Happy New Year and welcome to 2024! As with past years I like to kick off the new year by reflecting on what I read during the previous year. And 2023 was a strange one, reading-wise for me. I kept starting books and not being able to get into them, so I would not finish them. I did that with at least fifteen books, maybe more. Despite that frustrating phenomenon, the total I finished reading for the year was forty-three. On par with what I have accomplished the past several years. I am thrilled to have read the books I did. I hope you are as happy with your 2023 books, too. If not, do not fret, I am sure 2024 is going to be your year!

Of those forty-three titles, I would like to tell you about a few of my favorites. Below are my top seven picks, in no particular order:

Evelyn Hugo is a famous Hollywood film actress, who has been in the business since the 1950’s and has decided it’s time to have someone write a tell-all memoir about her life. The truth is hard to tell, and for some, even harder to hear, but seventy-nine year old Evelyn is determined to share her truth with the world.

Monique Grant is the writer Evelyn asks to work with, but no one is sure why. Most especially Monique. Her marriage is in a hard place and she is not well known at the magazine she works for, nor in the world of journalism. But Evelyn Hugo has a way of getting what she wants and soon she and Monique are spending their days together, going through her life. She tells Monique everything – about her childhood, her early days in the film industry, about her seven husbands and much more. No matter how hard or terrible, Evelyn is committed to sharing the truth and nothing but the truth.

It’s hard to describe the rest without giving away a couple of major storylines, but this book is so good. I listened to it and in addition to the compelling story, the narration is superb! Reid is phenomenal at writing characters. Her character development is perfect. Wonderfully complex characters that are multidimensional and hard to like, but even harder to not at least identify with. Evelyn and Monique both feel raw, real and like a living breathing people you might know. In addition to the characters the plot is unique and meandering so readers will be hooked from the first scenes. Evelyn has lived a full and exciting life and once the pieces start to click into place it is hard to stop reading. I highly recommend this one.

I wrote a full review for this one in March 2023, but could not pass up a chance to mention it again.

I am in love with this book. It is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It has gaming, friendship, enemies, love, hate and heartbreak. It spans thirty years of a relationship that was created when two eleven year olds, Sam Mazur and Sadie Green, met and started gaming together in a hospital game room. The friendship had a rocky start, thanks to a misunderstanding, but Sam and Sadie are forever connected. They may not always remember they are friends, but they are. Through their love and shared history they create a life, a company and a family that is wholly their own.
Author Gabrielle Zevin is a master storyteller and her character development is brilliant. Each one is so completely developed it is hard to stop thinking about them even after finishing the novel. Zevin’s work is breathtaking and should not be missed. It reads much like real life feels, with all the emotions that love and friendship create along the way. It has a backdrop of 90s style gaming that combines with well-rounded, yet flawed characters to tell a compelling story of love, distrust, hope, hurt and healing. Sam says it best, “To play requires love and trust.” I feel this about reading, too. It requires trust of the author and Zevin does not disappoint.

MAD HONEY by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
I have been a Jodi Picoult fan for years, but this book reminded me why I appreciate her writing so much. The characters, the timely plot, the slowly parsed details, the twist. It all works so well together and I am here for it.

I do not want to spoil the book so I am only going to share the barest of details.

The book has three main characters:
Olivia – beekeeper, abuse survivor and Asher’s mom
Asher – high school senior, golden boy and Lily’s boyfriend
Lily – high school senior, new-in-town and Asher’s girlfriend

Plot summary: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl dies, and boy is accused of killing girl.

I know that is not much, but the book is about Asher and whether he is guilty of the crime he has been charged with. But it is Olivia and Lily’s story told through their alternating perspectives. Who they are, where they come from and what makes them similar. The book is such an engaging tale, with thought provoking characters. In addition it provides unique insight and perspective about current issues.

I wrote a full review for this one in September 2023, but could not pass up a chance to share it again because it should not be missed.
The path of Tan Yunxian, the novel’s narrator, is different from most other women in fifteenth century China. In a place where women are encouraged to follow a traditional path, usually one dictated by their father or husband, Yunxian’s upbringing is not like that. She has led a life of great privilege, thanks to the wealth of her family, and being surrounded by educated people, including her paternal grandparents who are both doctors. Throughout childhood, Yunxian’s grandmother teaches her medicine, specifically medicine to help women.
For seven years, Yunxian learns alongside her grandmother until 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 practicing medicine. Yunxian is left feeling unsure how to move forward in her new life.
The rest 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.”
I have been a Lisa See fan since reading THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE. She does a tremendous amount of research for her novels and I love how history and her creativity combine to make a beautiful historical fiction account. As with most of See’s characters, Tan Yunxian’s character is true-to-life and the book’s plot is gripping and relatable. Something that surprised me since it was set in fifteenth century China. I could not stop reading this book and I have told so many people about it. See’s descriptions of daily life – the food, the culture, the traditions and the scenery – make the reader feel like they are part of the story. Do not miss this one.

Fantasy is not for everyone, but author Rebeccca Yarros helped introduce a lot of new readers to the genre in 2023. Women readers especially, thanks to the romance elements that she incorporates in her new series.

Twenty-year-old Violet Sorrengail never thought she would be entering a war college for dragon riders. From birth she knew she would become part of the less risky Scribe Quadrant, but when Violet’s commander general mother orders her to join the dragon riders, she has no choice but to comply.

Violet is smaller and physically weaker than her peers, but that does not stop her from trying her hardest to survive so she can attempt to bond with a dragon. She does not have an easy path forward. Not only does she have her physical limitations, but being Commander Sorrengail’s offspring puts an automatic target on her back. Top of the list is Xaden Riorson, her wing leader, and one of the most powerful dragon riders in the war college, thanks to his personal vendetta with her mother.

Violet will need to use all of her skills to survive her first year at the war college. She will need to keep her friends and enemies close as she navigates her daily life because the only way to leave the school is to graduate or to die trying.

This book got so much buzz in 2023 that I could not wait to read it. And thank goodness I was not disappointed. Yarros is clever. She has created a strong addition to the world of fantasy. Dragons, intrigue, magic, all the typical elements, with an enthralling and well written style. I am not sure if this book created a brand new genre of fiction in 2023, but I had never heard of “Romantasy” before this year. I love that it is the meshing of romance and fantasy. And I love the excitement her books have created and highly recommend giving this first one in the series a try.

I will not say much about these two, because I reviewed the first several books in the series last year in my end of year summary. I have added them to this year’s list because I enjoyed them almost as much as the first four books in the series. They are engrossing, suspenseful, clever and dark.

Darrow is a complicated character and he struggles with his own inner conflict for practically all of both books, but he is not always the main draw of the story since there are so many interesting secondary characters. Their narratives move the storyline along quickly.

As I mentioned last year, this series is violent, but do not let that discourage you. I highly recommend the whole series and cannot wait for the next, and supposedly final book to be released.

And that is a wrap for 2023. Thanks for taking the time to share in my reflection and reading about some of my favorites. I am excited to see what 2024 brings and I wish you a wonderful new year of reading!

Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director

The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi

What begins as a whirlwind romance quickly turns into a gothic fairytale in Roshani Chokshi’s haunting The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. Typically an author of middle grade and young adult books, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is Chokshi’s first adult book, a split narrative centered around three characters and their love for fairytales.

When a scholar of myth and fairytale receives an invitation to view a one-of-a-kind manuscript from a private family collection, he jumps at the opportunity. He meets with Indigo Maxwell-Castenada, the manuscript owner, but the manuscript’s rarity is eclipsed by Indigo herself. A beautiful and mysterious heiress also captivated by fairytales, Indigo is unlike anyone the man has ever met; they fall in love and plan to marry. Before they marry, however, Indigo makes the man promise to never ask about her past. The man, simply known as the bridegroom, accepts Indigo’s strange request.

Not long after they are married Indigo learns her aunt is dying and is thus called upon to return to her childhood home, the House of Dreams, to tend the estate. The bridegroom has never seen a manor like the House of Dreams with its eerie décor, peculiar rooms, and fading grandeur. There is also a lingering shadow of another person in the home: Indigo’s close and only childhood friend, Azure, who suddenly disappeared years prior. As the bridegroom explores the manor and finds traces of the adventures the two girls had he begins to have questions about Indigo’s past that have him unsure if he will be able to heed her request.

It is at this point in the novel the reader begins to learn more about Azure, the second narrator, who is narrating from her and Indigo’s adolescent years. Azure lives down the road from the House of Dreams with her mom and her mom’s unsettling boyfriend. She often walks by the House of Dreams, marveling at the home, the possibilities and the secrets it seems to offer. On one such walk Azure meets Indigo, who invites her inside the gates. They immediately bond over their dreams of a fairyland where they can run away and never look back (much like Indigo and the bridegroom’s first encounter). Years pass and Azure and Indigo grow up together, becoming closer and closer, spending all their time together, creating for themselves a cocoon of fairytales and friendship.

But Indigo is not the nicest person, often mean-spirited, even to Azure and the bridegroom. The split narrative reveals the parallels between Azure and the bridegroom: both of their worlds center completely around Indigo and the easy freedom of her lifestyle. Indigo is privileged, insistent upon her fairytale future and soon-to-be magical abilities, and takes charge of every situation. While it is often easy to dislike Indigo, Chokshi creates her in a way that is also complex, with an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding her. The three characters become more and more interlaced with one another due to their love of magic and fantasy, but also due to their love for Indigo. The bridegroom has to know: what happened to Azure?

At its heart The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is character driven, as much a gothic fairytale as it is a coming-of-age story focused on human nature, connections, and the darkness that comes with secrets. There is mystery, a touch of horror, some romance, and an ever present feeling of a haunting atmosphere. The novel’s characters are dedicated to fairytales while being part of one themselves. It is not always easy to guess what will happen next and I found myself both intrigued and repulsed by Indigo, just as some of the novel’s characters are. Chokshi’s writing had me easily invested in the gothic themes and characters. Both grim and entrancing, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is perfect for readers that enjoy dark fairytales.

Note: If you are interested in reading The Last Tale of the Flower Bride you might consider looking at the content warnings before picking up the novel.

Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

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Favorite Children’s Books of 2023

I am a lover of lists, so the end of the year is an exciting time for me. I want to see everyone’s favorite media in list form all month long, and I will absolutely not pressure myself to read every book on every top 10 list published by every review site, magazine, and newspaper! In preparing to write this review, I thought I would share my own lists of my favorite children’s books of 2023.

Dave Eggers has been one of my favorite writers for almost 20 years because of his wit, fast-paced yet cerebral writing. He writes books for readers of all ages and has dedicated much of his professional life to championing young authors through his work with 826 National, a network of reading and writing centers across the country. He has talked before about workshopping his books with young readers and writers to ensure that they are actually interesting to the readers he wants to reach. Though I do not fall into this demographic, I found his latest offering, The Eyes & The Impossible, to be a wildly fun read with plenty of heart. The book follows Johannes, a beautifully free and wildly fast dog who calls himself the Eyes of the park. Johannes lives in a large city park based on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and he thinks it’s the greatest place in the world. He has the wise Bison whose advice he seeks, and vice versa. He has Sonja the squirrel, Bertrand the seagull, and Angus the raccoon. Together, they help keep the park in order. Together, they avoid animal control and stay far away from humans. When Johannes discovers beautiful paintings at an art show in the park, he becomes transfixed enough to let his guard down. Thus begins a madcap adventure tale that involves escaping from humans, helping out his friends, and learning who to trust. Johannes’ narration feels unique and the story itself feels like an instant classic. Johannes is a very wise dog, but he has only partially true information about the place he lives, which gets him in trouble often. This is a heartwarming adventure story with the right combination of emotion and suspense.

Tara Dairman’s The Girl from Earth’s End was maybe the best children’s book I read this year. As is my preference, it is a pretty emotional read focused on relationships. It follows twelve-year-old Henna, a girl who lives on a remote island settlement called Earth’s End with her parents. The only other person she sees is the monthly delivery person. She spends most of her time in her garden, learning about the various and sundry qualities of the plants there and working to care for them. Soon after her papa Niall falls gravely ill, Henna hears rumors of a mysterious healing plant called nightwalker. She becomes determined to find the plant, capture its elixir and heal her papa. This journey takes her to a botanical boarding school called St. Basil’s Conservatory, where she is away from her parents for the first time ever. While at the school, she makes some important discoveries about herself, friendship, and the important things in life. The Girl From Earth’s End has all the components of a good read: strong character development, intrigue and suspense, emotional highs and lows, and believable and important family and friend relationships.

2023 brought with it many excellent picture books, yet my two favorites are by the same author/illustrator. Let me tell you, Monica Arnaldo was on a roll this year. She knocked it out of the park with Mr. S., a rollicking picture book that she wrote and illustrated. I reviewed this first-day-of-school story in my last column, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, it is a delightful read and one I think about often.

Arnaldo also partnered with author Melissa Seron Richardson for a Three Kings Day story this year. The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat is a very funny story about a young girl named Marta and her family on the early January holiday. Marta is finally old enough to have a slice of la rosca de reyes, the sweet bread dessert associated with the holiday. She worries, however, about the Niño Dios figurine that is hiding in the cake. What if she accidentally eats the tiny figurine? What if it grows like a seed in her belly and she starts sprouting hair from her ears and nose like Abuelo? Though the bread looks so delicious it makes her mouth water, Marta is determined to avoid the whole thing this year. The Last Slice is a bit strange (in the best way!) but it also feels authentically child-like. Marta is old enough to start asking questions about her family’s holiday traditions, but not old enough to understand the symbolism behind those traditions. Her literal interpretations feel like a familiar plot point for children’s media, but the story feels fresh and new.

Seron Richardson’s text is pun-filled and humorous, and Arnaldo’s illustrations only make it better. The baby figurine is seen on most pages with a wink and smirk, often lounging in a relaxed manner as if to mock Marta. Marta’s facial features are pretty simple (her eyes are circles with brown pupils and her eyebrows are simple lines) but they are especially expressive. You can see the worry in the slant of her eyebrows and the anxiety in the increased wrinkles on her forehead. For those unacquainted with Three Kings Day or its traditions, both author and illustrator include a brief description of the holiday, related symbolism, and individual notes on their associations with the holiday. This is definitely a book I will read again and again. I am looking forward to all the wonderful books that 2024 will surely bring. Until next year!

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

We meet “the girl” as she runs through a land that’s “innocent of story.” She thinks not of what‘s being left behind, lest she “die of grief.” She’s fleeing a settlement where even the good have become awful. Through snow and ice she runs, “speed and fear” constituting her sails.

We never learn of the girl’s name. The girl doesn’t know it either. In The Vaster Wilds, Lauren Groff’s harrowing new novel, there’s plenty left unnamed. Though the settlement from which she flees is unidentified, think of Jamestown during “the starving time” to provide some orientation. And just as the Old World meeting the New World provides an overriding theme of disorientation, so too does the struggle of the immediate. The girl is in trouble, and we are with her every step of the way.

Wise beyond her years, she seems to know that survival requires her to suppress any emotion that may lead to a loss of control, thus hastening her demise. “O do not cry, girl,” she tells herself upon meeting the dead eye of a frozen fish that’s just below the river’s ice, “its blue lips pressed in a kiss to the surface,” a fish she subsequently devours. Being of such a low station does truck one advantage: there’s scant much to her past she wishes to hold. “A nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past.”

Nonetheless, she’s ghosted by the few individuals who extended her kindness. And she aches when thinking of the toddler with whom she was charged, it being not a “labor of serving but rather a labor of adoration, and thus almost no work at all.” What she clings to now are the few inanimate objects vital for survival, personifying them in turn. “The hatchet was blunt but faithful, the knife was two-faced and angry but always ready…”

Wilderness survival is new to the girl, but basic survival is not. For it’s not just the natural world that’s red in tooth and claw. Predators, she knows, live among the civilized as well. Still, it’s civilization she again seeks. She has a vague sense that there are French to the north and a great ocean to the west that may harbor an English ship. (She’s already experienced the ocean to the east.) Until then, it’s the monotony of daily survival along with moments of abject terror.

It’s not only man and beast she fears (more so the former than the latter), but also her “own small starved feverish self.” Onward she plods, equating nature’s vulnerabilities as her own: the exposed roots of an overturned tree, “tender as toothaches.” And she knows that those who dwell on this land should fear her too, as she carries the scourge of her civilization: disease.

There are fleeting moments of levity such as when the girl watches “a huge porpentine walk his bristles through the undergrowth with the weary pomp of a crowned prince.” But this is not a Robinson Crusoe tale. Nor is the girl becoming physically stronger like Buck in The Call of the Wild.

The reader can ponder much about the book’s themes. The story’s premise essentially has them jumping off the page. At times, Groff is pretty much stating them. Ordinarily this would be a touch annoying. Themes are good, stating them less so. But it works here because the reality of the unnamed girl out in the unnamed wild is such a stark one. The girl can’t help but think of the nature of dominion, what it meant back in England and the settlement, and what it means now out in the wild.

Or don’t ponder any of this at all and just follow the girl. Groff’s writing is vibrant. So it’s reason enough to join in, even if this beautiful writing is being used to describe horrible things.

The girl is deep into the woods. Because of her sporadic delirium, she often views herself as the keeper of civilization. But the urgencies of the moment are becoming too much, and the only thing that’s real is what’s upon her. As a result, what’s unnecessary starts to leave her concern. It’s through her struggles she’s learning to let go. The Sun becomes her benediction. And even though she’s heretofore been pious, yearning for another life beyond death, a deliverance from hardship, there is—right now—“no angels, no harps, no gates, no fires singeing the sins back into the sinner.” No, “there was only wind drawing itself endlessly over the dark crowns of the pines… And feel it now, so soft, so eternal, this wind against your good and living skin.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

Before She Finds Me by Heather Chavez

The day has finally arrived that Julia Bennet has been both dreading and anticipating. It’s move in day at Anderson Hughes. Her only child, Cora, is starting college. Their light-hearted banner over the things in Cora’s cartful of possessions is interrupted by the arrival of her ex and Cora’s dad, Eric, along with his new wife Brie.

Things become a little tense as Brie is not Julia’s biggest fan. About to go in search of Cora’s lost phone, Julia is halted by an uneasy feeling. Is it Brie’s presence or has she sensed something else? When she hears the first pop, she listens. At the second pop she reacts and pulls Cora to the ground. The rest of the crowd is slower to respond. There are three more pops. The man that had been next to them falls and Brie collapses on top of him. Then the screaming begins.

Julia’s story begins Heather Chavez’s newest novel, Before She Finds Me, then we meet Ren. Ren Petrovic is debating with her unborn child the merits of a belly band or a shoulder holster for her gun. Of course she’d much rather be home shopping for poisons. You see Ren has an unusual profession, she is a contract killer. Nolan, her husband, deals with the clients and Ren does the research. The circumstances decide which one of them carries out the contact.

A call from Nolan interrupts her shopping. It’s a call she’s received before – a check-in call after a job to say things went ok and I’ll be home soon. The only problem, they didn’t have a job scheduled.

Back at Anderson Hughes, the shooting has stopped. Cora has a bullet wound in her arm, Brie is dead and the man that fell next to them is unconscious. As the first responders try to restore some order to the chaos and find answers, the assumption is it is another senseless mass shooting. But Julia has studied guns and violence, her own mother was murdered, and this scene doesn’t feel random.

Ren knows it’s not. Why would Nolan do a job without planning? His explanation doesn’t quite satisfy Ren. She’s a killer but one with her own code of ethics. She only kills those who deserve to die. Her research is not only to find the best way to do the job but also into the target. What did they do to warrant being killed? Nolan had two targets, one who supposedly killed someone and a person related to the first target. What was the related person’s crime?

In the days following the shooting, Julia tries to keep Cora close and help Eric. At least two are dead, Brie and the man who fell next to them. The rumor is a student is also dead. Then Julia sees footage of the shooting on the news and comes to the realization that the bullet that struck the man was intended for Cora. Without his stumble and Julia’s quick reaction, Cora might be dead. Cora was one of the targets. Then a news report reveals that a student didn’t die as rumored, she was just shot in the arm.

Ren has reservations about Nolan’s explanations but he, their unborn child, and her father are her family. Besides her code of ethics, family is all she cares about. Ren starts the research that should have been done before the shooting and discovers Julia. She is drawn to her. Her obvious love for her daughter and her love of plants are things Ren admires. If Ren could have friends, Julia could be one.

But Ren’s world is starting to unravel. Oliver Baird is rich, powerful and a client. The client Nolan thought hired them. But he is Brie’s father. He has Ren brought to him and gives her an assignment – find Brie’s killer.

Ren will do whatever it takes to protect her family including finishing the contract. Julia is equally determined to keep Cora safe and find the killer. Because the police have realized this was not random violence and Eric is a prime suspect.

Julia and Ren tell their story in alternating chapters that reveal each woman’s life while also building suspense. For me, Ren was the more interesting character even though she lacks empathy and compassion. Julia is easily likeable, Ren is not. Even though I couldn’t admire her, I found myself pulling for her and hoping she could redeem herself.

This is a suspenseful story that builds steadily then races toward the end. If you like Ruth Ware or Gillian Flynn, you might enjoy this one.

Review by Patty Crane, Reference Librarian

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Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

In the large port city of Canton, a young boy is dying of cholera. His mother succumbed to the same disease days before, and he is almost glad that he will soon be joining her. As he lays in bed thinking about his short life, a stranger enters his house. The man holds out a bar of silver, speaks two words – one in French and one in English – and the boy begins to heal.

This is the opening scene of R. F. Kuang’s BABEL: AN ARCANE HISTORY. Set in the 1800s, BABEL presents a world at the height of the British Empire where magic is a tradable good. By using the language gaps in translated words, scholars are able to produce magical effects with engraved silver bars.

The boy is whisked back to England where he becomes the ward of this man, Professor Lovell. He is asked to choose a name that will help him assimilate into British society. He chooses Robin Swift, in honor of his favorite author, Jonathan Swift.

For the next few years, Robin is taught Latin and ancient Greek. He also learns that Professor Lovell has always been an influence in his life. Robin – whose family was extremely poor – grew up with an inexplicable British governess who taught him English. A governess hired by the professor.

Professor Lovell keeps Robin at arm’s length. His goal is to prepare Robin for the rigorous language training he will receive at Babel, the college in Oxford dedicated to producing magical silver.

Babel is the world’s center for translation and, by extension, magic. Students who graduate will most likely remain at Babel to continue translations or to maintain the networks of silver around the world.

The more unique the languages a person can translate are, the more important they are to Babel’s organization. Robin has the potential to be very valuable, because there are currently only two Asian-language translators at Babel – one of whom is Professor Lovell.

Robin and his fellow students are initially enchanted by the college. The four of them have all experienced hardship, but they find solidarity and companionship in each other.

However, as their studies progress, they learn more about the unfair system they are supporting. Their group is torn apart by their responses to Babel’s insular, England-first philosophy.

Similar to our world’s industrial revolution, this world is in the midst of a magical revolution. Laborers are forced out of their jobs as magic allows machines to work more efficiently. Countries are being left behind as the richer nations purchase their silver. And gifted linguists are taken away from their homelands to support Babel’s growing demand.

But an organization is working against Babel, stealing their silver and converting linguists to the cause. They are attempting to expose what is at stake if the college is allowed to remain the hub of all of the world’s magic.

Throughout the book, Robin is drawn deeper into this underground revolution. He becomes convinced that something drastic must be done to shake Babel’s foundation.

BABEL is a dense book, full of footnotes both real and fictional. The pace is rapid, keeping readers engaged through linguistics classes, arguments with Professor Lovell, and clandestine meetings with agents of the resistance.

At over 500 pages, the book is a commitment, but it is never dry. R. F. Kuang’s world building skills are excellent, and her magic system is incredibly unique. I will be thinking about BABEL for a long time to come.


Review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

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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

Scaredy Squirrel series by Melanie Watt

A good friend of mine and I have been mailing each other squirrel-themed items cross country for a while now. Why? Just because we can! It started with a little light-hearted teasing and quickly progressed to mayhem.

Squirrels are polarizing which is great fodder for ongoing, long-distance, smack gifting. On one hand, they are adorable, resourceful creatures of great cunning–symbols of Mother Nature’s whimsy (think Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin). On the other hand, they are evil incarnate–finding ways to destroy gardens and auto electrical systems, vandalizing bird feeders, and taunting neighborhood dogs.

Like opinions about squirrels, the surprises my friend and I have shipped each other have varied widely. They’ve ranged from cute, little earrings perfect for celebrating a gorgeous autumn day to an abomination of a lawn ornament in the form of a plastic stump cradling a cherub with an evil grin feeding an equally evil-looking, bushy-tailed beast. (Guess who found that on her porch!) I wish, though, that before things had gotten out of hand I had found the delightful Scaredy Squirrel picture book series written and illustrated by Melanie Watt.

Watt, a Canadian author and illustrator of children’s books, has created a fun book series with a message. Spanning from 2006 to 2022, her Scaredy Squirrel books have helped kids acknowledge their fears and grow in confidence. In each title, the main character Scaredy is seemingly paralyzed by a fear which grows as he dwells on it. As prepares to face his fear, Scaredy ratchets up the anxiety by creating equally elaborate and ridiculous safety kits and escape plans only to discover that life is full of surprises. Although the surprises interrupt his carefully crafted plans, they demonstrate that obstacles can be overcome, self-confidence can blossom, and a good time can be had by all.

Scaredy truly comes to life in Watt’s delightful illustrations. He practically visibly quivers on the page, adding to the tension of the stories. An anxiety-ridden, germophobic rodent, Scaredy radiates his nervousness to the audience every time he flashes his trademark ear-to-ear grin with tightly gritted teeth. He is fun to watch on the page as he navigates Watt’s elaborate maps and plans and charts; the fitness plans and campground map in Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping display Scaredy’s paranoid preparations at their finest. Watt’s comic-book style–engaging and familiar–introduces the story without overwhelming readers and offers an accessible means of interacting with the book.

The series lends itself to preschool and early elementary audiences through the topics presented and the vocabulary level. The books are great for reading aloud with an adult as they are rich in opportunities to interact with the art and the text. Scaredy’s elaborate maps and escape plans are a hoot, and it’s fun to trace their pathways across the pages together. His antics and his journeys through anxiety-inducing situations offer so many points for kids and adults to talk through tough situations.

However you may feel about squirrels in real life, try one of the Scaredy Squirrel series titles for an amusing, feel-good read. Happy reading!


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