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joanWhen I read the description for THE BOOK OF JOAN, I thought, “oh, interesting, a science fiction retelling of Joan of Arc.” But that’s maybe the most basic a description that could possibly be attributed to Yuknavitch’s book. Not to be trite, but this story is about the nature of humanity and love, and whether those two concepts can ever really coexist.

Humanity has nearly come to an end. Aboard the space station CIEL, the remainders of Earth’s population work to find a way to survive. As they’ve been exposed to radiation from the atmosphere, humans are pale and hairless. Standard interpretations of sex and gender have become irrelevant. They can no longer reproduce. For means of entertainment, they turn to extreme body modification, aka “grafts”.

Grafts come in different types, including elaborate skin grafts that replicate 17th century French powdered wigs. The higher one’s status, the more extreme the graft. Different artists on CIEL create these grafts. Christine is one of these artists and specializes in branding stories into skin. On her body, she has branded the story of Joan.

Joan is a rebel who fights against the leader of CIEL, Jean de Men. Joan’s story, as you can imagine, mirrors the life of Joan of Arc. As a little girl, Joan has a strange encounter where she more or less connects spiritually to a tree. From this encounter, she receives a glowing light on her right temple. This light defies all explanation; no doctor can discover where it originates. But it connects Joan to the Earth and grants her power over nature.

On CIEL, the official story is that Joan was burned at the stake for being an eco-terrorist. (In this future world, even executions are theatrical events.) But Christine discovers that Joan escaped and lives on the wasteland of Earth below. Both Joan and Christine fight against the sadistic Jean de Men, but in different ways. As the stories of Christine and Joan spiral together, the book comes to a dramatic, though not uplifting end.

More than anything, THE BOOK OF JOAN is a piece of feminist science fiction. Yuknavitch deals with bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and gender expression in what I would describe as lurid detail. I have to admit, this is not a book I’d recommend to everyone. It’s definitely a book for readers who don’t mind a bit of the grotesque. There are scenes that vividly describe torture of various kinds, including human experimentation. Yuknavitch pulls no punches. But if you’re brave enough to give it a chance, THE BOOK OF JOAN will provide you with a lot to think about.

I can’t lie, friends, I’ve been in a reading slump. Yes, that’s right, it even happens to librarians. Sometimes there’s just a lot of pressure to pick the “right” book for a review. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes there’s a lot of knitting to be done and shows in the Netflix queue. So, to make up for my recent lack of reading, I decided to bring you some of my favorite reads from 2016 that didn’t get a review here for whatever reason.

hikeThe Hike by Drew Magary — In the words of a literature professor I know, this book is “weird, wacky stuff.” To make it very simple, a man takes a hike, gets lost, and ends up taking a journey full of mythological references, puzzles, and talking crabs. Well, just one talking crab. The Hike is definitely a weird book, but I also found it laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly compelling. Magary explores not just the wacky, but what it means for a person to choose their destiny.

Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan — A graphic novel series that is (supposedly) going to make a debut as a TV series on FX sometime in the future. Vaughan deals with an interesting scenario: what if every man on Earth died suddenly and all at once? Why did it happen? What will happen to the planet now? And how will the last surviving man, Yorick, manage to survive? Lots of different issues are covered in this series and I would definitely say it’s best suited for adult readers with open minds.

todaysempleToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple — I admit, this wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year. But as I think back on it, I find I’m more fond of the plot. Eleanor Flood is a woman who is going to change her life. She decides to make everything different, to be the woman she really wants to be. A better mother, a better wife. But then, things start to fall apart. She winds up following her husband in an attempt to discover a secret he’s been keeping from her. But I promise it’s not the secret you think it is.

Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones — A new graphic novel series that I look forward to following. Set in the 1960s, Lady Killer follows the story of Josie Schuller, perfect housewife and deadly assassin. Can she escape her past and have the ideal life? Well, no. This is definitely a graphic novel; the illustrations and plot leave little to the imagination when it comes to violence. But, it’s a different take on the whole assassin character, which makes it a fun read for me.

bestfriendhendrixMy Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix — My very first book review was of Hendrix’s book Horrorstör. If you’re a fan of comedy and horror, I have to recommend his latest endeavor. Teenage girls, cliques, the 80s, and demonic possession all come together to tell a story of the healing power of friendship. The characters are funny and real while dealing with both the everyday concerns of teenagers and the possibility that their best friend may well be possessed by a demon.

So, there we have it. Five reads from 2016 that I think are worth your while. I can assure you that, even though I’ve had a tough start with reading this year, my to-read list has continued to grow. There are definitely other great reads out there; we add them to our shelves every week at the library.

girlMelanie is a very special little girl. She’s at the top of her class. She loves her teacher, Miss Justineau. But she can’t understand why Sergeant Parks and his soldiers insist on strapping her to a wheelchair just to take her to class. Why she can’t go outside and play. Why she and her classmates are locked in cells every night.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a spin on the zombie apocalypse story. Told through several viewpoints, the most compelling is that of Melanie. She’s 10 years old and goes to class with other children around her age. But sometimes, those children leave to visit Dr. Caldwell and never return. Melanie’s also not sure why she and her classmates are strapped down, why her teachers and the soldiers keep their distance from the children.

One day, when Melanie is called to Dr. Caldwell’s laboratory, the base is attacked by outsiders known as Junkers. They’re a loosely organized group of uninfected humans who live outside the protection of the military base. The Junkers have rounded up a group of Hungries, zombies who only want to eat. When Miss Justineau is under threat during the attack, Melanie realizes what she truly is: a Hungry. She saves Justineau’s life by killing others, Junkers and Hungries alike.

The group that escapes is made up of Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, Sergeant Parks, Private Gallagher, and Melanie. They decide to make their way to a nearby settlement called Beacon, figuring this is their best chance for survival. Sergeant Parks doesn’t trust Melanie, but she’s a smart girl who doesn’t trust herself either. She doesn’t want to hurt Miss Justineau, so she agrees to wear a muzzle.

As the survivors navigate toward Beacon, they discover the fungus that created the zombie plague has begun taking over the world. The Hungries that roam are in various states of decay. Some still hold on to habits from their old lives, pushing baby carriages or singing songs. But others have fallen victim to the fungus. Giant fungoid trees sprout from Hungries that have been overtaken. But other Hungries survive.

The group discovers a mobile laboratory that Dr. Caldwell recognizes. Her colleagues had used the laboratory to work toward a cure for the fungus that threatens mankind. They begin using the laboratory as a base, hoping to restore the vehicle and use it to reach Beacon safely. But the group is not alone. And now that they’ve run out of e-blocker, Melanie is getting very hungry.

It’s difficult to discuss much more of the plot without giving too much away. I found myself caught up in the urgency of the story. Many times, I had to remind myself to slow down because I was skimming in order to find out what happened next. There are a few leaps of faith you have to take in order for the world to make sense. If Melanie weren’t a genius 10 year-old, the story would fall apart pretty quickly. But isn’t that the case with lots of books?

Made into a movie starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, and Sennia Nanua (not yet available on DVD), this is a an interesting take on zombies. There are few changes between the book and movie, from what I can tell from clips and trailers. I’m definitely putting this on my to-watch list once it’s available on DVD.

World War II. The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent. Four girls named Guinevere. Sarah Domet sets the stage for a story about what it means to be a teenager in search of freedom, and just what that might mean.

The Sisters of Supreme Adoration is a place for girls to go when they aren’t wanted anywhere else. Bonded mainly by name, four girls named Guinevere find friendship in an otherwise unforgiving place. Cared for by nuns who are a bit stereotypically ruthless and cold, the Guineveres are in some ways the Mean Girls of World War II. They are not friendly to the other girls and choose to spend their time together, nearly functioning as a single person.

Ginny, Win, Gwen, and Vere (the narrator) dream of escaping the convent. They must wait until they turn 18 before they can officially leave, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to break free. They imagine they’ll run away to the big city, become secretaries, and marry executives. Their lives will be as perfect as the ones they see in magazines. When the Guineveres attempt an actual escape, they are caught and punished with hospice duty.

One day, five wounded and unconscious soldiers are sent to the convent to be cared for. The Guineveres and another girl named Ebbie are assigned to care for them. When one of the soldiers wakes, he is reunited with his parents. Ebbie is sent home with him to be his caretaker, even though she’s only 17. The Guineveres believe that this is a great injustice. No other girl has ever left the convent early. The Guineveres hatch a new plan.

They’ll care for the soldiers – who they call Our Boys – and when the men wake, the girls will of course be sent home to care for each soldier. They’ll marry and be free of the convent. The girls believe, in typical teenager fashion, that severe injustices have been dealt to them. And, for some of them, this may well be true. But the girls become reliant on this dream, to heart-breaking ends.

Vere tells the story of the Guineveres, her perspective shifting from the collective view of the group as a whole to her occasional personal insights. She also includes intermittent bits of information about the girls’ future lives. Each girl gets a chapter of her own to tell the story of how she came to live at the Sisters of Supreme Adoration. There are also chapters that tell the story of female saints and their various suffering. These chapters, while sometimes unsettling, relate in some way to each girl and her own story.

There are other subplots, like the stories of the other girls at the convent and Father James, the alcoholic priest whose struggles are not made easier by the girls. And these side plots are where more of the stereotypes regarding Catholics are found. But the central plot of the four Guineveres is the most compelling. Though Vere does give glimpses at the girls’ future lives, the events at the convent are told in a way that does not betray their lack of life experience.

Overall, this was a great read. Though a few stereotypes creep in, they are mainly relegated to subplots. The central plot is strong and gripping. Each Guinevere is, despite her bond to the others, a complete character with an identity that comes to life on the page.

Maybe idarkt’s all the “Quantum Leap” I’ve been watching on Netflix. Maybe I just like weird sci-fi stories. Maybe I’m easily swayed by the dozens of positive reviews I saw on social media. But “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch is probably my favorite read of 2016 so far.

Jason Dessen is married to the love of his life, Daniela, and they have a wonderful teenage son, Charlie. Their home in Chicago is comfortable, though not terribly fancy. Jason teaches undergraduate physics classes at Lakemont College. He’s never won awards, never made any groundbreaking discoveries, but Jason Dessen is, overall, pretty happy.

One night, on the way home from congratulating a friend on winning a Pavia Prize (Crouch’s version of a Nobel Prize), Jason is kidnapped by a masked man who seems familiar somehow. This man knows everything about Jason, down to the passcode on his phone. The man forces Jason to an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere, then injects himself and Jason with a mysterious drug. Confused and afraid, Jason passes out.

When Jason wakes, he is in a world that is not his own. The people around him are strangers, but they seem to know him. They tell Jason he’s been missing for 18 months; much longer than the few hours from the night before. Jason begins to realize the horrifying truth: he’s no longer in the universe he’s always known. He’s jumped – or been forced – into a parallel universe. And the man who pushed him there? None other than an alternate version of himself.

This Jason (whom I’ll call Jason2) is an award-winning scientist. He’s won the Pavia, done the rounds as a guest lecturer at places like Harvard and Princeton, and works at Velocity Laboratories, a jet propulsion laboratory. He never married Daniela, never fathered Charlie, never spent time teaching community college. But like so many, Jason2 is plagued by the question of “what if?”

So Jason2 builds a machine, a cube that can manipulate quantum mechanics and allow him to travel to parallel dimensions. Which leads him to Jason’s world, where all those “what ifs” have been answered. And having shoved Jason into his own world, Jason2 takes over Jason’s life.

Jason could stay and take over Jason2’s life, become the scientist he chose not to be. But more than anything, he wants to be at home with his wife and son and the life they’ve made together. With help from a Velocity Laboratories scientist, Jason escapes into the quantum cube and hopes he’ll be able to leap back home.

To avoid giving away too much, I’ll just say this: quantum world-hopping is messy business. More than two roads diverged in this metaphorical wood and the results are both heartbreaking and frightening. Since I’m not an expert in quantum physics, I can’t speak to how accurate the science is in “Dark Matter,” but I’m willing to play along and agree to the rules Crouch lays out. And it’s certainly a good read. “Dark Matter” is a fun way to explore what you – or some version of yourself – might do if you got the chance to live through the “what ifs” of life.

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.

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.