(Esther: Some of our all time favorites have come out of Kevin's recaps. He covers pretty much everything that comes under the heading of 'entertainment', which mostly includes movies, books, comics and TV. Read through it, skim through it, or use it as a reference. He's so good at writing short synopsis I know instantly whether or not I need to check something out for myself. )
Recommendations: The Secret Speech, a great thriller and mystery that discloses a place we should all know more about; The Lost History of Christianity, a readable history of the church in the east; Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl, great reflections on the beauty of creation and the perfection of our God.
1. Astonishing X-men, Joss Whedon - While I have read a few graphic novels, I have never been a big comic book guy. But, since I generally like Whedon and I generally like superheroes, I figured that I should give this one a shot. It was entirely worthwhile. The plotline covers four volumes, and mainly follows Kitty Pryde as she returns to Professor Xavier's school, though now as a teacher. Professor X is gone, and the school is in the charge of Cyclops, Wolverine, Emma Frost, the Beast, and Kitty. Soon, they find themselves under attack from a government seeking to rid itself of mutants, powerful aliens with an inexplicable hatred of mutants, and an unknown threat from inside the school. However, the story line is not really about all of these exterior threats, but about Kitty growing up and stepping into her role as a hero. I will give the caveat that if you are an "S" personality type, this may not be a great read. You have to be willing to guess or ignore a lot of references to backstory that a casual acquaintance with X-men will not help with.
2. Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens, Brandon Sanderson - For those unfamiliar with the series, this is the continuing story of Alcatraz Smedry, a young man who finds out that he has an amazing talent: he can break anything. His family helps lead the war between the Evil Librarians and the Free Nations. Now, rather than being an object of rescue, Alcatraz begins to assume his place as a genuine martial leader in this war. To say much more than this would spoil the previous volumes. Of course, this book continues in the same tone, addressing the reader, often approach nonsense, much like the Series of Unfortunate Events. It is still funny and enjoyable, but if you do not like that style, you won't have much taste for this book. One additional warning: This is the fifth volume of what looks to be a six volume series. However, there seems to be some conflict between the author and the publisher about getting the sixth volume out. If you haven't started the series yet, you might hold out for that publication before diving in.
3. Uglies; Pretties; Specials; Extras, Scott Westerfeld - Even when I consistently get to the end of dystopian youth fiction and find that I retrospectively did not enjoy it all that much, I still burn through it and enjoy it while reading. (Hello, Hunger Games.) This was precisely my experience with the Uglies series. The story follows Tally Youngblood, a teenager anxiously awaiting the day when she will receive the operation to become a "Pretty." The operation will remove all defects and build her face to be the model of attractiveness, just like everyone else over the age of sixteen. Until then, Tally lives in a dorm with the other Uglies, who are largely ignored by society. Tally, however, has a penchant for pranks and when she meets Shay, another Ugly, they have a great time. Shay wants to avoid the operation, so when her day comes, she leaves for a rumored town of rebels who refuse to submit to this rebuilt society. The government then co-opts Tally's operation, forcing her to hunt down Shay and the other rebels before she can become a Pretty. The following volumes reveal more about this remade world and give Westerfeld's world-building a real chance to shine. In the end, I think that's why I tend to burn through these books and enjoy them as I read. I like interesting worlds centered on interesting ideas. Westerfeld does a great job of that, far superior to the Hunger Games, in my opinion, and much more comparable to Gregor the Overlander in the level of detail and thought given to the world the story portrays. But for one of these books to really stick with me, I think that I have to find a character that I truly like. That was the massive failing of Hunger Games, and while I like the Uglies characters better, it is still fairly marginal. (Gregor had the best characters by far in this set of comparisons.) In the end, Uglies and its companions are good for a fun and fast read, but will not be lifelong friends.
4. The Secret Speech, Tom Rob Smith - This volume is the sequel to Child 44, another murder mystery set in Soviet Russia. Two years have intervened between the two volumes, and Khrushchev has taken control. Most importantly for Leo Demidov, Khrushchev has issued a secret speech, denouncing the activities of the secret police during Stalin's reign. Leo and other past and present officers soon find their past misdeeds crashing down on their heads. The novel is tense and gripping and full of action. Leo and his wife are great and complex characters and as the action moves along, the reader gets a tremendous view of life in the oppressive USSR. Child 44 was great, and The Secret Speech is a worthy successor.
5. The Lost History of Christianity, Phillip Jenkins - Jenkins, a history professor at Penn State University, gives the reader a great survey of the first millennia of the church in Asia and Africa. Our western-centric histories and traditions largely ignore the early spread and success of the church on those continents, which lasted far longer than many credit it with, well past the dawn of Islam. While I am not certain that Jenkins is a believer, his study is readable, informative and fascinating.
6. Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson - I am conflicted about this book. Nate Wilson studies the world around us, telling short stories about his life, communicating poignant analogies, and quickly piercing the heart of many of the complaints made against God. He seems to ramble at times, but usually comes back to the point. His prose is beautiful and many of the vignettes were powerful. He does particularly good work addressing the problem of evil. In almost every objective respect, this is a great book. I can think of a number of people that I would give it to with little or no hesitation. My personal hesitation is almost so insignificant that I hesitate to mention it, but there is just a little something in his voice that annoys me. It was not there in his fiction, but here I just feel an edge of pretentiousness. Still, I doubt this is something that will annoy most readers, and on that basis I do recommend it.
7. Among Others, Jo Walton - For a little more than a year now, I have been greatly enjoying Jo Walton's book reviews on Tor.com. I feel like she has a generous perspective that I truly appreciate, and her vast knowledge and reading of speculative fiction has introduced me to several works that I have greatly enjoyed. Plus she hates Stranger in a Strange Land, and that makes anyone better in my eyes. So, when many, many people began raving about her latest book, I felt like I should pick it up right away. Among Others is a few months from the journal of Morwena, a teenager, a twin, who has just lost her sibling and much of the use of one leg in an accident. She lives in Wales and England in the late seventies, in a world almost exactly like our own. (Or maybe even exactly like our own?) The only difference between her world and ours is the very unobtrusive presence of fairies, who Morwena has seen all her life, though most people either do not see them, or see them and forget them as they grow older. The few months we see involve Morwena growing and changing, and the great mystery of the book is in finding out what exactly has happened to her. The driving force of the book is in her constant reference to the great works of speculative fiction, which frame her view of the world. This is definitely a good and interesting book, especially for anyone who has grown up enjoying fiction. I would only selectively recommend it, though. I think it takes a particular type of person to really enjoy it, and I think that I am right on the cusp of not being one of those people.