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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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56 Days By Catherine Ryan Howard

When the pandemic started, many people – including myself – thought that no one would want to read fiction set during this time. On top of the fact that this is a disaster we are all living through, everyone was stuck in their homes learning to make their own bread and hoping they had enough toilet paper. Who would want to read about that?

You can imagine my surprise when covid-centered books began to trickle in.

Not to mention the surprise I am feeling now, recommending one of these books to you.

56 DAYS by CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD is set in Ireland at the very beginning of the pandemic. Two people, Oliver and Ciara, went on a date 56 days ago after meeting in a supermarket queue; 35 days ago – when Ireland’s lockdown began – they were both facing two weeks alone in their apartments and decided to quarantine together. Today, a team of detectives arrived at Oliver’s apartment, where they found a decomposing body in his bathroom.

As they sift through the evidence, we jump back to moments from the past eight weeks. Seeing the story play out from both Oliver’s and Ciara’s perspective.

Oliver is new in town, working at an architecture firm run by one of his brother’s friends. He is staying in a lavish, company-owned apartment. Ciara works customer service at a cloud computing company and lives in a tiny studio apartment nearby.

When lockdown began, they were really hitting it off – texting constantly and feeling like they could not go two weeks without seeing each other. With few friends in the city and Oliver in possession of a second bedroom to Ciara’s zero, it seemed like the perfect time to try living together. But they were both keeping secrets, and soon one of them would be dead.

When Oliver first sees Ciara, he suspects she is a journalist. He has been harassed by the press before, and decides to play along with her for a bit to see if he can figure out who she works for. But as he gets to know her better, his suspicions ease.

Ciara has barely any social media presence, and a quick call to the cloud computing firm she works for verifies that she really does work there. So Oliver lets his guard down, and begins to feel like the two of them really could be happy together.

What the reader doesn’t know yet is that Oliver is a convicted murderer. When he was a child, he and a friend were responsible for the death of a younger boy.

When the lockdown comes he sees it as a chance to let Ciara get to know him before she finds out what he did – to get to know the person that he is now, without the context of who he used to be.

For her part, Ciara is mostly alone in the world. Her mother is ill, and she and her sister barely talk. After a slightly awkward first meeting, she and Oliver seem to be really clicking, and she is eager to get to know him better. Everything else we know about Ciara is a lie.

56 Days is designed to keep you on your toes. As we see more of their lives, and discover more of their secrets, everything we know about Oliver and Ciara changes – recontextualizing every moment of their short history.

The most jarring example of this change is the moment they met, 56 days ago. The scene in the supermarket queue is repeated multiple times throughout the book.

First we hear Ciara’s perspective – surprise when Oliver addresses her, her first impression that he is someone who moves through life easily, and her choice to shut down their conversation or let him into her life.

Later in the book we hear Oliver’s – suspicion that he’s seen Ciara five times this week, even though he’s gone to lunch at a slightly different time every day, and interest in the bag she’s carrying.

When we hear their first meeting for the final time, the implications have come into focus. We know who they both are, we know what they have both done, and we know why Ciara has followed Oliver into this market five days in a row.

But, just when you think you know everything, 56 DAYS still has another secret up its sleeve.

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An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten

For these dark, cold winter nights, many readers turn to the cozy mystery genre. It is a genre full of stories of charming small towns beset by serial killers and warm winter cabins playing host to locked room mysteries – with victims and perpetrators alike trapped inside by record snowfall.

While the book I read has many characteristics of a cozy mystery, it is decidedly different than the others. The recently translated AN ELDERLY LADY MUST NOT BE CROSSED is the second book by Swedish author Helene Tursten about quiet, self-possessed, dangerous Maud.

Maud is in her eighties; she has outlived everyone in her family by many years, and has enjoyed a long retirement doing exactly what she pleases. She has traveled all over the globe. She is extraordinarily healthy and mobile. And has enough saved up to continue her current lifestyle until her death. She has a nearly perfect life, except that Maud is a murder.

Maud does not get any pleasure from murder, like a traditional serial killer. She merely sees it as a means to an end.

When the teacher she has been substituting for returns from extended medical leave – forcing Maud out of her teaching job – Maud takes matters into her own hands and arranges an “accident” to remove the obstacle. One snowy night she drops a chunk of ice on the other woman’s head.

In addition to ensuring her own survival as a single woman in Sweden, Maud uses murder to deal with pesky neighbors and those who pose a threat to her friends.

The people who fall victim to her coolly calculated wrath are mainly deserving of punishment. Men who abuse their wives (and disturb their downstairs neighbor on Christmas Eve), women marrying elderly men just for their money (especially when the man happens to be an old flame of Maud’s), and fully grown adults who accrue so much gambling debt that their mothers (and Maud’s favorite neighbor) have to sell their apartments to pay off those debts.

Maud will bring about their deaths, and she will never even be suspected. That is, until she murders someone a little too close to home.

At the beginning of An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed, the final murder of the first book is still an open police case.

An antiques dealer came to Maud’s apartment to make an offer on her father’s silver collection, but when it became clear that he was planning to undervalue the pieces, and make off with three of the most expensive items, Maud hit him with the fireplace poker – causing him to fall face first into the fender and impale himself.

Maud did her best to cover up the crime: leaving a small trail of blood with an old shoe, cleaning the poker so that the police would not find prints, and booking a few days at a spa so she could have conceivably been out of town when the murder occurred.

She even fools all of the police investigators using her infirm elderly lady technique – all of them, that is, except two officers, who are back at Maud’s door as this book opens.

Finding herself in a tight spot, Maud decides to go on an extended trip: an expensive safari in her favorite part of Africa. On the plane ride from Sweden to South Africa, she finds herself reminiscing about other justice-driven murders from her past.

An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed is a collection of stories, told with the frame narrative of Maud’s trip to South Africa. Things that happen on her trip remind her of times she was driven to crime to solve the problems in her life.

Readers can tell that Maud has no remorse for her victims. In her estimation, each and every one deserved what they got – and made life a little easier for Maud.

In my opinion, it is not necessary to read the first book – An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good – before reading this one. Each book stands on its own well enough for readers to feel confident starting with the second book.

If you are looking for a quick read to distract you from the cold this winter, try Helene Tursten’s AN ELDERLY LADY MUST NOT BE CROSSED.

 

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

When Nicolette Farrell was eighteen, her best friend went missing. The entire town came together to scour the woods for her, and the local police looked into everyone who knew anything about her disappearance. In the end, a detective was sent by the state to the small town of Cooley Ridge, and – according to Nic – she broke Corinne’s whole life open.

Corinne Prescott was a girl full of secrets: from the pregnancy test found in her bathroom trash to her emotionally and physically abusive father to whether she had been dating her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Jackson, or Nic’s brother, Daniel, at the time of her disappearance. The state detective dissected every aspect of Corinne’s life, but she could not reveal Corinne’s final secret: what happened to her the night she disappeared.

All of this took place ten years ago, and Nic has tried to distance herself from it as much as possible. She moved to Philadelphia for college, broke ties with all of her old friends, and never talked about her past to anyone.

Although she refuses to talk about it, Nic has never been able to let her past go. She hears echoes of Corinne’s voice in her head, and half expects her friend to turn up someday claiming that her disappearance was all a joke.

ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by MEGAN MIRANDA opens with Nicolette waking up to a phone call from her brother, which she lets go to voicemail. Her brother’s message says that their father is not doing well – he has vascular dementia – and that the two of them need to sell his house in order to pay for his care.

Later that day, Nic gets a letter from her father; a letter which reads “I need to talk to you. That girl. I saw that girl.” Nic knows that her father can only be talking about Corinne Prescott. She packs up her life in Philadelphia and heads back to Cooley Ridge to see what is going on for herself.

When she gets back to her tiny hometown, it’s like she never left. Her brother still treats her like a teenage disappointment. Locals still think of her as “Patrick Farrell’s daughter.” And most of her high school friends are still working around town; including her high school boyfriend, Tyler.

Just days after Nic comes back into town, another woman goes missing.

Annaleise Carter was a few years younger than Nic in school, and she was completely beneath the notice of a group of recent high school graduates. But ten years ago, during the investigation, Annaleise provided an alibi for Tyler, Nic, and Daniel.

With this new disappearance, suspicion has again fallen on the three of them. Suspicion that brings old theories about what happened to Corinne back into the town’s consciousness.

After being at the center of the Corinne investigation, Nic is suspicious of the way the police operate. She believes that rather than dealing with the facts of Corinne’s case, they focused on revealing secrets – both Corinne’s and those of people connected to her.

She also knows that the town is more interested in having a story to explain what happened, rather than knowing the actual facts. Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson served as the town’s scapegoat, transforming the clean-cut teenager into a single, tattooed bartender living above the local bar.

Nic’s father now lives in a care home where they can monitor his scattered brain. Sometimes her father is lost in old memories, speaking to Nic as if she were her own mother. When Nic tries to talk to him about the letter that he sent her, he becomes evasive, and claims that she is in danger.

Nic cannot be sure if he means that she is in danger now, or if he thinks high school Nic is in danger because of Corinne’s disappearance.

After Nic comes back to Cooley Ridge in the first chapter, the book jumps forward to two weeks after Annaleise’s disappearance – right into the thick of the investigation. Each chapter then pulls back one day until we get back to the night of the first day.

As the book progresses, we learn more about who Nic and her friends were in high school, and what it was like to have a friend like Corinne, who could love you and hate you in equal measure.

Nic also learns who Annaleise was: a woman full of secrets, obsessed with the fate of Corinne Prescott.

 

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Mend! : A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules

Over the last couple of years there has been a movement back toward mending. Rather than getting rid of old clothes, you can grab a needle and thread and give them a new life with a few simple techniques. And if the techniques are simple, they can be made complicated – that is where visible mending comes in.

Rather than mending to hide holes and tears, visible mending seeks to celebrate them. Using contrasting fabrics for patches and bold thread colors for seams and darns, visible menders draw attention to their work. They also turn their mass-produced wardrobe into a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces.

Have you ever had to throw out your favorite sweater just because it had a small hole? Visible mending may be for you!

At Joplin Public Library, we have a few books about visible mending – in fact, three have been added in the past year – but my favorite is MEND! : A REFASHIONING MANUAL AND MANIFESTO by KATE SEKULES.

Kate Sekules is a writer, clothes historian, mender, and mending educator; and in Mend! she brings all of these skills to the table. Her book delves into the history of mending worldwide, and into the current renaissance it is having today.

The book is organized into seven chapters that tell the story of mending: What, Why, When, Who, Where, How, and Which. “What” provides a brief introduction to the concept of visible mending.

In “Why,” Sekules talks about the cost of manufactured clothing on the planet, from poor working conditions in factories to the piles of clothing that end up in our landfills.

“When” examines the history of visible mending – starting with the Copper Age patchwork fur pants of Otzi the Iceman and ending with the psychedelic color palettes of 1970s hippie couture.

Sekules showcases the other artists currently making waves in the visible mending movement in the fourth chapter, “Who.”

“Where” discusses storage of your mending materials and organization plans for your wardrobe. Just because you haven’t worn an old skirt in the past year doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown out. Maybe you should add some embellishments and give it a whole new style!

Mend! turns its attention to methods in chapter six, “How.” This chapter provides new menders with a vocabulary to get started, as well as illustrated techniques for basic stitches. Sekules also offers advice for dealing with specific fabric, and finding time for mending.

“Which” follows up with project examples. Since every tear is different, Sekules does not give step-by-step instructions for a project. She gives examples of damage and provides readers with a suggestion for a mending technique.

This book is not a craft project book. There are not any patterns to cut out or numbered instructions to follow. It is a book of ideas; a place to find inspiration. Flip through it just out of curiosity, and when you splatter paint on your best jeans, check this book out again to remember how you do a satin stitch, or what kind of patch fabric works best with denim.

Mend! is full of useful graphs and charts, but it also has its fair share of photographs. And don’t forget that Kate Sekules is a clothes historian – she has a picture of King Tut’s 3,350-year-old mended kerchief, and lots of stories to tell about clothing.

My favorite anecdote from this book has to do with what Sekules calls “the opposite of mending.” In the late 1300s, people were shredding their clothes on purpose. Hoods, gowns, and doublets all received intricate, decorative slashes – probably to mimic the way a knight’s clothes would become slashed in battle.

So whether you’re wearing a punk rock shirt with the sleeves torn off, or pre-ripped jeans you bought at the store, you have these fashion rebels from the 1300s to thank.

As the pages of this book will tell you, visible mending is nothing new. It used to be a necessity to look after the few clothes you were able to afford. Although clothing is much easier to come by these days, we can still choose to be more careful with the clothes we have.

With inspiration from Mend!, and a few basic tools, you can revolutionize your wardrobe and make it as individual as you. But be careful, you may find yourself starting to wish that your clothes would fall apart!

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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

As the title implies, MEXICAN GOTHIC by SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA is an homage to the gothic fiction novels of the 20th century, but one set deep in the mountains of Mexico rather than the English countryside.

Noemí Taboada is the strong-willed, somewhat-spoiled daughter of a wealthy family. She spends her free time reveling in the glamor and decadence of 1950’s Mexico City – dating men her father doesn’t approve of, and enjoying life.

As the book opens, Noemí has been summoned home from a costume party by her father. Expecting to be reprimanded for her choice of date, Noemí is surprised that her father instead wants to talk about her cousin Catalina.

Catalina was recently married following a whirlwind romance. She kept her relationship with Virgil Doyle a secret from everyone, and the two went back to Virgil’s ancestral home as soon as they were wed.

Noemí’s father has received a frantic, confused letter from Catalina claiming that the Doyles are poisoning her and mentioning ghosts. Fearing that either Catalina is in real danger, or that she may need some psychological help that her new husband refuses to provide, Mr. Taboada asks Noemí to visit her cousin and report back about the situation.

Arriving at the crumbling mansion known as High Place, Noemí is immediately at odds with the Doyle family. Virgil is brusque, dismissive, and unhelpful. Virgil’s aunt, Florence, keeps Noemí from visiting Catalina, who she claims has tuberculosis. And the Doyle patriarch, Howard, talks almost exclusively about eugenics.

Now a sickly, bedridden old man, Howard also tells Noemí about his deceased wives. They were a pair of sisters, both wards of Howard when he came to Mexico. He married the elder sister initially, but she died within the year, leaving Howard to marry the younger sister.

From one of the local people in town, Noemí learns about the fate of Howard’s children. Years ago, Howard’s daughter Ruth had fallen in love with a local young man. When the young man went missing following her father’s disapproval of the match, Ruth took a shotgun into the house and shot every member of her family, including herself.

Howard survived his gunshot wound, Florence and young Virgil were not in the house at the time; the three of them were the only remaining members of the Doyle family.

Noemí’s only ally at High Place is Florence’s son, Francis. It is through him that she learns much of the history of the mansion and the Doyle family.  He tells Noemí about his family’s mining business that built their fortune, which has since dried up, and the English cemetery that Howard had constructed – with dirt brought over from Europe – where the deceased Doyles have been laid to rest.

When Noemí is finally allowed to see her cousin, Catalina seems relatively normal. She does seem weak and tired, but more coherent than she was in her letter. Until Catalina tells Noemí that the Doyles can hear her through the walls.

Concerned for her cousin, but unable to convince Virgil to get help for her, Noemí resolves to leave High Place and get help. Up to this point, the Doyles have been creepy and off-putting, but as Noemí attempts to leave the mansion, things begin to get a lot more supernatural.

Moreno-Garcia borrows elements from the classics of gothic fiction, from Flowers in the Attic to Dracula. MEXICAN GOTHIC is a creepy, atmospheric novel. The reader feels a growing dread as the history of the Doyle family is revealed, and as they – along with Noemí – come to understand just how much danger the Taboada cousins are in.

Noemí herself is not a traditional amateur detective. She is focused, driven, and stubborn. But while she has the fashion sense and charisma of a teenage sleuth like Nancy Drew, she has no real interest in solving the case. Her whole focus is on helping her cousin, not piecing together any mysteries.

It is an unusual book, and there is more going on below the surface than I can convey. Once you finish the novel, I recommend seeking out interviews with the author – she has a lot to say about this book, and about the real mining town in central Mexico that inspired the novel.

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We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

With its brightly colored cover and its strange title, WE RIDE UPON STICKS by QUAN BARRY caught my attention immediately. If I had been more familiar with the plot, it is possible that I would have been more suspicious of the way it instantly grabbed me.

In the summer of 1989, the members of a high school field hockey team pledge themselves to the powers of darkness in order to make it to the state championships.

The novel is set in Danvers, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Salem. It is common knowledge in Danvers that much of the chaos of the Salem witch trials actually happened in their town – which was called Salem Village at the time.

During the previous school year, Mel Boucher found herself reading a reference book about the trials. The story of the teenage girls whose interest in witchcraft sparked the witch hunt inspires Mel to do some dabbling of her own.

The Danvers Falcons have been consistently terrible for years. Starting with Mel Boucher, the team decides to take matters into their own hands and, one-by-one, sign their names over to the darkness – represented by a notebook featuring Emilio Estevez.

Each member has their own reasons for signing the book. Everyone wants the team to win the state championship, but they each have their own personal goals that become clear over the course of the novel.

Julie Kaling, for example, lives in a restrictive, uber-religious household. When she signs her name, she asks the darkness to help her with a project. Her dreams revolve around a dress she wants to make for prom. With the boldness given to her by “Emilio” she begins spending her free period in the Home Ec room, working on her masterpiece.

Initially, signing their names seems to be enough. They obliterate the competition at their summer training camp, but once the regular season starts, they are only scraping by with narrow wins.

As the team soon finds out, the only way to appease the darkness (and secure their victories) is by doing dark things. Which the team takes to with a vengeance. They use their new power to affect change in the school and come into their own power as young adults.

AJ Johnson is upset about the racism in her English class curriculum. She uses this anger to start a rumor about a teacher, but then she decides to affect change more directly and run for student council president. Thanks to the darkness, she wins easily without ever putting up a poster.

The Falcons’ varsity team – Abby Putnam, Jen Fiorenza, Girl Cory, Little Smitty, Mel Boucher, AJ Johnson, Boy Cory, Julie Kaling, Sue Yoon, Becca Bjelica, and Heather Houston – are seniors. Like many high school students, they are trying to reconcile who they have always been with who they want to be.

Ultimately the book is about the internal power we all have, if we choose to harness it. Many of the team’s accomplishments were within their own power, they just needed the confidence to take action. On the other hand, I’m not completely sure that they weren’t also doing magic.

Reading WE RIDE UPON STICKS was a delight. It was a very unique novel, with only a small amount of actual field hockey – for which I am grateful.

Barry’s writing style is very visual. I was not surprised to find out that she is also a prize-winning poet. Jen Fiorenza has the iconic 80s teased bangs, which the team lovingly refers to as “the Claw.” Every time she mentions the Claw, Barry describes its subtle movements – which reflect the way Jen is feeling – from a tall, platinum railroad spike to a sad stack of pancakes.

She also perfectly captures the spirit of high school. Barry uses little details to accomplish the high school atmosphere, like the fact that the Danvers Falcons think about each other as either a first and last combo name, Abby Putnam, or exclusively by a nickname: Boy Cory.

The reader is given a glimpse into each character in turn, watching them go through their biggest moment of change.

By relying on each other – and using the powers of Emilio – each member of the team is able to accomplish something they never thought they could. As long as they don’t go too deep into the darkness.

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is a sliding doors novel about one woman’s search for a fulfilling life.

In the course of one day, Nora Seed has been mugged, lost her job, and found out that her cat has died. On top of that, she has been reminded of all of the ways that she has failed everyone in her life: her father, her brother, her best friend, and her ex-fiancé.

Struggling with depression, and feeling that she has nothing in her life worth living for, Nora decides to kill herself. Then she wakes up in the Midnight Library, which exists in a pocket of time between her life and her death.

Every book in the library represents another life that Nora could be living at this exact moment; parallel lives sprung from decisions big and small that Nora made in her life. The stacks are accessible through a librarian, who appears to Nora as Mrs. Elm, the school librarian from her childhood.

All Nora has to do is decide what she wants to change — what regret she wants to erase — and Mrs. Elm will find the book that contains that future. Nora will then slip into that version of herself and experience this different life.

With infinite lives waiting for her in the books of the Midnight Library, Nora has the opportunity to find the one where she fits; a life where she is truly happy. She can make any adjustments to her life, but if she gives up her search for happiness, the Midnight Library will crumble and Nora will die.

She starts with the life where she is married to her ex-fiancé, Dan. This Nora went through with her wedding and she and Dan opened a pub in the English countryside. In her own timeline, Nora called off the wedding after her mother succumbed to cancer.

In this life the two of them run a fairly successful pub – but they are deeply unhappy with each other. Seeing Dan in person after all this time, Nora realizes that her life is better off without him. He never supported her, never really cared what she wanted, and actively prevented her from accepting a huge record deal that her band had been offered.

Back in the Midnight Library after realizing this life was not for her, Nora sets out to see the outcomes of her other biggest regrets.

She follows her best friend to Australia, instead of letting her reservations hold her back. She decides to continue competitive swimming – which she had given up after the pressure to succeed gave her panic attacks – and arrives in a timeline where she is an Olympic champion. She even accepts that record deal and finds that she is a world famous rock star currently on tour in Brazil.

As she spends time in these other realities, Nora begins to see how she has shaped the world in her real life; how the choices she made changed the people around her. She begins to see the ways that she succeeded, and begins to accept her own failures.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is a vivid picture of depression and regret. The author, Matt Haig, is very open about his own mental health struggles, and does an excellent job translating them into this novel.

Nora is a compelling narrator; she is truly gifted in a number of ways, but has shut out the world at every turn and failed to pursue any of her dreams. The Midnight Library gives her a chance to see what her life could be if she had lived it differently.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the novel, although I did have some issues with the way it ended that I will not go into here. Haig offers an interesting perspective on life, and a person’s ability to understand their own impact on the world. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY was an engaging read, one that I am certain to keep thinking about for a long time.

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The Last American Vampire by Seth Grahame-Smith

THE LAST AMERICAN VAMPIRE by SETH GRAHAME-SMITH is an alternate history of America, from the colonies to the present, told by a person who experienced it all: Henry Sturges, the last American vampire.

Henry Sturges has been a major player in many key moments of American history. He came to America as a newly-married twenty-five-year-old Englishman, human and ready to start a new life. He and his wife were members of the Roanoke Colony, who built a fortified settlement in what is now North Carolina. Roanoke is infamously referred to as the Lost Colony – because its more than one hundred inhabitants disappeared without a trace.

The Roanoke Colony, including Henry’s wife, was completely wiped out by a vampire who had come to the New World in order to control it.  He is impressed by Henry’s spirit and decides to save him by turning him into a vampire.

The life of Henry Sturges follows the flow of American history very closely. He watches from a distance, trying not to attract attention, living independently from it until his friendship with Abraham Lincoln convinces him to take part.

THE LAST AMERICAN VAMPIRE is the sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which details Henry’s involvement in Lincoln’s life – from the time when he was a young man to his assassination. The first book focuses on the events surrounding Civil War, with both sides backed by vampires.

Henry is one of the Union vampires, but the Union does end with the war. Vampires like Henry continue to fight to protect mankind at large. They still call themselves the Union far into the 20th century, though their numbers have dwindled considerably.

The novel jumps around through Henry’s history. The conceit of the book is that Grahame-Smith (whose fictional counterpart narrates the book) is pulling from diaries that Henry has kept through the years; he is picking out the most interesting parts and building a narrative of the power struggle behind the scenes of American politics – the strings of which are being pulled by vampires.

Henry spends time in both America and Europe meeting many notable figures throughout his life. Authors like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe make appearances, along with John D. Rockefeller and Nikola Tesla. Henry and his allies fight against the villains of history, including Jack the Ripper and Rasputin – who are both vampires themselves.

As a result of his involvement as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln, Henry is coerced into working for multiple presidents and repeatedly conscripted into armies. The American government knows exactly what Henry is, and they rarely hesitate to use him. America wouldn’t be the same without Henry Sturges.

The book is filled with photographs, which add to its sense of historical weight. It contains letters, telegraph transpositions, newspaper clippings, and email. Excerpts directly from Henry’s diary are also used liberally, to get a sense of what Henry was feeling at the time.

The pseudo-realism of the book is very engaging, and although the book looks like nonfiction – right down to its footnotes – it reads like a novel.

The line between real and imaginary is thinnest at this time of year, and I think there are few better ways to embrace that than by reading supernatural fiction. This book is action-packed and fun, while also being somewhat gruesome (as most vampire fiction tends to be). So, if you’re looking for something to quench your thirst for the supernatural, give THE LAST AMERICAN VAMPIRE a try.

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The Annotated American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Recently, an item appeared on my cataloging shelves that I needed to read immediately: THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN GODS by NEIL GAIMAN; edited with notes by LESLIE S. KLINGER. I did not know this book even existed before it appeared on my shelf, but I was very familiar with AMERICAN GODS – Gaiman’s epic novel that blends classical mythology into contemporary America.

The novel follows Shadow Moon, a recent ex-convict who has just received news that his wife has died in a traffic accident – along with his best friend. Finding himself with nothing to go home to, and no connections worth pursuing, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from Mr. Wednesday, a man who Shadow just met, but who seems to know a lot about him.

Mr. Wednesday hires Shadow to be his personal driver and bodyguard. This job takes him all over the country. Wednesday introduces Shadow to an eclectic group of strange, otherworldly people. As he gets deeper into Mr. Wednesday’s world, he discovers that these people are gods, brought to America by humans centuries ago.

When humans immigrated into the country, they brought with them the stories and belief in these old gods, this faith permeated the country, and made it a place where the gods could thrive. In this modern age, belief in these gods has begun to fade. Humans have turned to new deities – Technology, Media, and others – who are taking the belief and getting stronger while the old gods become weak.

Mr. Wednesday is organizing the old gods against their new counterparts – trying to form an army and wage war against them, to destroy them and restore the old gods’ power.

The old gods come from all over the world, from Norse, African, Irish, Egyptian, Slavic, and Hindu mythologies, and many, many others. Gaiman has managed to bring them all together seamlessly in a rich, dense story full of unforgettable scenes.

This novel is truly an epic tale, like one of classical mythology. The summary above, while encompassing the novel, only covers one of the story threads that Gaiman has woven together to make this masterwork. In the course of the novel, Shadow also finds himself at the center of a murder-mystery in a small town in Minnesota, where young girls go missing with suspicious frequency. Not to mention that Shadow is being watched by a specter from his past for much of the story.

AMERICAN GODS is simultaneously an epic fantasy and an American road trip novel. Gaiman has a deep love for nostalgic Americana, and it shows. The book begins in Oklahoma, but Shadow and Wednesday travel all over the country, from Florida to Chicago – San Francisco to Kansas.

Gaiman has an understanding of the importance of road trips in American culture, of the feeling of driving down a long, empty stretch of road surrounded by fields. And the sad emptiness of the abandoned tourist destinations that have been passed over by the creation of highways.

Mr. Wednesday refuses to take the highways.

AMERICAN GODS has gone through a few editions since it was first published in 2001. Most notably, the wide release of the author’s preferred text – in the tenth anniversary edition in 2011. It has also been adapted into a comic series by Dark Horse Comics, and a Starz television series. This edition, published in 2019, is the author’s preferred text, with footnotes denoting when the text varies from the first edition.

The footnotes also give context to all of the gods and creatures that appear in the novel, which makes them a wonderful resource. Gaiman rarely explains what mythology he is referencing, leaving it up to the reader to investigate or ignore the history of the character. Klinger’s footnotes add a depth of understanding that I really appreciated.

THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN GODS is gigantic and beautiful. In addition to the footnotes, artwork depicting the gods and stills from the television show are also presented alongside the text. Having all of this together in one volume is a fan’s dream. I would encourage you to read this edition if you have read the book before – I assure you that you have never experienced the story like this.

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