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.

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

weightBook - Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.

It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

princesBook – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.

This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.

I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's DragonBook – Capt. Will Lawrence of His Majesty’s Navy is very happy with his career. When he captures a French corvette transporting a rare and precious dragon’s egg, he takes responsibility for the egg, which means being there for its hatching. Unfortunately, the little creature – who he christens Temeraire, after the ship – has taken a liking to him, and that means that Capt. Lawrence is going to have to leave the Navy and enter His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, to fight Napoleon from the back of his very own dragon.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think that the Aubrey/Maturin series is great but would be even better with dragons, and people who think the first type are crazy. If you’re the first type, this series is for you. While the first book is a fairly straightforward adventure, later books explore more parts of the world and how the presence of dragons changes them from what you’d expect. As Temeraire (and Will) learn more about how the rest of the world does things, they begin to seriously question the society in which they live.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether RevivalsBook – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.

This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea ChangeBook – For the past several years I’ve been attending the awards ceremony for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Sometimes I’m already familiar with the winner, but usually I get a list of great new books to read. This year the only one of the nominees I’ve already read is Sea Change, a fairytale by S.M. Wheeler about a girl and her octopus.
Lilly lives a sad and miserable life as the only child of parents who hate each other, perched in their castle by the sea. Her best friend is Octavius, a kraken; the two of them talk about friendship and morality. Then one day Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and Lilly sets out on a quest to rescue him.
This is an incredibly poetic book, written more for the beautiful language and the sense of a fairy-tale than for ease of reading. Lilly’s story is a hard one, but the way she perseveres and changes is inspiring. I’d recommend it for fans of Caitlín R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great WatersBook – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.

This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.

Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

last busBook – Two girls are waiting for a bus but, impatient, they decide to hitch a lift instead. Later that night one of them is found murdered outside a pub. Enter Detective Inspector Morse, unhappily middle-aged, cranky, romantic, and (as his supervisor will say in a later novel), entirely too clever for his own good. No one is telling the whole truth, and Morse runs himself in circles second- and third- and fourth-guessing everyone’s motives in an attempt to find out what really happened that night on the way to Woodstock.

Last Bus to Woodstock shows its age in a lot of ways, not least the extremely dated attitudes toward sex and rape that nearly all the characters express, but it’s still a good, solid mystery with an engaging detective. I particularly liked the way Morse keeps getting things wrong: he makes lots of wild guesses and assumptions and follows lots of trails that lead only to dead ends before finally (of course) hitting upon the solution.

Written from the mid seventies through the late nineties, Colin Dexter’s popular Inspector Morse series was also made into a TV show that continues to be popular on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, and has spawned two spinoff shows of its own.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's DisgraceBook – Divorce in England became available to the middle class for the first time in 1858, and one of the first cases was that of Robinson v. Robinson & Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife’s diary while she was ill, and discovered it full of stories about her passionate love affair with a handsome young doctor. He sued for divorce as soon as he was able. Isabella Robinson’s defense argued that the diary was a work of fantasy and none of the affairs had actually happened. The court took three months to reach a verdict, and meanwhile the case became a sensation. Excerpts of Mrs. Robinson’s diary were printed in the papers – a lucky stroke for historian Kate Summerscale, as the actual diary has vanished.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace immerses you in the world of a middle-class Victorian housewife who desperately longs for something more in her life. The book reads almost like a novel, following first the events of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then those of the trial, while also describing the surrounding world – the mania for diary-writing, the salaciousness of the press, the nervousness about the new divorce courts. For those who want more of the same, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter is a fictional tale of Victorian divorce which references the Robinson case.

Hannibal (2013)

HannibalSeason1_DVD_CoverArt_small1TV Show – Before he was a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist.

Actually, that’s not quite right. He’s already a serial killer, it’s just that nobody knows it yet. Not even FBI profiler Will Graham, who’s being treated by Dr. Lecter for the depression and instability he suffers as a result of his work with deranged minds. Graham is obsessed by the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who’s been taunting him for some time but continues to escape his grasp.

While it’s based on characters from the books by Thomas Harris, Hannibal is set before any of those books take place. It’s a gruesome show, definitely not for everyone – even I, a veteran Criminal Minds fan, have to look away from some of the murder scenes. But there’s a grim kind of humor to the show, too, courtesy of producer and writer Brian Fuller, creator of such whimsical series as Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. If you enjoy serious psychological drama (and cannibal puns) you should love Hannibal.

Season two of Hannibal premieres tonight on NBC at 9pm.

Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

stories of your lifeBook – I don’t make a lot of universal recommendations, but I’ll make one now: if you like science fiction, read Ted Chiang. Short stories can be a difficult form for SF, because SF is all about ideas, and how many ideas can you cram into ten pages? The answer appears to be a lot, if you’re good enough. And Chiang is really good. In twenty-four years he’s produced only fourteen stories, but each one of those is a polished gem.

“Tower of Babylon” follows one man’s ascent through the celestial spheres and into heaven. The multiple-award-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” describes a universe where miracles, angelic visitations, and proof of hell are daily occurrences. “Seventy-Two Letters” combines science, biology, and the legend of the golem in unexpected ways. Each single story is incredible, and incredibly different from the others. And lucky for us, Chiang has continued writing since the publication of his only collection to date. The Lifecycle of Software Objects won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010, and his latest story, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” is available online from Subterranean Press.