Science Fiction

HOW TO DATE A SUPERHERO (AND NOT DIE TRYING) by Cristina Fernandez

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In a world of superheroes, Astrid Rose has the most boring superpower: an extreme ability to schedule every last second of her time. Technically it’s not a real superpower, like the ones of the figures in capes and spandex who fly around New York either saving or terrorizing the citizens, depending on their moral persuasion, but as a premed Cornell student, it is a very useful ability When she learns that Max, the guy she’s been dating, who she’s known since their freshman year of high school, is the legendary Kid Comet, however, her perfectly planned sophomore year suddenly shatters.

After a nasty run-in with Kid Comet’s nemesis, Astrid gets inducted into a special program for significant others of superheroes, a “prevenge” course designed to prevent the need for the superhero to seek revenge for their loved one’s senseless murder by teaching the significant other survival skills. Astrid doesn’t have time for this program, especially once someone starts sabotaging her lab samples and threatening her internship and her grades. Meanwhile, Max keeps blowing off their dates for admittedly important reasons (like saving lives), and even as she grows to love him more deeply, she grows to wonder whether she’s cut out for this relationship. When a supervillain starts stealing samples from Astrid’s lab, she and Max will both be swept up in a dangerous plot, and Astrid will have to decide what she’s willing to sacrifice: her time? her love? her career? Or maybe even her life…

Set on a college campus, this book exists in that “New Adult” space that has great appeal for both teen young adults and adult young adults (as well of some of us who are even older than that!). The narrative voice hooked me immediately (third person present tense with a tongue-in-cheek vibe that kept reminding me of Slaughterhouse Five, although the subject matter is very different). In the tradition of most great Sci-Fi, Fernandez uses her hard Sci-Fi world as a lens to explore real world issues, in this case, the uncertainty of love and commitment, the fragility of human existence, and how to stop existing and truly live in a dangerous and frightening world. I am head-over-heels for this book, and if you love both Sci-Fi and Rom Coms, you will be too!

FINDING GRACE by Janis Thomas

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Grace knows Louise will come rescue her from the mental hospital. It’s the whole reason she came to New York and stood up on that bridge in her underwear–to get her estranged daughter’s attention. Because the voices in Grace’s head are adamant. Someone is in danger, and this time, it’s the daughter Louise hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

Melanie has been happy in her latest foster home. Happier than she was in any of the others, anyway. Her foster mom is a little weird, but her foster dad is great. And so far she’s been able to hide the messages that come to her through the voice that writes in her journal using her hand. But the latest message sends a chill up her spine and makes her wonder whether it’s finally time to let her foster parents–or at least someone in on her secret.

Because… someone is coming…

This novel sits at an unusual intersection between psychological thriller and contemporary fiction (or “women’s fiction”). The early chapters of the book focus on multigenerational family dysfunction between Louise, her estranged mother, her late grandmother, and the daughter she gave up, while the nebulous and possibly fictitious danger hinted at by the voices in several characters’ heads keeps this thriller from being truly thrilling until well into the second half. As a result, this novel is most likely to find its readers among fans of both contemporary stories of family dysfunction and psychological thrillers who will find the beginning as captivating as the final third.

DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch

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Jason’s life is absolutely perfect. He married the woman of his dreams. He has a son whom he loves. A job he enjoys. Of course, he wonders what life could have been like if he hadn’t given up his ambitious scientific experimentation on parallel universes. But every life has compromises. There’s no way of knowing what might have happened had he made different choices, so why waste time thinking about it?

At least that’s what Jason believed. When he is abducted by a mystery man and knocked unconscious, he wakes up in a world eerily similar to his own except that his life is not his life. He is not married to Daniela. His son doesn’t even exist. This is the alternate reality in which Jason Dessen pursued his line of scientific inquiry and found a way to jump between parallel universes. The Jason of this world has abducted him and stolen his life. And now Jason will do anything to find a way home and take it all back.

DARK MATTER is fast-moving, dark, and suspenseful with killer twists that keep you guessing. The squiffy science might disappoint diehard sci-fi fans (as it did several of my book-clubbers), but DARK MATTER will delight thriller readers. I certainly enjoyed it!

DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up in slavery if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.

THE GENIUS PLAGUE by David Walton

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It has always been Neil’s dream to follow in his father’s footsteps in the NSA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite the ideal candidate, with no college degree, no computer coding experience, and a seemingly disasterous set of missteps in his interview process. Yet somehow he lands a job on the team of NSA problem solvers tasked with cracking the impossible codes no one else can solve. At first the work is tedious, but as certain bizarre messages begin to come through, the team realizes that people all over the globe have somehow been infected with the same fungal virus that Neil’s brother, Paul, brought back from a harrowing ordeal in Brazil. Paul and the other victims exhibit advanced intelligence, but also display other behavior changes that connect them to group of Brazilian terrorists. As Neil and the team try to make sense of the seemingly impossible events unfolding around them, an international conspiracy emerges that could threaten the survival of the human race.

Fun, fast-paced, and full of interesting tidbits about mushrooms. I thoroughly enjoyed this sci-fi thriller! It’s light on the sci-fi, so a good fit for thriller fans, adult and teen!

EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks

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Culture ambassador Byr Genar-Hofoen is called away from his diplomatic mission to the warlike Affront aliens in order to undertake a secret mission for the Department of Special Circumstances.  Thousands of years ago, a star vanished, and now a mysterious thing–not a planet, not a ship, but another entity: an Excession–has appeared.  Is it a weapon?  An ally?  A group of sentient ships plots in secret, while eccentric ships act as double agents, meddling in the affairs of ships and humans.  And somehow connected to it all without knowing it, a woman living in a simulated world waits to give birth. 

In this immersive, unique, and thoroughly imagined science fiction novel, the reader must piece together seemingly unconnected or loosely connected characters and events which gradually come together into a rich image of galactic life and the prideful folly of political entities and sentient individuals (both organisms and machines).  Sometime humorous, always thought-provoking, this novel will appeal to fans of hard sci-fi.  At times, it was reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  but be prepared for a much denser read that demands focus, attention to detail, and occasionally, a willingness to think about math.  

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

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Holly didn’t expect her mother to find out about Vinny so soon. She knew that her mother wouldn’t approve of an older boyfriend or the late nights that Holly spent with him. But Holly is in love, and she isn’t about to let her mother get in the way. After a quick goodbye to her little brother, Jacko,  Holly packs her things and storms out of the house only to discover that Vinny has already moved on to someone new. Furious, heartbroken, and far too embarrassed to go home, Holly starts walking away from London with no real plan of where she’s headed. But she hasn’t gone far when her bizarre past catches up with her. Memories of the voices she used to hear in her head as a child, encounters with seemingly psychic strangers, nightmarish visions, and a horrific double murder launch Holly on a lifetime journey with a cast of immortal heroes and villains that was scripted long ago.

I’m not sure whether it is more appropriate to categorize this novel as fantasy or science fiction, but its style and appeal is definitely in the realm of sci-fi. Beginning in our past and ending in our future, the story unfolds slowly over Holly’s lifetime with each chapter occurring decades after the last and from the point of view of a character whose connection to Holly is not always immediately apparent. Part of the appeal of the novel comes from this puzzle of a storytelling style.  The actual plot of the immortal good and evil is slow to unfold (as is befitting a story about characters who have lived for centuries and could live for centuries more), and as a result, the first two-thirds of the book read more as realistic fiction than science fiction. But the first chapter’s teasers and the characters themselves were interesting enough to keep me engaged through the 700 page novel, and I was impressed at how Mitchell created a distinct voice for each character’s first person chapter. I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy weighty philosophical sci-fi and character driven novels.

BORN TO DARKNESS by Suzanne Brockmann

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Mac and her Obermeyer Institute colleagues aren’t sure what to expect when they begin their mission to take down and contain the latest Destiny user.  The drug enables its users to integrate their brain function at a much higher level than the average 10%, which could give them any number of superhuman abilities, including flying, telepathy, and in this case deflecting bullets. Mac and her colleagues (all of whom have integration levels of 50% and above without chemical enhancement) are finally able to take him down, but not before Mac injures breaks her ankle.  Stopping at a bar on her way home, however, she meets a former Navy SEAL, Shane Laughlin, and discovers that just by touching him, her powers to heal increase.  And their night of sex does wonders.  Thinking she can leave it as a one-night-stand, Mac is dismayed when Shane shows up at the Obermeyer Institute the next day—identified as a “potential” for high integration himself.  Though she fears where a relationship with Shane could lead, a little enhancement may come in handy when an opportunity arises to take down the merciless criminal organization that manufactures Destiny by abducting and torturing gifted teen girls and draining their blood.

I loved this fast-paced, suspenseful thriller!  The science of the sci-fi isn’t fully realized (and the directer of the OI is totally a rip-off of Professor X), but it is a cool concept.  There is lots of graphic sexual content, so if that’s something you like to avoid, this is not the book for you.  But if you like sci-fi thrillers with a bit of romance, this was an exciting one!

SHADA: THE LOST ADVENTURE BY DOUGLAS ADAMS (by Gareth Roberts)

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In the 1970s, Douglas Adams wrote a Doctor Who adventure called “Shada” which was partially filmed (with the iconic Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker) but never finished.  Doctor Who screen writer Gareth Roberts has turned Douglas Adams’ incomplete story into a fast-paced and humorous Sci-Fi novel.

The Doctor and his current traveling companion (and fellow Time Lord) Romana arrive in Cambridge to respond to a call for help from a retired Time Lord who has been posing as a Cambridge professor.  They discover that the professor has been keeping a stolen—and very powerful–Gallifreyan book in his study and has recently misplaced it, much to the Doctor’s distress.  The professor remembers that a student named Chris Parsons came and borrowed a book that afternoon, so the Doctor sets out to find him and the potentially dangerous “Artefact.”  Meanwhile, Skagra, an evil genius with mind-stealing technology, has also arrived in Cambridge with his sights set on the very same book.

Gareth Roberts does an excellent job of writing in the style of Douglas Adams.  Using much of Adams’ original dialogue and ideas, Roberts expands and completes the story of Shada in a novel that is as humorous and exciting as a Doctor Who adventure should be.  I highly recommend this novel to Douglas Adams fans, Doctor Who fans, or general Sci-Fi lovers (although if you actively dislike Doctor Who and/or Douglas Adams, this is not the book for you).

THE LOST WORLD by Arthur Conan Doyle

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When Gladys told Ned Malone that she could only love him if he did something truly courageous and adventurous, the young journalist despaired.  When would he ever have the opportunity to perform the heroic and extraordinary acts of bravery that Gladys demanded?  But when the investigation of a supposed scientific fraud opens the door for a dangerous expedition to the Amazon, Malone seizes the opportunity immediately (and against his better judgment).  Together with a rugged hunter and outdoorsman (Lord John) and a skeptical professor of zoology (Summerlee), Malone travels from England to South America in order to try the outlandish claims of Professor Challenger, who claims to have discovered a plateau where prehistoric dinosaurs roam, unevolved.   As their adventure gets underway, however, all quickly realize that the plateau is indeed inhabited by creatures far more strange and dangerous than even Professor Challenger had imagined . . . .

Most people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novel is every bit as exciting and engaging as his mysteries.  As with most of Conan Doyle’s works (and the writings of many of his contemporaries), you must be prepared for his racism which colors the text, particularly the portrayal of the native tribes of the Amazon and the African servant, Zambo.  But if you can accept the work as a product of its time, the adventure on the plateau and the imagining of the prehistoric monsters are quite compelling.  Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) has cited Conan Doyle’s novel and an inspiration for his own Lost World.  But while Crichton’s stories lean heavily toward the action-thriller genre, Conan Doyle devotes considerable attention to the thrill of discovery and the explorers’ sense of wonder at the beauties and horrors of this newly-discovered (insofar as the English are discovering an already inhabited land…) world.  I highly recommend The Lost World to those who love science fiction and/or the classics, for though it is lesser known, I found it as well-written and engaging as Sherlock’s stories, though in a different way.