Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2), by Diana Gabaldon 

Five stars (of five)

Gabaldon returns to the OUTLANDER series with another stellar piece of historical fiction. The story open in modern day, 1968, much to the confusion and chagrin of the reader. Claire finds herself in the Scottish Highlands, but is not alone. Alongside her is the copper-haired Brianna Randall, her twenty-year old daughter. Working with Oxford historian, Roger Wakefield (the attentive reader will remember him from the opening section of Outlander), Claire and Brianna continue the research of the recently deceased Frank Randall who sought to flesh out his family tree.To lessen the time segue awkwardness, Gabaldon briefly addresses some of the commentary related to Claire’s ‘disappearance’ from 1945-48, but does not delve into too much detail at this point. Both Roger and Brianna notice Claire’s significant interest in the second Jacobite uprising, more than any amateur historian might logically possess. An internal debate raging, Claire confides in them both and reveals much of what she did during her ‘time away’ and how it relates to the Scottish Highlands. Gabaldon allows Claire to drop some bombs and leave Brianna staggering. Gabaldon takes this dramatic pause to shift the story back to the 1740s, where Outlander ended and the reader is ready to continue the tale. Claire is alive and well with Jamie, the Scottish sentiment growing in support of the Jacobite cause. Hidden away in France, Claire and Jamie gather support for the cause, communicating in cipher whenever possible with fellow supporters of Bonnie Prince Charles. Claire’s medical knowledge is pushed to its limits, as she works with what she has on hand to help those in need especially when the battles begin and the casualties mount. Claire also grapples with carrying Jamie’s child, an excitement for them both as they connect on deeper levels. New characters emerge and friendships are forged, some of whom will play key roles in the story’s many twists. Jamie and Claire cross paths with ‘Black Jack’ Randall repeatedly, well known to the reader. These encounters play a pivotal role in how Claire wrestles with her ‘modern life’ and love for Frank. History may be set, but Claire and Jamie discover that it is pliable in the moment. The foreknowledge of what is to come guides them both, while immediate circumstances open new and time-altering possible solutions. With the outcome of the Jacobite uprising a foregone conclusion, Claire and Jamie might face difficult choices related to their love and how to protect Claire from the coming danger. Gabaldon addresses these tough choices and offers the reader a final glimpse into modern-day Scotland, where new and heart-stopping revelations shake Roger and Claire to their cores. Another great work by Gabaldon that leaves the reader begging for more (thankfully we know how much awaits), as Jamie and Claire continue to create a life together.

Gabaldon’s attention to detail adds another layer of wonder to this novel. Juxtaposing 1968 goings-on with the denouement of activities in 1745-48, the reader sees how these two worlds feed off one another. Documented fact plays an interesting role as history acts as narrator, but it pales in comparison to the daily development of life, perhaps too minuscule or mundane to address in academic tomes. Gabaldon effectively argues these points and more as she illustrates a detailed account of Claire and Jamie’s lives together and individually. Bending history’s one rule, that it accounts for the master narrative, plays a stronger role in his novel than the last, though hints of more to come leaves the reader to wonder how far from the mainstream path Gabaldon intends to take the reader. Let the series expand from here in whatever way suits the larger story.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for another wonderful novel, rich with detail and filled with character development. I look forward to the rest of the story, as long as it might take to reveal itself.

The Edge of Madness (Harry Smith #2), by Michael Dobbs

Three stars (of five)

Dobbs thrusts Harry Smith back into the fray with another high-octane thriller, filled with politics and intrigue. As the world rests on its laurels, deep within the upper echelon of the Chinese Government a war is in the making. There are no missiles, no guns, and certainly no bombs. Even without active hostages, everyone is at risk; it’s a cyber-war. Deep in a Scottish castle, and under a veil of extreme secrecy, the British Prime Minister hosts the US and Russian presidents; a veritable 21st century Potsdam Conference. Trying to determine how to stop a cyber-attack by China, in which everyone is vulnerable because of world reliance on technology, remains at the forefront of the discussion. Each leader has a trusted deputy with them, Harry Smith acting in such a capacity for the PM. When outward acts of violence and military build-up begin appearing on television, the three leaders know they must do something, but remain unsure how to strike at the core and ensure they are successful. As they ponder, a nuclear reactor within the UK is about to make Chernobyl pale in comparison. In these new-age wars, little can be done to stop the aggressors, whose religion is silicon-based with followers facing towards the motherboard.

Dobbs’ idea is quite good, as the world still simmers from the ongoing wars with excessive price tags. As the world becomes even more reliant on electronics, it is no stretch to think that those who control the cyber world would have the upper hand. That being said, the approach and delivery of the book leave much to be desired. The characters, with all their political might, seem neutered of any abilities, almost damsels in distress. Even the conversations and plotting seems watered-down and less than believable. The ending not only does a 180 in a matter of pages, but lessens the impact the entire novel built towards. I can only hope that such an approach can be revised by others (or Dobbs) down the road, giving the plot and characters the teeth they so badly need. One interesting side story, though only two books into the series, Dobbs’s desire to personalise Queen Elizabeth II is highly humourous. While many see her as a detached monarch, Dobbs paints her in such a way as to be highly compassionate and opinionated. One can only wonder if he has a fan base within Buckingham Palace for this portrayal.

Kudos, Mr. Dobbs for this curious story. I was hooked and intrigued by the theme, but hoped for some stronger character support throughout.

Outlander (Outlander #1), by Diana Gabaldon

Five stars (of five)

Outlander provides the reader with an intimate view of the early journeys of Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, sure to be highly energetic and heart-wrenching, all created from the stellar mind of Diana Gabaldon. Claire and Frank Randall begin the tale on their honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands, during the latter part of 1945. Together, they explore the countryside and use free time to hone Frank’s amateur genealogy skills, as he searches for the stories of his numerous ancestors in the region. While out and about on her own, Claire ‘falls through’ a collection of stones and finds herself tossed into the middle of a struggle between British Red Coats and Scottish outlaws. It is only after she’s taken in by Clan MacKenzie that Claire learns that she’s actually travelled through time back to the 1740s. Claire’s nursing skills prove useful, but raise many questions within the Clan and those in surrounding areas, none more than fellow clan adoptee, Jamie Fraser. He remains on the lam from the Reed Coats and Captain Jonathan Randall, his arch-nemesis. This revelation stuns Claire, as Randall is Frank’s six-time great-grandfather and has crossed paths with her early on during her time after the ‘cross-over’. While Claire is an Outlander, or Sassenach in the Gaelic tongue, she  soon forges a relationship with Jamie. Their interest is briefly platonic but quickly blossoms into more and eventually they are bound to one another, for the safety of both parties. It is only at this point that the spark between them ignites and the story moves into its duel purpose narrative; to show the historical differences Claire faces and build the passion between the two main characters, both of which Gabaldon does effectively. As Claire travels and forges a life with the Clan (and Jamie), she learns that her fate as it relates to a twentieth-century life is anything but certain. The connection with Jamie is undeniable and their passion soon spills over onto the page, where love and lust co-mingle with survival and personal growth. Can Claire not only survive two centuries before she’s to be born, but also keep herself alive with all the medicinal knowledge she possesses? Gabaldon lays out an extremely powerful openly volume in what seeks to be an epic collection. A must-read for history lovers who can handle a lot of passionate descriptors of personal growth (pardon the pun).

Any sensible reader would take a look at this book alone and steer clear of beginning the Outlander series. However, with some Gabaldon experience, I can assert that while the novel (and its subsequent volumes) is massive, the story plays out both as a large themed work and a collection of vignettes or personal encounters both Jamie and Claire have with a number of different characters. The attentive reader can tackle the smaller occurrences and then weave them into the larger narrative. This fosters a better understanding of how Claire and Jamie portray themselves as characters and theme-builders. With a number of other characters peppered throughout, the story builds momentum without ceasing as each page passes, leaving the reader enmeshed in the middle of this wonderful story, which has only just begun developing itself. Patience is in order for any reader, like me, who wishes to scale the mountainous collection, but it is that perseverance that makes it all worthwhile.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for opening my eyes and mind to such a wonderful idea. Let us continue this epic journey and see what you have in store, with the sturdy foundations laid.

14th Deadly Sin (Women’s Murer Club #14), by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Four stars (of five)

The annual Women’s Murder Club (WMC) submission is here and does not disappoint! A number of cheque-cashing establishments have been held up and bodies are piling up, as the crew makes off with large sums of money. The perps are not identifiable, save for SFPD windbreakers, but this does not mean anything definitive. Could this be an inside job or is someone impersonating the police, adding a chill factor to an already problematic investigation? While at their weekly WMC gathering, Lindsay Boxer tries to make sense of these robberies with a homicidal streak, and is called away to the scene of a random crime; a woman is stabbed in a crosswalk with no forensics to tie anyone to the murder. Boxer confides in a close contact to help, when it is brought to her attention that there are a string of unsolved murders on the same date, every year. The Windbreaker investigation becomes more complex as a drug den is struck and millions in money and narcotics are taken. Should that not be enough, WMC member Yuki has left the DA’s office to pursue a job with the Defence League, helping those less fortunate against the city’s Goliath legal ways. A teen with questionable intelligence may have killed a number of drug dealers before he’s killed himself while behind bars. With seemingly loose threads blowing in the wind, the cases always fall together and force a monumental ending that impresses the attentive reader. Patterson and Paetro weave a wonderful tale together, sure to keep series fans breathing a sigh of relief, with a substantial cliffhanger to tide them over for another year.

Patterson’s writing does, as my past reviews show, ebb and flow, depending on the content. While WMC novels are normally well written, there have been some duds in the mix. Some might say that fourteen novels is well-past a series’ expiry date, but there is something that keeps them fresh, be it the sub-plots or the short time between novels, or even the ever-evolving development characters undergo. With short chapters and interesting storylines, readers will likely breeze through this and hope for more. Alas, a year is the usual wait time for instalments. That said, if Patterson and his flock of co-authors could work on a CROSS-BENNETT-BOXER trifecta, we’d be in business and bring some of his best characters together.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Paetro for a great novel that keeps the reader hooked until the final sentence, which is an invitation to more questions.

Virgins (Outlander #0.5), a novella by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

I have taken the (un)enviable task of embarking on a long and winding literary journey  over the next few months. Although I’ve read most of the Diana Gabaldon material previously, slowly and methodically, I thought it best to re-read both the Outlander and Lord John series, in chronological rather than publication order. I want the full Jamie Fraser/Claire Randall experience, peppered with Lord John Grey and all the nuances found therein. Additionally, as a captive fan of the series currently airing on television, I want to catch some of the crumbs I may have missed and, reading the entire series back-to-back-to-back etc, I will latch onto some of the smaller characters as they reappear from one book to the next. I have done this (complete series reading in a consecutive fashion) with other collections and find it quite enjoyable. Looking at the size of the work at hand, over 13 412 pages (yes, I counted!), I will have my work cut out for me. However, I am ready. Bring it on my friends.

To begin my journey, I chose VIRGINS, a novella penned by Gabaldon years after she made Jamie Fraser a successful protagonist in the Outlander series. In it, Fraser and his friend, Ian Duncan, embark on the life of young mercenaries, well away from Scotland. It’s 1740 and the boys, aged nineteen and twenty respectfully, find themselves out in the world, experiencing all that it has to offer. While Duncan sees that his friend is holding onto a secret, nothing prepares him when he learns the truth. Captain Jack Randall came to Lallybroch and embarrassed Fraser, along with his entire family, leaving Jamie banished from his own estate. Jamie uses the attack and belittling to fuel his fire to become a man in a hard-knock world. Along the way, Jame and Ian learn about fighting, sex, and what it means to be independent, all while crossing paths with many a clan unlike themselves. These ‘life virgins’ soon learn the ways of the world while vowing to protect one another. The novella opens the door to what is sure to be a wonderful series, at least for Jamie, as he hones his skills and returns to face Randall in the years to come. The awkwardness that he will encounter (as Outlander fans know all too well) should make for an ever-changing flood of sentiment in the man’s brain…but we have many many pages to learn all about that.

Let us begin this epic journey through the 18th century and the life of one Jamie Fraser, as we see who and what crosses his path, as well as learning about the sordid affairs that have helped shape him into the man he becomes.