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Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Being a teenage girl is rough. Being a teenage girl trapped on an island while a mysterious illness transforms you and your friends into strange, animal-human hybrids and destroys the wilderness around you? Well, that’s a hardship I’ll probably never be able to relate to. And that’s what the characters in WILDER GIRLS have to deal with.

Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are three friends bound together by the strange situation they’re in. They attend the Raxter School for Girls. Except classes aren’t really in session. A sickness has taken over the school. Almost all the adults have died, except for two of the younger faculty, Miss Welch and the Headmistress. These two keep the girls in order, helping them learn survival skills and manage their meager supplies.

The illness on the island causes the girls go through painful and unpredictable transformations. Hetty’s right eye fused shut. Reese has a silver-scaled claw for a hand and glowing hair. Byatt grew a second spine. Other girls aren’t so lucky; sometimes, the transformations are too much for their bodies to handle.

Hetty is recruited to the team of girls responsible for bringing supplies from the Navy drop-off back to the school. The job is dangerous, requiring them to face the transformed wilderness that surrounds the school. Just when Hetty thinks the danger can’t get more intense, she discovers a secret that could bring everything crumbling down. And this secret might put Byatt’s life in danger.

Wilder Girls is one of those books that could be categorized for adults if the content were just a little different. As is, however, the author deals with topics like love, betrayal, and family all with a Sci-Fi spin that I think both adult and teen readers can enjoy. I appreciated the depiction of everyday life in a disaster situation. Yes, the school is falling apart, but there are still love triangles and petty disagreements. Life goes on, even when life is mutating around you.

The story is told mainly from Hetty’s perspective, with a few chapters from Byatt’s point of view. While I don’t mind this tactic, it doesn’t work as well in Wilder Girls. The chapters told by Byatt feel too much like what they are: a way for the author to tell readers about the secrets Byatt unwittingly uncovers.

I have a real knack for choosing books that don’t have tidy endings. Wilder Girls is another one of those. Of course, the author could be leaving room for a sequel–and I honestly hope that’s the case. For any criticisms I might have, it’s a really well-written book. In a way, it reminded me of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which is always a bonus.

On a completely different note, I should say this is my last book review for Joplin Public Library. I’ve accepted a position at another library. JPL has been part of my life since my childhood, when I would walk to the old library on Main Street and spend hours amongst the books. Joplin Public Library has a bright future, and I look forward to being a patron for years to come.

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Reading slumps aren’t uncommon. Lately, I’ve been starting books, only to return them unfinished. In times like these, I often turn to short stories to help me get back into the groove. Short stories take the pressure off of reading. I don’t have to track characters and plots for hundreds of pages. And this is where author Brian Evenson really shines. In his latest release, he builds worlds and characters in only a few pages.

SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD is a fairly short collection of stories at just over 200 pages. However, the collection contains 22 stories. I don’t have the space to review each story, but I’ve picked three that I think best represent this collection as a whole.

In the titular story, a daughter goes missing. Her father, Drago, searches the house but can’t find the little girl. Drago refuses to call the police for reasons the reader doesn’t immediately understand. But, as his search expands to include the surrounding neighborhood, the truth about Drago and his daughter is revealed. He will not call the police because he is living under a false identity. Why? Well, that would spoil the story.

“Room Tone” — Filip wants nothing more than to finish shooting his film. The only problem? The house he’s been using for filming has been sold and the new owner won’t let Filip in to complete the project. Filip isn’t happy with the sound of the film; the background noise is all wrong. He just needs in the house long enough to record a few minutes of silence. How far will he go to finish his film?

“The Hole” — A mission to explore a planet goes horribly wrong for those visiting the new world. Klim and the rest of the crew must search for Rurik, who has gone missing. Kim finds Rurik at the bottom of a large hole. There are only two problems: 1) Klim is also at the bottom of the hole and 2) Rurik is clearly dead, but still moving and talking. Can Klim escape? Even if he does, will he ever be the same?

Don’t go into this collection thinking you’re going to get answers. Much of the effectiveness of Evenson’s writing comes from what isn’t explicitly described in the stories. Evenson focuses in on the world of each story. With short stories, authors don’t have a lot of room for world-building. The challenge then becomes making these brief glimpses into the world fully believable. And this is where Evenson really shines.

Every story in the collection takes place in a distinct setting, each with its own history and set of rules. Even though several stories have similar themes or settings, Evenson made each one distinct. There seem to be nods to classic authors like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. (In fact, Everson was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award in 2017.)

Evenson explores several themes throughout the collection. Identity and sense of self are perhaps the two most common themes. Can we change who we are? Is identity more than skin deep? Fair warning for the faint of heart, Evenson explores these ideas in a very literal sense. At times, he even uses a genre known as ‘body horror.’ If you’re not familiar with this genre, think of the movies The Fly and The Thing

Overall, I think this is a solid short story collection. Evenson’s masterful world-building goes a long way in making these stories successful. The stories overlap two of my favorite genres, Sci-Fi and horror, and though there aren’t any happy endings, this collection will make you think about bodies and identity in a whole new way.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

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.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

New titles for Spring 2018 by various authors

Maybe it’s the boost of energy that comes along with Spring, but I’ve really been on a reading kick lately. That probably sounds silly coming from a librarian, but most of us wax and wane in our hobbies. I’ve also found myself reading a few things I wouldn’t normally pick up. And since all of these books have been so entertaining, I decided to share several short reviews covering a range of recent additions to the Library’s collection.

Future Home of the Living God: a novel by Louise Erdrich — Set in the not too distant future, or maybe just an alternative present, Erdich explores what might happen in a world where humans seem to be devolving. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is a Native American who has been adopted by a white family. And she has a secret: she’s pregnant. In an increasingly dystopian world, can she ensure the safety of herself, her child, and her families? I spent a lot of time frightened for Cedar and she journeys between worlds, both literal and spiritual. Erdich’s story is firmly within the realm of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The One by John Marrs — What if, with a simple DNA sample, you could find your genetic soulmate? The one for whom you are literally perfect? In THE ONE, Marrs explores what might happen if this were possible. Six stories unfold as people learn the identities of their perfect genetic matches. Ranging from your everyday businessman to a serial killer, these characters discover that love is complex and can lead to results no one could expect. Though, I did find a couple of the plot points predictable, it was certainly a fun read. Fans of Black Mirror will likely enjoy this sordid set of tales.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente — In the world of comic books, there is a term for a select group of characters: Women in Refrigerators. This refers to the disproportionate amount of female characters that are killed in the name of furthering storylines. Valente tells the stories of a series of women characters — no one directly from comics, but recognizable if you’re familiar with many of the big name series — who have been written out of the comics world and spend their time in the afterworld. The characters cover the gamut of emotions associated with such deaths, but also speak to the strength of female friendships. A quick read for anyone who wants a different perspective on the world of comics.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas — In Zumas’s story, only married, heterosexual couples can adopt children. Abortion is flat out illegal. And in this world, women are dealing with what these regulations mean for their everyday lives. Each woman copes in her own way, with longing, fear, or even rebellion. These characters are very real, and likely will remind you of someone you know. And some women, like a fictional explorer named Eivør Minervudottir, are out of place in their own time. This is another work that is spiritually and topically akin to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Total Cat Mojo by Jackson Galaxy — Let’s be honest: I’m a crazy cat lady. I grew up a dog person, but years ago, my husband introduced me to cats and it’s been all downhill from there. Like any responsible pet owner, I want to make sure my cats are living their best lives. And that means Jackson Galaxy. He’s pretty much the go-to guy for cat people. And TOTAL CAT MOJO is a wonderful resource for all stages of a cat’s life. Plus, he gives great advice for troubleshooting common cat problems like litter box struggles, dealing with stressed kitties, and introducing new family members — from feline to human.

Though there are some common themes in these books, I think they’ll speak to a variety of readers. We add hundreds of items every month; be sure to explore the new books and to find something that appeals to you!

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Future Home of the Living God
The One
The Refrigerator Monologues
Red Clocks
Total Cat Mojo

Book review by: Leslie Hayes

Star Wars : From a Certain Point of View by various authors

If you’re a nerd, there are pretty much two factions: Star Trek and Star Wars. I grew up on Star Trek. Sure, I watched Star Wars, but I was way more into Picard than Luke. However, I married into a Star Wars family. To keep up with family debates, I’ve had to do a little research into the Star Wars universe. When STAR WARS : FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW came across my desk, I knew I’d have to give it a look.

Star Wars : From a Certain Point of View is a collection of short stories from a variety of big name authors like Meg Cabot, Christie Golden, and Paul S. Kemp, along with a story from Wil Wheaton (who I know as Wesley Crusher from Star Trek). Each story is based on the Star Wars universe. In particular, this collection bridges the gap between the events of Rogue One and A New Hope. However, none of the stories focuses on the traditional heroes of the saga. Instead, we get the viewpoints of characters like a stormtrooper, Grand Moff Tarkin, and even the monster from the Death Star trash compactor.

Each story offers a unique perspective on the behind-the-scenes events of the original trilogy. These aren’t just filler stories, either. The authors involved have taken care to delve deeply into the characters and show the emotional background to some of the events from the series. Since it would take a few more words than I have here to review all 35 stories, I’ll share my thoughts on a few from the collection.

“The Bucket” by Christie Golden — TK-4601 is a young Stormtrooper who has been given an amazing opportunity: capture the rebel Princess Leia Organa. He is full of excitement at the prospect of helping crush the Rebellion. But when he does encounter her, it will change him forever. As a huge Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia fan, I loved this story for the way Golden describes Leia through the eyes of an enemy. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Those who underestimate Leia soon regret it, a fact not lost on TK-4601.

“Stories in the Sand” by Griffin McElroy — The Jawa are a species that lives their lives scouring the deserts of Tatooine for anything they can sell. Jot is a Jawa who doesn’t quite fit in. Smaller but smarter than his peers, he discovers a secret compartment that lets him scavenge videos from the droids he scraps. But one day, he discovers a video stored in a blue and white droid. A video of a young woman in white asking for help. Will Jot erase the video and sell the droid? Or will he help set into motion the entire plot of the movies we love so much? McElroy does a great job of exploring a species that initially seems to have very little depth. He also reminds us that even the smallest of us can make a big difference.

“Laina” by Wil Wheaton — Ryland, a member of the Rebel Alliance, must say goodbye to his infant daughter. He’s about to go on a dangerous mission and needs to know Laina will be safe. She will go to live with her aunts. Fair warning, this is a heart-wrenching story. Wheaton examines why a single father would risk everything and join what might seem like a lost cause. What could bring him to risk his life? A fair amount of revenge and a dash of hope.

I should end this by noting that I’m a fan of the new Star Wars movies. I find they fill me with a sense of hope. And that’s a word I associate this collection. These are stories of the everyday person (or Jawa or droid). I think I “get” my in-laws love of Star Wars. Much like my love of Star Trek, it’s about heroes and hope. And these stories remind us that it’s not just the Skywalker family who can make a difference: it’s all of us.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes