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.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Book – It is 1888, a hot, murderous summer in London, and Doctor Thomas Bond is assisting the police in their investigations. Inspector Abberline leads the investigation into Jack the Ripper, cutting up prostitutes in Whitechapel, but Dr. Bond is more concerned with another killer, more fastidious, whose victims they pull out of the river in pieces. His anxiety high, Dr. Bond turns to opium to calm his mind, but in the opium dens he meets a foreign priest and a Polish madman, who convince him that the monster stalking London is not entirely human after all.

There are probably dozens of novels about Jack the Ripper being a man possessed by a demon; this is the first I’ve seen where Jack is a footnote to a different monster. (The Thames Torso Killer was real, and really was active at the same time as Jack the Ripper, but for whatever reason he never became as famous.) Dr. Bond is a terrific character, too; wracked by anxiety and drug addiction, he never entirely believes in the supernatural thing that his companions warn him about, but he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to stop the killing. Fans of Hannibal and Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard series will love this book and its sequel, Murder.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Book – My favorite kinds of mysteries are the ones that play games with your expectations – things like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so I was intrigued by the description of Anthony Horowitz’s new novel. It’s a murder mystery inside a murder mystery: Alan Conway, author of the bestselling Atticus Pünd series of whodunnits, committed suicide just after turning in his latest manuscript. Except that the manuscript is missing the last chapter, and Susan Ryeland, one of his editors, thinks he didn’t commit suicide at all. The first half of the book is Magpie Murders, the final Atticus Pünd novel; the second half is Susan’s investigation into Conway’s death. (Don’t worry; you do get to read the final chapter in the end.)

Horowitz is a bestselling author and screenwriter in the UK – he’s a co-creater of the longrunning TV show Midsomer Murders – but despite his two excellent Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s not as well known here. He does a terrific job with both mysteries in Magpie Murders, Pünd’s classic whodunnit set in the 1950s and Susan’s modern, genre-savvy investigation in the modern day. Readers who love the puzzle aspect of mysteries but who are turned off by the violence and heavy reliance on forensics in modern thrillers will love this unique novel.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Book – I frequently tell people that some of the best science fiction and fantasy is happening in short stories. It seems counter-intuitive that you could squeeze a satisfying world and characters both out of a couple dozen pages, especially when it’s so hard to find a novel that isn’t part of a series, but there’s something about the short format that really packs a hefty punch. Kij Johnson is an excellent example: her stories are complex, rich, and deep, set in spectacular worlds ranging from just different enough from ours to be intriguing to so different they should be hard to imagine (although she makes it easy). And they’ve won three Nebula awards, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees circle around themes of grief, loss, rebuilding, and the power of story itself to help us through these. In “The Horse Raiders,” a young woman is the only survivor of an attack that wipes out her clan, only to discover that a plague is wiping out their entire planet’s way of life. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” women captives on an imperial spaceship tell the stories of how their ancestors stayed alive. And in the title story, a road trip leads to an unexpected pilgrimage and an even more unexpected chance for grace on behalf of a woman’s dying dog. The characters in these stories are angry, they’re hurt, they lash out and they make mistakes, but they also pull themselves together and carry on.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Book One by Emil Ferris

Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.

This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Book – Simon Newman has a very niche career – it’s the mid-2000s, and he and his best friend run a website of dark and creepy content. Desperate to attract subscribers for “Journey to the Darkside,” he hires a guide to take him through Cwm Pot, a notorious cave system in Wales where three cavers died in a flood. Simon escapes with his life, if barely; his guide does not.

But one success isn’t enough on the Internet, and the next one has to be bigger and even more dangerous, so Simon signs on to an Everest expedition, hoping to catch some footage of the climbers whose bodies have to be abandoned above 8,000 feet, where it’s too dangerous to try to bring them down. He learns the story of Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was trying to become the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, but perished on the mountain. And in her diary, he finds an eerily familiar story. It seems Juliet was haunted by a lost adventuring partner, just as Simon is. But were they haunted only by memories and regrets, or is there something else out there on the mountain with them?

Sarah Lotz has become my go-to writer for psychological horror: she excels at the kind of atmospheric tension-building that I love. The White Road isn’t seat-of-your-pants scary, but it provides the kind of ambiguous, worrying feeling that I enjoyed so much in, for example, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Once you’ve read this, pick up Into Thin Air to see just how real Lotz’s depiction of death on the world’s highest mountain can be.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Book – Greta is one of the Children of Peace, hostages of the world’s leaders who live in the Precepture in Saskatchewan. If their country goes to war, they die. It’s one of the rules of Talis, the AI who rules the world – war should be personal, and the people declaring war should have to suffer for it. Talis’s scheme works to keep wars rare, but in a world where water grows scarcer by the day, Greta knows that, sooner or later, her mother’s kingdom will go to war to defend Lake Huron, and she is going to die. The arrival of Elián, the hostage from the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance, shakes both the calm society of the Precepture and Greta’s perception of the world – and her willingness to go peacefully to her doom.

There are a lot of ideas in this book: AI threat, water wars, population devastation, extreme solutions to the age-old problem of war. And they’re all secondary to Greta, who is an amazing character, someone who’s walked blindly for most of her life through a horrible, unfair, heartless system that she grows to believe is not the inevitable way the world has to work. It’s gorgeously written (the last couple of chapters in particular) and the characterization is impeccable. This was an incredible book – heartbreaking and brutal, not gratuitously, but as much as it needed to be. Although technically YA, anyone who loves science fiction or dystopian fiction should love this.

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.