Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book – It’s 2026, and one hundred scientists have launched in the Ares to become the first Martian colony. They have plenty of challenges to overcome – the extreme cold and unbreathable air, the time lag in communicating with home, the need to extract water from the local environment, the radiation they’ll be exposed to through Mars’s thin atmosphere. And, of course, each other. Red Marsthe first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, follows the colonists through the first thirty-five years of colonization, from the launch and early terraforming through the growing influence of Earth politics and corporations on their new world.

I found the details of the mission interesting, but I was really fascinated by the wonderful characters and all their different points of view. Maya, Frank, and John are in a complicated love triangle; Nadia finds Maya ridiculous but loves her work; Arkady’s on a mission to reform the political structure of the world; Sax is on a mission to reform the biology of Mars. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, so things that seemed reasonable from one angle seem crazy from another, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

House-of-Cards-Poster1TV Series – Francis J. Underwood, or Frank, has done all he can to ensure that Garrett Walker will be the 45th President of the United States. In return for doing his part, Frank only asks for what he deserves: to be made Secretary of State. Things take a startling turn when those in power whom Frank believed he could persuade, manipulate and control decide to give his position to someone else.

Frank is not content treated so poorly, nor is he willing to remain House Majority Whip forever. Instead, with his wife, Claire, he begins to plot a fitting revenge. A scheme worthy of Shakespearean play and, in many ways, quite similar.

To achieve their own joint (and personal) goals, they will use the President, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Police, Senators, Representatives, Governors, Ambassadors, billionaires, photographers and reporters as pawns. All the while both of them know they can’t really rely on or confide in those around them.

And if they can’t trust anyone, can they even trust each other?

The acting throughout is consistently excellent. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright do a brilliant job of playing the lead characters. Superbly written and darkly entertaining, House of Cards Season 1 (as well as Season 2 and Season 3) is well worth a watch. Or, in my case, a very frequent re-watch.

Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder

storm-glassBook – When you are the only student at the Academy with one ability, life can be kind of hard. When you also are the one who poisoned the hero of Sitia, regardless of the circumstances, life is even harder. This is what Opal Cowen deals with day after day. Now she has been summoned to help the Stormdancer clan and her unique abilities are exactly what they need. But is she ready to go out and deal with intrigue beyond her personal boundaries?

Maria Snyder has opened a phenomenal new chapter in Sitia and Ixia’s history with Storm Glass. She has continued where she left off in her Study Series and brought a new flavor to a familiar world. Opal is an endearing character who has a very hard time believing in her magical ability. I enjoyed watching her take her life experiences as a glassblower and applying it to the Stormdancer clans’ issues and come out ahead. With this continuation of the Study Series, Maria V. Snyder gives us new magic and new people and delights us once again with her storytelling and world building.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

Soulless by Gail Carriger

soullessBook – Miss Alexia Tarabotti is not your average twenty-six-year-old spinster in Victorian London.  Along with her Italian name, her headstrong temperament, her distressing complexion and her even more distressing nose, Alexia inherited something noteworthy from her father: her missing soul.  Alexia is a preternatural, a soulless human whose touch can exorcise ghosts and transform vampires and werewolves back to their human forms.  Her preternatural status is a closely guarded secret from humans, even from her own family, but it brings her to the attention of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, headed by the exasperating alpha werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.  And when Alexia accidentally kills a vampire at a party and is launched into a web of supernatural intrigue extending far beyond her usual sphere, she finds herself entangled with Lord Maccon in all sorts of new and exciting–though still exasperating–ways.

As an infrequent reader of romances of any kind but a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised by how entirely I found myself rooting for the romantic subplot in this scrumptious confection of a fast-paced steampunk adventure.  Soulless is a purely fluffy read, but delightfully so, the kind of light-hearted, feel-good, take-you-away-from-your-troubles indulgence of a book that we all need every once in a while.  It would make an outstanding book to take away on vacation–and with four other books in this series, a manga adaptation and two separate spin-off series in progress, it might just leave you eager to get home and read more of Alexia’s world.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

summer pBook – June Costa is the best artist in Palmares Tres. At least, if she isn’t yet, she’s going to be soon. She and her best friend Gil are wakas – under 30 years old, and therefore almost completely powerless in a society of people who regularly live to two hundred years old and more. And it’s an important year for wakas, because it’s the time in the five-year political cycle when the Summer King is elected. For a year he’ll serve at the side of the Queen, and at the end of his term he’ll die, choosing the new Queen with his last breath. Of course, the game is rigged – it’s not time for a new Queen, so he’ll get to choose from only one candidate. The favorite for the Summer King this year is Enki, a beautiful boy from the lowest strata of Palmares society, and between the three of them, he, June, and Gil will change the world.

I loved all the wonderful science-fictional aspects of this book, from the huge floating cities to the elaborate gene therapies and the biotechnology that gives June so many of the opportunities for her art. I also liked that although it was set far in the future and the culture has changed a lot, there’s still a strong connection with history – June’s father, for instance, was an aficionado of 20th century music. There is the usual YA love triangle, but it’s much less important in this book than in many others. I read this in about a day and a half and I’d strongly recommend it to any science fiction fan.

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

songs ofBook – How can a mother abandon her seven year old son at an orphanage with promises that she will return for him and still leave him there for years after she is famous and prosperous?  Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford tells the story of William, now 12, a resident of Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage in the 1920s.  He still has loving memories of his ah-ma and is certain that a woman named Willow Frost that he sees in a film advertisement is his actual mother.  William is determined to track her down wanting to know why he was abandoned. He tries to escape the orphanage with dreams of re-uniting with his mother. This book follows the trials and stories of both William and Liu Song (Willow Frost).  This is a wonderful story of a “boy with dreams for his future and a woman escaping her haunted past—both seeking love, hope, and forgiveness”  ~ from the book jacket.  Ford also does a great job of conveying a vivid sense of the time period and atmosphere.   A thought provoking novel  that would be great for book discussion groups.  If you enjoy this book you should also read Ford’s first book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

sharpBook – Gillian Flynn is becoming a household name, due to the success of the recent film adaptation of her suspense novel, Gone Girl.  But before Gone Girl took over the big screen, Gillian debuted her first novel, Sharp Objects.  

Sharp Objects is a phenomenally demented mystery.  It centers on reporter Camille Preaker, a woman still struggling with her past and a tormented inner self.  When an assignment sends Camille back to her childhood home to cover the murder of two young girls, she is forced to confront everything she tried to leave behind.  Back in her childhood home, things are not as they appear and Camille soon discovers that there is far more at stake than simply uncovering the truth behind the murders.

I strongly believe the power of Gillian Flynn’s writing comes from her leading ladies.  In each of her novels:  Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, it is the strong female lead that first pulls you into her dark world.  There is something sinister about all of these women and the pasts that burden them.  In Sharp Objects specifically, it is the relationships between the women that I found most compelling, and again, sinister.

Dark and emotional, I couldn’t put this book down.  I discovered Gillian Flynn awhile ago, when I was going through an intense murder-mystery phase.  As a reader who generally favors fantasy and romance–more lighthearted tales–Sharp Objects was a gulp of fresh air into this wonderful genre, and I encourage booklovers of all genres to give it a shot.

Also, as a side note to all the Gillian Flynn fans, get psyched, because both Dark Places and Sharp Objects are scheduled to hit the screen!  The film adaptation of Dark Places recently finished shooting and is set to be release in August of 2015.  The cast looks wonderful, starring Charlize Theron; from first glance, it seems that this film will not disappoint.  Meanwhile, Sharp Objects will be produced as a television series by Entertainment One, though there is still limited information regarding the specifics of the project.  Just knowing that there are TWO more Gillian Flynn projects coming out…there’s a lot to be excited about!

 

 

 

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

silkwormBook – This award-winning audiobook will appeal to fans of British accents and British mysteries. The narrator Robert Glenister does a wonderful job of bringing to life a variety of characters, especially the star of this  detective series, Cormoran Strike. This is the second book in J. K. Rowling’s series that started with The Cuckoo’s Calling, and which she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. In this book we get to see further into Cormoran’s background, and his mentoring relationship with his assistant Robin adds enjoyable color to the tale.

The primary case in this book is brought to Cormoran by the wife of a missing writer. The investigation reveals an unpublished, incendiary book by the missing writer that may be related to his disappearance. The publishing world, obviously well-known to Rowling, provides an intriguing background for this story, and the characters from that world have depth. I’ve enjoyed this series despite the fact that the red herrings are a bit obvious and the villains not that hard to detect. Because The Silkworm has a more complex plot, interesting twists, and more cozy details of British life that Rowling captures well, I liked it more than The Cuckoo’s Calling.