GREGOR THE OVERLANDER by Suzanne Collins

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If you are one of those people who believes that there must be a colony of gargantuan rats and cockroaches living under the streets of New York City, consider your paranoid fears vindicated. When Gregor’s baby sister crawls into an air vent in the basement of their apartment building, he follows her down a long dark chute and into the Underland.  Fortunately, they are found by the friendly giant cockroaches and not the malicious six-foot-tall rats.  The cockroaches bring them to the city of the Underland humans.  There, Gregor learns that his father who disappeared two years earlier fell down the same chute and ended up prisoner of the rats.  He also learns that he himself may be the warrior hero mentioned in an ancient Underland prophecy.  Together with the snobby young Underlander queen and her insufferable cousin, two loyal bats, two kind cockroaches, and the snarky, bitter traitor rat, Ripred, Gregor and his baby sister set off on a quest to save the Underland human race from destruction.

This is definitely one of my favorite children’s fantasy series.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat dark but also incredibly humorous.  Collins also uses the series to challenge some of the notions of right vs. wrong and heroism vs. barbarism that are often taken for granted in heroic fantasy literature.  And she is simply an excellent writer.  If you enjoyed the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, or Suzanne Collins’ other series, The Hunger Games, you should check out this book!   There are four subsequent books in the series:  Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, and Gregor and the Code of Claw.  Personally, I think they get even better, the farther you get into the series!

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex

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What is the true meaning of Smekday–the day formerly known as Christmas, the day that the Boovish aliens arrived to colonize Earth, and the day the Boov left one year later?  This is the essay question that Gratuity “Tip” Tucci must answer.  The winning essay will be put in a time capsule that will be opened in 100 years. In her three attempts at writing the essay, Tip gradually reveals the story of the Boov’s arrival and the events that followed.

While trying to reach the human reservation in Florida by car, Tip and her cat, Pig, met up with a Boov criminal, who has taken as his Earth name J.Lo. (a name that he believes is a popular Earth name due to its frequent appearance in media publications).  Together they travel across the country searching for Tip’s mom, who was abducted toward the beginning of the invasion. Then Tip, J.Lo, and Pig join forces with a gang of boys who have been hiding in a secret tunnel system under Disney World, and together, they drive the Gorg (another set of invading aliens–much more evil than the Boov) out of Earth.  Throughout her story, Tip includes illustrations and pages of comics drawn by J.Lo who can’t write in English.

This book is both hilarious and poignant, a nice blend of hard- and soft-science fiction, approaching issues of race and prejudice through the blunt, sarcastic, witty voice of 11 yr. old Tip.  The book is written for an upper elementary/middle school reading level.  It is one of my all-time favorites.

INCEPTION (2010)

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Director: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 148 min

This film is based on the premise that technology exists which allows people to infiltrate and manipulate the dreams of other people.  As the story opens, Cobb, an expert in dream technology is on the run from the law, forced to hide abroad and work for corporations illegally.  After a failed operation, Cobb is approached by the head of a major corporation for a job.  If he is able to penetrate the dreams of a young business man and plant an idea that will cause the man to break up his company, then Cobb’s employer will see to it that all charges are cleared from his name and he can return home to his children.  Cobb takes the job, but in order to succeed, he must escape the ghosts of his mysterious past who seem to sabotage him every time he enters the dream world.

The film takes advantage of the similarity between dreams and the medium of film–the quick cuts from one scene to another without having to know exactly how the characters got there, the seemingly impossible or improbable events that we take for granted, etc.  Just as the characters sometimes have trouble sorting out what is dream and what is reality, so does the audience.  This is not a movie to watch when you are tired or unprepared to pay close attention.  But if you like a solid science fiction concept and like trying to figure out what is going on in a mysterious plot, this is a great film.

HAMLET (2009)

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Director: Gregory Doran
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (originally a stage play)
Running Time: 180 min

This particular production of Hamlet was originally a stage production for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It stars two actors who have both played prominent roles in serious classical theatre but also in science fiction television shows (David Tennant, aka the Tenth Doctor of Doctor Who, and Patrick Stewart, aka Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation).  I loved every minute of it!  And if you are a David Tennant fan, you should also check out the Much Ado About Nothing he did with Catherine Tate in 2011!

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge story.  The play opens just after King Hamlet has died and his brother, Claudius, has married the Queen and taken the crown.  But the ghost of the dead king comes to his son, young Hamlet, and tells the Prince that Claudius murdered him.  Throughout the rest of the play, Hamlet struggles to come to terms with his father’s death, his mother’s re-marriage, and his uncle’s treachery and to avenge his father’s death.  Meanwhile Claudius must determine how much Hamlet knows and how best to deal with the problem Prince without arousing suspicions.

There have been many Hamlet films made, and strictly from a cinematic perspective, this particular production is not the best; it was originally designed for the stage.  But the acting is incredible, and the director (Doran) takes great pains to make the play modern and accessible, without losing the original meaning of Shakespeare’s work.  It’s a bit on the long side (3 hours), but Doran, Tennant, and Stewart really bring the story to life.  This is one of my favorite interpretations of Hamlet.  If you enjoy Shakespeare, it is definitely worth watching.  If you have read or seen Hamlet before and thought it made no sense and was not accessible in any way, this might be the production to try!

THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart

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Reynie Muldoon is incredibly gifted at solving puzzles and logic games. Kate Weatherall is incredibly resourceful with the items she carries around in her beloved bucket; she can create almost anything. Sticky Washington can read at lightning speed and remembers everything he has ever read, heard, or seen. And Constance Contraire. . .well, Constance is stubborn. And for reasons that will not become clear until the very end of the book, Mr. Benedict insists that she is far more brilliant than the other children realize.

Mr. Benedict gathers this group of brilliant children together to form a team of secret agents who will infiltrate an institution for gifted children that is really a front for a madman’s secret plans for world domination. Although the implications of the madman’s plot are quite dark, the brain teasers and vibrant characters keep the tone of the book light.  The book is intended for a 4th-6th grade audience, but anyone who loves puzzles and codes and a bit of science fiction and mystery will enjoy it.  The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. 

THE ASSASSIN’S GALLERY by David L. Robbins

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No moon shines over the dark waters of the Newburyport coast as a Persian assassin slithers ashore.  Her mission: to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.  Only Professor Mikhal Lammeck has a chance of tracking the elusive Judith and eliminating her before she reaches her target.

Lammeck has spent years teaching the theory of assassin psychology.  Now, called back into the field against his will, he realizes he is in way over his head.  As the distance between him and his quarry narrows, Lammeck finds himself entering the assassin’s mind.  No longer motivated by the desire to help his country, the professor is drawn forward by the allure and enigma of his brilliant adversary.

Robbins’ novel is not simply an action-packed thriller.  His alternate history is filled to bursting with historical detail, set against the complex backdrop of the 1940s social climate.  Industry, war, racism, and sexism writhe in the background, complicating an already intriguing plot.  Robbins also devotes considerable energy to developing the character of his assassin, lest she be seen as a “faceless” enemy.  Along with Lammeck, the reader comes to understand the motivations and history of the assassin, the challenges she faces, the depth of her resolve, and the reason that she is determined to succeed in her objective, against all odds.

ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood

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As far as Snowman knows, he is the last human left on Earth.  The blazing sun—hotter now that the atmosphere has thinned—burns his skin, even in the shade of the tree that is his home.  His only companions are the human-like Children of Crake, a tribe of genetic experiments of whom Snowman was made guardian, before the known world came to an end.

Food is scarce, and Snowman must brave a dangerous trail, crawling with genetically-modified predators, to find supplies in the ruins of a nearby city.  Haunted on his journey by the memories of Crake, the cunning super-genius, Oryx, his enigmatic lover, and Jimmy, the unremarkable boy that Snowman used to be, he relives the series of seemingly inconsequential events that led to the destruction of his world.

Oryx and Crake is both exciting and thought-provoking–taking readers on a journey through the monster-infested ruins of American civilization and forcing them to consider the potential dangers of genetic engineering, cyber-stalking, global warming, and biochemical warfare.  As in most post-apocalyptic tales, Snowman’s story is intense and tragic.  It isn’t a light read, but this book is hard to put down!

If you liked Oryx and Crake, you might like The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.