With the opening of the new building it was a busy summer. I did however manage to find time to read some fun, relaxing cozies.

Cozies or cozy mysteries are crime fiction with amateur detectives. Usually they are set in small towns, involve a dastardly deed, contain a bit of humor, maybe a little romance, very little violence and have a satisfying ending. In my experience with the genre the ones in series also feature an interesting cast of characters.

Gone Gull   Donna Andrews pens the bird themed Meg Langslow series. This is a long running series and #21, Gone Gull, just came out. Artist Meg and her extended family are spending the summer teaching at her grandmother’s new craft center on Biscuit Mountain.

When random acts of vandalism turn deadly Meg has plenty of suspects. There is the rival art academy, a developer with designs on Biscuit Mountain, and seekers (including her grandfather) of a rare gull. If you are new to cozy mysteries, this amusing series is a good place to start reading.

The titles in the Dixie Hemingway series by Blaize Clement also have an animal theme. Dixie is a pet sitter in Siesta Key, a barrier island off the west coast of Florida. She starts her days early taking care of cats, dogs, birds, fish and other assorted pets.

Dixie’s first career was as a deputy in the Sarasota County Sheriff’s office. The tragic death of her husband and daughter ended that career. In an attempt to ease her grief and depression her brother volunteered her services as a pet sitter and Dixie found a new vocation.

cat sitterThe first in this 11 book series is Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter. Early one morning Dixie arrives to feed and groom Ghost, an Abyssinian cat, only to find a man seemingly drowned in the cat’s water dish. Lieutenant Guidry is handling the murder case but Dixie starts snooping when her client doesn’t return and can’t be reached. Dixie goes from snooping to investigating when she becomes Guidry’s prime suspect.

This book sets the tone for the series, somewhat darker than most cozy mysteries but still with touches of humor. Dixie is a complex but likeable character and the pets have personality. As the series progresses you may notice some subtle changes as authorship changed. Blaize Clement passed away in 2011 which is when #7 was published and her son John took over the series. Despite some differences the quality of the series was not affected.

The latest book, The Cat Sitter and the Canary, came out in 2015. In this one murder becomes personal when a note left on the victim indicates Dixie is next. This book had a surprise ending so I hope it’s not the last in the series.

skating     Joelle Charbonneau’s cozy series is centered on a skating rink. Rebecca Robbins grew up at the rink owned by her mother but escaped small town life to become a mortgage broker in Chicago. In the series debut, Skating Around the Law, the death of her mother makes Rebecca the new owner. Her return to Indian Falls to manage the business is only temporary. As soon as the rink sells, it’s back to the big city.

Selling suddenly becomes complicated when the local handyman is found dead in the ladies locker room. His head in the toilet, Mack Murphy has apparently drowned. The death is ruled a homicide but the sheriff is more interested in gardens than crime. Rebecca becomes determined to find the killer before her plan for the rink is as dead as Mack.

Rebecca is the central figure in this series but she is surrounded by a delightful cast of characters. There is her grandfather or “Pops” who helped raise her and is now the Romeo of the geriatric set. Lionel Franklin, the local vet, is very easy on the eyes and a distraction to Rebecca’s plans to sell and get back to Chicago. In addition there is George who teaches skating, Deputy Sean Holmes who finds her snooping to be very annoying and Elwood. Elwood is a hat-wearing retired circus camel with as much personality as he has hats and he has a hat for every occasion.

So far there are only 4 titles in the Rebecca Robbins’ mysteries and all are entertaining light reading. They are a good read-alike for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. If you are a Plum fan, you might enjoy these while you’re waiting for Stephanie’s next adventure to publish (mid-November 2017).

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As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.

 

epiphanyTattoos most often have a personal meaning for their recipients. Hours of thought and planning are invested before needle takes to skin. But, in the world of THE EPIPHANY MACHINE by DAVID BURR GERRARD, those who receive tattoos from the mystical machine have only one choice: whether or not to stick their arm into the jaw of the beast-like device.

For me, The Epiphany Machine is not an easy book to write a review of. Mostly, the book follows Venter Lowood from high school through college. His parents were among the first of those to use the mysterious epiphany machine. The tattoo his mother received seemingly foretold her abandoning her family. And Venter’s father’s tattoo may have contributed to his lackluster parenting. Naturally, Venter has been told to avoid the machine. We can all imagine what happens next.

One of the first rules of using the epiphany machine is: “The epiphany machine will not discover anything about you that you do not, in some way, already know.” Venter’s tattoo reads DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS. While this doesn’t surprise him, he alternates, for the rest of his life, between trying to defy and follow his tattoo’s words. And this is maybe the most frustrating thing about him. I spend a fair amount of time thinking of Holden Caulfield, one of my least favorite literary characters. I have to give David Burr Gerrard credit for writing a character that evoked an emotional response, even if it was frustration.

So, what is the epiphany machine? Who created it? How does it work? What powers the machine? No one knows. But the machine’s owner, Adam Lyons, begins operating it in his New York City apartment in the 1960s. The tattoos are brief and seem to reveal a truth about each person. These truths are somewhat uncomfortable, but at the same time, offer enlightenment. Before long, even John Lennon shows up at Lyons’ apartment, puts his arm into the machine, and receives a mystical tattoo. Generations use the machine with no major incident. After 9/11, the machine takes on a more sinister connotation.

Venter’s best friend, Ismail, is Muslim and has a tattoo that reads WANTS TO BLOW THINGS UP. Unfortunately, one of the pilots who hijacked a plane on 9/11 had the same tattoo. Soon, Venter comes back to his dorm to discover government agents want information. Stuck with an impossible choice — and DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS — Venter turns his friend. From there, Venter’s life bounces from one bad decision to the next.

The Epiphany Machine is, at its core, a book about choices and how we deal with them. Should we use the machine or not? Once the tattoo is there, how much weight should you give it? Should you work to change yourself, or is there some core part of our personality that cannot be changed? Though Gerrard can’t answer those questions, he does set up a story that invites readers to explore them on our own.

Did you know that our staff write book reviews every week?

We choose a wide variety of materials offered by the library and give you our thoughts on them. The reviews are published in the Sunday edition of the Joplin Globe, but are also available on our blog at https://jplbookreviews.wordpress.com!

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I don’t remember who recommended today’s title to me.  I tried to thank who I thought it was, but they only looked at me like I had a third eyeball, and had no idea what I was talking about.

Written by Mary Roach, who the Washington Post describes as “America’s funniest science writer”, “Gulp” attempts to make what could be a torturous read into something very readable, interest grabbing, and even chuckle-inducing, albeit at times crude, as it discusses topics generally considered taboo amongst the genteel.

Subtitled “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”, it’s hard to fathom how a book on this topic could be considered interesting, let alone become popular. Yet, it is, if only because Roach takes such an unusual take on the subject, often adding in interesting material that is appropriate to whatever area of the canal she is describing at the time.

The author, though sometimes blunt and even crude in the book says, “I have tried, in my way, to exercise restraint… I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’  I want to you say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’  Okay, and maybe a little gross.”

Roach begins with the nose though this is technically above the alimentary canal, but plays into taste and eating.  She travels southward along the canal highlighting interesting sights and smells until she gets to the, ummm, end.

In the chapter “Nose Job” the importance of smell and how it adds to our sense of taste is exemplified through beer, wine, and olive oil smellers.  Did you know there are professional “smellers” and that it is not an inherent skill?  It can be learned, like a language, with “exposure and practice”.

From smell, she moves to taste, and devotes a whole chapter to the science and taste of dog food, going from there into the science of why we eat what we eat and why we despise other foods.  Worldwide, organ meats dominate some areas.  Not so much in the U.S. (I still have awful memories regarding certain organ meats prepared by my mother, in what I assume was an exercise in frugality, because I certainly didn’t consider it to be a successful plan for taste.)

Fletcherism was something I’d never heard about.  In the early 20th century, Horace Fletcher was a huge proponent of extreme chewing.  The fact he ever gained a following is amazing.  In Fletcherism, food is chewed until the food in the mouth is liquidized.  One-fifth of an ounce of green onion takes 722 “mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing.” Fletcher felt that extreme chewing would increase the nutrition absorbed into the body, resulting in the eater receiving double the nutrition.  This would save on the US’s overall food costs and result in less, you know, waste.

Roach continues her narrative asking many of the questions most of us have wondered about, but refused to verbalize.  Why do animals eat their own poop?  Why wasn’t Jonah dissolved by stomach acids when he was swallowed by the great fish?  Why doesn’t your stomach eat itself until there is nothing left?  Why is flatulence so disgusting?

Then there were a few questions she answered, that actually, I had never even considered asking.  Sudden death by defecation?  In there.  How do prisoners smuggle contraband into prison?  And what might they try smuggling?  Yep, it’s covered.  How about suicide bombing by placing explosives where the moon doesn’t shine?  Not effective, but she explains why.  Fecal transplants?  What???!!  And even more, WHY?  Question answered.

You may, or may not, enjoy this romp through the alimentary canal.  It certainly opened my eyes to much more than I dreamed it would.

Joplin Public Library also has several other of Mary Roach’s books, including “Stiff:  the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”, “Packing for Mars:  the Curious Science of Life in the Void”, “Spook:  Science Tackles the Afterlife”, and “Grunt:  the Curious Science of Humans at War”.   All these are available in print, “Gulp” is also available in downloadable audio through our e-content consortium at http://www.molib2go.org.

 

 

 

 

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From as far back as I can remember the allure of soccer has been hard for me to withstand. While I consider myself to be a fan of sports in general, certain games seem to transcend the monotony of all the rest. For me, soccer fits into that category. Thus, it was somewhat natural and logical when I recently picked up Phil West’s documentation of the premiere U.S. soccer league (i.e., the MLS)—The United States of Soccer.

Phil West makes a considerable contribution to the somewhat scarce amount of information concerning soccer and the fans who support it in the U.S. In large part, this is due to West’s outstanding credentials as a soccer journalist and his outspoken commitment to the propagation of the sport. In other words, his professional background definitely helps to push the agenda of this writing. Yet in addition to this, West’s credit as a fan places a lot of stock into the worth of this book as well. Many times a reader can find him/herself being ushered into a story that is dictated not by a journalist covering the minutia of a required story, but rather by a fan living out a desirable experience—it just so happens that this fan has the credentials and talent that allow him to document those experiences for the world to access. For me, this is one of the most enjoyable components of this text, as it allows me to share in the wonder and awe that the sport has to offer via the experiences of an avid watcher.

At the center of West’s treatment of the MLS and its fan base is what he identifies as the culminating event that resulted in the formation of the league. This event is what West labels “the promise.” In 1988, the Fédération Internationale de Football (FIFA) agreed to allow the 1994 World Cup to be hosted by the United States. However, there was one major stipulation required in order for this to happen—the U.S. needed to develop a top tier soccer league. A major hindrance to this was the recent demise of the North American Soccer League (NASL). As the most successful league in American history was making it’s exit, the idea of a prominent premiere league in the U.S. seemed doubtful. Yet, The United States of Soccer is a record of the story that somehow broke through the doubt, resulting in the modern-day incarnation of such a league. While America has a long way to go before being able to stand toe to toe with international powerhouses in the sport, the MLS has turned into a competitive league whilst creating an environment that supports avid fanbases.

Phil West takes the reader on a somewhat chronological timeline of the major events and major figures that contribute to the formation and history of the MLS. While there is an order to the events and circumstances surrounding this soccer league, West also takes liberty to interject the impact that these events have on current trends in the sport. So, while it is a chronological telling of the history, it also jumps around a bit in terms of voice and narrative. Part of this is due to the overwhelming amount of information provided. I will make note, however, that while much information is provided, West seems to deliver it well, as he disregards jargon often associated with the sport and uses a vernacular that is easy to comprehend for the layperson.

A strength behind this work is West’s ability to present a story. The stories in this book are truly what make it such a delightful read. In every page, there is a narrative that leads to the next. Again, this makes for an easy read, and for the most part, an enjoyable one. Major figures in sports (e.g., Lamar Hunt) show their faces in many of these stories, allowing individuals with little to no interest in the sport to find some kind of resonance with the contents. In addition to this, all of the prominent figures working behind the scenes and in front of the cameras during the building of this league make their appearance as well. This was another delightful aspect of the book, as West provides stories that are relatively unknown to the common fan (or outsider) about figures they are familiar with. One such story centers around the prolific winger/forward, Landon Donovan. While many fans are aware of the name, many may be unware of the fact that he made his MLS debut the same year that league almost folded (2001). Surrounded by the turmoil of 9/11, the overwhelming consensus in the league was one of fear and dread. Yet, through a series of events, the league withstood and eventually even expanded. Additionally, figures like Landon Donovan proved that Americans can take a place on the international stage as well.

West does well to provide his readers with a lot of inside information. Loaded with ample amounts of research and experience, West crafts a genuine and authentic piece of work that truly does give voice to a growing tradition in American sports. As stated before, no one reading this book will be disillusioned after reading it. Readers will maintain awareness of the long road that lies ahead of the sport and its fan base in the U.S. Yet, I believe that soccer fans, as well as “not-yet soccer fans” can find some valuable entertainment in this easy and quick read. The United States of Soccer is available to borrow at the Joplin Public Library.

dog's purposeI must admit that I dreaded seeing Lasse Hollstram’s latest film, “A Dog’s Purpose.” Months before, I’d been unable to watch the trailer without crying, so that didn’t bode well for the film. And I tend to avoid dog films after the trauma of viewing “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” (also directed by Hollstram) led to night of sobbing and wadded-up Kleenex, and days of sadness.

But the allure of cute canines was too strong, so I succumbed and popped “A Dog’s Purpose” in my Blu-Ray player the other night. Although I shed a few tears, much to my surprise I was able to power through and enjoy the film.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, “A Dog’s Purpose” depicts the story of one dog who, in his quest to find the meaning of his life, reincarnates again and again.

Once he gets past a short life as a stray dog, he is reborn as a Golden Retriever and finds himself attached to young Ethan, who names him Bailey. The two are inseparable, even as Ethan grows up and finds love.

Bailey lives his a long life and, sadly, must inevitably let go of his happy existence. He is reborn as Ellie, a female German Shepherd. Bailey’s new life is one of hard work, as he is a police dog partnered with the taciturn Carlos. Ellie’s days are spent chasing criminals, making drug busts, and tracking kidnapping victims, and her nights are spent trying to break through to the lonely Carlos.

After Ellie makes an early exit, Bailey reincarnates as Tino, an adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi. He is the faithful companion of lovelorn college student Maia, joining her on her journey as she falls in love, gets married and starts a family.

Bailey lives a good life as Tino, but eventually must move on. He takes the form of a St. Bernard-mix puppy who finds a new home when he is given away in a parking lot. Sadly, his new existence is one of neglect and loneliness, as he is banished to growing up in a barren yard. When he is driven away from home and dumped, he follows his nose and finds himself in a familiar place, with a familiar person, and with a new name: Buddy.

I won’t reveal anything more about this final chapter of Bailey’s life, other than that some of the tears I cried during “A Dog’s Purpose” were from pure happiness.

Just a note: Bailey and his various incarnations are charmingly voiced by Josh Gad, whom younger viewers might know from his work as Olaf in “Frozen” and LeFou in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast.” If you’re in the mood for a sweet story and cute dogs, I recommend checking out “A Dog’s Purpose,” available on DVD from the Joplin Public Library.