Monday, February 29, 2016

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015) is the not-quite-a-sequel follow-up to Rowell's Fangirl (which I loved and have been recommending to so many people!). This spin-off was such an interesting concept: in Fangirl, the main character spent the entire book writing fanfiction for her favorite fantasy series. This is that story she was writing, her version of the last book in a very Harry Potter-esq fantasy series.

I was very impressed by how Rowell managed to write a story that was clearly the final book in the series, but still made sense to read as a stand-alone. I liked that in Fangirl, you saw the writing process and what Cath was going through when she was writing her story, and then we actually get to read the story that we got such tantalizing snippets of before.

Once again, Rowell has written great characters that are flawed but very likeable. You really root for them. This was of course incredibly similar to Harry Potter in basics, but she had plenty of specific details that really set it apart from that series. I especially liked the way she dealt with the rules of the magic in her world. I loved the connection to literature, cliché phrases, and nursery rhymes, and the message that not only do words have power but common phrases have more; the more ingrained in popular culture a phrase is, the more power it has.

Overall, this was an interesting, funny, and magical story for fans and non-fans of fantasy alike! Highly recommended with Fangirl (which is really worth reading first but not totally necessary).
“Sometimes when I’m walking through the dining hall, just saying hello to people, she’ll drag me by my sleeve to hurry me up.
“You have too many friends,” she’ll say.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not possible. And, anyway, I wouldn’t call them all ‘friends.’”
“There are only so many hours in the day, Simon. Two, three people — that’s all any of us have time for.”
“There are more people than that in your immediate family, Penny.”
“I know. It’s a struggle.” 
Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (2015) by Ruth Reichl is part memoir, part cookbook -- very similar to many of Nigel Slater's books (all of which I love) -- filled with both stories and recipes.

Following the year after the closure of Gourmet magazine in 2009 (RIP), and using her tweets from that time as the foundation of the story, it was a nice glimpse into what she went through following the abrupt closure of the magazine, and then later through the process of writing this book, and the beginnings of becoming a fiction author.

I liked that she didn't play up the 'sappy' quality of some of her tweets, and seemed to be pretty honest about what she went through and how she felt. I empathized with how personally she took the closure of the magazine as its Editor, and how responsible she felt for not only the readers of the magazine but also the dozens of employees put out of a job so suddenly by its sudden and totally unexpected closure.

And the recipes themselves looked wonderful. Some were complex and involved, but many were simple meals cooked to comfort herself and/or provide for her family. I love these kinds of cookbooks that give insight into not only what the recipe is about, but also the process of coming up with the idea as much as making it. That's the kind of thing that really inspires me!
"Sleepy gray afternoon. Storm blows in: pounding rain. Pasta sizzled in oil. Chile-sparked. Tang of bottarga. Splash of lemon. Awake!" (p. 266)
Keep reading! Beth

Monday, February 22, 2016

New Podcast Series

I promise I won't bombard this blog with posts every time we put an episode up, but I wanted to share that I have recently started podcasting with a colleague. We have started our series Hey! Listen! as part of the Diffle Presents podcast, where Michael and I will be talking all things geek and gamer-related every week. The first episode is up, where we give a bit of an intro about ourselves and our gaming histories. Next week we'll be talking about the original NES specifically, then the week after that, Xbox v. Playstation. We be getting into all things video games, comics, movies, tv shows, and more! Hope you'll join us for this series and all the other great episodes of the Diffle Presents.

Check out the episode here. Be sure to subscribe to new posts on the Diffle Presents page for new episodes of Hey! Listen! every week.

Keep reading, Beth

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Girl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

I'm continuing my goal of reading more graphic novels this year, with one that is fairly unique in its style, story, and artwork. No superheroes here! Rather, Girl in Dior (2015) by Annie Goetzinger is all glamour and glitz rather than action and adventure. 

Filled with beautiful artwork featuring many of Dior's classic designs, this book was visually wonderful. Though I can hardly be considered a fashion expert, I certainly appreciated how pretty the dresses were, and I liked how the story addressed how they were received by the public in both Paris and the US.

At times the story was slightly hard to follow, but some of the strangeness in the text is most likely due to the fact that it was translated from the original French. And I thought it was an interesting choice to write a fictional story about a woman who didn't exist, but who interacted closely with actual people. Overall, this was a very simple, sweet story with beautiful drawings -- well worth the roughly half-hour that it takes to read. 

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Roundtable: Outlander #1-2 by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel into the land of mist and myth

Outlander is very popular here at the DFL; many staff members have read the books and/or watched the recent TV show, and so it is a frequent topic of discussion. I watched the show when it first came out – and loved it – so I've finally decided to dive in to the books themselves. I'll be offering my thoughts on each book in the series as I read them through the rest of this year. Today, I’ll start with the first two books in the series (which to me were really two halves of a self-contained story), with the additional perspectives of three of my lovely colleagues. 

Outlander (1991) and Dragonfly in Amber (1992) together tell the story of the tail end of the Scottish uprising of the mid-1700s, which ended with the Battle of Culloden, from the perspective of Claire – a WWII nurse who accidentally travels back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. The books touch upon many fascinating subjects, both reality – including daily life, health care, and politics in the 18th century (and even to a certain extent, mid-20th century) – and fantasy/sci fi, such as: can events in the past ever be changed, or is history always set in stone? And intertwined throughout is romance, adventure, and intrigue.

I had heard so much about the Outlander series and always felt I should read them, but I’ll confess that the thickness of the books made me stay clear of them for a long time. A couple of summers ago, I caved and started reading the first one. The TV show was coming out and I wanted the visions in my head before Hollywood provided them for me. Before I knew it, the end of August arrived and I had read through the whole series. I was hooked and ready to fly to Scotland.

Call them romance, historical fiction, fantasy, or adventure – the series crosses many genres.  They left me wanting to do a little research on the Battle of Culloden and Scottish history. They left me trying to learn a few words in Gaelic. They left me wondering what I did with my old kilt and instead of thinking ‘Don’t worry’ I found myself thinking ‘Dinna fash.’

They also left me wondering if – given the chance – would I go back in time?  Luckily I don’t have to decide. I can take my 21st century knowledge and live in a Scottish castle. I can learn about medicinal herbs and sleep on a bed of pine needles, but I can do it with electricity, and modern medicine . . . and coffee. . . hot coffee in the morning. I can travel through pages (instead of stones) into the world of romance, loyalty, and honor created by Diana Gabaldon.

Give them a try. If you're also intimidated by the thickness of the books, try the audio. There is nothing like a commute to work while listening to someone profess their love with a Scottish brogue.

I really wanted to like Outlander. It has story elements that I enjoy: a smart and strong female lead, historical fiction, and some magic. But the story just never drew me in and although I am glad that I read this, I didn’t actually like it. It even left me confused, and wondering what about this massively popular story I am not getting.

One common theme that rarely holds my interest is what I think of as the “Too Many Boyfriends” scenario, which is when lots of male characters are lusting after the female protagonist, and a love triangle is part of the main story. I tend to find that dynamic annoying because it seems to be a lazy way for an author to show the importance of a female protagonist. Claire has two husbands, both love her eternally and completely, and she’s also constantly being ogled, commented upon, and pawed by both friendly and antagonistic male characters.

This was also a more violent story than I was expecting, and that bothered me. As someone who really enjoys the Song of Ice and Fire series, I can handle violence in novels. But the violence here was often justified in a way that made me uncomfortable. Jamie beats Claire at one point and she comes to forgive him because he explains that he did it out of love for her. Jamie speaks about the beatings he received from his father as being a sign of love. Claire and Jamie’s whole relationship in general seems to hinge on the fact the he is horribly hurt over and over, and she heals him. Throw in some added baby exposure and bare-handed wolf killing, and it was all too much for me.

There was also an element of gay panic to this story. There is an ancillary gay character who is predatory with a predilection for adolescent men, but who is also written off as a buffoon and an object of ridicule for the other characters. And then, of course, there is Captain Randall (I won’t say too much – spoilers!). Also, the fact that Captain Randall looks exactly like Claire’s other husband, Frank, made me wonder what sort of strange symbolism that was supposed to represent.

So, what am I missing? Why do people love this series? Is it better as a TV show?

I enjoyed Outlander far more than I expected to. Romance novels aren’t really my thing, but the historical element drew me to the series (as well as the urging of several coworkers) and I am so glad that I read them.

At first, I was displeased by the “woman loves two men and has to choose” story arc but Gabaldon made Claire come alive for me and instead of a torrid love story, I saw a woman doing the best she could under extraordinary circumstances. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here but I really loved how Gabaldon took common themes like abduction, rape, and rescue and flipped them. This damsel spent as much time rescuing as being rescued and all characters carried the scars of their encounters. Nothing was easily won or easily forgotten, which contributed to the depths of the characters and my attachment to them. Obviously the time comes when Claire must choose between her two men and I have to admit that I cheered at her choice. In all I was pulled into this book and taken for a ride that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It’s worth noting that Lindsey, Suzanne, and I started reading #1 together after the first season of the show aired. Lindsey and Suzanne – neither of whom watched the show before reading the books – both mentioned that they had a bit of a hard time getting into the story at the beginning (one of whom ended up really getting into the series, the other didn’t – I’ll let you guess which is which). But I watched the show first, and had no trouble getting into the story at all. While I don’t usually recommend watching a show or movie before reading the book, in this case I can’t help but wonder if the show helped me get into the book because it was so great. I was impressed once I did read the book how closely the show stuck to the original story. In fact, there were quite a few details in which I thought the show even improved the book, specifically where the it could 'show' something that the book only 'told'.

Overall, I thought that the characters were wonderfully complex, the setting incredibly interesting, the writing was great, and I really appreciated that by the end of #2, almost all the different threads brought up in #1 were resolved, so that none of the specific story lines felt like they dragged out too much, but rather ended in a very satisfactory manner (which of course left an opening for many other adventures in the rest of the series).

While I too was occasionally bothered by what might have been a little bit too much sexual violence for the sake of sexual violence, I did feel that Gabaldon was trying to make a point about what the reality was like for women in the 18th century (and most of history before and even after that). For most of written history (at least in terms of Western / European history), women have been considered the property of their fathers and husbands, and sadly I think it was more common than not for men to take advantage of this. I thought the books did a good job of expressing how anathema that would be to a modern woman, and really helped immerse my mind in the attitudes of the era.

At the end, I was very satisfied with the way that this story (in books #1-2) addressed the fascinating question of whether or not we can change the past, in both large and small ways. While it makes me sad that time travel may always remain science fiction, perhaps it’s for the best, and at least we can always travel to any time period through books, shows, and movies. And, as Karen pointed out, can do so from the comforts of our own heated, clean living rooms with a nice cup of tea and some cookies!

Keep reading! Beth

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ruth Galloway Series #2-4 by Elly Griffiths

Ruth Galloway mysteries is a series of books written by Elly Griffiths, which center around the life of one (surprise, surprise) Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at a university in the Norfolk region of England and occasionally consults with the local police in cases involving unidentified bones. Ruth is a very likable, endearing character who -- despite being the 'heroine' of her own series -- is definitely human enough (and makes enough mistakes) to be truly relatable. I have greatly enjoyed the series so far, and look forward to reading the rest soon!

For my review of the first book in the series, see this post from this past summer.

#2: The Janus Stone (2010)

I liked how realistic this story was, in the sense that lots of intelligent people contributed to solving the case, rather than one person displaying super-human skills of deduction. I also liked that at the end, though Ruth again was the one who ended up in danger, she saved herself just as much as (or more than) the men who rushed to her rescue.

#3: The House at Sea's End (2011)

One of the great things about this series is the secondary characters, and how they are developing as we get to know them better. Judy (the policewoman) is especially becoming an interesting character, unhappy as she already is in her new marriage. Of course Ruth ends up in mortal peril again in this book, but unlike the previous two books in the series, the ending was a total surprise; I had not guessed at all who the killer was and was totally fooled by all the twists in the story.

#4: A Room Full of Bones (2012)

Though in general, I'm not super thrilled by the whole affair story line developed early in the series, I do like the way Elly is handling the love triangle, and the continued development of the secondary characters. Cathbad especially is such an interesting character -- sometimes a bit too stereotypical, but always intriguing and very charming. I'm interested to see if he continues to be such a constant presence in the cases in future books. It's one of those instances where it feels like a bit of a stretch for him to be involved in every case (a bit along the lines of Ruth's involvement in the first place), but he's a such a great character I hope he sticks around.

The danger for a mystery series with a non-detective in the lead is that sometimes the ways to get the main character involved in each case gets more and more unrealistic. Ruth's involvement is addressed somewhat by her status as an official consultant, and of course there are plenty of local cases that are not mentioned that she has no hand in at all. Still, I hope that the core stories in each book continue to justify her central role in each investigation in a believable manner. Regardless, outside of the case details in each book (which are always interesting), it really is the characters that make these books worth reading.

Keep reading! Beth