Tag Archive for: fiction

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

Just when you think you’ve already heard the most daring of castaway sea voyages from the historical record, comes now author David Grann to regale us with a remarkable chronicle of woe. In “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder,” Grann weaves together a myriad of sources, recounting events with such vibrant prose they unfurl before the mind’s eye. These events, however, happened over 280 years ago. As revealed by his previous book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Grann’s talent is not just in narration, but also in finding historical narratives that turn the looking glass back around on us.

Mark Twain purportedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” During the 18th century, naval warfare was one such rhyme. In 1740, the Royal Navy dispatched a squadron from Portsmouth on a mission to seize the treasure aboard a Spanish galleon. Grann does capital work in describing the socio-economic profile of the crew, ranging from striving officers to men pressed into service against their will. Aboard these warships, pitiless hierarchy is the name of the game. For a ship to slice through the ocean, each crew member has to work with machine-like precision. Any dereliction is met with the lash—or worse. As we already knew, democratic these ships are not, for any glint of mutiny portends chaos.

On this voyage, typhus takes its toll. Also, as the squadron sails around Cape Horn, scurvy ravages the crew, rendering them near useless. Traversing the Cape’s furious waters is certainly an inauspicious time for a weakened crew. For centuries it bedeviled sailors. Grann notes that those who experienced it “strained to find a fitting name for this watery graveyard”: “Blind Horn’s hate,” “Dead Men’s Road,” or just simply “Terrible.”

Some of the squadron’s ships make it. Some turn back. One ship, a former merchant vessel (an East Indiaman) retrofitted into a warship, decidedly does not make it: the HMS Wager. Grann lays out, with great drama, how the ship runs hard aground just off a Chilean island. Water floods in, rats scurry up from the holds, and those well enough to flee scramble into smaller boats. Then there are those who break into the ship’s store of alcohol and go berserk in a mixture of revelry and fighting.

On that speck of land, later named Wager Island, commences the rest of the book’s subtitle. There is scant food on the island to sustain life. Celery grass, however, does alleviate the scurvy. A potential lifeline also manifests with the appearance of the Kawésqar.

Inhabiting the Patagonian archipelago for thousands of years, the Kawésqar people marvel the Wager’s crew with how they keep warm in constant near-freezing conditions, lathering their exposed skin with animal fat and tending small fires in their canoes. They extract sustenance from the sea and share it with the castaways. Eventually, an entire Kawésqar village relocates to the island. And then—and you knew this was coming—some of the crew promptly ruin it all. Quite often a group is only as good as its worst members. The worst of the Wager’s crew would, on occasion, take a boat to the ship’s wreckage, drink their fill of spirits, and then return to harass those on the island. One night, as the crew slept, the Kawésqar quietly gather their belongings and disappear.

Two crewmen’s journals supply much of the content on which Grann draws. One is John Bulkeley, a gunner. The other is from John Byron, a young midshipman and future grandfather to poet Lord Byron. Bulkeley is a savvy scribe, for he knows his journals need to reinforce the narrative he’s going to relay to the English admiralty.

Of course any relay is subject to a big-time fact conditional: getting off the blasted island. How this transpires is best left to the reader. But when the mutiny comes, the language used by the mutineers is similar in spirit to what American colonists will argue in the Declaration of Independence some 30 years later. Just as the mutineers name their despot, Captain Cheap, so will the Declaration’s signers name theirs: King George III. In essence, Enlightenment precepts were used, arguing that it’s not they who were in rebellion but their disgraced leaders, men who failed those they were charged to lead.

One faction makes it back to England before the other, commencing the race to peddle a narrative. There are plenty of London broadsheets more than willing to print the various stories from those on the Wager. For the crew, it’s more than an abstract winning of hearts and minds. It’s about solidifying a narrative that will be told to Royal Navy authorities. Under naval codes, punishment for dereliction of duty was already greatly feared by officers and sailors alike. Grann quotes Voltaire’s “Candide,” saying “that the English believed it proper to ‘kill an admiral from time to time in order to encourage the others.’” The admiralty’s ultimate decision is both unexpected and telling.

“The Wager” is every bit the historical thriller, deserving of the praise it’s garnered. But Grann is also asking the reader to consider larger questions. Why was it necessary to send out warships at all? The events happened under the auspices of the War for Jenkins’ Ear. And if—just by name alone—this sounds like a ridiculous undertaking, you’re not far off. Lives were lost, all in service of…what exactly? Quite a few of the Wager’s crew disappear from the historical record. Grann also mentions the many slaves lost (read: killed) in the Middle Passage during this time period. It’s no accident these nameless lives rarely entered any record at all, except perhaps as a ledger expense. Those responsible certainly had no interest in highlighting such barbarity. Says Grann: “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

Arch-conspirator by Veronica Roth

In ARCH-CONSPIRATOR, Veronica Roth puts a futuristic spin on Sophocles’ Antigone. Roth transfers the ancient Greek tragedy to the last city on Earth, which stands as the lone haven in a desolate wasteland created by humanity.

The city is ruled over by Antigone’s uncle Kreon, the High Commander, a militant man obsessed with order and maintaining the status quo. Kreon took the throne after a riot – that he instigated – killed the former High Commander, Antigone’s father Oedipus.

Antigone and her siblings are set apart from the population not because their father was deposed and replaced as High Commander, but because their parents chose to have them independently. In this future, children are created using the ichor stored in the Archive, a gene bank containing the cells from generations of the dead.

It is considered unnatural to have biological children. Those children are looked down upon as being soulless, because the soul lives in a person’s ichor and is passed down to the next generation when new life is created.

Humanity is kept in check by Kreon’s marshal rule as well as this strict pseudo-religious dedication to humanity’s future.

After taking the throne, Kreon allowed Antigone and her siblings to live in the High Commander’s residence with his family. Over the years, the four of them integrated themselves into these new lives with varying levels of success.

Antigone grew stoic and stubborn. She has since been unwillingly betrothed to Kreon’s son, Haemon.

Antigone’s twin, Polyneikes, has chafed against his uncle’s rule. He has joined a group of revolutionaries from the city who seek to overthrow Kreon.

Ismene, their sister, abides by Kreon’s rules, for the most part. She is quieter and meeker than the twins, but she does rebel in her own ways.

Their brother, Eteocles, has assimilated almost completely into the new High Commander’s regime. He has become a member of Kreon’s personal guard.

As the book opens, Antigone joins Polyneikes at a café in the city. Her brother alludes to dangerous plans he has for that evening. He ends their conversation by giving Antigone and Extractor – the metal instrument used to harvest ichor from the dead. Polyneikes makes Antigone promise that she will use it on him if things go badly.

Late that night, Antigone and Ismene hear a fight taking place in the courtyard of the High Commander’s residence. When they arrive at the scene, they find Polyneikes and Eteocles, who have shot and killed one another. One brother on his way to kill Kreon and the other protecting him.

Kreon labels Polyneikes a traitor and decrees that his body is not to be touched – or Extracted for the Archive – as a warning against insurrection. To honor her brother’s wishes, Antigone has twenty-four hours from his death to get to him and use the stolen Extractor.

Veronica Roth’s novella is a quick but intense read. She narrates chapters from many of her key characters, allowing readers a glimpse at the inner turmoil faced by each of them. Alongside this story of revenge and familial love, ARCH-CONSPIRATOR also offers a variety of perspectives on life at the end of the world.

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Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

JEANA’S FAVORITE READS OF 2023

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:

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid
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.

TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin
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.

LADY TAN’S CIRCLE OF WOMEN by Lisa See
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.

FOURTH WING (THE EMPYREAN BOOK 1) by Rebecca Yarros
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.

DARK AGE and LIGHT BRINGER (RED RISING SAGA BOOKS 5 & 6) by Pierce Brown
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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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

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

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find the book in the catalog. 

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

Trust by Hernan Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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The Celebrants by Steven Rowley

In April, the Library hosted bestselling author Shelby Van Pelt.  Following her presentation, during the Q&A, an audience member asked what she was currently reading.  She shared that she had just finished a new book by Steven Rowley called The Celebrants. She loved it and thought that it was a powerful, thought-provoking read. 

I am a Rowley fan, so I knew I had to read his latest and immediately added myself to the Library’s hold list.  Several weeks later, the book was ready for me and I could hardly wait to start reading it.  

It is the story of five long-time friends – Jordan, Jordy, Craig, Marielle, and Naomi.  A pack that used to be six, but a few weeks before the group’s graduation from Berkeley, their friend Alec died. His death, right on the cusp of their group entering the adult world, without each other, left them shaken and questioning what their lives and connections would look like after graduation.  

After Alec’s funeral, the friends gather at Naomi’s parent’s house in Big Sur, and spend the time comforting each other and rehashing Alec’s death. During the visit, Marielle suggests the remaining friends make a pact. The rules of the pact being, they will drop everything and get together when one of them calls and requests it. They will throw the requestor a living “funeral.” A group celebration to stop and remind themselves that life can be hard, but worth it, especially with one’s friends in their corner. During times of need these gatherings will be pockets of time where they share their love for one another.  

During the next 28 years, the five friends meet up for “funerals” on three occasions, but the newest call to action is different. Jordan has something he has been keeping from the group and it will not be an easy secret to share, and for the group, not something easy to process.  

Rowley has crafted a beautiful composition to the power and beauty of friendship and what lifelong support looks like. This is not a sappy story, more of the matter-of-fact, read between the lines, style that Rowley is known for, but the elements combined to make an emotional (grab the tissues) and heartfelt offering that reminds readers to not leave anything unsaid. 

Full disclosure, I did not love this book when I first started reading it.  Some, if not all, of the characters are not very likable, at least not from the beginning of the book. They are flawed, and Rowley’s writing style and the way the book jumps between points of time, make this more challenging. But I am so glad I stuck with and finished it. 

At one point, it all just clicked and I was able to realize why he had written it to move from present day to past events in the uneven manner that he did.  The story and the friendships really resonated with me. Friends are there to provide hope, encouragement, and to remind you why this life is worth living. Kudos, Steven Rowley, you have crafted another winner. 

Find the book in the catalog. 

Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

There’s a refrain that spans time and distance. When circumstances are what they are, someone will shrug and say, “It is what it is.” In Dennis Lehane’s gritty new novel, “Small Mercies,” the residents of 1970s South Boston say this, along with such things as “Whatta ya gonna do.” It’s not a question, of course, because it’s a given that, with some things, there’s nothing you can do. The Irish American inhabitants of South Boston embrace both pride and defeat. They proudly call their neighborhood Southie, yet they know that no matter how hard they work, being poor is a lifelong reality. It is what it is.

Mary Pat Fennessy’s first husband died and her second husband walked out on her. After her son returned from the Vietnam War, he became hooked on heroin and overdosed. So that leaves just her and her teenage daughter, Julia (or Jules), sharing an apartment in Southie’s Commonwealth housing project.

Mary Pat “looks like she came off a conveyor belt for tough Irish broads.” She’s small, but—as with so many other Southie kids who grew up in “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” households—she’s ready to fight. Her mother once told her, “You’re either a fighter or a runner. And runners always run out of road.” Not that Mary Pat needed to be told that, really. It’s not as though there was anywhere to run within the cramped household.

Jules is different. There’s a softness to her that Mary Pat has never known but nevertheless tries to foster. Once, when walking with Mary Pat, Jules explodes into tears on a Southie sidewalk, prompting stares from others. Mary Pat, in turn, holds her daughter, proud “of this weak child she’s borne.”

Still, it’s Southie after all, where “most kids come out of the womb clutching a Schlitz and a pack of Luckies.” Here, Jules is no different, which Mary Pat accepts. And if Jules can stay away from some harsher influences (such as the heroin that killed her brother), she might be okay, Mary Pat thinks.

There’s something else raising May Pat’s ire. It’s 1974 and a court-ordered mandate to desegregate public schools is galvanizing Southie. Some white students from South Boston High School are to be bused to Roxbury High School, a predominately African American school. Jules is going into her senior year assigned to Roxbury. Mary Pat is having none of this. Nor are Southie residents accepting that some Roxbury students will attend South Boston High.

It’s in this charged environment that a young black man is found murdered in Southie. On the same night, Jules goes missing. A homicide detective, Bobby Coyne, investigates the murder as Mary Pat desperately tries to find her daughter. Are the murder and disappearance related? Bobby knows that he has a tall order in trying to solve a murder in Southie, its residents an “unknowable tribe.” Mary Pat, part of that tribe, must cross boundaries within her own neighborhood, which takes her into the world of Marty Butler, a neighborhood mobster who’s clearly a stand-in for real-life mobster Whitey Bulger.

Lehane not only keeps the plot rolling, his characters have depth. And throughout, there are nuances that place you right in the scene. When Mary Pat’s niece, for example, is described as “a girl who’s always managed to be twitchy and listless at the same time,” we see her, know her a little already. And, trust, Mary Pat certainly doesn’t stand apart from her neighbors when it comes to prejudices.

The Southie in this novel is not unlike other enclave neighborhoods. It possesses both benevolence and hate. It has a mobster who claims to protect his neighborhood, his people. But in reality, it’s “his people” he hurts the most. It, like neighboring Roxbury, has parents willing to do anything to protect their children from harm. But they know that, in the end, they can’t.

“It is what it is” may seem like a throwaway line. Frequently it is, to be sure. But it also embodies the heartbreaking reality that we, at times, live in an unjust world that metes out punishment for the simple audacity of being alive. The poet Charles Bukowski said there’s often “pain without reason.” Sure, you can unpack the events. But as Bobby says to Mary Pat: “This life. You know? Try and make sense of it.” Well, she does see how it is. And she’s done with anything resembling “Whatta ya gonna do.” She’s rendering judgments. And those on the receiving end had better watch out.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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