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 a Dark, Dark Wood

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Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
Setting: Present day northern England
Pages: 352

In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel of Ruth Ware. The story follows narrator Leonora Shaw (or Nora or Lee) as she is invited to her high school friend, Clare Cavendish’s, Bachelorette party. The Hen party is hosted by Clare’s neurotic friend Flo, in a glass house couched in a remote forest location in northern England. Nora hasn’t spoken to Clare in 10 years, and throughout the weekend she is forced to come to terms with traumatic events from her past all while navigating the bizarre and potentially dangerous scenario the Hen party has created in the present.

The Good: The structure that Ruth Ware creates for the first three quarters of the novel, alternating between scenes of the present moment in the hospital and flashbacks to the weekend spent at the glass house, does an excellent job of propelling the narrative forward and creating a high level of suspense. I didn’t find the novel to be scary as some people did, but there are definitely moments of high tension giving In a Dark, Dark Wood a well earned place among the thriller genre. The book is very fast paced and I found myself flying through it in a day. This should make it particularly attractive to those who don’t have much time, or have trouble motivating themselves to buckle down and finish a novel.

The Bad: At the risk of seeming ungenerous, this section is going to be a bit bulkier than “The Good.” My first problem comes from the narrator. Other reviewers have mentioned that she is a very unreliable narrator, however, I do not have a problem with this as such. I think the situation with her having various nicknames (Leonora, Nora, Lee, Leo) was a bit over the top. The constant fixation on her name was superfluous and while it did have relevance to the plot, I think Ware was beginning to beat a dead horse. Then, there is the matter of the Hen party guests. Every single one of these characters was a caricature. They were shallow, with nothing much to them beyond surface level. This made some of the dialogue painful to read, not because Ruth Ware has a poor writing style, but because she needs to take more time fleshing out her characters. As a result, the plot was relatively predictable for me. The whole premise, motive, and action that unfolded the drama was, as others have noted, a bit dubious, but it was original, so I am willing to forgive the slightly fantastic nature of the narrative’s events.

Overall, I would say Ruth Ware does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful atmosphere, but she needs to add more substance to her plot and her characters.

The House of the Dead

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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.