Sci-Fi Favorites

Today’s guest post was written by Harold Kramer.

In this blog post, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite science fiction (sci-fi) books and authors.  If you are interested in sci-fi, a good place to find some of the best science fiction are the Hugo and Nebula Awards. These annual awards constitute a list of outstanding sci-fi literature and drama. They also provide an international platform that showcases both established and new sci-fi authors in a broad range of genres and sub-genres.

Contemporary sci-fi has split into many sub-genres, such as dystopia (think Red Rising), alien invasion  (like Ender’s Game),  cyberpunk (like Neuromancer), and sci-fi/fantasy (Dune, for example).  The common thread, that makes any literary or dramatic work science fiction, is that it deals with scientific topics such as life on other planets, space flight, time travel and life in the future.  In fact, the library has recently merged its sci-fi collection into the fiction collection since it is has become difficult to distinguish “regular” fiction from science fiction.

For starters, here are two of my favorite authors:

Jack McDevitt is a master writer of classic sci fi.  He has been compared to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, two legendary sci-fi authors. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award sixteen times.  His two ongoing series of novels are the Alex Benedict series and the Academy or “Hutch” (Priscilla Hutchins) series.  Both series have definitive timelines, so you should really start at the beginning of each series. However, each novel can stand on its own.  My favorite Alex Benedict novels are Coming Home and Seeker. Seeker won the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novel.   Two of my other favorites are his first novel, The Hercules Text a story about mankind’s reaction to receiving an intelligent signal from space, and Omega, a Priscilla Hutchins novel about mysterious energy clouds in space. It was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2004.

Connie Willis is an American writer who has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than any other science fiction author ever.  My favorites books by her are her trilogy of time travel novels.  These include Doomsday Book that is an account of time travel to the 14th Century by a female heroine who is a historian from Oxford University sometime in the late 21st Century. It is moving story of human frailty and courage during a time of great devastation. It’s as much historical fiction as it is sci-fi.  Blackout and its sequel All Clear also feature female historians from Oxford University. These books are detailed, compelling novels about the courage of the British people during World War II.  These novels won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Let me know about some of your favorite sci-fi authors and novels and I will feature them in future blogs.

This Year’s Best Crime Novels So Far

Today we are featuring a guest post by Cassie Peters:

Crime novels offer glimpses into the minds of those who choose to either take the law into their own hands or ignore it entirely. Through the author’s words, we are able to contemplate, observe, and judge the motivations that make the criminals tick. If learning about the underworld is within your literary interests, here are some of the best crime novels of 2018. Following a long tradition of crime-based literature, many of these novels are brilliant subversions of the well-known and popular genre. Get ready to take a harrowing leap into the minds of 2018’s fictional criminals.

The Outsider by Stephen King

Terry Maitland is a Little League coach, family man, and all-around beloved pillar of the community who was arrested for the mutilation and murder of a young boy. Honest cop Detective Ralph Anderson struggles with deciphering all available evidence for fear of convicting the wrong suspect, until his wife Jeannie asks all the right questions that leads the investigation to the truth. Meanwhile, time-warping details both obscure and provide glimpses into hidden, deeper truths. Stephen King’s The Outsider is a masterful twist on the classic crime genre. A smooth and effortless tale of modern day crime with just the right amount of noir, politics, and psychedelics. Not a lot of writers can so pleasurably disorient readers like King.


Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz

An orphan who at 12 was enrolled in a top-secret government training program for assassins escapes to become an unlikely vigilante in Hellbent. The novel is the latest in author Gregg Hurwitz’s international bestselling series of books in the Orphan X series. It’s a sordid look into the all-too-fragile lives that evolve on their own amid government motives and conspiracies. Crime and conspiracy take on a humanitarian form via bullet train-paced prose. 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

What if Mary Poppins was a sociological suspense-thriller that didn’t hold anything back? There’s nothing mystical or magical about Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, but she manages to masterfully subvert expectations via her sublime prose. It’s no secret that the lives of the characters in the story are in danger, including young children.  The mystery is whether or not you’ll be able to make it through the slow simmer of how a wholly trustworthy figure can transition into a rationally irrational monster. Library Journal says, “What initially feels like routine, unremarkable women’s fiction morphs into a darkly propulsive nail-biter overlain with a vivid and piercing study of class tensions”.  Peppered with social realist truths amid subtle but constant mounting dread, The Perfect Nanny submits a poverty-stricken view of Paris that culminates in one of the most satisfyingly horrible endings yet.

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

FBI rookie Caitlin Hendrix is assigned to the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit to find a serial killer who leaves behind grisly clues. In this  dark, disturbing portrait of murder from the perspective of a career forensic psychologist, Agent Hendrix works with the FBI’s serial crime unit and a legendary FBI profiler to dissect the motivations behind a killer based on the available evidence. Into the Black Nowhere is a gripping novel that doubles as a crash course in sociology, critical thinking, crime research methodology, psychological testing, and criminal theory. Based on the exploits of the infamous Ted Bundy, Gardiner’s novel succeeds at a creating a realistic depiction of how serial killers function that is horrendous and unflinchingly educational at the same time. Don’t worry – you won’t need an actual degree in forensic psychology to enjoy this book. However, you should be prepared to learn a thing or two about the criminal mind – insights that might be too dark or true to be forgotten. Watch your step.

This feature post written for Cheshire Library Blog by Cassie Peters.

Winnie the Pooh and the Big Screen

Icons come and icons go. Coca Cola survives, but Woolworth’s, the standard of the early 20th century, is now history. What’s popular today may not make the cut to the next generation – few kids today play with Cabbage Patch Dolls, despite the frenzied battles people had over them in the 1980’s, and all those people who sank thousands of dollars into Beanie Babies as investments now have … boxes of worthless stuffed toys.

Winnie the Pooh Endures

Winnie the Pooh is one of those who made the grade. A.A. Milne (Alan Alexander) wrote first a book of children’s poems (When We Were Very Young), then a Christmas story, and finally, in 1926, a book of stories, Winnie the Pooh, based on his son Christopher Robin and his stuffed bear Edward. A sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, followed in 1928, as well as two books of poems. Filled with charming innocence after the bloodbath of World War I, bumbling, slow-witted but kind-hearted Pooh and his friends (Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Kanga and Roo) hit a needy spot in a dejected population. By 1931, Winnie the Pooh was a $50-million business, the dream-deal of every author (and that was in the middle of a depression!).

Although Milne died of a stroke in 1956, Pooh continued to expand when the film rights, among others, were sold to Disney in 1961, and the first animated cartoon released in 1966, with Sterling Holloway’s voice becoming the standard for Pooh. Today, the marketing of Winnie the Pooh is worth as much as $6 billion dollars a year, the third most valuable franchise in the world, after Star Wars and Disney Princesses (both, not surprisingly, also Disney franchises, a company with more than 92 billion dollars in assets).

Two New Films

Within the last year, another expansion on the franchise has brought out two marvelous films not necessarily aimed at children but adults who once were children: Goodbye Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a lovely, sweet story of Milne and his relationship to his son, and how the success of Winnie the Pooh destroyed the childhood of Christopher Robin himself. Pushed into the judgmental spotlight too young, Christopher Robin was beaten up in school because of his fame, and grew to resent his father, whom he described as very bad with children. Although eventually he reconciled with Winnie the Pooh, he never really reconciled with his parents; even on her death bed, his mother refused to see him. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a British production filled with beautiful settings and a superb performance by eight-year-old Will Tilston; it was released on DVD in January.

On August 3, Disney launched their Christopher Robin film (does someone leak news between studios? This type of inter-studio film wars has happened numerous times, most recently with Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman both released in 2012, and Disney’s 2016 Jungle Book with this October’s Warner Bros. coming release of Mowgli). In a plot fairly reminiscent of Hook (which was not a Disney creation), Christopher Robin is a grown-up who has lost his imagination, so enter CGI Pooh and friends to help him remember it. While the voices are so close to the cartoons you loved in the 60’s, somehow the CGI just doesn’t work as well. Kids will probably love it, grown-ups not so much, and not for lack of imagination.

Winnie the Pooh was voted an icon of England, but you can see the original Winnie and friends at their permanent home at the New York Public Library here in the United States (Roo was lost in an apple orchard in 1930).

As the real Pooh turns 100 in 2021, he’s showing no signs of losing his status as a bear loved around the world. Pooh has been translated into more than 46 languages, including Latin, Mongolian, and Esperanto. If you have no child to share Winnie the Pooh with, try these “adult” Pooh books:

Turtles All the Way Down

It’s been almost six years since YA uber-author John Green has published a new book (something we wrote about a while back). That’s almost  generation’s worth of his target audience – many teen readers will have been too young for his last book, The Fault in Our Stars, when it was published in 2012. The rocket-like success of that book (and subsequent movie) was both a blessing and a curse for Green: his books were being read by millions more people, but that success resulted in a period of crippling anxiety for the author. The expectations for his next book felt so overwhelming, that for a while he could not write at all.

Green has not made a secret of the fact that he’s wrestled with Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder most of his life, and what it’s like to live with mental illness is the overriding theme of Turtles All the Way Down. Aza Holmes, the narrator of the book, struggles mightily to control the obsessive thoughts that often consume her, which she calls “thought spirals” that grow more and more tightly coiled until she is driven to a compulsive behavior to quiet them.

The ostensible plot of the book is a mystery: the famous father of a childhood acquaintance has has skipped town to avoid legal troubles, and Aza’s BFF Daisy is convinced the two of them can figure out where he is and collect the $100,000 reward.  TATWD has all the John Green-isms we’ve come to expect: the quirky best friend, the seemingly impossible task, the sweet love story, and everyone’s got a poem or literature quote ready to go at a moment’s notice, (John Green characters are a bit more well-read and well-spoken than the general teen-aged public). But the real journey the reader is taken on is what it’s like to live in a hijacked mind.

Aza has a dread of germs. One of the first compulsions we witness is Aza forcing open a wound on her fingertip, so that she can clean and sanitize it before covering it up with one of her constant supply of band-aids, a ritual she performs so often that the wound never completely heals. Hand sanitizer is used combatively –  at one point she even starts drinking it.  Aza’s helplessness in the face of these thoughts and compulsions can be painful to read, and there’s no “all better now” resolution at the end – the prevailing takeaway is it’s ok not to be ok sometimes. Green has managed to paint a picture of mental illness that is more matter-of-fact than sensational, and the writing is evocative and mature. It’s a thoughtful novel that will appeal to adults as well as teens, and well worth the six-year wait.

Five stars.

Return Ticket for the Orient Express

  Sometimes a literary character – and an author – just doesn’t quit, staying popular generation after generation. Sometimes we call that a classic – Scarlett O’Hara, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Sometimes we call that Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie is the modern world’s most successful author (yes, even more than J.K. Rowling and Nora Roberts), third only to The Bible and Shakespeare, and has sold over two BILLION copies of her works (that’s 165 stories). Rowling only ranks ninth or so, with an estimated 500 million in sales. Sure, you can use the Gone With the Wind excuse that Rowling only hit big in 1997, while Christie’s first novel was published in 1920, so it has had a lot more years to gather sales (GWTW remains the highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, due to its 1939 release date. Yes, more than Star Wars). Either way, there’s a reason for that.

Christie’s first and most popular detective is Hercule Poirot (the other being Miss Marple), a retired Belgian police officer with peculiarly meticulous habits and a brilliant mind for solving crimes, well-known for his thick black curling mustache – the only fictional character to ever have an obituary on the front of the New York Times. Poirot first appears in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)and goes on for more than 33 novels, 50 short stories, and a stage play. You may have heard of his most famous case: Murder on the Orient Express.

Originally published in 1934, Orient Express tells the story of a murder (obviously) that occurs on a train going from Istanbul to Calais, France, which Poirot, a passenger on the train, slowly unravels. The Orient Express is a real train service that began in 1883 and ran from Turkey to France, ending its official run in 2009 – operating in three centuries!

Numerous film and television adaptions of both Orient Express and Poirot’s mysteries have been made over the years, most notably the 1974 film adaption of Orient Express starring Albert Finney – the only actor to receive an Oscar Nomination for playing Poirot, though he didn’t win (Ingrid Bergman won as Supporting Actress for the role of Greta Ohlsson). The library has many volumes of television adaptions of Poirot’s mysteries. If comedy and spoofs are more your style, check out 1976’s Murder by Death, with James Coco as Milo Perrier (Poirot), Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple) and a host of top-name stars poking fun at all the famous detectives.

Low and behold, Murder on the Orient Express is once again returning to the big screen on November 10, 2017, with a – dare I say it? – killer cast. Kenneth Branagh, British superstar of myriad films including Henry V, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dunkirk, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and so many more, takes the lead as Poirot – not as short as Poirot is supposed to be, but ever since Hollywood ridiculously cast 5’6” Tom Cruise as 6’5” Jack Reacher, all rules are off. Add in Penelope Cruz, Dame Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and more, and it’s worth the price of admission just for the cast and the gorgeous period costumes and vehicles. Of course there’s already a furor raging among the purists about his mustache.

Kenneth Branagh is a superb actor but an even superior director, and with him in the director’s seat  and the blessings of Agatha Christie’s estate, the film promises to be everything we want it to be. So prepare by reading a couple of Poirot’s mysteries, or check out a couple of other adaptions, and then watch the film. Or, give the movie a shot and then follow up with a binge of Poirot stories. When you run out, there’s always Miss Marple.