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Locked Out of a Good Book

Unbound: Magic ex Libris: Book Three by Jim C. HinesThe central conceit of Jim C. Hines' Magic ex Libris series is that practitioners of magic can pull tools out of books, creating arsenals of the wildest ideas that authors have ever come up with. Consider the benefit of Lucy's magic cordial from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a potion that can heal all wounds and sickness with just a drop, or the devastating power of Robert Jordan's balefire, a fire so strong that it doesn't just destroy its target, but erases it and all its works from existence. For years, Isaac Vainio was a Porter, a magical librarian tasked with keeping the public from knowing that magic even exists. In Unbound, book three in the Magic ex Libris series, the lid gets blown off so far that there's no chance magic will ever be secret again.

 

The value of the secret of magic is small compared to the incoming threat. An ancient queen has re-awoken, possessed the body of the only libriomancer who has so far figured out how to tap into e-books and started a rampage that should eventually result in a collapse of mortality and a whole lot of destruction. In her path: a former mage, the most kick-butt dryad to ever grace the pages of literature, a cranky psychiatrist not sure any of her extended family has any business in the field and the rapidly collapsing network of the Porters.

 

The greatest brilliance of Unbound may take place between the chapters, in one or two page stories that perfectly capture the fear and excitement of a world waking up to magic in its midst. As YouTubers fight over the special effects used in videos, wizards sneak into cancer wards and family members berate people for not doing enough when they had the power. It's exhilarating, heart-breaking and hopefully a promise of a fourth book set in the completely shattered status quo.

Matt

 
 

Monster Mash

Monster Mash

posted by:
April 1, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Monster Hunter: NemesisAgent Franks has been a part of the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia since the beginning. When Owen Pitt killed his first werewolf, Agent Franks was the bad cop sent in to try and make him play nice. When the things that go bump in the night try to bump the United States, Agent Franks is the bloodiest line of defense. When demons need punching, when eldritch horrors try to sneak into our reality, Agent Franks lays down the firepower. He’s the sort of character who gets respect, not out of any charisma, but because he’s the hardest man in the fight. Monster Hunter: Nemesis is Franks’ time in the spotlight.

 

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter has always been a series about taking down horrors through superior firepower. It’s a red-blooded fantasy where the guns are described in loving detail, the gore splatters all over the page and combat is frequently about punching until there’s only one thing left standing. Franks has always been one of the most interesting parts of that, a die-hard take on Frankenstein’s monster, but he’s spent most of his time in the series as a spectacularly awesome roadblock and sometimes ally.

 

There has always been one line that couldn’t be crossed with Franks. Actually, there have been a lot of lines, because he’s pretty unpleasant to everyone around him, but only one hard line that allows Franks to go rogue. No others like Franks are allowed to be created. Naturally, that is also a line that is charged over with abandon. So what does a six-foot-something, 300-pound wall of muscle and regeneration do when faced with a frame job and betrayal? If your hope was blow it up and punch it out, not necessarily in that order, you’re in for a treat.

 

Matt

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Shape Shift and Trick the Past Again

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'MalleyKatie’s having a rough time in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds. Her restaurant just keeps getting farther and farther behind, her ex-boyfriend has started showing up at her job and, in one phenomenally disastrous evening, one of her waitresses gets burned — and it’s her fault. She gets lucky, though. In a small box in the back of her dresser, she finds a mushroom and a notepad that allow her to rewrite a day that went wrong. Things improve so much that she ignores the rule about only making one wish. That’s when things start to get weird.

 

O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was one of the biggest comics of the past decade, a rampaging tour-de-force that fused relationships, video game mechanics, a Toronto setting and indie music. Seconds is a quieter story, more focused on the tail end of one’s 20s. Reality may warp, but this is a story about homes, families and making a place in the world, not just falling into one. When Katie uses a mushroom to undo all the time apart from her boyfriend, she winds up in a relationship that doesn’t work because she hasn’t been present for it. Homes need to be built, not cheated into.

 

When O’Malley created Scott Pilgrim, he published in black and white, creating art that went for dynamism over nuance. Seconds is a full-color print in soft reds and pinks, navy blues and ochres. Even though Seconds is set during a Canadian winter, this is a warm book. Scott Pilgrim made fighting a metaphor for personal history. Seconds toys more with security and running away, using that soft palette to shade in the nuances of what it means to both screw up a home and grow up enough to fix your mistakes.

Matt

 
 

Here Be Some Very Bad Dragons

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew ReillyPuff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.

 

CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”

 

Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.

Lori

 
 

I'd Move to Where All the Shooting Stars Are Gone

Cover art for ExoImagine that right this second you could be anywhere else in the world: Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you seek out?  Where would your dreams take you?

 

Cent dreams of space. She can jump anywhere in the world. Space is a whole other set of challenges.

 

The ticking heart of a Steven Gould book is the hard science underlying a fantastic premise. Yes, Cent and her parents can jump anywhere in the world, but it's underpinned by physics. Playing around with the implications of instantaneous travel is only part of the package. Much of the rest of it comes from examinations of present day and near future space travel. The third pillar of a Steven Gould story is relatively normal characters living through the fantasy.

 

Exo is the fourth book in Gould's Jumper series, which climbed all the way to the box office in an almost completely unrelated movie. Every single book has looked at the implications of instant travel, and every book has shown new revelations. This is the first to take the concept into space and ponder questions with serious real world implications. We're unlikely to ever have the ability to teleport freely, but any method that could allow for cheap or free launches could change the course of human history in large and small ways. A long, positive look is taken at the idea of letting senior citizens spend time in the comfort of zero gravity, for instance.

 

It's not all science. There are broken hearts, patchy relationships, awkward family bonding and an organization of spies lurking in the background. But Exo is a fun, fast romp that plays with some big ideas.

Matt

 
 

There We Weren't All in One Place

The Long MarsThirty years ago, mankind gained access to virtually unlimited space. By means of a small box containing a potato, people could step "West" or "East" into an unknown number of alternate Earths where humankind had never evolved. Given open spaces, mankind did what mankind has always done, and colonized millions of other worlds. They weren't nearly enough.

Willis Linsay disappeared 30 years ago after releasing humanity into the Long Earth. No one knows where he's been, or what he's been looking for all that time, but now he's back and dragging his daughter along to Mars. For Mars, it turns out, also has an infinite number of alternate worlds, and one of them might just hold a whole new gateway to the universe. Back on the Long Earth, Captain Maggie Kauffman has been sent on an entirely new exploration, all the way out to Earth 200 million. Joshua Valiente, the Long Earth's oldest explorer, has set out to find a new kind of people who may be humanity's future.

 

The third book in the Terry Pratchett Long Earth series, The Long Mars' weakness is its plot, which feels like the set up for a bigger story. While there may be a functional double climax, most of the story is exploratory ramble, but that exploratory ramble remains absolutely stunning. Every world in the Long Earth and a few in the Long Mars developed in radically different ways. The alternate world premise may be fantasy, but every world of the Long Earth has real science behind it. Here, an entirely different evolutionary pathway, there a different sociological slant on civilization. It's possible to learn more about climate science in in a single passage of The Long Mars than an entire high school science course, and be entertained besides by Terry Pratchett's arch commentary.

Matt

 
 

A Splash of Mysticism

A Splash of Mysticism

posted by:
September 5, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for Season of the DragonfliesWhile living in Borneo in the 1920s, Serena Lenore discovers a rare flower and cultivates it until she returns to the United States, where she turns one flower into an empire. Serena grafted the flower until she had acres upon acres of the unique white bloom. From these exceptional blossoms, she created a perfume with the ability to change the fortunes of the women wearing it. The perfume became a widely kept secret and Lenore Incorporated grew (by word of mouth) into a legacy that Serena could pass on to her daughters.

 

Three generations later, the business is still booming and Willow, Serena’s granddaughter, is ready to retire from the family business. First she must select a successor. The obvious choice is her daughter Mya, who has lived on the farm all her life learning the ways of the business. When her estranged daughter Lucia returns home, Willow realizes she has a tough decision to make.

 

Season of the Dragonflies is Sarah Creech’s debut novel, but as a professor of English and Creative Writing, this isn’t her first experience as a writer. Creech uses her Blue Ridge Mountain background as a foundation for her book, creating carefully depicted images of rural Virginia and working in stories she heard as a child. The characters’ relationships are at times strained, but in the end comforting and relatable despite the novel’s fantasy aspects.

Randalee

 
 

A Cold Day in Hades

Skin GameEverything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.

 

By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.

 

If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.

Matt

 
 

Everybody Do the Locomotion

Everybody Do the Locomotion

posted by:
August 21, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Raising SteamWhen Richard Simnel invents the locomotive, it's Steam Engine Time in Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city of the Discworld! With financial backing from Harry King, King of the Golden River and Moist von Lipwig, the Disc's wiliest civil servant, everyone and everything is on the move. A bid to get seafood that's still fresh spawns the tourist industry. But where there's change, there's people who don't want to change, and the budding rail has to fend off attacks of Deep Dwarves.
 

As a story alone, this is solid material, but Terry Pratchett remains one of the greatest living satirists. (He's also better than quite a few who are dead.) With Raising Steam, he looks at societal change driven by technology bringing people together. At the same time, it's an homage to rail culture, engineers and all the people who make the transportation industry go. It's also a blistering indictment of people who try to burn the world down rather than letting their neighbors move on with the times. "Tak does not require that we think of him, but he does require that we think."
 

At the same time, Raising Steam is also clearly the book of a man struggling with Alzheimer's. It remains a wonder that Pratchett can still write at all, much less as well as this. His earlier books may have been stronger (a few plot threads appear and vanish in Steam, never to be seen again), but it's still a gem. Written with the understanding that any book he turns out could be his last, he gives us a chance to check in with old friends throughout. The Discworld may be a long-running series, but every book stands alone while providing bonuses for the fans who have read the books that came before.

 

Raising Steam is a reminder that big things often start with little things. Here they start with a load of octopus on a midsummer's day.

Matt

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Guests Gone Bad

Guests Gone Bad

posted by:
August 14, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Paying GuestsCover art for The QuickHow are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.

 

In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.

 

Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
 

Lori