electric ladyTo say that I was excited about the release of Janelle Monáe’s newest album, The Electric Lady, is an understatement.   Her 2010 album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III), is one of my favorite albums of all time.  That epic, sprawling R&B recording (that feels like a collaboration between David Bowie, Lauryn Hill, Beck, and Outcast) tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android sent back in time to save the people of Metropolis from a time-traveling secret society that prevents freedom and love.  Monáe’s first album, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) began the story and The Electric Lady continues with suites four and five out of seven.

But don’t let that complicated back story turn you away.  The Electric Lady is as fun as it is smart.  Collaborating with Erykah Badu (on the spectacular track Q.U.E.E.N.), Esperanza Spalding, Miguel, Solonge, and Prince, Monáe has created an exciting follow-up album. While there are stand-out tracks (Primetime and Dance Apocolyptic are two of my favorites), The Electric Lady is best listened to in full.

the tardisThe big day is nearly here – Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the beloved cult-favorite Doctor Who television series! Following the adventures of a time-traveling alien known as The Doctor who travels through space in a 1960s-era blue police box (the TARDIS), the British production has gained an avid following in America  thanks first  to PBS and now BBC America. By turns thoughtful and irreverent, the show has been a huge influence on several generations of British (and now American) children, who remain lifelong and enthusiastic fans. Whether you’re a newbie just discovering the series, or have been following since the black-and-white era, the library has plenty of videos and books to help you celebrate the phenomenon that is Doctor Who.

Videos. The library has the complete range of the series that are available on DVD (not all of the series is on DVD and, famously, several early episodes have been “lost”) If you’re just starting out my advice is to begin with one of the Doctors when he first appears after regenerating (The Doctor can regenerate; his 12th reincarnation begins next year. You’ll get what this all means when you watch the show!) The most popular place to begin is with a Doctor from when the series rebooted in 2005, especially Ten (played by David Tennant) in series 2-4  or Eleven (played by Matt Smith) in series 5-7.

Guides. Don’t know a Cyberman from a Dalek? Confused by who came first, Donna or Martha? Wondering what, exactly, is a Pandorica?  The library has a large selection of guides available that will help you with the important and the minutia of the Doctor Who universe. Believe me, you’ll want to know what to do if confronted by a Weeping Angel! And be sure to check out Doctor Who: the Vault. Treasures from the Past Fifty Years for a great visual reference to all of the creatures, gadgets and characters from the series.

Books. Extend your Doctor Who experience with one of the many novels that picks up favorite characters and puts them in new and exciting situations. You’ll find them in both the Graphic Novels and in the Science Fiction section of the library.

Now you should be ready now for all things Whovian! Enjoy!

I can’t believe I’m about to recommend a horror movie. This feels weird. But The Cabin in the Woods is the kind of movie that creates a lot of confusing emotions, and I bet that’s the kind of praise that producer and co-writer Joss Whedon would hope for. Five college kids enjoy a road trip to an isolated mountaintop cabin, complete with a peaceful lake, sinister locals, and a cellar full to bursting with creepy memorabilia. If it sounds too much like a stereotypical slasher, that’s because it is: this cabin is being controlled remotely by a full staff of suited, vaguely government-looking people who are manipulating the kids’ behavior the way the Gamemakers manipulated The Hunger Games (Push the red button for more fire, pull the green handle to unleash monsters, that kind of thing).

This film was shot in 2009 – well before the success of Thor and The Avengers made Chris Hemsworth bigger than his small but hilarious role as the not-so-stereotypical jock – but it wasn’t released until 2012. If you’ve remained unspoiled since then, somehow, I won’t ruin your fun in watching this movie unspoiled. But I will say: it’s darned surprising. Every time you think you have this film figured out, you find out it goes just a little bit further, and gets a little bit better, than you’d imagined. But this recommendation comes with a warning: The Cabin in the Woods is funny, and smart, and satirical, and downright fun, but the fun of lampooning horror movies can’t be had without actually showing a horror movie, so there are lots of seriously graphic scenes here – definitely stay away if you can’t handle on-screen violence. But if you can, and if you’ve ever wondered: “why?! Why on earth do people like these dumb slasher flicks? What are we, as a society, and as an artistic culture, getting out of it?!” here’s a well-made movie that will offer some interesting answers.

every boy should have a manTrying to put into words how I feel about Preston L. Allen’s Every Boy Should Have a Man isn’t easy.  I keep trying to avoid calling the book weird — as not to turn away potential readers — while still imparting the distinct oddness of this novel.  I want to explain how unnerving the novel can be at times, while making sure that I don’t forgot to tell you that the book was also subtly funny and  wickedly smart.  Part science-fiction, part allegory, part fairy tale, and part scripture, Allen has created a work of fiction that isn’t easy to pin down.  Allen deftly employs irony, playing with the reader’s perception of humanity and challenging the way we interact with the earth.

Every Boy Should Have a Man takes place in a world in which Oafs keep “mans” as both pets and as potential food.  In this land, a poor boy Oaf owns three mans throughout his life; something that is typically only a privilege of the wealthy.  Spanning the lifetime of the boy Oaf (and a short time following), the book examines what it means to be civilized through a lens of a long list of divisive subjects including war, racism, global warming, and the ethics of domesticating animals for pets and livestock.  To say that the novel is unique is an understatement, but there is evidence of a wide range of influences from Jack and the Beanstalk and Gulliver’s Travels to Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.

 

Spin(1stEd)You’re twelve years old, sitting in your backyard at night with your two best friends. You are looking up at the sky, and without warning, preamble, or explanation, the stars flare as one and then abruptly disappear. A mere facsimile of the sun – a perfect yellow disk unmarred by solar flares or sunspots – rises in the morning, but the stars are gone for good. This is what Tyler Dupree and his friends, the brilliant twins Diane and Jason, encounter. These three friends grow up under ‘the Spin,’ as it is soon called – a barrier around the earth placed there by some unknowable alien intelligence, for a purpose they can only guess. Even more perplexing: time is passing much, much faster outside the barrier than inside it. A satellite sent up to explore the phenomenon breaks through and then comes crashing down immediately, but instead of the pristine machine launched hours earlier, what crash lands on earth is a banged up satellite with weeks, months, of data recorded. A moment on earth is measured in millennia outside the Spin, which is dire news: at that rate, humanity will live long enough to be destroyed by our own decaying sun, which hasn’t slowed its life cycle down at all. The timeline? About 40 years on earth until the sun expands far enough to fry us where we stand.

How would you choose to spend those 40 years?

Jason dedicates his life to pure science, learning more about the Spin than any other earthling. Diane finds refuge in one of the many new religions that spring up in the wake of the slow disaster. Tyler plows ahead with life as usual, becoming a doctor and as “average” as any citizen can be under the Spin.

Spin falls on the hard side of the science fiction spectrum, which means there is lots of real science in addition to speculation in the plot. It also means that even the invented aspects of Wilson’s universe are imbued with a plausible explanation based on real science; for example, the scary global epidemic he invents, CVWS, is fake, but its symptoms (similar to tuberculosis) are familiar and its behavior – a disease crossing over to humans from cattle – is all too real. Because of this it’s a better pick for established fans of speculative fiction; if you like the genre already, the sophisticated plotting, satisfying conclusion, and smart characters will delight you. If you just have a casual interest, you might have a bad time trying to wade through all the science on display here.

As you can reliably guess from the fact that I write for this blog, I am a librarian. So I knew I would love Among Others by Jo Walton as soon as I read the dedication page:

This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.

among othersThis book is for me! Awesome!* And this Hugo & Nebula award-winning novel is a treat. Mori is a well read 15 year old who has already accomplished a lot: she overthrew her mother, an evil witch, in a magical battle that killed her twin and left Mori with a shattered hip. She’s read just about everything that’s ever been published in the SF genre (well, everything before 1979, when this novel is set), besides Philip K. Dick, whom she dislikes. In the Wales of Mori’s childhood, magic and fairies are very real, but they aren’t all-powerful. Magic isn’t even the focus of this story; what could have been a bombastic, typical tale of good triumphing over evil (at a great cost) in a climactic magical duel  is instead a bildungsroman, the story of a smart, confident, magical girl discovering her identity. Mori’s most important challenge is discovering the value in her life now that her deed is done and her twin is dead.

When you are the hero, when you’ve already saved the world, and you’re a teenager stuck at boarding school based on the whim of a father you’ve never known, where the other girls taunt you for your Welsh accent and your limp, and where both the fairies and the magic of your childhood and your twin – your other half – can never reach you, what is the point of living? On Halloween, Mori sees the ghostly remnant of her sister near a portal to the next world and is tempted to follow and join her in death, but:

…I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out. There may be stranger reasons for being alive.

Her love of books, libraries, writing, and the other worlds of the SF genre buoy Mori through the turbulent year after her sister’s death and lead her to the path her adulthood will take, so though her tale may sound grim, it’s really effervescent and uplifting.

Among Others is a fantasy novel, but Mori’s engagement with the realm of science fiction is so cogent, meaningful, and pervasive in the novel that this is a must read for fans of both genres.

 

*I have to add, though, that we do a lot more than sit and lend books! Sometimes we stand and lend DVDs :)

mistbornI read a review of this book that described it as “Lord of the Rings meets Ocean’s Eleven”, and I just knew it would be love at first page.  In Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, the Final Empire has been taken over by the evil Lord Ruler and much of the population has been enslaved.  The oppressed citizens of the Final Empire (known as Skaa) are forced to work in the Pits of Hathsin mining the most valuable metals in the land for the Lord Ruler’s personal treasury.  No Skaa has ever escaped the Pits….until now.

Kelsier is no ordinary Skaa; he is a Mistborn, a type of Allomancer who is gifted with special powers when he ingests metals.  After using his powers to escape the Pits, Kelsier vows revenge on the Lord Ruler.  He begins to assemble a team of other Allomancers, which includes a young girl named Vin who is just discovering her powers as a Mistborn.  Together, they devise the ultimate heist  in order to remove the Lord Ruler from power and free the people of the Final Empire.

This was such a fun book to read; it is fast-paced and exciting, and the magic system is unique and fascinating.  Sanderson’s impressive world building made the Final Empire really come alive.  And bonus, the trilogy is already completed!  As soon as you finish Mistborn you can check out copies of The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages right away instead of having to wait years and years for the thrilling conclusion.

whathappensinlondonThe Good: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

This is the perfect Regency romance. It’s funny (actually funny, not just peppered with lines that the characters laugh at but the reader never would), heartwarming (but not schlocky), and steamy (but not gratuitous). There’s a fussy, arrogant Russian prince, a heroine who scorns novels and reads every word of the Times, and a dashing hero who wears funny hats. It’s historically accurate (mostly), but it never gets boring by slogging through too much detail. I devoured this in just two very enjoyable sittings. (Available via WILBOR)

The Bad: A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray

aladyneverlies

Oh, dear. This is the kind of book that always made me hate romance novels. It’s nonsensical, it’s boring, its characters have no substance, and the romantic moments are gratuitous and badly written. Gray tries to heighten the drama by having everyone be cagey about their pasts/financial situations/parentage but honestly, it goes over like a lead balloon. Three single young women and three single young men accidentally rent the same Tuscan castle for the summer! They decide to keep both leases and stay in separate wings! They make a wager not to interact with one another to prove some bologna 21st-century-argument that the author has needlessly inserted into an allegedly historical novel! I wonder what will happen!!!???

soullessThe Awesome: Soulless by Gail Carriger

I never thought I’d like a book about vampires, werewolves, and parasols, but I was deeply mistaken. Soulless is a steampunk novel (steampunk: a sub-genre of SF in which the industrial revolution of Victorian times has gone into hyperdrive, producing steam powered dirigibles and other retro-futuristic contraptions and necessitating a lot of metal eyewear with round lenses). Alexia Tarabotti is half Italian and half an orphan, hardly a favorite in London society, but her appearance and parentage aren’t her only problems: in the middle of a ball, she has just been attacked by a vampire. The encounter breaks all the rules of supernatural etiquette AND destroys her plate of treacle tart! Miss Tarabotti soon finds herself in the thick of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences for the supernatural vampires and werewolves she befriends and for herself. Alexia is fierce, fun, and generally unforgettable. The romance is well balanced against the world building and it makes sense for the characters, all of which are interesting, exciting, and well written. Brava, Ms. Carriger! I can’t wait to read the other four books in this series. (Available via WILBOR)

scoundrelsIf you’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven (or virtually any other high-tech/high-energy heist film), you’re familiar with the plot of Star Wars: Scoundrels. Danny Ocean – I mean, Han Solo – enlists a crack team of a eleven people with specialized skills to steal a ridiculous amount of money. Headed up by Han, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian, this handful of ne’er-do-wells makes a bold attempt to steal 163 million credits in a make-or-break heist that could get Han out from under Jabba’s thumb for good. Or, it could get him (and all his accomplices) killed. There are two surprises at the end of this novel – one of them involving a whip and a gigantic boulder – and for those two alone, it’s worth reading. It’s also a lot of fun to re-enter the world of Star Wars and Han Solo: they’re enduring favorites for a reason, and this well-told, twisty tale does justice to that legacy.

Scoundrels takes place in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the first Death Star (aka, right after A New Hope). The general public has only sketchy information about that debacle: they know that Alderaan is a cloud of space debris, and that the Death Star is now gone, but rumors of Rebel involvement are hardly realistic – surely a scrappy ill-funded few could never stand against the might of the Empire? And that, the central theme the original Star Wars is built upon, is what makes Scoundrels a success too. Surely this band of misfits can’t beat down the impossible odds against them and come away alive, let alone successful? But instead of Palpatine’s evil Empire, it’s a high-security vault owned by a powerful criminal organization. And instead of Danny Ocean, it’s Han Solo (who absolutely, positively, shot first).

At a wedding I attended recently, I ended up having a long, open-bar-fueled argument with another guest over our favorite speculative fiction books. She loves Robert Jordan; I love George R.R. Martin. I won’t bore you with the details, but I do want to emphasize how vehemently opposed our tastes were, so that when I tell you that we both adored The Left Hand of Darkness, you’ll know: wow. that must be a seriously awesome book.

And it really, really is. This is about as pure sci-fi as sci-fi can get: a tale of fiction that speculates on the future of science and how it may alter human culture. And, in this book, even human genetics.

The story takes place on the planet Gethen, mostly known as Winter, where Genly Ai has been assigned as a diplomat. His mission is to bring the people of Winter into the broader galactic civilization. His task is complicated by the alien culture and politics of this world, where the human inhabitants are genderless beings whose sexual characteristics and reproductive abilities only surface during mating seasons, when they can become either male or female (depending on their chosen partner). LeGuin is a master: this novel is excellent. It’s not about aliens, or sex, or politics, but it is about the way all of those things affect friendship, culture, and human nature. Like all great science fiction, this isn’t a work with a limited scope or audience – it’s one that uses speculation about the future to make sharp observations and thoughtful arguments about the way we live now.