Susan’s Best Reads of 2019

I don’t read as much as I wish I could; I just don’t have time at the moment. It doesn’t help that I wind up with sometimes 600 page books in my hands, and those take longer.  I never know what I’ll read next, and I read a bunch of good ones last year. Here are some of my favorites:

One of the two best books I read this year, I’ve already blogged about: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull, was amazing. Not just a history of Pixar films, it’s also the best darned, most entertaining book on business and employee management you will read. Pixar is a 5-star company for a reason.

The second of my Best Reads this year is The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.  From approximately 1898 to 1912, a serial killer traversed the US by train – coming through New Haven’s Union Station on the way – with an MO of bludgeoning his victims with the back of an axe. Because of communications at the time, few people were able to connect the murders. James painstakingly, with the utmost detail, traces the dozens of murders and examines them, deciding if they were likely by the same killer or not, and why. He traces the paths through the states and the seasons, chasing the trail to a man who was most likely the killer. By the time he’s done, you are convinced and amazed. I could not stop reading this book. I read it while waiting for the school bus. I read it while cooking. I would have read it in the shower if I could have. If you love a mystery, if you love history, if you love crime stories, this book is a must.

I’m only 30 years late in reading Neuromancer, the Hugo-winning cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. I can see why it is held as one of the greatest novels of our time. Gibson predicts and writes about today’s modern computers and internet and gaming – long before they existed. The scenarios he describes are both familiar and futuristic at the same time. While not only visionary, it’s written in  a flawless style and with realistic, interesting characters. If you loved Ready Player One or The Matrix (which has to have been influenced by this book), you will love Neuromancer.

If you’re aware of social and racial issues, I strongly recommend Survival Math, by Mitchell S. Jackson. A professor of writing, in achingly beautiful prose worthy of Martin Luther King Jr., with the voice of a preacher without being preachy, Johnson breaks down the issues faced in his own family, examining how he came to where he is, how racism played into it without even being visible, and how despite all the odds, it’s possible to thrive. He covers harsh topics without flinching. The book is brilliant, spellbinding, and a superb read from a voice that soars with truth.

Far more than I expected, I loved Total Recall, an older door-stop of a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger. From his birth in a tiny town in Austria (which still has only 2500 people) to his divorce from Maria Shriver, Arnold is witty and candid and down to Earth. No matter what you think of his politics or his movies or his personal life, this book may be older, but it was highly entertaining. His best friend just died in September of this year.

Not my favorite, but worth mentioning because of its local importance, is Frog Hollow  by Susan Campbell. Campbell, a former reporter with the Hartford Courant, digs into the history of the notorious Frog Hollow section of Hartford, and through tireless research shows the former glory of the neighborhood as not only an important area in Colonial times, but once a major manufacturing center (in 1898, Pope automotive made half the cars in the US). I was hoping for a deep sociologic dissection of the issues, but instead Campbell gives us an upbeat view from street level about the good aspects of Hartford and the people who live there, not just the doom and gloom of ad-selling news clips.

Last but not least, I’ll throw in a kid’s series you probably missed; with 18 years between my last two kids, I certainly did, but my youngest is so hooked on the British easy reader series Urgency Emergency! by Dosh Archer, I wound up buying most of them. The series is so witty and enjoyable you don’t mind reading them over and over again. Doctor Glenda, Nurse Percy, and the Pengamedics, in predictable melodrama, assist the maladies of Humpty Dumpty, The Big Bad Wolf, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and many more. They are a delight. The library has several of the stories; be sure to read them all!

Sci-Fi at the Movies

Harold our sci-fi-guy is going to the movies in today’s blog post!

Science fiction is an extremely popular film and video genre and the Library has a sizeable collection of sci-fi movies, videos, and television programs.

If the Force is with you, you can check out a film from the most successful film series of all times: George Lucas’ Star Wars. The library has every Star Wars movie on DVD.  My favorite is: Episode V, The Empire Strikes BackThe library also has a collection of Star Wars novels that have spun off from the films.

You can share in the voyages of the Starship Enterprise with Star Trek.  The library has many of the Star Trek movies and television shows in their catalog including one of the most acclaimed Star Trek films: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I enjoy all of them, but one of my favorites is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The library also has the complete first season of the new Star Trek Discovery Series along with a great collection of Star Trek books that span all the Star Trek television series and movies.

If more contemporary science fiction movies are more your style, there are some great ones on the shelves at the Cheshire Public Library. Some favorites:

Arrival debuted in 2016. It stars Amy Adams as a linguistic professor recruited by the U.S. Army to figure out how to communicate with intelligent aliens who have landed on earth. It is based on the 1998 short story Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that is available from the Library as a downloadable audio book. His book of short stories, Exhalation, is also well worth reading.

Ex Machina is a 2014 British science fiction film. IMDB.com says that it is about “A young programmer [who] is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I.”

Gravity – This 2013 critically acclaimed film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as American astronauts who are stranded in space because of a Shuttle accident and their attempt to return to Earth. It received 10 Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe Award for Best Director along with the 2013 Ray Bradbury Award.

The Martian – This 2015 film one of my favorites. Directed by Ridley Scott, it is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe story about an astronaut, played by Matt Damon, who is stranded on Mars and his efforts to survive. It is based on the book by Andy Weir that is also and available in print and as an audiobook at the library.

Here are some other great science fiction movies that are available at the CPL:

If you have some favorites that I have missed that are in the library’s collection, let me know and I will add them to a future blog.

 

Return of the Rom-Com!

The romantic comedy film genre took a serious dive in popularity over the last 2 decades, going from 2 billion dollars in tickets sales (1999) to less than 1/2 million (2018). Romantic comedy novels followed a similar trajectory.  But the film genre is experiencing a resurgence, and rom-com novels are riding their coattails with a comeback of their own.

The past couple of years have seen an explosion of romantic comedies in publishing – heck, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction went to a book with a lot of rom-com characteristics: Less by Andrew Sean Greer. As poignant as it is humorous, Greer’s award-winning novel contains many familiar rom-com tropes, and also turns a few on their heads!

Once known somewhat disparagingly as “chick lit”, these smart and sassy stories explore all the quirks and foibles of modern relationships, often tackling difficult subjects but never losing their sense of humor. If you’re new to the genre, this list of recent romantic comedies is a good place to start:

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman are competitive rivals at a publishing company and profess to hate each other, but when the tension reaches the boiling point, they both wonder if the competition is just a game and that maybe they don’t hate each other after all.

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren. Partnered with a nemesis best man on a paradise honeymoon when her bride twin gets food poisoning, a chronically unlucky maid of honor assumes the role of a newlywed before unexpectedly falling for her companion.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. A 30-year-old math whiz with Asperger’s tries to make her love life as rich as her career by hiring an escort to help her with her lack of knowledge and experience in the dating department.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. Stranded together in an elevator during a power outage, Drew and Alexa agree to pose as a couple at an ex’s wedding and discover afterwards that they are unable to forget each other.

Fight or Flight by Samantha Young. After her delayed flight, Ava has a brief intimate encounter with Caleb, an arrogant Scotsman, and never expects to see him again, but when he is stranded in Boston, they reconnect, and Ava has to deal with her increasing attraction.

Meet Cute by Helena Hunting. After meeting the former actor she had a crush on as a teenager and fangirling all over him, Kailyn Flowers strikes up a friendship with Daxton Hughes who needs help acting as guardian to his 13-year-old-sister.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin. A modern Muslim adaptation of Pride and Prejudice finds a reluctant teacher who would avoid an arranged marriage setting aside her literary ambitions before falling in love with her perpetually single cousin’s infuriatingly conservative fiancé.

Red, White & Royal Blue  by Casey McQuistion. A big-hearted romantic comedy in which the First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends.

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri. A romantic comedy about gender and sexuality follows the experiences of a traditionally minded Midwesterner who, in the aftermath of an ended engagement, finds herself in a transformative relationship with a self-assured New York businesswoman.

 

 

Upcoming Books-to-Movies

Not every book becomes a movie; not every movie started out as a book, but the two feed off each other like peanut butter and chocolate. Many of the top Oscar-winning films started out as books (The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Schindler’s List, and more). Some movies were better films than their book (in my opinion, Planet of the Apes, Poseidon Adventure, and Casino Royale are three). Some people want to read a book before they see a film adaption, while others see a great film and want to read the book to see if any good bits were left out.

If you’re of the group that prefers to read the book first, better get started! A whole new wave of book adaptions is readying for the coming year. Here’s a peek at some of them:

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – that’s the collection of T.S. Elliott’s poem collection that became the musical CATS. Whether this is a filmed “stage” production or a cohesive musical film remains to be seen, but it stars Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, no theater slouches. Look for it at Christmas.

Death on the Nile – Kenneth Brannaugh’s second attempt to capture Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in a mystery due out in October of 2020. It also stars Gal Godot of Wonder Woman fame.

Doctor Sleep – Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining stars Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrence, due out in November 2019.

Dune – Yet another attempt to harness Frank Herbert’s cornerstone classic, most assuredly without the winged underwear. Although it bears an all-star cast, I loved the deep details of the novel, and I have a special affinity for the admitted mess of the 1984 Lynch adaption. Like Batman, all the reboots get tedious after a while. Sometimes you can’t capture greatness.

The Goldfinch Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel hits theaters in September of 2019. It has promised to be faithful to the book, a coming of age story of a boy whose life changes in an instant.

The Turning – A modern adaption of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, it’s produced by Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg’s track record isn’t perfect, but still one of the best in Hollywood. The story is the one of the classic horrors of literature. Due out in January of 2020.

Little Women – The long-time classic of girl literature by Louisa May Alcott, it was first adapted for film in 1933, and most recently in 1994. A very strong cast (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, the list goes on) has given this move a lot of buzz. Now’s the time to catch up on the classic story you may have missed (it’s not as bad as you fear). Look for it at Christmas, 2019.

 

The Good Liar – Nicholas Searle’s novel will star Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan as a con man trying to steal from a widow who has more than one trick up her sleeve. Look for it in November of 2019.

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn’s #1 thriller of a woman who witnesses a crime will star Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, and Gary Oldman. Since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, it’s technically a Disney film (with no princesses, no mermaids, and no singing), due out in October of 2019.

Bond 25: Ian Fleming wrote only 12 Bond novels, and two collections of short stories. The films have now exceeded the original material. The movie has been through a long list of issues from a revolving door of writers and directors to explosions on set, and the working title of Bond 25 gives away no details about the story, but you can get your fill on the original novels. The movie, purportedly the last for Daniel Craig, is set for April of 2020.

Deadpool 3, Black Panther 2, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984 : 2020’s crop of Comic-book Hero films, from Marvel and DC. Most of them still have current story lines, or track down the older versions online or in graphic novel compilations.

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem’s novel of a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome searching for the killer of his best friend won multiple awards for fiction and crime fiction. The all-star cast is headed by Ed Norton, who stars, directed, produced, and wrote the script. During filming, a set caught fire and a fireman died during the response, fueling accusations and lawsuits. It’s due out in November of 2019.

Three Outstanding Women of Science Fiction

Our sci-fi-guy, Harold Kramer, has some authors to recommend:

Ursula K. Le Guin

The world of science fiction and fantasy lost two of its best writers in recent years: Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre. Ursula K. Le Guin, who I consider one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, died in 2018. She published over twenty-two novels, children’s books, and volumes of poetry and essays. Her works received many awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and National Book Award.

Her novels centered around two main themes: gender and political systems. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness is about the effect of gender on culture and society,  It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.  An example of novel based on political themes is The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, also a winner of both a Hugo and a Nebula Award.  It is about two planets orbiting next to each other – that have almost no contact between them and that have totally different economic and political systems – and the scientist who tries to unite the two worlds. I recently re-read The Dispossessed and it is still relevant today, particularly in our current political environment.

The Dispossessed is the first of six books in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. These novels are loosely connected by a people called the Hainish, who colonized earth and other planets hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness is a Hainish novel along with Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile.

Le Guin also wrote The Books of Earthsea, a series that is decidedly more fantasy than science fiction. It full of magical events and it is the story of a young wizard – a sort of precursor to Harry Potter. The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is still a great read. The Earthsea collection of novels and short stories won the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, the Nebula Award, and many other honors.

Vonda McIntyre

Vonda McIntyre passed away in 2019. She was a prolific writer of science fiction novels, novelizations, screenplays and short stories and she was an acclaimed teacher of writing.  

She was well known for her Star Trek novels that include The Entropy Effect and Enterprise: The First Adventure. She also wrote the novelizations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Most readers agree that Dreamsnake is McIntyre’s greatest novel and it is based on her earlier novelette, Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand. It is about Snake, a female healer who possesses miraculous powers and a magical Dreamsnake.

Octavia Butler

My final recommendation is Kindred by Octavia Butler. Kindred has been acknowledged as the first widely known novel by a black, woman science fiction writer. It is a time travel story about Dana, a black woman, who in 1976 is abruptly transported back and forth, from her home in California to antebellum Maryland, where she encounters her ancestors and becomes enslaved. At its core, Kindred is about white supremacy, slavery, and, ultimately, survival. Butler is also the author of Lilith’s Brood, a collection of three works: DawnAdulthood Rites, and Imago. These dystopian novels were previously published in one volume called Xenogenesis. The New York Times said thatThe complete series is about an alien species that could save humanity after nuclear apocalypse—or destroy it”—from “one of science fiction’s finest writers.