Hester: A Novel by Laurie Lico Albanese

Set in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1800s, Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese imagines the inspiration behind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester is told from the point of view of Isobel, a woman that the novel suggests inspired Hester Prynne

Isobel Gamble is a 19 year old skilled seamstress who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland when she marries Edward. Their marriage is more out of convenience, rather than a romantic match, and Isobel’s inheritance isn’t bad for Edward, either. Edward works as an apothecary but has fallen under the spell of opium. Because of this soon after Isobel and Edward marry they leave Scotland due to Edward’s growing debt. Their destination: Salem, Massachusetts. 

The Salem depicted in Hester is bustling and full of secrets, the witch trials of its past still whispered about. Isobel is an outsider in Salem, both enthralled and trepidatious of their new home, while Edward throws himself into his apothecary business and soliciting investments from men around town. Only a few days after their arrival Edward announces to Isobel that he has been employed by a ship as a doctor and is setting sail, unsure of when he’ll return. While Isobel seems frustrated by her circumstances, she isn’t necessarily sad to see Edward leave.

Alone with little money Isobel begins work in a dress shop, utilizing her sewing skills to survive. In addition to her financial trouble Isobel knows no one. She begins an attempt to make a place for herself, dutifully reporting to work, attempting to get to know her neighbors and the other outcast women of the town, until one day she meets Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne (yes, THE Nathaniel Hawthorne). 

The two have an instant connection. Nathaniel, or Nat as Isobel calls him, is only a few years older than Isobel. He is handsome, mysterious, and troubled by the role his family played in the witch trials of Salem’s past. All he wants to do is write, but family obligations hold him back. Nat seems to be drawn to Isobel’s uniqueness and beauty, and lower social standing. But Isobel is mysterious too, as she is hiding a family secret. Women in her family, Isobel included, see colors when they see letters. When Isobel sees the letter A she sees the color scarlet (now why does that sound familiar…). Modern times would explain this as a biological neurodevelopment called synaesthesia, but in 1800s Salem this would be seen as witchcraft (Isobel herself wonders if she has powers). Isobel has told no one but the reader of her condition. 

As weeks pass Edward’s return from sea becomes more and more unlikely, and Isobel and Nat’s connection becomes harder and harder to ignore. As you might have already guessed, Isobel and Nat begin an affair. The two hide it the best they can, staying away from one another in public and only seeing each other at night. Isobel is Nat’s muse and Nat is the only one Isobel can truly be herself with. As Isobel finds herself falling in love with Nat, she reveals the truth of her synaesthesia. But Nat’s moods change like the wind and Isobel is unsure of where they stand. Isobel must decide if her future includes Nat, Edward, or simply, herself. 

I thought that the imagining of potential inspiration for Hawthorne’s most well known novel was intriguing to think about and a cool concept for a novel. The research evident in Hester is compelling, depicting historical Salem, witch trials, representations of marginalized peoples and women that were seen as “unusual” (Isobel falls into this category). A little mystery, a little romance, and a lot of history, Hester is a good read for anyone interested in historical fiction standalones that are tied to classic literature.

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Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator


J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has been told and retold many times over the years, both in print and on screen. Some iterations have been better than others, to be sure (personally, Robin Williams’ Hook is the peak and the animated Disney classic is much further down on the ladder). As an adult, however, my perception of Peter, Tinkerbell, and the Lost Boys has shifted. The women and girls are treated pretty terribly and I frankly find Peter to be pretty insufferable. Nevertheless, it is a cultural touchpoint and the fact that I have so many opinions about Peter Pan proves it.

Tiger Lily and the Secret Treasure of Neverland was published in March 2023 as a media tie-in to the new live-action movie Peter Pan and Wendy, though it is not necessary to have seen the movie before reading the book. The Secret Treasure is a standalone adventure with Tiger Lily and her family and friends in Neverland. In fact, Peter is away in London for most of the story

While the original character of Tiger Lily is reduced to a vague stereotype, modern creators have taken steps to be more thoughtful and nuanced in their depictions. When I saw that award-winning author Cherie Dimaline, who is Métis, was publishing a book about Tiger Lily, I was thrilled. I knew that Tiger Lily would finally be given her due.

Tiger Lily’s family has lived on the island of Neverland for generations. Her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, has taught her everything she knows about riding horses, which plants to use for which ailments, and communicating with and respecting the other inhabitants of the island, including the fairies. Tiger Lily and her best friend, Sashi, who is a fairy, are at the center of this story. 

This standalone adventure follows Tiger Lily as she traverses the island in search of a secret treasure called Andon. When she overhears Peter say that Tiger Lily could use the Andon to better help the people she cares about, she sets out to find out what it is and where she can find it. Along the way, she crosses paths with Jolly and Jukes, two of Captain Hook’s cronies. Though much less intelligent than Hook, they are equally unkind in their dogged pursuit of the same treasure. When they capture Sashi and use her as bait to get the Andon from Tiger Lily, she seeks out the help of four Lost Boys to save her friend. Tiger Lily and the Secret Treasure is a fast-paced, coming-of age adventure story. Tiger Lily is a nuanced character; though it is a fairly short novel, readers witness significant growth by its conclusion. With the elders gone on a fishing trip, Tiger Lily must use her own knowledge and bravery to defeat the pirates and protect the people and places dearest to her. It is through this defeat that she comes to significant realizations about who she is. 

The bigger concept behind the plot is the idea that Tiger Lily, like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, is not sure whether she should grow up. In Neverland, the characters can decide if and when they want to grow up. As Tiger Lily learns more from her grandmother, she realizes that she enjoys caring for others and feels empowered in doing so. However, after failing to help those she loves in the way she wants to, she knows that she must embrace getting older to become who she wants to be. 

In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Dimaline shares a bit about her development of Tiger Lily’s Native identity. Rather than rooting her in a particular tribe or nation, she develops the identity of Neverland’s indigenous inhabitants based on an amalgamation of the original character and the real-life indigenous inhabitants of people who might have lived in the areas where the story takes place. I would recommend this book to readers looking for a good adventure story with a dash of growing up, friendship, family, and fairy dust. 

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His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine by S.C. Gwynne

Word association with “airship” probably yields responses ranging from “Goodyear Blimp” to “Hindenburg.” Perhaps there’s also a vague sense that airships had their greatest run in popularity during the early 20th century, transatlantic crossings and all. In “His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine,” S.C. Gwynne unfurls this period with a white-knuckled briskness. Entertaining as it is edifying, it recounts many moments that left me in near disbelief.

An early chapter entitled “Brief History of a Bad Idea” pretty much sums up airships in the main. First, they were filled with an explosive gas: hydrogen. Helium was a known alternative, but its extraction was in the nascent stages. Case in point, in 1905 the “world’s supply of helium…remained on a shelf at the University of Kansas in three small flasks.” Second, airships were notoriously difficult to fly. Wind speeds, along with constant gas expansions and contractions, required constant ballast and lift adjustments.

Even with these substantial detriments, Gwynne notes that lighter-than-air travel was still seen as a viable consideration, especially since heavier-than-air travel (the airplane) was literally just getting off the ground. In the early 1900s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin ushered in the era of rigid airships (dirigibles, or “big rigids”), eventually captivating the German public. His Zeppelins must have been a grand sight, all eyes on the cigar-shaped airships floating overhead, each over 400 hundred feet in length.

Gwynne says that Count Zeppelin’s worldview was “more feudal kingdom than Europe of La Belle Époque.” This is telling in that World War I looms, with Germany growing increasingly militaristic. These new airships were seen less as travel vessels and more as a means to drop munitions in times of war. In fact, German schoolchildren were taught a song that included the verse “Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England! England shall be destroyed by fire!”

Still, Zeppelin’s company wanted to showcase its airships’ travel capabilities. In 1910, a handful of passengers embarked on what was supposed to be a three-hour luxury flight. What the flight actually did was underscore the unavoidable problem with airships: navigating through storms is harrowing, if not impossible. A storm tripled the flight’s duration, often sending it flying backward, with the crew finally admitting to passengers that they had no idea what to do.

German airships decidedly did not destroy England by fire during World War I. Quite the opposite. They were easily shot down. Given this, it’s somewhat puzzling that Great Britain would vigorously pursue its own airship program. Yet it didn’t take long before its own airship program would astound, for in 1919 a British airship crossed the Atlantic Ocean (twice). To add perspective, Lindbergh made his famous solo flight in 1927.

Gwynne provides many tales of derring-do associated with these airship flights, all with the backdrop that a mere spark from static electricity could send the ship ablaze. The flights included wild altitude spikes that left most crew members scrambling for footing, let alone controlling the ship. Given the vast catalog of mechanical errors, it’s amazing that the ocean’s vastness was traversed at all. Regardless, to many a Brit, the successful to and fro flights were evidence of English pluck and resourcefulness.

Ten years later, Lord Christopher Thomson, holding the fantastic title of Secretary of State for Air, sought to navigate Britain’s immense imperial skies via airship. In Cardington, England, he spearheaded the building of the R101. At 777 feet it was the world’s longest airship to date. Millions of cubic feet of hydrogen were held within gasbags made of cattle intestines. Riggers working within the cavernous hangar would either sing or hum as a safety precaution. If workers on the ground noticed that the riggers above were carrying on with high-pitched voices, they knew to alert them that they were slowly being asphyxiated by an odorless gas leak.

The whole enterprise was a boozy affair. Workers of all stripes consumed vast amounts of spirits throughout the building process. When R101 was brought out for test flights, it was docked atop a mooring mast, over one hundred feet high. One night, selected guests were invited aboard for drinks and a tour of the ship. As the drinks flowed, winds tussled the moored ship. At the end of the night, some of the more intoxicated guests believed that they had actually flown.

Thomson, a Savile Row-clad chap, pushed R101’s designers and builders to be ready for a 1930 flight to India. As the date neared, both engineers and crew alike knew the ship was not ready. It was too heavy to sustain lift for such a long flight. There were precious few mooring masts between England and India, so it had to stay aloft. Thomson pushed ahead anyway. He had a schedule to keep. A state dinner in India was timed in conjunction with his landing in India, plus one in London upon his return.

It’s unclear why he forged ahead in the face of these concerns. Thomson had spent so much of his career striving. Would a successful flight lead to his becoming viceroy of India? He had also spent so much of his adult life trying to impress a Romanian princess: Marthe Bebesco. Would a post in India bring them closer? Even Thomson’s best friend, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was confused as to why the flight went forth.

In 1930, Thomson and 47 others perished aboard R101 en route to India. They didn’t even make it to Paris. The growing popularity of radio made the fiery crash a world-wide mass media event. Gwynne provides a thorough investigation of the R101 crash, piecing together what little is known and making a convincing case as to why it crashed then and there. What was known at the time of the crash: no amount of future swashbuckling was in store for the British airship program.

Upon seeing R101 just outside its hangar, Gwynne notes that one British observer stated that it looked like an “ambitious toy.” I thought something similar years ago when I saw the Goodyear Blimp, remarking that it looked like an overgrown party favor. But it’s also a reminder that history is full of ambition and folly. Thomson’s predecessor remarked that Thomson possessed the “sin of impatience.” Hard to argue against that. He will be forever tied to the R101 disaster. Yet we also learn in Gwynne’s fine book that Thomson was also instrumental in bolstering the Royal Air Force, an entity that would prove essential in thwarting Nazi attempts to destroy England by fire.

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Review by Jason Sullivan

Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things by Dan Ariely

A few years ago Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, found himself being compared to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. He was also named as the “chief consciousness engineer of the Covid-19 fraud” and a leader of the agenda 21 plot. How could this be? These people just didn’t know him so all he needed to do was talk with them and it would be over. Boy was he wrong!

That experience led him to want to understand why and how this could happen. The result is Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things.

Misbelief is not a new phenomenon, it’s been around for ages. But it does seem to be increasing and becoming more mainstream. It’s more than just misinformation, it’s a mindset. Ariely defines misbelief “as a distorted lens through which people begin to view the world, reason about the world, and then describe the world to others.”

Getting to misbelief is a process and Ariely likens it to a funnel. You start with a few questions about accepted truths and if you proceed to the end of the funnel, you will dismiss all mainstream sources and embrace alternative truths and conspiracy theories. We are all the opening of the funnel, this book explores why some advance to the end and what factors turn skepticism to mistrust.

The author identifies four elements to the funnel of misbelief. The first is emotional. Stress and the need to manage it play a big role in the journey to misbelief. Not everyday stress but unpredictable stress. Such as the stress of losing employment, the death of a loved one, financial loss, or a pandemic. It can evoke a strong emotional response and feelings of helplessness and loss of control. To combat these feelings you may start looking for someone to blame.

The next element is cognitive. Ariely explores what makes us susceptible to misinformation. We all practice confirmation bias and seek information that supports our beliefs. We also think our minds work differently than they actually do. How does that along with motivated reasoning and the Dunning-Kruger Effect lead someone through the funnel?

The third element considered is personality. What personality traits when combined with other forces make someone more likely to be a misbeliever? Misremembering, seeing patterns, and decision-making biases play a part. And while there is no personality type that misbeliever’s share, if you have a narcissist in your life, don’t ignore their needs.

The final element is social. This one is a powerful motivator as people are social. Those who advance in the funnel of misbelief will usually experience ostracism. When others are made uncomfortable or embarrassed by what someone with a misbelief says they distance themselves. As family and friends turn away, the social needs of the misbeliever are filled by the ones who believe as they do. This draws the misbeliever even farther down the funnel. The social need can overshadow the misbelief as the reason to keep the misbelief.
So what does all this misbelief lead to – mistrust. Mistrust is a serious problem for our society but Ariely says Superman gives him hope. I’ll let him explain why.

I’ve probably made this sound a bit boring and academic but it is not. Ariely’s style is conversational with a little humor and always respectful. His examples opened my eyes to misbeliefs I didn’t know existed. He also provides Hopefully Helpful boxes scattered through the text. These are things we can do to combat some of the actions that can lead to misbelief.

I was eager to read this when I saw this title on our new book shelves. I’ve been very puzzled the last few years how someone who shares the same belief system with another can come to believe something that the other finds completely unbelievable. With Ariely’s help, now I know.

Review written by: Patty Crane, Joplin Public Library Reference Librarian

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The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

Amina al-Sirafi used to be a pirate. She sailed the Indian Ocean on her ship, the Marawati, with a dedicated and close-knit crew. She was a fearsome warrior and an ingenious captain. But now, she’s retired.

For ten years she has been living in a dilapidated house by the ocean with her mother and young daughter. Amina stays isolated to avoid being recognized as the famed sea captain. She loves being a mother, and she loves the quiet life she has been able to provide for her family.

Her retirement is interrupted by the arrival of a noblewoman, Salima al-Hilli. The older woman reveals that her son used to be a member of Amina’s crew – before his death – and offers Amina a fortune to track down her granddaughter.

Dunya al-Hilli was kidnapped by a band of mercenaries led by Falco Palamenestra, a Fankish captain with unusual powers. As Amina looks into the teenager’s disappearance, it becomes clear that there is more to the story than Salima is willing to tell her.

Before she sets out to track down Dunya and Falco, Amina has to gather her crew back together, track down the Marawati — which she has left in the care of her former first mate, and find out where Falco is heading.

As the crew investigates, they discover what Falco is searching for: the Moon of Saba, a legendary artifact that is said to contain a supernatural being. Amina also discovers that Dunya was far from a kidnapping victim. She is a self-taught supernatural scholar who willingly went with Falco to find the Moon.

Amina has a history with the supernatural. She knows that Falco and Dunya are already in over their heads. And though she is only interested in stopping Falco, a misguided teenager with an adventurous streak deserves to be saved.

Shannon Chakraborty’s THE ADVENTURES OF AMINA AL-SIRAFI is a high-seas heist full of memorable characters. None more extraordinary than Amina herself.

Amina is a strong, resourceful woman dedicated to getting back home to her family. But the more time she spends at sea, the harder it is to think about giving it up again. Her struggle between her love of the ocean and her love for her daughter plays out internally as she rides the waves, fights sea monsters, and argues with her estranged demonic husband.

The book is written as if Amina is dictating it like an old fish story. Her wry personality comes through every anecdote. This first-person narration allows Amina to keep some important details to herself as the journey progresses. Some readers may feel like they missed a previous book from the number of allusions she makes to the last adventure of the Marawati – the one that led to the death of Dunya’s father and Amina’s retirement.

The in-fiction writer is a scribe dedicated to recording the crew’s adventures, because – despite her protests – Amina is becoming a legend.

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Review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

The setting for Lisa See’s latest New York Times bestselling novel, LADY TAN’S CIRCLE OF WOMEN, is fifteenth century China.  A place where women are encouraged to follow a traditional path, usually one dictated by their father or husband. 

Tan Yunxian, the novel’s narrator, is reminded of this by her mother as the book opens.  Respectful Lady imparts, “Whether animal or woman, we are a man’s possessions. We women exist to give him heirs and feed, clothe and amuse him. Never forget that.” Her mother offers this advice as she and Yunxian are both trying to manage the pain of footbinding. 

Education is usually not part of the path set forth by men for the women in their lives, and the idea is reinforced by Confucius who is quoted as saying, “an educated woman is a worthless woman.”  However, Yunxian is different from most women in China. She has led a life of great privilege, thanks to the wealth of her family, and is surrounded by educated people, including her grandmother, who is one of a few female doctors. 

Yunxian’s path to medicine starts early, due to her ailing mother. During this time period, male doctors were not allowed to see or touch a female patient.  They needed another person, usually the husband, to serve as a go-between, to ask questions and provide the recommended treatment, but when Respectful Lady falls ill, Yunxian is chosen to carry out this task.  Despite Yunxian’s attention and care, her mother ultimately succumbs to an infection and the eight year old cannot help but feel like there should have been more she could have done to help. 

After her mother’s death Yunxian’s father must depart Laizhou for Beijing to take his next level imperial exams, so she is sent to live at her paternal grandparents’ compound in Wuxi. Medicine has been in her family for generations and both her grandparents are doctors.

After settling in, Yunxian’s grandmother begins to teach her medicine, specifically medicine to help women. Being a female doctor allows Yunxian’s grandmother the opportunity to properly examine women and treat them, unlike how it works for male doctors.

In addition to Confucius teachings not valuing women, midwives are considered less than doctors because they soil their hands with blood during labor and delivery, so it is necessary for a doctor to work closely with a midwife. Yunxian’s grandmother values the help of midwives and works closely with a woman named Midwife Shi. The midwife’s daughter, Meiling, is apprenticing for her, and she and Yunxian become best friends as they help with the medical work. 

For seven years, Yunxian learns alongside her grandmother and Midwife Shi. While Yunxian is learning medicine, her bride price is also being negotiated, so at fifteen she marries the son of a wealthy merchant. 

After her wedding, Yunxian goes to live with her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law, who is in charge of the household, forbids Yunxian from not only treating women in the compound, but from corresponding and being friends with Meiling. Yunxian is left feeling isolated and alone.  

 The remainder of the book reflects on the struggle that Yunxian faces in reconciling her education and upbringing with her married life. As the book title suggests, it is only possible due to her “circle of women.” 

Lisa See’s newest offering is phenomenal! I love how she based the book on the true story of Tan Yunxian. The characters are well drawn and Yunxian felt like a living, breathing person to me.  Not only does See’s research and the history she incorporated shine throughout, but the plot is compelling and relatable. I could not stop reading this novel. Readers will feel like they are part of the Ming dynasty thanks to See’s descriptions of daily life – the food, the culture, the traditions and the scenery. Also, note that Lisa See’s headshot for the book was taken in front of the marriage bed that has been in her family for generations. I highly recommend this one.

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Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director. 

Enjoyable Audiobooks

When I was younger I went through a phase where I turned up my nose at the thought of audiobooks. “That isn’t real reading” I recall my smug self thinking. Well, younger self, here I am today, writing a dedication to audiobooks. 

For me an audiobook is many things. They’re a way to multitask, listening to a book while I cook, clean, exercise, pretty much any daily task that has my mind wandering or thinking “it’d be really nice to know what happens next in my book.” They’re a companion in the car or on a walk. But what I’ve found most is audiobooks are a performance and a connection with the story. Anyone that listens to audiobooks has likely experienced the ones that do not have ideal narrators, an otherwise good book falling flat because of the narration. To that end what follows are three audiobooks I listened to this year that are not only good books, but good audiobooks.


The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Set in Minneapolis and spanning from November 2019 to November 2020 The Sentence follows Tookie, a woman who has recently been released from federal prison for a laugh-worthy crime. Becoming an avid reader during her time in prison, Tookie takes a job in a bookstore upon her release. Tookie soon discovers the bookstore is haunted by the ghost of Flora, the store’s most dedicated and annoying customer, even in death. What begins as a crime caper, ghost story mashup soon turns into a deep contemplation on the Covid-19 pandemic, George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the historic horrors and culture of Native Americans that often permeates Erdrich’s novels. While this might sound like a confusing culmination of themes it is executed expertly in the moving fashion common for the Pulitzer Prize winning author. Erdrich herself narrated the audiobook I listened to, and if there is ever an opportunity to listen to an audio with the author as narrator I will happily take it. Erdrich is the best person to bring the story to life, invoking Tookie’s experiences through one of the most tumultuous years of modern history with the soul she wrote into this novel. 

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 The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is an author of historical fiction, her novels generally focused upon a female protagonist. In The Diamond Eye Quinn fictionalizes the true story of Russian female sniper Lyudmila “Mila”  Pavlichenko. Mila is a single mother studying as a history student in Kyiv when Hitler invades Ukraine and Russia. Mila’s life forever changes, as she leaves behind her history books for a sniper school. Mila soon rises to be one of the best and well known Russian snipers, with over 300 kills to her name; this earns Mila the nickname Lady Death. Her country decides to use Mila’s renown by sending her on a goodwill tour to Washington, D.C., where she spends time at the White House and befriends First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, it doesn’t take long for danger to once again find Mila. This novel is full of history and Mila was a person I greatly enjoyed getting to know, full of strength, determination, and hope in a struggling time. The audiobook I listened to is narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, a prolific narrator in the audiobook world. What I particularly enjoyed about the narration is the seemingly easy transitions from the various accents and languages in the novel. Listening to this made me want to read more of Quinn’s novels. 

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The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green

I haven’t picked up a John Green book since several of his novels made a mockery of my teenage heart (I’m looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars), but I was interested in Green’s recent essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet. The collection contains numerous essays reviewing various topics within our current geological age, such as the Lascaux Cave Paintings, Viral Meningitis, Canada Geese, and Teddy Bears. Whatever the topic, Green fills the reviews with humor, personal tidbits about experiences with the chosen topic, factual information, and insightful reflections. The essays demonstrate a masterful ability to begin with what seems like a straightforward topic (for example, Wintry Mix) and take the reader through an empathetic reminder to wonder, to pay attention to what is around us and our part in it. At the end of each essay Green gives a rating for what he reviewed based on a 5 star scale. I listened to the version narrated by Green, and while I enjoyed the collection as is, Green’s narration took it to a different level, pulling me along his introspective journey through the Anthropocene. And, as a seasoned reader of Green’s novels, I couldn’t help slightly fangirling over the deep dive into his mind. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet 4.5 stars.

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Audiobooks can be checked out from the Joplin Public Library in CD form, as well as electronically from the digital borrowing platforms Libby and Hoopla. 

Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator


Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West by Katie Hickman

Katie Hickman’s Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West is as much about westward expansion and the colonization – or, in seemingly benign language, westward ‘migration’ and ‘settlement’ – of what we now know as the American West as it is about the history of the women who were among the first to make their way westward.

Stories, both fictional and non, of westward migration abound. Most of these stories, like much of the romanticized imagery of, and entertainment about, the American West, are about men–cowboys, explorers, fur traders, guides, merchants, military, warriors, etc. But what about the women? Although Brave Hearted is not, nor does it pretend to be, comprehensive, it helps tell a fuller story about travels to, and the settling of, the American West. And it all starts with a couple of ladies who felt called to missionary work.

Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, along with their husbands, set out for the so-called frontier in 1836. In fact, both women married their husbands, who they barely knew, in order to fulfill their dreams of becoming missionaries. It was unacceptable for women to set out on their own at that time and, even if it had been acceptable, women lacked the means to do so. But these two men needed the women as much as the women needed them because they needed to be married to set up permanent missionary settlements in the West. Thus, their marriages were mutually beneficial. It was an interesting dynamic, with a bit of personal history and tension (that you could read more about in the book proper).

The two couples set out from Liberty, Missouri, in the company of a handful of others, including a carpenter, who served as “lay assistant and mechanic,” three Nez Perce, and two other men. Communally, they made some necessary purchases for the journey, such as cattle, horses, and a farm wagon, and each carried “a plate, a knife and fork, and a tin cup.” Any other personal belongings were toted along however by whoever owned them. They were headed to an American Fur Company rendezvous spot from which they would start the “real” journey West. Their arrival caused a sensation there, as it did when they made it to their final destination, for Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women to travel westward overland–it was a magnificent feat.

They, like the women who followed, left everything – material and immaterial – behind with the hopes of successfully establishing themselves in the West. Often, and likely more often than not, these women did not again see the family or friends who they left behind. Also, communication could be sparse, as it depended on mail delivery. To say it was not an easy journey, or an easy way of life if and when they got there, is perhaps an understatement.

Hickman’s book, however, isn’t just about the experiences of the Narcissa Whitmans and Eliza Spaldings of the world. As she writes in her introduction, the women she depicts “encompass an extraordinarily diverse range of humanity, of every class, every background, and of numerous different ethnicities, many of them rarely represented in histories of the West.” Indeed, that’s an accurate description, if self-described.

In addition to writing about the women of the Whitman Mission, Hickman writes about others who traveled west for religious reasons, such as the Mormons, as well as Native American, African American, Chinese, and other women, from all sorts of social classes and standings. Her story starts with Whitman and Spalding, presumably, because they were the first women who traveled overland to the west. Their success – meaning only that they actually arrived alive to where they were going – illustrated that women, too, were capable of making the journey. Soon thereafter, an unprecedented amount of people, including “unheard of” amounts of women, traveled overland to migrate west.

Not all women who landed in the west chose that journey, however. General Custer and his wife, Elizabeth, took their slave, Eliza, from camp to camp. Biddy Mason, who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1818, and her family were forced west by their owner, Robert Smith, who was part of the Mormon migration. Fortunately for Mason and her family, they were able to become freed when in California, due to a legality when Smith tried to remove them to Texas. Biddy Mason moved to Los Angeles, was “one of the first non-Mexican residents,” and became a well-respected, “prominent property owner and philanthropist.” Others were not as fortunate, such as the numerous Chinese women who languished as slaves or indentured sex workers after arriving from China by sea, often in horrendous conditions.

Brave Hearted is told in 18 expertly-researched chapters, complete with maps, notes, and a select bibliography. Although the book is not image-heavy, it does contain a handful of photographs, including one of “Handcart Pioneers” (pg. 196), people who headed west pulling what they owned themselves with a hand cart; a promotional image of Olive Oatman (pg. 231), who became famous for her time among the Mohave; Biddy Mason (pg. 284), who is described above; and others, some of whom remain anonymous/unknown.

Brave Hearted is one of the better books I’ve read about women and the American West, if not the best. Which is to say I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topics discussed herein. As always, happy reading.

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Murder at an Irish Castle by Ellie Brannigan / Lonely Hearts Book Club by Lucy Gilmore

I was set to introduce the first book in a new cozy mystery series for this review then I read The Lonely Hearts Book Club. I enjoyed it so much I decided to tell you about both titles.

Murder at an Irish Castle by Ellie Brannigan is billed as the beginning of An Irish Castle Mystery series. Rayne McGrath runs a successful bridal boutique on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood. Her specialty is designing one of a kind wedding dresses. So how does a California girl end up in an Irish castle?

On her 30th birthday she and her partner, Landon, are set to lunch with an investment banker then will hopefully be celebrating at dinner. Landon is her romantic as well as business partner and she is expecting that partnership will also go to the next level by the end of the evening.

I was set to introduce the first book in a new cozy mystery series for this review then I read The Lonely Hearts Book Club. I enjoyed it so much I decided to tell you about both titles.

Murder at an Irish Castle by Ellie Brannigan is billed as the beginning of An Irish Castle Mystery series. Rayne McGrath runs a successful bridal boutique on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood. Her specialty is designing one of a kind wedding dresses. So how does a California girl end up in an Irish castle?

On her 30th birthday she and her partner, Landon, are set to lunch with an investment banker then will hopefully be celebrating at dinner. Landon is her romantic as well as business partner and she is expecting that partnership will also go to the next level by the end of the evening.

Arriving at her shop she can’t get in as someone broke something off in the lock. Landon should be there and is not answering his phone. Rushing to his home she finds it empty, as empty as their bank account. At Landon’s suggestion all their money went into one account to make the business more attractive to the bank. When the police gain access to her boutique it is empty as well, Landon took her completed gowns.

Amid the devastation and chaos, Rayne receives a call from Ireland. Her uncle died and her presence is required at the reading of the will. With no trace of Landon and her mother providing a ticket and vowing to handle things in her absence, Rayne takes the long flight to Dublin.

Transported to Grathton Village by a less than cordial Ciara, Rayne is taken directly to the solicitor’s office for the reading of the will. She is shocked to learn that she not only inherited a castle but also has a cousin, Ciara. An even more hostile Ciara as she expected to be her father’s heir.

Rayne is ready to turn the castle over to Ciara but the will prevents it and if she sells all proceeds will go to a church. To inherit any money Rayne and Ciara must stay one year and somehow turn the castle into a profitable concern. The village, Ciara, and the castle staff are depending on Rayne to stay and find a way to bring the castle and the village into the 21st century.

To complicate things further, Ciara is convinced her dad’s death was no accident. So all Rayne has to do is learn how the castle functions, make it profitable to save the village, and create wedding gowns when her shop and customers are thousands of miles away. Oh, and help Ciara find Uncle Nevin’s killer.

This is a murder mystery so there is a killer waiting to be found but in this series debut the focus is more on the place and characters than the murder. It will be interesting to see how things work out in the next book.

Lucy Gilmore brings together an unlikely group for her latest novel, The Lonely Hearts Book Club. There is the seemingly meek self-effacing Sloane, mean and curmudgeonly Arthur, nurturing and empathetic Maisey, kind self-absorbed Mateo, and quiet considerate Greg.

Sloane, a librarian at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, is reshelving items when she first meets Arthur. As he rudely points out, she is blocking his way to Roman history. Arthur is well known by most of the staff, including fellow librarian Mateo, and they scatter whenever he enters. But Sloane, surprisingly, is not intimated and in the ensuing conversation (banter from Sloane, insults from Arthur) she earns a little of his respect.

Sloane anticipates his visits each day even though he can be cruel at times. When he doesn’t show up for several days, she breaks the rules to look up his home address. Discovering he is ill and alone (because he throws out or runs off every nurse they send) Sloane is determined to help.

When her decision leads to being fired, she becomes Arthur’s full-time caretaker. Her ‘job’ is to catalog his vast array of books. As a retired literature professor, Arthur has amassed a huge collection stacked haphazardly throughout his home.

Arthur will tolerate Soane but Maisey, his neighbor, is another matter. However, Maisey needs someone to care for so Sloane and Arthur are it. Searching for a way to ensure her place, Maisey tentatively proposes they read The Remains of the Day together since there are multiple copies. Sloane loves the idea and their book club is formed.

Soon Greg, Arthur’s estranged grandson, and Mateo join their club. Then a stranger wants to join but why and what is his connection to Arthur?

This novel has five narrators as each member of the club tells their own story while moving the narrative along. Enjoyable with good, relatable characters this is a tale of five lonely people brought together through one cranky elderly man’s love of books.

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Trust by Hernan Diaz

How vast individual wealth is amassed often hits its mark in biographies. We know the usual suspects: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Jobs. Within each is a story of a commodity or a manufactured good, something tangible for the mind’s eye. Concentrated wealth by way of finance capital is a more nebulous biographic endeavor. Rarer still are novelizations about finance capitalists.

If such a novel sounds beyond dull and has you mentally placing it back on the shelf, then this year’s co-winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction should have you reconsidering. I’ll take it even further: If there’s one novel I would recommend, here and now, it would be “Trust” by Hernan Diaz, the aforementioned winner. It’s a brilliant work told in four parts, each with a different narrator. As such, it’s tempting to label all narrators as unreliable. Fair enough, yet some narratives appear truer than others, with each casting doubt on what you think you’ve already learned. Throughout, the reader is putting together an intriguing narrative puzzle: Who are Benjamin and Helen Rask?

The novel begins with a novella that reads like a biography that’s essentially free of dialogue. Written by a man named Harold Vanner, he pens as his first sentence: “Because he had enjoyed every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise.” Bookish and solitary, a young Rask enters the 20th century with “no appetites to repress.” When his father dies during his senior year of high school, “relatives and acquaintances alike were impressed by Benjamin’s composure, but the truth was that mourning simply had given the natural dispositions of this character a socially recognizable form.”

To say that he’s without appetite is somewhat of a misnomer. True, the tobacco business that yields great generational wealth within the Rask family bores him. Using that wealth to buy and sell securities decidedly does not bore him. In fact, as he moves through early adulthood, the New York financial community is awed by his ability to capitalize on the market.

But Rask has a problem. His localized fame works against his need for solitude. Continuing his monastic life carries the risk of being labeled, understatedly, “a character.” Rask is cognizant enough to know “there was nothing more conspicuous than anonymity.” He finds the remedy in Helen Brevoort, his future wife. It’s more than a marriage of convenience. They both share ravenous intellectual curiosities. Helen, too, craves a life of the mind. Yet she’s more adroit in crafting their image, understanding that “privacy requires a public facade.” She and Benjamin host numerous gatherings at their New York City mansion, notably chamber orchestra performances.

Throughout their marriage, the Rask fortune grows to levels that leave other financiers wondering exactly how this was achieved. Helen, in turn, uses this wealth to become the nation’s leading benefactor of the arts. Then comes the stock market crash of 1929.

Rather than being ruined, the Rasks inexplicably profit from the crash. They are vilified in the newspapers, Benjamin accused of orchestrating the calamity for personal gain. The Rasks become social pariahs before a brutal illness takes Helen’s life. In the end, despite their lavish parties, no one can say that they really knew the Rasks.

The novel’s second narrator is a financier who worked during the time in question. The novel’s third narrator is Ida Partenza, a woman who’s recalling—many decades later—her employment by the second narrator. And the final narrator’s diary entries completely change the novel’s tone, revealing and answering much. To expound on these narrations here would steal some of the novel’s thunder.

I say “some” because even if someone had disclosed what was to come, I would have devoured the novel nonetheless. Diaz’s writing is exquisite. He captures the voices of the learned, ranging from securities traders to cultural elites. He can also jettison any high-mindedness and share the musings of someone—regardless of socioeconomic class—who’s nearing the great equalizer: death. “Is the strawberry in my mouth alive? Or is its flesh, speckled with the unborn, already dead?”

Partenza’s narration also reveals a life outside the rarefied air of the wealthy. She and her Italian immigrant father are barely surviving the Great Depression in their Brooklyn apartment. It doesn’t help that her father is a self-styled anarchist who detests the very concept of money, a quasi-Marxist who can’t stand the Marxists in power. Still, he and the financier who employs Ida have something in common. They both see the economic depression as a corrective, but for vastly different reasons.

Ida loves her father and doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of his views; yet she finds his dogma insufferable, bordering on fascistic. She can’t help but take some pleasure in knowing that her father must accept that her income comes from a finance capitalist, money that keeps them housed. This period of her long life is short, but a certain person and event within it will also become the standard by which she will forever “measure hatred.”

The stories within “Trust” surround how paper capital begets more paper capital. But it’s also a story about how views on money bleed into all interactions, whether someone realizes it or not. It’s a story about how reality can be made to fit mistakes, about the “bizarre sort of violence in having…memories plagiarized.” Some of life’s narratives are born of deceit, becoming earnestly told and believed with each retelling.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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