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 playing Mass Effect or Dragon Age, watching movies from the 1930s and 40s, working on my novel, or out at the archery range playing with pointy sticks.

Virtual Unreality by Charles Seife

virtualBook - The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.

While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archdukeBook - On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?

Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.

Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

girlBookThe Girl With All the Gifts is such a unique reading experience that I really don’t want to spoil it by telling you too many things about it before you start. So instead, I’ll introduce you to the main character, Melanie. Melanie is a very special little girl. She wakes up every morning in a cell, and soldiers strap her to a chair to take her to class. On the best days, class is taught by Miss Justineau, who was the one who told Melanie the story behind her name. Sometimes, one of the other children from her class will disappear, and no one will explain where they went or why. And then, one day, Melanie finds out.

This is a tremendously moving book, full of rich characters and heartfelt relationships. Miss Justineau cares so much for Melanie, and Melanie for her, but even the less sympathetic characters grow on you over time as you learn, along with Melanie, more about who they are and what they care about and fear. If you liked Kauzo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, or Mike Carey’s other work, you will love this book.

How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

how notBook – Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is. We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. (Well, a little calculus.) What Ellenberg is talking about in this book is the way math works, the way math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change how we understand the world.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election results as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

This is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you may enjoy How Not to be Wrong more than you might think.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

otherBook – I came across this book through Tor.com’s Summer of Sleaze, a series of reviews of old horror novels, where the writers refer to Tryon’s work as “a third of our horror roots,” along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. I’d never heard of Tryon before, so I was intrigued. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I’d say my expectations were set unfairly low – after all, the review series is called “Summer of Sleaze.” There’s nothing sleazy about The Other. A little purple, maybe, but not sleazy.

Holland Perry is not a nice little boy. In fact, he’s downright sinister, pulling pranks that are more vicious than funny. (We find out on page three that he killed an old woman’s pet cat.) His twin, Niles, is a much friendlier young man, but he makes plenty of excuses for Holland’s increasingly outrageous behavior. This is a slow-building novel; we spend lots of time with the characters where nothing particularly awful happens, until quite suddenly it does. And although The Other was billed as horror when it came out, it’s much less supernatural than the other evil-child stories of its day. In fact, I’d call it a psychological thriller instead, with as much in common with Gone Girl or The Dinner as with more traditional horror novels.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

3Book – On one fateful day, four planes fall out of the sky. Among the four crashes there are only three survivors, all of them children. It’s this fact – along with a rambling recording made by one of the passengers in the last moments of her life – that spawn conspiracy theories, widespread paranoia, and eventually a massive doomsday cult with connections in the highest levels of politics. What really happened on Black Friday? And could the doomsayers be right?

The Three is a book inside a book: most of the story is the fictional non-fiction account written by Elspeth, an investigative journalist, of the aftermath of Black Friday and the cults that rose up in its wake. In the end, we switch back to Elspeth’s point of view as she decides to follow up on what happened after the end of her book. I thought that some of the characters’ voices tended to blend together, but the overall pace of the narrative kept pulling me through the book anyway. I stayed up late to finish it, which turned out to be a mistake – this book has one seriously creepy ending.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

ancillaryBook – Breq is only a fragment of what she used to be – quite literally, in this case. Years ago she was Justice of Toren, the artificial intelligence of a starship of the Radch Empire. Back then she had hundreds of bodies, from the starship itself to her many ancillary soldiers, captured human enemies who were joined together as part of her vast intelligence, in the service of a high-status Lieutenant. But Justice of Toren was betrayed, although she isn’t quite sure how, by the many-bodied ruler of the Radch Empire, Anaander Mianaai, and Breq has a plan for revenge.

I picked up Ancillary Justice when it became apparent that it was going to be nominated for every major SF award this year. (Sure enough, it’s already won the Nebula and is on the Hugo ballot.) It deserves it. Breq is an unusual character, but a compelling one, and her world is utterly fascinating. In the scenes from the point of view of many-bodied Justice of Toren, Leckie does a great job of portraying the ship’s simultaneous multiple points of view without getting confusing; likewise the Radch’s complete disregard of gender is an interesting twist on a far-future society. I loved it, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Ancillary Sword, out in October.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

my realBook – Patricia Cowen is confused. “Very confused,” it says on her medical chart most days. She forgets things. But she remembers things, too. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Now” and getting married and having his four children. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Never” and traveling in Florence and raising three children with Bee. She isn’t sure which one of them is right, or if both of them are, but she’s sure it means something.

My Real Children is one of those novels that could only be written by Jo Walton. It’s science fiction insofar as it’s about one woman and two different lives she could have had, both of them in worlds that are not exactly our own. (The split occurs sometime in the early fifties, and history progresses in sometimes surprising ways.) But the real story, the point of the story, is about Patricia – Trish in one lifetime, Pat in the other – and her life and her family. It’s a little bit about might-have-beens, but more about the small choices that you make that make big differences, both to yourself and to other people. I loved it, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

burning your boatsBook – Short stories are funny things. They’re short, of course, which means you don’t spend very much time with them, but somehow they can pack even more emotional punch than a novel. Some writers can write beautiful novels and their short stories fall flat; some writers write incredible short stories but their novels meander strangely. For my part, I think of Angela Carter as the second type: her novels are deeply weird in a way I don’t enjoy, but her short stories are incredibly powerful.

This is an omnibus collection of Carter’s work, so there’s a lot of variety here. Some of my favorite stories are “The Fall River Axe Murders,” a narrative about Lizzie Borden; “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale; and “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” a story Carter wrote after someone argued that the only thing a story needed was for something to happen. (Nothing actually happens in “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” but it’s a moving story nonetheless.)

This is a big collection, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all at once anyway – there’s too much going on. But if you’re looking for a little flicker of something brilliant, this is a good book to dip into.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

worldBook – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.

I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.