Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Dud


I chose The Daughters by Adrienne Celt for the TCC book club, READ, because I read several good reviews from trusted sources. Those trusted sources included Kirkus Reviews and NPR. I have found that they are usually spot on with the reviews. I almost always read the books before I choose them for the book club; however, I made an exception when I chose The Daughters, based on the reviews I had read. For example, Kirkus Reviews gave The Daughters a glowing review: “A haunting novel with real emotional depth, Celt’s psychologically nuanced debut continues to resonate long after the last page has been turned.” NPR reviewer Carmen Maria Machado wrote of The Daughters: “In this novel, voice and music and history and storytelling and mythmaking and motherhood and protection of the self are in many ways the same: Living animals, changeable and complex, adaptive and perilous and endlessly powerful …. Here is one you should not miss, a gratifying feast in lush, lyrical, and full-throated form.”

In reading those reviews, one might see how I could be misled. I did not like the book at all.  Perhaps the word haunting should have been a clue. As my friend Amanda Blackman also points out the words lyrical and lush are also signposts to novels that are generally uneven and hard to follow. I made the choice anyway. Even poor choices of books give members of the book club pause for thought and plenty of ideas for discussion.

Perhaps if I were more familiar with Polish folklore, the story might have made more sense. LuLu is an opera singer, but she cannot sing after the traumatic birth of her daughter, Kara. LuLu is further devastated by her beloved grandmother’s untimely death on the day Kara is born. LuLu’s relationship with John, her husband, becomes more and more strained because LuLu remains so introspective. Also, should I mention that readers learn early on that Kara is not John’s child? Is John aware of that fact? He holds Kara tenderly and tends to her with the utmost love and care.

Celt fills The Daughters with the spirit of the rusalka, from Polish mythology that inspired Dvořák’s classic opera. The moving back and forth between myth and reality does not make the story hard to read for me. However, LuLu’s constant introspection and refusal to get up and do what needs to be done does bother me.

I don’t recommend The Daughters despite the fact that two of my favorite review sources did recommend it. The Daughters also won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, was shortlisted as a Best Book of the Year by NPR and the New York City Public Library. I also learned that Adrienne Celt publishes a cartoon on Wednesdays at I looked at some of the cartoons and was baffled by most of them.




The Book Whisperer Reviews a Debut Novel


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: 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!


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!


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.”





The Book Whisperer Discovers a Hit


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


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.