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.

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.

Hater by David Moody

haterBook – David Moody’s Hater isn’t really a zombie novel, but it’s got a lot of similar trappings: friends and strangers turning on one another, individual survival becoming much more important than the trappings of modern life. It’s firmly in the “survival horror” genre, of which zombie novels are only the most popular form. The point of a survival horror story has nothing to do with what the monster is or why it’s dangerous, only whether or not the main characters are going to survive.

Moody’s concept is original and interesting. Instead of turning into zombies, people just become murderously violent, for no reason at all. We eventually find out that the “Haters,” as they’ve been dubbed by the media, aren’t driven by hate at all but by fear – a sudden, crippling fear that they’re going to be attacked and they have to defend themselves first. “Haters” can’t deal with normal people, but when they get into a group of their own they’re perfectly fine, because they know they’re among their own kind. It makes more sense than zombies, to be perfectly honest, and has the added benefit that the Haters are intelligent and can be interesting point of view characters.

I can’t uncritically recommend Hater. I thought the writing was stilted and the characters predictable. If you are looking for something to indulge a survival horror buzz, though – for instance, if you’re going into withdrawl from The Walking DeadHater will keep it going for you.

Mushi-shi (2005)

mu2TV Series – Ginko is a mushi-shi, a scholar of those invisible, mysterious creatures called mushi which sometimes, through no fault of their own, cause serious problems for the humans and animals with which they interact. Each episode of the show follows Ginko’s attempts to resolve a particular situation caused by mushi, from the family who cannot leave a bamboo forest no matter how hard they try to the boy whose drawings come to life but only if he draws with his left hand. Because Ginko himself attracts mushi, he can’t stay in one place for too long, so he wanders from one place to another, helping others with their problems while he attempts to understand the creatures that cause so much trouble.

Mushi-shi is a faithful adaptation of the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, originally published in Japan from 1999-2008. It’s absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous animation reminiscent of both Studio Ghibli films and the watercolor paintings used for the book covers. The stories are similarly haunting, emotional pieces very like ghost stories in most cases. Since there’s no overarching plot, they’re great to watch one at a time and savor.

Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

raisingBook – Stony Mayhall isn’t like other kids. His skin is cold and grey. He doesn’t hurt when he’s injured. Oh, and he’s been dead since he was born. On a cold night not long after the zombie uprising. Wanda Mayhall found the body of a young mother by the side of the road, but the baby in her arms reached out when Wanda came close, so she brought it home and raised it as her own. No one knows why Stony grew up, even though he was a zombie, but they know they have to keep him a secret.

Unlike most zombie stories, Raising Stony Mayhall isn’t really a horror novel: it’s a story about family, and finding out who you are. Stony grows up in isolation, but his discovery that there are other living dead folks walking around brings his life into a new perspective. The point isn’t to scare you but to make you think. Daryl Gregory calls the genre he writes in “anti-horror,” a story that starts out seeming like horror but which turns into something much more positive. Even if you’re sick to death of zombie stories, give this one a try: it’s not at all what you’ve become used to.

Virtual Unreality by Charles Seife

virtualBook – The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.

While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.