Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

The 5th book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, The Fiery Cross (2001) follows immediately after the events of book 4, and therefore maintains both the wonderful writing and interesting characters and settings we've become used to.

Jaime and Clair's relationship is still of course an idealized form of perfection, but that's okay -- I've always gotten the impression that Gabaldon knows this, and doesn't take it too far. It was nice to get to know Bree and Roger more, as they have really become an equal focus in the Outlander stories by now. Though I am quite disappointed that many other characters (especially Fergus) have fallen so far into the background as a result. I would love to have some scenes of his home life!

I love the way Gabaldon focuses on the smaller, domestic stories of settling and farming the frontier rather than so much on politics and battles. So much of history is taught from battle to battle, and one of the aspects of historical fiction that I like the best is the glimpse into how ordinary people might have lived, the troubles and worries they faced, and the joys that made their lives worth living. All of Gabaldon's detail on frontier-style medicine, especially Clair's penicillin research and makeshift hypodermic needles, were especially interesting.

At the risk of a spoiler, the only thing I didn't love about this book is that almost nothing actually happened, and what did happen was not good. Though I do love the day-to-day scenes, and recognize that major events were as few and far between for normal people back in those times as they are now, so the lack of major events is really more realistic. And I certainly appreciate that Gabaldon doesn't seem to have fallen into the trap that Jean Auel did (for instance) with her series and having so much happen in each book and especially having her heroine do so much. But I could have used one or two major happenings, preferably at least one good thing!

I am still really loving the series, and really look forward to the next book as we get closer to the American Revolution (back to those battles).

“While the Lord might insist that vengeance was His, no male Highlander of my acquaintance had ever thought it right that the Lord should be left to handle such things without assistance.” 

“......what I was born does not matter, only what I will make of myself, only what I will become.” 

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Just in time for the premier of the TV show later this month -- Neil Gaiman's book American Gods (2001) is a folk tale for the modern age with plenty of action and unexpected twists.

This is one of my favorite tropes / sub-genres: taking gods and other mythological elements and inserting them into the normal, current world in a way that explains how they appeared in stories of yore but are not apparent today. This book takes the added twist of contrasting the Old World gods with the modern phenomena that we 'worship' today through use and dependency.

Though the story and some character plots were not always easy to follow, the slight confusion was such that it put me in Shadow's (the main character) shoes. He never really fully knew what was going on, so when I was a little confused, I connected with him more.

The story was epic, the characters interesting and sometimes astounding, and overall this book was pure Gaiman heart and soul, which is always a good thing.

“People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Adichie

We Should all be Feminists (2015) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is similar in some ways to Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman -- the text of a speech (in this case a TED talk) by the author transferred to the written word in a dynamic and compelling manner.

I haven't seen the TED talk, but from the text of the book, I imagine an impassioned, interesting delivery, so I will certainly try to watch it sometime (I embedded the video below, so we can all watch together!).

The message is of course spot-on, and presented in such a straightforward, common sense way that I would be surprised if anyone could finish the (very, very short) book or speech and not agree that the concept that "feminism" is really just the idea that women are people too and should be treated as such. A must-read for everyone!
"The problem with gender if that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations." (p. 34)

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

Dominion (2012) by C.J. Sansom was exciting, disturbing, interesting, and -- given current events -- pretty depressing. The story offered an incredibly important view of "what if" the allies had tried appeasement and compromise in relation to Hitler's reign. In not fighting back against the evil, the allies became the evil.

Sansom did an especially good job of demonstrating how insidious nationalism can be, how dangerous the rhetoric of 'others' can be for all citizens, not just members of the 'other' groups. It was a stark reminder that targeting certain groups of people can seep into the core of a culture and lead to devastating consequences for not just the targeted groups but for everyone as well. I really try to avoid politics on this blog, but I can't help wondering -- are we there again, so gradually we didn't notice?

Outside of the message of the plot, the pacing of the story and writing was great -- definately a book I had trouble putting down! The characters were very well-developed, the settings described so well I could almost hear the strange echoes of footsteps running along the pavement in the fog, and the integration of real historical elements with fictional characters / events and speculation made for a very compelling read.

I truly reccomend this book to everyone based on the merits of the fiction by itself; the fact that the message is so resonant with current events is a bonus.
“Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.” ― C.J. Sansom, Dominion

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People (2014) by Jennifer McMahon is a wonderful book filled with excitement, mystery, troubling pasts, anticipation, and just enough of the supernatural (I won't say what kind -- that would give things away) to keep it interesting.

Flipping back and forth between the past and the present, I liked the connection that created, with the story weaving the two time periods together very effectively. The "New England" feel of both the setting and the story was very appealing and familiar to me as a life-long (and proud) New Englander myself.

Though the book has supernatural elements, the story was really more about loss and the relationships between mothers and daughters, both with good and especially with not-so-good associations, so don't let the idea of the supernatural turn you off if that's not normally your 'thing'. This is an excellent book to read in poor weather in a cozy chair with a hot drink. A perfect winter book (as the title implies)!

“I think people see what they want to see... But think about it: if you'd lost someone you love, wouldn't you give almost anything to have the chance to see them again?” 

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

While Beauty Slept (2014) by Elizabeth Blackwell is a beautiful, more realistic, behind-the-scenes tale of Sleeping Beauty. A very nice adaptation of the classic story, this time told from the perspective of one of Beauty's mother's ladies-in-waiting, therefore mostly taking place before Beauty is born and during her childhood and not focusing on her directly.

The characters were highly developed and entirely sympathetic (including, in some way, even the "evil queen"-type character); I felt like I knew all the main characters very well, and I could understand why they did they things they did. The setting was fairly standard fantasy medieval fare (not that there's anything wrong with that), and the story certainly kept me interested and engaged.

I really love this genre of re-telling classic stories / fairy tales from another perspective. I've really liked most of the from-the-villan's-view versions, but this was a good twist as well. Definitely worth reading.
“I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told. Those of humble birth suffer their heartbreaks and celebrate their triumphs unnoticed by the bards, leaving no trace in the fables of their time.” 
Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On to-reads and re-reading

I mentioned in my last post about my plans for my reading in the year ahead. While I don't like to plan too much (in favor of allowing myself some flexibility and spontaneity in what I read, especially if something interesting comes through the circulation desk here), I do like to have a good stack of to-reads at home. I like to balance picking books from my 'offical' To Read spreadsheet with being able to grab something randomly off the shelf if it catches my eye. I keep my To Read and Read spreadsheets color-coded by genre, in my attempt to keep a rough balance of the types of books I read, throwing in some non-fiction and mysteries in my fantasy and historical fiction choices, for instance.

One of the top items on my To Read list will be Tolkien's Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, which I will be re-reading with some friends / colleagues in conjunction with a new series by one of our favorite podcasters, StoryWonk. Hosted by a husband-and-wife team of writers, they've analyzed many great book, tv, and movie series, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Outlander to the MCU. Now they're about to dive deep into the Lord of the Rings, first the books and then the movies. I'm really looking forward to re-reading this series and seeing it from a new perspective via both the podcast series and my friends! Feel free to join in as well.

2017 might end up being the year of the series for me. In addition to the Tolkien books and the other series I mentioned last time (Outlander, Dark Tower, V.I. Warshawski, and Anne of Green Gables), I have many others near the top of my To Read list. I've been thinking about giving Agatha Christie a try, which might be a good contrast to the modern setting of the Warshawski mysteries, and once I finish Outlander and Dark Tower, I'll be moving on to the Dresden Files. After Anne of Green Gables, I'll pick another children's series. Perhaps a new one, or I might go back and re-visit my favorite of all time, the Little House books. Though I usually have a hard time justifying re-reading books when I have so many not-read ones on my To Read list, sometimes it's nice to find comfort in an old favorite.

Keep reading! Beth

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

2016: Reading Year in Review

Now that 2016 is well and truly behind us (thank goodness), I thought I might take a look back at my reading from the past year. I have a personal, ongoing goal of expanding my reading horizons and making sure I don't stick to my mainstay genres -- namely fantasy -- so I keep track of what I've read by genre and my own rating.

In 2016 I finished reading 73 books:

14 Fiction
1 YA Fiction
10 Children's Fiction
2 Fantasy
4 YA Fantasy
4 Children's Fantasy
2 Science Fiction
6 Historical Fiction
6 Mystery
1 Thriller
4 Non-Fiction
7 Memoirs
12 Graphic Novels (not including all the Marvel, DC, etc. comic books I read)

This included a re-read over the summer of the Harry Potter series (the first half of which I count as children's fantasy and the last few books of the series as YA fantasy), catching up to the Ruth Galloway mystery series, and beginning the Dark Tower series in anticipation of the movie (starring Idris Elba!) coming out this year.

I started and did not finish an additional 2 books:

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: I tried to read because of the hype, but I found the writing style to be very off-putting. Way too much telling and not enough showing, and after several chapters I still didn't feel that I actually knew any of the characters, even the main one.

Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by Jim Offaviani: As a graphic novel, I had hoped this would be a more accessible way to read a biography about Alan Turing's life and work. However in this case the drawings made it harder to understand -- the people all looked so similar I had no idea who was who, and I was just hopelessly lost right away.

On the other end of the spectrum, the books I rated a full five stars (in no particular order) were:

Ready Player One (science fiction) - Ernest Cline
Drums of Autumn (Outlander #4) (historical fiction) - Diana Gabaldon
Paper Towns (YA fiction) - John Green
Marvel 1602 (graphic novel) - Neil Gaiman
Dad is Fat (humor / memoir) - Jim Gaffigan
Darkest Part of the Forest (YA fantasy) - Holly Black
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (non-fiction) - Sarah Lohman [stay tuned for my review soon!]

All in all, I think it was a very successful reading year for me! Now I still have several series I'm continuing to juggle (Outlander, Dark Tower, Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski mystery series, and Anne of Green Gables) while also reading non-series books, and plenty more in my to-read list. So I'm really looking forward to what 2017 will bring (reading-wise...).

Keep reading!