WE: A New Translation by Yevgeny Zamyatin (translated by Bela Shayevich)

Some words are worth repeating. If repeated enough and over an elongated amount of time, these words might even be worth refining, reshaping, and repurposing for a new age and for a new context. In Bela Shayevich’s new translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian, WE, words have undoubtedly been refined, given a new shape and purpose, and in some cases, just flat out repeated.

This latest translation of a science fiction standard is both refreshing and brilliant. It is refreshing in that it revitalizes a work of literature that was written over a century ago in a foreign tongue–between the years of 1920 and 1921 in the midst of the Russian Civil War–by using contemporary English prose that is both captivating and thought provoking. It is brilliant in that it uses said prose to bewitch the postmodern reader into believing that this work was written for them. Detach Zamyatin’s name and context from this work, and remove the hundred year gap between today and the work’s original audience, and one is left with a beautifully written novel about the perils of totalitarian authorities, the dystopian reality of a utopic vision, and the consequence of dissent. Shayevich’s translation is written for “us,” or for the “we” of today.

That said, not even a snake could writhe or contort out of Zamyatin’s contextualized grip on this work; and rightfully so, as WE was written for, to, and in a very specific time and context. While the idea of disassociating this work from its proper context in order to reveal the timelessness of its themes and meanings is enticing, it is also somewhat futile. For, the contextual background surrounding the composition and publication history of this novel is part of what makes this work so intriguing and impactful. Written in the throes of the Russian Revolution, Zamyatin and his works were suppressed by Soviet authorities. Though the novel was completed in 1921, it wasn’t published until 1924; and that publication was an English translation of Zamyatin’s work. After its original completion, WE became the first banned book by the Soviet censorship board. A Russian edition of the book wasn’t formally published in the Soviet Union until 1988–fifty one years after the author’s death. Thus, while a primary thread in the novel’s plot deals with chains of events caused by a dissident’s actions, this novel’s fictionalized happenings serve as a metanarrative of Zamyatin’s real-life circumstances, as the consequences of his actions mirror the themes of suppression and “unfreedom” described in the novel.

Shayevich’s translation is bolstered by a well written introduction by Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, whereby she eloquently situates this novel within its historical and literary context. Add the two essays that are tacked on to the back end of this new translation, and one is in for a rather enjoyable read. The first essay is a review of Zamyatin’s original work, written by George Orwell, the author of 1984. The second essay imagines Zamyatin as his own primary protagonist fending off the forces of Stalinsim. This essay was written by famed sci-fi and fantasy writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. These three reading materials are treasures in their own right. Place a genre defining work of art in the middle of them, and one is in for a real treat.

The primary protagonist of Zamyatin’s WE is D-503. Born within a world whereby individuality is a criminal offense and “unfreedom” is the ultimate goal of existence, D-503 is an exemplary cog in the autocratic machine he serves. In this state of being–known as the One State–rationality reigns supreme. While detailing the mathematical calculations involved in designing the One State’s “table of sex days”–a scheduled hour of time whereby each member of society is allowed to engage in intercourse with an assigned member of the oppsite gender–D-503 suggests that “[f]rom this, you can see how the powerful force of logic purifies everything that it touches. Oh, if only you, unknown readers, could also come into the light of this sacred force, if only you could also learn to follow it to its conclusion.”

Detailed through a series of log entries, D-503 acts as the story’s narrator while he describes the completion of the INTEGRAL, a massive ship that will be used to transport the message of the One State to the far reaches of outer space. Serving as one of the builders in charge of mathematics for this project, D-503 makes use of every opportunity given to explain the One State’s superiority over all other civilizations. Beginning with the One State’s decimation of all but .2 percent of the world’s population, thus putting an end to the the infamous Two Hundred Years War, and ending with his extremely personal struggle between the superiority of cognitive freedom and the allure of human emotions, D-503 paints a vivid picture of what it is like to serve the One State.

Throughout his story, readers surmise the impact that this fictional society has upon its individuals, even when said society is attempting to squeeze individuality out of its members. In D-503’s logs, readers encounter the ever present eyes and ears of the Benefactor–the One State’s all powerful, supreme ruler. This omnipresent awareness of the Benefactor is aided by the One State’s civic infrastructure. All of the buildings in this society, with very few exceptions, are made entirely of glass. Blinds are placed within living quarters, but are prohibited from use outside of “the sex times” mentioned above. Additionally, citizens are subjected to forced curfews and are only allowed to deviate from their “table of hours”–a detailed schedule that all citizens must follow–if given permission via a government appointed doctor.

At the start of his log entries, D-503 is paired with O-90, his appointed female counterpart who is just as happy with her place in society as he is. “O,” as he affectionately calls her, is registered as a non-child bearing female due to her being “10 centimeters shorter than the required Maternal Norm.” D-503 and O-90 are paired together due to logic and rationality. This is a stark contrast to D-503’s relationship with a woman he is introduced to early on his logs, I-330. The inconsistent emotions and lack of logical, calculated awareness D-503 displays whilst in I-330’s company produces the conflict needed to make this story work. While “O” is a conformed member of society throughout most of the novel, “I” is rebellious and serves as the primary instigator of dissent within “D-503’s” world.

As D-503 and his companions discover secret truths concerning the One State and the mysterious Green Wall that marks its borders, a seed of revolt begins to grow within. The budding of this seed, coupled with some engaging translation work on Shayevich’s part, provides the readers with an engaging and well developed story. However, be fair warned. This is classic science fiction. Ideological and philosophical musings are laced throughout D-503’s log entries. Thus, if one finds Asimov’s Foundation series off-putting, this might not be the book for them. Yet, if one is into classic dystopian tropes and storylines, this story might be the perfect fit, as it serves as one of the primary forbearers of such tropes and storylines, alongside Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

For those interested, this fantastic new translation is located in the New Fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.

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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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Rabbits by Terry Miles

There is a lot going on in this world today. One need not be privy to all the inner workings of society to understand that truth. Like it or not, we live in a complicated era. As is often the case with such eras, members of society try to make sense of the complicated and the complex. From the more traditional media outlets of television, radio, and newsprint to the more recent advent of social media-centric platforms, a myriad of voices attempt to provide some semblance of an answer to the cultural madness we face. Those “half-answers” are varied and often conflicting. Thus, the plight of our era persists. In a world of dissonant voices amongst perplexing circumstances, societal members are left to their own devices to sort order from the chaos.

Okay, now that our stage is set—and done so rather ominously, I may add– let me introduce our main character. Enter, the Conspiracy Theory.

Terry Miles’ debut novel, Rabbits, is about many things. Oversimplifying the plot by reducing it to one mere component or thread merely insults the author. That is not what I’m trying to do. Instead, I’m attempting to highlight a rather significant theme laden within the rationales of this story. Situated within a world as complex and complicated as ours, Miles introduces his readers to a wainscoting-esque society of gamers associated with an underground game known as, you guessed it, “Rabbits.”

Technically, this game doesn’t have a name, and if it does, nobody knows it. In place of a legitimized title, this ancient contest is often referenced in one of three ways. Some choose to call it “the Game”. Others associate it with a Roman numeral ranging from I to IX (a reference to each iteration of the modern version being played). In recent years an overwhelming populace have labeled it with the aforementioned “Rabbits.” We’ll go with that one. Reliable facts concerning this game are few and far between. The one constant that persists (in various wordings and phrasings) is “you don’t talk about the game, like ever”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Chuck Palahniuk wants his royalties for that bit.

Serious consequences exist for those uncommitted to preserving the Games’ secrecy. By “serious consequences,” I really just mean one consequence. Death. Other tactics are used to keep the game “pure,” but death, that seems to be a biggie, and that which one should be most concerned about. Due to the extremity of disobedience’s ramifications, if one wishes to learn about the game, secret meetings in low key, private settings are often conducted. These meetings are oftentimes under the ruse of an unrelated reason for gathering, and require the dismissal of all electronic devices (because we all know that Big Brother is always watching). It is at one such meeting in a rundown half-pizza joint, half-arcade that our story begins.

Here, we are introduced to K. “That’s it. Just K. One letter.” A self-proclaimed expert on the Game, K has been researching and developing theories on the Game for decades. K’s history with the game is troubled and somewhat sordid. While unknowingly playing the Game as a teenager, an automobile accident takes the life of K’s childhood friend, Annie, and seriously injures both K and Annie’s sister, Emily. At the age of 17, K’s parents die in a tragic accident (unrelated to the Game). To avoid being placed in foster care K successfully seeks emancipation by court order. Subsequently, the intellectually gifted loner quickly develops an obsession–gaming. Naturally, this obsession leads K back into the world of Rabbits. I wrote this in a rather predictable way, but let me assure you, K’s journey is anything but predictable. Still, I can’t give all the good bits away, can I?

Thanks to God’s greatest gifts to mankind (i.e., Reddit and subreddits), our self-appointed Rabbits aficionado gathers somewhat of a following and begins hosting the types of secret meetings described above, whereby K essentially rattles off the same propagandic-ridden script throughout each meeting, while fielding questions about the game–many of which are proffered by Baron (an associate of K’s), though the audience is not aware of that fact. Now, back to the start of our story. As this particular meeting (the one at the pizza joint) is ending, K is introduced to a character claiming to be Alan Scarpio, a multi-billionaire and the rumored winner of the sixth iteration of Rabbits. We quickly discover that this claim holds up to scrutiny, and Scarpio is actively recruiting K to help him “fix the Game” before its next iteration begins, as it is apparently broken.

From this point forward, K’s life takes a turn for the wild. I mean, legit, things get trippy. Scorpio goes missing shortly after his encounter with K. Soon to follow, Baron is found dead in his apartment. With little convincing needed, K recruits Chloe (a long-time friend/former lover of K’s), and the two set out to do what Scarpio seemingly couldn’t. The path they have chosen forces K to reassess epistemological assumptions regarding life, the universe, and time itself. K confronts controversial phenomenologies such as the Mandela effect, gaming theories surrounding ARGs (alternate reality games), and the efficacy of the dark net (an overused Sci-Fi trope for sure, but one that Miles utilizes with finesse). As K’s story wears on, readers are introduced to twists and turns, authentic and well done character development, and a firm, steady pacing that will hopefully define this upcoming author’s future literary endeavors.

Everything about this book is intentional. Terry Miles has a story to tell, and he tells it well (for the most part). One particularity regarding intentionality that I am rather fond of is the ambiguous descriptions of K. No pronouns are used to describe the character. All descriptions of K can easily be applied to those who identify as female, male, or nonbinary. In short, K’s gender is never revealed because K’s gender doesn’t matter.

K is not female. K is not male.
For some these two claims might beckon the question, “What is K, then?”

K is a badass. And that’s all K needs to be.
K is a strong character amongst a myriad of other strong characters. Emphasizing the characters’ internal strengths is refreshing, especially in a day and age where our culture often defines us by our external merits.

Now, let’s get cyclical. This book has a strong lead character, and an equally strong supporting cast (I just said that, right?) Yet, as mentioned above, I don’t identify K as the lead. From the start of this book to the end, the focal point is something else entirely. Once again, the star, who I would argue leads at every turn, is none other than the tried and true Conspiracy Theory.

At its core, this book is a love letter to the classic conspiracy theory genre (even more so than that wild, 1997 Mel Gibson movie). In case one isn’t cognizant of this genre, let’s get cozy.

In short, something’s wrong with this world. The only way to “fix” what is wrong is to expose the truth surrounding the brokenness and the corruption within. The only way to do that is to secretly possess a genius level intellect (while knowing a thing or two about computers) as the powers that be undermine said intellect with labels such as “clinically insane,” “disturbed,” and “out of touch with reality.” Yet, there’s not enough subterfuge in this world to stop the truth from eventually surfacing and destroying the machine of tyranny once and for all. Or is there? For that bit, you’ll have to read this riveting book (hook, line, and sinker).

Be forewarned, however, this book isn’t for everyone. If you’re interested in Sci-Fi, conspiracy theories (probably not real ones, but just the ones that poke fun at the real ones), and philosophical idealism (I promise, that’s actually in the book), then this might be right up your alley. Maybe you just like a well written, well developed story. In that case, this might be your jam as well. If not, that’s fine too. Here at the Joplin Public Library we have a book for just about anyone. If you’re thinking this might be the book for you (or the next book for you) then you can find it in the New Adult Fiction section in the main lobby of the library. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Project Hail Mary by Anthony Weir

“PROJECT HAIL MARY‘s” main character Ryland Grace is on a mission to save Earth; however, when he wakes up aboard a spacecraft in outer space, he has no idea where he is, much less why he is there. He cannot even remember his own name. Quickly, he manages to figure out that he has been sleeping for a long time and is still alive thanks to being cared for by a highly specialized robotics system.

As he begins to explore the ship, he discovers that he was not always alone. His two roommates did not make it through the voyage, they are mere husks in their sleeping chambers. Also, as he explores, parts of his memory slowly return, but only in bits and pieces. He soon realizes he has been left to deal with a monumental task — figuring out how to save Earth from a parasite species that is killing the sun.

As he gets to work on this problem, he continues to regain some of his memory, but more importantly, he realizes that he might not have to solve this problem alone.

Technically, “Project Hail Mary” is science fiction, but it reads more like an adventure story. Fiction lovers will almost certainly enjoy it. The author does a great job telling the story in alternating scenes from the present-day action to flashbacks. Bit by bit, the history of the main character is revealed — just the right amount per page. Readers will not have a full picture of how or why Ryland Grace ended up in space until toward the end of the novel, but they will know just enough to make them want to keep turning the pages.

This is not author ANDY WEIR‘s first time writing a compelling and believable science fiction story. In fact, he’s the bestselling author who rose to fame in 2014 for penning “The Martian,” which was later turned into a blockbuster movie.

I was so impressed with Weir’s “The Martian” that I thought he might have a hard time creating something just as good. After reading it, I am happy to say that my fears were completely unfounded. His latest offering is just as good as the first, maybe even better. Weir is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

Readers will be left in awe of his grasp of physics, engineering, mechanics and outer space. It is mind blowing how much math and scientific knowledge is packed into this one book. More impressive is his ability to create a story using all these technical elements and still make it interesting for a broad readership.

Weir creates an engaging and compelling plot by including unique and entertaining elements and he has great storytelling timing. He knows how to share a story and build suspense, all while making readers identify and empathize with the characters. Thanks to the excellent character development I periodically find myself thinking about “my friend” Ryland Grace and his quest to save planet Earth. I highly recommend this one.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

You know that feeling, when you have been putting off reading a book that a friend recommended to you – and then you read it, and you also need to tell everyone about it?

Well, let me tell you about “AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING” by HANK GREEN.

April May is a twenty-three-year-old graphic designer living in New York City. Walking home from a very, very late work night she discovers a ten-foot-tall, completely stationary robot dressed in samurai armor.

Her first instinct is to call up one of her friends from art school – Andy – who wants to be internet-famous, and owns video equipment. Together, they make a short video, spoofing a news report, talking about the giant robot (April calls him Carl).  When April wakes up the next morning, her entire world has changed.

The video that she and Andy made has gone viral, every news agency in the country – and many in other countries – has been airing it. She has hundreds of emails from people asking her questions about Carl, wanting to know more about what she saw. Because her Carl is not the only one; there are sixty-four Carls in cities all over the globe.

Each Carl appeared at exactly the same moment, huge and immovable, without anyone seeing how they got there or where they came from, and April was the first person to capture one on video. April makes appearances on news programs and late night talk shows. She and Andy make more videos. And April gets very into Twitter. Soon she is the most recognizable person on the planet.

With this fame comes power; and as April becomes increasingly famous, she discovers a growing desire in herself to keep this audience. She will do anything to continue to be the authority on Carl.

People around the world have been studying the Carls, and the cryptic clues left on any surveillance footage from the exact moment they arrived. To stay relevant, April needs to keep providing answers. She assembles a crew of fellow twenty-somethings, who can help her decipher the mysteries of the Carls.

Using social media, and April’s influence, they are able to crowd-source the answers to many of the questions surrounding the Carls, but every answer seems to lead to more questions. Where did they come from? And what do they want from humanity?

“AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING” is intensely readable. The book is told in first-person perspective; April is telling you the story as if you (the reader) remember the events she is describing – as if you might have seen a Carl firsthand.

April is speaking as a person who remembers these events, and has had time to process them – and time to think better of many of her choices.  She makes many terrible decisions throughout the course of the book. I found myself liking the book, but not liking April.

This is Hank Green’s debut novel, published in 2018. It illustrates how humanity reacts to the unknown – whether with fear or wonder. It also delves into the virtues and perils of social media with regard to both our culture and ourselves – as a YouTube personality himself, Green understands this better than most. If you enjoy “AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING,” I will mention that next month it is getting a sequel: “A BEAUTIFULLY FOOLISH ENDEAVOR” comes out July 7th!

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Semiosis by Sue Burke

Part Planet of the Apes, part 2001: A Space Odyssey; “Semiosis”, by Sue Burke, tells the story of a group of astronaut colonists, and the planet they discover.

“Semiosis” is a generational novel, each chapter is told from the first-person perspective of a member of a new generation – beginning with original team of astronauts. The reader experiences the colony’s development through 107 years on Pax, the name the colonists give their new planet.

The original team of colonist consists of less than a hundred people from all over the world. They were chosen to provide particular skills to the community, not only to survive on their new planet, but to thrive. Scientists were chosen (meteorologists, doctors, biologists, and botanists) as well as artists (musicians and sculptors), and particular care was given to the type of personality that each member possessed.

The goal for Pax is to create a peaceful society that will become a part of the ecosystem of the planet, and live in harmony with any life forms that they may discover.

As the novel progresses, the narrators become more familiar with the nature of planet, and subsequently less ‘earthling’. The original colonists view Pax through the lens of Earth, comparing animals and plants to ones they (and we) are familiar with. From generation to generation, Earth customs and culture become increasingly more alien, as the humans develop their own ways of life.

Each narrator has unique voice; they have different perspectives on the planet, and its residents, and very different personalities. Burke’s experience as a short story author enables her tell each of these stories as its own distinct piece of a whole narrative. The chapters have their own narrative arcs, though many of the characters overlap from chapter to chapter.

Burke’s background in journalism – as a reporter and editor of various newspapers and magazines – also informs her writing style. Her chapters are character driven and concise, with an eye for scientific processes and vocabulary.  The first narrator, Octavo, is a botanist – and he thinks like a botanist.  His chapter is full of observations about plant life that some readers, and Octavo’s co-colonists, may not completely follow.

In many ways, “Semiosis” can be viewed as a first contact novel, with humans as the alien species. I will not go into detail about the other life on this planet, I will only say (mysteriously) that the colonists are not alone – there is life on Pax, beyond the animals that the team first encounters.

For interested readers, I will also say that rereading the first chapter – with all the hopes and new discoveries of the original colonists – once you have finished the book is an experience that I highly recommend.

I would like to also give a content warning for one instance of sexual assault.

Because this is my first book review, I think I ought to introduce myself. Hello, I’m Alyssa Berry – the new Technical Services Librarian at Joplin Public Library.  If you come into the library, you might not see me, because I spend a lot of my time in the back room, but I am hard at work getting books into our catalog and out onto our shelves. My team and I do all the digital and physical processing that turns regular books into library books. I started at JPL about a month ago, and I’m excited to be a part of everything that happens at the library – and to share my particular taste in books with all of you.

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Being a teenage girl is rough. Being a teenage girl trapped on an island while a mysterious illness transforms you and your friends into strange, animal-human hybrids and destroys the wilderness around you? Well, that’s a hardship I’ll probably never be able to relate to. And that’s what the characters in WILDER GIRLS have to deal with.

Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are three friends bound together by the strange situation they’re in. They attend the Raxter School for Girls. Except classes aren’t really in session. A sickness has taken over the school. Almost all the adults have died, except for two of the younger faculty, Miss Welch and the Headmistress. These two keep the girls in order, helping them learn survival skills and manage their meager supplies.

The illness on the island causes the girls go through painful and unpredictable transformations. Hetty’s right eye fused shut. Reese has a silver-scaled claw for a hand and glowing hair. Byatt grew a second spine. Other girls aren’t so lucky; sometimes, the transformations are too much for their bodies to handle.

Hetty is recruited to the team of girls responsible for bringing supplies from the Navy drop-off back to the school. The job is dangerous, requiring them to face the transformed wilderness that surrounds the school. Just when Hetty thinks the danger can’t get more intense, she discovers a secret that could bring everything crumbling down. And this secret might put Byatt’s life in danger.

Wilder Girls is one of those books that could be categorized for adults if the content were just a little different. As is, however, the author deals with topics like love, betrayal, and family all with a Sci-Fi spin that I think both adult and teen readers can enjoy. I appreciated the depiction of everyday life in a disaster situation. Yes, the school is falling apart, but there are still love triangles and petty disagreements. Life goes on, even when life is mutating around you.

The story is told mainly from Hetty’s perspective, with a few chapters from Byatt’s point of view. While I don’t mind this tactic, it doesn’t work as well in Wilder Girls. The chapters told by Byatt feel too much like what they are: a way for the author to tell readers about the secrets Byatt unwittingly uncovers.

I have a real knack for choosing books that don’t have tidy endings. Wilder Girls is another one of those. Of course, the author could be leaving room for a sequel–and I honestly hope that’s the case. For any criticisms I might have, it’s a really well-written book. In a way, it reminded me of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which is always a bonus.

On a completely different note, I should say this is my last book review for Joplin Public Library. I’ve accepted a position at another library. JPL has been part of my life since my childhood, when I would walk to the old library on Main Street and spend hours amongst the books. Joplin Public Library has a bright future, and I look forward to being a patron for years to come.

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Reading slumps aren’t uncommon. Lately, I’ve been starting books, only to return them unfinished. In times like these, I often turn to short stories to help me get back into the groove. Short stories take the pressure off of reading. I don’t have to track characters and plots for hundreds of pages. And this is where author Brian Evenson really shines. In his latest release, he builds worlds and characters in only a few pages.

SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD is a fairly short collection of stories at just over 200 pages. However, the collection contains 22 stories. I don’t have the space to review each story, but I’ve picked three that I think best represent this collection as a whole.

In the titular story, a daughter goes missing. Her father, Drago, searches the house but can’t find the little girl. Drago refuses to call the police for reasons the reader doesn’t immediately understand. But, as his search expands to include the surrounding neighborhood, the truth about Drago and his daughter is revealed. He will not call the police because he is living under a false identity. Why? Well, that would spoil the story.

“Room Tone” — Filip wants nothing more than to finish shooting his film. The only problem? The house he’s been using for filming has been sold and the new owner won’t let Filip in to complete the project. Filip isn’t happy with the sound of the film; the background noise is all wrong. He just needs in the house long enough to record a few minutes of silence. How far will he go to finish his film?

“The Hole” — A mission to explore a planet goes horribly wrong for those visiting the new world. Klim and the rest of the crew must search for Rurik, who has gone missing. Kim finds Rurik at the bottom of a large hole. There are only two problems: 1) Klim is also at the bottom of the hole and 2) Rurik is clearly dead, but still moving and talking. Can Klim escape? Even if he does, will he ever be the same?

Don’t go into this collection thinking you’re going to get answers. Much of the effectiveness of Evenson’s writing comes from what isn’t explicitly described in the stories. Evenson focuses in on the world of each story. With short stories, authors don’t have a lot of room for world-building. The challenge then becomes making these brief glimpses into the world fully believable. And this is where Evenson really shines.

Every story in the collection takes place in a distinct setting, each with its own history and set of rules. Even though several stories have similar themes or settings, Evenson made each one distinct. There seem to be nods to classic authors like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. (In fact, Everson was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award in 2017.)

Evenson explores several themes throughout the collection. Identity and sense of self are perhaps the two most common themes. Can we change who we are? Is identity more than skin deep? Fair warning for the faint of heart, Evenson explores these ideas in a very literal sense. At times, he even uses a genre known as ‘body horror.’ If you’re not familiar with this genre, think of the movies The Fly and The Thing

Overall, I think this is a solid short story collection. Evenson’s masterful world-building goes a long way in making these stories successful. The stories overlap two of my favorite genres, Sci-Fi and horror, and though there aren’t any happy endings, this collection will make you think about bodies and identity in a whole new way.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

Come With Me by Helen Schulman

I’m a sucker for alternate universe stories. Exploring “what if” questions is just so much fun. “What if” can range from the small to grand questions of life. What if I hadn’t made that left turn? What if I had taken that job? What if I had moved to Seattle? I was really excited to see a book exploring “what ifs” and decided to give COME WITH ME a read.

Amy is a busy mom of three boys, struggling to keep the family financially afloat while her unemployed husband spends his time on Twitter. Amy’s twice-daily runs help her feel grounded and give her time to think. And, sometimes, she thinks about “what if” questions. What if she had stayed with her boyfriend, Eric? What if she didn’t have to work for her best friend’s son? What if her daughter had lived?

Not-so-luckily for Amy, she works for Donny. He is the son of Amy’s best friend, which often results in awkward situations for Amy. Donny takes advantage of the near-familial relationship to drop in at Amy’s home or pout his way into getting what he wants at work. (If there’s one person I felt truly bad for while reading this book, it’s Amy.)

Donny has come up with a way to use algorithms to analyze a person’s life. Using virtual reality goggles, a person can experience what would happen if they had made a different decision in the past. No time travel or wormholes needed, just a computer program. And because he can, Donny makes Amy the first test subject.

Her first experience is horrifying. Over and over, she watches an event unfold wherein one of her sons is hit — or almost hit — by a car. As awful as the experience is, Amy finds herself unable to say no when Donny asks her to use the VR goggles again.

Meanwhile, her husband, Dan, decides to run away to Japan. He’s following Maryam, a fellow journalist with whom he has fallen in love. As they travel to Fukushima to interview a man living in the radioactive ruins, Dan is exhilarated by the idea that he has done something so adventurous, just like the journalists he follows on Twitter.

A crisis brings all the characters together, along with the weight of the decisions they have — and haven’t — made. Though both Amy and Dan are searching for an emotional connection, they don’t find it with each other. They’re both so interested in “what if” that they stop seeing what’s right in front of them.

While this is surely a book about the “what if” questions in life, Schulman spends very little time actually exploring the possible alternatives. Instead, the book is more about dealing with those “what ifs” in everyday life. Amy is too busy being a mother to all the men in her life to spend much time pondering alternate lives. Dan takes the plunge and actually steps into the world of the “what if” by running away to Japan with Maryam. But will either of them find what they’re looking for?

Schulman doesn’t stick to telling the story just through main characters. Amy and Dan are the two characters around whom most of the action takes place. Some sections are told from the point of view of minor characters, which can be distracting from the main story. However, Schulman does an excellent job giving each character a unique voice. Dan’s ADD shines through in rambling, long paragraphs that change subject frequently. Amy’s thoughts revolve around all of the things she has to take care of: lunches, kids, work, money, laundry, and more.

To be honest, when I first read the synopsis for Come With Me, I expected a heavy science fiction novel, exploring alternate universes and missed opportunities. I was slightly wrong in that assumption. While the book is actually fairly light on sci-fi elements, it’s certainly heavy. And though the characters don’t travel throughout the multiverse, they do spend a lot of time with the weight of their choices.

Sometimes, life doesn’t turn out how we expect. That doesn’t mean it’s any less good that the “what if” worlds we can dream up. It’s important to remember that we can’t change the past, but the future is up to us.

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Book review by: Leslie Hayes

New titles for Spring 2018 by various authors

Maybe it’s the boost of energy that comes along with Spring, but I’ve really been on a reading kick lately. That probably sounds silly coming from a librarian, but most of us wax and wane in our hobbies. I’ve also found myself reading a few things I wouldn’t normally pick up. And since all of these books have been so entertaining, I decided to share several short reviews covering a range of recent additions to the Library’s collection.

Future Home of the Living God: a novel by Louise Erdrich — Set in the not too distant future, or maybe just an alternative present, Erdich explores what might happen in a world where humans seem to be devolving. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is a Native American who has been adopted by a white family. And she has a secret: she’s pregnant. In an increasingly dystopian world, can she ensure the safety of herself, her child, and her families? I spent a lot of time frightened for Cedar and she journeys between worlds, both literal and spiritual. Erdich’s story is firmly within the realm of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The One by John Marrs — What if, with a simple DNA sample, you could find your genetic soulmate? The one for whom you are literally perfect? In THE ONE, Marrs explores what might happen if this were possible. Six stories unfold as people learn the identities of their perfect genetic matches. Ranging from your everyday businessman to a serial killer, these characters discover that love is complex and can lead to results no one could expect. Though, I did find a couple of the plot points predictable, it was certainly a fun read. Fans of Black Mirror will likely enjoy this sordid set of tales.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente — In the world of comic books, there is a term for a select group of characters: Women in Refrigerators. This refers to the disproportionate amount of female characters that are killed in the name of furthering storylines. Valente tells the stories of a series of women characters — no one directly from comics, but recognizable if you’re familiar with many of the big name series — who have been written out of the comics world and spend their time in the afterworld. The characters cover the gamut of emotions associated with such deaths, but also speak to the strength of female friendships. A quick read for anyone who wants a different perspective on the world of comics.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas — In Zumas’s story, only married, heterosexual couples can adopt children. Abortion is flat out illegal. And in this world, women are dealing with what these regulations mean for their everyday lives. Each woman copes in her own way, with longing, fear, or even rebellion. These characters are very real, and likely will remind you of someone you know. And some women, like a fictional explorer named Eivør Minervudottir, are out of place in their own time. This is another work that is spiritually and topically akin to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Total Cat Mojo by Jackson Galaxy — Let’s be honest: I’m a crazy cat lady. I grew up a dog person, but years ago, my husband introduced me to cats and it’s been all downhill from there. Like any responsible pet owner, I want to make sure my cats are living their best lives. And that means Jackson Galaxy. He’s pretty much the go-to guy for cat people. And TOTAL CAT MOJO is a wonderful resource for all stages of a cat’s life. Plus, he gives great advice for troubleshooting common cat problems like litter box struggles, dealing with stressed kitties, and introducing new family members — from feline to human.

Though there are some common themes in these books, I think they’ll speak to a variety of readers. We add hundreds of items every month; be sure to explore the new books and to find something that appeals to you!

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Future Home of the Living God
The One
The Refrigerator Monologues
Red Clocks
Total Cat Mojo

Book review by: Leslie Hayes