Fully Loaded: Thrillers, by Blake Crouch

Four stars (of five)

This is an interesting collection of short stories by thriller/horror writer Blake Crouch. Gathered from previously published works, Crouch shows a great deal of his versatility in both his writing style and story ideas. Well crafted and highly entertaining for a reader looking for a brief sojourn from the fast-paced nature of the everyday.

*69

Four stars

Crouch is an epic storytelling, with his dark side pushing through in each tale. In this short story, the mystery and thrills have little time to develop, but come to a gentle boil at just the right moment. Tim and Laura West enjoy their time together as a married couple. One Thursday night, Laura discovers an odd message on their voicemail, some form of pocket dial from a cell phone. The message, full of choppy conversation, is thick with criminal innuendo and may be the recording of a murder. Unsure what to do, they try the old *69 to trace the previous call, but are interrupted and cannot retrieve the number. Worried that a killer is on the loose who knows them and will soon realise his error, the Wests ponder their options. Will it be too late to save them?

REMAKING

Four stars

In Crouch’s Remaking, nothing is quite as it seems, especially in small communities. Mitchell has an eye for odd situations. A young boy sits in a small-town diner with a man purported to be his father, but something feels off. Mitchell follows them at a distance and soon approaches the boy and poses as a police officer, promising to help young Joe. When the boy obliges, worried that he might upset the authorities, Mitchell begins acting on a scene he’s scripted for months. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s story may not have a happy ending, at least for the entire case of players.

ON THE GOOD, RED ROAD

Three stars

As winter sweeps into the mountain ranges, four men set out in the latter part of the 19th century, trekking from one mountain town to another. When the weather turns poor and a blizzard blows in, they are stranded and must begin making dire choices to survive. Nothing and no one is safe as discomfort turns to a disparaging level of hunger. When the snow settles, only the strong survive and complete the journey, but at what cost?

SHINING ROCK

Four stars

During their annual camping trip, Roger and Sue are finally living the empty nest life. As they set up camp and enjoy the solitude, a mysterious man appears and tries to befriend them. Donald seems affable enough and joins them for an evening of cards and storytelling. When the conversation turns to family, Donald admits he lost his daughter to a hit and run car accident six years earlier. The further the story progresses, the more Roger remembers that fateful day and how he sat behind the wheel. What follows is a panic as Roger waits for Donald to leave and admits his secret to Sue. To what lengths will Roger go to ensure his crime is kept under wraps?

PERFECT LITTLE TOWN

Four stars

Ron and Jessica Stahl are the ultimate power couple; he a successful plastic surgeon and she the cut-throat lawyer everyone fears. Choosing to take a trip to the scenic mountain areas in Colorado, they are forced into Lone Cone, a blip on the map, where they seek refuge from the weather. What begins as an awkward set of events turns horrific as the sun drops below the horizon. The Stahls soon realise that Lone Cone is anything but quaint and its inhabitants will do anything to protect themselves from outsiders. Will the Stahls be able to alert the authorities to the horrors they’ve seen, and live to recount their tale for years to come?

THE NEWTON BOYS’ LAST PHOTOGRAPH

Five stars

Never have I penned a review longer than the original text. That will be the case here, as the story is a mere 25 words long. Hint fiction at its best, the Newton boys prepare for a rafting trip, having all the gear they need to photograph all they will see. Alas, they have little idea that this trip might be their last.

THE METEOROLOGIST

Four stars

Peter is weather obsessed, to say the least. A disgraced former meteorologist, he drifts into town in his winnebago, looking for storms along the side roads of rural Kansas. After a day of spotting, he finds himself in a small diner, where Melanie ends up being his friendly waitress. They form a bond and end up out one day, chasing down a tornado. The adrenaline pulsing through them both, things take a turn neither expects and the tornado takes control. No ruby slippers, no Tin Man and, unfortunately, they are STILL in Kansas. Yet again, Crouch shows signs of tapping into Stephen King’s early years persona, where quirky characters come together and form odd alliances. A short story that both entertains and keeps the reader wondering what lies ahead.

UNCONDITIONAL

Five stars

Told as a set of monologues between a father and son. Set against the backdrop of a father recollecting his son’s growth and a young man reflecting back on a life he could not live. Crouch taps into the parental bone in those lucky enough to have children and the terror of seeing your child’s life come to a premature end…though who is to be held accountable? Therein lies the rub!
Enjoy this collection, as a whole, or pick out a few to pass the time!

A General Collection of Thoughts on the Outlander/Grey series

I wish to take a little time to pause and reflect on the complete OUTLANDER and Lord John Grey series that I have finally completed. It has been a 91-day affair, spanning over 13 412 pages, or more accurately 427 hours and 36 minutes (taking the audiobook route appears just as impressive and exhausting when you consider that’s over 17 days straight of narration). When I began this undertaking, I felt it a massive task, and was not incorrect in that assumption. Those who have kept up with my reviews in this series will know that Gabaldon weaves together massive story ideas with small patch-work vignettes. In stories of this length, the reader can enjoy both and not be pulled in any single direction. Additionally, Gabaldon takes the reader on numerous tangential trips, most blatantly the Lord John series, which hashes out a prominent character who appears so many times throughout the entire Outlander collection of novels and novellas. The dual series collection tackles a great deal of history along with romantic undertones, able to entertain a vast group of people from all walks of life. I thoroughly enjoyed talk of the battles both on the fields of Scotland and in the Thirteen Colonies, which are rich with detail and historical characters. Whether they are entirely accurate is for the historical buffs to discuss, though only a fool would lament precise information in a book claiming to be nothing save fictional. A few matters worthy of note include the Scottish/Gaelic language that is not peppered as much as it is marinaded throughout the book. Gabaldon must not only keep all her characters straight (as they appear in minor vignettes and then reappear thousands of pages later as a major character), but also the proper use of the Gaelic language. Gabaldon is American and while she can surely research all she needs to create a ‘true to form’ novel, the amount of work that must go in to making it all flow well and correctly deserves major mention. Again, I am no linguist (nor is she), so if there be a fault here and there, please queue up to bitch where no one else can hear you, as the whining is distracting.

Similar detail is presented in the fields of medicine and pharmacology, both in its 18th and 20th century varieties. Gabaldon educates the reader on ailments, procedures, medicaments, and likely outcomes in both time periods, effortlessly providing the juxtaposed differences in scientific and medicinal advancements with complete ease. A passing reader might not find this impressive, but for someone who has undertaking this monumental task, seeing how in tune she is with the story and its scientific emergences, it cannot go unmentioned. As with the above invitation, let he or she who is without scientific blunder cast the first beaker of sulphuric acid.

The attention to detail Gabaldon undertakes is also impossible to ignore. One must remember that this is more than a simple series, but two series combined into a massive literary collection. Keeping storylines straight, characters in order, history from becoming bastardised, and even past situations in line with her future ideas is a massive undertaking. Since the book is quite ‘in the moment’, in that it does not skip months or years with each chapter, the pace is slower and the details quite plentiful. This does explain the arborous paralysation in the books’ size. These vignettes and a substantial amount of detail fill pages, which might deter some of the less patient readers. While I know not where Gabaldon seeks to take the books (does she, even?), a substantial time has been spent on the War of Independence in the United States. Might this be a way of keeping her American readers enthralled and not losing them to the extensive Gaelic chatter and Scottish historical references? Perhaps I can pose that question to her.

Tangentially related to this, I read in a recent review posted by a fellow Outlander fan that trying to write a review for any of the novels, especially the latter tales, is close to impossible in under 8000 words. So much happens and so many twists arise that trying to review or encapsulate them all becomes close to impossible. Those who have read some of my review thoughts will realise that I choose only to skim the surface of the summary capabilities. By doing so, I not only keep spoilers from ruining the text, but also keep myself from being bogged down in too many nuances, thereby boring the review reader to the point of being turned off the full novel. That is not my intention, and I know I tend to be verbose in my daily life.

The issue of the Standing Stones and time-travel arises throughout the series and is addressed in small portions with each passing book. The central plan is not revealed in the first book and left to be utilised from thereon in, but slowly discovered as the characters use it. What appears to add a degree of science fiction to the novel is by no means flaunted with aliens or oddities that pull away from the story. If the reader can suspend reality and accept the Stones, they can enjoy learning about them. Gabaldon poses the Stone question throughout, with Roger and Claire being the ones whose journeys and questions come up the most. While parallel travel worked mostly for Claire, allowing her to reunite with Jamie after 20 years, Roger did not have the same luck, where he ran into his grandfather-in-law and fresh-faced 22 year-old father, Jerry MacKenzie, at one point. This only thickens the plot and adds history to the novel. Knowledge that gem stones and the solstice dates are of the most importance, but there is surely more to it. Also, Brianna’s discovery of the plotted family tree and the other research her ‘father’ Frank completed keeps the reader referring back to the document as the story plays out. So much rich history and time travel adds to the series’ power, rather than distracting.

I cannot have gone this far without offering some thanks and kudos out to Davina Porter and Jeff Woodman. While the latter remained at the helm for the Lord John novels alone (and even then, missed out on one), his encapsulation of Lord John Grey was a wonderful addition to the series. Those ‘two decades sans Claire’ allowed Woodman to create a character who seems so minor to early Outlander readers that the branch off novels are a treat and addition, where many readers have chosen to ignore them until later. However, the Lord John character becomes highly important and Woodman kept him alive and well for a period. Porter deserves more praise that I can put into words for all her narration and the time she took to bring the stories to life. From accents to Gaelic pronunciations through to the hours of reading and shaping the text. Had I the chance to meet her, I would offer the most sincere thanks. Admittedly, I doubt that I could read Gabaldon’s novels in book form (paper or electronic) and Porter has made that possible, injecting action and inflection where needed.

Speaking of seeing people, I am eager that I scored a free ticket to see Diana Gabaldon when she comes to town on August 13, 2015. I have so much I would like to ask and since I have completed the entire collection, my questions will be as pertinent as anyone else who has read the entire collection. I may even peek through the excerpts of Book Nine and ask something related to that.

And so we have it… my wordy summary and some thorough thoughts for anyone who has taken the same journey. I would love to chat at length with anyone else (no matter how far they made it) and can only hope I am not alone. Time for some lighter reading… oh wait, I ought to get some biographies under my belt and who better than some of the Founding Fathers. FORWARD MARCH!

Matt Pechey

July 2015

A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows (Outlander #8.5), by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

What ever happened to Jerry MacKenzie, father of Roger, whose plane went down during the War effort? As Gabaldon mentions in the story’s preface, discussion of Jerry opened in An Echo in the Bone, where Claire admitted that the story Roger knew was not entirely true. With Roger finally encountering Jerry in 1739, something must have happened related to the Stones, but the story is again not flushed out. Gabaldon chooses this point to offer a real account of events, just in time as Outlander fans are surely tearing their hair out with wonder, as the cliffhanger found no resolution within Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Spitfire pilot Jerry MacKenzie is approached by MI6 (and Frank Randall no less) to help in the execution of a covert mission behind the Iron Curtain. While out on reconnaissance, Jerry develops engine trouble and crash lands somewhere in Northumbria. As Jerry seeks to get his bearings, he discovers that he’s been propelled into the past, but has no explanation for events. When he comes across a mysterious character, a little is revealed, including how to get back, but no clear understanding of the Stones is made known. Returning to modern times, Jerry comes across his wife, Marjorie, but is not in a position to reach her to discuss his revelations. Filling a few cracks in the Outlander storylines, this short story fits nicely, yet leaves much to the imagination. 

This is the final instalment in the Outlander collection to date. I have endured much of Gabaldon’s long-winded and detailed writing. This story is a definite treat to flesh out some of the minor vignettes which received little printed space in the epic Outlander series. However, with the publication of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, Jerry MacKenzie’s disappearance becomes much more important and knowing the backstory becomes of great interest to the reader and series follower. That a Randall had something to do with it, loosely, is of no major shock, nor is it that the Stones played a role. That said, Gabaldon never ceases to amaze with all her dangling threads and how she chooses to tie them together or add additional literary fraying.

I would like to take some time to write my thoughts on the entire OUTLANDER series and will do so, but feel adding it to the review of a short story is not the place. Readers are welcome to check it out in a separate blog entry.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for a sensational series to date. I am totally enthralled and completely gobsmacked by all the hard work and literary effort you’ve put into this collection and hope you have a little more left to offer. I know BOOK NINE is in the works, and even a prequel, both of which I will devour.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (Outlander #8), by Diana Gabaldon

Five stars (of five)

In the final full-length novel to date, Gabaldon has to deal with some of the most exciting cliffhanging to date, left for the reader to stew upon at the end of Echo in the Bone. Series readers will recollect that Jamie was presumed dead in a nautical accident, which led Claire to wed Lord John Grey to protect herself. With Jamie’s re-emergence, everything is turned topsy-turvy, sentiments included. Claire seeks to justify her decision to an angry Jamie and Lord John flees the wrath of a close friend. Gabaldon deals with the fallout and the emotional baggage for the entire first part of the novel, while peppering the narrative with the revelations on William’s discovery of his true father. If that were not enough to keep the reader hooked, in 1980 Scotland, Jem has been kidnapped by a ruthless murderer intent on finding the gold Jamie alluded to in one of his time-travel letters. Brie must battle a murderous gang alone as she tries to keep her family safe. Once Jem appears, Brie makes the hard choice to travel back with her children to seek the protection of her parents, but does not know if she will again see Roger, who’s overshot on his trip through the Stones, landing in 1739. There, he discovers distant relations on both the Fraser and MacKenzie side, including one that proves highly awkward and rewarding at the same time. As the War of Independence continues, Jamie gets a plum position in Washington’s army and uses it to his advantage, but soon tires of the fighting and is faced with a momentous medical emergency that solidifies his desire to keep his family safe. When a fire obliterates the Fraser abode (second time, hope they have insurance!), a great deal is lost, including one of their own. With sad hearts, the Clan heads south, first to Savannah for Jamie’s printing press, where the attentive reader will remember Jamie and Claire first landed when they arrived in the New World, and eventually back to Fraser’s Ridge. One cannot ignore the Lord John or William additions to the story, as they weave their way through battles and serve on the British side. Gabaldon uses portions throughout the novel to further discuss the Stone’s power and how time travel may work, keeping the reader begging for more, but getting only a few grains of information. With a focus on the Quaker situation; ‘cameos’ by Washington and Benedict Arnold; as well as further details surrounding the War effort, this novel is perhaps one of the best novels in the series. Gabaldon treats the reader to an explosive amount of information as she opens new pathways of curiosity and leaves her usual collection of threads dangling for future reference.

I have undertaken the massive task of reading the entire series consecutively, to which I owe myself much thanks. The characters continue to come to life in the novels and the storylines flow effortlessly from book to book. However, Gabaldon’s ability to leave a reader guessing must be a horrible tease as they wait from one publication to the next. Gabaldon’s research efforts cannot be discounted in this novel, not only the historical necessities surrounding the War of Independence, but medical and religious issues and perceptions of the time, to keep the story as true as possible. The vignettes are not as plentiful, but larger storylines weave their way throughout the divided parts of the novel. Using three timelines (1739, 1778, and 1980), Gabaldon need juggle not only her characters, but storylines that see individuals at different points of maturity within the larger story arc (if that makes any sense). Gabaldon’s rich writing style and entrenched story makes picking up a novel part way into the ‘journey’ a wasted effort. When one peruses the length and size of these missives, this may be a blessing and a curse simultaneously.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, for you sensational story-writing abilities. I cannot believe we’re nearly done, with one short story to flesh out a side tale hinted at within this tome.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Four stars (of five)

After the discovering of this manuscript, written over 55 years earlier, the literary world was abuzz about what else Lee might have to say about Jem, Scout, and Atticus. Penned years before the famous To Kill a Mockingbird but set two decades after that fateful summer, Lee offers the written an interesting glimpse into Maycomb in the heart of the 1950s. Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch is back for her annual trip to Alabama, travelling from New York City for a two-week sojourn from the lights and noise. While she seeks only to rest, she encounters many Maycombians from her past, including Henry Clinton, who holds her heart and played a key role in her life in the years after the reader left Maycomb last. Allowing the story more freedom by removing Jean Louise from narration responsibilities, it flips between flashback moments from Jean Louise’s youth to the present summer life in Alabama’s south. Jean Louise plays watchman of sorts, taking in all she sees of her hometown and sermonising to her family on all its deficiencies. With a new round of civil rights on the horizon, Jean Louise is appalled to see the townsfolk, including affable Atticus Finch take a stand around minimalising black rights, and downplaying the importance of the NAACP. With Jem gone to a heart attack and Henry firmly ensconced in the local mantra, Jean Louise is on her own, fighting for equal rights in a town where colour remains synonymous with class. When the Finches cross swords over the issue, both Atticus and Jean Louise present their case, leaving the reader to act as jury. Lee shows the struggle between the races that, one hundred years after the divisive war, remains firmly rooted, with geography still dictating sides.

Lee’s unearthed novel did not bode well when first she sought to publish it and has received mixed reviews in his release. With a number of the same characters, many readers seek it to be a sequel to the famous Lee novel that tore a country apart for decades. It is not that, per se, and should not be treated in that manner. It stands alone as a decent social commentary on the early years of civil rights, with Brown v. Board of Education freshly decided and the South still firm in its opposition. Lee shows how the North, personified in Jean Louise, cannot abide by the backward way of thinking and seeks to inject its own form of justice, while Alabama chooses its own path and road to acceptance with Atticus offering his own flavour to the discussion. The novel also seeks to fill the cracks in Scout Finch’s story between the end of her eighth year and the present, with her as a refined 26 year old. Its title, pulled from a line of Scripture, allows her to become a surveyor of all she knew and push it through the filter of her current set of beliefs. Contrasting the two proves highly entertaining for the reader and disproves the adage that you can remove someone from a place, but their heart remains therein.Those who seek a sequel or a novel with as much vigour and deep meaning will surely be disappointed, though the novel stands nicely on its own. Lee cannot be criticised for her efforts, though, with the publication of TO KILL, it cannot measure up to its published predecessor, should this novel not be seen as a standalone. 

Kudos, Madam Lee, for this great piece of writing. It opens eyes and minds, in a way Lee did on her first go-round.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Four stars (of five)

Revisiting Harper Lee’s classic piece of American literature added new dimensions to a story that has highlighted one of America’s darkest times, as well as built the moral foundation for scores of children not censored by bigoted school boards or ignorant libraries. The story plays out in Maycomb, Alabama where the Depression’s lingering effects prove daunting. Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch and her brother, Jem, live a modest to poor life with their father, Atticus. The elder Finch makes his living as a lawyer and seeks to create a just world for the county folk and his children alike. Scout narrates from her perch as she explores life as a young tomboy, carving out an understanding of life in the South as only a young child might; with blissful ignorance and a thirst for knowledge. Unable to understand the need for order and rules, as dictated amongst the adult population, Scout and Jem find themselves in numerous situations ripe for a life lesson and Atticus always there to offer his wisdom. A house at the end of the block, the Radley home, holds much curiosity and speculation for the Finch children, though there are never able to coax its most elusive inhabitant, Boo, outside to dispel the myths that surround him. When Atticus takes on the case of a negro man accused of raping a white girl, the town applies labels to Atticus and the Finch children learn the true meaning of Southern hospitality, where you are judged by the company you keep, not the purity of your heart. Once the jury returns with their verdict, childhood innocence leads Jem and Scout to believe justice is blind and the truth will set you free. The fallout divides the town and leaves the Finch children to wonder if all their beliefs are paper thin. As Lee pushes the novel towards its completion, the reader learns a little more about the resiliency of the Finches and the lengths to which some will go to plant seeds of hatred. As complex as it is simple, Lee offers an approach that weighs idealism against realism, hoping they might one day coexist!

When I chose to revisit this novel, twenty-one years later, I was not sure what to expect. I decided before I tackled Lee’s second novel, I ought to refresh myself, and it was a good thing I did so, as much had faded from my memory. Lee offers up a simple story, woven into a complex set of vignettes, whose purpose only becomes clear once the reader takes a step back. A social commentary as much as it is a quasi-biographical piece, Lee pulls no punches in her telling, which explains why the literary world lauded such praise on her while her neighbours sought to vilify her and suppress her message from reaching youths of the time. A book that opened the eyes of many to the injustice that was going on and sanctioned for so long became the symbol for the oppression it sought to defeat with many trying to sweep its message under the proverbial rug. While it tended to be wordy in places and lacked some editorial polish, Lee’s story is one of justice, though its ending does not appear that way. As Scout learns early on, justice is not always found, but the admission that it exists is a battle worth having, no matter the consequences. A powerful piece whose message need not be ignore or forgotten for generations to come. History cannot change if humans cannot learn from their follies. Alas, these follies have begun reemerging in the South, so let this serve as an extinguisher of ignorance and a beacon towards societal acceptance.

Kudos, Madam Lee, for this powerful novel. I cannot wait to see how the prequel/sequel plays out with some of the same actors.

White is the Coldest Colour, by John Nicholl

Five stars (of five)

When I received a strong recommendation to read Nicholl’s first novel, I was not sure what to expect. As the note to readers clearly states, the content is anything but lighthearted, though it pervades society in every city around the world. Dr. David Galbraith is a renowned child psychiatrist in Wales, whose practice sees many referrals from Child Protection social workers. While helping his patients with their various issues, Galbraith seeks his next conquest at the hands of those who are victims of abuse and forms of neglect. As the reader soon learns, besides expanding his practice by providing services for vulnerable children, he is at the head of a paedophile ring that spans all across the region. Enter, Anthony Mailer, who’s been sent by his general practitioner to help deal with the psychological issues of his parents’ recent separation. Galbraith preys on young Anthony and concocts a treatment plan that will allow complete domination over the seven year old, while demanding parental compliance. Nicholl paints a picture of a family in crisis and a mother willing to do whatever she can to help her son. When kidnapping attempts by Galbraith prove unsuccessful, he must rely on his ring of friends to help complete the ultimate act, an abduction. Unsuspecting and somewhat complicit through her ignorance, Galbraith’s wife, Cynthia, chooses to ignore her husband’s acts and remains highly submissive to his verbally abusive ways. With all the tools to meet his needs, Galbraith attempts an abduction while the authorities begin putting the pieces together. Other children begin to come forward, telling horrific tales of abuse at Galbraith’s hands. Will Child Protection Services and the local police act in time to save Anthony and cut the head off the paedophile serpent or will Cynthia Galbraith insulate her husband yet again? Nicholl leaves the reader vulnerable and yet totally in control as the chapters fly by and the horrors pile up with each passing page. A sensational debut novel, whose disturbing content will parse the number of readers able to stomach it, but those who persevere are richly rewarded.

Actively working in the Child Protection field, I have seen some of the horrors that can, and do, take place behind closed doors. Nicholl uses his own expertise in the field to depict some of the worst events in this novel, as well as touching on an important theme: trust. It may be hard to believe, paedophiles come in all forms, from the dregs of society to those in positions of trust and authority, but Nicholl illustrates how trust can be the most intoxicating drug of all for the sexual exploitation of children. Nicholl illustrates this throughout the novel, but also shows the large network trying to uncover them and help the most helpless victims. However, the system relies on information and the testimony of the victims, which can also be the paedophile’s greatest defence. Fear and the sense of not being believed work against the victim, a wall best removed by having society encourage disclosures and taking the victim, especially a child, at face value. While Nicholl’s choice of novel topic is highly disturbing, there is a great sense of hope buried within these pages. Hope that will only see the light of day as long as those investigating crimes against children receive the support and access they so badly need. If there is one downside to this novel, it would have to be the punctuation and proofreading issues that pervade the text. I sense that it is an issue at the editorial level, where individuals did not read the novel as best they should. If I, as a reader, can catch them on the first read through, I can issue nothing but shame to those who let them pass in the proofing stage. Perhaps I could ask for part of your paycheque to offset your lack of professionalism and completion of a simple task. Alas, it is Nicholl who looks the fool, though his novel is so well crafted, I can put it behind me.

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl for your sensational novel. I cannot wait to read the sequel, to which you allude in the author’s note. I hope it is as explosive as this novel!     

The Space Between (Outlander #7.5), by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

In this novella, Gabaldon chooses two lesser characters and send them on a journey mentioned towards the end of An Echo in the Bone. Young Joan MacKimmie, step-daughter of our beloved Jamie Fraser, heads to Paris to answer her calling and train to become a nun. Sent on her way with Jamie’s nephew, Michael, they travel through the streets of Paris in a short and jam-packed story. While Joan seeks to make herself a bride of Christ, she wrestles with voices only she can hear, which offer both advice and glimpses into the future. As she prepares for her entry into the convent, she begins to question everything she has come to believe, which led her to this point. Michael, who may have been sent as a bodyguard, fights his own inner demons on the trip, part related to his growing feelings for this young woman as well as the knowledge his Aunt Claire gave him about the not too distant civil uprising in France, with Paris at its heart. Michael and Joan struggle to balance their responsibilities with what the heart desires, creating a space between logic and emotion. They must also fend off the plans of a sinister man who seeks revenge for Claire Fraser’s antics when last she spent time in Paris. Learning of the connection Joan and Michael possess to La Dame Blanche, they are spun into a web of deceit and potential disaster. With a sprinkling of time travel discussion (of course, no Outlander story can ignore the Stones), Gabaldon moves her major sub-story forward while keeping a little more of the full time movement situation for the final novel. Brilliantly composed with just enough to keep the reader wanting more.

As the number of remaining Outlander stories dwindle, I am left to pay special attention to these tales. Having taken the time to re-read the entire collection, I have taken away so much and learned a great deal, both about the history of the time as well as the intricacies of the characters Gabaldon has set before the reader. As mentioned many times in previous novels, Gabaldon may introduce minor characters throughout, whose importance is only known much later. This novella is a wonderful case in point, where the likes of Joan and Michael receive only passing mention in earlier stories, but now play central roles. One could say the same for Comte St. Germain, who acts as a Stephen Bonnet or Black Jack Randall of sorts. Wonderfully spun in such a way to entertain and intrigue simultaneously.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, for another great addition to the collection. Much yet to read with so many questions I need to answer, and so I trek forward.

An Echo in the Bone (Outlander #7), by Diana Gabaldon

Four stars (of five)

Gabaldon left readers with a stunning conclusion in A Breath of Snow and Ashes. The MacKenzies are forced to pass through the Stones to save their newest addition, Amanda; Jamie and Claire barely survive a house fire at Fraser’s Ridge; and Jamie’s illegitimate son, William, arrives in the colonies to fight for the King. As the seventh tome opens, the narrative is split amongst these three important storylines. While still hopelessly unaware of his true father, William arrives in the colonies to fight with the English, stumbling through a number of unfortunate events and does not see battle until an important clash at Saratoga, where he is able to show his true mettle. William does engage in some fighting at this point and ends up in a skirmish in which his biological father takes an accidental shot in his direction. William’s adoptive father, Lord John Grey, tries to keep an eye on William and ensures that the secret of Jamie remains hidden for as long as possible, though Gabaldon weaves the story in ways that spill the proverbial beans. As this takes place, Jamie and Claire continue their movement through America, hoping to make it to Scotland before they become embroiled in any major battles. Claire uses her historical knowledge to stay away from any direct battle, but in a moment of weakness, a shot from Jamie’s gun almost kills William, forcing the Frasers to move up their plans to return to Scotland before the young soldier dies at the hand of his illegitimate father. While in Scotland, Jamie and Claire spend time with Jenny and the elder Ian, where they learn of all that’s been going on during their absence. In a troubling missive, Claire is summoned back to Philadelphia to handle a sick family member and brings Young Ian along with her. Jamie follows soon thereafter, bringing the newly widowed Jenny alongside him. However, news reaches Claire of a disaster at sea soon after Jamie confirms passage by letter, which causes her much grief and leads to a poor decision on her part. Flashing forward to the 20th century, Roger and Brianna have settled at Lallybroch and try to shield their past from those around them. Receiving word from the Frasers in a collection of letters left for them in a massive wooden chest, they read of the adventures and discover information on a secret cache of gold whose whereabouts only Jem knows. Brianna takes a job at a hydro-electric plant, which has its own issues, but none more troubling than a curious colleague who discovers the letters and uses Jem to get at the treasure. With only letters left in a large chest to follow Jamie and Claire’s progress, Roger and Brianna are left with a one-sided conversation in hopes of learning how their family fares throughout the battles. Thinking themselves free of the Stones, time travelling occurs in both directions, as Roger encounters an old foe-cum-friend. As the novel comes to an end, many question hang for the reader while others receive answers, only to complicate the narrative even further. A must-read to better understand what is sure to become the most explosive novel yet, and the last one in the series (to this point)!

The attentive and well-read reader would be hard pressed to discount Gabaldon’s abilities after finishing this novel. She has been able to push three completely different narratives forward while using the historical time period of the American War of Independence. Perhaps no Shaara in her fictional depiction of specific characters within such a massive military event, but she draws on swaths of information to thicken the characters’ foundations, while pulling at the heartstrings of the reader with every passing page. Segments herein that speak not only of the War, but the aboriginal (Indian) aspect of life on the land with European and colonialists invading alike is brilliant and offers the reader some in-depth views into the life Young Ian led while he was ‘away’ from the Fraser Clan. The novel moves away from the single-chapter vignettes, seen in earlier books while remaining stationary in Scotland or North Carolina, and more to an overarching narrative which forces the reader to keep many stories straight as time and location shift, depending on the characters involved. Complex while also easy to grasp, Gabaldon has bitten off quite a bit in this novel, but must keep forging ahead to keep the stories fresh and the characters from losing their lustre. In that, she has unlimited success.

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon, for this powerful novel. Perhaps it’s a good thing that a novella follows, chronologically, to offer my mind a very brief reprieve to prepare for what is on the horizon.

Identity Crisis: The Murder, the Mystery, and the Missing DNA, by Jefferson Bass

Five stars (of five)

Bass published this non-fiction novella (can it be called that?) ahead of the ninth Body Farm novel, in hopes of shedding light on one of the interesting forensic cases undertaking in years past. The case of identifying the remains of a partial skeleton, believed to belong to Leoma Patterson took up periods of time for Bill Bass and some of his other forensic friends, each working in their respective field. Bass illustrates how this set of bones, limited by scavengers and eventually deterioration in a casket, opened some doors to identification, but slammed others shut, due to the time passed. Bass and his various crew members felt they had a slam-dunk identification, only to have members of the family (and parts of the scientific community) dispute or prove otherwise. By weaving through various areas of forensic technology (facial reconstructions, DNA, bone measurements, etc), all of which have been featured in Body Farm novels, Bass was able to eventually give concrete proof surrounding his identification project. If nothing else, it gave the family some semblance of closure. A wonderfully penned short summary of the case perfect for Body Farm fans and those who enjoy forensic science.

I am an avid fan of the Jefferson-Bass writing duo and have devoured the entire Body Farm series. I have also made it a point to read all of the non-fiction work that they’d put out, so as to better understand the real science behind it. Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell seek to impress (and do) with their respective work, but there are times to talk REAL cases and ACTUAL results. Bass goes so far as to continually debunk the CSI effect, where laymen use the show and its popularity to presume they know everything. Bass presents this case with its facts and struggles right alongside. There are some highly technical areas, though they are not handled in an overly academic way, leaving the reader to struggle through enzyme plasmosis or osteorazification (ok, I made those up to illustrate a point). The story reads in a highly informative manner and educates while also entertaining, as Body Farm novels do as well. This case has appeared in the other non-fiction work and its return allows the reader to spend a little more time on the case and understand it. Attentive readers may also see portions of Body Farm narratives in the actually happenings in the story. What a treat and one I wish they’d replicate again soon on another case. Surely, Bill Bass has enough to fuel many a fire.

Kudos, Messrs. Jefferson and Bass for shining a light on this interesting case and showing the variety of forensic branches there are working together.