The Tobacconist

Genre: Historical Fiction, German Lit
Setting: Vienna, Austria 1937-1938
Pages: 234

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (originally published in German as Der Trafikant) is a story about a young man named Franz Huchel, who travels from his idyllic homeland in the Salzkammergut in Austria to Vienna to go to work for a tobacconist. It is set shortly before the start of the Second World War and as the story unfolds we witness the increasing furor that accompanies the Nazi’s rise to power, alongside Franz’s coming of age. The latter entails him falling in love with a girl, having long conversations with renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and learning some hard truths about the cruel and often confusing aspects of human nature.

I’ll start by saying I wish I had read this when I was much younger. Although I am only 25, I am sure I would have found this story much more profound and interesting when I was 16 or 17, closer to Franz’s age. The book starts out promising. Its comedic undertones and description of character and setting give it a tonal quality similar to Wes Anderson’s films. Unfortunately, the young Franz is occasionally tiresome to read about. His obsession over his crush Anezka, and his classic male feeling of entitlement to her and her body are beyond irritating. He is a naive character and at times that naivety is endearing, but in this particular aspect, and in our current zeitgeist, its a tiresome trope to be confronted with. Having said that, Anezka seemed like a far more interesting and more real character. I probably would have been more attached to this story had the author taken attempts to develop her character more.

That isn’t to say the story doesn’t have value. There are plenty of novels set during this time period, but this book carves out a special niche for itself by painting the times through the eyes of a young protagonist who hasn’t yet decided where his allegiances lie, or who has even fully developed an understanding of the need to pick a side. As illustrated by the mistreatment and arrest of Franz’s employer, the few people who try to rise against the tide are crushed. By the time Professor Sigmund Freud is forced to leave his homeland as a very old man because he is Jewish and Vienna is no longer safe, Franz has become a man who knows, if not what he stands for, at least what he stands against. It is an interesting portrait of what it means to show bravery, honor, and steadfastness as a tiny force against a seemingly insurmountable one.

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.

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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.

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 Anatomist’s Wife

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Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Setting: 1830s, Scottish Highlands
Pages: 357

After reading Faulkner’s Light in August, I needed to relax with a book that was easy reading and had a lighter tone, so I picked up The Anatomist’s Wife. To what extent a murder mystery can (or should) be used to decompress is arguable, I suppose. Nevertheless, Anna Lee Huber’s first novel in her Lady Darby series did much to ease my mind, providing a very enjoyable read, and I’m excited to continue the series.

The Anatomist’s Wife is told from the POV of a female member of the Scottish nobility, Lady Kiera Darby. Lady Darby has a dark backstory, having worked as an illustrator for her deceased husband while he performed surgical autopsies (a practice still very much taboo at the time). Therefore, when a female houseguest is murdered at her sister’s estate suspicion falls on her. Lady Darby has to work cleverly and covertly alongside fellow houseguest Sebastion Gage to determine who among the remaining guests is the murderer, before the procurator fiscal arrives.

The Good: I loved the setting of a castle in the Scottish Highlands. If you are a fan of the Outlander series this might be a book for you. I also found the narrator, Lady Keira Darby, to be a compelling character. She is smart and independent and the darkness in her past makes her a sympathetic character. There were moments I was worried she would be the type of woman who was perfect in her imperfections, and all other female characters would be cast aside as deeply flawed creatures with no redeeming qualities in a move to further bolster Lady Darby’s position as heroine. This is a trap that the Outlander series falls into at times, and I was worried based off the early character portraits sketched from Lady Darby’s POV (a bit of a pun, as Lady Darby is an artist who excels in painted portraits) that this was how the story was going to play out. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case. First of all, Keira Darby seems to view the men in the story equally as disdainfully as she views women. Secondly, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that her outlook is built upon the treatment she has received from upper class society following her husband’s death. Thirdly, her interactions and thought processes regarding specific female characters evolve in such a way that, at times, the novel seems to be a poignant critique of various toxic societal norms and conventions and a conscious rebuff of the manifestations of internalized misogyny.

The Bad: The plot is pretty predictable, which isn’t too much of a problem if, like me, you appreciate the effect of good storytelling. It didn’t matter to me that I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer because Huber’s writing is smooth and lovely, and I enjoy watching the unique ways authors choose to craft their stories and reach their endings. The only other complaint I have was that after interviewing each suspect, Lady Darby immediately expressed her doubt as to whether the character was capable of murder. This is the primary reason for the relatively predictable ending, considering Lady Darby does not come off as an unreliable narrator.