The Fields by Erin Young

Robyn Young writes historical fiction in her home country of England. Under the pseudonym Erin Young, she has crossed the pond, at least in print, and penned her first thriller. Set in Waterloo, Iowa and the surrounding farm country, The Fields is a thriller that makes a statement on big agriculture and family farms.

It opens with Chloe Miller running for her life in a cornfield. When a drone approaches she curls as close to the corn stalks as possible hoping to hide from her pursuer. Days later her body is discovered by a co-op farmer surveying the crop.

From the wounds on the body it is obvious that this is a murder, making it Sergeant Riley Fisher’s first big case as head of the Investigations Division of the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Department. The pressure is intense as the sheriff wants a quick resolution, the men who wanted the promotion she got are waiting for her to fail, and the victim was a childhood friend. A friend from a time that Riley desperately wishes she could forget.

Chloe was married to James who is a researcher for GFT, a corn breeding company. They live in an affluent part of town so how did Chloe end up in the field and where is her car? James immediately becomes a suspect as he never reported his wife as missing.

Her team starts building a case, collecting evidence and conducting interviews. Then another body is found. This victim was strangled but had some of the same wounds found on Chloe. Nicole King was killed in an old meat-packing plant and evidence points to someone camping in the plant. Besides Nicole’s purse and a backpack there are lots of pill bottles from a local pharmacy. The evidence leads to a displaced veteran, George Anderson. But Anderson seems to have disappeared along with others who have been living on the streets.

The pharmacist identifies the drug as Fenozen which at least one of his former employees had been stealing. One of the suspected thieves is Sarah Foster. Sarah is known to the department because her daughter, Gracie, has been missing for weeks and believed to be a runaway.

Despite the wounds the two victims don’t have anything in common so James Miller is still Riley’s number one suspect in Chloe’s death. First the sheriff and then the governor warns her to leave James alone. Riley’s father worked for the governor in the past so he knows her but why is he steering her away from Miller?

Then Gracie is found in the river with similar wounds to the other two victims. Black Hawk County now has the requisite three bodies to think they have a serial killer. But the only thing tying the victims together is the strange wounds. The cause of death is different for each victim and they have nothing in common except their gender.

Is there one murderer, two or even three? When the FBI comes in to assist, Riley knows she has to solve the case quickly or lose it. But how do you find such an unpredictable killer or killers?

There is a lot going on in this novel. Riley has the pressures of her job and uneasy relationships with some of her colleagues plus the past trauma this case stirs up. Then there is her substance abusing brother, his fourteen year old daughter and her grandfather dying from dementia. Add in the complexities of the case along with some political intrigue and eco-terrorists and it‘s hard to keep everyone straight. I found myself stopping a time or two so I could remember where the character fit in.

Most of the story is in the third person but Riley speaks in her own voice occasionally and there are a couple of chapters from an unnamed character giving you a glimpse of someone spiraling out of control. Is this the killer or a potential victim?

I like well-developed characters and Riley fits the bill. Once all the different plot lines were in place the novel rushed to an action-packed ending. I will give you fair warning, the author doesn’t shy away from gory descriptions and there is a horror element I didn’t expect.

This is the first book featuring Riley Fisher. A second book, Original Sins, was released in March. If you like Karin Slaughter’s novels or enjoyed The Killing Hills by Offutt or Highway by C.J. Box, I recommend you give this title a try.

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Review written by Patty Crane, Reference Librarian

The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel

One year ago, author and paleobiologist Sal Drake died in a car crash on a winding mountain road in Italy. He left behind a wife – Jane – and two teenage daughters, Eve and Vera. Each of them has been struggling with this loss in her own way.

Vera, barely thirteen, longs for stability and a sense of home. She wants to keep the remains of her family as close as possible, ideally at home in California.

Eve, fifteen, also wants to stay in California. She wants a normal teenage life, full of rebellion and bad decisions.

Jane, who had spent her life as her husband’s research assistant and editor, is now pursuing her own graduate degree in paleobiology. Unfortunately for her daughters, that means spending their summer on a research trip in Siberia.

Jane’s professor is heading to the extreme North to study mammoth fossils. Their lab has been working with mammoth DNA, hoping to eventually edit the DNA of an elephant to give it mammoth-like qualities. They create and observe embryos of these “cold-adapted elephants,” hoping to one day grow a full-fledged almost-mammoth.

While avoiding the scientists, Eve and Vera discover the mummified remains of a baby woolly mammoth. They bring their prize back to the cabin, where their discovery quickly becomes the professor’s success – he will take the credit, in the same way that their mother’s work will be seen as an extension of his efforts.

Back in California, with their mummified mammoth safely preserved and being studied, Jane and her daughters find themselves invited to a celebratory banquet. There they meet Helen – a wealthy, enigmatic woman who understands the female condition that has led them to this place.

What starts as an offhand comment from Vera, leads to Jane and her daughters traveling to Helen’s home in Italy. With a stolen disc of mammoth embryos in a cooler.

Helen’s husband is a retired veterinarian, and their estate is home to hundreds of animals – including an adult female elephant. Against all odds, they successfully impregnate the elephant. Actually keeping a secret baby woolly mammoth alive comes with its own challenges.

And the more time the family stays with Helen and her husband, the less they are sure they can trust them.

THE LAST ANIMAL by Ramona Ausubel has the bones of a science fiction thriller – rogue scientist resurrects extinct animal with the help of wealthy people with too much time on their hands – but the heart of a domestic drama.

The struggles the three women are facing are very internal. Jane is trying to keep the baby mammoth alive, but what she is really struggling with is her own future. She is not sure she has the drive to keep working to be a scientist when she feels so worn down by the loss of her husband.

Vera and Eve are both desperate for their mother’s love. They feel set adrift in their own grief, which they express in very different ways. Both sisters feel that their mother has abandoned them for this new creature that she has brought into the world.

Pearl, the baby mammoth, is a creature out of time. No one knows how to care for her; her elephant mother rejects her and has to be removed. She longs for a world that no longer exists.

Ausubel’s lyrical prose accentuates the depth of all this grief, while her quick pacing keeps the plot moving forward. THE LAST ANIMAL is a globe-spanning, high-stakes story with a deep heart.

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Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

I typically do not drift into the world of horror fiction because, in short, I’m a chicken that scares easily. Horror movies are not for me, either. I feel as if I am missing out on a chunk of literature that offers talented writers and grand stories, so to that end, I’ve been stretching my comfort zone and reading some horror fiction here and there. I say that cautiously as light horror has been my aim, I am in no means ready for something like Stephen King’s It, but perhaps one day. Something that I love about reading is the opportunity to explore and try new things, and to answer to no one but myself with what I choose.

Enter my most recent read: Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. In learning more about this novel before reading it I saw some websites describing it as horror and thriller fiction, but what initially drew my attention was the interesting plot surrounding a strong theme of grief.

Our Wives Under the Sea is a split narrative, short and easy to listen to (I opted for the audio version) that follows couple Leah and Miri.

Leah and Miri used to have a happy marriage filled with fond memories that Miri reflects upon frequently. They met, fell in love, and were married. Leah’s work as a marine biologist would sometimes take her away on trips, Miri missing her dearly, but they would always come together again and pick up where they left off.

Until the last trip Leah went on: a voyage to the depths of the ocean with two other researchers to gather information, on what is not made clear, funded by a mysterious company. Alternating chapters between Miri, who is narrating in the book’s present time, and Leah, who is narrating by way of a journal kept during this research trip, it is revealed that this research trip did not go at all as Leah and Miri thought it would.

Both Leah and Miri are unreliable narrators for several reasons, but prominently because they are both struggling through grief, loss, and love. Miri is realizing that the life she once knew with Leah is no longer reality. She struggles with worry for Leah (who has come back different than she left), sorrow for herself, and questions that have no answers. Miri spends hours on the phone trying to contact the mystery agency that sent Leah and her two comrades on a submarine into the ocean, attempting to find out why the 3 week research mission turned into 6 months, and how to help Leah, who is changing more and more with each passing chapter of the book. Leah won’t respond to Miri’s questions, even in the therapist sessions they attend together, and Miri stops asking or really talking much to Leah, finding it so increasingly difficult to do so. Miri is not perfect in her care for Leah, but it is clear that Leah is all she really thinks about. Miri bounces between extreme grief and hopelessness, and glimmers of love and hope when thinking of her past life with Leah or when Leah gives just a little hint of who she used to be.

When Miri is contacted by the sister of one of Leah’s fellow researchers she becomes hopeful that perhaps she’ll finally know more about what happened to Leah and what she went through, but the answers she does receive just provides further murkiness to the situation. As the novel progresses Leah’s state declines, and Miri’s grief is palpable.

So as not to reveal too much I won’t write anything further about what happened to Leah while under the sea, or what she goes through when she returns. Armfield does an excellent job of revealing Leah’s story bit by bit to the reader in a manner that is suspenseful and at times, horrific. I am so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and picked up this book. It was creepy and gothic enough to lend itself to the horror genre tag, but not overly so. Armfield’s writing is strong and oftentimes poetic, creating a heartbreakingly beautiful story. I was really feeling for and with the characters, and I think this novel lends itself well to different interpretations depending on the reader. This is a fluid novel that left me with more questions than answers, and it is one of my favorite reads so far this year.

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

BRIDGES by Marc Majewski and GOODNIGHT TO YOUR FANTASTIC ELASTIC BRAIN by JoAnn and Terrence Deak

At the start of the COVID lockdown, my then-four year old spent every day either jumping on his trampoline or measuring things. He wanted to know how long the biggest animals were and to measure them in our yard.

We measured the length of a gray whale (90 feet or three school buses). We are lucky to have very nice neighbors because we had to start in their yard and walk back and forth with the tape measure from their lawn to our back fence. He is now eight, but he’s still just as curious about the biggest of the big, the smallest of the small, and everything in between.

One of my most recent favorite nonfiction titles that fits the bill is Marc Majewski’s Bridges. Folks, the title does not disappoint. This book has a lot of bridges in it. What’s more, each bridge shown in the book is contrasted with another bridge with opposing features. The international orange color of the Golden Gate Bridge “stands out” while the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge in India “blends in.” Most pages have simple sentences describing what each bridge is or does (“bridges stand firm” and “bridges swing,” for example).

Majewski’s acrylic illustrations are beautiful while maintaining factual accuracy. They are fun and brightly colored enough to catch the casual viewer’s eye while reading, but they are intricate enough to encourage prolonged viewing. I love that Majewski’s book serves two purposes and can be adapted to various ages. Bridges can serve as a beautiful standalone picture book, great for one-one-one or large group readings. It can also be used to learn more about architecture and engineering, as the endpages include the names and brief descriptions of every bridge shown in the book. My son and I read the story along with the descriptions, flipping back and forth between the story and the descriptions to learn more about each bridge as we read. I appreciate the choice to include the details at the end of the book so the text does not obscure the stunning illustrations.

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The second title I want to share isn’t quite an exploration of big or small, but it offers accessible insight into how humans work. JoAnn and Terrence Deak’s Goodnight to Your Fantastic Elastic Brain is an excellent primer on the developing brain. JoAnn Deak, PhD, is a preventive psychologist and Terrence Deak is a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience. Suffice to say, they know their stuff. Though they are both academics, this elementary nonfiction offering is anything but dry. On the contrary, it’s a fun and engaging read. This is partially due to the cartoon-like illustrations from artist Neely Daggett, but the writing itself is relatable and scaffolded to teach young readers something new based on assumed prior knowledge and lived experiences. The authors promote Goodnight as a “growth mindset” book, and it lives up to that proclamation. I appreciate that it does not rely on platitudes about trying your best (though such sentiments have their place). Instead, it describes the parts of the brain that make you capable of trying again after failing (and the importance of doing so). The book’s primary focus is the role that sleep plays in a developing brain. The authors explain concepts like the prefrontal cortex and how healthy sleep patterns contribute to its ongoing development and help you feel more in control. Daggett’s full-page illustrations perfectly enhance the concepts explained in the book. I would recommend this book as a one-on-one read for an adult and an elementary-aged reader.

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How to Win Friends and Influence Fungi: Collected Quirks of Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math from Nerd Nite by Chris Balakrishnan and Matt Wasowski

If you are looking for a little science education in a fun, light read (or even if you’re not), I’ve got the book for you. How to Win Friends and Influence Fungi: Collected Quirks of Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math from Nerd Nite by Chris Balakrishnan and Matt Wasowski will both educate and entertain.

Balakrishnan and Wasowski are the editors of this title; seventy self-described nerds have contributed the content. Nerd Nites are gatherings that take place in cities around the world where a presenter will share their knowledge on a topic while adult beverages may or may not be consumed. Topics range from shark babies to dating apps to Godzilla. Since participation at a Nerd Nite is, by its format, limited, this book allows all these presenters to share their knowledge over and over with anyone who can read or listen.

This is a book you can read from cover to cover or just open to a random spot and be instantly immersed. Entries are 3-5 pages in length and are (depending on your views) fascinating, sometimes kind of gross, amusing, and always educational.

The Contents pages are detailed enough that you can pick and choose entries that interest you. The first section is Creature Features. Here you’ll learn that camel spiders are not venomous as rumored but can grow to be 5” to 6” long and if they chase you it’s just because you moved the shadow that they were resting in. You’ll also find entries on dolphins, cephalopods, stomatopods, and anemonefish (remember Nemo) who change their sex as they mature.

The next section is on Brains. Explore why certain repetitive sounds drive us crazy, why some people are happier than others, why we hear foreign accents and find what synesthesia is? You will also learn why disgust can be dangerous. Then it’s on to Bodily Fluids. You’ll explore among other things the difficulties of going to the bathroom in space, all the different species besides mammals that feed their young milk and that the shin plays a role in bladder control.

Next up is Doing It. Here the nerds talk about how to be perceived as more physically attractive (wear red), how some animals attract partners, online dating, and 10 things you didn’t know about sex. Health and (Un)Wellness explores topics in medicine. If you’ve got the stomach for it, learn something about maggot therapy. Also covered is DNA, the hangover, the microbiome, and genetics.

You’ll want to dip into Pathogens and Parasites for the zombies, birds, and antiviral immune response. But if you have any tendencies toward hypochondria you might want to skip human parasites. Death and Taxes is really just about death. Learn about Monarch the bear, mass extinction and the algae apocalypse.

Next up misinformation about space is explored along with asteroids, Jupiter’s moon Europa, artificial gravity and the Tagish Lake Meteorite. Tech (High and Low) ranges from GMOs to dating apps to human powered flight. You’ll also get info on Google, prosthetic limbs, machine learning, why we should (or shouldn’t) domesticate bacteria and the potential of nuclear fusion.

Some will debate the next section, Math Is fun. You’ll want to dip in here if for nothing else than is it better to put in the milk first or the tea? You can also hear about gossip, music theory, infinity and cryptography.

To wrap things up the nerds explore careers. Want to be a veterinarian? Learn about all the things a dog will swallow and what not to say to your vet. Find out what Chindogu is, the truth about dead bodies and embalming, and learn a little about animal CSI.

This is a fun, entertaining read and like a library – it has something for almost everyone but not everyone will want to read all of the Nerd Nite offerings.

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Review written by Patty Crane, Reference Librarian

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

In Crook Manifesto, the always excellent Colson Whitehead takes us back to the world he devised in his previous novel, Harlem Shuffle. Ray Carney still has his Harlem furniture store. Becoming more prosperous, he and his family have settled into an apartment on the coveted Strivers’ Row. We’re in the 1970s, where “the flamboyant quotient in Harlem” is high, filled with all sorts of “groovy plumage.”

But the New York of the 1970s is also one of decline, with “the apprehension that things were not as they had been and it would be a long time before they were right again.” In the decade of America’s Bicentennial, this current volatility seems fitting to Carney, where America is both “melting pot and powder keg.” And to Carney, the powder keg is besting any harmonious melting together. When it comes time for him to conjure up his Bicentennial furniture ad for the newspaper, he can’t think of anything jingoistic. He can think only of such cutting things as “200 years but it feels like more–Ask the Indians. This July 4th, Salute Truth, Justice & 3-Position Adjustable Recliners.”

Still, even though Carney tends to “weave private dread into the universal condition,” life is pretty good. He’s no longer a part of the secondary economy, where he helped fence (move) stolen goods. His underworld contacts have stepped back into the shadows, leaving Ray Carney to live the straight-and-narrow life.

That is until his teenage daughter wants tickets to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden. As any father will tell you, just about anything will be done to avoid disappointing your daughter. So as the concert date approaches, Carney does what he has to do to score tickets to the sold-out show: He steps back into the shadows.

Carney contacts Munson, a white cop who shakes down the neighborhood crooks. He’s a crook with a badge, a streetwise tough from Hell’s Kitchen who long ago realized he could work both sides of the law. He’ll get Carney those tickets, but Carney must go on a ride with him. And what a wild ride it is.

It’s an open question whether Carney was looking for an excuse to re-enter the underworld. Either way, he quickly realizes he’s made a big mistake. “Slip once and everybody is glad to help you slip hard. Crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.” Munson’s world is collapsing, so he enlists Carney to act as wheelman on one final run of extortions.

Whitehead demonstrates why he’s won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, twice. He could be describing anything and I’m pretty sure I would be regaled. During moments of grand intensity, there’s still some observational levity that underscores the absurdity of what’s transpiring. For example, there’s the old-timer crook who forms perfectly articulated sentences even with an active cigarette affixed in his mouth. “Shakespeare monologues couldn’t budge it.” Soon after this thought, someone is shot three times. And on it goes.

There are quite a few recurring characters from Harlem Shuffle (such as Munson), most notably Pepper, an aging bruiser whose entire adult life has been one heist after another. (Note: Crook Manifesto can be read as a stand-alone novel.) When a blaxploitation shoot is set to be filmed in the neighborhood, Carney sees to it that Pepper works its security. To the taciturn Pepper, “filmmaking was a heist, same animal.” In fact, Pepper sees most human activity through a criminal’s lens. To wit: The men on the street signs didn’t get there “by being decent, that’s for damn sure.”

Whitehead is known for his meticulous research to set a scene. Pick any era, allow Whitehead some time to research it, and he’ll pen a story that will place you right in that period. In 1970s New York City, arson was ubiquitous. The reasons for it are varied, but we already know the drill: debilitated buildings being burned not only for insurance payouts but also for kickbacks to those who will choose just who in fact gets to rebuild them. It was common enough for some tenants to sleep with their shoes on. Then there were the willing arsonists, or “firebugs”—blokes who just wanted to see the world burn.

Pepper can be violent, but the crime he sees now goes beyond the pale. In addition to the wildness of repeated arsons, there’s such things as the mother of four who’s stabbed over a few dollars and a pastrami sandwich, and the Juilliard student who’s pushed onto the subway tracks. To Pepper, “a man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.”

Nonetheless, both Carney and Pepper know that in a “city like this, it behooves you to embrace the… contradictions.” And, really, it’s not as though there was some “good old days of crime” epoch, even though it often feels like it, a wanting for it to be so. Take Alexander Oakes, a rising politician and a childhood friend of Carney’s wife, Elizabeth. Both Alexander and Elizabeth come from the monied Harlem community, with Alexander acting as an interlocutor between the old and new power structures. To Elizabeth’s father, Alexander “would have been his son-in-law if the world made any kind of sense, if Elizabeth had any sense.” Without giving anything away, Carney and Pepper learn how this other set operates, and, once again, it gets fierce.

The world—as it does—changes fast for Carney. His kids are growing, doing their own thing, and on their way to leaving. His wife has her own busy career. Other than an occasional meet-up with Pepper and a few others, he’s essentially a loner, with an uneasy foot in both the crooked and straight worlds. Things come back hard on Carney, leaving him somewhat bewildered and struggling with what he should be thinking about. He’s like the city where he lives. “The city is being tested. It was always being tested and emerging on the other side in a newer, stronger version for having been laid low.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley’s THE KINGDOMS opens in an alternate London – one controlled by the French following their victory in the Napoleonic Wars. The city has been repurposed as a hub for industry. Written English has been outlawed and French citizens own most of the remaining homes and businesses.

In this other London, Joe Tournier discovers himself on a train platform with no idea how he got there. He is diagnosed with a common case of epileptic amnesia.

People all over the country have been experiencing flashes of false memory and remembering people who never existed. But the arrival of a postcard convinces Joe that his visions of a different life are real.

When Joe visits the lighthouse depicted on the postcard, he is captured by an old vessel from the defunct British Navy – captained by an unstable man named Missouri Kite.

Kite explains that the lighthouse is near a portal in time, and Joe has been transported to the past. Recently, a ship passed through this portal and was captured by the French Navy. Most of the crew was taken prisoner; the French used the crew’s knowledge of their own past to turn the tide of the war and defeat the British – leading to the French-controlled England that Joe came from.

It is Kite’s plan to use Joe’s expertise as an engineer to change history again and return control of England to the British.

Kite knows that history has been altered because one man – Jem Castlereagh – escaped from the captured ship and was picked up by the British. Kite was on the ship that saved him, and he and Jem became close.

During his stay on the ship, Joe is not told much about Jem – except that Kite killed him.

As Joe learns more about his captors and their desperate bid to save the British Empire, he develops a sense of belonging that he does not understand. He cannot reconcile his knowledge of what Kite has done with his overwhelming sense of loyalty to the insane man. On top of that struggle, he knows that helping defeat the French will destroy the family that he left behind in the future.

There is a lot to process in THE KINGDOMS; it is both a straightforward alternate history, told like historical fiction, and a deeply interior look at loss and trauma.

Pulley does not shy away from gruesome depictions of battle. Kite’s ship – crewed by women and children alongside what remains of the Navy – charges through a French blockade to rejoin the British command fleet.

During the battle, Joe is helping in the infirmary where Kite’s no-nonsense sister, Agatha, holds court. In the midst of the battle, she is shot down with no warning, and afterward Kite barely reacts to the news that his sister was killed.

Kite’s life has been full of violence and struggle. Like Joe, I found myself unable to hate Kite despite his frequent threats of violence and his open admission that he is a murderer. Beneath that, he is surprisingly soft-hearted.

The novel is a whirlwind of interesting characters and memorable scenes. It was something a little outside-the-box for me, but I am glad that I gave it a try.

 

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Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld

In ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld, Sally Milz is a sketch writer who works for a late-night live comedy show called The Night Owls. She has been unlucky in love on several occasions, most notable a divorce right after finishing college. So unlucky that she has sworn off dating anyone at work, and while she has the occasional no-strings attached hookup her life is almost solely focused on her work at The Night Owls. The other writers and the actors who make up the cast are like her family.

Sally started to notice a phenomenon at work where average-looking men who work for The Night Owls become romantically involved with beautiful, famous women who are completely out of their league. In fact her friend and co-worker Danny Horst is the third addition to her growing list thanks to him dating Annabel Lily, a gorgeous, talented, famous movie star, after she appeared as a guest on The Night Owls. She has dubbed this the “Danny Horst Rule” and made a sketch about it. The sketch makes fun of it, but also shows how unlikely it would be to work in the reverse – a gorgeous male celebrity would never fall in love with an ordinary woman.

The “Danny Horst Rule” is put to the test when world famous, dreamy pop music sensation Noah Brewster guest hosts The Night Owls. Sally and Noah hit it off, but she is not sure if she should believe her luck. In fact, she cannot fathom that handsome, talented Noah would be interested in her and thanks to her self-sabotage it is several years before she and Noah connect again, through a series of clumsy, comical and heartfelt emails.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld is insightful and funny. I loved her writing style and how she created Sally’s and Noah’s characters. The character dialogue seemed witty and believable and the relationships genuine. When reading I felt like Sally’s insecurities were something most could relate to. I laughed out loud on numerous occasions and just found the storyline was so clever. Plus, Sittenfeld’s secondary characters – Sally’s friends, the staff at TNO, even Sally’s stepfather – were drawn convincingly and added depth to the book.

It was also really eye opening to see how a live, late night television show similar to SNL works – the timeline for developing the show and how much work the writers and actors have to do to get ready each week. Plus, it is crazy to think about the number of talented people who work together to create something so funny and timely.

Speaking of timely and funny, that seems to be one of Sittenfeld’s gifts. Her writing is both and she has a way of dissecting elements of love and the world of modern dating that is compelling and so interesting to read. Many readers will see elements of themselves in her writing and storytelling. I highly recommend adding this one to your “to be read” list.

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

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

In 2023 Joplin Public Library began a new adult program, Joplin Reads Together, the Library’s first community read. Community reads are popular at public libraries throughout the nation and offer an opportunity for a shared reading experience for members of the community. Joplin Reads Together happens in the month of April, centering around one novel with accompanying programs related to the novel, all culminating in a visit from the author of the chosen book. With Joplin Reads Together adult programming at the Library hopes to promote a sense of community, its organizations, reading, and community discussion. Joplin Reads Together is fortunate to have four local organizations as community partners: Friends of Joplin Public Library, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, MSSU George A Spiva Library, and Post Art Library. In 2023 our selected title was Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt; we spent the month of April enjoying programs related to the title and had the pleasure of hosting Shelby Van Pelt at our Library.

I am very excited to share this year’s selection: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. A historical fiction set in 1950s India, The Henna Artist is Joshi’s debut novel and the first in The Jaipur Trilogy. All of Joplin Public Library’s April adult programs are inspired by The Henna Artist, and on April 23rd Alka Joshi will visit our Library to discuss her book!

Set in the decade after India’s independence from British colonialism, The Henna Artist follows a young woman named Lakshmi as she escapes an abusive marriage and sets out to pave a new, brighter future for herself. Lakshmi moves from her small Indian village to the vibrant, bustling city of Jaipur where she begins to make a living for herself through her work as a henna artist. Henna is a traditional paste that temporarily dyes the skin. Henna designs are often elaborate and symbolize things such as good health or happy marriages.

Lakshmi does henna for the elite women of Jaipur, as her paste and artistry is one of, if not the very, best Jaipur has to offer. With this position comes both status and danger. Lakshmi spends hours with the elite, listening to their complaints about their husbands, their worries and fears, and all their drama. While this no doubt puts Lakshmi in the know and provides a more comfortable living, it also places her at a distance and in a precarious position. While Lakshmi knows and spends time with the most wealthy of Jaipur, she is not one of them herself and must be very mindful of what she says and how she carries herself for fear of losing any patronage.

Lakshmi is, for the most part, very good at this, except for the secrets she holds close. In addition to her henna Lakshmi provides additional services for her clients by way of her skills with herbs to create remedies and tea sachets that have varying purposes. Many of her henna clients purchase such sachets to help with things such as illness or conception. However, Lakshmi is hiding the fact that she also sells sachets to men in extramarital affairs or to women attempting not to conceive; some of these individuals are married to or are her clients.

Lakshmi must not only keep the secrets of her powerful clients for their safety, but also her own. When Lakshmi’s estranged husband arrives in town alongside a sister Lakshmi never knew she had her world is turned upside down and the life she has worked so hard to build is suddenly threatened. Lakshmi can’t imagine her husband is up to anything good, and her 13 year old sister Radha’s fascination with the upper class and the excitement of Jaipur can only spell trouble. Can Lakshmi hold onto the life she has worked so hard to create for herself, or will the return of her past force Lakshmi to start all over again?

Alka Joshi has created an eloquent, engaging novel that thrums with color. From the vibrancy of the characters to the immersion in Indian culture Joshi’s descriptive writing brings Lakshmi’s world to life and transports the reader to a different time and place. The representation of the upper and service caste systems as well as gender roles and what is expected of Lakshmi as a woman add to the historical aspect of the novel. Motherhood is a consistent theme in the novel and Joshi has stated in interviews that Lakshmi is based on her own mother and her experiences in India. The Henna Artist is perfect for readers that want a good story that sticks with them and that enjoy being taken to another place and learning about other time periods and cultures.

I am very excited to hear Alka Joshi speak about The Henna Artist in person and I hope that if you read this novel you’ll join the Library in welcoming her to Joplin in April. If you are interested in participating in Joplin Reads Together or want to learn more about it visit the Joplin Public Library website at joplinpubliclibrary.org/joplinreadstogether or visit the Library. Joplin Reads Together is designed for adults and a library card is not needed to participate.

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

THERE WAS A PARTY FOR LANGSTON, KING O’LETTERS by Jason Reynolds & Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey

Happy February! As we close out Black History Month, I would like to share one of my most recent favorite picture books, which happens to be written by, illustrated by, and about exceptional Black authors.

There Was a Party for Langston, King O’ Letters is the debut picture book by award-winning young adult author Jason Reynolds and illustrator duo Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey. It’s hard to believe that Reynolds, the young adult author phenom, has not written a picture book before now, but it’s no surprise that his first one is as good as it is. He writes in a poetic manner that translates perfectly to the picture book format.

There Was a Party for Langston is also a Caldecott Honoree and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honoree as of January 2024. These honors are well-deserved because this book is unique, masterfully done, and exciting. Reynolds’ debut picture book honors the Harlem Renaissance poet (and Joplin-born!) Langston Hughes, and it honors him well. As he discusses in the afterword, the author was inspired to write this book after seeing a photo of writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dancing. These esteemed writers (or “word makers” as he calls them) were dancing at a party honoring Hughes at the New York Public Library in Harlem.

There Was a Party for Langston recaps both the events of the party and the events of Hughes’ life as well as the legions of writers and readers he inspired over the years. Reynolds emulates Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers through text that feels energetic and alive, with words stretching across each page, seemingly in motion. For example, when Reynolds describes how Hughes’ words could “[turn] birds into words flying all around him,” he transforms lines from Hughes’ poem “Dream Variation” into the bodies of birds flying toward the sun.

The collaborative nature of the art and the story is top-tier. The Pumphreys’ 50s-inspired comic-style art is beautiful on its own, but the way they bring the text to life and incorporate it into each page is unparalleled. When Reynolds tells of Hughes’ influence on Angelou and he describes her ability to “make the word ‘woman’ seem like the word ‘mountain’,” the Pumphreys paint a woman lying on her side in the shape of a mountain with “woman” across her back in green to look like trees and a stream rolling out in front of her spelling out the words “shine on me.” I can’t imagine a picture book that would honor Hughes more fully while simultaneously being some of both Reynolds and the Pumphrey brothers’ best work. There Was a Party for Langston is a joy to read aloud.

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