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.

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Book – The night her father died, Alice Kingston was attacked by a Nightmare from another world. A year later she’s almost done with her training as a Dreamwalker, someone who stops the Nightmares from coming into our world where they grow even more powerful and dangerous. But Alice isn’t sure she wants to be a Dreamwalker. Sure, it’s great having superpowers and getting to fight monsters with magical weapons, and her mentor Hatta is gorgeous and wonderful, but it’s dangerous work. A girl was killed by police at a high school football game, and ever since Alice’s mom has gotten more and more protective. The choice might be taken away from her, though, when a mysterious knight appears and attacks Alice and Hatta, and may have designs on the whole of reality.

A combination of Alice in Wonderland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and #BlackGirlMagic, this was by far the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages. Alice is a delight, and it’s great to see Black girls get to be heroes in urban fantasy. I’m not a huge Alice in Wonderland fan, but I loved the way A Blade So Black takes elements from that story – the Red and White Queens, the vorpal blade, Hatta as the Mad Hatter – and incorporates them into a fresh new fantasy. My one complaint is that this is the first book in a series, and now I’m gonna have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next!

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Book – Helen Franklin is not happy with her life. She’s worked hard not to be; she is atoning. An English expatriate, she works as a translator in Prague and has only a few friends. When one of them is given a mysterious package of documents by an elderly man working on his memoirs, he spirals into paranoia and fear, dragging Helen with him. Who is this person Melmoth who appears in so many historical writings? Is she a myth or a bogeyman, or is she truly the witness to all humanity’s wrongs, Helen’s included?

I first read Melmoth the Wanderer, the 19th century gothic novel that served as the inspiration for Perry’s new one, on the sunny patio outside my college library, so I was primed to love this book. This is a lovely modernized echo of the original story. In this version, Melmoth is a woman, a lonely creature who longs for someone as broken as she is to keep her company. Told in the fine gothic style of nested narratives – one character reading a story written by another character, which contains a story told to them by a third party – we meet a variety of Melmoth’s potential companions throughout history, from a sixteenth-century nobleman to a young German boy in Nazi-occupied Prague, to Helen’s own tragic history.

Although the story is all about guilt and atonement, and whether or not some things can be atoned for, it’s not as bleak as that makes it sound. There is also a great deal of compassionate humanity and people being better in spite of themselves. I’m happy to report that I loved this book exactly as much as I expected to, and I’m looking forward to whatever Sarah Perry brings us next.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

Book – If you’re too busy during the holidays to read a whole book, why not a short story or two? This tiny volume of five stories by Helene Tursten, author of the Detective Inspector Irene Huss mysteries, chronicles the trials and tribulations of an 88-year-old Swedish woman called Maud. She has no remaining family and no close friends, but she lives in her father’s old apartment rent-free and has the money to travel, so she’s quite content with her life. The one thing she can’t tolerate is other people infringing upon her settled existence, and when they do, she takes steps to stop them. Murderous steps.

There’s a certain perverse joy in watching someone get away with murder because everyone assumes that they couldn’t possibly be dangerous. Doubly so when the victims are so obnoxious. Haven’t we all wished we could come up with a permanent solution to a loud, angry, abusive neighbor? Of course, most of us aren’t as clever as Maud. Save yourself the trouble and enjoy her solutions vicariously instead.

The Exorcist: Season 1 (2016)

TV Series – Father Thomas Ortega is an up-and-coming young priest in Chicago, rebuilding his long-neglected parish and working with the bishop and a local fundraising committee to organize the Pope’s visit to the Windy City. His neat professional trajectory is interrupted when Angela Rance, one of his parishioners, comes to him with a request: her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants him to do an exorcism. Rebuffed by the bishop, Ortega turns to Father Marcus Keane, a renowned exorcist who Ortega has never heard of — until the fellow priest appeared in his dreams. Meanwhile, Angela struggles to keep her family together as the demon’s power over her daughter grows more malevolent by the day.

I’m not usually a huge fan of religious horror, and I didn’t much care for the original Exorcist – I just don’t find it all that scary. But while the TV series has just as many jump scares and gross-outs as the movie, with a whole season it has time to do some more interesting things, too. The Rance family dynamics are fascinating, even before the demon shows up, and Father Thomas and Father Marcus are polar opposites in the classic tradition of buddy-cop dramas. There’s conspiracy and ominous foreshadowing; there’s tension over what it means to be a priest; there’s discussion of Gnostic heresies and the dangerous influences of Ouija boards. Most interesting, though, is the portrayal of demonic possession from the point of view of the girl being possessed, letting you see both the power it offers her and the subtle ways it makes her suffer. I really didn’t think you could make a feminist version of The Exorcist, but I think this show has pulled it off.

Warrenville Library’s 18,000-piece Puzzle Masterpiece

How does an everyday pastime turn into a work of art? When an 18,000-piece puzzle is completed by a few dozen community members then hung for all to admire.

What started as a playful addition to the Library’s jigsaw puzzle table soon became a challenge for our community’s puzzle enthusiasts. During National Library Week in April, the first quadrant of the Ravensburger Magical Bookcase puzzle was launched. Our regular puzzle people tackled the first section with gusto, taking on both the puzzle and the logistics of expanding and organizing the work space so multiple people could work on different areas of the puzzle at the same time. Word spread about the wonders of this puzzle with its wacky and inspiring book titles. The first 4,500-piece section was finished in early May well before anyone anticipated.

Once Magical Bookcase followers learned of plans to display all four quadrants of the puzzle in the Library, they became inspired to work more quickly so they could see the finished product. Frequent puzzlers invited their family and friends to participate. Before we knew it, August was coming to a close and the final piece of the puzzle was put in place.

In September the Library hosted “The Big Reveal,” an event to unveil and celebrate the completed puzzle. Regular puzzlers shared stories of putting the puzzle together—the intricate details, difficulties, favorite parts and quirky book titles. One even commented that “working on the puzzle allowed me to learn all the different services the library offers from what I observed sitting near the info desk.”

The finished puzzle is a source of amazement and amusement. Measuring 6’ x 9’, you have to see it to believe it. And guess what? It’s really a 17,999 piece masterpiece. The next time you visit Warrenville, we challenge you to show us where the missing piece belongs.

The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonja Renee Taylor

Book – It’s rough living in this world with a body. It seems like there’s always someone to tell you that you’re doing it wrong – your body is too big, too small, too brown, too different, too much. And a lot of advice for dealing with this becomes yet another burden to carry: you must love your body, or you’re letting down the side. You must be beautiful in your own mind, or you are giving in. Sonja Renee Taylor offers a refreshingly different set of strategies, a series of questions and suggestions to put all those demands in context. Who is asking this of you? What do they gain by asking you to do this work? And how can you love yourself – not just your body, but your whole self – in spite of it all?

I’m very picky about self-help books. I’m not interested in anything that suggests there is one simple solution to a large and complex problem (which is, of course, what most self-help books are trying to sell). Taylor does offer just one solution, but it’s far from a simple one – learn how to love yourself in defiance of everything in the world that tells you that you are unlovable. She offers a range of tools for beginning that work, but never suggests that she has the only answers, only that she has answers that have worked for her and for others in the past. There’s a lot to digest in this short book – less than 120 pages – but it’s all very, very worthwhile.

Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck

Book – A call center routes calls to the afterlife. A bereaved daughter writes to her recently deceased father about her missing mother. A girl puts on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappears into the mountain. A society of symbiotes living and working inside their mother begins to crumble. Told in beautiful, spare prose, Jagannath is a remarkable collection of short stories from Swedish writer Karen Tidbeck.

Tidbeck translates her own work, and there’s a lovely essay in the back of the book about how the process of composition and translation differs between languages. But if you didn’t know these were translations, you’d never guess. The pictures these stories draw are so vivid, so crisp and clear, you feel you could walk right into them – even the strangest of stories, like those about the ever-increasing aunts who grow their successors inside their own hearts. If you’re only familiar with Nordic literature from the dark thrillers that have become so popular in recent years, give this collection a try.

The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward

Book – The Villarcas are tied to Rawblood, their estate in the Devon countryside. If they stay away from it too long, they sicken and die. But if they stay home, they are tormented by her, a curse of the Villarca bloodline, the ghost of a tortured young woman who tortures the residents of Rawblood in turn. At the turn of the twentieth century, young Iris Villarca is determined to find a way out from under the curse. Decades earlier, her father does his best to push his lover away to keep them both safe. In Italy, Iris’s grandmother finds herself strangely drawn to – and repulsed by – a Spanish expatriate. In the end, the curse ties them all together.

The Girl from Rawblood is a classically Gothic novel with all the trimmings: a huge empty house, a ghost, a family curse, a series of mysterious and unread letters. (And, unfortunately, quite a lot of that peculiarly English racism against European foreigners.) Pulling the Gothic all the way into 1918 is a particularly nice touch: while I liked the history of the family, Iris’s story, wrapped up in World War I, was by far the most fascinating. If you like your ghost stories equal parts frightening and heartbreaking, this is the book for you.

Legion (2017)

TV Series – David Haller knows what his problem is. He has schizophrenia. He’s doing much better in the institution, but it’s a pretty boring life, until Sydney shows up. She doesn’t like to be touched, doesn’t like people getting to close to her at all. Soon she and David fall in love. But on the day Sydney leaves the institution, something explosive and incomprehensible happens — something that makes it clear that David’s problem isn’t schizophrenia, it’s that he’s a mutant with superpowers, and he’s going to have to learn to control them before someone else does it for him.

Legion is a terrifically artistic TV show based on a character from the X-Men comics. While it’s produced by Marvel Studios and connected to the current X-Men movie franchise, you don’t have to have seen anything else to understand it — the characters are probably more confused than you are. The first couple of episodes use a very non-linear structure to put you in David’s head: it takes a long time to figure out when now is and exactly what that means. But it’s a terrific ride getting there, and unlike some shows that pay more attention to their aesthetics than their story, it’s never frustrating or too hard to follow. Legion packs a lot of story into an eight-episode season, and it’s tremendously binge-worthy.

Season Two of Legion just finished airing on FX this summer, and the show has already been renewed for a third season.

Craeft by Alexander Langlands

Book – Before the modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, before mass production and manufacturing, most everything humans did was a matter of craft (or, to use the archaic spelling, Craeft) – a combination of skill, thriftiness, ingenuity, and necessity. In this book, Alexander Langlands explores some of the components of craeft from historic England, reflecting on the skills and resources involved and the way all the various components of the landscape interact with one another.

Langlands had my dream job: he was an experimental archaeologist, using the tools and techniques of history to better understand the way the past worked. He was clearly in this job by temperament as much as anything, because throughout this book he displays a remarkable curiosity about not just the individual components of historic life but the whole system of the thing: the way one skill led into another, one craft creating byproducts that in turn become the core structural elements of another. He calls this kind of systemic, interdependent thinking “craeftiness,” a mode of relating to the world that abhors waste the way nature abhors a vacuum, finding a clever, economical use for every scrap, and making every expenditure of energy do at least two jobs.

This isn’t your ordinary history book; in fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything to compare it to. It’s deeply personal, each chapter (focusing on a different craft, from haymaking to basket-weaving to wall and barrow building) exploring Langlands’ own experience with the skill as well as his archaeological knowledge of its history. It’s profoundly location-based, as suits a book about the way pre-industrial people lived. And, crucially, it’s not nostalgic or romanticizing of the past: Langlands is well aware of how hard all this work is, having done much of it himself, albeit without life-or-death consequences. What he’s explaining is not just these individual skills that have been lost in the wake of cheap petroleum-based energy, but a way of thinking that was lost along with them, one which might become necessary in the near future, as petroleum-based energy becomes not so cheap.