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.

The Curse of Jacob Tracy by Holly Messinger

51uTzSLdKwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Trace sees spirits. They’re kind of everywhere, but he doesn’t dare tell anyone he knows about what he can see, because every time he does they wind up dead. Even his partner Boz doesn’t know – until they’re hired by a rich old English lady to retrieve some property for her, and it turns out that she doesn’t need Trace’s skills as a trapper and guide so much as for what he can see that so few others can.

This is a terrifically fun Weird West story, with all the trappings – cowboys, werewolves, ghosts and sorcerers. Messinger does a good job with the diversity of the West, too: Boz is black, and the ghosts of Chinese rail-workers play a role in Trace’s difficulties. The overall plot isn’t too unique (and it’s clearly set up as the beginning of an ongoing series), but the unique twist on monsters and magicians, as well as Boz and Trace’s relationship, make for compelling reading. I’m interested to see where this series goes from here.

Groot by Jeff Loveness

51jARlMoeUL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Book: “I am Groot.” Groot, a huge hulking tree and a Guardian of the Galaxy, may be only able to verbalize three words, but he really does have a lot to say. Jeff Loveness’ graphic novel Groot is the story of Groot (duh) and Rocket the Racoon traveling together to Terrian (aka Earth). The two pals’ trip is not going as planned because apparently Groot wanted to take the scenic route. They also run into the problem of no longer having a spaceship. This leads the best friends to literally hitchhike across the galaxy. Much hilarity ensues as the pair encounter different alien species and trials on their journey. The contrast of Groot’s simple nature with Rocket’s impatience and lack of compassion leads great conversations and adventures.

Of the graphic novels that I have read, this one is by far my favorite. The story line is so much fun to read. It gives background knowledge to Groot and his friendship with Rocket. It shows a new side to both of these characters. If you loved the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, then you will love this graphic novel. If you want to try reading graphic novels for the first time, Groot is an excellent place to start. It’s a complete story from beginning to end and the art work is beautiful.

Beachside/Stormy Day Reads

Books – Whether the sun is finally shining bright, or you’re cooped up inside because of the restless weather, these two reads are perfect for relaxing indoors and out.  Save one for the beach, and one for the rain!

good in bedGood In Bed: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

Meet Cannie Shapiro, a quirky young  woman navigating through her twenties.  A talented reporter for the Philadelphia Examiner, Cannie has made a good life for herself, and her adorable pup, Nifkin.   Things might not be perfect, but that’s life, right? Until her ex-boyfriend Bruce humiliated her by publishing an article about her, titled: “Loving a Larger Woman.”  Somehow, the article manages to catapult miserable Cannie into the best time of her life.  With surprises around every corner, could Bruce’s article actually be the best thing to ever happen to Cannie?

copygirl Copygirl by Anna Mitchael and Michelle Sassa 

Described as “Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada,” this book was obviously at the top of my list.  Kay works at a prestigious ad agency in New York City, an incredible opportunity.  But it’s hard being a girl in a sea of frat-boy office bros. At least she has her work partner Ben, a close friend from college who she’s also secretly in love with.  While the guys are off living the glamorous life of partying and girls, Kay is working hard to dream up the perfect pitches.  Lately though, her work just hasn’t been paying off, and her boss is breathing down her neck with threats of replacing her.  The last thing Kay wants is to be a copygirl, but things are going downhill fast.  Does she have what it takes to make it to the top?

 

 

Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff

delilah dirkBook – It’s hard to believe that Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling is a graphic novel rather than a film, when any suitably enthusiastic description of it sounds like a collection of exclamations cribbed from a movie poster. Thrills!  Adventure!  Swash and buckle!  Flying boats!  Dastardly nemeses!  Really big hair!

(Seriously, though, where is my Delilah Dirk movie?)

Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling is the second volume of a series set in an only slightly fantasy-tinged version of the early 1800s.  The first book, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, introduces our two title characters to one another as well as to us, as the rip-roaring, fearless adventuress Delilah gains an unlikely sidekick in the well-mannered but initially cowardly Mr. Selim.  It’s a fantastic, rollicking ride, but without the necessity of scene-setting to slow down the action, the second book is even better. In that volume, Delilah and Mr. Selim face down problems both prosaic and epic as they simultaneously resist the social mores of their day and an old and deadly enemy.

What’s so great about the Delilah Dirk series is that it feels the better parts both of modern and old-fashioned.  The action sequences have all the joyous, laugh-in-the-face-of-danger lightness of Hollywood’s golden age, but we know we’re in 2016 because our daring protagonists are a woman and a man of color, and, moreover, a male-female pair who are allowed to be friends, colleagues and equals but without a hint of romantic tension. The gloriously rich art style is a not insignificant cherry on top, but what it comes down to in the end is this: reading Delilah Dirk is fun.  How much more can you ask of a book than that?

 

Spillover by David Quammen

cover-david-quammen-spillover-bookBook – What do AIDS, malaria, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola all have in common? Aside from being some of the scariest diseases humanity has to face, they all originated in animals. In Spillover, David Quammen explores how diseases cross over from animals into humans, how researchers figure out where those diseases come from, and what that means for the future of human disease.

That sounds like a combination of boring and terrifying, but really, the book is neither – Quammen’s writing is incredibly clear and easy to follow. He doesn’t assume you know anything about biology, nevermind viral microbiology, and both his own explanations and his conversations with experts make the whole topic seem reasonable and comprehensible. I felt smarter after reading this book. And safer, too – as the conclusion describes, one of the biggest factors in how diseases spread is how infected hosts react to being sick, and as humans, with intelligence and forethought, we can do a lot from preventing the Next Big One from being as big as we fear.

This is a little outdated; published (to great acclaim) in 2012, the most recent epidemic it covers is SARS, missing the most recent Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. (Although there is a lengthy chapter on Ebola, in which he clarifies that it does not actually liquefy its victims, Richard Preston notwithstanding.) But it’s thorough enough to show light on those situations anyway. Pick this one up now, before next flu season comes around.

Poldark (2015)

poldarkTV Series – Family, friends, and servants assumed that Captain Ross Poldark did not survive fighting in the American Revolutionary War, but after a 3 year absence he returns to Cornwall and instead of a hero’s welcome he is faced with heartbreak and ruin.  His father has died, his beloved is engaged to his cousin, and his family estate is in severe neglect, the house squatted in by “faithful” servants.

The division and tension of the classes is even more apparent after the war. Ross has to make a living and needs means to restore the family estate, so he decides to open his father’s old copper mine.  He is no longer interested in his role as a gentleman and works side by side with the workers he employs. This surprisingly creates much resentment from his peers who would relish in his failure.  Poldark maintains his integrity and he is fiercely loyal to those devoted to him.

This superb historical drama could well fill the void for Downton Abbey fans.  It gives a strong sense of time and place – the beauty of Cornwall – and is rich in character development. Aidan Turner is wonderfully cast as Poldark and is complete eye candy too!