The Fiery Cross (Outlander #5), by Diana Gabaldon

Five stars (of five)

Gabaldon invests much time and descriptive effort in this novel, which ties off many threads left dangling in DRUMS and introduces the reader to a plethora of new characters. The novel continues where DRUMS ended, at a a gathering of some of the Scottish colonial settlers. Brianna and Roger are set to marry and have their son, Jemmy, baptised. When a proclamation arrives from the Governor of North Carolina, everyone is put on notice that rebellion will not be tolerated against the British King. While local sheriffs wreak havoc on the matrimonial plans, those within the group are able to make some alternate arrangements, just as a missive arrives for Jamie. The Governor has tasked him to create a militia to quell dissent in the Colony, less a request than a directive. As everyone returns to Fraser’s Ridge, Jamie begins making the necessary arrangements. An eventual battle ensues, pitting the militia against a group of Regulators, bound to fight against Britain’s continued rule in the area. Roger becomes embroiled in events and suffers greatly for it, which draws the Frasers in closer to him, showing their familial strength. Brianna and Roger must also struggle with everything that relates to Jemmy and their larger relationship. Gabaldon shifts the romantic and relationship focus to the next generation of characters, putting Brianna, Roger, and Stephen Bonnet into a veritable parental triangle, as Roger struggles with Jemmy’s potential parentage, going so far as to learn a little genetics from Claire to understand implications. Roger and Brianna must wrestle with much of the same issues Claire and Frank did years ago. Where Gabaldon left much of the awkwardness of the Claire-Frank-Jamie triangle to small crumbs in VOYAGER, a thorough exploration takes place herein, with some interesting insight to enlighten the reader. Claire’s knowledge of history can be both a blessing and curse, as she watches Jamie prepare for the early stages of the War of Independence, sure to divide the colony and keep everyone on their toes. As old enemies return to tie off their storylines from novels past and new foes begin to lay roots for long-standing hatred, Jamie and his family grow closer through peril and tragedy, exemplifying that the family fabric can withstand much strain. With ghost bears and wild boars, snake bites and attempted executions, war drums and Scottish folk songs, the novel offers many a vignette to educate and entertain. Told in a way only Gabaldon could, the reader is in for a long and twisted story, but never left to drift too far off the beaten path.

Some have commented that this book was a turning point in the Outlander series, as it dragged on and began to derail the built momentum. To those readers, I would acknowledge the freedom of expression, but also remind this posse that this is not a series for the feint of heart or easily bored. Much of Gabaldon’s content does play a key role in later missives, as the reader will have discovered in this novel. While seemingly minor topics appear in the narrative, they become central with the reemergence of characters, or new spins on their placement in the larger narrative. There were sections of the book that did take up much space and might have been trimmed or edited out, but something tells me there is a reason for their inclusion and the reader can skim all they like, hoping a re-read is not necessary at a later point. That said, this being a re-read for me, I took away so much more than I had the first time around. The story’s underlying history begins its necessary heating up and will only get stronger and more interesting as the series progresses. Gabaldon, like perhaps George RR Martin, can see the mighty forest for the acorns currently scattered on the ground, and for that we owe her the true benefit of the doubt. She’s shown that she is in control and trust has long-since been earned.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, for pressing on with your longest novel to date. Its content, though dense for some, proves highly attractive for the Outlander obsessed. 

Stolen Lives (Jade de Jong #2), by Jassy Mackenzie

Four stars (of five)

After enjoying her first novel, I dove right in to try another Mackenzie police procedural. Jade de Jong assumes the role of bodyguard to Pamela Jordaan, a job that seems simple enough. Pamela’s husband, Terence, is missing without a trace and for unknown reasons. However, Jade soon discovers that there is more to this job, as someone makes an attempt on Pamela’s life within the first few hours. Pamela’s daughter, Tasmin soon goes missing as well, leaving Jade to wonder if there is a larger issue at play. Turning to Superintendent David Patel, Jade opens an investigation of her own to keep Pamela out of harm’s way. Patel begins working with Jade on the seedier side of the exotic dancer business, where the Jordaan’s make most of their money. When detectives at Scotland Yard place a call to Patel, informing him that Johannesburg is home to a large human trafficking ring, with ties to the UK, the investigation takes a darker turn. This ring may relate to some of the Jordaan issues, as well as corruption within Home Affairs, where Patel’s wife hold a powerful position, overseeing the granting of passport and identification books to all South Africans. The entire situation is plagued by the kidnapping of young Kevin Patel, forcing both parents to flex their respective muscle to ensure the traffickers get what they need to ensure Kevin’s release. As Jade digs deeper, she realises that everything is interconnected, including her feelings for David. How will she handle her job, her personal life, and knowing that she may lose both if she cannot remain professional? Mackenzie returns with another riveting story and drops a bomb on Jade in the closing chapters, sure to keep the reader spellbound and our protagonist gasping for breath.

I find the entire package that Mackenzie offers up to be highly intriguing and thought-provoking. While her opening novel addressed South Africa as a country trying to dig out from under apartheid, this one addresses the bureaucratic corruption within Home Affairs that facilitates false documentation for those with the means to buy it. Mackenzie argues that South Africa remains a target for criminals and that its bureaucracy works on bribes to grease the proverbial wheel. Telling a political, personal, and rime-based story all at once takes talent, something Mackenzie has in spades.

Kudos, Madam Mackenzie for this wonderful novel. I continue to marvel at your abilities and hope things continue to lure me in as you have up to now.

Drums of Autumn (Outlander #4), by Diana Gabaldon

Five stars (of five)

Back to Gabaldon’s powerful and complex OUTLANDER series, after the Lord John Grey reprieve. When last Gabaldon spoke of the Fraser clan, they had made their way across the Atlantic and spent some time in Jamaica before landing in the colony of Georgia. As this novel begins, they find themselves living in South Carolina, amongst other colonial settlers. Life resembles that in the Highlands, allowing Jamie to find his niche and Claire to become the local medicine woman. A trip to meet Jamie’s aunt Jocasta opens new possibilities and a chance to create a region all their own. The Frasers settle in North Carolina, their brood ever growing, as content as they can be in the 1770s. Meanwhile, in modern times, Brianna and Roger struggle tracking down Claire and Jamie through the historical papers at their disposal. Brianna is back in Boston and Roger in Oxford, but both are drawn back to the Highlands, and one another. After coming across some definitive proof of dire consequences, Brianna plans a voyage through the Stones in order to advise her mother and finally meet her birth father. Once Roger determines what she’s done (and knowing his family history), he treks through himself, trying to find Brianna. Both must set sail across the Atlantic and meet individuals on their respective journeys who shape their lives, none more than a ship captain named Stephen Bonnet. Upon their arrival and eventual path crossing, Brianna must make her way to Claire and Jamie, while Roger remains in the background, at least for the time being. Jamie must become a father and learn the perils of an independent daughter not yet versed in the ways of 18th century living, while he struggles with a dark cloud she brings to the colony. Jamie addresses things in his stubborn Scottish manner, which has consequences for all, some more troublesome than others. All this and two significant story lines including Lord John Grey round out a book full of little stories to entertain as well as lay further groundwork for future novels. Gabaldon thickens the plot tremendously, yet still the mysteries abound in this must-read continuation of the well-known series.

As I have said before, Gabaldon’s mastery of writing and the series knows no limits. She is able to take her characters in so many directions and keep the reader curious with each tale. There is no stop to the adventures that occur, nor does she ever fully reveal the Stones and their powers. The reader must (and surely desires to) forge on and read even more to have a better understanding. Plus, with new characters and twists popping up all over the place, there is no end to what can, and does, happen. I find myself hard-press to keep it all straight (yes, audiobook versions make it harder to sketch things out while on the go), but listen as attentively as I can. Even though this is my second read of these novels, I am taking so much more away, yet much is still eluding me… but it’s addictive and highly entertaining at the same time.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, for you have not lost any momentum, even as I took the Lord John Grey side tour. With all the characters you offer up, I cannot imagine what else you could present… though you will think of something else, assuredly. 

Random Violence (Jade de Jong #1), by Jassy Mackenzie

Four stars (of five)

Having recently stumbled on Mackenzie’s work, I was drawn to both the setting and the plot idea; a police procedural set in the new Johannesburg. Jade de Jong returns to South Africa after a decade’s hiatus, armed with her P.I. license and a desire to confront the ghosts of her father’s death. When de Jong is contacted by Superintendent David Patel, she’s intrigued to learn about how she can help, as they forged a strong relationship while Patel served as Commissioner de Jong’s Number Two. Everyone’s aware that the prosperous whites in Johannesburg live in gated communities, offering the symbolic separation from those they long oppressed. These gates are often the scene of car-jackings, where tempers flare and the racially-stigmatised city sees its greatest downfall. When Annette Botha is found murdered at her gate, de Jong works with Patel to determine who might have been behind this heinous act and what caused the escalation. Could her ex-husband be seeking revenge or could she be a victim of a robber who wanted more than just a car? Digging deeper into past cases with similar outcomes, de Jong stumbles upon a pattern that may help bring justice to the mess and a cash-related motive that stems much deeper than felons. She must also struggle as a dangerous man is released from prison, his crimes so heinous that de Jong cannot stomach the possibility that he might be free to mingle with the masses. While that unsettles her, de Jong learns more about her father’s death, potentially a murder, with the guilty party within her grasp. Mackenzie explodes onto the scene and leaves readers wanting more in this social commentary of life in the post-apartheid streets of Johannesburg.

Mackenzie drew me in from the start and never let me go until I finished. My only previous experience with South Africa as a setting and political platform within a novel was with Bryce Courtenay’s early work. Here, Mackenzie surrounds the reader with a city (and country) that has shed its ugly skin, but is still unable to fit into the new narrative it wishes to profess. Race violence is rampant, the police is still seen as biased, and crime keeps citizens in a state of constant fear. Jade de Jong leads the reader through these alleyways and tries to navigate away from the apartheid past to show that Johannesburg has much to offer the world and its own citizens, and that crime will no longer engulf a country that has seen its share of inequality. If this is only the beginning, I am determined to see where Mackenzie takes things from here.

Kudos, Madam Mackenzie for your thoughtful beginning and I hope that the rest of the series forces me to think just as much.

Stage Business, by Gerry Fostaty

Three stars (of five)

Fostaty reached out and asked that I read through his recent publication, offering an honest review, which is how STAGE BUSINESS found its way into my possession. Michael Dion is not a detective, nor does he play one on television (or on stage, for that matter). In trying to curry favour with a fellow actress during a rehearsal, Michael volunteers to help Amanda locate a friend’s son. Seventeen year-old Kyle stormed off after an argument with his mom and failed to return the next morning. Amanda and Michael agree to do all they can to locate him and bring him back home, though neither has much experience in the sleuthing department. Michael pokes around some leads and discovers that Kyle may have been involved in Toronto’s rave scene, peddling drugs to attendees. Kyle gets caught up in a power struggle and is taken captive by a number of unsavoury characters, whose identities come to light only after Michael crossing their paths at a rave. Michael and Amanda work with a closely-knit group to stage a transfer in order to return Kyle to his family. What begins as a covert operation soon spills over into the public sphere, leaving Michael holding the bag and the authorities poking around. Fostaty offers up some interesting social commentary about the world of acting and life in Canada’s largest city. An interesting first novel, leaving much room for growth.

When first asked to read this novel, I was unsure what to expect. I promised to give it a try and see what I thought, as I have with a number of previous author-led queries. While the story has a solid foundation and premise, I found it a little wordy and somewhat tangential at times. Perhaps I am too inundated by popular fiction or NYT bestselling authors, but I found myself giving the proverbial hand-roll on occasion and skimming paragraphs to get to the heart of the story. While set in Toronto, the story does not utilise its locale to the full extent possible. I will not refer to other well-grounded Canadian authors who have mastered Toronto or other places to their advantage, but I would have liked a little more focus on the city, rather than dropping street names. The characters had some development, but, again, I found myself flitting between interest in them and wanting to see how they fit into the larger story. A decent first attempt in the publication world and I could see myself trying another novel, if only to determine how he’s grown.

Decent work, Mr. Fostaty. Thanks for reaching out and I hope to see you develop your craft in the coming years.

A Ghost at the Door (Harry Jones #6), by Michael Dobbs

Four stars (of five)

Dobbs has waited six novels to concoct a Harry Jones-centric premise, but pulls out all the stops as he does so in this thriller. During a lazy afternoon together, Jones and his girlfriend Jemma make a promise to one another, followed soon by five words that change their entire relationship, and much of Harry’s life: ‘Tell me about your father.’ Johnnie Jones was hated by his son, who did all he could to distance himself from the man who left him a fortune. After losing most everything over the past year, Jemma is all Harry has left, but he must make the calculated risk losing her to uncover the truth about his dead father. As Jones begins with some general research, he uncovers that there was a group of seven undergrads, some of whom have died in mysterious ways. The deeper Jones digs the more bodies pile up and the deadlier things become. The stress of his investigation forces Jemma to make some tough decisions, which could come back to haunt her. What secrets did Johnnie take to his grave and who is trying to snuff out anyone who might want to share this with the younger Jones? Dobbs entertains the reader with some fascinating insight into the Harry Jones backstory and keeps the reader guessing from page to page.

While the Jones series has ebbed and flowed, it is well worth the invested time. At times political, the series is full of thrills and dry wit. It has kept me intrigued, even when the storylines proved a little less than enticing, as I hoped to see Harry Jones in new and mysterious ways. Dobbs lays out the groundwork for an exciting character and one who is ever-evolving, even as he holds a flame for being the next Bond. Dobbs constructs wonderful plots and some very fast-paced story arcs, all of which take Harry and the reader all over the world. Plausible, while still a little mystifying, but always well-worth the reading investment.

Kudos, Baron Dobbs for your work. I hope we can expect more from Jones in the coming years. I know I’ll tune in.

Lord John and the Plague of Zombies (Lord John Grey #3.5), by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

In Gabaldon’s final piece (to date) of Lord John-centred writing, she succeeds in weaving another great tale with her ever-resourceful Lord John Grey at the helm. In Jamaica on official business, Lord John is soon drawn into a phenomena new to him; the emergence of zombies. Waking one night by a visitor whose human form is questionable, Grey wonders if there is more to this myth than strict lore. When the Governor is found murdered, the scene leads many to believe a pack of zombies may be behind the crime. However, Grey is not so sure and mounts clues to turn the investigation in another direction. With many wishing him gone (from office as well as from the earth), the Governor’s demise leaves many suspects for Grey to ponder. That said, the power of zombies appears stronger than even and Grey seeks to learn more about them if for no other reason than to quench his curiosity. Another great novella by Gabaldon to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and with an eye on packs of unknowns lurking the streets at night.

Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is one of my great guilty pleasures. Her plethora of characters leaves a great opening for many interesting branch-off stories or novellas. That said, her character Lord John Grey, whose role in the Outlander series is minor in the first three novels, is one perfectly suited for a series of novels. An 18th century Sherlock Holmes on one hand and a tyrannical man whose lust for Jamie Fraser fuels a powerful hatred in the main novel series cannot be discounted. Gabaldon has done a masterful job of painting a calmer and more likeable side to Grey in this series, as well as jumping on the ‘zombie’ bandwagon made overly popular by THE WALKING DEAD. A great novella for fans of the series or newbies alike, it makes for a highly entertaining read for the curious reader.

And so another segment of the OUTLANDER series is complete. Lord John has played the role of a bridging character, his adventures and interactions with Jamie Fraser held between the two periods of Claire’s appearance through the Standing Stones. While given a brief glimpse of LJG in VOYAGER, as both Governor of Ardsmuir and Governor of Jamaica, these novels and novellas serve to offer more insight and surely pave the way for new and exciting adventures to come. I had read the entire LJG series before, piecemeal, but it is only now that I read them all sequentially that the thread makes a lot more sense. Well-written and highly entertaining, Gabaldon has a great handle on her characters and the stories they weave.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for this off-shoot series and all that you write. I am obsessed and will forge ahead, back with the Outlander gang to see what’s to pass in the American Colonies.

Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner (Lord John Grey #3), by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

Gabaldon presents her penultimate Lord John story in such as way as to lure in long-time fans while filling in many cracks left in her previous stories. The tale, a dual narrative, depicts the lives of both Lord John Grey and Jamie Fraser, at first in their respective residences, but soon together on a mission. Lord John comes into possession of a number of documents that support corruption by a British soldier he first encountered while in Quebec. Buried in the package is a document in ‘Erse, language of the Scottish Highland. Grey knows of the language from his time as Governor of Ardsmuir Prison, but with no ability to decipher it, calls on Jamie Fraser, who’s living life on parole at Hellwater, in the Lake District. Fraser, approached by a comrade from the Jacobite Uprisings, wants nothing to do with the politics, even after learning that Ireland appears to be a Jacobite hotbed. When Grey arrives and decides they will chase after this soldier, who was last seen in Ireland, Fraser reluctantly accompanies Grey and brings along this comrade, though their connection is not yet revealed. Along the way, both Grey and Fraser encounter Jacobites and generally nefarious characters alike, all of whom make the simple task of the soldier’s retrieval all the more difficult. When the soldier is murdered and the accused is amongst the ranks of Grey’s travelling party, the story thickens alongside the plot. As Gabaldon tells wonderful backstories of her two male protagonists, the avid Outlander reader can pull together some of the final pieces into the larger puzzle of how life evolved during the years Jamie and Claire were apart. The perfect (almost) end to the two-decade era, keeping the Outlander appetite whetted and the levels of curiosity high.

While this book did nothing for me when first I read it upon its release, I can now say that I have changed my mind. I have a better respect for the story and the role it plays in the larger FRASER and GREY character development. Gabaldon has woven together a stellar set of stories as they relate to Lord John, all of which I have read sequentially. It is by doing this (and following the OUTLANDER chronology) that I have a wonderful respect for the nuggets of information found within these pages. Gabaldon’s attention to detail is not lost and the attentive reader will enjoy the throwback to some minor storylines and characters from novels and novellas past. With one more short piece of writing left in the Lord John series, Gabaldon will have to tie up any loose ends she has for her aristocratic protagonist, or pepper things into the OUTLANDER novels anew.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon. When I took the time to better understand this story, it all came together so well and kept me intrigued until the final page.