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Prelude to a Canticle

Prelude to a Canticle

posted by:
June 8, 2012 - 5:01am

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the FallIt wasn’t dark. It wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. 

‘I’m dead,’ thought Pete.

But of course, he wasn’t.

 

From the first page and as effortlessly as a beam of light slipping through panes of glass, author Nancy Kress eases the reader into a remarkable narrative of many faces. Simple and compelling, atheistic and allegorical, neither utopian nor dystopian, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a story of humanity in incubation.

 

After (2035): Earth’s fragile population consists of 19 humans living in captivity: five Survivors of the Fall, six genetically mutated and infertile offspring, and seven exquisitely precious Grab children. To each, the smooth walls of the Shell represent a prison and a home. At 15, Pete is among the oldest of the Six and one of the few children born to the original 25 Survivors. In ten minutes time, he will risk his life to save humanity – again.

 

Before (2013): Mathematician Julie Kahn has been collaborating for months with the FBI, tracking a tenuous pattern of mysteriously linked kidnappings and burglaries occurring along the eastern coast of the United States. A few hysterical parents babble incoherently about their babies having been snatched by misshapen teenagers before disappearing in dazzling streaks of light. Their sputtering accounts are largely ignored, except by Julie and Gordon, her FBI contact and onetime lover. Following a complex algorithm she’s devised, the next attempt may be the kidnappers’ last.

 

During (2014): Beneath the soil and all around the world, tiny mutations begin to occur almost simultaneously in the bacteria surrounding the root systems of clover, grass and other diverse plant life. By the time a low swell of awareness of the rapidly increasing dead zones boils into full blown paranoia, it will be too late for the humanity that was.

 

In this Janus-styled tale, Kress weaves together the converging paths of these very different slices of humankind. Juxtaposing contemporary characters such as Julie Khan against those stripped of the context of a complex society, such as Pete, Kress brings an unusual focus to the pause between disaster and rebuilding, after the fall of a society and before its rebirth. One notable trend in the sci-fi genre in recent years has been a tendency to employ near-future settings as narrative backdrops – scenarios which could conceivably come to pass in a generation or so. Here, Kress takes this trend one bold step beyond many of her peers by incorporating a disquietingly immediate future (2014) as the stage for the Fall itself. A cautionary tale as much as a work of science fiction, this title will have widespread appeal among readers of diverse reading habits. Those who have enjoyed Walter Miller’s timeless A Canticle for Leibowitz may particularly appreciate the cyclical nature of Kress’ narrative and her treatment of humanity in stasis, before the cycle begins again.

Meghan

 
 

Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Fahrenheit 451The Martian ChroniclesOn Tuesday, it was announced that legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury had passed away at age 91. A long-time supporter of libraries and librarians, Bradbury's most famous and sometimes considered controversial work, Fahrenheit 451, remains a perennial choice of summer reading lists, the canon of 20th-century literature, and a target of book banners. Bradbury began writing that celebrated novel in the basement of a library. His writings ranged from short stories, screenplays, and novels such as the haunting Something Wicked This Way Comes and the beloved coming-of-age title Dandelion Wine.

 

Another of Bradbury's classics is The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories that, using thinly-veiled references to the Cold War, had people guessing who was colonizing whom. Through science fictional constructs, Bradbury excelled at forcing humans to look at the decisions they make. Elegies have come in from many sources, as far ranging as Neil Gaiman, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and President Obama.

Todd

 
 

A Ray of Hope

A Ray of Hope

posted by:
May 18, 2012 - 4:01am

The Testament of Jessie LambBiological terrorism, precarious scientific boundaries, and the personal cost of saving the human race intersect in Jane Rogers' heartfelt dystopian novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb.  Set in Manchester, England somewhere in the near future, Maternal Death Syndrome is a reality; the ubiquitous rogue virus is killing pregnant women around the world.

 

Trying to be a normal teenager in these times is impossible for 16-year-old Jessie Lamb, whose  "testament" or diary opens the story.  Idealistic, determined and enlightened by her scientist father, Jessie wants only to live on the planet in a less greedy, destructive way.  She and her activist friends ponder whether the virus is really payoff for human-engendered ills, like global warming and the oil shortage.  When she learns from her father that a new vaccine enables young women (called "sleeping beauties") to give birth to healthy children she decides to volunteer. Unfortunately for Jessie, it also means entering into a coma and never waking up, something her father will not allow.

 

Rogers' writing, evocative and straight forward, raises the specters of medical research, self-sacrifice and the fine line between being delusional, a naive martyr, or courageous heroine.  Alternating between her journal entries and events leading up to her decision, Jessie's voice is authentic and poignant. Rogers take the time to develop complicated characters in Jessie and her father.

Long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Rogers' first foray into science fiction recently earned her the UK's Arthur C. Clarke award.  Like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Rogers' work is a compelling read for literary dystopia fans.  Teen fiction readers will also find plenty to like here.

Cynthia

 
 

A Binocular Vision of History

The Company of the Dead The improbable history of the sinking of the Titanic is legendary. The “unsinkable” ship’s maiden voyage was favored with the advantages of an experienced captain, a capable crew, and peerlessly clear weather. She had every probability of reaching her destination unscathed. Yet despite the clear night and the watchful lookout, a looming, unseen colossus was destined to sink her. Of course, even the smallest twist in the kaleidoscope may produce chaos. It is on this premise, embodied by the mysterious, anachronistic presence of a pair of 21st century night vision binoculars, that author David Kowalski launches his epic exploration of “what if?” What if the Titanic hadn’t struck the iceberg? Or, what if she had, but on a different side? Who lives that night, who dies and how - these subtle changes will reshape history as we know it in breathtakingly plausible ways. That is, unless one man’s profound sacrifice in 2012 can reset the Titanic on its original date with destiny.

 

At just under 750 narrative pages, The Company of the Dead is a tome to be sure, yet not a page in its composition is superfluous to its intricately-woven plot and character development. Throughout the story, Kowalski demonstrates compulsive attention to historical detail and lyrical language. These elements serve to draw the reader ever further into the author’s ambitious yet startlingly realistic vision of a world reshaped and on the edge of the apocalypse.

 

The Company of the Dead is broadly recommended for readers of any genre who are prepared to invest time in an absorbing adventure. Technically a secret rather than an alternate history, The Company of the Dead nevertheless plays on the same “what if?” element characteristic of so many alternate history titles. It will therefore strike a particular chord with devotees of alternate history and historical fiction. Readers beguiled by alternate histories involving familiar historic figures and locations may also enjoy Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series as well as a smorgasbord of series and standalone titles by Harry Turtledove.

Meghan