Thyme of Death by Susan Wittig Albert; Blood Oath by Linda Fairstein; Justice in Plain Sight by Dan Bernstein

Although not by conscious choice, most of my reading lately has involved lawyers.

Susan Wittig Albert’s character, China Bayles, was an attorney for a big firm in Houston. She now owns the herb shop in the small town of Pecan Springs, Texas where she sells all things herbal and sparingly dispenses legal advice. As in all good cozy mysteries she is surrounded by a cast of interesting characters including best friend Ruby.

Ruby is usually China’s partner in her sometimes enthusiastic and other times reluctant crime solving. This is a long running series and I’ve read the first 10 so far. If you like good characters and entertaining mysteries, this series is for you and starts with Thyme of Death.

Linda Fairstein’s latest Alex Cooper book, Blood Oath, came out in March. Alex is an Assistant DA in the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit. Back from an extended leave Alex’s first task is dealing with a judge’s bullying of a female prosecutor. She returns to her office to find Detective Mike Chapman and a young woman named Lucy waiting.

Lucy was picked up the night before on an old warrant. After seeing a picture on the wall at the precinct she freaks out and refuses to talk. At the behest of the captain, Mike brings her to Alex. What Lucy reveals could land Alex in trouble.

When she was 14 Lucy was a star witness against a serial killer responsible for deaths in several different states. While under the protection of the FBI and the federal prosecutors, Lucy says she was sexually assaulted. Is Lucy telling the truth or just trying to have her old warrant to go away?

Alex works quickly to verify Lucy’s story and gather evidence but things really speed up when an attempt is made on Lucy’s life. Fairstein is at her best in “Blood Oath” weaving together different storylines to a thrilling finish.

My third lawyer title is a work of nonfiction by Dan Bernstein. Justice in Plain Sight is the story of how the Riverside Press-Enterprise fought the state of California for open access to the judicial system. It was a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court, twice.

The Press-Enterprise was a family-owned newspaper and while Riverside California was not a small town in the 1980’s it certainly wasn’t a major city. Newspapers were still the source of news for most people and the editor of the paper was committed to keeping readers informed. He also believed that for the public to trust and have confidence in the government (including the judicial system) they needed open access.

In 1978 California reinstated the death penalty and 2 years after that the California Supreme Court issued the Hovey ruling. The ruling gave judges permission to question potential jurors “individually and in sequestration” when asking about views on the death penalty. Trial judges however interpreted the ruling very broadly and were closing courtrooms across the state.

The Press-Enterprise lawyer routinely and unsuccessfully appealed each closing in Riverside County. Then came the Norco case, a foiled bank robbery that resulted in the death of a county deputy. This case drew national attention and was a big story for the newspaper. The judge not only moved the case to San Diego County but also closed jury selection.

The Press-Enterprise and Copley Press appealed the decision. The Court of Appeals ruled against them. When the California Supreme Court refused the case only one option remained. In December 1981 they petitioned the United States Supreme Court to rule on their appeal.

This case was the beginning, 2 more times over the next 3 years the Press-Enterprise would petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear appeals. The first was the Albert Brown case. Brown was accused of the rape and murder of a teen. In this case the judge not only closed voir dire (jury selection) but also ordered the transcripts permanently sealed.

The third appeal would be for the Robert Diaz case. Diaz, a nurse, was accused of killing 12 patients with lidocaine overdoses. The judge in this trial closed the preliminary hearing.

Bernstein is a retired reporter and his writing is concise. Each of the three crimes are covered briefly but you get a good feel for the case. Background on the major people and rulings involved give you an understanding of motivations and the judicial issues.

He also covers extensively the workings of the Supreme Court and includes how each case was decided. His use of briefs, the notes (when available) from the justices themselves, and transcripts from the hearings give immediacy to the process. The lawyers and editors of the Press-Enterprise are unsung heroes and Bernstein does a good job bringing their story to life.

Find in Catalog

Find in Catalog

Find in Catalog

Book Reviews by Patty Crane

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Goblins by Clint McElroy

Joplin Public Library started its 2018 Summer Reading Program on May 29th, which ran until July 28th. It is always a fun event, and we put on programs for children, teens, and adults, themed around the music-related slogan “Libraries Rock”. Summer Reading is an exciting time, but it can also be stressful, as the library saw a dramatic increase in traffic during this time. When Summer Reading ended, I had a couple of weeks to learn how to breathe again before I took on the challenge of going to school to get my degree. Between these two challenges, sitting down to read a book hasn’t been something I can commit to. Thankfully, podcasts and audiobooks exist.

When doing a search for essential podcasts to listen to, one that came up frequently was called “The Adventure Zone”. Three brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin, along with their father, Clint McElroy, play Dungeons and Dragons together. Equal parts enthralling, funny, and vulgar, the storytelling in “The Adventure Zone” will cause listeners to become deeply invested in the characters and magnificent world-building.

In July, a comic book was released based on their first campaign of The Balance Arc: “Here There Be Gerblins”. Our heroes include human warrior Magnus Burnsides, elf wizard Taako, and Merle Highchurch, a dwarf cleric. The story follows them on an epic quest to rescue Merle’s cousin Bogard and his bodyguard Billy Blue Jeans after they were attacked and abducted.

Along the way, our heroes come across many obstacles including gerblins, a Bugbear, and the mysterious Black Spider. The artwork done by Carey Pietsch (artist for Lumberjanes and Adventure Time) brings the characters to life and sets the tone for the story. There’s even a fan art gallery at the end of the book.

The only thing I found off-putting were the interruptions by the Dungeon Master (Griffin McElroy) who provides commentary and interacts with the comic book characters throughout their adventure. If you’re listening to the podcast, that’s essential to hear, as it adds depth to the story. But in book form, I feel that sticking with the story and letting it play out that way would have been a better approach for those who have never listened to the podcast series. Because of this, it almost seems like the book was made for people already familiar with the podcast and wasn’t attempting to gain any new fans by releasing a comic book.

The Joplin Public Library has a great selection of audiobooks, and there are many different formats that can accommodate your needs. First, as our collection increases, so do the number of MP3 format. These are great because rather than keep track of a huge number of discs, everything you need is on a single disc or two. If you have a Joplin Public Library card, you can check out four adult and four children’s audiobooks at a time. I highly recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy read by Stephen Fry, and the Harry Potter Series read by Jim Dale.

Another way to access audiobooks is with Overdrive. Overdrive is an app that you lets you read ebooks and listen to audiobooks from your smartphone, tablet, or computers. Any patron with a Joplin Public Library card can use the service for free. While you can only have seven items checked out at at time, there is no limit to how many items you can check out in a month. The one disadvantage to Overdrive is that, while they have a good selection, you often have to place items on hold and wait for a while to get it.

Starting on September 4th, Joplin Public Library added a new digital service to its repertoire, called Hoopla. Hoopla is a little different from Overdrive. One, there are no holds on items, you simply browse for an item you’d like to check out, click “borrow”, and the item is instantly available to you. Another difference is that there is a limit to how many items you can check out per month, which is 6. Hoopla isn’t limited to just books and audiobooks; their catalogue includes a wide range of movies, TV shows, comics, and music.

Each service has its own advantages and limitations, but in the end, between the library’s physical collection, Overdrive, and Hoopla, you should be able to satisfy any and all of your audiobook needs.

Find in Catalog

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been a long-time advocate for librarians and libraries. A quick Google search with “Neil Gaiman libraries” will bring up a variety of articles, lectures, and blogs dedicated to his thoughts on libraries and reading. Libraries are more than a place with books, but a bastion of freedom, knowledge, and resources. Art Matters does a wonderful job at putting the importance of libraries into words and pictures. Along with Neil Gaiman’s incredible prose, Chris Riddell provides illustrations that bring these ideas to life. I recommend taking a look at more artwork by Chris Riddell. He has also illustrated the children’s series “The Edge Chronicles”, which he also co-authored; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; and J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, among many others. He also has his own website, which features his illustrations throughout.

Do not let its small size fool you. Art Matters, a collection of four of Neil Gaiman’s essays, is filled with helpful tips on how to persevere in difficult times, be creative, and be true to yourself. The ability to use your imagination and be creative is a vital part of our existence. This book, while a quick read thanks to Gaiman’s amusing prose and the prolific illustrations, will make you think and stay with you for a long time.

The first essay, Credo, originally published in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, is about the power of ideas and the importance of free speech, which is as true today as it was then. The next essay, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming, examines the role of the public library in giving access to ideas, how reading can expand one’s horizons and thoughts, and the importance of encouraging children to read. It states that imagination and daydreams are vital in creating change in the world. The third essay, Making a Chair, compares making a chair to the process of writing or creating art. The final piece, Making Good Art, was originally a speech given by Gaiman which was later published as a standalone book. This piece focuses on the importance of creativity and gives encouragement to artists, with Gaiman discussing how he started his career as a writer. Chris Riddell’s illustrations underscore the message on every page.

While this title is housed in our adult collection, it would also be a wonderful book for young adults, who are starting to figure out who they are and find their voice. The messages in this book are not just limited to people who are conventionally “creative”, either. Even if someone doesn’t consider themselves to be creative because they don’t draw, or paint, or write fiction, there are many ways that someone can be creative, and this book is good for the creative soul in everyone. The back of the book states “Be Bold. Be Rebellious. Choose Art. It Matters”, which does an excellent job of summing up the book. The message “Art Matters” speaks to creative freedom, the importance of ideas, and thinking for oneself.

Find in Catalog

Rice, Fish, Noodle: Deep Travels through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding

My passion for food and travel began with Anthony Bourdain.  After watching his show No Reservations, I knew I wanted to see the world, eat where the locals eat, and not fall for tourist traps. Anthony Bourdain invested in this book and was the driving force behind its publication. Any book that has his blessing is one I’m interested in.

Rice, Noodle, Fish is written by Matt Goulding, co-author of the Eat This, Not That! book series, which serve as a guide to help people select healthier options at the grocery store and restaurants. He is also a writer for Roads & Kingdoms, a website dedicated to informing people about travel, food, and politics.

This book takes readers on a journey through Japan. Each of the seven chapters focuses on a different region and what makes it unique. Combining travel guide, history, and storytelling, Rice, Noodle, Fish sets out to paint a picture of the complex world of Japanese culture and cuisine. The color photographs add another level of beauty to an already-captivating book.

Rice is the main staple in Japan, served with most meals. When people think of sushi, the first thing considered is fish, but what truly makes good sushi is the rice. In the first chapter, Tokyo, we meet Koji Sawada, a sushi master. There is a concept of shokunin, an artisan or master in one’s profession, that is deeply embedded into Japanese culture. Sawada is the epitome of shokunin. He wakes up early to pick out his fish, has spent years perfecting the ideal temperature to serve each fish, only serves six people for lunch and six at dinner, and ends the day by scrubbing the countertop of its accumulated fish oils. In all, working eighteen-hour days, six times a week. It takes practice, dedication, and kimochi (feeling) to become a sushi master.

Noodle varieties of Japan go far beyond the basic ramen that immediately comes to mind. There are udon, soba, and somen, to name a few. Udon are thick white noodles that can be enjoyed chilled or warm; soba noodles are made from buckwheat and wheat flour, served cold or in hot soup; somen noodles are made from wheat flour and usually served chilled. In Fukuoka, however, ramen is king. There, ramen isn’t just a cheap meal to be taken lightly — it’s an identity, and Fukuoka is home to over 2,000 ramen shops. The complex level of flavor that goes into ramen include tare (seasoning base), broth, noodles, and toppings. So, next time you make ramen, throw the little flavor packet away (the sodium content is atrocious anyway) and opt for more traditional ingredients. Use a homemade broth, and top it with green onions, a poached egg, soy sauce, sesame oil, or Sriracha — there are no rules or limitations.

Fish is important to Japan. Being an island nation, Japan takes advantage of the abundant sea life found nearby. Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan, has some of the best fish markets in the world. Though some of the seafood stays in Hokkaido, much is shipped to Tokyo, fetching top dollar because of the high quality of the fish. Other seafood enjoyed in Hokkaido include King Crab, Snow Crab, scallops, eel, and uni, or sea urchin. In addition to being known for seafood, Hokkaido has experienced a flourish in wine production as the terrain and weather provide perfect conditions. Featured winemaker Takahiko Soga doesn’t want to imitate California Reds or Italian whites, which don’t pair well with traditional Japanese foods. So much of the of Japanese palate relies on subtly and region, and Soga aims to produce wines which complement the traditional foods and flavors of Hokkaido.

While reading this book, it’s important to consider the political and cultural impacts of food, not just in Japan, but for the entire world. Factors that affect what a culture consumes include seasonality, climate, who settled the area, income levels, and what foods are native to the area. One of the best ways to learn about people and their culture is from the food they eat. Rice, Noodle, Fish does a wonderful job at providing insight into the different regions of Japan, the history of food there, and how traditions are carried on.

Find in Catalog

Come With Me by Helen Schulman

I’m a sucker for alternate universe stories. Exploring “what if” questions is just so much fun. “What if” can range from the small to grand questions of life. What if I hadn’t made that left turn? What if I had taken that job? What if I had moved to Seattle? I was really excited to see a book exploring “what ifs” and decided to give COME WITH ME a read.

Amy is a busy mom of three boys, struggling to keep the family financially afloat while her unemployed husband spends his time on Twitter. Amy’s twice-daily runs help her feel grounded and give her time to think. And, sometimes, she thinks about “what if” questions. What if she had stayed with her boyfriend, Eric? What if she didn’t have to work for her best friend’s son? What if her daughter had lived?

Not-so-luckily for Amy, she works for Donny. He is the son of Amy’s best friend, which often results in awkward situations for Amy. Donny takes advantage of the near-familial relationship to drop in at Amy’s home or pout his way into getting what he wants at work. (If there’s one person I felt truly bad for while reading this book, it’s Amy.)

Donny has come up with a way to use algorithms to analyze a person’s life. Using virtual reality goggles, a person can experience what would happen if they had made a different decision in the past. No time travel or wormholes needed, just a computer program. And because he can, Donny makes Amy the first test subject.

Her first experience is horrifying. Over and over, she watches an event unfold wherein one of her sons is hit — or almost hit — by a car. As awful as the experience is, Amy finds herself unable to say no when Donny asks her to use the VR goggles again.

Meanwhile, her husband, Dan, decides to run away to Japan. He’s following Maryam, a fellow journalist with whom he has fallen in love. As they travel to Fukushima to interview a man living in the radioactive ruins, Dan is exhilarated by the idea that he has done something so adventurous, just like the journalists he follows on Twitter.

A crisis brings all the characters together, along with the weight of the decisions they have — and haven’t — made. Though both Amy and Dan are searching for an emotional connection, they don’t find it with each other. They’re both so interested in “what if” that they stop seeing what’s right in front of them.

While this is surely a book about the “what if” questions in life, Schulman spends very little time actually exploring the possible alternatives. Instead, the book is more about dealing with those “what ifs” in everyday life. Amy is too busy being a mother to all the men in her life to spend much time pondering alternate lives. Dan takes the plunge and actually steps into the world of the “what if” by running away to Japan with Maryam. But will either of them find what they’re looking for?

Schulman doesn’t stick to telling the story just through main characters. Amy and Dan are the two characters around whom most of the action takes place. Some sections are told from the point of view of minor characters, which can be distracting from the main story. However, Schulman does an excellent job giving each character a unique voice. Dan’s ADD shines through in rambling, long paragraphs that change subject frequently. Amy’s thoughts revolve around all of the things she has to take care of: lunches, kids, work, money, laundry, and more.

To be honest, when I first read the synopsis for Come With Me, I expected a heavy science fiction novel, exploring alternate universes and missed opportunities. I was slightly wrong in that assumption. While the book is actually fairly light on sci-fi elements, it’s certainly heavy. And though the characters don’t travel throughout the multiverse, they do spend a lot of time with the weight of their choices.

Sometimes, life doesn’t turn out how we expect. That doesn’t mean it’s any less good that the “what if” worlds we can dream up. It’s important to remember that we can’t change the past, but the future is up to us.

Find in Catalog

Book review by: Leslie Hayes

How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded time Traveler

Imagine time travel being a marketable business and time machines being rented to the general public. That can be a scary thought for several ethical reasons, but thanks to the FC3000™, plausibility turns into actuality. It is important to know that when time traveling to the past, your actions will not have any effect on the present you just left. By traveling back in time, you are creating a new timeline, and a whole new realm of possibilities. Sounds amazing! And with different travel guides such as 1001 Wacky Places to Shoot Adolf Hitler, the fun will surely never end. Note: I am not from the future, and am not sponsored by the FC3000™. Now imagine your state-of-the-art time machine breaks down and you are stuck in the past. However unlikely that can be, what would you do? Could you improve humanity? Ryan North’s How To Invent Everything: A Guide to the Stranded Time Traveler aims to help you answer this question, and then some.

First, you need to determine exactly what time period you are stuck in. With the help of a handy flow-chart, you can figure out if you will die soon, really soon, or, less likely, thrive in your new home. After figuring out whether or not you are in a suitable environment to advance humanity, you need to invent some things. Each chapter of How To Invent Everything goes through a basic skill or knowledge that humanity needs in order to survive. The first five chapters feature the five fundamental technologies needed for civilization, which are: spoken language, written language, numbers, the scientific method, and calorie surplus. Other chapters include developing symbiotic relationships with useful animals, how to invent music, and the major schools of philosophy summed up, using high-fives as examples.

The Appendix includes some other general information including universal constants (speed of light, speed of sound, Pi, etc), the frequencies of musical notes, gears and other mechanisms, and a guide to useful human body parts and what they do. There is also a ruler you can use to determine a standard unit of measurement. Now the United States (assuming you want to call it that) can finally adopt the metric system, if you so choose. Illustrations are also provided to make concepts more feasible.

While reading this book, I kept thinking about Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Ryan North’s sense of humor turns a terrifying scenario into an inspiring and mostly-harmless one. The information provided is valuable whether you’re stuck in the past or not. What amazed me was how well-researched this book was. Though it could be considered encyclopedic, information is condensed down and explained thoroughly, yet in a simple to understand way. How to Invent Everything was a wonderful journey and I feel a little more knowledgeable because of it. I am considering purchasing it so I can read sections at time, because it can be a lot to take in at once.

Ryan North has kept pretty busy throughout the years. He started as a computer programmer, graduating with a Master’s Degree from the University of Toronto. His first webcomic series, Dinosaur Comics, won fans over with its absurd humor. Within one of the Dinosaur Comics, a machine that tells people how they are going to die is mentioned. Fans of North started sending him stories set in this fictitious world, and eventually the anthology Machine of Death was created. The concept seems simple, put your finger in a device that takes a blood sample, then it spits out a piece of paper with a sometimes vague explanation of how you will die. An example: a person gets excited to see “old age” as the cause of death and they prepare to live a long, healthy life — only to get hit by a car driven by an elderly person. To Be Or Not To Be is a choose your own adventure set in the world of Hamlet. High School teachers all across America should add this hysterical adaptation to their curriculum, after going through the original. It could help teens connect with Shakespeare better. Ryan North has also written the comic book series Adventure Time, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Find in Catalog.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

This February, I challenged myself to read all of the Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and honorees in the Joplin Public Library’s Children’s Department. I ended up reading two out of three, but they were both excellent.

If you are unfamiliar with this award, let me quickly explain: The Coretta Scott King Award is bestowed by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association. Each year, the group awards and honors authors, illustrators and titles “for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values.”

The first award-winning book I read last month was LESA CLINE-RANSOME’s slim but powerful novel, “FINDING LANGSTON.” This middle-grade novel follows a young black boy named Langston who is looking for fulfillment in Great Migration-era Chicago. After his mother, to whom he was very close, dies, Langston and his dad move from Alabama to Chicago in search of more opportunity. Langston is lonely; he’s never been especially close to his father, he misses his extended family, and his classmates bully him and call him “country boy.” But when he walks into the large, foreboding library in his neighborhood for the first time, he finds solace in the words of great black writers, including Langston Hughes.

Although he doesn’t know for certain, he has a hunch that he was named after the Black Renaissance poet. Meeting Hughes this way feels like kismet; not only do his words act as a balm during a challenging time for the young boy, but they allow him to learn more about the things his mother loved while she was still living.

It can be difficult to accurately convey the power of reading, but Cline-Ransome transmits this message exceptionally well. “Finding Langston” also emphasizes the transformative effects of media representation. Langston struggles with his self-worth when he moves north. His classmates think he’s uneducated, he doesn’t have any friends, Chicago feels like a foreign country, and he has a very tenuous relationship with his loving but distant father.

When he steps foot in his local library — something he couldn’t do in the Jim Crow South — he can’t believe that everything is free and that black people aren’t just allowed but honored there. Through books by authors such as Langston Hughes, a man whose journey north somewhat resembles young Langston’s own experience, Langston makes friends, begins building a relationship with his father and discovers his self-worth.

It can be difficult to imagine how magical it feels to see yourself in a book for the first time when you have never had to look far. As a white person, I can find someone who looks like me on virtually any shelf in any library. Through Langston’s compelling story and authentic voice, Cline-Ransome provides all readers with the opportunity to experience some of the magic Langston feels when he first walks into the big, fancy building on Wabash Street and sits down with a book of Hughes poems.

The other two author honorees, which were announced in January, included Varian Johnson’s “The Parker Inheritance” and “The Season of Styx Malone” by Kekla Magloon.

Find in catalog.

The Burglar by Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry’s latest novel, The Burglar, has many of the elements I enjoy in a novel. A smart interesting character, action, and mystery in a story that pulls me in and keeps me turning pages.

Mystery and suspense novels are some of my favorites. I like having something that keeps me thinking and I like that the ‘good guys’ usually win. However, in this novel the ‘good guy”, Elle Stowell, is a thief. She’s smart, daring, meticulous and robs homes for a living.

Elle is pretty, small in size and keeps herself in excellent shape. From her appearance to the cars she drives, Elle fits in to the neighborhoods she burglars. Part of her fitness routine is running and she uses daily runs in affluent areas to find her targets.

Elle needs cash and her last job netted her only some nice jewelry before the police showed up. Despite her close call she heads out the next day to find another target. Once she picks a house, a second look convinces her no one is home and she enters through the attic.

The halls are full of fine art but Elle knows she can’t sell art. The master bedroom is the place she will most likely find what she wants. What she discovers is three dead bodies and a running camera that may have filmed the murder and now Elle. Knowing she can’t be caught on camera, she takes the camera and exits the way she came in.

After watching the video and being pretty sure she cannot be identified, Elle makes copies of the full recording from the memory card. After hiding the 3 copies she puts the memory card back in the camera and erases the end starting just before she entered the bedroom.  

Elle’s a thief and the police are not her friends but this is a triple homicide. She returns to the house and puts the camera back where she found it. She was quick but as she is leaving the police arrive but she manages to get out undetected.

Her civic duty done, Elle is back home but she still needs cash. She doesn’t like to work at night but heads out to a house she had previously worked up. On her way she cruises by the murder house out of curiosity. The job is successful but when leaving she senses someone close. As a precaution she loops a long way around to get back to her car. She makes it safely but soon realizes she’s being followed.

With good driving and some luck, she manages to lose the black SUV tailing her. Did the police spot her when she cruised by the murder house or is it someone else? At her friend Sharon’s urging, Elle agrees they should leave town until things die down. To do that Elle needs to sell some of her acquired merchandise.

The trip to Vegas gets her the money she needs but she now has two vehicles tailing her. Also, two men and a woman have been visiting her favorite hangout place asking about her. In her effort to evade the people looking for her, Elle inadvertently exposes Sharon to a cold-blooded killer.

This can’t be the police so who is hunting Elle? Leaving town is no longer an option. Elle has to find out who murdered the three dead people she discovered and why. She’ll have to use all the skills she’s honed as a thief to find the killers before she becomes the next victim.

The novel builds momentum quickly and for the first two thirds is hard to put down. The action slows as Elle searches for and finds the who but it picks up again as Elle takes a huge risk to pull together the why. The library has this title in both regular and large print editions.

Find in Catalog

I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’m a horror fan. Well, a lightweight horror fan. I much prefer horror stories I can explain away so I can sleep at night. If I haven’t watched a haunted videotape, the ghost can’t possibly get to me. Right? Right?! So when I heard John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the vampire novel Let the Right One In, had published a new horror novel called I Am Behind You, I had to give it a read.

On a peaceful morning in the Swedish countryside, four families wake to discover they’ve been transported from their campground to a grassy plain with no landmarks, trees, animals, or cell phone reception. The group, made up of wildly different people, must figure out how to survive long enough to escape. As they try to find a way out, the group discovers that the peaceful countryside they’ve been transported to is full of danger.

Donald is quick-tempered and obsessed with firearms, while his wife Majvor is even-tempered and kind. Will Donald snap and kill someone? Stefan, Carina, and their son Emil appear to be an average family, but Carina’s past haunts her.. Lennart and Olaf are just two guys on a camping trip. They may seem like normal farmers, but there may be more to them than it seems. Finally, Peter, Isabelle, and their daughter Molly certainly seem like the perfect family, but there is something darker underneath. The secrets carried by each group member threaten to destroy everyone.

With no apparent escape available, the group turns to survival. They pool resources and try to explore their surroundings. They begin to encounter strangers in the strange countryside, but you can probably guess that these strangers are dangerous. As with many horror books, it’s difficult to write about the events of the story without spoiling it. The dangers that begin to surface are nothing, however, compared to the dangers the group members pose to each other.

As is also frequently the case, there are questions that simply aren’t answered. Where is the group actually at? How did they get there? What in tarnation is going on?! There’s plenty of content to analyze in any literature course.

Though some aspects of the story didn’t quite hit home, they seemed to stem from cultural differences. For instance, the songs of Peter Himmelstrand feature prominently in this novel. (In fact, the novel’s original title is Himmelstrand.) For whatever reason, the only songs that play on the campers’ radios are songs written by Himmelstrand, who was a popular Swedish songwriter in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps if I knew more about Himmelstrand and his place in Swedish pop culture, this plot point in the book would make more sense to me.

I still really enjoyed the book. The characters were very well-written; I hated who I was supposed to hate, which is a huge hallmark of effective characterization for me. Perhaps my favorite character is Benny, a beagle. Several portions of the story are told from Benny’s perspective. Lindqvist doesn’t get overly sentimental when writing from the perspective of Benny, which helps make this viewpoint feel more realistic than other fictional animals I’ve read.

A little bit of research revealed that there are two other books that are part of this universe Lindqvist has created. Maybe, if those are translated into English, I’ll get some resolution to the bigger questions I have about what happens throughout the pages of I Am Behind You.

Overall, this was a really good read. I only needed two nights to get through it, which is pretty quick for a book that runs just over 400 pages. If you’re looking for a tense, scary read, I Am Behind You is probably right for you. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the translations of the two follow-up books in Lindqvist’s series.

Find in Catalog

Book review by: Leslie Hayes

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book review by Beth Snow

 

Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences.  They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits.  For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.

In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?”  Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey.  Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.  Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola.  Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.

Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed.  She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop.  A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters.  It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout.  Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality.  (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.

What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline.  The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?”  As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated.  Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity.  Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”

Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover.  The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading.  The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources.  To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources.  Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.

This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature.  This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics.  I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.

Find in catalog