Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in the much loved Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It continues to follow the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser as they seek to build their life in the New World. The story also follows the choices of their daughter, Brianna, and her boyfriend Roger as they contend with information learned in the present that could effect the lives of those they love in the past. There is a lot to unpack with this novel and I will try to do so with minimal spoilers.

DrumsofAutumncover

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Setting: North Carolina 1760s, present day Scotland and U.S.
Pages: 880

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in the much loved Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It continues to follow the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser as they seek to build their life in the New World. The story also follows the choices of their daughter, Brianna, and her boyfriend Roger as they contend with information learned in the present that could effect the lives of those they love in the past. There is a lot to unpack with this novel and I will try to do so with minimal spoilers.

Oh boy. Where to begin?

I will start off immediately by stating this is the worst book in the series to date. I will follow up by saying that I really struggle with the fact that most people read the Outlander series uncritically, which is a huge problem, because they are sometimes very problematic books. This latest installment is the most problematic yet.

I loved the first book for the most part. I found the story engaging and the descriptions very well done. Drums of Autumn is similarly filled with a lot of specific and well-written detail, however the story falls flat on its face numerous times. The biggest problem is that Diana Gabaldon unapologetically relies on rape as a plot device. I have a huge problem with this. The way she is constantly using rape to infuse her stories with more drama is tacky and unimaginative. The other problem with this particular novel is that a large portion of the plot revolves around a big misunderstanding. It is absolutely ludicrous, filled with plot holes, and required some very infantile and out of character behavior from some of the series favorite characters in order to unfold.

In general, Claire and Jamie are thrown out of character numerous times throughout the novel. Some of Gabaldon’s biggest apologists call this “character development.” Spoiler alert: it’s not. Jamie Fraser becomes downright abusive at times and that is a progression that is not logical following his character growth in the previous storylines.

*Spoilers*

There is one point where he goes so far as to get in a VERY physical altercation with his pregnant daughter in order to illustrate a point of his?!

*End of Spoilers*

Should you read this novel? It probably isn’t worth your time. Read it if you want to learn about things not to do as a writer. Definitely don’t read it if you are a feminist as there are numerous displays of casual sexism that are NOT just “because of the time period!” I’m also disturbed by the homophobic behavior of the Claire, who is the novel’s main heroine.

I regret these stories more and more because they increase my reticence to dive into the Romance genre further. Send me a comment or message if you think you have a good argument in favor of the genre, or if you have your own thoughts regarding this novel.

In Cold Blood

Genre: True Crime, Nonfiction
Setting: Kansas, late 1950s-1960s
Pages: 343

In Cold Blood is a true crime novel detailing the murder of four members of the Clutter family at their home in rural Kansas, and the ensuing capture, trial, and ultimate execution of their killers.

While reading this novel, I was wrought by many conflicting feelings. As such, I won’t be breaking this review up into my normal sections of “The Good” and “The Bad.”

First of all, this is a true crime novel so the events described occurred, for the most part, even if not always exactly as they are recorded in the book. There is no wondering who committed the crime or if they ended up being apprehended because the events reached their conclusion before the book was written. Personally, I had to contend with the urge to just go on the internet and look up the whole case before finishing the book.  What was the point, then, of turning this story about the brutal murder of a family into a novel, rather than simply a true account? Poetic embellishment of course.

This is where a lot of my issues with this book come from. Truman Capote paints a fairly ordinary portrait of a family who was highly regarded by their community. This can be reasonably believed as an accurate view of the Clutters because Capote interviewed many people from the town who knew them, either intimately or just as a passing acquaintance.

We get a far greater wealth of detail on the two murderers, particularly Perry Smith.

mild spoilers ahead

The reader is given a privileged view into Perry’s innermost thoughts all throughout the novel. Before he commits the crime, later while he is on the run, and then finally when he has been captured and imprisoned on death row. I am very troubled by Capote’s obvious bias towards Perry. He clearly found Perry Smith to be more sympathetic than his companion, and throughout the entire novel the reader is shown thought processes that make him out to be quite a sensitive soul compared to his brutish companion Dick Hickock.

The reality, however, is that Capote could only have made these judgments from his interviews with Perry. He had to take Perry’s word for himself. Between the two criminals, Perry is the one without any friends or family. The harsh reality is, Perry is the one who actually committed all 4 murders. He is the one who shot each member of the Clutter family to death. Given his unpopularity among everyone, including his own family, and the fact that he carried out the murders, I think it is possible that Capote was being emotionally manipulated by Perry Smith. The novel is clearly written to evoke sympathy for Perry, but I truly do not feel he deserves it, and I feel that this cheapens the lives of the innocent people who were murdered by him.

Any story dealing with such grim subject matter is bound to evoke strong negative emotions, however, there are some very worthy aspects of this novel. Truman Capote’s writing style is very good, even if I hesitate to use the word “enjoyable,” in this particular case. I also think he does an admirable job of situating such a horrible event in the greater scheme of life. Despite the senselessness of the crime (it truly was a murder in cold blood), I didn’t finish the novel with the sense of confusion and despair that I felt while reading most of it. His insertion of the opinions of psychoanalysts and his observations on the lives of the people in the town after the capture of the murderers helped me come to peace with the fact that sometimes there simply isn’t a motive or reason for terrible things. Psychological accidents occur, and they are as much a part of the pattern of life as anything else.

I would recommend this book to any curious and bold-hearted readers. 

The House of the Dead

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre: Realism, Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Classic Literature
Setting: Siberia, Russian Federation, 1850s
Pages: 368

The House of the Dead or Notes from the House of the Dead is a semi-autobigraphical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky about life in prison in Siberian Russia. Dostoyevsky tells his story through the eyes of the convict Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to penal labor in Siberia for murdering his wife. The author’s trademarks of deep philosophical musings and his speculations on the psychology of human beings are deeply rooted in this novel and lay the groundwork for future authors, philosophers, and psychologists (the formal study of this last discipline only developed some 20 years after this novel was published!)

The Good: Dostoyevsky was in a situation nearly identical to his narrator’s: a nobleman serving a sentence of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. However, our narrator Aleksandr Petrovich was sentenced for murdering his wife, while Dostoyevsky was imprisoned for political crimes. The authenticity of the novel is its greatest asset as it makes all the different stories and accounts within the narrative all the more gripping. I find Dostoyevsky second to none when it comes to inserting meaningful psychological and philosophical musings within a fictional framework (keeping in mind, of course, that this particular story is very much nonfiction). There is something refreshing and quite rare about an author speaking their own truth in a way that bares their soul. While The House of the Dead isn’t as polished as his later works, it is easy to see how he became an inspiration to so many future authors and philosophers.

One glistening gem in this novel that I found very endearing, was the chapter describing the convicts’ theatrical production during the holidays. I’ve always been a fan of theatre and I have a great affinity for Russian theatre and ballet in particular. Dostoyevsky describes the amateur production in extensive detail, and I admit I was thrilled. In those moments of performance and spectating, the prisoners’ joy was my own.

The Bad: As I mentioned before, the novel is a bit unpolished. The House of the Dead was originally pieced together from a series of different notes and letters Dostoyevsky had wrote about his time in prison, and as such theme drives the narrative rather than a specific storyline. There are an exceeding number of repetitious moments or thoughts. The narrator also offers a few contradictory points of view on certain subjects, but this I attribute to the emotional nature of documenting such an experience, and the varying states of mind the author must have inhabited as he wrote the novel.

*A Special Note on the Text*: This story was written quite a long time ago. Knowledge on various topics has evolved since then, including our attitudes and opinions on these topics. It is important not to reject the worth of an entire novel over a few problematic elements. In order to understand this novel, the reader most endeavor to understand the time and place it was written and strive to their fullest extent to place themselves in the position of the narrator. Most obvious and frequent among the outdated ideas is Dostoyevsky’s apparent subscription to Physiognomy. Although it is never named or explicitly described in the novel, it is obvious that he judges people’s characters largely and immediately based on their physical appearance. Approach this novel with empathy and patience and you will not be disappointed.

Hild

Genre: Historical, Medieval Fiction
Setting: 7th century Britain, Anglo-Saxon England
Pages: 536

Hild is Nicola Griffith’s astounding imagining of the origin of the historical and religious figure, St. Hilda of Whitby. When Hild is just 3, her father who is an aetheling (prince) is poisoned. As a result, Hild and her mother Breguswith join her uncle Edwin’s court to gain protection and influence. Shortly afterward, Hild becomes the King’s seer and must help Edwin navigate through political struggles on his path as overking of the Angles. This is a story about the bright mind of a young girl and the struggles and triumphs of the people of early Medieval Britain.

The Good: Nicola Griffith has done a masterful job of crafting a beautiful and intensely detailed story out of characters and events with a limited historical record. Names, titles, and practices of 7th century Britain can seem foreign and obscure, but the way Griffith weaves in the daily and seasonal routines of her characters ultimately reminds the reader of how utterly human these people were. When the machinations of various political and religious figures threaten to overwhelm, Griffith paints a scene of a moment in nature or inserts an observation through Hild about the various habits of birds that remain true today, giving her narrative a firm grounding in the human understanding of the patterns of life. This is an admirable and effective way to draw the reader into the lives of a group of people who remain so separated from modern readers by time and circumstance that they could potentially be unfamiliar enough to be unimportant.

The Bad: Hild is a densely packed novel. Its seems twice as long as its 536 pages, and this is coming from a voracious reader. As always this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could turn some readers off to the novel. Historical details can become a little convoluted, especially because most readers will not be very familiar with this time period. The detailed descriptions of everyday chores and tasks might not be every person’s cup of tea, but for my own part I felt that these descriptions of daily life added to the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Little Tidbit: Apparently this is going to end up being the first novel in a series. I will definitely be reading the next book when it comes out.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

The-Gunslinger

Genre: Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror(ish)
Setting: Alternate Universe, no specified time or place, landscapes similar to the American West
Pages: 231

The first time I attempted to read the first title in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series I was probably 11 or 12 years old, which was way too young to tackle this novel by all accounts. Reading The Gunslinger again at 24 gave me a greater appreciation for it, but parts of the book remain obscure. When reading this review, keep in mind the Dark Tower ended up being an 8 book series and as of writing this I only have knowledge of the elements of the series that are contained in the first book.

The Gunslinger follows the path of Roland Deschain–a man who is the last of his order–across desert and through mountain, on his journey to find and capture the Man in Black and in so doing gain more information that will help him in his overarching search for the Dark Tower. The novel sustains a dreamy and mystical quality throughout mixed with a gritty realism that it gains from the tropes it pulls from the American Western.

I’m going to deviate momentarily from my typical review routine of breaking the novel down into “the Good” and “the Bad,” simply because this book was such a mixed bag for me it is difficult to separate its positive and negative elements so categorically. The world-building is pretty murky to start off with. First of all, Roland’s world at times seems to be our world after some sort of apocalyptic event, or perhaps just after an inordinately long passage of time, but peppered with some obvious fantasy features that don’t exist in our reality. This opinion is formed by in-world references to things that exist in our universe, such as the song “Hey Jude” and the occasional appearance of technologies such as railcars that have since become obsolete in The Gunslinger but are familiar to readers if not always to Roland.This gets muddied even further, however, when Roland hypnotizes the young boy, Jake, who accompanies him throughout part of his journey. In Jake’s memories the reader is given a glimpse of what is apparently real world Manhattan, but Roland doesn’t recognize this world. Again, I will reserve final judgement over this confusing concept of setting because it’s entirely possible the issue will be cleared up in one of the subsequent novels in the series. It is also worth mentioning here that all of Stephen King’s novels apparently occur in one overarching universe that he has created, but given the depth of his oeuvre I don’t care to resolve that issue in my understanding completely. At least not yet.

Another issue for me is that there are some very abstract moments in the novel that are convoluted and confusing rather than artful. They don’t distinguish themselves with a purpose, so much as they drag in their obscurity. I won’t speak too much more on this because I don’t wish to offend people who are in love with the series, and it’s worth noting some readers consider the Dark Tower series one of the pinnacles of fantasy literature.

There are a couple things I was grateful for in reading The Gunslinger. First of all, there wasn’t too much weird sex stuff. This might seem like a ridiculous statement to anyone who isn’t accustomed to reading Stephen King, but if you have read even one of his novels, chances are….you get me. I am never of a fan of the sexual situations that King dreams up because they are always awkward, often disturbing, and sometimes don’t do anything to serve the story in any way. Bizarre sexual encounters aren’t completely nonexistent in The Gunslinger, but thankfully, they were kept to a minimum.

The second thing I appreciated was the conversation between Roland and the Man in Black. I enjoyed the Man in Black’s way of speaking. In a book that was occasionally mired in abstraction, the Man in Black had a lovely way of waxing philosophical with surprising clarity and simplicity. King introduces some deeply metaphysical themes in this conversation between his hero and antagonist and despite the weighty concepts, it is probably one of the most easily understood parts of the entire novel, and it serves to put Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower into better perspective.  For me this conversation was redemption for the rest of the novel and I will definitely end up reading the second title in the Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three. If nothing else The Gunslinger peaked my curiosity, and while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea, I can definitely see this being a worthwhile read for lovers of science fiction and fantasy.