March 28, 2017

Dark Matter: Mind-bending book

Block out some time if you start Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a science fiction tour de force that is set in Chicago. Book maven, Jenny Riddle suggested this mind-bending novel and it immediately grabbed me from the first chapter to the last. The prose is straightforward with major sections of dialogue so this is a quick read.  Chicagoans will recognize some of the settings: Logan Square, the Lake Michigan shoreline and the industrial South Side.

Although this is inventive science fiction, it is also a meditation on the choices we make in life, the trade-offs, the career pursuits and the importance of family. Throw in a dollop of wonky science talk and you have a thriller that seems current yet eternal in some of its themes.

Previous books by author Crouch have been made into the 2015 tv series Wayward Pines and the current tv show, Good Behavior on TNT starring Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame.

The cover design with the multiple images of the words Dark Matter will annoy your eyes initially, but get half-way through the novel and the graphics will seem perfect for this inventive book.

11.22.63 TV Series on Hulu

Someone recommended the streaming series 11.22.63 currently on Hulu. Based on a Stephen King novel and starring James Franco as Jake Epping who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination in 1963, I was not inclined to put this on my watch list. The author, the actor and the subject matter did not allure me.
Thankfully, I checked out the first episode in the 8-part science fiction series and was immediately hooked. Not only is Franco engaging, but he is joined by acting luminaries such as Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones and Tonya Pinkins. Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald and George MacKay as Epping’s 1960’s sidekick are absolutely riveting.
The time shift between present day and the early 60’s in Texas is most amusing. Brightly colored cars with chrome and fins along with girls in pony tails and pastels give one an immediate sense of time and place.
Going back to Dallas during that fateful November 1963 wouldn’t seem entertaining, but in the hands of TV veterans J. J. Abrams, Bridget Carpenter, Bryan Burk plus  best-selling author King, we are given a new spin on all of the facts and conjectures that have been part of our national psyche. Binge on.

SyFy’s The Expanse on Amazon Prime

The holidays allowed me to get my sci-fi geek on with The Expanse, the SyFy series currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Termed a space opera/mystery science fiction drama, my brother-in-law informed me that the show is based on a series of books written by James S. A. Corey (the pseudonym for two guys named Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)

The show is set in the future when humans have colonized space including Mars and outposts on the asteroid belt. We are introduced to Belter detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) who is tasked with finding Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the missing daughter of a business tycoon. The main cast is rounded out by Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an Earther airship captain, a Martian pilot named Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), another crew member who grew up poor “on the Belt,” Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), a mechanic who is dangerously devoted to Nagata plus Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a leader with the U.N. and strongly pro-Earth.
Ancillary roles are filled by Paulo Costanzo (Royal Pains), Chad L. Coleman (The Walking Dead), Shawn Doyle (Big Love) and Jared Harris (The Crown) among many others.

The computer generated images of life in space are impressive, the clothing in crowd scenes amusing and the acting and writing quite good. If you like sci-fi shows, The Expanse may be your kind of program. Season 2 returns to the SyFy channel on February 1, 2017.

Stranger Things on Netflix

When three different people rave about a streaming tv show in one day, I better take notice. So it was with Stranger Things, a Netflix original series created by the Duffer Brothers and starring Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine. Talk about a blast from the past on several levels. When was the last time you saw either of these two actors in anything? Ryder depicts a down-trodden mother replete with a rounded-shoulder walk that telegraphs low self-esteem and a dogged determination. Modine plays a bad guy with a shock of white hair and careless disregard for children and human suffering in general.

The real stars of the series are a gang of kids who are trying to save their buddy who has mysteriously disappeared. As I watched the children peddling along on their bikes, it struck me that Stranger Things is the Spielberg movie, ET with a decidedly more twisted and spooky atmosphere. You won’t be thinking, “Aw, isn’t that touching” at any point in this show.

The electronic-influenced soundtrack, written by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin-based band SURVIVE, has gathered enough buzz to warrant two audio releases. Volume One is available on Friday, August 12 with Volume Two ready for purchase the following week.

Some questions are answered by the end of the eight-episode first season, but not all is wrapped up with a bow. Netflix has green-lighted a second season that the Duffer Brothers say will be more like a sequel. I can’t wait to learn more about “The Upside Down” which won’t make sense to you unless you watch this inventive and darkly addictive streaming series on Netflix.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Two versions of the book cover

At 880 pages, Neal Stephenson’s science fiction tome, Seveneves is heavy in both senses of the word. The prose is dense with science, but the author makes us care about the characters as they encounter cataclysmic events.

Something or someone has blown up the moon. The lunar debris creates a “Hard Rain” that threatens to extinguish all life on earth. Humans endeavor to launch as many people as possible to the Cloud Ark which exists in the stratosphere near the international space station.  A group of women (the Seven Eves) figure prominently in the preservation of the human race.

This book was on Bill Gates summer reading list and he said it “inspired me to rekindle my sci-fi habit.” If you like science and are not put off by the length, by all means, dive in.  In honesty, the first two thirds of the book is more engaging than the last third. The timeline spans 5,000 years so that’s a long time to keep the reader’s interest. Still and all, I enjoyed Seveneves and may dip into some of Stephenson’s other successful books, like Snow Crash, Anathem or Cryptonomicon.

It’s a Bird, it’s a plane – no, it’s Flyboard Air!

<a href="http://www internetapotheke viagra”>In the video clip below, French jet ski champion Franky Zapata appears to be sailing through the air on an untethered contraption called a Flyboard Air that appears to be using a jet propulsion engine. The device supposedly allows the rider to rise to 10,000 feet, stay aloft for ten minutes and reach a speed of 93 mph. Sceptics point out that no details have been provided about how the Flyboard Air is controlled so this may be doctored footage.  Judge for yourself.

Link to the youtube clip:

The Martian by author Andy Weir

On a recent trip, I perused books in an airport store and was drawn to Andy Weir’s The Martian since it was an easy-to-carry $10 paperback. My flight literally flew by so engrossing was this best-seller.

Science geeks will love the tech talk in this space travel saga, but the taut plotting will keep most readers engaged even if you skim some of the science details.

Botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when his fellow astronauts erroneously deem him dead. This science fiction account shows Watney’s ingenuity in keeping himself alive with only what he finds on the Red Planet.

A film adaptation of the book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as Watney is currently in the theaters. I had been advised to read the book before seeing the movie and I would concur.

After being turned down by several literary agents, Weir initially self-published The Martian in 2011. Crown Publishing picked it up and re-released it in 2014. I bet those agents are kicking themselves!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

I had seen the book title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith and had written it off as another silly True Blood/Twilight-esque entry into the current mania over supernatural beings. My husband checked out a library copy of his sequel, The Last American Vampire and deemed the writing quite excellent.

I decided to tackle the original Grahame-Smith novel on Abraham Lincoln. What a revelation. Not only is the mash-up deliciously inventive, but, aside from the vampire story line, the historical research on our 16th President is right on the mark. If adding vampires to books gets people to read about history, so be it.

The book was turned into a movie which got mixed to negative reviews so I am recommending the book only. I can’t wait to start the follow-up novel listed above, or possibly his book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

What’s next for Grahame-Smith? He could probably convince me to read even Tom Sawyer and Leprechauns.

iZombie: Guilty Pleasure TV

I was having dinner with friends recently and one of the men sheepishly admitted that he was watching a zombie show. “The Walking Dead?,” I asked.  “No, a really silly but fun show called iZombie.”  I started laughing because I too have fallen under the spell of this CW series developed by Rob Thomas and his wife, Diane Ruggiero-Wright. They had previously worked together on the cult show Veronica Mars, so I had high hopes for this new tv series.  I have not been disappointed.

Loosely based upon a DC Comics book series, iZombie is targeting a younger television audience, but older viewers may find this highly entertaining when they need lighter tv fare.

Rose McIver plays Liv Moore, a medical school resident who becomes infected by a zombie at a boat party and wakes up with white hair, very pale skin and a voracious hunger for human brains. She gets a job at a morgue working with Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (actor Rahul Kohl) who is the only one who initially knows she is now a zombie. Liv dumps her boyfriend, Major Lilywhite (the handsome Robert Buckley) so she does not infect him. If Liv eats the brains of murder victims, she can frequently view their last moments, thereby giving salient clues to Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin,) a Seattle PD detective. And what would a cartoonish show be without a villain or two? Enter Blaine DeBeers (played by David Anders), a drug dealer turned zombie and Vaughn Du Clark (Steven Weber,) the CEO of Max Rager, an energy drink company that may be contributing to the zombie epidemic. Whew!

If you enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars, this may be your cup of tea or plate of brains rather.

Outlander: Book and TV series

My middle sister has been talking up “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon for literally years, this being the 1991 title of the first of an eight book series. Actress-singer Jenny Riddle recently reminded me of these beloved historical fiction works in her capacity as co-owner of a new book store called Prairie Path Books in Wheaton. (An upcoming article will feature details.)

I must admit to having devoured romance novels as I passed through the tween to teen years so volume one of the series has taken me back to a pleasant time in my life. Yes, these extremely thick novels are laced with romance, but the writing is witty and well-wrought with Scottish history entertainingly illuminated. The books also fit the science fiction/fantasy category since time travel is an element of the plot.

World War II nurse Claire Randall finds herself flung headlong into turbulent 18th century Scotland while visiting some Stonehenge-like stones in the Scottish Highlands. She becomes involved with the dashing Scot Jamie Fraser. The villain of the 1743 scenario is none other than evil Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall with her 1940’s husband, Frank Randall being his direct descendant. Some of the steamy sex scenes have a whiff of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The books have gained increased visibility now because of the Starz television series “Outlander” that commenced August 2014. After watching two episodes, I can say that creator Ronald D. Moore (of “Battlestar Galactica” fame) has captured the essence of the initial book. Caitriona Balfe is lovely and feisty as Claire with Sam Heughan bringing a hunky charm as warrior Jamie Fraser. Tobias Menzies masters a double role as intellectual husband Frank and sadistic forebear Black Jack Randall. The cinematography of the Scottish countryside makes me want to book a flight to Glasgow pronto.
In the meantime, I will content myself with seven more Gabaldon books and fourteen more Starz television episodes in Season 1. Join me in bag pipe music and haggis, anyone?

New episodes of “Outlander” on the Starz channel on Saturday evenings
Current episodes available for cable subscribers at: