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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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Six Mystery/Thrillers that Take You Places

My reading over the last few weeks has taken me to a lot of different locations. I spent some quality time in Colorado before a brief stop in Washington, DC led me to Texas. Then I made a mad dash through Peru, Costa Rica and the Caribbean. My next stop was North Carolina before a stay in Sydney, Australia.

In some places I caught up with familiar characters, in others I got to know ones I’ve met briefly before, and for a few I was able to meet new personas.

Margaret Mizushima took me to Colorado in her Timber Creek K-9 mystery series. This series was recommended to me by a fellow mystery reader who thought I would like it (Thank you, I do!). Mattie Cobb and K-9 partner, Robo, are introduced in Killing Trail. Robo was bought for the sheriff’s department to help with a growing drug problem in Timber Creek. On the pair’s first assignment he proves his skill goes beyond drug detection when he discovers the body of teen. This series has a lot going for it with good character development, a complex heroine with a troubled past, a mountainous setting, and most importantly the relationship between Mattie and Robo and how they work together. I’ll be back in Colorado again soon.

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Lucas Davenport in the Prey series by John Sandford is one of my favorite characters. His adopted daughter, Letty, was introduced in Naked Prey and is mentioned or makes brief appearances in most of the succeeding Prey novels. In The Investigator she takes the lead. The 24-year old Stanford grad is talked out of leaving a boring job by her boss, Senator Colles. His plan is to make her a researcher with her first assignment to work with Homeland Security to find who is stealing oil and for what purpose. Joined by DHS agent John Kaiser they leave DC for a brief stop in Oklahoma before the trial leads them to Texas. This is Sandford at his best as Letty and John piece together clues and follow the oil and the money. With plenty of action and smart dialog this one was hard to put down.

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The Recovery Agent features Gabriela Rose, Janet Evanovich’s new heroine. First introduced in a Stephanie Plum novel, Gabriela has mad skills and uses them to locate items and investigate fraud for insurance companies and private clients. However her current case is for family. Grandma is convinced Gabriela is a descendant of Blackbeard and they possess a map that will take them to the Ring of Solomon. If she can find it, they can save their hurricane ravaged town. The map however is in the home of her ex-husband, Rafer, who insists on being part of the quest. This novel is pure entertainment as the adventure goes from Peru and Costa Rica to the Caribbean then New York City and back to South America. It has a truly creepy bad guy and funny sidekicks. Though divorced there is still a spark between Gabriela and Rafer with plenty of witty banter. If you are an Evanovich fan, you don’t want to miss this one.

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After all that excitement I settled in to catch up with the ladies in the Secret, Book & Scone Society. Nora’s book store in Miracle Springs, NC is the gathering place for the 4 friends-Nora, June, Hester and Estella. In this 5th book in the series, Vanishing Type, three of them are helping Hester’s beau plan a romantic scenario for proposing. But Hester has a secret and before she can share it an unidentified man is found dead with an old book is his pocket. Then a book in the same series shows up in Hester’s bakery and Nora finds another in a box in her storeroom. What is the significance of the series of books? Is Hester in danger? Despite the intrigue I felt like I was catching up with old friends. Their lives are evolving with each new book in the series.

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is a book I checked out because it was recommended to me by a friend. After 20 pages I thought why did she think I’d like this? After a few more I was hooked. The Delaneys of Sydney Australia were a tennis family. Stan and Joy ran a successful academy and all 4 of their children were gifted players. Now they play recreationally or not at all but tennis still seems to dominate their lives. The story is told in the present where Joy is missing and in the past when a young woman, Savannah, shows up at Stan and Joy’s home needing help. In the present the police and even his children believe Stan is responsible for Joy’s disappearance. He feels guilty about something and he’s not talking. In the past, where Savannah seems to take up permanent residence in their home, is where it starts to unravel. The urgency of Joy’s disappearance is dimmed because she is so often seen in the past. But this book is about so much more than the mystery of what happened to Joy. It’s about family, how the past shapes the present and how the smallest things can make all the difference. Hint: keep this book in mind for the Summer Reading Program starting on May 31st. This title will work for one the adult challenges.

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56 Days By Catherine Ryan Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Latinist by Mark Prins

Some books are easier to lean into than others. I know, context is key here. Yet, despite the subjective sentiments attached to that statement, most readers can relate to the idea of finding “that perfect fit,” in terms of one’s literary preferences. As situated individuals, ideological conviction and lived experience often form the basis by which we assess the value of literature. That said, contextually speaking, Mark Prins’ debut novel, The Latinist, is easy for me to like.

Set in the ivory towers of Oxford, this is the story of Tessa Templeton, a PhD candidate and graduate assistant to world renown classicist, Christopher Eccles. The basic premise is rather simple. Tessa is in her final semester at Oxford. She’s finishing up her dissertation while patiently waiting for a callback from any of the myriad of institutions she’s applied to teach at. In the midst of this waiting, Tessa’s long term boyfriend, Ben, concedes to the demands of dating a doctoral candidate and abruptly ends their relationship. Shortly after the breakup, Tessa receives an anonymous email that reads, “You might want to reconsider asking Christopher Eccles for a recommendation letter in the future.” Just beneath this ominous text, Tessa sees a thumbnail of a rendering of Chris’ recommendation letter. Phrases like, “Tessa has made strides from a rocky beginning to her doctorate,” and “[w]e met more regularly in her first year than is normal with the students I supervise,” and “sometimes she is hindered by the tendency to be argumentative” are scattered throughout the document. This incident sets the stage for what turns out to be a thrilling, page-turning tale of suspense, lust, and the power of a determined soul.

Well, that last bit was a little dramatic, right? Still, this book is quite the read, especially for a debut novel.

A major plot thread woven throughout this narrative involves Tessa and Chris’ relationship. At the heart of Chris’ less than flattering recommendation letter is his desire to keep Tessa close. In short, he doesn’t want to share Tessa, thus his willingness to resort to sabotage. Having just ended a long-term relationship himself, Chris has developed feelings for his most prized graduate assistant. All throughout the book one finds references to Tessa’s superiority over her classmates. Chris has groomed her to be the top of the class, and to make huge waves in their discipline. In the midst of all that grooming, romantic feelings have blossomed. The problem is, the romantic feelings are one sided, thus leading the reader to one of finer aspects of Prins’ storytelling: Chris and Tessa’s relationship dynamics serve as a meta-narrative of Tessa’s academic pursuits.

To be more exact, Chris and Tessa’s story is a reimagining of her dissertation topic, which centers on Ovid’s classic take on the Apollo/Daphne myth, as outlined in his work Metamorphoses. That is, Tessa is studying an ancient story about a god whose unrequited love forced a nymph to drastic measures (i.e., turn herself into a laurel tree). Does that sound familiar? It should. This is Chris’ and Tessa’s story, minus gods, nymphs, and laurel trees. The groundwork for this story is laid out in part one of the book. From that point on, Tessa’s drastic measures begin to unfold, and they do so in a rather epic manner.

This story is captivating, to say the least. Prins’ writing style suits my tastes–sharp, witty, and intellectually stimulating. His pacing and prose are interesting. He takes his time in developing the points he wishes to make, and he does so in a somewhat untraditional way. He moves back and forth between both perspectives (Chris’ and Tessa’s), and doesn’t stick to a chronological telling of most stories. Again, it takes a while to get to where he’s going. That said, when he gets there, it seems worth the cost of admission more times than not.

Going back to where we started, I resonate with this story. Anyone who has experienced the rigors of grad school–especially in more competitive disciplines (e.g., humanities) –may be able to resonate. Additionally, I’m a sucker for myth. Thus even without the stellar writing, this book would have great appeal. This is a solid story that takes a simple premise and adds layers of complexity by incorporating rich and meaningful expressions of storytelling and well developed, empathetic characters. So, if any of that sounds appealing to you, this might be your next great read. You can pick it up in the New Adult Fiction section of the library.

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Courting Misfortune by Regina Jennings

America’s first detective agency, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, was started in 1850. Kate Warne, the first female detective, was hired in 1856. The widowed Mrs. Warne proved to be very effective and would eventually lead a division of female detectives at the agency. One of whom may have been like Calista York, Regina Jennings’ heroine in Courting Misfortune.

This title is the first in a Christian historical romance series called The Joplin Chronicles. Set in Joplin around the end of the 1890’s it portrays a city emerging from its mining camp origins but still plenty rough around the edges.

Calista found life as a Kansas City debutante less than satisfying and believes she has found her calling as a Pinkerton detective.  Even though she has completed two successful assignments she is still on probation. Now Calista has one month to complete her next case and prove to the skeptical Mr. Pinkerton that she can do the job.

The case is finding Lila Seaton. Lila is the daughter of Chicago mobster Jinxy Seaton. Calista is less than thrilled about working for a gangster but seeing the haunted eyes in a photo of the missing young woman she is convinced she must help. Lila has been missing 8 months without a trace. Jinxy has learned from an associate that Lila was spotted in Joplin, Missouri in the disreputable House of Lords. Jinxy is certain Lila was kidnapped and is being exploited by the same people who murdered her sister.

Calista knows Joplin well as her Granny Laura lives just outside of town. During summer visits Calista was closely guarded when they made the trip into the rough and tumble mining town.  Now to do her job she must dodge her family and venture to the very places Granny avoided. Making the Keystone Hotel her base of operation, Calista heads for the House of Lords.

Matthew Cook grew up in Pine Gap and when he decided to answer God’s call to be a missionary he thought he might be sent to a foreign locale. Instead he found himself a short train ride away in Joplin, Missouri.

As he walks the streets of Joplin Matthew sees plenty of souls in need of guidance including the young woman who is pacing in front of the House of Lords.  She seems to be working up her nerve to go in and he steps in to warn her. But Calista does not welcome this good-looking stranger’s attention nor his desire to save her from poor decisions. Matthew however is determined to rescue her.

Matthew’s persistence is annoying but Calista is still able to pursue contacts that might lead her to Lila. Then her family discovers she’s in town.  Keeping her job and quest to find Lila a secret is proving difficult as her family joins Matthew in trying to keep Calista from the people and places that might lead her to the missing woman. Can she find Lila before her time runs out?

As for Matthew, besides his worry and growing attraction for Calista, he has taken a job in the mines to be closer to the people he hopes to help. Plus he must try to stop an outrageous plan to auction off a baby to raise money for the Children’s Home!

This is an entertaining read and the author is well-versed in Joplin history.  There is a little mystery, fun characters, and a developing romance with faith the underlying motivation for our two protagonists.

The library has this title in our fiction collection and you can find the ebook and eaudiobook on Hoopla. Plus there are 5 paperback copies available to be read then either passed on to a fellow reader to enjoy or returned to the library. Just ask us to see if one is available.

Plus you heard it here first! (or maybe second or third) – the author, Regina Jennings, will be in Joplin on December 9th for a presentation on Pinkerton Detective Kate Warne. Please join us at the Joplin Public Library on Thursday, December 9th, at 6pm in our Community Room. A book signing will follow the presentation.

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Random Road by Thomas Kies

Geneva Chase is a really good reporter. She writes well, has great instincts and her resume includes jobs at major newspapers, magazines and even Fox News. But Geneva, the person, is a mess. Her poor choices and drinking has cost her all those resume filling jobs.

In Thomas Kies’ debut novel, Random Road, Geneva finds herself on probation at the only job she could get, crime beat reporter for the Sheffield Post. Sheffield, Connecticut is where she grew up and where hopefully she can start over.

The start over has not gone well. Out with Frank, her married lover, she encounters his wife and in the ensuing drunken brawl Geneva punches an off-duty cop. Hence her probation and mandated AA meetings.

Okay before I go further, you are probably asking yourself why I picked this title. I’m a mystery reader and I like character-driven novels. However, I usually like those characters, if flawed, to at least be striving for something better. But Geneva is likeable and her self-destructive tendencies are revealed over time. Plus I was hooked on the whodunit.

And who can resist a novel with the opening line ‘Last night Hieronymus Bosch met the rich and famous’? The scene this line describes may be the career remake Geneva needs. She has an exclusive on a multiple homicide in the gated community of Connor’s Landing. Six bodies, hacked to death, in the beautiful Queen Anne home of a multi-million dollar estate. The police aren’t giving much away other than the brutality of the crime and that there are at least 2 perpetrators.

She has other stories to follow as well. One is Jimmy Fitzgerald. Jimmy has been in trouble and gotten off lots of times thanks to his rich father. But this time he killed a mother of three in a hit and run. Another is the Home Alone Gang, burglars targeting the very affluent in Fairfield and West Chester counties.

But her story on the murders is picked up nationally and she has drawn the attention of a possible tipster.  A message in her voice mail says “I know who killed those people”. The male caller states he knows who and why but cannot go to the police. Geneva has no way to trace the call and doesn’t know if it’s legitimate or a crackpot. So as she waits for another call, she starts digging for her own clues.

On the personal front, she reconnects with Kevin Bell after seeing him at an AA meeting. Kevin, widowed with a teen daughter, was her best friend in school. Their reunion soon leads to deeper feelings but Frank is proving hard to dump.

There is a lot going on in this novel and Geneva’s personal relationships seem to go at the same speed as her breaking news stories. As tragedy strikes at home, her different news stories coalesce. Geneva’s search for the killers takes her unexpected places and exposes the sometimes lethal results of too much money and privilege.

This story has the potential to restart her career if she can stay sober, keep her job, work out her personal relationships, and not get killed in her search for suspects.

This is an older title and the first in the Geneva Chase Mystery series. The following titles are “Darkness Lane”, “Graveyard Bay”, and “Shadow Hill”.  “Shadow Hill” published this summer to some really good reviews. It is also a recommended title for fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Other series read-alike are the Jane Ryland mysteries by Hank Phillippi Ryan and the Hollows novels by Lisa Unger.

 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline B. Cooney is known for her young adult novels but she was intrigued with telling the story of someone who chose or was forced to live their life as a different person and managed to do it for almost 50 years. The resulting novel is her first for adults, Before She Was Helen.

Cooney’s effort is a well-done tale of surviving life’s challenges with a little murder and mayhem thrown in. NoveList (a reader’s advisory tool available through the catalog or the library website) describes the novel as compelling, funny, suspenseful, and intricately plotted with authentic characters. It’s the library’s pick for the Spring Book Discussion scheduled for April 26th from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

Helen is a semi-retired teacher living in the Sun City Retirement Village. The village is nice but bland. On a forgetful day a resident may need the garage door opener to identify their unit by which door goes up. You can be anyone you want to be and no one questions your past.

This suits Helen fine. She can have friends and participate in the lifestyle without too many awkward questions. Helen’s neighbor, Dom, may like the anonymity too but he doesn’t participate. He is an unpleasant man who doesn’t invite friendship. However, he and Helen have an arrangement. After a fall he gave her a key to his unit to be used only if he misses his daily check-in.

On the summer morning that begins this novel, Dom has not texted his usual message or responded to her text and phone call. Reluctant about what she might find, Helen uses the key. Dom is not inside the villa and in fact his golf cart (his transportation) is not in the garage. There is, however, a connecting door to next villa. This villa is largely unoccupied as the owners rarely come to stay and Helen knows of no other villas with a door between the units.

Doing her due diligence, she goes back through Dom’s place and over to the next villa. When there is no answer to the doorbell and repeated knocks Helen goes back to the connecting door. Could Dom be in the next villa? His missing golf cart says no but now she really wants to see the next villa.

Dom is not there and the villa appears so empty that Helen doubts anyone ever lives there. A rainbow of light catches her eye and she discovers a beautiful glass tree dragon sculpture. Unable to resist she snaps a picture with her cell phone and goes home.

Wanting to share her discovery with her great niece and nephew she sends the photo from Helen’s phone to her family phone, Clemmie’s phone, and texts the beautiful sculpture. For most of her adult life the world has known her as Helen. Clemmie only exists for her family and they know nothing of Helen.

The response Clemmie gets is surprising. The glass sculpture is actually a rig for smoking marijuana. The tree dragon was stolen from the maker, Borobasq, and Clemmie’s nephew has already contacted him about her discovery.

Clemmie’s fingerprints are in the villa with the stolen statue. Then her niece sends her news from her hometown, the decades old murder of the high school basketball coach is being reopened. The same coach who forced her transformation from Clemmie to Helen.

To add to her worry, Borobasq soon finds her. The glass maker is actually a drug dealer and whoever stole the rig took his cash, lots of cash. He has come to find his money and inflict a little pain. Before he can determine Helen’s involvement in the theft a body is found in Dom’s garage.

With the sheriff questioning her about what happened next door while a drug dealer hides in her bathroom, Helen has to think fast. Can she figure out what is going on before Clemmie is exposed and her two worlds collide?

Cooney takes us back and forth from Clemmie’s youth through young adulthood and Helen’s situation. We go from the culture of the 1950’s to navigating senior living and modern conveniences. “Her life didn’t turn out the way she expected—so she made herself a new one” is accurate and inadequate. There is so much more to Helen’s story which is why it’s a good pick for the library’s Spring Book Discussion.

The Spring Book Discussion for Before She Was Helen will be Monday, April 26th, from 6:00-7:00 p.m. via Zoom. You can find the link on handouts at the library and it will be posted on the Joplin Public Library Facebook page. We hope you’ll join us.

The library has this title in print and in the ebook format on both MoLib2Go.org (Overdrive) and Hoopla. If you find the print and MoLib2Go.org titles checked out, it is always available on Hoopla.

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