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 Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

fifth seasonBook – The world is coming to an end but Essun’s world ended three days ago, when she came home to find that her husband had beaten their three-year-old son to death when he discovered the boy was an orogene, one who has a supernatural power over the shaking of the earth. An orogene girl is picked up by a Guardian to be taken somewhere she can learn to use her powers, rather than be lynched by her community. Syenite, a young trained orogene, travels to a coastal city to fulfill more than one assignment given to her by her mysterious handlers. These three stories converge in fascinating and unexpected ways through N.K. Jemisin’s new series debut, The Fifth Season.

Some people might be put off by Essun’s part of the story, which is told in second person, the narrator speaking to “you” who is also Essun. I’ve definitely read poorly done second-person stories, but this is not one of them: in Jemisin’s careful hands, these sections are full of raw, immediate emotion. After a couple of pages I forgot about the pronouns and fell into Essun’s life and world completely.

This is a rough book, to be sure. All of the main characters are of a despised magic-using minority, and Jemisin writes painfully well about the bigotry and oppression they suffer. But they’re all strong, powerful, compelling characters, and to watch them refuse to be cowed by the experience is wonderful. It also features some of the best fantasy worldbuilding I’ve ever seen, with a fully-developed world with thousands of years of history so very different from our own but so believable as well. Jemisin’s already racked up a number of awards for her Dreamblood and Inheritance series, and she’s bound to pick up some more for this one.

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch

becoming shakespeareBook – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?

I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.

This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Naming Nature by Carol K. Yoon

naming natureBook – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.

Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book – It’s 2026, and one hundred scientists have launched in the Ares to become the first Martian colony. They have plenty of challenges to overcome – the extreme cold and unbreathable air, the time lag in communicating with home, the need to extract water from the local environment, the radiation they’ll be exposed to through Mars’s thin atmosphere. And, of course, each other. Red Marsthe first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, follows the colonists through the first thirty-five years of colonization, from the launch and early terraforming through the growing influence of Earth politics and corporations on their new world.

I found the details of the mission interesting, but I was really fascinated by the wonderful characters and all their different points of view. Maya, Frank, and John are in a complicated love triangle; Nadia finds Maya ridiculous but loves her work; Arkady’s on a mission to reform the political structure of the world; Sax is on a mission to reform the biology of Mars. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, so things that seemed reasonable from one angle seem crazy from another, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

summer pBook – June Costa is the best artist in Palmares Tres. At least, if she isn’t yet, she’s going to be soon. She and her best friend Gil are wakas – under 30 years old, and therefore almost completely powerless in a society of people who regularly live to two hundred years old and more. And it’s an important year for wakas, because it’s the time in the five-year political cycle when the Summer King is elected. For a year he’ll serve at the side of the Queen, and at the end of his term he’ll die, choosing the new Queen with his last breath. Of course, the game is rigged – it’s not time for a new Queen, so he’ll get to choose from only one candidate. The favorite for the Summer King this year is Enki, a beautiful boy from the lowest strata of Palmares society, and between the three of them, he, June, and Gil will change the world.

I loved all the wonderful science-fictional aspects of this book, from the huge floating cities to the elaborate gene therapies and the biotechnology that gives June so many of the opportunities for her art. I also liked that although it was set far in the future and the culture has changed a lot, there’s still a strong connection with history – June’s father, for instance, was an aficionado of 20th century music. There is the usual YA love triangle, but it’s much less important in this book than in many others. I read this in about a day and a half and I’d strongly recommend it to any science fiction fan.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers

murder mustBook – Lord Peter Wimsey, the famous amateur detective, will do just about anything in the pursuit of an interesting case. This time, he’s gone incognito to take a job at an advertising agency where, several weeks ago, one of the employees had a suspiciously convenient accident on the spiral staircase. He flings himself into the work with gusto – both the investigation, and the writing of advertising copy, at which he proves surprisingly adept.

This is the eighth book starring Lord Peter Wimsey, but it really doesn’t matter; it’s one of the ones you could read in any order. Dorothy Sayers first created Lord Peter in Whose Body? in 1923, where he appears as the usual kind of Golden Age detective, a younger son of the nobility with a useful servant and an unusual hobby. He stands out from the Hercule Poirots and Roderick Alleyns of the genre, though, as he develops in psychological complexity throughout the series. We learn about his shell shock from the War, his reluctance to turn over criminals to the law when it will mean their deaths, and his sensitivity to the double standards faced by women of his era.

Murder Must Advertise is one of my favorites of the series, although I admit it’s probably not the best one – but it’s just so much fun. It’s a delightful peek into the preMad Men era of advertising, which Lord Peter is learning along with the reader. There’s also a wonderful cricket game toward the end of the book. I’ve read it five times now and I still don’t understand cricket, but everyone’s having a marvelous time.

The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza

atheniBook – In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of Plato’s Academy is found dead. His teacher Diagoras is convinced the pupil’s death is not as accidental as it appears, and asks the famous Heracles Pontor, the “Decipherer of Enigmas,” to investigate. As the death toll rises, the two men find themselves drawn into the dangerous underworld of the Athenian aristocracy, risking their own lives to solve the riddle of these young men’s deaths.

The Athenian Murders is more a game than a novel. It’s a novel, too – if it weren’t it would be intolerably tedious, like the Greek fiction it’s pretending to be – but the point of it is the game, not the fiction. While Heracles Pontor and his employer are getting into trouble with the Academy and the families of the murdered youths and eventually a rather ominous cult, the really interesting stuff is happening in the footnotes. You see, the novel we are reading is being translated by an unnamed Translator from a transcription by an earlier scholar. And the Translator is sure that this is an eidetic text, in which the original author has hidden images that combine to form a second, hidden meaning. His colleagues tell him he’s going crazy with this obsession, and he starts to believe them – until he’s kidnapped and forced to finish translating both the manuscript and the eidesis.

To tell any more would be to give away the twist, and to do that would be to spoil the whole book. Just know that the mystery, while serviceable, is not really the point here. If you’re as intrigued by the sound of eidesis and mysterious translators as I was, though, give it a try – this is a book that rewards intellectual curiosity.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

madnessBook – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.

This a was fun, funny, casual read.  And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)

Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.

The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

barterBook – Bridget used to work as a lawyer; now she stays at home with baby Julia while her computer-programmer husband Mark supports their little family. Bridget and Julia aren’t alone in the house while he’s gone, though. There’s a shadowy figure, a ghost that creeps through the rooms. Mark can’t see the ghost, but Bridget is all too sure it’s real.

A hundred years ago, Rebecca is the daughter of a doctor, and although she’s unsure she chooses to marry a farmer, an old friend, and become a farm wife. She struggles with her new life and fights with her husband almost constantly. Their life together may be interesting, but it’s anything but happy.

While alternating between the stories of Bridget and Rebecca gives some hints about the nature of the ghost that haunts Bridget, it remains a little unclear just what the connection between the two women really is. I found I enjoyed that; I like a little mystery with my scariness. I also liked that neither of the two main characters were really, well, nice. Rebecca is profoundly selfish, while Bridget can’t stop herself from looking down on her friends. That doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable, though – Bridget’s devotion to her daughter is extremely moving, and Rebecca is caught in an impossible situation that’s hard not to empathize with. I was enthralled by both of their stories, and I only wish I could have learned a little bit more about them.