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I have read a lot of serious books lately. With the summer reading program coming to an end and my last semester of graduate school starting, I thought I would take it easy.

“Funny Girl,” librarian BETSY BIRD’s new middle-grade fiction anthology, was the perfect choice. “FUNNY GIRL: FUNNIEST. STORIES. EVER.” promises big things with its subtitle, and it does not disappoint.

The anthology offers something for every type of reader, including comics, epistolary short stories, personal essays and how-tos. The anthology includes stories from an all-female cast of beloved and award-winning authors and illustrators such as Cece Bell (author/illustrator of “El Deafo”), Libba Bray, Kelly DiPucchio, Shannon Hale, Rita Williams-Garcia and the one and only Raina Telgemeier of “Drama” and “Smile” fame. The more well-known authors will be enough to draw readers in, but each story is fun and interesting in its own right.

Some of the highlights include: Alison DeCamp’s “Dear Grandpa: Give Me Money,” in which a young girl named Trixie corresponds with her (very humorous) grandfather in an attempt to get money to compete with a rich neighbor; Cece Bell’s interrupting chicken-style comic starring a familiar Founding Father; and Kelly DiPucchio’s cringe-worthy poems, among others. Many of the stories emphasize, either implicitly or explicitly, the importance of goofy, self-assured humor, as well as the importance of such humor in the face of bullies, friend trouble and the impending doom that is adulthood.

Although I picked up Bird’s book as stress relief, the book does offer some important messages: First, you can find humor in almost anything, including a germ-obsessed mom who burns bathtubs and a rain-ruined perm on your grandma. Second, girls are allowed to be funny.

These are important messages in a world that often tells girls and boys that they have to be one specific thing to be accepted.

This anthology excels on multiple levels. On an individual level, the stories are well-written, laugh-out-loud funny and authentic. As a whole, Bird’s collection is inclusive, well-rounded and well-structured. Adults and young readers alike will find plenty to enjoy and laugh about in “Funny Girl.”

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whistlestop-bookcover

A person’s age, a person’s gender, the amount of money one brings home annually, even the political party one most closely aligns with; in the grand scheme of things, none of these demographic descriptors allowed for reprieve come this time last year. In the year 2016 Americans of all shapes and sizes were inundated with one of the most interesting and heated presidential races in campaign history. As political personalities made their way into morning drives to work, lunchtime perusals of current events, or evening viewings of local news channels, not many people in America could escape the theatrical events unfolding in the political landscape of the day. John Dickerson, political director of CBS News and moderator of Face the Nation, knows this reality all too well, and he capitalizes on it in his recent work Whistlestop, which came out during the thick of last year’s political campaigns.  

Whistlestop is a retelling of a political journalist’s favorite stories throughout the history of presidential campaigning. Dickerson takes the historical significance of the Whistlestop method of campaigning, and allows that image to drive home his overarching theme: “If there is a constant to the American campaign story, it is that elites can’t predict the future very well.” That’s right, voters are constantly “undoing [the] certainties” of the political press. This compilation of oral histories captures that truth in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and potentially motivating, as it takes the reader to various points in history, that at times eerily mirror the present, and yet validate their own unique placement in the annals of record keeping. So again, regardless of one’s political inclinations, this book has the potential to engage any reader through the method of good, old-fashioned storytelling. Dickerson makes use of natural language to draw in his reader, and he has a good pace and overall flow throughout these narratives. Whistlestop is not recorded chronologically, but rather topically, so it does have an anachronistic feel to it at times. This is evidenced in how Dickerson places Andrew Jackson’s unexpected surge as a primary candidate in 1824 in the middle of the book, rather than closer to the front, as one might expect. Still the same, Dickerson’s weaving of the stories throughout the overall narration alleviate some of the distraction this method might otherwise induce.  

From Ronald Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment to Grover Cleveland’s opponents taking up the war cry “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” this book is jam packed with entertaining clips of campaign history. Some accounts retell specific incidents, such as Edmund Muskie’s emotional tirade against the Union Leader’s publisher William Loeb, where the famous question “was Muskie crying?” first made its appearance. Like this retelling, Dickerson unearths the backdrop of the story. In doing so he clearly identifies another primary aim of this book, which is to note that throughout campaign history there are very few single moments that shift the course or trajectory of the race, but rather several smaller circumstances that lead to the moments most will often remember. In other sections of the book, Dickerson outlines the major events and themes that impacted an overall campaign, while not necessarily focusing on one single event within. This is demonstrated in his treatment of JFK’s 1960 run for office, which is entitled “The Catholic Candidate.” 

A beautiful component to this book is Dickerson’s ability to transcend political issues and to allow readers to make their own conclusions. There is no party biased agenda here. This is simply a text that allows its readers to surmise their own villains and heroes of each story, even if Dickerson does provide some evidence within the overall narratives. So, if one is interested in political history, or desires to escape the tumultuous political landscape this country dwells in, this book might be just what the doctor (or maybe President?) ordered. One can find this riveting narrative in the nonfiction shelves of the Joplin Public Library.

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

The intensifying pace of the first book in National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby’s new series, York.  Book One: The Shadow Cipher, left me anticipating the next installment.  The setting for this middle grade novel (3rd to 7th yorkgrade) is a familiar but altered version of New York City.  Some landmarks are recognizable, some are slightly different, others are invented.  All are captivating.

Twins Theo and Tess Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in one of the five original Morningstarr buildings in New York City, 354 W 73re Street.  Designed by extraordinarily brilliant twins, Theodore and Teresa Morningstarr and left to their best friend and heir when they disappeared in 1855, Theo, Tess, and Jaime, along with a diverse set of characters, now inhabit the building.  They love the temperamental and eccentric electromagnetic elevator that conveys them to their chosen floor via randomly selected horizontal and vertical patterns, taking a different route each trip. They love the Morningstarr seals placed in the windows.  They love their view of the Hudson River.  They also realize if not for this building they couldn’t afford to live in the City and would likely end up in some remote location, like Hoboken, or Idaho.

When nefarious real estate developer Darnell Slant, who is known for gobbling up Morningstarr buildings, sets his sites on their building, Tess and Theo decide the only way to save their home is to solve the Old York Cipher left behind by the Morningstarr twins.  The Cipher promises treasure to anyone who can solve it and has encouraged many to search.  The twin’s Grandfather is himself a member of the Old Cipher Society. Tess and Theo have been solving puzzles their entire lives and now have the motivation of saving their home to help them solve the greatest puzzle of all: the solution to the Old World Cipher.

As with any good adventure, things don’t always go as planned.  Finding what they believe to be an alternate set of clues leads the twins and Jaime, accompanied by Tess’s cat, “Nine,” who is a mix of serval, Siamese, and “who knows what else…a sprinkling of wolf maybe,” on a journey through the magnificent city created by the Morningstarr twins. Dodging the henchmen of Darnell Slant, the threesome travels through a world where trolleys run by a mysterious secret guild wind above, around, and under buildings, and the river.  Giant mechanical insects eat dirt and sometimes humans. Towering skyskrapers have eccentric elevators.  The machines left behind by the Morningstarrs seem to be watching them, and possibly leading them.  At times the threesome wonder why solving the new set of clues is so easy when others have struggled for a century to solve clues.  Are they solving the cipher, or is the cipher solving them?

Driven by believable characters, the reader discovers Tess struggles with anxiety, which her family has dubbed “catastrophizing,” imagining the disastrous consequences that could occur at any time. Nine serves as her therapy animal.  Theo has the makings of a brilliant architect but is overcoming having been bullied regarding his eccentricities.  Jaime has lost his mother, has a father who constantly travels, and lives with this Grandmother, whom he calls Mima.  He is a budding artist and his talents help the trio of would-be sleuths see clues in a different way.  There is some feel-good humor and a few laugh-out-loud situations interspersed in the drama.

The secondary characters are equally endearing, especially the mysterious Aunt Esther who may be helping the twins solve the clues or may hold part of the cipher.  Jaime’s Mima keeps the trio fed, but also is portrayed as someone who will not be left in the dark.  Flashbacks give some hints to the origins of our hero and heroines and everything seems to be hinting at something further.  This very engaging first installment in a planned trilogy will leave you breathless and wanting more.

 

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).

 

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.