Tag Archive for: fiction

You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue

Hernán Cortés meeting Moctezuma in 1519 holds some space in our North American imagination. Two trajectories of human development—long separated by time and distance—crossed in Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. For many, it symbolizes the beginning of the end, the Old World commencing its dominion in the New World. Imagine the meeting: European steel and gunpowder entering the dominant empire in Mesoamerica. We can almost feel the tension five centuries later.

In You Dreamed of Empires, Álvaro Enrigue has a reimagining for the ages. Yes, it foretells the eventual clash between Spanish conquistadors and a sophisticated city. But most of the novel reads like the most awkward of weekend getaways between two groups of people trying to understand what in the blazes is going on. It’s often comedic, taking the reader on a delightful, almost hallucinogenic flight.

We first find Cortés and a few of his men as dinner guests of Moctezuma’s retinue. One conquistador, never having experienced the deliciousness of chocolate, wants to down the frothy cacao drink that was served. However, the Tenochtitlan priest seated next to him—”his teeth filed sharp as a cat’s”—has him more than a little unnerved. More than anything, it’s the nauseating stench of coagulated blood from the priest’s cape made of human skin.

The fact that the Spaniard is not eating his soup is becoming an issue. Moctezuma’s priests are whispering. Cortés shoots the soldier a reproachful look, like a parent silently scolding a child with a flash of the eyes: Eat! The soldier finally imbibes, prompting a comrade to raise his cup of chocolate at his countrymen, as if to say, “Looking good, Spain.”

Moctezuma leaves others to deal with the Spaniards. He’s deep within the palace complex, self-medicating with psychedelic mushrooms. His depressed malaise is crippling. He’s always having to solidify power and find opposing warriors to sacrifice in the temples. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And it’s not as though the “testy gods” are appreciative, what with their “blithely doling out droughts, earthquakes, defeats, and invasions.” Now, here are these Spaniards, these “bearded ones.” So Moctezuma lies down. “The Silence his nap demanded was imperial.” All things within the palace become hushed. When he wakes, he rings a royal bell, its peal waking “a whole world” just before he returns to sleep.

The conquistadors are left to wander the impressive and disorienting palace complex. With its many canals, one soldier remarks that it’s like Venice. Another responds, “It’s like Venice, but in hell.” The palace is so silent and empty it feels as though they’re “strolling along the seafloor.” Every day is like a Sunday, says another. Meanwhile, the soldier charged with stabling the horses is having some difficulty in finding suitable accommodations. The problem, of course, is that horses are just as new to the area as the Spanish.

Are they guests, or are they prisoners? They don’t know. There is, nevertheless, the feeling that they are getting away with something. Could they ever get this close to the Spanish crown? Of course not. But look at them now, even if they do feel idiotic marching through this heat and humidity in helmets and breastplates. In fact, when comparing their attire with Moctezuma’s warriors’ headdresses representing their guardian animals, the Spanish crested helmets seem “about as majestic now as a bagpiper’s bonnet.”

Tlilpotonqui, the mayor of Tenochtitlan, at times comes across as an overworked concierge. When Moctezuma beacons, go he must. He’s had it up to here with everyone and everything. We can imagine him trying not to get caught rolling his eyes when has to listen to He Who Looses the Rain of Words and Governs the Songs Lest We Be Like the Flowers and Bees That Last But a Few Days sing—once again —the “interminable” Legend of the Suns.

Excessive rumination is not something that burdens Cortés. We know from history that Cortés was positively awful. And he’s dreadful here too. If there is one thing that burns inside Cortés, it’s his quest for gold. It’s purported that Cortés said to Moctezuma’s representatives, “I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.”

Eventually, Moctezuma—fully sated on magic mushrooms—emerges. Here he is, the mighty ruler of the “fear-producing machine” that is Tenochtitlan. And what happens? He and one of his priests hear a T.Rex song from the 1970s and start dancing about.

Absurd? Yes, of course. But there’s Borgesian magical realism in play here, especially toward the end of the novel. If that’s not exactly your literary bag, perhaps it may help to know that this novel is rather svelte, coming in at just over 200 pages. And, really, when capturing the peculiarity of this time and place, magical realism offers its own illuminative qualities.

Cortés and his men weren’t the first Spaniards to reach Mesoamerica. It was already known among many Mesoamericans that these “foreigners were ordinary men, but when there were many of them they became terrifying.” So it’s no wonder that in Enrigue’s incantatory novel, he has Moctezuma asking Cortés to just stop, to join him, and to “dream now.” It all “doesn’t last, like flowers.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

The Five Star Weekend by Elin Hilderbrand

Hopefully the idea of summer reading brings to mind getting outside, perhaps on the beach, and taking time to get lost in a good book or two.  In Libraryland this type of book is usually called a beach read, even if you’re not at the beach. They usually end up being some of my favorites each year. In my mind beach reads are light, fluffy, hard to put down quick reads that one would want to take on vacation.  They can be hardcover or paperback, but softcovers are my go to, since they are lighter and take up less space, allowing me to pack even more books.  Which do you prefer: hardcovers, paperbacks, or maybe even your Kindle or iPhone for eBook reading?  

Either way, you cannot go wrong, reading is reading, and as we move into a time of warmer temperatures and greener spaces, I love to think about what my summer reading will shape up to include.  One title that I would recommend adding to your list now is THE FIVE STAR WEEKEND by Elin Hilderbrand. It has all the elements of a great beach read – summer setting, compulsively readable, and just a hint of romance.

From her social media accounts Hollis Shaw’s life looks picturesque and perfect.  She’s married to Matthew, a heart surgeon, lives in a large, modern house, spends summers in Nantucket, has raised a smart, accomplished daughter who is away at college, and has a popular food blog called Hungry with Hollis. 

But after a winter-time accident that takes Matthew’s life right before Christmas, Hollis’ world comes crashing down. She tries to find comfort in her work and her daughter, but neither offers the support she needs. The only bright spot is a woman who she met through her blog – Gigi Ling.  Gigi offers a compassionate, listen ear and Hollis is so thankful for her friendship. However, after Hollis makes a heartbreaking confession about having a fight with Matthew before his accident, Gigi disappears, too.

As the seasons change from winter to summer, Hollis does what she normally does, returns home to Nantucket.  She hopes this might help improve her mental outlook, but it is only harder because Nantucket contains a version of Matthew that was more relaxed and fun when they were there.  The memories are unbearably hard for Hollis.  She is having trouble sleeping and eating, until one day she finds an article on the internet about what another widow did to help herself after the death of her husband.  It’s called The Five Star Weekend.

The premise of The Five Star Weekend is that you invite one friend from each phase of your life, for a total of four friends, on a trip, or as Hollis does, to your home, to spend the weekend together celebrating the friendships that have helped make you who you are today. 

Hollis loves this idea – “five women together for the weekend, and a weekend filled with elevated experiences worthy of five stars.” She immediately starts to organize her own Five Star Weekend with her friends and plans to have them visit in two weeks.  She invites her childhood best friend Tatum, her college best friend Dru-Ann, her “prime of life” best friend Brooke, and she struggles for a fourth friend, but finally settles on Gigi Ling.  

What could possibly go wrong?  Hollis soon finds out that her vision of a low-key weekend is not to be had.  Her friends are there to support her, but they all have past or current drama that keeps getting mixed in with the girls’ weekend activities. Shenanigans ensue and secrets abound.  All making for a delightful, dramatic read.

Not everyone can go to Nantucket this summer, but readers can get a glimpse of what it might be like through Elin Hilderbrand’s eyes. THE FIVE STAR WEEKEND is a pleasure to read.  

Here are a few more of my favorite beach reads from year’s past: 

Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director

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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Book review by Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

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