Science Fiction – No Longer Just For Nerds

I’m in a rut, in a rut, in a rut rut rut root, rutabaga!

Ah, blessed escape.

As much as I enjoy pulp mysteries, I feel that 2015 needs to be a year of expanded reading interests. Books written in 2015, non-fiction, plots or genres I don’t typically pursue – these will be my (alleged) focus for the year. But for the moment I am returning to my sordid past. You see, I am a recovering science fiction nerd.

For years, the only books I read were sci-fi. I have a couple of theories as to the why of this, but one definite appeal of the genre is that literally anything can happen. Not so in most fiction. Your average book about a lawyer suing the greedy corporations that are destroying her home in Alaska is not going to feature the Loch Ness Monster as a key witness (although that would be way cool and probably improve the story). There are laws of reality that most stories need to obey. Sci-fi, however, creates its own laws.

chalkerThe Well of Lost Souls series, written by Jack L. Chalker, is one of my favorite examples of what science fiction can be. Chalker was not an outstanding writer, but he was incredibly imaginative. For this series he created the Well World, a planet which serves as a testing ground for potential species, sort of a cosmic petri dish. Each species has its own hexagonal region (1,560 regions total) that serves the needs of its inhabitants – temperature, atmosphere and so on. As the main characters travel the planet they pass through many regions and the reader is introduced to a stunning array of unique creatures and environments. No other book or series I’ve encountered is packed full of such diversity.

dhalgrenDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Dhalgren is on my soon-to-be-read list. As far as I can recall, I’ve never read anything by Delany, but he is one of the names uttered with a hint of reverence in the sci-fi field. This book’s description is mesmerizing, and I’ve read several reviews that refer to it as one of the most important science fiction novels. How can one resist this summary?

In Bellona, dead centre of the US, something has happened. The population has fled; madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young poet, lover and adventurer, known only as the Kid.

He had me at “centre”.

man in the high castleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is probably best known for writing Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the novel that Blade Runner is based upon. While this movie might be complex, his books are beyond difficult to describe. Perhaps visualize a mix of reality and fantasy and hallucinogenic drugs, and then throw this psyonic kaleidoscope into a hyperbole tornado, replete with fevered visions and tapioca (the tapioca is for me; I like it), swirling at the speed of sound through an uncertainty transmogrifier. Dick’s books are challenging, even bizarre, but extremely rewarding. The Man in the High Castle features an alternate history wherein the Allies lost WWII. Germany controls most of the United States, but Japan runs the west coast. These two superpowers, though allies in war, do not trust each other, so espionage, intrigue and budding conflict become part of everyday life. While this description sounds fairly straightforward, the story is anything but. Ultimately, it’s a tale of day-to-day life in a United States that never existed and an examination of the eternal what’s-it-all-about. From a local interest standpoint, Amazon recently created a pilot for a series based on the book, and most of the filming was done in Seattle, Monroe and Roslyn (home of Northern Exposure).

City of Truthcity of truth by James Morrow
You can read about this classic in a previous blog. I’m finally getting around to reading it, and it’s even better than expected!

Like any genre, sci-fi can be trite, repetitive and boring. But its cream is amongst the best literature flung from a pen. So stroll the Science Fiction aisles at EPL and prepare to BLOW YOUR MIND (mind-blowing clean up gear not included).

Spot-Lit for March 2015

Spot-Lit

Get the jump on these highly anticipated new releases coming out in March.
Click the book cover montage below to read more or to place titles on hold.

Gallery View

 Notable New Fiction 2015 (to date)  |  All On-Order Fiction

For Better or For Worse

Once upon a time there was love and passion. When passion’s embers were banked and didn’t burn so intensely there was still love. And familiarity. 27 years of marriage witnessed both tenderness and dismay, the dismay being a wet towel left on the bathroom floor, the tenderness in caring for someone who ate bad shrimp. A good marriage is fluent in short hand and silences. A good marriage is being able to unbutton your jeans after pizza and beer. A good marriage is listening to an untalented spouse sing in the shower every morning and not flushing the toilet on them. A good marriage is gentle support: please don’t eat that candy all the time. I want to make sure you’re around for years to come. Even when you find out I’ve killed 12 women.

fulldarkA Good Marriage is from Stephen King’s novella collection Full Dark, No Stars. I’m writing about it because 1) I forgot I read it five years ago and 2) it’s the only novel from Full Dark, No Stars that I remember, mostly because I read it again last week.

Stephen King said that A Good Marriage is loosely based on serial killer Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer who slaughtered ten people and then quit killing for years. King wrote the novel after hearing about Rader’s wife of 34 years getting harassed by people who believed she knew what her husband was doing.

Bobby and Darcy Anderson have been married 27 years and have two grown children: Donnie, who’s getting his first business up and running and is becoming a success and Petra who is planning her wedding. Bobby is an accountant and a numismatist (I had to look up the word because it sounds like something a drunk person would try to say while concentrating very hard. It means someone who collects currency like old and rare coins). Bobby’s been obsessed with finding a rare Wheat Penny, the Holy Grail of coins.

Darcy finds one online and wants to buy it for him but he says no because he wants to find the rare penny randomly, mixed in with his change after eating at a restaurant or buying a cup of coffee. He wants fate to bring the penny to him. Bobby’s passion is Darcy’s passion. Darcy runs a small business out of their home selling memorabilia and coins. Like most coin enthusiasts, they’re continuously on the hunt for something rare, a coin that seems to be mostly myth and urban legend. But Bobby’s on an entirely different hunt. And has been for years.

Bobby often travels to smaller New England towns to fix the accounts of other businesses and to go to coin dealers and auctions. One evening when Darcy is home alone watching TV she tries to change the channel. The batteries in the remote are dead and of course there aren’t any in the junk drawer or anywhere else in the house. They’re all the way out in the garage. The garage is Bobby’s domain and the man is ultra OCD which is good for Darcy since she’s a little scattered. She finds the batteries in a neatly labeled drawer. When she goes to reach for them her knee hits a box and knocks it over.

Sitting on top of the box are stacks of mail-order catalogs. While flipping through them, she finds a magazine about bondage. At first she thinks it’s just one of those magazines that men are curious about, something along the line of Playboy but when she opens the magazine she sees it’s more than “exploration and curiosity”, it’s downright torture. Why would her Bobby have such a magazine around?

She tries to put it out of her mind and bends down to slide back the box she knocked over. She hears another sound. Getting down on her hands and knees she peers into the wall where there is a small hiding spot. A loose board has fallen over and she can see a small box inside. A little voice in Darcy’s head is telling her to leave it alone, put the piece of wood back, grab her batteries and go back into the house but instead she takes the box out and finds a driver’s license, library card and blood donor card all belonging to a woman who had been killed by the serial killer called Beadie.

Her entire being is reeling against the idea that the man she’s spent the last 27 years with, the man she thought she knew inside out, is a serial killer. She makes sure she puts everything back in the right way and goes back into the house. Darcy gets on the Internet and begins researching Beadie and his kills. With every article she reads, she gets sicker and sicker.

What would a good wife do? If it got out that her husband was Beadie there would be reporters camped out on their lawn, Donnie’s business would tank from the bad publicity and Petra, who idolizes her father, would be beyond heartbreak.  She can’t do that to her children. People would think she knew about it all along but kept her mouth shut. But 12 women have been mutilated and killed. It’s a good marriage. Can it still be a good marriage if she knows her husband is a serial killer but looks the other way?

Could you look the other way?

Jackaby or Waiting for Sequels

Well, shoot. You deserve an explanation for what you are about to read. I want you to know, dear reader, that I did not plan this. When I wrote my last post about how I wanted to approach my reading this year and featured some book titles that were of particular interest, I did not intend on reading one immediately afterward. So please do not hold me to this pace, as there is a very tempting cookbook I just spotted that is begging for the blogging treatment.

jackabyYou see, shortly after the last post was published, I found myself with some free time and a shiny new copy of Jackaby by William Ritter. R.F. Jackaby is a paranormal investigator living in New England in 1892. He’s quite smart and extremely observant, though his insight isn’t always appreciated by the local constabulary. While he goes through life helping those who need it and solving mysteries of a supernatural nature, he isn’t able to keep an assistant very long. In fact, the person who stays with him the longest is Douglas, though the reason he stays is because of an unfortunate magical accident that left him transformed into a duck. While this may sound like something out of Discword, I promise you it’s very different.

Soon Jackaby finds himself with yet another new assistant. Abigail Rook is still a teenager but is already a world adventurer, constantly traveling to new and exciting locales, though ending up on Jackaby’s doorstep was a potentially dangerous combination of a lot of bad luck and calculated risk. She’s out of money and needs both a job and a safe place to live. Jackaby solves both problems, as long as she doesn’t mind living with Douglas the duck and Jenny, a ghost who lives in the den.

This book focuses on how Abigail assists Jackaby in his investigation into a serial killer who they believe is inhuman. But what really grabbed my attention is the process Abigail goes through as she starts to realize that everything she thought she knew is wrong, and that there is a lot of crazy you-know-what going on right under her nose. The magical world is very real, and as Abigail learns more she also teaches Jackaby the benefits of real detective work: taking notes, interviewing witnesses, and generally staying out of the way of the police.

Jackaby himself is an odd combination of personality traits. He’s charming and witty like Doctor Who, but he’s also socially unaware like Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes. Though I catch flack from my friends for not being a Whovian, I am fully versed in BC’s Sherlockian nonsense and I am desperate for new Sherlock episodes.

But even more than that, Jackaby helped delay my years-long craving for the sequel to Libba Bray’s The Diviners. I’ve read that the long-awaited sequel will be out this summer, but that’s a story I’ve heard in years past. However, those who loved The Diviners like I did will appreciate not just the supernatural aspect of Jackaby but also how fast-paced the story was.

IMG_20150203_183711I read Jackaby in two days, and got my husband to read it shortly afterward. Now we’re both craving the sequel. Which, I guess in the scheme of things, is a problem you want to have. I’m having a difficult time turning the book back in to the library, as I reported recently on Instagram and it became one of my most loved images. I can’t blame ‘em. Jackaby goes with every outfit and reading taste. So what are you waiting for?

Spies Like Them

It’s a new year, time for a clean start and all of that. 2014 was my year of the hard-boiled detective. And so I wonder what 2015 will bring.

One book I’m currently reading is The Saint and The Fiction Makers by Leslie Charteris. The Saint is a spy, sort of in the mold of James Bond, excepting that he predates Bond by some decades, which would actually make Bond a spy in the mold of The Saint. At any rate, Charteris introduced Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, in 1928 and thereafter wrote a series of books featuring his indestructible hero. In the 1960s a TV show based on the character (starring a soon-to-be-Bond Roger Moore) ran, and a variety of authors novelized some of the teleplays. Altogether there are nearly 100 books featuring this dynamic savior of the free world.

The Saint and The Fiction Makers is difficult to describe without giving a bit of the surprise away. It begins as a typical spy story: Super-villain attempting to kill Heroic Spy with ingenious killing devices, Spy narrowly escaping attempt after attempt, Scantily-Clad-Woman adding sex appeal. As events continue to unfold we discover that Simon Templar is actually watching this spy movie, seated next to the actress who was somewhat clothed in the movie. Thus begins a post-modern romp through the spy genre.

Further into the story, a crazy man takes on the persona of the movie’s super-villain and re-creates his hideout and gadgetry in exquisite detail. Then, thinking that Templar is the author who created this fictional genius, he kidnaps The Saint and his “assistant”, the woman who is the real author. What a convoluted and fantastical plot!

While EPL does not (yet) boast any of The Saint catalogue, we do provide ample opportunities to enter the undercover secret world of spies.

39 StepsThe 39 Steps by John Buchan
This book is an early spy story, written in 1915 and centered on The Great War. An “ordinary” person is caught up in an effort to thwart a plot against the British war machine. Alfred Hitchcock made a classic movie based on this book in 1935.

 

North by NorthwestNorth by Northwest
Speaking of Hitchcock and unwitting heroes, in North by Northwest, one of my favorite movies, Cary Grant becomes a pawn of uncaring government spies who sacrifice him in order to bring their plans to fruition. Oh, and there’s a beautiful woman and people climbing Mt. Rushmore’s presidential faces, as well as human crop dusting, so all bases are covered.

Secret AdversawryThe Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence, two of Christie’s lesser known heroes, first see the light of day in The Secret Adversary (written in 1922), where the pair accidentally become entangled with post-WWI spies who are still looking to rearrange the European balance of power. In their second book, Partners in Crime, our heroes have married and now run a detective agency. So they see both sides of the coin, spy and detective.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade
One topic that has intrigued me since hearing about it in a documentary is the spy ring that George Washington put together during the Revolutionary War. Now I gotta say, when we learned history in high school they left out the good parts like this tidbit. I would’ve been all over a spy ring! These spies were very important to the war effort, and this book is firmly planted on my to-read shelf.

Harriet the SpyHarriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Finally, so as not to leave out the kids, we have Harriet. She is perhaps a different kind of spy, not in the overthrowing nations mold, but rather in spying on her friends and writing down what she observes. Here’s a lesson kids, which is a good one in this day and age of computers, cell phones and abacuses: Don’t write down stuff you don’t want other people to see. Harriet’s notebook falls into the wrong hands and her friends read what she has written about them. It’s then up to Harriet to repair the damage and rebuild her friendships.

Will it be a year of spies? I hate to speculate, but I think I can safely say they will at the very least turn up in my reading every now and again. Perhaps one is sitting next to me at this very moment, looking through the eyeholes cut in that newspaper, poisonous lipstick, bedazzling pouty lips, a sultry dress encasing curves in just the right places … Yes, a year of spies.

Spot-Lit for February 2015

Spot-Lit

The Notable New Fiction list for February is here.

Lots of advance praise for the new offerings by Anne Tyler, Kate Alcott, and Laura Lippman. And February is the month for short stories with stellar new collections by Charles Baxter, Katherine Heiny, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Rose Tremain.

Among new authors, Tom Cooper presents a noir-ish post-Katrina comic thriller, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the first books by Jonas Karlsson, M.O. Walsh, Laura van den Berg and Lucy Atkins.

In addition to Lippman’s new standout, crime readers will want to check out the titles by Frances Brody, Colette McBeth, Helene Tursten, Michael Kardos, and Gold Dagger-winner Mick Herron.

Science fiction and fantasy readers can look forward to V.E. Schwab’s latest (after last year’s popular Vicious) along with new books by Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, and Marcus Sedgwick.

Click here to browse the list or place titles on hold.

Notable New Fiction 2014  |  Notable New Fiction 2015 (to date)  |  All On-Order Fiction

Best Blue Books

03ca60a16618b63e79a17c0fd3b2bd25Occasionally a library patron will be searching for a book and can only remember that it has a certain colored cover. It’s usually hard to find books just by color, but here’s a group of blue books that you’ll surely want to find. They obviously all have blue covers, but they are also about some sort of human frailty. I’ve read almost all of them in the last month. Mostly, they’re all excellent!

index (1)All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is the one that everyone is talking about and you’ll need to cue up for this New York Times best seller. It is a brilliantly beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied St. Malo, France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. That sounds like it’s been written before, doesn’t it? Yet, this book was amazing because of wonderfully complex characters, brilliant writing, a fast-paced tempo, a romantic setting and an interesting plot. I highly recommend it!

indexMoonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic by Nora Gallagher was recommended by a co-worker (Thanks, Julie!). It is a poignant memoir about a woman who is healthy and happy and competent but who all of a sudden has vision problems which lead to a spiral into a new life she calls “Oz”: a life full of doctors, medical appointments, and feelings of powerlessness. She also gains a deeper understanding of human frailty and questions her religion and her God. I enjoyed this introspective book about facing disease.

index (2)The Story of Land and Sea is by Katy Simpson Smith who in elegant, lyrical prose, confronts the stark cruelty and hypocrisy of Revolutionary-era slavery, as well as the pain and grief suffered by the powerless and powerful alike. At first, this slim historical novel seems to be this simple story of a Revolutionary-era family, a former sailor whose wife died in childbirth and who is now taking his young daughter to sea in hopes of curing her yellow fever. The story quickly opens up, however, jumping back in time to his wife Helen’s youth on her father’s plantation. There we meet Moll, a slave given to Helen when both were children, and see how uneasily their relationship, a disturbing blend of friendship and mistress-servant obligation, unfolds as they grow up.

index (3)Still Alice by Lisa Genova was also recommended by Julie (I make a habit of asking folks if they’ve read anything good lately). This novel reads like a memoir because Genova has used her own background in Neuroscience at Harvard to create a realistic portrait of 50 year-old Alice Howland who is also a professor of Linguistics at Harvard. When Alice begins to forget things -even words- she must face the horrific possibility that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This book is far from depressing as it clearly explains the testing, treatment options, and symptoms of the disease within the context of an absorbing family drama. It is a very readable primer for anyone touched by Alzheimer’s.

The Light Between Oceans index (4)by M. L. Stedman is the perennial New York Times bestseller soon to be a major motion picture from Spielberg that is “irresistible…seductive…with a high concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page” (O, The Oprah Magazine). After four years in the Great War, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote Australian island. His young wife, Isabel, who has suffered two miscarriages and a still-birth, finds a boat washed ashore with a dead man and a live baby. Tom wants to report it straightaway, but Isabel convinces him that Lucy is a ‘gift from God.’ They return to the mainland when Lucy is two and learn that their decision has greatly impacted others. To quote Julie: “Oh my goodness! That was a great book!”

indexindexIf you’ll humor me, I’ll add two more blue books to this list even though I haven’t read them yet: The Vacationers by Emma Straub and Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. They’re on my to-be-read pile, they look like great novels and, hey, they’re blue! If you need help finding any of these blue books, just ask your friendly librarians (or Julie) at the Everett Public Library!