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.

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

Books – I’ve said before that I don’t particularly care for cozy mysteries, but that’s not really true. When summer hits, when it’s too hot to think and I miss those lazy student summers when I didn’t have to do anything, when I wish for a simpler life than the one I have now, I reach for the Cadfael Chronicles.

Technically they’re mystery novels – usually someone dies, sometimes something is stolen, and Brother Cadfael, who was a Crusader before he became a monk, solves the mystery. He also gets the besotted young people together, or at least removes any impediments to their marriage; acts as godfather to his best friend’s son; trains apprentices to work in his gardens; and makes silent disparaging remarks about Brother Jerome, who desperately wants to be better than everyone else. Like modern cozies, the Cadfael series is about wish fulfillment, but instead of the dream of owning a bakery or a tea shop, it’s the dream of living a quiet, well-regulated life in a monastery.

Peters chose an interesting historical period for the series, too – the Anarchy, a civil war in England and Normandy in the mid-twelfth century resulting from a crisis of succession. It’s pretty obscure, as history goes, which puts most of us in the same position as the characters, unsure about what’s going to happen next and exactly how the war is going. But the war is a background feature, for the most part, compared to the small details of medieval life – not just in the cloister, but in the surrounding town.

 

The Creeps: A Deep Dark Fears Collection by Fran Krause

Comic Strips – Do you still pull all the blankets tight around you at night to keep the monsters out? Does a comment someone made years ago still haunt you at inopportune moments? Have you ever wondered exactly why your pets are so good to you (is it because you’re dying and they know it)? We all have a few irrational fears, and it’s surprisingly fun to read about other people’s, even if you run headlong into a few of your own at the same time.

The Creeps is a collection of Krause’s Internet project “Deep Dark Fears,” in which he solicits fears and paranoias from his audience and illustrates them. It’s weirdly compelling reading, seeing what other people are afraid of, what horrifying thoughts cross their minds at perfectly innocent moments. You’re bound to find something in here that makes you cringe, something that makes you laugh, and something that makes you nod your head in sympathetic understanding.

Secrets of Hoopla: Small Presses

If you usually browse Hoopla using the app, you’re missing out on some neat tricks you can do using the website. Hoopla offers ebooks from a wide range of small, specialty publishers, from Arcadia Publishing’s local history collections to Dreamspinner Press’s romance and erotica to ChiZine’s horror and weird fiction and Open Road Media’s ebook editions of classic science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. Unfortunately Hoopla doesn’t offer a good way to browse publishers directly, but there’s a way around that.

If you know the name of the publisher, you can search for it directly in the in the main search box. But if you don’t know the publisher’s name, or you’ve stumbled across a book that looks good, you can click on the publisher’s name in the top left corner of the item detail window and see everything from that publisher that’s available on Hoopla.

Obviously this isn’t as interesting with large publishers like Macmillan or Harper Collins, who offer a little bit of everything, but finding a good small press that matches your interests is like finding a well-read friend (or librarian!) who’s read dozens of things you’ve never heard of. Take the time to browse a little bit and see what new treasures you can discover!

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Book – Living on an illegal mining colony in the middle of nowhere makes for a pretty boring life. Until, that is, a fleet of ships from BeiTech Industries show up out of nowhere and start blowing everything up. Seventeen-year-old Kady is one of the survivors, picked up by the science vessel Hypatia, and her recently-ex-boyfriend Ezra has been conscripted aboard the warship Alexander. But the Alexander‘s artificial intelligence was damaged in the battle with BeiTech, and it’s getting a little trigger-happy. Meanwhile, a disease is spreading through the fleet, one with disastrous consequences. Frustrated with the lies and misinformation being spread by the fleet’s commanders, Kady starts hacking into the ships’ networks, trying to find the truth, and she winds up much deeper in the intrigue than she ever expected to be.

Illuminae is an intense, cinematic science fiction novel that’s got a little bit of everything: spaceships! Explosions! Corporate intrigue! Romance! Plague zombies! I love a good epistolary novel, and this one is killer. The variety of document types allows for great character-building dialogue and action sequences both, and also builds in some great opportunities for unreliable narrators (of which there are plenty). I loved the relationship between Kady and Ezra; it’s not often in a YA novel that the love interests already have an established relationship, and it was a nice change from the more common will-they-won’t-they romance. If you like this, you’ll also enjoy the Expanse series (both the novels and TV show) by James S.A. Corey, another science fiction series that subscribes to the Rule of Awesome.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Movie – Elisa lives a life of quiet routine. She goes to work, where she has one friend with whom she can converse (Elisa is mute, and communicates with sign language). She scrubs the floors and the bathrooms and the labs at a government laboratory, and then she goes home. She watches old movies on TV with her neighbor, accompanied by his cats, and she goes to sleep to wake up and do the same thing again. That is, until a new specimen is brought into the lab – an amphibious man or a humanoid amphibian, captured in South America and brought here to be studied for the secrets of his biology. Moved by his obvious suffering, Elisa starts making friends with the creature, bringing him eggs from her lunch, teaching him sign. But Colonel Strickland, who is in charge of the project to research the creature, is under a strict deadline and is coming unraveled under the pressure, which puts not only the creature but everyone else around him in danger.

Guillermo del Toro is well known for his love of monsters, and The Shape of Water, his first Academy Award-winning film, feels like a distillation of everything he’s made before: political tension as a backdrop to a fantastical story; the triumph of the powerless banding together against the powerful; the monster as the most human character in the film. Less bleak than Pan’s Labyrinth, more forthrightly fantastic than The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water is the not-so-doomed love story we all need right now. Once you’ve seen the movie, be sure to check out the novel, co-written with award-winning horror novelist Daniel Kraus simultaneously with the film’s production.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Book – Greta Helsing is a physician with a unique specialty: she treats the undead and supernatural creatures of London. Whether it’s providing anxiety medication for ghouls or treating the chronic lung infection of a gentleman who’s been a family friend for centuries, she has her work cut out for her. When a vampyre turns up with an unusual stab wound and a terrifying story of fanatical monks, her already unusual life suddenly gets a whole lot stranger.

I cannot tell you how much this book delighted me – a massively enjoyable romp through undead London, featuring ghouls, vampires, vampyres (not the same thing), and a mysterious cult of evil monks living underneath the Underground. And best of all, made families: a strong group of friends, people who learn to trust and care for one another, a central female character who is strong and competent and still gets to freak out sometimes because, well, mysterious cult of evil monks trying to kill her friends. I could have wished for more of Greta’s female friends – hopefully we’ll see more of them in future installments.

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

Book – Mokoya and Akeha, twin children of the Protector, were promised to the Grand Monastery before they were born, but when Mokoya displays the skill of prophecy, their mother rescinds her promise. While Mokoya struggles with her gift, Akeha becomes aware of a growing rebellion within his mother’s realm. The Machinists are developing technology to undercut the Tensors, sorcerers under the direct control of the Protector, and give the people a shot at freedom. Akeha finds his calling with the Machinists, but how will he fight for what is right without destroying his bond with his twin sister?

The Black Tides of Heaven is so full of amazing characters, exciting plot developments, and a truly original magical world that it’s hard to believe it’s only a novella. Short though it is, this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Fortunately for all of us, there’s already a sequel – The Red Threads of Fortune – and more are expected soon.

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

Book – Autism spectrum disorders exploded into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, along with worries that this sudden uptick in diagnoses meant that something unnatural was happening to children, something that had never been seen before. Really, Silberman explains, with great and gracious detail, our understanding of what “normal” development looks like and how eccentricity shades into disability is changing. In this book, he follows the history of autism and the researchers, parents, and people with autism who shaped our understanding of the different ways the human brains can work.

This isn’t a nice history; people have, historically speaking, not been nice to other people who have disabilities or even just differences that make them annoying. And since Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who shaped our modern understanding of autism, were physicians working in Austria and Germany in the mid-twentieth century, eugenics and genocide play a large role in early chapters. It gets better after the Nazis, but that’s not a very high bar to clear. The way people diagnosed with autism have been treated under the guise of helping them to become “normal” is upsetting at best. And yet, I found this a very hopeful book. Despite the burying of Asperger’s research; despite the litany of abuse and mistreatment; despite the struggles autistic people still face in being understood, accepted, and listened to; Silberman paints a picture of a flourishing subsection of humanity, one with astounding gifts and a great uniqueness, one which is ready, in this age of technology, to come into its own.

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Book – I think it’s impossible to overstate the influence that Ursula K. Le Guin had on modern literature. She wrote books that broke open ideas of what science fiction could be, and she did it so well, with such grace and compassion and beauty, that people couldn’t keep dismissing it as “just” science fiction any more. The daughter of legendary anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, she understood on a bone-deep level the ways that our culture and society shape us, and she used that understanding to dream of better worlds, and the problems that those worlds had, and possible solutions to those problems. She was a champion of women and minority writers in science fiction, a fierce believer that the future can only be better if it includes all of us. And every time you thought she was done, she came out with something new.

After her death in January I returned to her book of poetry to remember her. If her novels are complex webs of character, plot, ideas, and language, her poems are beads of dew on that spiderweb, delicately magnifying her skill and her brilliance. Oh, and they’re gorgeous, too. If you don’t have time to re-read The Dispossessed (although you should, it gets better every year), you’d do worse than to pick up a poem or two.

Colossal (2017)

Movie – After coming home so-late-it’s-early and hungover one too many times, Gloria’s boyfriend kicks her out of their New York apartment, and since she’s also out of work, she has no choice but to move back to her parents’ empty house in the town where she grew up. She gets a job tending bar for a guy she knew when they were kids, and shortly after, everyone is glued to the news, watching footage of the giant monster that mysteriously appeared in Seoul, South Korea, tromped through downtown, and disappeared again. When it happens again, Gloria recognizes something in its gestures — and realizes that she is in control of the monster. Sharing her revelation with her new-old friends, however, has unexpected and momentous consequences.

I saw a trailer for this movie that made it look like “rom-com plus Godzilla,” which meant that of course I had to see it, but it turns out it’s even better than that – Gloria’s growth and development does not revolve around her finding the right guy to date. She’s dealing with alcohol problems, an unhealthy relationship with her boss, and mysteriously wielding an unusual amount of supernatural power. It’s an unusual genre mash-up, but if you like stories about women taking control of their lives and also giant monsters, you’ll love it as much as I did.