I discovered these books because of the TV show. Though the series has been ongoing since the early 90's and apparently has millions of devoted readers, somehow it never pinged my radar. That's one of the best things about books, though: you'll never get to the end of what's out there. There's always a new author, a new book to discover and fall in love with.
Time travel books are tricky to write. There's a lot of temptation to get sucked into the whole Butterfly Effect thing, and once you go down that road it's easy to get lost (I'm looking at you, Mark Hodder). Gabaldon handles it perfectly and seamlessly; the impact of the time travelers on history is addressed, but it doesn't become the overwhelming focus of the story. Mostly what you care about are the characters themselves, and that's as it should be.
Speaking of which, a lot has been made about the romance-novel aspects of these books. Yes, there are bodice-ripping moments. There's also political intrigue, battles, pirates, mystery, adventure....a little bit of everything. It's not high literature, but it's not meant to be, either, and it shouldn't be judged with that yardstick. The fact is, Gabaldon is a great storyteller. I want to know what happens to Claire and Jamie and all the other characters, and that's why I keep turning the pages.
I'm also loving the level of historical detail. From the parts of an 18th century British officer's uniform to the surgical techniques of World War II and everything in between, I'm constantly amazed at the details of her descriptions. This is far more work than is necessary for verisimilitude, and it's just fantastic.
Though these aren't the only books I'll read this summer, they're probably the ones I'll enjoy the most. They're 'sip-a-margarita-on-the-back-porch/lie-in-the-hammock/toes-in-the-sand' reads. Yes, they're escapist, but that's a feature, not a bug, as far as I'm concerned.
Escapism? Sign me up.