Diana Gabaldon, “Outlander”

Careful, now. The electronic version of Outlander doesn’t bear a warning label, but it should. It would say something like, “Reading this book may cause complete absorption in an imaginary world. Side effects could include missing deadlines, neglecting children, skipping meetings, excessive daydreaming and faint dissatisfaction with real life.” I could print a bunch of labels with this warning and go slap them onto copies in the nearest book store, just so the readers of America might get through the holidays with a modicum of efficiency. But I suspect the Starz mini-series has probably gotten everyone all excited about time travel and handsome kilted redheads, and my warning would go unheeded.

Standing Stones of Callanish. A stone like one of these launches Claire back in time.

Standing Stones of Callanish. A stone like one of these launches Claire back in time.

Here’s the thing about Outlander: it’s so much better than you might think. I’ve missed out on Diana Gabaldon’s books largely, I think, because book stores and Amazon have classed them as romance novels. Which they are, in part. The central relationship in Outlander is between the plucky sardonic Claire Beauchamp and the glamorous Scot Jamie Fraser. Of course the crucial element to any romance novel is the force that’s going to prevent the interesting couple from uniting, or that will tear them apart. Gabaldon’s got a doozy: Claire is a 20th century person, while Jamie lives 200 years earlier. Claire gets catapulted backward in time when she visits a ring of standing stones near Inverness just after World War II. It’s a great device, because everything we’d want to know about Highland Scotland in that period is as strange to her as it is to us, so the usual historical-novel exposition is presented as Claire’s discovery. What’s more there are plenty of other sources of conflict. The adorable Jamie is a wanted man, outlawed by the English who rule Scotland. He’s made an enemy of a sadistic English army officer, Jonathan Randall, who is not only the ancestor but also the very image of Claire’s 20th century husband. So adventures ensue. Cue galloping through the heather, cold castles, endless violence and lots of sex. Some of it in the heather, some in the cold castles. Claire gets herself in trouble, Jamie rescues her; Jamie gets himself in trouble, Claire rescues him. And always, the gulf of 200 years between them looms. But that’s a reductive way to talk about Outlander, because Gabaldon writes with energy, elegance, and a sense of humor (not a standard component in escape literature). In fact at times, Outlander reminded me of my personal historical-fiction benchmark, the Lymond novels of Dorothy Dunnett. Not just for the Scottish component, but because Outlander, like the Dunnett books, lets you live vicariously at a high pitch of drama. So when you put the book down, you look around somewhat befuddled. In fact, you’ve time-traveled. Nice trick, Ms. Gabaldon!

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Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat”

If I say that The Boys in the Boat is like Seabiscuit, only with humans, and on water, I mean no disrespect. How could I? This is one of those heart-warming sagas of effort rewarded and character winning the prize. If the tale of the 1936 American crew team winning the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics is a feel-good story, Daniel James Brown endows it with total legitimacy. You’d have to be a terrible cynic not to be touched by it.


The boys — courtesy husky crew.com

Here’s the premise: in the early 1930s the University of Washington had a pretty good rowing program. On the east coast, crew tended to be the province of prep-school boys but in Seattle, it was a sport for big boys from hardscrabble backgrounds. Brown had the good luck to find, as the focus of his book, a character named Joe Rantz. When he was a child Joe’s family encountered one misfortune after another and eventually the teenage boy was left to fend for himself, which he did with stoicism and resourcefulness. He got himself to the University of Washington and into the boathouse where he met with… well, a new family of sorts.

Look, we know from the start they’re going to win, right? So Brown’s task is to provide the conflicts. Actually, no — life provided the conflicts. The Depression. The Dust Bowl. Can Joe stay in school? Can he afford to eat? Can he learn to row? Can he get along with the other seven rowers and coxswain in his boat? It’s by no means easy. What Brown does particularly well is shift from the micro story of Joe’s progress to the broader narrative of the development of the Washington team. On the broader canvas, there’s the upcoming conflict: can the plucky clean-living Americans beat the Nazi sports machine?  And, even more important, Brown brings out the nearly spiritual aspect of rowing, which at its best depends on a sublimation of the individual to the larger unit. What’s more he manages to convey a shadow of what it might be like, to be part of that unit. He doesn’t shy away from the sensory experience: here’s a scene where the boys are rowing on the Hudson river, returning to the boat house from a workout before a big regatta, after sunset:

“But they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady…. they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness. Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment…. They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black voice among the stars,… and it was beautiful.”

The Boys in the Boat has apparently been a big word-of-mouth success, and I can see why. This is the story that we, as Americans, want to hear about ourselves: that we’re plucky and decent and dig deep when it matters, and that these qualities will bring us the big prizes. When that much-loved story is told as well as this, there’s no reason not to enjoy it.

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Lee Child, “Personal”

Apparently deep in the shadiest corners of the U.S. Army there is a very old and neglected  general named O’Grady who refers to Jack Reacher as “Sherlock Homeless.”

Which just goes to remind all of us that one of Lee Child’s unsung charms is his sense of humor.

Another one is the fact that he writes so far above his pay grade — as his characters might say. To put it more bluntly, what sells books like Personal is the swift story telling and probably the violence. The laconic elegance of the prose is just an extra. But it’s what gets me buying, because I do not need to read 1500 words detailing every single blow from Reacher’s massive fists as he reduces an English gangster to bloody rubble. There’s a lot of that in Personal, maybe even more than usual. Probably because there was more one-on-one conflict since this time the grudge match was…. you saw the title, right?

The amazing thing is that Child keeps this franchise going while still ticking all the boxes. This time around, Reacher doesn’t sleep with anyone. The female sidekick (present largely to handle the personal electronics; I’ve mentioned this shortcoming of Reacher’s before) is called Casey Nice. And she is. Also tense, carrying around a vial of Zoloft which gets consumed as Reacher’s knuckles work harder. Reacher’s relationship to her is avuncular, which is appropriate, but that’s one component missing. Otherwise, the story gets going with an assassination attempt on the President of France and one of the candidates for the shooter turns out to be someone Reacher put in jail 15 years earlier. Lots of fascinating info about bullet-proof glass (not kidding) and the security arrangements for G8 meetings (also not kidding). Chasing around London, guns, cars, shards of glass, the aforesaid punching. You almost get the sense that Reacher might like reading these books if he weren’t so busy with his fists.

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Tana French, “The Secret Place”

One of the little thrills of contemporary life: when you pre-order a book and it shows up magically on your Kindle. Even if I know it’s going to happen, I find it exciting. And of course when the book is Tana French’s latest, I’m beside myself!

Only. Oh, dear. Maybe it’s me. I hope it’s me. Unreasonable expectations. But I didn’t actually love The Secret Place. Too slow. Too talky. A little too loopy. And you know, French is such a wonderful writer you’ll give her all kinds of liberties you wouldn’t let anyone else have. Here, for instance, incidental paranormal activity never gets resolved. (Can those girls really levitate small objects and burn out light bulbs?) Lots of supercharged description of nature, maybe ghosts — actually in a way French is edging up to the wonderful Fred Vargas, whose procedural mysteries routinely incorporate the supernatural. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that The Secret Place got a little…. tedious.

Hyacinths are placed on the body. Less of a clue than you might have thought.

Hyacinths are placed on the body. Less of a clue than you might have thought.

Here’s the premise: a young man is killed on the grounds of a posh Irish boarding school. He’s a student at St. Colm’s and his body is found next door at the girls’ school, St. Kilda’s. There’s a lot of routine procedural stuff: how he got over the wall, who texted whom, which girls fancied which boys, etc. French spends enormous energy on the supercharged atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school, which I tell you as a kind of warning. It’s effective, but intense. Lots of minute scrutiny, he-said, she-said, hormones, lipgloss, mean nuns, and Uggs.

The narrator is Stephen Moran, a young detective called in to work with the abrasive Antoinette Conway who is widely loathed in the Dublin Murder Squad. Young, easy-going, he coaxes answers out of the packs of girls. French has chosen to honor the dramatic unities of time and place in The Secret Place, so it mostly occurs (with flashbacks), in the course of a day, on the grounds of St. Kilda’s. The suspects are narrowed down to two sets of friends, one group of superficial bitches (think Mean Girls with Irish accents) and one set of thoughtful, quirky girls who see their friendship as nearly magical.

Have you noticed this about French? It’s all about the friendships. Remember The Likeness? Remember the wistful, can’t-get-out-of-his own way Scorcher Kennedy in Broken Harbor? Families just do your head in, romances stutter to a stop, but friendship offers the only real barrier against loneliness in French’s universe. In the course of the day at St. Kilda’s, Moran and Conway work together easily. The hackles come down, they tiptoe toward trusting each other, Moran ruminates about a lifetime of calculated choices and begins to see how that might change.

One of the girls, of course, is a murderer. In this book, though, it’s just a little too easy to lose track of that.

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Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

You know how I just said The Silkworm was terrific summer reading? Well, it is. But actually, the one book you want to drag around in your canvas tote bag and get sunscreen all over is this one, All the Light We Cannot See. That is, if you want to be completely transported. If you want to wonder, while you’re not reading, what the characters are up to. If you want to see life a little bit differently when you’re done.

Do you like historical fiction? Of course you do, right? But there’s a lot of it out there, and too much of it features minor characters walking through various famous historical episodes full of costume description and attempts at antique-sounding dialogue. (I mean, I love Hilary Mantel, but she has a lot to answer for these days.) What’s much harder to find is historical fiction that’s both completely absorbing and that illuminates the period in question. (Which Ms. Mantel does in spades, of course.)

All the Light We Cannot See is set on the Breton island of St. Malo in the summer of 1944, and in the lives of the two principal characters as they work their way toward that spot. On the one hand, the blind girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, an intelligent and courageous teenager with a keen interest in natural history. On the other hand, Werner Pfennig, a mechanical genius swept up by the German army and sent to St. Malo to find illicit radio transmissions. The action toggles back and forth in micro-chapters, Werner/Marie-Laure, Werner/Marie-Laure, with forays into the long climactic days of the American bombing of St. Malo. It sounds confusing, I know, but Anthony Doerr keeps us firmly grounded. You will always know where you are, and when.

US 8th Air Force bombing St. Malo in August 1944

US 8th Air Force bombing St. Malo in August 1944

Oh, Anthony Doerr, what a writer! It apparently took him ten years to produce All the Light… and I’m not surprised. There is so much packed into it! Doerr is clearly a natural history buff and I am not, but he sweeps you right along with him — trees, clouds, insects, snails…. lots about snails. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing. And we’ve all read plenty about war, but Doerr’s treatment of the fear, the hunger, the grayness, the despair, and the aftermath is remarkable. It has much of the immediacy of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, which is saying a lot.

There’s a great deal of lyrical musing in this novel — not ordinarily my favorite thing. But Doerr’s point of view swoops in and out from the most private secrets of a character to the movements of the stars and those shifts in perspective help us put the personal, national, and even natural dramas into perspective. There’s been a lot of rumination and memorializing in this summer of military anniversaries. So much ruin trails in the wake of war. Doerr makes it personal, and vivid.

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Robert Galbraith, “The Silkworm”

Only you’re not fooled, are you? You know that Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling’s nom de plume. So you’ll probably be entertained by the conceit of The Silkworm, which is all about the true authorship of a novel. Oh, wait, I mean murder. No, actually, I do mean authorship. Because this second outing for the appealing detective Cormoran Strike is actually solved by high-powered literary analysis.

"Bombyx Mori" is a silkworm's Latin name. Here it is in all its life stages, except perhaps an Hermes scarf.

“Bombyx Mori” is a silkworm’s Latin name. Here it is in all its life stages, except perhaps an Hermes scarf.

Well, we never thought Ms. Rowling was going to write naturalist fiction, did we? And anyway, we mystery fans expect artificiality. We find it reassuringly unlike messy real life. That cosy closed world, where every piece of information may be valuable and the close scrutiny of the attentive reader is rewarded, lets us believe briefly in an ordered universe. But there’s something very stagy about The Silkworm. Yes, each chapter comes with a remarkably appropriate quotation from one of those vicious violent 17th-century English dramatists. And yes, the publishing characters are all quite satirically written. What’s more they even appear in the work-within-the-work, the novel Bombyx Mori that provides the McGuffin for the whole piece. This is where Galbraith/Rowling departs from mystery writers like Susan Hill or Tana French, whose plots derive from the everyday atmosphere of their books. With Galbraith/Rowling, the crimes seem to belong to another register entirely. It’s as if the characters in a slice-of-life drama suddenly stepped to the apron of the stage and started bellowing arias.

And yet weirdly, The Silkworm is not annoying. On the contrary. J. K. Rowling knows how to breathe life into a story. And while the solution to an especially gruesome murder is worked out, Strike limps around and pines for his brilliant assistant Robin though he’s too dense to realize it. And it snows all over London, a mentally challenged teenager hides clues in a stuffed monkey, people smoke too much and drink endless cups of tea. And before you know it, you’ve wolfed down a 450-page murder mystery without even realizing it. Three cheers for summer reading!

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Susan Hill, “The Various Haunts of Men”

Actually this is a three-fer because I’ve just whipped through the first three of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels. You might remember that last time I said I was slowing down the posts, and would share only what delighted me.

Well, friends. When a murder mystery you’ve already read seems more interesting the second time around, that’s reason to cheer. And when the first three books in a series are this complex and ambiguous — while still ticking all the boxes for us mystery-series junkies — I need to tell you about it.

J.M.W. Turner, "Scarborough Town and Castle" -- relevant to "The Risk of Darkness," but much more cheerful

J.M.W. Turner, “Scarborough Town and Castle” — relevant to “The Risk of Darkness,” but much more cheerful

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Susan Hill’s detective Simon Serrailler fits neatly into the mystery canon. Tall, handsome, charming, clever, he’s got a secret life as an artist (sensitive drawings of Venice: not sure I’d like them) and a complex family life. And while he’s total catnip to women, he is a real jerk to them. In fact at the end of The Risk of Darkness, which I just finished, we find Simon coming close to boorishness, and rescued only by his resolute introversion. But, hey, he’s coping with a serial child-murderer whom it took him two whole books to snag. (The first being The Pure in Heart.) So I guess he’s got an excuse.

His bad behavior isn’t quite so obvious in The Various Haunts of Men but this is a fellow who’s an expert at compartmentalization. This habit is threatened by his gifted and attractive new subordinate, DS Freya Graffham. Pay close attention to the way Hill uses her points of view: we get liberal doses of Freya here, as she tracks down a nasty psychopath. In fact throughout these books, Hill’s broad empathy and imagination take us into the minds of victims and criminals, cops and bystanders. She’s comprehensive and un-judgmental. Best of all, her startling plots breathe new life into a conventional literary form.

No, wait: best of all, there’s a new Susan Hill mystery coming out in November.

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