Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lord John and the Private Matter, by Diana Gabaldon

Okay, I admit it. Once I find an author I like, I read a lot of his/her work. Right now, I am immersed in the 18th century of Gabaldon's books. This is the first of a few books--maybe three?--featuring Lord John Grey, who is a minor and recurrent character in the Outlander series.

Unlike that series, however, these books are quite short--Private Matter taking only about 300 pages. It is also more straightforwardly a mystery--a death, a dilemma, an investigation, and a resolution.

Lord John is an aristocrat, the second son of naable, and thus left with a courtesy title, family connections, and the obligation of finding his own way through life. He is a soldier, and we first met him in Dragonfly in Amber just prior to the Battle of Culloden which climaxes that book. His Outlander history informs this book as well, but it is not strictly necessary to have read all those mighty works to enjoy this one.

The time is 1750-something, and Lord John is living in London. He remains discretely homosexual, and conflicted about it. While using the privy facilities at his London club, he notices a lesion on the private part of Lord Trevelyan, a rich and powerful man who is engaged to marry Grey's cousin. It appears to be the pox--syphilis.

Naturally, Grey cannot allow the marriage to take place and doom his cousin, but there is not much he can do to end the engagement without sacrificing his cousin's reputation.

Soon after, a dead body turns up, Grey is assigned to investigate, as the victim was a soldier. Clue leads to clue, implicating Lord Trevelyan in a number of potential scandals. THe mystery is solved, after encounters with all levels of society. Most interesting is Gabaldon's venture into the homosexual community of 18th century London. "Molly walks" is the phrase that describes the parks and streets where men would meet, dressed extravagantly, often masked, even posing as women. Curiously enough, Gabaldon's reseach turned up the tidbit that the phrase "Miss Thing" dates back at least 200 years.

This was an absorbing read, and I would definitely pick up the next in the series.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon (continued)

I have now listened to the first three books in this series: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager. These novels don't get any shorter--Gabaldon (pronounced "gabbled-on," ironically enough) packs a lot of pages between her covers. Sadly, they also don't get better.

Outlander was itself an oddity--several hundred pages before we get to anything resembling an actual plot. Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former combat nurse on her second honeymoon in Scotland, stumbles through some standing stones, and finds herself back in 1742. The book wanders through a number of incidents, a cultural tour of 18th century Scottish highlands--clan allegiances, feudal government, hunting, dietary habits, medical knowledge, what Scotsmen wear under their kilts. In the best romance novel tradition, there is a forced marriage for ostensibly "practical" reasons, a villain who threatens the heroine, and some historical events. There is a fair share of unbelievable events--Claire bluffs her way into a heavily fortified prison, finds her imprisoned husband, kills a wolf with her bare hands, storms the prison with a herd of kine and frees her husband and several dozen other prisoners.

Okay, it's not believable, but there is some point where you must say "I can suspend disbelief, but not that much." The second book finds our heroes in France, trying to prevent Bonnie Prince Charlie from attempting to reclaim a Stuart crown and thus avert the devastating Battle of Culloden and the subsequent brutal destruction of the people and crops of the Highlands. Okay, but can I really believe that a Scottish farmer, son of an illegitimate son, an outlaw wanted for murder--can really just land in Paris and personally befriend all the luminaries of that age? Why would Bonnie Prince Charlie make such a man a close personal friend?

And how is it that everybody is forever dying of a single gunshot wound, or a single sword fight, while Our Hero suffers unimaginable injury and is rarely even slowed down? In Outlander, Jamie Fraser is subjected to unimaginable savagery while in prison, and it takes him months to recover, both physically and mentally. As the series goes on, however, he loses this vulnerability and devolves into a less interesting, more "typical" romantic hero. He has many long and involved adventures, at the cost of losing his vulnerability.

I think it is that vulnerability that makes the first book so much more interesting. Jamie is a powerful man, but he is also rather young and unworldly. Claire is older than he, and has the dubious advantage of knowing how history comes out, but she is also completely unfamiliar with how to live as an 18th century highlander. The two of them complement each other, and their weaknesses give one just enough doubt about how well things will turn out. Of course, we know Jamie doesn’t die at the end of Outlander, as there would not be any more books. However the cost to him of what has happened is real and painful.

By Voyager, however, he has become more or less invulnerable, and possessed of a bizarre knowledge of the customs and geography of the Caribbean. I’m not sure what in his Scottish military training taught him all about navigation in the Western Hemisphere, but he is never at a loss about what to do or how get what he wants. Which results in a much less interesting character, and the odd authorial problem of having to separate the two, because as soon as Claire finds Jamie, he solves whatever jam she is in.

Will I continue the series? Well, even in the absence of a story or character arc, the stories are rather beguiling. And frankly, I must admit to being a wee bit addicted to the Scottish brogue being whispered into my ear. So, as a unbeatable audio bargain, measures as words per dollar, I will probably download some others of this series.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Great Idea for Book Clubs

This is clever--The St. Paul library now has "Book Club in a Bag." There are 25 titles to choose from, and you literally check out a bag for the book club. There are 10 copies of a single title, a six week long check out period, even discussion questions and background materials.

At the very least, it gives you a list of books to consider for your next meeting!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

Apparently, this book kick started a genre called "time-traveling romance novels." Gabaldon decided she wanted to write a novel, and somewhat arbitrarily chose 18th century Scotland as her location. One of her characters, however, didn't behave like an 18th century lady. Instead she stomped around refusing to be left behind when anything interesting happened, swearing like the 20th century emancipated female she was. With a character this vivid, Gabaldon had to explain her presence, and thus a new genre was born.

In brief, Claire Randall has finally rejoined her husband Frank at the end of World War II. Claire has been serving as a military nurse, and Frank had also been in service. After six years of separation, they are finally coming together, and have a second honeymoon in Scotland. While exploring an ancient stone circle, she slips into a crack in the stone and finds herself back 200 years.

The first person she meets is Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of her husbands and a vicious English officer battling uppity Scots. She is soon discovered by a small party of MacKenzies, and taken to their castle stronghold. For plot related reasons, she finds herself forced to marry one of the clansman, a tall redhead named Jamie Fraser, and the book chronicles her life trying to adjust to 18th century life while trying to get back to her own time.

Life in the Scottish Highlands is depicted as incredibly physical. Clans raid each others' territories, stealing cattle and provoking fights. The men are portrayed as intensely loyal to their clan, and deeply concerned with their honor, which means they end up fighting each others' enemies and sleeping on the run quite a bit.

Jamie Fraser has been labeled an outlaw, and so cannot return to his home or be picked up by the English. Unfortunately, he is betrayed, and turned over to Black Jack Randall for a scene of rather gruesome torture and a rather fantastical rescue mission that frees Jamie from prison.
Claire and Jamie end up in France as he heals, and the story ends as they ponder where they should go.

At heart, this is a classic romance novel--Gabaldon dispenses with some of the standard cliches, but retains the basic plot arc: two people forced together by circumstances come to love each other and in the end chose to stay. Layered over this is interesting Scottish history and landscape writing, but the plot is meandering to say the least. It works well if you are content with diverting storytelling with no appreciable narrative drive, and have the free time to enjoy the wandering.

I have been listening to this as an audiobook, which has the advantage of letting me bypass the written Scottish accents and just listen to the rolling vowels. The performer, Davina Porter, trips across the Gaelic words, which makes the whole book easier to slip into because I was not constantly tripping over words that had no vowels and a lot of extra consonants.

It is a monster of a book--nearly 34 hours of narration, which is certainly value for the money, but perhaps a bit disruptive to normal daily life--it was hard to me to discard my earbuds to actually talk to my family while listening, and I find the sounds of Porter's Scottish accents echo in my ears.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd probably rate this book about a 6, but that doesn't explain quite why I've already downloaded the next two volumes onto my iPod, and why I brought the companion book home from the library.