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.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

1451666179.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – I don’t know what it is about Allie Brosh’s style that is so deeply hilarious. Is it the choppy storytelling, half-illustrated and half in prose? Is it the expressions on the faces of her MSPaint-drawn characters? Is it the stories themselves? Or is it a combination of all three that so regularly leaves me giggling helplessly for minutes at a time?

I first discovered Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic in 2010, when it was still being updated semi-regularly. Then Brosh took a long hiatus due to a bad bout of depression, and then she came back with two outstanding comics about it (both of which are included in the book). There are a few other extras in the book as well, stories that were never published on the website, so ideally you should read both: once you’ve polished off Hyperoble and a Half, head over to the website and work your way through the archives. It’ll be fun, I promise.

Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

1608866874.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Graphic Novel – Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are spending the summer at Lumberjanes scout camp, officially known Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. In addition to earning badges like the Up All Night Badge and the Pungeon Master Badge (earned for being especially pun-ny), they’re discovering that something is very, very wrong in these woods. The three-eyed foxes might have been their first clue. Or the bearwoman. Or the creepily well-behaved boys of the scout camp next door…

This comic is just really fun. The girls are all tough and interesting, each in their own way (although I admit to being partial to Ripley, a half-feral kid younger than most of the others), and their counselors display a laudable degree of common sense in the face of all these supernatural shenanigans. It’s gotten an outstanding critical reception, too – originally slated for just an 8-issue miniseries, Lumberjanes will continue as an ongoing comic series and has already won two Eisner awards and been optioned for a movie

The Thirteen by Susie Moloney

3e6e15b726eca635462760f5f2479687Book – Paula hasn’t been back to Haven Woods, the idyllic suburb where she grew up, since she was sixteen. That summer she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend died in a terrible accident, her father died in a car crash, and her mother sent her away, so in spite of the good memories she’s got plenty of reasons not to come home. Until one day she gets a call from her mother’s old friend Izzy, saying Paula’s mom is in the hospital and won’t she please come see her. Paula and her fifteen-year-old daughter Rowan don’t have much of a life in the city, so it’s not like they’re giving up much to go live in Haven Woods until Paula’s mom is back on her feet. But Haven Woods has more going on than Paula ever suspected, and Izzy has her own reasons for wanting Paula – and Rowan – to stay forever.

This book was just a lot of fun to read. Although nominally a horror novel, Moloney doesn’t mess around with making you guess at what’s going on – plenty of scenes from Izzy’s point of view at the beginning of the novel clue you in right away that these are bad, old-fashioned Devil-worshiping witches that Paula’s going up against, ignorant though she is. Aside from the supernatural elements, though, The Thirteen is also a story about the powerful bonds between women – mothers, daughters, friends – and the ways you can never entirely escape your own childhood. Like Moloney’s other novels, including her haunted-house story The Dwelling, I think this would make a great movie.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

fifth seasonBook – The world is coming to an end but Essun’s world ended three days ago, when she came home to find that her husband had beaten their three-year-old son to death when he discovered the boy was an orogene, one who has a supernatural power over the shaking of the earth. An orogene girl is picked up by a Guardian to be taken somewhere she can learn to use her powers, rather than be lynched by her community. Syenite, a young trained orogene, travels to a coastal city to fulfill more than one assignment given to her by her mysterious handlers. These three stories converge in fascinating and unexpected ways through N.K. Jemisin’s new series debut, The Fifth Season.

Some people might be put off by Essun’s part of the story, which is told in second person, the narrator speaking to “you” who is also Essun. I’ve definitely read poorly done second-person stories, but this is not one of them: in Jemisin’s careful hands, these sections are full of raw, immediate emotion. After a couple of pages I forgot about the pronouns and fell into Essun’s life and world completely.

This is a rough book, to be sure. All of the main characters are of a despised magic-using minority, and Jemisin writes painfully well about the bigotry and oppression they suffer. But they’re all strong, powerful, compelling characters, and to watch them refuse to be cowed by the experience is wonderful. It also features some of the best fantasy worldbuilding I’ve ever seen, with a fully-developed world with thousands of years of history so very different from our own but so believable as well. Jemisin’s already racked up a number of awards for her Dreamblood and Inheritance series, and she’s bound to pick up some more for this one.

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch

becoming shakespeareBook – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?

I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.

This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Naming Nature by Carol K. Yoon

naming natureBook – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.

Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book – It’s 2026, and one hundred scientists have launched in the Ares to become the first Martian colony. They have plenty of challenges to overcome – the extreme cold and unbreathable air, the time lag in communicating with home, the need to extract water from the local environment, the radiation they’ll be exposed to through Mars’s thin atmosphere. And, of course, each other. Red Marsthe first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, follows the colonists through the first thirty-five years of colonization, from the launch and early terraforming through the growing influence of Earth politics and corporations on their new world.

I found the details of the mission interesting, but I was really fascinated by the wonderful characters and all their different points of view. Maya, Frank, and John are in a complicated love triangle; Nadia finds Maya ridiculous but loves her work; Arkady’s on a mission to reform the political structure of the world; Sax is on a mission to reform the biology of Mars. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, so things that seemed reasonable from one angle seem crazy from another, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

summer pBook – June Costa is the best artist in Palmares Tres. At least, if she isn’t yet, she’s going to be soon. She and her best friend Gil are wakas – under 30 years old, and therefore almost completely powerless in a society of people who regularly live to two hundred years old and more. And it’s an important year for wakas, because it’s the time in the five-year political cycle when the Summer King is elected. For a year he’ll serve at the side of the Queen, and at the end of his term he’ll die, choosing the new Queen with his last breath. Of course, the game is rigged – it’s not time for a new Queen, so he’ll get to choose from only one candidate. The favorite for the Summer King this year is Enki, a beautiful boy from the lowest strata of Palmares society, and between the three of them, he, June, and Gil will change the world.

I loved all the wonderful science-fictional aspects of this book, from the huge floating cities to the elaborate gene therapies and the biotechnology that gives June so many of the opportunities for her art. I also liked that although it was set far in the future and the culture has changed a lot, there’s still a strong connection with history – June’s father, for instance, was an aficionado of 20th century music. There is the usual YA love triangle, but it’s much less important in this book than in many others. I read this in about a day and a half and I’d strongly recommend it to any science fiction fan.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers

murder mustBook – Lord Peter Wimsey, the famous amateur detective, will do just about anything in the pursuit of an interesting case. This time, he’s gone incognito to take a job at an advertising agency where, several weeks ago, one of the employees had a suspiciously convenient accident on the spiral staircase. He flings himself into the work with gusto – both the investigation, and the writing of advertising copy, at which he proves surprisingly adept.

This is the eighth book starring Lord Peter Wimsey, but it really doesn’t matter; it’s one of the ones you could read in any order. Dorothy Sayers first created Lord Peter in Whose Body? in 1923, where he appears as the usual kind of Golden Age detective, a younger son of the nobility with a useful servant and an unusual hobby. He stands out from the Hercule Poirots and Roderick Alleyns of the genre, though, as he develops in psychological complexity throughout the series. We learn about his shell shock from the War, his reluctance to turn over criminals to the law when it will mean their deaths, and his sensitivity to the double standards faced by women of his era.

Murder Must Advertise is one of my favorites of the series, although I admit it’s probably not the best one – but it’s just so much fun. It’s a delightful peek into the preMad Men era of advertising, which Lord Peter is learning along with the reader. There’s also a wonderful cricket game toward the end of the book. I’ve read it five times now and I still don’t understand cricket, but everyone’s having a marvelous time.