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.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce PapersBook – Sophie Diehl is a criminal attorney. She doesn’t want anything to do with her firm’s divorce cases, but when a senior partner asks her to step in to lend a hand, she can’t say no. And the client – Mrs. Mia Durkheim, nee Mia Mieklejohn, from one of the oldest families in New England – thinks Sophie is great and won’t have anyone else for her lawyer. The story unfolds through a collection of memos, letters, notes, and legal documents as the divorce gets longer and longer, messier and messier.

It sounds a little traumatizing, but most of the time it’s hilarious. Sophie and Mia are both smart, clever women, at two very different points in their lives: Sophie trying to get a handle on the beginning of her career, and Mia trying to get out of a marriage that’s grown stifling. The insults fly fast and heavy, usually in the direction of Mia’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Daniel. Rieger puts her years of experience as a law professor to good use in this witty first novel. (I particularly liked the way she invented a whole New England state so that she could invent her own legal precedents.)

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood

The Killer Next DoorBook - Hossien is looking for someplace to live. Vesta has never lived anywhere else at all. Cher shouldn’t be living here. And Collette, according to her former boss, shouldn’t be living at all. Everyone at 23 Beula Grove, a run-down boarding house in South London, has a secret, from the scummy landlord to the quiet man who lives upstairs and never tries to make friends, but some of their secrets are more dangerous than others.

The Killer Next Door isn’t much of a mystery; although there’s some ambiguity over who the killer is, the possible suspects are narrowed down pretty quickly. That isn’t the focus of the book, though, which is instead concerned with how all these very different people make a life for themselves in something less than the best of circumstances, how they help each other out when help is needed, and how they betray each other without ever meaning to. I enjoyed spending time with these characters, and I’ll be making time to read Marwood’s first novel, The Wicked Girls.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

ghostsBook – I didn’t love every story in this collection, but I loved the collection as a whole. There’s an art to putting together a short story collection, and most collections just don’t quite make it. 20th Century Ghosts flows smoothly from one story to the next, sometimes featuring a kind of free-association logic that’s downright humorous in effect. A mention of Kafka in the end of “Pop Art” ties into “And You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a story about a boy who wakes up one morning having turned into a giant insect, and the Biblical overtones in that story give you completely the wrong impression of “Abraham’s Boys” until you finally learn the good doctor’s surname. It’s a little thing, a fun trick, but I enjoyed it.

I’m having a hard time picking a favorite story, to be honest. The opener, “Best New Horror,” is a fairly predictable sort of “but it was all really true!” story about a horror writer and an editor, but the self-awareness of the story raises it to a new level. “The Black Phone” is a terrific anti-serial-killer story (as opposed to all the stories in which the serial killer is the star of the show), “The Cape” features a very convincing creeper of the sort you’d hate to meet on a dark sidewalk but probably already have, and “Voluntary Committal” is both the scariest and the most heartwarming story in the book (and won a well-deserved World Fantasy Award).

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

hogfatherBook – Every year on December 32nd, the Hogfather climbs into his sleigh pulled by four wild boars to delivers pork products to all the good girls and boys (and sacks of bloody bones to the bad ones). At least, every year before this one. This year the Hogfather is missing in action, and it’s up to Death to make sure the holiday goes forward as planned – and Death’s granddaughter, Susan, to find out what’s happened to the real Hogfather.

Hogfather is the 20th in Terry Pratchett’s sprawling and renowned Discworld series, a collection of novels all set on the fantastical world in the shape of a disc which travels through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle, a place where magic works and the laws of nature are somewhat more literal than they are in our own. You don’t have to have read any of the earlier novels to enjoy this one; in fact, Hogfather is one of the earliest novels I recommend, as I think the series is better in its later incarnations. (The newest novel, Raising Steam, is #40.)

Pratchett’s books all have an edge of satire to them, and this one bites just a little bit: it’s full of holiday spirit, but it also skewers the consumerism of the holiday and the sanitized nature of modern stories based on old myths. There’s also a rather fantastic TV adaptation of Hogfather, which is in my regular holiday movie rotation.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

strangeBook – Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect. This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

zooBook – Zinzi December finds things. It’s her Talent, the mildly useful side effect that comes along with her Sloth, a physical manifestation of her guilt over her brother’s death that also renders her unfit for work in polite society. She only finds lost things, not lost people, but when her latest client is murdered, she has to take on a missing persons case. Songweza, half of the twin teen pop sensation of the moment, has disappeared, and her manager needs her back before the new record drops.

I had a fantastic time with this book. A South African urban fantasy with a heist plot, it was very different from Beukes’s outstanding serial-killer thriller The Shining Girls, but just as excellent. This feels like it should be a movie, the better to show off the contrast between Zinzi’s lower-class lifestyle and the glitzy pop music glamor of her employer’s world. I also really liked the way Beukes recast the animal companion trope – they’re a little bit like the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with a grittier edge. Anyone who’s a fan of Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire should enjoy Zoo City.

The Good Neighbors by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh

kinGraphic novel - Rue Silver is just an ordinary teenage girl. She’s got a great best friends, a boyfriend who’s in a band, a college professor father and a crazy mother. Who’s missing. Oh, and sometimes she sees things that can’t be real. No big deal. Okay, so maybe she’s not that ordinary. Her mother is a faery, which means that Rue isn’t entirely human, either. And her grandfather Aubrey has a plan – a plan that will wrest her town from the grip of the humans and leave it under the rule of Faerie. What happens to the humans who live there, well, Aubrey just doesn’t care. Rue cares. As much as she can.

The Good Neighbors (in three volumes, Kin, Kith and Kind) is a wonderful, eerie story about love, duty, and humanity. Rue goes from ordinary high-schooler to fully embracing her faerie heritage, with all that implies. Rue is culturally human, she grew up as a human, but she is fey too, and she finds it all too easy to leave human things behind. The story really belongs to her. The rest of the characters are more like stock fairy tale characters. It’s not a terrible flaw, given how fast-paced the story is. And, of course, Ted Naifeh’s art is stunning. The two-page spreads of faerie and human crowds are spectacular, and while the art never distracts you from the story, it definitely rewards a closer second (and third and fourth) reading.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

no plotBook - Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s a no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing, an international challenge where thousands of people commit to an insane goal: to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. No Plot? No Problem! is NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s instructional manual for the project. It covers everything from why you might want to try such a crazy project in the first place to how to motivate yourself past the week two slump, as well as offering tips and suggestions for how to plan your attack on your novel. I re-read this every year, a week at a time, to help me through my novel writing. I like Baty’s irreverant style and the attitude he brings to the project: it’s a nice reminder that even an insane goal is fun and worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in joining NaNoWriMo, it’s not too late! You can still sign up for an account on the official site to track your progress and meet other writers. Join us on two Saturdays this month, November 15th and 22nd, for afternoon write-ins. Share the companionship of other writers, compete in Word Wars, earn an entry into the 2014 Naperville Region Library Crawl prize drawing, and, of course – write!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

houseBookHouse of Leaves is the scariest book I have ever read. It’s not gory or gross or even immediately frightening – there are no monsters or demons or serial killers. It’s just completely terrifying.

The story takes place in several layers. Johnny Truant is our primary narrator, telling us about this manuscript he was helping his neighbor Zampano write. Then there’s the film Zampano is writing about, a documentary made by world-famous photographer Will Navidson about the house he and his family have moved into. At first the house seems perfectly normal, and then one day they discover a hallway doesn’t seem right. They double-check the blueprints, they measure the house inside and out with a laser sight, and there’s no way around it – the house is three-quarters of an inch larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

And then it gets bigger.

I think it’s the different levels of narrative that make House of Leaves so effectively terrifying. In trying to figure out whether or not the film is real in Johnny’s world, you start to forget that Johnny’s world isn’t necessarily your own, and everything seems to bleed together around the edges. House of Leaves isn’t the kind of book you can read all at once and get it over with; even if you could get through it in one sitting, it’ll haunt you later.