I’m not really mubwwbch of a mystery reader. Unicorns? Spaceships? Talking dogs? I’m game. But whodunnits have never really appealed to me. However, when I saw Burn What Will Burn, I have to admit, the title hooked me. The short summary I read made it seem even more interesting: a poet finds a dead body and puts his own life in danger.

Set in fictional Doker, Arkansas, Burn What Will Burn is a story about what it’s like to be an outsider. Bob Reynolds is a poet with a lot of problems. First, people in his life tend to drown. Second, he has some sort of unnamed anxiety disorder. And third, he’s an outsider in a very small town.  When he finds a dead body in the creek behind his Arkansas home, his life begins to unravel very quickly.

When Bob pulls the body out of the creek and calls the High Sheriff Sam Baxter, he doesn’t realize that he’s stepping into a decades old web of lust, lies, and family secrets. No one in town trusts Bob or even really wants him around. When the High Sheriff wants to blame someone for the mysterious death, who better than Bob Reynolds? He’s a poet, which is weird enough in the small town of Doker, but he’s also just plain weird. He has a crush on the local “mechanic” Tammy Fay that borders on obsession, but she only wants to use Reynolds as a pawn in this small town conspiracy.

The story hinges on Bob Reynolds trying to get out of the hole he’s found himself in while surrounded by an angry preacher, a drug dealing felon, a corrupt sheriff, a mentally challenged boy, and Tammy Fay, a woman with an agenda of her own and no interest in returning Reynolds’ affection. Many of the characters McKenzie writes about are eerily similar to people I’ve encountered. However, sometimes they seem more like a roll call for small town stereotypes.

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this book. Bob Reynolds is the narrator, and his internal monologue gets flowery at times. I also just didn’t like him, which makes reading a whole book through his perspective a little tedious. Often, Reynolds does things for reasons that not even he seems to understand. The plot seems to be unimportant even to Reynolds, who bounces from event to event without a clear plan of action.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted Reynolds to go through a flashback or two to explain his weirdness. On one hand, it would answer a lot of questions I had about the unseemly narrator. On the other hand, I think Bob Reynolds would have lost a lot of his intrigue if we knew his whole backstory. I had trouble connecting to a narrator who spends zero time thinking about anything other than the exact present moment he’s in. But maybe that’s part of the brilliance of this character: his lack of forethought is exactly what gets him into trouble.

At only 212 pages, Burn What Will Burn is a quick read, though probably better suited to folks who like mystery stories. It’s an interesting character study of small town living, but it’s not going on my Top Ten Favorite Books list.

Imagine you are 13 years old. You are female. You are illiterate. You live in post-Taliban Afghanistan. You are little better than a slave in your own household, being treated cruelly by your father’s second wife, and your own mother is dead. Oh, and by the way, you have a cleft palate, and you are nicknamed “Donkey-face” by the area bullies, and sometimes even by your own half-brothers.

“Words in the Dust” by Trent Reedy, a former American soldier in Afghanistan, introduces us to Zulaihka, a 13-year-old Afghan girl and her family. Some of the events in this book are based on actual things that happened to Reedy during his deployment to Afghanistan. His author’s note at the end recounts the details true to his experience.

Zulaihka does as much as she can to keep her disfigurement hidden by her chador, a head covering which she can pull across and cover her mouth, but she is still mistreated and scorned by others.

One day while she is out on an errand for her stepmother, she is seen by American soldiers who are in her town. They later offer her surgery for her disfigurement. She is thrilled at the prospect of being normal, but her hopes are dashed when the American helicopter isn’t able to take her to Kandahar for the surgery.

Another day, again while running errands, but this time ending up being chased by the police (you’ll have to read it to find out why the police are after her), Zulaihka meets Meena, the village seamstress who had to give up being a university professor under the reign of the Taliban.

Meena knew Zulaihka’s mother, and knew her mother loved ancient Afghan poetry. With patience and care she awakens Zulaihka’s desire to learn and begins to teach Zulaihka to read and love the poetry as her mother had.

In order to learn to read, Zulaihka practices writing in the dirt — thus, the title of the book, “Words in the Dust.”

Dreams are coming true for Zulaihka’s family. Her father and older brother begin to work for the Americans as they work to rebuild the country. Their economic position is improving.

Her 15-year-old sister is to be married, the first step in fulfilling her dream of being a beloved wife and mother. She is marrying a much older man as his third wife. Still, Zeynab, her sister, believes in “happily ever after.”

Zulaihka eventually does get her surgery, and returns to her home, only to find the town bullies still refer to her as “Donkey-face.” Tragedy engulfs the family, and Zulaihka and her family struggle to carry on.

Meena offers Zulaihka a ray of hope, offering her an opportunity to travel to Herat to live with a respected Afghan woman, receive a full education and eventually go to university. But can Zulaihka receive permission from her traditional Afghan father?

You will have to read this children’s/young adult crossover book to find out how the story ends. Reedy includes a glossary, pronunciation guide and suggestions for further reading. With all that is going on in this area of the world, this book gives a good glimpse into the daily lives of Afghans as well as the struggle it can be for young women there to learn and to make a difference.

After reading the book, I wholeheartedly agree with a comment by Katherine Paterson, noted children’s author, who wrote the introduction to the book. “He (Reedy) has given me an Afghan friend for whom I care so deeply I cannot read a news report without wondering how what has occurred to affecting her life.”

“Words in the Dust” is available in both print and ebook versions at Joplin Public Library.

Advertisements searching for those who wish to become Witch-fighting Princesses and Dragon-slaying Knights at Pennyroyal Academy have been spread far and wide. The war with Witches and Dragons has so consumed the current royal-blood population that Pennyroyal is now willing to accept anyone, even those born “common.”

For a young girl who does not remember her own name, the journey to Pennyroyal is not an easy one.  After fighting her way through an enchanted forest where the trees try to kill her (especially the Beech trees), she finds herself in a witches cottage.  When the witch returns with the handsome Remington in tow, the girl discovers the courage to rescue the boy and herself from being made into candy.

Once safe, she and Remington discover they are headed in the same direction, Pennyroyal Academy.  Remington is the object of much attention from the other Pennyroyal Princess candidates, whereas the girl attracts an entirely different kind of attention, possibly because she is clad only in spiderwebs.

The girl enlists at Pennyroyal but is promptly shunted to the infirmary for a course of medicine designed to restore memories of her name and the name of her mother.  However, she insists she is not under a spell.  She has reasons for not wanting to share her history, such as being raised by Dragons.  Until she can recall her true name, the girl is dubbed, “Cadet Eleven,” by the staff of Pennyroyal, which her newly found friends quickly change to Evie.

The Fairy Drillsergeant in charge of Evie’s training is tough, though tiny.  She warns the girls in her charge there is very little chance they will make it through their training to attempt the culminating Helpless Maiden challenge, the only way to gain an invitation back for Year Two of the Academy.

Complicating matters is Malora, another Princess Cadet who does not seem to have any of the virtues of a true Pennyroyal Princess: Courage, Kindness, Compassion, and Discipline.  Her animosity toward Evie escalates as the story and the relationship between Evie and Remington progresses.

This middle-grade story is an enchanting mix of fairytales reimagined and message that love is the only thing that can truly conquer evil.  The story is thankfully not telegraphed and there are quite a few twists and plot turns along the way, keeping things lively.

If you like fairytales and magic, add Mark Twain Award nominee, “Pennyroyal Academy,” to your summer reading list.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that there are times when reading seems like a way to pass the time and books fail to make much of an impact, despite the authors’ best efforts. Blame fatigue or everyday distractions such as work, but occasionally it takes too much energy to choose a book, let alone finish one.
However, recently I’ve been fortunate enough to read a couple of books that have reignited my enthusiasm for reading.

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent

The subtitle, “A story of an unexpected friendship,” reveals the heart of this memoir in an understated manner.

When journalist Isabel Vincent initially meets Edward, her intention is to do an out-of-town friend a favor and look in on her nonagenarian, newly widowed father. But over weekly homemade dinners, a friendship blossoms that will transform her and, consequently, her life.

Over frigid Hendricks martinis, simple yet divine roast chicken and hearty apple tarts meticulously prepared by Edward, conversations delve into the art of cooking, Edward’s late wife, even Isabel’s high-stress career and faltering marriage.

“But from the beginning of our relationship,” Isabel writes, “I knew instinctively that his culinary tips went far beyond the preparation of food. He was teaching me the art of patience, the luxury of slowing down and taking the time to think through everything I did.”

Edward’s friendship extends beyond the dinner table. He writes her thoughtful letters on embossed stationery, sends her handwritten poetry, and takes her shopping for the perfect little black dress to encourage her to explore her feminine side.

Over time, Edward’s ministrations begin to have an effect not only on Isabel as she gradually wakes up to the realities of her life and what must change, but also upon himself, as he moves on from a profound grief at losing his soul mate.

“I had no doubt that fixing my confused middle-aged existence was giving him some kind of purpose in life,” Isabel confides.

This true story of friendship is touching, and the writing found within this slim volume is lovely and vivid – and often hunger-inducing.

At their first dinner, “the fatty juices from the steak bled across the expanse of the white porcelain” plates. One can almost smell the musty, garlicky scent of the black truffle oil that Edward uses to top a cream of cauliflower soup. A French fry is “a slab of soft potato spilling out of a crispy, golden, salty coating.”

If you’re looking for a charming book that will bring a gentle smile to your face, I can’t recommend “Dinner with Edward” enough.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This author had me at “Pride and Prejudice” – as in “modern retelling of.” The classic Jane Austen novel has been my hands-down favorite book since I first read it at age 12, and I eagerly partake of any film or book related to it.

In this lively and well-done update, Sittenfeld has transplanted the Bennett family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lizzie, a journalist, and Jane, a yoga instructor, have returned home to help look after their father, who is recovering from a heart attack and subsequent surgery, and find things a mess.

The family home and finances are in disarray. Mrs. Bennett is a compulsive shopper. Mary rarely leaves her bedroom as she works on her third online master’s degree. And jobless Kitty and Lydia spend their days dining out and indulging their obsession with CrossFit.
And then there’s the love interests: affable Chip Bingley, a doctor whose claim to fame is appearing on a reality TV dating show called “Eligible,” and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a standoffish, judgmental neurosurgeon.

Other Austen types make appearances, as well. The obsequious Mr. Collins is now awkward Cousin Willie, a software start-up magnate. The awful Caroline Bingley, while still Chip’s sister, also serves as his manager. The manipulative cad George Wickham has become Liz’s long-time friend and crush, Jasper Wick. And arrogant, meddling Lady Catherine de Bourgh has been re-envisioned as Kathy de Bourgh, renowned feminist icon.

“Eligible” is a delightful book, full of humor (some of it ribald, thanks to Lydia) and romance even as it addresses issues of gender, class and family relationships. I listened to the audiobook version, as narrated by Cassandra Campbell, and frequently found myself sitting in my garage upon arriving home, loathe to turn off the car and the story.

Whether you’re a Jane Austen fan or someone looking for a light-hearted summer read, I wholeheartedly recommend “Eligible.”

index.aspxThe debut novel of Phaedra Patrick, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, is in turns poignant, funny, sweet, and hopeful. Arthur is a likable character and his story a good way to while away a few hours on a lazy summer day.

Arthur Pepper is a widow. His wife Miriam died unexpectedly a year ago and his grief has almost crippled him. He gets up at the same time each day, wears the same clothing, and eats at the same time. There is no joy left in his life. He resists and resents efforts made to help him, especially those of his neighbor Bernadette. He has a daughter, Lucy, and a son, Dan, but they aren’t close and neither came to their mother’s funeral.

On the anniversary of Miriam’s death, Arthur has made the decision to pack up her clothes and donate them to charity. With a heavy heart he fills bags with clothing and shoes. Picking up a pair of fur-lined boots he recalls a story about a lost lottery ticket found in a boot. On a whim he checks inside and instead of a lottery ticket he finds a heart-shaped red leather box.

The box is locked and he doesn’t have a key. However, locks were Arthur’s career and he opens the box easily. Inside is a beautiful gold bracelet. Arthur doesn’t remember ever seeing Miriam wear the bracelet and the collection of charms that ring it is an unusual mix.

The bracelet has eight charms: an elephant, flower, book, paint palette, tiger, thimble, heart, and a ring. The detailed design and the emerald in the elephant charm catches his attention. In looking it over he finds a word and a number engraved on it, Ayah 0091 832 221 897. He knows the engraving must be a phone number but how and why did his wife have a charm with the word for nursemaid and a number to a phone in India?

Despite feeling he is snooping on Miriam, Arthur is curious and dials the number. He is stunned to find himself talking to the man who gave her the charm. How could Arthur not know that his wife once lived and worked in India?

What about the other charms? Are they, like the elephant, a link to Miriam’s past? Surprising himself Arthur pursues the story of each charm. In doing so he begins to live again and reconnect to life. His journeys lead him to an odd mix of characters and he discovers a daring and courage he didn’t know he possessed.

Arthur also uncovers a side to his wife he had never experienced causing him to question his marriage and what he meant to Miriam. Can he accept that Miriam kept a part of herself from him and his own culpability in assuming she had nothing to tell?

Arthur’s quest to find the stories of the charms is an emotional journey but one I think you’ll enjoy. It’s easy to follow him through the sadness, yearning, fear and joy as he discovers not only the story of the charms but how his own life influences others.

If you liked “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” you will like this title. Other read-a-likes are “The Rosie Effect” by Graeme Simsion, “The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, and “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” by Jonathan Evison.

bookOnce, while visiting my brother’s family in Chicago, somehow the subject of White Castle came up. I’d never eaten there, since there aren’t any within shouting distance of anywhere I’ve ever lived. Sadly, my brother decided to be gracious and bought home a big bag of said establishment’s “sliders” for dinner that night. I managed to eat two of them, which may be the lightest meal I’ve had in my adult life. I know millions of people are devoted to them, but if I never see another of their burgers, it will be too soon. If forced to describe them, the kindest thing I can think of is “Ummm. . . Steamed meatloaf sandwich?” This is all a roundabout way of saying “Not all fast food is created equal,” and that’s the rationale behind Fast food maniac: from Arby’s to White Castle, one man’s supersized obsession with America’s favorite food by Jon Hein.

While Hein is no Jane or Michael Stern (authors of Roadfood, and other foodie books, several of which we have here at the library), he has provided a serviceable summary of all the major national fast food establishments and a number of regional ones as well. So, in this book you’ll find a brief history of each company along with a chart of what they’re best known for, any “secret menu” items, and whether or not any of their items made his Top Five lists.

The first section is devoted to Arby’s, McDonalds, and so forth, the big chains mostly available cross-country (and some around the world, though some are really just super-regionals, like Bojangles or widely scattered like Checker’s or Fatburger). Here you’ll find that A & W is the oldest fast food franchise in the U.S. and the fact that the biggest selling item at Jack in the Box (closest locations are in Tulsa) are the tacos (2 for a dollar!) I remember Jack fondly from my childhood in Southern California, before their taco days, I think. At least I always had hamburgers.

The second section is somewhat misleadingly labeled “regional,” because while some (like Culver’s and Braum’s ) are truly regional, others (like Massapequa, New York’s All-American Burger or Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor) are single outlets or at most single-town, like Dick’s in Seattle.

In-N-Out had the first 2-way speakers at a burger drive-thru in 1948. In-N-Out has a devoted following, sadly the chain is primarily in California and Arizona. Hein is a big fan, claiming that his first stop whenever he travels to California or Arizona or the other four states they operate in is always the nearest In-N-Out. Closest to us? Dallas/Ft. Worth. Given the excellent things I’ve heard about them, I think I’ll track one down next time I have to go to the Big D. Hein awards them his first place for burgers and third place for fries. At least we can get the second best fries right here at home at McDonald’s! (The best are at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, which you can try in St. Louis).

Other listings in the regional category include Pink’s, known world-wide for hot dogs and Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh , famous for their sandwiches containing your choice of meat and/or cheese and (drumroll, please) cole slaw, tomatoes, and (wait for it) French fries! Yup, your fries come on your sandwich. Tradition has it that a truck driver (one of their biggest customer groups back in the day) asked for his fries and slaw on his sandwich the better to eat with one hand while driving with the other. I can only surmise he had really big hands!

As I mentioned, I spent my early childhood in California, home of Weinerschnitzel (Der Weinerschnitzel at that time), but never made it there. I used to hear their ads on the radio and was always hopeful of getting a chance to try that rare thing, the weinerschnitzel. Fortunately, I never got the chance since I found out from this book that said fabulous item is. . .a hot dog. I felt a little bit like Ralphy from A Christmas Story when he got his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring and found that the secret message was “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Hot dogs?! Glad we went to Jack in the Box!

Hein wraps up with lists of which places have the best you-name-it (burgers, fries, shakes, burritos, straws. Yup, straws, and loads of other items) and tips and tricks for fast food dining, some useful and some just silly. Next to last is a list of his favorite “secret menu” items (which I have never had the nerve to try to order anywhere) and finally an “In Memoriam” page or so of gone-but-not-forgotten fast food joints of the past.

Happy reading, and I’d suggest you have lunch before you start unless you don’t permit fast food to pass your lips.

bhbFormed when stars collapse, black holes are a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists since they were predicted in 1915 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Black holes have infiltrated pop culture as well, appearing as plot points in dozens of books, tv shows, movies, and even video games. Difficult to study because they are so far away and because they so powerful they can literally suck in light, black holes are a great mystery of science.

Janna Levin introduces these phenomena with the fact that, if two black holes were to collide, they would produce a sound. The universe is full of sound, she tells us, we just can’t hear it. But what if, science asks, we could? This question led to a quest over two decades old.

Officially begun in 1994 by the National Science Foundation, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually two observatories working together to seek out whatever sounds the universe might be making. The research that led to the foundation of LIGO came from an international team of dynamic scientists.

Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, Rochus E. Vogt, and Barry Barish are not household names. They are, however, some of the scientists whose research created the basis for LIGO. Drever, for instance, used mirrors in his Scottish backyard to detect Earth’s movements, leading to the mirrors used at the LIGO institutes. They are, if you’ll indulge me, the bad boys of astrophysics. Strong personalities and fighting fueled by mistrust and lack of scientific progress nearly ended LIGO before it began.

Levin provides intimate biographies of the major players in this quest to hear the sounds made by the universe. These biographies serve not only to provide a look at who is involved, but they also give depth to the story, showing how these scientists are connected to the likes of Galileo, Einstein, and Oppenheimer. Each of the LIGO scientists were independently brilliant, all unknowingly working on the same problem from their locations around the world.

Perseverance has proved a powerful force for LIGO. The team, plus or minus founding members, survived and has been listening to the universe since the mid 1990s. Upgrades were made to the stations over the years. Most recently, upgrades were completed in 2015, making the observatories more sensitive than ever before. Future upgrades are planned, and a there is talk of building a third observatory in India.

The punchline to “Black Hole Blues” is that in February of this year, LIGO announced that they had detected the waves created by the collision of two black holes. There are strict guidelines in place for analyzing any data collected by the observatories. The discovery was actually made shortly after the most recent upgrades were made, but the results had to be confirmed. Goal achieved, the team has helped prove Einstein’s 101 year-old theory about what happens when black holes merge.

Levin’s book is less about black holes than humankind’s quest for answers about them. Black holes were only recently proven to be real. They are thousands of lightyears away from us and we’ll most likely never be able to study them up close. What drives a person to devote their life to research this unknowable phenomena? Like black holes, we may never have all the answers to the questions that surround them.

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