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.

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

MV5BNjQ3ODAzMzM1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjc2OTcyMjE@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Movie – Johnny Blake is a tough cop – so tough he got kicked off the force. Which only delights the local gangsters, since Blake had been a thorn in their side for years. And then a local crime boss gets a bright idea and hires Blake on to help him develop novel ways of expanding his criminal enterprise, much to the distaste of his lieutenant Bugs Fenner, who isn’t convinced that Blake has left the side of the law at all.

This is a terrific example of Warner Brothers’ premiere blockbuster genre of the 1930s, the gangster flick. The plot, based on the career of real-life detective John Broderick, is fine, but the cast is outstanding: Edward G. Robinson as a good guy for once, a terribly young Humphrey Bogart in one of his nastier roles, Joan Blondell as your femme fatale and a full range of character actors – although for me, the highlight of the movie is Louise Beavers in a rare glamorous turn as the numbers queen of Harlem.

Like a lot of the Warner Brothers’ classic films on DVD, the disc includes the “Night at the Movies” special feature, designed to give you the full experience from the year the movie was made: a newsreel, a trailer, a cartoon, and a musical short. (If you want a double feature, though, you’ll have to load the second film yourself. I recommend Angels With Dirty Faces if you believe a night of gangster movies just isn’t complete without James Cagney, or Larceny, Inc. if you’d like a little comedy.) And don’t miss the blooper reel; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart swearing at the furniture.

Harrow County: Countless Haints by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook

indexGraphic Novel – Although she’s about to turn eighteen, Emmy hasn’t seen much of the world. She lives alone with her father on their farm somewhere in the South and dreams of seeing more – until the night of her birthday, when everyone in town turns on her, even her own father, and she’s forced to flee for her life before she even knows why, or what it is about her that the spirits in the forest gather to protect her…

This is a terrific little Southern Gothic ghost story, just eerie enough to be disturbing if read too late at night, but without the excess of gore that you see in so many horror comics. The art is beautiful, done in a soft watercolor that adds to both the comfortable mundanity of Emmy’s home and the otherworldly feel of the haints and spirits. Emmy is a great character, struggling not only with her newfound power but with what it means about her and her place in the world. Fans of Welcome to Night Vale and Penny Dreadful will enjoy this series.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

28007948Book – Arden Arrowood moved away from Keokuk, Iowa, and her eponymous family home, when she was little, shortly after her twin baby sisters disappeared. She hasn’t been back for years, but now, with a Master’s degree in history all but finished and reeling from her estranged father’s death, the lawyers have told her that the house belongs to her. Moving home is all she’s ever wanted, but when she gets there she finds it more complicated than she’d like it to be. Her best friend and first boyfriend is engaged, the estate is running out of money to keep up the old house, and a writer working on a book about her sisters’ disappearance wants to explain to her why she’s wrong about what she always said she saw that day when her sisters went missing. Arden might be home, but she’s being haunted in more ways than one.

I read and loved McHugh’s first novel, The Weight of Blood, a couple of years ago, but I was even more excited about this one given the setting – I grew up in southern Iowa, not far from Lee County, where this novel is set. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the focus on the trickiness of memory, how things can become distorted with time and repetition, and what that says about long-buried hurts. A little touch of the Gothic polished off this low-key thriller very nicely.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts by Laura Tillman

150110425X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.

This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.

But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

18782854Book – A. never knew he had an eccentric millionaire uncle in America until his uncle died, leaving him an eccentric old mansion in America — with, as Edith Wharton says, supernatural enhancements. There’s the ghost in the second-floor bathroom, of course, but she’s nothing compared to the mysterious notes and encoded messages scattered around the house, the nightmares plaguing our narrator, or the growing implication that maybe A.’s uncle didn’t commit suicide after all. The mysteries only grow deeper as A. and his friend Niamh begin to uncover the details of the secret society centered around their new home.

The Supernatural Enhancements is told in an unconventional style – letters from A. back to Europe, transcripts of audio and video recordings, and conversations from Niamh’s notepad (she’s mute). This has the potential to get confusing, but I found that the story flows pretty seamlessly for the most part (except for a few places where it’s obviously meant to be confusing). More importantly, this gives the reader the chance to figure out some of the puzzles at the same time as the characters, if you’re inclined to that sort of thing. Me, I’m happy to let the characters do the hard cryptographic work for me, but if you like puzzles and ciphers, this is a great book for you.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

0345501160.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – I swear, Daryl Gregory writes some of the most interesting, original premises I’ve ever seen. In this, his first novel, it’s possession by entities that everybody calls demons, but are clearly cultural archetypes – the Captain is Captain America, the Truth is a Dick Tracy/noir pulp hero, the Hellion is Katzenjammer Kids meets Dennis the Menace, and the Little Angel is Shirley Temple meets the World War I “Angel of the Battlefield.” And everyone in the book is smart enough to know that; I appreciate that in a story.

There’s a wonderful cast of characters in Pandemonium, from Del himself to his older brother Lew, their mother (whom they call the Cyclops since she’s missing one eye), the Irish exorcist Mother Mariette, and the entity formerly known as the author Philip K. Dick. They’re all struggling to understand this thing that’s been destroying peoples’ lives for the past fifty-odd years, but they’re all also so wrapped up in their own damages and perceptions that it’s clearly going to take them a while.

One of my favorite parts of the book were the Demonology inserts, short chapters describing possession incidents by various demons. These bits did a wonderful job fleshing out the universe of the book as well as letting you meet some demons who weren’t tremendously important to the main narrative. They also led me, subtly but ingeniously, to the climax of the book, which struck just the right balance between explaining enough to make it satisfying and not explaining so much that it seemed like all the fun was being explained away.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

indexBook – Hwa lives on an oil rig the size of a small town off the coast of Canada, where she works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers union. She’d hoped to get out – maybe back to Korea – by joining the army, but when her brother died in an explosion on the rig, her dreams got smaller. But the town’s just been bought by the unbelievably rich and innovative Lynch Ltd., and Hwa managed to catch the eye of their head of security. Now she’s the bodyguard for the youngest Lynch, a fourteen-year-old genius who’s heir to the entire company, and someone is after him. Oh, and just when she quit her old job, someone started killing her friends.

With corporate espionage, technological spirituality, and a serial killer (not to mention a pretty solid romance plotline) there’s a lot going on in this relatively small book, but it juggles everything pretty well. Hwa’s future is undeniably cyberpunk dystopia in the tradition of Blade Runner and Neuromancer, updated for today’s technology and the futures we can extrapolate from it: socially mandatory implants that require a subscription (which might break down and kill you if you stop paying). Visual glosses that allow you to simply not see anything that might distress you. A centralized security-monitoring system that tracks everything everyone does all day long — one that lets Hwa solve the murders of her friends at the same time that she resents the intrusion on her own privacy. I liked that best about this book. Ashby isn’t writing a cautionary tale about technology, she’s simply saying that this is what we might end up with, and we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it.

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

0544526708.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – Ruth and Nat are a couple of teenagers about to age out of the Love of Christ! foster home in upstate New York. Traumatized after her older sister aged out and never returned for her, Nat is the only person Ruth has left in the world. That is, until a mysterious stranger appears at the home and suggests a way out – they can exploit Nat’s purported ability to speak to the dead, and make a living for themselves.

Interwoven with this story is that of Cora, a young woman with a boring job, a new pregnancy, and a boyfriend – a married man she’s been carrying on an affair with – who wants nothing to do with a baby. Before she can decide what to do about anything, her long-lost, much-loved Aunt Ruth turns up at her house in the middle of the night, and Cora finds herself following Ruth on a shoeleather road trip, walking across the countryside to a destination Ruth won’t explain.

I picked up this book entirely based on the title – Mr. Splitfoot was the name the Fox sisters gave the spirit they claimed to be communicating with when they invented seances and Spiritualism in 1848 – and although it wasn’t the story I was expecting, I was totally blown away. Part ghost story, part mystery, partly a story about knowing who your family is and what you can rely on them for, this is going on my list of best books from 2016.

Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

indexBook – As I mentioned earlier this month, I’m fascinated by stories of wilderness adventures gone terribly, irrevocably wrong. Living in the suburbs it’s easy to forget the immensity of the natural world – and its unforgiving nature. As the authors of Over the Edge say, nature is not Disney World, and there’s no guarantee that the unprepared will make it out alive.

And not to be morbid, but this collection of stories about deaths in one of America’s most impressive natural features is fascinating stuff. While there are a fair number of suicides (although not as many as you might think), most of the deaths they talk about are the result of just that kind of lack of preparation – hikers, cavers, rafters who thought they could do more than they could, and found out too late that they were wrong. It’s a comprehensive catalog of things not to do, and anybody interested in hiking Grand Canyon probably ought to read this first, just to make sure they don’t get too cocky.

I stumbled upon this book after reading the fascinating saga of the discovery of the Death Valley Germans – a family of tourists who disappeared into the California desert in 1996, and whose remains were finally discovered by search & rescue volunteer Tom Mahood in 2010. From this and from Over the Edge, I have learned never to drive a minivan offroad in the desert, to always carry twice as much water as I think I’ll need, and also to stay far, far away from Death Valley.

Wild Ideas: Into the Wild and The Wild Truth

Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.

indexBut somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.

51hCNy79jIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.