Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Full disclosure: The Martian is my favorite book, maybe ever, so I’m coming into this review with a fair bit of bias. That said, in my opinion Project Hail Mary is a worthy follow-up to The Martian, with the same kind of humor, heart, high stakes, and rock-solid science.

Here’s the gist (without spoilers): Dr. Ryland Grace wakes up alone and confused in a spaceship (the eponymous Hail Mary) VERY far from Earth. He’s lost his memory, and his two crewmates died in suspended animation. It’s up to him to figure out exactly who he is, how he got there, what the ship’s mission is, and how he can complete it on his own. And he’d better hurry, because all of life on Earth is at stake.

If that sounds intense, it is – but Grace also makes jokes and laughs as much as he can, while not shying away from the huge responsibility, sacrifice, and loss he’s facing. I really thought this book was effective for several reasons: first, the science. As in The Martian, this book’s science reads to me like plausible and real explanations and solutions. It felt like a book that Weir had a lot of fun writing, with a ton of research to back him up. Second, the character of Ryland Grace was very well done; his emotions, backstory, and feelings of being overwhelmed, repeatedly, make him a relatable narrator that you root for to succeed, while his humor and determination keep the action moving forward at an addictive pace. Third, the narrative structure worked really well. If you’ve ever seen the DC TV show Arrow, you might recognize the strategic use of flashbacks to reveal key information at just the right time. Weir moves carefully and explicitly between Grace’s struggle in the present and all the events in the past that culminated in his being on the ship. It all works together brilliantly to create a story you’ll laugh your way through and won’t want to put down, right up to the very unexpected final pages.

Highly recommended for those who loved The Martian, Cast Away, and other lone-survivor stories of sci-fi or adventure, this is a book which will tug at your heartstrings and stretch your imagination to dazzling new heights.

RingFit Adventure for Nintendo Switch

When I bought myself a copy of Nintendo’s hot new game Ring Fit Adventure, I had no idea what a smart investment it would be. Since my purchase in January 2019, the promise of dynamic in-home exercise has become understandably appealing, and copies of the game available for purchase are nearly impossible to find. I’m proud to announce that I officially finished the game’s “adventure” portion this fall, and so I can now officially recommend the game – which I do, whole-heartedly.

The game’s main portion is structured like a pretty typical action-adventure RPG – your customized character finds themself in a strange world of villagers, animals and monsters, which is threatened by a power-mad bodybuilding dragon addicted to the dark side of exercising. It’s up to you and your trusty sidekick Ring to chase down the dragon and defeat him and his minions with the power of healthy, balanced exercise. The game is driven by your actions in the real world: a leg strap and ring accessory record your jogging, squatting, pushing and pulling and use them to move through environments and fight monsters. The more you play, the higher levels you achieve, which unlock new skills, clothing, abilities, and boosters that help you in battle. Everything is on the fitness theme – your boosters are smoothies with real-world ingredients, the skills are various fitness moves, and all the monsters have punny fitness names (yoga mat monsters are Matta Rays, kettlebells are Belldogs, water bottles are Protein Shakers, etc.)

I’ve had a great experience playing this game. The adventure portion of the game makes exercising fun, and it also has other modes that let me fit exercising into my schedule on my own terms. It has a “custom” mode where you can make your own list of your favorite exercises or jogging routes, it has mini-games that you can play outside the adventure for quick workouts, it has a rhythm game that lets you focus on moving to the music, and it even has a “multitask” mode so you can push or pull on the ring accessory while the system’s turned off, and earn points for the game.

Even better, the game makes a real effort to portray healthy, balanced exercise that is personalized to the individual user. Its included warmup and cooldown routines include easy stretches and lots of tips on living a healthier life, and it has an alarm function to help you stay accountable for playing regularly. It even includes lots of accessibility options, including a “silent mode” for simulating jogging (which is excellent if you share walls or floors with neighbors), various settings to adjust, and calibrating the accessories to your own body and strength.

If you’re looking to stay active during cold, quarantined winter months, AND you’d like to try before you buy, I recommend checking out Ring Fit for a family-friendly exercise option.

Travel Talk – Worst Travel Experience

If you’ve done any amount of traveling, it’s happened to you – a missed flight, lost luggage, a cancelled tour (anyone book a Thomas Cook tour recently?!) The key, of course, is to not let it ruin your trip; consider it a challenge to develop your coping skills! Sometimes the alternative turns out better than you planned!

Fortunately (so far) my travel experiences have been fairly straightforward – lost luggage (found and returned to me the next day), food poisoning (spent a day sick in bed – in Paris! – willing my insides to stop revolting against me), getting lost (I do this All. The. Time. You’d think I’d learn.) Maybe the worst was when my plane caught on fire which sounds terribly dramatic, but the plane was still at the gate and I think it was a fire in the galley, not the airplane itself. It did mean we had to disembark and wait four hours for another plane which meant I missed my connection in Detroit where I had to stay overnight (the airline paid) and got home a day late. Fortunately, everything was fine in the end and it didn’t ruin the trip and look, it makes a great story!

Here’s Michelle’s epic travel nightmare!

Travel delays are par for the course, but in May of 2011, my husband and I had an epic tale of a return flight.  The trip that should have been hours, but turned into days – all because of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano named Grimsvotn.

Our plane departed a little late from Copenhagen, Denmark, which delayed us when we reached Manchester, England.  We made it in time for the flight but since we arrived less than an hour from takeoff to Chicago, we were told we could not board (even though the plane was about 50 feet away from us).  We had to go through customs, get our luggage and hope we could find a flight quickly.  This would not be ideal, since many airports were starting to cancel flights because of the volcano’s ash that was approached the UK, we knew we had to get out or risk being stuck in Manchester, which could likely be days, not hours.

After a couple of hours, we were booked on a flight to Chicago via London.  We quickly realized that making this flight would land us in Chicago at nearly 8:30 in the evening and we did not have a flight or hotel booked for that night.  Once we made it to Chicago, my sister-in-law picked us up and we went back to her house in the Chicago suburbs.  It would be a short visit before we headed back to O’Hare in the morning. In the morning, we rode the Metra train to O’Hare only to find out that our flight to Moline was canceled.  We made a spit decision to rent a car one-way (not the cheapest option) and finally made it home that night!  As Ann mentioned in her post, it does make for a great story!

Now it’s your turn – what has been your worst Travel Experience? Let us know in the comments! And please, only stories that end well!

Sea of Thieves Video Game

Sea of Thieves is a truly unique game in terms of scope and execution. It is a game best played with friends and honestly baffled me when I first played it on release. There is no grand goal at the end of the adventure, the goal is what you make it to be.

Sea of Thieves is an open-world adventure game that tasks the player as part of a crew of pirates going on quests on the high seas. While the game can be played solo where the game matches the player with random players via matchmaking, I have to say that this is not the ideal way to enjoy this game. Playing with friends online creates the most fun scenarios and is how the game was meant to be enjoyed.

Players work together taking on different roles on the ship. One person can steer, one can man the sails and another can navigate. Sea of Thieves really captures the feel of being a pirate, especially when your ship gets close to another group’s ship.

Nothing can compare to the rush of exhilaration that you feel as a player when someone notices another ship on the horizon. “will they attack us? should we pursue them? are they going to be friendly?” all of these questions are made more exciting by knowing that these conversations are also being played out by the other players on the other ship. Maybe you are returning from a quest with a ton of loot on your ship so you don’t want to risk fighting other pirates, or maybe you are on your way to a quest so you have nothing to lose but attack the other players.

I have never experienced an encounter like these until I played Sea of Thieves. Balancing between manning the cannons, plugging up holes from enemy cannon fire, steering the ship, and managing the sails is such a frantic process that the game can go from tranquil enjoyment of sailing, to intense frantic combat in an instant. There is more to the game beyond that too, players can band together and work to take down massive threats like the Megaladon that requires coordination between multiple ships to take down.

I highly recommend this game to any friend group that is looking for a new co op experience to tackle. Blare the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack loud and proud as you tackle the high seas, fight off skeletons, krakens and of course, other pirates.

Just Cause 4 Video Game

Have you ever wished that you were a star in an action movie where the normal laws of physics don’t apply to you? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grappling hook yourself to a plane as it gets thrown around in a tornado and then use your wingsuit to fly safely to the ground, fighting bad guys as you do it? If you said yes to any of that, then Just Cause 4  might be the game for you.

In Just Cause 4 you play as Rico Rodriguez, as he looks into Project Illapa, a program aimed at controlling weather patterns in the fictional South American country of Solis. This action-adventure game has you fighting against the Black Hand, a private army tasked on seizing control of Project Illapa and using its powers for nefarious means. While the story is a continuation of the story from previous games, it isn’t necessary to have played the previous entries to enjoy the frantic and chaotic gameplay of this most recent addition to the franchise.

This game features new advances in developer Avalanche’s Apex game engine that allows for extreme weather patterns such as sandstorms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards and more to feature prominently in the open world gameplay. The open world also features a range of diverse locations and biomes to traverse such as ancient ruins, thick tropical jungles and as well as cityscapes.

The advanced physics systems also makes combat far more interesting and fun. You are able to use the grappling hook in even more crazy ways than in previous games. You can use the grappling hook to hook together a helicopter and a tank and watch the chaos that ensues when you do. You can even use the grappling hook to latch on to a rocket and shoot yourself across the map that way. Your imagination is the limit in this sandbox of a game. The new weather features and upgraded physics engine make this a fun game to check out if you want to live out fantasies of being an action hero.

This game is available on both the Xbox One and PS4 at the Davenport Public Library.

 

Travel Talk – Going Solo

I’ve just returned from a holiday in London, England. The weather was lovely, the cherry trees were in bloom and the museums and landmarks were magnificent. I ate some excellent food (scones with clotted cream! fish and chips!), wandered through gorgeous neighborhoods such as Notting Hill and Belgravia and visited some of the finest museums in the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate Britain. I indulged in my love of gardens by visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (although, this is England, there are gardens everywhere!) and my love of photography by taking pictures of, well, everything! It was, in short, a wonderful trip.

And I did it all solo. No travel companion, no tour group. Just me.

Traveling solo can be hard and I certainly experienced a few bumps and mishaps. Apparently I have no sense of direction and inevitably, when I exited an Underground station (the public transportation system in London), I would go in the exact opposite direction that I needed. Every. Time. And I had to make every decision – where to go, when to go, where to eat, how to get somewhere. There is no one to point out and share any of the many new things you come across, or laugh with over any of the absurdities.

But it can also be incredibly rewarding. I may have always started going the wrong direction, but I also eventually figured it out – on my own – and got to my various destinations. I’m very proud of how I mastered the Underground with barely a blip, from Heathrow airport to central London and then all around London. If I wanted to sleep late or turn in early, I could and if I ate scones with clotted cream every day (which I did), there was no one to question my life choices. There was also no one wondering why the heck I was holding up progress by spending 10 minutes taking pictures of the same tree (I was experimenting with light settings and angles!) There is a huge amount of freedom when you travel solo, and a lot of valuable learning about yourself and what you’re capable of.

A fully solo international trip like this one isn’t for everyone of course, or for every trip. But I encourage you to try it someday if you haven’t already. Even going off on your own for a day or an afternoon can be very rewarding, especially if your interests are different from the people you’re traveling with; for instance, they want to go golfing but you’d really like to visit a museum. A lot of tour groups have built-in free time which would be perfect to venture somewhere on your own. If you need help (or get lost like I tend to), ask someone. I have found that most people are friendly and happy to help, especially when you are polite and respectful of local customs.

Need a little more encouragement? Here are a few books to check out.

The Solo Travel Handbook: Practical Tips and Inspiration for a Safe, Fun and Fearless Trip by Sarah Reid for lots of practical advice.

Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude by Stephanie Rosenbloom for inspiration.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed for an epic solo adventure.

What about you? Have you ever traveled solo? Where did you go? And how did you like traveling on your own? Tell us in the comments!

In the Midst of Winter : a novel / Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s newest novel In the Midst of Winter is a page turner filled with suspense. Part love story, part history, part current immigration issues where baby boomers learn to love again while covering up a crime scene and dealing with their own histories of violence, love lost, and innocence begot.

A story about three separate individuals, Evelyn, Lucia, and Richard whose previous lives become intertwined in a series of flashbacks and unfortunate events including military overthrow, drug escapades in Rio, and gangs in Guatemala. Richard a college professor living and working in New York, Lucia, Richard’s colleague who he has helped obtain a year professorship in New York who also happens to be Richard’s tenant living in the freezing basement of his Brooklyn brownstone, and Evelyn a DACA refugee turned illegal alien come together in Allende’s imaginative fictional concoction of romance, murder, suspense, and drama. The three characters are brought together by a harrowing snow storm in New York when Richard hits Evelyn’s car, embarking all three of them on a journey none would have ever expected.

The reader will enjoy reading this fictional tale where boomers despite their trials of hurt and loss learn that there is still life left in them to live and love left within them to give.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain had been sitting in my wish list in RiverShare OverDrive for a few months before I decided to give it a listen. The plot grabbed my interest, but every time I scrolled through my list to find a new book, I never picked it because the cover wasn’t appealing. Well, I finally decided to read it when I discovered that our Info Café Blog’s Online Reading Challenge had Kenya listed as the country for May. Circling the Sun takes place in Kenya! It was a win-win. Now that I’ve finished it though, I wish I had started reading this book a lot sooner.

Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham, a real-life record-setting aviator who lived a life of adventure full of strife and unconventional desires. She was born in England and then brought to Kenya by her parents because her father wanted to farm, despite the fact that he had no experience doing so. Her mother left her and her father in Kenya when Beryl was very young to move back to England. As a result, Beryl was raised in a very unconventional way by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who worked on her father’s estate and lived close by. Growing up without what the English considered to be a ‘traditional’ female role model, Beryl because a bold young woman who was not afraid to share her opinions, to try new things, and who understood the balance of nature, something that her father passed down to her.

Once Beryl reached a certain age, her father decided that she needed to have a more traditional life and thus threw the cozy life Beryl is familiar with into utter chaos. Her relationships began to dissolve and she was left floundering and confused about what exactly she was supposed to do with her life. Taking the skills she learned from her father as a horse trainer, she decided to become the first woman horse trainer in Kenya, which of course proved to be a very tricky process. Her decision to become a horse trainer led her more deeply into the European Expat community in Africa where she met and became entangled in a messy love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixon, who was the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa. Their tangled relationship and Beryl’s continuous desire to try more, to do more, and to be able to fend for herself leads her to journey all over the world and to meet many remarkable people.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find myself confused sometimes about who different characters were referring to. I know this was probably because I listened to the book and missed seeing the names in print, but I still was able to figure it out at the end. I also highly encourage you to listen to/read the epilogue where the author gives readers a glimpse into the real life of Beryl Markham and what happened to her, her friends, and family after the book ended.

The author also mentioned the book West with the Night that Beryl Markham actually wrote! She praised it highly and Ernest Hemingway even reviewed it with his quote directly on the cover. This book is on my to-be-read list and I can’t wait to read more about Beryl’s life from her own point of view.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

From the start, Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger is suspenseful, engaging and full of twists and turns. The main appeal, though, is Ridley Jones, whose tidy, enjoyable life is turned upside down one morning when she rescues a small child from getting hit by a car. This act of heroism and the attendant publicity brings out people from her past, causing her to doubt her parents, long-time family friends, and everything she’s believed about her life up until that point.

A freelance journalist living in a cozy East Village apartment, she goes on the run, investigating a man claiming to be her father, and  a shadowy group dedicated to finding homes for abandoned children. She’s not sure who she can trust. She’s not even sure of her new neighbor and love interest, who helps her with her investigation but seems too professional in his skills for someone who claims to be an artist.

While you’re reading this, you’re quite aware that this is very firmly rooted in the thriller genre, and is pure escapism. But it’s artfully done, and Ridley’s re-examination of lifelong assumptions and philosophical musings make it a cut above those churned out by authors turned corporations.

Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood

Angel Catbird is author Margaret Atwood’s first official foray into graphic novels. In the book’s preface, Atwood tells readers about her life and her journey to the creation of Angel Catbird. She talks about her love of drawing and how she has loved comics in their varying forms. Atwood also talks about how Angel Catbird has a science and conservation side to it. Nature Canada and CatsandBirds.ca has included facts and statistics about birds and cats in banners throughout the book.

Angel Catbird tells the story of Strig Feleedus, a young genetic engineer, who was headhunted by a major company to help figure out and finish a secret project. He figures out the hole in the project, fixes it, and is on his way to meet his boss when he, his cat, and an owl are hit by a car. Feleedus is accidentally mutated by his own experiment, which results in his DNA being merged with a cat and an owl. He becomes Angel Catbird! This experiment is wanted for use by a nefarious person, Feleedus’ half-rat boss, and Feleedus soon discovers that he in not the only human who has either had his DNA mutated or was born with mutated DNA. Sinister plots are discovered and Feleedus and company must work together to save themselves and the people around them.

Animal puns galore run throughout this graphic novel. I wasn’t sure what to expect when reading this, but I was pleasantly surprised. Angel Catbird becomes an unlikely superhero whose adventures are not at all what I was expecting.


Atwood is also the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that she wrote in 1985 that is being made into a television series starring many famous actors. The series will be released on Hulu on April 26, 2017. Talk about the show has been blowing up all over social media with the trailer garnering much speculation and excited responses from fans the world over. Want to watch the trailer? Hulu just released it and it’s haunting. I can’t wait to watch it.

Margaret Atwood has written many, many novels, pieces of short fiction, children’s books, one graphic novel, works of poetry, nonfiction, television scripts, radio scripts, has done recordings, edited works, and even wrote a play. She’s widely known and people flock to her work. Her work has been translated, so far, into more than 25 different languages. Her critical articles and reviews have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world. If you’ve never read anything by Atwood, I highly recommend you check her out. If you’re already familiar with her, try reading your favorite again or maybe pick up a new-to-you piece.

Want to try something by Atwood? I highly recommend you check out her website (http://margaretatwood.ca/). It’s fabulous! This site is very easy to navigate with a full bibliography, a section with interviews, and a section for works about Atwood herself. It’s one of the best author website I have seen.