The hits just keep coming!
The Future of Us
If you need a fun story with a smidgen of social commentary, pick up The Future of Us. I got a kick out of it because I remember when we got the Prodigy computer service when I was in high school. Prodigy was the loser shorter-lived cousin of AOL, which is the new-ish cool online service that Josh receives in the mail one day, circa 1996. Josh installs it on his best friend Emma's computer, after which they are automatically signed into something called Facebook--which offers a peek into their lives 15 years into the future.
Josh and Emma are initially puzzled by this Facebook thing--what is it? Why does everyone post updates on such seemingly mundane details? Curious, they poke around it, until they discover that minor (and major) changes in their everyday life affect their status and relationship updates on their Facebook accounts, until their current lives and future lives began to entangle. Finding that they are becoming addicted to checking their accounts, they are thrown a loop when future Emma makes a dramatic announcement on Facebook.
This is a fun and fast-paced technological read; it's not deep literature with fully-drawn characters (Emma and Josh are rather annoying), but it's a quick and fun read. Some minor instances of language and mature situations make this appropriate for high school readers.
The Winter Palace
I love, love, love historical fiction, but I'm pretty much burned out on historical fiction about royalty. I've had my share of Tudors, pre and post, to last me for a while, thank you very much. Everyday people living through extraordinary times (in any country) interests me more, so a novel featuring a royal figure has to has something "different" about it in order to capture my interest.
My lack of knowledge about Russia before the 20th century makes a novel about Catherine the Great different and exotic. Told through the perspective of Catherine's Polish maid, The Winter Palace is an engrossing, tantalizing, and occasionally bawdy (but not overdone) read full of dastardly deeds, romantic interludes, and deception. Although the subtitle is "A Novel of Catherine the Great," this is truly Varvara's story, from the prejudice she faced as a Polish Catholic living in Russia, to her social rising in the palace ranks, and her complicated friendship with Catherine.
Unfortunately, because the focus is truly on Varvara, Catherine is, in my opinion, somewhat shortchanged as a character, which makes her (do I really need to put a spoiler alert? OK: SPOILER ALERT) sudden accession to the Russian throne a bit rushed (of course, I *know* that there really was a coup, but still. END SPOILER ALERT.). Varvara, on the other hand, is very much a three-dimensional character; the reader immediately empathizes with her plight. As someone not very familiar with Russian history, I would have welcomed a timeline and/or a genealogical chart of Peter the Great's lineage (a list of characters with brief descriptions is all that is included). With several royals sharing the same name, I had to do some quick research and draw my own chart (which isn't a bad thing) in order to move forward with the story and to figure out why X was on the throne/why Y became Empress over her sister/why Z was languishing in a jail.
Despite this minor complaint, I am impatiently awaiting Eva Stachniak's sequel, The Empire of the Night. In the meantime, I'm awaiting my turn to read Catherine the Great (a nonfiction book) by the inimitable Robert K. Massie, author of the fabulous Nicholas and Alexandra. Fans of historical fiction should keep tabs on Stachniak; she delivers a real treat.