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 Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Book – Surrealism, as it was invented, wasn’t just an art movement but a political one as well, designed to help the practitioner break out of the mindset imposed on us by the culture we live in and invent a new and better world. Given that, it was really only a matter of time before China Miéville wrote a book about a surrealist city rising up to overthrow its fascist oppressors.

It’s 1950, and Paris is still occupied – both by the Nazis and by the manifs, physical embodiments of surrealist art and poetry that sprang into existence after the S-bomb exploded in a café in the 40s. The city has been sealed off to prevent the manifs from infecting the surrounding countryside. Thibaut is the last remaining member of Main á Plume, a surrealist Resistance faction, when he’s joined by Sam, an American photographer who’s chronicling the manifs for a book she wants to produce, The Last Days of New Paris. But Sam has other goals in mind, and they have to do with the Nazi scheme to leash the manifs as weapons, which is beginning to show signs of success.

This is such a perfect China Miéville book that I really can’t give it a better recommendation than that: If you like his books, you should love this. It’s probably a little easier to follow if you’re moderately familiar with the Surrealists, but there are some helpful illustrations (and an index chronicling the sources of the manifs, if you want to look them up). If you’ve never tried Miéville before, this isn’t necessarily the place to start (unless you really love Surrealism). May I recommend The City & The City, a surrealist mystery novel that’s recently been announced for an upcoming BBC adaptation?

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Book – After the Sadiri homeworld was destroyed, their only hope for survival is in reaching out to the indigenous population of their newly adopted home for aid. Cygnus Beta is a world of refugees, all trying to re-create their dramatically different home cultures and governments. Grace Delarua’s job is to try to manage and integrate all this incredible variety; Sadiri Councillor Dllenakh is her point of contact with the Sadiri exiles, who are in search of a population that might be related to their own.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot into a few pages (which is my favorite kind of science fiction, really). Cygnus Beta is a fascinating world, so much variety and diversity packed up right next to each other – which really highlights how often science fiction forgets that we have just as much diversity on our own very small planet – and the overall story, about refugees trying to figure out what culture and heritage and history mean, is incredibly relevant right now. And for once, the slow-burn romance between Delarua and Dllenakh is one of my favorite parts of the story. If you like science fiction but are a little exhausted by breathless save-the-galaxy plots, give this one a try.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Book – Best friends Miel and Sam are inseparable, and have been since Miel spilled out of a water tower when she was five, screaming that she’d lost the moon, and Sam was the only one who could comfort her. Now teenagers, Miel grows roses from her skin and assists her guardian in magic to remove people’s lovesickness while Sam paints moons of every size and color and hangs them in the trees. They’ve loved each other since they were children, but their relationship is tested when the beautiful, cruel Bonner sisters – las gringas bonitas – decide that they want Miel’s roses for themselves, and threaten to reveal all of Sam’s secrets.

When the Moon Was Ours is a beautiful combination of elegant magical realism, reminiscent of Alice Hoffman, and an emotionally wrenching story about coming to terms with your self. Sam was born female but is living as a boy, struggling toward a transgender identity but not sure of it yet; Miel lost her family at a young age and blames herself. Their struggles feel real, and its immensely gratifying to watch them both pull through them. Although published as YA, this gorgeous book is one that anyone who loves fairy tales would enjoy.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Book – In the city of Amberlough, morality depends upon the time of day and everything is for sale. The Bumble Bee is the city’s most notorious club, and Aristide Makricosta the club’s most notorious performer. His lover, Cyril DePaul, is a covert agent, adept at keeping Aristide’s secrets as well as his own. At least, until he’s sent on a mission to the northern reaches of the country, investigating a new political party that seems convinced they can take over the country despite their unpopularity. And if they do, both Cyril and Aristide are going to find themselves in dire straits.

Amberlough is a kind of fantasy mashup of Cabaret and the novels of John Le Carré, with lots of intrigue, behind-the-scenes nightclub shenanigans, and the creeping shadow of totalitarianism looming behind all of it. I found it rough going, emotionally; Cyril sacrifices his principles early on, and watching him attempt to play both sides is painful, especially when he’s dragging other people down with him. By the end of the book, though, I couldn’t bear not to know what would happen next. I’m immensely relieved to report that there are sequels in the works, but this book stands well on its own.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

Book – In a remote castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, a young man joins the crew that’s working on turning the castle into an unplugged resort, a place you can go to really escape from everything. The crew is led by his cousin, who our narrator once abandoned in a cave when they were both children. In prison, a convict begins to write a story, trying desperately to impress the pretty young writing instructor he’s falling in love with. Which one of these stories is real, which one is true? Better not to try to figure it out, but just to go along for the ride – and what a ride it is.

I always enjoy stories with unreliable narrators, and this one has two, which is pretty terrific. The story in the castle is a little surreal and more than a little Gothic; the story in the prison is emotionally complex and exciting – not your usual writing-about-a-writer scenario. And I loved both of them, which is unusual for me; usually in a book with two parallel narratives I strongly prefer one or the other. Jennifer Egan is a strong, compelling writer, and I look forward to exploring more of her books. I’d recommend this to fans of Claire Messud and Haruki Murakami.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Book – Onyesonwu is a child of rape, a child of war. Her mother named her “Who fears death?” because after being attacked and impregnated, she didn’t any more. Onyesonwu is Ewu, the light-skinned offspring of a dark Okeke woman and a pale Nuru man, and she encounters disrespect and fear wherever she goes. But she’s also a sorcerer, thanks to her mother’s fervent prayers, and the older she grows, the more powerful her sorcery becomes. And then she learns of a prophecy, about someone who will turn the whole order of the world upside down…

It took me a little while to get into this book, because it’s got some pretty rough going – Onyesonwu’s mother’s rape; the genocide of the Okeke by the Nuru; and Onye’s Eleventh Year Rite, with an explicit description of female genital mutilation, all feature heavily in the first hundred or so pages. But Onye is such a strong character, so full of promise and determination, that I had to see where she was going to go. Your reward for making it through the brutality of her early years, like hers, is an amazing story of love, female friendship, solidarity, and the pursuit of justice. Onyesonwu isn’t perfect – she frequently loses her temper, and sometimes does irreversible things as a result – but she loves life and she loves her people and her world, and is determined to make all of them better. By the end of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Book – Nancy’s parents don’t know what to do with her. She’s changed – she won’t wear colors any more, only shades of black and white; she doesn’t eat much, and sometimes, when no one’s looking, she goes very, very still. So they send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they hope she will become more like her old self. But Nancy’s parents don’t know what Eleanor West’s real business is. She counsels children who, like her, like Alice and Dorothy and the Pevensies, once stepped through a doorway into another world. And then they came home, to a world much less interesting than the one they’d visited (a different world for almost everyone), and more than anything they long to go back.

This briskly-paced little novella is an idea wrapped in a murder mystery: what would that kind of adventure, the portal-fantasy adventures that so many of us grew up on and dreamed about, really do to a person? What would they be like when they came back? The mystery is just something to keep things moving along, to give us an excuse to hear about all these kids (many of them teenagers, but some younger) and the worlds they visited. Anyone who’s ever dreamed about falling into a fantasy world will relish this story (and its sequel, due out in June).

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

30689335Book – Lane Roanoke only lived in Roanoke House, a sprawling Kansas estate, for one summer, but it’s shaped her entire life. Her mother ran away from there, and her cousin Allegra refused to leave. Allegra was who was the one who told Lane, “Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.” When Allegra goes missing, eleven years later, Lane forgets the promise she made to herself to never go back and goes to look for Allegra, and hopefully to lay to rest some of her own ghosts.

I love a good Gothic novel, and this has all the elements: an isolated house too weird for its own good, terrible family secrets, codependency, hidden messages. Lane is a fascinating character in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Libby Day: broken by the secrets she’s had to keep, but unable to fully break free of them. The difference between a traditional Gothic novel and a modern one is that the unthinkable comes much more easily to mind nowadays; it’s pretty clear early on what’s been going on in Roanoke House, and the tension is in waiting for Lane to come to terms with it and, finally do something about it. This book doesn’t quite have the sharp edges I was expecting it to, but it was so compelling that I read it all in a day.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

indexBook – Miranda is a troubled young woman; she has pica, the compulsion to eat things that are not food, and rejects her pastry-chef father’s attempts to get her to eat normally. Her mother, a photographer, died while on a trip to Haiti, and Miri hasn’t been the same since. Her twin brother wants to help but doesn’t know how, especially when she’s accepted to Cambridge and he’s not. The house they live in, their great-grandmother’s house, wants to keep Miranda at any cost, which is not the same as protecting her. When Miranda brings home her Black girlfriend from college, the thin barrier separating the reality of the house from the reality of the rest of their lives starts to slip.

Although this was a short book, it took me a while to read; there’s a lot to digest (pardon the pun). It has a lot to say about the prejudices we inherit, and how hard it is to shed them; and the things we’ll do to keep ourselves in (what we perceive to be) safety. Try this if you like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, another story about insane houses and troubled women.

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

20821288Book – Lizzie lives alone with her invalid sister Emma in Maplecroft, a big old house in Fall River, Massachusetts. Everybody knows what she did. (You know what she did.) But what they don’t know is the reason why, the thing that keeps Lizzie up at nights, the thing that her sister writes to a scholar at Arkham University about, the thing that they don’t know about because Lizzie has been protecting them: There are monsters coming up out of the sea. And there is, so far as she can tell, very little that can stop them.

Fortunately, Lizzie is still very good with an axe.

This is a tremendous mashup of the real-life Lizzie Borden and the Lovecraftian mythos, and Priest doesn’t stint on either the historical flourishes (from Emma’s illness to the precarious social position that puts the two spinster sisters in) or the horror (lots of creepy-crawlies, monstrous fish-people, and the slow corruption of intellectuals studying things that Man Was Not Meant To Know). While this novel has its scares, it’s also got an action-movie quality about it. Or maybe it’s just so darn fun to imagine Lizzie Borden sinking her infamous axe into a Lovecraftian fish-monster. You have to admit, that’s a great image, and it happens plenty in this book.

Maplecroft has a sequel, Chapelwood, about a Lovecraftian cult in the rural Deep South. Or, if you prefer modern horror, try Priest’s new standalone horror novel, The Family Plot, about a salvage crew that runs afoul of an old ghost.