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Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Diana O’Toole has her life completely mapped out – educational aspirations, career goals, engagement and marriage plans, timeline for kids, when to move out of the city to the suburbs – but when the COVID-19 pandemic hits things start to become unpredictable and move far beyond Diana’s control. 

First, her new high-profile client decides to postpone a big art sale, one that would have earned Diana a big promotion at Sotheby’s, the large auction house where she works.  Second, her boyfriend Finn, a surgical resident at a hospital in New York, is unable to go on a pre-planned trip to the Galapagos with Diana because all medical personnel are needed at the hospital.  Since it is very early days in the 2020 pandemic timeline, the couple have no idea how bad things will soon get, but Finn encourages Diana to go ahead with the trip, solo.  

Apprehensively she does, but things continue to be unpredictable.  First, her luggage is lost, then as soon as she arrives at the island, it is placed under a quarantine order, and will close for two week.  All other tourists are leaving the island, trying to catch flights home, but Diana, committed to taking this once in a lifetime trip, gets off the ferry only to quickly discover that her hotel is closed and she has no place to stay.  

Fortunately for Diana, a local woman named Abuelita, takes pity on her and puts her up in a small apartment, but Diana’s stay continues to be a difficult one.  She has to navigate an unfamiliar town, where most everything is closed, lack of cell phone or internet service, and a language barrier.  She is forced to abandon all her pre-made plans, and not only try new things, but create some local connections. These connections turn out to be life changing for Diana and she is soon evaluating her former life with a more critical eye and wondering how things will be when she returns home.

Since reading Jodi Picoult’s mega hit MY SISTER’S KEEPER, I have been a big fan. This newest addition to her extensive title list is excellent. It is the only title that I have read so far that is written in the present day, with the pandemic as a central focus of the plot. Plus, readers are sure to appreciate the author’s attention to detail and the amount of time she must have spent researching the various topics to create a cohesive, believable tale. 

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The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Nell Young’s whole life is maps, it always has been. Her father is a world-renowned expert in mapmaking and cartography at the New York Public Library, and he raised her to love maps as much as he does.

She followed in his footsteps through college: studying cartography and earning a highly-competitive internship in the NYPL’s Maps Division. All signs pointed to her earning a full position there when she graduated.

Until the Junk Box Incident. Nell and her father had a very public fight over a map and he fired her in front of the entire office. With her reputation as an up-and-coming academic ruined, and all her connections in the field broken by the loss of her father’s support. Nell was sentenced to a maps-adjacent career designing decorative maps for people’s living rooms.

After the fight, Nell wanted nothing more to do with her father. Although he had fostered her love of maps, he was a somewhat inattentive parent. He had done his best as a single father after her mother’s death, but he always felt distant.

Nell stayed away from him, and from the NYPL, for years. But she finds herself back in the library after hearing the news that her father has passed away at his desk. Looking through her father’s papers, Nell is shocked to find the map that she and her father fought about all those years ago – the catalyst of the Junk Box Incident. A nondescript, mass produced gas station map of New York’s highways.

During her internship, Nell discovered the junk box in the storage room of the Maps Division. Inside she had found some very rare and valuable maps, and – inexplicably – the gas station map. When she ran back to the office with her discovery, her father claimed that the maps in the box were fakes and fired her on the spot. What she cannot understand is why he seems to have held onto that worthless gas station map until the day he died.

As she looks into the history of the map, Nell discovers that every other copy has been claimed by a mysterious group called The Cartographers. Whether by purchase or theft, every copy of this map – in museums, libraries, archives, private collections, and antique shops – has disappeared.

Unable to stop digging into a mystery that is quickly taking over her life, Nell begins to chase down the people her father was in contact with before his death – people who turn out to be her parents’ college friends. They give her new insight into her family history and show her the real potential that maps hold, if you know where to look.

THE CARTOGRAPHERS by PENG SHEPHERD hops back and forth between Nell’s story and the first-person recollections of this older group of map enthusiasts. They tell her about events she was too young to remember and the truth behind lies that she has been told to protect her. The reader listens alongside Nell as she hears these stories from her past.

The book itself is a compelling blend of realism and fantasy. While much of the story is designed as a straight-laced mystery, there is magic here. It is a magic that feels almost plausible – and, if you read the author’s note, you will find that it is a magic that is very nearly real.

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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

If you are of a certain age, you may recall Jonathan Franzen, even if you have yet to read his work. Think back to 2001, when Oprah selected Franzen’s “The Corrections” for her book club. This made the literary author decidedly uncomfortable. He publicly stated he considered himself from the “high-art literary tradition” and that so many of Oprah’s selections were “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” Displeased, Oprah promptly disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show. The story became fodder for cable news, so Franzen’s book sales were still assured. (An excellent novel, it would go on to win the National Book Award.)

His latest novel, “Crossroads” approaches masterpiece status. Franzen is brilliant and has clearly honed his writing so as to jettison what many thought were elements of a show-off from his earlier novels. Still, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it was for me.

It is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s, Russ and Marion Hildebrandt have four kids, their ages running the gamut. Russ is an associate minister who has been reassigned within his church after being ousted as head of the youth group he created, Crossroads. To add to his humiliation, two of his children subsequently join the group. Russ, who wants nothing to do with his wife, is pursuing a widowed church member; it’s somewhat comedic while simultaneously being all-the-way sad.

Each of the children is struggling in their own way. Clem, away at college, is about to drop out so as to attempt enlistment in the Vietnam War. Becky, as popular as they get in high school, is becoming increasingly intrigued with the counterculture. Then we have Perry, a high school sophomore, a genius, a drug dealer, and an addict. His “manner is seemingly forthright and respectful but somehow neither.”

Perry joins Crossroads as a contrivance, emoting in group sessions. “Because it was a game, he was good at it, and although intimacies achieved by game-theoretical calculation were hard to feel great about, he sensed that other people were genuinely moved by his emotional displays.” Becky sees through his ploy and promptly calls him out for not only manipulating the group but for also being a borderline loathsome person.

Marion, who has her own history of mental illness, is certainly worried for Perry’s mental well-being and for good reason. Russ, meanwhile, has delusions of grandeur by thinking he can save some Navajo land. Yet this is the same guy whose family is disintegrating right before his blinkered eyes.

In his novels, Franzen takes it to Midwesterners. (He was raised in St. Louis.) For all the mainstream “dontcha know” and “whelp!” jokes that are supposed to underscore some sort of Midwestern innocence, Franzen has consistently hit back with a grimmer take, where repressed feelings are dangerously mixed with silent hatreds; add, too, the prevalence of drug use (think methamphetamine).

But this is not to say that “Crossroads” is a satire on Midwestern church families. The characters are going through genuine moral crises. Treating them with care, Franzen makes their respective anguishes real.

Maybe all too real for this reviewer. Make no mistake, Franzen is in top form as his intellect fully surrounds the characters he builds and then topples. Make no mistake, too, you feel the characters’ plight. Franzen’s writing makes sure of that. It’s as though you’re lying down on the grass on the most pleasant of days, hands behind your head, watching the clouds pass by for hours. It’s gorgeous in its own way, with its grand unfurling. But every now and then you come across a thunderclap that emphasizes the devastation. Here’s Clem asking Russ: “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?”

Readers of John Updike will perhaps be reminded of “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” a gorgeous multi-generational novel, where the reader sees how one decision made by one person from one generation affects the next. There’s certainly an Updikean feel to “Crossroads.” However, here, the family members live their lives in one uneasy swirl and it’s an unnerving slow bleed (albeit humorous at times).

Apparently, “Crossroads” is the first of a planned trilogy entitled “A Key to All Mythologies.” (Readers of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” will probably recognize the reference.) Knowing this, I’ll possibly give the second volume a go. For while I found “Crossroads” wrenching, there is hope for the Hildebrandts.

There’s plenty of hurt that results in various family fissures, yet they don’t give up on each other. Plus, Russ finally sees it: Sometimes we err and err badly, but we keep trying. “Turning and turning,” he says. “Until by turning and turning we come around right.”

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Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

SPACE OPERA by Catherynne M. Valente is a book so up my alley that I put off reading it for years because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to how amazing it sounded. I can tell you now that I was wrong.

But before I tell you about the book, let me ask: have you heard of Eurovision?  It’s an annual song contest that the nations of Europe have been putting on since 1956. Each country brings a song and performs it live, and the entire thing is broadcast on TV for the viewers at home. Sort of like the Olympics for pop music.

SPACE OPERA is Eurovision, but in space.

Decibel Jones – former front man of the one-time super-group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros – is asleep in his tiny London apartment when he is visited by an electric blue flamingo creature claiming to be from another planet.

The creature is called an Esca, and she has come to Earth with a somewhat threatening invitation.

She explains that all of the known sentient species in the universe come together annually for a song contest. They play whatever they have for instruments and sing with whatever they use to produce speech – be it a mouth, a trunk, or a hollow melodic rib cage.

All species who have developed the capability for space travel are required to send a representative to the contest. Meaning that Earth must now participate. And as a race applying for intergalactic recognition of their sentience, they must place better than dead last.

If they come last, they will have proven they are not sentient, not able to coexist with the other species, and their entire race will be wiped out – in order to protect the other races from the threat of a non-sentient species wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The Esca explains the stakes to Decibel, and every other human on the planet simultaneously. She then presents humanity with a list of performers that have the best chance of succeeding in the Metagalactic Grand Prix. At the very bottom of the list: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.

Next thing he knows, Dess finds himself and his ex-bandmate, Oort St. Ultraviolet, onboard a starship headed for the Metagalactic Grand Prix, with the fate of the world on their shoulders.

The two of them must write and perform a new song that will appeal even a little bit to a panel of intergalactic judges, while rubbing elbows with unusual beings from across the universe.

SPACE OPERA is so much fun to read. Valente mixes in a lot of humor and heart into her story of impending global destruction. Readers get glimpses into what people back on earth are experiencing as they watch the Grand Prix and glimpses into Dess’ childhood, as a kid dancing around in his grandmother’s scarves and a teen designing his first stage outfit from the thrift store bargain bins.

From their conception, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were decidedly glam. They were a mid-2000s British pop sensation that burned briefly, but brightly.

The three members of the band, Dess, Oort, and Mira Wonderful Star, were a world all their own. Until Mira died tragically years ago. Without her, and with the band already falling from the spotlight, Dess and Oort didn’t have a reason to keep going. Dess made a go at a solo career, and Oort got married and had two kids.

Decibel Jones is Arthur Dent meets Lady Gaga; he’s a stranger out in the galaxy, but he tries very hard to treat everything with the practiced disinterest you expect from a rockstar. And if you don’t like Dess, then you will like Oort, who is the epitome of steady – the rock that kept the Absolute Zeros together while they lasted.

Valente has presented an excellent example of my favorite kind of science fiction, the kind that has gone out to space to have fun. She has taken cues from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is the gold standard funny sci-fi book.

Valente dedicates paragraphs to the history of an alien species or the peculiarities of its home world – a convention that Douglas Adams used liberally in Hitchhiker’s. Her story is brief, but the world she has built is populated with so many interesting characters that SPACE OPERA has only just scratched the surface.

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The Starless Crown by James Rollins

James Rollins has a bit of a reputation. The dude’s been writing action-adventure novels since the late 90’s–some of which you might have even heard of (think, Subterranean or the novel adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His Sigma Force series establishes him as a bonafide “master of the [thriller] genre” (according to BOOKLIST). Labeled by many as Michael Crichton’s “heir apparent” to the techno-thriller throne, Rollins has made quite the career of writing science-based, suspense-laden tales of mystery and reveal. Yet, thine truth easily forgotten is the tale of how this thriller-king forged his path into the literary realm (note: that was a bit of foreshadowing, not just an awkwardly phrased, archaic rhetoric of sorts). About a year before Subterranean hit the presses, Rollins published his first novel, Wit’ch Fire, under the pen name, James Clemens (which adds another layer of interest and mystery, as Rollins is a pseudonym as well). This was the first of a series, The Banned and the Banished. Now if the suspense is killing you (ba-dum-ching), I’ll go ahead and make the big reveal. Rollins got his start writing fantasy. (Well, he actually got his start by being a successful veterinarian, but that’s a whole other lead-in that we don’t have time for.)

In his latest entry, The Starless Crown, James Rollins introduces his readers to the fantastical planet of Urth (go ahead, pronounce it the same way you do your own planet). Set between the uninhabitable polars of a frozen tundra and a fiery desert is “the crown”–a land filled with all of the political, religious, and academic tropes a die-hard fantasy reader yearns for (myself included). To put it another way, there’s a school. Governing authorities are pulling most of the strings that are connected to this school (or at least, they think they are, due to the inclinations of a wise head master of sorts). Within the curriculum taught at the school, there’s a heavy emphasis on the merging of myth and science–as if the two are connected somehow. All of this mystery and apparent-string pulling sets the stage for our primary protagonist, Nyx.

Nyx is interesting. She’s almost blind (a cloudy haze covers both eyes, making it nearly impossible for her to see most objects). She’s a sharp, bright student that is advancing through the ranks of her school, which is hard to do as each new rank is preceded by a culling of sorts (don’t worry, it’s not the type of culling that leads to death, just the kind that says “get out of here, we don’t want you anymore”). Yet, as she advances, so does the mystery surrounding her. You see, her classmates are mostly made up of the high-born populace (i.e., those with enough money and status to use hyphenated words on the regular). Nyx, however, was raised by her adoptive father and his two sons, who happen to live in a swamp. Even in the crown, high-borns look down upon swamp-borns (we totally just made “swamp-borns” a thing). Here’s the kicker, though: Nyx wasn’t actually born in the swamp. Until the events of this story begin to unfold, nobody–not even Nyx or her adoptive family–knows where she came from. As her da’ (adoptive father) tells it, “it’s as if she just fell from the sky.”

See. This is fantasy 101. Rollins knows what he’s doing.

To whet your appetite just a bit, allow me to set the stage. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, thus the “just a bit” phrasing.

You already know about Nyx. Again, she’s interesting, but it’s the “absolutely great” type of interesting. She’s a very likable character. Paired with Nyx is her friend and Cloistery assigned “tutor”, Jace. Now, “Cloistery” is the name of the school mentioned above. Naturally, Nyx attends this school and Jace used to (before he was non-lethally culled from it). Jace is Nyx’s tutor in that he helps her read and get around, due to her visual impairment–he is not a formal tutor, as Nyx is more than capable of managing her own academic pursuits. Eventually, the pair escape the confines of the Cloistery, not because they don’t like it, but because of a series of events that leads to (a) Nyx regaining her eyesight, which in turn leads to (b) her discovery of a secret connection with a monstrous race of giant, winged, bat-like creatures, thus leading to (c) her receiving a vision (from the bats–or, Myr bats as they’re referred to) that foretells the damnation and destruction of Urth.

Now, here’s the cool bit. Every aspect of the story I’ve mentioned thus far is all about Nyx and her backstory. Yet, as her story continues to develop, so does the character count. Specifically, the primary character count. In addition to Nyx, Rollins sprinkles in three other main characters, each having a supporting character or two (i.e., each having a “Jace” or two). This allows for Rollins to employ a multi-perspective narrative, as each section of the book is told via the perspective of a different main character than the last section was. Not all readers enjoy this style. So be forewarned if that’s you.

Alongside Nyx and Jace, readers discover a variety of character profiles. Not far into the story, Rollins introduces Rhaif, a thief who breaks out of a prison-mine after finding (and stealing) an ancient artifact that might just be my favorite character of the entire book (yes, I just called an artifact a character–that’s the only spoiler you’re getting here).  Next, Rollins introduces Kanthe, a dejected, displaced prince of the realm, due to him being born mere minutes after his older twin brother, and the fact that his father–King Toranth of Azantiia–is flat out jerkish. Kanthe and his tutor, a powerful alchemist named Frell, are thrown into Nyx’s story by either mere happenstance or fate–the latter of which seems improbable to Kanthe, as his sense of self-worth is, at best, lacking. The final character that makes up Rollins’ alliance of vagabonds is a disgraced warrior, who after years of banishment due to a crime of passion, finds himself re-entering a land he swore to never come back to, whilst re-entering a story he thought concluded–Nyx’s (okay, that’s for real the last spoiler).

So, to recap. This story is about a child of destiny protected by a group of outcasts–a prince trying to discover who he is, a thief with more scruples than he’d care to admit, and a legendary warrior wrestling with the demons of his past–in order to avoid (or set into motion) the end of the world. Again, fantasy 101. Throw in some magic, other-worldly creatures, and a villain we all want to punch in the face (even those of us who don’t actually know how to punch people in the face), and this story quickly becomes a satisfying entry to an already full genre.

This book reads like a Robin Hobbs, Terry Brooks, or Mark Lawrence piece–concise, clear vision, and excellent word choice. So, if you like these writers, this might be the book for you. While Rollins’ world building is solid, it’s not quite on par with Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson–which might be a good thing, since as of now this is planned as the first of four books (i.e., it takes a few more books than that to build the types of worlds Jordan and Sanderson have created).  Rollins’ prose and pacing remind me of George R. R. Martin and R. F. Kuang, as this book builds steadily, while giving a lot of attention and detail to action sequences and dialogue more so than other facets of character development.

By and large, this is a great re-entry for Rollins. One can tell that he’s familiar with the genre, and that he’s more than capable of producing quality content that will keep his readers coming back for more. If you’re a fan of fantasy or even just a fan of Rollins’ other works, this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre, this is a great entry point. You can pick up a copy to borrow at the Joplin Public Library. It can be found in the new fiction section as you enter the lobby.

56 Days By Catherine Ryan Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meet Me in Paradise by Libby Hubscher

Marin Cole is not a risk taker.  When she was seventeen the death of her mother caused her to alter her lifelong dream of becoming a globetrotting journalist, like her mother had been, to instead become a responsible caregiver to her twelve year old sister Sadie.  

Years later, Marin has grown into a homebody who has never seen the ocean or climbed a mountain, much less traveled to an island paradise. But all of that is about to change.  

Sadie, her younger, thrill-seeking photographer sister returns home from a trip to China looking worse for wear and manages to convince Marin they need a trip together.  They are soon booked for a girls trip to the beautiful, remote island of Saba.  Marin thinks it will be the perfect opportunity to convince her free spirited sister to settle down and start working at the same advertising agency that Marin works for in Tennessee. Little does Marin know that Sadie has other plans.  

The big day arrives and Marin is headed to Saba, only Sadie is nowhere to be found.  Thanks to turbulence, Marin ends up in the lap of a handsome stranger, mixes up her luggage with another passenger, and loses her passport; all before arriving in Saba.  Once arrived she does her best to book it right back home, but without a passport that is difficult.  She has little choice but to accept the generosity of the handsome stranger from the plane and try some new experiences.

At first glance this book seems like your typical fun, breezy romance.  Clueless uptight girl, handsome mystery man, island getaway; all the usual elements set to combine into a perfect beach read to soak up the rays with, but there is more to this book than meets the eye.

Divulging Sadie’s plan and motives would spoil the book, but thanks to it Marin is able to take the trip of a lifetime and in the process learns so much about herself.  Hubscher has crafted a funny, clever, and at times, gut wrenching tale.  Readers are in for a special experience as they travel alongside Marin.

The Great Gatsby: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by K. Woodman-Maynard, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m not a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Being introduced by way of forced dissection of a lesser known novel in literature class did not help.  I’m amazed that I kept reading American literature after that, I was so turned off by the experience.  I shudder recalling it.

This is a redemption story, however.  Thanks to author and illustrator K. Woodman-Maynard’s illustrated adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I’ve remembered the importance of second chances and have been reminded that looking at things from someone else’s perspective can open the door to understanding.

Instead of presenting a literal, paragraph-by-paragraph depiction of Fitzgerald’s work, Woodman-Maynard blends a dreamy, evocative art style with passages of text to capture the mood of the novel.  Using a combination of watercolor and digital media, she brings the story to life concisely, accessible to a 21st-century audience without sacrificing its tone or message. 

Her art is ethereal–a wash of watercolor, usually one or two colors each spread save for the party scenes, flowing across the page and shaped by light inkwork.  I felt as if I were part of the privileged dreamscape inhabited by Gatsby & Company, following the crowd from one mansion to another in search of the bigger picture.  

Shapes flow around the panels much as the watercolor does.  Draperies and table linens and fashionable clothing swirl and dip and twirl in a perpetual breeze.  A scene in the first chapter describes two women lounging in a solarium on a spring day, “buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.  It was as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”  Woodman-Maynard takes them on that flight, the women and the draperies on enormous French doors air swimming in circles until the ladies float gently to rest on a massive couch.  Swirls and waves and circles appear throughout–as clouds, ocean surf, tree branches, champagne bubbles, garlands of paper lanterns.  Text floats, too, in clouds and on the surf, and is found hanging in trees, wrapped around furniture, plastered on buildings, and looming in the shadows.

Colors are muted, thin in places, with even the bolder shades feeling somehow languorous.  Yellow pops up in party scenes and times of gaiety or when the characters remember happy times or try to forget their current emptiness.  Yellow pairs with blue when possibilities appear, when there is promise and hope.  Red and pink and blue and purple populate the bulk of the panels, shifting in depth and tone along with the narrative.  Blue and green bookend the story on the cover, the title page, and the last panel.  Grey and brown permeate scenes with characters outside the privileged social circle.

The Great Gatsby: A Graphic Novel Adaptation blew me away with its aching beauty.  It made me want to try the original novel–something I never thought I would do.  I almost didn’t pick up Woodman-Maynard’s adaptation because of my negative experience with the original.  I’m very glad that I did, and I’m glad to experience the novel from a different perspective.

Graphic novel adaptations (including manga, Japanese-style comics) of literary works have the ability to engage readers without completely divorcing them from the text or veering drastically off-course with the story.  They can enrich literature for students and everyone else by making it easier to visualize the plot, characters’ inner thoughts and motivations, and a variety of other story elements.  Readers can discover new ways of interacting with the text which, in turn, can enhance understanding of setting, tone, symbolism, and more.

Woodman-Maynard’s take on The Great Gatsby is a valuable tool for high school and college students, and it offers an accessible entry point for adults to enjoy graphic novels or literary works.  I read it using the Libby app which provides easy enjoyment of the text with full-screen, two-page spreads in an uncluttered viewing area.  There’s no intruding dashboard or progress marker blocking the art; those appear at the reader’s convenience.  The Library has a growing collection of illustrated literary works in both electronic and paper formats.  Whether it’s through Libby and Hoopla or on the shelves, there are titles for adults, kids, and teens to explore.  Happy reading!

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Heist tales lend themselves well to a cinematic telling. The visuals are all there, from the hushed planning to the eye-darting execution. Sometimes you think the crew might just make it out with the goods. Other times you just know they are doomed from the start. But what of a heist novel? I didn’t think I had ever read one. This past summer, however, I knew this was about to change; for Colson Whitehead was set to publish “Harlem Shuffle,” a heist novel.
Whitehead is literary gold. He’s won the National Book Award and—count them—two Pulitzer’s. In “The Underground Railroad,” grim reality paired with magical realism to describe two slaves escaping a brutal Georgia plantation aboard an underground railroad system that’s literally an underground railroad, an antebellum allegory of fleeing slavery. Devastation continued in “The Nickel Boys,” which detailed the abuse in a Jim Crow-era reform school. Heavy reading, both.
“Harlem Shuffle” is a welcomed exhale. But it’s still a Colson Whitehead novel, so you would be safe in supposing that it’s both good and hard edged. It just has to be. And you would be right on both accounts.
We follow Ray Carney, the proprietor of a Harlem furniture store. It’s 1959 and Carney struggles to make the rent for his family. It doesn’t help that his in-laws treat him as though he’s beneath their daughter. Every interaction feels as though they are waiting for her to “wake up to the poverty of her choices.” Never mind that his mother died when he was young, thus leaving him to the whims of a neglectful father. His father was indeed a crook, but Ray learns one unintended lesson from him: “living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live.” And never mind that, despite all this, he earned a college degree. To them, he’s just a “rug peddler.”
Carney so badly wants to move his family out of their cramped, noisy apartment and onto a more respectable block that he often embarks on long walks just so he can gaze at coveted apartment buildings and dream. But, to be sure, he needs money for this to manifest. It helps that his cousin Freddie will occasionally show up at the furniture store with random stolen goods that Carney unloads for a cut. These are small risks with small payouts.
Freddie changes this risk/reward ratio by partnering with a hardened group of criminals. Their plan is to rob the Hotel Theresa, a Harlem icon. And it’s more than just about making a high-dollar score. Black Harlem residents like Carney’s in-laws live in a neighborhood called Strivers’ Row. This Harlem echelon, along with Theresa’s past reputation of Harlem sophistication, wore on some Harlem residents because they knew none of it was for them. Carney knows part of the reason his in-laws disapprove of him stems from the color of his skin. Even they think he’s too dark. This job would bring bourgeois “black Harlem down a notch.”
Not that Carney initially wants anything to do with it. He’s a furniture salesman, not a crook. It’s because of Freddie’s big mouth that these other criminals even know of Carney, that they think he’s the one to move the stolen Theresa jewelry via his merchant connections.
Carney has a choice to make, telling Freddie that he will sleep on it before he decides. “A night of Carney staring at the ceiling was enough to close the deal, the cracks up there like a sketch of the cracks in his self-control.” He grew up not wanting to be a crook, but he also can’t deny that he grew up surrounded by criminals and their lifestyles. Moving stolen goods provides a small thrill to an otherwise mundane life, “a zap-charge in his blood.” The heist goes down, and the rewards and repercussions are meted out according to streetwise maneuverings.
Years go by and we find a more prosperous Carney. The furniture store is doing well and he’s being courted by the elite Dumas Club, which restricts membership to Harlem’s professional class only. (Carney’s father-in-law is a member.) Yet even then, if Carney wants to get in, it’s going to be a decorous dance.
Carney also takes a second job: plotting and exacting revenge. This second job has him “keeping crooked hours,” going to sleep a little earlier and then waking up for the night work. “Midnight, rise and shine.” It’s an hour “when the con polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books.” And we have the pleasure of reading all about what he’s up to.
We end in 1964, with Harlem changing. All of New York City is changing. Whitehead takes us through the riot that happens that year, with Carney not only trying to protect his store but to keep order both with the choices he’s made and with the unpredictable actions of his various associations. Throughout the novel, this city is alive, its own character. We already know that some streets and establishments in the city are not for the faint of heart. It’s one thing to call them dangerous and potentially wild, but it’s much better to read how Whitehead writes them, as with this one bar: “The atmosphere in Nightbirds was ever five minutes after a big argument and no one telling you what happened.”
A lot goes on in Carney’s life, so it’s easy to miss that no one really knows him. His family is his one constant (aside from his store). Yet even when he’s with his wife and kids, he seems distant (partly because he keeps his criminal life secret). It’s not until the moments when he’s in imminent physical danger does he seem to yearn for them. During one instance when someone is pointing a pistol at him he thinks of “his sleeping wife and daughter on their safe bed. That little lifeboat aloft on the dark and churning Harlem sea.”
Carney doesn’t fit in with the crooks nor the Harlem elites. That’s unfortunate, because those are the only two groups of people he knows. Still, he’s a survivor in the engine known as New York City. Early in the novel, during one of his apartment dream-walks at night, he imagines himself and his family in an apartment building on Riverside Drive, on a floor high enough where he can see the Hudson River. “With his hands on the sill, he’d look out at the river on nights like this, the city behind him as if it didn’t exist. That rustling, keening thing of people and concrete. Or the city did exist but he stood with it heaving against him, Carney holding it all back by sheer force of character. He could take it.” Whitehead wrote an entertaining heist novel, yes, but it’s also so much more.

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An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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