Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010

OHara's Book Reviews: Best of 2010

When I first started this blog way back in July, I just wanted to have a small site in which to store the reviews of the books I read. I thought it would be fun to have a permanent record, just for myself.

Naturally, I was very excited when I saw that people around the world were actually reading my stupid little book review blog. I haven't gotten a tremendous amount of hits, but I've been thrilled to see that somebody is enjoying my reviews. There are obviously people out there who are just as interested in books as I am!

And since this is the time of year when people start making their "Best of the Year" lists, I figured it would be fun to have a little "awards ceremony" here on the blog (even though it hasn't really been running a full year).

Over the past few months, I've read twenty-five books of fiction, which is a little off my usual average. I've had a fairly hectic fall and winter and not as much time to read as I'd like--also, some of the books I've read recently have been pretty huge. The Fiery Cross was so big that it was physically difficult to tote around.

And now for the awards, which I have made up and which have no significance in real life. The only prize is bragging rights.

Funniest Book of the Year:

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I do like my British humorists. Maybe it's the dry wit. Maybe it's the wacky characters with the wonderful names (Augustus Snodgrass, Bertram Wooster, Rincewind). Maybe it's just because there isn't enough American comic fiction. Anyway, I have to go with my gut on this one--at least, the gut from which my frenzied belly laughs were emitting. How Right You Are, Jeeves is definitely the funniest book I've reviewed on this blog. Nobody can make me laugh like Wodehouse and HRYAJ is an absolute comic masterpiece. Jeeves and Wooster have never been more hilarious, the plot never more ridiculously tangled and the supporting cast never more colorful.

Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi Book of the Year:

Olympos by Dan Simmons

The Host by Stephanie Meyer

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Much as I enjoyed Eye and Olympos (and even The Host), this category has only one obvious winner. His Dark Materials is an instant classic, a kinetic mixture of fantastic storytelling and mind-bending metaphysics. No book this year made me think--or care--as much as Pullman's three-volume masterpiece.

Best Mystery/Thriller of the Year (Older Category):

Three Men Out by Rex Stout

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald

This is a tricky category. MacDonald is definitely the best stylist of the three and Soft Touch is a great little piece of noir fiction, but my heart says Three Men Out. I just can't get enough of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Best Mystery/Thriller of the Year (Newer Category)

Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming

To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming

The Hard Way by Lee Child

China Lake by Meg Gardiner

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard

Another tough one. There are several fabulous books on this list. Frankly, Child is tough to beat at the top of his game, as is Leonard. Ultimately, though, I have to pick the book that shocked me, sucked me in, gave me chills and broke my heart. All Mortal Flesh is Julia Spencer-Fleming at her very, very best, and a more spellbinding, emotionally shattering read would be hard to find.

Best Modern Literature of the Year:

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Um, sorry Stephen. You know that I love you, but McEwan is one of the finest prose writers I've ever read and Atonement is pure bliss for book lovers. The Dunkirk sequence deserves to become a classic piece of writing, on par with anything you're likely to find in the English language.

Best Classic Literature of the Year:

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I've read my share of Shakespeare (five or six plays, including these two) and even though I've always loved his writing, there's a clear winner here. Julius Caesar is just a smarter, more complex piece of fiction.

Special Achievment Award:

I've read a lot of incredible books and authors over the last few months, but none of them have quite bowled me over like Ian Rankin has. Knots and Crosses stunned me with its brilliant psychological drama, while Hide and Seek blended Rankin's trademark lyricism with a riveting mystery plot. I already have the third volume, Tooth and Nail, and I'm eagerly awaiting my next trip into the seamy depths of Inspector Rebus's Edinburgh.

Special Achievment Award:

I may have had some major criticisms for The Fiery Cross, but Diana Gabaldon is still on the short list of my favorite authors and Jamie and Claire Fraser are arguably my favorite fictional characters of all time. I love the Outlander series so deeply that it's a little scary sometimes (I have actually caught myself thinking about the characters as though they're real).

So 2010 has been good. 2011 will be just as good. My first book of the year will be The Help, which is highly entertaining so far. I hope to progress farther in the Wheel of Time series, get caught up on the Outlander series and finally finish The Brothers Karamazov. Thanks for reading this year, and I hope you'll stay on for '11!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

China Lake by Meg Gardiner

China Lake by Meg Gardiner, 2002

Decent thrillers are easy to come by nowadays. There are plenty of authors who make a living writing respectable, passable thrillers (Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Sue Grafton, Brad Meltzer, Clive Cussler). Finding a really superior thriller author is a rare treat, and Meg Gardiner is without a doubt, a superior author. China Lake, her debut novel, is a wonderful read: funny, scary, smart and absolutely pulse-pounding.

As the book opens, California lawyer Evan Delaney is preparing for her brother's return to their childhood home, the China Lake military base. Evan has been caring for her brother's young son Luke while his father was stationed abroad. But when Evan encounters a fanatical religious cult called the Remnant, she discovers Luke's mother Tabitha has reappeared, now a faithful member of the Remnant, who plan to jump start the Apocalypse with an arsenal of biological weapons. And their insane leader wants Luke, and will stop at nothing to get him.

The plot unfolds beautifully, gaining layers of complexity as it unravels. Gardiner keeps things moving at roller-coaster pace, and effortlessly pulls off twist after twist. I haven't read thriller plotting this good since the last Lee Child novel.

But Gardiner's real secret weapon is her vibrant characters and snappy, witty dialogue. The cast of characters is expertly sketched(with a few exceptions). Evan is a highly appealing protagonist and her paraplegic boyfriend Jesse is equally likable. Gardiner even pulls off the difficult feat of making six-year-old Luke realistic rather than overly cutesy.

The book does have one glaring flaw, especially in the early pages. Gardiner's portrait of the Remnant is not quite believable. She makes them too overtly venomous and too gratuitously stupid. There is nothing seductive or fascinating about them; they're ugly one-dimensional ogres. Their goals and beliefs are totally over the top and Gardiner hits too many of the easy notes too often (they're sexists, racists, homophobes and all-around jerks).

Admittedly, Gardiner fleshes out the cult members a bit as the book progresses, and it's fairly easy to ignore the sloppy character work, especially when all hell is breaking loose elsewhere in the story. But it's too bad that Gardiner couldn't have taken a slightly more subtle approach.

The rest of the novel is pretty much gold. There are some truly amazing moments and reveals. The climax is tremendously exciting, wrapping up the story in an action-packed way, while leaving a small cliffhanger for the sequel (there are currently five Evan Delaney novels in print, with more on the way).

Another thing that Gardiner does well is fleshing out the world of her novel with small quirks and funny subplots (there's a wonderful running story involving bloodthirsty ferrets that pops up every now and then). Despite the seriousness of the novel's main plot, Gardiner has an excellent sense of the offbeat and odd that keeps things from being blandly straightfaced:

Yeltow stared into the pickup. They had most definitely gotten her. Glory drooped on the seat, her eyes wide, blood pouring from gunshot wounds in her face and chest. The blood running down her rib cage mixed with the white foam splattered inside the truck. It dripped onto the gun stuck in the waistband of her cargo pants, a nine-millimeter Beretta. Next to Yeltow, the young uniform looked nauseous. Death smelled sweet and creamy, he mumbled. What was that stuff?

Behind them Randi Brueghel was chattering to McCracken. "I heated it up on the stove," she said, "got it
so hot. The cans says 'Warning, contents under pressure,' so I thought, if I can make it burst it'll so totally distract Glory. . . ."

Yeltow saw the exploded canister, made out
-Wi on the side. The uniform said it sounded like a bomb. It did. How could he have known it was a can of Reddi-Wip?---(pages 320-321)

The book does get fairly far-fetched by the end, it's true, but less so than most mainstream thrillers. And far-fetched or not, I'm really not going to pick apart the novel's stellar final chapters. Any author who can keep me guessing that much, while also making me care about the characters, is highly skillful.

It's a shame that Gardiner is still largely unknown in the US. An Entertainment Weekly article by Stephen King praising the Evan Delaney series improved her marketability significantly, but she's still far from a household name. It's too bad that a dolt like James Patterson is making millions by churning out formula potboilers, while a thriller as all-around wonderful as China Lake gets ignored.

NEXT UP: The novel that was one of 2009's biggest publishing hits: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, 1990

Though my reading tastes are wide and varied, fat epic fantasy novels are not high on my list of favorite genres. I mean, I love The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone, but hardcore fantasy books with huge mythologies and complicated, apostrophe-filled names are mostly virgin territory for me.

But when I heard about the late Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series, I knew I had to check it out. The series currently spans two authors, twelve volumes and over 11,000 pages (and it's not even done yet). The first book, The Eye of the World comes complete with three or four maps and a detailed glossary in the back. The series is a pleasingly daunting prospect; entering it almost feels like an enormous homework assignment.

After eagerly devouring Eye, I am assured that the Wheel of Time is anything but a homework assignment. The first book is an old-fashioned, red-blooded adventure, complete with rampaging monsters, ancient secrets and battles over the fate of the world. It's a zippy, utterly engaging read.

The story is nothing new. Three unrelated farmboys (Rand, Mat and Perrin) living an insular life in a rural village are suddenly thrust into prominence when an army of monsters targets them. On the run with an assorted group of allies, the boys must evade the ancient, reawakening evil that threatens their world-- an evil that they alone may be able to stop.

The journey is dangerous and colorful in the grand tradition of quest literature. Jordan isn't reinventing the Wheel here (ha ha), but what his universe lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in detail and scope. Yes, the Lord of the Rings parallels become a little excessive, but so many lesser authors have pillaged from Tolkien, too, that it's hardly noticeable.

To a large extent, Jordan is working with archetypes. The story is familiar and generic--I'm sure you could find several dozen titles in the 'Fantasy' section that follows the same basic narrative pattern. What Jordan brings to the novel is energy, verve and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he really enjoyed creating a world and the characters who people it.

Those characters appear to be stereotypes at first, but all of the main characters deepen as the book progresses. None of them is exactly three-dimensional, but they're engaging and likable. Rand is our hero and while he's not the most exciting protagonist I've read about, he carries the book ably. Mat, his snarky best friend, is widely considered the series' breakout character, and I'm curious to see where his storyline goes in the future. His wit and pessimism is a nice counterbalance to Rand's stoic positivity.

If nothing else, Jordan is a master of pacing, keeping things propulsive, switching viewpoints before any one becomes stale. There is an exhilarating feeling of danger at every turn, and villains pop up to confront our heroes at regular intervals. It's too bad that most of them are a little cheesy; the series could use more compelling bad guys.

The villains may be generic at best, but the broad scope of The Eye of the World helps inject more nuanced conflict into the story. Mercifully, there is no politicking, but there are multiple factions in play, some of them trustworthy, some of them less so. One of the novel's central questions is whether our three heroes are being used by everyone around them, even their allies. These questions aren't answered fully, though there's certainly plenty of space for them to be addressed later on.

Jordan is not the world's greatest prose writer, nor does he try to be. For the most part he's competent, with the odd flash of excellence or mediocrity. He does have a propensity for awkward word choice that sometimes slows down the narrative, but his dialogue is lively and smooth, rarely slipping into the overblown Middle-Ages patois that some fantasy writers use. His descriptions are serviceable, too, sometimes even slipping into a sort of dreamlike lyricism:

The stone hallway was dim and shadowy, and empty except for Rand. He could not tell where the light came from, what little there was of it; the gray walls were bare of candles or lamps, nothing at all to account for the faint glow that seemed to just be there. The air was still and dank, and somewhere in the distance water dripped with a steady, hollow plonk. Wherever this was, it was not the inn. Frowning, he rubbed at his forehead. Inn? His head hurt, and thoughts were hard to hold on to. There had been something about. . . an inn? It was gone, whatever it was.

He licked his lips and wished he had something to drink. He was awfully thirsty, dry-as-dust thirsty. It was the dripping sound that decided him. With nothing to choose by except his thirst, he started toward the steady

The hallway stretched on, without any crossing corridor and without the slightest change in appearance. The only features at all were the rough doors set at regular intervals in pairs, one on either side of the hall, the wood splintered and dry despite the damp in the air. The shadows receded ahead of him, staying the same, and the dripping never came any closer. After a long time he decided to try one of those doors. It opened easily, and he stepped through into a grim, stone-walled chamber.

One wall opened in a series of arches onto a gray stone balcony, and beyond that was a sky such as he had never seen. Striated clouds in blacks and grays, reds and oranges, streamed by as if storm winds drove them, weaving and interweaving endlessly.
No one could ever have seen a sky like that; it could not exist.---(pages 168-169)

One of Eye's main elements is the lofty cosmic struggles going on between the Light and the Dark One, a struggle that involves the Wheel of Time,something called the One Power, a group of magic-users called the Aes Sedai and a lot of other stuff that's difficult to understand. I'm sure this will all have much significance later on down the road, but I prefer the more grounded adventures to the metaphysical elements, which bog down a slightly anticlimactic climax. Jordan is more adept at describing the grime and toil of being on the run than he is at painting broad, century-spanning spirituality.

What makes the novel so much fun is ultimately Jordan's obvious love of an old-fashioned kind of storytelling; the kind that's more concerned with magical swords and sentient wolves than with deep meaning and social criticism. Not to say that Eye has no observations to make, or themes to put forth, but story is clearly king in Jordan's universe. He spins a very good story, which is probably why I'm already eager for Book Two. I know that the WoT encounters many problems later down the road, especially the untimely death of Jordan himself (the series will be completed with the help of another author). Later volumes have also been roundly abused for being slow-moving and dull, causing many fans to abandon the books altogether. Frankly, all the controversy just makes me more interested in where things are going. I have a feeling I may end up addicted to this series.

NEXT UP: China Lake by Meg Gardiner, a lesser-known author of California-set thrillers.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton

Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, 1985

M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series of cozy murder mysteries is highly popular in the United Kingdom. I had read that the series was good and I enjoy a good old-fashioned mystery as much as anyone, so I dipped into the first volume, 1985's Death of a Gossip, with interest.

After reading the book, I can only assume that the series gets far better in future installments. I can't see for the life of me how Beaton is so popular, at least based on the quality of Gossip.

The plot: A small group of strangers meet in the idyllic Scottish town of Lochdubh to attend a local fly-fishing school. One of the pupils is a nasty woman who seems to have dirt on everyone. Within a few days, she is found strangled to death, and all of the students have a motive. It's up to the laconic local constable, Hamish Macbeth, to solve the crime.

The story is pure Agatha Christie cliche, but in skilled hands it might have been fun. Unfortunately, the novel could have been written by a precocious twelve-year old, at least judging by the quality of the prose.

Beaton's writing style is incredibly awkward; it absolutely screams amateur. Her dialogue is, to put it politely, on the nose and probably even more awkward than the prose segments. The characters speak in a stilted, exaggerated way, as though Beaton is trying to make their one-dimensional personalities clear with every word. They also have an annoying tendency to say exactly what's on their mind, or to relate important information to the reader, which could have been much more naturally integrated into narration.

And the characters. She puts together a cast so uniformly aggravating that it's practically an achievement. Alice Wilson, who has roughly a third of the book narrated from her perspective, is one of the most exquisitely annoying fictional characters I've ever run across. She's whiny, egotistical, amoral and just plain dumb, but it seems like the author is trying to make her sympathetic. It doesn't work. Alice doesn't come off as a helpless victim, she comes off as a self-absorbed nitwit who falls for an awful guy despite the anvil-sized hints that he's really a jerk.

Beaton isn't any kind of master mystery plotter either. There are few clues in the novel and no complicated personalities; Beaton displays over and over again that she has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. She makes it excruciatingly obvious during the novel's opening pages that everyone in the fishing school would like Lady Jane dead:

"I'll kill her," muttered John. "She's ruining the holiday for everyone." --- (page 14)

If she tries to spoil things for me, I'll kill her, thought Alice passionately. --- (page 23)

"I'll murder her. I'll kill that horrible woman. Kill! Kill! Kill!" --- (page 25)

The child's hard, assessing gaze was fixed on her face. "No," he said at last. "I hate that ugly fat woman. She's cruel and mean and evil. Why doesn't she die? Lots of people die in the Highlands. They get lost and starve and die of exposure. They fall off cliffs. Why can't something happen to her?"--- (page 32)

Accidents happened. Anything could happen. Alice pictured Lady Jane's heavy body plummeting down into a salmon pool, her fat face lifeless, turned upwards in the brown, peaty water. --- (pages 41-42)

Gee, do you think Lady Jane might end up dead? Maybe everybody has a motive. It'll probably be a fellow pupil who does her in. Gosh, that foreshadowing sure is subtle and understated.

Admittedly, the novel picks up speed once the actual murder occurs and has a passable, albeit dull, ending. The solution to the mystery is very mildly surprising, but impossible for a reader to actually guess, since there are really no hints to form theories with.

Beaton goes to a great deal of trouble to make Hamish Macbeth a likable, endearing main character, and he is at least somewhat more interesting than the cast of suspects. I don't much care for the ham handed ways that Beaton used to make him seem the spunkiest, most intelligent character in the book, but he wasn't a terrible detective to headline a cozy mystery. It's too bad the mystery was so inadequate.

I could also mention some of the awkwardly dated elements (the story is supposedly set in the 1980s, but some of the social mores and cultural references feel more like the 40s) and Beaton's uninspiring attempts at screwball comic relief, but I can leave well enough alone. Death of a Gossip is ultimately a dumb, light mystery novel with grade-school-reader prose and pancake-flat characters. It was mildly entertaining in its way, but some of the fun was in ridiculing the poor writing and obvious literary contrivances.

Wikipedia informs me that the Hamish MacBeth series now numbers a whopping twenty-six volumes, with a twenty-seventh coming in the February of 2011. I can only assume that the series got much better, and fast.

NEXT UP: The Eyes of the World by Robert Jordan, the first novel in the ginormous Wheel of Time series

Saturday, December 11, 2010

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard, 1983

It's always a pleasure to discover an author with an entirely original, distinctive writing style and a quirky way of freshening old tropes. Elmore Leonard's two main genres are Westerns and crime novels, two genres that are well known for hackneyed devices and cliched storytelling.

Leonard doesn't go for that. He writes fast-paced, dialogue-heavy novels that are completely his own in tone and content. Take any paragraph out of any of Leonard's mature novels, and he will be instantly recognizable. At his best, he's a wild breath of fresh air, at his worst he gives you light, entertaining reading.

LaBrava ranks among the best of the Leonard novels that I've read. The dialogue sizzles, the characters pop and the plot is a coherent, twisty thrill ride. As always, Leonard creates a world and a prose style so vivid and unique that it could only be his own.

When he was twelve, Joe LaBrava fell in love with femme fatale movie actress Jean Shaw. Now an ex-Secret Service agent turned photographer living in a Miami hotel, LaBrava runs into Shaw, who's being menaced by a couple of mysterious thugs. It's up to him to save his boyhood crush from her enemies, but like the characters she played on the silver screen, Jean Shaw may not be what she seems.

In classic Leonard style, the villains are more interesting than the heroes. LaBrava gives us two excellent ones: redneck security guard Richard Nobles and deadly Cuban go-go dancer Cundo Rey. Leonard is always comfortable writing villains and the segments from Nobles' and Cundo's points of view are some of the strongest in the novel.

LaBrava himself is a pretty solid main character, too, although he gets upstaged by Nobles, Cundo and Franny Kaufman, a girl with wild hair who lives at his hotel. Leonard has an incredible gift for character and dialogue; nearly all of the major players in LaBrava are memorable in some way.

If Leonard tends to have a fault, it's his plots. Generally, they're either too loose and unstructured or they're too structured and overly predictable. LaBrava strikes a nice balance. The story moves swiftly, keeps you guessing and delivers one major shock mid-book that catapults the novel to even higher tension. So what if the climax is a bit expected? This is definitely one of Leonard's most tightly-plotted novels.

His prose remains a gift. Leonard ignores all the rules of punctuation and grammar to get the story told, and he does it without seeming pretentious. Other writers attempting his style would seem like authors deliberately trying to be "experimental" or "cutting-edge." Not Leonard. He is simply telling the story in a direct, true-to-life way. From his pen drop gems like "I see 'em come in with no socks on, I know they've got a portfolio full of social commentary." There's such a striking combination of wit and realism in his writing.

There was a discussion when LaBrava went around the block from Ocean Drive to Collins and headed south to Fifth Street to get on the MacArthur Causeway. Maurice said, we're going north, what do you want to go south for? Why didn't you go up to Forty-first street, take the Jessica Tuttle? LaBrava said, because there's traffic up there on the beach, it's still the season. Maurice said, eleven o'clock at night? You talk about traffic, it's nothing what it used to be like. You could've gone up, taken the Seventy-ninth Street Causeway. LaBrava said, you want to drive or you want me to?--- (page 11)

The novel's ending is fairly satisfying, if a little truncated-feeling. Another few pages of wrap-up would have been welcome, but that's not Leonard. He rarely has much falling action; he prefers to wrap things up at the climax.

In short, LaBrava is another excellent novel from Leonard, probably one of the finer ones of his that I've read. It's a highly original story of crime that's neither a mystery nor a thriller, but something all its own. And Elmore Leonard can write a line of dialogue like practically no other author.

NEXT UP: Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, a popular author of "cosy mysteries"

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, 2005

The Outlander saga clocked in at around 4000 pages by the end of the fourth volume, Drums of Autumn. The series is a truly scale-breaking story, one so complicated and intertwined that even the most faithful fans will need to check Gabaldon's companion volume or website from time to time while reading The Fiery Cross, the massive fifth chapter of the sprawling cycle.

The sheer size of the Outlander books is simultaneously a positive and a negative thing. It's positive because there's so much room to develop the characters that I love, and a negative thing because the sheer scope allows more room for authorial slip-ups.

Unfortunately, The Fiery Cross is the first Outlander novel to feel truly marred by those mistakes and missteps. It's a book that switches constantly from engrossing to dry, from utterly original to disappointingly formulaic. It's a 1000-page mess of a book, really.

When we last left the time-traveling Fraser clan, they were cozily ensconced on their North Carolina homestead in 1771. After more than twenty years of adventure, separation and loss, the family is finally together.

But Claire, Brianna and Roger have brought knowledge with them from the future: knowledge of the impending American Revolution, a bloody conflict whose seeds are being sown even as the Frasers struggle to survive in the hostile wilderness.

This being a Diana Gabaldon novel, there's also a couple of gruesome surgeries, a mystical ghost-bear, a couple of battles, a cache of mysterious treasure, murder, contested paternity, potty-training and many, many sex scenes.

It's hard to imagine how a book with this much story crammed into it could be slow, but Gabaldon manages it. The plot is-- well, there really isn't one. There are many subplots and sub-subplots and a great deal of drama, but the novel really feels more like an eighteenth-century slice of life than anything else.

The previous volumes were all incredibly busy epics in which the overarching story was affected in every chapter. In The Fiery Cross the status remains quo throughout. The Frasers are in more or less the same situation at both the beginning and end of the book.

There are more problems, too. The book definitely seems like it was incompetently edited. Redundant scenes, purple prose, awkward sentences, unnecessary interludes, continuity errors and recycled pieces of prose pop up throughout. Especially annoying are the turns of phrase (such as "comically blank" and "pleasantly muzzy") that are repeated over and over. A firm editorial hand could have fixed many of the book's most egregious errors.

Some segments are downright painful to wade through: the 160+ page beginning, which takes place entirely at a huge gathering of American Scots, is a punishing read. Proceedings move at a snail's pace, killing the book's momentum before it even gets started. It's an outrageously miscalculated opening for the book.

And the sex. There are so many scenes of sex between the two main couples that it seems to be a writing crutch for Gabaldon. It happens far too often and is far too lavishly described. There can be no doubt that Gabaldon is a pretty terrific romance writer, but she should realize that her preoccupation with sexuality sometimes gets in the way of the story.

It may seem like I'm being hard on the novel, but I only criticize it because I love the series and the characters so much. Gabaldon is capable of a special kind of brilliance and it's too bad to see that the overall novel is a bit of disappointment.

There's a great deal to love, though. When she's at her peak, Gabaldon can run rings around lesser writers. She has a fantastic understanding of history, and an even better understanding of human beings.

In Jamie and Claire, she has created two of the finest characters I've ever read about. The longtime reader has an enormous history with them. They're both in their early fifties now, but we've watched them progress since they were in their twenties. Gabaldon continues to deepen them throughout Cross. The chapter in which they share their frustrations over past lovers is a prime example of the kind of character development Gabaldon is capable of:

We closed the barn door and walked back to the house in silence, hand in hand.

"Claire," he said suddenly, sounding like a little shy.


"I dinna mean to excuse myself--not at all. It's only I was wondering. . . do ye ever. . . think of Frank? When we. . ." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Does the shadow of the Englishman perhaps cross my face-- now and then?"

And what on earth could I say to that? I couldn't lie, surely, but how could I say the truth, either, in a way he would understand, that wouldn't hurt him?

I drew a deep breath and let it out, watching the mist of it purl softly away.

"I don't want to make love to a ghost," I said at last, firmly. "And I don't think you do, either. But I suppose every now and then a ghost might have other ideas."

He made a small sound that was mostly a laugh.

"Aye," he said. "I suppose they might. I wonder if Laoghaire would like the Englishman's bed better than mine?"

"Serve her right if she did," I said. "But if you like mine, I suggest you come and get back into it. It's
bloody cold out here."--- (page 877)

Roger also got a lot of attention in The Fiery Cross. Indeed, his narration is threatening to overtake Claire's, while Jamie and Brianna only narrate brief segments.

I do like Roger, who is definitely Gabaldon's favorite punching bag (kidnapped and tortured by Indians in Drums, he gets hung and left for dead in this installment, prompting Claire to perform emergency throat surgery). His developing relationship with Jamie is wonderfully handled by Gabaldon, who draws subtle parallels between Roger's growing attachment to Jamie and the loss of his own father when he was small.

Brianna is still the most one-dimensional of the four main characters, and this volume gives her little room to shine. She's endearing and likable, but not as real to me as Jamie, Claire or Roger. Maybe Book 6 will give her more screen-time and more development.

The book's middle is definitely saggy, but Cross picks up a lot during the final pages, giving the characters a huge amount of new information on time-travel and bringing back Ian, one of my favorite characters in the series.

A few big questions remain unanswered. Why did Ian leave the Mohawk village? Who fondled Claire during the night at River Run? Can the Frasers jump-start the Revolution? What about the newspaper clipping reporting their deaths by fire? Is Jemmy Roger's or Stephen Bonnet's (my prediction: Bonnet)? Gabaldon definitely does a bang-up job of leaving you hungry for more.

Ultimately, The Fiery Cross feels like the first placeholder in the Outlander series and the first time that Gabaldon has really seemed to be struggling a bit.

Does that mean that it's a bad book? Good God, no. It's sometimes infuriating, sometimes disappointing, but it's also a rich immersion in Gabaldon's world, a place that feels real enough to touch, with characters more complex and rounded than just about any you're likely to find. Gabaldon is still capable of fairly staggering feats of writing. I just hope she tightens the plot in her next entry. And finds a new editor.

NEXT UP: Elmore Leonard's LaBrava