I borrowed Naked Came the Phoenix, edited by Marcia Talley, mostly on a whim. It's a serial novel, à la The Floating Admiral, by a group of female mystery writers; a portion of the proceeds go to breast cancer research.
One of the authors, Diana Gabaldon, mentioned it on her web page, and since the library had it, I thought it was worth a try. The pleasure in reading a serial novel is watching one author leave a bombshell at the end of her chapter for the next to deal with, and seeing how the next person turns the bombshell into her own. I don't read chapter-by-chapter, though: I usually plow straight ahead, barely noticing divisions like chapters, to find out what happens next. Judged that way, this is pretty goofy (as I suspect many such efforts are). Judged as a serial novel . . . well, it's still pretty goofy.
I'm re-reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series in preparation for the release of the fifth, The Fiery Cross. These are, I think, some of the rare books that don't fit in any category. They're big fat historical time-travel fantasy adventure mystery romance—novels, for lack of a more precise term. They're also hugely engrossing and seriously addicting.
Outlander, the first in the series, was originally shelved in the romance section, apparently for lack of a better place to put it. While this was probably a good marketing decision (romance readers are more tolerant than one might think of history, time-travel, fantasy, adventure, and mystery), they're no more genre romances than anything else. (This is not an "Eww, girl cooties" response. Regular readers of this book log know perfectly well that I like good genre romances.)
[The existing volumes have been repackaged as mainstream fiction in trade paperback; unfortunately, the new covers are so plain that they look more like pre-publication proof copies than anything else. I liked the old covers, particularly the one for Drums of Autumn.]
Claire Randall is a nurse who has recently been reunited with her husband, Frank, after World War II. They are in the Scottish Highlands for a sort of second honeymoon, Frank digging into his family tree and Claire learning botany, when Claire stumbles into a stone circle and finds herself in 1743, smack in the middle of a minor skirmish between English soldiers and Scottish raiders. She has a very unpleasant run-in with Frank's ancestor, Jack Randall (who, let me assure you, only gets more unpleasant upon further acquaintance), is rescued by the MacKenzies, and gets taken along because she can treat things like musket ball wounds and dislocated shoulders. And also, of course, because she's damned odd and they think she might be an English spy. Claire eventually ends up marrying, and then falling in love with, Jamie Fraser, a relative of the MacKenzie clan. Jamie is presently an outlaw, which is only part of the unfinished business he has with Randall, who in turn is only part of the complications that will greet Claire & Jamie.
The difference from genre romances isn't that Claire and Jamie are three-dimensional, stubborn, outspoken, complicated people; contrary to public perception, that's not unusual. What is different is that Claire is not only married when they meet, but is in love with her husband; that Jamie's younger than she is and a virgin; and that the story doesn't end when they eventually declare their love for each other. (Of course, the story hasn't ended yet, period; there's to be six of these in all.) And then there's the historical bits, and the worries about time-travel and affecting history and if Claire can (and whether she should) go back, and the families, and the sword-play and dramatic rescues and politicking, and the Loch Ness monster, and . . .
Like I said, hard to classify. But also fabulously entertaining. I forced myself to only read pre-determined chunks of chapters at a time, lest I stay up all night (which I've done before). The plot tends to be a bit episodic, but all of the characters and dialogue are so vivid that you're pulled along regardless.
It's true that Outlander is Gabaldon's first novel, and it shows. For instance, Claire has a tendency to think at the end of chapters, "I went away, and it only occurred to me after to wonder why . . ."; once I noticed this, it was one of those minor irritants that kept standing out. Also, a few scenes strike me as a bit much, particularly some of the sex scenes (okay, they're newlyweds, but still . . . ). But it's a book and a series far rich enough to overcome these minor defects.
[Claire is at Loch Ness.]
A great flat head broke the surface not ten feet away. . . . Oddly enough, I was not really afraid. I felt some faint kinship with it, a creature further from its own time than I, the flat eyes old as its ancient Eocene seas, eyes grown dim in the murky depths of its shrunken refuge. . . .
A man was standing at the top of the slope. I was startled at first, then recognized him as one of the drovers from our party. . . . "It's all right," I said, as I came up to him. "It's gone."
Instead of finding this statement reassuring, it seemed occasion for fresh alarm. He dropped the bucket, fell to his knees before me and crossed himself.
"Ha-have mercy, lady," he stammered. To my extreme embarrassment, he then flung himself flat on his face and clutched at the hem of my dress.
"Don't be ridiculous," I said with some asperity. "Get up." I prodded him gently with my toe, but he only quivered and stayed pressed to the ground like a flattened fungus. "Get up," I repeated. "Stupid man, it's only a . . ." I paused, trying to think. Telling him its Latin name was unlikely to help.
"It's only a wee monster," I said at last, and grabbing his hand, tugged him to his feet.
For some reason, I'm curiously reluctant to pick up the sequel to Outlander; if I remember correctly, some particularly rotten things happen in it, so maybe that's why. Or maybe it's just the length. Anyway, instead I ended up re-reading another Rex Stout mystery, And Be a Villain. This is the first of the loose trilogy regarding Zeck that In the Best Families concludes; I realized that I'd re-read the end without refreshing my memory on the beginning, so I decided to remedy that.
I've discovered that since the A&E series, I have an even stronger tendency to imagine these books filmed. I'd like to see A&E take a crack at the Zeck books; they might be a bit trickier because I think they have more plot than your average Wolfe book, but they are some of the better ones in the oeuvre. Zeck's only slightly involved in this one, but the murders are baffling and the killer is, indeed, quite villainous. (I know it's a quote from Hamlet, but it's still an awfully unmemorable title. The Second Confession, the middle Zeck book, at least has a title with some reference to the plot.)
It's been two months since I started this book log, and I thought it might be amusing to pull out some statistics.
In two months, I've read forty-one books (some of these were omnibuses or collections, but I'm not counting their components) and three short stories. This figure is probably higher that it would usually be because I was commuting or on vacation for one of those months. Of these, twenty-three were new and twenty-one were re-reads. These books were by twenty-six different authors (counting the Lee & Miller collaborations as one author), plus a serial novel.
The log was updated about four times a week (mean: 4.2, median: 4); the most it was updated was six times in a week, and the least was two. This is slightly lower than the average number of things read per week, 4.9; while a few posts were unrelated to books, several posts were about more than one book.
The log has gone through a number of changes since it started, including small adjustments to its appearance and the addition of the index by author, but should be fairly stable now.
Finally, I think I've counted all this right, and gosh, I do read a lot of books . . .
The Second Confession is the middle Zeck book (between And Be a Villain and In the Best Families. I don't think this is quite as good as the other two; besides Wolfe's orchid rooms getting shot up, there isn't that much memorable about it. Also, the gambit by which Wolfe smokes out the murderer doesn't quite hold up to close scrutiny. This may be my clue to go back to re-reading Gabaldon . . .
And now for something completely different: Ovid's Amores, translated by Peter Green. (It's in a Penguin Classics collection, Ovid, The Erotic Poems, which includes three other works.) While I'm still re-reading Gabaldon, I've been reading this a bit at a time before bed for the past few weeks, and finished it last night.
It's hard to know what to say about this. I bought the book a while ago because I was taking a class called "Backgrounds in English and American Literature," which covered Greek & Roman poets, Dante, bits of the Bible, and I think a few other things. Portions of the Amores were included in the class text; I really liked their wit and, particularly, the vivid personality that came through, almost reminiscent of some of John Donne's works, to me.
What's wrong with me nowadays, how explain why my mattress
Feels so hard, and the bedclothes will never stay in place?
Why am I kept awake all night by insomnia, thrashing around till
Every weary bone in my body aches?
If Love were my assailant, surely I'd know it—unless he's
Craftily gone under cover, slipped past my guard?
. . . . . . . . . .
So I'm coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim,
Hands raised in surrender. Do what you like with me.
No need for military action. I want terms, an armistice—
You wouldn't look good defeating an unarmed foe.
. . . . . . . . . .
It's not exactly "For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love," but it seemed akin.
Alas, the Amores turned out not to be what I expected, though this may be my fault for not investigating further (I could've read the lengthy, scholarly introduction before buying, but it was so, so, lengthy. And scholarly.). Certainly, it's not bad, but I didn't enjoy much of it.
The quote above gives a hint of some of the problem. Ovid is exceedingly fond of comparing sex to war, and after a while I got tired of it. That, and litanies of mythological precedents; not surprising from the author of the Metamorphoses, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it any more the umpteenth time we got a list of Zeus's exploits, say. Also, neither mythological nor military approaches to sex (love, as I conceive of it, is hardly to be seen) are really appealing to me.
I don't particularly object to the widely varied tone and attitudes the narrator sometimes takes (which, judging from the annotations, seem to be of some scholarly concern). But a lot of the time I just didn't want to be in his company, no matter how clever he was.
Yesterday at lunchtime I was just too tired to deal with the sexual assault that was going to take place next in the book I was re-reading, so I picked up The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer. I didn't know anything about it, but it's a Heyer Regency, so I figured it would be fairly amusing and light.
It wasn't terrible, but it's one of the least enjoyable Heyer books I've read. First, the opening chapters were a minor annoyance; here I am, trying to get a fix on who all these people are, since it's obviously the hero's family and these books usually are fairly family-focused, and then he goes away and spends the rest of the book not even thinking of them. Grr.
So, fine, we're on an adventure about a missing gatekeeper instead. No problem. What is a problem is that the heroine falls in love with the hero at first sight (as he does with her) and then practically disappears while he fixes her whole life; I haven't counted up pages, but she really doesn't appear all that much. And when she is there, she doesn't get a lot to do. The bits of the romance that are there are okay, I guess, but I really think Heyer dropped the ball on this one in terms of developing a balanced relationship. And I didn't enjoy the resolution of the adventure.
Goodness, apparently I just didn't like this at all . . .
Busy few days, but did manage to re-read A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. I was reminded that it was entirely appropriate to the season by a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written, and decided it would be a good book to take on the train, because it's relatively small.
I would treasure this book if only for giving me the chance to utter the sentence, "The dog is a very low-key narrator." (Well, he is.) But it's also very well-constructed and quite entertaining. I almost think it would be best to read it for the first time without knowing what it was about, so that you get the fun of picking up all the clues in Snuff's narration. (In fact, thinking about it, I'm not sure that you could successfully tell this story with any other narrator—including the same character but with a different style.)
Slow day. . . .
I took Jack his slippers this evening and lay at his feet before a roaring fire while he smoked his pipe, sipped sherry, and read the newspaper. He read aloud everything involving killings, arsons, mutilations, grave robberies, church desecrations, and unusual thefts. It is very pleasant just being domestic sometimes.
Finally finished re-reading Dragonfly in Amber, the second of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. I was correct in remembering that there's some reasonably bleak stuff in this one, but I'd forgotten the framing device.
So. At the end of Outlander, Claire has saved Jamie from Jack Randall and they've escaped to France. They now have, as it were, dual obligations to the future: Claire is pregnant, and they know that Prince Charles' attempt to take the throne is going to end at Culloden with the slaughter of the clans. Can history be changed? That, as they say, is the question—which they are going to try and answer.
I open up Dragonfly, and we're in Inverness in 1968. Claire is visiting a young scholar, Roger Wakefield, with her daughter, Brianna, who is manifestly not related to Frank (Claire's husband in the 20th century, now deceased) even though she thinks she is. Claire wants to know whether certain men survived Culloden.
I remember now the bewilderment I felt upon reading this for the first time. Claire decided to stay with Jamie in Outlander; what is she doing here with Jamie's child, and what happened to him? A chapter and a half in, Claire tells Roger that Jamie Fraser died on Culloden, and oh did my heart sink.
So, having forgotten that the 20th-century story started up again here, I was initially surprised. As soon as I got past that, though, I remembered why the 20th-century story was there. We know, from just the first chapter, that Culloden happened. Which means a lot of heartache is ahead of us when we get back into the 18th-century part of the story, and a pretty high body count, most likely. But at least the beginning of the book lets us know that at least Claire and Brianna made it out safely. And the end of the book tells us that Jamie is Not Dead after all. The last page, actually—not quite a cliffhanger, but I'm glad I started these after the first three or four were out. (I hope this is not a big surprise to people, since I've said there are more of these.) So it's necessary, though disorienting at first.
(As a side note: I persistently mis-type Jaime for Jamie. I have no idea why, but it's a real pain to make sure I catch all the mis-typings, because it's not an error that stands out well to my eyes. So if I missed one and you're wondering who Jaime is, sorry.)
Read Linda Howard's latest hardcover, Open Season, yesterday. This was fluff and far from her best effort, but still entertaining in a lightweight, don't-think-about-this-too-hard kinda way—except that the last two pages were really, really weird, verging on revoltingly so. Eww.
Completed the re-read of the third of Gabaldon's Outlander series, Voyager. This catches us up on what Jamie and Claire did after they separated, Jamie intending to die on the field of Culloden and Claire going back to the 20th century to bear their child. (I like this bit particularly because we get to see one of my favorite characters, Lord John Grey, at some length).
This volume also includes Claire & Jamie's reunion, which I think is done pretty well. I have a couple of minor quibbles—Jamie gets them all out of trouble one time, and it's never explained how he was able to—but there's a lot of good bits ("Never smile at a crocodile") and I like how the ending comes full circle while being new again.
Since I'm reading pretty slowly because I've been busy with other things, hopefully I'll finish my re-read of the fourth just as Amazon delivers the new volume to my door^Wpost office box . . .
I took the train from Albany to Boston yesterday, which reminded me of this passage from Bill Bryson's I'm a Stranger Here Myself (a.k.a. Notes from a Big Country), about fall in New England:
Forgive me if I seem a tad effusive, but it is impossible to describe a spectacle this grand without babbling. Even the great naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, a man whose prose is so dry you could use it to mop spills, totally lost his head when he tried to convey the wonder of a New England autumn.
. . . Peattie drones on . . . in language that can most generously be called workmanlike . . . but when he at last turns his attention to the New England sugar maple and its vivid autumnal regalia, it is as if someone has spiked his cocoa. In a tumble of breathless metaphors he described the maple's colors as "like the shout of a great army . . . like tongues of flame . . . like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra."
"Yes, Donald," you can just about hear his wife saying, "now take your medication, dear."
Even though towards Albany most of the leaves were off the trees, it was still an astonishingly pretty trip. Further into Massachusetts, more of the trees had their foliage, turning the rolling hills of the Berkshires into beautiful tapestries. The oft-leisurely pace of the train gave me ample time to consider the scenery, while taking breaks from reading Criminal Procedure (hey, I read over 200 pages of my textbook yesterday, my eyes deserved some breaks). I particularly liked the red fire hydrant sitting by all itself in a small grassy clearing in the woods; as best I could tell, the closest house was a quarter-mile away—on a pond. And the rusted farm equipment was more than compensated for by the thirty or so buffalo peacefully grazing in a field . . .
(The train ride itself was surprisingly pleasant, even for me—I usually prefer trains because I can read on them, whereas it's even odds that just looking at a map in a moving car will make me ill. Because, I think, it was continuing from Chicago, there was even more leg room than usual, plus little footrests attached to the back of the seat in front of you and leg rests that flipped up from the edge of the seat bottom; it was basically a reclining chair without the remote control. I particularly liked this because I'm shorter than average and, consequently, most seats are a little longer than is comfortable. There were even curtains on the windows—and free soda and sandwiches. Granted, we were two hours late, but one can't have everything.)
I flipped through the rest of Bryson's book while looking for that quote. There's some good stuff there, but the thing about collections of a weekly newspaper column is, as Bryson notes in the introduction, the column has to be written every week. This often shows. In particular, a few columns have that forced, trying-to-give-Dave-Barry-a-run-for-his-money feel, which doesn't really work for me. A Walk in the Woods remains his best work, which I recommend to everyone.
Horrible insomnia last night, so dug out a brainless comfort book, Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen. This was her first book, which shows in the little awkward fluctuations in narrative voice; it's also firmly within certain subgenres, the confluence of which I am much less sympathetic to these days (namely the abused, completely beaten down child, the hopelessly naive fish out of water, and a girl and her horse). Though it kicks off a trilogy (and then a gazillion-book series), it actually stands fairly well alone, which is good because the next two have gratuitous torture and One True Destined Love angsting, so I shall not re-read those. There is a small comment about Skif that I hadn't noticed before that almost makes me want to read the new book focused on his origins; perhaps the library will have it.
It's hard to convey adequately just how silly Something Fresh, by P.G. Wodehouse, is. Let's try this.
Like many fathers in his rank of life, the Earl of Emsworth had suffered much through that problem which — with the exception of Mr Lloyd George — is practically the only fly in the British aristocratic amber — the problem of What To Do With The Younger Sons. It is useless to try to gloss over the fact, the Younger Son is not required. You might reason with a British peer by the hour — you might point out to him how, in the one hand, he is far better off than the male codfish, who may at any moment find itself in the distressing position of being called on to provide for a family of over a million; and remind him, on the other, that every additional child he acquires means a corresponding rise for him in the estimation of ex-President Roosevelt; but you would not cheer him up in the least. He does not want the Younger Son.
The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion-picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely the more simple and pleasant.
If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:
MR. PETERS DISCOVERS THE LOSS OF THE SCARAB
and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and starting eyes would register first, Discovery; next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.
The printed word demands a greater elaboration.
It was Aline who had to bear the brunt of her father's mental agony when he discovered, shortly after his guest had left him, that the gem of his collection of scarabs had done the same. It is always the innocent bystander who suffers.
[Mr. Peters yells at Aline.]
How pleasant it is, after assisting at a scene of violence and recrimination, to be transferred to one of peace and goodwill. It is with a sense of relief that I find that the snipe-like flight of this story takes us next, far from Mr. Peters and his angry outpourings, to the cosy smoking-room of Blandings Castle. . . .
It doesn't seem as packed with plot as a Bertie/Jeeves novel, but it's extremely entertaining all the same.