The Book Whisperer Recommends a Debut YA Novel

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Always on the chase for my next book to read for myself and/or for my book clubs (yes, plural book clubs!), I enjoy discovering new authors as well as delving into favorites. Recently, a Lisa, a friend, voracious reader, and book club member, told me about Not Our Summer by Casie Bazay. Bazay lives in OK and has published her first YA novel. Immediately, I was interested in reading Not Our Summer.

The story centers on KJ and Becka, two female cousins, who barely know one another and certainly do not like one another. Their mothers are sisters who also do not speak to one another. Then the girls’ maternal grandfather dies and leaves an unusual request in his will. In order to inherit money for college for KJ and Becka, both high school seniors, and money for both of his daughters, Jackie and RaeLynn, KJ and Becka must complete five trips TOGETHER.

Grandpa has pre-arranged all of the five trips with everything paid in advance along with giving the girls credit cards loaded with a certain amount of money for incidentals. He has also arranged for KJ to have a car of her own, especially necessary for two of the trips.

The trips are from grandpa’s bucket list of trips he did not get to make. Of course, he also has an ulterior motive of wanting his two granddaughters to discover common ground and like one another. The trips include the following: riding mules down into the Grand Canyon, hiking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, white water rafting in Georgia, snorkeling at Key West, and competing in a rodeo competition.

To be candid, the first two trips make little headway in creating any kind of relationship between KJ and Becka. They maintain distance as much as they can. At some point during or after each trip, they receive a letter their grandfather has written them explaining why he has arranged this particular trip and offering his continued hope that the girls will bond and become friends.

Grandpa’s letter to the girls after the snorkeling trip reveals a family secret so damaging that all the goodwill between KJ and Becka disappears, mostly due to KJ’s feeling that her mother has betrayed her all her life by keeping the secret from her. Becka, too, is devastated by the news, but she handles it better than KJ does. As a result of the secret laid bare, KJ insists she will not fulfill the last wish of competing at the rodeo. If she does not complete the last request, Becka, KJ, Jackie, and RaeLynn all lose the money, $350,494, from grandpa; it will go instead to the Arkansas Amateur Entomological Association.

Dear readers, at this point, I am sure you have several questions. The first one is what is the big family secret? The next one is will KJ stop the inheritance for all four of the females in the family? Of course, readers, you must read Not Our Summer in order to discover the truth.

Not Our Summer provides readers with enough mystery to keep them interested. The characters are also solid and, I predict, readers will favor one cousin over the other—until perhaps the end.

Casie Bazay, https://casiebazay.com/, has been a middle school teacher; she left teaching to become a stay-at-home mom and became a freelance writer and editor. Not Our Summer is her debut novel.

The Book Whisperer Enjoys Another Book for Tweens

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As noted several times, I am an eclectic reader and enjoy books for all ages. Recently, I’ve read several books aimed toward the tween readers, those ages 8 to 12. The authors of these books tackle a variety of subjects including the difficult ones like poverty, gun violence, domestic violence, and bullying. Today, I’m reviewing one that focuses on great fun: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Bertman.

Book Scavenger received a great deal of recognition. Here are some of the awards it received: An Amazon Best Book of the Year (2016), an Indie Next List Pick, a Texas Lamplighter Award nominee, and a Georgia Children’s Book Award Finalist.

Why did Book Scavenger merit so much attention? The story involves a mystery, puzzles to solve, involved searches for hidden books, and references to many literary works. Just as importantly, it is a story of friendship and loyalty.

Emily, age 12, has just moved to San Francisco where Garrison Griswold, book publisher and creator of Book Scavenger, an online game about hiding and finding books. The books are hidden in a number of cities by residents who live there. Then the one who has hidden the book leaves clues on the Scavenger website for others to decipher.

Emily’s parents have a goal of living in all fifty states, so the family moves often. Emily’s older brother Matthew finds friends easily and does not mind the constant moving the way Emily does. Emily wishes for the opportunity to stay put, but she does not express her wishes openly. Her parents make a game of learning about each new city when they move. Still, Emily feels lonely and friendless.

In San Francisco, Emily at least looks forward to participating in Mr. Griswold’s latest scavenger hunt in the city where the hunt originated. As Emily’s family is moving into their new apartment, Emily encounters James, a boy who lives in the building. They are wary of one another, but then Emily drops her notebook where she keeps her puzzles. As she is searching for it, she hears a creaking sound at her window and sees a bucket suspended on a rope. She pulls the bucket into the room and discovers a puzzle.

Then Emily finds James on the stairs as she continues to help her folks unload the U-Haul truck. James has found her precious notebook and offers her a clue in solving a puzzle she is working on. They discover a common interest in puzzles and books; Emily introduces James to the book scavenger game.

The children encounter some danger since they have found Mr. Garrison’s latest plan for the book scavengers. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous dealer in rare books gets involved and also engages his thug of a nephew to help him retrieve a book he believes the children have found.

The many references to books for children and adults will interest readers. The puzzles are also of interest because they are complex and involve a variety of puzzle methods.

The Book Whisperer Touts a Who Dunnit

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Often, when a new book, movie, or TV show receives a great deal of hype, I am suspicious of its worth. That is a cynical attitude, one I’ve developed over the years. I read and heard about Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews; each article and blurb praised the debut novel. I decided I must read the book for myself and then tell you, my reading friends, my thoughts.

Well, readers, choose Who is Maud Dixon? and it will take you on a wild ride just as the hype says it will. Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Those are questions that you will answer and then reverse your answers once made only to question yourself once again.

The story begins benignly enough with Florence Darrow (continues to bring Clarence Darrow to my mind—silly connections) who is a low-level assistant to an editor in a small publishing house. Florence has grown up in Florida and has escaped a dull life as a girl who is barely noticed in her home town and high school, but who is wickedly bright. After graduating from college, Florence heads for NYC and the publishing world.

As an aspiring writer herself, Florence can think of no better place to work than in publishing in NYC. Through a series of unfortunate decisions, Florence finds herself fired from her job. Confident she will find another job, Florence refuses to worry. Then the opportunity of a lifetime comes her way: assistant to Maud Dixon, the successful, highly reclusive author of Mississippi Foxtrot.

The job comes with strict stipulations. Florence must sign a non-disclosure agreement that says she will never under any circumstances reveal Maud Dixon’s real name or anything about their working together. In fact, she can never claim the work experience when she applies to other jobs. Florence agrees to these demands and signs the contract. Then she learns Maud Dixon is really Helen Wilcox.

Florence moves to upstate NY to live in a carriage house on the secluded estate with Helen. Readers quickly learn that Helen is not a pleasant woman. She is impulsive, loud, opinionated, impatient, and acts decisively. Florence must type up Helen’s handwritten pages and she has almost illegible handwriting that Florence must decipher.

Not long after Florence goes to work for Helen, Helen says they are going to Morocco so Helen can get a sense of the place because her next novel is set there. Readers, that’s where the fun begins—and I also should say, the suspense and the turns that will keep readers holding their collective breaths as they quickly turn the pages to discover the next secret and the next.

Alexandra Andrews has been a journalist, editor, and a copywriter in NY and Paris. Who is Maud Dixon? is her first novel. Look for more from this stunning author!

The Book Whisperer Enjoys a Debut Novel

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A family, friends, and work-related friends with secrets and a tangled history should be enough to entice readers. Add to that mix a highly successful author who dies and leaves book five, the final book, in her series unfinished. Who will write the final story? How will the secrets and tangles become untangled? Who gets hurt by these long-held secrets? Who will be redeemed? Pick up The Audacity of Sara Grayson by Joani Elliott to discover the truth.

Sara’s mom, Cassandra Bond, has written a number of popular novels, making her extremely successful and wealthy. The last series features Ellery Dawson, a heroine with a keen sense of observation. Book four has left readers hungering for answers to questions about Ellery’s father and also has left them wondering how the series will end since Bond has declared the fifth book to be the last in the Ellery series.

Then to everyone’s dismay, Cassandra Bond develops cancer and dies before she writes a word of book five, or has she written it and secreted it away? When Anna-Kath and Sara, sisters, go to their mother’s lawyer’s office for the reading of the will, they discover that Cassandra has decreed Sara the author of the last book.

Sara herself is dismayed by this request. Jane Harnois, current CEO at Iris Books, Bond’s long-time publisher, also has her own thoughts about Sara’s writing the final book. She does not want that to happen and wishes to choose the author herself, but Cassandra’s will is binding. Still, Jane does all she can to put up roadblocks for Sara and that includes giving her a short and very decisive deadline to write, edit, and submit the book.

After initially refusing to write the book, Sara buckles down to the task at hand. She even teams up with Phil Dvornik, her mother’s previous editor and now retired founder/owner of Iris Books. Sara and Phil have a difficult past because he savaged the first novel she tried to write on her own; in fact, he made her feel completely untalented, so she has not continued writing her own stories.

As the secrets unfold, I found a few of the relationships to be problematic along with some loose ends, I also chose to accept those relationships as part of the story. I do have a willing suspension of disbelief as well. A few ideas introduced are left hanging such as Anna-Kath’s sudden declaration that her loving husband Gerald has told her he “needs space.” I didn’t see the need to introduce that glitch into the story.

Perhaps, though, Elliott has also prepared readers for a sequel with some of the late problems she introduces. We shall see! Even so, book club members will find much to discuss: understanding family relationships, uncovering ties to the past, discovering one’s talent, and finding love. Those are all great fodder for conversation.

The Audacity of Sara Grayson is a debut novel for Joani Elliott, who has taught creative writing at both the U of Maryland and Brigham Young U. Elliott, https://joanielliott.com/, provides a book club kit with the novel. It contains discussion questions, but goes a bit further by adding some additional activities for the story along with a conversation with Elliott herself. A book club discussion leader could make copies of the activities to enhance a discussion of the book.

The Book Whisperer Reconsiders

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Not all books are for all readers; we know that unequivocally. That fact was brought home to me when a recent book club selection was The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had read the book when it first came out and did not find it appealing. However, since the book club leader had chosen it, I reread it for the discussion. I must admit I found more to admire upon reading it a second time. Yann is an excellent writer and he tells a wild story. The Life of Pi received a great deal of acclaim when it was published and was made into a stunning movie.

Rather than discuss the particulars of the story which are well known, I am considering which of Pi’s stories I choose to believe. At the end of the book when Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba interrogate Pi after he is rescued, Pi tells his tale of being shipwrecked with Richard Parker, the tiger. Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, investigating why the ship went down, refuse to believe that story.

After feeling he cannot convince Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba of his story, he tells another one. The two stories intersect in some ways, particularly the deprivation and Pi’s innovation at staying alive during his seven-month ordeal. Because I have a willing suspension of disbelief, I choose to believe the first story.

Pi discovers a way to live on the raft with Richard Parker, the tiger. They need each other although Pi is more important to Richard Parker than Parker is to Pi. Parker depends upon Pi to feed him. Pi needs Parker’s company and perhaps I am wrong about who needs whom the most.

At any rate, I did reread The Life of Pi in order to participate fully in the discussion. Even when a book does not appeal to me, I find the discussion with others can broaden my horizon and give me a better understanding of the story even if I don’t like it.

The Book Whisperer Enjoys & Recommends a Dream of a Story

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Readers who need a break from news and daily chores will find My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich a welcome respite. Norwich has written a modern fairy tale that includes a dream, coincidences and happy meetings. For Mrs. Brown’s dream to come true, a series of events must come together.

Emilia Brown lives with her cat Santo in a small house with an apartment next door which she rents to her dear friend Mrs. Fox. Then Mrs. Fox’s daughter in Vancouver asks her mother to come stay with her to help her for a time. Mrs. Fox agrees and Mrs. Brown allows Mrs. Fox’s granddaughter Alice Danvers to take over her grandmother’s apartment for a time. Alice has taken a teaching job in Ashville.

Alice, 23, and Mrs. Brown, 66, become friends. Mrs. Fox has asked Alice to look in on Mrs. Brown. At first, Alice goes to Mrs. Brown’s out of obligation, but she soon finds that she enjoys their frequent nightly meetings. Mrs. Brown has a quiet demeanor and kindness that rubs off on the often acerbic Alice.

Mrs. Brown’s day job is to clean a local beauty shop. The hairdressers there are unkind and often make mean remarks about her, not even trying to be subtle or to hide their meanness. Mrs. Brown pretends that she does not hear, but the remarks are hurtful. Then Mrs. Brown has the opportunity to help inventory and clear out the late Mrs. Groton’s estate. Mrs. Groto, a wealthy woman, wned a home in Ashville, RI, as well as in NYC. Mrs. Brown has always admired Mrs. Groton, so she is delighted to go into the home and help with the inventory.

While there, Mrs. Brown sees a simple black dress made by Oscar de le Renta and she falls in love with the dress. She imagines herself in such a lovely, understated garment. The price tag for such a beautiful dress is extremely high—much more than Mrs. Brown ever thought she could afford.

Still, Mrs. Brown is entitled to a dream, isn’t she? She sits down at her kitchen table and does an inventory of her own spending, looking for places she can save. Alice offers to pay more on her rent, but Mrs. Brown refuses that offer. A series of fortunate events provide Mrs. Brown with the money she needs for her coveted dress and even a bit extra.

The next step is for Mrs. Brown to go to NYC to purchase the dress. Alice goes over all the details and makes sure Mrs. Brown is comfortable with the agenda. Mrs. Brown refuses Alice’s generous offer to go along on the trip. Mrs. Brown is determined to make the trip and buy her dress on her own.

The New York Times describes My Mrs. Brown as “timeless, poignant, and appealing, a contemporary fairy tale…a gentle rebuke to today’s hyped-up fashion culture.”

William Norwich has had a storied career as writer, editor, and TV reporter. Along with My Mrs. Brown and Learning to Drive, adult novels, he has also published a children’s book, Molly and the Magic Dress.

The Book Whisperer Highly Recommends The Venice Sketchbook

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Some time ago, I discovered The Royal Spyness, a series by Rhys Bowen. Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie is thirty-fourth in line for the British throne. She can perform “a perfect curtsey,” but she is flat broke. Unfortunately, she cannot work either since she is part of the royal family.  The series is delightful and Georgie gets herself int a variety of mysteries.

Bowen also writes another series featuring Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant in NYC around the turn of the century. This series, too, finds Molly in various difficult situations and involved in mysteries.

In addition to her books in a series, Rhys Bowen has also written standalone novels which include The Victory Garden, The Tuscan Child, and In Farleigh Field. Her most recent standalone book is The Venice Sketchbook which offers readers pure delight, a highly readable story that will enthrall readers.

The Venice Sketchbook opens with Juliet, Lettie, in Venice with her great-aunt and follows with Caroline Grant, our modern-day heroine. Later, Caroline receives a difficult assignment from her great-aunt Lettie, an artist. When Lettie dies, Caroline receives her aunt’s sketchbook, three unusual keys, and the whispered word, Venice.

Caroline faces difficulties at home because her husband has left her for a rock star who is now in the US. When Teddy, Caroline’s son goes to NY to visit his dad, the father tries to keep Teddy. Caroline knows she cannot get Teddy home right away because he and his dad and the rock star were all in NYC when the airplanes flew into the twin towers. Josh, Teddy’s dad, claims Teddy is terrified of flying after hearing about the airplanes.

Caroline takes a leave from her job and goes to Venice to see what she can discover about her great-aunt’s past. Instead of a letter with some kind of instructions, Lettie has left Caroline with only the sketchbook and the unusual keys. With those items, Caroline must put together her aunt’s past and perhaps discover a new future for herself.

The Venice Sketchbook moves smoothly between Lettie’s story of her early trip to Venice in 1928 and her later art scholarship which allows her to return in 1938 and Caroline’s modern-day visit to Venice. Luckily, Caroline is inquisitive and refuses to take no for an answer once she has made a discovery of what the keys fit: a safety deposit box and an apartment in a building currently under renovation and owned by a wealthy family, the Da Rossi family.

Rather than describe the events that Lettie and Caroline experience in their separate journeys, I will say, instead, that readers must read the book to discover for themselves what happens. Suffice it to say, readers will encounter mystery, intrigue, spying during the war, and love. And as Caroline unravels her aunt’s past, she finds a future for herself as well.

Book clubs will find both Lettie’s and Caroline’s stories compelling. Topics for discussion can include star-crossed lovers, the horror of war and what it does to separate people, and family secrets. In addition, other subjects such as Caroline’s divorce and Josh’s attempts to keep their son away from Caroline will provide book club members with additional fodder.

The Book Whisperer Discovers a Delightful Story Set in the NYC Public Library

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Dear Readers, often, we discover a book that really grabs our attention and holds it all the way through, perhaps even when we did not expect that kind of absorption. The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis certainly has done that for me. I found myself reading breathlessly, not wanting to stop until I found out more.

As an eclectic reader, I read in a variety of genres and for all ages. Recently, I read The Story Collector by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, a book for tweens. The story centers on the Fedeler family who lived in the New York City Public Library. Although The Story Collector is fiction, Tubb based the story on the real family and used details from the family’s stories to create a lively story.

Fiona Davis has created a fictional family living in the New York Public Library in 1913 along with a dual story line in 1993 about the granddaughter of the family who now works for the library. Davis incorporates some of the information about the Fedeler family in her fictional family. For example, the children played baseball in the library after hours and used books as bases. They also feared a red-bearded ghost who was said to haunt the building.

Fiona Davis has created lively characters who capture the imagination and keep readers interested in what will happen next. In the 1913 portion, Davis has made Laura Lyons a stay-at-home, supporting her husband and caring for Pearl and Harry, her two children. However, she is a college graduate and aspires to becoming a journalist. She manages to get into a journalism master’s program at Columbia. Laura truly enjoys the challenges of being a student again even if the professor gives all the meaty story assignments to the men and gives the women fluffy pieces to explore.

Laura, however, turns the tables on the professor and digs out weighty stories from the assignments she has. On the home front, however, Laura faces additional challenges because her husband is not supportive of her return to school. While Pearl excels in school and in making friends, Harry struggles with both. Jack, Laura’s husband, also faces trouble at work because highly prized first edition books are going missing. Despite changing the locks and restricting keys to certain individuals, the books continue to go missing.

Fast forward to the 1993 time period and Sadie Donovan, Laura’s granddaughter, now works as a reference librarian and enjoys finding the facts to answer tough questions that patrons pose about subjects of all kinds. Troubling events are occurring in the library once again as first edition books are going missing. Sadie has not revealed her connection to the library in that her grandparents lived in the library in 1913. She does not want to be a suspect in the thefts.

Of course, finally, Sadie must tell the library’s director about her connection to Laura and Jack Lyons. Sadly, that puts her under suspicion. It also makes her determined to find the  real thief. I must say that I did not suspect the person who turns out to be the thief, but I did figure out a few other mysteries in the story. That did not detract from the story itself, however.

I found the story to be satisfying and enjoyable. A book club would find some value in pairing the tween story, The Story Collector, with The Lions of Fifth Avenue as a contrast.

The Book Whisperer Discovers Renewed Interest in Napoleon

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As a book club leader, I look up information on authors and the books they write as I explore offerings for my book clubs. Some authors maintain robust websites with questions suitable for a book club discussion and some background on both the author and the book itself. That makes the site extremely useful. Information from the author adds to the discussion. When authors are also willing to join book clubs virtually, that makes another reason to choose the book. One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that it has created many, many more opportunities for authors and readers to connect on virtual platforms.

In promoting Finding Napoleon, Margaret Rodenberg, https://mrodenberg.com/, provides a wealth of material on her website. Along with questions for discussion, she also gives a brief history of principal characters in the novel—real people from history. In a letter to readers, Rodenberg explains her love of story telling and how she would put herself to sleep from an early age by telling herself stories. Those early days have created a writer. Rodenberg is also willing to meet virtually with book clubs.

Rodenberg writes Finding Napoleon as if Albine de Montholon, Napoleon’s final lover, is writing the book. Rodenberg reimagines a slice of history through Albine de Montholon’s eyes as she writes about her experiences with Napoleon. At the same time, Albine persuades Napoleon to finish his romantic manuscript begun in his youth.

Rodenberg has done her homework and she adds additional fuel for discussion with some facts about Napoleon. We frequently think of Napoleon as being short, but he was 5’7”, average height for the time. He was 5’2” in French feet, but 5’7” in British measurements. Too, British cartoonists portrayed Napoleon as short, thus developing the “Napoleonic complex” tag that has stuck throughout history.

Margaret Rodenberg has long been interested in writing, but, as with many others, her path did not lead directly to writing. After studies in French and Russian at Georgetown U, she took a sales job with Xerox, thus gaining a wide computer knowledge. After a variety of other ventures in widely different workplaces, she turned to writing full time.

The Book Whisperer Discovers a Book for Poolside Reading

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Okay, here is a reminder that not only should one not judge a book by its cover, but that one should also not judge a book by blurbs on the back—at least not always. The blurb at the top of the back cover on Summer Club by Katherine Dean Mazerov reads this way: “Poop [my italics] in the pool. Sex on the diving board. A pot-smoking snack bar manager….” Most of the time, I would probably not pick up Summer Club to read after that description. However, I did read it.

Lydia Phillips has left her career as a journalist to be a stay-at-home mom. Katherine Dean Mazerov calls on her own experience of taking time out from being a journalist herself to become a stay-at-home mom. Mazerov imbues Lydia with a natural curiosity found in any journalist and that curiosity coupled with her innate ability to sniff out a story sets up Summer Club as a rousing good time.

Summer Club is Mazerov’s debut novel. Her prose is crisp and clear. Mazerov shows Lydia manages the neighborhood swim and tennis club. She must deal with the pettiness of members who complain about everything and about nothing. She has to call on her inner strength to keep peace among the members. As the story continues, Lydia also encounters a darkness she never expected: a dead body, a mystery, fraud, deception, and a bit of hilarity as well to counteract any darkness.

Readers will enjoy the romp. Mazerov, http://www.katherinedeanmazerov.com, provides readers with a detailed synopsis on her site; she also includes questions useful for book club members. That’s a plus when one prepares to lead a discussion.

I received a free copy of Summer Club from BookTrib, https://booktrib.com/; receiving the free copy in no way influenced my review.