Splice (2010)

4271Movie- Geneticist couple Elsa and Clive have successfully spliced together the DNA of different living animal organisms and created a pair of hybrids named Fred and Ginger, a scientific breakthrough that promises to yield great medical benefits. However, they are not satisfied, and wish to create creatures with human genetics. Against the wishes of their employer, they clandestinely create a human hybrid with DNA from all kinds of animals. Elsa treats the creature like a daughter, putting it in dresses, teaching it language, and naming it Dren. As Dren begins to get older (and more aggressive), Elsa and Clive move her to Elsa’s abandoned childhood home, a farmhouse and barn with plenty of room to hide Dren. Meanwhile, the Fred and Ginger experiment goes horribly, publicly wrong, with disturbing implications for Dren that earn this movie’s R rating.

Dren’s character design resides squarely in the uncanny valley, by turns beautiful and ineffably creepy. Without spoiling anything, the relationships among the characters in this film are really twisted and the movie’s end is quite graphic. I enjoyed the suspense and quiet build-up of the earlier half of the film more than the series of increasingly unpleasant events that make up the latter half of the film, though I suspect many who typically enjoy films in the horror genre will relish the ending. Splice will appeal to fans of other films with genetic experiments gone wrong, such as Jurassic Park and The Fly.

 

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

indexBook – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know.  Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel.  Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space.  Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.

As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.”  Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space.  From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one.  The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.

Life As I Know It by Melanie Rose

6919827Book – Imagine waking up in the wrong body.  Lying in a hospital bed with strangers gathered round–a man who claims to be your husband.  Life As I Know It by Melanie Rose explores this unique scenario, in which Jessica wakes to a nightmare, trapped in the wrong body.  The last thing she can remember is talking to the cute guy at the dog park and lightning striking her.  She wakes up in the body of Lauren Richardson, mother and wife.  The doctors insist this is who she is and she is simply suffering memory loss from the accident.  But Jessica knows in her heart that this woman is not her.   Against what she knows to be true, Jessica goes home with the Lauren Richardson’s husband.

When her head hits the pillow at her unfamiliar “home,” Jessica wakes up again in the hospital, but this time back in her own body, where the cute guy from the dog park has been waiting for her.  She is so relieved to find that it was all just a dream.  However, as she goes to sleep after the exhausting day, once again Jessica wakes up in the body of Lauren Richardson. Each time she falls asleep, Jessica switches lives, from her own to the rich high life of Lauren, husband to Graham, and mother to three young children.

Caught between two worlds–the one that is her life to live, and the one of obligations to a young family that relies on her support–will life ever return to normal for poor Jessica?

 

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

19367226Book– In the vein of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (which uses Conan Doyle’s characters), Sophie Hannah has set out to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the permission of Agatha Christie’s estate. When a contemporary author sets out to reanimate the legendary characters of a deceased author’s canon, she has a tall task ahead of her and a lot of expectations to meet that do not apply to a wholly original novel, but I tried to be fair when I read her attempt.

Hannah does not do a great job of imitating Christie’s characters. For example, bumbling police inspector narrator, Catchpool (an original character), who exists as a reader surrogate for Poirot to be smart at, is afraid of dead bodies due to an apparently traumatic incident at his grandfather’s funeral. Barring how silly it is for a police inspector to fear murder victims, Catchpool is also gratingly incompetent and has all kinds of tiresome (if justifiable) doubts about his fitness for police work. Poirot is not rendered pitch perfect either. He overuses some typically Poirot-esque mannerisms, such as “little grey cells” and gratuitous French, but for reasons I cannot pinpoint, does not hit the mark.

Despite these complaints, I would still recommend this book. The mystery itself is elegantly constructed, with plenty of red herrings, and a beautiful resolution at the end. I did not correctly guess the murderer early on, which I typically do, and actually needed the scene at the end where Poirot explains the plot to everybody to wrap my head around how the murders went down. The Monogram Murders was a much better experience once I decided to read just for the plot, which is excellent, rather than the characters, which were not.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

indexBook – Tara Abernathy is a contract lawyer. Wait, no, don’t run away – I swear this is a fantasy novel, and a really good one, too. In Gladstone’s post-war fantasy world, contracts regulate and control the use of magic, called Craft. In recent history, Craftsmen (and women) overthrew the gods, shifting control of magical power into mortal hands. But remnants of the old religions still exist. And the old gods do, too – so long as they abide by their contracts.

That’s what Tara and her boss are investigating: Kos Everburning, a god of the city of Alt Coulomb, has died and defaulted on his contract. In order to keep the power on, and to forestall political upheaval, they have to prove that Kos was murdered.

Three Parts Dead isn’t always the easiest book to read (Gladstone subscribes to the “throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim” school of worldbuilding), but it’s never boring. This is the first in Gladstone’s ongoing Craft series. The sequel, Two Serpents Rise, features an entirely different cast of characters in a city halfway around the world from Alt Coulomb, but as the series goes on, the storylines begin to converge. It’s deep, fascinating, twisty stuff, and totally worth the effort it can sometimes take.

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

indexBook – There are various times in one’s life where the discussion of death, and God, and the afterlife happen. When love ones pass, health issues arise, or in lectures with professors. In Calculating God the story centers on Thomas Jericho, a paleontologist from Toronto who is dying from lung cancer.

Two alien species from different planets, Forhilnors and Wreeds, have come to Earth to speak with paleontologists about evolution, science, and religion. Tom, being a scientist does not believe in God and is surprised both alien species firmly believe in a God. This makes for interesting dialogue between all parties. On the one hand there are aliens on Earth and want to learn about the evolution of our planet and species; but on the other hand both alien species believe in what we call God. Tom has a hard time grasping this even knowing his fate.

The writing is a little slower in pace and gives the reader points where reflection of one’s life may happen. There is a plot line that includes creationists and I did not understand why it was being included until it climaxed. Science fiction readers or anyone who may want to reflect on why illness happens or question if a higher power exists may find this book interesting. Readers who enjoy a book with minimal, but more developed characters will also like this book.

It took me two years to finish this book. This does not speak of the quality of writing, because Robert Sawyer does a great job of keeping the reader intrigued. I am a firm believer of the notion that sometimes you are not ready for a book. At the time I started it, I was not ready for it. I found it again and was bolstered by the ending.

The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust

49281Books – Vlad is an Easterner (a human, to us), but he’s lived his whole life in the strictly regimented, caste-based Dragaeran Empire, among Dragaerans (whom his grandfather calls Elves). Most Dragaeran Houses are a matter of birth, but Vlad’s father bought his family into the House of the Jhereg, best known for putting the “organized” into organized crime. He lives a little in both worlds, rising in the ranks of the Jhereg while learning Eastern witchcraft from his grandfather – which is how he came by his long-time companion Loiosh, who is also a jhereg. All the Dragaeran Houses are named after animals, you see – a jhereg is a small flying lizard, about the size of a housecat. No, they don’t breathe fire. They’re not usually telepathic, either, but Loiosh is a witch’s familiar, after all.

The Vlad Taltos series – part of Steven Brust’s larger Dragaeran universe, which also includes a five-book trilogy and a stand-alone novel set in the East – is really something different; I don’t know of any other fantasy novels like them. They’re all narrated by Vlad in the first person, and Vlad’s voice is one of the most delightful things about them. Think something of a cross between Sam Spade and Strider (who becomes Aragorn). And each book is also about a different Dragaeran House and what that House stands for in Dragaeran society – Jhereg, the first in the series, is about Vlad’s life in the Organization; Dragon, another good starting point, is about war. You learn a little more about the universe with every book. There are fourteen books so far, with five (and lots of questions) left to go.

Find Her by Lisa Gardner

find herBook –Check out Find Her by Lisa Gardner for a murder mystery you can’t put down.

For 472 days, Flora Danes was held captive in a wooden coffin. On the occasions that she was released, Flora was raped and tormented by her kidnapper. But she is a survivor. Five years later, Flora is still trying to find a sense of normalcy in her life. She has the support of her mother, and her FBI victim advocate, Samuel Keynes. But Flora is caught in the past, actively searching out other girls like her that have gone missing, dedicated to hunting down their perpetrators.

Detective D.D. Warren arrives at a crime scene where a young women was left bound, naked, yet was somehow able to kill her attacker. Because Flora is no ordinary victim.  After learning of Flora’s traumatic history, Detective Warren grows suspicious of the intentions of this possible vigilante. When Flora herself ends up missing, Detective Warren must team up with the famed Samuel Keynes to find Flora against all odds.

I found Find Her to be reminiscent of author Gillian Flynn: an intense, driven thriller with a strong female lead. I thought the details of Flora’s captivity were terrifying, especially as someone who’s claustrophobic. It was an unsettling read, which for me constitutes the makings of a great murder mystery.

 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

17262100Book – This sweeping saga explores family dynamics, loyalty, love, and loss. It is the story of two brothers growing up in India.  Totally inseparable, yet very different.  With only 15 months between them, the older one Subhash is serious, reserved, and reliable, while Udayan is impulsive, a risk taker, and rebellious.  In college both excel academically. Subhash studies chemistry, Udayan physics.  It is the late 1960’s and India is experiencing political turbulence.  Subhash decides to go to America for his PhD, while Udayan stays and becomes increasingly involved with radical militant groups. He even defies his family by foregoing tradition and marrying, Gauri, chosen for love.  The brothers lose touch leading their separate lives.  Due to unforeseen circumstances, Gauri and Subhash form their own unique relationship, so that he can make sense of Udayan’s actions and because his parents shunned Guari as their daughter-in-law. Subhash acts with integrity and tries to do the right thing, but will he be a victim of his own goodness?  This sweeping saga spans four decades and explores family dynamics, loyalty, love, and loss.

I highly recommend this wonderful book along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s other works – Interpreter of Maladies, In Other Words, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth.

How to Be Single (2016)

how to be singleMovie – I went to see How to Be Single because 1. I love romantic comedies, and 2. I am a huge of Rebel Wilson.

For the first time in her life, Alice (Dakota Johnson) is single.  She had hoped that taking a break from her long-time boyfriend, Josh would give her the chance to find herself, but instead she feels completely lost in the world.  Everything changes when she meets her new coworker, Robin (Rebel Wilson), who throws Alice into the wild world of hookups and partying.  Along with a cast of fellow love-seekers in a hook-up world, Alice learns to embrace the freedom of single life.

This film is hilarious.  There are so many great moments, both funny and those verging on serious.  While it mainly centers on the life of Alice, viewers also get a look into the lives of Alice’s sister Meg, Robin, and the hopelessly romantic Lucy; four women learning how to be single in bustling New York city.  The title really says it all.  For a romantic comedy,  I thought How to Be Single was actually pretty honest and relatable.  As far as unrealistic love stories go, there was a lot of truth to this film about what it’s like to be single in a society obsessed with searching for your soul mate.  How to Be Single provides a glimpse into the reality of singlehood, while still making you laugh.