The Book Whisperer Enjoys Finding Dorothy

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Elizabeth Letts tells readers that her interest in The Wizard of Oz began in 1965 when she was four. She explains that she thought “the character of Dorothy belonged just to me…. I figured out instinctively that Dorothy was the kind of little girl I wanted to be—one who could stare down a lion, melt a witch, tame a wizard.”

As an adult reading The Wizard of Oz to her own son, Letts thought about L. Frank Baum, the author and wondered about his story. That curiosity led Letts to look at Maud Gage Baum, a strong person in her own right. Maud’s mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a famous suffragette. She fought not only for women’s rights, but also for Native American rights. She raised Maud to think for herself and be independent. Maud even went to a boys’ school and had begun college at Cornell, shortly after women had been admitted. At Cornell, Maud’s roommate was Josie Baum who introduced Maud to L. Frank Baum, Josie’s cousin.

Discover more about Elizabeth Letts and her books at this link: http://www.elizabethletts.com/.

Finding Dorothy consists of alternating stories. When the book opens, readers discover Maud Gage Baum, a widow of twenty years, trying to get into the studio where The Wizard of Oz movie is being made. She feels determined to make sure that Louis B. Mayer stays true to the book written by L. Frank Baum, Maud’s late husband. Then Maud reflects on her own early life and her meeting with Frank Baum. Thus, the book continues with alternating the current story with the past.

Matilda Joslyn Gage taught Maude to be forthright and in charge of her own life. Maud tries to fulfill her mother’s dream of graduating from college. When Frank asks Maud to marry him, she tells him she needs to finish college first to make her mother happy. Frank’s response is to ask Maud if she shares her mother’s dream Maud realizes she does not.

Below, see a picture of Frank and Maud on a trip to Egypt. The second picture is of Maud’s mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Maud and Frank marry and immediately move around as Frank’s theater company takes them from place to place. Over the years of their marriage, Frank tries a number of occupations only to succeed for a time before some setback occurs, often not of his own making, but enough trouble to cause Frank to seek other employment.

Finally, Maud gains admission to the studio and meets writers, the producer, and Judy Garland herself. Maud explains to any and all that she would like to contribute to the success of the movie by helping stay true to the book.

Letts has recreated the magic of Baum’s storytelling as she recounts Maud’s life with Frank and then Maud’s determination to keep his legacy alive and thriving. Maud also hopes to protect the young Judy Garland as she watches the adults around Judy abusing her by not allowing her to eat properly and by forcing diet pills on her. The idea is to keep Judy from growing and filling out before the movie is finished.

Finding Dorothy provides an engaging historical novel. Letts did her research and includes historical facts and imagines the dialog that could have taken place in the past and during the making of the film. Finding Dorothy is definitely worth a reader’s time.

The Book Whisperer Recommends a Debut YA Historical Novel

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Ruta Sepetys’s Web site, http://rutasepetys.com/, has these words on the opening page: “Ruta Sepetys: Seeker of Lost Stories” along with a picture of Sepetys sitting with her back to the camera and looking out an expansive window.

Ruta Sepetys wrote Between Shades of Gray, her debut novel, to chronicle the story of Lina, 15, her mother, and Jonas, her younger brother, as Russian soldiers tear them away from their home “in the dark of night.” The place is Lithuania; the date is June 1941. The family does not know where the father, a university professor, has been taken and they will never see him again. While the story focuses on one family, it is also the story of hundreds of others the Russian soldiers relocated to Siberia.

At the end of Between Shades of Gray, readers discover a letter from Lina written in July 1954, attesting to the truth of the story and that she and her brother survived twelve years in Siberia while many, many others died including their dear mother.

The hardships the Lithuanians endured make one question how anyone could survive. The conditions were deplorable at best. The Russian soldiers look upon the Lithuanians as filth, unworthy of surviving. Much like German soldiers herded Jews and others they considered as sub-human into dirty, cold railroad cars, the Russians pushed Lithuanians into similar conditions.

With limited food, no sanitary facilities, and constant fear of what would happen next, the people huddle together to try to survive. Among those thrown into the railroad car is a young woman who has just given birth to a daughter. Neither survives the harsh conditions on the railroad car. When people die, their bodies are simply thrown off the cars onto the side of the rails.

Lina’s mother does her best to keep the children’s spirits up. She also talks with the other adults to keep them level-headed in the face of great dangers.

When the rail cars abruptly stop, the people wonder what is next. Will they be shot where they have stopped? Instead, everyone is ordered out of the cars and put into groups. Andrius, a teenage boy, and his mother Mrs. Arvydas are among those on Lina’s car. Mrs. Arvydas has convinced the Russian soldiers that Andrius is developmentally delayed, or simple, in terms of the day, in order to protect him and keep him with her. Because he is a teenager, Mrs. Arvydas fears that Andruis could be taken to a camp for men or simply killed on the spot.

All of the people in other cars are taken away, rumored to have been sold as slaves. Now, only those on Lina’s car are left wondering what is next. They then learn they are going to Siberia where they will work on farms.

Once in Siberia, Lina, Jonas, and their mother are pushed into a dirty, barely livable hut with a grouchy old woman who clearly does not want them in her hut. They barter a truce with the family paying what they can to the old woman as rent.

The conditions in Siberia are harsh beyond description. The huts where the Lithuanians are housed are barely livable and shared by the Russians who already lived there. The work is hard and dirty and the food doled out is minimal and almost inedible. Yet, the people must eat what they receive in order to survive.

Some of original group from Lina’s railroad car are loaded on boats and taken to yet another Siberian camp, even more remote and desolate than the one they first encountered.

Sepetys describes the horror Lina, her family, and the others endured. With every page I turned, I hoped that the people I had come to know in the story could be saved. Readers will already know that Lina and her brother did survive. Read the book for the full story.

Look for the new novel The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys. Bookpage in a starred review says, “With The Fountains of Silence, Sepetys has once again written gripping historical fiction with great crossover appeal to adult readers, combining impeccable research with sweeping storytelling.”

The Book Whisperer Reads a Long Ago Oprah Pick

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Occasionally, I am obstinate about reading certain books or even watching particular TV shows or movies. I have mentioned this obstinance in previous blogs. That obstinacy has extended itself to books by Mitch Albom. However, the November book for Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma was Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, so I read it and participated in the discussion.

Mitch Albom is a study in contrasts. He began as a sports writer. Tuesdays with Morrie is his first book and he has gone on to publish other books, both fiction and nonfiction. He sponsors an orphanage in Haiti and adopted a little girl from Haiti. Sadly, his daughter had cancer which was so advanced even bringing her to the US where she could get world-class treatment could not save her. He also helps disadvantaged people in Detroit.

Discover more about Mitch Albom, his good works and his books at his site: https://www.mitchalbom.com/.

Mitch Albom goes to visit his old professor Morrie Schwartz sixteen years after Mitch graduated from Brandeis U. Mitch learns that Morrie has been diagnosed with ALS. When Mitch calls Morrie, Morrie immediately asks, “Why didn’t you call me Coach?” Coach was Mitch’s name for his professor when they were both at Brandeis. Mitch knew then that Morrie not only remembered him, but also remembered their long talks together outside of the classes Morrie taught Mitch.

Morrie and Mitch begin meeting regularly on Tuesdays because as Morrie reminds Mitch, “we’re Tuesday people.” Mitch also records their conversations. Morrie knows he is dying and wishes to impart his ideas as long as he can. In fact, he tells Mitch that his headstone should read “a teacher to the end.”

Some of the quotations in the book that I found meaningful are listed below.

Morrie asks Mitch four questions: “Have you found someone to share your heart with? Are you giving to your community? Are you at peace with yourself? Are you trying to be as human as you can be?”

P92:  Morrie says, “Without love, we are birds with broken wings.”

P 92, Morrie continues: “This is part of what a family is about, not just love, but letting others know there’s someone who is watching out for them.”

P 118: Morrie says, “And, in addition to all the miseries, the young are not wise. They have very little understanding about life.”

P 126:  Morrie says, “There’s a big confusion in this country over what we want versus what we need. The truth is, you don’t get satisfaction from [material things]. You know what really gives you satisfaction? Offering others what you have to give.”

Tuesdays with Morrie is a story of perseverance even in the face of extreme adversity as ALS robs Morrie of his bodily functions and leaves him in pain yet leaves his mind alert. Mitch and Morrie reconnect in time for Mitch to record Morrie’s thoughts and ideas so that others can benefit from them as Mitch has benefited.

The Book Whisperer Ponders Plagiarism or Coincidence?

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When The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim M. Richardson was published in May 2019, I immediately requested it from the library. I read the book and quickly chose it for one of my book clubs.  Then I learned JoJo Moyes, English novelist, was publishing The Giver of Stars in Oct. 2019. Both books feature the WPA Pack Horse Librarians of KY.

Tomi Obaro, BuzzFeed News reporter published an article comparing Moyes’ work to that of Richardson’s. That article appeared the day before The Giver of Stars was made available for sale. 87 Oct. 2019. The article’s title contains the words “JoJo Moyes Has Been Accused of Publishing a Novel With ‘Alarming similarities’ to Another Author’s Book.” Read the full article at this link: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomiobaro/jojo-moyes-the-giver-of-stars-kim-richardson-bookwoman-of. Obaro ends the article with this statement: “The question of whether areas of overlap between the two novels might rise to the level of copyright infringement is not necessarily clear-cut.”

Naturally, I became interested in reading The Giver of Stars so I could determine for myself whether I felt Moyes has plagiarized from Richardson. As a retired English associate professor, I must say that if two students turned in papers with this many similarities, the three of us would be having a serious conversation.

Obaro gives eight examples from the two books which demonstrate those alarming similarities. One is found in a character’s name. One of Richardson’s villains is Hillman Vester Frazier; a Moyes’ villain is Hillman Clem McCullough. Hillman is not a common name, is it? In both books, Hillman dies and suspicion surrounds the incident. In The Giver of Stars, Margery, one of the female librarians, is even accused of his murder months after the body is found in the hills. In both incidents, the librarians’ mules trample the victim to death.

Moyes is a well-known writer and has experienced a great deal of success. She certainly did research on the WPA Pack Horse Librarians. Her main character is Alice Wright, a pretty English woman. In England, Alice meets Bennett Van Cleve, son of Baileyville, KY’s prominent mine owner. Alice, seeking excitement and eager to leave her life in England, marries Bennett after knowing him only a short time. Moyes captures Alice’s thoughts about her new life: “Married life, she had been told, would be an adventure. Travel to a new land! She had married an American, after all. New food! A new culture! New Experiences! She had pictured herself in New York.” Baileyville, KY is a far cry from New York.

Alice finds that she is possibly more constrained in Baileyville than she had been at home with her parents. The townsfolk watch her and whisper about her. After all, Alice is English, different from them, and married to the town’s richest man’s son.

Mr. Van Cleve is more controlling than Alice’s parents had been. Alice discovers she and Bennett will live with his father in the house that has become a shrine to Bennett’s dead mother. The house is full of trinkets and dolls, all items Bennett’s mother collected and loved. Annie, the cook and housekeeper, might have become Alice’s ally; instead, she refuses to talk with Alice and demeans her.

When the Pack Horse Library Project comes to Baileyville, Alice wishes to sign up to be a librarian. Her father-in-law objects strongly, but Alice defies him and becomes one of the librarians. Readers must suspend disbelief at this point. Alice is a true outsider, from England, no less. The KY hill folk are clannish and suspicious of people they do not know. Not only that, many are suspicious of the WPA program itself. Yes, it will pay librarians to deliver reading materials, but do they wish to take handouts from the government? The local librarians must overcome that obstacle. Then Alice must overcome even more in her way to becoming a librarian. She has no knowledge of the area or of the dangers.

True, the first weeks, Margery, a local woman, takes Alice on the routes and teaches her how to navigate the often-dangerous terrain. Alice quickly learns from Margery.

The Giver of Stars tackles a number of important issues: education, domestic violence, unionizing, extreme poverty, and women’s rights.

Readers should read both The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson and The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes to determine for themselves whether Moyes plagiarized from Richardson, or whether the two books contain coincidences. Whatever the reader decides, both books provide a glimpse into America’s past.

The Book Whisperer Reviews She’s Out

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I received She’s Out by Lynda La Plante through Bookish First. I was excited to receive the She’s Out because I know La Plante as the author of the Jane Tennison Prime Suspect series. Those books were made into a TV series I watched on Masterpiece Mystery. She’s Out is the third in a series featuring Dolly Rawlins; the three books include Widows, Widows II, and She’s Out.

She’s Out features Dolly Rawlins who is leaving prison after serving eight of her nine-year conviction for killing her husband. She has been a model prisoner. In fact, she has become like a mother to many of the young women, especially those who have babies and must give them up. Dolly is thinking of opening a home for the children of women imprisoned when she is released.

Readers also meet several other characters from Dolly’s past—some friends and some foes. Will Dolly’s dream of opening a home for the children of imprisoned women come true, so does she have some other plan in mind? Or is that a cover plan?

La Plante writes with wit, and she keeps readers wondering what can happen next. The women in her stories are gutsy and strong. Dolly has the means to fulfill her plan because she stashed some stolen diamonds before the police found her and she went to prison.

Dolly plans to retrieve the diamonds and go on with her life on the outside. What can derail Dolly’s plans? Plenty. Read She’s Out to discover the whole story because the plot turns and twists enough to keep readers in suspense.

The Book Whisperer Learns More About the Pack Horse Librarians

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After reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, I wanted to find more information about the WPA Pack Horse Library Project in KY. I found pictures, interviews, and articles online. Then I discovered Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer.

Down Cut Shin Creek is written for readers aged 8 – 12. It features a number of pictures from the time. Some of them show the extreme poverty such as the picture of four children lying in bed with the covers up to their necks in an effort to keep warm. Another shows a teacher and her pupils from a one-room school gathered to say goodbye to the book woman as she sits astride her mule, ready to go back down the mountain.

Richardson did a great deal of research on the book women before she began writing The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I was interested to find references in Down Cut Shin Creek to many of the items found in Richardson’s work. For example, Richardson describes the librarians as starting very early in the morning to meet their rounds. Appelt and Schmitzer start the chapter titled “An Ordinary Day: The Way it Might Have Been” in Down Cut Shin Creek with these lines: “It’s early, four thirty A.A., and the air in the dark barn is cold and crisp. In the dim light of the coal-oil lamp, the book woman can see gray puffs of steam float from her horse’s nostrils. She shivers. At the age of twenty-two, and having grown up in these hills, she knows how bitterly cold a January day here can get.”

Appelt and Schmitzer point out that “neighbor helping neighbor was at the root of the Pack Horse Library Project.” The book women would often sit and read to someone who was ill or bed-fast. They not only took books, but they found recipes to take to the women in isolated areas of KY. They made scrapbooks containing recipes and homemaking tips for the women. They also found farming tips for the men.

The book women meet all kinds of people. One woman who expects the book woman on a certain day greets her by singing an old hymn and the book woman joins in, both singing at the top of their lungs.

Appelt and Schmitzer also remind readers that while the book women were not selling anything, they often had to convince the people in the mountains to participate in the book lending. The book women had to choose the materials carefully so that they did not offend anyone. Appelt and Schmitzer wrote that “magazines such as Love Story or True Story, or detective magazines that were considered ‘thrillers’—all of which were popular at the time—might have affronted some folks and turned them away from the program.”

Down Cut Shin Creek offers young readers a realistic glimpse into the not-so-distant past.

The Book Whisperer Reads a Christmas Romance Set in Cornwall

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When I saw A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall by Jane Linfoot, I was immediately interested since I had spent a happy vacation in Cornwall, albeit in May. I hoped to see in the book places I had personally visited, or at the very least, mentions of places I had been.

The picture below is of Restormel Castle in Cornwall; perhaps the castle where Ivy spends Christmas is like this one. One can dream!

The narrator of A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall is Ivy Starforth. She describes herself as flawed. She lists a number of plans that have not quite gone according to her hopes including losing her steady boyfriend, George.

Now, though, Ivy is on her way to an exceptional Christmas in a Cornish castle.  Ivy works with Fliss, her friend, at Daniels, a family-owned department store in London. They  keep the windows looking attractive and inviting with merchandise. Ivy and Fliss build the displays; Ivy has done much of the work on her own the last two years because Fliss has had two pregnancies quite close together.

Fliss’s older sister is Libby, a woman who “is seriously driven.” Ivy describes Libby with these words: “Libby is one of the amazing multi-tasking entrepreneur super mums who started a decade ago with a new-born, a toddler, and a idea for a baby carrier, and went on to take over the world.”

Now, Libby has hired Ivy to stage the scene for her Christmas pictures, primarily social media posts, from the Cornish castle. Ivy must make sure the pictures are, well, picture-perfect. Ivy’s job, no pressure, of course, is to make Libby’s posts amazing. And that means all of them, not just some of them.

Ivy and her dog Merwyn arrive ahead of Libby and her children. Ivy believes she will have time to get the lay of the land and be ready for staging Libby’s fantastic pictures for posting to Instagram.

Given what little readers already know about Ivy—from her own descriptions—that her life is less than perfect and that she often makes the wrong decision, readers must be thinking what could possibly go wrong on this Christmas adventure.

Readers quickly learn than much can go wrong or at least not be quite right. Ivy meets Bill at the castle and realizes he is someone she knows and has not expected to encounter again. Another problem is that the wi-fi signal comes and goes; it is completely unreliable. Ivy’s sole reason for being is to stage the pictures Libby can send immediately then on Instagram. If that’s going to be a problem, then Libby will definitely be unhappy.

Ivy discovers the castle is not decorated for Christmas. Even more alarming, she finds that Bill will be on the premises the whole time to. He explains, “[the castle] is more of an Airnb model than a proper let.” As a result, he likes to be on hand “so when there are problems, I’m on the spot to sort them out.”

The word problems alarms Ivy. When she asks about the problems, Bill casually says there may be no problems, but the potential exists.

Thus far, Ivy sees only problems and wonders how she will cope with Libby’s demands. Readers find themselves on a merry ride as Ivy tries to stay ahead of any difficulties. Will the tension that has already developed between Bill and Ivy turn into something else? Read the full story to discover all the answers.

A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall provides readers with a charming story and an unconventional narrator. The characters are well-drawn and engaging. Jane Linfoot lives in Derbyshire. Discover more about Linfoot’s books at this site: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/l/jane-linfoot/. She has published ten novels including one called Plotting for Beginners: A Novel for New Beginnings which she co-wrote with Sue Hepworth.