Space Opera by Catherynne Valente
This amusing, engaging science fiction novel was inspired by the Eurovision Song Contest, David Bowie, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the author’s Maine Coon cat. Set in the near future, first contact with Earth is made by the appearance of an alien who resembles a flamingo and a fish, and can speak with your grandmother’s voice. The sentience of Earth’s inhabitants is in doubt, and Earth must participate in the upcoming Megagalactic Grand Prix and finish anywhere but last to survive. As Yoko Ono is no longer available, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, a former British glamrock trio, is selected. The two remaining musicians aren’t on speaking terms and have no ideas for a new song. Danesh Jalo (Decibel Jones) parties with the aliens en route to the contest, while Omar Caliskan (Oort St. Ultraviolet) misses his kids and chats with Oö, who resembles a red panda. Fans of Douglas Adams or Connie Willis may enjoy this whimsical, bittersweet, and ultimately hopeful musical extravaganza.
Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles
Cameron Harris, a young veteran who was paralyzed in Afghanistan, is visiting the local convenience store with his sister Tanya. Suddenly, he stands up and walks. Is it a miracle? Does it matter if it’s a miracle, and what does his regained health mean for Cameron, Tanya, and the Vietnamese American owners of the convenience store? The Vatican investigates a possible miracle, while Janice, Cameron’s doctor at the VA, struggles to understand what might have happened medically, and a reality TV producer comes calling. Tourists start visiting Biloxi to see the spot in the parking lot where Cameron first walked. We learn about Cameron and Tanya’s family, how Hurricane Katrina affected them, and why Cameron stopped playing football and enlisted in the Army. The siblings are stunned to find themselves being filmed for television, and Cameron doesn’t want to talk about his past or the secrets he’s hiding, especially from his time in Afghanistan. Witty and engaging, though not very fast paced, this contemporary novel is a thought-provoking read.
I’m looking forward to The Great American Read, hosted by PBS beginning on May 22. 100 books and series have been selected, and viewers will be asked to vote for their favorite book or series. Plenty of classics are on the list, as well as contemporary books, popular series for all ages, and some contemporary books. Viewers will remember much-loved books you read as a child, assigned reading titles that you actually enjoyed (or not), books familiar only because of their movies, and books you might like to read for the first time. There may be books you’ve never heard of, and books that make you wonder how they got on this list. For me, the list contains all of these categories. The only types of books I don’t see are picture books, non-fiction, plays, and biographies. Did you enjoy The Martian, or have fond memories of Charlotte’s Webb? Find out you enjoyed mysteries when assigned to read And Then There Were None in junior high? Have trouble putting down The Da Vinci Code? Cry over The Notebook? Wonder why your favorite book isn’t listed?
Here’s the list. Look for copies of the list on my June book display of The Great American Read.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This is an absorbing novel about two very different families in the planned community of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Set in 1998, the Richardsons and their four children seem to have everything, but it’s their house in flames as the book opens, with one of their children suspected of arson. 11 months earlier, Elena Richardson rented a small house to artist Mia and her teen daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl are used to moving frequently, fitting all their belongings in a VW Rabbit, buying clothes and furniture at thrift stores. Izzy Richardson spends time with Mia, wanting to learn how she makes her unusual photographs. Pearl is befriended by Moody Richardson, and is fascinated by his older siblings, Lexie and Trip. Full of secrets gradually revealed, this is a story about mothers and daughters, and different paths to motherhood. Adoption, surrogacy, unwanted pregnancy, and premature birth are all covered here. Reporter Elena’s friend is hoping to adopt an abandoned Chinese American baby, whose birth mother works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant. Everything is connected, and the author gradually peels back the layers of the characters, dazzling and sometimes stunning the reader. Deservedly popular, this is a memorable and compelling read.
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
A compelling, engaging read of the amazing challenge NASA accepted in the summer of 1968 to send astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to orbit the Moon in late December on Apollo 8. While the stories of Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 are well known, the less familiar story of Apollo 8 makes for fascinating reading. Even though I knew that Apollo 8 was successful, Kurson still makes the mission suspenseful. The author met and interviewed Borman, Lovell, Anders and their families for this book, and his portrayal of the men and their wives turn them from remote historical figures into real, approachable people. Readers learn how and why the men became astronauts, and how their families coped with their dangerous jobs as test pilots and astronauts. Until NASA learned that the Soviet Union planned a flyby of the moon in 1968, they weren’t planning to send astronauts to the moon until Apollo 9 in 1969. In four months, they planned their boldest mission, which was vital in preparing for the moon landing of Apollo 11 and best remembered for photographs of the Earth and the live television broadcast on Christmas Eve. After a very turbulent and violent year, Borman, Lovell, and Anders helped end 1968 on a hopeful, triumphant note. Apollo 8, by Jeffrey Kruger is another recent book about the mission. For more from Robert Kurson, read Shadow Divers, Crashing Through, or Pirate Hunters, which will be discussed here on July 17.