting to make my absolute favorites of this series stand out by reluctantly saving the full 5 stars only for those. I finished reading this book with the impression that not much had happened, but that’s not exactly true. I think the reason it felt like that is because before now we’ve seen mostly short-term effects of circumstances almost entirely out of the Frasers’ control. Even decisions that had long repercussions, like Jamie sending Claire back to the 20th century to save her from Culloden, are choices they don’t have much time to prepare for. Trying to thwart the ’45 Rising took a good many months, but during that time Jamie and Claire were still living mostly in the moment, dealing with what they could when they could, and only planning ahead to the next part of their scheme. The Fiery Cross, however, focuses on a war that’ll last much longer than the ’45, and the Frasers must consider how they’ll ensure their own–and their family’s–survival through it, but also where they’ll stand in regards to settling into a comfortable life at its conclusion. The shift into long-term decisions seems to slow things down a bit, but in actuality, the Frasers’ lives are never dull. At no point in this book did I consider that it might be a personal favorite in this series, but I did find it to be a necessary shift between the first half of the series and the second (considering, of course, that the final number of books in the series has not been announced yet and so the term “half” here is used loosely, with more regard to content than volumes).

Further recommendations:

  1. A couple of Sara Gruen’s books come to mind in conjunction with The Fiery Cross–although the time period’s a little different, the senses of danger, adventure, and romance in Water for Elephants would make a great read for those interested in American historical fiction. It’s a book about circus life, but don’t underestimate the prevalence of internal politics, death threats, and general sticky situations that present themselves much in Outlander fashion.
  2. Gruen also has a newer novel, At the Water’s Edge (see my review here), which takes place largely in Scotland and features the same sorts of thrilling and romantic elements, narrated mainly from the perspective of an American woman who travels to Scotland in a time of war and meets a dangerous but dashing Scot.

Coming up next: As long as we’re already talking Outlander, my next review will be focused on the sixth book in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, which is my favorite Gabaldon book so far.

And of course, happy reading!

The Literary Elephant

Now available: my review of the 6th book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes!

Review: The Forgotten Girls

A big part of the fun of reading for me is planning what I want to read next. Early this year, I was planning a mini book haul; I ended up with 4 novels, but I looked through hundreds of titles to get a good idea of what’s out there, and ended up with a second list of books to hunt down at the library. It’s one of these books that I want to tell you about today: Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls.

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Written in Denmark, this book is actually not the first in its series, but was the first to be published in English, and therefore stands as the beginning. It works as a stand-alone book, but I did feel while I was reading that some of the characters probably had a lot more depth and background than what I was seeing in this one volume. I believe a second book is now available in English in this series, which I hope will share a little more detail about the main characters and their pasts. But for now, let’s discuss The Forgotten Girls.

About this book: Louise Rick, the lead detective of a new Missing Persons department, takes the case of an unidentified woman found in the woods and unearths some strange information about her previous whereabouts. The woman and her twin were supposedly abandoned at a young age at a facility for children with mental disorders, but their death certificates were filed decades ago and no one seems to be able to remember what happened. Meanwhile, more women are being brutally attacked around the area, and one is missing. There are no witnesses. There are barely any suspects. And Louise grew up in this area, leaving after a personal tragedy she still can’t seem to escape. Can any of these people she’s known for years be a vicious murderer? And what’s up with her new partner, Eik?

“What do we know about this woman?” Louise asked as she put on a lab coat and hairnet. “So far, not much, except that it was a forest worker who found her on Thursday morning by Avnso Lake on mid-Zealand,” Flemming answered, handing her a green surgical mask. “According to the coroner’s examination, she died sometime between Wednesday and early Thursday morning. The police think she fell or slipped maybe fifteen feet down a steep slope and landed badly…I decided to upgrade the autopsy so we’ll get the DNA.” Louise nodded in agreement. DNA and dental records were always the first steps toward an identification. It would have been nice if Eik Nordstrom had bothered to show up, she thought, so one of them could follow up with the dentist right away. “I can say almost for sure that this is no ordinary woman we’re dealing with,” Flemming went on, explaining that this was clear from both the clothes she had been wearing before they began and the condition of the body. “Or at least it’s not a woman who has lived an ordinary life,” he corrected.

The biggest draw for me initially in this story was the creepiness of the mystery. There’s a spooky forest hiding something evil, an old asylum full of secrets, people who are not what they seemed, danger, adventure, deception, conspiracy, a haunted past, and all those good murder mystery elements. I appreciated the concept, but it didn’t feel as suspenseful as I was expecting. I understood that Louise was worried about things, but I had some difficulty feeling that tension connect me to her character. There were a few moments near the end that were intense, but generally Louise seemed a bit out of reach. I didn’t have any doubts that the case would be solved, but it didn’t seem to matter much for her either way–she would’ve been upset at the lack of closure, but her life would not significantly change. I didn’t want her to fail, and I did want to discover what had happened to all the attacked women, but I wasn’t anxious with anticipation because of a character’s personal investment or the constant presence of danger, the elements that usually bring detective stories alive for me. This was a subdued mystery, where I usually prefer drama. That’s not to say this is a poor story–but definitely subtle.

The thing that inexplicably stuck with me about this book was an abrupt transition that proved there was more happening between the lines. To explain it, I need to tell you a little about the romance situation in this book. The Forgotten Girls starts with one of those typical strong-female-lead-who’s-really-underimpressed-by-the-male-lead-who-makes-a-terrible-first-impression kind of scenarios where you just know they’re going to grow surprisingly close and fall in love. That’s how it starts, but luckily it’s not actually so predictable. There’s not much love going on, and barely even any attraction, which is nice–it’s great to read about a female lead who doesn’t need to get the man to have her happy ending. But there is some attraction here. Enough to keep things interesting in the unlikely partnership that Louise and Eik are forced into. The biggest attraction between them seems to stem from an appreciation for skill and persistence with the job. And thus my shock at this abrupt transition–one minute Louise is thinking about the case, and then the following paragraph begins the next morning with a brief recap of the biggest romantic advancement of the book, which then goes virtually unacknowledged for the remainder of the story! I literally did a double take, which, for the record, can be extremely awkward when you’re reading in public. The casual mention of Louise’s physical involvement with someone she’d hardly seemed to notice was both surprising and unexpected, and gave the impression that the narration was hiding some important thoughts. The story became much more interesting for me as I tried to cipher out more of what was happening behind the scenes. This is essentially what led to my interest in another book in the series–clearly there’s more to Louise’s past than she’s willing to admit here, and I sincerely hope that the next book of this series will delve into that aspect of her character.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t feel that creepy urge to crawl out of my skin that I was hoping for when I picked up this murder mystery, but I think it is worth noting that I’m interested enough in the characters to add the second book, The Killing Forest, to my to-read list. I think this story is one I’ll grow to like more as I learn more about the characters, but I do wish it had seemed stronger on its own.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels is set in New York, circa the 1800s, and features some of the asylum and strange death elements that I was looking for in The Forgotten Girls. A unique plot web ties the characters together as they fight for their lives and the prosperity of their Coney Island sideshow. See my review of this novel here.
  2. The Shining, by Stephen King, would be a great read if you like creepy stories about old semi-abandoned places and seemingly-normal families faced with nearly unimaginable challenges. There’s no detective element here, but the “enemy” is eerily close to home, as in The Forgotten Girls, and in both cases the characters live in fear of something–or someone–they can hardly put a name to. As with most King novels, there’s some involvement of the supernatural in The Shining that is not at all present in The Forgotten Girls, but both share an inexplicable hint of something beyond the norm working in mysterious and evil ways–they just have different explanations in the two books, with varying degrees of scientific rationale.

What’s next: I’m heading back to historical fiction to bring you a new installment in my Outlander series reviews. I’ll be talking about Diana Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross next, which is the fifth book in the series. Stay tuned for my latest thoughts on the exciting (and sometimes tragic) lives of the Fraser family!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: You

Confession of a book-buying addict: I have quite a few books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet, and it doesn’t stop me from obtaining more. I’m definitely going to read them all, eventually, but I’m also addicted to borrowing books, and I always feel that I should read those first. But this last week I found a few days with no borrowed books left to finish and I picked one off of my own shelf for a change. I grabbed You by Caroline Kepnes.

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About this book: The prose is written in first person, allowing the reader a front-row seat to the craziness of Joe’s mind, but he directs most of his thoughts to “you,” a girl called Beck, who he is instantly obsessed with when she walks into the book store he manages. Some of his thoughts are so normal, so mundane, and his joy over small victories in winning Beck’s attention are endearing, but it takes only a split second for the narrator to cross the line from hard-working average Joe looking for love, to a stop-at-nothing fanatic who will lie, cheat, steal, stalk, and even kill when the mood strikes him. He is desperate to work his way into Beck’s life and heart, and alternates between trying to impress her and trying to hide from her the lengths he’ll go to to have her. It’s story about the difference between truly wanting someone, and wanting who they are on the surface–who they pretend to be. Surface-Joe and surface-Beck may have made a great pair, but as they learn about each other, they must decide if what’s on the surface is worth all the trouble stirring underneath.

“I point him to Fiction G-K and I think of the time I saw you in Fiction F-K and what a fool I was in the days after. I have rearranged the shop; I couldn’t look at F-K anymore. I genuinely believed that reshaping the shelves would make it easier to live in the world without you, the world I built with my own two hands, the world that won’t allow me to tell you that I know you stole your Ritz robes from Peach. I still get flashbacks. I still cringe. I am eating again, but only because I hate fainting. Everything has been an exercise until now…And I will never again underestimate the power of anticipation. There is no better boost in the present than an invitation to the future.”

Reading this book is like being stuck in a fast river current. It’s so easy to follow that you don’t have any choice about staying in it, and couldn’t escape it if you tried. Sometimes the view is beautiful, sometimes it makes you fear for your life, and even when it finally dumps you in the lake at the end of the journey, you’re stuck in the water until you swim all the way to the shore and find another book. Except there’s a sequel, Hidden Bodies, which will probably feel a lot like you’ve just turned around and walked along the river bank for the sole purpose of jumping back in to be lost to the current again (I’ll post a review as soon as I’ve gotten my hands on it to read). Whew. That was a bit of a long and convoluted metaphor, but “addicting” didn’t quite seem sufficient to describe this book. Also, it leads into the next excerpt, which is a metaphor of sorts. Before you read it though, a warning: this book is super sexual. It’s not the only thing that Joe wants from Beck, but it’s definitely high on the list, and always on his radar. Even when he’s not directly thinking about sex, it’s there. Case in point:

“The problem with books is that they end. They seduce you. They spread their legs to you and pull you inside. And you go deep and leave your possessions and your ties to the world at the door and you like it inside and you don’t want for your possessions or your ties and then, the book evaporates. You turn the page and there is nothing and we are both crying.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. The plot is intense, and the writing brings the reader straight into Joe’s thought process, but at the same time makes you, the reader, feel as though you are being targeted when he does something particularly scary. It’s like he’s talking right to you, and you want to be afraid of him, but at the same time you can sympathize with him. This book is wonderfully uncomfortable, and Joe’s opinions about modern culture draw you in because you know what he’s talking about. The frequent commentary about literature makes you want to run to the nearest bookstore and read everything, but the stream of Joe’s thoughts and the fear of running into an ordinary-looking bookseller like him also make you want to swear never to enter a bookstore again. This novel will have you feeling all kinds of everything.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll would be a great read if you like potentially doomed relationships with more than a hint of death behind them and an NYC backdrop. For more info on this one, check out my review for it here.
  2. Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl. I know this one is getting a bit old and if you haven’t read it you’ve probably seen the movie, but I kept thinking that Joe would make a great match for Gone Girl’s Amy. It would be really interesting to see what would happen if someone put those two in the same room. Would there be any survivors?

Coming up next: In my reprieve from borrowed books to read, I also got around to finishing (almost) my review of Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls, a creepy murder mystery that I couldn’t decide whether I liked or not. Stay tuned to find out what I decided, and why I was on the fence!

Let me know if you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for me! And don’t let life keep you fro reading. 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can find my review of Kepnes’ sequel to You, entitled Hidden Bodies, here.     P.S. there may be spoilers there for those of you who haven’t read You yet!