Jen

About Jen

I'm an Adult Services Librarian at the Warrenville Public Library. I'll read just about anything you put in front of me, but I've always been a science fiction & fantasy fan. I'm also fond of history, true crime, thrillers, and popular anthropology that isn't written by Jared Diamond. When I'm not reading, I'm painting, watching movies from the 1930s and 40s, working on my novel, or out at the archery range playing with pointy sticks.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

indexBook – Miranda is a troubled young woman; she has pica, the compulsion to eat things that are not food, and rejects her pastry-chef father’s attempts to get her to eat normally. Her mother, a photographer, died while on a trip to Haiti, and Miri hasn’t been the same since. Her twin brother wants to help but doesn’t know how, especially when she’s accepted to Cambridge and he’s not. The house they live in, their great-grandmother’s house, wants to keep Miranda at any cost, which is not the same as protecting her. When Miranda brings home her Black girlfriend from college, the thin barrier separating the reality of the house from the reality of the rest of their lives starts to slip.

Although this was a short book, it took me a while to read; there’s a lot to digest (pardon the pun). It has a lot to say about the prejudices we inherit, and how hard it is to shed them; and the things we’ll do to keep ourselves in (what we perceive to be) safety. Try this if you like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, another story about insane houses and troubled women.

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

20821288Book – Lizzie lives alone with her invalid sister Emma in Maplecroft, a big old house in Fall River, Massachusetts. Everybody knows what she did. (You know what she did.) But what they don’t know is the reason why, the thing that keeps Lizzie up at nights, the thing that her sister writes to a scholar at Arkham University about, the thing that they don’t know about because Lizzie has been protecting them: There are monsters coming up out of the sea. And there is, so far as she can tell, very little that can stop them.

Fortunately, Lizzie is still very good with an axe.

This is a tremendous mashup of the real-life Lizzie Borden and the Lovecraftian mythos, and Priest doesn’t stint on either the historical flourishes (from Emma’s illness to the precarious social position that puts the two spinster sisters in) or the horror (lots of creepy-crawlies, monstrous fish-people, and the slow corruption of intellectuals studying things that Man Was Not Meant To Know). While this novel has its scares, it’s also got an action-movie quality about it. Or maybe it’s just so darn fun to imagine Lizzie Borden sinking her infamous axe into a Lovecraftian fish-monster. You have to admit, that’s a great image, and it happens plenty in this book.

Maplecroft has a sequel, Chapelwood, about a Lovecraftian cult in the rural Deep South. Or, if you prefer modern horror, try Priest’s new standalone horror novel, The Family Plot, about a salvage crew that runs afoul of an old ghost.

 

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson

51B1YJR9Y8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – What kind of pot is best for slow cooking on an electric stove? How often should you rotate your linens? What kind of fabric should you get on a couch to make sure it lasts as long as possible? How often do you need to dust, sweep, wash, and deep-clean? What kind of lighting should you have in which rooms? What kind of insurance should you have on your home, and how do you buy it? These are all things that go into making a house a home, and most of us know a little bit about some of them, but I’d venture to say that most of us don’t know a lot about all of them. Which is only fair: keeping house used to be a full-time job, after all, and now most of us work outside the home, so we don’t have the deep knowledge of someone who’s made it their career. Cheryl Mendelson brings a perfectionist’s eye for detail to homemaking.

This isn’t a high-color guide to Easy Tips For Your Home: it’s an in-depth examination of every single part of keeping a house. Mendelson is forgiving – she doesn’t scold you for not learning how to do things properly, nor does she insist that you need to have, for example, fine china that’s difficult to care for. She only insists that if you do have fine china, you treat it well. This book can certainly seem overwhelming at times, but it’s more of a reference book than the kind of thing you read cover-to-cover: pick it up when you have a question about the best way to do something, and you can be confident that you will at least know where you’re cutting corners.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

ParableOfTheSower(1stEd)Book – Lauren has hyperempathy, a disorder born from a drug her mother took while she was pregnant; it means that Lauren feels other people’s pain like it’s her own. When she was a kid, her brothers would cut themselves to watch her bleed. It’s a tough disorder to live with in a world like hers, where everyone lives close to the edge all the time. Her dad tells stories about the good old days, when his professor’s salary was enough to live well, when people didn’t live in walled neighborhoods just to keep the looters out, when you could buy your food at the grocery store instead of growing and trading for what you need to survive – but Lauren knows better than to listen too close to those stories, because she’s pretty sure it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Which means that when, one day, it does, she’s one of the only people from her old neighborhood who’s prepared for what comes next.

This is one of those books that people have been telling me to read for years, and I only just got around to it. It’s a classic of science fiction, and for good reason: Lauren is one of the most real characters I’ve ever seen. She’s afraid, she’s hurt, she’s brave, she’s stubborn, she’s uncertain, she’s a leader not because she knows better than anyone else but because she’s thoughtful, and has thought about things that most people are too afraid to consider. This is a quieter dystopia than most of the current run of dystopian fiction. There’s no Hunger Games here, just people fighting for their own survival. But it’s even more inspiring because of that, because while we can’t all be Katniss, it’s much easier to imagine ourselves being Lauren — someone who, when faced with the loss of everything she’s ever known and loved, does her best to help others build a future.

Redwood & Wildfire by Andrea Hairston

imagesBook – Redwood is a girl with music in her bones and magic in her fingers, a born performer with a gift for hoodoo and witchcraft. She was never going to be the kind of girl who stayed home on the farm, but rural Georgia in the early 20th century is a dangerous place for a black girl in love with an Irish-Seminole man. So she and her lover Aidan strike out for the big city to get into the movies — Chicago, the birthplace of American filmmaking.

This is a poetic kind of book, full of enchanting twists and turns, beautiful vignettes of what life was and could have been like for people usually ignored by history, although it’s not strong on plot; if you want a strong story to carry you through, you might want to skip this one. But like a mosaic, the scenes in Redwood & Wildfire add up to more than the sum of their parts. If you love magic, romance, Blues music, movies, Chicago, and glimpses of joy that emerge from the struggle for survival, give this book a try, I think you’ll like it. (And if you do, don’t miss its science-fiction sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change.)

Bessie (2015)

bessieMovie – Bessie Smith was one of the greatest jazz singers of the 1920s and 30s, a major influence on other jazz musicians, and as such one of the originators of all modern popular music. She was born in poverty in Chattanooga, toured with the legendary Ma Rainey, and after signing a record deal with Columbia, became the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time. They called her the Empress of the Blues, and you can still hear why in her recordings — Bessie Smith could rock. Really, the only surprise about her biopic is that it took them until 2015 to make one.

My favorite part of the movie they made of Chicago was Queen Latifah’s single number as the women’s prison warden, so I was thrilled to see her cast as Bessie Smith. She’s outstanding in it, not just in the musical numbers (which look like such a great time) but in portraying the drama of Bessie’s life – a bisexual woman, one who worked hard and partied hard, who struggled with her upbringing and her desire to build a family, who loved being on stage and loved her career. Other standouts in the cast include Michael Kenneth Williams (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Jack Gee, Bessie’s volatile husband, and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey, Bessie’s mentor.

If you’re fond of movies from the 1920s and 30s, be aware that this is not sanitized Hollywood fare; there’s plenty of drinking, fighting, sex, and the kind of raunchy music the Hayes Code would never permit (including one of Ma Rainey’s famous drag numbers). But this is a terrific look at what the 20s and 30s were really like, and a wonderful portrait of an amazing Black woman who deserves more recognition than she gets.

 

My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

Rosa_HC-REV-678x1024Book – Che has a short list of things he wants. He wants to stop following his parents around the world and go back home to Sydney. He wants to spar, the step his trainers say he needs to take his boxing to the next level, which he promised his parents he wouldn’t do. He wants a girlfriend. But first, most of all, he wants to keep his ten-year-old sister Rosa under control. Rosa isn’t a normal kid; she’s a psychopath, and Che’s parents refuse to believe it. But he’s seen her kill pets, and he’s sure she’s going to do it again, and worse, if he doesn’t keep both eyes on her at all times. And even that might not be enough.

This might technically be a YA book, but if you love psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you do not want to miss this. This book is full of terrific characters and relationships, but the relationship between Che and Rosa, where he sets boundaries and she pushes them, he tries to teach her how to have empathy and she tries to see how well she can fake it, is heartwrenchingly real. The last pages broke my heart and left me reeling. This modern-day variation on The Bad Seed is one of the best books I read in 2016.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun

18114114Book – “No one likes bad news, but it’s something to tell.” Older-than-his-years teenage Leo and his friends live in a desolate town in British Columbia. The logging industry is failing, and the town along with it, but they, like the town, are clinging on by their fingernails, even though all they have to cling to are dead-end jobs, disappointing futures, and each other.

Things happen little by little – first, a beautiful and mysterious girl turns up at one of their get-togethers; then a magician (or con artist) moves in to the ratty hotel where one of Leo’s friends works. Slowly pressure begins to build until the town – and the already-pressured relationships of everyone in it – erupts in fire and smoke, and everything changes.

Harun takes the real-life tragedy of the Highway of Tears and weaves it together with folktales and a touch of the fantastic in beautiful prose to make an outstanding novel. Her writing is full of understanding for people in places with nothing left to lose, and she tells a terrific story. Fans of Helen Oyeyemi and Margaret Atwood should be sure to check this out.

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

1101875321.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – I’ve been hearing about Stanford’s life design course for a few years now, one of those bits of news that makes me nostalgic for being in college. Run through Stanford’s Institute of Design, it teaches students how to develop a life they will enjoy to the fullest, using design mindsets and principles. It sounds terrific – and the class has been full every year for nine years.

Well, for those of us who no longer have any hope of getting into a Stanford class, waitlisted or not, the course designers have written a book. It’s not the same – you’ll need to develop your own group of peers, and you’re probably starting from a very different place than a college junior or senior – but it’s a great start. After introducing the basic concepts, the book dives right into exercises you can try (based on one of the five core design principles, bias to action, or as the authors put it: Try Stuff). If you want the full schoolwork experience, you can even download worksheets from their website.

There isn’t a lot of direct advice in this book – the authors aren’t trying to get you to do anything specific with your life, but to think differently about your life and the choices you make about it. Maybe that means making a few small changes so that you appreciate what you have all the more; maybe it means quitting your job and moving to Alaska. Either way, a few hours spent with this book would be a great way to kick off the new year.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

6881685Book – Klaus and his sister Gretel were sold to the Doctor when they were children, and ten years later, after innumerable surgeries, experiments, and hours of training, they and their companions are the secret weapons of the rising Reich. Klaus can walk, insubstantial, through walls or hails of bullets with equal ease; his rival can burst into flames at will; and his sister Gretel’s powers, though less dramatic, are no less important, because she can see the future consequences of all their actions.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, the British Secret Service has formed an even-more secret organization called Milkweed to figure out how to combat the German supersoldiers whose existence they’ve stumbled upon. Raybould Marsh, an up-and-coming SIS agent, recruits his old friend William Beauclerk, the younger brother of a Duke and, more importantly, one of Britain’s secret network of warlocks, able to negotiate favors from impossibly powerful beings with control over the very fabric of reality.

Nazi supermen versus British warlocks — Bitter Seeds (the first book in the Milkweed Trilogy) is like a comic book movie in novel form, in the best possible way. While the Nazi doctor sometimes falls into cartoon-villain territory, Klaus and Gretel more than make up for it, and the machinations of the British warlocks are mesmerizing in their horribleness. This is a dark alternate history (although perhaps no darker than World War II actually was) where everybody makes terrible choices in the service of winning the war, without stopping to think about what will happen if they do.

If you like Marvel’s Captain America movies or the X-Men in any form, do yourself a favor and pick this up. Another great alternate-World War II novel is Jo Walton’s Farthing, an English country house mystery set during the long peace between Britain and Nazi Germany.