Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Book Whisperer’s Latest Review

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Kate Summerscale read about a true murder in Victorian England of three-year-old Saville Kent, son in a prominent family. The father and servants had locked the house for the night, closing and locking all windows and the garden gate. Still, Saville’s body is found at the bottom of the privy with his throat cut. The crime is disturbing, horrifying, and perplexing. The murder occurs at the time when only eight detectives were employed in the whole of England. Police detecting was in its early stages. The best inspector, Jonathan Whicher, goes to investigate the murder. Summerscale writes about the case, giving all the historical background. The book is nonfiction, but it crosses that barrier between fiction and nonfiction to give an account of the murder and the investigation and in engaging the readers.

Summerscale remains true to the facts of the case and gives readers a vivid account of all the people involved, including and most importantly, Inspector Whicher. Her subtitle is “A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.” In fact, the book reads like a history of the early detective development in England, complete with endnotes.

Inspector Whicher and others are convinced that someone in the household has murdered Saville, but proving who committed the murder is difficult. The family consists of Samuel Kent and his second wife Mary. Samuel Kent was a widower when he married Mary, his children’s governess. He had four living children from his first marriage and three more children with his second wife Mary. Mary was also eight months pregnant with her fourth child when her son Saville was murdered.

Theories about the murder abound, some of them absurd and others gossip. For those interested in history, Summerscale has written a book as absorbing as a novel, but true to the facts of a real and gruesome murder of a three-year-old boy.

Summerscale has a double-first at Oxford University and an MA in journalism from Stanford University. In addition to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, she has written The Queen of Whale Cay, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, and The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. She has also been a journalist for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Sunday Telegraph.

The Book Whisperer Has Been Busy….

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Lily and the Octopus

The Tulsa City-County Library system has an innovative way for readers to find new titles quickly. Each library now has a collection of high-demand titles readily available for the lucky patron who goes into the library and finds just the right book that day. That’s how I discovered Lily and the Octopus. I was in the library at the right time and checked out the book, having read nothing about it previously. Blurbs on the back of the book by Christina Baker Kline and Sara Gruen, both authors I have enjoyed, enticed me to start reading Lily and the Octopus.

Lily and the Octopus is Steven Rowley’s first novel. Previously, he has been a freelance writer, newspaper columnist, and screenwriter. Like Ted, in Lily and the Octopus, Rowley grew up in Maine and now lives in Los Angeles.

Lily is a dachshund who enriches Ted’s life on a daily basis.  On the first page, readers learn that Lily is twelve, eight-four in dog years, and Ted is forty-two, or two hundred and ninety-four in dog years. This rumination on Ted’s part about years should alert readers to the sorrow that will soon will enter their lives. Those who have loved and lost pets will remember their own joys and sorrows with their pets as they read Ted’s account of trying to save Lily from a raging tumor on the brain, the octopus, as Ted describes it.

Ted narrates his and Lilly’s story by telling about how he and Lily met and what he and Lily do each day. Along the way, readers meet Ted’s sister and mother as well as his best friend Trent. Readers also learn of Ted’s travails in love; he has broken off a five-year relationship with Jeffrey because Jeffrey could not be faithful.

Ted and Lily have certain rituals they follow. For example, on Thursday nights, they talk about cute boys. Ted starts the conversation with “we get into long debates over the Ryans. I’m a Gosling man, whereas she’s a Reynolds gal, even though she can’t name a single movie of his that she would ever watch twice.” Did I mention that Lily talks? Oh, yes, and in exclamations! Here’s Lily the first time she discovers ice cream: “WHAT! IS! THIS! CLOUD! THAT! YOU’RE! LICKING! I! LOVE! TO! LICK! THINGS! WOULD! I! LIKE! TO! LICK! THAT!

Friday nights, Lily and Ted play Monopoly. Of course, Ted has to throw the die and move Lily’s piece, but Lily is surprisingly adept at buying up the expensive properties and putting hotels on them. Sunday nights, they eat pizza. These rituals keep Ted and Lily grounded.

If you have ever had a beloved pet, you will feel Ted’s sorrow as he comes to terms with losing his Lily. You will also experience his joy in loving Lily for her twelve, or eighty-four years. Lily and the Octopus is a warm and loving tribute to Lily and all cherished pets.

 

 

The Book Whisperer…

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If you are looking for a new book to read, try Rhys Bowen. Bowen has been on the New York Times Bestseller list many times. She was born in Bath, England, but now resides in San Francisco. Bowen writes three mystery series:  Royal Spyness, Molly Murphy, and Constable Evans.

Since Bowen enjoys books that provide readers with a sense of time and place, she chooses to write stories she would like to read. The Constable Evan Evans mysteries are set in North Wales where Bowen spent childhood vacations. In writing those books, Bowen took her grandfather’s name as her nom de plume.

Currently, Bowen focuses on two series: Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy. In addition, she and Clare Broyles, her daughter, have written Dreamwalker, book one in the Red Dragon Academy series, a middle-grade fantasy. In fact, Bowen began by writing picture books under her married name, Janet Quin-Harkin. Those books were so successful that she wrote young adult novels until she turned to writing mysteries, the books she loves to write and read.

Bowen visited Ellis Island and that visit spurred her interest in starting the Molly Murphy series. Molly bolts from Ireland only to be implicated in a murder on Ellis Island.  Finally, Molly succeeds in helping find the real murderer and a new series is born. The first book is Murphy’s Law; it won the Agatha Best Novel award.  Bowen has written eleven books in the series.

Then Bowen started writing the Lady Georgiana mysteries. Lady Georgina is thirty-fourth in line to the British throne, but she has no money. As a result, she struggles to find her way during the Great Depression. Even the thirty-fourth in line to the throne is expected to marry some chinless twit and not to work, but Lady Georgina has other plans. She decides to become a sleuth.

Rhys Bowen is an author to discover if you like mysteries and need a little escape.

On another note, I have recently joined the Friends of the Library board. I challenge readers to join the Friends of the Library: http://www.tulsalibrary.org/friends/. At the Web site, read about the top ten reasons to join the Friends of the Library for a measly $10 per year. One of the best reasons is that the Friends of the Library gives a book to every Pre-K student at Kendall-Whittier Elementary. That book is often the first book the child has owned. Many of the children have no books in their homes.

The Book Whisperer Strikes Again…

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper’s debut novel, is a story of the past and the present told by all four of the title characters.  Readers will make obvious comparisons to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The two stories do have aging characters who set off on improbable journeys.  The stories differ in setting, memory, and characters. Another recent novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick also sets an aging character on a journey of discovery. In thinking about all three of these books, I see that i have a penchant for novels featuring a quest, but then one might argue that any number of stories feature quests!

Early one morning in Saskatchewan, Etta, 83, rises, leaves a note for Otto, her husband, along with a series of recipe cards featuring the dishes she has made over the years of their marriage. The recipes are for Otto so that he can cook his favorite dishes while Etta is gone. Etta’s note tells Otto that she is going to see the water and that she “will try to remember to come back.” Etta does have trouble remembering sometimes. In fact, in the provisions she has put together for her journey, she has a note with her name and address written in blue ink. In her bag, Etta has put four pairs of underwear,  one warm sweater, some money, paper, one pencil and one pen, four pairs of socks, stamps, cookies, a small loaf of bread, six apples, ten carrots, some chocolate, some water, a map in a plastic bag, Otto’s rifle with bullets, and one small fish skull. These are the items Etta takes with her on her 3,200-kilometer journey.

Over the course of Etta’s journey, readers discover her memories as well as her current thoughts. In addition, Russell and Otto tell their own stories, interwoven with Etta’s. Otto, one of fourteen children, grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan during the Great Depression; he also is of age to join the army during WWII. Russell, an only child, is sent by his mother to live with his childless aunt and uncle on their farm in Saskatchewan after Russell’s father dies unexpectedly. Russell becomes another child in Otto’s household. Russell’s aunt and uncle are loving parents to him, but the draw of all the other children on the adjacent farm keeps Russell returning to Otto’s home.

Quickly into the journey, Etta meets James, a talking coyote. James provides companionship and listens to Etta talk as well as gives Etta advice about the things on her mind. Otto stays at home, reading the letters that Etta writes him and writes letters to Etta, but cannot mail them since he does not know where she will be. Russell takes off to find Etta, but veers off into a journey of his own.

While on the journey, Etta writes to Otto. In one of her letters, she writes: “We’re all scared, most of the time…. Life would be worthless if we weren’t. Be scared, and then jump into that fear. Again and again.”

Emma Hooper is an author, musician, and academic. At this link, https://youtu.be/NJdvsaZCt2g, readers can listen to her sing and play “Ankylosaur” (“Waitress for the Bees”). On Hooper’s Web site, readers will find other links to music: http://www.emmahooper.ca/#emma.

 

The Book Whisperer’s Latest….

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Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 has received a great deal of attention. The story is gripping. I read breathlessly at times, fearing for Laura (Lo) Blacklock’s life as she stumbles into what she believes is a murder. To back up a bit, Blacklock, a journalist, receives the chance of a lifetime to spend a week on a luxury cruise in order to write about the ship and the amenities. Lord Richard Bullmer, millionaire entrepreneur, and his wife Anne, an heiress, are launching the luxury cruise ship and have invited journalists and photographers on the maiden voyage seeking publicity.

Just days before the cruise ship is to sail, Lo awakens in her apartment to find a burglar, dressed completely in black and unrecognizable. He slams a door, hitting her in the face, but he does not harm her physically otherwise. He takes her money and credit cards and flees. Obviously, the break-in leaves Lo feeling violated and helpless.

Lo vows to continue on the assignment of a lifetime of being on the luxury cruise in hopes of furthering her career. Shortly before boarding the ship, Lo fights with her boyfriend, Judah, making readers think she has broken up with him. In fact, Lo looks as if she is on a self-destructive path, sleeping too little and drinking too much.

Once aboard the ship, Lo discovers she knows many of the other passengers either personally or by reputation. Ben, another journalist, in fact, is an old lover, but the two have been broken up for some time. Lo believes she sees a murder, a woman’s body being thrown overboard from the veranda of Cabin 10, the one next to hers. Upon investigation, however, Lo learns that Cabin 10 is empty since the person who was to occupy it changed his mind about joining the cruise at the last minute.

The story continues with twists that keep the readers holding their breaths out of worry for Lo and because of concern for the supposedly murdered woman. Revealing much more would spoil the story. The Woman in Cabin 10 will keep readers wondering, worrying, and finally satisfied with an effective conclusion.

The Book Whisperer’s Latest….

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Reading Lab Girl by Hope Janren fulfilled two purposes. I had been planning to read the book in preparation for a future book club selection. Also, it is on the list of nominated books for the spring 2017 Books Sandwiched In (BSI) series at the Tulsa City-County Library. Lab Girl is one of 28 books nominated for the BSI series; as a member of the BSI committee, I am reading as many of the 28 books as I can in a six-week period in order to be able to vote intelligently on the books for spring.

To be candid, I am a fiction reader first and foremost. I read nonfiction only sporadically and selectively. However, Lab Girl has been on my list since early summer, so I dived into it. Hope Jaren is a highly accomplished scientist, having received three Fullbright Awards in geobiology and is only one of four scientists, the only woman, to have received both of the awards of the Young Investigator Medals given in earth sciences. Since earning her Ph.D., she has taught at a number of prestigious universities, including Johns Hopkins and the University of Hawai’I at Manoa in Honolulu; currently, she, her husband, son, and dog live in Oslo, Norway.

Jahren tells of her early childhood of playing in her father’s physics lab where he taught forty-two years at a community college in rural Minnesota. As she grew older, she began working through the physics’ experiments her father prepared for his students. She writes of the long walks home from the lab in the cold Minnesota winters, a companionable walk in silence with her father. Jahren writes candidly about the coldness of the home too, the silence among the family members. Jahren is the only daughter with three older brothers. She is also the youngest child. Beyond those pages at the beginning about her early years of first playing in her father’s lab and then working there with him, she focuses on her education and career.

Chapters alternate in telling readers about plants and how they survive the many odds against them to thrive and grow. Early in her academic career, she meets Bill, an undergrad in a class she is teaching. Bill becomes her lab partner, following her from university to university as she continues to seek grants and do research.  They are like two halves of a matched set, complementing one another in the research they do.

Lab Girl is funny at times; Jahren is honest in her telling of her story. She tells of her mistakes like allowing a graduate student to drive a van taking Jahren, Bill, and two grad students to a conference in CA. Jahren insists against a friend’s advice that they take the shortest route through the CO mountains instead of a slightly longer, but safer route. An impending snow and ice storm also figure into this miscalculation of routes. One of the grad students is driving when the van hits an icy road; the student applies the brakes, causing the van to swerve and eventually flip upside down. To me, a distressing detail is that Bill and Jahren, both highly educated people, are NOT wearing seatbelts. Luckily, except for Jahren’s bloody nose and the other occupants’ bumps and bruises, they are not badly hurt.

Jahren and Bill continue to build labs in the universities where Jahren gets jobs. They work well together, accomplishing much. Jahren writes little about romantic relationships until she meets Clint whom she marries. In the final chapters, readers have a much more complete picture of Jahren as she describes her difficult pregnancy which keeps her from her beloved lab until her son is born.

At the end of the book, Jahren writes: “Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree on it and see if your landlord notices” (280).  Later, she adds, “While you’re at it, would you carve Bill’s name into your tree as well? He’s told me a hundred times over that he’ll never read this book because it would be pointless.” He says that if he ever gets at all interested in himself he can damn well sit down and remember the last twenty years without any help from me. I don’t have a good comeback for that one, but I’d like to think that the many parts of Bill that I’ve released to the wind belong somewhere, and over the years we’ve learned that the best way to give something a home is to make it part of a tree” (282).

Read Lab Girl, even if memoir is not your general reading choice. You will learn a few things about trees and plants along the way.

 

 

The Book Whisperer’s Latest….

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commonwealth

I cannot remember the last time I read a book that made me so incredibly, inexorably sad as Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I should begin with the fact that I have enjoyed Patchett’s other books and truly appreciated seeing her in person in Tulsa in 2014 when she received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. Thus, I was more than surprised by my reaction to Commonwealth. Readers can judge for themselves!

An uninvited guest to a child’s christening celebration jolts two young families into a lifetime of anguish, changes, and more changes. Bert Cousins, husband of Teresa and father of Cal, Holly, Jeannette and the yet unborn Albie, shows up uninvited to Frannie’s christening celebration; as a christening present, he brings a bottle of gin. Bert overhears others in the office talking about the party and goes—mainly to get out of his own house and away from his wife and three young children. Bert, an only child, likes the idea of family and more than one child. The reality of those little voices, hands, and feet along with his pregnant wife’s fatigue and morning sickness cause him to seek refuge in the office most weekends. This Sunday, he goes to the christening alone, telling Teresa “it is a work thing.”

In the crowded home, Bert wanders into the kitchen and makes himself useful by cutting up oranges to make mixed drinks. Late into the party, Fix, Frannie’s dad, asks Bert to find Frannie. Bert goes from room-to-room until he finds beautiful Beverly, Fix’s wife and Carolyn and Frannie’s mother, with Frannie in the baby’s room. As Bert takes Frannie from Beverly’s arms, he kisses her. That kiss changes the lives of two couples and their soon-to-be six children.

Over the course of fifty years, readers move in and out of the families’ lives, watching the children as they make mistakes, grow up, go to college, or find meaning wherever they can. Each segment of the book left me feeling sadder and sadder about the lives so mixed together and yet so separate. Several of the scenes left me feeling anxious and concerned about the children. For example, on a family vacation, the now married Bert and Beverly have all six of the children. The blended family is staying in a motel in three separate rooms. The children awaken early in the morning to find a note slipped under the girls’ door: “Have breakfast in the coffee shop. You can charge it. We’re sleeping late. Do not knock.” That note puts the six children on their own. They do have breakfast and then purchase a six-pack of Cokes and twelve candy bars which the children decide to take to the lake. Cal also takes his dad’s gun out of the car’s glove compartment. What happens? Obviously, Patchett is setting up a horrific scene. Does she follow through?

I was already worried about the six children going to the lake alone and without any kind of life jackets. Add the gun to the mix and my heart was pounding through the entire rest of the chapter.

Another chapter worth a look concerns Franny who meets a famous, alcoholic author who comes to the bar where Franny is working in Chicago. Readers can see the affair between the two of them telegraphed from the moment the two meet. Frannie is young enough to be Leo’s daughter. What readers may not anticipate is that Frannie’s family’s story of the two marriages breaking up and the six children thrown together will become Leo’s latest book and after his death a movie.

I would not choose to read Commonwealth again, but that won’t stop me from reading Ann Patchett’s next book. I will not soon forget Commonwealth and its characters, but I do not like the lingering sadness caused by reading the book.

 

 

The Book Whisperer’s Latest….

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cannongoats

Definitely a book to seek out: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist in Derbyshire. Her road to becoming a psychiatrist was not straightforward. The only child of working-class parents, Cannon did not go to university until her 30s. She describes herself as a loner, not “good at joining.” When readers know this bit of information about Cannon, they can see how Walter Bishop feels in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon’s debut novel. Cannon worked at a number of jobs before she started to the university and during medical school. She listened to people’s stories. She also grew up in a small town, so she became interested in how long-time residents feel about strangers. Such themes as being an outsider, bigotry, and vigilantism wind their way through The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

 

The narrator is Grace, 10 years old, who along with her sidekick Tilly, also 10, take readers on a journey through the neighborhood, exploring the secrets held by individuals and groups in the neighborhood.  The characters include Sheila Rankin and her two children; Grace admires Lisa, Sheila’s teenaged daughter who ignores Grace. Shelia is a closet drinker, thinking she has hidden her vice from her neighbors. Mrs. Morton, a widow, has no children of her own, but takes a keen interest in Grace and Tilly, often taking them with her to the neighborhood market and to church. Mr. and Mrs. Forbes provide insight into an abusive marriage where Mr. Forbes rules. Thin Brian lives with his mother Mae Roper. Eric is a widower who carefully tends his garden since his wife’s untimely death. Walter Bishop lives alone and functions as a mysterious character in the neighborhood—the outsider—along with newcomers the Kapoors who move into the neighborhood. Then we have Mr. and Mrs. Creasey, but the story opens with this line from Grace: “Mrs. Creasey disappeared on a Monday. I know it was a Monday because it was the day the dustbin men came….”

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is filled with secrets, both individual and group secrets. The small neighborhood is home to Mrs. Creasey who has disappeared, a brief abduction nine years earlier of a baby, arson, and more. Grace and Tilly go to church with Mrs. Morton and the vicar preaches about God separating the goats from the sheep. This sermon makes a strong impression on Grace. Grace convinces Tilly that if the two of them can find God, they can also bring Mrs. Creasey home and restore peace to the neighborhood. In order to find God, Grace develops a plan. She and Tilly will pretend to be Girl Scouts who are earning badges. That way, they can interview people in the neighborhood as they earn their so-called badges.

Cannon writes with beautiful language. Here is a sample in which Grace describes the library where she and Tilly go with Mrs. Morton: “After my bedroom, this was my favorite place in the world. It was carpeted, and had heavy bookcases and ticking clocks and velvet chairs, just like someone’s living room. It smelled of unturned pages and unseen adventures, and on every shelf were people I had yet to meet, and places I had yet to visit. Each time, I lost myself in the corridors of books and the polished, wooden rooms, deciding which journey to go on next.”

How did Walter Bishop’s home catch fire? Is it a case of arson? If so, who set the fire? Why does Thin Brian say he had an appointment with Mrs. Creasey, set for the day after she disappeared? Why does Mrs. Creasey enter Grace’s father’s business on a Sunday when the business is closed? Who abducted the baby, and which baby, those years ago? What can Mrs. Forbes not remember? These questions and more abound throughout the story.

The story takes place in the summer of 1976, an especially hot summer. The heat and lack of rain become characters in the story because the oppressive nature of the heat bears down on the whole community. Readers also see flashbacks to 1967 when Grace was a toddler and Tilly had not yet moved into the neighborhood.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep follows two best friends, Grace and Tilly, through a maze of relationships and the children try to navigate a summer of unrest, heat, secrets, and lies. Not since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird have I been so captivated by a young female narrator. Read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep to discover all the secrets in the neighborhood, learn about the characters, and enjoy a good story.