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.

Craeft by Alexander Langlands

Book – Before the modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, before mass production and manufacturing, most everything humans did was a matter of craft (or, to use the archaic spelling, Craeft) – a combination of skill, thriftiness, ingenuity, and necessity. In this book, Alexander Langlands explores some of the components of craeft from historic England, reflecting on the skills and resources involved and the way all the various components of the landscape interact with one another.

Langlands had my dream job: he was an experimental archaeologist, using the tools and techniques of history to better understand the way the past worked. He was clearly in this job by temperament as much as anything, because throughout this book he displays a remarkable curiosity about not just the individual components of historic life but the whole system of the thing: the way one skill led into another, one craft creating byproducts that in turn become the core structural elements of another. He calls this kind of systemic, interdependent thinking “craeftiness,” a mode of relating to the world that abhors waste the way nature abhors a vacuum, finding a clever, economical use for every scrap, and making every expenditure of energy do at least two jobs.

This isn’t your ordinary history book; in fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything to compare it to. It’s deeply personal, each chapter (focusing on a different craft, from haymaking to basket-weaving to wall and barrow building) exploring Langlands’ own experience with the skill as well as his archaeological knowledge of its history. It’s profoundly location-based, as suits a book about the way pre-industrial people lived. And, crucially, it’s not nostalgic or romanticizing of the past: Langlands is well aware of how hard all this work is, having done much of it himself, albeit without life-or-death consequences. What he’s explaining is not just these individual skills that have been lost in the wake of cheap petroleum-based energy, but a way of thinking that was lost along with them, one which might become necessary in the near future, as petroleum-based energy becomes not so cheap.

Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward

Book – When she was six years old, Lauren’s mother was murdered, her father arrested for the crime. Lauren’s brother Alex has always been convinced that their father is innocent, but Lauren doesn’t buy it. She remembers seeing something – she’s not sure what, but it was bad – and she trusts her memory. But when Alex disappears during a tour in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders, Lauren is forced to come to grips with her memories, her father, and her family’s history. Meanwhile, a pregnant young woman has left her boyfriend, hoping to reunite with her best friend — but she, too, has childhood memories that have yet to be resolved.

I enjoyed this psychological thriller about the unreliability of childhood memories. The characters are not always sympathetic, but they’re well-drawn and intriguing. This isn’t really a fast-paced thriller; the story moves from one point to another in the abrupt staccato way of memories itself. While the point of view shifts can be a little disorienting to start with, the whole story weaves itself together in the end in a most satisfying way.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Books – A rogue SecUnit is one of the most terrifying things imaginable: a part-living, mostly-machine entity designed for security applications, without a working governor module, free to kill and destroy at will, and unstoppable by human agency.

The narrator of All Systems Red is technically a rogue SecUnit. It hacked its governor module, but instead of going on a murderous rampage, mostly it keeps doing its job and watches media in its downtime. (It particularly enjoys Sanctuary Moon.) That is, until a neighboring science mission goes dark and the humans SecUnit has been assigned to protect are threatened. SecUnit (who also calls itself Murderbot, although never out loud) doesn’t particularly like interacting with humans, but it doesn’t want them to die. After all, if all the humans died, who would make the media?

The Murderbot Diaries are short science-fiction thrillers, full of corporate espionage and underhanded dealings, but the real joy of them is watching Murderbot try to figure out how to be a person – because despite its continued insistence that it’s a bot, it’s one of the most intensely relateable characters I’ve ever met. (After all, who doesn’t want to spend long, boring shifts at work watching TV?) It struggles with human interaction, interactions with other bots, and how to handle personal responsibility, all while staying far enough under the radar to avoid being captured and reprogrammed. Artificial Condition follows Murderbot’s attempt to understand it’s own past (and its reluctant friendship with a science research transport). The series continues with Rogue Protocol in August and Exit Strategy in October.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero

Book – Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s so bad, so unbelievable, so outrageous, that it goes straight past unwatchable and becomes compelling. In 2003, that movie was The Room, written, directed, produced by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. The Room is so uniquely, outrageously bad – and not just bad but also deeply, deeply weird – that you can’t help but wonder about the guy who made it. Fortunately, Wiseau’s co-star, co-producer, and best friend Greg Sestero has written a memoir about his friendship with Tommy and the filming of The Room, and while it doesn’t exactly shed any light on who Tommy Wiseau is or why he felt compelled to make this weirdly compelling, illogical relationship drama of a movie, it’s a delightful trainwreck of a story.

You can now experience The Disaster Artist in a variety of formats – there’s the original book, the audiobook as read by Greg Sestero, and the film starring James Franco as Tommy Wiseau. While Franco’s Tommy Wiseau impression is impressive, if you really want to experience the full range of weirdness, I recommend the audiobook. Even if you’ve never seen The Room – and I can’t in good conscience recommend that you do – this is a wild ride through one of the most implausible Hollywood productions of our time.

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.