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.

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.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay

disappearance-devils-rockBook – One night late in the summer, Tommy’s mother Elizabeth is woken up in the middle of the night by a call from Tommy’s friend Josh asking if Tommy came home. They’d been hanging out at Split Rock in the nearby park, and Tommy took off and never came back. Now Tommy’s missing, and as the whole town turns out to search for him, Elizabeth is looking for answers. Why do pages from Tommy’s diary – one she didn’t even know he had – keep turning up on the living room floor overnight? Why are Tommy’s friends calling it Devil’s Rock, when no one’s ever used that nickname before? Who was the adult man hanging out with the boys during the summer, and where did he go? And what really happened to Tommy?

I like horror novels for their ingenuity and visceral power, but it’s not often that I’m really, genuinely scared by them. I was terrified of this book. Tremblay walks the fine line of suspension of disbelief in a way that feels so much more realistic than any other horror writer. Is Elizabeth really being haunted by her son’s ghost, or does she just want to see him again so badly that she’s imagining things? We’ve all experienced things we can’t entirely explain, and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock has that same feeling: we’re pretty sure that there’s a mundane explanation for everything, but all the same…

Tremblay pulled off a similarly tricky balance with his exorcism novel, Head Full of Ghosts, but I found Disappearance much, much scarier. Read it with the lights on, and make sure your kids are safe in bed before you start.

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

indexBook – Pepper’s never been in serious trouble in his life. Sure, a couple of fights here and there, but nothing big. But now, out of nowhere, he finds himself incarcerated — not in prison, where he would have a right to a lawyer and a phone call, but in a mental hospital, where he’s told he’ll be held indefinitely, since he signed those papers they gave him after they gave him the Haldol. The food is terrible, the view nonexistent, and his roommate won’t stop pestering him for spare change. And the Devil lives at the end of hallway four.

Although this is billed as a horror novel, and it kind of is, I’d say it’s not scary so much as disturbing. LaValle does a terrific job of shining a bright light on the systems that dehumanize people, making them nameless and disposable That’s not just the way the police can have someone institutionalized when they don’t feel like processing the paperwork to arrest them, but also the way people desperate to keep their jobs learn to cut corners and avoid speaking up about problems, and the way people are put into categories that make them easier to ignore. And with his wonderful characters, Pepper and Dorrie and Coffee and Sue and all the others, he makes us see them as people again.

The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson

51eCqp7J8OLBook – When Vellitt Boe settled down as a professor of mathematics at the Women’s College of Ulthar, she thought that her wandering days were over. In her youth she’d traveled the Six Kingdoms of the dream world and even met dreamers from the waking world. And now she is forced into traveling again, when her student Clarie Jurat, a daughter of one of the College’s Trustees, runs off with a dreamer, putting the future of the college – and perhaps much more – at risk.

If the title sounds at all familiar, it’s because this novella is a kind of inversion of H.P. Lovecraft‘s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” in which a dreamer from our world travels the mysterious and dangerous realms of the dreamlands – and these are the same dreamlands, from the gugs and ghouls of the under-realms to the mad and unpredictable gods. You don’t need to know that to enjoy this story, though; Vellitt Boe stands comfortably on her own two feet without the need to stand on anyone else’s shoulders.

This is a tremendous amount of questing in a very small package; if you like epic fantasy novels like those of Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, or J.R.R. Tolkien, but you don’t have time for another thousand-page tome, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe packs a whole world’s worth of strange beauty into fewer than 200 pages.

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

MV5BNjQ3ODAzMzM1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjc2OTcyMjE@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Movie – Johnny Blake is a tough cop – so tough he got kicked off the force. Which only delights the local gangsters, since Blake had been a thorn in their side for years. And then a local crime boss gets a bright idea and hires Blake on to help him develop novel ways of expanding his criminal enterprise, much to the distaste of his lieutenant Bugs Fenner, who isn’t convinced that Blake has left the side of the law at all.

This is a terrific example of Warner Brothers’ premiere blockbuster genre of the 1930s, the gangster flick. The plot, based on the career of real-life detective John Broderick, is fine, but the cast is outstanding: Edward G. Robinson as a good guy for once, a terribly young Humphrey Bogart in one of his nastier roles, Joan Blondell as your femme fatale and a full range of character actors – although for me, the highlight of the movie is Louise Beavers in a rare glamorous turn as the numbers queen of Harlem.

Like a lot of the Warner Brothers’ classic films on DVD, the disc includes the “Night at the Movies” special feature, designed to give you the full experience from the year the movie was made: a newsreel, a trailer, a cartoon, and a musical short. (If you want a double feature, though, you’ll have to load the second film yourself. I recommend Angels With Dirty Faces if you believe a night of gangster movies just isn’t complete without James Cagney, or Larceny, Inc. if you’d like a little comedy.) And don’t miss the blooper reel; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart swearing at the furniture.

Harrow County: Countless Haints by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook

indexGraphic Novel – Although she’s about to turn eighteen, Emmy hasn’t seen much of the world. She lives alone with her father on their farm somewhere in the South and dreams of seeing more – until the night of her birthday, when everyone in town turns on her, even her own father, and she’s forced to flee for her life before she even knows why, or what it is about her that the spirits in the forest gather to protect her…

This is a terrific little Southern Gothic ghost story, just eerie enough to be disturbing if read too late at night, but without the excess of gore that you see in so many horror comics. The art is beautiful, done in a soft watercolor that adds to both the comfortable mundanity of Emmy’s home and the otherworldly feel of the haints and spirits. Emmy is a great character, struggling not only with her newfound power but with what it means about her and her place in the world. Fans of Welcome to Night Vale and Penny Dreadful will enjoy this series.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

28007948Book – Arden Arrowood moved away from Keokuk, Iowa, and her eponymous family home, when she was little, shortly after her twin baby sisters disappeared. She hasn’t been back for years, but now, with a Master’s degree in history all but finished and reeling from her estranged father’s death, the lawyers have told her that the house belongs to her. Moving home is all she’s ever wanted, but when she gets there she finds it more complicated than she’d like it to be. Her best friend and first boyfriend is engaged, the estate is running out of money to keep up the old house, and a writer working on a book about her sisters’ disappearance wants to explain to her why she’s wrong about what she always said she saw that day when her sisters went missing. Arden might be home, but she’s being haunted in more ways than one.

I read and loved McHugh’s first novel, The Weight of Blood, a couple of years ago, but I was even more excited about this one given the setting – I grew up in southern Iowa, not far from Lee County, where this novel is set. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the focus on the trickiness of memory, how things can become distorted with time and repetition, and what that says about long-buried hurts. A little touch of the Gothic polished off this low-key thriller very nicely.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts by Laura Tillman

150110425X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.

This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.

But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.