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 Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

Movie – It’s Thanksgiving, and all the girls are going home from their rural boarding school — all the girls, that is, except for Rose, who wants a chance to talk to her boyfriend before meeting her parents, and Kat, whose parents are dead. Fenced in by snow and isolation, things begin to go slowly but inescapably wrong within the near-empty school. Meanwhile, Joan is hitching a ride in the direction of the school with a kindly married couple. If they have any idea what’s waiting for them at the school, they show no signs of it, but they won’t be pleased at what they find.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow-burn kind of horror movie, the kind where the eerie wrongness creeps up behind you so slowly you hardly know it’s there. If you’re in the market for thrills, look elsewhere, but if you want to become completely terrified of the thick blanket of snow that traps you indoors with whoever — and whatever — is inside with you, this movie directed by the son of Anthony Perkins, made famous by his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will be just your cup of tea.

Lady Killers by Tori Telfer

Book – It’s hard to find a good true crime book about murderous women. There’s a way in which female killers are often treated less seriously than male killers, as though their femininity makes them somehow cute or trivial even though they’ve killed people. From the title, I was expecting Lady Killers to be something like that. I was pleasantly surprised when what I got instead was a chronicle of the way the contemporary media, and then history, treats women murderers. There are some big names in here (Countess Bathory, obviously; the Bloody Benders) but also a few I’d never heard of, and some I only knew a little about. They aren’t just stories from America and the UK, either – we’ve got murderers here from Egypt, Hungary, Russia, and Ireland. In each story, Telfer picks apart the ways these women are dehumanized (many of them were described as animalistic) or their crimes minimized by making them sexy (bathing in the blood of virgins!) or purely mercenary (killing one husband for the insurance money is one thing, but five?). And then, once they’ve been executed or died in prison, we forget all about them. Aileen Wurnos is far from the first female serial killer, but that was exactly what she was called in the press. In the end, Telfer’s thesis is simple: women are people, and sometimes people are horrible. Fans of Harold Schechter and Skip Hollandsworth should enjoy this very much.

Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due

Book – Tananarive Due is the hidden secret of modern horror fiction. Sick of sparkly vampires? Bored with ghosts? Tired of the same old gothic secrets and bloody horrors and frankly offended by the level of sexual assault? You need to be reading Tananarive Due. One of the luminaries of the Afrofuturism movement (speculative fiction with a focus on Africa and the African diaspora), Due’s characters are gut-wrenchingly real, and her stories, even when horrific, are mesmerizing.

Take, for instance, “The Knowing,” the story of a ten-year-old boy and his mother who knows the date everyone she meets will die. Or “Free Jim’s Mine,” a classic deal-with-the-devil story told from the point of view of a relative, rather than the one who makes the deal, who is trying to escape via the Underground Railroad. Or the title story, “Ghost Summer,” an award-winning novella that expertly brings together backyard ghosts and the ghosts of history and family, all from the viewpoint of young ghost hunter Davie Stephens, who just wanted to be YouTube-famous and got way more than he bargained for. Even readers who aren’t big horror fans would enjoy her work, I think – it’s not graphic, but powerfully emotional, in sometimes heartbreaking but always insightful ways.

We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson

Book – Colombia, 1979. Italian movie director Ugo Velluto has packed up his crew and moved them to the Amazon to shoot a new kind of horror movie entirely on location, starring young unknown actors and featuring ambitious special effects. Our nameless narrator, the male lead, is so desperate for a paying job he agrees to go straight from his screen test to the airport. In Colombia, he finds a chaotic production in progress: a crew used to working only on soundstages, actors who’ve never seen the full script, special effects being built during the filming of the scenes they’re meant to be used in, and a director who might be a little bit crazy. And outside of the production, things are worse, as drug cartels ply their trade and guerilla revolutionaries work toward the violent overthrow of a corrupt government.

We Eat Our Own is based on the true story of the film Cannibal Holocaust – trumpeted as the “most controversial movie ever made” – which was filmed in the Amazon in the late 70s under a shroud of secrecy; due to the realism of the effects and the clever marketing strategy of the film, director Ruggero Deodato was actually put on trial for the murder of his actors. Debut author Kea Wilson dives into the setting with gusto, drawing detailed portraits of individuals, a film production, and a country in the midst of becoming something new, a process that is more than a little bloody for all of them. This is a tense and atmospheric (but still frequently funny) novel that won’t be for everyone – but I loved it.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

Book – As a book-lover, “what’s your favorite book?” is my least-favorite question. Do you mean my favorite book I’ve read this year? The book I recommend to other people most often? The childhood favorite I still re-read when I’m having a bad day? But then, beneath and beyond all of these, there are those books I read so frequently and at such a young age that I can no longer remember not having read them. They’re just a part of the world, like water and air.

Those are the books that Handy writes about – The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, Where the Wild Things Are, The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s hard to imagine childhood without them, but most of us (unless we have children who like to be read to) haven’t read them in years, or maybe decades. Handy argues that we should, that these books have as much to teach us about the human condition as the canonical great classes, and that they’re just as enjoyable, too.

A book like this runs the risk of being sentimental, and there are some moments that tug at the heartstrings – but Handy isn’t afraid to mention those times his own children didn’t understand the appeal of a favorite book, or when he finally read a classic that he just didn’t enjoy. For anyone who has loved books for most of their life, this is a delightful exploration of some of the books that may have inspired that love in the first place.

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Book – Have you ever tried to write poetry? It’s not as easy as it looks – even free blank verse, in most hands, sounds silly, while a good poet can shake you to your core. Nevertheless, I keep trying to write poetry, hoping that someday I’ll accidentally manage something that’s actually good. I picked up The Ode Less Travelled to see if there’s anything useful I’ve been missing, and wow, have I been missing a lot.

Stephen Fry isn’t a poet – he’s an actor, comedian, and occasional novelist – but he writes poetry for fun, and thinks other people should try it, too. In aid of this, he explains poetical metre (everything’s spelled in British English in this book, although Fry also gives the Americanisms), rhyme, form, and criticism, along with giving extremely useful and interesting exercises for you to try. (They’re presented in workbook format, but please bow to the publisher’s wishes and buy a copy for yourself if you wish to write your verse in the book.) As he says, you probably won’t become an award-winning poet just by reading this book, but you will be able to amuse yourself with a creative hobby, much like sketching with words. And if all you’re interested in is understanding poetry a little better, this would also be a useful read, as it’s much more entertaining than any “Introduction to Poetry” I’ve ever read before.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Book – Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, other than humans, are apes, monkeys, crows and ravens, parakeets, and…octopuses. Which is just as weird as it sounds, because while apes and monkeys are closely related to us, and birds not too far different, octopuses (and other cephalopods, squids and cuttlefish) are very distant relations. Our most recent common ancestor is 750 million years old. So why are they so smart, and what can we learn about intelligence and awareness from studying them?

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, but also a scuba diver, and his encounters with cephalopods off the coast of Australia led him to this fascinating study of minds, both human and alien. Deep discussion of what consciousness is and how it happens is interleaved with vivid descriptions of octopus behavior and relationships. As a pure philosophy book, this would be too dense and heavy to manage, but bringing in the octopuses and their evolutionary history gives it just the right balance. An enlightening read for anyone interested in the question of animal intelligence and the ways humans are similar to – and different from – very different creatures.

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton

Book – Like many writers, Cary Tennis had a project he just couldn’t finish: a sprawling novel he’d started writing while commuting to a detested corporate job. He struggled with it for years before coming up with the Finishing School, a method for constructing a writing group that was about support, not mutual criticism, and gentle accountability. And yes, he finished the novel.

What makes Finishing School the book unique (in my experience of writing-advice books, of which I’ve read many) is the authors’ understanding that writing, and especially projects we’ve been procrastinating on for years, can bring up big emotions, and it’s those emotions, not the writing itself, that frequently gets in the way. Finishing School, the method, is about making some space for those emotions, which in turn makes some space in your head for getting the work done.

I think this method could be expanded to help you deal with any project you want to get done but don’t have a firm deadline for. (Discussed in the book are several writers who had writing-adjacent projects they needed to finish, like cleaning out the study that had been used as a storage room for too many years.) In addition to sympathy, the book lays out the method for you to use as a two-person buddy system or as a large group like a class. I’m looking forward to recruiting a buddy to help me get started on a couple of projects of my own.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Book – It is 1888, a hot, murderous summer in London, and Doctor Thomas Bond is assisting the police in their investigations. Inspector Abberline leads the investigation into Jack the Ripper, cutting up prostitutes in Whitechapel, but Dr. Bond is more concerned with another killer, more fastidious, whose victims they pull out of the river in pieces. His anxiety high, Dr. Bond turns to opium to calm his mind, but in the opium dens he meets a foreign priest and a Polish madman, who convince him that the monster stalking London is not entirely human after all.

There are probably dozens of novels about Jack the Ripper being a man possessed by a demon; this is the first I’ve seen where Jack is a footnote to a different monster. (The Thames Torso Killer was real, and really was active at the same time as Jack the Ripper, but for whatever reason he never became as famous.) Dr. Bond is a terrific character, too; wracked by anxiety and drug addiction, he never entirely believes in the supernatural thing that his companions warn him about, but he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to stop the killing. Fans of Hannibal and Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard series will love this book and its sequel, Murder.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Book – My favorite kinds of mysteries are the ones that play games with your expectations – things like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so I was intrigued by the description of Anthony Horowitz’s new novel. It’s a murder mystery inside a murder mystery: Alan Conway, author of the bestselling Atticus Pünd series of whodunnits, committed suicide just after turning in his latest manuscript. Except that the manuscript is missing the last chapter, and Susan Ryeland, one of his editors, thinks he didn’t commit suicide at all. The first half of the book is Magpie Murders, the final Atticus Pünd novel; the second half is Susan’s investigation into Conway’s death. (Don’t worry; you do get to read the final chapter in the end.)

Horowitz is a bestselling author and screenwriter in the UK – he’s a co-creater of the longrunning TV show Midsomer Murders – but despite his two excellent Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s not as well known here. He does a terrific job with both mysteries in Magpie Murders, Pünd’s classic whodunnit set in the 1950s and Susan’s modern, genre-savvy investigation in the modern day. Readers who love the puzzle aspect of mysteries but who are turned off by the violence and heavy reliance on forensics in modern thrillers will love this unique novel.