Sunday, November 29, 2015

Staff Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I am late to the party. Almost everyone I know has either already read The Martian by Andy Weir or seen the movie. Aisha even wrote a post about the movie's (then) upcoming release on this blog. In a way, this is awesome. It's a very lonely feeling to read an awesome book and then have no one to talk about it with because (seemingly) no one else has read it yet. It's much more fun when everyone responds to "I really like this book I'm reading" with "OH YEAH THAT BOOK IS GREAT!"

Mostly though, I'm kicking myself. Two years ago I had access to an ARC (advance reader copy) of The Martian, but I never made it past the first page. I'd just read The Last Policeman and didn't feel up to reading another book where everything is balanced on the edge of disaster. Over the next two years as more and more people mentioned how much they loved The Martian, I became more and more convinced that this wasn't a book I wanted to read. I'm sure we've all had those moments where we tried something popular and thought, "What's the big deal?"

Avoiding something because it's popular is a guaranteed method to miss out on awesome things. However, I suspect that if I'd picked up the print edition, I would've been overwhelmed and disappointed. Happily, I listened to the audiobook narrated by R.C. Bray and that made all the difference. Bray is a perfect match for Mark Watney, the novel's main character and primary narrator. Bray's delivery captured Watney's wry, yet juvenile, humor and incredible optimism, as well as the personalities of the other characters. Bray somehow made even the most technically detailed descriptions of, say, canvas fabrication incredibly engaging. Seriously, there was a chapter that went into great detail on the design, manufacture, testing, and deployment of some fancy space canvas that had me on the edge of my seat.

I tore through the entire 11-hour audiobook over the course of four days. This is saying something because I had to give myself a break for a day after a particularly tense section (see above) and read a comic book. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I don't have an opinion on how they match up. I'm just not ready to live through that tension again, but I'll probably check it out once it's available on DVD. First though, I'll be checking out Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

If you haven't read The Martian yet, it's not too late!* On Tuesday, January 12th we'll be discussing The Martian by Andy Weir at our first book club meeting of 2016. We hope to see you there!

~Sarah, Adult Services

*It's never too late to read a good book!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

From Page to (Small) Screen - Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries

Thanks to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, period dramas are all the rage, especially if they take place in a foreign country and are produced by a foreign country's broadcasting corporation.  Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a period drama, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which makes sense, because the show takes place in Australia, specifically Melbourne in the 1920s.  ABC, BBC, it doesn't matter who produced this show, it is a wonderful period drama with an amazing lead character and oh my, the costumes!  I'll get to the costumes later.

Kerry Greenwood created the Honorable Phryne Fisher for her series of detective novels starting with Cocaine Blues in 1989.  Phryne (pronounced Fryne) is a wealthy aristocrat living in St. Kilda, Melbourne in 1928.  She is a 28-year-old detective who solves all types of crimes with the help of her maid, Dot, and a couple of taxi drivers named Bert and Cec.  Phryne was not always rich, when all the other male heirs in her father's line were killed, he inherited a title and a great deal of money.  She worked as an ambulance driver in France during WWI, as an artist model in Montparnasse (an area of Paris, France) after the war and eventually ends up in Melbourne.  She is an amazingly accomplished woman.  She can fly a plane (gasp!), drives her own car (the horror!) and sometimes she wears trousers (stop! I'm having heart palpitations!).  Phryne is a bohemian, but she is incredibly stylish and classy at the same time. 

When ABC was looking to adapt a crime novel for television, Kerry Greenwood's series was brought to their attention.  In June of 2011, ABC commissioned a thirteen-part series to air the following year.  Thus, the wonderful, visually appealing, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries television show was born. 

The main cast of characters from the book appear in the television show. In addition to Phryne there is:
  • Detective Inspector John "Jack" Robinson - a police detective who reluctantly works with Miss Fisher
  • Dorothy "Dot" Williams - Miss Fisher's companion/maid, she is a devout Catholic and often acts as Miss Fisher's moral compass and voice of reason
  • Constable Hugh Collins - Inspector Robinson's right hand man
  • Mr. Butler - Miss Fisher's loyal butler
  • Bert Johnson and Cec Yates -Taxi drivers, devout communists, often assist Miss Fisher in her investigations
What makes this show so wonderful is the fantastic cast, the interesting (and sometimes over-the-top) cases Phryne gets involved with, the chemistry between the characters and last, but not least, the clothing.  Phryne's wardrobe is an incredible collection of 20s and 30s fashion.  The costume designer for the show, Marion Boyce, deserves an Emmy (in my opinion) because every single thing Phryne wears is amazing.  Boyce did all the costumes, not just Phryne's, and though more understated, the other costumes are just as wonderful.  Dot, for instance, dresses very conservatively in tweeds and cardigans, offering a nice contrast to Phryne, who has no problem showing off a lot of skin.

To date there are 20 books and 34 episodes.  The episodes with the same name as one of the books will have the same plot, though there are usually deviations due to artistic license.  Do you need to read the books to enjoy the tv show?  Absolutely not! I binge-watched the entire first series before I read Cocaine Blues.  I don't often say this, but I like the show better than the books.  Maybe it is because I need the visual of Melbourne in the 1920s, or perhaps it is because I saw the show first.  I'm not sure, but I will say you should give the books and the show a chance.  Read then watch, watch then read, just read or just watch. The decision is up to you.

~Amy, Adult Services

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Staff Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun is an exhilarating novel -- author Paula McLain has done it again. Her second book, The Paris Wife, published in 2011, told the novelized story of Ernest Hemingway's ill-fated first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, a story that played out among the brilliant ex-pat community known as the Lost Generation in Paris in the 1920s. The Paris Wife quickly became a bestseller.
This time round, McLain tackles the life of aviator Beryl Markham, who told her story herself in her marvelous memoir West with the Night, a book that Hemingway, incidentally, referred to as "bloody wonderful." 

Beryl Markham was born in England in 1902 and moved to Kenya (then British East Africa) as a tiny girl. Her mother was unable to handle life in Africa and soon fled with Beryl's older brother, leaving Beryl in her father's care for good. This unusual and tragic abandonment had a silver lining: it seems to have liberated Beryl from most of the rigid restrictions and tiresome conventions placed upon girls in affluent British families. Instead Beryl literally ran wild, which makes for one invigorating story.

When small, Beryl played freely in the African wilderness with her close friend Kibii of the Kipsigis tribe and received almost no formal education. She hunted warthogs barefoot with a spear, attended tribal dances, and was mauled by a lion. Her father bred and trained horses at their farm in Kenya, and horses became Beryl's passion too. Before she was 20, she became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya, and at age 34 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first person to do so nonstop east to west.

Have I mentioned yet that Beryl was also beautiful and loved to party? She hobnobbed with all the British colonials, including the uber-hedonistic Happy Valley set, whose drinking, drug use, and promiscuity have become the stuff of legend. Beryl herself married three times, disastrously, and had countless lovers throughout her life. The love of her life was Denys Finch Hatton, the aristocratic big-game hunter and not-so-secret paramour of the writer Isak Dineson (played by Meryl Streep to Robert Redford's Finch Hatton in the 1985 film Out of Africa).

This review cannot even begin to describe the adventurous, ambitious life of Beryl Markham. My only quibble with the novel is that it airbrushes some of Beryl's less admirable qualities. In real life she suffered for them though: she was often embroiled in scandal, she never received her due acclaim, and her final days saw her living in poverty. My caveat to readers is that references to safaris, lion hunting, ivory expeditions -- indeed to so many things decadent, exploitative, and colonial -- can be hard to take. But this was the (waning) age of imperialism and of the Great White Hunter (in the U.S. Teddy Roosevelt had recently been president) and it must have seemed at the time that Brittania still ruled and that Africa's wildlife was endless.

~Ann, Adult Services

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Staff Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Many readers are calling J. Ryan Stradal's debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest "quirky." The way I'd describe it -- and a reader's possible reaction to it -- is this: it may not be your cup of tea if you love linear plots, character development, and satisfying resolutions. On the other hand, you may love it if you're open to vivid vignettes, you love eating (and reading about) food, and you have a big, broad sense of humor. Living in the northern Midwest (in Dubuque, for instance) will dispose you toward it too.

Although labeled a novel, Kitchens more closely resembles a set of linked stories, in the first half of which Eva Thorvald, the protagonist, is a child. Eva is gifted with an exceptional palate and through the course of the book's twenty years becomes the most celebrated chef in America, one whose exquisite dishes are available only through highly-sought-after, ticketed dinners at venues across the U.S. The second half of the book circles around Eva more distantly, through the exquisitely-portrayed (and sometimes skewered) lives of a large cast of secondary characters. 

Although there were a couple times early on when I considered dropping the book altogether (one chapter in particular just seemed too dark and too mean), I soldiered on and I'm so glad I did. I soon found myself laughing out loud, recognizing fictional characters that matched (to a T) individuals I'd known in Wisconsin, and marveling at the heartfelt poignance of some of the scenes. Originally from Minnesota, Stradal is a confident debut writer, maybe because writing is just one thing he does well (he's also a TV producer who knows a bit about food and a whole lot more about wine -- food and wine pairings feature prominently in the novel).

In the funniest parts, Stradal pokes gentle fun at Midwestern county-fair-bake-sale participants (who apparently haven't changed much since the fifties), but also at those hyper-fastidious eaters within the new food culture who are more obsessed with what they can't or won't eat than with what they can or will. A New York Times reviewer points out in a positive review that describes Kitchens as "a gastronomic portrait of a region," that "Stradal reserves his most gleeful satire for the overwrought foodies who rock back and forth in their chairs, weeping and licking their dishes, in response to a $5,000-a-plate dinner for which they’ve spent four years on the waiting list."

So, set aside any pre-conceived notions of what a novel should be and hop aboard for this fun, fast-moving ride. You may even decide to read the book twice, as the large cast of characters who re-appear only after the passage of many pages and years can be tricky to keep track of first time 'round (the book ought to come with a schematic). I wouldn't want to read book after book structured this way, but like the occasional gooey dessert, this book was pretty delicious.

~Ann, Adult Services

Tuesday, November 3, 2015