The Book Whisperer Reviews a Debut Novel

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The Guineveres by Sarah Domet features four teenaged girls, all named Guinevere, who by one means or another find themselves at Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration, a convent/girls’ orphanage and school/nursing home. Vere, who tells the story, is the first Guinevere to arrive. She is the most pious and the kindest. During morning roll call a short time after her arrival, Sister Fran calls out, “Guinevere,” and two voices respond. Vere discovers Ginny has arrived. Over the course of the next year, two more Guineveres come to Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration: Win and Gwen. The four call themselves The Guineveres.

They have names for the other girls as well. The Specials are the girls who still hear from their parents. They receive letters and phone calls and sometimes small presents. The Sads are girls whose parents died suddenly or violently by fire, auto accident, or suicide. The Poor Girls reside at Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration because their parents could not feed and care for them. They all arrive thin and malnourished. In the cafeteria, their plates never need scraping. The Delinquents are the girls who got into trouble and their parents sent them away. The Delusionals consist of only Reggie and Noreen, two who don’t fit into larger groups though Reggie tries hard to be part of The Guineveres, even telling them her parents thought of naming her Guinevere or that her middle name is Guinevere because The Guineveres tell Reggie that only girls properly, officially named Guinevere can be part of the group. Rules are rules after all as the nuns are fond of reminding the girls. The girls who are almost eighteen, the ones who will leave Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration as soon as they turn eighteen, form the last group.

All of The Guineveres want to leave Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration. They want to go back to their mothers and fathers. Sadly, they do not hear from their parents. They are all at Our Lady for various reasons, most of which are unknown to them. In all four cases, the parent or parents, simply drove the girls to the convent, far into the country, and left them there without explanation. Upon arrival, the girls must don the school uniform, give up all their meager possessions which they brought with them, and conform to the rules—of which there are many.

Girls who do not follow the rules strictly receive quick punishment. The punishment ranges from saying hail Marys to working in the nursing home. The harshest punishments are called JUG: Justice Under God. In the beginning of The Guineveres, Vere, Ginny, Win, and Gwen, get into serious trouble that merits them three months of JUG duty: serving in the nursing home, a duty they all more than dislike.

In the nursing home, they must take the elderly people’s vital signs and record them. They also must do other more personal duties, such as helping the patients use the bedpans and bathe the patients. Their tasks change suddenly when five comatose soldiers are brought to Our Lady to be housed. Sister Fran tells the girls that everyone must help the War Effort, always spoken in capital letters to show the importance. The soldiers do not even have names; somehow in the heat of battle, they have lost their dog tags, so they are numbers on the charts rather than names. Each Guinevere chooses a soldier for whom to care and whom they call “my boy” from that time forward, even years after they are all adults. They lavish care on the soldiers hoping they will awaken. The fifth soldier is being cared for by Ebbie, who is almost eighteen. Ebbie’s “boy” awakens one day and can tell his name. His parents come and take him home, taking Ebbie along with them, breaking one of the rules about the girls not leaving until they are eighteen. Sister Fran tells The Guineveres that Ebbie “is almost eighteen and that going home to care for Joe in his home is her part of the War Effort.”

At this point, I should mention Father James, the priest who presides over Our Lady and the nearby church. Generally, the girls in the convent go to church in the convent, but because of the war, The Guineveres are pressed into service at the local church as altar servers—servers because they cannot be altar girls since such a thing does not exist. Father James and the nuns break the rules since too few boys are available to serve as altar boys. The Guineveres take this new duty in stride. Father James is deeply flawed and drinks too much, but The Guineveres do their best to help him complete his sermons and serve the parish.

I must admit that after a few chapters about martyred women, I started skipping those chapters. They are short and do not add to the plot, in my opinion! I am sure some readers would argue that the lives of these saintly women do play a part in the story, but I found I could keep up with the story just fine by skipping those short chapters and focusing on the story of The Guineveres.

Domet’s debut novel is worth reading. I look forward to another book by Domet. Interested readers can find some of her short fiction online at this link: https://sarahdomet.com/other-writing/. Domet does not tell the story of The Guineveres in a straightforward fashion. She weaves the past, present, and future together deftly to give hints into The Guineveres’ full lives. In the end, a fifth Guinevere joins the group, but must read the book to discover her story.

Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres has received high praise. For example, these lines from Elle tells readers about the story: “If you’ve been seeking a divine (in every sense) debut novel, you’ll savor Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres…. From heavenly start to earthbound finish, this book is resounding and revelatory on questions of family, faith, and friendship.”
 

The Book Whisperer Discovers a GEM!

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The Daily Telegraph calls The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain “a gem.” I agree! Laurain is himself an antique collector in addition to being a screenwriter and novelist. Laurain studied cinema and directed short films and wrote screenplays. Those talents clearly dominate his novel writing as well. The scenes vividly draw the readers into the novel and allow them to picture the apartments, cafés, and bookstore with ease.

Laurent Letellier, bookseller, finds an expensive handbag abandoned on top of a trash can on his early morning walk before opening Le Cahier Rouge, his Paris bookstore. With some trepidation, he picks up the handbag and quickly discovers the wallet and phone are missing, but the bag is full of other personal treasures, just no identification. Obviously, someone has stolen the bag, taken the valuables, and left the bag for trash. He debates with himself about whether to leave the bag as he found it or take it to the police in hopes of its being returned to its owner.

In the end, he does take the bag to the nearby police station, but the police are too busy with other people to take the information from him. Instead of waiting the two or more hours to see the police, he takes the handbag to his apartment above the bookshop and goes about his day. After the bookshop closes, he goes through the contents of the bag in hopes of finding a clue about the owner.

He finds a number of interesting items including several stones which must have some significance to the bag’s owner. He also finds, among other items, a dry cleaner’s ticket, a bottle of perfume, lip balm, and a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by Patrick Modiano.  The autographed book provides the first clue, but only the owner’s first name: Laure. Another very personal treasure in the bag is a red notebook with the owner’s thoughts about things she loves, hates, fears, and thinks about.

This found object, the woman’s handbag, leads Laurent on an odyssey of discovery, not only about the owner of the bag, but also about himself. Even though he decides it is a “bit creepy” to try to locate the bag’s owner, he feels compelled to continue his search. He becomes a master detective, going over each object in the bag in hopes of discovering the owner’s identity or at least of discovering clues that will lead him to the owner.

He remembers a friend has told him author Modiano often walks in Luxembourg Gardens, so Laurent finds out when Modiano usually walks through the gardens and the general location of his walks. Laurent determines he will casually meet Modiano on one of those walks and ask him whether he remembers signing Accident Nocturne for Laure. Obviously, the plan provides a very long shot at discovering the real Laure, but Laurent feels he must try. Modiano does remember signing the book, but knows no more than Laure’s first name; he does give Laurent an excellent description of Laure, however.

Now, Laurent tries to find the dry cleaners; sadly, the ticket contains only a number and a date, no name of the cleaners or the owner of the dry cleaning itself. Laurent reasons that Laure must live in the vicinity, so he makes a list of the area’s dry cleaners and sets out to visit each one, ticking off each one on the list as he visits. Success! He pays for the dry cleaning and takes the “white dress in a transparent dry-cleaning bag” back to his apartment. He has succeeded in finding the dress, but the dry cleaner’s clerk says the owner of the dress has not left her name.

Meanwhile, Laurent’s girlfriend Dominique believes Laurent is two-timing her because she smells the perfume from the handbag in Laurent’s apartment and discovers the handbag. She does not believe the story Laurent tells her about trying to find the owner, so she breaks off with him. Frankly, I am happy to see her go! She is not likable; by now, I am fully invested in Laurent’s discoveries about Laure and hope he finds her.

I won’t tell you what happens, but Chloe, Laurent’s teenaged daughter, encourages her father to find Laure. If Laurent finds Laure, will she think he has been creepy in stalking her? Read The Red Notebook!

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer: Another Good Find!

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Is living in prison better than living in a penny-pinching retirement home? Martha Andersson and her friends, Brains, Rake, Christina, and Anna-Greta, have been friends since they began singing in a choir many years ago. They vowed they would all live in the same retirement home when the time came. That’s exactly what they are doing and living happily with good food and fair treatment until Ingmar comes along and purchases the retirement home, changing its name to Diamond House and cutting back on quality and quantity of food. With Nurse Barbara’s help, Ingmar gives the residents pills that reduce their appetites and other pills which keep them drowsy and lethargic.

Martha realizes what Nurse Barbara is doing, so she rebels by flushing and then gathering her comrades in her room to strategize about how they can improve their lot. In truth, the story begins with Martha in the bank handing the teller a note: “This is a robbery.” Unfortunately, the teller does not take Martha seriously, nor does the bank’s manager. The two usher Martha out the door telling her the pensions are not due until the next day, so Martha squares her shoulders and grips her Zimmerframe, see the picture above, and marches out the door, not a penny richer!

Shortly after the incident at the bank, Martha happens to watch a documentary about Swedish prisons and how well the prisoners are treated. Martha’s wheels begin to turn. What if the gang of five committed a robbery and went to prison where they would have better and more plentiful food than Diamond House is serving? Prisoners also have opportunities to exercise, go outside, and attend workshops, all activities Ingmar and Nurse Barbara have removed or restricted heavily.

After her aborted attempt to rob the bank, Martha determines that better planning will result in success. With that in mind, she gathers Brains, Rake, Christina, and Anna-Greta in her room to have some cloudberry liqueur and chocolates while they develop the perfect robbery plan.  Brains is an expert with electronics and tinkering with existing machines and objects; he and Martha have a close relationship, but the affection between them remains unspoken for the moment. Brains readily agrees to Martha’s plan that they commit a robbery of some kind in order to have enough money to live well. Not long after Brains declares he is ready for the robbery, the others join as well.

Soon, the five have a foolproof plan. Brains cleverly disguises their notes in his plan book by drawing diagrams and adding other remarks so that anyone who sees the plan book could not understand he has drawn a plan for the perfect crime. The Old Age Pensioners, as they call themselves, determine they will go to the Grand Hotel and spend several days enjoying themselves before they commit the robbery. The plan is that they will kidnap some paintings from the National Museum, located conveniently near the Grand Hotel, and ransom the paintings for ten million kroner. Once they have the money safely in hand, they will return the paintings, go to prison, and all will be well.

The five determine that they will not pay for the treat of staying at the Grand Hotel, but they forget that in order to register, they must present a credit card, so Anna-Greta agrees to use her card to secure the rooms and services, all the while planning not to pay. Obviously, the flaw in that plan is that the hotel has Anna-Greta’s name, address, and credit card information. Before completing the kidnapping of the paintings, the five decide they will rob safes in the spa at the Grand Hotel. Brains figures out how to knock the safes off the electronic surveillance and unset the alarm so that spa users will leave their valuables with the spa attendant, making the robbery easier to complete. All goes according to plan. The electricity to the safes goes off, the cameras are obscured, and Brains manages to steal the valuables. However, once in their rooms, the Old Age Pensioners discover their haul has not brought them much of value. Meanwhile, the five continue to enjoy the Grand Hotel with all of its amenities, good food, movies, and spa.

At this point, the scheme to kidnap the paintings becomes paramount. The five put their heads together again and go over the plan, one detail at a time. They determine how to avoid the security cameras until they can block or cover the ones they need. All goes well, and the five take the paintings out of the museum with only a hiccup or too, nothing serious. They arrange for the money to be delivered to a cruise ship.

The five take a day trip to Finland on the cruise ship. They plan to return and then pick up their ransom money off the ship’s dock. As often happens, the plan does not go quite as smoothly as the Old Age Pensioners have hoped. They lose one of the suitcases of money, not knowing exactly what has happened to it, but they do retrieve one suitcase full of five million kroner notes.

Then the group discovers the paintings they have cleverly hidden in plain sight—does “The Purloined Letter” come to mind—have disappeared from the ladies’ room. Where could the paintings be? Who could have taken them? The story becomes more complicated when the five are apprehended and sent to prison. They have failed to realize that the gang will be split up, with the two men, Brains and Rake, going to separate men’s prison while the women will go to separate women’s prisons. Brains encounters a mean Russian mafia member named Juro who wants Brains to help him commit a robbery once they are both released because Juro realizes that Brains has expertise in electronics. Brains gives Juro some ideas about how to foil the police and steal the money he wants without involving Brains in the scheme.

Meanwhile, Martha meets Liza, a hardened, but youthful, offender in her prison. Liza wants Martha to tell where the paintings are so that Liza can share in the money when they both get out of prison. Liza refuses to believe that Martha does not know where the paintings are.

All five Old Age Pensioners are released from prison and they return to Diamond House. Martha learns that Dolores, one of the residents has a black suitcase just like the one they lost holding the five million kroner notes. She also learns that Dolores’ son works on the cruise ship the gang has taken to Finland on the day cruise. Dolores is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so no one believes her son has given her a suitcase full of money. No one, except Martha, of course!

Suffice it to say, the Old Age Pensioners plan another even more daring robbery. This time, they engage Christina’s son Anders in their plot. What do the Old Age Pensioners plan to steal? How to they plan to get out of the country with the money? Will they escape from Juro and from the lazy police Inspector Strombeck?

Read The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules to discover the answers to these questions. Then you can follow more adventures with the Old Age Pensioners: The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again and The Little Old Lady Who Behaved Badly.

Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg began writing her series featuring Martha and her friends in 2012. The books have been published in twenty-eight languages. Kirkus Reviews calls the books “a merry, lighthearted caper.”

 

 

 

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The Book Whisperer Discovers a Hit

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I am trying to be disciplined about remembering where I read about books that spike my interest. In the case of Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters, a historical novel, I read about it in the Tulsa City-County Library newsletter available monthly at any Tulsa City-County Library. The review there created enough interest that I requested The Tumbling Turner Sisters from the library.  In doing so, I have discovered a new author to pursue. The Tumbling Turner Sisters is Fay’s first historical fiction novel. She has also written Shelter Me which was named one of the ten best works of fiction in 2009 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress. It was also for Target’s 2009 Bookmarked Cub and chosen by Good Housekeeping as a featured Book Pick. Deep Down True, her second novel, and The Shortest Way Home, her third novel, also received high acclaim.

Juliette Fay was born in Binghamton, NY; her family moved to Massachuetts when she was just three years old. Early on, Fay read The Boxcar Children which made a strong impression on her and kept her reading books! By the age of twelve, she began keeping a journal and continues to do so. Fay credits that early love of reading and the journal as driving her love of writing. Fay says that “writing fiction is by far the best job she’s ever had.”

Beginning in 1919, The Tumbling Turner Sisters depicts the lives of the Turner family, living in Johnson City, NY. The father works as a boot-stitcher. Teenaged daughters Gert, Winnie, and Kit live at home while Nell is married and has baby Harry, living nearby. Nell’s husband Harry is returning from duty in the war, having escaped the horrors of war; sadly, he dies of influenza on his way home, leaving Nell a young mother and widow. Nell and baby Harry move home in order to save on expenses. Unfortunately, the family is barely scraping by already.

Then Mr. Turner acts foolishly to stop a bar fight and badly inures his right hand, so badly that he cannot return to work, pushing a large needle through stiff leather to make boots. The family faces certain eviction and difficulty just putting food on the table. Mrs. Turner who has long harbored dreams of being on stage tells the girls they will develop a vaudeville act and go on the road, playing small theaters around NY.

Although the girls are reluctant, they start practicing a tumbling act. Their mother is an expert seamstress and sews up skimpy, but decent, costumes for the girls to wear. The Turner sisters do not do burlesque. Soon, the Tumbling Turner Sisters have an agent, Mr. Birnbaum, a seedy little man, who books them into small town theaters around the area. Winnie and Gert take turns by chapter in telling the story, so readers see the story from two perspectives. Gert is one year older than Winnie and much more wordly wise; she has worked in a local bar in Johnson City while attending high school. Winnie is studious and dreams of going to college, a truly novel idea for women of her time and station.

Through practice and watching other acts, the Turner sisters improve their tumbling act, adding some comedy to the act as well. After watching Tippety Tap Jones, a black performer, use a springboard contraption he has made, the Turner sisters ask Tip to help them construct a similar device for their act. He readily agrees. Unfortunately, the Turner sisters do not realize that their friendship with Tip will result in his being fired for “unseemly behavior.” The times are cruel.

Through Gert’s and Winnie’s eyes, readers develop a strong sense of all the other family members and the characters they meet along the way. People are poor and trying to eke out a living with vaudeville acts in the small towns. The Turners leave father at home and mother while the girls and Harry take off to earn the living. Along the way, the Turners meet scoundrels and as well as kind performers. One scoundrel and her partner rob all the performers staying at a seedy hotel while everyone is out of the hotel. On the other hand, the Turners also meet kind people who are willing to help them and the Turner sisters return the favor.

Fay did a great deal of research on the types of acts that would have played in those small towns around NY between 1919 and 1921. That research shows up unobtrusively in the historical novel, but it certainly adds to the flavor. One of the blurbs about the book is by Sara Gruen who wrote Water for Elephants, a favorite book of mine. Gruen writes, “In this novel of love, grit, and the everlasting strength of family, the Turner sisters dare to dream big. Don’t miss this page-turner!” I agree with Gruen. I will also be looking for Fay’s other books.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Offers a RAVE Review

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How could I not have read Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road before now? Published in 1970, 84, Charing Cross Road chronicles the correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel and others who worked for Marks & Co., Booksellers, 84, Charing Cross Road, London, W.C. 2. Over the years, the correspondence included other people such as Frank’s wife Nora, Nora and Frank’s daughters, their neighbor, and others from Marks & Co.

(I know this blog does not have a large readership; in fact, long-time friend, Don S., you may be the only one! So I am addressing you, my reader.)

Dear Reader, do not hesitate one more minute before finding 84, Charing Cross Road and devouring it before dinner! Run; do not walk; do not pass go before you check 84, Charing Cross Road out from the library, download it to your e-reader, or purchase it at a bookstore. The book is that good and that worthwhile.

The correspondence begins quite business-like and formal with Hanff’s request of Marks & Co., Booksellers in London to find her some specific antiquarian books, but at reasonable prices since she is “a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here [the US] except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.” Even that sentence in the first letter provides an insight into Hanff’s humor.

The correspondence begins in October, 1949 and continues until October, 1969. As Hanff becomes more and more thrilled with the purchases of books from Marks & Co., her letters become more personal and more humorous, often chiding Frank, for she now knows his name, about being slow in sending the books she requires. She does not hesitate to complain if the book is not up to her standard such as the abridged Pepys Diary which Doel sent in error by not checking it thoroughly.

Most of the time Hanff is more than pleased with the quality of the volumes as well as the text.  As Hanff becomes more and more dependent upon Marks & Co. to fulfill her book needs, she also becomes more and more interested in the people at Marks & Co. She learns that food is still rationed in England and begins sending care packages to be shared among the employees at the booksellers. Then that generosity extends to the families of the people employed at Marks & Co.

Along with the orders, Hanff reveals a little about herself, mostly about her writing. Of course, the books she orders also reveal much about her and her love of words. Some of those antiquarian requests include the following: Hazlitt’s Selected Essays, Landor’s Imaginary Conversations, Oxford Book of English Verse (1905), Newman’s Idea of a University, Sir Roger de Coverley Papers, and, of course, the complete Pepys Diary. Dear Reader, these books cost Ms. Hanff the princely sum of under $5.00 each! Many of them only one or two US dollars. Hanff asked Doel to translate the pounds into dollars since she doesn’t “add too well in plain American, and I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”

Haniff wrote scripts for the Ellery Queen TV series and Hallmark TV shows in addition to other TV shows. She had an opportunity to move to LA and write scripts for Hollywood movies, but declined to leave NYC. She also wrote a wide variety of newspaper and magazine articles.

Hanff’s friends at Marks and Co., continued to ask her to visit them in the UK, offering her accommodations and promised to show her all the places she would like to see. Lack of money and an aversion to travel kept her from visiting England until after Frank Doel’s untimely death from a burst appendix. Unfortunately, Marks & Co., Booksellers had also closed, leaving an empty shop by the time Hanff went to England for the first time.

In 1987, 84, Charing Cross Road was made into a movie starring Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff; Anthony Hopkins played Frank Doel. The book was also dramatized for British and American TV as well as the stage.

Helene Hanff wrote books for children and adults. Several of her books, including 84, Charing Cross Road are autobiographical. Readers who enjoy 84, Charing Cross Road may also like The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is the diary Hanff kept of her first journey to the UK.

Helene Hanff died April 11, 1997, at the age of 80.

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer is Disappointed

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I chose to read The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan because I read some reviews that compared the book to Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop which I liked. I was disappointed, but finished the book.

Nina Redmond is a mouse of a librarian in a tiny library in a suburb of Birmingham. Like so many public libraries, the library system in Birmingham is struggling to survive. The librarians know the cuts are coming and wonder who will survive or who will wish to stay on anyway since the library system is changing to meet needs of patrons in different ways than promoting books. Nina’s branch will close and many of the books are simply being thrown away, so she packs up as many as she can and takes them home with her, much to her roommate’s chagrin.

Librarians must interview for the few positions left in the branches that will remain open. In Nina’s interview, the person hiring asks, “What will you do for the non-reader?” Nina, who is excellent at choosing just the right books for readers, is stumped. She says she would suggest titles for the patron, but the interviewer insists that is not the right answer. To the interviewer, Nina should have answered with help them with the technology they want, not encourage READING, for goodness sake!

Needless to say, Nina does not get the job. Instead, she sees an ad for a van for sale in Scotland. She has never been to Scotland, so she goes to see the van and buy it, thinking she will have a mobile bookstore in Birmingham. Wully, who owns the van, declines to sell it to Nina. His buddies at the tavern, however, convince Nina to come back. They will buy the van and sell it to her. They think she will keep the van in their village and take the mobile bookshop to other villages around the area. They do not realize she intends to return to the city.

More plans backfire once Nina has the van, however. Birmingham city refuses the permit for parking the van. That puts Nina in a quandary. She now has the van, but cannot park it at her home. In the end, she returns to Scotland and starts the mobile bookstore there as readers knew she would. The story is predictable in almost all ways.

Nina rents a beautiful barn that has been redecorated into a lovely cottage on Lennox’s farm. Lennox and his wife are getting a divorce; she had decorated the barn with the help of an interior designer and then she left with the interior designer. Nina and Lennox get off to a rocky start and the tension between them is palpable most of the time, another expected turn in the story.

The mobile bookshop takes off. Nina is good at finding the right book for people, and the people in the villages are starved for books. I found the title misleading since it is The Bookshop on the Corner, and Nina’s van does not necessarily park on A corner, but she takes it to farmers’ markets. I kept expecting her to find a real shop on the corner and sell the van.

A reader sums up my feelings well:

“Instead of my expectations, the story turns into a steamy romance complete with plenty of sex by the last few chapters. I loved this book and the concept of a novel written in dedication to readers until . . . the last few chapters. The author took a sharp turn from her little shop of books to the bedroom (and multiple other locations). At that point, the characterization faltered, the storyline shifted from meaningful to trite, and what began as a beautiful story was cheapened with empty sex. Why, oh, why did Jenny Colgan venture so far off course?”

Jenny Colgan was born in Prestwick, Ayrshire, Scotland. She has a number of published books, but I won’t be reading any of the others given the disappointment I felt from reading this one. She also writes under the pseudonyms of Jane Beaton and J.T. Colgan, so beware.

The Book Whisperer’s Latest Review

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The Unraveling of Mercy Louis won the 2016 Alex Award, given by the American Library Association “to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” The Kansas City Star also chose The Unraveling of Mercy Louis as its best book of 2015. Keija Parssinen has an impressive resume. She graduated cum laude from Princeton with a degree in English literature and received a certificate from the Program for the Study of Women and Gender. After receiving her MFA at the U of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she won a Michener-Copernicus award for her first novel, The Ruins of Us.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is Parssinen’s second novel, published in 2015. It has received a great deal of acclaim from the Kansas City Star, Lone Star Literary Life, the American Library Association, Missouri Life, and Brazos Bookstore. She has written for a number of other publications as well: Lonely Planet travel-writing anthologies, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Slice Magazine, Salon, Five Chapters, the New Delta Review, Marie Claire, This Land, and Off Assignment. Currently, Parssinen is the Director of Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European MFA program, as well as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tulsa.

Mercy Louis lives in Port Sabine, TX, an oil refinery town. The area depends upon the refinery for income. Despite the accidents and the awful smells that accompany the refinery, life goes on. An explosion that killed a number of workers and maimed others has left the town in turmoil, dependent upon the refinery with many people resenting the refinery and all it brings. Mercy is a bright spot at the high school for her basketball prowess. She gives the town a focus of pride in her abilities and strength as a player and all-around good girl, a strong contrast to her best friend Annie who is daughter to the rich refinery owner.

Early in the story, a newborn baby’s body is found in a dumpster at the convenience store across from the high school. The town buzzes about who might have left the baby there. Was the baby born alive or did it die after birth? Speculation runs through the town about who left the baby in the dumpster. Meanwhile, Mercy tries hard to concentrate on her skills as a basketball player hoping to land a scholarship that will take her out of Port Sabine.  Jodi Martin, the girls’ basketball coach, pushes Mercy and the other girls hard to make them the best they can be, a reflection on her. She gives the girls meal plans to follow during the entire year, including summers and requires strength training as well. Mercy follows the rules to the letter until that fateful summer between her junior and senior years.

Mercy lives with Maw Maw, her maternal grandmother, and she has no knowledge of her mother, Charmaine except that Maw Maw has told Mercy that Charmaine did not want Mercy and chose drugs and other evils over her daughter. At school one day, Mercy receives a letter from her mother, but the letter arrives late and Mercy is not inclined to want to see Charmaine or even respond to the letter because Maw Maw has poisoned Mercy against her mom. The truth, revealed only at the end of the book, gives readers a much different picture of Charmaine than the one Maw Maw paints.

Maw Maw professes to be a seer who can predict the future. She is certain that Y2K will find everyone in Heaven or in Hell at the stroke of midnight. To that end, she admonishes Mercy to be ready, to be pure, and to be ever vigilant so that Mercy does not end up like her mother, pregnant and a drug addict.

Other families also harbor secrets, so almost everyone has something to hide. Illa, the manager of the girls’ basketball team, takes care of her mother who was injured in the refinery blast that also killed Illa’s father. Illa feels a strong connection to Mercy, a kind of hero worship, but Mercy can never see past Annie’s friendship to give Illa more than a glance now and then.

Parssinen tells the story in alternating chapters through Mercy’s eyes and through Illa’s eyes. Through the two of them, readers can fill in the gaps. Illa learns that her mother and Charmaine were high school best friends, but the two have lost touch until Charmaine starts sending letters to Meg, Illa’s mom, in hopes Meg will pass them along to Mercy. Instead, Meg reads the letters and hides them until Illa discovers them and tries to give them to Mercy. That action causes a deep rift between Mercy and Illa because Maw Maw has poisoned Mercy so against her mom that she does not even want the letters.

To complicate matters, Mercy and Annie have a falling out. They have been like twins, best friends all of their lives; now, they do not even speak to one another. Adding to the drama, Mercy falls in love with Travis, the first boy she’s ever allowed herself to even give a second glance because Maw Maw has drilled into her that all boys are evil and want only one thing. Mercy’s visits to Travis’s home show her a family such as she has never known. However, the relationship with Travis is fraught with danger and Mercy backs away from him, leaving him bewildered and alone.

Mercy looks forward to the last season of basketball and the prospect of a college scholarship to lift her out of Port Sabine. The summer before her senior year, however, Mercy starts experiencing strange movements in her arms and an inability to control her body as she has always been able to do. She hides the problems from everyone and trains all the harder, playing pick-up basketball with the boys in the evening at the park. Unfortunately, when basketball practice starts in earnest in the fall of her senior year, Mercy’s uncontrollable actions become known to everyone. In addition, other girls in the school begin to have similar symptoms, much like the girls in Salem during the height of the accusations against witches.

During the hysteria about witches in 1692, nearly two hundred people were accused of being witches. By the time the hysteria ended, nineteen people were sentenced to death. Historians agree that the witch hunts developed because of mass hysteria, but causes for the hysteria remain theories.

Five of the theories causing the mass hysteria, particularly among teenage girls include boredom, a strong belief in the occult, disputes, rivalries, and personal differences, cold weather theory, and ergot poisoning.

In Port Sabine, boredom could certainly have influenced the girls who suffered from the hysteria. The town is small, leaving few opportunities for activities and entertainment for the teens.  The girls affected are all connected through the high school and their basketball team. Many of the girls’ parents strictly guarded them and limited what they could do. Girls, particularly, face severe restrictions. Note the stories that surround Lucille, the poor woman who sells her trinkets from a blanket on the sidewalk. The girls are ready to believe any story however fantastical about her. Mercy also focuses on the stories Maw Maw tells her, stories to scare Mercy into being a “good girl.”

The girls are rivals even though they are basketball teammates. Mercy is clearly the star, so the other girls are jealous of her even as much as they want their team to win. Also, the strong relationship between Mercy and Annie creates additional tension among the other girls. Annie’s father is the refinery owner, so Annie is rich, and she has always had a strong friendship with Mercy, making the other girls jealous.

Obviously, we can dismiss the cold weather theory as a possible cause for the mass hysteria in Port Sabine. However, the overarching refinery, its odors, and dangers could be substituted for the cold weather theory.

Finally, rye grains can become contaminated with ergot, a fungus. That’s another possible cause of the 1692 mass hysteria; those accusing others of being witches could have been having hallucinations caused by eating the contaminated grain.  Again, the girls in Port Sabine are not eating contaminated rye, but the overhanging and significantly strong chemical smells coming from the refinery could be substituted for the ergot poisoning. The girls are already susceptible, so the strong odors contribute to their hysteria.

What do you think, readers?