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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
 
Adventurous, Romantic, Addictive
A historical romance with more than a few twists on the genre.

A well-written, meticulously researched, and rollicking great story.

Outlander offers plenty of fodder for discussion by fans of (or those new to) historical fiction, romance, fantasy, and even science fiction. Our book club loved it so much that we plan to read at least one more book in the series.

 
Dramatic, Interesting, Beautiful
Great premise, less than stellar execution.

A real human-interest mystery: what could possibly incite a small-town doctor and sheriff to disfigure the frozen body of a young woman so that she was unrecognizable? Unfortunately, the unraveling of this tangled web is choppy and sometimes difficult to follow.

Perhaps this is due to multiple characters and time settings (each main character is actually two: a 1987 self and a 2004 self; there are three main families, for a total of 18 important characters). But it feels like the story could have benefited from more depth and/or consistency.

 
Dramatic, Interesting, Beautiful
This book almost succeeds as a mystery and as a literary novel. Trying to figure out why it fails is fodder for interesting discussion.

Small flashes of brilliance can't quite make up for this novel's deficits. It can certainly hold a reader's interest; we all read it through voraciously. Unfortunately, if you read very closely, certain obstacles arise that are difficult to overcome.

You may have problems suspending disbelief from the very first skid. And if you allow that it really did happen that way (broken laws of physics aside), the main character is shown to be a bit foolish. As a matter of fact, it's hard to really empathize with any of the characters, who are drawn to varying degrees as clueless, unethical, or just plain mean.

The book jumps in and out of so many different points of view that it can be hard to follow. Many literary novels contain multiple points of view, though, and still manage to ring true. Readers can even empathize with a distasteful character, if the book is well written.

But this book was also missing a crucial element of the mystery genre: a surprise twist at the end that fits with earlier clues but wasn't obvious. The villains' fates and the explanation of past events did not shock, but the survivors' less-than-emotional reactions were appalling.

It seemed like the author, accustomed to cranking out mystery novels on a schedule, didn't take the time and revision necessary to stitch a literary novel together. It read like a hastily written draft, which is sad, because it could have been excellent.

Lipstick Jungle by Candace Bushnell
 
Clearly a ploy to get another television series going...not much of a book.

I haven't read anything else by Bushnell, but I like the few episodes of Sex & the City that I've seen. Lipstick Jungle, though, was an excruciating read—almost a chore to pick it up every time. I hope it's a better television show than book, but I'm still not likely to watch. I had a hard time identifying with the shallow, power-hungry characters. And there were too many impossibilities for me to suspend disbelief.

In this book women can be just as idiotic about money, sex, love, friendship, and family as some men can. There are a few redeeming bits, like older women who help out the younger ones. The characters are overtly feminist, but the story doesn't give me that warm feeling of sisterhood I can get from other books that aren't so in-your-face about the monetary success of a few select female individuals.

While the book doesn't succeed for me as feminist art, I have to hand it to Bushnell for doing a good bit of feminist commerce. She must be at least as successful money-wise as Dan Brown.

Trinity by Leon Uris
 
Informative, Epic, Dramatic
A truly in-depth view of the prejudices and injustices that lay beneath Ireland's Troubles.

Conor is a stunning athlete and heir to a Republican Brotherhood leadership role. His best friend is the movement's most renowned writer, and the love of his life turns out to be a doomed Protestant girl Conor meets while playing professional rugby.

The Protestant side is explored as well; an iron-fisted factory owner and his highborn wife seem to have it all, but end up feeling the sting of loss as well.

Uris has created a tragedy of stunning proportions, all the more powerful because it's based, sadly, on real history.

 
Romantic, Adventurous, Addictive
This second book in the series delves even deeper into the politics leading to the Jacobite uprising in 1745.

Another fabulous read from Gabaldon. Here's a plot summary:

Claire and Jamie arrive in Paris determined to prevent the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, from trying to regain his kingdom. Having visited the clan gravestones at Culloden field 200 years in the future, Claire knows that the campaign is doomed and will sink Scotland into misery for the next two centuries.

Jamie befriends Prince Charles—a hard-drinking, womanizing young man who is kept at arm's length by his royal cousin, Louis XIV. At the same time, Jamie's management of his uncle's wine and liquor supply business gains him entree into Louis XIV's court. Playing both sides is dangerous, and he enlists the help of a young pickpocket, Fergus, whom Jamie rescued from a brothel. In order to avoid having to rut with the whores Charles surrounds him with, Jamie spreads a rumor that Claire is a Dame Blanche, a White Lady, who can tell if he's been unfaithful and can shrivel a man's equipment with a mere glance.

Pregnant and bored with a life planning dinner parties, Claire insists upon going to work at a charity hospital. From the mysterious apothecary Raymond, she learns that someone is trying to kill her. Claire figures it is probably the shifty-eyed Comte St. Germain, who lost a hold full of valuable wine when Claire diagnosed one of his sailors with the pox.

Unfortunately, Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall—supposedly killed in Jamie's prison break—re-enters their lives when he comes to visit his brother Alex, who is employed by the possible Jacobite sympathizer Duke of Sandringham. Jamie tries to restrain his fury, but challenges Randall to a duel after Randall is caught coveting Fergus's young bum. Desperately trying to stop Jamie from killing her future husband's ancestor, pregnant Claire rushes to the Bois du Bologne in time to see Randall fall in a rush of blood.

The shock is too much, and Claire loses her baby. Dying of childbed fever in the hospital where she once worked, Claire is visited by the froglike apothecary Raymond. His surprising cure is both physical and emotional, and Claire recovers. Her friend and Charles' erstwhile lover, Louise de la Tour, takes Claire to the country to recover. No sign of Jamie; Claire figures he has already left on a mission to prevent Prince Charles from making a huge profit on a shipment of rare port wine. She is therefore shocked into action when Louise lets slip that Jamie is actually in prison, on King Louis's orders, for dueling.

Claire must petition the king for Jamie's freedom, and the others warn her that Louis always demands a price for his favor. She can't let that stop her, and goes to visit Louis in his bedchamber. Louis, instead of bedding her, sets a task before Claire. In an adjoining room, two men stand accused of dabbling in the occult: she is to determine their respective guilt. They are the Comte St. Germain and Raymond, the apothecary. Quoting from the Bible, St. Germain handles a harmless snake to prove his innocence. Also quoting, Raymond provides a cup of "poison" that all must drink from, saying the pure of heart will not be harmed. Of course, the cup is harmless to Raymond and Claire but fatal to St. Germain.

So Jamie is freed, his attempt to prevent Charles from profiting on the wine shipment succeeds, and Jamie and Claire return to Scotland and Lallybroch—hoping to live out the rest of their lives in peace.

Until the mail comes one day, including a broadsheet naming the supporters of Prince Charles' bid to regain his throne. In a fit of friendly generosity, Charles had signed Jamie's name to it. Now Jamie and Claire must throw everything into supporting Charles, in a desperate bid to change the course of history. If they fail, Jamie risks the traitor's punishment. They join Charles in battle and follow him to Edinburgh. There, Claire is shocked to be approached by Jack Randall, who seeks her medical expertise in exchange for intelligence about British movements.

The mystery of her future husband Frank's survival despite Randall's inability to conceive children is solved, and it gradually becomes obvious that there is no way to alter the course of history. Grimly, it continues to march toward deadly Culloden, sweeping Jamie and Claire along.

But Jamie has a plan. He has realized that Claire is with child again, and he takes her to the circle of standing stones. With no hope for himself, he wants his child to survive. Claire is sent back through time, and Jamie returns to Culloden to die in battle.

Or does he?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
 
Adventurous, Interesting, Dramatic
Interesting idea diminished by sophomoric writing and unbelievable conclusion.

I finally broke down and read it, thinking there had to be something there, if it was so popular. Unfortunately, I could not buy the idea of who the real villain was, and Brown's calculatedly suspenseful style (a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter) was irritating.

 
Brilliant, Interesting, Graphic
Mind-bending storytelling that blends science fiction with a sort of metafictional consciousness.

For such a famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five is extremely easy to read while being richly layered. Note that its subtitle is very important: The Children's Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death.

Throughout the book there are references to the Children's Crusade, a scam by which European priests hoped to sell street children to Africa by getting them to join a supposed crusade, hopping on ships that were to take them to their new life as slaves. This subtext enhances the confusing and absurd motions of war that the characters experience, especially as the soldiers themselves are frequently called babies.

Great reading it may be, but the author knew it would never stop war. Might as well write an anti-glacier book, a friend told him.

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