A Culinary History of Missouri by Suzanne Corbett and Deborah Reinhardt

One of my favorite things about traveling is experiencing the unique food and drink of the places I visit. To be honest, I like that as much, in some cases more, than site-seeing. In Missouri, you don’t have to go far before coming across breweries, distilleries, Kansas City barbeque, St. Louis Italian, Sedalia’s State Fair food, wineries, and much, much more. Although it’s less of a “where to eat travelogue” and more of a history proper, authors Suzanne Corbett and Deborah Reinhardt take us on quite the journey in A Culinary History of Missouri: Foodways & Iconic Dishes of the Show-Me-State.

We begin in colonial Missouri with our first European settlers—the French. According to the authors, “Unlike other American Colonial groups, Missouri’s French defined themselves through their food ways.” They made mud ovens in which to bake bread from wheat they grew and milled. The enslaved Africans who arrived with them introduced okra and gumbos into their food culture.

Food itself aside, it was important to Missouri’s French colonists to maintain their food customs, including table settings and cookware. The table was always set! And cookware was largely the same in poor and wealthy households, featuring kettles, pots (iron, tin, copper, wood), baking pans, pudding molds, pepper mills, utensils, etc.

To grow food, they created common fields, which were not unlike today’s community gardens, though a bit more involved. In these fields, people cultivated a variety of row crops. Some of the fields, such as the one in Ste. Genevieve, are still visible today.

Food was very much tied to holidays and tradition. For example, the King’s Cake, “a fanciful cake enriched with butter, incorporating aromatic spices, ground nuts, and fruit glaze” was baked to celebrate Twelfth Night. As it goes, a bean was placed in the batter before the cake was baked. During the Twelfth Night Ball, the King’s Cake was served to all the gentlemen and whoever found the bean in their cake was proclaimed king and got to choose a queen. This celebration is carried on today at the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis. Each year, they welcome the public to their annual Twelfth Night Ball.

Another food-related holiday event takes place annually in Ste. Genevieve. La Guignolee, “Missouri’s original New Year’s Eve,” is a celebration in the streets, taverns, and cafes of the Historic District that features dancing, singing, food, and drink. Like the Twelfth Night Ball in St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve’s La Guignolee is open to the public—ring in the New Year like it’s 1769!

The authors take us linear from the 1700s into 1800s Missouri, when the English and Scotch-Irish, and their enslaved African Americans, “arrived from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Illinois.” Their specialty? Curing and smoking hams. In fact, they were so good at curing and smoking hams that “Missouri became and remains one of the few states included in the American Ham Belt.” Yes, that’s a thing—the American Ham Belt. Portable soup, a sort of predecessor to bouillon, is also of this era. It was a bone broth boiled down to a gelatinous paste then dried and cut and could be reconstituted with water.

We visit Arrow Rock Tavern, which was established in 1834 and is the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River. Soups and stews were its most common fare, with occasional special dishes, such as fried chicken. Fantastically, Arrow Rock Tavern still serves fried chicken daily.

The authors bring to light how food and the introduction of new food to an area can change, or re-establish, food production. For example, when Turkey Red wheat was introduced to Missouri by Russian immigrants in the 1870s, it “revitalized milling operations” when two men bought the old community mill, rebuilt it, and produced “Queen of the Pantry Flour,” which became very popular. It’s interesting to think that if Turkey Red wheat hadn’t been introduced to that area, the mill would have, like so many others, fallen into disrepair and likely eventually been torn down.

I didn’t realize Missouri is home to big-name food brands, such as Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix (which began as Pearl Milling Company Pancake Mix, the namesake which it returned to in 2021 “in an effort to make positive progress for racial equality”) and Saltines. Also, the Golden Delicious apple was discovered and developed in Louisiana, Missouri. Other food discoveries originated in Missouri, too, such as burnt ends in Kansas City, and the first bread slicing machine in St. Joseph.

The railroad had a tremendous impact on food, helping to overcome “regional limitations” by significantly reducing the time it takes to move food, thereby “making more food accessible and affordable.” Moreover, as passenger service increased, so did the demand to dine while in transit. Hence, the dining car (which was preceded by buffet/refreshments cars, not unlike those used by airlines today, though they failed to appease travelers’ appetites).

The Rockcliffe and Garth Woodside mansions, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places in Hannibal, Missouri, offer a sort of breakfast reenactment in honor of Mark Twain: “Elegant breakfast served in a style that Twain would have approved.” Visitors may also dine at the Mark Twain Dinette, a circa 1940s diner near his boyhood home.

Interestingly, we learn about much more than the history of food in Missouri. We learn, too, about the history of our culture and our people. Take, for example, Crown Candy in north St. Louis. Opened in 1913 by best friends who emigrated from Greece, Crown Candy Kitchen is the city’s oldest operating soda fountain. (And, though it’s not mentioned in the book, I hear they have good BLTs!) Jazz, politics, and sports are among the cultural aspects discussed by the authors.

A culinary history of Missouri would not be complete without touching on Missouri’s breweries and wineries, of which Missouri has (and has had) plenty. The authors discuss German settlement of central Missouri and the “grape lots” that came to be in that area, which lead to the establishment of Missouri wineries. Breweries in St. Louis, as well as other areas, are highlighted, as well as the impact of prohibition on alcohol-related establishments throughout the state.

Not only does this book serve as a culinary history of Missouri, but a cookbook, too. At the end of each chapter, you’ll find the recipes referenced. Here are some that caught my eye: 1830 Chicken Pie, Cowboy Beef and Beans, Saltine Cracker Pie, Fred Harvey Railroad Cole Slaw, and Pioneer Chili.

As always, happy reading and, in this case, happy eating.

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Ocean Books for Summer Reading

It’s June, which means Summer Reading 2022 is in full effect at the Joplin Public Library. This year’s theme is “Oceans of Possibilities,” and we have planned a summer’s worth of fun ocean events and activities for families. Although we live far from any ocean, books featuring the sea and marine animals abound and are well-loved in the Children’s Department.

I have selected a few of my favorite ocean titles to share, with the common thread being a message of self-esteem and acceptance.

One might feel less than if they don’t have an obvious talent or are not the best at what they do. Your cute and cheerful axolotl friend Dewdrop is here to remind you that you don’t have to be the best to be important. In the end, all that matters is whether you tried your hardest. K. O’NEILL‘s 2020 picture book debut “DEWDROP” follows the eponymous axolotl as they visit and encourage their friends training for a sports fair. A self-described cheerleader, Dewdrop visits Turtle, who thinks she’s no good at lifting weights; Newman the newt, who thinks he stinks at singing; and three minnows, who aren’t sure they are the best chefs.

O’Neill is also the artist behind the lushly written and illustrated “Tea Dragon Society” series for middle graders, and their foray into books for younger children does not disappoint. The illustrations in this picture book are bright, incorporating a lot of emerald green, bright pink, sunshiny yellows, and purples. Dewdrop and their friends, which include a turtle with a headband, a musical newt and culinary minnows, have a Kawaii quality to them, so cute you can hardly handle it. Thankfully, the story and the message are as sweet as the pictures.

Find DEWDROP in our catalog. 

Another ocean title that excels at spreading a message of self-acceptance is JESSIE SIMA‘s “NOT QUITE NARWHAL.” This 2017 book follows Kelp, a unicorn born and raised in the ocean as a narwhal. He knows he can’t do things that his narwhal friends can do, but everyone likes Kelp just the way he is. When a strong current pulls him into shore, he spies a unicorn high on a cliff and realizes he may not be a narwhal after all.

Kelp spends time on land, learning how to walk and, eventually, finding the other unicorns. Naturally, they live under rainbows and frolic through flowers all day. However, Kelp starts to wonder, with a tinge of homesickness, whether he belongs with the unicorns either. After encouragement from both sets of friends, he realizes he is perfect just the way he is: not quite narwhal, not quite unicorn, but fully and perfectly Kelp. The illustrations are reminiscent of newspaper comic strips, and the colors are all soft pinks, blues, and purples, with pops of neon colors. Follow-up book “Perfectly Pegasus” was recently released and is now available at the Joplin Public Library.

Find NOT QUITE NARWHAL in our catalog.

My third affirming ocean title is MOLLY IDLE’s “PEARL.” This picture book tells the story of a young mermaid yearning to be given a job as important as those held by her big sisters. When her mother informs her that she must watch over a single grain of sand, she is crestfallen. Though her mother assures her “the smallest of things can make a great difference,” she feels let down. Over time, Pearl comes to realize the grain of sand is much more significant than she thought. More importantly, she realizes how significant she is.

With “Pearl,” Idle excels at matching the words to the imagery; the story reads like a poem or, more appropriately, a series of waves rolling in. The ocean setting takes center stage, with blues ranging from midnight to turquoise. Pearl stands out with a neon pink tail and flowing, white-blonde hair. Several pages show Pearl’s tail changing direction in front of the blue background, giving the impression of slow-moving, kelp-like waves.

Find PEARL in our catalog. 

I love the gentle affirmations these books provide and am thankful that so many children’s authors are making books like these. For more suggestions, come see us at the library. Don’t forget to sign up for summer reading and check out our summer events!

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

If you are of a certain age, you may recall Jonathan Franzen, even if you have yet to read his work. Think back to 2001, when Oprah selected Franzen’s “The Corrections” for her book club. This made the literary author decidedly uncomfortable. He publicly stated he considered himself from the “high-art literary tradition” and that so many of Oprah’s selections were “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” Displeased, Oprah promptly disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show. The story became fodder for cable news, so Franzen’s book sales were still assured. (An excellent novel, it would go on to win the National Book Award.)

His latest novel, “Crossroads” approaches masterpiece status. Franzen is brilliant and has clearly honed his writing so as to jettison what many thought were elements of a show-off from his earlier novels. Still, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it was for me.

It is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s, Russ and Marion Hildebrandt have four kids, their ages running the gamut. Russ is an associate minister who has been reassigned within his church after being ousted as head of the youth group he created, Crossroads. To add to his humiliation, two of his children subsequently join the group. Russ, who wants nothing to do with his wife, is pursuing a widowed church member; it’s somewhat comedic while simultaneously being all-the-way sad.

Each of the children is struggling in their own way. Clem, away at college, is about to drop out so as to attempt enlistment in the Vietnam War. Becky, as popular as they get in high school, is becoming increasingly intrigued with the counterculture. Then we have Perry, a high school sophomore, a genius, a drug dealer, and an addict. His “manner is seemingly forthright and respectful but somehow neither.”

Perry joins Crossroads as a contrivance, emoting in group sessions. “Because it was a game, he was good at it, and although intimacies achieved by game-theoretical calculation were hard to feel great about, he sensed that other people were genuinely moved by his emotional displays.” Becky sees through his ploy and promptly calls him out for not only manipulating the group but for also being a borderline loathsome person.

Marion, who has her own history of mental illness, is certainly worried for Perry’s mental well-being and for good reason. Russ, meanwhile, has delusions of grandeur by thinking he can save some Navajo land. Yet this is the same guy whose family is disintegrating right before his blinkered eyes.

In his novels, Franzen takes it to Midwesterners. (He was raised in St. Louis.) For all the mainstream “dontcha know” and “whelp!” jokes that are supposed to underscore some sort of Midwestern innocence, Franzen has consistently hit back with a grimmer take, where repressed feelings are dangerously mixed with silent hatreds; add, too, the prevalence of drug use (think methamphetamine).

But this is not to say that “Crossroads” is a satire on Midwestern church families. The characters are going through genuine moral crises. Treating them with care, Franzen makes their respective anguishes real.

Maybe all too real for this reviewer. Make no mistake, Franzen is in top form as his intellect fully surrounds the characters he builds and then topples. Make no mistake, too, you feel the characters’ plight. Franzen’s writing makes sure of that. It’s as though you’re lying down on the grass on the most pleasant of days, hands behind your head, watching the clouds pass by for hours. It’s gorgeous in its own way, with its grand unfurling. But every now and then you come across a thunderclap that emphasizes the devastation. Here’s Clem asking Russ: “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?”

Readers of John Updike will perhaps be reminded of “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” a gorgeous multi-generational novel, where the reader sees how one decision made by one person from one generation affects the next. There’s certainly an Updikean feel to “Crossroads.” However, here, the family members live their lives in one uneasy swirl and it’s an unnerving slow bleed (albeit humorous at times).

Apparently, “Crossroads” is the first of a planned trilogy entitled “A Key to All Mythologies.” (Readers of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” will probably recognize the reference.) Knowing this, I’ll possibly give the second volume a go. For while I found “Crossroads” wrenching, there is hope for the Hildebrandts.

There’s plenty of hurt that results in various family fissures, yet they don’t give up on each other. Plus, Russ finally sees it: Sometimes we err and err badly, but we keep trying. “Turning and turning,” he says. “Until by turning and turning we come around right.”

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Six Mystery/Thrillers that Take You Places

My reading over the last few weeks has taken me to a lot of different locations. I spent some quality time in Colorado before a brief stop in Washington, DC led me to Texas. Then I made a mad dash through Peru, Costa Rica and the Caribbean. My next stop was North Carolina before a stay in Sydney, Australia.

In some places I caught up with familiar characters, in others I got to know ones I’ve met briefly before, and for a few I was able to meet new personas.

Margaret Mizushima took me to Colorado in her Timber Creek K-9 mystery series. This series was recommended to me by a fellow mystery reader who thought I would like it (Thank you, I do!). Mattie Cobb and K-9 partner, Robo, are introduced in Killing Trail. Robo was bought for the sheriff’s department to help with a growing drug problem in Timber Creek. On the pair’s first assignment he proves his skill goes beyond drug detection when he discovers the body of teen. This series has a lot going for it with good character development, a complex heroine with a troubled past, a mountainous setting, and most importantly the relationship between Mattie and Robo and how they work together. I’ll be back in Colorado again soon.

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Lucas Davenport in the Prey series by John Sandford is one of my favorite characters. His adopted daughter, Letty, was introduced in Naked Prey and is mentioned or makes brief appearances in most of the succeeding Prey novels. In The Investigator she takes the lead. The 24-year old Stanford grad is talked out of leaving a boring job by her boss, Senator Colles. His plan is to make her a researcher with her first assignment to work with Homeland Security to find who is stealing oil and for what purpose. Joined by DHS agent John Kaiser they leave DC for a brief stop in Oklahoma before the trial leads them to Texas. This is Sandford at his best as Letty and John piece together clues and follow the oil and the money. With plenty of action and smart dialog this one was hard to put down.

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The Recovery Agent features Gabriela Rose, Janet Evanovich’s new heroine. First introduced in a Stephanie Plum novel, Gabriela has mad skills and uses them to locate items and investigate fraud for insurance companies and private clients. However her current case is for family. Grandma is convinced Gabriela is a descendant of Blackbeard and they possess a map that will take them to the Ring of Solomon. If she can find it, they can save their hurricane ravaged town. The map however is in the home of her ex-husband, Rafer, who insists on being part of the quest. This novel is pure entertainment as the adventure goes from Peru and Costa Rica to the Caribbean then New York City and back to South America. It has a truly creepy bad guy and funny sidekicks. Though divorced there is still a spark between Gabriela and Rafer with plenty of witty banter. If you are an Evanovich fan, you don’t want to miss this one.

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After all that excitement I settled in to catch up with the ladies in the Secret, Book & Scone Society. Nora’s book store in Miracle Springs, NC is the gathering place for the 4 friends-Nora, June, Hester and Estella. In this 5th book in the series, Vanishing Type, three of them are helping Hester’s beau plan a romantic scenario for proposing. But Hester has a secret and before she can share it an unidentified man is found dead with an old book is his pocket. Then a book in the same series shows up in Hester’s bakery and Nora finds another in a box in her storeroom. What is the significance of the series of books? Is Hester in danger? Despite the intrigue I felt like I was catching up with old friends. Their lives are evolving with each new book in the series.

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is a book I checked out because it was recommended to me by a friend. After 20 pages I thought why did she think I’d like this? After a few more I was hooked. The Delaneys of Sydney Australia were a tennis family. Stan and Joy ran a successful academy and all 4 of their children were gifted players. Now they play recreationally or not at all but tennis still seems to dominate their lives. The story is told in the present where Joy is missing and in the past when a young woman, Savannah, shows up at Stan and Joy’s home needing help. In the present the police and even his children believe Stan is responsible for Joy’s disappearance. He feels guilty about something and he’s not talking. In the past, where Savannah seems to take up permanent residence in their home, is where it starts to unravel. The urgency of Joy’s disappearance is dimmed because she is so often seen in the past. But this book is about so much more than the mystery of what happened to Joy. It’s about family, how the past shapes the present and how the smallest things can make all the difference. Hint: keep this book in mind for the Summer Reading Program starting on May 31st. This title will work for one the adult challenges.

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Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

SPACE OPERA by Catherynne M. Valente is a book so up my alley that I put off reading it for years because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to how amazing it sounded. I can tell you now that I was wrong.

But before I tell you about the book, let me ask: have you heard of Eurovision?  It’s an annual song contest that the nations of Europe have been putting on since 1956. Each country brings a song and performs it live, and the entire thing is broadcast on TV for the viewers at home. Sort of like the Olympics for pop music.

SPACE OPERA is Eurovision, but in space.

Decibel Jones – former front man of the one-time super-group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros – is asleep in his tiny London apartment when he is visited by an electric blue flamingo creature claiming to be from another planet.

The creature is called an Esca, and she has come to Earth with a somewhat threatening invitation.

She explains that all of the known sentient species in the universe come together annually for a song contest. They play whatever they have for instruments and sing with whatever they use to produce speech – be it a mouth, a trunk, or a hollow melodic rib cage.

All species who have developed the capability for space travel are required to send a representative to the contest. Meaning that Earth must now participate. And as a race applying for intergalactic recognition of their sentience, they must place better than dead last.

If they come last, they will have proven they are not sentient, not able to coexist with the other species, and their entire race will be wiped out – in order to protect the other races from the threat of a non-sentient species wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The Esca explains the stakes to Decibel, and every other human on the planet simultaneously. She then presents humanity with a list of performers that have the best chance of succeeding in the Metagalactic Grand Prix. At the very bottom of the list: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.

Next thing he knows, Dess finds himself and his ex-bandmate, Oort St. Ultraviolet, onboard a starship headed for the Metagalactic Grand Prix, with the fate of the world on their shoulders.

The two of them must write and perform a new song that will appeal even a little bit to a panel of intergalactic judges, while rubbing elbows with unusual beings from across the universe.

SPACE OPERA is so much fun to read. Valente mixes in a lot of humor and heart into her story of impending global destruction. Readers get glimpses into what people back on earth are experiencing as they watch the Grand Prix and glimpses into Dess’ childhood, as a kid dancing around in his grandmother’s scarves and a teen designing his first stage outfit from the thrift store bargain bins.

From their conception, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were decidedly glam. They were a mid-2000s British pop sensation that burned briefly, but brightly.

The three members of the band, Dess, Oort, and Mira Wonderful Star, were a world all their own. Until Mira died tragically years ago. Without her, and with the band already falling from the spotlight, Dess and Oort didn’t have a reason to keep going. Dess made a go at a solo career, and Oort got married and had two kids.

Decibel Jones is Arthur Dent meets Lady Gaga; he’s a stranger out in the galaxy, but he tries very hard to treat everything with the practiced disinterest you expect from a rockstar. And if you don’t like Dess, then you will like Oort, who is the epitome of steady – the rock that kept the Absolute Zeros together while they lasted.

Valente has presented an excellent example of my favorite kind of science fiction, the kind that has gone out to space to have fun. She has taken cues from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is the gold standard funny sci-fi book.

Valente dedicates paragraphs to the history of an alien species or the peculiarities of its home world – a convention that Douglas Adams used liberally in Hitchhiker’s. Her story is brief, but the world she has built is populated with so many interesting characters that SPACE OPERA has only just scratched the surface.

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Ready, Set, Cook: How to Make Good Food with What’s on Hand by Dawn Perry

I usually leave reviewing cookbooks to the talented Lisa Brown, who has a much more worldly palate than I, but I have checked out “READY, SET, COOK: HOW TO MAKE GOOD FOOD WITH WHAT’S ON HAND” at least once a month since we added it to the collection in December, so I just had to share my enthusiasm for it.

DAWN PERRY, the creator of this cookbook, is a genius. Simple, delicious foods that you can make with items you have on hand. I have found only one other cookbook that I think accomplishes this well. I am sure there are more, but my pantry and refrigerator staples are usually pretty limited. I hate finding a new recipe I want to try, but I need to buy two new sauces and five new ingredients, all of which will sit in my pantry or in my refrigerator after I have made the new dish and just take up space. Not the case with “Ready, Set, Cook.”

Easily laid out and not overwhelming to new or less than enthusiastic cooks like me, the book has three sections. Part One: What to Buy; Part Two: What to Make; and Part Three: What to Cook. They are each colorful, with many pictures and large clear fonts that help draw the reader in. Perry has a casual way of writing that includes loads of tips and tricks.

In part one, she talks about where to start, what to stock and how to organize it. I had most of the items that she recommends as cupboard staples — oils, rice, onions, garlic, pasta, beans, dried spices and honey — and all but a couple of the refrigerator staples. She finishes the chapter talking about organization and equipment.

In part two, her focus is building a collection of homemade staples for your pantry and refrigerator. This includes how to make meatballs, flatbreads, pie dough, sauces and cooked vegetables.

I did not spend much time here — just read through quickly, as I wanted to move on to part three to see what I could manage to whip up for breakfast or dinner.

Part three is mapped out in this order: breakfast, salads and veggies, starchy sides (my favorite kind), main things, afterthoughts, snacks and a couple of drinks, and sweets. I love the versatility of Perry’s recipes. She gives you a recipe for things such as muffins, yogurt parfaits, salad, bread and boiled potatoes, but then provides five variations for each one to easily mix it up.

The Afterthoughts section is devoted to lessening food waste. According to Perry, “leftovers need to be made over.” I love this idea. I made the “Office Bowls” from this section. They are, at their simplest, grain or rice bowls with a few veggies and dressing, but so easy to put together that most anyone can handle it using leftovers and pantry or refrigerator items. Plus, there are six variations and the photographs are so helpful in visualizing what you are making.

Speaking of the photographs, this is my favorite element of the book. Large, colorful images that showcase the food. But unlike some cookbooks they do not feel overly staged or complicated. A simple white plate with food on it, sometimes arranged less than neatly, is the highlight.

I highly recommend this cookbook. Especially to anyone who is busy but still wants to put together a home-cooked meal. Perry has done much of the heavy lifting here. She has created and shared 125 recipes that will hopefully make your mealtime more streamlined and your palette happier.

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The Starless Crown by James Rollins

James Rollins has a bit of a reputation. The dude’s been writing action-adventure novels since the late 90’s–some of which you might have even heard of (think, Subterranean or the novel adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His Sigma Force series establishes him as a bonafide “master of the [thriller] genre” (according to BOOKLIST). Labeled by many as Michael Crichton’s “heir apparent” to the techno-thriller throne, Rollins has made quite the career of writing science-based, suspense-laden tales of mystery and reveal. Yet, thine truth easily forgotten is the tale of how this thriller-king forged his path into the literary realm (note: that was a bit of foreshadowing, not just an awkwardly phrased, archaic rhetoric of sorts). About a year before Subterranean hit the presses, Rollins published his first novel, Wit’ch Fire, under the pen name, James Clemens (which adds another layer of interest and mystery, as Rollins is a pseudonym as well). This was the first of a series, The Banned and the Banished. Now if the suspense is killing you (ba-dum-ching), I’ll go ahead and make the big reveal. Rollins got his start writing fantasy. (Well, he actually got his start by being a successful veterinarian, but that’s a whole other lead-in that we don’t have time for.)

In his latest entry, The Starless Crown, James Rollins introduces his readers to the fantastical planet of Urth (go ahead, pronounce it the same way you do your own planet). Set between the uninhabitable polars of a frozen tundra and a fiery desert is “the crown”–a land filled with all of the political, religious, and academic tropes a die-hard fantasy reader yearns for (myself included). To put it another way, there’s a school. Governing authorities are pulling most of the strings that are connected to this school (or at least, they think they are, due to the inclinations of a wise head master of sorts). Within the curriculum taught at the school, there’s a heavy emphasis on the merging of myth and science–as if the two are connected somehow. All of this mystery and apparent-string pulling sets the stage for our primary protagonist, Nyx.

Nyx is interesting. She’s almost blind (a cloudy haze covers both eyes, making it nearly impossible for her to see most objects). She’s a sharp, bright student that is advancing through the ranks of her school, which is hard to do as each new rank is preceded by a culling of sorts (don’t worry, it’s not the type of culling that leads to death, just the kind that says “get out of here, we don’t want you anymore”). Yet, as she advances, so does the mystery surrounding her. You see, her classmates are mostly made up of the high-born populace (i.e., those with enough money and status to use hyphenated words on the regular). Nyx, however, was raised by her adoptive father and his two sons, who happen to live in a swamp. Even in the crown, high-borns look down upon swamp-borns (we totally just made “swamp-borns” a thing). Here’s the kicker, though: Nyx wasn’t actually born in the swamp. Until the events of this story begin to unfold, nobody–not even Nyx or her adoptive family–knows where she came from. As her da’ (adoptive father) tells it, “it’s as if she just fell from the sky.”

See. This is fantasy 101. Rollins knows what he’s doing.

To whet your appetite just a bit, allow me to set the stage. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, thus the “just a bit” phrasing.

You already know about Nyx. Again, she’s interesting, but it’s the “absolutely great” type of interesting. She’s a very likable character. Paired with Nyx is her friend and Cloistery assigned “tutor”, Jace. Now, “Cloistery” is the name of the school mentioned above. Naturally, Nyx attends this school and Jace used to (before he was non-lethally culled from it). Jace is Nyx’s tutor in that he helps her read and get around, due to her visual impairment–he is not a formal tutor, as Nyx is more than capable of managing her own academic pursuits. Eventually, the pair escape the confines of the Cloistery, not because they don’t like it, but because of a series of events that leads to (a) Nyx regaining her eyesight, which in turn leads to (b) her discovery of a secret connection with a monstrous race of giant, winged, bat-like creatures, thus leading to (c) her receiving a vision (from the bats–or, Myr bats as they’re referred to) that foretells the damnation and destruction of Urth.

Now, here’s the cool bit. Every aspect of the story I’ve mentioned thus far is all about Nyx and her backstory. Yet, as her story continues to develop, so does the character count. Specifically, the primary character count. In addition to Nyx, Rollins sprinkles in three other main characters, each having a supporting character or two (i.e., each having a “Jace” or two). This allows for Rollins to employ a multi-perspective narrative, as each section of the book is told via the perspective of a different main character than the last section was. Not all readers enjoy this style. So be forewarned if that’s you.

Alongside Nyx and Jace, readers discover a variety of character profiles. Not far into the story, Rollins introduces Rhaif, a thief who breaks out of a prison-mine after finding (and stealing) an ancient artifact that might just be my favorite character of the entire book (yes, I just called an artifact a character–that’s the only spoiler you’re getting here).  Next, Rollins introduces Kanthe, a dejected, displaced prince of the realm, due to him being born mere minutes after his older twin brother, and the fact that his father–King Toranth of Azantiia–is flat out jerkish. Kanthe and his tutor, a powerful alchemist named Frell, are thrown into Nyx’s story by either mere happenstance or fate–the latter of which seems improbable to Kanthe, as his sense of self-worth is, at best, lacking. The final character that makes up Rollins’ alliance of vagabonds is a disgraced warrior, who after years of banishment due to a crime of passion, finds himself re-entering a land he swore to never come back to, whilst re-entering a story he thought concluded–Nyx’s (okay, that’s for real the last spoiler).

So, to recap. This story is about a child of destiny protected by a group of outcasts–a prince trying to discover who he is, a thief with more scruples than he’d care to admit, and a legendary warrior wrestling with the demons of his past–in order to avoid (or set into motion) the end of the world. Again, fantasy 101. Throw in some magic, other-worldly creatures, and a villain we all want to punch in the face (even those of us who don’t actually know how to punch people in the face), and this story quickly becomes a satisfying entry to an already full genre.

This book reads like a Robin Hobbs, Terry Brooks, or Mark Lawrence piece–concise, clear vision, and excellent word choice. So, if you like these writers, this might be the book for you. While Rollins’ world building is solid, it’s not quite on par with Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson–which might be a good thing, since as of now this is planned as the first of four books (i.e., it takes a few more books than that to build the types of worlds Jordan and Sanderson have created).  Rollins’ prose and pacing remind me of George R. R. Martin and R. F. Kuang, as this book builds steadily, while giving a lot of attention and detail to action sequences and dialogue more so than other facets of character development.

By and large, this is a great re-entry for Rollins. One can tell that he’s familiar with the genre, and that he’s more than capable of producing quality content that will keep his readers coming back for more. If you’re a fan of fantasy or even just a fan of Rollins’ other works, this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre, this is a great entry point. You can pick up a copy to borrow at the Joplin Public Library. It can be found in the new fiction section as you enter the lobby.

A Trio of Non-Fiction in Teen

The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn

Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series, various authors

The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen

It’s spring!  Or, at least it finally feels like it.  Flowers and trees and shrubs are blooming around town, and possibility is in the air.  Here in the Library’s Teen Department, the latest crop of books has as much variety and promise as the flowers outside.  Take a look at these non-fiction titles just waiting to be discovered!

For middle school and high school students who are wrapping up the semester and preparing for finals, try a title in the Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series from Workman Publishing.  Created by the editors of the popular educational game Brain Quest and written by authors with experience in the given field, each book is like borrowing the notes of the organized, thorough student in class.  

Each title in the series breaks down key concepts into important, easily understood components covering the subject.  The books are laid out like school notebooks with lined pages, handwritten fonts, and color-coded highlighted sections.  Doodles illustrating complex topics are scattered throughout as are mnemonic devices, definitions of key terms, and quizzes for review.  Compact-yet-thick, these titles easily fit into a backpack and are far easier to carry than most textbooks.

Disclaimer: the Big Fat Notebook series, while an amazing resource, is not a substitute for actually paying attention in class!  It is fantastic for review, confidence building, and reinforcement of concepts before exams or in smaller bites during the semester.  The series covers major subjects–computer science/coding, math, science, world history, American history, English language arts for middle school and pre-algebra/algebra 1, chemistry, biology, and geometry for high school.  They are super helpful and accessible, great for middle school and high school students plus adults wanting to catch up on these subjects.  (Where were these when I was in eighth-grade algebra?!)

To let off steam after studying, break out some LEGOs and try The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen.  Written for LEGO enthusiasts, this straightforward, concise title begins with a history of castles and a tour of their architecture then moves to building different types of castles and landscaping a medieval village from LEGOs, ending with instructions for 6 “master builds” (even a dragon).

The book’s layout is clean and clear, with color photos of completed and in-progress builds throughout.  The brief text provides just the right amount of context for background; text in the builds sections is designed to look like manuals from LEGO sets, showing important phases along the way.  Builds and book are designed for LEGO fans with some experience plus access to the variety of bricks listed (a few specialty ones).  I was pleased to see a quick guide to the variety of bricks used (including color photographs showing individual bricks/plates with their official numbers) and a discussion of economical sources for purchasing the bricks needed.

Also, I was excited that the builds were grounded in history.  Author Jeff Friesen identifies major types of medieval (European) castles with photos of completed LEGO versions and interesting text.  He also depicts the main parts of the castle and the community within its walls and how to construct them, tossing in handy tips along the way such as using minifigure accessories as turret finials.  He reminds readers that castle life was real life a thousand years ago, discussing topics like the role of castle builders, the cost and building process, and how castle architecture is tied to its defense.  The LEGO Castle Book is great for teens, adults, or upper elementary ages with a passion for LEGO; pair this with David Macaulay’s classic Castle for a fantastic dive into the subject.

Looking for a different creative outlet?  Try The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn for some outdoor fun.  Zinn has been creating delightful, amusing chalk drawings around his Michigan hometown for years and shares his enthusiasm and expertise in this guide to accessible outdoor art.

Zinn’s tone is warm and encouraging with a light sprinkling of dad humor.  He offers basic techniques and advice for drawing 2-D and 3-D illustrations on outdoor surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, and brick.  Viewing this art form as both an opportunity to stretch skills and to bring joy to the community, he emphasizes a respectful approach (ask permission, use media that will wash away, etc.).  Color photos of his completed and in-process artwork illustrate his tips and techniques.  His advice is concrete (no pun intended) and accessible although geared toward teens who have some drawing experience and skill.  He assumes a base level of drawing knowledge which could be frustrating for someone trying it for the first time.  

He invites artists to consider basic creative components before starting–what will you draw?  How many?  How will your creature(s) move around?  What is happening in the picture?  Then he moves to more detailed information about dealing with the drawing surface at hand.  Zinn identifies various paved surfaces (concrete, macadam, paving stones, etc.) giving hints about turning their natural, imperfect states into part of the picture–pits and holes in concrete become the eyes and ears and nostrils of a hippo, a manhole cover becomes a cookie about to be eaten by a monster.  As he notes, art tells a story, and depicting emotion is key even if it’s a small component, “Eyebrows are powerful things. Always use them wisely, both in your drawings and on your own face.”

The Chalk Art Handbook is packed with tips for creating whimsical, thoughtful drawings to delight artist and neighborhood alike.  It serves as encouragement and inspiration to teens with drawing experience and/or an interest in sidewalk art, including 3-D illusion pictures.  Everybody can win when public art is shared because “More art in more places brings more people more joy”.

Stop by the Library for these and many more titles blooming this spring!

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Pity Comic Sans, the font that people love to hate. Developed by Vincent Connare in the mid-1990s, Comic Sans is what author Simon Garfield describes as “type that has gone wrong” in his book Just My Type, an engaging history of type (which, these days, the average person refers to as a ‘font,’ but more on that later).

Connare designed Comic Sans as a reaction against the perceived formality of Times New Roman. Specifically, as a new typeface for Microsoft Bob, a user-friendly software program designed for people who didn’t use – or were frightened of – computers. Connare believed that Times New Roman didn’t mesh well with other elements of the software, such as its “accessible language and […] appealing illustrations.” Ultimately, Connare’s new type couldn’t be worked into the package. Guess what? Microsoft Bob failed. Not long afterward, Connare’s Comic Sans was released in another software package that indeed became popular.

Then, after being included in Windows 95, Comic Sans was everywhere. So much so that people got sick of it. Like, really sick of it. Garfield tells us of Holly and David Combs, a couple who made an anti-Comic Sans website and sold “Ban Comic Sans” merchandise. It’s not necessarily that the Combs thought Comic Sans had no place in the world, but that it needed to be put back in its place. This seemingly ubiquitous hatred of Comic Sans is not unlike how people love to hate Merlot–they know little about its complexities, nuances, and when it is, in fact, a smart, or dare I say the right, choice.

Not only does Garfield give us the history of type/fonts, but, in some cases, the histories of their creators. One such case is the grisly history (that I definitely won’t mention here) of Eric Gill, whose typeface Gill Sans appeared in 1928 as “one of the twentieth century’s earliest and classic sans serif fonts” and is still widely used today.

Speaking of Sans Serif fonts, what’s the difference between that and Serif? I’ll tell you, but Garfield will tell you better with one of the fantastic visuals that accompany the text throughout his book. Serif fonts have feet and tips, which are the serifs. Remove those and voila! You have Sans Serif.

So what about this whole typeface and type/font thing? While typeface is a certain style of lettering, fonts refer to variations of a typeface, including size, weight, and so on. Garfield writes: “Fonts were once known as founts. Fonts and founts weren’t the same as typefaces, and typefaces weren’t the same as type.” He highlights this and many other more technical aspects of typography that, admittedly, readers without a keen interest in type may not find interesting. For example, typographers once had typescales (depth scales) for measuring not only the type, but the space between it, both of which are referred to as the point size, or, for typographers (and printers, as in printing presses) these measurements are grouped into picas.

“DIY” is one of my favorite chapters because it introduced me to the John Bull Printing Outfit, a DIY typographic kit released in the 1930s. It was both creative and educational and, to me, looks and sounds like loads of fun (Hello, eBay!). Garfield goes on to discuss other methods of personal printing, from Letrasets to typewriters to floppy disks, ending the chapter saying that “well-printed” materials are “fast becoming heritage,” yet “typefaces – both their preponderance and ingenuity – have not suffered a similar decline in fortunes.” He writes further that perhaps we have too many.

I particularly appreciate how easy-reading this book is. Although I didn’t learn this till 250 pages in, the book is set in Sabon, which is known for its readability. Perhaps my sharing this with you is somewhat of a spoiler, but I have good reason for doing so. That I thought the book was easy-reading before knowing a particular font was chosen to achieve just that illustrates how much of a connection we have between text – not just what it says, but how it looks – and the way we process information and, more generally, the world.

Literally every printed word was someone’s decision to use a particular typeface or font. The newspaper (or screen, if that’s your style) that you’re holding in your hand to read this review is but one example. Whether we realize it or not – or like it or not – the way that things look impact the way that we interact with them and fonts are no exception. Have you ever been put off by some fonts and not others? Made choices as a consumer based on fonts and labels? Sure you have, as have I.

Garfield reminds us that, like anything else, fonts have rules. Though he’s not necessarily opposed, he wonders “to what extent do rules stifle individuality and creativity?” (Good question.) I’ll leave you with a few so-called rules mentioned by Garfield, though he attributes them to Paul Felton: “Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document;” “Remember that a typeface that is not legible is not truly a typeface;” and “Thou shalt not use only capitals when setting vast body copy.”

As always, happy reading.

Find in catalog.

Donna Barba Higuera’s THE LAST CUENTISTA

I recently finished the Newbery Medal title, Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista. This medal is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. At some point, I suppose I will stop being surprised at how excellent award winners are, but today is not that day.

The book follows Petra Peña and her family as they prepare to leave Earth due to an impending, life-ending comet. Because her parents are renowned scientists, the Peña family is selected to travel 380 years away to colonize a planet called Sagan. Upon boarding the large space ship, Petra, her younger brother Javier, and her mom and dad are separated and placed into a comatose state that preserves their bodies during the long trip. While in this state, they will receive knowledge through a port; this knowledge will ensure they can sufficiently contribute to the Collective upon arrival on Sagan. Petra is very unsettled by it all. She misses her grandma Lita, the stories they would tell together, and her old life back home in New Mexico.

The procedure should cause her to forget her old life when she wakes up. But nearly four centuries later, nothing is the way it is supposed to be. She remembers every bit, and her family is nowhere to be found.

Petra attempts to conceal this from the ship’s leaders while seeking out her parents and younger brother and working to get the others in her cabin to remember their former lives. Stories are how Petra has always made sense of the world, and they become even more of a lifeline as she seeks to find a way out of this strange future and get back to her family.

 

The Last Cuentista is full of twists and turns. I found myself racing ahead to find out what would happen, as if by speed reading, I could head off any negative outcomes that might occur. As Petra sneaks around the ship, trying to collect clues about her family and find a way off the ship, she retells her grandmother’s cuentos to the others and accidentally captures an unintended audience in Voxy, a young boy born and raised on the ship. To avoid any differences in human appearance, all members of the Collective, including Voxy, look the same. All have translucent skin, purple lips, and bright red veins. People like Petra, who has brown skin, a vision problem, and freckles, no longer exist. Individuality and diversity are not prized in the Collective.

The ship’s frightening leaders, Nyla and Crick, sacrifice Petra and the other original humans to explore Sagan. As she navigates the planet’s jungle-like climate and looks for a way off the ship, she comes to heartbreaking realizations and encounters some very unexpected people.

I will be thinking about this story for a long time. Higuera has crafted an engaging, edge-of-your-seat, dystopian tale that also emphasizes the importance of stories as a form of connection to yourself and others. I recently re-read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and I felt a lot of similarities between the two. Both are a little bit heavy with characters that are undeniably human. This would be an excellent read for fans of plot-driven dystopian tales, though The Last Cuentista is not nightmare-inducingly scary. Instead, it presents a terrifying reality where only a single story gets told, where we try so hard to get rid of the bad parts that we allow history to repeat itself. As Petra reflects at the novel’s end: “I know stories can’t always have happy endings. But if there are chances for us to do better, we have to say out loud the parts that hurt the most.”