In this Unabridged podcast episode, we're talking all things speculative fiction with Virginia Soenksen, author of The Titan Strain, The Osiris Contingency, and The Ragnarok Resolution. We talk with her about her amazing science fiction series, and then we all recommend books that we've loved within the speculative fiction realm. We wrap up our episode with some favorite museum recommendations in honor of Virginia's role as an art historian and an associate director of a museum.
Ashley - The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams
Jen - Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X
Sara - Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
Virginia - Janella Angeles's Where Dreams Descend
Virginia Soenksen’s The Osiris Conspiracy (The Genetics Chronicles Book 2)
Virginia Soenksen’s The Ragnarok Resolution (The Genetics Chronicles Book 3)
Our Speculative Fiction Recs
Ashley - Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians
Sara - Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion
Virginia - V.E. Schwab’s Vicious
Mentioned in Episode
Give Me One - Favorite Museum
Ashley - the Louvre
Sara - Air and Space Museum
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Ashley said, "So this one is an audio book that I'm listening to, and I'm doing that through Libro.fm, and it's called The Toni Morrison Book Club. And it has four authors, which I'll explain in a second. So it's Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams. I have never read a book that had four authors, and in the very opening part of the book they explain that it is a real-life book club, and they do talk about Toni Morrison books, and that that led them to writing this book where they shared some of their revelations that they had through their discussions of the Morrison novels.
"They talked about how one of the discussions they had was that nobody ever writes a book with four people, and it's going to be so challenging to try to collaborate in that way. And yet, they decided that they wanted to honor each person's voice, and so they stayed the course, and all four of them are represented in the book."
Ashley continued, "I am a huge Toni Morrison fan, and the books that they're discussing, I have read. So I am loving this. I'm loving revisiting those texts that I haven't read in a while, and I'm loving looking at the way that the books and the exploration of the themes within them has impacted each of the people's lives, and so I think it's phenomenal. I also have heard people who have not read the books and who really enjoyed this book, so I don't feel like you had to read the Morrison novels to enjoy this experience. It's so relevant. The discussions that they are having are frank and challenging, and they're really looking at all the current events happening in America through the lens of these book club discussions."
Sara was "reading middle-grade fiction called Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling, and it is awesome. It is about a main character named Aven, and she was born with no arms. The story starts off with her just kind of talking about that, and she likes to tell these really fantastical stories about how she lost her arms because people are always like, 'Do you mind if I ask how you lost your arms?' So she makes up all of these stories, and she's just so lovable from the beginning.
"So she's been in the same school her whole life, and she has friends, and everybody's grown up with her, so she's never felt different. Then her dad has been out of work for six months, and he gets a job offer to run a run-down theme park in Arizona. So they move from Kansas to Arizona, so she is having to adapt to a new school, and it's hard for her. She's very capable. She's taught herself, and her parents have really made sure that she's able to use her toes for everything. She is just an awesome character."
Virginia said, "So I am reading Where Dreams Descend, which is the first book in the Kingdom of Cards series. This is by Janella Angeles, and she's a Filipina American. She's one of the first-time novelists that I've been following on Twitter ever since she announced this book because she billed it as a cross between Phantom of the Opera and Moulin Rouge, two of my most favorite things in the entire world, so I was onboard with this entire plot from the beginning.
"It is about this really spunky girl named Kallia, and she is a natural magician. This is in a world where you can learn magic, but you can also be born with magic, and so she is a born magician. She's living in this spectacular burlesque theater in the woods with a very mysterious mentor, Phantom-of-the-Opera style. He ends up running away and joining a magic competition in this mysterious walled city, and then people start turning up injured, disappeared, murdered.
"It's like beautiful gowns and costumes and descriptions of these fantastic shows, which I wish I could attend in person right now. So that is what I am loving right now, and I hope that she writes the second book soon because I think it ends on a cliffhanger."
For her bookish check-in, Jen said, "The three of us are reading this one because it's our buddy read pick for the month, Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X. This is actually a reread for me. I am loving diving into this book all over again.
"It is a YA novel in verse, and one of the really interesting things about this one—I love novels in verse in general, but this one is also about her verse. So the main character, Xiomara, is a poet, and the book is the poetry that she is writing a lot of the time. It's very much about the way that she expresses herself through poetry and is figuring out her identity through the poetry that she's writing. This is a voice that she doesn't feel like she has in her life with her mother and her family. And oh my goodness, it is just absolutely beautiful. . . .
"There's a huge conflict with her mother about religion. Her mother is very religious and expects her daughter to be just as religious as she is, and Xiomara has questions, and her mother is just not standing for that. So that's one of the conflicts that I remembered from the first time through, but this time through that is something that is really standing out for me."
Featured Books by Virginia Soenksen
Jen said, "I'll just speak for myself first. I have really enjoyed reading your trilogy, I will say we are not going to get into spoiler territory, which is going to be very challenging for me because the later books are definitely fresher in my mind than book one. But it has been such a journey." Then, she asked Virginia, "Do you mind sharing a summary or just a synopsis of book one?"
Virginia said, "So the book is set in—hopefully—an alternate universe of a dystopian London after the third world war.
It's a world of control and suppression, with a very fascist government in charge, and within this world, genetic modification and manipulation is very real and prevalent.
"So the story centers around a young assassin who has been raised from childhood to fight for this fascist government living a totally emotionless, controlled existence. Her only contact is her handler, and they have a very complicated relationship. But she ends up finding that genetically altered humans—illegally genetically altered humans called mods— are turning up dead throughout the city. So she teams up with a young police officer, and they kind of navigate this dark underbelly of cyberpunk-ish London, trying to find out who is killing these people why, and they're hunting for also this perfect genetic modification, which is called The Titan Strain."
Be sure to check out the episode for more about Virginia's inspiration! And check out these upcoming deals on her trilogy:
Monday 10/26/20 to 10/30/20 – Book 1: The Titan Strain will be free
Monday 11/2/20 to 11/6/20 – Book 2: The Osiris Contingency will be free
Monday 11/9/20 to 11/13/20 - Book 3: The Ragnarok Resolution will be discounted to $4.99
Speculative Fiction Recommendations
Sara recommended The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer "about the main character Matt. He is six years old, and he discovers that he is different from other children. He lives in this very elaborate place, almost like a mansion. And there's a lot of really bizarre things that happen around the mansion. So basically what you find out is that they are experimenting with cloning and replicating DNA. There's this really wealthy man who—it almost reminds you of like a crime family—there are all these mysterious dark characters that lurk around him, he's there and he himself is very mysterious. . . . Matt is being basically kept alive for things that happen to the big guy."
Virginia said, "I would like to recommend one of my all-time favorite books that I've read probably about four or five times since I first bought it: Vicious by V.E. Schwab. She's a treasure. I absolutely love her books. I love her characters, and she tends to have a lot of kind of morally gray characters, which I'm super into. SoVicious is speculative fiction about two medical students who live in a world where people can basically become superheroes, but they don't know how they're becoming superheroes. So these two medical students decide they're going to create them through experiments, and they experiment on themselves and inadvertently end up becoming kind of super villains, and they're both driven by very different things. So it's about the conflict between these two super villain characters with a friendship gone wrong in a very dangerous world, and the main character Victor is absolutely amazing. He is super cool and snarky and interesting, and yet, he does a lot of really noble things over the course of the book. I just love it. It's the perfect thing to curl up with on a rainy day or snowy day. Just read it. It's fantastic."
Ashley recommended Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians. She said, "I was captivated by that story. This is a recent release, and it was available on Libro.fm and the ALC program, so I listened to it on audio. I do think it would be even better on text. I love the audio. It's very well done, but the storyline is somewhat complex, and so particularly in the beginning, listening was a little disorienting.
"The story is about these four boys, these four young men who had gone out on a reservation hunting area. They are Native American young men, and the land that they were on was designated to be only a hunting ground for the elders, and so they were not to be hunting on this particular property. They decided to hunt on it anyway, and they killed elk, and so the first part of the story that you're coming to understand is that one of the four kills an elk, and he realized she was pregnant. So at the time of the hunting, he was really troubled, and he swore that he was going to use every part of her body, and he was really going to, you know, honor the loss of her life. He's kind of haunted by this, this incident. So when the story is opening, it's ten years later, and we're getting a look into his life."
For Jen's recommendation, she said, "I was really torn. I will just say N. K. Jemisin, I will read anything that she writes, and I think you cannot go wrong with any of her books, but I am recommending her most recent book. It's the first book in a planned trilogy. It's called The City We Became. I really love superhero stories, and my favorite part of those is the backstory, like the origin story of how people became superheroes, and this book had that feel for me.
"So the premise is that it's a universe where cities, after they've been around so long and have gotten so big and sort of have this established character, are born. And as cities are born, they become these standalone entities. So they're still in the universe, but they have their own . . . I'm probably not articulating this very well, but they are standalone entities that have their own sort of universe to themselves. There is an evil force in the universe that wants to prevent these cities from being born, and each city has a person who sort of becomes almost like its avatar. This book is about each of those avatars for New York—each of them stands for one of the boroughs—figuring out what's happening, that he or she is an avatar, and almost in a way giving up their own identity. They sort of become blended, like they're still a person, but they're also their borough, and they come together to fight this evil force, which just makes me ridiculously happy. Like I just love it. So, I mean, nothing is solved—it's the first book in the trilogy, so it ends on a cliffhanger, and bad things are happening—but it's also that kind of optimism that you feel when the force of good is taking on the force of evil."
Give Me One . . . Favorite Museum
We ended by each sharing a favorite museum—check out the episode for why we selected the ones we did.
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