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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi

What begins as a whirlwind romance quickly turns into a gothic fairytale in Roshani Chokshi’s haunting The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. Typically an author of middle grade and young adult books, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is Chokshi’s first adult book, a split narrative centered around three characters and their love for fairytales.

When a scholar of myth and fairytale receives an invitation to view a one-of-a-kind manuscript from a private family collection, he jumps at the opportunity. He meets with Indigo Maxwell-Castenada, the manuscript owner, but the manuscript’s rarity is eclipsed by Indigo herself. A beautiful and mysterious heiress also captivated by fairytales, Indigo is unlike anyone the man has ever met; they fall in love and plan to marry. Before they marry, however, Indigo makes the man promise to never ask about her past. The man, simply known as the bridegroom, accepts Indigo’s strange request.

Not long after they are married Indigo learns her aunt is dying and is thus called upon to return to her childhood home, the House of Dreams, to tend the estate. The bridegroom has never seen a manor like the House of Dreams with its eerie décor, peculiar rooms, and fading grandeur. There is also a lingering shadow of another person in the home: Indigo’s close and only childhood friend, Azure, who suddenly disappeared years prior. As the bridegroom explores the manor and finds traces of the adventures the two girls had he begins to have questions about Indigo’s past that have him unsure if he will be able to heed her request.

It is at this point in the novel the reader begins to learn more about Azure, the second narrator, who is narrating from her and Indigo’s adolescent years. Azure lives down the road from the House of Dreams with her mom and her mom’s unsettling boyfriend. She often walks by the House of Dreams, marveling at the home, the possibilities and the secrets it seems to offer. On one such walk Azure meets Indigo, who invites her inside the gates. They immediately bond over their dreams of a fairyland where they can run away and never look back (much like Indigo and the bridegroom’s first encounter). Years pass and Azure and Indigo grow up together, becoming closer and closer, spending all their time together, creating for themselves a cocoon of fairytales and friendship.

But Indigo is not the nicest person, often mean-spirited, even to Azure and the bridegroom. The split narrative reveals the parallels between Azure and the bridegroom: both of their worlds center completely around Indigo and the easy freedom of her lifestyle. Indigo is privileged, insistent upon her fairytale future and soon-to-be magical abilities, and takes charge of every situation. While it is often easy to dislike Indigo, Chokshi creates her in a way that is also complex, with an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding her. The three characters become more and more interlaced with one another due to their love of magic and fantasy, but also due to their love for Indigo. The bridegroom has to know: what happened to Azure?

At its heart The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is character driven, as much a gothic fairytale as it is a coming-of-age story focused on human nature, connections, and the darkness that comes with secrets. There is mystery, a touch of horror, some romance, and an ever present feeling of a haunting atmosphere. The novel’s characters are dedicated to fairytales while being part of one themselves. It is not always easy to guess what will happen next and I found myself both intrigued and repulsed by Indigo, just as some of the novel’s characters are. Chokshi’s writing had me easily invested in the gothic themes and characters. Both grim and entrancing, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride is perfect for readers that enjoy dark fairytales.

Note: If you are interested in reading The Last Tale of the Flower Bride you might consider looking at the content warnings before picking up the novel.

Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

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Hester: A Novel by Laurie Lico Albanese

Set in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1800s, Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese imagines the inspiration behind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester is told from the point of view of Isobel, a woman that the novel suggests inspired Hester Prynne

Isobel Gamble is a 19 year old skilled seamstress who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland when she marries Edward. Their marriage is more out of convenience, rather than a romantic match, and Isobel’s inheritance isn’t bad for Edward, either. Edward works as an apothecary but has fallen under the spell of opium. Because of this soon after Isobel and Edward marry they leave Scotland due to Edward’s growing debt. Their destination: Salem, Massachusetts. 

The Salem depicted in Hester is bustling and full of secrets, the witch trials of its past still whispered about. Isobel is an outsider in Salem, both enthralled and trepidatious of their new home, while Edward throws himself into his apothecary business and soliciting investments from men around town. Only a few days after their arrival Edward announces to Isobel that he has been employed by a ship as a doctor and is setting sail, unsure of when he’ll return. While Isobel seems frustrated by her circumstances, she isn’t necessarily sad to see Edward leave.

Alone with little money Isobel begins work in a dress shop, utilizing her sewing skills to survive. In addition to her financial trouble Isobel knows no one. She begins an attempt to make a place for herself, dutifully reporting to work, attempting to get to know her neighbors and the other outcast women of the town, until one day she meets Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne (yes, THE Nathaniel Hawthorne). 

The two have an instant connection. Nathaniel, or Nat as Isobel calls him, is only a few years older than Isobel. He is handsome, mysterious, and troubled by the role his family played in the witch trials of Salem’s past. All he wants to do is write, but family obligations hold him back. Nat seems to be drawn to Isobel’s uniqueness and beauty, and lower social standing. But Isobel is mysterious too, as she is hiding a family secret. Women in her family, Isobel included, see colors when they see letters. When Isobel sees the letter A she sees the color scarlet (now why does that sound familiar…). Modern times would explain this as a biological neurodevelopment called synaesthesia, but in 1800s Salem this would be seen as witchcraft (Isobel herself wonders if she has powers). Isobel has told no one but the reader of her condition. 

As weeks pass Edward’s return from sea becomes more and more unlikely, and Isobel and Nat’s connection becomes harder and harder to ignore. As you might have already guessed, Isobel and Nat begin an affair. The two hide it the best they can, staying away from one another in public and only seeing each other at night. Isobel is Nat’s muse and Nat is the only one Isobel can truly be herself with. As Isobel finds herself falling in love with Nat, she reveals the truth of her synaesthesia. But Nat’s moods change like the wind and Isobel is unsure of where they stand. Isobel must decide if her future includes Nat, Edward, or simply, herself. 

I thought that the imagining of potential inspiration for Hawthorne’s most well known novel was intriguing to think about and a cool concept for a novel. The research evident in Hester is compelling, depicting historical Salem, witch trials, representations of marginalized peoples and women that were seen as “unusual” (Isobel falls into this category). A little mystery, a little romance, and a lot of history, Hester is a good read for anyone interested in historical fiction standalones that are tied to classic literature.

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Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

Enjoyable Audiobooks

When I was younger I went through a phase where I turned up my nose at the thought of audiobooks. “That isn’t real reading” I recall my smug self thinking. Well, younger self, here I am today, writing a dedication to audiobooks. 

For me an audiobook is many things. They’re a way to multitask, listening to a book while I cook, clean, exercise, pretty much any daily task that has my mind wandering or thinking “it’d be really nice to know what happens next in my book.” They’re a companion in the car or on a walk. But what I’ve found most is audiobooks are a performance and a connection with the story. Anyone that listens to audiobooks has likely experienced the ones that do not have ideal narrators, an otherwise good book falling flat because of the narration. To that end what follows are three audiobooks I listened to this year that are not only good books, but good audiobooks.

 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Set in Minneapolis and spanning from November 2019 to November 2020 The Sentence follows Tookie, a woman who has recently been released from federal prison for a laugh-worthy crime. Becoming an avid reader during her time in prison, Tookie takes a job in a bookstore upon her release. Tookie soon discovers the bookstore is haunted by the ghost of Flora, the store’s most dedicated and annoying customer, even in death. What begins as a crime caper, ghost story mashup soon turns into a deep contemplation on the Covid-19 pandemic, George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the historic horrors and culture of Native Americans that often permeates Erdrich’s novels. While this might sound like a confusing culmination of themes it is executed expertly in the moving fashion common for the Pulitzer Prize winning author. Erdrich herself narrated the audiobook I listened to, and if there is ever an opportunity to listen to an audio with the author as narrator I will happily take it. Erdrich is the best person to bring the story to life, invoking Tookie’s experiences through one of the most tumultuous years of modern history with the soul she wrote into this novel. 

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 The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is an author of historical fiction, her novels generally focused upon a female protagonist. In The Diamond Eye Quinn fictionalizes the true story of Russian female sniper Lyudmila “Mila”  Pavlichenko. Mila is a single mother studying as a history student in Kyiv when Hitler invades Ukraine and Russia. Mila’s life forever changes, as she leaves behind her history books for a sniper school. Mila soon rises to be one of the best and well known Russian snipers, with over 300 kills to her name; this earns Mila the nickname Lady Death. Her country decides to use Mila’s renown by sending her on a goodwill tour to Washington, D.C., where she spends time at the White House and befriends First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, it doesn’t take long for danger to once again find Mila. This novel is full of history and Mila was a person I greatly enjoyed getting to know, full of strength, determination, and hope in a struggling time. The audiobook I listened to is narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, a prolific narrator in the audiobook world. What I particularly enjoyed about the narration is the seemingly easy transitions from the various accents and languages in the novel. Listening to this made me want to read more of Quinn’s novels. 

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The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green

I haven’t picked up a John Green book since several of his novels made a mockery of my teenage heart (I’m looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars), but I was interested in Green’s recent essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet. The collection contains numerous essays reviewing various topics within our current geological age, such as the Lascaux Cave Paintings, Viral Meningitis, Canada Geese, and Teddy Bears. Whatever the topic, Green fills the reviews with humor, personal tidbits about experiences with the chosen topic, factual information, and insightful reflections. The essays demonstrate a masterful ability to begin with what seems like a straightforward topic (for example, Wintry Mix) and take the reader through an empathetic reminder to wonder, to pay attention to what is around us and our part in it. At the end of each essay Green gives a rating for what he reviewed based on a 5 star scale. I listened to the version narrated by Green, and while I enjoyed the collection as is, Green’s narration took it to a different level, pulling me along his introspective journey through the Anthropocene. And, as a seasoned reader of Green’s novels, I couldn’t help slightly fangirling over the deep dive into his mind. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet 4.5 stars.

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Audiobooks can be checked out from the Joplin Public Library in CD form, as well as electronically from the digital borrowing platforms Libby and Hoopla. 

Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

 

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

As a reader I generally gravitate toward novels. From time to time, however, I enjoy reading memoirs. I’ve never written a memoir, but I can imagine it sometimes proves difficult to say what one wants to say while worrying about hurting feelings of family or other personal relationships. Or, deciding if the memoir should even be written in the first place. A solution of celebrity actress Jennette McCurdy: wait until that someone dies. McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died chronicles her career as a child actress rising to stardom and her heartbreaking relationship with her abusive mother. While this topic could easily become an angry tirade, McCurdy’s memoir is darkly humorous, earnest, and a quick read, albeit gut-wrenching. 

No doubt one of the most striking aspects of the book is its title and cover art. Don’t hate me here, but I’m going to use a familiar idiom: don’t judge a book by its cover. The bright, pastel colors of the cover art combined with McCurdy smiling as she holds a pink urn, along with the obvious title, does very much give the impression that McCurdy is happy her mom has died, and in some ways, she is. The cover serves as a shock to the system; I don’t know about you, but it’s not everyday that I see a book title announcing blatant cheer over the death of a parent. This is one of the aspects about McCurdy’s memoir that, for me, hits the nail on the head (surprise, another idiom!) as it immediately pulled me in and I wanted to know more. Within the memoir McCurdy details some of the physical, emotional, and mental abuse she received from her mother, and what I think pushes McCurdy’s memoir past the initial impression the title provides is that it examines how to process abuse from the hands of a loved one. I think McCurdy’s memoir may be judged too quickly or harshly because of the title, but what the memoir does is navigate the very complex relationship between abuse and love. 

McCurdy makes this possible with the way she sets up her memoir. The memoir’s opening chapter finds McCurdy and her two brothers at the side of their mother’s hospital bed, taking turns attempting to tell their unconscious mother something so shocking that it will rouse her from her coma. When McCurdy gets her turn she believes she has the perfect thing to wake her mother: she has reached a total weight of 89 pounds, her mother’s goal weight for her. McCurdy is in her early twenties at this point. 

From here McCurdy jumps back in time, starting when she is a child prior to her acting career, and proceeds through the rest of the memoir in timeline order. McCurdy relates entire happenings and conversations from her childhood and teenage years, often with her overbearing mother, as well as the thoughts and feelings her younger self had at the time. This provides insight into the evolution of McCurdy’s acting career, the abuse she suffers, and her love for and relationship with her mother during various points of her life. McCurdy describes what it was like growing up acting (which she did to please her mother), the ups and downs of being a Nickelodeon star, her relationships with fellow actors (this reaffirmed my belief that Miranda Cosgrove is a kind human), and how being a child actor has shaped her life today. McCurdy also describes her struggles with addiction and eating disorders, which her mother introduces her to as “calorie counting” during adolescence. 

I’m glad I read McCurdy’s memoir. It is well written and has a good deal of wit and sarcasm akin to what fans of McCurdy’s iCarly character Sam Puckett might expect. I listened to the audio version that is read by McCurdy herself, making the experience of the memoir even more personal. McCurdy candidly shares quite a lot of herself in this memoir, and while her story is raw and difficult at times, she demonstrates an openness that deserves to be recognized. 

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Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

I first stumbled upon author Sabaa Tahir when her fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes was suggested to me. While this book review does not cover that series it was fabulous and I have since suggested it to those interested in the fantasy genre. So when Tahir released a standalone book in 2022 I knew I had to read it, and I am so glad that I did. Something that has drawn me to Tahir is her prose. Tahir is an author that can invoke in readers the emotions that her characters are experiencing, possessing a talent for bringing to life emotions that typically can only be felt. That being said, Tahir’s writing might not be for every reader as she does not shy away from “negative” emotions or topics; on the contrary, she explores them, putting them right in your face, and makes you listen. All My Rage follows two Pakistani American high school students as they navigate trauma and healing, and how to do so together.

Misbah is from Lahore, Pakistan, where she married as a young woman before her and her new husband immigrated to California to experience the American Dream. Misbah’s dream comes to life when they become owners of a motel, which she names The Cloud’s Rest Motel. Misbah takes care of the motel and the finances as her husband struggles with alcoholism. Misbah’s passions are the motel and her son, Salahudin, and Salahudin’s best friend, Noor. 

Salahudin (Sal) has never entirely fit in with his fellow students until, in elementary school, a new student walks into his class: Noor. Noor is like him, a Pakistani American struggling to make friends and find a place in the world. This instantly draws the two together and they become as close as family until high school when they have The Fight. Now they aren’t talking and everything is going wrong. When tragedy strikes Sal is faced with an impossible situation that brings Noor back into his life. 

Noor moved to America when she was 6 years old following a tragedy that put her in the care of her uncle, who owns a liquor store in California. Noor finds kinship with Sal, a fellow outsider, and Misbah, who is like a mother to her. Despite this Noor struggles to both be accepted and fit into the culture around her, yearning for the culture she never got to fully experience in Pakistan. Noor’s uncle is impossibly strict, and when Sal and Noor get into The Fight, Noor is left feeling completely alone, even cutting communication with Misbah. When Sal attempts to save The Cloud’s Rest Motel Noor is caught in the backlash, forcing both of them to discover what friendship is worth.

All My Rage is narrated by these three complex characters, jumping to the past for Misbah’s narration, and the present for Sal and Noor’s. All three characters are simultaneously reeling from the tragedies of their past while facing down the tragedies of their present. Intermixed they are also finding love and friendship. Sal and Noor have a friendship that, even in the wake of The Fight, runs deep, providing moments of hope and laughter within the novel. The novel highlights, among many other things, the struggles individuals who immigrate and their children can go through, and how dark life can be. Yet within that darkness Tahir also provides light, layering devastation with a story that is truly moving.

Note: If you are considering reading All My Rage I suggest looking at the content warnings before reading. 

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Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Hello, fellow reader. Before going too far I must confess something to you: I had ulterior motives when deciding which book my review would focus upon. Nothing nefarious, but with you in mind. My motive is Remarkably Bright Creatures is the book selection for Joplin Reads Together, the library’s premier community read. Common at public libraries across the country, a community read encourages participants from the community to all read one book, and the library provides programs that coincide with the selected book. Through the month of April Joplin Public Library will have a multitude of programs that relate to themes within Remarkably Bright Creatures. There is no cost to participate in Joplin Reads Together or any of the related programs, AND I’m not done with the awesomeness yet – Shelby Van Pelt is visiting the library April 27th to discuss her book. Another plus to the community read is participation is whatever you’d like it to be; you can read the book and come to all the programs in April, or simply read the book and come just to the author visit (or don’t, that’s an option, too!). However one is inclined to participate, Joplin Reads Together offers a shared experience with the library and readers in the community.

In a small tourist town in northern Washington septuagenarian Tova Sullivan works at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, cleaning the outside of aquariums and mopping the floors after closing. As she makes her way from aquarium to aquarium she talks to the sea creatures inside. While Tova acknowledges the animals don’t know what she’s saying and don’t respond (or so she initially thinks), this characteristic made Tova instantly likable to me for her kind, calm manner. A widow, Tova’s husband recently passed away, a sorrow she carries with her along with grief for her son, who died under mysterious circumstances 30 years prior. At the Aquarium Tova seems to find some solace for her loneliness.

Also at the Sowell Bay Aquarium is Marcellus McSquiddles, an irritable giant pacific octopus that vehemently rejects, among other things, his mortifying last name (he is an octopus after all, NOT a squid). Marcellus has a lot of opinions; he spends his days observing the people that come to the Aquarium, perplexed by their human ways and possessing an uncanny ability to pinpoint facts about them just by observation. In Marcellus, Van Pelt creates an entertaining and funny character that pulled me in. I found myself looking forward to the chapters told from his perspective. Also in Marcellus Van Pelt creates a friend for Tova; Marcellus listens to all Tova has to say as she cleans, and finds his own way to communicate back. As a result of this friendship and the grief Marcellus sees within Tova he is determined to assist her in uncovering what happened to her son all those years ago.

In addition to Tova and Marcellus the novel is full of characters from around the town that are friends to Tova and invested in her life. There’s grocer Ethan who has a crush on Tova, the Knit-Wits who are Tova’s closest friend group, and new-to-town traveler Cameron who is searching for his family. Many of the novel’s characters seem to be on the verge of a new start, driven by their unique searches for that certain something missing in their life. Tova especially is haunted by her past and how to move forward with her future. Can Marcellus help her?

Within Remarkably Bright Creatures Shelby Van Pelt creates a realistic fiction that pulls at the heartstrings. Van Pelt manages to address the heavy burden of loss and grief in a relatable manner, all while maintaining a gentle, often humorous narrative. Tova’s struggle with how to leave the past in the past, while also bringing its memories to the future, is something I think many readers could identify with, especially those that have lost a loved one. While I myself am not 70 years old like Tova is, I found her additional struggle with aging, particularly after losing those closest to her, a necessary conversation that should be examined by a community often and purposefully. How can we assist those in our community that are, day to day, alone? What is the difference between the community we live in, and the community we choose to make for ourselves? If this is a book you pick up to read I hope it brings you the entertainment and thought provoking questions it brought to me. And if Joplin Reads Together is something that interests you I hope to see you at one of the library’s April programs to hear what you thought of Tova and Marcellus.

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Review by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel is a name that many readers may already be familiar with, as the Canadian born writer has been gaining notability (and awards, television adaptations, Best Seller list recognitions, among others) for the last several years. Mandel’s fourth novel Station Eleven, received a nomination for the National Book Award (alongside other accolades), and HBO Max released a limited mini series adapted from the book. Mandel’s fifth novel The Glass Hotel likewise garnered award nods and television adaptation interest. Mandel’s newest novel, Sea of Tranquility, examines the idea of time travel and reality, and is no exception to popularity. Debuting at number 3 on The New York Times Best Seller List, and winning the 2022 Goodreads Choice Award for Science Fiction, Sea of Tranquility was a great way to end my 2022 read list. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly swayed you on the impressiveness of Mandel’s oeuvre, moving on to the book itself…

Mixing science fiction with speculative fiction, Mandel examines what it is to find meaning and beauty in a life that is always changing, and when time is always passing. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is its structure: Sea of Tranquility follows the storylines of four main characters, their lives taking place hundreds of years apart. The novel first introduces Edwin St. John St. Andrew in 1912. An English native, Edwin is sent away to Canada by his family at 18 years old following an ill-timed truth shared at a dinner party. Traveling alone to the Canadian wilderness, Edwin ponders what has become of his life and what he is to do now. On a walk in the forest Edwin experiences a simultaneous flash of darkness, the sound of a violin, and a whooshing sound that is like nothing he has experienced before, and it truly unsettles him. Shortly after this experience Edwin meets a man that introduces himself as Gaspery Roberts, who disappears before Edwin can satisfactorily speak with him.

The novel next moves to Mirella in the year 2020. Mirella is in a relationship she isn’t sure she wants following the suicide of her husband. Much like Edwin, Mirella seems lost and searching, but for what, she isn’t sure. Mirella is unable to move past the reason for her husband’s death, an investment that turned out not to be an investment at all, but fraud that ruined his life and savings. The wife of the man responsible for this fraudulent case, Vincent, is an old friend of Mirealla’s whom she was previously unkind to, and now wishes to rectify her misgivings. Mirealla tracks down Vincent’s brother, only to learn Vincent is dead. She also meets Gaspery Roberts, who is interviewing Vincent’s brother about a flash or darkness, the sound of a violin, and a whooshing sound Vincent caught on tape. 

It is now the year 2203 and the novel introduces Olive Llewellyn. Olive lives on the second moon colony but is visiting Earth on a book tour for her most recent and popular book. Olive seems to be only half invested in her tour, her mind on her daughter back home and the fact that she can’t remember her current hotel room number, as there has been so much change happening. Is this tour what she wants, and how does she handle all of the change her most popular book is bringing about, both for her and her family? Olive then does an interview with Gaspery Roberts, who is interested in a particular scene in her new book: a flash of darkness, the sound of a violin, and a whooshing sound. 

The final character the book shifts to is Gaspery Roberts himself. Gaspery lives in the Night City in the year 2401, and works as a hotel detective. Gaspery is tasked with investigating a series of strange anomalies, individuals that have experienced a flash of darkness, the sound of a violin playing, and a whooshing sound. Gaspery, like the other characters, is grabbling to find peace and comfort in a life that has been shaken and is changing, and not necessarily for the better. “But what makes a world real?” Gaspery ponders, often exploring the idea of living in a simulation, “If we were living in a simulation, how would we know it was a simulation?”

While time travel and details like the habitation of the moon definitely lend this book to Science Fiction, Mandel focuses on these aspects as much as one might say Kazuo Ishiguro does in Never Let Me Go, or George Orwell in 1984. Mandel has a way of utilizing lyrical, thought provoking prose when least expected, and presenting big questions relatable to her characters and readers alike.

Review written by Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

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Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Greetings and welcome to my first book review! While I’ve never written a book review I’ve read many, and likewise read many books. So maybe I’m a natural, right? (It’s okay, you don’t have to answer that, I can feel your encouragement from here.) So here goes: Once There Were Wolves is a book. It’s a good book. I think you should read this book, if you want. If not that’s okay too, I’ll likely never know. So…thank you for your time. 

Only joking, don’t go! Here are truly some things to know about Once There Were Wolves:

What happens to a climate without wolves? What happens when the wolves return? Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy explores these questions through a fictionalized solution to Scotland’s very real lack of wolves; the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680, and there are no wild wolves remaining. Enter main character Inti Flynn and her fourteen gray wolves. Inti is equal parts loyal and loner, sharing a deep connection and striking similarity to her wolves. A biologist, Inti is leading a team tasked with reintroducing wolves to the Scotland Highlands in hopes of revitalizing the environment. Without wolves Scotland Highlands’ deer population lingers in areas long enough to reduce the growth of tree shoots, and thus forests. Rewilding these fourteen wolves will help move the deer and subsequently allow regrowth of natural forests. Inti seems perfect for this endeavor as she is passionate about both the wolves and the environment their presence aims to fortify. 

However, the wolves and caring for nature aren’t Inti’s only motivations for moving to Scotland: Inti’s twin sister Aggie is coming too. Inti hopes moving Aggie away from their previous home of Alaska will be good for her twin, who is mentally and physically dependent upon Inti. Through a series of flashbacks between present day, Inti’s childhood, and young adulthood prior to moving to Scotland it’s clear Aggie wasn’t always this way. The balance between past and present throughout the novel reveals the reasoning behind Aggie’s dependency and how it intertwines with Inti’s motivations in Scotland.

Raised by her mother in Australia and her father in British Columbia, Inti was taught to fear human nature by her detective mother and to live among nature by her off-the-grid father. This upbringing is a foundation for Inti’s self-isolating nature, as is Inti’s diagnoses of mirror-touch synesthesia, a rare condition in which those diagnosed feel similar tactile sensations as others. For Inti this happens anytime she sees someone feel something, for example receiving a high-five. Inti is also able to feel things her wolves feel, like salivation when she presents them with food. Inti’s mirror-touch synesthesia is a contributing factor to her relationship with and protectiveness of her wolves, and her distrust of humans.

As one might imagine, Inti’s task of rewilding her wolves is met with adversity from locals, particularly farmers. Inti is not faced with an easy task; in addition to rewilding the wolves she is juggling angry farmers who fear the affect the wolves presence will have on their livestock, her sisters concerning condition, her own self-doubt, her struggles with mirror-touch synesthesia, and her budding feelings for the local sheriff. As if that isn’t enough a farmer is found dead (can’t a girl catch a break). In denial that her wolves could be responsible, Inti starts down a path to clear their name by uncovering the true killer, discovering things she never knew about herself along the way. What results is a rollercoaster conclusion to an already tense story.

There is a lot going on in this book, so staying interested was not a problem for me. At times there was too much going on for my taste, but I think that is somewhat the point: life can be chaotic, just as nature can be. McConaghy’s parallel between human nature and animal nature is wonderfully (if not pointedly) done throughout the novel. I found Inti to be an interesting character, both captivating and frustrating in her steadfastness of taking on everything by herself. Most of the time Inti relates more to her wolves than the humans surrounding her, and the simultaneous danger and beauty in the relationship between nature and humans is both poignant and humbling to read.

This is not McConaghy’s first novel focused upon human impact on the natural environment. McConaghy has also penned Migrations, which likewise follows a female protagonist in a journey of self-discovery through nature. If strong female leads and the importance of the natural world around us are of interest to you McConaghy is an author to explore. 

Note: If you are considering reading Once There Were Wolves I suggest reviewing the content warnings before embarking on your journey with Inti and her wolves.

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Review written by: Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator